The Aether Fleet

Since she was a child, all Celia had ever dreamt of was flying. She would sit for hours staring at the sky. In her mind’s eye she still saw the old sailing ships of the Aether Fleet. Her grandfather had actually served on board one of the last ships, a Southern Cutter. Papaw would hold the young girl in his lap and tell her stories of his days as a Ballast, rushing to lean way out on a rail, nothing but a slim rope tied to his waist.
Celia’s Mamaw would occasionally correct him as he spoke. Often she just fixed small details, but now and then she would remind him that the entire event was something he had witnessed, but had not performed himself. The errors in the re-telling did not diminish the child’s wonder at all. No, Celia was hooked. She promised herself that one day she would find an old Aether and figure out how to get the dirigible to fly again.
This was a common dream of the children and grandchildren of the Vand. The whole country had lost a technology that they had loved. No one was happy to let it fade to legend. But most of the kids didn’t obsess on it the way Celia did. She was constantly asking her grandparents (and any other adults old enough to remember details) about the end of the fleet. Why did the ships stop sailing? The adults would all answer the same way, “No one knows.” Celia’s own parents were gone, lost in a mining accident while she was a baby. So she only had her grandparents to ask, and they were not giving out any other answer than the same generic lines: “No one knows.”
This was no answer the child could live with easily, so she would press for answers. But they never budged. At their funeral, (her grandparents had passed within two hours of each other,) Celia cried like a baby. She was fifteen and everyone thought losing her grandparents had broken her. But though she was mournful, Celia was already thinking how she would like to continue to live in the small cabin. She knew the adults of the village would be thinking of fostering her, but she felt like she would rather be in her own home.
Hours after the funeral, Celia was still seated in the little park by the cemetery. She was sobbing quietly when a voice coughed lightly behind her. She turned to see her friend Jay looking almost as miserable as she felt. “I was wondering where you will stay?” his voice cracked as he spoke. “I am old enough to stay alone” she answered. “Old enough to do it, maybe. But mum said that you can stay with us if you like. No fun in an empty house and all.” Jay blushed like he was asking her for a kiss. He obviously was uncomfortable with the idea of his best friend living in his house with him. Celia felt a little hurt. They had been very close for a long time. She thought he would have welcomed her to live with his family. “I am staying on my farm.” she said with a clear finality. Jay looked visibly relieved. “So you want some company for a while then?” he asked.
She thought it over. His odd behavior not withstanding, she was dreading that first moment of entering the cabin alone. “You can come for supper. The whole town has left dishes behind, and there will be plenty to eat. I will also need help cleaning it all up.” Jay nodded. He didn’t make the usual quips about cleaning. There had been a long standing joke between the two of them. Jay was one of those people who couldn’t stand disorder and chaos. And Celia’s house was such a mess as to almost be dangerous to walk in. Her grandparents had liked it that way, and it was all she had ever known.
When Celia opened the door, the actual condition of the house seemed far worse than Jay remembered. He looked at the stacks of papers, mechanical parts, and odd artifacts. “So did your grandfather ever finish building anything?” he asked. Celia thought this was a little disrespectful to say aloud on the day of the man’s funeral, but she still answered honestly “Papaw fixed the rover. It drove and everything… for a while. I think he was better at tinkering back in the day.” Jay nodded. Celia’s grandparents had been very very old. It was no wonder if they weren’t terrific at keeping house or fixing things.
The two young people settled in the kitchen and had a large meal. Celia had not been exaggerating about the food. There was more here than the poor girl could eat in a week. Jay started cleaning up the mess in the kitchen. As he emptied some of the smaller bowls out, he felt a solid ball of fur rubbing his ankles. Looking down, he saw the family cat “Temerity.” On instinct, Jay put some of the food from the dish in his hands on the floor. The cat sniffed experimentally at the pile of food, then took a grudging bite. Jay laughed. “Don’t do me any favors.” he said. As if in response, the cat lifted his head, sniffed dryly, and walked away tail erect, as if to say “I WON’T!”
Celia watched the exchange between her friend and the animal. “I wonder exactly how old that stupid cat is anyway.” she observed. “He has been around as long as I can remember, but I don’t remember him ever being a kitten.” She might have continued this train of thought, but the subject in question decided to climb onto the table and push a bowl of food to the floor himself. As Celia screamed and dove to catch it, the cat lightly jumped down. Jay and Celia both knelt to clean the mess, which was complicated by the large tabby pushing his head in the middle to try to eat the remains. “I guess he didn’t want what I gave him.” Jay offered.
Later, after Jay had gone home, and Celia was asleep, the cat prowled to the closed door and mewled mournfully. His cry was answered in the distance, and repeated through the night.
The next morning Celia decided to make a fresh start on things. Last night had been a reminder of her loss, and her new position in the village. “If I want to be treated as an adult, then one thing I can do is to clean this place up.” she thought. For the first time in a very long time, the broom, mop, wash rags, and other weapons of cleanliness were employed in the small cabin. As she worked, Celia kept picking up artifacts that she felt held specific attachments to her grandparents. After a while, she began to wonder why there was nothing there of her parents. She mused that she couldn’t remember any thing about them, nor did she remember her grandparents showing her any of their stuff. As the young girl sifted through the remains of the lives lost, she kept thinking “Surely loving parents would have kept some memento of their lost child and her spouse?”
