1. any grouping of people united by familial bonds, customs, traditions, or fealty to a particular leader.
As she whirled like a dervish of shining steel death, locked in mortal combat, Jesse was pondering word choice.
The difficult part, she'd determined, was picking between whether the last two days had been distasteful, or pleasant.
...it was always the medium-scoring words, when Jesse wanted to apply an adjective. Distasteful. Repugnant. Unsavory. For the flipside, although more rarely used in her experience: Adequate. Congenial. Distinguished. It was a speech habit she'd picked up from her former mentor, Ex-Archmagus Lilith... using formal but simple wording when you want to describe something, to maintain your aloof status without dipping into the deepest pits of vocabulary which would simply befuddle your enemies. You didn't want your enemies befuddled. You wanted them terrified. Preferably to their very core.
Without a fancy descriptor to stick to it, Jesse was, at the core, trying to decide if she was happy or unhappy. This was not how she'd pictured her honeymoon. It had been two laborious years of full noble courtship, which Gilbert either put up with or enjoyed. The wedding was more or less exactly as she'd envisioned. Therefore, the obligatory week long ceremony of love and delight in newfound one-ness should have followed.
And while they had managed to squeeze a bit of that in, it was while squeezed in a little ship cabin and squeezed in with a number of disreputable persons or strangers or both. In the middle of it all, they were sabotaged, nearly killed, and worse... nearly had to abort the mission.
After that, the gentle aspects of the honeymoon went on hold. Jesse was focused, now; she'd spent hours working in the great hall of the Clockwork Mermaid with Gilbert's fencing instructor apparatus, a terrifying array of blades and arms and gears and hydraulic pressure valves which in the end provided an adequate opponent. Adequate, that was, after she'd repeatedly asked him to upgrade the thing with more and more dangerous implements. Even with constant amounts of horror added to it, Jesse had overcome each challenge with ease.
Therein lie the problem. Now, they were on a war footing, ready to make landfall on the shores of northern Africa. The mission was go. She was spending her time preparing her digital spellbook, keeping her combat abilities as sharp as her blade, and so on.
And was enjoying it tremendously. Possibly even more than she had been enjoying her husband.
It wasn't a pleasant prospect. Jesse wasn't simply a belligerent warmonger -- that fallacy was an affront to her person and she'd run through anyone who suggested such a thing. No, she wanted to enjoy life in whole rather than merely enjoy conflict. She'd discussed it at some length with Emily, in fact, now that the two were confidants anew. Was this fervor for training that had gripped her in the final two days of the journey a relapse into past years of constant strife? Or simply a practical need, as called for by the mission?
Gilbert, for his part, had no complaints about his wife drifting away for the last two days. He'd been busying himself with going over the Mermaid's systems spring by spring, cog by cog, just in case the saboteur had left any other surprises. Perhaps he was simply echoing Jesse's utilitarian approach... or perhaps he was trying to busy himself out of loneliness...?
Being married was proving even more complicated an affair than the affair of courtship itself was.
Jesse buried her saber into the guts of the training drone and decided to call it a morning. They'd be landing, soon. She wanted to be ready. For whatever would come.
They'd had plenty of warning.
Cloudy skies weren't typically in the forecast, not in the heat of the Moroccan deserts. They'd been soaring along the coast for some time, above the shallow waters -- it reduced the amount of wear and tear they'd need to apply to the anti-Kraken beacon. It also meant that any other passing airships were visible across the bright and sunny day, without cover to hide behind. Ships like the one heading straight for them.
The group had gathered on the main observation deck, at the very top of the airship. It was a new feature, one which Gilbert had installed (complete with OSHA compliant handrails) to allow them to take the Mermaid out for pleasure cruises during courtship. Secondary controls had been installed, so he could pilot the craft from here, under the shade of the balloon that kept them aloft. It also made a great location for a ship-to-ship diplomatic docking.
That was assuming that the classically-styled airship with black sails and a black skull insignia on its gasbag headed there way was keen on tea and cookies.
"It's going to be cool, alright? Trust in the Broker," Benny insisted. "Yes, they're air pirates. Yes, that's the legendary Dreadnacht, led by the vicious and cunning Captain Dreadful. But I brokered this meeting myself just before we left America; they won't shoot us down right off the bat."
"Implication being they may shoot us down if they don't like what we have to say," Jesse said sourly, keeping one hand at the hilt of her saber. "We can't completely trust men of violence."
"They're not completely men of violence. You know how it is with tough guys, it's all business in the end. Pirates get where they are over the broken hulls of other ships, yes, but they STAY there by being friendly with the right people. You stab everyone you meet, you don't have any friends when you need them. Now, let the Broker handle this. I've known three generations of Dreadfuls, and we're on good terms. Don't screw that up for me, Miss Witch."
Fingers wrapped and unwrapped around her blade's hilt, as the looming pirate ship grew closer and closer. If anything, being able to see it from miles away was more unnerving than being ambushed from some deep and spooky fog... it meant she had to wait. And wait. Jesse hated -- no, wait, not a formal enough word -- Jesse loathed waiting.
Raising a simple tin cone to his mouth, Gilbert let the megaphone effect carry his voice. "AHOY!" he called out. "Captain of the Clockwork Mermaid, requesting permission for parlay with Captain Dreadful of the Dreadnacht! ...Jeeves, if you'd kindly extend the gangplank...?"
The mating ritual of the air whales began... one ship crewed by a handful, working with another ship that teemed with pirates. Rough and tumble cutthroats loitered above decks to watch the show, while the autobutler deftly hefted the makeshift docking plank Gilbert had worked up, neatly bridging the gap between the two ships as engineers from the other craft secured it in place...
With the link established, the two parties stood at either side of the bridge. Benny the Broker headed up his contingent... with the nefarious Captain Dreadful, flanked by flunkies and henchmen, standing opposite.
"Captain, I'm glad you were able to take time out of your day to meet with me," he began. "I speak on behalf of the Faerie Queen, ruler in the New World... and... err?"
Of all the outcomes he'd been preparing for, Benny was the least prepared for the mighty pirate lord ignoring him completely in favor of dashing across the gangplank, pushing him aside, leaping through the air, and pouncing Gilbert Gearhaus for hot makeouts and smoochies.
To his credit, Gilbert stayed on his feet despite the bundle of high energy that had promptly wrapped its legs around his midsection and was now clinging like paste while trying to rain down an array of kisses to his cheek. He merely wobbled a few steps, before regaining his balance.
It was only when he spotted his wife's sagging jaw that Gilbert recovered from his own confusion.
"Err... honey? This appears to be... Miss Penny Dreadful," Gilbert explained. "Penny? This is Jesse. ...my wife."
The young woman who was actively trying to snog him glanced over.
"Oh, hallo," Captain Dreadful greeted, before resuming snuggles.
On the positive side, Jesse had firmly determined that the word distasteful could now be applied. And very shortly, perhaps murderous would be appropriate as well.
by stefan gagne
Once upon a time, there was a great pirate stronghold named Tortuga.
It was a place of absolute freedom and complete anarchy. A pirate could be a pirate. He could drink, fight, sing, do all three at once, or do two of the three in any combination he liked. Many a song had been written about Tortuga of old, some of which actually were slightly accurate, most of which were scraping for historical fact from the bowels of theme park float-through attractions.
To be honest, all anyone now really knew for sure was that a city existed, it was named Tortuga, and apparently it had something to do with pirates. Even that was suspect, but nobody questioned it, because that's no fun.
To be even more honest, the existence of air pirates that roamed the skies and the seas in their ridiculous steam-driven-boats-tied-to-balloons wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. The only reason they were able to operate so freely was a trick of geography and oceanography.
The Britannian empire had laid claim to all of Europe, true -- but Africa was still a wildland of conflict between various scattered tribal nations. The dregs of Pandora had been upended into the continent; with that mess to the south and Britain to the north, it was a perfect stormfront between order and chaos, and all you needed to do to cross from one to the other was cross the Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to the narrow and highly patrolled inlets into that sea, it remained mostly Kraken free, leaving pirates to sneak back and forth and enjoy a life of criminal leisure.
Since these free spirits / dashing rogues / detestable murders and thieves and jackasses needed somewhere to put up their boots and relax, there had to be a place like Tortuga. The city built itself on top of the ruins of some other city, which had long since lost its name; it was ruled over by a council of pirate lords and became a safe haven for trade and negotiation with considerably less worry of open warfare between rivals. Oh, sure, you wouldn't want to walk down the wrong alley or drink the wrong beer or walk in front of any throwing knives, but large scale conflicts weren't heard of.
None of this was of any interest whatsoever to Jesse Runeblade, as one of those so-called air pirates was busy climbing all over her bridegroom.
"So all that time...?"
"I know! And nobody suspected a thing!" Captain Penny Dreadful of the Dreadnacht declared, with a proud laugh. "Why would they suspect? I was just some girl hanging around the mansion, snogging the company's Honored Calculator! It was the PERFECT cover for a heist!"
This "Penny Dreadful," if that was her real name, was hardly the stuff of pirate legend. She had the pirate trappings, true... overcoats, leather boots, too many belts from which hung too many spyglasses and other weird wind-up devices. A machined repeating pistol to one hip and a cutlass to the other. The hat also was tri-corner, black, and feathered. So, if you took the general idea of a pirate lord and boiled it down to costuming, fine, that worked. Nothing else did.
She was a hand or two shorter than Jesse, a pint-sized spitfire who never seemed to run out of kinetic energy. No doubt she ran on a steady stream of refined sugar and other people's husbands. Far too young for this line of work (apparently having inherited it from her deceased father, the more impressively named Bloody Dreadful) her woven dreadlocks bobbed around as she bobbed around, with bright brown eyes that matched her darker skin hues which raced around to look at shiny things, namely shiny husbands.
Clearly, this hussy was utterly inappropriate for the situation, and Jesse felt assured that no doubt reality would assert itself and replace her with some tall and grizzly bastard who would have no interest in her husband whatsoever. Any minute now. Any minute.
"I was wondering why you had to leave in such a hurry," Gilbert said, as he put the pieces together. "I wish you'd told me, Penny! I wouldn't have cared, not by that point..."
"Hey, I asked you to come away with me, sugar. I would've told all if you had... although, on the plus side, you've gone and brought me this fine ship to play with..."
Penny Dreadful peeled away from Gilbert long enough to walk a short ways down the length of the docked ship... holding one hand overhead, running her gloved fingers along the underside of the hull. Tracing the smooth lines, which had seen barely any ocean landings, unlike the more amphibious rough and ready cargo craft that Gearhaus Heavy Industries usually cranked out.
Both the Clockwork Mermaid and the Dreadnacht had found drydock, hovering very slightly and held in place by a framework of catwalks that ran through the vast open-air Tortuga warehouse that belonged to Penny Dreadful. Across these walkways her team of pirate engineers crawled, making minor touchup repairs to her own ship... and leaving the visiting vessel alone, for now. No work done before it's paid for, after all.
"It's a beautiful ship, I have to admit," she said. "It seems a shame to take a wrench to it. Can't I interest you in another ship? It'd cost more, but a true blockade runner would be better for getting you into British territory..."
Here, the Broker stepped in, clearing his throat in the universal gesture of Hey Let Me Take Over From Here. "Captain Dreadful, the Faerie Queen would prefer we work with the Clockwork Mermaid. It has tactical value for our mission in the Empire. Rest assured that Queen Emily is prepared to offer whatever fee you require -- and is reasonable -- for the conversion."
"Oh, I'm not worried about the fee," Penny said, waving it off. "I know you, Mister Smuggler. I know you back up your requests with good coin."
