Authors: Daniel Ottalini
He took out his parchment and steel-nibbed pen and began to take notes as the veteran instructor, a retired airman by the name of Ophelius Morentis, taught them the finer points of aerial combat.
“It is better to keep your crew at full alert in a war zone. Thus, as future officers, it is your duty to ensure that no man slacks or sleeps at his post and stays alert at all times. During red alerts, falling asleep can be considered a dereliction of duty.”
Gordanus raised his hand at this statement.
“Sir, what would you say to the officers who believe that to keep a crew on red alert for many hours decreases their effectiveness?”
“You would ask that, wouldn’t you Cadet Polentio? Some people, such as your father, may disagree with me. But these people fail to see the point. If the opponent should attack when your men are resting, they shall have the opportunity to eliminate or board your vessel with impunity! And you, and your crew, will be caught with your trousers down.”
Alexandros chimed in. “But sir, what if we could keep half the crew on alert and the other half rested?”
The instructor turned and smacked his teaching rod against his desk. The thin piece of supple wood made a harsh crack that broke the humid air.
“Enough. As you are still cadets and will not be making command decisions any time soon, you need not
yourself with any of these decisions. But as I have said before, it is the
airfleet that crews should be kept on war-footing at all times during combat and possible combat situations. Do I make myself clear?” The class murmured assent as Morentis turned his back to them, studying the ticking metronome clock on the desk.
“I see it is time for you to leave so that you are not late to your next lesson. Ah, and there are the chimes.” Distant sounds of bells ringing the hour worked their way into the classroom. “Please collect your papers before you leave today. I have graded them, and some of you appear to be lacking in the refined arts of dealing with proper aerial boarding techniques. Please see me after class if your paper says so. Dismissed.”
The class got up, students jostling for position as they retrieved their papers and left the room. Pushing his chair in, Alexandros joined the file of students, Gordanus sidling in behind him.
“So… what was it this time?” he asked in a mocking tone. “Girl, grades, or sleep?”
“Grades—Professor Garne wanted to discuss my findings about the second invasion of Hibernia. I found fault with the claim that there was nothing our airfleet could have done to help support the ground troops in the campaign. He disagreed, and my grade reflected it.”
Gordanus shook his head as the line inched forward.
“Rufius, just once I’d love to hear that it was a girl.” He gave Alexandros a half smile. “But you know you’re going to have to toe the line and give the teachers what they want. They don’t like being shown up in front of the class, much less by you, given your… history.”
Gordanus had known about Alexandros’s background ever since they had been bunkmates back on that first, terrifying night of academia. Alexandros remembered how concerned he had been that his ancestry would have lost him his best chance at making a friend. But Gordanus had shrugged and moved on. The pair was unlikely; Alexandros, skinny with a mop of blond hair over his pale face, and Gordanus, his body short and squat-framed with muscles and jet-black hair. If they hadn’t looked so dissimilar, people might have thought them brothers from their interactions.
Alexandros finally moved to the head of the line, and Morentis searched through his files before selecting a paper to hand to him.
“Next time, don’t assume you’ll have legionnaires on your airship. They’re much too cumbersome to use on such lightweight crafts,” he commented.
Alexandros gave an inner cry of joy as he stepped out of the room, turning to wait for Gordanus. He shielded his eyes as he stepped into the harsh sunlight, the glare blinding him for a moment. Tucking his paper into his bag, Alexandros looked around at the milling sea of cadets as they bustled to and fro along the pathways. Eyeing the time on the large clock tower, Alexandros nervously tapped his foot until Gordanus finally exited the classroom.
“What took you so long?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Gordanus sounded downtrodden, but Alexandros knew better than to push him. If he wanted to talk about it, he would. Otherwise, that was that.
They made their way toward their next class in silence. Alexandros made a half-dozen false starts in an effort to strike up a conversation, but it was no use; Gordanus was lost in his own world for the foreseeable future.
Sighing, Alexandros’s spirits quickly lifted when they arrived at their next class. Introduction to Flight covered all the basics of lighter than air travel—lift, resistance, airflow, drag, gravity—that gave the cadets the knowledge and background in everything they would need to pilot any type of airship. It was Alexandros’s favorite class, and one in which he eagerly soaked up every bit of knowledge proffered by their elderly instructor. Normally held in a stuffy, second-floor room, today the class was making use of the small, open-air theater in the plaza outside.
