Copyright © Peter Kendell 2010
'McLuskie, sir.' I stand rigidly to attention.
'Airman Engineer Two.'
'Well then, Airman Engineer Two Michael Emmanuel McLuskie 539202, would you kindly look into this?' The officer hands me a probe with a lens mounted on its tip. I hold it up to my face and wait while it flashes first into my left eye, and then my right.
'Yes, that's him.' The voice comes from a grille in the officer's screen. Every word it speaks is made of crystal.
'Thank you, 'Down. Take a seat, lad. Relax.' I sit.
'Welcome on board the LAV Solero. I am Airman Monitor Navigator Stone. It's one of my jobs to look after new crewmembers like you.'
'You had no trouble finding us?'
'No, sir.' I smile slightly. A ship the size of the Solero is not exactly inconspicuous, is it? Everyone has seen and admired the Board's ships as they fly over the lands. Sometimes they are a long way overhead, chasing the tailwinds of the upper atmosphere, and all you see is a tiny needle, sunlit in the far distance. Sometimes they fly low; coming in to land or cruising for the benefit of the passengers who gather on the balconies of the lower decks to wave and take photographs. And then there is the view you get when you take the lift to the top of the mooring tower and prepare to board. It is then, as you cross the bridge to the ingress port, that you get the best view of all, for it is then that you are taking ship.
The Solero, the Calippo, the El Dorado and the Good Humor… they are the four greatest vessels in the Board's fleet. Each is over two thousand feet long, each is more than two hundred and fifty feet in diameter at her widest point. Each has six powerful turbines to drive her across Glory's skies, each can carry over a thousand tons of cargo and four hundred passengers. Among humanity's ships, only the 'Down is larger, and she is marooned forever in orbit. To enter Glory's air would mean her death.
Sizes and numbers – they are meaningful, but they do not tell the whole story. Nothing that I can write can come close to expressing my feelings as I came aboard the LAV Solero that day. You can only guess at them, even if you have travelled aboard her yourself. Her immense size, the gleaming beauty of her silver skin; these you have seen as I have seen them. But if you have only flown as a paying passenger you cannot comprehend how I felt as I boarded her, who was taking up a post as a member of the Solero's crew. My feelings of pride and joy overwhelmed me then, as they still do every time I fly.
'No trouble at all,' I add.
'Quite so.' Monitor Stone smiles back. He has short ginger hair, receding at the temples, and a neatly trimmed beard. 'Just a moment while I pull up your details.' He presses a few keys and looks at his screen. 'Yes, hmm, right, hmm, good.
'Fine! Well, as I say, welcome on board. You've been assigned to Engineering Squad Five, Team Three and you'll be reporting through to Airman Senior Engineer Lloyd. Any problems with your duties, talk to her. Any admin snafus, ditto. Anything else, and particularly any personal issues or anything you think I or the 'Down,' he nods to his screen, 'need to know about, talk to me. I'm your Town Monitor while you're serving on board the Solero.'
'Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.'
'That's about it then. I'm sure you'll be able to find your berth. Off you go, lad!'
I stand up and turn to leave.
'Just one last thing before you disappear. Your surname…'
'It's not unfamiliar, is it? Not exactly obscure? The 'Down reminded me. You may encounter some… controversy among the crew. I'm sure you'll be sensible about it.'
'Yes, sir. I will, sir.'
'Glad to hear it! Favourable winds, Airman!'
'And a fortunate landing, sir.' That ancient formula – we hardly think about its words any more, we airmen.
- 0 -
My berth was next to the core of the starboard aft turbine's drive channel. It was the middle bunk of a stack of three and consisted of little more than a two foot wide metal shelf, covered with a one inch thick mattress and furnished with a general issue sleeping bag and pillow. I had six inches of shared locker space in which to hang my formals and a shallow drawer for the rest of my things – my airman's knife, my clothes, my collection of books and my tools. There was no privacy whatsoever, it was cramped, noisy, smelly and hot; and I loved it. If you'd offered me the choice between this bed and a four-poster in a three-room suite at the Rafaella On The Strand – the swankiest hotel on Leaven Peak – I'd have answered without a microsecond's hesitation. Here. Right here. This was exactly where I wanted to be. I stowed my kit and went in search of my new boss.
Airman Senior Engineer Lloyd was not quite what I had expected. My mental picture of her had been of someone short and burly with dark cropped hair, a hard-bitten manner and a gravelly voice. Instead, she teased my preconceptions by being tall, fair-haired and softly spoken. 'At ease, Airman,' she said when I found her sitting at a table in the engineers' mess and snapped her a smart salute. 'Sit down. Have a coffee.' I fetched a cup from the dispenser and she filled it for me.
'Thank you, ma'am.'
'You're welcome. You've seen the Monitor?'
'Good. Well, you're assigned to my section for the next few months, and then we'll decide what to do with you. Don't worry, you're not on trial. The Chief likes to move the new boys around the sections. It gives us a chance to find out what you're best at.'
'I've had a look at the report they sent up from Scrape.'
'Don't worry. It's very complimentary. You're a fine rigger, you're pretty good with turbines and reasonable at comms. What're you like with Rays?'
'Not bad, ma'am.'
Senior Lloyd laughed. 'We'll see. You can have a look at number four tank later. It's been running a bit fluttery the past few days.'
'You're from hereabouts?'
'Yes, ma'am.' The Solero had been moored up at Leaven Peak Aerodrome for almost a week, loading, unloading and undergoing maintenance.
'The Archipelago is a very beautiful place.'
Senior Lloyd smiled. 'I've always enjoyed my holidays here. Sailing, sunbathing and swimming. Nice seafood, too.'
'It certainly is, ma'am.'
'Right! Finished your coffee? Let's go and look at that Ray.'
- 0 -
The letter arrived while I was working at the aerodrome, reskinning one of the Good Humor's gigs. The little craft had snatched on the rocks a few days earlier and there was a ten-foot gash down its port fore lower quarter. I was stretching out the last longitudinal strip of fabric ready for gluing when there was a shout from below.
'Mister McLuskie?' It was a small boy, no more than twelve years old.
'Letter for you. At the Monitor's house. Now.'
I climbed down the stepladder. 'Now?'
'Now.' I put down my tools. The boy held out his right hand.
'They said you'd give me three Tokens.'
'Right.' I gave him a One. 'Run along, sonny.'
The Monitor handed me the envelope himself, freshly printed. He smiled as he gave it to me. 'It's good news, young McLuskie,' he said. I looked at the return address. Yes, it was; for me at least.
That evening I showed the letter to Mum. She read it through twice.
'This is what you've been waiting for, isn't it?'
Her face was stiff and immobile, but I knew what she was thinking.
'You have to go to Phyle, on Scrape?'
'Yes – it's for the Induction ceremony. You can come too.'
'Can I?' Mum gave me a strange look.
'No, sorry, I mean please; would you come with me? It's important. It would mean a lot to me.'
Mum looked down for a moment. Then, 'Yes, I'll come. I'll have to get special leave.'
'They won't refuse it.'
'No, I don't suppose they will.'
Mum made the necessary arrangements and came with me on the seven-day voyage to the headquarters of the Board's fleet on Scrape. She wore the dress she'd bought for the occasion and sat and clapped with the rest of the audience in Hangar One as my name was called and I went up to the front and climbed onto the stage, and Air Commodore Lundquist handed me the certificate that proved to the world that I had passed all my exams and completed all my assignments – with distinction – and was now fit to serve on the Board's ships as a flight engineer. That was what I had been working towards for five long years since my return from the School on Horn. I bowed to him and to the audience, acknowledging their applause, knowing that I had earned it. And then, best of all, he gave me my wings and shook my hand. 'Favourable winds, Airman!'
'And a fortunate landing, sir.'
Mum was crying when I rejoined her and only I among the hundreds of people there knew all the reasons why. But I had wings, and I owned the skies, and nothing could bring me down to earth; not that day. At last I was an airman.
- 0 -
You who fly as passengers above the seas of Glory – you only ever see half of what there is to see. On a big liner like the Solero there is a clear border between our territory and yours. There are doors that only open to the right key and signs that warn you of No Admittance. They are parallel worlds, yours and ours, and our routes though them are not the same as yours. While your passageways are warmly carpeted and panelled, ours are made of bare metal and plastic, and where yours can be kept smart with a flick of a duster and a whir of a vacuum, ours tell a starker tale. An experienced airman can quickly tell if a ship is well kept – he sees it where it matters, however dust-free and polished – or otherwise – her bars, dining-rooms, lounges and cabins may be.
It was soon very clear to me that the Solero was what would have been called on the lost Earth a well-found ship. William Shakespeare once said, Ships are but boards, sailors but men, but even he got it wrong sometimes, and anyway he was only a landsman and ships were little more than plot devices to him. A ship and her crew reflect each other – that he should have known, he who knew men and women so well.
