By Phaedra Mintun
The air rushing past Scottie's face shot his sandy blond hair straight up off his forehead like he'd received an electric shock. The Dread Ship Shirley was rushing nose first toward the ground like she had spotted her lost lover. Her engine's roar made the deck quiver in anticipation as they pushed her forward. Scottie's stomach ran in nervous circles and his mouth filled with sour, bile-laced saliva. He wanted to look away from the ever-growing ground, but his eyelids knew they could not save him from this kind of horror and would not close. In his mind, he begged the ship to stop, sure it was too late for them to stop, sure that they had teased destiny one time too many and now she was going to punish them.
The moment of impact was upon them. Scottie could not decide if he considered himself blessed for having had the chance to live as a skyman, or if he was finally paying the price for indulging in the absurdity of spending his days floating around in a bucket of wood and canvas, thumbing his nose at gravity and calling "neener-neener!" to the laws of physics. The ship let out a small creak and then there was a terrific, bone-shattering, head-splitting, ear-popping BOOM!
The Dread Ship Shirley leapt back from the ground as if she had reached her lover, only, in the moment before they embraced, to suddenly remember that she had caught him cheating on her. With her sister. The night before their wedding. While he was wearing a chicken suit. And eating baby kittens.
It was a hell of a leap back. Unprepared for such a turn of events, Scottie lost his footing on the yardarm and swung out into the air. He clung to the sail ties, dangling out into the wide-open air as the balloon heaters hissed like a pit of starving snakes, watching the teetering steps of a lone mouse. The ship leveled herself and floated softly to the earth. They were the first to arrive at the checkpoint to pick up the first cargo. The gathered audience stood in shocked silence. Scottie hung, slightly dazed, beside the slack sails. He looked out over the many staring eyes and gave a jaunty little wave. The audience broke into deafening cheers! So focused was everyone on the death defying landing of the Dread Ship Shirley that they never noticed the small utilitarian ship that had broken out of its dive in a timely fashion and came down to the dock in a tidy and quite ordinary landing.
Scottie quickly lowered himself to the deck. Cook was curled around the base of the mast; his eyes squeezed shut so tight that his face looked like a pack of bacon strips before it has been set out to thaw. Scottie poked Cook's large rump with the toe of his boot. Cook pried apart two of the slices of bacon to peek up at him with his small beady eyes. "Are we dead?"
Scottie shook his head. "Don't think so."
Cook released the mast and sat up, his legs splayed out before him like roast lamb shank ready for the spit. "What the hell happened?"
Oscar, the ships engine master and resident inventor extraordinaire, popped his small birdlike head out from the hatch. His top hat sat askew and the lenses that stood out from it on hinged arms were all standing up in an oddly peacock-like manner. "Is everyone alright?"
Scottie's eyes darted around, taking in a quick evaluation of the crew. S'more was sitting, looking stunned, behind the huge air cannon at the front of the ship. The twins were sliding down the rigging from their perches in the crows' nests. Rick and Finn were emerging from the navigation room and Sticky was strolling toward them in his big black boots. Scottie nodded. "All accounted for. What happened?"
Oscar's thin, pale lips parted in an uncharacteristic grin. "Spun the engines round the wrong way at the last minute, just as S'more gave the ground a blast from that cannon I fixed up. Popped us back like a cork."
Cook shoved his great haggis of a form up onto his sirloin feet. "We might'a landed first, but if we don't stop lollygaggin' we aren't gonna keep ahead. Better go get the first cargo loaded an' find out where we're goin'."
As if to punctuate his point, the Garuda set herself daintily beside them. Her bat-like fairy wings stretched out to her sides. Rick eyed the landing ship suspiciously. "How the hell did they get here so fast?"
Edwin shook his head, frowning. "Dunno. Bet I can think of a way to keep it from happenin' again."
Scottie, Sticky, Rick, and the twins stepped off the ship, leaving the rest of the crew to guard her against sabotage. Rattling paced out of his open cargo hold, sauntering with a cocky assurance that was somewhat undermined by the blotched appearance of his face. His ragtag team of genetically challenged skymen lingered behind him, many of them covered with blisters as well. Normally, with his face scrunched and marred with scars, Rattling wasn't much to look at, but it was all made grotesquely worse by bright, shiny, red blisters that pulled his mouth into a strange sneer and closed off his right eye.
Sticky gave him a handsome grin, looking the opposing captain over with his bright emerald eyes. "That pox we were discussing has spread, I see."
Rattling gave a disgusted snort. "No points for bein' pretty. Least I managed to land me ship properly."
Rick glared at the little captain. "No points for bein' slow either. If you had been here as early as we were, you might have had time to arrive with some style."
Scottie glanced around and noticed that Edwin had slipped away. Scottie had a pretty good idea where the freckled fiend had made off to. He figured it was best to keep Rattling distracted until the redheaded miscreant returned. "Come on, Ricky, look at his ship! Ratty wouldn't know style if it walked up and kissed his ugly mug."
