The Inversion Solution is the 3rd book in The Alchemancer series. Here’s chapter one in its entirety for you to read as a preview.
“WE HAVE TO GO BACK.”
The words slipped from Serena’s lips as a whisper, so soft the creak and rattle of the Griffin lifting heavenward and the cool morning breeze blowing across the deck drowned them out. Jakinda Rhe, who stood next to her, gave no indication she’d heard her, so Serena raised her voice and said again, “We have to go back.”
Jakinda’s stark white eyes remained focused on the glistening line of the Whitecrest winding its way eastward below them, but she’d heard her this time. “Go back where? Brighton?”
“Yes, Brighton,” Serena said. Speaking the city’s name made her remember what they’d left behind. Her conviction to leave, which had seemed so strong, disappeared as doubt took over. The city was in ruins. A dozen or more plumes of smoke still lifting skyward behind them spoke to the destruction wrought by Persimmius’s explosives. Then there was the unseen damage caused by the Nullification Engine. Aaron had done his best, but the engine had still changed Serena’s mother, father, Emily, and all those others into something hideous. “The engine didn’t nullify these people,” Serena remembered him saying. “It inverted them. Turned life into death, or undeath.” While she found some small hope in those words, the notion of undeath, an incongruous state that was neither life nor death but something in between, appalled her. Aaron had said right after that there was nothing anyone could do for them, but he must have changed his opinion about that because why else stay behind? Aaron had devised a plan. Serena was sure of it. Perhaps nothing more than the inkling of one, but she knew he had something in mind. He always did. He wasn’t done fighting, and, she realized now, neither was she. She had to go back. Even if Aaron didn’t need her help, she had an obligation to help her people. She’d let them down once. She would not let them down a second time.
“Yes,” Serena said, sure of herself this time. “We need to return to Brighton.” Lifting the hem of her ballroom dress, she strode from the foredeck with her sights set squarely on the bridge.
“Where are you going?” Jakinda asked from behind her.
“To speak to the captain.”
She was halfway across the waist deck, with airmen crisscrossing her path at every step, when activity in the sky to her left—whether that was port or starboard, she’d no idea—caught her attention. It wasn’t anything she saw, but something she felt, tugging at her until she had no choice but to move to the gunwale to investigate. Placing both hands there, she focused her sri, her magical energy, on the sky’s vast landscape. She identified three distinct signatures, all moving through the sky toward them but still too far away to make out anything specific. Serena waited another few seconds, time in which the objects drew closer and closer until she finally saw them. She looked around, wondering if anyone else had taken notice. No one had. “Three ships are approaching our position,” she shouted, pointing.
Nearby airmen stopped what they were doing, but only one—the same mustached gentleman who’d let Serena and the others onboard—came over to look. Following the line of her finger, he grunted in confirmation, then turned to the command deck and shouted, “Cap’n!”
The captain, who was in a conversation with Evan Kingsley and Gerwyn, looked over. Once he understood the situation, he pointed a spyglass in the direction indicated. After a few seconds, he handed the looking glass to a nearby airwoman.
Realizing she’d just lost her opportunity to speak to the captain, Serena wondered if the mustached gentleman, who she suspected carried some weight onboard, might help her find a way to see him later once this business with the other ships was sorted out.
“When available, I need to speak to the captain,” Serena said to him.
With his attention still on the approaching ships, he said almost absentmindedly, “Might be a stretch, miss. Can’t let you up to see him presently, but he’ll no doubt summon you and the others soon enough. He’ll want to know what happened back there in Brighton. We all do.”
“Yes,” Serena said, “and I’m willing to tell all I know. But at his earliest convenience, which I hope isn’t too long from now, I need to speak to him about turning around, Mr…?”
“It’s Sergeant Roe, or at least it was.” He looked away from the sky and sighed. “But I’m a free man now, miss. No more army for me and no more titles. Now, it’s just Tippin. You can call me that.”
“And you may call me Serena, if you please.”
Tippin scratched at his chin. “What do you suppose those ships are about? I’d say a regular convoy, except they’re heading straight for us. You saw them first. Did you notice if they made any course changes?”
Serena wasn’t sure. But as the seconds ticked by and they sailed further and further from home, she kept thinking about her need to see the captain, and so she felt compelled to say to Tippin, “I wish to speak to the captain about turning the ship around and returning to Brighton. The people there need our help. Aaron needs our help.”
The airships, approaching faster now, grew more distinct, and though her focus remained on her request, Serena found the approaching vessels’ configurations baffling enough that she stared at them like everyone else. She knew standard dirigible configurations, but these were different, with cylindrically shaped hulls that were long and sleek with no visible decks. Whoever they were, Serena didn’t think they were part of a convoy. She doubted if they even hailed from the Four Fiefdoms.
“Aaron, you said?” Tippin asked, still somewhat distracted. “Don’t know any Aarons. But I’m with you. I’m not from Brighton, but I knew plenty of people there, including the boys in my old regiment.” Tippin cast a nervous glance toward the command deck, then he looked back at the three vessels. “I’m no expert, but damn if I’ve ever seen an airship quite like those.”
“I have,” Jakinda said.
Serena jumped, and her hand shot to her chest. “Gods!” She flashed Jakinda an annoyed look. “Please don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Jakinda, who focused on the approaching ships and nothing else, continued as if Serena had said nothing. “They’re eslar. Can anyone make out their colors?”
