[identity profile] copperbadge.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] originalsam_backup
Chapter Fourteen

They skirted the coast that night and passed Port Darwin, sitting at the inner curl of a peninsula like a barb on a hook, brilliant in the darkness. Jack slept with reasonable confidence that Purva would awaken him at sunrise to begin the final descent to land, and that he could do so without too much fuss.

Instead, he found himself woken by Clare, her eyes wide and scared, wet hair straggling in her face. Water dripped off the eaves of the coal room; through the wide doorway he could see flashes of light in the sky.

"Jack, it's a storm," she said. He heard Graveworthy snort awake. "Purva says we can't go above it or around it, not if we want to land properly."

"Purva's at the yoke?" he asked, sliding off the bunk as she nodded.

Above him, in the other bunk, Graveworthy pushed himself up on his elbows. "Storm, Jack?"

"I'll take the chair," Jack answered, shrugging into his coat and reaching for a proper pair of trousers to slide on over his pajamas. "Might as well get up; we'll have some rough work getting to land."

"I await orders," Graveworthy said, fumbling for a shirt. Jack ventured out from the scant protection of the coal shed and into the steadily pouring rain. The deck was slick, puddles reflecting fire back to him whenever lightning split the clouds. Port Darwin was a blurred dot aft of them as he climbed the steps to take over piloting from Purva. She looked like she was enjoying herself; she gave up the seat reluctantly.

"Winter in Great Britain is summer in Australia," Graveworthy called, appearing barefoot but decent on the deck below. "This is a summer storm, lad!"

"Better than a winter one!" Jack said, checking the pressure on the balloon and giving the release valve another quarter-turn. "Find somewhere to hang on if we hit any bumps. Purva, on the rail, I need a place to put down. Clare, stand by on the gas, I can't steer and do that at the same time. Graveworthy -- "

A rough gust of wind hit the airship, jolting Jack sideways in the chair. Graveworthy stumbled and skidded across the deck, crashing into Clare and sending them both sprawling.

"Graveworthy, try to keep your feet," Jack called.

"Sod you, Baker!" Graveworthy retorted, helping Clare up and gripping the rail as another blast of humid air rocked the ship. Jack pulled the control lever for the steam, following the coast and the direction of the wind.

"De la Fitte!"

"Ahead starboard, a stretch of beach," she said, clinging with both hands, the leather strap of the spyglass tight over her hair.

Jack wrestled with the yoke, almost losing grip as he tried to turn. If he inched it along he could get the ship closer to shore, but he suspected they'd run out of shore before he could land properly in this wind.

"Graveworthy, the boiler," he ordered, and heard the crunch and clank as the older man began to pile coal into the steam engine. He could barely see, between the darkness and the storm, except for when the door opened and Graveworthy's shadow shoved the coal inside. The beach was a white stripe in the gloom, nothing more.

"Cut the helium," he said to Clare, still trying to get the boat over the sand.

Clare threw her weight against the wheel and reached for the small brass spigot that would begin draining the gas directly from the balloon.

"Coming fast! Cut engines!" Purva shouted.

"I can't! We'll be blown back out!" Jack said, as the sandy beach began to grow larger at an alarming rate. "Maybe we should ride it out!"

"Too late. Come on, Jack!" Clare answered.

"I can't reverse the propellers," Jack grunted, as the airship slid directly over land. Even as he said it, however, he realized that he could.

"Oh God," he said. "Everyone on deck, get into the coal shed. Brace against something. Now! Ellis, grab Purva!"

Graveworthy caught the pirate by the waist and dragged her, protesting, into the shed after Clare. Jack felt a single solid thump against the boards beneath his feet and hoped it was a signal they were ready.

"Hold on!" he shouted, and opened wide on the port-side propeller, closing the starboard completely. The Clare Fields groaned and creaked, but it began to pivot, turning into the wind, still falling slowly towards the beach. Jack gritted his teeth, grateful for the straps holding him in, until the ship was perpendicular to the current of the wind. When it was just past the ninety-degree point he shut down the port propeller and fired the other one, turning them backwards, the prow now facing towards Port Darwin, engine straining against the storm.

With both propellers working against the wind the ship slowed slightly, though the sand still raced past below them at an alarming rate. Now the waves were on his right and the treeline on his left; every time he tried to steer he had to do it backwards, fighting the wind all the way. He shut his eyes and fired one last blast to slow them as the treeline leveled with his vision and the airship touched down.