"Yeah, yeah, Mister Broker. Anyway. Gilbert, darling? I think Benny and I should discuss business before this gets any further," she said. "You and your friends can enjoy an espresso over at the lunch area. This won't take long!"
One kiss to his cheek, and finally she was out of their hair.
Jesse had to drag her dazed and smiley groom away by the arm. The tagalongs, the shiny autobutler and the, whoever she was, the FBI agent, they came along too. Not that they mattered at the moment.
"Penny. Penny Dreadful," Gilbert was repeating, mystified. "I hadn't known, you understand. Back then, when we were dating, she'd told me her name was Penny Patel. The daughter of a pirate lord...! Imagine that. Isn't that just fascinating, Jesse?"
"I'm going to kill her," Jesse stated.
"You know, she always seemed different from the girls that fancied Honored Calculators, although I could never quite put my wait what now?" he transitioned.
"That... the... that little... FILTHY little-- at the risk of putting our mission in jeopardy, if she snuggles you one more time I'm going to tear her arms out and beat her to death with them," she declared. "I want that known right now, for the record. So it won't be a surprise when it happens. We may need to run for our lives, after all, and we can't do that if you're all staring slack-jawed while blood sprays from her empty shoulder sockets."
While his flappability or lack thereof was the stuff of legend, this flapped the unflappable Gilbert something fierce.
He briefly looked to the two otherwise silent adventuring companions for help. Chloe was busy trying to figure out the valves and knobs on the piratey espresso machine, with Jeeves too busy assisting her in this manner. Presumably they had heard the plight and chose not to get involved.
"Ah. Well. I see, then. Ah," Gilbert repeated, his hypermathematical mind desperately seeking some sort of escape from this cheese-free maze. "Er. Dear, understand, this was... Penny and I, you see, we were years before I met you. Before I left England. And, and it was all over and done with in a week! Hardly a, you know, courtship of any importance, certainly not compared to the majestic and eternal love which we share--"
"Your majestic and eternal love will be occupying the couch in the grand hall of the Mermaid for the duration of the mission if not the duration of your life unless you debrief me immediately on this courtship of no importance."
The young man forced himself to exhale once, to relieve the tension.
"You remember everything I told you about the lives Honored Calculators," he began. "Taken from orphanages by major houses of Britain, houses of industry. Raised lashed to masks, feeding us streams of treated aetheric steam, designed to improve our minds while shortening our lives. Well... the houses tried to be... humanitarian about it. Giving us any creature comfort we wanted. Fine food, great literature, lavish parties, and... party favors."
"Party favors. Really."
"For most of my life I didn't bother, since I had math, and who needs a lover when you have math?" Gilbert joked -- and immediately regretted it following a sharp look. "Ah. I met Penny at a party, along with other girls the house hired to keep us... entertained, to laugh at our jokes and make us feel important. But she was different; we got along not because she had to get along with me, but... er. I don't think it'd be healthy for me to extol her virtues at this point but let's say she was very freedom-minded, and at the time I was pondering the idea of freedom. Not enough to leave when she had to leave, but... enough to leave, eventually. Which, I should point out, led me to your arms. You should be thankful, you know."
"...I see. I should be thankful the little harlot made you a rebel without a cause."
"I... suppose...?" Gilbert tried on for size. "Love, please. I'm sure we can settle this with her once she understands I'm completely devoted to you and what's past is past. And besides that... if we're to have any hope of sneaking back into the Empire, we need the help of her aero-engineers. So--"
A shrill blast of escaping steam cut through his reasoned logic like a knife.
Fingers frantically fumbled at the controls of the coffee machine, as hot liquid splashed about, nearly soaking the cookies (or, in Brit, "biscuits") and other assorted treats.
(Captain Penny had grog and meat aplenty for the boys, but she also had a sweet tooth, which they didn't mind supplying if it meant they could sneak some when nobody was paying attention. A pirate could be plenty manly while nibbling on a raspberry pastry provided it was done in secrecy.)
"Sorry, sorry!" Chloe said, her first actual spoken words of note, as she shut down the machine. "I thought... I mean, I thought the steam went this way, not that way, and I guess I was wrong, and-- hello, who's that?"
What with all the marital strife and coffee troubles, the fifth person at the assembly had gone completely unnoticed. Until now.
A tiny bandaged hand, which was fumbling around trying to grab a baguette, grasped on whatever it could that was nearby and edible before snaking back underneath the table. A blurry form then shot out from its hiding place, sprinting across the floor of the warehouse as fast as its little legs could take it. It weaved around a few surprised pirates, before slamming into the smaller door-with-a-door nearby, back out into the streets of Tortuga.
"A beggar, I think," Gilbert reasoned. "Orphans and the like. It's a fairly nasty city, bound to be a few--"
"Wait! Hey, you, wait! You don't have to-- you can have more if--! Hang on, hang on..."
Quickly, Chloe scooped up a basket of the freshly delivered baked goods, stepping around the bulk of Jeeve's shiny brass to follow after the bread thief. Before anybody could say a word, she was through the door, and gone.
Jesse blinked a few times to get the dust kicked up in wake of multiple escapees out of her eyes.
"...and this is the highly trained agent that Eastusa sent along, who's supposedly adept at spotting danger a mile away?" she pondered. "Gilbert, I'd also like to add that in addition to Penny's impending doom, I can't be held accountable if that one gets herself killed. It's just the course of nature."
I'm gonna get myself killed.
It nearly stopped her. The question was whether this was common sense talking, or one of her funny feelings.
If it was a funny feeling, that meant the odd sixth sense she had for paranormal activity was in play, and doom was impending. The last time she'd felt it, they'd nearly accidentally triggered some sort of chain reaction explosion while unearthing supernatural relics at the Los Angeles sewage treatment plant. It would have been a terrible and smelly way to die, but she'd managed to stop the engineer before he could twist the third valve from the left, and the day was saved.
If this was just common sense, well, that she could ignore.
Thankfully, Tortuga generally ignored her. True, she was an arguably attractive young woman once you peel away the heavy hair dye and eye makeup, and she was totally alone in a city of cutthroats and thieves. However, she had the twin advantages of running extremely fast and with purpose, and wearing a full business casual suit with a frilly basket of bread tucked under one arm. That meant she was busy, and more importantly, possibly crazy. For an equivalency comparison, you also didn't want to pull over the woman wearing a racoon suit while carrying a twelve iron.
Despite her obligatory federal dark suit in the largely brown-and-beige makeshift desert city, despite sticking out like a sore thumb, nobody stopped her. Heck, they even were diving out of her way, which made the chase considerably easier.
It only occurred to Chloe after she'd finally managed to corner her prey in a ratty old alley that chasing the beggar down on foot while yelling at him and cornering him in a ratty old alley was a terrible way of saying "I want to be nice to you, have some bread." It was a great way of implying "I KEEL YOO!" which was rather the opposite intent.
So, when the merry progression finally ground to a halt... she kept a good distance, waiting at the mouth of the alley. The child had ducked behind some garbage cans; he could come out when he felt comfortable coming out. (Contrary to popular belief, even pirates see the need for waste management. If only to have a civic-minded and third party way of getting rid of evidence.)
"S... sorry for spooking you," Chloe apologized. "I just... I mean, there was plenty of bread there. It's okay. I'm sure Miss Penny wouldn't have minded you taking more, so... I brought you more, if you want it..."
The super FBI agent held up the bread basket, to demonstrate.
Which no longer contained bread. Because it all fell out while she was running the perp down on foot. The lovely little feathered napkin was still in there, at least, with a few crumbs rattling around.
"Sigh," she sighed, looking into the non-bready abyss (which failed to look back).
"What part of this seemed like a good idea, exactly?"
Chloe's ear perked in the direction of the sound.
Despite putting considerable distance between herself and the docking warehouse, despite being completely out of breath from running here at top speed, Benny had managed to cover the same distance without breaking a sweat. Likely because he bypassed most of that distance and walked in from the blacksmiths shop two doors down.
"You know, the big guy who loved you all said something about teaching a man to fish instead of giving a man to fish," the demon reminded her, his hands firmly in the pockets of his nasty old overcoat. "You're only perpetuating the unfortunate economic cycle of the region with free handouts."
"Doesn't matter, anyway," Chloe said, her arm carrying basket slumping slightly despite its lack of weight. "It's empty."
"I meant all the other beggars who scooped up the many loaves that were trailing behind you," Benny said. "And you're damned lucky you weren't snatched up by some scumball. This is Tortuga, kiddo. It's not all rum and coke and cutlasses... there's drug running and human trafficking too. Bad people."
"And starving little kids," she added. "I could do something about that. ...well, I COULD, if I'd paid attention to my basket, I guess..."
The Broker let out an exasperated little sigh. He'd been leaning hard on that reaction ever since Chloe re-entered his life.
"It wouldn't have mattered. He'd never go near you," he said. "They're... well, hang on..."
His hand slid deeper into his pockets... a tiny flash of firelight visible around the edge of his sleeve. One moment later, he was withdrawing a foil-wrapped packet from one of his many little hidey-holes within the flames of damnation. A quick pinch and yank later, and the packet was open, one of the two frosting coated toaster pastries slipping neatly into his palm.
Benny stepped forward, towards the trash cans... his offered breakfast treat ahead of him, waggling it slightly.
Within a few moments, the tiny bandage-wrapped child peeked out from his hiding place. He cast a nervous glance at the FBI agent behind this man... but hunger was enough to drive the boy into the open, to snatch up the tart and begin munching away.
It was the first solid look Chloe'd had of her quarry. And it was almost enough to make her lose her breakfast.
There was disgust, yes. You can't look upon that many tumors and skin lesions without some disgust. But the sickening part, the truly sickening part... was the context. No child should have to live like that, some tiny part of her cried out, revolted by the injustice of it...
"It's not a pretty sight," Benny agreed, although without much empathy, as he stepped away to let the kid eat in peace. "Fortunately for him, they don't live real long. Odds are low he'll make it to old age before the cancers get him, so at least he won't suffer long..."
"...th... they...?" she managed to say.
"The Muties. Apocalypse survivors. Their Earth got nuked long before Pandora came to town," he explained. "Turned the gene pool into a cesspool. It's been passed down generation after generation ever since. Mutant abilities make them one of the major tribal powers of Africa... in fact, they almost took over Europe, before the Britannians turned them back. Steam ignores radioactive EMP blasts."
Looking at the deformed child... earless, with one good eye, and teeth that were having trouble even with the soft processed toaster pastry... Chloe had a hard time imagining him as being part of any sort of world conquering army.
"Okay, I helped with your annoying good samaritan act, but we really should beat it now," Benny suggested. "If there's a Mutie urchin in town, others from his camp can't be far behind. They're barely tolerated in Tortuga, so they'd never come alone. His matron may not react well if she finds us here."
Swallowing a number of things, Chloe nodded. "Right. Right. ...let's go. --why wouldn't he come near me, specifically?"
"You said he wouldn't come near me. Sounded like you meant me rather than people in general."
"Oh. Well, isn't it obvious?" he asked. "You're a woman. Muties are scared of their women. At least, they are nowadays. ...it's a long story and we don't have time and it's irrelevant to our interests, anyway. Let's go. They're about to start converting the Mermaid, and I want to make sure I itemize the bill."
Having said his piece, Benny turned and stalked out of the alley, hands back in his pockets.
Chloe lingered a moment... observing what could dimly be recognized as happiness, as the child finished off what was probably the best meal he'd had in weeks.
It's going to be a weird world out there, Chloe.
President Petersen had talked at length with her, before sending her on this mission. In his own unorthodox and casual way, over bourbons, at the Florida peace conference. An upbeat and confident man... but he could put sadness in his voice, when he needed to.
