We walk to the Constellation in silence, ignoring the hostile cloudships landing near us. Chances are, they’ll leave us alone and go straight for their boss.
Their dead boss.
My whole body is shaking. I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I shot and killed someone. And I didn’t even think twice about doing it.
Maybe because I’ve been planning it ever since he separated Freckles and I. Ever since he threw me into a work camp and forced me to boss other prisoners around. Ever since he locked me in a cage with Mary and let the structure topple down on top of her. Ever since he escaped justice for the umpteenth time.
Ever since Ike shot those four men on the main deck.
If there was ever a man who deserved to be killed, it was him. But thinking someone deserves to be killed is a totally different ballpark than actually killing them, and yet, I took the dive without hesitation.
“Are you alright?” Ike asks, revving the ship again.
“What do you think?” I reply, a little too snappy.
He comes to sit in the pilot’s seat next to me, swiveling the chair to face my way. “I’ll tell you what I think. I think you’re thinking too hard about what you just did. You’re afraid that it’ll somehow define you, or that you’ll get used to it. And the fact that you’re even worried tells me you’ll be okay, Luna. Something like that will always stick in your head, and while it’s nothing to be afraid of, you should always have this feeling when confronted with the question.”
“Yeah,” is all I manage. I don’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t afraid of any of that. That I sort of enjoyed doing it.
I’ve finished off one of the bad men with bad plans. He will no longer torment my life. I can be free again, unworried.
Well, as soon as I rescue Freckles, at least.
Ike gets up and punches in the coordinates for Candlewood Docks. My chest still hurts from the broken rib, but overexposure to the nonstop pain has somewhat dulled the throbbing.
“So, you gonna tell me who your boss is yet?” Ike asks, tidying his hair using his reflection in the cockpit windows.
“I don’t think I can. The last thing I want to do is get in trouble for it. If he wants to stay anonymous, then I should make sure he stays anonymous. Even to you, Ike. I’m sorry.”
“I’ve often found those that want to stay anonymous usually do it because they’re pulling some nefarious strings, not because they’re trying to be the good guys, Luna.”
“Yeah, but you haven’t met him. He rescued me off of Blood Moon Island, offered me a job and the resources I needed to do it, and from the sounds of it, he has plenty of ways to help Carmsborough. He’s even been fighting the Nazis.”
Ike sits in silence, and we stare out the window, watching the low-rolling hills of the horizon and the fields on top of them. It’s dark, but it’s peaceful. Maybe, when I finally settle down, I’ll get a cute little house on a hill. It’ll be me, and Freckles, and…
Well, someone, probably. I haven’t had the chance to hit the dating scene all that much, but I’ve got time. Not quite a priority when you’re looting dumpsters for your next meal and hunting an international crime syndicate’s boss.
“You said your cat’s name was Freckles?” Ike asks.
“Yeah. I found him one day at work. I was sorting one of my basins, but the truck guy who loads the basins put the wrong materials in mine, so I was knee-deep in some electronics junk, and lo and behold, there he was, in the middle of the pile.”
“And he survived being under all of that?”
“Well, yeah. Though I might’ve forgotten to mention he’s a steambot.”
“A steambot? Like the ones the Gearmaster makes?”
“Does anyone else make steambots?”
“Okay, smarty pants. That’s incredible. What are the odds that two kids in Carmsborough have an inseparable bond with a steambot that they stumbled upon by accident?”
“The Clockwork chose Orion. He didn’t exactly stumble into him or anything.”
“Wouldn’t you say Freckles chose you, too? The bots don’t warm up to just anybody.”
I think back to the day we met. Did he choose me? I rescued him from the pit. But he could’ve run away when he was freed. Or ran away when we were ambushed by those two men. Or any time since. He has his own free will. If he wanted to be gone, he would’ve been.
“I mean, I never thought of it that way. Maybe he really was a gift from Mom.”
“From your mom?”
