Preface: This is an unfinished project with several other members of the Forge. We were just playing, but it seemed a poor idea to post just my portions of the story, so here is what I’ve been able to gather of all our works combined. Fellow authors include Breanna Hill, Crystal Smith, and Stephanie Mangum.
Her fingers worked deftly as she cleaned each gear and crevice of her rifle, but she wasn’t paying attention to the work. It was simple, and she had been doing it for years. Instead, she watched through a porthole the billowing clouds soar below the ship. A massive canvas air balloon that kept the ship aloft cast dark shadows on the white clouds. Air escaped from the engine at the back of the ship with a hiss. This was the life: being paid to travel the world. And kill people.
Sometimes, Vera wished she could just shoot some of the imbeciles she was paid to protect. Number one on the list: Top Hat. That wasn’t his name, that’s just what she called him. He was vain and refused to accept he was an idiot. She watched as he checked his reflection in the bright nickel plating on the side of the airship’s telescope. He was the “engineer” on their ship, though he always seemed to be the root cause of things going wrong. All she wanted to do was pull the top hat that rested on his perfectly sculpted hair down over his eyes and shove him overboard.
Next on the list, Ernesto Revolutiooon. Ernesto was also an idiot, but somehow, incredibly lucky. She couldn’t understand it.
The engine started sputtering and the ship suddenly dropped a few feet. Top Hat ran over to the engine, picked up a giant wrench and started turning gears. Air hissed out of a pipe and the airship dropped another dozen feet. Vera grabbed onto her gun, and moved away from the edge.
Then Ernesto ran over to “help.” On the way, Ernesto tripped over seemingly nothing and slammed into the problem gear. There was a loud bang, but the engine smoothed out and the ship started to gain elevation again. See? She didn’t understand how Ernesto was so lucky.
The captain was third in line. He had almost backed out on their deal when he found out the legendary mercenary was a woman. But, he gave her a paycheck, so she stayed her guns.
Vera rolled her eyes and went back to her work. A silver ferret pranced its way over to her, holding a gear in its mouth. She looked at her gun, and found the firing mechanism was missing a gear. It must have dropped when Top Hat broke the engine.
“Thanks, Leo,” she said as the ferret dropped the gear into her hand. Leo was the only one on the ship she liked. He was her pet, and made sure she didn’t lose anything.
Vera finished assembling and cleaning her rifle, which gleamed copper and bronze in the sunlight. It wasn’t her only gun, but it was her favorite. It was reliable and hit like a golem. It had the best scope and sighting system she could find, and it had been tuned perfectly. She had even named it. Lord Darius.
“So, Vera. Need any help with that rifle? I can fix it, y’know.” Top Hat. He was standing near her with his leg up on a crate. He twirled his mustache into a curl as he spoke.
“Nothing’s wrong with it,” she replied with a slight growl in her voice. “And if you even think about touching it, I’ll shove your fist down your throat.”
“It’s just, I’m really good with fixing things. You saw how I fixed the engine just now.”
Vera rolled her eyes again. She found herself doing that a lot around this crew. With Leo curled around her neck like a fur scarf, Vera picked up her rifle and started to head to her cabin.
The ship jolted suddenly, and flames erupted around the engine. “You call that fixed?” she yelled at Top Hat. He ran to the engine again and the ship gave another lurch. This time, the explosion came from the front.
That wasn’t an engine problem. They were being attacked. But no one was around. There were no other ships in the sky. How—
Her thought was cut off as another blast came from the balloon.
Vera took off running, skirt billowing behind her. Her only thought was to get her guns and a parachute. If the ship was going down, she wasn’t going to go down with it. And she sure wasn’t going to let her guns go either.
CHAPTER 2 Edward
Such a fine specimen of an American woman. In need of a little rounding out on the edges. The many pointy, jagged, deadly edges. But nothing a little culturing this Brit couldn’t cure.
Edward adjusted his top hat as he watched the very long strokes Vera used to polish her gun. In that moment, he wished he was named Lord Darius. “Lord Darius,” he muttered to himself in his clipped accent. He congratulated himself on his cleverness overhearing her name when she boarded in Germany and threatened the captain’s goods unless he let her on.
