This is the fourth and final episode of “A Hole In the Sky.” If you would like to see the complete story in one place, and read other stories by me, make sure you pick up A Hole In the Sky and Other Stories, which will be available in ebook form today or tomorrow on Amazon and Smashwords.
As Welch had said, the tide was out, and the mudflats that surrounded Charter’s Corner were apparent, even in the moonlight. The river channel held all the traffic for the small port, which consisted of the scientists’ small boat, Welch’s medium-size ketch and a couple of small fishing boats. They were all dwarfed beside the massive black ship that now stood at the wharf.
It was a flat black trimmed in gold, and Webb could tell it was real gold, not paint. The ship didn’t seem to draw any water, but instead seemed to float right on the surface as if it weighed nothing. The base of the ship was flat and fins protruded to the sides and top. To Webb it looked like something out of a nightmare.
“That’s impossible,” Dr. Aed said. “All the weight is on the top. That ship should be rolling right over.”
“Tell that to them,” he said, gesturing at the strange-looking, frightening men who held weapons pointed at the crowd.
“They’re Sireni,” Dr. Alastrom said. “That’s of course, based only on descriptions in literature. No one has ever seen one before.”
“Oh, we see them, all right,” Captain Welch said behind Webb. “They’ve been raiding shipping around here for years. This is the first time they’ve been bold enough to come right into town. They’re here for something special.”
“They’re here for me,” Eleanor said quietly. “They want to take me hostage.”
In response, Webb quietly reached down and pulled Eleanor behind him.
“Anyone speak Sireni here?” Webb asked quietly.
“Are you kidding? Most of the time when we see them, it’s the dead of night. They take what they want and leave. There’s no time to talk about the weather.”
Webb watched the three men, armed with golden weapons that had sharpened spear-like devices on the front, and handles and triggers on the back. One, a bit taller than the others, appeared to be in command. He scanned the crowd and then set sight on the two white women and Webb. He stepped forward and gestured to him.
“Okta menito shala crae,” he said. Then he said another word that Webb did understand. “Esperian.”
Webb tightened his lips and moved a little closer to Dr. Alastrom, closing the gap in front of Eleanor. The Sireni warrior saw the movement and stepped forward quickly. He grabbed for Webb’s arm to move him aside, but Webb shoved him backward. The warrior responded by swinging the butt of his weapon at the side of Webb’s head.
He saw stars and then blackness.
Webb woke up to the sound of seagulls and the chug-chug-chug of a steam engine. He sat up and his head immediately felt like it would explode. He paused for a moment to let his head stop throbbing, and then headed for the door.
He past through the door and discovered that he was on board Captain Welch’s steam-powered ketch, chugging along the coastline toward Zymont. Welch was where he always was—in the wheelhouse—and so Webb made his way up there.
“Ahh, I knew you would come around eventually,” Welch said. “How’s your head?”
“How do you expect?” Webb said. “Where are we?”
“Two hours out of port, on our way to Zymont.”
“And the others?”
“The two women chose to sleep below during the day. I suspect we will see more of them after the sun goes down.”
“And Eleanor?” Webb asked the question, although he was pretty sure he didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Hostage,” Welch said bluntly. “It’s a new thing by the Sireni. Taking hostages. Apparently there’s something special about your girl, and they knew it. Of course, they have spies everywhere.”
“They must have spies among the Crae,” Webb said more to himself than to Welch. “When they heard that an Esperian was living among the Crae, they just waited for their opportunity.” He looked at Captain Welch. “Look, we have to go after them. I’ll pay you whatever you want.”
Captain Welch looked at him blankly then laughed. “Look, it’s not that I don’t see your plight and I’m just as greedy as the next bloke,” he said. “But those are the Sireni. You don’t go after them. That ship they have? It sails underwater. They live underwater. As much as I would like to help you, this ship doesn’t go there, and neither do I.”
Webb looked at Welch, the wheels turning.
