"Something's wrong." He pulled himself up.
Fresh air blew across his face, and the engines' unmuffled roar filled his ears. Keeping his head down, he scanned the forest.
Nothing but trees and undergrowth. Where had the scout craft gone?
Then Alek spotted one in the distance, running away at top speed.
"What the ... ?" he began, then saw a reddish flicker coming from the rear exhaust ports. He pulled himself a little higher and saw what it was.
A hissing glob of phosphorus was stuck to the engine casing. Still burning, it billowed smoke into the air. Alek lifted his gaze and saw the red column drifting up into the bright sky.
"So much for capturing me alive," he muttered, and dropped back through the hatch.
Count Volger glared at him. "Glad to see you've regained your - "
"Klopp!" Alek shouted. "Run serpentine!"
The master of mechaniks hesitated, then began to weave the Stormwalker through the trees.
"Turn harder, man! That last flare hit us. It's stuck to the armor like a mud ball and sending up smoke!" The others just stared at him, and Alek cried, "Those scouts are running off as quickly as they can!"
Awareness finally dawned on Klopp's face. He pulled the walker to the left for a few long strides, then back to the right.
This was why the frigate hadn't fired yet. Its gunners were waiting for the target to be marked and for the scouts to get clear. But now the Stormwalker was in for a thrashing.
Alek looked at the rear exhaust gauge - still hot. That column of red smoke was still rising above the trees.
He turned to Klopp. "Is there any way to put it out?"
"Phosphorous? Water won't work, and it'll burn through anything we try to smother it with. We'll have to wait till it burns out."
"How long?" Volger asked.
"Could be half an hour," Klopp said. "Long enough for them to - "
A rumbling sounded in the distance.
Alek shouted a warning, but Klopp was already twisting the saunters, driving the walker into a hard turn. The machine thrashed through a stand of saplings, and Alek grabbed the hand straps, slipping on the shell casings rolling across the metal deck.
Then a sovereign boom rolled through the Stormwalker. The sound shook Alek to his bones, and the world suddenly tipped sideways. He hung from the hand straps, feet swinging in the air.
Klopp's hands never left the controls, and somehow the walker staggered back upright. It swerved, narrowly missing a beech tree. Heavy branches lashed at them, sending an explosion of leaves through the half-closed viewport.
"How long till the next volley?" Volger's voice was dry.
"About forty seconds," Klopp said.
"We have to get that flare off!" Alek shouted. "Give me something to hack at it with!"
Volger shook his head. "It's too dangerous, Your Highness."
Alek had to suppress a hysterical laugh, tearing open the pilot's storage locker. "Dangerous, Volger? Compared with letting ourselves be blown to pieces?"
"I'll do it, then," Volger said.
Alek's hand closed on a sword he'd never seen before. He pulled it from the locker - an old cavalry saber, much heavier than the swords they fenced with, perfect for the job.
"I've been climbing on walkers since I was ten, Volger," he said, sticking the scabbard through his belt.
Volger placed his hand on Alek's shoulder. "That sword is two centuries old! Your father - "
"Can't help us," Alek said. "Reload the machine guns in case those scouts come back."
Without waiting for a reply he pulled himself up and out.
Up top, branches slapped at his face, and the machine rocked beneath him like an unbroken horse. Klopp was doing his best serpentine. The hot metal of the engine casing burned Alek's fingers even through his piloting gloves.
The marker flare was stuck among the Stormwalker's exhaust pipes, hissing and spitting, driven brighter by the machine's speed. Red smoke trailed out, spreading as it rose into the brilliant sky.
Alek drew the saber and clutched it with one hand, holding the scabbard with the other. He raised the sword high, then brought the blade down hard.
The flare split open under his blow, but only blazed brighter, like a burning log jabbed with a poker.
Alek raised the sword again and saw flames running along his blade - the fire was clinging to the metal! He swallowed, wondering what would happen if the infernal substance were stuck to someone's skin.
"AN HEIRLOOM SAVES THE HEIR."
Lights flickered through the trees. Alek looked up and glimpsed the frigate in the distance, smoke pouring from her guns. As he knelt for a firmer handhold, the cannon's rumble followed at the tardy speed of sound.
