The hills that bordered the École Aéronautique were covered in long grass, and as they dipped to the sea the blades dispersed through the tawny sand, which in turn fingered out into grey water. The slopes were still bright with new growth. Three or four hundred meters away from the school, short of where the smooth coast fractured into cliffs, a small flock of éoles grazed. They were among the smallest of the flying beasts, but each was at least the size of a full-grown bull, and in places they had stripped away the green grass.
Ian Chance paused as Claire halted clumsy beside him. It seemed to him every step she took was an invitation to crumple, and he feared she would lose her footing and tumble down. He fought the urge to slip a hand under her elbow to steady her.
General Adair was right. The éoles would have to go. Yet Ian smiled as he watched them; an éole was the first flying beast he had broken by his own hand and flown over the neat russet-and-green rectangles of his father’s farm in Lancashire, and he had a fondness for the breed.
Some hopped from bush to hillock, arching the wide stretch of their batlike wings to catch the breeze. Ian could hear the gentle chug of the éoles’ engines, and behind that the constant sough of the water. Spring was warming into summer, and the nascent heat in the breeze reminded him of the Saharan winter, although so near the sea the air was not as dry.
Thready white steam rose over the flock, changing into white puffs that glowed crisp against the blue sky. Save for the steam, the sky was cloudless: the smooth, even cerulean of a medieval painting. If he squinted against the light reflecting off the waters of the Channel, Ian could see the white rise that was Dover.
The last time he had been to England, London was still in mourning for Queen Victoria. He remembered a length of tattered black ribbon tied high on a lamppost, fluttering in the breeze. At the time he had wondered if the same breeze traveled the Channel that season to hold the flying beasts aloft in their migration north.
This morning, when he’d seen Claire waiting for him outside the old dormitories at the flying school beside Calais, a bright splash of checkered red against the grey, weathered wood, he’d felt shy, and delighted too. To see her again brought back a familiar warmth in his belly, a memory of days where the breeze blew warm or cool according to the season. And then the wind became a thing of the bones, and one’s body grew attuned to the fine sea-spray or yeasty pollen that the breeze constantly carried, and knew them as a bird knows the updrafts.
Ian had lived by the wind then, breaking in the hardy little éoles until the once-wild creatures could be flown in intricate formation. He tamed the calm, aloof dunne monos until they’d take decomposed steel from his hand. At night he and Claire would curl around each other under her duvet in the women’s quarters; she rated her own room in part because those in command of the air corps decided, in their lopsided way, that she outranked the nurses. No one disputed her right: Claire rose long before dawn broke, to catch the chance of seeing a blériot over the Channel as the sun rose, and the nurses needed their sleep. Besides, her family had owned the land before her drunken grandfather, broke from trying to harness wild éoles to harsher work than they were formed for, sold it to a government seeking a place to make use of the flying beasts that ranged this coast time out of mind.
She stood straight as she watched for him outside the dormitory, and for a moment he allowed himself to think it wouldn’t be so bad, that the reports of her injuries were exaggerated and that she had recovered. He was out of the car the Corps Aéronautique had sent before Plantard, a sunburned boy that looked barely old enough to drive, could open the door. Then Claire moved. Her limbs twisted painfully and her shoulders humped, and she dragged one foot behind her. He felt disappointment like a blow to the stomach and then the slow burn of contempt at his own cowardice.
She didn’t show him that she saw it, unless it was in the amused curve of her lips when he bent to embrace her.
“Plantard will take your bags to quarters,” she whispered, nodding at the boy. “Come with me to the cliffs.”
One of the éoles reared on its back wheel at their approach, spreading its ungraceful wings and spinning its propeller: a dominant male, getting their scent. The flock stopped grazing for a second, and the low hum of their engines quickened as they readied for the signal to take off. When the male remained in place they relaxed and returned to pulling at the green foliage, hungry from their long post-winter flight from Africa. He wondered how the tang of leftover winter felt on their sand-scored wings. If he could walk among them could he smell the baked-bread smell of the Egyptian air on their leathers? Would he find the compass-shape of the Bat d’Af brand beneath the strut of a mount gone feral?
