By Phaedra Mintun
The roar of engines clattering to life rattled the bones of the docks as the ships rose into the air, starting the race. Scottie dangled from the rigging with bated breath and eyes constantly on the move, watching the competition. All eyes were on Baron Von Bosewicht's German ringer as it leapt into the air and began a series of efficiently nimble maneuvers. It was quick on its wings and lifted with ease into the smoggy blue of the summer morning. It was a race tradition that each ship gave the gathered audience a preview of why this was the most dangerous race in the world. Each ship would feed the gathered bloodlust of the masses by flexing its weaponry, giving them a glimpse of the brutal warfare that would be taking place in their skies over the next few weeks by all converging on the best ship money and precision could build and destroying it utterly.
Somehow, even with the deafening clanks, huffs and twapitty whirs of the ships, Scottie could hear the intake before the crowd collectively held its breath. As the six ships floated skyward, all eyes were watching the doomed vessel. So transfixed were they that they missed the most impressive display of the entire race. With nary a "foop," the little drudge of Russian ingenuity that everyone had given a half look and then forgotten shot into the sky and disappeared.
Scottie kept his vigil in the ropes, watching the action, while S'more sat in his position at the Dread Ship Shirley's massive air cannon. Scottie listened as it hummed softly, sucking in its ammunition, and noted the extra little fizz that now accompanied the initial warming up of the ship’s weaponry.
On the battlefield, the little German ship nervously dodged and darted, anticipating an attack from any angle. A loud crack sounded from the ingenious little ship and a whiz of sparks shot skyward from its decks, ending in a puff of purple crackling splendor. A series of ominous pops and screams followed and Scottie found himself with the best seat in the house for a stunning display of fireworks. Bright streaks of spiraling white shot from the deck of the German ship to dance with the explosions of red, blue and green. Scottie glanced at the twins who were rolling with laughter in the crows’ nests. "Where'd ya get those?" He called out.
Dylan and Edwin put on serious masks, and then Dylan hollered back. "You know very well Rattling keeps a store of the whizbangers for when he wins!"
Edwin nodded. "Since were gonna beat 'im, we thought it our civic duty to make sure the people got a show anyhow!"
The La Théière flitted up just a hint above the pyrotechnic display on the ship’s deck and a shrill screech sliced through the air as a spurt of steam shot from the long French ship’s bow and encased the German machine. Scottie rolled his eyes. Captain Russel never could come up with a new trick. His blast of hot steam could be an effective weapon, and it provided enough cover to make an escape, which was when the gazelle-like ship really showed skill. But once you understood the dynamics of La Théière's boiler exhaust-based cannon, the real damage was to the crew’s morale when they realized that they had been farted on by a complete idiot.
Russel got his ship spun around for her quick escape when he surprised everyone. Out of her stern popped a burst of confetti and she sped away, making an attempt to speed under the other ships. On board the Baron's Sure Thing, the crew started running around like crazed squirrels. Scottie watched, confused, as two of the men on board leapt overboard and fell flailing to the ground with a sickening crunch.
The long French ship was sneaking under The Garuda when Rattling's men rapelled over the edge of their winged junk and invaded, swords flashing steely cold in the filtered sunlight.
The sleek and beautiful Del Diavolo Fanciulla rose above the Baron's poor little half-crewed martyr and rained down a fine shower of dark specks. The results were instantaneous. The balloons were shredded and hot air bellowed out. In the same moment, S'more let loose a crack of lightning that made a crooked streak of incandescence through the sooty haze and hit the hull of the tidy little sacrifice, splintering her boards open like a piñata. The air cannon barked a great WOOF, sending a wrecking ball of solid air after the lightning. The spinning wreckage shrunk as the Dread Ship Shirley was shot away by the force of her own cannon.
Scottie closed his eyes and let his stomach catch up to the barreling ship. He kept his senses honed, waiting for the right moment to catch the wind. His eyes snapped open and the rope spun through his heavily gloved hands and the white canvas filled with wind, popping outward like pregnant sheep. He sped through his work, making constant adjustments to the sails to aid the new engines Oscar had built. All the while he kept his eyes roving the sky, leaning out to check above and below. The ship was alive with movement. Up at the heaters, the twins were in constant communication, flashing their colored paddles. S'more, Captain Sticky and Cook were working in rounds with Scottie, so eyes were everywhere. As Scottie passed the door to the navigation room, he gave a quick "Clear!" and heard the assurance echoed back, along with the chatter of clicks that made up their communication with Oscar, which kept the ship's steering and engines in sync.
"PORT!" Cook's charbroiled voice shouted.
Scottie's feet pounded over the boards and he saw the long shadow of Russel's La Théière gliding closer. Scottie’s mind whirled. The last they had seen her, she was being boarded by Rattling’s crew, so they could be dealing with anyone running her now! S'more's thick bare feet stomped from cannon to cannon as he started them warming.
