A/N: So, yeah. It's been a really, really long time since I updated. Sorry about that. I didn't forget about you! I promise! I've just been busy, and I really didn't have much inspiration… until now. Oh, yes, I have had inspiration. So much inspiration that it lasted seven whole pages in a Word document! I guess the length is my apology to you all for having seemed to ignore you. Sorry!
P.S.: I think this is a totally epic chapter, by the way. You should read it now.
The sun was setting as they arrived back at the ship, stretching out shadows and turning everything orange.
Singe nodded at the airman on duty as they walked up the cargo bay ramp, briefly feeling sorry for the man who'd been denied even the squick of shore leave the others had been given. But then he remembered that he'd certainly have some next time the ship was stopped anywhere.
He waved a quick goodbye to Alek and Deryn as they headed in opposite directions—the others to their cabin and Singe to the kitchens to beg for a space in cold storage for his yogurt.
The kitchens weren't anything fancy, just a modest space tucked at the bottom of the gondola crammed with giant, gleaming pots and fabricated cupboards lining the walls over countertops spanning the length of the place. He'd never quite understood the stoves—open flames were strictly prohibited on any airship—and didn't necessarily care to. Most likely some boffin had gotten happy with life threads, and the less Singe had to think about one of the beasts heating up his meals the better. So he steered clear of the closed off room they were in and instead made straight for the cooks' quarters.
He knocked politely on the hollow wooden door, and in less than a moment it opened to reveal one of the three cooks, a short, wiry man without a hair on his head to speak of. Singe could see his reflection in the shine of his head very well as the man barely came to the tip of his nose in height, and tried not to stare.
Singe cleared his throat and saluted smartly, not really knowing if what he was asking would be
precedent or not.
The silence stretched out while Singe waited for the man to speak. He blinked a few times, then said, without preamble, "Well, what do you want, boy?"
"Middy Newkirk, Sir, requesting permission for cold storage, Sir!" He waited for a reply, trying not to look desperate. It wouldn't do for his yogurt to ruin before he could enjoy it.
"What for?" the man asked tiredly.
He bit his lip and tried to think of a proper way to state his reasoning. "To store spoils I got m'self on shore, Sir," he said, and grimaced as the worst of his small town accent showed through in his nervousness. He never had dealt with stress well.
When the cook said nothing, Singe continued, "It would only be for a day or two, Sir, and you wouldn't have to bother with it none—" he cleared his throat "—I'd just come and get it when I get the breakfast for the prisoners in the morning. No trouble for you at all, Sir." He gulped.
The man nodded and hobbled on his short legs to a large bin at the back. He beckoned for Singe to hand over the lukewarm tub of yogurt, and then quickly stowed it among the other supplies
"Thank you." Singe saluted once more, and stated he'd be back within the hour for the prisoners' evening meal. The cook didn't seem particularly enthused with that idea.
He strolled down the hall toward his cabin, and almost made it there before he remembered; the flechette bats needed to be fed now that the storage rooms were filled again. Sighing, he took the route that would send him by Melissa's and Lauren's room so he could rouse them to help. It was their duty, after all.
After a few bouts of loud knocking on their door with no reply, he tried the knob.
It was open.
The door fell away from his hand easily, swinging inward. He stepped inside, expecting to see any standard middy's room—a trunk of belongings and carefully made cot for each, possibly with a few things on the side table. But it was empty. There wasn't a single thing in the room but the beds, stripped to the frame.
Strange, Singe thought, checking to make sure he had the right room. He refused to let himself get worked up about it—probably something simple. Bugs, maybe.
He sighed, and crawled out onto the ratlines. It seemed as though he'd be feeding the bats on his own tonight. Shuddering, he made a personal note to make the other middies run extra drills and give them the flechette bats for at least a week.
The ropes creaked in his grasp, and the brisk northern wind tore at his uniform in the fading light, sending a shiver up his spine. The sooner this was over with, the better.
Snagging a few feed bags from a team of riggers, he dropped down into the bat coves and started tossing the dried fruit about. From the shadows stepped a familiar shape.
