Disclaimer: I own none of this, no matter how much I wish I did.
For no apparent reason, the ship had started moving again.
Not the ship itself, of course, but the people on it. After retiring to his stateroom the night before, Alek had been determined to stay awake until Deryn returned. But exhaustion had taken over, and he fell asleep with his boots still on.
Now, as Alek shook the sleep from his eyes and stepped into the corridor, a team of riggers stumbled past and nearly knocked him from his feet. They apologized to him tiredly, envy coloring their expressions. In his surprise, Alek forgot to ask what they were doing down in the gondola. Normally riggers spent their time topside in the ratlines.
He made his way toward the bow of the ship, watching out for any more crewmen on his way. A slight snuffling noise caught his attention, and he turned to find the lady boffin just behind, led by Tazza. It made him start a bit to see Dr. Barlow walking Tazza herself.
The thylacine whined in greeting, and Alek reached down to pet his head absently. His attention was caught by the lady boffin who, despite looking as refined as ever, seemed disheveled somehow.
“Dr. Barlow, what is going on?” He asked.
“What isn’t going on would be a more appropriate question, I’m sure.” She sighed. “Dr. Horn has come up with a solution to our problem. He’s been in a flurry since last evening, overcome by an epiphany. The man does not understand the concept of patience or sleep.”
“Yes,” Dr. Barlow paused, letting the lorises climb to the ceiling and hang there chattering for a moment before continuing to speak. “Your suggestion was quite inspiring, it would seem--”
“My what?” Alek hardly believed he could have been helpful, much less inspiring. The Darwinists still thought of him as a waste of hydrogen sometimes.
“--As I was trying to say, Aleksandar, your suggestion to use something we already have in a different way proved to be advantageous. Do you remember Dr. Horn’s mention of a skata?”
Alek bit his lip. “Yes. That was the skunk, wasn’t it? It guides the...gorgon.”
“To put it simply. With the help of a perspicacious friend, we’re back on track. The crew has been working all night to prepare, and we’ll be departing for the mountains within the hour.”
“Excuse me, Ma’am, but prepare for what? What even is the new plan, exactly?”
The ship was still in a commotion around them as the lady boffin began to explain what was happening. Alek hissed as an airman ran into his shoulder, which was still far from healed.
Strange, he noticed, how none of them seemed to run into Dr. Barlow.
“Have you ever smelled a skunk, Aleksandar?”
“Well, in any case, it is not pleasant. While many people have had the experience of encountering a natural skunk, very few have ever met a skata, which has a very different scent. It is somewhat akin to that of poisonous gas, although a scarcely known fact is that it is quite harmless. A hidden base in the mountains would undoubtedly be unaware of that.”
She raised her eyebrows, waiting for Alek to understand. He shook his head, and the lady boffin sighed. “Poisonous gas is often used on the battlefield, and surely Clankers would know what it smells like, and after so long in the cold mountains they would be... jumpy, especially after our reconnaissance mission alerted them of us.”
Alek held up a hand. “What are you implying, Doctor? That we trick the Clankers into believing we have poisonous gas at our disposal?”
“Partly,” the lady boffin smiled grimly, “The buildings in the complex are very sturdy, from what Mr. Newkirk has told us, and most likely resistant to aerial bombs. They are not, however, gas-proof. We will send the skata down to their base first, and will--ah--smoke out the rat, you could say. The people will escape the confined buildings to look for fresh, gas free air, and that is when we bomb them.”
Alek took a step back, tripping over his own feet. To bomb a group of men while they were under cover was one thing, but to lure them out, defenseless, and then drop bombs was another entirely. It was downright cruel. He tried to speak, but no words would come out of his throat. He was too stunned.
“Once that is done, several teams of men will collect evidence on the ground. The Admiralty requests it.”
“I--I don’t know what to say, Dr. Barlow.”
“A rare occurrence,” she sighed. “I know it is a lot to take in, Mr. Hohenberg.”
He blinked a few times, staring at his boots. “Wh-what does Dylan think?”
Tazza nuzzled the lady boffin’s hand as she spoke, “Dylan seems fine with the idea. He has been working with the crew all night, and even requested to be part of the ground crew. He’s in the cargo bay as we speak.”
“The ground crew? Does--he--realize how dangerous that is?” Alek clenched and unclenched his fists in surprise.
“It will hardly be dangerous.” Dr. Barlow held his gaze. It was silent for a moment but for the lorises blabbering.
Alek clenched his jaw, nodding. “Certainly, Dr. Barlow. Well, good day, then. I suppose I’ll see you later.”
“Good day, Aleksandar.”
He could feel Dr. Barlow’s eyes on him as he walked down the corridor, but he didn’t care. Recalling the rough memories of the airship’s layout, Alek made his way to the cargo bay, footsteps echoing solemnly in the thin hallways. He needed to find Deryn, talk her out of this. It was insane, and she was going to...
