The aeronauts windlass, p.42
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.42
 

           Jim Butcher

  “I know little about airships,” Gwen replied. “I do possess some small knowledge of their systems.”

  “Sure you do,” the man said.

  Gwen arched an eyebrow. “I know the topmost left-side bar is out of alignment by at least two degrees. You’re losing efficiency from it. Probably why the air’s so warm in here.”

  The engineer squinted. “And why do you think you know that?”

  “The tone,” Gwen said. “There’s a bit of a burr in it on that side.”

  “Huh,” the man said. He pursed his lips and looked at her speculatively. Then he rose, grabbed the room’s eight-foot-high scaffold, and slid it into place over the power core. He climbed up on it and thumped around with the Haslett cage for a bit. Then he climbed back down again. “All better.”

  Gwen tilted her head to one side and listened to the hum of the power crystal. “No,” she said. “You didn’t fix it. You put it out of alignment by at least another two degrees.”

  The engineer might have grinned for an instant, though the mustache camouflaged it. He grunted, went back up the scaffold, and thumped around a bit more. “How’s that?”

  “That’s done it,” Gwen replied.

  Journeyman hopped back down from the scaffold, eyed her up and down for a second, and then flipped the wrench over in his hand and offered her the handle.

  Gwen arched a brow and took it. “And what am I do to with this?”

  “Saw which bolt I was working on, did you?”

  “Yes.”

  “So loosen it,” he said, “if you can.”

  Gwen bounced the wrench lightly in her hand. If Captain Grimm and Benedict were gone with the men, they must have been heading to a fight—but she didn’t know where, and doubted her ability to run to catch up with them in her present condition. If she had to simply sit and wait for them to return, she might go mad.

  She nodded, turned to the Haslett cage, and had the bolt loosened within seconds. Not because she was an expert so much as because she had smaller arms and hands and could work them into the available space much more easily than the engineer could.

  “Right,” Journeyman said when she was done. “Back.”

  She drew back and Journeyman threw the release on the lower array. The bottom half of the cage’s bars began to swing out, opening away from the crystal within the apparatus, like some kind of gleaming copper flower. Pale green light flooded the chamber, glowing out of the depths of Predator’s power core.

  Gwen stared at the rich green crystal for a second. It didn’t have the proper jewel-faceted shape. It was instead formed into a much more natural-looking crystal, like a shaft of glowing emerald quartz, and then her eyes widened as she realized what she was looking at. “God in Heaven,” she said.

  “Uh-huh,” Journeyman replied. His tone was unmistakably smug.

  “That’s a first-generation power core,” Gwen breathed. “Before they started developing facets. How old is it?”

  “Few thousand years, at least,” Journeyman said.

  “If it’s that old . . .” Gwen shook her head. Unlike lumin crystals or weapons crystals or cannon crystals or lift crystals, power crystals only grew more and more capable of efficiently channeling etheric energy. A crystal was rarely considered to be working in its prime before a century of use had worn it into better condition. If the crystal was as old as Journeyman claimed, it would be able to produce more electricity from less etheric energy than almost any crystal Gwen had heard of— which would mean that the ship could sail to more places, farther and farther from the main etheric currents, and do it more swiftly. “That is a tremendously efficient core,” Gwen said. “It should be in a Fleet ship.”

  “Well, she ain’t,” Journeyman said. “And she ain’t going to be. She’s Preddy and that’s that.”

  “Incredible,” Gwen said, shaking her head.

  Journeyman’s chest swelled. “Ain’t she?” He squinted at her. “Where’s a little thing like you learn about ship’s systems?”

  “From my mother.”

  “Who’s your mother?”

  “Helen Lancaster.”

  Journeyman frowned for a moment. Then he blinked. “Lancaster? Lancaster-Lancaster, you mean? The vattery?”

  “I’ve been learning about our products since I was old enough to speak,” Gwen said. “Including running system benchmarks on every crystal before we send it out, which means knowing how the systems work.”