Serena couldn’t, even though they moved faster and drew closer now. Soon, their shapes gained enough distinction that Serena saw that, much like the vessels themselves, their balloons were long and sleek, extending past the beam length of their cylindrical shapes. As before, Serena saw no decks typical of a Fiefdom airship, which made her wonder how they knew direction until she spotted windows lining the cone-shaped, forward-facing section. She thought she spied movement behind those windows, but the ships remained a fair distance away, so she was unsure. Wings with canvas stretched tight sprang out from either side of the vessels.
Up to this point, the Griffin had not reacted to the other ships, but now she altered course from due east to a slightly northerly direction.
“Captain’s just being cautious,” Tippin said, though Serena wasn’t sure how he knew that. “Probably steering us clear in case they didn’t see us.”
“We can’t outrun them, if that’s what your captain is thinking,” Jakinda said. “Eslar dirigibles are outfitted with much faster drives than anything the fiefdoms have ever built.”
“That so?” Tippin asked, a hint of skepticism in his tone. “Since you seem to know so much about them, any idea why they’re bearing down on us? Or why we’d need to outrun them in the first place?”
Jakinda shook her head. Her gaze hadn’t left the ships since they’d appeared.
Tippin stepped away. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I’d like to hear what the captain thinks of all this. I’ll pass on your comment about their airspeed.”
“Something wrong?” Serena asked her.
Before Jakinda could answer, two of the eslar airships changed course. Serena didn’t need an aeronautical chart to know their new direction would take them straight to Brighton. The third ship maintained its present heading, but only for a little longer before altering course to match the Griffin’s new trajectory.
“She’s heading straight for us,” Jakinda said.
On the command deck, an airman lifted a single green flag and waved it back and forth.
“What’s he doing?” Serena asked.
“Telling the eslar ship we’re a merchant vessel and not something else, like a warship or pirates,” Jakinda said. “Since we haven’t shown any signs of slowing, it also means we’re under a tight schedule, so we don’t have time to heave to and wait for them. Basically, they’re saying we’re not trying to evade them, even though we are.” Jakinda leaned out, trying to get a better view of the other ship. “Can you see the symbol on their main flag? Does it look like three intersecting triangles?”
Serena squinted and tried, but though the ship was much closer now, it was still too far away to answer Jakinda’s question. Serena did see, however, that her earlier observation about a lack of decks was incorrect. This one had a single deck extending from about the midway point of the central cylindrical section to the back of the ship. Something that looked a lot like a cannon was mounted front and center on the deck.
Jakinda drummed her fingers on the gunwale. “I’m going to ask the captain.” She started to hurry away, but then stopped to glance over her shoulder at Serena. “You coming?”
They made it as far as the ladder leading up to the bridge before an airman stopped them with a raised hand.
“Authorized personnel only, ma’ams.”
Serena was about to inquire about certain other unauthorized personnel on the bridge, namely Evan and Gerwyn, when Jakinda shouted up at the command deck.
“Captain,” she yelled, “can you make out the ship’s flag?”
“Is it three intersecting triangles? All golden?”
Captain Madison’s tricorn popped into view. “How did you know that?”
Jakinda shook her head. “Damn.”
“What is it?” Serena asked.
“Damn,” Jakinda said again.
Serena touched Jakinda’s arm. “Do you know that ship?”
“Yes,” Jakinda said, blowing out a breath. “I also know who owns it.”
Serena’s grip on Jakinda’s arm tightened. “Is this the same uncle who sent Ingrid Kane to Brighton to oversee the activation of the engine?”
“Sir!” a cry rang out from mid-ship. The captain’s attention shifted from the young ladies to his crewman. “She’s changing course again!”
Silence blanketed the Griffin as all eyes watched the eslar ship turn.
“She’s maintaining her distance, running parallel,” Serena said, letting go of Jakinda. She shook her head, perplexed. “Why is she doing that?”
“Because she’s getting ready to fire on us,” Jakinda said, her voice far too calm, Serena thought, given what she’d just said.
The more experienced onboard knew it, too.
“Signal to the engine room!” the captain’s booming voice rang out. “All speed!”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” another voice answered, “signal to the engine room. All speed.”
Moments later, the Griffin shook, heaving momentarily as the engine’s throughput increased. Black smoke, already streaming from deck exhaust pipes in a measured, steady flow, billowed from those same pipes as the ship’s screws propelled the vessel forward at a faster speed.
The captain’s voice rang out once more. “One hundred feet positive altitude!”
The same voice confirmed the order, then the Griffin started to rise.
“She’s firing!” someone shouted.
The single shot came from the deck gun in the form of a glowing ball of energy. Serena clenched her fists and, despite her weariness from the night before, focused her sri. She wasn’t sure how to stop a ball of energy hurtling through the sky at such speed, but she had to try. But as the shot hurtled closer and closer, it soon became apparent it was off the mark. With a palpable sense of relief, everyone watched it pass harmlessly beneath them.
Dizzy, Serena grabbed hold of the rail. “They missed,” she said, not realizing how little of her sri remained. She’d spent too much the night before in her fight with Persimmius. Any more, and she risked harming herself, or worse. Serena needed more time to recover before her sorcery would be helpful to anyone. One hand slipped from the rail, and she would have stumbled if Jakinda wasn’t there to provide a steadying hand.
“You should go below and rest,” Jakinda said.
Serena shook her head. “No, not while…” Retaking hold of the railing, she waited for another dizzy spell to pass.
Shouted commands sent airmen scurrying in all directions.
“What’s happening?” Serena asked, surprised to find she was no longer standing by the command deck but hovering over a companionway. She spied Evan already below and Gerwyn halfway down with clawed hands extended, ready to help her descend the steep stairs.