Long seconds later the shells hit. The shock wave battered his ears, spraying dirt into his face and lifting the walker beneath him.
Alek felt its massive feet hit the ground again, the machine staggering like a newborn colt. He opened his eyes - just in time to duck beneath a tree branch whipping across the walker's head.
Now there was no sound except the ringing in his ears, and his eyes stung with debris and smoke. But he could feel Klopp righting the walker, regaining control.
The frigate would have their range now. Each time they fired, the shells would land closer.
Alek stooped again and raised the saber, hacking at the sticky flare, sending up sparks and angry gouts of smoke. Embers fell from the blade onto his uniform, burning into the leather piloting jacket like hot coals. He smelled his own hair singeing in the heat.
A volley of flares shot past, the retreating scouts taking one last shot at the Stormwalker. Alek ignored the near misses and kept battering at the flame.
Finally a big chunk came free, sticking to his saber like honey on a stick. He waved the blade back and forth in the wind, but that only drove the flare brighter.
Alek swore. The frigate's guns would be loaded again in another few seconds. There was only one thing to do.
He rose into a half crouch, one arm wrapped around an exhaust pipe.
"Sorry, Father," he whispered, and threw the ancient saber as hard as he could into the forest.
He kicked at the last few burning pieces clinging to the Stormwalker's armor, then crawled toward the open hatch.
"Klopp!" he shouted down. "Go straight ahead, as fast as you can!"
Alek glanced back before climbing inside. The ancient sword was still burning back among the trees, sending up red smoke. The gunners on the frigate would think that the Stormwalker had staggered to a halt, or fallen after that last barrage. Hopefully they'd pound the spot a few more times before sending the scouts back in to check.
And by that time the walker would be kilometers away.
As Alek's adrenaline faded, his body began to throb with pain. His hands and knees were bruised and burned, and the leather of his uniform smelled like scorched meat. He hoped Volger had something for burns along with his supply of family heirlooms and pointless secrets.
As Alek lowered himself into the hatchway, Volger's eyes widened, taking in his singed hair and smoldering uniform.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he said, collapsing into the commander's chair. "Just keep moving."
The mountains were rising taller in the viewport. The border couldn't be far now; the sky up ahead was empty of flares. Soon they'd been in friendly darkness again.
The frigate's guns rumbled again, but the shells hit far behind them, hardly breaking the Stormwalker's stride. The Germans were still firing at his father's sword.
Alek smiled - so much for their secret weapons.
He let his eyes close. After a month of running, finally he could rest. Maybe his life would begin to make sense again, once the Stormwalker had reached safety.
No more surprises for a while.
"I should like to see your bees, Mr. Sharp."
Deryn looked up tiredly from the sketch pad, putting her pencil aside. Her last watch of the day had just ended - four nervous hours of keeping an eye out for German aircraft - but Dr. Barlow never seemed to sleep. She looked well spruced in traveling coat and bowler hat, and Tazza bounced at the boffin's side, always happy to be exploring the ship.
"My bees, ma'am?"
"Don't be tiresome, Mr. Sharp. I meant, of course, the Leviathan's bee colonies. Do you always draw while shaving?"
Deryn glanced at her straight razor in its mug, remembering that half her face was covered in lather. She'd been waiting for someone to pass the open cabin door and witness the deception. But after a few minutes she'd given up posing by the mirror. Even copying sketches from the Manual of Aeronautics's chapter on thermal inversions was more interesting than pretending to shave.
She wiped her face with a towel. "That's the life of a middy, ma'am. Always studying ... and giving tours to visiting boffins, of course."
"Of course," Dr. Barlow said sweetly. In her two days aboard she'd toured practically every inch of the airship, dragging Newkirk and Deryn from deck to deck, onto the topside, even to the Huxley rookeries in the gut of the whale. There was no fobbing the duty off. Only two middies remained aboard, thanks to the weight of Dr. Barlow's pet thylacine, her numerous outfits, and the mysterious cargo secured in the machine room.
