They drove through the night. In the morning, Brogan woke Que. They had arrived at Brattford just that morning, and Brogan was letting her know that she was going to get breakfast.
The young woman stirred and looked up at her with a small yawn.
"How long did I sleep?" Que asked, slowly sitting up. "Are we there already?"
"We're here," Brogan said. "You were tired. You slept all night. I tried to make the ride not too bumpy for you. I just wanted to let you know that we were here and that I was going to go get breakfast. If you want you can wander around. The market here is open pretty early, which is good for us."
Que stretched her arms, popping her back.
"Can one of the bots go with me? If things are as bad as you say, I probably shouldn't go alone."
She rubbed her eyes to clear her vision.
"I wonder what this market will have."
"Sure. Take DeeDee with you. She's less depressing. I'll take the grouch," Brogan said.
"I heard that," muttered BOB.
"Up then, missy. Hop hop and chop chop."
Brogan, who had already changed into clean clothes, opened the door and hopped out of the buggy, BOB right behind her.
Que looked at the clothes she'd been wearing for the past couple of days, then over at DeeDee.
"Maybe I should use some of the money I have left to buy something clean to wear, huh?"
"What about your bag?" DeeDee said, her voice whirling like her propellers. "Didn't you bring clothes?"
Que opened up the satchel she had been carrying with her. Aside from her new textbook, there were a few articles of clothing and a small tea tin, but that was it.
"I did bring some clothes, but I've already worn all these and haven't really had the chance to wash anything. What I'm wearing is probably cleaner than what's in here, on account of the rain the other day."
"But what about the mud?"
"Maybe we need to find a public bath for you! Brogan needs one too you know!" she chirped.
"A public bath?" Que echoed, the bot's words having piqued her curiosity. "Do you think I could get my laundry washed there too? I've read about public baths in books on ancient Rome. They still have those?"
"Oh, yeah!" she chirped. "Not everyone can afford their own bathroom you know! And there's a lot of desert here!"
DeeDee whirled out the door.
"Come on! We'll find one together, Miss Quesy!"
Que eagerly slid out of the buggy to follow the robot into town. At first, she was startled by the new setting, and for a moment only stared at her surroundings. Even though they were on the outskirts of Brattford, Que was awed by its size... well, at least compared to the small homesteads she'd passed by on her way. This was the first city she had ever seen, and she was instantly seized by the desire to explore every single street and alleyway.
She quickly changed her mind when she saw how far ahead DeeDee was.
"Hey!" Que called to her, starting in a jog. "Wait for me!"
DeeDee circled the spot she was in, waiting until Que showed up.
"Miss Quesy is so slow," she sang and then giggled. "Come one! We have to look around and find places! We should ask!"
She whirled away toward the cluster of people just ahead.
"DeeDee! Not so fast! I can't fly like you!"
Que caught up to her again and looked at the group they had approached. Some of them seemed outright confused by the girl and the robot who had just appeared.
"Um..." Que began, at little embarrassed that she didn't know how to explain their situation. "Do you live here?"
Some people murmured among themselves and moved away, glancing at her as if they were afraid and unsure about the girl suddenly in their mist. The rest lingered, but no one said anything. They tried to avoid her gaze.
Only the man sitting on a barrel with a stack of newspapers paid her any attention. His gray gaze was level like cold steel hard and frigid as he stared at her. He didn't smile, but he did speak to her.
"Yeah. They all live here. And they're all paranoid."
The rest who had lingered hurried away at his words. He didn't seem to notice them leave. He was still staring at Que.
"You scared all my customers away."
"I'm sorry," Que said with a frown. "I just wanted to know if there is a public bath here. I... I didn't think I would scare anyone."
She looked over at DeeDee, as if to ask for a little reassurance that she was doing alright, before looking back at the man.
"How could I? I'm not that frightening, am I?"
"Nope!" DeeDee chirped. "You're cute, Miss Quesy!"
"Public baths are further into town," the man said. "People here are all a little afraid of strangers to town."
He glanced at the robot, but then his piercing raptor gray eyes returned to Que. She chewed on her lip, a little disheartened by this.
"It seems like everyone I meet is like that, except for Brogan. She was the first person I met who didn't seem reluctant to help..."
Que took a deep breath, trying to regain her courage.
"You don't think it'll be like this in Sylvora too, do you?"
He didn't say anything. He pulled his hat lower on his face, shadowing it, and then reached down for a newspaper. He handed it to her. The headline read "Sylvora Refugees Flock to Neighboring Cities."
The article mentioned how local militia were guarding refugees who were leaving Sylvora. The military had been sent to the city, but there had been no word back from them.
"You'll need a guide to the baths," he said, wrapping up the papers that were left with twine.
Que read the article while he packed up. This day was not off to a good start at all.
"I was hoping to have looked through the records there..." she said sadly, more to herself than to the man or DeeDee. "It was the only clue I had to finding my family..."
She held the paper back out to the man, having lost all of her previous excitement about going into town.
"If you're lucky," he said, and took the newspaper back. "They got out and they'll be refugees. They'll be harder find, but they'll be alive. If you're not lucky, you'll find someone to take you to Sylvora."
