(Cross-posted from the Flintlocks and Folly Serial Award held by NeedleInTheHay)
She was a pretty little thing, their quarry; a dark red balloon attached to a sturdy iron cabin, floating calm as you please in the torrential rain. She didn’t even shudder when Captain Pike gave the order for Dimber-Damber to send out the claws – the huge metal curves biting into her tender side and pulling her into the Argonauta’s air space before you could say ‘boarded’.
“We’re supposed to be headin’ home!” Assy shouted as she and Pike made their way down to the boiler room, strapping on their various pistols and knives as they went. The riveted walls of the hull were hot to touch, and if they’d had skin they would have been sweating. “We’re not half a day out of Brighton and you’ve got us waylaid on some useless pretty floating in no-man’s air!”
Pike could understand her annoyance. They’d been fifty years in the wind, catching cruiseballoons unawares and robbing them of whatever seemed useful, or valuable, or some combination of the two. Pike knew that the crew wanted shore leave. A chance to feel the gravedirt beneath their spectral toes. A chance to breathe sea air from the ground. Pike had even observed Dimber-Damber giving Legs some side-ways glances, and he knew that if the crew didn’t get off the ship soon he’d have another bloody wrestling tournie on his hands.
But he never could pass up an easy robbery. The Argonauta would live up to her reputation as the most terrifying ghost ship in the skies.
Pike and Assy were out on the side of the ship, ready to jump. Pike had to squint to see his target through the torrent of rain battering them from all sides. A wall of wind slammed into their ship. Pike and Assy hung together, two dead’uns waiting to pounce on their live prey. Little Jacksy was on Pike’s other side, the gears on his leg spinning with anticipation. He was barely old enough to shave, but Pike had taken a shine to him a few years back and brought him onto the crew on a probationary basis. He was still livin’, but they didn’t hold that against him.
“Ya ready, lads?” Pike called out, tugging a metal gauntlet onto his right fist and keeping a hold of the Argonauta with his legs.
“One of us is a woman,” Assy said, tucking her pistol into her corset and shooting him a glare.
“It’s a figure a’ speech,” Pike said, before hurling himself from the side of the ship to avoid his first mate’s glare.
Three hundred years he’d been running the Argonauta – and working under his papa’s wing for thirteen before that – but he never got tired of the rush he felt when it was just him and the air, and nothing but the wind-tossed sea a thousand leagues beneath to catch him if anything went wrong. He braced himself for the hard impact as he landed against the side of their prey, punching his fist into the metal wall. A short, whirring sound spilled out of the gauntlet before the metal hooks edging his knuckles sprung out and dug in, anchoring him into place. He undid the metal coil connecting him to the Argonauta and attached it to their quarry so that she could be reeled in.
He heard two thuds next to him as Assy and Jacksy landed. Pike turned his head, taking in the battered, rusty old Argonauta. The wind pushed and shoved her, but she held steady. A true beauty she was – as eternal as her crew, despite her looks.
Jacksy landed near a window and peered into it. “Looks like there’s no one home.” The lad used the butt of his pistol to punch through the glass. Once he was done clearing away the worst of the wreckage he climbed through, his backside wiggling in the air and his prosthetic leg kicking at nothing.
“Hurry up, Cabin Boy, we’re freezin’ out ‘ere,” Assy snapped, slapping him on the rear as he slid through. Most livins thought dead’uns couldn’t feel cold, but that was wishful thinking.
She pressed the release on her gauntlet and, with a hiss, the claws withdrew from the hull and she clambered in after Jacksy with decidedly more finesse. Once Pike was inside as well, they took stock of their surroundings. There was no light in the little cabin they’d crawled into and naught but the wind whistling through the smashed window to be heard.
“Maybe they’re hidin’?” Jacksy said. Wouldn’t be the first time a crew had seen a ghost ship bearing pirate colours and scarpered into the bowels of the ship.
Pike drew his pistol, letting a grin bloom on his pale, gaunt face. “Let’s find the crew, liberate some of their valuables and see ourselves out. Assy, you go first and distract our enemies with your feminine wiles.”
“I will slap ya back to breathin’, I swear to the Queen.”
Assy, muttering mutinously about misogynistic captains, led the way down the dark passageway with her pistol in one fist and a wicked dagger in the other. Pike was wishing he’d asked Legs, their engineer, to rig up a light for him – one that could attach to a helmet like he’d seen in the wars. One of those would have been barking useful right about then.
