Aboard the Belle Marie

As soon as she was relieved by another crewman, Cornelia swung out of the control room and strode down the axial corridor to the passenger quarters. Before she made it to his room, however, she came across Harold Ikonov in the corridor.

"Well, we're under way, professor," she said.

"Please, call me Harold," said Ikonov.

"As you wish," said Cornelia. "However, our departure was somewhat expedited due to unforeseen events. I had meant to spend some time in the chart room before we took off, but it appears circumstances did not allow for that. So will you please accompany me to the chart room now? We need to get a heading."

Barely waiting for his nod of assent, Cornelia hurried back down the corridor in the direction of the chart room. The corridor of the Belle Marie was a cramped space at the best of times, made only more crowded by the presence of frantic crew members darting along its length to check pressure gauges and take readings on the gas bags.

"So, who is this Lord Alastair we now seem to be fleeing from?"  Cornelia inquired conversationally as she led Ikonov down the aluminum corridor.

"Oh, an acquaintance of mine," said Ikonov evasively. "I suspect he may have gotten wind of the book and perhaps now intends to follow us."

"Why is it that no job ever ends up as simple as it first looks?" Cornelia groaned as she whipped out her lipstick from the pocket of her coat and applied an extra layer to her lips. Some thought her needlessly vain for her seemingly insatiable addiction to her cosmetics, but the lipstick had been a habit she had developed when she was a still a budding aviator and forced into long shifts at the open-air observation posts on top of the airship. Lipstick, she had learned, helped to protect against chafing when the ship was flying through the cold air at one hundred kilometers per hour. Now, thankfully, Cornelia spent much more time in the ship than on top of it, but she found her lips looked oddly colorless without lipstick, and she often put it on unconsciously, particularly when she was nervous.

They had reached the chart room, a tiny space barely large enough to lie down in, which housed little more than a table and several chests stowed underneath it that held maps, charts, and all manner of cortographical instruments. There was one small window, which admitted a modest amount of light through its scratched and grimy pane, and a visiscope for star observation was clamped to the narrow sill.

Cornelia and Ikonov squeezed into the room. Cornelia immediately turned to the professor.

"So, I need to know where we're going, Harold. Currently we're drifting at a lazy twenty kilometers per hour, heading —" Cornelia consulted the compass-cum-altimeter that was bolted to the wall, "— due east at an altitude of one hundred and fifty meters. The big question, however, is where to next?"

"Well, that's easy," said Ikonov. "For now, it's just to Paris. After some months of badgering and cajoling, a friend of mine has agreed to assist us on this expedition. And we could certainly use his services. The man's a genius — he speaks about two dozen languages, most importantly more than one dialect of ancient Greek."

"Fine, but docking expenses were not part of my contract," Cornelia stated flatly.

"No, I fully intend to cover that," Ikonov assured her.

Cornelia breathed a sigh of relief. Paris would be a cinch; just a quick float across the Anglish Channel. She bent down, rummaged beneath the table, and pulled out an armful of maps and atlases, intending to plot a course for Paris. Ikonov stepped aside and turned his attention to the vast expanse of the cloud-studded cerulean sky out of the window.

"Miss Harper," he said after a moment, "sorry to disturb you, but what are those things flying toward us, and are they supposed to be coming so close?"

With an annoyed grunt, Cornelia spat out the protractor she had been holding between her teeth and dropped the bundle of charts on the table. She glanced out of the window and her heart skipped a beat as she saw something fast and dark swerve by the window very close. Ikonov ducked reflexively, but Cornelia shoved him aside and pressed her face to the glass in time to see the tangled mass of wings and propellers that was an ornithopter flapping away. What the devil was it doing so close to another airship?

She put her eyes to the binocular lenses of the visiscope and scanned the skies. She angled the visiscope toward the hangar that jutted like a bloated whale out of the smoggy jumble of London buildings and instantly spotted the large, black airship rising from it.

"Damn!" she cursed. "It's pirates! I was afraid of this. Oh, I am going to kill Lucien if I can ever get my hands around his skinny neck!"

Suddenly, the tinny sound of Johnson's voice came bouncing in through the speaking tube in the ceiling.

"Captain Harper, I'm getting a radio message from a certain Lord Geoffry Alastair. He says he requests that you respond immediately. He says bad things could happen if you don't."

The End

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