Arnett had reached the edge of Astam Junction. He was walking quickly trying to avoid anyone's eye contact.
That's when she appeared.
A woman stepped out from behind a sign at the edge of town. She blocked his path, and made nervous eye contact with Arnett. Arnett sighed when he realized this wasn't an accident, and after weighing his options, he decided to continue on ahead anyway.
"Are you Lieutenant Joel Arnett?" she asked.
"Who's asking?" said Arnett, "I don't really have time."
"You are, aren't you?" she asked again.
Her eyes widened, and they seemed to shimmer slightly as he walked closer. Arnett came to a stop, sighing again.
"P-Please," she said.
"Look, Lieutenant Arnett has had a bit of a long day," Arnett started, "I'm low on everything except fuel and I need a job. So I'm sorry, but I-"
"Job!" she said, almost a little too forcible.
Arnett just looked at her as she struggled to think about her words.
"I am desperate," she said, her demeanor calming, "I have a job for you. I need you to take me somewhere."
Arnett sighed for a moment, looking the girl right in the eye, "Where?"
"White Haven," she says.
Arnett nods, "I see. Running away from home, are you?"
The girl didn't say anything. Arnett grumbled to himself before walking right past the girl.
"I don't do passengers," said Arnett, "Get a train ticket, kiddo."
The woman watched as Arnett walked passed. Her hand shot into her purse, but she hesitated, looking around and at Arnett who was walking away.
"I can pay," she said, "It's a full job. I can pay the Scorpios II rates!"
Arnett was frozen in his tracks. He was squeezing his eyes shut. He counted to ten and opened his eyes. He turned back to her, giving her a polite smile.
"That's expensive for one woman."
"My father will see to it you are paid handsomely," said the woman, "I am familiar with your work. I know what I am asking."
Arnett just sighed again, before nodding his head, "Alright, how quickly can you be ready to leave?"
"I am ready," she said.
Arnett shot her a worried glance, "What? Where is your luggage?"
"I need to get there," she said, "All I have, I have with me."
Arnett nodded, "Alright. Come on."
Arnett turned and headed towards the ship. He didn't listen behind him, but he could hear her sigh of relief and her rushing to keep pace with him.
Just outside of town, Arnett led the woman around a mound of dirt, where he walked into a small divot leading to a dug out bulkhead door. Arnett twisted the bulkhead door lock and opened the door, gesturing to the woman.
"Welcome aboard, the Scorpios II," said Arnett, "Miss...?"
"You may call be Gwendolyn," said the woman, who crossed her arms, "What are you playing? Where is the Landship?"
Arnett shot a confused look at her pack she had acquired from somewhere, but rolled his eyes and did a bow and a swing of his arms towards the bulkhead. When she didn't move, showing absolute confusion still, Arnett sighed and just walked into the bulkhead, disappearing into the darkness.
She hesitated, but eventually followed him in at the sound of a match being lit. Arnett had lit a lamp, and was stepping closer to another lantern light it as well.
"This is your ship?" asked Gwendolyn, "Is it crashed?"
"I thought you were well aware of the Scorpios II?" said Arnett, a smug smile showing on his face, "I'll be back, I got to start up the engines."
"They aren't on already?" asked Gwendolyn.
Arnett paused, giving her a steady look, before shaking his head and disappearing into another room. A moment later the Landship started to him. Gwendolyn heard some banging but didn't go to investigate. Arnett reappeared, a small amount of coal dust on his person. With some time to spare, he sat down on a box with his lantern.
"So," he started, "We have a little bit of time while the boilers heat up and the Scorpios II is mobile again. Your father is in White Haven?"
Gwendolyn nodded. She chose to stand on the other side of the small room by the other light Arnett had lit. Arnett waited for more, but realized he wasn't going to get anything further out of her.
"What brings you to Astam, then?"
"I honestly would like to not talk about it," said Gwendolyn.
"Alright," said Arnett, "Is there anything you would like to discuss?"
"Is this it?" she asked, "Where are the others?"
"Your crew?" she asked.
Arnett sighed before shrugging, "It's just me. There is no crew. Not right now, anyway."
