It takes a very special crew to keep the cloudship Orion running, and no one knows that better than Nadya Skylung, who tends the cloud garden that keeps the ship afloat. When the unthinkable happens and pirates attack, Nadya and the other children aboardall orphans taken in by the kindhearted Captain Nicnarrowly escape, but the rest of the crew is captured. Alone and far from help, only Nadya and her four brave and loyal friends can take back the Orion and rescue the crew. And she'll risk life and limb to save the only family she's ever known. But . . . this attack was no accident. What exactly are the pirates looking for? Could it be Nadya they've been after all along?
"Nadya Skylung is one smart, sassy, spitfire heroine with gills. I love her!" Liesl Shurtliff, New York Times bestselling author of Rump
"A stunningly imaginative world unlike anything I've seen before. It is thrilling, it is emotional, and it is wholly original." M. A. Larson, author of Pennyroyal Academy
"A stunning debut filled with derring-do, surprises, and truly original world building." J. A. White, author of The Thickety
About the Author
Brett Helquist has illustrated many books for children, including the bestselling A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more at bretthelquist.com and on Twitter at @BHelquist.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: In which we meet our heroine, and a storm approaches.
Outside the cabin doorway, a distant rumble calls . . .
Outside the cabin doorway, a distant rumble mumbles . . . ?
There’s a loud crack and the rumble of thunder, and my whole cabin on the cloudship Orion jumps up a few inches and falls back down. I snag my journal and pen before they can slide off my desk and look out the window again, where the yellow-gold light of afternoon is fading into gray, stormy shadows.
“Darn it,” I mutter.
Tam Ban, my greatest nemesis on the ship and as goody-goody a kid as you’ve ever met, shouts at me through the door. “Nadya! Captain Nic wants you, and he’ll give you stripes this time if you’re not out here in ten seconds!”
I push back from my writing desk and snort. Nic never hits us. Our first mate, Tall Thom, wants him to sometimes, but Nic’s too nice for that. All the same, I open the desk drawer where I keep important stuff and toss my journal into it. I can hear the rumble of thunder, after all, and we’re halfway across the Cloud Sea, six days from the dusty adobe houses, giant walls, and leafy streets of Vash Abandi in the west, and five days till the ironwork cranes, crooked skyscrapers, zip lines, and grungy alleys of Far Agondy in the east. Out here, the storms are big and mean and fast. So if Nic wants me and there’s thunder outside, something exciting’s probably about to happen.
My name’s Nadya Skylung, and I keep the Orion afloat.
I don’t do it all by myself, of course, not yet. Mrs. Trachia’s still teaching me. But I’ll have it figured out soon. I have to. Tall Thom’s leaving the ship when we make port in Far Agondy next week, and Nic’s going to pick one of the kids on the Orion to do his job. I’m gonna make sure it’s me and learn how to run a cloudship, and then someday I’ll be captain of my own ship, and I’ll fly anywhere I want, anytime I want to—Nadya, the greatest skylung of them all!
I’m halfway through closing my desk drawer when the ship gives another huge lurch and there’s an ominous creaking from the deck outside. Tam pounds on my door again. I flinch and jump up.
“I’m coming!” I shout.
I open the door and glare at Tam.
A mop of iron-black hair sits on his head like a grumpy octopus, and he’s got on the same black overalls and white shirt he always wears. He thinks his clothes show off his permanently tan skin and the muscles underneath it. I think they show off how dumb he is.
Tam’s six months younger than me. But he’s also six inches taller, six ways wiser, and six times as quick. Or so he tells me, anyway. He’s a stick-in-the-mud about rules and safety and doesn’t trust anything he can’t take apart with a screwdriver. I know the world’s not as scary as he thinks, and that rules were made for reasons and the reasons matter more than the rules. We butt heads over it all the time. Everybody thinks Nic’ll pick him or me as first mate when Thom leaves the ship, but I know it’ll be me.
Above Tam, the big dark egg of the cloud balloon where I do most of my work twists and creaks at the end of long cables secured to the deck. The storm’s not far off now, and it’s getting closer. The wind’s picking up.
