“I said open fire, damn it!”
The unfeminine voice on the radio crackled with distortion as the Lord Admiral shouted.
Captain Jim Keery stood beside the helm of the airship Powdered Maiden, a swift but lightly armored cruiser. The leather of his gloves groaned as he tightened his grip on the radio transmitter. Despite the overcast weather, light poured through the ballistic glass at the fore of the bridge, but the brim of Keery’s peaked cap cast shadows below his brow. They melded into the trim brown beard that followed the contours of his jaw from temple to temple.
From behind him, a man in a similar, though less adorned, dark blue uniform stepped forward, his boots echoing on the steel floors. “Orders, Captain?”
“Commander Doget,” Keery said, hesitating with a command.
After a moment, Doget prompted him, “Sir?”
The words fell out of Keery’s mouth like lead weights, “Order the forward battery to open fire.”
“Aye, sir,” Commander Doget said. He stepped to the back of the bridge and lifted the mouthpiece of the ship intercom to his mouth. “Forward battery, fire at will!”
Keery stepped toward the ballistic glass at the front of the bridge and raised a gloved hand to his chin. The bow of the ship stretched dozens of yards ahead, but the bridge was situated high enough to treat Keery to a stellar view of the massacre. Fifty feet below the iron-sided airship, a beautiful sea of green foliage surrounded a sizeable encampment of refugees from the Azurian countryside.
A few moments passed before the forward guns rotated toward their targets, but soon shockwaves from the muffled blasts shook the ship and delivered death upon the civilians below. The canvas tents erected by the refugees erupted in flames, while shells tore people apart. Some were lucky to be struck directly, while others received terrible wounds from shrapnel as the ordnance exploded into thousands of shards. Keery hand slide to his mouth to hide the horror on his face.
A few minutes of carnage were enough. Keery turned to Doget, “Cease fire.”
“Aye, sir,” Doget responded, and relayed the command to the ship. The firing stopped.
Keery grabbed the transmitter to the radio, “The main camp has been destroyed, Lord Admiral.”
The voice came through the receiver with more clarity than before, “Excellent, are there survivors?”
“Some, my Lord,” Keery said, trying to maintain his composure.
“How many are there, Captain?”
“A few hundred remain, my Lord. They are scattered, but most are dead or dying.”
Without a delay, the Lord Admiral ordered, “Notify the Army of their location and return to Laurel for debriefing.”
“Aye, my Lord. We’ll return at once.” Keery hung the transmitter on the side of the radio then turned to Commander Doget.
“You heard him, Commander. I’ll be in my quarters.” Keery did not wait for acknowledgement.
The Imperial capital of Laurel shined brightly in the afternoon sun. It stretched out in every direction as the Powdered Maiden approached, a mixture of emerald fields and clusters of plaster and stucco structures girdled by ribbons of cobblestone streets that ran across the city. Keery stood at the window of his quarters as Doget brought the Maiden in to dock. The shipyards were almost empty, aside from a few ships undergoing repairs or salvage. The ship shuddered as the belly set down on the docking platform, and the unsettling silence crept in as the steam engines came to a halt and the continuous thrumming background noise ceased.
Keery pulled the dark blue double-breasted coat on over his shoulders and fastened the brass buttons bearing the crest of House Davvis: a displayed eagle with its wings spread wide, a single head wreathed in bay leaves. He adjusted the golden braids hanging from his epaulets and straightened the medals hanging from his right breast. Last, he hung his saber from his belt, pulled on his cap and swung open the hatch to the passageway that ran the length of the ship.
The clamor that usually echoed from the iron walls of the passageway was absent. The Maiden had been manned by a skeleton crew for several weeks now, after the majority of them were re-assigned to ships engaging the remnants of the Azurian Republic’s Navy beyond the northern marches of the Enclave. Keery walked swiftly through the empty corridors toward the exit at the rear of the ship. An airman greeted him at the exit, saluted, and opened the door. Keery briefly saluted and disembarked the ship. Behind him, the boatswain’s call resounded in flat tones.