"What are you doing here, Mr. Fitzroy?" Singe asked abruptly, not pausing in his duty. "This isn't your job anymore," he added, remembering the shock of seeing the boy's name on the plaque in the message lizard room.
The former midshipman tilted his head, fixing Singe with eyes as cold as ice but as golden as sunlight. "Wondering at the fact that when I served on this ship, we would have had these bats fed ages ago. And how now only one boy could be bothered to take care of the beasts. Quite pathetic, really." He took a few steps toward Singe, easily avoiding the guano that littered the floor. His gaze wandered around the cove, travelling among the swarms of bats and landing back on Singe. "Very pathetic."
Though on the inside, Singe was assessing how far he was from the drop off outside if he had to make an escape and what chance he'd have in a fight, he was careful to show only a cool amusement. A few more dried figs flew across the cove before he spoke. "I would ask you for help, but you never were quite good enough at this, so I would be afraid you'd sod it up and get us both kicked off this time."
A spark of anger flared in Fitzroy's eyes, but it was dampened almost before it showed. He continued as though Singe hadn't said anything, "The state of these bats is completely unacceptable."
Singe tried not to roll his eyes. "Last I checked," he said, tossing the last fig toward one of the smaller bats, "it's not your job to worry about how 'acceptable' our bats are. You're not the captain."
Fitzroy reached over his head and took hold of a ratline just outside the cove. "Unfortunately not," he growled, icy voice barely audible over the screeches of the bats, "As my request was refused by the Admirality." He swung away, leaving Singe to wonder if he'd heard right.
He emptied a second bag to the bats hastily and hurried down to the kitchens for his and the prisoners' food. There were brown paper bags waiting for him now instead of trays, and they numbered four. Frowning, he asked one of the cooks if that was right. The man nodded, sweat sliding down his large nose from the heat of the ovens.
"Each of them gets one," he said, wiping at his forehead. "The captain said you'd be eating with the rest of the crew tonight, not in the brig with the scum."
Singe was about to tell him the Rachel was not scum, but stopped himself. Instead, he shook his head. "Then who are the other two for?"
The cook's lip curled. "Scum," he said, and spat into a trash bin by his feet. "Of the traitorous kind."
Singe didn't say anything, just stood leaning on the doorframe, confused.
"You mean you ain't heard? Figured you'd be the first to know, I did. Your midshipmen, the two brothers, got tossed in the brig. Turns out that after the Admirality looked into them a bit, theydon't exist."
He choked on his own breath. "Wh-what?"
"Barking spies, they is. Clankers." His voice was low, a wry grin tugging at the corners of his thin mouth,
"The captain's still trying to decide what punishment's good enough for rotten ones like them. Good thing we caught them when we did, otherwise we coulda been the next ship going down in flames."
He hardly heard the last part because he was racing as fast as his legs would take him to the brig.
"Let me in to see them." It wasn't a request. It was a command. The man on duty seemed slightly
frightened by the darkness in Singe's voice, so he quickly shoved the key in the lock of the third cell that, until now, had been unoccupied.
The windowless room looked the same as the others, except that an extra cot had been shoved against the opposite wall. One of the girls was sitting on each, knees pulled up to their chests in defeat.
Melissa's head jerked up to see who'd come in, face lighting on Singe. "Newkirk!" she cried in a whisper.
"Thank God it's you."
"They think we're spies," Lauren offered miserably. "And I'm not sure if that's better or worse than finding out the truth."
"I already knew that much. But why?" He kept his voice soft, in case the guard outside was listening.
The door had already sealed behind them, and only the wormlamp gave off a soft glow as he placed himself on the edge of Melissa's cot, leaning on his knees.
"Everyone's been jumpy about all the ships going down, you know? So the Admirality's been trying to find a link between all of them, and they'd all had new midshipmen." She shook her head. "Terribly inconvenient coincidence. So they ran background checks on all of us who've been serving for less than a few months—I'm not sure on the details—like somehow we'd been leading the Clanker ships to the airbeasts so they could be destroyed or something.
