The snow drifted down, a blanket descending from the darkened clouds, muffling the creaking of the wooden deck and the humming of the taut lines. Despite the numbing cold, the captain still felt the sting as flakes cut across his exposed cheeks. His airship rocked slightly in the wind.
He shifted his shouldered rifle to a more comfortable position. He still remembered when he had believed it stood for honor, that it was more than a tool to make another man die. He had been a child, not knowing of the horrors of war. His other hand clenched, trying to remember the feel of her soft skin. Her delicate fingers would never have touched such a weapon.
They had climbed to the top through the deep drifts of white snow, had sat on a rock beneath the single gnarled tree. Violet Hill, it had been called. The elders said that flowers covered that hill, once, although nothing seemed to grow any more. They had gazed out over the empty, barren fields. He told her, then, how he loved her. She hugged him back, held his hand, but never uttered a word. Even now, above the quiet of the storm, the captain still heard that silence, so filled with meaning.
There had always been war. Even on that hill, so long ago, he heard the recruiter’s trumpets. He had enlisted, had no other choice, had marched away through the snow while she stood in the town square with the other women and watched him leave. He wrote letters, giving them to the injured men headed away from the front lines. He never heard back.
Years had passed, but the war raged on. He knew nothing of how his side was faring. His men hadn’t seen another soul for months, only descending to the empty city below when supplies were depleted. With scavenged rations on board, they would ascend back to the clouds to resume their lonely patrol.
He walked to the rough wooden railing, squinting through the sea of white at the shadowy outlines surrounding them. Despite their altitude, the ruined skyscrapers still surrounded them, dark monoliths stretching upward for miles through the clouds. One drifted past, shattered windows looming silently from the darkness. The faint sound of their turboprop engine reflected back from the pockmarked wall of glass.
Their ship was weathered but steady, the gracefully curved bow cutting the air for the blocky stern, hanging below the ribbed balloon that kept them aloft. She was unchristened, as superstition dictated, but the captain knew her name. He had known it before ever leaving his home. Her engine, beneath his feet, steadily turned the rear propellers in exchange for a diet of coal and white alcohol.
Through the storm, one of the fore lookouts spotted a reflection of light where there should be none. He sounded the alarm, and the deck became a whirlwind of action. The captain ascended stately to his post on the stern, while men ran and shouted and heavy iron cannons were positioned and loaded. The captain spun the wheel, the steel cables beneath the deck rotating the engine at the stern.
The pitch of the engine grew higher as the ship shifted course. The sleek lines of his ship sliced through the waves of snowflakes. Their prey heard their cries, knew of their presence by now, but the captain was the hunter and they were the hunted. Slight hints of movement through the swirling snow gave him direction.
The captain eased the dirigible into another turn, the sides of their balloon nearly grazing a glass-and-steel pillar. Once these buildings had been full of life, the elders said. He remembered childhood tales of great cities bustling with people, filled to overflowing with life and beauty. Stories of when the land was green, when Violet Hill was awash in purple flowers. As a child, he had listened wistfully to these fairy tales, his imagination afire. He thought little of them now. The captain’s mind was as silent as the falling snow.
Around the corner, they finally saw their target. The other airship was larger, bulkier, a freighter burdened with heavy cargo. His men fired the first volley. Shells pierced their enemy’s balloon, creating blazes of orange light on their deck. The freighter wheeled about awkwardly, returning fire, but they were already sinking into the darkness below.
As the captain maneuvered into a gentle decline, pursuing his wounded opponent, the wheel suddenly shook in his hands. A barrage slammed into them from behind. Even through the cries, he heard the splintering of wood. Lines snapped, ropes flailing helplessly through the air. The freighter hadn’t been alone.
The freighter’s escort pulled alongside them. The captain looked across at leveled rifles and knew that the fight was hopeless. The pop of gunfire was mixed with the screams of his men as they fell. Cannonballs left gaping wounds in his hull. The enemy soldiers swung across the darkness to land heavily on the damaged deck.
His fingers slipped from the wheel. He didn’t even feel the bullets pierce his chest, opening holes in his high-collared blue coat. The captain stared into the swirling maelstrom, struggling to resolve the dark shapes behind the snow. He thought he could see her face, but he couldn’t remember how it looked any more. He stepped back, but there was no deck, nothing beneath his feet.
They had sat there atop that rock for hours. He had spoken of his plans for the future; of how he would return with an army paycheck, they would buy a house, they could start a family. She had listened, holding him tightly, their hands intertwined. Her hair, spotted with snow, had pressed against his cheek.
As the captain fell away from the heat and light, the white flakes rushing past his face, a smile grew across his craggy features. He was going back. As the darkness rose to meet him, he wondered what a violet looked like.
Trapped in the frozen north of Minnesota, Sam Westreich whittles away the hours of winter by composing innocuous stories on his laptop.