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Authors: Kenneth Oppel


BOOK: Airborn
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Kenneth Oppel

For Philippa, Sophia, and Nate


  Ship’s Eyes

  Up Ship!


  Hot Chocolate for Two

  The Log of the Endurance



  The Island



  The One That Fell




  The Cloud Cat


  The Pit

  Ship Taken



  At Anchor



Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow’s nest, being the ship’s eyes. We were two nights out of Sydney, and there’d been no weather to speak of so far. I was keeping watch on a dark stack of nimbus clouds off to the northwest, but we were leaving it far behind, and it looked to be smooth going all the way back to Lionsgate City. Like riding a cloud.

The sky pulsed with stars. Some people say it makes them lonesome when they stare up at the night sky. I can’t imagine why. There’s no shortage of company. By now there’s not a constellation I can’t name. Orion. Lupus. Serpens. Hercules. Draco. My father taught me all their stories. So when I look up I see a galaxy of adventures and heroes and villains, all jostling together and trying to outdo one another, and I sometimes want to tell them to hush up and not distract me with their
chatter. I’ve glimpsed all the stars ever discovered by astronomers, and plenty that haven’t been. There’re the planets to look at too, depending on the time of year. Venus. Mercury. Mars. And don’t forget Old Man Moon. I know every crease and pockmark on that face of his.

My watch was almost at an end, and I was looking forward to climbing into my bunk, sliding under warm blankets and into a deep sleep. Even though it was only September and we were crossing the equator, it was still cool at night up in the crow’s nest, parting the winds at seventy-five miles an hour. I was grateful for my fleece-lined coat.

Spyglass to my face, I slowly swept the heavens. Here at the
’s summit, shielded by a glass observation dome, I had a three-sixty view of the sky around and above the ship. The lookout’s job was to watch for weather changes and for other ships. Over the Pacificus, you didn’t see much traffic, though earlier I’d caught the distant flicker of a freighter, plowing the waves toward the Orient. But boats were no concern of ours. We sailed eight hundred feet above them.

The smell of fresh-baked bread wafted up to me. Far below, in the ship’s kitchens, they were taking out the first loaves and rolls and cinnamon buns and
croissants and Danishes. I inhaled deeply. A better smell than this I couldn’t imagine, and my stomach gave a hungry twist. In a few minutes, Mr. Riddihoff would be climbing the ladder to take the watch, and I could swing past the kitchen and see if the ship’s baker was willing to part with a bun or two. He almost always was.

A shooting star slit the sky. That made one hundred and six I’d seen this season; I’d been keeping track. Baz and I had a little contest going, and I was in the lead by twelve stars.

Then I saw it.

Or didn’t see it. Because at first all I noticed was a blackness where stars should have been. I raised my spyglass again and, with the help of the moon, caught a glimpse.

It was a hot air balloon, hanging there in the night sky.

Its running lights weren’t on, which was odd. The balloon was higher than us by about a hundred feet, drifting off our starboard bow. The burner came on suddenly, jetting blue flame to heat the air in the balloon’s envelope for a few seconds. But I couldn’t see anyone at the controls. They must have been set on a clockwork timer. Nobody was moving around in the gondola. It was deep and wide, big
enough for a kind of sleeping cabin on one side, and plenty of storage underneath. I couldn’t ever recall seeing a balloon this far out. I lifted the speaking tube to my mouth.

“Crow’s nest reporting.”

I waited a moment as my voice hurtled down through the tube, one hundred fifty feet to the control car suspended from the
’s belly.

“Go ahead, Mr. Cruse.”

It was Captain Walken on watch tonight, and I was glad, for I much preferred him to the other officers. Some of them just called me “Cruse” or “boy,” figuring I wasn’t worth a “mister” on account of my age. But never the captain. To him I was always Mr. Cruse, and it got so that I’d almost started to think of myself as a mister. Whenever I was back in Lionsgate City on shore leave and my mother or sisters called me Matt, my own name sounded strange to me at first.

“Hot air balloon at one o’clock, maybe a half mile off, one hundred feet up.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cruse.” There was a pause, and I knew the captain would be looking out the enormous wraparound windows of the control car. Because it was set well back from the bow, its view of anything high overhead was limited. That’s why
there was always a watch posted in the forward crow’s nest. The
needed a set of eyes up top.

“Yes, I see it now. Well spotted, Mr. Cruse. Can you make out its markings? We’ll train the light on it.”

