“Stupid little boys should learn to use guns and not wave them around.” Monique walked past Sophronia to the man. She held her own small pistol steady. She put one pretty little kid boot on the man’s chest and shoved him to lie back, coming to stand over him, pistol pointed at his head. She didn’t even look at Sophronia.
Sophronia added, “And that stupid little girls travel in pairs.” Then she sprinted past, heading for the ship. Things were changing there. The climbing Picklemen, instead of coming to their friend’s rescue, were moving much faster and more frantically. A few lights were on in the front module of the ship, the red-tassel section, the area forbidden to students. That shot had woken teachers.
The hatch to the boiler room was open. A few dirty-faced imps, also known as ship’s sooties, were dropping a rope ladder and gesturing at Sophronia to hurry.
She was up it in a trice.
“Miss, are you hurt?” A thin young man spoke first, offering her a hand through the hatch. Sophronia took it. No cause to be rude or churlish. She’d learned to value sooties to an extent entirely at odds with her upbringing and her training.
“Not me, Handle. But we’ve got another problem. Infiltration.”
“I didn’t hear no alarm.”
“Exactly! What’s the nearest well-patrolled hallway?”
Handle, so called for the size of his ears as well as the usefulness of his actions, knew better than to ask questions of Sophronia when gunshots had been fired. He’d inherited her from his predecessor, Soap. And while not as proactively accommodating to her needs, he appreciated a system of barter that served them both admirably. Sophronia brought the sooties tea cakes as often as possible, and the sooties honored her odd hours and odder requests—when they were a low risk to themselves.
Handle had been selected as their new leader by the sooties’ cat, Smokey Bones, rather than by any democratic process. Smokey Bones liked Handle best, after Soap. So when Soap left, Handle was in charge. Simple as that.
He led Sophronia over to a door she’d never noticed before at the back end of the boiler room. Since engineering was vast, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but Sophronia had thought she knew all the airship’s secrets by now. The door was so small she had to crawl through it.
She emerged into the hallway that ran through the sooties’ sleeping quarters and from there into the kitchen and serving rooms. These last were littered with tracks designed to carry and power the many household mechanicals that ran the day-to-day lives of the students and teachers. Even late at night, with most of the steam turned down, some were around tending to laundry and the morning meal. Sophronia hadn’t frequented this area before, as she spent most of her time trying to avoid the most trundled hallways.
Where normally Sophronia would have whipped out her obstructor and stilled any clangermaid she encountered, this time she allowed herself to be noticed.
The maid took only a few seconds to realize it was an intruder. It was an odd-looking creature, as mechanicals went—faceless, with its head gears exposed, yet it wore a pinafore protecting the front portion of its conical carapace, as though an actual human maid. This particular clangermaid carried a basket full of dirty linens.
Upon sensing Sophronia, it paused and let out a whistle of inquiry. When Sophronia did not respond, it whistled again, imperiously. Then the whistle turned into a very loud shriek, like that of a teakettle. Soon this was picked up by other mechanicals nearby and then throughout the ship. Those that had been shut down whirred to life, screaming as if awoken from some nightmare of coal shortages.
Regulations required that all the students stay wherever they were when an alarm sounded. This meant the students were trapped in their quarters while the teachers hopefully investigated and found the infiltrating Picklemen.
With most of the mechanicals zipping to defend as protection protocols dictated, the maid who’d found Sophronia approached, menacing. Mechanicals were supposed to keep an intruder trapped, if possible.
Now Sophronia brought out her obstructor. She blasted the clangermaid into silent stillness—the alarm still sounded by dozens of others—and slipped past. She dashed through the kitchen, blasting those who seemed inclined to stop her and avoiding those who had other protocols in place. Afraid that if she ran into a teacher, she would be stopped, Sophronia took to the exterior of the dirigible. It was a less direct route, but it would be faster than having to explain herself.
Sophronia shot her hurlie and swung from one balcony to the next, moving at a dangerous pace. If it hadn’t been so low to the ground, even she wouldn’t have risked it. The hurlie was relatively new, with fancy modifications from Vieve—smaller and stealthier, faster to emit, and with an added winch to pull taut as needed. Excellent changes, all. Should be, as Vieve had made the design alterations based on Sophronia’s experience. There was also a marked dexterity to the fancy India rubber soles of Sophronia’s special walking boots that only a certain cobbler on Bond Street could attest to. Add to these tools the fact that Sophronia boasted muscles on her arms that no young lady ought to have, and the airship didn’t stand a chance at containing her. She increased her speed through the red-tassel section, aware that inside, the shadows rushing through the hallways were those of teachers awake and hunting.
Sophronia made it to the very front of the dirigible, hung on a protrusion, and tilted her head way back. There it was, above her—the pilot’s bubble. Sort of like a crow’s nest, only enclosed, it looked like two large bathtubs, one overturned on top of the other. It was held, suspended above and in front of the prow, by a set of struts and one long beam from the forward squeak deck.