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Authors: Patrick Samphire

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BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
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The other thing you need to know about Putty—and this one is much more important—is that she's very easily distracted. Which might make it seem odd that I would be hanging fifty feet up in the air, suspended only by a rope that Putty was looking after. Well, it was odd. But the chances of me being able to persuade either of my older sisters, Olivia and Jane, to do anything so improper and unladylike were slightly less than zero.

Which left me with Putty, who was at least enthusiastic.

“I say, Edward.”

I shoved my way free of a fold of tanglemoss and shook the damp from my face. Putty was looking down at me.

“Are you holding that rope?” I shouted.

A guilty look crossed Putty's face, and her head disappeared. A moment later, she reappeared. “Yes,” she called.

“What is it?” I said. I dug one hand deep into the tanglemoss, just in case.

“Is that a pterodactyl, do you think?”

I twisted around and squinted in the direction she was pointing. High above the house, coming toward us from over the glittering water of the Valles Marineris, was a tiny but growing black speck.

You don't often see wild pterodactyls these days, but from time to time you can glimpse one flapping past, far out over the water. I'd heard there were several breeding colonies on the Chinese side of the Valles Marineris, and a hundred miles or so down the coast from us, well away from civilization, there was a pterodactyl reserve. Even so, it would be rare for one to fly so close to where humans lived.

The brightness of the sun and the glare from the water made it impossible for me to see the shape clearly, but it didn't look quite right. It was bobbing and slipping from side to side in an unpredictable, jerky manner, quite unlike the usual smooth glide of a pterodactyl. A strange whirring sound accompanied it, too, growing quickly louder.

It sagged down briefly, almost catching on a chimney.

“Oh, no,” I said as I realized what it was. “Oh, no.”

It was a cycle-copter, but its balloon had almost deflated and was dragging behind it. From what I could see, its springs were completely wound down. Its rider was pedaling as fast as humanly possible, but it was hardly enough to keep the device up. The blades spun manically above his head.

The cycle-copter brushed the tops of the fern-trees, then tipped to one side and stuttered its way up again, heading right toward the pillars of red rock.

The rider wrenched one of his steering levers. His cycle-copter lurched around the first of the pillars, slipping sideways and down. The rider gave a shout of alarm and tugged the other steering lever. The cycle-copter straightened. Now it was aiming directly at me.

“Down, you idiot!” I shouted. “Go down!”

The rider's legs spun even faster, and the cycle-copter surged up.

But not far enough. The pillars were at least a hundred feet tall. No amount of pedaling was going to lift a damaged cycle-copter and rider that high.

“No!” I yelled, waving my free arm wildly.

A grimace of horror crossed the rider's face, and he did absolutely the worst thing possible. He let go of both steering levers and covered his face with his hands. The cycle-copter spun, completely out of control. It crunched into the pillar, not six feet above me, and buried itself in the tanglemoss.

The rope holding me parted, sliced neatly through by the copter blades, and dropped down.

Parts of cycle-copter clattered past me. A spring broke free with a twang. I hid my face in the tanglemoss. A shower of brass cogs spun by, bouncing off my shoulders and back.

“Edward!” Putty shouted.

I pulled my face free to shout back that I was unhurt, but before I could, a great tearing sound came from above.

The whole blanket of tanglemoss ripped free of the rock, and I was falling.

 

2

A Wet Landing

If you're going to fall fifty feet with the remains of a cycle-copter right behind you, it's a good idea to do it in a blanket of tanglemoss. Tanglemoss is softer than a pillow—although a whole lot wetter—and can be several feet thick.

I hit the ground with a squelch and a thump that knocked the breath from my chest. Pieces of metal thudded around me, embedding themselves in the moss. A heavy copter blade speared the ground a couple of yards away. With a yelp, the rider hit the moss beside me.

What on Mars had he been thinking? He could have killed me. A couple of yards lower and he might have skewered me.

The rider groaned. His brass goggles were covered in dirty water from the tanglemoss. He peered at me through his obscured lenses.

“Good Lord,” he said. “Are we dead?”

I recognized that voice.

“Yes,” I snapped.

“What? What?”

I leaned forward and pulled his goggles up. He blinked at me.

“Cousin Freddie,” I said. And I'd thought this day couldn't get any worse.

“Ah,” he said. “Cousin Edward. Ah-ha-ha. Well.”

Freddie wasn't actually my cousin. He was the son of my dad's oldest friend, Charles Winchester. When he'd been younger, he'd spent so much time at our house that we'd started calling him our cousin. Now I wished we hadn't. I mean, I knew he was an idiot, but this was too much even for him.

I clambered to my feet and glared at him. “Haven't you ever ridden a cycle-copter before?”

Cousin Freddie rubbed his eyes, smearing the muck from his sleeve across the only clean part of his face. “Ah. Not as such. But how hard can it be?”

I looked at the wreckage around us and raised an eyebrow.

“Right, right,” Cousin Freddie said. “I see what you mean. Not all my fault, though. See, no one told me the springs would run out when I was halfway across the Valles Marineris. Then some pesky bird mistook my balloon for its dinner. Had to make the rest of the way by pedal power alone. Bit of an exertion, to tell you the truth.” He poked around in the wreckage and came up with a polished walking stick, topped by a silver handle. “Ah. Almost thought I'd lost it.” He swung it happily around.

I boggled at him.

