Lord Sidebottom and the Awesome Airship Mystery.
The clock above my workbench struck seven. I rolled up my designs for what can only be described as the most awesome airship ever conceived—not in that vulgar sense uttered by those young people they have nowadays to refer to anything even vaguely of interest. No, this airship was awesome in the truest sense.
I stowed the blueprint in my wall-safe and locked the front door behind me as I stepped into the cold. It was time to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth.
I shovelled coal into my Segway. The machine rumbled to life, steam jets hissing from its exhaust vents. My feet stood firm between its wheels as the vehicle rolled forward.
The sands extended towards the sea’s distant glimmer as the Segway hopped onto the promenade. Seagulls eyed me from their gas lamp perches.
The beautiful Lady Elizabeth would be waiting for me. I had taken it upon myself to court her and prove I was a man of means and keen perception.
Approaching the pier, I spied a commotion around our usual place of meeting. I recognised Detective Jones, as tall and impeccable as ever with his black uniform and airman’s moustache. “Detective,” I called, drawing to a stop.
“Lord Sidebottom.” Lamplight caught the flicker of anguish in his expression.
I followed his gaze and my mouth gaped. An emerald green dress lay draped across twisted limbs. The beautiful Lady Elizabeth stared at nothing with dead eyes. I stepped from my Segway and knelt over her body.
“Do you know this woman?” the detective asked.
“It is the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. We are…we were courting.” I turned to him. “Who could have done this? Who could have snuffed out the life of such a wonderful woman?”
He removed his hat and dipped his head. “I am dreadfully sorry.”
“That is not an answer,” I spat. “Are there no clues?”
The detective licked his lips and gave a slight nod. He handed me a brass plaque, no bigger than my palm and no thicker than the brim of a cheap top hat.
I rose to my feet, tilting it towards a nearby gas lamp. The etched image of Mad Frank winking back at me caught the light. “It is Mad Frank’s calling card—my arch nemesis. Curse that—”
The emerald dress burst open as a dozen or so clockwork crabs launched themselves towards me, nipping and tearing at my flesh and hair and clothing.
I frantically pried them from me, hurling their metal shells to the ground, stamping them down beneath my boots.
The detective lunged forward, swinging at one of the damnable things with his truncheon, screaming out when the creature snapped at his face, lopping off a chunk of his moustache.
We looked around, dazed and breathless as gears and brass shards lay spread across the flagstones.
“Are they gone?” he asked, straightening his hat.
I stared down at my ragged shirt, and wiped my bloodied face with a handkerchief. “What the devil were they?”
“I believe they were Mad Frank’s attack crabs.”
A shuddering breath left me and I knelt next to Lady Elizabeth. Holes in the dress revealed a construction of wood and rubber beneath—nothing more than a container for those mechanical mockeries. I ran my hand towards her face and prodded rubbery flesh. “This is not a murder, detective. This is something else.”
“Then no murder has been committed. It is a closed case.”
“I was supposed to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. If she's not here, then where is she?”
He met my question with a blank expression.
I tipped my hat and mounted the Segway. Deflated, I returned to my workshop.
I came to a stop outside and rummaged for my keys, my fingers brushing Mad Frank’s calling card. Why had he sent clockwork crabs? Where was the beautiful Lady Elizabeth?
None of it made a lick of sense.
My workshop door flew open and three robot monkeys charged from inside. Steam poured from their ears. Alchemical light glowed behind their eyes.
I jumped to one side as they swung from trees and lampposts.
The first of them leaped towards me. I gripped the creature around the throat, slamming it against my garden wall, its skull shattering on impact.
I sidestepped the second and stood back as it tumbled into a thorn bush. I ran towards it, my boots crashing down on its chest, oil and coal spilling across the cobbles.
I turned swiftly as another mounted my back, its claws tearing at my already ragged shirt. Grabbing its ears, I flipped it over my shoulder and shoved it against the wall. It thrashed for a moment then dropped face-first to the ground.
I examined its head—it was coated in the same rubbery material as Lady Elizabeth’s false visage.
I drew my fists up and shouldered my way into the workshop. Lengths of rubber hose and copper wire lay across the counter. Brass gears and cogs stood in haphazard piles. My gaze shifted towards the wall-safe. Its door hung at an awkward angle. Scorch marks ran along its hinges. I marched over and thrust my head inside. “My designs!”
A glimmer of something caught my eye—an etched sheet of brass, Mad Frank’s calling card.
I snatched it as a low droning hum filled my workshop. I bolted outside, skidding to a halt as Mad Frank's airship loomed above.
I threw a handful of coal into my Segway and fired up its engine. The airship turned slowly towards me as I raced ahead. A salvo of missiles burst from the airship’s cannon.
Charging headlong towards the first missile, I pushed my Segway beyond its limits, its frame rattling as the wind rushed by my ears. With a swift kick, the Segway rose from the ground and slid along the missile’s edge.
Teeth gritted, I hopped to the next missile, and the next and the next, climbing towards the airship as more of the rockets rained down. I glanced over my shoulder to see my workshop in flames far below. Bouncing from the final missile, the Segway cracked beneath me, its wheels falling to Earth. With a burst of strength, I leaped towards the airship, crashing through a window and clattering onto its deck.
Gasping, I forced myself to stand.
A fiendish masked man stood before me, his black cape rippling against the wind. He twiddled his moustache. “Lord Sidebottom. We meet again.”
“Mad Frank! Gah! What have you done with the beautiful Lady Elizabeth? And what have you done with my designs for the awesome airship?”
He let out a cold laugh. “I do not have time for your games, Lord Sidebottom. You may have destroyed my clockwork crustaceans and mechanical macaques, but you will be no match for my robot-crab-monkeys.”
He clapped his hands, summoning a trio of robot-crab-monkeys. The vile brutes ducked and weaved around me, steel claws snapping, fangs glistening.
I swung at them with kicks and punches, but they moved with swift, unpredictable flourishes.
Overwhelmed, I yielded.
Mad Frank clapped again. “Lock him in the cell.”
The robot-crab-monkeys dragged me along an unlit corridor and threw me into a metal-walled room, locking the door behind me with a thundering clunk. I slumped to the floor, hopeless as darkness pressed around me.
I rifled through my trouser pockets, searching for tools or lock picks. The evening had meant to be a walk along the promenade and a hotpot supper followed by some gin and dress-up, if all went well.
My fingers brushed against the edges of two brass sheets, the etching of Mad Frank bringing a curl to my lips. My sneer turned into a smile as I rammed the calling cards between the door and its frame, shifting them until the lock finally gave way.
Flinging the door open, I grabbed the heads of the two robot-crab-monkeys standing sentry, smashing them against one another with all the force I could muster. Steam gushed from the tops of their craniums, arms flailing wildly.
As the guards fell into a heap around me, a third robot-crab-monkey bounded towards me and pounced. I swivelled, striking the monstrosity with a sharp jab of my elbow. Searing pain tore through my arm as it drove deep into its chest. Hot oil squirted from its frame as it collapsed next to its fallen brethren in a plume of billowing smoke.
Holding my scalded right arm close to me, I crept towards the bridge and kicked open the door.
Mad Frank looked up at me with a start. “Where are my robot-crab-monkeys?”
I shrugged and offered him a broad grin. He charged at me, throttling me with fists.
I nudged him backwards with a shoulder, knocking him into the airship's control wheel. The craft lurched sharply to the right. We lost our footing and tumbled to the deck. Sliding across the polished oak, I swung at him to no avail. “Gah!”
