The Multiverse Chronicles
Season One: Episode Five
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A lone dragoon pigeon with a very important mission flew between gently swaying trees. It could not allow itself to be deterred. For on its back—in a tiny, dark green capsule—the pigeon carried a message for General Buford of the Queen’s Army of Britannia.
The message was of the utmost importance, as were all messages sent via pigeon.
The bird swept over a sleeping red dragon with harsh, glimmering scales, then skimmed through a squad of pterosaurs. It dived, avoiding having its tail nipped by some scoundrel drake wanting an early lunch.
A few minutes later, the pigeon arrived at a large wooden building. The musky scent of hay and feathers wafted through the air. The bird swooped into its loft, surpassed the landing board, and then took roost in the one of the homing cages. It cooed, head held high and chest out, ruffling its feathers as it waited for the pigeon fancier to take its message.
A successful mission, to be sure.
Sergeant Bill Cornwell, the taskmaster, eyed the bird. He set his scone on an old book, took a sip of his coffee, and sighed. The actual pigeon fancier was on sick leave… though Cornwell wasn’t so certain the man was actually sick. He could have sworn he had seen the man sneaking downtown toward the pubs during his midnight snack run.
“Buford, you have a message!” he hollered.
After a moment, General Buford walked into the office, already giving the taskmaster a questioning look. The general was a stern-backed man in his late fifties, with graying hair and sharp cheekbones. He glanced at the pigeon—it remained at attention with its chest puffed out—and then to his taskmaster. The black-haired man sat at the pigeon fancier’s desk, crumbs in his beard and scattering across the floor. Cornwell motioned his scone toward the bird—sending more crumbs flying—and took another bite of his breakfast.
The pigeon shuffled into an even prouder stance.
Buford shook his head. “Bill, these birds have more pride than our soldiers.” Including you, he noted. He retrieved the message, mentally sent the pigeon a feeling of “at ease,” and then squinted at the little strip of paper. The secretary at Headquarters had such tiny writing—he almost needed a magnifying glass—and probably would given a few more years.
Bill took a sip of his coffee. “Any news?”
“According to this, we ship out to Francia in two days’ time. Nothing we didn’t already know.” Buford rolled the paper slip into a tiny cylinder and shoved it into his pocket.
The pigeon ruffled its feathers in disappointment. Nothing they didn’t already know?
That was the case with its last message, too.
Buford winced and sent a quick feeling of appreciation to the bird. It ruffled its feathers, and tucked its feet under itself as if to salute him. He chuckled. Some of the birds were a little more responsive than others to his beast mastery, and this one—nicknamed Hermes—was one of them.
“Headquarters does like to do things twice,” Bill noted. He popped the last of the scone into his mouth.
Buford raised an eyebrow. Headquarters were not the only ones who did things twice—he’d spotted Bill snagging a different scone an hour ago.
It was a wonder that man stayed fit.
“Thanks for the message, Bill.” He pocketed the message and—preparing for his morning duties—left the pigeon loft for the outside world. The bright sun momentarily blinded him, and even now the warm wind whispered through the cabins that it would be another hot day.
At least he would be inside for most of it. The latest orders had brought plenty of paperwork.
A familiar mind tugged at his senses, and he looked down just as a large gray dire wolf ambled up beside him and bumped its head against his leg. Buford patted his side. “Come on, Ruger.”
Though he did not use his powers for this particular task, the well-trained wolf trotted alongside him, pace perfectly matched. The wolf was his familiar, and as such, they had a closer bond than most beastmasters and their charges—close enough that the wolf could sometimes respond to Buford’s thoughts in a two-way communication that only a familiar could achieve.
At least, could be achieved if the wolf were not distracted.
Ruger sniffed Buford’s polished boots, then stole a lick to get the crumbs that had lodged into the laces.
Buford sighed. At least his boots would be clean.
