Lady Aeryn Foxxe-Grace Tallhat
whom everyone remembers.
But it was Daedalus
who built the wings
I: In which we meet our unlikely hero, a man with a pointy beard, a curly-haired boy, and a fine example of Pteropus frislandia.
"Damnation!" exclaimed Aeryn. It wasn't something she would have been able to say at home -- in her father's house, that is -- but when she was Aeryn Daring she could say whatever she pleased, and even Lord Tallhat wouldn't dare speak against her.
It was early May, in the year 1903, in the city of Darwin. Not, however, the city of Darwin, Australia, of which you may have heard, which was named after the famous Charles, formulator of the Theory of Evolution (a theory so important to all biological science that it deserves capitalization). No, this was the much older city of Darwin, Frisland, which was named after Charles' grandfather Erasmus, who also had a thing or two to say about the development of species, and who had visited Frisland's capital city -- then called simply "Capital City" -- and impressed its citizens so much they named their home after him.
No one is quite sure what it was about Erasmus Darwin that so impressed the eighteenth century dwellers of urban Frisland, but whatever it was, it must have been grand. Darwin was a city ahead of its time for most of its lengthy history, and it took a great deal to impress its people.
"Damnation!" said Aeryn again, louder this time. From over her right shoulder a small, furry head poked, upside-down, and whined. It should be mentioned that, while it was a small head in comparison to, say, a mastiff, it was actually a very large head for a bat. And a bat's head it was,: it belonged to a fine representative of the class of fruit bats commonly known as "flying foxes." The flying machine he clung to the inside of, which kept him and his mistress aloft, juddered alarmingly, and he whined again.
"Damnation," said Aeryn one more time, this time quite softly, as if she were now saying it merely out of habit, and not because it mattered. "Hang on," she said, unnecessarily, as the bat -- one Pteropus frislandia, or Frisland flying fox -- was already holding on as hard as he could.
The steering mechanism jumped in Aeryn's hand, and she struggled to hold it steady. She was tempted to grip it with both hands, but her other hand was occupied with the pitch control. The cloth that covered the machine flapped in one place where it hadn't been stretched tightly enough.
"I wish," said Aeryn through clenched teeth, "that the blasted wings would stop flapping." The bat nudged her cheek in sympathy. "I swear it's going to jiggle all my teeth out." The small flying craft lurched again, and its nose dipped. The bat whined again.
"Yes," said Aeryn, glancing at the control she gripped with her left hand. "We do appear to be headed groundward." After a moment's pause, she added, "I shall have to do something about that." She tugged at the pitch control, or what she had been using to control the pitch, and which was, in fact, crudely labelled, "Pitch Control." The flying machine tipped even more pointedly downward.
"No," she said, this time more to herself than to her chiropteran companion. "I don't suppose that was the correct lever."
Down on the ground a pair of observers followed the movements of the peculiar aircraft with rapt attention. They were a mismatched pair: one a tall, pointy-bearded man in an elegant black morning coat and top-hat, and the other a short, curly-haired boy in ragged clothes and a shapeless cap.
Someone spying them on the street might conclude that one was the master and the other the servant, and they would be correct. Said watcher might also assume that the master was tight-fisted with money and neglected the needs of his young servant, but they would be only partially correct. While Mr Prosper, as the pointy-bearded man was called, was very close with his funds, he always had plenty to spend on the important things, and the proper dress of his servants was something he would have listed as important. It was to his endless consternation that this one servant in particular, as useful as he was in the carrying out of errands and countless other tasks, could not be convinced to wear livery. The boy had once been a street urchin, and Mr Prosper had to concede that it was an achievement indeed that the child wore clothes that were at least clean, that his face and hands were recently washed and that he spoke politely, if inelegantly.
"Well," said Mr Prosper, after a long moment of watching the aircraft. "It appears to be flying."
"Yessir," said the boy, in the sort of exaggeratedly polite voice that implies the speaker is trying their hardest to be patient in the face of the obvious. Then, as the flying machine took a peculiar twist in the air, he said, "Um . . ."
"Perhaps she's doing a stunt." Mr Prosper, while a canny and careful businessman, was also an optimist, and the test pilot he had hired was reputed to be the best in the business. The best, in fact, that there had ever been in the business. It was entirely possible that she was doing daring aerobatic maneuvers in order to test the capabilities of the aircraft.
"Yessir," said the boy again, this time in a rather doubtful tone of voice. "Perhaps that's it."
