Smuggler's Wings

"One hundred grens, that's my final offer." Galland brought the compass down to the wood of the stall with a clack. The trader grimaced and looked to his peers around him. None of them paid any mind to their exchange. Muttering a silent curse the tradesman waved his arms in defeat.

"Fine... it's yours," he muttered, head shaking. "But no small change! I don't want a hundred grens worth of benths weighing down my coinpurse." The bald merchant stretched out his hand and clasped Captain Galland by the wrist to seal the deal. The captain returned his grasp and shook once before reaching into his pockets. Four twenty-five gren pieces clinked softly against the pine.

Seroni, the captain's first mate, stood by his side. Galland cast a glance at her, a redheaded young woman with a penchant for bitter ales and gambling, a wry smile plastered over her face. He raised his eyebrows in triumph. Gentle puffs of wind ruffled his chestnut mane as he returned his gaze to the merchant. Grunting, the trader pushed the compass towards Galland and gestured for him to take his prize.

"And what about you, young lady?" the trader began. "Would you also like to drive a humble trader out of business with extortionate haggling?" He narrowed his eyes at Galland, though the captain just rubbed at his temples. "Pirates."

"Smugglers, actually," Galland corrected, hangover dictating his deadpan reply. "Piracy has never really been my style."

While Seroni browsed the merchant's goods, Galland examined his new trinket. Its beauty had caught the captain's eye as soon as they'd approached the stall. Aged brass covered in delicate engravings formed the shell of the compass and the top unscrewed to reveal an ornate face with a shining needle pointing north. Some poem was etched into the underside of the lid, though the words mattered little to the captain.

Galland tilted his head at the newly acquired treasure. It was stolen of course, they were dealing with Skunk's people after all. How did you find your way aboard the Avril? he mused. What secrets could you tell if you only had a voice? For a moment he stood daydreaming, making up his own story about the previous owner. And then the air was rent by gunfire.

Acting on instinct, the captain dashed to cover, replacing the compass with his Kayle & Carter. With no time to waste, Galland fished out the clip from the inner pocket of his tailcoat and fed the bullets down into the broomhandle pistol.

The black market traders had already sprung into action. The sounds of barked gunfire rung all about the air as the marketeers and other patrons met the threat. Galland peeked over the crates he'd ducked behind. Fos, he cursed. How in the aether did Skunk manage to piss off these lobsterbacks so royally?

Advancing towards the stalls was a squad of New British Empire troops, crimson shirts glowing in the late winter sun as their bolt-actions cracked. Galland ducked down once more and fired a few blind shots over his shoulder as he scanned the scene for Seroni. He caught sight of the redhead crouching by a stall and cradling her sawed-off shotgun.

"Lay down your arms and you will receive a fair trial!" one of the Brits ordered. Galland supposed he was the officer of rank. One of the black marketeers fired a potshot that elicited a colourful array of curses from the man.

A fresh salvo of gunfire fizzed through the air as the troops advanced once more. Movement in the corner of his eye caught Galland's attention. One of the black marketeers wheeled forwards a huge bullet-shield. The captain's jaw dropped. The bald compass trader strode by, shield in one hand and a homemade belt-fed rifle in the other. As the merchant passed the captain he fired blindly at the navy men. When their return shots thunked harmlessly against the thick composite shield they scattered for cover.

"Seroni!" Galland bellowed in the lull. When he met her emerald eyes he gestured towards the gates leading down into the habitation decks. The first mate nodded before scrambling to her feet and dashing towards the gates. The black marketeer and his shield proved an excellent distraction. Galland clambered up and fired a couple of wild shots over his shoulder before taking off after his first mate.

"I saw him buy the compass!" Galland heard one of the soldiers roar. "Don't let him get away!"

Sprinting down the steps leading to the hab-decks, Galland found Seroni waiting for him at the bottom, covering his back with her shotgun. The sounds of gunfire had driven most of the residents inside, though there were a few civilians still meandering through the streets dumbfounded; shootouts were hardly common aboard the Avril.

"They're after the compass I just bought," Galland said after taking a moment to catch his breath. Seroni shot him a quizzical glance.

"The Empire sent the Navy after a compass? You're sure about that?"

