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Authors: Kenneth Oppel

Skybreaker (8 page)

BOOK: Skybreaker
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As I drew closer I heard voices. One of them, I was certain, did not belong to either Kate or Miss Simpkins. I peeped through the crack in the doorway.

There was a gentleman in the library. He was turned away from me, but he looked tall and broad, impressive in his suit and gleaming leather shoes. Hands clasped behind his back, he was admiring a glass case that contained some zoological specimen Kate must have purchased in Paris.

“Miss de Vries, this creature is vicious to behold.”

“Nonsense,” said Kate, sitting nearby in an armchair near the fireplace. I could see her in profile, her face flushed—I hoped only from the merry blaze in the hearth. “It’s a marsupial, Mr. Slater. Its cousin is the kangaroo. You’re upset by the teeth, perhaps?”

“It’s an ugly thing,” he said. “It reminds me of my aunt.”

At this, Kate laughed, a sort of high, tinkling wind-chime laugh that splashed cold through my body. That was a laugh
I had considered mine alone. She had no right to go trilling it out for someone else. I had never heard her mention this Mr. Slater.

“You certainly are an accomplished young lady, Miss de Vries,” he said, turning to her.

I saw that he was indeed a dashing fellow, perhaps in his early twenties. All I knew for sure was that he was older than me, that he cut the figure of a fine gentleman, where I still looked a boy. I tried to see if Miss Simpkins was in the room with them. What on earth were they doing alone?

“And what about you, Mr. Slater?” Kate asked. “Your own accomplishments are very impressive indeed.”

To hear her praise him so warmly made my mouth dry with jealousy and indignation.

“Ah,” Slater said, trying to sound modest, but clearly pleased. “So much of what happens to us in life is luck, don’t you think?”

He came and stood beside her chair, one hand resting on the back.

“I don’t agree with you there,” Kate said. “I think we make our own luck.”

He pursed his lips thoughtfully and gave a small manly chuckle. “A fine notion, to be sure. But chance runs like a river through all our lives, and being prepared for surprise is the best we can do.”

“How fatalistic of you,” said Kate.

“Not at all. I didn’t say we had no control of our lives.
Quite the contrary. I think the man who is dealt bad luck, but makes good despite it, is the most noble of men.”

“And does the same go for women?” Kate inquired.

“When I say man, naturally I mean woman too.”

“I prefer to say it aloud,” Kate remarked.

“Completely understandable, Miss de Vries.”

“Thank you, Mr. Slater.”

Every charming word they exchanged was like a stake driven into my chest. I should have left, but I could not. Rivets held my feet to the ground. I was no more capable of movement than the Eiffel Tower.

“Actually,” said Slater, “I much prefer to have the word woman on my lips.”

As I watched in icy horror, he leaned towards her, and I knew he was about to kiss her. I could not see Kate, for Slater was blocking my view. As if from far away, I heard a door open, and someone must have entered the library, because Slater stood upright and turned with a graceful smile.

“Ah, Miss Simpkins, we were wondering when you’d rejoin us.”

“I was just looking for my book,” said Miss Simpkins. There was a girlish, slightly constricted quality to her voice I’d never heard before. “I must have left it here. Ah! There it is.”

“I’m amazed you have so many books on the go, Marjorie,” I heard Kate say dryly. My view of her face was still blocked, but I imagined there was a small smile on her lips as she looked at her chaperone.

“Really, you two,” said the chaperone, “it is getting rather late.”

“Yes, I must be off,” Mr. Slater said, looking at Kate with merry eyes. With a laugh he added, “I fear Miss Simpkins sees me as a disreputable suitor.”

“Dear sir, not at all,” said Miss Simpkins, coming into view. The colour in her cheeks was high, and she seemed rather flustered. “You are clearly of the most reputable sort. It’s such a shame that my Kate seems to have a penchant for the disreputable kind.”

“Really?” said Mr. Slater. “How intriguing.”

“Marjorie, please,” said Kate, sounding annoyed.

“She prefers cabin boys,” Miss Simpkins said with a titter.

Mr. Slater gave a laugh. “Oh, this must be the famous Matt Cruse, the young lad on the
Aurora
.” He didn’t say it mockingly, but I didn’t like the tinge of amusement in his voice. “Rather taken with him, were you, Miss de Vries?”

Kate said nothing. I still could not see her face. I counted my seismic heartbeats, waiting, then turned and walked away, fast.

Halfway down the stairs I passed Deirdre, who stared at me in shock.

“Monsieur! This is not right!”

