The Captain and the Lady Fair

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Changing Times

The Captain and the Lady Fair

ChangingTimes

The Captain And The Lady Fair

Changing Times

By Quinne Darkover

 

1

June 23, 1898

11:23 PM

On the Dolphin

 

     Alexandria gripped the armrests as hard as she could to keep from being tossed from her seat by the violent lurching and shaking of the passenger airship Dolphin. Only the fact that the seats and tables were bolted to the deck kept the salon from being a total disaster. The lights had gone out a few minutes before. The lightning flashes from the night sky highlighted pale, tense faces, swinging light fixtures and glittering glassware rolling around the floor. The glassware that had shattered with the fall from the tables gave off diamond-like reflections. Alexandria’s face was as pale as the other passengers’ were, but she was not screaming. Her lips were set in a firm line and she had a look of determination on her face. The other passengers were clinging to their seats just as Alexandria was. Alexandria could barely hear the cries of panic over the racket of the wood creaking and the shrieking storm pounding the ship. Over all the din, a baby’s cries stood out.

     A loud explosion and a hard shift to one side tossed Alexandria from her seat and up against the bulkhead.  The flames at the side of the salon now lighted the carnage and highlighted the red in Alexandria’s pantsuit with a floor-length skirt. A smell of acrid sulphur filled the air briefly before the wind blasting through the now-gaping hole in the side of the salon whisked the smell and smoke away. Alexandria looked around at the chaos by the light of the fire starting to burn more brightly around the salon. The air from the hole fanned the flames to make them burn faster and hotter. The smell of burning wood mixed with the odor of burning flesh became overwhelming. The wind carried blasts of rain through the wound in the ship, plastering Alexandria’s black hair to her face and outfit. A blood-soaked woman lay on the floor just in front of her, with a baby clutched in her arms. The blood was in stark contrast to the woman’s pale green dress. It was the woman whom she had seen boarding last. Alexandria crawled to her and lifted her head onto her lap.

     “You’re hurt. Don’t move.” A large splinter of wood protruded from her side. Alexandria put her hand around the wood and over the wound to slow the flow of blood leaking around the shaft. The wood in the wound moved with every breath the woman took.

The woman looked up at Alexandria. Her eyes creased in pain; her pale skin and the faint speech showed the wound to be mortal. “Take care of my baby girl.” she pleaded. “Please.” She stroked the baby’s face, pushing the blonde hair from it, and cradled her more closely. Her hand fumbled at the baby’s diaper, tucking the small pink ruffled shirt into it. As she kissed the baby’s cheek, she went limp. The splinter stopped moving.

     “I promise I’ll take care of her.” Alexandria’s sad voice held conviction.

Flames blew closer to Alexandria. She grabbed and clutched the baby to her chest. Alexandria pulled the unusual fabric of her skirt over them both, shielding them both against the heat. Blindly, she used her heels to push along the deep carpet and get away from the flames. The ship, losing air, began to tilt nose down and drop towards the sea below. As Alexandria started to slide along the wall, she half-curled around the baby to protect her from impacts with objects and people in the room. Keeping the skirt up, she offered what protection she could. Another shift and tilt tossed Alexandria out the hole in the side of the ship. The fall of 20 feet to the waters below knocked the wind out of her when she hit the water on her back.

     The waves bobbed her up and down and made it hard to hold the baby above the water. It was even more difficult trying to shield the infant from the rain and waves. “Well, little one, we’re in a fine kettle of fish.” She had lost her grip on the skirt edge with the impact with the water, and the skirt kept tangling her legs as she kicked to keep high enough for both to breathe. “Okay precious, hang on a sec, I have to shift the skirt.” Holding the baby with one hand, Alexandria reached down to her calves and curled her legs up. Grabbing the hem, she pulled the skirt up over the baby, shielding it from most of the water pouring down. “Now what, eh? I need to get you out of all this, but there is nowhere to go and I can’t see a thing in the dark.”

     With sudden movement, she gave several kicks to get herself floating on her back. She flipped the skirt up and over, trapping some air as a bubble, and pulled the drawstring at the hem tight under her arms, trapping the baby inside, against her belly. “That will keep you out of the worst, sweetheart. Sorry I can’t get you dry.” The trapped air helped keep her afloat. In a few moments, the baby stopped crying but still squirmed, seeking a comfortable position.

Floating on her back, she could see the airship Dolphin wrapped in flames. Now it dragged slowly across the water as its bottom slowly went deeper into the sea. The explosion of the airship lit up the dark, revealing an empty sea with a red dot bobbing in the water. Pieces of airship fell around them. Alexandria started talking to the baby to comfort her, as well as herself. “Now that the fireworks are over, I need to figure out what to call you. Something short and cute like you. Kira. That’s it. Kira.”

     Every few minutes, timing the waves, Alexandria loosened the string to flap the skirt and catch fresh air for Kira. Alexandria kept running her hand over Kira through the skirt to feel her movement and reassure herself. The baby was quiet but still moved about. “At least the water is not that cold. You’re a brave girl, braver than I am. You’re quiet and I’m ready to cry. We kind of have this backwards; you know?”

     Alexandria’s head hit something hard floating behind her. Kicking around, she felt a large plank floating next to her. “Thank you, Lord.” Her words where whisked away by the wind. She grabbed at the plank. Her hand felt a flat sheet of wood at the end of the plank. She pulled herself partially up out of the water onto the sheet of wood, keeping on her side so as to not hurt the baby. The slamming waves kept trying to knock her back into the water. Keeping up the chatter to Kira while she fought the brutal beating of the water to stay with the flotsam, Alexandria waited for dawn.

