Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Lighthouse. Part 1


Lighthouse: Part 1
By Matt Stephens

"Kate, NOW!"

Kate smirked as she turned the winch. She'd been living in the Mountain Lighthouse all her life; but Wells always shouted like it was a split second, life or death moment of truth.

As she turned the handle, the huge ceramic shield above her rotated open. The highest point of the tower was unwinding to reveal the pillar of fire, twenty feet high. Kate threw her head back as the wall of pure heat rushed out, rolling into the air around them like a concussive wave.

The airship was suddenly visible against the fog and storm-cloud, the firelight reflecting off the metal and solar panels of the dirigible. Kate loved this point above all, seeing her world open up, the sudden light and heat banishing the clouds that wrapped around her mountaintop year round. The lighthouse was two narrow towers, descending into the rock of the mountain peak, side by side. At the highest point was the vent, and down below the rock, protected from the endless, unholy storm; was the home that she and her uncle kept for themselves.

But when the heat shield was opened, and the Beacon showed its full force, she could see the entire mountain range, from one horizon to the other. It was forbidding and desolate, but magnificent too. Kate embraced it. She'd never seen beyond the mountains, a fourteen year old Queen of the Relay Point.
The Sky-Trains came through every few days. Always the same ships. The Highwayman and the Windchaser made the same journey, back and forth across the Himalayas. Her crew was a mixture of all countries, and she knew them all by name.

But as the Airship Windchaser grew closer this time, she saw some new faces. Young faces. She went to the balcony of the Main Tower, and shrugged out of her coat. The weather was always viciously cold, but with the Beacon shining, it was far too hot for protective gear. With the signal flags in her hands, she gestured for their Anchor-Guns, and right on cue, the Airship crew obeyed, coming into range of the Lighthouse Towers.

Thewwww-CRACK!

Lit by firelight, she could see the exact moment that the Grapnel-Gun speared into the stone wall of the Lighthouse, anchoring the Airship enough to reel it in for docking. The second tower was little more than a staircase to the only flat surface for a hundred miles.

Even before the crew lowered their rope ladders, she could see the Airship rising, buoyed by the heat of the Beacon.

***

Wells met her on the way back downstairs. "You know what to do, get the hoses, check the inventories..."

"Collect kickbacks." She smirked, and he swatted her. "I'm sorry, collect 'Fees'."

He waved, coughing hard into his sleeve, and she felt a twinge of worry. His lungs were getting worse. Her Uncle was from a lower elevation Lighthouse. He hadn't taken to the altitude as naturally as her father had. The thought made her feel sad.

"Hello?" A voice called from outside, and she went to the hatch and let him in. "Mark Dorsy, Shipman First Class." He introduced himself.

"Kate. Lighthouse Keeper Extraordinare." She didn't bother to give him her last name. "So..." She said brightly. "First time on the Himalayan Route, huh?"

He came in and shook off the snow. "Is it obvious?"

She smirked. "I see every Airship through here, and I know all their crew. A new face means a new Sky-Pilot." She led him through to the staircase up toward the Beacons. "You know how this works?"

He nodded. "The Beacon heats up the AirMix in the ship, so we can keep altitude all the way to Kathmandu."

"With a little help from a pump and an airhose." She agreed and gave him the climbing gloves he would need. "You ever hooked up a heat-pump to a dirigible before?"

"Um... No."

"Then try very hard not to take me with you if you fall off the rope, Newbie." She told him plainly. "This is not an easy climb."

As she scaled the ropeline from the Lighthouse to the Windchaser, she could see the Crew making their way down to her home, setting out a meal behind the windbreaks, carrying down supplies for her and Wells... And taking some back up.

She smirked as she reeled the Heat-Pump feeds behind her. Wells always had another deal going.

***

The Crew stayed for the length of a meal as they always did, comparing their most recent weather report with her own, charting the safest route over the mountain. They could only get so far with the heat that her Lighthouse gave them. A particularly cold night would shorten their range...

Kate gossiped with the crew, catching up on all the news of the world beyond the Mountains. She noticed Mark was sitting by himself and went over with a steaming cup of the fresh coffee that his airship had supplied her with. "Hey. What are you thinking?"

He gestured down toward the edge of the Mountain Peak, and she followed his gaze to the chorten.

There was a chorten set up, of course. Much of the crew was Tibetan, even in a world where the Sky-Trains were making distances and borders irrelevant. "Never seen a chorten before?"

"First time in the Himalayas." He nodded. "I've been on European Sky-Lines."

