Between departing the paved-over crater that is Lodestone Aerodrome and the first true glimpses of civilization at the middle latitudes, we quake through the atmosphere in silence, volcanic tundra rolling beneath us. The cloud cover thickens below us as we head equator-ward. Skies become ever more indigo-gray. Dowager fades in her brilliance. The gradual change in climate sure mimics how I feel about returning, too.
Windsong hums along on autopilot at Aud two, requiring minimal input from me throughout its cruise. I take the time to look around and admire this strange and beautiful world of ours.
Through the miasma underneath our flight path lie ragged young mountain ranges and volcanic crater lakes. I play out several sagas of our ancestors in my head. Semi-historical tales, they are sometimes called. That prefix—'semi'—is used by scholars because there are certain things that are probably not true or were exaggerated by the scribes of old for literary effect. But most of the sagas have a firm basis in some archeological and genealogical fact. My own house traces its lineage all the way back to landfall.
In the Sibylean Sagas, there are stories of murder, politics, envy, love, hate, multi-generational house feuds, and Sibyl’s constant internecine warfare. Many of them were simply poetic songs of determination and pioneering spirit; pride in building a society from scratch, evoking as adversary the harsh conditions the colonists suddenly found themselves in. Thirty thousand souls unceremoniously dropped on a freezing rock, slowly spinning through the void. I can’t imagine the endurance required of those poor people.
And then, of course, there were the jarlja: the female chieftains of the now royal families that made modern society possible. They brought an end to the constant resource warfare that was destroying us. Where smaller chieftains female and male alike squabbled, the jarlja established safe trade routes, formed alliances, and built friendships. They recognized the right that everyone doomed here had to life. They regrouped their peoples closer to the equator, re-established mechanized agriculture, and built strategically placed bastions in dense conifer forests that protected settlements from the harsh winds. And in defense of those growing cities from the more nomadic—and dare I say militant—outlier houses, they were brutal in combat and compassionate in victory. Eventually, every house came to serve under them.
Even House Rinn.
Windsong leaves supersonic and glides into Tencair aerospace. You wouldn’t know it if you looked out the flight deck canopy. It’s the anti-void out there. Once we descend into the sheets of featureless nimbostratus, there’s no texture or visual interest to speak of. Natural light among the thin clouds is blindingly diffuse, inorganic, and disconcerting. It will give me a migraine if I’m not mindful, so I adjust the tint on the glare shield. The darker and fluffier scud clouds underneath should provide some mental relief once we’re down.
It’s now hour eight of raytime. Leaden skies per usual, ever thickening with our descent. Suddenly, it seems, there’s heavy traffic all around. It’s not a great time to be coming into the capital city. Passenger and cargo vessels alike mill about in the blank vacuity of fog, and I have this vague, hallucinogenic sense I should expect a ghost ship from centuries past to appear out of nowhere. It’s not long before the sky around us feels cramped. I keep my eyes on the sensors and aerospace control data as we creep up on two hundred kilometers from the nearest urban aerodrome. My earpiece comes to life.
“Unidentified Starling, this is Tencair Route Control. Submit to full interrogation and squawk Five-One-Four-Zero, full selective encode. Remain on course while we review your flight plan.”
I flip the switch that enables full-duplex comms, and another set of key presses identifies us. That clipper captain did the right thing earlier. Without a transponder and a full broadcast of our flight data, we could be intercepted, interned, or possibly even shot down before reaching the city.
“Roger that, Tencair Route Control. Squawking now, Five-One-Four-Zero. Much appreciated if you can connect us with Terminal in Rochelle Norde.”
“Copy, Five-One-Four-Zero. Hold tight.”
“Rochelle?” comes Tea from behind. “Fancy. Got something on the agenda, mooncakes? Are you off to schmooze with some high-strung socialites along the river banks?”
I try not to let Tea’s poor choice of inquisition get to me.
“Nothing like that. Rochelle is the closest civvy field to the Royal Naval Yard, and the other landing zones are likely to be very congested right now. You two can bear an extra twenty minutes on the maglevs. My voidcraft, my prerogative.”
“You know, I’ve been doing some reading, since I’m going to run my own ‘dictor or ‘privvy outfit someday. This blasted clunker almost lands itself. The newest Starling SSTO models have some very forgiving flight assist modes. The computers even help you takeoff and land. I’d do just fine on that stick. We shouldn’t have woken her up, Leandros.”
“Come on, Tea. That’s ridiculous,” Fletcher scolds.
“If you don’t like your station Tea,” I retort, “you can find another outfit willing to pay two hundred percent above the average rate.”
“With my CV? I’m sure I could find two-fifty. But they’d be led by some hardass veteran sleazebag with a personality just as flat as his ass. I like my bosses curvy and supple, and a station with a nice rear view.”
My heart skips a beat, and I feel my cheeks flush with blood.
“Ersekta mae?” I inflect.
She adds: “And I value my ability to speak freely.”
I work on processing that faux pas.
