He remembered when he was younger how his Grandfather spoke of the world below them. He would tell stories of green forests and clear water, the feeling of grass and dirt between his toes. He would tell him about long Sunday afternoon car rides that would take them out of the city and up into the mountains, about floating down the Salt River and enjoying the weather and sounds around him. His Grandfather always told the stories with his eyes closed and the biggest smile ever seen spread wide across his old, weathered face.
Ashleigh Coral missed his Grandfather still, even though it had been almost a year. His Father, Ever, had taken on the constant chore of running the giant floating city that Ashleigh has lived on since the day he was born, and his Mother, Matilda, was always busy caring for the young twins. The last year had been rough on them all, but Ashleigh, especially, had one great thing to look forward to. Today is the first day of spring and his 15th birthday was last month. Today is the day he can finally begin his training. Today he can take that first step to becoming the one thing he has always wanted be, an Aeronaut.
His Father was a member of the Aeronautical Corps for a short time when Ashleigh was a baby, but it was his Grandfather who put the love of flying into Ash. He would bundle him up as a baby and take him out against his parent's wishes, he had given him his first rig when he was only seven, and Matilda disposed of it shortly afterwards. It was all he had he had ever dreamed of doing, and all he could think about on this cool spring morning as he got himself ready. Noah Coral was his idol, and the greatest man Ashleigh had ever known.
Ash finished buckling up his boots and grabbed his Grandfather's old jacket off of his bed before heading out the door. It was still too big for him, even after his Mom had mended and tucked it, but he loved it all the same and wore it everywhere he went. He takes the ladders up to the main deck of Coral City, many of the new elevator lifts were still being installed and the crowds made Ash nervous. The climb took about five minutes but he was used to it and liked the exercise it provided, as he opened the latch to the deck, the cool, fresh air of the Atlantic greeted him.
Like many of the Balloon Cities, Coral City floated in the same general airspace all the time. While they could move anywhere they wanted, the use of fuel and risk of invading pirate and unfriendly airspace made it easier to just stay where they were, and it helped when dealing with other cities to always know where they were. Coral City was one of the first balloons to launch, and was the successful model all the other cities followed. It had been 30 years since the last city launched, and nearly that long since anyone had gone to the surface.
Shortly after the final cities were in place, a need for trading, communication and commerce was established and a new group was formed to serve those purposes. The Global Aeronautical Corps was established and in the decades since, their adventures and exploits have become legendary. Men and women like Jackson Claymore, Elizabeth Broadside, Noah Coral, Pepper May and Hal “Hurricane” Noodle. Children listen to their adventures on the radio, tell their tales over supper and read about their adventures in magazines. An entire generation was raised on their exploits and the popularity of the Corps is at an all-time high. The first class of Aeronauts consisted of only fifteen brave individuals; today Ash must compete with over twenty-five other youngsters to get one of the five spots open this year to represent Coral City.
Looking around at the crowded main deck, Ash smiles out at the clouds, the weather was perfect for flying. No rain and little wind would help everyone pass their initial flight tests, but from there, Ash hopes his natural ability will push him to the top of the class. The main deck, like always, is packed with residents of Coral City as well as ambassadors and merchants from other cities. The deck is home to many of the city’s’ businesses and trading posts. Anything you might ever need can be found there among the booths, awnings and buildings. Scents of cinnamon, soups and citrus fill the air as noises of exotic animals and the beautiful sound of a dozen different languages greet your ears. Ash loves his city and everything about it and has never thought once about living anywhere else. Being the oldest Coral child in his family, he knows one day that it will all be his to take charge of, and he welcomes the challenge when that day comes. Today, however, his thoughts were focused on the Aeronauts.
Being an Aeronaut requires three very specific skills: balance, a strong heart for solitude and an ability to be fearless. It takes a brave soul to float a mile in the air, relying only on a small propane tank and an inflatable balloon to keep you afloat. Balance is key in keeping your rig going in the right direction and to be able to accurately ride the currents. Most important however, solitude is something an Aeronaut must be comfortable with as they are often alone for days and sometimes weeks at a time while traveling from city to city. Ash remembers a story his grandfather told him about when a pirate city chased him off course and he spent three weeks trying to navigate back to Coral City while eluding the pirates. The great Aeronaut Hurricane Noodle was famous for writing fourteen volumes of his memoirs over his twenty-three years in the sky, all best-sellers and all collected in gold leaf hardcover editions in Ash’s bedroom.