“They have our range,” Jakinda said next to her. “The next shot might not hit us, but it’ll be much closer.”
“Why are they even firing on us?” Serena allowed Gerwyn to take hold of her at the waist. The world spun around her, so she had little choice. “You said that ship belongs to your uncle,” she said through the fog in her mind. “What possible reason could they have for shooting us out of the sky, especially with you onboard?”
“I’ve no idea,” Jakinda said. “As far as they know, I’m still in the city. Everyone else…” Her gaze drifted from Serena to look over the men and women on deck. “Everyone else is supposed to be dead.”
Despite the weakness affecting her mind, Serena knew what she meant. The engine was supposed to have killed everyone. The eslar on those ships didn’t expect to find any survivors in Brighton. But why were they on their way to the city at all? That was a mystery she wasn’t going to solve right now. There was, however, the more immediate question of why they were going below. Though Serena didn’t remember giving voice to the question, she heard Jakinda answering.
“Captain ordered all passengers below.”
“More like fleeing,” Jakinda said. “Something about taking the Griffin above the clouds.”
“But,” Serena said, shaking her head while she summoned her last bit of strength to finish her sentence, “airships can’t go that high.”
“Apparently, this one can.”
Jacob forced himself to remain calm. He was the ship’s captain now. The order amidst the chaos, as it were. The steadying hand on the rudder. His demeanor must show confidence and a complete mastery of the situation. He must issue his commands with firm conviction and a composure born from the fact that, in his mind, he’d already won the day, and so the crew only needed to follow his instructions to see his grand plan for their deliverance fulfilled. Never mind that he had only the one idea presently, and if that didn’t work, they were all doomed to die in a fiery explosion or from meeting the ground at terminal velocity. Thank the Old Gods that one luxury of holding the post of captain was that he didn’t need to share every detail of his plan with anyone but himself.
“Commander Briggs,” Jacob said, addressing his acting first mate, “inform the engine room we’ll be ascending to high altitude. Make the engine ready.”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” Alice manipulated levers at the communications console to signal the engine room.
“She’s firing again!”
Jacob took a deep, calming breath, letting it out in even measure as he said, “Mr. Roe, please see that all non-essential personnel return to their cabins.”
The former army sergeant gave the captain a quick ‘aye, aye,’ before he spun around to see to it.
“Atmos, what’s our current elevation?” Jacob asked.
The atmos, or atmospheric engineer, checked his gauges. “Thirty-five sixty-two, sir.”
Well short of his earlier command. “The order was one hundred feet positive elevation, was it not, Commander?”
Their attacker’s shot proved more accurate this time, but not good enough to hit them as the sphere of crackling energy sailed beneath them once more.
Inwardly, Jacob breathed a sigh of relief.
“Aye, sir,” Alice said. “One hundred feet was the order.”
“Then why have we stopped at thirty-five?”
“If I had to guess, sir, I’d say the altitude regulator in the instrument panel is on the fritz. Beck wanted to replace it, but we never tracked down another in Brighton.”
That, and a score of other parts, no doubt. The Griffin had needed somewhere to set down to make repairs, and while Brighton hadn’t been anyone’s first choice, it was the best at the time.
“Runner!” Jacob said.
Rail was already there, looking smart as he waited for instruction.
“Have Mr. Brice report altitude readings at his station, if you will. While you’re there, ask him about the status of the regulator on his end.”
Rail responded with a hasty salute, then he slid down the ladder to the lower deck and ran for Mr. Brice, who manned the mid-ship exhaust assembly. While Jacob waited for Rail’s return, he carried on with the business at hand.
“Ms. Briggs, ring down to the engine room and report the altitude situation. Atmos, current wind speed and direction?”
The atmos, Sedgewick Gyles, rattled off a series of numbers. Then he added, “Pressure gradient indicates a fast-moving thermal above us, sir. Maybe a hundred feet up. Direction, north-northeast.”
The thermal was good news. If they reached it fast enough, they could use it to increase the distance between themselves and their attacker. That extra distance might mean the difference between reaching the safety of the clouds and getting blown out of the sky.
Jacob glanced at Ms. Briggs. “Distance from enemy ship?”
Alice was ahead of him, already taking a range. “Six-tenths, sir.”
“How fast is she gaining?”
“Too fast. She’ll have us dead to rights in less than ten minutes.”
A crewman shouted that another shot was headed their way. Such silence reigned across the ship that every crewmember must have held their breath. The missile was closer this time, so close its passage caused enough of a disturbance in the surrounding air to nudge the Griffin ever so slightly. The crew let out a collective sigh when it passed by harmlessly.
“That was too damn close,” Jacob said. “At this rate, they’ll have us dead to rights in five minutes, not ten. Mr. Tuckett, make our heading 3-2-5. Let’s show them our stern and hope their next shot also misses us.”
Rail returned, hoisting himself up the ladder to the command deck without missing a beat. “Mr. Brice reports all readings nominal, sir. Altitude stable at thirty-five sixty-two feet. He said the regulator at his station is functioning properly.”
They weren’t ascending at all. Jacob rounded on Alice, willing to sacrifice a bit of his exterior calm to move things along faster. “Response from the engine room on our situation?”
Ms. Briggs shook her head with a tight lip.
Jacob let out an exasperated breath. “What the hell is she doing down there? Alice, go find out.”