He rolled up the newspaper and tucked it into his back pocket.
"But I don't even know their names," Que told him, whether or not he cared to listen. "All I have is a photo and the name of the woman who was supposed to be my mother. I don't even know if she had any relatives..."
She began to cry, unable to cope with this sudden discovery.
DeeDee returned to the ground, her propellers becoming wheels again. She put a metal hand on Que's knee for comfort.
"Don't cry, Miss Quesy..."
He watched her for a moment, his gaze not missing anything. Then he shook his head.
"Then go to Sylvora. It's dangerous, but not impossible. This is recent news. There are still people trying to get family out."
He straightened. His face was still in shadow.
"Do you eat?"
"What?" Que asked through sniffles, trying to calm down. "What do you mean? Of course I eat. Don't you?"
She looked down at DeeDee trying to comfort her.
"Am I really that skinny?"
DeeDee made a comforting, vibrating sound.
"You're perfect, Miss Quesy!"
"You just got to town. I'll get you some food," the man said. He hefted the stack of newspapers over his shoulder, holding onto the twine.
Que followed, not wanting to be left behind. She was a little confused by this man, but since he was the only one who seemed to want to help, decided she'd be better off just going along.
"Umm," she said after a moment. "So, where are we going exactly? I know you had offered to show me where the baths were, but then you mentioned food, and..."
DeeDee took off into the air and flew behind Que.
"Have you eaten?" he asked without looking at her.
"Well, no," Que admitted. "Not yet. My companion said she was going to get breakfast and said I could have a look around town while I waited..."
He nodded. He stopped by an outside booth selling kabobs and corn. The lady at the booth smile at him, and he nodded. He purchased a kabob and a corn on the cob and then handed them both to Que.
"I'll show you to the baths while you eat," he said, and then turned to start walking farther into town.
Que decided she probably shouldn't protest the free food. She was getting a little hungry now that she thought about it. She tentatively took a bite of the kabob first, and after she looked at the man again.
"Thanks, uh... I don't believe we ever introduced ourselves."
He didn't say anything for a moment.
"You're Miss Quesy," he stated.
Que couldn't keep herself from laughing either. She shook her head.
"No, that's just what DeeDee calls me," she explained, feeling a little more at ease. "My name's really Que. Que Arres."
She tilted her head to one side.
"Smoke." Someone stopped them to ask for a newspaper. He sold her two (as she had asked for one for her brother as well). Then he picked up the stack again and continued walking.
"We'll turn right up ahead in this next intersection," he said.
"Smoke?" Que repeated. "You don't have a last name?"
She finished the kabob and began on the corn cob. For a moment, she contemplated sharing with DeeDee... until she remembered that the robot didn't need to eat.
He turned the corner.
DeeDee flew over Que and toward the strange man.
"You don't talk much do you?" she chirped at him.
He stopped and looked at the robot. He was silent for a long moment.
"I don't have much to say."
"You don't look smoky."
"So why is that your name?"
"Because it's what I am."
He turned away from the robot and continued walking.
DeeDee flew back to Que.
"He's weird," she sang.
Que shrugged and jogged up to walk beside him.
"How are you smoke?" she asked. "You aren't made of smoke, are you? Are you some sort of alchemical illusion?"
He stopped. He turned to her with an eyebrow arched. His face, still mostly in shadow, actually appeared a little amused by the question the first emotion she had seen on his face.
Smoke put down the stack of newspapers. He took a step toward her, closing the gap between them. He bent his head down so the visor of his hat touched her forehead.
"Do I look like an alchemical illusion?"
He arched an eyebrow.
"You want to poke me and find out if I'll disappear?"
Que stared at him wide-eyed, very taken aback by his actions. After a few seconds of just staring at one another, she looked down and stepped back a little before poking Smoke in the shoulder, just to be sure.
"A very solid illusion, perhaps?" she suggested.
He hefted the newspapers back up over his shoulder. He didn't smile, but his expression remained amused. As if he thought her question funny, but refused to laugh about it.
"Perhaps," he finally said.
He turned around and continued to walk, not giving her another glance.
After another few seconds of strolling in silence, Que's curiosity got the better of her again.
"What are the public baths like?" she asked. "I've never been to one before... will I be able to clean my clothes there too?"
"Yes, you can wash your clothes there," Smoke said.
"What are they like? What are they like?" DeeDee mimicked in a sing-song voice.
"Aren't you programmed with that information?" he asked the flying bot.
"Well, I don't need to take baths!" she chirped.
"DeeDee's kind of new to the world too," Que said, looking over at the robot as it whizzed around. "Brogan only finished her the night before last. She's really friendly though."
She looked back at Smoke.
"You'd have to ask Brogan about her programming."
He shrugged as if it really wasn't that important to him. In the next intersection he made a left. A couple more people stopped him to buy papers. One lady asked him a few questions.
"Do they say if it's the same people who took over Mamshire?" she asked him.
"I believe so, ma'am. I don't think it actually says that in the article, but it is implied."
"Is there a list of towns that are no longer on the maps?"
"Page five, ma'am."
