The name’s Omin, though folks around these parts make it sound more like ‘Omen’. I don’t mind enough to correct them, even if I’ve never fancied myself particularly ominous. I’m a little bit of everything. Ship hand. Trader. Guide. Mostly a storyteller, where singing for my dinner and bed is a normal day.
Welcome to the Northwest, the frontier, the fringe. I’ve guided my share of Core plat-dwellers fresh off the haulers in Hub. Given them an introduction to the ups and downs of this wild and wonderful stretch of sky. It takes some getting used to, but the novelty never quite wears off.
Where to begin? Suppose that’s easy enough…
The Lay of the Land.
We’ll start with what’s familiar: the plateaus. The Core lands, with their vast continents and all their associated peoples, places, and histories. Where folks can live out generations with but one sky above their heads. Then you come to the edge of your home plateau and you look down and there’s just nothing. The cliffs descend on and on until they vanish beneath sedate clouds far below. You realize just how high you’ve been flying all your life, a stable and smooth ride. Cradles of life amongst the skies, big enough for most of us. What more could you ask for?
Yet you gaze out into that big blue forever and can’t help but wonder what more is out there.
There are more plateaus than the Core three, of course. In all directions you’ll find smaller plateaus, safe havens in the ceaseless skies soaring up from the Churn below. A ring of anchored land around the Core. They’re all pretty well spoken for, either claimed by the Core nations or independent states of their own making. Hell, that’s what half that big ole War was about, right?
And if an unclaimed plateau is ever discovered way out in the fringes? There’ll be a land rush like we haven’t seen in a long while. That’s what every boundary-pushing airship captain wants to find. The motherlode. The jackpot. Exclusive coordinates to a whole new world available to the highest bidder. There’s always talk of secret plateaus, you know, out there. Some tales have come my way and they bear repeating for the right crowd, even if I wouldn’t give them much credence.
Here in the Northwest, there’s only one plateau: Hub, one of those quick, sticky names that’s too old to be changed. It’s big enough for a city, a few small towns, and a whole lot of farmland. Big enough to fancy itself capital of this whole region. Safe to say there’s some disagreement in that regard.
Not all plateaus are so anchored and bountiful. A rare few are broken, malformed messes of rock scoured and sculpted by the ages. These hang lower to the Churn and are catacomb’d with tunnels and caves, some big enough to fly through. Most have attendant isles floating around them, the whole pack held together against the winds by some strange gravity, but not so tightly as to stop collisions. Dangerous places, those, often either a refuge for those not wanting to be found, or defended by folk who’ve cottoned onto some manner of wealth or secret in the whole mess.
The majority of the places you’ll find out here are islands, spots of land floating free in the skies. They range in size from as big as the smallest plateaus, to specks of stone not worth a second glance. Isles are as varied as the people who live on them, and the semantics of classification can bog down anyone. But there’s really three types you need to concern yourself with, so long as you keep in mind every island has its own quirks and moods.
Also called Heavies. Large enough to build on and weighty enough not to drift in the more serious storms, if at all. Sizable enough for towns and cities, farms and forests, mountains and mines. A mix of plateau stability and frontier freedom. The good ones are hives of activity, airships flitting above and below the isle, making use of all angles. The bad ones aren’t peopled for a reason, and those reasons are as varied as isles themselves.
These are the countless little islands scattered across the frontiers. Some are no bigger than a frigate, others are little self-sustaining worlds unto themselves. These are the isles subject to the whims of the wind, drifting as their name suggests every which way. Folk have settled on the more stable drifter isles, letting the winds carry their little homesteads to new frontiers. I’ve even seen some drifters turned into clunky, half-natural airships, with arrays of engines stapled to their butts. It takes all kinds…
Bergs float right on top of the Churn, some parts peaking above the clouds with the rest hidden below. Usually barren but for the most transient of birds, they’re deadly to land on if you misread the clouds. Never know when the Churn will reclaim it or flip it over. But Bergs are part of the cycle out here. Every once in a while, usually out in some empty expanse, the Churn will spit up a whole chain of new land, raw and fresh from the Down Below. And those bergs will stabilize and become new drifters or even solid islands.
There’s stranger stuff out there, places that defy even the loosest of categories. Islands built like lattice-work, organized and sculpted by who-knows-what. Bergs that rise up as the spitting image of an airship the likes of which nobody’s ever seen. Ghostly lands that make themselves known just long enough to be spotted and wondered over before vanishing into a swell of mists.
The Shape of the Skies
Between all that land is nothing but open air, vast stretches of sky, a constant companion and changeable foe. And never truly empty. Wind and weather flow along their routes, following systems and wills of their own. Titanic gray-black storm walls sweep through, jostling around smaller islands and even carrying drifters hundreds of miles. Dense coils of jorrus whip up from below, able to smash a careless airship to pieces. But most of the time you’ll just find simple gray rainstorms or regular old clouds in their infinite varieties swirling across the sky, above and below wherever you may fly.
Just as the sky is always above and around you, the Churn is always below. Miles down, everywhere you fly, you’ll see that flowing, ever-changing floor of the world. It’s the one true barrier in these unbroken skies, an inscrutable wall of clouds containing all its moods, from placid white to wrathful storm-black.
Piercing the Churn is thought to be impossible. Well, technically speaking plenty of things cross the Churn. Only isles are able to come back, often stripped bare and warped. There’s no shortage of stories of crews that flew too close, either out of incident or intention. They find all sorts of things, when they come back at all. Pleasant mists and choking gas. Boiling air and chilling frosts. They report glimpses of isles in brief, partial breaks in the clouds, future and former residents of the skies above. They whisper tales of monsters built of steam and vapor, but with claws as sharp as can be.
Yet the Churn is the engine of the skies, sending up waves of rainstorms, driving the wild winds, and birthing new islands. The great provider, in a way. The great destroyer in another, creating immense upwells of storms that rise all the way to the Heights. Storms that swallow up whole expanses and last for years, radically changing all within their ship shattering bounds.
The Churn is all that and more. The hearth that keeps us warm. The inferno that can reduce all to ash.
The Down Below
What lies below the Churn? Well, what’s there to say that’s definitive? You hear a lot of stories. I certainly have. I could talk your ear off going over the more common theories. Most believe we came up from down there, in some unknowable bygone age. Most take as fact that there’s no coming back from crossing the Churn, not unless you’re an island and ready to be scoured clean. But no one really knows. We just fill in the mystery with whatever’s most comfortable, or inspiring, or terrifying. And that’s fine in the face of anything more tangible. Even if we did learn for sure, I don’t think folk would accept it. Better to have it be whatever’s needed to everyone, than be right or wrong.
Besides, mysteries are what keep me paid.
The Heights, on the other hand, are easy to explain. You fly higher than any island, higher than most clouds, and there’s nothing but clear, unbroken sky. Its mighty cold, the air’s too thin, and there’s nowhere to tie up and get a drink. It’s just pure and simple sky. Worth seeing at least once.
People talk, as they do, of a floating continent hidden away somewhere up there. Where winged men soar among crystalline clouds and falling stars. Who’s to say they’re wrong?
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2015