The crew and passengers of The Ironheart were almost certainly going to die. The airship’s hull was being picked apart by a flock of diamond-beaked and metal-hungry parrots. Emma Ironheart, the captain and inventor of the craft, did her best to calm her passengers. “We are absolutely not going to die,” she said, then climbed through the hatch above her and slammed it shut.
Emma had built her airship for exploration, not for passengers. Today, however, The Ironheart was full of passengers, specifically, a group of rich explorers who’d become shipwrecked in the Severed Sea.
The whole experience of rescuing them was frustrating, because after landing her airship, it took a whole day for them to get their stuff on the ship. After boarding the Ironheart, all they did was complain about their lodging and safety, as though being saved from a desolate island with no food and water wasn’t good enough.
As Emma headed toward the bridge, things were looking bad. Smoke was billowing out of the engine rooms and into the hallway. She needed to get rid of these birds, and she needed to do it fast.
As Emma entered the bridge of the Ironheart, one of her Steelfoot Sailors –automatons that assisted her with simple maintenance and navigation tasks– clomped over to her and stood there, silently waiting for orders.
“What?” she asked the voiceless automaton.
There was a far off –boom!– and the whole ship rattled. It triggered a small red light to start flashing on the bot’s reflective copper chest.
“Oh really?” Emma said, feigning surprise. “There’s an emergency?”
The automaton nodded its head.
Emma grabbed the bot by the shoulders, turned it around, and kicked it in its non-existent copper ass. “Steer the ship toward land, dummy.” The bot clomped away, red-light still flashing. Good help was hard to design.
Emma walked into her ready-room and closed the door. It was a small and dangerously cluttered space with a brass desk at its center, a room made even smaller by the crates of unfinished inventions and scrap parts stacked around the perimeter.
She grabbed a box labeled “Important” and dumped its contents onto her desk. A void pistol, blueprints, and a few valuables tumbled out. Emma spread the pile across her desk. Not finding what she was looking for, she lifted a second crate labeled “Unimportant” and dumped out its contents: tax documents, cease-and-desist orders, fines, bills, death threats, and love letters. She slammed her fists on the desk. “Well, isn’t today a masterpiece of frustration?” she muttered. “Who moved my stuff?”
The automatons in the other room continued to do their work, but all swiveled their heads in Emma’s direction as though they were capable of caring. It was something Emma had programmed them to do because it’s frustrating to scream about things and have no one even pretend to listen.
As Emma frantically flipped over crates, there was a loud knock at the door.
“What?” she yelled. When no one entered, she continued, “That means come in!”
The door opened with a creak and Toby Pop, her first officer, stepped through. “Uh, captain–”
“Did you move my climby things?”
“Your what?” Toby asked.
“They look like giant monster claws,” she said, gesturing with her hands.
“Nobody is allowed in here, but you and the Steelfoot and they don’t move stuff if you don’t ask them to,” he said. When she didn’t respond, he took a quick look around the room and asked, “Did you check your closet?”
“Good idea,” Emma ran to her closet and grabbed the handle, but before opening it remembered, “I have private things in here. Get out.”
“Captain, the birds are–”
He nodded. “Yes, Captain,” and stepped out.
Emma slowly and carefully opened the door. Two steam rifles, a small box of void grenades, and an umbrella stand full of swords tumbled to the floor. Emma used her boot to shove everything aside and then stepped into the closet, and – awesome – found the thing. Once she’d strapped the contraption on, she called for Toby.
The first officer rentered and made it about two steps before he froze with a cartoonish look of horror on his face, as grenades and loaded weapons rolled around on the floor. The look grew more ridiculous when Emma stepped out of the closet wearing a pair of monstrous mechanical claws fitted over the backs of her hands and feet. “I found them,” she said.
“Uh...What exactly am I looking at?”
Emma slashed at the air. “My climby things,” she said, smiling because they looked awesome and they were awesome.
“Okay,” he muttered, clearly not comprehending the awesomeness of her invention. He shook his head and restarted, “Captain, the birds have pecked their way into the ship. They’re flying around on the inside.”
“What in the five hells are they after?”
There was a clank on the window, then the dink-dink-dink of a colorful bird chipping away at her ship and her future.
“I am going to destroy those parrots,” Emma mumbled, squeezing a mechanical claw into a fist.
