The Engineer shook Ernie awake. “Lad, we've got a problem. Do you know what's going on?” Ernie shook his head.
“We made the time jump okay, but the navigation beacons don't exist yet, the fog is thick, and we don't know who is friend or foe. We sent out some scout ships, made contact with the other dirigible, and tried to help get her back aloft.
“But the cables got snarled, and when we tried to fix it, things got worse.
“Here's the thing, lad. The Chief Pilot's scout ship got tangled up in our rigging. We can't land, we don't know where land is, and there are still hostiles down there firing projectiles at us. They don't have good tech, but they can do a lot of damage. So we don't dare go down near the surface, and we can't get to safe landing. We've got to snare that ship, and recover the crew.”
Ernie nodded. The Renegade never abandoned its crew.
“Ernie, boy, Puck the Pilot is on that scout ship, hanging off the port beam by a whisker. Ernie. Harry's on the ship with him.”
Ernie stared at the Engineer, waiting for his words to make sense. Harry, his brother, followed Puck everywhere. Harry wanted to fly, just as Ernie wanted to fix things. Harry was daring, but...Harry had snuck onto Puck the Pilot's scout ship. Had to. Suddenly the mechanical problem had become a very personal crisis. How were they supposed to fix this?
They went to a briefing room. The fog was thick, and the Renegade didn’t have standard ship’s cams covering that part of the hull. The experimental scaffolding built to help launch vampires over the capitol of Muscovy was supposed to be temporary, but it didn’t seem to reduce the speed of the ship, and with everything else that had landed on the Renegade’s plate over the last two months, nobody had considered it a priority to remove. <em>Riggers. </em>So the elegant ship had an odd excrescence of spars and cables.
Puck’s ship, the one salvaged from the previous timeline eruption, was very fast and maneuverable, but delicate. The thin foil sheathing on the wings had been sheared open by one of the spars, and as it peeled away, it had wound itself among the cables. Now the tiny ship hung suspended, a butterfly half caged by a chrysalis. The rigging was a jumble, jury-rigged, a mess. It looked as if the thing to do was find stable anchor points on the hull for sturdy cables, and get those cables securely wrapped around the scout ship. Then they could extract the crew, and maybe even salvage the ship. Ernie would really like a closer look at that engine. There had to be some interesting things going on in there, shielded behind the handwavium housing.
The more they planned, the more Ernie hated the idea. It was going to be a delicate operation. None of the other ships could be allowed anywhere nearby. Not with the level of fragility. The usual lifting equipment might be catastrophic as well.
"Catastrophic" was a word Ernie was really starting to dislike. Someone simply had to go out there, out there outside the hull, thread their way through the thicket of cables and spars, establish secure lines, and get those lines wrapped around the damaged eggshell craft. Someone who had extensive knowledge of practical physics and great skill at knots. Someone who could safely travel through gaps eight inches tall.
Some cats yearn for the heights. The moment their eyes open, they try to climb out of their sheltering nursery box. They scramble up trees, they cling to shoulders, they perch atop doors. Harry had always been one of those cats. He liked to gaze into the universe, he loved the wind in his whiskers. The higher he went, the happier he was.
Harry had always been one of those cats.
Ernie was not. Ernie had a great deal of respect for a nice solid deck, wrapped in a skeleton of bulkheads that fused to a really sturdy hull. Powered by very reliable, well-maintained engines on a proper maintenance schedule. That was freedom. Ernie really did not enjoy heights. At all.
He knew Rennie would volunteer but that wasn't a viable option. She didn't have the strength or experience he did. He'd lose them both. There weren't any options. Ernie had a job to do.
The Engineer wasn't surprised, but he was not happy about sending his apprentice out there. They made a climbing harness for Ernie. Sturdy enough to hold him if the rigging gave, or he slipped. Trailed by a safety line, which was going to make it even harder to thread his way in and out of the mess. Some tools in a pouch below his belly, which was also going to hamper his movement. At least he didn't have to carry a wrench in his teeth this time.
It was the best plan they could come up with, and nobody liked it. The Captain had had a talk with Ernie. It had to be fast, but Ernie convinced XO he was aware of the risks and was volunteering regardless. XO asked if Ernie would mind just giving him a minute for lap time, and they comforted each other. Then Ernie was strapped into his harness and the hatch opened to the hull.