You've got a good heart. Good instincts to match. I could've sent a combat specialist like the four-stars wanted, but instead, I'm sending you. It's going to be a weird world out there, Chloe; Pandora wasn't kind to any of us, the visiting team or the home team. You're going out there to make peace. Peace by compulsion if need be -- peace by example if possible. I trust you to do what you can for the victims of Pandora. We're all its victims, after all.
...except there wasn't much more she could do here. They'd be departing in a matter of days, and likely she'd never come this way again. The pastry wasn't going to last, and she couldn't teach the boy how to fish. ...for pastries.
Feeling even more useless than she felt before, Chloe slinked away from the alley, hoping the boy wouldn't notice her running away.
The Dreadnacht. A menacing battle cruiser, bristling with cannons and grappling hooks, ready to storm and loot any ship in sight.
Turn a dial, push a button...
Wooden panels twisted in place, flipping around to reveal gilded trimming. Old rails were contracted below decks, their wooden posts sinking down thanks by hydraulic systems, while new sparkly railings flipped into place from hidden compartments. Even the overall structure of the ship changed... the forward deck rising several feet, the rear deck sinking several. The ship's third massive propeller retracted back into the engine room, with the existing ones being augmented by a second set of smaller ones...
Finally, the figurehead twisted back onto itself, transforming from a roaring tiger's head to that of a rubenesque woman carrying a sauce pan and a rolling pin.
"That configuration's called The Accursed Ex-Wife," he explained. "Registered to Baron von Blërg of the Blërg Joinery Conglomerate. Their breakup was quite a public splash, which means that everybody who's anybody knows about how he redesigned and renamed his pleasure yacht. It also means that everybody who wants to BE anybody would be willing to sail up alongside and say hello, in hopes of making company with the Baron... and once they're close enough, we run up the Jolly Roger, convert back to Dreadnacht mode, and it's all over but the looting and the pillaging."
The rotund Chief Engineer (who Penny had introduced merely as "Chief") demonstrated by twisting his handheld controller back to the top, and pushing the TRANSFORM button. After a series of hydraulic whines and wooden clacks, the dread pirate vessel Dreadnacht was once again in drydock, with no signs of The Accursed Ex-Wife.
"That's modern piracy for you, I suppose," he said, pocketing the remote control. "It's all about who's got the best stealth technology. Slip past the blockades under guise of some cargo ship or nobleman's touring boat. Sidle on up to a target and spring it on 'em before they can react. Whatever pirate's got the best engineers is the one with the most profits. An' Penny's hired on the best steamwork engineers in all Tortuga."
For once that day, Gilbert was able to be stunned and delighted by something other than a nubile young pirate queen. After all, his first love -- well before Penny, well before Jesse -- was science.
"Utterly... wonderfully... completely... FASCINATING!" he declared, doing a little fist pump gesture, which he had learned from visiting Floridian elves. "I say, my good man, this is spectacular work! A transforming ship! A... 'Transformer', I suppose? It's certainly more than meets the eye!"
"S'just a ship," the Chief mumbled.
"It's a work of art, you mean! A beautiful work of art. And you've got enough accoutrements tucked away for how many different recognizable ship outlines...? A dozen? By the Pythagorean Theorem, that's spectacular! Take some pride in your work, man!"
The Chief flipped up his reading lens (one of the many, many little lenses on sticks attached to his work goggles, half of which were just there for show) to properly look the lad in the eye. "It's a bloody shame, is what it is," he grumbled instead of mumbled. "Back in her father's day, it'd be black sails at dawn, and straight on to conquest. None of this poncing about, trying to get the drop. True, casualties'd be a bit higher, but Bloody Dreadful didn't earn his name from being... I don't know... non-bloody. The blood, you see, is compulsory."
"Mmhmm. And how was the take, back then? The 'booty', as it were?" Gilbert wondered.
"Weeellll... I mean, you're going to lose some and win some. Particularly when you've got to shoot the enemy down," the Chief admitted. "If you're over water you can dip down and scoop up whatever's floatin'. Over land, well-- look, my point is, all the technology in the world ain't much of a match for a knife between the teeth and the cannon's roar!"
"Problem with a knife between the teeth is one wrong move and you've got a much wider smile. Or worse, you stab someone to death. I'm glad to see Penny's got more sense than that. For a grog swilling treasure thieving pirate queen, I mean..."
The Chief snorted. "Like you'd catch her drinkin' proper grog, instead of-- OI! Lads! Where're you lot going?! Back to work! We've got to get this lad's ship configured for transformin' by daybreak...!"
This was shouted at the steady stream of pirate engineers, who were shimmying down ladders and dashing along catwalks... all in the same general direction, towards the bow of the ship. Towards the crowd that had started to gather, chanting one word in unison.
Gilbert's delight over newfound sciences quickly dropped away when he realized they were going "Fight! Fight!". And that he'd stupidly left his wife alone with his ex-girlfriend so he could go coo over some neat new foldy wooden tinker toys.
He joined the exodus of workers, trying to muscle his way past a wall of muscle that had formed a ring around the two impromptu combatants...
The duel hadn't begun in earnest yet. They were still in the "catty" phase, sharpening verbal claws at each other before they'd get around to sharpening blades against each other's rib cages. Still, both had their swords drawn... which was a bit silly, really, considering Penny had a pistol and could probably shoot her down in a second.
"You're really taking this far too personally... Jesse, was it?" Penny commented, not the slightest bit concerned with the mounting rage in her enemy's eyes. "I was trying to compliment you. I mean, sure, you've got no sense of fun about you and likely lead him around on a leash, but in your defense, you DO have a voice that can shatter glass. See? Compliment."
"And yet, despite my many 'complimentary' features, he dumped you like the deceitful little jezebel you are while chasing after me with puppy dog eyes from the moment we first met," Jesse rebuked. "And don't think I believe for a second that you're no longer chasing after him. If you so much as coo in this direction one more time, so help me..."
"Oh, by all means, run me through," Penny suggested, twirling the tip of her blade in a little circle. "Whatever you fancy, dear. It won't matter, given the single week I spent with him was so intensely perfect that it'll top anything you could ever do for him. In fact, did you spend your honeymoon making love, or just polishing your sword while ignoring the poor lad...?"
If not for Gilbert managing to squeeze his way through between a pair of particularly oily pirates, popping out into the middle of the fray, there would've been a skewering or two. As is, there nearly was an impalement, stopped only when Jesse caught herself inches away from committing husbandcide.
After daring to peek between his fingers, Gilbert patted down his chest to look for puncture wounds before proceeding to break things up.
"Right. Well. Now, then," he began, while desperately hunting for words. (Numbers, those he could pull up in a pinch. Words were far more complicated a variable.) "More than enough of that, I think. Penny? Come on, now. I know you think you're just playing around, but honestly, laying it on a bit too thick..."
Penny sheathed her blade, using her free arm to offer a rolling shrug. "I've no further designs, Gilby. Hands off, as you like it. But it's not my fault you married a girl without a sense of humor..."
"To use the vernacular of my contemporaries in the colonies, you were 'trolling', love--"
"--sorry, love, I mean... you know who I meant," Gilbert mumbled towards his loving wife. "My point. Right. My point is, Penny, you're being nasty for no proper reason," Gilbert assumed. "Come on, now. I know you're better than that. If this is your attempt to indirectly indicate I've made a mistake in whose hand I chose in marriage... well. Penny, you're a fine lass, but you are my past. What's past is past. Got it?"
The pirate queen offered up a pouting frown... but nodded quietly, in acknowledgement.
More or less satisfied, Jesse returned her own weapon to its safety. "Keep that in mind, hussy, before you consider--"
"Jesse, do you honestly think I'd be divorcing you a few days out from our three years of courtship?"
"It's a serious question, love," Gilbert spoke, using his serious expression and his serious voice. "Deserving of a serious answer."
"Hmph. Of course not," she spoke, folding her arms. "That would be absurd."
"Absurd, precisely. So there's no need to feel threatened by Penny, is there?" Gilbert asked. "Granted, her jibes were in questionable taste, but it's not like they posed any real danger to us. ...we are bonded, remember. Heart to heart. We share the same joys AND the same doom. You saw to that and I assented. As long as we both live, we are together."
"Absolutely. It goes without question."
"Then there's absolutely no reason to fight," he spoke, his smile returning. "It's all settled! We know where we stand and there's not a problem left to deal with. Okay! Now, listen, I need to coordinate with the Chief to get the Clockwork Mermaid outfitted with their stealth system. So, I'm going over there to do my work while you do yours. With Penny. With whom you'll have no issues now, I trust."
"Right. --wait, what? What work?"
As the men bemoaned the lack of catfighting and wandered back to their duties... Penny remained behind. All smiles, as she stood hands on hips, appraising her previous opponent.
"Some very difficult work indeed," Penny Dreadful warned / teased. "We need to make you look pretty for your vacation up in England. You and I are going shopping for clothes that'll help you fit in up there. Because honey, your sparkly battle corset is nice and all, but it's just not in style..."
While piratical mechanists swarmed over the hull of the Clockwork Mermaid armed with wrenches and drills, the remainder of the infiltration party was busy hitting the shopping district.
Tortuga was eighty percent commerce, after all. (The other twenty being the violence which supplied things to commit commerce with.) Anything could be bought and sold here... mundane items like supplies, up to exotic items like priceless art. And then you had the in-between items, like the latest fashions from Paris and Milan, freshly pilfered from the holds of cargo runners across the British empire.
The best disguise was that of nobility, after all. The rank and file was hesitant to question those who looked like they routinely bathed in money. While pirates couldn't get away with that sort of deception for long, a less heavily armed (and less scar-riddled) group sneaking around the countryside in a luxury liner could carry out the ruse nicely.
Despite her tendency towards rough and tumble pirate garb, Penny Dreadful knew exactly where to lead her charges once they hit the marketplace. She bypassed the shadier trade depots, as well as the boutiques that specialized in offloading top of the line garments. None of these would suit them in their quest for suits.
What they wanted, she explained, was a tailor. Someone who didn't just sell stolen clothes, but customized them to your specific needs. A skilled problem solver. It was in line with her philosophy to piracy... be clever, be unique, and the profits will follow. A group whose aim was to sabotage an entire army had a distinct need for cleverness.
Jesse went through with the tedious affair of being measured by the tailor, all while little miss Penny Dreadful sat nearby... watching on, studying her. No doubt judging her, as well. They had made a point not to talk to each other beyond the functional needs of the mission, since their tiff.
It wasn't until Jesse was behind a changing screen in the tailor's private dressing room, trying to figure out how to get her new dress on, that Penny felt safe enough to put in a word.
"I honestly am not trying to lay claim to your husband, you know," Penny spoke up, from the other side of the screen.
Jesse tugged at the leggings, displeased with the fit. "As you say," she commented, paying half-attention.
"Guess I'm just a bit confused, is all," Penny said. "You and him. Him and you. Doesn't make a lot of sense, and I'm trying to puzzle it through. In fact... maybe you can help."
"See, when I met him, he was a virtual prisoner of the Gearhaus family," she explained. "A shy little bird in a gilded cage. Any entertainment, any delight he could've wanted, they'd provide to him provided that he continued to throw his life away on their science projects. ...made for terrific cover to get in and steal their treasure, mind, posing as one of the many young call girls they assigned to their calculators..."
"Mhmm. So you say."
"But it actually took some goading before I could get him interested in me, so I could keep my cover. He didn't like being provided for, especially not being provided some fake girlfriend. He wanted... a friend, I suppose. More than that, a friend who was a free spirit, like me. He aspired for freedom without even realizing it. Kept asking me about the outside world, about what it was like to live for myself and myself alone. That's what he saw in me, pure escapism. I'm honestly shocked he didn't want to escape with me, in the end... got cold feet. Still too shy, wasn't sure if he was ready to flee."
