It has taken some adjustment, but Nita Graus has made quite a home for herself among the crew of the Wind Breaker. Under her skillful care it has become one of the only airships to stay aloft without the continuous repair and oversight of the vile and manipulative fug folk. Word of her adventures with Captain Mack, Gunner, Lil, Cooper, and Wink has made the whole crew into living legends among the residents of the mountain towns of Rim, but in doing so it has also made finding safe harbor virtually impossible. Agents of the fug folk and those working on their behalf hide in every cloud and skulk in every shadow.
Only one town, a place called Lock, is willing to welcome the Wind Breaker into port. Most of the townspeople have already been shunned by the Fug Folk, and as such have little to lose in aiding and abetting the crew. Captain Mack, mindful of his advancing age and the risks he's had to request of his crew time and time again, has begun to plan for his retirement. Plans are swiftly derailed when the fug folk hatch a plan of their own, splitting the crew and locking Nita away in the floating prison known as Skykeep.
Skykeep is the second book in the Free-Wrench saga and continues to chronicle the adventures of Nita and her new crew as they continue to clash with the twisted figures who control the destiny of a continent.
My own contribution to this bundle is a sequel to the story that began in the preceding NaNoWriMo, a story called Free-Wrench. After spending 30 days developing and exploring a steampunk setting and its people, I became hopelessly attached to the Wind Breaker and its crew. Imagine my relief when the fans seemed to share my attachment, voting for a second visit to the lands of Caldera and Rim when I asked what my NaNoWriMo project would be. – Joseph R. Lallo
"… Joseph really takes the world and characters that he created in the first book and fleshes it out even more. This book was just all around fun and exciting. The characters, the places, the world building. I read it over a couple of days and it was one of those books that was just painful to lay down because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. …"– Jonathan Glass
"… I am a huge fan of Lallo's characters and storylines. When I stumbled across this steampunk series I was overjoyed. Skykeep is the second book in the series centering around Nita Graus. I enjoyed how the story flowed even when characters were separated. …"– Jenn A.
"This is the sequel to Free-Wrench, which I also enjoyed, but I think the book will stand well alone. (But Free-Wrench is worth reading, so don't skip it!) I really enjoy Lallo's characters and interaction. His heroines are capable and intelligent - and fun! The world this series is set in is pretty dark, but the characters are interesting and the plot moves well. …"– Mary Hargrove
Amanita Graus stirred slightly in her hammock, swaddled in plush blankets and rocking gently with the motion of her surroundings. One wouldn't think the drafty loading bay of an airship called the Wind Breaker would make for a comfortable bedroom. Nita certainly didn't think so, at least when she'd first become a part of the crew. It was small, its walls unpainted wood festooned with various brass pipes and fittings that ran throughout the ship. In the center of the floor was a large hole through which a small boat was held in place with chains leading down from a pulley in the ceiling. What light there was came from the scattering of portholes on the port and starboard walls, and most spare stretches of floor were piled with boxes and crates stuffed with all sorts of goods.
In the four months since her first journey, though, the creaking of the wooden walls and the distant hiss and hum of the steam engine had become a lullaby. The cold took longer to adjust to, but a down quilt from her bed at home took care of that. Its astoundingly intricate pattern made the quilt less a blanket and more a work of art, practically a tapestry fit for the walls of a museum. Not for a Calderan, though. Nita's people felt that beauty and elegance should be found in everything, be it a sculpture in the garden of a palace or a comforter in a forgotten closet. And an elaborate design of rich reds and golden yellows didn't hurt its ability to keep her as warm as toast and sleeping like a baby.
The first hint of the rising sun cast its rays through the port side portholes of her makeshift bedroom. Though the light was dim, it was enough to wake her. Somehow Nita had trained herself to awaken at the crack of dawn. It was one of the few times the ship was relatively quiet and free of activity, which meant it was a fine time to see to some personal tasks.
Nita yawned and reluctantly threw her blanket aside, revealing a somewhat droopy pair of fleece pajamas that had been purchased as a welcome gift for her from the crew after her first official trip among them. It was clear from its poor fit and lackluster styling that it was a product of Rim, the continent that was home to the more industrial portion of society. Like all such products, it served its purpose well enough, even if it lacked the artistry of a Calderan piece. She tugged at one of the sleeves and made a mental note to pick up a needle and some embroidery thread during her next trip home to give it a personal touch.
She rubbed some sleep from her eyes and reached blindly for the hook beside her bed, finding her slippers there and pulling them on to perform the complex dance of her morning routine. First was the tricky dismount from the hammock, something that had taken more than two weeks to master. Next was the choreographed sequence of steps, leans, and shuffles it took to navigate around the brass workings of the winch mechanism, the piles of crates, and the copious strapping used to secure it all. Finally she found her way to a hinged wooden shelf folded against the port side wall in one corner of the bay. Beside it was a kettle, a teacup, a small bag, and a cask of water all hanging from their own hooks. Above it was a stout brass steam pipe with some simple metal clamps and platforms affixed to it.
