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Betrayal Aboard the Last Skymaster

A steampunk mystery that takes place entirely in flight

By R. J. RaniPublished about a year ago 9 min read
Runner-Up in Sky's the Limit Challenge
Midjourney AI + R. J. Rani

As the stars surrendered to the fiery brilliance of sunrise, Captain Anjali Chanthavong found herself relying on the porthole to determine their exact position. She peered through the circle of clear crystal, hoping for a break in the dense smog below.

The colossal Skymaster lumbered through the thin atmosphere, its shadow dancing across the dark, roiling mists at the foot of the Himalayan mountain range.


And there!

Using glimpses of the ground far below, Anjali calculated where they were and entered the location into the navigational instruments. The machine hummed with energy as little red lights lit up in a repeating sequence, signaling the need for a course correction.

Beside her, Gideon Keomany, the Skymaster’s co-pilot, sprang into action. He tapped buttons and adjusted levers to change their bearing.

The great ship groaned as it responded, belching plumes of hot white steam through gleaming bronze and copper spouts that fogged up her viewports.

When the steam cleared, Anjali looked through the porthole again to confirm their heading. This time, the lights blinked green.

All was well.

She sank into the captain’s chair and removed her boots, placing her bare feet into the grooves worn down by generations of Chanthavongs. While she couldn’t hear the roar and whistles of the engines through her thick earmuffs, from here, she could feel the thrum of the ancient machinery reverberating through the airship’s steel bones.

She gave Gideon the ‘all clear’ in sign language that the crew had adopted due to the deafening noise of the machinery.

He nodded, made a few more adjustments, and stood up. Anjali had to blink. Even now, she felt giddy at the thought of his broad shoulders and strong arms wrapped around her. When he caught her looking, Gideon smiled and then reached over to place his mechanical fingers gently on her sleeve.

He raised his eyebrows and peered into her eyes as though he were asking if she were alright.

Anjali laughed softly. "Of course, I’m fine," she signed, "I have you to protect me, don’t I?"

"Always," he signed back before pulling her off her seat and into his arms. He kissed her so soundly that it made her feel dizzy. When he began to pull away, she clung to him, her fingers curled around his shirt.

He grinned and gave her a quick peck on the bridge of her nose before untangling himself.

"I’ll be back shortly," he signed, tugging his thick jacket from its hook. "Wait for me here?"

Anjali nodded wordlessly and watched him put on his coat, pull on his goggles, and slip through the door into the great hull.

She settled herself back in her seat and looked out the pilot’s viewport. The land below was only occasionally visible when a gust of wind sliced through the noxious, turbulent gasses.

Beneath that, she knew, the earth was no more than a wasteland, ravaged by war, disease, and the relentless advance of technology and hubris. Humanity’s ancestors had fled to the sky. But now, even that sanctuary was dwindling.

A somber heaviness crept into her gut.

This would be the last trip her Skymaster would ever take. The last humans she’d bring to the peaks.

With a deep breath, Anjali ran her fingers along the polished teak wood and traced the intricate jali filigree that adorned its surface. The faithful vessel had been the only home she had ever known.

But soon, it would rest with the others, stripped and welded together to span the Himalayan peaks and expand the great platforms that formed the sprawling, floating metropolis of Vayaloka. The last stronghold of humanity.

In a few short hours, Vayaloka would emerge from the haze, perched high enough above the noxious wastelands to be safe for their new homes.

Will I find a new home? The thought pressed itself unbidden into her mind, and she squirmed.

A lump of tears threatened to push its way up her throat at the thought. She pressed her lips together tightly. There was nothing she could do about it.

At least, Anjali thought, at least I’ll have Gideon.

Just then, she felt something and sat up. A tremor, something out of the ordinary. Her eyes scanned dials and blinking monitors.

But there was nothing. Had she imagined it?

She was about to sit back when it happened again. It felt like a bump to her, as though something had run into the hull. Once again, she saw nothing on the radar. No blips, no alarm bells, no warning red lights.


Since Gideon hadn’t returned yet, she checked her bearings and flipped some switches to turn on autopilot. Satisfied, she began to pull on her boots when she felt the door open behind her.

She turned to ask Gideon about the tremors. Only, it wasn’t Gideon. It was the Skymaster’s youngest attendant, Uma Ratsamy.

"Captain," Uma signed, barely waiting for a greeting, "I... I found something."

The girl dug through the folds of her jacket, pulled out a sheet of crumpled, worn paper, and handed it to her.

Anjali’s breath caught in her throat.

She knew what it was by its distinct green edges before she’d even begun to read it. The Vriksha Jahn manifesto.

Her eyes scanned the first page, then the second. They all said the same thing in hastily scrawled letters:

We are the saviors of the earth.

We are the chosen ones, the vanguard, the ones who lead the charge to return to balance and harmony.

We will stop at nothing to achieve our goal.

The earth and all its creatures depend on us.

Those who stand in our way will be swept aside.