Down the corridor, it got darker. Pike felt a slight prickle run up his spine. He could barely see Jacksy in front of him, and concentrated instead on the steady click-clack of Jacksy’s metal leg on the iron floor. They went down a flight of stairs which barely swayed under their combined weight. She was a good ship, very sturdy. It made Pike homesick for his rattly old Argonauta, who always had a hair-raising little jolt ready if someone climbed her gang plank too quick.
A soft hissing and clanking let them know when they’d reached the engine-room. Five times out of six, a crew would settle down there to avoid pirates. Pirates knew this, of course, which was why the engine-room was always their first port of call.
Assy opened the door with no trouble. It squeaked a little when it opened, but hardly enough to break the gaping silence from within.
“All right,” Assy shouted into the dark. Pike slid into the gap beside her and reached into the room, groping along the wall for a gaslight, but felt nothing. “If there be anyone a’hidin’ down ‘ere, why don’t cha come on out? No shame in getting’ caught, but if we have to come in there and get ya we’re not gonna be too gentle ‘bout it.”
No answer. Not even so much as a sigh or resignation. Pike kept searching for a light as Assy opened the door proper and she and Jacksy moved into the room.
“There’s a puddle or somethin’,” Assy said. “Don’t slip, Cabin Boy.”
Pike’s finger brushed against a lamp switch just as a heavy thud sounded and Jacksy cursed. “Blasting conkers what the devil was that?” the boy said. Something rustled near where his voice was coming from, and he shouted: “Gotcha, you smarmy bugger!”
Pike flicked the switch, blinking as the sudden light flooded his senses and he took a good look around. Legs would have sneered at the steel gears and fittings, preferring the strength of iron to any of the new-fangled materials coming up in new model airships. Assy was on the other side of the room, near a metal drum full of oil, her pistol raised as she stared wide-eyed at Jacksy. He’d caught himself a crewman. He’d fisted his hand in the man’s shirt and was holding him steady.
Not that Jacksy needed to hold him. The man was dead.
“Argh!” Jacksy said, jumping back and shaking his hand like he’d been burned.
A long metal spike stuck from the crewman’s chest, pinning him in place against the wall, holding him in a standing position with his head back and his tongue lolling out, his blank stare sending shivers down what remained of Pike’s spine. The puddle Assy had noticed was a pool of blood which extended about three feet out onto the floor. Jacksy cringed and danced away when he realised he was standing in it.
The engine-room shook about as the Argonauta pulled her prey in for proper boarding. The jostling made the dead man’s limbs jerk. He slid forward on the spike about an inch.
Pike screwed up his face. “Doesn’t feel haunted,” he said, gazing around the room. Assy sniffed the air like she could sniff out any dead’uns who hadn’t made themselves known. “Per’aps we oughtta get Dimble-Damble and search the place for other corpses. See if anyone didn’t make their way to the other side.”
Jacksy nodded, still looking sick and horrified. Pike would have the rest of the crew board and search the place. Wouldn’t do to have another ghost crew floating around giving them competition.
Dimble-Damble and Dimber-Damber weren’t twins, but they liked to pretend they were. They turned their heads in unison, staring around the ship’s engine room as Legs muttered and grunted with her head buried among the pipes. Pike watched it all from his vantage point near the doorway, squinting at the pool of blood drifting towards Legs’s wispy skirts, the spike in the wall still dripping with it though the corpse had long since been removed.
“Rusty barkin’ newfangled nonsense,” Legs said. “If it ain’t broke why fix it? That’s what I wanna know.”
“You’re right, Legs,” Dimble-Damble said. He’s still trying to make up for the dead parrot incident. Pike thinks he should have apologised weeks ago but he had let the opportunity pass and now there was no salvaging it. Legs was known for her temper and stubbornly holding grudges – and dead’uns know grudges. It’s how they got so good at hauntin’.
Dimble-Damble had died with his skull carved in two. There was a great, gaping split right down the middle of his brain like a block of cheese pulled apart at the top.
“Hand me tha’ spanner, Dimber-Damber,” Legs said, ignoring Dimble-Dimble entirely.
Dimber-Damber handed her the spanner. “Here ya go, Legs.” His own head was intact, but his hands were missing all but two and a half fingers and there was a long chunk of neck gone between his right ear and his collarbone.
She took it with a grunt of thanks.
