THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
by Joyce Chng
By noon, everyone clustered near the auditorium, waiting for more news. A major factory, situated near London central, had exploded. It was a factory processing metals and ores. Alethia said that there was an explosion of red and orange in her head, just when the jolt hit the academy. It scared her to the core and her face was still ashen.
Captain Sagan regrouped her College and gave them words of comfort and encouragement. It was an Age of Invention and Discovery. But nobody said anything about Safety and Health. The air smelled distinctly of burning and of metal.
The leo-fins had been dispatched to help with the firefighting. London burned with a ghastly yellow-green light, turning the layer of smog into something out from Hell. There were the faint sounds of bells as water-bearing teams rushed to extinguish the raging fire.
For a while, lectures were suspended as some of the lecturers had gone to pilot the leo-fins. Even Captain Sagan took her leave and left with her leo-fin to help combat the fire.
The academy throbbed with undercurrents of disquiet and fear. There was a sense of desolation in the academy grounds and in the Manor while the whole of London was in turmoil. Fortunately, no more explosions followed and by late night, the fire was contained.
Everyone – even the cook and her maids – kept vigil, watching the skies for the returning leo-fins. In the cold Autumn night, students huddled together in small groups, sitting around gas lamps and watching their breaths plume white in the air. Alethia was the most affected – her father was in London central. She perched, white and silent, beside Katherine who draped a blanket around her thin shoulders and only prayed for the best.
Suddenly, Alethia became ramrod straight and said, “Rainbows. They are back.”
Immediately, someone shouted and pointed at the skies. “They are back! They are back!”
Eyes peered into the foggy darkness lit intermittently with flashes of yellow-green. There were bright spots in the sky, like stars. The stars gradually became brighter and brighter, until they became the form of lamps on leo-fins. A flight of leo-fins, all six of them, appeared, bold as courage, and lifting everyone’s spirits instantly. Everyone cheered and watched the leo-fins land in a disciplined V-formation on the Flying Field.
Doctor Ash strode forward, medical bag in hand, in case of any injury on the part of the pilots. The first to appear was Pilotmaster Lee, pulling his dark goggles off from his tanned face tiredly. The second was Captain Sagan who had her right arm in a makeshift sling and causing a few pangs of horror in the breasts of her College students. Ash spoke to the pilots quietly and examined Sagan’s arm with a careful eye, nodding as he listened to her exhausted explanation.
A few other pilots followed slowly behind the more senior pilots, their bodies showing signs of weariness. Their leather uniforms were covered with soot and one or two looked as if they had very minor burns.
Students surged forward to their lecturers, questions on their tongues, eager to know what had happened. Lee’s face had a warm smile though.
“The Queen is safe. Buckingham Palace is far from the fire and Her Majesty is away at Windsor.” He said, accepting a bowl of hot clear broth from Cook thankfully.
Alethia pushed herself forward. “Sir?”
“Miss Forrester, your father is safe,” Sagan’s voice was calm and Alethia’s furrowed brow became smooth.
After this brief interlude, the pilots were led back to the Manor by Doctor Ash, no doubt for further questions and examinations. Katherine tugged Alethia gently on the arm. It was past Last Light and she was starting to feel really sleepy. The wave of excitement was finally fading away.
It was then she got sight of a familiar face, amongst the few pilots straggling from behind.
“Eddington!” Katherine breathed and the familiar face turned to face her, surprise writ on the handsome features.
“It was very hot, like hell-fire. We had to fly directly above the flames, just to pitch the water in. It was quite a challenge! Wes got himself burned when he flew too closely to the fire but it was a minor burn.”
Richard Eddington sat with a mug filled with warm cider and a bowl of beef stew, courtesy from Cook. It was noontime when Katherine had the opportunity to meet him. The lectures and lessons were back in schedule.
He had scrubbed up well and was looking like his old dapper self. He had changed his uniform for a simple brown coat and trousers, looking like a relaxed gentleman out on an afternoon jaunt. Only the dark shadows around his eyes spoke eloquently of his exhaustion.
They had met before. It felt like another lifetime. In fact, Eddington had flown her over from Dorset to London.
“The fire was hard to contain. It was a raging beast. But by Jove, we tamed the beast!” Eddington said with a bright grin and drank the cider deeply.
“You made it sound as if it was a walk in the park!” Katherine laughed.
“Well, it is part of a pilot’s job, doing chores and running errands, even something as big as this fire.” Eddington tasted the stew and began to shove it down with gusto. “Just look at you. You look different!”
Katherine felt self-conscious and stared at her booted feet. Her face blushed, a slow heat pooling in her cheeks.
“You have become more … self-secure.” Katherine did not like Eddington’s expression as he gazed at her appreciatively. “Definitely more self-secure.”
“Richard Eddington!” She snapped at him. Within her chest, something blossomed, something like joy.
The man laughed and went back to his beef stew. Katherine sat quietly, watching him. A shadow fell across the table and it was Captain Sagan, her arm still in the sling.
“Now, Mister Eddington,” Sagan was half-amused, half-stern. “It is unseemly of you to sit with female students.”
“Captain Sagan, madame!” Eddington stood up and snapped to attention. His eyes though gleamed with mischief. “I was once a student!”
“Not anymore, young scoundrel,” Sagan’s tone remained stern, even though her lips curled up slightly. “You are a proper pilot now. Should you be on a flight run by now?”
“Aw,” he rubbed his jaw. “A tired pilot makes a careless pilot.”
“Do not be glib,” Sagan shook her head. “Just for a hour and no more.” She saluted and walked away slowly.
Katherine stared at him. “You are impossible.” She stood up, preparing for the afternoon lectures. She was about to leave with her dignity still intact when he spoke.
“So, we will meet again?”
The activities before Last Light buzzed mainly about the London factory fire, everyone with their own theories of the origins of the fire. Some said that the factory was an ammunitions factory and something caught fire in that, causing the inevitable explosion. Some said that the fire was just a careless mistake, caused by negligence. Everyone became quiet and wondered to their selves if the company who owned the factory was to be shut down. The broadsheet writers and the union movements would have aired their irate complaints by now.
Alethia retired early, drained by the aftereffects of the fire. Katherine made her way out of the Manor, to catch some fresh air, suddenly finding the dormitory hall too warm and stifling to her liking.
Richard Eddington left in an hour, exactly as he had promised Captain Sagan. Katherine saw his leo-fin lift off and disappear into the distance. She was surprised to feel a sense of bittersweet melancholia and suppressed the feeling quickly.
It amazed her that she could still see snatches of stars in the night sky. London was normally cloudier than Dorset, because of the greater numbers of factories and refineries. Dorset had one factory and even then, the smoke obscured the sky occasionally. She looked up. It was a clear night, exceedingly rare. It seemed as if the heavens pitied London and gave her a starry night to cheer her waning spirits.
She stood, inhaling deeply. The London fire was shocking. However, by the end of the year, people would have moved on and the fire would have become just a memory, something to talk about during salon gatherings. “People are more concerned when their bellies are concerned,” her mother once told her in one of her rare conversational moments.
Katherine gazed at the stars while the constellations spun their slow orbits around her.