"Okay. Here's the plan," Flynn said as he spread out a map on the ground, squinting at it in the firelight. "And don't you dare record this."
It had been a long time since Flynn had a real friend. The only confidants he'd had recently were his business partners, and he could only think to address his companion as such.
Sure, he'd had other acquaintances, courteous bartenders who would lend a sympathetic ear, and affectionate ladies, all laces and fishnets and painted on smiles. And sure he would share what he was thinking with them, but never anything deep or worthwhile, never anything more poignant than his momentary bitching, which he always ended up spinning in such a way as to make himself look better in the long run.
Neither of those relationships seemed like they fit this situation. They felt too contrived for this, too impersonal about some things and too personal about others. Maybe it was because the people that flickered in and out of his life always half expected him to turn on them, that he found himself unwilling to place his trust another person.
In fact he still hadn't succeeded in doing so.
His new best friend happened to be a chameleon.
It was about the length of his hand, all bronze fittings and clicking gears. Its large, glass eyes would swivel and jerk in such a way as to make Flynn feel nauseous, and when it was upset it made a little noise that went "tik tik tik tik tik."
It was rare to spot a chameleon. They were designed to blend in, to be discreet, to spy. It was even more rare for one to allow you to look at it and handle it and talk to it.
There were rumors that nobles and wealthy businessmen used chameleons to spy on their rivals, to deliver messages, and even on occasion to assassinate. People said that the royal air force had a small army of them for espionage and intelligence gathering.
So finding this one lazing in his satchel a week ago had nearly given him a heart attack. At first he thought that it was sent by the guards to track him and then report his location. Then he thought that it might be there to kill him and put an end to the chase once and for all. But after a time it became clear that the chameleon was completely unconcerned with Flynn beyond his usefulness as a faster mode of transportation. It either didn't know who he was or didn't care.
"We're here," he said, pointing to a spot on the map. "And tomorrow we'll be at the capital." He pointed again at a small island in the ocean. The chameleon followed his finger with one eye, the other swiveling around the tree line, watching for danger. Or maybe just going through the motions of keeping a lookout. It was kind of hard to tell if it would be any use if a situation cropped up.
"I don't know where you're going after that, but it seems like that's the end of the trip, and you're going to have to find someone else to cart you around." Flynn wouldn't admit that he would miss the little guy when they parted ways, so he glared at it instead, as if this situation was entirely its fault.
The chameleon didn't notice, offering him a happy chirp.
"That's where you're going?"
It gestured with its tail to indicate a general direction on the map.
"Back the way you came, huh?" He stared at the map again, trying to figure out for the hundredth time where on earth it had come from. There wasn't a settlement in that direction for a hundred miles, and he found it difficult to believe that it had traveled that far on foot before he found it. It was a mystery, and the chameleon was never very specific about it, which made Flynn think it was either a secret, or the chameleon didn't know. He was more inclined to believe the later.
There was something a bit off about it. It wasn't slick and refined like the chameleons in rumors. It didn't reek of wealth like everything else the upper class touched. It let Flynn inspect it and it seemed to like it when he rubbed its head with a finger. It didn't seem interested in any of the rules of discretion that he assumed a proper chameleon on assignment would know. It liked to inspect everything Flynn ate, poking at his food and photographing his mug or silverware with quick, white flashes and a burst of smoke. It recorded short clips of birdsong and played them back at inopportune moments. It liked to climb up his face to sit proudly on his head, only to catch his hair painfully in its gears.
Chameleons were supposed to be masters of camouflage, but he'd only seen this one change color twice, both times when it was startled. It had squeaked, jumped, and turned a deep crimson, before settling itself once more and returning to its usual color of rusted iron and green, corroded bronze. These did not strike Flynn as subtle colors, and the fact that the chameleon was frightened so easily was evidence that it was at least a little bit broken.
It clicked at him, drawing him out of his thoughts and making a gesture that he wouldn't have understood a week ago. Where are you going next?
"Away," he said. "I'm fleeing the empire as fast as humanly possible by any means necessary." He grinned down at the chameleon, who did not look impressed. In fact it looked a bit judgmental, as if it knew that he had absolutely no escape plan.
