"What sort of monstrous creature laid these?"
"They weren't laid, but made in a laboratory. When you create a new beastie, they have to stew for a while. The life threads are in there, building the beasties out of egg muck."
Alek looked down with distaste. "It all sounds very ungodly."
Dylan laughed. "The same thing happened when your ma carried you. Every living creature's got life threads, a whole instruction set in every cell of your body."
This was clearly pure rubbish, but Alek didn't dare argue. The last thing he wanted was more disgusting details. Still, he couldn't take his eyes off the gently steaming eggs.
"But what's going to come out of these?"
Dylan shrugged. "The lady boffin's not telling."
The boy slipped his hand into the hay where the giant eggs were nestled, and pulled out a thermometer. He squinted at it, swore softly at the darkness, then drew a tin pipe from his pocket and blew a few notes.
The room grew brighter, and Alek noticed a cluster of the glowing worms hanging from the ceiling by his head. He took a step away from them. "What are those things?"
Dylan looked up from his work. "What? Glowworms?"
Alek nodded. "An appropriate name, I suppose. Haven't you Darwinists discovered fire yet?"
"Get stuffed," Dylan said. "We use oil lamps, but until the ship's all patched, it's too barking dangerous. What do they use on zeppelins, candles?"
"Don't be absurd. I imagine they have electrical lights."
Dylan snorted. "Waste of energy. Bioluminescence worms make light from any kind of food. They can even eat soil, like an earthworm."
Alek eyed the cluster of worms uneasily. "And you whistle at them?"
"Aye." Dylan brandished the pipe. "I can command most of the ship's beasties with this."
"Yes, I remember you whistling up those ... spider-dogs?"
Dylan laughed. "Hydrogen sniffers. They patrol the skin for leaks - and chase down the occasional intruder. Sorry if they scared you."
"They didn't scare - ," Alek started, but then he noticed a pile of satchels on the floor. They were the ones he'd brought, the first-aid kits.
He knelt and opened one up. It was still full.
"Oh, right." Dylan turned back to the eggs, looking sheepish. "We haven't got those to the sick bay yet."
"I can see that."
"Well, Dr. Barlow had to check them first!" Dylan cleared his throat. "Then she wanted to see you straightaway."
Alek sighed, closing the satchel again. "Bringing medicine was probably a pointless gesture. No doubt you Darwinists heal people with ... leeches or something."
"Not that I know of." Dylan laughed. "Of course, we do use bread mold to stop infections."
"I certainly hope you're kidding."
"I never lie!" Dylan said, standing up from his work. "Listen, Alek, these eggs are warm as toast. Let's take those kits to the surgeons now. I'm sure they'll find a use for them."
Alek raised an eyebrow. "And you're not just humoring me?"
"Well, I'd also like to look for the bosun. He got shot right before the crash, and I don't know if he made it. Him and a mate of mine were dangling from a rope when we went down."
Alek nodded. "All right."
"And coming here was hardly a pointless gesture," Dylan said. "After all, you saved my bum from frostbite."
As they made their way toward the sick bay, Alek noticed that the corridors and stairways felt less dizzying.
"The ship isn't as slanted, is it?" he asked.
"They're adjusting the harness," Dylan said. "A bit each hour, so as not to disturb the whale. I've heard we should be level by dawn."
"Dawn," Alek muttered. By then Volger would be launching whatever plans he'd made. "How long is that from now?"
Dylan pulled a watch from his pocket. "Half an hour? But it may be a while before the sun comes over the mountains."
"Just half an hour?" Alek fumed. "Do you think the captain will listen to Dr. Barlow?"
Dylan shrugged. "She's a fancy-boots, even for a boffin."
"And what does that mean, exactly?"
"It means she's barking important. We set down in Regent's Park just to pick her up. She'll make the old man listen."
"Good." They passed a row of portholes, and Alek looked out at the brightening sky. "My family will be here soon."
Dylan rolled his eyes. "You're quite up yourself, aren't you?"
"You think quite highly of yourself," Dylan explained slowly, as if talking to an idiot. "Like you're something special."
Alek looked at the boy, wondering what to say. It was pointless to explain that, in fact, he was something special - the heir to an empire of fifty million souls. Dylan had no way of understanding what that meant.
"I suppose I've had an unusual upbringing."
