The medusa made an unhappy whistling sound.
"No, beastie. Don't fret!" she called softly. "They're here to help!"
At least, Deryn assumed they were. But she hadn't been expecting anything quite so big to come hunting her down.
The airship drew closer, until Deryn could make out the gondola suspended from the beastie's belly. The foot-tall letters under the bridge windows came slowly into focus... . Leviathan.
She swallowed. "And barking famous, these friends are."
The Leviathan had been the first of the great hydrogen breathers fabricated to rival the kaiser's zeppelins. A few beasties had grown larger since, but no other had yet made the trip to India and back, breaking German airship records all the way.
"THE LEVIATHAN APPROACHES."
The Leviathan's body was made from the life threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch. Flocks of fabricated birds swarmed around it - scouts, fighters, and predators to gather food. Deryn saw message lizards and other beasties scampering across its skin.
According to her aerology manual, the big hydrogen breathers were modeled on the tiny South American islands where Darwin had made his famous discoveries. The Leviathan wasn't one beastie, but a vast web of life in ever shifting balance.
The motivator engines changed pitch, nudging the creature's nose up. The airbeast obeyed, cilia along its flanks undulating like a sea of grass in the wind - a host of tiny oars rowing backward, slowing the Leviathan almost to a halt.
The huge shape drifted slowly overhead, blotting out the sky. Its belly was all mottled grays, camouflage for night raids.
In the sudden coolness of the huge shadow, Deryn stared up, spellbound. This vast, fantastic creature had actually come to rescue her.
The Huxley shuddered again, wondering where the sun had gone.
"Hush, beastie. It's nothing but your big cousin."
Deryn heard calls from above, and she saw movement.
A rope tumbled into view, unrolling past her. Another followed, then a dozen more, until Deryn was surrounded by an upside-down forest of swaying ropes.
She stretched out for one, but the width of the air-beast's gasbag kept the rope out of reach. Deryn swung the pilot's rig, trying to get closer.
Her motion made the Huxley's tentacles curl up tight, resulting in a sickening lurch downward.
"Aye, so now you want to head down?" she complained. "Just useless, you are."
The airship's engines changed pitch again, and the dangling lines reappeared, still out of reach. But then the engines overhead set up a grinding pattern, on-off, on-off ... and the ropes began to sway in rhythm with the sound.
That was one clever pilot up there.
The ropes swung closer with every pulse of the engines. Deryn stretched out one arm as far as she could... .
Finally her reaching fingers caught hold. She pulled the rope in, knotting it to the ring over her rig - then frowned.
Were they going to hoist her up into the gondola? Wouldn't that flip the Huxley upside down?
But the line stayed slack, and a few moments later a message lizard made its way down. Its tiny webbed hands cupped the rope as though it were a thin tree branch. The lizard's bright green skin seemed to glow in the shadows below the airship.
It spoke with a posh accent, the deep voice uncanny from such a wee body.
"Mr. Sharp, I presume?" The lizard let out a throaty chuckle.
Gobsmacked as she was, Deryn almost answered. Of course, the message lizard was only repeating what one of the officers overhead had said to it.
"Greetings from the Leviathan," it continued. "Our apologies for the delay. Bad weather and all that." It made a noise like a man clearing his throat, and Deryn half expected the lizard to raise a tiny fist to its mouth. "But here we are at last. We'll be taking you in on the dorsal side, of course - standard procedure."
The lizard paused, and Deryn pondered what "dorsal" might mean.
"Ah, yes. I'm told you're just a sprog. Well done, getting lost on your first flight."
Deryn rolled her eyes. First a bag of gas and insect guts had carted her halfway across England, and now she was getting cheek from a barking lizard!
"I expect you don't know standard procedure. Well, it's quite simple, really. We'll drop below you, then come up under and bring you in with the dorsal winch. Any questions?"
The message lizard stared up at her expectantly, blinking its wee black eyes.
"No questions, sir. I'm ready," Deryn said, remembering to use her boy's voice. She wasn't about to admit she didn't know what "dorsal" meant.
The message lizard didn't move, just blinked again.
"So ... standard procedure it is?" she added.
The lizard waited another moment, but when Deryn said nothing more, it scampered back up the rope to repeat her words to whoever was at the other end.
A minute later the other ropes were all hoisted away, but the line attached to her pilot's rig was given more slack. It looped down almost out of sight, a quarter mile of rope, it looked like. Then the airship's idling engines sprang to life again.
The huge shadow pulled back against the wind, so that the sun broke out from behind its nose, half blinding Deryn. The airship dropped then, venting hydrogen with a sound like rushing water, steadily descending till the officers in the bridge windows were dead even with her, only twenty yards away.
One smiled and gave a crisp salute, and Deryn returned it.
The Leviathan dropped still farther, and the Huxley whined a bit when one huge eye drew level with them.
"Don't you give me any more bother," Deryn murmured. She was watching keenly, noting how the airship's huge harness wrapped around its body, holding the gondolas in place. The straps were connected by a network of ropes, like the rigging of a sailing ship. Strange six-legged beasties climbed alongside the crewmen in the ropes, snuffling the airbeast's skin.
Those had to be the hydrogen sniffers she'd read about, searching the membrane for leaks.
When the Leviathan's vast silver expanse slipped beneath her, Deryn saw that the other end of her rope was now attached to a winch on the creature's spine.
