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The Secret Carriers

By Caitlin McColl All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 1

Anise just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t stand and watch the flames as the acrid stink of burning hair filled the air. Another smell, one she didn’t want to think about involuntarily made her stomach twist. She stood with her back to the fire and a handkerchief to her mouth and tried to block out the smell, but the stench of death, of a burning body, seemed to get inside you no matter how much you tried to block it out. She focused on counting the small flowery pattern on the carpet that crept up into a dizzying pattern on the wallpaper of the old theatre.

She almost reached a thousand, after losing count and having to start from the beginning a few times, when Colin’s voice snuck up behind her in a whisper,

“It’s done,” he said, laying a hand lightly on her shoulder.

Anise stifled a scream and spun around awkwardly on her injured leg on its crutch. Tears of anger and regret flew from her cheeks. She removed the handkerchief from her mouth, the smell had dissipated slightly. “It should have been me!” she tried to stop her voice from trembling. “I should have done it, not you. She was…” Anise was about to say that Ophelia was her friend, but she wasn’t really, she had only met her briefly. But she had made a promise to her. Ophelia had chosen her to pass on the secret. Ophelia had trusted her and Anise didn’t take that lightly. “It should have been me!” her voice rose with frustration and sadness. “She chose me to carry Alchemy. I should have been the one to…” she paused, trying to think of a nice way to put it. “Dispose of the evidence.”

Colin’s green eyes filled with sympathy. “You shouldn’t have to do something like that.”

“What do you mean I shouldn’t do something like that?”

“I mean women, ladies; they shouldn’t have to deal with…”

Anise’s face flushed, but not from the heat of the funeral pyre. She shook her head angrily, auburn curls coming free of their hairpins. “I…I can’t believe…” she spluttered. She shook her head again to clear her thoughts. “We don’t have time to stand here in a back alley arguing. Ophelia’s secret is gone. That’s what we needed to do.”

“And Defoe too. We couldn’t very well leave him lying in the theatre lobby!”

Anise waved it away dismissively. “Yes, yes, Defoe too, of course.” She hadn’t liked the magician from the beginning, but he didn’t deserve to be dead.  But he didn’t deserve to be dead, and either did Ophelia. Tears started to well up again at the thought. She was the same age as Anise. Or close. Either way, too young to die.

“We need to go.” She emphasized this by going back inside the theatre. “I can’t stand being out here any more with…” she waved her hand in the direction of the large dumpster. “We need to find our way out of here. Gideon is on his way to the Garden of Eden to get Ophelia’s secret. We can’t waste any more time!”

Colin nodded and followed Anise through the dark corridors and finally out into the busy streets of London.

Anise and Colin watched the multi-coloured cars, buses and taxis whiz by. “How can there be so many automated carriages?” Colin’s voice was lowered and filled with awe. “There’s not a single horse drawn carriage.” Anise glanced at him. His eyes were large and his mouth slack as he stared. She watched the people herself, particularly the women who wore pants. Some wore skirts, like back home, but most wore trousers like men. Like she preferred even though her dress garnered her reproachful looks from the men and disgust from the women.

The chaos of London swirled around them. The crutch like a prosthetic leg Colin had given Anise for her injured foot barely received a single glance. At an intersection a vehicle honked loudly followed by a woman leaning out her window to shout angrily at the other driver.

Anise nearly screamed again at the blare of the horn. She leaned over to Colin. “What was that?”

Colin looked at her incredulously, raising an eyebrow. “Do you not have many automated carriages where you’re from?” he spoke with his soft, lilting English accent.

She shook her head, embarrassed. “Not in my section of the United American Empire anyway. There’s a few. Including my employer. He’s an inventor, like yourself, so has made his own steam powered vehicle. But the Coalition frowns on things like that, you know.”

Colin nodded. “I’ve heard of your Emperor’s Coalition. It’s similar in the British Isles, but not as strict. Though there are people higher up-”

Anise looked around her. Behind them stood the Volupté Lounge, still empty as Defoe’s magic show was slated for later that night. It would be cancelled when the organizers wouldn’t be able to find him. She wondered how long it would take for the remains of Defoe and Ophelia to be found. “What do we do now?” Where do we go? We need to get back to our London. We’re wasting time just standing here looking around.” Anise started to hobble off down the street, towards the second hand furniture store they arrived in when they first crossed over into this new world.

