Take to the Winds
“What on earth did you put inside this steering column, Landa?”
The redhead with grease smearing her face looked up at him, grasping the bottom of the wheel, her closely shorn fingernails caked in oil. She squinted, her face partially obscured by the gearbox she was working in underneath the polished wood and brass fittings. Her long bangs flopped into her line of sight.
Click-whir. The sound of the analytical engine reading the punch cards, changing the speed of the gears and flywheel, permeated the air. The steam engine steadily did its job, sending thousands of pounds of pressure into the chambers above to lift the ship.
“It’s a little something special, a new shifter I developed,” she said.
A slight smile curled the corners of his mouth as he watched his friend, crouched down, working away. “When can we fly this outlandish racer of yours?”
Landa tightened her grip on the weighty steel spanner, the little muscles along her forearm popping to a rhythm only she knew as it turned. She grunted, adjusting the linkages. “Patience. The connections need to be just right.” Sweat dropped from her nose as she wiped her forehead with a paisley handkerchief soiled with gear dust. She stood up and closed the hatch with a smack.
Gavin waited on her word, his boot tapping the decking, and readjusted his gloves. If he’d been a puppy, his tail would have been wagging. On second thought, maybe it was.
“Now?” Gavin plead.
“Well, Your Highness, I’d say now is as good a time as any.”
Gavin frowned at her. All he ever wanted to do was fly, far into the sky, at the helm of an airship, and any old airship would do. The thing he never wanted was to be reminded of his lineage or what people really thought of him.
“Come on, Gavin, I’m only taking the piss,” she said, which ripped him away from going down a dark, well-traveled road. “Never mind that now.”
“Why, Landa, is that any way for a proper young lady to act?” Gavin asked, putting on exaggerated airs, purposefully cheery. “We’re sixteen years of age after all.”
“Is anything I do a part of acceptable society, good sir?” she mocked.
“Not really,” he agreed while pointing to the black smudge on her face and the tools in her hands. She had always been… different. She took no end of chiding for it either.
She paused, maybe a little more sadness on her face than he was used to. Or maybe it was something else. She shook it off as quickly as it had overtaken her, adding, “And be careful, mind you. The only reason we keep getting granted access to Marble Arch Airfield is—”
“I know, love,” he sighed. “Your coursework requires you to blah, blah, blah.” Marble Arch had been expanded for the military during the war, and he was lucky to be able to use it. Otherwise he’d have to use the tiny public field in Regent’s Park, and that was so dreadfully far north.
“That blah, blah also lets you keep coming in here whenever you want, young man. As my assistant,” Landa boasted, comically jutting one finger in the air. Gavin frowned. “What say we take her up?”
With Landa’s gentle cajoling, the bright picture of excitement returned to his face. Gavin slowly walked the short deck, trailing his fingers along the sleek lines of the rounded wooden beams curving around the sides. He tapped along, skipping over where brown wood met in a point with a big brass ring marking the bow. He snapped his head upward when the silver billowing balloon sacks overhead flapped suddenly. They were stuffed to bursting with hissing steam pressure, straining to snap free from the mooring ropes barely holding them back. These are the things he lived for.
He grabbed the brass knob atop a long handle that led into the analytical engine hidden in a box on the deck. He looked pleadingly back at his friend to confirm the order to lift off. Landa knew him well enough, better than anyone in all of London, enough to know what would make him happy.
“Pull it up, slowly,” Landa said as she mimicked a slow backward movement with her arm.
“Yes!” Gavin pulled the lever as instructed. Deep in the engine, something sprang to life. Landa shot out her arms to steady herself as the deck gave a great shudder before the click-whir became gentle, in sync.
“Careful now, Gav. This is the first time it’s been operational for more than a tick. Go easy. I don’t know what will actually happen.” As the words came, she knew they were wasted on such an excited air jockey.
“Only one way to find out!” Gavin’s lithe frame stood ready against the wooden wheel, hand loose and easy on the accelerator. The rising sun’s beams cut through the puffy white clouds sparsely dancing across the skies, turning his face golden.
They were enveloped in the roar of the steam engine. Gavin eased the ship off the ground for the first time. The belly of the compact racer became constant clicks and clacks of the cogs and gears slamming into position. Landa white-knuckled the wooden banister, eyes closed, as a brace against the shaking deck of the lifting vessel. Gavin hoped she had gotten the sequences of the analytic punch cards right. If she hadn’t, instead of up and forward, anything could happen.
“Ha-ha! Look, Landa, look at it! It’s working perfectly. You’re a genius,” he said, his excitement electric. Gavin’s smile threatened to split him in half.
