Thomas Atkins threw the lever on the drop hatch. The big iron doors in the floor of the lowest deck crashed open. Far below, the gray waters of the North Sea beat against the airship’s stone mooring towers.
It was the closest the Ida of Lorraine ever got to the ground since the ship’s rear propellers were twenty-two feet long. The airship rarely dropped lower than fifty feet to make sure it had safe clearance over the surrounding roof tops and trees. Still, the boy beside Thomas took a full step back and whispered “!" Or at least, that's what it sounded like. There were no tomatoes, green or otherwise, and certainly not five or six boxes of them.
Most of the crew was from the province of Aquitaine in the South of France. After six years of living among them, Thomas thought he was fluent in French. Alphonse was French-Canadian from Montréal. A hundred years or more of British rule had done something strange to the Canadian’s French. Thomas could rarely understand him when he started to rant.
Maybe he misunderstood what Alphonse wanted. “You want to learn how to drop out of the ship while in mid-flight? Or do you just want to learn how to ride a Mount?” That’s what started the conversation. Alphonse said about never actually ridden one of the mechanized horses before. There had been weird curse words sprinkled in – or at least what Thomas thought was curse words.
Alphonse was still staring at the open hatch with something akin to horror.
“I can lead a Mount down to the docks for you.” Thomas waved toward the ladder to the upper decks. “You can go down the gangplank and meet me there.”
Alphonse backed up until he pressed against the metal flank of the Mount in the nearest stall. His eyes widened, he swallowed hard, but he shook his head. “I need to learn this. If something happens to the ship while it’s in mid-flight, this is the only way off other than by skiff. I’m going to be right here, with the Mounts, so I should learn how to drop.”
The boy was right. The was a pirate ship. Anything from a British Man-of-War hitting their reliquary to a fire in the boiler room could take them out of the air. Nothing would survive the thousand foot drop from their normal cruising attitude. It would be a mad rush for anything that flew. It would be every man for themselves with only seconds before the airship crash landed.
“You should learn the basics before trying to drop,” Thomas said.
Alphonse puffed up like an angry kitten. " I know the basics! I need to test the controls on the Mounts I repair!”
“But have you have actually ever ridden one?”
“I have ridden real horses in Montreal. My uncle had two Percherons for his farm.”
Would that help? Thomas wasn’t sure. Sometime in his shadowy past, he’d seen a living horse but exact details were lost along with most of his childhood.
“It would be safer to start on the ground…” Thomas attempted to dissuade the boy.
Alphonse accent grew thick as maple syrup as he sputtered some angry words that Thomas didn’t understand. "Thomas, , it has to be now! The Captain! You know how she is! She never will allow this. She hates me!”
Isabella did hate Alphonse. He represented a perfectly laid plan gone horribly wrong. She had wanted to kill the boy, not kidnap him. She only let Alphonse live as a favor to Thomas. Isabella wouldn’t waste time teaching Alphonse how to leave the ship via Mount. If she needed him a raid, she would the boy in the skiff, not a mount. In a disaster, Alphonse wouldn’t have time to get to the skiff.
Thomas would just walk away from anyone else asking him to teach them to drop from the ship while it was moored. A lot of things could go wrong. Thomas had seen men die from stupid mistakes.
“The only time the Captain isn’t on the ship is when it’s in harbor!” Alphonse pointed in the direction of pub where Isabella’s leased rooms. “This is the only time I can learn!”
All true. Thomas sighed and nodded. “Fine. I’ll do it. Let me put a long lead on your Mount. That way I can pull you up before you hit the water.”
Alphonse muttered something that might have been more curses.
“You’ll be strapped into the saddle,” Thomas said slowly so Alphonse understand him. “If you go into the water, you’ll go down with the Mount. If you’re on a lead, you’ll still be in control, but I can pull you out before you drown.”
Alphonse groused a minute longer but then threw up his hands with “Fine. Fine. Put apron strings on me!”
Thomas pointed at the chestnut behind Alphonse. It was an old Bremont Hackey, its paint worn in spots. “That’s the lightest of the Mounts. I’ll take one of the Cuirassiers. They’re the most powerful. Between the two, I’ll be able to pull you up if something goes wrong.”