Edward wasn’t sure what goods the captain was hauling, unless there was some kind of precious metal stashed in the lower deck. Edward had half a mind to check into the matter.
It was nothing but good luck Vera happened to be assigned to his level of the ship. The boring trip he’d prepared for—counting knotholes, determining the probabilities of everything, fixing nothing useful—assuaged the moment he laid eyes on the assassin, as she called herself. The ferret was more than likely the assassin.
And that dratted ferret had to bring her the gun part before Edward could. Fouled a perfect plan: vent too much steam on one side, cause Vera to lose a piece, and Edward would bring her the missing part. The hero. Then on to taming that wild side of hers. But not all of it. After all, some of that wildness was part of her charm. And her offering to shove his fist down his throat—she was a delight! And the way she walked as she headed for her cabin, it was almost worth making her angry. The ship lurched and she didn’t lose her balance with the sudden movement. “Quite right.” He dragged out the words under his breath.
“You call that fixed?”
It took Edward a second to realize she was accusing him. His eyes traveled back up to her face. The lethal intelligence there. So exciting. She liked his engineer qualities, of course. Who could resist?
Fixed? Oh, the ship! The sudden tilting, twenty-eight degrees. He pulled out his reader. Three hundred and fifty-four miles per hour suddenly down to two hundred and eleven. No, one hundred and ninety-five. No, one hundred and seventy-three. Too fast.
Altitude was dropping, too. The gauge in his stomach was not enough to give any accurate readings, but if the nausea was any indicator, at this rate they were one minute, forty-six seconds from hitting the ground. No simple malfunction could cause these readings.
The explosion! This was an attack!
Vera dashed for her supplies. Of course she’d have a plan to survive, the brilliant woman.
He snatched up his box of tools that was never more than a few inches from his person in any given direction. Ignoring the shouts of the red shirted men around him, he shoved past the lot of them toward the closest porthole. The ship was entirely too large. If the passage hadn’t been so incomprehensibly cheap, he would’ve found another way to get to the Americas and the precious metals he’d heard of there. In an age where owning steam powered machines equaled wealth and status, being able to create newfangled contraptions with foreign metals would practically make him a king. It was worth suffering through this journey, or had been until someone began firing upon them.
He recognized the sound of Ernesto’s excited voice drawing closer and chose to ignore it. Tried to ignore him, if such a feat was even possible.
Edward reached the round window and scanned the skies. Soft blue. Baby’s breath clouds. Happy little birds fluttering by, as if Cinderella herself were calling them with her song. Wait, birds? How close to the ground was the ship!
Edward gripped the sides of the porthole with both hands as if this wooden frame could save him from the ninety-eight point four percent likelihood of death. Jaring. Tilting. Tilting more. The ground was rushing up to greet him. No, not greet him. Sucker-punch him.
A large, black bird flew from the side of the ship. Not a bird. Vera! Beautiful, insane Vera, what was she doing?
Billowing fabric caught the air above her, catching her sharp descent like the dive of an osprey and changing it into the soar of a raven, gliding on the warm updrafts of a summer day.
Arms seized him from behind in a bear hug. He didn’t have to turn to know who it was. He could smell him. Cornbread and three days of unwashed armpits. That or his nose was far too sensitive.
Ernesto. He clung so tightly to Edward that the toolbox began slipping from his fingers. Not the toolbox!
As they lurched farther to the side, a shrill whine pierced the air, two hundred and thirty-eight percent louder than the obnoxious noise small children make when slowing releasing air from a pig bladder balloon. But he couldn’t cover his ears, not while holding onto the side of the ship and while Ernesto was squeezing the life out of him.
“Edward! Where’ve you been! Have you been avoiding me?”
Didn’t he realize the ship was going down?
