“An ingenious distraction, I’ll admit,” Mr. Tesla said. “Of course, if you’d brought this food earlier, I’d still have an airship.”
Deryn gave him a hard look. He’d spoken so lightly of what he’d done, feeding not only his airbeast, she realized now, but also the horses and mammothines of his cargo train to the fighting bears. And all to stay a few more weeks in this blighted place.
“What were you doing here, anyway, Mr. Tesla?”
“I should think that would be obvious, boy. I am studying the phenomenon around us.”
“Did you find out what caused it?”
“I have always known the cause. I was only curious about the results.” The man raised a hand. “I must remain secretive at the moment, but soon the world will know.”
He had a mad gleam in his eye, and as Deryn turned away toward the
This was, of course, the same Mr. Tesla who’d invented the Tesla cannon, a lightning weapon that had twice almost destroyed the
None of it made sense.
She thought of the mysterious device hidden belowdecks back on the
The airship’s engines changed pitch. The bomb run was finished.
“They’ll be coming about now,” Deryn said. “We should head for the clearing.”
Mr. Tesla waved his walking stick in the air, calling out in what Deryn reckoned was Russian. A group of the men ran into one of the buildings and came back with large packs on their shoulders.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t bring all that gear. We’re too barking heavy as it is!”
“I am hardly going to abandon my photographs and samples, young man. This expedition took years to prepare!”
“But if the ship can’t take off, it’s all lost anyway. Along with us!”
“You shall have to make room, then. Or leave my men behind.”
“Are you mad?” Deryn cried, then shook her head. “Listen, sir, if you want to stay here with your samples until the bears eat you, that’s fine. But these men are coming with me,
Mr. Tesla laughed. “You’ll have to explain that to them, I’m afraid. How good is your Russian, Mr. Sharp?”
They stared back at her, looking a bit confused. One offered up a choice curse in English, but then shrugged, apparently having exhausted his vocabulary.
Deryn clenched her teeth, wishing Alek were here. For all his useless knowledge, he could speak a fair number of languages. And this mad boffin might listen to another Clanker.
She looked at the men again. Some of them must have crewed the dead airship, so they would have to understand weight limits….
But there wasn’t time to put on a pantomime. The howls of the bears were echoing through the still, stripped trees. They’d already found the first of the food, and had fallen to fighting over it.
“Just get your men moving, sir,” she said. “We’ll discuss this at the ship.”
It took a few minutes to reach the edge of the standing trees, and another ten to find a level field large enough for the
Deryn scrambled across the fallen trunks, hoping she could estimate distances properly in all this muddle. She pointed and waved at the Russians, like a cricket captain setting a field, and she soon had them arranged in a long oval a little larger than the
“The ship’s light after dropping all that beef,” she explained to Tesla. “Normally the captain would vent hydrogen to land, but not if he wants to get back up quickly. We’ll have to use ropes to drag it down.”
The man lifted an eyebrow. “Are there enough of us?”
“Not a chance. If a gust of wind came along, we’d all be yanked into the air. So when the ropes fall, have your men tie them to the trees.” She pointed at a fallen pine as big around as a rum barrel. “The bigger the better.”
“But we won’t be strong enough to pull the ship down.”
“Aye, the ship pulls
Deryn paused, listening. Low growls rolled through the forest, setting her small hairs on end. The bears sounded a squick closer now, or maybe it was just her nerves.
“If you hear a Klaxon ringing in pairs, tell your men to throw anything they can out the windows—including your precious samples—or the bears will be having us all for dinner!”
The man nodded and began to instruct his men in Russian, waving his walking stick as he called to them. Deryn guessed he was leaving out the part about the ballast alert, but there was nothing she could do about that. She pulled out a short length of line and began to tie herself a friction hitch, in case she needed to climb.
Soon the airship was overhead, its engines rumbling as the crew pulled it to a halt. Heavy cables fell from the cargo deck portholes, a swaying forest of rope tumbling into place around them.
The Russians began to scramble about, gathering the cables and tying them onto the trees. Deryn could tell the airmen among them by their knots—at least a dozen of the men had been in the fallen airship’s crew. Surely they would understand that if the bears were on their way and the ship wasn’t rising, the boffin’s precious baggage would have to go overboard. And no decent airman would hesitate to disobey Mr. Tesla, after what he’d done to that airbeast.
When the last man had stepped back from his knots, Deryn pulled out her semaphore flags and sent the ready signal. The ropes went taut, shuddering and creaking as the winches started to turn.