“No, it’s not right at all,” I said bitterly. I hurried out the front door and onto the wet cobbled street. It was raining heavily now, and I ran along the Quai de Baudelaire, towards the midnight bulk of Notre Dame. I had
no destination in mind, I just kept running, taking corners and bridges as they loomed up in my smeared vision. On the Left Bank, half soaked, I took the stairs down to the river and found a dry spot underneath a bridge. It was cold. The wind played bassoon through the girders and cables of the bridge’s underside. For a long time, I just stared at the dark water, flowing like mercury into hell’s caverns.

Then my thoughts began to run swiftly. What was she doing with that man? How long had she known him? They seemed very familiar. She laughed for him. Maybe she’d even touched him, or let him kiss her earlier. At the mere idea I felt a volcanic rage in my heart. Slater was tall and handsome and wealthy by the look and sound of it.

I was once a cabin boy. Now I was a student. I would never be wealthy. If I ever managed to graduate from the Academy, the best I could look forward to was an officer’s salary—a year of which would buy the rugs in Kate’s apartment. She was ashamed of me. She thought I was absurd. She could not even say anything when Slater and Miss Simpkins mocked me.

Before meeting Kate, I’d never thought much about money. I did now. I thought of money all the time. It was everywhere. I saw banknotes and coins flashing between the gloved fingers of gentlemen and ladies, brighter than gold ingots. I saw money in my fellow students at the Academy, in their clothes and shoes and pens. I saw it gleaming like jewels in Kate’s dark hair. I saw it like a sheen on her lovely lips. I counted it in the stars.

I’d been a fool to think it wasn’t important. When my mother’s hands became too swollen and painful to work, and my sisters got older, they would need money more than ever. I did not want them to worry, or lack for things, or have my little sisters marry men they didn’t love, just to make ends meet. I wanted to take care of them. Without money, I was useless. Without money, I could be mocked and thrown out of restaurants and pushed aside for the likes of Mr. Slater.

The night passed, taking forever and no time at all. I shivered and pulled my tattered coat around me and felt good and sorry for myself. But before the rising sun had painted the highest gargoyles of Notre Dame red, I had made a decision.

5 / At the Heliodrome

I
WENT TO THE
B
ANQUE DU
Q
UéBEC
and withdrew everything in my savings account. At first I didn’t think they’d let me, I looked so scruffy after spending the night under the bridge. But after comparing my signature with the one on file, and a few whispered words with the manager, the teller counted out the flimsy notes before me. Holding them in my hand, it seemed a trifling amount. I wondered if any decent captain would agree to charter his ship to a sixteen-year-old boy, even with the promise of a cargo bay crammed with riches. I sealed the money in an envelope and hurried out to rue Avro to catch a tram.

I knew I was being rash and wished I had a steady mind to counsel me. I thought of Captain Walken and Baz. Both had always given me good advice. But Captain Walken was piloting the
Aurora
over the Orient this season, and Baz was on leave with his new bride on an island near the Great Barrier Reef. I didn’t know who else to turn to. My professors at the Academy were knowledgeable but distant, and I didn’t feel any special connection with any of them. I dared not approach Dean Pruss, for I knew he would threaten me with expulsion if I carried out my mad scheme.

I hopped onto the tram bound for the Bois de Boulogne and was lucky enough to find a seat. How I wished I could talk things over with Kate. But I refused even to consider it.
She had betrayed me. Whenever I thought of Slater bending towards her, a searing wave of humiliation, anger, and jealousy broke across me, and I had to clamp my teeth to stop myself from baying like a lunatic.

Kate wanted the
Hyperion
.

But she would not have it. All her money could not buy it for her.

It would be mine to claim. I would return to Paris a rich man and the custodian of a coveted zoological collection to boot. And then we’d see if I was so easy to dismiss.

The skyways over Paris were always busy, but they became even more congested as we neared the airship harbour. Some of the luxury liners, like the
Aurora
and
Titania
, moored at the Eiffel Tower, but most airships, and all the commercial vessels, docked at the Paris Aeroport, amid the vast parklands of the Bois de Boulogne. I knew the area well, since all the Academy students came here regularly for lessons and training flights.

Ranged along the outskirts of the aeroport were enormous fuel silos, bearing the crimson insignia of the Aruba Consortium. It was hydrium that gave airships their lift, but it was Aruba fuel that powered their hungry engines. For that matter, it was Aruba fuel that heated and lit Paris, and practically every city in the world.

At the last stop, I hopped off the tram. Overhead, airships circled gracefully, waiting for the harbourmaster’s permission before making their final approaches. The sight of all those ships in the sky never failed to stir me. Even after six
months in Paris, I still felt a bit lumpen on the ground, as though it wasn’t just my body that moved more slowly but also my mind. Everything seemed to take longer. Sometimes I’d catch myself staring at the clouds scudding overhead and wonder why my life wasn’t moving at the same speed. It gave me some comfort now to think I might soon be on one of these ships, bound for the high sky.

