Disclaimer: I'm not Scott Westerfeld and therefore own nothing. Too bad.
They floated down to the snow like angels. Gruesome, godless angels, even Deryn had to admit. The skata didn’t look anything like skunks, but more like Bovril-sized monkeys with wings. Twelve had been deployed at the outskirts of the compound, and as Deryn watched through her field glasses they deftly broke locks and forced doors, briefly entering and then leaving for a new building to spray.
Some minutes later, men rushed out the doors, faces covered with sleeves and the odd mask, spreading in all directions. Perfectly according to plan.
Deryn couldn’t watch as the bomb bay doors opened.
The floor of the cargo bay kicked beneath her, sending the slightest jolt of pain zinging through her knee. Deryn ignored it, though, because she there wasn’t time to think about that. She looked sidelong Newkirk, who seemed decidedly unsteady about the whole situation.
Deryn reckoned she wouldn’t be so keen on going back into the place, either, if she were the poor boy. It probably brought back the memories for him like seeing fire did with Deryn.
The floor jolted again.
“Blisters, how many are they going to drop?” Deryn muttered, still unable to look below her. She’d get a full enough view when she was on the ground, that was for sure.
“Only a few more,” Newkirk grimaced, his face a pale shade of green. He bit his lip and called out to the assembled men. “Get ready, lads! We’ll keelhaul drop five minutes after the last one’s dropped, aye?”
“Aye!” replied sixteen airmen.
Finally the explosions subsided and Deryn dared to take a glance at the wreckage below. What had formerly been a firm set of dark buildings was now a smoldering mass. There was smoke drifting lazily around, like it didn’t have anywhere to go without any wind to force it about.
Deryn’s stomach growled viciously, reminding her that only one meal had been served that day. She’d been unconsciously gnawing at her lip for hours, and now it was chewed raw both out of hunger and nerves. She hadn’t been on a real mission since New York, which was only three months back, but it seemed like a long time ago.
“Ready lads!” Newkirk shouted, adjusting the carabiners in his friction hitch. “Drop ten counts after the man before you and watch below so you don’t run into him!”
Deryn took her place beside him and made sure her gloves were on tightly. “Here we go,” she muttered.
“Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Sharp,” the midshipman said. Deryn nodded, and together they jumped out into oblivion.
It was then that the battle adrenaline kicked in. The rope was as hot as a teakettle in her gloves, and the air tore through her hair in the fast descent. Her boots hit the ground with wet thud; the snow that had positively covered the area before was slowly melting in the heat. It hit her face in a wave, and it traced a finger down her spine. The ship had set them down at the edge of the wreckage, and straight down Deryn’s line of vision had been the road that separated the ruins of what had been a small cluster of buildings. Several had collapsed under the bombs, but a few were still left standing, charred and wounded. Craters dotted the landscape. There was no way a person could have survived out here. Deryn just hoped she didn’t have to see what was left.
“Fan out in pairs!” Newkirk bellowed. “Search for survivors and anything that looks important! Meet back at this spot in twenty minutes!”
Deryn fell into step beside him. Newkirk was walking fast, barely pausing as he leapt over debris and skirted smoking holes. He knew exactly where he was going.
They were silent until Newkirk drew to a stop in front of a mostly intact building.
“Mr. Sharp,” he began quietly. “I have something to tell you.”
“What is it, Mr. Newkirk?”
“They were making something here. It was small, and familiar, almost like a beastie made out of metal, like those ones they had Constantinople, aye? I only saw blue prints, and all those barking Clanker words confuse me, but the picture was clear enough. It was in this building,” he said, and pointed an accusing finger at the door. “I need to see if it’s true. If there’s anything left.”
Deryn nodded slowly. She stood at the ready to jump anyone that would come out of the door as Newkirk kicked it open. It cracked against the wall inside, causing part of the ceiling to crumble away on the far side of the wall. The single window was shattered. Rubble rained down on the two of them when they stepped inside.
“Step lightly,” Deryn warned. Against the wall on their right were stacks of crates, all emblazoned with a familiar seal...
The old sultan. That’s who’s symbol it was. He’d been kidnapped by the Kizlar Agha on the night of the revolution, and was now hiding safely somewhere, probably eating the strange yogurt the Ottomans were so fond of. “That’s just a wee bit strange,” she mused suspiciously.
“There not here!” He cried, clenching his fists. Just as he was about to punch one of the crates, he stopped. “What’s this?”
In the corner, beside an open cage, was a steel hatch. It was barely wider than Newkirk, just big enough to fit a person through. Deryn’s heart sped up. If someone was down there, they could have easily been sheltered from the bombs. She mouthed be ready to Newkirk and leaned down to open it. He lowered into a crouch, knife clenched tightly in his hand. Deryn reached for hers at the same time she flung open the hatch, and then she hurtled back.
