Bertha Ryder flew her biplane Madame Stork out beyond the edge of the Asphalt Sea. She’d buzzed a pufferfish blimp on the way, laughing at the startled faces of the crew. The fish had sucked in air and they gained altitude quickly. Below her she’d spied a sandsail with some sort of dinosaur on it. All in all, a lot more traffic out this way than she usually passed.
There. She grinned. The Orphanage at the End of the World. She always tried to rattle the windows there; she knew the kids needed some excitement in their lives. She dropped altitude, hovering over the shimmering blacktop of the sea. The rickety house loomed ahead. Closer, closer.
Bertha yanked back on the stick, pulling the plane up and over the house, missing it by just a few feet.
There was a reason the corps trusted her with the most dangerous assignments.
She took a few barrel rolls for fun and then settled back into her seat. Time to get serious. Home would be showing up soon.
The ground dropped away below her into an endless abyss. She’d tried flying to the bottom once, but never reached it. But there, up and beyond the end of the world, stood the cloud hangers, where the clouds came in at night and went out again. She zoomed past them, avoiding a few thunder blasts. A few of the clouds didn’t take a liking to her whizzing through them.
Over and past the cloud hangers. To her left hung the Northern Oracle, where Atreyu’s younger brother brooded for eternity. His brother’s story might be neverending, but his never even started.
And there, as a bright pinprick on the dark, dark horizon, she saw home. The Baby Factories.
It’d be good to pull in and get refueled. Find the next assignment. Maybe even get some shut-eye and some coffee. Good coffee, maybe. Bertha stretched her neck, cracked her knuckled, and tried stretching her legs.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
Madame Stork sighed as she caught sight of home in the distance.
“We’re almost there, girl.” Bertha patted the dash. “I’ll make sure they give you the full treatment.”
The needle on the gauge hung right next to the E. It always did; one trip from here to anywhere and back again was always a tank. Always. She’d be on fumes when she landed.
Bertha shrugged. It’s just the way it was.
The white dot widened to a vista of glorious domes and spires filled with gleaming clockwork that glowed as if in the noonday sun. And yawning open nearest were the gigantic hangers where the corps kept their mounts. This time of day it should be bristling with hovercraft, dragons, griffins, and all sorts of flying contraptions.
Bertha would never trade Madame Stork for anything else, though. Bertha was made for the plane.
She squinted into the distance. She didn’t see much movement, but that was all right. Maybe it was a busy day and more of the corps were out than normal.
Madame Stork sputtered.
“Relax, girl. You know you’ll make it just fine.”
She twitched just a little.
“Fine.” Bertha reached for the radio. “Madame Stork to Mamma Bear. We’re coming in and low on fuel. Please have emergency fuel reserves ready for us and set up the nets to catch us.” She clicked off the radio. “There. Happy, you baby?”
The plan sighed.
They approached the hanger. No, it seemed empty. Bertha didn’t notice any movement at all.
Madame Stork’s engines cut out. Bertha pulled on the stick and set her flaps to glide in. She landed softly on the tarmac.
No one came to greet them.
No nets had been set up.
Bertha reached for the radio again. “Mamma Bear, do you copy?”
Bertha climbed out of the cockpit, pulling the goggles from her face. Not even the sound of wind interrupted the silence.
The Baby Factories at the edge of existence… were abandoned.
This is a Barrelbottom Tale.