Eventually the cleaning turned into a search of sorts as the girl became more and more obsessed with the idea of finding some fragment of her parent’s lives. She didn’t forgo the cleaning though. As she worked, she would carry armload after armload of broken gadgets, farming implements, and other debris out to a trash pile she had started at the edge of the woods. She was trying to be careful to keep anything of value, either financial or sentimental, but there was simply so much stuff. By lunch time, she was going quickly, and had stopped paying strict attention to each item.
She grabbed an armload of broken gadgets and started out the door, when Temerity slid between her feet and almost tripped her to the floor. She was going to yell, but there was something almost frightening about the way the large cat was staring at her. She put down the mess in her arms and folded them. “WHAT?” she demanded. Instead of answering her directly, the old cat simply grabbed one of the small pieces of machinery in his mouth and bounded off.
The bizarre behavior was enough to break Celia’s concentration and momentum entirely. She slumped into a nearby chair. This was where Jay found her a couple hours later when he came to check on her. The boy knocked, but when there was no answer, he pushed the door open just a crack. Seeing his friend, he slipped in to be sure she was okay. Her breathing seemed normal. Jay looked around the room. The obvious transformation exlpained why the girl would be asleep. She had emptied the room of most of the piles of junk. It was the most clear of clutter that Jay had ever seen. He stared for a few moments, feeling pride in his friend.
While he was standing there, the cat suddenly let out a howl, and Celia woke with a start. She saw Jay standing awkwardly in front of her, and asked him “What are you doing?” He was so embarrassed that he stuttered his answer about knocking and being worried about her. Celia let him fumble for a few seconds before having enough pity to let him off the hook. “Doesn’t matter chum. You got here just in time for round two of Us verses Mess.” Jay looked at her with obvious relief, “So I guess I am part of us?” “Of course!” she replied, “Now get to work. If it doesn’t look valuable, and if you don’t know what it is, then place it in a pile by the door. I will go through it and we can take most of it to the trash heap. Otherwise, if it looks interesting, put it in Papaw’s chair.” Jay looked over to the large stuffed chair, and realized glumly that there were very few items of value in it. He worried about his friend’s future.
As the two kids were sorting, they didn’t notice the cat, sitting on a high shelf and staring them down as they worked. He seemed to take keen interest in each item they picked up. Finally the cat leaped down and took a piece out of the junk pile in his mouth and ran off with it. Jay started laughing at how funny it looked, but Celia looked thoughtful. “This is the second time he has done that.” she said. Jay answered “He obviously likes the shiny ones, probably plays with them.” Celia didn’t respond, but kept a much closer watch on the cat as they worked.
Eventually they finished cleaning the main room. The pile of “valuables” was small and pitiful. Outside, the pile of junk was huge. Not for the first time, Celia wondered to herself how she would get by.
As she sat in thought, Jay took a closer look at the pile in the chair. One item they had pulled aside was very similar to the cairno-ocular goggles that his father owned. He knew his father’s pair were for far vision. But this set was different. They had dials on the sides but the glass section was completely blacked over and there was a metal box sitting atop of the lenses themselves. He couldn’t figure out how anyone would be able to look through them at all. Curious, he put the goggles on and started messing with the dials. Suddenly light flared in front of his vision. Jay realized that he could see images, but they were not of the room where he and Celia were seated. Instead, he was looking at the inside of a dark moist cave. Jay looked around, and was shocked to see a large shadowy shape that resembled the old photos he had seen of an airship from the aether fleet. He stood mesmerized by the image of the dirigible.
“Have you looked through these? I think somehow has captured an image of an old air ship.” he said. Celia took them from him and looked at the scene. She started toying with the dials, and was shocked to see the scene abruptly change. With a quick jarring motion she found herself looking down on her very own home. As she looked Jay’s mother walked past the large pile of trash. Engrossed, Celia watched Ms. Frantz walked up to the door. The young girl almost screamed in shock when a sudden knocking sound came from the front door. Celia guiltily threw the goggles aside, and ran for the door. Even before she opened it, she knew exactly who would be standing there.
“Celia dear, I am here to ask you again if you would like to stay with us for a while?” began Jay’s mother. “Thank you ma’am, but I really would prefer to stay here.” the girl answered. As they spoke, Ms. Frantz looked past the girl into the cabin. “Well, I will say, you have made a great impression on me with your cleaning. I never thought this place would see a broom again.” she said. The woman must have realized that her last statement could be taken as a criticism of Celia’s grandparents, because she flushed and said “Oh! I mean…. you see..” Rather than take offense, the younger girl answered “It WAS very cluttered. But thanks to Jay things are clearing up a little.” As she entered the doorway, Ms. Frantz seemed to notice her son for the first time. “Yes, well Jay dear, don’t over stay your welcome. Be helpful, but if your host needs some alone time, come on home.” Then she added with a wicked smile “especially now that I see how well you do cleaning house.” Jay couldn’t hide his reaction. He moaned aloud, “Great! Now I will have to do this all the time.”
With all the commotion at the door, no one saw the cat slipping another bit of gadgetry off of the chair and dragging it away.
After a few more minutes of well meaning chat, Ms. Frantz left. As soon as she did, Celia turned to Jay and hurriedly told him what she had seen through the goggles. “That means that the ship we saw was real!” he exclaimed. “And we are going to find it!” replied the girl. Jay turned back to the chair “Let’s put the goggles back on and see if we can tell where that cave is!” Celia agreed, and ran to her grandfather’s chair, but the goggles weren’t anywhere to be found.
On a high shelf, the large tabby cat Temerity looked down at the kids and softly purred.


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