“Then I guess I just wait for them to announce their ransom,” Webb said.
“That would be the smart thing to do,” Welch said. “Although they will probably start with the Esperians, and then come looking for you.”
“How will they contact the Esperians when I haven’t been able to do it all these years?”
Welch shrugged. “Dunno. Don’t care.”
“And if they don’t ask for ransom?”
Welch grinned at Webb. “Yer a smart lad. You’ll figger it out.”
* * *
Eleven years later, Webb had not given up on the idea of finding Eleanor. The two scientists had moved in with Webb and Uncle Drake, and within a few months they had established a sophisticated laboratory and invention shop. It helped initially that Dr. Alastrom was an alchemist, and when Drake found out that she could make gold from lead, he suggested heartily that they bypass the whole idea of a laboratory and just set themselves up as millionaires. But they all agreed that the processing of gold would be limited to financial emergencies—which they had only once in the first few months and never again—and the establishment of a ransom fund for Eleanor.
Webb threw himself into the inventive process, and with the help of the two women, his creations pushed forward rapidly. The first thing he invented was an underwater ship he called Leviathan that could hold six people. It was initially powered by human power and pedals, but their next invention helped him improve on that. And despite what invention they were working on, Webb always found time to work on his lifetime project: a balloon that could reach the world of the Esperians.
Up to this point, every engine in the city was powered by coal and steam, but steam wasn’t realistic for an underwater ship. Working with Dr. Alastrom, he invented an internal combustion engine powered by vegetable oil. The oil had to be processed and thickened in order to work in the engine, but it seemed to work when they took the Leviathan into the nearby Lake of the Abyss. They discovered that the small ship could go down to about sixty feet before pressure started buckling the sides.
“We will need to either make the walls thicker or find another way to counter the pressure,” Drake said.
“I am working on a new alloy that may help,” Dr. Aed said. “Time for some more lab experimentation.”
Dr. Aed and Drake worked closely together for the next few months, and Webb and Dr. Alastrom gave each other knowing looks without saying anything. Finally, Drake and Dr. Aed came to the other two.
“Bearnas and I have an announcement to make,” Drake said.
“Who?” Webb asked, knowing exactly who he was talking about.
“Dr. Aed and I have decided to get married,” he said.
“Don’t you need to ask someone’s permission?” Webb said, grinning. “And how’s that new alloy coming along?”
“That new alloy is coming along just fine, thank you,” said Dr. Aed. “And no, he doesn’t need anyone’s permission.”
“Then when is the happy occasion?” Dr. Alastrom said.
“We want to do it three weeks from now, on the night of Wendover,” Dr. Aed said.
“It will be an occasion to remember,” Drake said. “And I want the world to know that I love this woman!” He then wrapped the small, pale woman in his arms and danced her around the room.
“I see,” said Webb. “The Sinti will be here by then. Do you have any objection to me inviting my friend Sani? I doubt he’s ever seen a traditional Aeryan wedding.”
“The more the merrier,” Drake said.
“Come then, Bearnas,” Dr. Alastrom said. “We have a lot to talk about.”
After the two women left, bubbling and giggling over wedding plans, Webb pulled Drake aside to talk.
“I want to give you your wedding present now,” he said. He led him into his personal part of the lab, a place with a vaulted ceiling where up to this point only Webb had worked. Inside, Drake saw the finished airship.
“It’s got a pressurized cabin so that no matter how high you go, you’ll be safe,” said Webb. “It employs the new hydrogen fuel in its engines, and uses the same compressed gas in its lifting bag. The bag is compartmentalized, so that even if one gets punctured you won’t lose altitude.”
He looked over at his uncle. “In other words, there’s nowhere in all of Cartref you can’t go now.”
Drake looked at his nephew. “No, I can’t. This has been your dream.”
“It’s been 11 years,” Webb said. “My dream was to take her back to her people. She’s not coming back. I know that now.”
