Alek set his jaw. At least he'd accomplished something.
"A TILTED TALK."
That young airman, Dylan, might have frozen to death if he'd lain in the snow all night. But Alek had saved him from frostbite. Maybe this was how you stayed sane in wartime: a handful of noble deeds amid the chaos.
Of course, Dylan had betrayed him five minutes later.
Where was the sanity in that?
Keys jangled in the corridor, and Alek turned from the porthole. The slanted door swung open, and in walked ...
"You," Alek growled.
Dylan smiled at him. "Aye, it's me. I hope you're well."
"No thanks to you, you ungrateful little swine."
"Now that's a bit rude. Especially when I've brought you a bit of company." Dylan bowed, sweeping an arm toward the doorway. "May I present Dr. Nora Barlow."
Another person strode into the room, and Alek's eyes widened. Instead of an airman's uniform she wore a gaudy dress and a small black hat, and held the leash of a bizarre doglike creature. What was a woman doing on this ship?
"Pleasure to meet you," she said. "Alek, isn't it?"
"At your service." As he bowed, the strange beast nuzzled Alek's hand, and he tried not to flinch. "Are you the ship's doctor? If so, I'm quite unhurt."
The woman laughed. "I'm sure you are. But I'm not a medical doctor."
Alek frowned, then realized that her black hat was a bowler. She was one of the Darwinist fabricators, a practitioner of their ungodly science!
He looked down in horror at the creature snuffling his trouser leg.
"What is this? Why have you brought this beast here?"
"Oh, don't be afraid of Tazza," the woman said. "He's perfectly harmless."
"I'm not telling you anything," Alek said, trying to keep the fear from his voice. "I don't care what this godless animal does to me."
"What, Tazza?" Dylan let out a laugh. "I reckon he could lick you to death. And he's perfectly natural, by the way. What they call a thylacine."
Alek glared at the boy. "Then kindly take it away."
The Darwinist woman settled herself on a chair at the high end of the tilted cabin, looking down at him imperiously. "I'm sorry if Tazza makes you nervous, but he has nowhere else to go. Your German friends have made rather a mess of our ship."
"I'm not German."
"No, you're Austrian. But the Germans are your allies, are they not?"
Alek didn't answer. The woman was just guessing.
"And what would a young Austrian be doing so high in these mountains?" she continued. "Especially now, in wartime?"
He stared at Dr. Barlow, wondering if it was worth trying to reason with her. Though she was a woman, she was also a scientist, and the Darwinists worshipped science. She might have power on this ship.
"It doesn't matter why I'm here," he said, trying to use his father's tone of command. "What matters is that you have to let me go."
"And why is that?"
"Because if you don't, my family will come to get me. And believe me, you don't want that!"
Dr. Barlow narrowed her eyes. The ship's officers had only laughed at his threats. But she was listening to him.
"So your family knows where you are," she said. "Did they send you here?"
He shook his head. "No. But they'll guess, soon enough. You don't have much time to let me go."
"Ah ... time is of the essence." The woman smiled. "So your family lives nearby?"
Alek frowned. He hadn't meant to give that away.
"Then I suppose we must find them, and quickly." She turned to Dylan. "What do you suggest, Mr. Sharp?"
The young airman shrugged. "I suppose we could follow his tracks backward in the snow. Maybe bring a present for his ma, so there are no hard feelings."
Alek shot the boy a cold look. It was one thing to be betrayed, but quite another to be mocked. "I was careful with my tracks. And if you do manage to find my family, you'll only get yourselves shot. They hate strangers."
"What unsociable people," Dr. Barlow said. "And yet they hired English tutors of the highest caliber for you."
Alek turned back to the porthole and took a deep breath. Once again his speech and manner were giving him away. It was infuriating.
The woman continued, amused that he was upset. "I suppose we shall have to use other means, Mr. Sharp. Shall we introduce Alek to the young Huxleys?"
"The Huxleys?" A smile spread across Dylan's face. "That's a brilliant idea, ma'am!"
Alek stiffened. "Who are they?"
"A Huxley isn't a who, you ninny," Dylan said. "It's more of a what, being mostly made of jellyfish."
Alek glared at the boy, certain he was being mocked again.
They led him through the ship, a busy warren of slanted corridors and strange smells. The other crewmen hardly glanced at Alek as they passed, and his only guards were Dr. Barlow and Dylan, who looked as skinny as a rail. It was all rather insulting. Maybe the creature Tazza was more dangerous than they'd admitted.
Of course, running was pointless. Even if he found his way out of the ship, his captors had taken his snowshoes, and he was already half frozen. He wouldn't last an hour on the glacier.
They went up a spiral staircase that was tilted, like the rest of the ship, at a precarious angle. The smells grew stranger as they climbed. Tazza began to sniff the air, hopping on his hind legs along the slanted floor. Dylan came to a halt beneath a hatch in the ceiling and stooped to gather the beast into his arms. He climbed up through the hatchway, disappearing into darkness overhead.
As Alek followed, he sensed a huge space opening up around him.
His eyes adjusted slowly. The high, curved walls were a mottled translucent pink, and a segmented white arch stretched overhead, the air heavy with unfamiliar smells. Alek realized how warm he was, and the truth hit him.
