This is a crossover fic between the Leviathan series by Mr. Westerfeld, and the Airborn series by Mr. Oppel. I've tried my best at reconciling the various conflicting aspects of the two series, so they can function together as one universe. These tweaks to the setting will be explained as the story plays out. For readers of only Leviathan, the most major difference is that the Airborn series contains a fictional gas called hydrium which is lighter than hydrogen and non-flammable, and which also smells like mangoes. Hydrium comes from vents in the earth.
I wrote this chapter mostly as a test to see if it works out. This fic is also designed to be the sequel of my other Airborn-based fic Freedom, Fascination, and Ferocity. I don't think it's necessary to have read that, though it would be helpful. However, since I'm nowhere near done with FFF, I won't be working on this fic much, because it would contains spoilers for FFF.
That said (if anyone is still reading), please provide any feedbacks or reviews of what you liked and didn't like since this is very much a work in progress that can be revised and changed.
The storm felt strangely still.
She remembered the sensation from Da's hot-air balloons. Cut free from its tether, the medusa had exactly matched the speed of the wind. The air felt motionless, the earth turning below on a giant lathe.
Dark clouds still boiled around her, giving the Huxley an occasional spin. But worse were the flickers in the distance. One sure way to set a hydrogen breather aflame was to hit it with lightning. Deryn distracted herself by watching London pass beneath, all matchbox houses and winding streets, the factories with their sealed smoke-stacks.
She remembered how Da had said London looked in the days before old Darwin had worked his magic. A pall of coal smoke had covered the entire city, along with a fog so thick that streetlamps were lit during the day. During the worst of the steam age so much soot and ash had decorated the nearby countryside that butterflies had evolved black splotches on their wings for camouflage.
(Excerpt from Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, chapter 8. The rest of the chapter incorporates many other excerpts.)
But before she'd been born, the great coal-fired engines had been overtaken by biomimicked fabrications — machines designed with nature in mind. Some of these were even half-living, containing strengthened and selected-for tissue. Combining the usefulness of nature and human ingenuity, biomimics, or fabs as some people call them, were the driving force of London and a dozen other Darwinist cities.
The Huxley she was currently dangling on was one of the ones where the living parts outweighed the nonliving parts. It was the earliest fabricated airbeast, and being so primitive, Deryn had no real way to steer or control it at all. Back when hydrogen breathers were first proposed, there had been an uproar — because hydrogen, unlike hydrium, was flammable, and therefore not as safe. But hydrium was very costly and completely inert — hardly any organisms used it for anything — and as a result, it could not be produced through biomimicry or fabrication. In the end, cost and convenience outweighed safety, and fabs had replaced part of the Air Service vessels, saving the government millions of pounds each year in Aruba fuel and lifting gas.
Spreading across the city, Deryn could see mimics and fabs wherever she looked. Over Buckingham Palace, a group of strafing gliders patrolled in spirals, gigantic golden eagles carrying a pilot each. The streets were filled with half-living motorcars, their wheels powered by muscle tissue instead of pistons. Messenger spindles travelled to and fro, their design based on terns. Some of them probably had fabricated tern tissue incorporated into the machinery. Most Darwinist machines were graceful and smooth, nothing like the stiff angular monstrosities the Clankers' used.
Deryn shivered, and suddenly realized how cold it was getting. Her clothes were still wet, the sky still dark. Occasional lightning flashed in the distant, and she had to respect the power of the skies, despite how smooth her ride felt. She looked beneath her feet and saw the dark furious waters of the Thames, swelling up from the downpour. A parade of dull-colored umbrellas snaked along slowly on either bank, like some grey-black-blue centipede. She almost smiled at the sight.
Far ahead, the waters of the Channel of Angleterrre churned in silent commotion, barely visible on the horizon. Deryn looked backwards towards the city, the Big Ben and the Tower of London barely visible in the dim light. She checked her bearings once again, and was alarmed to find she was drifting out towards the sea. Slowly, yes, but the miles of ground beneath her was creeping away yard by yard, mile by mile. She reckoned that in about an hour or so, she'd be clear of land, and at the mercy of the sea winds.
"Oi!" she said, kicking out like a lassie on the swing set. "Stop! Go back!"