Edward should be going to the control room. Find out if there was any way to remedy the situation. He wasn’t afraid to. Not exactly. There was simply no possible way to get there, and he knew all possible outcomes. It was his job to know. Looking down now, at the expanse of ocean, and the small splash of land hovering near them, he knew the possibility of landing on that speck of land and surviving was— He couldn’t even think it.
He tightly shut his eyes. And grabbed Ernesto back. Thinking of a million better ways to die.
Pianling watched the airship descend, pleased for his part in his aim. After 48 years on this island, he was beginning to think his sponsors had forgotten him. Every once in awhile they would send another supply ship for him. Couldn’t figure out why they would send some of the stuff they did – women’s wardrobe, one time, priceless artwork another, even a ship full of spices once – but he always made the best he could with what they sent him. Never understood why the bodies, but whatever. Pianling was resourceful.
He watched the airship go down, headed straight for his little island. Something fell overboard as the rest came to him, but no matter. He or his apprentice could fetch it later. The ship was coming down quickly now, telling Pianling that he wouldn’t need to shoot again. So he put the steam-powered ballista to resting mode again, taking the bolt – as large and thick as his arm – off the string and stashing it with its brothers.
It was a pleasant sight to watch, and accompanied by his apprentice, there was little he’d rather do. The young woman had joined his search for Ambrosia (the reason for his trip to this lonely island) after he had saved her father from a stampede. They were all noble savages from the mainland, and would visit him on occasion. But he couldn’t let them destroy his work. If not for Wednesday – he couldn’t pronounce her name, so that was what he called her – he would likely have forgotten how to speak. He knew English well enough, and had since picked up her native tongue, but he would always prefer his mother language of Chinese. In the last few years or so he had caught himself muttering it as he thought through his work, but he had to do something for intelligent conversation.
Pianling had tasted the Ambrosia once – just once – when he was eight years old, and had never forgotten. He’d spent the nearly 60 years since trying to find it, or recreate it. It was sweet, like the purest honey, but flakey in some parts, like a pleasant French pastry. The sweetness led him to believe it was plant-like in origin, and the name, with a little research into Greek history, led him here, to this island.
And so he worked, cataloging the flora and fauna on the island as he searched for the elusive Ambrosia. Supplies were sporadic, but he was looking forward to seeing what his sponsors had sent him this time.
Edward wiggled with delight as Ernesto hugged him. He was shouting something too, but with one good ear pressed into Edward’s back, Ernesto couldn’t make it out.
It was probably something like, “You are the best, Ernesto. You bake good. Also I appreciate your strict once-a-week bathing regimen.”
Ernesto squeezed even more tightly at the kindness of Edward’s words, causing the man to wiggle more sporadically, so much in fact that Ernesto felt as if they had flown into the air and had to wrap both legs around Edward to ensure the hug continued. Edward was spinning rapidly now and screaming with excitement. The force nearly threw Ernesto off.
Something smacked into Ernesto’s back and closed in around the pair. Ernesto’s eyes adjusted to the hot, bright light to see green palm branches encircling them. A moment later, the branches shifted away, leaving Ernesto and Edward lying on the warm white sands of a beach. Above, bright burning fireworks rained down towards them, perhaps in celebration of such an excellent hug.
A giant black parachute slowed Vera’s descent towards the sea. Looking through her goggles, she could see just how far she was from the island, the only piece of land she could see.
Above her, Leo scrambled around on the lines of the chute, tugging at one occasionally to let her know which one to pull so she would steer in the right direction.
As she drifted downward, Vera checked her guns. Pistols, holstered and hanging from her belt gun. Mini-pistol, securely tucked into her knee-high boot. Rifle and shotgun, in cross-scabbards slung across her back and underneath the parachute pack. Machine gun, precariously hanging from a strap over her shoulder. That’s part of why Leo paid attention to the steering. She needed to pay attention to saving her guns.
The airship screeched as it lost altitude more quickly, careening toward the open ocean. Flames engulfed the balloon, and scraps of burning fabric fell around her. If one hit her parachute, it would be the end. Even if she did manage to land on the island, she didn’t know if she’d ever get away. But it was better than dying in the sea. Better than letting her guns perish in all that salt water.
