I remember the day. The wind puffed itself into my little corner work station as if to tease me for remaining inside, sheltered away from the healing powers of nature, centuries past the reign of grease men, old cities now lost and abandoned. From the top floor of our small shop I can see their rotted pinnacles in the spotting scope. They were misted relics, covered in browns, greens, a new skin for rebellious glass and steel artifices, patiently reclaimed by soft organic veneers.
“Horatio, are you done with that Model Six yet? You’ve been tinkering with that one for too long.” My boss was onto me.
“Almost done sir,” I replied without turning away from my station. And how could I? The Model Six was beautiful, elegant and rare and here she was, a specimen of such, mounted right here before me. I could stare at her for hours, just the same with her owner. “Two more accents for the down-tube then done,” I said.
“Alright but finish up with the other one before the day remains,” the bossman said as he waved his hand at the old Model Two bicycle that rested on my side bench’s left rail. The other one needed serious work and I was pushing my time quite close. He moved his face near the machine and inspected the front fender’s ornamentation. “Good work.” And then he turned to walk away, his black leather apron flitted past my face.
But I lied. I had visions of adding scroll-work wraps around the seat tube as well. I drew flourishes and gears onto the fabricator by hand as fast as I could, after which I added my own special artistic touch, two sinuous thin curves overlaid just so to give the whole piece some visual unity. To the casual eye my lines appeared creative and relaxed yet the deeper symbolism, I hoped anyways, spoke of a hidden order found within nature’s deceptive entropy. Coaxing such things from the dark is the job of any truly great artist. And with that I hoped to aspire forthwith.
The workshop’s front door bell jingled, the outside air fluffed across my repair stand in a welcoming respite. I knew straight away that it was her as her boots clip-clopped across the beaten wooden floor. It was her stride that gave her away, footfalls timed so exquisitely that their resonance aroused even the dead, unseen haunted spirits that lingered within and gave purpose to their ethereal suspension. But I would speak of none of it for fear of losing the tissue-thin tether line between her and I.
“Hello Viriline,” I casually announced across my shoulder line.
“Hi,” said she. “You aren’t done I see. I’ll come back later. Thought it would be ready by now.”
“Almost done,” I said. “Give me another half-hour.”
“What else do you have to do to it?” Viriline asked while she adjusted her flying goggles that rested superior to her bang line.
“Just adding some accents to the down-tube, if it’s all the same,” I answered.
“But I didn’t pay for that. What about the cassette?”
“Fixed. Replaced the bushings and the retainer.”
Viriline paused and then looked at me then back to her bicycle. “You really don’t have to.”
Which was true. I quickly scrambled together an excuse to deflect her concern. “Yes, I know. But I had some scrap, golden-brass remnants left over. It seemed a shame to toss them away.” I lifted my fabricating glasses from my face and simply smiled, hoping that she would accept my volley.
“That’s so thoughtful.” Viriline lowered her eyes, arms crossed and said, “So no charge then.”
“No charge,” I said as I cheerfully raised my hands.
She did not say anything in return but instead walked onto the small balcony toward the shop’s rear about five meters away and leaned over the balustrade. “Quiet day today.”
“Indeed, yes.” I casually said and then turned away from her toward the bicycle. I could see her vague reflection in my station’s copperplate back-splash while she leaned over the rail. I prayed that she could not see my eyes in the copper, and doubted that it was so. “You don’t have to stay, you know.”
She resolved to a stand and walked inside, her boots clop-clopping against the maple. “No, it’s fine.” She picked up a crank from my side worktable and abstractly considered it while she turned it over. “So Horatio, when are you going to visit my ship?”
“What, your hybrid or the old one?”
“The hybrid. You should come see.” Viriline was the third in line within her family. I can remember there were eleven families who passed their great airships down. Family businesses all. “We wrapped new solar film over the battens and envelope. We can go anywhere now, even close to the storm wall.”
“You lie,” I protested in half-humor. “That really is hard to believe.”
“No it’s true!” she said.
“Turn your head.”
“The micro-welder. It’s bright,” I said and then replaced my fabricating glasses over my eyes. The lenses darkened when they sensed that I had turned the welder’s exciter plates on.
Viriline walked out and onto the balcony again. She wore her flying suit which was an ensemble of black and brown leather wraps interposed with cloth at the joints. I could not ask for a more beautiful thing to grace my little dusty corner in this world.
“Magnify to three, polarize,” I commanded my intelligent eye-wear. I could see the fine detail where the gold metal scroll-work met the down-tube. My micro-welder cut a razor thin line into the paint and primer, eliminating the need to pre-strip. The wand’s inertial stabilizers helped my hand guide the cut while my goggles watched and worked with the welder in concerted silence.
“Oh my,” Viriline announced from the balcony.
I could not turn my head as the weld had to be done in a single pass. “What is it?” I asked her.
She did not respond and my frustration at my inability to break from the weld grew stronger. “What’s wrong?” I asked again.
“It’s…It’s the grease men I think,” she said.
