Friday, 24 April 2015

Lighthouse. Part 2


 Lighthouse: Part Two

By Matt Stephens

"Wake UP!"

Kate groaned, and the cold hit her before her eyes were open; stabbing into her like nails all over. "Owie."

"I hear ya." Mark agreed. "Hold still for a minute, let me make sure you're not hurt too seriously." 
"Try not to enjoy yourself too much." She croaked as he ran his hands over her neck, her flanks, her limbs, looked closely at her eyes... "How long was I out?"

"I'm not sure, I only woke up a few minutes ago." He reported. "But there's no sign of the rest of the crew, and it's only getting colder." He finished checking. "I don't see anything serious. Can you move around?"

She flexed her limbs, and sat up. "Yeah. We have to find the Lighthouse."

"We have to find the Captain." He countered. "He'll stick close to the wreck."

"We're on the wrong mountain, trust me. I've spent my whole life looking at that Mountain range." She grunted. "We're close, but we've missed the Lighthouse, and-"

"No, we need to tell the Captain this." Mark told her firmly.

"I agree. Let's look for him, in the direction of the Lighthouse."

***

"It's that way!" Kate told him instantly, pointing across at a distant mountain. The crag was sharp and sheer, pointing straight up, until they couldn't see the top of it against the howling snow and clouds.

Mark looked back at the wreck, arms wrapped around his middle against the wind. "We came from the opposite direction. If there are other survivors, they'd look for shelter! Are there caves?"

Kate bit her lip. "No!" She shouted over the wind. "But there's a cleft in the rock, wide enough to fill up with snow. If they abandoned ship, and were desperate, then they'd dig themselves a snow cave, and set up a heat lamp!"

"We better get somewhere that we can see the place!" Mark shouted.

"We better check the wreckage before it gets buried in the blizzard." She shouted back. "The thing went down in the middle of the night; nobody would have their heavy cold gear on!"

Mark hated to admit it, but she was right about that.

They slogged through the snow for a while, when Kate noticed the debris under her feet changing again. She bent down, pushing the snow back and forth until she reached the rock beneath... and the metal shards.

Debris from the ship? She asked herself silently. No, couldn't be. It's nearly three feet deep. Even here, that wouldn't be nearly long enough...

"Kate? What are you doing?" Mark called back. "We gotta go!"

Kate kept digging, until she found something she recognized. She stared numbly at the metal shard for a while, before slipping it under her shirt. "Yeah, coming!"

***

They found two of the crew, half frozen in the snow. Mark put one over his shoulder, Kate hoisted the other one up to his feet. Jin was still wearing his woefully inadequate pajamas.

"We can't carry them far." Mark warned.

"Mark, we don't even know for sure that they're down there." Kate warned. "We should try for the Lighthouse!"

Mark shook his head. "We can't strike out blind. You said yourself that we're probably on the wrong mountain!" The wind grew stronger and he ducked his head. "We have to get these guys to the rest of the crew!"

"Mark." Leno moaned. "...urvival kit..."

Mark checked him quickly, and found the Survival Kit. There was a flare included. "That Valley you were talking about; where is it?"

Kate pointed downhill. "There. Hard to see in the fog."

Mark lit the flare and waved it back and forth over his head in a wide arc. A moment later, there was an answer. Someone fired a flare gun, and it launched straight up, lighting the fog in a bright red glow.

"There they are!" Mark started trudging, trying to keep his balance in the thigh-deep snow.

***

Captain Khan had organized the survivors as best he could. The valley protected them from the wind, but not from the snow or cold. His people were huddled together like a flock of sheep on a cold night, but they had precious little in the way of cold weather gear, or spare blankets.

Campfires shone here and there, flickering in the thin air. Kate didn't say it, but she knew it wouldn't do much. The air was cold enough to put fires out, or it would be soon.

If Captain Khan was freezing to death like the rest of them, he wasn't letting it show. "Good to see you still with us!" He called over the wind. "Is this all you found?"

"Just them, but to be fair, we weren't looking." Kate called back. "How bad?"

"We lost somewhere between five and ten. If they don't follow our flares in the next hour, it'll be closer to ten." 

"What happened?" Kate demanded.

