Yes, oh dear readers, I did. I have chapter 18 for you. Really, I shouldn't post this yet, because it links very closely to the next few chapters, but I think that you've waited long enough. Also, I may or may not have finished this a few days a go and just not posted it...
So! Here it is!
Alek leaned out his window for a better look at Deryn as she climbed up the ratlines. The uninviting land of Unst sat below him, but he was accustomed to ignoring what was below him by now. Her name tickled the back of his throat as he was about to call to her, his thoughts heavy with guilt.
When he opened his mouth, someone else spoke, “Aleksandar, you are requested at the bridge,” The message lizard spoke in the captain’s voice.
“I’ll be there right away, sir. End message.” The message lizard scrambled away. With one last look at Deryn as she climbed nimbly around with the other middies, hardly favoring her bad leg at all, he leaned back into his cabin, slung Bovril onto his shoulder, and left for the bridge.
Several of the ship’s officers were there, including the head boffin, Dr. Busk, Dr. Barlow, and the captain, as well as a man that Alek didn’t recognize.
When he spoke, there was an unmistakable French accent laced in his irritated voice, “This is the boy, yes? We can begin now?” The man splayed his palms and leaned his weight on to the map table. There was a look about him that said he had not slept last night, which gave Alek a pang of sympathy; he hadn’t either. He was listening to Deryn’s deep breathing as she slept, clenching his fists when she awoke from a nightmare but was too proud to ask for his comfort.
“Mr. Hohenberg,” the lady boffin said, “This is Dr. Horn, our new strategist. He planned our invasion of the Kjolen mountains, but I’m afraid--”
“Yes, and I planned for three ships, not one! It is all ruined!” Dr. Horn cried, clearly distressed. His knuckles had turned white where he was clamping them on the table.
Dr. Busk cast a helpless look to the captain, who worked his jaw in response.
“Pardon me, sirs, Dr. Barlow,” Alek began, “but what was the plan?”
The strategist glared at him wearily, making Alek feel like a waste of hydrogen. “You have heard of a gorgon, yes?”
Alek shook his head politely, eyebrows drawn together.
“Then I start at the beginning. The gorgon is an experimental fabrication, much like the Russian fighting bear, but much better. It is a bear that has life of rhinoceros and elephant for strength and shellfish for hard skull to ram things. Unfortunately, it has many bad senses, and searchlights and whistles do not work to direct it. So it has a companion creature called skata, with life of ape for intelligence, bat for flight, and skunk for smell. You understand, yes?”
He nodded, “So the skata directs the gorgon with smells.”
“Yes,” Dr. Barlow said before the ruffled strategist could reply, “It can spray in two different ways; a concentrated spray the repels the gorgon, making it go in the opposite direction, and a mist that attracts it. The skata can easily understand a command whistle, so we tell the gorgon what to do through the skata. An ingenious chain, really.”
“We attack fortress with gorgon,” Dr. Horn said simply in his chopped English. A hand ran through his graying hair. “One airship carries bear and gives supplies to other ships to cancel for weight.”
“You were going to carry a bear the size of a house across the North Sea?” Alek asked in astonishment, holding back a snort at the thought of a giant bear hanging beneath an airbeast and looking decidedly unpleased about it.
“Yes!” Dr. Horn cried. “Now we can not attack fortress, not without a gorgon! It is all ruined.”
Alek, despite himself, felt very sorry for the man. “Surely there is a way that the mission can be salvaged...”
“We’ve sent word to the Admirality,” Captain Hobbes sighed, “but it would seem that we have been given three choices on the matter.”
“We could attack the zeppelins without proof that they’re responsible,” Dr. Barlow said, “but if they aren’t, we could be responsible for reigniting the Great War, and viewed badly by the world.”
Alek cursed. “We know they did it!” he yelled. “We’ll find our proof if we attack them!”
“But that raises the question,” Dr. Barlow continued, “that if we attack the zeppelins, they could use their weapon against us.”
“The only thing we know about it so far is its name from tapping into wireless signals sent between the Clanker powers,” Dr. Busk said. “Orion Omega.”
“Omega? Doesn’t that mean that it is--” he translated quickly “--last?”
“Most likely the final development of the machine,” the captain replied. “As of yet, our scientists have not been able to gain any information from the Orion that Mr. Fitzroy captured. As far as we can tell, there is something at the core, vital to the machine and finding out how to stop it, but there are many defenses around it that we can’t yet breach.”
Pursing his lips, Alek asked the lady boffin, “So what are our other options?”
“We could try to devise a new plan in our current situation, or abandon the mission altogether.”
“None of them have a high chance of success,” Dr. Busk said defeatedly.
Alek stared at the maps on the table, chewing his lip just as Deryn did, “Whatever the Admirality says, I believe that we should find a way to continue the mission. I just think that it is important,” he said. Providence was guiding him to those mountains; he could feel the pull of them, just like in Istanbul when he was meant to aid the revolution. It was a static electricity in his stomach, prickling along his skin like a tesla cannon when he thought about it.
Dr. Barlow raised a thin eyebrow at him from under her bowler. He cursed silently. Here he was, trying to sound adult and useful, and he ended up saying he felt like something was important. Maybe he was a waste of hydrogen after all. “Well,” he said, trying to salvage his dignity, “Is there a way to use what we already have, but in a different way?”
The strategist’s lip curled. “You ask me to bake a cake with no flour!” He pounded a fist on the table, making the maps rustle, “It cannot be done!”
“Clearly we all need to take a break,” said the captain calmly, “We’ll meet again later; after we receive word from the Admirality.”
“Yes.” Dr. Horn walked briskly from the room, his boots clicking on the fabricated wood floor as he went.
“French,” Dr. Busk shook his head and turned on his heel to leave. Dr. Barlow lightly took hold of Alek’s shoulder and led him into the hallway, her loris crawling down her arm to speak with Bovril.
Alek was quite alarmed when they began a comprehensible conversation; “Hullo, good sir,” Dr. Barlow’s loris said in its haughty tone.
“Why, hello there,” Bovril replied.
“You have heard of a skata?”
“Yes,” the loris said gravely, “they spray smells.”
“Gas!” the other loris cried. “Use what we have in a different way.”
Dr. Barlow snapped for her loris to crawl back up to her shoulder, her head tilted in thought. Alek was thinking, too. “Why was I part of that meeting and not Dylan?”
“Dylan is partial to the situation; his opinions would be rash and biased,” Dr. Barlow shrugged her slight shoulders. “And suffering from grief at the loss of his cousin as he is, he needs time to recover.”
The lady boffin slipped around the corner, passing Singe on the way by. Alek brightened at the sight of him. “Singe!” he called, but just as the boy turned to look at him, Deryn appeared behind him. The words caught in his throat, choking him into saying, “Uh--nice--um--tie.”
Bovril leapt from his shoulder, landing lithe as a cat on the ground, and rushed to Deryn, swarming up her leg and torso to her shoulder, where he perched with a look of contentment. The traitor.
She shot him a murderous glare that made his skin crawl.
I’m sorry, he wanted to say, but didn’t.