Chapter 2: Liam Wakes Up
Liam wasn’t conscious of much. Light... dark... light… dark. Muffled voices buzzed around him like flies and a constant beeping sound faded in and out.
“Doctor Weaver, I think he’s coming around!” Liam struggled to hear a girl’s voice proclaim excitedly.
“Stand back, Rebekah. Give him some room!” a distinctly older voice replied.
Liam started awake, lurched upwards and instantly regretted it. His head spun and a groan escaped his lips as he sunk back down into the pillow. A pain in his shoulder throbbed, but his head hurt worse.
“Water...please...” he managed to croak. Liam opened his eyes a crack and saw a teenaged girl approximately his age unsuccessfully poking a straw his mouth. Liam reflexively lifted his unhurt arm to intercept the straw and point it at his mouth to keep from being impaled in the nose. His head had stopped spinning and the room was coming better into focus. “Thanks.”
He struggled to sit up. “Here, let me help you.” The girl took the water from him and adjusted his pillows.
“He really shouldn’t move yet.” The older voice came around the corner. It was attached to an attractive middle-aged lady --.the doctor, Liam supposed. In her hand was a chart. “You are a very lucky young man. You took a bullet in your shoulder and you hit your head on the way down. Fortunately, the bullet passed right through without hitting much-except muscle. A few more inches and we wouldn’t be having this conversation! You lost some blood, of course, but in a few days you should be at least up and mobile.”
“Wow. I’m... I’m sorry to cause you so much trouble,” said Liam solemnly. He looked from girl to doctor. “Where am I?”
The girl spoke first. “My name is Rebekah, but most people just call me Beka. This is Doctor Weaver. Remember that big, scary floating thing in the sky? That’s where you are now.”
Liam sunk back into the pillows. Not the entrance he would have liked to have made, but he was relieved to no longer be in Union Springs. “Liam.”
“Liam?” repeated Beka.
“Liam Waite,” he said firmly.
“That’s his name, Rebekah.” Doctor Weaver, wrote it on his chart. “Why don’t you stop gawking and go inform Captain Grumm that our guest of honor is alive and kicking while I get some more information from him and check his progress?”
“I knew it was his name!” cried Rebekah incredulously. She addressed Liam: “Just wait until you get the grand tour!” With that, she was out the door.
“Ok, Liam, just a few more questions if you are up to it?”
Suddenly, a disembodied voice came from above them. “Ah, Doctor Weaver -I see our patient is awake.”
“Yes, Jules. I just sent Rebekah up to tell Artemis exactly that.”
“That was hardly necessary, Doctor, I’ve already informed him.”
“Thank you for your efficiency.”
Liam’s eyes darted back and forth between the doctor and the ceiling. “Relax,” Weaver said. “You’ll meet Jules soon enough. Are you able to answer some more questions?”
Liam nodded in agreement.
“Fine, how old are you?”
Liam replied, “Sixteen. At least, I will be November 13.”
“Ahh, you are only a couple of months older than Rebekah. Sweet sixteen in two weeks!”
Liam’s eyes rolled. “What is the date, now? It’s so hard to keep track down there.”
“It’s October twenty-ninth, ten o’clock in the morning- though you would never know it to look outside. Okay, height?” She looked up at her diagnostic panel above the bed.
“Five-six-” -the diagnostic bed said five-ten. and 142 lbs.
“A little underweight. Also, I think you grew a few inches since your last checkup.” Doctor Weaver said with a small attempt at humor. “But don’t worry about that, compared to the food you have probably been getting down below…let’s just say, you’re not going to be hungry again.”
Liam smiled to himself.
“Where are your parents? Is there somewhere we can take you?”
“I have no idea. I haven’t seen them in over two years. Ever since the earthquake…. I’ve been living on the streets. The place all the survivors were taken... it was raided. Men came and took all the adults and left the children. I think I was old enough to be taken too, but all the older kids scattered, and... we were probably too much trouble to mess with.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. So you have... no one?”
“Only my gang, but no one in particular.” He thought of Red but immediately dismissed it. If he were here, he would probably just piss himself.
“Who were your parents, before the earthquake? Up here, we call it ‘the Event’.
“Jonathan and Margaret Waite.”
“Your father is Jonathan Waite? The Jonathan Waite?”
“Yeah, Waite Aerospace and all that-” Liam waved his hand dismissively, and still winced with the exertion. “-and my mom was a pediatrician. She was helping other people afterward.”
Two men entered the sick bay. The first was tall, thin, and in his mid-forties- the other one, shorter, stouter and probably older. The second was vaguely familiar. A third materialized beside them from thin air, and Liam stared in wonder.
“It’s good to see you up and awake, Liam Waite.” The short one extended his hand. “I’m Artemis Grumm, the Captain of this airship and this is my sidekick, Kyton Davis, known to the rest as the crotchety executive officer that gives orders to everyone else.”