Nita shifted a crate in front of her cozy little corner, took a seat, and unfastened the leather strap to lower her shelf. It was a desk of sorts. Thinner straps held down assorted stationary, most notably two small leather-bound books with silk ribbons marking their pages. On the wall previously hidden behind the shelf were pinned three magnificent watercolor paintings. The first proudly displayed her mother and father, the second her gorgeous twin sister, Analita, and the third her handsome younger brother, Joshua.
After filling the kettle with water and clamping it in place atop the steam pipe, she turned a valve on a transparent tube on the forward wall just above her, conjuring the distinctive green light of what the members of the crew called a "phlo-light." She slid a fountain pen from its leather sleeve in the wall and loaded it with ink. By the time she'd loaded it properly and found a blank page, the kettle was bubbling merrily for a badly needed cup of tea. She found a pouch of her favorite blend, clamped a pinch of it into a wire cage, and prepared a nice cup. The soothing warmth and heavenly aroma finally perked up her brain sufficiently to get to the matter at hand.
Dear Mother, she scrawled in precise and curving letters. It has been three weeks since my last visit. Captain Mack has been attempting to teach me to "smell the wind" as we travel, which is what he claims allows him to navigate so well. I honestly don't know how he smells anything over those sickly sweet cigars he smokes, but the whole of the crew seems always to know just how far we've traveled without so much as a glance out the window, so there must be some knack to navigation. I'm doing my best to work it out.
A louder and longer than normal creak prompted Nita to snatch up her teacup, hold her pen in her teeth, and hold down her book. The ship tipped and swung, causing some of the smaller crates to shuffle across the floor and spilling some water from her kettle to hiss against the pipe. A moment or two later, the swing reversed itself, and after another minor one things settled.
For instance, we've just made a hard turn to starboard. I believe that means we are nearing the trading post. We should be there in about five hours or so. I'm looking forward to it. Lil says the people along the southern border of Rim make music boxes, just like father used to. This post is very near to the southern edge of Rim, so I'm willing to bet they'll have some. I'm curious to see how they compare. I'll be sure to bring you one.
I've just finished reading your second to last letter. Please give Joshua my congratulations on having his sculpture displayed in the mayor's office. I can just imagine how proud he is. And if things work out properly, I hope to be home long enough to see Lita's performance in the ballet. It is so wonderful that the opening night falls during one of my visits! You wouldn't have anything to do with that, would you?
As you know, I've been doing my best to teach the crew how to care for their own ship. After spending their lives afraid to so much as tighten a bolt for fear of angering the fug folk and being banned from further repair, it is difficult to convince them to try their own maintenance. Coop has no interest at all in it, but he follows directions fairly well and is a decent assistant. Lil, bless her, tries her best, but she's a bit hopeless. She doesn't quite understand how important it is to do things in the right order. Yesterday she tried taking a pipe cap off without shutting off pressure and bleeding the system. You should have seen how far that cap flew! Gunner, on the other hand, is a natural. It stands to reason since, as he's so eager to point out, he is the only one with a college education. The problem is, his education is in destroying things. That's not the sort of person I'm comfortable having maintain a boiler.
Nita stopped writing and tilted her head, a sound just barely at the edge of her hearing catching her attention. It didn't take long to identify it, and she was already hastily stowing her things when a gruff voice echoed out of a tube on the wall.
"Wailers! All hands on deck!" the captain ordered.
Without warning, the ship started to pitch violently to one side, sending crates sliding free of their restraints and across the floor. Nita scrambled to her feet and bolted for the door. She braced herself against the wall and navigated the narrow hallway to the ladder to the next deck, meeting Lil at the top. The petite little firebrand was already dressed, or more likely still dressed, as she tended to sleep in her work clothes. Times like this made it clear why she did so.
"They better not make a habit of attacking before breakfast," Lil said, wide awake but with the disheveled hair of someone who had been in bed moments earlier. "I can be right ornery when I haven't had a good plate of hash yet." A snore behind her prompted her to duck back into her tiny room and deliver a motivating kick to her older brother, who was still nestled in his hammock. "Dang it, Coop, you're not sleeping through another attack!"
Nita sprinted through another few decks until she finally scrambled onto the main deck. The ship was moving at quite a clip, the chilly wind billowing Nita's pajamas and sending a brisk breeze through some very unwelcome areas. There wasn't much to see, as the ship was just emerging from a cloud bank and most of the view of the sea far below was blotted out in a field of cottony white plumes. Gunner, who had been on night watch, was already manning the spike gun mounted to the port railing. With a stuttering bark, it sent a string of finger-sized nails—called "fléchettes"—whistling through the air at a distant two-man airship screaming toward them out of the clouds.