“You fool!” His wild laughter stopped abruptly when the airship crashed into the sea, a shockwave hurling our bodies to the deck with an almighty thud.
Cold sea water lapped around us, pouring in through the cracks in the ship. I dragged Mad Frank through the nearest window and swam to the shore.
The detective ran over to us as the airship ignited in a tower of flames. I offered him a weak smile and gestured to Mad Frank as we lay coughing and spluttering, sand and seaweed coating our bodies.
Mad Frank pulled something from inside his cape—my designs for the awesome airship. The sodden paper turned to pulp in his hands. “It is ruined! The sea has destroyed your blueprints.”
I rushed to the detective and pointed a finger at Mad Frank. “That man burgled my workshop and attacked me with an assortment of clockwork and steam-powered attack robots. He also blew up my home with missiles, took me prisoner, and, worst of all, he tried to steal the designs for my awesome airship.”
Mad Frank let out a cackling laugh as the detective heaved him to his feet. “You are ruined, Lord Sidebottom. Your awesome airship is no more.”
“What you stole was but a mere copy. I always make duplicates.”
Mad Frank's eyes widened. “No! All my work was for nought!”
The detective cuffed Mad Frank and led him up the steps towards the promenade. “I'm arresting you in the name of the law.”
“Wait!” I called, chasing after them.
The detective turned to me. “We will interrogate this criminal and then I vow we will find Lady Elizabeth.”
I shook my head and reached up to Mad Frank's face. I tore off his mask, then pulled away the layer of rubbery flesh. “Oh, Lady Elizabeth. How could you?”
The ancient titan stood in silence, facing the Braun Sea, its shadow etched against the passing glow of Nebel Hafen’s lighthouse. Heinrich Krauss strode towards the statue, his head craned back as he gazed up at the steel limbs and clockwork joints. Tiny alchemical lanterns lined the path towards the titan, curving in a gentle swoop across the Meerand Gardens. Heinrich glanced to the side as clouds eddied across the second sun—a brown smear in the night.
Heinrich stood before the ravenglass plinth as a hand-sized black wyvern landed on top of the titan’s foot and stretched out its wings. “Waage,” Heinrich said. “Where have you been?”
The wyvern surveyed her surroundings, black eyes glimmering against the lanterns. “Lord Krauss, forgive me,” she said, turning to him. “Do you have what I asked for?”
“Are you sure this will work?”
Waage hopped down to the plinth, folding in her wings. “I am confident, my lord.”
Heinrich leaned back, his gaze shifting towards the titan’s mechanical head, its stern brow fixed. “Are you sure we can control this thing?”
“The archives were very specific.”
Stepping back, Heinrich reached into his overcoat and carefully removed two balls of cloth.
“Well, unravel them, then,” Waage snapped.
Heinrich’s eyes narrowed as he unwrapped the cloths, revealing a pair of black orbs. “They’re lighter than they look,” he said, offering them to Waage.
“They are pure ravenglass?” she asked, examining the orbs.
“I...They drink in the light.” He gestured to one of them. “Look how it seems to glow with black.”
The edges of Waage’s lips curled back in what might have been a smile. “Excellent.” She grasped the orb in her mouth, threw her head back, and swallowed.
“What are you doing?”
Waage made for the second orb, but Heinrich snatched it away, bringing it to his chest.
“Answer me, wyvern.”
“I need to carry the orbs, my lord,” she said, dipping her head. A shudder spread across her spine as she coughed up the orb, letting it roll along the ground, sending with it a trail a black saliva. “If we are to do this—”
“Yes, yes,” Heinrich growled, waving a hand. “It’s just...” He shook his head. “We have spent so long—”
“You can trust me, my lord. I want to see you rise to power just as much as you do.”
Heinrich stared down at Waage’s slumped body, her wings spread out from her sides in a submissive gesture. “Of course.” He raised his chin. “Forgive my trepidation. Please, continue.”
Waage bolted forward, her jaws snapping closed over the first orb. Swallowing, she looked up expectantly.
With a slight nod, Heinrich let the second orb roll from his palm and into the wyvern’s mouth. She swallowed, eyes twinkling as she stretched out her wings, black and leathery, flapping them until she rose from the ground, disappearing into the darkness.
“Good luck,” Heinrich muttered. He paced and squinted up at the titan’s head. Waage’s shadow passed as the lighthouse’s alchemical glow flickered by. He rubbed his beard, hands trembling. “Gods be damned.”
After several moments, Waage returned, landing on the titan’s foot.
“Well?” Heinrich asked.
“I placed the orbs.”
“My lord, they are ravenglass.”
Heinrich frowned. “Do not talk in riddles, wyvern.”
Waage bowed, flattening her wings. “Ravenglass requires the blood of its creator.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“My lord, I require your blood.” Waage looked up with one eye open, her wings still flat.
Heinrich let out an incredulous snort.
“My lord, it is—”
“Wyvern, do not deceive me,” he snapped, raising a hand. “Return the orbs and I will let the blood myself, and then you can return them to their place.”
“Please understand, once enchanted, the orbs will be hotter than a thousand fires. I will not be able to carry them.”
Heinrich held her gaze for a long moment then sighed. “Do it.” Holding out his wrist, he squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his jaw as Waage drove her teeth into his flesh, swallowing his blood, lapping around the wound. “How much do you need?”
Waage did not respond, but kept drinking.
Groaning, Heinrich flicked his wrist and brought his arm up to his mouth, blood streaming from the tiny puncture wound.
With slow steps, Waage unfurled her wings and rose into the darkness.
Heinrich watched, the blood-flow slowing around his wound. He staggered back as the titan’s eyes glowed dull red.
Waage landed on his right shoulder, her claws sharp but delicate. They stared up as the titan’s gears started to turn.
Unable to sleep, Anna Halter gazed across the Braun Sea as the second sun emerged, red and dreamlike. She leaned on her folded arms, idly stroking the mane of a carved unicorn figurine, her fingernails tracing the etched lines that suggested hair. The light from her father’s lighthouse swept across the coastline, the palace shimmering white and green, the giant standing sentry, the harbour’s taverns and shops, the moored ships, and the chain stretching across the bay.
She followed the sweep of the light again, her gaze lingering on the giant. Blinking, she leaned forward, mouth falling open. The giant’s eyes glowed bright yellow. She blinked again, rubbing her eyes.
Pulling the window open, she shivered against the chill breeze, staring at the giant. She waved and the giant’s arm waved back.
Slamming the window shut, she ducked beneath the sill with her back against the wall, as deep, shuddering breaths erupted from her body. She closed her eyes, shaking her head, and peeped back over the ledge.
The giant’s eyes still burned bright and brilliant. She waved her hand again, her arms and legs tingling when the giant moved.
She dropped down to the floor and bit her bottom lip. Grabbing her unicorn, she got up and ran over to the door, taking the spiral stairs up a level, and banged on her father’s door. “Father,” she called, reaching up and rattling the door’s handle. “Wake up.”
Restless grunts came from the other side of the door.
The lock clicked and her father leaned out, led by the spluttering light of a tallow candle, its smoke smelling of cooked pork. “Anna,” he sighed. “Why do you never sleep, child?”
Anna looked down at her unicorn then up at her father, his blond moustache drooping past his lips. “The giant waved at me.”
He shook his head. “Anna, please. Go to sleep.”
“It’s true. It waved at me.”
Looking behind him, he crouched to one knee and reached out to stroke her hair. “I know things have been difficult since your mother died.”