“Take the palomino!” Alphonse called after Thomas. “The black’s bridle needs fixed. Imbeciles. You don't need to yank hard enough to break the bloody thing to stop it. Why else use trained horses? It's like giving monkey wrenches to – to – to monkeys!"
Thomas changed direction as Alphonse muttered darkly about the stupidity of whatever crew member had broken the black Cuirassier.
The Palomino had a flashy pale gold paint job, four chromed stockings, and real white horse hair for its mane and tail. Thomas stepped around the flank of the Cuirassier and undid the charge coupling. Running his hand up its articulated neck, he found the mount's protected power switch under its jaw. Its eyes open, gleaming brightly in the dim stable. It drifted upward in its restraints as power was restored to its lift drive.
"Easy boy." Thomas murmured.
It snorted and tossed its head.
Thomas undid its restraints and backed the cuirassier out of its stall and to the edge of the drop hatch.
Alphonse was fighting with the straps of googles that Thomas loaned him. “”
Thomas puzzled over the sentence. It sounded like the boy wanted to do something to a jaw or maw or something.
Thomas connected the lead to the Hackney. It was thirty feet to the water. He measured out twenty feet of rope and tied it to the end of the lead with a sheet bend knot. “I’ll go out first and then you’ll follow.” He looped the rope through the ring on the black’s saddle cantle. He tied it off and gave it a tug to test the knot. “Mount up.”
The boy was too short to gracefully climb into the saddle. With a great deal of muttering and heaving, he got up onto the back of the Hackney. “I can do this!” He snapped when Thomas tried to help him with his straps. “I can take the stupid things apart and put them back together! I can operate a simple buckle!”
“They’ve got to be tight enough to hold you into the saddle but loose enough that they’re not cutting off the blood to your legs. The notches will be worn where they’re good for a man twice your size. When I was your age, I always had to tighten them to the very end.”
“When I was your age.” Alphonse dropped his voice to mimic Thomas. “You’re only two years older than me! You don’t even shave yet!”
“I shave!” Thomas said. “Just not very often yet.”
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Alphonse quoted.
Thomas frowned as the words seemed achingly familiar. It was Hamlet, he realized. Unbidden the play unfolded in his mind.
Thomas growled in frustration. He was sure if he pondered long enough, he’d remember the entire bloody play. It was always like that. His entire childhood was blank. He had no idea who he was or what his real name had been. Yet a chance remark or question would spill out the most useless of information.
He shoved away thoughts of the play to focus on Alphonse. “Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Alphonse gripped tight the Hackney’s reins.
“Let me get into place. I’ll signal you when I’m ready.” Thomas swung up into the black’s saddle. He made sure his own belts were tight since anything could happen in the next few seconds. He pulled down his riding goggles and nudged the Cuirassier with his heels. The Mount sprang forward into the space above the hatch. They dropped like a rock for a dozen feet until Thomas was sure he had head clearance from the ship’s wooden hull. Once he was sure it was safe, he reined the Cuirassier to the side. He played out the lead rope, keeping it slack between the palomino and the Hackney without tangling.
Twenty feet below, the blue-green water of the harbor murmured as it beat against the stone piling of the dock. Alphonse would only have seconds before hitting the surface.
Mounts could hover but Thomas would need maneuvering room if he had to pull Alphonse out of the cold North Sea quickly. The mooring towers and tether lines limited his choices. Toward the unforgiving land or the temporary safety of the soft water landing? He decided on the water. Thomas guided the cuirassier between the blades of the propellers of the starboard engine.
“Alphonse!” Thomas called back. “Go!”
Seconds ticked by. Thomas wondered if the boy couldn’t hear him.
“Al?” He called louder.
Alphonse yelped in fear as the Hackney dropped out of the hatch. The roan plunged straight for the water.
“Pull up!” Thomas shouted. “Lean back!”
“Chit! Chit! Chit!” Alphonse shouted.
