The Basics of Flight
by Joyce Chng
PART TWO: FLIGHT
Chapter One: Fledgling
Cadet Katherine Riley of House Sable struggled to keep the blimp-fin under control; it pitched and rolled in the prevailing winds, feeling more like a bucking horse than a functional flier purpose-built for the Academy. She fought the controls and the controls fought back harder, resisting her attempts to balance the vessel.
She felt her heart sinking. This training flight was also a test flight, with the Academy’s teachers acting as official examiners. She knew Pilotmaster Lee and Captain Karlida Sagan were watching below, on the relative safety of the Flying Field grounds. Probably jotting down notes and marking her performance as less than satisfactory. Her thoughts ran dire for a brief moment, fueling her lack of self-confidence. She breathed in deeply and tried more once.
The blimp-fin, without the charm and beauty of the leo-fin, rolled hard to the right and Katherine steadied herself. The winds were strong today. Better than a calm day, she mused grimly, wrestling with the controls once more and this time, the blimp-fin obeyed and stabilized.
Her ankle throbbed with the strain and she wondered if she had to put ice on it. The pain just would not go away. As she steered the blimp-fin on its designated course, she let one part of her mind dwell on the strange conversation she had with Doctor James Ash earlier in the morning, when the dour-faced man caught her before she made her way to the Flying Field.
He had talked to her about her ankle, that it was not merely a physical injury but a psychological one. It had affected her, a niggling persistent problem; it would continue to persist to hurt her, unless she chose to move on from the pain. She was a little wary of the physician’s words, no matter how truly concerned he came across. Who made him a phrenologist? Yet, as she mulled on the topic, she knew that she was being petty. The man was a doctor and he did have the welfare of the students at heart. And she knew he was also an excellent Tutor-in-charge of College Azure; he did care for the students. But why did he single him out?
Somewhere in her mind, a harsh cackle could be heard. The cackle made her heart cringe instinctively. And the throb in her ankle grew to a sharp pain. Not this again, she raged quietly. Oh hush, Miss Sharpton! She pushed the mental image of her old nemesis away and focused on landing the blimp-fin. Perspiration was trickling down her back in a constant stream.
She was here at the Academy to excel. To become a leo-fin pilot. She was not going to let some hoary old schoolmistress stop her.
She could see the Flying Field now, with its crowd of tiny people now growing larger and larger as she brought the blimp-fin down. There was some faint cheering and it grew louder as she landed the vessel with an audible thud.
For a moment, she simply rested her head against the controls and breathed slowly. Her heartbeat was going back to normalcy. Her knees felt like water. She had flown training flights before but this one was so different. It would mark her transition from Cadet to Intermediate Pilot-In-Training. If she failed, all her efforts would go to waste and she would slink back to Dorset with her tail between her legs. No. She would not want that.
As she opened the door, letting the fresh morning air cool her skin and fill her lungs, she could see Pilotmaster Lee and Captain Sagan conferring amongst themselves, their heads inclined towards each other in intense discussion. Captain Sagan looked animated, gesturing and showing her notes to Lee who shook his head and said something which made the House Tutor for College Sable, Katherine’s House, more animated, even forceful.
That is it, Katherine thought as she limped out of the blimp-fin. I am done for. Her heart lifted at the sight of her friends rushing to greet. Alethia was there. Even Thomas, pompous and competitive Thomas, was walking up to her with a big grin on his fair face.
“A little shaky there,” the boy said to Katherine, referring to the blimp-fin’s loss of balance. “But you recovered right soon after!”
“The winds were strong today,” Alethia said mildly. The blind girl could have ‘seen’ the colors as she had explained once to Katherine. “It was a challenge, no doubt.”
“Well, Captain Sagan seems to be arguing for you,” Thomas pointed out. He could be so blunt and cruel at times. He was always constantly looking out for flaws in Katherine, no matter how well she did in her studies and her training.
Alethia squeezed Katherine’s hand once, reassuringly. The results would be made known publicly, right after lunch.
Lunch was an anxious affair, with surreptitious glances at the Administrativa building where the results would be posted for all to see. Today was College Sable’s turn with many of its students for the test flights.
Cook had made vegetable stew with fluffy white rice and Katherine ate it with false gusto. She was that nervous.
No more Dorset, she cried silently. No more mocking. No more tears.
