By Carlos L. Delgado
THE ANALYST ran her pale fingers over the intricate grooves covering the crystalline surface of the recovered airship lacrima, rousing the souls stored within. Shareholders—wearing fine silk robes, cascades of jewelry, and colorful Sashes of station—whispered into their sleeves while others made a show of pointing out the soul-shards placed before each seated attendant. Opposite the Analyst, far at the head of the bustling boardroom table, a sash-less greybeard glowered at her, unwavering. Above him, the stuffed and mounted head of an ursoka bared its lifeless fangs.
Then the greybeard clapped twice.
The Analyst looked up expectantly at the surly man, Skylord Hoddic Clattery. The grizzled guild master returned a sharp nod.
So it begins, she thought. So shall it end.
The Analyst tapped the lacrima to life. The milky white crystal emitted a soft, buzzing light, lazily pulsing in sync with the smaller tethering crystals arranged around the table, washing the boardroom in an eerie glow.
“Welcome,” the Analyst began. “Today, we shall review the results of my postmortem investigation of flight SJ 710’s cabin lacrima. Please save your questions for the end of the presentation. Thank you.”
The room struggled to find silence. Senior guild executives, unaccustomed to censure, muttered on about “manners” and “impudence,” but then—
“Tell me, ghoul,” Master Clattery said, his voice like a gravel tumbler. “What exactly are we to gain from all this—” he waved a hand over the crystals, “pageantry? Our guild’s profits rise from the analysis of facts, figures, not abstractions. What profit can we possibly expect by peering into the mind of those who failed their ship and shareholders? Lessons in ineptitude? Bah! Perhaps your efforts are better spent interviewing my Strategic Officers—individuals with vision, creativity, results.” He held out his wine cup, to his left, and grinned. “Your thoughts?”
Laughter bubbled around the table. A young vino-vassal rushed a pitcher from her well-stocked station and filled the guild master’s waiting cup.
The Analyst returned the faintest of smiles. My thoughts…? I think—no, I’ve noticed that under the management of your so-called ‘strategic officers,’ the Bellaria Ventures Airship Guild has suffered seventeen commercial crashes. That is seventeen times higher than the global annual average. Seventeen. King Boscos barred even his vino-vassals from flying your airships. As it stands, your guild faces two choices: transmutation or death. I was dispatched, by my guild, to facilitate the former by manipulation of the latter. You know me, my reputation, my record. Shall I continue, or should we adjourn for small cakes and tea?
“Well?” Master Clattery prodded.
“A wise suggestion, Master Clattery,” the Analyst said, her voice perfectly even. “I also think it prudent to consider all possible leads when investigating the causes of a tragedy. I’ll be sure to discuss your comments with my master.”
After a few sips of wine, Master Clattery waved a dismissive hand and settled the room to a tenuous silence.
The Analyst tensed every muscle in her torso, struggling to suppress her rage. “Thank you,” she said with a quick bow. “The prepared memories belonged to first officer Klotzka, co-pilot of The Umbrage on the night of its last voyage. Please take the lacrima shards and press them to your foreheads.”
The shareholders followed Clattery’s lead and, together, they witnessed the memories of deceased airship pilot, Bolin Klotzka, slide by luminous slide.
On the morning of Talma the 7th, 1002X, the first officer of Bellaria Ventures flight SJ 710, Bolin Klotzka, left an hour early to pick up the flight’s captain. He did this before every flight, as Klotzka’s guild assigned captain was also his father-in-law. Together, they arrived at the Bellaria Ventures Airship Spire at two in the afternoon. Bolin Klotzka was thirty-three years old and in excellent health.
A memory appeared of an average looking Bellarian man standing in a full-length mirror, tan-skinned with bright amber eyes and soft features. He wore a standard-issue guild uniform—red military-style coat and pants, black knee-high boots, and a black cap adorned with golden pilot’s wings. He smiled at his reflection.
Flight 710, another passengerless cargo run, departed the Spire dock at eight-thirty in the evening and pierced the belly of the mistbank twenty minutes later. Mid-route, The Umbrage entered an unexpected storm pattern that would last through the rest of the flight. Just before three-fifteen in the morning, the battered airship prepared to descend into the mistbank over—what was supposed to be—the Sen Jacobin landing Spire.
Klotzka squinted at the quivering gauge on the dashboard. The instrument’s needle flickered under the stuttering cabin lights. He rapped the glass with his knuckles. The needle stilled, raising an eyebrow, before continuing its ineffective twitching. He sighed. Glide-scope’s down, he thought. Perfect.
He looked left to the sweating captain. The gray-haired pilot had been operating the airship levers manually for hours after a powerful lightning strike rendered the rudder hydraulics inoperable. He’d refuse any offer of help, of course, as was customary.
