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Winged a novella (of two.., p.6
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       Winged: A Novella (Of Two Girls), p.6

           Joyce Chng
 
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  “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 o
ver. The Great Gathering would soon arrive with all its glory.

  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.

 

  Chapter Six

  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 p
amphlets 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.

 
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