The iron road to Ipswich – Castles in the sky – Navigator Taras Nerandzic – Learning the ropes.
Travelling seems to be our most common state of being. I hardly
remember us ever living in a house for more than a few months
at the time. It allows you to make more friends than you would
while staying in the same place. It also makes you lose more
friends. The Ajuru tribe had it right. You travel together,
and meet many new friends and enemies. Some of them stay, some
of them leave. I have now returned to the Western world, with
its steam-powered convenience, its vast knowledge of medicine,
its technology, its literature, that allows millions of people to
live together on a small island that would not support a tenth
that number without the sheer ingenuity of its scientists and
engineers and farmers and industry. My wonderful wife Fatin has
come with me, and so far, she seems to enjoy this new world. Her
pride will not allow her to show the tears shed for her family
back in Africa.
Fatin and I are now a happily married couple (not to mention
legally, which is a story all by itself). We are no longer the
people we were because we both have been taken away from our
native lands, and changed profoundly by that experience. This
is both good and bad. We miss the good things about our lives
at home, and tend to forget about the bad. Fatin is no longer
the tribal girl she once was, but neither is she simply the
Mrs. Tennant that an English girl would have been. And for that
matter, part of me will always be Kal of England, Feeder of Lions.
— Carl Tennant, “My life with the Ajuru”
As the airship Baldur pulled into Heath Row, it was raining. A changeable wind pulled our vessel hither and yon, but the helmsman was alert at his post and navigated us to one of the mooring poles. Fatin and I were standing by the window in the observation lounge. Fatin was holding Raage up so he could see. He seemed unimpressed, unconnected as it was to sleeping or eating. Fatin was quietly talking to him in the Ajuru language. With this much maneuvering going on, the engines were going at full tilt to provide enough power for rapid course corrections. Now and then, Baldur lurched from one side to the other. We made our way to the mooring pole that had a flashing light. The cables were dropped fore and aft, and we had officially arrived.
We walked down the gangplank. Formalities were taken care of, temporary proof of identity was provided for Raage and Fatin, who for administrative reasons had to be registered as my property. I was immensely grateful that Fatin found this amusing rather than insulting, and resolved to provide them with full British citizenship as soon as possible.
Mr. James Riley joined us in the arrivals lounge, and led us to the ticket office for the train to Ipswich. We had to rush to make the twelve-fifteen train, and I only barely managed to convince Riley that one does not run with a heavy trunk and a small child. Nevertheless, we managed to make it on board just as the whistle blew and found a place to sit. I could see pain on Riley’s face, and he was putting his leg straight with his hands.
“Gonna need a goddamn cane,” he muttered.
“Who did this to you?” I asked.
“Curious people,” said Riley, and would not be drawn on the subject. He stared out of the window with an angry scowl on his face as the train rolled on in a North-easterly direction.
We could hear the rattle of wheels in the corridor, and presently, the tea trolley rolled into view, pushed by a middle-aged woman wearing a white cap and apron.
“Tea? Coffee? Confections? Anyone?”
“Tea please,” I said. “Riley?”
Riley looked up from the window, and shook his head. The tea lady poured me a large cup, added milk, and handed it to me. She looked at Fatin, then back at me.
“And would the little Negro girl like a cup as well?”
I sat there, unable to find the right words for a moment. Fatin smiled at the tea lady.
“Yes, please. Is it Tetleys?”
The tea lady clutched her breast. “Oh I’m sorry Ma’am. I didn’t realise you spoke English. No, it’s Taylor’s, but none the worse for it.” She poured tea from the small spigot in the urn, added a dash of milk without looking at her hands. “You are a long way from home, Ma’am, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“No, I’m not.” Fatin’s eyes briefly turned to me. “I am with Carl.”
The tea lady’s eyes wrinkled. “Oh that’s nice, dear. Have you travelled far?”
“We walked for fourteen days, then we were on the boat. Then, the dirge… dir…”
“Dirigible?” said the tea lady.
“Yes. Carl says we travelled farther by dirigible than we walked or went by boat. But it doesn’t feel like travelling.”