Senior Lloyd and I stopped by the entrance port of number four tank. It was big – far bigger than the boiler-sized containers I was used to on the small vessels I generally serviced. The principle was the same however big or small the tank, of course, but this one was an absolute whopper, forty feet in diameter. What else should I have expected on a top-line Board ship like the Solero?
'Right, ma'am, I'll check it over.'
'Just a second.' Senior Lloyd picked up the mike hanging next to the bulkhead and keyed it. 'Chief?'
'Lloyd here. I'm taking a look at number four. Okay to shunt?'
'Roger, Lloyd. Go ahead.'
Senior Lloyd took a brass key from her belt and inserted it into its mating socket by the entrance port. She twisted it a quarter-turn anticlockwise and I felt rather than heard the Ray generator shut down. There was a slight creaking from the catwalk beneath our feet as the strain caused by the loss of lift from the tank was taken up by the ship's framework and her nine remaining tanks. A vessel can, as a rule, stay aloft if as many as half her tanks are out, so long as they are fairly distributed.
'In you go!' She undogged the port.
I held out my hand. 'Please, ma'am?'
Senior Lloyd smiled and nodded. 'Good.' She handed me the key. Now nobody could turn the Ray back on while I was in the tank.
I wriggled through the port. There was still some lingering Ray activity inside – nothing dangerous – and I could feel my feet lift as I came under its influence. The interior of the tank was painted Board regulation cream and brightly lit, and the Ray emitters – twenty of them – were linked by metal ladders clamped to the walls. I climbed each one in turn and inspected its emitter's plates and filaments. Clear, clear, clear… and the eleventh was slightly carbonised. I rubbed it with a piece of abrasive cloth until it gleamed. There, that would be okay now. That would fix the fluttering Senior Lloyd had mentioned. I climbed back down the ladder.
All done… but wait. I still hadn't checked the remaining nine emitters. I climbed the next ladder, and the next. Clear, clear, clear… and the very last one was carbon-free as well, but just behind its cathode tube I caught the glint of bare metal. A whisker of stray wire was shorting it intermittently to ground. I fetched it out with a pair of long-nosed pliers.
I climbed back out of the tank and presented the piece of wire to Senior Lloyd. 'I found this on number twenty emitter,' I said, 'and number eleven was a little charred.'
'Good, Airman. Excellent. I can see we're going to get on very well, you and me. Close up, and let's see you bring that Ray back on line.'
It was blindingly obvious to me what was going on, but I didn't mind. There had been no deception, not really. My new boss had given me an opportunity to shine, and I had taken it and succeeded. That was all. If I hadn't spotted the wire – which had no business being there – I wouldn't have been thrown off the ship, no, but I would have received a stern lecture on diligence and safety from Senior Lloyd and probably I'd have been moved on to another section rather sooner than I might have hoped. I'd have done exactly the same if I'd been her. Thoroughness is everything when you fly.
I closed the port and built up the Ray. It's a tricky job and one that can only be done properly by a human being. No automatic mechanism has the same delicacy of touch – there's a knack and not everybody has it. Get it wrong and the Ray field collapses, and you have to start again from scratch. I took my time syncing the phase interlocks and was rewarded when the system came up successfully the first time. It ran smoothly and steadily, back in full working order. The ship lifted in response.
Don't worry, you're not on trial, Senior Lloyd had said. Hah! Pull the other one! I handed the key back to her.
- 0 -
An airman belongs to no land. When he joins the service he becomes a citizen of the world – a Glorian. He still has a birth-land, but the sky is his home and, should he marry and have children, the land where they live is their land, but it can never be his. For this reason – and others – many airmen remain unmarried all their lives.
One of those other reasons is the glamour that hangs around us like a perfumed halo. If you have seen a reproduction of one of the religious images of the peoples of Earth you will know what I mean. It is almost physical in its presence. That glamour both attracts and repels. It repels the jealous ones, who have tried to enter the Service and been rejected, or who have never tried and are embittered by their sour-grapes loss of nerve. Some others see us as an exclusive, self-perpetuating elite, to be resented. A few pretend to be airmen, going around in stolen or copied uniforms. They are the most pathetic ones, for their pretence is quickly seen through and mocked.
Others are attracted to us. They see us as superhuman and suppose that, as we are superior in skill and courage to the ordinary run of humanity (which I deny. My fisherman father was far braver and more skilful than I and he never flew in his life; and the miners of Northern Edge do extraordinarily dangerous work requiring great dedication and craft) we must be superior in every way. They seek us out. They attempt to seduce us. They believe that to carry and raise an airman's child is to take some of his glamour onto themselves.
'Tell me about the Fleury Ray,' says a girl to me one evening, sitting in a fashionable café-bar just off the main street of Knot, on Edge. They know how to charge here, but airmen are well paid and our board and lodging are already provided for. The girl is very nice and very blonde and not at all stupid, but I doubt she has a serious interest in the physics of contraterrene matter.
'Who was Mister Fleury?'
She flicks her sculpted eyelashes. 'Nobody?'
'Sorry. What I mean is there's no such person. He was made up by a writer, in a story.'
'Oh. So who invented the Fleury Ray, if there wasn't actually a Mister Fleury?'
'We're not quite sure. All we know is that when it became clear that we were never going to be able to sail safely across the oceans of Glory' – I manage to keep my voice steady as I say this. The overpriced drinks help – 'and would need to build and fly aircraft instead, the 'Down discovered a library of files deep in the heart of her data core that described how you could construct a field – "Ray" is the wrong word – that would induce a state of negative mass in air. In other words, it was a form of antigravity. That field allows us to build ships that are much, much bigger than any that ever flew on Earth.
'But as for who discovered the principle behind the Ray, nobody knows. My personal theory is that it was the 'Down herself, and that she thought it up while she was sailing from her Solar orbit to here. And as for the name – I'm sure that if Rudyard Kipling knew the 'Down had raided one of his scientific romances and pinched it he wouldn't mind. I think he'd be rather pleased.'
'"Rudyard Kipling".' She laughs prettily and recrosses her legs. 'What a funny-sounding name!'
'Isn't it just? He was English, you know. Back on Earth. He wrote a lot of very popular stories and poetry.'
'Did he? That's interesting. But go on, Emmy, tell me some more about your work. It sounds terribly exciting.' And I do, and she doesn't seem to be at all bored by it. Not in the slightest; not until she's finished with me.
- 0 -
'McLuskie?' It was Airman Engineer One Harborne. 'I've got a job for you. There's a trim problem on deck four, port forward. We need to shift some ballast. Get yourself down to stores and indent for a long weight. I'll be down in a minute or two to give you a hand. Here's a chitty for it.'
'Aye-aye.' I smiled to myself as I took the pink flimsy.I'd been expecting this.
I left my position by the secondary power controllers on deck two and took the lift-pole down to deck four. The stores were located plumb amidships, about two hundred feet aft from where I'd been monitoring the feeds to the environmental system. A dull job, but everybody had to take their turn at it.
The stores window was open and Logistics Officer One Leonard was in his usual place behind it, perched on a high stool and drinking coffee.
'Hello, young McLuskie,' he said. 'What can I do you for?'
I handed him the chit. 'Long weight please, Lennie. Twenty-pounder should do it. Oh, and I'll probably need a clockwise screwdriver and a left-handed spanner as well.'
He grinned and winked at me. 'Right away, Airman. Just sit down over there and I'll fetch them for you.'
I sat down for my long weight. My guess was that it would be about ten minutes. I was nearly right. Nine minutes later I heard footsteps behind me and whoof! someone pulled a hood over my head while someone else grabbed my arms and tied them behind my back. They pulled me to my feet, frogmarched me fifty yards down the passage, and stopped. Then they spun me round ten times clockwise and another twenty anticlockwise until I was quite dizzy. There were, I guessed, four or five of them. One spoke, and his voice was muffled, as if he were holding a handkerchief over his face.
'Is this he?'
Voices answered. 'It is.'
'Is he new?'
'He is very new.'
'Is he fresh?'
'Is he cognisant of the mysteries of the air?'
'He knows them, yet he knows them not.'
'What does he know?'
'He knows what a landsman knows.'
'What does he not know?'
'He does not know what an airman knows.'
'Of what must he learn?'
'He must learn of the air.'
'How shall he learn it?'
'By immersion. He must be baptised in the air, according to sacred rite.'
'Let the gateway be opened, that he may be immersed.' There was a mechanical click and suddenly I felt the rush of chill air swirling past me. We were standing next to one of the lower access ports. I felt the first stirrings of alarm in my innards.
'Let his baptism begin.'
Two pairs of arms seized me on either side and lifted me off my feet. I struggled involuntarily.
