Moonsong, Part I: The Sputtering Comet
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
The Smiths, Stretch Out and Wait
It’s been a really long time since the last one, and for that I want to say I’m really, really sorry. But you know how it is, right? The Veronica Vauxhall’s workload is nothing to sneeze at. It treats evenings like a sumo wrestler treats cake: gobbling them up, inhaling them without mercy. Night after night, week after week, never leaving time for anything besides barely finished assignments and sleep.
And if that isn’t bad enough, I’m—let’s be honest—actually kind of a pretty lousy diarist. How can I not be? My life consists mostly of the same tentpole events every single day:
1.) Wake up.
And on the weekends I’m in the library. Other girls use the weekends to play sports or go explore the town. Some have their parents (or, usually, their parents’ drivers) come and whisk them away to places like New York or Philadelphia. And when they come back, they still manage to get better grades than me. How? How is this possible?
Still, Marzi, I’m happy to say that this attempt at diarying (if that’s even a word) is gonna be much different because I actually have something to write about.
And super out of the ordinary.
And kind of strange.
...but strange in kind of a beautiful way.
And those sweet adjectives aren’t exaggeration, Marzi, oh no. The thing that happened really happened, and it was all of those adjectives and many more, and my heart is jackhammering just thinking about it.
And I’m blushing. Just a little, but still totally blushing.
Crackers, I’m really blushing, aren’t I? Wow, this is more serious than I thought. Which is a good thing? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know.
Marzi. That was a crap-ton of buildup and I know you’ll probably spontaneously combust if l ask you to wait for the big reveal too much longer, but I need to ask you to wait a little longer. Because I need to tell you about something first. Something important, obviously.
Do you remember how, during my last attempt at diary-keeping, I wrote about a reoccurring dream? Well, the dream hasn’t gone away. Every few days it comes, and nothing about it ever changes.
I know you’re thinking, “Duh. It’s a reoccurring dream. Of course it doesn’t change.” But the thing is, if I’m doomed to keep having the damn thing, I’d really appreciate it not being so cryptic every time. So a little change, a little clarity, would be great.
In the dream, it’s really foggy, and I’m high up on a narrow mountain ledge, following somebody dressed in a cloak and cowl. I think this person is a girl or young woman or whatever, but she never speaks. We never reach anywhere, we never see anything. We just shimmy along the same stupid ledge deeper into the fog. And that’s it. Pretty boring, right?
But enough about my dream. Let’s talk about what happened in real life. Oh god, it’s making me blush again, just thinking about it. I feel as if my cheeks are about to burst into flame. Imagine if the dorm got burned to the ground because of blushfire. Good luck explaining that to the headmistress, right?
Okay, Melodia, relax.
Okay, so let’s set the scene: after school. Nap time—sorry, I mean British Lit.—had just ended and I was rushing to get out to Hendricks Field for Aeroracing Club. We usually have Aeroracing Club on Tuesdays and Thursdays, not Mondays, but the weather’s supposed to be stormy from tomorrow evening until this weekend (yet another reason why living in Nephelette is so darn amazing), so Professor Zhang decided to have Aeroracing Club today.
I don’t know what in the heck is wrong with me, but no matter what I do, I’m always late for Aeroracing Club. On day one, Professor Zhang warned me not to expect special treatment from her just because we’re both Asian, and sure enough, just last week she told me if I was late one more time this month I would be grounded for two months. Which I think is excessive, but Professor Zhang grew up in England and I think they really, really don’t like lateness over there. Anyhoo, now you know why I was rushing.
I bolted up to my rooms and tore off my uniform so fast that I think I ripped it in a few places. I yanked on my blue flight coveralls, snapped on my goggles a little too carelessly (the back of my head is still stinging), tied on my flight scarf, blasted out of the room and all but tumbled down the spiral staircase leading down from the freshman rooms. Halfway to the bottom I realized I’d forgotten my leather flight gloves. There wasn’t a way in any of the seven hells Professor Zhang was going to let me pilot an aero barehanded, so I hurried back up to my room and, after a whirlwind search, found my gloves hiding under my discarded Vauxhall’s uniform.
But I still wasn’t late at that point so I was in a pretty good mood as I blasted out of my rooms and back down the stairs.
And when I was literally two steps from the bottom, I realized I’d forgotten not only my wrist compass but my map pouch too. I gave a cry of frustration so loud that Sissy Catheringham, who was walking by at the time, dropped her history textbook and let loose with a string of language so colorful she may as well have vomited a rainbow.
I barely had time to say an apology as I ran back up the stairs two at a time. I was so winded when I reached my room that, for a moment, I forgot what I had come back for. I wasted a solid minute standing around being confused until I remembered what needed to be got.