General Adair’s orders went round and round in Ian’s head like a cylinder recording.
“If a breeding program’s to work, Chance, we’ll need all the local resources—space and grazing,” the General had said. “That means the feral flocks will have to go—or be culled. You’ll need to help make that happen before we ship in the stock and you start the training. Men and beasts both.”
Ian knew the little éoles had no place in the Corps’ breeding program, based as it was on the calm, sturdy dunne monos and the powerful wright flyers—the American pair of Roosevelt-bred flying beasts Taft had sent as gift to Whitehall.
“There might be room for an avion or two,” Ian replied. “You don’t see them much here, but they’re quick and clever—look much like the éoles but sturdier.”
Adair had flashed him a look. The North African sun had burnt the Frenchman’s skin until he was ruddy even in the cool of the evening. In his time he’d flown dunne monos and antoinettes, back when one did so at the risk of seeming eccentric, before the military knew what do with the air corps. Now war loomed with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the old corpsman was recalled to service to make a war machine out of men and flying beasts.
“I’ll leave it to you,” he told Ian. “None of our people know what we’ll need on the African lines, and you’ve stewed in Algiers long enough so you’re not so offensively English. Your only weakness is sentimentality. The éoles must go. And the blériot, any that remain. They are intractable, unpredictable.”
Intractable. Four years ago, Claire had netted a rogue blériot and rode it over the shore of Calais; four years ago, it had tumbled her onto the rocks.
“Wakeman will meet you at the school.”
Adair’s voice brought him back to himself; he’d been looking at the horizon, where the setting sun bled across the desert sands, but seeing the grey sea of the Channel.
He’d met the hunter once in Egypt; they’d never met in England, although both were bred in Lancashire. He remembered a man tanned brown where Adair was burnt, almost past middle age but with a predator’s lean body and a killer’s blue eye.
“The British are sending him to help with the culling.” Adair’s tone defied him to object. Ian shrugged. The General was right: the wrights and dunnes would need the grazing.
“He’ll never get that blériot, though,” he muttered under his breath.
It had taken three weeks for Claire to trap the blériot, setting wire snares in the low foliage that rimmed the northeast cliffs between the school and Boulogne-sur-Mer. One morning, with the low clouds beating a constant, needle-spray mist against the tents and cottage of the camp, they spotted something thrashing in the distance and Claire ran across the hillocks to it, hair unbound across her shoulders and sodden in the drizzle. Ian followed after and heard her laugh before he saw a young avion, half adult size, its twin propellers buzzing indignantly as it jerked against the wire, bouncing up and down in the grey bushes.
Claire freed its forewheel from the wire with a few practiced flicks of her wrist and steadied its wing until it was able to take off across the dull flat water, the whirr of its engine scolding them until it faded in the distance. She watched it fondly, looping the trap-wire between her fingers absently before bending to re-set it, the wire high enough to snare the wheels but too low to foul or snap the struts.
“You do love them,” he told her, watching the back of her drizzle-wet head as she adjusted the wire, and she cocked her head sideways, not looking at him but listening, always listening, as if not only English but any human speech was foreign to her, and took a fraction of a second to understand.
“Tomorrow I’ll set it somewhere else,” she said, as if he had not spoken. “He’s not coming back here.”
But she was wrong, because midafternoon, when the clouds had burned off and the fresh-broke avions had just been penned, there was a shout and a stableboy ran calling, waving his cap wildly, looking for Mam’selle. Claire laughed out loud at the sight of the beast bucking against the ropes the flyboys had flung around it, the beautiful curve of its graceful wings, so simple and functional compared to the bat-winged éoles and avions, its powerful engine buzzing furiously.
She didn’t intend to ride it—not even Claire was that foolhardy. She only meant to mount it for a minute or so, to get the creature used to her weight. The boys had sunk the stakes deep on either side of the great taut, silken wings, and the ropes should have held. She approached it cautiously, clucking in the way one clucks instinctively at a skittish horse, one arm upraised to protect her face.
“Be careful, Claire,” he called. She waved a hand at him without turning around. The blériot leaned away from her as far as the ropes would allow.
