The Ship Soak

Tale of High Skies

- March 2023 Popular Vote Runner Up

Wind upon your arm

A levy of each strand near

The high skies are here.”

Lonny watched the inexhaustible flurry of concerted effort to ready the medium-sized racer Scallion for its next takeoff. Many ships were docked at the small Estrian port, which he thought was little more than two sheep shacks stacked side to side, but there weren’t another port for 100 miles towards any direction worth going. Estria lay in a vast valley of farmlands and cattling grounds, and it showed with how this one spot took all the business and activity for the area. Yet Lonny didn’t mind if the Scallion would be his ship into the skies.

At twenty-four years old, Lonny had paid to join a short internship at the port’s airway office until Mr. Brantoon, the director, pushed him onto sorting all the cartography maps the office stored. It was a mess of the highest order—more of a pantry of papers than a map office—but in time it excited Lonny more than he could contain. Maps were just extra weight to most ships, and it had fallen out of style to use them since most captains here stayed close to their favorite piece of sky. Over time they unloaded them into whichever dirt heap would let them.

To him, though, each map of sky was a portal to a world he’d never imagined before. There were names of the established thermal groupings, the origins of anvil formations, and all sorts of aeronautical terms he was only beginning to come to an understanding about. Yet underneath the exterior appearance of stable wind pattern predictions, a muddled history of humanity emerged which fascinated him equally.

A long history of map updates showed the shift of trade routes and territory. The Rutterman Mountains to the west had been lost and re-won based on the delineations hidden by airspace markers. Ports moved across the land as exploration progressed, or perhaps when new ports served better. There was no end to the ocean of progress, sky or earth, and no reason to believe it would dry up.

The Scallion was to be his entry into that world, he was determined. Lonny learned enough about using a compass and sextant to convince Mr Brantoon of being a passable navigator, and he’d passed a recommendation when a captain came calling for need. In fact, two captains claimed Lonny’s availability for work, t’which meant a decision needed to be made. Standing now before the magnificent ship, he didn’t need to see the other.

At nearly seventy feet, the Scallion had a beautiful length to it. The shape looked akin to a seafaring ship—a wind-cutting bow which widened to a beam less than a third of the ship’s length—and even with a singular sailing mast to guide direction. Its large, white sail was rigged up and unfurled, which thrilled Lonny in a majestic way. An atmospheric elegance imposed itself through the sight. He imagined how it would look with a high wind blowing into the sail, billowed open and stretched full with the invisible force.

Large stilts and blocks held the whole of it up off the ground, enough to see the shape of the bottom. He could see the hull was plated with thin oiled copper, with no space between the long strips so he couldn’t see what it covered. Two of the dock hands were finishing with their polish of the hull, each with a can of oil and a rag. Lonny had seen them in the comings and goings of the office, but he’d become so wrapped up in his maps that everything else fell away. He felt a small bit of shame in not knowing.

He took a step nearer of them when a voice from his side shocked him significantly.

“If yer gonna stare longer, I suggest move’in back to wherever it is you come from,” a tall, roughly-bearded man spoke firmly. “Don’t need a scrap like you getting caught on a rope when we lift up. Off wit you!”

The voice was deep in its accent, and the man spoke quickly enough Lonny could barely keep up. Lonny stuttered some words which might have sounded as an apology, as he took a turning step back to look at the man. The person looked resoundingly different from Lonny in their wool jacket, thoroughly greyed from use. It had a simple fold to it, and while it was unbuttoned for the warmth here on the ground, Lonny expected it served quite well in the cold of the atmosphere. He was a head higher and wiry, yet as straight and as tall as his figure was the plains wind hardly blew him unsteady. Curly brown hair framed his face plenty as he looked at Lonny expectantly.

“I’m to be aboard this ship sir. My name is Lonny Hammon,” Lonny answered after a moment more of hesitation. The man did not move, and continued to stare at Lonny very quietly.

Lonny continued, “Change of position, sir. I-I’m to be added as navigator.” The uninterrupted stare unnerved Lonny completely.

They stayed like that, stock-still under the shadowy curtain of an overhead passing cloud, until Lonny almost gave into retreat. But he held on a moment long enough for the man to make a move.

“Ere’s to it. Climb aboard then, if’n it will make you move. Got the two bags—leave one, there’s not the space. I’m Captain Shallous. Take off’s in short order.” Captain Shallous checked the bottom of his shoe, as if he’d caught something there, then walked straight away to the long gangplank.

In a moment Lonny rearranged the contents of the two knapsacks by exchanging wads of blank paper for a change of clothes. He still had his journal for writing notes, so he would rather a second set of clothes and all his maps for the journey. Lonny caught one of the two linemen as they headed to another ship, gave them the unneeded bag, and then raced to embark.

The Scallion jolted soon after he walked on its deck. It was scarcer here on deck than he imagined, which only incited his wild imagination of how the ships conquered the sky. There were only two other people with him, and they worked to dislodge the gangplank and then the mooring lines. The sturdy mast looked to be as metal-plated as the hull, though not of the copper he would have guessed. In fact, Lonny could not see any of the wood he thought to see—just four large holes with fine metal grating over them surrounding the mast. The holes were about a pace and a half wide with a low whirling sound which grew quiet loud as time passed. A door opened at the stern, and the low height of the poop deck required Captain Shallous to duck for getting through. The door itself emerged as if by magic, for the plating interlocked perfectly with the walls.

“Emmeret and John, show our navigator below, and give Mason a kick fer hold’in me up,” Captain Shallous shouted to the men as they finished releasing the Scallion from its earthly anchors. The noise coming from the mast holes had grown very loud where Lonny stood, and he wondered how much louder it would be indoors.

Before they could move, a noise exploded even louder at the port, followed so immediately by the greatest flash of light Lonny had ever seen, it drowned the daylight. The Scallion was rocked by a pressure wave which came from the port. A huge release of energy, an enormous arc of lightning, touched a larger ship with a destructive force. This lighting bolt lasted abnormally long, and Lonny traced the bright light to an odd barrel on the ground. Several men were scrambling to escape getting struck by errant bolts off the main, and despite the distance Lonny felt intense fear from the sudden thunder.

The discharge emptied after a long minute as the ship caught fire under the baptismal shower of electricity, and subsequently spread to some dry grass on the ground. Captain Shallous stared carefully, enough so Lonny began to understand something churned in his head, and then the Captain nodded to Emmeret to continue leaving.

Lonny struggled again with the fear of his decisions up to this point. He had paid into a certain life at the port. Mr. Brantoon was a trusted friend, and wouldn’t see Lonny fall back on poor tendencies. There was a wildness inside him, though, one he could no longer ignore. A curiosity of hot steel which yearned to be quenched on the unknown worlds he’d seen written clearly on those maps. A mysterious force was hidden in the clouds where that lightning came from—the thunderbirds—and he would not deny the charge he felt inside to find them.