By the time I finally made it out of the school building and started down Vauxhall’s Hill, there were four minutes left. Hendricks Field was about a mile away.
I feel like a complete imbecile writing it now, but at the time I was two hundred percent sure I was about to shatter some long distance running records. A four-minute mile? Sure, why not?
Unfortunately, Marzi, I must report that my Olympian dreams died when I was about halfway down Vauxhall’s Hill. Because it was about halfway down Vauxhall’s Hill that I tripped over my feet and fell on my face.
I think it was right then I realized that, no matter what I did, I wasn’t going to make Aeroracing Club in time. The gods of the sky wanted me to crawl on the ground like an insect forever, apparently, and it didn’t seem there was a thing I could do about it.
And you want to know the really sad part? If the thing that had happened hadn’t happened, I would probably still be lying on that hill, feeling sorry for myself.
So what, exactly, was the thing? What happened?
Actually, Marzi, I’m feeling very sleepy all of a sudden, and I don’t think I’ve got enough energy to write even one more sentence. So I’m going to bed, and you’ll just have to find out about the thing tomorrow. Sorry.
Just kidding. Come on, Marzi, I’m not going to bury you with a metric ton of buildup and then leave you dangling in the wind. I’m not a horrible person. I’m committed to sitting right here and telling you why, exactly, I’m blushing so much this evening. I don’t care if it takes all night.
So. There I was lying on that hill, thinking about how godawful it was going to be, not being able to fly for two months, and then, suddenly, a comet blazed across the sky above me(!)
Okay, so it wasn’t so much a comet as an aeroplane, and it didn’t so much blaze as belch and cough and smoke. But I immediately sat up and twisted my neck to watch as it sputtered past. A loud bang from one of its engines brought some of the other girls running to the school windows, but none came outside.
I chased the limping aero across campus (in a direction opposite from Hendricks Field, mind) and stopped only when I reached Chatterton Road and the Cemetery of Saint Anthony beyond it.
And why did I stop?
Because the Cemetery of Saint Anthony is home to a man-eating ogre and homicidal, man-sized crows. Everybody knows this. There was no way I was going to go frolicking through a cemetery filled with man-eating ogres and killer crows.
So all I could do was stare as the aero vanished into the fog that always seemed to be hanging over the place.
I didn’t hear the boom of an explosion, but I did hear the shriek of twisting metal and the roar of disturbed earth as the injured aero plowed into the ground. I couldn’t see it at all by this point, but I could imagine the chaos: the ripped up trees, the shattered gravestones, the little patches of fire and burning metal flung every which way. I could imagine the pilot—if he was still alive—starting to freak out as enormous crows with evil eyes began to swoop down around him.
But I couldn’t move my legs to go help. I know it makes me look like a selfish, cowardly person, but keep in mind, Marzi, back in the 1950s a bunch of Vauxhall’s girls dared themselves into exploring the Cemetery of Saint Anthony. And, courtesy of the cemetery ogre, they ended up in some dusty market on the other side of the world, sold as meat patties next to little wedges of provolone. Don’t ask me how I know it’s true. Why would every girl in school know the story if it wasn’t true?
Trust me, Marzi, no part of me wanted to end up as a meat patty, and definitely no part of me wanted anything to do with provolone cheese, but I couldn’t just leave that pilot to his fate. I wasn’t about to go bounding into that cemetery like a complete idiot, but at the same time, I couldn’t just stand there doing nothing. I don’t know why.
Or maybe some long lost hero gene buried deep inside of me?
Less likely, but it looks better on paper.
But then again, maybe, subconsciously, I wanted the chance to prove to everybody that I wasn’t just some clumsy girl with mediocre grades and a loose understanding of punctuality. Maybe, deep down, I wanted to prove to everybody that I could be as much a hero as any of the dozens of Vauxhall’s girls who are smarter, stronger, or generally more competent than me.
Out of all the reasons for me not keeping my nose out of other people’s business, that last one reads as the most desperate, most pathetic of them all, but it’s also (probably) the most honest, so let’s just go with it.
I actually wasn’t standing there staring for too long before I realized something very important and very—duh—obvious: flying to the downed pilot would be way safer than walking to him, just so long as I didn’t crash without landing.
Or is that the other way around?
Ha ha ha. Joke.
Anyhoo, as soon as I had made my grand realization, I was running back across the school grounds towards Hendricks Field. When I raced by the Veronica Vauxhall’s building, I noticed even more girls were crowded around the windows, but still none had come outside to investigate. Part of me wanted to yell “Cowards!” and then laugh like a pirate queen as I vanished into the distance. But I’m not petty, so I didn’t do any of that nonsense. Of course I didn’t.
