27 Jul Chapter 30: Air
Sojybri is not your normal world; for one gravity here is stronger than Threa. The atmosphere at the surface is much more dense, and toxic gasses make it unbreathable. But the population of Sojybri doesn’t inhabit the surface.
Bryan Ferry – Windswept
They live up in the air on massive floating structures held up by blimp-like balloons. Over the millennia thousands of these flat, ultralight structures they call barges have been lashed together to form a city in the sky. Everything that’s needed for survival is on the barges: farming, shops, homes, schools, utilities and water reclamation. Large pipes drop from the barges and dip into the dense atmosphere at the surface to collect a rare element that the Bavul use in their propulsion units.
We’re here to follow up on some rather brilliant sleuthing by Laik. He got his hands on the manifest for the boat the Oliot was on and Sojybri was listed as the final destination for some of the cargo. He also tracked down a few customs forms that indicate the cargo should get here today. I don’t know exactly what we should look for, but hopefully we’ll discover something useful.
I want Laik to investigate the cargo shuttle port while Rills and I check out the city center, so we go our separate ways at the shuttle terminal exit.
The first thing I notice on exiting the shuttle port is instead of sky, all I see above the horizon line of connected barges is huge clear spheroids. Thousands of cables attach to the massive teardrop-shaped balloons which float at all different heights. The transparent fabric they’re made of is so thin that I can barely see the balloons above me if I look directly up. The second thing is that I feel heavier here. I joke with myself that I need to go on a diet.
The passenger shuttle terminal is at the edge of the floating city, which makes sense since a ship would never be able to pass through the dense forest of balloons and cables covering the barges. I step in the nearest helium taxi and tell Rills to follow me in the next one. As mine floats up towards the center of the city I see his right behind.
The taxi is of simple design: two lightweight tandem chairs connected via metal tubes to the underside of a smallish blimp. Mounted by the front seat are controls for the pilot, and multiple propeller units attached to swivel mounts stick out on both sides. I can’t imagine a blimp is easy to control but my pilot is doing a flawless job of staying clear of the cables reaching up all around us.
It’s a wonderful way of seeing the floating city. From this vantage point I spot low buildings of all shapes and sizes, parks and farmland. The roof of almost every structure is covered with solar panels. I look straight down and see swirling clouds through a gap between barges. Connecting walkways shoot out in every direction.
The helium taxi creeps closer to the densely populated city center. I see what looks like manufacturing here—pipes and shiny steel tanks stick out of some of the buildings. I point at a public square and the pilot flips a switch that turns on what sounds like an air compressor. The taxi descends towards an open landing pad. She sets down the blimp precisely on the orange circle painted on the platform.
I pay her and wait for the taxi Rills is in to arrive. Once he’s on the ground we walk around the public square and head towards where I saw the industrial buildings. It looks almost like a normal town—it’s hard to believe we’re floating at an elevation higher than the tallest peak on Threa. Up close I see that shop and storefront walls are much thinner than I’m used to, and windows are nothing more than clear plastic film stretched tight.
I cross a raised walkway to its midpoint and stop. I’m right above a gap between barges, and the sensation of that much empty space below me is both thrilling and terrifying. The locals passing me don’t even seem to notice—I suppose I’d be blasé about it too if I lived here.
“Rills, let’s split up. Meet me back here in three hours.”
Rills looks apprehensive. “What am I looking for?”
“I don’t know exactly—anything suspicious. Hopefully we’ll both know it when we see it.”
He shrugs and heads towards a cluster of warehouse buildings. I wander off in the opposite direction to investigate what looks like a processing plant. Finding nothing interesting, I check out the surrounding barges and poke around the industrial section some more but don’t see anything that stands out. I hope Laik is having better luck. It’s been hours so I make my way back to the meeting point and stop a moment at the terminus of three different walkways.
I hear a pop sound behind me. I turn and notice one of the cables on the next barge is soaring upwards. The splayed end floats towards the sky at a rapid pace. Then I hear some more pops and the adjacent barge lists at an angle. People scream and try to get to the highest corner. Many more pops and snaps now all around me as twenty, then thirty cables shoot haphazardly into the air.
