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Perspectives from Steampunk Sigil: of Airships and Air Genasi (Part I)

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Sparks cascaded like falling meteors onto the floating pathfinder crystal. Rysse gritted her teeth and hissed a barbed curse. The tiefling pulled herself up from under the command console to inspect the damage. A long shard of heated metal lay embedded in the oscillating containment field. Nothing too serious if solved quickly. Rysse wiped her oil-stained hands on her dark leather jerkin. Everything was slippery. She had been busy maintaining the joints of the planar sextant fitted to the pathfinder crystal and the last thing she needed was a fire inside the navigation room.

Rysse's slender tail curled and snapped impatiently. “Fia!”

Swift footsteps on metal echoed in the deck above. From the entry hatch at the top of the navigation room a pair of artificer's goggles peered down.

Rysse glared at her colleague, crimson eyes aflame with irritation, “Ask me before you test the sodding turbine. Or at least close the hatch. If the pathfinder crystal goes, I won't be able to steer us out of this godsforsaken hangar, let alone through a planar portal.”

“You could have asked me if I was all right,” Fia sniffed, her voice low and subdued like an iron cooling by the forge.

“I know you're all right. You could take a fire jet from the turbine and still make it out alive. The pathfinder is a delicate specimen, though. You're expendable, it isn't.”

Fia deftly slipped down into the navigation room. Thin and long-limbed, she stood half a head above Rysse. As befitted her heritage of elemental fire, her skin was the colour of metallic bronze just as Rysse's complexion was tinged red from her demonic ancestors. Her features were serene and handsome, golden eyes sharply intelligent. Fia pulled up her goggles and swept back a few strands of wild hair. Short, golden, ember-red and copper-brown tresses all melded together and swept upwards, like a licking tongue of flame.

“Let me see,” Fia offered, a little apologetically.

“Don't touch,” Rysse distanced Fia's hands with a dismissive wave. “Bells of the Nine Hells -” black-painted fingernails tapped against a coal-black metal shard floating dangerously close to the spherical crystal.

“It was not my fault,” Fia ventured, “the turbine automatically initiated a purge cycle when I started a low intensity test. It flushed out all the debris inside -”

“Quiet!”

Rysse reached into the alchemist's belt slung over her shoulder and produced a pair of slender, metallic pliers. With a methodical lunge, she pinched the tip of the shard in the jaws of the pliers. The containment field began to hum and tremble, like an angry sea. Reacting to the perceived impurity, the pathfinder crystal's rotation accelerated, exciting the containment field until its waves of azure force resembled the swirling arms of a hurricane.

Seizing her opportunity, Rysse tugged the shard out. The frantic rotation of the pathfinder crystal came to an abrupt halt. Though still turbulent, the wild currents of the containment field eased, almost instantaneously sealing the breach where the shard had been.

Rysse tossed the offending shard aside, her dark lips curled in a grudging smile of relief. “Someone down below obviously likes me.”

Fia leaned forward, skirting the edge of the containment field with long, deft fingers. “Won't it still be contaminated? I mean, it was exposed to at least some air.”

“Possibly. But it will only be a few motes of dust at worst. Which means we won't have to take all the mirrors in the crystal apart and re-assemble them. You will just have to take a high precision magnifier and pick each mote of dust out with the manual purification system.”

Rysse reached for an abrasive rag. Machine oil that had dripped onto her hair had begun to stain her curved horns. Horns she had spent the best part of a strike of the bell-tower polishing for the first time in countless days. She soaked up the oil that she could find and tossed the rag aside.

Fia remained preoccupied with the crystal. “I never thought this ship could have so much detritus. The elemental fire and water gate-crystals will have to be replaced – hopefully mapped on somewhere cleaner on the Plane of Water. I think one of the turbines needs replacing due to excess salinity. I don't know where or when this skiff last had a maintenance check, but its mid-life upgrade must have been aeons ago. ”

“We'll be lucky if this skiff ever comes close to flying again. Qaida should have wrecked it and sold it for scrap. I know traders on the Astral Sea that would pay fifty carats for the adamantine girders alone.” Money was foremost in Rysse's mind. Rent for her accursed bedsit – walls reeking of charcoal and damp – was coming up. And, most importantly, the lacquer box in the hidden compartment behind her work table was fresh out of Elysian moss.

“If we can get this running again,” Fia mused with her usual curious optimism, “word in the hangars and the planar terminus will surely be that we can get even the most travel-addled hull back into shape. That could mean plenty of repeat business.”