The ship suffered no hull damage but, without the glide-scope, docking would prove perilous. Manual docking required absolute concentration—even during ideal weather. Klotzka peered out the cabin window to the raging tempest. How to put it?
“Chobin,” Klotzka said, turning to face the airship engineer seated off to his right. “How do we look?”
Chobin ran his first-finger across his throat and shook his head. “Weather remains unchanged, sir!”
“That will be all,” Klotzka said, returning to his controls. Thank you, old friend, he thought. I must choose my words carefully, oh so carefully. Betray nothing. But take… everything.
“If this trip runs over nine hours,” the captain muttered, “we could file for an efficiency bonus. With eight hours, we get nothing. Seems like every flight is eight-hours… They work us to the red. Save on… inn expenses. The… bleeding red.”
Klotzka shifted in his seat. He stared in silence at the malfunctioning glide-scope, tuning out the exhausted captain. Perhaps a rhyme? No, too much, he thought.
“Yes… very… tired,” the captain said.
“Sen Jacobin has excellent inns, I find,” Klotzka said. “Yuhana and I like to—”
“My daughter,” the captain snapped. “Deserved better than you.”
On the evening of Jyubin the 23rd, 1001X, provisional pilot, Bolin Klotzka, arrived with his wife, Yuhana, at the funeral of Choksul Pan, a decorated veteran turned airship guild pilot. A red-tiled memorial pagoda, commissioned by the airship guild, towered over the lush, bambooed mountain cemetery, shadowing the royal mausoleum. Attendants formed bulging queues that wrapped around the cemetery proper.
Klotzka and Yuhana wore traditional funeral attire—black robes, tied off at the waist with red sashes, though her guild robe would have worked just as well. A month had passed since they inducted Yuhana into the ranks of the Analyst guild, but her shaved pate was yet to match the rest of her tawny complexion. She had confided in Klotzka the identity of her first assignment, Bellaria Ventures, and continued to voice her apprehensions about his future employment as they climbed the stone steps to the wake.
The ceremony was brief; but, Klotzka decided, it had compressed as much pathos into the allotted time as possible thanks to the somber orchestral accompaniment and choreographed weepers. He didn’t know Choksul, personally—only of his military exploits… and of his failed courtship with Yuhana. And that her father, captain Yuan, had fiercely petitioned her to reconsider Choksul’s engagement proposal, even after she’d begun seeing Klotzka.
The moment the ceremony officially ended—a good hour after they lowered the casket—captain Yuan stalked over, withdrawing from a throng of buzzing Shareholders. He wore his formal Bellaria Ventures uniform and Sash, black for the occasion, as was customary.
Klotzka squeezed his wife’s hand twice, signaling her father’s approach. He took back his clammy right hand and wiped it on his robe.
Bells rang in the distance.
“A lovely ceremony,” the captain said as he joined the couple, crunching gravel under his polished black boots. “Such a shame about Choksul. A genuine patriot of Bellaria.”
“Greetings, honorable father-in-law,” Klotzka said, stretching out his hand and bowing his head. “A true shame.”
The captain ignored Klotzka’s hand.
“Yes, a shame he died in battle,” Yuhana spat. “Oh, my mistake—he died piloting a dilapidated airship on another overclocked cargo run, even after my guild warned Clattery about his rampant corner-cuts. Nevertheless, Choksul bravely crashed into the countryside, killing fifty-seven Bellarians. Such a staunch patriot.”
Klotzka stared at his wife. “Yuhana—”
“No,” Yuhana said to Klotzka. “I think I should rather not, mind myself, dear husband. Not today.” She turned to the captain. “You know what they do, father. How can you remain idle? How could you wear that Sash?”
“You have no idea what you speak,” the captain said. “And you’d be wise to lower your tone, Yuhana.”
Yuhana raised a tattooed eyebrow. “Ah! It seems they haven’t just cut corners; they’ve cut your manhood too. Tell me, was it buried with Choksul, or did that old bastard mount it in his boardroom, as well?”
“How dare you,” the captain hissed. “Is it not enough that you have dishonored our house, but you must also dishonor the memory of our most cherished hero?” He glared at Klotzka. “You. This is your fault.”
Klotzka’s cheeks grew hot. “Please, father—in—”
The captain slapped Klotzka across the face with a swift backhand. “I am not, your father, fool.” He wiped his hand with a red handkerchief. “She was never like this, not until she met you. You are a cancer, a ruinous infection, spreading your mediocrity to everything you touch. Look at her. Look at what you’ve done to my daughter.”
“I am an Analyst,” Yuhana said, standing taller. “And you will address me directly, captain.”
