[NOTE: A WIP Story Excerpt is a “Work In Progress”. This means that this is a story that I am currently investing a lot of time and effort into and plan on making more than just a short story for the blog.]
It was over, that much was certain.
Captain Augustus was screaming into the pipes for more steam. It seemed that perhaps the captain was adding more steam with his furious, frantic shouts than the boilers could produce with the now-busted tanks they had left to work with. Fired upon from below the aft side as their ship, the Blasphemous began to list; the pirate Kiplan’s parting shot had somehow made its damning mark below our stern. The gaping hole in Sylver’s Lining had left the airship bleeding precious water, both from her ballasts as well as from her steam recovery tanks.
She had given us everything. Shouting wouldn’t change anything now.
The captain- oh, how he looked as if that shot had been a gut wound to himself as well- looked to his first officer, angry water rising up in his eyelids, his captain hating his own soul for knowing the words Maarc was about to ask of him. His look, imploring against hope that his officer had a genius of a plan like the captain usually had for situations just like these, as if he could tap the very clouds in the heavens themselves to get us the water he knew we would never get. It hurt, having to disappoint your captain so.
“Do we abandon ship, sir?”
As the captain closed his eyes, squinting through a pain that maybe only his soul could feel, the commander knew the answer. At least, he knew what the captain should do. You see, when it comes to captains like Augustus Nightingale and a ship like Sylver’s Lining, you could never tell what might happen. Obsession was the closest word that Maarc could summon, and yet, it felt wholly inadequate. Love was closer, he thought, but was often misconstrued.
Gripping the wheel violently, the captain spun hard to port, ordering every able bodied man to shove everything to the bow of the ship. The turn, as well as the men’s movement of the cargo, began to cause the ship to drop forward, almost diving, straight toward a very unforgiving stretch of plains.
“Everything you can find to the bow!” screamed the captain. “Everything not tacked, hammered, nailed, or tarred down, send it to the bow! I swear to the gods if I have to go down by a pirate’s shot, I’m going to ram the bowsprit of Sylver right up that bastard Kiplan’s ass!” The Sylver gained speed. The mainsail was gone from the previous fighting and the lanteen sail was flying like a white flag of surrender to a land which, unfortunately for us, took no prisoners.
It was only then, with his last command, that he gave Maarc the words.
“Save the crew. Save yourself. Abandon the Sylver.”
Ringing the alarm bell, the commander shouted the general order to abandon ship. As he did, he remembered how he childishly argued with his classmates at the Royal Airship Officer’s Academy concerning how they should change the wording from “abandon ship” to something else more fitting. He had argued that, “we do not abandon a dog that has led us on many successful hunts just because he is injured, do we?” and yet, there he stood, just as he was taught in school, giving the order.
He once had a teacher tell him that “abandon ship” is often the first words spoken to a fledgling captain. Asking how that could be, Dr. Marconyx Devereaux, his instructor in Airship Strategies, said that many captains give that order, and honor, to their first officers. He said that once the captain gave that order, many of them, especially captains like Augustus, went down with their ships. “That action, in essence, makes you the acting captain in the ship’s last moments.”
Maarc never forgot those words, especially not today. As men and women poured out of the underbelly of the ship and headed for the buoys, many carrying their wounded comrades, he felt the weight of an extra star on his shoulder that wasn’t even there.
Returning to his senses, he focused his attention back to the captain. Augustus was fighting the rudder like a man possessed; he positioned the bow of the Sylver as if the ground that rushed up to meet us were a wave in a gale storm at sea. Maarc moved to assist, but the captain just took his hand and, gently, pushed him away.
“The men are yours, Maarc. The ship… she’s mine.”
That would end up being the last time out of many that he reminded Maarc just who this majestic lady belonged to, not unlike an old man protecting the virtue of his wife. Try as his mind might, though, Maarc’s legs would not move. He could not leave him.
As he moved forward once more, the captain simply looked a bit amused. “If you’re going to be a Thereon jackass and disobey a direct order,” Captain Augustus shouted over the rushing wind, “the least you could do is open up this column and tighten the pulleys!”
He then understood the reason for the captain’s amusement. The one and only flaw with Sylver’s Lining (and Augustus called it something like a ‘beauty mark’, whatever that is) was the rudder wheel’s pulleys. They tended to loosen at the worst times, like during a storm, a pirate attack, and apparently now in their final assault against the recently-crashed Blasphemous.
He chuckled a bit as he slid under the captain’s legs, prying back the deck boards. He and the captain both carried a large wrench for just this purpose on their person at all times, as if it were a part of their uniforms, just like their cords and bucklers. He tried to tighten the pulley, but the wrench would not turn. He looked up to his captain, puzzled at the problem, only to discover the answer.
The pulley wasn’t the problem.
