Authors: Martha Wells
Tags: #YA fiction, #YA science fiction, #action, #adventure, #sky world, #airships
Emilie nodded. “Yes, that’s happened before, on the
, out of Isenland, twenty years ago.” There had been a chapter based on the incident in one of the Lord Rohiro novels, and Emilie had looked it up in a natural history book to see what had actually happened. She misread Efrain’s expression as baffled and explained. “They were caught in a surface aether current and couldn’t get out, and they think it did some odd things to the crew.”
Efrain said, “Why do you know these things?”
Emilie felt her cheeks heat again, this time from rage, but Miss Marlende said, “Young man, disparaging others’ perfectly reasonable contributions to the discussion is a waste of everyone’s time.” It sounded mild, but knowing Miss Marlende better, Emilie thought she was trying very hard to control her anger.
, she thought. She really expected to find them all wrapped up in searching or trying to figure out some strange device, so that they just forgot to check in.
“I wasn’t…” Efrain started to object, caught Miss Marlende’s expression, and subsided. “Sorry.”
The professor frowned at him and continued. “But the point that there is no sign of a struggle is still valid. There may be something in this room that they touched which drew them into another part of the ship. Like the walking shaft, but perhaps more abrupt. They may be lost or trapped somewhere aboard or otherwise unable to get back here. I suggest we search this room thoroughly, with a great deal of care.”
Miss Marlende directed them to each take a section, and Emilie ended up with the wall that held the windows. She thought it was an unlikely place for a device of any kind, but searched thoroughly anyway. She didn’t touch it, but stood as close as she could and made her eyes trace the textures of the wall, looking for hidden switches.
At the point where the patterns in the textures were making her dizzy, Emilie stepped away to let her eyes adjust. Miss Marlende and the professor were carefully searching the control boards on the far side of the room, and Efrain was doing the opposite wall, studying it with the frowning concentration of someone who had no idea what they were looking for. Emilie repressed the urge to sneer, knowing that none of them really knew what they were looking for. Not that Efrain would have resisted the urge to sneer at her–
The deck shivered underfoot. Just a brief, violent quiver, hard enough to make Emilie’s teeth rattle. She stepped away from the wall, though she hadn’t been near anything. The others turned, staring in alarm. “Did anyone touch anything?” Miss Marlende said.
Efrain shook his head and Professor Abindon held up empty hands. She said, “That wasn’t the ship, it was the aether current again. There’s been some disturbance…”
And then the globe moved. The whole surface of the metal-paper twitched, then shifted seamlessly into motion. The twists and folds flowed like fluid, then settled into new patterns.
After it was still, they slowly stepped toward it. Emilie leaned down to look closely. Some of the individual folds of metal-paper were still waving gently, as if moved by a soft breeze. In the next moment, they had all stopped. Miss Marlende said, “I think you’re right, Mother. It is a map.”
The professor nodded slowly. “But not of a surface world. I believe… It’s a map of aether currents. It moved when the current shifted.” She lifted her brows. “I just wish we could read it.”
Emilie didn’t think either one had noticed that Miss Marlende had called the professor Mother; both were too intent on solving the mystery. Emilie certainly didn’t intend to point it out.
“I wish we knew why the current shifted.” Miss Marlende said. “It happened before Father and the others went missing, and we think they were in this room.”
“Could it have done something to them?” Emilie eyed the globe warily. “It didn’t do anything to us.”
“We weren’t close to it, though,” Efrain pointed out. “We were all back around the walls. And we didn’t touch it.”
Miss Marlende’s mouth twisted ruefully. “True. I find it hard to believe Lord Engal or my father resisted the urge to touch this device.”
Emilie hated to admit that made sense. The professor’s thoughtful frown was hard to read. She started to speak, then a loud bang sounded from down the corridor. Everyone flinched and Emilie’s heart thumped. “Maybe we just didn’t search enough,” she blurted.
“Maybe.” Miss Marlende strode to the doorway and the junction with the corridor. Emilie followed with Efrain and Professor Abindon, feeling her nerves jump. The soft gold light in the corridor seemed dimmer than it had before, with more shadows and less illumination. She wanted to speculate but just managed to keep her mouth shut; they needed to hear anything that might be moving in this corridor. Maybe the first, more violent shift in the aether current had trapped Dr Marlende and the others somewhere in the ship, and the second had released them. Or maybe the ship’s crew was aboard, and just…
she asked herself.
In the water closet? Otherwise indisposed? The airship has been here for hours
They came to the shaft without seeing anything that could have caused the noise. The shaft only led down, and Miss Marlende hesitated for just a moment before stepping into it. Emilie followed her, too occupied this time to notice the odd sensation of suddenly walking down a wall.
