Starclimber - an excerpt
The Celestial Tower
Rising into the wind, I flew, Paris spread before me.
For the first time in my life I was at the helm, though my ship was a humble one, and not my own. Aboard the Atlas, we didn’t even use terms like captain or first mate. This was no fancy airship liner or private yacht; she was just an aerocrane, forty feet from stem to stern, but she was mine to command for the summer, and I loved every second of it.
“Elevators up five degrees, please,” I told Christophe, my co-pilot. “Throttle to one half.”
As the drone of the engines increased in pitch I put the ship into a gentle starboard turn. We climbed, and I brought the Atlas about so that we faced the construction site. Though I had gazed upon it almost every day for two weeks now, the view still filled me with awe.
Rising two miles above the earth was the base of the Celestial Tower. Massive metal piers and arches supported its platforms, each one large enough to hold a city. The third platform had just been completed, and work on the next level was well under way, great spans of metal jutting skywards. Gliding over the site were dozens of aerotugs, delivering materials and prefabricated sections of piers to waiting work crews. From all across the tower came the flash of welders’ torches, fusing together girders. Already the structure was ten times higher than the Eiffel tower, but it had much farther yet to go.
It was meant to reach all the way to outer space.
There was so much airship traffic around the construction site that it had its own harbourmaster. His voice crackled over the radio now, giving us our approach instructions. Hanging from the Atlas’s winch was a three storey-tall section of support pier to be delivered to the tower’s northern side. I turned the rudder wheel and brought us onto our proper bearing, circling the Tower in a wide arc.
“Did you hear,” said Christophe, “that already they have named it the Eighth Wonder of the World?” Christophe was a Parisian, and extremely proud of the tower. He seemed to have an endless supply of information about it.
I nodded. “I saw it in the Global Tribune this morning.”
“How high you reckon they’re going to build this thing?” asked Andrew, coming forward from the cargo area, wiping his greasy hands with a rag. He was the winch operator, a hefty, red-faced fellow from Angleterre who’d moved to Paris, like so many others, to find work on the tower.
“I heard about sixty miles,” I said.
Christophe sucked his tongue in disagreement. “Non, non, ce n’est pas vrai. I heard at least six hundred.”
“Suits me,” said Andrew. “The higher they go, the longer I have a job. At these wages, I’ll be retired with me own castle before long.”
I too felt lucky. Piloting an aerotug for the summer would fund my final two terms at the Airship Academy. The French had hired tens of thousands of workers from all around the world. It was the greatest construction project in the history of mankind. The French boasted it made the Great Pyramids look like an afternoon garden project. Nothing, they said, would topple it. It was designed to sway, to bend with the elements, but it never break. I hoped they were right, because if it ever did, it would fall over half of Europa.
“I thought it was meant to go all the way to the moon,” said Hassan, our Moroccan spotter, coming forward to peer out the windows of the control car.
“How could they do that, you numbskull?” said Andrew, whose tone was often a bit bullying. “The moon orbits around us, doesn’t it? We can’t go tying ourselves to it! We’d get all yanked about.”
Hassan nodded amiably. “Yes, I can see that would not be desirable.”
“At the summit of the Celestial Tower,” said Christophe with patriotic confidence, “I read, they will launch a fleet of ships to travel into outer space, first to the Moon, and then beyond.”
This certainly seemed to be the government’s plan. All over Paris, buildings were plastered with posters -- “Paris to the Moon!” or “The Martian Riviera!” -- and showed chic ladies and gentlemen strolling through crystal lunar palaces, or along red Martian beaches. Another poster proclaimed, “Our Brave Spationauts!” and had a group of fit young men in silver suits, fists against their hips, staring arrogantly into the heavens.
“What I’d like to know,” said Andrew, “is where they’re finding these fellows daft enough to go to outer space.”
“They’ve set up some kind of special training facility, haven’t they?” I said.
“I have heard this also,” said Christophe wistfully.
“I think our Christophe here wants to be a spationaut,” Andrew sniggered.
“I am desolate I do not have the skills,” said Christophe, and he did manage to sound quite desolate when he said it.
“What about you, Matt?” Hassan asked. “If they asked, would you go?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“You’re a madman,” said Andrew. “Couldn’t drag me up there, not in a million years.”
“Of course, they will only be selecting Frenchmen,” Christophe sniffed, “so no need for you to worry.”