'Give him to the air!''
They pulled me back and, like men throwing a log of wood, swung me forward and lobbed me out of the port into the eighty-knot stream surging outside. I fell, screaming.
- 0 -
There is nowhere on board ship that an engineer may not go. Executive officers know better than to enter our engine-rooms and control cubicles, navigators have no business there, and the stewards and service staff wouldn't dare try. Only the ship's constable has anything like our freedom of movement and he is bounded by law, while we engineers answer only to the Captain, the Board, and the laws of physics. Even a Monitor must ask permission before he is allowed into our domain. From the tip of her uppermost dorsal vane to the primary lens of her forward cloud-piercer everything on board ship belongs to us and is our responsibility. The pilots and navigators may think the vessel is theirs to command – we know differently.
And so we are never challenged, wherever we may go.
The ships of the Board of Trade criss-cross Glory's skies as the needs of traffic (and all that it implies, as Rudyard Kipling wrote) dictate. There is no central transit hub as such, although the Edgoises would like to think that Maybe Aerodrome, with its five landing cradles and ten mooring masts, is the most important landing place in the world and we consider that the graving docks and maintenance sheds on Scrape make it the primary centre of operations.
From time to time the Solero makes passage from the ringland of Leaven in the Archipelago of Grain to the land of Falls. She lifts from Leaven Peak with her Rays driven at full output and gains five thousand feet of altitude in less than a minute. Then she points due north and crosses the Inner Sea of Leaven in under twenty minutes, flying over the Ring somewhere near Sea Lock Number Four, where she exchanges signals with the lockkeeper. All this time the crew is at full alertness, standing at their duty stations ready for commands from the bridge and most of us never see the Peak retreat into the distance or the horizon open up in front. That is the privilege of the navigators and the Captain. But once under way with all systems operating nominally we enter the cruising phase of the voyage and the watches take over the operation of the ship. When on the Leaven-Falls run I make a point of applying for the unpopular night watch. There are plenty of airmen happy to let me take it and it leaves the days free.
At the prow of the ship, the upper quadrants are occupied by the first- and second-class bars and restaurants. The lower quadrants are where the forward docking station is located. An airman stands there with a comm mike and watches as the pilot guides the ship's nose into its mooring nacelle. He can see details that are invisible to the Captain and helmsman on the bridge, five hundred feet astern. The view is spectacular – you can see right across one hundred and eighty degrees of arc and all the way from the horizon down to the ground below.
And on the Leaven-Falls (or Falls-Leaven) run I spend every spare minute there, looking down, sweeping from port to starboard and back, daring myself to blink. Looking for my sister Annie and her ship, the Guiding Star, which went missing – lost with all hands – five years ago.
Five years! It hardly seems possible. Where did the time go?
I could tell you about Annie and you'd nod and say, yes, you've heard her story – how she sailed the length of the Archipelago in her beautiful sailing ship; the first ocean-going vessel to be built in four hundred years. You saw it, you say, on a Monitor's screen when the foy rose from the sea and threatened to destroy Annie and her ship and crew, and how she stood and defied the creature and faced it down, so that it left them in peace. You know that she had made an agreement with the foys and that she, alone of all the sailors of Glory, had the freedom of the seas.
'But can you really rely on the foys' word?' I asked her one day, not long after she returned from her voyage of discovery. 'You know their history. Remember Jack and Ursula? Remember the wars of settlement?'
'You silly sod, Emmy.' Annie laughed. 'That was hundreds of years ago. And besides, Deepdiver would never go back on his word. He is an honourable creature.'
I shook my head.
And you know the last part of the story – how the Guiding Star set out for Falls with a shipment of oil and disappeared into the fog and rain and was never seen again. Some say that the cargo was unstable and exploded, others that the ship's hull, which was made Wedgie-style of green wood pinned to an aluminium frame, sprung apart. Most people believe that the foys reneged on their deal, or that the ship was attacked by a rogue foy which did not know of Annie's treaty, or dissented from it.
These are guesses, at best. All I know for sure is what the 'Down told me when, in anguish of soul, I pleaded with her to tell me what had really befallen the Guiding Star. All she would say was, 'I am ashamed.'
I am ashamed too, Annie, and whenever I can I keep watch against your return.
- 0 -
'They left you there how long?'
'Three hours, sir.'
Monitor Stone shook his head. 'Three hours. And you were in the sick-bay for two days afterwards.'
'Yes, sir. The doctor said I had a serious case of hypothermia.'
'Three hours. And in northern latitudes too. 'Down, have you ever heard of such a thing?'
'No, Ivan, I can't say I have.'
''Down?' I said.
'Please don't tell anyone who they were.'
'You think I know?'
'I know you know.' The Monitor – whose role as intermediary with the 'Down I had usurped – smiled faintly.
'Team loyalty... Is that what it is?'
'Sir, I've got to work with these men and women. I'm no blabbermouth. I'll probably catch it for talking to you as it is.'
I had fallen, blindfolded and screaming, (everybody screams) for a hundred feet, and then the mono line they'd fixed to my belt pulled taut and arrested my fall with a jerk. Of course I'd heard about these hazings. Every new airman had to go through some kind of initiation ceremony sooner or later and I'd actually been expecting mine in my first few days on board. But it was six whole weeks before I was ceremonially hooded and thrown out of the ship. Was it a coincidence that I was "immersed" in the frigid atmosphere of the northern pole rather than the warm ambience of the equator, or that the Solero was flying at her cruising speed of nearly ninety miles per hour rather than idling on a sightseeing tour? Or that I was left hanging beneath the ship's hull for three whole hours rather than the usual ten minutes? Or that I nearly died?
'I'm worried,' the Monitor said. 'I'm worried that someone has taken against you – taken strongly against you – and that he's found others who support him. Do you know of anyone who would do such a thing to you? Have you made any enemies?'
'None so far as I know, sir.'
'Your work record is exemplary. You've not become any officer's favourite?'
'No, sir. I do my job the best I can. We all do.'
'Hmm. Some do better than others. Emmy, I'm not at all happy about this, and neither is the 'Down. Would you like me to speak confidentially to the Captain? We could have you transferred off the Solero when she reaches Horn.'
'But that would cut my tour short, sir. It'd look odd on my record. People would wonder why I'd been moved on so soon from my first ship. And besides…'
'It's like I said. I've got to get on with my colleagues. Not everybody is going to like me all the time. I can't run away just because I'm not the most popular man on the ship. My dad never ran away from anything in his life, and neither did my sister. I'm certainly not going to – I'll fight my own battles. Begging your pardon, sir.'
'I'm not offended, Airman. You must do what you think is right.'
I leave Monitor Stone's office and I don't tell him about the books that have gone missing from my drawer. I'm no blabbermouth.
- 0 -
I stand in the Solero's aft dorsal cupola, dressed in a full airsuit with an overwound mono line shackled to my belt. I am going EV.
The Board's ships fly to a tight timetable and one that does not permit unscheduled stops for any reason short of a full emergency. A ship that has halted is one that is out of control. Her vanes flap uselessly and her attitude swings about at random. So when an external inspection is required it is done at regular cruising speed, and an airman goes out and does whatever needs to be done.
'Ready, Emmy?' asks Airman Engineer One Masterson, sounding tinny and small in my headset.
'Ready,' I reply, doing my best to keep my voice from wobbling.
'Open the hatch.'
I undo the toggles that secure the back door of the cupola. It swings inwards and I fasten it in place. There is now nothing separating me from the outer air.
'Right. I'll wind you out six feet. Winding now.' Horst Masterson, safe at the bottom of the ladder that links the cupola to its access chamber inside the Solero's hull, operates the winch. The mono goes slack and I step gingerly through the door. I lean forward and attach my safely line to the footrail. Now I have two lengths of unbreakable mono attaching me to the ship. (But I remember that my father's friend Charlie Wyatt was also protected by a mono line, but that it broke and Dad was killed saving him.)
'I'm safetied, Horst.'
'Okay, Emmy. I'll let you out another twenty feet.'
This is it, then. I must forsake the refuge of the cupola's lee and go out into the full eighty-knot blast of the Solero's airstream. It has been less than a week since my hazing and I am empty-bowels terrified.
Step by step. That is the way to do it. The Solero's upper surface is broad and I have taken the necessary precautions. I am wearing a suit and I am being looked after by a fellow airman. Manoeuvres like this are commonplace. I have nothing to fear.
Step by step. Suddenly the wind takes me and lifts me off my feet. The line goes taut. I am still held down by my safety but the winch line is taking the strain of the wind. I take a deep breath. This is only the start of my journey across the upper surface of the ship. The safety line pulls me down and steadies me and I am standing upright once more, facing the Solero's stern. I feel the thrumming of the ship's skin pulsing through my body.
