Test Flights and Turbulence – a steampunk flash story

Hindenburg_burningThe wind whipped at Isabelle McNair, flapping her skirts against the railings of the airship’s observation deck. A dozen brightly coloured kites, each with a wingspan of at least eight feet, soared in the breeze behind them, tethered by strong threads to the observation deck. It was a fantastic sight, and she wished that more people could have been there to see it up close, instead of watching the test flight from the fields far below.

A muffled thud reached her from the front of the airship, and for a moment the wind seemed to change direction. Then the deck shuddered violently, and Isabelle was thrown from her feet.

Clinging to the railing, she pulled herself upright and turned to see thick black smoke spilling from amidships.

Taking deep breaths to calm her trembling body, Isabelle opened the door into the rear cupola. Choking fumes billowed out, making her eyes water, and when the smoke cleared she saw that the corridor outside the engine room was engulfed in flames. Whatever had gone wrong, it had trapped her here.

Never one to give in to panic, Isabelle closed the door firmly, hoping to contain the fire a little longer. Looking out from the deck she saw the ground approach at an ever increasing speed. To her right, a girder screamed as it buckled out of shape. She ducked as bracing wires snapped, their ragged remains hissing through the air like whips. One caught her forearm and she jolted at the pain. Blood ran from the wound.

She needed to get out, and fast. Looking over the railing again, she saw that she was still too high up to jump. If she waited, she risked being consumed by flames or savaged by the collapsing structure.

A splash of green caught her eye – the largest of the kites, still fluttering along as it followed the airship in its death flight. She untethered it from the rail and hauled it towards her, the cord tugging at her hands as the wind filled its wings.

At last, the kite was close enough for her to grab hold of it. One hand gripping the thin pole that ran along its spine, she let the wind grab at it, testing to see if it could take her weight. It wasn’t perfect, but it might just work.

There was a crash as the glass of the door shattered and flames burst forth, licking at Isabelle. She seized the kite with both hands and jumped.

For a moment she felt a terrible falling sensation. Then the wind took hold and she was lifted on the breeze. She laughed out loud.

Laughter gave way to a cry of alarm as the cord running from the kite went taught. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that it had become tangled in the twisted girder. The airship, now ablaze from bow to stern, was dragging her down with it.

She had no way to cut the cord, no way to untie it short of landing back on the flaming deck. But as she saw another of the kites still dancing up and down, Isabelle had an idea. It was as likely to end in disaster as safety, but what other choice did she have?

Twisting her wrists, she pointed the kite straight down. It hurtled into a dive, the ground approaching at a terrifying pace, wind driving tears from Isabelle’s eyes.

As the kite shifted, the cord slackened. Without tension holding it in place, the knotted end fell away from the twisted girder.

Battling gravity, the wind and her own growing terror, Isabelle strained her wrists once more, twisting the kite’s nose up. Mere feet from the ground it turned, lifting Isabelle one last time. They hovered for a moment inches about a muddy field, and then she let go, landing gracefully on the rutted ground.

The wind whipped at Isabelle, flapping her skirts against the first shoots of corn. She watched as the airship sank in ruin to the ground, one last kite riding the thermals of its flames.

* * *

 

Thanks to Tess and Dave for providing the inspiration for this one – a survivor’s account of a real 1920s airship crash. In that case, the poor chap’s parachute harness became tangled in the airship, but he managed to get out of it alive.

If you’d like more of Isabelle McNair, check out Guns and Guano, the first book in the Epiphany Club series, free in all e-reader formats.

Dreaming Skies – a #FlashFriday story

4356425222_4b5180ffe0_zThe Australian Outback drifted past below the airship, a vast wilderness that glowed with an amber warmth between patches of tenacious scrub. Bolted into the airship’s console was a part of that ancient world, a twisted branch painted in bright colours.

“Only you would do this.” Dirk Dynamo shook his head. “Cross a continent for an artefact, then stick it in your latest machine.”