 

2

June 23, 1898

11 AM

On the Lady Fair

 

     Joan slowly shook her head and mumbled. "We’re in for interesting times."

     Joan and Victoria, at the rear of the bridge, watched the Captain, with his head down, pace back and forth across the obsessively neat and polished bridge. The coffee in his cup had gone cold and untouched, but he still carried it with him, on his trek to find an answer. Wood gleamed and brass shone. In front of the center of the large panoramic window was a large domed compass on a pedestal. The Captain would pause on every other pass to stare down into the compass dome, as if it were a crystal ball. The reflection of dials, gauges, levers and small wheels spread out on each side of the Captain’s huge spoke wheel were ignored as he stared past it all, deeper into the ball. Finding no answer he would pace again. A brown leather seat with arms, mounted on a swivel pedestal in the center of it all beckoned him to sit but it was ignored as it had no answers. A turn in his path would bring him to a  large mahogany chart table with round holes in the base holding rolled charts, where he would stare down at the chart, seeking a course that wasn’t marked. His footsteps were a regular rhythm across the light tan bamboo floor. His reflection in the polished floor followed his ever step.

     Joan and Victoria stood still, and only their eyes followed his searching. Joan was slightly shorter than average and her brown, shoulder-length, curly hair framed a pixie-like face. Although both women wore the same style of outfit, it did more for Victoria. Victoria towered over Joan and the tan overalls she wore over a ruffled white blouse highlighted her slender frame. Her bright red, curly hair, which trailed to her waist, contrasted with the tan of the outfit.

     The Captain six feet tall, with jet-black hair that hung to his shoulders, and  his trim frame, was always striking, no matter which suit he wore. Today was no different, in simple tan pants and a white, long-sleeve shirt, ready for any action or work, but, for now, only paced with him. Joan could just hear Victoria’s whisper over the background noise of an active airship. “Umm, Joan. I just have to ask; why are we here and do you have any idea why he's pacing? I’ve been onboard a year and I’ve never seen him do that."

     Joan turned to the slight motion that caught her eye in the hatchway. Avery and Chance had stuck their heads in to see the Captain still pacing. Joan gave a shrug and a slow nod to the two peeping toms, which made her brown hair brush her shoulders as it swung. The two men looked at each other and left. Joan turned back to Victoria. "We’re here because I like to know what’s happening and I've only seen him do that pacing once, and that was just before you came aboard. Maybe over dinner I'll tell you what happened. When he paces, it means something is about to happen. Speaking of dinner, I'd better get below and get started on chow or the crew will see if I can cloud dance." Before Joan could leave, there was a loud commotion on the deck below. All three went to the window for a better look.

     The deck they looked out on, extended 100 feet beyond the bridge. It was flat, with only a crane and a half dozen hatches to break the surface. The crew on deck had been loading cargo, but the work had stopped and turned into a shouting match. In the center of the fracas was the Chief, towering over a slightly built man in a business suit with papers in hand. The man waved the papers in front of the chief, as if it were a magic talisman, to deflect his wrath.

     The Chief heard the Captain yell through the open window without the use of a loud box.

      "What's the problem down there? Why have we stopped loading cargo?" The Captain’s fingers were turning white with the grip on the spokes of the captain’s wheel.

     The Chief’s voice spoke back with the same sharp tone. "Some foul-up by a ground-kissing, scrawny-necked, pencil pusher sent us stuff we didn't order. We get the monster loaded and now they're yelling for us to unload it and give it back. I've been telling them, if they want it, they can unload it.”

     "What is it, Chief? Anything we can use?"

     "It looks like some kind of swing arm crane that can extend out and back in. We already have a crane that works just fine, even if it's not that fancy to move in and out." The Chief put his hands on his hips. Grease splotched the gray overalls, but few would notice, as the eye was always caught by his size: six foot six and wide as a door, with all of it muscle. His baldhead and gray beard would be noticed last of all.

     The captain's eyes stared blankly at the crane. He didn’t move, but stood still in thought. "Chief, I want that crane. How long will it take to replace ours?”

     The Chief’s mouth dropped open for a moment. His jaw moved up and down silently, as if practicing the words to come. "Well, Captain, it's not as easy as that. First, we have to get these pencil pushers to quit fighting over it, and then it'll take two hours to get the old one out and maybe four hours to get the new one in. These guys already sent for the harbor master's supply officer and, when he gets here, I'm sure he will have them unload it."

     "Okay, Chief. At the best, how long will it take you to make ours work like that one, or make one?”

     The Chief stroked his short beard a few times while walking along the length of the crane on the deck. The bystanders on the dock and the crew on the deck silently watched the Chief in his thinking mode, which featured his pulling his beard with an occasional grunt. With a slow turn of his head, he looked up to the Captain. "Captain, with my crew working full-time it'll still take an hour to get the old arm out and using parts from it and scrounging up more parts, maybe another 24 hours. It looks like rain’s coming and that will slow it down. Maybe we could start it tomorrow if the rain passes."

     “What about the new stuff Tailor was painting on the skin of the envelope?”

     “He finished everything except the rudder this morning. He woulda been done, but I pulled him for cargo load. This is the last load and all cargo we’re shipping will be on. It came in a few days early. We’ll be ready to lift on schedule Friday and still have three days to relax until then. No rush, Captain.”

     "Chief, use the entire crew if you need to, but we lift in twelve hours and I want that crane. Rain or no rain."

The Chief nodded and stroked his beard. Only Avery, who had just come to stand next to the Chief, heard him mutter. “Here we go.”

