When constructing a believable fabrication, keep it simple and as close to the truth as possible. Include some genuine artifacts to help smooth over the lies.
I have my doubts about this ruse. It seems too simple, but Trent has visited Newtonsteign before and assures us educational parties visit all the time. Ashcroft Ascent is too close and therefore all too easily checked out for my liking, but I relented when Scud suggested the letter of introduction. At least the signature is genuine.
Grappling hooks pull the Shonti Bloom alongside the Newtonsteign craft. Two guards swing across the gap separating the two hulls on ropes. One attaches a line to our winch pulley while the other watches with steely cold eyes and covers us with a compression rifle. Once secure at their end, the winch is used to haul across a canvas cradle.
An officer, dressed in the pure white uniform of the Microtough Navy steps gingerly out of the cradle, accompanied by two further guards, both wielding compression riffles. The officer holds out a white-gloved hand. “Papers.”
Trent presents our fake identity papers and the letter of introduction. I wait, my heart hammering nervously in the silence. I watch Scud staring out the window counting clouds–he doesn’t like strangers or lies. The officer stares intently at our IDs like he knows they are fake, he even holds mine up to the light. I can feel cold sweat running down the side of my face. He spends an inordinate time reading and re-reading the introduction letter, like he’s searching for some hidden meaning. Just when I think it’s inevitable I’m in for a long spell in a Microtough jail, the officer looks up and smiles. “These all seem in order. Please enjoy your trip.” The officer departs the way same way he arrived, in the cradle device.
We all grin at each other like the conspirators we are.
I can’t believe our luck. “That was way too easy. I was convinced he could tell our documents are forged.”
“I nearly had kitten,” Izzy laughs, “when he held your ID up to the light.”
Scud’s still looking out the window nervously. “Too easy. Plans never run that smoothly.”
“Cut it out, Scud.” Fernando is annoyed, he’s joined this ruse under duress—he was out voted. “Sometimes things just go the way they were planned. It’s all in the preparation. Good preparation delivers a smooth plan.” He’s right, up to a point, but then you must always plan for the unexpected—the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.
“I told you it would work,” Trent boasts—he hardly looks worried at all. “They love educational trips on Newtonsteign—feeds their big egos.”
We get under way again. Two more white ships, containing equally white—clad security forces, stop us on our approach. The engineering guild takes security seriously.
Eventually, the great city itself floats into view. What a sight; nothing in the world looks even remotely like Newtonsteign. The entire floating landmass is covered in glass and sculpted in the shape of a giant lily flower. Other landmasses are linked to the central bloom like arteries to a heart; one even sports six chimneys belching out black smoke, something I have never seen before.
“The foundries,” Trent informs us with distaste.
No slums allowed to spoil the pristine beauty of this design. In fact, lots of things are not allowed.
The Chief Engineer reaches out from his souring glass palace at the center of Newtonsteign into virtually every city, town, and platform on the planet. Only Chartered Engineers know the secrets of old world technology that keep the city landmasses afloat. The engineering guild wields enormous power over other city states. If any city dares to default on its crippling tithe, the guild simply withdraws its engineers, dooming that city to slow technological decline and ultimate destruction. It only takes one city state to fall from the sky for all the rest to get the message. With so many secrets to guard, no wonder security is tight.
“Isn’t this place fantastic,” Scud enthuses as we shuffle into an arrivals area. “If nothing else, the museum is going to be worth seeing.”
Everywhere I look I can see posters of Chief Engineer Smyth in his white suit and white-lensed shades, espousing the laws of the guild; “No action without Guild reaction; Natural law is fixed and unchanging; All things decay unless maintained by the Guild; Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but flows from the Guild.”
The hairs on the nape of my neck prickle. “Shh, don’t draw attention to yourself,” I advise the others. For all its grandness and inspiring architecture, I can tell that a weight rests heavily on the population here. It isn’t just the uniforms and the dazzling whiteness of the place, nor the personality cult of the Chief Engineer. Newtonsteign contains darker forces: a constriction of thought, a subtle control of the mind. This place gives me the creeps. I can’t wait to get to the eye and leave.
“My father wanted me to train as an engineer,” Scud continues. Strangely, he’s completely unfazed by Newtonsteign, maybe the regimented order of the place appeals to his sense of rightness. “But I couldn’t get inspired by all those laws.” He’s certainly clever and diligent enough to have made it in the guild.
Apart from Scud, I wonder if the others can feel the oppression. Trent looks edgy, which isn’t unusual, he’s scanning arrivals looking for trouble. Fernando is relaxed, but Izzy jumps at every new sound. I bet she can feel it too.