She pulled her unicorn close to her chest. “It’s real.”
He raised a finger, pressing it against her lips. “Shh,” he said. “It was a dream, or it was in your mind.”
Anna looked down at her unicorn and shook her head. “I can show you.”
Yawning, her father ambled back into his chamber and shifted the drapes away from the window. “The first sun is rising soon,” he sighed. “Show me what you must.”
With tiny footsteps, Anna walked to the window, standing on her tiptoes as she pointed towards the giant. “Look. You can see its eyes glow.”
He leaned over her, gazing through the glass for a short moment before turning back inside. “It is but a trick of the light. Perhaps a reflection of the second sun, or the light of the lighthouse.”
“But it waved, father. Look.” She waved her hand, grinning as the giant returned her gesture. “See?” She turned to her father arranging his day clothes on the bed.
“Anna,” he sighed. “Please get ready for the day. I will make us breakfast.”
“But, nothing,” he snapped.
Anna flinched, staggering back as she pulled her unicorn close, tears welling in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice softening. He crossed the room and kissed the top of her head.
Heinrich paced before the plinth, rubbing the back of his neck, squinting up at the titan’s glowing eyes. He turned to Waage, a deep line creasing his brow. “I had no part in that.”
Waage swooped in rising circles around the titan before diving towards Heinrich, squawking.
Staggering backwards, Heinrich flapped his hands wildly. “What are you doing?”
“It extended its arm thrice—do not lie to me.” Waage hovered in the air a few feet above him, her wings beating down, slow, bat-like.
The wyvern pecked at his hair. “I warn you. Do not lie to me, my lord. I have your blood in my bones. I can control you if you are lying.”
“Treacherous wyvern,” Heinrich spat. “Why did I trust you?” A quivering passed over his body as the wyvern tugged at his mind, bending his will, twisting his thoughts. “What...are...you...?”
“You are linked and you lie.”
“There is no link,” Heinrich said, shrinking back. He stumbled on an alchemical lantern, the tiny ball shattering into smoke. “I have no control over that thing.” He fell to the ground, head smacking against stone.
Waage looked up at the titan and stopped. “You are not linked. I misjudged you. Forgive me, my lord.” She tilted her head. “But there is a link to someone.”
Eyes widening, Heinrich shifted away from the wyvern, his arms out in front of him. “I promise you, there is no link.”
“Look,” she said, pointing a scaled wing towards the lighthouse.
Heinrich followed her gaze, shaking his head. “I see nothing.”
“Of course,” the wyvern mused. “You do not perceive enchantment as I.” She hopped down to Heinrich’s side, flattening her wings against the ground, her head held low. “The thread extends towards the lighthouse.”
“Do not speak in riddles, wyvern. Say your words.”
“My lord, I feel the titan has latched onto another host, like a duckling latching to the first thing it perceives.”
“But a lighthouse? How can that be? How can a lighthouse exert control? It has no will.”
Waage raised her head and met Heinrich’s gaze. “We must seek the keeper of the lighthouse.”
Anna ran her finger along the unicorn’s mane in an absent motion. She stared at nothing as her father stood over the cooking pot, stirring porridge, flames dancing around its base, sending flickering shadows along the stone walls. Pans hung around him and a sack of turnips sagged half-open at his feet. “Things will get easier, Anna,” he said, looking back at her, his feet shuffling. “These past months have been difficult—for both of us. I am sorry that I haven’t been as close to you as I should.”
“You have the lighthouse, father.” She looked to the window as the first sun soaked the Braun Sea in its yellow glow, its light filling the sky, washing out the second sun’s gloomy brown.
He raised a wooden spoon to his mouth, tasting the porridge.
Anna moved over to the window, gazing across the sea towards the giant, its eyes still fiery, even against the first sun’s burgeoning light. A warmth pushed against the top of her head, pressing down like a hand. It sunk into her, filling her, spreading through her—a tingling, electric sensation passing across her skin, stiffening the tiny hairs on her neck.
Her father’s words came out as an echo, distant.
For a moment, she looked down at a tiny cowering man. A wyvern flapped around her and pecked at her eyes. She stepped forward, her head turning with a slow metallic screech.
She jerked back, tumbling to the floor.
“Anna,” her father said, standing over her. “Anna?”
“Father...I...” She glanced at the window.
He took her by the hand and led her back to her wooden stool, smoothed by time. “This is why you should sleep more,” he said, shaking his head. “Here.” He handed her a clay cup of watered-down ale.
“I...I’m...” She rubbed her head.
“You do not have to eat now. Perhaps you should return to bed. Close your drapes. I will keep the porridge warm and stirred.”
Anna rose to her feet and let out a deep breath. “Yes, father.” She walked over to the door, avoiding the window.
“Your toy,” he said, gesturing to the unicorn.
“Thank you.” She took it and shouldered her way through the doors and up the spiral stairs. With a sigh, she stumbled into her bed chamber.
She dragged a leather shoulder bag from between her bed and side table and tipped its contents onto her blankets.
Turning, she glanced over to the window. A twitching sensation travelled along her arms and legs, running up her spine, the pressing, tingling warmth settling around her forehead. She shook her head as if freeing herself from a spider’s web, and reached for her tabard and leggings, pulling them on before stuffing her unicorn into the bag.
The giant called to her.
Breathing heavily, Anna ran down the stairs, bolting through the door before her father noticed.
A gust of wind from the east struck her, blowing hair across her face. She ran along the cliff’s path, winding down towards the harbour, thick clumps of grass making way for barnacle-coated rocks, their sides slick with seaweed. Foamy waves brushed against the sea wall as tall ships rocked in time with the tides.
Reaching the harbour, she skipped over an iron mooring, ducking past the shopkeepers and innkeepers opening their shutters for the day, and avoided the sailors staggering out of brothels.
The warmth around her head increased, surrounding her with a low, insistent hum. She saw herself from across the harbour, a tiny red-headed girl running through the crowds.
“There,” Waage snapped as the titan’s foot rose and fell, crashing to the ground, freeing itself from the plinth. “It is moving.”
Wide-eyed, on his back, and frozen in place, Heinrich stared up at the titan, his elbows poking into the soil. “I can see it moves,” he managed through gritted teeth.
“Not the titan,” she said, gesturing with her nose towards the harbour. “The enchantment. It moves.” Waage beat her wings, rising into the air.
“What do you see?” Heinrich asked, wobbling to his feet, dirt cascading from his overcoat.
“People are coming. Hundreds of them.”
“Gods be damned. We should leave before questions are asked.”
Waage swooped down, landing on Heinrich’s shoulder. “My lord,” she whispered as the first few men and women entered the gardens, their eyes cast up in wonderment. “Being here will only increase your status in the eyes of Nebel Hafen’s citizens.”
“And what of Count Schultz?”
The wyvern stretched out her wings, raising her chin. “What of him? Only last night—” Waage’s words stopped abruptly.
The titan’s head turned and the crowd gasped. Waage rose into the air, circling above Heinrich. “I see the source of the link.”
Heinrich’s fists clenched. “Show me.”
“You see that little girl with the red hair?”
Anna’s focus drifted from the giant to the flickering wings of a black-scaled wyvern. She tilted her head as the creature stared at her with its deep black eyes, its wings holding it in midair like a marionette.
“The statue has come to life,” a thin man with bright green eyes said, smiling at her. “Let it rise and protect our shores from the Ostreich invaders.”
Reaching into her bag with trembling hands, Anna retrieved her unicorn, holding it close as she made her way through the crowd. She looked between the giant and the wyvern, her teeth biting into her bottom lip, breaking through the skin. The taste of blood filled her mouth.
