Hawthorne breathed deep of the damp air, tasting the acrid tang of the smoke now streaming from the stacks; felt the wind on his face and knew briefly what it was to be alive in the way Grimley and the others lived. He could feel the beat of the engine's pistons through the soles of his boots, like the thud of a great beast's heart. The deck moved, always in motion, tilting slightly as Grimley put the Maria into a slow, wide, glorious turn around the dark bulk of Heathrow, and all of London was spread out before him.
Winding his arm into the shrouding, he leant far out over the quarterdeck railing and drank in the sight of it. A dark mass of close-packed houses drifted by under the curved keel of the gondola, separated by narrow streets that still flickered with night lights. The city stretched for miles, bisected by the winding silver ribbon of the Thames. The river was still very much the lifeblood of the city, despite the growing numbers of skyships that plied the skies. Already the working boats were putting out from the docks along the curved shore, skiffs and pilot boats spreading canvas as they headed down river or tacked up beyond London, barges and longboats looking almost like pond skaters as they crept out towards fat-bellied merchantmen and tall, powerful men o’ war lying at anchor in the deep channels further downriver.
Benedict let his gaze follow the bends of the river until it fell upon the wide arches of Westminster Bridge and the sullen mass of the Palace where dry old men debated decisions that, in the end, were not theirs to question. Then came the old London Bridge, cluttered with four centuries' building and topped with the latest crop of heads from the Tower. It seemed that every month some new batch of traitors went to the headsman's block, which was made even busier now that the practice of burning heretics had ceased.
“Any friends or colleagues?” Grimley asked. The captain had joined him at the rail with a glass that he directed towards the bridge, checking for familiar faces distorted by death and hot pitch. It was an old Navy custom that the Sky Fleet had inherited. “No one we know,” Grimley added after a second, before handing the glass to Benedict. “But that's not what you're interested in, is it, Bene?”
Benedict took the glass with a smile and looked beyond the old to the new, hungrily seeking out the new bridge works. He picked out the Tower of London, and found the bridge he had helped design. The bastions that would anchor it astride the Thames had already risen up to challenge the spire of St Paul's, the venerable Cathedral mercifully spared by the Great Fire and untouched in the Bloody Year when Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor had secured England for their son and the Empire.
Hawthorne forced himself to look beyond the technical and engineering marvels of the bridges, to take in all of London in its grimy glory as Grimley gave the Maria more speed and altitude. The towers and spires of the magnificent Royal Palace, 'London's Alhambra', trapped his gaze with their seemingly unplanned, chaotic complexities. Churches, mercantile guildhouses and stately homes reared out of the crush of buildings around the Palace, petered out the closer one got to the river and the Rookeries. The sullen bulk of the Battersea hydrogen works dominated the East End, a temple of the new industries that contrasted with the pleasant green oasis of Queenspark, an easy ride from the Palace; and further out the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens where those with less blue in their blood could take their ease.
The ship was challenging the lowering clouds that were already swallowing the dawn. Hawthorne was lost in the joy of it.
“There's the old Retribution!” Grimley said happily, pointing towards the mighty dockyards further along the Thames, the true commercial hub of the city. Lying off the docks and quays was a Royal Navy squadron, great line of battleships which looked from this altitude like nothing so much as the toy ships Benedict had played with as a child. “I served in her as a midshipman. The Santa Maria, moored three along, was my first posting after I made lieutenant.”
“Providence itself at work, Heneage, that we should observe the old Maria from the new,” Benedict offered, trying to steady the glass on the two two-deckers Grimley was pointing out. Most sailing vessels looked somewhat similar to him.
“Something along those lines, old bean.”
From this altitude he could begin to pick out where the great city gave way to rolling countryside, verdant cropland to the North and the first hints of the Downs to the South. Turning, he saw that Croydon, the first and greatest skyport, was already in the full swing of a normal day. The structure, rising up like a vast many-levelled capstan hewn from Lincolnshire limestone, was surrounded by a growing swarm of skyships; fast, sleek post office vessels and passenger cutters jostling for position with slower cargo luggers and the martial vessels of the Sky Fleet. Just another day in the busy skies over London.
“Helmsmen, bring her four points to larboard then steady as she goes,” Grimley's voice interrupted his reverie. “Look lively now.”
“Wind's veering, sir,” the master informed him. “We may need more speed to make the skyport before we're right in its teeth.”
“Thank you, Mr Hoggswill. Do you ask the engine cabin to give us all she has. Professor, might I ask you to oversee the engine in person? Mr Valdez, hands to mooring stations!”
Benedict turned to obey the captain's order; as he did he caught a lungful of acrid smoke. For a second his mind flashed to the chimneys that vented the engine's fumes and how they could be improved. Then, uncomprehending, he saw the fine tracery of fire that spread with horrifying speed across the opalescent envelope.
Grimley had seen it as well, horror creeping across his face. There was a horrified stillness, lasting for an eternal second, the only motion the steady beat of the impeller and the snakelike motion of severed and burning stays curling through the air.
A number of things happened almost simultaneously. Several burning lines impacted with various parts of the ship. A Sky Rifle screamed as he was caught by a thrashing brand, scorching his uniform and face, the bag of cartridges he wore beginning to smoulder ominously. A skyjack went over the side almost soundlessly as a flailing line smashed the back of his skull. A burning stump played across the underside of the distended belly of the hull, setting more fires as it progressed its terrible dance.
Hoggswill began to ring the ship's bell with such ferocity that anyone below decks would know only one thing could be afoot.
“FIRE!” Grimley and Vasquez yelled at the same time, voicing the forbidden word, the thing all skyfarers feared above all others.
A moment later, almost as an afterthought, the Maria gave a great lurch, like a stumbling thoroughbred. Knocked off his feet, Benedict slid across the deck, scrabbling for a handhold while his eyes searched for the source of the disaster that had beset them. He saw the spreading inferno, and for an odd second he thought of thready veins beneath the parchment skin of an old woman's hands, then the veins expanded as the fire scorched through the heavy, retardant-laden canvas and a great billowing mushroom of flame shot out into the grey dawn.
His mind recoiled, gibbering, in terror. A tiny, dispassionate part of him was still observing, cataloguing, learning. He saw the brightness of the flame, almost a pure white, and knew they were doomed.
“That's hydrogen burning!” he choked out through a lungful of tarry smoke from burning cables. “The gas cells are going!”
“I've seen it!” Grimley, rock steady but dynamic, was there. His uniform hat was gone but his voice was strong, bellowing orders as he effortlessly lifted Benedict by the back of his coat. “Clap on to something, Bene!” the captain shouted, before hurling him towards the wheel housing. “It's going to get rough, and then we're probably going to run aground!”