I woke with a start. My eyes had begun to adjust to the swarming darkness of my room. Suddenly I remembered the contents of last night's dream, surprisingly altogether different than anything I have ever had. Stranger even more than my haunting recurring dream. I had been caught aboard a cargo vessel, stranded amongst these ghastly people. I laughed and remembered the vivid characters that my mind had created. There was that Chance man with one eye, the awkward gimp and Colette Renaud, the ringleader of all the fools.
I scanned the room and could see nothing. It was probably still the calm gray hours of the morning outside. I heard the drone of the airships outside, making early-morning deliveries and starting long journeys to the east or west. Feeling the slight discomfort of the darkness, I felt for the gas lamp beside my bed. My hand mistakenly met a stack of heavy books and papers. I heard them scatter to the floor and sat up quickly. Where was my lamp? It was always sitting next to my bed ready to be lit when I woke. I searched again and found nothing. My quick realization made my stomach churn.
It hadn't been a dream at all. I was still aboard the HMS Starfield. My hand skimmed across what I had come to believe was my bed and felt velvet. I remembered trying to find the captain's library and I had stumbled upon her study room with the plush green couch. The books and papers I had knocked about were her charts and logs. The drone of outside ships was really the ship I was already aboard. My heart pounded in my ears. The familiar and tolerable darkness of my room turned out to be a strange and mocking kind here. A film of sweat started to gather on my brow and my breaths turned into panting.
I tried to collect myself and jumped from the couch. I darted as quickly as I could to the nearest wall and felt around for a door. I crept along the walls, my arms swinging up and down them trying to find a handle. I didn't dare turn around and face the thick darkness behind me.
I nearly screamed with relief when my hand finally touched the frames of a wooden door and its brass knob. I scrambled to open it but the handle wouldn't turn. I turned it this way and that, but it was stuck. I tried to not let myself panic enough to get detached from the problem at hand. I sucked in a deep breath and decided to search for a light source. I scraped along the walls again, taking note of how many steps I took so as not to forget where the door was. I finally reached a small cabinet and threw it open, blindly probing around for anything that could possibly help me. My hand landed on two familiar objects and I took them greedily from the cabinet; a small lantern and a tinder box.
I was pleased to find that the tinder box contained lucifers instead of charcloth and flint. I gently lifted one from the tin and struck it swiftly on the side of the cabinet and lit the candle inside the lantern. The flickering relief of candlelight made me relax more than I had hoped for. I exhaled and the oozing monsters of my panic slipped away. The warm dim light filled the room and I walked back over to the arguable door. I twisted it back and forth as hard as I could, prodded it and examined it; nothing happened. Frustrated and through with this debacle, I sat back down on the green velvet couch. I was sure that, even in my haste, I could wait for someone to come and fix the jammed knob and get me out of this room. My frenzy of escaping the ship was ebbing with the realization that a national cargo ship such as the Starfield would make port again in Briterra. I would demand to be taken home from wherever we landed and it would be the end of it.
I decided to clean up the mess I created earlier and started picking up the papers and leather bound journals. I straightened them to the best of my abilities and placed them back on the small table. Then I noticed a stray envelope poking out from under the couch. It was the letter I delivered. I grabbed it and tore it open, suddenly blaming it for my being here. If whoever this was hadn't written this letter, I would never have gotten stuck aboard the Starfield. Oliver Chance's words came flooding back into my head.
"I'm sure it's wonderful news from her loving sister," he had said. I ripped the letter from the envelope and scanned the flowing script of its text. It probably detailed nothing but girlish nonsense. Something Captain Renaud's sister should have never wrote and I should have never had delivered.
I have heard about your recent exploits. Had you experted your soldiers on the ways of observation, they would have noticed my spy amongst your Brass partisans.
I stopped there. My eyes landed on "Brass partisans" again. It wasn't a mistake, the words were written there plain and simple. Deliberately they sat there and my mind raced. The Brass were a gaining group of rebels trying to triumph against the established Briterra government, The Steel. They organized lobbies against them and attacks if actions went undone. Every day the papers were littered with news about one or a whole group being thrown into prison for opposing The Steel. Headlines constantly seethed with "BRASS TERROR CAUGHT!" or "BRASS REBELS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE!" I never feared them, knowing full well that they'd always be caught and their numbers would never compare to The Steel's enormous armies. Their scaled attacks were always nothing more than small scrapes that resulted in crowd-pleasing prison sentences. Once in a while a fatality on either side would occur, but justice, by The Steel's hands, was desperately swift. They were regarded as a mutinous persistence that must, at all costs, be put to an end for good.
