As Cannon continued forward, an alarm sounded and yellow warning lights around the hangar flashed. The two forwardmost skyhooks dropped out of sight. Cannon ignored the caution stripes painted on the deck and stood at the rail around the forward hook. Looking down through the hole in the deck and the hatch in the skin below that, he could see the skyhook flexing in the airstream, and past that, through a gap in the clouds, the sea, another fifteen thousand feet down.
A Royal Aircraft Establishment S.E.14c ‘Kestrel’ came into view, inching forward from behind the skyhook. It was a graceful shape, painted in a jaunty blue and white: canards sprouted from the slender fuselage just forward of the cockpit. Behind the cockpit, the fuselage swelled to accommodate the pair of radial engines, and terminated in two coaxial pusher propellers. The long, narrow wings swept backward from just aft of the cockpit, each tipped with a winglet and rudder.
Panels opened in the skin behind the cockpit, and the fighter’s arresting hook unfolded from between them. The pilot guided the arresting hook through the eye of the skyhook, and the arresting hook’s clamp dropped into place. The Kestrel’s engines quieted, and the skyhoook drew the plane up into the zeppelin. Cannon glanced over his shoulder, where the same process was repeating itself, albeit on the much more forgiving large hook. At the controls of the first Kestrel sat Chuang Choufeng. Cannon waved to him, and Choufeng nodded back gravely. That was about as talkative as the old man got, in Cannon’s experience, but he was a surgeon and a talented pilot, and Cannon owed the man his life several times over.
Leaving the main hangar through the forward hatch, Cannon could see only gas cells overhead. Further forward would be the framing supporting the crew’s cabins, the galley, and and Inconstant‘s only real concession to luxury, the arboretum, all stacked in the zeppelin’s nose. He stopped before he got there, though, and took the ladder down into the control gondola. The ladder left him in the chartroom, dominated by the plotting table at its center. The chart spread out over the table showed Inconstant off the southeast coast of Arabia, heading east into the Indian Ocean. Forward, the planesmen and the helmsman stood at their control wheels on the bridge. Aft was the radio room, packed with equipment: a long-range shortwave set on the port wall, and a bank of smaller radios on the aft wall for talking with the air wing. Normally, a radioman would be on duty at the table up against the starboard wall, but right now, Emma Foster and Iseabail Crannach huddled over it.