"Gunner, I swear, you keep wasting ammunition on them things when they're so far off and it'll be Lil on mounted guns instead of you," growled the captain as he spun the wheel hard to put the attacker in better position for return fire.
"I'm ready for it, Cap'n," Lil said, popping out onto the deck with a rifle in hand.
Coop clumsily crawled up after her. "How many we lookin' at, Cap'n?"
"I've got one on port," Gunner said, firing another string of nails with a grin. "But not for much longer."
"Sounds like one more," Nita called. "I can't tell if it is above us or below us."
There was the distinctive thump of darts biting into the thick fabric of the envelope, then a metallic screech and a hard jolt as the ship twisted under an unbalanced engine load.
"That'll be above us then," the captain said. "Nita!"
"I'm on it!" Nita said.
"I'll go with her. If that's where the wailer is, she'll need cover," Lil said.
Nita pulled open a large wooden case tucked beneath the railing of the deck and snagged a pack that was within. In one smooth motion she swung it across her back and grasped the nearest rigging, hauling herself quickly up. Lil slung her rifle behind her and darted up another section of rigging. As much practice as she'd had in the last few months climbing up and down the ropes that held and stabilized the massive gas envelope that kept the ship aloft, Nita could never seem to match the nimbleness of the sprightly young deckhand. The girl must have been part squirrel and part lunatic.
"Hold tight, hard turn to port!" bellowed the captain.
The lines in Nita's hands groaned under the stress of the sudden turn, and the deck dangling below suddenly swung out from beneath her. She held tight and tried not to look at the waves a few hundred yards below her, which of course had chosen that moment to peek at her through the thinning clouds. Nita wasn't precisely afraid of heights anymore. That much had been trained out of her fairly quickly as a result of spending so much time among the clouds. She did sometimes suffer from an acute awareness of heights, however. Fortunately when there was a job to be done, it typically managed to be the first thing on her mind. That was because being the engineer on an airship meant a job that needed to be done would usually send them plummeting into the sea if she didn't get to it quickly. When the ship swung back and stabilized in its new course, Nita continued up. The stretch of rigging they'd selected brought her to the envelope about midway between the turbines and the envelope's rear fins, which made for a very windy climb whenever she was directly behind one of the turbines. Nevertheless, she preferred it to being in front of them, since the thought of getting blown away from the spinning blades was marginally more pleasant than the thought of being pulled toward them.
"Better not be taking your time on this one, Nita. We're losing the green stuff pretty good," Lil called down.
Nita looked up to see the deckhand standing a short distance farther up the envelope. Her legs were in a wide, solid stance, and each foot was hooked under a piece of rigging. This kept her hands free to take aim at a wailer ship, which was much closer than the one Gunner was targeting. The vehicle—little more than a cigar-shaped steam turbine slung under a long, thin balloon—carried two men. Both the ship and the men were referred to as wailers, named for the high-pitched scream of the engine that forced them through the air. Wailers were raiders who wanted to clear out the crew of a ship so that the cargo and supplies would be theirs for the taking, and lately they had been taking an extreme interest in the Wind Breaker.
The wailer in the rear seat of the ship was lining it up for an attack run. The one in front was manning a gun that was a match for the one Gunner operated below—a precise match, since the Wind Breaker crew had salvaged theirs from a wailer ship that had attacked previously. Judging from the angle of the ship, the wailers were planning to run a string of shots directly toward Lil, but the deckhand seemed unconcerned that she was about to be perforated. She simply leveled her weapon and readied her shot.
By the time Nita was far enough around the curve of the envelope to set her feet on the surface, the wailers were near enough for her to see their crazed eyes behind their smoked-glass goggles. At the same moment, Lil and the wailer gunner pulled the trigger. A row of hollow tubes traced a line along the Wind Breaker's envelope, biting deep and sending up streamers of thin green vapor. Lil's shot punched a neat hole in one side of the enemy ship's envelope and out the other. It was a good shot, one that would eventually send the vehicle fleeing back to the mother ship that launched it, but at the rate they were filling the Wind Breaker with holes, eventually wouldn't be soon enough. The shot also startled the pilot enough to send him veering to the left, curving the line of darts away from Lil. One of them punched into the envelope just to the left of her foot, snagging the rigging that secured her. Lil's left foot slipped free; she lost her balance and began to slide along the envelope. A quick hook of her right foot got it twisted in the supports along the side of the envelope, and she came to a sudden stop dangling upside down by one foot.
"Lil, are you okay?" Nita said, crouching down to call to her friend.
"I'm fine, Nita. See to the leaks and don't bug me while I'm aiming," Lil said, seeming almost to be unaware of the precariousness of her predicament.
