The sootie cried out and fell dead.
The man who had shot him raised a speaking tube to his mouth and shouted through it, loud enough for Sophronia to hear. Even though the leaking helium caused his voice to squeak, there was no mistaking the menace in his words. He sounded like a very angry mouse.
“And the same to any others who run. Now, you six, finish the repairs. The rest of you, prepare the fizz tube. We’re bringing in helium. Greasers, you’re with the boiler contingent. Don’t even think about plotting to countermand my orders. You work for us now, or you die, simple as that. Prepare the boilers to burn up. I’m with you to keep you on track. Do as ordered and you may even be rewarded for your troubles. Now move!”
The sooties—street-smart and blood-wary—did as instructed.
The man with the speaking tube vanished below. The two others stood firm, weapons at the ready to ensure no others broke for freedom. No other sootie tried.
The six chosen sooties dutifully finished up repairs and assembled amidships, shoulders hunched and movements cautious.
Sophronia wanted to go to the fallen boy on the moor, but she did not doubt the Pickleman’s aim. The boy’s path had no cover under the moonlight. That poor lad was likely beyond what little aid she could offer. The living needed her now.
She continued toward the ship. The men with the guns were focused inward, concerned with holding prisoners, not checking for possible infiltration.
Sophronia ended up directly below the aft section with the propeller and its lone smokestack above her. It was odd to see the airship so near the ground. The bottom part of the propeller almost touched the heather. Above her was the hold storage area, with the glass platform she’d ridden up the first time she came to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. That platform was locked into place, and there was no other point of entry.
She turned her attention to the middle section, the lowest level of which was where mechanicals were stored and serviced. The kitchens were above that. This section had a loading bay with massive doors that opened like a cellar’s. Manned by mechanicals, these were too heavy for one person to push open. However, along the side between this and the hold, servicing the kitchen and dining hall above, ran a tube of dumbwaiters. There were rungs on the outside of the tubes, because the waiters often required maintenance. Sophronia shot out her hurlie at the lowest rung. She pulled back to get a grip and then climbed up. The incoming flywaymen were out of sight, and she was shielded from view by the bulk of the ship.
If the sooties had been ordered to prep the boilers, then her assessment of the situation was correct—the Picklemen wanted to kidnap the school. The incoming ships must be intending to provide cargo and crew. She would also lay very good odds that they intended to cannibalize the helium they needed from those balloons to reinflate the school’s.
She didn’t need to watch it happen. Soon as she could, she pulled out a hairpin and picked the lock of a maintenance hatch at the top of the dumbwaiter tube. It was relatively easy to climb down the inside. It was the right size for a girl bracing herself back and forth, although her wide skirts—even tucked up—gave the tube a thorough cleaning. Her climb was more an undignified waddle, but no one was watching. She felt that the kitchen was the best access point, since it was likely abandoned. Picklemen would think it beneath them to congregate in such a menial area.
The kitchen was indeed empty.
Sophronia found a small knife and, cursing her lack of pockets, fed it to Bumbersnoot. She filched a few apples, some bread, and a wedge of hard cheese, which she wrapped in her handkerchief, attaching it to her chatelaine. Lady Linette was very firm on the matter of nicking food. “A lady must always be prepared. Snacks are an essential part of espionage.”
Sophronia used the stairs out of the kitchen, emerging into the middle-level hallway. This was the section with the assembly deck and drop-down staircase, as well as some of the bigger classrooms.
It was quiet enough to be unnerving. This area was normally crowded with students, teachers, human staff, and mechanicals. People rushed from tumbling class, or stage-to-street performance lessons, or flowerpot transplanting and tossing practice. Now there was nothing but empty stillness. Even the mechanicals were missing. Her obstructor was entirely unnecessary.
She heard the boilers start up—the airship was once again fully upright.
Sophronia sniffed the air and caught no lingering smell of gas. She kept out her obstructor just in case, and moved through the school on silent feet. There was a faint lifting sensation, and a quick glance out a porthole showed the moor retreating. It also showed three grounded flywayman ships with flaccid balloons. All of their helium had been transferred to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s.
Should I check on the sooties or go see what is happening in the pilot’s bubble? Do I try to find Mademoiselle Geraldine, or should I assume she’s been taken hostage? And what about Professor Braithwope? Sophronia was overwhelmed with options. Lady Linette’s voice rang through her head.
Never enter a situation, social or strategic, without understanding the personnel and protocols in place. In other words, it is always better to know the state, color, and number of handkerchiefs in a room before you blow anyone’s nose.
Sophronia took that to heart, partly because it gave her an objective. First she would search the airship, count the number of Picklemen and flywaymen on board, and note their positions. She’d already seen the three with guns, and two of those were still up on the squeak decks. If she were in charge, she’d keep them as lookouts. The third was down in the boiler room. There had to be someone in charge of the infiltration, and he’d want a command chair. Would he station himself near the pilot’s bubble or on a squeak deck? No, safer somewhere inside the ship. He’d need at least three runners to carry orders to the others. Then there were probably two in the pilot’s bubble. Plus an assorted number of heavy lifters—bully boys. They’d have to spread out, with one to keep an eye on the headmistress and another to track Professor Braithwope. That was a lot of men to account for. Sophronia estimated a total—she wouldn’t take on a ship of this size without at least a dozen men.
Now let’s find out if I’m right.
She felt the propeller crank up. That meant they had one Pickleman and half a dozen sooties working the auxiliary propulsion boilers. It also meant they were now high enough up to start the guidance system.
Sophronia dove into a classroom and out onto a balcony to see. Somehow she wasn’t surprised to find they were heading toward London. And they weren’t doing so under steam cover. The Picklemen didn’t care that they would be seen by every small town they floated over. The secret of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s airship school wasn’t going to be a secret much longer.
If the Picklemen had any major cargo, it would be stashed in the hold with the glass elevator. Sophronia decided to check that first. She nipped around the dumbwaiters and down the access stairs. At the door, she put her ear to the jamb and heard minor thudding. She pushed it open a crack.
The hold was full of mechanimals. Bumbersnoot, passive until that moment, began upticking his tail in interest. His alarm did not sound, and he showed no particular eagerness to be put down to go to his compatriots. But he certainly was aware of them.
Sophronia’s stomach sank and her cheeks tingled. These were no small dachshund-shaped creatures. These were huge monsters, similar to the massive mechanimal she had encountered in her mother’s gazebo the night of Petunia’s ball. They bore little resemblance to any specific creature, looking more like wingless gargoyles. The hold was crammed with them. One squatted, as though waiting, on the glass lift. They did not move, but they looked like they could at any moment.