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Authors: Kenneth Oppel

Skybreaker

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Kenneth Oppel

SKYBREAKER

For Julia

1 / The Devil’s Fist

T
HE STORM BOILED ABOVE THE
I
NDIAN
O
CEAN
, a dark, bristling wall of cloud, blocking our passage west. We were still twenty miles off, but its high winds had been giving us a shake for the past half hour. Through the tall windows of the Control Car, I watched the horizon slew as the ship struggled to keep steady. The storm was warning us off, but the captain gave no order to change course.

We were half a day out of Jakarta, and our holds were supposed to be filled with rubber. But there’d been some mix-up, or crooked dealing, and we were flying empty. Captain Tritus was in a foul mood, his mouth clenching a cigarette on one side, and on the other, muttering darkly about how was he expected to pay and feed his crew on an empty belly. He’d managed to line up a cargo in Alexandria, and he needed to get us there fast.

“We’ll clip her,” he told his first officer, Mr. Curtis. “She’s not got much power on her southern fringe. We’ll sail right through.”

Mr. Curtis nodded, but said nothing. He looked a little queasy, but then again, he always looked a little queasy. Anyone would, serving aboard the Flotsam under Tritus. The captain was a short, stocky man, with a greasy fringe of pale hair that jutted out beyond his hat. He was not much to look at, but he had Rumpelstiltskin’s own temper, and when
angry—which was often—his fist clenched and pounded the air, his barrel chest thrust forward, and his orders shot out like a hound’s bark. His crew tended to say as little as possible. They did as they were told and smoked sullenly, filling the Control Car with a permanent yellow pall. It looked like a waiting room in purgatory.

The Control Car was a cramped affair, without a separate navigation or wireless room. The navigator and I worked at a small table towards the back. I usually liked having a clear line of sight out the front windows, but right now, the view was not an encouraging one.

Flying into a storm, even its outer edges, did not seem like a good idea to me. And this was no ordinary tempest. Everyone on the bridge knew what it was: the Devil’s Fist, a near-eternal typhoon that migrated about the North Indian basin year-round. She was infamous, and earned her name by striking airships out of the sky.

“Eyes on the compass, Mr. Cruse,” the navigator, Mr. Domville, reminded me quietly.

“Sorry, sir.” I checked the needle and reported our new heading. Mr. Domville made his swift markings on the chart. Our course was starting to look like the path of a drunken sailor, zigzagging as we fought the headwinds. They were shoving at us something terrible.

Through the glass observation panels in the floor, I looked down at the sea, nine hundred feet below us. Spume blew sideways off the high crests. Suddenly we were coming about again, and I watched the compass needle whirl to its new
heading. Columbus himself would have had trouble charting a course in such weather.

“Two hundred and seventy-one degrees,” I read out.

“Do you wish you were back in Paris, Mr. Cruse?” the navigator asked.

“I’m always happiest flying,” I told him truthfully, for I was born in the air, and it was more home to me than earth.

“Well then, I wish I were back in Paris,” Mr. Domville said, and gave me one of his rare grins.

Of all the crew, he was my favourite. Granted, there was little competition from the hot-tempered captain and his stodgy, surly officers, but Mr. Domville was cut from different cloth. He was a soft-spoken, bookish man, quite frail looking, really. His spectacles would not stay up on his nose, so he was in the habit of tilting his head higher to see. He had a dry cough, which I attributed to all the smoke in the Control Car. I liked watching his hands fly across the charts, nimbly manipulating rulers and dividers. His skill gave me new respect for the navigator’s job, which, until now, I’d never taken much interest in. It was not flying. I wanted to pilot the ship, not scribble her movements on a scrap of paper. But while working with Mr. Domville, I’d finally realized there could be no destination without a navigator to set and chart a course.

I did feel sorry for him, serving aboard the Flotsam. It was a wreck of a cargo ship, running freight over Europa and the Orient. I wondered why Mr. Domville didn’t seek out a better position. Luckily I only had to endure it for five more days.

All the first-year students at the Airship Academy had been
shipped out on two-week training tours to study navigation. Some shipped on luxury liners, some on mail packets, some on barges and tugs. I’d had the misfortune of being placed on the Flotsam. The ship looked like it hadn’t been refitted since the Flood, and it smelled like Noah’s old boot. The crew’s quarters were little more than hammocks slung alongside the keel catwalk, where your sleep was soured by the stench of oil and Aruba fuel. The hull looked like it had been patched with everything including cast-off trousers. The engines rattled. The food quite simply defied comprehension. Slopped onto the plate by the cook’s rusty ladle, it looked like something that had already been chewed and rejected.

