Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Aerial Inferno (Part 1)

It had survived bitter, freezing wind, and the relentless assault of equatorial sun. It had turned away bullets, rockets, harpoons, and bombs, and even, once, the envious talons of something far older than man.

But now, far above the churning waters of Lake Michigan, the Faithless, night-sweat terror of the skies, burned and slowly died.

Had the great and terrible craft retained any crew members, they might have forestalled its end — quelled the fires that boiled in ravenous billowing gouts from the jagged fissures blown in the aft hull, patched the ship up, limped it home to pillage another day. But it no longer had a crew. It no longer had a home. And the majority of its inhabitants knew only of the terrible noise, and the frightening heat, and were moved to blind, savage destruction.

In the black heart of the main armored gondola, Wicked West screamed bitter hate through ancient lungs, the countless black cables that knitted her body and being to the ship itself writhing and lashing in the Faithless’s dying agonies.

Sully Wells’ vicious grin of triumph died on her lips as the tendrils encircling her rib cage began to squeeze. Fighting for breath, she flicked a wrist, disgorging a curving knife from up one sleeve, and began to desperately hack at the cables that held her. But their casings were hardened, resilient, and already black spots began to dance at the borders of Sully’s vision…

So, too, did the cables tighten around Nora Swift’s throat as she hung in the air, danging almost face-to-face with the withered, revenge-mad pirate empress. Nora’s fingers scrabbed for purchase against the cables, pulling them away from her neck with all her strength, desperate for a few centimeters’ room. The heavy iron shackles clamped around her ankles dragged her down, down, to certain strangulation.

Wicked West shuddered and screamed anew as a fresh round of explosions rocked the ship, turbines just on the opposite side of the bulkhead exploding in flaming hails of shrapnel. And as the pirate queen’s scar-scratched visage contorted in fury and pain, Nora saw her chance.

Grabbing hold of the cables that entwined her neck with both hands, summoning the memory of every hateful sit-up she’d ever done in her life, Nora lifted her iron-bound feet and smashed them hard into Wicked West’s face.

The cables dissolved into slack as the pain and shock jolted through the old woman’s body, dropping Nora and Sully to land hard on the metal plating of the deck. Still shrieking, Wicked West spooled herself and all her flailing cables back up through the portal in the apex of the chamber’s ceiling, and vanished.

Ribs burning, Sully dragged herself into a sitting position, only to see Nora sprawled across the deck.

“Nora!” she shouted; the death throes of the engine room thundered in the air, blotting out whole spectrums of sound. Sully crawled across the deck, already feeling the heat from the fire in the next chamber beginning to spread through the flooring, and found Nora gasping and coughing, rubbing her bruised throat.

“Ow,” Nora rasped, strength returning to her voice. “Sully? The hell you wearing there?”

“Long story,” Sully sighed, flooded with sudden gratitude at the simple fact that she was no longer alone in all this madness. “You all right?”

“I’ll be a lot better if you can get these damn things off me,” Nora coughed, rattling the chains around her ankles.

Sully dug in her sash and producing a lockpick kit. “I went shoplifting,” she explained. “They had all kinds of really great, dangerous stuff lying around.” She tried not to think about all the things she hadn’t found in the ship’s armory — the racks of heavy arms sitting empty and dust-choked, the boxes of high-caliber ammunition hastily smashed open by inhuman hands, stinking of the same reek that pervaded the rest of the ship.

“Just a sec,” Sully said, digging in the shackles’ latch with a precisely twisted point of wire. “I think I recognize this design…” With a last twist of Sully’s wrist and a heavy clack, the shackles fell open, and Nora sighed in relief.

“Thank you, Eisenheim’s Second Revised Guide to Shackles and Restraints,” Sully said, prompting a very strange look from Nora. “For work! I read it for work! Can you walk?” Sully asked, helping Nora to her feet. “We’ve got to get off this thing. I may have done some damage to the engine room.”

“You think?” Nora snorted, as a fresh round of explosions rattled the steam seams of the chamber. One wall was slowly beginning to glow red, the rivets pinning together its steel plates popping and pinging loose. “Door’s locked,” Nora said, nodding toward the lone hatch she’d tried earlier. “Unless you’ve got some more of that dynamite?”

“Yeah, because I really want to be carrying that stuff around,” Sully replied. “Wait, I’ve got some blueprints here — maybe there’s another way out.” She unfolded the diagram and began to trace lines with her fingers. Nora peered over her shoulder and frowned.