After a quick lunch in the officer’s mess, Keery set off for the offices of Lord Alva Colley, Admiral of the home fleets of Laurel and a more hardline bitch than there ever was. The décor of offices of the Admiralty was ornate, with intricate gold patterns lining the walls and delicate designs adorning the tall stone columns of the hallway that ran around a courtyard of well-kept lawn and flowerbeds, a large fountain at the center. Its noblesse was superseded only by the Imperial palaces. Keery disdained the opulence.
A long walk around the courtyard brought him to the elegant glass doors of Lord Colley’s offices. A yeoman in red livery lined with black and gold opened a door from the inside and ushered Keery inside. Keery removed his cap and crossed the threshold. Beside him, the yeoman stated, “The Lord Admiral is expecting you presently.”
“My thanks,” Keery said as he strode toward the oak doors at the back of the lobby and knocked.
“Enter,” said a voice, coarse and ragged from the tirades for which Lord Colley was famous.
Keery entered. The office was large and full of furniture. A large desk sat at the center of the room before a massive window looking out on the palace gardens behind, but around the desk were lounge chairs, tables, bookshelves, gas lamps – all decorated to the same degree as the outer grounds.
The Lord Admiral stood beside a bookshelf full of leather-bound tomes – atlases, treatises on naval warfare – with one such tome in one hand and a pair of spectacles in the other. Her uniform was much like Keery’s, dark blue, golden epaulets, brass buttons, but the medals hanging from the breast of her jacket accumulated in a near comical mass of metal and ribbon. The Admiral looked up from her text and regarded Keery for a moment before setting the book down on an end table beside a red leather chair.
“Your hesitation this morning brings you dishonor, Captain,” she began.
Keery stood stock-still and received the rebuke.
She continued, “Nevertheless, we are in more need than ever of capable commanders, so to punish you would be a disservice to the Empire.”
“You are kind, my Lord,” Keery said with a slight bow hiding his grimace.
Colley nodded then sat in the chair and beckoned Keery to be seated in the chair opposite her. Keery obliged, detaching his sword from his belt and resting it against the chair and laying his hat in his lap.
“The survivors were collected and are being marched to the prison as we speak. They will face a swift trial this afternoon,” Colley said.
“Their crime, My Lord?”
Colley raised an eyebrow, “Besides their presence in Enclave territory, you mean?”
“They were in possession of stolen supplies from the Navy storehouses.”
Keery’s hands tightened around the brim of his cap, the leather creaking once more. He struggled to hold his frustrations in check, “How did they get access to Navy stores?”
“That’s under investigation,” Colley crossed a leg over the other, leaning back in the chair and straightening her pant leg. She and regarded Keery, her piercing blue eyes meeting his and cutting through his resolve, “You pity them.”
“Not pity, my Lord. Compassion,” Keery said with a waver in his voice.
Colley’s other eyebrow raised meet the first. “Compassion?” she asked, her voice fluttered with indignation. “For refugees?”
“I cannot begrudge a man who seeks to feed his family, my Lord. Stealing is a crime of course, but starving is not.”
“Certainly you don’t believe we could feed all the people of Azuria,” Colley retorted.
“No, my Lord. Of course not.”
Colley continued, “That is, after all, why House Davvis established the Enclave in the first place.”
Keery sat in silence, but soon realized Colley expected acknowledgement, “Yes, my Lord.”
“In the future, you will not allow your… compassion… to interfere with my orders.”
Keery lowered his head in resignation, “Yes, my Lord.”
Colley stood beside the chair and studied the sizeable map of Azuria on the wall. It was littered with the names of former states of the collapsed Azurian Republic, and cities now crumbling to ruin. Near the bottom, a few hundred miles inland, was Laurel – the last remnant of the great Republic. Formerly the capital of all of Azuria, the city of Laurel now served as the capital to the Enclave – a small city-state of Laurel and the surrounding countryside. Around the city, the borders of the Enclave had been drawn on the map in the form of a laurel wreath. Colley rounded on Keery, “We are sworn to protect the Emperor, his will, the citizens of Laurel, and no other. Do you understand this duty?”