Deryn missed having the others about, if only to share the work of altitude readings and feeding the fl¨¦chette bats. The only brilliant thing - besides that bum-rag Fitzroy being gone - was that Deryn and Newkirk each had a private cabin now. Of course, Dr. Barlow's boffin studies didn't seem to have covered the subject of privacy.
"Come on, Tazza," Deryn muttered, taking the beastie's leash as she slipped into the corridor.
She led Dr. Barlow up the aft stairs to the top deck of the gondola. The riggers and sailmakers slept up here, though Deryn couldn't see how they managed. The airbeast's gastric channel filled the air with a smell like rotten onions and cow farts.
The off-duty watch swung in hammocks on either side of the corridor, some of them curled up with their hydrogen sniffers for warmth. The airship was cruising at eight thousand feet, hopefully too high for the German aeroplanes that had been stalking them all day, and the air up here was as cold as a brass monkey's bum.
None of the riggers glanced at Dr. Barlow or the thylacine as they passed. The ship's officers had announced that anyone making a fuss over the lady passenger would be put on report. This was no time for navy superstitions, after all. Germany had declared war on France yesterday and had gone after Belgium today. The rumor was that Britain would be in it tomorrow unless the kaiser put a stop to the whole mess by midnight.
And nobody thought that very likely.
At the gut hatch Deryn took Tazza into her arms and climbed up and out. In the cold, narrow gap between airbeast and gondola, the ventral camouflage cells shone a dull silver, taking on the color of the snowy moonlit peaks below. The Swiss Alps were rising beneath them. The Leviathan was a third of the way to the Ottoman Empire, Deryn reckoned.
Tazza scrambled out of her arms and up, curious to explore the strange mix of smells: clart from the gastric channel, the bitter almond of leaking hydrogen, and the salty scent of the airbeast's skin.
Deryn followed the beastie up into the gut, then knelt to lend Dr. Barlow a hand. They paused for a moment in the warm darkness, their eyes adjusting to the dim green light of glowworms.
"I'll take this opportunity to remind you not to smoke, Doctor."
"Very amusing, Mr. Sharp."
Deryn smiled and scratched Tazza's head. Open flames weren't allowed anywhere on the Leviathan. Matches and firearms were kept under lock and key, and the airmen's boots had rubber soles to prevent sparks of static. But according to regulations, passengers were to be reminded of the smoking rules whenever the crew thought necessary.
Even if they were fancy-pants boffins and being reminded of the barking obvious happened to annoy them.
Walking forward, Tazza slunk closer to the ground, always a little twitchy inside the whale. The walkway underfoot was aluminum, but the walls of the gastric channel were alive - warm and pulsing with digestion, aglow with worms. The hydrogen bladders overhead were taut and translucent, the whole ship swelling in the thin air of high altitude.
"IN THE GUTS OF THE SHIP."
As they approached the bow, a humming sound grew: millions of tiny wings churning the air, drying the nectar gathered that day over France. A little farther and the walls were covered with a seething mass of bees, their small round bodies buzzing around Deryn's head, bouncing softly against her face and hands. Tazza let out a low hiss and pressed closer to her legs.
Deryn could appreciate the thylacine's nervousness. Seeing the hives for the first time, she'd assumed they were weapons, like strafing hawks or fl¨¦chette bats. But the Leviathan's bees didn't even have stingers. As the ship's head boffin liked to put it, they were simply a method for extracting fuel from nature.
In summer the fields passing beneath the airship were full of flowers, each containing a tiny squick of nectar. The bees gathered that nectar and distilled it into honey, and then the bacteria in the airbeast's gut gobbled that up and farted hydrogen. It was a typical boffin strategy - no point in creating a new system when you could borrow one already fine-tuned by evolution.
A bee came to an inquisitive midair halt in front of Deryn's face. Its body was fuzzy and yellow, its dorsal regions as shiny and black as dress boots, the wings a blur. She squinted, memorizing its shape for sketching later.
"Hello, wee beastie."
"Pardon me, Mr. Sharp?"
Deryn waved away the curious bee and turned. "Anything in particular you wanted to see, ma'am?"