"God's wounds," he murmured.
"Brilliant, isn't it?" Dylan asked.
"Brilliant?" Alek's throat closed on the word, a sharp taste in his mouth. The segmented arches around him were a giant spine! "This is ... disgusting. We're inside an animal!"
Suddenly the tilted walkway beneath his feet felt slippery and unstable.
Dylan laughed, turning to help Dr. Barlow up through the hatch. "Aye, but the skins of your zeppelins are made of cattle gut. That's like being inside an animal, isn't it? And so's wearing a leather jacket!"
"But this one's alive!" Alek sputtered.
"True," Dylan said, heading down the metal walkway with Tazza. "And being inside a dead animal is much more awful, if you think about it. You Clankers really are an odd bunch."
Alek didn't bother answering this nonsense. He was too busy staring at his feet and staying in the exact center of the walkway. It was tilted more than the rest of the wrecked ship, and the thought of slipping off and actually touching the pinkish innards of this godless monster was too awful to bear.
"Sorry about the smell," Dylan said, "but this is the beastie's digestive tract."
"Digestive tract? Are you taking me to be eaten?"
Dylan laughed. "We could probably use your hydrogen!"
"Now, now, Mr. Sharp. Don't give me any ideas," Dr. Barlow said. "I simply want to show Alek how easily we can find his family."
"Aye," Dylan said. "And there's a Huxley now!"
Alek squinted into the gloom. He saw a tangle of ropes ahead of them. They stirred slowly back and forth, like willow branches in a breeze.
"Look higher, you daft git!" Dylan said.
Alek forced his eyes to follow the swaying ropes up the awful pink walls. A shape floated there in the gloom, bulbous and indistinct.
"Oi, beastie!" Dylan cried, and one of the ropes seemed to move in response, curling like a cat's tail.
They weren't ropes at all... .
Alek swallowed. "What is that thing?"
"Have you not been listening?" Dylan said. "It's a Huxley, a sort of jellyfish full of hydrogen. Looks like it's had a growth spurt too. Watch this!"
He dashed toward the dangling ropes - or tentacles? - and grabbed a handful, pulling his feet up to swing along the catwalk. The other tentacles curled and flailed, but Dylan climbed higher, pulling the bulbous object down toward himself. Alek could see its piebald skin all too clearly now. It was covered with bulges - like blisters, or the warts on a frog's skin.
And yet, despite his horror, Alek found himself fascinated by the alien grace of the tendrils. The beast was like something from the deep ocean, or a dream. Watching it left him half disgusted and half hypnotized.
Tazza ran beneath Dylan as he swung, nipping at his boots and barking. The boy laughed, still climbing, dragging the swollen creature down until he was almost touching its horrid skin.
Finally he let go, landing with a clang on the metal walkway. The angry tentacles slithered around him as the creature shot back into the upper reaches of the beast's innards.
"That one's getting strong," Dr. Barlow said. "It'll be ready soon."
"Ready for what?" Alek asked softly.
"To carry me." Dylan smiled. "The big ones can take an airman up a mile! We've got a few adult Huxleys living deeper in."
Alek stared up at the creature. A mile ... more than a kilometer and a half. From that height they'd easily spot the castle's rectangular shape, or even glimpse the Stormwalker standing in the courtyard.
"I see you understand, Alek," Dr. Barlow said. "We'll find your family soon enough. Perhaps you should save us the bother."
Alek took a slow breath. "Why should I help you?"
"You already tried to help us," she replied. "And, yes, I know you've been treated abominably in return. But you can't blame us for being suspicious. There is a war on, after all."
"So why make more enemies than you've already got?"
"Because we need your help - your family's help. Without it we may all die."
Alek stared hard into the woman's eyes. She was completely serious.
"You can't fix the ship, can you?"
Dr. Barlow shook her head slowly, and Alek turned away.
If the Darwinists really were stuck here, the only way to save them was to give up the castle and all its stores. It was that or let them starve. But could he trade his own men's safety, maybe even the future of his empire, for a hundred lives?
He needed to talk to Volger.
"Let me go," he said. "And I'll see what we can do."
"Perhaps if you took us to your home?" Dr. Barlow said. "Under flag of truce, to prevent any unpleasantness."
Alek thought for a moment, then nodded. They were going to find the castle anyway. "All right. But we don't have much time."
"I shall talk to the captain." She snapped for Tazza. "Mr. Sharp, I believe you have duties in the machine room."
"Aye, ma'am," Dylan said. "But what about Alek? Shall I lock him up again?"
Dr. Barlow looked at Alek. "Bella gerant alii?"
Alek nodded again. "This isn't my war to wage."
The woman gave him a smile, and turned to lead Tazza away. "I think we can trust Alek not to run amok, Mr. Sharp. Feel free to take him to the machine room with you. He's a very well brought-up boy."
She and Tazza disappeared into the gloom, the dangling tentacles of the Huxleys swirling in their wake.
"You understood what she said?" Dylan asked. "That bit in boffin-speak?"
Alek rolled his eyes. "It's called Latin, you simpleton. Bella gerant alii means 'Let others wage war.' She was saying we don't have to fight each other."
