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Meet the #FearlessWomen: Captain Josette Dupre

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Lean in. Fire at Will.

There is not a time in Josette Dupre’s life when things came easy. From her unconventional, infuriating and generally unsupportive mother to crewmembers on her ship whose sole purpose is to catch her in a mistake. That’s right. Her ship. After a dramatic and unexpectedly successful mission where Josette seizes command of an airship after the captain dies, the press gets wind of her heroism. And she becomes the first female captain in the Garnian Air Signal Corps. It’s unprecedented and most of the military leadership opposes it, even to Josette’s face.

Things don’t get rosier from there. To succeed as a woman in a man’s world, Josette has to be twice as good with less resources to get even a fraction of the credit. But Captain Dupre rises to the occasion. Surly and sarcastic with a bone dry sense of humor, she comes off as a bit of a hard ass. She’s competent as hell, but insecure at times. Unfortunately, she can’t show the natural insecurities of a young captain because there are men like foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat who are betting on her to fail.

She’s the type of woman to break out of the hospital because she’s feeling socially awkward. To press herself to be better and better even though she knows it will never be good enough for the anti-female lords of the world she’s chosen. That’s Josette to a T. Always pushing forward because what’s come before isn’t better than today. It’s compelling and magnetic despite her well-documented resting bitch face.

…it inspired something vaguely like a smile in Dupre. Which is not to say that her mouth smiled, but her lips did tighten at the corners, and her habitual scowl diminished incrementally.

Bernat found it unsettling.

Even Lord Bernat, who comes onboard to spy on Josette and keep records of any misstep, can’t help but admire her calm intensity in the throes of battle. And boy, are there a lot of battles in the Signal Airship series.

When her experimental deathtrap of an airship, the Mistral, is called upon to change the tide of the war, Josette learns the new ship backwards and forwards, adjusts its very designs, and blackmails and cajoles her way into supplying her crew. Even then, there’s the constant risk of catching fire, being blown into enemy territory, or crashing on takeoff because of weight imbalance. If you can’t handle the constant possibility you’ll explode, you better stay out of the airship.

But if there’s one thing The Guns Above and By Fire Above show about Josette, its that she’s not perfect. She can’t be the best at everything, even if that’s what the world demands of a powerful woman. She’s hard to please and even harder to get along with. She feels that nagging need to be liked as well as respected, but ends up being feared. In the end though, it’s the flaws and failures that make her so relatable.

“It was never my plan to make them fear me.”

“But you have a knack for it, and that can be even better than a plan.”

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New Releases: 5/15/18

Happy New Release Day! Here’s what went on sale today.

Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly

Placeholder of  -68 In a tropical country where shadowy political affairs lurk behind the scenes of its glamorous film industry, three people maneuver inside a high stakes game of statecraft and espionage: Lillian, a reluctant diplomat serving a fascist nation, Aristide, an expatriate film director running from lost love and a criminal past, and Cordelia, a former cabaret stripper turned legendary revolutionary.

Each one harbors dangerous knowledge that can upturn a nation. When their fates collide, machinations are put into play, unexpected alliances are built, and long-held secrets are exposed. Everything is barreling towards an international revolt…and only the wiliest ones will be prepared for what comes next.

By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Place holder  of - 29 “All’s fair in love and war,” according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown of Durum becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, “Nothing’s fair except bombing those Vins to high hell.”

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum—only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

In the Region of Summer Stars by Stephen R. Lawhead

Poster Placeholder of - 9 Ravaged by barbarian Scálda forces, the last hope for Eirlandia lies with the island’s warring tribes. Wrongly cast out of his tribe, Conor, the first-born son of the Celtic king, embarks on a dangerous mission to prove his innocence.

What he discovers will change Eirlandia forever. For the Scálda have captured the mystical Fae to use as an ultimate weapon.

NEW IN PAPERBACK

Refuge for Masterminds by Kathleen Baldwin

Image Place holder  of - 25 It’s 1814. Napoleon has escaped his imprisonment on Elba. Britain is at war on four fronts. And at Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, five young ladies are secretly being trained for a world of spies, diplomacy, and war….

Napoleon’s invasion of England is underway and someone at Stranje House is sneaking information to his spies. Lady Jane Moore is determined to find out who it is. If anyone can discover the traitor, it is Janefor, according to headmistress Emma Stranje, Lady Jane is a mastermind.