“Well… you’ve got that here, at least. Be useful and untangle the dataset from Route Control, will you? I don’t want us getting too close to anyone else up here.”
“Aye-aye, mooncakes,” she acknowledges flippantly.
It’s not the first time Teresa has taken a pass at me, but I never know what to think. She’s a wiseass. On the other hand, we all need sleep and that’s probably not helping. I tell myself that someday I’ll work up the nerve to ask her if she’s serious, because she is a good-natured person, if turbulent and difficult to handle. But I’m frightened of what she might say. She might just be validating my identity by projecting her sexuality. A well-meaning gesture in a strange way, but an inauthentic one. On the off-chance that she replied that her interest in me was serious, well… I can’t commit to a relationship with anyone, much less a member of my crew. Either way that conversation with her went, I’d just end up getting hurt once again.
I look over my shoulder at Fletcher for a moment to gauge his reaction to Tea’s off-kilter behavior. He’s usually amused by the curious queerness of this crew, but he gives me a shrug. With all that time he spent in the Geminese merchant marine as a boatswain, he probably finds banter like that beneficial to crew cohesion; to a limit. His weighty stare just acknowledges that I’m his friend, his captain, his helmsman, and the person responsible for getting us home; and can you get us home, please? I suppose we foster mutual respect and gain awareness of our individual boundaries through our teamwork and interdependence. Maybe that's why he's always coming to my aid.
We’ve been cooped up in this titanium can for most of a gyre. I guess I can't blame Tea for acting loopy.
“Interdiction Cutter Four-Seven-One-One squawking Five-One-Four-Zero, this is Tencair Route Control.” I press my index finger to my earpiece. “I’m handing you off to Rochelle Terminal. They’ll guide you from here. Welcome home, Interdictor.”
“Roger, Control, thanks for slipping us in,” I reply.
As I take the throttle and stick again, awaiting a new voice to present itself over comms, there’s a sinking feeling in my gut. I glance at the unassuming toggle I flipped earlier. It’s unlikely they heard it all or even most of it, but we were transmitting to air traffic control this entire time.
Underneath my feet, there’s a break in the endless gray cloud cover. Our flight path briefly follows the Metriche River as we descend. Her glassy blue glacial waters are tumescent among the rocks, and violent white caps roll along as she surges toward Tencair. She’s angry today.
Flanked to either side are the rocky cliffs and banks underpinning the dense redwood, fir, and umber birch forests among which I grew up. Now closer to our destination, they’re suffering the tendrils of aristocracy. Infestations of grandiose residences owned by nobles, aristocrats, chief executives, and other undeserving souls. The closest anyone is allowed to live next to the protected Aveline Zone: the most expensive land in the world. The Kingdom’s taxes may be high, but if anyone can afford to live down there, their taxes simply aren’t high enough.
Hiding somewhere in those trees is my parents’ place. I’d rather not waste a single moment searching for it.
I lift my eyes and am pleasantly greeted by the outlines of Tencair on the horizon. Now that Windsong is below two thousand meters, the skyscape is much more gratifying to look at. Dense, dark mammatus cloud cover arises from the convection of warm volcanic ground and geothermal outflow. They themselves are blown apart at the edges in wonderfully complex asperitas that remind me of the rough seas of the Raina Mare. It’s truly a sight to behold, the way the few crepuscular rays of amber starlight strike through, bouncing beneath the clouds, and sweeping gentle warmth across a city that needs it so much.
These wonderful sights are but a reminder that I should be careful when landing at the aerodrome. We have a tailwind, but that won’t last. Soon it will be a crosswind; or really, just a mess of winds.
“Otherworldly out there,” Fletcher comments. I’m suddenly reminded that he grew up on an ocean planet, another place entirely, trillions of kilometers from here.
“Hmm? Oh, I’m used to it,” I respond. “But yeah, she’s beautiful when the clouds break just a bit.”
“Royal Interdiction Cutter Four-Seven-One-One, Rochelle Terminal. Cloud ceiling eighteen-hundred. Remain level at fifteen-hundred to maintain VFR. We’re putting you in a holding pattern for the moment.”
I reply, “Cutter Four-Seven-One-One copies level and standard hold.”
“What?! Ugh, I’m starving,” complains Tea.
I check the color-coded paths of other inbound and outbound aircraft on the heads-up display for safety. After executing a shallow banking turn to line up with our holding route, I tilt my head up and look at Tea’s glum posture in the mirror.
“Tell you what, Tea. While we loop around Tencair, I’ll let you step up here so that I can point out all the best stew and hash houses below.”
“Thanks, Mom,” she replies cooly. “I’m not interested in your starchy, bland Sibylean cuisine, anyway.”
“My, aren’t we the picky eater,” I smile, while putting on my best disappointed mom voice. I tsk. “Oh my dearest Tea, if only you grew up on a wind-swept volcanic rock, you’d learn to appreciate what you had available to you, and all the subtle nuances you can get out of a stew by simply changing the weight and measure of a roux.”
