Behemoth Page 2

According to wireless broadcasts that Count Volger had overheard, the two ships had been trapped in the Mediterranean at the start of the war. With the British in control of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, there'd been no way for them to get back to Germany. They'd been running for the past week.

Alek knew what it felt like to be hounded, trapped in a fight that someone else had started. But here he was, ready to help the Darwinists send two ships full of living, breathing men to the bottom of the sea.

The vast beast rolled under his feet, the tendrils that covered its flanks undulating like windblown grass, pulling it into a slow turn. Fabricated birds swirled around Alek, some already harnessed and carrying instruments of war.

That was another difference. This time he was fighting side by side with these creatures. Alek had been raised to believe they were godless abominations, but after four days aboard the airship, their squawks and cries had begun to sound natural. Except for the awful flechette bats, fabricated beasts could even seem beautiful.

Was he turning into a Darwinist?

When he reached the spine above the engine pods, Alek headed down the port side ratlines. The airship was tilting into a climb, the sea falling away below him. The ropes were slick with salty air, and as he strained to keep from falling, questions of loyalty fled his mind.

By the time he reached the engine pod, Alek was soaked in sweat and wishing he hadn't worn fencing armor.

Otto Klopp was at the controls, his Hapsburg Guard uniform looking tattered after six weeks away from home. Beside him stood Mr. Hirst, the Leviathan's chief engineer, who was studying the roaring machine with a measure of distaste. Alek had to admit, churning pistons and spitting glow plugs looked bizarre beside the undulating flank of the airbeast, like gears attached to a butterfly's wings.

"Master Klopp," Alek shouted over the roar. "How's she running?"

The old man looked up from the controls. "Smoothly enough, for this speed. Do you know what's going on?"

Of course, Otto Klopp spoke hardly any English. Even if a message lizard had brought the news up to the pod, he wouldn't know why the airship was changing course. All he'd seen were color codes flashed from the bridge to the signal patch, orders to be obeyed.

"We've spotted two German ironclads." Alek paused - had he said "we" again? "The ship is giving chase."

Klopp frowned, chewing on the news for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, the Germans haven't done us any favors lately. But it's also true, young master, that we could blow a piston at any time."

Alek looked away into the spinning gears. The newly rebuilt engines were still cantankerous, with unexpected problems always cropping up. The crew would never know if a temporary breakdown were intentional.

But this was no time to betray their new allies.

For all the talk of Alek saving the Leviathan, the airship had really saved him. His father's plan had been for Alek to hide in the Swiss Alps for the entire war, emerging only to reveal his secret - that he was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The airship's crash landing had rescued him from long years of skulking in the snow.

He owed the Darwinists for saving him, and for trusting his men to run these engines.

"Let's hope that doesn't happen, Otto."

"As you say, sir."

"Anything wrong?" Mr. Hirst asked.

Alek switched to English. "Not at all. Master Klopp says she's running smoothly. I believe Count Volger is assigned to the starboard engine crew. Shall I stay here and translate for you two?"

The chief engineer handed Alek a pair of goggles to protect his eyes from sparks and wind. "Please do. We wouldn't want any ... misunderstandings in the heat of battle."

"Of course not." Alek pulled on the goggles, wondering if Mr. Hirst had noticed Klopp's hesitation. As the airship's chief engineer, Hirst was a rare Darwinist with an understanding of machines. He always watched Klopp's work on the Clanker engines with admiration, even though the two didn't share a language. There was no point in arousing his suspicions now.

Hopefully this battle would be over quickly, and they could head on to Constantinople without delay.

As night fell, two dark slivers came into view on the horizon.

"The little one's not much to look at," Klopp said, lowering his field glasses.

Alek took the glasses and peered through them. The smaller ironclad was already damaged. One of its gun turrets had been blackened by a fire, and an oil slick spread in the ship's wake, a shimmering black rainbow in the setting sun.

"They've been in a fight already?" he asked Mr. Hirst.

"Aye, the navy's been hunting them all over the Mediterranean. They've been shelled a few times from a distance, but they keep slipping away." The man smiled. "But they won't escape this time."

"They certainly can't outrun us," Alek said. The Leviathan had closed a gap of sixty kilometers in a few hours.

"And they can't fight back either," Mr. Hirst said. "We're too high for them to hit. All we have to do is slow them down. The navy's already on its way."

A boom rang out on the spine above, and a swarm of black wings lifted from the front of the airship.

"They're sending in flechette bats first," Alek said to Klopp.

"What sort of godless creature is that?"

"They eat spikes," was all Alek could say. A shudder passed through him.

The swarm began to muster, forming a black cloud in the air. Searchlights sprang to life on the gondola, and as the sunlight faded, the bats gathered in the beams like moths.

The Leviathan had lost countless beasts in her recent battles, but the airship was slowly repairing itself. More bats were already breeding, like a forest recovering after a long hunting season. The Darwinists called the ship an "ecosystem."

From a distance there was something mesmerizing about the way the dark swarm swirled in the searchlights. It coiled toward the smaller ironclad, ready to unleash its rain of metal spikes. Most of the crew would be safe beneath armor plating, but the men at the smaller deck guns would be torn to pieces.