It was hard to believe, but when he'd been younger, everyone had thought Freddie was brilliant. They had been sure he was going to be a stunning success. Then, when he'd turned sixteen, something had changed and he'd suddenly become an amiable idiot. I was sure he must have fallen on his head. My uncle Henry had even taken to referring to him as “The Idiot Freddie” after the unfortunate incident with the stalking-grass and my aunt Amelia's new evening gown. But I didn't think I'd ever heard of him doing something quite this stupid.

“What on Mars possessed you to try to cross the Valles Marineris on a cycle-copter?”

“Ah,” Cousin Freddie said. “Well. Bit of a story there, as it happens. You see, there was this rather pretty girl in Chinese Mars, who
I
thought—”

The sound of scrambling footsteps interrupted us. Putty leaped the last few feet to the ground and came racing toward us. She stopped a couple of paces away.

“Cousin Freddie,” she said. “We weren't expecting you.”

Freddie brightened. “Cousin Parthenia? My. You've grown. And what an—er—interesting outfit.” Putty was wearing a miniature version of Papa's rather dated frock coat and breeches.

Putty peered closer at Freddie. “What's that on your face?”

Freddie touched his upper lip somewhat self-consciously. “This? You noticed? Ha-ha. My mustache. Don't you think it rather dashing?”

“It looks like a dead caterpillar. Why are you wearing a mustache?”

“Ah. Well,” Freddie said. “There's a bit of a story there. It's all part of a disguise. You see, I was—”

“It's not a very good disguise,” Putty said. “I recognized you straightaway.”

Freddie looked aggrieved. “It's still growing. I think it looks quite Prussian.”

“Hang on a moment,” I broke in. “What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be away at Oxford. On Earth,” I added, just in case it hadn't really sunk in. “At university.” As far as I knew, he should have been studying right now. He wasn't due home for months.

Freddie grimaced. “Ah. Yes. Well. You see, there's a bit of a story there, too.” He let out an awkward laugh. “There was this little matter of a disagreement about a boxing match, and, well, what happened was—” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, I'm sure you don't want to hear the details.” He swept out a wet hand, spraying dirty water everywhere. “Why are we standing out here dripping like a pair of bath sponges? I'm starving. I haven't had a bite to eat since yesterday.” He leaned closer to Putty. “If you're ever in Chinese Mars, keep away from those little skewers of meat they sell. Didn't agree with me at all. Rather unfortunate effects over the Valles Marineris. I wouldn't have wanted to be those fishes, I can tell you!” He took Putty's arm. “Come, Cousin Parthenia. Dinner awaits!”

I narrowed my eyes as I watched them go. Freddie had avoided my question. He was hiding something. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Freddie was in trouble again, and trouble followed him around like a beaver-hound chasing a landfish.

Not that my family, some of whom actually
were
geniuses, would notice. Mama was completely absorbed in planning her grand garden party to impress the other ladies of the neighborhood, and Papa was so obsessed with his inventions that it would have taken being shot out of a steam cannon to get his attention. In the meantime, my oldest sister, Jane, would be far too busy falling in love with whichever eligible young man happened to be floating by, and Olivia was far too proper to even acknowledge the existence of trouble. As for Putty, well, there would be nothing she would love more than to dive right in. So that just left me.

I might be only twelve years old, but it was up to me to find out what trouble Freddie had gotten himself into, and whether he'd brought it with him.

Captain W. A. Masters would have to hang on a little bit longer.

*   *   *

Freddie emerged from his bedroom half an hour later, just as the dinner bell sounded. He had changed out of his battered, moss-stained pantaloons, torn cravat, and leather flying-coat, washed the mud from his face and hands, and shaved off his mustache, and now he cut a rather striking figure.

In many ways, Mars was similar to Earth. The day was only half an hour longer, and you could breathe the air on Mars just as easily as on Earth. Even the seasons were the same, although the year on Mars lasted almost twice as long, which meant that winter sometimes seemed to go on forever. But the gravity on Mars was less than half that on Earth. Those of us who grew up on Mars tended to be slimmer and lighter.

Freddie's two years on Earth had changed him. His muscles had bulked out, making him look solid and tough. He seemed to have learned a new, fashionable, and very complicated way of tying his cravat, too, so that it stretched high up his neck, lifting his chin to what looked like an uncomfortable angle. He was even wearing two waistcoats, one on top of the other. All in all, Freddie had adapted far too well to the role of Oxford student.

“Perfect timing!” Freddie exclaimed as the bell rang.

“Wasn't it?” I said.

If he'd been trying to avoid talking to me, he couldn't have timed it better.

Putty had been loitering around with me outside Freddie's room, and her eyes narrowed in contemplation as she took in his outfit.

“Wait here!” she said, and darted back to her room.

“I need to talk to you,” I said to Freddie.

He blinked. “Nothing I'd like more, old chap, but we can't possibly be late for dinner. It would be terribly rude. My mother would never forgive me if I offended Aunt Caroline.” With a twirl of his walking stick, he swept downstairs, toward the dining room.

The rest of the family was already seated at the dinner table when we hurried in. Papa sat at the head of the table, surrounded by scraps of paper on which he'd scribbled indecipherable designs. The wide windows that looked over the lawns and down to the shores of the Valles Marineris were covered with curtains to shut out the sight of the workmen still laboring away at Mama's garden party. An elaborate candelabrum stood in the middle of the table, casting flickering light. Gas lamps burned along the walls.

BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
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