by Josie Kallo
Mack hauled himself up the Tillandsia’s balloon, fingers tangling in its fretwork of woody vines. Broad green leaves rustled in the wind, slapping at his wool-sleeved arms as he climbed. To his back was open sky and sprawling clouds, the ground far below. An oxygen mask hung from one ear, but he scarcely needed it－the Tillandsia’s thick foliage made its own miniature atmosphere.
He took a moment to shake out his stiff fingers as he crested the swell of the blimp’s belly, the strain on his muscles somewhat relieved now that he wasn’t clinging against gravity. As he’d climbed, his fingers had pruned somewhat from the moisture squeezed out of symbiotic sphagnum, which drew water from the clouds to nourish the plants that grew atop it. Broad, thick-veined chlorphyllectrics carpeted the top of the airship, drinking in the sun to power the engines below. Nestled under the sprawled shrubs were bunches of bright red berries, and Mack paused a moment to pick a couple and pop them into his mouth, relishing the tart sting as they burst between his teeth.
It took him a few minutes more of climbing to reach the hole in the balloon. Mack winced at the ragged thing, remembering the diesel drone of New Avalon fight-planes. Most of the bullet holes were already puckering closed on their own, but this tear was as wide as his hand and as long as his forearm, far too big for the plants to patch over with excreted latex. Mack could see the tattered leaves around it wavering as float gas leaked out, and knew if he stuck his nose into the draft his voice would rocket above even its pre-T octave—these days, the Tillandsia was lifted almost entirely by helium.
That was why they were in this fascist patch of sky in the first place. There were a scant handful of bioblimps equipped with helium-pumps, and when the call for a rescue had come in, only the Tillandsia had been near enough to answer it.
Mack pushed the hollow fear out his mind as he worked, spreading a latex patch over the hole. It wasn’t likely they would lose enough air from that one breach to force a landing, but it would set Myra at ease.
As he climbed back down the balloon he couldn’t help but think of the next, inevitable fight. New Avalon didn’t like Collectivists in their skies—and only Collectivists used bioblimps, so they weren’t exactly being subtle. Mack glanced over his shoulder, but he couldn’t read the clouds like Lux or spot the difference between a distant bird and a New Avalon plane like Kat. He had to trust his crew.
As he entered the Tillandsia’s cabin, he passed the new rail-gun affixed to their port-side platform, which Kat had insisted they install before leaving Collective skies. As much as Mack disliked having such a weapon aboard, it had more than proven its worth.
He paced the length of the airship’s interior, walking toward its center. Roots and tendrils tangled on the ceiling, forced into angular growth tracks as they descended the walls to power the Tillandsia’s electric tech. A soft greenish glow from bioluminescent light fixtures lent an almost forested light to the root-and-metal corridor, but it was all still stark and angular, bordering on industrial.
When he opened the door to Myra’s lab, though, it was like stepping into a storybook mouse-home. Floor-to-ceiling roots and vines were interrupted only by the computers they supplied with power. The room was roughly circular, scattered with the tools of Myra’s trade— root-stocks and sprouted seedlings, test tubes and microscopes, sequence-splicers and gene-guns. Tucked off to one side were the bioreactors Myra used to synthesize Mack’s testosterone and her own estrogen, the single zoological deviation from her botanical specialization. At the center of the room the Tillandsia’s massive compound taproot burrowed into the vat of half-solid sludge that fed their flying forest. Mack could just barely see the scraps from that morning’s breakfast dissolving into the big compost vat, lending the space an earthy smell which rounded off the aesthetic.
Myra herself was hunched over some arcane scientific miscellanea. The Tillandsia’s biomech was a tall, narrow woman with angular shoulders and reddish-brown skin, her sleek black hair pinned up in a bun. Mack crossed the room, doing his best not to startle his wife, and started rubbing her shoulders. She groaned as his thumb found a knot in her muscles, then looked up at him. “How’s our girl looking?”
“Fine,” Mack said. “Patched a tear near the top.”
“This is stupid,” she said, not for the first time. “We shouldn’t be gallivanting around New Avalon airspace.”
A part of Mack wanted to agree－it was often said the Collective’s only hard borders were New Avalon and the sea, and trans-Atlantic travel wasn’t nearly so dangerous.
