Sunday, September 6, 2009

Daily Story 144: Payment Plan

It's always windy at Mile-High Depot, and even this far above the desert there's sand that tries its damndest to get into your eyes. Worse, of course, is when it gets into the gears of your airship and clogs up the works - but there's nowhere else to stop for a hundred and fifty miles. Mile-High is a spire of rock in the dead center of the world's largest and nastiest desert. It rises almost a thousand feet out of that golden sea, topped by long docks like spokes on a wheel. I used to run this trade route before losing it all, and I know how profitable it can be. I know why those docks are always filled with ships belonging to traders or rich travelers... or pirates.

The one I'm looking at is possibly the most beautiful craft I've ever seen - huge black balloon adorned with a skull and crossbones, four big propellers at the back, and two smaller ones halfway up for steering. The railing is damaged around most of the cannon mounts and the cannons themselves are missing, which probably means they hit bad weather and pitched sideways. The captain must have left someone inexperienced at the wheel. Other than that the only problem is the blood, mostly belowdecks. Mutiny.

It might very well be up for grabs because as I understand it there was only one crew member alive when it arrived. Available ships are rare, unless you count the wrecks - at the base of Mile-High there's a graveyard, a tangle of airships dating back a hundred years or more. The sand covers them up one day and then throws them to the surface the next, and if you're optimistic and brave you can climb all the way down and pick at the bones. Somewhere down there is my baby, my pride and joy. The Thunderhawk. It's been a year since the riots that sank her and five others to the desert below but I haven't seen a ship worthy of replacing her until now.

I head back to the three-room jail, hoping that all the social networking I've done over the last thirteen months has been enough. I get there right as the doctor is leaving, sheriff by his side. The sherriff nods at me. "Hello there, Victor."
"Well," I ask, "What's the word? Standard mutiny?"
The sheriff nods and the doctor shakes his head, then elaborates. "Ended that way, yes. They ran afoul of a mad scientist that, in my medical opinion, doused the ship with Leary's Steaming Draft. It's a liquid that fumes up and drives people insane when they inhale it. This poor bastard is convinced that the ship was bombed, though of course you can see there was no damage to the deck. He says the explosions were so fierce that it knocked the brains right out of his crewmates, and when he fired back the cannonball stopped in mid-air, dropped like it had hit a wall."

The sheriff took over, not wanting to be left out of the juicy news. "What probably happened is that they all thought the others were monsters or ghosts or whatever, and most of the crew slaughtered each other. Half of them look like they were bludgeoned to death. By the time the drug wore off there were few enough that a mutiny was pretty much inevitable, especially since all the popular ones were dead. Ended with just three of them, and then while they were throwing bodies over the edge this guy shoved the other two."

The doctor and the sheriff both owe me, but I've never before called in a favor this big. My money pouch is nowhere near heavy enough to buy a ship worth having, but there's this one chance...
"So," I say in my best casual tone, "What happens to the ship?"
"Mutiny isn't exactly illegal when it happens out of my jurisdiction, but I explained the... situation... to the doctor and he was kind enough to testify for the record that Leary's whatever can cause permanent damage and hallucinatory flashbacks. That means for this pirate's own good we need to hold onto him, and auction off the ship to cover our costs. That auction needs to be announced publicly - doctor, I'm in public unless I'm mistaken?"
"That you are, sheriff. I myself am a public figure and I can hear you just fine."
"Glad that's settled. Bidding will start at whatever is in your money pouch, Victor."
My heart is beating through my chest. "I... I bid that much."
"Going once, twice, sold. The doctor and I expect that you'll be heading back this way around the Winter Solstice, do you understand?"

And of course I do - it's a small price to pay. "I think I can promise you'll both have a very happy new year, yes."