Shel leaned hard into the bow of the ship, the heavy wooden edge cutting across his back, digging into his spine. Brael was at the gangplank in her best jacket, hands on hips, smile on her face as the sweat-shined, squishy-limbed stream of people climbed onto the Rainhawk. They gawked and tripped over one another as they gawked, and Shel scowled at his hands as he tried to dig dirt out of his nailbeds.
Someone kicked at his booted foot, and he looked up at Harp’s broad, grinning face.
“Better shape your shit up,” she said. “Knock a smile on or Cap’n will dump you over for the brikeet to tear apart.”
“No, she won’t,” he said. “Cap’n needs me too bad.” But he straightened his posture a little and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.
“Sure,” said Harp. “Because it takes such a big crew to navigate this glorified ferry.”
Shel scowled and turned a shoulder to Harp’s ornery smile, glaring down at the diamond-clear water below them. Hundreds of feet deep, zigzagging across the planet surface in narrow, curving paths, perched on the tops of dark green mountain ranges; the surface a sheen of indigo and coral and all of the other gradient hues that painted Epson’s perpetual-sunset sky. Hard-edged, glinting cities sat upright on platforms here and there along the waterpaths. They looked made of gold. Then again, everything looked half-gold on Epson.
A flock of birds – silver on their wings – dove as one and glanced off the water ahead of them, scattering droplets like jewels. Harp made a little gasp of awe behind him, and he snorted.
She knocked a fist between his shoulder blades – a little harder than necessary. “You can’t seriously be jaded to all of this.”
Shel turned back to her and leaned against the edge again. “Twelve years working the waterpaths… It’s not like there’s anything new to see anymore. But them…” He jerked his chin at the tourists gathered around Brael at the mast while she gave a safety speech. “Richies who probably paid their weight in off-world minerals just to piss their pants at the fact that the sky is always this color.”
If Harp had a response, Shel didn’t get to hear it. Brael strode over to them with the same hard, sweeping gait that carried her everywhere, shedding her official jacket as she went. “I’d truly love to get this little boat rolling, but it seems my crew is standing around with their asses hanging out. Shel…darling…peaches…get the fuck on the wheel or you don’t get paid. Harp, one of our passengers is already getting altitude sickness — see to that, would you?”
Harp gave a sharp nod and went wading into the sweaty knot of people with a cheerful, “I hear someone’s not feeling well?” But Shel kept close to the outside, skirting around the mass of too-warm bodies to get to the helm on the back platform. Brael herself handled the rigging, loosing the bone-ribbed sails as Shel tugged the mooring line free.
The breeze billowed into the canvas, and the Rainhawk eased forward, gliding deftly down a rippling pool of light. The tourists cooed and spread to the edges, right hands tapping at their temples to activate the memory captures embedded in their eyes. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Seen one eternal sunset, seen ’em all, thought Shel.
He tipped the wheel just a touch to guide them around a turn without even scraping either edge or some of the shallower rock shelves that lurked just below the surface. Still, the wood of the helm vibrated beneath his fingers. Not from an impact, though. From something else…
Brael appeared at his side, her arms behind her back, her eyes steadily forward. “How are you holding up?”
Shel shifted, his fingers tightening on the helm. “I’m fine, boss. Sorry for before.”
She snorted. “If I minded you gettin’ attitude, Shel, you wouldn’t still be on this ship. I just want to make sure it’s not anything else.”
“It’s not. I just…” He shrugged. “Just a little worn out by all the…” He waved a vague hand that encompassed the tourists, the ship, the glistening water and the multicolored sky.
Brael shot him a quick look. She didn’t even turn her head, but he could feel it, sharp on his skin. “When’s the last time you were off-planet?”
“I don’t need a vacation, Cap’n.”
“Don’t you?” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re an excellent helmsman, Shel. But you do me no good if you go half-mad with some constancy disorder, ya mind?”
Shel exhaled, tried to let all his irritation out with the breath. He needed the wages too bad to be put on forced leave. “Aye, I mind.”
Brael nodded. “Good.”
She strode off, and he was left to stare half-vacant at the familiar waterpath that rolled out before them, adjusting the Rainhawk as needed by memory and instinct. Twice along their route he felt a thrum in the hull – like scraping a rock shelf but not quite – but there was nothing to see. Nothing but the quiet rippling of the water and the steady murmur from the tourists as they captured a rock, a plant, a bird.
They were drawing up to the far dock to let off their charges when they heard it.
A great groan that echoed through the canyons between the waterpaths. Then, sharp cracks and booms, like the sound of the planet’s bones breaking.
Someone on the port side cried out, and everyone rushed over. Shel pressed himself against the edge and strained his neck to see through the misty air below.
Across the valley, the craggy wall of another waterpath burst open, spewing liquid that glinted liquid gold in the always-fading light. And from the hole crawled an enormous shape. Winged and scaled, long neck, long tail, flashing teeth. It let out a roar that shook loose boulders, and then it took flight, arching up into the sky, catching coral rays on the hard edges of its spines and skin.
Shel’s heart beat against his ribcage, pushing the blood through his veins at a manic pace. He found Harp in the crowd and put an arm around her shoulders.
“That,” he told her. “Now that was something new.”