As the echoes died, Volger called, "Do you know how to load a Spandau machine gun, Alek?"
Prince Aleksandar knew nothing of the sort, but already his hands were moving to unbuckle his seat straps.
They were just beginning to reel in Deryn when the storm struck.
The ground men had noticed the darkening sky. They were scrambling about the field, securing the hangar tent with extra spikes, getting the recruits under cover. Four men strained at the ascender's winch, pulling Deryn down steady and fast. A dozen ground crew waited to grab the beast's tentacles when it was low enough.
But she was still five hundred feet up when the first sheets of rain arrived. The cold drops fell diagonally, hitting her dangling feet even under the cover of the airbeast. Its tentacles coiled tighter, and she wondered how long the medusa would take this pounding before it spilled its hydrogen, hurling itself toward the ground.
"Stay calm, beastie," Deryn said softly. "They're bringing us in."
A wild gust caught the medusa's airbag, and it billowed like a full sail. Deryn swung out into the full force of the storm, her boy-slops instantly soaked with freezing rain.
Then the cable snapped taut, whipping the beast earthward like a kite without enough string. It dropped toward houses and backyard gardens, down to just above the high prison walls. Directly beneath Deryn people scurried along the wet streets, shoulders hunched, unaware of the monster overhead.
Another gust of wind struck, and the Huxley was forced low enough that Deryn could see the ribs of umbrellas below.
"Oh, beastie. This isn't good."
The medusa swelled again, trying to regain its lift, and leveled off a few dozen feet above the rooftops. The cable strained against the wind for a moment, then loosened. The ground men were giving them slack, Deryn reckoned, letting them climb a bit more, like a fisherman trying to keep a catch on the line.
But that extra cable was more weight to carry, and she and the Huxley were both heavy with rain. She could spill the water ballast, but once it was gone, there'd be nothing left to slow their fall if the beastie panicked.
The cable was scraping across the prison's rooftops now, snapping against shingles and drainpipes. Deryn saw it snag on one of the smoking chimneys, and her eyes widened... .
No wonder the ground men were letting out more cable - they were keeping her away from the prison. If a chimney spark drifted up and reached the Huxley's airbag, the hydrogen would ignite, the ascender exploding in a massive fireball, rain or no rain.
The cable snagged again, sending a jolt through the Huxley. The creature spooked, its tentacles coiling tight, and dropped again.
Deryn clutched the ballast cord, gritting her teeth. She might survive a wind-tossed landing herself, but the shingled rooftops and backyard fences below would shred the creature to pieces. And it would be all Deryn Sharp's fault for not warning the ground men when she'd had the chance.
Some air sense.
"Okay, beastie," she called up. "I may have got you into this mess, but I'm gonna get you out, too. And I'm telling you: Now's not the time to panic!"
The creature made no promises, but Deryn pulled the ballast cords anyway. The bags snapped open, spilling their water into the storm.
Slowly the airbeast began to climb.
The ground men gave a cheer and set upon the winch, furiously hauling the airbeast in against the wind. The captain was supervising, shouting orders from the back of the all-terrain carriage. The tigeresques looked miserable in the rain, like a pair of house cats standing under a faucet.
With a few more turns of the winch the medusa was over the proving grounds, safely away from the prison's smoking chimneys.
But then the wind switched direction. The airbeast billowed again, pulled in a half circle toward the other end of the Scrubs.
The Huxley let out a screech above the wind, like the horrible sound when one of Da's air bladders would spring a leak.
"No, beastie! We're almost safe!" Deryn shouted.
But the medusa had been tossed about once too often. Its gasbag was contracting, the tentacles coiled as tight as rattlesnakes.
Deryn Sharp smelled the hydrogen spilling into the air, the scent like bitter almonds. She was falling ...
But the wind still carried them, changing direction without rhyme or reason. It tossed the airbeast about like a crumpled piece of paper, pulling Deryn behind it.
