Chapter 51 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it..
The iron monstrosity of the Triad airship was surprisingly easy to get close to.
It was one of those giant-bladed fliers which used steam to spin propellers both above and below, making it faster than conventional balloon or glider designs like the one Teena had used. It also meant the deck was as hot and sweaty as a mariner’s ass in July.
Karina simply waited for the wind to blow thick, black smoke back into the eyes of the miserable sentries, then bolted into the shadows under the ship. She was engulfed immediately in the oppressive heat of the engines. The smell brought tears to her eyes.
Despite her reckless proximity to the ship and the soldiers manning it, she didn’t catch any interesting conversation for almost an hour. The wind occasionally relieved her with a glorious blast of fresh air, drying the sweat from her eyes and smelling of sweet grass and dirt, only to vanish like a mirage. While waiting for something interesting to take back to the Speaker, Karina daydreamed about spending the gold roses she was about to earn. She wondered how fast Teena could burn through an entire gold coin if they were in a major city, then giggled. She loved her big sister more than anything in the world, but the little pipsqueak had no concept of money or frugality.
A steel cage smashed itself almost to pieces a scant meter from her hiding place. Karina nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Be careful with that!” Someone shrieked.
Another box crashed down a bit further away, on the other side of the gangplank. The voice huffed again, and a lanky guy in a lab coat stomped down the plank. He was tailed by a shorter, squatter man with mean eyes and greasy hair. Both wore spotted white overcoats and black pants and boots, though the tall one kept his hair short cropped and neat, while the shorter one’s greasy mane had been allowed to go wild. Two soldiers marched behind them, scanning the horizon with high-powered rifles at the ready. Both soldiers were adorned in the steel plated leather armor and shaved heads that were in style in the southern cities.
Well damn. If she’d known they were going to throw junk at her, she would’ve picked a better hiding place.
Tall, pale, and handsome fussed with both crates while his assistant stood off to the side wringing his hands. They were both grumbling under their breath, but she couldn’t make anything out over the dull roar of the boiling water inside the ship.
Karina’s heart skipped a beat as the two scientists held a mini-conference an arm’s reach from her hiding place. As was typical, she felt the need to sneeze immediately as soon as they encroached on her space.
“Will you do something,” the skinny one hissed. “I shouldn’t even be out here in the first place, I’m not about to spoon feed you like a gods damned baby.”
“Stuff yourself into that twat’s twat all you like,” the fat one growled. “This is a fool’s errand. Surely you understand why this sort of experimental testing should be confined to a proper sterile environment.”
“Properly stocked with food, you mean. Nobody gives a damn about your infantile views on field testing, just do as you’re told. Before that ‘twat’ learns about how unhelpful you’re being.”
They split, each picking one of the dented metal boxes. They disassembled and re-assembled the units for about half an hour before things started making sense. Karina still didn’t know what they did, but she saw some familiar equipment from spending all that time with her sister. There were microscopes and oscillators and gyroscopes jutting out at odd angles. The boxes themselves re-arranged into tall worktables, complete with desk, flask and beaker stands, space for a burner and fuel, and a bunch of belts clamped in place on the sides. And, of course, a ton of shattered glass.
What in the nine hells?
Karina watched in mild fascination as the two men spent the next two hours closely analyzing…Dirt.
They trudged downhill with boxes, scooped up some dirt, then trudged back and dumped the box onto various scientific instruments. It took about ten minutes to analyze a sample as far as she could tell, but the string of numbers they spouted while recording results was pure nonsense to her. Thankfully there were still a few hours of daylight when they started tearing down.
The soldiers at the bottom of the boarding plank came to attention as another, older, soldier appeared. “Gentlemen,” he had a thick accent she couldn’t place, and was nearly impossible to understand. He was bald of course, but he had more stripes and pins on his coat than the others. “What have you found?”
“Nothing,” Rasped the smaller scientist.
“Shut up, Brutus.” The tall one had a reedy voice that made him sound like he was perpetually on the verge of hysterics. “My colleague is correct, Lieutenant. Not a trace of the infection to be seen. It’s possible we may find traces if we expand the scope of our tests, but I deem it unlikely to be worth our time.”
“For your sake, I hope you’re right.” The lieutenant huffed. “We’ve only got maybe two days on the fuel if we take it slow. One of the vans says there’s a mess of people parked a few miles North, too. If you don’t see anything on the ground, that means they’re probably not infected yet. Might be polite to give ‘em a chance to save their asses if we have time.”
“People?” Greasy grumbled aloud. “Can you show me where they are on the map?” He pulled a crumpled map of the continent out of his overcoat and held it up expectantly. Karina could make out a thick, black line on the map tracing the route from Barley’s Bowl straight up through the valley and hooking around the mountains, nearly all the way to Gungrave.
It was eerily similar to the trek The Nightmare had taken North. What exactly were they looking for?
The lieutenant traced the map for several minutes, and there was a brief back and forth before the tall one interrupted. “Brutus, would you even recognize the girl if you saw her at this point? It’s been months, hasn’t it?”
“I see that bitch every day in my nightmares,” Brutus growled. “I will recognize her at once. And I will crush her for what she did to me!”
“Crush her on your own time,” sighed his companion. “We need her alive until we can eradicate the swarm, you idiot.” The tall man clasped his hands behind his back and set one foot on the ramp leading back to the ship. He stopped to address the military man. “Have your men pack those in the hold, they’re not needed anymore. Let’s go North to warn the people, see if they’ve heard of Leliana, then report to Lilith and Lord General Ferralis.”
The name drop woke her up like a slap to the face, and Karina was suddenly very interested in keeping an eye on these two. “There’s no way I’ll get back to the monks first,” she ignored the white-hot pain lancing through her palms as she climbed the side of the ship. “I better hitch a ride…”
The soldiers packed the equipment away and lifted off again, black fumes belching into the air and propellers whizzing above and below. The ship thundered in a dozen ways, and nobody noticed the red-headed spy cram herself into a starboard cannon.
Ten minutes later and the monk camp drifted lazily below, scarcely the size of her palm. Karina’s stomach somersaulted in place. Knowing you’re that high up was one thing. That familiar aerial view she’d missed so much coupled with the alarming fact that she wasn’t packing a parachute was enough to paralyze her with fear. She tried edging toward the cannon’s mouth once or twice, only to shrink away at a sudden gust of wind.
She forced herself to think of Teena. What would she do if their positions were reversed? That was easy. She’d jump off the ship and expect Karina to catch her somehow.
A million ideas to sneak off the ship once they landed came to mind in a flash and were discarded just as quickly. The ground below was flat, featureless, and not conducive for sneaking out of a warship. What assets do we have? She forced herself to go through the motions to distract her panicking mind, forming a mental checklist.
It wasn’t much.
She’d been emptied out by those geezers earlier. Some rope she used as a belt, a tiny wooden penguin, and the element of surprise. Actually, the penguin was for Teena, better keep that tucked away-
Something whizzed by the cannon barrel.
Another blur, and a flash of white.
Caution to the wind, Karina scooted forward to witness her hosts drifting lazily on parachutes. Uh oh. She’d assumed they were just going to land again. Who the hells jumps off a ship!?
Desperation demanded she cobble together the skeleton of a plan immediately. The rope around her waist flew into her hands and formed a slipknot. Her eyes darted from one chute to the other; of the two, the fat guys’ parachute was more substantial, and his drifting was a lot more predictable. She heaved one last breath –
And flung herself into the open sky.