Zeppelin City

Zeppelin City

illustration by benjamin carre

 

* * *

Amelia Spindizzy came swooping down out of the sun like a suicidal angel, all rage and mirth. The rotor of her autogyro whined and snarled with the speed of her dive. Then she throttled up and the blades bit deep into the air and pulled her out, barely forty feet from the ground. Laughing, she lifted the nose of her bird to skim the top of one skywalk, banked left to dip under a second, and then right to hop-frog a third. Her machine shuddered and rattled as she bounced it off the compression effects of the air around the skyscrapers to steal that tiny morsel of extra lift, breaking every rule in the book and not giving a damn.

The red light on Radio 2 flashed angrily. One-handed, she yanked the jacks to her headset from Radio 3, the set connecting her to the referee, and plugged into her comptroller’s set. “Yah?”

The flat, emotionless, and eerily artificial voice of Naked Brain XB-29 cut through the static. “Amelia, what are you doing?”

“Just wanted to get your attention. I’m going to cut through the elbow between Ninetieth and Ninety-First Avenues. Plot me an Eszterhazy, will you?”

“Computing.” Almost as an afterthought, the Naked Brain said, “You realize this is extremely dangerous.”

“Nothing’s dangerous enough for me,” Amelia muttered, too quietly for the microphone to pick up. “Not by half.”

The sporting rag Obey the Brain! had termed her “half in love with easeful death,” but it was not easeful death that Amelia Spindizzy sought. It was the inevitable, difficult death of an impossible skill tenaciously mastered but necessarily insufficient to the challenge—a hard-fought battle for life, lost just as the hand reached for victory and closed around empty air. A mischance that conferred deniability, like a medal of honor, on her struggle for oblivion, as she twisted and fell in gloriously tragic heroism.

So far, she hadn’t achieved it.

It wasn’t that she didn’t love being alive (at least some of the time). She loved dominating the air currents in her great titanium whirligig. She loved especially the slow turning in an ever-widening gyre, scanning for the opposition with an exquisite patience only a sigh short of boredom, and then the thrill as she spotted him, a minuscule speck in an ocean of sky. Loved the way her body flushed with adrenalin as she drove her machine up into the sun, searching for that sweet blind spot where the prey, her machine, and that great atomic furnace were all in a line. Loved most of all the instant of stillness before she struck.

It felt like being born all over again.

For Amelia, the Game was more than a game, because necessarily there would come a time when the coordination, strength, and precision demanded by her fierce and fragile machine would prove to be more than she could provide, a day when all the sky would gather its powers to break her will and force her into the ultimate submission. It would happen. She had faith. Until then, though, she strove only to live at the outer edge of her skills, to fly and to play the Game as gloriously as any human could to the astonishment of the unfortunate earth-bound classes. And of the Naked Brains who could only float, ponderously, in their glass tanks, in their Zeppelins.

“Calculations complete.”

“You have my position?”

Cameras swiveled from the tops of nearby buildings, tracking her. “Yes.”

Now she’d achieved maximum height again.

“I’m going in.”

Straight for the alley-mouth she flew. Sitting upright in the thorax of her flying machine, rudder pedals at her feet, stick controls to the left and right, she let inertia push her back into the seat like a great hand. Eight-foot-long titanium blades extended in a circle, with her at the center like the heart of a flower. This was no easy machine to fly. It combined the delicacy of flight with the physical demands of operating a mechanical thresher.

“Pull level on my count. Three . . . Two . . . Now.”

It took all her strength to bully her machine properly while the g-forces tried to shove her away from the controls. She was flying straight and true toward Dempster Alley, a street that was only feet wider than the diameter of her autogyro’s blades, so fine a margin of error that she’d be docked a month’s pay if the Naked Brains saw what she was up to.

“Shift angle of blades on my mark and rudder on my second mark. Three . . . Two . . . Mark. And . . . Rudder.”

Tilted forty-five degrees, she roared down the alley, her prop wash rattling the windows and filling them with pale, astonished faces. At the intersection, she shifted pitch and kicked rudder, flipping her gyro over so that it canted forty-five degrees the other way (the engine coughed and almost stalled, then roared back to life again) and hammered down Bernoulli Lane (a sixty-degree turn here where the streets crossed at an odd angle) and so out onto Ninety-First. A perfect Eszterhazy! Five months ago, a hypercubed committee of half the Naked Brains in the metropolis had declared that such a maneuver couldn’t be done. But one brave pilot had proved otherwise in an aeroplane, and Amelia had determined she could do no less in a gyro.

“Bank left. Stabilize. Climb for height. Remove safeties from your bombs.”

Amelia Spindizzy obeyed and then, glancing backwards, forwards, and to both sides, saw a small cruciform mote ahead and below, flying low over the avenue. Grabbing her glasses, she scanned the wing insignia. She could barely believe her luck—it was the Big E himself! And she had a clear run at him.