“I think my foot is doing better now,” Anise said, awkwardly maneuvering her bent knee that rested on the top of half a wooden leg. She stopped and began to undo the strap tied around her upper leg and then undid the belt tied around her waist.

Colin appeared at her side and held her arm as she removed the prosthetic crutch. She bounced up and down on her healthy leg, gaining her balance. Gingerly she tested her foot, and wobbled precariously on her other leg.

She winced in anticipation of the pain shooting through her foot. But her foot didn’t hurt. Much. It was tender, but she could put weight on it. That was something positive in this big mess. “We need to get the alchemy instructions before Gideon does. I promised Ophelia I’d be the carrier of her secret and if Gideon gets it, then…” Tears sprang to her eyes again and she wiped them away. “Then her death is for nothing. And her duty, or I guess it’s mine now, as a Secret Carrier has been compromised for the first time in history and I can’t be responsible for that. I just can’t.” She had reached the door of the thrift store and pulled it open, heading to the back between a cluttered jumble of used furniture. She felt along the wall for the existence of a door to get them back to their world.  There was nothing. She screeched in frustration and pounded the wall. “How can we get back? We’re stuck!” Tears of defeat edged their way out of the corner of her eyes. 

She dropped her head. A hand fell on her shoulder. She turned, expecting Colin once more. “Montgomerie, I swear if you-“ Her mother always used her last name when reprimanding her, because Anise hated her surname with a passion. She stumbled backwards falling against a heavy low set of drawers. A hand reached out to help but the drawers caught her, and she pulled her arms into her chest, protectively. She found herself looking into the face of a small figure shrouded in darkness. Well, she would be if she could see their face, but despite the light of the store, albeit dim in the back corner with the tall book cases and armoires casting long shadows, she could see nothing but shades of black underneath a large, dark cowl.

“Are you looking for something, my dear?” The voice was soft, pleasant, but odd. She couldn’t tell if it was male or female.

She raised her hand and waggled it in the air nervously. “Yes. I mean no. I mean yes we are,” she looked over the figure’s shoulder at Colin who gave her a puzzled shrug. “We are looking for something but it’s nothing you could help us with.” She felt stupid, the words tumbling from her mouth in a jumble. She talked fast when she was nervous.

She could almost hear the smile in the person’s voice when they spoke. “You won’t know if you don’t try.” The voice sounded muffled, unclear, as if it were many voices speaking at once at the same time.

Anise glanced again at Colin, silently pleading for help. She hoped he would get the message. She didn’t have to actually ask for help. He took a hesitant step forward, and his quiet voice floated towards them, easing the awkward tension between them like a knife cutting a rope.

“The garden of Eden.”

Anise jumped in with an apologetic explanation at the ready. “I know it sounds ridiculous, and you probably don’t believe us. I know I wouldn’t if someone said they were looking for the garden of Eden in a furniture shop in London.” She tried to peer into the shadows that draped the face in darkness, but it was impenetrable.

The smile returned to the strange layered voice. “And why exactly are you looking for in the garden of Eden?”

Anise had been staring at her feet, feeling her face grow hot with embarrassment. Her head shot up. It was unnerving looking at someone in the face when they didn’t have eyes to gauge their thoughts.

“You’re not asking us why we’re looking for the garden of Eden in a store? Or that we’re looking for it in the first place?”

The hood shook and remained silent. Anise was taller than the shrouded figure in her boots that rose to her knees. She suddenly felt less intimidated by this person who had accosted them at the back corner of the store. Her fiery-ness rekindled, she pushed herself free of the comforting support of the drawers and closed the gap between her and the stranger. “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you,” she said with a petulant rise of her brows.

A laugh issued from the hood. “I believe you about Eden. I just want to know your intentions.”

A sudden thought occurred to her then, but Colin must have had the same thought, and his courage must have returned as well because he asked the question that was perched on Anise’s tongue.

“I’m sorry, sir, but what business of this is yours? You’re just the owner of this store.” Colin reached out a hand to Anise, like a life rope. “Come on, Abe,” he said, using her nickname. “I think we should get going. You said yourself we’re running out of time. We don’t have time for games. It’s obviously not here.”

