They were false, in other words.
Alek kept to his cabin most of the day, avoiding the newsreel cameras roaming the ship’s corridors. One of his grandaunts believed that photographs snatched pieces of the soul, and maybe she was right. At sixteen frames a second, a moving-picture camera would chip away like a machine gun. Perhaps it was only last night’s brandy in his head, but Alek felt as empty as Mr. Hearst’s false buildings.
The airship followed the coast of California southward at three-quarter speed, angling against the cool ocean breezes that blew toward land. Los Angeles slipped past in the late afternoon, and a few hours later Alek felt the airship turn southeast. According to the map on his desk, the sprawling city below was Tijuana.
A sudden blaring of horns and drums cut through the engine noise, and Bovril scampered to the windowsill. Alek looked out—a huge stadium yawned below, packed with cheering spectators. Some sort of double-headed bull was kicking up dust in the arena’s center, facing a matador almost too small to see in the fading light.
It occurred to Alek that however swift airship travel was, one missed a great deal of scenery from the lofty height of a thousand feet.
By the time he’d dressed for dinner, the desert below was wrapped in darkness. Bovril was still on the windowsill, gazing down. No doubt its large eyes could see by starlight.
“Meteoric,” the beast said, and Alek frowned. It was the first word Bovril had said all day, and certainly not one that Alek had uttered.
But Alek was already late for dinner, so he placed the creature on his shoulder and headed out the door.
The lady boffin had commandeered the officers’ mess for the evening, no doubt the first of many tiresome dinner parties. With so many civilians aboard, the
Deryn stood waiting at the mess door, dressed in her formal serving uniform. When Bovril reached out for her, she ruffled its fur and then opened the door with a deep bow. A smirk played on her face, and Alek felt briefly silly in his formal jacket, as if the two of them were children playing dress-up.
The other guests had already arrived—Count Volger, Mr. Tesla, and the lady reporter from Hearst’s San Francisco paper. Dr. Barlow ushered the young woman forward. She was wearing a pale red dress with a frilled collar, and a pink ostrich plume curled up from her rose-colored felt hat.
“Your Serene Highness, may I present Miss Adela Rogers?”
Alek bowed. “I had the pleasure last night, but only briefly.”
Miss Rogers extended her hand to be kissed, and Alek hesitated—she was hardly of his social standing. But Americans were famous for ignoring such notions, so Alek took her hand and kissed the air.
“You missed,” she said with a baffled smile.
“Missed?” Alek asked.
“Her hand,” said Dr. Barlow. “The custom in Europe, Miss Rogers, is that only married women are kissed directly on the flesh. You young things are thought to be too easily swayed by the touch of lips.”
Alek heard Deryn snort, but managed to ignore her.
“Young? But I’m all of twenty,” Miss Rogers said. “My hand has been kissed many times without injury!”
Dr. Barlow’s loris laughed, and Alek coughed politely. “Of course.”
“And I was
“Really?” Alek managed. “No doubt he was.”
“Couldn’t you have got another license?” the lady boffin asked.
“I suppose so. But the interruption gave me time to think. I have decided to put my writing first. One can
Dr. Barlow laughed as she guided the young lady toward the table. Alek felt himself blushing and looked away, only to see a smirk on Deryn’s face—and on Volger’s as well. He wondered if all American women were this bold, as ready to embarrass men as they were to escape in balloons.
“Easily swayed,” Bovril repeated; then it crawled beneath the table to join the lady boffin’s loris. As Alek took his seat, he noticed a sixth table setting before an empty chair.
“We appear to be awaiting a mystery guest,” Count Volger said, inspecting his wineglass for spots.
“Mr. Francis?” Alek asked Dr. Barlow.
“He was not invited. You shall soon see why.” She nodded at Deryn, who opened the door. A man in a somewhat ill-fitting jacket entered. It took a moment, but then Alek gripped the table’s edge, half rising from his chair.
“Don’t get up, Your Highness.” Eddie Malone bowed. “Ladies and gentlemen, sorry I’m late.”
Alek sank back into his chair.
“Mystery guest,” the beast muttered.
“Mr. Malone, I believe you’ve met Count Volger and His Serene Highness.” Dr. Barlow was all smiles. “Mr. Nikola Tesla and Miss Adela Rogers, this is Eddie Malone, reporter for the
“Edward Malone,” Tesla murmured. “Aren’t you that reporter who interviewed Prince Aleksandar in Istanbul?”
“That was me, all right.” Malone took his seat. “I’ve been tracking him ever since, you might say. And thanks to your flying radio, I’ve found him at last!”