Professor Ikalrus was wizened, gray-haired, and as tough as a steel sword blade. The man’s whipcord muscles belied years of teaching cadets how to design, assemble, study, and fly the different airships that served in the Imperial Air Fleet. He stood on a low deck in front of a draped object, facing out toward several rows of students. Many unconsciously leaned forward, as if willing the old man to reveal the object behind him.
“I bet it’s first flight day,” Gordanus whispered as they took their seats in the last row of the small theater.
Alexandros murmured his agreement as Ikalrus motioned for them to quiet down. When the excited conversation subsided, Ikalrus gave a wide smile and spoke.
“Welcome, welcome cadets. As many of you may have guessed, today is indeed
, your first flying opportunity. Behind me will be your first skimmer practice session
. If you remember all the training that I have imparted upon you, then you will most likely pass. Of course,” he paused, looking around at the excited faces, “some of you will not. That is simply the way of the world.”
He motioned to his aides, who pulled the large tarp off the assembly. The canvas ruffled and came off in a flourish, revealing a small flying machine that more closely resembled some type of flying insect. The cylindrical central body of the skimmer was made of wood to save on weight. The front end tapered to a needle-sharp point encased in a thin sheathe of copper, which provided the recon vessel’s “sting.” The back end flared out to a rudder and ailerons, which the pilot controlled as he lay head first in the narrow body. Above the vessel, the small power plan fed two barrel-like tubes that encased the propellers on either side of the body. Overall, it looked as though a cigar had been squished between two drums and given the power to fly.
But to Alexandros, the ship’s awkward design did nothing to forestall his heart from leaping into his chest. This was the moment he had been waiting for.
“We’ll start today by attaching your skimmer to these four pulleys controlled by your classmates. With the engines on minimum, you will learn how to hover in place and deal with the movements of your ship. Each classmate will have control of a rope attached to one part of it. They will alternatively pull or loosen depending on my orders, and you will have to adapt immediately. In the past, failure to regain control quickly has led to injuries, death, or worse, such as failing out of the academia. Do not go easy on your classmates, for I am observing your work at each pulley. Everyone will get a turn at both positions. We’ll be going in alphabetical order.”
The professor turned and hobbled off the stage while his aide stepped forward.
Alexandros quailed for a moment at hearing his name. His excitement warred with the sudden attack of nerves that threatened to overwhelm his system. Gordanus patted him on the back.
“What are you waiting for?” he hissed at his best friend. “Get up or they’ll think you’re not going to do it.” Alexandros got to his feet, his heart thudding in his chest. He could feel the adrenaline surging to every part of his body. The aide called several other names while Alexandros made his way to the platform.
While the other boys were given heavy gloves and positioned at each rope pulley around the skimmer, Alexandros was fitted with a thick, wool-lined leather flying cap and a pair of tinted goggles that fit him snuggly. He fiddled with them, adjusting the tightness on his neck and nose. A pair of leather gloves was handed to him as well, thinner than the other boys’. Already stifling in the afternoon sun, Alexandros finally spoke up.
“Why do I need those?”
“They’ll keep your hands from slipping. You wouldn’t want to lose your grip,” the aide, a senior cadet, informed him curtly. “Remember, he’s looking for the ailerons and rudder to move opposite of what the vessel is doing. If you’re tilting left, he wants you to pull the skimmer starboard. Got it?”
“Oh.” Then belatedly realizing it was a question, he responded, “Yes.”
He pulled the gloves on and was helped into the cockpit, repeating the advice of the aide in his head again and again. The skimmer was missing the glass canopy that would be slid up and over the recumbent pilot during an actual flight. He nestled his feet against the two rudder pedals and grasped the altitude joystick with his right hand. He checked all his controls as taught to do in the previous classroom sessions, which made little sense now as the vessel was inactive, but the habit came naturally to him.
“Cadet Alexandros, are you prepared?” came the call from Professor Ikalrus.