"It is not a suicide mission. I'll be fine. I'm smart. I'll improvise."
It occurred to him belatedly that the chameleon, in all his mechanical, anthropomorphized glory, was not the one that was worried.
He pushed the thought away quickly and cleared his throat, continuing to explain his plan – however vague and problem riddled it was.
The chameleon grew more and more excited as they approached the city, scurrying from Flynn's pocket to his shoulder, to his other shoulder and back. The lenses in its eyes shifted again and again, as if it was overwhelmed with information and unsure where it should focus its attention.
It recorded the rumble of a motorbike, then squeaked and dove for Flynn's vest pocket when the driver kicked it into gear and took off with a bang and a cloud of thick, dark smoke. It immediately leapt out again at the sight of a pair of elegant ladies with elaborate, feathered hats, quickly taking a photograph before running across Flynn's collar to inspect a horse, decked out in gold bells and bronze plate armor, the emblem of the fifth noble house emblazoned in bright green on its chest.
A man on the corner cried out to catch the attention of passersby, to lure them in to see the fantastical spectacle he promised was hidden under a black, velvet sheet. He pulled the cover away with a flourish to reveal a tank holding a great, white octopus. The gathered crowd and the excited chameleon gasped.
The morning fog and the smoke rolled down the cobbled streets, so that people seemed to rise up out of a mist and then disappear once again. Cable car wires stretched over their heads, implying that their trek had direction and purpose, while secretly hoping to led them astray into the winding thrive of the city. Spotlights shone up into the sky, illuminating great beams in the fog, up into the sky to direct the airships, which drifted past over the rooftops against the background of clouds. Every airship in Corona was gathered that day for the festival of the lost princess, circling slowly in mourning and paying their respects to the queen, before returning to the edges of the empire.
The chameleon was especially interested in the airships, watching them like a cat watching goldfish in a bowl. Flynn thought of moving to higher ground to give the little guy a better view, but he had a job to do and the chameleon might very well bust a gear and explode from excitement if it got a good look.
He was honestly unsure if he should walk slower to allow the chameleon more time to explore, or if he should hurry past the onslaught of novel sights to save the little thing from sensory overload.
He eventually decided that changing his behavior at all for the chameleon was silly. It was just a machine, and who even knew what it thought it was doing.
He made his way across the city to the far side of the island, heading to the docks where the airships were landing one at a time to refuel for the coming year, before joining the rest of the fleet in their slow circling. Flynn's anxiety grew the closer they came to his destination, to the point where he nearly jumped out of his skin when the chameleon on his shoulder twisted wildly and whirred with uncontrolled excitement.
"Whoa! Calm down." He tried to grab it, but it slipped from his fingers and continued its frantic noises, gesturing excitedly at a dark, little shop. "You want to go in there? No. Come on, we're on a schedule, and it's already later than I'd like it."
The chameleon made a rude noise, head butted Flynn once with affection, then leapt off his shoulder to skip towards the store, dodging hurrying feet and dangerous carriage wheels.
He stared after it for a moment. Was it… leaving? Just like that?
"Hey, hold on."
He rushed forward and scooped the little thing up just in time to pull it out of the way of an oncoming motorbike. The driver's curse faded into the ambient noise of the street as they sped away, to be replaced with a happy rumbling from the chameleon clutched in his fist.
It looked irritatingly proud of itself.
Flynn scowled at it. "Fine. This store?" He pointed and the chameleon nodded. "You better not take too long."
The shop was a bit like an apothecary. Close lines of shelves held jars of pastes and powders. It smelled like pepper and overripe fruit, that made Flynn's nose twitch. The chameleon's head swiveled from side to side searching for whatever it was it wanted so badly, and Flynn obliged to walk down each of the aisles to let it look.
He felt really stupid doing it, but at least there was no one but the distracted shop owner to see him pander to a machine.
A squeak brought him up short and the chameleon slithered out of his hand to pick out a jar full of white stuff – paint made from crushed up shells. Yeah, the dumb thing was definitely going senile. Why would a chameleon travel all this way just for a jar of paint?
