IAM Impage Prompt - May 17, 2023 - The Dirigible - Revised
| Jagged glass pierced through Derik Xiel's skull with each heavy strike upon the cabin door. He groaned, covered his ears, and tried to ignore it, but the knocking intensified. Pushing himself upright, he clenched his jaw as vertigo rushed over him, a wet lump haunted the back of his mouth. Empty liquor bottles rolled upon metal floor as he staggered to greet the prick that disturbed him and was met by the feeble complexion of Vektor Murs in his ill-fitted suit. Barbed words shot from his mouth that Derik failed to comprehend. Vomit splattered upon Vektor's shoes, forcing him back against the railing.|
"If that was a joke, I'm not laughing," Vektor said.
"S'rry... What yo' 'ant?" Derik slurred.
"Gonna nee' 'nother two weeks."
"Enough! You have six days to make the indenture payment, or your ship is forfeit, and you get to dry out in debtor's confinement!"
A wet belch escaped Derik, he nodded and slammed the door on Vektor. He shuffled around the cabin, fumbling into clothes only vagabonds consider presentable. Vektor ranted admonishments in a growing pitch, and Derik leaned upon a bulkhead. Delinquent by six months with four years principal remaining, and his mind turned blank trying to calculate late fees and interest. Mom and Pops would be proud of him for betting on a table two pair, and he snorted, imaging their disapproval. With cautious steps, he departed his cabin and moved deeper into Havenlight, his dirigible cargo hauler.
Derik swore under his breath as his gaze wandered across the bridge. Various charts, notes and maintenance reminders lay strewn over consoles, and dust sat layered atop readout monitors. He grasped a stairway guardrail and descended into an empty cargo bay. Pipes snaked and gurgled along bulkheads, and rust gnawed upon exposed metal flooring where the protective, non-skid coating had worn off. Eyes fixed ahead, he stumbled towards the kitchen, as a hollow, burning ball formed in his chest.
His parents' judgmental glare fell over him, and a growl rose in his throat. Damn them for his indentured servitude. They signed him away before he was born to buy Havenlight, and he refused to accept their chiding. He wished to see their faces when the company hauls it off for scrap, and they can witness their dreams crash into his reality. Derik's hands slammed upon a kitchen counter, and his chest fluttered.
Mom and Pops were not at fault. However, it was easier to lay blame upon them since they cannot object. His blood turned to ice at the thought of losing his ship, and he shook his head, taking a deep breath. He would rather slam Havenlight into the mountainside, but he would give up his wings to see his parents again. Derik gulped the egg and seltzer mixture, fingers pinching his nose. Donning his bomber jacket, he strode from the kitchen with Pops' voice in his head. No point whining over problems when they need fixing.
A short walk from sky harbor sat a charter office. Stale beer clung to the air, and tobacco marred every surface. Derik frowned, few haulers milled in the space and a glance at the run board told him why. He approached the issuer's window, rang a bell, and a gruff voice answered.
"What you want?"
"Check the board. If yous feel like waitin', bar's open."
Deflated, Derik slunk into a booth, nursing a flask. His panic grew as the day crept on, and meandering haulers dwindled in number. Vektor's words echoed in his mind. Derik considered emptying his bank account and skipping town, but an angry glare tore into him. Mom and Pops insisted on keeping promises and honoring debts, yet remained silent regarding paying for someone else's mistakes. He brushed aside their gaze, sighed, and reminded himself it is unwise to carry the burdens or dreams of others.
Furious arguing rose from a nearby booth. Derik turned to see two men, a hauler and the other, a sleazy fellow who needed a sandwich, sparring in hushed, strained voices. After several moments, the hauler strode off in a huff, and sleazebag gazed around. He made eye contact with Derik, approached with a crooked smile that made politicians jealous, and took a seat on the opposite bench.
"Buy ya a round?"
"You ain't my type."
The man chuckled and motioned for two beers.
"I got a charter for someone looking for a quick, easy payday. Sound like you?"
Derik did not respond, and a chill crawled down his spine.