"A lot of Lighthouses have a chorten. It's a Buddhist Shrine, used to commemorate their holy men. A lot of the Lighthouses were set up in the early days by men making pilgrimages. They take their prayers very seriously in Tibet. I don't blame them. Your ship crashes in this kind of terrain, they won't even find your bones."

He shivered.

She offered him the mug. "Share and share alike."

He took the mug, wrapping his fingers around it gratefully. "How can you stand to live this high?"

She gestured back at the firelight that shone over the whole range. "The Beacon is enough heat to keep a hundred tonnes in the sky. Even with the Heat Shield closed, it's enough heat to power the lighthouse, purify our water, run the greenhouse..."

"I don't mean how it works, I mean..." He shook his head. "I've been a flyboy in this part of the world for less than a month, but I have a different view every time I look out a window. Wait seven seconds, and the neighborhood is a different place. I can't imagine staying with this view forever." He gestured at the stark wasteland around them.

She smirked. "I was born on the mountain. It's home. Do I need another reason? I don't need to see the world, Newbie. Enough of it comes to me every weekend."

He chuckled at that.

And then the light dimmed for a moment. Enough that everyone glanced up to look. Mark looked curious. Kate looked borderline terrified.

***

Kate came into the Lighthouse at a flat run and took the stairs three at a time. Like any lighthouse, there was only one room on each floor, with a curving staircase leading all the way up to the Beacon. The first level up was a storage room, where they stored all of their 'private orders'.

And sure enough, when she burst into the room, the airship Captain and her Uncle were exchanging money with a sly grin. Captain Khan jumped out of his skin, but she didn't even blink. She knew what the second storeroom was for.

"What?" Wells demanded, irritated; but knowing she had a reason.

"There's something wrong with The Beacon!"

***

The Lighthouse was actually two towers. One of them was mostly living space, the other was mostly for The Beacon. The three of them crowded around the controls, mounted at the Base of the second Tower, which rose hundreds of feet, but descended just as deep into the mountain peak.

"Well, we can assume it's not the power source." Kate said, working to diagnose the problem.

"Why does one assume that?" Captain Khan asked.

"Because the power source here is Thermal. It's powered by the heat of the planet. If that's going out, then it doesn't really matter what we do." Wells explained with dignity. He studied the controls. "Kate, open the Pressure Doors, please."

Kate took his place at the controls and threw the levers. "They're not opening."

"Good. Then the Chamber is intact." Wells decided. "There's a fail-safe, so that whenever something goes wrong with the Chamber, or the Vent, the whole room shuts down. If it's not letting us in, then it's not safe for us to go in there."

"So it's not the power, it's not the chamber, and it's not the vent." Kate counted off on her fingers. "The Valve?"

"Elementary." Wells agreed, proud of her for figuring it out as quickly as he had. For the Captain's benefit, he explained. "The Valve is how we regulate the energy. The Beacon ignites the heat and sends up the flare. The valve is how we control that. A lot of heat, a lot of pressure. If the Valve Lock has warped, then the flickering means we're losing control over it."

"If that Beacon isn't regulated, then it could send my ship falling out of the sky." The Captain groused tightly.

"Your ship? Captain, the Beacon is also the power source for the Lighthouse, and the only heat source between here and the next Lighthouse. You'll need an extra pit stop, but me and my Niece could freeze to death, or starve without the greenhouse. For that matter, the Beacon could go haywire and torch the entire mountain peak the next time we open that heat shield."

"Well, then we just need to replace the Valve Lock, right? The Windchaser should have that in stock, right?" Kate nodded, turning briskly and hurrying upstairs to the storeroom. "Let's get it installed."

The Captain and her Uncle traded an awkward look. "Actually... Kate, wait!"

But she was already gone.

***

Mark Dorsy was stacking boxes in the Main Storeroom when she came in quickly. "Man, you should have warned me about those stairs."

"Can't exactly put an elevator in." She commented lightly. "Outer wall is on an incline, interior is the only place to put rooms."

"No winch for the outside?"

"Sure, but we save that for the heavy stuff." She plucked a clipboard off the top of the crate that Mark was carrying. "You Sky-Pilots live fifteen feet from everywhere on your ships. Doing a few laps of the lighthouse is good for you."

"I heard the guys have a bet. Whoever has the best time going from Beacon to Basement gets free drinks for the next lap of the Route." Mark observed.

"Dorsy, beat it." The Captain said by way of greeting as he walked in.

"Yessir." Mark quickly ducked out of the room, just as Wells was coming in.

Kate flipped through the clipboard. "Yeah. Here it is." She started scanning the crates.

"We... Don't have one in stock." Captain Khan explained. "Wasn't packed on the ship."

She had already turned the clipboard toward him. "Sure you do, right here."