"I'm not paying for this," he said, lifting it off the shelf and tucking the pleased chameleon into the crook of his arm.
The shop keeper seemed downright bored, even as his only customer of the day checked out, and even as he was paid by a chameleon, who coughed up two gold coins from a compartment under its tongue.
"You get what you came for?" Flynn asked it.
It shook its head happily.
"No? You just bought that because you could?"
It nodded, propping itself up on its back legs to hug the jar.
Flynn blinked at it. "You can't lift that, can you?"
The chameleon thought for a moment, then shook its head.
"So how'd you plan on getting it back to wherever it is you come from?"
The chameleon shrugged.
Did it even have a home? Maybe it was feral, roaming around aimlessly, never going "back" anywhere.
He rolled his eyes, easily slipping the jar into his satchel and plopping the chameleon onto its customary spot on his shoulder. "You're lucky you're cute," he muttered.
The chameleon squeaked.
"Alright," he said, stepping out into the street and resuming his trek as if it hadn't been interrupted. "Now we're really late. If I miss this, I'm never going to forgive you."
The royal guards grew thicker as they approached the docks, proof that they were headed in the right direction – towards the queen and the most valuable treasure in the kingdom. Several guards patrolled around the entrance to the docks, and Flynn slipped behind a low wall, peaking over to watch them.
The chameleon fell silent on his shoulder. It was in its nature to be quiet and sneaky, and even though it wasn't particularly good at either of these, it still liked to try and still got excited about it. It peeked out over the wall too, watching the movements of the guards while staying out of Flynn's way.
"That one," Flynn murmured, pointing at a particularly glass eyed guard, about Flynn's height and build. He dug about in his satchel to grab a plain looking handkerchief and a bottle of chloroform, drenching the cloth and readying himself to pounce.
The guard walked past, and was immediately grabbed from behind and pulled back over the wall, slumping quickly with a muffled groan. Flynn grinned at his mechanical companion, and stripped the guard of his uniform.
"What do you think?" he asked, pulling the cap low on his head to cast his eyes in shadow. "Do I make this look good or what?"
The dark grey jacket had a row of brass buttons down one side and a high collar that hid his dirty vest and shirt. He'd had to roll down his sleeves, and even though the cotton provided a slight barrier against the heat of the wool, he still found himself starting to sweat.
It was definitely the wool. Not nerves. He didn't have nerves. He was fantastic and this was going to work.
Instead of responding, the chameleon started filming him. It did that sometimes.
He decided to ignore it and slung his satchel over his shoulder before standing up straight and planting the chameleon proudly on a bent arm, carrying him like a hunting hawk. He figured it would make him look important, but then again the chameleon looked so poorly cared for that it might give him away. Maybe the guards would think he was an especially renowned chameleon and all the little dings in its skin were battle scars or something. For all Flynn knew, they actually were.
Thus adorned, he marched straight through the gate and out towards the airship. It was a monstrosity, a hundred yards long and five stories tall. A team of mechanics scrubbed down the outside of the gondola, removing a year's worth of rust and grime, scrubbing the metal until it shone bright silver, cleaning the windows until they looked nonexistent. The balloon glowed with a pale, yellow light that flickered as if the ship were on its last leg.
The dock was crowded with people, mechanics scurrying to make repairs, dock workers loading the ship with supplies, new crewmen shipping out for another tour, and tearful families wishing them farewell. Guards were everywhere, there to protect the airship while she was moored and vulnerable, the queen while she was aboard, and the priceless treasure she carried with her.
Flynn had to repeatedly tell himself that he was one of those guards. He had to stand straight, look purposeful, and not be jostled too much as he wound his way through the throng. The chameleon on his arm puffed out its chest and thankfully stopped looking so frantically interested in everything.
A pair of guards, stopping everyone at the base of the nearest boarding ramp, already had their attention monopolized, arguing with a grungy mechanic. They noted Flynn's newly acquired rank, gave a second glance at his chameleon, and waved him through, sending the mechanic into renewed fits of irritation.
