Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Lostkind: Paperback Release!

The Lostkind: Paperback Release!

That's right, folks! For the first time, you can buy my premiere Novel: The Lostkind, in a handsome paperback edition! All the excitement, wonder, mystery and enchantment of the ebook version, but now packaged in the solid, shelf-worthy value of more than 482 pages and a glossy cover.

This is a first for me, and I'm fairly excited about it. I'm sure you will be too. Go ahead and check it out now, by following the link.


The Lostkind

The Dead Tree Edition, Available now at a competitive price on Amazon.com, and other online retailers! 

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 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Interstellar Review

So. I finally saw Interstellar.

It's one of the few Sci-Fi films to generate Oscar Buzz, and holds the princely distinction of being a film that actually has a powerful effect on the real world understanding of science.

I've also heard it compared to 2001, in regards to the scope and impact it has as a film. At the time, I thought that was just buzz talk, trying to drum up some more viewers.

And now I've seen it, and I can't believe how much they were downplaying it. This blows 2001 out of the water.

Sci-Fi has the quality of being able to take you out of yourself. Movies such as Avatar bank on that. Avatar was a very formulaic story, but we didn't care, because the point of it was to give you a ticket to another world. Something it did very very well.

Hard Sci-Fi is entirely different. If has to work. Actual space missions depend so much on math and fuel and oxygen. It's not like watching the Millennium Falcon twist in and out of asteroids and space worms. Hard Sci-Fi is the kind of space movie that actually seems possible for us to see in our lifetime.

I was worried about Interstellar, because I love Sci-Fi and I love most of Chris Nolan's films. They're smart, they're sharp, they're brilliant. But the reviews on Interstellar had me worried, because there was almost nothing in between. It either got rave reviews, marking 10/10... or it got One Star rants, about how it was a boring waste of time and money.

A slightly ironic complaint, since wasted time is a massive part of the plot. Respects to Mister Nolan. The same ratio of good to bad comments, (And even a lot of the same words) were used when he gave us Inception. A movie that did make sense, if you worked hard to follow it. In a lot of ways, that's better than a mindless popcorn flick.

For those who haven't seen Interstellar yet, I will say this: Go see it. Interstellar does make sense. In fact, the story comes to the only conclusion that possibly could make sense. What seems like a magic wand used once to establish a premise becomes the focal point of the entire climax.

I can't be too specific without giving away the whole thing. But I will say this: At about the halfway point in this movie, me (And everyone watching it with me) agreed this this was going to turn out very depressing. The details and unanswered questions of the first act had been washed away with a tide of very real, very deep, very relatable human emotion... And then the ending came about, and the act one magic wand became the "Eureka!" moment to a truly epic tale.

Usually, 'epic' just means that the effects are big, or the runtime is long... and these things are true in the case of Interstellar. But don't think for a second that there is a wasted moment in the whole saga. This is the future of the human race being told, and somehow being told the same way you'd talk about a personal family drama.

(Image from: http://img.csfd.cz/files/images/user/profile/158/843/158843392_9c5e44.jpg)

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)