"Delivery to Thunderhead, twenty parcels. I'll pay three times the premium by weight with no questions asked."
"Find someone else."
"Come now, friend, you will find this in your favor."
He flopped a stack of credit on the table, and Derik's eyes widened. The man continued.
"How's about ten percent up front, eh? You'll get the rest outside Thunderhead airspace upon successful delivery. Name's Lirry, by the way."
Derik's eyes remained locked on the small fortune in front of him.
"What's the catch?"
"Don't ask questions is all. Oh, my brother, Meikal, will be aboard to supervise the cargo, but don't you fret, he won't make trouble. He's just there to ensure proper handling of the goods. You'll like him, smells like you."
The beers arrived, and Lirry raised his in toast. If one hundred thousand was a deposit, this run would satisfy all delinquent amounts and knock the principal town to a year. Better yet, Thunderhead is a five-day haul, and Derik imagined the look on Vektor's face when he squares most of the debt by deadline. Derik's blood froze, knowing his parents would disapprove. Pops raved over taking honest charters, earning a fair living, and sleeping sound each night. But neither indentured servitude nor debtor's confinement is living, and he the answer to all his problems sat before him.
"What say you, eh?"
Derik swallowed, numbness gnawed across his body, and he raised his beer.
Derik snatched up the radio, began pre-flight checks, and satisfied all readouts were nominal, activated the engines. He peered below at Meikal, a lumbering behemoth devoid of hair, with hands the size of Derik's head, as he gave the cargo one last check. Traffic control squawked an all clear, and he disengaged the mag-tethers. Every launch sent a euphoric rush through him, and he felt his worries morph into distant landmarks, yet one lingered in his mind. Mom fussed over bringing problems from port, because Pops hated to waste fuel and cargo space on worthless freight. A smile formed on his face, and he guided Havenlight along the departure vector.
Numerous dirigibles drifted about, either departing or arriving. He examined them all, noting their size, flight path and speculating on their freight. Cresting the mountain peaks, a Sky Marshal airship wafted upon the slipstream. Its position marked the border between local and international airspace, and its lazy demeanor was deceptive. The black and gold hull bristled with weaponry, ready to respond towards any disturbance, or in Derik's case, deciding which poor fool was due for an inspection. A voice squawked over the radio, and he swore.
"Havenlight, this is Twilight Prancer. Heave to and prepare to receive customs official."
Derik sent acknowledgments and adjusted speed and course to the specified heading. Heavy footsteps struck the deck behind him, and he turned to see Meikal step onto the bridge. He furrowed his brow, grunted, and gave Derik a wary look.
"Cargo inspection. Ya know, In-speck-shun, the thing your kind try to avoid."
Meikal grunted in reply, and Derik waved him off the bridge. With both ships alongside each other, a gurney extended from the Prancer, and locked onto his left entry port. Derik took several deep breaths, failing to calm his fluttering stomach. Stupid criminals catch themselves, but he could talk his way into a wave off. Mom would want him caught, however, and it would be what he deserves for taking a suspect charter.
He engaged autopilot, departed the bridge, and Meikal's angry glare greeted him at the base of the stairs.
"No talk. Me talk."
Startled, Derik stared at him, wondering if he had strained any grey matter in the effort to squeeze out those few words. Meikal's glare turned hostile, and Derik nodded. A crisp uniform stretched over the rotund inspector, and he swaggered in, bloated with self-importance.
"Manifest and declarations, please."
Meikal lead the inspector away from Derik, deeper into the cargo bay. He failed to overhear what he assumed was conversation, and he observed a ticket envelope pass from Meikal to the inspector. A few grunts later, and they returned to the hatch, a smile upon the inspector's face.
"All is in order. Fly safe, ya hear?"
"You as well, brother," Derik replied, earning a grunt from Meikal.
The moment Derik secured the hatch, Meikal turned to him.
"I say no talk. No talk."
Derik replied with several gorilla-like grunts and flicked his hand in dismissal. Meikal glared at him for several moments, grunted, and retreated to the passenger cabin. Derik moved towards the bridge stairs and froze. Each crate had air holes drilled into their tops, and an iron ball plopped into his stomach. He returned to the bridge, dread gnawing at the corners of his mind.