The person in the robes answered instead. “But I am not the owner of this store. I might be able to help you, but I need to know your intentions. Why do you need to get to Eden in such a hurry?”

Anise looked from Colin’s outstretched hand to the monk-like thing in front of her and sighed loudly. “I made a promise to a friend. She wanted me to take something from her. To continue a tradition, to keep something safe.”

Anise was sure she could sense the dark figure smiling. “And this thing, is it important?”

“Very. My friend entrusted me with it after…” she couldn’t say the words, but the stranger finished it for her.

“After her death. Your friend was carrying a secret, yes?”

Anise’s eyes widened, and she nodded dumbly. She heard a gasp come from Colin’s direction.

The robes stepped closer, and lowered its voice. It grabbed one of her hands in its own, and she noticed then that they were male – large and thick, not slim and dainty. “And you have extinguished its existence?” The voice was firm and almost anxious.

“Yes, yes we did. Just now. But she broke the rules…she said she hid another copy of it, in the garden of Eden. And we need to go get it because…”

The man finished her sentence again, his hood bobbing up and down.  “Because she chose you as the Secret Carrier.”

“Yes, but not only that, there’s a man who found out where it is.”

“A bad man,” Colin chimed in.

“A very bad man,” Anise added. “And he’s on his way to get it for himself. I dare to think…”

“Come with me,” the man was still holding her hand and pulled her past the furniture and back out the glass doors at the front of the store. “But where are you taking me?” She saw Colin’s shadow creep up beside her and hastily added, “Us.”

The man put a finger to where his lips would be. “I’m not supposed to be doing this.” Anise strained to hear his words, even though she was right beside him. She hopped along with a lopsided gait on her sore ankle.

“But this situation is unprecedented.” He added, as if that explained everything. “I know the secret you are trying to get.”

“But who are you? And why are you helping us?”

The hood shook again, and Anise wasn’t sure if the man was shaking his head or just shaking. “There will be time for questions later. The important thing is getting Alchemy before that man does, if he’s as bad as you say.”

The shock caused Anise to stop cold, in the middle of the crowded sidewalk, and Colin nearly ran into her. “You know about the alchemy formula?” She couldn’t keep the surprise, and suspicion, from her voice.

The hooded man nodded and raised a finger to his lips once more. She noticed he kept glancing over his shoulder. Small, furtive glances. Once or twice she looked behind her, as discreetly as she could manage but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Well, everything was out of the ordinary here anyways. It wasn’t home. It wasn’t the United American Empire, nor was it the United Kingdom she was used to, with its underground versions of all the large cities – New London, New Cardiff, New Edinburgh.

Colin appeared at her side and grabbed her hand to help her move along quickly and smoothly. She had a feeling people must be looking at her and her strange dress, with her corset overtop of her blouse. She didn’t see anyone else dressed quite like her, and she assumed that in this place no one had a lightning gun in their bag like she did in the satchel that was slung across her body, resting comfortingly at her hip.

The man had brought them to another shop. Just before she was ushered quickly under the awning and through the doors she caught a glimpse of the sign – Eden, it was called, in lime green letters.

She was pulled through the door and past a young woman with turquoise and black hair, and what looked like a small diamond in her nose.

The man nodded and the woman simply smiled back at him, putting large dimples on display.

“Where are we-“ Anise began, but was once again shushed by the robed man. She half skipped, half ran with him towards the back of the store, with Colin  towering clumsily on her right side. An arm flung out to stop their momentum. In front of them stood a door that read ‘Maintenance Closet. Staff Only.’

The man lowered his voice. “Go through the door and close it behind you. On the back wall there will be a button on the left hand side. Press it. You will then hear a noise. Once the noise stops, move forward and you will be where you need to be. Hopefully before the man you speak of.” Though Anise couldn’t see the man’s face or eyes, she got the feeling that he was frightened. Whether for her or himself, she didn’t know.

“Thank-“ she began.

“No time,” he said and shoved her towards the door. “Good luck.”

She turned to say the thanks he had interrupted but he was gone. “Oh well,” she said looking up at Colin. His face was slightly pink, though whether from the heat of the fire back at the theatre, or their sprint through the London streets she wasn’t sure. “What do we have to lose?”

