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Authors: Kenneth Oppel

Skybreaker (3 page)

BOOK: Skybreaker

“Thank you, Mr. Cruse,” he said wearily.

I was shivering badly now. I was slender and did not have much between me and the elements. The tips of my fingers
were numb. My vision had contracted to a narrow tunnel. When an alarm blared through the bridge, it took me a few seconds to understand what I was hearing, as if my very thoughts had started to congeal and freeze.

“Engine number … two’s … down,” Mr. Beatty hacked out between his coughs.

The engines were starving in the thin air, just like us.

“Maintain course,” Captain Tritus commanded.

A second alarm sounded over the first.

“Sir,” Mr. Curtis said, “engine four has stalled.”

“Almost there,” said Tritus. “All we need to do is put a few lines on her, and then we’ll descend.”

I looked at Mr. Curtis, his face sallow, his lips blue-tinged.

“Sir,” he wheezed, every word an effort, “we’re at … half power. We’ll likely … lose all the engines … if we continue.” Curtis was capable of no more, for he sank down on his haunches, his head drooping as he struggled for breath.

“Maintain course, we’re grand,” muttered Tritus. “She’s within reach. Imagine their faces …”

Through the Control Car window I saw her, the
, looming large. Her massive flanks glinted with frost. Her windows were black. For a moment, my mind wandered. What if she really was filled with treasure? We were so close, and would it be so hard to throw a few lines on her and take her back to harbour? What would my share be? Beyond one of the
’s black windows, a pale face bloomed and I jolted in shock. I blinked and then saw nothing except ice.

I turned back to the chart table. Mr. Domville was collapsed on the ground. I moved towards him, and it was like moving through water, every step slow and laboured.

“Mr. Domville!” I turned him over onto his back. He made no reply. His face was grey. My numb fingers could barely feel a pulse at his throat.

“Captain, Mr. Domville is unconscious!”

As if from far away, I heard a great bang, and suddenly icy water was pouring over me. I cursed, but the cold sharpened me up. A fresh water tank must have burst overhead, drenching the rear of the Control Car. The chart table, and all Mr. Domville’s careful markings, were obliterated.

“Someone … tend to that,” slurred Captain Tritus, his eyes fixed on the
through the bridge window. No one moved. Mr. Beatty had stopped coughing and was slumped against his wheel, and I could not tell if he was conscious. Mr. Schultz was barely managing to stand. I looked at the water puddling on the floor and saw a skin of ice already forming on its surface.

“Captain!” I shouted. “We’re too high! You’ll wreck the ship!”

The captain could no longer hear. He was humming contentedly to himself as he watched the
. His fingers clumsily tried to extract a cigarette from his case but couldn’t. They all scattered on the Control Car floor, and he laughed. The sound came out like a gasp. He tried to bend down to pick them up, and fell to his knees. Like all his crew, his lungs were scarred from years of smoking. My vision swam and
puckered but I was still on my feet, and I was not too far gone to understand that we would all die if we continued to rise.

I knew I had hardly any time. My fingernails were rimmed with blue. My skin tingled all over, just as it does when your foot’s gone to sleep. I felt a huge plunging sensation pass through me, and worried I’d soon black out.

Laboriously I walked to the elevator wheel and pushed Mr. Schultz out of the way. He made a small grunt of objection, but sagged to the floor, too weak to stand. I gave the wheel a few hard turns, angling the ship lower.

“You little whelp!” Tritus wheezed.

Through my scarred vision I saw the
floating up out of sight as we began to drop.

“I’ll see you in the clink for this!” Tritus hissed, but made no move to stop me. No one did, they were all so weak.

Next I staggered over to the gas controls and vented a little more hydrium, just enough to level off the ship properly and keep us on a gentle descent. A huge weight was against my chest, forcing the air from my lungs. The sky did not want me to breathe.

At the rudder wheel I turned us back to our original westward bearing. I fixed my eyes on the altimeter, just to make sure we were indeed falling, for I no longer trusted my senses. We had only two engines, little hydrium, and no ballast, but if we were lucky, we would make it to the nearest harbour.

