Amelia is the best pilot the Territorial Revolutionists have. That’s not boasting, it’s just true. They don’t have many pilots, and none of them have as much experience as she does. She may be only twenty-two, but her pa taught her to fly at eleven, when she could barely see over the console, and she still flies his old steam-engine balloon, which may not be the newest model but is nevertheless steadfast.
Being the best means she gets the best assignments. The most dangerous, actually, but Amelia considers those the best. She likes the chance to practice her full arsenal of skills—precision maneuvers, night camouflage, accurate drop-offs—and she likes the thrill that accompanies such flights, like her whole body is an electric charge on the verge of detonation.
Today she’s been called in for an extraction, a spy who needs a quick and stealthy exit from enemy territory. Balloons aren’t generally stealthy, at least not in daylight, but Amelia doesn’t argue. She’s yet to refuse a mission.
She isn’t told who she’s collecting, but when she lands at the designated point—a small forest clearing that provides decent cover but is tricky to maneuver into—she recognizes the figure hurtling towards her.
Dorset. Of course.
She heard about Dorset long before she met him. How he was the most daring spy the revolution had. How he was a perfect chameleon, impervious to pain and fear both. How he accepted even the most impossible missions with a grin, then made them look possible.
She decided she hated him before she even met him, and their first few meetings didn’t do much to change that opinion. He was one of those annoying people who could never seem to be serious, and that included their third meeting, when he flopped into her balloon bleeding all over himself from a gunshot wound. She snapped at him that he better not stain her seat, and he just laughed and said it would add a bit of flair and mystery to the décor. The stain is still there, reminding her of him on every flight.
Truth be told, he grew on her after that, to the point where she actually started to enjoy his company. Maybe he can be a bit obnoxious, but he isn’t stuck-up, and he always treats her like an equal. A lot of the revolutionists, and the spies in particular, only act like she’s someone when they need her to fly them. Dorset treats her like a friend no matter the circumstances, or he used to, anyway.
The memory of their last evening together rushes through her head as quickly as Dorset rushes for the balloon. She had some whiskey. Wasn’t drunk, per se, but it loosened her tongue a bit, made her tell him things she shouldn’t. Made her bold enough to—
But she isn’t going to think about that.
She shakes her head to clear it as Dorset catapults himself into the basket. He’s a big man but moves easy, and though his clothes are as unkempt as ever, she can’t see any gaping holes or bloodstains.
“I think a quick take-off might be in order, Captain Padget,” he says, breathing hard.
He always calls her that, like she’s at the helm of some great airship and not a four-seater with an engine smaller than a wood stove. She used to find this nickname amusing, but not today. “I figured as much,” she snaps, already pulling up the anchor. Dorset never makes anything easy.
It’s just as tricky ascending past the trees and all their treacherous stray branches as it was to land, but soon enough she’s above them, scanning the ground with her spyglass. She doesn’t see anyone, but she takes the balloon high just in case.
Once they’re steady, the instruments don’t need her full attention. She knows she can look over her shoulder, double check that Dorset doesn’t have any terrible injuries and ask him what happened. (She isn’t supposed to ask such things, but Dorset always tells her, acting like she has a perfect right to know.) She should say something, anything, to detract from the way they left things last time, to show him that it meant nothing.
Instead she stays silent, ignoring him. Let him see she doesn’t care a toss about him, that she doesn’t require his friendship.
Her ma used to say a woman didn’t need a man; that getting by without one was the mark of a True Woman. She used to say that all the time when Pa was gone in his balloon and it was just her and Amelia at home.
Amelia considered herself a True Woman right up to the age of eleven, when Ma took sick. Fine one day and feverish the next, teeth chattering like hailstones on a tin roof, and Amelia didn’t know how to help her. Ma always told her that it didn’t do to be too neighborly, and as a result Amelia didn’t know any of the neighbors. She tried to make do herself, but despite her best efforts, Ma was dead by the second evening.
Amelia sat by her body for two days, unmoving, praying that Pa would return because he would know what to do. She might be there still if some church lady hadn’t come around collecting money for a new bell. Amelia still remembers the woman’s terrible, scratchy hug. Ma hadn’t believed in hugs.
