Disclaimer: I don't own this. I'm getting waaaaay too tired of saying that.
“We have a problem.”
All three of them said it at the same time, and then stopped.
“Well, go on then,” Deryn ushered Newkirk, taking a seat at the mess table. She and Alek had rushed there the moment they were dismissed from the meeting, which had ended quickly after Fitzroy’s debriefing.
“It’s... a private matter, Mr. Sharp.” Newkirk raised his eyebrows, willing Deryn to understand. “I don’t think I can tell you here,” he muttered, nodding toward Melissa and her sister, who were catching up on lost time by one of the windows. “Perhaps the gastric channels?”
Alek shuddered beside Deryn, and she shook her head. “It’s alright, Mr. Newkirk, you can’t tell them anything they don’t already know.”
Deryn could feel Alek stiffen beside her, and Newkirk spluttered, “A-are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “Now, go ahead.”
“Well, it’s about Tad. He... knows. Who you are.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “And it’s my fault.”
“As it turns out, Mr. Newkirk, I would appear to be several people. You’re going to have to be more specific than that.”
Alek took a seat next to her after he rigidly draped his piloting jacket of the back of his chair, smiling grimly.
If only it weren’t so complicated, she thought. When she was a little wee lass, she’d never dreamed she’d amount to be anyone, and and now she was three people. It wasn’t all bad, of course, and she much preferred it to being a woman stuck at home with a baby on her hip, but it would be nice if she knew exactly which person she was nowadays. She may have been born Deryn, but she was spending most of her life as Dylan, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to go back. Her pa had always said things were easier done than reversed.
“That’s the thing,” Newkirk growled, “I don’t know how much he knows, just that he knows more than he should. He’s pieced it together that there’s a girl in the Service.”
The conversation between the sisters stopped abruptly. Levi took a deep breath. “That would be my fault,” she said.
“Excuse me?” Newkirk asked. “You told him about Deryn? How would you even barking know?”
Levi walked over to the table and leaned on the back of a chair. “Let me explain, Mr. Newkirk. I’m Lauren Wilson, and this is my sister, Melissa.”
Deryn was sure that anyone passing in the hall could have heard Newkirk slap his forehead. He turned to Deryn and gave her the most withering glare she’d ever seen. “You mean, there’s more of you?”
“No,” she said patiently, “They’re Americans.”
Alek looked up from his slouched place next to her and offered, “Like in The Perils of Pauline,” and ran his hands through his hair, rolling his eyes.
Newkirk gave him a confused look and then turned back to Deryn. “In the British Air Service? How’d you pull that off?”
Melissa cleared her throat and joined the group. “It was my idea, really. Our mom sent us to boarding school over in England, which we needed recommendation letters for. And the Service needs those, too, see? So we changed a few important details and voila! Easy as pie.” She ignored Deryn grumble about how making pie was not, in fact, easy. “Lauren’s a dab hand at forgery.
“We had to study the Manual like crazy, of course, and teach each other to act like boys, but there were a few weeks in between arriving in London and taking the middies’ test. It was pure luck that the Leviathan was needing a few more midshipmen. You know everything that’s happened from then on. So, here we are.”
Lauren’s head was in her hands. “Not everything,” she groaned. “I told them my secret to save my life. They were going to kill me--I was lined up next to Rigby and Thompson, and they were going to shoot me in the head. Right before, I screamed it. What I was, and they threw me aside. I was a coward and I watched them die. I didn’t do anything to save them! Nothing!” she growled, ashamed instead of frantic.
Melissa took her sister into her arms, stroking her head. “They kept me alive to blackmail the Service. I was so afraid of them, what they might have done to me.” She sniffled once, then blinked a few times, but that was all there was to her crying. “You know who Ronnie is. She became my friend, and she was the only one who knew any English, other than Tad, but he’s a bum rag and I didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know.”
“He’s perspicacious!” shouted Bovril, and Deryn looked down at it in surprise. The loris had been strangely quiet lately, only muttering the words it learned and not speaking out much.
“Aye, it seems so,” Newkirk agreed, looking out the window. They were passing over the sea again, on the way back to Britain. Unst was only a day away now, and once they arrived there they’d finally have more food. Deryn’s stomach growled at the thought of finally having fresh potatoes again instead of the staling bread and old potatoes at any of the two meals they were served on half-rations.
“I didn’t tell him about having a sibling also serving,” Lauren insisted, “If he knows anything new, it’s because he figured it out on his own.”
“Perspicacious,” Bovril trilled, then went on muttering.
“How much do we know he knows?” Deryn asked, feeling the hysteria rise in her throat. Depending on how much Tad knew, there was no limit to what he could blackmail any of them into doing. She took a gulp of air and tried to steady her racing heart. It would be okay. They would figure something out.