It was very grey out there. The fog was thick, but the rigging was swaying a bit and clanking through the muffle of weather. He could hear the waves, so they weren't all that high up. He glanced down and couldn't see anything, which was not as reassuring as he had hoped. Ernie stepped out. The shrouding fog had made everything damp, or maybe it was just the proximity to the ocean. And the spars were really cold. They weren't that high up--he glanced down again--but the metal beneath his paws was bitterly cold. Maybe from the portal transfer? So the portals were endothermic, which threw out a couple of theories he'd been developing, assuming that all portals were uniform, which was not smart assumption.
He'd have to think about that.
But not now. Now he had to focus on moving through half-frozen metal rigging, which was disinclined to accept even really sharp claws. This was going to be all about balance and controlled momentum. The closest anchor point was three meters up and twelve sternward. He got moving.
Once he got there, attaching the cable wasn't difficult. He'd been careful to pull the cable into the anchor through a path that would give it a clear run towards the scout ship. Now the next. Back to the hatch to collect the cable, a brief consult with the Engineer, and a sip of hot chicken broth. On to the second anchor point.
After half an hour, he still hadn't found a path that would let him get the cable to the hull and still run clear to support Puck's ship. He went on to the third anchor point while Engineering looked for an alternate location. More hot chicken broth, which didn't begin to replenish the energy sapped by the bitter cold. But it helped.
They finally gave up on the second anchor. That portion of the rigging was holding up the scout ship right now, and further attempts to probe it might destroy what remained of its tenacity. Ernie proposed a change in plan, and was greeted by shocked silence.
There wasn't, really, any other way. He'd finally gotten them to agree to that point. Ernie had told them that he hated the plan too but he was not going to leave Puck and Harry out there. They could help or they could leave it to him to do his best without their support.
So here he was. Back out on the hull, bone-chilled by the icy rigging and the clinging fog. At least he could keep oriented against the hull, and not think about where they were. He glanced down.
The fog was glowing.
Not a delicate, silvery fog-like glow. This was well, red. And sort of purple. And colors that he really couldn't name. Ernie wanted to look away but his neck wouldn't let his head turn. Ernie looked down.
And the abyss looked back at him.
Ernie closed his eyes and managed to turn his head. He kept his eyes closed while he tried to recover. Tried to slow his pounding heart and his ragged breathing and smooth his tail back down.
Apparently the abyss made noises too. Ernie decided that he would definitely think about that later, NOT NOW, and use the sounds to maintain his sense of location. The hull was here, the scout ship was there, and the…"distortion" seemed a workable term...the distortion was very definitely DOWN and Ernie was going to make sure none of them ended up going in that direction.
Except the plan did require that he jump off the hull, swing down below the scout ship, and secure the cable to the cargo netting. Twice. He was going to have to jump off the hull twice. Flinging himself down. This was going to be a problem.
The plan might still work, provided the whole "down" part was a good deal higher than the distortion slowly growing beneath him. He decided not to think about the "growing" part and instead focused on calculating the length of his safety line, which had to be long enough to go over the scout ship, down the far side, and then swing in towards the hull. Okay, he had figured the length, but he really should double-check the distance to the distortion. He looked.
Wow, that was not an enjoyable experience. However, he had verified that the safety line was just long enough to clear both the scout ship and the distortion, and establish a growth rate for the distortion that appeared to be linear. Which was good. Because he was just going to factor in that rate and not waste any more time looking down. Ever.
Ernie made his way up the hull, climbing until he was well above the scout ship. He looked down, carefully looking only at the ship. Good enough. He could see Puck, sitting very, very still in the exposed cockpit. Poor Puck, he must be freezing. He couldn't see Harry, but Puck had his arms wrapped around himself, so Ernie decided that had to mean that Puck had his brother cradled against him. Had to. They were still okay, but every minute increased the likelihood of disaster.
But from here, Ernie could send his own safety line straight down, and Puck could attach it to his seat. If the scout ship fell, Puck could stay tethered while the ship fell away. And Harry could hold on to Puck. Assuming Harry wasn't half frozen too. Well, Harry just WASN'T frozen, Puck was keeping him warm, and Ernie could make sure the two of them survived. He unhooked his safety line, swallowing a bit at the thought of the lecture he was going to get from the Engineer, assuming he got back to the Engineer…. NO.
Ernie let the safety line slowly spill through his paws. It started swinging a bit, which was bad. He took a deep breath, steadied himself and the cable, and spilled it slowly down. As it got close, Puck didn't move. And didn't move. Ernie was really worried that Puck wasn't conscious, or wasn't aware that the line was coming, maybe thought no one would try to rescue him and they were just waiting. Waiting.
