Prologue"How did it come to this?" Phinneus said to himself as he stood at the helm of the Northstar. Had it been any other day he would have thought himself mad. He had never flown in broad daylight without some sort of cover. Now he was risking everything.
The wind was blowing at his back and the rigging creaked under the strain. He glanced over his shoulder, the camp was slowly shrinking in the distance. He turned back and locked his eyes on the enormous government ship he was pursuing. A smile ran across his face. He was gaining on them.
It was three weeks since the death of Charles Button. While the curfew was still in effect and it was more difficult to meet in public, at least the random arrests had stopped. Many people had disappeared and homes were randomly searched, even Phinneus had not been able to avoid it. All that was over now.
The Technocrats were using the death of one of their own to seize more power. They had already succeeded in gaining control of more of the textile mills, now controlling over two-thirds of production, and raising the taxes. Not surprisingly, there were few who resisted against it. Despite what success they had, they failed in their attempt on the trains, aqueducts, and White Haven. They wanted White Haven.
Though it had its own corruption, White Haven was generally free from the grip of the Technocracy and the White family still maintained control of the city. Cornelius White may have been an inventor, but his descendants were businessmen. During the Revolution there had been a brief struggle, but the royalty had little to do with the running of the city. Because of this, there was little support for the revolt. The White's maintained their power and, after the Revolution, many fled to the city for safety, including those of the remaining royalty who did not flee to Titania.
After the death of Button, Phinneus had done some research into his past. He discovered that large portions of Button's life had been fabricated. This was done in an attempt to gain favor from the general public. But there was something more. It seemed that it was also done to tie up some loose ends on several highly secretive projects. The only information that could be found indicated that one of the projects was out at the Barroh Camp, a government research facility out past White Haven. Phinneus knew that if he was going to discover more of the truth, he would have to go out to the Barroh Camp investigate.
Phinneus prepared the Northstar. He had decided to sail straight up the Prodigious River in the canyon. Though it would take longer, he would be able to stop at Conwell for information and the river would allow for a quick escape if one were needed.
Of the crew, only Boric knew what their mission was. It was his job to ensure the loyalty of the crew. There had been a few occasions when Phinneus had to make an example of one of them, but in all, this crew was the most loyal that he has had. He knew that they would follow him anywhere, even into death.
They set out from the docks in Argenstrath. Their only stop was to be in Conwell. An altogether unsavory place, but if you needed supplies or information, there was no where better. The trip took three long days, fighting against the current every inch of the way. Mid day had long past when they reached the lower docks. Looking up, one would be in awe of the town. Despite it being populated by thugs and cutthroats, it was a remarkable feat of engineering. The whole town was built on the railroad bridges across the canyon. The next morning, Phinneus began the long climb to reach the town center. Fortunately, there were several water powered freight elevators, which made the climb substantially easier.
Phinneus had been to Conwell many times and had several contacts. He made an appointment to meet with Frederick Welling, a friend who had been able to help in the past. He was not the subtlest man, but he was reliable. Not to mention his many contacts within the House of Engineers. He had a knack for getting information that was not generally known, even to various branches of the government.
Phinneus waited at the agreed location for several hours. At mid day, a man approached and handed him a note. Phinneus was beside himself when he read it. Frederick had been killed. Phinneus had had communication from him the morning he set out. He was probably caught trying to find out about the Barroh Camp. That would mean someone in the Technocracy knew he was meeting with Phinneus.
Phinneus calmly stood up and began to make his way back to the Northstar. He turned a corner, there were three men blocking his way. In the corner of his eye, he saw three more move in behind him. The men were thugs, hired to capture Phinneus. It was the only way to extract someone from Conwell since soldiers from Antiford were not allowed in.
"Phinneus Cromwell?" called the leader.
"Yes." Phinneus replied, knowing that it was pointless to deny it.
"You are coming with us. There are some men who would like to have a word with you."
"I am afraid that I must decline. You see, I am in quite a hurry."
"Do not make this any more difficult than it has to be." said the leader flashing the pistol he had at his side.
Phinneus knew that he was not overly quick on the draw, but he had the advantage of these men not knowing that he was carrying a weapon.
He drew his gun. There was a loud CRACK and the sharp smell of ozone. A bolt of electricity leapt from the gun and landed squarely on the boss' chest. The others stood in shock. They had never seen an electic gun before. Phinneus turned. CRACK! another bolt dropped another thug. Phinneus ran. One of the men, who had more sense about him stood in his way and was drawing his gun. Phinneus planted his fist in the man's face, knocking him flat on his back. He bolted, running towards the elevators.