2 / The Jewels Verne

, its interior gleaming with mirrors and brass, rocketed me diagonally up the southeast pier of the Eiffel Tower. The elevator soared past the tower’s first platform, and at the second, slid gracefully to a halt. A sombre attendant in a black suit snapped back the mesh screen, and I stepped out into the swirl and scent of a bustling restaurant. Guests chattered, waiters moved about in an intricate ballet, cutlery clinked, and glasses pinged. My eyes were instantly drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Here, at six hundred feet, the Jewels Verne had an airship’s view of the entire city—one usually reserved only for the rich and famous.

Trust Kate de Vries to choose the fanciest restaurant in all of Paris.

I suppose she thought I’d enjoy being aloft.

I looked around at all the fine ladies and gentlemen, the extravagant hats and suits and furs, and could easily have been back aboard the
, serving in the first-class dining lounge. Certainly I would have felt more comfortable. But right now I was a guest. At least I’d had the sense to wear my Academy uniform, secondhand though it was. I felt young and poor and altogether an imposter.

The maître d’ strode towards me. His busy eyes flitted over me, picking out the worn cuffs, the ghostly trace of a stain
on the lapel. Six months ago, when I’d bought the uniform, it had seemed crisp enough in the dim glow of the shop. But here, in the dazzle of the restaurant Jewels Verne, I might as well have been draped in rags. I now wished I’d splashed out and bought a brand-new uniform, like all the other students. But after watching my pocketbook for so long, it had seemed extravagant. And I always knew my mother and sisters could make better use of the money. Even though I paid for all my tuition and room and board here in Paris, I still felt guilty I no longer had my cabin boy’s salary to send back home to them, in North America.

“Monsieur has a reservation?” the maître d’ inquired, consulting the vast leather-bound notebook on his walnut lectern.

“I believe it’s under de Vries.”

“This way.” He gave me a rather resentful look and quickly led me to the most out-of-the-way table he could find. My heart sank, not because the table was near the kitchen doors and beside a window that looked onto the great wheel and cables that operated the elevator—but because Kate was not yet here.

I’d intentionally arrived twenty minutes late, hoping to avoid this. Kate was always late. So, a while back, I’d decided to be late too. See how she liked that. But if I were five minutes late, she would be ten. If I were twenty, she would be forty. I didn’t know how she managed it. My efforts were quite futile. It was all the more irritating today since the note she’d sent this morning had been extremely precise. “At
twelve-thirty sharp,” she’d written, underlining “sharp” as if I were the one who needed reminding.

“Would monsieur like to order something from the bar?” the maître d’ asked as he pushed in my chair.

“I think I’ll wait till Miss de Vries arrives,” I said.

“Of course.”

I’d been back in Paris less than forty-eight hours. After the Flotsam had made an emergency landing in Ceylon, it was in no fit state to take flight again. Mr. Domville, still slipping in and out of consciousness, was sent to the hospital. I’d wanted to stay on to make sure he was going to be all right; I’d even offered to help with repairs to the Flotsam, but Captain Tritus made it clear I was no longer welcome. He told me to keep my mouth shut and sent me packing. There was nothing left to do but arrange my own passage back to Paris.

I wished Kate would hurry up. Between her classes and mine, it was no easy feat to see each other. She’d arrived in the summer, three months ago, with her frightful chaperone, to find a place to live while studying at the university. I knew that Miss Simpkins did not approve of our friendship. Even though I was now a student at the esteemed Airship Academy, she still remembered me as a cabin boy and did not feel I had any right to be socializing with young Miss de Vries. We socialized anyway, at least once or twice a week, usually at Kate’s apartment, where Miss Simpkins would sit in a corner of the room, pretending to read. I wondered if she’d be coming to lunch. I hoped not. I had so much to tell Kate. I watched the elevator gears turning for a while, and then
swivelled around so I could look into the heart of the restaurant. I figured I was the youngest person here by about thirty years.

I spotted the Lumière triplets, the three most famous film-makers in the world, arguing over the last chocolate éclair. At another table, a man who looked suspiciously like the Great Farini was entertaining his lunch guests by balancing a bottle of champagne on his palm while pouring it into a crystal flute poised on his pinkie. Across the great room a flamboyant lady bedecked in peacock feathers was banging her fist on the table and talking loudly to a group of appalled, mustachioed gentlemen. I recognized her picture from the newspapers. She’d struck gold in the Yukon and with her new fortune was trying to buy the Eiffel Tower and have it transported back to Canada, girder by girder. So far, no luck.