“I don’t like flying in ethnostate skies either,” Mack said, kissing the top of Myra’s head. “But someone out there needs our help. We can’t leave her stuck in that fascist hell.”
“I know,” Myra said. She was still frowning, brow still furrowed, eyes still focused on the genetic sequences marching across her screen. Mack knew just enough about his wife’s work to recognize the circular diagrams as bacterial plasmids that allowed for quick changes to the Tillandsia’s metabolism or growth patterns, tools that were even more essential in these dangerous skies.
Mack’s hand moved to squeeze the back of her neck and her brow smoothed, eyes sliding closed. She craned her head back, face toward the ceiling. Mack leaned down and kissed her, her stubble catching slightly on his own—when they were aloft, she tended to have as much facial hair as he did. “Who am I shaving for?” she’d often say. “It’s just us up here.”
The crackling of a speaker set into the wall interrupted their kiss. Mack glanced up at the boxy old thing set into the root-lined walls just as Lux’s voice came through.
“You’re needed on the bridge, Captain,” they said. “Urgent.”
Mack sighed. “Keep her in the air,” he said, giving Myra’s shoulder a parting squeeze. “Love you.”
“Love you too,” she said, her attention already back on the screen.
He turned away, fingers lingering briefly on her warm skin, then jogged out of the room. Along the way he had to duck into a doorway to make room for Kat’s chair—she was wheeling down the corridor, a look of determination on her pale, freckled face. She hadn’t had time to put her legs on, it seemed, but she didn’t need to stand to shoot the rail-gun.
Where the Tillandsia’s biolab felt positively subterranean, the bridge was all glass and metal, hidden chlorphyllectric tendrils feeding energy to the instruments. Beyond panoramic windows was a broad view of the cloud-strewn sky, a thin sliver of greenish ground far, far below.
At the apex of this windowed semicircle sat Lux, their eyes flicking between the clouds and the various instrument panels positioned along the bottom edge of the windows. Lux, plump and bald, wore gold eyeshadow that shimmered against their dark brown skin as they scanned the sky before them.
“What’s the situation?” Mack asked, stepping up behind them.
“Possible baddies,” Lux said, not taking their eyes off the clouds. They pointed, tapping a manicured nail against the glass. Each of their fingernails was perfectly lacquered in a different shade, and Mack had no idea where they found the time to paint their nails. It seemed like Lux was always on the bridge, eyes glued to the sky, jogging between instruments to keep the ship on course.
Mack squinted, but the wisps and currents Lux could read in the clouds were even more foreign to him than the gene sequences that marched across Myra’s computers. “How many?” he said.
“Can’t say,” Lux said, pinching nervously at the roll of fat beneath their chin. “Something moved through those clouds not long ago, but I’m—”
“Enemies spotted,” crackled Kat’s voice over the speaker. “Engaging.”
With no more ceremony than that, Mack felt the subtle shift in balance as the rail-gun lobbed a round. Lux swore, diving for the steerage controls as the Tillandsia wobbled in the air.
“Go help Kat!” they shouted, but Mack was already running for the doors.
Then the airship shuddered.
“Bag’s been hit!” shrieked Myra over the speakers.
“Hang on!” Lux shouted, and the Tillandsia pitched forward. Mack’s mind raced, trying to calculate where he’d be most helpful, as two aircraft emerged from the cloud Lux had been eyeing. Sparks lit from each of their wings, and a quartet of missiles streaked through the sky.
“Shit!” Lux shouted as Kat said, “Firing!” The Tillandsia pitched sideways; one of the planes exploded; the whole of the airship shuddered and began to sink, Mack’s stomach flying into his throat.
“Firing,” Kat said again, her voice as stern and level as ever, as though the Tillandsia wasn’t at a 45-degree angle toward the trees below. The sound of tearing metal－horrifyingly close－was followed quickly by her voice again on the speaker. “All enemies neutralized.”
“Doesn’t matter!” Lux shouted through gritted teeth. “We’re going down!”
All in all, their crash landing could have been worse.
“Got us as close to the target as I could,” Lux muttered as they stood outside the Tillandsia, looking up at its battered hulk. They’d managed to find a clearing almost big enough to receive them, a handful of old ash trees bowing under the weight of the balloon. “But the engine’s fried.”