"Damn!" Phinneus exclaimed. None of the elevators were available and the men were quickly getting closer. He began to run down the long flight of stairs. The men started shooting at him. A flurry of metal and splinters made him nearly miss his footing. Luckily, Phinneus was faster than four men trying to run down at the same time. He reached the lowest dock, nearly a thousand feet from the lowest part of the town to the water.
He had escaped, but he knew that it would not be the last time he was shot at on this expedition.
Phinneus jumped from the platform at the end of the dock onto his ship.
"Untie the ship and move out!" he shouted as he walked below deck.
He slumped in a low chair in the corner of his room. He was exhausted.
"Is everything alright?" asked Boric, entering the room.
"I don't remember the last time I ran that much, I think I need to lose some weight. A thousand feet is a long way down when you are running."
"What about your contact. Did you get to meet him?
"No. He was found dead in an alley last night. I assume the same people that killed him were the ones after me. I don't like the feel of what is happening.
"What do you mean?"
"The men that attacked me were too well spoken and organized to be ordinary mercenaries. I think they were soldiers."
"Soldiers!? What were soldiers doing in Conwell?"
"I don't know. Probably after me. I thought it was a little suspicious that they searched my ship. Some information must have leaked from somewhere. They knew I was coming to see Frederick."
"Should we turn back and forget the mission?"
"No...we have to move forward. Whatever is going on is too big to simply forget. Besides, I doubt very much if the Technocrats will leave us alone."
The North Star slowly made its way up the river. It was two rather uneventful days. At the end of the second day, they were stopped by a cliff. From it issued the river, being fed by the Sand Sea above it.
Phinneus sent a few of his men up the cliff, in a small hot air balloon, to check if the area was clear before he made the ship airborne and take it onto the Sand Sea, or Bokom Peske, as the Vibranni call it.
This was the first time that the North Star had been in quicksand. The ship was sluggish, slow to move, slow to turn. The wind was blowing hard and the masts and rigging were strained against it. Yet, still they seemed to creep forward slower than a snail. The most difficult part of the journey so far was keeping the ship at the proper depth. The sea floor seemed to vary dramatically. Twice in the first hour, they nearly became stranded on rocks and banks hidden by the waves.
The waves of the Bokom Peske are probably the strangest thing about it that is known. One would not think to see four foot swells of sand crashing on the shore or breaking against a hull. Phinneus hung his head. He knew that there would be sand everywhere and that he would never be rid of it. Demetrius began to set behind the Sand Sea. As it did, the red light reflected off of the rippling sand. The whole sea seemed to be ablaze, the waves as if tongues of fire.. I was a sight that none of the crew would soon forget. Even Phinneus, who had seen a lot of amazing things, was mesmerized by it.
With the first light of the next day, they found themselves stranded on a large bank of sand. They were unable to move further, and Phinneus did not want to risk being seen in the air. So, they decided to disembark and continue by land. Phinneus and two others loaded steam bikes and water onto a rowboat. It was a tiring trip to shore, taking over an hour to travel less than half a mile. They were quite happy that they were not going to have to walk the rest of the way.
"I bet that it would have been quicker for us to swim than row" said one of the men as they rested after pulling up on shore.
"Maybe" Phinneus replied. "I would not have wanted to walk with all of that sand in my clothes though."
"And we wouldn't have the bikes" said the other.
The three of them unloaded the bikes and prepared to set off.
KRRKKK! KRRKKK! A buzz went off in Phinneus' pocket. He pulled out a small box and pressed a button on its front.
"You wanted to make sure that it worked, eh Boric" said Phinneus into the box, the men with him giving a bewildered look.
"Is that a problem? I would rather know that this confounded thing worked before you moved too far off" replied Boric. The men looked even more confused.
"How...What?" They said.
"You two work, for me, on a ship that can fly, and you are surprised that I made a device that allows people to communicate by voice over a distance" he said with a confused expression. "Lets go!"
With that, they mounted the steam bikes and set off. It was almost two hours before they reached the camp.
In reality, camp was not a proper term. At one point it was a camp used for research on the desert and its wildlife. Now it was more of a complex used for military research. It was a series of large buildings and warehouses. Back in Gearford, a research camp sounded more innocent than military complex. The security was tight. There were towers and spotlights every two hundred, or so, feet. On the towers were large guns. Inside there was a small army, ready at a moments notice to take care of any problem that arose.
