Chapter Four - Crimson Flames and Scattered Ash

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Laurent was thinking of watercolors when he first heard the gunshots.

He walked leaning back slightly to offset the weight of the heavy box Annemarie had told him to deliver to the ship with which they had switched cargo, and so was looking up at the sky. It was a dark blue, blue as ink, and dotted with clouds through which filtered the waning moon. It was lovely. His fingers itched to pull out a paintbrush, load it with that inky blue, and touch it to paper. He smiled as he imagined the way the pigment would spread, carried by water, seeping into the fibers of the page. If it looked even half as beautiful as the sky above him, he was sure he would be brought to tears at the sight of it.

But he couldn't now. He sighed and shifted the box higher in his arms and set his mind on looking at ship names instead of the clouds. Annemarie wanted the box and the mysterious device inside it returned to its rightful owner, and so he would return it, even though he would much rather be back in his cabin, dipping his brush into water to clean the blue off of it before reaching for gold...

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Three shots broke the quiet hum of the San Francisco evening. Three shots sent everything whirling into chaos.

Laurent was on the ground before he had time to think. He hit the cobblestones, splashing his face with dirty water from the previous rain. Beside him, the box tumbled to the ground and broke open. He didn't care. He had much larger problems to deal with.

When Laurent had first joined up as the Eagle's Arrow's official cartographer, Annemarie had one condition: he had to quit smoking. Fire, she explained, was the most dangerous thing aboard an airship, since the great blue envelope that kept the ship afloat was filled with hydrogen gas. A single spark could send the whole ship up in flames. Such as, say, the small explosion created when a gun fires.

He pulled himself up from the ground and gasped. The hydrogen tanks were on fire.

The gargantuan metal tanks used to store compressed hydrogen at the edge of the docks had ripped open like paper and sent clouds of flame up into the sky, illuminating in red the faces of startled dock workers and aeronauts.

"The ships!" someone was screaming. "Move the ships!"

The next moment, Laurent found out why. The unlucky dirigible above the flaming tanks caught fire in a brilliant explosion of smoke and sparks. The fire bloomed upwards like a dangerous, otherworldly flower as the ship began to fall, burning, and crashed into the ship next to it.

More screams pierced the air, which was now heavy with smoke. The flaming airship finally collapsed on the ground; the one next to it was consumed by unnaturally red fire as the hydrogen burned.

From the ship's window, a woman waved her arms, her screams lost in the roar of the flames. Laurent watched in horror as people threw down ladders and began to climb as their ship plummeted to the ground. It landed with a crash and a final burst of crimson sparks.

Laurent clapped a hand to his mouth and noticed that tears were trickling down his face. There were people in there... there were people in all of the ships. He needed to help them.

He took a step forward, stopped, and picked up the box. The device inside had half fallen out, and he shoved it back inside, paying no attention to feeling of crumpled paper that met his fingers. He tucked the box under his arm and began to run towards the flames.

"Laurent!" someone screamed from behind him. "Laurent, stop!"

He turned. It was Annemarie, braid coming undone, running as fast as she could against the crowd to get to him.

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