A/N: Well, it certainly has been a long time, hasn’t it? Anyway, I certainly hope you enjoy this chapter, and that some sense of urgency is conveyed like I want it to be. Um... you finally get an explanation of what exactly the Orion Alphas are, which I know you’ve wanted for the last few chapters. So here it is!
The moment his lids dropped, Deryn smacked him across the face. Hard.
Eyes popping wide open, Alek moaned, “I quite like it better when you kiss me.”
Deryn tried not to grimace at the smear of blood on his cheek now, left behind by her fingers after pressing them on his wound. It was low on the left side of his chest, and from the way it was bleeding, the bullet may have gone straight through. She wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing.
“Aye, well, there are people around. And that was overdue anyway. Barking spiders, Alek, stay awake!”
He’d faded out again.
“Yes, I think I will.” He spoke in German now, probably not even noticing how he’d switched languages. “I don’t want you slapping me again.”
“Dylan?” Newkirk’s voice came from behind her, and she raised a single arm in acknowledgement. “Alek?”
The pound of his footsteps approached quickly, and then he was leaning around her to get a closer look at Alek. “Fitzroy shot him, and not with an air pistol, either.”
“It was, actually,” Alek said, chuckling for no reason, and then he broke into a fit of coughs. “An air pistol, that is,” he continued.
Deryn stared into his eyes for a moment, trying to look past the cloudiness of pain that covered the usual sharp greenness. She had to focus on something else. If she thought about the boy she loved laying there in front of her, possibly dying, then it would all go pear-shaped. For the next few minutes, he had to be just another person.
“Newkirk, give me your shirt,” she demanded.
“Why?” He’d paled at the sight of blood, and was looking a squick shaky.
“So I can try to stop the bleeding, you ninny, and I can’t barking well use my own. Now give it to me.”
Newkirk nodded hurriedly, unzipping his flight suit and undoing the first few buttons on his shirt before pulling it over his head. He turned away as Deryn tore it in two and gently eased one half under Alek and wadded up the second, applying pressure over the entrance wound, much to the injured boy’s protest.
“Is that you? That hurts, if you hadn’t noticed. I’d be much obliged if didn’t do that, Deryn.” Deryn bit her lip. The boy got sodding proper when he was half conscious.
“Newkirk, I need you to go after Fitzroy,” Deryn commanded. “He took one of the turtles.” She took a quick look over her shoulder in the direction he’d gone.
He was barely one hundred yards away, and she could still see the scowl on his face. Even though it felt like an eternity, it’d only been a few sets of moments. “Now. You need to go now.”
“I need to tell you something first!” he said breathlessly. “Those message lizards going crazy--they’re not real! The Clankers got them on the ships, and they have a timer, and when the timer goes off they all make holes in the membrane and set the ship on fire. They’re called Orion Alphas--The Claw, the Spear, none of those German ships have anything to do with it; they’re just decoys! Omegas! So now--you have to get everyone off the ship before it burns.”
Hysteria rose in her throat like bile. It was all Deryn could do to nod her understanding.
The great Leviathan was about to go down in flames. She would meet her end just like her da.
She fought to keep down a cry of despair as Newkirk deftly loosened another of the turtles, leaping on as it began to float away. He cranked the motivator engine as fast as it would go, crouching low on its back to lessen the air resistance. Still, he’d be hard pressed to gain on Fitzroy.
Tearing her gaze from Newkirk’s retreating back, carefully avoiding looking at Alek, Deryn took in her surroundings, blinking the tears from her eyes so she could see clearly.
She stood, shaking.
Twelve feet away, a message lizard writhed in pain. She took a cautious step toward it, peering closely to see why. There was no apparent cause, and it wasn’t making any holes in the membrane. Deryn blinked again, and a tear slid out. None of it made sense.
Trying to steady her breathing, Deryn wiped her palms on her pants and rubbed them together, regretting not having a flight suit. Alek must be freezing, the heat seeping out with his blood.
Don’t think about it.
Her hand shot out, and she caught the lizard in her grasp. It squirmed, and she took it in her other hand to hold it still. Shouting random squicks of conversation, it scratched at her hands, leaving tiny pricks of pain she barely noticed.
