My YA fantasy novel, The Aeronauts, is maybe-sort-of-finally reaching its finale. Soon. So, so, so soon. I hope. I’m rounding on 90,000 words now (longer than the average YA) and I think it’ll be another 15,000 at least before everything is said and done–probably one more month of work. Friends tell me that since it’s a fantasy, long is okay. Well, it better be!
Before anything else, I have to say this about The Aeronauts and its protagonist, Maria Gomez: it has been a hell of a fun ride so far. This book is such a blast to write that if it’s even a quarter as fun to read, I think it’ll go over well with teenage audiences.
Anyway, one thing that has really kept me going through this epic fantasy novel has been Maria’s sense of constant discovery. Everything in this world is new. Maria is, frankly, the best kind of person to suffer this crazy thing (being basically teleported to a strange world), because she embraces the madness instead of running away from it. She really relishes the freedom it gives her–both freedom from the things she left behind on Earth (not so pleasant), and the freedom of amazing new things she’s found in the world of the Aeronauts.
One of those new freedoms is flying. I personally have never had fantasies about flying (except maybe on the back of a dragon, that is a strangely recurring dream of mine), but something about it calls to a place deep in Maria’s heart. Since I’ve been so wrapped up in this book I haven’t had time to blog as much as I’d like, I thought I could instead bring you all in to the world that’s captured my heart and show you what I’m working on.
Specifically, how Maria learned to fly.
“Wait, wait. You’re really going to let me fly? Today?”
Longfoot shrugged. “Sure. Now is as good of a time as any without the Captain around to see us. The longer I can keep from getting demoted, the better.” He spit, but he had a mischievous look in his eye. He knew he was being perfectly complicit in her disobedience—and he liked it. “You’re going to fly Poile’s ship. It’s the only one left that’s still in working condition.” He eyed his own yellow-striped plane. There was still a hole in the floor from their flight in the storm.
Maria pressed her helmet down over her hair and Longfoot yanked the chin strap tight. The goggles followed, turning her vision foggy and narrow.
“They’ll save your life,” said Longfoot, as if sensing her discomfort.
“Didn’t save Poile’s life.”
The lieutenant tossed her a heavy jacket, a faded version of his green and white one. “Don’t take a cannon to the chest and you’ll be fine.”
First he showed her how to open and close the airship’s main hatch. Inside, he pointed out two other sections of the wooden body that would open and allow escape if enough pressure was applied. Not that she’d survive the fall to the sea if she did climb out, she thought.
“Get in,” he told her, ushering her up to the cockpit. The airship hummed under her feet, like it was a living, breathing organism. Longfoot crouched over the seat so he could point out each lever and switch on the control panel.
“This controls the pitch,” he said, gesturing to a lever in the center of the panel, between Maria’s knees. She’d seen him use this one the most.
“Right. Pitch, yaw, and roll. Pitch is basically up and down, but reversed. Here.” He pulled the lever down towards her. “This would make the nose tilt upward.” He pushed the lever back up. “This would send you into a dive.”
Once she’d assimilated this information and moved the lever over the rails a few times, Longfoot moved on to a pair of handles in the center of the panel.
“This controls your yaw. Side to side. If you want to look right,” he tilted the handlebars so his left hand was on top, “you turn it like this. Same for left. If you want to roll, just pull towards you as you change the yaw.” He turned to the right and the left handle came towards him. The ship rocked in its bay, the rudder flailing. “Got it?”
“I think so.” Maria took the handlebars in her palms and tested the resistance. The machinery seemed so rudimentary compared to, say, her mom’s Honda, but it was simple and efficient—something from a long bygone era in Earth’s history. “Pitch, roll, and yaw,” she said, tapping the corresponding controls.
“Good. Now. Emergency equipment.” Longfoot showed her a familiar pull handle to the right of the panel, under the swell in the wood. “In case of a water landing, this deploys the landing gear.”
“Oh, right. The skis.”
“Nevermind.” She giggled. Maybe that would be her contribution to the technological revolution happening on this strange, backward world.