Miss Marlende headed toward the open doorway into what should be the next deck. As she neared it, she circled around the shaft so she could see out of it. Emilie followed her example, edging cautiously forward when Miss Marlende stopped at the opening to peer out.
Emilie leaned around her to look past her shoulder. She thought the person breathing right behind her ear was Professor Abindon.
Ahead was an open two-level chamber much like the one near the control room compartments. The shaft led into the second-level gallery, with nothing like a hand rail or balustrade, which looked down on a lower deck about twenty feet below. A few doorways and what must be another walking shaft were set into the walls. Emilie couldn’t see what was on the deck below. This was more proof that while the crew might read the metal-paper with their hands, they could certainly see to some extent. The galleries with no railings would be terribly dangerous for a person who was completely blind.
“Hmm,” Miss Marlende muttered under her breath. She started to step down to where the shaft would place her upright on the platform floor. Emilie leaned forward to follow when Miss Marlende froze.
A moment later, Emilie saw it too. Something, a dark shape, moved across the lower deck, just visible below the platform. The movement was halting, uncertain, as if they were watching the head and shoulders of someone who was feeling his way in the dark. Except Emilie rather thought the shape had too many shoulders.
Miss Marlende leaned forward to see better, and Emilie shifted for a better angle. The next instant, Emilie felt her feet jerked out from under her, and she suddenly slammed into Miss Marlende. They fell out of the shaft, landed with a thump, and stumbled on the platform.
The shape below vanished. Miss Marlende caught her balance and lunged forward to the edge of the platform. Emilie landed on her hands and knees and scrambled to look. The space below was empty, and Emilie could see a doorway in each wall. She hung out over the edge, trying to see under the platform, where the lower level stretched out a long distance back through the ship. She caught a glimpse of a moving shape, a strange outline against a gold-lit wall, and then heard the loud clang again. This time she could tell it was a metal door swinging shut.
The professor and Efrain landed behind them and Efrain flung himself down next to Emilie. He demanded, “What did you see?”
“It was something, someone.” Emilie looked at Miss Marlende and saw her own bafflement and consternation reflected in her expression. A member of the crew? But why only one?
And why did he run?
“What do we do?”
Miss Marlende’s expression hardened and she shoved to her feet. “Follow it.”
Emilie looked wildly around. There were no stairs, no ladder, no immediate way down. “Oh, there!” The corner of the platform was supported by a pillar twisted into a spiral.
Miss Marlende ran for it, swung off the platform and climbed down the pillar. Emilie hurried after her. She made the scramble onto the pillar far less gracefully than Miss Marlende had, but once she had managed to grab it, the texture and the twists of the spiral provided hand- and footholds like a ladder. She dropped the last few feet and looked up to see a wide-eyed Efrain climbing down after her. The professor, still standing on the platform, waved her on. “Go, don’t wait for me!”
Emilie obeyed, darting after Miss Marlende, who was already pelting down the corridor.
Racing to catch up, Emilie knew this was probably the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Miss Marlende was obviously so worried for her father and the others that she had disregarded all caution. So Emilie would have to be cautious for her.
She caught up with Miss Marlende just as she ran under an archway and into a large, high-ceilinged chamber. They both slid to a halt, staring up.
The walls weren’t walls, but huge bronze ball-and-socket joints like giant metal knees, towering over them. Each was several feet wide, the beams they were attached to stretching high up to disappear into shafts on each side of the room. They were all still at the moment, though they clearly looked as if they were meant to move something heavy. Emilie kept her voice low. “What’s this?”
“It must be part of the mechanism that moves the sails,” Miss Marlende whispered back. She looked around again. “I’m sure I heard a door. There!”
She darted off toward a triangular door set in between two of the joint-gears in the far wall. Emilie hurried after her.
As they reached the door, Efrain and the professor caught up to them. The door was just a triangle of bronze, no handle, but with a medallion in the center carved in the shape of what looked like a bundle of snakes. Miss Marlende hesitated, then pushed against the medallion, and the door slid open.
They stepped into a room that must have been in the lower part of the aether-sailer. It was long and the far wall was dotted with the round windows.
And at the far end, a creature whirled around to confront them.
It was like a flower. Or maybe a whole bunch of flowers, attached to each other with fireflies and gossamer. There was a big round globe of them where the head should be and delicate fronds like lace lined with blossoms that gently waved in the still air. It lifted them like arms, except there were four of them instead of two.
Emilie supposed it might attack them, but it looked so delicate, that was hard to imagine. The legs, all four of them, were covered with blossoms, too, and didn’t look any sturdier than the rest of it. It must have run on those delicate limbs, but it was so light, it couldn’t need much effort to hold itself up. It was like confronting a large hyacinth.
“What is it?” Efrain whispered.
“No one knows,” Emilie said, more to get him to be quiet than anything else.
Miss Marlende held up her hands and said, “Hello. Is this your vessel?”