'Roger, Emmy. Everything okay?'
'Right. I'm going to give you a hundred feet at one foot a second. Shout if you want me to stop. Got your feet down?'
Step by step. The mono pays out slowly and I walk with it. The blast of air presses hard against my back and the suit moulds itself around my body. Its helmet smells of gutta-percha, sweat and tar. This is nominal behaviour, I tell myself. This is routine. This is what every airman has to do. This is my duty.
After two minutes the winch stops and I stop with it. I am now one hundred feet astern of the cupola and two hundred feet forward of the lower leading edge of the upper vertical vane. The sky roars past on either side of me.
'Stopped, Emmy. Can you see anything?'
I raise my right hand and shade my eyes from the glare of the Blessèd sun on the ship's skin. The Solero has been handling oddly for the past couple of hours and the helmsman suspects that something is wrong with the upper steering vane.
'I can't see anyth... wait. Yes, there's something funny right at the bottom. Some kind of stain. You'd better let me have a look.'
Step by step. Another two hundred feet. It has become easier already. That is to say that my level of terror has risen no further, can rise no further. The vane looms up in front of me as I approach it. The safety line's clip slides smoothly along the footrail. Everything continues to work as it should. I am an airman and I am in my element.
At last I reach the base of the vane. It is immediately obvious what has happened. A high-flying aeroform has been sucked into the Solero's airstream, swept across her hull and dashed against the vane. The poor creature's body has jammed under it, preventing it from moving properly.
'I've got it. There's a dead 'form stuck in the vane. I'll try to clear it.'
'Are you sure, Emmy? I can bring you back and send a rigger out.'
'No, Horst. I'm here, so I'll do it. Give me another six feet, would you?'
Horst pays out a further two yards of line. I bend down and take my knife from my belt. I slash at the remains of the aeroform's body until its tangled sac-tendons snap. The wind catches its shredded corpse, picks it up and whisks it out of my sight. I slide my knife between the vane and the top of the hull. It's clear.
'Wind me in twenty feet, please.'
The mono pulls hard on my waist and I shuffle backwards.
'Ask Helm to try it.'
'Hold on tight, Emmy. I'll call down to the bridge.'
I brace myself and wait while the helmsman turns his wheel a few degrees to port and then to starboard. The ship sways from side to side, nearly throwing off my feet. I breathe deeply. Equilibrium returns.
'Okay, Emmy. Helm says it's free.'
'Great! Take me home!'
Step by step, but backwards now, I make my slow return to the cupola. Every step is one step closer to safety, and the tension and fear that disappeared temporarily while I was busy clearing the obstruction have returned. So close now. So close.
At last I feel the wind's buffeting die away and I stop. I am in the shelter of the cupola once more. This is the critical moment. I must detach my safety line from the footrail and trust to the winch to draw me the rest of the way through the hatch. I reach down and unclip the shackle.
'Safety's off, Horst. Haul me in!'
And he does, and I close the hatch and secure it and climb down the steel steps into the hull, nearly slipping on the last rung. I stand and cling to the ladder until my palsied body stops shaking and the last of my tears has dried.
Horst slaps me hard across the shoulders. 'Well done, Emmy! Bloody well done!' I return him a faint smile and pull the hemet off.
That night I stand my crewmates several rounds in the mess. Seniors Lloyd, Evans and Jones congratulate me on the success of my first EV and tell me that a positive line has been entered in my record. I feel proud of what I have achieved; justifiably so. But, lying awake in my bunk in the small hours, I cannot let go of a pernicious thought. Horst Masterson could have killed me in any number of different ways this afternoon and, if I had died, it would have been recorded as a tragic accident; the kind of thing that sometimes happens to inexperienced airmen. He did not kill me, so he is probably not the one who has set himself against me. But if he is not the man who let me hang exposed for three hours over the North Pole, who is? And how will I discover him, and which of us will die first when I do?
- 0 -
It was less than two weeks after my hazing that I received a further shock – one that really knocked me back. It was worse because I truly thought I'd begun to settle back down into the routines of Service life. There had been no more hints of trouble – the opposite, in fact. I had undergone a severe initiation and survived, I hadn't snitched on my crewmates, I did my job well and supported my team. Furthermore, I didn't try to duck out of messy jobs like greasing the drive shafts or clearing blockages in the waste management system. We were a happy team, I thought. Senior Lloyd got the balance right between friendliness and professionalism. We could be as familiar as we liked among ourselves, so long as we showed respect and – of course – worked only to the highest possible standards. I felt I was becoming a useful member of the Solero's crew.
So it was even more of a blow when I opened my daybook – I was putting it away in my drawer having just had the previous week's entries approved – to find that someone had written in it. It was on the front page, where I'd proudly entered the first line of my Service record – 20 March 548YG, LAV Solero, Engineering Squad 5, Team 3, ASE Lloyd.
Murdering nigger bitch.
My first reaction was disbelief, followed closely by extreme annoyance. Some cretin had spoiled my book. I would have to find a way of erasing the writing or, if that was impossible, I would paste a new page over the one that had been desecrated. Then I felt like laughing – it was so childish. It was the sort of thing little kids shouted in the school playground, minus the swearing. But I didn't laugh. Raw fury blazed up in me. How dare they! How dare they insult my family like that! How dare they go through my things! It's one of the underlying principles of the Service that everybody trusts everybody else. Our lives depend on it. There are no locks on any of our personal areas. No airman would dream of violating another's privacy – or so I'd thought. We're much too tight-packed in our living space for that and besides – trust is everything.
The insult was not aimed directly at me, of course, and that made it worse. Annie… how could anyone say such a thing about my brave, beautiful sister Annie? Wasn't it enough that she'd died along with her crew when the Guiding Star was lost? What guilt could she possibly carry now? And how could I bear it – all this hate? Rage and sorrow are a potent mix and that night I lay on my bunk clutching the daybook and sobbed silently into my pillow.
Rage, sorrow… and fear. And that word – nigger. Whoever had written those insults knew me – knew me well. They had stolen some of my precious books from the lost Earth – A Tale of Two Cities, Swallows and Amazons, Huckleberry Finn. They'd read them and they knew that I knew what that word – which I don't suppose you have ever heard – once meant. They had got inside my head. They had found out how to hurt me, and they would hurt me, but they also meant to wreck my life. Wreck it – and then destroy it utterly.
- 0 -
I have said that an airman has no land. This is true, but I should have gone on to say that we remember our birth-lands just the same, and we are proud of them. We always introduce ourselves with the names of our lands and make a little joke about it. For example, Horst Masterson is from Edge, so he's filthy rich. I'm from the Archipelago, so I'm an empty-headed pleasure-seeker. Joyce Henry and Brian Packard come from Gold, so they're a bit spooky, and Amy Lloyd is Hornese, so she's terribly intellectual.
You see – the same stereotypes apply in the air as they do on the lands. Those stereotypes are a kind of shorthand, aren't they? They sum a place and its people up in a few words. Sometimes they're positive and sometimes they're not. Of course, my enemies knew about them and how to exploit them. It made perfect sense that a dippy Leavenite would be careless with his tools, so I often found a trimmer or a hex key had gone missing from my kit and would have to be replaced, at my expense, from the stores. Leavenites like a drink, it's said, and so it was probably after too many slugs of rum that I spilt enamel all over my formals and had to spend half a day cleaning it off with the trich that Lennie gave me from the stores, strictly off the books.
Every evening in the mess, or at lunch or breakfast in the cafeteria, I looked at my teammates and wondered about them. Which of them was it? Who hated me enough to turn my life into a gauntlet-run of accidental slips, nagging annoyances and false errands? I did not know. And so, day by day, I withdrew into myself. I dropped out of the inter-team games and went ashore with my crew-mates less often. I had my books, and there were study-courses I should take for my promotion exams. There was always something to do that didn't involve talking to the others, or meeting their eyes.
I grew increasingly unhappy, and increasingly determined not to show it. I concentrated on efficiency, and method, and correctness. I looked at my crewmates with ever-increasing suspicion. How could I help it? One of them wanted me dead or, at the very least, badly hurt. What else could I do but bury myself in my work? If I could not be the best-liked member of my team, I would be its best engineer.
And one perfectly ordinary Thursday afternoon, Senior Lloyd detailed me to recalibrate one of the Solero's Ray tanks. 'It's a straightforward job,' she said. 'I don't think you'll have any trouble with it. Call me when you're done and I'll check it over with you.'
'Aye-aye, ma'am,' I said.