Wells winced. "What he means, is... They have the crate on board, but there isn't a spare part inside."

Her face fell. "You and your damn side business. The tobacco? The Moonshine? The sausages? What?"

"Actually, it was a gift for you." Her Uncle snarked.

Her face changed. "I forgive you. What is it?"

Mrrowl.

She spun at the sound, and went over to a packing crate with an air-hole punched through it. She opened it up, and felt herself beam with delight. A small tabby kitten was inside. Kate picked her up happily. "Now I really forgive you!"

"Glad you like her, because you might have to skin her for a new pair of mittens soon." The Captain creaked. "If we can't get the Beacon back to full force by the next time we pass this way, we'll have to chart a course by another Beacon."

Kate and Wells traded a look. After seven generations, the one point of constant fear was the knowledge that they could become expendable at any time. "You know, Uncle..." Kate began brightly. "I think I had better go along. One of us should, to make sure that we get the correct replacement part."

"And to oversee the cargo." Wells agreed, equally bright. "We've given this particular airship a fair amount of cargo, and until their sister ship makes a pit stop later in the week, there won't be much in the way of supplies for them to arrive and purchase."

"And what would happen to your perfectly legitimate business then?" Kate asked innocently of the Captain. "You need us as much as we need you to bring us a Valve Lock."

The Captain and the teenage girl shared an electric look for a moment. "Fine. She comes along." The Captain said shortly. "We make sail in two hours. If you're late, I'm leaving without you."

She nodded, and waited until he left before she turned to speak to her Uncle. "We've jury-rigged a lot of the Lighthouse, but we've never gone near the valve. You want to be the one to go?"

"No. I'm going to see if I can coax the part we've got back into life. We've only got a few days, and if Captain Khan's other business partners decide they can't risk docking with a cooling Beacon, then we're stuffed."

"But he'll find it a lot harder to ignore a passenger trying to get home." She nodded. "I can't figure out whether to blame you or Captain Khan." She lifted the adorable little kitten up to her eyes. "What do you think, sweetie? Should we blame my mean ol' uncle? Should we?"

"If it helps, we're far from the only ones getting little luxuries brought through on Sky-Trains." Wells offered. "If The Captain was a more honest man with any one of half a dozen other Lighthouses, he'd probably have some spare parts available for us."

She snorted and turned to go, still talking to her new pet. Kate was a Lighthouse Keeper in Waiting. There were only three ways to keep your accounts in the black, and the honest way wasn't nearly enough. Wells was doing what six other generations of the family had done: Found a way to keep the Lighthouse in the family, and the family business from going under.

***

Kate was the last one on board, with a single backpack. Her Uncle had weighed it four times, and repacked for her each time.

As the Crew returned to the ship, and the anchor ropes were wound back in, Kate shivered. She'd never been on this side of the trip before... And she'd never seen the Heat Shield from any distance. She was suddenly a long way from home, as the Mountain Range went dark under the constant fog and storm-clouds.

She looked to her left and noticed Mark Dorsy peeking at her from a doorway. "So, I guess you've heard."

He gestured at the backpack she had slung over one shoulder. "I heard. And I hate to say it, but you'll be bunking with me for the flight."

She snorted.

"Rules of the Sky." He told her, unconcerned. "Every inch of space, every gram of weight matters. We aren't a passenger liner. You either grab the only bunk available, or you sling a hammock under the gondola; but it's pretty cold out there."

She chuckled. "Wherever you can put me. I've lived in tight corners before. I get that having me here is a problem, but in my defense..."

"A bigger problem for you." He agreed. "In case nobody's said it, welcome aboard."

***

She knew the crew, of course. She'd met them every time the Windchaser made a pit-stop. It was odd, seeing them on a working ship, instead of between shifts. At the Lighthouse, Remy always played the harmonica non-stop until somebody started dancing. Paulie was showing her card tricks when she was little, and teaching her how to perform them when she got older. But she'd never seen them managing pressure levels and maintaining engines.

An Airship was tightly regimented. Half the crew was up with the dawn. The night shift used the same quarters as the day-shift. As the most junior member of the crew, Mark had to sleep almost sitting up, and she had to find room around him for her hammock. Everyone shaved or showered or brushed their teeth within half an hour of each other; some of them starting their day, some of them ending it. Kate was currently the only woman on board, but the crew knew not to make each other feel uncomfortable about in the tight shower block. Breakfast was eaten quickly, and Kate helped out in the areas she understood, like the kitchens and the Harvesters. Rainwater was gathered from surrounding clouds, meals were cooked by solar power. Kate was used to using Beacon Heat to cook dinner slowly, but the solar ovens worked the same way.