He got a few more coins for his information, and then he picked up the newspapers again and kept walking.
"You sure do know a lot about the vanishing towns," Que said once they were out of earshot of the couple. "Is it because you sell the paper?"
"Is that the only reason?"
He made another right and then stopped. He turned to the building on his left, dropped the newspapers and then pointed at it.
"Public baths. There are two sections. One for men and one for women. The first room is the place to take off your clothes and put them to wash. You collect a towel in that same room. Then you head to the back of it and it opens to huge tub with a fountain on the end. You bathe in there with the other women."
"Wooooooooooooooow," DeeDee said. "That sounds like fun!"
"DeeDee, I don't think you need to bathe, do you?" Que asked the bot before turning back to Smoke. "Uh, thanks again for showing me here. I'll have to get Brogan to buy a paper from you when I get back to her."
He tipped his hat.
Que smiled a little and waved.
"Well, um, good bye then, Smoke. I guess I'll see you around..."
She started into the building, still a little apprehensive of him. What a strange man he was...
Brogan was starting to get really worried. Que had gone missing and so far no one in the market seemed to have noticed a young girl with blond hair and a streak in her hair. With a flying robot. How can one miss that? She'd asked a ton of vendors and shoppers, but they either shook their heads or just moved away from her. This play was really irritating. She'd managed to get some information about Sylvora (none of it good Que won't be happy) and breakfast, but now she couldn't find the girl.
"Maybe we should give up," BOB said, and then sighed.
"Don't make me turn you into scrap metal."
He sighed again.
A young man selling newspapers was revealed after the crowd around him moved away. He had one newspaper left and it was rolled up. The only one he hadn't sold.
Brogan went up to him.
"Hey, could I have that newspaper?" she said pulling out a coin.
His gray eyes fell to the robot by her feet. He handed her the rolled up paper.
"You don't got to play me. It's rolled up."
"I don't care."
She took the paper and slapped the coin in his hand. Her eyes scanned the headline and she groaned.
"Que is going to be so upset."
The man stayed by Brogan's side despite the fact that she'd bought his last paper. She arched an eyebrow at him. He tilted his head to the side and his gray gaze seemed to stare through her. Brogan glared back.
"What?" Brogan said, startled by his abrupt statement.
"Que wasn't happy. She cried. In public. Your robot tried to comfort her, but DeeDee isn't very comforting. Being made of metal."
Her jaw dropped.
"You've seen Que? God, you're the first! Thank god! I was wondering where the girl had gone off to! Where is she?"
"At the bathhouse."
Brogan's eyes narrowed. Either this guy was purposefully being difficult or he just didn't offer any information other than what was asked for. God, could people actually be so damn secretive and literal? Then again, it seemed like the whole town was paranoid, why not the newsboy as well?
"Where's the bathhouse? Can you take me to it? Will you take me too it?" she asked.
He looked amused, but he didn't smile. God, this was a weird man.
"Up further on the hill," he said. "Yes, I can and will take you to it."
"I'm done with my papers."
Brogan muttered a thank you and followed the guy as he began to walk into town. She looked over at BOB, and he just rolled his eyes. He had no opinion on human weirdness. Humans were all weird to him.
The guy didn't speak and Brogan didn't say anything. She just followed him until they got there and he pointed at the building.
"Uh, thanks. Bye."
She shook her head and hurried into the building. She headed toward the woman's section and immediately began calling out for Que.
"Que! Que, dammit, where are you?"
Hearing her name, the young woman's head popped up from the water as she looked around. Spotting her Brogan, she waved.
"Over here!" she called, smiling brightly. "DeeDee and I decided we'd get cleaned... well, at least I would, since I haven't had a decent bath in a while."
Brogan sighed with relief. A woman working the bathhouse wouldn't let her pass into the bath with clothes on, so Brogan went ahead, took off her clothes too and gave them to the woman to be washed. Taking the towel, she headed toward Que and plopped down beside her in the water.
BOB stayed happily in the changing room.
DeeDee giggled and whirled away to keep BOB company.
Brogan shot Que a glare.
"I've been looking for you for a while. I thought something had happened."
Que frowned and chewed on her lip, lowering herself back into the water.
"It was DeeDee's idea and it sounded good at the time. It just took me a while to find someone willing to show me where this place was."
She looked up at Brogan.
"I'm sorry; I didn't expect us to take that long."
"It's okay. I'm just glad I found you in one piece."
She sighed and sank deeper into the water.
"This was a good idea."
Que's expression immediately brightened, and she smiled with relief.
"DeeDee was really excited too!" she told her. "The attendant had to keep her from diving head first into the water. I don't know how water-proof DeeDee is. At least she let her help with the laundry, if not a bit reluctantly."
The young woman giggled.
"It's really funny to watch how people react to your bots."
"I like how they react too. It's always fun. I'm glad you stopped her from diving in. She's resistant enough to something like rain, but diving in would've fried her."
She rolled her eyes.
"It would have been difficult to fix."
Her brow furrowed.
"However, the guy who led me here didn't seem to notice BOB at all."
Her expression became tender as she looked at Que.
