The Flight of the Vault
Celina pulled the main to starboard and feathered a lever with her foot to release hot air from the bladder. Her small dingy glided sideways and down. Crossed sails slowed her movement. She looped a stay around the the main and readied at the starboard edge. She toed the lever a bit more, eyeing a brass hook on the vertical post of a dock and catching her tongue between her teeth. The structure already crawled with people, boats of every size knocking into each other for more room. Celina threw a line at the hook. She tugged her small craft into place between two much larger iron-bristled vessels. It was the work of several minutes to dismantle her mast, sails, and rigging; the damn hinge caught half-way through and tangled her lines. Again. Maybe Mags could come up with a better design. Shit, Mags. What time was it? Celina dug her watch out of a fold in her waist scarf and snapped it shut just as quickly. She didn't have time to deal with the rigging right now. Celina threw the oiled tarp across everything, haphazardly hooked the edges down, and set the bladder's fire down low. Just enough to keep the boat afloat overnight. Her poor craft looked hunchbacked with the main mast still half-cocked but there was nothing for it. She was already late. Celina jumped from raft to dock seven feet down and dodged a brigade of beefy men stocking a craft that could eat hers for breakfast. She didn't get far. A crowd of people thickened the boardwalk, yelling, laughing, blocking the way. Celina pressed her lips together. Topside wasn't going to work. She knelt at the edge of the boardwalk and peered underneath it. Miles of nothing dropped out below but Celina understood how to not look at the emptiness. There was a hot bladder directly below her. Celina moved down the boardwalk another few feet and peered again. Ah-ha. She tugged on a woven line, found it secure, and summersaulted over the edge. Everything reversed in slow motion. Down became up, hands became feet, Celina swung from rope to rope and tried to remember if the launch dock was right, right, left or alternating. She poked her head topside only once to orient herself and once straightened monkied her way to the edge of the docks. She spotted familiar boots crossed over the side, laces more knotted than tied. Celina groped a hand around the edge until Mags grabbed her wrist for an assist up the side. Celina sat the edge and blew her bangs up, rubbing her hands together. "What'd I miss?" "Not much yet." Mags leaned back on both hands, chewing a stick of jerky. She had a new scarf tangled under her jacket; blue-- not what Celina would have pegged her to pick out. "Just got the 'thanks for coming, yada yada.' Where'd you park?" "The other side of Jasper. Not much room anywhere else." "No wonder you came up from below. There's got to be three thousand bodies crammed up here." Mags pulled a string of gristle from her teeth and flicked it over the edge. A chorus of voices crashed in from the left. The docks finally rotated into position for the viewing. Celina cursed quietly and Mags twitched to catch the jerky falling from her mouth. Celina tucked her bangs back, "Is that her?" "Got to be." "She's huge." "Don't suppose you're re-thinking blowing off that boarding ticket?" She'd be lying if the thought hadn't crossed her mind. But seven plus years on a ship with no promise of actually flying it? It didn't appeal, even if the ship was the size of a small city. "Look: fore and top. Propellers." "Two, four... at least eight of them down the spine of it." "Looks like a damn bird with those wings out to the side." They watched as the bladders filled slowly with hot air and each propeller in turn started to spin. Sails unfolded by the dozen along each wing in bright green and below a small light began to flash. The light jumped around the ship in a huge circle, spinning like the propellers faster and faster. Celina heard the hum of it across the gulf of sky. "What is that?" "No clue." The light bled into itself, a broad band of sunlight yellow like a child's fingerpainting that encircled the back tail of the ship. It was feet wide at least. Celina felt the hairs on her arms stand up like static. She rubbed them back down but the feeling didn't disperse. It had to be worse for the people inside. A male voice boomed across the air. "Ladies and Gentlemen. Today we usher in the future. It is with the greatest pleasure I present to you... The VAULT!" A sound like nothing Celina had ever heard before wound up, a pitch that screamed higher and larger. She grabbed Mags' hand. The ship lifted from her berth and light flashed from every direction. The sky was suddenly full