“Get your safety belt on,” Tam says. “Nic wanted you ten minutes ago. What’re you doing in there?”
I roll my eyes. It didn’t look like the storm was that close. I was just gonna finish my page. “None of your business,” I say. I like to journal ’cause it reminds me of my mom. I’ve got a page from one of her old diaries tucked away in my desk, and I try to write like she did.
Tam snorts, but right then a huge gust of wind hits the Orion. The whole ship rises up by a couple of feet and slams back down. My stomach jumps into my throat. I just about float off the deck.
Behind me, I hear the thunk of something heavy falling out of my desk. The wind pushes down on the aft of the Orion and up on its bow, so the deck slants and I have to brace myself to keep from slipping aftward, toward Nic’s cabin and the stairway at the other end of the ship.
A black-and-silver flash rolls by my feet through the open door, and my heart tries to swan-dive out of my chest.
I don’t remember much about my parents, see. That’s why my last name’s Skylung, after the way I can breathe the special air in cloud balloons, instead of after their last name. Mrs. T and Nic found me in a crashed ship in the desert outside Vash Abandi when I was three.
Tam says my parents must be dead since nobody’s ever seen them, but I don’t believe him. I remember my dad standing at the wheel of a cloudship in a sandstorm, shouting directions to the crew. I remember my mom letting me run my fingers over fancy etching on a silver safe and telling me how special it was. I think they’re still out there, doing something amazing, and I just have to find them. So I take extra special care of the knickknacks I have left from when Nic and Mrs. T found me.
The most important of all those things is a round, tarnished silver doorknob that I remember my mom pressing into my hands and telling me to keep safe. The same one that just rolled past my feet and is heading for the deck rails, the open sky, and the ocean below.
I elbow Tam out of the way and run after it. There’s another crack of lightning off the port bow. A gust of wind hits the Orion and pushes the doorknob starboard. It skitters toward the rail, where there are little gaps called scuppers that let the rain drain off during big storms. The scuppers are more than big enough for my doorknob to fit through.
“Nadya!” Tam shouts, but I ignore him. I’ve almost caught up to the doorknob when the wind gusts again, and the knob slips through my fingers and rolls farther toward the rail. The Orion levels out, and then her port side lifts, sending everything on deck tumbling starboard again. I get a glimpse into the ocean through one of the scuppers, and the doorknob rolls right toward it. I’m still a couple feet away. I hold my breath, dive, stretch out my fingers, and close my eyes.
I nab the doorknob just as it’s sailing into the air.
Half a second later, my shoulder slams into the railing hard enough to rattle my teeth, but I don’t lose my grip. I snatch the doorknob back up through the hole, open my eyes, and brush my fingers over it. No damage—Goshend be good—it’s the same dusty silver, blackened in some spots with tarnish I can’t get off no matter how hard I polish. It’s about as big as an undersized orange, with a huge, beautiful tree winding its limbs upward on the front like it’s praying and a strange little rod with lots of slots in it coming out the back. I sniff it real quick, just to make sure the smell of home’s still there. It is—a spicy, musty aroma that makes my tongue tingle.
“Dang it, Nadya!” Tam shouts. He shuts the door to my cabin and stomps toward me. The wind calms down, and the Orion stops pitching around so much. I take a deep breath and tuck the doorknob into my pocket, where it’ll be safe.
Tam grabs me by the wrist when he gets to me and dumps my safety belt, which he must’ve nabbed from my cabin, into my lap. “That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen you do,” he says. “What if you fell?”
I jerk my wrist free and stick my tongue out at him. “I was fine,” I say.
Tam rolls his eyes and nods toward my pocket. “Why do you keep that thing, anyway? It’s just a useless piece of junk.”
I stand up and toss the safety belt at him. “You’re a useless piece of junk, Tam!” It’s not my best work as insults go, but I’m a little distracted by the storm coming on and the fact I almost lost the thing that’s most important to me in the whole world.
So I turn my back on Tam, brush myself off, and head toward Nic’s cabin.