“Yeah. He, uh, appeared on the one-year anniversary of her death. Cancer. Since she passed, he’s been the only one to help me without having alternate intentions. Well, until recently, that is. Before you and I ran into each other, there was Mary, and… And she, uh… I let her… she was…”
I stop talking. I can’t afford to cry. Not now.
“Hey, look at me,” he says. “We’re going to get Freckles home safe and sound, alright? I promise.”
“I know we are.” I can feel the high-altitude air stinging my eyes.
“But it won’t be without a fight. I’ve followed this scene for a long time, and Cleopatra always has an entourage accompanying her.”
“Oh, I’m counting on it. There’re still four more cannonballs downstairs we need to get rid of.”
“That’s the spirit. And by the way, if you ever decide you don’t want to work for whoever your current boss is, we’re always hiring at S6. I also happen to be in charge of a group your age who is out scouting for Nazi ships to destroy. They’re a sweet and ambitious crowd. You’d fit right in.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I say. “In the meantime, is there something we can do for this broken rib? This is getting ridiculous.”
“Unless you have a back brace in storage, all I can think of is an ice pack, some pain meds, and some rest. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot that can be done.”
I search the ship for supplies and come across a bottle of generic pain relievers, which I get into my system with some water and stashed food. Ike cracks into the pantry as well, and we share our early breakfast in the cockpit while en route to our final confrontation.
All things considered, the two of us are fairly alert by the time five o’clock rolls by. We’re barely under ten miles from the dock when Ike receives a message from his communicator.
“Agent Ike, this is Agent Jake again. Copy if you’re awake.”
“Yeah, copy, Jake. What’s happening?”
“I’ve got two bits of information for you. We’ve partnered with local law enforcement and government officials at the crash site of Slaphand’s ship. I’ve got crews performing sweeps and cleanups at the moment. The big man himself’s got a bullet in his head, and I was wondering if you had anything to do with that.”
“The girl was responsible for that, not me,” he says. “I know we were going to take him to the states for trial, but we can’t do anything to stop a Carmsborian vigilante. Not our jurisdiction.”
“I’m going to assume you weren’t exactly dissuading her from doing it, though.”
“That’s classified, Agent.”
“Second point of information: it seems Cleopatra is in Carmsborough and running her base of operations at a place called Candlewood Docks. Whatever she’s doing there is pretty big in scope. I’m sending coordinates now.”
“No worries, we already figured that one out. Any idea if she’s still there?”
“Satellite surveillance from thirty minutes ago says yes, but no promises since.”
“Copy. Anything else to report?”
“Your wife and kids say hi, but that’s all. Purity’s a little worried.”
“Tell that kid she has better things to worry about than what her dad’s doing. I’ll be fine.”
“Will do. Good luck, sir. Agent Jake out.”
“Well, Luna, we might have a bit of an advantage going in, as long as Cleopatra and her crew are still loading up.”
“How will we recognize the ship they’re loading Freckles onto?”
“It’ll be whichever one’s the biggest and most decorated. Cleopatra’s a trade guru with deep pockets in a lot of foreign markets, and she loves to flaunt the wealth. Our number one goal is getting Freckles, but goal number two should be capturing her.”
“Not killing her.”
“Sounds good to me. And by the way, thank you, Ike. I don’t deserve your help, and yet you’ve been more than willing to give it.”
“Yeah, I realized I was being stubborn and hypocritical by not working with you. You’ve repeatedly risked everything with one goal in mind, and it took me way too long to understand that if I wasn’t with you, I was against you. I don’t blame you for the mindset, either. If someone stole the ones I love away from me, I can’t say I wouldn’t be acting the same way.”
“Okay, but I could’ve been a lot nicer to you.”
“Eh, water under the bridge. You’re sorry, and I forgive you. I’m also sorry, and I’m sure you’ll also forgive me eventually.”