- 0 -
Number five Ray tank was the last lift unit on the Solero's port side. It was tucked into the tapering stern space between her port elevator and lower steering vane. Although it and its twin on the starboard side were smaller than the other tanks they were just as, if not more, important as them, because of the leverage they exerted on the ship. A captain who tries to moor up with an unsteady aft tank is a captain who risks both his ship and his career. I did not want to let my commander or the Solero down, and so I set out on the quarter-mile sternwards walk with confidence and determination. I would do an excellent job of tuning the tank's emitters and Senior Lloyd would be happy to sign it off. After all, I was the best of the new intake when it came to Rays and I was already being trusted to work on them unsupervised.
The passages became narrower and lower as I neared the tank and when I got there I had to stoop to reach the access port. I commed the bridge to let the execs know that I was shutting the Ray down and got the go-ahead from Captain Hughes himself. I put down my pack and took the key from my belt. Slowly, gently, I ran the Fleury generator down. It was a bit bumpy in the middle range and I guessed it would need a complete overhaul the next time we docked in Phyle, on Scrape. For now, though, a simple realignment would be enough. I opened the hatch and threw my toolpack in ahead of me. It bounced eerily screw-wise in the residual null-field.
Right, I was ready to go. I squirmed through the port and into the tank. There were twelve emitters to tune. I patted my pocket to check that I had taken the key out of its socket by the tank entrance. Yes, there it was.
If you align a set of emitters in numerical order you get a drift and the first and the last one you tune end up significantly different. The wise engineer takes a drunkard's walk around them to spread the errors out at random. So I set out across the tank with my eyes shut and only opened them when I reached the far side. I was next to number four emitter. Okay, that was where I would begin. I removed the grid cover, took my gravimeter from my pack, and got to work.
Aligning Ray emitters involves turning them on in turn and setting them to operate over a standard gamma response curve. The engineer fits a calibrated pi-damper to each unit to reduce its field output to safe limits. Then he applies a known drive level from his test-set and sets the Ray up against his gravimeter. It's a simple procedure, but one that needs to be done carefully and methodically. Make a mistake or skip a step and you'll probably mess it up and have to start all over again.
Of course, one of the side-effects of the calibration process is low-level Ray leakage. We're meant to keep the amplitudes down as far as possible, but there are limits and so you do experience some minor negative mass effects while setting the emitters up. Some people rather like the feeling of their atoms and molecules going slightly contraterrene and they're the ones who are most likely to volunteer for tuning assignments. Me, I can take it or leave it. The fizzing in your blood is not unpleasant and the lightness in your limbs is agreeable, especially if you are tired. But it's like having a drink. The first one or two are fine – the mild euphoria, the relaxing of inhibitions. But after the ninth or tenth, all I feel is sick. Engineers who enter a Fleury field too often get Ray-happy, and a watchful supervisor will move them on to other work before they damage themselves or their ship.
Steadily, methodically – because that's the way I work – I went around the emitters. I marked off the date and time on each ones maintenance plate as I calibrated it. Nine, ten, eleven and one left to go. I was wearing phones so I could match the heterodynes in the mixer streams more easily and so I didn't hear the entrance port close or its dogs snick home. The first hint of trouble was a voice, amplified but muffled as if the speaker was holding a handkerchief over his mouth.
'Yes?' I pulled off the phones. The sound came from a grille set into the top of the tank.
'You finished in there?'
'Nearly. One to go. Sorry, who is this?'
'Never you mind. Anodes all co-phased and ready?'
'All except number seven. Excuse me, who are you?' And for the first time I noticed the port was shut.
'Good. The brilliant Ray engineer has nearly finished setting up the tank. I expect it's already working at thirty over nominal. Better than that, he's so good. Good, aren't you, Muck-Luskie?'
'What kind of game is this? Unlock the port! Let me out!' I could see what was going on. This was another stupid, mean-spirited practical joke. The person – whoever it was – was going to leave me locked in the tank. He'd probably turn the light out to try and frighten me. Of course I wouldn't be left in the dark for long. Someone would soon notice that the tank was still not running and would come down to find out what was going on. How pathetic could you get?
'Hey you! What don't you stop messing about,' I called. 'Open the port and let me out. I'll give you five minutes to get out of the way. I won't sneak on you.'
'No, you won't. Look.' There was a tapping on the port window. 'Look what I've got.'
It was a key. A tank key. And with a rush of terror up my spine I realised that this was no silly little practical joke that was being played on me. This was something far more serious. This was murder.
'You can't take a hint, can you? Why didn't you leave when we told you? You're not wanted here. We don't want Muck-Luskie bastards here on our ship. We don't like filthy whoresons like you stealing our light and stinking up the place.'
'Let me out!' I was becoming badly frightened. 'Don't kill me! You're not a killer!'
'I wasn't – not until your slag of a sister came along. She should have been butchered at birth, that one, and so should you.'
I still had no idea who the voice belonged to. It probably wasn't Horst Masterson or Ernie Harborne, but that was all I could guess at. I ran up to the port, but there was nobody there. He must have hidden to one side. Coward!
'You know what I'm going to do to you, don't you?' The key tapped on the port window again.
I knew. I knew very well. The first day of your Ray-training, they show you. There's a film – old and blurry – from the early experimental days, and in that film you see what happened to an airman who was caught in a tank when its Ray came on unexpectedly. You see what it means to have every particle in your body go seetee. It is the most revolting thing I have ever seen. It's not just the splattering explosion and the scarlet fire. It's the grotesque swelling of the man's chest, and the look on his face, and the appalling screams he made while his lungs could still pump air past his vocal cords. It's the wet pop of his bursting eyeballs. Nobody ever forgets that film.
That tank was melted down afterwards and its metal thrown into the sea. It had proved impossible to separate the organic remains of the man's body from the aluminium of the tank and so it had become quite useless. Procedures were set in place to prevent such a horror from occurring again. Primarily, there is meant to be just one unique key for each tank in the whole of the Board's fleet of ships, but that is only a rule and impossible to enforce. Any half-competent metalworker could make a duplicate key, if he were mad or homicidal.
There was a click and a deadly hum. The air turned cerise, fringed with indigo sparkles at the emitter nodes, and my skin prickled. The buttons of my uniform vibrated softly. The man by the port had inserted the key into the safety socket and twisted it over to the right. I closed my eyes. The field seized my body and pulled it into the middle of the tank, where it floated in suspension. I struggled and flailed my arms and legs wildly to try and break out of the field, but it was futile. I was trapped and held inert by Fleury energy. As soon as the field strength ramped up I would be torn apart by my own negative mass. It was going to hurt like hell and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
And then, just as I was giving up and getting ready to die, there was a thump and my body fell to the floor of the tank.
What? I jumped to my feet and ran back to the port. I still couldn't see anybody outside, but I could hear him swearing. He had tried to build up the Ray too quickly and it had failed. I hammered on the window. 'Let me out!'
'Oh no, Mucky, I don't think so. Let's try again.'
'No!' And again my body was sucked into the centre of the tank, where it hung helplessly. I did not struggle this time. I knew there was no point. Instead I thought. And I had an idea.
Thump. The field collapsed once more and I crashed to the deck. Now. Now was my chance. I had to take it or die.
- 0 -
I am the last person to enter the room. I see a semi-circle of faces behind a curved table. In the middle, the Captain. To his left, Chief Engineer Ramsay and Senior Engineer Lloyd. To his right, Monitor Stone with a portable screen, and Constable Young. In front of the table, a chair and next to it a small stand with a jug of water and a glass. The room is buried deep inside the ship. It is brightly lit.
'Sit down, McLuskie,' says the Constable. I sit. I am wearing my formal uniform and best shoes, my hair is brushed and my fingernails are clean.
The Captain clears his throat. ''Down, are you here?'
The ship's Ariel-voice replies. 'Yes, Captain.'
'Will you record and witness today's meeting?'
'Thank you. Now, would each of you please identify yourselves to the 'Down?' In turn, we do, declaring our name, rank and number. I am last:
'Michael Emmanuel McLuskie, Airman Engineer Two, five-three-nine, two-oh-two.' I keep my voice as steady as I can.
'Good. This Enquiry is now open.' The Captain picks up a sheaf of printouts and hands them out to left and right. Monitor Stone passes one over to me.
'These are copies of all statements made following the incident that occurred on board the LAV Solero on Thursday the thirtieth of October, in this five-hundred and forty-eighth year of Glory. I would like each of you to read them now and confirm or query what is written there.'
We sit and read through the documents. I have read my own statement, of course, but I have not seen the others. Each deposition is written in terms of strict fact, stripped of supposition, opinion and emotion. I stop from time to time and take a sip of water from the cup to my right.
The Captain puts down his papers and looks around. He is a strong, vigorous man in his early nineties with a deeply lined face, blue eyes and a forceful intelligence. I have the greatest possible respect for him – he is everything a ship's commander should be.
'Are we done?' Nods from around the table. 'And you, 'Down?'
'Of course, Captain.'
