Disclaimer: I don't own any of this, no matter how sad this makes me. :,-( <--That means very sad.
“Oi! To the right a bit!” Max yelled, and Deryn and the other airman helping her load up the crate shuffled a few paces, setting the box down once they got a nod from Max. “Good. Matthews, help Rogers get his box right on top of that one. Sharp, help me with this one.”
“Aye,” Deryn said, “On the count of three? One, two, three-”
She stifled a groan as she hefted up the crate, the two of them making their way to the Roth Aerial Battle Turtle.
The thing didn’t look like a turtle, really, but it certainly didn’t look like anything else. It had thick, leathery legs that jutted out the bottom of the beastie, which were currently tied down to keep it from floating away, and a slow moving head with a hard skull and large, wide eyes. The shell was and inch thick around the membrane and, sure enough, made of keratin that was a pale yellow color and ten feet across. It wasn’t quite opaque, so she could just barely see the membrane through it, and it wasn’t fully expanded yet; there was space between the membrane and shell, which made a hollow noise whenever Deryn heaved a box onto it’s back. When it was, she supposed, it would press up against the shell. There was a place to mount a single gun, and not just an air gun either. With the extra protection lent by the shell, it was safe to fire a real gun if you were far enough from the airbeast itself.
It looked unsettlingly like the clockwork bed that the anarchist Nene rode on. For a brief moment, Deryn wondered how Nene was doing, if the revolution had treated her nicely, and who was taking care of her now that Lilit was an ambassador and Zaven was dead.
Deryn rolled her shoulders, shook the thoughts from her head, and set the box down. This was no time to be reminiscing like some poor village sap, she thought, not while they were preparing for...
For what, exactly?
“We can’t slow down now, Mr. Sharp,” Max said, snapping her out of thought, “There’s only a few of ‘em left!”
The man was much too jolly for being awake this late at night. “What’s got you in such a good mood, Max?” She asked, having seen him smile even as they were straining to hold the crate.
He patted the turtle on the head. “This here’s my turtle,” he said happily. “The can’t take on any more men on account a’ the weight, so I’m going to be piloting her.”
“I just hope she and Zipper get along,” he added as an afterthought, wiping his gloves on his flight suit. “It wouldn’t do for them not to.” He smiled mischievously at her, and she found herself grinning back. Leave it to Max to worry if his beasties would like each other, she thought.
“You know what we’re here for?” She asked suddenly. “What the plan is?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he replied brightly. “No, lads! They’ve got to be even or they’ll fall off!” Deryn looked over her shoulder to see another pair of men with a box set crookedly on one of the other three turtles, startled. “But, Mr. Sharp, it’s got to do with whatever we were supposed to be doing before, I’m sure. Just look at all these bombs and tell me it isn’t going to be something big. And I’ll be in the thick of it!” He pumped a fist through the air and knelt to look the Roth Aerial Battle Turtle in the eyes. “So will you, beastie. Let’s just hope that it won’t last long, eh?” He hesitated, a look of apprehension crossing his face. “You need a name now, don’t you? Any suggestions, Mr. Sharp?”
“Ah, no, Max,” Deryn shook her head, smiling, and made her way to the last of the crates. Max followed, and she was glad for his help. The boxes were too barking heavy for one wee slip of a lass to carry on her own, and Max’s brute rigger’s strength compensated for it. “Do you at least know what’s in the boxes, then?”
“Aside from the bombs, no, and only because they’re so obvious All I get to do is load them up and then take them off once we get back up to the ship. It’s all been very secretive. I think I know why, though. You remember what I told you?”
“Aye,” Deryn said. “But Miles can’t be a spy.”
Max cocked an eyebrow. “And why is that, Mr. Sharp?”
Deryn realized her mistake too late. She fumbled for an answer, and finally one came. It was always easier to tell part of the truth than an entire lie. “Because he’s an American, and they’re on our side.”
He scowled. “American? He can’t be. The Service doesn’t let foreigners in. That’s why it’s called the British Air Service, Mr. Sharp.”
“Oh, aye,” Deryn said, biting her lip. Why would Melissa have lied to her about where she came from? It seemed an odd thing to say, really, but there wasn’t time to think about that now. It was darker here, right under the ship, than out in the moonlight. The only light came from the glow worm lamps strewn about the field, and they cast a ghastly angle on everything, making it all so severe. Even Max’s chipper face look sinister.
Or maybe Deryn was just that tired.
She yawned long and hard as the men climbed onto the turtles, untying their legs and ascending to the cargo bay. Hopefully a tired midshipman could get a few hours of sleep once all this hurried loading business was done with. Her jaw clamped down on her tongue mid-yawn as she realized she wasn’t a midshipman anymore; Deryn was an agent of the Zoological Society of London now. By all rights she could be asleep in her cabin right now, not fighting to keep her eyes open and lugging about heavy boxes.
Somehow, though, Deryn couldn’t imagine herself in her cot, as snuggly as a box of kittens in her blankets. The emptiness still gnawed at her chest, a void she couldn’t possibly fill.
The turtle jolted under her feet and Deryn felt herself reaching for a box to steady herself with. Max rested an elbow on one as he steered the motivator engine on the turtle’s back up toward the cargo bay. The open hatch seemed to be yawning as large as all of them. Deryn sighed.
The night was far from over.