Because it’s Saturday and I’m off doing real-life things like playing with my pet rats and cooking up savory french toast with lemon-sour cream topping (not at the same time), I’d like to share with you all a snippet from my forthcoming fantasy YA novel, The Aeronauts. Here’s a short synopsis to get you caught up on the story:
The last thing high school drop-out Maria Gomez remembers is going under the knife for an experimental surgery. Instead of waking up in a hospital bed, she finds herself at the epicenter of a bitter racial war on a strange, new world–a world completely covered in water, where humans live on islands that float in the sky under the rule of a despotic Emperor, and a mysterious race of water-folk live in the sea.
But the Emperor’s genocidal war against the sea-faring peoples of the planet has stirred up a rebellion. Maria lands aboard the airship of Joshua Shell, leader of the rebellion and captain of The Rebel Heart. It is up to Maria, Joshua, and his crew of elite air-fighters–the Aeronauts–to save the water-folk from extinction and destroy the Empire.
I wanted the Aeronauts to have a really grand debut, as they are the namesake of the novel, and they provide some of my more hilarious character studies. At the same time, I want to expose the draconian culture of Joshua’s world–just so Maria can really make a splash. I hope you enjoy!
…from The Aeronauts
When Maria emerged from the cabin that morning, Port Araylar was fading in the distance. All she could make out in the thin fog that had settled over the ship were four gleaming points: the towers of the prince’s palace, vanishing into gray mist.
The fog had gathered because they were diving through a mass of cumulus clouds. The deck was half-quiet, with the night shift of hands heading off to bed while the day shift emerged. Their ranks had been depleted by the springray attack, and many of them bore red welts like her own. The men looked haggard and listless.
As she walked the deck, thinking it could easily double as an indoor running track like the one at the Tucson rec center, she glimpsed movement. Farther up the deck near the helm, Joshua slipped into a stairwell below-deck through a trap door. Seven unfamiliar men trailed behind him, not dressed in hard leather like the other sailors pulling rope and cleaning and tying off loose ends, but in green and gold under light vests and canvas pants. Dark leather helmets obscured their faces. Each had a pair of bulky goggles, some pulled up like headbands, others around their necks.
“The Aeronauts.” Maria spun at the tenor of Allasten’s voice. Somehow he had come up behind her without making a sound. He grinned at her expression. “They’re getting ready for exercises. Want to be prepared for going planetside, you know.”
“Come on. I’ll show you.”
Allasten led her back the way she’d come, but instead of turning left at the fork for the men’s quarters, they went right, and down a series of staircases. Then they arrived at a door that was slightly ajar and went inside.
How a room like this fit into a flying ship—Maria couldn’t begin to guess. It was the size of her old high school’s gymnasium, maybe even bigger, with hard, polished floors and a low ceiling made of curved, bolted wood. Along the far wall stood a dozen tiny airships, the same ones that had blown apart the Empire’s siege ship, and come to the rescue when the springray bloom attacked.
Now they sat unmanned, buckled to the floor so they couldn’t drift away. The Haverite beads anchoring their wings hummed, as if irritated that they were being held captive. Each bore a different stripe of paint: one orange, one red, one blue; then green, yellow, aqua, black, and finally, white.
In the center of the floor the six men stood in a circle. They tilted to one side in unison, raising their left arms over their heads. Joshua called out, “Right!”
The men shifted, leaning the opposite direction, and raising their right arms over their heads. They were stretching.
Maria and Allasten watched as the men finished their warm-up. Then they jogged in a single-file line around the perimeter of the hangar, their goggles rattling against their helmets in a choreographed orchestra. They raced past Maria and the first mate; none of them looked away or changed their course. In order they arrived on the other end of the hangar and began to line up in front of the small airships.
Joshua took the second-to-last ship with the black paint down the side. The white ship had no one.
“I want to take a moment to remember Poile,” Joshua said, looking down the line of his men. “To Lieutenant Poile of Lunmai, who died at the hands of the Empire, in the embrace of the great springray, defending the rebel cause. We shall hold his memory dear as Kyrell of Lorristan ascends to the title of Lieutenant of the Aeronauts.”
“To Poile!” the men shouted. They waited a beat, and then raced to their ships.