By the look on Colin’s face she knew he was going to say something like ‘everything’. Before he could, she pulled open the door and dragged him in after her. It was small and cramped and musty. She closed the door and blackness enfolded them. She moved her hands hesitatingly over the back wall and found the button.

“Give me your hand,” she commanded Colin, and moments later she felt it. Gripping his hand tightly she pressed the button. A screech filled the air and she almost dropped his hand to cover her ears. As abruptly as it had started the piercing whine ended, leaving her ears ringing.

“We have to move forward,” she instructed.

“But there’s-“ Colin started to protest, but Anise ignored him and moved her left foot forward, then her right.

The warm mustiness of the cleaning closet was replaced by a warm, dry breeze.

“The desert!” Anise shouted, then slapped a hand across her mouth. The last time she was here so was Gideon. It was also where she had met Ophelia. And the undead. Her eyes met nothing but a large expanse of beige sand, broken only by the large lonely twisted oak tree, the home of the snake, the guardian of Eden. Beyond the tree she could just make out the crumbling form of the weeping angel statue.

“Come on,” she said, tugging at Colin. Her boots brought up puffs of dry white sand with each step. Colin followed along silently.

Anise moved quickly despite her twisted ankle and the soft sand. She made a bee line for the broken angel statue where Ophelia said she had stashed the written copy of the secret she carried – the secret to Alchemy. Or at least the most complete one.

The large, twisted oak tree was the only thing to offer a bit of shade in the desolate landscape that stretched out in all directions in unending whites and beiges and browns, a land where even colour didn’t want to remain.

Something moved in the branches above her. Her heart pounded in her ears in that strange way that muffles sound. Then she saw it, the dull glint of the sun off the dark copper of its skin. The snake. It moved jerkily, slowly scraping over the dry branches. Anise watched it. It had rusted a bit. The snake moved its head incrementally until its glittering jade eyes were staring right at her. It opened its mouth with the squeak of unoiled metal. After a moments delay she heard the grating voice of teeth of cogs and gears coming together and moving away. “Welcome to the Garden of E-“ the snake began its usual spiel.

Anise turned away. She’d heard it all before. “I don’t want to answer your silly riddle,” she tossed over her shoulder as she continued onward. “There’s nothing for you to protect here anymore snake.” The angel loomed up in front of her – frightening in the sheer enormity of it, but at the same time peaceful, even though it no longer had much of a face and one of its wings were broken. Chunks of stone lay around its base, the sand mostly covering the remains.

Anise crouched down behind the angel, careful to avoid the one wing still intact and began tugging at the stones in the base. Some were loose, the mortar long since dried. Colin kneeled in the sand next to her and started prying away stone on the other side.

“It doesn’t look like anyone has been here yet,” Colin offered.

Anise agreed. “I hope not.” They worked in silence after that. The sun beat down relentlessly. The sky was a bleached white haze, almost as pale as the sand. Anise wiped a hand across her forehead, her hair pasting itself with sweat.

She paused and looked at the growing pile of stones on the ground around them. There wasn’t much left of the backside of the plinth the angel stood on. She sighed. Anger crept into the sound.  “I don’t think-“

“I got it!” Colin reached into a hole made by a removed brick and his hand was full of sheets of paper.

Anise wanted to shout, but knew the danger of attracting attention even in a place like this where it seemed like they were the only two people for thousands of miles.

She jumped up, steadying herself on the  angel and grabbed the papers from Colin’s clenched hand.

“Come on!” She said in as loud a whisper as she could manage.

Colin caught up with her. “Where are you going?”

“We’re going to go home!” Anise hissed back.

“But…how? I don’t think there’s any way to get back to that other London.

Anise glared at him, annoyed by his denseness. She was about to make a snarky comment along the lines of I thought you inventors were intelligent? But bit her tongue. It wouldn’t do to have him upset with her. Her temper was getting short. She blamed the heat.

“We need to find a place to hide. Gideon hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m sure he will shortly. And then we’ll have our way back.” She marched towards the only other standing structure nearby, besides the oak. The snake would surely have given them away, with its never ending posing of the riddle and requesting its answer.

For at least the tenth time, by Anise’s reckoning, Colin began to ask the familiar question, “Where are we-“.

