"Get stuffed, Mr. Sharp," he muttered, hoisting his feed bag. "Come on. Rigby's right behind us now."
Deryn groaned. Her aching muscles could've done with another minute's rest. But she'd laughed at Newkirk, so the endless competition was on again. She hoisted her feed bag and followed him toward the bow.
Barking hard work, being a boy.
As Deryn and Newkirk neared the bow, the bats grew louder, their echolocation chirps rattling like hail on a tin roof.
The other middies were just behind, Mr. Rigby in their midst, urging them to hurry. The bats' feeding had to be timed precisely with the fl¨¦chette strike.
Suddenly a shrieking mass of havoc swept out of the darkness - an aerie of strafing hawks, aeroplane nets glimmering in the dark. Newkirk let out a startled cry, his feet tangling together. He tumbled down the slope of the air-beast's flank, his rubber soles squeaking along the membrane. Finally he came to a halt.
Deryn dropped her bag and scuttled after him.
"Barking spiders!" Newkirk cried, his necktie more askew than usual. "Those godless birds attacked us!"
"They did no such thing," Deryn said, offering him a hand up.
"Trouble keeping your feet, gentlemen?" Mr. Rigby called down from the spine. "Perhaps some light on the subject."
He pulled out his command whistle and piped out a few notes, high and raw. As the sound trembled through the membrane, glowworms woke up underfoot. They snaked along just beneath the airbeast's skin, giving off enough pale green light for the crew to see their footing, but not so much that enemy aircraft could spot the Leviathan in the sky.
Still, combat drills were supposed to be conducted in darkness. It was a bit embarrassing to need the worms just to walk.
Newkirk looked down, shuddering a little. "Don't like those beasties either."
"You don't like any beasties," Deryn said.
"Aye, but the crawly ones are the worst."
Deryn and Newkirk climbed back up, now behind the other middies. But the bow was within sight, the bats covering it like iron filings on a magnet. The chirping came from all directions.
"They sound hungry, gentlemen," Mr. Rigby warned. "Be sure they don't take a bite of you!"
Newkirk made a nervous face, and Deryn elbowed him. "Don't be daft. Fl¨¦chette bats only eat insects and fruit."
"Aye, and metal spikes," he muttered. "That's barking unnatural."
"Only what they're designed to do, Newkirk," Mr. Rigby called. Though human life chains were off-limits for fabrication, the middies often conjectured that the bosun's ears were fabricated. He could hear a discontented murmur in a Force 10 gale.
The bats grew noisier at the sight of the feed bags, jostling for position on the sloping half sphere of the bow. The middies clipped their safety lines together and spread out across the swell of the ship, feed bags at the ready.
"Let's get started, gentlemen," Mr. Rigby shouted. "Throw hard and spread it out!"
Deryn opened her bag and plunged a hand in. Her fingers closed on dried figs, each with a small metal fl¨¦chette driven through the center. As she threw, a wave of bats lifted, wings fluttering as fights broke out over the food.
"Don't like these birds," Newkirk muttered.
"They ain't birds, you ninny," Deryn said.
"What else would they be?"
Deryn groaned. "Bats are mammals. Like horses, or you and me."
"Flying mammals!" Newkirk shook his head. "What'll those boffins think of next?"
Deryn rolled her eyes and tossed another handful of food. Newkirk had a habit of sleeping through natural philosophy lectures.
Still, she had to admit it was barking strange, seeing the bats eat those cruel metal fl¨¦chettes. But it never seemed to hurt them.
"Make sure they all get some!" Mr. Rigby shouted.
"Aye, it's just like feeding ducks when I was wee," Deryn muttered. "Could never get any bread to the little ones."
She threw harder, but no matter where the figs fell, the bullies always had their way. Survival of the meanest was one thing the boffins couldn't breed out of their creations.
"That's enough!" Mr. Rigby finally shouted. "Over-stuffed bats are no good to us!" He turned to face the midshipmen. "And now I've got a little surprise for you sods. Anyone object to staying dorsal?"
