When I first arrived in the desert city, raw and untried, eyes wide with wonder, heart filled with longing, and head filled with air just like the myriad dirigibles that crowded the skies, I could never have imagined where my path would lead me.
It was the first time I ever rode on an airship, a mid-sized passenger ship named Horizon. (All the ships going to and from the city had adventurous names like that). Ten years later, I still feel the tickle of butterflies in my stomach at the memory of that first walk up into the cabin. I had a middle room, of course. No windows. They were cheaper. So if I wanted a view, I had to go into the viewing areas. There was no curfew. I dozed off on the benches a few times. The crew was kind. They would put a blanket on me.
The city allowed its visitors and residents to travel by cars, motorbikes, bicycles, wagons, buses, trains, and almost anything that rolled (or walked) on the ground. But there was only one kind of air transport allowed within seventy thousand square miles of the city, dirigibles. Until thirty years ago, the world had left airships in the quaint and distant past. Like steam-powered vessels, like the shuttles that once took us to the moon, airships had become obsolete, replaced by cheaper, faster, sturdier, better vessels, like jet airplanes and helicopters. But when the airship-only mandate became international law, dirigible construction became a booming business in the nearby regions, and within the city limits itself.
The Horizon is still in operation. I’ve seen it a few times and smiled at it, smiled at the one who brought me to my destiny.
Citizens from any country could visit the city, but working and living there required a lengthy application process. Surrounded by miles of desert, which was dotted with lush and charming oases, the city was famed for the dazzling and humbling sights both within and around the borders of the metropolis proper. And it was infamous for its oft-controversial laws and policies, such as the one that required its residents to fluently speak in at least three languages and write in at least two. (Some argued that rule favored the idle rich. But there was also a law that required a tithing of one’s earnings, according to percentage, but only for those who had no debts. Some argued that law evened the odds a bit.)
I first learned about the city in my schoolgirl days. It was founded by a man of great means who was an adventurer and had found some legend where the city now stood. Some say he dug. Some that he studied the skies. His temporary camp became a permanent camp, which became a town, and decades later grew and grew, by leaps and bounds. Roads were built, and small satellite towns. The airways welcomed all air travel in those days. That all changed when the founder’s son grew up and following in his father’s footsteps, established a rule that would change the prosperity and reputation of the city and its satellite towns. He forbade the flying of any vehicles for a year while he built a worthy airship. When it was ready, he took it out for a maiden voyage. Some say he made some discovery that impressed on him the need to extend the airship-only mandate. Others say he merely wanted to keep the city free of pollution.
The city was prosperous but not self-sustaining. It needed to import vital supplies like medicine, diapers, fresh food, and tourists. The heir to the founder commissioned the building of high-speed commercial rail lines that could rival the speed of cargo planes for urgent deliveries. Dirigibles brought in all other needed supplies. The city grew and it grew upward. Soon there were several companies large and small within the city that operated dirigibles. The city had its own fleet of municipal airships. Some airships were simple at first, but some, specifically the tourist ships became more and more extravagant. They sported swimming pools, spas, five-star restaurants, and other amenities. They also required not just a crew of operators, but a staff of hosts, guides, servers, and the like. That’s where I came in.
I was rambunctious as a child, but somewhere along the way, the feisty little girl calmed down and grew into a modest young woman. After I finished my schooling, I had considered moving across the country for a job. But never would I have considered moving across the globe, especially to such an exotic and mysterious city.
I was young, indebted, but well-educated thanks to the toil and sacrifice of my incomparable father and extraordinary mother. The city was an open opportunity for someone like me. But though it is embarrassing to admit it now, what first pulled me to the city, what made me take the terrifying step of leaving my dear family and faithful friends, was a man.
I had worked with him in our company’s logistics department. He was the only thing that made it worth getting up in the morning and coming in to the important but rather routine job. I delighted in running into him at the duplicator. I was aware of his presence in the corner of my eye if he walked past. In time, I got to know him and befriend him. One night, I confessed my feelings to him. He kindly rejected me. I wasn’t as devastated as I thought I would be, partly because, without meaning to, he gave me a sliver of hope. He told me that he could not start a new relationship because he was moving. He had been drawn to the desert city with all the stories of adventure. Perhaps to spare my feelings, he also said that if things were different, he would have responded differently. From that slight pedal backwards from his first and firm position, I derived all the hope that would lead me to the city, and to him.
