By Phaedra Mintun
Scottie leaned back, hammocked in the rigging, watching the massive city grow from a gray scab in the distance into a skyline of shoe boxes split by a brown ribbon of river as they approached. The soot and smoke pouring from the tiny boxes stained the horizon like spilled ink. Backlit by the morning sun, the silhouettes of ships hovered over the dark smudge like fat faeries over a bassinet, swooping in to deliver gifts and curses and darting away before the little monster within could devour them. Just thinking about descending into the cloud of squalor and stink made Scottie's chest ache.
Scottie stretched his long limbs and brushed back his sandy hair. Whether he liked it or not, they would be landing and there was work to be done. He swung his way through the rigging, adjusting the sails for a smooth landing. He listened for the chuff-chuff of the balloon's heaters to ease off and felt the ship slowly sinking lower. The chugging clatter of the engines dropped in pitch, and the propeller units groaned as they shifted angles to help the ship come down. The gray mass of city filth climbed up over the hull and slithered onto the deck, sandpaper tentacles prodding him with every breath.
Dylan dropped onto the deck from his seat at the balloon controls, his freckled face serene under his mop of flaming hair. He drew in deep pulls of the gritty oxygen. "Ah! Nice to get me snoot full o' some good home air."
An identical lanky form dropped down beside him. Edwin took a deep breath just like his brother had done. "Nothin' like the smell o' London, can't starve in this city, air's thick enough to eat."
Scottie gave them a disgusted look. "Feels like breathin' the air straight from the pits o' hell." He eyed their matching devilish grins and impish red heads. "Aye, you two would feel at home in it."
Cook heaved himself up from below deck and lumbered toward them waving a bratwurst-like finger. "No lollygagging! The moment we let down our guard is the moment we have lost this thing!" he shouted, his face as flushed as a pig at a luau.
Dylan looked confused. "We 'aven't even got to the race yet?"
Cook's coloring rised to pepperoni proportions. "An' you think that's gonna stop them!? GET TO YOUR POSTS!"
All three of them scurried through the dusty fog and found plenty of work to keep them busy as the ship came down to earth.
The docks were crowded with ships and spectators. The Baron Von Bosewicht Sky Race was an annual trial of skill, sabotage, and survival known around the world as the most outrageous and dangerous competition that any crew could take on. The task was simple; three cargos picked up and delivered. The first ship to deliver the final cargo wins.
Baron Von Bosewicht, owner of the second largest shipping company in the world, stood on a platform in front of the competing ships and addressed the crowd, laying out the rules of the competition, or, more aptly, explaining that there were none. He was built as though he was made of string beans; long, bowlegged and skinny. One got the feeling that under his tailed coat and garish vest he was little more than gristle and meanness. His greasy mustache coiled under his large hooked nose like a snake preparing to strike and his small sharp eyes darted around as though he was constantly under attack by invisible threats. Scottie had noticed over the years of competing in the race that the Baron had a strange habit of patting his breast pocket every few seconds. Scottie got a creepy sensation whenever he imagined what strange item Von Bosewicht needed constant reassurance that he still possessed. There had been rumors of everything from it being the key to his vault, to the contract he had made with the devil trading his soul for his riches, and even that inside his pocket was a small shriveled chunk of rotted meat that had once been the man's heart.
Scottie stood on deck with the rest of the crew. Cook and Captain Stickywicket were talking quietly between themselves. Sticky's bright green eyes flitted from one ship to another and his long spidery fingers stretched out to tentatively point at one ship or another in turn. S'more, the crew's hulking Samoan cannon man, stood slightly apart from the group. His hand rested on one of the huge air cannons. He glanced from one ship to another silently measuring each one's merits or flaws. Beside Scottie, Dylan and Edwin, the ship's balloonmen, were joking with Finn and Rick, the ship's navigation team, as they looked over the competition. There were six ships, including their ship, The Dread Ship Shirley.
Edwin pointed to the closest ship. "Looks like ol' Ratface has got a new finish on The Garuda."