Leo did a great job leading her through the falling scraps. She knew she could trust him. Soon enough, she was landing with a run on the soft sand of a beach. The parachute collapsed behind her.
There was some debris from the fallen ship strewn across the sand. Some of the debris shifted, and she lifted the goggles onto her short, blonde hair. Top Hat and Ernesto emerged from some of that debris, disheveled but unharmed.
“Unbelievable!” she shouted, cursing a few more times under her breath.
Of all the people that could have survived, it had to be those two. She smirked when she saw Top Hat’s top hat sported a new hole and a few burns. Then a very pleasant thought occurred to her. Maybe she would finally get the chance to kill them both. Her fingers twitched towards Lord Darius, but she held off. For now. Maybe they could be useful to get her back off this place.
I didn’t die! The fact was a statistical nightmare that Edward shoved from his mind as his foot bumped the second one. His metal toolbox rested at his feet. Sweet relief. It lived, too.
Burning fabric and chunks of wood sailed down around him like a pathetic version of Mardi Gras where the people of England lined the streets’ balconies to wave or throw brightly colored ribbons down at each passersby. But this fire and brimstone party was likely to kill him. Or Ernesto, whose body still shielded him.
Edward pried at Ernesto’s arms locked in a suffocating grip around his upper body. Ernesto wouldn’t budge. Over the man’s shoulder, up in the sky, he saw the most glorious sight. Vera, billowing down from the heavens to set down in the sand near him. A black clothed angel—and her evil pet. Of course the ferret survived. He fleetingly wondered what ferret would taste like for dinner, but quickly cast aside the devilish thought.
He watched as Vera scanned the beach, her eyes coming to rest on his. To hide the fact he’d been staring, Edward grinned, raised a hand, and heartily waved.
Those haunting dark eyes narrowed before she looked away.
“Ernesto, let me go,” he clipped, still struggling against the arms wrapped around him like a boa constrictor. Was the man unconscious? Dead?
A sound erupted from Ernesto’s chest. It came again. A laugh?
It grew in volume until finally, his arms released Edward and he looked around at the beach in wonder. “Wow. This airship is huge!” Wide-eyed, he grabbed a handful of sand, letting it spill through his fingers. “You never told me there was a beach!”
Edward closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose to relieve the ache that was beginning low on his forehead. Not from the crash he mysteriously survived, but from his inescapable companion since youth. Completely inescapable. Hide and seek? Ernesto defied every probability, found Edward every time, in seconds. Chess? Edward should’ve easily outwitted him every time, but just when he’d nearly won, a wind would come up, or an earthquake, or a squirrel! And rearrange the pieces. Every time. Backgammon? Cribbage? Whist? Same.
Ernesto watched him with curious eyes and a dimwitted smile before discovering the burning ruins on the shore.
Before Edward could stop him, the well-fed man started off for the wreckage. Pieces of blazing fabric took longer to descend and landed all around Ernesto, narrowly missing him on all sides.
Toolbox in hand, Edward scrambled wildly about the splintered planks jutting out of the ground and batted his hands at the inferno still falling from the sky. A piece singed his hat and he beat at it until his hands were black and the cloth hat was only smoking a little. Precious hat. Would probably be some time before he’d see another like it.
Edward took care to give the hat a single pat, securing it down onto his head, before he continued the dangerous dance through the falling sky that Ernesto was having no trouble navigating. He couldn’t let the little man get to the downed ship first. If there was anything worth while, he had to lay claim to it before anyone else did. Metal. Mechanical parts. Tools!
Friends? Why would Pianling’s sponsors send friends? He had Wednesday – she was enough to run the errands his old knees protested.
Pianling waited in the shrubbery, peering up and down the beach and counting. Nine. Five of them seemed to be Limeys, as they were wearing the red coats of the British Military. One of those was as black in skin as the savages Pianling had spent the last few decades with. But in a military uniform? They must have been emancipated at some point. Pianling had long ago lost track of current affairs, as it didn’t really affect his work a whole lot.