Mounted at the front of the control car was a powerful spotlight. Its beam cut a blazing swath through the night and struck the balloon. It was in a sorry state, withered and puckered. It was leaking, or maybe the burner wasn’t working properly.

,” I read into the speaking tube.

She looked like she’d endured a bit too much. Maybe a storm had punctured her envelope or bashed her about some.

And still no sign of the pilot in the gondola.

Along the length of the speaking tube I heard tinny murmurings from the control car as the captain conferred with the bridge officers.

“It’s not on the flight plan,” I heard Mr. Torbay, the navigator, say.

Every airship had to register its flight plan before departing. If this vessel wasn’t on the plan it was either a rogue or had drifted off course for some reason.

“Any sign of the pilot yet, Mr. Cruse?” asked the captain.

“No, sir.”

“We’ll try to raise him on the wireless.”

I waited. The balloon was not really moving as the wind was so light. We were rapidly gaining. There was something eerie about it, just hanging there like a dead thing, all dark and listless in the sky. After a few moments, the captain’s voice sounded over the speaking tube.

“We can’t raise anyone on the
, Mr. Cruse. No signs of life?”

“None, sir.”

I felt the slightest heaviness in my heels and knew that we were climbing, the
angling gently heavenward to meet the
I lost sight of the gondola and after a moment could only see the balloon’s very top as the captain took us closer. Through the crow’s nest platform I felt the ship’s pulse slow as the propellers cut back. When you’ve been aloft a long time you can almost predict the ship’s every movement through your own skin and sinew, like you’re joined together.

I heard the captain shouting out the control car window through a bullhorn, “
, this is the
. Please respond,” again and again.

If the pilot had been asleep, this should have roused him, but after a minute with no response, the
captain gave up. Through the speaking tube I overheard him talking to his rudder man.

“Come around, Mr. Kahlo. We’ll bring her as close as we can and try to take the gondola on board. Likely someone’s injured or abandoned ship—either way the
is in distress. We can’t leave her drifting like flotsam through the sky lanes.”

Bring it on board? Now, that would be a feat. A midair rescue would surely be tricky. But it was Skyways Law to help another vessel in distress.

I heard footsteps coming up the ladder. My watch was over, and I was being relieved by Pieter Riddihoff, a third officer who was still junior enough to be expected to do crow’s nest duty.


“Mr. Riddihoff.”

I filled him in on the balloon and handed over the spyglass. “She’s at three o’clock now.” I pointed. “You can just see her top. We’re coming about.”

“Pretty odd business, being over the Pacificus in nothing but a bag of hot air.”

I just shook my head. It seemed madness to be at the mercy of the winds like that, with no means of propulsion. I hoped no one on board was hurt.

Down the ladder I went, through the webwork of alumiron beams and bracing wires that gave the
her rigid shape. On either side of me hung the walls of one of the enormous gas cells that kept us aloft. Their fabric, a miraculous substance called goldbeater’s skin, glistened and rustled ever so slightly as I passed, like something alive and breathing. Perfuming the air was the faintest fragrance of ripe mangoes—the smell of the hydrium gas inside the cells.

I dropped down onto the keel catwalk. The main thoroughfare, it ran the entire length of the ship, from the control car, the officer quarters, and the luxurious passenger decks near the bow all the way back to the cargo bays and crew quarters in the stern. Normally after my watch, I’d head back to my cabin for sleep. But I had no intention of doing so right now. I was too excited. I felt the ship turning and knew we were coming about to try to pick up the balloon.

Mr. Kahlo and two machinists were walking smartly aft toward the cargo bay, and I fell into step behind them. I wanted to see this. Besides, they might need an extra hand. The bay was stacked high with wooden crates and steamer trunks and oversize baggage, but a narrow path ran like a canyon through it all and finally opened out into a large clear area near the loading doors in the ship’s hull.

There were already a number of sailmakers on the scene, plus the first officer, Paul Rideau, talking on the ship’s phone, no doubt with the captain. He caught a glimpse of me and didn’t look entirely pleased. Mr. Rideau was a fine pilot, so everyone said, but he wasn’t a favorite with the crew. He had a long pale face and pale blue eyes and a reddish nose that made him sound plugged up, and he always looked like he was on the verge of an annoyed little sigh. You got the feeling Mr. Rideau didn’t much care for the crew—especially a cabin boy like me.