The head part seemed to study her, and it lifted its four arms to mimic her gesture. Miss Marlende pressed her lips together in frustration. “It doesn’t understand.” Professor Abindon gestured toward the strange being, and it turned to her and mimicked her motion. “Its language, its way of speaking, must be completely different from ours.”
“But what happened to the rest of the crew? And my father?” Miss Marlende said. The stranger waved its four arm blossoms in a swirling way, and she duplicated the motion.
“I suppose it could have attacked and killed them,” the Professor said dubiously, “But looking at it…”
“It doesn’t seem likely, does it?” Emilie said. “And it’s not attacking us.”
The stranger waved its blossoms again, and Emilie thought she read frustration in the gesture, as if it was just as annoyed at the language barrier as they were. Though maybe that was wishful thinking.
“We have to think of a way to communicate.” Miss Marlende pulled her pack around and dug through it.
The stranger watched her, the blossoms on its head area pointing toward her inquiringly. Emilie thought,
It doesn’t seem afraid of us
Miss Marlende pulled a notebook and pencil out of her pack, braced the notebook against her forearm, and began to sketch rapidly. Emilie stepped closer and watched her draw the rough outline of the aether-sailer, and the airship below it, with the ladder connecting the two. She turned the notebook to show the stranger, then pointed at all of them and herself, and then to the airship. “We came from here.” She pointed at the stranger. “Where did you come from?”
The stranger leaned toward the notebook, its lighted blossoms waving at the page as if studying it. Then a blossom reached out to the pencil and took it out of Miss Marlende’s hand. Emilie had to lean closer to see, but dozens of little feelers lining the stem of the blossom gripped the pencil just like fingers. The stranger moved the pencil over the paper, clearly trying to draw something.
Emilie shifted from foot to foot anxiously, then realized her balance felt so unsteady because the deck was trembling. “Do you feel that?” she said, just as Miss Marlende said, “The aether current is shifting again.”
The stranger dropped the pencil and waved its blossoms in agitation. Then it whirled away like a bundle of flowers caught in a windstorm. It bolted away up the corridor. Miss Marlende called out, “Wait!” Efrain started forward, meaning to run after it, and Emilie also started forward, meaning to run after
to make certain he didn’t do anything stupid like grab the stranger. But the trembling turned to shaking, and Emilie staggered sideways and bounced off the wall.
Miss Marlende and the professor both swayed, and Efrain grabbed the door frame to stay upright. He turned toward them, then gasped and pointed.
Emilie twisted around to look. The end of the corridor was blocked off by something, a white wall. No, it wasn’t a white wall, it was a storm, a roiling tempest, slamming down toward them. She yelled in alarm, and the next instant it hit them.
Emilie tumbled, fell, slammed into something hard. Her body stretched almost to the breaking point. It happened so fast, the flash of burning pain was over before she knew what had happened. She fell into something soft and collapsed.
Emilie groaned. Her face was smashed into something fragrant, like grass.
Grass? On the aether-sailer?
She felt limp and numb, as if her brain was awake but not the rest of her body. After a long moment, she realized the heavy thing on her head was her pack, one loop still wrapped around her arm. She shoved it away. That got her moving, but it took a huge effort to drag her arms underneath her and push herself up.
She lay on a bank of tall grass, dark green with violet-tinged tips.
This is... not the aether-sailer
. She lifted her head, focused her blurry eyes. She was in a clearing surrounded by trees with dark purple trunks and bushy green canopies. The knee-high grass brushed against her trousers.
The air was damp and warm, sweat already sticking her shirt to her back and chest. A breeze made the leaves rustle and she could smell green plants, wet earth.
She staggered to her feet, staring around. She had been on the aether-sailer with the others, and now she was somewhere else.
Others... Where are the others?
Emilie’s heart pounded in alarm, as if it had awoken to the strangeness and the danger before her brain had. She took a deep breath and heard a hitch in her throat. She told herself,
Don’t panic. You’ve been alone in strange places before
Yes, but at least I knew where the
was, even if I couldn’t get to it. And I knew where I was and what had happened.
Except she thought she knew what had happened this time, too. The aether current had been shifting, just like it had before.
The aether current did this. It grabbed me
and brought us... here
. The others had to be here, too.
She moved through the grass, searching for more fallen bodies, but she didn’t see anyone. They had to be here. It was odd enough for an aether current to slam through the aether-sailer and grab people and transport them without crushing them to death or asphyxiating them; it was too odd to contemplate the thought that it might have just grabbed her and left the others alone. Making herself think about whys and hows at least made the frightened hitch in her breathing smooth out.
There was no sign of anyone in the clearing. Emilie thrashed through the grass in case it was hiding an unconscious body, stopped when she realized it was no use; they just weren’t here. She looked around, made herself think. Past the trees, she could see the ground rose up into a hill.