“Provided I survive working with you.”

Fia ignored Rysse's comment. “Have you had a good look at the sextant yet?”

“Only all day,” Rysse brushed a side a stack of astrographic charts so she could lean back on the command console, “the joints and the swivel mechanism needed a lot of oiling, but besides that, most of the navigational equipment is in good shape. The etheroscope is fine and, far as I can tell after taking them apart, the rudder and flux ring controls should be in good order too. I'll have better data when we take it for a test run.”

“See,” Fia's enthusiasm danced on her burgundy-red lips, “it shouldn't be so bad after all.”

Rysse groaned. “I could really use a bottle of Nessian firewater and a water pipe with some good resin -”

Fia scowled. “Again?”

“Before you say anything, I didn't drag you. You came.” Fia was a big enough girl to know when to decline the next round of hemp distillate. Rysse had long ago decided she would be responsible only for herself. That and Fia was quite capable of taking care of herself even in the most truculent quarters of the Hive. If anyone had the nerve to threaten a drunk fire genasi mage, they could expect to see the blazing head of a meteor heading in their direction.

Fia simply shrugged. “You should try something different.”

“Like what? Cultivate orchids?” Rysse drew out the irony with a roll of her tongue. Fia was the single most brilliant engineering mind Rysse had ever met. She was also infuriatingly immune to the tiefling's pointed quips.

“Ever thought of coming to the Great Gymnasium? We could play a game of khalq in the Palaestra.”

“Even if my lungs could bear the exertion,” Rysse snorted, “there are many pursuits aside from athletics with which I can inflict pain on myself. And most of those are more enjoyable.”

“With a healthy body comes a healthy mind - or so the Transcendent Order would have it.”

“Fia, my dear, you're talking to a tiefling. If it's healthy for most, chances are it's unhealthy for me.”

Jarring metal gears grinding under the docking pontoon cut off any riposte from Fia. The skiff rocked, swinging like a pendulum on its moorings. Excited sounds of metal against metal echoed from the top deck.

Rysse scrambled to the ladder leading to the entry hatch. “If any of you clumsy sods jogs the pontoon again...where in the Abyss is that useless overseer?”

A sound like metallic whirring drew nearer, followed by a sharp mechanical voice, “Apologies. The dwarven argosy on the second tier of the hangar was ready to return to the terminus.

Rysse scaled the first three steps of the ladder and peered into the upper deck. Shards of metal from the purged turbine lay scattered in the engine room. The six-legged mechanical amanuensis approximated a nod of greeting with its prehensile sensory cube.

Always late, Ryssse thought, Hells know why I should have to work under these conditions. “I asked for two of you yesterday. Where were you?”

The amanuensis extended its three spindly manipulatory organs in a vague gesture of exculpation. “Your request was considered and subsequently declined. Budgetary constraints and administrative difficulties rendered said request impracticable.

“Duty to give reasons?” Rysse sighed. The hangar's bureaucracy was driving her ever closer to a sanatorium in Pandemonium. By the time repairs were over, she felt she would need an alienist, not a mechanical adjutant.

We are instructed to follow proper protocol. This tier's overseer wishes to convene a performance-evaluation session.

“Something I did?” Rysse curled her tail in irritation.

Request was for: the tall boy, not the tiefling.

Rysse dropped back down into the navigation room. “That's your chore, Fia. Go tell that slave-driver that we'll have this skiff out when it's ready and not before. Qaida's paying him for the hangar space. If he doesn't like the pace of our progress, we can take our services somewhere else.”

Fia complied with the stoic resignation that made her such an ideal workmate. Rysse took the opportunity to sift through the pile of astrographs. Where each planar portal was located was often a trade secret, jealously guarded by shipping guilds. Obtaining a copy of the chart itself was not, however, a problem. Rysse went through the familiar motions of sketching an accurate facsimile of each unfamiliar astrograph she found with a charcoal stylus on a thin cellulose scroll. The scroll she could hide in one of the utility pockets in her jerkin.

That was the easy part. The devil, as it were, was in the decipherment. Astrographic coordinates were always produced with a coded legend. Distance and direction across the planes of existence were relative. Identifying which assumptions and constants were used for each astrograph thus became a virtually impossible task. Rysse remembered spending interminable nights poring over hastily scrawled copies, trying in vain to connect the numbers and ciphers that all merged into the same pool of odious gibberish.