“General!” Colonel Pearson hurried along the sidewalk, and then saluted Buford as he slowed. “Sir, could I have a word?”
“Pearson.” Buford nodded. “At ease.”
Colonel Pearson clasped his hands behind his back, but his shoulders remained uncommonly tense—a warning sign that Buford had learned long ago. Pearson smiled, his eyes searching the general’s face as if checking his mood. “I found a new pair of recruits last night that I would like to add to my ranks.”
Buford narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Pearson almost never brought in new ranks. Not unless they were general outliers who did not fit in with the rest of the army.
Not that Pearson’s finds had ever ended too badly for Buford.
Except for the repairman.
Never would Buford allow that man anywhere near a dirigible. Not after the motor carriage exploded. Loose bolt, sure. He would gladly spend funds to hire that Prussian company—shoot, he never could remember their name—rather than lose another motor carriage.
Or anything bigger.
He scratched Ruger’s ears, twisting thin strands of fur between his fingers. Ruger shook his head in protest. “What’s the catch?”
The colonel broke out his flashy white smile that won over all the ladies—and a couple of the men—at the mess hall. “Well, General—”
Award-winning smile, knuckles cracking behind his back, shifting his weight to his right foot like he did when preparing to run…
This could not be good.
“Spit it out,” Buford said flatly.
Pearson chuckled nervously. “The potential rider was recently discharged from the flight academy for insubordination, and the pterosaur in question is slated for culling this evening due to being difficult to control.”
Well, that was not the worst scenario Pearson had brought before him. Buford furrowed his eyebrows, wrinkles running like canyons along his forehead.
“They don’t sound like a particularly good pair.”
“General, Ivers can handle the drake. I saw her in action. And I read the incident report. She was discharged after trying to save a pterosaur. Had she known what her C.O. had in mind, I’m sure she would have followed orders.”
Buford frowned. What was Pearson not telling him? “A soldier is supposed follow orders without question, Colonel.”
“I know, sir, but sometimes going beyond the call of duty requires taking chances and disobeying those orders. Ivers thought she could save a pterosaur, and that if she followed those orders, she would be sacrificing it to pirates.”
“Would the pterosaur have lived if she had done what she was supposed to do?” Buford inquired. Ruger tilted his head and plopped his furry gray haunches beside him.
The colonel fidgeted. “Well, yes, sir. But her heart was in a good place. I think she has the courage and commitment that this army needs.”
Buford stroked his chin.
Courage and commitment. A good soldier was a good soldier, even the ones who were rough around the edges. He wouldn’t turn down that prospect.
“What of the drake?” he asked.
Pearson’s shoulders relaxed, and Buford inwardly cursed. The man knew him too well. “The pterosaur is a rogue, sir. None of the beastmasters had any luck controlling it for more than a few seconds before it broke free of their command. The only reason I got the drake back to base is because Ivers told it I was a potential friend.”
“Ivers can control it?”
“Sir, she stopped the drake from killing the drunk idiot who assaulted it, and while she had control, the drake was mimicking her emotions, almost like a familiar. In fact, she said the pterosaur responded mentally.”
Buford looked down at his wolf. Beastmasters could control most creatures, but in some cases, their level of control was less a case of control and more a case of mutual understanding. Ruger’s ascent to the alpha of his pack had nearly mirrored Buford’s promotion to general. And because they both shared the new responsibilities of being the “head of the pack,” they had developed an even stronger bond. That bond was so well-respected that the soldiers behaved as if Buford himself was present when Ruger was around—though that might have something to do with Buford being able to link to Ruger’s mind and see through the wolf’s eyes, hear through the wolf’s ears… that kind of thing.
Ruger’s ears swiveled to attention as a red squirrel scaled the tree behind the colonel. Buford made a mental note to check on the squirrel population later.
“If I only offer to take Ivers, do you think she would come without the pterosaur?” he asked.
The colonel shook his head. “No, sir. I doubt she will join unless the drake is spared as well.”