A foot from the water, Alphonse gained control. The Hackney soared upward at full speed.
“Level! Level!” Thomas shouted as he heaved sideways. He tried to jerk the boy out from under the ship. The Hackney’s rump hit the bottom of the hull and rebound downwards. The action put the boy heavy in the saddle, forcing the Hackney downward even faster. “Stirrups! Stand up!”
Alphonse got his weight onto his stirrups. The Hackney soared upwards again. Clear of the ship, the Mount climb quickly, heading to its ceiling height.
“Get your weight onto your seat.” Thomas followed Alphonse upward.
“What?” Alphonse’s voice cracked with fear.
“Ease up on your stirrups!”
Alphonse dropped like a rock again, yelping and cursing.
“Put your feet down!” Thomas needed to keep him out of the water more than anything. A higher attitude would give them more room for error. He pulled the Hackney further away from all the possible entanglements of the ship’s rigging and sails.
Alphonse yoyo-ed up and down for several more minutes until he managed to stabilize. “I don’t like this, Thomas! This was a mistake!”
“You’re fine.” Two hundred feet up over cold water was not the time to panic. “You’ll get used to it.”
“This is scary!”
“Don’t look down. Look around you. See everything. See the lighthouses?”
As he hoped, it was easier for Alphonse to sit still in the saddle while focusing on the horizon. They hovered over the harbor. Amazingly their antics hadn’t drawn any attention of men on the street. The two other sets of mooring piers stood empty. The other pirate airships that called Borkum home were out on raids. Alone in harbor, the crew of the Ida of Lorraine felt safe to drop their guard. There might be men in the watch towers but the dock was empty.
The circular harbor was safe waters. Protected by a seawall with only a narrow channel to open sea, there were no dangerous currents. The North Sea would be too dangerous to take Alphonse out over. If he landed in a rip tide, Thomas wouldn’t be able to pull him clear. Beyond the docks were two score of houses all with red tile roofs and three tall lighthouses. They should avoid the village. If they flew to the north shore, they could have a safe flight over sandy beaches as a compromise.
Thomas pointed toward the north. “Pull on the right rein and press in with your heels. We want to head that way.”
Alphonse turned the Hackney in three complete circles until he had it vaguely pointed the correct direction.
“Good! Good! Now practice keeping your Mount level and flying straight.”
It was neither level or straight but it was close enough that in a few minutes they’d reached the other side of the two-mile-wide island. Thomas noticed that another Mount had left the ship and was following after them. They’d been spotted. Isabelle had sent someone after them to keep an eye on them.
Thomas studied the distant rider. It was a large man on the Spanish Roan Jennet. Bernard. The man was one of the three that Isabella often trusted to watch over Thomas. Bernard was nonchalant in nature and probably only continue to watch from the distance. If he decided to intervene, he’d most likely punish Alphonse.
A month ago, the Ida of Lorraine attacked an Allan Line Royal Mail Steamer crossing from Halifax to Liverpool. Unlike the raids on the fallen cities of the continent, the attack wouldn’t be ignored. The British Navy, though, could only chase them if the was identified. Isabella staged a night attack, using only the steamer’s interior lights to guide down a boarding party on Mounts.
Thomas thought he could use the darkness and confusion to escape. It was because of him that Alphonse had seen the skiff with the ’s name painted on the side. It was enough to get every man on the pirate galleon hung for piracy. Isabella had drawn her pistol to kill Alphonse, but Thomas talked her into just taking the boy. Alphonse was wearing a mechanic’s apron. The could use another person who know how to repair the intricate Mounts. Isabella had a quick temper, but she always kept the big picture in mind. She lived and breathed in the terms of long term goals. It was how she managed to gather a crew, seize the Ida of Lorraine in Aquitaine, and find a safe haven on Borkum while all of Europe fell to undead.
If Thomas hadn’t tried to escape, Alphonse wouldn’t have seen the skiff. Isabella wouldn’t have tried to kill him. Thomas wouldn’t have had to convince her to kidnap the boy instead. It was all Thomas’ fault that Alphonse was on Borkum. It was Thomas’ responsibility to keep the boy safe.