She hesitated. At Jacob’s questioning glance, she said, “With all due respect, sir, I know you’re the captain now, and your place is here on the bridge, but no one can get through to Beck like you can. I’m not saying she’s having one of her fits, but I know we’d all rather have you already there, just in case. You should go, sir.”
Jacob took one second to think about it before realizing she was right. He was halfway to the companionway when he said, “Maintain course. The second—and I mean the second!—you get my signal, turn the elevators toward the clouds. Meanwhile, have the crew make ready for high altitude.”
Jacob left the bridge behind so fast he only half-heard Alice relaying his commands. But he recognized the muffled boom of hatches slamming shut and the stamp of feet on the main deck as airmen hurried to secure the ship and get to their high-altitude gear.
“Make a path!” Jacob said, shouting to make sure the way remained clear. He flew by one of their dwarven passengers and the eslar girl without a word, descended two more decks, and ran down a corridor before finally dashing into the engine room. He came in so fast that he almost ran straight into his chief engineer. She had her back to him, seemingly preoccupied with nothing more than staring at the engine.
“Beck, report! Why aren’t we climbing?”
He sincerely hoped she had an answer and, even better, a resolution. Rebecca Stratum had not been anyone’s first choice for the position of chief engineer, but she’d earned it by default when their previous chief had died in the line of duty. As the only other engineer onboard, that had left Rebecca, or Beck, as everyone called her, as the sole candidate for the role. The fit wasn’t entirely a bad one. She had the qualifications, experience, and imagination, but she lacked confidence, an essential qualification for the position. Jacob hated to admit it, but his options with Rebecca Stratum were limited, and he had it in his mind to replace her as chief engineer once they landed in Sirron, Alchester, or some other major aeroport. For now, though, for better or worse, Beck was it.
Rebecca spun around to face Jacob. She appeared to have command of her faculties. No disconsolate looks, tears, or trembling. The exact opposite, in fact. She appeared calm, collected, the grease-smudged skin of her face constricted by the snug engineer’s helm and goggles she wore, but also because she had her brow almost narrowed to a point and her lips pressed so tight she’d near driven the color from them. She pounded her open hand with a spanner. “Didn’t I say we needed a new flow adjustor, sir?”
Jacob had a lot on his mind of late, but he remembered her saying as much before they’d taken off.
“And more time to replace the seals on the number three and six containment cylinders?”
She’d told him that, too. But Rebecca had also assured him of their flight-worthiness before they’d left Brighton. She should have said something if those parts were critical to the ship’s operation.
“Which of those is impacting our current situation?” Jacob asked. “More importantly, how do we fix the problem?”
A hiss from the engine cut off whatever she was about to say. Beck stormed past Jacob to work her way around the main engine assembly, where she climbed a ladder and reached in with the spanner to make an adjustment.
“If the problem was fixable, sir,” Rebecca said, raising her voice over the engine’s noise, “don’t you think I’d have fixed it already?”
“Ms. Stratum, did you not tell me before we took off that—”
She leaped from the ladder. Jacob thought he saw the slightest trembling in her shoulders.
“I know what I said, Captain,” Rebecca said, pausing before him. “But you also never said anything about high altitude.” She stepped lightly around him, on her way to check on some other engine subtlety.
Jacob followed on her heels this time. While he recognized the precarious position of his chief engineer’s psyche, he was also running out of time and patience. “We’ve hit upon some unforeseen circumstances, Beck, like another ship trying to blow us out of the sky. Now, will you tell me what’s wrong with the gods-damn engine?”
She stopped and spun around so quickly that he almost ran into her again.
“There’s nothing wrong with the gods-damn engine, sir,” she said, her voice resounding throughout the engine room as a high-pitched wail. “It’s the gods-damn gas filtration. Look here.”
She directed his attention to the mechanism on top of the alchemical reaction chamber. The entire chamber spun, as did each of the eight containment vessels inside, generating an odd combination of centrifugal force that baffled Jacob’s understanding other than that he knew it helped convert solid pumice into various alchemical gases. On top of the chamber was the filter assembly, which employed still more alchemical gases to bind and separate out the pumice gases. The primary gases rose through the balloon pipes, but other waste gases went up the exhaust and vented into the atmosphere. Beck fiddled with a few levers, causing the reaction chamber to spin faster. Then she sprang onto a stable, unmoving part of the engine and leaned over the rotating reaction chamber. She pointed to several gauges connected to the exhaust pipes located right over the filter assembly.
“See that?” she asked. “The florene level is already too high. Not a problem yet, but give it another ten minutes, and it’ll dilute the primary gases to the point where we won’t rise at all.” She went silent for a few seconds while she sniffed and wiped at something in her eyes. “Even worse,” she said slowly, “the high concentration of florene will eat holes in our balloon in no time.” She lowered herself to the floor. “I’m sorry, sir.” Jacob couldn’t miss the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. “I know you put a lot of trust in me, but I can’t fix it. If Mr. Bilka was still here, he’d have some notion of what to do, but I don’t know how to—”
“Beck!” Jacob said, grabbing her by the shoulders. He would have preferred a more subtle approach, but the Griffin was running out of time, and he had to do something fast to keep his chief engineer from having a complete meltdown.
“Do you remember what happened when Mr. Bilka was killed?”
He hated bringing up the memory, but knew it was the shock he needed.
Her expression told him it worked. “Why are you asking me that? Of course, I remember!” Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. “He was blown to pieces! And I ran! Like a yellow-bellied—”
“Yes, but you came back to the engine room.”
“Only after you dragged me!”
