Anna lay on her side on one of the many couches in Ivan’s sitting room. He’d produced a plethora of pillows and blankets. And between that, the steady sway of the cottage, and the dim glow of Lux on the end table at her head, Anna was thickly comfortable, though her mind wouldn’t settle. Even beyond the excitement of the evening, she couldn’t stop thinking about a niggling detail: the man in the floppy hat.
“We’re almost there,” said Michaela. “Almost to the end of the story.”
Anna had thought Michaela was asleep, so she turned to look over the coffee table across the space separating their couches. Michaela was similarly cocooned, lying on her back, staring at the ceiling.
“I suppose we are,” Anna said.
“We know King Richard was responsible for Oscar’s disappearance and why. We know where Oscar is and who can help him. And we know Bridgeford was working with King Richard in an attempt to take over Glenwood and the Witch of Money’s fortune. If we spread the word, surely they won’t vote for him.”
“Perhaps,” said Anna.
Michaela sat up and looked at her. “I thought you’d be more excited. We’re nearly to the end of our very own magical hero’s journey.”
“I am,” said Anna. “It’s just I’m wondering about the man in the floppy hat.”
“I’ve seen him every time I’ve been in Glenwood on this side of the fog. We rescued him from the doll attack the night of the festival. He was sitting in a corner of the bathhouse before we were abducted. He was at the Witch of Puppet’s political rally. And I’m just wondering why he’s important.”
“Are you sure he is?”
“When I told you about Catherine and Aileen, you told me it sounded like someone had taken some real-life details and fitted them into this storybook place. That maybe this world really is a story. And that makes sense, at least as much as anything here does. But in a story, each character has a part to play, even if it’s small, and so far the man in the floppy black hat hasn’t played a part. So, I’m just wondering.”
Michaela leaned back into the couch and fell silent.
After several moments, Anna said, “You all right?”
Michaela nodded. “I’m just wondering about the man in the hat now.”
“But you know, I could be wrong,” said Anna. “Flandel didn’t play much of a role.”
“He gave us a magical item,” said Michaela.
“He took us into the belly of the beast.”
“And the guardsmen tonight? Rene and Curtis.”
“Yeah,” said Michaela. “They, uh… Well, perhaps that’s where the analogy falls apart.”
Anna let her eyes drift shut. The cottage swayed in time with her thoughts. The deep shadows weighed as heavily as her limbs. Michaela’s breathing went slow and quiet and Anna knew she was asleep. Anna let herself slip that direction. They were safe in the cottage and Ivan would let them know if something happened before they arrived back in Glenwood.
Michaela snorted suddenly and sat up straight. “I need a pen and a notebook.”
Anna blinked at her, trying to banish the drowse. “Um. Okay. Why?”
“If the story’s coming to a close, maybe that’s why the fog brought us here. But if it ends, then…”
“You think once the story ends, so does the magic.”
Anna got into her shoudlerbag and withdrew a notebook and pen, handing them across the coffee table. Unprompted, Lux brightened.
Michaela wrote her full name, her address, and her house phone number. She didn’t have a smartphone or a social media presence, but she promised to sign up for every platform she could find once she had access to a computer. Then she ripped the paper off the notepad and handed it to Anna.
“You still have mine?” Anna asked.
Michaela patted the pocket of her dress. “Yup.”
• • •
Three and a half blocks away, the clock tower of the bathhouse rose through the thick mist like a lonely watchtower on a broken plane of reality. From where they stood upon the flat rooftop of a scriveners atop a haberdashery atop a bakery, where the cottage had settled, they had but a hazy view of a deep black sky speckled with twinkling light
The town was dark but for the bathhouse, glowing through the deep mist.
Spirit lights bounced and danced, zigged and zagged, wiggled and wobbled through it all. They seemed particularly excited.
A faint click permeated the fog followed a deep, gentle, muted toll, three slow notes in a row.
“Three am is the perfect time for a morning raid,” said Captain Tahoe. “It’s when folks not planning a morning raid are at their most distracted.”
“That’s useful,” said Ivan.
Tahoe winked at him.
Ever since the two had come downstairs to the sitting room smelling lightly of the same lemon scented soap, they’d been gently close. Anna was happy for them, if somewhat jealous. They existed in the same plane of reality, whereas she and Michaela couldn’t be sure of the same.
“Are you certain your mother’s being kept in the basement of the bathhouse?” said Michaela.
“Oh yes,” said Ivan. “The bathhouse was her stronghold. That’s where the dungeons are.”