The Constellation approaches the docks below. A quick count reveals two full-sized ships and five cloudships, but, as Ike expected, one has a lot more luster to it.
“If he’s packed away, he’ll be on that one,” Ike reaffirms.
“Good. Let’s get this show on the road.”
We swoop in low, skating a hundred feet in the air above their grounded ships. On our first pass over, I load the cannon. When we reach the ocean, Ike loops the ship around. Two of their cloudships are taking to the sky, ready to greet us. Or ram us. We have no way of telling if they realize who we are, but they’ve been expecting Slaphand and his crew, whose ships are notably missing.
“Ready?” Ike asks from the speaker.
“I’m more than ready.”
“The one on the right looks like it wants a deadly bowling ball launched at it, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I think I would.”
I aim and fire at the cloudship. My shot connects with the front of the cockpit and travels almost all the way through to the other side as the ship explodes outward. Ike turns our shields back on, giving us the enchanted hue of protection.
Now they certainly know who we are.
I rush to get a second cannonball loaded, my injury slowing me a little less with pain relievers in my system. The surviving cloudship attempts to swerve away, but I don’t give it the chance, once again landing a shot on their engine. They, too, burst into flames.
“You know, I’ve never actually been bowling before,” I yell, “but I imagine this is what it feels like, although a lot cooler.”
“It’s certainly more of an old person or nerd sport,” Ike returns.
The three additional cloudships launch off, and I can faintly make out figures on the ground desperately loading the two larger airships.
“We need to land. They’ll be in the air soon.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Ike says, dropping us closer to the ground. We touch down, and I load one last cannonball into the ship as a precautionary measure, leaving one left in the container. Then, I rejoin Ike on the main level of the ship.
“Here’s a little makeshift plan,” he begins. “We’ll cover each other, making sure we get on board that ship, and immediately head for the cargo hold. If he’s not in the main hold, we’ll comb the rest of the place. Keep a weapon in hand at all times, and I understand you might want to hesitate to shoot, but this is officially kill or be killed.”
“Understood. Let’s go.”
Ike lowers the ramp and puts a round into two of Cleopatra’s goons waiting for us below. We hug the side of the Constellation, staying as out of sight as possible while we turn to face The Crown Jewel, a gaudy cargo ship. A little on the nose if you ask me.
“Run to the ramp on three,” Ike says, scouting for more of the welcome party. He counts down and we sprint off, although I move a lot slower because, once again, I have a broken rib.
When we arrive at the bottom of the ramp, he fires his pistol three more times, taking out a man who was ready to get the jump on us. I step onto the ramp, prepared for the worst.
But the worst doesn’t come.
The top deck is completely empty, so we descend the rickety wooden stairs, clinging to either wall. Each of us peers into the room at a different angle. I’m met with an unsuspecting guard and fire twice, one shot hitting him in the shoulder and the second completely missing. He topples to the side, and Ike finishes the job.
We continue on, sweeping the area for any more goons, until Ike finds a second staircase leading further into the belly of the ship. We use the same strategy to check for safety.
“This should be the storage level,” Ike says, after we confirm the main area is free of any baddies. “No splitting up. We’ll search together.”
“What? Scared I’ll ditch you again?” I ask, mostly joking.
“Well, now that you mention it, maybe a little,” he smiles back.
The lobby area of the cargo hold doesn’t have a lot in it, including a distinct lack of Freckles, so we go through each room, one of us monitoring the inside and the other watching the outside.
I open our sixth door, and it creaks loudly. Inside, a man is standing at a table, facing our way. On top of the table is a shadowy shape. Light pours in from behind the man, illuminating the space directly surrounding him. When he sees who we are, he reaches for a pistol, but not fast enough. In one shot, I put a hole in his head, just like I did to Slaphand. He falls to the ground, lifeless. With him removed, the object on the table is revealed.
It’s a cage.
A cage with something in it.
With someone in it.
I flip a light switch on. All I can do is stare.
- 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.