Below him, leaving behind the steppes, a slow moving collage of machine age motifs emerged, a superb metropolis of design once dreamed, colour and symmetry, broad streets and treed walks, skyscrapers waiting like fueled rockets, angels abiding, with arms outstretched, in artfully shadowed friezes. The morning having risen over starburst facades.
He held the column of the yoke between his knees while he pointed the rangefinder down, out of his open cockpit. The supercharged Vladimir Model X biplane banked and dove as he did. The camera’s shutter snapped, and snapped again.
It was 0700 hours, a City filled with workers on their way, looking up at the aircraft flying so low above them. A man on a sidewalk removed his hat and waved it gladly in the air. A woman stopped to see, nearly tearful, recalling loves lost in war.
But they were unaware. This was a spy flight, in the midst of gentle peacetime. The photos were intelligence, which might mean obliteration.
His job done, he flew east, above a many-named desert. One that curved with the planet, falling into a device of degrees. Over borders toward a hidden flat segment of arc—a zeppelin field. An airstrip and warmth. A car to take him home.
The biplane was red in the sky, its wings and cowling elegantly sleek and resolute. It slowed on approach to the runway, but fell quickly. A stall warning sounded. He silenced it with a switch. Three wheels made contact with Earth, and the plane taxied to a hangar. A Cadet waited there, and assisted him out of the cockpit.
“Have it developed immediately,” he said, handing the camera to the boy.
The cadet saluted and took the rangefinder, proud to run the errand. The Flight Lieutenant was as calmly heroic as he hoped to be one day.
“The Group Captain wishes to see you, Sir,” said the Cadet, before dashing off.
The Flight Lieutenant removed his leather helmet and unzipped his flight jacket. “Does he, now?”
“Yes, Sir. He said immediately, as soon as you land.”
“Very well. Go, and get that to the lab.”
“Yes, Sir.” Another salute, and the Cadet marched quickly away.
Before the Group Captain, the Flight Lieutenant visited the canteen.
“Cocoa,” he said to the girl. “Hot. Not too sweet.”
“Yes, Sir.” She handed him a heavy white mug with the skull and propeller ensign. “The way you like it.” She almost curtsied.
Outside, he lit a cigarette. Cocoa and tobacco. Both so rare that they were for officers only. He poured rum into the mug from a hip flask. His visit with the Group Captain might be long, he knew, and likely tedious. This moment belonged to him. He watched an air-freighter land in the cross wind. A dirigible was coaxed out of a hangar before its engines were started. A fighter squadron on maneuvers assembled above. Cars, trucks and personnel passed by.
After the brief time out, he went to a small unused hangar where the Doppler Cyclonic was parked. The car that was the gravity that bound him to Earth. Streamline Moderne, and as red and as long as his biplane. It was a sleek creature of speed, elegance, glass and chrome. Silver spoke wheels and alabaster inlays glistened in the sunlight through the broken windows above. Its sixteen cylinder cyclonic engine ran on methanol and nitromethane. He took a clean leather chamois from atop a tool chest and wiped the chrome round a headlight.
“Here you are,” said the Group Captain, appearing at the entrance to the hangar.
He was too grey for his age, and claimed that he dreamed too deeply. He knew visions shouldn’t plague military men, but they did him.
“I know that when I say immediately,” said the Group Captain, “you think I mean sometime in the near to distant future. But please try to humour me occasionally.”
“Sorry, Sir,” the Flight Lieutenant said. He didn’t salute; the Group Captain pretended not to notice.
“Shall we sit here?”
They sat on wooden chairs.
“We shouldn’t smoke.” The Group Captain offered the Flight Lieutenant a cigarette. “But I think this place has been abandoned long enough.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“I had a disquieting dream last night. One that points to events that may affect the future of us all. I felt I needed to share it with you.”
“Yes?” the Flight Lieutenant said.
“I dreamed about the City. The one beyond the desert. You flew over it on a reconnaissance mission this morning.”
“They’ve done well in building it and, since they have, the Episcopal High Committee believes it should be theirs.”
“Please say more than yes, would you? It feels like I’m talking to a machine.”
“My apologies, Sir.”
“At any rate, I dreamed of our planned operation, where we will send forth a force of zeppelins, and place them stationary over the City. Menacing. Dominating the sky, with fighters flying missions in their defense. High Command hopes that this will show the people of the City the futility of resistance.”
“I see, Sir.”
“But how could we have known that the City has prepared itself for such a contingency. Or perhaps it hasn’t. Perhaps what is foretold in my dream occurs organically. Dare I say, magically?”
“Go on, Sir.” The Flight Lieutenant sipped and smoked, and thought of a woman with long hair the colour of the desert, and the way she didn’t say goodbye.
“Now remember, this was only a dream. Well more of a vision, really. I’m often in a trance when these things happen. But as our zeppelins and aeroplanes moved in over the City, the people below stopped what they were doing, and all at once looked skyward together, and after a moment, began to sing in unison. It was a startling song. A great song, blunt like a weapon, but exquisite to hear. Lyrical, but wordless. Is that possible? And almost tuneless. It was so disturbing.” The Group Captain shook his head.
“The music didn’t come from the people alone,” he continued, “but the architecture and art, too. The things that would be ours in victory. From the electrification and civil systems. The roadways. The bronze and stained glass. From the highest spires and the underground where their tunnels weave invisibly.
“Our zeppelins and aeroplanes crumbled and fell to Earth, where they became dust. And as our pilots died, the City’s song changed, and became a requiem.”
“A terrible vision, Sir,” said the Flight Lieutenant.
“A man with my responsibilities shouldn’t have such visions,” the Group Captain said.
“No, Sir. Yours must be a great burden.”
“You can see now why we cannot proceed with the plan.”
“Obviously, a futile endeavour.”
“Indeed,” said the Group Captain, looking at the Doppler Cyclonic—parked, muscular and ballistic. “You love it, don’t you, Flight Lieutenant? The car, I mean.”
“I do, Sir. Though to love a thing may seem selfish and odd.”
“I’ve never loved anything,” the Group Captain said. “That may seem even stranger.”
“It doesn’t seem possible, Sir.” She didn’t say goodbye, but left behind her locket in a pocket of his jacket.
“Maybe I love the skull and propeller.”
“It’s good that we can talk like this.”
“Yes,” said the Flight Lieutenant.