I was now their captured. The door knob wasn't jammed, they had locked me in. I knew then that I must keep a clear head. I would not let them know that I was aware of their plots, I would play their game. On my return to land I'd report them and the mess would clear, revealing me to be a hero. Maybe I'd secure a well-paying government job filing papers or I could become an officer's assistant. That sounded distinguished enough.
A sudden knock came at the door and Oliver Chance appeared, smiling. I quickly hid the letter behind me, stuffing it into my back pocket.
"Oh hello!" he said. I might have punched him square in the middle of his smug smile, then. I played up my defenselessness, putting on what was probably a more distraught face than I should have made.
"Thank God! The door knob was stuck tight and I was afraid I'd never get out of here. I was wondering when we make port, sir. You see, I need to get home to my mother, she'll be wringing her hands with worry over me." I gave a sad laugh. The first mate's smile faded and he heaved a sigh.
"I'm afraid I can't divulge that information, lad. The captain needs to see you at once, if you please. She's been wringing her hands over you as well." He dryly chuckled at his own joke but the smile never returned. Instead he took me by the shoulders and led me out the door. It seemed the game was playing out in my favor. I would confront Colette Renaud and expose her.
We journeyed along the top deck of the Starfield towards the bow. A few deck hands mopping up the deck stopped and glared at me. One, donning an unruly gray beard, nodded to me and laughed to his mates like it was some sort of joke amongst them. I averted my gaze to acknowledge their joke and looked over the side of the ship. I was struck with awe at the sights. We were flying above Tipston City, rolling just above its famed spires and high buildings. Next to Briterra's booming capitol, Downlin City, Tipston was becoming another idealistic place to be in the world.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" Oliver suddenly asked. Somewhere along the walk I had stopped to gape at the passing city. I glanced at him and he was watching as well. We both approached the side of the Starfield's hull and looked on.
"Everything is more spectacular from the air, I think. The wind is fresh and clean. You don't have to see the injustices of the world from up here. Well..." he trailed off into his own silent thoughts. I snorted.
"It's a bit much for me, sir. I just want to get back home." I lied. In truth the view was incredible and the breeze from the ship cutting through the air was refreshing. Oliver started to tug me along again, mentioning the captain, and I obliged.
We headed up a short staircase and there she was, her fiery red hair giving her away. I suddenly noticed the extraordinarily un-ladylike way of her clothes. She wore a dirty blouse under a form-fitting brown and pinstripe vest. A snowy white cravat hung about her throat and cascaded down the front of her blouse. Her trousers were black and puffed out where her boots met her knees. She was leaning slightly over the bow of the ship, her hands placed firmly on the cracked and dingy railings. One moment after the next she placed a long brown cigarillo into her mouth and took a lengthy drag, after which large clouds of smoke emanated from her head. The sun started to dip down and the bold glow cast over the smoke made Colette Renaud look as if she was glowing . There was a power about her that made me feel uneasy. I started to doubt my plan of outing this woman and her partners.
I watched as she carefully put the cigarillo out in a small bin nailed to the railing. A slight breath of wind made the dissipating smoke travel and swirl about my nostrils. The familiar fetid smell suddenly reminded me of my father. At the moment he was most likely about to sit down in his armchair and light up his pipe. It wasn't yet time for him to question my whereabouts, but soon him and my mother would become worried. I hoped that it wouldn't be too long until I could return home.
"Captain?" I approached her slowly. "You wanted to see me."
"Yes," she didn't turn around. She lifted her head with a deep inhale and looked skyward.
"I was hoping that you could tell me--"
"Who are you, Mr. Windstrom?" Her question caught me off guard. The jovial spirit in her voice that I had been used to was gone. She bowed her head and spat over the side of the railing. I felt slightly disgusted.
"I'm Klaus Windstrom, ma'am. I'm a delivery boy in Downlin City," I stated. I couldn't think of anything else to add since this was the whole truth. I was sure that she wasn't interested in my hobbies or similar light-hearted affairs. The tone of her voice and the deliberate way she stood so rigid against the railing suggested she meant serious business.