They stuck Amelia in the county orphanage, despite her repeated protests that she had a father. It wasn’t until she gave up on Pa ever coming that he came, raging in a way that was glorious to watch. He caused quite the scene, screaming at the matron for taking in a girl who wasn’t even an orphan. But once they’d left, he raged at Amelia too—how she’d let this happen, how she wasn’t much of a Kimbral if she allowed herself to be shuffled about like some sorry old mule.
He went on and on, and she didn’t protest because she knew she deserved it. She hadn’t been a true Kimbral, or a True Woman.
But she did her best after that. Did everything Pa told her to, in her new life aboard the balloon; even learned to pilot it despite needing a footstool to see over the console. The War of Unification was raging, and Pa made a decent living as a courier and freight-runner to whoever paid the most. “You don’t have to believe in anything,” he used to tell her. “Just take the money of whoever’s willing to recognize you’ve got a valuable skill.”
The revolutionists don’t pay particularly well. She’s gone against Pa’s teaching, flying for what she thinks is right. Then again, she tried his way for awhile, and none of the big spenders seemed inclined to hire a slip of a woman. Their loss. She—
Dorset’s voice cuts through, and Amelia snaps back to herself. The balloon he’s spotted is only just visible, a shadow emerging from the bank of clouds to her right, but she still feels instantly ashamed that he spotted it before she did.
“I see it,” she snarls, because fury is easier than shame. She pulls the acel lever, and the little engine chuffs as she angles west at an impressive speed. “Fidelity Agents.”
The balloon is inconspicuous-looking and about the same size as hers. From this distance she can’t tell much else, other than that they have a yellow signal flag flying, calling for Amelia to land. She ignores it and pulls the acel lever to nearly full speed. She’s outrun government balloons before; their pilots are never particularly adventurous.
But this one is doing all right, keeping pace even as she zig-zags between the clouds in ways that send most pursuers into fits and managing to gain ground as though he knows exactly what she’s trying to do. She tells herself this pilot has a newer, stronger engine than she does, that’s all, and a better engine can only do so much. She’s the superior pilot, and that will be what counts in the end.
The other balloon is close enough now that she can see its occupants. The pilot is burly and wears a ridiculous cap and oversized goggles that make him look like some kind of insect. She can’t spot a badge on him; maybe the agency has finally wised up and hired freelancers. The pilot’s concentration is on the console, but his companion, whose badge shines on his puffed-up chest, is keeping his eyes on Amelia’s balloon, the silvery boarding clamp visible in his hand.
Her gut goes cold. She’s only seen such a clamp once before, because self-respecting pilots wouldn’t dream of using them even if they were legal to buy, which they’re not. Only the most ruthless air pirates use boarding clamps. The most ruthless air pirates, and Fidelity Agents.
Amelia yanks the acel lever so hard she loses her balance, nearly tumbles into Dorset. She rights herself, but the lever is clammy in her hand, and she can feel her breathing go shallow and wrong. If that clamp bites into the lip of the basket—
“Everything fine?” Dorset asks, like they’re on some pleasure flight.
“They want to try to tow us in,” she says, using every ounce of strength she has to keep her voice steady. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
He comes to stand beside her, taking up the spyglass. “Couldn’t we just unhook it?”
She has an urge to push him overboard; does he really think she’d be so worried if the hook can be dislodged? “It locks on,” she says tersely. “Impossible to get off, and it leaves a catastrophic hole in the basket.”
“Could we leave the hook and break the chain?”
Does he take her and every other pilot for idiots? “It’s a special government metal. Would take a good hour with a vapor torch.”
She’s careful not to look at the old scar on the rim of the balloon basket, careful to keep her mind off Pa. Now is not the time for memories. Now is not—
“What if I just shoot them down?” Dorset asks.
She looks at him, at the pistol already in his hand, and it takes all her self-control not to snatch it from him. “Do you want to get us killed? The first law of the skies is no firearms. Even if you manage not to blow us up yourself, which is a big if, you’re inviting return fire.”
“They’re Fidelity Agents. They’ll shoot if they’ve a mind to; they don’t need an invitation,” he says, but he holsters the gun. “I wish I’d known that ahead of time.”
“You would if you were a pilot,” she mutters, keeping her pull steady. The other balloon is still there, but doesn’t seem to be gaining on them anymore, and it’s too far away to attempt the clamp. “Besides, what would knowing ahead of time help?”
“I could’ve come up with a better weapon. A crossbow would do marvelously, wouldn’t it?”
She snorts, not wanting to admit he’s right. She’s used to escaping pursuers; she’s never had to fight. “Have you ever shot a crossbow?”