“I do, my Lord. Yes,” Keery answered.
Colley surveyed him for a moment, then said, “Good, we shall speak no more about it.” She crossed the room to her desk and motioned Keery to follow. Keery rose and followed her to the edge of her desk. “As your ship is only manned by a skeleton crew,” Colley said, “you shall be stationed here until the next round of recruits has been trained. You will continue to report directly to me.” Colley pulled on an ornate silken rope beside her desk and a faint bell jingled in the main room. The yeoman opened the oak door and waited.
Keery stood at attention and saluted her, “Aye, my Lord.”
“’You will present yourself for questioning in the matter of the missing supplies at 3 o’clock in the Hall of Peace.’ Heh, what a load of crap,” Laz Meacle muttered to himself, sauntering down the hallways looking for the court room. “Damned nobles talk like horse shit on rose petals. You’d think they’d at least know enough to label these cursed doorways.”
As Meacle reached a supreme level of frustration with the lack of detail in his instructions, he noticed a tall man in an officer’s uniform at the end of the hallway observing a portrait on the wall. He set off toward the man in the hopes he might have more of an idea where there court might be. The man’s uniform was tidy and clean, the lines were crisp and his hat stood tall. The golden ropes and brass buttons shined like treasure. By contrast, Meacle’s uniform was faded from long years of service, the ropes from his shoulders were tangled so he had tied them together above his epaulets to get them out of the way, and the tarnished saber at his side jingled with the slight limp in his step.
When Meacle reached the man, he saw he was quite young – early-30s perhaps – but he was a captain already. The captain hardly glanced in his direction. He was studying the portrait on the wall intensely, deep in thought. The portrait hung from ceiling to floor, at least twenty feet. It portrayed a massively fat and well-decorated man in uniform holding the scepter of rule. Meacle gathered he was an emperor – a member of the Davvis Dynasty. The man’s white hair curled over his shoulders, but not so much as to obscure the immaculate white and gold uniform beneath. His round cheeks glowed a rosy red, but his face was frozen in a gaze of serious consideration.
“He looks like he shat himself,” Meacle said.
The officer turned to Meacle. With irritation in his voice, he said, “Lieutenant, you forget your place. What’s your station?”
“First Quartermaster, Navy headquarters, Lieutenant Laz Meacle, sir.”
“Captain Jim Keery of the Powdered Maiden,” the captain said. He took in the state of Meacle’s uniform and sighed, “And beside your place, it seems you’ve forgotten your hat as well.”
Meacle shot his hand up to his bald head and felt around, “Damn it all!”
“The man you’re insulting was the first leader of the Davvis Dynasty,” Keery continued, returning his gaze to the portrait.
Meacle considered him a moment, then responded, “No disrespect intended, sir, but they all seem a lot of arrogant, selfish bastards.”
Keery looked back at him intrigued, “You sure have a mouth on you. How did you manage to become an officer?”
“I’m well organized, sir,” Meacle said, trying to straighten the lapel on his faded jacket.
Keery’s grave veneer cracked at last and he laughed in spite of himself. “I must say, if you’re the most organized quartermaster we have, we may have already lost.”
Meacle chuckled then looked up at the portrait again, “So what about this guy deserves defense?”
“He established the Enclave,” Keery answered. “He protected Laurel from the collapse of the Republic.”
“In other words, he’s the one that kept food from the people,” Meacle responded.
Keery lowered his gaze and stared through the floor a moment, turning something over in his mind. “The Davvis weren’t always so cruel,” he said at last. “Muskell Davvis was just a wealthy businessman, like all the original nobles. He saw the collapse of the Azurian Senate first hand and organized the businessmen of the city to prevent Laurel from falling to the same fate.”
“Aye, you don’t have to remind me. They formed an oligarchy and deposed the Senate,” Meacle shot back. “They paid off the generals and used them to force a coup and shut the citizens of the countryside out.”
“The Navy hadn’t been paid in weeks because the Senate was deadlocked,” Keery explained. “Davvis and the other men paid their wages. Closing the gates of the city was meant to be a temporary measure until the government could be reformed.”
