Liberty tapped the glass on the pressure gauge, and when the needle didn’t budge, a sense of dread pooled in the pit of her stomach. “Bloody hell.”
Thinking it needed gentler persuasion, she switched tactics and added a few sweet words of encouragement. “You can’t give up on me now, baby. We’re almost there.” If she didn’t do something soon, the entire ship was going to blow itself to Kingdom Come.
Pressure needed to be released, but what if she let out too much? The airship’s balloons needed to be filled to capacity to clear the last and highest peak. According to the numbers on the altimeter, Airus was barely going to have enough lift as it was.
Liberty eyed the ever-nearing jagged mountaintop. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.
“Captain, what do you think?” She wished for the millionth time since her father’s death that there was someone else to help with these types of difficult decisions. In the end, she did what she always did, put one hand behind her back and crossed her fingers. She briefly closed her eyes, took a much needed relaxing breath and pulled the release valve chain. Immediately, a mass of condensation from the steamer’s drum blew out from a pipe at the rear of the airship and a loud whoosh ripped through the air overhead.
Liberty leaned over and tapped the pressure gauge again. Thankfully, this time the needle bounced down a couple of notches, out of the red. With no time to celebrate, she refocused all her attention on surviving the next immediate problem – the trip over the peak. All she needed was thirty more minutes of airlift. There was a good source of water waiting on the other side. Once the tanks were refilled, she would head to Shatter’s place to trade the bits and pieces she had found in the Forsaken Lands, for the spare parts she needed to replace the seals on the pressure tank.
Liberty ran to the side of the gondola and peered over the edge. The nearness of the mountaintop took her breath away, but she forced her fear to the back of her mind. There’d be time to contemplate fear later – she hoped. She ran back to the helm and held onto the wheel, waiting for either the crash or to sail clear over without a problem. She eyed the altitude and pressure gauges, and kept her mind on how nice it would soon be taking a much needed bath.
Seconds stretched out into eternity, all her senses set on high alert. Cold air and a damp mist cut through the thin fabric of her short-sleeved blouse and long skirt. Every so often she wiped a buildup of moisture from her googles. Without her dad’s old hat, her long curls would have been a tangled mess by now, blown about in the heavy wind. Goosebumps covered her arms and had her wishing she hadn’t left her jacket in the cabin. What she needed more than warmth now, though, was to be prepared for the worse. She relaxed her fingers on the wheel, just enough to cross them for good luck.
She listened closely for any sounds of Airus striking against the sharp, jagged rocks. Fortunately, the only ones so far were the usual; the friction wheels turning, water boiling, wind whistling by.
The airship was nearing the highest point of the peak and all looked good. Liberty relaxed her shoulders and allowed herself a faint smile. Maybe, just maybe everything was going to be okay after all.
Close to halfway over, Liberty allowed that smile to take over her entire face. “Looks like we’ve avoided another catastrophe, my friend.” She patted the shiny brass of Airus’s helm. “Just a few more minutes, old girl, and we’ll be at the lake. You deserve a nice long drink after all we’ve been through these last few months.”
As fate would have it, her happy pronouncement marked the start of a loud, scraping noise. When the airship titled portside, Liberty raced over to check on the damage, just in time to see an avalanche of rocks sliding down the mountainside. She watched in grim fascination as it increased in speed and destruction raced down the slope. It wasn’t until the mass hit the forest covering the valley floor below that the sound finally became muffled and eventually stopped altogether. Only then did she run over to check Airus’s gauges again.
The pressure needle was back in the red, but before Liberty had time to worry, a flash of reflected light caught her attention. She again sprinted over and this time looked down at a most welcome sight – the lake.
She pumped both fists into the air before pulling on the pressure release chain and letting out another blast of steam. In less than two minutes, Liberty had the airship settled on the banks of the crystal clear lake in the center of the valley.
Although a beautiful view, other things were of greater concern. She flipped her googles up onto the brim of her hat and scanned the area. She had never encountered any of the rough mountain men known to hunt around here but had heard enough to know to avoid them at all costs. When her father had been alive, he had insisted she stay hidden below deck whenever they landed here. He’d never said why she couldn’t leave the airship, but since his death and she had taken over dealing with Shatter at the trading post, she had learned that they were a dangerously insane lot who enjoyed murdering for sport.