The Huxley, or the living part of the Huxley, paid her no mind. Of course Deryn knew that the Huxley wasn't doing anything — it was a drifter by design, and could only follow the winds. This made it no less annoying and frustrating though, as she watched the darkness of the Thames' cool depth. It did not look at all welcoming, and plus the Manual of Aeronautics had said that a fall that was fatal on land would be fatal on the sea. She reckoned she was five hundred feet high — slamming into a wall of water here was no different than slamming into a wall of bricks.
A rogue gust of wind carried the Huxley over a rather large fishing vessel. Deryn didn't remember people being this small…
She glanced up at the thin shaft of sunlight that signified a break in the storm, and cursed. As the membranous Huxley dried in the sun, it rose, and her with it.
"Oi! You bum-rag!" she shouted up at the Huxley. "I'm talking to you!"
Deryn scowled. An hour ago the Huxley had been so easy to spook! Perhaps one annoyed lassie's cries didn't amount to much after the terrific storm.
The westerly wind showed no sign of abating, because when Deryn looked back she was even farther away from the city than a couple minutes ago.
"You're a big, bloated bum-rag!" she shouted, more out a resigned annoyance than actual anger now. She wondered if people down below could hear her — a mysterious, heavenly voice screaming obscenities. The thought made her chuckle.
London was now a dull shapeless mass of jagged shadows in the distant, and still under the grips of dark stormy clouds. She saw the massive expanse reach up thousands of feet in the sky, the grey magnificence of the cumulonimbus dwarfing all other things in the sky — not that there were any.
"Ohh," she said to the Huxley, finally understanding. "I reckon the storm's tailspin spun us out." She twisted herself into the strengthening sun, and sighed. "I suppose a bit of sun could be nice."
The Huxley only sighed contentedly as its airbags continued to heave and dry in the warmth. Deryn gave up talking to the biomimic — it was basically just a couple of airbags and things to hang on to anyway, and it wasn't as if jellyfish have that much brain to begin with. For two long years Deryn had wanted nothing more than to go aloft again, like when Da had been alive — and here she was, marooned in the sky. Maybe this was punishment for acting like a boy, just like her mum had always warned.
Green fields rotated underfoot with the now bluish waters of the Thames, and Deryn made her steady way towards the Channel of Angleterre.
It was going to be a long day.
The Huxley noticed it first.
The pilot's rig jolted under Deryn, like a carriage going over a pothole. Shaken from a catnap, she glared up at the Huxley.
The airbeast seemed to be glowing, the sun shining straight down through iridescent skin. It was noon, so she'd been aloft more than six hours. She was well over the Channel by now, the blue vastness sparkling and glittering beneath her, nothing at all like the old depressing Thames. She reckoned she was about a mile or two offshore — not really lost, but not exactly found, either. Deryn clamped down the tiny doubt that had been growing since her small mishap.
The Service lads must be coming from me right now, she told herself. Don't get your knickers up in a bunch.
All the same, she did not fancy a whole day drifting about. All that water and the salty coolness around only served to dehydrate her faster than the blazing sun alone could do, and her throat was absolutely parched. A rather horrible thought of being left marooned in the sky entered her mind, and she shuddered. What a load of clart for a middy's first day, eh?
The breeze brought up some spray from the blue giantess below. "Barking lovely weather," Deryn muttered crossly to herself. Sitting for six hours on the same seat was not very kind on her bum.
That's when the airsacs expanded and contracted again. Deryn felt the same little jolt that woke her up in the first place.
"What now?" she moaned, though she'd have welcomed a flock of birds attacking them, as long as it brought the beastie down. Huxleys are buoyant, so maybe she can even ride the thing like a giant lifeboat until someone came to rescue her. If someone came to rescue her.
Deryn scanned the horizon and saw nothing. But she felt a trembling in the leather cords of her pilot's rig and heard the thrum of engines in the air.
Her eyes widened.
A giant airship was emerging from the thinning clouds behind her, its white fabric glistening with dew. There were none of the tell-tale biomimicked buzz of a Service airship, and when the ship started to gently lower herself, Deryn caught a very slight whiff of mangoes. This was a hydrium airship. Civilian airships were still generally Aruba powered and hydrium-based, and of course the Clankers' war zeppelins stayed the same, but this was no Clanker ship — it was too smooth and too graceful. Deryn has seen her fill of airships from around the world, and immediately she judged this one to be too big for a mail ship or a salvage ship, and too fancy for a cargo ship. It had to be one of those luxury trans-continental hydrium airliners she'd heard about. Only fancy-boots could afford to ride in one of those.
