Note: Aboard the Unstoppable Aerostat Fenris is a steampunk novella, the first in The Steam and Steel Chronicles. You can purchase it on Kindle (including in the UK), Smashwords, and for Nook. Below is the first scene.
The sights and sounds of the market day in Guryev were an easy distraction that Isabelle just couldn’t afford. The smell of food permeated everything around her and left her stomach growling. There was shuzhuk sausage made from smoked horse meat and kuyrdak boiling in oil. Neither were particularly her favorite, but she eyed the vendors selling them just the same. As usual, they paid too much attention to their wares and their customers to bother with.
She moved on, studying the other stalls, looking for someone not paying attention. Finally, a few blocks down the street, she saw her mark.
“Oy! Get out of here you little gutter rat!”
Isabelle grabbed two bright green apples from the dingy market stand before the man selling them could grab the back of her dress. She slipped deftly into the crowd, running and keeping low, praying he wouldn’t follow. The odds were in her favor—if he chased after her, it would mean leaving his stand open to more thieves.
She dipped into an alleyway, glancing over her shoulder to see if he or anyone else was behind her. He wasn’t, not that she could see. To be safe, she hid behind a stack of old wooden crates that reeked of rotten cabbage halfway down the alley. It hid her well from the street and the throngs of people shopping there.
She looked down at the fruit in her hands as she caught her breath. They weren’t much, just a couple of wormy, unripe apples now that she looked closer at them, but it was better than nothing. And nothing was all she’d had for three days.
Rats scurried about the alley around her, picking through garbage bins and refuse, looking for a meal just as she was. It seemed like everyone was close to starving lately, even the animals. She’d tried going the legitimate route to get food, but there wasn’t much in the way of work for a girl her age. At least not the kind of work she wanted to take on.
Security was tightening in the city and had been for close to a month. The air was electric with anxiety, practically humming with it, and she’d overheard the word “war” on more than one occasion. Something was happening. Something big.
Isabelle just needed to make sure she wasn’t in the wrong place when whatever it was finally went down. She’d been in the wrong place enough lately.
When both apples were gone and the cores tossed into the corner for the rats to finish off, Isabelle went back to the alley entrance. She glanced around the market, scanning the crowd for the vendor she borrowed her lunch from. When she was sure the coast was clear, she ducked out of the alley and slipped in amongst the crowd, moving in the same direction as a group of girls about her age, hoping to blend in. Her worn-out, dirty dress stood out like a sore thumb among their clean and pressed dresses and fur-trimmed hats, but maybe no one would notice. Isabelle had practiced hard at blending in and escaping notice when it was to her benefit.
The waterfront was a few blocks away and the crowds thinned out some as Isabelle neared. The cold, late-fall weather and frigid breeze coming off the water were enough to keep most people away. Isabelle pulled her tattered sweater tighter around her shoulders and tried not to shiver.
There were a few ships anchored along the bank of the Ural River, mostly steam freighters, their hulls rusty and covered in barnacles. She’d considered stowing away on one more than once, but they never went anywhere more interesting than where she was. Mostly they just went further up the river or out to the Caspian Sea, but even those stuck closely to the Kazakh coastline.
Giant gulls circled overhead, occasionally diving into the water and plucking out a fish. As soon as one gull came up with a fish, the others would circle and start fighting for it. They were oblivious to the storm approaching on the horizon, its dark gray clouds filling the eastern sky. It would probably be there by nightfall, if not sooner. Isabelle needed to find a place to bunk down for the night. Preferably one that was dry, if not also warm. If the storm brought snow or freezing rain, she sure as hell didn’t want to end up sleeping in a doorway or under a crate in some alley.
The airfield wasn’t far ahead, maybe a mile, and the hangars there could shelter her for the night. The older hangars often had loose boards, and if you knew where they were, you could slip inside undetected. At least you could if you were as tiny as Isabelle. Being small for her age had presented plenty of problems in her days on the streets, but it also gave her a few advantages. If she got lucky, maybe she could even find a hangar with a wood stove or a kerosene heater.
The wind picked up more as she walked, and Isabelle regretted giving her coat away the week before to the mother of a little girl who was sick with a fever and on the verge of freezing to death at the same time. Now Isabelle might be the one to freeze to death.