"I'm sure she'll be fine," said Prosper, as the flying machine zoomed close over their heads.
"Yessir," said the boy, even more doubtfully.
"Best test pilot in Frisland," the master said, almost under his breath, as the aircraft banked sharply around and zoomed past in the other direction. He stood calmly watching, still except for his head as he swiveled it to watch the machine in which he had invested so much time and money, his arms folded and relaxed, his breathing calm. A note of uncertainty, however, had crept into his voice, and he was glad he hadn't invited his investors to see the first test flight of the new machine. They would have leapt on that tiny smidge of doubt the way wolves leap on a lame sheep. He didn't even like his servant hearing, and he wasn't even sure the boy could tell the difference in his tone. "Or so I'm told," he added, as the machine shuddered again, appearing to buck like a recalcitrant horse.
"Yessir," said the boy, with more conviction. He had been one of the people who'd sworn that Aeryn Daring was the greatest aviator -- or aviatrix, to be precise -- who had ever lived. He had even given a bloody nose to another servant boy who dared say otherwise. Though Mr Prosper had scolded him for it, the boy was sure his master was secretly glad, for the other lad had been servant to one of Prosper's chief detractors.
Aeryn, by then, was eyeing a small switch located next to the pitch control lever. She frowned at it. It would be nice, she thought, if there was some kind of standard for flying machine controls. It was all very well to add innovative functions, but if the designers didn't tell anyone they were there, they didn't do much good. She supposed everyone assumed test pilots were flying magicians and would either somehow automatically know, or quickly figure out, what all the switches and toggles and buttons and levers were for. Fortunately, most test pilots -- the ones that lasted very long in the business, at least -- were good at quickly figuring out what the controls were for, even when they weren't -- as this switch wasn't -- labelled.
Well, it was next to the -- clearly labelled -- pitch control lever, indicating that it might somehow affect the functioning of that lever. Aeryn glanced at her furry, winged companion and the bat stared back. She shrugged as best she could in the confines of the flying harness, and flicked the switch with her thumb. At first, nothing happened. Then, when Aeryn pulled back on the pitch control, she felt the aircraft's flight smooth a little, and then the nose pulled up, just in time swoosh close over the head of her employer and his young servant.
Though Aeryn couldn't hear him, the young servant in question commented, "She's leveled off." His master's right eyebrow quirked slightly -- his turn to respond to statements of the obvious -- but he didn't reply. "Going rather fast, though," the boy said to fill the silence. "And coming back," he said.
In the flying machine, Aeryn had had quite enough for one day. The machine was cantankerous and irritating, but it could prove to be a reasonably good machine for couriers. She decided it was time to see how well the craft landed, and anyway, she was soon due to make an Appearance (she couldn’t help but think of her Daughterly Duties as capitalized, as her father seemed to place undue importance upon them). She tilted her head toward the bat that accompanied her and said, calmly, "You know, Madman," -- for the flying fox's name was Madman -- "You might want to fly on your own for a bit." She fiddled with a toggle switch that made the craft yaw slightly from side to side, which didn't seem to be a terribly useful function, then added, in case the bat was worried (not that he could actually understand her, of course), "Just in case." She hadn't had a serious crash yet, but she didn't want to chance injuring her pet, in case the worst happened.
Madman poked Aeryn's cheek with his snout and she pointed out the belly of the craft, "Go on," she said. The flying machine jerked and she quickly took hold of the steering control again. Madman whined once again, then launched himself gracefully into the sky. "See you on the ground, my friend," Aeryn called out as the bat glided for a few metres and then flapped his wings to fly parallel to the aircraft.
"Righto," Aeryn said, and gripped a pulley above her head to prepare for landing. "Here goes." She pulled.
"Well," said Aeryn, still talking out loud, even though her chiropteran companion was well out of earshotb-- or at least out of human hearing range; Aeryn had never really tested the listening abilities of Pteropus frislandia, but considering the Frisland flying fox was a diurnal species that didn't use echolocation, it might be assumed that while better than human, Madman's ears probably weren't as good as those of his sonar-equipped nocturnal cousins.
"I must stop this craft somehow," she mumbled, when her efforts at slowing the machine using various combinations of controls seemed to have no effect on its forward momentum. For a moment she was completely still, while the aircraft continued to soar without her direction. Then she turned her eyes towards a small button, almost hidden under a flap of covering fabric, that bore the label "for EMERGENCY stop only."