The medusa made an unhappy whistling sound.
"No, beastie. Don't fret!" she called softly. "They're here to help!"
At least, Deryn assumed they were. But why was a civilian vessel grabbing her, instead of one belonging to the Service? Skyways law does dictate that all ships have a responsibility to help any stranded vessel, so she supposed that a free-floating Huxley would count among one of those. She had an uncomfortable feeling that a midshipman-to-be wasn't quite at the top of the Service's list of priorities, and this passenger airliner simply happened upon her earlier than any Service ship could come to help.
She had to admit that the ship was quite something. Pure white and just as big as the Service's largest hydrogen breathers, her bulk parted the clouds like a gentle cleaver. The captain further lowered the ship, and soon the bridge was at Deryn's level.
The drone of the engines calmed, and the airship slowed in her approach. Now less than thirty yards away, Deryn could make out the bold lettering on the airship's flanks — Aurora.
The bridge took up the entire bottom front of the airship, and its large floor-to-ceiling windows offered Deryn a clear view into the ordered chaos so characteristic of airships. She spotted the helmsmen responsible for elevators, the communications officer in front of his sophisticated equipment, and the navigator peering at some charts. A tall fellow she assumed to be the captain was standing at the wheel, talking to his crew. Junior officers ran from station to station, relaying information with short salutes. The flurry of activity continued for about twenty or so more seconds, before the engines completely died down and everyone on the bridge turned their attention to her.
Deryn couldn't help it. She blushed, and did a tentative wave. Seeing this, the captain said something, and his crew burst into laughter. A few of them waved back. The captain strode calmly over to one of the bridge's windows and pushed it open.
"Good afternoon!" he called out to her from the window. They were now no more than twenty feet apart. "This is the Aurora. We spotted you stranded here and came to investigate. You look like you need some help!"
His accent was strange, a lot flatter and somewhat jarring to Deryn's ears, but surprisingly pleasant. Upon closer inspection, Deryn discovered that he was a handsome young man perhaps Jaspert's age, with short chestnut hair and likable blue eyes. A very young captain to be sure, though he was dressed only in a simple white uniform with a familiar insignia at the chest. His white captain's cap seemed no different than those of his crew.
Deryn cleared her throat and nodded.
"Certainly would be appreciated!"
"That's a Huxley, right?"
The captain nodded. "We'll bring you in from topside, then. I can't bring it through the cargo bay and risk it getting spooked."
Deryn nodded obediently, a little impressed. It was clear that the captain, young as he was, was also experienced. He knew about the Huxleys and how to handle them. Deryn reckoned they were about a mile above water, which gave the Aurora plenty of space to maneuver. She watched as the captain returned to his post, and a few short commands later, the ship's engines started once more, and the massive ship rose smoothly away from the Huxley. Initially this got Deryn quite confused, but when a dozen long hemp ropes dropped down by the side of the Huxley, she understood. They were going to tether her to the ship, and then winch her in from the top.
Except the forest of swaying ropes were all kept at bay by the Huxley's bulk, out of Deryn's reach. She was just about to wonder what she should do, when the airship's engine changed pitch, then slowed, then changed pitched again. The ropes moved a bit, like a bunch of confused snakes, and then as the sound got repeated, they started to sway, matching its rhythm.
Deryn was more impressed now.
A few of the ropes swung closer with every change of the engine's pitch — being a passenger airship of this size, Deryn imagined the Aurora probably couldn't sway too quickly, or all of her posh passengers would get sick. She waited patiently until one of the ropes swung close enough to reach, and grabbed on.
There must be people watching her from up there because soon after she grabbed on, the engines returned to normal. A few seconds later, the Aurora appeared again in her view, gracefully descending like a blue whale preparing for a dive. As she passed the bridge, she saw that the captain was by the window again.
"Do you know how to do a sailor's knot?" He called out.
"Tie that rope to your rigging, please."
Deryn nodded, and the captain went back in. By the time she finished tying the knot, the Aurora was beneath her, and she admired the entire length of the airship basking under the noonday sun, the blue of the Channel of Angleterre beneath her. It was a fabulous sight, if only she weren't so eager to get rescued because her bum was practically dying, and she felt like someone who just walked out of the Sahara.