Honestly, he hadn't expected it to be that easy. He'd thought that he'd at least have to sweet talk his way aboard, possibly bribe the guards, possibly knock them unconscious. (Because that would have worked.) In fact, he had thought it most likely that he would have been arrested right there, killed where he stood, or at the very least sent away to try to find a new way to sneak aboard.
It was a bit off putting, and Flynn didn't really know how to handle it. The chameleon saved him by ticking loudly when it noticed their lack of progress up the ramp. It craned its neck to scowl at him, wanting to see the ship up close, and Flynn swallowed, straightened his back, and carried on.
The inside of the ship was close and dark. He had to bow his head in order to not hit it against hissing pipes. His footsteps reverberated over metal gratings. Crewmen pushed past him in the narrow corridors, hurrying to get everything ready before the next ship was due to land. They had to prepare the entire fleet that day, and they were on a tight schedule, which thankfully meant that Flynn went mostly ignored.
After making several turns, he found himself off the main thoroughfare, in an unmanned area, where he could pause for just a moment. He dug through his satchel again, pulling out a set of plans and grinning at the chameleon as he spread them out over a waist high pipe.
"We should be… uh… here? Yeah. Here," he whispered. "And the engine room is there, so… we need to go down a deck and then make our way… that direction."
He looked at the chameleon for confirmation, only to find it carefully inspecting one of the thicker pipes.
"Stop that," he hissed, stuffing the schematics back into his bag, plopping the chameleon on his arm, and checking the area again to make sure no one was watching.
It wasn't that hard to find their way once they found a ladder and slipped down to the correct deck. All the corridors and pipes led in that direction, and the hum as the engines were recharged grew steadily louder as they made their way aft. And was it his imagination, or was the hallway getting brighter?
The passageway opened abruptly into a cavernous room of steel catwalks, of levers and dials, of sharp bursts of hissing steam, and of men straining against valves and ticking off tallies on charts. Pipes ran, strung like a spider web to the heart of the room, where a great pillar rose out of the floor, glowing with pale, yellow light that seemed to throb slowly.
The place was swarming with guards. At least two at every exit, six between him and the heart of the ship, where a woman stood, looking strangely out of place in the midst of clanking machinery, sparks, and puddles of oil. She was thin, poised, and well dressed, her eyes closed in concentration, a golden crown glimmering on her head. Her hands pressed against the column in front of her, holding the most valuable object in all of Corona – if not the world - in place.
The thing he was sent here to steal.
But how on earth was he supposed to get it? Eyes scanning the scene, he determined that it might be possible to get to the queen, but he would never leave the room alive. There were just too many guards, too many eyes, too many swords and pistols and heavy wrenches.
He needed to wait. Maybe when they left he would have an opportunity. Maybe as they boarded the next ship, or the one after. Maybe he could even wait until that evening when they left the docks completely, when they were groggy from an endless day, when it was darker and the celebrations in the street could hide him. It would be pushing it to wait that long, but perhaps he could make it onto their carriage and-
The guard closest to them shifted slightly, displaying a chameleon on his arm, whose chrome scales glinted defiantly, whose eyes were clear, focused, and dangerous. Its gaze locked on Flynn and it bristled, causing Flynn's chameleon to hiss, the spines along its back rising, its tail poised like a scorpion prepared to strike. The guard blinked down at his companion and turned to Flynn, eyeing first him then his chameleon with a look of mixed confusion and distain.
He felt his stomach drop, and he swallowed down his fear in preparation for a quick lie or a hasty retreat.
"Can I help you?" the guard asked.
But before he could speak his rusty chameleon moved, leaping at the guard from Flynn's arm, striking at his wrist with its tail. The man froze, shivered, then collapsed to the floor, foam bubbling from his mouth.
Flynn stared, dumbstruck for a heartbeat.
Then the royal chameleon hissed out a cloud of steam and leapt at him in a storm of clicking metal and angry ticking. Flynn dodged, diving into action and heading for the queen, as his chameleon snapped off a picture, blinding his attacker with a flash of white light.