The Captain just looked back at her, unreadable. "You tell me. We were right on target, but the Lighthouse never lit. I don't know where we went off course, but the storm must have blown us south. Without the Beacon, we were losing altitude from the cold air, until it became clear we were going to hit. I sounded the alarm and made a long slow pass over the flattest space I could find." He looked apologetic for a moment. "If you can't soft land, you bail out on the anchor lines and get as close to the ground as you can without the airbag coming down on you."

Kate didn't say it, but Mark must have defied regulations to go back and make sure she survived. She looked around and stepped closer to the Captain, lowering her voice. "Captain, what about-"
The Captain unzipped his jacket halfway, and a familiar face poked out. "Mrrowl."

Kate giggled, and gave her kitten a scratch behind the ears. "Nine lives, huh?"

Mark chewed his lip. "Captain, what's the plan here?"

"Keep our people warm, stretch out our supplies, and save our flares for when rescue comes." The Captain told them. "Keep the team together, tend to the wounded. The regulations are clear on this."

"We're a good week from rescue." Kate shook her head. 
 
"The Highwayman comes back this way in a day, two at most-"

Kate tossed him the hunk of metal she found. It was a broken shard from a ships bell. And on its side was written the name of the ship it came from. 'Highwayman'.

Captain Khan saw it and paled. "God..."

"There's no help coming. The Highwayman went down too, and if the Lighthouse knew about it... They would have waved you off." Kate shook her head. "We can't wait for help. Those regs were meant for crashes closer to civilization."

Khan glared at her. "Well, the reason for that is simple: The Airship is supposed to stay in the air when following a Sky-Trail marked with Lighthouses. The Beacons keep us in the air. There's never been a crash this close to a Beacon. Why have there been two in one week?"

Kate was caught off guard by that one. "I... I don't know." She gestured over her shoulder. "Cap'n, we're near the Lighthouse. I can go. It's our best bet."

"No." Khan said immediately. "Kate, I know you're not crew, but you're still my responsibility. If I let you go, you'll kill yourself on that climb."

"I've done it before." Kate protested.

"Freehand?"

She didn't have an answer to that one.

"She's not wrong about us being a long way from Rescue." Mark offered. "If we're closer to the Lighthouse, it might be our best option."

"Better than staying here." Kate insisted.

"Maybe so, but if the Highwayman went down a week ago, then they must have a rescue on the way.  I know that if we stay here, I can keep my crew alive for another day and a half." The Captain told her calmly. "If I send inexperienced climbers with limited cold weather gear and limited equipment up the side of a mountain that we can't be certain is the right one, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a blizzard, can you guarantee they'd live longer than they would in here?"

Silence.

"No, Captain." Kate admitted.

"We wait for rescue." The Captain told them evenly. Kate couldn't argue with him. The Captain's first duty was to the ship and crew, and the ship was gone. Protecting his crew was the only duty he had left. "Besides." The Captain continued. "If we were anywhere near the right mountain, we'd be able to see the Beacon."

Kate turned to stone. "Oh no." She whispered. "How did I not think of that? How in the name of Buddha, did I not notice that right away?"

"What?" Mark asked her.

"The Beacon! The Beacon has gone out! My Uncle would have opened the heat shield when the Airship got close, so why can't we see the Beacon?"

"Maybe we weren't as close as you think?" Mark suggested.

"If we were anywhere near where we were meant to be, then by now my Uncle knows we're not on schedule. He would light it up for us; assuming we got lost in the fog." She pointed up at the opposite mountain peak. "The Beacon's given out!"

"Or, more likely, that's not the mountain you think it is." Khan said soothingly. "Kate, you said yourself you've never been off the range, nor have you ever been in the air, let alone wrecked. It's not unlikely that you simply got turned around."

And that was the last word he spoke to them. He then turned to the rest of his crew and began speaking with them about supplies, and gathering drinking water from snow.

"Mark, he can say what he likes, but I know these mountains, and this one especially. The opposite peak is my home, and something is terribly wrong up there. My Uncle may be frozen to death already."

"So what do you plan to do about it?" Mark challenged her quietly.

"The Beacon is powered by geothermal, it can't have simply 'run out'." She told him. "But the Beacon is designed in such a way that if the mechanism breaks down, the vent is sealed automatically." She gestured back at the wreck. "I was sent to collect a spare part. Seems we needed one more than we thought. I only hope it survived the crash."

"You can't go without the Captain's order." Mark pointed out.

"No, you can't. I'm not crew, I'm luggage. I can go wherever I want." She told him. "He has to stay here to protect his people. If the Beacon's off, all our lives are in danger. I'm the Keeper-in-training. Khan's gotta protect his crew; I've gotta protect the Lighthouse. I have to go."