But the rest of the crew always had work to do, and Kate was only useful some of the time. The rest of the time, she was just part of the cargo.

"Airship to Port!" The PA announced.

Kate glanced around, but she was the only one looking. It was the other ship she knew by sight: The Highwayman

She'd never seen an airship in flight from this perspective before. Mark had told her how Lighthouses once stood as beacons for ships that sailed on water. Kate had never seen an ocean before, except in pictures; but she could picture it easily now. The Highwayman was floating on a river of clouds, slowly riding the canopy from above. She could see the wind tossing it on an ocean of storm-clouds, but she couldn't feel the wind. She was riding the wind too closely to be shaken about by it. 

It was oddly relaxing, watching the rise and fall of their sister ship. Though they were moving with the wind, it seemed to be happening in slow motion.

The flight was a revelation to her. She'd never seen the mountains move, or a flat horizon. She'd never seen the far side of the mountainsides, or a Lighthouse beyond the one she had been born in.

She'd known that the Airships needed the Beacons, of course. That was the whole point of having them, but she'd never seen it from the other side before. The Airship had left her Lighthouse and practically taken off like a rocket, once they'd released the anchors. As the days passed, the Airship began to dip, and the Captain put her into a steady glide, guiding the direction and riding the winds.

By the time they reached their next Lighthouse, the Airship was starting to come in a little low. Kate was suddenly aware of the weight of the ship. She wondered how heavy their 'extra' cargo was.

It showed up in little things. Garbage was never stowed, always thrown over the side. The men tossed anything they didn't need any more over the side. Anything that could add an ounce of weight was tossed overboard when it wasn't needed any more.

Kate felt bad. Weight was measured down to the gram, and she'd smuggled something of her own.

***

"The whole Crew knows." Mark assured her the third night. "I mean, we had to keep your kitten fed on the way in, it's not like we had a problem with her."

She smiled a little, with sketchbook balanced across one knee, and her kitten lazing across the other. "I'm grateful. I just... I only just met her, and I didn't want to let her think that my Uncle was the only one she was meant for, you know? Is that selfish?"

"I wouldn't think so." Mark agreed. "The Captain asked me to make sure that you threw all the waste, and all the bones overboard. It's not like we're carrying extra food for the cat."

She nodded. "I've been feeding her from my rations." She stroked the little kitten between the ears and smiled as the cat's eyes closed contentedly. "I've heard stories of scavengers below the Sky-Lines, rummaging through your garbage for bits and pieces. I'd hate to think what they'd find after we fly back and forth between Kathmandu and Dharan, tossing Kitten-Crap overboard both ways."

Mark chuckled. After a moment, he gestured up at the sky. "Hey, check that out." He was pointing up at a thin white line, drawn across the distant sky. "That thing must be in the stratosphere."

She nodded. "Drawing a line across the entire planet." She shivered. "I can't imagine that, being that high. The earth would look like a beach ball."

"Costs millions to get a seat on a Jet." Mark nodded. "I hear the Captain talking about it with his first mate. They plan to make their fortune and buy one; take charters from the hyper-rich."

"Bought and paid for with perfectly legitimate money." She mocked. "Don't see the appeal. Anything they can do in those Jets, you can do in Airships. Just takes longer."

Mark nodded. "You know, they started the Lighthouse Coalition before they started building Airships."

"Yeah?"

"I read about it in history class. They ran out of Helium long before they started building Airships. That's why they built the Beacons. Needed to keep a different Airmix warm to keep them in the air."

Kate gestured back up at the Jetstream. "Unless you had a few million to toss around."

"Worse view, too. God only knows what it must look like up there. Even birds can't fly that high."

"No, better view down here. At least at this altitude you can tell what you're looking at." Kate returned.

"Which means those guys must fly so fast it takes an hour for their voices to catch up." Mark nodded. "Can I see?"

Kate handed him the sketchbook. "Sure." 

Mark looked through the pencil sketches. In three days she'd sketched the view, the ship, most rooms, most of the crew, the cat... "This is good. I mean, nearly professional level good."

She reclined back into her seat. "Something a Lighthouse keeper needs to know is all the ways to kill time. Greenhouse, maintenance, chess, music, every kind of card game, every kind of hobby. I'm a master at most of them."

He chuckled. "Feel like joining our poker game?"

"Sure, but I'm not very good." She said automatically.

He smiled like a shark. "Heh. Neither am I."

She returned her gaze to the view, turning slowly beneath her. Her eyelids drooped a moment, lulled by the gentle swaying of the ship, and the purr of her cat. "Its hard to get used to the quiet. My whole life, I've always heard the wind. But not here."