Groaning from upstairs had Pike perking his ears up. He turned his head slightly, straining for the source of the sound, but it didn’t come again. He couldn’t decide if it was the groan of a mast in the wind, the groan of thunder over the rain, or the groan of some new dead’un stubbing his toe. Pike crossed his arms and whistled for Dimble-Damble and Dimber-Damber’s attention.
The two burly men turned in unison and Pike stifled a shudder. Hundreds of years running the skies, meeting every awful thing a livin could conjure in their wildest nightmares, and those two were still the creepiest things that Pike had ever laid eyeballs on.
“Keep an eye on Legs,” he said, “and have ya peepers peeled for dead’uns lurking about.”
“They’ll’ve come out to play by now, surely?” Dimber-Damber said.
Pike shrugged. “They’re not all sunshine and jellyfish pops like we are.”
Legs snorted. Her skirts wiggled with it.
Dimber-Damber and Dimble-Damble waved at Pike as he left with all of the bland acceptance that Pike had learned to associate with them. He turned away from the engine room, and the stink of blood still lingering in the air. That was the worst thing about finding a fresh kill: the blood. The smell of it, the sight of it, the taste of it in the back of Pike’s throat for days afterwards. What was the point of being a dead’un if he had to keep dealing with blood?
He stomped his way upstairs because he wanted any dead’uns about to know he was coming. Like snakes on hard land, the new dead’uns tended to get startled when they felt like they were being snuck up on. Best to broadcast as aggressively as possible.
Through one of the circular windows, he caught a glimpse of the Argonauta and had to pause. The rain lashing against the glass nearly obscured the sight of her, but Pike knew her shape by heart. She looked lovely floating out there, her rope lines attached to their prey ship and her rusty hull glinting when the lightning flashed through the dark clouds. He sent the old girl a kiss before passing the window. He brushed his fingertips against the metal walls and felt the warmth drifting through his ghostly skin.
Upstairs, in the navigation room, Jacksy and Assy were on their knees sewing the dead man’s body into a canvas hammock.
“Cap’n,” Jacksy said, nodding respectfully when he saw Pike enter the room.
Assy ignored him, which was her way when she was cross. Pike could think of a number of things that she could be cross about, not least the fact that she was sitting on her knees with a sewing needle and a green livin who’s never seen death before. Now that he took a good look, Pike thought that Jacksy looked a bit green around the gills.
“Any movement from him?” Pike asked, ignoring Assy’s attitude.
“Dead as a strung cat in a bag,” replied Jacksy. He poked the corpse’s cheek to illustrate his point. The cheek jiggled and Jacksy flinched.
Assy rolled her eyes. “Keep ya hands to yaself, Cabin Boy.”
“Did ya hear tha’ groanin’?” Pike asked.
Assy shrugged but Jacksy nodded eagerly. “Aye, Cap’n. Thought it was a dead’un for a sec.”
Pike pursed his lips and gazed around the room. There were wide windows and he could see the Argonauta off to the side, blanketed in rain. The rest of the room was a mess of papers, parchment and standard reams of crisp white stuff for a printer, all mixed together in a cacophony of nonsense on the tables and metal floor.
“I ordered ya to find the logbooks not start a barkin’ hurricane,” Pike said.
Assy raised her hackles at him and pointed wordlessly at the leather-bound books on the table. She had a look on her face like she’d swallowed a salty shot of vodka from one of the northern countries. Pike picked up the nearest book and thumbed through to the first page. He felt a shot of recognition pierce his dead veins at the sight of the first page.
The private journals of Captain James Winston Eustace Emeritus, Lord of Winchester, Esq.
Pike glanced over at Assy and saw her squinting at the leather cover as though it had offended her. He wanted to point out to her that Emeritus, while not a common name, is certainly not unique. But Assy wouldn’t care. That name would haunt Assy as long as she lingered on the mortal coil.
Before Pike could speak, another groan shattered the air around them – louder and more violent than any that had come before it.
Pike felt that groan rattling through his bones. He dropped the journal in surprise and it fell open to a pencil sketch that looked suspiciously like Assy back when she was livin.
“What the bloody barking drums was that?” Jacksy said, pushing himself off of his knees. His metal leg creaked in protest at the sudden movement. He had his own pistol in his fist, waving it around and getting dangerously close to pointing it in Pike’s direction.
“Watch where ya pointin’ that thing, Cabin Boy!” Assy snapped. She glared around the room with her own hand resting on her pistol.
