Twist had barely set foot on the open second deck before the crew began to throw off the mooring ropes. He heard the sound of the steam engine in the stern of the ship rumble to life below decks, and his blood ran cold at the sound. Arabel left him and climbed into the rigging at the side of the ship without a moment’s hesitation. Rain fell from the balloon above in a curtain of drizzle around the outer edge. Twist found himself constantly in the way of the crew as they hurried about on the dry center of the deck.
He stepped to the damp railing reluctantly, and his gaze slipped into the distance below. Still hanging beside the docks, the ship was nearly a hundred feet off the ground. Twist’s vision swam and he clutched hard to the railing, forcing his eyes to close. After a moment of standing still, head bend under the light rain, he began to feel his legs steady under him.
The curious sensation of rising crept over him gently. Against his better judgment, Twist opened his eyes to see London’s blackened rooftops fall away beneath him as the clouds tumbled down. Terror gave way to a wild thrill as the airship rose to meet the wind. The air chilled, the rain grew heavier and began to fly in strange arcs and angles, while the clouds fell faster and faster from the sky.
In moments, thick fog splashed down on the deck, blinding Twist to all but the space just around him. His breath caught, as if frightened to leave him now, and he clung to the railing as his only sure reality in this strange experience. But in another moment of that smooth rising feeling, the fog broke and fell away as the airship burst out of the clouds into brilliant, blazing sunlight and a pure blue sky.
Twist blinked against the intense light of day, even through the tinted glass of his goggles. As the crew shouted in the sudden calm of open air, the ship stilled it’s rising pace to sail quickly through the puffy, twirling, impossible landscape on the tops of the pure white clouds. Looking down, Twist saw the bottom of the ship barely submerged in the smooth valleys of the cloud tops. He looked up again to see an enormous mountain of twisting white pass by like an island in a calm sea. After a moment, the ship sped up to such a pace that a white, billowing spray began to fly off the bow, breaking like waves as the ship ran through inconsistencies in the surface.
Twist pulled the goggles off his eyes to hang around his neck, and loosened his scarf to flap behind him in the rush of wind, while his hair flew free around his face and neck. The air was crisp as ever and stung at his skin, but the sunlight competed with it to warm him, stronger now than he’d ever felt it before. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the extreme white and brilliant blue all around him, but he couldn’t fight the desire to see it clearly, to experience this wonder fully.
“Welcome to the sky, Twist,” Arabel said from above him. He looked up to see her hanging in the rigging, casual as could be, tying off a rope that was attached to the wing-like sails. “How do you like it up here?”
“It’s…” he tried to respond, but no other words came to him at first. “It’s so bright,” he said finally.
“Compared to London, anything would be,” Arabel said with a smile in her voice. “You should see Greece. Those islands are at least as bright as this, down at sea level.”
Twist couldn’t imagine anywhere on the surface of the Earth looking anything like the otherworldly vista before him, but he nodded anyway. As he watched, other airships appeared behind them. Each one broke up out of the clouds with an arabesque of white mist before falling to skim the surface the same way that this ship had done. Some of them seemed to follow the same direction, but most turned off for other destinations. Twist tried to wonder at where they might be headed, but he quickly realized that he had a very limited concept of geography. He couldn’t even reasonably guess at which countries he might see between England and Nepal.
“Hey, landlubber,” said a voice behind Twist. He spun quickly to see a young man with thin, black eyes and emerald green hair, cut short and falling like feathers over his black smudged face, grinning at him. “You’re the clock guy, right?”
“Twist,” he replied with a nod.
“I’m Zayle.” He offered a handshake. Twist saw soot and oil stains on the boy’s rough fingers.
“Nice to meet you,” Twist said, bowing slightly but keeping his hands to himself.
“Wow you’re stuffy, aren’t you?” Zayle said, giving him an uncertain look. “Oh well, come on, I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping,” he said, turning and reaching out a hand. Twist assumed it to be only a gesture, but Zayle’s hand fell onto his shoulder with a solid pat.
In an instant, Twist’s mind flashed with the vision of Zayle as a very young boy, suddenly aware that Zayle was lost in the center of a huge, noisy, colorful marketplace. His mother was gone. People were talking, shouting, and laughing around him in a language Twist had never heard. The air was hot and full of strange smells. What if he couldn’t find her? What if he would never see his mother again? Twist tore himself free of the image and backed away from Zayle with a jerk that tripped him. He landed heavily on the deck, his arms shaking as they tried to hold him up, his legs curled up under him, and his head ringing with the same fear and confusion as the little boy in the vision.
The crisp air above the clouds rushed in to ease his unsteady breath, but his vision and hearing only returned in waves. He saw a hand fly for his shoulder again and let out a terrified yelp, pulling away from it. Zayle stared at Twist wide eyed, as other faces appeared behind him, his hand frozen in its reach. Twist realized slowly that his own eyes were open wide with fear, and he was curled up into himself, pulling away from Zayle like a frightened kitten. It had been so long since anyone had touched him that he’d almost forgotten what it was like.