Deryn grimaced and plunged a finger in it’s mouth. Its tiny teeth sunk into her skin, and she jerked it out, wiping a saliva coated finger on her shirtfront. This was definitely a real beastie.
But then what was wrong with it?
She let it fall to the ground, shaking her head. A groan came from behind her, too deep to be Alek. Deryn turned to find Max rousing, staring groggily and rubbing his temple. He grimaced and stood, blinking rapidly. “Where’d that bum rag go?”
“That’s not your problem anymore, Max,” Deryn said. “Everyone has to get off the ship.”
His eyebrows drew together. “How? We’re almost a mile above nowhere,” the rigger protested, looking around at the seemingly endless expanse of cold forest beneath them.
“It’s not barking nowhere! Once we get over Loch Ness, there’s a village somewhere in the area, but that won’t matter if we’re all dead,” she said frankly. “Understand? Crew. Off ship. Now.”
“Aye, Mr. Sharp. I’ll take them down on the Roth Turtles--where have those other two gone, exactly?” Deryn jerked her head toward the floating beasts, almost three hundred yards away, and he continued, “Right. These ones’ll be fine, then.”
“And...” she took a deep, steadying breath. “Take Alek with you. He’s been shot. ”
It hurt to say it. She let her eyes travel to where he lay, pale and shivering. All of her being itched to go with him, to make sure he survived, but she knew she couldn’t.
“Aye. Put him on one and it’ll go down first.” With one last rub of his temple, Max started shouting for all the crewmen to come to him. Deryn hardly paid attention to the few who refused on the grounds that a man should go down with his ship as he explained the situation. She was more focused on how to get Alek from the membrane to the back of a turtle five feet away as painlessly--and quickly--as possible. There wasn’t much time. There couldn’t be. They’d already wasted an eternity.
“Blisters, Alek, would you stop trying to be the hero? I’d rather have you hiding in a corner than with a bullet in your side!” She squatted, hooking an arm under his shoulder and knees. She felt his blood soaking into her shirt sleeve, and the puddle he left behind was larger that she’d expected. The metallic-tasting air caught in her throat.
He didn’t respond except for a moan when she lifted him, and as she shuffled toward the back of a turtle, he seemed to grow paler. Alek’s eyes darted under his eyelids, and he mumbled incomprehensibly for a moment.
“Wake up,” she told him fiercely, letting her bitten fingernails dig the skin of his palm. His eyes drug open, and he stared at her with a cloudy gaze.
“I love you, Alek,” she whispered, and the backs of her eyes burned with tears.
Deryn tried not to let her eyes linger on his face, twisted with pain. She squeezed his hand quickly, one last time, and then turned away without a backward glance and took off down the spine, shouting for the men to throw any message lizard that was scratching the membrane off the side. She scooped one up from near her feet and pried its mouth open with her finger, not pausing in her step.
A quick glance revealed the most intricate automaton Deryn had ever seen. The Sultan’s elephants were awe worthy, but they barely compared to the complexities within the small creature’s mouth. Gears smaller than her fingernail whirred almost soundlessly, joints and hinges mimicking the exact movements of a living beastie. Coupled with the lifelike hide, it was completely believable. The Orion could have lived among their living counterparts forever if they weren’t hardwired to destroy the ship.
Deryn shuddered and hurled the machine as far away from the ship as she could. As it disappeared into a speck against the green and blue of loch and forest below, a memory of Fitzroy doing the same thing flickered into her mind.
The unanswered question that had been running circles in her mind resurfaced.
As Deryn shook her head, the Leviathan shifted beneath her. Slowly, its angle changed, until they were flying directly at the great Loch Ness, looming at least a thousand yards away.
She stopped a moment to stare at it, and suddenly her throat closed in a sob. The tears that had threatened her for the last two minutes spilled from her eyes, and she choked on them. As the scene blurred, she swiped the wetness from her eyes. There wasn’t time for tears now.
And Deryn was a soldier. Soldiers didn’t cry.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, she hooked her boots into the ratlines and descended, looking for more Orion. If she was going to die today--if Alek was going to die today--she was going to go down fighting.
Her resolve only hardened when they started shooting sparks into the body of the hydrogen ship.