Short Story – “The Tao (and Riproaring Adventures) of Captain Nik Ve and His Flying Junk, the Om”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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“The Tao (and Riproaring Adventures) of Captain Nik Ve and His Flying Junk, the Om

By Time Traveler

(This is the Prologue of a serialised story which appears in the publication Time Traveller Times)

Captain Nik Ve stood on the bridge of his small junk, the Om, and scanned the shoreline for movement in the half light of the spring evening.

He could smell wood smoke carried on the increasing breeze that had forced the landing in the first place from somewhere in the woods that surrounded the lake.

The drone of the small but powerful diesel engine and large parafoil wing always announced his arrival, wherever he went. Even so, he had seen no one, though he had been there several hours now.

One last look and he would get some sleep.

This was an unfamiliar place to him. He had flown over many times but never used the lake to land, as he trusted his instincts and had never felt easy. There was a settlement about five miles north of the lake, a religious sect, one of many that had sprouted up out of the chaos. He was not sure whom he despised and, to a degree, feared the most. The religious fanatics? The military, or rather what the military had become? The various semi-nomadic scum? Well, they were everywhere, and they weren’t called scum for no reason, but they would have tried something before now.

He was not altogether happy. The wind that had forced him to find a decent body of water on which to land the good junk Om, was steadily getting stronger.   He was headed back to a small island in the centre of a flood plain, a flooded reservoir where he felt safest and where he had been holed up over the winter.

It was the first time the Om had flown in over two months, a foray to replenish dwindling supplies. Maybe he had become complacent.

No, nothing, only the smell of smoke. It was early spring, and the woodland was green, no chance of this being an unattended or accidental fire, he thought.

“Damn it!” muttered Captain Ve. He was only ten miles or so from the relative safety of the flood plain, but he couldn’t risk a take-off now. The weather had changed beyond being able to predict with any degree of accuracy its moods.   No point in worrying, or moaning, or cursing, but something wasn’t right. The wood smoke indicated to the Captain people were about, and he was well aware how curious, even in these times, people were.

It wasn’t the military – they would have been on him in a second. The cultists maybe, but these usually stayed in their settlements, tempting people to join with false rumors of food and safety.

The nomads? The captain shook his head. Then who?   The few sane people left would not want to be caught out here alone …. or maybe there were no sane people left!

Now the Captain could not only smell the smoke, he could see it. The lake was being slowly engulfed in white smoke from green wood being burned and darker smoke now from what smelled like rubber, rubber tires.

He had been observed coming in to land! And now was being trapped by acrid blinding smoke.

He needed to get away NOW! The smoke was getting thicker. Hurriedly, he pulled up the long bamboo pole he had driven into the lake bed to act as an anchor and started the engine. The Captain was no fool and always observed an escape route.

“What was the most important thing you need to know before you go in? How to get out!” he mumbled to himself.

Even so, this would be a difficult and dangerous take-off, but the alternative was to be trapped and blind.

Captain Ve pushed the throttle forward and the engine began to power the twin fan props at the stern of the Om. He pointed his vessel, blindly, toward what he knew to be a long enough run to achieve the speed needed to lift off. It was a cross wind, the worst kind; the sail would not be easy to raise and would take longer than he would have wanted.

He was up to speed now, but the two small drone chutes were being blown back and forth and could not do the job they were designed for, to slowly drag out the main wing. The Captain tried once more to release the sail using the drones blinking as he did so in the thickening toxic smoke, but to no avail. He dropped the engine to half revs while he winched in the chutes and brought her about.

Pushing the throttle fully forward again, he tried once more to get the ship aloft. He Released the drone chutes again; they caught this time. He skillfully matched the release of the winches to the natural pull of the mainsail as it was dragged yard by yard until fully extended. His ship was being battered as it struggled against the wind to lift them from the lake; the junk wasn’t built for strength; she was built for flight more than anything, and weight was always at a premium. The hull was not built to take such abuse. The wind was billowing and folding the wing as the Om got closer and closer to the banks of the lake.

Full throttle, wing fully extended now.

“Come on! Come on my beauty!” the Captain was now screaming. He would rather crash and burn than let someone else have his ship. They were linked, joined on a level few would understand. He looked after the Om, and the Om looked after him, and as far as he was concerned, without his vessel he was as good as dead. He had designed and built the junk and knew what it could do and was old enough and ugly enough to know what he could do.

The sail caught and filled and he felt the distinctive tug as it worked to pull them from the lake. Captain Ve was now totally blinded by the smoke and had to trust that he had remembered his escape route well.   The engine labored and was struggling, working against the crosswind and trying to lift the junk from the water.

The wind was causing the Om to pitch and yaw but once enough altitude was achieved, Captain Ve knew he could compensate. Landing again, however, would be another matter.

The bow began to lift, the drag from the water lessened.

Less drag, more lift, she was up.

The old junk felt its way through the wind, climbing up until the Captain could start to fly with the turbulence rather than against it. It was a rough ride and Captain Ve needed to hang on to the wheel, making adjustments as best he could with the lift webs.

The Om was fully airborne, above the smoke, above the lake, and above the creatures that had laid the trap. Captain Nik Ve and the good junk Om circled the woods from where the smoke was still wafting onto the lake.   Nine maybe ten fires, he observed, had been started deliberately and seemingly for the express purpose of trapping a vessel capable of flight.

The Captain circled once more but could see no one and turned the Om toward the flood plain, toward home, toward safety.

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