“Shouldn’t be easy to spot us, at least,” Mack said, scanning the sky. “The balloon blends in.”
“Don’t underestimate New Avalon,” Kat muttered. She’d gotten her legs on, prosthetics made from a three-way blend of botanical, arthropod, and chordata biomechs. Her wheelchair wouldn’t have done very well on the uneven forest floor. “They know these woods well.”
“Then we should work quickly,” Mack said. “Myra, how’s she looking?”
Myra was staring up at the Tillandsia with an expression that had shot clear past despair and into detachment. “Like shit,” she muttered. The airship’s balloon still looked solid—the plants held it in a semi-rigid shape—but one side had a massive patch blown out of it, some plants blackened and singed. The sun poured through the wound to reveal the fibrous lacework of tangled roots within. “The plants can’t regrow a tear that big without major splicing, and I haven’t got the root-stocks or the time. Plus we’ve lost basically all of the float gas. So we’re stuck.”
Mack stared at Myra for a moment, weighing his options, and decided not to push her quite yet. He instead turned to Lux. “Can you get the engine fixed?”
“I keep telling you to find us a damned mechanist.”
“Bring Kat and see what you can do,” Mack said. “In the meantime－”
All of them－save Myra, near-catatonic as she was—spun around, guns raised. Lux and Mack simply pointed them in the vague direction of the stranger’s voice, but Kat sank to an artificial knee with a dancer’s grace, training her gun on the small white woman who’d just appeared from the depths of the forest.
She was the palest person Mack had ever seen—paler even than Kat, who was splattered with thick patches of reddish-brown freckles where the sun touched her. But the woman standing before them had skin that was almost translucent in the few spots it wasn’t burned pink, her hair a flat golden blonde, her eyes the same clear blue as the sky.
Of course, the three people pointing guns at her might also account for her pallor. But the guns didn’t seem to be the most startling thing to her—her gaze snagged on Myra’s stubble, on Kat’s legs, on the blue-black sheen of Lux’s skin. It occurred to Mack that the guns might not be so strange to her as the varied collection of people suddenly arrayed before her. Guns, after all, were a staple of New Avalon—but queer, brown, or disabled folx were pointedly not. The thought that his crew might be more shocking to the woman than the weapons they brandished struck Mack as intimately sad.
“Who are you?” Kat demanded.
The woman, eyes wide, gulped. “Are－are you from the Collective?”
“Who’s asking?” Mack said, lowering his gun.
“I’m Emma,” the woman stammered. “I—I called for help.”
At that Myra glanced over her shoulder, lips pursed, brow arched. “So you’re the reason we’re here, then?” she said, and scoffed. “Totally worth it. Thanks.”
“Myra…” Mack said－but she had already turned away. Mack chewed his lip, sighed, and turned back toward Emma.
“Sorry,” he said. “We’re not having a great day. But the rules haven’t changed－the Collective’s open to all.” He put some firmness behind those last words, glancing at each of his skeptical crew mates. “Guns down, folx.”
“I’m sorry,” Emma said, her lip quivering, her watery eyes shifting beyond them to the airship. “You said your engine’s busted?”
“That is one of our current predicaments,” Mack said as Kat and Lux slowly lowered their weapons.
“I can help fix it,” Emma said.
“You a mechanist?” Lux asked.
“Yes,” Emma said. “That－that’s why I want to leave. They won’t let me study here.” A tear escaped her eye. “Please. They’ll kill me for running. You’re my only hope. Let me－let me help you.”
Silence held for a moment, more tears tracing lines down Emma’s cheeks.
“Quit the waterworks,” Mack said with a sigh. “We came here for you－if we can get the Tillandsia back in the sky, you’re coming home with us.”
Emma stifled a small sob. “Thank you, thank you so—”
“Thank us by fixing the engines,” Mack said. “Lux, get the patches ready. We’ve gotta seal the balloon if we’re gonna go anywhere. Kat, show her the engines.”
As Lux and Kat led Emma toward the ship, he turned to Myra. She was still staring at the Tillandsia, arms crossed, eyes watery.
“She says she can fix the engine,” Mack said, making his voice soft, touching Myra’s shoulder.