NEW IN MANGA

Crisis Girls Vol. 1 Story and art by Hiroyuki Yoshikawa

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash Vol. 6 Story by Ao Jyumonji; Art by Eiri Shirai

Hungry for You: Endo Yasuko Stalks the Night Vol. 1 Story and art by Flowerchild

Juana and the Dragonewts’ Seven Kingdoms Vol. 2 Story and art by Kiyohisa Tanaka

Magical Girl Site Vol. 6 Story and art by Kentaro Sato

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Our Favorite Female Captains in Sci-fi and Fantasy

Being the boss of a ship, whether on the high seas or in space, is a challenging job. You have to balance the personalities of your crew, your goals (be they military, trade, etc.), and the inherent dangers of the environment. Oftentimes, being a woman and the one in charge can add yet another difficulty to the job. But the #FearlessWomen in these books can handle it, because they’re serious badasses. Here are some of our favorite female captains in science fiction and fantasy. Who’s on your list?

Captain Josette Dupre from By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Image Place holder  of - 98 When you’re an airship captain, you can’t be afraid of heights. Captain Josette Dupre, the first female airship captain in the Corps, isn’t worried about falling. She’s more worried about a bullet in the back. And while she proved herself to the world in Robyn Bennis’s debut The Guns Above, that doesn’t mean the prejudice against her is going to instantly disappear. To constantly combat it, Captain Dupre must always be the best of the best. But when her hometown of Durum is occupied by the enemy, and her mother taken as a prisoner of war, all bets are off.

Captain Leela from The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delaney

Place holder  of - 91 First published in 1965, Delaney’s short novel is framed by a graduate student’s search for the anthropological and historical meaning behind a short poem left by the Star Folk, who had left Earth in generation ships to colonize the stars. But it’s the story in between the frame that really caught our imagination–the story of Captain Leela, the alien she meets in deep space who gets her pregnant, and the Judges who declared her a “Misfit” and condemned her to death. And, of course, the Wonder Child that resulted from Leela’s pregnancy. We can only go along for the ride with Joneny, the student, as he discovers a story packed with wonder and horror.

Anne Bonney from The Queen of Swords by R. S. Belcher

Poster Placeholder of - 72 The third book in Belcher’s Golgotha series, The Queen of Swords is the first to take place in the wider world, rather than in the confines of the small mining town Golgotha. In it, we follow the twinned narratives of the world class assassin Maude Stapleton and her several times great grandmother, the pirate queen Anne Bonney. Bonney’s journey serves as a guide for her descendant, but more importantly for readers, she’s a badass pirate queen who breaks out of prison and treks across Africa in search of treasure. Anne Bonney is the pirate and adventurer we wish we could be some day.

Captain General Zezili Hasario from The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Placeholder of  -17 If you love grimdark fantasy, but hate that it’s so often dominated by male characters, then Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is for you. The women in Hurley’s world are the soldiers and rulers, taking charge even as they work to slaughter each other. One of our favorite characters is Zezili Hasario, the Captain General of the Empress of Dorinah. Zezili is definitely a complex woman: she’s abusive to her husband (as is the custom for many Dorinah), and often uses her mixed heritage to unnerve others. Her world, already complicated, becomes even more so when she must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.

Honor Harrington from On Basilisk Station by David Weber

Image Placeholder of - 73 When one thinks of female captains in science fiction, Honor Harrington is often the first name on the list. Debuting in David Weber’s 1993 novel On Basilisk Station, the newly graduated Honor takes command of her first ship, only to fail in her first outing. That failure leads to punishment duty: picket duty at the remote Basilisk Station. There, with hard work and a clever use of resources, Honor and her crew not only succeed in defending the station, but uncover and defuse a massive plot to invade the Star Kingdom of Manticore. From her very first posting and through the subsequent 13 novels (with a 14th coming this year), Honor Harrington embodies everything we want in our female captains: she’s resourceful, resilient, intelligent, and overall, a badass.

Zamira Drakasha from Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

While the focus of the second book in Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series is, of course, on our heroes Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, our favorite character was without a doubt Zamira Drakasha, the middle-aged, black mother of two who ran her murderous pirate crew with an iron fist. She could leap between ships, wield her sabers with deadly accuracy, and cuddle her kids at the end of a hard day of looting. We would absolutely join the scrub watch and do whatever labor was demanded of us if only we got to join the crew of the Poison Orchid!