Sating his curiosity would serve nothing, and he did not want his employers backing out of the deal. In five days, his life improves, and he can put this whole mess in his rear-view monitor. Derik quelled his thoughts with a heavy sigh, and he followed the sun on its downward arc.
Three days passed without incident, and Derik felt a growing excitement as they neared Thunderhead. Meikal avoided Derik, choosing to remain in the passenger cabin, but he ventured out mid-morning and at dusk to inspect the cargo. Such habits fed Derik's curiosity, and he caught himself staring at the crates whenever he passed. He elected to mimic Meikal and forced himself to remain on the bridge to avoid temptation. Several times a day, he felt his parents asking questions he refused to answer, but his own interest continued to grow. As twilight crept across the sky, he confirmed his heading and the engaged autopilot. A yawn drifted from his mouth, and he settled upon his cot, falling into a restless slumber.
Rapid beeping sounded from the flight controls, and Derik shot from his bed. Bathed in red light, the bridge held a supernatural aura as the cosmos shimmered upon the sky. Derik squelched the alarm, eyes daring over various readouts. He snatched his jacket and departed the bridge.
Frozen daggers plunged into his face as he stepped outside, and he scurried towards engine six. His hands fumbled with the primer console covering, and he swore. Once open, he grasped the manual start cord, and several heaves later, the engine stuttered to life. It gave off a labored choking, and he adjusted the intake lever to full. He nodded as sputtering turned into a low growl, and he closed the cover. Derik jumped back inside, his hands rubbing his face, and he paused midway through the cargo day.
Gentle scratching reached his ears, and he held his breath. A heavy mass formed in his lungs upon locating its source. His mind screamed for him to ignore it, yet his feet guided him towards the nearest crate. He peered through an air hole, saw movement, and a delicate voice whispered to him.
Derik fled to the bridge, mind reeling and steel jaws ripping into his chest. Gaze fixed upon the heavens, he resisted a scream, and he kicked himself for his foolishness. His ragged breathing permeated the silence, and he scrambled for a rational thought.
Derik knew Meikal was unaware, and he can complete the charter by feigning ignorance. His stomach churned as he thought of his parents, but their voices failed to manifest. The churning turned into frothed boiling, and he spat. They remained silent, and he understood why. What does a parent say when discovering their child is trafficking for a flesh peddler? He doubted Pops could muster enough courage to beat him, and Mom would weep, avoiding eye contact.
Wide eyed yet desperate for sleep, Derik returned to his cot. He watched stars fade as first light peaked over the horizon. The delicate voice plucked his thoughts, and a burning itched spread throughout his body. Derik swore, departed the bridge, and pressed himself against a bulkhead within the entryway passage. His gaze lingered upon his freight while he muttered colorful insults at himself. Succumbing to madness, he balanced on the balls of his feet, and he crept towards the crate.
His hands worked the lock in deliberate, calculated motions. Any sound greater than a whisper caused him to freeze until he was certain all remained clear. The lock snapped open, and he winced. A hinge creaked as he lowered the side panel. He ignored it, and once it sat open, his heart shot into his skull.
A woman lay curled atop a pile of hay, and she turned her puffy, emerald eyes towards him. Terror danced upon her bronze face, and Derik shushed her, extending his hand. She had no reason to trust him, but she grasped it, and he guided her out of the crate. Derik threw a nervous glance at Meikal's door, and he led her to the passageway. He fought to keep panic from his voice as he whispered.
"What is your name?"
Her gaze flicked around, and she answered.
Derik produced a canteen, and she accepted the offer. Water dribbled down her chin, and he admired her features through her baggy jumpsuit. Returning for air, Nessa spoke in a fragile, soothing voice that invoked fear in Derik.
"Who are you?"
"Er, just an idiot looking to get by."
Nessa recoiled, and fire licked Derik's cheeks.
"Wait... I didn't mean... Look, I-"
Iron vices clamped onto Derik's neck, and he struggled to breathe.