“I don’t know!” Newkirk repeated, kneading his knuckles into the table. “He wouldn’t tell me anything else.”
Alek took a deep breath. “When do you feed him again? You could hold it from him until he told you something.”
Nodding, Lauren said, “That’s a good idea. If he refuses, just eat the bum rag’s food right in front of him. Pretty soon he’d be begging to tell you all he knows.” She smiled grimly. Melissa was gaping at her in disbelief. “What? He’s a complete bum rag.”
“They’re due to get lunch in about an hour.” He shrugged, probably thinking forward to his own lunch.
Deryn was about to speak when she heard the scrambling of a message lizard overhead. Without preamble, it began speaking in Dr. Barlow’s voice, a little less calm than usual. “Mr. Sharp, Mr. Hohenberg, please report to the bridge immediately.”
“We’re on our way, Doctor,” Alek said, standing up and snatching his jacket from the back of the chair. “End message,” he added quickly, and the lizard blinked and scrambled back into the tubes.
Chair legs scraped across the floor as the other four stood. “We’ve got some bats to feed, if you’ll excuse us,” Melissa said, completely like Miles again.
“Of course,” Newkirk nodded to them and then ambled slowly out. “Tell me how it goes,” he told Deryn, and clapped her on the shoulder. He was about to do the same to Alek when the other boy flinched away--his arm was much better now, but that would still hurt. “Sorry,” he apologized awkwardly.
Alek gave him a good natured smile and chuckled. “No harm done. But we’ve got to be going. Dr. Barlow will have our heads if we’re not fast.”
“Nice of you to show,” Dr. Barlow said cooly, fixing them with a disapproving look.
“We had to climb almost the whole barking length of the ship! And not to mention Alek’s slow as a box of turtles on the ratlines!” Deryn protested, but another glare from the lady boffin quieted her. Boffins seemed to have that effect on everyone.
The bridge was less crowded than earlier that day, with only the captain, Dr. Barlow, and Dr. Busk clustered around one of the various tables. Deryn and Alek had just taken their place in the crowd when the door emitted yet another person.
“Mr. Fitzroy, right on time,” Captain Hobbes welcomed him, vacating a place next to himself. “Now we’re all here. The head falconer should be here any moment, with an injured strafing hawk discovered flying near our ship.”
Dr. Barlow’s eyebrows drew together. “That’s rare,” she said softly.
The captain was nodding solemnly when a burly man stumbled through the door, a strafing hawk clinging to his arm. There were voices coming from where he was, and for a moment Deryn thought the hawk was talking. It was then that she saw the three message lizards scrambling along it’s back, two of them squawking in many different voices. The third was completely silent.
“Fire! Fire!” one of the lizards shouted. “We’ll all die!”
“Oh, no! Jump ship!” the other cried. “Lord help us!”
A chill ran up Deryn’s spine, and her jaw dropped.
“Save what you can! Jump ship! We’re on fire!” it shrieked, then made the sounds of a crackling blaze. Then it coughed, and said in a somewhat calm voice, “Tell whoever you find that it’s happened again. And it’s them! Their spitting fire! The--oof!”
“God’s wounds, won’t it stop?” Alek asked hysterically, the only one in the room able to speak.
The captain waved his hand distractedly, staring at the frantic animals. The falconer swiftly put small black hoods over the heads of the three lizards and the hawk, who had been fidgeting anxiously. They quieted down considerably, but the occasional shout of “Fire!” could still be heard from under the cowls.
Deryn’s upper lip was quivering, so she bit down on it hard, leaving a deep imprint of her teeth in her mouth and only barely avoiding drawing blood. “Why is that one quiet?” she asked, glad to find her voice was steady and deep. It was the safest question she could think of.
It was Fitzroy who answered. “It’s attic’s scrambled,” he said simply.
“Then why are the other two raving mad?” Alek reached up to scratch his scalp; Darwinism was still infinitely confusing to him.
“You can’t possibly expect every lizard to act identically to the one next to it,” Fitzroy spluttered. “That would be like saying that Dylan would choose an apple over a pear just because you do, too.”
“It is quite strange,” Dr. Barlow muttered, peering closely at the silent lizard. “Almost all lizards react similarly to trauma, and this one appears to be completely normal.”
“I’ll investigate it,” Fitzroy offered, gathering the lizards before the lady boffin could get too good a look at them. “It is my job, after all,” he added, glaring pointedly at Deryn. As he left the room, lizards in arm, Deryn swore she heard him mutter something about zookeepers.
She took a deep breath, shaking her head and resolving to investigate his new job later. Turning back to the captain, she asked, “But, sir, what does all it mean?”
“The only thing it can. We’ve lost another of the AirFleet.”