The tea lady nodded slowly. “I suppose it wouldn’t. Well, enjoy your tea, dear. Have to keep going.”
“Wait. My name is Fatin. What is yours?”
The tea lady tapped her name badge. “Just call me Mildred, dear.”
“Fatin. Bye now.”
With a little wave, she set her trolley in motion, richer by another story to tell her children. Fatin looked at me.
“Feeder of Lions,” she said in Ajuru. “You look like you ate a fish without taking out the bones. What is wrong?”
I sighed. “I just didn’t like what she called you. It’s not a nice thing to say.”
I took her hand in mine. “I am so sorry, but people are going to look at you, and think you are stupid, just because you have a brown face.”
“You don’t. Alex doesn’t.”
I looked at my knees. Fatin bent over to me.
“My love, I can tell when people are nasty to me and when they just don’t know. I promise you I will set my big strong man on them when I need to.” She sat back, picked up her teacup, and tasted. “Drink your tea while it is hot. This country is cold and our friend would not want us to warm each other the usual way.”
We had to change trains in the small town of Manningtree, and pulled into the waiting room and restaurant. Fatin was shivering in the rain, so I gave her my coat. Our train rolled in, we got on board and went for the final leg to Ipswich. Riley lapsed into a complete silence, and Fatin sat quietly looking out of the window at the landscape passing by. I had Raage on my arm. He fit just right in the crook of my arm, and was fast asleep. I was trying to move as little as possible, because as soon as he’d wake up, he’d be hungry.
We arrived at Ipswich Station when it was starting to get dark. The rain showed no signs of stopping, and Fatin was still wearing my coat. Luckily we Brits are made of stern enough stuff to weather such harsh conditions. Riley hailed one of the station carriages. As she saw the cart roll up, Fatin’s eyes opened wide. She gave Raage to me, and walked up to the horse as Riley and I installed ourselves. She gently stroked its head, speaking to it softly. The horse gave a friendly kind of snort and pushed its nose into her. The driver scowled.
“What’s that woman doing with my horse?”
“Putting an African blessing on it,” I said. “To keep us from harm.”
“I don’t hold with the Unseelie,” said the driver. “She coming?”
Fatin pulled herself into the carriage, wedged herself between me and Riley and wordlessly held out her arms. I gave Raage back to her and she pulled my coat over him. She sang to him in Ajuru, then looked at me.
“How long before we get there?”
“Not long,” I said. “Driver, Algernon University!”
The first person to greet me when our hansom pulled into the ornate gates of Algernon University, was my sister. I was immensely glad to see her, and she appeared to have suffered no permanent damage from her ordeal. The next person I saw was Prof. Dr. Margaret Enderby, whose considerable intellectual capabilities were instantly turned to jelly when she saw Raage. Few men over the age of six retain that power, so it was unfortunate that he was not awake to enjoy it.
From the entrance a man came walking towards us, leaning heavily on a cane. He was wearing an eyepatch. I could see from the way he walked that his right leg was a prosthesis. It took me the longest time even to recognise him. For years, Alex and I had thought him dead, but here he was. My father. I am afraid I was reduced to mindless staring, stammering, having not even the presence of mind to introduce him to Fatin. As Raage woke up, and started to wail at the inexcusable absence of food, he took me by the arm and walked me to his chambers.
Father pushed me inside and locked the door behind us.
“My boy,” he said, “I am glad to see you. Alexandra tells me that you were quite seriously ill, but you seem to be in rude health.”
“Life in the African jungle agrees with me,” I said.
Father grinned broadly, and slapped my shoulder. “I can see that. I did not expect you to come back a married man.”
I thought of Fatin as my wife. We had a child together. We slept in the same place. But actually, there had been no rites or rituals to bind us.
“You’re not married? Is my grandson born out of wedlock?”
“Out of Christian wedlock,” I said. “Back in Africa, we are as married as anyone there is.”
Father looked at my face intently. Losing an eye had evidently not robbed him of the ability to guess my thoughts with uncanny precision.