"There is no wind, when you travel with the wind." He hummed, almost at her ear. "Don't fight it, Kate. Tomorrow we'll be in Kathmandu. Sleep if you want. What's a few hours?"

The Airship was a working craft. Nothing like a jet. On the Windchaser, there was no hurry. But there were always people attending to tasks, manning their posts. She supposed Mark Dorsy had work to do, except that he was here, babysitting her. If she slept for a while, he could get back to his real job.

It was reason enough for her, and she let the Airship lullaby put her to sleep.

***

Kathmandu was a lot bigger back in the old days. All the cities were. Kate knew that intellectually, but she'd never seen the ruins of any Old City Sections. The skyscrapers were once made of glass and steel. The ones that still stood were rusted and hollowed out like skeletons. She could see people working, collecting metal for recycling. Another twenty years, and Kathmandu would be a city with plenty of metal resources, and small enough that none of it was empty. There had been no disaster, just time and dwindling resources making them do things differently.

The stone buildings were growing clearer as they came closer. The large temples and pagodas were made from wood and stone and ceramics, exactly as they had stood for thousands of years. When the modern world had rotted away, what was loved most had endured.

The central pagoda was lined with prayer flags, stretching on lines in all directions. Above, half a dozen Airships were anchored, as they were at her Lighthouse. In fact, every stone tower that reached higher than thirty feet had a platform for Airships to dock.

And as they grew closer, she could see why the Sky-Trails were such a big part of life here. The Sky-Markets of Kathmandu were known the whole world over, and now that she could see how much of the city it covered, she understood why.

She sensed movement behind her, and glanced back to see Mark in the door. He didn't intrude, letting her contemplate the view, until she waved him over to join her. "What are you thinking?" He asked her after a while.

"These people I understand. More than Sky-Pilots, anyway." She told him. "See, you reside in a city, but you only ever live in a village. Most people live in a city so that they can reach their workplace easily. You usually get food from somewhere close by. Your entertainment is something in the area. Your friends are the people you see every day. Every city has a hospital, so you don't have to wait for treatment of medicine... How many people in any City would get lost if they went five minutes further than they usually did?"

"Probably most of them. Six blocks past my old haunts, I'd never find my way back." Mark agreed with a grin.

"My Grandmother came from Kathmandu." Kate hummed to herself. "To me, it's a lost city from another time, to you it's a pit stop; to the people who were born here, it's the whole world."

Mark considered that a moment. "My grandmother was rich." He said finally. "I don't remember real well, but I remember that we went on a Jet once. The windows were small, you couldn't really eat because everything kept floating off your plate when you got high..." He looked over the city streets, now below them. The cobblestones were stone blocks, laid tight together, and worn smooth by a thousand years of people walking. "My grandmother thought that poor people couldn't hope to survive." He snorted. "Not without money, and jets, and all the Quik-Build."

"Quik-Build wouldn't last a week in my world." Kate snorted. "You know what does? After electronics, and avionics, and satellites, and jet fuel all falls apart or gets too expensive? Stone walls, and seeds in my greenhouse. The same things that kept people alive back in DaVinci's day, sometimes the same buildings themselves. The only thing that stands the test of time."

"Time." Mark nodded. "Best part of the job. Nothing needs to be forced. The wind moves, the earth turns, and hot air rises."

"And people who live in stone houses will be there longer than anyone else." Kate toasted. "And the Keeper's job is to keep it all going. We don't find a Valve Lock, and we're in real trouble." She didn't say the next part out loud, but the scary thought wouldn't leave her alone. I screw this up, and five generations will roll over in their graves and weep; not to mention my Uncle.

***

The Sky-Market of Kathmandu was an open Bazaar that worked on three levels. The ground, the rooftops, and the Airships. That close to a town, there were Lighthouses at each of the compass points surrounding the township. The warmth from their Beacons kept the Airships floating, and the temperature moderate. That high up, everyone in Kathmandu was still comfortable all year round. . Unlike the transport versions, the gondola were open platforms, with various wares for sale, or cafe tables and chairs, even a dancefloor, staying still enough that nobody dancing would notice.

Kate loved it. Every level was connected, every rooftop had a rope bridge to at least two of its neighbors. Rickshaws lined the streets at surface level, and every rooftop was another stall.

The regulars were immediately apparent. They had the buildings. The Market was based out of a residential area, and Stone buildings were the only ones to stand the test of time. Kate wondered if the apartments were for people to live in, or for them to store more goods. Life on the Airship had opened her eyes to the way people lived in small spaces. She could easily picture Mark or others from the Crew living in a hammock between two market stalls.