“I’m fine,” Twist said, forcing what strength he had into his voice and pushing himself into a more dignified position. The emotions from the vision were still running wildly through him, but he did all he could to distance himself from them.
“What just happened?” Zayle asked, as the others began to circle Twist with a mixture of confusion and concern on each of their faces. “Are you all right?”
“Just don’t…” Twist paused, not wanting to offend Zayle, “don’t touch me, please.”
“But I hardly touched him at all,” Zayle said to the others.
“Wait, did you just get a vision?” Arabel asked, kneeling down very near to Twist. He jerked again at her quick motion, and found her peering at him intently.
“I thought it only worked with clocks,” said one of the others.
“Apparently not,” said another.
“It’s nothing,” Twist said, pulling himself to his feet, on still shaky legs. “Just try not to touch me, if you can,” he said, straightening his clothes and not looking at anyone. Arabel stood as well, but seemed to hover much too closely for Twist’s taste.
“What did you see?” Zayle asked, something like excitement in his bright voice.
Twist looked at him quickly, slightly alarmed that Zayle was so easily entertained by all this. As he looked at him, though, Twist realized that Zayle looked exactly the same now, despite the years. Somewhere, deep in his heart, Twist knew he’d never found his mother again.
“Nothing,” Twist said stiffly, looking away. “It wasn’t clear enough.”
“Oh, come on,” Zayle said playfully. “What did you see?”
Twist stared at him, still as he could be on the gentle sway of the sea of clouds, his steel-blue eyes cold and empty in the stark brightness. “Nothing.”
Zayle stared back at him for an instant, before drifting close to Arabel. “Is he a vampire, too?”
“No, it’s sunny and he’s not sizzling,” Arabel said, shaking her head. Twist heard another in the crowd give an annoyed tisk.
“You were going to show me something?” Twist said, with what little dignity he had left.
“Oh right.” Zayle began to reach out to Twist again, but stopped, pulling back when Twist’s eyes flashed with fear and his form tightened. “Right this way,” Zayle said, gesturing instead.
Twist didn’t look back as Zayle led him away and down onto the first deck of the ship. The brightness of the sky outside fought its way through the small porthole windows set into the sides of the ship, pouring into the hallways of dark wood. Zayle took Twist down the center hallway to a door, and then into a small room with a hanging hammock against one wall, a small chest against the other, and a desk under the two porthole windows in the side of the ship.
“It’s not much, I know,” Zayle said as Twist looked over his new space, “but it’s nicer than the cargo hold.”
“It’ll be fine,” Twist said, already missing his clocks in the silence of the sky. He put his bag down on the desk, expecting Zayle to leave him alone to unpack. Zayle didn’t move from the doorway. He had a curious expression on his face when Twist turned to look at him.
“So, what did you see?” he asked, watching him carefully. Twist’s reflexes blanked his face and stilled his form. “I know you saw something,” Zayle continued, narrowing his eyes.
The strong emotions of loss, confusion, and fear still shuttered in Twist’s heart. He turned away from Zayle to keep him from getting a good look at his eyes. “I saw a little boy.”
“How little?” Zayle asked, a smile on his face as he stepped closer. “Was I cute?”
“You were afraid,” Twist said, watching him and backing away slightly. “Lost.”
Zayle paused, his smile gone.
“I’m sorry,” Twist said quickly. “I have no control over what I see with people. I didn’t mean to,” he continued, running a hand through his hair as an excuse to look away.
“It’s okay,” Zayle said lightly, though his eyes were different now, cold somehow. “I’m not mad. I was the one who touched you, right? It’s just…”
Twist struggled to remember why he had decided to leave home. “It’s just that you didn’t expect me to see something like that. I know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine, really,” Zayle said, smiling more warmly at him. “If you need anything else, just let me or Ara know.”
“Ara?” Twist asked.
“Arabel,” Zayle clarified quickly, to Twist’s nod of understanding. “Well,” he added, glancing around the room. “I’ll leave you to settle in.”
“Thank you,” Twist managed.
Zayle shut the door behind him, finally leaving Twist alone in the near complete silence of his cabin. Down here, he couldn’t hear the wind except for a quiet murmur at the porthole seals. He couldn’t hear the crew unless they walked over the boards above his head. There was no drizzle of rain, or hum of city life. There were no clocks and no machines except for the low rumble of the engines in the stern, so distant through the thick wood that he had to strain to hear it at all. After a moment of unbelievable stillness, the faint ticking of his own pocket watch drifted gently to Twist’s ears.
He drew it out and pressed the back of it to his ear, leaning against the wall. Closing his eyes, the complex workings of all its tiny springs, gears, and cogs filled his mind like a beautiful thought. He felt his form ease and release tensions that he hadn’t realized it had been holding, as the tiny, regular, heartbeat ticked softly against his ear.
The watch felt no fear. It didn’t realize that it was already far away from home. All of its thoughts were as cold and mechanical as its form; complex, methodical, and constant. Twist felt his heart ease as well as he opened himself to the little clockwork life in his hand, letting go of fears, both his own and external.
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