“There are dungeons in the bathhouse?”
Ivan nodded. “The first basement is cold-storage, for perishables. The second is the wine cellar, for vintages and spirits. It’s well guarded. Third is the boiler room and laundry. Fourth is general storage and forgotten things. Fifth the dungeons, almost as well guarded as the winecellar. The sixth level, nearly ninety feet below the level of the street, is a great, cold, natural spring, from whence the bathhouse pumps its water.”
“Cold?” said Anna. The springs on her side of the fog was hot. She’d assumed the springs on this side was too.
Ivan sighed. “At least, that’s how it was before Bridgeford took over. But it’s still the most secure incarceration in town. So, I’m certain that’s where she is.”
“How do you know he hasn’t just…” Tahoe hesitated.
“Killed her? Bridgeford is very much about the rules even if he seeks to bend them to his use. He would never assassinate a political rival. Executing a dangerous criminal, though, is well within his moral sphere. But first he’d have to prove she’s a criminal, which means a trial and trials are public.”
“But how are we going to get in?” Michael asked.
A pair of chimneys ran up the outside of one wall at the corner furthest from the clock tower on the bathhouse. Steam curled from them and occasionally released in great puffy bursts. Anna watched the steam rise and mix with the fog.
“First, the two of you should probably go home,” Ivan said, fixing them with a look like an adult who was certain he knew what’s best.
Anna roused herself from staring at the steam. “Not a chance. We’ve come this far. It may have been by happenstance, but we’ve been in it since the beginning and we’d like to see it through to the end.”
“Are you sure? This started because my mother and aunt can’t get along. You don’t have to fix my crazy family.”
“Yes,” said Anna and Michaela together.
Ivan grinned. “I figured you’d say as much, but I thought I should try to be a responsible adult rather than assume it was appropriate to put a pair of little girls in danger for my sake.”
Michaela snorted and Anna rolled her eyes.
“They’re hardly little girls,” said Tahoe. “They’d make a fine pair of pirates.”
“You think so?” said Michaela eagerly.
Tahoe grinned at them.
“And you?” said Ivan. “Are you coming to rescue my mother as well? She’s the one who cursed you.”
Tahoe shrugged. “It’s like the ladies said. This conflict is not good for long term business. Besides, I’ve got a pair of very long, very sharp teeth and a person I’d like to keep from harm. None of the three of you is armed.”
Ivan nodded again. “Now, one of us just needs to have a brilliant plan to get in.”
“We’re not just storming the castle?” Tahoe asked.
“As you said, you’re the only one of us who’s armed and I’d like very much not to shed blood if possible.”
Anna nudged Michaela and nodded at the chimneys, one of which had just blown a great burst of steam. “Where do you suppose those lead?”
“Interesting,” said Michaela.
“What’s interesting?” said Ivan. “No keeping secrets on a morning like this.”
Anna looked at Ivan. “Have you got a spell that can miniaturize us and get us in that way?” she pointed at the pipes.
“Oh,” said Ivan with a sudden grin. “How very clever. Yes, of course. Those are the exhaust ports that release pressure from the boilers so they don’t blow up. We can get in through there.”
“Are you sure?” said Tahoe. “Even if we’re small enough, I don’t want to get boiled.”
Ivan nodded. “Fair point, my vixen. In fact, I’ve just the thing. Come along, ladies.”
They followed him back into the cottage and up a few flights of stairs to a workroom nowhere near as organized as Flandel’s. Ivan dug through piles of junk, knocking this and that and whatnot to the floor until finally he straightened.
He held upon his palm a miniature vehicle. It looked like an elongated egg with a pair of backswept wings on either side. There was a glass window at the thick, bulbous end and three portholes along either side. There was a propeller at the tail and upon each wing, but they were on the backside of the wings, unlike the aeroplanes Anna had seen on this side of the fog. It shone yellow in the light of Lux.
“That appears to be an improperly constructed aerocraft,” said Tahoe.
“It looks like a sort of winged submarine,” said Anna.
“Isn’t that a song?” said Michaela.
“It’s an aeromarine!” Ivan said with all the confident pride of a child at show-and-tell. “I thought it up a while back. Look, I’ve got notes.” He grabbed the end of a large sketchpad under another pile of stuff and pulled it out, sending the pile scattering across half a workbench and a bit of floor. He flipped through until he found what he was looking for then showed them all a set of meticulous diagrams and neat notes, then turned the page to show them more, then again, then again.