She clicked the lever of the rifle, ejecting the spent casing and chambering another round while Nita shifted her attention to the nearest of the tubes. The forceful stream of green was escaping phlogiston, the only substance that could keep a ship like this aloft without needing an envelope the size of a small city. The circumstances of the last few months had made it pretty precious stuff, so she knew she had to work fast to cut the losses down. With one hand tightly gripping the rigging, Nita slipped her pack around in front of her and pulled it open. The bag held a variety of swatches of the same cloth that made up the envelope, and a tight-topped tin of black tar. She pinned the jar under one arm and pulled free the lid, which had a built-in brush already loaded with the gooey contents.
The following task would have been a lot easier if she had three hands, not to mention if she were on solid ground and not being shot at by lunatics. She threaded her legs through the rigging to free her hands as Lil had, then held the brush in one and grasped the first of the tubes in the other. With a well-practiced sequence of motions, she pulled the tube and discarded it, swiped a thick glob of tar onto the hole as it vented green gas, then clamped the brush in her teeth and fished out a patch to slap over the hole. She repeated the process for each tube she could reach, then repositioned and started over. Above her head, the sound of the wailing engine of their attacker started to draw closer.
"Lil," Nita called out warily, keeping her eyes on her work. "Is the wailer on its way back?"
Lil fired another shot, the thundering crack splitting the air. A moment later the stuttering grind of a stricken steam turbine heralded the accuracy of the attack.
"Not no more it ain't," she called back. The attacker's malfunctioning ship turned to retreat. "Let's see Gunner take out a wailer while he's upside down!"
The engines subtly changed their hum and Nita instinctively stopped her work to hold a bit tighter. She'd been working on these engines long enough to get a feel for their rhythm, and she knew a sharp turn coming when she heard it. The ship turned and tilted, rolling enough to put Lil almost directly beneath Nita. The deckhand was dangling away from the envelope with one hand clutching the rifle and the other outstretched to catch a piece of rigging. While Nita watched, Lil wrapped her free arm around an upright, hooked her free foot over the same rigging that entangled her other one, and rolled the trapped ankle to free it. Thus released she tumbled forward, her feet flipping down in front of her. The one-armed grip on the rigging held long enough for her scrambling feet to hook back into the rigging below them, and just like that, Lil was righted and facing the ship. The sight was enough to briefly make Nita forget the puzzle of how to reach and patch the remaining leaks and instead work at the riddle of where Lil had learned to do such things.
When Nita set the thought aside again and looked up, she started making a mental tally of the remaining leaks. As far as she could see, everything that was left was on the portion of the envelope ahead of the turbines. She edged her way to a space between two of the motors and began to work her way forward. To her right she noticed the remaining wailer whisking out from under the Wind Breaker and attempting to circle back to continue the work of its departed partner. A peppering of shots from Gunner's fléchette gun met their mark, and suddenly retreat seemed to be a far preferable idea for this wailer as well. Both damaged ships—one of which seemed to have a damaged pilot also—were heading in the same direction. A fortuitous breath of wind scattered the clouds ahead of them, and the shifting mist revealed the silhouette of a ship a bit larger than the Wind Breaker, lurking not far away.
"He's going to fire the cannons with us up here, isn't he?" Nita muttered to herself.
"Brace for cannons!" Lil called out, the deckhand's voice barely audible over the rattle of the turbines on either side of Nita.
She slapped the lid to the jar back in place, stuffed it in the pack, and held tight to the metal bands to which the turbines were mounted. A half second later a deafening thump pitched the ship forward so savagely it felt as though they had collided with something. Gray smoke and a cloud of what the captain called "grapeshot" belched forth from the ship's port-side forward cannon. The silhouette in the clouds shuddered, then began to pivot and descend, either unwilling or unable to return fire. With its retreat, and the desperate attempts of its crew, who deployed an attack craft to catch up, the morning battle had been brought to an end. Nita breathed a sigh of relief, then worked her way slowly out from between the turbines and toward the edge of the envelope.
"Lil!" she called, spying her crewmate just as she was making ready to swing herself back onto the deck.
"Would you please ask the captain to shut down the engines so that I can finish patching?"
"Sure thing. I'm heading down for some hash. You want Butch to fix you a plate?"
Nita looked to the dozen or so remaining jets of green gas, as well as one rather significant tear. She sighed. "No, I'll get my own… I think I'm going to be here awhile."
Three hours later, Nita trudged into the loading bay-slash-bedroom. All things considered, the encounter had gone rather well. Almost thirty punctures from the attack, but she'd gotten temporary patches on them within a few minutes, and enough stitches to make the patches permanent before any of them let loose. The first time she'd had to do a patch job like this, it had taken her the better part of a day, and they'd lost enough phlogiston to require a stop at a port in order to refill. Today they were able to top off from their stores. One of the spikes had lodged itself in the turbine as well, but removing it seemed to reveal little more than some very minor warping, which could be fixed another time. Considering she was smeared with tar, chilled to the bone, and still dressed in her pajamas, a bit of procrastination on that matter could be excused. She plopped down onto the crate and pulled down her desk again, doing her best to wipe away the tar from her hands before delicately picking up the pen. She knew she couldn't finish the letter, since writing more would inevitably smudge the page with tar. That was all it would take to make her mother worry about any number of things that might have put it there. Instead, she would add one last thought for the moment before stowing her pen and cleaning up.