"He won't help you. Which means I can't help you." Mark said quietly. "If you go, you have to do it alone."

Kate sent a quick look back at the rest of the crew, and gave Mark a quick kiss on the cheek. "Don't let anyone come after me. They'd never find me in the storm, and they'd die trying to rescue me."

Mark looked tortured. "I... I would if I could."

"I know." She promised.

"If it's not there, if the part you need is trashed, don't risk it. Come back to camp." Mark made her promise. "You'll need rope."

"Everything in the cargo hold was tied down; there'll be plenty of rope." Kate promised. "Don't stress, Newbie; this is something I know how to do."

***

Sneaking away from the crew was easy enough. Finding her way back to the wreck was fairly straightforward; but picking her way through it was much harder. The air was ice in her lungs, and she had to cut her way through the deflated air bag. It draped over everything, every broken wall, every collapsed ceiling.

But eventually, she found the cargo hold.

The ropes were all intact, laying across plenty of wreckage. She took her time, gathering up as much rope as she could coil, and sling over her shoulder. She found another emergency kit, and pocketed it. She sliced apart the airbag to make a sling for herself, gathering what supplies she could. The Valve Lock was intact, but it was bigger than she remembered it. Carrying it in a box on an airship was one thing, but lugging it up the side of a sheer mountain crag was going to be another thing entirely.

She looped a rope through it, and slung it over her other shoulder. It was heavy, but she wasn't worried about that. If she was on the mountain for more than half a day, she wouldn't have a hope of survival.

Keep moving. She told herself, refusing to let that thought stick for long.

***

The first part of the climb was all downhill. She had no equipment for getting across a gap as wide as the one between the Mountain they had crashed on, and the mountain she had lived on her whole life.
She hiked and slid down the ice until the reached the point where the two mountainsides met. After that, she had to pick her way in and out of boulders and crevasses.

As she stopped sliding down and started climbing up again, she couldn't help but feel a thrill go through her, even as the wind and snow made her tremble. She was closer to home than she'd been since she left, even if she was on foot.

Going up the side of a mountain was no small task. She had to find her way up every inch, as a wall of wind and ice forced her back down. There were small ledges, barely six inches wide, that were the closest thing she'd find to a staircase.

Hugging the mountain, she inched her way higher.

When the ledge stopped, she searched for handholds. There were precious few places for her to secure her ropes. The ropes helped, giving her a few seconds where her weight wasn't entirely on her own limbs.

Her arms were soon burning as badly as her lungs. Her skin was so cold it creaked as she moved, her insides were on fire with the effort of clawing her way up.

What was I thinking? She asked herself miserably. I even told Mark, the second I met him. I slip on this ice, and they'll never find my bones.

As if to answer the thought, the wind grew harsher still, sweeping her against the wall one moment... and then away from the rock the next. With a shout, she clutched at the rope, and tried to ride it out.

The Valve Lock was getting heavier with every inch, its edges slamming into her back with every gust of wind.

Keep moving! She told herself, reaching for the next handhold.

After another half hour, she had reached the next ledge. This one was ten feet wide, and she lay flat gratefully, letting herself rest.

Don't rest! She told herself fiercely. Rest is death! You close your eyes, and you'll never get up again.
But she was already drooping, plastered flat by the wind, and the cold... It was so much easier to just lay here.

And then thunder cracked like a bomb going off. The clouds weren't above, her they were around her. Her world lit up with a slash of lightning that washed out the whole world. The air-burst flipped her over, slamming her body against the wall, and she had to scramble for her rope before she went over the edge.

And then thunder roared again, and Kate threw back her head to scream at the mountain. "OKAY! I GET IT! NO SLEEPING ON THE CLIMB!"

***

She didn't have much in the way of climbing gear. Mark still had the Grapnel launcher, but she had a few of the grapnels, salvaged from the wreck. They were smaller than the usual ice axes, but they were strong enough for her to get a good grip.

Inch by inch, she worked her way higher, feeding her anchor ropes through the anchor points... Until they suddenly ran out.

Kate froze. She'd used the trails that her forefathers had left over the generations. It was practically a rite of passage to scale the mountain you lived on. This was her first climb...

And the trail she was following had just run out.