Dylan giggled manically. Captain Rattling and his crew competed every year, and it usually came down to just the two of them at the end. The previous year, the Dread Ship Shirley had won after a large hole had mysteriously appeared in The Garuda's hull in the last leg of the race and all of its cargo had been lost.
Rick looked at the repaired ship with a smirk. "Hope it's a bit better built this year, terribly disconcerting when a ship just falls apart like that. Some say it's bad captaining, but I blame the whole crew if they can't keep things in order enough not to fall apart."
Captain Rattling was standing at the railing of his ship, looking everyone over with suspicion. He was a small man with rodent-like features and a bloodlust that left rumors of piracy and murder in his wake. The Garuda was small and fast, designed with two tube-shaped balloons close at her sides and tight fin-shaped wings common to Asian ships. Finn called out to him, "Good to see you again, Ratty! Hope you can keep that foul bird from puking her guts out over the sea this year!"
Captain Rattling gave them a sour look. "Hope your captain can make it to the end with more than his hat. The picture in the press was a pox on the mind of the populace."
Sticky leaned over the railing toward the other captain with a curling grin and a knowing wink. "You would know about a pox on your populace, now wouldn't you, Ratty?"
Scottie gave Edwin a sharp elbow and pointed. "Russel's back with his darlin' little La Théière."
Edwin shook his head. "A ship like that is wasted on a ponce like Russel."
Rick pointed at a tidy little German vessel. "There's the Baron's ringer. Too bad, it's well made." Both the twins nodded. It was race tradition that every year the Baron would spend his vast resources to have the greatest German inventors to make him a fantastic ship, a perfect mix of ingenuity and design. It would have every possible advantage and by all rights should win the race. In the first five minutes it would be destroyed. All five of its competitors would band together and take it down in a catastrophic, fiery display of the utter chaos and ruthlessness that the race was known for. Then the every-ship-for-itself war began.
Edwin shook his head. "It's a wonder he can find a crew to man those things anymore."
"It's a wonder that thing found a crew at all!" Finn exclaimed, pointing to a small purely utilitarian two-ballooner.
Scottie shook his head. The ship was obviously lightweight and small, but no expense had been spent in making it pretty. It was harsh and impersonal.
Edwin shivered. "It makes my soul feel cold."
Scottie spotted several thickly built men clamoring around the rigging. Each was wearing a thick gray coat and a fur hat that was strangely out of place on the warm summer morning.
Dylan let out a low whistle, his eyes filling with open lust. Scottie followed his enchanted gaze to a beautifully made ship,. He instantly forgot about the ugly little drudge of a ship and her fur-capped crew, in favor of the beauty that now held his attention. Her balloons were small, low, and shaped for speed. Her hull was a masterpiece of sleek curves. At her front was a carved figurehead of a beautiful woman, her head thrown back in ecstasy as her body was ravished by a group of demons carved so they seemed to be a part of the ship itself, caught in transition between wood and demonic flesh. Del Diavolo Fanciulla was written in fancy inlaid script close to the figurehead. Scottie groaned. She was Italian. Edwin was the first to speak. "Is it wrong to feel stirrings for a ship?"
Dylan made a strangled sound in his throat. "Not if it's that ship. I wonder what our children will look like."
Finn shook his head slowly. His eyes dilated to better take in every detail of her softly swelling port side and daintily curved wings. "The air must just slide off her like she's oiled. I would love to get her into a tight spiral!"
All heads around him nodded reverently.
There was a loud clattering from below deck followed by a loud cry of surprise from Oscar, the ship's engine master and resident inventor. Peeling their eyes from the work of art, Scottie, Rick, and Finn dashed below.
They charged down the narrow hallway, through the cargo hold and down the short steps to the engine room. The solid metal door had been ripped off its hinges and from within the small cramped room there was a massive clattering, combined with a series of screams. Scottie burst through the doorway.
