The Basics of Flight
by Joyce Chng
PART TWO: FLIGHT
Chapter Four: Earning the Wings
She was in the same blimp-fin again, its controls familiar to the touch. For this training run, the winds were favorable – calm, without bustling gusts, considering it was now Autumn and the wintry currents were arriving soon. She self-consciously touched the half-wing brooch on her left breast, the badge of an Intermediate Pilot-In-Training. Captain Sagan pinned it on her chest in a private ceremony and whispered quiet words of encouragement like “Work harder.”
Beside her, Misato Kanaka took her place as navigator. She was an exchange student from Meiji Japan, roughly around Katherine’s age. Her jet-black hair was pulled back in a severe bun and she wore the same kind of uniform as Katherine: light brown, the color of a senior student. On her left shoulder was the House emblem: she was assigned College Sable. Misato had the same quiet mildness as Alethia but when it came to games like lacrosse or even gymnastics, she excelled and positively thrived.
“Check the wind gauge,” Katherine said, keeping her eye on their goal: a red-stripped flag. It was a training flight, with an element of competition. They had to collect ribbon-ed rings along the way. Misato was issued a pole so that she could collect the rings positioned at certain locations.
“Wind gauge normal. Wind is easterly.” Misato reported dutifully. They were coming up to a set of three rings and Misato readied her pole.
A flash of grey passed by beneath them. The passage of another blimp-fin. The blast of air left by its wake rocked Katherine’s own vessel and Misato stumbled, shouting something in Japanese. She sounded alarmed and rightly so. It was an illegal move and it had already gotten the rival blimp-fin ahead of them.
“You alright?” Katherine asked the shaken Misato who nodded. That was not a nice way to fly. In fact, it was not a safe way to fly either, not thinking about safety at all. Thomas Von Dyke had gotten too cocky for his own good. She powered the blimp-fin forward, furious.
Thomas and his navigator – Edward – were already in the act of collecting the rings – our rings, Katherine thought angrily – when she piloted her blimp-fin towards the errant vessel. With a growl, she nudged it against the other blimp-fin, knocking it out of its position. She opened the pothole and shouted, “You do not have to cheat, Thomas Von Dyke! You nearly got us killed!”
The rings scattered, fell. Edwards almost lost his balance and hung on for dear life. Thomas’s face emerged, ruddy with anger. Katherine had enough of Thomas and his tendency to needle her all the time. With a quick word to Misato to hang on, she pushed forth and her blimp-fin barreled forward, approaching another marker with two rings. A look back saw Thomas’s blimp-fin pursuing her.
“Ready the pole,” Katherine bit out and Misato stood at the door. They reached the marker and with a deft flick of her wrist, Misato scooped the two rings up with the pole. The two girls grinned triumphantly and added the two rings to the existing pool of four.
Thomas’s blimp-fin thundered past them, misjudging the distance. Katherine could hear faint rude curses. Good. She got them.
When they landed the blimp-fin, Katherine waited for the inevitable: Thomas storming up to her, all indignant anger.
“Edward lost his footing!” Thomas shouted at her. He was as tall as her, seeing eye-to-eye. He was so close that she could smell his breath redolent of onions.
Katherine looked at him squarely, coolly. “You knocked us off our position, Thomas Von Dyke. Tit for tat.”
With a guttural roar, Thomas launched himself at Katherine who sidestepped easily and the young man fell face-first into the grass.
“Admit it, Thomas,” Katherine remained cold, unmoved. “You cheated. You moved ahead of us. It was an illegal move and you knew it. Have you not thought about Edward’s safety? Your own safety?”
“Safety?” Thomas’s face and uniform were stained green. His eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I tell you safety!” He leapt towards Katherine, his hands grappling for her throat. Edward yelled and held onto the livid youth with his arms.
“Peace, Thomas!” Edward was saying anxiously, his face almost tearing. “Do you want us to get Solitary? You are friends, remember?”
Captain Sagan was striding up to them, a statuesque Athenian figure dressed in khaki. The expression on her face brought everything to an uneasy halt.
Katherine sat in the Solitary Room. Thomas was somewhere else, in a similar chamber, cooling off. Beige walls, a small cot and a square window. She rubbed her face tiredly. They had already explained verbatim to Captain Sagan who then announced she would deliberate on her decision.
She touched her half-wing badge sadly. She might end up losing it. She should not have lost her temper as well or taunted Thomas. He was her friend. But, by Jove, that boy was trouble! She shook her head and tried to rest, calm her nerves.
The door clanked, opened and Captain Sagan stood at the doorway, her face impassive.
“You will keep your half-wing,” the Tutor-in-charge of House Sable said firmly. “Cadet Kanaka had told me what had really transpired. It would seem that Cadet Von Dyke made an illegal pass.”