“Ahem!” the apparition protested.
“Oh,” said Kyton irritated, glancing at the ghost-like image. “That would be Jules, the ship’s computer.”
“Just the ship’s computer?” asked a frustrated Jules.
“Kyton, you know how sensitive he is! Jules is so much more than that.” With a disapproving frown, Artemis turned from Kyton back to Liam. “Jules is the ship. Well, at least he would be if the ship were complete.”
“I don’t understand.” Liam looked between the three adults.
Doctor Weaver chimed in. “This ship is large, but it is hardly what one would call, well, ‘ship shape’. It was still being built when we had to lift off in a big hurry. If you ever need anything, from directions or just someone to talk to, just call out for Jules. Though I warn you, he can get quite... droll.”
“I resent that, Doctor.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. So, you know who I am?” Liam winced again.
“Son, not only do I know who you are, I can tell you what happened to this arm when you were eleven,” Artemis chuckled, pointing to Liam’s other shoulder.
“Oh… you! I thought I recognized you!”
“I thought you might remember.”
Kyton looked back and forth between the two, befuddled.
“Don’t you remember, Mr. Davis, that trip I took to see Jonathan in June before we started building the Empress?”
“Vaguely. I... kind of had my hands full if you remember,” Kyton retorted.
“Liam, I was there to see your dad about this ship. We were going over the blueprints of many of the systems on board. Even the engines are made by Waite Aerospace.”
Liam thought back and felt the inkling of tears arise. “All I remember from that day was being in the back of the ambulance.”
Kyton looked more confused. “What happened?”
“Liam was what, eleven at the time? His dad invited me to his Little League game. Liam was their star pitcher. How’s the arm?”
Liam flexed it and his fingers like he was just remembering they were still attached. “I barely remember breaking it now.”
“How do you get a broken arm as a pitcher?” Kyton was engrossed in the story.
“Simple. I had no idea they had showed up for the game and right as I threw the pitch, I saw my dad in the corner of my eye and turned toward him. I was distracted.”
“Let me guess, then. Line drive to the shoulder?”
“Yeah, that’s about it. Compound fracture, even.”
“I’m afraid that’s enough for now. Our patient needs to rest and ganging up on him and drilling him for hours won’t help.” Doctor Weaver looked back up at the diagnostic screen. “Let’s let you rest for a while.” She dialed up a control and suddenly Liam felt exhausted.
“No, that’s all right-,” he started to say but never finished.
Artemis and Kyton walked down the various levels back to the bridge of the ship. They were always stepping over makeshift wiring, exposed conduit and panels hastily put in place, more for functionality than ornament. Much of it would have been for show, perpetuating the Steampunk look throughout the ship- but the moment they knew the tsunami was heading for them, almost two and half years ago, they realized the dream of the Empress of the Sky would never be realized.
Artemis openly sighed as they stepped over some more wiring to enter the Bridge. “Is there any way to get some of this finished?” he turned and asked Kyton.
“Not with the crew we have now. Our people are already overworked as it is,” Kyton replied while he messed with the controls on the console next to him.
Grumm turned back from the screens that had recorded the whole fiasco on the ground from before. Everyone got back with their skin this time, but every chance meeting like this was getting a little less predictable than the one before.
“That one didn’t go so well, boss.” Kyton Davis didn’t look away from the screen.
“Well, as you keep reminding me, we are working from less than a skeleton crew.” The proclamation was dark. “What else would you have me do?”
“I would abandon these errands altogether. You know we only have ninety-some crew on board, none of which were ever suited or experienced in this kind of thing. We started with one hundred and eight, but we should have over two hundred-in engineering alone. Hell, Artie, sometimes I can’t even tell what this kind of thing this is anymore. I don’t think anyone has ever written a book or a manual to cover this! These people never signed up for any crusade to save the human race!”
“Kyton, I’ve known you for many years - before all this started, and I have always relied on your advice more times than I can count. After all, we wouldn’t even be here in this ship right now, if it weren’t for you.” Grumm stood up and paced the floor. “Where would you have me go? We are already heading for what has to be our most important mission. Once we have that key and can start the engines, we can rethink everything. We can go anywhere and... not be crippled anymore. We won’t have to rely on sails and propellers any more. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather fly at hundreds of klicks an hour than ten.”
“All that is very true. But, what then? Where do we go if and when we get the engines running --- assuming the key is even there?”
“I have no idea, Kyton. No idea. We should probably think about hooking up with some other larger group of survivors.”
“And give this vessel, arguably the most powerful airborne ship in the world, to someone more equipped to take it from us? I would rethink that, Artie.” Kyton turned back to the monitors.