“Well we can hardly expect a proper church in those wild regions,” he said. “A mere administrative procedure and all shall be well.” His face darkened. “We have more pressing business to attend to.”
“Alex,” I said. “Someone tried to kill her.”
“Yes. Now I have no idea who that someone is, but I think I am not far off the mark if I think it may have something to do with Hammond’s expedition. In which case not only Alexandra, but anyone on that expedition is at risk, even Mr. Riley himself. We caught one of their…”
“As good a word as any. But if the enemy is determined, more will follow.”
I looked at Father’s face. I could only imagine then what had happened to him, but the expression on his face, I recognised. I had seen that expression many times as he led us away from the bandits in Angola, where Mother died. Alex and I saw it again as he sent us back to England by boat. He visited us at boarding school once upon his return from Africa, and before he set off for the Americas, to look for African civilisations in that faraway land. I could still hardly believe that he had really returned. I know now, as I write these words, that parts of him never returned.
Father put his hand on my shoulder. “My boy, I have no desire to sit here, waiting for attack after attack, until one of these devils gets lucky. The Tennant family, including the recent additions, are about to disappear from the face of the earth.”
“Do you mean hide? Go to some place away from civilisation? I have just returned from such a place.”
Father stepped to a cupboard, took out a bottle of brandy. He poured two glasses and gave one to me.
“Do you expect me to hobble through the inhospitable places of this world on a leg and a half? Sad to say, I have become used to the comforts of home these last few months. But no matter, we will bring these comforts with us. Let me show you.” He pulled a key from his pocket and opened a drawer in his desk. He produced a thick manila envelope and unwound the piece of string that held it closed. From it, he pulled several sheets of paper, which he spread out on the desk.
“These are the drawings and ownership papers of our new home.” He grinned, making him look like a pirate with his eyepatch. “I have always wanted to be an airship’s captain. And now I am.”
I looked at the papers. It appeared to be an airship about two hundred feet in length. Its lines were sleek, if that was the word for such a massive vehicle.
“Ignore anything about the engines,” said Father. “I’m commissioning a pair of Mr. Parsons’ finest turbines. This ship will have a fair chance in any cross-continental race. We’ll be running the engines at a fraction of their full power, which makes them remarkably efficient. We will be able to fly half way round the world without ever coming down. Pursue our enemies wherever they may go. We will not be cowed by these miscreants.”
“But… These airships must cost a fortune! How can you afford this?”
“Sold the place in Windsor Gardens,” said Father breezily. “For the price of a London terrace, you can buy a small nation-state these days. Also, this is an ex-military dirigible. In the Franco-Prussian wars, The French commissioned maybe a hundred of these vessels for the purpose of bombing trenches. This was abandoned quickly when the Frogs found that these things respond rather badly to incendiary rounds. Armoring them was of course out of the question. Lead balloon and all that. So they fell into disuse and I could pick one up for a song. The bastards did remove the cannon. Thought their customers would blow up Paris with them.”
“They just want to suck the joy out of everything,” I said. “Father, airships cost more than houses, even London ones. Will Raage’s grandchildren be paying off this airship?”
“None of it! She is mine up to the last nut and bolt. It even includes the services of an experienced navigator, who will stay on board until you children know the ropes. Splendid fellow, Russian named Taras Nerandzic. Has been flying all kinds of dirigibles since childbirth. He’ll be instructing you and Alexandra in the fine art of flying airships. I’m hoping you will take to it.”
I gave Father a Look. “Father. Where is the money coming from? And please don’t change the subject.”
“I’ve had a bit of a windfall in South America,” said Father. “I can afford this. Beyond that, you don’t need to know.”
This, of course, made me all the more curious, but once my father digs his heels in, there is no helping the matter. I put aside my fears of the poor house and looked at the drawings. This was a rigid-frame dirigible that would keep its form even with its hydrogen bags pumped empty of gas. Its engines were in the gondola underneath, with crank shafts rather than the less reliable chain drives used to turn the propellers. The gondola also held the living quarters. With an eye to the future, there were rooms for myself, Alexandra, Father, and eight guests.