So "dorsal" was just Service-speak for "backside."
The winch was small and aluminum, made as light as possible, like everything on an airship. Two men cranked it, drawing up the slack quickly enough. Soon Deryn and her nervous Huxley were descending toward the Leviathan's silver back.
A few minutes later a half dozen crewmen grabbed the tentacles of the medusa and hauled it down. Deryn found herself released from the pilot's rig, stumbling with numbed legs onto the squishy surface of the Leviathan's inflated skin.
"Welcome aboard, Mr. Sharp," said the young officer in charge.
Deryn tried to stand up straight, but pain shot down her spine. She wriggled her toes inside Jaspert's boots, trying to erase the pins and needles in her feet.
"Thank you, sir," she managed.
"You all right there?" the officer asked.
"Aye, sir. Just a bit numb in my, um, dorsal areas."
The officer laughed. "Long flight, eh?"
"Aye, sir. A bit." She sheepishly returned his salute.
He was smiling, at least. All the crewmen looked rather jolly as they checked over the medusa. Deryn supposed it wasn't often they were called upon to rescue recruits from the sky.
A man in a coxswain's uniform clapped her on the back. "Your Huxley's in good shape after a storm like that. You must have a way with the beasties, Mr. Sharp."
"Thank you, sir," she said. The men at the winch were running the Huxley back up, towing it in the Leviathan's wake.
"Not many middies spend half their first day aloft," the officer said.
"I'm not a middy exactly, sir. Haven't taken the tests yet." Deryn glanced longingly around the topside, praying they would let her explore the ship while they took her back to the Scrubs. She'd be ready to walk again in just a few more minutes... .
The coxswain laughed. "Solving a few aeronautics problems shouldn't be too hard after free-ballooning in a Huxley. And with this trouble brewing, I expect the Service will be looking for a few more lads."
Deryn frowned. "Trouble, sir?"
The officer nodded. "Ah, yes. I suppose you haven't heard. Some Austrian duke and duchess got themselves killed last night. There may be a bit of a ruckus on the Continent."
She blinked. "I'm sorry, sir. I don't understand."
The officer shrugged. "Not sure what it's got to do with Britain myself, but we've been put on alert. Now that we've got you sorted, we're headed straight over to France, in case the Clankers try to start something." He smiled. "I expect you'll be with us a few days. Hope that isn't a bother."
Deryn's eyes widened. As sensation returned to her legs, she could feel the rumble of the engines in the air-beast's skin. From the spine of the Leviathan, its silver flanks sloping away into oblivion, the sky was huge in all directions.
A few days, the man had said - a hundred more hours in this perfect sky. Deryn saluted again, trying to hide her grin.
"No, sir. No bother at all."
Alek awoke to the chatter of Morse code.
Wood creaked as he stirred, and a damp smell filled his nose. Dust swirled in shafts of sunlight streaming through the half-rotten walls. He sat up and blinked, staring at the hay covering his clothes.
Prince Aleksandar had never slept in a barn before. Of course, he'd done a lot of new things in the last two weeks.
Klopp, Bauer, and Master Engineer Hoffman were snoring nearby. The Stormwalker crouched in the halflit barn, its head almost level with the hayloft. Alek had maneuvered the machine inside late last night, shuffling at half height in the darkness to squeeze it in. A tricky bit of piloting.
Morse code crackled again through the walker's open viewport.
Count Volger, of course. The man was allergic to sleep.
The gap between the hayloft and the walker's head was barely the length of a sword, an easy jump.
Alek landed softly, his bare feet silent on the metal armor. He eased himself over the edge to peek in through the viewport. Volger sat facing away in the commander's chair, a wireless earphone pressed against his head.
Slowly, silently, Alek lowered one foot to the edge of the viewport... .
"Careful not to fall, Your Highness."
Alek sighed, wondering if he would ever manage to sneak up on his fencing master. He slid through the viewport and dropped into the pilot's chair.
"Don't you ever sleep, Count?"
"Not with that racket." Volger glared out at the hayloft.
"You mean the snoring?" Alek frowned. He'd grown used to sleeping through the noises of men and machines, but somehow the tiny crackle of dots and dashes from the wireless had woken him. Two weeks of being hunted had altered his senses. "Anything about us?"
Volger shrugged. "The codes have changed again. But there's more chatter than I've ever heard before; the army is preparing for war."
"Maybe they've forgotten me," Alek said. In those first days land dreadnoughts had stalked the hills in every direction, lookouts swarming their spar decks. But lately the fugitives had seen only an occasional aeroplane buzzing overhead.
"You are not forgotten, Your Highness," Volger said flatly. "Serbia simply presents an easier target."
"Unlucky for them," Alek said softly.
"Luck had nothing to do with it," Volger muttered. "The empire has wanted a war with Serbia for years now. The rest is an excuse."
"An excuse?" Alek said, anger rising as he imagined his murdered parents' faces. But he couldn't argue with Volger's logic. The dreadnoughts hunting him were German and Austrian, after all. His family had been destroyed by old friends, not some hapless gang of Serbian schoolboys. "But my father always argued for peace."
"And he can argue no longer. Clever, isn't it?"
Alek shook his head. "You horrify me, Volger. I sometimes think you admire the people behind this."
"Their plans have a certain elegance - assassinating a peacemaker to start a war. But they made one very foolish mistake." The man turned and faced him. "They left you alive."
"I don't matter, not anymore."