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,
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.
The Basics of Flight
by Joyce Chng
PART TWO: FLIGHT
Chapter Three: Dynamics
It was going to be Her Majesty’s Aerial Fleet, a proud assembly of her finest fins and other aerodynamic marvels. It was going to be a great display of Britannia’s ingenuity and talent – and Paul Forrester mused as he scrutinized the blue prints before him closely – and military prowess as well. As much as he hated war and politics, he knew that the Queen was keen to declare to the world that Britannia was a strong military nation, even in the New Age of Science and Logic.
He had read many historical texts and knew that wars, bloody and destructive as they were, were products of dynamics. Like the cog-wheels in his machines and inventions, these dynamics depended on each other in a deadly symbiosis of needs, desires and interests.
The blue prints were not lying. The clear lines were there, drawn, defined. He managed to get a copy from his colleague Smith who obtained it from the inventor designing the ship.
Are we going to be minnows in a vast ocean? Forrester stared at the shape of the vessel. Everyone would just end up eating one another.
Mrs Pott appeared with a tray of tea and some homemade oatmeal cookies. The fresh sweet smell filled his workshop. It was a comforting scent, reminding him of the warm kitchen.
“Just received Alethia’s letter from the Academy.” She flourished an envelope dramatically. It was the color of parchment, sealed with red wax.
Alethia. His precious daughter. He looked away from the damning blue prints and thanked the housekeeper warmly. She had looked after his little girl ever since she was a baby, pulled from her mother’s stomach to save her life. She was the only mother Alethia had known in her whole childhood. She would be turning twenty soon, no longer his little girl, but a young woman.
His heart sank when he read the letter. She was one of the chosen few to take part in the Great Gathering. He should be brimming with fatherly pride. Yet… yet, seeing the blue prints and knowing what kind of vessels would be launched made him more perturbed.
He kept seeing her in front of him. Pale, almost white hair, smooth-skinned, looking as if she was fragile. She was not. She was no porcelain doll. She was made of stronger stuff, all steel inside. When she was just a toddler, people would make comments about her blindness, that he should be pampering and coddling her. She was not an invalid, as he always told himself. Never. She had her mother’s fierce determination, a fiery spirit, though she did not display it often.
It would be a Great Gathering. Of what manner of greatness, Paul Forrester did not want to think about. With an heavy heart, he went back to the blue prints and started to make notes about it.
Far away from the machinations of London, Cornwall was a quiet county and Victor very much preferred it to remain that well. He was only a fisherman, from a long line of fishermen. The sea was in his blood and he was more than happy to spend his mornings in his boat and netting fish.
There was some talk in the marketplace, where the fishermen would gather and sort out their catch, about the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. God bless Her Majesty. And life would still go on. His wife, Martha, had just given birth to a boy, his fifth child. Food on the table and clean clothes to wear were more important than courtly pomp and pageantry.
Oh bloody hell, the net was exceedingly heavy today. Heavier than his usual catch which he would easily haul with his considerably strong right hand. Must be something big – a large salmon, perhaps – caught in the net. A fat salmon with roe would feed his family well or fetch a few shillings from the market. Either way, it was good.
He pulled the net, heaved it into the boat dripping with seawater and writhing with live fish. Looked like a sizeable catch. As expected, there was something large bulging the net. He leaned forward to look at it…
… only to stare into baleful eyes, the color of black polished stone. And a crescent-grin filled with toothy malice.
Victor jumped back. He should be accustomed to the sight of sharks. But this one was an odd blighter, with a long horn protruding from its head. And what a strange tail. It was more serpent than shark. He prodded it; it was already dead, probably of exertion, crimson blood trickling from its gills.
A serpent shark. Now that would scare his children, though his oldest – Henry – might just relish the tale as all pre-adolescent boys would when it comes to the macabre and the strange.
He yanked it to one side of the boat, noting how heavy it was, though streamlined. It must have been beautiful in water. This random thought startled Victor and he laughed at himself for being such a sentimental fool. Back to work.
The streets of London teemed with her citizens. There were boys holding the day’s broadsheets, shouting to attract business. Fashionable ladies and well-dressed gentlemen, dapper in well-tailored coats and pants, walked down Hyde Park. By now, the word that there would be a Golden Jubilee and a Great Gathering had spread throughout the city like wild fire. Extravagantly painted posters were pasted in prominent areas, so that people would take note of the date and the time.