"Maybe you did not understand me well, Mr. Windstrom. I meant for you to tell me exactly who you are." Her voice was cold and slow and I began to feel alarmed. I glanced over at Oliver, who had given us both a large distance. I hoped that he could give me some sort of reassuring answer to the captain's inane questioning. He was looking sternly at her, his face hard and shadowed.
"I don't know what you mean, ma'am."
"Come now, we're not playing games!" she shouted. "Who are you working for, Klaus Windstrom? If that is even your real name!" She abruptly spun around and her green eyes pierced mine. I could see that they were full of a fierce anger. Her face was wild.
"Really now, Captain Renaud! I'm just a delivery boy!" I was starting to raise my voice as well. She strode forward, her footsteps banging with determination on the old and rotting planks of the deck. Her hand swept down at her side and she pulled from her holster a brown and silver pistol. Her eyes looked me up and down and I knew that she saw nothing but fear in mine. I froze in place and my heart dropped into my stomach. With a forceful sweeping of her arms, she placed the muzzle of the weapon against my head. I swallowed hard. The cold metal of the gun sent shivers down my spine. I could hardly believe it was happening. Everything was quiet except for my ragged surprised breaths. Along with the frightening pistol against my head, I could feel every pair of eyes on the deck boring into my skull. As if I had eyes in the back of my head, I knew that every deck hand had stopped laughing at the interrogation to nervously anticipate my brains all over the deck.
"These are very serious times, Klaus Windstrom. I do not take spies lightly." She spoke quickly, her voice deep and quiet. Her eyes flared. "I read the letter you delivered me from my sister and she mentioned a spy aboard my ship. Then you turn up out of nowhere! Such a coincidence leads me to believe I should shoot you now! Would you have me believe otherwise?" She waited for my answer, but my voice could not reach my lips. I stared up at her, my eyes wide and pleading.
"Tell me all that you know. Now." She inclined her head towards my ear, speaking with incredibly horrifying fervor. The mixture of her hot breath down my neck and the cold gun against my temple was enough to kill me right then. Her hand did not falter with the weapon against my head.
"Do not test my patience, lad. I am a very persistent woman." Her voice was calm now. She smiled, cocked the gun and I clamped my eyes shut. Any moment now, my heart was going to stop.
My voice finally spilled out of my dry throat, sounding like hoarse sobs.
"I know that this is a Brass ship. I read the letter from your sister when you had me locked up in your study. I'm not a spy, I swear! Please, I swear..." Tears sprang from my eyes and I started shaking, my breath coming in ragged heaves. I pulled the crumpled letter from my back pocket and dropped it at her feet.
There was a very long and heavy silence. Against my own will I sank to my knees and cried into my hands, pleading for Colette Renaud not to kill me. Finally, I felt the gun leave my skin and I collapsed in shaken reprieve to the floor and I mopped my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt. A dull throbbing started to form at the base of my skull. I flopped onto my back with a quavering sigh and laid there a moment. I must have looked quite pathetic in my current state, like a beaten dog cowering in front of its abusive master. I looked up at the Starfield's balloon, swaying lightly in the twilight breeze, and I crawled back up to my feet. A few splinters had dug their way into my fingers and I nervously picked them out.
"So you know us to be Brass rebels then, do you Mr. Windstrom?" Captain Renaud edged away from me and walked back to the railings. She slid the pistol back into her holster and lit another cigarillo.
"I do, and it is in my right to report you, Captain." I said, astounded by my own courage to utter it at all. What was I thinking? Colette laughed and I expected her to draw a sword on me this time.
"I suppose you believe in The Steel's nonsense, then?" she asked.
"It is all I have ever known to be right, Ma'am."
"You have so much to learn, my boy." She puffed away and waved her hand to Oliver, who was still standing rather defensively to our side, as if he was waiting for Colette to partake in another drastic action.
"Take Klaus to the mess hall and get something to fill him up. Then find him a place he can stay quiet. You can await my next orders in due time, Mr. Chance." She said.
Oliver nodded towards me and slipped down the stairs. I followed him in silence and an awkward shame. The crew of the Starfield was still staring me down, jokes aside and mouths gaping. I followed close to Oliver and kept my eyes on the deck. This was one hell of a day.
