Prompt: the story of a clipper-class airship called the Dusk Runner.
The great cities of mankind’s first and only steam empire had risen into the sky with brass spears and aluminum windmills. The airships used to see these towers, like a mineral garden sculpted from a dwarf treasure hoard, but they were no longer visible. The city produced its own clouds in vast numbers; they became a second sea obscuring the upper reaches of the entire empire.
Now young stowaways like Pahn could live their entire lives aboard ships, never descend below the clouds, and never see how the ground and seas had been ravaged. They could live as woodworms, burrowing into one ship and one ship alone, tying their soul to its very hull. Pahn wanted very much to do that. He wanted to turn the Dusk Runner into his family.
He only suspected it was a criminal’s ship when he boarded. Its captain and two crewmates went out for dinner, celebrating their last voyage with roast seagull legs and salty bat rinds, thus leaving their clipper-class ship vulnerable to the starry-eyed boy. He crawled aboard the sleek vessel, admiring its white hull and spiderweb-shaped helm, and hid himself in an empty barrel in the galley. He would wait until they were adrift in the clouds again and then offer himself up as a cabin boy. Surely they would appreciate his raw moxie.
They did return, just as dusk set in, barely drunk by horizon-pirate standards. They were Captain Clint Finwatt, Helmsman Marquis O’portel, and Fisherwoman Ruby Eyes Scott. They’d sailed together for nearly a decade, stealing cargo that hung loose below giant freight ships that never even missed it. Every voyage was perfect, because they took so little risk, until the one exactly three months before Pahn burrowed into one of their barrels.
The Dusk Runner, those months ago, found a copper-hulled ship fatter than they’d ever seen. It was fat with secrets. The pirates didn’t trade in those, but they thought the nets hanging beneath it were full of ordinary cloud lobsters. Ruby Eyes insisted they were ordinary; she knew her free-flying wildlife, what was and wasn’t safe to rip apart and shove in your mouth. The fat ship’s nets were full to bursting with skittering red-shelled things.
They weren’t like ocean lobsters, no that was just a name. These food staples were actually gargantuan ladybugs, given new sizes and forms by the chemicals used to seed the clouds and make them easier to sail. The Dusk Runner just wanted to steal one load of them, just half a ton, but when they snuck up under the fat vessel they saw an object hanging between the two nets. It was suspended on a thick chain, looking like a cross between a locomotive engine and a school bell. The helmsman pulled them close so they could see how valuable it might be.
Dwooooong! The strange machine rang, emitting an undulating golden wave alongside the sound. It overtook the curious pirates, their vessels, and all the cloud lobsters. This was no fishing vessel with its catch. The lobsters were experimental subjects rather than food. The fat copper vessel was part of the new frontier for sciences beyond the sky. Their new machine hung so low because they couldn’t risk any of the crew being engulfed in that curious energy.
“We’ve got all night, right?” Ruby Eyes asked her fellows. The Captain nodded as he popped open a bottle frothing ale and took a swig. “I’m drunk, so one of you has to watch the light.” Pahn heard all this from below decks, following under their shuffling. There was a woman aboard. Perhaps, once they were all friends, he could talk to her about his mother, about her condition.
“I’ll keep an eye on it,” Marquis assured her. “I don’t ever want to see the shadows in his eyes again. Doesn’t matter how drunk I am, I’ll always know how to keep away from him.” Pahn thought he heard the man sob a little, a weird thing for a tough sailor to do when they hadn’t even left port tower yet.
“It’s the one rule,” the captain said, agreeing. “We can follow the one, right?” The conversation died. Moments later they pulled away from the metal dock. They weren’t in search of treasure, as their last score would keep them in meat, leather, and maps for several weeks more. No, they were off looking for a quiet alcove in the sky to just enjoy the night. The Dusk Runner had to be back in port before the first rays of dawn, lest they be caught out by their other halves.
