Leagues beyond the rational edge of Earth, a brass-plated aethership coasted through a landscape of billowing clouds. Wind whipped the pale blue balloons from which it was suspended and managed to drown out the whirring of the engines that propelled it forward.
Captain Mere was busy adjusting the lines of the ship against the air currents when the first horn sounded. Her eyes widened, and she shot to her feet. She turned to the pale woman at the side of her ship. “This is as close as we’re getting, Josephine. Time to go.”
The woman glanced toward Mere for just a moment before fixing her gaze forward. “But I don’t see anything. Aren’t there supposed to be pearly gates? Gold fields? Something?”
A smile played on the captain’s lips. “Trust me, it’s there. Just through those clouds, and the wind will carry you right there. You’re just going to have to jump.” Her eyes flicked back to the sky. “And soon.”
Josephine snorted. “Faith’s not exactly my defining characteristic.”
“Of course not. If it were, we wouldn’t be here, now would we?”
The woman’s eyes fell to the ground. “I was a good person, you know. I just, I just couldn’t let go. My daughter, she was only four…” Her voice cut off, and she put her hand to her mouth.
“I believe you, sweetie.” Mere reached out to touch the woman on the shoulder, and her hand passed right through. No matter how many lost souls the Varioscope carried, her captain never learned to stop trying to touch them.
There was another blast of a horn: closer.
Mere gestured into the aether. “You’re ready to let go now, though, right? You should do that. And soon.” The pink-tinged clouds were surrounded with dull gold halos, and the air smelled faintly of lily-of-the-valley. The scene couldn’t be any more inviting, but Josephine just stared at it, unmoved. The captain drummed her fingers, wishing she could just get the woman going with a bit of a shove. But there was no moving a soul. They had to will their way forward. That was the problem with smuggling the dead. You could dump other cargo over the side when the situation got hot.
The ship gave a sudden lurch, and Mere turned to look into the wheelhouse, where her first mate had the wheel. “Hold her steady, Barnaby!” The little man peered through the green glass between them and waved his hands in the air, as if to say there was not much more he could do. The winds were picking up. She knew from experience they would only get worse.
Mere turned to Josephine and snapped, “Listen.” The soul’s eyes met her own. “If we get closer, the wind is going to tear my ship in two. And if not the wind…“ At that moment, the horn sounded a third time. “…then something worse. You’re out of time. What you want is out there, just beyond those clouds.”
“Do you promise?”
“No, I don’t. But that’s why they call it a leap of faith.”
Josephine looked away. After one last long exhale, the soul spread her arms to either side, the wind plucking and pulling at them. Mere raised a hand in salute. The soul smiled and opened her mouth. It seemed as if she might say thank you, but at that moment, she was swept away and the words were lost in the gale.
Mere collapsed against the deck with a heavy sigh, pulling out rolling papers. Barnaby stuck his head out a window. “Set a course for home, captain?” he chirped.
“You always know what to say to please a lady, Barnaby.” He gave a smart nod and disappeared.
As she waited for the final horn, Captain Mere occupied herself with trying to roll a cigarette in the middle of a wind storm.
She heard him before she saw him: a great rustling against a backdrop of thundering horns. Then, her ship froze in place. Even Barnaby was affected, posed over the ship’s wheel with a look of surprise.
Standing, she brushed off and eased around on her heel to face him. He had settled nearby, and she was amazed at the smell of freshly washed sheets that accompanied him. “Morning. How can I help you?”
He stepped forward. “You have been told not to trespass here.”
“Got a bit lost. On my way out now, Gabe.” She brushed a finger across his bare chest and grinned. “Don’t you worry your little golden head.”
“My name is Gabriel.” The angel’s expression did not move. “You smuggled one in, didn’t you?”
Mere shrugged, pulling off her gloves, and said, “Maybe. But you show people who are lost the way, don’t you? We’re sort of in the same line of work. Only difference is, I get paid for it. A lot.”
The angel bristled. “I show them His way. Under His appointment. By His will. And for His glory. Not for… money.”
“We all have our reasons.” Shrugging, she turned away and began to make for the wheelhouse. “At any rate — I’m clean. You won’t find any lost souls aboard this ship.”
“Save your own, Meredith Jones.”
The words hit exactly as the angel intended. Mere’s back stiffened as she clasped the doorknob. She flexed her grip around it before finally responding. “Unstick my first mate and we’ll be out of your hair.”
The angel scoffed, but it was accompanied by a sudden rush of air, and then the Varioscope began to move again. “Thanks, Gabe. See you on the flip side.”
“I’m afraid that will never be, Meredith Jones,” the angel whispered before taking flight. But Captain Mere was not there to hear it. She was busy handing her first mate a celebratory glass of brandy.
“Take us home, Barnaby.”
Released, the aethership coasted through a sky set in tones of pink and gold, returning to the world below.
Lindsay Morgan Lockhart has the rare fortune of making her way in life filling virtual worlds with stories, but it has not subdued her raging desire to put her own stories to the page as well. Her fiction can be found cluttering like cobwebs throughout the internet.