"I read about what happened in Sylvora. I'm sorry, hon."
Again, Que frowned, but now that she was over the initial shock she was much calmer about it.
"It just means that things are going to be harder than anticipated. I have to see the records. It's the only clue I have."
She paused, not really wanting to linger on the subject.
"So what will we do now that we're in town?"
"Well, if we're going to get to Sylvora we're going to need to find someone crazy enough to take us. We could take the buggy, but it's liable to get stolen because people are trying to escape Sylvora, and they'll know we're coming ahead of time. I don't want the Enlightened to have any idea that we're there."
She pursed her lips.
"So by air is probably the safest bet. The sky won't be as closely monitored as the ground."
"So today's mission is to find a pilot crazy enough to fly us to Sylvora?" Que asked. "Gosh, that's going to be hard with how paranoid people are in this place."
She looked over at Brogan, one eyebrow raised, a little worried.
"Will we have to arm ourselves too?"
Brogan's cheeks puffed and she exhaled loudly.
"Yeah. Probably. I guess I can get out my sledgehammer and the Big Gun. But we'll need to get you something too."
She shook her head.
"I have no idea where to begin to find a pilot. I guess we could go to the shipyard if there is one in this town."
"We could ask Smoke," Que suggested absentmindedly. "He seems to know a lot about this place, even if he's reluctant to help on his own. Oh, and I told him I would ask you to buy a newspaper from him."
"Newspaper? Smoke?" Brogan blinked. "Do you mean the guy who told me you were here and led the way here? The newsboy with the eyes that look right through you?"
Que had gotten his name? Well, damn. The girl was not quite as hopeless as Brogan had fretted.
"Yeah, the one with the gray eyes. I doubt there are more than one of him around. He's very strange... not very forthcoming with information either, but I bet if we pester him enough, we might learn something. He showed me the way here too. Even bought me some breakfast."
Brogan's eyebrows arched.
"Well, that's definitely weird. You're right, he didn't seem very forthcoming at all. Getting information was like trying to unscrew a stubborn hinge. Gah."
She lay her head back.
"But I guess he's our best bet. He didn't seem to be bothered by either of us or the bots. In fact, I'd be surprised if anything bothered him."
Again, Que nodded. She slipped out of the water and wrapped the towel around her.
"I'm finished. My fingers are starting get wrinkly. I'll go see how DeeDee is doing with the laundry and hopefully get into something clean. Where do you want me to meet you? I don't want you to worry about my whereabouts again."
"Just meet me in the changing room. I'll be there in a bit." Brogan sank under the water and then came back up, pushing back her dark auburn hair.
With a smile and a final nod, Que jogged over to the changing room to get dressed and wait for Brogan.
Que was sitting in the corner reading her textbook when Brogan was finally clean and ready to go. She barely noticed when she appeared, having become completely absorbed in the book. The eagerness in her eyes as she turned the page was clear to see, and she devoured the information she read like it would vanish if she didn't read it soon enough.
Brogan told her that she would pay the owner for their washed clothes and for the time spent in the bath. She said to wait outside she would be right there.
Sitting on a bench outside was Smoke, with his brown hair damp from his own bath.
Que closed her book to wait outside, but when she saw Smoke, she tilted her head to the side in curiosity.
"Are you following me?" she asked. "Or did you really need a bath too? Or both?"
"Bath," he said. He ran his hand through his hair, shaking it out a little. He then pulled it back into the short ponytail at the base of his neck.
Que laughed a little, rocking on her heels.
"Then why are you waiting on this side? Based on the layout of the place, the men's changing room doesn't exit here."
"It's the only bench."
He motioned around, indicating there were no others.
"Are you waiting for someone then?" Que continued questioning. "Because if you aren't you didn't have to sit here to dry off."
"You want to go to Sylvora right?"
She nodded, putting her hands on her hips.
"So you are following me then."
"Then why didn't you say so the first time I asked?"
He glanced over at her and nodded.
"But why did you say that the first time?" Que asked again, not satisfied with his answer.
"One vowel difference."
He looked away.
But Que continued to be insistent.
"That still doesn't explain anything. You either mean what you say or you don't. You can't have it both ways, so why not just be clear the first time? Or are you afraid of admitting you followed me or something? I can't imagine why..."
His gaze drifted back to hers. He met her eyes.
"I didn't want to scare you."
Que blinked. For some reason, she didn't see Smoke as the type who would care whether or not he scared someone.
"So then why are you following me? Should I be scared?"
He looked away.
"You cried in the middle of town because you want to get to Sylvora. I know someone who can take you to Sylvora."
"I thought you would want to know that."
He stood up and turned to her.
Que thought about this before walking over to the bench and sitting down next to where he had been sitting before. She looked up at him.
"So why didn't you just say all this in the first place? Why do you have to be so elusive about giving information? It seems rather roundabout and inefficient, if you ask me..."
Smoke shrugged. He sat down next to her.
Que waited for him to say something, and when he didn't, tried again.
He looked at her.
"Because information is precious. It makes you strong."
Before Que could ask anything else, Brogan walked out. She stopped, both bots beside her when she saw Smoke and Que sitting next to each other. An eyebrow arched.
