The ship emerged from the clouds with the stealth of a shark. At the helm of the Bearer of Bad News, Captain Archibald Stenson stared in alarm. The opposing ship just dangled there, suspended in the sky, with no air bladder to hold it up. What was keeping it afloat? How was it flying?
As he watched, it slipped beneath the Bearer. The airship jolted, and Stenson felt the tug of a force working against the ship’s wheel.
“Sound the alarm!” Stenson shouted. Then to himself, he muttered a curse. Whatever this new ship was, it couldn’t be good.
Juliet Silver strode into Ms. Chari’s tea house, her buckled boots clanking against the ceramic tiles, masking the tinkling of delicate chain-link armor hidden beneath her tunic. Peering between the silvery globes and slowly turning mobiles dangling from above, Juliet spotted the man who’d summoned her here.
Stenson. The captain of the Bearer of Bad News. Juliet suspected the ship was once again living up to its name. The old man’s eyes met hers, and he gestured to the seat opposite him.
Juliet preferred to stand; sitting made it more difficult to reach her sword.
“Have you finally decided to give me what I’m due,” she asked, “so I no longer have to take it by force?”
Stenson scowled at her. For months, Juliet and her crew had been hunting down and boarding other airships, extracting the percentage of their goods which was owed them – a percentage which the others, citing a technicality in the original agreement, refused to hand over willingly.
“I’ve come to forewarn you,” Stenson said. “Even if you board my ship, as you’ve made a habit of doing, you’ll not find what you’re looking for. I’ve been robbed clean.”
Intrigued, Juliet lowered herself to the chair. Did she have some competition in the skies?
Ms. Chari’s new tea shop girl approached the table. Stenson grunted out his request, but Juliet ordered politely, with a small smile. It hadn’t been too long ago that she’d been in the girl’s place.
“What do you mean, robbed?” Juliet asked when the girl was again out of earshot.
“Boarded and plundered. I’ve merchants clamoring for my head for losing their precious cargo, but I haven’t the money to repay them and keep the Bearer afloat.”
“Why are you telling me?” If he was looking for a sympathetic ear, he’d have to look elsewhere. Then, realization dawned on her. “You need my help.”
Stenson scowled but didn’t deny it. Juliet had bested his crew many times before.
“Who better to fight a pirate than a pirate?” he asked.
Juliet returned his scowl. She disliked the label “pirate.” She may technically act the part, but she had principles. She never took more than what was owed her.
“Well, who was it?” Juliet asked. “Fischer? Mulligan? Steelhand?”
“Good God, not Steelhand!” Stenson drew back in alarm. “Do you think I’d be here to tell you the story if Steelhand the Cyborg had boarded my ship?”
“Who was it then?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you know all the airpilots from here to the Mage Sea.”
“And beyond. But I swear to you, I don’t know. The ship was unfamiliar and rather extraordinary, for it had no air bladder to hold it up. It boarded us from below, cut a gaping hole in the bottom of our hull, and emptied our storerooms before my crew had gathered their wits.”
Was it possible? What could hold up a ship if not the buoyancy of hot air?
“So, you’d like me to find this ship, board it, and take back what’s yours?”
“And what’s yours,” Stenson said, the nearest Juliet ever heard to an admission of the money due her. “Plus a five percent finder’s fee.”
Juliet considered the proposition. Surely Stenson wouldn’t be coming to her if he had any other options, and she had a ship to keep afloat as well. “Where might I find this ship?”
“The Sea of Prosperity.”
Juliet didn’t have to fly far into the Sea of Prosperity to see that it was a misnomer. The waters were brown and empty, flat as a desert and just as lifeless. The skies above it, too, were murky and grim.
“How Stenson expects us to see anything in this soup is beyond me,” Juliet told her first mate, Geofferies. She needn’t have worried, though, for no sooner were the words out of her mouth than something glimmered in the distance.
“There. Beyond those clouds.” Juliet urged the Realm of Impossibility forward, approaching the mysterious ship at an angle. “Geofferies, release some air. Don’t let them come at us from below. It is our turn to surprise them.”
The ship sank and shifted, bobbing along on the clouds like a buoy on a stormy sea. Juliet aimed her spyglass into the thick clouds, searching for another glimpse of the mystery ship.
The Realm shuddered.
“What in St. Peter’s flying buttresses?” Juliet cursed. Somehow the mystery ship — more maneuverable without the enormous air bladder — must have darted beneath their hull. “Take the helm, Geofferies.”
Juliet grabbed the brass mouthpiece over her head. Cogs clanked as she pulled it down to her face. “Attention, all crew! We are being boarded from below. Man your stations!”
Throughout the ship men donned their armor, took up their weapons, and hurried to the positions Juliet had assigned. If anyone tried to bore a hole in the hull of their ship, they’d be greeted by a dozen armed men. As for Juliet, she had her own task to accomplish, one she didn’t trust to anyone else.