The airfield was deserted when she got there, and she slipped through the fence at the back. There wasn’t much security on a good day, and with a storm approaching, the airfield’s administrator would stay tucked away in his office, probably sitting in front of his own kerosene heater and keeping warm. If she could find a hangar with a wood stove inside, she might be able to start a small fire without it being noticed. It was risky, though, because if someone did notice, she’d have to make a run for it. That would mean being stuck out in the storm, likely for the duration.
She ran her hands along the boards of the oldest-looking hangar, feeling for any that would give under her touch. Finally, she found one and pried at it until it gave and slid aside. Once she’d slipped through, she replaced the board carefully behind her to keep the wind out. At least in this kind of stormy weather, she wouldn’t have to worry about any ships coming in and disturbing her in the night.
Her eyes took a few minutes to adjust to the dim light, and she blinked hard to help them along. There were some old packing crates stacked in one corner, covered in coarse canvas tarps. The cloth would be a good makeshift blanket for the night. There was no wood stove in site. Too bad. It was already freezing and only getting colder as the sun lowered in the sky behind the thick cloud cover.
She walked over to the crates and started moving them around, turning them into a makeshift bed she could lie on to keep her off the cold dirt floor. When they were arranged as best she could manage, she found as many tarps and fabric scraps as she could, fashioning them into a lumpy sort of mattress. It wouldn’t be long before the storm arrived in full force, blowing in across the bay. The sky grew darker by the minute and the wind howled through the eaves and between the nearby buildings. Debris pounded against the outside walls. Some of it sounded big, like it might do actual damage. She hoped the old building would hold up. By the look of it, the odds might be against her. Craftsmanship, not to mention maintenance, weren’t exactly a priority at small airfields.
Above it all, though, she thought she could hear the sound of engines in the distance. Big engines, powering propellers. The kind airships used.
But no one was crazy enough to try to land in a storm like this. There just wasn’t any way to do it. A ship would be thrown around in the wind like a leaf, and at any moment it might be slammed into the ground by an unexpected gust. The best case scenario would result in a badly damaged ship. Worst case would result in the fuel igniting or exploding.
Isabelle got up from her bed and went to the wall, looking for a loose board in the direction of the landing area. She found one beside a faded poster warning airship captains to beware of Sirens near the North Sea, and slipped it aside an inch, glad the wind was coming from the other direction.
Sure enough, there was an airship coming closer, swaying and jolting in the wind, barely staying upright and simultaneously in the air. Whoever the crazy captain of that ship was, he was trying to land it. Isabelle quickly wondered how large the explosion would be if it crash-landed and if her hangar would be blown apart. She didn’t think so, at least not with the wind in her favor.
She watched in awe as the ship pitched and swayed before bouncing off the ground once and then finally setting down. It was an older ship, designed for hauling cargo, and in poor condition. The lift balloons had been patched so many times it was hard to tell which parts of them were original and which were repairs. The lines leading to them were stained and dirty, and the brass hardware on the ship was dark with age. Isabelle didn’t know much about airships, but she didn’t need to to see this one was junk.
And yet, it had landed in weather like this.
Drive wheels engaged and it powered toward the hangar where Isabelle was hiding.
Oh, shit, she thought. If she was caught in the hangar, they could have her arrested. She could be locked up for weeks, maybe even months. And if they figured out she was only sixteen, she could end up at the orphanage again.
She hurried to the back of the hangar, looking for the loose boards. They wouldn’t budge. She tried the boards to either side, wondering if she was mistaken about which boards were loose. No luck. Looking through the cracks between the boards, she saw something dark piled up against it. Something had been blown up against the back wall, and by the look of it, it was something big.
There was no escape. The hangar doors were opening. Light filled the building along with swirling dust. Isabelle scrambled for her makeshift bed, crouching behind it and pulling a tarp down to cover herself.
She peered over the top and watched as the ship rolled in. Emblazoned on the side was the word Fenris. Isabelle wondered what kind of name that was for an aerostat. The bow of the ship had a carving of a snarling wolf.
When it had come to a stop, the captain jumped down from the deck, his greasy oilskin coat flaring out for a moment, and pulled the doors closed. It was dark again. She watched as he looked around the room, his eyes stopping on her crate-bed for a little too long. Had he seen her? Something about the way he stared made her think he had, but then he looked away, and her heartbeat slowed a fraction. Maybe she was safe after all.
Of course, she was still trapped.