Suddenly, a huge explosion rocks the whole landmass, shaking me to my knees. Frantically, I scan arrivals for danger. At first I don’t see anything, then people start pointing towards the soaring glass of the outer window. On a neighboring landmass, two foundry chimneys are starting to topple. Gracefully, they collapse in opposite directions, bounce on the edges of the island, then slide over the sides, like felled trees amid a shower of debris, and plummet earthward.
I hope the explosion has nothing to do with me: first the post hub, now Newtonsteign, am I jinxed or something?
Newtonians run shouting and screaming in all directions, their over-reaction bordering on the paranoid. I’m not the only one who notices their odd behavior.
“For goodness sake, what’s wrong with these people?” Fernando asks incredulously. “It’s only a foundry explosion; it’s not even close to us.”
The sudden chaos in such a clean and ordered environment is like a gash through beautiful silk showing crude and primitive emotions just below the surface.
Among the pandemonium, three young women, dressed all in black, with black backpacks, catch my attention. They run purposefully together from the balloon ferry, newly arrived from the foundry island. It is full of panicked and smoke blackened citizens.
The fast moving, close-knit unit of three stands out amid the chaos. They run to the wall of glass near our queue. One tapes something to the glass pane in a rectangular shape. She steps back and smiles briefly in our direction. I automatically return the smile, as does Trent. Then the girl presses a remote. The glass blows out leaving a neat rectangular doorway. All three punched the air in triumph.
“Death to pollution,”’ they chorused in unison, “power to the Daughters of Gaia.”
“Stop!” I hear someone shout. Then there is the rattle of gunfire and we all dive for the floor. Security has arrived. The Daughters of Gaia, though, have already dived through the glass. This explains the Newtonian’s panic: terrorism.
I crawl to the window to watch as security gathers by the gaping hole, but there is no airship waiting to catch the terrorists. Instead, three black blobs fade from view as they plummet earthwards. A couple of circling shark-tails dive after them, but without any real hope of apprehending then.
Just as the dots fade to nothing, they blossom into brightly colored flowers, red, yellow, blue: parachutes. Very clever.
Will the engineers pursue them to the earth below? Probably, but I bet the Daughters of Gaia will be long gone by then.
So the Great Gates doesn’t have everything his own way. Somehow, I find that thought comforting. I hope the three girls make it away safely, though I have no idea why I should think that. Maybe, as fellow outsiders here, I feel a sort of kinship with them.
“The Daughters of Gaia are terrorists,” Trent is explaining to Izzy. “They’ve been a real nuisance for years. They attack anything the engineers produce that pollutes, and much more as well. Hence the tight security.”
Between them, the Chief Engineer and the Daughters of Gaia have this population pretty much locked down, though they look happy enough as they are given the all clear by security.
Trent turns to me. “That’s blow it.”
“Because the Eye is in a museum on that island they just closed.”
After processing through arrivals, we wander round for a bit ogling at the starched anemic surroundings. Uniformly sized houses rise geometrically in stacks towards the glass ceiling that encases the whole of Newtonsteign. Driverless electric karts hum along the streets, magically weaving round the pedestrians without hitting a single one. Whenever a kart reaches its destination, the occupants climb out and just leave the kart abandoned on the street, until another white-suited pedestrian takes it into their mind to climb aboard and set off.
Seeing an abandoned kart, I decided it’s time we return to the Shonti Bloom to keep a low profile. I climb into the kart. The others follow apprehensively.
I scan the smooth, white, featureless interior of the kart. “Anyone know how to start this thing?”
Ferdinand, Scud, and Izzy crowd over my shoulder offering advice.
“Tap the screen.”
“Look for a starter under the seat.”
There’s nothing more embarrassing than jumping into a piece of tech and finding you can’t make it move.
I try to ignore my advisers. “This is daft—the starter has to be here somewhere.”
“Try pushing it,” Ferdinand suggests.
“Ha,ha.” Very funny.
Trent jumps into the front passenger seat beside me. “Shush, do you want to draw everyone’s attention to your ignorance? There’s a patrol coming.” He nods towards two white-suited guards wandering down the street towards us. I can tell they are beginning to take an interest in our kart.
“Dock, 64, deck 32,” Trent says clearly and the kart lurches forward, hums past the guards, and zips round a corner out of sight.
“Brilliant, Trent, how did you know how to do that?”
“Just seemed logical.”
I laugh with relief. That will teach me to take on new tech I don’t understand. Our humor only highlights the oppressive nature of Newtonsteign.
