We were twenty thousand feet above an uncharted lake when we passed through the rift. In that instant, our sky galleon began to fall. Where seconds before the sun had been shrouded in cloud, now the sky was blue and bright. The icicles that had long hung from our rigging began to melt, even as they were torn loose by the growing wind.
“Ye Gods!” cried Captain Jeb, grabbing the gunwale with one meaty hand and me with the other. “Hang on, Martyn!”
I clung to the frozen wood for dear life. Some of the crew were not so lucky, falling from the deck, their shrieks snatched away by the wind. I pulled myself closer to the captain and yelled in his ear. “We have found it!”
“The rift.” I had no idea the crossing would be so sudden, or so dramatic. The ancient scrolls spoke of a slow transition. But perhaps they hadn’t reckoned on the extraordinary speed of a modern sky galleon.
“The liftwood doesn’t work here,” Jeb bellowed, casting his gaze fore and aft.
“So, we must get back to our side of the rift!” I pointed behind to the head of the lake, where it sprang from a protective curve of mountains. Moments before, the lake had been stiff with ice. Now, water rolled below us, blue and flecked with foam. We should surely perish were we to plunge into it from this height.
“Stay here.” Jeb dragged himself forward, hanging on to ratlines and shrouds, shouting at sailors he passed and waving wildly at those further off. I soon discerned his intent. The crew shifted the port sails to slew deeper into the gale, while feathering those to starboard. The ship began to turn, still given some lift by her steering wings. Jeb clambered on, commanding the men to shift barrels of water and powder to the port side to increase the bank.
A scream cut the air to my right. The man at the wheel clung on by just one hand, buffeted by the gale, and as I watched he was plucked from the deck and cast over the stern. The ship shuddered as the great rudder was forced to align with the wind against the strain of its counterweights. Although the bow had turned, it would not be enough. We were falling aslant of the lake in the full glare of this alien sun.
“Martyn!” Jeb’s voice was faint, lost to the wind. I spotted his head and arm scrabbling at the edge of the wheel deck. He was fighting to climb back up the ladder from the deck below. My stomach rebelled at the thought of crossing to help, but without him at the helm we were doomed. I took a deep breath and hauled myself over, trying to keep my feet on the planking and at least one arm round the gunwale.
“Hurry, man!” yelled Jeb, now clinging to the top rung with his legs waving in the air. I was nearly at him. I reached out, but a loose anchor whipped by, caught him in the back, and tore him from the ladder. He grabbed for the chain, but was gone and over the side before I could see if he had succeeded.
There was no one now to save the ship, but me.
I unbuttoned my coat.
What I lacked in courage, I must make up for in faith. Faith in the mathematics. With my coat spread just right, the wind would force me onto the deck, not away.
I judged the angles and set off, my thighs protesting every step. Like a fly on a wall, I inched up the deck. I kept my eyes fixed on the wheel post and at last wrapped my arms around it.
I allowed myself a gulp of breath, then threaded my belt through a sturdy cleat. Thus braced, I threw all my strength against the spokes of the wheel.
I had my back to the stern and my face to the wind. The ship canted forward, and the blue waters of the lake rushed up towards me.
Another sailor fell past, screaming, and still I spun the wheel. Slowly, the ship responded, turning to face the mountains. The crew trimmed the sails. Though still falling, we picked up speed back towards the rift.
My knuckles shone white on the wheel. My lungs burned from the strain. In seconds, we would hit the water and be smashed to pieces in a great cloud of spars and cloth. I would never see my dear Marie again, or report to the University that we had found the rift. They would never know that I was right.
I forced myself to face my impending doom.
The lake froze. Clouds blocked the sun. My knees buckled as the ship came alive, and our descent slowed as the liftwood fought to keep us from hitting the ice.
I clung to the wheel. The sailors cheered the ship on. Even so, it seemed we had passed back through the rift too late and would yet be shattered on the frozen surface.
But we hit with the merest touch. We made a featherweight slide along the ice, the grandest and lightest sled ever built, then our sails plucked us from the surface and carried us back up into the sky.
The Mate relieved me at the wheel, and I staggered to the gunwale, there to watch in amazement as Captain Jeb — bloodied, bruised, but alive — hauled himself hand over fist back up the anchor chain and onto the deck.
I stared back at the lake, stretching far behind us now in icy gloom.
We would set down, lick our wounds, then task a handful of men to travel with me on foot. I would hike through the rift and explore this strange new world, where liftwood has no power, and all the ice has gone.
Graham Brand trained as a metallurgist, casting gold bars in Zambia before returning to the UK and drama school. He spent ten years in the theatre, as an actor, musician and musical director, before becoming a father and switching to IT project management, which has taken him round the world. He now lives in the Yorkshire Dales.