Better Than Gold

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I love to fly more than anything else in life! And sometimes, I like to write too. "Better Than Gold" is a serial-style short story I've been writing for nearly a year now, purely for fun. A new part will be typed and posted here when I can find the time.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Midnight, Part Three

When the tent flap swung open with a leathery rustle Jasper barely raised his head. After two days of captivity on the beach he knew it was only another Brigade pirate come to get in his kicks before Jasper was murdered. He had fought like a cat the first few hours of his imprisonment, which had only got his arms tied behind the post at his back, and his legs lashed together at the ankles and then, when they had run out of limbs to rope, his face smashed in rather badly. Everything after that was just an angry haze with a bunch of fists and boots in it.

Raucous voices whipped into the tent with the sea wind. Jasper set his teeth together. For the past hour or so he had been doing his best to doze between pirates. It was a fitful sleep, full of fear and pain, but as the night drew on and the Brigade grew drunk on wine and rum their punches turned sloppy, their kicks poorly aimed and glancing. The last brute had boxed at a shadow over Jasper’s head before tripping over his bound legs and keeling onto his lap. Jasper had rolled him off in disgust and the man still lay snoring a short distance away, facedown in the sand.

Briny smoke flooded into the tent. Jasper was careful not to stir as he heard heavy feet thump about in the sand. The Brigade were fast becoming more interested in booze than they were with him. Already all of the kegs had been rolled out of the tent. He hoped that this pirate would peer about with bloodshot eyes and then stagger off in search of something a little more intoxicating than Jasper’s bloody face.

One of his eyes was black and sealed shut, but the other slitted open. Leather boots stood in the trampled sand in front of him. They had a distressingly solid stance and didn’t appear to be shambling anywhere. He gave a quiet little groan deep in his throat. This pirate looked sober. The last few boots had been stumbling.

Another sound made his good eye fly wide open. His chin leapt up from his chest and he stared. The giant pirate standing in front of him met his gaze with a cool, calculating look. Steely things hung from his leather clothing.

For a brief instant hope flared wildly in Jasper’s chest as he took in the size of the man and his great shock of bushy red hair. Then he noticed the broad bladed knife the pirate was holding upright in one hand, and the hacksaw in the other and the happy feeling sank back into his gut, where it was quickly doused in a good deal of bile.

Guttering torchlight slid up and down the edge of the blades. Jasper kicked his heels into the sand while his spine tried to crawl up the wooden post.

“Wait a minute!” he shouted, madly twisting his wrists. “Hang on! They said I had until midnight! They said Black was going to- at midnight they said I- wait, wait!”

The pirate advanced grimly. Jasper swung up his bound feet. Tied together with thick rope, they were the closest thing he had to a club.

But before he could strike out the pirate leapt into action, as quick as a snake. Bare blades flashed like fangs and red hair flew up, and the next thing Jasper knew he was flat on his back in the sand, his arms stretched over his head and his feet clamped firmly beneath the pirate’s armpit in a farrier’s grip.

Shining red, the knife hung in the air, then slashed downwards. Severed coils of rope fell into the sand between the pirate’s feet.

Stunned, his heart thudding in his chest, Jasper stared up as the man dropped his feet and stepped back to admire his handiwork.

“That did the trick,” said the pirate as he returned the hacksaw to a clinking bag on his hip. “Right then, arms next.”

“What- what are you doing?” gasped Jasper.

The pirate stepped over his legs and crouched beside him. When he leaned forward to grasp Jasper’s wrists in one big hand Jasper found himself staring up into a great deal of soft chest.

“Getting you out of here,” said the pirate as she sawed at the rope. “You’re young Jasper Bonneweiss, aren’t you?”

Jasper tried to turn his head to put his nose someplace decent before it was smothered. “Yes, but- who-“

The knife snapped up and he felt the taut rope slacken around his wrists. The pirate gathered it up and threw it aside.

“Never mind that,” she said. “Sit up. Rub your wrists. Get some circulation back into your hands and then let’s get the hell out of here.”