“How are the passengers?” Toby asked.
“They’re fine,” she said, and waved off the question. “Where are the birds?”
“They seem to be congregating by the bow of the Ironheart,” Toby said, pointing toward the front of the ship, but Emma had become distracted trying to pick the void pistol up off her desk. The claw covered the topside of her hand and had huge talons that curved over each finger, making it difficult for her to pick things up that were flat against a surface. “At this point in our journey, the cargo holds are nearly empty,” she said.
“Uh...captain?” Toby looked concerned. “Maybe try–”
“I got this, Toby.” Emma glared at him for a long moment.
“Yes, captain,” he said, sighing resignedly at her stubbornness.
Emma slid the gun toward the edge of the table using the side of one hand, hoping to drop it into her other hand once it fell. As the gun neared the edge, the ship hit a bump of turbulence, and the pistol landed on the floor and a blast of void energy nearly vaporized Toby’s head.
The captain and her first officer stared blankly at one another. Seeing that Toby hadn’t been hit, Emma pointed at the gun, and said, “Hand that to me.”
While Toby stood there frozen, another bird landed on the window. Now there were overlapping dink, dink, dinks.
Her first officer didn’t turn to look, he just stood there in shock, probably considering his life choices up to this point. “Toby,” Emma shouted. “Snap out of it. You’re still alive. Not even hurt. Pick up the gun.”
He took a timid step forward, picked the weapon up, and trembling, placed it into Emma's hand.
“Thanks,” Emma said. “Make sure the Steelfoot steer this thing toward land and then meet me in the cargo hold. I’m going outside to deal with these birds.”
Toby looked out the panoramic windows of the ready-room. There was frost building up around the frame from the freezing temperature of their altitude. The sky and sea went on forever, and clouds floated passed as The Ironheart rocketed toward New Vigil. A beautiful scene interrupted by the horror of fluttering parrot saboteurs, black streaks of poisonous smoke, and lethal bits of shrapnel from the engines. He looked back at Emma, “I’m sorry,” Toby said. “Did you say you were going outside?”
* * *
Emma’s magnetized and sharpened claws worked when it came to scaling the hull of a massive airship rocketing through the sky at high speeds, but they were useless when it came to dealing with the cold. Her teeth chattered, and her muscles tightened up. All she could think about was how murdered these stupid birds were about to be and how glad she was that the ship was descending into warmer air.
Emma was headed toward the bow when one of the giant parrots flew over, gently perched on her claw and began dink-dink-dinking away. The bird stared at her with its dead black eyes as it chewed the metal.
“No!” Emma waved her arm up and down to shake the bird off. It squawked and landed a few meters away. She couldn’t hear the dink-dink-dink because of the wind, but she could imagine it, and it pissed her off, so she pointed the pistol at the bird and screamed “Stop eating my ship,” then pulled the trigger. Black and purple void energy vaporized the bird, and a second later, Emma was choking on its scorched red feathers.
Emma reached the bow of the ship. From her position, through the window, she could look into the room where her passengers were and they could see her too, dangling upside down from beneath the upper floors of the Ironheart like some sort mechanized airship pirate with awesome looking claws. Emma waved at them and kept moving. The faster she could get them back to New Vigil, the less time she’d have to spend with them.
From here, she could see that Toby was right: the parrots were flocking outside the cargo bay. There were so many of them that it looked like the ship had giant feathers of its own. There wasn’t an inch of space for the rest of the flock to land. They flew around the airship chomping at important stuff while they waited for an opening.
There must have been something in the cargo bay that they wanted, but Emma had no idea what it could be. As the ship was nearly home, their rations were low, but even if the ship had been brimming with food, these little monsters eat metal. The only metal in storage was rusted scrap, which –in Emma’s opinion– seemed less appetizing than the expensive steel alloy that the rest of the ship was composed of, but then, what in the five hells did Emma know about birds?
Emma fired a few rounds into the parrots, blasting away until she’d punched a hole into the swarm. More parrots flew up to fill in the gaps. “Five hells,” she said. “Get off my ship!” Then teeth chattering, fingers frozen, and cheeks burning red from the wind, she climbed toward the nearest window, smashed it, and tumbled inside. Emma stole a brief moment to catch her breath and embrace the warmth, then she stripped off the climbing gear and began hauling ass toward the cargo bay, feathers trailing in the air behind her.
