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Authors: Kenneth Oppel

Skybreaker (5 page)

BOOK: Skybreaker

“That’s something.”

“I don’t give two hoots about the gold! But wouldn’t I like to see his bestiary! Why don’t we get her?”

I gave a laugh. “Just like that?”

“Why not?”

“She’s too high. She can’t be reached.”

“Just because you failed.”

“If we’d gone any higher, we’d all have died.”

“Well, there’s got to be some way.”

Kate was not one to let a little trifle like death stop her. Looking at her eyes, I could tell she was serious, and with some alarm, I started to feel her gravitational pull.

“She’s drifting at around twenty thousand feet,” I said. “It’s freezing cold up there, and that’s not the worst of it. The air’s too thin to breathe. At that altitude, the gas cells explode and the engines fail.”

“Because the air pressure’s so low, is that right?”

I nodded, impressed. “The internal combustion engine wasn’t designed to work at those heights.”

“What about turbocharging?” she suggested casually.

I looked at her carefully. “Now you’re scaring me. You’ve been thinking about this already, haven’t you!”

“A girl’s permitted to think, isn’t she, Mr. Cruse?”

“Why do I have the terrible feeling you’ve already made plans, and I’m just getting mangled into them?”

“But it is possible, about the engines, isn’t it?”

“Theoretically, yes. If you pumped air into the engines, to keep them at sea-level pressure, they could operate at any altitude. Or you could just pressurize the entire engine car.”

Kate nodded innocently. “Just something I read about. A type of ship called a skybreaker.”

I sighed. I didn’t want to go encouraging her.

“So you’ve heard of them?” she asked.

“Well, we’ve talked about them in class. I think only a few have ever been made, and most are still in the experimental stage. There are lots of problems with them. It’s not just the engines. At high altitude your hydrium expands so much
you’d have to vent huge amounts of it. And if you vent too much, you lose all your lift, and then you’re finished. It almost happened to us on the Flotsam.”

Kate nodded thoughtfully. “I’m sure some clever fellow could solve that problem.”

“There’s not much point,” I said, and then started thinking about it a little more. “Although … you would be above the weather, which means you wouldn’t have to fly around it when it’s bad. And the thinner air means less resistance, so you’d go faster on less fuel.”

Kate was beaming at me.

“But this is all hypothetical,” I hurried on. “As far as I know, no one’s got to that stage yet.”

“I get the feeling you don’t really want the

“No sense yearning after what we can’t have.”

“I think that’s precisely the whole point of life,” Kate insisted.

“Well, I’d find some other impossible dream that’s safer. Anyway, say you did find a proper skybreaker. Not many captains would be willing to risk their lives on something so dangerous.”

“Oh, come on! If there was treasure waiting for them?”

“Rumoured, not proven.”

“Grunel was one of the richest men in Europa.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Matt, how many people would have the
’s coordinates?”

“Mr. Domville, if he recovers. Tritus might remember them, but probably only a general idea. Same with the bridge crew.
The chart was completely ruined by water. I saw it when we landed. You couldn’t read a thing.”

“You remember, though,” she said.

I nodded. “But it doesn’t matter. The
is drifting. She’s carried along by the winds at twenty thousand feet. I saw her almost three days ago. Who’s to say where she is now?”

This did seem to stump her. “But you have a rough idea of her direction and speed?”

“Very, very rough. The winds change all the time. She could be anywhere over the globe by now.”

“Your whole attitude is very defeatist,” Kate said.

“Not defeatist. Honest. I just like my goals a bit more attainable.”

“How frightfully practical of you.”

For a few minutes we ate in silence. The champagne didn’t taste as fizzy as before.

“You know, I’m rather peeved with you,” she said.

“I can see that!”

“On quite a different matter, actually. I’ve heard there’s a ball at the Airship Academy next weekend.”

I’d been hoping she wouldn’t find out. “Yes …”

“Were you planning on going?”

“Well, I—”

“Because if you were going, and didn’t invite me, I might be a little miffed.”


“Put out. Upset. Angry, even.”

“If I were going, there’s no one else in the world I’d rather invite.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. Her expression was a mixture of longing and expectation—and something else: mischief. “Gosh, I haven’t been to a ball in ages!”

