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Rated: E · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2256818
A bit of a gamble and a new ship for an unlikely captain (Contest Entry)
Winds of Change

“What in heavens is that?” Perimore Fontleroy tapped the end of his cane against a ship he’d never seen before.

Nira’s dirigible definitely stood out with its vibrant violet sails, a drastic departure from the other racers at the dock. Even so, it wasn’t just the color of her sails that set her apart. “What do you mean?” she asked of the pretentious aristocrat.

“Well, it’s just so…different!” he explained, pulling his monocle away. “Will it even sail?”

“It’ll win,” Nira replied confidently.

“We’ll see!” he scoffed. “No ship can beat my Osprey. You’re captain’s either brave or foolish!”

“I’m the captain.”

He burst into laughter. “You? Then you’ll surely never win. No woman can win the Cutlass!”

“Times change.”

“Hmph. Surely this…whatever it is, won’t even make the first bend. Well, good luck, I suppose.” Then, turning on his heels, he strolled back down the dock.

“Jerk,” she whispered, tying her hair back before making her final checks. Every batten and line was exactly in place. She’d taken a risk, designing her own dirigible. Coming up from the lower castes, it took every penny, and without the traditional tradesmen, who were unreliable at best. Besides, their antiquated concepts were tired, particularly for a man’s sport, the women just cheering from the stands. But now, she proudly polished the rails of her very own ship.

A trumpeted chorus and she drifted to the line with a simple steam driven propeller, sails still furled. It would be only wind from here on out.

Closing her eyes, she sensed the breeze across her face, becoming present in the moment - the smell of the concessions, and the restlessness of an excited crowd. A sweet bite of molasses weed between her teeth and she gripped the solid oak wheel, ready.

Rockets exploded and Nira released the top sail, tension in the ropes catching the outbound wind. The Cutlass had begun, and while Nira was number seventy-two, she was determined to be first.

Ratcheting her sail back, she eased up past the other ships, climbing into the heights. Hers was narrower than most, slipping through with relative ease. She gambled that her design could catch the loftier currents early, but only after clearing the traffic.

“What’s she doing there?” bewildered captains remarked as she ascended. “That’s never been done before,” others said. Even so, she knew she had one advantage they didn’t – ingenuity.

Nira broke into full sunlight just below the rim, the canyon widening toward the top. Her degree of inclination set her back from the leaders, but now, fully exposed, she released everything – seventeen sails unfolding like a morning bloom. They captured the gale and she burst ahead.

Still below the edge, as was the rule, the first bend approached and she gained on the pack. A glance over the railing and she pulled the nearest lever in. Port sails retracted and she drifted left, while the other captains slowed to shift their ballasts.

Ahead, the Goddess’s Eye, a narrow opening in the gorge, quickly approached. Nira purged her billows, dropping altitude and falling alongside the frontrunners. Unfortunately, another captain released a smoke-bomb, and three wider vessels careened into the wall. “Cheater!” Nira shouted. Confident in her course, she maintained speed until the last moment, then dropped her sails altogether, cruising blindly into the haze. “One, two, three,” she counted, certain she was clear before letting her sails fly.

She gassed her balloons into the second turn, but the two closest ships misjudged the curve, colliding into each other. She launched her drag system, rearward sails slowing and pivoting her nose suddenly up over the wreckage. Then, fully retracting, Nira burst ahead.

Barely on the heels of the leaders, the flowing white banners marking the finish line approached. She released a tiny cannon at the bow which blasted a compact package ahead. A dozen new sails unfurled – a kite which hauled her past the other racers, even the Osprey, at top speed across for the win. Fireworks exploded and the crowd roared, for hers was the most exciting ship they’d ever seen. Nira beamed, waving proudly as she drifted back to dock. Victory.

“You!” Perimore Fontleroy found her. “Are the greatest thing to ever happen in this race. How much?”

“For what?

“You, your ship, everything. How much?”

“Honestly, I’m not for sale. It was all a bit of fun. Besides, I’m looking forward to kicking your pompous behind again next year,” she winked, then headed off into the cheering crowd.
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