The groaning thundered through the air, filling their dead heads with echoing, vibrating noise, coinciding with an awful flash of lightning that burst through the wide windows. It wasn’t until the floor started shuddering that Pike reached for his own pistol. He flicked it out of the holster and cranked the hammer into the ready position. Beneath his feet, he could hear shouting from the engine room.
“Captain!” Legs’s voice came drifting through the still-open door, echoing back and forth against the metal walls. “The Argonauta!”
If Pike still had blood in his veins, it would have frozen. He spun around, nearly dropping his pistol at the sight that greeted him through the windows.
His ship – his Argonauta – was waving its billowing sails like the wings of an angry swan. The ship was pulling hard against the ropes attaching it to the prey ship, straining like a dog on its leash, while its propellers worked so hard that smoke was starting to flutter out of them and disappear into the grey sky behind it.
Assy rushed forward and pressed her cheek against the glass. It wasn’t until his own cheek felt cold that Pike realised he had followed her.
“Son of a dog!” Assy swore.
There was a man on the Argonauta’s deck, just visible, with his hair dripping wet. Pike craned his neck around to stare at the corpse still laying on the metal floor behind him. It was the same man. The corpse was a dead’un after all.
And the bastard was stealing Pike’s Argonauta!
“Jacksy, you stay put.”
“Why? Cuz I’m a livin’?”
“No, cuz you’re thirteen!”
Jacksy followed at Assy’s skirts anyway, like a babe after his nanny. It wasn’t until Pike put his hand on the lad’s chest that he stopped. The pistons on his metal leg whirred with anticipation as the sound of groaning kept echoing through the ship’s halls. It shuddered as the Argonauta pulled against it.
Pike wanted scream – he could only imagine what damage was being done to his ship’s engines trying to pull on things that ought not be pulled.
“Burn the clanky bastard’s body,” Pike said, pressing one of Legs’s illuminators into Jacksy’s thin, care-worn hands. “Then jump ship.”
“Will it hurt him?” Jacksy asked.
“Nah, but he’s messin’ with my ship so now I wanna wreck something he loves,” Pike said.
“Aye Cap’n,” Jacksy replied, scrambling to obey.
Pike and Assy climbed out the window they’d used to enter the ship. Pike had to help Assy – her skirts got caught on the glass and he might have pushed a little harder than necessary, but he was in a hurry. She didn’t even squawk when the sound of tearing made them both flinch.
“That’s your descendant, I’ll bet,” Pike said as he climbed out onto the railing to join her.
“A distant cousin, maybe!” Assy snapped. “And for all ya know he’s a cabin boy.”
“Cabin boys don’t steal ships!” Pike replied. “Captains do.”
Captain James Winston Eustace Emeritus, Lord of Winchester. He’d put hard cash on the odds of that stinkin’ rat with the fancy name being responsible for this little bit of thievery.
Across the way, still at the helm of the Argonauta like a flea on a dog’s collar, was the clanky dead’un who’d taken hold of her.
They braced themselves on the side of the ship, staring across the abyss as the wind picked up and the rain lashed harder against their faces. Below, on another deck, Pike could see Legs and the Not-Twins thrusting their hands in their gauntlets, preparing to make the jump.
Pike couldn’t even bring himself to enjoy the feeling when he finally leapt into the air. Not with some slimey little shit putting his grimy fingers all over his beloved Argonauta. The only thing in Pike’s life – and after life – that had never let him down.
He landed hard on her hull, wasting no time in punching through the steel with his gauntlet while the wind battered him from all sides. He used the gauntlets to scale the wall, wincing at every scar he left behind and promising himself that he would fix her up good as new when he was done ridding her of this infestation. Pike heard the thud of Assy landing. When he looked down, he saw that she was using the holes his gauntlets had left behind, saving her from more damage. Three thuds from further down told him that the rest of the dead’uns on his crew had landed as well.
Pulling himself up, Pike finally made it over the railing. Then he was face-to-face with the man standing just beneath the Argonauta’s balloon with a smug look on his pointed face. He had his fingers clasped on the polished metal wheel, turning her with jerky movements, trying to buck off the other ship.
“You are in violation of her Majesty’s sky treaties,” he shouted over the wind, in a pompous little voice that only made Pike want to punch him more. “I am commandeering your vessel, and sentencing you and your crew to death by drowning.”
“Shut ya face, you rusty little twerp,” Pike shouted back. “And get your filthy hands off my ship!”
Before the newly dead’un could reply, Pike launched himself at him, catching him around the chest so that they tumbled away from the wheel. With no one to hold it, it turned back. Dangerously quickly, towards the ship it had been pulling away from.