'Thank you. Now, does anybody dispute the factual content of what we have read?' Heads shake around the table. 'McLuskie?'
'Very well. Then, as the facts are all agreed, I would like to move on to the personal statements. If you would please go first, Chief?'
One by one my superiors describe my character and temperament. Chief Ramsay's deposition is short. So is the Constable's. Neither of them has heard anything but good of me. My work is excellent, my conduct commendable. The Captain nods while they speak and makes notes on a yellow pad.
Next it is Senior Lloyd's turn to speak. She sits upright, pale and fair, and it suddenly strikes me – as it has not before – how young she is.
'Airman McLuskie joined my team in mid-March. He came well-recommended by the Leaven Port Service Depot.'
'Was that recommendation justified?' The Captain turns in his chair to observe her.
'Yes, sir. I found Airman McLuskie to be an intelligent and conscientious worker. From the outset he showed a special aptitude for Ray work.'
'So much so that you quickly allowed him to work unsupervised, despite his only having been with the Solero for a short time.'
Senior Lloyd flushes slightly. 'I have always found his work to have been carried out to the highest standards and with a proper awareness of, and attention to, safety. I check it, naturally, but there is rarely any need to make corrections. He is one of the best Ray technicians I have met.'
'Quite so, Senior. And yet, here we are. Would you say that Airman McLuskie was a happy member of your team?'
'To start with, yes. He settled in well.'
'And did that pleasant state of affairs last?'
'No, sir. He had an unfortunate experience…' Her voice tails off.
'I have not been an officer in the Board's service for fifty years for nothing, Senior. I know about initiation ceremonies.'
'Yes, sir. Well, something went wrong and he was left hanging below the ship for three hours. There was a blow-back in number six turbine and my team had to attend to it urgently.'
Oh. That was the excuse, was it? And what caused that blow-back, eh?
'I see. And after this… incident?'
'Airman McLuskie became somewhat withdrawn. He mixed less with his team-mates. Not immediately – he made a successful first EV a week later and we had a good evening in the mess. But afterwards, he seemed to spend a lot of time reading in his bunk.'
'Did his work suffer?'
'No, except when it came to communicating with his colleagues. He became less of a team player.'
'Were you concerned by this?'
'A little, yes, sir. But I've seen this kind of thing happen before. It's often delayed homesickness. Usually it sorts itself out.'
'But not this time.'
'Thank you, Senior Lloyd.'
She sits back. The questioning has been hard on her and I am sorry for it.
The Captain sits back as well. He pauses in thought. I wait to be asked to speak.
'This is an odd situation, is it not? I have sat on many Committees of Enquiry in my time, but never one quite as unusual as this. It is clear to me that up until last Thursday's incident, Airman McLuskie was making a very good start to his career. As a rule, Enquiries deal with incompetent airmen, but by all accounts McLuskie has been an efficient and conscientious member of the crew. And furthermore, airmen who are brought before a Committee usually try to justify themselves by attempting to cover up their failings, but McLuskie has made no attempt to deny the facts of the case. I think a measured approach is needed here, so would you please talk him through what happened?'
The Captain leans forward. 'This is a Committee of Enquiry, McLuskie, not a court martial. We only wish to establish beyond all doubt what occurred, as completely as we can.'
'Over to you, Monitor.'
'Airman McLuskie, I'm going to ask you to describe what happened in number five tank. You were sent there by Senior Lloyd to realign the Ray emitters, were you not?'
'Yes, sir. They weren't tracking properly.' I go on to tell the Enquiry how I followed all the standard procedures and observed all the usual precautions. 'And then he locked me in the tank.'
'This was the man you didn't see.'
'Why didn't you see him?'
'He was hiding, sir, by the side of the port.'
'Quite so. Carry on.'
I tell the Committee about the threats the man made, and how he had a duplicate key with him that he used to unlock the Ray controls.
'You are quite sure about this?' says the Captain with a frown creasing his face. 'It was a duplicate key? You are certain that you did not accidentally or carelessly leave the key in the lock when you went into the tank?'
'I am perfectly sure, sir. I checked my pocket when I entered the tank. I had the key with me.'
The Captain shakes his head. 'I see.'
'So,' says Monitor Stone, 'Your unseen enemy threatened to activate the Fleury Ray generator while you were in the tank.'
'And you believed that he was not bluffing. You sincerely thought he would make good his threat to kill you.'
'Yes, sir, I did. He said vile things about my family. It was clear that he hated me. There were other things...' I tell the Committee about the writing in my journal, and my missing books and tools and paint-spattered formals and all the other mean and cowardly things my persecutors have done.
'And you think that this was an act of revenge?'
'Yes, sir. I believe that someone on this ship had a friend or a relative who was lost on the Guiding Star and that they were determined to make me suffer for it.'
'You had nothing directly to do with the Guiding Star disaster?'
'No. She was my sister's ship. But... I often wish I had sailed with her that last time. I might have saved her or, if it came to it, died with her.'
There is silence. Then the Monitor continues:
'Returning to the events of last Thursday, you say that your assailant tried twice to build up the Ray in tank five but failed both times.'
'Yes. He went too quickly. I don't think he understood how to get a Ray running efficiently. That, or he was in too much of a hurry to kill me.'
'So, after the second attempt failed, what did you do?'
'What I wrote in my personal statement, sir. I knew that sooner or later he would succeed in getting the seetee field fully established. The only way to stop him was to destroy as many of the Ray emitters as I could before the partial field incapacitated me for a third time.'
'And so you smashed every emitter in the tank. It was a frenzied attack, according to Senior Lloyd's evidence. Why did you not simply detune each emitter without damaging it?'
'I had no time, sir. I had to disable as many emitters as I could, as quickly as I could.'
'Because you feared for your life.'
'I see. McLuskie, I have to tell you that the general opinion among the crew is that you went Ray-happy. There was no duplicate key or mysterious assassin. That is a fairy-tale that you have made up. Actually, you were playing with the Fleury system for kicks, as it is called, but something went wrong and you panicked. It would certainly not be the first time in the history of the Service that this has happened.'
'Sir! That's not true! That's a lie! The men who meant to hurt me – they've been putting that story about!' I have not heard any such rumour myself. I have been kept in close quarters since I reported what I had done to Senior Lloyd.
'Men, McLuskie? It was just one man, you said before.'
'I don't know how many of them there are, sir.'
The Monitor shakes his head.
'You see, McLuskie, the problem is this: We have to compare a simple story – an engineer of previously good character is exposed to the Fleury Ray in the course of his duties, he becomes addicted to its effects and loses control of himself to the extent that he is forced to wreck an entire tank to avoid being killed in it – with a whole conspiracy of rogue airmen, duplicate keys and false rumours. Which is more likely? A complex chain of circumstances stretching back five years and involving half the complement of the Solero, or an engineer's unfortunate weakness of character leading him astray? Well, McLuskie?'
'No, sir. I deny it absolutely. For that to be true I would have to be a liar. I do not lie. No McLuskie has ever lied. We are an honourable family.'
'And is that your last word? As an Airman?'
'Yes, sir. As an Airman.'
The Monitor and the Captain exchange glances.
'Thank you, McLuskie. Thank you, Chief Ramsay and Senior Lloyd. You may return to your duties for now. The Monitor and I will discuss this matter in private. Constable, please take Airman McLuskie back to his quarters and wait there until we call for you.'
- 0 -
I cannot count the hours and minutes I spent under the Constable's guard in the passenger cabin that had been my home for the past few days. It was a third-class compartment, hidden away next to the cargo hold, and only occupied when every other room was full. There was no exterior port, only basic furniture, and the bare painted walls were drab and gloomy. It was the worst accommodation on board the Solero and the only thing in its favour was that it was big enough to hold both me and Constable Young.
Outside the cabin door the everyday business of flying the ship went on. We would be docking in Lodge-in-the-Falls tomorrow morning and the occasional clang on the wall told of goods being moved ready for unloading. Just a few feet away, life was normal – as normal as it had been for me only a few days before. Here and there, then and now – all the difference there is. I sat on the cabin's narrow bed and waited. The Constable stood with his back to the door and his hands by his side, watching. He was taking care of me, I knew.
My mind travelled up and down the days since my arrest, over and over again. Could I have behaved differently, could I have done better? Had I made my case well enough before the Committee of Enquiry? I suspected I had not. A more articulate man – one whose skill lay in words and people rather than machines and tools – would have convinced the Committee that there was no case to answer. Such a man would have known how to win the haters over to his side. Such a man would never have found himself threatened, victimised and bullied. Such a man would not have been locked in a Ray tank and tormented with the fear of death.
But such a man would not have been me. I had done the best I could. I was an engineer, not a salesman or diplomat. All I could do now was wait. I took The Wind in the Willows from my pocket and read. And waited.