"You know Latin?" Dylan laughed. "You're barking posh, aren't you?"
Alek frowned, realizing his mistake. "What I am is stupid."
Dr. Barlow was still testing him, trying to figure out who and what he really was. No smuggler's son or mountain villager would have understood Latin, but he'd answered her without blinking.
The strange thing was, the phrase she'd uttered was part of an old saying about the Hapsburgs, how they'd gained more lands by marriage than war. Was she a mind reader as well as a scientist?
The sooner he was away from these Darwinists, the better.
As they walked back toward the hatchway, Dylan said, "The lady boffin must think you're something special."
Alek looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"That machine room is supposed to be off-limits." Dylan leaned closer, whispering, "There's something barking odd in there."
Alek didn't answer, wondering what could possibly qualify as odd in this menagerie of abominations. In the last few hours he'd seen enough uncanny creatures for a lifetime.
"But I suppose it's all right," Dylan continued. "Seeing as how you've decided to help us."
"No thanks to you."
Dylan came to a halt. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"If it were just you stranded on this glacier, I wouldn't lift a finger."
"Well, that's a bit rude!"
"A bit rude?" Alek sputtered. "I brought you medicines. I saved you from ... frostbitten bum. And when I asked you to keep quiet, you set those awful dogs on me!"
"Aye," Dylan said. "But you were running off."
"I had to go home!"
"Well, I had to stop you." Dylan folded his arms. "I took an oath to the Air Service, and to King George, to protect this ship. So I couldn't go making promises to some intruder I'd just met, could I?"
Alek looked away, his anger suddenly exhausted. "Well, I suppose you were doing your duty."
"Aye, I suppose so too." Dylan turned with a huff and started walking again. "And I was going to thank you for not shooting me."
"You're most welcome."
"And special thanks for not burning up the whole ship. Including yourself, you daft bum-rag."
"I didn't know the air was full of hydrogen."
"Couldn't you smell it?" Dylan laughed. "Those fancy tutors didn't teach you much useful, did they?"
Alek didn't argue - among the things he'd learned from his tutors was how to ignore insults. Instead he asked, "So is that hydrogen I'm smelling now?"
"Not in here," Dylan said. "The digestive tract has regular air, except for a wee bit of extra methane. That's why it smells like cow farts."
"My education continues," Alek said with a sigh.
Dylan gestured up at the pink curved walls. "See those puffy bits between the ribs? Those are hydrogen bladders. And the whole top half of the whale is full of the stuff. What you're seeing is just the gut - a wee sliver. The beastie's two hundred feet from top to bottom!"
More than sixty meters - Alek felt a bit unsteady on his feet.
"Makes you feel like a tick on a dog, doesn't it?" Dylan said, opening the hatch. He hooked his boots around the ladder's edges and slid down, hitting the deck with a thump.
"A charming image," Alek muttered, feeling a shiver of relief as he climbed back down into the gondola. It was good to have a sturdy deck under his feet again, even if it was tilted, and walls that were solid instead of membranes and bladders. "But I prefer machines, I'm afraid."
"Machines!" Dylan cried. "Barking useless. Give me fabricated species any day."
"Really?" Alek said. "Have your scientists bred anything that can run as fast as a train?"
"No, but have you Clankers ever made a train that can hunt for its own food, or heal itself, or reproduce?"
"Reproduce?" Alek laughed. For a moment he imagined a litter of baby train cars populating a railroad yard, which led his mind to other aspects of the mating process. "Of course not. What a repulsive idea."
"And trains need tracks to run," Dylan said, ticking off points on his fingers. "An elephantine can move across any sort of terrain."
"So can walkers."
"Walkers are rubbish compared to real beasties! Clumsy as a drunk monkey, and they can't even get up when they fall!"
Alek snorted, though that last part was true of the bigger dreadnoughts. "Well, if your 'beasties' are so wonderful, then how did the Germans shoot you down? With machines."
Dylan gave him a dark look, pulling off a glove. His bare hand curled into a fist. "Ten to one, and all of them went down too. And I'll bet they didn't land as softly."
Alek realized he'd said too much. Dylan probably knew crewmen who'd been wounded, or even killed, in the crash. For a moment Alek wondered if the boy was going to punch him.
But Dylan simply spat on the floor and turned to stalk away.
"Wait," Alek called. "I'm sorry."
The boy stopped but didn't turn around. "Sorry about what?"
"That your ship's so badly hurt. And for saying I'd let you starve."
"Come on," Dylan said gruffly. "We've got eggs to tend to."
Alek blinked, then hurried to follow. Eggs?
They made their way to a small room on the gondola's middle deck. It was a mess - machine parts strewn across the floor, along with broken glass and sprigs of hay. It felt oddly warm in here, with a smell like ...
"Is that brimstone?" Alek asked.
"The scientific name is sulfur. See here?" Dylan led him to a large box in a corner, which steamed with heat in the cold air. "Eggs have loads of sulfur in them, and most of these are broken, thanks to your German pals."
Alek blinked in the gloom. The rounded shapes before him looked exactly like ... giant eggs.