Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow's nest, being the ship's eyes. We were two nights out of Sydney, and there'd been no weather to speak of so far. I was keeping watch on a dark stack of nimbus clouds off to the northwest, but we were leaving it far behind, and it looked to be smooth going all the way back to Lionsgate City. Like riding a cloud.
The sky pulsed with stars. Some people say it makes them lonesome when they stare up at the night sky. I can't imagine why. There's no shortage of company. By now there's not a constellation I can't name. Orion. Lupus. Serpens. Hercules. Draco. My father taught me all their stories. So when I look up I see a galaxy of adventures and heroes and villains, all jostling together and trying to outdo one another, and I sometimes want to tell them to hush up and not distract me with their chatter. I've glimpsed all the stars ever discovered by astronomers, and plenty that haven't been. There're the planets to look at too, depending on the time of year. Venus. Mercury. Mars. And don't forget Old Man Moon. I know every crease and pockmark on that face of his.
My watch was almost at an end, and I was looking forward to climbing into my bunk, sliding under warm blankets and into a deep sleep. Even though it was only September and we were crossing the equator, it was still cool at night up in the crow's nest, parting the winds at seventy-five miles an hour. I was grateful for my fleece-lined coat.
Spyglass to my face, I slowly swept the heavens. Here at the Aurora's summit, shielded by a glass observation dome, I had a three-sixty view of the sky around and above the ship. The lookout's job was to watch for weather changes and for other ships. Over the Pacificus, you didn't see much traffic, though earlier I'd caught the distant flicker of a freighter, ploughing the waves toward the Orient. But boats were no concern of ours. We sailed eight hundred feet above them.
The smell of fresh-baked bread wafted up to me. Far below, in the ship's kitchens, they were taking out the first loaves and rolls and cinnamon buns and croissants and Danishes. I inhaled deeply. A better smell than this I couldn't imagine, and my stomach gave a hungry twist. In a few minutes, Mr. Riddihoff would be climbing the ladder to take the watch, and I could swing past the kitchen and see if the ship's baker was willing to part with a bun or two. He almost always was.
A shooting star slit the sky. That made one hundred and six I'd seen this season; I'd been keeping track. Baz and I had a little contest going, and I was in the lead by twelve stars.
Then I saw it.
Or didn't see it. Because at first all I noticed was a blackness where stars should have been. I raised my spyglass again and, with the help of the moon, caught a glimpse.
It was a hot air balloon, hanging there in the night sky.
Its running lights weren't on, which was odd. The balloon was higher than us by about a hundred feet, drifting off our starboard bow. The burner came on suddenly, jetting blue flame to heat the air in the balloon's envelope for a few seconds. But I couldn't see anyone at the controls. They must have been set on a clockwork timer. Nobody was moving around in the gondola. It was deep and wide, big enough for a kind of sleeping cabin on one side, and plenty of storage underneath. I couldn't ever recall seeing a balloon this far out. I lifted the speaking tube to my mouth.
"Crow's nest reporting."
I waited a moment as my voice hurtled down through the tube, one hundred fifty feet to the control car suspended from the Aurora's belly.
"Go ahead, Mr. Cruse."
It was Captain Walken on watch tonight, and I was glad, for I much preferred him to the other officers. Some of them just called me "Cruse" or "boy," figuring I wasn't worth a "mister" on account of my age. But never the captain. To him I was always Mr. Cruse, and it got so that I'd almost started to think of myself as a mister. Whenever I was back in Lionsgate City on shore leave and my mother or sisters called me Matt, my own name sounded strange to me at first.
"Hot air balloon at one o'clock, maybe a half mile off, one hundred feet up."
"Thank you, Mr. Cruse." There was a pause, and I knew the captain would be looking out the enormous wraparound windows of the control car. Because it was set well back from the bow, its view of anything high overhead was limited. That's why there was always a watch posted in the forward crow's nest. The Aurora needed a set of eyes up top.
"Yes, I see it now. Well spotted, Mr. Cruse. Can you make out its markings? We'll train the light on it."
Mounted at the front of the control car was a powerful spotlight. Its beam cut a blazing swath through the night and struck the balloon. It was in a sorry state, withered and puckered. It was leaking, or maybe the burner wasn't working properly.
"The Endurance," I read into the speaking tube.
She looked like she'd endured a bit too much. Maybe a storm had punctured her envelope or bashed her about some.
And still no sign of the pilot in the gondola.
Along the length of the speaking tube I heard tinny murmurings from the control car as the captain conferred with the bridge officers.
"It's not on the flight plan," I heard Mr. Torbay, the navigator, say.
Excerpted from Airborn by Kenneth Oppel Excerpted by permission.
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