Fantasy Science Fiction

I must stay awake, Ellis thought, taking another sip of Luthian tea from a black-and-white teacup.

It was quiet but not silent. Nowhere aboard the Colossus was entirely silent, even at three o’clock in the morning. It was a place of ceaseless clicks and whirrs, of creaking boards and the low growling of an engine from somewhere deep within the bowels of the ship. Every now and then she heard a door slam somewhere, which was usually either preceded or followed by indistinct voices in the hall.

The children were asleep in a narrow bunk bed, and she could hear John’s soft snoring from the adjoining room. They had gone to sleep what felt like ages ago, leaving Ellis to sit alone at the square table with nothing but her worries and a pot of tea to keep her awake.

The pot was now tepid, but the spice of the tea burned the back of her throat and conjured the warmth that she associated with her hometown of Luth, now miles behind them.

She remembered the morning, nearly a fortnight ago now, when John had come gliding into the kitchen as if on skates, his face stretched wide to show his toothy grin.

“Tickets!” he had announced wildly, shaking them in the air. “For all four of us! They nearly sold out, but I snagged ‘em right in the nick of time!”

Ellis had been skeptical. “Tickets for what?”

“For a trip aboard the Colossus, of course! Biggest airship in the world! Uncrashable, they say, and fast, too. It’ll only take six days to get to Tre’lack!”

Tre’lack was on the other side of the Karcades: a mountain range so extreme it had previously been called “impassable,” and so extensive that getting to Tre’lack the long way around would normally have taken multiple weeks if not months.

Ellis’s heart had dropped right to her feet. Calling a ship—any ship—uncrashable was tempting fate, and she knew how fate loved to make fools of folks.

“No,” she had said immediately.

But the tickets were already bought and John was not a man to relent easily. He was like a bird pecking at a sandstone wall, wearing away her reservations bit by bit with news of all the great men and women who had also booked tickets for the airship’s maiden voyage. He seemed to believe that those who were fabulously wealthy were not quite as mortal as everybody else as if the world went out of its way to spare them the misfortunate that befell those of lesser means. The ship couldn’t possibly crash with them aboard, he said. It wouldn’t dare.

When she failed to be convinced by the notion that the rich were immune to disaster, he tried another tack by trying to impress her with numbers. The number of cabins, smoke rooms, decks, crew members, and the amount of money it had taken to build it in the first place. Losing that much money, he said, was unthinkable.

By that point, Ellis was beginning to find herself almost convinced, and therefore refrained from pointing out that “unthinkable” was not quite the same as “impossible.” But it was not any of the numbers that had impressed her. It had been the soft gasps and the wide-eyed looks that her children had exchanged when John told them where they were going. How could she crush their excitement—especially when she had nothing more substantial than a hunch?

And so she had reluctantly agreed, though not without vowing to sleep during the days and keep watch during the nights. If something went wrong while everyone else was asleep, she wanted to be ready. If something went wrong, she wanted her family to be among the first on deck—the first to board one of the life pods that would parachute them to safety.

Her chin began drifting toward her chest, but Ellis inhaled sharply and forced herself to take another sip of tea. I must stay awake. Her family might think her crazy for committing to such vigilance, but Ellis was more convinced than ever that a disaster was about to unfold. The first three days of the voyage had gone smoothly enough, but she refused to be drawn into a false sense of security.

She was in the middle of pouring more tea when she felt a little lurch, causing the liquid to slosh out faster than she’d intended, spraying droplets on the table. Ellis froze, listening. There was no immediate shout, no alarm or whistle. She set the pot back on the table, still listening hard for anything out of the ordinary.

Perhaps it was just a little turbulence, she thought.

She reached for a napkin to soak up the spilled tea but noticed something strange about the teacup. The liquid inside usually conformed to the perfectly round shape of it, but now it was distinctly ovular, creeping up one side in an undeniable slant.

We’re listing, she thought.

