The aeronauts windlass, p.50
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.50
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           Jim Butcher

  At the passage out to the shipyard, a dozen of the Spirearch’s Guardsmen lay heaped together. The men had died defending the exit, and had been stacked like cordwood to one side to prevent the corpses from blocking the way out.

  Grimm never slowed, leading the little column out onto the deck of the shipyard, his boots thudding on the heavy wooden beams.

  Fires blazed away at two nearby storage houses, and in several of the light cannon emplacements that defended the shipyard. At least three of the docked airships were on fire, and several still forms littered the deck. Grimm’s heart began to pound wildly until he spotted Predator, still seemingly safe and sound in her slip.

  And then there was a howl of etheric cannon, and one of the unburnt gun emplacements exploded into a cloud of burning splinters and blinding light.

  Grimm’s eyes snapped up to where the Mistshark hovered in the mist perhaps a hundred yards off the shipyard. Even as he watched, her guns spoke again and again, blowing enormous holes in the wooden deck, raking the helpless, vulnerable hulls of the ships at port, and setting even more of the decking on fire. Howl after howl gave birth to thunderous cacophony.

  One of the blasts ripped through the wooden hull of a vessel at the far end of the shipyard, and by luck struck its power core.

  There was a burst of light and heat, so bright that it blinded Grimm, so hot that it scorched his face. He was flung from his feet as the decking of the shipyard let out a tortured moan, and tons of shattered wood went flying in every direction, shredding the ships nearest the luckless transport.

  And then, with a screaming crack of protesting timbers, half of the shipyard decking fell away from the side of the Spire, broken. Airships battened down for port and unready to fly fell like so many stones, and Grim could hear their crews screaming helplessly as they did. Dockworkers and stevedores plunged down into the misty depths along with the shipyard, lending their own screams to the din, as simple and merciless gravity claimed them all together, timber, spar, and soul.

  And still, blast after blast howled down from Mistshark’s cannon, shattering more of the shipyard’s decking like an angry man with a hammer destroying fine tableware—and claiming airship after airship with methodical precision, unleashing the full destructive power of an armed vessel upon the defenseless shipyard.

  “Fall back!” Grimm screamed. “Into the Spire! Get off the deck!”

  The aeronauts scrambled back into the shelter of the Spire as the cannon fire walked closer and closer. Grimm was the last one to step off of the deck, and so close was the enemy fire as he did that he could feel the force of it through the soles of his boots.

  Grimm had time to turn around before, with a screaming groan, the entire shipyard began to twist and shift before what would be an inevitable fall down the obdurate height of Spire Albion to the surface. Grimm saw the level deck begin to tilt and slide, fires burning in dozens of places. Predator swayed helplessly in her slip.

  And then the cannon fire from the Mistshark reached Predator, and Grimm’s ship, his home, vanished in a deafening thundercloud of fire and blinding light.

  Chapter Sixty-one

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing Shipyard, AMS Predator

  Gwen frantically hooked up leads to the main engineering panel, one after the other, working as rapidly as she could. She lay on her back beneath the control panel, working with her arms stretched out, while around her the engineering spaces became a shouting, noisome scene of frenetic activity.

  “Curse your miserable guts, get that breaker hooked up!” Journeyman bellowed. “You, there, I will personally kick you to the surface if you don’t bring that resistor online!”

  “Main power leads up!” someone shouted.

  “Leads to lift crystal up!” called someone else.

  “Blast you all to the surface,” Journeyman screamed. “Get back from the core! I’m engaging the cage in ten seconds.”

  “The leads aren’t up,” Gwen growled at the engineer beneath her breath.

  “They’d better be,” Journeyman said. “Nine! Eight! Seven!” Gwen frantically made her fingers fly even faster. “I can only do it so fast.”

  “Better be fast enough,” Journeyman said. “Five! Four! Three! Two!” Gwen slipped the last pair of lines into place and slapped the clamp down over them.

  “One! Powering the core!” Journeyman adjusted the controls and the two halves of the power core’s petallike Haslett cage gracefully slid up and around the core, settling into their spherical configuration. Predator’s core crystal came to life with a deep and musical hum, and arcs of greenish energy began to flicker rapidly across the interior of the Haslett cage. Almost at once, the temperature in the room jumped by several degrees.