The inventor smiled. “A most rewarding experiment.”
The two men laughed, and Alek suddenly wished that he and Deryn had let the storm wreck the antenna. Its only purpose had been to generate more publicity.
Miss Rogers looked aghast. “Has anyone told the chief that one of Pulitzer’s men is aboard?”
“Mr. Hearst didn’t think to ask.” The lady boffin gestured to Deryn, who stepped forward to pour the wine. “And you’ll find that Mr. Malone has some interesting news.”
Malone turned to Miss Rogers. “It has to do with your friend Philip Francis. We’ve been looking into him for some time now, and it turns out that’s not his real name. He was born Philip Diefendorf, about as German a name as you could have!”
Alek frowned, recalling Mr. Francis from the night before. “He doesn’t have a German accent.”
“Maybe he also changed the way he talks.”
Miss Rogers rolled her eyes. “Philip was born in New York.”
“So he claims,” Malone said.
“Hah! You boys at the
“I didn’t say Hearst knew anything about this,” Malone said, raising his hands. “But the head of your newsreel operation is German, and he’s taken pains to hide it.”
“Don’t most Americans come from somewhere else?” Count Volger asked.
Mr. Tesla nodded. “I am an immigrant myself.”
“An excellent point,” Dr. Barlow said. “But the captain is concerned. Last night we took aboard a large quantity of supplies in a great hurry, and not all of it has been searched yet.”
“Searched for what?” Miss Rogers asked.
“Sabotage is the easiest way to destroy the
The table went silent, and Alek felt his headache threatening to return.
“That’s not likely, of course,” Deryn spoke up. “We’ve had the sniffers belowdecks all afternoon, and they’d have found any explosives. But something dangerous might’ve been smuggled aboard.”
“Such as?” Count Volger asked.
Deryn shrugged. “A weapon of some kind?”
“Now, this is just preposterous,” Miss Rogers said. “One man can’t take on the whole crew, no matter what sort of weapon he has.”
“With the right tool one man can do quite a bit,” Mr. Tesla said, and let out a sigh. “I recently designed a device that would have been most useful in this situation. I had it built and shipped to me in Siberia, but, alas, it didn’t arrive before your ship was kind enough to rescue me.”
Alek glanced at Deryn, remembering the contraption still sitting in the officers’ storeroom.
“That sounds like a fascinating machine,” Dr. Barlow said with a smile. “Perhaps you could give us a demonstration, Mr. Tesla.”
“A demonstration? But it never…” He narrowed his eyes at the lady boffin. “Ah, I see. I would be happy to.”
“After dinner, of course. Mr. Sharp?”
Deryn bowed, then turned to open the door again. The ship’s stewards were waiting outside.
As the dishes came clattering in, their metal covers steaming out the scents of steak and potatoes, Alek pondered what had just happened. The lady boffin never let anything slip without a good reason, but she’d revealed her suspicions about Philip Francis to Miss Rogers, a fellow Hearst reporter. And then she’d let Mr. Tesla know that his metal detecting machine had been aboard the
Had she decided that cooperation was better than secrecy?
“Dinner,” Bovril said happily, crawling up into Alek’s lap.
The door to the officers’ storeroom creaked open, revealing Mr. Tesla’s machine among crates of sake and Japanese silks. The party had moved belowdecks after dinner, and the six of them looked out of place in their finery. Miss Rogers was still sipping sherry, and Volger and Malone had brought down their brandy snifters.
“This was here?” Tesla asked. “And you kept it from me?”
“Sir, it was you who kept it from us,” Dr. Barlow said. “Why on earth did you have it smuggled aboard?”
Tesla sputtered for a moment, then threw out his arms. “Smuggled? Why would I do that? It must have been a misunderstanding with the Russians.”
“Perhaps you merely asked them to exercise discretion?” Dr. Barlow said helpfully.
“Well, of course. So many ideas have been stolen from me. And you know the Russians, very secretive people.” The inventor stepped forward, inspecting the control panel. “But how did you manage to put it together without plans?”
“My men and I found your design quite intuitive,” Alek said. “We’re still Clankers, you know.”
“Clankers!” Bovril said.
“Well remembered,” Count Volger muttered, but Alek ignored him.
“Just as I visualized it.” Tesla’s hands caressed the woodwork. “Not a bad job, Your Highness.”
Alek clicked his heels. “I shall pass on your compliments to Master Klopp.”
Tesla turned to her. “A magnetometer of the highest sensitivity, using principles of atmospheric conduction.”