There was a crunch and a jerk like a hand shoving him forward in the seat, the straps suddenly against his chest, restricting his breathing. He was just beginning to see sparks dancing on the edge of his vision when the roaring noise stopped and he heaved backward, sucking in a chestful of air. The sudden stillness of the windswept landscape felt strange and silent after so many days moving with the motion of the airship.

Ever so slowly, a giant fold of silk billowed past his head, lightly brushing his hair, and the giant balloon that was the pride of the Clare Fields began to collapse on the sand next to the ship.

"Clare?" Jack called, hands shaking as he unbuckled himself. "Purva? Graveworthy? Anyone hurt?"

"All fine," came a strangled reply from Clare. Jack stood and made for the stairs, but the sight from the top of the pilot's deck stopped him. Ahead of the bow, pointing back towards Darwin, was a trench of displaced sand easily half a mile long where the ship had skidded before stopping. He looked down and found that the sand had built up around the stern as they went, holding it up now that it was on dry land, effectively locking it in place.

Then there were footsteps on the deck and Clare appeared at the railing, leaning over just in time to be sick on the sand below. She was followed more slowly by Purva, eyes big as saucers, and Graveworthy, holding a wet and bloody handkerchief to his head.

"Very well done," he said faintly, turning to look up at Jack before approaching Clare at the railing. "All right, Clare?"

"Fine now," she answered sheepishly, as Jack came down the stairs. She hugged him so tight he almost suffocated again. "We're not dead!"

"Praise Creation," Graveworthy said drily, wincing as he dabbed the handkerchief along a stream of blood running down his forehead, past his nose. "Well done, Jack."

Purva pulled herself over the railing and dropped to the sand below, stumbling down the drift.

"I will make fast the balloon," she shouted at them.

"You'll never manage on your own," Jack shouted back. "I'll come down! You, stay there," he said to Graveworthy, who was getting one leg over the railing. "Clare, make him stay until he stops bleeding. What did you do to yourself?"

"Fell on a helium tank," Graveworthy muttered, looking mortified. "I'm fine, Jack."

"You'll bleed on the balloon. Purva and I can do it. Get inside in the dry and don't give me any backtalk," Jack said sharply. Graveworthy grinned.

"Yes, Captain," he said, ducking into the coal shed and collapsing onto a bunk. Clare followed, pulling up a box to sit on and taking the handkerchief from him to help clean the wound above his ear.

The wind and the driving rain didn't do them any favors as they tried to spread and weigh down the enormous folds of silk, Jack shouting that it had to be dried before it could be stowed. There were plenty of stones to hold down the ropes but spreading it out took effort and by the time they were finished he was sweating, even with Clare eventually joining the work.

He was tying the last knot to the last stone when Graveworthy dropped to the sand. He was pale and there was a wide red slash on his left temple, but it didn't look deep and he walked no more unsteadily than the rest of them.

"The storm's passing on," he said, looking up at the sky. "Sunrise on its way, too."

"Good; dries the silk," Purva observed.

Jack hadn't even noticed the line of pale light on the eastern horizon, or the fact that it was a lot easier to see than it had been when they'd landed. The rain had disappeared, and the air was warm. He rested one fist against the hull of his airship, watching the sunrise grow brighter, and felt a hand on his shoulder.

"You did it," Graveworthy said, looking into the sunrise. "You built the ship and got it in the air and flew it to Australia, Jack. I can't say how proud I am of you."

"Wasn't just me," Jack said.

"That doesn't make me an ounce less proud," Graveworthy replied. He shook Jack's shoulder lightly before releasing it. "Come along. I'm dying for a proper bath."

Jack stripped off his shirt as they walked towards the water's edge, confident his trousers couldn't get any wetter and not quite willing to be that immodest in front of the women. He dove into the surf gleefully, rinsing off the sand and sweat from the landing. Graveworthy eased himself in slowly, keeping his head well above water except for a brief wetting which left him wincing, the cut opening again. When Clare called out to demand a turn, they emerged regretfully and Jack helped hoist Ellis back into the ship.

Ellis stoked the boiler to cook breakfast over, both of them carefully avoiding looking at the shoreline as Clare and Purva splashed and shrieked happily. By the time the women came ashore, the men were nearly dry.