There was one saving grace for those looking to break into the camp. There were no walls, not even a fence. It seems they feel the towers are enough to keep people out, and a small wall or fence would not be able to keep out skuttlekovy or goblins for long.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent planning how they were going to enter the camp. They decided that the cover of night would be the best time to go. They watched the guards from behind a large dune as the sun began to sink into the west. It was now time to enter the camp.
Phinneus had smile on his face. He was thinking that it was going to be easier to break in than he had previously thought, when he felt something pushing against his boot. He glanced down. A dark brown think was trying to climb up onto his boot. It was a skuttlekovy and though it was only a foot long, it was more than enough to kill him. Phinneus bit his tongue and the others watched in a silent panic as he grabbed the shell and lifted it off his leg. Its spiny tail began wildly swinging. On its underside, its legs were kicking and making a clicking sound that was not unlike a swarm of insects scurrying across the floor. Phinneus tossed the creature as far as he could. It hit the sand with a thud and proceeded to run around in circles until it finally buried itself. Phinneus was concerned. He knew that if he saw one skuttlekovy, there were likely hundreds more. The one he tossed was small, meaning that there were probably much larger and more dangerous ones around. Despite the danger, it gave him an idea.
He sent the other two in opposite directions on their steam bikes. When they entered the view of the towers, they revved their engines. This served three purposes. First, it drew the attention of the towers, creating a blind spot. Second, it drew out a large number of guards. Finally, it stirred large swarms of skuttlekovy, which further distracted the guards. Phinneus then saw his chance.
He sneaked into the camp behind a row of sand skimmers. Two guards approached his position. He forced a door on a huge warehouse without anyone noticing and hid from the guards inside. Looking around, he found himself in an office. Papers and schematics were strewn about, he was surprised at the mess. Rummaging through them, he found schematics for a new type of airship. At the bottom of the page was a file number and Button's signature. He went over to a stack of filing drawers and found the one that matched the number on the designs.
It was locked. He forced the drawer with a metal stool that he found in the corner. The drawer contained more sketches and schematics. In addition, he found what he was looking for. They were orders directly from Button. He was raising a force to move on and capture White Haven. The orders indicated that the new airship would be the critical part of the attack. However, the orders only called for a single airship. Phinneus was confused as to how one airship was going to accomplish such a mission.
Phinneus jumped! Someone outside the window on the far side of the room had dropped something heavy. He crammed the orders into his pocket and moved toward the window. Cracking open the blinds, he peered out though the window. The window looked out onto an enormous room. There were bright spotlights and work crews moving around busily. What they were working on had Phinneus staring in awe.
It was the new airship and it was enormous. The airship itself was over fifteen hundred feet long and more than five hundred feet in diameter and filled with helium. The balloon was armored and had nine machine gun turrets on top. The gondola was large enough to fit five hundred fully armed troops and several landships. The gondola was also armed with a dozen more machine gun turrets and six heavy guns. Phinneus could now see how one ship could conquer a city, the North Star could probably fly around inside the balloon.
The door to the office opened. Two guards entered the room, they were talking and did not notice Phinneus. He drew his pistol. CRACK! One of the guards dropped. Another crack of the gun and the other guard fell to the floor, but not before he was able to trip the alarm. The siren was blaring. Phinneus bolted out of the room. More guards were running towards him. He fired several shots at them before continuing his escape.
The moons were rising, Adele was full and high in the sky. Lilith was a crescent and just peaking over the horizon. A strong wind was blowing from the Sand Sea. Phinneus did not have time to get back to his steam bike. So, he grabbed one of the sand skimmers, opened its sail and took off over the dunes. The guards following him did not just give up like he would have hoped. They took the remaining four sand skimmers and shoved off after him.
The wind was blowing so hard that Phinneus did not hear the shots being fired at him until he saw pieces flying off of his skimmer. He was too busy trying to keep stable that he was unable to shoot back. Phinneus turned hard to port and took the skimmer up a dune. The others were closing in on him. He hit the top of the dune and launched into the air. While in the air, he could see objects on the ground moving. It was skuttlekovy, probably the same ones that were stirred up by the earlier diversion. He thought that a small one was bad enough, now he would be sailing in a sea of them.
Phinneus landed among them. The wind was blowing hard enough that he was able to steer and avoid them. The others following him were not so lucky. Being heavier, instead of landing on top of them, they went careening into them. The first two were swarmed and destroyed. The third managed to evade a few of them before impacting on one that was nearly twenty feet long. The remaining one managed to stop before the top of the dune. They watched as Phinneus darted back and forth, dodging and evading the skuttlekovy.