I looked at the ornate clock. Kate was now over half an hour late. A waiter with excessively oiled hair came by and asked me if I was ready to order. When I said I was still waiting for my friend, he gave me a very dubious look and marched off. I saw him whisper something to the maître d’, and they glanced balefully over at me. My cheeks burned.

To distract myself, I gazed out the restaurant’s great windows. The Champ de Mars was a busy airfield, and the sky was dotted with ballons-mouches, the small sightseeing airships that flew tourists over the spires and garrets of the city. Winged ornithopters juddered across the drizzling October sky, accompanied by their insistent mosquitolike drone. Some of them came quite close to the tower, as there were
docking trapezes for them beneath the second platform. The Eiffel Tower’s very summit, however, was reserved for the most exclusive airship liners, and as I watched, rapt, one floated in with stately grace to dock.

“Perhaps monsieur is getting peckish now.”

With a jolt I realized the waiter was back at my elbow. He was smiling, but I’d seen happier faces on taxidermy. The oil in his hair would fuel the city for a month. I knew I had to order something, or they would turf me out.

I picked up the menu. It felt heavy. The prices were printed in tiny, swirly script. Maybe they kept them small and almost unreadable so people wouldn’t go crazy and start hurling themselves out the windows. But I couldn’t imagine anyone here would think twice about paying a week’s salary for a bit of barnyard chicken.

I started to have very unkind thoughts about Kate.

She’d sent me to the most expensive restaurant on the globe, and she was late. Not just a little late, or charmingly late, but very, very late now. She would take one look at the menu and say it was her treat. But I didn’t want it to be her treat. I wanted to pay for myself, and she was making that impossible.

My eyes swept the menu’s creamy pages. I figured if I spent nothing for a week, I could maybe afford a flavoured water.

“An Acqua Sprizzo, please,” I said with a world-weary air.

“Very good, monsieur. And something to accompany it perhaps?”

“No, thank you.”

“Perhaps some smoked salmon?”

“Thank you, no.”

“Just a little something from the menu to nibble on?”

I looked up at him and could see he was enjoying himself. I didn’t understand this fellow at all. In all my years serving aboard the
, I had never tried to embarrass someone, or make them feel ill at ease.

“Waiters in a fine establishment such as this,” I told him quietly, “should listen to their guests, not harass them.”

He looked at me, his mouth twitching, but said nothing. “I’ll bring your Acqua Sprizzo, then, monsieur,” he said.

The water would buy me a few more minutes. After that they’d probably heave me down the elevator shaft.

I’d been all eager to see Kate. Now I was feeling flustered and angry, and I hated that. Why on earth had she asked to meet here? Couldn’t she understand I had very little money? I suppose she thought I still had heaps from the reward the Sky Guard had given me after our adventures last year. We’d discovered the secret island stronghold of Vikram Szpirglas’s notorious air pirates, and helped capture some of them. But the truth was, that reward money was enough for my two years’ tuition to the Academy, my room, board, and clothing, with just a little left over to help out my family back in Lionsgate City.

My heart sank when I saw the maître d’, followed by the greasy waiter, strutting purposefully to my table. He bent down, his breath unpleasantly warm against my ear.

“Perhaps monsieur would like to follow me quietly to the elevator so as to avoid any further embarrassment.”

“But I ordered a flavoured water!” I objected.

“Yes, and we doubt you will be able to pay for it.”

“How do you know?” I said angrily.

“Please, monsieur. You are a boy.”

“I’m a student at the Airship Academy!”

He compressed his lips disdainfully. “Anyone, I think, can buy an old uniform at a thrift shop.”

“I am waiting for a friend,” I said, trying to sound affronted and hating that my voice trembled.

“We rather think there is no friend, and you are merely escaping the rain. Come now.”

His hand closed around my arm, and I pulled it free, furious. He took hold again, tighter, as did the waiter, who had stepped around behind me and grabbed my other arm. I would not be manhandled by these two. Just let them try to move me to the elevator!

And then an amazing thing happened.