“Very well.” A few moments went by, then the room filled with the sound of a generator starting up. The generator’s initial squeal calmed to a steady purr after a few moments. Alexandros could almost imagine the power now being fed to the controls as he waited, tense and alert, for the test to begin.
With a nauseating lurch, his classmates yanked the ship upwards, the weight of the vessel supported by the pulley system. Abruptly, the skimmer jerked right, and Alexandros panicked for a half-second before he remembered his training. He pushed back on his left foot, and the skimmer righted itself.
The next several minutes went by in a blur as Alexandros fought to keep the ship even and balanced. At one point he thought he had nearly broken the controls, and he yanked back on the joystick so hard it numbed his hand. His body tired rapidly as the stress and pressure of the simulator wore on him. Alexandros began to worry that he could not keep it up when a bell sounded. The skimmer was lowered to the ground and a helping hand steadied him as he extricated himself from the airship.
Clapping and cheers met him as he left.
“Excellent job, cadet. We’ll have to see if the rest of this team can stand up to your marvelous skills.”
Feeling slightly embarrassed at the praise of Ikalrus, Alexandros began removing the flying gear. He turned to proffer it to the next lad coming up.
“Oh no, cadet. You keep your gear when you pass. You’re now responsible for your own flying uniform,” said the same helpful senior cadet as before, handing him a gray canvas rucksack.
Alexandros placed the gloves, hat, and goggles inside. As he took his place at the station abandoned by the next testing candidate, he also received his own tough pair of work gloves. He fidgeted with them for a few moments, before realizing they were simply too big.
The next boy clambered into the skimmer’s cockpit and the same series of drills began again. A single joystick dominated the center of the boxy control panel before Alexandros, while two small gauges fluttered slightly at each top corner. Grasping the joystick, he hesitated before moving it gingerly to the right. The pulley system hummed faintly as metal parts clinked and clanged together, pulling the skimmer’s rear starboard side out farther to the right.
The pilot inside compensated, and the ship swung back toward its central origin.
This is fun, almost like a strategy game,
Alexandros thought as he swung the joystick up, down, left, and right, putting his classmate through the paces before the bell rang and the skimmer was lowered back to the ground. Another cadet took his place, and was put through the wringer just as his two classmates before him.
Another few minutes later the bell rang once more, and they lowered the skimmer again. This time, the cadet had to be pulled out of the airship. He tottered a few steps toward the edge of the platform, then fell to his knees as he puked onto the gravel below. Nearby cadets recoiled in disgust as the poor boy emptied his stomach, tears streaming down his face.
“Help him, please,” Ikalrus ordered his assistants, and one placed an arm around the boy’s back and helped him to a bench, giving him a drink of water out of his canteen.
“Pilocretis, please take over the last control panel, if you would? Hopefully, Justarin will get his stomach back in time for our last cadet.”
The fourth cadet now took his place in the cockpit. As he prepared himself, Alexandros recognized the boy as Scipio Kretarus, a cadet with powerful family connections and wealth. While they hadn’t had much interaction, Alexandros always got the sense that Kretarus looked down on those students he deemed to be part of the “rabble.”
Bet his family stole their fortune. He probably hasn’t worked a real day in his short life
, he thought cynically.
Of course, we’re only ten years old
of us haven’t worked a “real” day in our lives. Except today. Today has been hard work
As Kretarus clambered into the cockpit, he caught Alexandros’s eye.
“Thanks for going first, Rufius, glad you could show us how not to do it,” he jeered.
“Quiet down now,” Ikalrus told everyone as Kretarus was secured into the skimmer, and they raised it to its starting position. This time, Alexandros waited with his hand on the controller, anticipation building.
Not to be mean, but he is in for a rough ride
The bell rang and Alexandros immediately began straining the machine to its utmost limit, dropping his quarter of the ship low, then high, in every direction available. The gauges on his control box hovered in the red constantly now, and Alexandros threw everything he had into it.
The bell rang, and they lowered the machine to the ground. Alexandros let out the breath he had been holding and wiped his brow, feeling the rough material of the work gloves clearing the perspiration off. He pulled his hands out of the gloves to let them cool off for a second, dropping them onto the control panel.