Then Puck very, very slowly raised his arms straight over his head. He was holding Harry. Harry was looking at Ernie. They were both alive, they were both aware he was there and he was going to help them. Puck held his hands flat. Harry balanced on them and stood straight upright. Ernie managed to sway the safety line right against Harry's paw, saw it snagged by a claw. Ernie let more of the line spill slowly, slowly, and Harry backed down to where Puck could grip him tightly. Harry inched to the back of the seat, Puck leaning forward a bit to counter balance the weight of the catling. They all heard the click of the safety line grappling onto the ejection seat. Puck sagged a bit and bent his head over the cat in his lap. Safe.
Ernie gave himself a minute of rest and jubilation. Only a minute, as they were hardly out of the woods. If the distortion got any scrap of the scout ship or the rigging, there was a good chance some kind of corruption would be transferred back and the Renegade would be doomed. They had to get the scout ship secured so the Renegade could lift, lift away, get to a safer place. With all its crew. And then save the Bellerophon.
Ernie took the first cable and snapped it onto his harness. It was a good bit shorter than the safety line and heavier. Harder to maneuver with it. No choice. He took a deep breath. Then another.
Okay, one more breath. And then he gathered his back legs, scrabbling a bit to clear the ice, and leapt out.
It was even worse than he had thought. All that lovely engineering left behind, he was relying on his own muscles to get him clear of the scout ship, and then he began to plummet. Towards the roiling glow.
He saw the shocked expressions of Harry and Puck as he fell down alongside their ship. Then he felt the harness jerk as he hit the end of the cable. It knocked the wind out of him and he just hung for a bit, trying to breathe and trying really hard not to look down. His sides hurt and his neck ached. But he began, very slowly, to sway. And then to swing. And finally grabbed hold of the cargo net hanging off the side of the Renegade. He just lay there for a moment, claws secured deep in the netting. Then he cautiously unhooked the cable from his harness and attached it to the corner of the cargo net.
Ernie began the long climb up the cargo net, to where the other secured cable was waiting. He snapped it onto his harness and headed back up the hull, to the spot that overhang the scout ship. This time he would have to be careful not to foul the cable against the one he'd already affixed to the cargo net. He did not want to have to do this a third time. He really, really didn't. He was so cold. And so tired. And so, so tired of being frightened.
He'd done something to his ribs on the first jump, which made climbing more complicated. And his neck wasn't working quite right, so he had to turn his whole body to see. He was cold. His fur was wet and heavy. He'd torn out a claw on one paw and it was bleeding a bit. Every time he hesitated, his fur or his foot was getting stuck to the metal spars and so he just couldn't pause any more. No more.
He climbed very slowly but steadily until he reached his launch point. Okay, he really did have to pause a moment to rest his legs. He tightened and loosed the muscles in his haunches until they felt a little more supple. He pried his bloody paw off the spar and got his belly clear of the ice without losing too much fur. He crouched, drew a deep breath and flung himself out again.
He'd managed to angle his jump a bit more towards the bow, but he was still worried about that first cable. So he did his best to mimic Harry, who'd tried to explain to his littermates all the intricacies of learning to parachute. Rennie had been fascinated. Ernie had been appalled. But he spread his legs wide, like a flying squirrel, and to his surprise he was able to maneuver a bit. Better be enough. He sailed by Puck and Harry again and cleared the scout ship and then hit the end of the cable.
He definitely heard a crack this time and hoped it was only his ribs. They really, really hurt. And his neck was not happy. He thought maybe he'd twisted his pelvis, which is why his right back leg was hanging loose. That was going to make climbing harder.
Every movement to get the cable swaying hurt. A lot. Biological design was just not as robust as mechanical. He'd been thinking about a kind of exoskeleton, which would also have lots of storage compartments, but right now it seemed a really attractive substitute for bone and muscle. But he couldn't think about that now.
He had to get the cable swaying. Needed a rhythm.
He remembered a long time back, when he'd been very tiny and no one was sure if the kittens would survive. But their Keeper was determined. She'd spent hours dribbling food into them. She'd had a little tune she crooned to get them to take the bottle, and he listened now to her voice, warm and kind, giving him strength and hope. She'd told them stories about who they were going to be. Big, brave, gentle cats, with kind people welcoming their soothing cuddles and their playful antics. She'd been right about a lot of it. He was not about to disappoint her now.