It was a formal affair, the Autumn Ball, with mandatory black tie for the gentlemen. There was a sumptuous dinner in the grand hall, and afterwards dancing. Aboard the
, I’d spent years around ladies and gentlemen in all their best finery, but I’d been serving them. I couldn’t imagine being one of them. I wouldn’t fit in, just like I didn’t fit in here in the Jewels Verne. Most of my fellow students at the Academy were older than me by at least a year, and many of them were from very wealthy families. Half the time I felt I should be serving them drinks.

“Why don’t you want to go?” Kate asked.

I was too embarrassed to tell her how expensive the tickets were, and that I could ill afford them—or the cost of renting a dinner jacket for that matter.

“Would Miss Simpkins even let you go with the likes of me?” I asked.

“The blind eye, remember.”

“This might take two blind eyes.”

“I’ll get her a cane.”

“I don’t know how to dance,” I admitted, which was true enough.

“Ah. I could help you out there. If I were invited, that is.”

I took a breath. “Miss de Vries, would you do me the honour of accompanying me to the Autumn Ball?”

“I think I’m busy that evening, actually.”


“Only joking.” She couldn’t stop herself laughing. “I’d love to come. Thank you very much. Lovely. That’s that settled.”

“I’m glad you can tick that off your list,” I said, grinning.

“There’s still the

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Someone’s going to get her. Why not us? Grunel’s collection should be brought back to earth and put in a museum.”

“A museum named after you, perhaps?”

“Perhaps. I don’t understand why you’re not more interested, Matt. You’d get awfully rich!”

I wondered if she wanted me rich, but said nothing.

“I must fly,” she said, looking at her wristwatch. “I’ll be late for class as it is.”

“How much champagne have you had?”

“Just the one glass. I’m very responsible, I’ll have you know. I’d offer you a lift, but it’s only a single-seater.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” I said. “It’s just a quick walk along the river for me.”

“You don’t trust my flying, do you?”

“I just don’t care for ornithopters.”

“Have you flown in one before?”

“Well, no.”

“Widen your horizons, Mr. Cruse.”

“You’re quite right.”

I stood and pulled out her chair.

“You’re sure about the bill,” she said softly.

“It’s all taken care of,” I assured her.

We made our way to the elevator. The maître d’ smiled weakly as we passed.

“Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” I said to him. “My compliments to the chef.”

We asked the elevator man to take us down to the ornithopter hangar. Stepping out, I could see the docking trapezes and great pulleys and tracks that moved the feathered craft to their berths and back to the launch position at the platform’s edge.

“Mine’s the lovely coppery one, over there,” Kate told the harbourmaster proudly.

“Very good, Miss de Vries. We’ll move it into position for you. Won’t be a moment.”

There were few people about, and I took Kate’s hand and drew her into a hidden corner. I pressed her against the girders and kissed her. Her mouth felt a little hard at first, for I’d taken her by surprise, but then it softened into mine. For a few delicious moments we were back in the island forest where I’d first kissed her, and tasted her lips and tears mingled. I wanted all of her, all at once, every scent and surface of her. I wanted to bottle her like ambrosia.

“A kiss like that,” Kate said when we finally drew apart, “is usually followed by a proposal of marriage.”

“Is it now?” I said, smiling, but feeling a bit sick at the same time.

“In many circles, yes. But I think that’s a very old-fashioned way of thinking, don’t you?”


“You should really get to know who you’re kissing before any of that.”

“Very modern of you.”

“Anyway,” she said, “I don’t think either of us is interested in that marriage nonsense.”

“No,” I said with relief, then looked at her. “You mean you think the idea of marrying me is nonsense?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh.” I wondered if she was being honest.

The idea of marriage was absolutely terrifying to me, but I hoped she didn’t feel the same. My friend Baz, who’d worked aboard the
with me, had got married in Sydney a couple months ago, and I’d been at his wedding. I kept staring at him as he walked down the aisle, not quite able to believe he was going through with it. I kept waiting for him to hurdle the church pews, vault through a window, and keep running into the Australian Outback. But he didn’t, and suddenly I did not understand him, or feel I could talk to him as I had. He was married now. Different. He certainly seemed his usual jovial self at the banquet afterwards. But seeing his beautiful bride on his arm made me feel young and faintly ridiculous. There was no one in the world I wanted to be with more
than Kate, but I did not want to marry her, not yet anyway. I still had nearly two years left at the Academy. And I was not at all sure she would even say yes to me.

