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Authors: Kenneth Oppel

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BOOK: Skybreaker
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“We want forty percent,” I said, amazing myself.

Slater shook his head. “I’m shouldering all the risk. Ten percent is a generous finder’s fee by any stretch of the imagination.”

“You try finding her without my coordinates,” I said.

“Matt …” Kate said.

“You might not care about the money,” I told her, surprised by my sudden flare of anger, “but I do. So does Nadira.”

“You’re overestimating the value of your coordinates,” said Slater with an indifferent shrug. “They may not be that helpful if she’s drifted.”

“Fine,” I said, “why don’t you just close your eyes and pick a point on the map? You wouldn’t be interested in this trip if you thought my coordinates were useless.”

Slater stared at me hard; I forced myself not to look away.

“I take eighty,” he said, “you keep twenty.”

I turned to Nadira. She nodded.

“Good,” said Slater. “Since Miss de Vries claims she doesn’t want a cut of the money, you two will be very rich. You can take me out to dinner at the Jewels Verne when we get back.”

“When can we leave?” Nadira asked.

“This afternoon.”

“This afternoon?” Kate said in surprise.

“Every minute we wait, the more the
Hyperion
drifts,” Slater said.

She looked at me. “Told you we’d miss the ball.”

“Get yourselves ready,” Slater said, “and be back here at four o’clock, latest. Talk to no one. Cruse, I’ll need those coordinates.”

“You can have them when we’re airborne.”

Slater was about to protest, but then he just grinned.

“You’re a smart lad,” he said.

6 / A Rather Hasty Departure

W
E LEFT
S
LATER
to muster his crew and prep the
Sagarmatha
. Outside the heliodrome, Kate had a motorcar waiting.

“Hop in,” she said. “I’ll give you both a lift.”

“I’ll walk,” Nadira said. “It’s not far.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“See you at four,” I said, as I climbed in.

Kate gave the driver instructions and then closed the screen so we could talk privately as we headed back into the city.

“I don’t think she likes me,” Kate said.

“I’m not sure she likes anyone.”

“Well, I think she likes you. She kept looking at you.”

“I didn’t notice,” I lied.

“It was very chivalrous of you, leaping to her defence all the time.”

“I just didn’t like the way Slater treated her.”

“Do you trust her?” Kate asked.

“Don’t you?”

“Not particularly,” she said.

“But you have no problem with Slater.”

“He’s quite straightforward. He just wants money. I don’t know if it’s that simple with Nadira. She’s a bit of a mystery. Pirate’s daughter and all.” She paused reflectively. “Gosh, I wish I were a pirate’s daughter.”

“You do not!”

“Oh, come on, it’d be fabulous. Everyone would think I was frightfully alluring and mysterious.”

“You’re already alluring.”

She looked a little hurt. “Not mysterious?”

“You’re too talkative to be mysterious. It all comes out sooner or later. Sooner mostly.”

“I just like everyone to know what I’m thinking,” she said.

“It’s awfully considerate of you.”

She jabbed me in the ribs. “Well, come on! If we all knew what the other person thought, we could just get on with things much more easily. She’s very beautiful. And extremely capable. Getting over here all by herself. She can’t have much money. But she’s obviously got big plans. I’ve always admired people who start with little and really work hard to make something of themselves.”

I nodded, hoping I too was included in this. But then I thought of Slater and how young he was to have such a fine ship—or any ship at all. I wondered how impressed Kate was with him, whether his type of accomplishments appealed to her. But if she weren’t impressed with a man who’d made his fortune in the air, why would she be impressed by me, who had neither ship nor fortune to his name?

I wanted to dig a little more into her cozy meeting with Slater last night, but Kate had apparently decided the conversation was over. She produced a notebook and began writing down all the things she would need to bring on the trip.

“Aren’t you making a list?” she asked, looking over at me with some disapproval.

“I don’t have that much to bring.”

“I’ve got loads,” she replied, and went back to scribbling.

I asked her to drop me a block away from the Airship Academy. If Rath and his men were lying in wait for me, I didn’t want to take any chances. I went around back, where a door was usually left ajar by the kitchen staff. I was in luck. I took a stairway down into the steam tunnels. Enormous water pipes ran along the walls, chugging and gurgling, as they carried hot water to the Academy’s many bathrooms and radiators. In cold weather, students sometimes used these tunnels to get to the dining hall, rather than cross the quadrangle. I navigated my way to the basement of Dornier House, then climbed the stairs to my room.