The next morning, the balloon ferry to the bombed island is running again. Our student cover story appears to be holding up well so we decide to conclude our business as quickly as we can. We risk the ferry crossing even though the island is crawling with white-suited guards. As we crowd into the balloon basket, the attendants body search us, presumably for weapons or bombs.
If they had searched everyone that well before the attack they could have prevented it, but human nature being what it is they only step up their efficiency after the event—useless really, since the chance of an attack now is virtually nil.
The museum is open, though other areas are still roped off. While we wait to disembark from the balloon, I pause to listen to a couple of guards discussing the previous day’s attack.
“Don’t know why anyone would want to attack this factory? Not like it’s important or anything and it’s been here for decades, why choose now to bomb it?”
“Captain reckons it’s a distraction. Had us searching for booby traps and delayed devices all night. Most of the island is clear now. Just a few more sites to check before we sound the all clear, but if it was only a distraction the real attackers could have planted a device on any of the islands or even within Newtonsteign itself.”
Trent drags me away as we finally cleared to land.
Once in the museum it’s easy to find the eyes of Gaia in the Mysteries and Folklore section, tucked away in a little room to the side of a large tech hall. Clearly, the Newtonians have a much lower opinion of the Gaia cult than their cousins in the provinces. Even here, though, a security guard sits on a chair, alert and watchful. Do these engineers never drop their vigilance?
We have already agreed to a tactic.
Izzy walks straight up to the museum guard. “Hi, I think someone’s left a bag in one of the galleries.”
Immediately, after a terrorist attack there is nothing guaranteed to grab security’s attention more than an abandoned bag.
The guard jumps up like he’d been stung. “Where?”
“I’ll show you,” Izzy helpfully leads him away from Mysteries and Folklore to where we deposited the bag. As soon as they are out of sight, the rest of us attack the eye of Gaia. Remembering the hairline cracks in Gaia’s stomach, I scan every surface with my fingertips. We must look like an outing from a blind school having a sensory art experience. Nothing.
“Turn it over,” I order. It takes all of us to roll the heavy stone eye on to its side.
“Here,” Scud calls. On the underside of the eye, there is a whole series of shapes and figures in neat lines, like an essay. We’ve found it.
I slap on the thin paper I have brought for the task and start rubbing with charcoal to get a clear image of the text. The clue from the journal runs through my mind as I rub. “The eye of Gaia sits and thinks, the clue you shall find when she blinks.”
The others are still searching every inch of the carving. “Anyone else got anything? The others have drawn blanks. “So how do we make her blink?”
“I think we already have,” Fernando volunteers, “we’ve rolled the eyeball over so it’s kind of blinked.” Maybe.
I look to Scud. “It’s a simple substitution code.”
To me it looks anything but simple.
“See,” he points out some figures, “this symbol occurs most often so this is an ‘e’ and this one occurs mostly on its own so it has to be an ‘i’ or an ‘a’.” It looks totally baffling to me, but I trust Scud, he is a genius with codes—numbers are his thing.
I pace while Scud works his magic. I try to show interest in the other exhibits: a piece of shiny silver metal so thin you can fold is like paper. The caption reads, “In the folk tale of Hansel and Gretel, the children are said to wrap up their picnic lunch in tin foil, believed to be similar to the Aluminum Foil displayed here, which can indeed be folded to form a protective package.”
Poppycock, who in their right minds would use such a valuable metal resource to wrap up their lunch?
I turn to see Scud still processing.
“You got it yet, Scud.”
Beside the foil, is a case containing a creepily proportioned doll made from some kind of resin. The most outstanding thing about her is her impossibly long legs, fully half the length of her body—they are hinged at the thighs, but curiously not hinged at the knee; her waist is tiny with a swivel hinge, her arms are oddly thin, the same width from shoulder to wrist—perhaps she has some muscle wasting disease that effects only her arms; her hands like her feet are minuscule; her neck is ridiculously long and thin, not like a human neck at all, and her face is that of a young child—large eyes and button nose; while her chest is that of an adult. She has blond hair. The child/adult doll sends shivers down my spine.
The caption reads, “Statuettes like these are surprisingly common in the ruins of Late Industrial Age homes. They are believed to represent some sort of beauty cult. The cult was worshipped by most societies round the world. Female adolescents and women who belonged to the Barbie cult fanatically aspired to attain the impossible proportions of their deity.” Yuck. “Methods of emulation included dieting, exercising, and even surgery to permanently alter their body shapes.” Gross. How can such an innocent looking plaything have such a powerful hold over the world? The earth dwellers of old really were a weird bunch.