“What is she carrying?” Heinrich asked, watching the girl as she approached the titan.
“It is inert,” Waage said.
“I will take it.”
“You would take a child’s toy in front of all these people?”
Heinrich tugged at his beard. “I am at an end, wyvern.”
“Perhaps we could take her to your manor, imprison her, and force her to command the titan to your will.”
“You vile, wicked creature.” Heinrich raised a hand to the wyvern. “Wait,” he said, hand dropping. “Take her blood. Control her with your enchantment.”
The wyvern landed on Heinrich’s shoulder, and brushed against his ear. “I can do that. She already has blood at her mouth.”
Anna stopped at the giant’s feet, placing a hand on the front of its big toe. “Hello,” she whispered as floods of warmth washed over her body.
With creaking joints, the giant leaned forward. The crowd jerked back. Some people ran away, while others stared, petrified.
Anna dropped her hand as the black-winged wyvern darted towards her, diving through the air, its wings swept back. She swung the unicorn, missing the wyvern as it tried to land on her head. Brushing it away, she cowered behind the giant’s foot.
She covered her ears, cringing at the wyvern’s squawks and screeches. The creature spiralled into the air and flew at Anna again. This time she crouched low, thrusting the unicorn around her in broad circles, missing the wyvern as it dodged and weaved her attempted strikes. “Leave me alone,” she cried. “Please.”
The sound of tearing metal echoed around her as the giant pivoted on its feet, swung a fist, and connected with the wyvern.
Anna cringed as the wyvern shot across the gardens, rolling into a crumpled, trembling heap in the dirt.
When the hand rested in front of her, she climbed onto its palm, hugging the little finger as the giant lifted her from the ground, raising her to its right shoulder.
Her breath caught in her throat when she looked down at the tiny faces staring up at her as a gust of wind tussled her hair and blew across her skin. She gazed across the rooftops, mouth agape, eyes lingering on her lighthouse across the harbour.
The giant stepped to the right and into the sea, waves crashing against its knees. Anna gripped the giant’s neck as it swayed with each step, seagulls circling around them as the lighthouse grew closer. She held her breath, trembling as she swept her eyes across the bay, taking in the boats and buildings, the shimmering stones of the palace, the crowds gathered on the lawn of Meerand Gardens watching in awe, a smile reaching her eyes. She threw her head back, loosening her grip. “This is glorious,” she cried.
Heinrich moved through the crowd, Waage perched on his shoulder. “Where am I going? This is not my will.”
“Your will is my will, my lord.”
“No, wyvern. You said—” His arms flailed uselessly as he stumbled onto the harbour wall, legs moving without consent, shins and toes stubbing against carts and walls.
“Enough,” Waage snapped. “I have a plan, but I am weakened.”
Sailors regarded him with confused expressions as he moved in fits and starts, feet jerking with each step. A woman selling shellfish jumped backwards, dodging his erratic movements. “Where are you leading me?” he groaned.
“To the lighthouse. That girl is the keeper’s daughter. We must use that knowledge to our advantage.”
Heinrich lurched forward as if being yanked by a rope, toes stubbing against the emerging rocks. “Wyvern, give me my will.”
“We must take that girl.”
“I will come voluntarily,” Heinrich pleaded. “You are hurting my feet and legs, and my shins are bruised and bloody.” He staggered forward, rolling to the ground as the wyvern released the enchantment. “Gahh! You wicked, deceitful creature. I should—” His words stopped, his mouth slamming tight. He mumbled inaudible curses as he clawed at his mouth, trying to pry it open.
“Voluntarily?” the wyvern asked, voice tinged with irony. “You must promise me that you will not try to hurt me.”
Heinrich nodded then gasped as his mouth unsealed. “Vile creature,” he spat.
“Keep your words. We have work to do.” She gestured to the titan striding across the bay, the waves crashing up to its waist. “It appears the girl is taking the titan home. I would like us to be there to greet them.”
Heinrich rose to his feet and brushed his overcoat down. “Why did I let you talk me into this?”
The wyvern marched ahead on spindly legs, following the curve of the rocks towards the lighthouse.
When they arrived, Heinrich rapped on the door with a fist, watching the titan’s approach.
“Yes?” A man with a drooping blond moustache leaned from the door.
“Let us inside. I must speak with you as a matter of urgency.”
The man glanced towards the wyvern and back to Heinrich, a frown knitting his brow. “I am very busy. We have nothing to discuss.”
“Do you know who I am?” Heinrich spat.
“Why, of course. Lord...I’m sorry. You’re the count’s nephew.”
“I am Lord Heinrich Krauss.” He raised his chin. “And you are?”
“I am Karl Halter, keeper of the Nebel Hafen lighthouse.”
“You have a daughter?”
Karl’s eyes narrowed. “What is this about?”
“Your daughter has taken something that belongs to me, something very important.” Heinrich cleared his throat.
“My daughter is in her chamber.” Karl brushed his fingers along his moustache, shifting his gaze down to the wyvern. “I’m sorry. I must wish you a good day.”
Heinrich wedged his boot between the door and its frame when Karl tried to close it.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“I am Lord Heinrich Krauss—”
“And you have no domain over this lighthouse.” Karl held Heinrich’s gaze, his face growing red. “What is it you believe my daughter has taken?”
“That,” Waage said, pointing to the titan with an outstretched wing.
Anna clung tight as the giant stepped from the sea and onto the rocks, its feet dripping with water and seaweed. Circling gulls called out with desperate squawks.
“There,” she said, pointing to the lighthouse. “You must meet my father.”
The giant followed the path to the lighthouse and Anna froze. “It’s that man,” she said. “And his wyvern.”
Creaking, the giant’s hand rose to its shoulder and waited as Anna clambered on. She laid low, spreading out on all fours as the giant crouched, lowering her to the ground. “Father,” she called, running towards him. “I have a new friend.” She came to an abrupt halt at the sight of the man with the wyvern, breath catching in her chest.
Heinrich grabbed Karl’s throat and thrust him head-first onto the ground.
“What—” Karl gasped.
Placing a boot on Karl’s back, Heinrich folded his arms and smiled at the girl’s approach. “Little girl, we meet again. I trust you remember my wyvern?”
“What are you doing to my father?”
“Anna, run,” Karl called.
“You had no right to take our titan,” the wyvern said. “We slaved over research and sourcing ravenglass, only for you to steal it from us like some common thief.”
Anna glanced behind her and cradled her unicorn. “It chose me. I did nothing.”
Waage hopped onto Karl’s back and frowned at Anna. “Perhaps you need—”
“Waage, Waage,” Heinrich said, his voice softening. “The girl wasn’t to know of our plans.” He turned to Anna. “Were you, Anna?”
“The giant saw me and talked to my mind.”
Heinrich smiled. “You see? All this can be resolved.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to command the titan.”
“I don’t know how it works.”
“You brought it here. All I ask is that you control it on my behalf and...” His voice trailed off and he shrugged. “I suppose I won’t kill your father.”
Anna stared up at Heinrich, wide-eyed. “What should I ask of the giant?”
A broad grin spreads across Heinrich’s face like oil on velvet. “My dear, it is very simple. I need the giant to retrieve Count Schultz from his palace and drop him into the sea, beyond the chains.”
A sharp breath caught in Anna’s throat. “But he will surely drown.”
“Indeed. But I must rule.”
“Anna, don’t,” Karl managed before Heinrich booted him in the side.