Aeryn wasn't sure of the correctness of the label's grammar -- a factor she couldn't help but consider, given the many years of grammatical schooling she had had at the hands of her nanny. Old Ms Hardfinger was one of the few people who had ever terrified Aeryn, and even the thought of the woman could still send a shiver down the aviatrix's spine.
But it wasn't so much the dubious grammar of the button that gave Aeryn pause. It was, rather, the extra large type in which the word "emergency" had been printed (yes, oddly, all the craft's labels save that of the pitch control had been typeset and printed, rather than hand-written, as if Mr Prosper expected to go into production immediately). Obviously, it was a button to be pressed only when there were no other options.
Aeryn adjusted the steering to bring the craft around in a swooping arc, heading it back across the test field. It still juddered and the flapping of the wings created an unpleasant vibration (and, Aeryn thought, made it much harder to control the craft overall, without adding much lift), but she had the hang of it now. At least the flying and steering. Landing was proving to be more difficult. Aeryn shrugged and pressed the ominously labelled button.
The craft lurched and began to slow almost immediately. Aeryn checked the other controls, but the wings still flapped and the prop still spun, so she wasn't sure what, exactly, had caused the decrease in speed. That wasn't a comforting thought, since she couldn't correct for it if necessary, if she didn't know how it was done. She made a mental note to interrogate the designers and engineers in Mr Prosper's employ before taking this particular craft for a flight again.
As the flying machine slowed further and dipped groundward, Aeryn realized that it might not be such a good idea to be still strapped in when the craft hit the earth. The landing looked like it would be a hard one, and being trapped inside a bundle of possibly splintering wood and strained metal wasn't appealing. Baling out as soon as she was close enough to the ground to avoid serious injury seemed like a wise course of action, so Aeryn reached back for the buckle that held her in the machine's harness. It was a common two-pronged brass and leather buckle and it had worked itself in nicely during the flight. Her own weight on the straps kept Aeryn from getting the thing undone. She tried shifting her weight and bracing her feet against the sides of the machine, but the buckle still would not come free.
She looked below and saw how close the ground was. She could feel that the flying machine had slowed almost to stalling speed. She needed to be free of the harness -- free to jump clear -- immediately. She cursed the designers for skimping on the cost and installing a standard buckle instead of a quick-release model (something to mention in her report to Mr Prosper, for sure), and ceased tugging at the buckle. Instead, she contorted herself to reach the knife in her boot, pulled it free, and cut the leather strap in one quick motion.
She just had time to stab the knife into a crossbeam (so she'd have some hope of finding it later) and get a good handhold before her lower body swung free of the craft. The pendulum-like swing of Aeryn's weight tipped the nose of the craft upward and kept it from ploughing immediately into the earth. She glanced below to check the distance to the ground and found it much, much closer than she'd expected. In fact, her feet almost immediately touched down and she bent her knees and let go of the flying machine. She curled in towards the ground to avoid the machine overhead and rolled. And rolled, and rolled some more. She heard -- or perhaps felt -- the machine hit the ground ahead of her and then the rolling stopped.
Aeryn lay still for a long moment, savouring the fact that she was apparently alive and uninjured. Then she said, "Ow." She said it quietly, but perhaps she was not as unhurt as she'd first thought. At least nothing seemed to be broken.
As she climbed to her feet she heard an adolescent voice call, "Miss!" Mr Prosper's errand boy was approaching across the test field at a run. "Miss, are you all right?!" He held out a hand to help Aeryn to her feet, but she ignored it. Perhaps, if she had fallen while playing the role of Lord Tallhat's daughter, she would have taken the boy's hand, but here and now she was still Aeryn Daring, and needed nobody's help -- especially not a boy's.
"Are you all right?" he asked again, and Aeryn said calmly, "Never better." In fact, though she was winded and bruised, it was times like these -- when she survived another dangerous test flight -- that Aeryn was indeed at her best. It was times like these that she lived for. Everything else was just a performance she had to get through in order to fly again. If she played her ladylike role well enough, her father looked the other way when she put on flying gear and climbed aboard a flying machine. She had even managed to schedule in a part-time job as a courier to keep in practice for test flights.
Aeryn looked over at the flying machine. The emergency button must have shut down the engine after a certain period of time, because the machine was standing calmly -- though it was balanced in the dirt, straight up on its nose.