“Yes, well, circumstances dictated—Oh, never mind about that right now! You came back and repaired the engine. It was almost in shutdown. Another few minutes and we all would have died. But you figured out what was wrong and made the repairs. You saved everyone onboard.”
That cut through her distress enough to arrest her sobbing. “Yes,” she said, sniffling, “but that was completely different.”
“No! No, it wasn’t. The first thing you said to me was that one of the dielectal…”
Jacob couldn’t remember the exact terminology.
“Dielectal harmonizers,” Rebecca said.
“Yes! And the something or other inter-rods…”
“…had gone out of alignment. Then you remember what you told me? That it couldn’t be fixed. This time is just like that. You have to think. If there’s too much florene in the exhaust, how do we remove it?”
Rebecca shook her head. The motion sent new tears streaming down her cheeks. “We can’t. There’s no way.”
Jacob tightened his grip and shook her. “There has to be a way! Think!”
Jacob shook her again.
“I can’t think—”
“I can’t think with you shaking me like that!”
She pulled loose from Jacob’s grasp. He stepped back to give her some space.
“This is it, Rebecca. If we don’t figure this out, we’re doomed. Tell me you have some idea—any idea!—how to get us above the clouds.”
She turned away, wiping the tears from her face.
“Rebecca, I’m sorry if I—”
She commanded him to silence with a frantic wave.
Pacing away from him, Rebecca removed her goggles and helmet to reveal a tangle of sweaty blonde hair. “The problem is that the filter isn’t separating out florene from the primary gas mixture. It’s not working correctly because…” She ran her hands through her hair, the wheels in her mind still turning. Finally, she let out a breath, shaking her head. “That won’t work.” Then, “That won’t either. Unless… No, never mind.”
“What?” Jacob asked, hoping the desperation didn’t show too plainly in his voice. “Beck, don’t rule anything out. Tell me.”
She chewed her lip, then said, “I’d have to shut the engine down.”
Jacob slumped. Without the engine running, they’d sink like a stone in no time. Still, Rebecca had offered a shard of hope. A shard was better than nothing at all.
“How long?” he asked.
“Three minutes. Maybe four. Long enough to open the filter assembly—”
“You know the details are wasted on me,” Jacob said, giving her a thin smile. Four minutes without the engine. They’d start sinking after about one. By two, a complete freefall. No propulsion, either, since the engine also worked the propellers. No propellers, no forward motion, making them an easy target for their friend out there. Even if the eslar ship didn’t blow them out of the sky, and Rebecca got the engine back on and functioning correctly, their rate of descent would be too great. They’d never establish enough lift to keep from hitting the ground. Unless they weren’t falling straight to the ground at all.
“You have an idea, don’t you, Captain?”
Jacob wasn’t sure.
“Remember, sir,” Rebecca said, “don’t rule anything out.”
She was right. It was a crazy idea, but it was his only one.
“You’re sure about the timing?” he asked. “No more than four minutes?”
“Then I’m heading back to the bridge. Wait for my signal, then start the shutdown procedure. I’m counting on you, Beck. We all are.”
Rebecca swallowed. “The engine, sir. I’ll have to cold start it. It’ll explode if I don’t do it right.”
Damn. But Jacob had to show he had confidence in her. He had no other choice. “You’ve got this, Beck. I know you can do it.”
She sighed but then nodded vigorously.
Right before he left, Jacob said, “You shouldn’t be the only one down here. I’ll send someone to assist you.”
“Send Droosh. At least he knows the difference between a thumb turner and a screw dial.”
Mr. Droosh had assisted her while they were on the ground, so her choice made sense. Jacob had meant to assign someone to her on a more permanent basis anyway. She may have just made the decision for him.
Jacob dashed from the engine room, ran back the way he’d come, and, after a slight delay unsealing the companionway hatch, burst onto the deck. By happenstance, he saw Mr. Droosh, so Jacob ordered him below. As he ran for the command deck, he looked about for the enemy airship, spotting it far too close for his liking. “Delay preparations for high altitude,” he said to everyone on the bridge. Airmen across all decks already wore heavy jackets, gloves, and masks in preparation for the extreme climate. “Helmsman, make your course 0-2-5, negative five-degree pitch. Start venting gas from the balloon on my mark.”
Alice removed her mask and gave the captain a questioning stare but held back her inquiries. Others did the same. Jacob didn’t expect that same level of trust with his next command.
“Negative elevation. Two hundred feet. Once we get there, send a signal to the engine room to proceed with shutting the engine down.”
Jacob already had his hands raised, ready to put down the expected protests. They came at him from all sides at once.
“Quiet!” Jacob said. “I’m not committing us to a final resting place on the ground.” On a navy vessel, no one would dare question his orders. The captain’s word was sacrosanct and final. But the Griffin was a private ship with contracted sailors. They expected—and deserved—an explanation, albeit a quick one. “I talked to Beck. She needs a few minutes with the engines off to make a repair. Once she’s done, we’re heading for the clouds, and we’ll thank our pursuer for the trouble he’s caused us. Meanwhile, we’ll ride our exhaust in a tight spiral. The heavy alchemical gases should help provide some lift until Beck gets the engine running again.” Jacob didn’t wait for nods of understanding or agreement. This was their only course of action. “Now, take us down two hundred feet before that ship fires on us again and dampen the exhaust filters. We need as much exhaust in the atmosphere as possible.”