“It’s well thought through,” said Tahoe. “But I know aerocraft, and that thing won’t fly.”
“Well, not on its own,” said Ivan. “I designed it to run on magic.”
“Oh,” said Tahoe dubiously.
“Come on,” said Ivan. “Let’s go to the sitting room so I can think about the miniatumotion and locature spells I need.” Ivan hurried excitedly downstairs. Tahoe followed with a shrug.
Anna was about to follow, when Michaela said, “This is going to be dangerous, Vivianna.”
“We’ve already been shot at. What could be worse?”
“We could actually be shot,” said Michaela.
Anna shivered. “Fair enough.”
“You still want to see the story to the end?”
Anna nodded. “Besides we’ve got the Witch of Many Colors and the Captain of the Pirate Ace Coalition with us.”
“Also one of the bravest people I’ve ever met,” said Michaela.
Anna blushed uncertainly. “I’m not…”
“You’ve stood up to every bully we’ve met on this side of the fog. I can’t even stand up to Baba.”
“You’re the one who’s not afraid to dance and sing where others won’t just see you, but pay attention to you. I couldn’t do that.”
“But you did. You danced with me in front of others.”
“Only because you were with me. You helped me fake confidence.”
“It’s like we make up for each other’s weakness,” said Michaela.
Anna smiled. “I like that.” She tapped her pocket where the folded bit of paper with Michaela’s full name, address, and phone number was.
• • •
Anna, Michaela, and Tahoe sat on one of the couches in the living room while Ivan sat cross-legged on the coffee table before them.
“Such a radical shift in perspective as shrinking so small can be extraordinarily disorienting. To ease you through the process, I’m going to ask you to look at me, and only me, to hear my voice and only my voice. I want you to breathe in… and out… I want you to breathe with me.”
Anna did her best to do as Ivan told her. She’d heard of hypnosis before, of course, though she was fairly certain it was just a trick of the mind. On the other hand, perhaps that was the point, to distract them from the shrinking. Ivan’s eyes were like a storm at sea, but on the horizon. Gentle in its distance but promising thunder should the need arise. In her estimation they weren’t as pretty as Michaela’s: deep golden brown like a warm fire through the fog.
“You’ll find you can’t wiggle your toes, your knees have become heavy, your hips sink into the cushions of the couch. Your shoulders will slump, your breathing will come easy, and your eyes, they’re slowly drifting closed. And in your dreams you drift amid the aether, swirling and curling and twirling through space inbetween until you find yourself sitting comfortably upon a patent leather chair, a harness secure over your shoulders and waist. You’re upon the Sunflower Aeromarine, safe and snug and ready for adventure.
“On the count of three…”
Anna opened her eyes. She was, indeed, sitting upon a comfortable chair, harness secure. Before her was a console with dials and meters, toggles and buttons. She didn’t know what any of it meant.
The console curved away to her right, fitted neatly below the bubble viewport of the vehicle with two more seats placed equidistant. In the center seat sat Captain Tahoe with the majority of dials, a trio of pedals, and a control stick. On the other side of the captain sat Michaela. A pair of thick, old-style headphones were upon her head, attached to her seat with a tightly-curling cord like an old telephone. Anna looked around, found her own set of headphones with attached microphone, and put them on. A faint hiss of static met her ears.
“This is your captain speaking, can everyone hear me?” Tahoe said.
“Loud and clear, Captain,” Ivan said.
Anna looked around and found the Witch of Many Colors at a console centered behind Tahoe, several paces back. The light from the console lit his face as he manipulated dials and switches.
“Yeah,” said Michaela. “I hear you.”
Anna nodded. She looked out the bulbous window to see they were sitting upon an endtable, the great plane of wood stretching before them like a massive soccer field, Lux a great metal tower ahead on their right.
Anna had never been on an airplane before, much less a submarine, and miniaturized at that. She was suddenly terrified, her scattered thoughts reaching for any sort of comfort, normality, or routine.
A poem popped to mind.
She roller coaster
She come groofin’ up slowly
She got moonpie fingers
She to mojo-roller
She say: I know you, and you know me
Got to be good lookin’
She do just do as she please
Anna was certain that wasn’t right: out of order and misquoted, but she couldn’t spare a thought to find the right words because at a rhythmic tapping from Ivan’s console, the machine hummed to life and lifted off the table, hovering with a balance that only wobbled faintly.
“Engines are at full power, Captain,” Ivan said, undisguised glee in his voice.
