A transit by Night.
|During our sojourn aboard Pandora, Emily and I would take short walks about the ship wherever we were. I would marvel at the views we were privy to, especially when we were traveling through the Aether itself. Most of the time, transiting the Aether is like sailing in the polar regions. The atmosphere reacts in a manner very similar to the Aurora Borealis, taking on the appearance of that great shimmering curtain that rolls across the sky in fluorescent greens and blues. In general though, it would best be described as a kind of twilight. At least that is what I thought until this trip. We had been aboard Pandora for about three weeks when I learned that the Aether can be a fickle mistress.
Having begun to consider myself a seasoned traveler in the Aether, everything seemed normal as we left Santa Fe bound for Hy Brasil. After we had been airborne for three or four hours though, the atmosphere began to take on a strange feel. The crew became subdued, and began lashing down everything on the decks as the air seemed to grow thicker about us. Mr. Pettigrew came to our cabin and announced that Spartacus Kane wished to address crew and company on deck immediately. Emily and I went up on deck as Kane climbed up on the starboard capstan and called the crew to silence.
"While most of you have been with me long enough, some of you have never been through what we'll be experiencing on this voyage. In looking through the charts and navigational gear, Mr. Pettigrew informs me that we will be traveling the last third of our voyage to Hy Brasil in Aethereal Night." An almost palpable tension ran through all assembled, and I found myself taken aback. I had never considered that there might be another face that the Aether could present. Kane went on, "There's nothing to be worried about, and you'll be hearing a lot of tales about all this before we actually begin to transit the Night. So, though I don't mean to spoil the fun, there are a couple of rules that will be followed during this time. First, all weapons must be stowed before the transit. I would prefer that all guns be unloaded prior to putting them away, but that is a matter of choice. Second, the liquor will be locked up three hours prior to Nightfall. I'll not tolerate any drunkeness during the transit. Lastly, I want all of you to take a good, close, careful look at everyone aboard the ship now assembled. One hour before we begin the transit, everyone will assemble on deck here again, just as we are now, dressed warmly and ready for whatever may occur. Once we begin the transit, no one will be allowed to change their clothing or appearance. For those of you who've never transited Night before, I can only say that you'll know why we have these rules once we're docked at Hy Brasil."
Emily twined her fingers with mine and whispered quietly, "It's alright, luv. We'll be fine as long as we stay close and talk to one another." Kane approached us as we turned to head below. "Miss Puryear, I must ask if you've transited the Night before." She shook her head very discreetly, "No, Captain. But I've heard stories, and I have learned what to expect from some who have." She looked around to see if anyone was listening before she went on, "I've also read the log of the Stygia, from the Commodore himself." Kane stood upright stiffly, also looking around. Sure none of it had been overheard, he smiled broadly at her, "I consider this a right good company, then. I was aboard the airship Icarus when the Stygia was found, as were nearly half my present crew. I hope you'll take this time to tell Vincent here the tale before we begin the transit." She smiled brightly and assured him she would do so straight away, and with that we went below as Kane moved on to prepare the ship.
When we got to the cabin, we changed into warmer clothing as she told me the tale of the ill-fated airship Stygia.
The Stygia had been commissioned for the 5th Time Brigade in 1860. She had served for 11 years Constant, and had spent nearly double that time in Aethereal travel. So, in short, she was a seasoned vessel with an experienced crew. But in all that time, she had never transited Night. In the Autumn of 1871, during a pressed transit from El Dorado to Xanadu, she came without warning upon the fall of Aethereal Night. To say they were unprepared would be understatement. There was some speculation on the part of the crew as to what would happen, but they were eager for the adventure and made no effort to prepare themselves for danger. The captain ordered the first officer to take the log with him to the lookout and lock the door in the customary manner. As soon as the log and it's holder were secure, the captain ordered the navigator to plot a course to Xanadu that would take them straight through on the shortest route. As the course was laid in, they joined the helmsman in the wheelhouse and began the transit. The first officer, locked in the lookout's cabin, recorded all he experienced in the ship's log. It was as complete an account of Night as was ever recorded.
The Stygia had been missing for six weeks when she was found adrift in the skies over New Praetoria. When hailed by the Icarus, there was a flash of light from the lookout, signalling danger. The crew of the Icarus armed themselves and boarded the derelict ready for action. The deck was strewn with rigging, wreckage, and fallen crewmen. The wheelhouse had been all but destroyed, and the captain, navigator, and helmsman's bullet-riddled bodies were locked inside. Just over half the crew were found dead, their bodies scattered all over the vessel. Some were found alone and some in pairs, or groups of three. In some of the cases, the cause of death was suicide or tragic accidents. Others were clearly scenes of savage conflict in which men had killed one another. There was even a pair of bodies sitting upright in the mess on opposite sides of a table. Between them was a deck of cards. They had died of thirst as they gambled.
Just as they were about to give up hope, a group of survivors were found locked away in the storage locker behind the galley. The dazed men had little to say, and seemed reluctant to answer any questions. These nine men each had one thing in common, though, and that was a hastily secured bandage around their heads. Finally, with nowhere else to search, the crew approached the lookout's tower. They hailed the tiny cabin, identifying themselves, and the door opened just a crack. For just a moment, they saw the heavy beard and mad eyes of the occupant of the little cabin before he once again slammed and locked the hatch after tossing out a well-worn leather log book. The captain of the Icarus read the log over the next few hours, then ordered his men to take the Stygia's crew aboard to be treated. He then found a chair and sat down outside the lookout with the logbook in his lap, and waited. He had sat quietly for two hours before the door finally opened. The first officer, clad in the rags that were the remains of his uniform, stepped out and stood at attention. The captain stood up and saluted the first officer, and quietly commended him on the manner in which he carried out his duty. As the captain handed the log book back to him, the first officer broke down. He had to be helped to board the Icarus, clutching the log close to his chest. Those ten men were the only known survivors of the 44 man crew. 13 of the bodies were never found.