I pace some more—I know the concerned the guard will return soon. “We’re running out of time, Scud.”
Another case catches my eye while I wait. Inside are small white sticks about three inches long; some are colored orange at one end and others appear charred. The caption tells me that inside these uniformly sized sticks are dried herbs. “Similar to the herbs uses in Reaver peace pipes, but without the hallucinogenic qualities.” I shiver at the thought of the barbaric Reavers—not a group I want to meet on my travels.
The caption continues, “Despite numerous references to the dangerous health hazards of inhaling smoke from the slow burning dried herbs contained in these Cigarette sticks, they appear to have been a common recreational past-time of people throughout the whole of the Industrial Age.” The caption doesn’t say whether they burned the orange end or the white end or both ends at once. I suppose they cupped their hands over the burning cigarette and inhaled the smoke through the hole formed between their thumbs. Odd.
“I think I got it,” Scud calls at last. Actually, it has only been a few minutes.
I rush over to the eye and join the others.
Scud points to the figures on the underside of the stone eye. “It’s a lock. If I’ve got it right, we press this symbol, followed by this one, and then—’
“What if you press them in the wrong order,” Trent interrupts.
Scud shrugs. “Then I guess we never get in.”
I rest my hand on Trent’s arm to restrain him, just in case he’s thinking of intervening. “Trust him, Scud’s brilliant at these sorts of things.”
Trent looks me in the eye, then nods, once. “If you say so, Captain.”
Scud continues, “—this one, and then this one.”
There is a tiny click from the side of the eye.
“Here,” Fernando shouts excitedly. He bends down. “The pupil of the eye has popped out. It’s a draw.” He straightens up holding a small plate made of the same stone as the eye. On it are six numbers in pairs, cleanly machined into the surface, as if they were produced yesterday—the draw in the eye must have been hermetically sealed.
I jot down the numbers. “Ok, put it back.”
The others stare at me in astonishment.
“What? You think we’re taking it? What if body search us on the way out? Or they check every day to see it’s still there? Do you want to get caught?”
Fernando quickly places the tablet back in the draw and snaps it shut. Quietly, we roll the eye back into place and leave.
Outside, Izzy joins us. “Have you got it?” Scud proudly shows her what we have found.
“More numbers?” she says with disappointed. I don’t know what she expected to find, but it clearly wasn’t more numbers.
Scud is the only one who looks really pleased, due to his affinity for numbers—in fact he likes them better than people. “There must be a pattern.” His eyes glaze over as he drifts off to process again. I know better than to disturb Scud while he’s thinking, so we steer him back to the Shonti Bloom, deposit him in the map room, then get the ship underway as quickly as we can.
As I steer out of the dock I can’t stop thinking about the numbers. Something about them troubles me, but I can’t pin it down, it’s just a feeling that something is not quite right.
I try to shake off the feeling and concentrate on putting Newtonsteign as far behind us as I can.
Since we departed Newtonsteign, with the answer to the second clue contained in my Mother’s journal, Scud has hardly moved from the map table. He’s trying every permutation of every code he can think of, and some he’s made up. Is it a code, a number game, some sort of riddle? We’ve been bringing his meals to him at the desk. I’m not sure, but he might even have slept sprawled over the table last night.
Fernando took only one brief look at the numbers. “Grid references,” he grunted, then wandered off muttering to himself. Mental puzzles aren’t his thing.
I still have the disturbing feeling something about the numbers is not right, but again I cannot pin it down, so I’m having another crack at it with Scud. “Could Fernando be right? Grid references?”
Scud shakes his head. “No way—too simple. It’s got to be a code of some kind.”
We try every secret code we’ve already tried: letter substitutions, anagrams, number progressions, pig Latin then we reshuffle everything into progressions until we have exhausted each combination. Still nothing.
I suspect that without the third clue all this speculating will prove fruitless, but there’s no stopping Scud. I give up in frustration and leave him to slog on. He will continue like a machine until he has either cracked the code or proven to himself that no combination works—he can’t help it, once started his world will fall apart if he doesn’t finish.
Once, unable to solve a math equation at the academy, I saw Scud start to shake. He panicked and refused to eat or sleep until the equation was solved. The sight of Scud trembling and obsessive terrified me—he might have his oddities, but he had always been reliably odd. In the end, it was the question which was wrong, the one possibility that never occurred to the young Scud. It took him weeks to get over the trauma.
CRACK. Swish. Rrrrrrip.
My heart stops.
Every flight student knows that sound: a semi-rigid ligament breaking free.