A waiter came crashing out through the kitchen doors, as if someone had hurled him. He gave a terrified look back over his shoulder as a small but furious man in a chef’s hat appeared in the doorway.

“Imbecile!” the chef shouted. “Next time why don’t you just put your whole hand in the food, hey? Yes, your whole hand, or maybe your face! I arrange the food on the plates with care, are you understanding what I am telling to you?
It is part of the art form of cooking, yes? A lovely plate of food is a thing of beauty! And then you, numbskull, come along and put your fat greasy fingers all over my plate, and shake the plate, and move my food all around the plate until it looks like pigs’ vomit!”

“Chef Vlad!” I cried out in delight.

The chef turned. The anger on his face washed away in a second, replaced by astonishment and then confusion as he saw the maître d’ and the waiter, their hands still gripping my arms.

Vlad Herzog marched to my table and looked at the maître d’ severely.

“Monsieur Gagnon, is there some problem here?”

“Not at all, Monsieur Vlad. Just ejecting this ragamuffin.”

“Ragamuffin!” The anger was coming back into Vlad’s face. “Am I hearing you call this gentleman a ragamuffin?”

“Well …” said the maître d’. I felt his grasp loosen and fall away.

“Do you know who this is?” demanded Chef Vlad.

“No,” whimpered the maître d’, looking around at the audience of delighted diners.

“Here, sitting at this table, is Mr. Matt Cruse. He is a good friend of mine. We sailed together aboard the
when she was taken over and nearly wrecked by Vikram Szpirglas. You have heard of him, yes? This young man was in every newspaper in the world. Matt Cruse, pirate slayer, do you hear? A hero!”

“Yes, Monsieur Vlad.”

“Shoo, then,” said the Transylvanian chef with disdain. “Shoo-shoo and do whatever paltry little thing it is you do here. Shoo, now.”

The maître d’ slunk away, and the waiter tried to follow but Chef Vlad caught him by the lapel. “You, stay here. You are going to bring Mr. Cruse a bottle of the ‘43 Champagne d’Artagnan, and bring him some smoked salmon, and the salade du fermier. He is hungry. You are hungry, yes, Mr. Cruse?”

“Starving, Mr. Vlad,” I said with a grin. “Especially when it’s you doing the cooking.”

“You flatter me shamelessly. I like it. Good. Bring him all these things now,” Vlad snapped at the stricken waiter, “and whatever else he so desires. Make sure his glass is never empty. If a plate is finished, bring him another. And bring the bill to me. Do not harass him with it. That would be an atrocity I could never forgive. In my country we deal with these things very seriously. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes, sir, Monsieur Vlad,” said the waiter, hair oil running down his sweaty cheeks.

“Now go. And wipe the grease off your face. It is unsightly.”

The waiter limped off.

“Mr. Vlad, really, this is too generous.”

“Not at all,” he said, sitting down. “I am honoured to feed you again. You are dining alone?”

“No. I’m waiting for Miss Kate de Vries. Do you remember her?”

“Of course I am remembering her! She was your accomplice, yes? A fine young woman. So you are dining with her. Well, well, well …”

I blushed.

“I will cook you a special meal,” Chef Vlad announced. “Something to impress your lady.”

“She’s not my lady.”

“She will be after she sees the champagne and the food I am about to make you.”

“Really, Mr. Vlad—”

“You must trust me. Chef Vlad is not without experience in winning favour with the feminine heart.” He gave a quick smile, as if remembering one, or possibly more, great romantic conquests in his past. “The young lady, as I recall, was a great fish enthusiast, yes?”

I nodded.

“For her, the Arctic char … and you, how could I forget? Smoked Muscovy duck.”

I smiled. He remembered everyone’s favourite meal.

“I will take care of you, Mr. Cruse. When Miss de Vries arrives, you will have a feast before you!”

“Thank you very much.”

I was aware that the other diners were watching, and wondered if they’d all heard Mr. Vlad’s grandiose introduction of me.

“How long have you been working here?” I asked. “I didn’t know you’d left the

“Four months ago. After our little tête-à-tête with Mr.
Szpirglas, I decided the air was no place to cook to the best of my abilities. My feet may not be quite on the ground here, but it is better, I think.”

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