Filia sat up in her bunk. She put out a hand and steadied herself on the bedpost. The frame that supported the mattress was aluminum, but the furnishings around it were from her parent’s dingy hut in Braemond. A single ship’s light, hung from the hand-hewn wooden rafters overhead, barely illuminated the dim space. Filia swung her legs over the side and stood up. The morning air was chilly on her bare body. Tiptoeing across the dirt floor, Filia looked out the single window. The sun outside was blazing bright. Hot air blew in, and far, far below she could see the desert stretching out for miles in every direction. Returning to the bedside, she opened her locker and pulled out her good, red dress. She slipped it on over her head and followed Mother, who was carrying little Fria, out the door to the waiting cart.
“Let’s go!” Mother called back to her.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Filia replied, struggling to comb out her long hair. She looked down at her naked feet as she pushed through the mud that was always outside their door. I need to find my shoes, she thought to herself. She looked up into the air and saw the Constant Vision hanging there, waiting. They won’t let me back on the ship again if I have muddy feet, she told herself.
Mother was lifting little Fria up onto the cart, and Father was standing in the yoke, ready to pull the cart to town. Loaded in the cart was a crop of yams, with rocks and small animals mixed throughout. Filia clambered on top, holding her skirt up with one hand to avoid soiling it. She picked a spot on the top of the cart, perched precariously between a large squash and a tree stump. Just as she settled into place Father got out of the yoke and walked back towards the house.
“Where are you going?!” Mother yelled, and climbed down to pursue him. Fria shook her head sadly and started pulling yams out of her pockets. Not again, Filia thought to herself and climbed back down off the cart. By the time she reached the ground both parents were inside the house. The ground shook suddenly. Filia looked up to be sure that her baby sister hadn’t fallen off the cart, but Fria was still there, brushing the dirt off a yam. Filia turned towards the house.
“Don’t go far, Filia,” Fria called to her. “You don’t want to get left behind!”
I’d love to get left behind, Filia thought to herself. She walked around the house, going to the back yard. As she expected, there she saw Father and Brother Harmond, the cleric in his brown robe and Father naked in the washtub. Brother Harmond was chanting and pouring water over Father’s head. After each dousing Father handed him a small coin.
“Come on, Filia,” Father said, “we need to complete the rites before we can go to town.” Mother and Fria emerged from the house, each one already undressed and carrying their water pitcher. The ground shook again, and they both fell to the ground. Mother helped Fria up, brushing at the mud that smeared the young teen’s shoulders and hips. Fortunately, neither pitcher spilled. They turned and looked at Filia expectantly. Mother silently pointed back at the hut.
“Why do we have to do this again?” Filia asked, hurrying back to the house. “We just did it last week!”
“Don’t argue with your Father,” Mother said, pouring green, glowing water from her pitcher over Fria’s head. Even from where Filia was standing she could feel the heat from that water.
Filia entered the house and pulled off her blouse. She hung the blouse up on the hook beside her good, red dress. Filia missed that red dress, but it hadn’t fit in years. Clad only in her skirt, she grabbed her water pitcher. She went back out into the back yard to fill it at the well. She could hear her father’s laughter coming from the road, where he and the rest of the family were waiting at the cart. Filia hung the pitcher on the edge of the well and dropped the bucket down. When it splashed down at the bottom she let it sink, then started pulling it up.
“Let me help you.”
Filia looked up. There was Jaspin, dressed in his green velvet shirt and smiling like the sun. He bent down and reached for the rope. Filia could feel the soft velvet of his shirt sleeve slide across her bare chest. She let him take the rope, and then stood up and watched him work. She was glad he had come, but she also resented his presence. She looked up at the roof of her parent’s cottage where all the crewmembers sat watching. Loillola was there, her arm around Jok. Loillola waved. Filia waved back.
“We need to do the ritual,” Father said from the tub. He was holding Fria up out of the water. He had one hand under each of her armpits, with her facing away from him, and he was dunking her in the water, up and down, slowly. Each time he raised her up Mother, now dressed in Brother Harmond’s robes, would pour water over the little girl’s head. The water no longer glowed, but it smelled really awful.
