Tik stood on the rail of the mighty ship, reveling in anticipation. This was the best single moment in time for him. He was ready to fly. Dozens of leather straps held on his mechanical wings and jetpack. His goggles were firmly in place. Tik could even feel the tightness of the laces on his tired old boots. Everything was as it should be. So he dove. Arms akimbo, he held his body in a flawless basic dive number one. It wasn’t the flashiest dive, but it was number one for a reason. As gravity started to pull him downward, the jets kicked in, and Tik was off. He soared up, up in to the hazy sky.
Like all the other lightning catchers, Tik had a clear mission. He would fly into the clouds, search out the build of static the preceded a lightning strike, then attempt to get the sky to discharge that power into the cable he trailed behind. This led down to a collector on deck, and generally would capture a reasonable 70% of the lightning’s power. Many citizens of the dying world below relied on this energy.
That reliance is what had originally pushed Tik to look for more efficient ways to gather the power. That and his own need to prove himself. He had always been something of a runt, and had been told often that the exchange of his birth for his mother’s death had been a bad bargain. Most often it had been Tik’s own father who had made such a claim. So Tik had a lot to prove. He had to prove himself to more than just a grieving father, since he had rejected his assigned career. All the written aptitude tests had suggested he should work in the waste disposal corps. But Tik couldn’t abide the smell, and he had always dreamed of flying.
Maybe he mostly had felt a need to prove himself to…. himself.
So he had begged, pleaded, demanded, and begged again until a captain of one of the lightning ships had agreed to give him a practical exam. He had wowed them all. His first flight had been a flawless execution of basic technique. So the captain had overwritten Tik’s orders himself, and taken him on his ship as a catcher. That had been two years ago, and should have been enough. But Tik was driven. He kept thinking that there should be a better way. As the main bolt of energy bled down the line, other lines of energy called outriggers would spark away. So a 30 kilajewel bolt would deliver 21 k’s only. The rest of the power would be lost in the Aether.
Until recently that was how it worked. But Tik had been planning and testing. He had finally worked out a method (with help from a friend in engineering,) that seemed able to capture 99% of the blast. Tik would fly straight up into the gathering storm as usual. Then he would activate a small additional rocket attached to his flying rig. It would shoot straight up, and because it was attached to the line with an auto brake, it would hold the line exactly in place.
Tik would fold in his right arm, which would make his flight suit respond in turn. His right wing would fold to his body. And as he fell in a twisting spiral, the boy would unfurl a second cable. This one was more rigid, and held its form. Spinning down and down, the young man would create a coiled spring shaped housing around the first line. And if his timing was perfect, he would land and slam the second line into the collector just as the bolt surged through the line.
Tik had flown this new technique almost a dozen times. The first couple of times it had been a secretive matter, done at night. Then he had to perform it twice for the captain to prove it worked, and that he wouldn’t blow up the ship. The truth is catchers were the easiest part of the system to replace. The captain really was mostly concerned with his ship.
As word of this new method had circulated among the fleet, Tik had been asked to demonstrate it a few more times for various notables, such as other captains, and the trainers from the lightning catcher’s academy. Each time he made the flight, Tik executed it flawlessly.
Tik had been nominated for a notable award from the Empress herself, and was suddenly in line for promotions that previously were beyond his station and birth. But all of the attention had begun to wear on the boy, and he wanted to get back to flying. That was where he felt most at home.
Today was the first time he would be making the flight simply as a matter of business, and not to show off or to prove anything. Some people would have craved that extra attention, but Tik simply wanted to fly. He had made his contribution to the art, and he felt like he had finally proven that he belonged here, and not shoveling……. waste.
Tik didn’t expect anyone to really be watching him as he flew. Anyone other than a few deckhands, engineers and some younger catchers of course. But there was one additional person who was watching. He had been watching every time Tik had flown. Captain Jake Reynard stood on the second floor decking beside the navigational charts. He had made it a point to observe every flight of Tik’s that he could. At first it was to make sure that he had chosen correctly in letting the young man fly. Then he continued watching because the kid was a marvel at it. Now he watched to make sure that other jealous hands didn’t interfere with Tik’s flight.
“The kid didn’t understand yet how petty this world could be when you came up with something new or unusual.” thought the captain. His men had already foiled two attempts to sabotage the young man’s kit. “I think I should invite the boy to dinner tonight, and warn him.” considered Reynard.
Tik had performed his dive perfectly as always. Nothing fancy, just one of the basic seven leaps. That was what had drawn the captain when Tik had auditioned before. Other kids tried to impress with flips and cartwheels through the air. Tik performed the most simple dive there was, but did it perfectly.