Gossip was rampant in the salons, in the coffeehouses and in Kew Gardens where spectators had gathered to watch the blooming of yet another exquisite tropical orchid species. Who were the nations invited? Japan? Austria? France? The protectorates of the British East India Company? What kind of flying marvels would be showcased? What kind of Fleet was Her Majesty putting together? Was it solely Her Majesty’s idea or was it by her ambitious Chamberlain and his cronies?
One thing was for sure: they could hardly wait to see the new flying vessels. A new design, purportedly by a secret inventor. It would be grand. Magnificent.
TO BE CONTINUED!
The Basics of Flight
by Joyce Chng
PART TWO: FLIGHT
Chapter Two: Hardening the Wings
The news of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee came via telegraph code and was received with great excitement. Her Majesty had invited delegates from all the nations of the Known World to participate in the celebrations. Britannia would have its own Aerial Fleet to show off to the visiting ambassadors and their own flying machines. It was truly a stirring piece of news and it went like wild fire throughout the Great Manor. Groups and clusters of students huddled together, talking about it.
Indeed there was already talk about a new kind of flying vessel to be launched at the Great Gathering, as it was termed by the broadsheet commentators and journalists. The identity of the inventor was a mystery and so was the design of this new flying vessel.
The Academy was to send a small contingent to join the illustrious Aerial Fleet with the brightest and the best cadet pilots and handlers selected from the four Colleges of Sable, Azure, Orr and Vert.
Alethia was one of the fortunate few to be chosen from College Sable and there was much felicitation going around the dormitory. Katherine cheered and whooped; she was initially disappointed that she did not make the cut. But it was for the “brightest and the best” students the Academy could offer and Alethia was one of the brightest, the most gifted.
“My father will be there too,” Alethia said laughing breathlessly as Katherine spun her around the room. Paul Forrester was a gifted eccentric who adored his daughter. Katherine had often seen the wonderful inventions in the Forresters’ house whenever she visited them for Yuletide. The inventors would be there, of course; their inventions would be showcased in a great parade of magnificent flying fins, blimps and other air-borne vessels from various nations.
Soon the two young ladies sat down on their beds to catch their breath and to rest. Katherine checked the little fledgling in its little cage. It was eating well and the feathers were looking healthy. The eyes were bright, shining. Sadly, the injured wing remained slightly twisted and she fretted. She had named it Tito and had grown fond of it. Captain Sagan had already given permission; Katherine would have to free the fledgling once it was healed and matured.
“The wings look like they are hardening,” Katherine examined Tito closely. The little goldfinch chirped and waited impatiently for its juicy worm.
“It has to fly one day,” Alethia cocked her head to listen to the chirping.
“It is the wing I am worried about,” Katherine murmured, feeding Tito a fat white grub she found in Cook’s vegetable garden.
“Is it not broken, isn’t it?” Her pale-haired friend came over, feeling her way to the table where the cage was.
“I certainly hope not,” Katherine watched Tito hop around in a lively circle. She swore that she had seen the little bird stretch its wings before.
“Stenton should know. He is quite knowledgeable about birds.” Alethia suggested and smiled as Tito chirped curiously at her. “He is such a charming little goldfinch. All white, like a candle’s glow.”
Elsewhere in the Administrativa building, Lady Judith Westmoreland was hurrying about, preparing notes for an important meeting just announced out of the blue. She was dressed in a fashionable blue dress and comfortable heeled boots; she was a favorite with he first-year cadets, not only of her cheerful disposition but of her kind heart as well. She would be good-humoredly sarcastic, never heavy-handed in her teaching and the younger students loved her.
She readied her vox-reader and was about to carry it, all heavy load and all, when she met Stenton coming her way.
“Have you heard about the meeting?” Stenton began, catching his breath. He had come running from the Flying Field at the news of the meeting.
“Yes. Sounds urgent, I believe.” Lady Westmoreland nodded and lifted the vox-reader carefully. “I hazard a guess that it has something to do with the Golden Jubilee.”