Galland frowned. It does seem a little far fetched.

Ominous screams preceded muffled shouts. Seroni gestured for the pair to leave. They took off at a jog along the thoroughfares of the hab-decks. Rounding a corner, the sound of a bullet ricocheting off the iron walkway spurred the pair to move faster. Vague threats followed along with a few hopeful long-ranged shots darting through the air.

"Don't lose sight of the one with the compass!" Came the order from the officer.

"I guess you were right," Seroni said, panting as they sped through the streets.

Galland stayed silent as his feet pounded the metal flooring beneath him. Seroni tapped his shoulder. He turned to see her veering towards a flight of stairs. As they reached the top, more shots pinged off the metalwork around them.

"The docks aren't far now," Galland forced out between breaths as the pair took off again.

"Stay on them! I want that compass!" the officer roared. The captain looked over his shoulder to see the man in the distance. He broke off from the pursuit while two of his goons ran after them.

Although they had no doubt heard the gunfire, the people at the docks hadn't fled indoors. They looked on in bemusement as Seroni and Galland hurtled past them. The captain bowled over a porter carrying a barrel full of salt. The wood split as it hit the ground sending a sea of white flooding over the iron plates of the floor. Barraged by a torrent of curses Galland scrambled to right himself, rising suddenly when Seroni's rough grasp found his collar and pulled him upwards.

"On your feet, Cap'," she breathed. In a heartbeat they were off once more, racing towards their ship.

They emerged from a tunnel separating the trade and leisure docks. Two ship-bays away stood the Hyperion. Galland had never been happier to see that junker. The pair scrambled across the gangplank onto the deck of the Hyperion. Their hasty arrival caught the attention of their navigator, Jaq. When she saw weapons drawn and sweaty faces she sighed before trailing Galland to the bridge.

The captain fired up the ship's engines as Seroni aimed a warning shot that sent the pursuing Navy men ducking for cover. Spooled up and ready to go, Galland disengaged the mooring lines. He relished the reassuring lurch of a vessel in motion. The roar of the propellers soothed his nerves as the Hyperion edged away from the skyport. Wrenched away by the hasty departure, the gangplank tumbled from the sky. Galland took no notice of the harbourmaster screaming over the loudspeakers on the docks.

"What in the aether have you done now?!" demanded Jaq. "What about the crew who were off-ship?"

"Navy stormed the market," Seroni panted as she ascended the stairs to the bridge. She doubled over with hands on her knees to catch her breath. "Looks like we've got something they want. They weren't about asking politely."

"And the crew?"

Seroni opened her mouth to answer, but Galland beat her to it.

"They can find another ship. They'll get over it. Who's left?"

Jaq frowned and growled at her captain's cavalier attitude. Galland ignored the transgression.

"Me," she began. "Edson, Bjorn, Sarah, Bendis..."

"Is that all?"

"I'm thinking! Me. Edson, Bjorn, Sarah and Bendis. James and Erik. Oh! And Cargo, too."

If the captain registered the information he didn't show it. Slamming the thrust lever forwards, he relaxed a little. Now they were on course for a clean getaway.

"Seroni," Galland said. "Round up everyone still onboard and have them up on the weather deck for a meeting."

The redhead nodded but Galland threw the ship into a sharp turn before she had the chance to move.

"Scratch that! Hold on tight," he grunted through gritted teeth as the ship listed. Looming ahead of them was an airship of the New British Empire, it's airbag a brilliant gleaming white slashed with crimson, the Imperial Rose painted on the side for all to see. Wheeling around a whole one hundred and eighty degrees, Galland gave the Hyperion everything she had in an attempt to outrun their pursuers.

"Fos!" Seroni said. "Get us out of here!"

"I'm trying!"

Crackling into life, the bridge radio filled the airwaves with the nasal tones of the imperial officer.

"Captain of the Hyperion. This is the Imperial Navy. You are in possession of imperial property, surrender yourself at once and you will be allowed to stand trial before an imperial court."

"Jaq, kill that imperial noise," Galland sneered as he fixed his eyes on the sky ahead.