Then, Phinneus shot out into open sand and took off across it. He was going to meet back up with the North Star and decide what to do about the discovery he had made.
The sun was beginning to rise when the sandskimmer slid up to where the boat had been left. Phinneus could see the Northstar out on the Sand Sea. He looked around. The row boat was no where to be seen. KRRKKK! KRRKKK! The small communicator buzzed in his pocket.
"Boric, Where's the boat?" Phinneus asked, in a bit of a panic.
"It is back here." Boric replied. "The others returned and they were a bit shaken from the skuttlekovy. We will send a boat to get you."
"I don't think that will be necessary. I have a sandskimmer and should be able to make it back. See you soon."
Phinneus was actually looking forward to taking the skimmer out on the Sand Sea. While it was built for use on the ground, it was also well suited for the water. Or at least something close to water. He tightened the ropes, secured the sail, and shoved off. It handled much differently than he thought it would. Faster and more manuverable that the row boat, but not nearly as nimble as it on the dry sand. Clearly it was not designed like a typical boat. Phinneus thought to himself that he would not mention that he had thought it was a good idea to try it on the sea.
He had not shown it much in recent years, but he still had the heart of a scientist. That meant trying things that sometimes have less than fortunate outcomes. Sure, he had invented things and conducted experiments, but they were done in private. Only Boric really knew what he was like. He would still occasionally tell Phinneus that if any of the crew knew what he was really like, they would probably not be capable of taking him seriously.
He pulled the skimmer up to the starboard side of the ship. Ropes were tossed down. He secured the vessel before releasing the sail. Then the skimmer was pulled aboard.
"It was not a very good idea to bring the skimmer onto the Sand Sea. It was not designed for it." said Boric, greeting Phinneus.
"I know, but it was quicker than waiting for a boat to come out to me." responded Phinneus, knowing that Boric did not fully believe his reasoning.
"What are your orders?"
"Things are a bit more complicated than we thought. Follow me."
The two of them went below deck. Phinneus handed Boric the documents that he had taken from the warehouse.
"They are planning to attack White Haven." said Phinneus.
"With only one?" Boric replied.
"They have been working on it for the last eight years, every precaution was taken. The ship is extremely well armed and it is huge, almost fifteen times the length of the Northstar and more than eight times as tall. When it is complete it will be more than enough to take of the fleet guarding the city."
"Should we warn them?"
"No. It is my intention to destroy it before it is completed."
"How do you plan on that? The camp is heavily fortified. We would never even get close."
"The airship is functional and has some weaponry. However, according to the papers that I looked at, they are still about six months away from their operation. We may be able to tempt them out."
Phinneus took off through the door and up the stairs.
"Bring up the anchor! Fasten the sails! Extend the fins! Prepare for air travel!" He shouted.
The men on board ran about busily. Tying down crates and barrels. Climbing ladders to ensure the sails were secured. A loud WOOSH followed by a CLANG meant that the fins on either side of the ship were out and secured. The watery sand around them began to roil. Slowly, the ship lifted out of the water. A gust of wind pushed against the sails and fins and carried it into the sky. The wind was blowing strong. Phinneus hoped that this would give him the advantage.
They approached Barroh Camp. Boric and the others stared in awe at the size of the complex. They had all heard stories of the researchers having had nothing but tents in which to work. The towers had spotted the ship. Two small airships were launched to intercept him. They moved in closer rifle shots whizzed through the air, missing their targets purposefully. When the ships pulled alongside the North Star, Phinneus gave the order. On either side, hatches were lifted and the cannons were fixed in place. The North Star opened fire. The cannons were very much like the small pistol that Phinneus carried. Large arcs of electricity leapt from the North Star to the other ships. Ropes snapped, the hulls ignited from the heat. The crews of the ships went mad trying to put out the fires. Then, on one of the ships the balloon caught fire. It began to quickly deflate and the ship plummeted toward the ground. It was not long before the other ship came to the same fate.
Phinneus began to circle the camp. His plan had worked better than he thought. The roof of the warehouse containing the monstrous airship began to retract. The ship began its ascent. His crew stopped their tasks and just stared at it. They had never seen a ship so large. They became afraid, not knowing how they would even get close to destroying it. Phinneus jerked the ship. They all snapped back to the work at hand. He brought his ship around and began his approach. The enemy was beginning to turn. It was so large that to do so, it needed to be out in the open air, in this case, the Sand Sea.