My cabin nestles up against the Orion’s bow. In order to get to Captain Nic’s from it, you’ve got to cross the whole wooden length of the ship’s deck. You go past the stairs that lead down to the ironroom, where the engines that drive our huge metal propellers are. You go past the ladder that shoots up to the metal catwalks and rigging around the cloud balloon. And then you go under the aft deck, where Tall Thom stands like a scarecrow at the ship’s wheel.
I suppose I should explain about the catwalks, since I practically live up there. Around the balloon there’s a big spiderweb of metal walkways, and inside that’s the garden that makes the lighter-than-air gas that keeps us afloat. It’s my favorite place on the ship, all bright and steamy and beautiful, and only me and Mrs. T can go in there.
“Nadya,” I hear from the aft deck.
Tall Thom has his eyes, bright brown and shining as a Glimmerstreet dollar, on me, and I hunch my shoulders a little. Thom knows more about how a cloudship’s designed and run than anyone I’ve ever met, and he never cuts me any slack when I do something wrong. Nic likes to crew the Orion with orphans, train them so they can run their own ships, then set them up somewhere else and get a new batch of kids in. Apparently, Thom was one of Nic’s orphans once, but it’s hard to believe. He’s harder on us than Nic and Mrs. T combined.
Thom’s skinny as a switch and has a head the shape of a stovepipe. He dresses like a South Sea pirate—all worn-out trousers and striped shirts and bandanas over black hair and dark-brown skin—and his clothes always seem to stick to his body. Sometimes I think he wouldn’t mind if he lost an eye, just so he could complete his look.
“What?” I call out.
“You have to listen to Tam when we send him for you. We don’t always see trouble coming this far off, and the Orion needs all of us to keep her safe.”
I wait until he turns back to the storm to roll my eyes, but the thunder gets louder when I do, like it’s mad at me for arguing. So I scurry on ahead toward Nic’s cabin.
He’s right about the Orion though. The ship’s a big wooden job like the sailing vessels that used to cross the ocean. She’s solid as sapphires and Nic keeps her well maintained, but she’s one of the oldest cloudships around. Sometimes things break on her, like the cable moorings or the engine housings or the bolts that keep the catwalks steady, and it takes a lot of work to keep her running. Still, I love everything about her. She’s got a big cargo hold on her lowest deck, a bunch of rooms, the galley, and the ironroom on the middle deck, and the upper deck where I’m standing and where Nic’s cabin and mine are. She’s freedom and safety and home, all wrapped up in a cozy little package.
The wind picks up again. Thirty feet or so above my head, the cloud balloon shifts and the cables that attach it to the Orion groan like adults getting up from a nap. I stare up at the balloon and its night-sky design. Every cloudship has a design on its balloon to match its name—it’s sort of a point of pride and an identifier all at the same time—and ours is painted to look like the night sky seen through the enormous, swirling ferns of somebody’s garden. As I’m looking, the balloon twists in the wind, and I hear a flurry of frightened whispers in my mind as some of the plants around it get tilted down to face the ocean. I pat the ladder up to the cloud balloon as I go by, and I try to think reassuring thoughts in the direction of the plants.
That’s a big part of my job, see. We’ve got a hundred and twenty little bays around the catwalks where we grow plants that gobble up different kinds of cloud and churn out all sorts of stuff. Some of them grow fruits and vegetables, but others make fuels, drinks, iron, plasticose—fluffy bits that they spin into fabric in the cities—and more. We’ve even got one that spits out a couple real fire opals every month. That one cost Nic a mint, but we get a lot of money for the opals in port, and he says it’s just about paid for itself now.
The outerplants, along with the garden inside the balloon, need a skylung to take care of them. All those plants and the animals that live around them come from the Roof of the World, like skylungs do, and I can hear them talking and know what they need. Sometimes it’s food or water, or the nutrients in the soil are wrong, but sometimes it’s softer than that. Sometimes they need shade, or sun, or just company. Plants and animals get lonely too, you know.
I get to Nic’s cabin a few seconds later. We’re being pushed forward and starboard by the wind, and storm clouds creased with slick lightning blot out the horizon like the giant black skyscrapers on the Far Agondy waterfront. The storm’s still a few miles away, but it’s rolling toward us. It’s gonna be a bad one. I can feel it.