That much of a negative elevation change required venting from the balloon, so Alice passed on the command to a runner, who dashed off to notify the balloon engineers to begin the process. Once they received the order, the reaction was immediate. Their slow descent quickened, taking them down twenty-five feet, fifty, one hundred, then, finally, two hundred. Finally, the engineers sealed the balloon, and their downward progress halted. Meanwhile, with the exhaust filtration turned off, black smoke quickly filled the space around them.
“They’re not reacting, sir,” Alice said, coughing. “At least their gun no longer has a line of sight on us.”
“We surprised them,” Jacob said. “They’re not sure what we’re doing. But they’ll pick up the pursuit again soon enough. Best we proceed.” Jacob didn’t waste time reflecting. He was committed to the plan, and, as captain, his every word must reflect his confidence in it. Fitting goggles to his face, he said, “Helmsman, make your pitch positive ten degrees. Maximum turn. Take us into a tight spiral. Once we’ve done two full rotations, Ms. Briggs, signal the engine room to commence shutdown.”
No one protested this time. For better or worse, this was the plan. The crew was as committed to it as he was. After the Griffin had made two rotations, Alice passed the order down. This time, Beck heeded the signal. The constant, familiar hum vibrating throughout the hull lessened and abruptly disappeared. Murmurs and curses swept across the deck, but nothing more as deck sergeants, chief amongst them Mr. Roe, shouted for them to focus on their duties.
“Atmos, start the clock,” Jacob said. “I want a shout at each minute for the first two minutes. After that, every ten seconds. It’s up to Ms. Stratum now.”
Nervous glances from behind masks and goggles assaulted Jacob from all corners of the bridge. They knew what had happened the last time the Griffin’s fate had been thrust into Beck’s hands. That time, she’d run. Jacob had half a mind to go to the engine room and ensure she didn’t do so again. But, no, his place was here. The crew had put their trust in him, and he’d put his in Rebecca. As he’d said, it was up to her.
The eslar ship may not understand what they were doing, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from finishing her quarry. Part of Jacob’s reason for dropping low was to render the enemy ship’s deck gun useless, but she was working on correcting that by sailing wide and adjusting her plane. She completed the maneuver, finding that the Griffin’s rate of descent had gotten ahead of her, once more negating her ability to fire a clear shot.
“One minute, sir!” the atmos called out.
Heated alchemical gases inside the balloon quickly cooled at their present elevation. Without the engine to provide more, the Griffin’s rate of descent increased. Jacob figured another minute before they needed to worry. Plenty of time for Beck to finish the procedure and have them flying again. Jacob spaced his feet apart and joined his hands behind his back, mainly to keep from crossing his fingers but also because he wanted to reflect supreme confidence. He had no concerns at all about the plan. It was all going to work to perfection, or so he hoped.
Their pursuer’s only recourse was to go wide again and shoot from afar or to join the Griffin in her spiraling descent and hope for a lucky shot. The former was the less risky approach, so Jacob expected to see the ship execute that maneuver. But instead, she came to a complete stop directly above the center of their rotation. Jacob saw nothing more than glimpses of her since their balloon obstructed a complete view, so there was no telling what she was up to until word came down from the crow’s nest.
“She’s opening gun ports on her belly!” the man in the crow’s nest shouted.
Black, bloody hell, Jacob thought. We’re practically sitting ducks.
“Two minutes, sir!” the atmos said, calling off the time since the engine had shut down.
“Enemy vessel descending!” More information from above.
“Mr. Tuckett, make ready for course adjustment,” Jacob said. “0-3-0, on my mark. Ms. Briggs, have the crow’s nest give the word the moment they suspect she’s about to fire.”
They might still take a direct hit on their balloon even with a significant amount of prescience, but an attempt at action was better than no action at all.
“She’s firing, sir!”
Jacob didn’t know if the word had originated from the crow’s nest or if someone else had noticed the belly gun flaring to life, but he wasn’t about to take the time to verify it.
“Helmsman, mark!” Then, before Mr. Tuckett responded, Jacob added, “Make your pitch negative ten degrees!”
Both changes happened nearly simultaneously. The Griffin was coming out of her spiral when the shift in her elevators increased her rate of descent. Neither maneuver mattered.
“Brace for impact!” someone yelled.
A bolt of energy sliced a vertical path through the balloon to slam into the forecastle. The explosion rocked the entire ship, sending airmen to their knees, or worse, as Jacob saw at least three sailors falling from the ship in the explosion's wake. The front end of the balloon, with massive holes blasted into it, sagged. Their saving grace was that the balloon was internally segmented so that a single breach, however large, wouldn’t deflate the entire inflatable. Still, the damage was severe, and Jacob knew everything was for naught if they didn’t get it fixed.
“Damage control to the forecastle!” Alice shouted, so everyone across the deck heard her. She remained motionless only long enough to shout at the captain. “I’ll help with the balloon!” Then she slid down the ladder to mid-deck, running to the prow while yelling for those she needed. “Alena, Dylan! Mr. Reed, you too! Mr. Jones, if you please! Kate and Neomar, get up there and start stitching! Mr. Jenkins, help Mr. Reed with the wounded!” In her wake, the so-named crew members scrambled to their duties.
“She’s firing again!”
The bolt screamed past their port side this time, missing them by the slimmest of margins.
“Two minutes twenty, sir!” said the atmos. In the confusion, Jacob had missed the call for two minutes ten.
“Ease up our descent, Mr. Tuckett!”
The helmsman put in a great effort but finally shook his head. “Sorry, sir! Elevators are useless, and we haven’t enough gas left in the balloon. I have no control!”
“Two minutes thirty!” the atmos called out.
“Current altitude?” Jacob asked, shouting over the rush of wind.
