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Tim Akers

Heart of Veridon

Chapter One

Downfalls

I was on the Glory of Day when she fell out of the sky. I rode the flames and shattered gears down into the cold, dark Reine, survived because I was only half-alive to begin with. Two times I’ve been dragged out of the wreckage of a zepliner, two times I’ve walked away. This time I was just a passenger. The first time I was captain, Pilot, and only survivor. The sky doesn’t like me much.

I boarded in Havreach, paid for a day cabin one way and sat quietly until dinner. No luggage because I’d been in town on business, having a talk with one of Valentine’s wayward contacts, a guy trying to do a little business behind our backs. It was supposed to be a day trip that had stretched into an overnight when the guy tried hiding clever and earned himself some extra attention and convincing. Make sure he didn’t hide next time I came looking for him, make double-sure there’s no next time. So it had been a long day and I was still in yesterday’s clothes, my eyes were tired and my hands hurt. So I got sloppy, okay. So I wasn’t paying attention like I should.

Dinner was an affair on a trip like this, especially the night before Veridon, the last night of the cruise. There were two kinds of travelers on the zep. First are the daytrippers, like me. Took some other ship downfalls just to see the water, or for a little adventure on the plains. Not that Havreach was really adventure-land, but the shopkeeps made a good business of it. Havreach was just new enough that you could feel the wild outside, the untamed spaces prowling the edges of the streetplan. There were parts of Veridon like that too, but different. Not that Veridon was old. Just the danger was different up there, more personal. Less marketable.

Other than the daytrippers, there were the long haul folks. People who boarded in Veridon and stayed on until there weren’t any more stops, until the Glory was just drifting over pure wilderness, the towns getting smaller and smaller until they just disappeared into the winding river and forested banks, or the wild, wind-stitched grassplains of the Arbarra Rare. An expensive trip, and as dangerous as anything that came with a luxury suite and cloth napkins.

There’s a third kind of passenger, I suppose. Those coming in. Tickets purchased one way, for the return voyage only, people getting on in Red Simmons or little BonnerWell. Them you could pick out at dinner. They looked uncomfortable with the cloth napkins, and hadn’t exactly brought formal attire through the bush. It was one of them, caused our trouble. Guy I knew. Marcus Something. Couldn’t remember his name, at the time.

I saw him circulating during the appetizers. The dining room was cleared and the glass doors that led to the observation deck had been folded back and tucked away. One whole wall of the room was open to the night sky. The air was cool, the stars bright white and clear. A quartet played quietly in one corner, just masking the busy kitchen. I took a glass of white wine from a passing waiter and walked out onto the deck. A right civilized night, the kind that reminded me of home and family. Easy to forget trouble on a night like this. I went to stand by the railing. The water below was a shattered field of light, the moon on tiny waves far under us.

Most of the folks, eating delicate little things and sipping wine and murmuring, were dressed to the nines. Top hats and vest coats, ladies in fur, waiters in white coats. Marcus stood out like a lump of mud on marble, standing nervously by the far door. He was barrel-wide and a full head taller than anyone else here, his beard brushing the careful hairpiles of the luxury suite ladies. His coat was brown and dirty, and there were two feet of empty space all around him, while the rest of the deck was shoulder to cuff.

I was about to go talk to him, try to figure out where I knew him from, if he was one of Valentine’s boys or someone from one of the other interests, when one of the passengers stepped in front of me.

“We’ll be there after dinner then?” he asked. He was a short man, round in the shoulders and hands. A trim crescent of mustache clasped his lip.

“Sorry, I’m not crew,” I said, and tipped my glass at one of the gray-tunicked mates standing along the rail. “Not clean enough, probably.”

The man blinked and then chuckled. “Oh, oh, sorry. Sorry, it’s just your eyes. You know.”

I knew. My eyes, the implants, part of what made me a Pilot back before I wasn’t a Pilot anymore. Not many visual signs of who’s had that particular operation. Just the eyes, the dull gray irises like pewter rubbed clean of its shine. I still had the eyes.

“Common mistake. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Hm. So, uh.” He plucked my sleeve. “You’ve made this trip before, though. Of course you have.”

I turned away, put my elbows on the railing and leaned forward. We’d been over water all day, ever since we’d left Havreach, and the Cusp Sea stretched out below us as far as I could see. The Breaking Wall was a gentle roar, still out of sight on the other side of the zep. The Glory was approaching the falls at an angle, keeping it out of sight until the last moment. The captain liked a bit of the drama, it seemed.

“Yeah, sure. Is there something you’re getting at?”

“Sorry, no. It’s just… I noticed you when you got on, earlier. Not many people got on and I saw… well, your eyes made me think you were maybe a Pilot. And I haven’t had a chance to talk to our own Pilot, haven’t even seen him since we boarded in Veridon some months ago. I thought you might…” he trailed off, flushing.

“Have some stories?”

“Well. Yes. Some stories.”

I sat quietly for a minute, smelled the air and let the breeze flow over my face. Flying wasn’t like this, not from the inside. I shivered and drained my glass.

“Yes, mister. I’ve made this trip before.” I flipped the wineglass out into the air, watched it sparkle as it fell far, far down. “But I’ve got no stories. Okay?”

He went away, eventually. People usually do, if you’re quiet enough and don’t look at them. I waited until I was sure, then turned back to look for Marcus. Nothing but pressed tuxedos and fur scarves, far as I could see. Marcus had moved on.

“Excuse me folks, pardon me,” someone said over the mixed conversation and wine. “If I could, please, have your attention. A moment of your attention.”

I turned. There was a tiny platform, clamped onto the side of the observation deck and slightly elevated. An OverMate stood there, holding up his hands like a maestro. He laughed as someone dropped a glass. People quietened, the chamber music stopped. He smiled.

“Thank you, thank you. Just a moment of your time before dinner.” He kept smiling while the last of the conversation died. “The captain and I would like to thank you for joining us on this trip, especially those of you who have been on board since the start. Quite a trip.” His voice changed, shifting into the deep bass of a storyteller. “We’ve seen the winter flower of Empress, the song trees of the Jangalla. The massive grassplains of the Guarana, their mad fires and the smoke that carries them into the next life. We’ve followed the Lower Reine from the foot of Veridon, winding through the heart of a wilderness few of you dared believe existed. Yes,” he smiled at those nearest him, including them in his story. “Yes, quite a trip. Our road has been long, and now we return.”

He produced a wine glass and held it up in a grand toast, sweeping his arm out to sea. The Glory tacked hard. Passengers murmured and shuffled to keep their feet. A woman giggled. He continued, his voice rising with every word until by the end he was booming, like a benediction, like a war cry. “With weary hearts and heads uplifted, we return, to hearth and home, to our families, our friends, we return to the Shining City above the world. We return to Veridon.”

Glory of Day swept around, wooden spars groaning, and came broadside to the Breaking Wall. The waterfall was enormous, miles wide and just as tall. With the zepliner out of the way, the waterfall’s crash roared over us in misty waves. And high atop, almost lost in the starry sky, the lights of Veridon.

It was a pretty show, and the Mate was beaming proudly at his delivery. The crowd applauded, toasts were lifted. Someone started to sing quietly. The captain must have had one of the deck voxorators open, to time the maneuver. I went inside.

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