“Come on. How can you design something as beautiful as this and not want to fly it yourself?” Gavin’s thick brown hair danced in the wind, brushing against his cheeks and forehead like fingers. “How can you possibly be afraid of flying?”
“I’m not…. Just ease back now and land it. That’s enough for a first test,” she replied, peering at him with one eye through a narrow gap of her mostly scrunched-up face.
“Must we dance this dance every time, love?” Gavin exaggerated, one arm flailing around. “You build them. And me? I was born to fly.” He laughed at his own theatrics.
The spinning of the brass and copper innards grew louder in response to Gavin pushing the second lever forward. He locked the first into place by squeezing the handle mechanism. Flames burst from the back ports. The little sailboat lurched forward in the sky, pulling the ropes hard against the fabric of the balloon holding the vessel aloft. Steam from the engines blasted upward into the fabric as well as backward to propel them.
“Gavin!” Landa hollered against the rushing wind. “We don’t have a flight plan for this. I am going to murder you!”
Gavin laughed and pulled the stick, taking them farther away from the ground. The lustrous design of the six-foot-long personal airship Landa built allowed it to change directions quicker than any other ship in the air. It turned much too fast for her current liking, judging by the expression on her face. It bolted straight ahead as she held on, releasing a guttural noise, which matched the exuberant shouts escaping her lifelong, and sometimes foolish, friend.
The early morning London streets spiderwebbed before them. Its sprawl expanded with every passing tick as they rose, row houses choked with coal soot and thick with smoke and muddy cobblestone roads laid out below in unruly patterns. Gavin saw the green patchwork of farms as blurry squares of crisscrossing lines way off west beyond the crush of civilization. The march of gears and steam would claim that too before the turn of the century.
He marveled at the giant clockface of Big Ben on the horizon past his home and the little world of Grosvenor Square. Although it seemed less like home these days as much as the house he slept in and loathed. Turning away, he looked out, yearning to go higher and farther away.
The sunlight glanced off the silvery cloth bag that held up the airship against the never-ceasing pull of gravity. Across both sides, small sails unfurled to catch the wind. Gavin pulled ropes and levers to cause it to turn to his whim and fancy. The ship headed toward Charing Cross, its buildings growing taller and closer. Gavin thrust the vertical control forward and started flipping the wheel over and over to the right.
“Oh God,” Landa gasped.
“Seriously? I knew it. After all these years, you are really afraid of flying,” Gavin concluded. “You crashed one time, Landa.”
“On my first time at the stick. What do you know? You weren’t there. I nearly died,” Landa said. He looked away from the horizon to rest his brown eyes on her face. Her hard angles softened.
“But your dad was chief naval artificer. What about all those times working on ships with him?” he asked tenderly. When she didn’t answer, he continued. “You weren’t afraid with him.” It sounded more accusatory than intended.
“I’ll stick to engines, thank you very much.”
He knew what the moment needed. Gavin pulled his ever-present brass-rimmed goggles down from his forehead to shield his eyes against the wind before he raced down toward the city. His mouth drew tight in determination and concentration as he steered headlong at a smokestack.
“Gav,” she warned.
“Gavin!” she yelled, her body shoved back into the column and up away from the deck with the sheer force of the descent. She peeked over the edge of the rails. People with shocked, panicked eyes crowded windows of the building they were about to collide with.
“There are an awful lot of people at work for it being so early in the morning, don’t you think?” Gavin asked.
“Gavin! Any time. Like now! Now would work just fine!”
“And… here we go,” he said, flashing a wicked grin as he quickly worked knobs and levers, pulling at ropes to propel the little airship into a steep climb. He shoved his black leather boot against the wheel, turning it left as his hands and knees on the gears brought the racer away from the impending crash.
It rose up through the Union Jack that hung off the side of the building, flapping its vibrant colors against the sky. Gavin grabbed at it and yanked. The momentum of the vessel snapped the wooden pole. The small ship climbed away from the building back into the air, Gavin waving his prize.
“You are absolutely daft, Gavin Haveland. Daft, I say,” Landa said, barely able to hold back the smile that crept onto her face.
“Ah. Shouldn’t the son of the head councilman have his own flag to adorn his vessel?”
“Your vessel?” Landa chastised.
“Don’t be such a—” Gavin’s words died in the air. A warship suddenly sprang out in front of them from around the building and blocked the sun, throwing them into shadow. They were headed for it full steam.
“Gavin?” Landa pleaded, digging her nails into the heavily lacquered railing.