"And they found out that there have never been a Miles and Levi Wilson who lived in London, born in 1897 and '95, at least. Then they saw the forgeries in our recommendation letters, and it was just too convenient that they let Levi live in the mountains, so they just assumed." Melissa wasn't even trying to keep her voice like a boy's. It was strange to hear her voice come out high and without the faked British accent—almost like he'd never even heard her speak before now.
"This may sound like a strange question," Singe said, not sure why he was even thinking about it, "but which of you is older?"
Lauren's eyebrows drew together in surprise, and Melissa jerked her head toward her sister. "Levi is, by almost two years."
"Hmm. I never would have guessed," he mused, earning a half-hearted glare from Lauren.
"But it's so much worse than all that," Lauren moaned softly, massaging her temples. "If they found out who we are—" She cut off, taking a quick glance at her sister. "It would be bad."
Singe pretended not to notice the exchange. "I'd noticed," he said drily. Suddenly remembering the bags clenched tightly in his fist, he handed one to each of them. "I brought you dinner. I'm not even sure what's in there, but it's hot."
The paper crinkled as it was folded over and they took out covered bowls of potato stew canteens of water. Melissa stared sullenly at the food. "It was nice to see you, Mr. Newkirk, but you should be going or the guard will be suspicious."
"Right," he agreed, nodding to the girls and stepping out while they began to eat their food in silence.
Not wanting to deal with Tad, he simply slid the bag inside the door and called out a sarcastic, "You're welcome!"
His heart began to pick up tempo as it always did when he was about to see Rachel. The guard took his time with the lock, and Singe tapped his fingers against his trousers impatiently.
Not soon enough, he was in her cell and handing over the last sack of food. "Your meal, my lady," he said, bowing slightly from his sitting position on her bed.
She chuckled and accepted the bag gladly. "Because we have stopped for new supplies, I get hot food now?" Her eyes rolled back in pleasure as she inhaled the warm fumes of the stew.
Singe nodded as his stomach growled.
"Thank you, Eugene," she said, digging a spoon into the bowl. He watched in silence as she devoured the food with undisguised glee, not really caring about manners as she sat, cross-legged, licking her lips like any boy would. "Your captain will ask me questions in the morning," she said between mouthfuls.
"You mean, interrogate you?"
"Yes, that is the word the man used."
He frowned. "So… will you tell them what they want to know?"
"I—" now it was her turn to frown. "I do not know."
And that was how he ended up outside the interrogation room the next morning, ear pressed to the door he was supposed to be guarding after letting the man on duty believe Singe was the next shift.
"State your name," the captain ordered.
"Rachel Astrid Steiner." Her voice came through the door clearly, proudly.
There was a sigh. "Where do you come from?"
"Ah, yes. I come from Rendsburg, Germany."
They went on like that for nearly twenty minutes, establishing the most basic of information, and Singe was only mildly interested until he started asking her different sorts of questions.
"You were in the Kjolen mountains until five days ago. Why?"
"I was working."
"Machines." He had to admit, she was skilled at avoiding questions.
"What kinds of machines?"
A slight pause. "Automatons," she said finally.
"Were they of any involvement with the recent devastations of British airships?"
"Unfortunately, Captain, I cannot tell you that."
Singe could almost see the frustration on the captain's face. "Why is that?"
"Oh, come now, you certainly understand why. I have other loyalties, as you say." Her tone was calm, even reasonable, and he couldn't help thinking of how her English had improved in the last few days.
"Then we will come back to that in a bit. Please explain your relationship with Midshipman Eugene Newkirk."
Singe sucked in a breath; he wasn't aware they'd been that obvious. This didn't bode well for either of them.
"I do not know what you are talking about," she said warily.
"I believe that escorting prisoners around the ship without orders is a serious breach of rules, is it not, Mr. Williams?" Captain Hobbes asked of the guard stationed inside the room. "Which results in serious disciplinary action. Possibly demotion, or, in serious cases, dishonorable discharge."
The blood froze in his veins, a cold sense of dread creeping through his whole body. This could be it for him. Blisters, they might even think he was a spy, too, and toss him in the brig with Melissa and Lauren.
