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Once Upon a Time in the Northby Philip Pullman
The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong northwest wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve. The pilot was a lean young man with a large hat, a laconic disposition, and a thin mustache, and at present he was making for the Barents Sea Company Depot, whose location was marked on a torn scrap of paper pinned to the binnacle of the gondola. He could see the depot spread out around the little harbor ahead — a cluster of administrative buildings, a hangar, a warehouse, workshops, gas storage tanks, and the associated machinery; it was all approaching fast, and he had to make quick adjustments to everything he could control in order to avoid the hangar roof and make for the open space beyond the warehouse.
The gas-valve was stuck. It needed a wrench, but the only tool to hand was a dirty old revolver, which the pilot hauled from the holster at his waist and used to bang the valve till it loosened all at once, releasing more gas than he really wanted. The balloon sagged and drooped suddenly, and plunged downwards, scattering a group of men clustered around a broken tractor. The gondola smashed into the hard ground, and bounced and dragged behind the emptying balloon across the open space until it finally came to rest only feet away from a gas storage tank.
The pilot gingerly untangled his fingers from the rope he'd been holding on to, worked out which way up he was, shifted the toolbox off his legs, wiped the oily water out of his eyes, and hauled himself upright.
"Well, Hester, looks like we're getting the hang of this," he said. His dæmon, who looked like a small sardonic jackrabbit, flicked her ears as she clambered out of the tangle of tools, cold-weather clothing, broken instruments, and rope. Everything was saturated.
"My feelings are too deep to express, Lee," she said.
Lee found his hat and emptied the rainwater out of it before settling it on his head. Then he became aware of the audience: the men by the tractor; two workers at the gas plant, one clasping his hands to his head after the near escape; and a shirtsleeved clerk from the administrative building, gaping in the open doorway.
Lee gave them a cheerful wave and turned back to make the balloon safe. He was proud of this balloon. He'd won it in a poker game six months before, in Texas. He was twenty-four, ready for adventure, and happy to go wherever the winds took him. He'd better be, as Hester reminded him; he wasn't going to go anywhere else.
Blown by the winds of chance, then, and very slightly aided by the first half of a tattered book called The Elements of Aerial Navigation, which his opponent in the poker game had thrown in free (the second half was missing), he had drifted into the Arctic, stopping wherever he could find work, and eventually landed on this island. Novy Odense looked like a place where there was work to be done, and Lee's pockets were well nigh empty.
He worked for an hour or two to make everything secure and then, assuming the nonchalance proper to a prince of the air, he sauntered over to the administrative building to pay for the storage of the balloon.
"You come here for the oil?" said the clerk behind the counter.
Lee found the Customs and Revenue office easily enough, and filled in a form under the instructions of a stern young officer.
"Thank you, Mr. Scoresby," said the officer. "It would be a good idea to remember that the only legitimate agency of the law here on Novy Odense is the Office of Customs and Revenue. There is no police force. That means that if anyone transgresses the law, we deal with it, and let me assure you that we do so without hesitation."
"Glad to hear it," said Lee. "Give me a law-abiding place any day."
The townspeople took no notice of them, except to avoid them on the pavement. They didn't look at them either, Lee noticed.
All in all, the place was suffused with an air of tension and anxiety.
Lee was hungry, so he chose a cheap-looking bar and ordered vodka and some pickled fish. The place was crowded and the air was rank with smokeleaf, and unless they were unusually excitable in this town, there was something in the nature of a quarrel going on. Voices were raised in the corner of the room, someone was banging his fist on a table, and the bartender was watching closely, paying only just enough attention to his job to refill Lee's glass without being asked.
Lee knew that one sure way to get into trouble of his own was to inquire too quickly into other people's. So he didn't give more than a swift glance at the area where the voices were raised, but he was curious too, and once he'd made a start on the pickled fish he said to the bartender:
He turned round in a leisurely way and rested his elbows on the bar behind him. The man with the red hair was about fifty, stocky and high-colored, and when one of the other men at the table tried to put a hand on his arm he shook it off violently, upsetting a glass. Seeing what he'd done, the Dutchman put both hands to his head in a gesture that looked more like despair than fury. Then he tried placating the man whose beer he'd spilt, but that went wrong too, and he banged both fists on the table and shouted through the hubbub.
"Such a frenzy!" said a voice beside Lee. "He'll work himself into a heart attack, wouldn't you say?"
Lee turned to see a thin, hungry-looking man in a faded black suit that was a little too big for him.
"Could be," he said.
He noticed the other man's glance, which had strayed to the belt under Lee's coat. In leaning back against the bar, Lee had let the coat fall away to reveal the pistol he kept at his waist, which an hour or two before had done duty as a hammer.
"And a man of war, I see," said the other.
The thin man picked up his empty glass and elaborately tried to drain it before setting it back down on the bar with a sigh.
"Oh, now let me fill that for you," said Lee. "It's warm work explaining things to a stranger. What are you drinking?"
The bartender produced a bottle of expensive cognac, to Lee's resigned amusement and a click of annoyance from Hester's throat.
"Very kind, sir, very kind," said the thin man, whose butterfly-dæmon opened her resplendent wings once or twice on his shoulder. "Allow me to introduce myself. Oskar Sigurdsson is my name — poet and journalist. And you, sir?"
He never finished his sentence, because at that point the bartender had had enough of the Dutchman's troubles, and came out from behind the bar with a heavy stick in his hand. Warned by the faces around him, the Captain stood up and half turned unsteadily, his face a dull red, his eyes glittering, and spread his hands; but the bartender raised his stick, and was about to bring it down when Lee moved.
"What the hell is this to do with you?" the bartender shouted.
Silence in the bar; no one moved. Even the Captain only blinked and looked blurrily at the tense little stand-off in front of him. Lee was perfectly ready to fight, and the bartender could see it, and after a few moments he lowered the stick and growled sullenly, "You too. Get out."
He took the Captain's arm and guided the man out through the crowded bar-room. As the door swung shut behind them he heard the bartender call, "And don't come back."
The Captain swayed and leaned against the wall, and then blinked again and focused his eyes.
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