Horatio was asleep when the mutiny broke. She had curled up in a corner in the makeshift barracks that they’d rigged up, the five of them, in the airship’s gondola. It was Aaron Scroggs, the ship’s cook, who rudely shook her awake. Horatio woke groggily to find him standing over her, his rough grip on her shoulder and his eyes fixed on the iron door that led out onto the deck.
“Get up girl,” he hissed, releasing her as she came to. “Somebody’s trying to get us all killed.”
“Huh?” Horatio blinked and yawned, peering up at the dark look on Aaron’s big, craggy face.
Horatio liked Aaron. He reminded her of all the best pirates in the stories that her grandfather used to tell of the seafaring swashbucklers of old. Aaron was an ugly, red-headed man of somewhere closer to fifty, with a gravelly voice and an unsettling laugh that came readily enough even at the grimmest of times. He could only cook about five different dishes, but they were all edible, and he told all all of Horatio’s favorite pirate stories as many times as she liked, exactly the same way every time so that she always knew just exactly which part to look forward to.
“Shots fired on deck,” muttered Aaron.
“What?” Horatio sprang to her feet. “What do you mean, ‘shots fired?’ Who-?”
“Quiet,” snapped Aaron again, and Horatio went silent.
Now, she could hear the sound of heavy mechanical footsteps marching across the deck towards the barracks.
“Attention, crew,” bellowed the voice of the Captain over the intercom. “The Constance is under new ownership, and we’ll turning her about and heading for the coast of California within the hour. I’ve good reason to believe that there’s plenty of worthy plunder to be had from a fleet of French vessels making their way toward some kind of research facility with all kinds of precious things that will go ‘boom’ in a second if we’re not careful, and I’ve no intention of sharing with that worthless hunk of land-garbage that the Admiral’s rotting into in his old age.”
“Sounds like mutiny to me,” muttered Aaron.
Horatio mouthed the word “‘mutiny” under her breath. A little terrified, scintillated thrill shot through her and she huddled just the tiniest bit closer to Aaron, who’d shoved his broad back up against the door and was standing protectively between her and whatever awaited them both outside.
“The way I see it, you got three choices, now,” the Captain went on, sharp but reasonable. “You can come out here, make no trouble and get ready to set course for California, and we’ll all come out of this as rich noblemen and happier for it.
“You can come out and let our two trusty deckhands march you quick as you like down to the lifeboats where you can get the hell off my ship with your hides intact.
“Or you can come out here, argue with me, and let the deckhands shoot you.”
Horatio Reade had only been cabin girl aboard the great rigid airship The Magnificent Lady Constance for less than a month before the mutiny.
The Magnificent Lady Constance, affectionately nicknamed the “Constance” by the five humans on its crew, was the largest, newest, and fanciest of the ships in Admiral Joseph Tibeaude’s renowned sky pirate fleet. Captain Hugh Boolan steered the Constance in the Admiral’s name, and Horatio had heard that Boolan, like herself, was a hire from the London dark market airship darks; just another capable man whom the Admiral had picked up for a fair price in the steam-choked and dazzling clockwork city.
Being invited aboard a first-class pirate vessel in its prime had been a deliciously romantic prospect for young Horatio. To date, her life had included an apprenticeship with an old retired black-market merchant captain just outside of Cork, as well as a three-week stint as the copilot of the tiny racing ship Atalanta. Horatio had triumphantly cashed the Atalanta onto the finish line during Brighton’s annual airship regatta to thunderous applause. She’d delivered the victory and the substantial cash prize in that race to a captain who’d been drunk and singing to himself on the floor throughout the entire bumpy ride.
It was Horatio’s talked-about regatta victory, the Admiral said, that had first caught his attention. He’d hired her not long after, and she’d been glad, now that her winnings were well spent, of another good, glamorous job.
As the announcement faded away, Horatio listened to the metallic echoes in the otherwise silent barracks. Aaron was scowling, squinting thoughtfully down at his own hands.
“Well,” he sighed after a moment or two. “What’s it gonna be, girl? Are you throwing in your lot with Boolan?”
Horatio wasn’t quite ready to answer that.
“Mr. Scroggs,” she asked hesitantly. “What are you going to do?”
Aaron snorted a mirthless little laugh.
