The aeronauts windlass, p.26
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.26
 

           Jim Butcher

  Grimm cleared his throat calmly.

  Journeyman squinted over his shoulder. “Ah,” he said. “That is, I will report you to . . . to . . . the proper person in the chain of command, who will make decisions about discipline that are not mine to make.”

  “Always good to maintain discipline in your section, chief,” Grimm said pleasantly. “Even in a civilian vessel.”

  Journeyman flicked Grimm a quick salute and snorted. “Preddy’s a warship, skipper. We all know that.”

  Grimm shrugged a shoulder. “When need be, chief. Are the new parts up to spec?”

  Journeyman waved a hand vaguely at the far workbench, where eight green-white crystals the size of a man’s head sat in an orderly row in a long crate, like eggs in a nest. “Those are the new trim crystals, and they’re first-rate. You can still smell the solution from the vat on them.”

  Grimm glanced at Journeyman sharply. Trim crystals of varying quality were often to be found, but never new ones. New trim crystals tended to be more efficient and more sensitive to varying degrees of current, and then gradually degraded with use. A ship with new trim crystals was slightly but significantly more maneuverable than one without—which was why they were universally snapped up by the Aetherium Fleet as rapidly as they were produced. “They’re new?”

  Journeyman gave Grimm a gap-toothed grin. “Bet you a fancy silk suit on it, skip.”

  Grimm shook his head slowly, partly in answer to Journeyman and partly in slowly dawning realization of the amount of debt into which he had been placed. Predator would have been nimble even if the Spirearch had provided used lift crystals—with new ones she could dance with the finest in the world.

  The last crate finally came open with a groan, and the engineering crew carefully broke it down around the last crystal, an enormous, oblong shape the size of a bathtub, its emerald surface faceted so finely that except for a few glitters of light upon it, it looked round and smooth. The lift crystal would socket into the suspension rig, the ship’s structural foundation, and when they were in flight, all the weight of Predator would be spread across the crystal’s surface.

  “Gorgeous,” Journeyman crooned, approaching the crystal with his hands outstretched. “Oh, you beautiful thing. Come here. Come here.”

  Grimm arched an eyebrow. “Ought I leave the two of you alone?”

  Journeyman sniffed haughtily and then knelt down beside the crystal, running his hands over its surface. He muttered to himself, then started pulling probes and gauges from his tool belt. He popped a pair of engineer’s optics over his nose, flicked several different lenses into place, and squinted at the crystal’s surface, prodding and muttering.

  Grimm gave him several minutes to study the lift crystal before he cleared his throat again. “Mister Journeyman?”

  “Been some kind of mistake, skip,” Journeyman muttered.

  Grimm leaned forward. “Mistake? How so?”

  Journeyman hooked up a set of probes to a power outlet and touched them to the big crystal. Radiant spirals of light began to flow through the crystal just beneath where the probes touched. Journeyman eyed the spirals through his optics, then flicked them out of the way with an annoyed hand and did it again, this time watching a gauge to which the probes were attached. “Yep. Definitely a mistake.”

  “What’s wrong with it, chief?”

  “Oh, not a damned thing, skip,” Journeyman said. “Brand-new, and one of their Mark IVs to boot. Efficient as hell.”

  Journeyman, Grimm reminded himself, was a genius with etheric technology. That was why they had managed to return home to Albion with an almost completely nonfunctional lift crystal in the first place— Journeyman had rigged the trim crystals to carry a load for which they had never been designed, and more or less burned them out in the process. He was a damned fine engineer, but at times Grimm wished he could be a bit less of a genius child entirely absorbed by his toys.

  “Then what’s the mistake, chief?”

  Journeyman turned to squint at Grimm. “This is a battlecruiser’s lift crystal, skip, or I’m a shiny new wollypog ensign.”