Lila Bard from the Shades of Magic Series by V. E. Schwab

Lila Bard was born to be a pirate. She knows it, deep down in her bones. Even after she starts going on magical adventures with Kell, she never sets aside this dream. Her first thought after meeting privateer Alucard Emery is, naturally, to steal his ship. Instead, she chooses to join his crew by becoming their thief—after killing the original crew thief, of course—and Alucard teaches her about the world of Red London. No matter how difficult the path, or how many obstacles kept getting in her way, Lila Bard knew she was meant to be a pirate. And she won’t let anything stand in the way of fulfilling her dreams.

Bonus Novella:

Captain Ann-Marie from The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

This one’s a bonus title because it doesn’t come out until August, but we think you’ll love it. In an alternate America caught up in a Civil War that ended with a divided country, an independent New Orleans sits uneasily between North and South. Haitian airship Captain Ann-Marie and orphaned street urchin Creeper must work together to save the world from a mysterious weapon called The Black God’s Drums. Between sky pirates, powerful and cagey African Gods, and a pair of very interesting nuns, Clark’s debut novella will draw you in, and you won’t want to come back to the real world.


Feature image © Greg Manchess

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Sin and Souffle: The Incredible Life of Lucy Hicks Anderson

Image Placeholder of - 67 Written by Robyn Bennis

#FearlessWomen author Robyn Bennis shares the story of one of her heroes, the incredible Lucy Hicks Anderson.

Lucy Hicks Anderson always knew that a single bad day could destroy the business empire she’d spent three decades building. She may not have suspected, however, that on November 5, 1945, she would lose not only her hard-won success, but become a laughingstock for an entire nation eager to quell its nerves after years of war.

On that day, an issue of Time Magazine hit newsstands, and it was something of an odd duck. Nestled amid articles grappling with the ethics of harnessing the atom, questions of peacetime conscription, and a prime example of early-modern clickbait titled “How To Sell a Novel,” there lay a strange little headline: “Sin & Souffle.”

The article begins auspiciously enough with, “From the moment she got off the train in California more than 30 years ago, Lucy Hicks liked Oxnard, and Oxnard liked Lucy,” but it ends with a line as atrocious as it is incorrect: “Lucy was a man.” Apart from offending me as a fellow trans woman, that sentence offends me as a storyteller. It’s obviously an act 2 twist, not a closing line. And don’t you dare tell me those were different times, because there’s never been an excuse for such shoddy structure.

Despite making every attempt to smear her, however, you can’t read that Time article and not come away with a large measure of respect for Lucy Hicks Anderson. She succeeded as a black trans woman, at a time when any of those characteristics was disqualifying. By the time she was outed, she owned half a block of real estate in Oxnard, from which she sold catering services, alcohol, and the intimate attentions of talented ladies. Her links to prostitution and alcohol (which she sold without interruption, straight through prohibition) were widely known among the local gentry, and just as widely ignored.

It’s easy to see why. Lucy was a pillar of the community. During the war, she threw lavish going-away parties for GIs headed overseas, personally consoled families of those killed in action, and purchased almost $50,000 in war bonds—the equivalent of $700,000 in 2018 dollars. She was as warm as she was generous, a genius of kitchen and accounting book. Despite being a black woman with a flagrant disrespect for the law, Oxnard adored her—even the starkly segregated white community. They adored her at a time when a black person’s financial success, let alone success through crime, was a casus belli to white mobs—an excuse to riot, rampage, and even lynch the offending party. Lucy didn’t just avoid that fate, but moved freely through every social circle in town, winning hearts wherever she went.

That is, until the day she was found out.

It happened when they came for her girls. The U.S. Navy was trying to track down an outbreak of venereal disease among sailors on the West Coast. By all accounts, Lucy did not sleep with the clients of her brothel, but the doctor empowered to investigate it didn’t care. He compelled her to submit to an intrusive medical examination along with her employees. I can find no record of his stated justifications, but his true motives are not hard to guess at. Imagine a white, 1940s doctor finding himself in front of a successful black woman who stood tall, looked him fearlessly in the eye, and spoke as if she were his equal. What better way to remind her of her place, than the humiliation of a forced pelvic exam?