“In other words, it detects metal,” Deryn said.
Tesla waved a hand. “One of its more mundane uses.”
“But at the moment, the most pertinent.” Dr. Barlow stepped forward and twisted the main control knob; the machine started up with a hum. The two lorises began to imitate its sound.
“It appears to be fully charged,” said Tesla, squinting at the dials.
The lady boffin smiled. “Almost fully.”
“Almost,” her loris repeated.
Alek glanced at Deryn, who was smirking again. Dr. Barlow, of course, was letting Tesla know that they’d used the machine already. And to what purpose, he could certainly guess.
Alek recalled his argument with Deryn in Tokyo, when he’d declared that the specimen in Tesla’s cabin was nothing but an interesting rock. But if Tesla had created this machine for the sole purpose of finding metal, then the rock must have been the goal of the whole expedition. The mysterious hunk of iron might well be the key to Goliath.
And for some reason he’d wanted to keep it all a secret.
“Well,” the inventor grumbled. “Let’s see if it even works.”
Tesla was a virtuoso with his machine’s controls. He could set it to search for metal in amounts large or small, distant or near. Each of the three globes had slightly different properties, and each could be adjusted separately. As Alek watched, he realized that he’d employed the device in the most fumbling fashion, like a cat playing a piano.
Dr. Barlow summoned two crewmen to carry the machine, and soon the globes were dancing, guiding Tesla though the piles of supplies that had been loaded at Hearst’s estate. The dinner party trailed behind, Mr. Malone’s flashbulb occasionally sending the party’s shadows flailing across the darkened cargo rooms.
The machine’s flickers finally led them into the back of a crowded storeroom, toward a stack of barrels buried beneath boxes of dates and apples.
Mr. Tesla squinted in the wormlight and tutted. “These barrels contain more than sugar, it seems.”
“Oh, dear,” Miss Rogers said.
Dr. Barlow gestured to Deryn, who ordered the crewmen to take the machine away. Alek helped her unstack the crates on top, and when the way was clear, she stepped forward with a crowbar in her hand. She split the wooden top of a barrel with one blow.
“Careful, Dylan,” Alek said. “If this is sabotage, there might be a trap.”
The others took a step backward, but Bovril sniffed and said, “Sugar.”
Deryn knocked away the splintered wood, then slid the crowbar into the barrel—it stopped with a muffled
“Well, that’s interesting.” She pulled off her white gloves, rolled up a sleeve, and reached in. A moment later she tugged out something long and thin wrapped in oiled rags. Sugar streamed onto the floor as she pulled the object free.
Unwrapped, the metal cylinder gleamed in the wormlight. Alek looked at Count Volger, who nodded and said, “Yes, it looks a bit like the barrel of a Spandau. But it’s a Colt-Browning, most likely the 1895.”
“A machine gun?” Miss Rogers said. “Oh, dear.”
Malone’s camera flashed again, blinding Alek for a moment. By the time he’d blinked the spots away, Deryn had pulled out another prize. She unwrapped the rags to reveal a metal case the size of a dinner plate.
“An ammunition drum?” Alek asked.
Volger stepped forward. “Not one I’m familiar with.”
“Wait. Don’t open—,” Miss Rogers began, but Deryn had already pulled the case into two halves. A black disk fell out and struck the floor with a
Miss Rogers knelt to peer closer. “This is unexposed moving-picture film. Or it
“Film?” Alek asked. “But why would anyone smuggle more of that aboard? There’s already stacks of it in Mr. Francis’s stateroom.”
Count Volger nodded. “For that matter, why a machine gun? The Colt-Browning weighs fifteen kilograms. A bit large for a saboteur to use.”
“And we won’t find any bullets for it either,” Deryn added. “Our beasties would’ve sniffed out the gunpowder.”
“Rather a mystery,” Dr. Barlow said, turning to Miss Rogers. “Though in a way I am relieved. Perhaps your Mr. Francis is merely an arms smuggler.” She frowned. “And a supplier of… movie film.”
Miss Rogers shrugged. “I have no idea what’s going on, I promise. But I’ll have a snoop around tomorrow, and see what I can find out.”
“Just don’t forget that this is my story,” Malone said.
Miss Rogers frowned, but gave him a curt nod.
“We’ll check the rest of these barrels, ma’am,” Deryn said to the lady boffin. “Then I’ll have the ship’s carpenter seal them back up so no one’s the wiser.”
Alek nodded. If the ship wasn’t in immediate danger, there was no need for a confrontation. The best way to uncover Mr. Francis’s plans was to let him make the next move.