"Uh, hi again. What do you want?"
Que looked up at her with a small smile and a matter-of-fact nod.
"Smoke knows someone who might be able to get us to Sylvora."
Brogan blinked. Her eyebrows lifted.
"Oh. He does, does he?"
She met his gaze. He stared unflinchingly back. Brogan shook her head.
"Que, lord knows you make weird friends fast."
"Look who's talking."
She gave BOB a kick. DeeDee giggled.
Brogan smiled as if she was humoring them.
"All right, kiddies. Let's go see this person Smoke knows. Does he have a name?" she asked as he stood up.
"Oh, sweet hell, not again."
She rolled her eyes.
"What is it?"
He began to walk down the street, making a right at the corner.
Brogan followed with Que beside her. She leaned close to Que's ear.
"What is with him?"
Que shrugged, turning to Brogan with just as much confusion.
"Maybe he had a lobotomy at a young age and can only answer in a ambiguous fashion."
Brogan snorted, holding back her laughter. BOB mimicked her and DeeDee giggled. IF Smoke heard them, he didn't respond. He just continued to lead them down the busy street.
"Que, I don't think a lobotomy works that way," Brogan said and grinned.
Que smiled and shrugged again.
"It was just a thought, that's all."
Brogan chuckled again.
Smoke led them straight through town all the way to the other end. Then he took a left and headed along the outskirts until they got to an area that was full of airships. It was right along the train tracks. A few people waved at him, and he waved back. He didn't pause as he went through the gate on the far end and into the shipyard.
Amongst some of the larger vessels was a smaller, half-wooden airship that looked in need of serious repair, and (except for the thunderous snoring emitting from on deck) it appeared to be abandoned. Que instinctively plugged her ears to block out the noise.
"It's very loud."
Smoke, however, headed straight for the abandoned-looking ship. He climbed up the ramp without ceremony and headed toward the man snoring on the deck. He took the chair where the man had propped up his feet away and then sat on it beside him as the feet fell to the floor.
Brogan looked over at Que, confusion etched on her face, as they followed Smoke up the ramp.
The other man snorted when his foot rest was taken away, and he sat up with a grumbling yawn as he looked at Smoke.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, his voice a gruff, scratchy baritone. "You know my last flight didn't go so well. What do you want this time, Smoke?"
The man easily towered over the Smoke even though he was sitting, and was close to twice the newsie's size, especially in the shoulders. Large muscles rippled under his shirt as he shifted to sit up straighter, brushing a lose strand of black hair out of his face as he looked at the guests the other man had brought.
Smoke nodded, drawing the man's attention.
"They want to go to Sylvora."
Brogan looked at the man Liam Trumble then looked at Que. She mouthed a silent "hubba-hubba" at the younger woman. Brogan looked back at the man and felt her face heat up. Hot, holy damn.
"They're Brogan and Que. Que is looking for family in Sylvora. Records. I told them you could take them."
It was probably the most Smoke had said in a sitting.
Liam growled a little rolling his eyes.
"Awe damn, Smoke! You need to stop doing that! You see the condition of my ship?"
He gestured towards the airship they were sitting on as he stood up.
"I was fucking shot at during my last flight. You hear that? Shot. At. And that was a commercial trip over a god damned unoccupied city! You think I'm in any way prepared to go on another flight, through hostile airspace no less?"
Liam began patting his pockets until he found a pack of cigarettes.
"You're fucking insane."
He put a cigarette in his mouth and began searching for his matches.
"Fuck, where'd I put them
Smoke reached into a pocket and pulled out a box of matches. He gave it to Liam.
Liam lit his cigarette and took a long drag from it before blowing the smoke out his nose and turning towards him again.
"Why the urgency anyway? You usually take at least half an hour to tell me who needs to go where and why. What the fuck, Smoke? You snort something or what?"
He looked over at the two women.
"Sorry ladies. He ain't right in the head today."
Brogan looked over at Que, eyebrow arched. Well, Smoke had said a lot of information all at once.
Smoke's eyes didn't leave Liam's face.
"No. This is important, Liam."
"Important? Fuck, keeping my ass alive to run these errands is important!"
The pilot turned back to Smoke and returned to his chair.
"I can't fly a broken craft, no matter how you look at it. I already put in a maintenance order, but they're dragging their heels, like usual. Unless you want us to crash and burn on our way to Sylvora, there's no fucking way."
Que's shoulders dropped. From the way Smoke had said it before, she had really thought that this pilot would be more than willing to fly them there.
"Please, Mr. Trumble?" she asked, trying not to sound upset. "It's the only chance I have to find out who I am."
Liam looked over at her, frowning because she'd asked so innocently.
"Sorry kid," he said, taking another puff of his cigarette. "But rocks don't fly."
"I can get this up and running by tomorrow morning."
Her cheeks turned a little red, but she pressed on.
"You need some repairs. But from the looks of that smoke, I know what the problem is. I've got plenty of parts in my buggy. I'll have it running and flying again in no time. I've worked on ships before."
Liam stared at her in disbelief, the cigarette almost falling from his lips. Her turned back to Smoke and snorted.