As I put my hand on the door, I hear a thump and look back to see what Tam’s doing. He’s leaning hard on a winch by one of the cables attached to the cloud balloon—loosening one that was groaning, I think. His hair falls over his eyes as he pushes, and when he swipes it away, he sees me watching him.
I stick out my tongue, open the door to the cabin, and walk in.
I love Nic’s cabin. It’s lined in sweet-smelling orange cedar, and it’s got three huge windows at the back of it. There’s a couch under them with big green cushions. The room’s got an iron chandelier swinging from the ceiling too, but I’ve never seen Nic turn it on because of how much the gas costs.
Under the chandelier, Nic keeps a big square table. It’s usually covered in charts and maps, but sometimes I see him and Salyeh Abande, the kid he’s training as our polymath, squinting at lines of figures on it. They work together, comparing what our plants produce to rumors about what’s selling well in the cities around the Cloud Sea, doing complicated math with Mrs. T, and figuring out where we’re going next.
Nic and his soup-kettle belly are standing over the table. Nic’s got enormous caterpillar eyebrows and fluffy white sideburns that come almost all the way down to his chin, but other than that, he doesn’t have a lick of hair on his head. He’s got rosy skin and wears gold-rimmed glasses that cost more than a month’s worth of supplies, and he never lets anybody touch them. He only even takes them out of their case in his front shirt pocket when he absolutely has to.
Outside, the thunder rumbles again. The ship rolls a little to starboard, like she’s being pushed hard by the wind.
Nic’s standing next to Salyeh and Tian Li Chang, our starwinder, peering through his glasses at a map covered in Tian Li’s scribbled notes and course plots and a bunch of papers with Salyeh’s big, blocky numbers on them. Tian Li reads the winds and stars to see where we are on the Cloud Sea, and they show her things about the past, present, and future, like what the clouds are going to do and what might happen in our next port. We found her in T’an Gaban, begging in the market. Nic stopped, looked into her eyes, and offered her a place on board the Orion.
Starwinders have special eyes, see? They’re gray and blue and green and brown all at the same time, and when they move, the colors swirl inside them, like they’re not attached to anything. You can spot a starwinder a mile away, once you know what to look for.
I guess nobody in that market but Nic did.
Tian Li’s short, and she’s got long dark hair that waves in the breeze like it’s got a mind of its own and sandstone-colored skin. She’s steady as a block of rock and cares a lot about what’s fair, and I think she’s awesome, even though we aren’t best friends. I’m pink as a peach, my hair looks like wet straw, and I’ve got more freckles than a freckle-covered mogwok, but she tells me she likes my style anyway. So we get along pretty well, on the whole of it.
Sal and I get on all right too. He’s big—almost as tall as Nic, only thirteen, and still growing—and his black hair’s wound in tight curls like the fronds of a fern, and cut real close to his head. He’s quiet and skittish as a rabbit, too, and his skin’s the dark brown of burning paper. He joined the crew the same time me and Mrs. T did, and he comes from the desert city of Vash Abandi like I do.
It’s real warm in Nic’s cabin. The chandelier swings a little as the ship moves, and the windows rattle as the wind knocks against them. The propellers hum outside, just below.
“Nadya, there’s a storm coming,” Nic says.
“We can’t afford to change course and go around it like we usually do,” he continues. “It’s too big, and we’ve only got seven days of food for the gormling.”
The gormling’s a baby leviathan we’ve got in a big tank down in the hold. Some muckety-muck who lords it over Vash Abandi is giving it to some other muckety-muck who thinks he’s king of Far Agondy. Muckety-mucks are real big on having pet leviathans, and this one offered Nic a lot of money to have us make a special run between the cities for him. I like the gormling—it’s got long whiskers and rainbow scales that flash colored patterns in the darkness, and it makes neat shapes with its body when it’s awake—but it only eats a special kind of pickled deep-sea cuttlefish, and a lot of it, and that means we have to make our run much faster than usual.
“I need you to get up in the cloud balloon with Mrs. Trachia,” Nic continues, “and stay there for the storm.”
“Where’s Pepper?” I ask.