At first the airship didn’t seem to move at all. But a few of the smaller trees began to stir, shifting along the ground. Deryn ran toward the nearest and jumped on to add her weight to it. The Russians understood, and soon all the nervously stirring trees had men standing on them. Mr. Tesla watched impassively, as if the operation were some sort of physics experiment and not a rescue mission.
It was almost noon, and the
Deryn listened again, and frowned. The sounds of bears in the distance had faded. Were they so far away she couldn’t hear them anymore? Or had the last scrap of beef been found and eaten, and now the creatures were charging toward the scent of airbeast?
“Quite large, your hydrogen breather,” Mr. Tesla said, then frowned. “Does that say ‘
“Aye, so you’ve heard of us.”
“Indeed. You’ve been in the—” The wind gave a violent start, and the tree Deryn was standing on was pulled into the air, knocking Mr. Tesla to the ground. The
They clung on gamely, though. Soon the wind died, the airship settling earthward again.
“Are you all right, sir?” Deryn called.
“I’m fine.” Mr. Tesla stood, dusting off his traveling coat. “But if your ship can lift these trees, then why complain about a bit of extra luggage?”
“That was a gust of wind. Do you want to bet your life on getting another one!”
Deryn looked up. The
“Blisters,” Deryn said.
The airship was still a dozen yards up when Deryn spotted the first fighting bear.
It was loping through the area of standing trees, huffing coils of condensation into the freezing air. The bear was a small one, its shoulders barely ten feet high. Perhaps the others had kept it away from the spoils of dried beef.
It certainly didn’t
“Climb!” Deryn shouted, pointing up her own rope. “Tell them to climb!”
Mr. Tesla didn’t say a word, but his men needed no translation. They began to pull their way up toward the portholes, hand over hand on the thick mooring ropes. None of them thought to drop his pack, or perhaps they were too scared of the Clanker boffin to leave anything behind.
But there was nothing Deryn could do for them now. She scampered up her own line, glad for the friction hitch she’d tied earlier.
As the men’s weight was added to the ropes, the lines began to slacken, the airship settling closer to the ground. This was the situation Deryn had wanted to avoid—another gust of wind would pop the ropes taut again, flinging off the men holding them.
She looked over her shoulder. The small bear had broken into the open, and larger shapes loomed behind it.
“Sharp!” Mr. Rigby’s voice called from the porthole above her head. “Get those men to drop their packs!”
“I’ve tried, sir. They don’t speak English!”
“But can’t they
“No, just afraid of that fellow there.” She jerked her chin toward Mr. Tesla, who still stood on the ground, impassively regarding the approaching bear. “
A moment later it stood again and shook its head. A fresh mark gleamed on the beastie’s scarred and patchy fur, but it let out a defiant roar.
“I think you’ve just made it
“Not to worry, Mr. Sharp. We’re putting that tranquilizer to good use.”
Deryn glanced backward as she climbed, and saw that the bear looked unsteady on its feet now, ambling across the fallen trees like an airman full of too much drink.
When Deryn reached the porthole, Mr. Rigby stuck out a hand and pulled her in.
“The spare cargo’s ready to drop,” the bosun said, “so we’ve plenty of lift. But with bears closing in, the captain won’t take us any closer to the ground. Can the rest of those men climb?”
“Aye, sir. About half of them are airmen, so they should—”
“Good heavens,” Mr. Rigby interrupted, peering out the porthole. “What in blazes is that man doing?”
Deryn crowded in beside the bosun. Mr. Tesla was still on the ground, facing three more bears that had broken from the trees.
“Barking spiders!” Deryn breathed. “I didn’t think he was
The largest of the creatures was hardly twenty yards from Tesla, leaping across the fallen trees in huge bounds. The man calmly raised his walking stick….
A bolt of lightning leapt from its tip, with a sound like the air itself tearing. The beast reared onto its hind legs and howled, trapped for a split second in a jagged cage of light. The brilliance faded instantly, but the bear howled and turned to flee, the other beasties following in its wake.
Mr. Tesla inspected the end of his walking stick, which was black and smoking, then turned toward the airship.
“You may land your ship properly now,” he called up. “Those beasts will be wary for an hour or so.”
The bosun nodded dumbly, and before he could call for a message lizard, the winches started up, inching the ship lower again. The officers were in agreement.
“REPULSION OF THE STARVING WAR BEASTS.”
Mr. Rigby found his voice a moment later. “It’s not just the bears that should be wary, Mr. Sharp.”
She nodded slowly. “Aye, sir. We’ll have to keep an eye on that fellow.”