The conservators responsible for habitat creation carefully studied the dominant fauna before finalizing individual pod details. Stock transplanted to Pod Two had lived and worked in multi-storey buildings of metal, masonry, wood and poured stone. So the conservators built replica warrens into the pod walls, many stories tall, made of near-indestructible Shipstock. Four hundred-odd generations of indigenes had lived there.
Over those generations, the warrens lowest levels were repeatedly buried by shifting sands, trash and compost, then exposed by storms or excavation. These particular creatures demonstrated a tireless passion for excavation and rediscovery. At the beginning, they swarmed all accessible areas, as if expecting to achieve escape. But after the usual die-off and stabilization, most ignored the upper levels available to them.
It was on the tallest structure in the area, long cleared of vegetation, that the indigenes erected the mooring mast. This day, on the mast’s highest platform, Rinna and Sten lounged, casually entwined, shaded by the airship’s stern. Paper wrappers and an empty tea flask evidenced a hasty lunch. They had spent the morning marking leaks in the great gas cels, and would continue to do so after their rest.
Descendants of those whom the Divines first revealed themselves, Sten and Rinna were bore the airship birthmark - a mixed blessing. They were the elect, privileged to take part in the flying machine project. But being elect meant they were bound to live and work as directed by the Divines among them. For all the glory of learning to fly, their pathways were marked by difficult learning, complex constructions, and often dangerous tasks.
Their current task, locating and marking leaks, was neither complicated nor dangerous, just exhausting. Dangling in rope harnesses, they worked from top to bottom on each gas cel, spraying water over small areas to reveal telltale air bubbles. Once Sten daubed blue dye on the leak, they adjusted their harnesses, dropped a few lengths, then sprayed and marked as necessary. Another team would take over their gear at the end of the day, working through the night to seal the marked areas.
How they came to be there, or why their tribe was building an airship, was of no concern to them. Several generations of tribal close-minded focus, coupled with a measure of privilege left them too conditioned to question, and too comfortable to contemplate rebellion. They were far more likely to contemplate their future together.
The pair were well suited to the work, given their slight builds, sharp eyes and how well they worked together. The consensus of village elders, families and they themselves was they would pair up when they reached maturity – something the boy was trying to expedite at the moment. “It’s not just me saying it’s a good idea. The Divine Be RaaEll himself specifically said what we do in the sky is holy...”
Her more than firm tone reflected Rinna’s hard practicality and an awareness of his actual agenda. “Sten, the only reason I can think you would be trying to twist the Divine’s words like that is ... Stop!” He paused. “He said, what we do in the sky must be holy. If anything, that means no profane acts when aboard the airship. Not just sex, but cursing and any other excessive act or unseemly thought. Stop! Now!” The slap echoed. “I said before that we are not doing it until I reach 55 hundred of rotations. If you must do something, here, hold my hand. Otherwise leave off.”
Sten tried to regroup, but had clearly lost momentum. “I was just saying I think it would be...” In the face of her resolve, his words trailed off. Then he saw the angel gliding across the gangway.
Deep in thought, the Divine was barely cognizant of the two humans before him. He bothered little with individuals, given their fleeting existence: you would deal with one during watch, and by the time a rest period went by, you were speaking to a grandchild or some other descendant of the original. The gulf in longevity rendered immediate communication nearly impossible. Even carefully written directives suffered from wildly drifting interpretations over the generations. For the purpose of record keeping, Altarai Standard Units were used for temporal, mass and distance measurements. Some diligent fool from the Da clan created a table to reconcile the indigene timescale with ASU. Ridiculous.
On his appearance, the youth had knelt, then bowed to the approaching Divine. He paid no attention to them. The skeletal, winged figure was anything but divine. The iry Be RaaEll was simply one more conservator tasked with minding the wildlife until the nearby planet was properly harvested. Once the useful materials were extracted, the top eighth of the planet would be reshaped, then restocked with native flora and fauna. It would be more or less the same world as that of the ancient indigenes, just a bit smaller. Restored planets were never exact matches of pre-harvest physical and social environments, but were close enough that the overseeing authority always approved the results.
That overview was far from his thoughts. He was still puzzling over the process that saw him, at that very moment and place, strolling among the livestock.
