Authors: Phillip Reeve
first it looked as if their luck might hold. They scrambled quickly across the dimly-lit walkway and down into the shadows under one of Speedwell’s wheel-arches. They could see the dark bulks of the other towns, with lights burning in their windows and a big bonfire on the top deck of one of them, a mining townlet on the far side of the cluster where a noisy party was in progress.
They crept along the outside edge of Speedwell to a place where a gangplank stretched across to the market town which was parked next door. It was unguarded, but brightly lit, and as they reached the far end and stepped on to the deck of the market town a voice somewhere behind them shouted, “Hey!” and then, louder, “Hey! Hey! Uncle Wreyland! Them slaves is “scaping!”
They ran, or rather, Tom ran, and dragged Hester along beside him, hearing her whimper in pain at every step. Up a stairway, along a catwalk, past a shrine to Peripatetia, goddess of wandering towns, and they were in a market square lined with big iron cages, in some of which thin, miserable slaves were waiting to be sold off. Tom forced himself to slow down and tried to look inconspicuous, listening all the time for sounds of pursuit. There were none. Maybe the Wreylands had given up the chase, or maybe they weren’t allowed to chase people on to other towns—Tom didn’t know what the rules were in a trading cluster.
“Head for the bows,” said Hester, letting go his arm and pulling the collar of her coat up to hide her face. “If we’re lucky there’ll be an air-harbour at the bows.”
They were lucky. At the front of the town’s top deck was a raised section where half a dozen small airships were tethered, their dark, gas-filled envelopes like sleeping whales. “Are we going to steal one?” Tom whispered.
“Not unless you know how to fly an airship,” said Hester weakly. “There’s an airman’s cafe over there; we’ll have to try and book passage like normal people.”
The cafe was just an ancient, rusting airship gondola that had been bolted to the deck. A few metal tables stood in front beneath a stripy awning. Hurricane lamps were burning there and an old aviator slumped snoring in a chair. The only other customer was a sinister-looking Oriental woman in a long, red leather coat who sat in the shadows near the bar. In spite of the dark she wore sunglasses, the tiny lenses black as the wing-cases of beetles. She turned to stare at Tom as he walked up to the counter.
A small man with a huge, drooping moustache was polishing glasses. He glanced up without much interest when Tom said, “I’m looking for a ship.”
“London,” said Tom. “Me and my friend have to get back to London, and we have to leave tonight.”
“London, is it?” The man’s moustachios twitched like the tails of two squirrels which had been shoved up his nose and were starting to get a bit restless. “Only ships with a licence from the London Merchant’s Guild can dock there. We’ve got nuffink like that here. Stayns ain’t that sort of town.”
“Perhaps I may be of help?” suggested a soft, foreign-sounding voice at Tom’s shoulder. The woman in the red coat had come silently to his side; a lean, handsome woman with badgery slashes of white in her short black hair. Reflections of the hurricane lamps danced in her sunglasses, and when she smiled Tom noticed that her teeth were stained red. “I haven’t a licence for London, but I am going to Airhaven. You could find a ship there that will take you the rest of the way. Have you some money?”
Tom hadn’t thought about that part. He rummaged in his tunic and fished out two tatty banknotes with the face of Quirke on the front and Magnus Crome gazing sternly from the back. He had put them in his pocket the night he fell out of London, hoping to spend them at the catch-party in Kensington Gardens. Here, under the fizzing hurricane lamps of the air-harbour, they looked out of place, like toy money.
The woman seemed to think so too. “Ah,” she said. “Twenty Quirkes. But notes like that can only be spent in London. Not much use to a poor wandering skyfarer like me. Don’t you have any gold? Or Old-Tech?”
Tom shrugged and mumbled something. Out of the corner of his eye he saw some newcomers pushing their way between the tables. “Look, Uncle Wreyland!” he heard one of them shout. “Here they are! We’ve got ’em!”
Tom looked round and saw Wreyland and a couple of his boys closing in, carrying heavy clubs. He grabbed Hester, who was leaning against the counter, barely conscious. One of the Speedwell men moved to cut off their escape, but the woman in the red coat barred his way and Tom heard her say, “These are my passengers. I was just arranging a fee.”
“They’re our slaves!” shouted Wreyland, pushing past her. “Tom Nitsworthy and his friend. Found ’em in the Out-Country, fair and square. Finders keepers…”
Tom hurried Hester across the metal deck, past stairways leading up to the quays where the airships moored. He could hear Wreyland’s men splitting up, shouting to each other as they searched, then a grunt and a crash as if one of them had fallen over.
he thought, but he knew that the others would soon find him.
