The Great War had decimated the world, killing millions and wiping out all the modern technologies of that time. After many of the survivors had died from starvation and thirst, the few remaining figured out by trial and error that if they were going to survive they needed rules.
Over eight hundred years later, nature’s resources are slowly recovering, but the population has dwindled to only a handful of people. Most are suspicious and quite content to live by themselves.
To survive in this barren world, Aapeli has created a rule for every situation. He doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything in his life until he rescues an abandoned child from a group of crazed mountain men. Over the years the little girl shakes up his organized world by questioning all of his rules.
Liberty knows she couldn’t ask for a better father but that doesn’t stop her from questioning his hardheaded views. At fifteen she believes she’s grown up enough and should be treated as such. But soon enough her world is shaken to the core, so much so that all she then wants to be is her father’s little girl again.
When the airship entered the valley, Aapeli leaned over the railing to get a better view. He never grew tired of looking at the pristine lake that took up much of the valley floor. It was the main water source for everyone who lived within a thirty mile radius – the good and the bad. Stately pine and oak trees snuggled up close to the edge of the mountain, creating a wonderful hiding place for anyone interested in stealing his airship or killing him.
“Looks good so far.” He didn’t know when he had taken to talking to himself but took comfort in the fact there was no one here to witness it. Sometimes he just liked hearing a voice – any voice. The daily solitude was a way of life and had been for many years, but there were times he missed sharing ideas and words with someone else. It didn’t help knowing he was heading toward the loneliest place in the world - The Forbidden Lands.
Aapeli adjusted his goggles and leaned even farther over the railing, ever vigilant for what might be hiding in the forest. The nearby caves were supposedly inhabited by men who loved killing for the simple sport of it. The rumors were they ate their victims. In his twenty years of stopping at the foot of the mountains to refill the water tanks, there had never been any indication that these tales about the cave-dwellers were true.
It was quite possible the tall tales were just that – tall tales, but it didn’t hurt to keep a sharp lookout just in case there was some grain of truth in them. The last thing he wanted was to wind up on a roasting stick. It would certainly have been far safer to refill his water tanks elsewhere, but Big Lake was the nearest source of water before heading over the mountains into the Forbidden Lands.
Satisfied that all was well, Aapeli ran over to the helm and checked all the gauges before pulling a lever that sent a plume of steam into the air. Slowly but surely the airship began its descent. It skimmed over the tops of the trees before settling onto the bank of the lake.
Aapeli patted Airus’s helm. “Way to go, girl. Another perfect landing.” A couple of turns on a large brass wheel lowered the anchor until he felt it hit the ground. To make certain it was secure he tugged it a couple of times before throwing the water hoses over the starboard side. Not wanting to lose his hat or goggles, he carried them over and set them down on the captain’s chair. They had belonged to his father, and to his grandfather and great-grandfather, so he felt it his duty to protect them.
Satisfied everything was secure, Aapeli lowered the ladder but then sat with one leg over the railing, casting a cautious eye over the area one more time. A flock of birds flew out of the trees closest to the lake. He held his breath and listened for any unusual sounds, and when none came rubbed his pocket watch for good luck before heading down.
Aapeli had nearly reached the bottom rung when an eerie wailing cut across the lake’s usual silence. He halted, mid-step, and chills ran down his spine.
“What the hell?” Every sense snapped to full alert, and without thinking, he slipped the small handgun out of his jacket pocket before jumping the rest of the way to the ground. The lush, green grass assured a quiet landing.
Another cry filled the air, and he flattened himself against the ship and cocked the pistol. An unnerving silence then settled over the lake, somehow more alarming than the wailing.
Which direction had the high pitched sound come from? It was tempting to pull up anchor and get the hell out of here, but that would have meant backtracking to Little Lake. Damn. Totally unacceptable. It would set him back at least a couple of days. Not such a big deal any other time of the year but winter was quickly approaching. The delay could easily make the return trip over the mountaintop as dangerous as hell. The wind currents were unpredictable once freezing temperatures reached those higher altitudes. The added threat of snow was also a worry. Any extra weight would make Airus sluggish.
Another wail ripped through the stagnant air.
The smart thing would have been to get out of here for the crying had clearly drawn someone else’s attention.
“Shit.” To hell with being smart. Maybe someone needed his help, and so Aapeli stepped ahead, scanning the area again.
Something about the crying troubled him. It sounded more like a child’s sob than that of a man or woman. Was this one of the tricks the mountain men used to entice their victims?
“What are you going to do? Shit or get off the pot? Some mountain man is out there licking his chops, hoping you’re stupid enough to run right into his arms.” But none of the stories he had heard over the years had ever led him to believe the cave-dwellers were smart enough to pull such a trick.
