Hope is the Thing With Feathers Chapter 4
Hope is the Thing With Feathers is a science fiction adventure that will be serialized here first with the first five chapters free. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe now
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A massive banner depicting a whale rose above the ship, showing me exactly where to go. Across the main square surrounded by the city’s banks, I strode through the sparse crowd, heading directly for the ship. I needed to keep moving before my nerves got the best of me.
The Minke was unlike the other flying ships in that it wasn’t suspended beneath a balloon. Even the ill-fated Daedalus had depended on a balloon for buoyancy to pass through the dense layers of atmosphere below.
A bulbous nose of windows swept back into a sleek hull of coppery metal peppered with two levels of portholes. A ridge ran along the top, like a tin mohawk. On the side, a single door stood open, but it was the man standing beside the door that caught my attention.
“Hello there.” He gestured towards me, his voice booming across the square.
Looking from side to side, I checked for other people. But I was the only one there; the man had to be calling out to me. Did Jeremy tell him I was on my way? Keeping my hands in my pockets, I walked closer.
The man loomed over me, his broad shoulders only adding to his presence. A long maroon coat hung from his broad shoulders and swirled around his feet.
“I’d recognize that jacket anywhere,” he said with a smile. “You must be Damien Wren’s little girl.”
“Um, yeah.” So much for my boldness. I bit my lip and debated just turning and running away—yet Hector remembered my dad.
“Oh, how I miss that man! I can’t believe it’s been five years already. Time certainly flies by. And look at you, all grown up.” He reached out and patted my shoulder.
For a second time that hour, I could feel heat rise in my cheeks.
He put a hand over his mouth. “How rude of me! I never introduced myself.” He reached his hand out to me. “I’m Hector Broca, captain of the Minke.”
I put on a smile and shook his hand. His massive palm completely enveloped mine, but he didn’t squeeze too tight, as though he knew exactly how to use his strength.
“I’m Stella,” I said before remembering he already knew exactly who I was.
“Well, Stella, I have an hour until I have to mingle with my backers. Would you like a tour of the mighty Minke?” He made an exaggerated gesture at the airship behind him.
I smiled. “Yes, please.”
Stepping into the Minke was like being cloaked in a cozy cocoon. The spicy scent of the air enveloped me in comfort. The white stone and gilded buildings of the Island of Gold vanished, replaced by thickly carpeted floors and fabric-covered walls. Even the sharp sounds from outside had been muted.
Directly across from the door was a plaque.
“Hope is the thing with feathers.” Hector read as he stopped beside me.
“Dad loved that poem.” I reached forward and put a hand on the plaque.
“I wish he could see this ship.” Hector gestured to the surroundings.
I turned to take in the compartment.
“This….” I swivelled my head around, spotting in the overstuffed sectional sofa, the faux-wood dinner table, and the small kitchen where a bowl of apples sat on prominent display. A series of portholes circled three sides of the space, letting in the warm light from outside. “This is more like an apartment than an airship.”
Hector laughed, his booming voice absorbed by all the soft surfaces. “This is the common room where my passengers can relax. Back there are the cabins—everyone gets their own space.” He leaned in as though sharing a secret. “I find that helps people get along better.”
The short hallway running aft would’ve fit in just fine on a luxury liner. “How many people can this ship take?”
“Myself and three others.”
“And when you descend tomorrow, you’ll be taking Dr. Fuller and her team?” I looked back at Hector.
“The scientists arrive first thing tomorrow, then we’re off.” Hector shrugged. “We can’t delay as our model of the Rocks is only accurate out a few days. If we miss our window, we have to wait for the university to finish another model run.”
I bit my lip; dad’s model was accurate and small enough to run on a datapad. I said nothing.
“Come up to the bridge,” Hector said, turning with a flourish towards the spiral staircase heading to the top deck.
I followed in his wake up the stairs. Rubberized treads absorbed the sound of my boots, and the winding brass rods of the railing reminded me of a twisting kraken—or a grown-up version of that currently popular cartoon character… Click, was it?
One level up, the Minke morphed into a more traditional bridge, the kind that screamed SERIOUS SCIENCE ONLY from every terminal.
Hector gestured to the dome of windows supported by metal scaffolding that covered the entire nose of the ship. “I designed this level to have the best view, considering the pressures deeper down.”
I stepped up to the window, not saying that it reminded me of the window in my low-end apartment. I couldn’t see much of the island from this angle. Instead, the glittering ocean of metal particles extended as far as I could see. But as soon as this airship dove, the view would become one few had ever seen.
“It’s going to be beautiful down there,” I said as I licked my lips. I wanted a berth on the Minke more than ever.
Hector grinned, exposing two rows of perfectly white teeth. “It’ll be more than that. I expect it to be wondrous, magical, and probably life-changing.”
Suddenly, it hit me why this ship seemed so different. I turned to face Hector. “Why doesn’t the Minke have a balloon like all the other ships?”