"So why exactly does he fancy you?" Penny asked, leaning forward from her seat in the dressing area. "I can't understand it. It doesn't take an analyst to see how controlling you are. Domineering. Harsh. Admirable traits in piracy, but not in wedlock. I seriously doubt you even took an interest in him at first; he'd have to have chased you to get anywhere, and why would he do that? You're just like his former 'family'--"
"Because he doesn't like being provided for."
Penny paused, surprised to learn that the woman was actually listening at all. "Pardon?"
"This is a simple matter, darling. You said it yourself," she continued. "He doesn't want a girl who throws herself at him; he wants a challenge. A problem to solve. When he works on his mathematics, he doesn't want to be given the answer. He has to conquer the problem himself. I was a challenge to him... I wouldn't fawn over him, wouldn't roll over for the gentleman's gentleman. I had no interest in him, at first."
"So, you're saying that he wanted you... because you didn't want him?"
"Gilbert had to prove his worth to me. You may think that snobby, but he relished the opportunity to do just that. He threw himself into it with great vigor, pride be damned. In the end... how could I not love a man with such determination?" Jesse asked... peering around the changing screen. "He is the better of any man on Earth. Smarter, braver, more cunning. His passion in all matters is... intense. Foolhardy, yes, but endearingly so. We were made for each other without even realizing it, at first. ...now, then. I've explained this to your liking, I trust? Because... I'm a bit confused about YOU and him. Doesn't make a lot of sense, you two. Was he really so meek in his early years as to fall for your act?"
The pirate glared a hole in the changing screen. "Excuse me? You call my love an act--?"
"Your eye was on the treasures of the Gearhaus family, yes? Hence: an act."
"How dare--? How DARE you?" Penny growled, getting to her feet. "My mission was just a mission. It meant nothing to me -- and I loved the boy! You question the depth of that? He was... he was trapped, in a horrible situation, this beautiful and gentle fellow. He deserved to live, not to be worked to death! Once the theft was done, I was going to set him free, to show him a life where the skies were blue and went on forever, and... and we... it wasn't an act. I... omitted details of why I was originally there, yes. But my time with him was precious to me, and, and how dare you...!"
The insulting woman emerged from her hiding place. Fortunately weaponless, unless parasol counted, resting lightly against her shoulder. Being dressed in a white-and-gold frilly and fancy noble's frock robbed her of all menace, in fact... a perfect gentlewoman, who wouldn't harm a fly. All silk stoles and ruffles and pearls, as far as the eye could see. Enough to put Penny off her head of anger, in fact.
"Very well. I apologize," Jesse spoke, words Penny was honestly not expecting. "I'll accept your feelings to be genuine. I do know passion when I hear it, Miss Penny Dreadful. ...and in a way, Gilbert is right. I have you to thank. You did put the seed in his mind that there could be more in life than he was getting. I'd never have met him, if not for that. Your time with him was well spent."
Briefly, Penny Dreadful considered working up a bit more anger anyway, in principle. But the moment was forever lost... she could merely nod in acceptance of the thanks.
"I'd like to point out one other thing... you're wrong about me. Well. In part," Jesse explained. "About me being domineering and controlling. I suppose I am, yes. But Gilbert is with me not because I've forced him into place. No force on Earth can keep that boy from achieving his desires, myself included. He's stared down gods and come out victorious. If he wanted to leave... if he wanted to find you again... he would have."
"...perhaps he has changed considerably, then, since we met," Penny agreed. "And I'll have to trust that it's for the best. ...so. Go on, tell me. It's in the parasol, isn't it?"
With a flash of silver, Jesse drew the hidden blade from the depths of her delicate little umbrella, making a perfect diagonal slash through the air. Less than a second later, the weapon was sheathed, and nothing more than a noble trying to keep the sun away from her delicate skin remained.
"Your tailor does good work, indeed," she spoke, with a semi-pleasant grin. "Hmmm. But does this dress make me look fat?"
"Oh, absolutely. Notably around the midsection."
"Good. All the better for my enemies to underestimate me," Jesse spoke, rapping her knuckles against the fabric, to feel the magically enhanced faerie steel corset beneath. "I don't mind going up a dress size if it keeps my core defended against attack. Now, then. With this silliness settled, I'd like to get on with our affairs. Are our resident demon and governmental spook finished with their outfitting yet?"
He was being Difficult.
"I'm fine," Benny insisted.
"Pardon me, sir, but you won't get very far in that thing," the nebbishy little tailor complained, still trying to tug a measuring tape back and forth, to get a sense for his client's frame. "I mean, three piece suit and tie? It's the first I've seen of such an old design outside of ancient books and such. Now, if you'd just let me settle you in with some fine waistcoats, and get rid of this ragged old duster of yours--"
The headache hit immediately. The tailor had to tug his glasses away and rub his eyes twice, before he was able to focus on Benny again without getting slammed by a dizzy spell...
A man of wealth and taste stood before him now, in simple merchant's finery. Dark green waistcoats, simple slacks, simple shoes. All elegant cuts made from fine fabrics, once you got in close enough to look... designed to help him blend into the larger crowd, but to stand out from the smaller crowd. A perfect balance.
"I'm fine," Benny repeated.
"...right then, fine it is, sir," the tailor agreed, winding his measuring tape back up. "But if you don't mind... the coat? It IS a bit ratty, if you don't mind me saying, sir--"
"Unless you happen to have something in my size that also has convenient access to a pocket of living hellfire with near infinite scope and scale, I'll be keeping my overcoat," Benny said, sliding his hands back into his pockets to keep them warm.
"Weeell... not as such, but I could look around in the back...?" the tailor offered.
The Broker offered the Tailor the International Sign of the Brush-Off. It was acknowledged and understood, as the fellow gave a little nod and shuffled off to tend to other customers. Leaving Benny alone in the private changing room.
Well. Almost alone. That... THING was here.
It glared at him with its single glowing eye, brass moustache askew ever so slightly in defiance. Gilbert had insisted on sending it along, as a form of protection... either to keep them safe from the dangers of Tortuga, or to keep from seeing a repeat of the catfight from earlier. Both outcomes were just as deadly, after all.
Benny had tried to suggest in pointed terms that it should go watch after its master's wife, but it insisted on tagging along after him. Not to really DO anything, mind you, just... to keep an eye on Benny. One very bright and angry looking eye.
The Broker pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a flick of his finger. He didn't normally smoke, but felt the need to be defiant and rebellious in the metal face of that pile of gears and malice.
Inhale. Puff. Smoke ring. Good.
"Problem?" he asked, without looking over at the autobutler.
Jeeve's internal steamworks hissed, two tiny puff-clouds emitting from the dual vents behind his shoulder blades. Finger joints clacked, as he made and unmade a fist. The same one he used to pound The Mister through a building in a single blow.
"Infernal," he identified / accused / reminded.
"Yeah, I'm infernal. So what's it to you?" Benny asked. "Or are you planning to put me down like you did my boss...? Nice trick, by the way. I'd love to know how you did it. Some Orbital superscience exorcism laser beam or something?"
The brass man offered no single word response, much less multiple words. The glare would have to speak for him.
"You know, you really put the fear of God into The Mister, to borrow a phrase," Benny admitted, taking a moment to grind out the remains of his smoke on the floor. "To the point where he was willing to contract for outside help. You should be proud of yourself. I haven't seen him genuinely afraid in over a thousand years. Not that he'd tell the likes of ME what had him so spooked. Mustn't look weak in front of a lesser imp, no no, that wasn't his way..."
No reply. Of course. This time, Benny turned to face his silent accuser directly.
"Look, what's your damage, tin man?" he asked. "I pledged myself to this ridiculous and doomed little trip. You think I was the one to sabotage the ship? That's not how I do business. Besides, I helped FIX the ship. So what's with the attitude?"
"He probably thinks you're a bad influence."
The Broker didn't like it when people got the drop on him. Fortunately, he recognized the voice, which meant he didn't react quite so badly. Just a surprised jerk of the head, to look in her direction...
Palm was pressed to face shortly after.
"Again with the halloween getup?" he asked. "We aren't going to a funeral, kiddo. --and did you add MORE eyeliner or something?"
In contrast to Jesse wearing white and gold a few private rooms down the hall... Chloe had gone with black and silver. Mostly black. Which would be appropriate for a supposed Man in Black government agent, but agents didn't usually wear so much lace and frills.
The dress was far less practical than Jesse's, made more for extravagance than maneuverability. Despite that, it didn't have the uplifting beauty of her compatriot's disguise. This dress looked... wilted. Delicate and beautiful, but like someone had painted Chloe's portrait with runny inks, swirling and spiraling down to the floor around her in layers of pure sorrow. From the drooping and loose sleeves to the layers of gauzy black skirts, through which black and white striped leggings ending in patent leather shoes could be seen, she was a lovely picture of misery.
Chloe paused a moment to adjust the tiny top-hat shaped cocktail hat, trimmed with yet more lace, before deciding to address Benny's mocking summary of her wardrobe.
"I like it," she said. "It's very me."
"Uh... huh. If you're hoping that some brooding and sensitive young vampire boy will walk up and bite you, well... haven't we discussed that before?" Benny asked.
"Don't be silly. I mean it's very... I don't know. Melancholy. I've always had a melancholy outlook. It feels more honest."
"Funny, you seem to have a patently hostile outlook when you talk to me, not a dour and weepy one..."
"Yeah, well, that's because you're acting like some kind of giant, overprotective, criticizing jerk," Chloe protested, with a pout. "You're the exception to the rule."
"Mhmm. Rule being...?"
"That's a pretty miserable world out there," she said, folding her hands. "Folks who have it good like to wear blinders to that. Like the suburbanites I grew up with. But even just in our neck of the woods, there's war and hatred with the Fae, homelessness, all manner of unpleasantness. A whole world, victimized by Pandora. I can't... NOT see any of that. It's why I do so much community service stuff. And why I couldn't turn Petersen away when he tracked me down through my blog and asked me to help his task force out. ...even if I've got no idea how much help I'll really be out here..."
"Yeah, that's sunshine in a bag, alright. I think I preferred Angry Chloe. So, that's why you felt the need to run into the middle of Tortuga with a basket of bread and a sign on your back reading Hello, Please Do Horrible Things To Me?"
"No more horrible than what's going on with that poor boy," Chloe said, turning to face a floor length mirror, and tug at her sleeves. "What you told me on the way back... about the way the Mutants came to power, how they keep going... that's just horrible. I wish there was something I could do there..."
"I find the best thing to do is to help people get what they want. For instance, fully automatic firearms and high explosives are always in demand."
"That's what they want. Not what they need," she protested. "The Mutants remind me of folks back home. Blind to the misery they're in the middle of..."
"So you're going to shoot their misery away, huh?"
The young woman froze.
"Spring loaded holster hidden in the sleeve. It's a standard bit of undercover pirate technology," Benny recognized. "They even modified your FBI sidearm to work with it. Tense the right muscle, and the weeping lily can come out blasting with hot lead. I knew Petersen wouldn't send a completely helpless little girl into this mess; even a contractor probably has time to practice at the agency's firing range, right?"
Chloe tried to tug her baggy sleeve down further, until only the tips of her fingers could be seen.
"I'm not planning on using it," she spoke. "Not ever. I mean. Not unless I've got no choice. ...I'm crap with it, anyway. I can hit little paper targets but I've got no illusions about being able to hit a living person..."
"Because you don't think you have the skill, or you don't think you have the guts?"