“What will it be? Help me or watch as I disembowel your father?”
Anna turned and walked to the giant’s feet, placing a hand against the warm metal.
“Do not agree to this man’s requests,” her father called through gritted teeth. “He is not to be trusted.”
“Father, please. I...I cannot be alone.”
“Where is your mother?” the lord asked. “Perhaps we could speak to her too.”
Anna’s bottom lip trembled. “She has passed on. All I have is my father.” She blinked away a tear.
A mirthless smile curled across the lord’s lips. “You see, Anna? Listen to what your heart is telling you. You do not want to see your father die. How could you live with yourself when you knew you could prevent it? Do you know what happens to orphans?”
A long silence hung in the air before she spoke. “I will assist you,” she said, finally. “But you must release my father.”
“I am a man of my word. If you help me, you will be lavished with gifts and you and your father will want for nought.”
She swallowed and dipped her head. “I agree.”
“Anna, what are you doing?” her father groaned.
Crouching at his side, she placed a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t want you to die.”
“There, there,” the lord said. “See? That wasn’t so hard.”
The giant bent to one knee and rested the back of a hand on the ground. “You should climb on,” Anna suggested, rising to her feet. “It will take you across the bay to the palace.”
The lord glanced at the wyvern. “I’m not so sure—”
“I did it,” Anna said, interrupting. “It was...it was amazing.”
“You’re not afraid are you, my lord?” the wyvern said.
The lord pursed his lips and raised his chin. “I have no fear. This is the day I go down in history.” He clambered onto the giant’s hand and gestured to the wyvern. “Are you coming?”
Anna’s father sat up, rubbing his jaw. “Anna, what are you thinking?”
“I’m doing as the lord asked. I didn’t want to see you hurt, father.”
The wyvern swept its gaze across the sea and waddled with the lord towards the giant’s hand.
“Command this titan,” the lord said. “Take me to the palace.”
Anna licked her lips, pulling her unicorn towards her, knuckles turning pale. She reached out for her father’s hand, watching as the giant lifted the lord to its shoulder. Her father got to his feet, standing at her side, staring at the giant, shaking his head.
The warmth filled her mind and she saw herself through the giant’s eyes.
“This is really quite high up,” Heinrich said, clinging to the titan’s neck. He called out a curse as the titan turned and stepped into the sea. “Gods be damned. We are going to fall.”
“Just hold on,” Waage said. “We will be at the palace before you know it.”
Heinrich let out a deep breath. “It really is high. Very, very high.”
The titan waded through the water, the waves sloshing against its knees.
“This swaying is making me feel woozy.”
“I hope she adjusts the course, we seem to be veering away from the palace.”
“I’m sorry I lied to you, father.”
“You know to tell me if you plan to leave the lighthouse. I thought you were still home.”
“My thoughts were not quite my own.” She glanced up at him and smiled. “You are safe now.”
He tugged at his moustache. “I’m afraid this is only the beginning. Lord Krauss is a man who craves power above everything. With that monstrosity at his command and that wyvern whispering in his ear...” He shook his head. “I fear for our future.”
Waves crashed against the titan’s shoulders, sending jets of foam across Heinrich’s feet. “Turn, you foul thing. You’re going the wrong way.”
Waage swung her head around and gestured to shore. “We should make for the harbour.”
“We are too far away. We will both drown.”
Waage stretched out her wings, testing them. “I can glide.” She leaped from Heinrich’s shoulder, catching an updraft and shooting into the air.
“You cursed, retched thing. Come back.” Heinrich scrambled onto the titan’s mouth, clambering up its face as the water rose around him.
He climbed to the top of its head, sobbing as the waves washed over his legs and arms and chest, throwing him below the surface and deep beneath the sea.
Prisoner of the Wasteland.
The filthy bedroll slips beneath him when David sits up. He squints at the thin lines of sunlight seeping between the gaps in the boarded-up windows, the damp glistening along the concrete walls.
"You awake?" he whispers, shaking the shoulder of a dark-skinned boy curled up next to him. "Mike?"
The boy glares at David through purple-rimmed eyes, cringing as he grabs the back of his head. "What is it?"
"I was thinking." David, looks over to the locked door. "We need to get off this stuff."
Mike laughs, shaking his head, his mouth twisting. "This is it. There ain't no getting off this."
"That's just what they tell you. Bree was say—"
"What does Bree know? Tell us, Bree.”
David leans over to the girl lying next to him and shakes her shoulder. "Bree?" He looks up at Mike. "She's not breathing."
Mike scrambles over and looks down at Bree, her long black hair matted into knots, and shakes his head. "She's just high."
"I tell you, she's not breathing."
Mike puts a hand near her mouth and waits. He drops his arm and shakes his head, slower this time.
David gets up and stumbles over the other sleeping children, sweating as he hammers at the door, calling out for help.
A couple of the kids groan and swear. The lock clicks and a bolt shifts across. David steps back as the door swings open.
A tall man, with a grizzled beard and scarred face, eyes David from the doorway. "What the hell is going on?"
"It's Bree. She's dead." David sucks in his bottom lip and nods towards her body, unremarkable among the other death-still children.
"Which one?" The man asks.
The man wraps a leather strap around his hand and barges through the door, shoving David aside, his eyes darting around the room. "Which one?"
David scrambles across the prone bodies of the sleeping children and crouches next to Bree. "Here.”
The man stands over him and stares at the corpse. "What you waiting for? Get her up. Get her out of here."
There's a long silence, and David exchanges a glance with Mike, who shrugs.
"Come on, then," the man snaps, clearing a path to the door with his kicks.
Struggling, David hooks his arms under the dead girl's armpits and drags her across the room, straining against her weight as he struggles to get her through the door, her ankles catching against the frame.
"This way," the man says, marching ahead along the corridor.
David holds back tears as he stares down at her grubby feet dragging along the concrete.
The man knocks on a steel door at the end of the corridor and waits.
Sunlight pours in as the door creaks open. "We got another one," the man says, nodding back towards David.
A woman looks around the man and shrugs. "Sling it over there," she says, gesturing behind her. David follows where she's pointing and takes in a sharp breath.
"Well, come on. We've got a busy day," the man snaps.
David steps outside, the stench of the floodwaters stronger in the open air. He looks around at the buildings looming above him, starting when he’s prodded in the side by the woman's rifle-butt. "Get rid of it," she says.
With a deep sigh, David nods and drags Bree's body to the building's edge. He glances back at the man, hesitating.
"What you waiting for? Get rid of it.”
David looks down at Bree's knotted hair, the purple rims around her eyes, her sunken cheeks and bony shoulders, and shakes his head. "I...I can't."
The man curses and storms over to David. He grabs Bree around her neck and flings her into the water, her body bobbing on the surface for a minute, her inflated clothes sagging before sinking beneath the blackness. The man wipes his hands and turns to David, prodding a forefinger into his chest. "When I tell you to do something, you do it. Otherwise you'll be next.” He points to the tiny white bubbles, the only visible marker of Bree’s grave. “We clear?"
David looks down at the flattening surface, and nods. "Yes, sir," he manages, turning his attention to his feet. "Sorry."
David sits cross-legged on his bedroll, staring down at a stale piece of bread.
"You going to eat that?" Mike asks.
"I can't believe she's dead," David says, still staring.
Mike sniffs and snatches the bread from David's limp grip, stuffing it into his mouth. "We’re all dead. I said you shouldn't get close. If it's not plez, then it's the Family."
"But Bree was a good person."