“Anna, you there?” Tahoe asked.
“Yeah,” said Anna. “Yeah. I can hear you.”
“Excellent. Is anyone not strapped in?” He waited only a moment and a half. “Thrust in three, two, one—“
Tahoe pushed a lever and the aeromarine shot forward, through the sitting room and out the door in less time than it took to gasp in surprise. Tahoe whooped with excitement, pulling on the stick. The aeromarine spun and dipped through the fog, spirit lights sprinting past in streaks of light. Anna bit her tongue so she wouldn’t scream and the light caught her eyes, blinding her for a moment, fixing it in her mind. It wasn’t a bug; it was nothing but light; and within the light she was certain she saw a face. But it was limned with light and creased with shadow and gone in a flash.
Anna gripped the harness at her shoulders as hard as she could and squeezed her eyes shut. Even through her eyelids, she could see the flashes as they sped past spirit lights at least as large as they were.
“Easy, Captain. We’re not all as used to aerobatics as you are.” Ivan’s voice crackled through the headset.
Anna clenched her jaw and tried to block out the sound.
“This is amazing, Ivan! Do you know how many luxury cruisers I could rob with an aerocraft like this?”
“While one-sixtieth the size of your intended targets?”
“Details, you beautiful man. Nothing but details!” Captain Tahoe whooped again and the aeromarine dipped and dodged
Anna’s stomach lurched and she clenched her whole body tight.
“Tahoe…” Ivan’s voice held a hint of desperation.
“Nearly there. These lightning bugs are coming after us thicker than a wasp fight.”
They’re not lightning bugs. Anna pulled her knees to her chest, thankful the harness held her secure to the seat. She squeezed in on herself, willing her stomach to stay calm, her head not to shriek.
Something struck the aeromarine on the right and set them to spinning
“It’s starting to rain!” Michaela shouted.
“Nearly there…” Tahoe reiterated.
Ivan said something swallowed by the crackle of the headset.
The air around them roared.
They came to a sudden stop. The harness pulled hard against Anna’s shoulders but kept her secure to the chair. A great, roaring buzz filled her ears behind the static. The light beyond her eyelids went dark. She took several deep, hard breaths to settle her nerves, to sooth her stomach. She was determined not to throw up in front of the others.
Someone touched her shoulder and she snapped her eyes open. It was Michaela, standing in front of her. Anna pulled her headset off with one hand, still holding hard to the harness with the other.
“You hurt?” Michaela asked.
Anna nodded, then shook her head. “I’m fine. Just…” Her knees were still pulled to her chest in an attempt to hold herself together. Slowly she stretched out first one leg, then the other, then let go the harness. She let the headset slip from her grasp to hang by its cord.
“That was exciting,” said Michaela.
“If by ‘exciting’ you mean ‘terrifying’, yes, I agree,” said Anna.
Michaela gave a small smile. “I hate to tell you, but we’re not done yet. We’re just to the pipe.” She gestured at the viewport behind her.
Anna looked through the glass to find they were under the conical tin roof above the steampipe. The aeromarine hovered, turning a slow, horizontal circle, so they could look out through the gap between the roof and the pipe over the thickly misty rooftops around the bathhouse where spirit lights danced and rain pattered. An irregular, tinny tattoo tapped at the roof above.
Captain Tahoe turned to look at them.
“You with us, Anna?”
Anna nodded. “I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“I must admit, I got a bit enthusiastic,” Tahoe said. “And there was a little experimentation there for a while, but I’ve got a good handle on things now. You ready to descend?”
The whole craft wobbled and shuddered, and suddenly every window was obscured by a great rush of billowing, white steam. Captain Tahoe put her hands on the stick and steadied the craft as the air and water gusted about. She was so certain at the controls that Anna felt some of her tension fade. The gust ended; the steam dissipated; water streamed down the viewport and beaded to droplets.
“Can you promise me no loop-de-loops unless absolutely necessary?” Anna asked.
Tahoe grinned. “Define necessary.”
Anna couldn’t but laugh. “All right then, I’m ready.”
She reached for Michaela who took her hand. She squeezed briefly and Michaela nodded then went back to her seat. Anna put her headset on.
“Make sure you’re strapped in, boys and girls,” Tahoe said. “Ivan. How’s our beautiful beast feeling?”
“Everything looks good from back here, Captain. I recommend we take it slow through these pipes.”
“Understood. Here we go.”
The aeromarine sank into the pipe and darkness.