“But look!” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms’s top hat almost fell off as he leaned across a row of dials. “It’s like the stories said. The Dreaming Branch can see futures unfolding around it, telling us the most efficient course.”

Suddenly there was a hiss and the airship began to sink.

“I say!” Blaze-Simms yanked a lever and the hissing stopped. “The upper inflation valve must have slipped.”

Another hiss made him whirl around, stopping the sound by grabbing another lever. Then the hissing appeared again, and this time Dirk caught a brief flash of someone pulling a lever before they disappeared and Blaze-Simms turned to set things right.

“Stop that.” Dirk looked around the control room.

“When you give me the Branch.” A little woman with wrinkled brown skin, dressed only in a loin cloth, faced him from the corner. He could have sworn she hadn’t been there before.

“I don’t think so.” He strode across the room, but just as he reached her she waved a hand across her body, took a side-step and disappeared.

“Got you!” Blaze-Simms lunged at the woman as she appeared by the console, but she pulled a lever and disappeared once more, leaving him frantically trying to set things right.

“This is an outrage!” Blaze-Simms exclaimed. “Vandalism. Piracy, even.”

The airship was losing altitude now, heading fast toward the ground.

“All I want is the Branch.” The woman was by the window, smiling at them both.

“Well you can’t have it.” Blaze-Simms folded his arms indignantly. “I bought it fair and square from a man named Jeffrey Two Trees.”

The woman snorted.

“The Dream Branch is of the alcheringa, the eternal dream beyond our waking world.” An angry expression crumpled her face. “It wasn’t Jeffo’s to sell.”

Dirk had been slowly approaching her from one side, and now he leaped, hands outstretched. But again she waved her hand and reappeared across the room.

“I can do this all day.” She turned a wheel and the tone of the engines changed, the airship accelerating in its downward path.

“I can pay you for it.” Blaze-Simms pulled a wallet from his tailcoat pocket. “Cash or cheque.”

“No.” She pulled another lever, disappeared as Dirk grabbed at her, and reappeared to flick a switch. “I don’t know what any of these do, but I bet I’m breaking something.”

An ominous clang somewhere to the aft made Blaze-Simms grimace.

“Perhaps a share of the profits?” he asked. “With a navigation device like this-“

“Ground’s getting close,” the woman said. “I can dream walk away before we crash. Can you?”

“Tim, give her the stick.” Tension knotted Dirk’s guts. He’d escaped crashes before, but they were falling fast and a long way from help.

“Dream walk.” A distant expression crossed Blaze-Simms’s face.

“Tim!” Dirk shouted. “The branch!”

“Oh, yes.” Blaze-Simms pulled a spanner from his tailcoat, hurriedly unfastened the branch and threw it to the woman.

“Nice meeting you.” With one more wave she vanished.

The ground hurtling ever closer, Blaze-Simms rushed between levers and dials, turning, twisting and yanking until the airship levelled out. Dirk breathed a sigh of relief as they drifted a few feet above the outback.

“Sorry about your invention.” He looked over at the navigation panel, with its dead dials and the empty space where the branch had been.

“Hmm?” Blaze-Simms looked up from a notebook. “Oh, never mind that. Didn’t you hear what she said? She was dream walking, stepping from place to place through another realm. Imagine if I could make a whole airship do that!”

Dirk stared out the window at the little old lady waving up at them. He couldn’t see her teaching Blaze-Simms her secrets, no matter how big the cheque.

* * *

Today’s story isn’t the only one in which Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms deal with airship piracy. You can find them fighting to control a pirate airship over the Atlantic in ‘A Wind Will Rise’, my contribution to the Avast, Ye Airships! anthology, out now. And if you would like to see them fight giant rats or the preserved head of Leonardo da Vinci, why not read Riding the Mainspring, free to anyone who signs up to my mailing list.

And if you’d like to read more free flash stories from me, you can find a list at this link, or have them delivered to your inbox via the mailing list.