I know I should be working a bit harder to get these folks ready to take care of themselves, but sometimes it feels like a shame to know I'll be leaving them once I do. After all, I think I've finally gotten used to the routine.
Around noon, after the patching of the envelope had been finished, Nita took a moment to scrub herself clean of the layer of tar and the stink of phlogiston. Life had become much more tolerable for her once she'd worked out a method to rid her skin and clothes of the sticky black gunk she so often worked with. Her sister of all people had been the one to work out the solution, which was to mix a bit of the crew's soap with some crushed-up Calderan lava rock and a healthy dose of orange rinds. The mix took some experimentation to get right, but now tar was much less of an inconvenience, and the stuff smelled so nice Lil had taken to using it as well, even when tar wasn't an issue.
Once clean, Nita's first order of business was to change into her work clothes. The outfit was a practical leather-and-canvas ensemble, though, as the work of a Calderan, it was tailored to fit her properly and accented with gleaming brass-and-copper hardware. She wore a corset for back support rather than fashion and topped the outfit with a double sash of wrenches and other tools, and had adorned her goggles with a small butterfly made from brass gears by her brother.
Not until she considered herself presentable did Nita finally make her way into the galley for her first proper meal of the day. It wasn't rare that her many duties aboard the Wind Breaker kept her from eating when she would have liked to, but it was never any fun. One of the few things that had come as a pleasant surprise regarding life on the airship was the quality of the food, and it was a shame to miss it when it was fresh off the stove. Glinda West, or Butch, as she was unfortunately nicknamed, was the cook and medic of the ship. She was nothing short of a miracle worker with a saucepan. Day in and day out she would take the same unappetizing provisions and turn them into the hearty delicious meals that fueled the crew. Her dishes never would have made it back on Caldera, as visually they fell into the brackets of either "green-brown mound of lumpy mush" or "crusty, fried hunk of something unidentifiable," but Nita had long ago learned that the dinner table was a place where color and composition weren't always necessary to create a masterpiece.
Though at the moment Butch was the only other person in the galley and she could have sat anywhere, Nita took her usual seat at the first table to the left of the entrance and pushed up her goggles.
"Good afternoon, Butch," she said, running her hands across her braided brown hair and yawning. "I don't know if I'm late for breakfast or early for lunch, but if you've got anything that's hot, I would love a plate of it."
Butch muttered something surly from her station behind the counters and among the stoves of the galley. She was a sixty-year-old bulldog of a woman who always sounded angry and spoke a language Nita hadn't quite been able to learn or even identify, but the rest of the crew assured Nita that the cook liked her. Butch pulled a clean tin bowl from the shelf and ladled a thick soup into it, handing it over with a spoon and two dense biscuits. Nita stood and took the meal, breathing in the meaty aroma.
"Slop-in-the-pot today? Always one of my favorites," Nita said sincerely.
Butch nodded and put out a mug of tea. While the rest of the crew seemed to drink either ale, rum, or coffee exclusively, Butch and Nita shared an appreciation for a good cup of tea. She took the warm beverage and returned to her seat to dig in to her meal.
She'd barely started when the sound of wind echoed out of the flared tube just beside the door.
"Get yourselves to the galley," barked the voice of the captain. "The weather's being obliging, so I think the ship can mind herself for a bit. I'll put Wink on watch. Don't dillydally. I don't want to be away from the wheel long."
Again Butch muttered something, this time a good deal more vigorously and colorfully, and began to line up bowls along the front of the counter. She slotted them into grooves that would keep them from sliding with the motion of the ship and stirred up the pot in preparation for portioning. The crew began to file in one at a time, each wearing his or her own variation of the unofficial uniform of the ship: black canvas trousers, a tan button-down shirt, and a brown coat. First was Ichabod Cooper, the rail-thin and sandy-haired young deckhand known by the whole crew—including his own sister—as Coop. Through some miracle of grooming that Nita had not seen fit to investigate, he seemed to have perfected the technique of having permanent stubble. She'd never seen him clean shaved or with a beard. He also tended to keep his sleeves rolled up, though from the number of scars on his forearms it seemed he'd be better served with them down.
"Oh, Gunner. I'd be obliged if you'd take a look at the sights on my rifle. Can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn with it these days," he said over his shoulder to the man behind him. "Morning, ma'am. You're getting pretty quick up the rigging."
"Thank you, Coop. You know, we've been working together for months. I don't believe it is entirely necessary to call me 'ma'am.'"
"Aw, you're a Calderan. If I'm not gonna call a fancy sort like you 'ma'am' now and again, I may as well not use the word at all."