"D'you think we're safe here?" Jack asked, casting a look around. "It seems pretty remote, but ships coming from the east might see."

"Probably assume we're a shipwreck," Graveworthy answered. "I wouldn't leave any family heirlooms lying around in case some two-legged scavengers do show up, but nobody's going to be able to shift the ship. We're pretty far up the beach, too; it'll blend in well with the trees."

"What about your notebooks?" Clare asked.

"They're reasonably safe. Who's going to steal a load of filled-up notebooks? I can't haul them about with me."

"But if they do get stolen..."

"I can write it all again," Graveworthy shrugged. "They're far less incriminating where they are."

"Do we walk to Darwin today?" Jack asked.

"If you're up to it, once we've dried a bit more and stowed the silk. From here I make it perhaps two days, actually." He looked around him, from the deep blue water to the tangle of underbrush at the treeline. "Quite amazing, all this. Untouched wilderness. It's not so different from your American west, actually. Philosophically, I mean."

"Here he goes," Clare said, smiling at him.

"I mean it. Aside from the old coastal cities, which in Australia are still very young themselves, what you have is a vast stretch of wilderness, wholly natural, with all the horror that nature brings to the table when she dines."

"You make it sound like we'll barely survive," Clare said.

"Oh, I'm sure we will, at least the journey to Port Darwin. From there we won't have to struggle with anything more lethal than a train carriage, I hope. My point is that this is a young country in an old land. And those who don't walk with respect in the wilderness do have a tendency to get eaten."

"I am not afraid," Purva declared.

"That's what worries me," Jack heard Graveworthy mutter.

***

They left the beach where they'd landed just after mid-day, Ellis with an embarrassing bandage tied round his head and everyone packing food and other essentials out of the airship. Jack had camouflaged it as best he could with the light, flexible greenstick branches he found at the treeline after he'd finished stowing the dried silk.

Jack wasn't concerned with what was in the ship but rather the ship's engines and fittings; Ellis supposed an itinerant engineer might be tempted to scavenge for parts, but he didn't think it very likely. All of the intelligence he and Anderson had gathered said that Darwin was an exile town, far-off from any major habitation, and not a place where tramps and wanderers tended to travel.

The air on the coast was humid, but there was a breeze blowing along the beach which kept them reasonably refreshed until the afternoon, when another storm dropped down on them from nowhere and soaked them all for hours. Eventually Jack, who had been walking with Purva, caught up with Ellis.

"This isn't the adventure I signed on for, Graveworthy," he said, amused.

"Well, you won't melt," Ellis replied. "How are Clare and Purva?"

"Purva's got waterproof skin, I swear. She doesn't seem like she feels it at all. Clare's glad she brought trousers."

"Can't really picture them picking their way along in dresses, can you?" Ellis asked.

"Well, I can, but I can't tell them that," Jack grinned, slicking wet hair back from his face. "What happens when we reach town?"

"Port Darwin's a military garrison; my job is to find out how the shipments are sorted and distributed, and what the weak points are. How many are stationed there, that sort of thing. Basic information, but difficult to acquire without drawing attention. From there, we'll take a shipment train to Brisbane, which will probably be unpleasant but not unbearable."

"And what do you do in Brisbane?" Jack asked. Ellis smiled.

"That's my own business, I'm afraid. I'll want de la Fitte with me, but I think Clare will need you more than I."

"To help find her parents."

"There's a lot she'll want to learn in a short amount of time, I imagine. I shall have to speak with her about it before we part ways."

"About what?"

"Well, she isn't supposed to be here, any more than you or I or de la Fitte. What would she say to them? What will they do? I can't have her jeopardizing my work, Jack, you must see that."

"You want to bring her this far and not even..." Jack looked at him, outrage in his face. Ellis sighed.

"You can't know how her parents will treat her. From what we've heard..." Ellis glanced away from Jack, remembering the stories. Anderson had been the one to collect those, mainly, and sometimes he came back to London from his interviews with dark, hard eyes and a set jaw. "Some families had to have their children ripped from their arms. Others wouldn't go near a child who'd shown they could Create. Perhaps one or two hid the ability and there are Creationists out there, but they aren't trained and they probably live in fear. It's more likely that her parents would welcome her, but if they repudiate her they're also going to wonder why she's here. We have to be ready to bolt northwards again if we're uncovered."

