Art courtesy zombie2012
For The Wheel, Part Two, the die selected Steampunk, Someone’s Been Poisoned!, and A Secret Message.
The skyline of Paramount City was normally a welcome sight. It meant coming home. Today, as Captain Taggert held the wheel of his beloved airship, he saw the skyline in a very different way. The airfighters weren’t up yet, but they would be soon enough.
“How are we doing up here, Cap’n?”
He didn’t turn to look. He knew the voice of his mate, Ashley Sanders, almost as well as his own. Five years now they’d plied the skies together, and he trusted her almost more than he trusted himself.
“We’re making good time. Tavis hasn’t called up; how much is he really complaining about the boilers?”
“‘Bout as much as you’d expect. Not used to runnin’ her this hot just to get home.”
Taggert didn’t take his eyes from that skyline. “Does he know?”
Sanders walked up next to him. “No. Only ones who know what’s really going on are you, me, Doc, and poor Mike Palmer.”
“How is he?” Taggert reflected, as he asked, that he was standing in Mike’s spot, at the wheel of the ship. It felt a bit like walking on the man’s grave.
“Doc says he’s stable. Won’t be dancin’ a jig any time soon, but provided Doc stays with him and makes sure he’s takin’ on fluids proper-like, he’ll pull through.”
Taggert nodded, glancing to the scroll case sitting on the radar console to his left. The man who’d been carrying it, a passenger they took on from the border with the untamed jungles to the south, had been nervous from the start. Next thing anybody knew, he was on the radio, calling in the Wayward Albatross as a pirate ship and a danger to the Empire, and when Palmer had confronted him, the pilot got a poison shiv for his trouble. Taggert dealt with the passenger in what he felt was a fair and equitable manner: he escorted the man off of his airship, without the benefit of a parachute.
The message, though, worried him. It bore the Imperial seal, and was obviously meant for someone important. He wasn’t sure who the intended recipient was, nor for whom the man had been working, but the Empire took all reports of air piracy very seriously. Taggert kept his eyes peeled for airfighters even as the radio crackled to life.
“Airship Wayward Albatross, this is Imperial Control. Come in, Wayward Albatross.”
Sanders picked up the microphone, clearing her throat. “This is the Albatross, Control, what can we do for ya?”
“You will heave-to and tie up at the Imperial port spire in the south-eastern docks. Your ship will be inspected and your crew questioned.”
Sanders exchanged a look with Taggert. “We have a sick man on board, Control. He needs medical attention.”
“Negative. Heave-to immediately.”
Sanders released the mike’s switch. “We can’t let them split Mike from Doc, Cap’n. He might not make it in that case.”
“And if we hand over this message it might just disappear, along with us.” Taggert frowned. “Call down to Tavis. Get her as stoked as possible. Then sound evacuation and get to the rescue planes.”
“I’m taking her in, Sanders, and the fewer folks at risk, the better things will be.”
Sanders, for her part, didn’t argue. She just looked at Taggert for a very long moment before leaving. Moments later, he felt the Albatross surge forward, steam billowing from her vents. The airship could move quick when she needed to, and Taggert needed every iota of speed he could muster. An inner voice told him this was foolhardy, maybe even suicidal, but he hushed it. He had other things to worry about.
Airfighters were now appearing from the military spires that marked the inner quarter of the city, where the aristocrats and non-landed well-to-do lived and worked. Sanders re-entered the pilot house as Taggert adjusted course towards the Imperial Palace.
“Crew’s started to evac, Cap’n. Time to tie her off an’ go.”
“I’m staying. I’ll get clear, don’t you worry, but I have a job to do.”
Sanders frowned. “Cap’n, I’m more than willin’ t’ give ya a crack on the skull an’ drag your heavy carcass to a plane.”
“You will do no such thing.” He turned to look at her. She did, indeed, have a large wrench in her hand, her face was half-covered in soot, and her blue eyes burned with intensity and worry. “You’re the best mate a broke-down Captain like me could ask for, Ashley, but right now I need you to see to the rest of the crew and get yourself clear. When all is said and done, I’ll find you again. I promise.”
She nodded, but didn’t leave the pilot house until the Albatross rattled. Due to steam or getting buzzed by airfighters, Taggert wasn’t sure. Approaching the Palace like she was, they’d open fire any second.
When he heard the first staccato noises of autogun fire, he tied off the wheel and grabbed a parachute. He felt the deck shake beneath him as he strapped himself in. Taking up the message, he ran aft through the empty airship to find a lock. He threw open the inner door, than the outer, looking down at the greenery of the palace gardens.
The Albatross shook again. Taking a deep breath, Taggert stepped out into the air. He didn’t dare look back; he knew his ship was on fire, and didn’t want the image seared into his mind. Instead, he focused on his ‘chute, pulling it open at the right moment, and guided himself to landing not ten feet from where the Empress herself was enjoying breakfast. Her guards aimed their rifles, and she held up her hand.
“I trust you are bringing us something of profound importance, Captain.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Taggert handed her the message. “This was in the hands of an enemy of the Empire.”
She took the scroll and broke the seal. Reading it, she looked up at Taggert. After a moment, she gestured to her guards.
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