"Lirry say no look! No look!"
Derik wondered how a rack of beef like Meikal could sneak up on anyone with a pulse. He fought to free himself as his vision darkened and his eyes bulged from his head. His hands skimmed the bulkhead, and he grasped a pipe wrench from a flow control valve. Derik swung to his left, felt Meikal's grip loosen, and jerked free. Ragged coughs erupted from Derik, and he threw his weight behind the wrench, driving it into Meikal's chest. Meikal staggered back, and Derik lunged again. Bright stars erupted in the corners of his eyes. Flailing the wrench, Derik staggered into the cargo bay and saw brass knuckles on Meikal's hands. Meikal's face contorted into a scowl, acid in his voice.
"Bad monkey man. Kill now!"
Meikal rushed Derik, ignoring the blow to his shoulder. Wind flew from Derik's throat upon slamming into the deck, and the wrench flew from his hand. Meikal pinned Derik with a knee and threw several heavy punches into his head. Bright lights burst within Derik's eyes with each impact, his vision blurred, and blood filled his mouth. A savage smile formed on Meikal's face as Derik clawed for the wrench. Laughing, Meikal raised his fist above his head, while Derik spat blood and vulgarities.
Shrill screams erupted in the cargo bay, and Nessa sprung onto Meikal's back, clawing and biting. Freed, Derik lunged for the wrench. Nessa crashed next to him, and her pained yelp sent roaring fire through Derik. He swung his weapon and a sickening crack shot from his adversary's knee. Meikal crumpled, and Derik rolled atop him. Warm red splatter flecked Derik's face with each rising motion, and a wet, crunching sound echoed on the downward strokes. Sanity returned to him, and he dropped the crimson-soaked wrench, crawling away from Meikal's motionless form.
Nausea swept over Derik, and it was different than the sickness after a well spent night of debauchery. He retched, unable to void an empty stomach, and sour bile singed his tongue. Nessa shouted and darted towards him, but her words sounded muffled and distant. She placed his head in her lap, and he noted a bruise on her cheek. Derik caressed it, cracking a bloodied smile, and Nessa took his hand while her other shook his shoulder. Darkness clawed at him, and he let the spinning cargo bay draw him into unconsciousness.
Groaning to life, Derik tried hauling himself upright, but a rush of vertigo dissuaded such movement. Dull throbbing radiated in his skill, and his throat bore a ravenous thirst. He gazed around the bridge, unable to determine what had happened. Goosebumps crept down his arms as his memory rushed back to him. Nessa strode onto the bridge. She hurried to his side and embraced him with a smile while stroking his hairline.
"I thought you'd never get up, sleepyhead. Are you ok?"
Derik nodded and wound up lost in her sparking doe eyes.
"What is your name?"
"Like I said, just an idiot trying to get by."
Derik heard a commotion from below, and his brow furrowed.
"The others helped me bring you here."
He sighed but did not fault her for releasing them.
With Nessa's help, Derik managed to sit upright, and he swayed as he tried to regain his sense of balance. Nessa sat at his side and wrapped her arms around him. He was grateful for the support, and he inhaled her scent as he forced his mind to focus.
"How long was I out?"
"Almost a whole day."
Reality crashed into Derik harder than Meikal's knuckles. He is a dead man, and it did not matter if Lirry, the company, or Air Marshals get their hands on him. His mind tried to recall the sentence for trafficking, failed, yet remembered criminal sentences do not count towards debtors' confinement. A groan stuck in his throat, and he motions for water. Nessa obliged, passed a canteen, and he drained it in record time. Derik spotted an orange blinking on the flight controls and turned to Nessa.
"Didn't answer. Rang five times sense you've been out."
Swearing, he tried to stand and stumbled, but Nessa managed to brace him. She helped him towards the flight controls, and he shifted his weight onto them. Caller registry was unknown, but Derik knew who it was. Meikal must have provided regular updates and Lirry would want answers after twenty-four hours of silence. However, their present course put Thunderhead at four hours' flight time, and Derik felt his innards turn to stone.