“Look what I found,” Marquis barked two hours later, throwing Pahn onto the open deck. The boy scrambled to his feet and extended his hand. None of them shook. The woman slapped it away like it was the cheek of a love-struck slobbering idiot. “I go to get a squirt of lemon for the old skyrvy, and instead I get this little squirt.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” Pahn stammered. “I’m just looking for work. This seemed like a fun ship.”
“Fun ship he says!” Ruby Eyes bellowed. “Does your mother know you’re out having fun?”
“My mother doesn’t care where I am,” Pahn answered darkly. “She has a… condition.” The pirates mulled this statement over, but didn’t respond until each of them had an additional three to four sips of ale. Captain Clint stalked a circled around him, snorted, and then grabbed the boy’s shoulder.
“What kind of condition?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“You don’t have privacy aboard the Dusk Runner,” the captain informed. “Not even we have that. Maybe they have it on the other one…” His eyes went blank for a moment. “You tell us right now or you get thrown over.”
“My mother thinks I’m not her son,” he admitted. His fingers felt pathetically soft as he steepled them. “She’ll knock on my bedroom door in the morning, all the love in the world in her voice, but when she opens it and sees me she hits me. She tells me I’m an impostor and that I stole her real son. I can’t… live there anymore. I need a new home on the sky, where nobody ever checks up on you.”
“We’re just going to bring you back,” Ruby Eyes said, squeezing her brow between two chipped fingernails. “I’ve heard of that face blindness stuff, but we’re not doctors and we’re not an orphanage. We’ve got our own condition, and it’s on us worse than any pox or shadow.”
“Well you can’t go back for a while,” Pahn argued. “The blockade’s restocking. You guys are pirates. You’ll get arrested.” The helmsman dropped his bottle. The ale fell between the boards of the deck and dripped into the barrel Pahn had hidden in below. “You didn’t know? They did just rescheduled yesterday. That’s why I came out now…” They shoved the young man aside and immediately went to work.
They turned the airship around and made for port, but found him to be telling the truth. They couldn’t dock anywhere without three guards or soldiers seeing. They had to go back out into the raven clouds of the night. They refused to explain anything to him; they were too busy swearing and sweating and barking orders at each other. It got worse when the first ray of dawn struck.
Another ship appeared over a swell of clouds as its hue warmed. Pahn grabbed a spyglass and looked at it. Its hull was black, but everything else was familiar. A web-shaped helm. A boy staring back through a spyglass of his own.
“You’ll never take us!” Clint shouted to the sky, not looking back at their pursuer. They dove into the clouds, pushed the turbines to their limit. The black ship cut through the confusion, as if it sensed their position, and collided with them. How had the chase been so short? How did it move like that…
The crew of the black ship jumped over one by one. It had is own Clint Finwatt, its own Marguis O’portel, and its own Ruby Eyes Scott. They were pale, and they did not speak. They simply attacked their counterparts. The captain slit his own throat with a broken bottle. The fisherwoman tossed herself overboard. The helmsman smashed his head into the railing. Pahn just stood there, watching the doubles finish the pirates off. Then they turned to him.
The young boy jumped over, but he didn’t attack. He stared at Pahn, wearing an identical face. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Then the strangest thing happened. The pirates of the black vessel left and took Pahn with them. They left his doppelganger aboard the Dusk Runner, with a few puddles of blood as his only company.
It took Pahn a while to understand. That strange device from the copper vessel could open up new skies: the skies of other similar worlds. Its firing had copied the Dusk Runner, but not exactly. He was now aboard the Dawn Runner. The attack was a form of self-loathing, guilty minds doing themselves in. For the longest time they avoided it, running only at dusk while the others ran only at dawn, but the blockade made them clash.
Pahn had found his new home aboard the Dawn Runner, as the only one willing to speak for these wrathful pirates of another sky. His double would perhaps feel at home with his mother. Surely his version of the face was the real one, could earn a loving smile.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by sermonal during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!