“Wait,” Nora said. “Wait, wait, wait. Give me that. You see these lines here, running under the chamber? I think…” Nora eyed the deck plates, bent down, tugged at the corner of one. It lifted slightly, and Nora broke into a smile. “Come on, help me with this.”

Sully, confused, shifted aching muscles to help Nora lift the deck plate away, revealing a thick tangle of pipes, hoses and conduits running beneath the deck of the ship. Nora wiped a growing layer of sweat from her brow and shook it against the deck. In a few seconds, it began to dance and sizzle; the air in the chamber had begun to shimmer.

“What are we looking for?” Sully asked, as the two peered into the knotty mass of utility lines, and Nora pointed.

“There!” The rubberized skin of the thick cable was beaded with drops of moisture. Condensation. And when Nora reached down to tug the line free and lift it out of the hole in the plating, it was blessedly cool to the touch.

“If there’s one thing I understand,” she told Sully, “it’s ways you can stress metal. It’s getting hot in here, right? Well, this is a coolant line. And if we hit that door—” pointing at the hatch a few feet away — “with what’s in this, the sudden change in temperature—”

“Say no more,” Sully nodded, producing her silver knife with a flourish. “You wanna do the honors?”

“Hold up,” Nora said. “That’s not gonna do it. You’d have to hack through the line slowly, and the stuff inside might make the blade too brittle.” Her eyes roved the display cases dotting the room, resting at last on the jeweled scimitar near the bed where she’d awakened. “Oh, much better.”

Picking up the iron shackles from where they’d fallen on the deck, Nora dragged them over to the case in which the scimitar gleamed, pristine and lovely. Up close, Nora saw fine traces of long-dried blood along the edge of it, and shivered a bit despite the rising heat.

She stepped back, whirled the shackles with her right hand, building up momentum, and them flung them at the glass case. It dissolved into bits and shards, and Nora reached forward and picked up the sword. Heavier than it looked.

Nora was halfway back to where Sully waited with the cable when she stopped. The leather jacket she’d seen earlier, and the old revolver, hung suspended in light in the case to her left. Nora drew close, peering through the glass. The faded letters painted in flaking golden script on the breast of the jacket just barely read Gale.

With the butt of the jeweled sword, she smashed the case open. The jacket, once she’d shaken the bits of glass off, felt surprisingly sturdy in her hands; age had made the leather soft to the touch, the sheepskin collar pillowy and pilled. She slipped it on — a little small for her, perhaps, but it still felt right.

And when she picked up the revolver, it felt curiously familiar in her hand. It was older, more battered — yet somehow, the same pistol her grandmother had given her, the one she’d lost as the tendrils dragged her away. She checked the cylinders — empty, but somehow, she didn’t mind. The gun slipped into the inside pocket of the jacket as if the two were made for one another.

For the first time in hours, for reasons she couldn’t even begin to explain, Nora felt safe again.

“You about done accessorizing?” Sully griped as Nora drew near with the scimitar. Nora cast a critical eye on Sully’s own outfit, then hefted the sword.

“You just watch yourself,” Nora said. “This is gonna be cold.” She brought the sword down through the cable, striking sparks on the deck.

The coolant hose writhed and jerked in Sully’s hands, blue-white fluid jetting forth to splash against the metal of the locked hatch. Nora tossed the sword aside and helped her steady the cable, training the torrent of supercold liquid against the door. Frost began to crack and crawl across its surface, fingers of sudden steam curling off and away from it, and Nora and Sully could hear the metal groan under the sudden shift in temperature.

Another roar from the engine room, and suddenly the entire ship lurched, sliding several degrees left of horizontal. Large spots on the back wall of the chamber now glowed yellow-orange, and fiery red rivets pinged and sizzled like burning acorns from the creaking walls. Nora felt the heat like a hand laid heavily across the back of her neck.

“That’s gonna have to do it!” Nora shouted, and Sully cast the coolant hose aside to fizz and sputter against the deck. They approached the door warily, its cool breath to their faces, the searing escalation of fiery heat at their backs.

“On three?” Sully asked, and Nora nodded. She held up one finger, two fingers, three, and they reared back and kicked in unison. The door shuddered, a large crack spidering out from their point of impact, but it did not give.