“Going?” she finished, raising her arm and pointing in the direction of a stone wall that was barely large enough for two people to hide behind.

“But-“

Anise shook her head with annoyance, flipping a stray curl back out of her eyes.

She hunkered down behind the wall. As she did a stone perched precariously at the crumbled edge fell with a soft thunk into the sand at her feet. Colin stood over her and Anise pulled him down beside her.

“What are we wait-“

“Shhh!” she reprimanded him with a another stern look.

His eyes widened slightly but he simply nodded and moved to peer around his portion of the barrier.

They didn’t have to wait long. One moment there was nothing but the warm breeze bringing with it stinging particles of fine sand. And then it was there, so large it blocked out some of the harsh sunlight. Colin sat back heavily on his heels.

A massive airship had appeared out of nowhere. Anise wondered how strong the patchwork of grungy material was, or would a branch pop the gas bag as easily as a pin in a balloon?

The ship was only a couple hundred yards away from them, so Anise could see it clearly. The decks were empty. The gas bag swayed slightly in the wind, pressing against the tree branches. She could even hear the creak of the cables that tied the balloon to the actual working part of the ship. It looked a lot different to the ship she had flown into this same desert not all that long ago. The one that had run out of fuel, so that she found herself stranded here, and met Ophelia and was then rescued by Gideon himself, the man she was now trying to stop. He didn’t actually rescue us, she reminded herself. He kidnapped us, because he was wanting information from us. He was wanting Ophelia’s secret, without realizing she was carrying it.

Anise felt tears prick the corners of her eyes again and brushed them away. Her elbow hit the wall and another stone fell with a thud in the sand. A tingle of fear shot up her spine. There wasn’t that many stones on her side of the wall that could still cover her in their hiding place.

The ship she had managed to fly had its carriage welded to the balloon directly. This one had its balloon strapped in with cables that were anchored to the edges of the deck of the ship, through large metal ringed holes in the railing of the deck, and fastened by large clips. Anise was reminded of seeing horse drawn carriages with large piles of luggage tied down to the tops of them by crisscrossing ropes to secure the parcels in place. The actual ship itself looked like a regular ship, one you would find on the water, not in the skies, except with the air balloon in place of sails and masts. Like the ship she had briefly piloted, the airbag was made of patchwork of various materials – purples, shades of orange and rust, greens, dried blood red woven together. She could see a few places where it had been patched up – that material was brighter, newer than the rest.

Her heart pounded loudly in her chest, so loud she was sure Colin must hear it too.

She was so entranced by the ship itself she almost missed the two figures that raced down the gang plank that slid out from a hatch in the side of the ship.

She could pick out Gideon’s tall, slim form right away, underneath his black duster coat. She saw his impeccable starched white shirt underneath his slate grey waistcoat. Even in the middle of the desert he dressed well. His copper skin seemed to glow against the darkness of his clothes, but blend into the sameness of the colours all around. A stocky man followed him down the plank at a shuffling run. Anise was reminded of a small terrier, trying to keep up with Gideon’s long-legged stride towards their destination – the angel.

At first she wondered who the other figure was, but then she picked out his close-cropped beard against his weather beaten face. The captain of the ship. And not just any captain, but the notorious Ellory Trevan.

“Trevan,” the words slipped from her without realizing it.

Colin whipped his head to look at her. “That’s Trevan?”

Anise put all the irritation she could muster into her gaze and hoped Colin received the message. He didn’t. “He doesn’t look all that tough,” he mused. “He’s so…short.”

Anise grabbed Colin’s sleeve and tugged it hard, raising a finger to her lips in the unmistakable, universal symbol of silence.

They turned back to see Trevan’s short legs pumping as fast as they could over the sand to catch up to Gideon.

A scream rent the air. Anise watched as Gideon through a large chunk of stone at the angel. The tip of its other wing fell to the ground, followed by the feathers, leaving only the spine of the wing jutting out of its back.

“It’s gone!” Gideon screamed in a growl. The anger in his voice made another tingle of fear race up Anise’s spine.

“But how-“ She heard Trevan’s voice float to them on the wind, and she shook her head. Asking the same sort of obvious questions as Colin.