I soon found myself in the aforementioned mess hall. It was a small room with two long old tables and a hodgepodge of miss-matched chairs around them. Behind the tables was a closed-off kitchen. The walls were adorned with photographs of Briterra, grassy hills and Mullond Beach. There was also a very lewd painting of a half naked woman lying on a bed. Oliver had said nothing to me since we had arrived and I began to feel uneasy. He beckoned that I take a seat in one of the unfortunate chairs and I picked a boorish-looking little armchair that's materials were flaking off and looked like it had once been blue but now was graying. He disappeared behind the tables into the kitchen and returned shortly with a plate of food. He set it down in front of me and sat. I realized then how hungry I had been. I shoved the stale bread greedily into my mouth and the dried meat as soon as I had swallowed.
"Terribly sorry about that business earlier," Oliver said suddenly. "In these times you can't be too careful."
"Right," I muttered. I was still wary of him and his ever-changing mood swings. He looked down at the table and ran a finger over a glass of water sitting in front of him.
"Captain Renaud is a good woman," he said. "She runs a tight ship, believe me. If it hadn't been for the suspicious nature of your being here and the letter, none of this trouble would have happened."
"I'm sure," I said. He laughed lightly and sipped from the glass.
"No matter. This will all blow over with the Captain when she gets a good night's rest. Excitable, she is." I humored him and laughed along as he tittered away. I changed the subject quickly.
"When will I be able to go home, sir?" I asked. Oliver bit his lip and looked at me.
"I'm afraid there is a bit of business to take care of before we can land. Although I am not allowed to divulge, it is a Brass matter. And as such my orders are to keep you somewhere quiet until it's done. Then there is the point of keeping you quiet still when we make port."
"What?" I asked.
"Well we can't have you making a grand return home to your folks and spilling the beans, lad!" he talked fervently with his hands. I stared at him in disbelief.
I couldn't believe it. In one day I'd gotten stuck aboard a cargo ship full of criminals and had a gun put to my head by an insane woman threatening to shoot me because she thought I had been a spy. Now they were going to try and keep me locked up and quiet while they tended to the rebellious matters of The Brass. There was no way I was going to let them get away with this. The moment I returned home to Downlin, Colette Renaud and her band of outlaws were going down.
I finished my food and stood from the grungy chair and Oliver stood as well.
"I'm sure that we can sort things out, Mr. Chance," I said. "Now where am I to sleep tonight?"
"Of course, lad, of course," he said and led me back out from the mess hall and into the sudden night. Now there were only a handful of crew members on deck. They were tweaking ropes and checking lines. None of them seemed to acknowledge that I was there, and I was somewhat grateful that they no longer stared in gaping silence. Oliver stopped to exchange a few orders to one man, and I wandered over to the side of the Starfield's railings. I glimpsed Tipston City again. The view was different now because the ship had ascended to a much different height. I spotted the tiny glimmers of street lamps and saw a few houses with lit fires in their windows. We were at the city's limits; the landscape was soon turning into Astrina Forest. It spanned about twenty miles and beyond it was the small town of Lindshire.
A cold wind blew over me. I shivered, pulling my sleeves over my hands to warm them.
"The higher the altitude, the colder the air," Oliver mentioned. He'd joined me again at the side of the Starfield to gaze at Tipston.
"Come on," he said. "We have to go." He led me across the deck and through the large oak door with the placard. He opened the door to the captain's study.
"You can sleep here for the night. I'm sure you're well acquainted with the place," he said. "Don't go reading anything that might get you into trouble again." I shook my head and went into the study willingly. The less trouble I made, the better.
I sat down on the velvet couch and sighed. Oliver peered in with one last anger-inducing smile, and I heard him lock the door.
"Locked in again," I whispered to myself. The hanging gas lamps were lit and a small fireplace as well. I sat down in front of the fire to warm my hands a moment, and I caught a glimpse of something odd: a worn wooded box propped up against the side of the fireplace. I figured it wouldn't get me into more trouble than I was already in, so I took it gingerly from its place, remembering to place it exactly how it had been when I was done. I lifted the lid and there it was, the tearing cover of the journal I'd found before in the library. I smiled, excited to read it again.
I opened it carefully, and recognized the portion of the beginning that I had already read. The following pages were filled with sketches and notes. I gazed at each in wonder. The artistry was minimal on some and intricately detailed on others. On the last of these pages was a rendering of an airship. It was an old model with a larger rudder and instead of one massive hydrogen balloon keeping it afloat, there were six individual sacs tethered to the sides of the hull. The footnote of the page read: "Our ship, the HMS Solstiss". I wondered briefly where this ship might be now.
I flipped through more drawings and then came upon the spot in which I had left off. I read.