Longfoot went on. “This controls your tail.” He flipped a switch. The ship groaned as the tail fin angled down. “Raise it to get more lift, but it will slow you down. Lower it to go faster, like in a dive.”
He showed her a half-dozen other controls, and that wasn’t even all of them. The pedals weren’t used often, just to make sudden changes in the amount of drag held by the wing sails.
When the basic overview was over an hour after they’d started, Longfoot ushered her down from the cockpit. He showed her how to unbuckle the straps holding the ship down.
“I’m going to fly first,” he told her. “Watch what I do. I’ll try to teach as we go.”
After opening the hangar door, Longfoot strapped her into the rear seat, finished releasing the ship, and hopped into the pilot’s chair. He lowered the tail and flattened the wings. Cranking the pitch lever down, an invisible thermal seemed to pick them up, and with slow grace the airship floated out the hangar door and into the sky.
Maria swallowed a gasp. Fildha was soaked in midday sun, nothing like the blanket of gray fog coating the city the day before. The castle stood to the southeast like a cloaked sentry, a mirrored lake curling to its side just beyond. The mountains to the west cast a jagged shadow over the stone houses and paddocks that dared to inch their way up the foothills.
She remembered she was supposed to be learning how to fly, and turned her attention back to Longfoot’s hands as they flew over the controls. Movements that had once struck her as senseless made obvious sense now: rotating the sails like a hog over a fire to catch the wind, turning the handles to angle away from the mountainside, cranking the central lever down to gain some altitude. Maria nodded in appreciation. Longfoot wasn’t a bad teacher.
The ship swooped down into the shadow of the dock, only to curve back up again so the sky filled the windshield. Maria’s heart pounded the inside of her chest with exhilaration.
“Technique is only a small part of piloting an airship,” Longfoot shouted to her over the whistle of air rushing through the wood slats. “Wind is rarely predictable. You have to listen to it. Feel it. And respond appropriately.” A column of air surged up beneath them, sending the tiny airship rocketing upward with a jerk. Longfoot rolled the plane to the left and they soared past The Rebel Heart. Below, men on deck waved and shouted at them.
Longfoot let a current of strong wind pull them south, towards the sea. It felt like two strong hands carrying the tiny airship—no more than a paper plane—along for the ride. The lieutenant performed simple maneuvers and showed her how they were accomplished: rolling to avoid enemy fire, making good use of lulls in windspeed to soar, slowing down for close-in handling, which he reminded her she’d be using for take-offs and landings.
They traveled upward where the air grew thin and circled the massive peak that overlooked Fildha. Maria had a harder time feeling the wind up here, but it was still there, like a faintly throbbing heartbeat. She began to notice undulations in the wind’s force—strong, weak, and strong again, each shift with a different character. Like ripples in water, she thought. How very zen.
Longfoot glided back down to the dock and Maria decided she liked gliding the best. The hum of the Haverite seemed to slow down, the sound reminding her of a cat’s leisurely purr, as they coasted.
“Be careful not to come in too fast or too slow for a landing,” said Longfoot, gesturing to the controls. He punched the sails, but not hard, cutting their speed. “Turn down your velocity gradually, so you don’t just flounder and lose your momentum. You won’t fall out of the sky, but getting started again once you’ve stopped is difficult at best.”
The nose of the airship dipped and they began to gain speed again. Maria’s heart sprang into her gullet, hiding just behind her tongue as if braced for impact. The Rebel Heart appeared, a slash of brown against the gray landscape. It bloomed before them, but Longfoot dove to the port side, raising the tail to reduce speed. He cranked the nose up and the hangar door appeared, a black square etched in the Heart’s smooth belly.
“The key is not to fly directly into the hangar,” said Longfoot. He turned the handles so the airship was positioned parallel to the Heart. “You’re going to have to turn around when you get inside, so it’s best if you can glide backward into your ship bay.”
“Like parallel parking,” said Maria.
“What?” Longfoot asked over the roar of the wind ricocheting off The Rebel Heart’s massive hull.
“Nothing.” She watched his expert fingers flip a switch to activate rapid slow-down, and he rolled the ship sideways by tilting the handlebars. It glided right into the hangar deck and pivoted at the same time so the tail drifted easily into the bay.