They had to be heavier than air by now, but in a gale like this, Deryn fancied you could fly a bowler hat on a bit of string.
At the other end of the cable the ground men were watching helplessly, the flight captain ducking as the gyrating cable sliced overhead. If they tried to crank her any closer, they'd pull the airbeast straight down into the ground.
Jaspert was running across the field toward her, cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting something... .
She caught the sound of his voice, but the wind whipped the words away.
Deryn's feet now dangled a few yards above the ground, which raced by as if she were on horseback. She peeled off her heavy, sodden jacket and tossed it overboard.
The prison loomed close again as the Huxley sped along. Smashing into its walls at this speed would turn her and the airbeast into bloody splotches.
Her fingers scrambled at the pilot's rig, searching for a way to escape the harness. Deryn reckoned her chances were better dropping onto muddy grass than crashing into a wall. And with her weight gone the Huxley would rise back into the air.
Of course, that clart-rag of a coxswain hadn't bothered showing her how to unbuckle the rig. The leather straps were swollen with rain, cinched as tight as a duck's bum. Evidently the Service didn't trust recruits not to wriggle out in a panic and fall to their deaths.
Then Deryn saw the knot over her head - the cable that bound the airbeast to the ground!
She looked at the cable stretched out between her and the winch ... about three hundred feet of it now. That length of rain-soaked hemp had to weigh more than one skinny wee lassie and her wet clothes.
If she could set the Huxley free, it might still have enough hydrogen to carry her up to safety.
But the ground was rising again, shining wet grass and puddles blurring past just beneath her feet - the prison walls ahead. Reaching up with one hand, Deryn felt the half-familiar shape of the knot... .
It was nothing but a backhanded mooring hitch! She remembered Jaspert telling her how Air Service riggers used sailor's knots, the same ones she'd tied a thousand times on Da's balloons!
As Deryn struggled to free the wet cable from its knot, her boots struck the ground with a bone-jarring thud, skidding across the wet grass.
But the real danger wasn't below - it was the approaching prison walls. Deryn and the Huxley were seconds away from smashing into that shining expanse of wet stone.
Finally her fingers pushed the cable's working end free. The knot spilled, the rope twisting like a live thing, skinning her fingers as it slipped from the steel ring.
As the weight of three hundred feet of wet hemp dropped away, the airbeast soared, clearing the prison walls with yards to spare.
Deryn's breath caught as a belching chimney passed beneath her feet. She imagined raindrops tumbling down its mouth to the coal fires below, spitting steam, the sparks rising up to ignite the angry mass of hydrogen over her head.
But the wind whipped the sparks away - moments later the Huxley had cleared the southernmost prison buildings.
As she climbed, Deryn heard a hoarse cheer from below.
The ground men raised their arms in triumph. Jaspert was beaming, cupping both hands to his face and shouting something that sounded congratulatory, as if to say she'd done exactly what he'd told her!
"It was my barking idea, Jaspert Sharp," she muttered, sucking her rope-burned fingers.
Of course, she was still in the middle of a storm, strapped to an irritable Huxley, both of them soaring across a stretch of London with precious few spots to land.
And how was Deryn meant to land this beastie? She had no way to vent hydrogen, no more ballast in case the creature spooked, and no clue if anyone had ever free-ballooned with a Huxley before and lived to tell the tale.
Still ... at least she was flying. If she ever came down alive, the boffins would have to admit as how she'd passed this test.
Boy or not, Deryn Sharp had shown a squick of air sense after all.
The storm felt strangely still.
She remembered the sensation from Da's hot-air balloons. Cut free from its tether, the medusa had exactly matched the speed of the wind. The air felt motionless, the earth turning below on a giant lathe.
Dark clouds still boiled around her, giving the Huxley an occasional spin. But worse were the flickers in the distance. One sure way to set a hydrogen breather aflame was to hit it with lightning. Deryn distracted herself by watching London pass beneath, all matchbox houses and winding streets, the factories with their sealed smokestacks.