He must have known he’d succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, when he found that Lucy was physically male. It’s like he got a natural twenty on his debase-a-minority roll. He immediately took the matter to Oxnard’s law enforcement, who in turn pored over legal codes, looking for something to charge her with—an unfailing sign of equality under the law, if you ask me. They finally concluded that they could pin her with perjury.

Their logic was as follows: Lucy was married to a man; to marry a man one must sign a marriage certificate with a man; to sign a marriage certificate with a man is, implicitly, to swear under oath that one is a woman; Lucy was, as the Times article so sordidly put it, “a man.” Bada-bing, bada-boom, we’ve built a solid case for perjury, and all it took was a few travesties of law and human rights.

Lucy and her husband received ten years probation for that, but the law wasn’t nearly finished screwing them over. You see, during the war, Lucy had been receiving her husband’s G.I. benefits. So, when news that she was a trans woman went public, the Army swooped in and charged them both with fraud. Upon her inevitable conviction, Lucy was sent to Leavenworth penitentiary, because of course the justice system was going to inflict that final indignity of sending her to a men’s prison. Never mind that doing so endangered her life and safety, because that was just a bonus.

When she got out, Lucy wanted to move back to the city that loved her. However, Oxnard’s attitude had changed dramatically in the intervening time, and the police chief informed her that she was no longer welcome there. She discovered something countless trans women have found out the hard way, but few as severely: that, Shakespeare’s very cis experience notwithstanding, love often alters when it alteration finds. The same people who once adored her now spit on her—wanted to see her gone, imprisoned, humiliated. Because there’s nothing like being an outed trans woman, for understanding just how shitty most human beings really are.

Yet, knowing ahead of time that all this could happen, Lucy Hicks Anderson lived her best life in defiance of the eventual consequences. Long before Oxnard spit at her, she was spitting in the eye of Oxnard’s hatred with every white socialite she won over through her charm, and they didn’t even know it.

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Follow Robyn Bennis on Twitter, on Facebook, and on her website. And don’t forget to check out more #FearlessWomen content!

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Download the #FearlessWomen Summer Sampler today!

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#FearlessWomen Summer Sampler Meet this summer’s #FearlessWomen! These are the authors who are shaping new blockbuster worlds—and re-shaping our own. Highlighting major titles from bestselling authors V. E. Schwab, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jacqueline Carey as well as titles from acclaimed and debut authors such as Mary Robinette Kowal, Tessa Gratton, Sam Hawke, and Robyn Bennis, we think you’ll love the stories these #FearlessWomen have to tell.

This free #FearlessWomen Sampler features the first 20 to 30 pages from each of the following titles:

  • The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
  • Death Doesn’t Bargain by Sherrilyn Kenyon
  • By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis
  • Vicious by V. E. Schwab
  • Starless by Jacqueline Carey
  • City of Lies by Sam Hawke
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Plus, keep an eye out on the #FearlessWomen hashtag on Twitter, because we’ll be putting together a sampler of the Fall #FearlessWomen soon! Featuring excerpts from the following titles:

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Excerpt: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

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Poster Placeholder of - 77 Welcome to #FearlessWomen! Today we’re featuring an excerpt from By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis, a Signal Airship novel available on May 15th. 

“All’s fair in love and war,” according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown of Durum becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, “Nothing’s fair except bombing those Vins to high hell.”

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up Garnia’s military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated Mistral crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum—only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

Chapter 1

“Up ship!”

At the word of command, His Majesty’s Signal Airship Mistral rose above the cratered, blood-spattered fields of Canard. The ship’s condition was little better than the field’s, with her wicker decks stained red, her envelope in tatters, and half her gas bags filled with inflammable air.

Josette Dupre, Mistral’s captain, stood in the center of the hurricane deck, enjoying the nearest thing to quiet she’d had in days. The only flaws in this rare moment of peace were the wicker creaking underfoot and the soft burble of paraffin running through fuel lines above.

The usual din would resume when the ship rose to her cruising altitude, but until then Josette basked in the silence. By unspoken, common consent, the crew went about their work without the usual racket, as if in appreciation of so precious and unusual an event as this.