Claire patted the blériot’s quivering side for a long time, speaking to it in the low calming monotone she always used with the half-broke flying beasts. The angry buzz quieted. She closed her hand around the strut, then released it, then grasped it again, until the blériot no longer flinched beneath her touch.
Finally she took a firm grip and slung herself into the rigging. The blériot lurched forward instantly, threatening to tumble tail over propeller, but the ropes held and Claire rode out each buck with a casual roll backwards and the ease of long experience.
Ian realized he’d been biting the inside of his cheek with the tension. Gingerly he tongued the raw spot and wished Claire would come back.
“That’s enough for now,” he called, and she turned to him and seemed about to call for another length of rope. Then, with a powerful lurch, the creature pulled half the stakes out of wet ground soaked by several mornings’ worth of rain. Claire hung on desperately as the beast rocked the other way, dislodging the remainder of the stakes.
Ian ran, the wet grass lashing at his ankles. The flying beast heaved its body off the ground, and, unaccustomed to a human’s weight, came to ground again, its wheels gouging the muddy soil. The great wings flexed, the engine hummed, and it rose again, wavering and heavy-bodied as a summer beetle. The lowermost struts were even with Ian’s face by the time he reached it, and it was gaining altitude. Claire was stretched face-down in the structure, and he caught a glimpse of her grey eyes, wide with alarm. Desperate, he reached and leaped, catching hold of a muddy wheel with both hands.
The blériot lurched closer to the cliff and dipped sharply down, cumbered with their combined weight.
“Let go!” Claire shouted. “It’s too much—it’s going to crash!”
Stubbornly he held on to the slippery wheel, his fingers cramping. He felt his toes drag against the ground. The blériot managed to lift, wavering over the edge of the cliff, and Ian had a brief, dizzying view of rock and white seafoam.
“Damn you, let go!” Claire barked.
The beast tipped back over solid ground and dipped again. Ian’s hands were a red blaze of pain.
It was going to crash. He would have to trust that Claire could control it. Gritting his teeth, he forced his cramped fingers open and fell, rolling on the sodden ground with an impact that drove the air from his lungs.
Free of his weight, the blériot rose again, heading for the sea. Ian rolled to his belly and watched, breathing painfully. For a few seconds the flying beast straightened and flew sure towards the horizon. Then one wing dipped and sideslipped.
Ian watched with impotent horror while a grey shape separated from the body of the blériot, suspended an impossible few seconds clinging to a wing, and then as the creature tipped it fell, plunging feet first, arms outstretched, to the rocks below. The curve of Claire’s body angled as she fell, as if she saw what was beneath her and was calculating how best land. Her silk scarf rippled up as the rest of her plummeted like Icarus. The blériot above her slipped sideways, descending as if it could scoop her out of the air.
Ian never could remember seeing the moment of impact, only that one instant she was falling and the next she was sprawled on the black wet boulders semi-submerged in the tide, legs trailing in the black water like a mermaid’s tail.
“Is the avion with the flock?”
Claire’s voice had graveled with the years, and although her English was sure as it was before, her accent was stronger. Maybe no one spoke English to her after he left. Her English was better than his French, so that’s what they spoke, during the day and during the night.
Ian glanced at Claire’s profile: all horizontal lines—sun-bleached wheaten hair pushed aside by the insistent breeze and squint-lines carved at the corner of her eye as she stared at the flock she must have seen a hundred times. Since the accident, the strong planes of her face had softened, and the skin of her neck was loose. Ian wondered if he would notice it as much had he not been a coward, if he had stayed as she had stayed.
He looked back at the flying beasts, peering beneath his palm, and yes, there in the middle, rooting with the rest, an avion. Its bat-wings arched over its fellows and it bore a double propeller, but it didn’t seem interested in contending with the éole male for dominance.
“The others don’t mind?” he asked.
“No. He’s been flying with them for years.”
“Perhaps he’s lonely.” Avions, never the most numerous of the flying beasts, were almost extinct in the wild.