“You did well, Katherine,” Alethia’s voice shook her from her reverie. “You just worry too much.”
“I just do not want to go back,” Katherine said quietly, solemnly. “Not now. Never.”
Alethia’s forehead creased in a frown. “Is Miss Sharpton really that horrible?”
Katherine could hear the cackling and the cracking of the whip. And the tittering of the girls in the cramped Dorset school-room.
“Yes,” she found herself hunching down. Her ankle ached dully. She really needed to put ice and ointment on it.
“Katherine,” her friend’s voice was gentle. “It has been two years. Surely she has changed? People do change, you know.”
A bitter, biting and sarcastic reply almost came out of Katherine’s mouth. Alethia meant well. She had always meant well, being so mild and gentle, a salve to her troubled soul. She stifled it down and swallowed her stew instead.
“Look,” someone shouted and there was a flurry of excited voices in the Hall. “They just put up the board.”
Katherine’s heart lurched. It was time.
Captain Karlida Sagan nursed a cup of Lady Grey, still faintly steaming and aromatic, reminiscent of home’s comforts. She stood at the window, watching the students stream from the Great Manor to the Administrativa. Their thoughts would be so tumultuous, she sipped her tea, I was.
Frantically scanning for her name on the board…
With a sigh, she turned around and faced the gentleman in the room. She smiled at him warmly, tenderly. They had a heated argument a hour ago, debating on the fate of certain students. She hated doing this vital part of assessment, even though she knew it would differentiate the wheat from the chaff.
“You were exceedingly harsh on Katherine Riley,” she began and Pilotmaster Lee looked at her with a stern expression on his face.
“She was exhibiting anxiety,” Lee said curtly. The memory of their argument was still raw, fresh. “A careless pilot makes a dead pilot.”
“For Jove’s sake,” Karlida put her cup down on the side-table next to the window. “It is their first test-flight. And mind you, Lee, the winds were strong today. She did exceptionally well, controlling the blimp-fin. Many of our students had luckier days with calm winds. Imagine them tossed into a real situation.”
“You do have a point,” Lee replied, his words still tense, and went back to his reports.
Karlida strode to him and sat down right in front of him, forcing him to look at her. “Lee, how long have I known you for?” Something in her tone made him glance at her, momentarily startled. He gave a small smile and placed his right hand on her knee, an expression of tenderness, of trust.
“More than a decade,” he said softly.
“How many times was I known to be wrong in my judgment,” Karlida continued, responding to his smile and his words with a wry grin.
“You know I have always trusted your judgment, Karlida.”
“True.” Karlida nodded and stood up once more. “I am glad we have both reached an agreement.” She walked back to the window.
Lee rose from his chair and joined her. “I am just concerned about biased perceptions…”
“… that Katherine is in my House?” She chuckled. “I have thought about that too.” She said nothing else and remained silent.
It was evening when the students finally made their way back to the Great Manor. After the public announcement of results, it was back to lectures and classes. The evening air was tinged with an undercurrent of chill: Autumn was arriving and the trees in the Academy were already donning their vivid autumnal colors of orange and red. Even the steepled Administrativa was covered with crimson leaves, rippling in the breeze.
Katherine found herself walking alone on the path leading to the Great Manor. She passed. She was now officially an Intermediate Pilot-In-Training. She should be feeling happy or even relieved. Yet, no matter how she tried to feel joy, there was a nagging sense of failure. Alethia would say that she did well and it was good.
I am my worst critic and enemy, Katherine could hear cheerful laughter and chatter from the Great Manor. Perhaps Doctor Ash was right. It was a psychological problem. My mind’s problem. How do I make it go away?
She shivered as the breeze turned cold and hurried on, glad for the imminent welcome warmth in the Manor. She passed a tree, now almost bare of leaves, looking tragically gaunt in the evening light. There was a nest, empty of birds. Something dark on the grass beneath the tree drew her eye. As she moved closer, it moved.
It was a tiny goldfinch fledgling, looking as if it had fallen from the tree. It chirped when she knelt down. The little bird was almost fully fledged, with its feathers showing signs of its adult colors of golden brown and bright yellow.
Katherine picked the fledgling up, cupping it carefully in her hands. It squirmed restlessly and made soft chirping protests. One of its wings appeared to be crooked and Katherine knew it might just be a broken wing.
With a sigh and a rush of uncommon compassion in her chest, she brought the fledgling indoors.