"Not right now," said Arnett.
"Where have they gone?" asked the girl, before her face went pale, "Are they dead?"
"There wasn't much of a crew to begin with," said Arnett, "My last few crew mates are just, gone. I... let them down and they had to take care of themselves."
"Doesn't seem like a good crew," Gwendolyn responded.
"They are the best," said Arnett.
Arnett rose and walked across the small room. He entered another area, stepping up two steps and taking a seat in the pilot's chair. He twisted valves and allowed the heated steam from the boilers to fill the various parts of the ship. The engines shuddered. The metal hull moaned with the effort.
But it was enough. The boilers had run just long enough for steal to begin filling the legs' pistons. The hull shuddered once more, and the ship began to rise. He could hear the woman give out a quick cry of surprise, and he chuckled to himself.
The sand fell away from the windscreen. The small amount of light filled the cockpit as they rose from the sand. Arnett hadn't felt this sensation in weeks. Maybe a month or two.
It was good to be back.
Arnett grabbed a hold of the throttles and pulled back. The legs took their first tentative steps, and the Scorpios II started off, away from Astam Junction.
They had traveled all day. The Landship had gone up to full speed. Arnett kept the railroads in sight as he directed the landship deeper into the desert. Cacti diminished. Mesas gave way to dunes. Rocks and dirt to more sand. The Istoki changed colors from an orange in the sunset to an almost-blue in the moonlight of the Moons.
It was bright, and you could see for miles. The railroads kept stretching into the horizon, and the Landship sped up to follow them.
Arnett locked the throttles into place. He had evened off their path and didn't want to burn too much fuel on a little extra speed. That would not help them get to White Haven.
He laid back in the pilot's seat, starring up at the stars. He wondered how long it had been since he was sober enough to recognize the stars. Or eaten. When had he last eaten?
His mind was back to his ship. He wondered if he had any food on the ship or if it had spoiled during his time in Astam Junction. He wondered if that woman had brought anything to eat. She wasn't carrying much on her—
A faint clinking of metal on the floor. Arnett's heart leapt. His eyes were wide open. He wondered what had snapped his attention. Metal? Was it a bullet casing hitting the ground?
Arnett reached for his revolver as he—
He didn't have his revolvers! His heart beat even faster. His father! His father had taken them. His mind raced. His gun locker wasn't far away. There used to be an emergency derringer under the gunner's seat, but he had never replaced it since the pirate attack with Nina. Did he have any guns lying about? He had spent at least a week in town, he couldn't remember.
Arnett rose from the seat and crept quietly into the back of the ship. The room was dark. The lantern had been turned low. Where was the girl?
"Hey," Arnett said, almost a murmur.
He could feel his voice fill the empty space. He heard a small gasp. He desperately tried to have his eyes scan the room. He wondered if he could make a dash for his weapons locker. Or should he get the girl first? He wouldn't be much use to her defenseless.
His eyes spied the still-open bulkhead. He had left it wide open, and exposed them. He eyed the room for any figured.
He had only taken a step into the darkness when he heard it. The distinctive click. A hammer being drawn back in a revolver. His eyes moved sideways. A figure stood in the dark. A bulky form. Arm raised, pointing a gun right at him.
It took Arnett's eyes a moment to adjust. That's when he noticed the form was that of a woman in a dress. Specifically, his passenger.
"Easy, it's me," Arnett said.
However, there was no relief in his voice. He could see by the clenching of her jaw and the shimmer in her eyes she knew very well it was him.
Arnett couldn't tell if that was a question or a statement.
"Where is he?"
Arnett slowly raised his hands. He squared off to her, eyeing the gun. It was a revolver. Looked hefty enough. Scuffed, but solid enough. It could probably put a nice hole right between his eyes.
"Where is Joseph Abbott?" she asked, her voice almost cracking at the name.
Arnett's heart felt like it stopped pumping, and never stopped pumping at the same time. The world stopped, dead. His blood ran cold, but his face flushed hotter then a furnace. His raised hands balled into fists.