“Are you really that big of a fool?” Gideon spat at the smaller man. Trevan, though shorter, was like a bull – stocky and strong. Running an airship was hard work, Anise guessed. At least one like Trevan’s. His neck was almost the same size as one of her thighs. She was not as thin as most of the women back home, even with her corset, so it would be unfair to compare Trevan’s thick neck to her waist. If she could fight herself, she could have probably given Trevan a run for his money. They were about the same height, and she was a big girl. At least by the standards of women in the Empire. She was sure Trevan could have easily overpowered Gideon, instead the pirate visibly shrunk back from him and almost stumbled in a bid to move out of Gideon’s way as he swept past him back toward the ship. Trevan trotted after Gideon, whose long coat flowed out behind him like a cape.

As soon as their backs were turned, Anise stood from behind their wall and began to run, in a lop-sided sway due to the sand, towards the tree that was between them and the ship. She threw a look over her shoulder and tossed her head in the direction of the ship.

Anise hid behind the wide trunk of the oak and watched as the two men ascended the walkway back into the hold of the ship.

Anise sprinted from the tree. She had to lift her knees higher, because of the sand. Her toe caught a rock and sent her flying but Colin was by her side and grabbing her elbow, hauled her up and continued to fly across the desert towards the stern, and the large wooden rudder.

Colin reached the rudder just before Anise.

Anise jumped up, arms outstretched. Her fingertips just graced the top of the rudder, even with the extra inch or two afforded her by the heels on her knee-high boots.

“Here,” Colin bent down, stirrupping his hands together. It nearly earned him an elbow in the back of the head when Anise tried another failed jump.

Anise grudgingly put a foot in his cupped hands.

With a loud grunt, Colin thrust her upwards. She grabbed the edge of the rudder, crying out at the sharp edge dug into her hands.  Colin maneuvered himself directly under her, thankful she wasn’t wearing a skirt or dress like most women back home, and had her put her feet on his shoulders.

She dug a heel painfully into his collarbone as she pushed off and was able to get a foot onto the rudder and reached upwards with her right hand grabbing one of the copper cable tie rings as a hand hold, and then moving the left hand to the top of the rail. She huffed with the exertion and at one point berated herself for her love of the soft, chewy toffee candies she always had on hand at home, and in her bag.

Her arms and shoulders were screaming at her, but she pulled herself over, landing hard on the wooden deck.

Anise reached an arm down to Colin, but he was still too far out of reach. He brought a knee up by his ear, balancing a foot on the narrow rudder’s edge, his hands scrabbling for purchase on the rough splintered surface of the ship.

“A bit to your left,” Anise guided his fingers to the cable hole. The last few moments stretched out almost endlessly, but with a final grunt, Colin flung himself unceremoniously over the ships railing to land beside her.

Anise’s heart seemed to make its way up into her throat. She imagined Gideon crashing through the door on the deck a level below and heading to them like lightning, his unnerving golden eyes flashing in his sharp-featured face, his thin lips pressed together in an angry scowl. But silence greeted them and the door she could see across the ship, below the raised section of deck they found themselves on remained closed.  Relief washed over her like a cold blanket.

She held a finger to her lips and motioned with her head in the direction of the short set of stairs on the opposite end of the deck they were on and she ran bent at the waist so she was folded over into as small a shape as she could. Colin, who was slimmer than her, but taller, looked like an awkward scarecrow, blown over in the wind. Her boots clicked loudly over the deck, no matter how softly she tried to move. They slunk down the stairs, pressing themselves to the edges of the steps, as if the sides offered cover. Anise knew a bit about ships. She sometimes went to the harbour in her hometown, and sat with her legs dangling over the edge of the pier, her toes skimming the water and watching the fishing boats coming and going into port. The airship docking stations were a little ways away from the ocean going boats, and she liked to watch them compete. The large airships gliding like ghosts through the thick puffy clouds, or like hulking monsters through the black ominous storm clouds.

The airships seemed a lot more peaceful, less frantic than their ocean going counterparts. There was always so much shouting and noise and movement on the fishing boats. She never heard the crew of airships yelling at each other to get to make sure all the rigging was in place, at the right tension, all the nets pulled in before they left port.