Scottie swung into the rigging, pulling free the ties and gathering them in his hands. He held them taut, ready to make any adjustment necessary at a moment’s notice. The French ship was speeding closer, rising up from a slightly lower altitude. From this angle it would be hard for them to use their air cannons, but the smaller lightning guns would have better range. S'more was lining up his shot when an explosion of bright bits of paper filled the air and fluttered all around them.
Scottie's eyes burned. The itching was so terrible his hands trembled as he fought the urge to release the ropes and claw at his eyes. Tears streamed down his face. The skin in his nostrils began to crawl like a hill of fire ants. His throat seared like he had just made out with a fire-breathing aardvark. His mind went blurry. All he could think about was getting away from the terrible itching. Holding the ropes didn't seem important anymore. Scottie gathered all his willpower and held firm to the ropes.
On deck, Sticky was yelling something that sounded like "snows late for hair famines!" over and over.
Scottie was so distracted by this strange mantra that his mind cleared for a moment and he was able to regain the sail ties just before the hurfing boom of the air cannons. The ball of air whiffed past him, bellowing the sails like a godly belch. He threw himself forward off his footing on the yardarms so that the sails could fly out horizontally and catch as much of the cannon-generated wind as possible. The ship buoyed upward like a salted peanut in beer. Scottie hung for a moment, dangling by the rope, lifted by the full sail, then gravity snatched at him and he swung back at the yardarm in a slow arc. The engine's rattling sped to a low, rumbling whine as it helped the ship higher. Scottie’s eardrums felt as though they were going to pop and the air snapped from the gentle heat of a summer day to a crisp chill.
He hit the yardarm with a bone-jarring thwump. With his free arm, Scottie grabbed the pole and searched with his toe for footing. Wind howled around him like a wild dog and he fought to latch the sails as its cold wet nose snuffled through his clothing.
The air was thin this high and Scottie had to drag breath in to keep from being lightheaded. His skin rose into goosebumps and he shivered as the cold air seeped through his clothes. They were moving fast with the higher air currents. Scottie dropped onto the deck and ducked his head low toward his shoulders, trying to keep the cold from sneaking down his shirt collar.
Cook's southern fried steak of a face rose out of the hatch. He was smothered under a thick gravy of jackets. He tossed Scottie a parka that hadn't been seen since that time they had to detour over the arctic. "Put it on an' take these up t' da twinkle twins."
Scottie slid his arms into the thick coat and hoisted the heavy jackets meant for Dylan and Edwin over his shoulder. He sucked in a couple of skimpily oxygenated breaths and made his way up to the crow’s nest.
Dylan was hunkered close to his heaters. "I hope there's a nip in the pocket."
Scottie looked out over the view as he passed him the heavy coat. "Can't say much for the atmosphere, but the view is lovely."
Dylan scowled at him as he threaded his lanky arms through the coat sleeves. "Enjoy it while it lasts, we can't keep the air hot for long up here. Flame's dyin'!"
After delivering the second coat, Scottie worked his way down, stopping occasionally to catch his breath. He paused, trying to get a good lungfull when he noticed a strange shadow moving in the distance. He watched it closely for a few minutes and then it dawned on him what he was looking at. The little utilitarian floater crawling with men in thick coats and fur hats was speeding along a good distance off their starboard side. Scottie dropped out of the rigging and delivered the observation to Sticky and Cook.
They tried veering toward the small, fast cruising ship to get within combat range, but the little ballooner only rose higher out of their reach and they were forced to retreat in order to avoid attacks from above. They raced on playing a game of cat and mouse, the Dread Ship Shirley making attempts to get close enough to strike and the little ship rising out of their reach. Soon, it came down to endurance. Scottie couldn't tell whether the crew of the opposing kite was struggling in the high altitude, but he could tell his crew members were feeling the strain. Everyone had grown quiet, focusing their light, spinning heads on the work at hand. The engines were struggling at a high whine to keep the ship moving and the heaters were fighting to keep their flames from snuffing.
The ships moved swiftly, wearily coasting side by side at a safe distance. Finally, Finn flashed a green paddle out the door of the navigation room and the ship began to drop. Scottie sighed with relief and went to work preparing for descent. He tugged in the sails, setting them at the proper angle. Cook shouted from below him and he looked down, trying to make out the words that accompanied the wild waving of his drumstick arms. Then he saw what the commotion was about. Their opponent was dropping like a stone, wings tucked in, balloons depleted. The ship was swan diving toward the ground.
The whole crew sprung into action, and the Dread Ship Shirley followed her adversary at a spleen-crushing speed. The wind screamed like a deranged cougar as it blew past Scottie's popping ears. The small ship had the advantage, having begun its dive before them, but suddenly the engines joined the howling as they pushed them closer to the swelling earth.
The little ship blinked past them as they overtook it. The landscape was growing in ever sharpening detail as it jumped up to meet them. Scottie cringed, ready for the impact.