The crate snapped open with the sound of extreme age, dust swirled in the shafts of sunlight.
Tomas stepped back into the darkness of the huge, buried room. His fear was overcome by curiosity. Under the heavy silver fabric he could make out vague shapes. A soft whir came to his ears from within the large silver blanket that continued to unfold itself across the cracked and dusty floor.
A deeper hum began under his feet, and his nerves returned. With the hum he could swear he heard the gushing of water. The silver blanket was taking on new dimensions, growing up as well as out now. The size of the massive, underground room was starting to make sense. Beams of sunlight played across the silver surface, looking like the inside of a shell, and the whirring sound increased, spooling up to a new urgency.
He realized it was more of a bag than a blanket now, and could see the edges rising up off the ground, wrinkles being slowly tightened, as its true shape began to become apparent; it looked like a giant, silver fish, floating lopsidedly in the spotty sunlight. The underside was a non-descript grey colour, the silver, shell-like side was now higher than he could see. As it continued to expand, a bulge grew in the bottom. Facing the pointy end of the expanding bag was a circular opening.
Tomas’s feet took him toward it haltingly. Peering inside he saw a small room with benches, but more amazingly, it seemed to give off light of its own; ghostly images dancing across its surface.
“Greetings citizen,” an emotionless voice spoke from the dark, Tomas almost jumped out of his skin, staggering back before regaining his balance. The voice continued, “airship number three two oh seven is coming online. Estimate five minutes to lighter than air, seven minutes to carry crew.”
Tomas stared opened mouthed at the hole in the bottom of the ‘air ship’. The lights inside were becoming brighter.
“Insufficiently luminosity on the canopy, please use the forward mooring rope to move the vessel into direct sunlight to speed up initialization.”
Tomas didn’t understand half the words the cold voice said, but he could see a line hanging from the pointy end of what looked like the front of the airship. He walked toward it cautiously, the grey shape growing ever bigger, and now mostly off the ground. The cable had an oddly metallic feel, as he held it in his hand. The roof had mostly collapsed about forty feet away, so he took a firmer hold on the cable and pulled. A loud click followed by a hissing sound. The thing was obviously quite heavy, but he began to move it step by step towards the large patch of sunlight. As he got closer, and more light hit the expanding air ship, the whirring sound increased in pitch and dragged less and less on the ground.
By the time he had it in full sun, it was humming quite contentedly.
“Energy production nearing peak, hydrogen separation at peak, vehicle buoyancy achieved.”
At this last the airship seemed to hop off the ground and hang in the air as though this were its natural aspect. Tomas could now see its sinuous silver shape, glinting in the late afternoon sunlight; it was truly a beautiful site.
As he stood their gawping, the voice piped up again, “crew buoyancy reached, please board the vessel.”
Tomas stepped toward the circular hole. As he leaned forward to look inside his head bounced off something he couldn’t see. The hole wasn’t an opening, it was a window of startling clarity. His head had apparently caused the door to open though. At the back of the room hanging beneath the huge air bag a gangplank lowered silently. Tomas stepped around to inspect the ramp which had dropped from the back of the small room.
“Please enter the cabin and begin orientation.”
Tomas stepped up into the room.
“Welcome to the cabin of airship three two oh seven, now active.” The voice was accompanied by an image of an airship much like this one tied to a post in a field on a sunny day. “Please clearly state the name of the captain of this vessel.”
In the ensuing silence Tomas looked around blankly, not sure if he should say anything. Finally, with a nervous breath, he said, “Tomas.”
“Attempting tight beam transmission uplink to confirm qualifications.”
Strange shapes and colours whirled around the walls, and the silence following Tomas’s name stretched out.
“Unable to access surface net or central near-space net. Tomas, may I ask you some questions?”
“Yes?” Tomas responded, startled that it now knew his name.
“Are you in contact with Gateway?”
“I don’t know what Gateway is.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m eighteen summers.”
“What is your profession?”
“My job? I work the nets with my uncle.”
“Clarify nets please.”
“I catch fish.”
The cabin went dim for a moment.
“Linguistic analysis suggests you are at least six generations removed from standard English pronunciation and suggests the development of a dialect with little outside influence. How many people live in your outpost?”
“You mean the village? About sixty I think.”
The beams of sunlight where becoming redder around the air ship and shadows from the surrounding trees were creating long shapes.
“I should be getting back behind the wall,” Tomas said, looking at the dimming light nervously.
“Twilight will allow for an accurate star fix and GPS confirmation. Is the opening above sufficient for this vehicle to rise?”
Tomas nodded, then when there was no response said, “yes, the hole in the roof is big enough and there are no trees blocking above. How high are we going?”
“Clear of the tree canopy plus one hundred metres.”
Tomas had no idea what a meeter was, but above the trees sounded thrilling, “should I sit?”
“Pilot position is in front of the cockpit window.”
Since there was only one window, Tomas stepped up to it. The big silver fish shaped ship sounded like it had indigestion. Various whirring and blowing noises came from above, and almost without noticing it, the floor fell away. Tomas grasped the bottom of the circular window, as the broken ground around the hole he’d found came into view, then fell away beneath him. The air ship jumped up through the greenery, glittering pink in the setting sunlight. Past the top most branches and out into empty air, the ground continued to fall away below, and the horizon became distant line. More burping and hissing and the ascent slowed to a stop.
Images flashed dimly across the walls, not quite visible in the setting sunlight that drenched the cabin through the round window.
“Could you show me what you’re doing?” Tomas asked, trying to make out the shapes, numbers and words flashing through the walls.
In an instant the window dimmed and the images sprang into sharp relief. Some of it looked like the calculations old Curtz did from his tower about the sun, moons and stars. Other bits looked vaguely like the quota sheets his Uncle and he had to fill out after a catch, columns of figures. On the other wall an image of the darkening sky seemed to have writing appear over top of it. The location of the sun and two of the moons was marked, and slowly stars were being added to the list.
The sun had almost set by the time the voice spoke again.
“With sufficient accuracy, stars suggest it is 157 years since land fall on Harmony. Current data suggests a catastrophic failure of settlement systems. Can you confirm this?”
“I don’t know what settlement systems are,” Tomas replied, still gazing out at the sunset, the floor of the cabin bobbed about under him as a night wind began. “I live in Cliffsedge, we sometimes see people from New Edinburgh, but not so much recently, the roads are too dangerous and the sea isn’t much better.”
“You live in an isolated settlement of less than one hundred people?”
“Could you direct me to it?”
Tomas stepped back to the window. “Follow the stream south of your hole to the south east. It’s about a mile to the cliffs. Cliffsedge is built into the cliff face.”
The whirring intensified slightly as the nose of the air ship dipped and the sunset swung around in the sky. Below the tops of the trees passed by, waving in the night breeze. They passed over the sporadic fields of crops near the cliff edge and the ground dropped away several hundred feet to a calm sea. The silver air ship headed out over the ocean and banked around until it was facing the cliff face. Several crews, including Tomas’ uncle was standing on the stony beach below, staring up at the air ship with their mouths hanging open.
“Scan suggests the most secure mooring point would be at the surface entrance at the top of the cliff.”
Without hesitation the ship jumped up again, clearing the cliff face and settling to within a few feet of the rocky ground that surrounded the main, ramped opening into Cliffsedge.
“Mooring cable dropped, anchors established.”
The first skypilot in centuries looked down as his ship eased itself down to the ground.