     Joan turned to the hatchway. “I'll go make sandwiches before I head out on deck. You might as well head on out to the deck; they'll be screaming for you at any minute."

The Captain added a further order. “Joan, after lunch is set up, go into town and get Doc and the others back to the ship.” He turned, strode to the chart table, and stared down at the laid-out chart.

     At that moment, Victoria heard the Chief calling her name, telling her to get her opposable thumbs on deck. As Joan stepped through the hatchway, Victoria heard a faint "Oh yeah, interesting times."

 

3

June 23, 1898

7 PM

The Galley

 

     Victoria buttered a roll and her stomach took that moment to give a rumble for her to hurry up. She wolfed down large bites of the roll. The crew was always in wonder as to where she put all the food that she ate. She ate enough for two easily, and her thin frame never gained an ounce. As soon as she had swallowed she spoke up “The Captain still on the bridge?”

     As Joan ladled the thick stew into her bowl, she gave a sigh. “Get that in you so I can hear myself over that stomach of yours, and yes, he’s still up there, and I doubt he’ll leave it anytime soon. I’ll take him his dinner or he’ll starve. Take my advice and eat when you can and sleep when you can. When I saw the Captain like this before, we ran hard for two weeks then ended up in an airship fight with slave smugglers on the Osprey that about did us in. Sound familiar? We had parts wearing out, then lots of holes to patch fast before we dropped into the water. It was close, I tell you.  After that, he collapsed in his chair and slept for 24 hours as we slowly made it to Arla Bay, the nearest port.”

     Victoria’s head popped up from hovering over the bowl, her bright red, curly hair bobbing several times as only bushed-out curly hair will do. “A gun fight and Arla? That was when you guys got me out of the smuggler slave ship!” She paused in her eating, and her face became a shade paler, at the memory of that ship.

     Avery and Chance came in at that moment, shaking water off their slickers, and, as always, Avery had something to say. “I’ll never forget that run but it wasn’t as bad as the Med run the year before that. Out of the blue, he orders up all manner of meds, and off we go through a heavy storm that shook our teeth out. The gasbags were getting soaked and they got heavier and heavier. How we stayed up I don’t know, but then, in the storm, we hold over Tinker Town and start unloading supplies with that very hoist we tore apart today.  I don’t know how he knew two weeks ahead there would be a plague, but that’s the Captain for ya. By the way, take what time you need to eat proper; then we have to get back on deck. You too, Joan. Not even Joan is immune on this one. We all know how things get when he’s like this.”

     Chance had grabbed a bowl, filled it, jammed a roll in it, and then stuffed the dripping roll into his mouth. “Them sandwiches were good at lunch, Joan, but they didn’t last. Now this will stick and get me through. What do you think, Avery? Another four hours push?”

     Avery mumbled his answer as a stew-soaked biscuit disappeared into his mouth. “Yep, I think so. If no one falls in this downpour and breaks a neck. That rain runs down the side of the bag and drops off right on my head while I’m at the crane.”

     Chance’s lips were set in a straight line and his forehead showed lines of concern. “Victoria, when the Captain is like this, it’s important to him. You just have to go along. He never does anything without a reason. There’ll be no stopping him anyway. You just rush to make sure you’re ready to do your job. If he gives an order, never question it. Most times, he can’t tell you what or why, but what he says always turns out important. If he trusts you, he’ll never question you either. He paces, we race. Never question an order. He won’t answer anyway. Being Captain, he doesn’t have to explain beyond what he tells ya. He’s fair and by far, the best there is. I know you’ve heard stories, but this will be your first time to see it. You’ll never forget it.”

     Victoria groaned. “I ache too much now. I just hope I can make four more hours. What does he need that crane for, anyway?”

     Avery, Chance and Joan looked at each other and smiled.

     Joan refilled Victoria’s bowl. “When we know, we'll tell you.”

 

4

June 22, 1898

6 PM

Alexandria

 

     Alexandria checked the laid-out clothes on the bed one more time and gave them a nod. Picking up the white dress with the full skirt and high, ruffled collar, she held it in front of herself and looked in the mirror. She declared to herself, “My dress for tomorrow.” The perpetual smile on her face showed her eagerness for the coming trip. Her waist-length, jet-black hair was a stark contrast to the white of the dress. At five feet eleven, her long legs made the figure in the mirror look almost regal.  As her hand reached for the first clothes to pack, a knock at her bedroom door stopped her. “Come in, Auntie.”

      Auntie entered wearing a smile that did not match the wrinkles of concern on her forehead. She was a short woman, with a slight figure and bobbed black hair. Her quick smile and eagerness to lend a hand endeared her to everyone she met. “Alex, I’m going to miss you so much; so will your Uncle.”

     “The conference only lasts a week. You know I would cut it short if I could, but I’m on panels all week. I’ll be back before you know it. If Auntie Helen is good, I’ll bring back a souvenir.” Alexandria’s chuckle was light and airy and her eyes had a twinkle.

      “You’re always such a smart-mouth brat. Okay, Miss Perky, I have something for you.” From behind her back, Helen pulled out a folded cloth. “I want you to wear this on the trip.”

     Alexandria took the bundle and let it fall open to reveal a one-piece, bright red, loose pantsuit with large pockets on breast and legs. There was also a matching wrap skirt and a wide sash long enough to wrap twice and tie around Alexandria’s waist. “Pants? You want me to wear pants? Ladies do not wear pants! Bright red? I’ll look like a hot pepper walking.”