“Just passed one thousand, sir!” Mr. Gyles said. “Rate of descent: four feet per second but increasing rapidly! Estimate two minutes until impact!”
They were falling too fast.
“Two minutes forty!”
Beck had promised no more than four minutes. Still, Jacob estimated his chief engineer had about thirty seconds more before the Griffin reached the point of no return, where the engine, even running at full capacity, could no longer provide enough lift for them to pull out of their descent.
“Signal to the engine room,” Jacob said. “Tell them we need our engine back now!”
“Two minutes fifty!”
Another shot blazed past them, but it went wide.
“Three minutes, sir!”
“Signal sent, sir, but no response!”
“Three minutes ten!”
Past the point of no return, but a chance remained.
“Three minutes twenty!”
“Sir!” the helmsman said, pointing. “What is she doing?”
Mr. Tuckett was not asking about Rebecca. Following the line of the helmsman’s gesture, Jacob spotted Ms. Walkerton standing at the center of the waist deck. She faced the prow, her arms extended with palms pointed skyward. Jacob had no idea what she was doing. Then he felt the change as the Griffin’s descent lessened. She was still wildly out of control and falling fast, but whatever magic the sorceress was working bought them precious seconds.
The time was called out twice more. In that span, another shot sailed past, and their rate of descent diminished to the point where the ship almost leveled off.
“Maybe we won’t need the engines at all, sir,” Mr. Tuckett said, sounding hopeful.
Jacob thought otherwise, but he kept that to himself. Ms. Walkerton hadn’t looked well when she’d gone below, so he suspected she couldn’t keep this up for long.
“Three minutes fifty!”
A shudder coursed through the Griffin. Everyone’s attention went to the waist deck’s exhaust stack, hoping to see the telltale sign of black smoke puffing forth to indicate the engines were starting. But though the vibration increased, the pipe assembly remained lifeless.
“Sir,” Mr. Gyles said, “how do you suppose the sorceress is keeping us airborne?”
Jacob shook his head. “Buffeting us from below with wind or…” His words trailed off. He had no idea how she was doing it, but as the Griffin lurched and shuddered so that he had to grab hold of something to keep his feet, he thought perhaps they should find out. In his experience, magic and airships did not mix well together.
“Boatswain!” Jacob shouted to Miles Stanworth, who he spotted stumbling across the unsteady deck. “Ask Lady Walkerton if she is causing this unsettling. If she is, then ask her to please ease off. She’s going to shake us apart at this rate.”
Miles started in that direction, but then he stopped. “Captain! Is she supposed to be glowing like that?”
Jacob wasn’t sure why everyone kept asking him these ridiculous questions about the sorceress as if he had any idea. Regardless, Mr. Stanworth was right. She was bathed in white-hot energy, the intensity of which grew in time with the vibrations coursing through the vessel.
The ship lurched again. This time, a resounding crack rang out as if some part of the hull had snapped. Enough was enough. Jacob was about to leap down to confront the sorceress himself when the other young lady, the eslar, beat him to it. Jakinda shouted something at Serena that was lost in the mayhem. The sorceress had her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. If she’d heard Jakinda, Jacob couldn’t tell.
“Bloody hell,” Jacob whispered because he knew what came next.
In the next instant, whatever she was doing—whatever she tried to contain—became too much. Fore and aft, multiple explosions rocked them all at once, knocking everyone on the command deck, including Jacob, from their feet. The Griffin heaved, lifting at her prow and starboard. Jacob shouted a curse that was drowned out by the chorus of others nearby voicing similar expletives.
“Port and stern stabilizers are gone!” someone shouted.
Jacob stood, hell-bent on leaping from the bridge to stop the sorceress when he saw Serena, unconscious and no longer glowing, in Jakinda’s arms. The eslar gave Jacob a nod before she dragged her friend from the deck.
Someone adjusted the undamaged stabilizers, leveling the ship. Right after, the waist deck exhaust pipes emitted a great belch of black smoke. It was a sign, but not enough of one. That came in the next instant as more smoke preceded a violent vibration that started in the deepest part of the hull and spread both fore and aft simultaneously until the entire ship trembled. But, unlike before, the shaking quickly lessened as alchemical lift gases replaced black waste gases.
“Keep the count going!” Jacob said.
“Yes, sir! Four minutes twenty!”
With the sorceress no longer supporting them, they started falling again. But Beck had made the Griffin whole again. It was up to her now. No one—not her captain, chief engineer, or her crew—could help. The Griffin had her wings back. She only needed to spread them wide to fly again.
“Four minutes thirty!”
Jacob would have uttered a prayer to the Old Gods that they hadn’t lost too many balloon compartments to maintain altitude if he thought it would do any good. He whispered a silent one anyway.
“Four minutes forty!”
When the change came, every person onboard felt it. The sensation of falling dissipated until, slowly, it faded altogether. The rush of air, too, as the airship leveled off and finally flew with the wind again.
With no time for celebrations, Jacob launched into a litany of commands. “Helmsman, all lift! Mr. Gyles, signal to the engine room to engage propellers. Runner! Go forward and get a report from Commander Briggs. Tell her we need every possible air compartment stitched and fixed if we’ve any hope of reaching high altitude. We’re not out of this yet.”
‘Aye’s’ sounded from all sides, and a cabin boy took off to get the first mate’s report.
First one propellor, and then the other spun to life. The Griffin was already moving forward rapidly, but she slowed as inertia wore off and drag took hold. Jacob counted ten seconds before the propellers spun fast enough to overcome those forces. Then they were accelerating but still not rising.