She wasn’t surprised. This was, after all, exactly what she had expected. She set down the napkin and stood calmly, going to the little bunk bed that was crammed economically between the door and one of the walls.

Now she could hear voices in the hall: worried voices with soft questions. Not yet the full-on panic that she could already feel building in the air around her.

She woke them gently, murmuring that it was time to get up—time to go above decks. Then she went to the adjoining room where John was sprawled across the queen-sized bed, taking up as much room as possible as if to make up for her absence.

She turned on the light. “John,” she said in a normal tone. “Get up. The ship is listing.”

His snore spluttered and he blinked at the brightness, bewildered.

“What?” he slurred. “Can’t be.”

“Well it is,” she said. “Come on, we need to get above deck. Now.”

He grumbled to himself unintelligibly and began to rise, so Ellis went back to the children: a girl and a boy, both young and sleepy, but willing to do whatever she said. She helped them get their shoes on as quickly as possible, fingers trembling.

John appeared in the doorway, pulling on his overcoat as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Doesn’t feel like we’re listing,” he mumbled. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Ellis told him, struggling to keep her voice calm. “Look at the tea.”

She pointed at the table and John’s eyes followed, then widened as he observed the tilted water within. “Oh,” he said. “…Maybe we’re just turning?”

“I felt a bump,” Ellis told him. “It felt like we ran into something.”

“Like what? A cloud?”

“Don’t forget where we are,” Ellis snapped. “We’re over the Karcades. The clouds around here are full of rocks.”

John still looked unconvinced, but Ellis herded the children toward the door. In the hallway, the buzzing fluorescent lights and white walls made it feel like they were in a hospital: a space as clinical and impersonal as some sort of laboratory with naked pipes exposed on the ceiling. The hallway was mostly empty at this hour, but she could see a few other heads poking through various doorways up and down the length of it.

The sounds of distant shouting were more obvious now, and somewhere an alarm was blaring a panicked warning.

“Mom? What’s happening?” the elder of the children asked, finally sensing that something was wrong—perhaps very wrong.

“There’s a problem with the ship,” Ellis explained.

“It’s probably nothing,” John added anxiously.

As they hurried down the hall Ellis gave a few sharp raps to every door they passed, hoping to wake the residents. John protested, still thinking this was probably all just an overreaction, but she ignored him until they finally reached the stairs and began climbing.

As they reached the deck Ellis saw that they were currently in a cloud. The world around them was impenetrable. White vapor whipped by in straight lines under the cones of light cast by various lights around the ship, but they did little to make sense of the building chaos. The wind was frightfully cold and powerful, and everywhere crew members and passengers were scurrying back and forth, their footsteps pounding on the wooden deck as they raced about in all directions.

By unspoken agreement, Ellis and John both picked up a child. This would be the worst place for one of them to get separated amidst all the commotion, where words were whipped away almost as soon as they left the lips. The tilt in the deck was more noticeable now, as they had to stand at an angle to remain upright.

“This way!” Ellis shouted, and began striding toward the bow. The first thing she’d done after boarding the Colossus three days ago was scout the locations of all the life pods. She knew exactly which one was closest, and how to get there.

When they arrived, the crew was already working it free of the ropes that tethered it in place. It was onion-shaped, with clear plastic siding, a thickly padded underside, and a parachute rig tightly bundled on top. A crowd of passengers was already pressing toward it, their faces strained and wan in the artificial light, their eyes bright with terror.

Ellis could feel her pulse thrumming in her veins, but the fear she’d expected to feel was strangely absent. Not absent, she realized. I’ve just gotten used to it. I’ve been feeling it since the moment I set foot on this ship—since the moment John came home with those fateful tickets. She had known that this would happen. Had felt it in her bones. But how?

Ellis wasn’t the superstitious sort. She didn’t believe in palm readings or tasseomancy, nor did she believe in guardian angels or the so-called “sixth sense” that carnival psychics claimed to have. All she knew was that it wasn’t wise to call a ship “uncrashable.” Nor was it wise to test out such a ship on a mountain range that had long been called “impassable.” When human-made superlatives were tested against those of the wilderness, it took little prescience to guess which would be the victor.

