“So what’s this device do, anyway?” I ask, stalling. There’s nothing in the alley to fight with, and no way to leave without plowing through one of them. “Does it lead you to some buried treasure or something?”
“You’ll never know.” The man cracks his hand-sized knuckles.
“Bet you’re wrong. And, I’ll bet when you clap, it sounds like a building collapsing.”
“That’s a good one. Not very original, but a good one nonetheless.” He steps closer.
“Yeah, I’m sure you get compared to those big construction cranes all the time, huh?”
Do I take on the big-handed guy and the muscular guy, or give them the beeper thing and pray they let me go?
Freckles, apparently making the choice for us, roars and charges the guy behind us. I follow suit, yelling and charging.
The goon braces for impact and handles the attack of the heavy metallic beast pretty well, but crumbles when I collide right after. The three of us fall, all in one messy pile. The loaves of bread in my arm suffer a bit, but they’re still edible.
With a yell, the large-handed man rushes down the alley. Freckles and I pause for a second before I scramble to get up, and we run for the docks.
“Yeah, I noticed we’re in trouble, Freckles. What would you have recommended?”
“This thing might lead to a jackpot. I couldn’t just hand it to the first disproportionate enemy I crossed. Besides, you’re the one who attacked first.”
My clunky boots and his heavy paws rattle against the boards of the old wooden dock with every bound, turning heads and clearing a path in front of us. I don’t dare check to see how close they’ve gotten. The last thing I want is to be tackled by a grown man on a densely populated dock.
Beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep.
Cloudships with different-colored balloons blur past us, all in different stages of docking or undocking. For a moment, I get distracted by their designs. Some are really artistic, but the rest have a simple pastel color.
Reality comes crashing back to me immediately, however, when my eyes lock onto a cart of melons being wheeled in my path. Freckles manages to jump out of the way to avoid it, but I swerve way too late, crashing into its side. An army of watermelon dislodges from the display, rolling all over the place.
I drop all the bread instinctively and look at the two men chasing us. They’re far enough away, but closing in quickly. With the beeper still in my hand, and going off insanely fast, I retrieve a loaf and a small melon and zip right around the cart.
“Hey!” the cart owner yells. “You’ve gotta pay for that!”
“Sorry, not sorry!” I yell back, rejoining Freckles. We make it a little further before a loud crash reverberates through the sea-soaked wood. I don’t even have to look to know they charged into the cart. They’re not gaining on us all that much, but I still have no clue where the beeper is leading us—
We stop right in front of a plain, unassuming cloudship. This must be the spot the device wants us to be at. But why?
Freckles and I exchange a brief glance and simultaneously decide to hop on board.
My first time on board a cloudship, and it’s because I’m hiding from a mob boss. A little outside my comfort zone on this adventure.
We hurry inside, descending a flight of stairs where I can only assume the steering wheel is. There’s no doubt they saw which ship we went in, but it is their ship. It wouldn’t be hard to guess.
“Meow.” Freckles points his head towards a smaller room. Its lights are off, but I can faintly make out a steering wheel and a few other buttons in the faint sunlight peeking in from the windows.
“You’re the best, Freckles,” I whisper, despite the device still beeping and being incredibly loud, and tiptoe into the room. I feel my hand along the wall, searching for a light switch, which reveals labels, cables, and an array of unlabeled buttons. Luckily for us, someone left the keys inside of the ignition.
A board above us strains under the weight of a foot. If there’s any time to kick this puppy into full gear, it’s now.
I carefully set the bread and watermelon on the floor and turn the key in the ignition. The controls in front of me spring to life, and somewhere on board, the hum of the engine kicks in.
“Alrighty, how do we get this thing moving?”
The sound of footsteps descends the stairs behind us. Freckles readies himself, waiting to pounce behind the doorframe. My eyes frantically scan the buttons and levers in front of me for some sort of clue. They land on a large switch that says “ENGAGE LOCK” at one end and “DISENGAGE LOCK” on the other. It’s flipped up in the engaged position.
“Here’s to this being the right thing to do,” I say, pulling the lever. The ship lurches, and my gut slams into the wheel. The footsteps in the other room stumble but continue in our direction.