When I reached Hendricks Field, the seven other Aeroracing Club girls were knelt on the grass carefully packing their parachutes. Professor Zhang, pretty and erect and regal as ever, was looking at her clipboard.
I tell you, Marzi, it’s no dang fair that somebody as beautiful as Professor Zhang gets to be so smart and an amazing aeropilot too. And she’s got this amazing leather flight jacket I’d give ten years of my life just to wear for a week. And she’s got perfect skin. I, meanwhile, am so riddled with mediocrity, you’d think it was a contagious disease.
(Ah, but then, Professor Zhang’s first name is Wendy. I guess that’s.... I don’t like the name Wendy, is what I’m trying to say. So point for me?)
“You’re late, Song,” she said, not even bothering to look up from her clipboard. “Later than usual, actually. And you forgot your necktie. I suppose you could attempt an explanation, but it ultimately doesn’t matter, as what I said last week, stands. You’re grounded. Two months.”
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I was actually running on time today.... Well, okay, running on time-ish. But I was super determined to be on the field at three o’clock sharp and I totally would’ve been if—”
“Your excuses are like flies, Song: endless and endlessly irritating. You’re going to be grounded for two months, and there’s nothing you can do or say to change that. If you can’t bear the thought of watching your more punctual classmates fly from the ground, I suggest you quit.”
“Quit?” I said. “I can’t quit. I love flying—”
“Then you will take your punishment with dignity and silence. Have I made myself clear, Miss Song?”
“Have I made myself clear, Miss Song?”
“Good. Now go and sit on the Punishment Bench and do so silently. One peep out of you and your grounding will be extended.”
“May I go get my homework, ma’am?” I asked.
“You may not, Song. You are to sit on the Punishment Bench and reflect about your tardiness. The more you reflect, the less likely you’ll be tardy in the future.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. And I went and sat on the Punishment Bench, feeling every inch like a beaten puppy.
I tell you, Marzi, if I hadn’t had my Great Rescue Mission to complete, I might still be sitting on the Punishment Bench feeling sorry for myself and cursing Professor Zhang’s perfect skin. But even as I sat on that stupid bench, and even as the other girls shot pitying glances at me, I couldn’t feel as humiliated as Professor Zhang probably wanted me to feel. Because I couldn’t stop thinking about the downed aeropilot.
The longer I sat moping, the more he bled, and the longer his broken bones remained unattended, and the closer the cemetery crows swooped, and the louder the shuffling ogre’s footsteps shuffled. And each second the pilot sat waiting for the end would drag out like a year and drain his life of ten. And when the end at last came it would be gruesome and horrible, and the world would be a much darker, more awful place because such an end had been allowed to happen. And the guilt from it would drive me bonkers. I’d be slapping lampshades and screaming at trees before the end of the month, guaranteed.
So I sprang up from the Punishment Bench and cried, “Professor Zhang, I must protest!”
Of course, I usually never jump up and scream ridiculous nonsense like that, but the typical Vauxhall’s girl in her silly Vauxhallian accent would. I guess I thought Professor Zhang would be more willing to listen to me if I sounded more like a typical overachieving Vauxhallian and less like the clumsy latecomer I was.
“Have you taken leave of your senses, Song? Or is it that you’ve forgotten the meaning of the word silence? Sit back down before I double your suspension.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, “but I can’t do that. If we don’t act now an innocent pilot will die.”
“What in god’s name are you prattling on about, child? You really have lost it, haven’t you.”
“I haven’t, ma’am. You’re telling me you didn’t see the smoking aero that flew over the school like fifteen minutes ago?”
“You need to be quiet and sit down, Song, before today becomes truly regrettable.”
“But look, ma’am,” I said, pointing at the sky behind her, “there’s another one!”
Professor Zhang, despite all of her rigidity and rectitude, was unable to control her curiosity and turned to look at where I was pointing. She saw nothing but clouds because Professor Zhang, despite all of her rigidity and rectitude, had fallen for one of the oldest, lamest tricks in the book.
“What are you talking about, Song? I don’t see any—”
But I was already halfway to my aero before she had a chance to finish her sentence. I was about to do something very reckless and very un-Vauxhallian, and it would be a total miracle if I didn’t get kicked out of Aeroracing Club altogether because of it. But you know, Marzi, there are some things in life way more important than receiving good marks in Aeroracing Club. Saving somebody’s life, for instance. There’s a good example.
“Don’t you dare, Miss Song,” Professor Zhang called from behind me. “You know such behavior can lead to only one place.”
“Yeah, to a clear conscience!”
I don’t know why I said that. I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Maybe I was just too excited.
