Part One

Chapter One

There were numerous uprisings spurred on by restless troops about the offset of the Civil War. Countless pioneering folk suffered the soldiers' thirst for conquest. The greatest of these confrontations was at a small town known as Porter.

The unravelling that led towards that catastrophic affair began months before as our old lady airship, The Caroline, limped into the Nebraska town of Fremont. Even at that time Fremont was a sizeable city with most of the most basic amenities. It was always a bustle with pioneers and frontiersmen setting out to explore the western wilderness or trade their wares. It did not have a harbour, but the field next to the recently built train station had been flattened and hardened for the use of airships, steam-lifters and dock workers.

It was our intention to land there by mid morn, but we needed fuel.

The Caroline sputtered on fumes and being without an engineer for a while the gritty steam-engine had fallen into disrepair. The captain and I were atop the hull, rigging together all of the sheets at our disposal as a makeshift sail to catch the wind and save energy. It was apparent to me that the captain had been forced into this situation before. The sails seemed to successfully take to the westerlies and drive us open the open range of Nebraskan plains. Our floating ironclad vessel spooked some white-tailed deer back into the safety of their small wood grove as our shadow passed along the ground. We could see the rolling grasslands for miles and miles from atop our airborne venture.

Looking into the distance I scanned buildings raising out of the prairie like a miniature plateau. With the wind licking at my cheeks and sun baking the metal hull I was grateful to be upon our destination. I was tied tight to a nook on the surface of the airship by a rope and I stood some distance away from the edge but I could not shake the terror of plunging some fifty metres to the ground.

By contrast Captain Wright was serene. His own hand-rolled cigarette was stuck between his pursed lips. His hat threatened to lift off of his lengthy blond hair in the wind gusts. I was certain he was looking into the distance with a fierce determination, although I could not see his eyes from the protective goggles strapped to his head.

He leaned into the weight of the wind in the sail as he held the rigging steady. He did so with his right arm. Such a detail would seem insignificant, however the captain's right arm was the only arm that he had left. The other had been replaced with a steam-gear innovation as many veterans found their tattered limbs replaced courtesy of Lady Lovelace's analytic converters and nerve-machine interfacing. It was a clicking and hissing mechanical skeleton. Despite its relative functionality, the arm was a burden.

Beneath our boots and that metal exoskeleton, I knew that the pilot Oriole Kennedy would be fussing over the controls while the red lights blinked and screamed emergency. She told me she had grown accustomed to ignoring the blinking red lights. I always felt anxious about them. There were alway so many that barraged the senses and reflected off of Oriole's fair skin.

"We're coming up on the port, Jake," Oriole's voice cut through the blusteriness. It crackled through the blocky difference communicator attached along the front of Captain Wright's collar bone. It always entertained me to think that there were marconi waves passing to and fro from that device. I liked to imagine what they would look like if they were brightly coloured.

"Thanks kindly, Ms. Kennedy," Captain Wright spoke through the device. "We'll take down the rig now."

"Just make sure you get off the hull before we touch down. With the fly-wheels acting up the way they have been this could be a rough of a landing."

"How rough?"

"Maybe we'll tear up the landing props or give the kneel a whipping. I don't think we'll have to worry about dying on this go round. Now if I had an engineer to keep the engine -"

Jacob muted the difference communicator and turned to me. I thought that the captain was very rude.

"Give that knot a tug, kid."

Oh Adam!

"I wish you would quit calling me that," I complained as I took hold of the rope.

Adam.

I never appreciated when the captain called me kid for I had been called so by my deceased husband. I had loved that man dearly and still sore were the wounds of his loss upon my heart. I never dared to correct him or tell him for at that time I was under the guise of a male and feared that seeming too feminine would dissolve my cover.

"Keep it up," the captain said, "I'll be calling you Molly."

Certainly I would not have given care if he did call me Molly. I was a woman after all. I kept my mouth shut tight.

"Watch out," the captain continued, "I'd hate to see you get wrapped up and flung off."

"Aye aye!" I said and stood firm. Seeing as I didn't want any of those terrible things to happen either, I took the utmost care at moving towards the rigging point. I carefully pulled the knot so that it twisted loose and let it cast off. The captain took care of the knot port side and the entire rigging flapped helplessly in the air. The Caroline shook and shuttered. The engines struggled under the entire weight of propelling the ship.

The ship made a terrible racket as it made contact with the ground. I hated every time that we set down. It was not that I disliked being land side. I rather liked being on solid ground after a week of being in the air. I did not want to hear the old girl's insufferable groaning so I boxed my ears until the metal settled and silence replaced the hiss and clank of the engines. She was a Double-Craft style airship that had been built sometime in the early fifties by British makers. Her full history was an enigma even to the captain although he always said that she had taken a beating over the last decade of service.