They walked briskly to the meeting chamber where the other lecturers and teachers were already milling about.
“Some were saying,” Stenton nodded to a few of his friends and opened the door for Lady Westmoreland, “that the Jubilee was meant to be political.”
Judith glanced at him while she set the machine up. “It is always political, Stenton. Everything is political.”
She was a well-read suffragist and had come across (and collected) numerous tracts, including her personal favorite, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There were new ideas and concepts coming in, thanks to the explosion of the popularity of the printing press. With the nations converging on London a few months’ time, she foresaw an explosion of ideas, some of them potentially negative and dangerous. She normally kept these thoughts to herself and contemplated sharing them with Karlida privately over tea and warm scones.
“Talk is rife about the new flying design,” Stenton helped to hand out notes while the group of lecturers flowed in, taking their places and muttering in groups. “It is supposed to be revolutionary.”
“I see,” Lady Westmoreland inclined her head politely. “But talk is talk.”
Then Pilotmaster Lee appeared, stern and cold, and the meeting began in earnest.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK IN… CHAPTER THREE: DYNAMICS!
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.
Apologies again for missing an installment last week – here is chapter seven of Joyce Chng’s serial novella for us, The Basics of Flight.
THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
by Joyce Chng
A Moment Of Lift
The Forresters’ house struck Katherine as extremely intriguing. The moment she walked into the warm interior from the chilly outside, she was met with a study, of sorts, replete with shelves of books and a plain-looking settee. As she walked in further, she could see a large brown door marked “Workshop” with solid black ink on the left. She could hear faint banging and metallic sounds.
The right side of the house was dimmed, lit only with an electric lamp. She could see something glittering – winkwinkwink – and could hear a soft tinkling when a slight breeze whispered through the house. She found herself curious but resisted exploring the house immediately. She was, after all, Alethia’s guest.
Mrs Potts – Alethia’s nanny – showed her the guest room, a comfortably appointed chamber with a goose-down bed and thick warm blankets. There was a table with a Ming porcelain bowl (“For the washing of hands”, explained Mrs Potts to her curious young visitor) and a jug of water (“”For drinking”.)
Alethia bid her goodnight and was guided back to her own room by the older woman. With a sigh, Katherine closed the door and observed her surroundings. It was definitely more comfortable than her room in Dorset. She quickly slipped off her clothing and into a wool shift provided by Mrs Potts for the night.
The goose-bed bed was magnificent. Soft and almost inducing her to sleep immediately. Her mind was still crowded with images of her travels through the London streets. She lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling. London was slowly slipping into slumber.
She awoke, to the smells of breakfast wafting into the chamber. She did her morning ablutions, dressed and found her way down to the kitchen where Mrs Potts shoo-ed her away good-naturedly and bid her stay in the study room. Grinning, she wandered around the house. She remembered the faint tinkling sound she’d heard last night and made her way to the source.
Light from the emerging dawn sun was glistening off crystals. Or clear glass of some sort. She stopped in her tracks and simply stared. She was looking at row after rows of crystal shapes, mostly birds and winged shapes, hanging from the ceiling. They filled the entire area. Like delicate wind chimes, they gave forth a sweet tinkling sound.
It was a beautiful sight.
“It is my garden of crystals,” Alethia’s voice startled her and she wondered how the blind girl was able to locate her. “It is my favorite place.”
“It is beautiful,” Katherine admitted, lingering for a moment to look at the crystal shapes again.
“Yes, it is,” Alethia said with a soft smile on her lips. “Come. There is breakfast on the table.”
Breakfast was hearty scrambled eggs, with freshly baked scones. All from our own garden, Mr Forrester declared proudly. He was a tall man with fair hair and a shocking bush of a moustache. His eyes twinkled merrily when he spoke, much to Katherine’s growing sense of curiosity. Alethia edged ever so closer to her and said that she would elaborate further later in the day.
Mister Forrester retreated into his workshop to work on his new automata after breakfast while Mrs Potts prepared the Yule dinner in the kitchen, together with Marjorie, a maid. Alethia drew Katherine aside, to the crystal garden.
“My father believes in growing our own food,” Alethia began and Katherine blinked, in amazement and total disbelief.
“Surely not in this weather?”