  “Those Lancasters.” Journeyman grunted. “Damn.” He seemed to come to a decision and nodded once. “I’m going to start kicking these pansies awake in a bit. You want to be useful, meanwhile? Captain got us a little bit of a lift crystal to replace our old one. The trim crystals are all in, but I still have to rig the main one. Could use someone with a good ear for that.”

  “Which crystal?” Gwen asked.

  “One of your new Mark IV-Ds.”

  Gwen blinked at him once. “You misunderstand me, sir. I mean which crystal. Which one of the Mark IV-Ds?”

  Journeyman’s mouth spread into a more recognizable grin this time. He nodded to the far end of the chamber, toward the ship’s suspension rig. “You tell me.”

  Gwen went down to the rig to regard the crystal and whistled. “This is the one from the vat in section three, row two. It’s one of the best of the batch. God in Heaven, if you aren’t cautious, with that power core behind it this crystal could tear the ship apart.”

  “Tell me something I don’t know,” Journeyman said.

  “Which configuration are you planning for its cage?”

  “Standard dispersal, maximum spacing,” Journeyman replied. “What?” Gwen asked. “Why would you do that?”

  “How else should I do it?” Journeyman snapped.

  “Didn’t you read the owner’s manual?”

  “Manual? See here, missy. I’ve been an etheric engineer since before you were born. I think I know how to handle a lift crystal.”

  “Evidently you aren’t bright enough to do so, if you cannot read. We provide those manuals and specifications and procedures for a reason, you know.”

  Journeyman scowled. “You do everything by the book, like everybody else, you get the same results as everybody else.”

  “That’s the idea,” Gwen said in a dry tone.

  Journeyman seemed to miss it. “That might be good enough for every other ship in the world, missy,” he said. “But that ain’t good enough for Preddy. I get ten to fifteen percent more out of her systems doing it my way.”

  “What?” Gwen said. “That isn’t possible.”

  “Maybe not in your workshops,” Journeyman said firmly. “But a ship in the open sky is different. You got to know how to treat her the way she likes.”

  “Well, take it from me: She’s not going to like that dispersal pattern,” Gwen said. “The bottom hemisphere of the Mark IV-Ds is rigged with variable sensitivity. The closer to the positive end you get, the more powerful the crystal’s pathways are. You need to set your bars in an asymmetric configuration to maximize sensitivity. If you go with a standard hemisphere it will be too easy to dump too much current in. Before you know what happened, you’ll be watching that crystal fly to the moon while your ship falls. Which you would know if you’d read the manual.”

  Journeyman ground his teeth. “Always improving things that don’t need improving,” he muttered. “Fine. Asymmetric. Show me.”

  Chapter Fifty

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Someone shook Major Espira awake, and he blinked his eyes open to find Ciriaco standing over him, his weathered face set. “Sir. That woman’s here.”

  Espira grunted and rose. He wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d gotten, but it wasn’t much, and it included dreams he planned not to remember. He climbed to his feet from his bedroll, stiff from the cold spirestone floor. “Better ready the men,” he told the sergeant.

  “Yes, sir,” Ciriaco said, and stalked off to do so. The warriorborn man’s arm, t
hough still badly burned, was no longer held at an awkward angle, and as he moved away it swung naturally. Espira found himself wishing for a moment that his own family had carried some measure of warriorborn bloodlines. If he’d been born like Ciriaco, his back wouldn’t be so uncomfortable right now.

  Of course, if he’d been born like Ciriaco, he wouldn’t be a major in the Auroran Marines, either.

  Espira tugged on his jacket, straightened himself, and strode out of the private little side corridor he occupied in his position as the commanding officer. As he appeared, the men were already rising and gathering their weaponry and gear.

  Cavendish and her pet monster were nearby, waiting. There was something tight and hard around the woman’s eyes. Sark looked as he always did, but Espira had worked with the warriorborn long enough to realize that the slight dilation to the pupils of Sark’s crooked eyes meant that he was tense and ready for battle.