I walked along rue Zeppelin, looking for the address Nadira had given me. I now understood the desperation I’d seen last night in her eyes. I wanted the
Hyperion
. I saw its icy hull before my mind’s eye and it seemed an Aladdin’s cave that could solve all my problems. I didn’t know if this fancy key of hers was just a hoax, but if Nadira was brave enough to try to salvage a ship at twenty thousand feet, she might be a valuable shipmate.

The street was lined with ship’s provisioners and rooming houses for the harbour’s constant ebb and flow of sky sailors. After the grand boulevards of central Paris, rue Zeppelin had a down-at-heels look. Even at this early hour of the morning, there were loud sailors reeking with drunkenness, prostitutes standing boldly in doorways. One caught my eye and winked, and I was afraid she might step up and try to talk to me, so I looked straight ahead and hurried on. None of this was new to me; I’d seen my share of air harbours around the world.

Nadira’s address was a rooming house above a sailmaker’s shop. It looked a little more presentable than most, and as I went through into the courtyard, I was met by a jolly-looking landlady mopping the flagstones.

“Ah, the gypsy princess. But she’s gone out, my dear.”

“I don’t suppose she said when she’d be back.”

“No. But if you tell me your name, I’ll let her know you called.”

“Matt Cruse,” I said, wondering if I should be giving out my name.

“Ah, well in that case, mon cher, she left a message for you.”

She disappeared inside for a moment, leaving me alone in the courtyard. Through the ground floor windows I could see a team of sailmakers sitting at long tables, painstakingly stitching together great bolts of goldbeater’s skin into airship gas cells. Hydrium was the lightest gas in the world—or how else could such enormous vessels take to the skies—but it was also wily, and it could make its escape through the tiniest of gaps. The goldbeater’s skin was made from cows’ intestines, specially treated so it was impermeable.

The landlady returned holding a sealed envelope.

“There you are.”

“Thank you very much.”

Nadira must have been pretty sure of me to leave a note. Her handwriting was crimped and awkward, not so unlike mine. “At harbourmaster’s, trying to find a ship. Meet me there.” And that was all. Quite presumptuous of her really. I wondered how much experience she had with ships. Certainly she seemed plenty capable in every other way.

The Paris Aeroport was the largest in the world, and it took me almost half an hour to reach the harbourmaster’s
office, walking past countless open-air berths. Tethered to their mooring masts, the airships floated ten feet above the ground. All around me were passengers boarding and disembarking, stevedores lowering freight from cargo bays, sailmakers patching, engineers and machinists inspecting fins and engines.

The harbourmaster’s offices occupied a remodelled hangar, and inside was all the bustle of the stock exchange. Hundreds of clerks went about their frenzied business of tracking the comings and goings of vessels from around the world; customs officials checked cargos and paperwork; officers negotiated their berthing fees and made out work orders. There seemed no method in the place, and I wondered how I would ever find Nadira in all this.

I made my way over to the great wall where all the day’s shipping news was posted. Here you could find the name of every vessel in port, her captain, cargo, berth, engine size. I knew what I was after. A powerful tug with plenty of engines that could haul the
Hyperion
back to earth. But none of the information posted on the boards would tell me if the ship was capable of high flight. I was doubtful we could even find such a ship.

“I’ve got an interesting lead,” Nadira said, suddenly beside me.

No hello, no sign of relief that I’d actually shown up. Gone were the trousers and leather overcoat. She was swathed in a beautiful orange sari, and I must say, she looked altogether dazzling in it.

“You’ve been busy,” I muttered.

“I saw no point waiting. I didn’t know if you’d come. There’s a ship at berth 32.”

“A tug?” I asked.

“Salvage ship. The clerk said it had set some sort of record for above-cloud flying.”

“Really?” I scarcely knew whether to believe it.

“According to the shipping news,” Nadira said, “she’s not going anywhere this week. And the name’s promising too.”

“What’s that?”

“The
Sagarmatha
,” she said. “It’s the Nepalese word for—”

“Everest. I know.”

“We should go look at her.”

She knew enough to call a ship a “she,” and I wondered if she’d spent a lot of time around harbours and airships. She certainly seemed to have no fear of rooftop acrobatics. I remembered the way she’d surfed down the slate, pirouetted round the weather vane, and launched herself through the garret window. It was quite something.

We left the swirling crowds of the harbourmaster’s office and set off for berth 32.

“How were you planning on paying for the charter?” I asked her.

“I wasn’t.”

I stopped. “Then what were you planning?”

“We offer the captain a cut.”

This was certainly preferable to spending all my savings.

“How big a cut?” I asked.

“I thought you weren’t interested in money,” she remarked.

“Oh, I’ve changed my tune.”

“I was thinking fifty percent,” she said.

