It's for Ioan's piece 'Journey to the End of the World' (I'll post a link when it goes live). My first pass after seeing the pic was to just do a whole lot of description, like a panning camera angle across the scene. Then I got to thinking that that's what Ioan was for, and so I erased all that and decided to make small story set in the world Ioan had painted. When I looked at the pic, I remember thinking how they would keep the airship in working order, then my mind drifted to the powder monkeys that used to man British warships, and the rest flowed from there. The downside is that you're going to need to see Ioan's picture first if you want to get the whole scenario, but then it's a great image.
Edit: here's the picture (link to Ioan's portfolio here, make sure to leave a comment):
The story is in first-person present tense, never tried it before, so hopefully it does Ioan's work justice.
Journey to the End of the World
Gelo R. Fleisher
There’s nothing below me for a thousand spans except sheer, rocky cliff faces and the occasional whisp of cloud. Above me, through a hazy morning mist, the mountainside has turned itself inside out, looping in a giant arch next to which the captain has moored the ship. Worn corbels and arches of some long abandoned ruins lay pocked about the twisting incline as the crewmen scurry about them like ants picking over the bones some a long dead giant.
The view is breathtaking, but I don’t feel particularly moved. I’m cold, miserable, and the man next to me stinks. First Mate Darrow blows his nose into his palm, flinging the phlegm off the side of the ship into the abyss below and wiping the rest of it on his shirt. He flashes a sneer at me, a mouthful of rotted yellow teeth on display. “You ready ta’ move?”
I nodded, pulling my overcoat tight against my ribs. We were standing on the uppermost catwalk of the airship, the bulbous curvature of the air balloon looming in front of us. I checked the tightness of the length of hemp tied around my waist and reached forward, grabbing onto a fistful of the loose, flowing canvas.
The higher up its surface we move, the sharper and colder the air gets. The winds sheering off the cliffs are getting pressed together and come blasting down the inverted gullies in chilly gusts. By the time we are crawling like worms along the very top of the balloon, the winds are strong enough to knock grown men flat on their asses and slipping right off the side. The rigger boys splayed out before me are even more at the winds' mercy.
The boys (the oldest one hadn’t seen more than fourteen summers) had been press-ganged in Marjoun, fated for the slave markets at NeuCharsi. I can see them squint their almond eyes against the blowing wind, their swarthy skin touched by a light blue from the cold and their gangly limbs shaking as they hold tight to the rippling canvas. They're lined up in one long row across the top of the balloon each with a loop of rope tied to their waists, linked together one after the other in a long chain, ten in all.
Squinting my eyes against the wind, I look to my left, at the white ruins resting along side. Ratlines have been slung between the upraised columns, the ship rocking gently against its restraints. I see the gangmen heave a fat, leather hose up the ratline and onto the top of the balloon. A noxious yellow gas is leaking out of its front, the smell of it carried to my nostrils by the hissing gales. It stinks of sweet onions and old eggs. It was this gas that allowed the ship to float as it did, and only in these high mountains could you find it bubbling out from cracks in the earth.
The gangmen finish heaving the heavy hose up the side of the balloon, right up to the feet of the first of the rigger boys. Darrow turns to me, shouting as his unkempt hair whips across his face. “Alright fancy britches, the men done their piece, now it’s thems turn.” He points to the rigger boys, gesturing to them with his hands. “Grab the hose! Pull!”
The boys press themselves flat against the canvas, grabbing onto the rough fabric with trembling hands as the winds flow over them, oblivious to what Darrow is yelling. The ones closest to the hose are trying to move away, coughing as the errant fumes belch out. I cup my hands and shout. “Kinari! Utsalla beni hatous!”
The rigger boys closest to he hose start crying, their tearful wails nearly drowned out as the force of the winds pick up.
Darrow is besides me, slapping his hands on his knees and swearing at the boys. “Dammit! You tell ‘em they’re goin’ over the side unless they start movin’!”
I look at this bastard besides me, hatred seething in my chest. “Kinari! Ustalla, kinari ath beni hasith!” I get up on my knees, gesture at the boys with one of my arms, making pulling motions towards my chest. Pull! Pull up the hose and you will be saved! My hands are growing rigid in the ceaseless breeze.
Finally one of the boys grabs at the hose with one hand, lurching the fat pipe slightly across the surface. The others, see him, and feebly pull at the hose, moving it slowly between their ranks, towards me and Darrow.
“Ma’halla, kinari, ma’halla!” I continue my gestures, praying that they listen. They were moving now, the hose crawling like an obese slug lurching across the balloon. “Good! You keep tellin’ ‘em to push harder!” Darrow leaves my side, crawling in front of me, towards the boys and the encroaching hose. “Kinari! Fisté! Fisté!” I see Darrow grab the front of the hose from the boys, jamming it into an opening in the balloon. The skin tube jerks about as a valve is opened below and the noxious gas began to surge through it, belching its contents into the guts of the balloon.
* * *
It’s been half an hour since the boys were pulled off the top of the balloon. I sit next to them on the lower catwalk, one of younger ones pressed up against me, shivering under a ratty blanket. His skinny knees are knocking together, his teeth chattering. Not knowing what else to do I pat him on the head. The sun is piercing through the yellow fog now, lighting up the mountains and spires laid out ahead as far as the eyes can see. I point and tell the kids.
You have done well and are brave. The hard work is done. Now you must enjoy the view.