* * *
Toby was waiting there when Emma ran through the door. The wall was riddled with holes where several of the parrots had chipped their way in. Hundreds of them were crawling through like big colorful feathery maggots. Their overlapping pecking sounds filled the large space with unsettling noise.
“Toby,” she said, yelling over the racket.
“You told me to come here!” he shouted back.
She couldn’t hear him, but nodded anyway, “Right! How’re we looking?”
“We’re going to crash!”
“What?” She shrugged, still not hearing him.
“We’re going to crash!” He pointed to the ground, then used both hands to make an exploding gesture in the air.
“Oh...Right...Great!” Emma’s attention had turned away from her first officer and back to the parrots. The ones inside the cargo bay were all pecking away at a single stack of unfamiliar crates. When she inspected them, she found that they were all vaguely labeled as “supplies.”
“They really want whatever’s in there,” he said, then thought for a second. “Since when do we label our supplies as supplies?”
Emma snorted at this, then swatted at the birds. They flew off, landing on a nearby container with the same designation. All these crates had locks on them. Locks that she’d never seen before.
Toby pulled a handy set of lockpicking tools out from his pocket, while Emma pulled out her void pistol and pointed it at the lock.
“Wait, I can–”
The lock exploded and the container popped open. Emma looked at Toby, who’d leapt behind a crate labeled chicken. She giggled, then put on a serious face when she saw what was hidden inside the one in front of her – a glimmering pile of raw ore.
It was a substance called Dream Steel, a rare metal only found in the Valley of the Ancients charged with energy from the Dreamscape. It was unique, expensive, and not supposed to be on her ship. Somehow, those idiot passengers had smuggled it on board.
* * *
Toby and Emma moved quickly toward the bridge. The walk was slightly uphill now that the Ironheart had tilted toward the bow. Steelfoot Sailors clomped up and down the narrow hallways, carrying supplies to do what repairs they could.
“Are we over land yet?” Emma asked.
“Any minute,” Toby said. “But we’re still going to crash. The birds hacked apart our landing gears.”
Emma shrugged. “Once we’re over land, dump the crates,” she said. “All of them.”
Toby coughed on the smoke that filled the corridors. “Yes, Ma’am,” he choked out.
A door creaked open along the side of the hall and out clomped two Steelfoot Sailors. One, entirely on fire, and another, spraying the first down with a tank of water. Emma stepped out of the way, like this was an everyday occurrence, and watched as Toby screamed, “Five hells” and leapt toward the wall.
Emma scowled at him; she was in a hurry, and she didn’t have time to slow down. “Toby, are we having a problem here?” she asked.
“What?” He coughed again.
“I can’t have my first officer knocked off his toes every time there’s an engine failure or some on-fire Steelfoot walking by.”
Toby’s eyes darted back and forth in confusion. “The engine failed?” He coughed into his hand.
“Yeah,” she said. “Relax about it.”
He nodded, then coughed again.
“Good,” she said, and the two started walking again. “Here’s what I need from you. Grab my special backpack from the glass case in my ready-room, while I–” she paused trying to figure out how not to sound stupid, then realized it was impossible, and went on, “While I get my other...special backpack...from my workshop.”
“Yes,” she said, then muttered. “I really have to start thinking of names for these things. It’s the goopy one.”
“Sure,” he said. “So...um...what’s the plan?”
* * *
Emma was carefully climbed down the ladder into the passenger room. Getting through the hatch was a bit of a puzzle. Two leather straps connected a massive copper tank to her back. Attached to it was a long hose with a thick copper nozzle at the end. It dangled below her swinging back and forth as she moved down from one rung to the next.
With each step the she could more clearly hear the assault off insults, stupid questions, and cries of despair being hurled in her direction.
Of the litany of problems going on in the Ironheart, Emma was least excited to deal with this one – of the things Emma claimed to be, a people person was not one of them.
Emma stopped just before reaching the floor. Out the window, she could see the cargo bay doors opening. Her plan was to dump the Dream Steel on land and then tell them it was dumped in the ocean. If they survived the inevitable crash, then she’d send her automatons to retrieve it once these nut-bolts weren’t around. To make this happen, Emma would need to make sure the attention stayed on her and not the cargo bay which they could see through the window.
