Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.
Prentyse Brassard was the last to disembark, but could only stand in the dishevelled cabin, head pounding, gasping for breath in the thin air, rooted to the spot.
He squinted out of the side hatch to the others. They were outside, on a rock ledge in front of a gallery sized tunnel entrance, setting down equipment cases retrieved from under the cabin’s benches, the afternoon sun reflecting in blinding flashes off sharp angles on their suits of armour. They were only three metres away.
Three metres. That was all.
Yes, but three metres of empty space above a vertiginous void.
One glance down had been enough, a big mistake, and one he would not make again.
With no moorings available, three metres was as close as the pilot dared hold the airship in these blustery conditions. Any closer, a sudden blast might dash the vessel into the rock face. Seen from the hatch, the mountain bobbed and shifted nearer and further in the fight between the temperamental gusts and the pilot’s struggle to keep her craft in position.
A wooden gangplank, formerly the cabin floor, telescoped out of the airship like an extended ladder. The co-pilot had locked one end onto the hatch’s lower rim but left the other unsecured on the ledge, allowing it to slide as the craft bucked. Noise assaulted Prentyse through the hatchway: the shifting ledge rasped at the plank’s underside, the damaged lift crystals varied pitch in a broken, buzzing whine and over it all the wind made squally blasts and moans.
No, he wouldn’t look down again. Not at that frightening drop.
In fact, he couldn’t.
His eyes could swivel up and around, but no lower than horizontal. He could only look ahead through the open hatch. The carrying and fetching done, Father straightened up and began checking packing-case labels against his paperwork, Zubin peeled away to one end of the ledge to take in the view and Flammia sat on a case to dab at her burnt face with a damp cloth, grimacing as if it stung.
They had skipped over that sliding gangplank, as casually as crossing a muddy street on duckboards.
So why couldn’t he follow them — at all?
A theatrical throat-clearing behind reminded him of the co-pilot’s proximity. “Sir, if you’d be so good as to disembark, we can drop the ship back to safety.”
He would not condescend to pay her any regard. The gangplank, though he could not examine it, claimed all his attention anyway. “Why aren’t there any railings?”
Oh. That was a stupid question — he knew it the moment it left his lips. Serving also as the floor between the bench seats, there was no room under their legs for railings.
“So marines can practice being fearless, sir.”
What? Was that a joke? Was she making fun of him?
“In any case, sir, one hand is holding your drink and the other is nursing your hang … er, altitude headache. You’d need three hands for a railing.”
The cheek of the woman! It would demean him to argue the point, so he dropped the matter. It was better to let her think there was alcohol in the flask than to be seen arguing with staff.
“If you please, sir.”
She was correct in one thing: he would have to cross over the … to the ledge sooner or later. He moved forward, her presence and polite disdain propelling him to the hatchway. He mounted the fixed end of the gangplank and teetered there, uncertain of his footing on the first of the many cleats which crossed the varnished wood for better traction.
The air was freezing cold on his face.
“In your own time, sir.”
That was a snide admonishment to hurry-up if ever he had heard one. He would never tolerate such insolence from House Brassard’s staff.
But, hang it all, he shouldn’t react. Hadn't he already decided to let it drop?
Just take one step at a time. Try to think of something other than … the gangplank.
He took a step out into space, keeping his eyes on Flammia. Though she had red weals and blisters across her face, lacked eyebrows and now had a receding hairline, she was still beautiful and her bronze, almost-gold eyes claimed his worship.
In unnoticed adoration, he took a second step. And a third.
A flurry of wind caught him and he put his boot down on another cleat. Arms flapping, he regained his balance. How could he avoid stepping on the stupid things if he couldn’t look down at them?
“Almost half-way. You’re doing fine, sir. Like a brave marine, the way you’re charging across.”
Insolent woman, to dare such irony. That did it! Keeping his attention on Flammia, he rushed the remaining length, stumbling on cleats, tottering and fighting for balance in the cunning wind.
His boots touched solid rock.
“He’s clear! Kill it!”
The twin teeth-rasping buzzes of the lift crystals stopped in a sudden implosion of silence. With a graunching of wood on stone, the gangplank both slid forwards and levered up on the ledge, catching him in his armoured rump and tumbling him to his hands and knees.
By the Gods! If the wood had snagged on his stupid armour and pulled him backwards ...
He rose from his hands and knees, shaking, and turned towards the airship, heart hammering, face flushing, hands and teeth clenched, sure of the curse he would fling.
It wasn’t there. The airship had gone.
Sky, just sky.
Sky everywhere: above, in front, to the sides and …