In addition to the mental and physical attributes an Aeronaut needs, his single most important tool is his rig. A rig is the nickname for a Personal Aeronautical Mechanism, or P.A.M. The P.A.M. is a very small version of a hot-air-balloon and uses the same technology that allows the giant floating cities to stay afloat. It consists of a small balloon that is tethered to a single burner that superheats the air and forces it into the balloon to keep the rig in the air. Below the rig is a single person cockpit with a small container for personal effects and food, as well as a package compartment for the Aeronauts’ deliveries. The Aeronauts uses his or her own knowledge of the sky and winds to get to their destination. An Aeronauts’ rig is treated like a member of the family and is usually taken care of better than the family pet. Many Aeronauts have been known to name their rigs and usually spend hours talking to them during lonely flights over the Atlantic. Ash knows that his old childhood rig was nothing compared to the beautiful, new one he was going to get today.
Ash makes his way through the crowds and vendors, saving time by cutting through the greenhouse that encapsulated the very center of the deck, much to the disapproval of the head gardener, Olivier. As he rushes pass Michelin the grocer he grabs an apple off of the table, promising to pay for it later in the day. After pushing past a few dignitaries from neighboring Kibuh and ducking under a few of the monstrous anchoring cables, Ash finally makes it to the deck at the front of the city. A small group of other hopefuls as well as a few Aeronauts are there, Ash is one of the first to arrive and his promptness gets acknowledged with a nod by Tiberus, the head instructor. After a few minutes, the rest of the new kids show up and Tiberus is ready to begin.
“Listen up recruits!” he yells, his voice is possibly the loudest Ash has ever heard. “Today you take the first step towards the most important moment of your young lives, today you take the first strides towards becoming Aeronauts. Two years from now, if you are still standing before me, I will welcome you as equals and as fellow fliers of the sky. The training is hard, lonely and dangerous, but if you make it, it’s all worth it, believe me. There is no better feeling that floating along the N’oreaster or the Helm Wind. The sky will be your office and world will be yours to explore. Now turn to the crates behind you, inside you will find your manuals and the key to the locker that holds your training rig.”
At once, all twenty-five youngsters turn on their heels and sprint as fast as they can towards the crates at the east end of the deck. Stumbling through the crowd, Ash gets tripped up and hits the deck hard. His face is already turning red as he stands up and feels a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“Let’s hope you fly better than you walk Mr. Coral, there are high hopes for you.” Tiberus says as he pats Ash’s shoulder.
“Yes sir.” Ash says as he slowly walks over to the last remaining crate. Inside he finds a thick, dusty brown leather book that feels like it weighs a ton. There is no writing on the cover and only the familiar winged “A” logo identifying it as an Aeronauts manual. Underneath it lay a rusted key imprinted with the number 13 attached to a leather clip. Ash tries to hide his smile as he clips it to his jacket. He quickly turns and runs back to join the other recruits in formation at the opposite end of the deck.
The rest of the morning is spent going over safety procedures, rules and regulations. When they finally get around to discussing flying, Ash is surprised to find out that he is the only recruit there with any solo flying experience; even it was limited to a toy rig built by his grandfather. He decides not to tell anyone, it is hard enough to be the future Governor of the city, now he has the expectations of being a great Aeronaut to deal with as well. After a few hours, Tiberus and the other two instructors, Sheik and Molly wrap up the class and order the recruits to go down to the Aeronauts launch level to pick up their training rigs. Taking care of your rig, they said, is as important as anything else they will learn, and their rig will be with them for the entire two years, if they were lucky enough to make it that long.
Tiberus dismisses them and they all hurry toward the lifts to go retrieve their rigs. Ash runs in the opposite direction and starts descending the old ladder towards the launch level. As he climbs down he cannot help but think of his beautiful and shiny new P.A.M., and how together, they will begin the great adventure Ash has been hoping for his whole life.
The ladder takes longer than Ash expected and by the time he gets to the launch level he wishes he had taken the lift. The other recruits are already there, looking over their packs and talking impatiently about when they would get to release the balloon and take flight. The packs are clean, with dark leather straps and sparkling silver buckles, and the familiar Aeronauts logo on the back. Ash rushes through the crowd, finally getting to locker #13. He takes a deep breath and inserts the old key into the lock. As he opens the door the P.A.M. came tumbling out, knocking him over.
Laughter erupts all around as he looks up to see the other recruits looking at him. “Lucky number thirteen huh Ash, why do you think we all skipped that one?” a dark haired boy named Ethan said, “Everyone knows that thirteen is the oldest, most jinxed balloon there is. Maybe if you had ever gotten your head out of the clouds long enough, you might have known that.”
A couple other kids chuckle and turn away to admire their own rigs, Ash gets up and brushes himself off, shooting a quick glance at Ethan, who had turned away. Looking down now, and finally getting a good look at #13, Ash is heartbroken. The dark leather straps are worn and cracking, and the silver buckles are tarnished and rusting. Ash cannot see how this thing could fly, much less keep him safe in the air, and for a few seconds, he actually wishes he could have his old toy rig instead.