Meacle laughed aloud at this, his raspy voice echoing in the stone hall, “Reformed, eh? Well it seems they stopped short at declaring themselves the new government.”
“I don’t disagree that much evil has been done since then,” Keery admitted, “but Muskell Davvis never anticipated 50 years of instability.”
“If by instability, you mean mass starvation across Azuria, I’d say he was a damn fool,” Meacle said. “Laurel’s greed has left the rest of the country a mess, and now we murder anyone who seeks to feed themselves.”
Keery remained silent.
“I’m sorry Captain,” Meacle said, shifting the topic, “I’m expected in the Hall of Peace in 20 minutes. You wouldn’t happen to know where that is…”
Keery stood straighter, “Of course, follow me.”
The quartermaster was a short and portly man, but above all that, he was quite old. His hair had nearly given in entirely to grey and he had messy stubble populating his chin and temples. Despite his unkempt appearance, Lieutenant Meacle had a kind and honest face. Keery was amazed that at his age he hadn’t either retired or been promoted beyond Lieutenant. Although, considering his disposition, perhaps it wasn’t too surprising.
Keery led the Lieutenant to the Hall of Peace which was only a short walk from where they were. Meacle hobbled along, keeping up with Keery’s swift pace, even with his apparent old injury. The quartermaster’s comments had been crude, but they aligned with Kerry’s frustrations. The Davvis Dynasty had overreached their mandate over the last several decades. Muskell Davvis had been a reasonable man, but only a few years after the secession he died of a weak heart. His son Maglin succeeded him as president and quickly declared himself Emperor. The nobles assembled behind the Davvis family, eager to continue expanding their wealth and influence that had grown with unexpected speed under Muskell.
As Lieutenant Meacle had said, now the Enclave finds itself at war with its former brethren – the children and grandchildren of citizens of the Azurean Republic. Keery struggled to keep the images of the massacre from that morning from his mind.
As Keery and Meacle approached a pair of gigantic oak doors, a pair of yeoman stationed at either side of the entrance stepped forward. They wore the same livery as the man who served the Lord Admiral – the livery of the Royal Guard. One was a large man, tall and equally wide. The other was a shorter man, but he held a long, decorative halberd and looked quite capable of using it.
“Please state your business, Captain,” said the larger yeoman.
“I am accompanying Lieutenant Meacle to his appointment in the Hall,” Keery said.
Meacle stepped forward and handed the yeoman the summons, grumbling under his breath.
The yeoman nodded, handed the summons back to Meacle and returned to the door. With a heave and a grunt, the larger man pulled the massive oak door open just wide enough for one person to pass at a time. Meacle stepped forward, but Keery hesitated, unsure why this lieutenant had piqued his interest. He followed Meacle through the entrance.
“You can kindly take your justifications and shove them up your arse, my Lord,” Meacle shouted at the panel of five arbiters. The court erupted in a mixture of nervous laughter and uproarious anger. The arbiter at the center of the panel slammed a brass hammer down on the desk and shouted for order. Keery sat in the gallery and sat amazed as the lieutenant destroyed his career.
After the noise had waned, the arbiter at the end of the panel said, “Lieutenant Meacle, you have still not answered Lord Arbiter Stokes’ question.” The arbiter motioned to the arbiter at the center of the panel, a younger man with trimmed brown hair and beard. His searching green eyes betrayed a sharp intelligence.
Stokes asked again, “Were you aware that supplies from your warehouses had been given to refugees from outside the Enclave?”
“Aye, I knew. It’d be hard to miss that much going missing,” Meacle responded, not missing a beat.
Stokes followed up, “Why did you not report the supplies missing?”
“Well it’d hardly be smart to incriminate myself, would it, your honor?” The court erupted once more.
“To be clear, you are saying you authorized the distribution of these supplies to refugees?”
“Not so much authorized as distributed myself,” Meacle said.
Stokes considered his next question as the court settled down again. He seemed intrigued at the brutal honesty this man was offering. Keery wanted to know what drove Meacle to such damning declarations as well.