“Good God, it’s quiet!” cried Lord Bernat Manatio Jebrit Aoue Hinkal, who stood to Josette’s right and who did not, it seemed, subscribe to such whimsical notions as common consent. “What say we all sing a song to liven things up? Does everyone know the words to ‘The Merry Monks of Melatina’?”

The crew met Bernat’s comment with the less enjoyable class of silence—the sort that hangs awkwardly in the air, hoping against all odds that true peace will return in a moment.

“No one?” Bernat asked, quite oblivious. “What about ‘The Sotrian Lady’? Everyone knows that.”

The crew made not a sound.

Josette set her eyes on the horizon, where a broad but ill-maintained road disappeared into the Magdalene Fens. She could just make out, rising above the morning haze, gun smoke from the Vinzhalian army’s desperate rearguard action, as they retreated toward the border town of Durum, pursued by Garnian cavalry. The cavalry would not pursue them as far as Durum, however. Durum—the town where Josette was born, and the town where her mother now lived under Vin occupation—would remain in enemy hands.

She put it out of her mind, and looked to the instrument panel above her station as the ship climbed. High above the wicker gondola of the hurricane deck, above the instruments, above the catwalk and the keel, Mistral’s nine enormous gas bags puffed out, growing larger as the pressure dropped with altitude. To Josette’s right, the much smaller gas bag who went by the name of Bernat said, “So no one’s even talking to me, now?”

At just under five thousand feet, Sergeant Jutes reported that the bags were at nearly their full size, and would have to be vented if the ship rose much higher, to prevent them from bursting.

“Rigging crews will make one last check for leaks, now that the bags are fully inflated,” Josette ordered. “Then we’ll spin up the steamjack.”

Sergeant Jutes repeated the order, shouting it back along the keel from his station at the top of the companionway. In the narrow spaces between gas bags, riggers crept like spiders across a web of lines and plywood box girders. Between frames, they climbed out onto longitudinal girders of questionable integrity, their backs squeezed against the inside of the canvas envelope as they checked the outer faces of the bags.

Such a thorough inspection prior to starting up the steamjack was not routine, but neither was carrying inflammable air. As the name implied, it had the nasty habit of igniting at the slightest pretext.

“Five-inch hole in bag three, Sarge!” a feminine voice called from the other side of the ship’s canvas skin, directly above the hurricane deck. Jutes repeated the report, shouting it down the companionway and swapping in a “sir” at the end.

Josette heard another report from far aft, but couldn’t make it out. Jutes relayed it as, “Foot-long tear in bag eight, sir.”

“Multiple holes in four!” called a masculine, yet strangely high-pitched voice from amidships.

“Is that bad?” Bernat asked.

“The furnace is under bag four,” Josette answered, turning to face aft.

Bernat tapped his chin, as he made a show of thinking about it. “The furnace? You mean that lumpy tangle of metal beneath the boiler? The one with all the bullet holes in it?”

“The same.” Josette said. “Ensign Kember, you have the deck. Ballast coming aft!” She started up the companionway.

Bernat followed her up the companionway and called, “Two ballasts coming aft!”

She thought his voice had a slightly higher pitch inside the keel, than in the open air of the hurricane deck.

She turned and cast an inquiring look at him. “Is it my imagination, or . . .”

“Oh dear,” he said, clearly recognizing the change in pitch of her voice, too. “Does that mean what I think it does?”

“I’m afraid it does. We’re soaking in inflammable air.” She looked to Private Grey, the mechanic’s mate. “Quench the boiler fire. Riggers recheck all fire screens and tarps. Make sure they’re tied securely.” The riggers hardly needed telling. They were already on their way down, and as they arrived they set to inspecting the fabric screens that separated the keel, at the very bottom of the superstructure, from the gas bags above it.

Josette knelt by the boiler and inspected its furnace. The smaller punctures had been patched with clay, but half a dozen holes were too big for that, and so were covered by a protective wire mesh held in place with solder. She peered through a mesh screen. Inside the furnace, the paraffin flame sputtered out, but the fuel nozzle remained red hot, and the forest of tubes that ran up through the furnace to feed water into the steam drum were speckled with burning embers.