"Why, oh why, did I let Mark keep the Grapnel gun?" She moaned against the wind. She could see the next anchor, several feet too far above her. She wasn't going to jump it under the best of circumstances, and right now she was beat up, half frozen, and hanging on by her fingernails...

"I've got three anchors." She told herself. "It'll take two of them to get to the next anchor trail... And I can't take them with me afterward..."

She couldn't go back. She didn't have the gear to get across to the next climbing route... Her ropes were secured to a point below her, and she didn't have enough to leave it in reserve. She either untied the rope and made it up to the next anchor freehand, or she'd die trying.

"It sounds like it should be a hard choice." She told herself. "But there's no other route I can take, so I either make it, or I don't."

She untied the rope, and reached up to the ice above her heard, hanging precariously to the side of the mountain as she tried to hammer one of her hooks into the wall of ice.

The anchor held, and she held onto it tightly, pulling herself higher, rope trailing like the tail of a kite, no safety line...

And then the anchor she had hammered in gave way.

Well, that was inevitable. A distant corner of her mind thought clinically as her arms pinwheeled.
She grabbed at the rope and tried to grab for the anchor below her, tried to hook the rope back where it had been... and Missed.

She lost her balance and began to drop... When a Grapnel came from nowhere, whistled past her falling form, and pinned her hood to the ice wall.

With a yelp of disbelief, she grabbed without bothering to think about questions like 'how' and 'why'. She hooked her rope back into the anchor, and it caught instantly, just as her jacket ripped. She dropped, but only five or six feet. Her rope caught, and threw her back into the rock face.

She hung limply, unable to believe she hadn't fallen to her death. The Valve bounced too, slamming against her spine. She rotated slowly, dangling at the end of a rope, when a second Grapnel slammed into the rock beside her, this one with a rope attached.

She didn't even have to look. She knew.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, Mark Dorsy came up the ropeline and smirked at her.

"Good shot." She croaked.

"I was aiming for the rope." He grinned. "So, turns out the Captain can't give me an order if I've resigned."

"What?" She couldn't believe that.

"Well, the way I figure it, if the Beacon has gone out, then there won't be many ships that can make the trip without making a stop at the lighthouse. We either get the lights on, or we freeze to death. What's a minimum wage job next to that?"

Kate snorted, using him to orient herself. "Mark, I'm really glad to see you."

"And I'm really glad you're not dead." He said back, helping her get herself upright. His voice was the only warm thing for a hundred miles. "Now, how exactly do we do this?"

"Well, if you've got any ammo left for that thing, we can swingline over to the western climbing route!" Kate called.

"You've made the climb before?"

She shook her head. "Not me. My family. We're following the construction trails. My family has been making this climb since the days when they had to hand build the entire Lighthouse! Everyone who made this climb left their anchors behind."

"Didn't seem to help." Mark gestured at the drop that had nearly claimed her life.

"Even a mountainside is never static. Ice was constantly crawling back and forth, temperature changes made the metal points shrink and expand in the thin atmosphere, erosion was always shaping the details of the handholds... even-"

KSSSSH-Crack!

Lightning hammered the mountain, close enough that Kate could see Mark's hair straighten out in all directions. Her muscles rebelled against the electricity, and it took five minutes for her to open her hand.

"Let me guess." Mark rasped finally. "The end of that sentence was going to be: 'even lightning, attracted to the metal anchors', right?"

"Right." Kate stammered out, her teeth chattering.

"Can we get off this freakin' mountain now?"

Kate's hands were shaking uncontrollably. She reached anyway. "Almost there."

***

Mark reached the ledge first, but he didn't even haul himself over, before reaching back for her. And when she finally pulled herself over the ledge to join him, she understood why.

Before them was the familiar chorten. Rolling to her knees, she gratefully fell before the familiar stone pillar. "Any gods or goddesses that may be listening, I take back every joke I ever made about these things."

"Amen." Mark croaked, equally smashed.

Kate reached out blindly, and caught his hand. "Mark..." She wheezed. "We aren't there yet."

Mark was hyperventilating. The air was too thin, and he'd exerted himself too much. The climb had smashed him to pieces. His breath was fast and thin and unhealthy, but he wasn't getting enough air.

"Hell." Kate hissed, and crawled over beside him. "Mark, you have to slow down, you hear me? Slow your breathing, before your blood starts fizzing..."

If he was even conscious, it didn't show.