“Think of this as a character-building experience,” Mr. Domville had told me at the first meal.

Why the illustrious Academy used the Flotsam as a training vessel I couldn’t guess, unless they wanted to teach their students how to mutiny. Captain Tritus, I’m sure, was glad of the fee the Academy paid to place me on board. For a heap like the Flotsam, it might have made the difference between having enough fuel or not. It made me long for the
Aurora
, the airship liner where I used to work before starting my studies at the Academy. Now there was a ship, and Captain Walken knew how to run it and take care of his crew.

When I looked out the window again, I wished I hadn’t. We’d been making for the storm’s southern flank, but it now seemed to be moving with us, spinning out its dark tendrils. I looked at Captain Tritus, waiting for him to change our heading. He said nothing.

“Have you ever flown through the Fist?” I asked Mr. Domville in a whisper.

He held up a single finger. “We were very lucky.” He coughed and seemed to have trouble stopping, so I uncorked the canteen hanging from the chart table and poured him a cup of water. He didn’t look at all well.

“Thank you.”

The Control Car was suddenly dark as cloud engulfed us. Mr. Curtis quickly switched on the interior lights, which did little more than illuminate the instruments and gauges, making skulls of the crew’s faces.

“All engines at full,” Captain Tritus ordered. “We’ll punch through shortly. Hold her steady, Mr. Beatty,” he told the helmsman.

This was a tall order, as the wind was battering us from all sides. The Control Car darkened further. Rain lashed against the windows. Someone switched on the wipers, which only smeared water across the glass. The lamp over the chart table swung crazily.

“Speed?” barked the captain.

“Forty-three aeroknots, sir,” replied Curtis.

“We should do better than that with engines at full.”

“Not against these headwinds, sir.”

All around us were the unfriendliest clouds I’d ever seen, mottled grey and black, fuming. They looked so dense it seemed a miracle we were not already shattered against their bulk.

Without warning the Flotsam dropped, and my feet nearly left the floor. I grabbed the table’s edge. Crew staggered off
balance. Mr. Schultz was thrown off the elevator wheel, and for a moment it spun unattended before he and Mr. Curtis launched themselves atop it and fought to level off the ship. We were caught in the storm’s massive downdraft.

“Six hundred feet, sir,” said Mr. Curtis. Six hundred feet! That meant we’d already fallen three hundred!

“Elevators full up,” ordered the captain.

“They’re full up already, sir,” Mr. Schultz replied.

“Five hundred feet,” reported Mr. Curtis. I could not see the altimeter, but I could hear it. It fired a sonic pulse at the ground and used the speed of the returning echo to calculate our height. With every pulse, the altimeter gave a loud beep, and then a fainter beep as the echo returned. At normal cruising height of eight hundred feet, there were about two seconds between the beeps, and you noticed it no more than your own heartbeat. Mr. Curtis must have adjusted the sound, for now the beeps seemed to blare through the entire car. BEEP … beep … BEEP…

I looked down through the floor panels. All I saw was cloud, but my stomach told me we were still falling, though not as fast.

“Steady at four hundred and twenty-five feet, sir,” reported a relieved Mr. Curtis.

I drew in some breath, and then the ship plunged again. Weightlessness soared through me once more. I was not afraid of falling, but I was afraid of hitting water.

“Three hundred and fifty feet!”

BEEP, beep, BEEP, beep…

“Jettison all ballast tanks to two thirds!” roared the captain.

I heard the metallic thunk of the hatches opening, and the brief rush of water as it sped seaward.

“Three hundred!”

“Wind measuring Force 12 from the southwest!”

It was like riding surf: you’d feel the ship struggling to stay level and then lurch back down with a tremendous bang that shook her entire frame. The machinists in the engine cars must have been holding on for dear life, praying the support struts did not shear off.

We were lighter now, but it did not seem to be slowing our fall. I looked at Mr. Domville. His eyes were fixed on the chart, even now updating it. His hand did not tremble.

“Two fifty!”

BEEP beep, BEEP beep…

“Jettison tanks to one-half!” shouted the captain.

“Two hundred!”

“Lift, you wreck,” cursed Captain Tritus.