"You did that on purpose, didn't you? Made sure someone was here to fix the ship, just in case?"
"Oh no," Que answered for him. "She was helping me already. Brogan's a really good mechanic. See the robots she made?"
She gestured eagerly towards BOB and DeeDee. Liam scratched the back of his head as he eyed the two bots.
BOB snorted. DeeDee made a whirling happy noise.
"Hello!" she sang and waved.
Brogan put a hand to her hair, pushing the curling red-brown strands behind her ears.
"I'm a mechanic," she offered. "I just need to get the buggy over here."
She arched an eyebrow.
"Will it be safe to leave it here, if you can take us to Sylvora once the ship is fixed? I can leave BOB and DeeDee with it to guard it if I need to."
Smoke still looked at Liam.
Liam rolled his eyes again and threw his hands up in the air.
"Fine, fine. I'll do it."
He turned towards Brogan.
"Your buggy should be fine here in the dock. Just leave it in my area, and no one will mess with it."
Clapping his hands together, he walked across the deck.
"Now, if you will excuse me, I need to have a little private chat with Smoke here. You just go get your buggy and we'll be here when you return."
"Sure," Brogan said with a slight flush. She grabbed Que's arm and dragged her down the ramp. The bots followed.
Smoke watched them until they were gone. Then he turned back to Liam.
"Are you cracked in the head, boy?" he asked, walking back towards him. "You know how hard I've tried to remain neutral in this war. A flight to Sylvora? I may as well stroll right back into the service and ask them to cut my head off!"
Smoke stood up.
"I know you can stay out of sight. She just needs records to find her family. You know how many families have been lost. I wouldn't ask you to do something you can't do, Liam."
Liam blew more smoke out of his nose.
"Yeah, but why her? There are a lot of people here in Brattford that have missing family in Sylvora. She's not even from around here, and she's looking for records, not even a person. Of all the people you'd pick out of the whole mess, why choose this girl?"
He lowered his eyes, raising one of his eyebrows.
"Or is that too personal a question?"
"She cried in public when she read the headline."
He met Liam's gaze.
"She doesn't scare easy. She'll go. One way. Or another."
Liam sighed, finishing off his cigarette and snuffing the butt out on the railing of the dock.
"Smoke, what is going on with you? You never do shit like this. Not for anyone, unless it gets you a blow against the Enlightened. Seriously, if there's something else going on here, you know you can tell me."
Smoke was quiet for a long moment.
"She's special. I want her to see what the Enlightened have done. I think she can help. She just doesn't know it yet."
He sat back down.
"And I need more information. Helping her is a good reason to find out more about what they're doing. Sylvora is a big city. Taking over wasn't a small feat. Something has changed. I want to know what."
"Well shit, boy," Liam said. "If you weren't so evasive about every question you're asked, this wouldn't be like pulling teeth. At the rate I'm going, though, I won't be seen as neutral anymore."
He pulled out another cigarette.
"Taking any of your more, shall we say militant buddies along? The older one Brogan, right? She looked like she could wrestle someone, but the girl? Heck, I'd be surprised if she didn't bruise when you breathe on her."
"No. I'm not in touch with anyone."
"The girl can handle herself. She just doesn't know it yet."
"Smoke," Liam said as he puffed on his new cigarette. "How can she handle herself if she doesn't know that she can? You realize how little sense you're making?"
He met Liam's gaze.
"I know what I'm talking about. I'll take care of her."
He tilted his head to the side.
"You won't get caught, Liam. You're too good."
Liam took another long drag on his cigarette.
"I hope you're right. I trust you, Smoke, which is something I can't say for many people I know. Just don't fuck yourself over with this mission, okay?"
"I can't afford to."
"So I won't."
Smoke gave Liam a nod.
"Thanks. I owe you one."
The noise of a loud engine came up behind the airship. DeeDee flew out of the window and toward the two men.
"We're back," she chirped. "Where do we park?" she asked in her sing-song voice.
Liam jerked his head and pointed to a spot they could pull the buggy into. Que climbed out of the vehicle and waved up at the two men.
"Thanks for helping us out, Mr. Trumble!" she called. "I promise, Brogan will do a really good job fixing up your airship!"
He snorted again, looking over at Smoke.
"You owe me big."
"I know," Smoke said.
Brogan parked the buggy and turned it all off. She looked over at Que.
"You sure you want to do this? This is dangerous as all hell. We all know it. Do you?"
Que nodded, even though she looked nervous.
"As Father always said: there's nothing to be gained without risk. If you don't take a chance, you can never succeed. I have to do this. It's the only way I can find out who I am."
Liam couldn't help but overhear their conversation and glanced over at Smoke.
"Why does that sound familiar? I know I've heard that phrase before."
"All right," Brogan said. She thought this whole thing was a suicide mission, but somehow she knew that Que would go with or without her. And she preferred to go with.
"BOB, DeeDee, help me with the parts."
She grabbed her box of tools and got out of the buggy. She headed up the ramp onto the deck. She put a hand on her hip and blew her hair out of her face for a moment.
