Authors: Kenneth Oppel
“Are you all right?” I asked Mr. Domville. His fingers were very pale and his nails had a blue sheen to them.
“I don’t do well with high altitudes,” he said.
I’d had little experience flying at these heights, but had read about its possible effects on crew. Altitude sickness affected everyone differently. It was called hypoxia and it could give you a headache, or it could kill you, depending on how healthy you were, and how high. Right now all I felt was a faint pressure against my temples.
“We’re bound to descend before long,” I said. “Now that we’re clear of the storm.”
Mr. Domville made no reply, conserving what little breath he had.
“Crow’s nest reporting!” The muffled voice emanated from a metal grille, the end point of the long speaking tube that connected the bridge to the forward observation post high atop the ship.
Captain Tritus pulled the brass mouthpiece sharply towards his face. “What is it?” he asked, mouth clenched around his cigarette.
“Vessel to the south southeast, sir! She’s very high. Maybe twenty thousand feet.”
All the crew looked at one another. It was virtually unheard of for a ship to fly so high. It must be a mistake. Maybe he was seeing a cloud, or even a nearby bird, and mistaking it for something far away.
“Say again, Mr. Sloan!” Captain Tritus barked impatiently into the mouthpiece.
“It’s definitely some kind of vessel.”
The captain removed his hat, grabbed his spyglass, and stuck his head out a side window. Wind blasted at his hair, though I noticed it scarcely moved, being so well greased to his skull. He pulled his head back in with a curse.
“Can’t see a damn thing.” He took up the mouthpiece. “Not been drinking I hope, Mr. Sloan!” he bellowed, and it was not a joke. “Don’t lose sight of it now, we’re coming about!” He turned to Mr. Schultz. “Angle us up eight degrees or so. Let’s see if we can spot Mr. Sloan’s ghost ship.”
The Flotsam turned, and Mr. Domville and I were busy for the next few minutes, updating the chart, which now resembled the scribblings of a lunatic. I felt our nose pitching up as the elevator flaps pushed our tail lower. It was an ungainly angle, and one that strained both engines and fins, but it would give the captain a better vantage point.
“We’re aimed right at her now, Captain!” I heard Sloan say over the speaking tube. I wanted to rush forward and peer through the windows, but I could not leave my station. Captain Tritus scanned the skies with his spyglass.
“Zeus’s throne,” he muttered, and I must say, a cold tingle swept my arms and neck. “Something’s up there. Cruse, try to raise her on the wireless!”
Since there was no proper wireless officer aboard the Flotsam, the task fell to the assistant navigator—me. I hurried to the ancient radio beside the chart table, hoping I’d remember what to do with the bewildering array of knobs
and switches. I pulled the headphones over my ears and lifted the microphone. The radio was already tuned to the universal airship frequency.
“This is Flotsam, hailing vessel heading south southwest from bearing 90°28” longitude by 9°32” latitude. Please reply.”
When I heard nothing, I bumped up the wattage and tried twice more, without success.
“Nothing, sir,” I told Captain Tritus.
“Try the distress frequency.”
Rapidly I turned the needle to the proper location and listened. Soft static whispered over my headphones.
“There’s nothing coming in, sir.”
“Not surprised,” muttered Mr. Domville. “At that height, unless they had tanked oxygen, they’d all be unconscious.”
He was right. All the flight manuals said that at altitudes over sixteen thousand feet, supplemental oxygen was mandatory. And the cold would be something else altogether, far below freezing. What had happened to drive her so high? I wondered if her engines had failed, or maybe she’d jettisoned too much ballast, and the storm’s updraft had lifted her to this deadly height—a fate that easily could have been ours.
“Her propellers aren’t even turning,” Captain Tritus remarked, spyglass to his eye. “What a wreck! She’s older than the pyramids. Can’t make out her name …” He pulled the mouthpiece close. “Mr. Sloan, have you got her name yet?”
“It’s …” There was a lengthy pause. “Captain, I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s the
Without a word Captain Tritus dropped the mouthpiece and once more lifted the spyglass to his eye. For a long time he stared.