“I heard,” Myra said. Her voice was rough, shaky, deep－she’d let it slip low in her grief, and it had the same resonant rasp of wind through the boughs of an old tree. “Doesn’t matter. We can’t fly without gas in the bag.”
“Lux and I will patch it.”
“And then what?” Myra snapped. “Do you know the fucking helium fraction in the air down here? Might as well be goddamn zero! It’d take weeks to even partially fill the bag.” Tears sprang from her eyes, her teeth bared in a frustrated scowl. “We’re gonna die here, Mack.”
Mack stepped forward. He was well used to flares of anger from Myra, especially when it came to the Tillandsia’s health. He was adept at weathering her storms. Placing a hand on her shoulder, Mack drew his wife into a light embrace.
“We aren’t going to die,” he said. “Give me the options.”
“We don’t have options,” Myra said, tears falling as she leaned her forehead against Mack’s shoulder, hunching a bit to make up for the difference in height. “Not unless you wanna get blown out of the sky.”
“That depends,” Mack said. “How do we get up there?”
Myra furrowed her brow. “I can turn the catalytics back on,” she said. “Once the balloon’s patched, I could have her floating on H-2 in a few hours.”
“Great!” Mack said. “Do that.”
She stared blankly down at him for a moment. “Hydrogen, Mack,” she said. “Hindenburg shit. We could go up like a wildfire.”
“We have to try,” Mack said. “There’s only so much sky between us and the Collective. We just gotta get there.” He squeezed her tighter, hand splayed between her shoulder blades. “Lux and Kat can protect our girl. You’ve just gotta get her floating again.”
For a moment Myra was stiff and silent. Then she sighed, relaxing finally into Mack’s arms. He hugged her tighter.
“You sure?” she mumbled into the side of his neck.
“I’d rather die in the sky than on the dirt,” he said.
Myra nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Patch the bag. I’ll fire up the splicers.”
It took Mack and Lux a couple hours to patch the tear in the Tillandsia’s balloon－the summer heat sent sweat rolling off them, Mack’s shirt sticking to his back, Lux’s eyeshadow smearing like golden tears, as they sealed the balloon shut.
It wasn’t pretty—a big scar that looked almost like a blacktop against the surrounding foliage, reminding Mack of images he’d seen of pre-collapse highways cutting through vibrant forests. The patch was another of Myra’s creations, the same dark latex the plants extruded shot through with absorbent moss so the plants could eventually regrow over it. It was still sad to see the near-barren swath where once there had been living greenery, but it would hold.
The balloon had filled swiftly once patched, bacteria in the bioreactors passing sugars down a daisy-chain of chemical reactions to strip hydrogen from carbon and shunt the resulting gas inside. They were aloft now, limping up into the sky on a battered bag, pointed eastward back toward the broad, open skies of the Great Lakes Collective.
Myra was hunched over a small computer on the bridge, chewing a nail that was already ragged to the quick. Kat was nearby, crouched on her biomech legs, cleaning an already impeccable rifle while Lux scanned the skies—a thick sheet of dark, obscuring clouds had gathered beneath them as they climbed. Even Emma had elected to join them, her gaze firmly affixed to the sprawl of sky beyond the windows.
“Good news, maybe,” Myra said. “The balloon wasn’t completely empty when you patched it—we had some float gas trapped in the upper swell. Looks like we’re at roughly thirteen percent helium by volume. If we’re lucky, the admixture will be something of a flame retardant. I’ve got the pumps on again, though, so the more altitude we can get the better. There’s a bigger helium fraction the higher we go.”
“How’re the engines holding up?” Mack said
“Better than ever,” Lux said. “I’ve got us angled upward as best I can, and I think we’re gaining a bit from it. Emma really knows her shit.”
Emma gave a tight, nervous smile, her gaze sliding to her feet. “I did my best,” she said. “What you’ve got here’s like nothing I’ve ever worked with. I’d never even heard of a chlorphyllectric.”
“Y’all are still stuck on petroleum, yeah?” Mack said, doing his best to make his voice soft, inviting. He could see the tension in Emma’s stance, the way she half looked like she wanted to leap out of one of the windows.