“Assy!” Pike shouted over his shoulder, before a hand shot out and gripped his face. Captain Emeritus – Pike was convinced of it now, only livin captains could muster that level of pomposity – was trying to push Pike off him.
Assy leapt over the edge of the railing and threw herself at the wheel, her hands slipping on rainwater before she got a grip on it. She grunted and turned with all her strength, barely just saving the ships from colliding.
Pike tried to hang onto Captain Emeritus, but he was a slippery son of a dog.
“Release me, you mutinous buccaneer!” he shouted. His hand tried to cover Pike’s jaw, so Pike turned his head and bit him. He howled. Most livins thought dead’uns couldn’t feel pain, but that was wishful thinking.
They skirmished together. Assy couldn’t help – she was holding the wheel and fighting gale-force winds to keep control of the Argonauta – and the rest of the crew were probably still scaling the hull.
Captain Emeritus couldn’t have known about the strength that fills a man’s bones when he’s been shuffled off the mortal coil. But he didn’t need to know to use it. He wrapped his legs around Pike’s hips and turned them both so that Pike was on his back.
“Captain!” Assy shouted. But she didn’t let go of the ship.
Pike’s head lolled back as he tried to get his bearings. He felt fingers around his neck and recoiled. Dead’uns don’t need to breathe, but they like to. But the fingers kept coming, slow and frigid, until they had a firm grip on his neck.
Captain Emeritus climbed off of Pike, using Pike’s throat to hoist him into the air, his legs dangling. Pike finally caught a glimpse of Captain Emeritus’s eyes. Of the manic rage and fire burning behind them.
He carried Pike over to the railing, spitting out a raging monologue as he went: “My mutinous crew left me in the engine-room to die, but they paid in the end. And now you, good sir, shall pay for your insolence.”
Nothin’ worse than a crazy livin captain. No wonder the ship had been deserted when Pike and his crew boarded it.
Pike kicked his legs out, hyperaware of the tight grip that Captain Emeritus had on his windpipe. He pulled and scratched at the man’s fingers, but the other captain wasn’t letting go. When Pike belatedly tried to pull his pistol out of his pocket it was knocked out of his hand by Captain Emeritus’s free one.
Pike suddenly found himself hanging over the railing, his feet dangling in no-man’s air with nothing but Captain Emeritus’s fingers to keep him aloft and the storm-tossed sea leagues beneath him to break his fall.
He could die today. The thought hit him like a tidal wave. It was one thing to die and come back as a dead’un. It was another thing for his body to be obliterated by a fall, then eaten by critters. He wasn’t ready for that.
“Captain!” Assy shouted again, and even through the hard wind and rain Pike could see her over Captain Emeritus’s shoulder, dithering, her hands still clutching the wheel but her eyes focused entirely on Pike.
Captain Emeritus turned towards the sound of her voice and a heavy thunk hit the air. An iron pole sprouted from the captain’s chest, making him stumble backwards so that he and Pike toppled back onto the deck. Pike scrambled off of the dead’un captain just in time to see the Not-Twins’ hands come out of nowhere, grab the man by his shoulders, and hoist him up.
Pike realised that the iron pole wasn’t a pole at all. It was a harpoon. He spun around and squinted into the rain. There, on the other ship’s deck, standing behind a pristine new harpoon gun with a wild grin on his face and his metal leg kicked up with glee, was Little Jacksy.
Pike felt a rush of affection for the lad even as Captain Emeritus screamed and cursed and squirmed in Dimble-Damble and Dimber-Damber’s arms, the harpoon waving dangerously in his chest but doing nothing to slow him down. Behind him, Legs stood hip to hip with Assy, helping her hold the wheel steady.
“Throw him overboard,” Pike ordered the Not-Twins. “Then fetch the cabin boy from the other ship. Let’s put this barkin’ piece of no-man’s air behind us.”
The Not-Twins did as ordered, tossing Captain Emeritus over the railing with little ceremony. His howls grow fainter as he falls, until they are lost in the howls of the wind.
Pike sauntered over to the women, who looked relived though they were trying not to show it. “Legs, check the engines will ya?” Legs nodded and scurried off, leaving Pike to help Assy hold the wheel in her absence. “You were right,” he muttered to her as the adrenaline from the last few minutes finally began to ebb away. “We should have just gone to Brighton today.”
Assy threw her head back and laughed.
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