“Come. Let me show you.” Alethia led her puzzled friend to a door, close to the the kitchen. She opened it. Katherine expected it to be extremely cold but the air meeting her face was warm.
She stepped out into a summer’s day.
“Basic sun-lamp and strong netting to keep the cold and garden pests away,” Alethia explained in the background while Katherine looked around, shocked. There were vegetables. Wheat. Oats. Clucking informed her that there were chicken. Plump white plover hens pecking away at seeds. “Our neighbors think we are lunatics. But the idea is successful.” A large flower-like lamp shone down upon the vegetables and assorted crops.
“The turkey has to be bought,” the blind girl said ruefully. “That is our annual indulgence. It is Yule after all. Mrs Potts saves all the feathers and turns them into decorations.”
Katherine shook her head, almost spinning with the influx of new ideas and concepts. There was a summer’s garden right under her nose and flourishing well, even though she knew it was actually winter beyond the netting and the strange sun-lamp. It was definitely a marvelous invention.
Throughout the day, she had tiny tin-men underfoot as well as steel-puppies nuzzling her ankles in strangely canine affection. Sun-fliers, fragilely made like the hummingbirds from South America, darted about, their metal wings beating rapidly. She allowed one to alight on her finger, only to have it whiz away in a blur of bronze wings. The steel-puppies – metallic bulldogs – bowed and wanted to play, their cogs whirling away in excitement while the tin-men marched around, fetching workshop material for Mr Forrester and causing merriment amongst the watchers.
She decided she had grown to like the Forresters.
Katherine played a game of Fox and Geese with Mister Forrester before the Yule dinner proper. Alethia sat quietly on the settee, “listening” to the game-play. All of them could smell the tantalizing aromas coming from the kitchen and hear the cheerful voices of Mrs Potts and Marjorie as they worked over the last-minute preparations. There was an air of anticipation in the house. Outside the window, they could hear the voices of carolers making their way down the street. It was the eve of Yule and Katherine could not help but think about her parents and little sister in Dorset. Would they miss her during this time?
Mrs Potts stepped into the study and announced that the Yule dinner was ready. Katherine led Alethia to the dining room where Marjorie was placing dinner plates on the large wooden table. It was a glorious spread with golden-brown mince pies, a basket of candied fruits and boiled brussel sprouts with a good dollop of creamy butter. They seated themselves with Mr Forrester at the head of the table. He laughed with mirth and had Mrs Potts bring in the turkey.
They joked and laughed as they ate, savoring the splendidly cooked turkey and sampling the mince pies. Katherine had some sweet port that streamed down her throat like warm fire. Soon, Mrs Potts and Marjorie joined them at the table and the humor grew exponentially with the flow of good food and delectable wine.
It was a good Yule dinner, complete with fancifully shaped ices and mints. Mrs Potts made them cups of hot mulled wine, spiced with cinnamon and anise, and plates of freshly-baked fruit cake stuffed with orange peel and raisins, after which they all complained (good-naturedly) that they were full and could not eat anymore.
As she sat on the settee with a delicious warm sensation filling her body, Katherine held her cup of mulled wine close and felt happy. Perhaps it was all the good food and pleasant company with the Forrester family; she experienced a sense of contentment, something she had not encountered ever since she had left Dorset.
She knew that she could not replace her family with a new one. Yet, the Forresters were pleasant and diligent folk of grace and good humor, a quality she realized that dour Dorset sorely lacked.
TO BE CONTINUED… NEXT WEEK!
We missed out on yesterday’s posting, so a day late, here is the sixth installment in Joyce Chng’s serial, The Basics of Flight!
THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
by Joyce Chng
A Moment of Gravity
The next few weeks were frenetic and filled with activities, as if the academy plunged back into routine to rid itself of the overhanging anxiety brought on by the fire. Over in London, there was uproar and argument over the damages from the fire. The broadsheets and papers breathed indignation and threatened to expose the culprit who caused the fire. It was also edging towards Winter with the weather becoming considerably colder. The first snowfall came, a day after All Hallows’ Eve. All outdoor training stopped with most Athletics activities being confined to the Exercise Hall.