“I may have to move to a larger room,” I said. “There are three of us now.”
Father laughed. “True, true. I knew you had, let us say ‘met’ someone and got her pregnant. I didn’t expect you to take her home with you.”
“I almost didn’t,” I said. “It’s a long story.”
I looked back at the drawing. Behind the bridge were two massive engine rooms. Behind those was a hallway with two sleeping cabins for the crew, and a stairway going up into the envelope itself, so one could access the propeller pods and the supply of hydrogen gas. From the inside deck, I could see with stomach-churning anticipation a ladder going all the way to the top of the airship and an observation deck. I could already hear Alex’ delighted squeals running up to do handstands on top of the airship. She has a considerably better head for heights than I do. All I have is the good sense to keep myself from plummeting to my death. Behind the first two cabins was the now sadly defunct bomb bay. Next was the mess hall, next to the galley, surrounded by four more cabins, one of which had a scrawled note “Library”. Under the galley were the washing facilities and the heads. Even airships have a poop deck, apparently.
I only slowly realised that such an airship might possibly be our new family home. Father put a hand on my shoulder, and I looked up into as delighted a grin as any young boy’s on Boxing Day. I could not resist grinning myself.
“We will name her the Lady I,” said Father.
“After Mother,” I said.
Father only smiled.
Our new castle in the sky made its appearance above Algernon University’s bell tower about a week after Mr. Riley’s exposé about the peril we were in. Father stood next to me, leaning on his cane. He was wearing a blue naval overcoat and a captain’s hat. A big, big smile was on his face. Alex and Fatin stood on my other side. I could see Alex’ eyes shining. She had been considerably less concerned with the finances, which were still a mystery to me and likely to remain so.
Fatin gave me a little nudge. “Feeder of Lions, do all the English live in dirigibles?”
“Only the lucky ones,” I said. “Do you like it?”
She looked up with a doubtful eye. “It is large. All the Ajuru could live inside.”
I shook my head. “Most of this is hydrogen. It wouldn’t stay up otherwise.”
Fatin reminded me with a gentle look where she came from and asked wordlessly what I was blathering on about.
“It’s a kind of air, but it is lighter than the air around us so the dirigible floats.”
Fatin smiled. Explain yourself more plainly, my love.
“Do you remember the boat of Elder Ramaas and the River People?”
“It can hold all the river people, but if you would fill it up with sand or rocks, what would happen?”
Fatin laughed. “It would sink and Elder Ramaas would throw you in the river.”
“Right. It’s the same with this dirigible. It’s big, but if you put too much weight in, it just stays on the ground.”
“It’s coming down,” said Alex.
As the dirigible descended, we saw the landing wheels extend – one for’ard and one aft like a giant bicycle. A rope ladder came down and two sailors with sledge-hammers came out and drove posts into the ground to which they attached tethers. Father stepped forward. He looked much more comfortable with his prosthetic leg now. One of the side-doors to the gondola opened and a gangplank was extended. We followed him inside. The inside of the dirigible smelled like engine oil and rubber. We walked into a hallway with cabins and storerooms left and right. Father knocked on the door marked “Bridge” with the head of his cane. It opened, and a man looked at us. He was wearing a white shirt and tie, and a navigator’s cap.
“Yes. Navigator Nerandzic? A pleasure to meet you in person. Please let me introduce you to my children, Alexandra and Carl, and his wife Fatin.”
Navigator Nerandzic stepped back and pointed inside.
“How are you doing. Welcome to the bridge. Please no touching of the apparatus before I am explaining.”
The bridge was as wide as the whole of the gondola. To the front were large windows with spinning discs set in them. Much more efficient than wipers, these would keep the rain off, allowing the helmsman to see where he was going in the most severe of weather conditions. The airship had a steering wheel much like a ship’s. Father stepped forward and put a hand on the steering wheel. All the paperwork, money, and procedure meant nothing. From that moment, he was Captain Philip Tennant of the good ship Lady I.