Then they were out and the airship with the white stripe was buckled down, unharmed. It took Maria a few moments to get her breath back.
Longfoot peeled back his goggles. “Do you have any questions?”
She shook her head. “Not yet.” Not removing her own goggles, Maria stood next to the cockpit and leaned against the side of the hatch. She retraced all the switches and levers on the control panel, reminding herself what each one did.
Longfoot was taking off his helmet when Maria turned to him and said, “I’m ready.”
“Ready? For what? It’s lunchtime.”
“No.” Maria shook her head. “While it’s fresh. I want to try.”
“You can’t just try, Maria. Try, and we die. Meat against mountain. You must do.”
She grinned. “How very Yoda of you.” Longfoot opened his mouth to ask what she meant, so she raised a hand and shook her head. “Nevermind. But please, let me fly once, and then you can have the rest of the day off from me.”
He grimaced. This was the part he’d been dreading, she could tell. Putting his life in her totally incapable hands.
Suddenly, Maria didn’t feel so incapable.
“I have to do this,” she said to him.
“Why?” The question asked for more than just what she’d already told him—about feeling helpful, being useful. He knew there was more.
Maria ran one hand over her temple, as if she had a headache. This would make her sound crazy, she knew, but Longfoot had tolerated her craziness thus far.
“Alba,” she said. “Colonel Alba told me in a dream that I had to fly. And Poile, too.”
Longfoot gaped at her. “Poile?” he asked.
“Yeah. Tall, medium skin, shaved head?” She waved a hand over her hair. “Gray eyes, thick eyebrows? High cheekbones?”
Seconds passed as Longfoot stood staring at her, saying nothing. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again.
“That’s Poile, all right,” he said, amidst a sharp intake of breath. “And he told you to learn how to fly an airship?”
Maria shook her head. “He just told me, ‘fly.’ Over and over again. He’s been in my dreams a few times since I first saw the Aeronauts doing training exercises.” Her voice grew smaller. “Since Alba died… he’s been in them, too. Saying the same thing.”
A manic giggle erupted from Longfoot’s mouth, and he quickly covered it. They exchanged a look.
“I’ve just never heard anything like it,” he said, and had the courtesy to blush at his outburst. “You never met Poile. So how could you know what he looks like?”
Maria frowned. “Exactly.”
Longfoot leaned back, ran a hand through his hair in frustration, and brought it down to rest in a fist on the side of Poile’s ship.
“Well, if Poile said it, I guess we’d better teach you how to fly. I just hope you don’t end up the same way he did.”
“All right, remember: tail, wings. You need to pick up what little wind is available to you inside the hangar.”
Maria nodded, absorbing each word like a sponge, adrenaline spiking through her arteries. The harness in the pilot’s seat was far more comfortable than the one in the rear seat, she thought with an indulgent smirk.
The airship was floating, no longer buckled to the floor, and they were drifting up and towards the far port-side wall. Maria flipped a switch to lay the wings flat and cranked the yaw so the airship drifted back to the center of the hangar deck, nose aimed at the sky. Already she felt the wind outside leaking into the hangar in lazy bursts, coiling up under the ship with anticipation.
They drifted forward, not as quickly as when Longfoot was piloting, but with enough momentum that the airship eventually made its way out the hangar door.
The nose angled down and they began to dive.
“Pitch! Pitch!” Longfoot was shouting, and it distracted her. Maria reached for the control stick and pushed it down, hard. The nose was flung upward, wrenching at the sails, causing the ship to lose equilibrium. “Crank the sails! Give it some juice!”
“Shut up!” Maria shouted. She couldn’t focus with him yelling in her ear like that. Instead of reaching for the switch to rotate the sails like Longfoot instructed, she tilted the yaw away from the looming mountainside and executed a sideways roll.
It had the same effect. Wind filled the sails and launched the ship upwards, but at a better angle now that she had tipped them almost perpendicular to the ground. They roared past The Rebel Heart so the hulking ship became a blur in the port window.