We are the future.

The future is now.

How had this gotten on board?

Anjali’s heart beat faster with remembered terror. What would the zealots do this time?

When she looked up to see Uma, the girl seemed equally panicked, her brows furrowed, eyes wide.

Anjali took off her earmuffs and pointed for Uma to do the same.

The roar of the machinery washed over them in an instant. The creaking of wood and metal, the clattering of chains, the clunk and thunk of the rhythmic thumping of pistons, the clanging of changing gears, the hissing of steam escaping from pipes and valves. And something else Anjali couldn’t quite place.

Anjali held the pieces of paper up to the attendant. “Where…” she began, then stopped to clear her voice, gravelly from disuse. “Where did you find these?”

“Everywhere, Captain,” Uma replied. “Everyone seems to have them. They’re all over the decks…”

“Hm,” Anjali said as she pulled on her boots.

“What if…” Uma said, barely daring to whisper. “What if they come back and… and…”

Anjali reached for her overcoat and swung it around her shoulders. “Well, let’s go look.”

When they stepped out, she could immediately see that Uma had been right. Green-rimmed pieces of paper fluttered along the deck like so many butterflies.

Anjali bent to pick a flier from the ground, her brow furrowed. Vriksha Jahn supporters must have smuggled the fliers on board at one of their stops and hidden them among the supplies.

Worried, she ran to the railing and looked over onto the lower decks.

Uma ran after her, only to see Anjali’s mouth open, staring.

“Gideon?” she finally said.

Beneath them, on the lower deck, standing among a small crowd of crew and passengers, stood Gideon. He held a stack of the green-rimmed fliers in his mechanical hand while he was signing with the other. A bright green bandana was tied around his upper arm.

Anjali did not wait to see more. She picked up the long skirts of her Anarkali and ran toward the stairs. Uma followed close behind, both ignoring the wind whipping around them as they raced down.

They reached the group, panting and out of breath. Anjali’s eyes were wide as she looked at Gideon, her heart pounding.

“Gideon…” she started, her voice barely audible over the cacophony of machinery. But as she looked around at those gathered, she didn't know what to say.

Gideon looked up from his signing, his eyes meeting hers. A flicker of something crossed his expression before he handed the stack of fliers to someone nearby and took off his earmuffs.

He reached for her, but she pulled away.

“I’m sorry, Anjali,” he said, his voice low, urgent. He didn't reach for her again, and she was grateful for that. “I didn’t mean to lie to you, but the Vriksha Jahn… they have a point. But all of their leaders are now jailed in Vayaloka…”

“And you thought… after what they did to us... to you and your hand… that you’d be the perfect leader?” Anjali was struggling to breathe, struggling to reconcile what she was seeing with what she knew.

Gideon looked away, rubbing his mechanical hand.

“Maybe not perfect,” he said, speaking slowly, “but someone had to do it. They were working on a plan, Anjali. A really good one. One that might just save the world for future generations. I mean, can you ima-”

“A plan,” Anjali repeated, giving him a blank stare.

“Yes! A plan!" Gideon's excitement did not abate, depsite her glower. "Look, look. These guys," he said, pointing to the Skymasters engineers, "built a focused air filtration system. Now, all we have to do is fly around with it on board, and gradually, over time, we clean up the atmosphere. See?" He pointed to the railing. “No, really, come see!”

Despite herself, Anjali found herself holding her breath. She was furious with Gideon, and her heart felt empty from his betrayal. But another part of her, the part that dreamt, wanted to believe what he was saying.

So, she inched forward and looked over the railing where he was pointing.

Far below, she could see the rising grey peaks of the lower Himalayan Range. “What do you mean-” she’d begun to say when she gripped the railing and looked harder, her eyes wide open.

She blinked, then looked again. The sight remained unchanged.

Uma joined her, then. “Wait..." she said, "Where did the gasses go?”

Anjali looked from Uma to Gideon, who stood grinning beside the engineers.

“Like I said,” Gideon said, his voice exhuberant, “we have a plan. But…”


“We need you, Anjali,” he said softly, reaching out to take her hand. “We need you to help us talk to the Vayalokan government, and we definitely need you to continue captaining the Skymaster and keep flying and healing the sky.”

Anjali could not believe what she was hearing. She looked around at all who were gathered, and the hope on their open faces also extended to hers. But that emptiness still lingered.

So, she pulled her hand away. “How can I even trust you, Gideon?”

“I… I’m sorry, Anjali.”

“Sorry? What if your ‘plan’ had destroyed the airship? Did you think about that?”

He looked at her mutely; chagrin etched in every feature of his handsome face.

Anjali took several steps back. She cleared her throat and then projected her voice as loudly as she could.“Everyone who was involved," she said, looking first at Gideon and the engineers, then at those who held a flyer, "is confined to quarters.”

“But-” Gideon began before Anjali cut him off.