The lake and nearby forest seemed clear so she lowered the anchor. As soon as there was no danger of Airus breaking loose, she started throwing water hoses overboard, all the time keeping a sharp lookout for any signs of movement. As soon as they were in place, she set her hat and googles on the captain’s seat. They were both irreplaceable and would only be in the way with everything she had to do on the ground.
Before lowering the airship’s ladder, Liberty took another quick look around. Unfortunately, the forest offered too dense a cover to be sure no one was there, so she hoped for the best and kept her pocket pistol close at hand. Even this didn’t stop a nervous flutter from stirring in her chest, or her stomach from twisting into knots the moment she swung her leg over the rail. The sickening feeling of no longer being in complete control became more pronounced with each step down the ladder. Leaving the safety of the air was the most hazardous part of her journeys, and if left up to her, she would never set foot on the ground again. Unfortunately, some things could only be done down there, and so she cautiously continued climbing down.
This part of the world was beautiful when seen from the safety of Airus’s lofty perch, but its beauty was a lure and a lie. The closer she got, the more certain she was that she could smell treachery and danger behind every piece of lovely green foliage.
Liberty jumped from the last step, and out of habit, patted both her skirt’s pockets. One held her father’s pocket watch, the other the loaded gun. The gold watch hadn’t worked in over six hundred years, but the feel of its hard case calmed her enough to get on with what needed to be done.
It took three trips of running back and forth from the lake to get the hoses into the water. As soon as it was done, she climbed back aboard and turned the pumps on. By this time, sweat was dripping from her. Her blouse and waistline were both soaked and so she scanned the area again before heading to the lake with a different purpose in mind. There hadn’t been enough water aboard Airus for the luxury of a bath for over three months now so she quickly stripped off and jumped into the lake.
Liberty only submerged long enough to get her hair wet. It would have been wonderful to enjoy the crisp, cool water all day long, but she hurried through scrubbing her scalp and body. No doubt her hair would be a tangled mess for a couple of days. It would take at least that long to work all the knots loose with her fingers. The last two teeth of her only comb had broken off months ago. The chances of ever seeing another one were slim to none. She would have to make do. After all, that was what she did, wasn’t it?
By the time she had everything stored back on Airus, the sun had sunk toward the treetops. Without a moment to spare, she headed for the trading post. If she could wrap up her business with Shatter fast enough, she could have the valve replaced and be back on her way before nightfall. It was never smart hanging around this corner of the world for very long. There was no point in taking any chances that someone might become a bit too interested in her airship. She would defend it at all costs if she had to for she certainly had no intention of losing the only home she had ever known.
“Before you head out, I have one last thing for you to load.”
Liberty stopped in mid-step and turned to face Shatter. “What? Everything’s loaded.”
For the first time since she had been dealing with the tough-old coot, Shatter appeared uncertain. He furiously scratched at the gray stubble on the side of his face and hemmed and hawed for a couple of seconds before finally blurting out, “You’ll have to come and see for yourself. He’s in the back, sweeping.”
What was the old man up to? It was getting late and she should be in the air already. Liberty’s first thought was to pretend she hadn’t heard, and leave, but when he headed toward the storage room, she followed. He stopped without warning and she plowed headfirst into his bony shoulder blades.
Liberty stifled a curse and pushed her red curls out of eyes to get a better look around the cluttered room. She suspected Shatter’s idea of organization was to toss things in and see where they landed. Grime and dust covered everything, and the only light in the room came from a couple of narrow windows near the ceiling. Since the sunlight outside was quickly fading, the view was limited.
At first she didn’t see anything of interest until a movement, followed by a metallic clicking noise, caught her attention. Liberty stared at what she was seeing without comprehending. Whatever it was, it was the size of a small child but with metal legs and arms. A ball of glass sat where the head should’ve been. It wasn’t until the thing blinked and took a step forward that Liberty finally understood it was a robot.
Shatter waved it over. “Come here, Boy.”
Liberty took a step back when the robot did as instructed.
Shatter spoke over his shoulder to her. “That’s his name, Boy. Tinker make him the year after your father found you abandoned during one of his flyby trips. I don’t think Tinker knew how lonely he was until your father dropped by with you and stayed for a long visit.”