The listing barge is tipping at a steeper angle now. The ropes that attach it to the barge I’m on pull tight and the ground under my feet drops suddenly. I stumble backwards away from the edge and trip on a pathway curb. A few of the people on the next barge lose their grip on the walkway railing and slide down the pathway towards open sky below.
I look around franticly—where’s the safest place to be in this situation? No matter how hard I try my brain doesn’t want to think. I waste critical seconds trying to focus, but nothing comes. The ground drops again as the barge to my right tilts dangerously.
I look behind me and finally register that a helium taxi is lashed to a pad on the other side of the barge. I’d been looking right at it but it might have well been invisible. I start up the slope in its direction and hear loud snapping sounds. I turn to see the barge behind me break free of most of its rope bindings and drop to a steep ninety degrees. Buildings, benches, carts, animals and people start falling down the now vertical floor. I’m immobilized watching the unfolding scene. A falling house buckles and splinters when it hits the bottom railing before spiraling into the void below.
I focus again on getting to the taxi. The barge I’m on is listing more now, and the uphill slope between me and the taxi pad seems impossible to scale. I look for some help—a walkway railing still connected at one end provides a foothold that I use to make my way upwards. One of the buildings to my left detaches from its floor bolts and tumbles down the inclined floor, taking the two people inside with it. I hear screams and cries in all directions. I reach the top of the walkway railing but there’s nothing good to grab onto beyond it.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a man upslope from the taxi lowering himself on a rope towards the pad. He creeps down until he’s almost at the taxi mooring. He reaches upwards and grabs hold of the metal crossbars next to the pilot’s seat. His body weight pulls the helium taxi down which helps him maneuver himself into the control chair. He reaches for the loose end of the rope securing the taxi to the pad and it unties in one pull. Shit, there goes my ride.
I yell as loud as I can in his direction. He’s powered up the blimp now and it’s slowly drifting upwards. I scream like I’ve never screamed before, and by sheer luck he looks right at me. I realize now that it’s Rills! With my free hand I point at him and then at me. Rills seems to get the message because he holds up a hand and then starts manipulating the blimp controls. The propellers swivel upwards and he drifts down towards me at an angle. It’s clear he’s never piloted a blimp before because he keeps straying off course and then overcorrecting.
All I need is for him to be good enough though, a test that Rills is passing since he has now maneuvered the taxi to almost within an arm’s length. Another snap pierces the air and the walkway railing I’m clinging to drops again, taking me with it. I grab hold even tighter with one hand as I reach out toward the blimp with the other. It’s creeping towards me at a painfully slow speed. I stretch out my arm as far as it will go and touch the metal bar under the rear seat with my fingertips. I attempt to curl my fingers around it but I end up just pushing the blimp away. I curse at myself and reach out to try again. Rills yells, “You almost got it, keep trying!”
This time he’s able to maneuver the blimp closer and I get a strong grip on the bar. I pull the blimp towards me and try to figure out how I’m going to get into the rear seat without losing my foothold on the railing. A loud cracking sound startles me—it comes from a row of buildings up at the top of the slope. They careen over and slide downwards right for us. I realize instantly that the blimp fabric will be ripped open if the buildings hit us—and with the addition of my weight there’s no way the taxi can gain enough altitude to avoid being hit. So I push the blimp up as hard as I can and let go; it glides away as the buildings tumble past my head.
“Cevs!” Rills screams, his voice filled with terror.
I hug the railing and flatten myself out as much as I can. Part of what used to be a doorway hits my knee on the way down. The rear seat of the blimp gets whacked by the building roof, flipping the taxi up at an angle. It swings back and forth like a leaf in the breeze but stays airborne.
The row of buildings break apart as they fall into the nothingness below. The railing I’m clinging to jerks downward. A bolt pops and shoots out past my elbow. Rills is trying to steady the craft but it’s still swinging uncontrollably. Metal scrapes against metal as the railing gives way. It picks up speed as it heads down the slope with me still hanging on to it. A sick feeling spreads through my stomach. The edge of the barge is fast approaching as the end of the railing catches on a metal floor bracket. The railing jolts to a stop but my momentum is too great and I can’t keep hold. I lose my grip and slide closer and closer to the edge—I try to catch the tip of a bent metal post but it’s out of reach.
I slip off the end of the barge and fall downward through empty air.