"Whoops!" John braced himself as a tipsy Rodney McKay leaned heavily on his shoulder, talking non-stop in his ear. John figured Rodney would either tire soon or lose his voice, already a little slurred. He tightened his grip on the rifle Rodney had adapted to fire gobs of burning pitch – the burgeoning air-traffic over Atlantis had brought pirates and other brigands across from the mainland so it was as well to be prepared.
He snapped his fingers and caught the eye of a passing balloon-taxi operator who tipped his cap and began trickling sand off the side of the basket to drop the vehicle to the level of the embarkation platform. Balloons were cheap and numerous but they were clumsy to maneuver and John watched critically as the balloon dipped and rose, slewing about until it was close enough for a scrawny teenage stevedore to grab the rope and tie the basket to steel bollards protruding out laterally from the platform's edge.
The operator flipped the kid a copper coin: the docking fee, and John gave him the same again as a tip, while coaxing Rodney over to the waiting balloon. Stevedores were paid next to nothing and it was dangerous work manning the platforms, high up on the city's towers and with no guard rail, just a tangled nest of ropes hanging off the sides to catch hold of if you fell. He should know: he'd done it for a season when he was sixteen, after running away from home before he was old enough to join the city's Airship Force. A very long time ago, and now he was a Colonel, decorated and retired from active duty, responsible for getting his somewhat worse for wear engineer back home and safely to bed.
"C'mon, Rodney," he coaxed. "Here's the basket. Take the nice man's hand and just step forward. He'll catch you."
"I hate this part," said Rodney plaintively, clutching John's uniform in a death-grip. They were both dressed up to the nines after the meeting with Elizabeth Weir, Mayor of Atlantis, and General Jack O'Neill, the Airship Force's Chief of Staff. Rodney's top hat was slightly askew, giving him a rakish air, and John grinned at him.
"You've been clambering in and out of airships all your life McKay, and you've just designed the sweetest craft of all, so let's move it along here. I wanna get you home before it's fully dark."
McKay pouted. "I have a perfectly legitimate phobia, Colonel, about, oh, falling several hundred feet to be messily and terminally impaled on the railings below! We can't all be daredevil aeronauts like yourself!"
John rolled his eyes and gave Rodney a little push down the folding wooden steps into the basket, where the operator, now grinning broadly, caught him by the arms and plumped him down on a waiting seat. Rodney, who'd shrieked indignantly at the push, subsided into a muttering huddle, clutching his hat and squeaking again as John jumped down beside him, setting the basket rocking.
"Where to, General?" asked the air-cabbie, catching the untied mooring ropes flung to him by the young stevedore.
John tipped the kid a salute then turned to their driver. "The West Pier, please, central tower." He didn't bother to correct the rank – cabbies preferred flattery to accuracy.
"Right you are." The man busied himself, setting a long, lit taper to the fuse of an oil-fired steam engine hung high above their heads. The fuse caught and steam began to trickle out of the rear vent, but it would take a few minutes before the pressure was sufficient for steam jets to grant the balloon a modicum of power steering. Meanwhile they rose well clear of the mooring platform, drifting a little nor-east in the evening breeze. John peered up at the motor. It was grimy and well-used, but he knew that if he cleaned it down he'd find McKay-Sheppard Engineering stencilled on the side. It was engines like this that had given them the funds to build the jumpers.
"'s cold," muttered Rodney beside him, shivering and cuddling into his side. His topper had fallen off and John picked it up and dusted it, setting it carefully on the seat beside them. He reached under the bench and located a woolen blanket, pulling it out and wrapping it around himself and Rodney, whose head now rested on John's shoulder. The trip back to their tower would take the better part of an hour and it would be colder as they ascended to avoid the worst rush-hour traffic.
"Those brandies wearing off then?" John enquired, pulling Rodney more firmly against him, enjoying the warm weight down his side and their thighs pressed together under the blanket.
Rodney opened a bloodshot eye – in fairness, more due to lack of sleep than alcohol. "Had to drink a toast or two. Big day." He slid his arms around John's waist and John settled them back into the worn leather cushions, stretching his legs out across the slatted floor of the basket as the balloon rose and the sky's orange became tinged with red as the sun slid lower.
"Yeah," said John softly, kissing the soft hair above Rodney's ear. "You got that right. Big day for a big damn genius." Rodney made a pleased, drowsy noise and relaxed further against him. A minute later he was snoring softly.
Big goddam day. Because how often did you get to sign a deal with the city of Atlantis to produce two dozen steam-jet driven airships that could reach speeds of fifty miles an hour. Fifty. Rodney was the master-mind of course, but John had helped refine the details and test-driven their prototype, PJ. Rodney'd wanted to called them steamjet airships but John had vetoed that as way too boring, so now they were puddlejumpers. Atlantis was a floating city after all, held up by huge steel air-filled ballast tanks and stabilized against storms by massive vanes of wood and metal plunging thirty feet down into the ocean. Safe from marauders on land, and now, with McKay-Sheppard jumpers to defend her, she'd be safe from pirates by sea or air. Even those Genii bastards would think twice about taking them on, thanks to the blasters built into the puddlejumpers' undercarriages.
The next months would be busy with Rodney overseeing the builds and John training up flight-crews. Busy, but productive, and John didn't regret having resigned his commission and retired from active service on the steam-paddle airships. The jumpers were so sleek and powerful, it was like riding a champion thoroughbred compared to an old worn out cart-horse, the ship wonderfully maneuverable under his hands so that it almost felt alive.
Time enough for all that. For now, he was content to rest here, high above his city as the sun set in a blaze of red and orange. Rodney was a warm snuffling weight beside him under the blanket, welcome and heavy and smelling of their bed. John smiled and closed his eyes, tightening his arms around his friend, and rested his cheek on Rodney's soft, thinning hair as the balloon turned, the McKay-Sheppard patented engine puttering gamely above their heads as it powered them slowly home.