The Basics of Flight
by Joyce Chng
This week sees the final installments in Joyce Chng’s original serial for us. We hope you enjoyed it! An index to the complete serial is available on our fiction page.
PART TWO: FLIGHT
Chapter Five: Taking Wing
By now, the preparations for the Great Gathering were in full swing. Katherine found herself in the background crew working to get the leo-fins as well as the blimp-fins ready. She was given belated instructions to follow the group on that special day itself. How ironic, she thought, polishing the panels of a leo-fin in the sheltered hangar.
Thomas Von Dyke had been released from Solitary after a week. He was now avoiding her and she liked it the way it was. No more heckling from this noisome young man.
Katherine shivered. It was almost halfway through Autumn. Tito was now fully-fledged, brightly yellow and full of energy. The wings though were not working as expected. She would have to coax Tito to fly or at least leave the confines of the cage.
Her dreams were filled with wintry chill, interspersed with the pleasant glow of spring, filled with Richard Eddington’s heartening presence. She continued to excel in her flight training and without Thomas impeding her, she found free rein and expression. She soared.
Pilotmaster Lee pursed his lips thoughtfully and put the letter down. It was passed to him by a trainee pilot, courtesy from a group of collectors and inventors who had chosen to remain anonymous. The letter voiced their anxiety regarding the Great Gathering and that they feared it used for nefarious and unwholesome purposes.
He closed his eyes briefly. They hinted somewhat of a plot by anarchists to commit something dark and ugly on that auspicious day. Why they sent the letter to him was a surprise and a puzzle.
His Academy was no military encampment or installation. It was to train students to fly and to navigate the skies. Not to fight as soldiers. His Flight Academy was a school. To enlighten young minds.
He picked up a small delicate wedge of mooncake pastry, filled with sweet lotus paste and pine nuts, and nibbled at it, enjoying its sweetness and the nutty crunch. The mooncake was delivered, with three other in an ornate lacquered box, by hand from a fellow Chinese baker who had made his home in London. It would soon be full moon. Mid-Autumn. It was at this time his thoughts flew back to home. Father must be ancient now. So would be his mother. His sisters. Hopefully married with broods of children to keep them occupied. There would be lanterns and amusing riddles. It was a time for family.
Lee signed aloud. His family was here now, in London. With Karlida. With his students. Yet he realized that it was never easy to have a clean break from the past.
What would happen if he had a child? A son. Mixed race, half-Chinese and half-English, with his father’s eyes and his mother’s hair. Playing with a dragon kite or a helicopter toy – a bamboo dragonfly – a little engineer at heart, spinning the light whirligig apparatus in the air, in bright summer days? Oh, these were such pleasant daydreams, fit for a middle-aged man who was suddenly reminded of his own physical mortality. What kind of legacy would I give my son or daughter?
Now if Karlida would just agree to marriage…
He laughed softly to himself. She was not one to settle down that easily.
Now the letter. It had such ominous import. That alone worried him and sent thoughts of home and family flying back into the secret recesses of memory. He was not going to send his students as a military contingent. However, the name Aerial Fleet had already made a solid impression in the hearts and minds of Londoners. The might of Britannia.
By the end of the month, the contingents started arriving, in large or small groups, depending on the size of the nation invited to the Gathering. Steamships puffed up the Thames or made their berths near the coasts, bringers of men and of machines. Trains delivered hordes of visitors and released wooden boxes filled with gifts and more artifacts.
Meiji Japan arrived first with some degree of pomp and circumstance, quickly followed by Imperial Qing China who overdid the pageantry with extravagant displays of drumbeats and dragon dances. The Londoners lapped up the show – it was a fine spectacle. They watched the delegations parade down the roads as they made their ways to their accommodations allocated to them by their host, the Queen herself.
Other nations were less overt in their displays, preferring more staid and stately appearances. Their moments of glory would come, in the Great Gathering itself. All their ships were already in warehouses near the Thames, heavily guarded by vigilant troops.
Of course London had her own arsenal of new ships, hastily constructed for the Event. The new vessels sat, silent in a secret location, like large predators waiting to pounce. There were five of these predatory vessels, with the prototype being the First. They would take wing, emissaries for the Glory of Britannia and the New Age.