  “Is that it?” Gwen said. “Did we do it?”

  “Power core’s up,” Journeyman growled. “Soon as she’s warmed up and ready, we get to find out if there are any flaws in any of these new crystals.”

  Gwen sniffed and lifted her chin. “Every crystal is thoroughly inspected and tested at the Lancaster Vattery. They’re fine.” Just then there was a scream of a discharging etheric cannon, almost instantly followed by roaring thunder.

  “God in Heaven, they’ve begun,” Journeyman breathed. “General quarters! Strap up, boys! Strap up!”

  Men began rushing about the cabin, frantically passing out complex bundles of leather straps from storage lockers on the walls. One of them tossed a bundle of straps to Journeyman, and a second to Gwen. “What on earth is this?” Gwen asked.

  “Battle harness,” Journeyman said. “Strap it on.”

  Gwen lifted the collection of straps dubiously. “I’m sorry?” Journeyman’s hands flew with the expertise of long, long practice, and his own ball of mysterious strapping was somehow transformed into a collection of belts that crisscrossed his torso and wrapped his waist.

  Each strap was liberally festooned with copper-clad steel rings. Journeyman then shook out a strap with clips on either end. He clipped one of them to a ring at his waist. He clipped a second line opposite, and a third in the center of his body at the waistline.

  Howling cannon cried out again. This time there was a sound so enormous that Gwen simply could not believe that it happened. It shook the deck beneath her feet, made her stagger, slapped against her like an unseen wind, and then there was a vast grinding, crunching noise that followed it for almost half a minute.

  “What on earth was that?” Gwen asked, her breath coming short. Journeyman grimaced, and looked shaken himself. He began arranging Gwen’s harness around her. “One of those shots must have hit a power core farther down the shipyard, probably that little Piker ship at the far end.”

  “How could you know that?”

  “We’re still here,” the engineer answered. “If it had taken one of the bigger ships, it would have smeared us all over the side of the Spire.”

  He thumped Gwen on the shoulder to get her to turn around, then grunted, adjusted a belt, and started clipping lines to her waist. “Three lines,” he said. “Keep them hooked up to a securing ring at all times.

  You don’t want to be standing there flat-footed when we drop a few hundred feet abruptly. Bounce that pretty head off the ceiling and break your skinny neck, likely as not.”

  Gwen looked around and saw that the engineers were all at their various stations, their lines hooked up to rings heavily seeded along the walls and duty stations. She watched as Journeyman began hooking up to the main panel, and followed suit.

  He eyed her, grunted, and said, “Just you stay out of my way.”

  “I wouldn’t dream otherwise,” Gwen assured him.

  “All right, boys!” Journeyman called.

  Etheric cannon howled again.

  The chief engineer clenched his jaw and said, “Prepare to engage lift and trim crystals on my mark!”

  “Ready!” called engineers in quick sequence from several stations. “Wait!” Gwen shouted. “No! Belay that!” She paused and frowned at Journeyman. “T
hat’s the proper term, correct? Belay that?” Journeyman scowled at her. “You are exactly in my way.” Gwen shook her head impatiently. “If Predator suddenly rises up out of her slip, right here under the enemy guns, what do you think will happen? How will they react?”

  Journeyman stared at her for a second and then scowled furiously.

  “Dammit, dammit. Mistshark doesn’t have armor. She’ll blow us to the surface for fear that we’ll do the same to her if we can bring our guns to bear.”

  “Yes,” Gwen said. “We can’t take off yet. We have to sit here and not be a threat to them.”

  Cannon howls. Another vast sound of thunder, and a bone-deep groan that accompanied a sudden tilt of several degrees in the deck. Everyone in the engineering compartment looked around wildly, their eyes surrounded by white. “God in Heaven,” one of the men breathed. “They’re shooting the shipyard out from under us.” Journeyman grimaced. “We got no pilot aboard her. We got no crew to run out her web so she can maneuver.”

  “Can we fight?”