“Why would you do such a thing?” Stokes asked.
Meacle paused, surprised at such an open question. “They’re starving, Arbiter,” he said. “We took the best lands around the city and threw the tenant farmers out to fend for themselves. Without the organization of the Republic or the Enclave, the countryside has devolved to anarchy and warring clans. Regular families can’t provide for themselves. Meanwhile our Emperor gets fat and murders them for trying to feed their families.”
The courtroom as silent as a tomb. This man had said what the working class of Laurel knew, but no one spoke of for fear of retaliation.
Stokes spoke again, his voice heavy with regret, “Lieutenant Meacle, under the law, I must find you guilty by your own admission in this court. It is regrettable that the Enclave cannot provide for all of Azuria, but stealing from the military is treason with a penalty of death. You will be detained by Navy until your execution is carried out.” Stokes then set down the brass gavel and removed himself from the room, a look of disgust passing over his face.
Keery stood as yeomen shackled him at the stand. Meacle’s looked over his shoulder, his eyes meeting with Keery’s. Keery saw not a shred of regret on Meacle’s face. The yeomen lifted Meacle to his feet and escorted him from the room.
A flash lit the darkening afternoon sky not far from where Keery sat in the Officer’s Club across the street from the government offices. All eyes in the bar looked out to the sky as the earth began to rumble, then the deep booming of a massive explosion split the air. Everyone was on their feet in an instant and shuffling out of the bar to investigate what was happening. Keery was slower to exit the bar and as he reached the entryway, he heard his someone calling behind him, “Captain Jim Keery? Is there a Captain Keery here?”
“I’m Keery,” he said as he turned to see the bartender holding a transmitter.
“Lord Admiral Colley is searching for you,” the bartender said, offering the transmitter to Keery.
As Keery approached him, he could hear the radio, “This is Lord Admiral Colley. This is a general call for Captain Jim Keery. Please respond.”
Keery took the transmitter and raised it slowly to his mouth, “This is Keery, over.”
“Captain, please report to my office on the double. Your ship is being mobilized as we speak,” Colley responded.
Keery arrived in short order at the familiar glass doors to the Lord Admiral’s offices, but this time the doors were held open and the lobby to her offices was full of officers. When he arrived, the crowd parted to allow him passage. Colley stood just inside the oak doors to her office, speaking with a civilian and another admiral. She shifted her attention to Keery as he approached.
“Captain Keery, there’s been an explosion at the research labs bordering the stockades. A massive number of refugees have been released and are currently escaping throughout the city,” she said.
Keery was astonished, “Gods, has anyone been hurt?”
“Reports are unclear,” Colley responded. “Your ship has been refueled and is preparing to depart as we speak. You must stop the refugees from escaping.”
“Why don’t we just let them go, my Lord?” Keery asked. “Surely containing the damage to the research division is more important?”.
“A recently convicted criminal was imprisoned with the refugees,” she responded. “We believe he may try to organize rebellion against the Enclave. You must go now.”
Keery saluted, “Aye, my Lord.” He turned and exited the offices, running straight for the docks.
The Powdered Maiden rose over the city of Laurel, illuminated pink and orange by the setting sun. A white cloud rose from the site of the explosion at the research laboratories. Keery ordered Commander Doget to take the ship to the outskirts of the city nearest the explosion, hoping to cut the escaping refugees off. He dreaded a repeat of the morning’s massacre, but refusing the Lord Admiral’s orders once more might put him in the chair Meacle occupied just hours prior.
“Lord Admiral Colley to the Powdered Maiden, respond,” crackled the voice on the radio.
“Powdered Maiden here, Captain Keery speaking.”
“Captain, it’s been confirmed that the explosion was a cover,” Colley said. “It appears Lord Arbiter Oscar Stokes initiated a pressure overload in the Ionium Dioxide reactors. The damage is contained and military police have found and dealt with him. He was aiding the escape of the criminal.”
“We read you, Lord Admiral. We will re-capture all that we can,” Keery said.