Jasper did so warily. Pain shot through his left hand as broken bones scraped together within the bruised flesh, but he bit his tongue and cradled the hand to his chest and eyed the giant pirate woman when she sank onto her haunches and regarded him with a frown.

“I get the knife,” he said. “But why the hacksaw?”

She shrugged. “They used chains last year. Completely stumped me.”

“Last year? You’ve done this before?”

“Yes. What happened to your hand?”

“A boot,” said Jasper sharply. “It might have been a bottle. I’ve lost track.”

“Sorry to hear it. Can you still walk?”

“I can walk fine.” He lurched up to his feet to prove it and sagged against the post. His good eye didn’t leave the pirate woman once as she rose to her feet as well.

“Good, because I don’t want to carry you,” she said. The knife was slid back into a sheathe on her belt and she stepped over to the drunk pirate still lying sprawled nearby. She nudged him with one boot. “How long has he been out?”

“Half an hour, I guess,” said Jasper. “What do we do now?”

“I’m not sure. This is the first time I’ve made it this far.”

“You’re not with them, are you?”

“I’m not with the Brigade, if that’s what you mean.”

Jasper stared at the mass of dirty red hair as she bent down and slapped the cheek of the drunken pirate. Although he knew it was foolish he couldn’t stop the tiny thrill that ran through him at the sight.

“Are you…” he began. “You’re not…?”

“I’m not with the Red Wings either, if that’s what you’re getting at.” She rolled the pirate over onto his back and wrenched at his oilskin coat.

“But you’re dressed like-“

“I must enjoy prowling about in leather. Here, put this on.”

The pirate flopped back into the sand with a snort as the woman balled up his coat and threw it at Jasper. He stumbled forward to catch it with his good hand before it flapped into his face.

“Put it on,” she repeated. “You’ll need some sort of disguise if you’re going to follow me back.”

“Do you really think I can just stroll out of this tent without being noticed?” he snapped.

The woman stood. Jasper took an instinctive step back as she jerked out her knife again.

“Of course not,” she said. “That’s why we’re going to slip out the back instead.”

Ash and sparks drifted past the tent in swirling, glittering plumes. Torches crackled and spluttered. Smoke lay thick in the air, softly aglow with the ruddy light of hanging storm lanterns. Voices whooped from the direction of the beach, and in the wind the palm trees and floral underbrush swayed together with a quiet sighing sound.

Wooden crates and barrels were piled up behind the tent, along with stacks of crudely chopped firewood. Two Brigade pirates staggered up and argued briefly before one of the barrels was tipped over into the sand and rolled away between the tents. The cast iron pots and pans and tankards strung overhead danced and clanged as they were tossed by the wind.

When the pirates were gone the back of the tent made a tentative bulge. It wiggled back and forth a little, and then a bright thorn of metal poked through the leather. With a sawing motion it pushed forward until the whole blade of the knife was visible, and then it sliced downwards in a firm stroke that cut the leather with a sound like slowly ripped canvas. It withdrew back into the tent when it reached the bottom, and after a moment Fran’s face peered through.

“All clear,” she said and stepped out of the slit. “Come on, this way. Mind you don’t knock over the firewood.”

The oilskin coat shuffled out of the tent behind her. It ran into a barrel, swore and held itself against a crate while it pushed its goggles up onto its flight cap with one sleeve.

“This is stupid,” hissed Jasper. “I look like a fool. The minute I step out there with that lot they’ll all turn to stare and we’ll both get nicked.”

“We’re rather low on other options at the moment, if you please,” said Fran. “Just walk as if you’re a little drunk and they won’t look at you twice. And put those goggles back on. I don’t want anyone getting a good look at that black eye you’ve got.”

Jasper grudgingly did as he was told. “Where do we go now?” he said as he lurched to her side. “Have you got a boat hidden somewhere nearby?”

“Something better than a boat, son. Follow me.”

