“Ms. Brass.” The urgency of the hissed words punched a button deep in Rose’s brain. She woke with a start and a grunt, and the low voice went on, “Um, Ms. Brass, Mister Fancy Pants wants you up in the cockpit.”
“. . . Time izzit?” she mumbled as she blinked away the sleep. The gondola was dark but just as noisy as ever. It was astonishing what one could get used to—a rattly airship, a swaying train car, a sandbagged bunker in a war zone. Only the soft glow of enchanted crystals, set in fixtures as night lights, prevented falls or barked limbs. There weren’t many; enchantments were, relatively speaking, expensive and work-intensive, but the small lamps were lightweight, required no external power or fuel, and posed no fire hazard.
Her half-waking mind went back to Sunset’s theorizing about why Equestria was going through an Industrial Revolution at all, based on the vantage point she’d gained after living and going to school in a world nearly a century and a half ahead in engineering. “Technology scales up logarithmically,” she’d lectured to pass the time as they stumbled through the Everfree. “Magic doesn’t; it’s purely arithmetic, as far as I can tell. A single pony with a crane can lift more, and do it more efficiently, than a whole crew of unicorns. One locomotive can pull a bigger train faster than a team, even magically strong earth ponies.”
When Cook asked about enchanted artifacts with the air of a vaudevillian offering a straight line, Sunset replied, “Think of them more like music boxes or fine clocks, the kind of thing an individual craftspony makes. It takes a lot of time and effort—and magic too, of course. So they’re at least as rare and expensive as one of those fancy machines, which means they’re reserved for things you can’t do any other way, things that make it worthwhile to go to the effort and expense, or, um, conspicuous consumption.”
Cook added with an arch expression, “Sunset wrote a paper for one of her senior classes. It might be the only high-school thesis ever classified as code-word material. I submitted a copy to my bosses. They liked it.”
Rose couldn’t help smiling at the memory, which improved her mood. She needed it, given the middle-of-the-night answer she received about the time.
“Ah, Ms. Brass,” Fancy Pants greeted her when she shrugged through the blackout curtain into the slightly better lit cockpit. Here, as elsewhere in the airship, the state of the art was employed—in this case low-watt electric incandescent lights subdued by thin frosted glass held in steel-wire safety cages, partly to preserve night vision, partly to limit reflections from the greenhouse-style glazing.
“Mister Fancy Pants,” Rose replied. “You rang?”
A brief chuckle greeted this sally. “I did indeed. I need a second opinion from a pegasus, and you, of course, are the only one available.”
“Yes.” The stallion’s manner shifted. “What is our altitude, Ms. Brass?”
Rose closed her eyes and reached inward. “It’s . . . we’re descending, I think, Sir. If the cloud deck is still out there, we’re in it, probably.”
Fancy Pants exchanged a glance with the pilot and engineer. “I think we can consider the instruments confirmed, then.”
“Is there a problem?” Rose asked a bit more sharply.
“I don’t believe so, at least not yet.” The unicorn nodded upward. “As we proceed northward, temperatures continue to fall. And there are other conditions to consider as well. Together, I suspect, they mean icing.”
“And more weight on the envelope means we lose altitude.” Rose’s nostrils flared. “What can we do about it?”
“Not a great deal, I’m afraid.” Fancy Pants shrugged. “Comet was not designed to operate this far into the boreal regions. If worse comes to worst, we may have to set down and do what we can to scrape off at least some of it. And hope none of the airscrews throw large chunks against the envelope. Our gas capacity is limited compared to other airships, so we can’t afford to lose much of it.”
Rose cleared her throat. “Can we get to cloud-top level? I could use that as a work platform to do some scraping.”
The look she got in return was dubious. “Even if we could, Ms. Brass, it would be far too much labor for any single pony—not to mention other considerations in your particular case.” Fancy Pants bobbed his head toward the prosthetic wing. “I appreciate your willingness, but I’m afraid it simply isn’t practical.”
“Yes, Sir.” Rose shifted her weight uncomfortably, but couldn’t gainsay the reminder, unspoken before ears not privy to her real background, she lacked enough or indeed any practice with cloudwalking. If the problem had been more immediate or the stakes greater, it might have been worth the risk—but not for mere inconvenience or even nuisance. Before she could muster any further response, the world let them know the discussion was moot.
Their hooves left the deck. For a seemingly endless moment they were suspended in mid-air before slamming back to the checkered plating with jarring force. Comet groaned and creaked, containers thumped and rattled, startled shouts and curses floated forward from the bunks aft of them.
Fancy Pants whirled to stare at the glazing around the nose of the cockpit. Backed by night darkness and thick clouds, the panes showed nothing but black aside from a brief, distant flicker of light. Without turning he asked, “Ms. Brass, what can you tell me now?”
“I—” Once more the pegasus concentrated. “I don’t know, Mister Fancy Pants. Something isn’t right, I can tell that much, but—”
“Sir,” the engineer cut in. “Barometric pressure.” He pointed with a forehoof.
“Falling. Of course.” Fancy Pants glanced aside at Rose, who scowled and nodded.
It took Galea only a couple of minutes to put in an appearance, barging into the cockpit, levitation still fastening a parka around her thin body. “I have the conn, Mister Fancy Pants,” she stated crisply. “Report.” Her voice was wavery not from age, but from the airship’s continued antics, bouncing and wobbling randomly. More flickers briefly lit the small chamber, less distant now, but any accompanying rumbles were inaudible over the structural, mechanical, and vocal ruckus filling the gondola.