From that fall they thought she would die, and even the unsentimental Corps Aéronautique considered it cruel to take her away from her grandfather’s land and the flying beasts she loved. But she survived and healed, even if she healed crooked. She lived at the École Aéronautique as a patient and then a ground instructor, teaching boys like Eugène Plantard to fly and die and find glory on the shores of Europe and the sands of the Empty Quarter.
In a world of automobiles and great ships few had use for the flying beasts, and for a time the École was all but abandoned. There was Claire, and the skeleton staff, and a couple of private students. But war was looming and in a short time it would teem with trainee flyboys, and Corps staff, and flying beasts. Not caught and broke from the wild flocks but bred for war, as the Italians and Germans were breeding the taube beasts with their dove-like, agile wings to carry more and move faster.
The locals should be happy with the business the work of the Corps would bring. The mines were failing and fewer rich tourists came. The burgeoning war would be profitable, and no one had to think yet of the death from the sky that a race of flying beasts bred for war would bring.
Four years since he had fled to Memphis and further south, where the flying beasts bred huge and wild and he caught and broke them for rich men, for the Corps Aéronautique, for His Majesty’s Airborne Cavalry, for the Foreign Legion. Craven, he had never come back until now.
He told himself it was because he didn’t want to see the woman he loved for her strength and her dexterity live crippled, but it was a lie. It was because most who fell as Claire had fallen died, and death was a gentle sleep. But Claire was living testimony to what could be done to the fragile construct of sinew, skin, and bone that made a human.
In his memory, Claire ran along the side of the wooden training pen, poised to grasp the underwing struts of an éole, the tight cling of her habitual leathers showing the flex of limb and muscle. Now she halted along, and what was hidden beneath her checked skirt was mortal and twisted. He found the grotesque possibilities of Claire’s veiled flesh obscene, and hated himself for it.
Now Claire stumbled and recovered before he could embarrass them both by catching at her. Ian felt a flare of anger, then ashamed. She was like a statue naked in the sun: this is how frail your body is, all children of men. You are brave and beset with the need to soar, and it means nothing to the wind that topples you and the air that parts beneath you and the ground that will take you as no lover has.
“I know why you’re here,” Claire said, still staring at the avion. “We’ve heard rumors about a breeding program for months. Flyboys passing through, repeating gossip. I didn’t think it was true, though. I didn’t think you’d agree to it. Not until I saw you this morning, with your fancy Corps automobile.”
He listened for the mocking tone to her voice that meant she was angry with him, but she only sounded resigned.
“It’s not a matter of my agreeing to it, Claire,” he said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his too-warm greatcoat to stop himself from taking her arm. “It will happen whether we will it or not. And neither your people or mine have much choice. You’ve haven’t seen the Roosevelt wrights yet . . .”
“Obviously.” Her voice went tart and the band across his chest loosened a little.
“. . . but you will, soon. Theodore Roosevelt’s breeding program’s been in effect for what—ten, twelve years? They’ve been tapping their wild herds for the best and they have three lines now, and they’re stocking their Signal Corps eighty, maybe ninety percent with them. Huge beasts, with endurance ours can’t match, and docile too.”
She began to laugh and was turning to him when she gasped. He seized her arm, thinking her leg had finally given way. Effortlessly she shook him off and hobbled ahead. Ian stood frozen; over the water came a vast stretch of curved wing and an assembly of cables, flying strong and sure: a blériot, fresh from across the Channel. It crested the lip of the cliff, circled, and landed with insolent ease, not thirty meters away.
The éoles started and beat themselves into the air like a scurry of huge gulls, their engines chugging and throwing off steam. The avion took off, flying slow and low to the ground, in search of more berries.
Claire stumbled towards the blériot while Ian stood frozen. The flying beast’s motor purred, and impossibly, it remained still until she reached it. Claire, chuckling with delight, stroked the side of a parchment panel. Watching her bend her once-bright head to the beast, Ian felt his pulse quicken painfully.
It couldn’t be the same one. It couldn’t.