Next to the steering wheel were levers controlling the direction of the propellers and the horizontal planes that could steer the bow of the ship up and down. I saw an array of valves off to the side that I assumed were used to pump hydrogen in and out of the gas sacs in the envelope. I imagined that while one person could keep the ship on course, at least two more people were needed for more complex maneuvers such as landing or taking off.
I looked round to see Fatin standing next to me, Raage on her arm, laughing quietly.
“Do you see something you wish to play with, my love?”
“This is not a toy, this is a ship!”
“You are looking at it the same way you looked at me when we first met. Do I need to worry?”
She was speaking English, and I could feel the smirks of my family on me.
“Never,” I said. “You will always be my first thought when I wake, and the last when I go to sleep.”
Fatin bit her lip, still laughing. “That is good to know. Will you show me our new home?”
“The crew are in first starboard cabin,” said Nerandzic. “I am in first port cabin. Other cabins are empty, but maybe need a bit of tidying up.”
Alex bumped her fist into my shoulder. “Come on, brother. Let Father take care of the boring things with Mr. Nerandzic. I want to explore!”
She trotted out the door, and we followed. We were just in time to watch her bottom disappear up the ladder that went into the envelope. I do know my sister. Fatin and I walked into the bomb bay. The cranes used to maneuver the thousand-pound bombs to the hatches on either side of the gondola were still there, but the bomb racks, the bomb sights and the launching mechanisms had all been stripped. I supposed we would re-purpose this room as a cargo hold, so we could at some point air-lift expeditions into inhospitable places. Stacked neatly along the walls were crates containing everything that had been in our place in Windsor Gardens. I wondered about the stack of ‘special’ illustrated magazines that I had hidden beneath my floor boards at the age of fourteen. Lost forever, no doubt. Fatin looked around, but asked no questions, for which I was grateful. I didn’t want to have to explain to her that our new ship, the Lady Iris, named after our mother, could have destroyed her entire tribe with one shot. On the other side of the bomb bay, stairs led up to the rear cabins, the galley, and the mess hall. In the middle of the hall was a mahogany table and benches bolted to the floor. Fatin frowned, sniffed, and out of her bag pulled a sheet of leather, a few cloths and a fresh nappie. Another thing she’d had to get used to. Babies in the Ajuru did not use them, which was a lot more healthy for them, to be honest. No nappie rash and no sitting around in your own excrement. I moved forward to lend a hand, but Fatin shooed me away. I stepped into the galley instead, and filled a bowl with warm water. Fatin raised her eyebrows, then started to clean Raage, singing to him in a low voice. I leaned into the wall and watched them. She looked up at me.
“Warm water? Where did you find that?”
“The galley,” I said. “It has hot and cold running water. I’ll show you.”
She smiled, nodded, and folded a fresh piece of white cloth round Raage’s bottom. She put him in the sling. I showed her the galley. It had a butane stove and oven, large enough to cook for sixteen men. I showed her how to turn the taps and she held her fingers under the water, shaking her head.
“Warm water. As much as you want, just by doing this.”
She turned up the hot tap before I could stop her, and with a sharp intake of breath pulled her hand away. I closed the hot tap so she could put her hand under it again, but she just looked at it, moving her fingers.
“This looks like magic…”
“It’s not magic,” I said. “It’s science and engineering.”
“I know it is not magic, my love. Witch-doctors are just people who know a little more than everybody else, and make you think that they know everything. We had a witch-doctor once, but only… temporarily. Magic is the sounds you hear without hearing them. The things you know without seeing. When you see the kudu, or the lion, and know what they are thinking. When you know where the forest and the rivers hide their treasure. The things that my mother, and her mother told me, through her blood.”
“We call that instinct,” I said. “I will never be as good at that as you are.”
Fatin smiled, moved Raage to her hip. Then she put her arm round me and kissed me, slowly, deliberately. I looked into her dark brown eyes.
“You will be fine,” she said.
I looked round to see Alex leaning against the door frame. From the little smirk on her face, I could tell that she had been standing there long enough.
“Father wants us on the bridge,” said Alex. “We’re to start learning how to fly this thing immediately, before Andrew rips out the engines.”