“No, but I’m sure I could learn. In fact, I’m going to learn, and then I’m going to keep one in your stow box. Just in case.”
She almost chuckles, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t need him or his ludicrous plans, to keep her balloon safe.
The other balloon swoops towards them with a sudden burst of speed, close enough for Amelia to hear the thrum of its superior engine and close enough for the agent to launch the boarding clamp. It falls wide but still comes far too close for comfort, and the fact that their balloon can accelerate like that intensifies the cold ache in her gut.
Speed like that, and you lose precision, Pa says in her head. Amelia swings a sharp left and climbs higher because the other balloon won’t be able to follow, not until it slows down and the agent reels the clamp back in. Of course, there’s really nowhere to go, but it gives her a moment to think.
“They want me,” Dorset says.
She’s so focused on trying to come up with a plan that she can’t give him the scathing look he deserves. “Obviously.”
“No, I mean... they won’t risk blowing up the balloon. They want me alive.”
She’s not sure how he knows this, but she doesn’t ask. “I can get us away,” she says, even though she’s no longer certain.
“What do I need to hit to make their balloon explode?”
“The engine, but—”
He leans far over the rim of the basket and shoots. Amelia watches the Fidelity Agent drop the clamp and raise his own pistol and she ducks, but she doesn’t hear a shot and nothing bursts into flames. She banks them even higher, grabbing Dorset by the belt so he won’t tumble out during the turn, yanking him harder than necessary away from the edge because he deserves it.
“You missed, you idiot!”
“I didn’t,” he insists. “They must have some kind of shield around the engine.”
She’s heard about those. Terribly expensive, but of course the government can afford them.
“Look, we need to—”
But whatever Dorset thinks they need to do is cut off when the other balloon suddenly draws even with them again, the agent’s gun leveled. “Put the gun down, Dorset,” he yells. “I’ve got no qualms about shooting your pilot!”
Dorset drops his pistol without hesitation. The agent launches the boarding clamp in a blink, and it attaches to the basket with a sinister crunch. Amelia’s tongue feels glued to the roof of her mouth, her hands frozen on the console. Her eyes dart between the clamp and the scar from the last time, and she can’t think, can’t breathe—
She pulls the acel lever hard, jerking her balloon upward. The chain attached to the clamp snaps taut, and the agent’s balloon comes along for the ride. The sudden move slams Dorset backward against the reservoir tank, but he just laughs. She can hear the other pilot cursing as the agent yells at her to stop, to do as she’s told before someone gets hurt. She ignores him, crouching low against the console so she’ll be hard to shoot, pulling Dorset down alongside her so he’ll be hard to grab. She makes the balloon yaw and swing about, a crazed and dizzying dance, and finally she feels the chain go lax because the Fidelity Agent has no choice but to detach his end from its anchor.
She lets out a breath and steers them back up, then sideways into a bank of clouds. Pa always said a pilot could never rely on clouds to be there when needed, so Amelia never has, but she’s grateful for them now. The cover gives her a moment to collect herself. Does the agent have a second clamp? A third? Or will they just keep up their pursuit and hope she runs out of steam? She has plenty at the moment, but their boiler looks bigger and—
No, focus on a plan. Maybe she can head for that scout post the revolutionists have set up outside of Denville. Except Denville’s at least an hour away...
She’s out of the clouds now, which helped conceal her but also concealed the agent’s balloon. Now it’s right below her, accelerating so that it can get in front her and then ascend to cut her off. It’s a perilous move at such a speed; even if the two balloons don’t collide, the pilot will risk freefalling. But he manages it expertly, giving the agent the perfect angle to throw the clamp. It snags them easily, the chain jerking them closer, close enough for the agent to throw a knife—
Amelia can’t think, can’t move fast enough, can’t escape that flung blade, all flash and point, except Dorset suddenly, improbably shoves her aside, and the blade lodges up to the hilt in his shoulder instead of her chest.
He staggers a little but doesn’t fall, doesn’t cry out, doesn’t even grunt. She’s the one shouting as his arms fold over her, sheltering her. She shoves at him, because she has to get them away, get them free. It’s her one job, and she can’t fail.
But over the terrible roar in her head and her own hoarse scream, she can hear the resonant voice of the Fidelity Agent. “Don’t even think about going anywhere, little miss. I just want your passenger. Forget what I said before. Just let me take him, and you can go.”