“Yeah,” she said. “Since no one else seems to want it, we’re still using oil from old Canadian wells. New Avalon engineers would probably laugh in your face if you told them plants powered your engines.”
“Some of our stuff still uses gas,” Myra conceded, eyes still fixed on her screen, nail still between her teeth. “But we get it from oiltrees. We’ve got a couple on the Tillandsia to run the stoves, when we aren’t a flying fire hazard.”
“Hate to interrupt,” Lux cut in. “But I think we need more eyes on the skies out here.”
“Have we got baddies?” Mack asked.
“Can’t say,” Lux said, their lips pursed in frustration. “Damn clouds are too thick.”
Kat was already on her feet, striding toward the door of the bridge. Mack gestured toward her, and wordlessly she handed him the rifle before rushing out the door.
Then Mack turned, rifle on his shoulder, toward Emma.
“Come on,” he said as she looked up at him, somewhat startled. “Let’s go to the porch. I wanna pick your brain about New Avalon planes.”
Emma blinked a few times, as though confused by Mack’s statement. “Okay,” she finally said, and stood to follow as Mack led her out of the bridge.
Where the gun’s platform was clear and industrial, the porch－as they called their starboard platform－was as close to comfy as they could manage in the limited space of an airship. It was partially screened by trellises, giving them some measure of protection from the whipping wind. Vines and plants dangled from above, framing the sky beyond in leafy greens, accented by bright red sparkberry clusters.
A few folding lawn chairs, made of shaped aluminum and woven rattan, were scattered on the little platform. A portable stereo sat to one side－Mack fiddled with it when they arrived, but it didn’t have any juice. Without hesitation he flicked open the panel at the top of the device, exposing a copper pin with a series of dark, dry fruits on it. He slid them off and replaced them with a few fresh sparkberries, careful to avoid zapping his fingers, and then clicked the pin back into place. When he hit the play button again, soft guitar music began to play from the speakers.
“You even grow batteries?” Emma said.
“Sure,” Mack said, popping a cooked sparkberry into his mouth. He held one out to Emma. “We eat ‘em, too.”
Emma’s gaze slid skeptically between Mack and the proffered berries as she plucked one from Mack’s palm. She bit it in half gingerly, and her face twisted in surprise.
“Ouch,” she said. “Is it supposed to hurt your tongue like that?”
“Guess they weren’t completely cooked,” Mack said, laughing. “You’ll get used to it.” He leaned back, watching as Emma tentatively chewed the sparkberry. “So,” he said after a moment. “What’s your story? Most Avalon runners come to the Collective from California. Maybe Deseret. What sent you traipsing around N.A.’s forests?”
Emma stared out at the sky, her gaze distant, and shook her head. “They changed the rules,” she said with a little shrug. “My visa got denied. Now they say women need a man to sponsor and chaperone them, and I didn’t have one.”
“Huh,” Mack said, nodding. “That’s new. The folx back home won’t like hearing that.”
“I wish there had been an easier way,” Emma said. “A right way.”
“This was the right way,” Mack said. “If it gets you where you need to be.”
“I don’t understand why you came for me at all,” she said. “I didn’t think－you might’ve died. You still could.”
“It’s what we do,” Mack said. “The Collective only works if folx are free to come and go. Not everyone wants to go risking their asses to help bring strangers to a new home, but we do. If we only take folx that’re easy to get, are we really accepting everyone?” He shifted, bringing the rifle to rest across his lap, cradled lazily in his palm. “Sometimes you gotta fight for what you believe, for the world you want.”
Emma glanced dispassionately down at the gun. “I’m surprised you’ve got so much weaponry here,” Emma said, her voice quiet. “I didn’t think the Collective condoned violence.”
“We’re in fascist skies,” Mack said. “We’ve gotta defend ourselves. I’ll be honest, I don’t love having these things aboard. Usually Kat’s got just one, but she insisted we load up for this trip. She knows better than most, I guess—she grew up in a border-comm, lost her legs in a New Avalon raid.” He sighed. “I don’t like the thought of killing anyone. But if it’s to protect our ship, my friends, to help get you to safety, we’ll do what we have to.”
She stared out at the sky, and popped another sparkberry into her mouth, narrowing her eyes as the first bite zazzed across her tongue. “I don’t think I understand the Collective as well as I thought I did,” she said. “Is it true you don’t have laws?”