"You're an only child, I'd guess."
"Well ... yes."
"Hah! I knew it," Dylan crowed. "So you think your family are going to throw themselves against a hundred men in a warship, just to get you back?"
Alek nodded, saying simply, "They are."
"Barking spiders!" Dylan shook his head and laughed. "Your parents must spoil you rotten."
Alek turned away, starting down the corridor again. "I suppose they did."
"They did?" Dylan ran a few steps to catch up. "Hang on, are your parents dead?"
Alek's answer caught in his throat, and he realized something strange. His mother and father had died more than a month ago, but this part - telling someone about it - was new. The Stormwalker's crew had known before he had, after all.
He didn't dare speak. Even after all this time, saying the words aloud risked his losing control of the emptiness inside.
All he could do was nod.
Bizarrely, Dylan smiled at him. "My da's gone too! It's pure dead horrible, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. I'm sorry."
"At least my mum's still alive." The boy shrugged. "I've had to give her the slip, though. She didn't understand me wanting to be a soldier."
Alek frowned. "What mother wouldn't want a soldier for a son?"
Dylan bit his lip, then shrugged again. "It's a wee bit complicated. My da would've understood, though... ."
His voice trailed off as they passed through a wide room with a long table at its center, a cold wind sweeping in through a large shattered window. Dylan paused and stood there a moment, watching the sky turn a metallic rosy gray. The silence felt heavy to Alek, and he wished for the hundredth time that he'd inherited his father's gift for saying the right thing.
Finally he cleared his throat. "I'm glad I didn't shoot you, Dylan."
"Aye, me too," the boy said simply, and turned away. "Now let's get those kits to the surgeon and see about Mr. Rigby."
Alek followed, hoping that Mr. Rigby, whoever he might be, was still alive.
Thirty minutes later Deryn was up on the spine, strapping herself into the pilot's rig of the Leviathan's biggest Huxley. She was exhausted and half frozen, but for the first time since the wreck things felt under control.
She and Alek had found Mr. Rigby in the sick bay, alive and well and shouting orders from his bed. A bullet had passed clear through him, somehow missing all the important bits. According to the ship's surgeon he'd be back on duty in a week.
A message lizard had found them there, relaying the captain's plan in Dr. Barlow's voice: A well-armed party would escort Alek home under flag of truce, but not until a Huxley had gone up for a good look. So Alek was stuck on egg-watching duty and Deryn was here on the spine, ready to ascend.
She tightened the rig across her shoulders, glancing up at the Huxley. The beastie looked healthy, its membrane taut in the thin mountain air.
Good for a mile of altitude at least. If Alek's family lived anywhere in this valley, Deryn would spot them in a squick.
"Mr. Sharp!" a voice called from halfway down the flank. It was Newkirk, smiling as he climbed toward her. "It's true - you're alive!"
"Of course I am!" Deryn called back, cracking a smile. Mr. Rigby had told her Newkirk was unhurt, but it was good to see him with her own eyes.
He ran the rest of the way up, carrying a pair of field glasses in one hand. "The navigator sends these with his compliments. They're his best pair, so don't break them."
Deryn frowned at the maker's mark on the leather case: Zeiss Optik. Everyone said Clanker binoculars were the best, but it was annoying to be reminded of it. At least Alek wasn't here to make some stuck-up remark. Orphan or not, she'd had enough of his Clanker arrogance for one day, and the sun wasn't even up yet.
"Mr. Rigby and I were beginning to think you'd fallen off before the crash," Newkirk said. "I'm happy to see you were just dawdling."
"Get stuffed," Deryn said. "If it weren't for me, you'd both be wee splotches in the snow. And I haven't been dawdling. I've been escorting important prisoners about the ship."
"Aye, I've heard about your mad boy." Newkirk narrowed his eyes. "Is it true he says an army of abominable snowmen are coming to his rescue?"
Deryn chuckled. "Aye, his attic's a wee bit scrambled. But he's not that bad, I suppose."
Seeing Mr. Rigby with his shirt cut open around the wound, Deryn had realized how lucky she'd been. If Alek hadn't woken her up, it might have been her laid out on a bed in sick bay. And even if it had only been a squick of frostbite, the surgeons might've stripped off her uniform ... and seen exactly what was hidden beneath.