of iron ships with propellers and screaming rings of light in every color imaginable. They swerved in the air. Cannon fire splintering wood, tearing cloth, denting plates of metal. A ball of raw bronze crashed through the docks to their right. People fell screaming into nothing below. Mags yanked Celina's hand and she clued in. They ran along the boardwalk, pushing people out of the way, racing for safety. A cannonball erased the bordwalk just in front of them. The bladders exploded on contact. Her feet lost ground. Celina felt herself falling and grabbed nothing but air. She saw the bottom of the boardwalk and screamed for Mags. Something hard crashed into her left side. Celina landed on a small boat deck with all the wrong angles. Her elbow smarted. Her knee tweaked. She groaned. "Hold on to something!" Hold on to what? The deck tilted. Celina felt herself slide. She scratched across the wood in a panic, caught a line, wrapped her arm in it. There was a woman driving with one foot propped up on the railing as she banked over forty degrees. A cannonball missed the deck by inches, dropping with a whistle into empty air. Celina pulled herself into a corner where she could brace. What by the north winds was going on? Wind and noise buffeted Celina from every side, a far cry from the calm skies she'd sailed through this morning. Wood splintered to the left, an unlucky airship broke into pieces before a rain of cannon fire and shards of glossed wood fell through the air like so much confetti. Her balance returned. Celina unwound herself from the rope that had quite possibly saved her life and ran across the short deck to the main mast. "Ho! Tacking to starboard!" The captain called out. The mainsail snapped in the wind, suddenly loose. Celina swung away from the boom, around the mast, and continued upward, climbing with feet and hands accustomed to ship-work. She perched at the top as the mainsail caught the new tack and surged forward. Celina realized they were sailing far and away from the docks. The chaos of war rained into the clouds; wood, metal and halves of ships caught in crossfire. Rings of power flashed between wrecks. Mags was somewhere in that chaos. She had to go back. Celina squinted at the captain from her perch. The woman had wild colors in her hair and a frown on her face that looked unpracticed. She kept checking the skies behind her. Celina yelled, "Captain, ho!" The woman looked up through a pair of goggles. "We need to go back for Mags." "Not on your life, Celina." Celina swallowed her retort. How did this woman know her name? Celina dropped ten feet to the deck of the ship and bounded up to the wheel. "We're going back." The captain shook her head. "It took me six tries to catch you. I'm not risking anything. We're going straight to Brigh--" Celina punched her in the gut and followed with a knee to her nose. The captain fell back with a cry of surprise. Celina spun the wheel and confronted a piano of lever choices. "Thank you for catching me, but we're going back for Mags." She picked the first lever. The ship fell out of the sky. Celina grit her teeth and stomped on the second lever. They shot upward faster than any hot air bladder she'd seen. The static of the power ring hummed over Celina's skin with prickling nails. The captain touched her nose gingerly but there was no blood on her face. "The past is a foreign country," she muttered. Celina cursed at the number of levers. "Which one of these goes forward?" The captain pointed. Celina leaned on it progressively, impressed by how quickly the boat came up to speed. She circled the docks and spotted her hunchbacked dingy still tied to the post. And Mags stood on top fighting with the rigging. Thank the north wind. Celina crossed the sails of her commandeered ship and feathered the first lever that brought them down out of the sky. "Mags! They're tangled, give it up!" Magnolia's head snapped up and Celina saw her eyes widen. "C?" "Stop gawking, start climbing." The captain put a firm hand on Celina's shoulder. "We need to leave. Step aside." Mags' head popped up over the edge of the ship so Celina didn't argue. She rushed to help her friend over the edge. Mags hugged her tightly. "I saw you fall. You dropped out of the docks, I saw you." "Hang on to something," the captain said. She leaned on several levers and uncrossed the sails. The little boat jumped through the air, screaming away from the docks as quickly as possible. Celina watched over Mags' shoulder; a volley of cannon fire missed an iron-bound ship and crashed into the wood-and-bladder boardwalk instead. The final corners of the structure gave way, tilting into the clouds with a quiet vortex.