The Aurora had two tiny dome-shaped crow's nest, one in front and one in the back. The other end of her rope was tethered to a winch at the fore crow's nest, and there were two people there now. Deryn gave them the aeronautical sign for "Okay", and they started to reel her in.
The winch went rather fast, and in almost no time she was being helped down her complicated riggings. Turns out these men haven't seen those special Service knots either, so in the end they cut Deryn from the Huxley with small knives. Not that she minded the least bit. A few more crew members appeared, and tied more knots to the Huxley. Some of them were visibly nervous around the beastie, and Deryn wondered if they had ever seen biomimicked fabrications, or if they were monkey luddites. With some help, Deryn stumbled onto the specially treated canvas of the Aurora's topside, and the crew cheered.
"Welcome aboard the Aurora," said one of them.
"Thank you," she replied. The crew managed to tie the Huxley securely to a post, and someone shouted down the speaking tubes. A few seconds later, the Aurora's engines roared, and she started to pick up speed.
Deryn tried to stand up straight, but pain shot down her spine. She wriggled her toes inside Jaspert's boots, trying to erase the pins and needles in her feet.
"Can you stand?" asked another young crewman. "Do you need a hand?"
"I'm fine, just a bit sore."
"How long have you been up there?"
"Six hours," Deryn said, sheepish. "Seven, now."
"Golly! You're with the Air Service, yes?"
"Aye." If a middy-to-be could count. She was sure she'd be recruited, anyway, after surviving this.
"Well in any case, we'll be trying to reach the Service by now. They'll know what to do with you."
"Mr. Roswell," came the captain's voice at the crow's nest's speaking tube. "Could you bring our new guest to the bridge?"
"Right away, sir," Mr. Roswell said. He motioned for Deryn to follow. "Can you climb?"
Deryn wriggled her toes some more. They were still numb, but much better.
"Aye," she said. "Lead the way."
The innards of the Aurora was quite unlike the pictures of the Service's hydrogen breathers. Here, it was just massive bags of hydrium instead of living airsacs, all rustling gently like mango-smelling giants. Mr. Roswell led Deryn through the valley of airsacs, all the way to the bottom where a catwalk stretched into the distance. They followed it like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, and a couple of turns and climbs later, arrived at the Aurora's bridge.
The young captain was talking to one of his officers, but turned around as they entered. He was taller than her — and she was already taller than most sixteen-year-old boys — with a good-spirited grace that almost seemed like a wind in his limbs. He was also quite slender. Now that she got a closer look at his uniform, she could make out the insignia of the airline on his chest.
"Ah, there he is," he said, smiling. He extended his hand, which she shook. "Welcome aboard the Aurora, operated by the Lunardi Line. My name is Matthew Cruse, first officer."
Oh, so he wasn't the captain after all. Deryn was surprised, but realized he was still waiting for her answer.
"Midshipman Dylan Sharp, at your service," she said after clearing her throat.
"Dylan Sharp. Very good. One moment please, Dylan."
He turned around and said a few short orders. Deryn thought he was extraordinarily polite for a sky sailor.
"Mr. Kahlo, could you take the helm please? And Mr. Hill, could you please try to raise the Air Service on radio? We should be in their range. Mr. Chen, engines to stall, please; I suppose we'll just circle the Channel until the Service gets in contact." A frown passed on his face. "I'd think the Service would take better care of their middies. We're on a tight schedule."
"Oh, it was the storm, sir." Deryn felt compelled to defend the Service. "It caught us unawares as I was doing my midshipman's test. The whole morning it stayed in London, sir! Nobody could attempt a rescue mission with the sky like that."
The young man laughed. "I meant no offense, Dylan. Also, I'm not with the Service, you don't need to 'sir' me. In fact, I'm probably not much older than you. You can call me Matt. The storm, huh? I see." He nodded thoughtfully in the direction of London, where the last wisps of the grey swirling clouds was still visible above the sprawling city.
"Aye, sir. I mean, er, Matt." The name sounded strange on her tongue, but Deryn liked how easy-going the young officer was. Some of the sky sailors she's met, including the ones her Da knew, sometimes had attitudes like peacocks. She was glad Mr. Cruse — Matt — was down to earth.
