Part I: Airship Down.
The boy lie still on a cot surrounded by low candles and incense. Aside from the slow, steady movements of his chest he was like a corpse, unmoving, and free of the tiny motions made by healthy sleepers. Sokka had seen the Avatar like this before, when his spirit had left his body for another world.
"See you later, buddy," he said knowing wherever Aang was he could not hear. "I'll get 'em for ya."
The metal hinged door to Aang's room closed with a creak and he left the stifling air of the ship's lower portion. On the ship's deck the air was warm and made him feel uncomfortable in his furs. He took the outer layer off, not wanting to work up a sweat so soon before leaving for colder climates.
Men in Fire Nation uniforms patrolled the deck as he moved towards a large red cloth that had been stretched over a lumpy shape that grunted every so often. From behind it stepped a dark-skinned girl with eyes the color of sea ice. "You know this is stupid, right?" his sister, Katara, said.
"That's what everyone keeps telling me," he replied. This argument had already been played out and Katara had lost.
She crossed her arms as a gust of wind tossed her hair loops over her face. She reminded him of their mother.
"Well, maybe you should listen," said Katara.
He knelt near the large cloth covering Appa, the sky bison, and double checked to make sure he had everything with him he would need. Once the cloth was off Appa's back he would have to go immediately as real Fire Nation ships were still patrolling the waters.
"This has to be done," Sokka said, repeating his old arguments. "We have to know more about what we're going to be up against when we strike back."
"This goes against everything we talked about," Katara said. "They think Aang is...dead. Let them think we're beaten, too."
"They won't even know I'm there," said Sokka,
The ship they were on which they had highjacked had contained valuable information about the Fire Nation's future plans. There had been logs and missives indicating that the military's researchers had taken the concept behind the war balloon and expanded it, building a larger version more suited to warfare.
Hundreds of feet long, kept aloft by heated gas, the things were flying battle ships capable of dropping explosives over targets and giving firebenders a platform on which to attack from the air. A prototype was scheduled to be flying near the South Pole within the next two weeks and Sokka had convinced everyone he was going to spy on it and learn it's true capabilities. What he had not said was that he intended to see it on the ground and in flames before the week was out. He hoped no one had taken too close a look at the supplies he had packed as there wasn't much blasting jelly had to do with a scouting trip.
"So you're off, then?" said his father, Hakoda, who came around behind Katara. He took off the Fire Nation helmet he wore and smiled before his eyes dipped to his daughter and sadness tinted his features.
"If you'll excuse me," Katara said, her face hardening without looking at her father. She walked away.
"Yeah," Sokka said, now truly doubting the wisdom of his plan. "Should take me a week to get there if the weather holds out and nothing happens. Appa's been taking it easy so he should be fine."
"And assuming they stick to the schedule we found. Things like that change, you know."
He sighed, wishing someone would try to talk him into doing this. "If there were more details in the notes we found, I'd stay, but we have to see what these things can really do or if it's just wishful thinking on their part."
"I trust you're judgment," said Hakoda. "But I took the liberty of packing the blasting jelly a little tighter. You don't want to jiggle it." He said the last in a low voice, without moving his lips much.
Sokka turned red but felt better. "Thanks. I won't take any chances, promise."
His father smiled and patted his shoulder. He signaled for some men to lift the cloth covering Appa and Sokka climbed into Appa's saddle where the rest of his provisions were packed. He took the reigns and said "Yip-yip!" telling Appa to go skyward. The bison did so with a groan, and was sluggish in gaining altitude.
"We'll see Aang soon, big guy," Sokka said. "Let's go give the Fire Nation some payback."
Two days into his journey and Sokka began to think Appa was not going to get over his funk. He knew it was being so far from Aang while he was hurt that was causing it, and while Sokka almost thought the bison understood what was going on, no soothing words from Sokka seemed to help. Even so they made better time than Sokka had anticipated. Bruise colored thunderheads seemed to keep their distance like packs of polar bear dogs and the clouds to the south took on a yellow-pink tinge. The air blowing around him slowly sharpened itself making him draw up his hood closer to the evening hours when it grew colder.
He and Appa reached the frozen south lands a day early and Sokka considered making a bid for his home village but decided it was too far. He brought Appa down to set on an iceberg where he ate his fill of rations, fed Appa, and rolled a map of the polar region over the bison's saddle. He'd brought the notes discovered on the ship and began double checking the airship's planned route. He knew this was to be a test of how the machine worked in cold weather and at high altitudes. To that end it intended to fly over a high mountain range almost at the south pole itself.
He spent that afternoon re-reading the schematics he had brought with them. They were the originals and he had been thinking bringing them was a mistake until he noticed something he had not seen before. Scrawled in light markings on one of the margins was a note. "More armor on top. Air attacks not ruled out."
"Perfect," Sokka muttered, trying to find some indication of how thick the armor plating on the top of the balloon really was. Perhaps they had never been able to implement that design feature. Sokka shook his head, remembering they still did not know who these plans had belonged to or what they were doing aboard that particular ship.
His plan had been to fly above the airship and drop a few loads of blasting jelly onto it. As reckless one-man attack plans went he thought it was pretty safe, especially as the Fire Nation would not be expecting it. He took a swig from a canteen as Appa grunted, and studied the plans harder, thinking about how he would armor a balloon fearing it would be attacked from above.
By the time night crept over the ice he had several plans memorized, one for each situation he could think of and all being solved with application of more blasting jelly, perhaps more directly by landing on the top of the airship itself and packing it in. He had brought extra jelly and went to sleep knowing that he was many things, prepared being one of them.
To be continued...