"Good morning, Nita," said Gunner, their shorter, mildly less lean armory officer. Despite some missing fingers and the fresh singes on his face and sleeves, the man was actually quite capable. He was just a little too enthusiastic at times. "And Coop, I very much doubt the sights of your rifle have miraculously misaligned themselves overnight."
"Well, then why do you reckon I didn't pick off them two pilots like I did a week back?"
"Because you stumbled out onto the deck half-asleep and started shooting. I'm lucky you didn't hit me while you were up there."
"Lucky for you boys somebody on this ship knows how to work a rifle proper," Lil said, more formally Chastity "Lil Coop" Cooper, as she pranced into the galley. She was the younger sister of Coop and a regular chip off the old block.
"How long you reckon it'll be before you let us forget about that lucky shot of yours?" Coop asked.
"What, the one where I was dangling off the side of the ol' gasbag by one foot and still made the two of you look like you were the ones that didn't know which way was up? I reckon it'll be quite a bit."
"I'll tell you what. When we get back to the island, we'll hang me up by my foot and see what I can do."
"And just what island are you talking about, Coop?" Lil asked.
"That one south of Caldera. The one where we hid most of our haul from the heist a way's back."
"The one that's underwater most of the time and ain't got so much as a tree on it? The one that we only use because of the cave under it that you can't get to most days?"
"Whereabouts you reckon we're going to hang you on that island? The trees that ain't there?"
"We'll hang me off the ship," Coop said. "Just so long as Gunner fixes the sights on my rifle first."
"It is a poor artist who blames his brush," Gunner countered.
"What's painting got to do with you not knowing how to true up an iron sight?"
"Enough, all of you," commanded the sandpaper-rough voice of the captain, a man the Coopers called Cap'n Mack.
He was moving with purpose, though Nita was not certain she'd ever seen him move otherwise. Some people were a captain in name only, a leader simply because the position had been vacant and no one else had the years or training to fill it. Captain McCulloch West was a captain to the bone. His crew didn't follow orders due to anything as flimsy as a chain of command. They followed orders because he was giving them. He puffed on a cigar that smelled like burning cherries and pulled off a pair of dark lenses that had left his eyes the only portion of his face not roasted golden brown by the sun. There was a weariness to him that had become progressively more noticeable in the preceding weeks. His red-rimmed eyelids likely hadn't shut for more than an hour at a time in days. He rubbed them irritably and cleared his throat.
"Everybody grab a plate and a seat. I don't like giving the inspector the bridge for more than a minute or two. That goes double considering the number of wailers who've been catching our scent of late. We're going to make this quick. Once our engineer here patched up the nicks we picked up in this latest brush and we topped off what we lost, that put us down to our last canister of phlogiston."
"No, already? Seems like it wasn't two weeks ago we bought five canisters from them smelly folks from over where Gunner comes from," Coop said.
"We did. But since then we've been slashed up and poked full o' holes near a dozen times. How are we set for ammunition?"
"We're down to about half our usual stock for small arms, and very low on fléchettes. The cannons are pretty well stocked," Gunner said.
"We could use some. Between coal and burn-slow we've got enough for maybe three more round trips to Caldera," Lil said.
"How are the nuts and bolts, Nita?" the captain asked.
"The boiler is running fine. One of the turbines took some hits. I'd like to rebalance it. At this point the main envelope is more patches than anything else. Another few weeks like these and we'll be needing a new one. Other than that, we're doing well enough."
"Good. Then just so long as we don't lose any more phlogiston, we're not in trouble. But since we've been doing a right sorry job of defending this bucket lately, there are going to be some changes. I want two lookouts on deck at all times. That includes when we are at port. If Gunner hadn't been in his quarters tinkering with that new gadget of his last time we tried to spend the night in Keystone, we'd've been cleaned out. And if you're on lookout detail, I want you armed. Nita, that means you're going to need to brush up on your shooting."
"I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of handling a rifle, Captain. Perhaps—"
"I'm not entirely comfortable riding my ship to the seafloor, or getting picked clean by the sort of folks who lurk around the sort of piers that'll let us moor these days, so it don't make much difference to me what makes you comfortable," he barked. "Talk to Gunner, pick a weapon, and start practicing. Next time those wailers come buzzing around, I want them full of holes before they even notice they've found us." He stomped up to the counter and snatched up a bowl, stuffing the biscuit into the pocket of his coat and taking the bowl but not the spoon.
"We are too damn close to seeing our way through to the other end of this, people. We've got enough fugger goods stowed away in Cache Island to keep us fat and happy for the rest of our days. We just need to stay alive long enough to figure out how we're going to sell them, and where we're going to stay once we do. Now, as you were. Finish your meals, then draw straws on who's manning the deck. You've got five minutes."
He turned and paced back out the door, taking a swig out of the bowl as he went. Once his footsteps had disappeared back up to the main deck, Coop spoke up.
"You know something? I don't know what's sending him to his grave quicker, drinking or not drinking," he said.
