Captain Pike’s ghost ship, the Argonauta, is the most feared airship in the skies. But when he can’t resist easy pickings on the way back to port, he and his crew get a nasty shock.
The Argonauta’s Prey
Flintlocks & Folly Award: Act 1
She was a pretty little thing, their quarry; a dark red balloon attached to a sturdy iron cabin, floating calm as you please in the torrential rain. She didn’t even shudder when Captain Pike gave the order for Dimber-Damber to send out the claws – the huge metal curves biting into her tender side and pulling her into the Argonauta’s air space before you could say ‘boarded’.
“We’re supposed to be headin’ home!” Assy shouted as she and Pike made their way down to the boiler room, strapping on their various pistols and knives as they went. The riveted walls of the hull were hot to touch, and if they’d had skin they would have been sweating. “We’re not half a day out of Brighton and you’ve got us waylaid on some useless pretty floating in no-man’s air!”
Pike could understand her annoyance. They’d been fifty years in the wind, catching cruiseballoons unawares and robbing them of whatever seemed useful, or valuable, or some combination of the two. Pike knew that the crew wanted shore leave. A chance to feel the gravedirt beneath their spectral toes. A chance to breathe sea air from the ground. Pike had even observed Dimber-Damber giving Legs some side-ways glances, and he knew that if the crew didn’t get off the ship soon he’d have another bloody wrestling tournie on his hands.
But he never could pass up an easy robbery. The Argonauta would live up to her reputation as the most terrifying ghost ship in the skies.
Pike and Assy were out on the side of the ship, ready to jump. Pike had to squint to see his target through the torrent of rain battering them from all sides. A wall of wind slammed into their ship. Pike and Assy hung together, two dead’uns waiting to pounce on their live prey. Little Jacksy was on Pike’s other side, the gears on his leg spinning with anticipation. He was barely old enough to shave, but Pike had taken a shine to him a few years back and brought him onto the crew on a probationary basis. He was still livin’, but they didn’t hold that against him.
“Ya ready, lads?” Pike called out, tugging a metal gauntlet onto his right fist and keeping a hold of the Argonauta with his legs.
“One of us is a woman,” Assy said, tucking her pistol into her corset and shooting him a glare.
“It’s a figure a’ speech,” Pike said, before hurling himself from the side of the ship to avoid his first mate’s glare.
Three hundred years he’d been running the Argonauta – and working under his papa’s wing for thirteen before that – but he never got tired of the rush he felt when it was just him and the air, and nothing but the wind-tossed sea a thousand leagues beneath to catch him if anything went wrong. He braced himself for the hard impact as he landed against the side of their prey, punching his fist into the metal wall. A short, whirring sound spilled out of the gauntlet before the metal hooks edging his knuckles sprung out and dug in, anchoring him into place. He undid the metal coil connecting him to the Argonauta and attached it to their quarry so that she could be reeled in.
He heard two thuds next to him as Assy and Jacksy landed. Pike turned his head, taking in the battered, rusty old Argonauta. The wind pushed and shoved her, but she held steady. A true beauty she was – as eternal as her crew, despite her looks.
Jacksy landed near a window and peered into it. “Looks like there’s no one home.” The lad used the butt of his pistol to punch through the glass. Once he was done clearing away the worst of the wreckage he climbed through, his backside wiggling in the air and his prosthetic leg kicking at nothing.
“Hurry up, Cabin Boy, we’re freezin’ out ‘ere,” Assy snapped, slapping him on the rear as he slid through. Most livins thought dead’uns couldn’t feel cold, but that was wishful thinking.
She pressed the release on her gauntlet and, with a hiss, the claws withdrew from the hull and she clambered in after Jacksy with decidedly more finesse. Once Pike was inside as well, they took stock of their surroundings. There was no light in the little cabin they’d crawled into and naught but the wind whistling through the smashed window to be heard.
“Maybe they’re hidin’?” Jacksy said. Wouldn’t be the first time a crew had seen a ghost ship bearing pirate colours and scarpered into the bowels of the ship.
Pike drew his pistol, letting a grin bloom on his pale, gaunt face. “Let’s find the crew, liberate some of their valuables and see ourselves out. Assy, you go first and distract our enemies with your feminine wiles.”
“I will slap ya back to breathin’, I swear to the Queen.”
Assy, muttering mutinously about misogynistic captains, led the way down the dark passageway with her pistol in one fist and a wicked dagger in the other. Pike was wishing he’d asked Legs, their engineer, to rig up a light for him – one that could attach to a helmet like he’d seen in the wars. One of those would have been barking useful right about then.
Down the corridor, it got darker. Pike felt a slight prickle run up his spine. He could barely see Jacksy in front of him, and concentrated instead on the steady click-clack of Jacksy’s metal leg on the iron floor. They went down a flight of stairs which barely swayed under their combined weight. She was a good ship, very sturdy. It made Pike homesick for his rattly old Argonauta, who always had a hair-raising little jolt ready if someone climbed her gang plank too quick.
A soft hissing and clanking let them know when they’d reached the engine-room. Five times out of six, a crew would settle down there to avoid pirates. Pirates knew this, of course, which was why the engine-room was always their first port of call.
Assy opened the door with no trouble. It squeaked a little when it opened, but hardly enough to break the gaping silence from within.
“All right,” Assy shouted into the dark. Pike slid into the gap beside her and reached into the room, groping along the wall for a gaslight, but felt nothing. “If there be anyone a’hidin’ down ‘ere, why don’t cha come on out? No shame in getting’ caught, but if we have to come in there and get ya we’re not gonna be too gentle ‘bout it.”
No answer. Not even so much as a sigh or resignation. Pike kept searching for a light as Assy opened the door proper and she and Jacksy moved into the room.
“There’s a puddle or somethin’,” Assy said. “Don’t slip, Cabin Boy.”
Pike’s finger brushed against a lamp switch just as a heavy thud sounded and Jacksy cursed. “Blasting conkers what the devil was that?” the boy said. Something rustled near where his voice was coming from, and he shouted: “Gotcha, you smarmy bugger!”
Pike flicked the switch, blinking as the sudden light flooded his senses and he took a good look around. Legs would have sneered at the steel gears and fittings, preferring the strength of iron to any of the new-fangled materials coming up in new model airships. Assy was on the other side of the room, near a metal drum full of oil, her pistol raised as she stared wide-eyed at Jacksy. He’d caught himself a crewman. He’d fisted his hand in the man’s shirt and was holding him steady.
Not that Jacksy needed to hold him. The man was dead.
“Argh!” Jacksy said, jumping back and shaking his hand like he’d been burned.
A long metal spike stuck from the crewman’s chest, pinning him in place against the wall, holding him in a standing position with his head back and his tongue lolling out, his blank stare sending shivers down what remained of Pike’s spine. The puddle Assy had noticed was a pool of blood which extended about three feet out onto the floor. Jacksy cringed and danced away when he realised he was standing in it.
The engine-room shook about as the Argonauta pulled her prey in for proper boarding. The jostling made the dead man’s limbs jerk. He slid forward on the spike about an inch.
Pike screwed up his face. “Doesn’t feel haunted,” he said, gazing around the room. Assy sniffed the air like she could sniff out any dead’uns who hadn’t made themselves known. “Per’aps we oughtta get Dimble-Damble and search the place for other corpses. See if anyone didn’t make their way to the other side.”
Jacksy nodded, still looking sick and horrified. Pike would have the rest of the crew board and search the place. Wouldn’t do to have another ghost crew floating around giving them competition.