  He’d been hoping for blithe, arrogant confidence from Cavendish. Whatever business she had done with the Albions, it hadn’t gone precisely to her schedule. Whatever leverage she thought the hostages had given her must not have been enough. Espira gritted his teeth for an instant, then forced his jaw to relax. The lives of the two young women were worth a little less than nothing if Cavendish decided they had no value to her—and while he had no particular cause to dislike either of the young women, and would prefer to leave them bound and in place, to be found later, he still would cut the ladies’ throats himself rather than leave them in the hands of Cavendish or Sark.

  “Madam Cavendish,” Espira said, bowing politely.

  “Major,” Cavendish said. “I believe the time has come for us to act.”

  Espira arched an eyebrow. “You think we should begin early?”

  “I will signal the armada, Major,” Cavendish said, a frosty edge to her tone.

  The miracle of such rapid communication was all very well, Espira thought, but it wouldn’t make an airship move any faster if it wasn’t already in position. “If I may inquire as to why you believe precipitous action is required, madam?”

  “I misjudged a man,” Cavendish said. “The same commander who defeated your men at the Lancaster Vattery.”

  “He’s here?” Espira demanded. “And you did not see fit to tell us this fact?”

  “He’s one of their Fleet washouts with a crew of privateers,” Cavendish said. “They aren’t professional soldiers, and their numbers have been significantly reduced—but they can make a great deal of noise before your men wipe them out, and they might sap some of your strength.”

  “Judging by Captain Grimm’s confidence, they are coming here,” Cavendish replied. “Strike the primary and secondary targets and make for the extraction point. I want your men gone by the time they arrive.”

  “And leave a large mobile force at large behind us?” Espira asked.

  “I will attend to them,” Cavendish said. “They won’t be able to pursue. Where are the prisoners?”

  Espira hesitated.

  “Major,” Cavendish said between clenched teeth.

  “The hallway we blocked off,” Espira said finally. He nodded down the proper tunnel. “Down there. What do you intend for them?”

  “The same as I intend for the rest of the Spirearch’s merry band,” Cavendish said, looking away, her eyes lit with some bizarre emotion Espira could not identify. “Take your men and go, Major. If you value their lives, none of them will be standing in these tunnels five minutes from now.”

  Espira frowned at the woman, but she did not return her gaze to his. Then he nodded, bowed again, and withdrew.

  Ciriaco fell into step beside him. The grizzled sergeant glowered back over his wounded shoulder at Sark for a moment, then turned to Espira. “We’re going early.”

  “Yes. Dispatch the men as planned, immediately. Without the confusion of a general attack on the Spire, we’ll have to move fast. Tell them to leave all camp equipment and supplies here, except for a canteen. Weapons only.”

  Ciriaco frowned but nodded. “Those two girls?”

  Renaldo Espira had done a great many distasteful, necessary things in the course of his career. The orders of his superiors were generally given to him with the aim of benefiting those same superiors in some way. He was under no illusions about that. But even so, there was, somewhere within him, enough conscience to at least feel shame about it.

  He felt ashamed of the next words he spoke to the sergeant.

  “They’re as good as dead, and no longer our concern, Sergeant,” he said quietly.

  Ciriaco glanced at the corridor where the prisoners were being kept, and clenched his large hands into fists with an audible crackle of knuckles. He exhaled once.

  “Sir,” he said. “World might be a brighter place without Sark and that woman in it.”

  “Creating a brighter world is not our concern or duty, Sergeant,” Espira said without heat. “From this moment, all that we need concern ourselves with is accomplishing our objectives and getting as many Marines as possible out of this madness and back home to Spire Aurora alive and well. Clear?”

  Ciriaco made a growling sound deep in his chest. But his hands relaxed and he nodded once. “Clear, sir.” He looked down at Espira. “Think we can pull this off?”

  “Of course,” Espira replied with a confidence he was not at all sure he felt. “If each man remembers his duty and his training.”

  “And doesn’t stand around wondering why we’re doing it,” Ciriaco said.