“If anyone asks…” Thomas called to Alphonse. The Hackney dipped and soared as the boy lost focus. Thomas waited for the mechanic got his mount under control again. “If anyone asks, we testing repairs on the Mounts.”
“Okay!” Alphonse shouted. And then, “Is someone coming?”
“Maybe.” Thomas guided them more to the east, away from the temptation of the neighboring island of Rottumeroog. In the past, Bernard would keep his distance as long as it was clear that Thomas wasn’t getting into danger. The big man followed them to the island’s northern beach and then settled in the shade of the trees growing at the edge of the sand. Thomas relaxed, only aware of how tight he’d clenched the reins when he released them.
“We’re fine.” Thomas called to Alphonse. “Let’s practice changing elevation. We’ll go up first. It will give you more room to fix errors.”
“Up?” Alphonse’s voice wavered.
“Lean forward slightly, shifting your weight onto your feet.”
Alphonse yelped as he rocketed upward.
Bernard sat in the shade and watched the hour that Thomas guided Alphonse through changing elevation over the five-mile-long stretch of the island’s northern beach. After Alphonse spun in place for six rotations trying to turn, Thomas abandoned efforts to teach the boy turning in this session. In the grand scheme of things, above a certain height, a rider could take as much space as wanted to turn. Landing, though, required control. A hard enough landing could kill a man.
“Let’s try landing in the sand,” Thomas said. “Concentrate on slowly reducing your attitude. If you think you’re coming down too fast, then pull up, slow down, try again.”
Three false attempts and then the boy was down.
Alphonse slumped forward over the neck of the Hackney. “Chit. Chit. Chit. Can we rest for a while? This is harder than I thought. My thighs are killing me!”
Alphonse grumbled as he undid his belts. “Why did they need to make the Mount so tall? They could have made them like ponies!”
“Horses needs to be horses.” Thomas dismounted in a show of solidarity. His feet sank in the white sand. He’d hated the shifting ground when he was younger. He’d grown so use to it that it been years since he last thought it as strange.
Alphonse collapsed to his knees. His hands were shaking. The boy knelt in the sand, staring westwards at the distant smudge of Rottumeroog. “How far to you think it is?”
“Four miles. Maybe more. Maybe less. It’s not the worth the trip. It’s mostly sand and a few trees. There’s nothing of interest on it.”
“No food. No protection from the cold and the rain.”
“There are more islands beyond it? Right?”
Thomas snorted. “The West Frisian Islands dot the entire coastline to Netherlands. Most of them are like Rottumeroog. A mile of sand and trees barely above sea level. They’re all anywhere from five to ten miles apart. You’ll see for yourself next time we head out on a raid if you came up to the top deck.”
“Why don’t we see it now.” Alphonse stood up and brushed the sand from his hand.
Was that what this was really all about? Alphonse wanted to learn how to drop from the ship so that he could escape back to England?
“No.” Thomas said.
“It’s right there! We can go now! No one will miss us.”
“Bernard is watching us.”
“We could pretend we’re heading back to the ship and give him the slip.”
“He’s armed. He will shoot you dead if you try anything, Alphonse. Mounts are rare as hen’s teeth, they’re not going to let you fly away on one without hunting you down.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“Alphonse it’s a stupid idea.”
“It’s not a stupid idea.”
“Yes, it is! Even Bernard lost track of us, Isabella will know that we’d stick to the islands. The continent is thick with zombies. Only utter idiots would cross Eemshaven. We wouldn’t be able to outfly the . It can fly straight for hours and we would have to stop to recharge the Mount every time we reached a new island. We have no food with us. We’re not wearing the right clothes do deal with the cold and the rain. If we somehow – impossibly – got away from the ship we’d be dead of exposure by the second night. There’s nothing on the first two or three islands, but the fourth is Schiermonnikoog. Four different pirate ships call it home. Just beyond it is Ameland, and it has a full dozen airships. Terschelling is next island and it has a fleet too. Vlieland is the first island you’ll reach where you’ll be safe from another crew, but if we’re traveling at night to avoid the pirates on the other islands, we could easily miss Vlieland in the dark and then we’d be out in North Sea on Mounts! Yes, it’s a straight shot from Vlieland to Norfolk in England, but its too far! A Mount can’t cross that much open water, even on a full charge. And that’s not counting the headwind.”