The tale of the Stygia was well-documented, and is required reading for all who wish to crew the airships that ply the Aether to this day. As she told me the highlights of the story, I learned that Aethereal Night can be perilous to anyone who lets their imagination run free. Visions of the dead and even those simply not present manifest themselves in the murky darkness that surrounds any vessel transiting the Night. These visions and the messages they convey easily drive men mad. For that reason, when a vessel must make the transit, care is taken to disarm the passengers and crew. Typically, everyone is also provided with a unique marker that identifies them as living, breathing people. Before the transit begins, a single person is locked away with the ship's log and rations for three days. The helmsman then stands alone at the helm while a course is plotted that allows the airship to drift into the dark in the general direction of their destination, without forward power. By drifting in, the airship follows the path of least resistance. Fortunately, this path is always the shortest route through the Night. By doing this, the Night rarely lasts more than 6 hours, and the transit can be made with little difficulty. If one attempts to power through on a direct course, the vessel will be drug into the darkest heart of the Night, and little hope can be held out for the safety or the sanity of the crew. I admit I became nervous, but Emily was reassuring as she said, "It'll all be right for us, luv. Just stay with me and we'll talk. The idea is that we talk about what we see, and discuss it in a rational manner...that way, there's no place in our minds for the madness to take hold." Keeping that in mind, I calmed myself and unloaded our revolvers before locking them in the drawer of our cabin's desk.
A short time later, we assembled on deck once again. Every person aboard was given a large silver necklace with a bright red hourglass pendant. In this way, we could always recognize the real from the unreal by merely looking for the necklace. After stowing the guns, everyone made their way to places where they could sit in groups. Normal Pettigrew took the log into the watchtower with his rations, along with a cutlass and a truncheon, while Silas Bond locked himself in the Pulpit to take the wheel. The great propeller at the stern coasted to a stop as the atmosphere became palpable, and all fell silent as Pandora slid gently into the cloudy darkness of Aethereal Night.
Swirls of dark, cloying clouds began to fold over the deck as Pandora seemed to slide sideways into the darkness. The mists would momentarily form ghostly images of people and places that would twist and morph into each other, growing and shrinking as they moved. Emily and I sat facing one another on the main deck close to the Pulpit where Mr. Bond was working to keep Pandora stable on her path. Over her shoulder, I saw a group of shadows begin to take form, their rapidly appearing garb revealing them to be members of an airship crew. As their faces began to take shape, their features became gradually grotesque, elongating and shrinking their bodies into their clothes. As I watched, I looked carefully, to make sure they were not wearing the necklaces identifying them as being members of our crew. Their eyes glazed over, the pupils turning a blank white as I realized I was seeing the crew of the Cloudwitch, and their transformation from vitality to the husks they were when we sent them down in flames over Hy Brasil.
The hair on the back of my neck began to rise, and what I was witnessing was apparently obvious on my face, because Emily took a very firm grip on my fingers, shaking my hands. I met her eyes, and she asked me what I was seeing. I began to tell her in general terms, but she made me slow down and focus on details. I began to describe each man in close detail, and I found myself calming down. The mere act of describing each minute detail was helping me maintain my grip on sanity. As I described them, they each began to vanish, dissipating piecemeal into the mists. Emily's eyes focused on mine, and it became clear to me that she had seen something as well. When I asked her what she saw, she looked over my shoulder and told me about a woman with black hair in a white dress. As she began describing a series of ghastly wounds, Emily said she was vanishing as she spoke. We met each other's eyes again, and began listening to the sounds of others talking about what they saw. Everything we could pick out from the joined murmurs of the ship's company described horrors and regrets from every person's past. As they spoke of the visions, it was obvious that each was disappearing in turn, leaving us alone with the darkness.
In all, our transit of the Night only took us a little over 3 hours, and everyone was calm and steady as Pandora gently slid out of the dark mists and into the relative twilight of the Aether. The green shimmering curtain of light once again washed over us, as welcome as sunlight would have been after any storm in the constant world. Mr. Pettigrew came out from the lookout's cabin log in hand, returning it to Spartacus Kane. Mr. Bond pushed open the door to the Pulpit, locking it back to ventilate the wheelhouse. The crew was subdued, but turned to their duties efficiently as we descended into the light gray clouds over Hy Brasil. The sky docks were crowded with aircrews, all standing agape as Pandora settled gently into a berth near the harbor master's shack. It took us only a moment to realize that this assembled throng was aware that we had transited the Night. They began to cheer as we tied up, and invitations were made to everyone aboard for free liquor, food, and various and sundry other 'services' that would obviously be taken advantage of as soon as the crew was released for liberty.
Kane pulled Emily and I aside as Pettigrew and Bond began assigning the crew to their port duties. "We'll be docked here for two days, so I would suggest the two of you get yourself a room at the Silver Perch. It'll give you a lot more privacy than you'd find aboard Pandora," his eyes twinkling, "Besides, we'll be aboard for a week when we leave, and I don't think I could stand it if you two don't get yourselves some private time." Emily took my arm and curtsied to Kane, "Well sir, we'll avail ourselves of your advice and see you as Pandora prepares to depart." With that, she pulled me around and headed for the gangplank, a spring in her step and no small amount of devilment in her eye. It promised to be an eventful two days.