"Times like these I do miss the rosy-cheeked, boozy lout who hired us," Lil said. She mashed her biscuits into her bowl and scooped some of the resulting mush into her mouth. "And does anyone remember when he last hit his hammock?"
"I'm not certain I even recall the last time he sat down," Gunner said.
"So what is the plan going forward?" Nita asked. "It's been four months since we raided that Fugtown warehouse, and so far all we've done is stash the stuff and lend me out to fix some ships whenever we visit Lock."
"The captain plays things like this close to his chest," Lil said. "When he's ready to tell us, he'll tell us."
"'Til then, we just go along," Coop said. He'd emptied his bowl and stood to return it to Butch, snagging another biscuit when he did. "Who's on lookout right now? And you reckon the captain counts himself as one of the lookouts?"
"Well now, that wouldn't make no sense, would it? If that was the case, we've been doing two lookouts all along. And you can't rightly navigate the ship with a rifle in your hands," Lil said.
"I'm on lookout right now," Gunner said.
"I reckon I'll join you then. It'll give you a chance to get my sights straightened out," Coop said.
Rather than dignifying the statement with a response, Gunner merely muttered something vaguely threatening and followed the deckhand out. That left only Lil and Nita in the galley.
"So, Nita, what're you fixing to do until it's your turn up on deck?"
"It won't be long until we reach Lock, and I'm sure the captain will have a line of people hoping I can help get their boilers boiling or their turbines turning again. Between that, my maintenance work, and now these watch shifts, I'd better take this time to finish up my letter home, or else it won't get written at all."
"You know," Lil said, washing down another mouthful of her meal with a swallow of coffee, "I still don't quite get why you write them letters. The only folks who could even deliver 'em is us."
"I know, but sometimes our visits are so short. Before I joined the crew, the longest I'd ever stayed away from home was a few days. Mother and I just aren't used to spending so much time apart. Writing these letters and reading them one at a time sort of makes it feel like we aren't so far apart. I hand Mother my book, she hands me hers, and we read and answer one a week."
"You ever write about me in them letters?" Lil asked.
"Of course! Mother said she's been working extra hard to get the Wind Breaker permission to make port so that she and the family can meet you. My brother, Joshua, in particular is interested in you."
Lil grinned. "Is he now?"
"He's a composer and he's always looking for dancers. He says with the way you're so fearless climbing all around the ship, he'd love to see what you could do on stage."
Lil twisted her head. "Now what kind of stage are we talking about here? Because the only dancers I ever seen are them girls in Keystone who do them high kicks and ain't barely wearing no clothes. The sort Coop always spends all his money gawking at."
"No, no. Ballet, interpretive dance. Things to do more than simply titillate."
"See, Coop says doing any more than titillating costs more'n he's willing to spend." She finished her plate of food and her coffee. "Say hi to your mama for me. Once we get to Lock, if the captain asks you to take a look at somebody's ship, give me a holler. I reckon if I'm going to be practicing, may as well be on a ship that ain't ours."
"Certainly," Nita said.
Lil stood and handed her plate to Butch. "A fine meal as always, Butch. I always say I don't worry about dying, because every one of your meals is fit to be my last."
"What are you off to do now?" Nita asked.
"If we're going to be spending a mite more time on deck, I reckon I'll top off the firebox, then head down for a nap until we hit port. You might want to do the same, since if Coop and Gunner are up there now, you know you and me are going to be stuck on the night shift."
"Not a bad idea," Nita said.
Lil trotted away, and Nita, as seemed to happen rather frequently, found herself the first one to begin eating and the last to finish. She'd picked up a great deal of very necessary habits from the crew, but the two she'd never seemed to get the knack for were choking down her meals and drinking the syrup-thick sludge they called "coffee." It was a wonder that Butch, who could make month-old smoked fish into something that would make you ask for seconds, couldn't seem to make a proper cup of coffee. Nita was thankful for water, which due to the boiler was never in short supply, and tea. The only alternatives were alcoholic… though she was somewhat ashamed to say she was beginning to develop a taste for Westrim ale.
She finished her meal, taking every moment of the five minutes allotted to her by the captain, then thanked Butch for the fine cooking and made her way back to her room. As she pushed open the door—thanks to its draftiness, her room was one of the few that actually had a door rather than a curtain—and stepped inside, she heard a peculiar scratching noise. It was followed by a crunch. Nita frowned and clapped her hands.
"Wink! Wink you get out of there right now!" she scolded.
The crunching suddenly stopped and there was silence.
"You don't think I know where you are?"
She lightly stepped through the maze of crates and boxes to one at the opposite side of the loading bay. It was tucked under one of the two gig winches, and the lid was askew. She moved the lid aside and saw a single eye gleaming out from the darkness inside. Nita reached up and twisted on the nearest phlo-light, revealing a cat-sized creature that was simultaneously the ugliest and cutest thing Nita had ever seen. It was ghost gray and had formerly worn a bandage until Nita had fashioned an eye patch for it. The creature was technically known as an aye-aye, though, due to the effects of the fug, it had a few unnatural characteristics, including a batlike nose and its peculiar coloring. They called the beast Wink, and it was intended to be the ship's inspector, but lately it seemed to have taken on the unofficial role of designated pain in Nita's backside.