The engines’ roar, amplified by the dense cloud, reverberated through every beam and rivet. I hated to think of the strain on the elevator flaps.

“One fifty, sir!”

Be-be-be-be-be…

“Jettison all tanks!” bellowed Tritus. “Every last drop!”

Only when disaster was imminent would a captain order such a thing. I looked down through the floor windows, saw nothing but grey, and then suddenly we dropped through it
and I gave a shout. The sea was not fifty feet below us, looking like shattered glass, great cracks of wind-lashed spray cutting diagonally across the jagged surface. I wanted to shut my eyes but couldn’t.

Beeeeeeeeeeee…

The altimeter was one long continuous sound. The crew grabbed hold of whatever was nearest. The sea would have us. I did not think of my mother, or father, or sisters, or Kate. My mind was empty. Then, all at once, I felt heavier.

We were rising!

“Seventy-five feet!” shouted Mr. Curtis.

“Seal the ballast tanks!” barked the captain, “Save what you can! We’ll need it.”

“We’re out of the downdraft, sir,” said Mr. Curtis, looking queasier than ever.

“This is not over yet,” Captain Tritus muttered darkly.

He was right. Only seconds after he spoke, I was suddenly heavy as an elephant, my ears shrieking with the sudden change in altitude. Beside me, Mr. Domville’s knees buckled, and I had to grab him to keep him from collapsing. After breaking through the downdraft, the storm’s updraft had us now. With no cargo, and barely any ballast, we were already dangerously light, and with the tempest’s explosive energy beneath us, we careened sickeningly heavenward. The beeps of the altimeter became less and less frequent, and then grew so faint I could scarcely hear them.

“Should we vent some lifting gas, sir?” Mr. Curtis asked.

Captain Tritus said nothing.

“Sir?” the first officer repeated.

“Let her rise!” Tritus snapped. “We’re better off high until we clear the Fist.”

“Five thousand, four hundred … five thousand, six hundred,” said Mr. Schultz at the elevator wheel, reading off the altimeter. “Six thousand and climbing …”

Still the wind thumped and pummeled us. Blinking away my light-headedness, I got back to work with the business of the charts, directions, drift readings, and wind speeds. I marvelled at the steadiness of Mr. Domville’s liver-spotted hand. Even as the ship was tossed about, his notations were crisp and clear.

“You’ve got a magical hand, Mr. Domville.”

“It’s the only competent part of me,” he said, and started coughing again. I passed him more water, then zipped up my jacket. At these heights it was much colder. Mr. Domville took his breaths in raspy shallow sucks. The higher we climbed, the harder it was for our bodies to get enough oxygen.

“Seven thousand feet,” announced Mr. Schultz.

I watched Captain Tritus nervously. We were going too far. Like all airships, the Flotsam relied on hydrium, the most powerful of lifting gases, to give her flight. The hydrium was contained safely in enormous balloonlike cells within the ship’s hull, but at eight thousand feet, as the outside air pressure dropped, the hydrium would swell dangerously. It might easily rupture the impermeable fabric of the cells.

“Begin venting in all cells to ninety-five percent capacity.”

All shoulders relaxed as the captain gave the order. The Flotsam exhaled into the sky. Our ascent slowed, but still we rose.

At nine thousand feet the Flotsam gave a great shudder and plowed through the clouds, leaving the storm behind us. Suddenly it was so bright, I had to squint. The sun blazed in the western sky. I turned to look out the rear windows of the Control Car, and saw the dark, roiling canyon wall of the Devil’s Fist behind us.

“Good,” was all Captain Tritus said. He wasted no time lighting up another cigarette, and even offered his carton to Mr. Curtis, Mr. Beatty, and Mr. Schultz—something I’d never seen him do before. He was clearly in a celebratory mood.

“Never let it be said you can’t pass through the Devil’s Fist, eh? Vent the gas cells to ninety-three percent and level us off.”

It was lucky we were so light, or he would have had a hard time staying aloft with our gas cells so depleted. As it was, with nearly all our ballast gone, we’d have to valve even more when we came in for landing in Egypt. This would be an expensive voyage for the Flotsam, for hydrium was costly.

At the moment, though, not even Captain Tritus seemed upset by his misadventure. We were lucky to be alive. For the first time in my life, I caught myself wishing for land. Tritus was reckless, and I did not trust him. The storm could easily have torn us apart like a kite. Just five more days and I would be back at the Academy.

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