The Great Gathering
“Look at those airships!” Misato Kanaka’s voice woke Katherine from a half-drowse. They were in a train commissioned by the Academy and they were heading towards London. In full formal regalia with braid and dark pants, the students crowded at the window, amazed at the sight of the four huge airships hovering in the sky like whales. They were merchant airships, designed by the business and merchants guilds, decorated with brightly colored pennants and streamers.
Their own leo-fins and blimp-fins had already gone before them and were now in storage, ready to be activated once the Great Gathering was in progress. Alethia sat in her seat, in a contemplative trance. Katherine knew that she was seeing her colors once more.
They steamed into stately Paddington Station not long after noon and were guided to their steam-engined cars where they were brought swiftly to a small hotel. Katherine watched London life pass by before her as the car sped its way down the roads. London always captivated her imagination. There were still horse-drawn carriages making their staid way down the streets. A festival atmosphere had galvanized the city who not so long ago was struck by a horrendous fire. She had sprung back to life once more, showing how innately resilient she was. Cities were built, destroyed and re-built constantly. Katherine heard from Alethia that when diggers excavated a piece of land holding abandoned buildings, they revealed layers upon layers of civilization, dating back to the Roman Empire. It was all very fascinating.
Their hotel rooms were sumptuously appointed, with fine upholstery and Ming vases with the signature blue designs. Soft goose-down beds and hot-water facilities were amply provided. They would rest. It would be a long day tomorrow.
Early morning saw the Gathering begin in earnest with the airships and blimps taking to the air like large and small animals, be it cetacean or avian. There was an audible drumming as their impellers and rotor-blades churned the air and the ships made their way slowly to the central meeting point in regal wedge formations.
Spectators had gathered to watch the Great Gathering. Soaring in the sky were the lion-faced golden Japanese ships waving flags with the chrysanthemum emblem of the Meiji Emperor. They were close to the Chinese dragon-ships fitted with twin rotor-blades, sending blackish smoke into the sky as if the dragons were alive and roaring; the Chinese ships tried to jockey for position and there was constant shifting as the ships did their mid-air dance of power with the other groups. The most eye-catching were the ones designed by the Austrian contingent – large polished carracks with stag antlers for mastheads, exuding an oddly charming medieval flavor. The smaller British protectorate ships, mainly the ones from Malaya, appeared like stiletto-shaped vessels, sharp-bowed and built obviously for speed. Compared to the larger ships, they resembled more like a shoal of mackerel, swimming beside bigger marine animals. The other nations straggled behind, either by prudent choice or lack of engine capabilities; smaller flying yachts competed with steam-powered schooners for position. All the ships also took the opportunity to drop gifts and souvenirs to the awed crowds who reached out to grab them as they fell. Fresh red and pink roses, light-weight children’s toys (in the shape of tops and kites, even simple bamboo flutes) and pamphlets boasting the greatness of their country. It was a multi-sensory experience and the Londoners soaked the atmosphere up with immense enthusiasm and aplomb, adding to the carnival spirit in colorful and vivid gowns and handsome coats.
The Academy’s own contingent lifted off soon after the larger nations launched their vessels. They had to wait for the signal so that the Aerial Fleet could assemble. Katherine could only watch from the ground, together with the rest of the repair crews. It was still an awe-inspiring sight with all the air-ships congregating in the sky above her. As a precaution, they kept one blimp-fin on the ground and she guarded it closely. It was her blimp-fin, the one she often used for training flights and runs. Pilotmaster Lee was aloft with the rest of the chosen Academy pilots and handlers.
Then, there was the sound of a cannon firing close to Buckingham Palace: their signal. Everyone started pointing to the sky, chatting excitedly. The sounds rushed over Katherine like a huge tidal wave. The onlookers started cheering.
They had appeared. The new vessels. There were five of them and they were exceedingly intimidating monsters. Pointed horns protruding from heads shaped like sharks’, long bodies in which batteries of weapons lined the flanges. They even had teeth, pointed and menacing. Rumor had it that they were designed with a type of shark – goblin shark, they were saying – in mind.
“Good God, what are those things?” Someone swore next to her. He sounded shocked.
“The new air-ships,” Katherine came to a startling realization, half-awed and half-disturbed by the undisguised aggression in the form of the ships. The half-moon leers. The teeth.
The Union Jack flew proudly on these new shark ships, beside the leo-fins and the blimp-fins who were then joined by the merchant crafts. The Aerial Fleet was now fully present, dwarfing the rest of the Gathering. The cheering grew louder.
