The wind rocked the old airship as it coasted along toward the floating city in the distance. Unlike the ship, the cities age was hard to pin down. No one really knew who built the first flying lands. In fact, no one was actually sure it wasn’t a natural occurrence. They were everywhere and ranged in size from little parcels of land hardly big enough to put a shed on to sprawling tracks that seemed to run forever. Their undersides of the floating islands were dangerous, rocky, and always obscured by thick clouds that made anyone who got too close sick. By and far the strangest thing about the world was that if one ventured deep in the air between the lands there was more of the same mist to greet them.
Fernk snorted awake as the ship rocked again. The old Ovalain chassis took the turbulence well enough, but the port-side stabilizer had seen better days. He waited a moment to see if the ship would jolt again. The hiss of a breeze through the patched panel outside his bunk grew to a howl as the ship lurched.
“Shenar,” he cursed as slid his suspenders back into place.
He was out of his bunk and into the tight hallway in two strides which spoke more to the closeness of the space rather than the length of his legs. Fernk turned sideways and sidled along the path to the closest junction ladder. He descended into the underbelly of the ship, clipped his tether onto a lead, and set to work. The ship could hold ten people if absolutely necessary, but the six crew they had was more than enough. It meant they each had to pull double duty, but it allowed them treasured breathing room.
The mid-low coupling had started to wobble again. He gripped the tether as he moved the lead closer to the jittering piece of metal that had woken him. Fernk slid a nalus wrench from the loop on his pants leg and set to work. The nalus wrench, while it looked like something made for peeling pearls from a harouks nest was the go-to tool for an airship. Well, the old ones like this ship at least.
He gave the coupling one more good twist for good measure. Sweat dripped off the tip of his small bulb nose. He wasn’t exactly a handsome man. The thick, wiry beard didn’t do him any favors, but it was necessary when the patchwork along the hull didn’t keep the chill out.
“You’re supposed to be asleep,” Crey said from behind him.
Fernk turned around to see the fur-covered crew member was upside-down as she spoke. Her prehensile tail wrapped around a wrung on the ladder and one of her hand-like feet grasped the ladder for stability.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he said as he turned back to the panel.
She easily traversed the rest of the ladder. Her tawny fur ruffled along brawny form as the air found her through various slits in the patchwork hull. She didn’t wear clothing, aside from the harness, but she didn’t seem to mind the breeze.
“Go inverted like that,” Fernk slid the wrench back into the loop on his pants. “It makes me think I’m wrong-side up.”
“Maybe you are,” she laughed as she did a quick check of the other panels. “Port stabilizer?”
Fernk nodded as he pulled his tether back to the ladder. Crey didn’t use a tether, she never did. She gave him a line about it being a thing of pride to her people. He didn’t know if she was snorting mist, but he’d dropped the issue. She was crew on this ship, just like him, and if the captain didn’t mind if the crazy Garrun didn’t use a tether, then it wasn’t his place to say anything.
“How far ’til land?” He asked as he unlatched the tether.
“You didn’t hear?”
“We’re circling ’til we find a friendly dock,” Crey said as she followed him up the ladder.
“What does that mean?”
“It means the ship is busted,” Haru answered from above. His pendulous voice filled the tight space as he watched them ascend.
“The ship’s been busted for a while,” Fernk said as he slid against the wall to let Crey up.
“No,” Haru said as he set his deep set eyes on the pair. “We’re a risk no one wants to take. People’ll take an omen if a ship dies at dock.”
“They just set us to drift then?” Fernk crossed his arms tight against his chest.
“We circle to find a friendly dock,” Crey repeated. “Someone has to owe us a favor or two.”
“Head high and drop,” Haru spoke barely above a whisper. “Let the ship drift.”
Fernk stared hard at the man. This ship hadn’t been what he’d signed on for. It was drafty, rarely warm, and didn’t have much in the way of fulfilling work, but it was home.
“No,” he said as he shook the thought from his head.
This ship was a junker. Everyone knew it. The jobs weren’t coming and even the smugglers had better options. The Ovalain was a dead breed and it was time for the mist to claim this straggler. Fernk looked from Crey to Haru. He gave the man a nod before he headed back to his bunk.
“Set it high and drop,” he muttered as he packed up what was left of his kit.
The pack locked in with his tether. He slid the glider on once everything was in place. What little money he had left was tucked in the interior pocket of the pack. Taking the drop wasn’t exactly the best way to get the pay he was owed, but it was better than waiting as the ship was too far into a drift. Neither of the other two were still in the hall as he made his way to the far junction. This ladder led up.
Captain Ghut stood at the wheel. His one good eye looked Fernk over with a resigned air.
“Ghut,” Fernk tapped his brow with two fingers in greeting. “I’m taking a drop.”
Ghut gave a sober nod. The smash-faced man turned back to the wheel without a word. Fernk wanted to say something. Anything really, but this ship had taken enough of his time. He climbed up the short steps, popped the seal to the outside, and pulled himself up onto the platform. There were two deckguns on rails that were almost as old as the ship. He’d only fired them twice. Once was to learn how to use them and the other was when a harouk matriarch got uppity.
The city below stretched almost to the edge of the island. There was maybe a span of twenty lanks between its wall and open air. The ship was up high enough. It had caught an updraft to help circle around. That or Ghut knew that someone would want to take the drop.
“Cloud breathing fool,” Fernk muttered as he walked against the wind.
He climbed over the platform rail. Taking the drop was simple, in theory. Jump, pull the glider, and drop in on the island below. Fernk took a deep breath. He looked back at the bubble hatch. It would be easy enough to just go back in. No one would blame him.
Fernk turned to face the city and jumped.