Mack scoffed. “Suppose that depends on how you look at it,” he said. “We’ve got rules, sure. Expectations. Taboos.”
“The police in New Avalon love saying how lawless the Collective is,” she said. “How dangerous.”
“Well,” Mack said. “We certainly haven’t got laws like they do in New Avalon.”
“Then how do you keep people safe?”
“We make sure everyone has enough to eat, a place to sleep, someone to talk to when they need it,” Mack said. “We try our best to teach people not to hurt others, and make sure there are plenty of ways for people to seek reconciliation or even just leave, if that’s what they need.”
“And what about bad people?” Emma said. Then she frowned, her brow furrowing. “Or… Not bad people. That’s not what I meant. I don’t think there are people who are just… bad.”
“That’s good,” Mack said. “Bit of a head start on the whole concept, then.”
“But what about people who do bad things?”
“That depends,” Mack said. “A lot of the time folx don’t even realize what they did was hurting someone else, or else can’t figure out a way to fix it. So we try to help them see, help them reconcile.”
“But what if they didn’t hurt someone?” Emma said. “What if they just－just did something, you know, wrong. Something they weren’t supposed to.”
“Like be a girl and study machining?” Mack said.
Emma stayed silent.
“If you do something your community doesn’t want you to do,” Mack said. “You can try to stay and change it, or you can leave. Movement’s free in the Collective. You can always hop an airship and find somewhere that better suits you.”
“That sounds scary,” Emma said.
“It’s what you’re doing,” Mack said. “Sometimes, it’s all you can do. But everyone finds a place eventually. You find where you fit, and you do what you can to build community there.”
“And if you can’t find a place where you fit?”
“Hop an airship,” Mack said. “That’s how we all got started flying. We were drifting, trying to find our place, and found the sky. Found each other.”
Emma looked at Mack out of the corner of her eye. “Do you think—”
“Enemies spotted,” crackled Kat’s voice over the loudspeaker set in one corner of the porch. “Firing.”
As the airship rocked with the force of the rail-gun, Mack shot up and went to the edge of the platform. In the distance he spotted a contingent of small, dark airplanes moving straight toward them.
“There’s a fuel line that runs under the nose,” Emma said, suddenly next to him. “That’s your best bet with small arms fire.”
Mack peered down the sight, fired according to Emma’s instructions—but there was no way to tell if he’d hit his mark as the jets began to scramble. “Hold on!” Lux shouted through the speakers, and the engines roared louder, almost deafening. The airship shot forward, but they couldn’t hope to outrun the jets.
A flurry of bullets flew as Mack tried, desperately, to land a shot against one of the planes. The flat gray light of the stormy skies made it all the more difficult, and he couldn’t track which planes he’d managed to hit, if he’d managed any at all. The calm sound of guitar music was just barely audible beneath the din, a surreal juxtaposition to the sudden chaos.
Then the Tillandsia rocked and roared, pitched to the side, and a burst of flickering orange light appeared on the side of the balloon as the latex patch ignited.
“Fire,” said Myra over the speakers, surprisingly calm. “Flipping dioxide pumps－no internal combustion yet, but we’ve got a spreading burn on the port swell.”
Mack dived for the mic that was mounted next to the speaker. “Lux,” he shouted into it. “Bring us down!”
“Excuse me?” Lux said. “I’m barely keeping us in the sky!”
“No!” Mack shouted. “The clouds, Lux!”
There was a weighted pause for a moment. “Oh!” Lux said, and then all at once the Tillandsia dropped. Mack’s stomach flipped, and he heard Emma shriek.
Mack couldn’t tell if the rumbling around them was the straining engines, or the gunfire, or the roar of wind through the Tillandsia’s flora－but in moments they sank into the chill embrace of the rainclouds, mist immediately condensing on the metal of the platform. The fire above persisted, punching a hole through the vapor and slowly fading to a smolder as the surrounding mosses were saturated, too soaked to ignite.
“Still got enemies on our tail,” Kat said. “Firing.”
“Weave, Lux,” Mack said into the intercom.
“The hell you think I’m doing, Captain?”