Mark stuck close, and she swiftly realized he was protecting her. She would never admit to it, but she was a little intimidated by the sheer number of people. She'd never seen more than the crew of a single airship at any given moment in her life. Having the whole marketplace pressing in around her was more humanity than she'd ever experienced.

I wonder how many other places there are in the world, full of more people than this. She asked herself idly. Intellectually, she knew that the world had people all over it. But the Jets that could reach across the whole earth were distant lines, drawn across the sky by tiny specks too small for her to make out. Being in the market was amazingly... real.

***

"I can't afford that." Kate told the shopkeeper, and immediately wished she hadn't. It had taken hours to find someone who had, or at least could manufacture a Valve Lock. Lighthouses were all over the Mountain Range, but most of the speciality parts had already been sold, held in reserve by the closest Keepers.

"The price is non-negotiable." The Stall-keeper told her. "I only have one such part in stock, but it is currently reserved..."

Kate sighed. "But for a price, the 'reserved' part is negotiable?"

"A price that you have already said you can't afford."

"Because I came to buy a piece of a equipment, not bribe a vendor." Kate retorted, and everyone in earshot looked around subtly. "Foolish me, I left my Slush Fund at home."

"Maybe you did." Mark put a billfold on the table. It was full of money in various denominations. Kate's eyes flashed, but she schooled it quickly. Wells had taught her to never let them see you blink, and she'd broken that rule once already.

The Vendor reacted quickly, snatching up the billfold with one hand. The other hand went behind the curtain and came back with the Valve Lock. Kate couldn't help but roll her eyes. He'd had the thing within easy reach the whole time, just waiting for her to match his price.

Mark's eyes were on her, waiting for her to declare. She looked over the part, a perfect metal circle about the width of her shoulders, with a rotating seal. She measured it carefully, checked the strength of the metal, as well as all the moving parts. "It's what we're after." She declared.

The Vendor gave a single nod, as though it was always going to play out that way. The deal was done in a few moments, and Kate slung her spare part through a loop, carrying it over her shoulder with her pack.

"I can't accept a gift." Kate told Mark once they were out of earshot. "Not that much. Respects to your grandmother, but-"

"The money isn't mine." He assured her quietly. "The Crew took up a collection."

Kate blinked. "Why?"

"Kate, I don't know if you noticed, but they pay us nothing to do this job. We get rooms we have to share, and the cheapest, lightest food they can find. If we get a chance to make a side deal, we take it or we go hungry."

Kate swiftly understood. "Ah. And of course, the key to a 'side business' is where you store goods."

"Three or four Airships stop by your lighthouse, out in the middle of the Himalayan Mountains, where nobody but buyers or sellers ever goes..."

Kate laughed. "Suddenly I feel better about my chances of job security."

"Captain Khan chose his crew carefully. Everyone on board checks how much they can carry, and we all know who to tell."

"And my Uncle holds the goods, and the money." Kate nodded. "Well, if you're buying the part, I can buy lunch."

Mark accepted graciously, and they followed their noses until they found a place in the Sky-Market that sold food.

"I told you my grandmother was from here." Kate commented. "She mentioned something she had every day, from a sidewalk restaurant, called 'Aloo Chop'. I wonder if they still have it..."

"The fried potato mash? Lots of herbs? Oh yeah, they have it. Follow me, I know a place." Mark agreed instantly.

***

The two of them ate at one of the rooftop common areas. Kate pulled out her sketchbook again. Mark watched her idly as she quickly did a rough sketch of the area. She'd likely never be back, and she found the best way to remember a place was to recreate it. She'd fill in the details later.

"You were right before, about how most people live their whole lives so close to home. Me, my home is where I work, and even if it keeps moving, it's still the same six faces. You? You live in a place where there's literally nowhere else to go, and wait for variety to come to you. These people? They used to live spread out across the whole area." He waved back at the stone walls of the city. "You know what amazes me? The oldest Tech lasts longest."

Kate nodded, unsurprised. "Sure. The stone walls are the ones that keep standing. The Beacon is too simple to screw up, you can keep an Airship in the sky with a needle and thread, plus a little hot air. What does it take to keep the Jets in the air?"

"A lot more than that." Mark nodded.

Kate noticed him again as her eye roved the people for her sketch. Blue tunic. Black boots... "Who's that?" She asked curiously. "I saw him back when we were negotiating for the Valve Lock."

Mark looked, and turned back swiftly, hiding his face. "Hide!" He hissed at her, and she did so, as best she could while sitting down. "He's a Goodsman. He watches for smugglers."