     “Please, dear, wear it for me. It’s as nice as I could make it. It’s good, tough fabric but not too heavy. It’s even waterproof. I put in a draw at the hem on the skirt, so you can draw it tighter around the calves, so it’ll have the modern look I saw in Harrods. The fabric is made by that new company, Nomex. That’s the company that makes the fire suits your uncle wears. It’s special fabric.”

     “Auntie, I’ll roast to death in this. I love you to pieces but why do you want me to wear it? And Pants?”

     Helen’s eyes took on a sad look and her lips frowned at the corners. Combined with her short, rail-thin stature, it was a pitiful sight. “I can’t say, dear; just please promise you’ll wear it and put all your important papers and money in the pockets. They seal and become watertight in case you’re caught in the rain. Please.”

     Alexandria laid the pantsuit on the bed and crossed her arms over her chest. As she placed her feet slightly apart, she asked, almost in a whisper, “Why, Auntie?”

     The deep, raspy voice of her Uncle John emanated from the doorway. “I told you so.” As short as his wife, he still was a daunting figure, with large biceps and a barrel chest.

     “Be quiet, John. All she needs to do is wear it for me. Is it too much to ask her to wear it after I worked so hard on it?”

     “Tell her.”

     “Let it go, John.”

     “If you don’t, I will.”

     Helen stood quietly, wringing her hands.

     “It’s her dreams, or I should say nightmares.” John ran his hand through his thinning brown hair.

     “John!”  Helen took a deep breath. “Please don’t think me nutty, but I‘ve been waking every night for a month having nightmares and I don’t remember what they’re about. But then, I just had to make this and you just have to wear it. I just know it.”

     Alexandria stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her aunt. “Auntie, I said I love you to pieces and, if it’ll stop your nightmares, I’ll wear it.”

      The relief on Helen’s face was enough to tell Alexandria that she had made the right choice.

“When I get back from the conference, I’m going to tease you to death for being silly.”

Auntie looked at Alexandria with glassy eyes. “You mother would have been so proud. You’re so beautiful and smart too.”

     “Dinner, then pack and to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day.” John had a smile on his face.

     “Uncle, you’re right, and I love you to pieces, too.”  Alexandria gave him a peck on the cheek.

  

5

June 23, 1898

7 AM

The Airdrome

 

     The airdrome was new and huge. The square building had a mooring at each corner, which allowed the docking of four massive airships at once. The top half of the airdrome walls and the entire ceiling were made of glass panels. Through the glass panels, two massive airships were visible. Shiny marble floors and massive granite columns made the airdrome feel cool and open. The airdrome was busy with passengers hurrying to and fro, getting boarding tickets, checking luggage, and generally being excited to be boarding the airship Dolphin. The Dolphin was the grandest airship in the PanAir fleet, luxury only the rich could afford, or someone with traveling expenses paid to attend a conference. A loud box announced boarding to start on the Dolphin for New City in five minutes.

     Helen stood and hugged Alexandria hard. “Take care of yourself.”

“Auntie, why does everyone always say that? And yes, I will. Come on, Uncle, a hug from you too.”

     As her uncle hugged her as directed, Helen thanked her for wearing the suit. “I slept better last night. Thank you. I still feel pins and needles, but I feel better. I wish you wouldn’t go at all, but I suppose I can’t talk you out of this.”

     “No, Auntie, I have to go. It’s important. You know I have to go and give my paper on aether and the generation of electricity to create an aether energy shield. It could protect cities from storms and save lives. You know that.”

     They walked to the boarding gate and Alexandria showed her boarding ticket and her passport. The attendant nodded and Helen spoke up. “Pocket, dear. It’s raining now.”

     Alexandria shook her head and smiled as she put the papers in her breast pocket. “So it rains; I’m waterproof, remember?” Quickly walking up the ramp to the airship, she chuckled and said to herself “Make way for the giant red chili pepper!”

     Alexandria passed through the hatchway and the Sky Attendant pointed her to the left. The passageway emptied out into a grand sitting room, with velvet-covered plush seats all around the room. Vast windows and hanging electric chandeliers provided plenty of light. Sitting in a seat on the portside, she could see tables covered in white linen at the end of another passageway. She looked down at the colors of her pantsuit against the red velvet of the chair and muttered “Can it get worse?”

     “May I get you something to drink, Miss? Coffee? Orange juice? Breakfast will be served just after we lift off, if you wish to wait.” The attendant in the powder-blue skirt and jacket placed a napkin on the short table in front of Alexandria’s seat.

     “No, thank you; I’ll wait. Is the rain going to be a problem?”

     “No, Ma’am, it’s a light rain. It’ll make us a bit heavier and slow us down a tiny bit, but when you wake in the morning, we’ll be in sunny New City. The warmer climate is such a treat.” The Sky Attendant pointed to the passageway where Alexandria had entered. “Your sleeping cabin is down the passageway past the entry hatchway and your cabin number is on your boarding ticket. Enjoy the cruise.”

     Alexandria watched the people coming into the salon craning their necks looking at the opulent fixtures and décor. A young woman in a pale green, floor-length dress entered; she caught Alexandria’s eye, as she was carrying a baby.  She did not look around but went straight to the chair next to Alexandria, sat, and let out a sigh.

     The baby’s sleeping smile captivated Alexandria. She spoke to the woman. “A beautiful baby.”

     “She’s the best in the world, of course.”

     Alexandria watched the baby sleep and did not notice the last passenger to enter, who also watched the woman and her baby.