The interior of the aeromarine was lit only by the consoles. Anna had never been afraid of the dark, but couldn't help shivering nervously.
"Michaela, there should be a dial on your left for lights." Ivan's voice crackled through the headset.
A few moments later, a set of indirect interior lights faded up. A moment after that, a deep thunk followed by a tinny buzz echoed off the hull and a trio of flood lights pierced the darkness around the craft. There wasn't much to see. The walls of the pipe were dark grey metal crusted with gunk and dripping with condensation. Still, the light made Anna feel better.
A giant beetle picked its way up the side. It paused to wave its wiry antenna at them but took little notice otherwise.
"Are there armaments aboard this vessel?" Tahoe asked quietly.
"An electric pulse cannon," Ivan said, voice also pitched low. "There should be a yellow toggle on each console. Flipping it should engage a trackball and screen. But it uses a lot of power, so we should be careful with it. I'd prefer not to use it at all, but..."
"Understood," said Tahoe
Anna looked at her console and found the yellow toggle near her left hand. Just above it was a screen, dark, and next to it a yellow sphere. She touched the sphere experimentally. It slid easily in its socket, but nothing else happened.
Just to the right of the trackball's screen, a red light blinked to life. Anna looked at it. There was a cross-section of the aeromarine with a set of small circular lights all round it, the bottom-most of which blinked with steadily increasing speed.
"Captain, stop," Anna said, trying to keep the panic from her voice.
The aeromarine jerked gently and hovered in place.
"There's something blinking here," Anna explained. "I think we're about to bottom out."
"Ah," said Ivan with a hint of delighted surprised. "Yes, well spotted, Anna. That's the proximity lights."
Anna looked again, reasoning the lights around the cross section would light up when they were about to hit something. Or be hit. There was a second top-down cross section above the first.
Tahoe gestured at the viewport. "We're at a dead end then."
Anna pictured the outside of the bathhouse where the pipe ran up the side of the building. Obviously, at some point, the pipe would have to bend.
"Turn us about, Captain," Anna said.
Tahoe barked a laugh. "Of course." The aeromarine turned horizontally until they were met with a new path pitched at an angle.
"Downward and onward," Ivan said.
The aeromarine shuddered and the air within grew noticeably warmer.
"Everyone hang on," said Tahoe.
With the floodlights on, they could see the gout of steam coming. It enveloped them, drowning their windows in white, shaking the whole craft. Despite Tahoe's hand on the controls, they were pushed back. The red lights on the proximity sensors blinked. Anna called out a warming just as they bumped into the pipe. The craft pitched again. Anna clenched her jaw but did not close her eyes.
The steam passed.
"Is the craft damaged?" Tahoe asked through fading static.
"Ah, only a bit," said Ivan. "Nothing that can't be handled."
"Is it just me, or was that one stronger than the last?" said Michaela.
Anna nodded. "The pressure will dissipate at the top of the pipe. But in the pipe, it's being forced in a single direction: out."
"I can handle it," Tahoe said.
They continued, passing occasional beetles and rocking at occasional gusts of steam. Tahoe kept them on an even keel, but couldn't keep them from occasionally knocking into the walls of the pipe. Fortunately, none of the beetles seemed interested in investigating them in more than a passing manner. As they descended, they came upon junctions in the pipe. Some were too small for the aeromarine to pass through, and some led up, but none of them knew which pipe would take them all the way to the dungeons.
"So long as we're going down, we're probably going the right way," Michaela said, and they operated on that basic principle.
The temperature grew steadily warmer. Anna felt the prickle of sweat at her neck and down her back.
"I suppose this means we're approaching the boiler," Ivan said.
"And you designed the aeromarine to withstand boiling temperatures without boiling its occupants, didn't you?" Tahoe asked.
"Ah, well, not specifically," said Ivan. "But it should hold up just fine."
"And the occupants?" Anna pressed.
"We'll be fine so long as we don't linger," Ivan replied.
Deeper and deeper they descended, navigating the maze of pipes by continuing downward, dodging about the occasional fan, flap, and flue.
Sweat was dripping down Anna's forehead when they came to the end of a horizontal pipe bending down at a right angle. Tahoe tipped the aeromarine forward a mite to see a metal flap mounted on a simple swivel, held tight to a washer. The pipe around them rumbled and the air wavered and they were hit with a blast of heat. Anna winced and braced and the flap opened to release a rush of burning steam that sent the aeromarine bouncing off the walls of the pipe. The sting of heat prickled at her skin, making her fingernails and hair roots tender, as though she were suddenly sunburned all over. The interior lights of the aeromarine blinked red. Anna took that as a bad sign.