"She was an addict and now she's not.” Mike shrugs and brushes a crumb from his chin. “If you ask me, I'd say she's better off."
David sighs and shakes his head, starting when the door crashes open.
"Everyone up," the man with the grizzled beard says. "Follow me." He turns and marches out of the room. The other children look at each other, confused, and get to their feet, filing out of the room.
David follows the stream of kids as they meander outside. "What's happening?" he asks, turning to Mike.
"Shut up," Mike growls under his breath. “It’s probably about Bree.”
The children are lined-up at the edge of the building, the floodwaters still and silent behind them. David looks down to the place where Bree's body was thrown and holds his breath for a few long seconds.
Three women stand guard with rifles as the man with the grizzled beard paces in front of the kids, stopping when a small boy, a head shorter than David, emerges flailing with a collar and chain around his neck. "Look at the face of this boy," the man says. "We found this boy trying to steal plez. Do you know what we do to people who steal from us?" He makes a gesture to one of the women. "Pull him up."
David and the other children watch in silence, not daring to move as the chain around the boy's neck tightens and lifts him three-feet off the ground, his feet flailing uselessly.
"Watch," the man says, pointing. "Any of you kids turn away from this, and you'll be next."
David turns in the direction of the kid, his eyes focused on something in the distance, the last few spasms of movement blurring at the edge of his vision.
A long tense silence hangs in the air before the chain is released, dropping the boy to the ground like a pile of dead meat.
"Get rid of it," the man says, pointing at David.
"Get rid of it. Put him with your friend."
“Disobey me again and see what happens,” the man says, narrowing his eyes.
David swallows and dips his head with a single nod. He staggers over to the dead boy and looks down at his vacant eyes. Shuddering, he unfastens the collar digging into the dead boy's neck and tosses it aside. He drags the body to the building's edge, gets to his knees and rolls it into the water, turning away before he sees the splash.
"We’re going to need a new cleaner," the man says. “Someone who’s not going to steal from us. Any volunteers?"
David glances over to the other kids, all of them looking at their feet.
"No one?" the man says, shrugging. He turns to David. "You're small. You'll do."
David squirms against the electrical wire wrapped around his wrists, binding his hands together as he’s led across the plank of wood extending between rooftops. He stares ahead, trying not to look down at the floodwaters as the wood wobbles beneath his bare feet.
The man with the grizzled beard directs him through a door, one hand firmly clasped on David's shoulder.
An expansive factory floor opens out before them. A thick chemical odour penetrates the stench of the floodwaters. Steel vats stand in rows along the concrete floor. Twisted copper pipes spread out in all directions. A purple haze lingers in the air.
The man turns to David and unbinds his wrists. "You need to keep this place clean," he says. "Whenever there's a new cook, you need to get under those and get rid of the gunk.” He gestures beneath the vats. “Try not to get burnt, those things get very hot."
David looks around and nods. "You want me to get under those?"
The man ignores the question. "If you steal, you're dead. Same goes if you try to escape, if you're late, if you don't do what whoever is in charge says.” There’s a pause. “We clear?"
David shrugs. "Okay."
A prod to the shoulder brings David from his sleep, the last fragments of plez pulling at the edge of his consciousness. He looks around in the gloom as the others sleep around him, and starts at the sight of a man, dressed from head-to-foot in yellow plastic, standing over him, a carbine hanging at his side.
“Come on,” the man says. “Time for work.”
David staggers to his feet, confused. “Okay,” He follows the man outside, across the bridge, and to the factory.
“Wait there,” the man says, pointing to a patch of floor near the door. He returns a minute later carrying a sweeping brush, a gasmask obscuring his face. “Clean,” he says, his voice muffled through the rubber and glass.
Sucking in his bottom lip, David takes the broom. “What’s the mask for?” he asks, his voice little more than a whisper.
“Speak up,” the man says.
“What’s with the mask?”
“Cooking fumes are bad for you.”
“Can I have one?”
The man lets out a laugh and shoulders his way past, shaking his head. He stops and looks back. “You keep your questions to yourself. Get cleaning.”
David spends the next few hours sweeping the room, wiping down vats, and tipping trays filled with ash into the floodwaters. He stands on the water’s edge, looking down, and then heads back inside, his stomach rumbling.
The factory heats up as a roaring fire burns at the far end. A purple-grey haze fills the room as steam rushes from the joins of copper pipes along the ceiling. David wobbles as his feet grow light. He taps the man on the shoulder. “Can I eat?”
“Don’t talk to me,” the man says, his voice distant. “You can eat when you’ve cleaned up this batch.”
David nods and watches as the man pulls a tray of gleaming purple crystals from beneath one of the vats, biting his bottom lip as he takes in their twinkling forms.
“Don’t even think about it,” the man says, shaking the crystals. He picks one up, turning it in the low light. “You saw what happened to the last one.”
“Looks like a good batch.”
The man pulls off his gasmask and wipes his sweat-soaked forehead with a sleeve, frowning. “Don’t be friendly.” He hangs the mask from a hook descending from the ceiling and gestures to a crate. “Bring me that.”
David runs to the corner and drags the battered wooden crate to the man. “Here okay?” he asks, looking up.
The man nods. “Hold it still.” He pours the crystals from the tray, letting them cascade into the crate, filling it halfway. “Put the lid on it.” He looks around, rubbing his chin. “Still not enough.”
David gives a confused look. “What?”
Raising a hand, the man’s eyes flicker with rage. “Take the crate back to where you got it and cover it up. We need another batch.”
Flinching, David looks over to the corner and nods. “Okay,” he whispers, dragging the crate backwards. When he reaches the corner, he rummages around the other crates until he finds the right cover. He places the sheet of wood over the crate, adjusting it until it slots into place.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Get rid of the crap.” The man gestures to the tar-like substance clinging to the underside of the vat.
David picks up a cloth and bucket, runs over and crawls underneath, scrubbing at the gunk. He calls out in pain when his hand brushes against the metal, still hot from the cook, and rolls out, clutching it.
“What is it?”
“Burned my hand,” David says, tears filling his eyes.
“Let me see,” the man says, grabbing at his wrist.
A bright-pink oval stretches from David’s little finger to his wrist, his skin frayed where the flesh peeled off against the metal. The man turns away and shrugs. “I’ve seen worse.”
“But it hurts.” Cross-legged, David leans forward, gritting his teeth against the pain.
“Get up. Do your job. If you can’t do your job, you’re done. You understand?”
David swallows and nods, his left hand throbbing.
Streams of dying light punctuate the gloom as David sits hunched over on his bedroll. He looks up, forcing a smile as Mike hands him a slice of hard bread. “Thanks,” he says in a whisper.
Mike scrunches a blanket into a ball and sits down next to David. “Weird without Bree, huh?”
David looks at the area of bare floor where Bree used to sleep, and sighs. “Just life, I guess.” He tears a chunk of the bread away with his teeth, moving it around his mouth as he chews, licking his lips against the dryness.
“What happened to your hand?” Mike asks, gesturing to the long blister.
“Got burned on one of the plez vats.”
Mike nods. “Plez will sort you out. Hit of that, and boom! You’re out.”
Shuddering, David takes another bite of bread and stares down at his hands.
“Did you see them make it?”
David nods and swallows. “My head really hurts.”
“You get any?” Mike whispers.
“And get strung-up?” He looks down at his burns and winces.
Shaking his head, Mike makes a wide smile. “Man, if I was in there, I’d just get as much as I could...” His voice trails off at David’s glare. “What?”