A small movement caught his eye from the hangar deck. Peck and his daughter had come in to examine the converted RV for any damage. Kyton chuckled to himself. He remembered that they had just added the newer Aerolon armor plating a few weeks ago, and even though it was doing exactly what it was supposed to, Jackson Peck could not help being the careful engineer that he was.
“Beka,” a voice called from the main entrance of the hanger. “Come on! we’re going to miss breakfast!” Rebekah found a rag on her way to the door, wiped her hands, and then sprinted to catch up with her father, Jackson Peck, the chief engineer on the Empress.
“It looks like the Aerolon plating on the launch really worked out. I didn’t see a scratch!”
“Yeah, Zak reported at least four shots hitting somewhere in the back. That’s what I was looking for. I didn’t see anything- I think we have a winner. If I did my homework, that little launch is the toughest modified RV on the planet. It should withstand several pounds of military explosives, even if they were strapped right on the outside. It’s made from the same material we made the ship with. We just didn’t think to apply it to the launch until after last week.”
Rebekah Peck had a unique role aboard ship. She was one of a small handful that were under eighteen and the only one with no official duties. Her father had been the inventor of the material that now protected their lives ninety-four, now ninety-five, people on board the Empress of the Sky. He was Chief Engineer and reported directly to Kyton. Even though he reported to the XO, he still had Captain Grumm’s ear in almost everything. Jackson had bailed out the crew of the Empress more times than the Captain could remember and because of this, Grumm would always seek his technical advice. Rebekah was as gifted as her father- horribly inquisitive and impulsive. Sometimes, it seemed that it was so important to her to know how something worked that she pushed the consequences of taking it apart into the furthest reaches of her mind.
Jackson Peck had been the owner of a startup company that Artemis had bought a few years previously. He had lost his wife to a rare form of cancer shortly before and poured himself into his work. In the process, he perfected arguably the most important invention in the twenty-first century- CAG42, he called it. A marketing group could have come up with a better name, but they had been in a hurry. CAG42 was a secret amalgam of graphene with bismuth and some other commonly found elements to increase conductivity and bonding to other surfaces.
One hundred times stronger than steel and a thousand times thinner than plastic wrap yet just as transparent, the crew had renamed it Aerolon. It was as versatile as it was strong- Jackson and others were coming up with new uses for it every day. Aerolon could be sprayed on like a paint, or it could be rolled out in sheets up to the size of a football field. Regardless of the process, the material always arranged itself in a perfect molecular bonding that was virtually impenetrable, like a spray coating of diamonds over any material they wanted to apply it to. It made RVs bullet proof, tools that could not be broken, and it made the Empress harder than a mountain- and capable of flight.
Jackson had imagined the good life with his daughter first when he tried to sell it to another party, but those negotiations fell through due to a massive recession. Out of the blue, Artemis Grumm- billionaire playboy, philanthropist and cruise ship magnate- had inquired about the company, came to visit their factory and the rest should be chalked up to history. Currently, they were riding in the results of that meeting.
Father and daughter walked side by side through the lower concourse, made their way to the mess hall and shuffled into line right behind Ethan Phillips, the ship’s drone operator. Ethan always got a kick out of Rebekah. She was the kid sister he never had. He would swear that whenever she was excited about a subject her signature auburn red ponytail would generally arrive ahead of her and end up doing most of the talking.
“Morning, Ethan,” said Rebekah quipped cheerily. “Good hunting?”
“Da- Darn good hunting, Miss Beka. We got some incredible recon on the town from my girls.” Ethan was careful to avoid cursing and certainly colorful metaphors in front of the rigid Mormon Dr. Peck.
Ethan always said the same thing, it was kind of just a ritual greeting with them. He was the big brother she never had. Ethan was twenty-something and had flown drones for the Navy in third Gulf War in Pakistan. When he had been discharged from of the service, his affinity for boats remained, so he enlisted with Captain Grumm’s Admiral Cruises as a radio officer. He had flown to the island where the Empress of the Sky was being built and happened to be installing the radio transceivers the day the tsunami hit., He didn’t know it then, but he would prove to be very useful when they needed eyes and ears to look for danger as the ship began its transcontinental trek.
“Very unfriendly people down there today,” said Ethan as he reached for an apple. “Very unfriendly. How is that kid we rescued? The one that got shot?”
“Liam. His name is Liam Waite and I was just with him. Doc says he will be just fine. Pretty lucky if you ask me.”
“You know his father helped design this ship?”
“I thought I knew that name. It was bugging me all morning.” Rebekah rolled her eyes sarcastically. “Of course I know it! You can’t go for more than twenty minutes on this ship without hearing the Waite name muttered from someone.”
“So, he’s up and talking?”
“More like groggy and listening for now. He seems nice, though. We really don’t know anything about what’s happened to him over the last couple of years... I’m going back to sickbay later when I’m finished topside.”