The general stroked his chin. No sense in losing two promising assets. “Bring me the files on Ivers and the drake by 1200, and I’ll look into this.”
“Thank you, sir.” Pearson smiled and saluted.
“Very well.” Buford nodded. He then continued his morning walk through the bustling base.
Overhead, amidst the puffy white clouds and a bright blue sky, the lone dragoon pigeon flew to its next destination.
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Several hours later, Sergeant Cornwell snatched the hand-me-down newspaper of the day from the pigeon fancier’s desk and plopped into his seat. He wriggled into its meager cushion, forcing it to conform into some fashion of comfort, then flipped past a half-completed crossword puzzle, an article on discontent in the lower city, news about a recent pirate sighting, and on to the most important part of the paper—the comics.
Ruger napped at the side of his desk, his thick gray fur rising and falling with the soft whistles of his breath. Cornwell eyed the wolf suspiciously, considering nudging the large dire wolf in the ribs to get him to stop, but he didn’t want to anger him—or Buford. He shrugged and returned to reading a clip about the adventures of a boy and his stuffed toy dragon.
A moment later, the wolf perked its ears. A short young woman with auburn hair walked through the door opposite of Cornwell’s desk. Despite her civilian clothing, she had the stance of a new military cadet, and she fidgeted twice as much. “Sir, I’m private—um—I’m Trish Ivers. I have a meeting with Colonel Pearson?”
Cornwell peered over his now-lowered paper. “Ivers? Right… Buford said something about Pearson meeting a new recruit. You’ll find him down the hall, third door to the right.” He jerked his thumb toward the general location.
“Thank you.” Trish glanced at the pigeon loft across the room before nodding appreciatively to Cornwell and heading to the right of the desk.
Ruger sniffed the air and stood. His massive, muscled body swayed as trotted behind her. Trish reached the third door to the right, raised her hand in a fist to knock, then paused. This was her chance, and the pterosaur’s chance, too. She let out a breath to steel her nerves, then caught the wolf staring.
He stood three feet away from her, his dark brown eyes watching intently.
Then he looked at the door.
She let out a breath. As good a sign as any, she thought to herself.
Trish straightened her back and knocked. The wooden door rattled, followed by the colonel’s response of, “Come in!”
Trish twisted the door knob and pushed the door open. A small, enchanted fan on the top of a metal file cabinet whirred with an icy breeze, chilling the otherwise stuffy room.
The wolf trailed behind her as she entered.
“Ivers.” Colonel Pearson inclined his head in greeting, then turned his attention to the wolf. “I see you have an escort.”
Trish swallowed hard. “He followed me from the front desk.”
“Don’t worry, he’s just assessing you.” Pearson grinned. “He’s the alpha of the pack we station.”
Trish turned around to get a good look at the wolf, who sat himself by the door. “I… see.” She tried to get a sense of the wolf through her beast mastery, then blinked with surprise at the sense of someone else already in the wolf’s mind.
The creature shook its head and sneezed.
“Please, have a seat.” Pearson gestured to a metal chair with coarse red fabric for a cushion. Not the most comfortable of chairs, but Trish hadn’t expected anything different.
“Let’s get right to business,” Pearson said, shuffling through a pile of papers. “We’re scheduled to deploy in two days. We’ll be doing field tests in Francia, which should last about six months. And if all goes well, we might be setting up a permanent station.”
Trish bit her lip. Pearson wouldn’t be telling her this if he weren’t interested in taking her into his regiment.
“I’ve talked with our general about bringing you along,” he continued. He sat the papers under a bronze statuette of a pterosaur.
Trish held her breath.
“General Buford has offered to take you in… with a few conditions.”
Trish grinned. They were giving her a second chance.
Her grin faded. “What about the pterosaur?”
“About that—” Pearson cleared his throat.
She narrowed her eyes. “You said that if I came along, the pterosaur would be spared.”