She reached behind her head, grabbed the hood of her chain-linked armor, and pulled it down over her face. A layer of soft, breathable leather cushioned her skin from the metal links. They clattered in and out of their rows and columns until they settled snug against the contours of her form. She peered out through narrow eye slits as she pulled on her fencing gloves and slid her sword into its scabbard. Then she counted out five spears and loaded them into her pneumatic speargun.
At the back of her belt was a hook where she attached a strong cord with the other end anchored to the Realm of Impossibility. She pulled on a pair of goggles and turned to her first mate.
“Stick with the plan.”
Then, she opened the hatch and leapt from the ship.
Wind whipped around her, filling her lungs and fueling the excitement coursing through her. This rush of adventure — more than the money, even more than the sense of justice — was what had driven her to this desolate sea. The cord reached its length, pulled taut, and bounced upward. Juliet cartwheeled in midair, then spun herself around, searching for the mystery ship.
There. There it was, clinging like a barnacle to the bottom of the Realm of Impossibility. Its hull declared it the Argonaut, and without an airbladder, it looked vaguely fishlike, entirely unsuited for sailing the skies.
From where she dangled, Juliet spotted two crewmen balancing atop the Argonaut, drilling into the hull of her ship. Anger boiled like molten steel within her, but she composed herself quickly. Her men would take care of the breach.
Juliet pulled the speargun from her belt. Aiming carefully, she shot the first spear directly into the hull of the Argonaut near a side hatch. Then — hand over hand — she pulled herself along its length until she reached the ship. With her boots balanced on a narrow ledge, she unhooked the line from her harness. Overhead, men shouted; the Argonaut‘s crew must have broken through the hull. It was time to see what was really in this ship.
With a burst of her tiny, handheld blowtorch, the door’s lock disintegrated. Juliet reached into the hole she’d cut, yanked the hatch open, and swung herself inside. She pulled the goggles from her eyes and gaped up through green-tinged light.
Unlike her own ship, with its corridors and cabins, its storerooms and mechanical parts, the inside of the Argonaut was open, one enormous, vault-like room with a catwalk circling the outer wall and the interior filled with the treasure and cargo of dozens of ships. That wasn’t, however, the strangest part, for when Juliet raised her eyes to see what cast such an eerie, incandescent glow over the open space, she saw something that befuddled her so entirely that, for a moment, she forgot her purpose there.
“I call them Luminaries,” a voice at her side said.
Juliet turned and found herself facing a tall, thin man with elegant, youthful features, whose stature was accentuated by tall black boots and a top hat.
“My name is Dr. Murell.” He extended a polite, gloved hand.
Juliet did not return the gesture. “What are they?”
“Airborne creatures.” Murell folded his hands atop his cane, seemingly unbothered by Juliet’s refusal to shake hands. “They carry this ship where I command them.”
Juliet shifted her body to hide her sword behind her back. “This ship is enormous. Those creatures couldn’t possibly carry its weight.”
“Perhaps for a normal ship, it would be impossible, but the Argonaut is made of a new metal alloy — strong, yet lightweight. As for the Luminaries…” The man raised his cane, and from it burst a bolt of electricity that crackled in the air, leaving a scent of burnt sulfur. The hovering Luminaries glowed brighter, and with a shriek of unmistakable pain, they fled to the far side of the ceiling, pulling the ship in that direction.
“The Luminaries, my dear Ms. Silver, are the future of air transport, captured from the high altitudes of Mount Morningstar. Once I’ve run the other airpilots out of business, I shall have my pick of the city’s merchants. They’ll all be begging me to deliver their goods, and I shall set the price.”
“You know my name.” Juliet circled Murell, scanning him for any sign of a weapon. “You must know, then, there’s no way I will allow that to happen.”
“Dear Ms. Silver.” Murell smiled, a thin, unsettling smile. “You haven’t a choice.”
Before he could move, Juliet pulled her sword and pressed it to his Adam’s apple. The corner of his lips turned up in a smile, which grew to a hearty chuckle so unnerving that Juliet’s normally steady hand quaked. A single drop of blood escaped from Murell’s neck and trickled down the edge of her sword.
Murell drew back and touched Juliet’s knee with the end of his cane. A jolt of electricity burst forth from it, a white-hot pain that traveled like lightning through her leg and out to her body’s extremities. With the clatter of her sword, Juliet fell on her back, panting.
She sucked in air, her muddled mind frantically searching for an alternate plan. This was supposed to be easy — break in, seize the captain, commandeer the ship — but she’d been too confident, unprepared for surprises such as these. She stared up at the Luminaries with their jellyfish-like bodies, pressing against one another with enough force to hold the ship up, all trying desperately to break free and rise upward.
Half an idea formed in Juliet’s mind. Before the notion could congeal and solidify into a true plan, Murell stepped up to her, positioning his cane above her head.
Go on, try it, she thought, slowly reaching for her belt.
Murell pressed the tip of the cane against her armored brow and sent out another burst of electricity. The current flowed through her armor and into the floor beneath, but Juliet writhed and screamed, feigning distress. While Murell’s attention was diverted, she pulled the speargun from her belt. As soon as the electrical current waned, she raised her arm, aimed directly upward, and shot a spear toward the far-off ceiling.