“I need to get back to the ship,” Filia said, looking up at the crew. They were all getting up to go, with some of them already climbing the long rope ladder back up to the waiting airship, so high in the sky. The ground shook once more, and the crewmembers began to hurry. Filia looked back at her family. “I need to go, before it’s too late!”
“This won’t take long at all,” Jaspin said, pulling down her skirt and handing her the newly filled water pitcher. It was wet and cold against her bare skin. Jaspin himself was now naked and climbed into the tub with Father and Fria, who was now a teenager and clutching an equally naked boyfriend to her. “Come on, or you’ll be left behind.” Jaspin reached out from the tub and took her hand. Filia tried to pull away, but couldn’t.
“I don’t want to do the ritual anymore,” Filia explained desperately. “I want to leave! I want to go with you where you are going!”
“You can go, but first you have to do the ritual,” Father explained from the washtub. His grip on her hand was tightening, and it was starting to hurt. He turned to Jaspin. “Help her in.”
Jaspin climbed out of the tub, water streaming from his bare body. Never taking his eyes off Filia, he circled around behind her. She wanted to watch him, to keep her eyes on him, but she couldn’t turn her head, and he slipped out of sight. She tried to get Mother’s attention, but she and Fria were standing together talking and would not look at her. Filia tried to break her father’s grip with her free hand, but before she could move she could feel a hand reach around her, sliding up across her thigh, belly, and breast. She screamed.
Filia woke with a start. It was dark, and she was in her bunk on the Constant Vision. Something touched her breast again, and she yelped, trying to brush it away. Whatever it was, it ran across her body. Filia tried to throw off the blanket but her arm refused to work right. Suddenly she knew what it was that was touching her — it was her own hand. Her arm had fallen asleep. She sat up, and a wave of nausea swept over her. She lifted a leg up, to get out of bed, and the ship shook so hard she tumbled to the floor. All around her she could hear the support structure of the great ship groan in protest.
“Stations!” someone yelled nearby. “Man your stations! Brace for …”
Just then the deck heaved, throwing Filia up against her bunk. All around her cries and yells indicated that others were equally tossed. She seized the stanchions and lifted herself to her feet. Nausea swept over her and she shivered violently. Her knees gave way and she eased herself to the bed. It had been two days since the incident in the engine room and she had spent most of that time in the infirmary asleep. Only this evening has she been allowed to go back to her own bunk, where she had again fallen asleep. And now …
From outboard she could hear the sound of the engines spooling up. A familiar shudder passed under her feet as they sought a new harmonic, increasing their power output. Filia knew she needed to go man her station. She pushed herself to her feet. She was already fully dressed, a futile effort to ward off the chills. She grabbed her utility belt and strapped it on. She had barely gotten it buckled when she succumbed to the illness in her gut. She barely made it to the wastebasket before the heaves overtook her. She had nothing left to give up, and spent several awful minutes proving it. Finally the nausea faded and she was able to head out. She clipped her safety line to the rail and slogged towards her work station.
Twice more the ship was shaken as she made her way through the dimness. By the time she had traveled the normally short distance to the starboard nacelle the engines had already reached their new, higher output. Filia had only heard the engines pushed so hard once before, and then only for moments in a test. Now they were running hard and steady. The engine room was better lit but still dim. From the looks of it all shifts were in place. Montio was at the controls with Stimjack the engine master and Yttria the night foreman. Her own station was manned by Edwyn and Graff, her counterparts on the second and third shifts. Rounding out the crew were the greasemonkeys: Lew, Genny, Mertria, Breyda, Dawt and Driss’ka. Driss’ka always drew a double-take from Filia; the green-skinned mechanic was the only Drevonian onboard, and only the second Drevionian female Filia had ever met. Filia paused at the door to catch her breath, then moved to her own station.
“Go back to bed, Filia,” Edwyn said. “You need to be taking care of yourself.”
“I can help,” Filia protested feebly.