“What the hell?” It wasn’t possible for a grown man to disguise his voice enough to sound that much like a little girl. He stopped, stood on his toes and strained to see over the tall grass. He couldn’t chance it really was a child. How long before the cries drew the attention of someone looking for an easy meal?
“You can’t stand here all day.” With no firm plan in mind, Aapeli took off running, silently cursing himself with each step. He was a damn fool for taking such a chance and was probably going to wind up in someone’s soup pot tonight.
Keeping the pistol ready, Aapeli stopped every couple of steps to check around, in case someone had maneuvered themselves between him and his airship. When he turned to look ahead again, a movement at the tree line caught his eye.
Anger replaced apprehension. What kind of fool left their child alone in such a dangerous place? Aapeli ran across the open field toward the edge of the trees and stopped a few feet from the child, peering into the dense underbrush to make certain there was no one there waiting to attack. As best he could tell, they seemed to be alone and so he quietly approached the girl.
Her big eyes watched his every movement so he slowly knelt in front of her, trying not to spook her. Her curly, red hair was filthy and matted. Tears had washed some of the grime off her face. A river of snot ran from her nose and dripped from her chin. Where was her mother? He looked over his shoulder at Airus and wondered what to do. He couldn’t very well leave her here without any protection but he couldn’t take her with him either.
“This is a damn fine mess,” Aapeli mumbled to himself as he scooted in closer.
With an innocent expression of curiosity the girl eyed the shiny pistol before reaching out to touch it. Before she could, Aapeli put on the safety catch and slipped it into his duster pocket.
The little girl was no longer crying but was now drawing in ragged breaths.
“Where’s your mommy?”
She slipped a thumb into her mouth and hiccupped.
Before he could question her further, a shrill yell bounced down the mountainside. This time there was no mistaking the fact that danger was heading their way. Aapeli looked up toward the caves, seeing a mass of dark dots speeding toward the valley floor. He scooped up the little girl and took off running. Calmly, with each step, he mentally clicked off what needed to be done before takeoff.
The trip up the ladder took less time than it did down. Once onboard, Aapeli swiped his hat and goggles off the captain’s chair and there deposited the child. He vaguely noted that her tears had stopped and her big eyes watched him with interest, not fear. Sensing she could probably use some reassurance, he quickly patted the top of her head before running over and spinning the wheel that hauled up the anchor. That done, he dashed over to the portside and pulled up the ladder until it was all safely back on deck.
Feeling more secure now that no one could climb on board, Aapeli took a moment to look out at the herd of men rapidly running toward the airship. With them all bunched up and on each other’s heels it was hard to tell how many there were, maybe some twenty to thirty. By now they were at the furthest edge of the lake and heading in his direction.
“Damnation!” Aapeli checked that the little girl was still in the captain’s chair. She hadn’t moved but was sucking her thumb – a mystery sitting there that would have to wait to be solved after they were out of danger. Now at the helm, he increased the speed on the friction engine and opened the steam vent to release hot air into the balloon.
Even though the engine was running on it highest setting, it was an excruciating wait for the airship to lift off. Aapeli pulled out his pistol and looked over the railing. The crazed mob were now beating on the sides of Airus with their bare hands and large sticks.
Aapeli shook his head. If that was all they had, they were going to leave here disappointed. Since he had built Airus, he knew exactly how much punishment it could take and a few rocks and sticks were useless against its seasoned cedar planking.
He couldn’t decide whether to be afraid or amused at the sight of the ragtag mob. They were grabbing whatever they could and throwing it at the airship, as if that would be enough to stop it from taking off. Most of the missiles fell harmlessly to the ground but every now and then some would land onto the heads of those below. Of course that only stirred them into a more fevered pitch, but thankfully to no avail. Airus slowly gained altitude and climbed out of reach, the rocks and sticks no longer clattering against its hull.
Aapeli grinned and waved. The smile was all for show because their crazed growls and hoarse screams had unnerved him more than he wanted to admit. No doubt they would have torn him and the little girl into tiny pieces if they had gotten their hands on them.
Slipping the pistol back into his coat pocket, he returned to the helm and increased the steam pressure. He looked at the dirty little girl and sighed. Shit. What was he going to do with her? She was sucking on her thumb still but with renewed vigor, though there was no fear in her big brown eyes - only curiosity.
Lost for what to do or say, he again patted the top of her head. Her face lit up with a huge smile.
Before he turned back to the airship’s controls, he knelt in front of the captain’s chair, again hoping to reassure her. “I’ll stop by Shatter’s. I bet if anyone knows who you belong to, it’s him.” That brought another bright smile. Someone was surely looking for this beautiful little girl. If she was his daughter, he would never stop searching until he’d found her.
With a new mission now before him, Aapeli headed Airus toward the local trading