“You have the conn, Captain,” Fancy Pants replied dutifully before rattling off a quick précis of events since calling for Rose’s presence.
The captain snorted. “Right. Fancy, head back and get everypony and everything battened down, including yourself. Send up an additional pilot and engineer. Ms. Brass, stay here.”
A chorus of acknowledgements came back, followed by Rose adding, “Barometric pressure still falling, Ma’am. Seems to be accelerating.”
Galea nodded absently. “Don’t look at the instruments, Ms. Brass. I don’t want your internal impressions influenced by them.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Rose bit her lip briefly. “Shall I keep watch instead?”
“Might as well.” A forehoof waved forward. “Situation like this we can use all the eyes we can get, even if it’s only one more.” The matter-of-fact tone of acceptance stifled any urge on Rose’s part toward resentment, not that she was sensitive about her loss at this late date.
Rose stepped up beside the helm and peered out as captain, pilot, and engineer conferred in low tones. She could tell they were rising, not falling as they had been just a few short minutes ago. Still, when the gondola suddenly emerged into clear air, she caught her breath. “Captain!”
“I see it,” a disturbed voice said behind her, even the old veteran’s sangfroid shaken.
The cloud deck still spread out just below them, to the horizon as far as they could tell, white and ghostly in the crescent moon and the stars strewn thickly across the sky to either side. Just before them, however, towered a gigantic column limned in stark light and shadow that, invisible beyond the tapered nose of the envelope, spread into an anvil shape somewhere high above. Lightning raced up and down its breadth, accompanying thunder now clearly audible even through the complaints of ship and crew alike. The first spatters of windblown precipitation, frozen at this height and temperature, presaged the gauntlet yet to come.
The little airship rose in fits and starts, carried like a leaf on powerful updrafts. Galea’s orders came in a steady stream. The paired pilots and engineers wrestled with their controls, sometimes by main force. Rose simply did her best to keep her feet and answer questions flung at her, corroborating or sometimes contradicting the dials and indicators already near the edge of their tolerance. The massive storm loomed ever closer, lightning occasionally reaching out toward them, hail and sleet bombarding envelope and gondola from seemingly every direction.
Fabric and metal sheeting drummed. Tubing and plating shrieked. Thunder pounded. Engines raced, sometimes beyond designed limits. If there were screams, none of them could hear; even Galea was reduced to gestures and signals in the moments when turbulence wasn’t simply shaking them like dolls.
The double-paned glazing began to star. Wrenching sounds joined the cacophany as rivets sheared, shedding squares of cladding like shingles. The whole ship rocked and swayed, juddered and vibrated. The pillar of cloud became a wall as they closed on it. Galea’s alicorn lit more brightly than Rose had seen before, and the unicorn grimaced in concentration. Another bolt flashed and boomed simultaneously, blinding and deafening all of them. Galea grunted, then fell, alicorn guttering like a candle.
Everypony else was far too busy to help. Rose wobbled drunkenly toward the captain and extended her good wing. The older mare’s eyes opened and she shook her head as if to clear it, then climbed back to her feet. The glow steadied and brightened again, though not as intensely as before. The pelting dropped in volume, if only a little.
Stars were visible through what clear panes remained on one side of the cockpit. The shaking had not decreased, but it had changed with the ship’s orientation, now broadside on to the monolith of cloud. They still climbed with the winds, the air noticeably thinner and colder, drafts howling through gunports and gaps, curtains long since ripped away. Electrocution, anoxia, hypothermia, simple trauma—they were spoiled for choice.
The lights went out. Something exploded, almost as loud as the thunder of the stroke that nearly blew them out of the sky. A rending noise followed, and with it a sudden yawing back toward the cloud. Galea reached an arm past the engineers to slam one of the throttles to zero, then another. The uneven drone of the engines dropped. She waved both arms in the same direction; the pilots didn’t need the silent order to throw all their weight into yanking their heading away again.
By degrees they crabbed around the lethal obstacle, still gaining altitude. A shuddering that began with the blast became heavier and faster until, with another screech of tearing metal, it ceased, leaving a worrying list in its wake. For a few blessed minutes there was relative peace and quiet. Then they crossed the boundary and began to plummet.
Dawn found the battered ship limping on half power amidst a dense snowfall, hardly distinguishable from the milky opacity of the cratered cockpit glass. The partially stripped gondola provided little shelter from the cold and slipstream. An engine car was completely gone, taking a broad ribbon of fabric skin with it. The inner cells, yet another experimental innovation, were intact but had lost significant amounts of gas. A waist gun and its pivot had torn away. One of the crew, and several supply containers, had vanished; none could say when or how. Only Galea’s protective shield, the spell symbolized by the crested helmet on her bony haunch, had prevented the whole ship going down in flames, lit like a match by lightning. The exhausted captain had turned the watch over to Fancy Pants and Fleur after a brief conference.
“What was that?” A frazzled Fleur had been aghast. “I don’t think I’ve seen a storm that large before.”
Galea shrugged wearily. “Up here in the north, the weather service is stretched pretty thin at the best of times—which these aren’t. I’m guessing they haven’t been able t’ do much since this whole thing started. That means a whole lot of weather’s built up without anything being done t’ control it.”
“Can we reach our destination?” Fancy Pants asked, concerned.
“As far out as we are now,” Galea pointed out, “there isn’t much else t’ do but press on.”