“She’s better off here,” murmured Graff. “It’s probably safer.”
They both looked up at the great engine. Filia did as well. It was almost a blur, it was moving so fast. Inside the nacelle the roar of the blades as they sliced the air was a physical thing. Filia’s station was at the center of the nacelle, just forward of the fan assembly. She could almost not hear what the others were saying.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“All hands, and then full power,” Edwyn said. “That’s all we know.”
“It’s a storm,” Graff said. “Has to be. You could hear the winds just a minute ago.” He sniffed the air. “Smells like dust and smoke.”
“Since you’re here, take your place,” Edwyn said. “We’ve seen two breaks in the lines already, so be ready to rebalance.”
Filia nodded and moved into the workstation. Her duties not only included repairing the fluid valves, but monitoring the fluid flow. Most of the time the hardware required little or no attention. Only when the engine operated very slowly or very fast did things get complex, or when things broke. A quick glance showed Filia that Graff had already activated the secondary pressure regulators, and had shunted flow past two dead lines. The multiply redundant system allowed that, but adjustments had to be made manually. As she took her place she smoothly shifted a few controls, evening out the flow in spots. She had barely done this when the throttle chime sounded full speed.
“Finally,” Edwyn said softly. “Full speed I can deal with. Flank speed just scares me.”
The engine slowed. After a minute or so it settled down to the new setting. Filia listened to it. It wasn’t running as smoothly as she liked, but it didn’t sound dangerous to her. Satisfied, she turned back to her gauges. Only then did she notice the other two looking at her expectantly. She remembered that she was considered to have a special talent when it came to seeing things that were wrong or out of place. She swallowed hard, and nodded. They relaxed and turned back to their instruments.
Filia rebalanced the flow, then turned her attention to the broken lines. A quick glance at the gauges showed exactly what she feared. She turned to Edwyn.
“I think I know what broke. It’s those replacement valves. They don’t match the line gauge well enough, and the lines have split.”
“Best we could do, under the circumstances,” Edwyn replied. “Fast, good, or cheap. There’s always a tradeoff somewhere.” He opened a cabinet door and pulled out some pipe. He handed it to Filia. “Here. The first break is right at the galley junction. Should be right under the catwalk. Splice this in.”
Filia nodded, swallowing hard. She took the pipe. She had actually been looking forward to staying put for a bit. At least the center of the ship would be fairly stable. She unclipped herself and headed out, pausing to grab some tools as she went. She was feeling a bit better now, actually, and she made good time. The interior of the ship was better lit now, and she was soon in the galley, which was empty. The junction was actually under the catwalk beside the galley. She opened the access panel and started working. She had almost gotten the broken line out when she could hear the engines spooling up again. The floor tilted as the great airship climbed.
Filia steadied herself and stowed the tools she wasn’t using. She worked the split pipe out and started to put the new pipe in its place. The ship shuddered. Filia tried to hurry, but the pipe would have none of it, refusing to slip nicely into place. The spilled fluid made everything slick and hard to grasp. The ship shook, not just once but repeatedly. Filia had to stop working and hold on. When the shaking stopped she could hear voices shouting in the distance, but she forced herself to focus.
She started over, removing the new pipe and replacing. It went in, and she started to dog down the fasteners. Then the whole ship heaved upwards, as if it was trying to stand on its tail. Filia grabbed onto the rail as she almost flipped end over end herself. She watched in horror as the interior of the ship shifted and moved. The great gas bags on either side suddenly were moving closer, compressing inward. As Filia watched, the catwalk that ran up the center of the ship bowed, bent, twisted, and then folded not ten feet from where she was clinging to it. Filia found herself dangling from the rail, which was now directly over her head. All around her came the sound of metal bending, fittings snapping, and people screaming. It was as if the ship itself was convulsing in slow motion. The rail she was holding snapped, and she fell until her safety line caught her. She hung from it, face down, suspended over a long chasm that, moments before, had been the centerline of the ship. To either side the giant gasbags that held up the ship writhed and billowed. Then the rest of the rail gave out too, and she fell.