At the doorway I hesitated, remembering the figure I’d seen behind the glass last night. But it was daylight now, and even if there had been an intruder, surely he was long gone. Carefully I unlocked the door and pushed it open. The room was so small, there could be no place to hide. Just to be sure I bent down to check beneath my bed, and then opened the closet door wide. The room showed no signs at all of being disturbed. No scattered papers or strewn bedding, no broken chairs or upended tables. I got busy.

I changed out of my uniform and started packing. Shirts, pants, underwear, socks, sweaters, the warmest coat I had, the pair of mittens my mother had knitted for me back in
Lionsgate City. I tossed in my aerostat operations manual, my mathematics of flight text, and my celestial navigation handbook, figuring that I’d have time to study during the journey there and back. If I had any hope of passing the upcoming exams I needed to use every spare moment.

Assuming I was even back in time for the exams. I looked at the schedule I’d pinned above my desk. If I missed my exams, I got zero. And that would make it next to impossible to pass the year. For a moment, my sleepless night under the bridge caught up with me, and all the electricity that had been fuelling me fizzled out. What sort of fool’s errand was I embarking on? For much of my life, I had dreamed of attending this Academy, and one day being an officer and even captain of some fine vessel. If I missed my exams, or failed the year, they might kick me out altogether.

I looked at the notebooks on my desk, the numbers and symbols and scribbles and crossings out. If I stayed I might fail nonetheless.

But it would not matter if we found the
Hyperion
. If we found riches, I would not need to serve on a ship. I could buy my own, and be captain, like Hal Slater. All these ifs were strung together like an icicle ladder in the blazing sun. Fantastical as they were, they did give me some comfort.

I sat down at my desk and started a letter.

Dear Mother, I wrote.

And stopped. What could I say to her?

I’m embarking on an idiotic and dangerous quest. I’m writing this to you in case—

A letter from Paris to Lionsgate City via regular delivery would take almost two weeks, by which time I was almost certain to be back in Paris. Was there any point in worrying my mother? Better not to tell her at all, then. But I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if some disaster befell us. She would never know what had happened to me. The thought made me gloomy and doubtful about the whole affair once again.

Writing a letter that will only be read if you’re dead is an odd business, and I felt suitably ghostly as I scribbled a few lines to my mother, telling her what I was about to undertake and what I hoped to gain from it. “If you’re reading this, it means I’ve failed at what I tried to do, and perhaps it was very foolish. I wanted to make sure we always had enough, and that we wouldn’t have to worry, or feel sad or desperate.” I signed it with love, sealed it, and then wrote a second letter to Baz in Australia, telling him everything, and folded my mother’s letter into the same envelope. I told Baz that if he hadn’t heard from me in more than a month, he should assume the worst, and forward the letter to my mother.

Then I scribbled a note to Dean Pruss, saying I would be absent for a number of days, without giving any specifics. I’d mail both letters on my way back to the heliodrome, and put my money back in the bank. It didn’t seem I would need it after all.

I wondered what counsel my father would have offered me. From my desk I took the brass compass he’d given me when I was a child and carefully placed it in my duffle bag. He
died when I was twelve, but he was still often in my thoughts and dreams. I finished packing. Probably I should have made a list like Kate. I hefted my bag. I couldn’t remember it ever feeling this heavy.

You’re looking at it all wrong, I tried to tell myself. Think of this as another training tour. With a bit of luck and fine weather you’ll be back in Paris not much later than the other students, only you’ll be coming back rich as the king of Babylon.

I arrived back at the heliodrome at three o’clock, and made my way to the
Sagarmatha
’s berth. Setting eyes on her again, I felt a familiar, giddy swirl in my stomach—the same feeling I got whenever I was about to embark on a ship. It wasn’t so unlike the first time I saw Kate de Vries, and something in me seemed to know right away that things would never be the same again.

Slater’s crew was busy fuelling the ship, topping up her gas cells with hydrium, loading cargo—and Hal Slater was directing them all like a conductor, though a talkative one who wasn’t afraid of colourful language.

“Good,” he said when he saw me. “Dump your bag in the mess for now and lend a hand with the loading.”

I wasn’t sure this was exactly the kind of relationship I wanted with Slater, him ordering me around like crew, but there was a restless fluttering in my stomach, and I was glad enough to work.

I walked up the gangway, turned down the main corridor, and stopped dead at the sight of Miss Marjorie Simpkins.

“I don’t know how we’re going to cope in such small quarters,” she was lamenting to Kate, who’d just emerged from the cabin doorway. “I really must have a word with Mr. Slater.”

“You’ll do no such thing, Marjorie,” Kate told her severely. “Our quarters are ample.”

“There are bunks,” Miss Simpkins said, her voice tremulous with woe. “And you snore, Kate, you know you do.”