“You are a ghoul,” the captain spat. “Rendered barren by those necrophiles. What of our house? Our legacy—”
“Your legacy,” Yuhana corrected. “If I am to wear black for the rest of my life, it will not be because I grieve a greedy, arrogant man who would get himself killed after only two years of matrimony. It will be because I took my fate into my own hands. My happiness. My legacy.”
“You petulant child,” the captain said. “Choksul’s widower pension alone could have sustained you, spared you from this unlife. Even in death, he would have been more useful than that louse you married.”
Klotzka raised an eyebrow.
“Two miserable years married to a spice addled, power monger,” Yuhana said. “How could you condemn me to such misery? You don’t even care, do you?”
“Two years would have been a mercy!” the captain shouted, touching his black Sash. “I would have begged for two, instead of the thirty I suffered under your harpy of a mother.” He grinned. “May she rest in peace.”
Yuhana raised her hand. “You monster—”
“You wouldn’t dare,” the captain mocked.
“Stop,” Klotzka said, taking Yuhara by the arm. “Look around.”
A loose group of curious attendants had formed around the trio, many among them whispering into their long sleeves—where comm-crystals were usually stashed.
“Enough has been said today, I think,” Klotzka said. “Come, Yuhana. Let us go.”
“Very well, husband,” she said, lowering her still-glowing hand. “I’ve wasted enough words here.”
“A tactical retreat?” The captain said. “Perhaps you’re not completely incompetent.”
You will die by my hand one day, Klotzka thought. And it will be glorious. “You honor me, Captain.”
The mistbank rumbled around the descending airship. Lightning flashed, projecting silhouettes of monstrous creatures swimming through the dense condensation, feeding on the residual energies released during storms.
Klotzka gripped the trembling throttle, fighting to keep it steady. Sweat poured down his face. It was time.
You’ve committed us to a visual approach, Klotzka thought. With no alternative route and in severe weather. You believe we will break out of the mist over the Spire. But what if we don’t? It’s pitch-black, the glide-scope is down, and you’re exhausted. What will happen, father-in-law, if I say nothing? “Don’t you think it rains more? In this area, here? Captain.”
“Is that all you have to say?” the captain asked, instruments rumbling around him. “Bah! You’re a coward through and through, Klotzka. That’s why you’ll never make rank, not as long as I live. And if by some miracle you did, I’d clip your wings, personally. I despise your—”
The airship broke through the bottom of the mistbank, rain buffeted the ship from all sides, and all that appeared was darkness, as far as the eye can see.
“Ah, we’ve breached, excellent,” the captain said.
Klotzka turned to Chobin. “Are you sure?”
“No passengers,” Chobin whispered. “My conscience is clean. My family needs this, sir.”
In the distance, a brilliant light appeared on the horizon.
Chobin cleared his throat, then yelled, “Is it Sen Jacobin? It’s Sen Jacobin!”
The captain chuckled. “Good! Finally.”
“Captain, we are clear to descend,” Chobin said.
“Yes,” the captain said, heaving massive leavers around. “Dropping wind-anchors.”
“Captain,” Klotzka said. “The instruments have served us well.”
“Prepare for docking, fool,” the captain huffed. “Where are the semaphore balloons?”
“I see them, sir,” Klotzka said, closing his eyes. “They’re glorious…”
A few seconds later, in the pitch of true night, The Umbrage slammed into the side of a low mountain.
There were no survivors.
THE ANALYST removed her trembling hands from the glowing lacrima, ending the presentation. Shareholders sat, mouths open, while others removed their comm-crystals from their sleeves and waved them furiously above their heads, looking for a connection.
“That won’t work,” the Analyst said to the closest flailing Shareholder, a young man wearing a green Sash and a look of utter befuddlement. “The comm towers surrounding the guild have been… temporarily disabled.”
Master Clattery slammed his meaty fists on the boardroom table, launching himself to his feet. “What is the meaning of this!”
She bottled her grief. “The meaning is evident,” the Analyst said, voice perfectly even.
“This is collusion!” Master Clattery yelled. “Explain yourself, you putrid bitch!”
The Analyst returned the faintest of smiles. You cut so many corners; you forced your pilots to play engineer, just to keep your deathtraps flying. You underpaid them, overworked them, and ignored warnings. And, worst of all, you helped perpetuate a system that destroyed my husband. Made him believe that only by his death could he be of value to his wife, to me. You are a cancer, a ruinous infection, spreading your greed to everything you touch. My guild ordered me to shut you down and absorb your operations, though I know you’d never allow such a thing, not as long as you live.
“EXPLAIN!” Master Clattery roared.
Then the Analyst raised her hand.
The Analyst ran her pale fingers over the intricate grooves covering the crystalline surface of the recovered airship lacrima, rousing the new souls stored within. The lacrima pulsed, and she felt their protests, their refusal to share their new home, their eternal boardroom.