The middies let out a cheer. Usually they climbed back down to the gondolas for combat drills. But nothing beat seeing a fl¨¦chette strike from topside.
The H.M.S. Gorgon was within range now, pulling a target ship behind. The target was an aging schooner that carried no lights, but her sails were a white flutter against the dark sea. The Gorgon cut her loose and steamed to safety a mile away. Then sent up a signal flare to show that she was ready to start.
"Out of my way, lads," came a voice from behind them. It was Dr. Busk, the Leviathan's surgeon and head boffin. In his hand was a compressed air pistol, the only sidearm allowed on a hydrogen breather. He waded in among the bats, their black forms skittering away from his boots.
"Come on!" Deryn grabbed Newkirk's arm and scuttled down the slope of the airbeast's flank for a better view.
"Try not to fall off, gentlemen," Mr. Rigby called.
Deryn ignored him, heading all the way down into the ratlines. It was the bosun's job to take care of middies, but Rigby seemed to think he was their mum.
A message lizard scrambled past Deryn and presented itself to the head boffin.
"You may begin your attack, Dr. Busk," it said in the captain's voice.
Busk nodded - like people always did to message lizards, though it was pointless - and raised his gun.
Deryn hooked an elbow through the ratlines. "Cover your ears, Mr. Newkirk."
"Aye, aye, sir!"
The pistol exploded with a crack - the membrane shuddering beside Deryn - and the startled bats rose into the air like a vast black sheet rippling in the wind. They swirled madly, a storm of wings and bright eyes. Newkirk cowered beside her, pulling himself closer to the flank.
"Don't be a ninny," she said. "They're not ready to loose those spikes yet."
"Well, I'd hope not!"
A moment later a searchlight beneath the main gondola flicked on, its beam lancing out across the darkness. The bats headed straight into the light, the blended life threads of moth and mosquito guiding them as true as a compass.
The searchlight filled with their small fluttering forms, like a shaft of sun swirling with dust. Then the beam began to swing from side to side, the horde of bats faithfully tracking it across the sky. They spilled out along its length, closer and closer to the target fluttering on the waves.
The swing of the searchlight was perfectly timed, bringing the great swarm of bats directly over the schooner ...
... and suddenly the light turned blood red.
Deryn heard the shrieks of the bats, the sound reaching her ears above the engines and war cries of the Leviathan's crew. Fl¨¦chette bats were mortally afraid of the color red - it scared the deadly clart right out of them.
As the spikes fell, the horde began to scatter, exploding into a dozen smaller clouds, the bats swarming back toward their nests aboard the Leviathan. At the same time the searchlight dipped toward the target.
The fl¨¦chettes were still falling. In their thousands, they shimmered like a metal rain in the crimson spotlight, cutting the schooner's sails to ribbons. Even at this distance Deryn could see the wood of the deck splintering, the masts leaning as their stays and shrouds were sliced through.
"Hah!" Newkirk shouted. "A few like that should teach the Germans a lesson!"
Deryn frowned, imagining for a moment that there were crewmen on that ship. Not a pretty picture. Even an ironclad would lose its deck guns and signal flags, and an army in the field would be savaged by the falling spikes.
"Is that why you signed up?" she asked. "Because you hate Germans more than fabricated beasties?"
"No," he said. "The Service was my mum's idea."
"But isn't she a Monkey Luddite?"
"Aye, she thinks fabs are all godless. But she heard somewhere that the air was the safest place in a war." He pointed at the shredded ship. "Not as dangerous as down there."
"That's certain enough," Deryn said, patting the airship's humming skin. "Hey, look ... now we're going to get a show!"
The kraken tender was going to work.
Two spotlights stretched out from the Gorgon, flicking through signal colors as they swept across the water, calling up their beast. When the lights reached the schooner, they shifted to a dazzling white, illuminating the damage the Leviathan's bats had done. Hardly anything was left of the sails, and the rigging looked like a tangle of chewed-up shoelaces. The deck was covered with splinters and glittering spikes.