"Point the way to your engine room." BOB and DeeDee appeared behind her, both with large boxes of parts.
Liam blew more smoke out of his nose and motioned for her to follow, showing her where things needed to be fixed. Que jogged up to Smoke.
"Um," she began. "Brogan said we would need to arm ourselves for this trip, just in case. Can you show me where I can get those sort of supplies?"
"Liam has a stash. Ask him when he gets back."
Smoke's gray eyes assessed her.
"Do you know how to use a weapon?"
Que frowned, shaking her head.
"I've never had a reason to, but I'm a fast learner."
"I believe that."
"I'll teach you. Once we're in the air."
Que couldn't contain her excitement. She wrapped her arms around him in an enthusiastic hug.
"Thank you so much for all your help, Smoke!"
It took her a moment to realize how awkward her actions had been, and slowly released him, cheeks red with embarrassment.
"Um, sorry about that..."
For the first time, a hint of a smile appeared on his lips. It was quickly gone, however.
"It's all right. You're welcome."
Meanwhile, down in the engine room...
"Holy hell. What did you do to this thing?" Brogan asked and then looked up at Liam. "Were you in a war zone or something?"
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" he asked back, looking over the sorry state of the engine. "Truth is this is what happened on my last commercial flight. Some assholes tried to shoot me down. Lord only knows why; all I was carrying was a fucking advertisement."
Brogan's expression twisted into amusement.
"That must've been some advertisement."
She grinned and put down her tool box. The bots followed in suit. She bent down and grabbed her goggles. She put them on and then straightened, looking back up at him.
"Would you like me to upgrade this baby too?"
Liam caught himself staring at her ass and quickly looked at her face when she turned to him.
"Sure, if you want to," he said as he scratched the back of his head. "Can't say I've been able to keep up with it since I retired. Been too busy trying to scrape up a living flying banners around."
He glanced over at the bots for a moment.
"Need another set of hands, or do you have it covered with your helpers here?"
Brogan arched an eyebrow and put a hand on her hip. She looked at him up and down, fanned herself mentally (god, the man was hot), and then smiled.
"Well, they'll be good to help me down here." She jerked her head to the engine. "Your main problems seem to be the steam dome and the throttle valve. Your cinder guard is also busted, hence the black smoke. There's a million other problems too, but those are the big ones." She turned away and looked at the engine again. "It's badly damaged, but it looks like it was pumping out maybe 50,000 BTUs. I can get it up to 100,000 BTUs, probably more."
She looked back up at him through her lashes, head tilted to the side.
"But if you want that upgrade I'm going to need your pair of hands to carry the steam engine in the back of my buggy down here. It has all the parts attached that I need for the upgrade. The pistons, the flywheel, the crankshaft, the crosshead, the valve chest, the compressor all of yours are all damaged or outdated. I'll take that engine I have up there and put it in here."
She smiled at him.
"BOB can give you a hand. Oh," she looked to BOB. "Could you get me my sledgehammer and the Big Gun too? You can leave that on deck though. And uh, tell Smoke not to let Que touch either."
"Okay. But if she touches it I don't want to be held responsible."
"Say, who is that kid to you?" Liam asked, preparing to help BOB retrieve the equipment she needed. "I can guess you aren't family, since that's what she's looking for."
Brogan shook her head.
"No. I picked her up the other day during the storm."
"I move around a lot, and helping a kid out when I was plannin' on leaving anyway wasn't going to hurt me any. I don't tend to make friends really fast, but... she kind of grows on you."
Liam snorted as he started up the steps.
Up on deck, Que had lost her interest in Smoke and was sitting on the floor, alchemy textbook in her lap, just reading away while she waited. It seemed that giving her a book was a good way to keep her quiet for a while, although she was getting through the chapters at an alarming rate.
Smoke was in the chair Liam had sat in earlier, his feet propped up on the other chair, his hat pulled low. It looked as if he were sleeping.
BOB led Liam to the buggy and pointed out the engine.
"Do you think you can carry it?" the robot asked. "It's lighter than what you got down there, but it's still real heavy."
BOB grabbed the Big Gun and the sledge hammer and quickly took those to the deck while Liam considered.
The pilot laughed.
"Can I carry it? Hell, if it's lighter than the one I got in there..."
He walked over to the buggy and, after a few minor adjustments, got the engine out, carrying up on one shoulder as if it were an empty box.
"What do you think?" he asked BOB sarcastically.
"Most impressive," BOB said dryly. He waited until Liam was back on his ship and then rolled back down to the engine room ahead of him.
"Our pilot is a handy one," BOB drawled as he got to Brogan.
Brogan, already having turned off the engine and had a good chunk of it in pieces littered on the ground, glanced over at BOB with a "Hmm?" before she pulled up her goggles. Her hands were gloved, her tan skin already rosy from the steam and the heat of the engine, and she was already streaked with soot, oil and grease. She turned from BOB and looked up at Liam when she heard his booted feet on the floor.
Sweet holy hell. She felt her face and neck burn.
"Oh. Well, wow."
Her tool belt hung heavily around her hips as she got up, sticking a wrench back into its slot on her belt.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Trumble."
She smiled at him.