The navigator disconnected the speaker. For a few moments an unnerving silence flooded the bridge. Every passing moment it pushed harder against Galland's chest until he thought it might suffocate him.

The captain's head pounded. His hangover from the crew's celebration over a job well done was still biting hard. Gunfights and pursuits were doing him no favours. He massaged his temples and loosened his collar as the silence threatened to strangle him.

An explosive crack filled the air as a rocket from the Navy ship exploded way off to port. Galland flinched and checked over his shoulder. He could hear his blood pumping in his ears. The pursuer's small and slender gondola betrayed it as a scouting vessel, and the captain thanked his stars that it wasn't an imperial warship. His relief was cut short when he noticed the ship growing closer.

"Shit," he hissed. "They're gaining on us."

The captain pushed harder on the thrust lever; a vain attempt, he knew.

"Galland," Seroni chimed. "I've got an idea... Remember that move Royce told us about? What did he call it?"

The captain's eyes flicked towards her.

"The Mad Greco... you think the Hyperion can pull it off?"

Seroni's eyes widened. Galland was silent for a moment before giving a curt nod. He watched the redhead run down the stairs and through the doors leading belowdecks.

"Patch us into the ship-wide channel, Jaq."

Another rocket exploded, this time to the starboard side and far, far closer. Galland raised an eyebrow. Unlike the Navy to give so many warnings.The radio crackled into life once more and Seroni's distorted voice washed over the bridge.

"Nearly in position Cap'," she said. "Give me a port target in five seconds."

Galland took a deep breath as he counted in his head. Three thousand, four thousand... five thousand. With all his might he spun the ship's wheel, grabbing the console for stability as the timbers moaned under the sudden stress. Come on girl, you can do this. Galland willed his ship to turn faster. A rocket fizzed overhead when the Navy gunner realised what was going on, though the shot exploded harmlessly in an open patch of sky.

The Hyperion shuddered lightly as Seroni loosed a handful of rockets from her portside cannon. Galland roared in triumph when the missiles met their marks. The first exploded against the forecastle of the Navy ship, taking out their only forward facing cannon. The second shot mangled the ship's starboard engine. Two more rockets missed their mark as a final shot struck the hull. Splinters and planks spun through the air as the boat began to slow, listing as its ruined engine billowed black smoke.

"Good shooting, Seroni!" Galland shouted over the radio.

With their pursuers crippled, the crew of the Hyperion were free to make their escape. Galland once more manoeuvred his ship, turning east to put as much distance as possible between them, the Avril and their imperial pursuers.

A sigh escaped the captain's lips before he felt himself growing dizzy. He stumbled back a step and shook his head to clear his starry vision before opening the bridge window. He needed to feel the cool air rushing through his hair for a little while.

"Do we have a heading, Captain?" asked Jaq.

Galland thought for a moment, still light headed and short for breath.

"We're going to the Constantinopolis," he said.

The navigator rolled her chair towards her station and began to fish through her charts and maps. Galland left the helm when he saw Seroni emerge from below with the remaining crew of the Hyperion in tow. Descending the steps with one hand firmly clutching the handrail, he watched as the remnants of his crew formed a neatly disorganised line.

"I'm sure you're all wondering what's going on," Galland began to address them, lingering at the foot of the steps. "While trading with Skunk's people we were attacked by a squad of soldiers from the Imperial Navy."

A few of the crew began to murmur at the mention of the Empire's forces.

"It seems that they were after a compass, which unfortunately Galland had just that moment purchased," Seroni chimed in.

"Seroni and I got out of the shootout with our heads still intact and the compass still in hand. I didn't plan on getting arrested or shot today... so that's why we left in such a hurry. Any questions?"

"What about the others?" asked Bjorn, the neoviking helmsman.

"Waiting for them was out of the question. They'll have to find another ship to crew. The Empire has no way of knowing they're connected to us. They'll be fine, of that I'm sure."

The neoviking nodded.

"We're heading towards the Constantinopolis. There's a man there who might be able to help us understand why the Empire wanted this compass so badly. We aren't making any stops along the way, just in-case the Navy is still on our tail. Does anybody take issue with that?"

The crew remained silent.

"Good... you'd be out of luck anyway. Bjorn, you have the helm. The rest of you, as you were."