She owed the boy for that, Deryn reckoned.
A whistle sounded, and the two fell silent.
On the glacier below, all hands were assembling, sheltered by the huge crescent of the airbeast's bulk. The captain was going to address the crew at first light.
To the east the sun was just cresting the mountains, bringing a squick of warmth to the air. The Leviathan's membrane was already turning black, ready to absorb the heat of the day.
"I hope the captain's got good news," Newkirk said. "Don't want to be stuck on this iceberg too long."
"It's a glacier," Deryn said. "And the lady boffin seems to think we might be."
There was a stir among the men below, and attention was called as the captain came out onto the snow.
"The last patch went on at six a.m. this morning," he announced. "The Leviathan is airtight once again!"
The riggers arrayed along the spine raised a cheer, and the two middies joined them.
"Dr. Busk has checked her insides, and the beast seems healthy enough," the captain continued. "What's more, our Clanker friends hardly dented the gondolas. There may be a lot of broken windows, but our instruments are in fine shape. Only the motivator engines need serious repairs."
Deryn glanced down at the port engine pod, riddled with bullet holes and leaking black oil onto the snow. The tail engines looked bad as well. The Germans had focused most of their fire on the mechanical parts of the ship - typical Clanker thinking. The starboard pod lay beneath the whale, of course, smashed against the glacier.
"We'll need two working engines to control the ship," the captain said. "At least we have no shortage of parts." He paused. "So our greatest test will be reinflating the ship."
Here it comes, Deryn thought.
"Unfortunately, we don't have enough hydrogen."
An uncertain murmur spread through the crew. The wee beasties in the whale's gut made hydrogen, after all, the same way people breathed out carbon dioxide. Even after a long winter's hibernation the ship always swelled back to her old size within a few days.
"THE CAPTAIN ADDRESSES THE CREW."
It was normally so simple that everyone had missed the obvious - hydrogen didn't come from out of the blue. It came from the airship's bees and birds.
The head boffin stepped forward.
"The Alps were once the bedrock of an ancient sea," he said. "But now these peaks are the highest in Europe, not fit for man or beast. If you look around, you'll see no insects, plants, or small prey for our flocks. For the moment our fabs are living off the ship's stores. As long as they remain alive, the ship will process their excreta and slowly refill her hydrogen cells."
"Excreta?" Newkirk whispered.
"That's boffin-talk for 'clart,'" Deryn replied, and Newkirk snorted a laugh.
"But when the Leviathan was designed," Dr. Busk continued, "none of us imagined landing in a place so bleak. And I'm afraid that the equations are indisputable: All the hydrogen in our ship's stores isn't enough to lift us into the air."
Another murmur spread through the crew. They were getting the picture now.
"Some of you may be wondering," Dr. Busk said with half a smile, "why we don't simply take hydrogen from the snow around us."
Deryn frowned. She'd been wondering no such thing, but it seemed like a fair question. Snow was just water, after all - hydrogen and oxygen. It'd always seemed a bit suspect to her, that two gasses mixed up made a liquid, but the boffins were dead certain on the issue.
"Unfortunately, separating water into its elements requires energy, and energy requires food. The ecosystem that is our home depends on sustenance from nature to repair itself." Dr. Busk's gaze swept across the glacier. "And in this awful place, nature herself is empty."
As the captain stepped forward again, Deryn heard no sound but the wind in the rigging and the panting of hydrogen sniffers. The crew had gone dead silent.
"Early this morning we loosed a pair of homing terns to carry our position to the Admiralty," the captain said. "No doubt one of our sister ships will reach us soon enough, provided the war doesn't get in the way."
A chuckle rose up from the crew, and Deryn began to feel a squick of hope. Maybe things weren't as bleak as Dr. Barlow thought.
"But mounting a rescue mission for a hundred men in wartime may take weeks." The captain paused, and the head boffin beside him looked grim. "We don't have much food in our stores - a little more than a week at half rations. Longer if we use the other resources at our disposal."
Deryn raised an eyebrow. What other resources? The head boffin had just said there was nothing on the glacier.
The captain drew himself up taller. "And my first responsibility is to you, the men of my crew."
The men - not the fabricated creatures. Did he mean taking the beasties' food? But surely the captain wasn't saying ...