The cargo bay was more crowded than he’d ever seen it. He craned his neck and stood on his toes to try and get a glimpse of her blond head over the masses of crewmen. Why must all British be so tall? he thought. Shaking his head, Alek gave up trying to see her and began to push his way through the crowd, stopping only when he saw a most horrific creature; a turtle of some sort, but it was massive and grotesque.
Pulling his eyes away from the beast, Alek finally saw her, untying knots on the far side of the turtle. He rushed around the thing, careful to avoid its eyes. Bovril climbed off of his shoulder and onto its head, posing there with it’s head high and arms at it’s sides.
“Dylan,” he hissed, “could you spare a moment please?”
“What? I’m kind of busy, Alek, and I haven’t got a barking wink of sleep all night. So no, I don’t think I can spare a moment.” She hunched back over untying the knots that held numerous crates to one of the turtle’s backs.
“Dylan.” She ignored him. Trying a different tactic, he turned to the man who seemed to be in charge and said, “Dr. Barlow needs to speak with Dylan.”
“Why didn’t she just send a message lizard?” the man asked in a thick Scottish accent.
“I’m quite certain I have no idea,” he shrugged. “But I find it a good idea to not question the lady boffin.”
“Alright. Have ‘im back soon, then. We’ve got lots of work still to do.”
Deryn glowered, but followed him anyway. When they happened upon an empty hallway, Alek pulled her into it quickly. Every few moments, she glanced about to make sure no one was watching them. “Deryn,” Alek began, to get her attention.
“What?” She spat.
“I broke my promise. I--I’ve been keeping a secret. From you.”
Deryn raised her eyebrows and gave him a disapproving look, like she’d known this.
“It’s just--Deryn, I can’t be away from you like this. I can’t function without you, not anymore.”
“You seemed to be doing just fine to me,” she said, not meeting his eyes. He studied her intently for a moment, noticing the dark circles around her eyes, the way they were rimmed with red. She stood hunched, almost, like she’d just been punched in the stomach but was trying to look unhurt. She looked so torn and empty. In that instant, there was nothing more Alek wanted to do than pull her in close and whisper to her that it was all going to be okay. He wanted to tell her everything that words couldn’t say, and he just wanted her to look at him.
“God’s wounds, Deryn!” It came out almost as a shout, and she jumped, eyes wide.
“You can’t say that so--”
“Will you listen to me? Deryn, I’m trying to tell you that I’m sorry for everything! I’m sorry that I tried to show you how much I love you and it turned out wrong! I’m sorry that it’s my fault all this happened and I’m sorry you blame me for it! I’m sorry that I love you and that you’re all I can think about and every moment I know that you’re mad at me I can hardly breathe! Deryn, I’m sorry you’re hurt, but please let me heal you!”
She was frozen in place, her mouth in surprised “o”. The only movement of hers Alek could see was the shaking of her hands. Deryn blinked. Once, twice, three times. “Did you really just say that?”
A slow, reluctant smile had crept onto her face. “You love me.”
Alek braced himself against the wall, running a hand through his hair. “Of course I do.”
Her hands dropped and she leaned next to Alek on the wall, dumbstruck. She bit her lip. “Can I punch you right now?”
“If that’s what it takes for you to forgive me,” he said earnestly.
“Blisters, Alek! I was only joking! You’re so--”
“Serious? I am. Providence guided me to you, but I won’t let it take you away. The world shattered when my parents died, but with you it fits together again.”
“Barking daft princes,” she muttered.
“I’m not a prince anymore,” he mused, “Just a plain boy, common as dirt.” He kicked the floor for emphasis. “I just hope that someone as great as you would find me worthy.”
“I’m as common as dirt, too.”
“No, you’re not,” Alek said, then lowered his voice to a whisper, “You’re the great Deryn Sharp, first a woman in the British Air Service who aided a revolution, and now a member of the highly prestigious London Zoological Society. There is no one in the world like you.”
“Well, then, there’s no one like you, either!” She pushed off the wall and faced him, listing off points on her fingers. “You were a prince, first off. You know six languages, are a Clanker turned Darwinist, and--”
She didn’t get to finish, because Alek cut her off with a kiss. It was short and panicked, the terror of discovery racing through their veins. He pulled back almost as quickly as his lips met hers and stared her straight in the eyes. “Then we seem like a perfect match.”
“Deryn, you can’t be part of the ground crew.”
She rolled her eyes and took a step back from him. “And why not?”
“Because--it’s dangerous! You could be hurt!”
“Alek, what about it is dangerous? All the Clankers will be dead or wounded, and my job is just to get evidence and get out!”
He fumbled for a counter response, but none came to mind. “Just--please be careful, Deryn. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
“I’ll be fine, Dummkopf. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got work to do. The sooner I get done, the more sleep I get before we make it to the mountains, aye?”
“Yes. I’ll see you soon, Dylan.”