With Winter came a sense of gravity. The Great Manor was solemn and quiet. Everyone walked in thick coats and scarves, shuffling about in their boots. Winter also ushered in a period of Examinations. The games had stopped during Last Light with students going back to their books.
Katherine found that she loved the solitude provided by this wintry time. Wrapped in a warm scarf and a comfortable woollen jumper, she studied by gaslight. She loved Mathematics, barely tolerated Biology and was intrigued by Physics. Engineer Morley thought well of her and said that she would make a fine engineer.
She studied with Alethia during the designated study times. The blind girl read by running her fingertips over raised notches in special books. It is Braille, she explained to a curious Katherine once. Braille is designed for the blind as a kind of tactile alphabet. We can feel our letters.
Then, Examinations descended upon them like a sudden rush of wings. Cook commented how mouse-quiet everyone was at mealtimes and how her soups were ignored by tired and pallid students. “They will lap it up like eager puppies once Examinations are over!” She declared to Captain Sagan after a desultory turnout during Tea.
For Katherine, the Examinations did not faze her. They felt like extended homework, timed by harsh taskmasters. During this period, her dreams involved flying quill-pens and overflowing inkpots. To her relief, Miss Sharpton did not make an appearance and she slept relatively undisturbed.
“Do you plan to go back to Dorset?” Alethia said, soon after their last Examination subject. “Are you celebrating Yule?”
Katherine was in high spirits after this paper. The questions were easier than she’d thought. However, Alethia’s question shocked her. She had not planned to go back to Dorset. She did not have the courage to face her parents.
“I am going to stay here during the Yule holidays,” she said quietly.
Alethia tilted her head to one side like a bird. After an uncomfortable silence, she smiled and said, “You are going to spend Yule with me. You are going to visit London.”
“No… I …” Katherine shook her head, overwhelmed by Alethia’s generous offer.
“The Great Manor is going to be exceedingly boring,” the girl continued and placed her hand gently on Katherine’s arm. “You are going to taste the best baked turkey in the world.” In the cold chill of a winter’s afternoon, Katherine’s heart was warmed by a simple offer of hospitality.
The Examinations results were released, pasted on large wooden boards outside the Administravia. Students thronged before the boards, searching for their names. Someone had clearly and painstakingly arranged and written down all names in alphabetical order and with the attached grades. After a fair bit of good-natured jostling and pushing, Katherine edged her way to the board under the letter ‘R’. She scanned the board intently.
Found her name: RILEY, KATHERINE. Written in quaint and neat black ink.
With trembling finger, she traced her name and the grades. Athletics – Alpha. Basics of Flight – Beta. Humanities – Beta. Engineering – Alpha. Languages – Beta, Mathematics – Alpha. Her heart dipped. Science – Delta.
But she passed and she was thankful. That would mean another year at the academy and a chance for her to fly. Deep inside, she felt guilty that her parents were paying straight from their pockets.
She pushed herself away from the board and headed for the courtyard where Alethia and Thomas waited.
“How did you fare?” Thomas grinned when she approached. He had passed most of his subjects with good grades and he loved comparing his performance with Katherine.
“I passed,” Katherine said simply and shrugged. Alethia laughed at her friend’s sardonic tone. The fair-haired girl had excellent grades but she did not like to compete with others and therefore had remained silent.
“Aw,” Thomas pouted like a little boy. Katherine made a face and they both laughed. It was the End of Term and the beginning of the Yule holidays.
London was definitely different from Dorset.
As the horse-drawn carriage made its way through the busy London streets, Katherine stared at the bustling crowds of people and the number of carriages and vehicles. Steam rose from various vents, swirling together with the light fog and parting as carriages ferried their passengers around. She could see people standing around lit fires, taking in the much-needed heat. Chestnut-sellers were doing brisk business; Katherine’s mouth watered. She loved roasted chestnuts, oh deliciously hot nuggets, especially during the chill of winter.
Above her, she knew, were a few leo-fins, no doubt carrying cargo and passengers. She wondered if Eddington was up there and she blushed, hiding her face behind her thick scarf. Alethia, sitting opposite her, did not say anything. She was dressed in a sober brown coat and her slender hands were snug in fur.