She automatically hunched her shoulders. "Is there any chance whatsoever that my Uncle isn't on his wanted list?"

"Possibly. He's not a Sky-Pilot." Mark offered. "But if his name is being watched, and you were crazy enough to use your real name when you boarded our ship..."

Kate moaned. "Alright, bottom-line me here: How bad is this going to be?"

"It could be bad." He nodded in worry. "The Goodsmen can't even slow us down. When they actually manage to nail somebody, they can get pretty vicious about it."

Kate moaned again. "What do we do?"

"You're in my world now, Newbie." Mark said with a smirk. He looked around with an experienced eye, looking for someone appropriate. "We need to get out of his sight, and have someone deliver a message to the Captain..."

***

Captain Khan came up the gangplank of the Windchaser, with his large duffel-bag slung over one shoulder. When he reached his ship, he found he had a guest. "Good afternoon." The Captain said politely. "I'm afraid we're not taking on passengers at the moment."

"Captain Khan." The Goodsman's voice was commanding. "You know why I'm here, I'm sure."

"I'm sure I don't."

The Goodsman had a clipboard, holding it like it was an extension of his hand. "I have it on good authority that you're carrying cargo obtained by bribery. Also, that you have undeclared passengers. Now, you know there are rules about that sort of thing, There are Laws, in fact."

Captain Khan took it in perfect stride, carefully sitting down his large duffel-bag. "Indeed I do. That's a serious charge to make. I assume you have evidence?"

"I heard the undeclared passenger announce it with my own ears." The Law shot back. "It took a little work to find a name. Mark Dorsy. One of your crew, I believe."

"Well, why not ask the lad himself?" The Captain gestured. Mark Dorsy was coming down the gangplank, carrying a crate. "Dorsy, did you purchase any new parts today?"

"Nosir." Mark said brightly. "But I ran into a... young lady who needed help negotiating a deal with a local vendor."

"And have you seen her since?" The Captain asked.

"We got some lunch... and after that, none of your business." Mark had a grin on his face. "Why? Is something wrong?"

"Nothing at all." The Captain said calmly. "Now then, Goodsman; I think we've sorted that out. You're within your rights, of course; to search my ship. But you won't find any contraband here, and especially not a girl that my most junior crewman just met today."

Mark hadn't broken stride, walking toward the cargo hold with his crate.

"FREEZE!" The Goodsman went to the lone box, considering its size, before he gestured at the crewmen carrying it. "I want to see inside that Box. It's the right size for the illegal part in question."

Mark looked to the Captain, who nodded begrudgingly. The Goodsman opened the crate... And found a young kitten inside, looking up innocently, curled up on a pillowcase.

The Goodsman set his jaw, not expecting that. "I assume you have a license to carry a live domestic?"

"Right here!" Mark Dorsy piped up promptly, waving the piece of paper. "I've got the bill of sale, too."

The Goodsman gestured him to bring it over, and checked it. "This receipt says the trade was made last week."

"We were behind schedule." The Captain said smoothly. "Weather, you know."

***

Everyone kept their poker-faces on until the Goodsman gave up and left.

"Okay." Mark said finally. "Where is she?"

"I'm in here." A muffled voice called from the Captain's duffel-bag.

Mark laughed as the bag sat up and unzipped itself. "Then where's all the Captain's stuff?"

"Funny thing, but most of the contents of that bag have been missing since our last stop at her lighthouse." The Captain drawled, looking at Kate. "Sending you along as collateral wasn't enough for Wells?"

Kate stretched painfully. "I'm just glad to be out of that bag." She turned to the Captain. "But how'd you get my cat off the ship?"

"You know how cats always land on their feet?" 

Kate felt her jaw drop.

"He's kidding." Mark promised. 

"We are adept at sneaking things on and off our ship." Captain Khan said with dignity.

"And did I even blink?" Mark reached into the cat crate and pulled the Valve Lock from under the cat's pillow. "Not for a second."

Captain Khan smirked. "All hands, prepare to Cast Off!"

***

Kate noticed that everyone had grown notably warmer toward her since leaving port. They didn't work together against her at the poker table any more, and they brought her hammock into the main barracks. She mentioned it to Mark, who had told her that dodging a Goodsman was a rite of passage for Sky-Pilots. In a strange way, she was part of the family now.

She appreciated it, but not enough to take it easy on them at the poker table.

The Sky-Trail took them back into the mountains. Kate never took her eyes off the clouds as they began the return voyage. They grew closer every day.

"What are you thinking?" Mark asked her once, as the sun set behind them.

