“Uh. Which one of these is a three-point-five?” Alice asked.
She was holding two near-indistinguishable metal rods, tipped with crystals and covered in copper wires, springs and other doodads that gave the overall impression of a mad scientist’s magic wands.
Zkrith didn’t even look up. “That one. Gimme.”
She slid out from beneath part of the boat’s engine on a wheeled board — apparently and implausibly called a ‘creeper’ — and held out a hand. Alice gingerly handed her the one she’d pointed at.
“Ta,” she said, spinning it in her hand thoughtfully as she considered, still lying on her back. “Hmm. Twelfth, news on the boiler?”
[Minor Alkahest Scarring. I Believe It Is Still Watertight, But The Æther Porosity Might Be Problematic.]
Twelfth was examining an enormous brass vessel that she’d lifted from its housing in the engine as if it wasn’t as big as a sofa and probably heavy enough to crush Alice if it fell on her.
“Euugh,” Zkrith groaned. “I think there’s some anti-entropic cleaner over in the cupboard under the stairs. See if some of that corrosion will buff out.”
“It’s in the spray bottle marked ‘Ordox’.”
She slid back under part of the machine on her creeper and, judging by the flickers of light, started doing something with the steampunk magic wand. Alice was left standing awkwardly around as the other two worked on different parts of the engine.
“Uh,” she said, breaking the focused silence, “is there anything you need me to do?”
Zkrith’s voice echoed up from within the machine. “You’ve got me everything I need for now — I’ll need you to watch some dials in a minute, but if you’re itching for something to do now, I would appreciate some jhkraz, which you can find in the cupboard above the sink, in the kitchen. It’s the ceramic bottle. Don’t inhale the fumes.”
“Right. Twelfth, do you, uh… I feel silly now for asking, but it’d feel rude to not ask you if you wanted anything.”
[The Sentiment Is Appreciated, Ms Alice. I Suppose I Would Like You To Check Up On The Others, And See How They Are Getting Along With What They Are Doing.]
Up the stairs, the first person Alice ran into was Aidra, sitting cross-legged on the roof of the wheelhouse, pretending to meditate. She spotted him as she exited the wheelhouse on her way to the kitchen, and paused a moment, baffled.
“Are you here for wisdom, my child?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Why would I come to you for wisdom?”
“I assume you’re lost.”
She snorted. “Fair enough. Why’re you sitting up there?”
“To get closer to the heavens, and also to get a bead on where our pursuers are, while Red maintains the veil.” He gestured upwards, at the strange dome of oddly-solid mists that surrounded the boat.
“Huh. Surprising to see you doing something useful, honestly.”
“Rude! I don’t say that you getting drinks for people isn’t useful!”
“Jhkraz is a drink? I mean, it is kept in the kitchen, but with the thing about the fumes, I thought it’d be drain cleaner or something.”
“Oh, you can absolutely use it to clean tarnished metals and such. But, if you’re a devil, you can drink it.”
“Also, if you’re getting drinks…” he trailed off, hopefully.
She sighed. “Okay, fine. What do you want?”
“Is there any fantasy orange juice? You know, with the serial numbers filed off?”
“You’ll have to ask Zkrith.”
“Yeah, but she’s been really standoffish since I threatened to attack her boat with a hammer.”
She fixed him with her best withering glare. “I’m sure there’s no possible way you could have predicted that, what with your knowledge of her and your literal ability to see the future.”
“Ffffffine,” he groaned, “I’ll have some of that kinda-turquoise fruit juice stuff. It’s next to that bottle of horrible airag that she’s asking you to get, and the cups are—”
She cut him off. “I’ve lived on this boat for a week, Aidra. I know where the cups are.”
“And if you can find one,” he said loudly, as she was already walking away, “I’d like one of those little paper umbrellas in it!”
A Librarian and Nik looked up as she entered the kitchen. They were sat at the table, various papers spread out on every available surface before them, covered in spidery diagrams that looked like a madman’s attempt at drawing some kind of astrological chart. Neatly-pencilled symbols, zig-zagging ink lines and other squiggles crowded the various pages and pads they were working from, and both of them had ink stains on their fingers.
“Hi, Alice,” said A Librarian, “how’s the repair work going?”
“Can’t be that bad,” she replied; “I’ve been sent to get drinks. Well, a drink, but Aidra managed to collar me coming out of the wheelhouse, and I can’t be bothered to argue with him, so.”
She crossed the room to the cupboard, and easily found both the ‘fruit juice’ — apparently ‘extracted from the glistening teat of the omnifruit’, which was a thoroughly disconcerting turn of phrase — and the plain white ceramic bottle of whatever jhkraz was.
“How’s the doodlemancy going?” she asked, walking back over to the table with the drinks.
“I think I’ve got a draft down of a control mechanism,” said A Librarian, “that’ll allow someone to step in and out of the impelling circle and automatically cut off the thrust with no shear. Like a… emergency stop button? It vents the forces involved down under the boat, and… hmmmm. That might cause a minor underwater explosion.”
“I think we could run it through a quick conversion here,” said Nik, pointing over at a collection of glyphs, “and that’d be mostly heat and light, which would be absorbed by the Atrament. Either way, the disconnection would be quick enough to stop shear forces from breaking the skin.”
Alice looked over their shoulders at the complicated mess of runes, linguamantic Words of power arranged in a dizzying pattern. She even recognised some of them, ones A Librarian had taught her in their magic lessons, but taking in the whole system was very much like looking at a computer program written as a spider diagram — completely incomprehensible.
“Well, you two have fun, and try not to make your thing too murderous.”
“Oh yeah, how much acceleration can you survive? In which directions?”
“That’s a terrifying question to be asked. I have no idea.”
“You can’t hazard a guess?”
“No, really, I can’t. Maybe ask Red — he’s also kinda human, he might know some ballpark figures. Or, I guess you could ask Aidra and trust in the power of prophecy?”
Nik snorted. “Funny, but no. You can barely get coherent information from my brother, let alone facts and figures.”
A Librarian eyed the bottles she was holding. “Are you sure you should be drinking that? It’s pretty early in the day, still, and also I think it might be poisonous for you.”
“Oh, this?” She held up the ceramic bottle. “It’s for Zkrith, who has apparently been driven to drink by the state of the boat’s engine.”
“I did apologise,” A Librarian replied sheepishly. “And I’m not sure you should be drinking the other stuff, either.”
“Oh, that’s for Aidra.”
Nik glanced at the carton of Omni-Juice she’d selected. “Hmm. Well, it won’t kill him, so go ahead.”