The small, cluttered room was such a blur of strange activity that Scottie wasn't even sure where to jump in. There were three small men from Rattling's crew, easily recognizable by their loose, shabby red shirts, ragged black pants, soft cloth shoes, shaved heads, and dark, slanting eyes. One of the invaders was beating at a small clockwork insect that had latched its sharp metal feet into his bare scalp and was making a lot of strange clicking and whirring sounds. He seemed to be doing much more damage to himself than his attacker and was the source of most of the screaming. One of his companions was struggling to free himself from a large woven basket that seemed to have swallowed him and was now waddling around on little metal feet, crashing into things while waving its short springy arms that ended with snapping, crab-like pincers. The last of the attackers was attempting to help his basket-trapped friend but, since his foot was trapped in a glob of some sort of slime that seemed to be preventing him from moving as well as growing up his leg, he was only succeeding in being trampled and smashed into walls by the woven basket and pinched by its nasty pincers.
Oscar was sitting at his instrument table, quickly turning knobs and pushing levers. Finn pushed past Scottie and quickly knocked the first man unconscious with a sharp blow to his nose. The man crumpled and his clockwork attacker hopped to Oscar's side. Oscar scooped it up absentmindedly and placed it on his shoulder. Finn moved on to the man trapped by the growing goo. He clomped him over the head and let him slump to the ground, where the toddling basket's clomping metal feet stepped him on repeatedly. Finn looked perplexed regarding what to do about the man inside the wound rope, who was crying out for help in his thick Chinese accent.
Oscar finished messing with the controls and turned toward them. His small bird-like face had a blossoming bruise just below his round goggles. His hat was sitting cockeyed, and several of the small mechanical arms were bent, making the lenses they held catch the light from the lanterns hanging near the ceiling and throw it back in unexpected gleams. "I have fixed most of the damage they tried t' do." He said, glowering down at the unconscious men. "If you could switch off Laundry Larry, and get tha' man out of 'im, I can get things fixed before the race." He rummaged in a drawer and handed Scottie a small bottle. "Tha' should stop the putty advancing, but see if you can find a pickaxe to get 'im up."
Finn's mouth opened and closed as he tried to work out any of the information the little inventor had just given them. Scottie shook the bottle of powder out over the viscous slime creeping over the man on the floor. It immediately stopped its crawl forward and began making creaking sounds as it hardened. "Rick?" he said as he leaned out the doorway. "Could you go find something like a pickaxe or anything that we could use to chip rock, and a bit of rope?" Rick looked confused, but nodded.
Scottie moved around Finn and darted around the wildly flailing arms of the chomping basket. On its back he found a turnkey, which he grabbed hold of and gave a hefty yank. It slid free and the basket's feet slowed and then stopped, its arms and pincers ceased to bounce and pinch and the clanking and chomping sounds from inside wound to a stop. Scottie looked over it to Finn. "It's safe to pull him out now."
Finn shrugged off his confusion and reached in and lifted out a whimpering, red-shirted skyman. He pulled back his other fist and stopped the man's sobbing.
Rick came back with a chisel, hammer and rope. "The race starts in ten."
They chipped Oscar's hardening putty off the floor, leaving the man trapped inside, and tied the other two up. Scottie, Finn, and Rick carried them up on deck with only a minute to spare before the race was to start.
"Hey, Ratty!" Scottie called. "Some of your men got lost, but don't worry, we helped 'em out!" They hefted the three unconscious men over the railing and watched them hit the ground limply.
Captain Rattling glowered at them and sent a few of his men to collect the mangled members of their crew as the count down began. The crowd gathered to watch the ships launch shouted the countdown of the final seconds.
"TEN!" Scottie slid his hands into his thick gloves.
"NINE!" He glanced up at the bright morning sun.
"EIGHT!" He clicked his harness into the rigging.
"SEVEN!" He took a deep breath.
"SIX!" He swung himself up into the rigging.
"FIVE!" He looked out over the docks, taking in the ships and the sea of cheering faces.
"FOUR!" He spotted two bright copper heads running toward the ship.
"THREE!" The engines of all six ships roared with an echoing clatter and clank like the forges of hell.
"TWO!" Two lanky forms burst onto the deck and scurried up the rigging to the crows' nests.
"ONE!" The heaters let out a hot fiery breath, the balloons swelled and the ship lifted. The race was on and anything could happen.