Jacob kept an eye on the enemy airship. She’d come to a full stop, no doubt waiting for the Griffin to crash into the ground. Now, she adjusted her heading to match theirs, accelerating fast with her guns ready. She fired again.
“Topside, sir,” Mr. Gyles said. “She’s aiming for our balloon.”
“Trying to keep us from climbing,” Jacob said.
Alice returned to the command deck in a rush. “Sir, balloon repairs aren’t nearly complete,” she said between labored breaths, “but Neomar thinks we have more than enough volume to achieve high altitude.”
“Very good, Commander,” Jacob said. He stepped to the command deck’s gunwale, leaning out to address the crew. No one stopped what they were doing, but everyone gave him their attention. “I daresay I don’t think our opponent has any idea what climbing’s all about. So what do you say, gentlemen and ladies, shall we show our eslar friends how a real bird flies to the heavens?”
A wild outburst rang out.
“Ms. Briggs, give the order. Rise, and don’t stop until the clouds are beneath us.”
Alice bellowed the accompanying orders, each task contributing appreciatively to the Griffin’s lift. The balloon, growing fuller by the second, expanded so that loose, flapping panels grew taut. Aero elevators, adjusted to provide maximum elevation gain, directed the ship upward. The propellers, spinning full speed now, drove her on, faster and faster at such a ferocious velocity that the enemy’s shot, aimed high to deter the Griffin from rising, fell short anyway, shooting past beneath her. The crew laughed and hollered, and all the while, the Griffin climbed higher and higher. The eslar ship fired again, but this time the shot was too high. Another round of hollers resounded over the deck. Everyone expected another volley, but none came. Jacob lifted his spyglass to see why.
“Looks like she’s having some trouble with her deck gun.”
Men scurried about the weapon, but it was impossible to tell if it malfunctioned or had run out of ammunition or power.
As the Griffin crossed the plane of equivalent altitude with the other vessel, Jacob gave the order for the crew to finish donning their high-altitude gear. He did the same, jamming his tricorn back onto his head once his mask was firmly in place. Then they waited. Their pursuer made a valiant effort, climbing with them through the first stratus layers and into the cumulus. Harsh, shifting winds buffeted both ships, but the Griffin’s crew knew their duties, so she sailed through, onward and upward, past the realm of altostratus clouds and into the frigid cirrus layer. Heavy jackets and gloves served their purpose now, as did their masks and air tanks, which kept their oxygen supply steady and even. Behind them, the eslar ship kept following their course, but she climbed no more. Jacob turned his spyglass on her, noting the ice accumulation at the top of her balloon. Such buildup weighed her down, hindering her ability to climb further. Only a unique concoction of alchemical gases like the Griffin’s, engineered to run hotter than standard alchemical gases, kept their balloon free of ice. No other airship in Uhl shared this quality. The Griffin was genuinely unique in her ability to soar amongst the heavens.
The clouds grew thicker and thicker around them, and the enemy vessel fell further back. Jacob wasn’t satisfied. Not yet. If their pursuer could keep a spyglass on them, they could follow, so he scanned the sky, finally pointing at the anvil of a large cumulonimbus. The towering, vertical giant rumbled with storms in its lowest regions, but its highest point was an oasis large enough for them to lose their pursuer in. Alice understood the order without further direction, so Jacob settled back on his heels and relaxed for the first time in what seemed a very long time.
The door to the waist deck companionway slammed open. An airman not wearing high-elevation gear popped out, saw he had the captain’s attention, and gestured at him to come down from the bridge. Jacob recognized Amon Droosh, who he’d sent to assist Rebecca. Whatever he wanted, it wasn’t about the engine since communiques of that nature came through the chain of command. That meant it had something to do with the ship’s chief engineer. Mr. Droosh’s expression told Jacob he better hurry. Jacob descended from the command deck as fast as his heavy coat and goggle-impaired vision allowed. Amon followed him below deck, sealing the harsh climate outside with a heavy thud of the companionway door.
Jacob removed his mask. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Beck, sir,” Amon said, his ordinarily silky-smooth Southern Reaches voice quivering.
“I know that, Mr. Droosh,” Jacob said, snapping at the man. “What’s wrong with her? Did something happen? Is she hurt?” The engine hadn’t exploded, so she wasn’t dead. So what was it?
Amon shook his head. “Sir, you must go see her. I tried, but she’s not—”
Jacob rushed past the man, running faster than his ship flew through the sky down halls and ladders until he burst into the engine room. He spotted Rebecca instantly. She was on the floor, her back to the engine with her knees pulled close. Her entire body shook from her sobbing. He went to a knee before her, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “Ms. Stratum… Rebecca, what’s wrong?”
No response other than more sobbing. The question was a stupid one, anyway. Jacob knew exactly what was wrong. If the stress of having the entire crew’s life in her hands hadn’t pushed her over the edge, then the thought of meeting a fate similar to their previous chief had. She’d witnessed the man blown to pieces right in front of her, after all. Cold starting an engine in mid-flight was a tricky, nerve-racking experience, but she’d done it to perfection.
Jacob sat down next to her, gently placing his arm around her. “Rebecca, we’re safe. The Griffin’s climbing like never before, and the other ship—oomph!”
Rebecca buried herself in his chest, grabbing hold of him as if her life depended on it.
Jacob recovered his breath, then he placed his arms around his chief engineer. “It’s all right, Rebecca. Thanks to you, everything is all right.”
Read Chapter 2.