Deryn took a cautious step forward, peering into the vault. It was dark, and she could only make out a single box along the wall. Then it moved. Two arms uncurled from it, and suddenly a match was lit, and then a candle.
“Levi!” Newkirk shouted, and plunged into to the cellar, ignoring the ladder and jumping. “You’re alive!”
“Don’t!” Deryn cried, seeing the other person lying in wait just under the ladder too late. He rose from behind Newkirk and was about to hit him on the head with a wrench as Deryn tackled him.
With a high pitched, “Oomph!” he went down. Deryn wrestled the wrench from him, and pinned him down. He spit something out of his mouth--was that...hair? Long and blond, it wreathed his face in a tangled mass.
“Mr. Newkirk, if you would kindly bring over the candle,” she panted. There was a brief shuffling as Levi handed the candle to Newkirk, and then the light cast over the enemy’s face.
Deryn snorted. The person, though her face was contorted in rage and terror, was definitely a girl’s. She shifted her weight but kept the girl restrained. “Well. What do you suppose we do now?”
Newkirk was looking hard at the girl, as if he were quite perplexed about something. “Take her prisoner,” he said simply.
“Du neht mich nich!” she screamed, and fought against Deryn with renewed force. Deryn gritted her teeth and pushed her back down onto the ground.
“Newkirk, come hold her arms, will you?” Deryn asked.
“You mean--I can’t! She’s a girl!” he cried indignantly, and Deryn had to choke back a laugh. He was the only person in the room who wasn’t a girl.
“Just do it. She won’t come with us willingly, so we’ll have to do this the hard way.”
“Don’t--don’t hurt her--” Levi called gruffly. Or, Lauren, Deryn supposed. Why would she be worried for this girl’s safety? Wasn’t she Lauren’s captor?
Or, were they prisoners together?
Deryn shook her head, and said in German, “Who are you?”
“Why should I tell you?” She spat, and kicked her feet uselessly. Newkirk took hold of her arms for Deryn.
“Because if you don’t I’ll knock your lights out,” Deryn deadpanned. The candle light was throwing wild shadows across the girl’s face.
The girl’s eyes widened only fractionally, masterfully hiding her surprise. “You wouldn’t dare hurt a girl!”
“You see,” Deryn sighed, said “that’s where you’re wrong.” and punched her, hard, grimacing as her head smacked on the dirt floor. “Sorry,” she whispered, “but that felt way too barking good.”
“Was that entirely necessary?” Lauren croaked.
“What, you have a fancy for her?” Newkirk bumped her on the shoulder after he pulled her to her feet.
“No!” she sputtered, paling. “I--I mean, so what if I do, Mr. Newkirk?”
Deryn shook her head. “We haven’t got time for this!” she cried, and hefted the unconscious girl across her shoulder. “Oof.”
“I’ll carry her,” Singe offered, holding out his arms. Deryn gladly obliged, and he took her lightly, making sure her head rested on his shoulder.
“I can’t believe you came.” Lauren shook her head, incredulous, but then blinked and cleared her throat. “Er--thanks, guys.”
“Anytime, Mr. Wilson,” Deryn said with a smile, “I’ll admit, it’s quite an entertaining adventure, but I’ve had better.”
“Who are you, again?” Lauren asked when they’d climbed out of the cellar. Newkirk handed the girl up and then climbed out himself. She really was surprisingly light, but more than Deryn could carry now that she’d spent so long out of the ratlines.
Deryn wiped her hands on her trousers and stuck out a hand. “Dylan Sharp at your service, employee of His Majesty’s Zoological Society of London, former midshipman aboard His Majesty’s Airship Leviathan.”
Newkirk barked a laugh, “I liked you other title better, Dylan.”
“Aye, it was loads easier to say,” she replied with a smile. But, even though it was dead long, it was right for her; once all Deryn had needed was to fly, but now that didn’t seem so important, like she had what she needed, and that was something else--and she realized, with a shock, that that thing was Alek. The emptiness that had nestled in her gut was filling now that they were friends again.
Deryn kept smiling, even as they weaved through the wreckage once more, back to where they’d started. A small group of men had come back already, but one of them wasn’t wearing a flight suit. He was dusty and hunched in mechanic's slops, but even so, a spark of recognition flashed through her attic.
Deryn had to look twice to make sure she’d seen him right, and then a third time because she didn’t believe what she was seeing. Was the boy following her everywhere? Deryn wasn’t sure whether to punch him square in the mouth and knock him out before he recognized her, or merely avoid him as much as possible.
She sighed. Although she really wanted to punch him, Deryn didn’t want to mess up the pretty face of Thaddeus Welker.