"Who the hell are you," Arnett spat through clenched teeth.
Her voice was a pleading whisper. A single tear fell down her face. Arnett was unsure of the answer he could give that would get him out of the situation alive.
However his mouth seemed to think for itself as he said "Dead."
She gave the softest of inhales at the word. Her eyes never left Arnett's. The gun barrel only wavered once, to Arnett's chest, before a correction.
"Outside Gearford. Istoki Desert, somewhere," said Arnett, his throat tightening, "I don't actually know for sure."
She swallowed. Her hand began to shake a little. Arnett eyed the gun. Her finger wasn't just on the trigger, it was slightly pulling it. He blinked, and looked to her again.
Now it was Arnett's turn to swallow. Or try to. His throat was dry. Dry enough to threaten him with a cough. He took long, deep breathes through his nose, which threatened to crack and bleed with the lack of humidity.
When he spoke, it was a horse whisper, loaded down with memory.
"Pirates," said Arnett, "He was fighting them off. There was nothing I could do. One minute he was there—"
When the girl blinked, tears streamed down her face. She caught a sob in her throat, making only a hurt choking sound. The revolver was shaking.
"Please," said Arnett, opening his palms in surrender once more, "Put the gun down."
Her eyes blinked again.
This time Arnett took a small, measured step towa—
The hammer slammed down on the gun and snapped Arnett out of his trance. A moment of silence, and Arnett realized the gun had not fired.
He lurched forward, his right hand striking at the barrel of the gun and his left clamping down on her wrist. She let out a wail of a sob, trying to pull the revolver back down at him. In a swift jerk, Arnett had gotten the revolver from her hands.
She fell to the floor.
Arnett gasped, holding the gun in his hands now. He opened the breach, peering into the revolving chambers. It wasn't fully loaded, a few bullets were scattered unevenly in chambers, leaving empty chambers between them. Arnett could see the hammer struck an empty chamber. She must have turned it to a chamber she thought was loaded, and it spun to an empty one when she pulled the hammer back in anticipation.
Ameture. But he was almost shot.
"You... almost shot me," said Arnett, trying to find words.
"I knew it," sobbed the woman, "I knew it!"
"Who are you?" said Arnett, closing the breach and aiming the pistol at her, "Shoot me on my ship? Who the hell are you!"
"You killed him," she sobbed.
"I didn't, I didn't," said Arnett, "I watched him die. It killed me. Are you a wife? A lover? A girlfriend? Who are you!"
He barely saw the hit. As his shin lit up with pain, Arnett noticed the woman bashing him with a wrench she had grabbed on the ground. Amidst a curse, Arnett tried to keep from falling over as the pain shot up his leg and into his pack. Her hand reached for the gun, and Arnett yanked it away.
The wrench came back around, and this time Arnett leapt out of the way. However, he tried to aim the revolver at her in intimidation and instead it was sent sailing across the room, bullets sprinkling the floor.
Arnett looked down at his hand, a handle left. The barrel and revolving chambers were missing. The gun had shattered. He threw it halfheartedly at the woman, who was attempting to rise with the wrench.
"I will avenge my brother. His killers will pay for what they—"
"Already dead," said Arnett, his hand rubbing his bleeding shin, "I already did the whole 'hunt them down and kill them' thing."
The woman stopped, and she allowed the wrench to fall to the ground. Arnett hobbled away from her, hand over his shin.
"Sister?" Arnett finally asked.
The sobs began to die down. The woman just sat on the floor. Her eyes were puffy and her mouth was left open. All sign of her former rage had melted away. She stared ahead.
"Gwendolyn Abbott," she finally whispered, "My brother is dead."
Arnett fell to his good knee. He looked at her, surprised.
"Sister," he repeated, almost like a curse, he closed his eyes and shook his head, "Abbott…"
Gwendolyne Abbott shivered where she sat. She grasped the mug tightly with both hands. She glared down at the liquid inside.
Arnett, now armed, reentered the common area from the cockpit. He had just brought the landship to a stop and he contemplated his options.
"This tea is atrocious," she croaked.