“Your ornithopter is ready, Miss de Vries!” the harbourmaster called out.

We walked out to the edge of the platform, where her ornithopter was hanging expectantly from its trapeze.

“Thank you for a delightful lunch,” Kate said as I helped her up into the cockpit. “And thank you for inviting me to the ball. It’s a shame I’ll probably miss it.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked in surprise.

“Because I’ll be on my way to the
. And you will too.”

She gave me no time to reply, for she’d started the ornithopter’s engine, which made quite a roar as it got the wings flapping. I stood back, shaking my head. She flashed me a smile, adjusted her goggles and hat, and revved the engine to full. When the wings were a blur, she gave the harbourmaster the thumbs-up. The trapeze released, and down she plunged in her ornithopter for a few heart-stopping seconds before levelling out and soaring skyward.

3 / Putting on the Ritz

by the time I got back to the Academy. In the porter’s lodge there was a message waiting for me from the dean, Mr. Ruprecht Pruss. At your earliest convenience, he had written, which I took to mean right away.

I started down one of the great stone hallways towards his office. Narrow arched windows let in streams of late afternoon sun. The Academy was largely deserted; everyone was still out on their training tours. Mine had been cut short five days. Coming home early was virtually unheard of, and I felt like a failure. I was worried people would think I’d been kicked off my ship because of incompetence or recklessness. I wasn’t surprised Dean Pruss had summoned me. I hadn’t even had a chance to write my formal report yet, but I suppose he wanted to know firsthand why I was back so early. I waited only a few minutes in the vestibule of his office before his secretary told me to go in.

“I understand you’re a celebrity once again, Mr. Cruse,” the dean said, motioning me to a chair in front of his grand desk.

I was never quite sure when Mr. Pruss was being sarcastic. I took aerostatics with him, and though he rarely spoke directly to me, he sometimes talked about me, before the entire class. “Of course, not all of us here have been fortunate enough to land a nine-hundred-foot airship on a sandy beach, like Mr.
Cruse,” or, “It is never advisable to have a fist fight on the airship’s elevators when in flight, as Mr. Cruse might attest.”

At first I’d felt flattered to be singled out like this, but after a while, it started making me uncomfortable, as if I were some kind of a circus freak, and Mr. Pruss the mocking ringmaster.

He’d been a distinguished pilot until a motorcar accident had confined him to a wheelchair. Some people said the accident hadn’t just damaged his legs, but had left him all twisted up inside too. It seemed perfectly understandable to me, for being landlocked so would make me bitter too.

On his desk I spotted today’s newspaper, with the news of the
on the cover. He swirled it around for me to see.

“This is quite a story,” he said. “It’s true, I take it?”

“It is, sir.”

“Perhaps you could give me your personal account.”

As succinctly as I could, I told him of our voyage through the Devil’s Fist, and then skyward to try to salvage the

“You disobeyed the captain,” was the first thing Mr. Pruss said when I finished, and it shook me.

“Not directly, sir. He wasn’t thinking properly, because of the altitude. He never actually told me not to vent gas.”

“But he did not order you to do so.”


“Or to turn the ship around?”

“No, sir.”

“You realize what you did was a serious breach of aeronautical protocol.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It was, in fact, mutinous.”

I drew a sharp breath. Mutiny! “We all would have died, sir.”

“Perhaps, yes.”

I wondered if Mr. Pruss would rather I had done nothing and sent us all to an icy airborne grave.

“So, are you a hero or a mutineer, Mr. Cruse? An interesting question, don’t you think?”

I did not find it at all interesting. “At the time, it seemed the right thing to do, sir.”

“Well, given Captain Tritus’s conduct, I doubt this question will ever be posed in a formal Sky Guard tribunal. The Flotsam used to be a perfectly respectable vessel, you know, before Tritus gained its command. We certainly won’t be using it again for our training tours. Would you agree with that, Mr. Cruse?”

“I would, sir.”

He rolled his wheelchair back from the desk and moved around to the side, where a patch of sunlight warmed the wood. Maybe it was just the light, but for the first time, the hardness in his face seemed to disappear and his eyes took on a kindly glow.

“I saw her once too, you know. The
. We were off Rio de Janeiro and we spotted something above us, very high.
We couldn’t read her name, but I saw her profile. I knew there were no ships of her type still sailing. It could only have been the

“It was quite something,” I said.