Together they slipped through the thicket of tents, Fran striding in the lead while Jasper shambled at her heels like a hooded leper. Fran had cinched the laces of her vest tightly over her chest and wrapped her bare throat in a mothy old fox-fur; Jasper had taken her advice to heart and put a drunken roll into his step. True to her prediction they attracted no more than a beery glance as they walked amidst the gathered pirates, who seemed more interested in wedging open the dwindling crates and barrels and dragging out the smoked meat within.

“I would love to know how they flew all of this out here,” murmured Fran at one point as they stood and waited patiently for a group of Granger pirates to wheel a drum of oil across their path. “The Brigade must have added a few big twins to their fleet for hauling cargo.”

Jasper didn’t reply. He was too afraid of being recognised to raise either his face or his voice. When a pair of aeroplanes droned overhead only Fran glanced up at them.

“Shit,” she said. “Speaking of planes, there’s Briar now.”

Jasper mumbled something into his collar.

“Black’s plane, that’s what,” Fran told him. “It must be midnight. I wonder where he’s been all this time.”

There was more mumbling from the oilskin coat.

“Calm down, we’re almost at the beach. My friend should already be there waiting by the- hang on, what’s this?”

Fran came to a halt and stared up into the midnight sky. Jasper ran into her back and swore a moment later but she barely noticed it. Her attention was riveted on the pair of aeroplanes circling over the ocean.

She felt Jasper grip her belt and try to push her aside, in vain. “What is it?” he hissed. “What’s going on, why did you stop?”

Fran’s brow furrowed as the two aeroplanes bored into serpentine manoeuvres, flying low and fast above the water. Their wings banked steeply as they spun away from the cove like a pair of bolas, and disappeared into the night. Only the sound of their engines came echoing back, rising and falling in revving tones, the strained roar of open throttles.

“What the hell is he doing?” she said, half to herself.

“Doing what?” said Jasper.

Quite a number of pirates had stopped what they were doing and were staring across the cove now as well. The yelling and laughter died down, until the crackling of the bonfires was the only sound on the beach. Open mouths dripped grease and rum around the fire pits. Many pirates were beginning to climb to their feet with their hands on their sabres.

Fran noticed this with growing unease. With one hand clapped firmly to Jasper’s shoulder she leant down to his ear and murmured, “Walk slowly down towards the edge of the water- slowly! Stick by me and stare up at the sky like you’re watching those planes overhead. Look distracted, no sudden movements, don’t run, and don’t- mother of god!”

Jasper barely had time for a startled yelp before she hurled him into the sand and threw herself on top of him. Before she covered her head with her arms she caught sight of a brilliant orange flash and heard the chattering blast of machinegun fire. Beneath them the ground thudded with a percussion of blows and at her back there was a great whack of wind that tore at her hair as the sky howled with aeroplane engines. All around them the beach erupted in screams.

A minute later a large hump of sand shifted and trickled. It gave an upwards lurch and burst when Fran pushed herself up onto her arms. Sand matted her hair and streamed off her back as she knelt on her hands and knees and choked.

“That crazy idiot!” she spluttered. “What on earth is she thinking?! Are you all right?”

She gazed down at Jasper with belated concern, who lay curled in the sand beneath her. He was huddled up with his arm clutched to his chest and his eyes squeezed shut and making sick noises.

“My hand,” he moaned. “My hand, you crushed my hand!”

“What, the broken one? Sorry about that.”

Tears stood in Jasper’s eyes as he opened them and said between gritted teeth, “What happened?”

Fran looked around. The beach was raked in fire, the sand torn up and littered with glowing cinders. Several of the tents had been blown into splinters and tatters and were well ablaze. An overcast of black smoke and ash hung over their heads and fiery golden flakes swirled through the hot air. The pots and pans swung on their ropes and sent up a clattering, clanging cacophony, and storm lanterns pattered down spilt oil and broken shards of glass.

“Offhand, I’d say we were just strafed,” she said grimly.

“Strafed? What the hell do you mean, strafed? Black is attacking his own men?!”