An explosion rocked not far away, a burst of orange deep in the press of the clouds. In the distance, lightning mirrored the flare in bluish white.
Then all at once they dropped out of the clouds and into open sky.
“We’re losing float gas,” Myra said over the speakers. “We can’t hold the altitude with so much extra water weight.”
Mack looked out over the broad expanse of stormy sky, and a smile broke across his face. “No need!” he shouted to the intercom. “We’re home.”
There, in the distance, hung a Collective flotilla—rigid airships slapped together in dozens of zeppelin co-ops, bioblimps grown in labs from New Chicago to the Cambridge Reefs. The colors were vibrant and clashing, no two in quite the same shape or with the same symbols emblazoned on their sides.
What few jets had followed them through the storm turned and fled—even if the Collective fleet was floating on hydrogen, the jets couldn’t stand against so many at once. Mack slumped onto one of the soaked lawn chairs with a sigh of relief as they flew toward the friendly gathering, tacking downward at a gentle slope as the fire burned off the hydrogen faster than the plants could produce it.
At least the rain would keep it from spreading further across the balloon.
Trell was just like any of the various comms Mack had spent time in. It was built partly on the bones of a pre-collapse town, old infrastructure almost totally subsumed by new growth. The streets were lined with fruit trees and berry hedges, and chlorphyllectrics grew on every rooftop. The center of the community, its beating heart, was the public forest, teeming with every edible plant the people of Trell could convince to grow there. It was no New Chicago Greenspire, to be sure, but Trell’s food forest had produced plenty enough for a welcome feast.
The wine was cloyingly sweet, the food well-seasoned and warm. Mack wasn’t quite accustomed to so much time on solid ground, but the Tillandsia needed to rest and regrow the foliage it had lost in New Avalon, so they’d been in Trell for nearly two weeks.
He sat now, watching the evening sun filter through the trees of the public forest. Goats and chickens milled about as people tried to coax them home for the night. He’d joined the townsfolk in gathering walnuts that afternoon, and his fingertips were stained black from peeling away the husks.
Emma was the only one sitting with him. Myra and Lux were always busy with the Tillandsia, and Kat tended to sequester herself when they were in town. Mack was the gregarious one, the charmer—it was why they’d voted him captain. Emma, for her part, had wanted to see what life in a proper Collectivist community was like. The black walnut stains were particularly stark on her snow-white skin.
They sat in silence for a time, watching the sunset through the trees, before Emma spoke.
“Trell is nice,” she said.
“You could stay, if you like,” Mack said. “They’ve got a zeppelin co-op. I bet they’re always looking for more mechanists.”
Emma pursed her lips. “I’m not sure they trust me here,” she said, her voice quiet.
“Trell’s close to the border,” Mack admitted. “You might get a chilly reception from places where New Avalon likes to come raiding. But they’ll care less about where you come from, the further inward we go.” He took a pensive sip of a rich, malty beer brewed by the locals. It was getting warm in his grasp. “So long as you’re willing to learn about the shit you gotta unlearn, the shit New Avalon baked into you without you even knowing it.”
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “I was thinking about what you said before. About you all drifting around, finding the sky, finding each other.”
“Yeah?” Mack said.
“Uh huh. And, well, I was wondering…” She gulped. “Do you think I could drift with you? For a little while, at least?”
Mack stood and stretched, reaching out to pluck a pear from a nearby tree. He took a bite as Emma stared at him, something like fear behind her eyes.
“You know,” Mack said through a mouthful of fruit. “We’ve been needing a proper mechanist aboard the Tillandsia. If you’d be interested.”
A smile crept its way across Emma’s face. “I’d like that.”
Mack nodded. He picked another pear and sat back down next to her. Plants coaxed into bioluminescence cast a green-blue glow over the darkening forest. Mack held out the fresh pear to Emma, and she took it. They sat together for a long while, watching fireflies flit between the trees as the stars shone bright overhead.
Josie Kallo (she/her) is a queer trans woman who’s been writing stories since before she knew how to make letters. As a life-long lover of fantasy and science fiction, she now works to translate her struggles with gender, sexuality, and mental health into writing that celebrates queerness, recovery, and community through the lens of speculation. She particularly loves stories with a solid degree of hopefulness to them.ga.