“Negative, Captain,” Colley responded. “Capture is not necessary. They must be stopped at any cost. You are ordered to open fire on sight.”
Keery stood stunned. He would have blood on his hands again.
Colley’s voice crackled on again, “Do you copy, Captain?”
Keery raised the transmitter to his mouth once more, “Aye, we copy.” He set the transmitter down and turned to Commander Doget, “Find them.”
“Aye, sir,” Doget confirmed.
The sun had almost disappeared below the horizon when the Maiden caught sight of a large group of refugees. Doget gave orders to the skeleton crew and navigated the ship into position with great skill. The refugees soon heard the engines of the Maiden thrumming toward them and tried to find cover, but they were in an open field with sparse vegetation. The group scattered in all directions, but at the center of them, one man stood still and stared directly at the ship.
“Prepare to fire,” Doget commanded when the ship came into range.
The refugees continued to scatter, but the one man at the center stood stock-still, as though to challenge the Maiden. Keery stood at the ballistic glass panel at the front of the bridge and stared down at the man. He wore a familiar faded Navy uniform and his bald head shimmered with the rays of the setting sun.
“The ship is in position, Captain,” Doget announced. “We will open fire on your order.”
Keery stood silent, staring down at the former Lieutenant Meacle. The man had stood by his principles and challenged the nobles to their faces in open court. Now he stood and challenged a cruiser of the Imperial Navy. Keery felt Meacle’s spirit penetrate him deeper than the engines of the Maiden.
Doget approached Keery from behind, “Captain, should we open fire?”
Keery turned to face Doget, “Negative, Commander. Set the ship down.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“I said set the ship down, Commander.”
Doget’s eyes went wide, “Captain…”
“You have your orders,” Keery said, looking directly at Doget.
Doget turned and looked at the rest of the bridge crew, which returned his stunned gaze.
“Is there a problem, Commander?” Keery asked.
“I can’t do that, sir,” Doget responded.
Keery looked over Doget’s shoulders and shouted, “You will follow my orders.”
The bridge crew immediately began preparations to set down, but Doget continued to stand in front of Keery.
“Captain, I must inform you that you are disobeying a direct order from the Lord Admiral,” Doget said. The bridge crew slowed their preparations and stared at their commanding officers.
“This is mutiny, Doget,” Keery said.
Doget drew his saber and stepped back, “Captain, please accompany me to the brig. I am relieving you of command.”
Keery frowned and stepped back from Doget, but before he could draw his own saber, Doget lunged at him. Keery moved aside as the blade slid past him. Keery drew his saber and rounded on Doget, who recovered and brought his blade to meet Keery’s. The bridge crew watched, afraid to take a side.
Doget pushed Keery’s saber aside and brought his blade down in a swift downward cut. Keery stepped backward and retaliated with a sideways strike, finding an opening in Doget’s defense. Keery’s blade bit into Doget’s sword-arm and a spray of hot blood erupted from it. Doget cried in pain and dropped his sword. Without a hesitation, Keery brought his sword around in a powerful arc and struck the Commander at his neck. Doget’s head cut cleanly and fell with a metallic thud to the floor of the bridge. Blood pumped from his neck as Doget’s body crumpled to the floor.
Keery faced the crew, blood spatter staining his uniform, “I hope there are no other objections.”
The four remaining bridge crew members resumed preparations and the Powdered Maiden alighted on the field within a minute. Keery turned back to the bridge window and saw Meacle still standing in front of the ship, staring right back at him. Keery motioned for him to come aboard, and ordered the bridge crew to open the main hatch.
A few minutes later, Meacle stepped onto the bridge and saw the mess of blood surrounding Doget’s body. “Looks like you need a new first officer, Keery,” he said.
“I think I’ll need a great deal more than that,” Keery said, “but a first officer’s a start.” He offered a hand to Meacle.
Meacle pushed it aside and stepped toward Keery, embracing him and guffawing, “Ha! I guess we’ll have to make do!” He stood back and pointed out the window.
Keery turned around and saw the file of refugees boarding the Powdered Maiden and smiled.