“Sure as hell not going to California,” he said simply.
Horatio nodded. Of course, she hadn’t thought he would.
“Where,” she asked, “are Davis and Rawlins?”
“Heard two shots on deck,” Aaron said.
Strangely enough, that realization that Davis and Rawlins were probably dead was far vaguer of a horror than the word “mutiny” had been. Horatio had barely known Davis and Rawlins. They’d both joined up only a week or so ago, and she’d never shared more than three or four words with either of them.
Dead, thought Horatio, but it still didn’t mean much of anything. She wondered if it would mean something different tomorrow morning.
“Captain’s wrong,” Aaron said. “There ain’t no options. Either you join up with Boolan or we both get shot.”
Horatio wasn’t sure what to make of that, as Aaron had definitely just said that he wouldn’t consider being a mutineer.
“What about the lifeboats?”
For some reason, Aaron’s scowl only darkened and he didn’t reply.
“They won’t shoot us, you know,” Horatio told him. “The deckhands, I mean. They won’t shoot me, anyway. They could never.”
Aaron narrowed his eyes at her.
“They won’t,” insisted Horatio. “They’re my clockworks, after all. Well, I mean, they’re not my clockworks, but they know me. They’re from my old ship.”
“Are they, now?” Aaron was chewing thoughtfully on his lip.
“Yeah, Old Captain Carlisle built them himself, and I brought them with me when he…I mean, when it looked like the Atalanta — that’s my old ship — wasn’t going to need them anymore. The Admiral hired me, Benjamin, and Catherine all off the market docks together. I bet you Captain Boolan doesn’t know that. He never seemed to take much of an interest in the clockworks.”
Horatio decided suddenly that she’d never much liked Captain Hugh Boolan. What sort of modern man of the world still turned up his nose at the clockworks? They were the deckhands, the crewmates, maybe even the pilots of the future if someone ever found a way to get them to start thinking for themselves.
“You…named them,” muttered Aaron. “Catherine and Benjamin, huh? You named the clockworks. You’re one of those.”
“Of course I am,” Horatio said, not at all ashamed of being “one of those,” whatever that meant. Aaron started to crack a sort of half-smile in the face of Horatio’s loyalty to her mechanical crewmates, but it faded again just as quickly.
Aaron was silent for a long, laden moment. Outside, Horatio could hear the sound of mechanical feet shuffling and tapping on the floor.
“All right,” said Aaron, nodding once. “Come on. Let’s go.”
He moved to push open the door, and Horatio hesitated.
“Said they won’t shoot, didn’t you?” Aaron jerked his head at her, raising an eyebrow. “Then come on. We’ll go to the lifeboats. No point in getting ourselves killed over a ship that isn’t ours.”
Horatio wasn’t really sure how she felt about that. After all, the Admiral seemed like a fair enough man, and he’d given her a fantastic opportunity when he’d hired her right off a very first job to serve as cabin girl in his very finest ship. She was certain that there wasn’t anything noble about running away, and leaving the Constance in the hands of a murderer and a thief wasn’t right. That wasn’t loyalty. It wasn’t really anything but bare-faced cowardice.
Before Horatio mustered up the courage to argue the point, however, Aaron had already thrown the door open.
There were two naked clockwork people standing just outside the barracks, each clutching a pistol hard in its tarnished, copper-colored claws. They watched Horatio emotionlessly out of the big eye-windows in their square-shaped heads, levelling the pistols at her and Aaron.
“Hello Catherine,” whispered Horatio, trying not to stare down the menacing barrel of the gun. “Hello Benji.”
Catherine and Benjamin, of course, said nothing. Instead, they strode silently around Horatio and Aaron and prodded them in the backs with the guns.
Horatio swallowed her upsurge of nerves and strode forward as confidently as she could, keeping her eyes straight ahead, just like Aaron did.
There was nothing but open deck standing between Horatio, Aaron, and the short causeway that led from the barracks to the lifeboat bay. The Constance’s single lifeboat was already lifted and ready for take-off, moored to the ship’s side by a set of thick, knotted ropes. Benjamin knelt down and began patiently grappling with the knots, while Catherine lifelessly covered Horatio and Aaron with the gun.
“Horace,” Aaron said. “You say these two used to be your deckhands?”