"Because I don't want to make the world's misery any deeper if I can possibly avoid it," she clarified.
"Uh-huh. Good luck with that, kiddo," Benny said, with a slow, mocking clap of the hands. "On the plus side, dressing up like a noblewoman's vision of living death will keep people from playing grab-ass with you, so maybe the best offense IS a good defense, yeah?"
The woman turned on him, skirts taking a second or two to catch up with her rotation.
That look gave the Broker pause. Frustration, sure, he'd seen that on her face before. It was the very, very tiny glint of light in her eyes that suggested more than simply anger which was new.
"Why do you have be such a jerk all the time, Benny?" Chloe asked. "What'd I ever do to you?"
Before he could say anything (not that he had anything to say) she brushed past him, out the hall and down to wait for the others to finish.
Only when hydraulic joints hissed at him did Benny snap out of it.
"Ruffian," the judgmental robot accused, before following after her.
The next two days were considerably smoother than that first one.
More shopping jaunts, of course. The finery was nice, but they'd need a range of clothes from everydays to eveningwear, just in case. Even Gilbert went along, at his wife's insistence and his own protests ("A good pair of trousers and bracers suit any occasion, love!"). Each market run funded by Faerie minted gold, which was proving quite popular in Tortuga, to the point where they had to post guards around the warehouse to keep anyone from sneaking in at night to liberate some.
Benny didn't go along on these trips. He didn't need clothes. It was for the best, considering how Chloe had been moping around the ship by herself and didn't seem to want his company.
Jeeves set about buying mundane supplies for the ship's kitchens and store room. A good chunk of the budget went to replenishing the steam tanks... Gilbert hadn't set out three years ago with enough compressed aetheric steam containers to last them through a trip like this. It wasn't even enough to keep Jeeves up and running consistently in that time. If they wanted their autobutler, he'd need a steady supply, and that meant cashing in on the expensive stuff.
Benny certainly didn't accompany him. Jeeves had given him the cold metallic shoulder ever since they started out. Plus, steam and Benny didn't get along very well. He'd taken a face full of it fifty years ago and it took weeks to recover from the burns. (Which was odd, because while it was toxic to humans as well, it wasn't THAT toxic to them. But it wasn't like any demon doctors were around, so.)
Meanwhile, under the guidance of the tireless Chief Engineer, Penny Dreadful's crew were busy installing new machinery just beneath the surface of the Clockwork Mermaid. Two sunsets after their arrival in Tortuga, the ship was now seven different ships, depending on the panel of switches in the control room. They could resemble the outlines of several noteworthy and nondescript vessels, depending on their needs.
Benny had nothing to contribute here. He probably could've tracked down any rare parts they needed, but the Chief had that end of things covered. The Broker was not needed. For anything.
After the first night of being completely useless and unwanted he tracked down a relatively expensive prostitute to keep company with. After an unsatisfying horizontal romp, when he couldn't work up a proper head of angry passion, he ended up spending hours in bed while she prattled on about her various little life dramas. Didn't take long for Benny to find himself completely and utterly bored with it all.
The second night of being completely useless, Benny tried to go find some incredibly powerful and dangerous mood twisting narcotic to enjoy. This being Tortuga, there was plenty to pick from, including stuff even the Broker hadn't seen before. As his demonic metabolism processed the whatever-it-was, with purple, six-breasted unicorns tromping around his field of view, he eventually tired of it and burned it out of his bloodstream in favor of going out and getting piss drunk in some random bar.
The disappointed look he got from a chance encounter with Chloe the next morning convinced him not to bother trying that again.
Not that it mattered, because the third night would be their last one in Tortuga. The ship modifications were complete, high fives were being exchanged, and even Penny and Jesse seemed to almost slightly maybe be getting along. Everybody else was in high spirits, topped off by Penny Dreadful announcing the Chief had gotten them reservations at the finest restaurant in Tortuga for their big going-away bash.
Benny wanted to skip out, but got the feeling attendance was mandatory. Bloody team building events and their not-really-optional-optionalness.
And so, he sat at one end of the table while at the other end toying with a piece of french bread while at the other end, a pirate queen was enthralling everyone with tales of danger and derring-do.
"So there I was, facing down a pair of armed guards, their blunderbusses primed and ready. Now, it took me a full week to figure out the best way into the Gearhaus vaults undetected, and I'd blown it all," Penny continued, waving a fork for emphasis. "All I had on me was my trusty dagger, and they had the drop. So, what'd I do? I burst out crying! And it worked! The yarn I spun would've made your head spin. A father needing a life-saving surgery, or we'd lose our family farm... the evil banker who wanted to take me as his wife to settle our debts... how I had no choice but to find a lot of money if I was going to keep my purity..."
"Hah, shows what little THEY knew of what was going on in the upper floors of the Gearhaus manor," Gilbert joked -- and cut his chortle short after a single Look from his wife. "I mean. Well, that's just unprofessional, how uninformed they were, is all. Deserved to be robbed blind, certainly. As an object lesson. Right?"
"In the end, I actually indirectly maneuvered them into getting me into the locked guard station," Penny continued, before tensions could rise any further. "I was crying so much, and they felt just awful about it... so one of them, nice lad, suggested they make me a cuppa. I drugged it, of course, and took the keys from them while they were snoozing away. After that... well, fastest robbery and getaway on record, since I didn't even have to pick the locks! I mean, I stopped to ask Gilbert to leave with me, but that's it, otherwise, BAM, I was gone."
"Mhmm. And I suppose you took so much wealth from their coffers that the family was too embarrassed to let anyone know?" Jesse asked.
"Well... actually, no. I only took one thing, and I was as surprised as anyone that nobody raised a stink," Penny Dreadful admitted, setting her dramatic-waving-fork down. "Part of the point here was to embarrass the family, after they sent a pirate hunter after my father. But nary a peep of how they were robbed, after that. Considering how secure and secret their treasure was, I suppose that's either understandable or incomprehensible. Not sure which..."
"Secret treasure? The Gearhaus Industrial Concern?" Gilbert asked. "First I've heard of any such thing. They prefer liquid cash to any trinkets or artworks... a very practical family, all considered..."
With a smile, Penny made a big show of holding up her hands, front and back. Pushed up the sleeves of her overcoat, nothing there. --and with a flashy spot of sleight-of-hand, she now held a silver key.
"One of the Seven Sacred Keys," she explained. "Treasures so secret that they're only spoken of in legend. One key given to each of the founding houses of the British Empire. Priceless. ...or, maybe worthless. Father thought he could ransom this one back to the Gearhaus family, but they never replied to his demands. We did some research later. Turns out, two of those priceless keys were actually destroyed by their owners, smelted down. A third is in the belly of a Kraken somewhere. We considered going after the others, but... eh. No point, if nobody wanted them."
"If they didn't care, why put it in such a secure vault...?" Jesse wondered.
"It's all probably just a legend," Penny suggested -- making the key vanish in another flick of the wrist, before settling down to eat again. "A trumped up tale of trinkets with no real value to them."
"Mmm. As you say. I, however, have a doubt," Jesse said, leaning across her dinner plate, to address more directly. "I've been witness to many a myth and legend, in my time with the anachronauts. You don't name something the 'Seven Sacred Keys' unless there's some grand purpose behind them. It's too specific a number and too specific an adjective to be a red herring. ...you seek money for it, yes? What if we buy it from you?"
"I was holding onto it for sentimental value of my time with my darling Gilbert-- ah. But, I suppose... if you're offering. Don't you want your Broker to handle the negotiation...?"
The witch cast a glance down the table, where Benny was so distracted by his stale bit of bread that he actually didn't notice a potential monetary transaction happening in his presence. Concerning.
"I believe I can handle this one on my own," she chose.
"Suit yourself. Even if it is a meaningful thing, it's probably meaningless without all seven keys. Two destroyed utterly, one lost. What good is it now?"
"Possibly no good whatsoever, I'll admit," Jesse spoke, counting out some Faerie gold slips from her personal purse. "But better safe than sorry, I say. Stories have a habit of becoming true. Which, apparently, was mathematically proven to Gilbert in his brief time linked to the mind of a malevolent Elder God..."
Penny's grin returned. "Now, THAT is a tale to be told!" she declared. "The haggling can wait. Why should I monopolize story time? Let us hear of your adventures, Gilby!"
As tales of brave adventurers were exchanged, along with gold and goods... Benny the Broker took no note of it. No note of the laughter, or even of the usual hateful looks the autobutler gave him, as it wandered around the table refilling drinks and setting out courses...
Benny was busy selecting words.
"It's nothing you did to me," he decided to say, after three days.
He had to repeat himself before Chloe took notice.
"It's nothing you did to me. It's more what you remind me of. Even back in Baltimore, I was reminded of it all," he explained. "I wasn't born like this, you know. A demon. An asshole. I was in the choir, at one point. Not a particularly noteworthy member, but membership is membership."
The young woman cocked her head, trying to find some bright light to see the dour Broker in and failing.
"You?" she asked. "You were an angel...?"
"Most of the demons were, at one point. I was a guardian angel, third choir, second chair, underneath the Archangel Raphael," he admitted. "Good people. Healers. They were looking forward to helping humanity with what it needed. Unfortunately, well. The Fall. You know. ...it was utterly stupid of me to side with the Morningstar, but that's how it went down. But I still remember what they were like. And they were a lot like you."
Benny leaned back in his chair, relieved to have finally gotten that out. He'd never discussed anything that deep in his past with a mortal before... sure, he'd talked up being a demon, being an amoral dealmaking Broker of men's dreams and desires. But not anything before that. Never.
"So, now you know. I don't hate your guts. You're not all that bad. I just... I don't know. I hate being reminded," he said. "My problem, not yours. Alright?"
"We need to get out of here."
"Uh. ...what? You want some alone time or something?" Benny asked, not quite sure how to read that signal. Especially the dead serious tone of it. "Honey, I'm not into you that way--"
"We need to get out of here right now," Chloe declared -- louder, now, as she got to her feet, chair sliding away behind her. "Everyone. We have to leave. They're coming!"
She gets these funny feelings about things. When things are about to go wrong.
Benny was on his feet and ready to bolt for the nearest fireplace when his mind was slammed six feet into the back of his brain.
Having all your senses scrambled by a neural blast of specially tuned free radicals is one of the least pleasant experiences a mortal can have. An immortal, or at least a reasonably immortal sort like Benny, still doesn't have a fun time of it. All the inputs are still there, they're just... jumbled.
Screaming. Bodies hitting the floor. Feet hitting the floor, a tangled mess of noise, from all sides, or at least seeming from all sides. Inability to get up, the vertigo keeping you flat and helpless, tumbling, sprawling, trying to get some kind of handhold...
He saw black, and instinctively reached for it. To try and make some token effort at keeping her safe.
It turned out to be the leather boot of a man with entirely too many tumors on his face. Even through the haze, he could see the meaty fist with six fingers coming down, right towards his point of view.
The Broker blacked out after that.
A cool breeze across his cheeks. Light ruffling of the hair...
Even in his sleep, he smiled.
When his eyes finally focused, however, it wasn't Jesse.
Gilby...? Are you okay now?
He wasn't okay. The moment he tried to get up, that much was clear. For someone so used to having an orderly mind, having your neural pathways scrambled was even less of a picnic than for most. He saw the world slightly out of order... the woman before him, that familiar cocoa skin, the soft look he once treasured... fifty miles away. Whereas the dumpy vision of the Chief Engineer, who was on the other side of the deck, he felt so close that his very breath was pounding in Gilbert's ears...
"I'll manage," Gilbert Gearhaus decided, opting not to get to his feet, to stay in Penny's arms. "Where...? Are we moving? I feel the wind..."