She remembered how Da had said London looked in the days before old Darwin had worked his magic. A pall of coal smoke had covered the entire city, along with a fog so thick that streetlamps were lit during the day. During the worst of the steam age so much soot and ash had decorated the nearby countryside that butterflies had evolved black splotches on their wings for camouflage.
But before Deryn had been born, the great coal-fired engines had been overtaken by fabricated beasties, muscles and sinews replacing boilers and gears. These days the only chimney smoke came from ovens, not huge factories, and the storm had cleared even that murk from the air.
Deryn could see fabs wherever she looked. Over Buckingham Palace a flock of strafing hawks patrolled in spirals, carrying nets that would slice the wings off any aeroplane that ventured too close. Messenger terns crisscrossed the Square Mile, undeterred by the weather. The streets were full of draft animals: hippoesques and equine breeds, an elephantine dragging a sledge full of bricks through the rain. The storm that had almost snuffed out her Huxley had barely slowed the city down.
Deryn wished she had her sketch pad, to capture the tangle of streets and beasts and buildings below. She'd first started drawing up in one of Da's balloons, trying to capture the wonders of flight.
As the clouds gradually broke apart, the Huxley slid across a shaft of light. Deryn stretched in the warmth, and set to squelching water out of her cold, damp clothes.
The houses below were getting smaller, the teeming umbrella tops blurring into the wet streets. As it dried, the Huxley was climbing.
Deryn frowned. To descend in a balloon, you vented hot air from the top. But Huxleys were primitive ascenders, designed to be tethered at all times.
What was she supposed to do, talk the beastie down?
"Oi!" she shouted. "You there!"
The nearest tentacle curled a bit, but that was all.
"Beastie! I'm talking to you!"
Deryn scowled. An hour ago the Huxley had been so easy to spook! Perhaps one annoyed lassie's cries didn't amount to much after the terrific storm.
"You're a big, bloated bum-rag!" she shouted, swinging her feet to rock the pilot's rig. "And I'm getting bored of your company! Let! Me! Down!"
The tentacles uncurled, like a cat stretching in the sun.
"That's just brilliant," she grumbled. "I'll add rudeness to your defects."
Passing through another patch of sun, the medusa made a soft sighing noise, expanding its airbag to dry itself.
Deryn felt herself drifting higher.
She groaned, looking at the blue skies ahead. She could see all the way to the farmlands of Surrey now. And past that would be the English Channel.
For two long years Deryn had wanted nothing more than to go aloft again, like when Da had been alive - and here she was, marooned in the sky. Maybe this was punishment for acting like a boy, just like her mum had always warned.
The wind steadied, pushing the beast toward France.
It was going to be a long day.
The Huxley noticed it first.
The pilot's rig jolted under Deryn, like a carriage going over a pothole. Shaken from a catnap, she glared up at the Huxley.
The airbeast seemed to be glowing, the sun shining straight down through iridescent skin. It was noon, so she'd been aloft more than six hours. The English Channel sparkled not far ahead, set against a perfect sky. They'd left London's gray clouds far behind.
Deryn scowled and stretched.
"Barking lovely weather," she croaked. Her lips were parched and her bum was very, very sore.
Then she saw the tentacles coiling around her.
"What now?" she moaned, though she'd have welcomed a flock of birds attacking them, as long as it brought the beastie down. A bumpy landing was better than hanging here till she died of thirst.
Deryn scanned the horizon and saw nothing. But she felt a trembling in the leather cords of her pilot's rig and heard the thrum of engines in the air.
Her eyes widened.
A huge airbeast was emerging from the gray clouds behind her, its reflective silver topside glistening in the sunlight.
The thing was gigantic - larger than St. Paul's Cathedral, longer than the oceangoing dreadnought Orion that she'd seen in the Thames the week before. The shining cylinder was shaped like a zeppelin, but the flanks pulsed with the motion of its cilia, and the air around it swarmed with symbiotic bats and birds.