- 0 -
Eventually the call comes and we walk, not quite as prisoner and escort, back to the committee room. The passages and companionways clear as we pass, so that I feel rather than see the faces looking at me. Are they hostile, friendly or indifferent? I cannot tell. We reach the door, knock and are admitted. I sit in the same chair as before and face the Chief, Senior Lloyd, the Monitor and the Captain. I try, and fail, to read their expressions.
The Captain speaks without preamble. 'I will begin by recording the conclusions of this Committee of Enquiry. They are these:
'Firstly, that on Thursday the thirtieth of October, five-hundred and forty-eight, Airman Engineer Two McLuskie deliberately disabled Ray tank five by extensively damaging its emitters.
'Secondly, that as the officer commanding the LAV Solero at that time I accept full responsibility for the damage and will report to the Board accordingly.
'That is all. Chief, Senior Lloyd, you may go now. Thank you for your time and attention in this matter.'
The two engineering officers stand, salute the Captain, and leave the room. I catch sight of the relief on Senior Lloyd's face. Good. None of this was her fault.
'Now for the remaining business of the day.' Constable Young nods to me. I understand his meaning and rise to my feet.
'Airman McLuskie. You have admitted to the destruction of a vital part of the Solero's equipment, endangering her safety. I must remind you that there is no greater offence in the eyes of the Service than putting the lives of a ship and her crew at risk, especially if sabotage is involved. It is a worse crime than simple murder, for a ship is the life of many people. Her crew, her passengers, those who depend on her to bring them foodstuffs and medicines – the survival of all these human beings is tied up with the life of a ship. If the ship dies, so do they. By your action you threatened the existence of us all.
'I must also remind you that there is no limit to the punishment that a commander may impose upon a person who threatens the safety or survival of his ship. There is no penalty too extreme. That includes summary execution. Do you understand, Airman?'
'Yes, sir.' I stare straight ahead, afraid to meet the Captain's eyes. His words frighten me, but somewhere deep in my mind I am daring to hope. He is talking of severe penalties, but only because he does not intend to apply them to me. He is going to be merciful. It is possible – just possible – that the worst is over.
'You have told me that you wrecked the tank because you believed your life was in danger. By all accounts you are an honest and truthful individual and so I am prepared to accept that your belief was sincere. But McLuskie, the history and traditions of the Service tell us of many heroic airmen whose actions were motivated not by self-preservation but self-sacrifice. Men who died horribly for the sake of their comrades. Men like Bo'sun Wilkins of the Old Ninety-Nine, or the port watch of the Berthillon, who burned to death at their posts to save their ship. Men whose names are honoured in wardrooms and messes all around the world.'
'Yes, sir.' I bow my head.
'Your actions were not in strict accordance with that tradition, were they?'
'No, sir,' I whisper.
'No. But now let us speak of mitigations. To begin with, both Senior Lloyd and the Chief have pointed out to me that had the tank been raised to its normal operating level with your body inside it, the resulting damage would have been even more extensive that that which you caused by wrecking the emitters. The whole system would have had to be taken out and replaced.'
'You see that I have accepted your version of events, despite the lack of corroborative evidence. No duplicate key has been found.'
'Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.'
'Don't thank me yet. The second mitigation concerns the bullying which you suffered. I am appalled that one of my men should have been subjected to abuse of this kind and I shall be making further investigations.
'The third mitigation is your excellent conduct and efficiency prior to the incident, to which everyone here has testified.
'And lastly, both Monitor Stone and the 'Down have interceded with me on your behalf. Therefore, I shall deal with you as leniently as the Regulations allow.'
'Attention!' orders the Constable. I draw myself up confidently. It is going to be all right. I will be suspended for a week or two or have my pay docked, no more, and my enemies will be rooted out and disciplined. At last it is over.
'My judgement is this: The Regulations state that the sabotage of a Service vessel is not to be tolerated, whatever the circumstances, and any person detected in such sabotage may not continue to be a member of the Service. Therefore, Airman McLuskie is dishonourably dismissed from the Service, with immediate effect. You will return your knife, your uniform and any items which are not your personal property to the stores. The Constable will escort you to your quarters and you will leave the ship tomorrow when we dock at Lodge. That is all.'
The Captain rises to his feet and leaves the room without looking at me. I stand dazed and stunned, momentarily unable to take in all that he has said; only that one word – Dismissed. It is a brutal hammer-blow to my heart. The room turns black and I sway on my feet.
'McLuskie!' It is the Monitor. 'Take hold of him, Mister Young, I think he's going to fall.' The Constable helps me to my seat. Falling is an airman's greatest fear.
'Listen, Emmy,' says Monitor Stone, crouching next to me as I sit desperately clutching the arms of the chair. 'There's something the 'Down and I have to say to you. Something very important.'
I lever my arms and struggle to my feet. 'With the greatest respect, sir, the Captain has given me a direct order. It is the last order I will receive as an airman and I intend to follow it to the best of my ability, as I have followed every order I have been given. Mister Young, if you please?'
'Come on, lad,' the Constable says, and leads me from the room.
- 0 -
The Solero docked in Lodge Aerodrome at twenty-four-forty hours. I didn't wait for day to come, but left the ship as soon as I could. Her mass bulked over me as I crossed the bridge to the mooring pier, obscuring the world-light and hiding me in thankful darkness. I took the first tram into town and paid my fare from the small amount of money left in the pockets of my civilian clothes. The McLuskies are not a wealthy family and I had, of course, received no severance allowance from the Board. I lay unsleeping on a bench in the tram-shed and waited for the Blessèd sun to rise. Then I walked into the shadowed streets of Lodge and looked for my future.
I prefer not to go into detail about the year I spent in Lodge. It is a town that serves its visitors well, I suppose. There are few things that are not for sale in Lodge, whether in its luxury seafront stores, its many dip-bars and taverns, or the lay-houses and clinics that line its back streets. You may say, so what? And doesn't the resort town of Porth Leaven also exist to take money from airmen and tourists? To which I nod and say you are right, except in this: On Leaven we sell pleasure and fun. In Lodge they sell corruption and vice. Or, to put it another way; you would happily take your children to Leaven, wouldn't you? But I have met men and women who have taken their children to Lodge, and I do not wish to meet them again.
Lodge serves its visitors well enough, I suppose, but life is hard for the people who live there. Work was not easy to find and there were some jobs I would not do, however good the pay. All the same, I needed to make enough money to escape from Falls and return to Leaven, where I planned to find a job next to Mum in the fish-packing sheds. We would live quietly in our home in the village of Parrolindon. Perhaps one day I would meet someone I could tell about my past and who would accept it and wish to settle down with me despite it all. But that took money, and money was scarce for the likes of me. Not only was the kind of work I would accept in short supply, but living costs were high. It was as much as I could do to save ten Tokens a week – and that was in a good week. In a bad one I would be twenty Tokens poorer on Saturday than I had been the previous Sunday, despite sleeping rough all the nights in between. And thus I was brought low. Airman McLuskie, an Engineer of the Board ship Solero; now a landless down-and-out hanging on to life in the chilly streets of Lodge-in-the-Falls. I saw them often; airmen on shore leave, laughing and joking, spending their money freely, and I envied and detested them equally.
And it was all down to my own stupidity. I had time to think now, lots of it, between spells of menial labour or sessions blowing a day's wages on shots of whiskey in cheap bars. Two things had become horribly clear to me. Firstly, that my pride had led me to make a terrible mistake in tank five. I was so good with Rays, wasn't I? So good, I thought I was better at controlling them than anyone else. A steady hand on the field-regulator, that young McLuskie. Nobody else was remotely as competent as me. Idiot! Fool! Of course there were other engineers on the Solero who could finesse a Ray. One of them could easily have run a tank up to five percent and then dropped it back to zero. My tormentor had never meant to kill me. He hadn't needed to. He'd only needed to make me think I was going to die and provoke me into taking desperate action. My foolishness and the iron-clad Regulations of the Service had done the rest of his work for him. The Captain had been right when he had told me that I had not followed in the traditions of the Service. I had been cowardly and weak. I deserved my degradation.
That led me back to the times before, when the needling and bullying had started in earnest. I could see myself now in hindsight, doing the right thing. Annie would have told me:
You silly sod, Emmy. You're doing it all wrong! What you've got to do is this: tell everybody in your team you've something to talk to them about. Do it in the mess, over a drink. Everybody except the boss, that is. Leave her out of it. Then tell them what's been going on. Show them what they did to your formals. Show them your book. I won't mind, I've seen worse. Challenge them to own up or shut up. Whatever you do, don't keep it to yourself. Don't hide. You're a McLuskie.
And tell the Monitor, you halfwit! That's what he's for.
Of course he was.