“The French are welcome to Space,” said Andrew, “the entire black puddle of it.”
I didn’t share Andrew’s disdain. As cabin boy aboard the Aurora I’d spent lots of time in the crowsnest staring at stars. Their constellations blazed with myths and legends. I’d always wondered what it would be like to go further, to get closer. At the Academy last term we’d studied celestial navigation and now the night sky beckoned me with even greater intensity.
But for now, Space was for the French, just as Christophe said, and I’d have to be satisfied helping them achieve their dreams. I didn’t feel too sorry for myself. My own dreams at the moment, didn’t live in outer space anyway, but much closer to earth.
“We’re almost in position,” I told my crew. “Let’s get ready, please.”
Despite the fact I was the youngest aboard, the others never questioned my command, not even Christophe, who always gave the impression of knowing everything. My crew didn’t call me Captain, or Sir, or Mister, but I didn’t expect it. They knew I had authority of the ship, and I think they trusted me. We’d worked well together so far.
Andrew and Hassan went aft. The aerotug’s gondola was a single long cabin, taken up mostly by the cargo area, where the powerful winch was positioned above the open bay doors.
It was Andrew’s job to control the winch and Hassan’s to make sure we were positioned perfectly before lowering our cargo. From his caged spotter’s post on the underside of the gondola, Hassan had an excellent view of what was directly below, and he gave me directions via speaking tube. His job might have sounded lowly, but it was vitally important.
“Level off, please,” I told Christophe, and throttled back, swinging us in towards the tower’s north edge. I saw the waiting work crew below, the signaler guiding us in with his orange flags, and then we were almost overhead and Hassan was the ship’s eyes.
“Slow ahead, slow, we’re almost at the mark,” came his voice through the tube.
I cut the engines right back so that we had just enough power to keep us dug in against the headwinds. Then I let Christophe take the throttle so I could concentrate on the rudder wheel for the final maneuvers.
“Nudge her to port,” said Hassan. “Too far -- bring her back a bit, you’re drifting astern … we’re on the mark!”
I heard the winch’s motor hum as it unspooled. It was always a tense time, lowering the cargo, because we had to keep the ship as steady as possible. Some days the crosswinds gave us a terrible shake.
“They’ve got hold of the guy lines!” said Hassan. “We need another twenty feet, slowly.”
Andrew unspooled some more cable. I knew the workers would already be shunting the tower segment into place. Welding torches would flare to life, red hot rivets would be swiftly hammered home. The tower had just grown another fifty feet.
“They’ve cast us loose,” Hassan said through the speaking tube. “Winch up!”
I put the throttle ahead a quarter and pulled us away from the tower. Behind us, the next aerotug was already waiting to deliver its own load.
“That’s us done,” I said. We’d delivered our last load of the day, and our shift was over. I was looking forward to a break – and to seeing Kate this evening. I had a special surprise planned for her.
“What about this one?” Andrew asked from the cargo area.
I glanced back and saw a single wooden crate secured against the rear wall. I’d not noticed it until now.
“I thought we’d made all our deliveries,” I said to Christophe, reaching for the clipboard that held our manifest.
The sound of boots hitting the deck made me turn. A man had dropped from the companion ladder that led up to the gas cells. In his hand was a pistol.
“Back against the wall!” he shouted at Andrew and at Hassan who’d just climbed out of his spotter’s cage.
Two more men dropped from the ladder, guns clenched in their fists. All three wore construction coveralls. On their backs were bulky rucksacks.
Before I could radio a distress call, one of them, a pale fellow with a gaunt face, strode over and put a bullet through the transmitter. Then he leveled the gun at my head.
My first thought, absurdly, was: I’m going to be late for Kate.
“What the hell’s all this?” Andrew roared.
“Easy, everyone,” I cautioned. I didn’t know who these fellows were, or what they wanted, but it would do no good to anger them. Christophe seemed calm enough, though his cheeks were flushed. I was most worried about Andrew, for he had a brawler’s temperament and I feared he might do something rash.
I doubted these men were pirates, for we had nothing of value aboard. Maybe they were escaped convicts and needed speedy passage out of the country. They must have been aboard my ship the entire afternoon, waiting.
“We are going down to the south-east pier,” Christophe told me. “The first platform.”
I looked at him, confused, before realizing what was going on.
