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 had 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 to make it over the crest.
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 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. A good source of water waited 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 grasped 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 a warm bath would soon feel.
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 goggles. 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, she only heard the usual comforting sounds of the friction wheels turning, water boiling, and wind whistling by.
The airship approached the highest point of the peak and all looked good. Liberty relaxed her shoulders and allowed herself a faint smile. Maybe, just maybe everything would 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. An avalanche of rocks slid 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 lessened and eventually stopped altogether. Only then did she run over to check Airus’s gauges again.
The pressure needle had moved to the red again, 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 goggles 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 knew 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 while keeping a sharp lookout for any signs of movement. As soon as they were in place, she set her hat and goggles 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 felt 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 the task was done, she climbed back aboard and turned the pumps on. By this time, sweat soaked her blouse and waistline. 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 hurriedly scrubbed 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 stored everything 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.