Ellis and John waited beside the life pod until a crew member pointed at them and urged them to get on, and they stepped into a tight space within. Immediately the wind died and her ears rung with the sudden silence as they shuffled onto the benches that ringed the interior. Before long the pod was full, and yet more people still piled inside, forcing everyone to squeeze tighter until they were sitting shoulder to shoulder.

There were shouts, questions, and squeals as the life pod tipped sideways. Then suddenly they were falling, dropping off the side of the airship like an acorn from a tree. The free-fall made her stomach jump up into her throat, making it impossible to either scream or gasp and all she could do was hold onto the bench and her daughter as they plummeted through the clouds. A distant part of her brain was counting the seconds. She had read the life pod's manual of operation and knew that the parachute would deploy after exactly twelve seconds of free-fall.

Twelve ... eleven ...

If it deployed too early, there was a chance the canopy could collapse.

Six ... five ...

But if it deployed too late, that would mean that the automatic ripcord had failed.

Two ... one.

There was a lurch and Ellis’s stomach slowly climbed back down to its usual position. She opened her eyes and realized they had broken through a layer of clouds and were now drifting through open air, a white parachute spread like an umbrella above them.

Beneath them an expanse of snowy mountains sprawled in all directions.

“Oh, look,” someone muttered in a tone somewhere between horror and awe.

Despite the number of people crowded inside, the life pod was surprisingly hushed, as if they were all too rattled to speak. Even the children were wild-eyed and silent, staring up through the rounded siding of the pod.

Above them, the massive shadow of the Colossus was gliding through the clouds. Its bow tipped forward at a dangerous angle, and as it moved Ellis glimpsed other life pods peeling off its massive flanks, falling and spinning like dandelion seeds caught in the wind. As the nose of the ship dipped down below the cloud line, Ellis saw a long gash along its starboard flank as if a long claw had gutted it down the side.

It must have grazed a mountain, she thought. It would have been easy to do in the fog.

Eventually, they came to rest on a craggy precipice, alighting as gently as a leaf on the surface of a pond. Stabilizer limbs unfurled from the padded buffer to prevent them from tumbling off in the high winds, and the beacon in the core began pulsing an SOS signal back to Luth.

The passengers on the life pod remained silent as they watched the airship drift down like the carcass of a dead whale. Soon it became clear that it was going to crash into one of the mountains, and a few minutes later it did, causing a horrible crunch that they could hear despite the winds.

At last, it lay still, broken in two upon the jagged white teeth of the great Karcades.

What folly, Ellis thought, to think we could build something big enough to be greater than the wilderness. It was never going to work.

January 14, 2022 15:51

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Glenn Hovis
00:30 Jan 21, 2022

Great story! I loved the atmosphere you created, and the steampunk feel with the airship and parachute life boats.


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Graham Kinross
07:06 Jan 18, 2022

That was epic. Ellis was quite awesome as well. It’s fine to be an optimist until the worst happens. She was really on top of everything. It felt like Titanic in the sky. There was a Doctor Who episode from the David Tennant run with Titanic in space. I wonder if the airship had enough evacuation pods. If it was anything like the Titanic the designers would have presumed they were a waste of time and had the bare minimum. Now they’re stuck on the mountain though and I want to know how they get down. This feels like the start of another kind ...


Lauren Marton
18:43 Jan 19, 2022

I used to watch Doctor Who but I forgot all about that episode -- thanks for the reminder! It's set in a fantasy world with time periods that doesn't quite correlate to our own, but I was thinking the 1910s like the Titanic, but with some futuristic/anachronistic elements thrown in for flavor. Thanks for your comment!


Graham Kinross
05:09 Jan 20, 2022

So the time zones in your world are time periods? Sounds like good fodder for more stories. Please write one to explain how they get off the mountain, or don’t.


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