“I’m done with it. I wasn’t kidding. I’m getting clean. It’s bad.”
Mike smirks and lies back onto his bedroll. “I’ll have yours when they bring it round.”
David looks up when the door opens. A woman and man enter, both with rifles over their shoulders. The other kids jump to their feet. “Don’t move,” the man says, patting his rifle. “She’ll bring your plez.” He shakes his head as the woman hands out crystals to the other children. The kids scurry back to their bedrolls with their drugs, some lighting-up without hesitation.
Mike bolts to his feet when the woman approaches, and she hands him a single crystal. “What’s up with you?” she asks, looking down at David, still on his bedroll.
“My head hurts.”
The woman tosses a purple crystal, no bigger than a thumbnail, onto the blanket to David’s left. His mouth twitches as he grabs the crystal, watching as the woman moves away.
Mike lets out a snort and grins at David. “You let me have your plez?”
David doesn’t respond, his hand squeezing around the crystal.
“Thought not.” Stuffing the plez into a finger-length steel tube, Mike lights a candle and leans down to it with the pipe in his mouth. He turns to David and smiles. “See you on the other side.” Turning back to the candle, he pushes the crystal into the flame, holds it for a few seconds, and then inhales. A shudder spreads across his back and up along his neck. The pipe flops from his mouth and he slumps to his side.
The chemical tang hangs in the air. David cringes. He looks around at the others, many of them now in a stupor, and sighs. The burn on the side of his hand itches and throbs.
Leaning back, he stares at the ceiling, listening, breathing. He loosens his grip and lets the plez roll from his hand. Closing his eyes, he takes in a breath, holding it in until his he hears his heartbeat. He exhales and snaps to an upright position, his hand shooting towards the crystal and his pipe as his mouth turns desert dry.
A flood of tears catches him off guard when he looks over to the bare space where Bree used to sleep. He holds his breath, chewing on his fist. Cold sweat gathers along his back, seeping from his forehead. Dry heaves contract in his stomach, tearing at his throat and chest. Squeezing his eyes shut, he drives the plez into his pipe, leans towards the candle, inhales, and fades.
Shadows stretch beneath the vats as David scrubs the dull metal surface, taking care not to burn himself again. He slides from underneath and looks up at the man standing over him.
The man’s breath clicks and wheezes through the gasmask, his yellow plastic suit crackling with movement. He gives David an unsure look then glances over to the door. “I’m going for a pee,” he says, his voice muffled. “Stay here. Don’t move.” He pulls of his mask and hangs it from a hook.
David gives a nod and rubs the sweat from his brow as the man leaves. He looks towards the crate of plez and bites his lower lip for several seconds. The gush of foul air from the open door clears the lingering chemical fumes. He goes over to the door and leans outside, the light fading from the day.
Scanning the rooftops, he sees no signs of other people, no movement. The man stands on the edge of the rooftop with his back to David, urinating into the floodwaters below.
David looks towards the sunset, to the blotches of purple and orange smearing the sky. His eyes rest on the shoreline. He follows it south, tracing its shape with his finger, his gaze lingering on the end of the highway that winds its way west, fading into the hills.
“What you doing out here?”
David takes in a sharp breath and swivels on his heels. “I need to pee.”
The man eyes him for a second, and then nods. “Be quick. Nearly done anyway.”
Hesitating, David steps past the man and heads over to the building’s edge. He looks over the side and into the water as it sloshes against the bricks below. The rooftops around him stand empty. Firelight pours from a window in an opposite building. He flexes his burnt hand and looks over his shoulder, shivering at the chill wind, listening as it blows around the buildings in a low ghostly hum. He looks back down towards the water, staring for several seconds before sighing and heading back inside.
The man stands leaning against the doorway, waiting. “You took your time. We’ve got to get this shipment out first thing. Let’s get cleaned-up and get these crates out.”
“I think I can escape,” David says in a hushed voice, rolling on his side.
Mike stares back at him for several seconds, his face contorting into a smirk, and then a laugh. “We got it good here.”
David leans on his right elbow and sighs. An empty bowl of sour-tasting soup rests on the floor between them. “Good? You think this is good?” He waves a hand and Mike shrugs. “We’re going to die here.”
A sharp breath shoots from Mike nostrils. “We get beds, we get plez, we get food. I mean, yeah, the work’s bad, but we’re alive.”
“For how long?”
“You think things are better in the wastes?” Mike lies on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “No dogs, no raiders, no scavenging.” He counts the points on his fingers. “If you think being out there is better, you go ahead.”
“I want to be free.”
Mike sits up and looks back at him with purple-rimmed eyes, his face etched with deep creases, sweat glistening along his forehead. “So you can swim?”
“I don’t know.”
“So what’s your plan?”
Another laugh splutters from Mike as he lies back on his bed. “Keep dreaming. Plez will be here soon. That’s when I’m free.”
The next morning, a man with a rifle strides into the room and sweeps his gaze across the children’s faces. “We’ve got a shipment to prepare, so you all need to stay in here.”
“What about work?” a boy asks.
The man turns and glowers at the boy. “Are you thick? I just said you all need to stay in here. That means no work.”
Mike rests his hands behind his head and leans back, grinning. “Happy days.”
Leaving the room, the man closes the door, bolting it behind him.
David frowns. “I need to pee,” he says, getting to his feet. He steps over the other children, his feet finding tiny islands of concrete among the sea of bedrolls and limbs. When he reaches the door, he knocks it and waits.
“What?” a voice asks after a few seconds.
“I need to go.”
“There’s a bucket.”
David glances at the bucket in the corner overflowing with urine and faeces, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s full. Please, I really need to pee.”
David staggers back as the door opens. A man leans in, looks at the bucket, and eyes David up and down. “You know where you’re going?”
David slips past the man and makes his way to the roof. He looks over the water as the sunrise flares across the sky. He steps to the building’s edge and goes to pee, watching as a pair of dealers walk around a canoe, checking its hull for damage.
He goes to the other side of the roof and relieves himself. When he’s finished, he glances over to the shore, the shape of a campervan just visible at the end of the highway.
Looking around, he takes in a deep breath then jumps into the water. A shock of cold runs through his body as the water hits.
His head drops below the surface and he takes a mouthful of the foul water. He bobs up, gasping, kicking his legs frantically. The water covers his head again, stinging his eyes and filling his ears. He claws and scrambles, reaching towards the wall, trying to pull himself up, trying to breathe.
“Help,” he calls out, his words obscured by the water filling his mouth. Reaching out, he grabs a metal bracket jutting out from the wall and calls out again. The water pulls at him, tugging him down. “Help!”
With weak muscles, he tries to pull himself up, his arms bending halfway before giving out. His head falls below the water again, and he kicks his feet against the wall, trying to gain purchase. He reaches for the bracket again, gripping it with trembling fingers, his biceps throbbing with the cold. “Help. Anyone.”
“You,” the man calls down from the roof. “What you doing down there?”
“I...I fell in.”
The man lets out a mirthless laugh. “You tried to escape, didn’t you? You can’t even swim, can you?”
“I tripped.” David looks around, gasping. “Honest. I fell in.” He looks over his shoulder at the water. “I don’t want to leave.”
“Right.” Nodding, the man steps away from the edge, returning a few moments later with a length of blue rope. “If you’re lying...”
“I’m not...I didn’t...I wouldn’t...” David manages between coughs.
With narrowed eyes, the man lets down the rope until its end dips below the surface. “Grab on.”
David takes the rope, flinching as it takes his weight.