And it wasn’t only the furnace that could ignite the ship. Here, a mile in the air aboard a floating powder keg, a dozen possible ignition sources occurred to her, which had all seemed insignificant on the ground. There were the loose flints in the small arms locker, the metal tools used on the steamjack, the rigging lines run through blocks with iron bearings. Even Bernat’s frippery might cause a static spark that was quite sufficient to blow them all to hell—all the more reason for him to start dressing sensibly.

“Don’t take off your jacket,” she said, looking up at him.

Bernat beamed a smile and said, “It’s quite stylish, isn’t it? I didn’t think you’d notice.” He ran his hands across the green velvet and filigreed buttons.

“Don’t ruffle it, either. You could cause a spark.”

As Bernat recognized her meaning, the disappointment rose on his face in proportion to his earlier joy. “I’m sorry to inform you that I can’t help causing sparks,” he said. “It’s in my nature.”

But it was not to be Bernat or his clothing which would ignite the inflammable air. The chain of disaster began where Josette had first suspected it, inside the furnace, where inflammable air was slowly seeping through the mesh. Even as she contemplated the glowing embers, one of them ignited the thin gas inside, the boiler clanged like a bell under the sudden increase in pressure, and the mesh-covered holes flashed with a flame so bright it left purple spots in Josette’s vision. Along the keel, crewmen froze in place and held their breaths, while the riggers ceased their work and swung gently on their safety lines—all waiting to see if the entire ship would follow the example of its furnace.

But the wire mesh did its job. It kept the brief flare-up from penetrating beyond the boiler housing, so that the initial explosion was contained safely inside. But inside the furnace, the air was now swirling with glowing flecks of soot, glowing all the brighter when eddies brought them near the mesh-patched holes. But as bright as these embers burned, they couldn’t pass through the mesh to ignite the gas outside.

“Good God!” Bernat cried. “That nearly stopped my heart. It’s a good thing for you, Dupre, that you don’t have one.”

Josette began to breathe, and was just about to answer his quip, when she saw that one of the mesh patches was damaged. A corner had been bent outward, the solder cracked by the blast. It wasn’t much of a gap, but perhaps it was just enough to let an ember out. She struck out instantly to press her hand over the gap, grimacing at the heat of the furnace blistering her skin. For all that, she was not in time to keep a single glowing wisp of soot from whirling out and dancing past her head.

“Spark!” she cried, as she followed the minute, deadly ember with her eyes. “All hands lie flat!”

Everyone along the keel dropped to the wicker catwalk in a moment, save for Bernat, who only stood there, bewildered. Josette had to grab his safety harness and yank him down with her free hand. She barely got him to the deck, when the entire keel went up in flame.

Minutes before the disaster, Auxiliary Ensign Sabrine Kember stood in the captain’s station at the center of the hurricane deck. It wasn’t the first time she’d stood the deck, aboard Mistral or her previous ship, but she always felt as if she hadn’t yet earned the right to occupy that hallowed spot. She wondered if she shouldn’t stand a pace or two to the left, out of consideration.

Above her, the captain and Lord Hinkal were at it again. They bickered with an odd mix of venomous spite and grudging affection that Kember had previously only seen in elderly married couples. For a while she’d thought there was something to that, but the scuttlebutt said that Lord Hinkal was actually enthralled by the captain’s mother. Kember was skeptical, not only because Lord Hinkal couldn’t possibly be that stupid, but because she was doubtful that Captain Dupre had a mother.

She looked up to check the aneroid altimeter and pneumatic thermoscope, and a twinge of pain shot through her wounded neck. She winced and sucked air through her teeth.

“You okay, sir?” a nearby crewman asked.

Being called “sir” had long since ceased to bother her. Army regulations provided no other form of address for women officers, probably because no one had bothered to update those regulations when they started letting women in. When in civilian company, she was occasionally called “ma’am” or even “Sabrine.” In the latter case, it invariably took her several seconds to remember who that was, for no one had called Kember by her first name in so long that she’d almost forgotten it.

She rubbed her neck around the sore spot and said to the crewman, “I’m fine. It hardly even hurts any—”

“Spark!” In the keel above, that one word stood out from the rest.

“Down!” Kember shouted to the deck crew at the top of her voice, despite the stabbing pain it caused in her throat.

As she dropped flat herself, she saw the explosion’s flash reflected on the deck. The concussion of the blast hit her, thumping into her like she’d just been punched in the back. A wave of heat followed. As it passed, she looked up to see the deck crew alive and well, save for one dazed man who’d had his safety line clipped onto a rope above, and so couldn’t lie flat.

