Excerpt: Hearts of Smoke & Steam

 

Chapter 9: Dangerous Voyages

 

Sarah was flung up against the “wall” of the airship—a series of metal struts laid out against a treated canvas. The wall rose up and held onto the bag with a series of rope hooks which were laced through by grommets stitched into the canvas.

She looked up at the man who had thrown her and saw a familiar smile. “Look what we have here—it’s a flying rat.” The Bomb Lance had removed his frame, and was holding some kind of gun in his hand. The weapon looked complicated, but the shining metal barb that stuck out of the business end of it sent a simple enough message. He smiled when he noticed Sarah looking at it. “Did you bring yer special gun as well, girlie?”

Sarah could feel the weight of the useless weapon in the pocket of her coat. “Yes,” she said meekly. She had come all the way up here to try and stop this man, only to be taken prisoner by him within minutes of her arrival.

Murphy laughed, and turned to speak to someone she couldn’t see. “Look at her, Monsieur. You wouldn’t think such a little mouse could be so dangerous, but she managed to knock down both myself and Lord Eschaton.”

“Size, she iz not important,” said a voice from within the darkness.

Sarah turned to look for the man the Bomb Lance had referred to as “Monsieur.” She saw his silhouette at the other end of the gondola, and realized that by calling her “little,” Murphy was having a joke at the other man’s expense. The man was tiny, perhaps an inch or two shorter than she was. He hunched over in a way that made him appear to be someone of advanced age.

“I am not unawawe of ze barbs of ze Bomb Lance.” The man spoke with a heavy French accent and a lisp. Even so, he punctuated his words with sarcasm. “But you should always wemember who it was who constwucted your new hawness.”

As he stepped into the light Sarah was shocked to see just how old the Frenchman truly was: his hair was pure white and stuck out from his head in thick tufts, revealing patches of bright pink skin underneath. His shoulders were deeply drooping, and his hand clutched a cane which he leaned against heavily. She could just make out, underneath his fingers, that the head of the cane was a sliver globe. His eyes were covered by a pair of thick spectacles, held in place by a leather cord.

His clothes were bunched and ill-fitting on his withered frame—a strange mix of a leather apron, suspenders, and thick rubber boots. There was also a large belt strapped around his waist, from which hung a variety of tools and gadgets, some of them familiar, others twisted and strange.

The wizened figure walked over to her with an odd gait that landed firmly between a hobble and a run, as if he were in a terrible hurry even though he was constantly on the verge of falling over. The cane banged on the metal deck with every step, and the objects attached to his belt jingled as they swayed. After each movement he had to pause as he pushed his cane out in front of him before taking another step forward.

When he had covered half the distance between himself and Sarah, the wizened figure stopped and yelled back in the direction he had come from, “Fwancis, please bring ze ship back around.”

“Oui, oui, Monsieur.” When she followed the source of this voice, Sarah saw that there was platform in the front of the room that sat high up off the floor in front of a large glass window. Numerous panels, handles, and dials sprouted up from the deck to form a control panel in front of the ship’s operator.

Standing in front of the bouquet of devices was a small bear of a man with the demeanor and build of a boxer. He wore a pair of grease-covered overalls and a bowler hat so tight around his head that it seemed almost screwed on. The band around the hat brim showed off colors of the French flag—red, white, and green.

From his accent, Francis was clearly American, although the French theme was continued in the large silver brocade patch of the fleur de lis sewn onto the arm of his white shirt. “Bon,” the old man replied, and turned his eyes back to Sarah.

“So little girl, what iz eet that you thought you would accomplish by invading my airship? And where, may I ask, is your fweind who caused Mr. Muphee zo much twouble down below?”

“I honestly don’t know.” Sarah replied.

The Bomb Lance narrowed his eyes and waved his gun menacingly. “Watch it there, girlie. Yer full of tricks, but I’ll skewer you before I let you put any more holes in me, or blow me around again with that gun of yers.”

Sarah ignored the Irishman, and took a small curtsey in the direction of the old man. “We haven’t been properly introduced, Monsieur. My name is Sarah Stanton.”

“Ah yes well, you must forgive Mr. Muphee, madame. He has been wendewed incapable of mannews by an unfortunate act of birth.” The Frenchman bowed his head slightly. “You can call me le Voyageur.” He took another step closer to her, and slowly examined her with his eyes. “But zis costume?” He lifted up his cane and pointed it at her. “You fancy yourself a hero?”

Murphy chuckled. “She thinks she’s a Paragon, like her father.”

His reply was as loud and angry as he could muster, and his voice quivered as he spoke. “I did not ask you, you Irish simpleton, I asked her!”

“I call myself the Adventuress.”

The Frenchman laughed. While everything else about the man was ancient, his laughter still had the haughty, mocking quality of a schoolyard bully. “Oh, I am sure your fazer must be very pwoud of you.”

Sarah could feel her cheeks blushing with a mix of shame and anger, but knew she needed to stop herself from responding to their taunts.

“And now you have nothing to say. Maybe zat is good since I need you to tell me where ze heart of your mechanical man is. I assume you did bwing it wiz you.”