The Queen herself was in one of the shark vessels and Katherine noticed that the leo-fins were crowded around one particular vessel, seemingly larger than the rest of its ghastly brethren, looking as if they were acting as bodyguards.
It was indeed a grand occasion, filled with the desired pageantry Londoners so loved. Her Majesty got to see her Fleet as well as the gathered nations. It was something everyone would remember for a long time.
There was a loud boom: somewhere a cannon had fired.
Lee performed immediate evasive maneuvers the moment the cannonball impacted one of the shark ships and it started to list dangerously to the left. Not the Queen’s, he thought thankfully and his leo-fin shuddered spasmodically, resisting, protesting at the unfamiliar movement.
“Protect Her Majesty!” He shouted into the vox, unsure if the students could hear him. Everywhere, ships were in disarray, breaking their formations as they tried to evade the danger. The sky was too crowded. His heart hammered in his chest. The letter spoke true.
He fancied hearing startled and shocked screams and shouts coming from the leo-fins and blimp-fins around him. Poor students. Thick in the deep of things. Now it is up to you now, to survive as true pilots would!
He swerved his leo-fin to the right and it creaked alarmingly. Then, out of nowhere, he spied a blimp-fin, nondescript in color, coming up to the shark ship carrying Her Majesty. He recognized it from his own Flight Academy.
In the resulting chaos that followed the cannon shot, Katherine could remember running to the blimp-fin and powering it up. Its hydraulics thrummed beneath her booted feet as it lifted vertically. All she knew she was piloting it towards the larger shark-shaped vessel.
When she neared the ship, she could see turmoil in the ship as people tried to protect themselves and a matronly-looking woman dressed in state regalia, gleaming with jewelry and medals. The door to the vessel was flung wide open – a bad mistake, she thought – and piloted the blimp-fin alongside the faltering vessel. The air was rushing in, stirring everything – dresses, gowns, and coats – into frantic flapping.
“Climb onboard if you want to live,” she shouted or thought she shouted. Wind was whipping into the blimp-fin, ripping her words away. The woman in the finery looked at her carefully; she appeared unperturbed and unafraid by the turmoil around her. Her bearing was haughty and she looked as if she could never smile.
“Of course, I want to live, child,” she said with a tone of slight irritation and made her way into the blimp-fin, surprisingly nimble-footed for her apparent physical age. Her followers flooded in after her, looking faint and drained of blood. They sounded like a gaggle of confused geese.
The blimp-fin protested with the extra weight and flew stoically before landing on an empty area vacated by panicking onlookers who fled the moment they heard the cannon and saw that the ships were in trouble.
Katherine panted for air and leaned against the controls. The adrenaline rush left her system then, leaving her weak. Behind her was a babble of confused and worried adult voices. She turned back and saw the older woman gazing at her intently.
“What is your name, child?” The woman’s voice was deep, patrician. Careful modulated and dry but now hinting of humor.
“Katherine. Katherine Riley from the Flight Academy, madam.”
“You showed immense courage, Katherine Riley.” This time, the woman smiled a brief warm smile, nodded and stepped out of the blimp-fin, surrounded by her courtly retinue. It was then Katherine realized that the woman was Her Majesty, the Queen.
She sank to her knees, trembling and sobbing into her hands. Her head spun. Her ankle was throbbing once more. Was still throbbing when Lee had to lift her bodily up from the floor and bring her back to the hotel room.
“You saved Her Majesty, fancy that!” Alethia commented cheerfully, unscathed by the ordeal. All the ships, big and small, had managed to regain their balance and go back into formation with some measure of fortitude. The Great Gathering was not a failure, Her Majesty had declared proudly in a safe place. It must go on. The perpetrators had already been caught and now awaiting her mercy.
Outside their hotel room, fire works blossomed in the sky like giant flowers. The boom-boom-boom shook the window-frame of the hotel room. There were the sounds of singing and music; there was rejoicing in the streets.
Katherine sank deeper into her bed, buried under the blankets. She was still amazed at her own temerity. Her ankle had ceased its throbbing after Lee had administered a cooling ointment on it.
“You did something good, Katherine!” Alethia was saying. “But you wallowing in your bed is not good.”