"Good," said Arnett, before blinking in confusion, "Tea? That's water."
Gwendolyne looked revolted at the cup, "You should really filter it out of the water condensers."
"I do. There's a filter."
She turned her look of disgust to Arnett, "Clean your filter!"
"Hey, no suggestions from Assassins!" said Arnett, "Not while I'm thinking."
There was silence as Arnett paced back and forth. Gwendolyne watched him uneasily. She listened to the distant hiss of steam and creaking of the ship.
"What are you thinking so hard about?"
"What to do with you."
Gwendolyne nodded, "Not going to dump me into the desert?"
"The sun has set," said Arnett, "It'll be freezing soon. You'll turn into a murdersicle before morning."
Gwendolyne's eyes narrowed, "And the fact there are animals and beasts and murderers out there."
"You'd fit right in..."
"And no water."
"You hate my water anyway," mumbled Arnett, "It's not really my concern..."
"You don't do that," said Gwendolyne, "You don't abandon people."
"I usually bury people who try to kill me," said Arnett, "No one would ever find your body out this far..."
"You owe me."
Arnett snapped around. His brow was furrowed in anger now and he pointed across the small room at her.
"You tried to shoot me!"
"The gun wasn't loaded."
"You. Didn't. Know. That."
"You killed my brother!"
"I did not," yelled Arnett, "I did everything I could. How dare you.."
"How dare I? How dare you!" yelled Gwendolyne, "We waited for weeks."
"I wrote when I did. I sent a care package."
"You brought the worst of the worst to our family!" said Gwendolyne, standing up, "He was your charge when he left!"
"He was an adult man like any other. He knew what we were getting into."
"You could have done more-"
"Don't you believe I don't know that? Don't you think I wouldn't give anything for it to be me? Do you know how much I would've traded her life for his? My life? I would never have let us get involved-"
"Empty gun!" shouted Arnett.
Arnett turned and kicked a box as hard as he could. He yelped in pain at the cracking of wood. His foot had splintered the crate. He cursed under his breath as Gwendolyne placed the mug down on a different crate.
"So... I'm not being cast into the desert?"
Arnett glared at her, but in the end he sighed, "No. Despite my best judgement, I am afraid I will not just dump you into the desert."
Gwendolyne allowed a few more moment of silence before continuing, "So what is to become of me?"
"That's what I'm thinking about," said Arnett threw gritted teeth, "Sadly, we're too far out from Astam to turn back. That and I don't want to..."
"But I have no-"
"Money, yes. So I checked," said Arnett.
"You went threw my things?"
"You tried to shoot me," said Arnett, "Either way, my path does still lead me to White Haven. "
"There's a bunch of towns between here and there," said Gwendolyne.
"And I dump you into the wrong one with no money, food, or weapons I might as well dump you right now," said Arnett, "So that's out."
"Why is White Haven any different?"
Arnett smiled, "You asked to go there. You get a job picking cabbage in the light of Dimitrious for a few days and you have a Ciam or two to get your butt home."
"I don't have a home to return to."
Arnett smiled like someone who just heard terrible news of a nemesis, "Not. My. Problem."
"What of the meantime?"
Arnett crossed his arms and stared into the middle distance of the cockpit. After a moment or two, he walked toward them, pointing at her.
"You will do nothing. You will touch nothing. You will eat as little as possible and not scoff at my water."
Gwendolyn's nose scrunch in disgust.
"I don't want you sneaking up on me," said Arnett, "And your hands touch iron again, I'll put you down and dump you into the sands for the buzzards."
Arnett stepped up into the cockpit, settling into the controls again, he adjusted valves and tested the controls, throwing the Scorpios II back into motion.
"You're not going to sleep?" Gwendolyne asked from behind.
"I try not to close my eyes around murderers," said Arnett, "But until I can be rid of you, this Landship isn't stopping. You and I part ways in White Haven."
Arnett jerked the controls, causing the Scorpios two to launch suddenly. He listed as Gwendolyn gave a start, and the sound of her falling reached his ears. He smiled and chuckled. That smile melted when he heard the sound of a shattering mug hitting the floor.