  

6

June 23, 1898

11:23 PM

The Bridge

 

     Doc watched the Captain sitting in his chair with his head down and eyes closed. It was obvious that he was not sleeping and that his mind was somewhere else. His form rocked with the swing of the bridge, pushed by the winds of the storm outside. “Captain, why don’t I give you something to help you rest?  You’re all wound up. Nothing strong, just…”

     Ignoring Doc, the Captain leaped up from the chair. “We’re out of time!” Crossing the bridge in two strides, he flicked on the loud box. “All hands to stations! All hands to Stations! We lift NOW! Pilot Kathryn to the bridge! Chief, engines up and fill the bags! Move! Move! Move!” The Captain turned to Doc. “You’re on standby and no thanks on the drugs.”

     From the loud-box, each member reported on station and ready immediately. The entire crew had been waiting at their stations.  

     Kathryn stepped onto the bridge from the passageway, where she had been leaning against the bulkhead, just out of sight. She wore her pilot uniform of brown leather pants, and a matching corset over a white ruffled blouse. Her leather flying jacket was open to keep cool, her brown, bobbed hair under a leather flying cap. “Course, Captain?

     The bridge floor under the Captain’s feet started vibrating as the engines came to life. “We’re going to run with the wind, Pilot.”

     Pilot did not ask the destination, but went to the controls and wheel instead. She read the dials and gauges quickly. “Captain, we’ll be ready to lift in three minutes. Engines are warming and will be ready with the lift.”

     “Lift when ready.” He once again spoke into the loud-box. “Victoria, Joan, Diana, Rigger, Tailor. Emergency lift! Grab axes and be ready to chop moorings at Pilot’s command in three minutes. Everybody else stay below deck.” He turned back to Pilot. “As soon as the engines can handle it, give me full throttle to the stops, and turn us with the wind.”

     Pilot grabbed the comm mic for the far talker. “Lady Fair calling Harbor Master; Lady Fair calling Harbor Master. Request permission immediate lift.”

     There was a short burst of static, and then the reply came. “Negative, Lady Fair. The winds are way too high and you’re not scheduled to lift for three more days.”

     Pilot did not have to check with the Captain. “Harbor Master, repeating request nicely for immediate lift.” Normally the Captain would have smiled at her emphasis on the word “nicely.”

A one-word reply came back. “Negative.”

     “We tried to be nice. See you when we get back.” Pilot switched off the comm and spoke into the loud-box. “Release lines.” Pilot slowly moved the throttles on the six engines to full throttle. Ropes strained to hold the ship earthbound against the thrust of the engines and the increasing lift from the added gas. The axes fell on the lines. There was a pause, and then the ship lurched into the storm to begin a race with the wind. The engines kept the Lady Fair in position against the 80-miles-per-hour wind. Pilot kept a firm hand on the wheel. Her lips tight in a straight line, her other hand controlled direction by adjusting the engine power and the rudder to turn the airship around and gain speed in relationship to the wind. As the Lady Fair turned broadside to the wind, she tilted to the side when the wind got a purchase on the lift bag. For a time, the Lady Fair moved at 80 miles per hour sideways, until Pilot Kathryn could get the airship completely turned around. The wind pushing from behind gave the Lady Fair an impressive speed over the sea.

     The Captain’s voice was firm but some of the stress had left it as the airship Lady Fair picked up speed and altitude with the storm winds pushing hard from behind. Using the loud-box, he set up the coming flight orders. “Chief, keep a good eye on the engines. Get one of the engineers to stand by to rest as soon as you can; he’ll be your relief. Diana to stand by; you’ll be the relieving pilot in four hours. All crew stay within the ship. I don’t need anyone blown off the deck.” Turning from the loud-box, he turned to Pilot Kathryn. “Do I detect a tilt?”

     “Yes, Captain. The rain has soaked the fabric on the tail, making us tail-heavy. Tailor didn’t get to finish that stuff he was putting on. The rest is dry and so it’s light. I’m sending in more air and will shift ballast as soon as speed picks up and I can let go for a minute.”

     The Captain paused and then, for the first time in days, a smile crossed his face. “You forget I was a pilot well before your time.” He strode with purpose to the ballast controls and started the pumps to transfer water from the aft to the bow. Slowly the nose lowered and leveled as the airship continued to pick up speed. He opened the portside door and stepped onto the walkway, in front of the bridge, and was instantly drenched by the rain. Both hands on the rail, staring off to an unseen point, he leaned forward as if to will more speed. Stroking the railing, he spoke to the Lady Fair “I need all you have.” The ship shuddered and gained still more speed. His eyes became unfocused as he stared forward. His words were whisked away by the wind “Hold on. I’m coming.”

 

7

June 24, 1898

Dawn

Alexandria

 

     The rain had stopped, but the waves still tossed in the confused sea. White foam caps blew off of the tops of the waves in a heavy spray. Alexandria still had a hold on the plank but now, after hours of clinging, her strength was gone and her grip kept slipping. She felt the baby breathing, still safe against her chest. “Dawn is here. Now maybe I can see to do something to keep us from sinking away. What do you think? Shall we try?”

     Now in a habit of working with the waves, she opened the skirt but, instead of closing it again after a flap for air, her hand, with aching fingers, plunged to the sash at her waist. Her legs kicked hard to keep high and in place on the makeshift raft, as losing the plank meant a quick death. Her words came out in gasps “Come on, fingers, work.” Reluctantly, the knot loosened and pulled free. The sash free, she closed up the skirt again, clung to the plank, and took a brief rest, such as it was. “Stay with me just a bit more.”

     For the first time in many hours, Kira began a soft cry. “I know you’re wet and hungry. Sorry, I can’t help that.”  Alexandria continued the chatter to Kira and she quieted again.