The hotel door opened to admit Pilotmaster Lee in formal wear.
“Get dressed in your best uniform, Pilot,” he said briskly. “The Queen desires an audience with you.”
She was ushered into a private chamber, one that was lavishly adorned with ornate tapestries and Persian carpets. An exquisitely made chandelier hung from the ceiling, casting myriad diamonds on the wall. Somewhere, there was chamber music and sounds of an on-going party. Genteel laughter, from men and womens. The clink of glasses.
“Come in, Katherine.” The familiar voice greeted her. The Queen was seated comfortably on a small throne, beside the window. A young lady-in-waiting stood close to her, watching attentively. Her Majesty was wearing more subdued colors this time, navy-blue trimmed with white fur. Sapphires glittered on her neck. Her be-ringed hands were busy crocheting.
“Majesty,” Katherine curtsied, feeling her ankle almost give. She stood up stiffly and waited for the Queen’s response.
“Your bravery is really heartening, child,” the Queen placed whatever she was making into a quaint little basket next to her. “A bright thing, out of the dark smear and disgrace the assassins tried to make of today’s celebrations.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Katherine looked at her boots shyly.
“Look up, child. I am not in your boots.” The Queen’s voice had a tinge of humor and annoyance. Katherine tilted up her head hurriedly, only to look into Her Majesty’s bright and intent eyes.
“You are hampered by something in your mind,” Her Majesty continued, signaling her lady-in-waiting with a gloved hand; the woman then slipped out quietly via a side-door. “Whatever it is, child, you need to get rid of this obstacle. Look at you. You are standing with your shoulders hunched. There you go, looking at your feet again.”
Katherine swallowed and forced herself to look at the Queen whose face bore – surprisingly – sadness.
“You have a lioness’s heart. But it is sorely hidden by fear at the moment. Be strong, child. This advice is all I can give you.”
The lady-in-waiting returned swiftly with a small mahogany box, which she handed to the Queen gracefully with a curtsy.
“I am presenting you this gift, as a token of my appreciation. Without your timely intervention, I would have been killed and the assassins achieved their evil goal.” The Queen beckoned Katherine forward and the young woman knelt, accepting the gift. “Wear it well.”
The Queen gathered her gown and got up from her chair carefully. The lady-in-waiting opened the side-door and the sounds of the party grew louder. “Take care, young Katherine.” She nodded graciously, inclined her head once and was led into the other chamber by her escort.
It was only back in the privacy of the carriage Katherine plucked up enough courage to open the box. Inside, nestled on fine red velvet cloth, was a diamond brooch in the shape of a butterfly.
The next day, the Queen rode down the streets triumphantly, to the accolades and adoration of her subjects who waved flags and were pleased that their Queen was safe. The broadsheet commentators had already given a name to the Great Gathering: The Jubilee Plot. She had once again become a popular monarch, having risen like a brilliant phoenix from the dark ashes of attempted assassination and possible death. As she rode in her carriage, waving to her subjects, she thought of one young girl and prayed, privately, in her heart of hearts.
The delegations were feted extravagantly and had their own parades, showcasing their smaller ships and crafts. Some of the delegations stoutly pledged their allegiance to the Queen and had selected ships join her Aerial Fleet. It was a glorious and memorable end to the Great Gathering, with the crowds swelling the banks of the Thames to watch the cavalcade of ships and other vessels take to the sky once more. The fireworks lit the skies once more, in the evening, marking the end of the Golden Jubilee. People could now speculate who the anarchists were and had great discussions about the Gathering and politics.
Katherine and the rest of the Academy delegates returned back to the Academy. The Great Gathering was over. She wore the diamond brooch on her uniform, a reminder of her lioness’s heart and her desire to fly.
(A Brief Interlude)
Autumn soon gave way to Winter and the entire school grounds, including the Great Manor and the Administrativa, were covered with a thick coating of white snow. Katherine Riley wore her fur-lined brown coat and walked to the library, intending to do some reading,
It had been a busy month after they had returned from the Great Gathering. More studies and training flights were intensified. Tito was a fully-grown adult and had flown off. His wings did work, after all. He left behind a yellow feather, which Katherine kept as a keepsake. She hoped he found enough food for Winter though.
