Fleet is a dystopian maritime adventure in which sea level rise and disease has driven the last survivors of the human race to sea. I’m releasing the story in serials — 3 chapters on the first Monday of each month — on Amazon. Loyal readers who can’t wait for the next installment can slate their thirst with a series of short stories set in the world of Fleet that will be published on Southern Fried Science every few weeks. Please enjoy the forth and final of these distractions, The Sea-Above, where we find out how one of my favorite side-characters survives the fire on Gallant and what happened to the sailors who journeyed into the sea-above.
Amberjack was trapped. There was only one way out of the hold and fire raged beyond the bulkheads. Remembering his training, he found a rag to cover his face and, creeping low, felt along the walls until he found a cool spot.
There were no cool spots.
The fire spread through the ship. It blazed on the decks above and the decks below. He was trapped like a chicken in Gill’s diesel stove.
No, he thought to himself, not diesel. Fizzle.
He laughed at his own joke, then choked as the smoke seeped through the sealed hatch. He was roasting! He coughed again. The smoke surrounded him, permeating the hold. His rag reeked of it. He tore it from his face in disgust. He coughed again and again. He couldn’t stop. He wanted to panic, knew he should panic, but he couldn’t. His head was light. His mind felt clear. He began to drift, backwards. The flames reminded him of his great-grandfather, a man who lived for over a century, and a story he would tell the young Amberjack; a story about other ships, their fleets, and the sailors who rode fire into the sky.
“Did you know, Jack, that not every ship sails on the sea?”
Amberjack was somewhere far away, tucked delicately into his berth. His Grampus was there, telling him stories while Gallant rocked him to sleep.
“My father lived on land, before the plague took everything from under us. There were many people living in the floating cities, rich people, people who could buy or build anything. They saw the plague coming. They saw what it would do to the world.
“They were safe, of course. They had nanomedics to keep them healthy. But they were scared. They we so scared of how the plague would change the world. So they built ships, but not ships like ours. They built great, long skyships, ships that would sail on a pillow of fire into the sea-above. Some say they’re still up there, in great floating cities, slowly turning through the sea-above. Watching. Others say they died, punished by Sea and Land for trying to flee. For mutiny. That they burned in the sun.”
The sound of buckling steel brought Amberjack out of his nostalgic reverie. The heat of the fire was weakening rivets, causing bulkheads to fail. In moments, the fire would be inside the hold, consuming the bulk of Gallant’s food stores. Reinvigorated by a final surge of adrenaline, Amberjack pressed his failing body into service and drug as many palettes as he could into the center of the hold. He then covered them in heavy tarps, hoping to keep the flames away for just a little longer.
His task completed, he again collapsed; his body burning, his mind swimming.
He was standing on the deck of an unfamiliar ship, watching as the world passed below him. He was sailing through the sea-above. All around him were people, happy people, well-fed people, people who didn’t worry about the last drop of fuel. The deck was huge and open. From the edge, he looked down and saw the fleet.
There was Gallant, still burning. The other ships had moved off, putting distance between themselves and the raging fire. Many sailors were still in the water. Tenders move slowly among the clusters of crew treading water. They lifted the sailors from the sea as they were spotted. He could hear the Admiral shouting commands, banging on bulkheads. She sounded so close.
The sun rose overhead. It hung low over the floating city, Amberjack could almost touch it. He reached out, trying to grab the sun, but his arm erupted in a burst of pain. He was burning. The deck was ablaze. The people, so happy, now panicked and screamed as the city in the sky burned. A thousand eyes stared at him, accusing him, condemning him for daring to reach too high. The great city sank into the sea-above, but there was no water to quench the fire. There was only the burning.
He heard the Admiral. He voice boomed through the sea-above, commanding him to hold on. He reached for something, anything, but all he could grab was the sun, which burned him to the bone. Suddenly, the sea-above fell away, and he crashed into the sea. The water felt so good, so cold. He tried to draw it into his lungs, to quench the burning inside, but it wouldn’t flow. He was in the sea, but the sea was not it him. It surged over his limp body, breakers with no depth. He coughed, rolled, and looked up.
The floating city was gone, consumed by the flames of the sun, but the fire was receding. A great fountain rose from the city’s remains, pouring forth pure, crystalline waters. He opened his mouth, again, and felt the fountain’s water splash across his face. It was seawater. He drew the harsh salty fluid into his lungs. The pain was intense, but it was a cooling pain, extinguishing the fire in his chest, a healing pain.
A pair of strong arms wrapped around him, lifting him out of his rapture. He returned to himself as the Admiral threw him across her shoulders and carried him from the hold. From his perch, he saw Captain Teal, fire hose in hand, quenching the last of the defeated flames. Admiral Hawksbill carried him out into the fresh air and clear sky. A small crew was waiting at the hatch. They cheered for the young bosun as the Admiral lowered him onto a waiting stretcher.
“Admiral…?” He struggled to ask.
“Shh… take it easy, Bosun. Our food is safe, thanks to you. You’ve earned some rest.”
The stretcher was lifted by an unseen crew and he felt himself carried up and over Gallant’s side, lowered into the waiting Pair-a-dice. He thought he heard Laz, sobbing somewhere far away, but he couldn’t be sure. In his mind, he was still sailing on a pillow of fire through the sea-above.