“He isn’t. I’ll explain later. Come on, get up. We’ve got to get down to the planes before those two bastards turn back for another pass.”

Fran hauled Jasper to his feet by the scruff of his coat and pushed him ahead of her before he could protest. In the glow of the wildfires his face was a ghastly colour, and his goggles flashed with bright flames. He staggered through the ashy sand with his hand cradled under his armpit.

“What is Black doing?” he gasped. “Why did he shoot up the beach?”

“He’s after my idiot partner,” said Fran as she kicked aside some burnt timbers. “She led him down here and he fired on her tail.”

“’Partner’? How many more of you are out there?!”

“There will only be two of us from here on out, I can tell you that.”

“And you came here to help me?”

“That’s right.”

“A hell of a job you’re doing of it!”

Fran said nothing. Nearly being shot had dimmed a little of the rosy glow of victory she had felt from spiriting him from the tent.

A hand seized Jasper by the upper arm. The smoke whirled and a pirate loomed out of it, his face and clothing streaked in soot.

“Get to the planes!” he shouted in a voice hoarse with ash as he shook Jasper fiercely. “Black’s on the radio and he said the intruder is turning back for another run at the beach, and he wants everyone up in the air before- you’re not-!

Fran had lost her knife in the attack but her fist still swung like a bell. It cracked into the angry pirate’s jaw before he could shove his pistol into Jasper’s face and sent him crashing over backwards into a stack of kindling. Jasper was nearly dragged down as well but she tore him free from the pirate’s grip and pushed him away.

“Keep running!” she shouted as two more startled Brigade pirates appeared between the tents.

“Run where?” said Jasper in bewilderment.

“Straight to the water, where they’ve left all their planes! Look for the blue and white seaplane at the end of the row and tell Duke I’ll be there shortly.”

“But what about-“

“Don’t stand there gawping, you twit!” Fran snapped a black cast iron skillet from its tether and hefted it like a mace. “Get moving! Not you, you dirty bastards,” she growled at the two Brigade pirates, who had sized up the giant woman and turned to bolt for better cover. “You stay where I can see you- run!”

Jasper whirled and broke into a clumsy coat-flapping run at her sharp tone. He had just enough time to catch sight of her bushy red hair and scraggly fox-fur flying behind her as she lunged forward and flattened one pirate with the skillet and wheeled into the other before the black smoke whipped up and drove him back. Eyes streaming, he fled.

More pirates appeared as he ran through the camp, but they either didn’t recognise him or were too busy scrambling to their guns to charge after him. Smoke burned in his throat and eyes and torches left fiery trails across his vision as he dashed back and forth, ducking under ropes and dangling crockery in his frantic search for the beach. The tents seemed to spin around him as he eddied through the burning camp, disoriented and stricken with dread. When he finally burst clear of it he didn’t bother to check his bearings but ran madly for the ocean, conscious only of open space and cool air and the quiet crash of waves in the night.

The surf was busy swiping foam on the shore when he skidding to a halt in the wet sand. The row of seaplanes he remembered from the early days of his imprisonment were still anchored there, and they rocked on the waves and tugged at their moorings as he pushed his way through the crowd of shouting pirates gathered in front of them.

A blue and white seaplane floated alone at the end of the row, just as Fran had said. Jasper leapt at it with a sob of relief. The other partner she mentioned was nowhere in sight when he splashed up to the plane, but its open cockpit was a beckoning haven that called to him more strongly than a friendly face could. He grabbed a strut and swung up onto the float, where he was immediately kicked in the face.

“Go find your own plane, matey!” he heard a voice shout before the ocean crashed over his head. “This one is called for!”

Bubbles streamed through his teeth and hair. Jasper thrashed in the water until his clothes were full of silt and then sat up, coughing out dirty brine. Blood gushed from his nose.

“I’m not a pirate!” he gurgled.

“Like hell! Pull the other one, shorty.”

“I’m not! Your friend sent me here!”