     Throwing one end of the sash around a piece of wood that jutted up from the flat bulkhead, she grabbed the free end as it swung around. Alexandria struggled against the tossing waves to tie it under her arms, securing herself to the only thing that could keep them alive. For the first time in hours, she did not have to combat the sea to stay afloat or fear sliding off into the sea and certain death. Keeping the baby to her chest, she allowed the skirt to stay open a small amount to let in a constant flow of air. Exhaustion and the relief of not holding onto the plank caused her to pass out, yet her arms kept a tight hold on Kira as a mother would instinctively. In her sleep, she began to mumble, repeating over and over, “Don’t worry, Kira; Thomas is coming.”


8

June 24, 1898

11:00 AM

The Bridge

 

     The Captain stood out on the widow’s walk, his hands gripping the handrail and his eyes staring forward. Pilot Diana, the identical twin sister of Kathryn, was at the helm, keeping the airship running with the wind. Both pilots were in the habit of wearing the same outfit anytime they were at the controls. Diana’s bobbed hair showed signs of sweat at the ends, where it touched her neck. Doc stood out of the way at the back of the bridge, holding onto a grab rail next to Kathryn, who was sitting on the couch. Doc always wore a long-sleeved ruffle shirt and long, black skirt. Doc’s eyebrows arched together with worry. “He’s been out there all night and morning? That isn’t good.”

     “I’ve been here all night short-shifting with Diana. Does sticking his head in to give orders to adjust course every half-hour or so count as coming inside?”

     As if he had heard them, the Captain left the walk and re-entered the bridge. “Come to port ten degrees and hold steady.” Over the loud-box his voice carried throughout the ship. “Chief, I am going to need you, your crew, and the deck hands on the crane. Use safe lines. Victoria, to the spotters’ nest with far glasses; you’ve got the best eyes for spotting.”

     A short line of bodies could be seen running onto the deck to man the crane and stand by. The men’s safety lines took on the look of a spider web as they hooked up to the safety railing. The Chief looked towards the bridge, waiting for orders.

     The Captain took up a pair of far glasses and stepped back out onto the walk to scan the tossing sea. He yelled over his shoulder “Pilot Diana, reduce to half speed. Ease to port. Drop us to 30 feet.”

     Pilot reduced the throttles and shifted the airship two more degrees to port. The angle of the wind made her have to fight the wheel to keep steady and use engines to assist the control. The airship dropped lower as she released gas. She watched as Joan joined the crew on the deck. Time froze as all eyes searched forward, looking for anything where the Captain was guiding them. The salt water spray soaked them in just a few minutes. Even at half throttle, the Lady Fair still raced over the sea, pushed by the wind.

     The loud-box from the spotters’ nest carried Victoria’s voice yelling with excitement. “Something ahead just off port heading, about 500 yards.”

     “Pilot, stay steady, full reverse. Slow us to the seas.” Eyes fixed to the far glasses, the Captain searched the sea for what Victoria had seen.

     “Captain, it looks like a red dot. Small. On a big square.”

     A wave crest brought the object up into the Captain’s view.  The Captain dashed inside and yelled into the loud-box. “Chief, attach a cargo net to the crane and be ready to launch to port.”

Figures on deck burst into a flurry of activity, releasing the locks on the crane, while three other figures ran to a storage box, just within reach of the safe lines, to pull out a net. Scurrying back to the crane, the crew grabbed at the net and started attaching the corners.

     “Chief, make one end low; we’ll need it as a scoop.”  The Captain could now easily see a large rectangular piece of wood with a figure in red lying on top. ”Pilot, can you see it?

     “Steadying onto it, Captain. Portside keeping.”

     Kathryn stepped to the side of her sister and moved in coordination to help with the coming maneuvers.

     “Joan, to the bridge, and be eyes for Pilot.” The Captain ran from the bridge down to the deck to join the crew and passed Joan running full tilt for the bridge. Leaning over the side, he could see the figure on the makeshift raft.

     “Okay, Chief, swing it out.” As the crew shoved at the crane, the arm swung over the side and the net fell open like a mitt. The Chief joined the Captain at the rail to hand-signal the crew directions for the crane.

     The engines could be heard changing pitch over the howl of the wind as Joan, on the portside walk, staring down at the sea, relayed to Pilot directions to come up and slow on the figure in the water.  The pilots worked to keep the ship steady and under control as it no longer raced faster than the wind, but now turned into it and fought to stay in place. During the pirouette, the raft never moved from portside. The engines were screaming to hold Lady Fair in place now that they faced fully into the wind. The wind, now tearing past the rudder, improved control.

     “Captain, that hunk of wood is going to be a problem. It’ll poke into the net and we won’t be able to get the whole thing in. He has to get off it and get to the net.”

     “He hasn’t moved and he should have if he were conscious.” The Captain stared down a moment. “My trust is in you, Chief.” The Captain launched himself over the rail, splashing down into the waves below. Surfacing, he was blinded by the salt spray in his face. Fighting wind and waves, he swam hard to the figure. Finding the figure tied to the plank, he struggled with the knot. While working to untie it, he saw that the figure was a young woman. A shiver ran through him. Knot freed, he left it wrapped under her arms and used it to pull her off of the plank. He began to swim a one-armed backstroke to the net, towing her behind him with the sash. Sudden pain ripped through the Captain, as the plank, driven by the wind, slammed hard into his ribs. He gritted his teeth and held his grip on the sash.

     As he drifted near and far from the action of the waves and wind, the crane arm shifted in and out to keep the net near him. The Chief hand-signaled instructions to the crew instead of trying to yell over the wind.