"Just set it over here, and give me a minute. I'll have the old engine out in a jiff. Just need to take out the boiler tubes and you can take the old one and just toss it onto the buggy. I can use it for scrap later."
"Liam," he corrected, setting the engine down where she had indicated. "Just Liam is fine. If you must use my surname, it's Lieutenant General Trumble. Retired, but I still earned that title."
He leaned against the wall, waiting for her to get finished with the old engine.
"Liam," she repeated with a nod. Brogan turned away, trying to fight off her blush as she got the boiler tubes free. Once they were, she braced her legs apart and gave the engine a hard tug. It moved enough for him to grab.
"There you go," she said, and moved out of the way. "Careful where you step. I've got all this stuff littered on the floor already. Salvageable and unsalvageable."
"Duly noted," Liam said as he hefted up the larger engine. This one took both of his muscular arms to lift as he toted it back out to the buggy. When he returned, he leaned against the wall again, waiting for instruction.
"So, eh, what're you going to do now that your buggy doesn't have an engine?"
Brogan arched an eyebrow. She looked at BOB. BOB waved his arms.
"He's joking! We got it from the back! He's trying to get me in trouble."
Brogan laughed and looked up at Liam.
"Slick. Hoist the new engine onto the platform, please?"
She meant to grab some parts while he did that but found herself watching him instead. She blushed again and the hurried to grab the compressors as he finished.
"Couldn't resist," Liam admitted as he got the new engine in place. "This is some impressive shit you've got here. Best quality work I've seen since I left the force."
He took a deep breath, beginning to work up a sweat in the sweltering engine room. Another laugh escaped him.
"I'm surprised I haven't seen your work before."
"I move around a lot and I keep under the radar. It lets me help those who don't get it usually. I'd rather remain unknown and help out the locals in a town, than be famous and getting great work and selling out."
BOB snorted and handed her a large screwdriver. DeeDee, humming happily, handed her another compressor as Brogan got on her knees. The upper half of her body disappeared over the engine and under all the valves and tubes.
"How about you?" came her muffled voice. "Why'd you retire? You don't look a day over forty."
"Thirty-five and a half, to be exact," Liam chuckled, enjoying the nice full view of her rear that Brogan was giving him while she worked. "I just got tired of the service, really. Tired of killing things, you know? I'd done my part for national security, and then I honorably left. Of course, with all the crazy shit that's been happening lately, the government wants me back. I told them 'Hell no! I ain't risking my life against something I don't understand!' What with the death toll of servicemen now, I'm lucky I got out when I did."
While Brogan worked, BOB and DeeDee were busy getting the scrap out of the way and back onto the buggy.
"I've heard," she said. The last word sound jerky as she tightened a piston. Her knees spread a little apart to get a better grip on the floor. Her ass moved higher.
"Am I the only one who thinks the whole thing is suicide? Enlightened territory isn't exactly the kind you can get back out of. Not to doubt your flying skills, but do you have a plan to keep us out of their sights?"
A gloved hand appeared by his knees.
Damn! Why did she have to sit like that? Having her ass all nice and round right in front of him was bad enough, but this was outright distracting. Liam tried to ignore every urge in him to give that nice rump a good squeeze as he picked up the air pump and handed it to her.
"You'd be surprised what cloud cover will do. Maybe when you're done here you can take a look at the bottom of the ship. The effect's kind of lost the lower to the ground you get, but when we're up high, we blend right in."
Brogan's gloved hand gripped onto the pump and she stretched to attach it.
"Sure. I don't mind checking it out. Once I'm done with then engine though, the first thing is to check the chimney and the balloon. The grate was damaged, so I may need to fix that and meld some new plates onto the chimney and the steam pipe before I look at the base."
She paused to tighten it into place.
"Does the bottom need any repairs?" she asked.
"Nah," Liam said. "It shouldn't. If it does, it'll probably need just a few minor patches to the mirrors and some polishing."
His fingers began to itch for a cigarette.
"Excuse me a moment; I need a smoke break."
"I don't care if you smoke in here," Brogan said. She moved back and sat on her heels. She looked up at him and pushed her hair back. She left a smudge of grease on her forehead. She smirked.
"As long as you give me a drag."
Liam shrugged, pulling out two cigarettes from his pack and handing one to her.
"Take a whole one, if you like. I got a good deal going with the tobacco vendor in town."
Brogan shrugged. She took the one he offered and smiled at him.
"I don't usually smoke, so I probably won't finish it."
She stood up and cracked her back. She gave him a wink.
"So you can finish it when I'm through." She grabbed a wrench and brought the cigarette to her lips. She lifted her bangs and held them back with her free hand.
"Light me?" she said around the cigarette.
Liam whistled as he struck a match to light her cigarette.
He had just enough flame left to light his own before the match burned down too far. Taking a long, drawn-out drag, he sighed with ease as he blew th smoke from his nose.
"God, I love this brand."
"It's not bad at all," Brogan said after taking a drag herself. She exhaled slowly.
"It's been a while since I had a cigarette."
She took another drag.
"Thanks, Liam. Hand me the safety valve? It's in the box behind you."