Even then, I realized how troubling the decisions of my infatuated mind were to those who truly loved me. But I made my assurances to them, and I made my plans.
I immediately began looking into the requirements for application to be a full-time resident. I began doing practical and responsible research in how much money I would need to make to pay off debts and amass enough savings for safety, what skills I could develop or certifications I could earn in a short period of time, to make myself an eligible and attractive candidate. Somewhere deep down, I knew I was being a fool, and I felt a bit guilty about trying to claim a spot from some other person who had dreamed all their lives of settling in the city. But it was no easy task to apply, to be worthy of the city. If I succeeded, it would mean I was worthy of him too. It would mean that my feelings were true.
Over the next two years, I changed my job and met someone else, but all along, I continued dreaming of the one who’d gotten away. I continued dreaming of the city, which began to have an appeal of its own, beyond housing the love of my life. I was most fascinated by the prospect of working on one of the many different kinds of dirigibles. The luxury vessels. The explorers. The city maintenance airships. The surveillance and security blimps. I had only ever air-traveled by jet plane.
So when I was finally admitted to the city, five years after I first applied, I had a real plan and a real passion for my path. I had kept up a correspondence with the man I adored over those years. So I wrote to him to let him know that I would be coming to his city soon. I left out the part about settling there, in case that would make him uneasy. I thought I’d leave that news for when I arrived. In the first year after he left, his absence had only made my fondness feel keener, my passion burn brighter. I beamed when I wrote him letters. I wept at the thought he might have found someone. Sometimes though I hoped he had, so I could let him go. Other times, I hoped he would not, that he would tell me that he tried but found he could only think of me. But after so many years, my feelings had cooled and hardened into what I thought was the unbreakable steel of friendship.
He hadn’t written me back by the time I arrived and began working in a city maintenance dirigible. I settled in easily and comfortably. I came to love my building, my neighborhood, and my work. I was also studying, a course for learning the basic operation and engineering of an airship. It was the start of the path toward becoming a captain someday. I learned a few strange things that didn’t seem to make sense. The airships didn’t use helium. Everyone knew that. But none were certain what comprised the patented gas mixture, whose formula was known only to the heirs of the city’s founder. All the airships seemed capable of rising rather quickly, and moving with agility that I did not think such large and bulky vessels—even the smallest of them—could manage.
There was one class of luxury airships, the Stratus Class, capable of rising higher than the highest flying jet, above the stratosphere. They were the ships that took their passengers to the rarest and most extraordinary sight that the city had to offer. A sight that some residents never saw, even if they lived there for decades, and some visitors saw within their first few days.
When a particular configuration of environmental factors coincided, the perpetually clear sky above the city condensed with clouds, clouds that covered the city proper and the desert surrounding it, clouds that stretched high above and beyond where they should naturally form. Stratus-class dirigibles could rise up into and past those high clouds.
Some have tried to rise in other types of airships. They have failed. There seemed to be some force in the unique clouds, some cardinal force beyond the ones known to our science, beyond the strong and weak nuclear force, beyond electromagnetism, beyond gravity, a force that served almost as a shield against all but the Stratus-class dirigibles.
I wanted to see this rarest of sights that lay beyond a shield of cosmic cloud. If it was as impressive as its reputation among those who had seen it, then I might decide to become a Stratus captain, instead of aiming to own my own humble little passenger or delivery dirigible.
I had spoken to some of the Stratus captains, and they said they wanted nothing but to fly that tour until they retired. But they would never, not a one of them, tell me what the sight was. They said they did not want to ruin the discovery for those who had not seen it for themselves. There were rumors, but nothing that sounded impressive enough for such faithful secrecy. There was no formal law or rule forbidding it, yet no one who saw it spoke of it. As proof, passengers are given a souvenir that cannot be replicated, a souvenir that speaks for itself and gives its owner prestige that is beyond words.