Kate looked up at the lighthouse, then back to him. She couldn't drag him that far, but she couldn't leave him, could she? For a moment, she cast about, looking for something she could use. "Mark... I have to slow down your breathing. I don't have a bag for you to breathe into... Dammit, I don't have anything I can use..." She looked back at him. His face was turning three shades of blue, and the solution struck her suddenly. "Oh. Wait. I do have something I can try..."

Mark was still gasping, when she swiftly leaned down and planted her mouth on his. She could feel him gasping against her mouth and she held him still, keeping a seal across his lips. For a long moment, they shared a breath back and forth between them, until the oxygen in them was consumed enough and the air between their lips slowed. 

Mark stopped hyperventilating. She broke the clinch and checked. His eyes were moving under closed eyelids, but his color was better. 
 
"Mark?" She whispered softly. "Mark, can you hear me?"

His eyes moved again, and slowly blinked open, only half coherent.

"I can't leave you here, Mark. You have to move with me." She said softly, not sure he could hear her over the wind. "We have to get inside, Newbie. One last effort."

"Uh." Mark croaked out. "Kiss me again, it may help."

She actually felt warm for a moment, but the mountain was quick to chill her bones again. "I was right, by the way. The Beacon is out. Even with the heat shield closed, it'd be a lot warmer here." She half carried him as far as the front door to her home. She was nearly bent double, under the weight of her friend, the spare part, and the weather-proof door. "...come on..." She groaned, when her legs finally gave out and both of them sprawled across the floor of her home.

Neither of them moved for a long time, exhausted.

"Uncle..." Kate groaned huskily, and her voice echoed oppressively, the house sounding cold and dead. "Uncle?"

There was no answer.

Kate looked back to Mark, chewing her lip. "I hate to leave you alone, Mark. But I have to finish this. I have to..." She fought to unsling the replacement part with dead, barely functional fingers. "You saved my life, Mark... Now I have to save the Crew, probably my Uncle... and you." She struggled to get her feet under her, make one last push. "Don't freeze." She told him, and started moving.

***

She had climbed the stairs more times than she could count. She had made her way through every room... but now it seemed so much further than it ever had before.

Kate had thought herself at the end of her strength hours ago, but she kept going. She thought she had nothing left once she'd reached the ledge, but she had kept going. Now, here she was, climbing stairs that she knew so well.

If I collapse here, on the same stairs I've taken three at a time since I was five years old, I'll never forgive myself. She told herself. Of course, I'll be dead, so I don't suppose I'll have to.

The Beacon was fed from the Mountain herself. Kate had only gone into the central spire twice. The heat had always been too intense to stay inside for long. But not today. Today the chamber was dark and silent.

Kate took a moment to stare. She was looking up the entire length of the Lighthouse, the central heart of her lifelong home. The walls were covered in scorch marks from the heat. The round room went up a hundred feet, and she could see the focusing lens, the thermal turbines... even the inside of the heat shield.

And on the floor, completely still, was Wells.

She didn't kneel, so much as fell down next to him, turning him over. His face was scalded, but not like steam. More like sulfur. In fact, as her frozen body began to recover from the wind-burn and snow-blindness, she could smell the scorched air of the room.

"Tried to fix it, didn't you?" She groaned, checking him for a pulse. It was barely there. "The Beacon went out completely, and you tried to get it gong again before you froze to death, even without the parts you needed."

"Kate?" She heard a voice calling.

"In here, Mark!" She called through the Lighthouse. After a while, she could hear him shuffling toward her, leaning heavily on the wall. By the time he found her, she had already collected his tools and had pried out the broken Valve Lock.

"How can I help?" He croaked.

She looked up at him and swallowed a scream. His eyes were sunken and bloodshot, his skin was changing colors, he was bleeding from the nose, and even a little from his ears... The pressure changes were killing him. "Mark, listen, if I can get the Valve Lock replaced, we'll get the power back on. There's a hyperbaric tent in the storeroom. It's like an airtight tent with a lot of tubes hanging off the end. Get my uncle out of this room, and then go find the tent. We're both going to need it."

Mark nodded, and shuffled weakly, dragging her uncle slowly out of the room.

The valve was as large around as she was, with an iron grate over the top. "Please tell me he didn't break the valve trying to get it working again." She groaned as she worked. "If the Valve Lock won't seal, we're all dead." But the replacement part slipped into place, smooth as a dream, and Kate was so happy she nearly cried. Her tools moved quickly, especially since her fingers were numb, but she secured the Valve in place, and suddenly the Beacon seemed just like new.