The cable started to sway, a little wobbly, but Ernie looked hard at the corner of the cargo net and seized onto it with his will. The cable began to swing. He ignored the pain and threw his body towards the cable. Three times, four times, five. On the seventh, he finally got his good paw to grab on. He threaded his legs through the netting, managed to unhook the cable from his harness, and snapped it onto the grommet reinforcing the corner of the cargo net. Done.
Really, done. He knew he should be climbing now, clearing the cargo net so they could snare the scout ship. But he couldn't seem to move. And he was so tired. So tired.
He dreamed the Engineer was talking to him. He tried to wake up because he was late for his watch and Ernie didn't like to be late but he couldn't seem to wake up. He just couldn't put himself in his warm bed. Finally the Engineer really and truly shouted at him and Ernie roused enough to realize that he wasn't dreaming. The Engineer was shouting at him, through a speaker dangling by the cargo net.
"ERNIE, " said his boss, "I NEED YOU." Ernie stared at the speaker and managed to nod. "GOOD LAD, I CAN SEE YOU. LISTEN. CAN YOU HANG ON RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE?" Ernie considered. Well, he certainly couldn't move, and he seemed to have done a good job lacing his legs in, so he nodded again.
"WE'RE GOING TO PULL THE CARGO NET UP AND SNAG THE SHIP, JUST AS WE PLANNED. YOU ARE GOING TO STAY RIGHT THERE, AND WHEN THE EDGE OF THE NET COMES UP, WE'LL GET YOU TOO. CAN YOU DO THAT?"
Ernie considered again. Staying still seemed like the only thing he was capable of, and if that's what they wanted, he liked to make people happy. Okay, then. Nod.
It still took a good long while to winch the net up with the scout net securely enclosed, and then the riggers got out and cleaned up a good bit of the mess so they could pull the net and the ship all the way inside the hull. Harry was safe. Puck was safe. The scout ship had been salvaged and maybe Ernie could get to investigate it now. Once Ernie had gotten untangled from this net, and warm again, and rested some, and all his aches healed.
People were there, feeding Puck some hot broth and helping him stagger free of the wreck. Somebody took Harry off to the infirmary, to get warm and fed and rested, and once they had very carefully cut away the net, they took Ernie there too. Harry was sound asleep, having been assured that Ernie was fine, but Rennie was there, gently washing his face and growling at him for scaring her like that. Harry's face had been washed too. There was fog again, but it was a warm friendly fog that made it easier to get Ernie out of the harness and into X-ray. He'd cracked three ribs but the neck and the pelvis were just strained. He let that fog embrace him.
Between Ernie, Harry, Puck, and the survivors of the Bellerophon's crew, sick bay was packed for weeks. While they were all recovering, the Librarian had discovered the marks scratched along the outer fold lines of the gatherings of the books on the list. She compiled them onto a single sheet, and made some headway in deciphering, but stopped before she had assembled the full text. Wearing gloves, a mask, and protective gear, the Librarian dissolved the worksheet in acid, set the mush on fire, stirred the ashes, and then sealed them into a small metal cube. She transferred the codes to different locations and carefully eradicated them from the original volumes. Considered, and then swapped some bookplates around to make it even harder for anyone to link the books together in the future.
She explained some of this to Captain XO. "It was an attempt to bring that being into this dimension. Probably the aether was a bit thinner there, something of that sort. The being had some hold over its agents, which is why it could use only elementary language. It couldn't access their full brains, not that they had a lot of mind left by that point. The agents were supposed to get the ship to those coordinates, assemble the transfer spell from the books, and call the being in. I suppose we would have been a nice snack, as well. I don't know, not yet, how this all fits in with Bellerophon coming to this dimension. It might have just been convenient. But the agents were no longer human. I had their remains dropped into a volcano while we were over Iceland. And no one can use those books for a future dimensional doorbell, I've made sure of that."
After his ribs healed enough that the medics could remove the wrappings, there was a little ceremony at the Plunder & Lightning.
Captain XO spoke about Ernie's bravery and dedication to his fellow crew, and announced that Ernie, Rennie and Harry had been formally recognized in ship's records as Sky Cats. The Engineer made a sort of a speech but mostly thrust a package at Ernie, which turned out to be a really splendid new vest, with high-visibility stripes, sheaths for tools, and pockets for fasteners. It had Ernie's name on it. And there, tucked into one of the pockets, was the first Renegade challenge coin ever.