He heard a rasping breath from the other side of the door. "He means nothing to me. He was merely a mark I could con into doing my bidding."
"Is that so?" The captain almost sounded surprised.
"Yes. He was easy to trick. Really, you shouldn't trust a mere boy with such things when they involve a girl his age, so ready to fall in love with him," she scolded, sarcasm dripping from the last of her sentence. "It was too simple. I've wondered if he'd even seen a girl in the last year with how he followed me around like an eager little dog."
Vaguely, he realized that her English was not only better, it was downright fluent. Had anything she said to him, done in his presence, been the truth?
Meanwhile, the blood had started flowing again, now hot with rage and disbelief. The girl had lied to him, let him believe that she'd had feelings for him while he'd truly had them for her. It felt like she had stabbed him through the heart with his own rigging knife and twisted it around to make sure it hurt that much more.
He leaned against the wall in anguish, sliding down till he was huddled against it on the floor. His body automatically curled around the wound in his chest.
She hadn't stopped speaking, and Singe listened again because he couldn't bring himself not to. "…it's not his fault that he was so gullible. The Air Service should train their men to handle situations such as this."
"We'll see to it that he is reprimanded accordingly."
"Don't get me wrong, Captain. The boy is not a fool, just young."
"Are you not?"
"I am, but not in the same ways," Rachel muttered.
The wood of the floor seemed too interesting in Singe's despair. The way it ran in singe lines from one end of the board to the other was so wonderfully simple. He wished life could be that way.
But no, life was a tangled mess.
It twisted in on itself, crossing over until it could never be set straight. The people that came into life sent in their roots and got snarled around so that even if they cut off their ties, they'd never be truly gone. There would always be a piece of them left, whether it hurt or not. That's just the way it worked.
And now it was about to get even messier.
Before he knew what he was doing, he had shoved the door open and stormed into the room where
Ronnie was sitting with her hands tied to a chair, the captain behind her.
"Now? Now will you tell him?" he demanded. She looked away, and he took hold of her chin—the way he'd wanted to so many times so he could kiss her—and made her look at him. "The least you can do is tell him what you were doing in those mountains!"
She met his eyes with a cold certainty. "No."
He stepped away, trying to hide how hurt he was, but against his will he fell to his knees "Why not?"
"I won't tell him," she said, jerking her head behind her, "but I will tell you."
"Why are you doing this to me?" Singe yelled, clenching his fists. "I heard what you said! I know about all your lies now! So stop. Just stop. I'm done with you."
He let all of his pain seep into those words, all the hurt he was feeling. His knees came off the floor and he turned away from her, ready to leave her behind.
"Orion Omega is a scam."
Singe froze, not trusting himself to speak.
"What?" asked the captain incredulously.
"It means nothing. It's only purpose is to distract from the real threat—Orion Alpha."
His feet rotated without his permission, so that Singe came to face Ronnie again. "Go on."
"They've placed operatives on the ships that have been targeted or taken down to get Alphas on and ready to go. They are hidden in plain sight, something so normal on an airship that no one would suspect. The Alphas look exactly like the originals, just machines. We set them on a timer so that they'll go off automatically, and then…" she trailed off, something like pity in her voice, and—fear?
Dread crept up his throat like bile. "What are they? Are they here? On this ship?"
She didn't say anything, just nodded her head ever so slightly.
He took her by the shoulders, shaking her. "How much time do we have?"
"None." She looked away. "You're out of time."
Suddenly, Singe was unsteady on his feet. He lurched to grab onto the chair before he fell. "We have to be able to stop them. What are they?"
When she met his eyes again, he could see the tears dripping slowly down her cheeks.
"You already know."
Footsteps pounded heavily down the hallway, and an airman stopped at the door, breathing hard. "Captain! There's something wrong with the message lizards! They're going crazy."
Suddenly, it all clicked. In the mountains, when he'd seen the little machines that looked so familiar—everything made so much sense.
He was on his feet and running before Rachel's face had time to pale.
A/N: What did I tell you? 7 pages of scheming Clankers, yogurt-y suspense, and spies! *EVIL LAUGH*