“Hey, nut-bolts,” Emma yelled. “Shut up.” She hopped off the ladder. “Just everybody, shut up.”
Remarkably, it worked - they shut up while also looking all kinds of offended.
Emma used the moment and marched up to the fanciest looking person of the bunch and jabbed her finger right in his chest, “What in the five hells were you thinking loading up my ship with Dream Steel?”
The guy stepped back and dramatically placed a hand on his chest. “We did no such thing,” he said. “How dare you?” He took a brief but noticeable look at one of the other nobles, which caused a chain reaction of looks between the whole bunch of them. While Emma was sure that they meant it all to be subtle, on a crashing ship, all hopped up on fear and adrenaline the looks were as subtle as a punch in the face.
“Listen, that Dream Steel that you smuggled onto my ship turns out to be really expensive bird food. That’s why they’re ripping my ship to pieces,” she said.
“Now, listen,” One of the others interrupted. “We are nobles of…” the woman went on-and-on, but Emma had stopped listening because behind them, in the distance, crates of Dream Steel were being shoved out of the cargo bay into the open air by a pair of automatons.
The ship shook as it hit turbulence, bits of metal flying by the panoramic window. A few passengers turned, but Emma snapped her fingers to keep their attention. “I dumped your Dream Steel into the ocean,” she said.
The passengers were instantly silent as they all simultaneously recognized the fortune they’d just lost. Then, all at once, they began shouting – obscenities, excuses, and death threats.
Toby was now standing at the edge of the cargo bay, with the emergency backpack on, having a bit of a freak out. He was pacing back and forth, stopping periodically to look over the side.
C'mon, Emma thought. Jump.
He closed his eyes and hopped out of the cargo bay. Toby tumbled through the sky –falling-falling-falling– but then, with the jerk of his wrist, the chute opened.
Amidst the screaming and yelling of her current environment, she took a deep calming breath. Remarkably, the parachute had worked.
There was a Boom. “Uh-oh,” muttered Emma. Then the ship began to tilt dramatically and everyone started screaming.
Emma reached for a cord dangling from her jacket sleeve and pulled it. A grappling hook with a long wire shot from her wrist and spun tight around a metal pipe. She clipped the line to her belt and began to dangle from the wall-that-was-quickly-becoming-a-ceiling.
The passengers tumbled backward, falling into one another as the ship turned.
Emma reached back, gripped the hose attached to her backpack and pointed it at the passengers –who annoyingly started screaming before she even pulled the lever– “If you want to live, stop moving. It’s totally gross, but it will protect you,” she said.
Emma twisted the nozzle on the hose. A thick orange liquid burst from the tip, and within seconds the passengers were covered from foot to neck in a quick-hardening foam. They screamed like she was burning them alive, which pissed her off because she had made this batch herself, and it wasn’t nearly as burny as the last batch. “Oh, stop it,” Emma said as she finished hosing them down. When the tank was empty, she detached the cord and fell straight into the foam with the rest of them.
The Ironheart smashed into the coastline, in a blaze of fire and metal.
* * *
By nightfall, the passengers had been chipped out of their foamy prison and escorted from the coast to the nearest city, by helpful villagers who’d witnessed the crash. Emma commanded her remaining Steelfoot Sailors to collect and organize scraps of metal from the Ironheart while she waited for the return of the first officer.
When Toby arrived, he was limping, still wearing her backpack, which had a bunch of severed cords dangling from it.
“Toby,” she said, running to him. “You made it.”
“How was it?” She asked. “What was it like? Was it awesome?”
He said nothing, just kind of stood there.
“It was. I knew it would be.” She grabbed his shoulders and shook him with excitement. “You’re the first person to ever parachute out of an airship.” She hugged him. “You lucky nut-bolt!”
“Uh-huh,” he said, before collapsing into a sitting position.
“And the metal, is it safe?” she asked.
“Yes!” She laughed a victorious laugh. “We’re rich, Toby. Those idiots just bought us a new ship.” Her eyes widened with excitement and Emma began gesturing with her hands. “The Indomitable Ironheart. It’s going to be huge. It’s going to fly higher. It’s going to fly faster.” Then she grabbed Toby by the shoulders again, “and you’re going to teach me to jump from it.”