“We are darned lucky no one else was hurt,” said Ethan. “More eggs please,” he addressed Megan behind the chow line. Ethan came from a long line of farm boys that joined the service and counted “how to eat” as one of their greatest skills.
“Yeah, we were looking for bullet holes in the RV earlier. Looks like the plating worked just as expected!” Beka was proud of her dad’s contributions and never missed an opportunity to tell people about it.
“That’s enough, Rebekah,” her dad said. Doctor Jackson Peck was a very humble man that didn’t like to call attention to himself. So, naturally, his daughter did it for him.
“I agree with Beka, Professor-” Jackson had been a Professor at Caltech before he had ventured out on his own. “-you need to toot your own horn a little more. Aerolon is a brilliant piece of work. Sometimes I think if just spraying my whole body with it so I could be like Superman…!”
“...and suffocate in the process,” added Beka, picking up a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice from the cafeteria line. They gathered the rest of their breakfast and found a table.
“Rebekah’s right, you know,” Jackson chimed in. “You don’t want to bond that stuff with your skin. If you think super glue was bad, Aerolon is like... Godzilla super glue. Your body would die and be perfectly preserved forever.”
“It was just a thought.” Ethan smiled and picked up a slice of bacon. “All I know, after we coated the boys with that stuff and added the graphene batteries, they can fly for eight hours and nothing, I mean nothing, can stop them. I had a standoff with some kind of hawk the other day... drone one... hawk zero.”
“You didn’t hurt it?” Beka started in alarm, spitting out a little orange juice.
“Naw... it grabbed the drone from the air, so I just took it for a little ride. My girls are far more maneuverable and thanks to these upgrades, much tougher. The bird finally got tired of riding shotgun and gave up.”
Beka let out an audible sigh. Besides being a stubborn little know-it-all genius, she had a soft spot for animals, especially strays. Her thoughts strayed back to Liam laying in the hospital bed, covered in wires and tubes. She finished her oatmeal.
“Hey Ethan, can I have another lesson with ‘your girls’?” Beka asked.
“Beka, Ethan has very important duties,” her dad interjected.
“It’s okay, Professor,” Ethan said back, draining his coffee. “I have down time too. How about you come back to the hanger at about 1400 hours and I’ll give you another go?”
“Sounds perfect!” Beka said, then turning to her dad, “It is okay, isn’t it?”
“Who am I to tell a man how to spend his free time? I suppose you won’t stop until you have mastered every machine on the ship, will you?” Jackson said with a bite of toast.
“Absolutely not. Thanks, Dad! Speaking of that, I have to be topside at 1000 to help with the hydraulics on the bladders. Then, like I said before, I’m going to go see Liam again.”
“You better be careful. Those bladders are finicky and very dangerous. I know you would just sneak up there anyway if I said ‘no’ and I’m not going to keep you a prisoner here, but... be careful!” Jackson put on his best worried face.
“Dad, it’s fine. They don’t let me do the really dangerous stuff...yet. I’ll just be reading off calibrations to Danny. I won’t even be in the way. I promise!” She kissed him lightly on the head and skipped off.
“You know- she has the makings of a fine engineer or scientist,” said Ethan, finishing his last piece of bacon.
“I know, Ethan, I just don’t know what kind of world she will be an engineer in… We haven’t seen much except chaos and destruction since we have started our trip cross country.”
“It looks bad, but people down there are adapting. We have lost a lot, but not everywhere is like that… I have had radio contact with some people in Philly. They claim the North East Coast and a lot of Canada were barely hit from the tsunamis… They turned the corner and are bouncing back.” Another bite of eggs. “They heard that Britain and France were hit hard, but everything East of Germany seemed fine as well. It’s not all bad and, let’s be honest, someone with her skills will be needed to rebuild this country.”
“You are right, of course. This just... wasn’t the life I expected after partnering with Grumm. It was supposed to be a much softer, more carefree life. I was going to retire, you know, and Rebekah was going to go to a private school. They even had a spot reserved for her at Cal Tech.” Jackson looked down at his food and barely whispered, “Funny how things work out.”
Ethan wiped his mouth with his napkin and picked up his tray. “I know, we’re all in this together. Just remember, there are ninety-four people on this ship that put you in their prayers every night for the inventions made that keeps them alive and safe...Don’t forget that, Professor.”
“Thank you, Ethan,” said Jackson. “Sometimes I still need to hear that.”
“Well- this is a big day and lots to do! We’re getting really close to St Louis. Almost an entire year getting here. I really hope this hasn’t all been for nothing.”
“You and ninety-four other people.”
“Yes, ninety-three plus you and our new addition, Liam.”
“Ahh, yep. Well- take care, Professor.”
Ethan left Jackson at the cafeteria drowning in his own thoughts and headed back to the bowels of the ship to the radio room.