"Don't sound like we lost anything important," the captain said as the ship fell into a slumber.

"It's because I am really good at what I do," Oriole said, a bit of exasperation in her tone.

He offered his hand to the pilot. Oriole took it and used it to leverage herself as she gracefully climbed to her feet. She grabbed her cane, an elegant relic from the war of 1812, and rested her weight upon it as she released the captain's hand.

Her leg was bandaged. It had been so since we had a row with Mr. Tillman and his cruel henchmen. I felt a bit responsible for her condition considering that I was under his employ until I cast my lot with Captain Wright and Oriole. Although she had recovered considerably since she had been shot through the leg, she was pale as a virgin sheet and remained feverish.

Despite all of these things, she held herself with poise. She had been an acrobat in a flying circus. She had a slender frame as was average build of her oriental race, which I believe was Japanese.

I offered her help as well, but she declined with a quiet smile. I feared that she might be ill with me.

"A'ight," Jacob said as he began to navigate his way from the bridge of his airship to the landing ramp, "I need to haggle us some fuel on the coin we have left. It wouldn't hurt none to get some kind of working arrangement. In the mean time I want you to see Doc Copple. We gave him a pile of business last time we were in town, see if you can't get him to take a look at your leg gratis. You can go with her, kid."

I scowled, but let the nickname go unchecked.

With that we were at the base of the airship. The airmen that had witnessed the Caroline's less than impressive arrival had taken to pointing to the makeshift mast and rigging dangling atop the ship and laughed among themselves. The captain adjusted the hat on his head.

A burlesque lift worker hobbled towards us. His leg was a thick bone made of gears and metal rods.

Steam gear.

"You a veteran, sir?" The man rumbled.

"I fought in the war, sure," the captain said avoiding eye contact with the stranger. He watched as a steam lift stacked boxes on the freight pad of a large airship.

I felt an unnatural tension between the two, and moved in close to the captain's side. My hand rested on my shooting iron. If Oriole hadn't grabbed my elbow and spoke with a look, I would have drawn my gun on the veteran.

"Aircorp?" The man asked.

"Were too," the captain nodded.

"It was at Gettysburg I lost my leg," the veteran said. "The C.S.A. Carolina decided to break off from main battle in the sky to take pot shots at soldiers on the ground. I remember it swooped in like a bird, a falcon. Bullets from the steam-gats ripped through our soldiers. Me - I dove under a stump but it weren't enough to keep my whole body protected, so my leg was shredded. I stayed underneath that stump for the rest of the battle. I heard that we won though."

The captain was grim.

"I can tell, you were at Gettysburg, too, but -" the man said.

"Sir, I've got a lot of work to do," the captain said. "I don't have the time to jaw it up about -"

The man sucked in a grotesque mix of saliva and phlegm and hucked it at Captain Wright's boots. No sooner had the spit bomb popped against the rawhide, the captain's organic fist collided with the man's face. The man staggered back holding his brightened red cheek. I wanted to reach for my revolver but Oriole had assured me that there were to be no ballistics used in this sort of scuffle.

"Jacob," Oriole scolded.

"He spit on my boots!" Captain Wright whined.

The dock working man was built like an ox, and he growled like an animal when he recovered. He towered over the captain and the captain recognized the potential for getting his ass thoroughly whipped.

"Ms. Kennedy," The captain said as he stepped backwards. "Would you be so kind as -"

"Just don't break it."

Oriole tossed her cane to the captain just as the bullish man started to charge.

America's first cowboy president, Andrew Jackson had once said that to disable a man with a cane one had to thrust with the tip. A wild swing had the potential to miss or be blocked. I oft enjoyed reading of the President Andrew Jackson. He was one of those colourful characters that so often spiced America's origins. I don't know if the captain knew who Andrew Jackson was, but when the captain snatched the cane out of the air he thrust it into the dock worker's chest. There was a muffled crack and the man bowled over clutching his gut.

There were a group of people surrounding us as the captain swiftly put the dock worker to the ground. The captain held the cane out and threateningly pointed it at the crowd.

One of the dock workers held up his hands and spoke for the group, "We don't want trouble Mister. The man's a horse's ass anyhow. We keep 'im outta respect for his... service to our country."

Two of the men came over and helped the veteran to his feet. They carried him off as the group disbanded.

The captain adjusted the hat atop his head and handed Oriole her cane.

"Lock up the Caroline and get over to Copple's and take care of yerself," he said curtly.

He left. Hidden behind goggles, Captain Wright's eyes avoided those of his peers as he disappeared amidst the stooped airships, trade boxes and dock workers.