It looked up at her innocently, completely ignoring the large, half-eaten macaroon it clutched in its creepy little hands. The half-open and half-empty tin at its feet in the crate suggested this was not the first time it had committed this particular crime.
"Come out of there," Nita said, lightly nudging the box.
Wink darted out and spiraled around Nita's body to just under her arm, keeping the cookie in one spider-fingered hand as it did. She leaned down to shut the tin, then secured the crate and heaved a heavier one on top of it before returning to her desk. Wink crawled to her back, peering over her shoulder and munching away on his ill-gotten gains as she read through her letter. Once the words were fresh in her mind, she picked up where she'd left off.
I've just had to step away from this letter for a bit. There was some ship business I had to attend to. Nothing unusual, but the sort of thing that can't wait until I'm done writing.
In the past I've mentioned that I'd like for you to meet some of the crew. I know that father is doing his best to get them a special exception to the rules about outsiders docking at Tellahn, but perhaps you can convince Drew to take you down to Moor Spires next month so that you can say hello. Hopefully by then Captain Mack won't be quite so out of sorts. As you'll no doubt remember we…
Nita paused for a moment, considering the correct word.
… acquired some goods from the people in the fug, and the captain seems certain he can trade them for a high enough price to finally secure a comfortable future for himself and his crew. The problem is everyone knows we have them, and some fellow airmen are making it difficult to lay the groundwork for the captain's plans. He hasn't shared what those plans are yet, but the crew certainly trusts him, and I've learned to do the same.
Some crumbs fell on the page as Wink finished his stolen macaroon. He'd crept up to her shoulder, too nosy to settle for anything but an unobstructed view of what she was doing. The creature then reached down and tapped its long, thin middle finger on one of the wrenches in Nita's tool sash. The result was a quick, clear, and complex pattern of taps. To anyone who had never heard it before, and most people who had, it would have seemed like the random, nervous tapping of a timid creature. Through a bit of sleuthing and a lot of careful listening, Nita and the rest of the Wind Breaker crew had worked out that it was actually a method of communication not unlike the one she'd used to tap out messages through the pipes of her previous career in the steamworks. Wink and the other ship inspectors were a good deal more intelligent than anyone had realized, and their mandatory inclusion on the fug folk–made ships was not a safety decision, it was an act of espionage. Fortunately, they had convinced Wink to stop sending reports on them, making the Wind Breaker possibly the only ship in the sky that had the benefit of privacy and surprise when dealing with the fuggers.
Nita wrote a letter to her mother, Wink tapped.
He had a peculiar way of phrasing things, as the tap code was only ever meant to provide reports of the activities on a ship, so he "spoke" in past tense, and even questions were phrased as statements.
"Yes, Wink, I'm writing home, like I always do at the beginning of the week."
Nita told her mother to send more good foods.
"Now why should I tell her that?" Nita asked. "I never gave you permission to eat my macaroons, you know. I think I liked you better when you spent your time staring at me like I was a criminal."
Nita told her mother to send more good foods, Wink repeated.
Nita sighed and resumed writing.
The ship's inspector would like me to inform you that Marissa's coconut macaroons are very tasty, and he would appreciate if you send some just for him. Though to be honest, if I don't hurry up and eat some, this batch will end up being just for him anyway.
In a few hours we'll be tying the ship up at a place called Lock. I don't know if you remember me mentioning it in the past, but Lock is the only major city that will let us openly make port these days. The fug folk aren't pleased with us right now, because of the aforementioned acquisition of some of their goods. Unfortunately, since they keep most of the rest of Rim on a fairly short leash, that means that most other people aren't willing to deal with us for fear of making the fug folk angry. Officially, no one in Rim actually knows how to maintain their own airships or technology, since if the fug folk find out a crew has been tinkering with their machines, they'll ban the entire ship from further trade and maintenance. The presence of the inspectors, who report all relevant activities on the ships, means the fug folk will always find out. So much of modern life in Rim revolves around fug technology that losing it would be ruinous. That's not a problem in Lock, though. Lock is where most people who have already been banned end up. Almost every airship in the sky absolutely refuses to do business with the residents of Lock for fear of earning the same fate. It is as though the whole city has the plague. These people have nothing to lose, so they are more than willing to have us visit.
It has been a while since we had any shore leave, and while the captain has made some changes to our responsibilities for the time being, I'm hoping I can get a few hours on shore to see about those music boxes.
I think I've rambled long enough. There's plenty to do, and if I don't stop myself, I'll spend the whole day scribbling away. I shall write to you again next week, and I look forward to reading your letter.