I could easily imagine the formidable Andrew Parsons walking down the gangplank with a steam engine on his shoulders. We followed Alex to the entrance hall, where we found Father beset by several members of Alex’ rifle club. The slender raven-haired girl, and the shorter but more ample one who had greeted us when first we arrived. A few other boys and girls were standing outside, craning their necks to see how their delegation was doing.
“Come now, Miss Prescott. I’m sure there will be time for an interview once we have completed our first flight.”
“But what better opportunity to observe you in your element?” said Miss Prescott. “We won’t be a bother.”
“And Linda can draw a picture of you,” said the other girl. “She’s brilliant! You should see the one she did of Professor Wadcroft. Well, the one after the one with the goofy spectacles. I have to say that Captain’s uniform suits you very well. Very…” She faltered.
“Authentic,” added Miss Prescott.
I looked at Father’s expression, and it was clear that he was fighting a losing battle. Maybe he wasn’t even too sorry to lose it in this case.
“Very well then. Let them all come up. But no…”
Miss Prescott waved at the people outside, while her friend beamed at Father. “Oh thank you Captain Tennant! I’ve always wanted to see the bridge of a dirigible.”
Alex stepped forward and put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Jocelyn, stop seducing my father. It’s most unbecoming.”
“Aww, but he’s got a dirigible!”
“I have guns,” said Alex.
“Huh. You’re trumped!”
Alex gently pushed Jocelyn in the direction of the bridge, where Navigator Nerandzic was looking at this sudden influx of pretty girls with a puzzled, but not necessarily displeased expression on his face. He watched as a brunette walked by to the front window, and offered an opinion to his crewmate in Russian. The brunette turned her head round, and answered tersely in the same language. Nerandzic gave a kind of snort, and busied himself with the steering wheel, muttering something about Armenians on his ship. He gave an order, and two of his crewmen ran off to cast off the mooring lines. Nerandzic pointed out of the window.
“Now you can see that the airship weighs nothing. Vladimir is holding it down just by holding the rope. Now…” As Vladimir let go of the rope, he pressed down a piston and the rope was hauled in by a pneumatic winch. “Now Vladimir and Igor come on board, but still the airship, it goes nowhere. That is because we have so many pretty ladies on board. Now I am going to put more hydrogen gas in the gas sacs.” He walked over to the wall behind him and turned two valves. “Now the hydrogen gas is flowing into the sacs, and making us lighter. And now we go up until the air is thinner, and then we stop.”
I held my breath as the Earth fell away below us, slowly, majestically. I had travelled by ship many times, but only seldom by airship. My trip aboard Boreas, almost a year ago, had been fairly short. I’d hopped over the English Channel to the Netherlands, and moored at their debauched capital of Amsterdam, where ladies of the night plied their trade, not hidden in dark alleys, but freely and openly in brightly lit brothels, and all kind of mind-altering substances might be obtained with ease. Not that I did, of course, but several of my companions did. To be plucked from that city by air, put one in mind of the Rapture. And now, this! We could go anywhere we pleased, with only adverse weather to stop us. The sheer realisation of the freedom we were about to enjoy, filled me with a hunger for the future and set my explorer’s blood to boiling. Infinite horizons, America, Africa, Asia, perhaps even the North Pole!
Nerandzic gathered us closer, Alex, Father and me, and started to explain in his characteristic accent what all the controls did. I drank it all in, eager to put it into practice. Father was the first to take the controls in hand, gaze fixed on the horizon. We turned North, crossing the river Gipping. We were making for the village of Akenham, to avoid the busy air traffic in the direction of Felixstowe. Even with the old engines, we were making good time. Being a military vessel, Lady I was designed to be fast and maneuverable. The steering wheel controlled the back rudders, with separate wheels and levers for the aillerons that could point the ship up and down. These, of course, only operated at speed. For turning on the spot, we could control the pitch of the propeller blades, so that they would provide forward or backward thrust. Alex now took a turn at the wheel, eyes aglow. Under our navigator’s instructions, she made our airship run figure eights between the two main manors of Akenham.