Sarah’s breath caught in her throat. She had left Tom’s heart back on the boat with Emilio’s sister! And if the woman’s brother hadn’t survived the journey, how would she ever find her again? “It’s still on the ferry,” she replied.

“Zat is unfortunate. Lord Eschaton will be vewy disappointed if we do not bring back his pwize.” He closed his eyes and slowly rocked back and forth on his cane. When he opened them again there was a smile on his lips. “I am sowwy if I am being wude, but now, young lady hero, ze time has come for us to say goodbye.” He looked up at the control booth. “Fwancis. If you could be so kind, I think that Mr. Murphy may need your help escorting zis young lady off of my airship.”

Sarah’s eyes opened wide. “What?”

“Le Ciel Noir is an attack ship, not a passenger cwaft,” he said in a deeply condescending tone. “You were not invited, and I have discovewed you have nothing I want. In fact, my dear girl, I think zat everywone will be most pleased zat you have been taken care of.” The Frenchman grabbed a nearby lever and gave it a good pull. Down at the far end of the gondola a trap door fell open. As it slammed down into place, a set of stairs and a railing sprang up from the flat surface, locking into place with a sharp snap.

When she was younger, Sarah had spent a great deal of time imagining how she would react when facing a maniacal villain bent on her destruction. In her fantasies she had always seen herself facing death with a calm dignity that would leave a lasting impression on her enemies, possibly with a clever quip to show how utterly unafraid she was. It would be important that they realize just how futile their actions had been when she somehow managed to miraculously escape. Now that the moment was actually here, the clever words she was sure would come so easily to her were nowhere to be found.

“I can tell you where the heart is,” she said meekly. Had she really given up so easily? What would stop them from killing her once they got what they wanted?

“What was that, my dear?” the old man said, making a grand gesture of putting his hand to his ear. “I’m afwaid I could not hear you begging for your life.”

Murphy stepped forward and roughly grabbed her hands. “You should save yer breath, girlie. That old piece of gristle has got no mercy left in him. And it doesn’t matter—if we couldn’t take the heart, we were supposed to sink the ship and find it later.”

For a moment Sarah thought he might actually have actually be showing a moment of mercy, himself—until he spun her around and then pulled her arms tightly and painfully behind her back.

“And zis ship is more zen capable of sinking ze little fewwy with everyone aboard.”

Sarah wanted to scream at the old man, call him insane and a fool. But she also knew that villains were most likely to respond to accusations and threats with maniacal laughter. And le Voyageur, it seemed to her, would be exactly the kind of man to do that sort of thing.

Instead she kept quiet, biting her lip and trying to figure a way out of her fate. The Irishman was far stronger than she was, and her grease-covered shoes were already sliding across the deck as she tried to resist. Her only hope, it seemed, rested in the hands of Emilio, a man most likely dead.

But her despair lifted when something underneath them shuddered, to replaced by a wave of nausea as the metal decking twisted and buckled beneath her feet, revealing just how delicate the construction of the ship really was. And she wasn’t alone—Sarah could see that the old Frenchman had also been alarmed. “Fwancis!” he yelled up to the man in the control room, “what iz going on?”

From somewhere below them came the sound of metal grinding against metal.

“Something’s wrong with the engines. We’re losing pressure.” The burly engineer grabbed the railings that led from the control room to the gondola floor, and slid down them in a single bound. “I’ll go take a look.”

“Be careful,” said Murphy. “This one,” he said spitefully, and shook Sarah’s arms, “didn’t come up here alone, and that guinea may still be crawling around down there somewhere.”

“I’ll be careful,” Francis replied with a smile, and held up a brutish-looking wrench.

Reaching the far end of the room, the engineer reached out and pulled up another hatch in the floor. As he lifted it a pair of hands shot out from the hole and grabbed his ankles, yanking Francis forward and throwing him off balance. He landed on the metal decking hard enough to send out a ringing sound across the gondola, along with an audible “ungh” as the air was forced out from his lungs. It was followed by a strangled cry of pain as the hatch crashed back down onto the engineer’s knees.

“Il Volano ci sta!” Emilio said as he shoved open the hatch, and bounded onto the deck. Francis made a feeble grab for him as walked by, but he was too slow, and Emilio danced out of his way, following it up with a kick for good measure.

“There you are,” the Irishman said with a low rumble of satisfaction.

“Let her go,” Emilio replied with a tone of cool seriousness in his voice, his words calm and clear.

The villain gave Sarah a brutal shove that sent her stumbling across the gondola until she crashed painfully into the metal frame of the wall.

Sarah stood up, testing to see if the sensation of her entire chest having caved into her body was genuine, or simply a side-effect of the burning pain that she was feeling.

“C’mon boy!” she heard Murphy saying behind her as she tried to steady herself. “Let’s see what yer made of.”

As breath returned to her lungs, Sarah was relieved to discover that she was mostly intact, although she would probably wake up tomorrow to find bruises in numerous unmentionable places—if she survived.

As she turned around, Sarah caught a glimpse of the Bomb Lance firing his weapon at Emilio, the silver barb glinting in the gray light. Emilio’s shield was opening even as the projectile travelled across the room towards him.