There was a pause. “Oh, damn,” the voice said. “You’re not Ja- ah, that boy, are you?”

“Yes! You’re Duke?”

“Yes! Oh, damn! Fran’s going to have my head. Are you all right?”

Jasper probed the bridge of his nose. “No.”

“Dammit! Sorry about that. Here, grab my hand.”

The pilot inside the plane leaned over the edge of the cockpit and stretched down a hand. His dark face tried to smile.

“Climb on in,” he said. “It’s a bit safer in here than it is out there, I’ll wager. Oh lord, yes, because here comes Katie again- quick, get in!”

Jasper was suddenly aware of the distant wailing of aeroplane engines. Before he could remark anything he felt the pilot grab him by the wrist and then his arm was wrenched as he was dragged bodily into the cockpit.

“In, in, in!” said Duke, and he found himself thrown into the rear seat by the back of his belt.

The canopy banged shut on his heels. Both men ducked down as the seaplane began to quiver. There was a deafening roar outside as a red aeroplane buzzed overhead, flying so low that all of the pirate planes in the row keeled over in its wake. The chatter of gunfire following it cut out abruptly as the second aeroplane tore past, lashing the canopy with a spray of saltwater. They heard its guns start up again once it was safely past the last plane in the row.

Duke crawled up from the floor and peered warily over the edge of the cockpit. He watched the two planes jink off down the beach and disappear back into the night sky, where all that could be see were stars and bright yellow tracers.

“That was close,” he said after a moment. “Her passes have been getting lower and lower since all of this started. Black can’t fire on her when she flies over his planes, so she’s been circling around this side of the beach to hold him off. It’s a good plan for her, but it’s playing merry hell on my nerves.”

He paused again. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

Jasper didn’t reply. His nose was on fire.

Duke leaned over the back of his seat and gave him a scrutinizing look. “You don’t look too good, kid. We’d better get out of here and take you back to the inn. Maxine won’t mind lending you a room if we don’t ask her first. Where’s Fran?”

“On her way,” Jasper ground out.

"Scraping with the pirates, is she? She tells me you were once a young Red Wing yourself.”

“Not anymore!”

“I know, I know, cool down, I sort of figured that. I did a fair bit of fighting against the Red Wings myself back in the day, you know. A tricky lot, you were, but a damn sight better than these Brigade villains. Crowe was a devil’s gentleman. Hullo, here comes Franny now.”

Water splashed against the floats. The seaplane rocked and there was a rap on the side of the canopy. Fran’s face loomed in the glass.

“Knock, knock,” she said as Duke pushed it back. “Ah, Mister Bonneweiss, I see you made it.”

“Are you okay?” said Jasper in alarm. Her forehead was cut and streaked blood, soot smudged her jaw and her fox-fur was singed with burnt holes.

“Never better.” The seaplane lurched as she pulled herself into the cockpit and dropped into the rear seat. “We’d better scram out of here quick, my boys. Hawkins is on the other side of the cove and swinging back around for another pass.”

She did a double-take when she spotted Jasper’s face. “Good lord, what happened to your nose?”

“I’m flying us back, am I?” said Duke hurriedly as he settled back and began to prime the engines.

“Yes, you’re better in the flak than I am. Push over, son, or else sit on my lap.”

“What about Katie?”

“Miss Hawkins is on her own as far as I’m concerned. Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll make a run for the clouds as soon as she sees we’re off.”

“There isn’t room for both of us,” protested Jasper as he was mashed to the side by Fran’s bulk. “Look, I’m an aeronautical engineer, and I can tell you right now that a tandem seat aircraft like this isn’t mean to fly safely with two people in the back and its centre of gravity this far aft-“

“It won’t fly safely with a couple cannon rounds in its engines either, which is my more immediate concern.” Fran pointed to the pirates on the beach, who whirled around in surprise and anger when Duchess’ right propeller roared into life. “Mister Bonneweiss, reach down and pull that pistol out of my belt, won’t you? Duke, I can’t believe a man with your background hasn’t put guns on his aeroplane.”