He closed the gap quickly, but not before they saw him. The automatic guns on the top opened fire. The bullets tore through the sails and chipped away at the wooden hull. Phinneus swooped in and broadsided the turrets. While they were not destroyed, they were now unmanned and parts of them were ablaze. He turned and once again opened fire. Some of the rigging of the enemy ship snapped, but the armor seemed to be able to withstand the impact of the electricity without much damage.
Now it was their turn. The large guns, on the underside, fired. Only one had impacted. It tore through the sail and decimated the top of one of the masts. The top of the mast fell off the ship and was taken by the wind. It was still attached by the rigging and was pulling the North Star along with it. The crew hurried to cut the ropes and let the top mast loose. The North Star was now a little slower with the loss of a portion of sail. It was still significantly faster than the enemy.
Phinneus was once again on the offensive. He moved in and opened fire on the underbelly this time. Two of the enemy guns were now out of commission. He swung around again, and again broadsided the ship. Part of the envelope was now on fire. While it would not burst entirely ignite like the others, it would introduce leak that would hopefully force it to land.
It was then that one of the crew noticed something strange. He called out and pointed. Phinneus looked. His brain knew what was happening but it had not told his body to move. A jet of fire was spewing out of the hole that the fire had made. He came to his senses. The ship jerked as it turned around and tried to make off as fast as possible. The fire began to engulf more of the balloon.
"The fools...they used hydrogen for the balloon. I hope we can get away in time." Phinneus thought to himself as he steered through the air currents trying to escape.
The Canyon was now in view. They all turned to see the enemy vessel. Even from this distance they could see the brightness of the flames that burnt. Then it went up. The ship exploded. Fire shot in all directions for a half of a mile. The men cheered. They had won.
A thunderous crack. The ship lurched Splinters filled the air. The North Star began to list. Phinneus turned the helm hard to port, trying to maintain control. It began to fall in towards the canyon. The starboard fin hit the wall. The canvas tore like tissue paper and the wooden beams snapped like toothpicks. Then the hull hit. Everyone was thrown across the ship, several fell into the canyon. Phinneus attempted to lessen the angle that the ship was descending at. The scraping of the wood, the splinters and rocks in the air. Phinneus was terrified. He had not been so scared since the Goblin raid before he met Boric.
A explosion came from beneath. A massive discharge of electricity burst through the hull and caught it on fire. The sails began to burn. The wood splintered and cracked, the rigging went loose. On the port side, the fire and explosion caused the Phinneus braced himself, even though he knew that there was little chance of surviving. The ship hit the canyon floor in a pile of burning rubble.
Phinneus awoke to find himself not where he remembered being. He was in another ship, but not as a prisoner. He sat up in the bed and looked around. His head was pounding and his arm was in a sling with a crude splint. From a small hole in the wall, a small creature popped its head. Phinneus and the creature stared at each other for what seemed like minutes. Then the creature, it turned out to be a land octopus, leapt from the hole, squirmed across the floor, climbed up the bed and perched next to his head.
"He won't hurt you" said a voice from the doorway.
"Who are you?" asked Phinneus, staring back and forth between the octopus and the door.
"I am Alexander Nolan, Captain of the Gazelle. You must be Phinneus Cromwell. I have heard a few stories about you in the last couple of days. I wonder how many are true?"
"They are true enough" said Phinneus, shifting his weight and wincing in pain. "Where am I?"
"You are on my ship. Yours is in need of some serious work. And by serious work, I mean that it will never fly again. It is nothing more than a pile of planks and fabric."
"Were there any other survivors?" Phinneus asked, depressed at the loss of his ship and probably.
"Yes, twelve. My companion Rilain is looking after them now."
"What about Boric? Is he alive? He is half Yeti and half Nakalo."
"Yes. He seemed to fair the crash better than the rest of you. He is searching through the wreckage looking for something."
"How long have I been unconscious?"
"Only a few hours since we found you, but it has been about a day since your ship went down. I must ask. Were you responsible for the large explosion over the desert the other day?"
"Yes. It was a ship of Antiford too. Is it going to be a problem?"
"None at all. I live on this ship and in Conwell. I don't have much stake in the goings on in Antiford."
"Are you able to take me back to Conwell with you?"
"Yes. Where will you be going from there?"
"To White Haven. There are some things that I need to discuss with the Mayor."
"Very well. Get some rest. We will be in Conwell by morning."
Nolan left the room and closed the door. Phinneus was thinking of what he was going to tell the Mayor about the troubles at Barroh camp and the treachery of the Technocracy. He found it difficult to go to sleep. His mind was racing and the little land octopus was still staring at him. Eventually, Phinneus drifted off, not knowing where the winds would take him now that he was without a ship.