The gust was gone in moments, but it took a few moments more for Tahoe to get them upright and situated. The air in the craft was thick and hot, uncomfortable to breathe.
"Hang on," Michaela said through the headset. "I think..."
The sudden pressure popped Anna's ears, but the interior temperature decreased significantly. Breathing became easier. The warning red flashes slowed and stopped.
"I think we found the boiler," Tahoe said.
After a brief discussion, they agreed they'd have to wait for the flap to open, then push through the gust of steam and into the boiler.
"The boilers have an intake pipe from the natural spring," Ivan explained. "It's designed to only allow water in, not out..."
"Can we press through?" Tahoe asked.
"I think so."
Tahoe laughed with a hint of mania. "Excellent." She navigated them to the bend and tipped them forward until they were nose down.
Anna was glad for the snugness of the harness. She held on with both hands and drew her knees to her chest again. Should the catastrophic happen, it wouldn't help, but it made her feel better. The proximity lights flickered a moment then stopped, then again. Anna couldn't feel the shudder that'd preceded the last gust of steam, but she suspected Ivan's instruments knew better.
"I'm getting some flickers here, Captain. I think the pipes are vibrating."
"Understood," said Tahoe. She took the stick in both hands. "Everyone prepare for necessary loop-de-loops."
The lights of the proximity notice grew frantic seconds before the pipewalls shuddered. Captain Tahoe inched them toward the release flap. Heat prickled their skin. The release flap shivered. The air shimmered. Tahoe lurched the aeromarine forward, pressing Anna into her seat. The flap opened just before they’d have struck it. A burst of blinding steam gushed at them.
Anna refused to close her eyes.
Their thrust reduced abruptly with a plunk and the obscuring steam vanished. The temperature rose significantly and sweat beaded on Anna’s forehead and trickled down her sides. Through the viewport, they found themselves in turbulent, boiling water and a massively cavernous chamber.
“We need to find the intake,” Ivan said.
“Any ideas where it is?” Tahoe replied.
“The spring is below us, so at the bottom?”
Tahoe angled the aeromarine down and sped them to the nearest curving wall of the boiler until their floodlights showed them where the wall met the floor. She kept them moving at a brisk pace, trying to keep them steady amid the boil.
Anna’s gaze fell on a thermometer. “Interior temperature is 38°,” she said. “And climbing.”
“Understood,” said Tahoe.
“Can you do something about that?” Michaela asked.
Anna shook her head, wondering what Michaela thought she could do.
“Give me a moment to…” Ivan’s voice faded into the hiss of the headset.
Anna tried to take shallow breaths as the air grew hot. The heat, combined with the jerking and sliding was giving her a headache; she tried to convince herself it wasn’t also upsetting her stomach. A particularly bad tumble downward made her pull her eyes from the view screen to the thermometer again. It dropped a few degrees as Tahoe righted the craft and when they continued on, commenced its climb.
“Hang on,” said Michaela.
“There,” said Ivan. The temperature in the aeromarine cooled considerably.
“Wait,” said Michaela, but her voice was drowned by the appreciative relief from the other two. “Stop!” Michaela shouted.
Tahoe jerked the aeromarine to a stop, balancing as best she could amid the boil.
“A little way back,” Anna said quickly. “Just before Ivan fixed the temperature. We were pushed down.”
“We’re being pushed all over,” said Tahoe.
“We were pushed down and the temperature fell a bit.”
“Ah, well spotted,” said Ivan. “Captain, turn us about and angle us upward. Perhaps the intake from the spring is set higher than I supposed.”
The intake pipe was a circular valve covered with several overlapping scales securing the opening. They pushed out, turning and sliding against each other like a copper flower opening. A stream of water pumped at them and knocked them about. The internal temperature remained steady.
The scales irised shut.
Then opened again.
“It’s like a heartbeat,” Anna said. “Steady. Rhythmic.”
“We’re going in,” said Tahoe.
The valve snapped shut.
Anna counted her heartbeats and at the third, the valve pushed open. The aeromarine sped forward fighting against the rush of cold water. The craft squealed and groaned but Tahoe didn’t let up. Moments later, they were through and into a smooth, copper pipe. The momentum pushing against them stopped and the aeromarine zipped forward before Tahoe could get it under control.
“That’ll be a trick,” she said.