Later that night, after he’d had a pipe by the fire and read through the Corps dispatches one more time, he went to her bed. She was in the same room, and even the pattern of nicks in the paint on the door were familiar to his touch. Under her old quilt she lay to one side, so there was room for him to slip between the cool sheets. The bed creaked and she made no move, either to welcome or repel him. Rough muslin covered the window imperfectly, letting moonlight drape across the coverlet; she blinked at him curiously.
“How often does it come to you? The blériot?” said Ian.
Claire turned on her back; in the dim light he could see her chest rise and fall. “Not for months sometimes. Sometimes only once a year, in the spring.”
“It knows you. I know it’s not possible, but it knows you.”
“Do you know the name Wakeman?”
Her breathing hitched. “I have heard it.” Her voice soured. “He is a great man, I hear. A hunter of repute.”
“He should be here tomorrow, or the next day. The Corps is borrowing him from the British. He’s to clear the wild stock from the forage, if they can’t be driven away.”
She didn’t answer for a long time, and he thought she might have fallen asleep.
“I knew the world wouldn’t ignore us forever,” she said at last. “There was a time, when I was younger, that I resented it. Now . . . you get used to it, and find your peace with it. And all this time we’ve been sleeping on the edge of a precipice, the waters churning below, and only a matter of time before we go down into it. Peace is mere skin over war’s true face.”
“And the flying beasts—there’s no more room for the wild ones in this world. Soon there won’t be an éole or an antoinette alive that isn’t tame, bred or broke to our need. Soon we’ll forget that they ever ran free. We’ll think we’ve always bred them. We’ll think we made them.”
When he spoke, he was surprised at the anger in his voice.
“You fell. How could you fall? You were the best. You were perfect.”
Her voice was deliberately cool. “Such things happen.”
“Not to you. Not unless you allow it. And you did allow it. I didn’t realize it at first, though something in me recognized it.”
“What do you mean?”
Ian drew a deep breath. “If you’d stayed in the struts, the blériot would’ve crashed, but it would’ve broken your fall. You let go. You let go so it wouldn’t go down.”
“You can’t think that.”
“I know that. I know you, Claire. And maybe better after I left.”
She laughed softly. “Did it make you so angry, then?”
“Yes. That you could chose between us. That you could break your body so.”
“Hundreds break in this work,” she said, coldly. “Hundreds more, man and flying beast, will break before this is over.”
“Yes. But not you. It should never have been you.”
Her hand found his and they lay there, without speaking, for a long time until her fingers loosened in his and she slept. The moon had set before Ian, listening to her even breathing and the distant tide, turned to the cool of his pillow and slept too.
One by one the éoles rose and lighted again a few hundred meters away, barely interrupting their feeding. The children laughed, waving shirts and sheets they’d likely stolen off their mothers’ clotheslines. A dog loped from child to child, a big golden retriever, pausing now and then to bark at the flying beasts. The éoles paid it less mind than they did the children, waving their clothing like the pennants of an improbable army.
“That’s never going to clear them,” said Wakeman.
The hunter had arrived that morning, accompanied by a small case of personal effects and two long, lovingly polished trunks of dark wood containing his weapons. Ian was discomposed as it was; he had slept far later than he was accustomed, to find sunlight dappling through the curtains and Claire’s side of the bed empty and cold. Entering the cafeteria, he’d found a scant few tardy students and young Plantard escorting the expressionless Englishman, and no sign of Claire anywhere. Ian had barely nodded at his countryman, leaving him to find his own place while he went to the cluster of stone cottages that marked where the grounds of the École gave way to farmland.
He didn’t know these children—the ones who had brought butter and eggs to the École years before were now probably hard-faced farmers. Maybe some labored in the failing mines. But if the cheerfully dirty, tow-headed kids didn’t know him, they knew the École Aéronautique, and they whooped at the prospect of earning a few sous chasing away the beasts from the grazing.
But Wakeman was right: the éoles and the avion had long lost their fear of men.
“No time like the present,” said Wakeman, turning on his heel towards the dormitories. “I heard that a big blériot was spotted off the coast at dawn. That’s where your chatelaine’s got to. Queer woman, that. Looks right through one.”