“You know who the
was carrying, do you?”

“Theodore Grunel.”

“Very good. Reputedly carrying his life’s belongings and riches. And who should telegraph me this morning but the Grunel family. Yes, quite a surprise. One of Theodore’s grandsons, Matthias. Once they saw the story in the papers, they made inquiries. Apparently Captain Tritus refused to speak to them. Then they managed to get a hold of the ship’s transit papers in Jakarta and found the name of the navigator.”

“Mr. Domville,” I said.

“That’s it. They were hoping he might give them the last coordinates of the
. But apparently he has died.”

For a moment I could say nothing, I was so dismayed. The one decent man aboard the whole wretched ship.

“When?” I asked.

“Just last night, of respiratory failure.”

If only Tritus had turned around earlier—or I had. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I said.

“Yes. Very upsetting. It seems Matthias Grunel discovered your name listed as assistant navigator in the ship’s papers. He’s wondering if maybe you can shed some light on the location of the
. He’d like to meet with you.”

“He’s here in Paris?”

“Flew in this morning from Zurich. I told him I was doubtful
you could be of any help. The navigational charts are no doubt with Tritus.”

“There are no charts,” I said. “They were destroyed when a water tank burst.”

“Ah. So, presumably no one has accurate coordinates.”

I hesitated a moment and then said, “I saw the exact coordinates as Mr. Domville wrote them down.”

“Planning a little treasure hunt of your own, Mr. Cruse?”

I gave an uncomfortable laugh. “No, sir, not at all.” But I thought of Kate and all the grand plans she’d already made for us. Dean Pruss was staring at me, and for an uncomfortable moment I wondered if he was going to ask me for the coordinates.

“It would be a foolhardy pilot who tried to reach the
at that height,” the dean said.

“I agree, sir.”

“Still, given the ship’s contents, some may try. If I were younger, and had my legs, maybe I’d be foolhardy enough too, who’s to say? I wouldn’t be surprised if the Grunels offered you a small reward for any information. That could hardly be unwelcome, eh?”

I wondered if he too saw the scuffs and scrapes in my uniform.

“What you tell them is your own business, of course. The
doesn’t belong to anyone anymore. Not until someone boards her and claims the right of salvage.”

I thought of Kate, of how much she wanted that frozen bestiary. I thought of all the money, glinting coldly in the
ship’s vaults. Even Tritus did not have her coordinates—a rough idea at best, given his airsick brain. The thought of him claiming the salvage was revolting to me—after what he’d done to his ship and crew.

Someone’s going to get her, Kate had said. Why not us?

I’d been holding my breath, and now let it out in a silent gust. Kate could dream if she wanted, but the
was probably untouchable, and anyway, I had more pressing things on my mind. Exams were in less than three weeks, and I had a lot of studying to do. If anyone was going to undertake a risky salvage attempt, it seemed right it should be Grunel’s own family. Best to give them what they wanted, take the reward money, and be done with it.

“He asked if he could see you at eight o’clock,” Dean Pruss said.

Across the desk he slid a thick card embossed with the insignia of the Ritz hotel. In beautiful script was written: Matthias Grunel. Trafalgar Suite.

“Of course.” I took the card.

“Be careful, Mr. Cruse. The Grunels may not be the only people seeking those coordinates. This afternoon, apparently, there was someone asking for you at the lodge. I’ve instructed the porters not to give out any information about you.”

“Thank you, sir.” I felt a first flicker of apprehension.

The dean looked at me carefully. “You seem a sensible sort, Mr. Cruse. I don’t think you’ll be one to go chasing after phantom gold.”

“Absolutely not, sir.”

“Good lad. I daresay your thoughts are on your upcoming exams.” He looked at a ledger on his desk. “I see your marks in aerostatics and physics are far from satisfactory.”

“I know, sir.”

“Instinctive ability will take you only so far, Mr. Cruse. Theory and mathematics are equally, if not more, important here. Past heroics will not win you a flight certificate. You’ve got a great deal of work ahead of you if you plan on passing your second term.”

“Yes, sir.”

He rolled himself back behind the shadow of his desk. “And if I could have your full written report by the end of the week, that would be most appreciated.”