“You can’t let her be killed. She was scared, and—”
“Ivers.” Pearson raised his hand and Trish clamped her mouth shut. “One of the conditions of you joining us is that you will take full responsibility of that pterosaur.”
Her eyes widened. “Wait… what? You want me in charge of a rogue pterosaur?”
“You’re the only one who can control her.” A weak smile formed on his lips, lending a charming quality to his bright blue eyes and crisp uniform. Heat flushed in her cheeks and she swallowed hard.
“What’s the other condition?”
“You will be under my direct command. Thus, I will be held accountable for any mistake you make. You break any of my orders, and both you and your drake will be discharged.”
Trish pressed her lips together. It made sense, but discharge for the pterosaur meant death. Not the best option, but if she didn’t try, they would kill the beast anyway.
“Are there any other conditions?” she asked.
Pearson shook his head. “Only the standard military agreements.”
Her muscles relaxed and she sunk into her chair—hard as the confounded thing was. “I’m in.”
“Good.” Pearson’s smile broadened. She might have been seeing things, but even he looked relieved. “Looks like I have a new wingman. I’ll get you the contract and your first homework assignment. You can start studying while you wait for us to depart.”
Trish blinked. Homework?
The colonel pushed his chair aside, dug through his filing cabinet, and then pulled out a couple of thick, cloth-bound books. He dropped them on the desk in front of her. A puff of dust jetted from the pages. “You can start with these.”
The wolf sneezed.
Trish lowered her eyes to the books. They were thick… and old. Probably outdated in the grand scheme of things. But she couldn’t complain. Her lack of studying had caused her to miss the cues from when the first pterosaur died. This was her second chance.
“Yes, sir,” she said firmly. “I’ll get started right away.”
“Glad to hear it. I’ll have a test for you to complete on the ship.”
Trish winced and tucked the books under her arms. She forced a smile, bid the colonel a good day, and then followed the sneezing wolf out the door.
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After a long trip back to Prussian skies, the rugged crew of Der Geist Des Eisengeier had stiff backs, sore heads, and a restless energy that swarmed the gondola like a thousand mechanical wasps.
Worse, they were returning empty-handed.
Captain Tillens pursed his lips, inspecting his tired crew from the bow of the airship. The last job might have turned sour, but he had a surprise for them. One that should lift their thieving spirits.
He turned to his first mate. “Cravens, are we on course?”
“It is true, Kapitan,” Hanna Cravens affirmed, automatically straightening her posture. “However, the men are wondering why you have brought us out here.” She gestured outside to the hilly fields below, then quizzically raised a pale eyebrow.
Tillens looked over the bridge. His loyal, hard-working crew waited in their places, keeping an eye on the ship. “We have a job,” he called loudly, “and an easy one at that.”
This caught the crew’s attention. With their previous assignment left incomplete at the claws of dragons, the prospect of simple money was enticing.
“What is it?” Cravens asked.
“You see that merchant train there?” Tillens pointed to a distant plume of thick smoke, to which his crew nodded. “It has a special cargo, which we are going to take, and of which we have been promised forty percent of the loot from select crates.” He grinned. “We receive one-hundred percent from anything else of interest.”
The crew cheered, patting each other on the backs before preparing their stations.
Tillens returned to the helm, calling orders as he went. “Open cannon fire on the rails, two kilometers in front of the train. That ought to give them enough time to stop.”
Cannon fire erupted from the bow of Der Geist Des Eisengeier, rocking the gondola with a satisfying sway. The cannon shattered the track beneath them. The train slowed, sparks flying from its brakes as it decelerated.
They had received the message.
Tillens smirked and handed Cravens a list of thirty crates. “Take a boarding party and prepare to hoist these on board. Afterward—time permitting—we’ll take anything else of value.”
Cravens eyed the list and frowned. “What is in them, Kapitan?”