“Aw crap. Not again,” I replied in disgust. It was an oddity, why the grease men envied us so. There was a time when they attacked us for our splendid works or sometimes to capture our more attractive women but presently they strike at our city’s verge out of sheer spite and not for any earthly vantage. Once, we were the outcasts, the rebels, the freaks pushed away from the meat of the world. But fortune reciprocated her tables as she does from time to time and so we flourished, our culture focused and obsessed with works of hand and sun powered by distant visions of practical craftsmen. Our way of life was carefully preserved, quietly and without much notice while the grease men burned through their gasoline reserves, their kerosene and their oil in endless orgies of the disposable now. When the oil stopped coming, Dionysus lowered his fennel and all that remained for the grease men and their grotesque women were sulfurous pools of vapor and sludge, And still they come to scratch at our doors like lost and blinded road-men, like they always have before.
And still they come.
“I see smoke at the city wall,” she said and pointed toward the southeast before retreating into the shop.
I finished the weld and re-holstered the device into it’s base and pushed my goggles onto my forehead. “I gotta close up the—” Before I could finish a dull booming sound thundered in just as Viriline closed the balcony doors.
“Come with me,” she said. “I want you to see.”
I patted my legs and replied, “You know I can’t.”
“Don’t be so negative.” She bear-hugged me, picked me up from my working stool and plopped me down right onto my travel chair. “Go neutral, I’ll push,” she said to me like I had been this way forever, even when we were children, as if my traumatic fall had not come upon me only one short year ago.
“I can’t just leave! I have to finish up and help close up shop!”
“Let me worry about your boss,” Viriline replied. “Come on, let’s go.”
Although my travel chair did have an powered assist that charged off the city’s twelve–volt solar grid it was slow. “Fine. But if you get me fired, we are gonna have a problem.” She lurched my chair forward and down the spiral ramp to the first floor. Boss Attenson was busy frantically shuttering up the windows and doors. “Horatio! Don’t even think about leaving now or I’ll have you up on a vine before you know it!”
I shrugged and had no words. “Here,” Viriline said. She reached into her strap-tote, removed a coin and handed it to the boss-man. “Cover for loss. Square?”
Boss Attenson froze while he considered the coin. It was a full One Sun, half an ounce of gold that could buy both bicycles at my bench, made new. “Square,” he said and with that he twitched his head toward the shop’s entrance.
“This is going to be so fun!” Viriline announced as she propelled me down the narrow lane, my chair plinking against the rounded cobble.
“Fun you say? I would employ another word perhaps,” I said. “Consider the grease men, not modestly armed. They’re gonna shoot us down you know.”
“They’re not gonna shoot us down. Stop.”
“They will shoot your ship from the sky I tell you, and us with it. And we will die together in a great plummet,” I said.
Viriline said, “You aren’t terribly gratuitous for a kidnapped victim in my tow.”
“I suppose I should be more ingratiated,” I replied. More booms made their way across our small city–town. Windows and doors slammed closed on either side while we made our way to Viriline’s great airship. Before long we arrived.
“Harland! Pick up my friend!” It was one of her brothers, a giant galoot with a meek friendly smile incongruous to his girth. Without a word brother Harland slung me over his shoulders as if I were a carcass of newly downed wild game. With no words spoken he wrapped one wrist around a thick ballast line, gave it two tugs and up we went. Viriline raised herself on the same rope straight after it’s fall back to earth.
Harland parked me onto a chair–bench on the main deck. “Use the harness,” Viriline said. I strapped the belts over my shoulders and across my lap. “There, good,” she said with a satisfied smile. An older man in his early fifties manned the engine directly behind the steering helm while her three brothers and two sisters stood ready at the deck guns of the great craft. I learned later that her mother was on the lower deck along with two cousins to man the infirmary and operational internals.
“Lift ready!” The man yelled to Viriline. She took control of the steering helm, a nest of levers, rails, gauges and other avionics critical to the endeavor. She donned over–ear headphones and yelled, “All hands online! We are lifting to two–two–seven! Hang on!” Three giant propellers turned to life as they pushed air through the airship’s center. “Bubble twenty–one six!” she announced as we ascended over the city.
“What’s our heading?” her father yelled while he adjusted the engine dials. He was directly behind her but the wind and engines made it impossible to talk in normal tone.
“Nine–two!” she yelled back.
“South point?” he asked.
“Yeah!” she screamed.
I looked at the airship’s envelope overhead. Holes formed and quickly sealed themselves as the grease men shot at our craft from their assault boats far below. I didn’t dare peek over the hull. Viriline waved at me and smiled as if this were a task mundane as anything. I waved back while I watched her perform her inherited duty. She rotated her right hand in the air, a signal of some sort to her siblings. The engine idled down and before long only the sound of the winds aloft was in evidence.
“We’re drifting astern at five!” she said. Her father responded with a thumbs up and adjusted the slowly turning engines to compensate. The deck crew initiated their report as they opened up the deck rail-guns and fired at the attackers. I craned my head for a look down. With magnified precision they dispatched boat after boat. A bullet shrilled past me only six feet away. One of the engines sparked and failed as a round broke through its protective metal ribs.
“They’re retreating!” Harland yelled and the family clapped and cheered.
Viriline removed her headphones and sat by me. “So how was that?” she asked. “Did you like?”
“Well, yes. I was almost hit though.”
“You looked down?”
“Yes. Couldn’t help it,” I said.
Viriline squeezed my shoulder and said with her face flushed over, “So. Wanna have dinner in the sky?”
I paused and then said, “No charge?”
She smiled, quickly laughed and said, with the deepest avowal I have ever heard in my entire life, “No, Horatio. No charge.”