“Whoa, whoa, tabarnak!” Alphonse waved his hands to stem the flow of reasons it was a stupid plan. “I didn’t know that you had planned it out before.”
“Yes, I’ve thought about it.” Thomas growled. “So we get to England and then what? We have no money and two Mounts that we couldn’t possibly afford. Goods looted from Europe are considered stolen property. Its contraband. It’s why all the airships that raid the fallen cities of the Continent are considered pirates or smuggler or both.”
Alphonse hunched as if the weight of the truth was too heavy to bear. “I want to go home. I didn’t want to leave Montreal but my father thought it would be good experience for me to work on the steamer. I don’t want to be with these people. They’re bad people, rooting through bodies to steal from the dead. I didn’t like the steamer, rolling about on all that water. It made me sick all the time. I hate being up in the air like some stupid bird. I want to be back home. I want my own bed that’s a proper bed and not some hammock. God wanted us flat on our backs safe on the ground when we sleep, not strung up like a net full of fish. Flopping about just seconds away from being someone’s dinner.”
“You’re safe on the , Al.”
“I don’t like it.” Alphonse’s voice cracked with his pain. “I want to go home. Help me, Thomas. I can’t do it alone. I need to you come with me.”
Thomas felt the same way when he was ten and woke up among the pirates. He had no clue who he was or where they’d found him, but he knew immediately this wasn’t his home. Everything look strange. Felt wrong. Tasted horrible. Smelled faintly of death. He had wanted to go back, no matter where that may be. He would find the smallest hole that he could crawl into and cry himself to sleep. It was nearly a year before he realized that he was British. That he should be in England. Someplace. At eleven, though, he could no more get across the channel alone than Alphonse. All the crewmen that he thought he could trust merely laughed at him when he begged them for help. If he had been able to, what then? He had no idea what part of England he came from. He didn’t even know his real name. He chose to call himself Thomas Atkins once he realized he was British.
Alphonse gave him a look full of fear. He’d translated Thomas’ silence as a refusal.
Thomas hated the crew members he thought he could trust when they just laughed at him. If he was totally truthful with himself, he considered Alphonse his only true friend among the pirates because he didn’t trust any of the men. The problem being was that he wasn’t sure he could trust the boy for totally different reasons. “I need you to be patient.”
“You’ll help me?”
“I’ll help you…”
Alphonse flung himself at Thomas and hugged him hard. Between the words being muffled and his accent growing thicker with his excitement, Thomas couldn’t follow what the boy shouted into Thomas’ shoulder.
Thomas wished he could share the boy’s excitement. He’d spend years trying to find a way to get to England without being hung the moment he landed in the country. “You need to promise me that you’ll be patient. No dropping out of the ship the first time you and expecting me to come with you. We need a plan that has a prayer of working.”
“I’ll be patient. It will be hard. Maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done – beyond dropping out of the ship—but I’ll be patient.”
“Good.” Thomas said.
Alphonse turned to stare out over the water again. “Look! What’s that?”
A dark smudge marked the horizon. Only a sliver of sky under it marked that it was an airship. Black smoke billowed out behind it; the Captain was wasting coal to head toward them under full power.
Thomas pulled out his spyglass. If it was a British Man of War, then they were in trouble. The military would label everyone on the island a pirate and hang them all. He found the name on the bow. “It’s the .”
“Is that good or bad?”
“It depends on what he wants the Ida of Lorraine to find.” Thomas caught sight of Bernard’s Mount closing on them. “We should get back to the ship.”
“Why?” Alphonse cried. “This is the perfect time to…”
“Patience!” Thomas growled to quiet the boy before Bernard got into earshot. “Isabella will want us and our Mounts back at the Ida of Lorraine. She knows there’s no honor among thieves.”