“He did, madam,” Katherine said, feeling angry once more, seeing the other blimp-fin nudge past hers in her mind’s eye. The clear eyes of her teacher made her think twice and she subsided, closing her eyes.
“Cadet Von Dyke is a fellow of a competitive nature. This does not however excuse his behavior. He would have killed not only himself but Cadet Hannigan, you and Cadet Kanaka.” Captain Sagan continued, her voice grave. “However, you should not be provoked as well, Katherine Riley.”
Katherine felt unwelcome hot tears in her eyes and she blinked them away, annoyed at the unexpected rush of emotion, as if she was still a little girl, standing in front of Miss Sharpton. “I am sorry, madam. It is just that Thomas makes me so… angry all the time.”
“Von Dyke, unfortunately, fights with anyone for glory. A good trait, perhaps, to have in combat. I am not sure if this trait has gotten him more friends or enemies. As a pilot, you have to be careful. It is right to feel anger. But anger at the wheel of the leo-fin is as dangerous as an uncontrolled cannon. You put your own life at stake, Katherine Riley.”
Captain Sagan turned as if to go. “You can leave Solitary now.”
“Madam!” Katherine stood up. “How about Thomas? What will happen to him?”
Captain Karlida Sagan smiled a rueful smile. “He will face the appropriate punishment, Katherine Riley. Now go, before I change my mind.”
The first person Katherine saw when she stepped into the bright sunshine was Richard Eddington walking down the same path as she was. Her heart skipped a beat, lurched and resumed its normal beating once more. He was still the same Eddington she had met a few years back, older now with some white strands in his hair – he was ageing prematurely. He was in full uniform, helmet, goggles and all. It was a surprise to see him once more. As a full-fledged pilot, he was always on duty, delivering cargo and passengers. To see him around at the Academy was astonishing. Perhaps, he had delivered something to one of the lecturers.
“Good afternoon,” Eddington bowed. “Fancy meeting you here.” He looked up. “Solitary? What happened?” Katherine could see concern writ large on his handsome face.
“I got into a fight,” Katherine grimaced at the memory and recalled Captain Sagan’s words, her heart sinking once more.
“A fight?” Eddington’s eyes went wide. “With who, pray tell?”
“Thomas Von Dyke.” She knew her tone sounded sullen and Eddington picked up on that. His face was sympathetic.
“That lad needs a good whipping, I reckon. What made you two fight?”
Not again. She had to explain the whole damned thing all over Eddington who listened attentively to her sorry tale.
“It is not entirely your fault, Riley. He made an illegal move and I have seen enough nitwits do the same thing now as a pilot. Some of them end up injured. I think one has his legs crushed.” Eddington concluded, nodding. “Stupid pride. Makes one cocky and careless. And brainless. ”
“You sound just like Captain Sagan,” Katherine had to smile.
“Pilots have to stick together. We have seen too many acts of folly.” Eddington’s facial features softened as if he was remembering something in his past. Suddenly, he chuckled and grinned roguishly. “Fancy a walk in the park, my lady? You could use some fresh air, after Solitary.”
He held his hand, like a gentleman asking a lady for a dance in the ballroom. She laughed, her dark worries gone for the moment.
They had a leisurely stroll in the Academy’s park, talking about pilot things and other interesting topics. When Eddington had to go, Katherine felt a pang of regret once more.
“Richard?” She dared use his given name. And he turned to her, with a gentle smile on his good-looking face.
“May our paths cross once more,” Richard Eddington said quietly and pressed a kiss on her hand. “You work hard on being a Pilot-In-Training now.”
“And you? Off to save damsels in distress or haul cargo?” Katherine knew her face was glowing and she did not hide it.
“That is a pilot’s job,” Eddington grinned once more. “Au revoir.”
Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.
These words repeated in the inventor’s mind as he made the finishing touches to the model in front of him. Larger than the leo-fin and streamlined, it dominated the entire workshop space. He had to acquire an unused warehouse for this project.
Did Lady Calwell gasp out with horror and remark that it was ghastly? She had flung up her lace kerchief with some drama, shielding her eyes decorously at the sight of the grey monstrosity before her.
Well, the inventor thought grimly, it has the desired effect on people. Is that not the main purpose? To inspire fear and horror?
He personally named it The Beast and come the Great Gathering, there would be many more Beasts to terrorize the sky and probably other nations.
So much for the New Age. Did Leonardo Da Vinci ever go through such mental anguish, such spiritual torment?
He added a few more strokes of glue and stood back to examine his handiwork. The Beast was magnificent, no doubt about it. Its function, however, was not of beauty or even of graceful design. A Fleet of these Beasts would awe the rest of the nations gathered. Not sure if they had something up their sleeves as well. There was often an air of competition amongst the nations. He had heard word that a group of inventors was busy building something in the far-off Straits Settlement of Singapore. It would take a month to ship their invention over. The Great Gathering would soon arrive with all its glory.