Galland dismissed the crew with a wave of his hand. The crew dispersed belowdecks again, save Bjorn and Seroni. Galland shuffled along the port gunwale while Seroni waited for everybody to be out of earshot before joining him.

"Do you really think the rest of the crew'll be fine?" she asked. She glanced up at the bridge when Bjorn snapped the window shut.

"Of course they will. They're criminals, not children. Skunk's got a lot of connections on the Avril. They'll find more work in no time."

"Skunk can be real ornery when he has a mind to be. What's to say he isn't going to pin the blame on us?"

The captain simply raised his eyebrows and acknowledged the point. For a while the question hung in the air, unanswered and unwanted. Seroni rummaged around in the pockets of her fur lined military coat for a roll-up cigarette and a box of matches. Using her hands as a windshield, she lit up the cigarette and inhaled deeply of the tobacco smoke.

"Still..." she moved on. Her face lit up. "Did you see that bullet-shield?"

"I know! Skunk's always been paranoid but to have his people so ready for a fight..."

"Maybe we should leave him be a while?" Seroni took a drag of her cigarette.

"Good call."

Changing the subject once again, Seroni asked her captain what was so special about the compass. Furrowing his brow, he took the trinket from his pocket to inspect it once more.

"You know, I really have no idea."

"That's a first." Seroni smirked. Galland grinned at her as he unscrewed the lid.

"Just looks like an ordinary compass to me. A little fancy, perhaps, but still just a compass."

Seroni laughed to herself, the usually perfectly palatable sound now shrill in the face of Galland's splitting headache.

"Maybe it points you towards your heart's deepest desire," she joked. Galland smiled, shielding his eyes with his hand before looking up at the sun as it began to set. He checked the compass.

"Unfortunately not. Just north."

"What if your heart's desire lies north?" said Seroni.

"My heart's desire is to climb into bed and sleep until we arrive at the Constantinopolis."

Seroni snorted at the notion. With the smoke from her cigarette cascading out of her nostrils she looked like an Anubian steam train. The pair stood leaning against the port gunwale for a time. Every now and then Galland thought he might be on to some hidden message in the engravings, but only Imperial Roses covered the brass trinket. Seroni put out her cigarette and flicked the nub overboard before heading belowdecks and leaving Galland to his own devices.

He continued to wrestle with the compass for a while longer before giving up and sliding it into his pocket. With a sigh of defeat he massaged temple and stood idle for a few moments, looking over his beloved Hyperion. He took in the sweet sight of his junker as he stifled a yawn.

Sitting proudly atop the aftcastle was the bridge, and through the window he could see Jaq and Bjorn chattering away. The double doors leading belowdecks sat underneath the bridge, and he frowned as he clocked the left door standing ajar. Don't these people know how to keep in the heat? Over on the starboard side, Seroni's cabin stood next to the mast, mirrored by Galland's cabin on the port side. The gnarled and twisted mast itself rose upwards at a slight angle, woven with rigging securing it to the twin airbags that ran parallel to one another along the ship.

The envelopes were covered in rusty panels of iron that had been salvaged from who-knows-where in a bid to strengthen the ship. Against small arms fire they'd stood up well in the past, but Galland was dubious as to the protection they might offer in the face of the heavier ordnance the New British Empire had at its disposal.

Galland shook his head as he saw the empty crow's nest at the top of the mast. In Galland's time as captain it had never seen any use, owed to the fact that there was no ladder to climb. The perils of buying second hand, he mused. Well. More like fifth.

Shifting his gaze to the lone cannon on the forecastle, the captain noticed the rip in the left shoulder of his tailcoat. He frowned and shuffled out of the heavy woollen jacket to inspect the damage. Damnation. It was difficult to tell if it had happened during the gunfight or when he ran into the porter on the trade docks but, one thing was clear, it needed repairing.

Thoroughly annoyed Galland slunk off into his cabin. Throwing his coat over his chair, he undressed himself and climbed into his bed. The day's events had taken a toll on him, not to mention his celebrations in the tavern the night before. I'll find a tailor aboard the Constantinopolis and then I'll find out why I was nearly killed over a damned compass.