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art by Eleanor Bennett

Airship Hope

Laurel Amberdine was raised by cats in the suburbs of Chicago. She’s good at naps, begging for food, and turning ordinary objects into toys. She recently moved to San Francisco with her husband, and is enjoying its vastly superior weather. Between naps she's working on a YA fantasy novel.
The airship was made of spider silk, and held aloft by prayer. Monks had labored a thousand years to build it, directed by prophets who foretold the end of their world. At least, the end of Rynille. For what purpose could there be in building an airship, if nothing lay beyond the ocean?
If only the prophets had said how long the journey would take. Bishop Oyen wished that often, as he scanned the featureless ocean.
A storm darkened the northern horizon. Oyen adjusted the prayer schedule to steer them even further south. Had he not turned already? He reviewed their past course and noticed an irregularity. A small turn north, every seven hours. He dimmed the navigational sphere, and smoothed nonexistent wrinkles from his robe.
"Brother Kir, it seems that doubt has arisen within your third choir," Oyen whispered into the transmitter. He wondered who it was.
"Apologies, Excellency. I will isolate it. Tonight?"
"Yes." Oyen paused and did not sigh, and held that sorrow in his heart beside all the others. "Tonight, at the Balcony of White Stars." He did not wait for acknowledgment, but stood and walked through a black door, along a corridor illuminated by unburning violet torches, and parted the scarlet veil.
Chanted prayers, both soft and loud, harmonizing in polyphonic waves filled a vast white silken space, keeping the airship in flight. Groups knelt or stood, while some processed in solemn order between the airship's slender iridescent titanium framework. The faith of the remnant of Rynille impelled them toward a new home. Except when someone doubted.
Once, in Oyen's grandfather's time, a test ship had attempted to cross the ice peaks. When the wreckage was found a decade later, the journal said that doubt had crept into the ranks, first touching only one. They fought it, trying convincing arguments, but the arguments themselves fostered confusion. Doubt festered until the ship became unsteerable, and crashed. Doubt could not be tolerated.
Bishop Oyen scanned the throng. It wasn't any of these. Third group was off shift now, eating or sleeping or taking recreation.
He began to descend to his quarters, but Brother Kir approached and touched Oyen's sleeve.
"Excellency, we must speak," he murmured. All at once, Oyen knew who doubted. It would not do to distract the current prayers with a protest that discussion was needless, though, so he followed Kir off to a staging chamber.
When the screens had closed. Bishop Oyen allowed his heart to break. "Tipnya?"
"You knew?"
It approached an accusation. "Only because you came to me." Tipnya, his only child, born long before this life as bishop. With ebony hair and cinnamon eyes like her mother, who had died in the cataclysm of Rynille.
"Maybe you could talk to her?" Kir said, thinking it a favor to offer hope.
Oyen savored the thought. Yes, he could speak to Tipnya, This ship crosses the sky upon wings of faith, how can you doubt? The devastation we left behind was foretold by prophets in ages past--how can you not trust? She would assent, and smile, and resume her prayers once more. Oyen clung to the dream, then let it fall.
"We both know better. It will go as it always does."
Oyen could not sleep. He stared at the ceiling of his small chamber, at a fresco which had once adorned the Basilica of Unceasing Grace. It showed the creation of Rynille from nothing, a forested green jewel set upon the aquamarine sea. Perhaps the Maker was creating new lands for them now. Perhaps that was where they flew. No one knew. The prophets had not explained.
In such a situation it would be so easy to doubt. As bishop he only guided their course--his faith did not lift the airship into the sky. He questioned, wondered, doubted continually. Why did they not know their destination? How could this endless journey be what the prophets intended?
Tears ran down the sides of Oyen's face, dripping chill into his ears, his hair, his pillow. At last he rose and wiped his sorrow dry. It was time to cast his only child, his beautiful daughter, into the sea.
On the Balcony of White Stars, Tipnya waited, hair mussed, lips pressed tight, demeanor calm. Two burly brothers held her arms, though she did not resist as some had. Behind them, the celestial maiden's amulet of stars glimmered in a clear sky.
Oyen said the funeral prayer, choking only when he spoke Tipnya's name. He glanced over the side. Were there shadows above the dark water? "Farewell," Oyen whispered, too soft to be heard. The brothers lifted Tipnya up and over the railing and let her fall.
Oyen waited, listening. Tipnya did not cry out. He thought he heard a murmur of voices, but it might be just the whisper of waves mixed with desperate longing.
As high as they flew, he still should hear a splash from below, but there was nothing. There never was. Maybe Tipnya had gone to where the prophets truly intended. Maybe it was only wishful thinking.
Held aloft by perfect faith, the airship flew on.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 15th, 2013


I was at one of my friend Mary Robinette Kowal's birthday party/writer's retreats. This time, half the guests were doing a photo shoot for a special steampunk magazine issue. They were all dressed up in corsets and tuxedos, and naturally talk around the dinner table turned to airships. At the same time, I was wondering about the choices I'd made in my life, because my strongest efforts toward a specific goal almost always veer aside into something else entirely. The "something else" has always been better than my original plan, but I would never have reached the better result if I hadn't pursued my original goal in full faith. Those two inspirations combined into an airship steered by faith. Maybe it isn't headed where the builders think, but it's definitely on some kind of deliberate course.

- Laurel Amberdine

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