I need to get higher so I can see if they’re nearby.
She started through the trees, instinctively wary for snakes or biting insects. It was warm enough that you expected gnats or other little flying bugs, or grasshoppers fleeing from her boots swishing through the grass, but there was nothing. It was odd: even in Meneport, in the center of the city, there had been bugs.
She came out of the trees and concentrated on plowing her way up the hill, which was a little steeper than she had thought. At the top, she looked around.
And she thought,
This was the strangest country, unlike anything in the Hollow World, unlike anything she had ever seen pictured or described in books.
She was surrounded by steep-sloped forested hills with the purple-green trees and grass. But beyond them were higher mountains, their shapes like nothing she had imagined a mountain might be before. Some were tall pillars, others were spirals. Some were pillars with plateaus balanced atop them, and some were like huge mushrooms. They were wreathed with clouds, and she could see the craggy shapes of rock, and different-colored swathes of trees or other vegetation, some green, some a dark blue, some red. But there were strange gaps between them. She could see the broken rock where sections had been torn from the ground.
Did the aether do that?
Looking up, she realized she couldn’t see the sun. The light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, evenly across the sky.
She looked around again, slowly, at the strange shapes of mountains, none of which looked as if they came from the same continent as these hills. Were the mountains even real? Maybe she was just seeing solid aether-ghosts.
So does that mean I’m an aether-ghost, too?
There didn’t seem any point in assuming that. If she had died and become an aether-ghost, there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
Except maybe have a good panic. She was probably overdue for a panic.
She spun around at the shout. It was Efrain, emerging from the trees at the bottom of the hill. He was disheveled and his pack was half off, but he was here. Her heart thumped with relief, and she waved and started down toward him. If she was a ghost, and she was beginning to doubt it, at least she wasn’t alone.
Efrain charged up toward her so she stopped to wait for him. He reached the top of the hill, breathing hard, and started to speak. Then he looked around.
Emilie gave him time to absorb it. Finally, he looked at her, wide-eyed, and bit his lip. She said, “If you start to cry, I will slap you.”
Efrain blinked, then glared at her, offended. “I wasn’t going to cry!”
“See that you don’t.” Emilie looked around again. “You didn’t see the others?”
“No. I thought I was alone.” His voice cracked a little and she gave him a warning glare. He glared back, snatched out his handkerchief and noisily blew his nose.
She said, “Well, we’re here. They have to be here, too. Where were you?”
“What? Oh, down there, just past those trees.” He felt his hair, and pulled a few twigs out. “I think I got dragged through one of them.”
“I was down there. I didn’t get dragged through a tree.” They had both ended up in different copses, but you could draw a straight line between them. Or a triangle, with the hill as the third point. That gave Emilie an idea.
Efrain was saying, “I’m sure only inferior people like me get dragged through trees…”
“Quiet! The current seemed to come toward us from the end of the corridor. You were standing beside me, just a couple of feet away.” Emilie frowned, trying to remember. “Miss Marlende and the Professor were in front of me, next to each other. The stranger, Hyacinth, was–”
Efrain lifted his brows. “You’re calling him Hyacinth?”
“What would you rather I call him? And we don’t even know if it’s a him! He might be a her, or a neither, or a both.”
“All right, fine, Hyacinth. He – or she or neither or both – was in front of the Professor and Miss Marlende, but over to the side of the corridor.” His brow furrowed. “Only, when we saw the current-thing coming, I think he moved closer to me. He was waving his arms, like… maybe he was trying to tell us to move?” Efrain looked around again, glumly. “I guess we should have listened.”
“I think it was too late by then.” Emilie took a deep breath. “But I think, based on where you ended up and where I ended up, we should look for the others that way.” She pointed to where a clump of tree-covered hills rose just past their two clumps. “I think we should walk that way, sort of at an angle.”
Efrain nodded. “All right.”
Emilie was a little startled by his ready agreement, but he had already started down the hill. She caught up with him in a couple of steps and they walked together, the grass swishing at their pants legs. Efrain said, “So… This is where Dr Marlende and Lord Engal and the other men went to? And the crew of the aether-sailer?”
“They must have,” Emilie said, but she was aware that was a big assumption. Maybe even bigger than the assumption that said that Miss Marlende and the professor and Hyacinth had been deposited in the trees in this direction and not just flung into empty space.
“And they haven’t come back.” Efrain’s expression was deeply worried. “Is there a way back?”
“I don’t know.” Emilie had been wondering about that herself. She was fairly certain if there was a way, it would require far more knowledge of aether currents than she had gleaned from the Lord Rohiro novels and from listening to the Marlendes’ and Lord Engal’s conversations. Neither she nor Efrain was a sorcerer or a natural philosopher, and she thought it would take both to get back to where they had started.