“Ah. You’ve noticed the magic of my ship.” He paced over to an elevated armchair that could only be the captain’s chair and took a seat. He leaned forward and rested an arm on what appeared to be a steering wheel. “Do you know what keeps the floating islands up, even under the weight of all those stone buildings people keep erecting?”
I sunk down into one of the cushy workstation chairs and rotated to face him. “It’s that exotic matter, right? The stuff that seems capable of controlling its buoyancy.”
Hector put his feet up on the console before him, letting the fabric of his long jacket pool down on the floor beneath him. “That’s the stuff, and these islands are full of it.” He gestured in the direction of the Island of Gold.
“I read that it’s unstable and impossible for us to harness.” I leaned in. There was an entire department at the university devoted to studying the stuff.
“Difficult, but not impossible.” He sprung to his feet. “Come with me.”
Hector headed aft. I noted a door labelled ‘Captain’s Cabin’ as we passed. He opened a sliding door and exposed a more industrial hallway than the one a deck down. Bright strips of light running the length of the ceiling illuminated grey walls and grey flooring. Hector went inside.
“Let me show you the Minke’s secret.” He turned to me and raised an index finger. “But first, you must promise not to tell anyone—at least until my patents have cleared.”
“Excellent.” He opened a panel in the wall, and gestured for me to look inside.
I peered in and gasped. Swirling formations of lights seemed to extend on forever—like staring at a galaxy formation like the star nursery of the Dammar Nebula. “It’s beautiful, but what is it?” I turned to face Hector.
“It’s a field of the exotic matter we were talking about.” He paused and cupped a hand under his chin. “Come to think of it, those particles need a good name, something flashy, something….” His words trailed off, and the two of us stood in silence for a few moments.
“How do they…” I gestured to the open panel. “Help this ship fly?”
“Ah, you’re as smart as your dad. It was even his idea that I try to harness the particles’ power. Come downstairs for a refreshment, and I’ll explain.” Hector headed back down to the bottom deck. I paused, staring at the cosmic-like view within Minke’s buoyancy tanks.
“Was this your idea?” I asked in a whisper, referring to dad. He would come up with something like this.
“Hey Stella, would you like some brandy?” Hector asked from out of sight below.
“Sure,” I said without admitting I’d never tried brandy before. I hurried down the stairs and into the common room. Hector grinned when he saw me.
“Sit and relax.” He handed me an almost spherical glass with a thumb’s worth of amber liquid within.
I sat down on the sectional sofa, sinking deep into the indigo velvet upholstery.
“So you want to know how the exotic matter keeps this ship afloat? First, promise not to sell my secrets to my competition.” He winked at me. “My patent is still in review.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said, promising for a second time.
“Of course you won’t. I’m sure you’re as honest as your dad. Damien was someone who always kept his promises.” He turned one of the dining room chairs around and sat. “The secret is that the particles… Ugh, I need a better name for them.” He took a sip from his brandy snifter. “Where was I?”
“How does this ship stay afloat?” I said, well aware that Hector was putting on a bit of a show for me, and I was enjoying it.
“Right. The secret is the oscillating electrical field I’m holding the particles in. By modulating the field, I can control the buoyancy—and voila, the Minke can go up or down. All I need is a hardware store fusion reactor, and we can get to any layer in New Venus’ onion-like atmosphere.”
“Your investors must love this,” I said.
Hector nodded. “Yes, I’ve had a lot of interest. Once I bring the Minke back up from the depths, I’ll be able to make a fortune off this technology.”
I smiled but didn’t say anything.
“But enough about me and my delightful ship. What brought you here today?” Hector leaned forward.
“I…” My words dropped off as my courage collapsed. A silence drew out between us.
He put his glass on the table and moved to the other end of the sofa. “It’s about your dad, isn’t it?”
I nodded and swallowed. “He promised me he’d send a message from the Bottom—but no messages were ever received from the Daedalus.”
Hector let out an audible exhale. “The investigators concluded the Daedalus made it to the Bottom without issue. When they took off, the ship made it up a kilometre before their balloon failed.”
I nodded again. I knew that much. “Your expedition is the first attempt to reach the Bottom since then.”
“True, true.” Hector stood and paced over to the kitchen and back. “You want me to retrieve the memory banks from the Daedalus?”
“Yes.” I swallowed. “But what I really want is to come along.”
“Oh, little wren…I’d bring you if I could. I owe Damien that much.” Hector frowned. “But Dr. Fuller’s team will fill all the bunks on this ship.”
I hung my head as a lump formed in my throat.
“But, don’t worry, I’ll slate you in on a future expedition.” His face lit up as he looked around his ship. “The Minke and I will be taking lots of trips down to the Bottom.”
“Thank you,” I said as I rose to my feet. My brandy, untouched, I left on the coffee table before me. A sour taste had formed in my mouth—I was so close, yet I couldn’t go. “Good luck with your voyage.”
to be continued…