Another flash of light. Then another. Then Flynn's hand was on his prize and he was ripping it from the central column, causing the power to stutter and collapse, the light draining away with a low pitched whine. Angry shouts echoed around the room, and he tried to pull the battery from the queen's grasp, but she held tight, staring at him in surprise, the battery burning into his hand. In the semi-dark someone fired off a round, which pinged off the central column, causing both Flynn and the queen to duck instinctively.
She threw a punch at him, which he dodged, then prepared another. And then she stiffened, her eyes slipping out of focus, before she collapsed to the ground next to his chameleon, who blinked up at him as if this was nothing unusual.
Another shot and Flynn was running, the flash of the chameleon's camera blinding the guards even more successfully in the dark. He grabbed for a ladder and swung himself onto a catwalk, running full out for the nearest exit, ducking bullets and clanking across the metal gratings.
"Ascend! Ascend! Take off before he can escape!"
"The engines haven't fully charged!"
"Malfunction in the coolant generator!"
"Pressure building in number four!"
He whipped around a corner out into a passageway, pushing past confused crewmen, shoving the power source into his satchel and clenching his burnt hand into a fist. He had no clue where he was going and he felt the deck groan and shift beneath his feet as the airship lifted.
Angry shouts echoed down the hallway, gaining on him with every clunk of his boots. He spun again down a side corridor and practically threw himself down a ladder, then another until he was deep in the bowels of the ship, which moaned and creaked with the effort to once again become airborne. He charged down the length of the ship, skidding to a halt at the sight of the hangar bay doors and one of the small scouting ships, a thin gondola holding a cockpit, with multi-jointed wings and a propeller in the back.
He had a very limited understanding of how to fly it, but it'd have to do. And he threw himself at the lever controlling the doors, which opened with a groan and a squeal of metal on metal and a wild assault of wind. Spinning around, he yanked the scout ship free from the tube used to recharge it, and snapped loose the restraining cables, which whipped back with enough force to leave a dent in the hull. He slipped into the cockpit, flicking every switch until the machine stuttered to a start, then twisted in his seat to yank on the propeller until it buzzed to life.
Just as a wave of guards descended upon him, he threw the throttle and burst forward, dinging the side of the hangar doors on his way out, leaving the guards to stare after him, then scramble to start their own scout ship.
"You said you were going South-East," Flynn shouted, trying to speak to the chameleon latched onto his shoulder over the roar of the engine. "So I guess we're going South-East." Making a wide circle around the airship, they watched it slowly sink back towards the docks, seeming to flicker and die without power.
Flynn watched it go down until his own craft hit turbulence and he had to curse and grab the rudder in an attempt to even things out.
"Please tell me you didn't murder the queen."
The chameleon blinked at him then shook its head.
Flynn didn't quite know what that meant, but decided to assume the best. He didn't want to completely destroy Corona. At least, not anymore than he was already going to.
It occurred to him then that he had done it.
He'd actually done it!
He didn't die trying, and no burly henchmen were going to break his legs for failing!
He couldn't help but laugh as they cleared the city without sign of pursuit, the forest speeding by beneath them, the air once again breathable, even as his heart pounded with adrenaline. "This is a very good day," he shouted.
That was the moment when the scout ship began to sputter, and Flynn realized that if the airship hadn't been fully charged then the smaller vessel…
The ship lurched and they dropped a good three feet before stabilizing again.
The chameleon scurried down his arm, pointing towards the forest just a bit to Flynn's right, as if guiding him to safety.
"You know where you're going?"
The chameleon ticked at him and pointed with more urgency as the little ship jerked again. Flynn pushed the craft faster and they sped on, drawing closer and closer to the forest below them as they lost altitude.
A cliff rose out of the greenery, and he threw all his strength into pulling the control yoke, into forcing every last inch of altitude until they almost – almost cleared it, the bottom of the craft skidding across the rocks, sending the craft wobbling, then spinning, then hurdling down and down and down, as Flynn shouted, grabbing the chameleon to his chest and ducking, and the ship crashed with a sickening crunch into a stream at the base of a lonely tower.