  “We got no gun crews! They’re all off with the skipper! And we got no time for this!”

  The shipyard shook again, enormous groaning sounds running through the air and making the deck of Predator vibrate as she rocked back and forth, nearly throwing Gwen from her feet. “Ungh! What can we do?”

  “Go up and down,” Journeyman shot back. “Down’ll be real easy.” Cannon howled again, and the roaring impact was even closer. The enemy, Gwen realized, was walking his shots toward Predator. “Core’s hot, chief!” called one of the engineers.

  Journeyman grunted and started manipulating the Haslett cage controls. “Going to configure our shroud to cover our top half a bit thicker.

  Might give us an edge.” He turned his head. “Trim and lift crews, stand by. We’re going to start off with a little dive.”

  Every head in the room whipped around to stare at Journeyman. “Dive protocol, you rot-riddled whoremongers!” Journeyman bel lowed.

  “I take it a dive is dangerous?” Gwen asked in a mild tone. “With no pilot, more like suicidal,” Journey said conversationally.

  “No pilot to steer, we’re likely to smash up against the side of the Spire.”

  “What happens if we do that?”

  “We go into a spin all the way down, lift crystals or not. If we’re lucky, the ship breaks up and we die on impact.”

  “Lucky?” Gwen asked.

  “Better that than to wind up on the surface on foot, with a smashed ship around us.”

  Gwen shuddered. “I see what you—”

  Etheric cannon howled again.

  Predator’s core crystal flared with blinding light, and the ship lurched as if it had been struck with an enormous hammer. Thunder roared, a thing more felt than heard, and Gwen was nearly hurled from her feet despite the security straps. There was a horrible instant of complete stillness— —and then the bottom of the world dropped out and Gwen felt her feet lift up off of the deck. There were several sharp cries and screams, until Journeyman bellowed, “Be quiet, you idiots!” He was leaning back, his feet braced on the deck, his weight secured by the taut lifelines. His expression looked precisely as maladjusted as it did when he was not plunging helplessly to his death, Gwen noted.

  “Lift,” Journeyman bellowed, “give us two percent! We have to fall slower than that shipyard debris, let it get clear of us before we stabilize!”

  “Two percent, aye!” shouted another engineer.

  Gwen felt her heels sink back onto the floor again, and she grasped a ring on the panel with one hand, holding on until her knuckles were white.

  “Stand by!” Journeyman bellowed. Gwen heard him tapping his foot hard against the deck in steady rhythm—counting seconds, she realized.

  She shook her head at this display of cool and collected thinking, of single-minded focus amidst madness—and as she did, she noticed a single loose wire sprang out from the control panel.

  Gwen had no time for thought. Those wires conducted current from the Haslett cage to the ship’s systems. If that wire was one of the ones running to the altitude crystal or one of the ship’s trim crystals, it would not receive power when the others did, and the results could be disastrous.

  Gwen unclipped one of her safety lines and lunged for the panel, all but throwing herself onto her back.

  “Three!” Journeyman bellowed.

  Gwen seized the loose wire.

  “Two!” Journeyman shouted.

  She spotted the open socket and rapidly slid the wire up into place— the starboard trim crystals. If she didn’t get the system online, when the lift engineer sent power to the crystal array, the ship would begin to spin violently on its long axis and fly out of control, with disastrous, probably fatal results.

  She fumbled with the wire, desperate with haste, knowing even as she did that she was too late.

  “One!” Journeyman called, as his hands flew over the power switches, opening channels of current from the core. “Engage the lift array!”

  Chapter Sixty-two

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Former Shipyard

  Blinding light from the explosion that had consumed Predator left a glowing blur in place of Grimm’s normal vision. He shielded his eyes and blinked them rapidly, searching for his ship. The sight that greeted his eyes was almost unthinkable.

  The Mistshark, her work done, had deployed her port-side web and was heeling over neatly. In a moment she would spread her webs wide to catch the etheric currents and begin gathering speed, heading west by southwest—directly toward Spire Aurora.