"A KRAKEN FINISHES THE JOB."
"Blisters!" Newkirk cried. "Look what we ..."
His voice faded as the first arm of the beast rose from the water.
The huge tentacle swept through the air, a sheet of seawater spilling like rain from its length. The Royal Navy kraken was another of Huxley's fabrications, Deryn had read, made from the life chains of the octopus and giant squid. Its arm uncoiled like a vast, slow whip in the spotlights.
Taking its time, the tentacle curled around the schooner, its suckers clamping tight against the hull. Then it was joined by another arm, and each took one end of the ship. The vessel snapped between them, the awful sound of tearing wood bouncing across the black water to Deryn's ears.
More tentacles uncoiled from the water, wrapping around the ship. Finally the kraken's head rose into view, one huge eye gazing up at the Leviathan for a moment before the beastie pulled the schooner beneath the waves.
Soon nothing but flotsam remained above the waves. The guns of the Gorgon roared in salute.
"Hmph," Newkirk said. "I suppose that's the ocean navy having the final word. Bum-rags."
"I can't say anyone on that schooner would have been bothered by that kraken," Deryn said. "Being killed a second time doesn't hurt much."
"Aye, it was us who did the damage. Barking brilliant, we are!"
The first bats were already fluttering home, which meant it was time for the midshipmen to climb down to get more feed. Deryn flexed her tired muscles. She didn't want to slip and wind up down there with the kraken. The beastie was probably annoyed that its breakfast hadn't contained any tasty crewmen, and Deryn didn't fancy improving its mood.
In fact, watching the fl¨¦chette strike had left her shaky. Maybe Newkirk was itching for battle, but she'd joined the Service to fly, not to shred some poor buggers a thousand feet below.
Surely the Germans and their Austrian chums weren't so daft as to start a war just because some aristocrat had been assassinated. The Clankers were like Newkirk's mum. They were afraid of fabricated species, and worshipped their mechanical engines. Did they think their mob of walking contraptions and buzzing aeroplanes could stand against the Darwinist might of Russia, France, and Britain?
Deryn Sharp shook her head, deciding that war talk was all a load of blether. The Clanker powers couldn't possibly want to fight.
She turned from the scattered wreckage of the schooner and scrambled after Newkirk down the Leviathan's trembling flank.
Walking through the town of Lienz, Alek's skin began to crawl.
He'd seen markets like this before, full of bustle and the smells of slaughter and cooking. It might have been charming from an open-air walker or a carriage. But Alek had never visited such a place on foot before.
Steam carts rumbled down the streets, spitting hot clouds of vapor. They carried piles of coal, caged chickens screeching in chorus, and overloaded stacks of produce. Alek kept slipping on potatoes and onions that had spilled onto the cobblestones. Slabs of raw meat swung from long poles that men carried on their shoulders, and pack mules prodded Alek with their loads of sticks and firewood.
But worst of all were the people. In the walker's small cabin he'd grown used to the smell of unwashed bodies. But here in Lienz hundreds of commoners packed the Saturday market, bumping into Alek from all directions and treading on his feet without a murmur of apology.
"THE STREETS OF LIENZ."
At every stall people yammered about prices, as if obliged to argue over every transaction. Those that weren't bickering stood around discussing trivialities: the summer heat, the strawberry crop, or the health of someone's pig.
Their constant chatter about nothing made a certain sense, he supposed, as nothing important ever happened to common people. But the sheer insignificance of it all was overwhelming.
"Are they always this way?" he asked Volger.
"What way, Alek?"
"So trivial in their conversation." An old woman bumped him, then muttered a curse under her breath. "And rude."
Volger laughed. "Most men's awareness doesn't extend past their dinner plates."
Alek saw a sheet of newsprint fluttering underfoot, half ground into the mud by a carriage wheel. "But surely they know what happened to my parents. And that war is coming. Do you suppose they're really quite anxious, and only pretending not to worry?"