That didn’t seem unreasonable, since he was putting up the ship and the fuel, and bearing a huge weight of the risk.

“And how were you planning on splitting the rest?” I asked.

“Half and half.”

“Fine.” If there were millions on board, as everyone seemed to think, there’d be enough for everyone. “But I want all the taxidermy.”

“The what?” she asked.

“Dead animals, stuffed.” I cleared my throat. “Apparently Grunel had quite a big collection aboard.”

“You’re welcome to it,” she said.

“Thank you. We need to be careful. We better make sure we trust the captain and crew. That key around your neck is easily stolen.”

“Only from my dead body,” she said.

“They might not have a problem with that,” I told her.

“What about you? Once you tell them the coordinates, what’s to stop them from tumbling you out the hatchway at ten thousand feet?”

I thought for a moment. “Well, it would be awfully poor manners.”

I think she smiled, but I wasn’t sure. “We need to find someone with impeccable manners then.”

Berth 32 was inside the new heliodrome, at the north end of the aeroport. All of Paris was buzzing about the heliodrome because it had just been officially named the largest man-made structure on earth. Its vast dome rose up over the aeroport like some enormous mosque, with minaret control towers soaring from its four corners. Within, it offered protected mooring for countless airships.

We stepped inside. The ceiling was so high you could be forgiven for thinking it was the vault of heaven itself. Enormous retractable doors on all sides allowed airships to enter and exit wherever the winds were most favourable. One was just coming in now, a mid-sized liner called the Pompeii, which was being walked in by the ground crew. The Pompeii was six hundred feet long, but within the heliodrome, she looked like a child’s toy.

A network of pedestrian catwalks was suspended high above the floor, so as not to interfere with the movement of the airships in and out, or the ground crews. We started up a spiral staircase and climbed the two hundred and fifty steps to the catwalks. I paused, taking in the stunning view. I could see the entire hangar, and there must have been close to a hundred ships currently docked inside. I asked someone where berth 32 was and got pointed in the right direction.

An entire section of the heliodrome was devoted to shipbuilding, and I saw some massive alumiron skeletons, all their ribs and vertebrae showing. Another ship was closer to completion, and the sailmakers were inflating the huge gas cells within her mainframe. Still others were being fitted
with their outer skin. From start to finish, the building of an airship could take years.

We were halfway across the heliodrome when, to my astonishment, I saw Kate de Vries walking towards us along a converging catwalk. She wore a purple tailored suit with a fur collar and cuffs, and a wide-brimmed hat sprouting violet feathers. Beside her strode Mr. Slater. We came face to face and stopped, fourteen stories above the earth, in the dead centre of the heliodrome.

“Miss de Vries,” I said.

“Mr. Cruse,” she returned. There was a terrible moment of silence as everyone looked at everyone else. No introductions were offered.

“Might I have a moment alone with you?” Kate said to me.

“I don’t see why not.”

“Excuse us just a moment, please.” She smiled politely to Nadira and Mr. Slater, and the two of us walked off a ways.

“So, who’s your charming gypsy friend?” Kate asked conversationally.

“That’s Nadira.”

“Lovely name,” she said.

“Isn’t it?”

“Have you known her long?” Kate inquired.

“Practically forever. I’m surprised I never mentioned her to you.”

“Look,” Kate said, putting a hand on my arm, “I’ve been trying to reach you at the Academy. Where have you been?”

I moved my arm away. “Making plans.”

“Deirdre told me you called last night,” Kate said.

“Yes. I spied you with your gentleman friend. Mr. Slater, I believe.”

She smiled. “I can explain.”

“You don’t need to explain anything. I’m turning a blind eye. Just like Miss Simpkins.” I wished I had been blind, rather than see Slater bending over her. “You can do whatever you want.”

“You think I’m interested in him?” said Kate.

“I saw you kiss him.”

“He tried to kiss me!”

“And did you let him?” I demanded.

“Fortunately Marjorie entered the room.”

I didn’t think that exactly answered my question. “It’s none of my business anyway,” I said coldly.

“Ah, but it is your business, very much so.” Her eyes twinkled. “It’s our business.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“That gentleman over there,” she said, “is going to fly us to the
Hyperion
.”

“I never said I was going.”

“Of course you’re going,” she said.

“Maybe I am, but who says with you?”

“Oh, stop being dramatic, Matt. Mr. Slater has a ship that can go very, very high.” She raised an eyebrow significantly.

I stared stupidly for a second. “You’re not serious.”

“He built one,” Kate told me. “Just six months ago.”

“A skybreaker?” I breathed in amazement. I looked over at
Slater. “He’s awfully young to have his own ship. Does he come from money?”

“Made every penny himself, I gather,” Kate replied. “He struck out on his own and did awfully well.”

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