And there were so many more buildings! They were all around her, stately buildings, closely packed buildings, smaller houses in rows. Of course, there was Westminster Abbey with its gothic grandeur and the Tower of London looking ominous in the London fog. Not to mention the clock tower Big Ben, a giant in the midst of giants. She had not forgotten the factories too. They blew spumes of smoke, visible columns of white and grey issuing forth from long chimneys. The memory of the London fire was still fresh in her mind.
When the carriage passed by the Thames, she marveled at the river barges steaming their way up and down. She could hear their haunting horns echo in the evening darkness. Somewhere she knew were the larger ships coming in to unload their exotic cargo, clad in steel: heralds for a different age of commerce.
From her warm seat in the carriage, swaying gently as the horses trotted down cobblestone streets, she watched the women in their elegant gowns and thick winter muffs as they stepped daintily on pavements covered with dirty snow. There were also women who wore breeches, like Captain Sagan – and they were laughing cheerfully as they strode together down the street, Yuletide packages in their arms. It was indeed a grand age for women.
She rested her chin on her fist, watching London rush past her in a pastiche of sounds and images.
“A penny for your thoughts?” Alethia’s soft voice broke the silence and Katherine turned to look at the blind girl.
“Just thinking,” Katherine said quietly.
“London can be quite overwhelming,” Alethia smiled. “It is called a city for a reason.”
Katherine smiled back, knowing that Alethia had somehow acknowledged her smile.
“You will like my father,” the fair-haired girl said, grimacing slightly as the carriage suffered a jolt as it dipped into a pothole. They both heard an apologetic “Sorry, ma’am!” from the coach-driver and they laughed. “He spends a lot of his time in his workshop. Just be careful not to step on his inventions.”
Just then, the carriage slowed to a halt. Alethia’s face instantly broke into a radiant smile. Katherine could see a plump older woman in prim clothing and an apron standing outside a mahogany-colored door, carrying a glowing lamp.
“We are home,” Alethia said. “Mrs Potts!”
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.
THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
by Joyce Chng
Finding Her Balance: Walking Aware
The air was suitably chilly for an early-morning Athletics. There was fog rolling in from the Flying Field, a fleecy sheet coating just about everything and making flying lessons for the final-year ensign class impossible.
Stenton made them all stand in a large circle, including Alethia who shivered in the cold. They had their jumpers on but the Autumn cold was indeed bone-deep. The students hopped from foot to foot, trying to keep themselves warm. There would be a lot of howling and complaining later. But now it was not the time to. Stenton’s sharp tongue would whip them into shape.
Katherine’s skin broke out in goose pimples. She hated Autumn, even when she was back in Dorset. The house was always clammy, the cold having seeped into the very bricks and stayed there like a stubborn ice wall. She would pile on several layers of blankets and the cold would still permeate through. Little Alice, her sister, hated it and often fell ill with winter colds.
“You must be wondering why you are all standing in a circle,” Stenton began. He was a stocky man, in his late thirties, his salt-and-pepper hair close-cropped to the skull. He was a Cockney man by birth and he was proud of it.
“We are going to do an exercise,” he continued, watching the students and their discomfort in the chill air with amusement in his eyes. “I want everyone to start walking in three paces, at your own will, within this circle.”
The students eyed one another and then at Stenton who grinned back. “Walk normally, breathe normally, making sure you do not come into contact with your peers.”
Katherine darted a glance at Alethia anxiously. For this exercise, the blind girl would have found it difficult in doing so. But the girl showed no sign of anxiety or indeed nervousness, standing with a faint smile on her lips.
“You can begin … now!” Stenton whistled sharply and the students began to shuffle, pace and walk, each in his or her own style of movement. Three paces, Stenton reminded them, three paces.
The strands of fog made perception fair tricky, clouding in-coming traffic and playing games with the eyes. Katherine tried to breathe normally, listening to her heart, trying hard not to knock into her classmates. Someone brushed too closely to her and it was Thomas Von Dyke who grinned at her wickedly and moved away, like a dancer. Everyone was shifting around her, each in his own world but slowly becoming aware of the others. Even Alethia moved remarkably well, steering herself with her walking stick.
Katherine was aware of the currents around her, the shifting flows and eddies. For a few breaths, she paused, perceptive of the dance and the dancers. Then, someone approached her and she neatly stepped away without missing a beat. The fog simply added to the flow, becoming part of it, dispersing when one of the students moved through it and merging back again seamlessly.