The aeros used by Aeroracing Club are single-seater Abraxas Corp. CS-3 Cloudskippers. They’ve each got a single puny Eos-12 Icarus Cloud Engine, which means they’re barely more than flying lawnmowers. But they’re powerful enough that a high-speed accident can be fatal. Which is why, I guess, they’re painted bright orange and yellow: in case we happen to encounter any distracted trees during our exercises.
My CS-3 was the very last in the row, yet none of the other Aeroracing Club girls tried to stop me as I hurried past and clambered into the cockpit. I didn’t try grabbing one of the freshly packed parachutes because I convinced myself I wouldn’t need a parachute... because the rescuer never needs a parachute.
Stupid. Yeah, I know.
I performed a super abbreviated preflight check (more stupidity), strapped on my flight harness, switched on that single Icarus Cloud Engine, disengaged the gravity locks and retracted the landing gear. As the aero slowly lifted into the air, the familiar feelings of excitement, wonder and danger began swirling through my belly like drunken butterflies. I squeezed the stick and took a deep, deep breath, and I wish, Marzi, I was a better writer so I could describe exactly what flying does to me, even though I’ve just got a Grade F License and can’t fly anything more powerful than a dinky Cloudskipper. Still, whether a Cloudskipper or a full-blown aerofighter rocking souped up Heliosi Nebula 3s, the act of flying is always going to catapult me to a place beyond myself. Beyond the physical world even—to the place where genius is born and spent ghosts reside.
Does that make sense?
Probably not, but that’s fine. Usually, the most beautiful things don’t make sense at all.
I pulled the stick to port, applied a little pressure on the port side foot pedal, and then I was off, zipping across the campus grounds. I was tempted to snap off an aileron roll over the school and wow all of the girls cowering inside, but Professor Zhang had warned us so many times about this kind of showboating. Apparently, back in the eighties, some Aeroracing Club girl had decided to give everybody an impromptu aerobatic show and ended up slamming into the Observatory. I didn’t want to slam into anything, so aero tricks had to be a pass.
I dropped altitude as I glided across Chatterton Road and over the cemetery grounds. Not so low that I’d, you know, careen into a tree, but low enough that the fog wouldn’t keep me from seeing what needed to be seen. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed quiet black shapes gliding all around me, weaving themselves in and out of thick, twisty tendrils of icy fog. They could have only been St. Anthony’s crows, but I couldn’t waste time worrying about them because there was work to be done. Besides, they only attacked fools on the ground. I’d never heard of them taking down an aero. At least, not recently.
I leaned out of the cockpit, clicked on the heavy-duty flashlight we were forced to carry on every flight and shined it directly beneath me. The CS-3’s stick was firmly between my knees, which was really helpful in keeping me from nosediving and dying a fiery death.
I didn’t see any fires down below, or twisted up pieces of machinery, but I did see a crapload of knocked over headstones. And there was a huge black furrow that wound through the grounds like a snake. I kept my flashlight tight on the furrow, nudging the CS-3’s stick ever so slightly, and carefully, carefully applying and releasing pressure to the acceleration pedals.
(I have to make a note here, Marzi. I’m really not trying to brag, but I make flying with my knees sound pretty easy, right? Well, that’s because it is. For me. And probably nobody else. Just one of those weird little talents, I guess. There’s no way I could’ve been able to do it with one of those sputtery old timey aeros with the gasoline engines and super complicated controls, but the Icarus Cloud Engine makes flying so much easier (and funner). Still, Professor Zhang, if she found out about my little talent, she’d have me kicked out of the International Girls’ Association of Flyers so hard, I’d end up on Jupiter. So let’s keep this trick of mine a secret, hm?)
I don’t think I was searching for more than a minute, but each second felt like years and years and years. I started to get scared. What if the crows had already hidden the wrecked aero and her pilot? I’d never be the wiser and that would drive me crazy.
And then I saw it. The aeroplane. Almost totally covered by fog, but still there and still remarkably intact. I was so surprised and excited that I gave a little jump. And it was thanks to that little, stupid, amateurish jump that my knees pulled too much on the stick and the CS-3 dipped sharply to starboard. I dropped my damn flashlight and could barely pull myself back into the cockpit as my aero started to spin wildly towards the ground.
Okay, look, so I know this isn’t the most amazing cliffhanger because—spoilers—I didn’t die. Obviously. But you know, Marzi, I’ve been writing for hours and my hand is starting to seriously cramp.
And I need to pee.
So I’m going to take a break, but I promise to be back in a jiff.
But maybe I’ll have some ice cream?
Nah, it’s too late for ice cream.
Maybe yoghurt would be better?
Do people spell yoghurt without an h?
I am so good at wasting time, Marzi, let me tell ya.