Horatio glanced over at the clockworks and nodded. “My captain’s, yeah.”
“Will they do what you tell ’em?” Aaron still had his eyes fixed straight ahead, his face completely impassive. “If you give ’em an order, they’ll follow it?”
She’d certainly given them orders before, aboard the Atalanta. They’d never hesitated to help her clean the deck or carry the captain’s coffee when she’d asked them. Theoretically, they shouldn’t make any difficulties now, unless Boolan had them altered somehow.
“Yes,” she said, sounding just a little more confident than she really was. “They will.”
Aaron nodded. “Tell ’em to get on the lifeboat.”
“Wait,” she asked, “Why?”
“Captain’ll see that the lifeboat’s been lifted,” Aaron said. “He’ll think we’ve gone. Without the clockworks, there’s just him, you, and me left on the ship. One and a half against one.”
“Hey!” Horatio said, taken by surprise by the jab, and Aaron shot her a tight-lipped little grin with just a hint of the usual teasing glint in his eye.
“Tell ’em,” he insisted, nodding again at the clockworks.
Horatio turned back to the clockworks.
“Benji, Catherine,” she said, doing her best not to let her voice shake. “You’re going on a trip. You need to get on the lifeboat.”
Benjamin and Catherine didn’t hesitate or argue. Benjamin stood up, collected his gun, and then quietly followed Catherine through the door and onto the tiny aircraft.
Before Horatio had a chance to ask any further questions, Aaron knelt down and hastily finished the job that Benjamin had begun. He was an experienced airman with a long history of tying pilots knots, so it didn’t take him any time to undo the ropes that moored the lifeboat. Within moments the boat was aloft on its own, drifting away into the open skies.
Horatio watched the lifeboat for a while until it was quite far from the ship, still floating about without much control. The clockworks, of course, without free will, weren’t any use at steering their own course, and Horatio suddenly wondered how they’d ever make it home.
Eventually, she turned back to Aaron.
“Mr. Scroggs,” she said, “shouldn’t we…”
A blast from what must have been the Constance’s cannon struck the departing lifeboat, destroying it in an instant. Horatio stifled a shriek of horror as the disjointed fragments of what had once been the lifeboat and its passengers plummeted to earth.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No!”
“Come on. Let’s go,” Aaron said softly.
Horatio, however, couldn’t quite tear herself away from the scene of the disaster. She felt strangely dull and suddenly uncertain as she imagined, horribly, maybe Benjamin’s disembodied arm lodging itself into the mud somewhere or clattering off the rooftop of someone’s home far below.
“You knew,” she accused Aaron, turning on him. “You knew what would happen if we —”
“Boolan wasn’t gonna let us get back to London,” Aaron said. “Couldn’t have risked us putting the Admiral and the rest of the fleet on his course. It could have been us instead of the clockworks. Come on.”
Without waiting for Horatio to pull herself together, Aaron strode off toward the deck.
Horatio thought she heard him sigh a little as he turned away from her, but she was confused and angry, so she didn’t waste time worrying about whether or not he felt guilty. Instead, she dragged herself after him and soon found herself on the deck in the midst of a grisly scene.
Captain Boolan was standing at the tiller as always with his back to them and his eyes on the skies ahead. Behind him on the ground lay the bodies of Rawlins and Davis, strangely posed with their arms and legs splayed out in all directions like they never would have been in life.
Morbidly, Horatio found herself looking for the bullet holes in their backs, but she couldn’t find them.
But the two men were real — very, disturbingly real — and incredibly dead. They seemed dead now in a genuine way that they had not seemed when Horatio had only tried to imagine them dead before.
She froze there in front of the bodies, and as she stopped short, Captain Boolan spun around and glared.
“Can’t give you the same shot you gave me, Captain,” drawled Aaron casually, soft-spoken as always, with hardness only in his eyes. “Can’t give you a chance to get off the ship. The lifeboat’s gone.”
Boolan narrowed his eyes at Aaron and bared his teeth, almost like an animal, which was unsettling and distorted his otherwise relatively dapper, well-put-together appearance. Now he really looked like a mutineer.
Horatio watched Boolan shoot a glance into Aaron’s belt. She looked down as well, only to realize that Aaron wasn’t armed.