Is flying like that? She wondered, listening to her heartbeats. Knowing the flows and currents of the air? Like a bird? Or knowing who I am?
She was reminded of the nightmare she had a while back and she shuddered, almost losing her concentration when Thomas passed her again. She caught herself and swirled away, almost hitting another boy who glared at her indignantly.
The dance carried on, everyone moving – by now – easily. At the sidelines, Stenton watched pleased.
“That is a fine exercise!” Thomas commented as they retired to the dormitories to refresh themselves before the afternoon classes. His German accent was almost gone with the number of years spent in London, only a faint hint of it showing when he became excited.
“It is,” Katherine nodded, feeling the exercise still lingering in her bones. Alethia walked beside her.
“You almost knocked into me twice,” the boy laughed cheekily. He was almost nineteen. At times, Katherine swore he acted even younger than his real age. She was the oldest amongst the three, having reached the maximum age of registration for the academy. She was passing glad she made it into the academy. Passing glad …
“Hmph,” she retorted back and Thomas shrugged. He was in a jolly good mood. Alethia merely smiled, no doubt understanding the nuances in the conversation.
Now Alethia’s professed vocational training astounded her. She was not training to be a pilot. Instead, she was training to be a controller, the person tasked to give directions to the leo-fin pilot. Now how she was going to do so remained a mystery, even for Katherine. Alethia’s senses of perception were uncanny; she claimed to hear the leo-fins by color and was hence – or she said – able to direct the leo-fin when it took off or landed.
“I do not mind working with you,” she once told Katherine privately. “If we both graduate from the academy first!”
Alethia sounded confident and she seemed to know herself well. She seemed so solid, so self-assured. So aware, even with her disability. Katherine had to admit that she admired the blind girl.
“Off with you,” Katherine mock-scolded Thomas who bowed cockily and peeled off to the nearest washroom. When he was gone, she breathed a sigh of relief. “He is such a frustrating lad!”
Doctor James Ash was a busy man. Not only did he have to look after the health of the entire student cohort, he was also part of the Faculty. Biology was the subject, even though his own specialty was general surgery.
It was common to see the bearded tall gentleman stalking down the corridors of the Manor, simultaneously physician and teacher. He would check on the students, especially those who were sick and were in quarantine, regularly, making they had their ample rest. Likewise, he would supervise his students in the laboratories.
He was a busy man. One would expect him to be scatterbrained, the very image of an university professor. He was not. He was sharp. He was acerbic. Mind you, he just cut young Joshua Baker into fine shreds for being tardy in his homework. Mister Baker was an intelligent young man. He just frittered his time away with his laziness. He would have words to say to Pilotmaster Lee. And as Tutor-in-charge of College Azure, he needed to make sure the students were in tip-top condition, academically and physically.
Now why was he so concerned about a simple ankle? He was constantly on the move. Yet, a simple ankle was causing him some a degree of concern.
It was not just torn tendons and broken skin. It involved the whole person. Common sense, in the form of adequate nutrition and rest, would help remedy the ankle’s problem. If he could get that into the head of the said person with the problem ankle, he would.
She did not tell him how the injury was caused or inflicted. And by what, she was not forthcoming. As he observed her quietly as a calm clinician should, the ankle seemed to be getting worse, not better. Of course, with all the exertion she was putting on it.
He would recommend bed rest. Barring that, simple surgery. Other than these options, it was not just an imbalance of humours. It was a psychological reason.
And no, he was definitely not going to the nonsense of phrenology. Lumps on the skull were not going to tell him about her mind. Lumps were lumps. Not real problems.
If she is aware of this fact, he mused, looking sternly at a few students who quickly went back to their schoolwork. If she wants to be a pilot, that is.
Katherine dreamt again. This time, she found herself moving around with Miss Sharpton. Avoiding the ancient harridan became a dance of shifting eddies and currents. The woman would try to hit her with the brown belt and she would evade it simply by sidestepping or moving away quickly.
It was a pleasant dream, because the dream Miss Sharpton grew increasingly furious and annoyed with her failures to hit Miss Riley. Katherine slept on without waking up.