He dragged Hester up a short iron stairway to the quays. There were lights in some of the ships that hung at anchor there, and he had a vague idea about forcing his way aboard one of them and making them take him to London. But he had nothing that would serve as a weapon, and before he could look for one there were feet ringing on the ladder behind him and Wreyland’s voice saying, “Please try and be reasonable, Mr Nitsworthy! I don’t want to have to hurt you. Fred!” he added. “I’ve got the rotters cornered. Fred?”
Tom felt the hope drain out of him. There was no escape now. He stood there meekly as Wreyland stepped forward into the light from the portholes of a nearby airship, hefting his club. Hester slumped against a dock-side winch and moaned.
“It’s only fair,” said Wreyland, as if he thought she was complaining. “I don’t like this slaving lark any more than you do, but times are hard, and we
catch you, there’s no denying it. …”
Suddenly, faster than Tom would have thought possible, Hester moved. She dragged a metal lever out of the winch and swung it at Wreyland. His club went whirling out of his hand and hit the deck with a glockenspiel sound, and the metal bar struck him a glancing blow on the side of his head. “Ow!” he wailed, crumpling to the floor. Hester lurched forward and raised the bar again, but before she could bring it down on the old man’s skull Tom grabbed her arm. “Stop! You’ll kill him!”
“So?” She swung towards him, snaggle teeth bared, looking like a demented monkey. “So?”
“He’s right, my dear,” said a gentle voice. “There is no need to finish him.”
Out of the shadows stepped the woman from the bar, her red coat swirling around her ankles as she walked towards them. “I think we should get aboard my ship before the rest of his people come looking for you.”
“You said we didn’t have enough money,” Tom reminded her.
“You don’t, Mr Nitsworthy,” said the aviatrix. “But I can hardly stand by and watch you taken away to be sold as slaves, can I? I was a slave myself once, and I wouldn’t recommend it.” She had taken off her glasses. Her eyes were dark and almond-shaped, and fine webs of laughter lines crinkled at their corners when she smiled. “Besides,” she added, “you intrigue me. Why is a Londoner wandering about in the Hunting Ground, getting into trouble?” She held out her hand to Tom, a long, brown hand with the thin machinery of bones and tendons clearly visible, sliding under papery skin.
“How do we know you won’t betray us like Wreyland did?” he demanded.
“You don’t, of course!” she laughed. “You will just have to trust me.”
After Valentine and the Wreylands, Tom didn’t think he would ever be able to trust anybody again, but this strange foreigner was the only hope he had. “All right,” he said. “But Wreyland got my name wrong, it’s
“And mine is Fang,” said the woman. “Miss Anna Fang.” She still had her hand outstretched as if he was a scared animal she wanted to tame, and she was still smiling her alarming red smile. “My ship is on air-quay six.”
So they went with her, and somewhere in the oily shadows under the quays they stepped over Wreyland’s companions, who lay slumped against a stanchion with their heads lolling drunkenly. “Are they…?” whispered Tom.
“Out cold,” said Miss Fang. “I’m afraid I just don’t know my own strength.”
Tom wanted to stop and check that the men were all right, but she led him quickly past and up a ladder to Quay Six. The ship that hung at anchor there was not the elegant sky-clipper Tom had been expecting. In fact, it was little more than a shabby scarlet gasbag and a cluster of rusty engine pods bolted to a wooden gondola.
“It’s made of junk!” he gasped.
“Junk?” laughed Miss Fang. “Why, the
is built from bits of the finest airships that ever flew! An envelope of silicon-silk from a Shan Guo clipper, twin Jeunet-Carot aero-engines off a Paris gunship, the reinforced gas-cells of a Spitzbergen war-balloon… It’s amazing what you can find in the scrapyards…”
She led them up the gangplank into the cramped, spice-smelling gondola. It was just a narrow wooden tube with a flight-deck at the front and Miss Fang’s quarters at the stern, a jumble of other little cabins in between. Tom had to keep ducking to avoid braining himself on overhead lockers and dangerous-looking bundles of cables that hung from instrument panels on the roof, but the aviatrix flitted around with practised ease, mumbling in some strange foreign tongue as she set switches, pulled levers and lit dim green electrics which filled the cabin with an aquarium glow. She laughed when she saw Tom’s worried look. “That is Airsperanto, the common language of the sky. It’s a lonely life on the bird-roads, and I have a habit of talking to myself…”
She pulled on a final lever and the creak and sigh of gas-valves echoed through the gondola. There was a clang as the magnetic docking clamps released, and the radio crackled into life and snapped, “
this is the Stayns Harbour Board. You are not cleared for departure!”