She dragged herself outside the Chamber, and threw the lever. She could hear the hiss of hot air rising from the mountain, and filling the chamber again. 
 
Kate felt her skin prickle, then ache as millions of tiny fingers of heat worked their way into her frozen skin. She had been cold so long, she almost hated the warmth when it found her. It was almost alien to her. She could hear the heavy metal door groaning as the temperature on the other side rose, and the metal expanded.

A moment later, the lights came back on, and Kate threw back her head, elated. She'd done it.
The only question now, was who lived to see it.

***

Mrowl.

The Captain looked down at the little animal. Kate had left him behind with the crew. The men had taken turns concealing the little kitten under their shirts, keeping the tiny, furry thing warm. "Apparently it's my turn." The Captain sighed, accepting the animal. After a moment, making sure he was alone, the Captain lowered his voice enough to speak with the cat. "I can't tell any of my men this. It's the Captain's duty to always be right... But I think we may have lost this one. Nobody has ever crashed in these mountains and been found alive. Most of them never get found at all." He looked back to the mountains. "We can hold out, maybe a day longer. Maybe two. We need to move, but we've got nowhere to go."

***

The staircase was suddenly another mountain. She had found more strength than she ever thought she'd had, but there was always another climb to make. It just kept going, and every inch of altitude seemed harder and longer than the one before it.

Part of her just wanted to give up. She'd gotten the part fitted, the power back on. Mark would figure out the pressure tent and be safe, she and her uncle would warm up...

But she couldn't leave the others to die. She was a seventh generation Lighthouse Keeper. A family tradition dedicated to shining a light for anyone lost in a stormy sky. Even at the end of the road, she couldn't fail them that.

She'd made this climb so many times. Twice a week for as long as she could remember, she'd sprinted up these stairs, a few more times whenever she was bored...

But she was just so tired now. So tired.

***

The night grew heavy and harsher still. A veteran of decades along the Himalayan Sky-Trails, Captain Khan had never been shipwrecked overnight. His crew were huddled together in the valley, hiding under their meager protection, huddling together to share their warmth, like a flock of sheep on a cold night...

But they could tell it was all for nothing. They wouldn't survive to see the dawn.

And then the dark night sky lit up with a shaft of pure, golden light. From the top of the mountain, it was a signal that lit up the entire mountain range, bright as day. From clear across to the other side, the crew could feel the air warm with the light of the Beacon, and the Captain watched as his crew looked up hopefully for the first time all day.

The night was suddenly clear and bright. The warmth was such that for a moment, the wind itself was banished, the air still and warm. The storm came back again, but in the light, it seemed much less ferocious.

The Captain brought up his spyglass quickly. In the light of the Beacon, he could see the whole range. It had seemed so out of reach before, but now it was in clear view. He could see the side of the mountain where his ship was wrecked. He could see the valley, and how far it was to the Lighthouse... And he could see the ropes and anchors that Kate and Mark had used to make their way, so that the Crew would have a light to guide them to safety.

The Captain rose to his feet. "LET'S MOVE!"

***

Kate had turned the winch, and opened the heat shield. The first duty of a Lighthouse Keeper was to guide the ships and crew safely home.

She had done all she could, and the wall of warmth that rolled through her was her reward. Kate fell to the ground and passed out with a satisfied smile.

***

Once the dawn had come, and the crew had been fed a hot meal, they set about making repairs. Restoring the airbag had been a matter of sewing the sections back together, and with the Beacon running cleaner and hotter than ever, they had a space to work where they wouldn't freeze to death, and plenty of hot air to re-inflate the Airship.

Repairing the gondola cabin was another thing entirely, but they had made it work.

Mark Dorsy had remained in the pressure tent for a few days, recovering from decompression sickness. Kate sat with him, the two of them glad to see that the other had made it.

Wells had not woken up.

***

Kate selected some apple-blossoms from the greenhouse, and wove them into a small arrangement. At the ridge, below the Lighthouse, a new row of gravestones were included. There was a larger marker for the crew of the Highwayman. Another for two of the crew that didn't survive were given rest beside the chorten, and her Uncle was at the other side, resting with five generations of their family. Kate whispered the words of the mountain prayer gently, as she laid the wreathe on her Uncle's grave. The rock was far too hard and cold to dig, but the stone was nothing more than a marker, put there the day they scattered his ashes to the Himalayas.