No one was pointing a gun at Christophe.
“You understand?” he said.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
“We fly normally. Do not try to attract attention. We shall begin now.”
He was keeping me at the helm, which meant he didn’t know how to fly the ship alone. I took the rudder wheel and eased the throttle forward. “Elevators down three degrees.”
I would not say please anymore. My heart beat wildly and I was glad I had my flying to keep panic in check. The back of my head burned, as if the pistol projected deadly heat.
“Why’re we going down there?” I asked.
He ignored me.
“Christophe, you great gaseous frog!” Andrew roared. “What d’you think you’re doin’?”
“Shut your pie hole or we’ll gag you!” one of the other men said.
I guided the Atlas down toward the first platform, watching carefully for other airships. Our flight was unauthorized and right now the harbourmaster would be trying to raise us on the radio. Frightened as I was, it irked me to know that the harbourmaster and other pilots in the area would be thinking me an incompetent menace.
The South-East pier was one of the four cornerstones of the Tower, a massive fortress of interlocking girders that supported not only the first platform, but all above it. We were approaching it from the south at three thousand feet. I throttled back, not wishing to draw too close. I had no idea what Christophe’s intentions were.
“Level us off,” I told him.
“No. We will go underneath the platform.”
“Correct. Inside the pier.” He pointed through the window at the close weave of girders. “There.”
“I’m not sure there’s room,” I said.
“There is room,” he said with complete assurance.
“You’ve studied this, have you?”
“A great deal,” he said.
We were headed straight for an opening that looked no larger than the Atlas. A cross gust shook us off course, and we both struggled with elevators and rudder to keep us on target, for there was little margin for error. In we went, nearly grazing the underside of the platform. Stray ten feet to either side and our engines would be sheared straight off. We glided deeper inside.
Christophe reached for the throttle and killed the engines. “Tie up the ship,” he shouted back at his men.
The gaunt fellow who’d had his pistol trained on me strode aft to help.
“Your work is done,” Christophe said to me, pulling a pistol from inside his jacket and grabbing my arm. He marched me into the cargo area, where his men had thrown open the gondola’s side hatches. They held grappling lines, and let fly. The hooks caught hold amidst the girders, anchoring the Atlas.
I looked down through the open bay doors and saw the ground through a criss cross of girders, three thousand feet below.
“You two!” shouted the gaunt fellow at Andrew and Hassan. “Bring the crate over here.”
Glaring hatefully at the hijackers, Andrew slowly walked over to the crate with Hassan. The two of them released the straps and pushed it across the deck towards Christophe.
“That’s far enough,” he told them, when it was within ten feet of the bay doors. “Back against the wall. You also,” he said, giving me a shove.
“I never liked him,” Andrew growled to me. “Always so full of himself.”
I looked over at Hassan, who was very quiet, and I saw his hands shaking.
“Open it, Pierre,” Christophe said to the gaunt man.
The fellow obediently holstered his gun and pushed back the crate’s lid. Inside was enough dynamite to knock the face off the moon. I felt sick, thinking that this had been aboard my ship all day without my knowing. A complicated tangle of fusing sprouted from the dynamite and fed into some kind of archaic-looking device that looked half steam engine, half grandfather clock. The clock face had two hands, both pointing at twelve o’clock, and underneath was a large winding key.
“You’re Babelites!” said Hassan in disbelief.
All Paris had heard of these fellows. They hated the Celestial Tower and were dead set against its construction. They took their name from the Tower of Babel in the Bible. That tower was a giant ziggurat meant to reach all the way to heaven. But God was angered by the Babylonian’s arrogance and made all the workers start talking in different languages. They couldn’t understand each other, and the ziggurat was abandoned and fell into ruin.
The Babelites had already made one attempt to sabotage the Celestial Tower. They’d tried to kidnap the chief engineer but had botched it, and some of them were caught and jailed. I looked at Christophe in astonishment.
“I can’t believe you’re one of them,” I said.
“It is not for man to build a gateway to the heavens,” he said. “God meant heaven for those good souls on earth who’ve earned it. The Tower is an abomination and must be struck down.”
“You lunatic,” said Andrew, “you’ll kill thousands of people!”
“If we do not topple it now,” Christophe said, “it will be toppled by God’s own hand. We have planned our explosion to make the Tower fall away from Paris. We are trying to minimize the loss of life. You may think us mad, but we will be remembered as heroes.”