First the buckles came off. Each ship rose up off the ground, but by then, the men that had unleashed them had hopped through the open doors and were already inside their respective ships. The pilots adjusted their controls behind thin panes of glass, their eyes obscured by their goggles. Joshua’s ship drifted forward first, the rudders that hung off the back like tail fins shuddering and trembling. Then the whole room creaked—the sound of wood tensing up. Allasten grabbed Maria’s arm and tugged her towards the corner of the hangar where they would be out of the way.
Behind them the wall began to slide upward. A sliver of sky appeared and she realized the wall was actually the hangar door. It lifted on metal rails, powered by a series of ropes and pullys. A squat man with a headband covering one eye cowered in the corner, winding the end of the rope around a wheel with a handle.
The airships formed a neat line behind Joshua. When the door was fully open, and the sky exposed—giving Maria a sickening sense of vertigo—the Aeronauts began to move all at once. In one smooth motion the seven planes shot out of the hangar with a swift grace that seemed impossible for these beasts made of wood and fabric and rock, and spun off into the blue in a curving arc.
She had to see them in action. Maria turned to Allasten and he was smiling. Together they left the hangar and went back up the stairs the way they came, and out the cabin onto the deck. But the ships were nowhere in sight.
“Where are—” Maria began, but a whistle interrupted her. It was the sound of the seven small airships leaping over the railing like flying fish, just arrows of white canvas and hardwood. They sailed over the deck and disappeared again on the other side, and the deckhands shouted and hooted.
The show didn’t last long. Soon the ships settled into a routine, breaking into groups of two with Joshua’s black-striped plane flying solo. The pair of orange and blue chased the aqua and yellow, shooting blanks with a pahpahpahpahpah that rang across the deck, drowning out all commands and conversation. Then the roles reversed, and the pursued became the pursuers.
The Aeronauts’ exercises went on for what seemed like hours. They flew as birds in flight, rising on invisible shafts of air, riding currents as if they were water, sails trembling in the wind. They changed formations, becoming an arrow-shaped battalion; then they split apart into single units and surrounded an enemy; and it went on, Maria transfixed to them. She was envious of their freedom, the way they darted and swam through the sky while The Rebel Heart lumbered, steadily diving toward the ocean below.
Then it came to an end, and Maria felt something like disappointment as they disappeared below deck. Allasten was gone, commanding the sailors and inspecting the letting out of the sails as they descended. So she ran back to the cabin door that Allasten had led her through before and found her way to the hangar deck.
The Aeronauts were buckling their ships into their cribs when Maria burst into the hangar. She ran across the to where Joshua stood, staring wide-eyed at her, and her mouth started before she could think.
“You were amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Incredible.” It came out in a tumble. “How do you do that? How do you fly so fast? You were like birds!”
Maria smacked her forehead. “Right. Like kinkwings, I mean, but not really. Graceful.” She let out a breath. “Beautiful.”
Joshua looked like she’d slapped him, or maybe strangled him: his whole head had gone red, and his lips were slightly parted. Then his expression changed and he began to laugh, and his laughter turned to guffaws, and soon he was bent over and Maria was worried he had hurt himself. The rest of the Aeronauts had secured their ships and were watching curiously, but at a safe distance.
Eventually Joshua managed to recover his wits and he drew one hand across his forehead to clear away some droplets of sweat.
“If you think it’s thrilling to watch,” he said, “imagine being inside one.”
Oh, she had. She’d imagined it would be like watching out the tiny plastic windows of an airplane, with the clouds swimming below you, but all around. Like riding a horse at full speed the way she’d done at her uncle’s house in Colorado, but faster. Like swinging to and fro in a hammock, closing your eyes, feeling the world spinning all around you.
She’d imagined it, but doubted it was anything like the real thing. After watching them perform, Maria had never wanted to do something so much in all her life as fly one of Captain Shell’s tiny airships.
Joshua watched her walk to the last ship with the white band of paint down the side. The Aeronauts seem to have taken an invisible cue and were clearing out of the hangar, and soon the two of them were alone.
She ran a hand along the beaked nose of the ship and down the central beam. The glass windshield was fitted seamlessly into the face. It was pockmarked and cracked in one corner. It looked rickety compared to the steel monsters that called Earth’s sky home, but somehow, it performed just as well.
“It’s the size, you know.” His voice was just behind her, and she had to work not to jump at how close it was. But it was quiet and, somehow, a bit intimate, like he was talking to a lover in private.