Rattling's one good eye narrowed into a hate-weeping slit. Rick shook his head. "Style would never go near a puss pocket like old Ratty, so we haven't got a thing to worry about when it comes to bein' shown up by the likes of his shabby little crew. Did you manage to pick up those fellows we dumped back at the start for you, Ratty?"
Rattling's crew shuffled forward threateningly, but their captain made a small movement with his gnarled hand that stopped them.
Sticky shook his dark, curly head mournfully. "It's a shame when a captain can't even stop a contracted crew from tryin' to stow away, so they can fly on a decent ship."
Beneath the blisters, Rattling's face grew a darker red. "Shame when a man that calls 'imself a captain can't even get a decent crew to man 'is ship an' has to bargain with the devil for the castoffs of hell just to find a group that will work with 'im and 'is broken down balloon-dangler."
Scottie looked around to see if they had bought Edwin sufficient time and then he scanned the sky. Off in the distance, he noted the unmistakable, long silhouette of Russel's La Théière. Scottie gave Rattling a knowing smirk. "How did your attack on Russel's darling go?"
Rattling left off his bickering with Sticky to spit a long stream of rank brown sputum in Scottie's direction. "Russel is a ponce. That ship is wasted on him."
Dylan's freckled face split into a wide grin. "Nasty burns on your face. Did you have a boiler accident, or were you attacked by a little teapot?"
Rattling's face glowed with fury but before he could respond, they were interrupted by Cook's voice shouting down at them. "YOU STUPID IDIOTS, GO GET THE BLOOMING CARGO! THAT DAMN RUSSIAN SPEED DEMON IS ALREADY GONE AND YOU ARE CHITTER-CHATTING WITH A WORTHLESS LITTLE RAT!"
Scottie glanced over to where the small, high-flying ship with the be-hatted crew had been and saw that Cook was right. While they were busy trading barbs with Rattling, the untouchable, forgettable little ship was beating their pants off.
Rattling had also looked to the empty space where the Russian ship had been. Rattling's dark slit of vision swiveled back and met the great glowing green orbs that glittered out of Sticky's dark stubble. They both stood still as statues for a moment, eyes locked, then both captains and their crew were running toward the cargo location.
The cargo was being kept in a large structure several yards away. Each crew was rushing forward while using every available means to beat back their opponents. Scottie flung out his elbow and felt it cave in the fragile bones of a competitor's nose. Blood splattered across the dusty dirt and the man swore but didn't stop running. Another man jumped onto Scottie's back, wrapping his arms around his neck and squeezing tight. Scottie leaned forward, using the extra weight as added momentum and charged through the brawling mass.
Scottie's piggybacker was crushing his windpipe, making his breathing labored and painful. Scottie dropped his head closer to the ground, bending farther forward. He threw his hands out in front of him, palms to the ground and threw himself into a somersault. He heard the hollow clonk of the other man's head hitting the hard-packed earth and then Scottie's body came to a halt, landing heavily enough on the other man to produce a great gust as the wind was knocked out of him. The hold on his neck was released and Scottie rolled to his feet, narrowly avoiding the kicks that were sent toward his ribs.
Sticky and Rattling were pummeling each other and Rick was pounding in the bloody face of one of Rattling's crew. Two previously pummeled bodies laid bleeding at his feet. Since Scottie couldn't see him anywhere else, he assumed that Dylan was somewhere in the dust cloud that was rolling about on the fringes of the fray.
Scottie moved up behind Rattling as he fought with the captain, preparing to knock the opposing captain over the head. Before he had the chance, Sticky landed a clean punch to Ratty's blistered-over eye and clear fluid sprayed back, glittering in Stickywicket's dark scruff. Rattling screamed in pain and dropped to his knees, clutching at his face. The Captain's pure, leafy eyes gleamed at Scottie and his full lips curled into a friendly smile. "Never did like him much." Sticky brought his knee up and bashed Rattling's hands farther into his face, crumpling him into an unconscious puddle.
With one stride of his long legs, Sticky was over Rattling, stepping up to Scottie's side. Rick and Dylan were both catching their breath among the beaten and bloody. The four of them made their way to the large building to collect their cargo.
As they were reaching the door, the sleek Italian ship, Del Diavolo Fanciulla was gracefully dropping into the arena, closely followed by Russel's La Théière. Scottie noticed that the long French ship was badly damaged. Her delicate filigree railing was mangled and dangling off her starboard side and her mast was sitting just a little crooked.
The captain reached for the door with his long, spidery fingers and yanked open the large barn doors. A wave of dry, foul air hit them from the dark confines. Inside, there was the rustling of movement. It took a few seconds for Scottie's eyes to adjust enough that he could make out the large ruffled bodies, long necks, small glinting eyes, and sharp beaks. Just as the mass of feathered bodies was registering in his mind as ostriches, there was a horrible shrieking. Long arms wound themselves around his body like a straightjacket. Long, spidery fingers crept through his sandy hair and took root any place they could find a hold, whether it be ear or nostril. His waist was clamped by winding legs and thick boots dug into him as his captain attempted to both climb and meld with his body. Scottie staggered under the weight of his squawking captain.