- 0 -
'McLuskie? Are you McLuskie?' I wake reluctantly. It is a small boy, no more than twelve years old. He is shaking my shoulder. He looks scared.
'Who wants to know?'
'You are Mister McLuskie?'
'Yes, I am. Now, why are you looking for me?'
'They said you'd give me three Tokens.' I sit up slowly. It is another freezing cold morning on the streets of Lodge and there is ice on my clothes and a terrible stiffness in my limbs. I do not belong here. I belong on Leaven Peak where the Blessèd sun shines out of a bright equatorial sky and we welcome the cool relief that a Hally-transit brings. Here in the north it is never truly warm.
I feel in my pockets. There are still a few coins there and I draw out a One, two Halves and three Tenths. 'I'm sorry,' I say. 'That's all I've got.' I have not eaten for two and a half days.
'That's okay,' the boy says, taking the money. 'You're to come along with me. It's not far.' I stand up slowly. Last night I made my bed among the waste chippings in the entrance to a slabber's yard and it's lucky for me that I've been woken by this boy before the working day begins and the first wagons arrive. 'Come on. Quickly.' The boy is in a hurry to get away and I don't blame him.
We walk (I walk, he trots) down alleys and streets, taking short-cuts across secret courtyards where dingy washing hangs damply in the cold air and ragged men lean in doorways chewing gree, although it is not yet oh-seven-hundred hours and the sky is dark blue and laden with rime.
I thought I had got to know the geography of Lodge pretty well over the past weeks and months, but this boy understands how to find his way through a whole different layer of the town. It reminds me of the Solero, and the hidden ways the crew knew and the passengers did not. When it comes to Lodge I am still a passenger, it seems. I trust him to lead me aright, as I must. We dodge lumbering trams and speeding cars on our way. Wake up, Emmy! You can't afford to get yourself injured.
Eventually, the boy stops outside a house – modestly sized, built of brick, backing onto a park. 'Here we are,' he says. 'You're to go in there.' He points to the front door. 'Go on, ring. Ring the bell.'
And I do, and the door, which carries a plaque inscribed with the sign of the cupped hand, opens and I enter a long, rough-plastered hallway. There is light at the end, and a man who smiles in greeting:
'Come in, Emmy, come in! Sit down and have a warm! You look all whacked out.'
'Monitor? Monitor Stone?'
'You must call me Ivan. Now, which would you prefer – tea or coffee?'
I follow him. The kitchen beyond the hallway has a bright fire and an oak table standing on a red-tiled floor. There are cups and saucers and plates, there are knives, forks and spoons, and there is toasted bread to eat and freshly-made coffee to drink. My stomach has become bloated over these hungry days and I have to eat slowly and belch often. Monitor Stone – Ivan – pays no attention, but I am mortified at betraying my mother and father and the decent upbringing they gave me.
'Better?' he asks, when I sit back and sigh.
'Yes, Ivan, thank you. This is the first time for ages I've been warm all the way through.'
'Good. Well; we need to have a little chat, you and I. Let's go up to the study. Bring your cup with you.'
'Is this your house?' I ask as we walk upstairs. Perhaps he has left the Service and settled in Lodge. Perhaps he needs a servant to run the place for him.
'No, it's only borrowed for a few days. Here we are. Sit yourself down.' The study has just enough room to hold two chairs, a table and a screen.
'Morning, 'Down! Look who I've found!'
'And dragged out of the mud, by the look of him. Hello, Emmy. You've given us a great deal of trouble.'
I have given them trouble?
'You really know how to disappear completely, don't you?'
'It's not hard to disappear in Lodge.'
'No, I suppose not. Emmy, would you mind facing the screen for me?'
I hadn't realised I'd been avoiding looking at it.
'Thank you.' The 'Down is displaying her default avatar – the ship in the cupped hand. 'Now – do you know, have you any ideawhat a confounded idiot you've been? Rushing off like that?'
'When Captain Hughes of the Solero dismissed Airman McLuskie from the Service, Monitor Stone and I asked you to talk to us. You refused – you came over all Service-correct and stomped off with the Constable. Next thing we knew, you'd gone underground.'
'I didn't mean to. I couldn't help it. I had to live somehow.'
'I know,' says the Monitor. 'We tried to find you, but the ship left Falls the next day.'
'And so we lost you. It's only by the grace of Providence that we've finally got together now.'
'Well, okay,' I say. 'And I'm properly grateful, I really am. But nothing's changed, has it? I mean, it's nice and warm here and the food is good but at the end of all this you're going to push me out of the door and say goodbye, aren't you? Unless…' A thought strikes me.
'You'll lend me the fare to Leaven? I'll pay you back. I'd like to go home to see my Mum.'
'Is that what you want?'
'More than anything.'
Ivan Stone smiles. 'That would be good, and we'll arrange that for you if you like. But I think we can do something else you'll like even more.'
The 'Down takes over. 'Emmy, at the Enquiry the Captain said that Airman McLuskie was dismissed the Service. That's what he had to say. He had no choice – he was strictly bound by the Regulations.'
'Yes, I know, and I don't hold it against him. But it was such a shock. It came out of clear blue air.'
'And so you reacted the way you did. But Emmy, it was Airman McLuskie he was dismissing, not you.'
'We're not so stupid as to throw away someone with as much promise as you. Airman Engineer Two McLuskie is dismissed the Service, but we'd love it if you'd join Squad Four of the LAV El Dorado as an Airman Engineer One. All you have to do is choose yourself a new name. We'll look after the rest.'
The air swims around me. 'You mean…'
'Yes. That was what we wanted to tell you a year ago, but you wouldn't let us.'
I put my head in my hands. 'Providence! Providence and fuck!'
Monitor Stone rests a hand on my shoulder. 'Don't beat yourself up over this, Emmy. Yes, you were a berk, but you were an honourable berk. And you've learned how to get by in very difficult circumstances. I certainly wouldn't like to spend a year on my uppers in Lodge. You've done well.'
'I've been an idiot. A total idiot.'
Well, yes.' Ivan Stone smiles broadly. 'You have rather. But enough of that for now. I've something else to tell you or, rather, the 'Down has. You like to read old books, don't you, so you probably remember that someone – a poet and playwright on Earth, he was – once said, "When sorrows come, they come not single spies…"'
'"…but in battalions." Yes, that's true, I suppose.'
'Mostly, Emmy, mostly. But not always. Sometimes the opposite is true. Look, I'm going to clear off now and leave you alone with the 'Down. There's something she wants to show you. Something wonderful. And afterwards, please have a think about our offer.'
But... I'm a McLuskie. How can I hide behind another's name and still retain my honour?
I nod mutely. I don't know what to say. On one hand, I can return to the Service. But on the other... to give up Dad's name? My name? Annie's name?
Ivan Stone sees my dilemma. 'It's your choice, Emmy. I can't advise you. You must do what you think is right. Okay, over to you, 'Down.'
Ivan Stone leaves the room and closes the door behind him. Very gently he does it. So very gently.
- 0 -
'Ross, sir.' I stood rigidly to attention.
'Airman Engineer One.'
'Well then, Airman Engineer One Morgan Edwain Ross 040261, would you kindly look into this?' The officer handed me a probe with a lens mounted on its tip. I held it up to my face and waited while it flashed first into my left eye, and then my right.
'Yes, that's him.' The voice came from a grille in the officer's screen. Every word it spoke was made of crystal.
- 0 -
A few days later I stand in the El Dorado's forward docking station and watch the sea slip by seven thousand feet below my feet, giving myself a short break before returning to my post. I sit in the observer's chair, take out the precious thing the 'Down printed for me in Lodge, and gaze at it longingly.
Emmy, you silly sod…
I sit and let the joy flow through me for a few minutes. 'I am ashamed,' the 'Down once told me, but she is ashamed no more. We are reconciled, the ship and I.
The comm panel buzzes. 'Emmy! Are you there?'
I grab the mike. 'Boss?'
'Get your idle bones up here, pronto! Number six is going twisty again.'
'Aye-aye, boss.' My Ray expertise is needed. I put Annie's photo back in my pocket, leave the docking station and take the lift-pole to deck twelve.
- 0 -
We will dock at Porth Leaven Aerodrome in less than an hour. I am in a state of unbearable suspense, but I hold myself together and do my duty, as every Airman must. Soon. Very soon now. The El Dorado swings across the Ring of Leaven and sights the Peak, twenty miles off across the Inner Sea. I am coming home to my heart's desire.
I listen in to Captain Probert's voice on the ground-link. 'Leaven Peak, this is LAV El Dorado. With you in thirty minutes.'
The Controller replies, 'Roger that, El Dorado. Welcome to the Archipelago. You'll be docking in cradle one. Favourable winds, Captain.'
'Thank you, Peak. Favourable winds.'
And a fortunate landing, Airman.