The ship rises a bit and moves forward, marking our ascent away from the commerce dock. I turn and clench my fists, ready to fight the intruder on board. He appears in the doorway, and Freckles launches himself at the thug.
The man, caught entirely off guard, is forced backwards by the impact. His head reverberates off a metal pipe jutting from the wall, which cracks open, spraying what I can only assume is steam. He hits the floor, unconscious.
I unclench my fists and stand in shock.
“Well, uh, good job, Freckles.”
“Now what do we do?”
I turn towards the cockpit windshield. The shock on my face turns to horror.
We’re on track to collide with another cloudship.
“Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod!”
I spin the steering wheel quick and hard to the right, sending the whole ship tilting and shuttering. There’s a long bar next to the steering wheel that looks like it can be moved up and down, so I give it a tug. My stomach flips as the ship sinks lower in the air, coming closer to the crashing waves below us.
The cloudship disappears from view above us as we limbo between it and the ocean, but just in front of us, two more ships appear. And, of course, both are directly in our path.
“I should’ve gone up.” I pull the bar towards me as hard as possible. The commandeered ship groans under the strain, but does as told, and narrowly dodges them.
I scan the entire cockpit window, making sure that was the last of the fun obstacles in our way. The sky is a kaleidoscope of colors, unblotted by any clouds or more cloudships. It might be beautiful if I weren’t choking on adrenaline.
Freckles nudges one of the unconscious man’s arms, which flops lifelessly back to the floor. His victim, the muscular man we’d had the pleasure of meeting earlier in the alley, clearly never stood a chance.
“We should tie him up in case he stirs again.”
“There better be rope. Otherwise, we’re in some serious trouble. And I have no intention of throwing him off into the ocean.”
“Yeah, I figured you’d appreciate that.”
I duck under the steam still spewing from the pipe, and the two of us go to explore the small ship, hunting for rope or something similar to tie the thug down.
“Can we talk about how well I handled steering this thing? I was a natural. Didn’t even know what that bar did. Pulled it anyway. What a champion.”
“No, it wasn’t luck. It’s called intuition.”
On the top deck, we discover a storage room filled with random food, miscellaneous tools, and an incredibly thick rope long enough to stretch the entire length of the ship. I can’t even wrap my hand around its circumference. Carrying this much is out of the question.
“Well, this sucks. Any more ideas?”
Freckles leans forward and opens his mouth, letting the knife we took from the homeless man earlier clatter to the ground.
“Wait, you’ve been stashing that in there the entire time? Where was that when we were pinned in the alley?”
“Oh no, sir. You don’t get to claim moral high ground when we’re facing certain doom like that. We’re going to have a serious conversation on when it’s okay to stab people once we’ve figured this situation out.”
I roll a solid portion of rope off its comically large spindle and start cutting away at it with the knife. Then, I throw one end over my shoulder and drag the rest of it behind me on the ground. Freckles bats at it all the way back down to the unconscious man on the lower level.
Freckles grabs the opposite end of the rope in his jaws, and together we bind the motionless man until he’s barely visible underneath. I tie the thick rope to the best of my ability, and we push the man against a wall.
“Fingers crossed that holds him. I’m gonna get some dinner now.”
∙ ◦ ○( )○ ◦ ∙
Despite having an understandably limited stock of food, I collect some cheese, water, and a barrel full of peanuts to match the bread and watermelon I’d stolen earlier. There’s also beer, but I don’t figure driving an airship for the first time and holding a man three times my size captive while drunk is a good idea.
I bring the food and water with me to the cockpit, which is getting uncomfortably warm with the steam still leaking out of the broken pipe. My next goal is to find something to patch that up with, because there’s no way that pipe isn’t important.
It doesn’t take me long to finish half of the small watermelon, which I cut using the stolen knife, so I switch to some of the other foods in front of me.
“You realize this is easily my most diverse meal this month? Maybe this actually was a good idea.”
“But think of all the possibilities. We could go to London, or even France, if we want. We could become sky pirates and fight for justice. ‘Captain Luna, the blood moon pirate.’ How does that sound?”
“Yeah, I’ve been sitting on that one for a while. I think it has a nice ring to it.”
Red flashing lights go off in the cockpit, partnered with a blaring siren. Freckles and I bolt upright, startled by the interruption.
