Chapter 2, In Which We View a Mystery
“Course is steady, sir,” the helmsman reported. “Passing the Mississippi River now.”
The Engineer nodded and conveyed additional orders I was unable to hear over Mister Urantu’s raised voice.
Granito Urantu, the ship’s navigator and world’s foremost expert on ley lines and the aether, was berating his sister Porphyria in a voice that carried throughout the ship. Or perhaps he was singing her a lullaby. Everything spoken in that strange tongue of the Ironwright Clan sounded harsh and angry. One of my greatest annoyances in life was my inability to decipher the language, and although Mister Urantu and I were on relatively good terms—I saved his life during that Bibb County incident, little woman, big hand cannon—he steadfastly refused to teach it to me, forbidden by the Clan Chieftain. Porphyria, who was not an official member of the crew, pressed her lips together, shook her reddish-purple braids, gathered up her knitting and descended the stairs to the cabins below.
“Is Miss Urantu enjoying the voyage, Mister Urantu?” I asked.
The dwarf glared up at me, silver-flecked black eyes beneath wiry gray brows. Like all of his people of the Ironwright Clan, he was about four feet tall and fully as wide, all rock-solid muscle. “She should not have come, Miss Wesley,” he answered with what sounded to untutored ears like a Russian accent. He frowned more deeply, the braids of his bristly black beard twitching. “You know I am only dweorthen ever permitted to leave the Mountain. And now Chieftain wants her to go. Asks special permission from your chieftain. Will not tell me why. That is not…” Mister Urantu fumbled for a word. “That is not right,” he finished emphatically, stomping on the deck with a great iron-shod boot.
The Engineer glared across at him, brilliant green eyes startling amid the fine angles of his dark brown skin. “Kindly do not destroy my ship, Mister Urantu,” he said in his precise manner. “I need you to interpret these signals.” He gestured toward the instrument panel before him. “Either they are as alarming as they seem, or your continued stomping about necessitates my recalibration of them.”
Urantu muttered something under his breath and joined The Engineer. I followed, wondering briefly where Colonel Mallet was. Keeping watch, most likely. I noticed my assistant, Luli, taking down readings from this and that machine. I beckoned her to join us.
The instrument The Engineer indicated was a masterpiece of beauty and function, as was everything he designed. The raised brass lip surrounding the circular crystal viewing panel was rich with repoussé in a scrolled pattern of eldritch meaning. The buttons arrayed in a half circle above the viewing panel were semiprecious gems, chosen for their beauty and significance, each set in a copper mounting and carved with a single sigil. The Engineer pressed the lapis lazuli button and said, “See?”
I confess to little skill at aethereal cartography, but even I could see what was wrong. The ghostly blue fields that represent the aether, at this point in any journey on the Hephaestus, should blanket the viewing panel like clouds. The accompanying silver ley lines, by which Mister Urantu navigated and from which the ship drew sustenance, shot through the fields like so many threads in a bolt of cloth.
We were reaching an area where the blue fields were blackened, with sharp breaks in the ley lines.
“By the goddess,” I heard Luli whisper in her native Mandarin.
“Mister Urantu,” I began, “what could cause—“
“Not possible,” he snapped, his broad, blunt fingers clutching the raised lip around the viewing panel. “I have never seen—your viewer is broken.”
The Engineer brushed the dwarf aside and stooped with a fencer’s grace. He unlatched the brass fastener and slid open the panel below. Lifting his goggles into place from around his neck, the man touched a small stud on their side, sending a cold green glow from above his eyes to the interior of the instrument panel. The light gleamed fiendishly on wiring and bubbling liquids and shining metals and winking gems. The Engineer flipped a few switches, tugged at a wire, before turning off the green light and sliding the panel closed. He looked up at us, kneeling nearly nose to nose with Granito Urantu.
“My instrumentation is correct, Mister Urantu,” The Engineer said. The muscles of his jaw worked a moment before he added, “Something is destroying ley lines.”
And as if that pronouncement were not dramatic enough, at that very moment, a blast deafened us as we were thrown to the deck. The ship listed wildly. Elaborate swearing issued from topside and Colonel Mallet flung himself down the stairs.
“Battle stations!” he cried. “We are under attack!”