Those inclined to paranoia have suspected conspiracies, secret societies or memory erasure. I grant that there must be dark corners in my city, shadows into which I cannot see, locked doors, or labyrinthine paths. I don’t think I mind such things, so long as all have an equal chance to being admitted or being forbidden. So long as there are many paths that lead to the secrets, not just one path. So long as hard work and cleverness and perseverance can open a locked door as effectively as a wad of money, I don’t mind such things.
A fortnight ago, my faith in the city paid off. I earned a trip, not as a passenger, but as a crew member aboard a Stratus-class airship named Absolute Zero. (All the Stratus-class ships had cheekily ambitious names like that.)
I had to pass a series of rigorous tests. I had to train in three levels of medical assistance (and might now qualify as a field medic). I had to learn two more languages, to ensure I could tend to the needs of the international clientele. And even though I would not be piloting the airship, I had been required to pass all my piloting and command exams to earn a provisional pilot’s license, and proof of admittance to a command crew program at one of the city’s nine universities. My fellow new crew members had likewise had to pass tests in their areas of specialty. The Zero, one of the largest airships of its class, could accommodate up to three hundred passengers, though the captain never allowed that many. I had to be fit enough to run the length and depth of the dirigible many times over during a shift if needed. All seven decks. The most intriguing and whimsical of the tests was the essay I had to write about what I thought the rare sight was that lay beyond the clouds.
I had written that I imagined it was some kind of weather anomaly that one might only be able to see at the great height, and only see well if riding in a slow-moving dirigible. I described gorgeous patterns of lightning as it traveled within clouds. Or something akin to the aurora borealis. Something unique to that locale. I expected that the wondrous feeling that visitors were left with might be related to the same force in the clouds that kept all but the Stratus-class dirigibles from rising. Maybe it affected people in the cores of their atoms.
On the day of our trip, I felt those butterflies stirring in my stomach again as I boarded the Absolute Zero. A stray thought crossed my mind. A thought about a young man I’d adored long ago. I didn’t know where he was. I would likely never see him again, but I would always be grateful to him. He was not the love of my life. He was not my destiny, but he led me to it. He led me to the city.
And the city led me to Zero. And Zero was soon carrying me higher and higher. Above the needle-like spire of the tallest building in the city. Above all the other airships. We rose toward the soft thick clouds, glowing golden under the setting sun. We surged up into those clouds. The passengers were free to gaze out of the windows for the whole trip if they wished. The crew were given the courtesy of being notified through general announcements of changes in the scenery so they could catch glimpses. But we also had to see to our duties and be present at our stations when required and needed.
I did indeed see lightning in unusual shapes: glowing white spheres emitting lurching tendrils of blue and purple light, snowflake-like lattices, branches that split then rejoined. I saw kaleidoscopic clouds reminiscent of nebulas in deep space, swaying and swirling in glittering shades of petal-pink and iridescent turquoise. The clouds thinned but never completely dissipated.
The cabin grew colder, then warmer and warmer as we rose higher and higher. I began to fret about radiation, even though I had studied the construction of the Stratus-class airships and knew we were all as well-protected as we would be in a modern space flier. I knew it wasn’t really the radiation that was making me nervous. It was anticipation again.
Then the captain announced it. We were there. We had stopped moving upwards and were moving forwards again. Our approach allowed viewing from both the port and starboard sides, a view that would only improve as we moved closer. I happened to be near the port bow on a lower deck, close enough to a viewing deck that I would see it from a viewing window and not from a porthole.
I was stunned at how much room there was in the viewing area. The airship had several on each deck, but I still expected a crowd packed rows deep against the window, instead of the few dozen scattered about. I walked up to the viewing window, eyes wide with wonder, heart full of anticipation as a shape emerged from the stray strips of night-tinged clouds ahead.
It was an island, a floating island.
The sun shone down on it as it would on any typical island floating in the waters of the planet below. But this island was floating in the air. The root of the island was a mass of earth that appeared like an upside-down mountain. As we drew closer, I realized that the island was perhaps half the size of the airship-only zone below. From afar, I spotted forests, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, all in familiar shapes and colors. There were no strange square mountains, or horizontal trees, or waterfalls falling upward.