Two hundred Altarai were assigned to this conservancy station. If they acquitted their duties properly, each would bear iry - that is Watcher - as a life-long honorific. Fine honor for their clans too. Honor or not, Be RaaEll regarded this posting as punishment for mistakes made in his two previous assignments. Fair enough, but it galled that every other Altaria was aboard for the same reason – put out of the way where they couldn’t bungle something important. In short, RaaEll thought, it was a ship of losers.
Unfortunately, that assessment proved all too accurate. Barely a quarter way into their assignment, individual and collective deficiencies began asserting themselves in all four pods. According to the Da enthusiast, that equated to indigene generation 168. Now, more than two hundred generations later, dysfunction was seeping into Pod Two and its staff.
All the Pod Two conservators felt the terrible weight of watching generation after generation of indigenes sit around scratching, rutting or sometimes both at the same time. No one thought to do anything about the ennui until a member of the Wh clan cycled herself through an airlock into raw space. The staff gathered in the observation loft to discuss the crisis. It was then that RaaEll heard in detail what was going on in the other pods.
What they learned was that the Pod Three iren counselled and armed their charges to war on each other, then wagered on the outcomes; Pod Four’s overseers acted even more infamously. That mob descended from the observation loft to act as lords of creatures, terraformed estates, worshipful cults and all. A generations-long effort resulted in their concubines bearing iry-indigene hybrids.
Mating with primitive alien stock was distasteful, although not unheard of in cases of extreme and extended isolation from civilization – but only by a few deficient individuals. This wholesale debasement of living and lording among them offended even RaaEll’s relaxed sense of parental and clan honor.
As bad, or possible worse, was the behaviour of the Pod One staff. They simply flew away from their charges to live in other pods.
He was shocked and disgusted, swearing that boredom would never drive him to such behaviour. But what to do to avoid the fate of the Wh iry?
In the face of very limited choices, Pe NiMei, a distant cousin, proposed they do something positive with their charges. A handful of indigene generations came and went before a plan was set. The Watchers divided themselves into three teams, each working with a discrete pod region to achieve flight, by different means.
The first team guided their charges in developing the mental abilities to levitate. Pe NiMei was chosen to lead a second team that pushed the indigenes towards biological engineering – that is physical grafting and gene modification (But no hybrids. The perverts of Pod Four rendered that completely unacceptable). The third team saw Be RaaEll chosen to promote mechanical flight in what became the Airship Tribe.
RaaEll thanked good fortune that his lot was leading the mechanical stream. They were doing no more than guiding their indigenes in building flying machines. As challenging as the other two groups, but with less ominous overtones. Early on, the iren considered the direction to nudge their charges in. A recollection of the Medusan air bladder creatures pushed them in the direction of gas-buoyancy flying machines. In other words, balloons. It seemed to be both feasible and safe. After all, how much harm could these creatures do anyone with a few pokey motorized balloons?
And so the teams set about their tasks. While the arrangement could be interpreted as a contest of sorts, the overriding determination was to avoid a terminal desperation. Nothing in their training or clan lore prepared them to deal with a metal health crisis. This solution was not ideal, and there were a few worries about impropriety. But no one approached the airlock.
Each group pursued its goals, kept its members occupied and complained about the difficulties of working with the indigenes. And of course, Be RaaEll cast gloomy thoughts about how this would all unravel.
Despite his dark thoughts, things moved forward for the Airship Tribe. Now, sometime this watch (within a hundred indigene rotations), the balloon would actually cast off from its mast to go exploring up and down the thousand leagues of the habitat axis. There was the possibility of allowing further exploration via a Portal to Pod One. But first things first. They needed to get this machine launched.
Considering worst case scenarios, Be RaaEll was somewhat concerned the indigenes might ascend as high as the observation loft itself. At that point, the lack of oxygen would kill the aeronauts before they saw things they should not. However, an exploding ship, living crew or not, could damage the loft itself. And then Be RaaEll would be in trouble again. The iry was mulling that unpleasant prospect when a new possibility replaced the worst case scenario. He sensed the painfully bright glare of an active Portal. It warmed his wing tips. The roar of thousands of beating wings drowned all other sound.
From their perch beside the airship, Rinna and Sten watched hosts of unfamiliar angels descend on the factory yard below. They saw an uncountable number of new Divines land and surround the dozen angels they knew. A mob surrounded each one, with shrieking exchanges in Divine that sounded anything but friendly. In moments, Be RaaEll and the others were bound and being roughly guided towards the Portal. In the far distance, they saw smoke and dust rising from two distant sites. Rinna knew them to be cities where other flying projects were rumored to be taking place.