"We're topside on the Dreadnacht," Penny explained. "I set sail the minute my men got us to safety. We're tracking the ones who took your friends. Mutant slavers, from the looks of them."
"Took--? What's going-- ohh, that's pleasant not a feeling head..."
"Shhh. Mental scrambler. It's one of the weaponized mutations their tribe breeds for," she explained. "Ohh, poor Gilby, it must've been especially bad for you..."
"We have to, we have to rescue, she, we need to--"
"I know," Penny said. "Your wife. I know. The Chief wanted us to make haste for another port of call and count our blessings, but... we're going full sail to do battle with an entire tribe of mutants. A bad prospect, certainly no profit in it, but... I mean... it's not like you'd just abandon her to fly away with me, right...?"
Scale and sense began to return to him, as he mathematically sorted out the Z-plane. Soon, he had enough wits to stand... on his own, away from her arms.
"You set sail for rescue without asking me that question prior, so you know what my answer would be," he spoke. "I'm sorry, Penny. But I will say... making this decision, to throw yourself behind my cause no matter the danger, it is appreciated. It's the kind of thing only a true friend would do for me."
Miss Dreadful stood pensive, for a moment... and then the moment passed. A friend. The word didn't feel particularly painful, not from his lips.
"Aye... I suppose a true friend is what I will be," Penny agreed, smiling again. "A cliche it may be, but... let's just be friends. We have an accord. And in my first act as your true friend, I give you the fate of the one who betrayed you. And thus, betrayed me..."
Her pistol raised, quietly... pointed squarely at the Chief, who was busy tending to the balloon rigging. It took a few seconds before he realized someone behind him had him at gunpoint.
"Errr. Ma'am?" the rotund fellow asked, puzzled. "What're you talking about...?"
"Oh, please, like it wasn't patently obvious," Penny said, rolling her eyes. "Chief, you made the dinner reservations, you chose the restaurant. The mutants attacked US, specifically, bypassing everyone else there. The big one quickly disabled Gilbert's autobutler using knowledge of machinery no Mutant would know. And yet, despite all their advantages... they left me and Gilby alone, didn't they? You told them to spare our lives, and take the others."
"But... come on, that's preposterous! You've no proof of this treason!"
"There's also the small matter of the ticker tape detailing the entire plan, which was found when I had MY men search your workshop," Penny spoke... holding up the incriminating machine printout in her free hand. "Sad to say, you're nicked, chum."
"I... I am loyal to the Dreadfuls, and have been through the generations," he protested.
"Which is why you wouldn't let them take me, in the end. Loyalty. But Gilbert... you spared him so I'd have a boy-toy to distract me. Or, perhaps to one day helm the Dreadnacht as captain. A MAN'S captain. All because you've never liked the way I run things. You're terrible at hiding your distaste for modern piracy, Chief--"
"My name," the Chief hissed, "Is NIGEL. You never even bothered to learn my name. ...well, neither did your father, but that was all fine and good -- he was a pirate's pirate. No lurkin' about, no clever plans, no... no... pastry table in the galley!"
"You betrayed me because of my sweet tooth?!" Penny shouted, the hammer ticking its way back on her pistol, trigger half-squeezed.
"I didn't betray you! I'd never betray a Dreadful. I spared you from their assault!"
"You're not getting it, Chief--"
"My name is NIGEL!"
"Backstab any of my friends, any of my crew... and you backstab me," she declared. "But the worst insult of all was to Gilbert. So. Gilby? This is the man who may very well have sent your wife to her doom. The decision of his doom, I leave to you. Shall I shoot him? Say the word, and it will be."
The remaining crew, the truly loyal crew... stood their ground, all eyes on Gilbert Gearhaus. Whose own eyes were hidden as he looked to the floor, his bangs blocking any attempt to study his expression...
"Let me see that printout," he requested, in an even tone.
Curious, Penny approached... keeping her gun trained on Chief Engineer Nigel, as she offered the long, thin paper tape to Gilbert. The boy pulled it away, tugging it inch by inch through his fingers, studying the tiny encoded dots that translated to machine language output...
Less than a minute later, he understood.
"He didn't come up with this plan," Gilbert explained. "Someone gave it to him. This tape includes instructions on how to efficiently shut down Jeeves by throwing the emergency stop on his steam tank valve. The J-33 Valet and Equerry System is an incredibly ancient model. I'm one of the few people on Earth who would know how to cripple it. I've worked with this man on modifications to the ship... a talented engineer he may be, but he knows nothing about automaton technology, much less that of an obsolete model like Jeeves."
Finished with his analysis, he rolled up and pocketed the paper tape.
"No sense killing a man who's simply a tool of my true enemy, whoever that may be," he decided.
Nigel finally exhaled, in relief.
"But he did sell my wife to slavers. Throw him overboard," Gilbert spoke, as matter-of-factly as deciding on tea and sandwiches for lunch.
"What?" Nigel spoke, shortly before being grabbed by a number of sailors and tossed over the side of the railing.
Gilbert ignored the THUDpfff of a meaty fellow impacting against the loose sand dunes below, as well as the assorted curses that followed. He was fully aware that the ship was cruising low over the desert when he gave the order, after all.
"I've very little malice in my person, normally," he explained, to Penny. "But I'll tolerate no harm to my beloved. I'm going to your engine room to make some efficiency improvements, so that we may bring the fight to our enemy sooner. And then they will come to understand what it means to drive Gilbert Gearhaus to unpleasant acts."
Jesse awoke with a scream.
It wasn't a scream of fright, of course. That would be entirely unbecoming. It was more of a war cry, a declaration that whoever had done this to her was going in the ground by dawn's light.
She'd been chained to the sturdy wooden post of a tent, hands high above her head. No spell monocle, no blade. They'd stripped her naked, with the grainy and travel-worn post had already leaving many a splinter in her back. She hoped initially that the other warm body she'd been chained up next to was that of her husband, but he was a hand or two too tall of that. Which meant...
"Did they capture Gilbert as well, Benny?" Jesse asked.
"And good morning to you too, sunshine, yes, I'm doing very well, thanks for asking," the demon grumbled. "And I have no idea. I just came to an hour ago. Some lumpy guy said we'd be meeting with their leader once you came to. After that little howler monkey impression, I suspect that timetable's bumped up a bit..."
"Can you-- well, no, if you could've broken free, you'dve left this place by now," Jesse recognized, seeing the open fire pit a tantalizing distance away, its smoke curling up through a hole in the tent. "So. My spell monocle is gone, I can't cast an Unlock on these chains. What abilities do you have?"
"I can... negotiate our release. That's about it, without my coat," he admitted.
"I see. Well. It seems the strength of Satan's minions was highly trumped up in the holy records," Jesse mumbled. "I swear that if Gilbert has been brought to harm, there will be blood spilled--"
The main flaps on the tent flew open -- firelight from behind causing the hunched over figure to be silhouetted, featureless. The considerably larger and nastier looking guards that accompanied their tribal leader, those were unfortunately quite detailed... with more limbs than they should have had.
"Your companions are being tended to," a surprisingly gentle old woman's voice spoke. "There were unfortunate injuries in the process of conscripting them and disabling your machine-man. They will be in good health, soon. Ready for what lies ahead."
The groan from Benny's direction suggested to Jesse that 'what lies ahead' was known to him, and not pleasant at all.
"I'm ready for an explanation as to why you have dared to kidnap us," Jesse began, defiant in the face of her lack of modesty, and the distinct power imbalance present.
Slowly... the matriarch entered the tent, dragging one bad foot behind her, as she entered the light. There was a grace to her, despite the disfigurements, despite the signs of ancient injuries. She held her head high, as high as she physically could. Jesse could sense something of a warrior's pride, there, underneath layer after layer of misfortune...
"It's true, then? You and your companions are from foreign shores?" the Matriarch asked. "We are fortunate to have you. It's said that fresh blood brings good tidings for our kind, and yours fresh in so many ways... but that also means you aren't aware of who and what we are. You deserve an explanation, child. We are an honest people and will give you any answer you desire."
"Good. We can start with why you have disarmed and disrobed me," Jesse began.
"So that you cannot lash out in premature anger and harm your people, of course. It's part of the transition process all new members of our tribe go through. For your own safety as well as ours."
"Given I would likely cut you down where you stand, I suppose that's a reasonable precaution. Question two. What do you mean, 'harm your people,' as if they're MY people...?"
"They are your people. You are one of us, now. Your blood belongs to the tribe," the Matriarch said, with a lopsided smile. "Welcome home, child. You will join with us, bringing your strength to our strength, and we will prosper. It's the first step of a long journey together. Your old life is gone -- none will take you in now that you are one of us. You are tainted as we are. But we will protect you, feed you, clothe you, and love you. We are your family."
The Broker felt the need to interject.
"Basically, they kidnap non-irradiated people, chain them up, and rape them over and over until they can produce enough non-stillborn kids to keep the tribe from collapsing into a pile of genetic inbreeding," he summarized. "Don't worry. The Stockholm Syndrome should set in about the same time the cysts and tumors start growing."
An entire lifetime without so much as a sprained ankle. She got chicken pox once, but it was over and done with soon enough, and at worst she'd been itchy. Being a sheltered suburbanite, in a walled community far from danger... not taking up any physical activities or sports... she'd been safe and secure for her entire life.
Now her right arm had been fractured in two places, and it hurt more than any other pain she'd felt before. So much so that all she could do was cry quietly. Couldn't even scream. That hurt too much.
The last thing she'd remembered was triggering her wrist-mounted gun holster. The feel of the steel sliding into her hand. Finger on the trigger, aimed at the charging wall of muscle coming at her...
She didn't shoot him.
So, he grabbed her arm and squeezed, to shatter the weapon mechanism. And coincidentally, shatter her arm.
Chloe awoke in a darkened tent, three of her four limbs chained to posts of a primitive military cot, with her broken arm soaking in some sort of green gel. The hulking figure of Jeeves could be seen... with no light in his single eye. He'd been shut down.
"You're going to be fine," the Mutant doctor insisted, grinning with both smiles.
And then the crying started.
He'd tried to comfort her, and to his credit, he was doing his best. He tried to bring a positive message to all this. They didn't want to hurt her, on the contrary, they wanted her to be completely healthy. She was part of a family now. She'd be cared for. They'd make sure sure was happy all her days. And, if she didn't mind, he'd very much like to be her first, as she was very pretty and he'd treat her right and would be gentle...
The horror tales Benny related on the way home from her bread incident came back. He'd explained the whole tragic backstory to her, in his casual, disinterested sort of way. The atrocities these Mutants committed just to keep their tribe going, to keep from dying out. What they did to new 'recruits'. Why the poor child she only wanted to help ran away from her. Everything...
The knowing wasn't bringing her an ease of mind.
Her arm wasn't healing. It was just... stabilizing, in some sense, fusing the broken bone into a twisted shape. Infections were setting in. Fever rising. Fear fueling the heat in her head, the steam rising from her skin. Breaths coming so short and sharp, foggy vision. The doctor continuing to prattle on, worried now, trying to soothe her worries and tell her how great everything was going to be...
Chloe's head rolled to one side. Her protector, so silent and dark, so far away. If she could just reach out to him...
It wasn't that cold, and yet, she could see her own breath.
Metal moved of its own accord, despite the physics involved which said he had no business getting up, that his shutoff valve was still firmly in the off position. His one eye glowed a bright white.
Perhaps he sensed that she bore no real malice towards this man, who was only trying to help, despite the danger he represented. Jeeves was gentle with him, disabling him quietly, and without serious injury.
The AutoButler knelt at her bedside, carefully pulling apart links in the chains that held her.