“Aren’t you off watch, Cruse?” he asked me, knowing I was.

“Yes, sir, but requesting permission to remain and assist if needed.”

He sighed. “Very well, but get a harness on and stay well back. We’ll be opening the bay doors in a moment.”

Everyone else was already suited up. From a row of hooks on the wall, I took down a leather harness and stepped into it. It fit snugly around my legs and chest, with a long line that clipped on to a mooring ring on the wall. At a nod from Mr. Rideau, two crewmen manned the bay doors. Instinctively I spread my legs apart for balance. Once those doors
were opened, the wind—even though it was a gentle one—would come galloping in and knock us about.

With a hiss, the two doors pulled in and rolled flush along the ship’s hull. The wind, the drone of the engines, and the pungent smell of the tropical sea poured into the bay. Below, starlight painted the ocean silver. We were closing on the balloon, the gondola hanging level with the cargo bay doors. The sound of the engines deepened as they slowed even further.

Mr. Rideau kept talking into the phone, eyes fixed on the balloon, keeping the captain abreast of our position—and the captain would in turn be instructing his helmsmen and telegraphing instructions to the machinists in our four engine cars. He wanted to bring the
in as close as possible without fouling the balloon’s rigging in our propellers. It was lucky the night was so calm, or this surely would have been impossible.

Mr. Rideau hung up the phone and, with a bullhorn raised to his mouth, tried to hail the balloon.

, please respond. This is the airship
. Please respond,

Nothing. Probably some of our passengers were awake now. Most wouldn’t have noticed the ship slowing and turning, but even through the sound
proof walls and windows of their cabins and staterooms, that bullhorn would yank a few from their sleep.

“Damn nuisance,” I heard Mr. Rideau mutter. “Mr. Kahlo, Mr. Chen. Grappling hooks.”

I watched as the two men took hold of their heaving lines, each tipped with a four-pronged grapple. The engines had all but stopped, and the
slid slowly alongside the balloon. The gondola was directly opposite us, a good fifty feet distant, I’d say.

“Heave!” Mr. Rideau cried out, and the two men, their legs wide, twisted from the waist and let fly. Their lines coiled out into the night, and both grapples hooked the rim of the gondola and held fast.

“Pull her in. Be quick about it.”

Mr. Rideau always had a way of sounding sharpish. Captain Walken would have said something like, “Let’s see if we can pull her in, gentlemen. When you’re ready.” He said please and thank you, always, even though he didn’t need to. Orders were orders, but when they came with a please, you felt a lot better following them.

The men looped their lines to the winches and started cranking. One arm hooked around a strut, Mr. Rideau leaned out and gazed from side to side,
checking to make sure the balloon wasn’t about to get snarled up in the propellers. Then he glanced up at the balloon itself.

“Leave off!” he shouted. “This is as close as it gets.”

I moved nearer the bay doors and saw that the balloon and the
were very close to touching at their widest points. No one wanted a collision, even with something as soft as a balloon, for you never knew if there was something sharp that would snag or tear. Problem was, even though the balloon and the
were almost touching at their curves, the gondola was still a good thirty feet away and—


I hadn’t noticed it at first, but now it was obvious. It wasn’t the
climbing; it was the balloon falling. Despite the occasional flare of its automated burner, it was sinking slowly but surely, and the sea would have her if we didn’t do anything.

“Keep her snug!” Mr. Rideau barked at the men, and they locked their winches, trying to keep the gondola from falling farther. Now that it was a little below us, I could see inside.

The pilot was sprawled on the gondola’s floor.

“Look!” I cried.

Still the gondola was sinking, dropping away
from us, and its big balloon coming lower with it, its fat girth falling ever closer to our propellers.

Just then Captain Walken strode in. He was the kind of man everyone felt safer being around. If he’d been wearing a velvet robe and crown, he’d be the very image of a great king; if he were in a doctor’s jacket, you’d trust your life to him; if he were in a carpenter’s smock, you’d know he’d build you the finest house imaginable. But I preferred him in his blue captain’s jacket with the four gold stripes on the sleeve and his cap encircled with thick gold cord. His beard and mustache were trim, and he had steady, kind eyes. He was approaching sixty, with a full head of gray curly hair, and wide in the shoulders. He wasn’t a particularly big man or even tall, but when he walked into the room you could almost sense everyone exhaling in relief and thinking, There now, things will work out just fine.

BOOK: Airborn
4.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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