Should he avoid prison time, Havenlight is forfeit, and he expects Lirry to retaliate after serving his debtors' sentence. If he pulls charges for trafficking, Lirry will have him killed inside the clink. He leaned back into Nessa, and he felt her grip tighten on him. Maybe a cold cell is not the end, and he could throw himself from the railing upon making port. At least he would get to fly one last time, the girls would be safe, and he can see his parents again.
The radar beeped as a singular contact appeared from the rear. Derik eyed it and swore as it adjusted course towards Havenlight. Static crackled from the radio, followed by a venomous voice.
"Havenlight, come in. Answer the radio, Derik. Now!"
He flinched, mind racing for a response. An idea struck him, and he snatched up the handset.
"Havenlight to unknown vessel, identify yourself."
"You know damn well who it is! Where is Meikal?"
"Sorry, he has a killer headache and can't talk."
A raspy cough came over the line.
"Care to explain, eh?"
"You first. If you wanted to steal my ship, why didn't you just kill be in Appalachia North?"
Silence engulfed the bridge, and Derik felt Nessa trembling. He shifted his weight onto the flight controls, but her grip tightened as he pulled away.
"I see. In that case, your services are no longer required. Surrender my cargo, my deposit, and I will let you live."
Flames licked Derik's stomach as he watched Lirry's ship close in, and he pinged his hull. Colorful words flew from his mouth when the radar signature returned a match for a Class Two Interdictor. Havenlight had legs, but they were untested against a ship built for intercepts. However, if he stayed outside cannon range, he could use missile counter measures until reaching Thunderhead airspace. He activated the emergency transponder, and his frown grew as the outing signal failed to yield a response.
"Nobody is coming to help you, Derik. Hand 'em over nice and quiet, eh? Tell ya what, keep the deposit. I'm a generous man and Meikal is... was a lug to be around. No harm, no foul, eh?"
Derik's mind spun, and he hung his head. Not a chance in hell Lirry would let him walk away, and when he hands the girls over, his cannons will rip Havenlight to shreds. Yet, he failed to see a downside to such a fate, and he welcomed the thought of a sky-pyre funeral. His eyes turned to the top of Nessa's head, and rocks scraped inside his veins. He would give up his wings to see his parents, but not to save these strangers. Nessa sensed his conflict and looked into Derik's eyes.
"It's ok. We'll get back in the crates and won't make any more trouble."
Something twisted and snapped in his chest, and his body went numb. The same madness that led him to release her returned. His hands flew over the flight console, and he twisted flow dials to max setting, overrode safeties and flipped covers off several buttons. He took a deep breath, his gaze fixed on the horizon, and Nessa shook his shoulder, burying her head in his chest.
"I mean it, Derik. It's ok."
He turned to her and growled.
"No, it's fucking not!"
Derik slammed the yoke to full open and Havenlight screamed forward, her engines wailing under a strain they never had endured. He clutched the console, and Nessa's grip tore into him. Lirry shouted something that Derik ignored, and the distance between them widened. Moments later, the emergency transponder returned a signal.
A target lock warning beeped in rapid succession, and a piercing wail sounded when a missile appeared on radar. Derik waited for it to close in, and pressed an uncovered button. Muted rumbling reverberated across Havenlight as flares belched from her underside. A shock wave rolled over the hull, and Derik observed several bright streaks fall short in the rear-view monitor. He smiled, grateful Lirry's cannons were out of range.
Havenlight shuddered as engine six burst into flame, and spat black smoke and went cold. Derik expected that one to fail first, and he glanced at the engine readouts, awaiting the next failure. Lirry remained in radar range, but he could not close the distance, and fired another missile. It detonated into the flares, and hot metal tore into Havenlight's rear hull, eliminating two engines.
The sun began its downward arc, and Derik watched as engine status icons blinked off one at a time. He felt Havenlight lose speed, and he swore. Lirry began to close the distance, and his hand hovered over another button. Neither warning nor missile appeared. Derik sighed, realizing Lirry intended to board and size his cargo, and he could only delay the inevitable.