Drake looked at the airship, and then at his nephew.
“No one could ever ask for a finer nephew,” he said.
“Or a finer uncle,” Webb said, smiling.
Wendover came as it did every year, but this year’s national festivities were overshadowed by the wedding of two of the most famous people in Zymont. Even the emperor asked to attend the wedding ceremony. Drake and Bearnas decided to have the wedding on the shores of Lake of the Abyss, which was the closest body of water to Zymont and was connected to the Tserian Ocean by a waterway that was used extensively by Aeryan ocean craft.
Webb encouraged them to dip into the gold they had set aside for the ransom, and the four of them planned a wedding of a magnitude that Zymont had not seen in a century.
As the sun went down over Lake of the Abyss, Dr. Bearnas Aed walked down the aisle to meet her future husband, Drake Machard. Webb stood as Drake’s best man, and Dr. Aalish Alistrom was maid of honor. The white wedding dress was no whiter than Bearnas’ face, and Drake, a confirmed bachelor had a face to match.
“Dearly beloved,” the minister began as the two of them joined hands in front. “We are gathered here together….” His words were interrupted as the audience began to murmur and then to shout. One man stood up and pointed out toward the water. Webb turned his head and saw what the commotion was about.
As they watched, a black form rose from the water. It grew in size until it was clear that it was a ship, then a massive one, the largest that anyone had ever seen, rising from the waves. It kept coming toward them as if it was unaware of the shoreline before them. The black and gold bow of the ship rose before them, and Webb felt a chill of memory.
“It’s them,” he said, more to himself than to anyone else. But the two scientists saw it and remembered. Bodyguards hustled the Emperor off the shore and toward safety, but for everyone else, there was nothing to do but wait.
Finally, and door opened on the top of the massive craft and a man exited. To Webb it looked like the very same man who had hit him in the jaw with a rifle butt, but then, they all looked the same to him. The man paused after he exited the craft and reached behind him to help someone out. It was a woman.
It was a very beautiful woman, and at first Webb didn’t recognize her. Two men stepped out before her, and another two men followed her. They all walked forward to the shore. It was Drake who finally broke the silence.
“Ell’s bells,” he said quietly.
“Father,” the woman said to Webb finally. “Father, don’t you recognize me?”
Webb looked at the beautiful woman, a mirror image of the one he had found dead on top of his balloon eighteen years before. But this one had a regal bearing that he couldn’t place.
“Try visualizing me in leather clothing,” the woman said, her smile turning into a laugh. Then she ran forward and embraced Webb.
“It is you?” he asked, still not believing his eyes. “Is it really you?”
“It’s really me,” she said. “Daddy.”
They hugged for a long moment, the wedding and the national holiday completely forgotten by the crowd as they witnessed a greater miracle: two people who had found each other even when the world conspired to pull them apart.
“Eleanor,” he whispered.
“It’s Aénor,” she replied. “I decided that the name you gave me initially should be my name from now on. And I need to introduce you to someone.” She pulled away and gestured to a young man in uniform who stood behind her.
“This is Tarik Cosic, third son of the king and queen of Sireni. He is appointed consul to the Aeryan government. He is also my husband.”
“Husband?” Webb echoed.
Eleanor nodded, smiling. “We’ve been married for a week. Father, you won’t believe what I have done in the last 11 years. Living under the ocean. Seeing incredible sights. Learning new things.”
“Tell me one thing,” Webb echoed. “Are you happy?”
She looked at her father, smiling. “Yes, I—we are happy.”
“Then that’s all that matters,” Webb said.
“I beg to differ,” came Drake’s voice from behind them. “We have a wedding to finish here. And after that,” he gestured to the massive balloon that rose behind them. “I believe you owe your father a balloon ride.”
Webb looked at the airship behind them, then back at his daughter.
“Is there room for Tarik on that balloon?” she asked.
Webb smiled. “Absolutely. The sky’s the limit.”
And it was.