Ian didn’t reply, fingering a pocketful of coins warm from his body as he watched the children forgo all pretense at chasing away the beasts and start playing at bullfighting between them.
“I hear you and mam’selle have a history,” Wakeman threw over his shoulder. “Will that get in my way?”
Ian shook his head, not caring whether the hunter saw.
Wakeman knew his prey: that afternoon the blériot was back. Ian left the children to their games and found the beast perched before the place where the cliff fell away. Claire was there, standing apart, leaning on her cane as he hadn’t seen her do before. The sea beyond was shrouded with the last of the morning fog, rapidly burning away. Wakeman, carrying a large shotgun, had almost reached her. The hunter kept Claire’s body between him and the blériot, as if using her as a blind.
Wakeman nodded at him. Claire didn’t stir or look at Ian when he stood beside her.
“Claire,” he said. “Go back. You don’t want to see this.”
Wakeman moved from behind her.
“That’s never a full-blood blériot,” he muttered, chambering a round. “Too big. Quarter antoinette, at the least.”
Claire moved quicker than Ian imagined possible, bringing her cane down one-handed on the barrel of the gun. The shot tore into the ground three meters in front of them, ripping the new green grass away from the earth and plowing a furrow into the flesh of the earth. The blériot hopped, startled, towards the lip of the precipice. At the drop off it paused, and rotated towards them.
“Go, you stupid thing!” shouted Claire, struggling to regain her balance. Wakeman, jolted back by the blow and the unexpected angle of the discharge, swore colorfully and opened the chamber.
“Muzzle your bitch, Chance,” he barked, eyeballing the distance to the flying beast that was, inexplicably, still within range. Claire stood there, sobbing. Before Ian could hook an arm around her waist, she lashed out again with the cane, two-handed this time, striking Wakeman hard in the solar plexus.
The hunter’s breath left him with a great foosh and he sat on the ground, still holding his gun, legs stretched before him in the high grass. Claire drew back and held the burled cane high in the air, as if to bring it down on Wakeman’s head. He looked up at her quizzically, struggling to draw breath, without the presence of mind to swivel the muzzle of the weapon towards her.
But he would, any second. Ian grasped Claire’s arm.
“Claire,” he said. “No.”
She looked at him, eyes wild and streaming. Then with a stifled sob she pulled away and threw down the cane, across Wakeman’s legs. The hunter flinched and struggled to his feet. Claire had turned from both of them, and halted across the grass to towards the blériot that still paused at the edge, its engine humming like a swarm of agitated bees in the warm air. Ian followed a few steps and stopped, knowing she didn’t want him.
He could hear Wakeman breathing heavily behind him. Turning, he saw the hunter sighting down the barrel, aiming square at Claire’s back.
Ian moved between them, looking not at Wakeman but at the twin holes of the barrel as if he could stare them down. “You will not,” he growled.
“Not that I don’t want to,” said the hunter, never lowering the barrel, “but I’m waiting for a shot at the beast. She’s right in front.”
Ian strode in front of the barrel and grasped the hot metal, shoving the gun down, turning to watch Claire as she stood before the blériot. Shyly, as if she had never touched it before, she reached out to pat the taut material of the wing that curved over her. The beast quivered but stayed put, and her hand moved over the tight silk, down a strut, following the thick rib to the body of the blériot. Never taking her hand away, she moved closer, dragging her damaged leg behind her. When her shoulder touched the main body of the blériot, she felt along the structure, fumbling where years ago she had grasped with confidence. Then, as the beast didn’t move, she seemed to find her old strength and lifted herself into the beast’s undercarriage.
Suddenly Wakeman twisted the gun out of Ian’s grip. Ian swore and tried to follow, but the hunter moved fast, pulling away from Ian’s reach, and as Claire and the blériot tipped over the cliff the shotgun blast tore a hole through the animal’s left wing, punching a fist-sized hole through the silk, leaving raw edges to flutter in the wind.
The flying beast tipped dangerously to the right, so far out of true it seemed that it must stall and tumble to the sea below. Ian knew that in the undercarriage Claire must be fighting to shift her weight and help the blériot to balance. A terrible fear seized him then, that Claire would do as she had before, cast herself free of the beast that it might fly free of her.