Pepper Pott’s our fireminder in training, the last member of our crew. She’s my best friend and my most reliable backup when me and Tam argue. She’s got hair the color of sunset, skin like a white-sand beach, and almost as many freckles as I do. Her job’s the most dangerous of all: she can reach into the world beyond this one and call up the beings of fire who live there. They have names, apparently, although I can’t understand them and sometimes I can’t even tell them apart from regular flames. Pepper and Tall Thom, who’s teaching her, get them to work in the engines for us, so we burn less coal and oil and whatnot. Keeps costs down, and it’s better for the clouds too.
“She’s trying to coax a little more speed out of the engines. It’s going to be a bad storm, Nadya. I hope you’re ready for it.”
“I’m always ready.” I grin.
Tian Li smiles at me. Salyeh looks up from his figures and shakes his head.
Nic just sighs. “Go on up to the balloon, Nadya,” he says. “Mrs. Trachia needs you.”
I bob my head and do as he says.
Back out on the deck, the wind’s so bad I have to lean into it to stay on my feet. The ship bucks and twists, the sun’s all the way gone, and the line of storm clouds has gotten so close I can almost reach out and touch it. Tall Thom’s shucked into his black raincoat and hat, and he’s wearing a safety belt clipped to two bolts by the ship’s wheel.
Tam’s wearing his rain slicks too. He’s got two ropes running between his belt and the safety lines that run up and down the Orion’s deck, each rope clipped to its line by a big metal clasp. We call the belt ropes lobster claws, and they’re like our little guardian spirits. We use them so often sometimes it feels like if I’m not wearing them I’m a squirrel without a tail. As I watch, Tam unclips his and ties a longer safety rope to his belt and a deck bolt near the ladder, so he can move around more freely.
Tam meets me by the ladder that leads to the cloud balloon. He’s holding my safety belt and lobster claws. Below us, the whitecaps on the waves have grown as big as dragons. Maybe there’s leviathans down there, watching us hungrily. I hope not.
“Be careful this time, will you?” Tam mutters. He hands me the belt. It’s got two leg loops and a waist loop, all tied together. I step through the leg loops and start jerking the rest of it up over my pants.
“I was fine, Tam.” I grab the lobster claws and clip them to my belt, then to the first section of the safety rod next to the ladder.
Tam snorts, but the storm’s getting closer and there’s no time to argue. We’ve got an antenna that’s supposed to catch lightning bolts and zap them away from the ladder, but I need to get off the metal and inside the balloon as fast as I can. The wind splatters rain into my eyes, and by the time I blink it clear, Tam’s gone.
I work my way up the ladder as quick as I can, but it takes a while. To make sure you’re safe while you climb, you slide the claws on your lines along the safety rod, then unclip them and lift them over big rings welded on to the rod every few feet. It’s a pretty good system—you’ll never fall farther than the space between the rings before the claws stop you.
The cloud balloon shivers and shakes above me as I climb. By the time I clip my claws on to the safety lines around the catwalks, the storm has practically swallowed us. The wind shrieks over the balloon’s night-sky paint job and whips water into my face. Lightning flashes faster and faster, and the thunder drums a sheet-metal symphony in my ears.
I hop off the ladder and run for the iron door that leads into the cloud balloon. I have to set my shoulder against it and push with all my weight, but eventually it creaks open.
I unclip from the catwalks and step into a little metal room I call the waiting house. We use it to let people in and out of the balloon without letting a bunch of air escape with them.
The door slams shut behind me, and I crank a wheel inside to ratchet it down airtight. Then I push a big green button. A pump attached to the waiting house whirrs.
The air hisses as the pump sucks it out of the room. My ears pop a couple times, and it gets harder and harder to breathe. And then, when almost all the outside air has been sucked out of the waiting house, a little chime sounds.
The door to the inside of the cloud balloon creaks open. A puff of moist air warms the cramped metal benches around me. It smells of lilac and roses and orange trees and damp, musty plants.
The gills where my neck meets my shoulders flutter open.
I take a deep breath and step into the cloud balloon.
It feels like coming home.
Excerpted from "Nadya Skylung and the Cloudship Rescue"
Copyright © 2018 Jeff Seymour.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
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