She turned to the errand boy, "I'm fine," she said, "Though I suggest we step a few feet to the right." She demonstrated by taking a couple of steps, and the boy followed. "Just here," she said. As if on cue, the flying machine suddenly tilted and fell, landing neatly -- if rather hard. "Perfect," said Aeryn calmly, patting the machine. "Landed upright and on her wheels."
"Mr Prosper's waiting for us, Miss," said the boy. He looked at her shyly and blushed every time Aeryn met his eyes. She smiled, deciding to take pity on him. He was shorter that she was -- and she was a very slight woman -- which somehow made him seem more puppyish. She restrained herself from patting him on top of the head.
"Shall I tell you about the flight while we walk?" she asked.
"Oh yes, please," said the boy, blushing again.
So Aeryn launched into a retelling of the flight, throwing in all kinds of technical terms, which the boy nodded to, as if he knew exactly what Aeryn was talking about. She wondered if he did, or if he just thought the words sound grand and exciting. By the time they had reached Mr Prosper, who had not moved from the very spot he had stood while watching the entire flight, Aeryn had finished her tale. "So you see," she said, "I was never in any danger at all."
"Yes, Miss," said the boy as he looked at her with lovesick eyes.
Oh dear, thought Aeryn. That isn't quite the effect I intended. She had merely wanted to impress upon the boy that women were just as capable as men -- if not more so at times. Perhaps she had been successful in that, as well.
"Ah," said Mr Prosper as they approached. He moved just enough from his observation post to turn towards them. "Miss Daring."
Aeryn nodded in greeting, but waited for her pointy-bearded client to speak further.
"A most . . . interesting method of landing." He gestured towards the flying machine across the field. "What do you call it?"
Aeryn said, "Necessity," in a perfectly serious tone of voice, and then she smiled broadly. She reached up to pull off her goggles, so she could regard the man more clearly.
"Mr Prosper?" she said.
"Yes?" He spoke in a cautious tone, perhaps worried that she would tell him to scrap the whole project, to stop trying to create a flying machine to compete with the already well-established Pterothopter produced by Frisland Air Ships.
Aeryn pulled off her flying helmet, setting free her unruly blonde hair. Sweat made it stick out in all directions, seeming to defy gravity the way Aeryn defied gravity when she was in a flying machine. Mr Prosper's eyes widened slightly, perhaps surprised to find that the famous Aeryn Daring -- whom he had hired through an intermediary and met only while she was already fully kitted out in flying gear -- was an attractive young woman and not the mannish creature everyone seemed to expect. She was almost frail-looking, except for the thick leather coat and the enormous black boots. But there was definitely something in her clear blue eyes that demanded respect.
"Remove the engines that make the wings flap."
Mr Prosper nodded, and wished he had decided to bring a notebook and pen. He had left them at the office, however, not wanting their bulk to affect the trim line of his coat. Looks, he had found, were essential to respect.
"Lighten her a touch." Prosper nodded again, making his carefully groomed pointy beard waggle.
"Streamline her." Another nod.
"And call her 'Flying Fox.' She'll be a winner."
Mr Prosper almost smiled, but schooled himself to a serious expression. "She will?"
"Yes. With some work, she might even surpass the Pterothopter." At least until they release the Pterothopter Mk 2. But she kept that last thought to herself.
"Really?" said Mr Prosper, allowing himself the slightest curve of the mouth. "Can I use that in our adverts?"
"Not unless you can convince Frisland Air Ships to adopt her." That was unlikely in the extreme, since FAS had their own internal flying machine design group, the team behind the popular Pterothopter, which was Aeryn's current favorite flying machine and the one she flew in her courier job. "They are still my employers."
Aeryn smiled and tilted her head at Mr Prosper. "You, sir, are but a sideline." While testing new machines was Aeryn's passion, her FAS contract meant she couldn't publicly endorse anything not made by FAS or their subsidiary, the Darwin Courier Company. Someday, she'd change that arrangement, but for now it meant she got plenty of flight time, even when there were no new aircraft to test.
"Oh," said Mr Prosper, before realizing how unprofessional that single word sounded. He was about to continue, to reassert his command with better-chosen words, when Aeryn spoke again.
"Now," she said, "I have a party to attend." She gestured to her outfit -- long black leather flying coat, beige fitted trousers, white aviator's scarf, long heavy gloves, and big black boots with heavy buckles. “"I don't think Father would approve if I appeared like this."
Mr Prosper's errand boy looked at her with admiration. "I think you look fetching just as you are, Miss Daring," he said.