“My customers these days don’t give me enough grief for that, thanks,” said Duke icily.

"Suit yourself. Squeeze over, Mister Bonneweiss, and get ready to cover your ears."

The seaplane shuddered as the second engine fired. Realising its intention to flee the scene several of the brighter pirates on the beach leapt into the surf and waded out to catch its nose. Duke growled and flicked on the landing lights, dazzling them within a cone of radiance. As they keeled in circles with their eyes shielded by their arms he said, “Run them off so I can turn us around, would you, Francine?”

“My pleasure,” said Fran and pushed back the canopy. Howling wind blasted into the cockpit as she leaned out into the slipstream and fired four brisk shots into the midst of the light. Against the roar of the engines the pistol popped like a toy, but the silhouette of one pirate let out a yell and dropped into the water while the others scrambled back onto the beach, jumping awkwardly over the waves like black monkeys.

“Keep them away from their planes!” shouted Duke as he advanced the right throttle. Duchess began a slow turn to the left, her wing fanning over the water in a stately fashion. Fran used the manoeuvre to her advantage by peppering the row of pirate aircraft with pistol fire as the seaplane swung around to face the ocean.

When the empty pistol snapped in her hand she threw it back into the cockpit, and with her red hair whipping over her head she bent down and shouted, “All right, let’s go, Duke!”

Something whizzed over the right wing, dragging a looping tail of sparks behind it. It exploded over the ocean with a punch of light and air that lit up the waves and tossed the seaplane hard to one side. Fran lost her grip and fell back onto Jasper when another blow slammed into the tail. Duchess rocked onto her nose and threw up a sheet of mist.

“Rockets,” said Fran thickly when she had clawed upright again. “Those are bloody rockets! Get us out of here, Duke!”

Duke said nothing as he fought the controls. His face was wet with seawater and sweat and set in an expression of grim concentration.

Another rocket exploded directly ahead of them with a burst of evil black smoke and shrapnel. Smoke flew back against the windshield and was torn into streamers by the propellers. Shards of metal shrieked off the fuselage. But the bang of the rocket was swallowed by a much louder explosion from the direction of the beach, and suddenly the sky behind them lit up with a lurid red glow.

Only Fran whirled around to face it. Her eyes grew wide. One of the pirate seaplanes had leapt up in geyser of fire and was now falling back into the water as flaming debris. Over the lingering echoes of the blast Fran heard the familiar roar and then Red Rum thundered down from the sky, its nose alight in golden flashes as its guns fed a steady stream of machine gun rounds into the row of pirate aircraft. They twitched and danced under the hail of fire and pillars of smoke gushed up, and then the deadly red aeroplane reared back into the sky, tearing through the smoke with its belly lit in gory firelight.

Stunned, Fran sat back and stared at the macabre scene as ash drifted through air and settled on her shoulders like snow. But when more guns cracked from the beach her wits rushed back and she turned and clapped Duke on the shoulder.

“There goes Hawkins,” she shouted into his ear. “Move it or lose it, Diego.”

“I’m going to kiss that girl if she makes it back,” he said, and pushed forward both throttles. Unfettered by rockets Duchess leapt into the waves, and both Fran and Jasper were thrown to the floor as the seaplane began to speed across the cove with a long arrowhead of spray hissing in its wake.

Several rockets chased after its tail but fell short and hammered into the ocean as the blue and white seaplane staggered out of the water and climbed into the night sky. It left behind it a beach strewn with fire, a pack of bewildered, angry pirates, and two duelling aeroplanes, whose aerial battle had already carried them over the smoke and into the cool tranquility of the kingdom of clouds.


Blogger Cibo said...

hee, this was a fun read XD It's amazing that you can fit all of that craziness into a single chapter. It was simple, straightforward and not too bogged down with details, quick and entertaining. :] I like Jasper, he's refreshingly terrified without being a puss about it. And Fran is a showstealer again, haha. XD

3:26 a.m.  

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