The man groans above, heaving the rope, bringing David up to the roof. Breathless, David rolls onto the roof, soaked and shivering. The water’s stench fills his clothes.
“Get up,” the man says.
David turns and vomits, the sick bursting from his mouth like black lava. Sweat and tears streak through the filth.
“Get up,” the man repeats, his voice colder, lower.
“I...I can’t.“ An explosion of vomit erupts from David’s mouth, and he flops onto his side. The man yanks him by the arm, dragging him to his feet.
“You’re lucky I don’t string you up.”
David swallows, trying to focus, trying to catch his breath, his heart pounding, blood rushing in his ears. “I didn’t mean to fall.”
Hesitating, David looks down at his clothes, sopping wet and coated in filth. “I’m too dirty.”
“You addicts are all dirty,” the man says, spitting on the ground. “Get inside.” He prods David with the rifle-butt.
“Okay.” David dips his head in assent then shambles forward, making his way back.
“This isn’t over. I’ll deal with you properly later.”
When the man closes the door behind him, David squints at the gloom as the other children stare up at him, wide-eyed. He stumbles over a few bodies on his way back to his bed-roll.
“Damn, what happened?” Mike asks.
David tears off his clothes and huddles into his blanket, still trembling. “I tried to escape,” he whispers.
Mike lets out a loud laugh. “You’re good,” he says, shaking his head. “You nearly had me there.” He slaps his thigh. “No, really. Why you wet?”
Mike sits up, raising his eyebrows. “Seriously?”
“I thought I’d be able to swim, but I can’t.”
“So, what? You just jumped in the water?”
David nods. “I figured it couldn’t be hard.”
“How far did you get?”
“I didn’t. I just went under. The guy outside sent down a rope.”
“They know you tried to escape?”
“No.” David shrugs. “I said I fell in.”
“When you were having a pee?”
David smiles. “I think he believed me.”
Mike shakes his head. “If they knew you were trying to escape...”
“Get up,” a man’s voice growls in David’s ear.
“What?” David looks around, confused as the other children lie sleeping.
“Get up.” The man drags David to his feet, yanking him free of his blanket. “Come on. We’ve got to load the shipment.”
David rolls his shoulders, bones clicking in his neck. He follows the man outside, rubbing his eyes through the fog of sleep and plez. It’s still dark when he gets outside.
The man leads the way with a flaming torch, stopping when he reaches a stack of crates. “I need you to lower these onto those boats,” he says, pointing.
“It’s too dark. I can’t see.”
The man looks the kid up and down, his torch held out at arm’s-length to the side. “You saying you’re not going to follow orders?”
David sucks in his bottom lip and takes a step back, shaking his head. “It’s dark. What if I mess-up?”
“If you mess this up, you get strung-up. Is that clear?”
Swallowing, David nods and goes over to the crates, a coil of rope resting on the ground next to them. Among the crates, he places his hand on a blue plastic barrel. “Do I need to send this? It’s empty.”
“Does that look like a crate?”
There’s a long pause and the kid nods. “Just the crates?”
The man gives no response, only watches.
With fumbling, trembling hands, David takes the rope and secures it around the first crate. He looks back at the man, still standing over him, the torchlight providing the only source of light. “Where do I take it?”
“Lower them onto the boats. It’s not that difficult.”
David rubs sweat from his brow as the first hints of sunlight reveal themselves. “Sorry. I’ve just woke up. It’s the plez.”
The man stares at David for a long moment, a curl creasing the left side of his upper lip. “Addicts,” he spits, shaking his head. “Just get on with it.”
Taking the first crate in his arms, he ambles slowly to the roof’s edge and looks into the black waters. His eyes linger on the rippling of the waves, the tiny shimmers of reflected gloaming, before shifting them to the boat. A woman looks up at him, staring impatiently. “Well?”
David looks around. “Here.” He lowers the crate, the rope rubbing against his blister when the woman tugs at it with a sudden jerk.
She unfastens the rope from the crate and looks up at him. “Well? Don’t just stand there. Get the rest.”
David runs back to the crates, secures them with rope, and lowers them one-by-one to the woman, now distributing the shipments between four different boats. “Is that the last one?” she asks, after a while.
“That’s it,” David says.
“Good. Go see your boss.”
David looks around but sees no signs of the man. He wanders back to the blue plastic barrel, leaning his hand on it as he waits. After a minute, he yawns and looks down at his drumming fingers. A few of the Family’s dealers drop into boats, pushing out on the water towards the shore. He watches them for a minute or so, then turns back to the barrel, considering its shape, its hollowness.
The rising sun sends red light flooding across the rooftops. A breath catches in his throat as he takes the barrel, rolls it over the edge of the rooftop, and follows it into the water.
The cold shock hits him. He scrambles wildly, gasping as his head bobs beneath the water, its acrid foulness filling his lungs and burning his eyes. The barrel bobs on the surface, just out of reach. He leans forward and plunges beneath the water, kicking his legs and flapping his arms.
Turning, he grabs onto a rusted bracket and pulls his body against the wall. With a thrust of his legs, he shoots forward, grabbing around the sides of the barrel. A shout comes from above, echoing around him.
The barrel sinks low into the water when it takes his weight. David waits, and the barrel holds. The voices comes again, louder, more urgent. He ignores them and kicks his legs, moving forward, cutting a course through the freezing water.
He grabs the opposite wall with one hand, his other clasped to one of the barrel’s handles. A bullet whizzes by, the gunshot’s snap deafening. But he keeps going.
By the time he reaches open water, his legs move with slow, jellylike kicks, his muscles seizing against the effort and cold.
Teeth chattering, he smiles as the sun grows warm, its light soothing against the back of his neck. He heads northwest, away from the direction of the Family’s campervan, now no more than a speck in the distance.
A few gunshots ring out from the direction of the dealers’ boats, but he keeps pushing, keeps swimming.
He cries out when something sharp catches his left foot. Kicking weakly, he feels the land beneath the water.
A minute or so later, he reaches the shore, drags the barrel from the water, and flops to his side, exhausted.
It’s dark when David stirs. He looks around at the jet black sky, squinting as hunger and plez pull at his thoughts. His clothes hang damp and tattered from his body as he hugs his arms around his knees.
The need for plez pushes away the hunger. Sweat seeps from every pore, coating him in a layer of cold. He coughs and cries, looking back out over the water towards the Family.
Getting up, he wanders along the water’s edge, shingles clattering beneath his bare feet. He picks at long-dead bushes, sniffing their branches. His mouth grows dry and the need for water is almost as strong as the need for plez.
He wanders aimlessly until long after sunrise, coming to rest among the stones, curling into himself, sweating and crying as he rocks himself to sleep.
Grasses with stringy yellowed stems rest flat against the ground. David picks at them, sucking at their moisture, chewing them before spitting them onto the dirt.
Following the shore north for a few days, he staggers in a daze, stopping at the edge of the water to feel its wetness against his lips as the hunger tears through him.
He turns south, retracing his steps along the shore, heading towards the highway.
The smoke from the factory rises in black curls against the morning sun. David wipes the sweat from his brow, shivering, cold, hungry.
Crouching next to the floodwaters, he cups his hands and dips them below the surface.
“I wouldn’t drink that water if I were you, kid,” a voice says.
David stiffens and looks around. A man stands over him. A long leather jacket hangs past his knees, his face obscured by a kerchief, goggles, and a tattered red baseball cap. “It’s okay, kid.”
The man removes the goggles and kerchief, offers David a smile, and reaches out, offering him a water bottle. “I’m Abel.”