  Grimm shook his head and lowered his eyes to the ground before him. The heavy timbers of the shipyard jutted out from the spirestone for perhaps five or six feet, and then ended abruptly in edges as rough as broken teeth. Beyond that was nothing but wind and mist and emptiness where bustling industry had been only moments before. The Landing Shipyard was gone.

  And Predator was gone with it.

  Gone.

  Grimm tried to rise but made it only as far as his knees. He felt his shoulders slump, and his skull suddenly seemed an unbearably heavy burden for his neck. The world started to spiral downward. He put one hand out to the spirestone wall to prevent the world from whirling him to the ground.

  Predator was gone. Home was gone.

  Journeyman and his engineers and his contractors had been on the ship. So had been Master Ferus. So had been Miss Gwendolyn. Everything had been aboard Predator.

  Voices spoke to him, but meant little. Hands helped him to his feet.

  He stood, though he saw no convincing reason to do so anymore. A bright purple blur still marred his vision, the residue of the flash that had consumed his ship, his men, and his future.

  “. . . away from the opening, sir,” Kettle was saying, his voice rough. “Mistshark might still fire on us.”

  “No, she won’t,” Grimm heard himself saying in a thin, wooden voice. “The shipyards, the gun emplacements, and merchant vessels bearing supplies to Albion are all legitimate targets of war. Calliope’s done all she came to do at this point. Now all that’s left is to get away with it. She’ll run.”

  Kettle’s hand stayed firm on his arm. “Then come away from the opening, sir. Lest your feet slip and you fall.”

  Grimm felt something like anger at the careful phrasing in the pilot’s voice. It was a distant thing, far away, but he felt it, like a heat moving up his spine. It had power enough to lift his head and let him stare at the pilot. “Precisely what are you suggesting, mister?”

  Kettle’s steady grey eyes flickered with unease—and then flooded with a kind of profound relief. “Oh, Skipper. Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.”

  Grimm regarded the man’s expression and suddenly felt everything rushing back together behind his eyes, an explosion played backward, that left his mind and will restored to some semblance of working order. There was pain, of course. There was horrible, horrible pain, a grief that he knew would, at some point in the near future
, leave him a gibbering wreck.

  But for the time being, his men needed him. He might not have a ship anymore, but he still had a crew. They were looking to him now, in this moment of despair and doubt. So he straightened his coat, turned his back on the horribly empty sky behind him, and faced his men.

  “Well, Mister Kettle. We seem to have done all the damage we can. I’m not sure what my accounts will look like after paying death benefits to the families of the fallen, but you can be assured that I’ll compensate you all as best as I am able, as well as putting a good word in one or two ears who still might be friendly to me in Fleet. Experienced hands will certainly be needed in the weeks to come. I think none of you should lack for paying work.”

  “Skip?” Kettle asked, his tone uncertain.

  “For now, of course, we will locate Doctor Bagen, Mister Creedy, and our wounded and see to it that they have the finest care available. I believe that is their group coming along the lane now, in fact. And naturally we will lend our assistance with the firefighting effort here in Habble Landing.”

  “Oh,” said the etherealist’s apprentice. “Oh, my goodness.”

  “Mister Kettle,” Grimm said, “please delegate a crew of four to assist the good doctor in relocating the men to a hospice of some sort. The rest of us will proceed to the fire containment effort, and join . . .”

  Bridget blinked owlishly, staring past him. “Captain Grimm,” she asked, her tone confused and curious, “I’m fairly new to this sort of thing, but . . . are you sure we oughtn’t get on your ship?”

  Grimm stared hard at Miss Tagwynn. Then at Kettle, studying the man’s expression. Then the face of the etherealist’s apprentice, Miss Folly, and the countenances of his crew.

  Then he stiffened his spine into proper alignment, adjusted his hat, and turned, very calmly.

  Rising up out of the mists, no more than a hundred feet from the opening in the wall of Habble Landing, was the absolutely beautiful, entirely flawless, pristine, and very real shape of Predator.

  Grimm stared at the ship as she rose, steady and stately, until she hovered at the same level as the opening in the Spire’s wall. Her shape blurred for a moment, but he cleared his throat, blinked his eyes once, and that illusion passed. She was whole. Her shrouds had held.