As we drew closer still, I discerned the ruins of buildings. Great arches carved with friezes, columns adorned with relief sculptures. Cities abandoned and yet still beautiful, the houses painted in vibrant colors that were chipped away, crumbling castles hung with tattered pennants. I could trace the faint paths of roads just underneath the weeds that had overgrown them. A light mist and soon a sprinkling rain blurred the sight as the dirigible began to descend toward the floating island.
My breath caught in my throat as I wondered if we were going to land. I was suddenly aware of the murmuring conversation of the other people in the viewing area. I glanced around and saw the same respectful awe on the faces of the passengers and my fellow crew members as I felt myself. I sensed the questions that would come later brewing and bubbling at the back of my mind. I let them recede as the airship passed through the rain just as the captain announced that he would only fly over half the island’s length before turning around.
I heard the soft sighs of those around me. I must not have been the only one who had hopefully wondered if we were going to land. That was the only thing that everyone did know about the trip to see the rarest sight. The dirigible never landed. It was forbidden. That’s why they flew in pairs (our sister ship was behind us). So one could rescue the other if needed. All ships were checked thoroughly before each flight for any damage or anomalies, whether from natural wear-and-tear or sabotage.
“Everyone deserves to see it. No one deserves to ruin it.”
I turned my head to my right to, to the sound of the voice. A passenger stood there with a forgotten cocktail in his hand, gazing out of the window. He glanced at me and smiled, raising his glass.
“To wonder,” he said. Then he peered at me. “I’m guessing this is your first time, but it’s difficult to tell. Each time here is like the first.”
He shook his head, but smiled, his eyes full of delight. I remembered the rumors about memory erasure. I wondered if there was some truth to the rumors. I wondered if anyone had studied the effects of traveling through matters and energies that people had never traveled through before.
“Will I remember this?” I asked, mostly to myself. But the gentleman answered.
“I cannot say. Most, like me, remember some of it, but not all. A few remember nothing. Some remember everything.”
We said little after that. I was supposed to return to my duties, but I judged I could get away with sitting just a bit longer. Other than a few flocks of birds, I saw no living creatures, certainly no people. I had grabbed a courtesy notepad and pen and begun jotting down notes and observations. I wouldn’t share them. I would keep to the unspoken oath among those who had seen this sight. But I would keep them for myself, just in case I somehow forgot.
I rose just as the airship began to bank for its return journey. No one had come to admonish or chastise me. Maybe that too was an unspoken rule too, to allow first-time crew members time to marvel. If so, I appreciated the kindness.
There was no one standing at any of the portholes I passed on my way to my post. Everyone had by that time made their way to a viewing station. The richest passengers had such viewing windows in the comfort of their private rooms.
Suddenly, at the corner of my eye, I caught something whip by one of portholes. I immediately glued my face to it. Just outside the porthole, there floated a single black feather. Strangely, the air currents around the dirigible did not seem to disturb it. It shown glossy in the sunlight. It was huge, the length of my whole arm. I wondered what kind of bird could have such a feather. The feather moved out of view, but I saw another shape dart past the porthole. I willed myself not to blink. We plunged through more cloud, and droplets of mist formed on the porthole. Something far off the port side, was moving, galloping through the air on four legs, and flapping tremendous wings. It veered forward and up, and out of sight.
I raced to the next viewing station and asked the people there if they had seen anything. They made no indication that they had just seen in full glory through the viewing window what I had just seen from the cramped porthole. I suddenly felt hesitant to reveal what I thought I had seen. I simply said that something had flown by the porthole.
I took deep and calming breaths, but it did not work. Overwhelmed with strong emotions gripping me all at once, I continued on to my post as tears streamed down my cheeks. I could not think. I couldn’t think. I had to remember. I had to return. My path appeared before me. I had to be a captain. I had to fly.
I kept walking, my damp eyes filled with wonder, my heart filled with a quivering hope, and my head filled with destiny.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Dirigibles in the Desert City” by Sanjay Patel.