  Grimm grunted, frowning. Capital ships used multiple heavy crystals to maintain their altitude, and the crystals tended to be denser and more complex, which made them more energy efficient. The sheer mass of the large ships’ structure and armor demanded nothing less. If what Journeyman said was true, that lift crystal could easily keep a ship thirtyfive times Predator’s mass aloft. They’d have to be careful of how much power they fed to the crystal, or its raw power might tear it free of the suspension rig entirely. It was altogether possible that Predator might be able to climb faster than she could dive with a crystal like that to lift her.

  “What kind of altitude could she take us to, chief?”

  Journeyman scratched his ear with one broken-nailed finger. “Seven, maybe eight miles? Way higher’n we could breathe without tanks, anyway. For all practical purposes, she won’t have an operational ceiling. And she’s real efficient at lower altitude. Won’t have to dump a quarter of the power we used to from the core into this sweetheart to keep us in the air.”

  One of the engineering crew let out a low whistle, and Grimm felt himself in heartfelt agreement with the sentiment. The largest part of a ship’s power budget was allotted to its lift crystal. Less energy spent on keeping the ship afloat meant more power that could be used for other systems. They could get more speed out of the etheric web by charging it more highly, increase the density of Predator’s shroud, and fire her cannon until their copper barrels melted. The Spirearch had given them parts of such quality that, when combined with her exceptional core crystal, Predator was about to become the fastest airship in Albion’s fleet, as fierce as any military vessel in her own class, with the ability to pour fire from her cannon that a cruiser might envy.

  It didn’t mean that Predator could take on a true armored warship like Itasca. But she would be far more elusive and difficult to bring down with a lucky shot—and any ship lighter than Itasca would get a very nasty surprise if it engaged Grimm’s little ship.

  “I love you,” Journeyman said to the lift crystal. He kissed it and spread his arms across its surface in an embrace. “I love you. You big beautiful beast, I want you to marry me. I want you to bear my children.”

  “Chief,” Grimm said reproachfully, but his heart wasn’t in it. Addison Albion had come through on his promise to a degree that Grimm could scarcely encompass. Grimm tried to calculate the cost of the Spirearch’s largesse, and realized that he couldn’t. Crystals like that weren’t for sale. They were priceless—and they would make his ship into something far more swift and fearsome and efficient than she had ever been before.

  The Spirearch had known that Grimm had no intention of taking service to him, but he had sent these crystals anyway. How did one, in good conscience, pay back a debt that by its very nature could not be calculated? How could Grimm turn his back on such a gesture of faith and walk away after a single errand? If there was a way to do so, he certainly did not see it.

  Lord Albion, Grimm decided, was a something of a judge of character.

  “How long until you’ve got them all installed, chief?” he asked.

  Journeyman looked up from the crystal and squinted around the section, evidently gathering his thoughts. “Trim crystals won’t take but a day,” he said. “They’re standardized, and we can swap them out pretty quick. This lovely beast, though . . .” He rubbed his hands over the lift crystal’s surface again. “This might take some time. Our suspension rig can handle her, but not until I make some modifications.”

  “How long?”

  “And then there are the power runs,” Journeyman said. “We’ll have to install some resistors to reduce the current or those trim crystals will have us spinning upside down in midair the first time Kettle tries to bank. And we’ll have to lay new runs to the web nodes, so that we can feed more current to the web.”

  “How long?”

  “And there’
s the Haslett cages to consider, too. I’ll have to calibrate them to account for the increased efficiency, and the core’s cage, too, to let us run up a thicker shroud.”

  “Chief,” Grimm said, keeping his patience with effort, “how long?” Journeyman shrugged. “A month, maybe?”

  If Grimm knew his engineer, he’d still be fussing over and massaging his new crystals into increased performance six months from now.

  “There’s a war on, chief. How long for the quick and dirty necessities, just to get us moving?”

  Journeyman’s face wrinkled as if he’d just caught a whiff of something foul. “Skipper,” he protested.

  Grimm let a hint of calm, cool steel creep into his voice. “I’m a captain. Humor me. How long.”

  The engineer scratched at the back of his neck, muttering. Then he said, “Maybe a week?”