* * *
When Maarc awoke, he was stretched out in a life buoy, chute over his head, knot on his temple and an eerie silence in his ears. The others were making their way to the commander’s location as he stood, as quickly as his spinning head would allow. Maarc’s eyes frantically searched for his captain’s ship, a vain undertaking he made for the captain’s sake and his own, if for no one else. It wasn’t until he looked to the wreckage of the Blasphemous that he found that which he sought: A large mast on its side, its white lanteen sail still flying.
As he took in the scene, he moved his hands to his pockets as is his usual habit when his fingers found things he had not placed within their linings. Removing his hands, he found a note, a photograph of a young girl, and a pocket watch.
The pocket watch was the captain’s; of this, there was no doubt. He had never in his life seen a pocket watch with a compass built in. The photograph of the girl was a little worn from the captain’s carrying it about, and on the back was written “Sylver Nightingale, 12 years.” He knew the captain had a daughter. He had never met her, and the picture was the first he had ever seen of her. She had his eyes, those eyes that could line a roper up with just a glance.
Opening the note, he could tell that it hadn’t been written too long ago. It read:
If this note and its accompaniment have made their way to you then you can assume (or maybe you were there?) that I am no longer of this world. As my first officer, I must burden you with one last task.
The child in the picture, as I am sure you can guess, is my daughter. I do not believe that I was ever more proud of any ship as I was of her on the day of her birth, screaming like a leader. She is in the academy now, preparing to be a captain just like her father, much to the dismay of her mother.
The favor I ask of you is not truly meant for my first officer, but for my Thereon friend Maarc. Watch over her. There’s a writ attached to this note. It will make you the captain of the H.M.S. Indefatigable, a ship of my own design. For a while, be her captain. Teach her what it is to be a leader, to command men while serving them at the same time. Show her patience, especially if she is still as stubborn as I used to be at her age. When the time comes and it is ready for her, give her the ship.
I would not trust this endeavor to anyone else. You have never failed me in command; I know you will not disappoint me.
Maarc walked to the wreckage, where many of the others had begun to gather. Everyone was quiet, more so than he had ever heard them in the past. As they stood around the edge of the smoldering wreckage, they kept looking to him. Clearing his head once more, he turned to face his crew, his stars weighing heavier than ever. He knew he had to say something, but what did a captain with no experience say about a captain who was a legend before he died?
Looking to the somber faces, he straightened his back and began. “He was always in control. There were those who told me in my learning that a captain going down with his ship was already a man out of control, yet he was not. His hands were as steady as always, his resolve like granite. He did not take his ship to the ground for the vanity of an old sailor’s phrase or to fit the standard that certain men are expected to hold. He put Sylver’s Lining exactly where he did for the safety of his crew.”
Several confused looks crossed the faces of the crew. “Let me explain, men. You see, the Blasphemous did, indeed, go down and crash before us, but the crash was gentle compared to ours. The captain knew what that meant. It meant that the Blasphemous crew would be partly alive with weapons and other supplies from their crashed ship. In your life buoys, you had neither supplies nor weapons. Your captain knew this. Your captain would never leave you defenseless.”
“Everything he ever did, every order he ever gave, every course correction he ever contemplated, every shot he ever fired, was for the sake of this crew. When he ordered you to load the cannon, it was because he wanted you to be able to defend yourselves. When he ordered you to unfurl the mains and let the ship run, it was because he knew you would be safer for it. Today, it was no different. Now, Captain Augustus Nightingale is in the very clouds that for the moment are out of our reach, watching over us.”
Looking upward, he could still make out a wisp of steamy smoke that traced where Sylver’s Lining fell from the heavens. In the distance, he could make out two ships closing in fast. Taking his spyglass from his belt and placing it to his eye, he could make out the standards of the H.M.S. Hemmingway and H.M.S. Hummingbird. It seems that the flares the ropers fired at the last minute were, indeed, seen.
As everyone made their way to the high point of the land as he had ordered, Maarc reconsidered his time and experience with the legendary Captain Augustus Nightingale. Then and there, he made his first, and final, decision as a captain.
He tossed the writ into the fire, along with his coat and all of its stars. The picture, as well as the pocket watch, remained in his pants pocket. If he were to watch over her as his captain ordered, then he didn’t need the extra weight of the stars on his shoulders to distract him.
And if Sylver were like her father, she didn’t need a captain. Augustus had always a quick learner, picking up on Thereon boiler designs in a few days where it took me months and sometimes years for others to understand and learn, he thought. The ship he assisted his captain design, the H.M.S. Indefatigable, was a Nightingale dream powered by Thereon boilers. He knew she’d be the fastest ship in the fleet when it was done.
Reaching into his back pocket, he smiled a bit as he pulled out not one, but two wrenches. That damned old cloud jumper had stuffed his wrench in with mine before casting me off, he thought with a grin.
“Well, if I’m going to be her Boiler Chief, I’ll probably need them both.”
[NOTE: You can read the next chapter here!]