Joshua reached over her shoulder to brush his fingers against the wood, scant millimeters from touching her, and she could smell him: the salt of sweat from the exercises, the windblown scent of sky, the shampoo in his hair—like her dress, folded and waiting on the bed.
No sooner had he come near, Joshua began to walk down the length of the ship, ducking under the wing sail.
“It’s barely thirty hands long,” he said. “Big enough to seat two men, one comfortably, and two days’ supplies. Barely bigger than a darkeen.”
This time his laugh was less than friendly. “Big, hairy things. Teeth the size of a butcher’s knife. The Empire’s men ride them in Gunthar, where the land is too cold for thin-skinned kalpies.”
Maria knew better than to ask what a kalpie was.
“So, it flies so fast because it’s small?” she asked.
“That’s part of it.” Joshua softened. His fondness for the Aeronauts’ airships reminded her of his loyalty to his men—genuine, almost soft. He was a leader and a warrior, even if he was a bit of an asshole. “There is also skill, and wind. The air is your master when you ride the skies. If you do not know how to find the winds that lift you and propel you, then you will plummet to the ocean.”
Maria stopped under the sail, watching as Joshua as he adjusted the rudders under the tail of the ship. There was a sail on the tip that was flat and widened at the end, instead of narrowing, like a dolphin’s tail.
“How do you learn?” she asked. “If not knowing how would mean certain death?”
“You would need a good teacher.”
“Would you teach me?”
The question hung in the air between them. Joshua had his back to her, so she couldn’t see his expression, but she saw his shoulders tense.
“Women do not fly the skies,” he said, his voice so low and dangerous, it sounded like he was speaking between closed teeth. He slowly turned to face her. “Especially not in one of my Aeronauts’ ships.”
Maria’s eyebrows rose to her hairline. That was not the answer she expected. They stared at one another, neither moving. The surge of fury started with a shaking in her hands.
“Are you living in the stone age?” Even Maria felt a chill when her elevated voice cracked the peace of the hangar. She knew she shouldn’t let his cultural beliefs inflame her. She was already in enough trouble with the Captain as it was; but Maria had been called everything back on Earth except tolerant.
“See?” Joshua said, leaning towards her, as if impressing his manly presence upon her. “Women are too emotional to be pilots.”
Maria shed all sense of restraint and her black eyes turned to fire.
“Jesus!” she cried, flinging her hands in the air. “First some puto in waders goes all Guantanamo on me. Then a crazy voodoo woman makes a concoction and tells me my Harvard-educated doctors were all wrong. Now you’re telling me girls are too inferior to fly a plane? Is this, like, eighteenth century New Orleans?”
“I told you,” said Joshua, curling his hands into fists. “What the Empire did to you has nothing to do with me.”
Maria tasted a bitter laugh. “As if the Empire is any better than you, you backwards, sexist pig.” She knew she shouldn’t. Joshua Shell held her life in his hands.
Joshua was red in the face again, but this time, with fury. “You’d do well to watch what you say.”
“Oh, try me. You’re so willfully ignorant, Joshua Shell.” She spit the name. “Did you know that women are actually better than men at coordination and concentration? The studies show it. We’re lighter, faster, and smarter than you. Ever heard of Amelia-fucking-Eirhart?”
“Another one of your fictional Earth people?”
Maria simply stared at him.
“She was my world’s most famous pilot.” Maria shook her head. “Nevermind. You know what, Shell? Screw you. I don’t want to fly your dumb old ship anyway. On Earth we have planes that are a million times better. They’re made of steel, with engines that make them go so fast they break the sound barrier. BOOM.” She shouted it, and felt a sick sense of satisfaction when Joshua leaned away from her. “We have guns and missiles and nuclear bombs that would blow this piece of junk to tiny bits of shrapnel.”
This time it was Maria’s turn to walk away. Joshua said nothing. He was probably too busy stewing in his self-righteous, patriarchal rage, she thought.
Feeling one last sting rising in her throat, Maria looked back for a moment. Joshua was watching her with an impassive expression, but she could see the anger boiling beneath the thin line of his lips.
“Oh, and your little maneuver in the triangle formation?” she said. “One of your ships has a bad rudder. Or your man is a shitty pilot.”
A ghost of a smile tugged at her lips when he looked surprised. She turned, strode from the room on legs stiff with rage, and let the door slam closed behind her.