Sunday, March 27, 2011


Romano turned back to the controls and slammed the ship into top gear. The gleaming instruments reflected his harried face but the ship responded with a smooth acceleration that belied his frantic motions. The pilot's glance tracked the dials but he could tell the ship was ascending as well as speeding up. He smiled.

Helen could feel the flush on her face as she listened to the motor's hum. While the speed increased she had held her breath, anticipating some kind of grinding noise or any sign at all that there could be a problem.

"How fast are we going?"

Helen looked over at her father who appeared alarmingly pale. "Papa, are you quite all right?"

He nodded tersely.

"Are you sure?" If she did not know better, Helen could have sworn her father was about to be violently ill. Even from her station by the rear of the gondola the sheen of sweat on his brow glistened like the surface of the sea at sunset.

That would be a good detail to tell mother, Helen thought at once.

"How fast are we going?" Her father repeated, his brows ruffling with the temper she knew so well. "Just as a matter of record, of course."

Helen smothered a smile. "Are you keeping a record, Papa?"

"Yes, I'm keeping a bloody record," he sputtered as he swayed with the movement of the ship. "I'm recoding my last will and testament, too."

"Papa, there's nothing to worry about."

"She's right," Romano chimed in, smiling encouragingly at Rochester in what he hoped would be perceived as a friendly way. He had not quite accustomed himself to the man's barking voice and abrupt manner, though the latter had become slightly more amiable as he got to know the Italian.

Romano kept far away from his dog, however, and released a big sigh of thanksgiving when the signorina managed to dissuade him from bringing Cerberus on board for the flight.

"I am enquiring for the scientific record," Rochester said very slowly and deliberately. "I am the observer here, so it is my duty to keep track of things."

Helen shrugged. "All right, Papa. We'll try to calculate it."

His eyebrows shot up again. "What about those dials?" He gestured toward Romano who raised his hands to indicate his blamelessness.

"Signore, we don't have one to measure the speed."

"Why not! Seems like the most natural thing in the world." Rochester glared at the pilot as if he were personally responsible for the lack.

"Papa," Helen soothed. "I hadn't thought it necessary." She looked over at the Linton's craft, which continued to lose ground to their steady progress. "I had no intention of racing the ship. We were more concerned with keeping it in the air and keeping an even keel."

"Foolishness! Very short sighted, I must say."

Helen smiled. "I'll be sure to add it in the next upgrade."

"I should think so." He swallowed and looked away.

"Papa, you look a trifle green."

"Nonsense," he said, but his tone seemed less gruff now and more strangled. "So how are you going to determine the speed?"

Helen blinked at him, then decided it would be best to act as if everything were fine. "Well, first we try to gauge the relative speed against a static visual."

"What the devil does that mean?"

Helen laughed. "We look down at the ground and try to get an estimate of our relative speed."

"Look down?" If he had appeared vaguely green before, he had become positively emerald now.

"It may help, Papa," Helen said, making her way over to his side. "Come now, take a look down." Helen gazed down and immediately drew a quick breath. We must be going 40 knots or more! That will show those Lintons!

She turned to share her triumph with her father, but saw that his eyes were closed. "Papa?"

Without warning, he spinned around, leaned over the side of the gondola and was violently ill. It did not help that Tuppence croaked loudly at him.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Romano's face grew stony as he maneuvered the ship higher. Helen glanced at her father, whose white-knuckled hands gripped the ropes, bracing himself for further shifting winds, then she unstrapped herself from the seat and made her way to the rear of the ship to listen attentively to the engine.

"What are you doing," her father shouted, tightening his hold on the gondola's ropes as the craft shuddered up at an angle. "Sit down!"

Helen ignored him and listened carefully to the chugging gears. Then she smiled. The motor seemed to be running without complications and they were buoyed up by its power at an increasing rate.

Glancing over her shoulder, Helen saw that the Lintons' ship had picked up its pace as well, though not flying as high as hers at present. She hoped they could increase the distance between them.

She could use that £500!

"Take it up to top gear, signore," Helen called out to her pilot.

Romano looked at her, his face full of misgiving. "Perhaps we should not risk it, signorina."

"Yes, we must try it out."

"But it may not be necessary; I think we can beat them without it." The pilot gestured at the craft below them. There could be no doubting that the gap between the two ships had begun to increase.

Helen smiled as she looked over the edge of the gondola, but when her gaze returned to meet the pilot's, it was lit with enthusiasm.

"I want to try it out."

Helens father fought his way to a standing position. "What the devil are you two talking about?"

The pilot looked apologetic, trying to keep a watch on the dials and levers before him as he tried to remonstrate with his patroness. "We repaired the previous damage—"

"From the failed flight, last week—you remember, Papa."

"I'm not an idiot," Rochester grumbled. "Of course I remember."

Helen smiled indulgently. "I know you don't enjoy the technical discussions."

Her father grimaced. "You're delaying. Your mother will be so proud to hear that you have followed in her extremely irritating habit."

"Sorry, Papa. I took the opportunity we had with taking apart the engine assembly to initiate a few improvements that I think will offer some surprising innovations."

"I don't like the sound of that." Her father suddenly appeared a trifle more pale.