There could be no one in the Control Car who hadn’t heard of the
. She was a ship of legend, like the
, or the
—vessels that had set out from harbour and never reached their destinations. The
was rumoured to be carrying great wealth. She may have crashed, or been pillaged by pirates. But no wreckage was ever found. Over the years sky sailors sometimes claimed to have spotted her, always fleetingly and from afar, and usually on foggy nights. Before I was born there was a famous photograph that was supposed to be of the
sighted over the Irish Sea. My father had shown it to me in a book. It was later exposed as a fake. She was a ghost ship—a good story, but nothing more.
“It’s her,” the captain said. “By God, I think it’s her. Look!” he thrust the spyglass at his first officer. “Curtis, can you see her name?”
“I can’t quite make it out, Captain.”
“You’re half blind, man! It’s clear as day. Cruse, get over here! They said you had sharp young eyes. Take a look!”
Eagerly I hurried to the front of the Control Car and took the spyglass. When I worked aboard the
I’d spent many hours in her crow’s nest, doing lookout duty. I had plenty of experience with a spyglass. Before I raised it to my face, I sighted the ship with my naked eye. I reckoned she was more
than three miles away, no larger than a cigarette, pale against the distant darkness of the storm front. Quickly, before her position changed, I lifted the lens to my eye. Even with my feet planted wide for balance, and both hands on the spyglass, it was no easy feat to get a fix on her. Whenever I came close, the Flotsam pitched and tossed, and my view would skid off into cloud and sky.
Glimpses were all I caught: An enormous engine pod, its paint stripped away by the elements, glistening with frost. A Control Car almost entirely encased in ice, light flashing from a cracked window. Wind-blighted letters barely visible on her flayed skin:
“It’s her,” I breathed.
It sent a chill through me just to see her. How could she still be up there, so high? What spectral crew had been guiding her across the skies for forty years?
“We’ll have her!” said the captain. “Mr. Domville, mark her location on the chart! Prepare to drop some ballast, Mr. Curtis.”
“Sir, we’re already at our maximum height,” the first officer reminded him.
, Mr. Curtis. By all accounts she’s a floating treasure trove. I mean to claim our right of salvage. We’ll tow her in!”
His speech failed to rouse an enthusiastic cheer, but no one dared contradict him.
“We’ve already jettisoned nearly all our ballast,” Mr. Curtis pressed on uneasily. “To reach her, we’d have to lose it all.”
“So be it. The
will be our ballast when we bring her down.”
“But we’ll also be needing to vent more hydrium so we don’t rupture the gas cells.”
“Correct, Mr. Curtis.”
“Sir, we may be too heavy coming down.”
“Fuel too can be dumped. Follow my orders. That’s all that’s expected of you.”
I watched this exchange, barely breathing, for I could see that Captain Tritus was hell-bent on reaching the
. He would risk his life, and all of ours, for this chance at riches. When Mr. Curtis said no more, I could not hold my tongue.
“Sir, if I might have permission to speak.”
He glared at me but said nothing, so I hurried on.
“At twenty thousand feet the Flotsam might suffer. Her engines weren’t designed for such high altitude. And the crew—”
“That’s enough, Mr. Cruse! Remember, you’re a trainee, and here under sufferance.”
“Sir, I’m just concerned that hypoxia—”
“Return to your post and keep your mouth shut! I’ll be making a note of this insubordination. I’ve got no patience for snotty-nosed Academy brats.”
I went back to the chart table, my face burning. Nothing short of a mutiny would stop Captain Tritus.
“We’ll make a homesick angel,” the captain told his crew.
A homesick angel was a steep and very fast ascent—like an
angel speeding heavenward—usually only made in emergencies. I suppose he was hoping that if we did it fast, we’d suffer less from altitude sickness as we climbed. He was trying to cheat Mother Nature.
“We’ll be there in under ten minutes,” Tritus assured his crew. “We’ll take up the
’s bow lines and make them fast. Now then, blow our forward tanks, Mr. Curtis!”
The hatch forward of the Control Car opened, and through the window I saw a ragged column of our precious ballast fall away to the sea. With our bow much lighter than our stern, the ship’s nose pitched even higher. I heard the Flotsam’s powerful engines roar to full power, labouring to drive us up into the sky.
“Speed, twenty-two aeroknots,” said Mr. Curtis.
“Twelve thousand five hundred feet,” reported Mr. Schultz.