“Okay, okay,” Nora nodded, “we just try again. Ready? One—”

The whole room shook, and with a ear-scraping screech, bicycle-sized shards of turbine casing plunged themsleves through the back wall and into the room, tips glowing and molten and beginning to drop. The gondola began to list even further, the door before Nora and Sully growing increasingly uphill.

“Again!” Sully shouted, and without waiting for a count, they rammed their feet against the door. The cracks widened, deepened; red light began to show through in gaps.

“One more time!” Nora cried, and took a few steps back. She and Sully squared their shoulders, got a running start, and hit the door with a pair of graceless but effective flying kicks.

The door gave, exploding off its hinges in fat, jagged shards, and Sully and Nora tumbled backward and fell to the deck.

“Gah!” Nora recoiled, as the stench from the corridor invaded her nose. “What the hell is that?”

Sully grabbed her arm and helped drag her to her feet as the back wall of the chamber groaned ominously. “Don’t ask!” she shouted, amid the rising chords of rending metal. “Just go!”

They threw themselves out the hatch and into the hall as the back wall of Wicked West’s private refuge collapsed. A wall of flame rolled across the room, consuming the silk-laden beddings, devouring the accumulated spoils under glass. And whatever Wicked West preserved in that black laquered box, it would whisper to her no more.

Sully and Nora scrambled to safety up the canted corridor as a fat, whirling tumbleweed of fire belched itself out of the hatch. They watched it recede into genteel cat’s tongues of flames, then turned to one another.

“So,” Nora asked, as her lungs’ need for oxygen battled her sinuses’ urgent demand to breathe in as little of the funk as possible. “How do we not go down with the ship?”

Sully once more unfolded the blueprints. “Apparently, your crazy friend in there wasn’t a big believer in escape pods,” she shouted above the groans and shudders of the dying craft. “But there are walkways, here and here, port and starboard, leading to smaller blimps. If we can get to one of those, well, at least we won’t be on anything that’s currently exploding.”

“Think maybe you overdid it?” Nora grinned grimly, nodding her head in the direction of the engine room.

“Business instincts,” Sully sighed. “Last time I blew up a whole building. You’ve always gotta make the encore bigger.”

They wobbled, arms flailing, as the craft listed even further to the left. The walls were now perilously close to becoming floor and ceiling. Sully folded up the map, dug around in the sash at her hip, and handed Nora a small, dust-coated paper box emblazoned in colorful foreign script.

“Bullets,” Sully explained. “For that piece of yours. I took a few different kinds, just to be safe.”

“Wait, why do we need guns?” Nora asked, the revolver feeling suddenly heavy against her ribs.

Sully shook her wrists, and twin automatic pistols slid out of her sleeves. One fell neatly into her grip, but she nearly fumbled the other, catching it before it could clatter to the deck.

“I’m, uh, still getting the hang of this,” she said hastily. “Pretend that was a lot more badass, okay?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Nora replied, thumbing shells into the open chambers of her grandmother’s gun. The spare rounds clinked and jangled in her jacket pocket.

“I’m not sure I know the answer,” Sully said darkly, cocking one silver pistol, then the other. “And I’m not sure I want to. Come on.”

The infernal heat grew with every step they took through the flickering red lights of the corridors, even as they put greater distance between themselves and the engine room. Several times, Sully thought she could hear other, pursuing sounds just below the groaning, roaring din. But the corridors betrayed no shadow, no flicker of motion save their own.

“It’s not far now!” Sully shouted to Nora as they reached a t-junction in the halls. To their left, a tangled, narrow passage festooned with pipes led to the opposite side of the ship. But ahead, the steepening grade of the corridor revealed the hatch she’d left ajar upon first entering the craft. Now all they had to do was find a ladder up to the next level...

A dark, broad, form loped out of the doorway ahead and stopped. Sully froze, flinging back an arm to restrain Nora. The shadow was joined by another, and then more and more, spilling out of the hatch in shambling, pendulous motion. As a mass, they shuffled forward, into the flat red glare of an emergency beacon.

The troop of gorillas, skinny and scarred from countless inter-tribal skirmishes, regarded them in hooting, nervous uncertainty for several long moments. Then the leader raised something cradled in his thick, powerful arms, a long, tapered tube of metal that gleamed dully in the crimson lights. Even with her ears ringing from the constant noise, Sully could make out the unmistakable sound of a bolt sliding into place.

She swore, inventively, and with great enthusiasm.

“What you said,” Nora seconded.

To be continued...

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