The First Step

Aieda stood on the top deck of Cloudhaven, watching the Calculation Engine. Iron gears clicked behind its brass panels. Metal was their most precious resource. It came from long ago, when people lived on the planet’s surface.

The stories said metal came from rocks underground, which was like belowdecks only even less space between things. All the metal there was had been brought up in the Great Rising. It wasn’t much.

But still, every ship had a Calculation Engine, guiding their direction and determining their fate. Every morning, it spit out a ribbon of paper, dictating what needed to be done to stay in the air, keep everyone safe, and maintain order.

It assigned everyone a vocation. Children were apprenticed to Masters. Along with wind, weather and inventories, the Town Manager fed punch cards with genetic potential, lifespan estimates, aptitude and temperament for every citizen into the machine. Vital skills must be taught and perfected to clockwork efficiency. Too many in one trade meant too few elsewhere, wasting manpower. Resources were too scarce for anyone to serve as ballast.

Aieda had no Master. Since her fifteenth turning, she climbed the decks to wait near the engine every morning. Each day passed in disappointment. She remained a child. No responsibilities. No destiny. A burden.

She wondered what life was like before the Great Rising, before the Star Fall, the Mountain Fire and the Dark Clouds.

No one had seen the surface in generations, except the Storm Guardians. Of course, they couldn’t tell anyone what they saw in the murky depths. They flapped leather wings and circled Cloudhaven and the other ships, burning the sky with their breath. Their flames warned of storms. Their great bodies pulled them away from danger.

In exchange, the people offered sacrifices. Aieda supposed Storm Guardians needed to eat, too. She supposed it was better this way. Instead of eating the villagers’ food, the Storm Guardians ate villagers. More food for everyone else, thought Aieda.

It wasn’t like they needed to eat often. Sometimes, years would pass between Sacrifices. She wondered how they survived. Her mata glared at her every time her stomach grumbled between meals.

The sun peeked over the edge of the deck, gilding the air bladders and sails. Aieda watched the Spinners climb down from their seats, exhausted from a night of pedaling great fans to create lift and push Cloudhaven away from the storm fronts. The next shift climbed up to take their places. On a good day, Spinners had the most boring job in town. On a bad day, they had to take the light flyers out to wrangle the Storm Guardians into harness, to pull the ship to safety.

She often wondered why the beasts exerted such effort on behalf of creatures they viewed as food. Then again, no one defended the sheep like someone who loves a nice lamb chop.

Absorbed in her thoughts, a clicking from the engine startled her. A piece of paper curled out, perforated along both edges.

Had her fate finally arrived? Her legs were too short for a Spinner. She hoped it was an important job, although Mata insisted all jobs were crucial to survival.

The Manager strolled past, stepping over the red rope surrounding the Engine. Only the Manager and the Chief of Mechanics were allowed near it.

He looked at the slip of paper, running a hand over his face. He looked back at her, bushy eyebrows crumpled together in a frown.

“Is it my job, sir?” she asked. “Is it an important one?”

“Aye, girl,” he replied. “The most important of all.” He held out the paper. Her name was printed at the bottom in green ink, followed by the word “SACRIFICE.”

#

Aieda stood on a dais before the village. Next to her, the Manager held the Chalice of Sacrifice. She found Mata at the edge of the crowd, weeping into Pada’s shoulder. She couldn’t keep looking at them, or she’d run. And there was nowhere to run in Cloudhaven.

She looked at the red liquid in the chalice. Like everything else, it was dictated by the Calculation Engine, prepared as prescribed. It would probably make her docile, maybe numb or kill her before the claws ripped her from the sky.

She considered refusing it, but that was as foolish as running. She wanted to serve her people. This was her fate. She drank it in quick gulps. It burned her lips and throat, settling warm in her belly like the whiskey Pada once let her sneak from his glass.

The Manager bleated out words she couldn’t follow. At the edge of the dais, the wind felt cold and sharp on her skin. She stepped into nothing.

The wind sizzled in her hair as she fell. The heat in her belly grew. It would surely kill her. She’d be burned up before the guardians swooped out to claim her. She was a comet, scorching through the sky.

The Dark Clouds blotted out all light. Her heart flickered and blazed against the grate of her ribs. Her arms crackled like cinders. She stretched them out, fanning her fingers, so the wind would cool her scalding skin. Her fall slowed abruptly. Her shoulders dragged backward like something grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. But her head just kept moving forward, stretching out on an impossibly swan-like neck.

A form shot past her, rising towards a break in the clouds. A Storm Guardian.

It must’ve lost her in the darkness. Her heart broke. Dying pointlessly was unbearable. She reached toward the beast and found herself swimming through the air. Her head broke into clear blue sky.

It was not a head Mata or Pada would’ve recognized. Iridescent scales covered her skin. Leather wings replaced her arms. She shouted. A plume of fire exploded before her. Above her, the guardian flapped his wings, hovering and waiting.

She climbed joyously towards her new Master. There was much to learn.

~*~

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