“I do no such thing,” she said, her nostrils narrowing. “I’m not too thrilled to be sharing a room with you either, Marjorie. But adventure has its price.”

Miss Simpkins turned and saw me, and pursed her mouth disapprovingly. Then, with a small despairing moan, she hurried back into her cabin, closing the door after her. I stared at Kate in disbelief.

“I know, I know,” she said, walking towards me, hands raised as if to calm a dangerous beast.

“She’s not coming,” I said.

“She’s coming.”

“She can’t.”

“She’s coming. Or she’ll tell.” Kate sounded about six years old. “I was hoping I could just sneak out and leave a note, but she caught me packing. Then she started packing. She said she could not possibly allow me to go off on such an outlandish trip, on a ship crammed with strange, sweaty men—without a chaperone.”

“What about the blind eye?” I demanded.

“She’s had a miracle recovery.” Kate drew closer, lowering her voice. “Do you know what I think it is? I think she rather fancies Hal Slater herself.”

“This is too much.”

“If she tells my parents, they will move me back home and lock me in a room for the rest of my life. I’m quite serious.” She must have seen my smile, because she said, “No, that would not be a good thing, Matt Cruse. No Sorbonne, no fame and fortune, no jollies whatsoever. My life would be over.”

“What did Slater say?” I asked.

“As long as she keeps out of the way, he doesn’t care.”

“She doesn’t even like flying!”

“I know. She thinks she’s being a real martyr.”

“She probably wants a cut of the loot too,” I scoffed.

Kate winced. “Actually—”

“You’re joking!”

“I promised I’d give her something out of my share.”

“But you’re only getting the taxidermy!” I reminded her.

“I’ll give her a yak or something. She can turn it into a coat.”

I rubbed my forehead. This was far from ideal. “Has Nadira arrived?” I asked.

“I haven’t seen her.”

She wasn’t late yet, but I couldn’t shrug off the suspicion she might indeed be in league with the pirates, and meant to lead them to us.

“I’m off to help prep the ship,” I told Kate.

“Is that all you brought?” she said, looking at my duffle bag. “Gosh, you do travel light.”

Stacked in the corridor outside her cabin were about eight suitcases and trunks.

“I’m amazed he let you bring all that,” I said.

“I have a great deal of gear. I thought I was very restrained.”

“I’m sure you were.”

Down the gangway I went, and found Slater talking to one of his crew, a short, compact man who looked of Himalayan descent.

“Cruse, this is my first mate, Dorje Tenzing.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Dorje’s been with me from the start,” Slater said, “and there’s no one in the world I trust more. I’d close my eyes and jump from the Control Car if he told me to.”

“It is often tempting,” Dorje said with a chuckle. I liked the way his almond eyes became crescents when he smiled.

“Most of my crew are Sherpas,” Slater told me proudly. “No one’s better at working high altitude. They were born to it. Dorje has summitted Everest five times, most recently with me. I carried his pack, I seem to recall.”

“Only because I was carrying you,” Dorje replied.

Slater gave me a wink.

“What can I do to help?” I asked.

“There’s still plenty to load,” Dorje said.

I rolled up my sleeves and got to work alongside Thomas Dalkey, a fortress of a man, who greeted me with a friendly nod and sweaty handshake.

“Cruse,” he said. “From Eire, are you?”

“My parents were.”

“Come over in the great migration?”

I nodded. “And I was born halfway over the Atlanticus.”

“That’s something. My family used to own an island in the old country. Castle and all. But that was six hundred years ago. The goats tend it now. Grab hold of this, lad….”

Dalkey talked a streak as we worked, and I enjoyed listening to him, savouring some of the same expressions I’d heard my parents use. There was something intensely satisfying about getting your ship ready to sail, bringing aboard the provisions, the extra tanks of Aruba fuel, oil for the engines, reams of goldbeater’s skin in case patching was needed—and knowing in your gut that your departure was near.

As I hefted aboard some crates of spare parts, Kami Sherpa came to help, and we introduced ourselves. He was slender, with dark, grave eyes, short black hair, and the ghost of a moustache on his upper lip. I thought he looked even younger than me. But watching him lift, I could tell he had muscles and sinew of alumiron. He was not even breathing hard.

“How long have you worked with Slater?” I asked.

“Two years.”

“Two days,” said another crewman, joining us.

“This is Ang Jeta,” Kami Sherpa said, throwing his arm affectionately around him. “He’s my cousin. I put in a word for him with the captain.”

“I got tired of staring at mountains,” said Ang Jeta with
merry eyes. He looked older than Kami, his face much more weather-lined, and I noticed that he was missing the little fingers of both hands. Frostbite, no doubt.

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