“Fie! Nothing on this world has any flavor,” she continues, picking up the fine sport of jocular conversation. Now this is the type of lighthearted banter with her I do appreciate. “My only regret in coming here at all is that you’ve only just started getting any of the best imports from the Republic. I need some spices from my homeworld. I’ve not yet found a single place serving anything with heat, like a piri nut curry.”
Fletcher pipes up. “Isn’t a curry just a stew?”
“No!” she insists. “It’s a slow-cooked, saucy dish of chunky meat, vegetables, and spices, served over a starch like rice. Pungent spices help you eat less and be satisfied sooner. Very colorful, flavorful, and healthy, okay? Nothing like that meat and potatoes vomit you call a stew.”
“What you just described is a stew over rice,” I assert.
“You don’t put stew on top of the starch, you put it in a bowl,” she retorts.
“What does it matter where the starch goes on the plate?”
“Presentation, Ash! And besides, you Sibbies didn't have the slightest clue about chili powder a century ago. With you lot, it’s all like, what? Dill, thyme, celery seed, and black pepper maybe? How absolutely dull.”
“It’s all going down the same mouth hole. And a stew recipe can absolutely call for chili powder. My sister and I made some. Just because we’re more reliant on potatoes for carbohydrates and don’t have the same diversity of fruits as Celadon doesn’t mean we can’t learn to cook a broth with hot peppers.”
“Sounds to me like you’re both describing soup.”
“Shut up, Fletch,” from us both, simultaneously.
“Just calling it as I see it, gals.”
Before executing the next shallow turn in our holding pattern, I lazily point toward the general vicinity of a conspicuous set of bright architectural greebles near the shallow crystal rooftops of a maglev station some four or five kilometers away. It has just been struck by a ray of Astrild’s light, as if she was shining her approval upon it.
“Over there,” I say. “Look up Aki’s Brewhouse once we’re down. Right on your way home, I bet. Ask them for the hottest thing on the menu and take it back to your place. I dare you to come back to this topic after shore leave and complain about Sibylean cuisine.”
“Will fucking do, ‘Cap,” Tea replies with a joyful snort.
We make a single lap around Tencair. The capital is an urban sprawl of many millions, with few skyscrapers courageous enough to withstand the punishing gales. Foreigners are often confused by our labyrinth streets. They’ll pay way too much money for accommodation arbitrarily close to the maglev lines. They don’t realize that the streets are a mess on purpose in order to cut down on the wind tunnel effect, and that Tencair has plenty of accessible back alleys, all of them mapped out and often charming hideaways in their own right.
As the city increases in density and the greenery of mossy snow-forest falls away, I move instead to admire the veritable mix of bright and chromatic structures from on high. Sibyl is a very dark and damp world on account of being ever so far from her parent star, rotating lazily in the forever-night. As a society, we’ve made the most of it. Massive, bleach white nanoconcrete structures bounce about the central city in wondrous curves, some of them mimicking the contours of the lavender mountains in the distance. They function secondarily as diffuse reflectors, bouncing what little light we get from the sky in all directions. And they act as rugged scaffolding for even more intricate metal complexes extending like dragon’s wings over some streets and like the protective embrace of a mother over others. Older but brightly colorful housing stock dots the city in clumps, comprising smaller three or four floored structures built of wood logs or lower-quality rebar cement clad in corrugated iron, shielding them well from the rain. Such practical architecture is ubiquitous in the lower and middle-class neighborhoods. Unabashed colors brighten up those communes and precincts, lifting spirits in the dark, or so they say.
Glass architecture is rare on our world. When glass is used in construction, it’s only for a small opening like the common slit window, or because it was determined to have enough cover from Sibyl’s fierce winds. Just as we finish a revolution around the city, the exceptional case of the queen’s fortified chateau sparkles on the horizon some thirty kilometers out. Its walls are made of the same thick sapphire glass and transparent aluminum oxynitride Windsong’s canopy is forged from. Not exactly the cheapest of materials at that scale.
“Royal Interdiction Cutter Four-Seven-One-One, Rochelle Terminal. Hold is lifted and you have approach clearance.”
“Roger, Terminal. Cutter Four-Seven-One-One beginning descent,” from me.
We descend toward the aerodrome of choice and I throttle down. Without the same amount of thrust cutting through the weather, Windsong sways to the side. I compensate by making sure I’m taking her against the wind on descent, so that the prevailing winds will push us on course. Now I’m using the flaps and control surfaces to work the glide down to the pads, which is never simple, despite the power surge of a full abort available to me. A sudden gust blows beneath us, violently bumping the voidframe up several tens of meters. And that’s when I hear a retching sound.
“Still think you could land this thing, Tea?” I sneer.
I’m too engaged with the final approach and switch to VTOL to give her a look over, but I hear a mild curse in her native tongue. One that she taught me a while ago, soon after we first met.
“Munk-ri,” she offers weakly. Roughly translated, “up yours’.”