But she was thankful she’d watched so many of the boats in Vancouver’s harbour. And she was even more thankful that Trevan’s airship was modeled on a fishing boat rather than a traditional dirigible with their large metal under carriage and usually only two doors on either side, depending on what side of the docking station the ship arrived at.

She was glad Trevan’s ship was laid out as she expected, with a door underneath the stern.

She was also grateful that she had seen Gideon and Trevan enter the ship on the opposite end, closer to the bow. She tugged on the door. It didn’t move. Panic gripped her heart and held it tight. Then she noticed the large sliding lock and pulled it back. The door swung open and Colin caught it before it hit the wall. She was hit by dampness redolent of whiskey that her grandfather drank every night before he went to bed. It was dim. There was a single lantern hanging on a nail in a post that stood in the middle of the room casting a small circle of buttery yellow light just hitting large crates and barrels stacked haphazardly and perilously around. Anise bumped into a box that was hidden in the shadows. “Be careful, Miss,” a posh voice said from the darkness at her left.

Anise let out a small scream. A figure unattached itself from the blackness, and the lantern made his golden eyes flash. For a second Anise thought it was Gideon, but noticed this man was shorter, and his hair was entirely dark, not shot through with needles of silver. It was his uniform that gave him away entirely. He was dressed in a servant’s pristine navy outfit, complete with a tidy bowtie at his throat.

Anise noticed in the wan light of the lantern the eerie smoothness of the man’s skin that took on a strange, almost waxy sheen in the flickering of the lantern flame.

She composed herself. “Oh! I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t see you there.” Out of nervousness, she curtsied, though she felt ridiculous wearing trousers. She shoved an elbow in Colin’s side, and he bent at the waist in a stiff bow.

“Are you guests of Captain Trevan?” The automaton asked.

Anise hadn’t heard what he had said. She was listening to what he was saying without hearing the words themselves, trying to see if she could hear the slight whirring noise that gave the mechanical men away – besides their tell-tale golden eyes.

The man stood waiting, expectantly. Anise blinked. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

He smiled politely. “I said are you guests of the Captain and Mr Hendry?”

“Mr Hen-“ Colin began, confused.

“Gideon,” Anise replied. She turned to the servant. “Yes, we are guests. But,” she added hastily before the man melted away back into the shadows and disappeared to announce their arrival no doubt, “but we are here to surprise Mr. Hendry,” she glared at Colin when she saw him start to open his mouth out of the corner of her eye. “So please don’t tell Captain Trevan of our arrival, if you would be so kind.”

The servant smiled again and retreated with a small bow.

This time Colin took the lead and found a tall stack of crates, just outside the barrier of light cast by the lantern, and folded himself up as small as he could.

Anise hunkered down next to him, hugging her knees to her chest, even though, with her corset, it felt like each breath was being squeezed out of her. She tried to take deeper breaths, but felt she was breathing too loudly. She could hear Colin next to her try and steady his own breath, and wondered if the automaton, what did they call them again? Mecchas? Had good hearing, or if he was even still in the room.

In the dark time seemed to slow to an eternity. Anise began to count the beating of her heart, in an effort to try and slow it down. She got to a hundred and was about to ask Colin if he’d ever been on an airship before when the ship shuddered violently, and one of the crates at the top of the pile that hid them behind rocked and then fell forwards, crashing loudly. Anise put her arms up over her head, protecting herself against any other errant falling boxes. A large barrel that smelled of some pungent alcohol rolled noisy across the wooden floor before coming to a stop against a post that held the deck above their heads.

Anise wondered if they were caught in a storm. But she didn’t feel the ship take off. She was about to ask Colin if he’d felt the ship take off, but the she  heard shouting above them, the voices of men, and one in particular. Trevan was shouting orders, telling men to tie the ship down securely to the docking station, and once they had done that, to go down into the cargo hold and unload it.

The cargo hold. Where they were. The thud of large men and heavy boots made Anise’s heart pound with the same heavy rhythm.

“We need to get off-“

She was cut off by a sliver of light as the door was opened. She peered through a gap between the crates and saw the dark silhouettes of men coming down the stairs. She pressed herself more tightly against the other items behind her, moving more into their shadow. Colin stood up and pulled her up beside him. Her eyes went wide with fear and she looked from him to the two men who were half way down the steps.

