“Bluster and Cabbage!,” boomed Imrus, trying the unfamiliar curse words on for size. I laughed out loud. The engineer’s voice filled the cramped cabin, and could add gravitas to even the most ludicrous of kennings. Most of the other crew were quiet though, and Barras just looked angry. “Don’t you dare throw those words around in here!,” he yelled at the engineer, leaning dangerously out of his hammock. “I’ve worked on too many ‘ships where fools like yourself have had to be Censored and surveyed. Save us all the trouble.”
Imrus should have looked chastened, but he wasn’t. He was too big and friendly for that, and even the threat of Censoring was a-nothing. Instead, it encouraged the man further. “Boom and sky! Grumbling Lazarus! Skylamp’s wrack!”
“Don’t you even think of conflating in here, you stupid bloody Unter-man!,” growled Barras. He was Uber-born himself, and even a lifetime on the air-wires was not enough to knock out an Uber’s natural tendency to look down on those born with insufficient verticality.
Lasker, the cabin-boy, chose that moment to come down barrelling down the ladder. “Line’s end coming up. Bare minutes away, now!”
You could almost feel the tension go out of the room in one great wheeze. We’d been chuggering through the skies for weeks now, line’s end always another hop away. I knew my opportunity was limited, and took the whoops and hoorays of the crew-mates as my chance to skeet out of the cabin, down the hallway, past the stairs that went out to the wheeze-engines and up rope-ladders to the helm above. Sure as bones, the Captain was there tending the levers, looking out at the clearing smug that clouded up the windowpanes. The wire was out there, somewhere in the misty nothings.
“Can I help with landfall, Captain?,” I asked, brave-like, like I hadn’t been secretly practicing in my cabin to ask that same question for days now.
The captain pondered my question thoughtfully, giving airs of due consideration as if he hadn’t already made his mind up as to who was fit for the landfall and who not. “Aye, Welyam,” he finally responded, “ye can go. Don’t tarry now, Sisters Candel and Fonten are already getting their equipment ready.”
I gave an aye-aye and raced out, up to the deck, skipping between the thick legs of crewmates. The Sisters were as the Captain Glass said, loading necessaries for the trip into their specially-padded crates, ready for tying onto the guiding line. The Brothers were there too, naturally. The Censors hadn’t told us to expect trouble but Brecken and Milinki always came anyway, there with glaive and fist if the locals were skewiff and the surveying turned claret.
“Captain said I could come,” I panted at them, my words bubbling out from all that run, leg’s a-shaking.
“Glass said that, did he?,” responded Sister Fonten, crooking her brow at me. “Wanted you out from underfoot here on the ‘ship, and down messing up our business instead?”
“It’s not like that, Sister miss,” I exclaimed. She hadn’t forgiven me since the first days of the tour, when I’d scumbled her belongings on a bad winching.
“Leave the boy alone, Fonten,” said Candel. She was always the nicer of the two.
“I’ll treat the boy as I wish, Candel. The Great Plan doesn’t resolve with jumblers like this one. The rituals need rigour, not some great woody-head.”
“Oh hush, dear. If you had your way we’d never have left Central. If I say Welyam can come and witness the vox, then witness he will.”
Fonten supressed an eye-roll but knew she’d lost the argument. Candel was the nicer and softer one, but firmer deep down. Imrus called her a flicky-knife once, able to show steely edge when needed but hiding it away for unsuspecting types.
There was a grumbling and moaning off-deck; the crew were attaching the cabin to the new wire, testing for tautness. The Sisters breezed past. The Brothers picked up the crates. I followed behind, obediently.
With some ricketing and racketing we were launched, off on the wire and out of the blooming shadow of the ‘ship above. The line was quick, and in under a minute the cabin had cleared the smug and was in clear sky. ‘Ships like ours always hung higher than normal over uncharted ground like this. It was out of respect for the process, for the interviewee. We did all we could to not distort the readings. A stray glance up, and theologies were made.
It was good to be in clear sky again, but we were far out from normal paths here. We had veered close to the Bruise, somewhere in the clouds. The air was clear blue in most directions, but out widdershins-way it purpled dark, ugly veins stretched across the vista. I’d never been this close before, not to those skeevy buboes of night that bubbled in slow-motion. I shuddered and averted my eyes down, just as the landing came into sight below. A little scurrying of floaty rock, from this distance. Scabs of trees and foliage only, with a few stray shacks around a clearing. I could see how the Censors would have perceived it; isolation breeds belief, and this was deep into the never-wheres. The architectures were all a little off. Classic enough build, like the stoat trader settlement we’d left last, circling somewhere by Ashen Sound, but tweaky at the edges, like it had been built and re-built by someone who’d forgotten the exact ways. That was a sign of drift, of difference, and that was the sort of thing Censors buzzed at. They’d have spotted those wonky architraves from a distance, logged and measured it all, then tracked it all with vectors and skymarks for later.
“Now then, the most important thing of all is to not pass judgment. You’re here to set up the capture-boxes and record the vox, and that’s the extent of it. Not a glance or murmur from you, young man. A single frown out of place ruins it all. We’re here for consistency and the Plan, not jiggery-poking at strangers.”
I nodded wordlessly at Fonten. I knew what it meant to step out of line.
The cabin hit ground on an outcrop of weasel-rock. A little slippery and treacherous, but the wire took us where it took us. Brother Brecken stepped out first, looping the anchor around a barnacley tree that twisted up close by. It was a nonsense really; the wire was strong and taut, and always would be, but spending enough time on a ‘ship made you want a little extra tying you down to the world. We were all floating, really; floating ships amongst gloamy clouds, stepping down onto driftrock. An extra tie or two would never hurt.
Sister Candel put a hand firmy-gentle on my chest as I stepped out of the cabin. “Whatever you hear today, remember to not remember. Memory like this is for the vox, and the peepers at Central. You’ve got to compartmentalise, or you’ll end up creating your own beliefs out of scrap.”
“I don’t want to be interviewed, ma’am,” I replied. “Not that.”
Fonten cleared her throat behind me. I looked up, and saw a figure shambling toward us out of the trees. It was a he, so that meant we’d probably landed in a patriarchy then. He’d be the head priest, judging by the woad and staff. Assuming that the houses we saw were the only ones on this rock, he was probably the father or grandfather of most of the inhabitants too. Maybe a few generations of family, stranding themselves here after some falling out. A rump of a rump of belief could have easily started here, isolation warping thoughts and creating new motivations.
Candel drew herself up a little and strode toward him, her hand clutched on the ritual tools. Time to begin.