The harpoon let out a “tang” as it ricocheted off metal and spun off into the air. Emilio smiled grimly. “Ora sai la forza del il Volano!” he shouted out, and held up his shield in front of him.

The grin vanished into a look of concern as he looked down and saw that the device had only opened halfway.

He gave his arm a flick, and the plate let out a screech as it scraped over the dent before it finally sprang free and the shield locked into place.

Even from a distance Sarah could tell that the device looked a bit worse for wear now, with the plates no longer fitting together as tightly as they had before.

Emilio tried to regain his triumphant attitude and yelled again, “Il Volano!” He lifted up his shield and it began to spin, quickly gaining speed until it was a humming blur.

“No matter what tricks you come up with, that flimsy platter isn’t going to save yer guinea arse.” As he spoke the Bomb Lance fitted another barb into his weapon. “Sooner or later I’m going to skewer you, and then I’m going to laugh while you die.”

As the pain began to clear, Sarah saw that Emilio and Murphy were circling around one another. Murphy had reloaded his gun, and was attempting to line up a shot that would eviscerate the Italian, moving his gun up high, and then down low, Emilio trying to both match his moves and keep an eye on the other man. The spinning shield, while clearly ingenious, was also primarily a defensive device. It was only a matter of time.

Emilio’s movements were almost comically broad, like a circus clown’s. He seemed to be trying to goad the Irishman into taking a shot. There was something about his demeanor that was fundamentally foreign, and Sarah found it rather charming—even in these deadly circumstances.

As the men continued to dance around each other, Sarah saw the old Frenchman sneaking up behind them. His stopped and tilted the cane forward, until his hands were down near the bottom tip. When he lifted the silver globe up above his head, it was clear to Sarah that he was intending to use the metal planet as a bludgeon on Emilio when the opportunity presented itself.

Sarah mustered her strength and began to move quickly in the opposite direction. If she could reach the Bomb Lance quickly enough she might be able to help—but Emilio was rapidly coming into range. It was odd to think that she was risking her life for a man she had known for such a short time, but there was rarely a story that her father had told of battle that didn’t end with a lesson in knowing who your allies were, and Emilio was the only one she had right now.

Seeing her opportunity, Sarah dove to try to cover the remaining ground, her hand outstretched. She only managed to land a tap on the old man, but it was enough to throw him off balance. When his cane came crashing down, it crashed harmlessly against the metal deck.

The Frenchman turned toward Sarah and gave her a narrow stare. “Mr. Muphee was wight. You are a twue nuisance!”

As Sarah got back to her feet she watched le Voyageur flip the cane over, catching the globe in his hand with a surprising amount of grace. He gave it a twist, and two nasty looking silver blades sprung out from near the tip, locking into place with a click. “Your fwiend is not ze only one who can make zings spin!”

He twisted the globe again and the blades began to turn, slowly at first, then with increasing speed until they had become a silver blur. “You may soon wish zat you had let us thwow you out of ze balloon.”

Sarah took a step back and waited while the Frenchman poked the whirring gadget at her menacingly, closing the gap between them.

Worse still, she and Murphy were standing almost next to each other, as the Irishman continued to circle to try and catch Emilio.

Desperate plans were forming in her head: perhaps she could use her gloves to catch the blades. But she had no idea how powerful they were, and the price of failure would be too terrible to contemplate…

“Then pardone moi, Monsieur,” she said, nodding to the Frenchman, “while I try a different option.” Sarah threw herself sideways into the Bomb Lance.

Her already battered body responded with a shocking wave of pain as she collided with her target. Her attack had less impact than she had hoped, but it caused Murphy to jerk his hand upward as he fired his weapon. The harpoon tore through the gas-bag almost effortlessly, and a blast of warm air streamed down into the gondola from the hole.

The Frenchman let out a loud, wavering whine that landed somewhere between crying and screaming. “Aiiiieeeeaaahh! Don’t puncture ze balloon, you fool.”

Murphy turned his attention to Sarah. “You’ll pay for that.” As he swept his arm out at her she balled up her fist and punched at his jaw with the greasy glove. It knocked him back a bit, and left a black mark on his face, but the jolt it sent up her arm seemed to be more shocking than anything she’d done to him.

Clearly she’d been lucky with her previous attack, and Sarah wondered if her father would have given her more training and fewer platitudes if she’d been born a boy. Thinking about Nathaniel, she realized the answer was most likely yes.

She could hear Emilio and the Frenchman conversing in the background, but she was far too focused on her new adversary to pay attention to what they were saying.

Murphy smiled at her. “You seem to be losing yer touch . . .”

For her second blow Sarah came up from underneath, and landed her fist directly beneath his jaw. Murphy’s head seemed to vibrate from the blow. “Tha thaaaa . . .” he said, followed by a slurred mash of sounds that could barely count as words.

His eyelids fluttered, and a moment later he was toppling towards her like a felled tree. Before she could move out of his way, the unconscious Irishman had landed on top of her, his weight knocking her down and slamming her to the ground.

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