I doubted this very much, but said nothing. Christophe and his followers acted with a zeal I couldn’t comprehend.
“Set it going,” Christophe told Pierre.
The gaunt fellow pushed the clock’s long hand back to ten minutes before twelve. He gave the winding key several complete turns. A dreadful sound emanated from the contraption, more a gasp than a tick.
“And what about us?” Andrew shouted.
“I am, of course, desolate,” said Christophe, “but sometimes these things are necessary.”
“You mean killing us!”
One of the other Babelites tossed Christophe a bulky backpack, which he caught with his free hand and slung over one shoulder.
“Yves,” Christophe said. “Go now.”
Yves wasted no time stepping to the open bay doors and jumping out. I was close enough to the edge to see narrow parawings explode from his pack. They were extremely maneuverable, for the man made a sharp turn and went soaring out of the pier through a set of girders. He had enough height to sail a safe distance from the Tower before the bomb exploded.
“You cowards!” spat Andrew, and Christophe leveled the gun at his head to discourage any last minute heroics.
“Pierre, go!” said Christophe.
Before Pierre could take two steps to the doors, the ticking stopped with a wheeze, like a dying man’s final exhalation.
My eyes flew to the clock. The minute hand was still nine minutes from twelve.
“What is wrong with it?” Christophe demanded.
Pierre gave a shrug and said, “It is temperamental.”
“It’s run out of tick,” snapped Christophe. “Did you wind it properly?”
“Mais oui,” said Pierre, “but with the mediocre materials you give me to work with what can you – “
At this Christophe exploded into an angry torrent of French, which his compatriot returned with much gesticulating and shrugging. During all this, the other Babelite kept his pistol aimed at Hassan, Andrew and me, nervously glancing between us and his fellows.
“Mon Dieu!” Christophe said, throwing up his hands. “Just wind it up some more. Imbecile!”
Pierre stepped towards the clock, but before he could touch it, the wheezing tick resumed.
He turned to Christophe. “Ca marche. It’s good.”
Christophe’s face was rigid with contempt. “Perhaps I should make you stay behind, to make sure it is, as you say, good.”
Pierre gave a shrug. “It will work. I have tested it many times.”
For a few seconds Christophe stared at the timer as it wheezed on. Then he blew air noisily through his lips. “Pierre, go. You too, Jules.”
Looking grateful, Pierre jumped out the bay doors and deployed his parawings. Jules followed.
Christophe turned his pistol on the rest of us, shrugging his parawing pack onto both shoulders.
“Would you prefer that I shoot you, or would you like to go down with your ship?” he asked me.
“Down with my ship,” I said, though I had no intention of dying today.
“Very well,” he said. “I am sorry.” And as he clipped together his chest harness, the pistol fell from his nervous hand.
All three of us sprang at him, Andrew with a savage roar.
Christophe lunged for his pistol. We landed atop him in a heap, kicking and punching. The pistol spun away across the deck towards the open bay doors and I launched myself at it, snatching it up just before it went over the edge. I leapt to my feet.
“Get up!” I shouted, aiming my pistol at Christophe.
Breathing hard, he stood.
“Shut it off!” I yelled.
He shook his head. “Unfortunately, only Pierre knows how.”
“Bollocks!” shouted Andrew, striding towards me. “Give me the gun, Cruse!”
He snatched it from my hand, fumbled it, and it fell to the deck.
As Andrew scrambled to pick up the gun, Christophe ran for the bay doors. Hassan and I grabbed him from behind and we all struggled on the very brink. Christophe punched me in the face and jumped towards the opening, but Hassan had him firmly by one of his shoulder straps and pulled back with all his weight. Christophe spun around, the parawing pack flying off his body and onto the deck. He staggered off balance, arms windmilling, then with a cry fell through the bay doors – to his death.
The three of us stood panting, staring at one another.
The bomb wheezed in its crate.
“How much time do we have?” Hassan asked.
I ran over and looked. “Seven minutes.”
The tick faltered a few seconds, then resumed. I had no idea whether this meant we had more time, or whether the infernal device was still keeping track of the seconds and meant to surprise us.
“What if we just rip out the clock?” Hassan suggested.
“That might set it off,” I said. I knew nothing about explosives but didn’t fancy my chances tugging at wires.