Derik turned and embraced Nessa, drawing her in close and burying his face in her hair. He muttered apologies and hoped she would forgive him for the punishment she will endure because of him. She returned the gesture and drew him in, her heart pounding. However, his heartbeat steadied, and he felt neither terror nor regret over his actions. A sense of peace washed over him, and he smiled. Lirry's ship approached docking range, but it jerked away and sped off. Three new blips appeared on radar, and Derik saw airships appear from the clouds, and the radio blared.
"Unidentified vessel and Havenlight, deactivate your engines and prepare to be boarded. Do not attempt to flee or you will be shot down."
Derik's hands darted across the console in compliance, but Lirry ignored their warnings. As the first Air Marshal ship docked with Havenlight, a torrent of missiles roared across the sky. Lirry's countermeasures could not fend off such a volley, and his ship burst into a red and black crescendo.
Derik scurried through his cabin, gathering personal effects while an Air Marshal watched him. He zipped the last ruck closed and gazed around, satisfied nothing remained in view. His stomach clenched and his eyes wandered to the bridge. The Air Marshal grunted, and Derik turned to him.
"Can I get a moment alone?"
Derik tossed his rucksacks at his feet.
"Ain't going anywhere, bud. Been on this rust bucket since I was born, and just wanna say goodbye."
They glared at each other for several moments, and the Air Marshal snatched up Derik's bags and departed. Derik dashed to a bulkhead and withdrew his pocketknife. He thrust the blade between two panels, jimmying side to side. A panel popped open, and his arm shot into the crevice and tucked Lirry's deposit into his jacket. Closing the panel, he kissed three fingers, touched his flight console and whispered farewells.
As he strode outside, he saw Vektor speaking to the Air Marshal. Vektor broke away and approached Derik, clipboard in hand.
"Sign here, please."
Derik glared over the repossession notice, and he shoved it towards his chaperon.
"They hold possession, deal with them."
Vektor voiced objections, and Derik leaned into his face while the Air Marshal stepped closer.
"I ain't signing anything with your company's logo on it. Piss off and have a nice day."
Derik grabbed his rucks and hurried off, ignoring Vektor's complaints. He made for the harbor viewing gallery, and his stomach lurched as corporate peons defiled Havenlight. With a lack of evidence, the girls vouching for him, and Lirry unable to contradict his story, the authorities released him without charges. The company prepared to send him off to debtors' confinement, but Derik scared them into releasing his indenture. Word spread they were involved in trafficking, and he offered to spin two different stories to the press. They elected for the one that painted them in a positive light.
His shoulders ached like someone had cut his arms off, and he sighed. Derik sacrificed Havenlight as collateral to secure the deal, leaving him grounded. A heavy mass grew in his bowels, and he gazed over the railing. One hundred thousand was insufficient for a down payment on a new ship, and he would never sign an indenture. He felt himself leaning over the rail, but he stopped, shook his head, and noticed movement in his peripherals.
Nessa approached with a nervous smile on her face. Derik's chest fluttered, and he stepped back from the railing. He had not seen her since his arrest, and he hugged her, grateful she was ok.
"I'm sorry about your ship."
Nessa leaned on him, and he accepted her weight.
"What will you do now?"
Chuckling, he pushed lecherous thoughts from his head.
"Hear they need barge pilots, might try my luck there."
She went to speak, but stopped. Derik raised his eyebrows, wondering why she was still in Thunderhead.
"Where are your parents?"
He felt her body grow tense, and she did not answer. Derik took her hand but did not press further. They stood in silence for several moments, and Nessa turned her face to his. Her eyes watered, and Derik wiped a tear as it fell.
"I don't know. They took me while in Sierra Central, but we moved around a lot to find work. It's been six months since I last saw them."
Derik nodded, and his mind turned to planning. He had a contact in Sierra Central that owed him a favor and he could make one hundred grand last. An approving stare fell on him, and he heard his parents' nagging him about his new friend. A devilish smile crept over his face, and he set his heading.
"Let's go find your parents."