Boy clicked and clinked across the wooden floor, dragging a broom along behind him. Liberty at last overcame her surprise and asked, “So what do you have back here I need to load onto Airus? It’s getting dark and I still haven’t replaced that pressure valve yet. If I don’t get back soon, I won’t have enough light to replace it until the morning. I can’t keep Airus grounded overnight. You know as well as I do how dangerous that would be.”
Shatter pulled at the collar of his shirt, as if it were suddenly too tight. “Boy showed up here out of the blue with a note, day before yesterday. Tinker wants you to take Boy with you.” Shatter scratched the side of his nose and avoided looking at Liberty.
Her mouth bobbed up and down with nothing coming out before she finally spluttered, “What?” She looked back at the robot. It was now just a couple of feet away and still holding the broom.
Shatter nodded at Boy. “Tinker wrote that since your father’s death you’ve been alone. He thought Boy could be of some help, and it would keep him from being used for spare parts.” He leaned closer to Liberty and whispered. “Just between the two of us, I think Tinker might be a little off his rocker.” He chuckled. “But then who isn’t? You have to be a little crazy to survive in these conditions. After the devastation caused by The Great War, there’s now only a handful of people still alive, as you well know, if you can call this living.”
Liberty backed out of the doorway. “I can’t take a robot. What the hell would I do with him? There’s only so much sweeping that can be done on an airship, and besides, I can barely take care of myself. What do I know about looking after a robot?”
She was ready to bolt when a small voice stopped her. “Please.”
Liberty looked down at it. “What?”
Boy pointed his metal fingers at her. “Please. My father’s dead. He told me you would be my sister.”
All Liberty’s inner voices screamed at her not to be sucked in by the sight of Boy’s large, soulful metal eyes. How had Tinker managed to make those thin strips of metal so expressive? The thing was just a pile of glass and metal made to resemble a child, but the longer she stared into its eyes, the more her common sense began to crumble. Damn. Another problem she didn’t need. The only thing going in the robot’s favor was she wouldn’t have to feed it, but it would need a good oiling every once in a while. One small voice broke away from the crowd in her head and whispered, “He’ll need to be wound up every day, just like clockwork. “ She countered that with, “I guess I can spare a few seconds to do that. Maybe I can find something for him to do onboard. “
Damn. She was going to go against her better judgment and take the pile of junk with her. She turned to Shatter. “Okay.” She sighed and motioned for Boy to follow. Before she left, though, she said. “But if it turns into more trouble than its worth, I’m dumping it the first chance I get.” She didn’t bother waiting for an answer and hurried out to Airus, well aware that Boy was following on close behind, given away by the sound of its joints clicking with each step it took. That racket was sure as hell going to get annoying after a while.
If she’d had all night to sit around and watch the hilarious sight of Boy attempting to climb the rope ladder, Liberty wouldn’t have given in and helped haul him aboard. As entertaining as that might have been, there was still too much to do.
Before Liberty headed below deck, she told Boy, “Keep an eye out and tell me if you see anyone getting close to the airship. Do you think you can do that?”
There wasn’t time to debate the fact she wasn’t his sister, so Liberty headed down to get her toolbox. The job with the valves turned out to be more difficult than she had at first thought because the old seals had melted into place. For an hour, she scrapped the soft rubber off two of the four pistons.
Everything was lying around in pieces on deck when the sun set. Liberty tried working in the dusk light but finally had to admit defeat, resigning herself to the fact that in spite of the danger she would have to stay grounded until the next day.
Liberty was throwing the tools back into their box when Boy walked over. She rocked back onto her heels. “There’s not enough light left, so I’m going to have to finish this in the morning. You up to helping me keep guard all night? It shouldn’t be possible to sneak aboard without the ladder, so we should be okay. We can’t take any chances, though.”
Boy blinked a couple of times but didn’t answer. He turned toward the pressure tank, and without warning, two beams of light shot out from his eyes.
Liberty jumped up. “No way! How long can you keep that up for?”
The lights flickered when Boy blinked. “For as long as you need the light.”
She shielded her eyes from the glare of his own and grinned. “Let’s get to work then.”