     The net scooped the Captain and Alexandria up and, as it began to lift, he blacked out from the pain of every breath.

     The Chief signaled for the net to be lowered onto the deck. Seeing the two figures unconscious, he yanked frantically at the net, as a man gone mad. “Get stretchers! Get Doc!”

 

9

June 24, 1898

The Sick Bay

 

     Electric lights lit the sick bay. The white metal cabinets with glass doors reflected light back into the room. The large room held four beds. Doc looked at the two unconscious patients stretched out on the beds. “Sorry, Captain, I think she needs me first. Chief, don’t just hover; get his clothes off so I can check him.” She turned to the young woman, saw the cord holding the skirt up under the arms, and untied it. A gasp escaped her lips when she saw the still form of the baby. “Oh, Dear God! No! No! No!” Touching the back of the baby, she felt the chill skin through the thin pink shirt. “Please, Lord. NO!”

     She tried to pick the baby up, but the woman’s arms were locked, with their hold protecting her from bumps and the cold. Trying to pry the arms away, she bent and talked in the woman’s ear. “You can let go. You’re safe now.” She whispered it repeatedly as a mantra while the grip slowly relaxed enough to pull the baby away. She hugged the baby’s head to her cheek. “I’m sorry, little one.” Then she felt a small puff of air on her cheek. Kira was alive. Her back was chilled, but her front was still warm from being held against the woman. She yelled out to anyone who could hear. ”I need another pair of hands in here!”

     Looking up at the commotion at the hatchway, it looked like the entire crew was trying to wedge in at one time. Seeing Joan and Victoria at the head of the mob of bodies, she gave directions. “Joan, get in here and strip off your top behind that curtain and dry yourself. Victoria, grab a blanket and wrap it around her when she’s got the baby. Everyone else out!”

     To the crew, “out” meant just out of sight at the hatch, so they could hear what was going on.

     As she held Kira out to give her a quick look over, the baby started to flail and cry. “Thank God. Cry your heart out, sweetheart; it’ll warm you up.”  Doc laid Kira on the bed next to Alexandria and removed the cold, wet diaper. A necklace with a large, blue stone fell onto the bed. “Well, hello, young lady. You are as cute as a button, and you are learning fashion sense. Yes, you are. But that goes around the neck, not on your tummy. ” Doc kept up the chatter as she checked the baby for any obvious injuries, and then moved her arms and legs and found everything intact. She got a damp cloth and cleaned up the baby, getting the salt water off, and dried her.

      “Okay, Joan, here we come, and if anyone can hear me, I need warm milk!” Doc took the baby around the curtain and put her in the arms of Joan. “Keep her to your chest to warm her.” As she turned away, Victoria was already wrapping the blanket around the pair. Victoria moved close and wrapped her arms around both to add her body heat.

     Doc returned to the side of the woman and worked at removing the odd pantsuit.

     Chief moved to put his back to Doc, giving some privacy.

     “This is strange stuff and the strangest outfit. Okay, young lady; let’s see if you were as lucky as the baby.” Doc quickly checked her over. There were only a few scratches on her face, and hands, signs of exhaustion, exposure and dehydration. “Victoria, come wipe this lady down to get the salt off, then get her a blanket, too.”

     Doc turned to the Captain. The chief had gotten his clothes off and covered him in a blanket. “Okay, Captain, let’s take a look at you.” Pulling the blanket back revealed a large area on the side of the Captain’s rib cage that was taking on an ugly color. “Looks like you got the worst end of the deal.” Touching the area brought a groan from the Captain and his eyes opened.

His voice was strained. “Easy with the poking fingers, Doc. That whole side hurts. Can’t I just tell you it hurts without you poking at it?”

     “Sorry, Captain, checking the ribs and I have to touch to find out. Be the big, strong, brave Captain type and endure it a little longer.” Doc continued to feel his ribs. “Looks like maybe two broken and the rest bruised. You’re going to be hurting for a few days or so.”

     “Okay, a small plaster and I’m out of the sick bay. You know I don’t like being down. Get me up and moving.”

     “Sit up and I’ll wrap you.” As soon as the Captain sat up with a little help from Chief, Doc began to wrap the ribs to keep them from moving. “I’d be wasting my breath to tell you to take it easy. I’ll give you something for the pain.”

     The Captain ignored what Doc was doing and let her work. “Chief, what’s our status?”

     “I have no idea, Captain; I came straight here with you but she feels to be flying okay. Good call on that crane, Captain. Never would have managed to keep up with the old one.”

Victoria spoke up. “When I left the bridge, Pilot was pulling us up and planning to do a quick search for survivors, then turn back for New City.”

     The Captain almost fell when his knees gave from trying to get up from the bed. Only the Chief’s fast grab had stopped him from a full fall. The deep breath he tried to take was cut short and a groan slowly passed his lips. Standing straighter, he carefully slid with a shuffle towards the loud-box. “Pilot, set us on a course for home. It may be farther, but with the winds to fight returning to port it will take even longer.”

     The crew’s voices were heard shouting from outside the hatch. “Home!”

 

 

10

June 24, 1898

Noon

The Sick Bay

 

 

     Alexandria stirred on the bed. Her eyes opened wide and her arms flayed about, searching. “Kira! Where’s Kira? I lost Kira!”

     Doc stepped quickly to the side of the bed. “Kira’s alright. She’s had a bottle and Joan will bring her another soon. Calm down now. You’re both okay. I’ll call the Captain and let him know you’re awake and you can tell your story. You have a cute baby. I have hot tea for you while we wait for him. I’ll also ask Joan to make you something.”