“I’m not sure what this means,” I say, hunting for clues on the dashboard. Nothing jumps out at me. A scan of the windshield leaves me empty-handed, too.
I run to the top deck of the ship and gander at the rest of the area. Behind us, five cloudships are slowly approaching, each bearing the same ‘B’ symbol as the beeper in my pocket.
I can’t believe I forgot about the beeper! It’s hard to notice because of the sirens, but the beeping object is still violently flashing to its high-pitched tempo. It has to belong to something here.
I hastily return to the cockpit. Freckles is hunched down, his back arched angrily.
“We’ve got company following us,” I say, searching for a spot to plug the strange item in. “I think we’ll have to re-dock at Carmsborough. I doubt there’s enough gas to outrun these guys, or any weapons to slow them.”
“I can’t stop on a dime midair, Freckles. Besides, I don’t think they’re going to be all that friendly with us after what we did to brawns in the corner.”
I turn the steering wheel left, trying to move us to the docks in a way that we won’t be rammed by the five enemy ships slowly making their way towards us.
Now what to do with the beeper?
Freckles and I search the ship again, looking in rooms new and old for a place to put the cube. Through the windows, we can see Carmsborough slowly reappearing along the horizon, and the ships edging slightly closer by the minute.
A click sounds across the ship, turning off the alarms on board. A loud noise rustles before a voice speaks. “Stop your ship and allow yourself to be boarded, kid.”
“How do we talk to them?” I ask Freckles, who stares blankly at me. We hurry to the cockpit again, and I find a button for a push-to-speak microphone.
“Sorry, that isn’t gonna happen. Tell me what this device does, and maybe we can talk about touching base.”
“You’re in way over your head, girl. The last thing you want is to make my boss more upset than he already is.”
“Tell your boss I want five thousand dollars for the safe return of his ship and this cube thing.”
“This is not a negotiation. You are in no position to give demands. We have no problem knocking you out of the sky.”
“Oh, please. You haven’t done it yet because you need this cube. You wouldn’t dare.”
The line goes silent for a moment, and I turn to go back to searching. Then, while climbing the stairs, I hear loud wood cracking coming from every direction. Bullets pound the hull of the ship, and although neither of us are in the danger zone, the warning is completely clear.
“Last chance, kid. Stop now, or we will rain fire on you until you have no choice but to crash and burn.”
There’s one last room we haven’t checked yet, so I finish running up the stairs and burst into the door. A forward-facing window reveals how close to Carmsborough we really are. Barely a minute more, and we could try to dock.
“I know, Freckles, but it has to be–there!”
Right in front of us is a strange black machine, as tall as I am, with a plug that looks like the handheld beeper would fit perfectly inside.
What could it do? Is it a shield? Or a gun? Or some sort of teleporter that will take me to a safe place?
I plug the object into the machine, and it lights up dramatically. Some inner mechanisms begin whirring, shaking the room and creating an unpleasant sound.
“I’m, uh, not sure what it’s doing either.”
“What have you done?” the voice on the speaker says, a quiver in their voice.
Just outside the window, a bright glowing light appears, coming from right below where the machine sits on board. Its color slowly gradients from white to red, and the buzzing gets louder.
Heat waves warp the room. The glass window slowly turns a dangerous pink-red shade and melts away. A layer of sweat cakes my forehead, forcing Freckles and I to step back. The wood of the ship glows and smolders, and the light expands a bit more.
Oh god. What have I done?
Without warning, the bright light shoots off in a straight line down to the dock. Below us, the boardwalk erupts in flames, and a loud explosion sounds off. Embers, ash, and scraps of different materials are thrown into the air.
People scatter in different directions–some towards the chaos, but most away from it. The beam of light deactivates, and the machine in front of us comes to a screeching halt. Alarms go off again. There’s no doubt the cloudships following behind us are close to connecting with and boarding our ship.
I’m starting to think I might be in a little bit over my head.
- United States
- Michael Heckman
Michael has always had a love for writing that stems from writing a short story about turtles on his family computer in second grade. From there, he never stopped writing, and wrote his first ten-thousand-word book in the third grade, igniting his passion for storytelling.
Now, the only thing stopping Michael from writing more is his schedule. Ideas like LUNA ON THE RUN and THE GHOST OF THE HINDENBURG keep him up at night, plotting his creative path forward.