Alethia had invited her to stay with her during the Yule holiday season. It was a joyous prospect that Katherine cherished immensely. Spending time with the Forresters made her heart sing. The garden of crystals. Mr Forrester’s inventions. Mrs Potts’ cooking. By now, they were already finishing their studies at the Academy. Katherine was close to graduation, closer to becoming a fully qualified pilot.
The night before she left for London with Alethia Forrester, she had a final dream with Miss Sharpton. The old witch was sitting in the schoolroom, alone in the darkness. Katherine could see the dream figure of her old nemesis had shriveled to almost a skeletal state, making her look more like a cadaver. Less real. Instead of feeling fear, she felt pity instead.
“What are you going to do to me?” The voice was quavering, ancient. Whining like a frightened child. “Hit me?” Challenging, but the voice was weak.
Katherine said simply: “I am going to let you go.”
And the dream figure of Miss Sharpton quickly dissolved into sand blown away by an invisible breeze. The schoolroom turned bright as a summer’s day and merged into an open sky.
When Spring arrived, Katherine was ready to take her final test flight. She wore her diamond butterfly on her left breast, beneath her half-wing badge.
It was not a blimp-fin but a proper leo-fin, its fins and flanges shimmering in the sun. It was unbelievably large and so beautiful. As beautiful as the time she first saw one in the sky. It was an uplifting and exuberant feeling, to be standing so close to a real leo-fin. After the Great Gathering, she knew that the leo-fin was just a flying machine. A tool designed to fly. Not the fairy-tale flying creature she had seen in Dorset a long time. Yet, knowing this fact had only strengthened her resolve. Placing her gloved hand on the panels and feeling it thrum beneath her, Katherine readied herself.
Captain Sagan lifted her right hand and gave her sign of approval. Katherine saluted sharply and stepped into the leo-fin.
She touched her butterfly brooch and her badge once, for luck and for courage. She was taking flight, eager for the glorious spring sky.
Dear Father and Mother,
I hope you are well.
I am now a Pilot, manning one of the large leo-fins. My tasks are quite simple, carrying cargos for two London spice merchants and occasionally passengers. I graduated from the Academy one year ago and I have enjoyed flying immensely. It must be the wind brushing against my skin, the feel of freedom. I used to long for it when I was in Dorset.
My friend Alethia Forrester is my handler and controller. She manages the schedules exceedingly well, even though she has been born blind. She has not let her infirmity affect her.
We have traveled to so many places in England. We flew once to Scotland and it was a cold place, but beautiful. I have enclosed some lace clothing in this letter for my little sister. I hope she likes it. She loves lace.
I have also met a fellow Pilot by the name of Richard Eddington. Yes, he was the one who brought me to London. If you have any ill will against him, I apologize on his behalf. I really wanted to go to the Academy and study to become a Pilot. Now Eddington is my close companion. He has not asked my hand in marriage yet. I do not think I am ready for it. The sky is so wide and free. I feel as if I can fly forever. It is just my leo-fin and myself.
I know that Dorset is exceedingly different from London. London is a big city, filled with thousands of people. Do you know we had a Golden Jubilee and there was a Great Gathering? I hope you had heard about it. It was a grand event with so many nations taking part. There is the Queen’s Aerial Fleet now. I think I will be piloting one of the Sharks. It is a new design and it is intended to protect Britannia from external harm. I have to wait for Pilotmaster Lee and Commander Karlida Sagan to approve my application.
What is the same, I feel, is the sky. Dorset’s sky is the same as London’s. You can simply soar in the clouds. Everything is so small when you fly.
I know that Richard shares my sentiments. He is a Pilot like me. We live for the sky. We love flying. You need a large heart for this sort of endeavor. A lioness’s heart. Once you have tasted freedom, you will never be the same again. Something changed me for the better. I am a different person. I used to be so gripped by fear, even my extremities hurt and I could not move. A wise woman once told me to remove that obstacle in my mind and I did. I cannot let fear and terror rule my life forever. Being afraid is not a good thing, not for the future.
You must be overwhelmed by my overt declarations about flying. I love flying and it is part of my being. Please understand this, Father and Mother.
Forgive me for dwelling too much on my own life! How is Dorset? How is my little sister? Most of all, how are you? Please visit London. It is a beautiful place with many things to see. Just say the word and I will personally fetch you.
Oh. Another thing. How is Miss Sharpton? I have not seen her for many years now. I hope she is doing well.
Your loving daughter,