Juliet scrambled to her feet and brought her boot down hard upon Murell’s cane. It snapped in half, and he let out a cry of dismay.
Overhead, the Luminaries bunched together, gathering around the place where the spear had pierced the hull. Her rope hung down from the ceiling, dangling just over Juliet’s head. Murell fumbled in his jacket for another weapon, but Juliet didn’t wait to see what it was. She grabbed the rope, pulling herself up until she was out of Murell’s reach.
Murell, obviously unaccustomed to rope-climbing, stayed aground, firing off shot after shot in a haphazard scatter formation that only served to rile up the Luminaries and puncture holes in the ceiling. Air whistled through these tiny openings like an off-key sea shanty.
The Luminaries shifted in confusion with each shot, setting Juliet’s rope swinging. They circled around her, curious and frightened. She climbed until she reached the top of the ship, with nothing but ceiling above and Murell below.
Murell let out a cry, and something shiny whipped through the air. His dagger pierced the back of Juliet’s knee, in that narrow square of space between her high boots and her armor. She screamed, and one of her hands slipped from the rope. She hung on with the other, swaying haphazardly among the strange, luminous beings.
With a quick glance downward, to where Murell was reloading his pistol, Juliet tore the dagger from her leg. Warm blood trickled into her boot. She looked up, searching for one of the miniscule bullet holes, and when she found one, she plunged the knife into it. Already weakened, the thin hull gave away easily. The Luminaries roiled around her, filling her vision with glowing globs of light. They pressed in, squeezing her until she feared they’d crush her, and then, with a colossal rip, the hull of the Argonaut burst open.
Juliet had only a fraction of a second, but that was all she needed. She shot her final spear skyward, praying that somehow in the chaos it would find the Realm‘s hull and not the soft, fluid insides of a fleeing Luminary.
With a jerk, the rope pulled taut. Juliet hooked her elbow around it, suspended in place as the Luminaries flew skyward in escape and the Argonaut fell, splashed, and sunk into the dingy sea below.
Juliet Silver’s boots clanked as she stepped onboard the Bearer of Bad News. Stenson stood at the helm, pointing two pistols at her. She may have been expected, but she still was not welcome.
“Are you going to give me what’s due this time?” She placed her hand on the hilt of her sword — a new one, since her original had been lost with the Argonaut. “I’ve destroyed the mystery ship and its captain. They won’t be bothering you again.”
“I owe you nothing. The deal was to retrieve my cargo, and you sunk it to the bottom of the Sea of Prosperity.”
Juliet scowled. He had a point. In the weeks since the Argonaut‘s disappearance, no one — not even those who had lost fortunes to Murell — had dared to retrieve the treasure which lay there. If only there were some safe way to dive beneath the sea’s murky waves then, perhaps, someone would attempt it, but until then, it was lost.
“Take our regular portion,” Juliet ordered her crew. She stepped toward Stenson, keeping her sword between them, and leaned in with a fierce whisper of a promise. “But I will find some way to retrieve that treasure, and when I do, you will uphold your end of the deal.”
Paying no mind to the pistols still leveled at her head (Stenson needed her once; he’d certainly need her again), Juliet turned on her heel and strode back across the makeshift gangplank from the Bearer to the Realm. Halfway across, she paused, high over the sea, and gazed across the waves. What other treasures might lie far beneath them? Someday, she promised herself, one way or another, she would find out.
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and is forthcoming from Analog and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com
Author of “Juliet Silver and the Sea of Prosperity”
1) What inspired you to write this story?
“Juliet Silver and the Sea of Prosperity” is actually the second in a series of six standalone steampunk stories revolving around the protagonist, her crew, and their adventures. The first story can be found in the October 2016 issue of Deep Magic; the rest have been published in the Young Explorers Adventure Guide anthology series by Dreaming Robot Press.
But Juliet Silver began as a story-within-a-story. In 2015, I’d written and sold a steampunk story called The Firebringer, and within that story, the protagonist reads a book of legends:
Besides the legend of the Firebringer, there were tales of Steelhand the Cyborg who wreaked havoc on the skies of the Southern Hemisphere, Captain Neono who was the first to construct an airship that could also float on water, and the fierce Captain Juliet Silver, the most fearsome female airpilot in history.
Though I’d only intended it to be a made-up example of the stories in the protagonist’s book, a reader mentioned that they’d love to read that story about Juliet Silver, and the more I thought of it, the more excited I became; I knew I wanted to explore that world, too.
2) What do you hope readers take from this story?
Enjoyment! I hope that my readers have as much fun reading about Captain Silver and her adventures as I do writing about them!
3) Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Steampunk fans who are looking for longer works should definitely check out Beth Cato’s Clockwork Dagger series and the Bone Universe series (starting with UPDRAFT) by Fran Wilde.
Readers interested in more of my work can check out my website at www.wendynikel.com or look up my time travel novella series, beginning with THE CONTINUUM.