"I've never once lived outside those clouds." She told him quietly. "I read somewhere that once upon a time, the clouds came and went across the whole world, just blowing in the wind. But that was long before I was born. My world ended in the fogbank. Except for this week."

"You don't want to go home?"

"Oh, of course I do." She snorted. "I'm a seventh generation Lighthouse Keeper. Seven generations of my family have lived on that mountain."

He glanced over. "Can I ask?"

"How does that work?" She guessed. "Every week, the Sky-Train would come, bring new people into our world. There are thousands of Lighthouses across the world, hundreds across the Mountains. When one needs someone to take over, because of injury or illness, there is a changing of the guard, and a passage to be booked. My father was a Sky-Pilot, as was his mother, and her father. Each generation, one stays, and one goes. Sometimes there's one that wants to make a different life elsewhere. I have a sister somewhere in Europe. I was too young to stay alone, so my Uncle came. When I'm old enough, he will return to my aunt in their own Lighthouse across the other side of the Himalayas. None of the Towers can ever be left unattended, or the whole Sky-Train system goes out of whack. It's our way." She sighed, rolling her head on her shoulders a moment. "But it was nice to see something new."

He nudged her shoulder, gesturing at the sky. Another line was being drawn, by something so high up they couldn't see it. "Those guys, who can still afford it? They can see half the planet at once. I wonder sometimes, what it must be like to go that fast... But I couldn't stand it."

"No?"

"I couldn't stomach it, a life that fast. So you lose your train of thought for half a second and a thousand miles have gone by?" He shivered. "What could possibly be that important that they're in such a hurry?"

"My Uncle says there's nothing so urgent. They do it, because it's convenient to them." She smirked. "I know what you mean. It's hard to take that seriously, being in such a rush to do nothing terribly important."

He nodded. "People like you live your life in postcards. One week, two week, here's a new face, here's a familiar friend."

"And people like you take everything you find with you." She returned. "One week, second week, let's see what's happened while we were away. Everywhere you stop is a place you know."

Mark glanced over. "I... I don't know if I'll be keeping on with the full tour. But however many times we stop at your lighthouse, I'm glad to know I'll see you there."

She smiled back, and they watched the world turn beneath them slowly, watched the sun set behind them languidly, watched the clouds across the mountains get closer and closer.

Kate settled into the steady sway of the airship, knowing her movements now, as well as she knew her own. The breakneck concerns of the Jets above were so far away as to be laughable. The problems of the ground beneath them were insignificant.

In two days, I'll be home.

***

Kate woke up with a sharp cry of shock. Her bunk had listed, suddenly tilting to the left, and she grabbed on before she dropped to the floor. She could hear someone on the bunk nearby crying out in shock, landing hard on the deck.

"What's happening?" Kate asked numbly, trying to process.

"All hands to duty stations!" The PA announced.

The Gondola was suddenly alive with everyone scrambling to obey. Kate was the only one on board without an action station of her own. "Waitwaitwait! What do I do?" She shouted after her bunkmates.

Nobody paid her any heed. Kate was nearly bouncing off the walls as the Airship spun around her. She'd never once felt the ground shift beneath her. Even in flight, an Airship was a steady, reliable sway. This was an earthquake.

Everyone had left the room, and she was just... waiting for orders. As much as she'd enjoyed her trip, no matter how many hands of poker she played with the crew; she was still on the outside looking in.

She braced herself against the wall as tightly as she could, trying to ride it out. She could hear the wind howling wildly outside, sounding fiercer than she'd ever heard it. The cold was slamming against her, and she left her post to collect her cold weather gear from her pack.

Cold. She thought distantly. The cold is getting in. There must be a breach somewhere...

WHAM! She went rolling, and suddenly, she could feel the Airship going into freefall. She let out a yell of shock, grabbing onto anything she could reach.

"All hands, prepare to abandon ship!" The Captain's voice came over the PA.

She could hear the crew running for it, and she forced her way to the hall.

It was empty. The windows were all shattered from the sudden air pressure change, and there was no sign of anyone. But outside, she could see familiar mountains, getting bigger and meaner every second.

"Kate!"

She spun. Mark Dorsy was fighting his way out of one of the equipment rooms, a Grapnel Gun over one shoulder. "I had a feeling you'd go down with the ship if someone didn't come and get you."

"Well it's not like I know where the exits are!" Kate snarked. "What do we... do?" Her voice trailed off as she looked out the window, and saw the mountain in incredible detail.

Mark followed her gaze. "BRACE!"

Kate threw herself against the nearest doorframe, and felt his arm go across her, cradling her head protectively...

To Be Continued...

(Title Image is not mine: http://www.digital-art-gallery.com/picture/4537)