Rysse considered herself an excellent navigator, but abstract cartography was not her strong suit. Fia, though – Fia was different. This should be a game for her – like those puzzles in the Gazetteer. With things like these, Rysse thought, her fevered mind working with grim determination, she functions a few layers on top of the rest of us. Asked her the ideal volume for three conical refractors in the etheroscope and she rattled them out off the top of her head. No mechanical amanuensis needed. Now convincing her she should help me out with this – that's where the hard part begins.

To be safe, Rysse satisfied herself with a three good reproductions. She rolled up the scroll and slipped it inside the scroll case containing her navigation notes. With a minor illusory effect that deformed the viewer's perception of the contents of the case, there would be little to worry about.

Her work completed, Rysse ascended the ladder and passed through the engine room and the pilot's station. In the air, the coppery smell of hot metal hung heavy. Rysse made a mental note to gut the piloting controls. The ship-wheel and the thrust control mechanisms were probably rusted through and coated with salt crystals. That, Rysse decided, would have to wait for when the next shift began.

Fia had left the main access airlock open. Rysse leapt out onto the pontoon. Huge, floating bioluminescent fungi floated near the ceiling of the hangar, like living lamps. Rysse squinted in the harsh light. She much preferred the suffused red haze of the skiff's interior. It was gentler to her fiendish sensibilities.

Taking a few steps back toward the far end of the pontoon, Rysse considered the hull of the skiff. In truth, when it was first launched, the airship would have been an impressive sight. With fluid, Elven-influenced lines and gossamer-thin sails to catch the light of the Astral winds, it was built for speed. The two floating, mithril flux rings encircling the bow and stern still needed a little work. Fia had suggested installing an ultra-dense lodestone lattice from the City of Brass on each ring. With a little skill, that modification would increase the efficiency of phlogiston manipulation.

A sudden flash of movement on the silvered hull of the skiff interrupted Rysse's untidy stream of thought. A pale figure, tall and impossibly slender, slid with ineffable grace on the side of the hull and landed on the pontoon.

Rysse's heart sank. With airy, lightly-accented tones came a dreaded greeting, “Well met, Bryseis – finished already?”

“It's Rysse, Zèfir – or do air genasi consider adult conversation an affectation?”

Zèfir laughed with the playful contempt Rysse had grown to loathe. With effortless dexterity, the air genasi scaled the smooth side of the skiff's hull and sat perched above the pontoon, hugging her knees. She had the kind of sharp, androgynous face with razor cheekbones and expressive, turquoise eyes, that Rysse – if absolute neutrality were forced upon her – would have called attractive.

Rysse stood impatiently, tail tense and half-curled. “Any reason for me to merit the privilege of your presence? There's work I should be doing.” It was galling to watch Zèfir float carefree over the object of Rysse's labours. Worse still was the fact that Zèfir's loose, breezy sleeveless shirt and culottes seemed unnaturally clean and comfortable.

Again, Zèfir's response was amused laughter, tinkling like wind-chimes. Rysse's blood boiled like the pit of the last layer of the Abyss. “There's plenty of sharp metal shards still loose on the hull. You should be careful not to cut yourself,” Rysse murmured darkly.

Like most air genasi, Zèfir preferred to walk barefoot. The infernal part of Rysse's mind called for her to conjure up a little whirlwind of shards. Just enough to hobble Zèfir for a few days. It took every fibre of self-control in Rysse's being to suppress that urge.

Fia returned just in time for the tiefling machinist to swallow her bile. “You shouldn't torment Rysse like that,” she chided.

Zèfir, raised her head to gaze distractedly at the floating lights, “Such a thought - that I could torment a tiefling! Surely it is a tiefling's life work to torment others. Where a tiefling treads, the Carnival of the Flesh soon follows, no?”

Rysse pounced. “Where indiscreet sylphs meet silver-tongued human rogues, your spindly kind soon follows.”

Zèfir's expression soured.

Fia was quick to mend fences. “Come now, enough of this. I won't have you two ruining my free time. You booked a khalq court, didn't you Zèfir?”

“I'm not that unreliable,” came the absent-minded reply.

Fia wrung her smoke-stained hands on her overalls. “Should we make our way down to the Gymnasium? Hopefully I should have time to wash there.”

Zèfir nodded. “Agreed. Will Rysse not be joining us?” She intoned it as a rhetorical question.

Rysse reflexively gripped the sonic scalpel sheathed at her belt, “Actually, if it's fine with you Zèfir, I think I might just take Fia up on her kind invitation and tag along.”

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