While I waited my turn at the helm, I watched Alex’ friends, scattered along the large windows of the bridge. Fatin was chatting with Miss Prescott, who was holding Raage. A girl with long blonde curls was pointing out something on the ground to the Armenian girl. Jocelyn, who had probably saved Alex’ life by shooting her assailant, was standing at a short but non-negotiable distance from one of the boys. They were both looking straight down, and not at each other. Miss Davenport, the student’s newspaper’s editor was making a sketch of Father, who had ascended his throne. Occasionally he swivelled it round to see what Alex was doing. Leaning against the wall was a dark-haired girl with an interesting ring in her lip, who was watching Alex at the controls. When finally my turn at the controls came, I turned round to her.
“StJohn,” she said. “Carrie.”
It is relatively uncommon for girls to be interested in technical things, so I felt like encouraging her to follow her star if it led her in that particular direction.
“How do you do, Carrie. Please call me Carl. Would you like to help me at the controls?”
She blinked. “Oh. Uh… Yes certainly, thank you.”
Carrie took up a place by the aillerons controls, while Nerandzic walked to the back wall, and turned all the valves open. He turned back to us as Lady I shot up like a cork. Enthusiasm was radiating off the man as he trotted back to the steering wheel.
“Now we see how high we can get in this ship, yes? Without breaking the sacs.” He raised his voice. “Listen up everybody. When your ears hurt, you are going to yawn, or hold your nose closed and blow like this. Also the air is going to be thin, so if you feel dizzy you sit down. This will only take a few minutes.”
As I looked out of the window, the Earth fell further and further away from us. Nerandzic walked over to the engine controls and set the engines to ‘all ahead full’.
“Now you are going to push the collective, Mister Tennant. Both at the same time or we will turn.”
As I pushed the levers, the whole ship started to shake, and we shot off in a Northerly direction. Nerandzic pointed out the altimeter, which showed that we were still climbing.
“It is fast, isn’t it? The French are using this to run away from the Huns. When the new engines are coming, it will be even faster.” He waved his hand to get Carrie’s attention. “Hey pretty lady? When I say, you will push the levers forward.”
“Huh,” said Carrie. She seemed to be enjoying herself. “Now!” Carrie pushed her levers forward as far as they would go. The ship groaned as it flipped its tail up, and driven by its engines, started a dive. “Now we will see if the ship is tidy! This is why you will always pick up your things behind you when I am Navigator.”
To Mr. Taras Nerandzic’s credit, not even a pencil was there to roll off the navigation table. Lady I thundered down. The blonde girl looked at us at the controls and shouted.
“Hey StJohn! Do you see that great big green thing ahead of us? That’s the Earth!”
Jocelyn raised her voice in a surprisingly pleasant mezzo-soprano.
Oh that magic kingdom in the sky!
We will all be there together by and by
In that Paradise we’ll be then
But not you, you Godless heathen
When we reach that Magic Kingdom in the sky.
The blonde laughed out loud. “We’re going to find out who is right, bitches!”
At that moment, there was a very loud hissing, whistling sound, like the scream of a banshee. This could only be one thing: We’d sprung a leak! Hydrogen was venting out into the air. We were all going to die on Lady I‘s maiden voyage! Everybody looked round at Nerandzic, who was standing there calmly, one hand holding on to the engine controls, the other stroking his thin beard. He looked round suddenly, as though the situation only now occurred to him. He turned to Carrie, who was still pushing the ailleron handles forward with a mad gleam in her eyes.
“Please to return levers to neutral,” he said.
“Yes please.” Nerandzic’s voice sounded like nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
Carrie pulled back the levers to the midle position and the Lady I came out of its dive, bouncing back up. Nerandzic stepped over to the back walls and with a professional eye adjusted the hydrogen gas controls. Lady I sped forward, driven by the engines. With one hand, Nerandzic throttled back on the engines, and with the other, he brought the ship about, till we were heading back South at a more reasonable speed. Alex came running up.
“What was that noise?”
“Safety valve,” said Nerandzic. “It keeps the sacs from bursting.” He grinned and adjusted his goggles.
“Safety is number one priority.”