“I want off this ship!” bellowed Andrew.
“There’s no point!” I said. “We can’t climb down in time.”
“Who said anything about climbing!”
At the same moment all eyes fell on Christophe’s parawing pack.
“Sorry, lads,” said Andrew, springing on it. “It’s only good for one.” He looked at me, a little shame-faced. “And captain goes down with the ship anyway, right?”
He still had the pistol, and though he did not point it at us, I didn’t trust him. Hassan and I watched as he buckled on the pack.
“You know how to use that?” I asked. I couldn’t bear him much ill will. Someone might as well get clear in time.
“I’ll take my chances. Good luck.”
He jumped out the open bay doors. I saw his wings deploy, and he careened crazily around the girders before colliding with one, hard. The blow seemed to knock him out, for his head lolled and his wings crumpled, and then he fell, bouncing from one girder to the next on his fatal plunge to the earth.
I wasted no more time. “Cut the grappling lines,” I told Hassan. “There’s a knife in the emergency locker.”
I ran forward to the helm. Even from up front I could hear the bomb’s wheezing. I started the engines, and the propellers quickly accelerated into a satisfying drone.
“We’re cut loose!” Hassan shouted, running up front. “What’s our plan?”
“Dump it in the drink.” On the southern fringe of the Bois de Vincennes was an ornamental lake.
“Will we make it?”
“We’ll make it. Take the elevator wheel.”
“I’ve never flown!”
“There’s nothing to it.”
I pushed the throttle and gripped the rudder wheel. There was no time to try to ease out backward. Our only way out was straight through. Before us was a narrow passage that would bring us out the far side of the pier. I opened the throttle. Girders hurtled past us, the underside of the platform streaking overhead.
“Just hold her steady, Hassan, you’re doing very well.”
He stood, shoulders hunched up around his ears, staring straight ahead with wide eyes.
I saw the opening coming up, a narrow slat of brighter light. We were straying a little too high, but before I could ask Hassan to correct our altitude, an awful ripping sound came from the ship’s back. Warning lights flashed on the ballast board. We’d torn most of our gas cells but there was no time to worry about that now.
Suddenly we were through the pier, but still underneath the Tower’s first platform. I reached over and gave the elevator wheel a swift turn so that we dipped sharply and shot beneath one of the Tower’s colossal arches, and then – we were out!
“Bring us back up now, Hassan,” I said.
Aerotugs glided all around, seeming to move incredibly slowly. I weaved through them, banking sharply and climbing as I took us out towards the park and lake.
“There it is!” shouted Hassan.
“How much time’s left?”
Hassan ran aft to check. “Two minutes and a bit!” he called. “Wait, it’s stopped… no, it’s going again!”
My heart was beating madly now. The wind was light, and I lined the Atlas up so that we’d pass directly over the lake, then tied off the rudder wheel and hurried back to help Hassan.
Together we shoved the crate gently to the edge of the bay doors. I had no idea how sensitive the thing was and held my breath, fearing we might set it off. We peered down at the parkland -- people sitting on benches, children playing – and waited breathlessly for the water. Where was the lake?
I looked over at the clock. The minute hand had stopped altogether, just a shade before twelve o’clock. Then, as if making up for lost time, the clock started ticking with surreal speed, gasping like a marathon runner in his final stretch.
With horror I watched the hands swirl around, as though the insides of the clock were uncoiling.
“There’s the water!” shouted Hassan.
“Heave ho!” I bellowed.
We put our shoulders to the crate and pushed it over the rim. It plunged down and hit the lake with a mighty splash.
“Grab hold!” I yelled.
“Maybe the water’ll put out the – “ Hassan began.
Then a colossal fountain burst from the lake. The blast tossed us to the deck. Cabin windows shattered. Hot wind shrieked past, creating a hellish symphony in our rigging. Then, finally, silence.
“It’s spent,” gasped Hassan.
“Good work,” I told him, struggling to my feet and back to the helm.
We were losing gas swiftly, and the rudder must have been damaged, for the Atlas was sluggish to turn. But we would make it safely back to the aeroharbour and, with a bit of luck, I might even be on time for Kate.
copyright 2008 Kenneth Oppel.
Excerpted from Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel, published by HarperCollins & HarperCollins Canada. Reproduced by permission, all rights reserved.