Maria exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding as blue sky unfolded before them. She lowered the pitch, flattened the sails, and the airship leveled out. Air flowed over the nose, the body, the wings, like an invisible sheath—she could feel it outside her body as well as in, running through her blood. She imagined she could close her eyes and see it moving all around them.
“How was that?”
She glanced over the seat. Longfoot’s eyes were unfocused, confused. It took him a second to register her.
“Watch where you’re going,” he said, but it was half-hearted. The airship crested a column of hot air and Maria adjusted the tail, giving them some lift. “It was good, Maria. Actually, it was really good. Great, even.”
A warm sensation bloomed in her chest.
“Great?” she asked.
“You’re a natural.” He inhaled sharply. “I was sure we were going to die.”
Maria laughed. “Every baby bird has to fly sometime,” she said, angling the nose down by a fraction, and rotating the sails to glide.
Maria soared across the countryside, seeking out thermals for coasting and thin air for practicing her dives. Each time she dropped the pitch and began to plummet, she heard Longfoot gasp with fear behind her, and she grinned. She loved being able to move so freely, to manipulate all three dimensions this way. The wind coursed through her, a heartbeat all its own that pounded in unison alongside hers. The ship was a shell, an extension of her body, its wings her arms and its rudders her fingers and toes.
Nothing had ever gotten her soul bleating with pure delight like flying, not even riding on the back of Dante’s motorcycle—before he’d wrecked it. Flying was magic. Unadulterated, blissful magic.
Maria felt the gust coming, like a sixth sense of radar pinging in the back of her skull. She punched the sails to catch it and Poile’s airship burst forward, scattering a cloud into creamy white ashes.
“Not Poile’s ship,” she said aloud. “My ship.”
Maria grew bolder as Longfoot’s hands clenched tighter to the back of her seat. His fear made her fearless. It was like learning to drive all over again, her hands on the steering wheel, her mother’s knuckles white as they clenched the oh-shit handle while her foot pressed down hard on an invisible brake pedal.
Below them, stony farms and green paddocks and serene glacial lakes blurred together into a kaleidoscopic patchwork of pastoral colors. Maria discovered that thermals resided in pockets, dotting the landscape like pins on a dartboard, and the pattern began to unravel. They became predictable, and she sought them out, pulling up the ship’s nose just before they hit a column and letting the sails fill with air from below. The ship leapt into the sky and in one fluid motion, Maria rolled starboard and they sailed in a perfect, looping circle, upside-down for one bottomless moment. Longfoot’s girlish cry filled the cockpit as the ship leveled out again.
Maria whooped. “Oh my god! That was incredible!” Her heart sang, pounding out a furious rhythm. “I’ve never felt anything like it!”
“Back,” gasped Longfoot over the seat. He sounded so small, so terrified, Maria cringed. She should have warned him first. “I need to go back.”
They flew back to The Rebel Heart in silence. The hangar door stood open, gaping. Maria remembered Longfoot’s instructions: Don’t fly straight in. She cut the speed, executed a twist, and trotted backwards into the hangar. The ship bumped the bay twice, hard, before she settled into position.
Longfoot didn’t move as Maria hopped out of the ship and buckled it down. When she came back to help him out, his face was ashen, and a dark trail ran down the inside of his pant leg.
The excited thrum in her chest turned to shame.
“Oh, Lieutenant Kyrell.” She tried to help him down, but he waved her off, and clambered awkwardly out of the ship by himself. Her stomach twisted with each wary step he took.
Without saying anything, Longfoot walked to the far end of the hangar and went out the door. It clanged closed behind him. Thankfully alone, Maria rolled down the hatch. Darkness enveloped her.
And yet, she couldn’t help the giddiness. It surged inside her as she crossed to the ship with the milky-white stripe and ran one hand over the pockmarked windshield. The wind under the ship’s wings—it had felt like her own wings. When the sails adjusted to catch the wind, it was really her feathers adjusting. The tail, her tail, a tail she never knew she had.
Maria couldn’t wait to fly again. She’d fly by herself; and she’d do a hundred loop-de-loops.