Helen laughed. "It's only a mild increase in speed capability and—you will be glad to hear—an improvement in motor efficiency at those higher speeds."

"Provided the assembly does not overheat," Romano cautioned.

Helen waved away his words. "I worked it all out in the sketches. The bearings and the oil should withstand the friction without trouble."

"But rotation at that velocity!" the pilot said, wrestling with the wheel before him which seemed to be fighting back. "I think we have underestimated the heat generation index for the entire assembly."

Helen shrugged. "How else will we discover whether the calculations hit the mark?"

"You're speaking gibberish," Rochester shouted, feeling courageous enough to let go of the ropes with one hand as he waved the other at the Lintons' ship. "And anyway, it seems unnecessary. We're clearly in the lead. Just maintain that—"

All three of them watched as suddenly the other craft lurched in the air and then began closing the gap between them at an alarming rate. Tuppence croaked from her perch on the ropes as if to warn them of its approach.

"You see?" Helen said, triumph filling her voice. "We've got to test it now!"

"They may not catch up," her father muttered, but she noticed that he took a firmer hold of the gondola's cables. All her life the towering temper of the man who gave her that distinctive profile had demonstrated his fearlessness.

She found it quite enjoyable to be the cause of making him a bit unsettled. For try as he might, Helen could see behind the bluster that he was afraid.

I am being rather cruel, she tutted herself. But the smile spread across her lips anyway. "Top gear," she shouted to Romano. "Let's show these amateurs what a real ship can do!"

Sunday, March 13, 2011


"What the devil is that!" Helen's father blurted.

Helen stared, mouth open. "I don't believe it!"

Passing far too closely on the starboard side came another airship, rather larger than hers, but also far more ungainly. Its striped ballooning seemed garish in the early daylight and the engine assembly ungainly and without elegance. Two young men gawped from the gondola.

"The Linton twins," she growled with unaccustomed vehemence.

"Better watch where you're going!" One of the young men shouted toward their ship, grinning like a monkey.

"You two are a menace!" Helen hollered back.

"What shall I do, signorina?" Romano called from the wheel, glancing back over his shoulder with look of agitation.

"You don't own the sky!" the other twin bellowed at Helen.

"Damnation, what are these impudent puppies doing?" her father demanded. Despite his peremptory tone, his face continued to look alarmingly pale as he clutched the ropes of the gondola.

"Hush, Papa!" Helen admonished, before turning back to her rivals. "Simple common sense rules of logic suggest the utter stupidity of bringing your ship so close to ours."

"We were here first," the twins sung out in unison.

"They are idiot children," Helen's father growled between clenched teeth. "Ought to have been drowned at birth.

Helen ignored his comments. "Take us up, Signor Romano. Get us away from these amateurs."

"Amateurs!" the older twin shrieked. "Our ship is vastly superior to your pathetic little balloon."

Helen Rochester could bear many things with equanimity, but having her ship thus accosted was not one of those things. "Balloon?" she said, her voice cool but her cheeks pink with irritation. "My airship embodies the very finest qualities of a the very cutting edge of heavier than air technology. Your pathetic and inelegant vehicle looks like a whale beside a dolphin."
She had perhaps hit a vulnerable point with her nautical mammal comparison, or – it is just as likely – the brothers were already committed to challenging the intrepid aviatrix. "You don't know what you're talking about, Rochester. Why don't you go back to your bonnets and baubles and let men worry about airships."

Helen smiled. It was not a pleasant sight, although her smiles were quite capable of pleasantness. No, this was a smile that made her look very much like her father. Although he at that moment found himself startled at the eerie familiarity of that look without being able to trace its cause, something in the expression kindled a similar temper in his breast.

"You don't mean to accept the insults of that cur without reprisal, do you my girl?" Rochester called across the gondola with a grim smile.

"Certainly not," Helen said, her clear voice ringing across the open air, punctuated by the rasping croak of Tuppence, who flitted up beside her. "I think we need to show you what this ship can be capable of."

"You're on!" the twins shouted in unison.

"Race to Whitby," Helen said. "To the abbey."

"It's a challenge," cried the elder twin.

"Shall we make a wager?" Helen inquired.

"It's only sporting," crowed the younger twin, rubbing his hands together in glee.

"Five hundred pounds!" Helen said, her smile smug.

"Five hundred pounds?!" her father repeated.

The twins exchanged a look. They were arrogant about their ship's chances, but the addition of a considerable purse seemed to make them pause.

"Well, gentlemen. Do you have any confidence in your ship or not?" Helen folded her arms and glared across the expanse between them. "Five hundred pounds."

"You're on!" the younger twin shouted, his tone extra belligerent now that he was so full of doubt.

"May the best ship win," Helen called out as Tuppence perched on her shoulder. "Signore, take us up and out toward the sea!"

"As you wish, signorina," Romano agreed, looking askance at the courageous woman, then stealing a glance at her father.

"Saints preserve us," the latter murmured, but his words were snatched by the wind.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


It seems I've been delayed by a diverting conversation with a very charming Venetian lion in Rome. He seems to know a rather singular alchemist. A new episode will be forthcoming next Sunday.