“I’m not certain,” Tillens replied. “Our broker didn’t tell us. But if my suspicions are correct, these crates are very much worth our time.”
Cravens gave an affirming nod, then hurried to gather a group of men and women to her side. Armed with modified revolvers, the motley band walked down to the cargo bay.
While her team prepared the hoists, Cravens popped the cargo bay hatch. Cold, thin wind blasted through the opening and stung her cheeks. Her blood pumped, fierce. This time, she was going to ground.
Once the airship had steadied over the train, Cravens and her team descended on the hoists. Several khaki-uniformed guards—typical mercenaries—quickly approached, guns ready.
Cravens landed gracefully on the ground and started shooting. These guards spent too much time bragging, and the result was an easy, brief fight. Two of her men down… but that was better than their last firefight. And this time, both men might have a chance to recover.
“Come on,” she called in Latin. “Let’s see what is inside this train.”
She cracked open one of the doors to a freight car. The door slid to the side, revealing several crates and two more guards. Before Cravens had a chance to aim, one of the guards shot the other in the leg, dropped his gun and raised his arms.
“I surrender,” he said, his eyes level with hers. The poor fellow next to him clutched his wounded leg and cursed. “I would like to enter into your employment.”
Indeed, the pirate gig did pay well in times like these, though he would have to be a bit more loyal to this crew if he hoped to join them. “You’ll have to talk to der kapitan about that.” She turned to her team and jerked her thumb at the guards behind her. “Tie these men up. We’ll bring our turncoat up after we load the crates.”
An hour later, Captain Tillens made his way to the cargo bay and called back his men.
He hated to end the heist, especially given the number of crates remaining, but two Prussian dirigibles had been spotted closing in on their position. If he wanted a clean escape, they needed to move out. “Cravens—how’s your progress?”
She smiled and pointed to a stack of crates. A well-muscled guy and a lean woman whose strength came from her powers strained to push the final crate into place on top of the others. Their new recruit sat in the corner, his wrists tied behind his back until they could properly question him.
“We loaded up the creates as ordered, sir,” Cravens reported. “We got the primary list based on their markings, and a few extra. But they are surprisingly heavy. We can’t get much more than this without another half hour, and our ship’s going to be slower than usual. Luckily, though, we landed on a whole store of alchemical gems. Kapitan—we struck diamonds, jade, and gold.” Her eyes twinkled like a well-cut diamond, a testament to their success.
Satisfied, Tillens nodded. He had speculated that this job had something to do with alchemical supplies. Seemed the Hooded Man was fond of his alchemists. “Very well. Are you done with the last crate? We need to head out.”
“Ja, Kapitan.” Cravens motioned to the nearest crew member to close the bay door.
Meanwhile, Tillens turned to a bronze-skinned Indian woman who had fled from a dull life of countless ledgers and numbers. “Mani? Tell the bridge to head home, maximum velocity. Once you’re done, I want you to come back and take inventory.”
She responded with a curt nod and raced for the front of the ship.
Bookkeeping wasn’t Mani’s favorite job, by far, but given her background as the daughter of a silk and stone merchant, she had the best appraisal skills of any of them.
He turned back to Cravens. “Let’s see what’s in these crates.”
Cravens followed Tillens to one of the numbered crates and handed him a pry bar. A minute later, the lid popped. Inside, several mechanical heads stared at them from a sturdy, protective casing. Below the mechanical heads, several arms.
Tillens could guess what the other crates might hold. “Automatons, some assembly required,” he muttered.
Cravens eyed one of the decapitated metal heads. “What does Mr. Hardy need automatons for?”
Tillens shook his head. “No idea, but as long as we get paid, that’s not our concern. Seeing as how we completed our mission, I don’t think payment is going to be a problem.” He patted the lid, then set about prying the rest of the boxes open so Mani could take inventory.
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The adventure continues in the next episode, when there is a royal murder after the prince’s engagement is announced…