     “She’s not mine. Her mother died on the Dolphin.” Alexandria’s voice was low and soft. Her eyes saddened with the memory.

     “The Captain will want to know all about that, too.”

Alexandria watched Doc move to the loud-box. Doc’s naturally fluffy, brown hair that hung to just past shoulder blades, waved in the air as she moved. The long, black skirt with suspenders, and white long-sleeve blouse looked professional on her five-feet-five, thin build.

     Doc had barely had time to pour and give her the tea when the Captain came in. “Welcome to the land of the living, Miss?” He paused, waiting for her to give her name.

     Alexandria froze and stared at the Captain; she shivered and answered his implied question.  “My name is Alexandria Castle.” Her eyes stayed mostly on the baby, but kept taking glances at the Captain. Over the span of 30 minutes, she told her story and had two more cups of tea. “I can’t believe I drank all that tea and I’m hungry. How did you find me?”

     “Good luck with that one, Captain.” Doc turned to hide her grin.

     The Captain stared at his feet. “We happened to be in the area and, as luck would have it, we saw you bobbing out there.”

     Doc’s hard, short burst of laughter drowned out what he would have said next had he not stopped talking during her outburst. Finally regaining control, she managed a contrite “Sorry, Captain, I just thought of something very funny and it just came out.” The crew’s snickers in the passageway seemed loud, now that she was no longer laughing.

     “You bunch of layabouts have nothing better to do than hang around outside hatches?  I can find something for you.” The full laughter from several voices faded as the crew made a fast exit.

“You and Kira were the only survivors. We’re headed for our home Island, which is faster to get to than anywhere else.”

     “You sure do have a happy crew. I’m sorry; did I miss your name?”

     “Thomas.” Staring at his feet, he missed the startled look on her face as he continued. “Thomas Hewitt Edward Castellan at your service.” His eyes finally met hers as he finished with an exaggerated flourish of a bow.

     “Castellan? I haven’t heard that name before. Where’s it from?”

Head down, the Captain checked his shoes. “It’s Old English.” He had to speak a bit louder over the new wails of laughter from Doc.

     “Does it have a meaning?”

     Doc grabbed a pillow and buried her face in it to muffle herself.

     Captain sighed. “Yes, it means ‘Captain of the castle.’

     Doc was bent over the empty bed in major fits, and her fists pounded the pillow.

     “Doc, I could have Chief make a brig and toss you in if that will help with your condition.”

     Doc’s muffled laughter did not abate.

     Alexandria thought for a moment. “That makes it T.H.E. Castellan. Or …” Alexandria failed to suppress the chuckle bubbling up. “THE Captain.”

     Doc fell to the floor and no longer wasted the effort to try to hold back the laughter.

     “Excuse me, ladies, I’m needed on the bridge.” The Captain made a quick exit.

     “I’m sorry, Captain; it’s that it…” Alexandria’s voice trailed off as she realized that she was speaking to empty space.

     Joan was bringing in food by the time Doc was getting control of herself. “What did I miss? What’s so funny?” Joan placed the tray in front of Alexandria. “Doc said to make you something hot.” The tray was of steaming French onion soup with a round piece of toast floating on top, covered in a grated cheese, and sliced green beans with small carrots and pearl onions with a melted, pale cheese. Thin slices of roast beef covered in a thick, brown gravy, and a thick slice of warm bread with the butter in its final stages of melting, completed the meal. Tray settled, Joan turned to Doc and helped her off the floor. “Give.”

     “Patient first.”  Doc went to Alexandria and smiled down. “An excellent lunch, Joan.”

     “I’m sorry to put you out; you didn’t need to make all this for me.”

     “My pleasure. Oops, I almost forgot lunch for Kira.” She pulled a bottle from her apron pocket. Placing a napkin over her arm, she approached the bed and picked up Kira. “Your lunch is here, Mademoiselle.”

     Kira woke in the lifting arms and squirmed only for a moment. In seconds, she was sucking away at the bottle.

     “I’m still waiting.” Joan stared at Doc with a smile.

     “Our young guest here has a very quick mind. He told her we just happened to be in the area, then she asked the Captain his name. She pegged it right away.”

     Joan started chuckling. “I like you already!”

     “But I upset him. I was rude and laughed at his name. I have to apologize at once.”

     Doc spoke up. “Relax. He’s used to it and he knows you weren’t laughing at him. Just that, like everyone else, you found the combination amusing. He’ll be over it before you finish eating. He also knows I was overdoing it a bit just to poke him. It’s odd that he gave his full name so quick.” Doc noticed the speed that Alexandria was eating. “Hey! Slow down on that starving dog action you have there. You can have seconds.”

     “I didn’t know I was this hungry,” Alexandria looked at Kira. “Kira must have been starving. She had nothing to eat for so long. She was very good and hardly cried at all.”

     Doc smiled. “As long as she was held, she was happy and felt secure. Blind babies are often like that.”

     “What! Blind?” Alexandria’s eyes snapped to Kira.

     “You didn’t know?”                    

 

 

A Steampunk novel
 
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This book and the sequel in 1 book! Read the first book, turn it over and read the second. Yes the one side is upside down because the book turns over for book 2.. Pathfinder.
The Captain has a past that haunts him. Following his inner voice, he finds and rescues Alexandria. That's when his quiet life as the Captain and owner of the airship Lady Fair ends and his adventures begin. He and his dedicated crew fight to stay alive and flying. His crew is his adopted family and to protect them all, he won't go down easy against dreadnaughts, gunships, airsharks or assassins. Ahead of his time he protects and nurtures women that he cares about and those he sees as wronged. Supporting women adds to his troubles.