I. Grand Dame of the Brazos Fleet
A gust of thick, salty air lashed La Riaza. The airship, third-largest of the Brazos fleet at 537 feet bow-to-stern, groaned and strained against her moorings. Her phantom shadow lumbered up the thick, stonework mooring towers, then retreated. The fore gangplank shifted, and a pair of bare-chested airmen carrying a nested stack of turtle shells aboard stumbled, losing their sweat-slick grip on the load. The man-sized shells clattered onto wood, then down to the trampled black mud below. Their polished turquoise- and cobalt-blue surfaces glinted in the fading light.
The outer cloudbands of the approaching storm had thickened throughout the day, and now effectively ruled the sky with their gray murk. The entire city of Puerto Jabrón seemed to hold its breath against the oncoming storm.
“Madre dios!” shouted First Mate Diego Brazos, running over to the fallen shells. He knelt, running his hard, brown hands over their smooth surfaces. A nick on one. A bad scuff on another. Nothing serious. The third, however, the third had an ugly crack running from its edge halfway to the center. “You’re worse than groundlings, the both of you! It’s cracked, and won’t even bring a quarter of the others’ worth at auction. Next time, drop yourselves and break you stinking necks. It’ll save me both headache and money.”
The two airmen scrambled down the gangplank to collect the shells, not daring to look directly at Diego.
“And don’t think I’m not taking the difference out of your salaries, because I am.”
“Winds change all the time, Señor Brazos. No one can anticipate every spot of turbulence,” said a tired, dusty voice. Diego spun to find Capitan Ancira behind him. Whip-thin, bald and shrunken with age, Ancira had outlasted many younger capitans--and ships as well. “I doubt docking these crewmen’s pay will make or break the company’s profits margins. Don’t you agree, Señor Brazos?”
“Aye,” Diego answered tightly. “No need to dock anyone’s pay.”
The airmen bobbed their heads in acknowledgment of their good fortune, and--lest Capitan Ancira depart and leave them to face Diego’s wrath alone--hurried up into the ship with the recollected shells.
“Now, Señor Brazos, I believe you owe me some ballast sheets?” Capitan Ancira said, clamping his hand on Diego’s shoulder. The thin fingers were hard as steel.
“Here, Capitan. You’ll find everything in order.”
Ancira accepted the sheaf with a grunt of acknowledgment. “You’ve got La Riaza unbalanced in sections three and four of the aft hold,” he said almost immediately.
“We’re holding that space for the Baumgarten cargo. We’ve contracted for transport of four mermaids. They’ll command an outstanding price on Ansuly.”
“Baumgarten, you say?” Ancira scratched his sparse beard as he studied the ballast sheets. “Move one barrel of whale oil from section seven to three, and two from eight to four. That ought to keep us trim enough.” He thrust the ballast sheets back at Diego. “Hermann Baumgarten’s been promising live mermaids to anyone who’ll bargain going on nine years now, and I’ve only seen him deliver twice. I’ll not risk that coming storm on his account. Make ready to cast off, Señor Brazos. I want us off this Dios-forsaken ball of mud in ten minutes. And I expect those ballast sheets to be corrected.”
Diego caught two airmen in the keel catwalk and set them to reordering the oil barrels as the ship’s bells began clanging liftoff warnings. The ground crews scrambled for the mooring towers.
Clambering down the stair to the pilot house, Diego held out the revised ballast sheets. “Corrected, Capitan.”
“I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it on time. Breathing a little hard, are we?” Capitan Ancira took the offered pages. “Assume your station, and signal cast off.”
Diego took the elevator wheel, then rang out the “cast off” signal. Immediately, La Riaza drifted back with the wind. The loosed mooring lines slipped free of the towers, quickly pulled in and stowed by airmen in the bow and stern. The silver ship rose smoothly into the sky. Emerald striping ran along the lines of the ship’s ribs from the folded masts and rigging at the bow to the low-slung pilothouse and horizontal, boxy complex of rudders and elevators at the stern.
“Keep us trimmed up against this wind, Señor DeLuna,” Capitan Ancira said to the Pilot at the rudder wheel. “Señor Brazos, kindly inform Pedemaestro Cisneros we’ll be wanting full velocity from his gigapedes.”
Diego grabbed the brass whistle dangling from the speaking tube and blew a sharp shriek into it. “All ahead full!”
Four nacelles boxed the stern of La Riaza, just ahead of the rudder complex, just behind the pilothouse. The tell-tale squeal of the long drive shafts pierced the air as the gigapedes began their march in the prophouse within the bowels of the ship. The nacelles’ great props began to turn, slowly at first, then faster, pushing the airship into the oncoming storm. Below, Diego saw crews moving two smaller airships from the whaling fleet into hulking hangars to wait out the storm. A moment later, La Riaza passed above the Jabrón Cliffs, and black sea roiled beneath her.
The pilothouse lamps flickered on as the nacelle dynamos roused to life.
La Riaza shuddered as the buffeting increased. Lightning flashed in the distance.
“I’m a fool, men. An over-confident fool. I delayed our departure too long,” Capitan Ancira said gravely. “Never fly a lady into a gale, least of all a fat-bellied, fully laden one like La Riaza. Señor Brazos, increase our pitch 15 degrees. We’ve got to get above those clouds.
“Aye, Capitan,” Diego said, spinning his wheel. The deck shifted beneath him, and bits of leaf and pebble skittered down the slope. Fat raindrops splattered against the glass windscreen. Far below, Diego saw a whaler trying to outrun the oncoming wall of clouds, its lone triangular dropsail flailing wildly. The whaler was doomed.
“Closing rapidly on the ceiling, Capitan,” said DeLuna as rain pelted his forward windscreen. Far off the starboard bow, a funnel cloud dropped down, wrenching up the sea into a towering waterspout. “It’s going to be rough going for a while.”
“That it is, that it is,” said Capitan Ancira. “Señor Brazos, sound for heavy weather.”
Diego sounded the whistle signal as black cloud enveloped La Riaza. The ship shuddered and shook. Sheets of water splayed across the windscreens in a constant barrage. The wind and rain bellowed so that Diego could barely hear the worrisome groan and creak of the airship’s timbers. Barely.
“La Riaza’s an old lady, but she’s a strong one,” Capitan Ancira said, as if reading Diego’s mind. “We’ve weathered worse than this, she and I. She’ll hold together.”
Lightning flashed, throwing a blinding blaze through the pilothouse. Thunder slammed the ship, shattering Diego’s windscreen.
Diego blinked, phantom snakes of light corkscrewing across his vision. He was lying on the floor. Water sprayed in on him. Confused, he lifted his arm. Blood ran crimson from a dozen embedded shards. A strong hand grabbed his collar and hoisted him up.
“Tie it down!” Capitan Ancira shouted in his ear. “Help me tie it down, damnit! And for Dios sake, don’t fall through!”
Diego nodded, and staggered to the opening. His wheel’d been locked into place. Fighting the inrushing rain, Diego reached above the shattered glass, untying the rolled canvas. Capitan Ancira did the same on the opposite end, and the pulled it down over the windscreen, clamping it into place through brass eyelets.
Breathing heavily, Capitan Ancira leaned against the elevator wheel and began to laugh.
“What?” gasped Diego. “What’s so funny?”
“You can hear me, and I can hear you,” Capitan Ancira said, grinning.
“Look outside, Diego,” DeLuna said from his station.
White cloud billowed past.
“Ironic, no?” said Capitan Ancira. “We catch the worst of it right at the end.”
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