It was First Light when everyone was jolted awake by a loud rumble. It felt as if the earth was quaking in fear, rumbling and groaning away in travail. Alethia cried out, greatly alarmed by the sound and how sorely it impacted her senses. Katherine fell out from her bed, nearly spraining her already-aggravated ankle.
London was burning.
THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
By Joyce Chng
Balance Of The World: An Interlude
The balance of the world was not just the balance of an antiquated globe left behind by history. It was not a fixed world, with arcane words and ancient creatures with “There Be Dragons” marked on perceived dangerous areas. It was always shifting, like the shifting clouds and currents. Continents were shifting boundaries with the Powers making conquests everywhere. In the Far East. In the Indies. In the Spice Islands.
If the antiquated globe spun like a child’s top, it would not change the world’s continents and countries. Nor its diverse politics.
Especially the politics, the Asian man contemplated thoughtfully as he placed his hand on the old globe, starring at the lovingly crafted words “Middle Kingdom”, feeling a pang in his heart. He had not been home for many years, having considered himself a political migrant and left Shanghai for all its worth.
And the Qing emperor is laying claims in the Indies, he mused quietly. Not a gutless man, this Qing emperor, and definitely not under the Dowager’s thumb. The winds might change with this man.
He strode over to his worktable, currently piled under by stacks of registration forms, blueprints and flight schedules. He felt his age today. He was only fifty and yet he felt a hundred. It must be the students, he thought with wry humor. Seeing the youths in their classes and at the Flying Field reminded him of his own exuberant and often reckless youth.
If I would have studied hard for the Imperial Examinations, he chuckled to himself, sorting out the paperwork. He had a lecture in about an hour’s time – he had the clock to remind him. I would have been made a magistrate. But then again, I would be stuck behind some musty desk, with fawning cronies and corruption in the civil service.
His mother would be proud if he was made a magistrate or even a governor of a province. She would forgive him then, for the troubles he had caused her when he was a child. He liked to experiment with gunpowder, gleaned from the firecrackers used for the festivals. She probably had not forgiven him for the flying gunpowder ship.
Old Liu was particularly angry, he recalled the old retainer’s face, reddened from furious shouting and half-blackened with soot from the gunpowder ship which exploded mid-air, right in the middle of the family courtyard, much to everyone’s consternation and horror. Old Liu looked just like Kwan Kong, the red-and-black faced god of justice.
His sisters hated the smoke and tried to fan it away, more concerned for their silk garments. His father was not impressed. His mother appeared as if she was about to faint. The servants gaped and some hid their laughter. The main body of the ship, modeled after a Chinese junk, broke apart, mid-flight, and fell onto the main dish, a roasted pig procured by Old Liu. It was a Yuan Xiao dinner with invited guests and a slew of festivities to celebrate the end of the Lunar New Year period to follow soon after. Of course, he had to go spoil it all. After the festivities, he was scolded and caned by his father.
He was ten and already bored of the world.
Of course, Old Liu was probably dead by now. It had been years. For him, he had cut off his queue of hair, mark of a Qing man, and left for England, vowing never to return.
There was a discrete knock on the door. He knew that knock and smiled. Before long, the door creaked open and Captain Sagan walked in, proud like a red-haired lioness.
“You will be late for your lecture,” she said without preamble. Such a woman and such a character. She was attired in her characteristic shirt and riding breeches. The suffragists loved her. Her Majesty, the Queen herself, had heard of her exploits too.
“I know, I know,” he said and fetched his notes from the table. He would organize it later. Oh, time was of the essence and he knew it all too well.
Ah, the balance of the world, his world, was right at the moment. London was the center of commerce and invention, both fueling each other, much like his friendship with Captain Sagan. His mother would be shocked. A friendship with a foreign woman, a “red-haired devil”? It would have offended her delicate sensibilities. But she was Shanghainese, born into a world of privilege. Her world was a world of lazy mahjong sessions and serene embroidery, sheltered from the real Shanghai, itself attracting people of all races and sorts.
We exist in many worlds, he thought as he exited his room with Captain Sagan beside him and strode purposefully to the auditorium. It is how we balance the worlds. But the winds of the world are fickle.