The Matriarch felt surprising surprise at this reaction. Fear and sorrow, those she was used to washing away with platitudes... but bravery enough to declare one's anger, that wasn't as common. Truly, the fresh blood was fresher than most they'd encountered...
Jesse didn't physically spit upon her, but the look in her eyes conveyed the same effect.
"I find it disgusting that a fellow woman would stoop to operating a rape camp," she said. "If this was one of those repulsive little post-apocalyptic camps of armed thugs, led by a big burly bastard of a man, I could at least understand it. I've dealt with that sort before. But this? No. You are utterly contemptible."
"You've never been as desperate as we are. You don't understand, not yet," the Matriarch insisted. "Our tribe constantly lives on a knife's edge. Legends say we nearly defeated the British, with our ancestors having great power, great and wonderful power... but they pushed us back. Hunted us. Between our old enemies, raids from other tribes of this landmass, and our own rotting bodies... conscription was the only way we could survive--"
"That implies you have any right to survive. I say you do not."
"We ALWAYS survive," the Matriarch declared, her own anger starting to grow. "Our ancestors survived the wrath of Atom. They carved an existence out of their dead world. We were brought here against our will, and yet, we survived the early days. We destroyed the Napoleonic forces. The blood-drinkers, the lizard tyrants, the Steel Pharaoh... all fell, while we endured for two hundred years! ...we even consumed the Amazon tribes, and now their blood powers our tribal leaders. We are forever. We will not give up. That is the human spirit!"
"You know what you want, and you obtain it at all costs. Exactly."
Benny twisted a bit, trying to peer around the post, needing push Jesse slightly out of the way to do so.
"Please allow me to introduce myself," he greeted. "Benny the Broker. I wanted to say... I admire your drive. Many of my best customers are survivors. You don't get through two hundred years Post-Pandora without the strength to get the things you want. So. You want us, then?"
The Matriarch settled herself, to nod in agreement. "You are our family. I'd say we already have you. But, yes... you understand the power of our will."
"Good, good. But I have to warn you, my services are not cheap. Rest assured that the Broker is capable of coming to terms, and is willing to participate in your family if a mutual understanding can be reached. So. Let's get dealing. What would you be willing to offer me in exchange for, let's say, three breeding attempts?"
Jesse's jaw sagged. "...are you... NEGOTIATING with this vile slavemonger!?"
"I told you my superpower was negotiation, didn't I? I may be merely a man, but I'm a man who has something they want," Benny reasoned. "Why do we have to resort to unpleasantness and name calling? All business is a matter of balancing desires to ensure mutual satisfaction of all parties. She DID say we could have a pleasant life here, and I'm all about having a pleasant life."
The tribal leader, delighted with this turn of events, nodded along gratefully. "Your life will be very pleasant indeed, if you understand and cooperate. I suppose... I am willing to discuss terms. I'm a believer in reason, after all."
"Then the reasonable thing to do would be to unchain me, so we can begin," Benny suggested. "It's not like I can flee on foot. I know the tribal structure of your people; you have hundreds, and I'm only one man. Escape isn't exactly likely. Plus, you may need a demonstration of my genetic prowess, which I'd be happy to provide."
Her eyes darted to the fire, and then back to Benny. He's going to make a run for it, the coward! blazed across Jesse's mind. She considered calling him out on it, to punish him, quickly, before the the seven foot tall guards finished unchaining him...
"I'd also like my coat, if you don't mind," Benny said, indicating to the brown duster lying atop piles of their belongings, across the tent. "It's a bit chilly, even with the fire."
At this... the Matriarch paused. She turned, to consider the coat...
"No doubt your men have searched my pockets and found nothing but lint, so it's not like this is a ruse. It's just a garment," Benny insisted. "But it has sentimental value to me, and it'd go a long way towards showing our mutual respect and understanding. Please, ma'am? ...Grandmatriarch?"
Four tense seconds slid by... before she gave the briefest of nods, to her guards. The coat was offered. Benny bowed his head in thanks, slipping into his treasured overcoat, taking a moment to relish in the feel of its fabric on his skin. The warmth of his pockets. The depths of them, once properly opened by a demon's touch...
"Right," he said, fully centered now, and ready to begin. "Now then, I think my friend would like to have a word with you."
Smoothly, he withdrew a book bound in blood-red Fae silks, already open to the right page. Then held it in front of Jesse's eyes.
She allowed herself a malicious smile, before reading aloud.
"," she spoke.
The blast kicked up sand, shreds of tent, and sparks from the fire pit twenty feet into the air. It was visible even from this far away, a flash of explosive rage, visible against the dimly lit tents of the Mutant encampment...
"She's alive!" Gilbert declared, with joy.
Penny peered across the way, as flaming debris began to settle. "What? How do you know?"
A second explosion joined the first. And a third. Screams of rage and howls filled the air, echoing across the sands, all the way to the decks of the Dreadnacht, as it swiftly approached the chaos...
"Because that's what happens when you insult my wife," he spoke, pointing to the fireballs. "Poor bastards. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost."
The captain turned to face her troops... drawing her saber and pistol, ready for a fight. The metallic sounds of weapons being readied joined her, dozens of them, scattering like a wave across the assembled crew...
"This is to be an air to ground raiding party!" she shouted, over the rushing wind, the Dreadnacht's modified engines pushing them onward with speed. "I want a controlled sortie. We retrieve the prisoners, we take anything valuable, and we are gone by morning light! For the glory of the Dreadful Brigade! For Captain Dreadful!"
"FOR THE BRIGADE! FOR THE CAPTAIN!"
"Reverse the engines and throw out the ropes the instant we hit the camp borders! We swarm them in under a minute!" Penny declared, pointing the way with her blade.
As the pirates got properly pumped up... Gilbert leaned against the railing, turning his head to look at the warzone they were about to join.
A few dozen pirates. A few hundred Mutants.
Truth be told, these were not good odds. The Dreadnacht would be a nice, open target, hanging in the sky. Finding all the prisoners, getting them back to the ship, and getting away without being taken down by a desperate and violent tribal army... it was bloody unlikely. Far more likely was a situation involving being pounded to death under fists with six fingers.
Well, If I'm to die today, he decided, at least it's going to be with my beloved at my side. We agreed to that the day she shared my fate.
"Tally ho," he spoke under his breath, before grasping a rope, and swinging down into the nightmare.
The only appropriate word was "warzone."
The Broker had no place in a warzone. He had plenty of places to be just outside them, usually making deals with those who would eventually march off into the warzone to die... but a businessman had no purpose in combat. If things break down to the point where weapons are being drawn, the Broker has failed in his duty to satisfy the client's demands. Failed to a catastrophic degree.
However, "saving your own skin" was as critical a skill for a Broker as negotiation. It was another form of negotiation, where the item on sale is your continued existence, and the tools being used are primarily pointy, explody, or blasty.
Jesse was a master of all three. Especially when armed with the Crimson Tome of Ur-Felrial.
"When this is done, you and I are going to have a discussion as to how you obtained one of the Faerie Court's most sacred and guarded texts!" she declared, while hurling around balls of fire, shards of ice, and blasts of utter darkness. She was trying not to rely on the book very much, as each spell she cast burned away pages of it, but the seven foot tall walls of diseased muscle swarming on all sides were not the sort you wanted to get too close. An energized Spellblade or not, Jesse was not keen on going toe to toe with them if possible.
"I assure you, it was a legitimate purchase from an interested seller!" Benny declared, while furiously pumping at the coil in the hilt of his electric blunderbuss (one of the last remnants of the Pandora-displaced Napoleonic tribes of Africa, a priceless antique). Once it was charged enough, he unloaded it into the crowd, trying to pave a path towards the next set of tents. The shocks were enough to drive the enemy back... but not particularly far.
"I fail to see how one of the Five Tomes of Darkness, bound in blood by the Winter Queen herself, could possibly be a bargaining chip in one of your nefarious deals!" Slash, blast, light a guy on fire...
"Let's just say that Baron Pel'a of the Ontario Wastes has a bit of a gambling problem!" Benny explained, working up another blast charge. "He needed fifty caskets of springberry wine, and I had a supplier in India which made a similar drink, and--"
"IT! CAN! WAIT!" Jesse reminded him, momentarily locking blades with a mutant bearing a woven staff of steel rebar, before shoving him away. "Just look for Gilbert and Chloe! We need to find them before we make a break for it!"
Something soft and rope-y smacked Benny in the face.
He waved it away, before looking up -- and diving out of the way, before a pile of pirates could slide down the rope, right on top of him.
Next up, Gilbert Gearhaus, armed with a fencing blade... and swinging on a rope alongside Penny Dreadful, who was already taking potshots into the crowd, trying to scare off the nearest grouping, so they could make a safe landing. Right next to Benny and Jesse.
Despite the chaos, the groom took a moment to peck his wife on the cheek.
"Miss me, love?" he asked, before standing back to back with her, sword drawn, ready to defend their marriage against all comers.
How did they get here that fast!? Benny wondered... as one moment the sky had been empty, the next, giant pirate sky-ship. Beefy fellows with cutlasses and pistols began to pour out... swinging down on ropes, climbing down ladders, some simply jumping from hatches below decks to land in the sand below. Within seconds, instead of two desperate naked slave escapees fighting for freedom... they were part of an army.
Which would be great, if their "army" wasn't outnumbered by a "massive legion".
Seeing the ship changed the tone of the fight. This wasn't just a prisoner outbreak, something that a wave of guards could deal with. This was a war for survival.
Mutants streamed out of tents, ready to fight. Lesser matriarchs, barking orders, pointing the way with crude spears or rotting firearms. Teenagers old enough and healthy enough to join the fight, armed with clubs and sticks and pots and pans and whatever they could find...
And the shock troops. So called because of their neural shock abilities. Sometimes, the radiation gives you more than leukemia, after all.
That familiar headache hit Benny in a wave which sent the pirates staggering. The tribe had brought out its strongest weapon... the one they used to do a smash and grab in the middle of Tortuga, earlier that night.
If this continued, then their little rebellion would be squashed flat. A pile of pirates wobbling around in vertigo was no match for a horde of barbarians, even barbarians bursting at the seams with cancer.
Benny focused, trying to find the source. Trace the pain. Demons knew pain -- they were innately familiar with the concept. It was like drawing a line from one fire to another... connecting your agony to the one dealing the agony. Normally not a practical ability, but in this case...
The little boy, who accepted a toaster pastry from him, what felt like ages ago. He stood, trembling in fear, as he projected that fear outwards. The Matriarch at his side, encouraging him on, telling him to punish the enemies of the family...
Well. That changed matters. Benny drew as much concentration as he could, taking aim with his electric blunderbuss. One good shot would be enough to put the kid's lights out better than the electric chair at San Quentin. And unlike his companions, Benny had absolutely no problems executing a child if it meant saving his skin. They probably wouldn't thank him later, of course, but at least there'd be a later...
Trigger, and done.
Jagged electricity arced through the air, weaving around the mess of mutants, homing in on its designated victim. Time crawled, as Benny waited for the throbbing agony in his head to end, waited for the kill shot to land...
A metallic blur interposed itself.
The lightning slammed into Jeeves' chestplate, arcs splattering and dancing across the brass automaton's surface. Being entirely clockwork and steamwork, of course, a little lightning did very little to him. His monocle flickered slightly... and resumed its normal colored glow.
Well, now we're dead, Benny complained inwardly.
And they stopped.
All of them.
The Broker's mind cleared instantly. Which meant he could take another shot at it, maybe pump enough wattage into the robot to fry everyone around it including the brat... but that wasn't an option, now. The fight was over. He knew it. Everybody knew it. The word had been spoken.