“Like hell,” she roars, because Fidelity Agents can’t be trusted, because she’s furious at Dorset for taking the knife meant for her, because she will never give him up.
She pushes past Dorset’s arm and sees the Fidelity Agent looming even closer, the terrible chain connecting their baskets. The agent’s pistol points squarely at her. “I don’t want to have to shoot you or your pretty balloon, but I will if I must. No qualms about shooting him, either,” he says, nodding to Dorset. “I was told to capture him alive, but the condition doesn’t matter.”
The barrel of the gun gapes, a black hole. Dorset gets in front of her again, hisses at her to stay put. Does he have an actual plan, or is he just trying to protect her? It seems like Dorset always has a plan, but she can’t be certain, can’t be sure he won’t do something stupid and get himself killed, leaving her alone. She can’t—
The agent pulls the chain until the lips of the two baskets kiss, then swings his leg over to board.
“I’m sorry!” The words spill out of her mouth so loud that Dorset turns slightly, giving her the opportunity to get in front of him, yank the knife from his shoulder and spin, thrusting it as hard as she can square into the agent’s chest, a few inches from his shiny badge. It seems an age as his eyes widen, his gun drops, his other hand coming up reflexively to the wound, and he teeters on his precarious perch, half in and half out of the balloon.
But it can’t have been an age because he’s falling, dropping, and she can’t keep her eyes off his plummeting form, that particular way it moves, so familiar, so—
She’s going to be sick, but she doesn’t have time for that because Dorset is bleeding now and there’s still the other pilot. Dorset reaches for his gun, but his bloody fingers fumble so she picks it up and then aims it, too, because this is a pilot, and he will know how serious it is to have another pilot pull a gun on you.
The pilot’s hands go up immediately, his eyes huge behind the silly goggles. “It was just a job!” he cries. “I don’t mean you any harm. I’ll unhook it, I swear! Just don’t shoot!”
She recognizes his voice, a husky twang, and then she recognizes him. He goes by Huck, or he used to back when he was in the same business as Pa, hauling equipment and people and black market goods. They weren’t friends, exactly, because Pa didn’t have friends, but they were on decent enough terms, throwing business one another’s way if they were too booked to take a job themselves.
“Go on then,” she says, keeping the gun trained on him. She remembers how he gave her a piece of horehound candy once, slipping it to her on the sly like he knew how Pa would make her decline if he saw.
Huck presses the catch on his end of the boarding clamp, and its chain detaches from her balloon and goes shooting back to him. He pulls hard on his acel lever and veers away, still watching her with enormous eyes. She wonders if he remembers her balloon or realizes who she is.
She gets them headed steady in the other direction and then tends to Dorset, who has gotten a towel from the stow box to staunch his shoulder. All the fear and tension and downright terror of this mission comes pouring out of her in an enormous wave. “Why did you get in front of the knife, you stupid, stupid—”
“You’re the pilot!” he roars back. “Where am I going to be without you? Besides, I don’t feel it.”
“Not feeling it doesn’t keep you from bleeding to death!” She’s already calculated the distance to the nearest outpost with a doctor. They’re twenty minutes away. The fact that he’s still on his feet, his cheeks flushed with anger, seems like a positive sign, but she’s shaking nevertheless.
“It wasn’t going to hit me,” she insists.
He pulls a face. “Of course not. Lord forbid you should have to say thank you. Lord forbid you accept some help every now and again. But no, you have to believe in that nonsense that your ma told you—”
The jittery feeling that she always gets after a mission combines with a hot flood of embarrassment at the memory of drinking with him and mentioning Ma. She hates herself for telling him what she told him; hates him for using it against her like this.
Maybe he can see the hatred in her face because he takes a step backward and says, quieter now, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to disparage your ma, because clearly she was a fine woman and raised you right in many ways. But that bit about being a true woman seems like bunk. Maybe she was let down, or maybe it’s what her ma taught her and she never tried to figure any different, but either way I don’t think you need to spend your whole life believing there’s something wrong with needing help, or admitting when you’re scared.”
“I wasn’t scared!” she insists immediately.
“I was scared,” he shoots back, pacing a little in the cramped basket. “I’m tired of always having to tamp it down, having to pretend that nervy feeling in my gut is just the thrill of a mission. It wears on a person, having to be invincible all the time.”
She stares at him, that he should be able to put all that into words— her own exact feelings that she can never dare admit.