She wouldn’t be so lucky this time. If you could call it luck.
Ian heard the click of another shell in the gun and turned on Wakeman. The hunter’s jaw was clenched tight and the veins stood out in the sunburned neck.
“Try it and I’ll have you down for murder,” said Ian. “And I’ll let the flyboys at you first.”
Wakeman squinted at the horizon. “Sometimes the wounded will come back to land. Out there it’s got nowhere else to go.” In that squint, and the line of the jaw, Ian saw something he recognized, had seen on Claire’s face when she spoke of the blériot. Desire.
By degrees the blériot leveled out, finding a way to balance the torn wing and the whole. It made no move to circle back to the coast, flying straight out across the Channel. Ian stared after it until be became a pale dot, and then winked out, beyond his eyesight, beyond his ken, taking Claire with it.
Patrols flew until dusk, looking for any sign of the wreckage. One pair even went to Boulogne-sur-Mer, on the off chance that the blériot and its passenger had made it so far. Stations and lighthouses far down the coast, and across the water at Dover too, were alerted. There was no trace, no report.
The next day they began the slaughter. Ian stayed at the École Aéronautique, supervising the rebuilding of the pens where the wright flyers would stable. Occasionally a shot would crack the freshening air like a whip.
At noon he went to see. As he approached the slopes where the flocks had clustered, he heard a thin, high, tearing sound, like a teakettle left to boil. Wakeman was standing by the avion, which was crumpled in the grass. A few remaining éoles bleated behind it, chugging gouts of steam in their distress, too confused to fly away. One of the avion’s bat-wings was half torn away and a thread of steam jetted from its damaged thorax. Calmly, Wakeman chambered a cartridge and aimed just behind the fuselage. The rifle cracked, and the agonized whistle stopped abruptly.
On the hills behind, Ian could see a small cluster of farm children, their dog with them, standing very still. It seemed impossible that they were the same brats who had run between the bat-winged éoles yesterday, waving their clean, tattered blouses.
He couldn’t watch the rest. More shots rang out through the afternoon, and as the sun began to set he spotted one éole flying out to sea, framed against the bloody sun.
Ian stayed at the École Aéronautique long enough to see the breeding pair of wrights fly in, their tiered wings shining white in the sun. That night, in Claire’s room, he packed and repacked his few possessions, bound back for Algiers in the morning. Adair would be furious; Ian didn’t care. Plantard came to tell him the car would be ready at first light.
Ian asked if the wrights had settled.
“Yes,” said the boy. “Ate their fill and roosted. I’ve never seen an American beast. They’re magnificent.”
He eyed Ian as he took a pair of trousers from the pile in his suitcase and refolded them, pinching the already sharp creases sharper.
“I want you to know, sir, me and some of the other flyboys—well, we’re not going to stop. Looking for her, I mean. Every day at sunrise, part of the morning exercises. We’re taking turns at it. I mean, you never know what will show up, do you?”
“You won’t find her,” said Ian.
“Even so.” The boy’s voice was defiant.
“She won’t let you find her. She might let you see it, sometimes. To make us remember they were wild beasts once, and never made, whatever lies we tell ourselves. But keep looking, by all means.”
“You’re not coming back, are you, sir?”
There was pity in the flyboy’s voice, and compassion, and a little bit of contempt.
Ian’s hands stilled and he stared at the rough plaster wall. “No, Plantard. I don’t see it.”
Plantard was silent as he drove Ian over the rough roads to Calais. They wouldn’t remain in disrepair long—as the wrights bred and the École Aéronautique grew, as war quickened between nations they would be rebuilt smooth and straight into the heart of the countryside, tamed like the flying beasts. In the meantime the car rose and fell, rose and fell with the broken pavement, and he caught brief glimpses of the grey sea and sky. Once he saw what might be a blériot rising over the waves, but it was probably a gull, hunting for fish in the cold sea.
Strange Horizons, May 2012
Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, 2012 (Ann VanderMeer, ed.)
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures, 2014 (Sean Wallace, ed.)