"You said the midshipman's test?"
Deryn blushed. "Aye. I mean, I'm not yet a middy, but I'd like to be."
"I reckon they'll have to let you pass after all this. It's probably the air-sense test that I've heard about, and you have very good air-sense. This is the first time you rode in a Huxley?"
Deryn nodded, her chest puffing up with pride despite herself. Matt looked impressed.
"Very good air-sense indeed." He clapped her on the shoulder. "I wouldn't want to free balloon a Huxley in a storm."
"I had no choice on that part," Deryn said, and they both laughed.
But then as she glanced over his uniform and the neat row of his embroidered name, she realized that she recognized these letters. She blinked and looked at Matt again. Handsome features, short hair, bright eyes, soft brows, and a defined jaw. Yes, she's even seen a few photographs of him.
"Blisters!" she swore. "You're Matt Cruse, aren't you? The bloke who killed Spzirglas and all that! And you were just in that fancy Canadian Space Expedition last year!" That explained the strange accent. "Golly, you're famous!"
Matt appeared surprised, before blushing slightly. "That would be me, yes — though I wouldn't say famous, exactly."
Deryn scoffed. "Oh, you're barking famous alright. According to the paper dispatches, you practically saved the expedition! How was it like in outer space?"
The young man blushed some more, which Deryn thought was funny yet genuine.
"It's just a cold, empty place," Matt replied after coughing a little. "It's beautiful, but also deadly. The skies are still better, in my opinion."
"You know, my brother met you once. Before the whole pirate thing, aye? But half a year later your name popped up in the news and he said, 'I know this fellow!'."
The young man looked confused. "Your brother?"
"Aye. He met you in the North Sea airbase."
"You said you were Dylan Sharp… Sharp… Oh! Could it be Jaspert Sharp?"
"Aye," Deryn said, grinning. "He said you two met when the Aurora requested an emergency refuel because someone couldn't do the numbers."
Matt was smiling now as well. "I remember that. That was our junior navigator, and he had a bit much to drink. Captain Walken was furious. And the Service had almost none of the right equipment so we were left in one of your air bases for a few hours. Your brother and I talked then. Thats how I know about the air sense test, because he was a new middy back then and told me all about his."
"How'd he do?" Deryn wouldn't miss this for the world. She could tease Jaspert with this for ages!
Matt's voice took on a conspiratorial tone. "He confessed he was scared out of his wits. Barely passed, he told me."
"I knew it! That bum-rag, acting all high and mighty!"
Matt chuckled, before frowning a little. "But he told me he had a younger sister."
Deryn almost swore out loud. Damn that clart-headed Jaspert, going on ratting out all the family secrets! Not that she was a secret, but now she certainly was. Deryn Sharp, at least, was a secret. Her mind almost turned into goo as she tried to think of a way to talk herself out of this clart.
"That'd be my, er, cousin. You see, my Da - that is, my uncle died early, so my own Da took Jaspert and his er, sister in, and we grew up together, so I call him my brother." She peered at the young officer, hoping he'd believe it. Matt looked doubtful, but just as he was about to ask another question, his communications officer let out a cry.
"It's the Air Service, sir," he said. "They finally responded. They have a ship doing drills not far from here. They are requesting an aerial transfer."
Matt shrugged. "Looks like more aerial acrobatics for you, Dylan. This does save us both the trouble of landing, though."
Deryn let out a sigh of relief. "Sorry for causing a delay. Where will you be going?"
"New Amsterdaam, and then Lionsgate City. But it's fine — those Americans never care if we're late." He grinned, and turned towards his communications officer. "Where do we meet? Mr. Hill, if you would please tell them our coordinates. Oh, and what type of ship will we be meeting?"
The communications officer nodded and tapped on the device a couple times. He paused, listened for a bit, and nodded, and gaped. He typed a response message, then put down the radio. He shook his head, an excited gleam in his eyes. Deryn wondered what the Service told him.
"Well?" Matt asked, just as curious as she was.
"We'll be meeting a hydrogen breather, sir. Thousand-foot class."
Matt's eyebrows shot up, and Deryn felt her own do the same. "A thousand-foot class? Really? Isn't that about the largest one they've got?"
Mr. Hill nodded. "Yes, sir. They're sending the Leviathan."