The autogyro hit a patch of bumpy air, and Amelia snatched up the sticks to regain control. The motor changed pitch, the prop hummed, the rotor blades cut the air. Her machine was bucking now, veering into the scrap zone, and in danger of going out of control. She fought to get it back on an even keel, straightened it out, and swung into a tight arc.

Man, this was the life!

She wove and spun above the city streets as throngs of onlookers watched the warm-up hijinks from the tall buildings and curving skywalks. They shouted encouragement at her. “Don’t let ’er drop, Amelia!” “Take the bum down, Millie!” “Spin ’im around, Spindizzy!” Bloodthirsty bastards. Her public. Screaming bloody murder and perfectly capable of chucking a beer bottle at her if they thought she wasn’t performing up to par. Times like these she almost loved ’em.

She hated being called Millie, though.

This story is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
22 comments
James Felling
1. Maltheos
Wow. Beautiful story, I like the timeless quality of it -- it has a kind of golden age feel, but a modern sensibility. Great job.
- -
2. heresiarch
Swanwick and Gunn for the win! Awesome.

So, is Amelia Spindizzy this alt-history's Amelia Earhart?
DewiMorgan
3. DewiMorgan
Your ideas are intriguing and I would like to subscribe to your periodical.
DewiMorgan
4. A. Dorrance
Listened to them read this at WorldCon 2009 -- definitely a high point!
DewiMorgan
5. A. Dorrance
Ach, I meant ReaderCon. Well worth it.
Ben HM3
6. BenHM3
While you posit a number of incredibly challenging achievements, I had no problem accepting them and enjoying the story.

Given my usual tendencies, this is darned high praise for the smoothness and integration of your story.

I even enjoyed the flying/flight parts, though really, a gyrocopter competing with a fixed-wing aircraft? Well, it would make a visually appealing movie.

A great story: thanks Michael & Eileen for writing it, and Tor for making it available.
DewiMorgan
7. EKGunn
Wow -- thanks everybody!

Heresiarch: I like to think of Earhart as being our timeline's Amelia Spindizzy.

A. Dorrance: Glad you heard the Readercon performance: Swanwick and I are only rarely in the same place and time. It was great fun to do. There may be a tape of it somewhere.

BenHM3: You're quite right. Amelia had to rely on the element of surprise if she was ever going to knock Eszterhazy's plane out of the sky. That's why she tended to position herself between him and the sun. Also, her gyro was really noisy and erratic in flight -- but then, so was his plane.
DewiMorgan
8. nortonryder
Fascinating! After 45 years of reading science fiction, I find that there is a new world out there of creative speculative fiction that catches my attention and holds it, as much as my first juvenile Heinlein did, throughout the "new wave" and then the "cyberpunk" period.

I had nearly given up the genre since it has been handed over to the dragons, swords and sandals, and feudal epics.

THIS kind of writing I can get behind, and intend to start exporing all the authors connected with it, starting with an old favorite, Gibson.

THANK YOU Mr. Swanwick and Ms. Gunn and TOR.COM for opening my eyes, and giving me back a sense of wonder!
BryceL Liskovec
10. likwidoxigen
That was a fantastic story, but, dang it... WHAT HAPPENS TO THE "new" BRAINS!?!??
DewiMorgan
11. Fsck
Love it! So much action packed into the story, along with some great ideas and imagery. I'll be keeping an eye out for more from you two, that's fer shure!
Jeff Closs
12. SupRspi
Stellar!

I enjoyed every aspect of this story - my only complaint would be that it isn't long enough. I'm totally ready for a novel length version of it, or a novel length story set before the fall of the brains.

Great job, thank you for writing it that I should be able to read it.
Isaac Doubek
13. Dr.Goggs
This is great. thanks for the wonderful story
DewiMorgan
14. EKGunn
Thanks again!

likwidoxigen - I hesitate to post a spoiler, but you can get the drift from pages 11 and 13.
DewiMorgan
15. htgreen
Great story. Interesting ending.
Nicole Cantwell
18. NclCntwll
I love it. Only issue I had was I felt like I stumbled in, in the middle. Definitely make it into a book if you can and I will buy it and track you down for a signing. ^_^
DewiMorgan
19. Jonny B. Goode
"That was a fantastic story, but, dang it... WHAT HAPPENS TO THE "new" BRAINS!?!??" Well, since Rudy got his body back, I'd assume they all did.

Good story!
Kevin Carlin
20. kcarlin
I thought from the start she'd wind up falling for Eszterhazy. Genre expectations and all that. Good story!
DewiMorgan
21. pperez333
Any problem in creating the "book" in Goodreads?
DewiMorgan
22. Chrisg
Excellent story telling! Thankyou very much. To create the inner images of a fantastic society and world in so few words as well as this, is great writing.
DewiMorgan
23. SimonVO
That was a brilliant story!! I really enjoyed the ending, Amelia's sacrifice and also, I was honestly expecting Rudy to just become a Lenin or a Stalin, rather cool that he stuck to his ideals...bravo!!!

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