  “Ours is not to reason why, Sergeant,” Espira said. “Tell the captain of each force to move out. I want every single man of my command out of these tunnels in three minutes.”

  Chapter Fifty-one

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  It’s just not natural,” growled Felix to Grimm. “That’s all I’m saying.”

  Grimm regarded askance the verminocitor walking on his left. “You can only give me a general idea of which section of tunnels your missing man had entered.” He gestured to the small, utterly black cat who paced calmly a few steps ahead of Grimm. “It would seem that our companion has a more specific idea.”

  “Like as not the little beast is leading us into a trap,” Felix predicted.

  “I certainly hope so. I’d like to think that we haven’t brought all these weapons for nothing,” Grimm said.

  Grimm’s crew walked behind him in a tight, purposeful group, alongside the Verminocitors’ Guild of Habble Landing. The verminocitors were a hard-bitten, wiry bunch. Very few of them were of even middling stature, or heavy of build, but they were, men and women alike, made of rope and gristle, and they all bore scars as mute testimony of dangers faced and overcome in the past.

  “You say the cat belongs to a Guardsman,” Felix continued.

  “This one, no,” Grimm said. “But I daresay our guide is acquainted with Rowl.”

  At the mention of the name, the little cat looked back at them without slowing her pace, focusing her lambent green eyes on Grimm. He lifted his hand and signaled a halt, and the men clattered to a stop.

  “This is as good a place as any to stop and get more information,” Grimm said. “I take it that is correct, ah, Miss Cat?”

  The cat stopped in her tracks and turned to face Grimm. She regarded Felix for a moment, interested, then looked back up at Grimm. She moved her head up and down in a slow, deliberate nod.

  “He sent you to fetch us?” Grimm asked.

  Again, the cat nodded.

  “Good,” Grimm said. “Do you know exactly where the girls are being held?”

  She nodded again. And after a moment, she shook her head left and right.

  “There,” Felix said. “Now, what’s that supposed to mean?”

  Grimm gave him a mild look. “Apparently that I need to learn to speak Cat.” He frowned and called, “Benedict? Can you understand them at all?”

  The tall young warriorborn shook his head. “Barely more than a greeting and a few pleasantrie
s. It’s a complex language, and takes years to learn.”

  At this, the little black cat looked pleased.

  “Bother,” Grimm said. “If we go storming in and start shooting up the place when we stumble over the enemy, we’re as likely to shoot the girls in the confusion as we are the foe. I need more specific information. She obviously knows it, or knows it better than we do, at least.”

  Felix huffed out a thoughtful breath. Then he reached into his coat and withdrew a thick folded sheaf of paper. He began to unfold it and laid it out on the floor. Grimm peered at it. It was a map of Habble Landing, with ventilation and service tunnels marked in several different colors, evidently to represent their respective elevations.

  “Here, beastie,” Felix said. “Have a look at this.” He tapped a portion of the map with a thick forefinger. “I know Moberly was working in this general section of the tunnels. Which one have the Aurorans taken?”

  The cat prowled over to the map and regarded it with bright eyes. She tilted her head this way and that, pawed at its surface, sniffed it, walked over it, then sat down and just stared at Felix.

  “What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?” Felix demanded of Grimm.

  “It’s too abstract,” Benedict said. “Maps are symbols, and she doesn’t have the necessary experience she needs to understand one.”

  “Explain, please?” Grimm asked.

  Benedict moved a hand in a small, frustrated gesture. “She doesn’t experience the tunnels the way you do. She doesn’t just see the tunnels. She navigates them by smell and sound as much as by sight. Show her a picture that is a symbolic representation of visual dimensions alone and it’s confusing to her.”

  Felix shook his head. “How do you know that?”

  “Because it was confusing as hell to me when I was learning to read maps,” Benedict replied. “It took me a while when I was young.”

  Felix growled. “How hard is it to read a bloody map?”

  Grimm pursed his lips and regarded the cat thoughtfully. “Perhaps we don’t need her to read a map for us,” he mused. “Perhaps we need her to draw one.”