Boolan, of course, had his revolver in his belt. Horatio had never seen him without it.
Uncertain of what to do next, Horatio paused and tried to think. She had the regulation flare pistol in her belt that was the necessary property of every cabin girl or boy, but she’d never fired it or anything else at a human being before. If she tried to fire it now, she’d probably miss or worse, shoot herself or maybe Aaron in the foot or somewhere more painful. Was it Aaron or her father who’d always said that weapons only escalated a conflict?
Unfortunately for Horatio, she wasn’t really given the choice. As Boolan took a step forward and reached for his own gun, she realized that Aaron, still apparently unperturbed, was defenseless and directly in line to get shot. She snatched the flare pistol out of her belt and brandished it at Boolan, who spun around and levelled his revolver not at Aaron but at her.
Horatio’s heart stopped for a moment, but the world around her only sped up. Seizing his chance now that Boolan was distracted for just that split-second, Aaron reached down into his boot and pulled out, miraculously, a wickedly sharp knife that Horatio was sure she’d seen once hanging from the hooks above the cutting board in the barracks.
Boolan opened his mouth, began to say a word that Horatio didn’t quite hear, and then Aaron was on him, driving the knife hard into Boolan’s chest. Boolan staggered back as blood spurted out of him, splattering all over Horatio’s vest and into her face and hair. She gagged, Boolan collapsed to the ground only a few feet away from where Rawlins was lying.
Boolan never moved or got up. The deck was full of dead men, and Horatio could smell the blood on her face so well that the stench made her dizzy. She still had the flare pistol clutched in her hand, and she couldn’t seem to figure out how to let go of it, so she sank down carefully to her knees still squeezing the pistol, and then she vomited her lunch all over the dead captain’s shoes.
Somehow Aaron was already beside her, sweeping her hair back with big gentle hands.
“That’s it,” he said with a grim tenderness in his voice. “That’s that, then. It’s all as much as he deserves, anyway.”
Horatio wasn’t sure if Aaron was referring to the vomit or the knife wound in Boolan’s chest, but it didn’t really matter.
When she was finally feeling steady enough to stand again, Horatio struggled to her feet. She was embarrassed, and she didn’t ask questions when Aaron put his arm around her shoulders and shoved her towards the tiller and the ship’s controls.
“I need you to fly it,” he told her.
Horatio looked up at him.
“You’re a racing pilot,” he reminded her. “You can fly fine, I’m sure…but this ain’t a race. Slow and steady, now. All right?”
Horatio thought about saying a lot of things, like that this really wasn’t “all right” at all. She thought of telling him that she’d certainly flown before, but that the last time she’d landed a ship it had ended up in six different smoking pieces. Aaron still had a firm hand on her shoulder, and so instead of fighting, Horatio just took a few deep breaths and focused hard on keeping the Constance on its present course while her head cleared.
“There it is,” Aaaron said. “We’ll make a captain out of you yet. Brave as they come you are. Brave like a fool. Just the stuff that captains are made of.”
There was a little bit of laughter in his voice, and Horatio tried to laugh along with him, but she couldn’t quite get the sound out.
“Have I ever told you the tale of the great Captain Colin Silvertongue?” he asked. “He was the stuff that captains…that legends are made of. He was the greatest captain of the age of the open seas…brave, too, and reckless. Have I ever told you?”
Horatio shook her head.
“Why,” she asked absently, “aren’t there ever any women in your pirate stories, Mr. Scroggs? I mean, why aren’t there any women who aren’t prostitutes or barmaids.”
Aaron seemed to consider that for a moment.
“Maybe there will be,” he said finally, nodding slowly. “Maybe there will be, now. Someday I’ll tell them all the story of dread captain Horatio Reade of the good ship Lady Constance. We’ll have to spice you up a little bit…maybe make you just a hair taller and broader. You’re too much of a slip of a thing for a good legend.”
He was teasing her again, and that was helpful and a little relaxing. Horatio gazed out at the empty sky before her, unsettled by the quiet.
“Maybe,” she agreed. “But if you don’t mind my saying so, I’m really not sure that I want so much to be famous pirate captain.”
While Horatio steered her way through the clouds, Aaron patted her shoulder.
“Good for you, girl,” he said quietly, nodding. “Good for you.”