  “Run ’round-the-clock work shifts,” Grimm said. “And if you can find any bonded local engineers, we’ll hire them on.”

  Journeyman stared at Grimm as though Grimm had just suggested that the engineer should prostitute his mother to pirates. “In my engine room? Skip!”

  “Do it, chief,” Grimm said. “That’s an order.”

  Journeyman muttered a bit more savagely under his breath. “A few days, then. For that, you get the most pathetic, slipshod, half-assed, rickety, unreliable, accident-prone potential disaster in the history of the airship.”

  “I have every faith in you, chief,” Grimm said, turning to go. “Draw funds as you need them and get to it.”

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing

  Four weeks ago, Bridget had lived a quiet and sensible existence, she thought. She worked with her father, took care of their customers, and often visited her poorer neighbors, bringing gifts of meat that hadn’t sold and needed to be eaten. She attended school every other day, and occasionally ventured to the market to purchase what their home and business needed. She had been to the amphitheater half a dozen times to attend musical concerts, and gone biweekly to services at the Church of God in Heaven.

  And now, she thought, she was wandering through a strange and possibly dangerous habble, her only companions a cat who regarded himself as the world’s preeminent being, and a rather reedy girl who kept up a steady, muttered conversation with her jar of used crystals. What if she got lost? What if she came upon more footpads? What if she found the enemy before she made contact with the local cats?

  At least in Habble Morning she’d had the implied authority of her uniform to hide behind. Now she wore only her regular clothes. Granted, the wide sleeves of her blouse concealed the gauntlet on her left hand almost completely—but she’d scarcely had time to learn to discharge one without killing someone by accident, much less doing so by conscious intention. She doubted her ability to hit a target more than three or four feet away if it came to a genuine combat situation. She wasn’t sure whether that made her better off than if she was completely unarmed, or worse.

  Rowl rode on her shoulder, his head held at a high, cocky angle, as though he had recently conquered the place, laying a benign gaze upon his realm and subjects as their little party walked through one of the wider and more crowded tunnels of the habble’s first level. The cat’s nose never stopped twitching, and his ears flicked around alertly.

  “Honestly, Rowl,” Bridget murmured. “Are you certain you’re watching for the local cats?”

  “Even the sharpest eyes cannot see what is not there, Littlemouse,” Rowl replied serenely. “Keep walking. Over toward those cooking places.”

  “I bought you a dumpling not half an hour ago,” Bridget protested.

  “Those smell good to me, and I want to smell them some more,” Rowl said. “Any other cat worth the name would feel exactly the same way. Perhaps we will see them there.”

  “And perhaps as long as we’re there, you’ll have another bite?”

  “Perhaps I shall.”

  “I should make you carry your pay around yourself.”

  “Metal circles,” Rowl scoffed. “They are a human madness. A human should deal with them.”

  “He’s right,” Folly put in, from where she walked so close to Bridget’s flank that Bridget feared to turn toward her too quickly lest she strike her with an elbow in the process. “Money is a madness, a delusionillusion. It’s not made of metal, really. It’s made of time. How much is one’s time worth? If one can convince enough people that one’s time is an invaluable resource, then one has lots and lots of money. That’s why one can spend time—only one can never get a refund.”

  “I see,” Bridget said, though she didn’t. “Well, in any case, shall we go over there?”

  Folly leaned down and whispered to her jar, “She spoils the cat.”

  “A privilege I do not give to just anyone,” Rowl said smugly. Folly suddenly stopped in her tracks and let out a harsh hiss.

  Bridget turned to the other girl as pedestrians nearly walked into her back and began to pour impatiently around her. The etherealist’s apprentice was standing with her back ramrod-straight, her mismatched eyes very wide.

  “Folly?” Bridget asked.

  “It’s here,” Folly said in a whisper. “It’s watching. We would tell Bridget about it if we could.”