“This is madness,” I muttered to Mr. Domville. He gave a curt nod, and I could tell he was holding himself very tightly, trying not to shiver. I looked at the thermometer mounted against the nearby window. The mercury was just falling below freezing. Mr. Domville deftly updated the chart, marking the
’s longitude and latitude. I looked at the numbers.
The captain’s laughter made me turn, for it was not a sound I’d heard before. It was a harsh, strangled thing—really not the kind of sound you’d want to make in public.
“Imagine the look on their faces when we come into harbour towing the
, eh?” Captain Tritus said, mightily pleased.
He reached for his spyglass, and dropped it. Stooping to retrieve it, he teetered clumsily for a moment. Tritus gave another laugh as he finally scooped it up and held it to his eye.
“Amazing luck!” he said. “Just waiting for us all these years, eh, Mr. Beatty?”
“She is indeed, sir,” Mr. Beatty replied cheerfully from the rudder wheel. He was smiling.
It was starting. I remembered the symptoms from my textbook. Hypoxia might come on as a feeling of tremendous well-being, even euphoria, so you wouldn’t notice that your vision was failing and you were getting clumsy and weak. You might not even start to feel short of breath before you suddenly went unconscious, your brain and body starving for air. If you were healthy, you could last a bit longer, but Captain Tritus and his crew were not healthy. They were all great lumps and smokers, and they would not make it to twenty thousand feet. I turned worriedly to Mr. Domville. His health was poor to start with. He kept blinking, and his breathing came in ragged puffs, as if he were running.
“I need a stool,” he gasped.
I dragged one over for him and helped him perch on the edge, his upper body hunched on the chart table. It seemed an effort for him to keep his head up. I took off my jacket and placed it over his shoulders.
“Fourteen thousand feet, sir!”
Negative three degrees it was now. A fine icy lace was spreading across the windows.
“Sir,” I called out to the captain, “Mr. Domville isn’t well.”
The captain didn’t hear, or if he did, he ignored me.
“There she is, gentlemen,” he said, pointing out the windows.
We were within a mile now, and I could see the
much more clearly. She was an immense, old-fashioned ship, the likes of which I’d only seen in photographs. She seemed as much a vessel of the sea as the air. She looked like a Spanish galleon shorn of her masts and sails.
The faint pressure at my temples had amplified. My heart raced.
“Just a few minutes more,” the captain promised his crew, “and you’ll all be rich. Are the men stationed at the tail cone, Mr. Curtis?”
Mr. Curtis looked confused. There was a layer of sweat across his waxy face. “No, Captain.”
“I gave you the order,” shouted Tritus, suddenly enraged. “We need four men at the stern to take the
’s bow lines!”
“Sorry, sir, I must’ve forgotten.”
“Hurry, you damn fool. We want this done as quickly as possible!”
Mr. Curtis staggered to the ship’s telephone. He almost tripped, and Mr. Beatty started laughing and couldn’t stop.
The idiots were getting drunk on the thin air, and no one seemed to notice.
“Sixteen thousand feet,” said Mr. Schultz, his voice slurred.
Mr. Beatty’s laugh turned into a cough. No one was smiling
anymore. I saw several of the crew holding their cheeks and temples and ears against the pounding pressure within.
Pressure. With a sick jolt I suddenly remembered the hydrium, how it would be expanding dangerously as the pressure dropped, straining the goldbeater’s skin that contained it.
“Sir,” I called out to the captain, “the gas cells need—”
A great tearing explosion rocked the ship, throwing half the crew to the floor.
Enraged, the captain looked about as if someone had slapped his great red face. He should have known instantly what it was.
“We’ve lost gas cells number nine and ten,” reported the first officer dopily.
“Curtis!” Tritus alone seemed to have the energy to raise his voice. “You were supposed to be venting as we climbed!”
“You didn’t give the order, sir,” he wheezed.
“Of course I did! Do it now, you idiot, before all of them rupture!”
Mr. Curtis sleepwalked towards the gas controls, and I could not bear to see him move so slowly. The cells would all burst in a moment. No one else seemed to be helping, so I ran to the board and started opening the valves. Mr. Curtis finally reached the controls and together we vented enough hydrium to prevent another explosion.