Today Tik had climbed out of the dive and soared directly into the clouds. He wasn’t wasting any time. He took his mainline straight up into the darkest most ominous looking thunderhead in the sky. “Should be a lot of power in that one” thought the captain.
Tik was almost too far out to be visible, still the captain watched. He saw the lightning catcher activate the smaller rocket. He saw it flare up another 50 feet and hold. Then he watched as Tik began his descending spiral. As the young flyer made it more than halfway back to the ship, the captain saw something else. Something unexpected. The smaller rocket suddenly exploded and dropped its payload of steel cable. Calculations and possibilities exploded in the captain’s brain. He considered the rate of fall of the winged boy, and the speed that the main cable would achieve as it fell. Thoughts birthing action, the captain surged forward. If the boy kept to his pattern, he would be buried under tons of falling steel cable.
He sprinted across the deck, his speed belying his rotund girth. Reynard was known to be a man of careful thought and deliberate action. Anyone who knew him well would have been shocked to see him heaving his portly frame across the deck with such abandon. As the man approached the balustrade, it seemed as if he lost fifty pounds, and twenty years. He sprang up, and as his left foot struck the rail, he performed basic dive number three. You see, in all the years of the lightning fleet, only once had a man survived the rigors of being a lightning catcher, and then raised himself through the ranks to eventually achieve the honored position of Captain of an Aethership. Reynard had been much younger then, and quite a bit thinner. But his heart was unchanged. Launched like a rocket by his perfect basic dive, the captain hurtled through the air, and slammed into the falling body of the young boy.
Together in a tangle of broken wings, twisted cable, and too many disjointed limbs to count, the two fell sideways into a stack of broken collectors. Then the world flashed white, and both men lost consciousness.
When Tik came to, he knew that something had gone horribly wrong. His glasses were fogged, but he could feel broken equipment all around and under him. A great weight, as of a giant potato sack was on top of him keeping him from moving. He began to squirm and fight for breath.
“Hold still boy.” came a horse whisper. “Every time you try to move, that blasted broken wing pokes me in the rib cage.”
Tik quit struggling. As he did he could hear alarms ringing on deck. He could still smell smoke and burned ozone. He knew that the lightning had struck the deck, and that something in his capture had failed. Even as he was trying to sort out what it could have been, the weight was suddenly lifted off of him. He pushed his goggles up, and was confronted by the sight of the Captain himself, being carried away. The pudgy man was disheveled, and smoking all over.
“This is not good” thought Tik.
Later that day, after he had been cared for by medical automatons, Tik was summoned to the Captain’s quarters. He was still trying to sort out what had gone wrong, but now he was also concerned that punishment would be due before he could solve the problem. As he entered the cabin, he was amazed at how much room was allotted to this man. “It sure is good to be the Captain” he thought. He tried not to stare at the opulence in the room as he continued to the back where the large man lay abed.
“Young man, we both almost died today.” started the Captain. “Yes sir,” replied Tik, “Please sir, I know I can fix whatever it was.”
“You can fix petty jealousy? Hate born of envy? I would guess sir that you do not know what you are saying.” answered the captain.
Tik realized immediately what the captain was implying, but he had no answer. So instead, he just hung his head, expecting the worst.
The captain spoke “So. What do we do with the young genius? You might not understand this, but when you rise beyond your station, there will always be people who feel compelled to drag you back down. Believe me. I know.”
Tik looked up and started to see the Captain as a person, not just his boss. “How had it been for him to start off as a flyer and rise to sailing his own ship?” he thought.
His reverie was interrupted as the Captain suddenly spoke “I have it! You sir will be demoted! You will be dropped from the flight crew, and made to assist in the galley!” He continued with a particular evil glee in his voice “Your award from the Empress will be cancelled, and when we land, I will order you transferred back to sanitation!”
Tik’s eyes were huge as he absorbed the Captain’s words, but he did not argue. Instead through tears he nodded and stood there. Then he asked “Will that be all Sir?”
The Captain answered in a more steady voice “No, son. That will NOT be all. The day you are sent down to the city, you will be approached by a lady. She will be wearing a Captain’s hat, and she will be unmistakable. You will go with her, and you will serve on her ship, the Sparrow.”
“Sir?” asked Tik, “I don’t understand. I know the ships in the lightning fleet. None are called Sparrow. And we have no lady captains under the Empress at all.”
Reynard smiled. “Who said she serves the Empress? In fact, Lylianna is a pirate. But she does need a good catcher to power her ship. And you will fit in quite nicely with her crew of……. colorful characters.”
Tik was too stunned to speak. His Captain knew a pirate. AND he was sending Tik to join her crew.
The last thing the exhausted young man saw was the polished decking flying up to meet him as he feinted.