Baleful red light crackled across the sky, outlining a mushroom cap atop tentacles, stretching down into the clouds. Conditions were perfect for the abominably misnamed “sprite” to discharge the shards that powered the airship Jubilee on long-range journeys.
“You saw where it struck?” Tali asked.
Her pilot, Rowan, rolled their eyes. “Yes, Captain.”
Tali nodded. “I’ll prep the divers.”
Below decks, the clouddiving team waited in rubberized suits, anti-static cage-like enclosures at the ready. An air of excitement and nervousness surrounded them–for most, this was their first clouddive. For the handful of veterans on the team, it might have been their second or third. Clouddiving wasn’t a profession for the risk averse.
Tali had never clouddove herself, but she’d commanded plenty of teams. “Two-minute dives, max. Find the shards, get back to the ship. If you hear the return call before two minutes are up, come straight back. Do not delay.”
A dozen heads nodded, and Tali stepped back as the hold crew opened the bay doors. She watched each clouddiver check their tether, then double-check another’s. They operated as a well-oiled machine.
“Captain?” a tremulous voice called. Boutros, the atmosnavigator.
Tali hurried away from the clouddivers, hoping their suits muffled Boutros’s wavering tone, the one he used when things were dire.
“What?” she hissed when she reached his station, a mess of wires, blinking lights, and beeping.
“Conditions suggest we’re going to have more strikes.”
“Here?” Tali asked. The atmospheric conditions that created sprites and their shards were rare. That she’d seen fifteen now, and survived, was a miracle.
Boutros nodded. “That last discharge was maybe a tenth of what the big one’s got built up.”
“Minutes? Maybe?” Boutros shrugged. “I won’t know until right before it hits. We’re sitting ducks, Captain.”
Tali ran the numbers. If the dozen clouddivers each brought back a single shard, the trip wouldn’t be a waste. They could make a dozen long-range trips with twelve shards.
If they backed off now, there might be more shards to collect from a second strike. Or there might not. There was still so much they didn’t know.
On the flipside, if a second strike hit before the clouddivers returned, not everyone would make it back. And depending on the strike’s position, they could lose the whole damn Jubilee.
She didn’t have time to ponder it.
“We don’t get anywhere by hedging our bets, Boutros,” she said. “Tell Rowan we might have to get out fast. But we’ve got to let the divers have their two minutes.”
Boutros opened his mouth to protest, but no sound emerged. Instead, he nodded, though the worry that had been in his voice before now glowed from his eyes.
Tali hurried back to the hold. A dozen lines lay taut across the floor, all dropping off at the yawning portal open to the darkly clouded sky around the airship. She scanned the hold crew’s faces. “Report.”
“Fifty-seven seconds remaining.”
Tali paced, lingering each time she reached the comms panel. Boutros and Rowan had all the information necessary. Tali trusted them to do their jobs.
She couldn’t trust the storm.
Around her, the air crackled. The fine hairs on her forearms rose. Did the hold always feel like this when it was open to the elements?
She hesitated longer near the comms panel.
When the high-pitched chirping whistle that signified thirty seconds sounded, she jumped. The tethers across the floor writhed as the clouddivers began their ascent from within the cloud.
Tali punched the “Talk” button on the comms panel, counting down the seconds under her breath. “Rowan, be ready to move as soon as the hold’s sealed.”
“Already am,” came Rowan’s ascerbic reply.
“Captain?” came Boutros’s voice, his pitch rising.
“Not now, Boutros!”
An anti-static cage clunked against the hold floor, containing at least three shards, and Tali let out a breath of relief. A clouddiver followed the cage, and around her, more boxes, more clouddivers.
One of the hold crew looked out the door and shook their head. “Tether’s still taut. No sign of the diver.”
Tali scanned the other faces. “Who’s still out there?”
“Ruthie,” one said quickly, setting down their cage and tracing the one still-taut tether amongst the loosely coiled pile on the floor. They began pulling.
The other clouddivers joined in, followed by Tali.
Ruthie was a tiny thing, quick and nimble, new to the crew, but she’d excelled at climbing the tethers in practice runs. Why was she not back? And why was it taking a dozen adults to haul her in?
Now both the crew at the doors looked out, their expressions a mix of confusion and worry. It was what everyone in the hold knew. This should not be so difficult.
“She’s snared!” one exclaimed.
Snared. The nice way of saying the giant mushroom with the tentacle arms had snaked an ephemeral arm around the clouddiver or her tether.
The Jubilee tilted, the force of the sprite pulling it off-kilter. Tali dropped to her stomach, wriggling toward the hold doors. Ignoring the cage that tumbled past her, she leaned the upper third of her body out to see below the airship. The wind whipped her hair in all directions, but she focused her gaze, and her pistol aim, on the tenebrous red coiled around Ruthie’s body.
She tipped her pistol lower, trying to find the place where the tentacle emerged from the cloud cover, and fired.
The copper projectile flew true, disrupting the tentacle and freeing Ruthie from its grasp.
“Pull!” Tali shouted, but the clouddivers knew their job.
Ruthie scrambled into the hold, and the hold crew slammed the doors shut, Tali rolling out of the way just in time.
She lay on her back as the airship thrummed, engines moving it away from the storm.
She’d count the remaining shards later. For now, it was enough to have brought back her whole crew alive.