As water steadily pumped up the pipe to the boiler, Tahoe had to push against the flow but ease off lest she hurl them into the walls. They jerked through the copper pipe making their way lower and lower until finally the pipe ended and they emerged into a vast, dark ocean.
Anna gave a sigh of relief and wiped the remains of sweat from her forehead.
“All’s well that ends well,” said Ivan.
Tahoe navigated them through the cold dark water, the aromarine gliding easily after the turbulence of the last few minutes. She took them at an easy upward angle until they found a rock ceiling.
“Not to worry,” said Ivan. “This is a small cave with an exit on either side. I used to swim here when I was young. Level out and stay on your current heading, Captain, and we should find our way shortly.”
The proximity notice started up, slow and steady.
“There’s something low on our right,” Anna said.
Before Captain Tahoe could respond, the lights blinked off.
“Wait, scratch that.” Anna tapped at the console. “It’s… gone away. Ivan, could the proximity lights be damaged?”
“Could be,” Ivan said. “I hadn’t taken boiling water into account, so systems could be…”
The lights blinked again, now just at the tail, slow but increasing.
“Something’s behind us.”
They blinked faster.
“It’s coming quickly.”
Tahoe worked the controls and they sped up. The proximity lights slowed and stopped.
“I think there’s something out there,” she said. “Something coming after us.”
The lights jumped to a frantic pace, showing something above them. Before Anna could say anything, the aeromarine was rocked, knocked down and to the right, tumbling out of control, a claw clamped to the viewport, obscuring nearly a third of it, it’s needlepoints clicked into the glass though they didn’t break through. Metal screeched and Anna’s ears popped.
“Everyone hang on!” Captain Tahoe shouted.
Anna thought she detected a hint of excitement.
The aeromarine rocked to and fro, and the claw on the viewport released. They sped off in a complex pirouette and when they settled, they could see their floodlights lit upon a dragon.
It was long and sinuous with six legs ending in webbed claws. It had no neck to speak of and a massive jaw. A set of bulbous eyes sat on either side of its smooth head and a third in the center. That third eye blinked at them slowly. It’s blue-green scales were smoothly polished. It rippled gently, like a ribbon in a slow-motion breeze.
“Ivan, you said you spent time down here. What is that thing?”
“Um…” Ivan’s voice through the headset was thin and nervous.
“Get those electric pulse cannons ready, ladies,” Tahoe said.
Anna didn’t like the idea of shooting an animal just for behaving like an animal, but she liked even less the idea of being eaten. She flicked the yellow toggle and the corresponding screen came to life, showing her the same view they saw out the viewport.
Anna spun the trackball experimentally. The view of the screen zipped around the aeromarine obliquely. Anna stopped the ball and the view stopped. Between the viewscreen and the proximity lights, she was able to quickly to reorient her view to where the sinuous dragon floated.
A small yellow square marked the center of the screen and Anna made sure it was centered upon the dragon.
“I’m going to back us away slowly,” said Tahoe. If that thing looks aggressive, zap it.”
“Yes sir,” said Michaela.
“Understood,” said Anna. She swallowed the queasy feeling trying to erupt from her chest.
The aeromarine slipped away from the dragon. The creature seemed to shrug faintly then slithered toward them through the water, its webbed claws paddling gently, almost as though it were simply floating along in their wake. It was smooth and graceful and didn’t look at all dangerous. But its slow advance was just a bit faster than the aeromarine’s retreat, and it gained.
Tahoe fiddled with the controls and they picked up speed.
The dragon kept pace.
“Would you classify that as aggressive?” Michaela asked.
“Maybe it just wants to play,” said Ivan.
“With claws that catch and jaws that snap,” said Anna.
The aeromarine sped up, pulling away for a moment. Then the dragon lunged.
Anna pressed the yellow button. The whole ship vibrated with a metallic thung. A crackling sphere ripped through the water in a trail of sizzling bubbles. It crackled as it struck the dragon upon the nose and electricity zippled along its scales. The creature closed all three eyes and rippled back on itself, webbed claws gripped in fists. Anna bit her tongue, afraid she’d killed it.
“Tahoe, get us out of here,” Ivan said quietly.
The aeromarine flipped about and sped off. Anna forced herself to take deep, slow breaths.
“It’s coming after us,” said Michaela.
Anna blinked and looked through the viewport but could only see the cold dark water of the cave. Then she remembered the track ball. She looked at the consul in front of her. The proximity lights told her the dragon was on their tail and just above. She spun the trackball until her viewscreen showed the creature.