“Don’t worry Miss,” he said in a loud, authoritative voice. “We’ll take it from here. The staff shouldn’t be handling these things –they’re too heavy for someone like you. You should get back to the kit-, the galley and get to cooking. He grabbed a crate and went to lift it. The muscles on his arms strained with the weight and he stopped, moving over to the barrel that was resting against the post instead. “Lookit this,” he said gesturing to the men on the stairs that Anise noticed looked confused. “The booze in this is leaking,” he leaned down to right the keg. “What a waste.”

The men shook their head and tsked and continued down the stairs and hefting a large crate each made their way back up the steps out onto the deck.

Colin looked around him and Anise realized he was looking for something to carry. She spotted a smaller chest and pointed it out. She took a large rectangular chest herself, as big as she could manage, and double checking that the alchemy notes were stowed safely in the satchel slung across her body, she pushed past a row of large, burly men who were moving down the stairs to grab more of the cargo. She waited until a particularly large man began to move back up to the deck and then followed closely on his heels. The deck was swarming with men. Shouts and laughter filled the air. Anise saw Trevan in conversation with a couple crew, his head leaned in to listen to them. She skirted to the other side of the large man in front of her, using him as a shield. She couldn’t risk a look to see if Colin was behind her, she just had to hope. She had to move behind the man who blocked her from Trevan to move down the walkway – it wasn’t wide enough for her to walk beside him. Her feet stepped off the gang way onto the metal of the airship platform and she almost dropped the chest she held in relief.

But her blood turned to ice in her veins before she could take another step closer to safety.

“Oi!” a deep voice, made gravelly by a life of alcohol and carousing, shouted. Instinctively she turned at the sound, and saw Colin standing at the other end of the walkway frozen like a deer caught in headlights.

She dropped her chest which exploded at her feet and screamed the only thing she could think of to say. The only option they had. “Run!” Men on the walkway stopped and looked at her, and then turned to look at Colin.

Colin used the crate he held as a weapon, bulldozing his way past the sailors with the crate as protective armour. One man lost his footing and fell off the narrow strip of wood, into the empty space between the docking platform and the ship. Icy water lay a long way down between the two. The man screamed, but it was quickly swallowed up by the ocean.

Anise ran down the platform, her boots ringing loudly on the metal that every airship docking station was made of.

She saw Colin jump the last few feet from the walkway to the platform, and watched with amazement as he  threw the crate he held at two pirates who were a good two feet taller and a least that much wider than him, that had started to chase after them. She saw Gideon now, standing at the top of the walkway where Colin had been standing moments before. Even from this distance his face looked like thunder, and hatred was etched as if it were a metal mask over his features.

She turned away and realized as fear gripped her chest that she was coming to the end of the platform. And the only way was down.

Each airship platform had large cage-like elevators that transported passengers, and cargo up from the port areas. The docks themselves were like long piers held high up in the sky by scaffolding and struts, buttressing it. Long narrow legs of intricately curved iron supported the platform, and it’s elevators.

Unfortunately, the elevator on this platform was already on its way down, full of crates and passengers that had alighted from an airship tethered to the opposite side of the pier.

She heard Gideon’s shrill, almost hysteric scream pierce the air. “Get them!”

She glanced down the elevator shaft. It was almost at the bottom. They moved quickly, but not as quickly as she needed.

The metal under her feet shook as Colin pounded towards her, his face drained of all colour.

“We need to get down!”

He turned wild, frantic eyes to her, and then cast them down into the emptiness where the elevator would eventually fill. “How?” He almost screamed the word himself.

Anise undid the flap of her bag. Her fingers brushed the sheafs of paper with the secret and a calmness washed over her. She removed her lightning gun that her grandfather had given it to her just before he passed. She gripped it with grim hope, and then stuffed it in her belt within easy reach.

She glanced around and her eye fell on a thick coil of rope that was tied around a metal hook, used to tether in airships. But there was no airship in that particular bay. She grabbed the rope and pulled it, moving to the edge of the platform.

“We climb down.”

Colin’s already pale face turned paler. He shook his head vehemently, his dark hair falling over his brow. “No. No, I can’t, I-“

“We have no choice! Look!” Anise tugged on the rope making sure it was secure.

Behind them, men were advancing.

She moved to the edge, took a deep breath, and went over.

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