Gavin, if good at anything, was good at steering a ship. He worked his hands in a blur, pushing the ship hard over to the left, his boots sliding on the deck plating. Landa hung on for dear life. The little craft slipped by the other airship, small sails flapping against the expanding sheets of the oncoming military ship.
“We’ve got trouble,” she shouted. Gavin turned to look at the regiment’s insignia on the starboard side of the brass-and-copper-clad vessel. It had started to make its turn to pursue them. Gavin righted their little speck of a ship, dwarfed by the British naval vessel coming to capture them.
“I can see th—”
The loud screech of metal grinding up against metal drowned out his words. The tiny airship jolted forward and then to the side before the engine revolutions tripled.
Landa raced to the gearbox door, stumbling against the ropes and sails flapping across the deck. “You pushed it too hard and knocked the governor out of alignment, Gavin. Damn it.” She thrust open the door to release a billowing black cloud from belowdecks.
“You can fix it, right? I mean, you can fix anything,” Gavin declared. Landa shot him an exasperated look before going back to work, her head deep in the smoking hulk.
“Try to keep him level.”
“Yes. Him. Get me that spanner,” she said, pointing to the tools that had slid across the deck down the gangway, past amidships.
As the flying boat barreled through the sky away from the city, flames jumped from the ports behind them. Each burst shot them ahead in leaps and bounds, but they were dropping fast. If they could slip the navy, they might make it back to the airfield, but they were definitely heading in the general direction of the terrifying and sudden stop far below.
A loud electric crackling sound filled the air, a precursor to a loudspeaker announcement. “You two in the small unregistered air vessel. Halt immediately and prepare to be boarded. Your vessel will be confiscated. You do not have authorization.”
Gavin pulled hard against the wheel again, his feet threatening to come through his boots braced on the steering column jutting from the deck. Ropes in his teeth and wrapped around his straining arm muscles pulled slowly away, cutting into him. He tried to save them with all his might. At least he wanted to get them to level out enough to coast back to the airfield, where they wouldn’t kill anyone when they crashed in their own fiery death.
“They have got to be kidding me, right?” he asked.
The ground rushed to meet them as the engines pushed them toward terra firma. Off in the distance, the fire wagon, loaded with men, sped along the landing strip, trying to get to the probable point of contact. The firemen looked up, unable to peel away from the riveting scene of the tiny racer chased by an enormous warship. That didn’t happen every day.
They were likely to crash away from the field. Undoubtedly the authorities had called in the rescue teams since a terrible crash seemed unavoidable. Gavin spent one horrifying second thinking about his father and what would happen if they were unlucky enough to survive this ordeal. Then he focused back on the crisis at hand.
When they reached an elevation of one hundred feet, the engines stopped screaming, and the racer began to slow. “There. Got it,” Landa said.
Gavin’s thin body arched backward, and his forearms looked as if to break against the brass levers, trying with everything he had to save them. With the engines off, the ship slowly lessened the downward dive angle, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough, and they weren’t going to make it.
“Come on!” Gavin roared as he pulled, losing all sense of being there aboard the ship. He suddenly thought of Landa, his dearest friend, the two of them playing as little children, Landa’s face covered in soot from some exploded experiment, her goggles outlined in black grease, both of them laughing. He saw her poking him under the table as his father chastised him for again not living up to his true potential and their family name, trying not to giggle and get into more trouble. Gavin tasted the metallic flavor of blood.
He glanced back to her, her eyes clamped shut against the coming crash, wishing he could have been stronger. The bottom of the hull scraped along the grass, seeming to gently ease them down. But that thought ended quickly. The piercing bang of the vessel’s full weight hitting earth was followed by the entire ship listing right, spinning around, snapping most of the ropes holding the balloon to the mast and jackstays, and sliding unimpeded. Gavin and Landa tumbled across the planks, end over each other’s end until they came to rest, limbs akimbo.
Steam escaped from the holes in the sides of the engine casing, creating a snakelike hissing. The clanking engine of the steam fire wagon grew louder. The firemen shouted at the pair, but Gavin couldn’t understand them over the cacophony.
“You have to be all right,” Gavin begged.
“Unf. Well, if you’d get your… your privates off my head, I might be.” They were still a mixture of arms and legs when the response team came to a stop nearby. The fires had put themselves out upon landing, if one could call it that, so there was naught to do for the firemen but survey the scene.
“Nice arse!” One of them whistled. It was then Gavin realized he was hanging half over the stern rail, his pants ripped in the melee, exposing his posterior for all to see. His goggles had lost a lens, his black vest all its buttons, and he his pride. He blushed while he pulled the fabric together with one hand and helped Landa up with the other.
“Wait,” one of the responders exclaimed. “Aren’t you…?”