“All hands to fight fire!” she called. As a mere auxiliary ensign, she wasn’t sure she had the authority to call all hands, but the captain and Lieutenant Martel might already be dead, so there was hardly time to worry about it.

She turned and ran to the companionway ladder, passing between the steersmen, who were still getting to their feet after the blast. She dashed up to the keel, taking three stairs at a time.

The smell of charred hair and burnt varnish filled the atmosphere inside the ship. Canvas ports were blown out all along the keel, so that daylight streamed into the usually gloomy space, catching the floating ash as it swirled through the ship. The keel girders were intact, but above them the fabric fire screen between keel and gas bags had been thrown upward in several places, and there were gaping holes in its coverage, most particularly over the boiler. As soon as the next wave of seeping inflammable air reached any of the small secondary fires still smoldering along the keel, there would be nothing to stop the flash from penetrating into the superstructure and igniting the bags.

In frame six, the monkey rigger was already at work in the spiderweb of girders above, trying to repair a gap in the fire barrier. “Never mind that,” Kember called. “There’s no time.” She grabbed a bucket from the gunnery supplies and tossed it up to her. “Fill it from the water ballast and wet the canvas. Wet everything, from the top down.”

Kember continued aft, to frame four, where the captain was lying insensible on her back, her hair smoldering at the ends. “Apologies, sir,” Kember said, as she snatched a fire blanket and unceremoniously wrapped her captain’s head in it.

Fore and aft, the few lucid crewmen were at work on the fires, but here in the engine frames, where the danger was greatest, everyone was either unconscious, flash-blind, or spouting delirious babble. Worse, frame four was absolutely swimming in embers, floating in the air or settled onto the deck. Fragments of canvas smoldered along the envelope, while hot ashes dropped from the safety screen above. And every moment, an invisible cloud of inflammable air was spreading toward the fires.

Even if she brought the entire crew into this frame, she couldn’t quench every possible source of ignition in time. She needed to quench all of it at once, but even if she had a firehose, she wasn’t sure she could do it in time.

Her eyes turned to the boiler, and she knew in a moment what she had to do. She reached up and pulled the manual release on the steam drum’s safety valve. The drum roared as the pressure inside dropped and a geyser of wet steam vented from the side of the keel, out into the open air where it did her no good at all. She took a wrench from the mechanics’ toolbox and took careful aim for the vent pipe, just above the valve. If she damaged the safety valve, half an inch below her target, the pressure inside the drum would fall instantly to zero and the whole thing would explode, killing them all in a slightly different but equally effective manner.

She swung and the wrench connected, knocking the pipe from its valve. A jet of scalding steam whistled out, burning Kember’s arm up to the elbow before she could duck out of its way.

She looked up to see the frame filling with steam—hot, choking, but blessedly moist steam. The burning canvas above sizzled and sputtered, and the smoldering ash along the keel was soon coated with a fuzzy layer of dew.

At her feet, Captain Dupre was just regaining her senses. She sat up and pulled the fire blanket off her head. Something about her face seemed even more dour and angry than usual, and it took Ensign Kember a few seconds to realize that the captain’s eyebrows had been the first casualty of the accident.

“Ensign?” she asked. And then, quite suddenly, she seemed to remember the circumstances that led to her being face-up under a fire blanket. She rose unsteadily. “What’s our status?”

“Fires are out amidships, sir. They’re working on them fore and aft. Not sure about casualties, but I haven’t seen anything serious. Mostly just stunned, sir.”

She looked up to the jet of steam overhead, now tapering off as the boiler pressure fell. “Perhaps not what I would have done, but novel nonetheless.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Lieutenant Martel came forward from his station near the tail. “Ballast coming forward,” he called toward the nose. He saluted the captain. “Fires are out aft, sir, but the riggers are wetting everything to be sure.”

“It’s a steam bath in here,” Lord Hinkal said, as he sat up on the deck. “If there weren’t ladies present, I might strip down to better enjoy it.”

“As if that’s ever stopped you,” the captain said.

And so the bickering began again, just moments after the crisis had passed. Ensign Kember had to use all of her willpower to keep from rolling her eyes.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Robyn Bennis

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