Two more were down the opposite direction, one fitfully playing in the sand – and narrowly dodging several falling coconuts – while the other put his long hat back on, stroked his perfectly French mustache, then took the hat off again to right his hair and brush it clear of sand, then don it once more. He occasionally took a moment to look up from his righteous work to reprimand his agile companion, but though they seemed to speak the same language – English – Pianling wasn’t sure the small one could hear the hatted one.
Gliding to a run on the beach was a Viking of a man, complete with an army’s worth of weaponry scattered about his person. He was the only one to have a parachute, so Pianling decided he must be the important one – the one in charge of the rest of the nonsense around the beach.
The last seemed to be more closely related to the pair on the south side of the beach than the rest. The main difference was she was quiet, floating some distance off shore, clutching a bit of driftwood and bobbing in the water. He wasn’t exactly sure if she was dead or alive, but didn’t care a whole lot either. Folk died. So long as it wasn’t him, Pianling didn’t mind.
He decided to make himself known then, pausing only to motion Wednesday to join him before stepping out onto the warm sand. He hadn’t spoken English in a decade or so, but since they were Limeys and passengers, there was a good chance it was the language they had in common. Pianling knew four, if the savages’ tongue counted, with the other three being his own native tongue of Mandarin, and he had picked up Italian and English long ago in order to procure his sponsorship that got him to this island.
“Herro!” he called to the newcomers. Wednesday glanced his direction, clearly confused at his new speech, but she hadn’t had reason to hear it before now. Pianling took pride in his linguistic skills as he continued. “Wercome to my iss-land. Who ah you?” He directed the last question at the well-equipped man closest to him. Wednesday wandered off to collect what she could. She knew the drill.
The thug of a human being looked Pianling’s way first. “You weren’t on the ship.”
Pianling’s eyes went as wide as they could go at the sound of the voice. It was higher pitched than he might have imagined from such a girthy man. “Ah you eunuch?” Pianling asked. Castration was the only possible explanation for the voice, at least which came to Pianling’s mind in that moment.
The hatted, mustached one made his way to them at that point, ignoring Pianling entirely. Instead, he seemed focused on the man Pianling had been addressing.
“Good day to you!” the newcomer spouted enthusiastically. Suddenly, in a flourish that matched his mustache, he waved his hand in the air over his head a few turns. His arm swept down, across his stomach in a bow so low he was practically kissing the feet of the well-armed man. Pianling’s hunch was correct – the one he had approached first was the captain of the airship. “So wonderful to see you alive after such a treacherous descent, m’lady!” He held the posture – the low bow with his rear upmost in the air – until his hat decided it preferred gravity and fell to the soft sand beneath them.
It took Pianling a moment to translate the last word he had uttered, and a moment longer to comprehend it. Lady? “You muss be mistahken,” Pianling corrected. “I am nah lady.” And here Pianling thought his two-foot beard, scraggly as it was, would give it away. He must have some interesting characters pass for women in his hometown.
The mustached man snapped erect at Pianling’s words. “Pardon me, sir, but I wasn’t talking to you.”
Who then? Wednesday was wading in the shallows, on her way to pick up the quiet floating woman, Pianling presumed.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” the apparent captain snorted. “Go make yourself useful and find some place we can set up shelter.”
Confusion saturated Pianling as much as ocean did the redcoats upshore.
“Whatever you like, my lady Vera. I shall find you a palm frond befitting your -”
The captain kicked sand at the mustached man, interrupting him. He then jumped with a chirp and skittered off into the woods.
The captain held a hand aloft for a moment, and a quick, silver ferret slid down the arm. “Make sure he doesn’t blow anything up? And keep an eye out for powder.” The ferret looked at the captain for a moment before leaping off and heading to the treeline.
“Why he caw you lady?” Pianling asked, feeling he had waited his due diligence to ask.
The captain’s face was purely incredulous. “I am a lady.”
Maybe Pianling was mistaken. It had been too long since he had spoken English in conversation. “You nah eunuch?”