“Everyone.” She repeated before turning toward the stairs to the flight deck. "Uma, you are temporarily promoted to be my co-pilot."

As they worked together to guide the great airship toward their destination, Anjali occasionally felt the unexpected tremors of the air filtration system travel the breadth of the hull. Every time, she'd look down through the porthole and stare at the mountain peeks and valleys that emerged from the smog.

"Beautiful," Uma would sign, looking at the sight with her.

"It really is." Anjali signed back.

So it was, that by the time Vayaloka appeared in the distant haze, hope had firmly taken root in Anjali’s heart. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps she could keep her home, grow her hope, and win back some of the world.

“We are the future,” she whispered, trying out the words of the Vriksha Jahn on her tongue. “And the future is now.”

Midjourney AI + R. J. Rani

Author's note:

Have you ever struggled trying to come up with a story idea for a Vocal contest prompt? Oh, did I struggle with this one. First, I tried dragons and their riders, then I tried some airplane settings, and hot balloons and geese. Many stories were born and died for the sake of this contest...

But, in the end, I had fun writing this story and exploring a steampunk, post-apocalyptic world. Did you enjoy reading it? What are your favorite parts?

I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below 🤗 Until then...

Always in your corner,

R. J. Rani

Sci FiShort StoryMystery

About the Creator

R. J. Rani

Hi there, thanks for reading my words! Here, you'll find fiction & nonfiction inspired by my life, travels, and imagination. If you like something I've written, please say so 🤗I love to hear from you.

Find me on Instagram and Ockelwog.

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Comments (19)

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  • Leslie Writesabout a year ago

    This was great. I read it aloud to my daughter. She is an enthusiastic environmentalist. We enjoyed your message and the vivid world you built in this story. I could hear the machinery. Great job and congrats on your win!

  • Kristen Balyeatabout a year ago

    R.J- this was absolutely wonderful! You painted such a beautiful picture with every word. It played out like a movie in my mind. Your characters are so lovable, I want to keep reading. I loved your ending, thought I was sad it was over! Wonderful work, as always, and congrats on placing in the challenge!! 💫

  • Nikkiabout a year ago

    This was wonderful and I could watch this if it were a film!

  • J. S. Wadeabout a year ago

    Masterful story telling. A foundation for a novel or screenplay for a streaming service. Congratulations on placing in the challenge. 🥇😎

  • L.C. Schäferabout a year ago

    I want to know more! Why did they cut off his hand? What else had they done? 😁

  • Roy Stevensabout a year ago

    That was great with just the right amount of steampunk details to make it even more fun than its already good plot. Your story is very cinematic R.J., and it could easily support a full novel length rendering. The setting is beautifully described. Congratulations!

  • Babs Iversonabout a year ago


  • Although many stories were born and died, I'm so glad you didn't give up! This story was so fantastic! Congratulations! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Ahna Lewisabout a year ago

    Congrats, R.J.! So excited to see another one of your excellent stories in the winner's circle! I really loved this one!

  • JBazabout a year ago

    Congratulation's. Though you struggled, I think you can now add You Succeeded. well done totally a great story with a future

  • Dana Stewartabout a year ago

    R.J. - this is an amazing story. Anjali is such a great character. You really have a cinematic scope to your writing, I can easily see this become a movie. P.s. the Midjourney art is spectacular! Congratulations on the win!

  • Loryne Andaweyabout a year ago

    This was a fascinating and nuanced tale, one that I can see expanded into a novel. Though you said that steampunk was not your genre, I executed gracefully. It's tough to pick what to describe in order to center the setting, but you gave us just enough for us to know where we are and what is happening. You don't go overboard with description and you don't rely on exposition either. You spin your tales with the hands of a master. Well done and well deserved!

  • Donna Reneeabout a year ago

    Awww I knew this was an amazing story!!! 🥰🥰🥰 congratulations!

  • Awesome ✨🎉😉❤️📝🎬Congratulations❗❗❗❗🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉✨🎉🎉

  • Sonia Heidi Unruhabout a year ago

    Woo hoo!!! Congratulations❣️ 🎊

  • Ahna Lewisabout a year ago

    I loved this, R.J.!! Your descriptions are stunning! I was immediately pulled into this carefully crafted world and already feel invested in the characters. Excellent work! Your descriptive talents really shine in these fantasy worlds. I'm so glad this was the idea you settled on in the end!

  • Donna Reneeabout a year ago

    I’m SO glad that you persevered!! I love the characters you built here and the images are literally stunning!!! 🥰🥰

  • Claire Guérinabout a year ago

    Steampuuuunk! Oh yeah!

  • Sonia Heidi Unruhabout a year ago

    Excellent worldbuilding! The steampunk ethos is skillfully rendered. Yet perhaps ironically some of my favorite parts are your descriptions of nature ..."As the stars surrendered to the fiery brilliance of sunrise ..." "its shadow dancing across the dark, roiling mists at the foot of the Himalayans" ... And I love the hopeful ending.

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