***

"Your ship's Doctor put him on a ventilation mask, but it wasn't enough." Kate said to her friend through the transparent tent. "The pressure change wasn't easy for him when he moved here from his own Lighthouse. Apparently he got a good lungful of something nasty when he tried to fix the Beacon. Scorched his lungs. There was nothing either of us could have done."

"Are you okay?" He croaked.

"I'll... I will be." She said softly. "I loved my Uncle, but... It's the job. The Beacon is lit, and I'm the Keeper now."

"You seem to be taking it well."

Kate shook her head. "Oh, don't let it fool you. I'm going to go to pieces soon enough. But every Keeper knows that... Whoever my apprentice turns out to be? Student or kin? One day they'll bury my ashes out there, and they'll take over my job. Nature of the beast. I've had my whole life to get used to the idea."

"I had hoped that you would come with us." Mark confessed. "There's a lot of sky out there to get lost in. It... I never thought to make a career of it, but I wanted you to see more than just one loop around the mountains."

"It would have been a tempting offer, but no." Kate shook her head. "I know where I'm meant to be."

"Must be nice. Lot of people don't know where they belong." Mark said. "As of yesterday, I'm one of them."

"What do you mean?"

"Doc says my system isn't recovering like it should. Even if I get out of this tent, I may be stuck at this altitude for a while." He explained. "Sorry."

"Don't apologize. I... would welcome the company." She smiled.

"Oh, I thought you were leaving." He blinked.

"Leaving?" Kate was surprised. "What do you mean?"
 
He wilted. "Oh, god; I'm sorry. I thought you'd heard." He coughed a bit. "The Captain's got a problem. He lost most of his 'extra' cargo because of the crash. He had to cannibalize a bunch of it to refloat the Ship. He'll need three pit-stops to get back to Kathmandu..."

"And every Keeper on the way is expecting to do some business." Kate swiftly understood. "He wants me to go along, doesn't he? To try and buy him some goodwill while he figures out how to pay them all off?"

"I was expecting him to have asked you by now." Mark coughed. "Try to look surprised."

Kate chewed her lip. "I... Seven generations, Mark."

"I know." He coughed. "Hey, I'm hoping you go. If one of those jilted Lighthouse Keepers out him to the authorities... well, one of the honest authorities, anyway..."

"All two of them." Kate observed. "But you're worried that if The Captain gets shut down because he can't deliver, then you're stranded here."

Mark nodded.

"It could be worse." She offered, but she quickly put that thought away. "I can't leave the Lighthouse unattended. If I go... I'll have to leave someone here, or give you a crash course in keeping airships from falling out of the sky."

Mark nodded. "I'm willing." 

Kate smiled. "It's harder than it looks. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, it all goes according to plan by flipping a few levers and turning a winch. That one other time? Climbing the Mountain freehand would be an easy solution."

"We've been saving each other's lives for a few days, I think we can both do it one more time." He pointed out. 
***

"Range, 300 yards!" Captain Khan roared, loud enough for his entire crew to hear it.

With a smile of nostalgia, Kate lifted the Spyglass and scanned the familiar mountains. She had been flying with Captain Khan on two different ships now. She'd met most of his business partners, and there hadn't been a Lighthouse Keeper that she couldn't wrangle a better deal from.

She had only meant to stay with them for one lap of their endless Sky-Trail, but the Captain hadn't said anything about her leaving when they returned to Her Lighthouse. Mark was becoming an old hand as a Keeper. Every now and then, Kate wondered if he'd try to barter passage on the visiting ship, but he never seemed to be in any hurry to go. She wondered why she hadn't pressed the issue herself; but she never thought about it for long.

"There it is!" The Captain declared, as though he'd never seen it before. In front of them, The Beacon lit up as the heat shield opened. The top of the mountain was bright against the dark clouds.
Kate knew she'd leave the ship and go home one day. It was where she meant to be... but there was no hurry.

Through the Spyglass, she could see Mark Dorsy waving from the Lighthouse. Kate smiled and waved back, feeling the airship loft a little higher on the suddenly warming air as it approached. Her Lighthouse was lighting up the whole mountain range as it had a thousand times before. Clear and strong, guiding the airship through the storms and mountains, The Beacon showed them all the way safely home.

Title Image from: http://sunrise666.deviantart.com/art/climb-the-mountain-409980525