"Why start with bats?" Alek asked Hirst. "Flechettes won't sink an ironclad."

"No, but they'll shred her signal flags and wireless aerials. If we can keep the two ships from communicating, they're less likely to split up and make a run for it."

Alek translated for Klopp, who pointed a finger into the distance. "The big one's coming about."

Alek raised the field glasses again, taking a moment to find the larger ship's silhouette against the darkening horizon. He could just read the name on her side - the Goeben looked far more formidable than her companion. She had three big gun turrets and a pair of gyrothopter catapults, and the shape of her wake revealed a set of kraken-fighting arms beneath the surface.

On her aft deck stood something strange - a tall tower that bristled with metal rigging, like a dozen wireless transmitters crammed together.

"What's that on her back side?" Alek asked.

Klopp took the glasses and stared. He'd worked with German forces for years, and usually had a lively opinion on military matters. But now he frowned, his voice hesitant.

"I'm not sure. Reminds me of a toy I once saw ..." Klopp squeezed the glasses tighter. "She's launching a gyrothopter!"

A small shape hurtled into the air from one of the catapults. It banked hard and came whirring toward the bats.

"What's he up to?" Klopp asked softly.

Alek watched with a frown on his face. Gyrothopters were fragile machines, barely strong enough to lift a pilot. They were designed for scouting, not attack. But the little aircraft was headed straight at the cloud of bats, its twin rotors spinning wildly.

As it neared the fluttering swarm, the gyrothopter suddenly kindled in the darkness. Bolts of flame shot from its front end, a spray of brilliant crimson fireworks that stretched across the sky.

Alek remembered something that Dylan had said about the bats - they were deathly afraid of red light; it scared the spikes right out of them.

The stream of fire tore through the swarm, scattering bats in all directions. Seconds later the cloud had disappeared, like a black dandelion in a puff of wind.

The gyrothopter tried to veer away, but was caught beneath a wave of fleeing bats. Alek could see flechettes falling, glittering in the searchlights, and the gyrothopter began to shudder in midair. The blades of its rotors tore and crumpled, their remaining energy twisting the delicate frame into wreckage.

Alek watched as the flying machine tumbled from the sky, disappearing in a small white splash on the ocean's dark surface. He wondered if its unlucky pilot had survived the flechettes long enough to feel the water's cold.

The Leviathan's searchlights still swept across the sky, but the swarm was too scattered to resume the attack. Small fluttering shapes were already streaming back toward the airship.

Klopp lowered his glasses. "The Germans have some new tricks, it seems."

"They always do," Alek managed, staring at the ripples spreading out from where the gyrothopter had crashed.

"Orders coming in," Mr. Hirst said, pointing at the signal patch. It had turned blue, the sign to slow the engine. Klopp adjusted the controls, giving Alek a questioning look.

"Are we giving up the attack?" Alek asked in English.

"Of course not," Mr. Hirst said. "Just changing course. I reckon we'll ignore the Breslau for now and go after the big one. Just to make sure that other gyrothopter doesn't trouble us with those sparklers."

Alek listened to the thrum of the ship for a moment. The starboard engine was still running high, pushing the Leviathan into a slow turn toward the Goeben. The battle wasn't over yet. More men would die tonight.

He looked back at the whirling gears of the engine. Klopp could halt them in a dozen subtle ways. One word from Alek would be enough to stop this battle.

But he'd promised Dylan to fight loyally. And after throwing away his hiding place, his Stormwalker, and his father's gold to make these Darwinists allies, it seemed absurd to betray them now.

He knew Count Volger would agree. As heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Alek had a duty to survive. And survival in an enemy camp didn't start with mutiny.

"What happens next?" he asked Hirst.

The chief engineer took the field glasses from Klopp. "We won't waste any more time tearing up their signal flags, that's for certain. We'll probably go straight in with aerial bombs. A gyrothopter can't stop those."

"We're going to bomb them," Alek translated for Klopp. "They're defenseless."

The man just nodded, adjusting the controls. The signal patch was turning red again. The Leviathan had found her course.

Chapter Three

It took long minutes to close the final distance to the Goeben.

The ship's big guns boomed once, spilling fire and smoke into the night sky. But Mr. Hirst was right - the shells flew well beneath the Leviathan, erupting into white columns of water kilometers away.

As the Leviathan drew closer, Alek watched the German ship through the field glasses. Men scrambled across the ironclad's decks, hiding her small guns under what looked like heavy black tarps. The coverings shone dully in the last flickers of sunset, like plastic or leather. Alek wondered if they were made of some new material strong enough to stop flechettes.

But no plastic could stop high explosives.

The men on the ironclad hardly seemed worried, though. No lifeboats were readied, and the second gyrothopter stayed on its catapult, the rotors strapped down against the wind. Soon it too was veiled with a glossy black covering.

"Young master," Klopp said, "what's happening on her aft deck?"

Alek swung the field glasses, and saw lights flickering atop the ironclad's strange metal tower.

He squinted harder. There were men working at the tower's base, dressed in uniforms made from the same shiny black that covered the deck guns. They moved slowly, as if encased in a fresh layer of tar.

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