"To save ourselves we may have to let the Leviathan die."
"Barking spiders!" Newkirk hissed.
"It won't come to that," Deryn said, pulling the Clanker field glasses from his hands. "My mad boy's going to help us."
"What?" Newkirk asked.
"Tell the men at the winch to give me some rope," she said. "I'm ready to go up."
"Don't you think it's a bit rude," Newkirk whispered, "taking off while the captain's talking?"
Deryn looked out across the glacier - nothing but blank white snow, turning brilliant as the sun rose. But somewhere out there were people who knew how to survive in this awful place. And the captain had said to go up at first light... .
"Quit your dawdling, Mr. Newkirk."
The boy sighed. "All right, your admiralship. Will you be wanting a message lizard?"
"Aye, I'll call one," Deryn said. "But fetch me some semaphore flags."
As Newkirk went for the flags, Deryn took out her command whistle, blowing for a message lizard. A few heads turned in the crowd below, but she ignored them.
Soon a lizard crested the wilting airbag and scuttled toward her along the spine. Deryn snapped her fingers, and it climbed up her flight suit, nestling on her shoulder like a parrot.
"Stay warm, beastie," she said.
The winch had started to turn, a length of slack rope coiling down the airbeast's flank. Newkirk handed her the semaphore flags and stood ready at the tether line.
Deryn gave him a thumbs-up, and he let the knot spill.
The air became clearer as she rose.
Down near the surface, icy particles flurried on the constant wind, swirling across the glacier like a freezing sandstorm. But up here, above the haze of airborne snow, the whole valley spread out below her. Mountains rose on either side, covered under a patchy blanket of white. The strata of the ancient seabed jutted up through the snow in a broken sawtooth pattern.
Deryn pulled the field glasses from their case. Where to start?
First she scanned the perimeter of the wreck, looking for fresh tracks in the snow. Several spindly trails led away from the ship and back, where crewman had snuck off to smoke a pipe or relieve themselves. But one set was wider and shuffly looking - Alek's funny shoes at work.
Deryn followed the tracks away from the wreck. They wandered back and forth, crossing exposed rock whenever possible. Alek had been clever, trying to confuse anyone trying to follow him home. But he hadn't reckoned on someone tracking him from the sky.
By the time the footprints had faded into the distance, she was certain he'd come from the east, where Austria lay.
The sun was fully up now, making the white snow glare. But Deryn was glad for the warmth. Her eyes were watering from the cold, and the message lizard clenched her shoulder like a vise. Fabricated lizards weren't properly cold blooded, but freezing air slowed them down.
"Hang on there, beastie. I'll have a mission for you soon."
Deryn swept her glasses back and forth across the eastern end of the valley, looking for anything out of place. And suddenly she saw them ... tracks of some kind.
But they weren't human. They were huge, as if a giant had shuffled through the snow. What had Newkirk said about abominable snowmen?
The tracks led to an outcrop of rocks, or what looked like rocks. As Deryn stared, the shapes of broken walls came into focus, along with stone buildings huddled around an open courtyard.
"Blisters!" she swore. No wonder Alek talked so posh. He lived in a barking castle.
But she still hadn't found whatever had made those tracks. The courtyard was empty, the stables too small to hold anything so massive. Deryn slowly scanned the structure until she found the gate in the castle walls... . It was open.
Her hands shaking a little, she followed the tracks away from the castle again, and saw what she'd missed the first time. Another set branched off, heading toward the wrecked airship.
And these tracks were fresh.
Deryn remembered her argument with Alek about animals and machines. He'd mentioned walkers, hadn't he? Those crude Clanker imitations of beasties. But what sort of barking mad family had its own walker?
Deryn swept her gaze across the snow faster now, until a glint of metal flashed across her vision. She blinked, backtracking until ...
The machine bounded across the snow, shimmering with heat in the cold, like a monstrous, angry teakettle on two legs. The ugly snout of a cannon thrust from its belly, and two machine guns sprouted like ears from its head.
It was running straight for the Leviathan.
She pulled the semaphore flags from her belt, waving them hard. A light flashed in response from the airship's spine - Newkirk was watching.
Deryn whipped the flags through the letters, spelling out ...
E-N-E-M-Y - A-P-P-R-O-A-C-H-I-N-G - D-U-E - E-A-S-T