“Excuse me!” He – she – it – looked ready to slap Pianling.
“My apohogies,” Pianling bowed low. “I di’ nah tink man woo bow to woman.” He stood up again, intrigued and interested to understand. “You his woman – his slave – then?”
“I should think not!” Suddenly her ire went straight over Pianling’s shoulder, headed down the beach some distance. “Hey! Ernesto! Put Leo down before he bites you!”
Who on earth was this ancient old man to think to call me a slave? Vera was furious. First eunuch, then slave? Her fingers twitched longingly towards the trigger of her machine gun. But no, she’d let him live. He may be able to help them get off the island. Besides, she hadn’t been paid to kill him.
“Who are you, old man?” she asked, mincing no words since he clearly wasn’t.
“I am cawed Pianling.”
“And you live here? There any way off this island?”
He looked confused at the questions. Maybe he didn’t understand English well. He certainly didn’t speak it well.
“Leave. Boat? Ship? Anything?”
Pianling still looked like he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Vera didn’t have the patience to communicate with the old man, so she just turned around and walked away.
Leo returned from the trees and started scampering around the debris, picking out anything useful that he could carry. He stood on his hind legs and looked at her. Must be something good but too big. Vera walked over and found him perched on an intact crate of silk. Not super useful right away, but it might serve a purpose yet.
She couldn’t carry the crate away yet, since she still had her many guns, but she made a note of where it was on the beach.
“Find shelter yet?” she called to Top Hat.
“I have house,” said the old man, shuffling up to her.
“I’ll be fine.” She didn’t trust him. And she definitely didn’t like him. So no, she wasn’t going to his house. It was probably a trap. She started walking away again.
“It nice house. For my friends.”
“Well, we ain’t friends.”
His eyes squinted and brows furrowed in apparent confusion. Again. What is it with this old man? He keeps trying to talk but can’t understand a word.
Top Hat appeared from the trees with a wave of his top hat. “M’lady. I have found suitable dwellings for us all.”
She doubted that was true, but followed anyways. The old man was still following her with a quick shuffle. Great.
“This right way. To house. For friends,” he said after a minute.
They were walking on a fairly well-defined path.
“Please don’t tell me that’s what Top Hat found for shelter,” she muttered under her breath. Why? Why did he have to survive?
Sure enough, after another minute, they came in view of a small shabby building.
“Your new house, m’lady,” said Top Hat with a bow and another flourish. “With some scraps from the ship, I should be able to fix this right up into a proper home for us.”
“We’re not staying here. This is his place,” she said, pointing a thumb at Pianling.
“No, no. You stay here. This house for friends.”
“No,” she said pointedly at Pianlings. “We,” she pointed back and forth between them, “not friends.”
Once again, he looked like he couldn’t comprehend what she’d said.
“Gah! I’m done with all of you!” She turned around and stormed back to the beach to find herself a place to stay.
On the way, she ran into Ernesto who was carrying a crate of baking supplies, complete with flour.
“Look what I found!” He practically shouted with excitement, lifting the crate. “I’ll be able to make cornbread for everyone!”
“Great,” she said, less than enthused. “Top Hat may have even found you a kitchen. Just go that way and leave me alone.”
She reached the beach again, and found a large palm leaf to use as a mat for her guns. The last thing Vera needed was to get sand in any of the mechanisms. She may need to shoot someone. Soon.
Leo helped her track down large scraps of metal from the ship that she could turn into a makeshift shelter. Three pieces jutted into the sand to create an open box, with a fourth on top for a sun shade. It was large enough for her to lay in with only a part of her legs exposed.
Vera ignored anyone else around. A few other crew members survived the crash. They were milling about, looking for supplies and caring for their injuries. None were useful enough for her to care about. Instead, she focused on ways to get off the island. She retrieved the crate of silk and looked around for parts she might be able to use to make a boat. Anything to get her away from the present stupidity on this forsaken island.
(they check out wreckage, discover some living red coats, but I’m going to wait to see what Breanna writes about Ernesto, so I have a clearer picture how to maneuver his character through this scene.)