Ready, Able, and Unwilling

I stepped onto the gravel flats and that familiar fluttering thump stepped into overdrive.

“You’re—”

“For Shiraz’s sake, yes, I’m sure this thing won’t crash,” Pella cried in exasperation. “No commercial airship has ever crashed in the history of ever.”

“Well, first of all,” I said. Pella rolled her eyes as the line we had been standing in for over an hour slowly crept forward. “First of all, the history of ‘ever’ is only two and a half years when it comes to airships.”

“Granted, but at how many flights a day?”

I ignored her. “And second, you absolutely just jinxed it.”

“No such thing as a jinx.”

“WILL YOU—” I stopped at a handful of dirty glances from our fellow boarding passengers. “Will you stop tempting fate?” I hissed.

“No such thing as fate,” Pella taunted before sticking out her tongue at me. I shot her a glare in return, but it glanced off her pristinely angular features as though they were scale armor. “And to prove it, I will say the following: ‘we will be aboard the airship within half an hour.’”

“How dare you?” I asked. “How absolutely dare you?”

“Easily. Because nothing I can do will affect the future. Look,” she said, pointing at a pair of approaching figures. “They’re probably about to give us the good news now.”

The pair were clearly dressed in the sharp, clean blues that comprised the airline uniform that had become so iconic recently. Recent broadsheets had once ranked it the perfect clothing ensemble, all at once recognizable and meaningful and overflowing with pure artistic beauty.

The thumping’s overdrive found a new gear.

“We should just leave,” I squeaked. “We should just… go home.”

Pella slugged my shoulder. “We are not,” she hissed, “going to abandon 10,000 marks’ worth of tickets and a trip to my parents.”

“That better not leave a bruise,” I muttered.

“If it does, it will have been deserved,” she said crossly. “Now hush up and listen to the news that the good men are bringing.”

Indeed, the pair of airship employees were approaching at a slow but noticeable rate, stopping at intervals to speak to the line, wait a moment, then move on.

“Hang on,” I said. “I’ve heard about this before when I was researching the flight.”

Pella snorted. “You researched the flight.”

“For my own edification.”

“And comfort.”

“So?” I asked, annoyed. “Look, whatever they ask us, you have to say no. Promise me.”

“What?”

Promise me, Pel.”

It was too late.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a brief request of you,” the smaller of the uniformed pair asked in a subtly clipped accent. “If there are any who are able and willing, we would greatly appreciate any volunteers to serve as part-time crew members for the duration of the voyage. You will receive brief training and be allowed to board post haste, and the cost of your tickets will be returned to you. Are there any who would take our offer?”

“Pel, plea—”

“Oh, we will!” Pella called, her hand shooting into the air. “Look at that, Ton, free tickets.”

“Pel…”

The uniformed pair whisked her away, leaving my protest dangling unless I followed.

So I did.

Thump thump thump.

The gravel crunched and jealous stares burned into my back as we walked at a relatively blistering speed to what I could now see was a remarkably rusted set of stairs leading up to the body of the airship.

“Are, uh… can those support all of us and our bags?”

“Of course,” the smaller worker said. “Lumiere, she is a sturdy beast!” He slapped one rail genially as he climbed, sending a hopefully superfluous screw flying into the gravel.

Pel arched an eyebrow at me. “Hear that? Sturdy. Pride of the fleet, yes?”

“Indeed, madame,” the man said. “Lumiere was the first to take flight. Indeed, the first ever.”

“The first to ever fly commercially? Incredible. Living history!”

“Ah, you are quite the enthusiast!” he replied. “Fantastic. But indeed, Lumiere was not just the first commercial flight. She was…” He paused for dramatic effect.

My heart sank. “The first ever?”

“To be sure, only parts of her, but nevertheless…”

After what seemed to be an eternity, we summoned the stairs onto the main deck, which turned out to be hardly more substantial than steel grating open to the air and surrounding the inner cabins.

“Ah,” I said, looking down and sounding far calmer than I thought. “We can see the ground from here.” And the ground seemed to be a thousand feet away. And it swayed as the airship drifted back and forth. And…

Thumpthumpthump. I felt dizzy

“Do not worry if that disturbs you,” the man said. “We are moving you to the mechanical deck, which is of course entirely enclosed!”

What was not enclosed, of course, was the staircase to the mechanical deck. Unlike the main stairs to board the airship, these did not bother with unnecessary creature comforts such as “handrails” and “being wide enough to fit both feet on the same step”.

The frequency with which my heart skipped a beat was only matched by the frequency with which Lumiere’s main engine skipped a stroke. In other words, it was extremely frequent.

“SHE IS GORGEOUS, IS SHE NOT?” the man asked. “I LEAVE YOU IN THE CAPABLE HANDS OF THE ENGINEER!” And, like a magic trick, the man vanished, and we were alone in the dark, oily, and tremendously cacophonous engine room.

At least, I had only thought we were alone. That illusion was dispelled when a grease smear on the nearby wall grinned a surprisingly white grin, eliciting a barely audible scream from Pella.

“‘Lo there,” the engineer said. Incredibly, it felt as though he was speaking at an entirely normal volume despite the vastness of the vibrations attempting to shake down the whole of my skeleton for loose change. “You my help?”

“SUCH AS IT IS,” Pella replied. “WHAT CAN WE DO?”

The engineer spat, and the engine hissed where the spittle landed. “Shoot, ain’t much needs doin’. Lumiere here runs herself.”

The engine clunked and the entire airship jolted. Without missing a beat, the engineer whipped his hand, and in one graceful motion a wrench appeared and arced across the room, slamming into an uncontained piston, and the airship righted herself.

“Look, I’ll be real with you folks. These mechanicals here are pure butter, finest bit o’ craftsmanship you’ll ever see. I just need you folks to do one thing for me.”

I raised an eyebrow, no longer capable of speech. The engineer looked me in the eye.

“If she starts to list at some point on this trip and she ain’t righted in a minute, come down and find me. Mechanicals may be fine, but these ‘lectrics ain’t what they used to be, and I usually get a few scares with a loose wire on every trip. Figure one of these days they’ll get me good, so if Lumiere ain’t runnin’ like a dream it could be I’m all muscle-locked ridin’ the lighting train. Gonna need y’all to hustle on down here, take that broom in the corner, and shove me off whatever’s doin’ me wrong. Clear? Good!”

He clapped my shoulder without waiting for a response, then shooed us from the engine compartment into the open scaffolding. Somehow, during the engineer’s apparently brief brief, Lumiere had taken off, and the ground was thousands of feet below. My brain only allowed itself to consider climbing the precarious steps back to the main deck for about six seconds.

I came back to awareness in our cabin. Pella must have guided me there and sat me on the bed. Now she was staring at me with genuine concern.

“Ton. Ton! Are you okay?”

I blinked.

“Pella, dearest.”

“Yes?”

“I fucking hate you sometimes.”

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