There’s a few things in Blueshift that aren’t immediately obvious to us, even if they’re commonplace for the people who live in the Rings. In this post I’ll talk about a couple of them.
Ether is a light, odorless, almost colourless gas that occupies the space between Islands. In small quantities, ether has mind-dulling properties: in greater amount it is harmful and can be deadly.
Ether is probably the most abundant material in the Rings, although it has few uses. It is sometimes used as abuoyancyy aid, either for Skyships or to fill balloons at parties. The other use of ether is as a drug.
Inhaled as-is, or in a mixture with air, ether will generally lead to stomach cramps, light-headedness, headaches or (in higher concentrations) unconsciousness. However, if you bubble the gas through water, you produce a saturated solution of ether, known as ether-water. By heating this solution and breathing the vapour, you’re able to imbibe ether in a relatively low dose. Symptoms of ether-water inhalation vary from race to race, but are generally characterised by drowsiness, a lack of motivation, disaffection, and in extreme cases mild hallucination. A number of churches and some governments decry this practise, claiming that it leads to the ruin of societies, degradation of moral character, etc. etc.. Its criminality varies from place to place.
A more concentrated form of ether can be produced by condensing the gas under pressure and forming a colloid with sap from one of a specific number of trees. The resultant ether-sap is a luxuriant dark-orange colour, quite hard, and lustrous. Over time the material loses its lustre, although it can be easily restored by chipping away the very surface of the sap. Ether-sap is usually stored as a chunk until needed: then the sap is ground into a powder, dissolved in hot water, cooled to room temperature and administered via injection. Partaking in ether-sap tends to lead to intense visions and hallucinations, but can also be dangerous. An overdose of ether-sap can result in convulsions, unconsciousness, internal bleeding, and in some cases death.
As with ether-water, the legality of ether-sap varies from place to place and race to race. In some places its use is considered a sign of sophistication, while in others it’s shameful or outlawed.
Lodestone is a rather nondescript material: it’s not particularly hard, nor is it malleable, nor is it pretty to look at. What is special about lodestone is what it does to other materials.
Lodestone attracts matter. Other matter attracts matter - gravity is still a thing - but lodestone does it more. It’s not particularly heavy or anything, but if you put a lump of lodestone and a lump of something else close to each other, slowly - ever so slowly - they’ll roll together. If you get enough lodestone together - say, a lump the size of a child - you can feel it pulling at you. And if you have enough of it in one spot, it’ll pull everything around it - rocks, people, and air - into its embrace.
Lodestone is important because without it we wouldn’t have the Islands on which we live. Every island has a core of lodestone which keeps the rest of it anchored in place. Without lodestone, no island would have an atmosphere, and dirt and rocks would easily be dislodged and flung into the ether.
The various races of the Rings have found their own novel uses for lodestone. A number of lodestone-containing minerals exist, and these can often be found shallowly-buried or scattered on the surface of islands. They can be detected from a few feet away (depending on the size and lodestone content of the mineral) by use of a rock on a piece of string - although this method takes some skill as the bearer must differentiate between motion caused by movement and motion caused by the mineral itself. A number of seers, sages, diviners and other such professions have claimed the ability to divine the location of these minerals.
One major use of lodestone is in the base of Skyships. Far from the influence of islands, these ships lose any sense of “down”, causing disorientation, sickness and panic in sailors. By filling the ballast with stocks of lodestone or lodestone-containing minerals, these ships are able to restore a sense of direction and gravity.
I’ve mentioned the Skyships, but I haven’t said much about them yet.
Skyships are the vessels that take us from island to island, through the poisonous sea of the ether. They’re often just referred to as ships: not every island has a body of water large enough to warrant sea-going ships, but every island knows of the skyships drifting down from heaven.
Skyships are functionally somewhere between zeppelins and submarines. They come in a number of different shapes and sizes, varying from race to race: Valari naval vessels are reknowned for their long, sweeping lines and statuesque beauty, while your generic Kulach trader resembles nothing more than a somewhat streamlined cigar shape. While skyships may have an exterior observation deck or two to coordinate landing and casting off, all main parts of the ship are enclosed in its main body.
The interior layout of a skyship depends on its purpose. Military ships will have reundant bridges, magazines, gun ports (sometimes evacuated to the ether, with crew wearing cumbersome breathing apparatus, sometimes not), reinforced bulkheads and blasting doors, and comprehensive systems of speaking tubes. Trading vessels will have bulky holds and more spacious cabins for crew and passengers. Scout ships and couriers will be smaller, with the majority of the internal space given over to engines and fuel.
Since ether is only marginally less dense than air, a hull breach is both more and less dangerous in the ether than if it occurred in a void. A hull breach is not followed by rapid escape of air, nor will it weaken and enlarge over time. However, a small hull breach may go unnoticed, resulting in slow air loss or contamination. Ether poisoning is subtle enough that untrained crews have been known to perish because of an overlooked leak. Engineers will often carry a jar or box of phlenum dust, a chalk-white powdered substance that forms a dark blue amalgam with ether. By tossing the dust in the air, leaks (or at least the presence of ether) can be detected. In addition, massive air loss is evident by the striations it causes in the surrounding ether - enough that nearby ships can see it.
Oxygen storage is another concern. Most ships can easily store enough oxygen for one or two weeks’ travel, but ships designed for long voyages can hold up to a month, or sometimes even more.
You need to get around, and there’s only so many ways to do that. Here are the two ways ships can move:
- Sails. Behir’s warmth (such that it is) provides giant, slow-moving convections of ether and other gasses. By bearing sails of Kolcha-cloth, small ships can catch the currents and, with a competent helmsman, travel from island to island. It should be noted that this method only works for small ships who operate close to Behir - the closer, the better. Smugglers often use Kolcha-cloth, since this means their ships are less detectable (no emissions). A tactic used (especially around the Fragments) is to dive into seas or pockets of dense gas and either circumvent patrols or out-wait them, while keeping the craft inside the gas cloud.
- Engines. Either gas- or coal-powered, the engines in this case power giant turbines mounted along the sides and the rear of the craft, pushing her forward. While such engines require fuel (which in turn weighs the ship down) and produce exhaust fumes, they are considerably more reliable than sails, and scale much more reliably.
Many large ships have supplementary sails, which increase fuel efficiency. Warships tend to stow sails before battle, as they provide tempting and hard-to-defend targets for opponents.
Ships need to land sometimes, and when they do they will eventually need to take off again. To aid in this, most ships have some method for storing compressed ether. When ships need to take off, this ether is let back out, either into special “launch balloons”, or into internal chambers that run the length of the craft. These displace air and allow the ship to float to the edge of the island’s atmosphere, at which point engines can take over.
Some ships (typically warships) have no buoyancy controls. These ships must be serviced at dry docks.
Oh gosh, I’ve gone on for about fifteen hundred words. I think I’ll call it a day here for how we get around in Blueshift. Next time, maybe I’ll talk about some of the races that inhabit this place.