was departing anyway. Tom felt his stomach turn over as she lifted into the midnight sky. He scrambled to a porthole, and saw the market town falling away below. Then Speedwell came into view, and soon the whole cluster was spread out below him like a display of model towns in the Museum.
insisted the loud speaker, “return to your berth at once! We have a request from the Speedwell town council that you give up your passengers, or they will be forced to—”
“Boring!” trilled Miss Fang, flicking the radio off. A home-made rocket battery on the roof of Speedwell town hall spat a fizzing flock of missiles after them. Three hissed harmlessly past, a fourth exploded off the starboard quarter, making the gondola swing like a pendulum, and the fifth came even closer. (Anna Fang raised an eyebrow at that one, while Tom and Hester ducked for cover like frightened rabbits.) Then they were out of range; the
was climbing into the cold clear spaces of the night, and the trading cluster was just a distant smear of light beneath the clouds.
It rained that night on London, but by first light the sky was as clear and pale as still water, and the smoke from the city’s engines rose straight up into the windless air. Wet decks shone silver in the sunrise and all the banners of Tier One hung limp and still against their flagpoles. It was a fine spring morning, the morning that Valentine had been hoping for, and Katherine had been dreading. It was perfect flying weather.
Although it was so early, crowds had gathered all along the edge of Tier One to watch the 13th Floor Elevator lift off. As Gench drove Katherine and her father over to the air-quay she saw that Circle Park was crowded too; it looked as if the whole of High London had come to cheer Valentine on his way. None of them knew where he was going, of course, but as London sped eastward the city’s rumour-mills had been grinding night and day: everyone was sure that Valentine’s expedition was connected with some huge prize that the Lord Mayor hoped to catch out in the central Hunting Ground.
Temporary stands had been erected for the Council and Guilds and, when she and Dog had wished Father goodbye in the bustling shadows of the hangar, Katherine went to take her place with the Historians, squeezed between Chudleigh Pomeroy and Dr Arkengarth. All around her stood the great and good of London: the sober black robes of Father’s Guild and the purple of the Guild of Merchants, sombre Navigators in their neat green tunics and a row of Engineers robed and hooded in white rubber, looking like novelty erasers.
Even Magnus Crome had risen to the occasion, and the Lord Mayor’s ancient chain of office hung gleaming around his thin neck.
Katherine wished they had all just stayed at home. It was difficult saying goodbye to someone when you were part of a great cheering mob all waving flags and blowing kisses. She stroked Dog’s knobbly head and told him, “Look, there’s Father, going up the gangplank now. They’ll start the engines in a moment.”
“I just hope nothing goes wrong,” muttered Dr Arkengarth. “One hears stories about these air-ships suddenly going off bang for no reason.”
“Perhaps we should stand a little further back?” suggested Miss Plym, the Museum’s twittery curator of furniture.
“Nonsense,” Katherine told them crossly. “Nothing is going to go wrong.”
“Yes, do shut up, Arkengarth, you silly old coot,” agreed Chudleigh Pomeroy, surprising her. “Never fear, Miss Valentine. Your father has the finest airship and the best pilots in the world: nothing can go wrong.”
Katherine smiled gratefully at him, but she kept her fingers crossed just the same, and Dog caught something of her mood and started to whimper softly.
From inside the hangar came the sound of hatches slamming shut and the rattle of boarding-ladders being dragged clear. An expectant hush fell over the stands. Along the tier’s edge High London held its breath. Then, as the band struck up “Rule Londinium”, Valentine’s ground-crew began dragging the 13th Floor Elevator out into the sunlight, a sleek, black dart whose armoured envelope shone like silk. On the open platform at the stern of the control gondola Valentine stood waving. He saluted the ground-crew and the flag-decked stands and then smiled straight at Katherine, picking her face out of all the others without a moment’s hesitation.
She waved back frantically, and the crowd cheered themselves hoarse as the 13th Floor Elevator’s engine-pods swivelled into take-off position. The ground crew cast off the mooring-hawsers, the propellers began to turn and blizzards of confetti eddied in the down-drafts as the huge machine lifted into the air. Some Apprentice Historians spread out a banner reading Happy Valentine’s Day! and the cheers went on and on, as if the crowds thought it was their love alone which was keeping the explorer airborne. “Val-en-tine! Val-en-tine!”
But Valentine took no notice of the noise or the flags. He stood watching Katherine, one hand raised in farewell, until the airship was so high and far away that she could not make him out any more.
At last, when the Elevator was just a speck in the eastern sky and the stands were emptying, she wiped away her tears, took Dog’s lead and turned to go home. She was already missing her father, but she had a plan now. While he was away she would make her own enquiries and find out who that mysterious girl had been, and why she scared him so.