Chapter 3, In Which Matters Appear Bleak, As Usual
“And before you ask, Miss Wesley,” Colonel Stuart Mallet added, “it isn’t a farmer aiming a shotgun at us this time.” He winked at me, to my amazement, and disappeared up the stairway.
The Hephaestus was not built for maneuverability—indeed there had never before been a reason for the ship to possess evasive capability—but the combined wills of The Engineer and Granito Urantu made up for that lack. I could almost see The Engineer, in the moments he could spare from his labors, redesigning the ship in his head to cope with this new challenge.
The view through the single forward window of the ship was not encouraging. Beyond the tapering, graceful prow of the airship—constructed in such a manner as to more readily detect and follow ley lines—a dark roiling mist with more substance than the clouds surrounding it obscured our attacker. Evidently the enemy had no difficulty seeing the Hephaestus, for as I watched, two bursts of coherent light split the mist, momentarily blinding me and sending me reeling with their impact on the hull.
Luli’s grip on my arm was surprisingly strong as she pulled me away from the window. “Colonel Mallet said battle stations,” she said, thrusting me into a chair against the inner wall as I blinked against the afterimages of the blast. She pulled the safety harness down and fastened it around me before slipping into the next chair and strapping herself in. “The other ship is built for swift attacks. We are not. The Hephaestus may not survive the assault.”
I stared at her. “Luli Xiang, you are much more than you appear,” I said quietly.
“As are we all,” she answered with a slight smile. “You will know everything when the time is right.”
Another blast rocked the ship and a groan resounded from the deck above, followed by a thud. The sound of Dr. Lucas Quidd’s distinctive voice echoed clearly down the stairwell, although not the actual words, but at least he was tending to whoever was injured. I suddenly thought of Granito Urantu’s sister in the hold. She would have no idea how to behave during such a calamity.
“Lieutenant Popkins is with her,” Luli said before I could even articulate my concern.
I nodded, but clenched my fists on the armrests, annoyed that I, who was ostensibly the leader of this team, was strapped into a chair and at the mercy of forces over which I had no control. I was not new to the aether, but while it had been a place of mystery, it had hitherto been safe. If we were on land—
“T.E., Granito,” I said sharply, using familiar forms of address that I knew would catch their attention. “We must land the Hephaestus and defend her from there.” I raised a hand as they simultaneously turned to me and opened their mouths. “No, not on terra firma. On aethera firma. We obviously cannot outmaneuver this unseen enemy, as Luli Xiang points out, therefore—“
Colonel Mallet pelted down the stairs. “We’ve taken some serious damage,” he said, wiping at a trickle of blood down the side of his face. “We can’t bring the gun to bear unless we land. And Teuber’s unconscious. Dr. Q.’s patched him up.”
“Exactly what I was saying, gentlemen. Mister Urantu, can you—“ The ship swayed, accompanied by a dangerous-sounding creak as it was hit once more. I continued, “Can you set up a temporary defensive shield of some sort until we can land?”
The dwarf scowled. “I believe so. But this mist is troublesome. Whoever has conjured this—“
“We do not have enough information for speculation,” I interrupted. “Helmsman Dodd, set course for the nearest aethera firma once Mister Urantu has shielded us from view. The Engineer will work with Colonel Mallet on our offensive capabilities.” And I, I thought to myself, will worry about why we are being fired upon, and what are the intentions of this mysterious second airship.
Mister Urantu spent approximately eight minutes hunched over a brass box, muttering in his native tongue and scribing symbols into its surface with what appeared to be a steel nib pen, although the green and white sparks it gave off suggested otherwise. I felt a brief lurch in my stomach, as when the airship hits a patch of turbulent air, and the blasts abruptly ceased. One problem temporarily solved.
The Engineer grabbed up his tall, narrow, brass-bound toolbox and followed the colonel to the upper deck. I knew the second problem was on its way to being solved, with those two men attacking it. I released myself from the safety harness and strode across to peer out the front window once more.
The clouds parted briefly, although the dark mist still writhed, and the helmsman pointed ahead. “Land ho, Miss Wesley,” he said in a conversational tone. “And no sign of our enemy.”
I nodded. “Set her down, Lieutenant Dodd,” I said.
Aethera firma looked little different than terra firma, except that the whole appeared as if viewed through smoked glass, with darker and less vibrant colors. The Hephaestus landed softly under the expert hand of its helmsman. I smiled back at Luli. “Shall we claim it for the Order?” I asked.
She did not smile, but followed me out the hatch. The air was sharp and cold, the ground underfoot spongy. It was quiet, as well; no bird calls, only a high-pitched whistling that I ascribed to the wind. I turned and surveyed the damage to the ship.
The long, lean shape of its hull was intact, but the observation deck on top was sheared in half, and one of the large delicate wings, mainly used for directional steering, was nearly destroyed. The Engineer would need many hours to repair it.
I turned abruptly, sensing a new presence behind me.
A dark-haired man stood with one arm around Luli’s throat. The other arm held a pistol to her temple. He smiled politely and said, in a conversational manner, “Excuse me, miss, but you are now my prisoners.”