The dragon’s face was rigid. It didn’t have expressions. She couldn’t tell if it was angry or hurt or intense. But its mouth was open just a bit, giving a glimpse of a mouth full of teeth.
With the trackball, Anna tried to put the yellow targeting mark on the creature, but the dragon wasn’t coming at them in a straight line. It dipped and zagged, ducked and zigged, rippling this way and that. Another thung echoed through the aeromarine as Michaela fired. The shot was on target, but the dragon shrugged aside. Anna managed to get the target on the dragon and tapped her own button. Another shot fired, another ripple of bubbles, and the dragon dodged again.
“There’s light ahead,” said Tahoe. “Keep it distracted.”
Ivan muttered under his breath, a thick slow chant Anna suspected was a spell. She wondered if he had a spell that could drive the dragon off. He didn’t strike her as the combat-magic type. He’d said his was magic of whimsy and dreams. Could whimsy extricate them from their current predicament?
She tapped her yellow button and a pair of crackling electric projectiles erupted from the aeromarine, vibrating them all to their teeth. The dragon darted around both and flicked about, sending its long tail at them. On her viewscreen, Anna saw the scales at the tip of the tail were sharp and hooked.
“We’re gonna get hit,” Anna shouted.
The aeromarine whined and buzzed with power, her seat and vison shook, then the tail hit them and made a sound like biting into an old cookie, a crunch and a crackle and a breaking free.
“We’ve lost our rear engine,” Tahoe said. “We’re slowing down and taking on water.”
On her viewscreen, Anna saw the tail of the aeromarine, jagged and twisted, propeller still spinning, fall away from the dragon’s tail. But the creature’s attack had cost it speed and it grew small in the distance. It gathered itself and lunged. Anna tapped her yellow button. The aeromarine hummed and shuddered, but there was no electric projectile.
“I don’t think we’ve got enough power to fight back,” Anna said.
“I see the surface of the water,” Tahoe said. “Let’s hope she can’t fly.”
They tilted up and Anna’s stomach flipped as she was pressed into her chair. With their offensive capability neutralized, she ignored her consul for the viewport. Indeed, she saw the surface of the water rippling gently at their intrusion. They gained upon it quick and Anna couldn’t help but flick her glance at the viewscreen, watching the dragon. It was upon them. It’d closed the distance quickly. It snapped its massive jaw. She saw three rows of misshapen teeth.
Ivan’s chanting grew louder, more forceful and Anna felt herself waver. Her vision water. Her thoughts smooth. She felt Ivan’s magic taking hold. And she tried not to fight it, tried not to struggle, tried not to make whatever it was he was doing any harder.
They broke the surface of the water with a great gout of steam and bubbles and the dragon leapt after them, its jaws piercing the metal of the craft and into the back half of the chamber in which they all sat.
There was a great explosion of light, kaleidoscopic colors, Anna was raked along her left shoulder, imagining the creature’s teeth had caught her and she was soon to be a snack. She landed heavily in water up to her armpits. For several moments she didn’t move.
When nothing else happened, she opened first one eye, then the other. She found herself in a dank cave. It was cool and dim. She looked at her shoulder and found a shallow scratch, her t-shirt torn, a bit of blood.
On the surface of the water, several feet back, the remains of the aeromarine, the size of a toy, bobbed. A few moments later, the dragon’s head broke the surface, it’s head the size of a baseball. It took the aeromarine in its jaws, clamped firmly, crushing it, and ducked back under the water.
“Vivianna, you’re okay.”
Anna turned her head to find Michaela hip deep in water and soaked though. Her great auburn curls were thick with water and hung heavily. She held a hand out to Anna. Behind her, on shore, Ivan and Tahoe shook water from themselves, laughing like boys at recess.
Anna took Michaela’s hand and let the other girl help her out of the water. She was soaked and chilled. She let Michaela lead her to shore, trying to shake as much of the water from her as possible, to adjust her clinging clothing more comfortably. Her shoes and socks were waterlogged and she took them off to wring the water from her socks. She hated wet socks and was tempted to go barefoot.
The floor of the cave was hard but smooth as she made her way to a small outcropping she could use as a bench. She sat and wrung her socks against the slapped them against the rock.
“I found your bag. It was floating, but I think everything inside is dry.” Michaela held Anna’s bag out to her. Anna checked it. It was damp on one side, but dry inside, a minor miracle.
“Let’s go, you two!” Ivan called.