Adrenalin floods my veins and I leap into action. “Damn, I should have checked for damage after the storm,” I mutter while dragging Scud bodily from the map room. “All stop! Scud, you’ve got the helm. Everyone else, topside, now! Move it!”
I guide a dazed Scud towards the wheel.
“But Nina, the code.”
His world is already crumbling, too much change too quickly. I fold his hands round the rim of the wheel. “Do the code in your head, Scud. If we live you can go back to it later.”
The rest of us grab our flight jackets and gloves, and swarm up the rigging into the blimp. We snatch up clamping-belts and catch poles as we burst through the hatch, Fernando in the lead.
“Duck!” Fernando screams as the loose ligament snakes towards us like a whip. I shove Trent to the floor and I dive for safety myself. That thing could take someone’s head off.
The ligament cracks harmlessly above us, like lightening.
Another slash appears in the blimp. The fabric of the blimp can take a fair amount of damage, but if the hydrogen reservoirs are punctured the Shonti Bloom will turn into a stone. So far we are lucky.
I leap to my feet. “Okay, let’s get to it. Fernando, disconnect that ligament from the power supply. Izzy and I will get clamping, but no heroics—I want you all back in one piece. Trent, you’re spotter.” He doesn’t know the drill so is a liability, best to keep him out of the danger zone. “Call out if that ligament comes anywhere near us.”
I ensure we fix safety lines to the gangway rails then Izzy and I scramble toward the ligament, which is still secured to the blimp. I pin down the first stretch of loose ligament with the catching rod, while Izzy snatches a clamp from the pouch on her belt and clamps it to a secure ligament for support. Izzy then pins down the next section which I then clamp. We repeat the drill as quickly as we can, working our way towards the flailing end of the ligament
“Coming your way,” Trent yells. We all hit the deck. CRACK. Ping, ping, ping. Rrrrip. All the new clamps fly off.
We start again: catch, clamp, catch, clamp, catch, clamp, as fast as we can. It occurs to me that if Trent wants to do away with us he can just keep his mouth shut and watch our heads roll. This emergency is a good test of his loyalty.
I risk a glance back down the length of the blimp to the power housing. “How you doing with that power supply, Fernando?”
He has a giant wrench secured to a bolt securing the collar of the ligament and is attacking it with a sledge hammer. “You call this air-worthy?” Crash. He brings the sledge hammer down on the end of the wrench. “The blasted thing—” Crash. “—is rusted in.” Crash. “I’m gonna have to cut it off with an arc welder.”
Bad news: a ligament is akin to an artificial muscle, specially grown in long ropes to power an airship’s tail. When properly secured, and supplied with small bursts of electricity, a ligament jerks powerfully back and forth. Supply electricity to an array of ligaments in the right order and they sweep the flukes of the Shonti’s tail up and down with incredible force. Unsecured, even without power, it would still twitch for an hour, but while still hooked into the power supply it becomes a deadly thrashing serpent.
Introducing heat to a lose ligament is about the worse thing anyone can do—it turns into a wounded deadly thrashing animal. “Forget it, Fernando, you are more use helping us clamp the thing down. Just leave it.”
Fernando gives the wrench one last bash before hurrying forward to help us tame the free ligament.
I duck under a hydrogen reservoir and hear the hiss of escaping gas. I make a mental note to find and patch that hole once we secure the ligament.
If it’s hissing, the leak is small; the large silent ones are the deadly ones.
The clamps all ping off for a second time, so we retreat and start again.
The further we clamp towards the tail, the more shredded the blimp becomes. The need to hook and unhook our safety lines slows us down considerably as we weave round each other in our dance of catch, clamp, catch, clamp. But, with large holes in the blimp, a fall here could prove fatal.
“Look out, Nina!” CRASH. The gangway twists and buckles as the ligament attacks like a flailing squid. I grab for the rail, but my hand clutches empty air instead. I topple sideways desperately grasping for anything and watch in slow motion as my safety line slides off the end of the shattered handrail. In my mind’s eye I see myself plunging through the Shonti’s blimp and falling towards the ground until I shrink to a tiny dot, like the Daughters of Gaia. I shove the image away so I can concentrate on surviving—thinking like that will definitely get me killed.
One hand scrapes along the etched metal footplate of the gangway as I fall past, but I can’t quite grasp it. Suddenly, something smooth slaps into the palm of my left hand. I grip it tightly with my bleeding and ragged fingers, thank goodness someone has caught me with their catching rod.
Then the rod comes alive, wriggling like a snake in my clasp, and throws me sideways.
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