He stops pacing, looks her right in the eyes. “Sometimes you just need someone you can share that with, you know? Those feelings. Those fears.”
“Sometimes it’s best to leave those fears where they are and not trouble anyone else with them,” she shoots back, even though she’s not sure she believes it.
His face gets redder, like she’s vexed him to the breaking point, but when he talks, his voice is soft. “You can’t get through life holding your true self back from everyone, Amelia. Or believing no one’s ever going to be there to help you out. Do you know how many people have saved my life? Including you? Do you think I’m any less of a man for that?”
She doesn’t say anything. If she speaks, she’s going to lash out, and she doesn’t want to do that.
Then Dorset fumbles with his shirt buttons, and she wants to be anywhere but here because his refusal to let her do that during their last meeting, the memory of him gently pushing her hands from his shirt and then walking away, continues to be completely humiliating.
He wiggle-shrugs his good arm out of the sleeve so that his shirt hangs mostly off. She can’t look away. She’s heard all the stories—that Dorset has been shot more times than anyone can count, that he’s impervious to pain, that he can’t be killed—and she’s never believed them. But his torso in front of her is real, the skin a strange and horrific landscape. She never knew a body could be so scarred and still be breathing.
“This is why they’re after me,” Dorset says, voice hoarse. “I was their experiment, during the war. They made it so I couldn’t feel. They put things inside me, to see if they could. I escaped, and they’ve been looking for me ever since.”
He turns so she can see his back, and her eyes follow the long scar down his spine until its end: a metal panel with a small crank handle.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the likes of me,” he says, back still to her. “What do the newspapers call us? Tinker’s devils?”
She’s heard worse than that, and from revolutionists, no less. No wonder he hadn’t wanted her to know. She realizes with a start that him pushing her away last time had nothing to do with her.
And she realizes how much it’s taking for him to bare everything to her now.
“So what do you say, Captain Padget?” he asks. “Am I truly human, with all this metal in me? All these mechanical parts keeping me alive. Am I a devil the government created, or am I a true man?”
She draws a breath, knowing she has to say something. She wants to tell him that of course he’s a man, that he’s not anything monstrous, but what comes out of her mouth is, “I say you’re truly bleeding all over my balloon.”
It’s not what she should have said, but he laughs. She knew he would. She knows him now, inside and out. The only person who puts up with the anger she can never seem to keep from spewing out. The only person who makes her laugh. The only person who has ever taken a knife for her.
She goes to him, pushes him gently onto the seat and helps him peel the sleeve off his injured arm so she can bandage it up proper.
“My pa died like that agent,” she says, because it’s only fair that she show him her scars in return. “A pirate with one of those clamps tried to board our balloon. Pa was frantic to detach the chain. He...They...Both of them fell.” Her hand trembles as she wraps the bandage.
“You saw it?” Dorset asks quietly.
She nods. “I was thirteen. He was trying to save the balloon. That’s where his love lay. Always the balloon.”
She’s still not sure if that’s true or not. Maybe he was thinking of her, too, but she doubts it. She was always an afterthought, like Ma had been. The balloon was his true love.
“And was that why you killed this agent?” Dorset asks. “To save your balloon?”
She looks at the two terrible clamps on the lip of the basket because it’s easier than looking at him. “For you,” she mumbles.
“I did it to save you. I didn’t want you doing anything idiotic and getting yourself killed.” She looks him right in the eyes. “I was... I don’t think I could bear to watch someone else I love die.”
She watches the smile bloom on his face, so unlike his usual quick grin. “I guess we’re even then.”
He’s insufferable. “I bandaged you up the last time you got shot, don’t forget,” she says. “Not to mention all the times I’ve come to fetch you in the balloon. I think I’m still ahead.”
“I meant in the not-wanting-to-see-someone-you-love-die count.”
He leans over to kiss her, and she meets him halfway, losing herself for a moment but then jumping up, because she needs to focus on piloting. “We’re fifteen minutes away from that doctor in Ashton,” she tells him.
“I hope you realize you’re the truest woman I know, Captain Padget.”
She doesn’t turn around, but that terrible jitter inside her has calmed. She knows part of that is the clear sky in front of her and the fact that there’s no one chasing them anymore, but part of it is also because Dorset is there behind her, and his kiss is still warm on her lips.
Ma might not approve, but Amelia finds she doesn’t care.