His weapon lowered itself. Eyes locked on the one who spoke the Word.
"All they're trying to do is go back to their own families!" Chloe called out, her voice ringing through the still of the night. "Don't you see? You're trying to add to your own family, but you're destroying other families to do it. All of you once were in other families! Over and over, you kidnap, you hurt people, and then the ones you hurt learn to kidnap and hurt again! No one here was part of this tribe when Pandora hit. The ones who started this all, the evil ones, they've been dead more than a century! Their world burned, this world could've been their second chance, but they shunned it in favor of the easy path. You're just repeating their injustices!"
She stepped forward, towards the center of the warzone, the fever driving her on. Her guardian followed... keeping a good distance, as did anyone she passed by, edging away from her as she moved to rejoin her friends. Every eye in the camp was upon her, now. All ears were open to her words...
"You don't have to do this anymore! It's over. You've been hurt, you're sick... but you could get better. If you stop forcing people to help you, maybe they'd want to help you anyway! There are good people out there, but you're so used to taking what you want, that you haven't even considered asking for what you need. You can be helped! All you have to do is... put an end to this. Forcing people to join your tribe. You can have a better future than this! Think back to how you were hurt. Remember how you felt! It can stop, right here, right now! Will you put an end to this?!"
For one moment... one precious moment... even Benny was able to feel hope.
The Matriarch was the first to react.
Fell to her knees... she stared at her gnarled, scarred hands. Eyes wide, with the horror of memory.
"I... I was an Amazon, once," she recalled. "They captured me when the tribe finally broke the last of our enclaves. ...they... they did this to me... I was going to do this again to... I DID do this again, and again..."
"I want to go home!" a voice cried out, from the middle of the sea of distorted faces. "I'm from Germany! I grew up in a fishing village. I want to go home! I want to see the ocean again!"
When she finally reached her friends, directly below the Dreadnacht... Chloe sagged, her strength starting to fade, after that burst of strange adrenaline started to fade. Her smile, though... that wasn't fading.
Not until reality set in.
"I was born to this tribe! This is the TRIBE!" a larger Mutant declared. "There is no other family for us! There is nowhere else to be. We will grow strong! We will conquer!"
"I'm leaving! I'm not staying one more minute!"
"And where will you go? There is nowhere to go!"
"I DON'T CARE! Get out of my way or I'll--"
Cudgel came down on top of skull. Bone shattered. Blood spilled.
The war resumed. Difference being, it was no longer Mutant versus Outsider. It was Mutant versus Mutant.
There was no way of knowing it, not from their perspective at ground zero... but that was the spark that ultimately lit Africa on fire. For months and months following, all across the rag-tag city states and disputed zones, the Mutant tribe would shatter. They would become split near evenly in two. Civil war, brother against brother, sister against sister, raging and destroying all unfortunate enough to be caught up in its wake.
It would be a war of ideals and power and domination, one which would never be truly settled. Her attempt to reach out to them had touched off the bloodiest war that the continent had seen in years.
As the battle cries sounded, as raw emotion poured itself out into absolute violence, Chloe's smile faded instantly.
"I... I wasn't trying to..." she whispered, weaker by the second, clinging to Benny for support. "I just wanted to help them..."
"We need to leave," Jesse recognized. "Quickly, before they notice us."
"Right. Everybody up a rope. I'll help carry Chloe," Benny immediately offered. "But first. Uh. Chloe? You may want to put those away. They're kind of burning off a layer of skin whenever they brush against me..."
Chloe tried to follow Benny's worried look, at something just over her shoulder.
It led to a pair of brilliant, glowing wings. Ones which were hovering just behind her, made of mist and light. The sign from Above which had been enough to make an entire battle stop in its tracks.
They faded after she passed out.
The Clockwork Mermaid rocked gently beneath her. It was enough to lull her back to sleep twice after rousing.
Eventually, the spill of daylight through her window was enough to keep her from curling up under the covers for another few blissful moments of unconsciousness.
The first thing she did was look at her arm. It was flawlessly mended... likely Mended with a capital M, by the resident witch on duty, while she was asleep. And hopefully without any residual sickness from whatever 'healing' the tribe was trying to give her...
The second thing she did was look at the demon sitting by her bedside. And wonder how on earth she'd ever managed to sleep with that buzzsaw of a snore going off next to her.
"Benny...?" she asked, voice a bit horse, but loud enough to rouse him.
The Broker groaned himself awake, snorting back a final snore. He stretched, trying to unkink joints that had kinked up plenty from a night in a chair. Not that he needed to sleep. But sometimes, you just gotta.
"I've had a weird dream," Chloe spoke.
Benny sat forward in his chair, to listen. "Oh?"
"I saw... a city. A silver city," she said, trying to grasp for the details, before they evaporated from her memory. "And there were... all these people, flying around. Not with wings, exactly, but--"
"The idea of wings. Like light, hovering, floating along with them. Wings of mist."
Now, Chloe was the one to sit forward, eyes wide. "How did you know that?"
"I told you already, remember?" Benny said. "I was there, once. Before I fell. Chloe... I can't exactly say HOW it's possible, but... we gotta face facts here. After your performance last night, there's no doubt about it. You're an angel."
She waited for the rest of the joke. It wasn't coming.
"That's... I mean, that can't be possible, can it?" she asked. "That's just silly..."
"Listen. I'm the subject matter expert, here," he reminded. "You're a guardian angel. Just like I used to be. It makes perfect sense now; it's why you get the weird feelings, why you're able to smell out danger. Why you felt so familiar to me. Some angelic aspect of you wants to save people. ...you told me once that your ancestors were British. Tell me. Did they show up before or AFTER the Pandora Event?"
"Well... it'd have to be before, right?" she asked. "The Kraken shut down the borders, after all..."
"I don't know. Maybe. But I'm starting to put a few things together, here. And I wouldn't doubt President Petersen did the same. Genealogy is a tricky business, but if anybody could trace it, it'd be the president of Eastusa... little bastard probably sent you along expecting something like this..."
"This doesn't make any sense. I'm not... some ageless immortal, like you. I was born. I grew up!"
"And now you've got wings. Well. Not NOW, but you know what I mean. I know this is pretty bizarre, but... I'm going to sort it out, I promise. I'll help you figure it out."
"I see. And... how much will that cost me, Mr. Broker?"
"Hardy har har. On the house, kiddo, don't worry about that..."
His hand was ruffling her dark hair before he realized he was doing it. That stopped, quickly.
The awkwardness broke whatever pleasant hope there was at the moment. Which dipped Chloe's mind into a dark place.
"...they're going to war now, aren't they," she asked.
"The Muties? Mhmm. Probably. I've seen enough wars start to know the signs," Benny confirmed.
"I wasn't trying to make things worse. I just wanted to help..." Chloe said. "I wanted to make their world a bit less horrible. And I might've made it even more horrible... how could I possibly be a guardian angel? I screwed everything up. I brought them nothing but sorrow..."
"I wouldn't say that, now. What you did was bring them hope. Some of them, at least, saw hope that they could be more than what they've been for two hundred years. ...problem is, a spark of hope is just as likely to kickstart a war as anything else. Gives them something to fight for. In the end, who knows? Maybe they'll come out of this mess better. Or worse. It's not your place to say. Only one Above gets that say..."
"Of course, plenty of profit to be made arming both sides!" Benny declared. Albeit with a joking grin. "Shame we'll be too busy shutting down another war machine to keep this one rolling. We'll just have to hope they sort out their own mess without us. We've got a mess of our own, after all."
It didn't bring her much comfort, knowing that even if the outcome could be wonderful... the road to get there would be bathed in blood. Blood she had a hand in spilling...
Ahh. There it is, Chloe recognized. The melancholy. I'd missed it.
Slowly, Benny got to his feet, trying to order them to no longer be asleep.
"Rest up, kiddo," he recommended. "We're back in the action once we hit the Spanish border. Just... do your best, and let the chips fall where they may. We aren't perfect, after all."
In the control room of the Clockwork Mermaid, the captain was busy adjusting levers and twisting knobs. Practicing with the transformation controls, figuring out the best order in which to trigger the mechanisms, how to shift from form to form with the most efficiency...
It was a child's task, for one with a mind of steam and numbers such as Gilbert Gearhaus. The lion's share of his mind was on another problem.
Warm hands embraced him, from behind. A kiss to the cheek.
"Troubled?" Jesse asked.
Gilbert glanced down... to the ragged paper tape, unspooled across his control panel, the ends held in place with teacups.
"I think we've picked up a nemesis, love," Gilbert said. "Likely the same one who arranged for our beacon to break down."
"It's troubling. Most steamwork machines are capable of printing ticker tape like this," he explained. "The Mermaid's console does it. Jeeves does it. Even the coffee maker in the galley can do it, if only to spit out a debug message when its valves get jammed. But whoever crafted this tape... he knew exactly how to disable Jeeves. He knew where to strike, where to find Mutants willing to assault the middle of Tortuga and carry us away. He knew precisely how to take us down and halt our mission..."
"If he wanted us dead, he did a poor job."
"That's the sick of it, love. He gave us a chance to turn back, last time. This time he schemed to leave us alive, even if we'd be indoctrinated in a radioactive war tribe. Next time, we might not be so... lucky."
"Odd. Still... England knows we're coming, it seems?" Jesse recognized.
"That's the least troubling possibility. Remember, whoever sabotaged the ship was either in America prior to our launch... or on the ship after launch. I don't WANT to suspect any of us, honestly..."
"Then don't. There's no sense second guessing, and that's coming from the one who was first to hurl accusations after that incident," Jesse said. "I am not the sort to avoid traps. So, our enemy is setting traps? Let them. We will destroy them, one by one, each time drawing closer to the enemy. I will take the final blow, myself... and they will know that their best efforts were in vain. No one can stop Gilbert Gearhaus and Jesse Runeblade."
The engineer smiled, at the thought. "That's the woman I love, dear and truly. Mmm. Won't be a pleasant experience, but I suppose the only way out is through. Very well! We'll take afternoon tea, enjoy an evening by the fireside, and in the morning, begin our relentless and subversive assault upon the British Empire."
"Excellent. I'll have Jeeves put the kettle on," Jesse agreed.
Chains, clinking in the darkness. A network of chains, woven throughout the room, bolted down to seven iron plates hundreds of years old. The bonds hadn't been replaced in all that time, and yet no rust coated the hanging arcs of metalwork... and despite the ancient nature of the prison cell, the one imprisoned there had never broken free.
It was imperative that the prison remain unbroken for all time. The bound figure in the mask would never be free. It was the only way.
The man considered the problem before him. He could feel them drawing closer, closer by the day. They had no idea this was their ultimate destination, but he knew it as sure as the sun rose on creation in the east.
You have to stop them, he communicated. They cannot continue down this road. It would be the undoing of everything I've worked to build, the ruination of my efforts.
The mind he touched offered protests and explanations. None of it mattered.
Your attempt to stop them before they could even leave their shores failed. You did your best, but you need to do better. Be merciless, no matter the mercy in your heart. If you fail... there will be no mercy for the helpless ones. A little malice, to achieve a great mercy. I'm sorry. There is no other way.
His puppet was not pleased at this rationale. Not that it mattered. His will be done.
He suppressed the connection for now, and prayed that his saboteur's actions would be enough to stop the madness. If the mortals broke these chains, if the prisoner was released from his burdens, suffering would follow. Great human suffering, like the plagues that inspired him to craft this prison, to take such drastic action. So much desperation and misery...
Unacceptable. He would not allow any further suffering. The grace of God would prevail.
to be continued
copyright 2010 stefan gagne