  They were getting a few glares and mutters now as they slowed the foot traffic around them. Bridget didn’t mind glowers and low curses— but she found herself very much concerned that their disruption of foot traffic called a great deal of attention to the two young women. It was quite the opposite of operating covertly.

  She took Folly’s arm firmly and guided the girl onto a side path. “Folly?” she asked. “What’s here? What’s watching?”

  “Bridget doesn’t know about the grim captain’s visitors,” Folly said, her eyes darting around. “But they’re looking at us right now.”

  Bridget blinked. “Captain Grimm’s visitor? Do you mean that commodore?”

  “The one with the very large hat,” Rowl added helpfully.

  “She doesn’t understand,” Folly said to the jar. “These came before that, when the master treated the grim captain, on the day before they met.”

  “I’m a bit confused,” Bridget said politely. “Master Ferus treated Captain Grimm before meeting him?”

  Folly whispered to her jar, “If she keeps repeating everything I say, this is going to take much more time.” She glanced around them and slowly exhaled. “There. I think . . . I think yes, there. We’re alone now.”

  “Folly, I need you to help me understand,” Bridget said. “Are you talking about Aurorans?”

  Folly blinked several times and then said, her tone thoughtful, “She brings up an excellent point. Possibly. I feel awful, and I think I’ll sit down.”

  The etherealist’s apprentice sat down on the ground as if entirely exhausted, her knees curled up to her chest, her eyes sunken. She leaned her head back against the spirestone wall.

  “Miss Folly,” Bridget said, “are you quite all right?”

  Folly patted her jar as a mother might a restless child and said, “It’s all right. Bridget doesn’t know how hard it is to hear things. Tell her that we’re just tired and we need a moment.”

  “I see,” Bridget said. She tilted her head, studying the other girl thoughtfully. She’d regarded Folly as someone who must have fallen into some kind of premature dotage, but . . . her answers were canny enough, if phrased quite oddly. Folly had said that she would have told Bridget something if she could, though by the simple act of saying as much, she had accomplished it.

  “I noticed,” Bridget said, “that Master Ferus seems to have difficulties with doorknobs.”

  “She doesn’t know that the master is far too brilliant for such things,” Folly said, nodding.

  “And you,” Bridget continued thoughtfully, “seem to have difficulty speaking directly to others.”

  “Oh, she uses her eyes and what’s behind them as well,” Folly said to her jar with a weary little smi
le. “That’s two in one week. Perhaps I should write down the date.”

  “Remarkable,” Bridget said. “Miss, I am very sorry if I said anything to offend you or if I haven’t paid attention when you meant me to hear something. I didn’t understand.”

  Rowl leaned down to peer at Folly. “She seemed no more ridiculous to me than most humans.”

  At that, Folly looked up and beamed a smile at Rowl. “Oh. He doesn’t know that that’s the kindest thing anyone’s said about me since the master called me a gnatcatcher.”

  “And now we’re back to being very odd,” Bridget said. “But I shall try to make allowances for it, since we’re to be working together.”

  Bridget felt Rowl’s paw tap her cheek, and she turned her head in that direction.

  The side lane where they’d stopped was dimly lit, even by the standards of Habble Landing. It reminded her of the tunnel where the footpads had lurked. For a second she didn’t see whatever Rowl had warned her about—but then there was a flicker of light, and she saw a pair of green-gold eyes staring at them from the shadows, and around them was a grey-furred shape. A cat.

  Bridget made a basket of her arms and Rowl leaped down to them, and then to the ground. The ginger cat ambled calmly down the alley toward the other feline. Then he sat down a few feet away from the other cat, ignored him entirely, and began to fastidiously groom his paws.

  The stranger cat emerged from the gloom and sat down a bit closer to Rowl. Then he, too, promptly ignored the other cat and began grooming.

  “Oh,” Folly asked her jar. “Do you think Bridget knows if that is . . . cat diplomacy?”

  “They’ve never explained it to me, but it’s more of a power struggle, I think,” Bridget replied. “I’m fairly sure it’s about establishing which of them is the least impressed by the other.”