Jack was silent; Ellis inhaled, trying to make his point clearly. "Clare's a sensible woman; she'll understand what's at stake, but sometimes the heart overrides the mind."

"Maybe once in a while it should," Jack murmured rebelliously. "Sometimes I think you think too much, Graveworthy."

"I think too much? Jack, have you heard yourself talk about machines?"

"That's machines," Jack said placidly. "Machines always have a yes-or-no answer. If you study a machine long enough you can always find out what you need to know."

"Aha," Ellis said. "Whereas if you study a person long enough..."

"No guarantees," Jack said.

"That's what makes them so interesting," Ellis said, and forestalled any reply Jack may have made by stopping and turning, waiting for Clare and Purva to join them. "This is as far as we go tonight. There's some reasonable shelter in the trees. We'll press on to Port Darwin tomorrow."

"Ships are better," Purva announced, slinging her pack down under a dense-woven canopy of branches that dripped but at least didn't drench. "Walking is for peasants."

"We've had good skies pretty much the whole way from England," Clare said, sitting down across from her at the base of a tree trunk. Jack flopped down between them; Ellis leaned against the tree and listened. "We can't really complain too much now."

"Speak for yourself. I can complain a lot," Jack said. "Not a very hospitable place so far, don't you think?"

"You'll feel better for a fire and some hot food," Ellis said, kicking at the green twigs underfoot.

"Which you are not making," Clare said, tugging on his sleeve until he sat next to her. "We're younger than you and none of us cut our heads open today. Jack?"

"You're lucky I like you," Jack said, pushing himself up and wandering around the small, damp patch of ground, looking for burnable wood. He picked at a strip of bark hanging off one of the trees and found it cracked away; Ellis watched as he stripped the bark down and broke it into chips, tossing them into a pile. Purva gathered a handful of sticks and threw them on as well.

"Clare, if you would," Ellis said, gesturing at the growing pile of kindling. She leaned forward, her lips open slightly in concentration, and held her hands over the would-be fire. It steamed and smoked, but didn't light. After a while she sat back.

"It's pretty wet," she said. "It might take a while."

"Here," he offered, leaning forward and plucking up one of the bark-chips, absently picturing it alight. "Try just lighting one -- " he broke off as the tip of the bark flared to life.

Clare looked at him through the flame. He frowned. "Did you do that?"

"No," she said. "Did you?"

Jack, still gathering sticks, was frozen a few feet away. Purva watched both of them intently. Ellis tossed the bark onto the sticks, where it smoldered, and picked up another piece. He frowned, concentrating, and saw flame flicker up on it.

"Are you immune?" Clare asked, taking the bark from him before the fire burned his fingers. Purva lit a twig with it and began poking it into the kindling.

"The odds against it are very high," Ellis said. "There are records of the loss sometimes taking a while -- the first prisoners took days to lose their abilities. That's probably it," he said, disliking how uncertain he sounded.

"Who cares?" Purva asked pragmatically. Jack carefully placed a few more handfuls of fuel on the tinder and sat down, elbows-on-knees, to watch it crackle to life.

"Must be decent hunting around here," Ellis offered, after a few moments of silence. "Shame we haven't got any fresh meat. I'm getting tired of -- "

" -- dried everything?" Clare asked with a half-smile.

"Something like that. I'm not a bad shot, when sufficiently motivated, but I imagine the fire will scare everything off." Ellis looked up into the trees as Jack rummaged in his pack and began removing food to heat over the burgeoning flame. It was nights like these that had provided him his best stories from the others; there was such a vastness of space that it made a person lonely, and lonely people wanted to talk.

"Tell us a story," Clare said, as if she'd read his mind.

"Tell me one," he answered, smiling at her.

"I haven't got any."

"Oh, well then, let me see. Something cheerful, I think; take our minds off the damp, eh?"

He spoke long into the evening, watching as first Purva and then Jack dropped off to sleep under makeshift blankets made of clothing, heads pillowed on their packs. He talked until he was practically asleep himself, mouth still moving but the sound drifting away from his ears, Clare's small movements proof that she hadn't yet succumbed. He could feel the dark creeping up on him, but he wasn't sure when he stopped speaking. Or even if he did.

He slipped into the fever with hardly a moment spent to wonder when the world had gone strange and dim.

Chapter Fifteen
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