The Academy was built around a large quadrangle, with a wide arched entranceway overlooked by the porter’s lodge. The dormitories occupied the south and east wings, and were divided into several houses. I was lodged in Dornier House, on the second floor, in a room just big enough for a narrow bed, a chest of drawers, a desk, and a closet. My window looked out onto the quad. It was noisy on the weekends, especially in warm weather, when the students drank and caroused until all hours. Right now the residence was eerily quiet, and I didn’t like it. Apart from the prehistoric caretakers treading the hallways, there were only a few teachers, clerks, and a handful of upper-year students who, for one reason or another, hadn’t gone out on training tours.

In the great dining hall, the rows of long wooden refectory tables were all but deserted as I ate my supper. For company I had only the giant portraits of famous aviators and past deans looming over me. Clement Ader, Billy Bishop, Amelia Gearhart, Henri Giffard, Camille von Zeppelin. It was humbling company to be in, and I’d certainly been humbled since coming to the Academy.

I was not the star pupil everyone had expected. Before working as a cabin boy, I’d attended school for only a few years. I could read and write. I could add, subtract, and multiply. But at the Academy I was suddenly expected to know all sorts of fancy math, with symbols I’d never seen before. Working hard, I could just manage the Latin, and the expository essays, and the history, but those numbers vexed me to no end, jittery and slippery as eels. I just could not make sense of them. It seemed like all my years aboard the
, watching and listening in the Control Car, counted for nothing. I had launched a nine-hundred-foot airship; I had flown her. But I could not explain how it all worked in equations and scientific laws. Some nights I would glare at the pages in my textbook, and I might as well have been trying to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. I told no one of my difficulties. I was too humiliated. I had dreamed of attending the Academy; all I’d ever wanted to do was fly.

I looked up into the pale eyes of Dean Pruss’s portrait and swallowed down the rest of my food with some difficulty. He was right: instinctive ability was not enough. I was not good at school, but I would work harder. If others could learn it, I
could learn it. I would work until I mastered those numbers and made them do their tricks for me. I gave the dean’s portrait a wink and left the dining room.

Nearly all the windows were dark as I crossed the quad. I’d be glad when everyone returned from their tours and the Academy was back to its usual bustling self. My heels clapped too loudly against the paving stone. Maybe it was the dean’s words about a stranger asking for me, but I felt ill at ease. My eyes fell into their crow’s nest rhythm, scanning the horizons for hidden dangers. I hurried into Dornier House, feeling silly.

I had a little time before heading off to the Ritz, so I buffed up my shoes and put on a clean shirt. I hoped my uniform was enough to get me past the doorman.

“Where you off to, then?” Douglas, the night porter, called out as I passed the lodge.

“Oh, just a meeting at the Ritz,” I said.

“Quite the man of the world now, aren’t we!”

I gave a cheery wave as I pushed through the great oak door and started down the steps. At the bottom, I glanced back over my shoulder. To the left of the Academy’s vaulted entranceway, someone was standing in the shadows among the ornamental shrubs and trees, not exactly lurking, but not really wanting to be noticed either. I did not stop, but kept walking, and turned onto the busy avenue that ran along the river.

It was raining lightly, so I unfurled my umbrella. After twenty steps I looked back towards the Academy and could
no longer see the figure by the doors. There were plenty of people behind me on the sidewalk now, most with their faces half hidden beneath their umbrellas.

Horse-drawn carriages and motorcars vied noisily for space on the road. Barges and pleasure boats glittered on the water. Across the Seine, the city glowed invitingly. The man at the newspaper kiosk gave me a friendly nod as I passed.

The whole idea of being followed seemed idiotic right now, shenanigans from a penny novelette. Cutting across Place de la Concorde and into the Tuileries gardens, I left behind the crowds and noise. It was suddenly darker among the trees, the sound of motorcars and horses dulled. My unease returned. Up ahead a great fountain trilled water. I turned onto a path that would take me more quickly back to the street.

“Excuse me.”

I doubt I would have stopped if it hadn’t been a girl’s voice.

I turned. It was a gypsy girl, no older than me. She wore a long leather coat. An exotic scarf was wrapped around her head, strands of night-black hair hung damply across her face and forehead. She did not have an umbrella. From the moment I set foot in Paris I had been warned about the gypsies. They’d rob you blind, a train porter had told me; they didn’t even need to touch you, a shop owner had commented, they could spirit your pocketbook from your vest just by looking you in the eye.

“Do you have a minute to talk?”

Her accent was English, I noticed. “I’m in a hurry,” I said.

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