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Airship Downs (Reprise)

After a long hiatus, I am working on a complete rewrite of Karen Zipslicer’s adventures in Lundern. This instalment retraces the steps of the last episode published on Halfthoughts, and reimagines the scene where Karen reaches Airship Downs, looking for transportation back home.

As the day wore on, the skies began to drizzle. It thinned the grey smog, so Karen could see through it to the equally grey clouds that hung above. Karen fastened her coat and pulled her hood over her hat, picked up Whiteley and put him into one of her hip pockets. She promised she would leave the pocket open, so the ferret would have nothing to worry about. Whiteley did not seem worried. He promptly fell asleep, forcing Karen to navigate using her map again, whilst being careful to keep it dry.

Though they were lighter than air, Karen could feel the hulking dirigibles, even before she could see them. As she approached the hill, she encountered their noise. They droned so thickly that the sound hugged her. Then she became aware of their shadows, looming from above. The airships were grey too, almost perfectly camouflaged for this dismal weather. The rain really started to pour, clearing the air. The airships emerged, as if a veil had been pulled away, and Karen realized just how many were above her. The sky teemed with them; they dominated the landscape. Dozens were suspended in the sky like monstrous elongated lampshades, except that they absorbed light instead of radiating it; the thin fabric of their shells had no lustre to it. Many were a hundred feet long. Some reached beyond two hundred feet. Their dense scrum caused Karen to gasp. Some were leaving. Others arrived. Yet more jostled and manoeuvred for position. They wore their names with pride, codes of giant letters and numbers painted on their sides. One was B330fj and another was N602sk. They owned Airship Downs.

Standing at one corner, Karen saw the hill as one wide expanse of green grass, some of it churned and scarred to brown by thousands of feet, hooves and wheeltracks. Hefty warehouses ringed the roads that ringed the airfield. Airship Downs gently rose to its highest point, which was the nicest thing that could be said about it. Mooring masts were arranged in a grid pattern all the way across it. A third of the masts were occupied by tethered airships. The airships that were moored sat like strapped party balloons, wavering when the breeze changed direction, but held tightly by many thick ropes tied to iron hoops in the ground. At their moorings, the balloons hovered barely above ground level, with their gondolas hanging beneath like windowed pot bellies. They hung so close to ground that Karen might almost touch them if she stood beneath and jumped.

For all their grandeur, the airships were not the most daunting aspect of the Downs. There was such a gaggle of people and birds, such a melee of horses and carts, that Karen felt overwhelmed. The people and the animals made such a racket that from close-up they rivalled the noise of the airship engines. It woke Whiteley up; he peered out of Karen’s pocket, then ducked back inside again. To Karen’s eyes, the Downs looked like a ballet of chaos in three dimensions. Some crews, numbering fifty or more, were strenuously hauling ropes and tying down newly-arrived airships, or pulling up gantries, or using hand-cranked cranes for the weightiest items. Large birds squawked and cried at each other in mid-flight, as they led the way for their respective ships, holding their airship’s tethers in their mouths as they guided them through. Gas tanks where wheeled to and fro by horses or oxen, then hooked up by men to replenish the balloons. Families and friends waved their farewells, sometimes tearfully, or bounded for joy at the arrival of their loved ones. Cargoes were rapidly loaded and unloaded, to and from the wagons that were so patiently pulled by sturdy Shire horses. Boys ran back and forth, shouting their offers of tickets for sale, to destinations that Karen had never heard of.

“Whiteley, are you awake?”
“Yes.” He poked his head out of Karen’s pocket.
“We’re here. Where do I find the airship to take me to England?”
“Me know this field alright, but not the airship for your flight.”
“You’re talking in rhyme again.”
“No. Is me talking in rhyme?”
“Not now, but you were.”
“Me stop.”
“Should I ask one of these boys about airship tickets?”
“Airships they know, which places they…”
“Okay.”
“…go.”
A nearby boy, of about thirteen years of age, saw Karen and started shouting in her direction: “tickets for the city-states of Wassailham, Chapstow and Duncester.” Karen walked closer, squelching through a patch of mud as she did. As she approached, she began to speak. “Which airships go to London?”
“London?” His face was blank.
“London.”
“Is that foreign?”
Karen was not sure of the answer. She guessed, “yes.”
“Dirigibles to foreign places are the biggest ones. They moor close to the top of the hill, miss.”
“Thank you.” She sighed. It would be a long walk to the hilltop. It was muddy and it would have been a trudge even if it was a straight-line walk. But it would not be a straight-line walk. It was going to be a marathon of circling around and pushing through the frenetic activity. At least she was wearing the right footwear, Karen mused to herself. She pulled her hood forward, and headed purposefully into the driving rain. Dense crowds congregated, forcing her to detour around them. Moving wagons rolled across her path, making her wait. She tripped over one of the iron rings used to tie down a tethered airship. She walked into a refreshingly wide open space, only to be pulled back again because it was the landing zone of an incoming airship. As Karen progressed up the hill, she would catch the eye of ticket-boys and ask them: “to London?” but none of them recognized the name. With diversions and hold-ups, it took Karen an hour to get near to the top. She plodded on, sometimes spitting the rain from her lips as it beat down upon her face. Whiteley fidgeted in her pocket, but did not speak or look out. He wisely wanted to stay dry. She checked her phone again as she neared the top; there was still no signal. Karen reached the mooring mast of an especially long airship, which had just taken off and was climbing upwards, looking like a fat cigar fired from a slow-motion cannon. An older boy stood by the base of the mast. He was watching the airship depart. “Excuse me, do you know where’s the airship to London?” said Karen, to the boy.
“To where?”
“London. London, in England.”
“England?”
“England, in the United Kingdom.” She was getting tired of repeating herself.
His eyebrows kitted together in thought. “England? United Kingdom?” he said back at her.
“England. London. London, capital of England,” she elaborated, squelching her boot into the mud as she twisted it from side to side.
“England, England…” and then he shouted at another boy, standing thirty yards way. “Desmond, do you know of an airship to England?”

Desmond was older and better dressed than the ticket-boys that Karen had seen so far. His leather waistcoat and knee-high boots were as black as his sturdy umbrella. He wandered over, looking around to see if anybody else was nearby, then spoke to the other boy. “Why are you asking about England?” Karen lifted her head up. At last she had found someone who did not look blank-eyed or quizzical at the mention of her homeland.
“This girl wants to go there,” said the first boy, glancing toward Karen.
“Why does she want to do that?”
The first boy just puffed out his cheeks and shrugged his shoulders. Karen spoke instead: “I’m from there, and I want to get back as soon as I can.”
Desmond told the other boy that he had “better get back to work,” pointing, then pushing him in the direction of a tethered airship further down the hillside. Desmond sucked his teeth whilst he waited until the other lad was out of earshot. “Are you really from England?”
Karen nodded. “Yes. I’m from London, in England. Well, from just outside London, but definitely from England.”
“You look honest. You’d better follow me.” Desmond led Karen over the rise of the hill. Karen walked briskly alongside; Desmond held his umbrella so they could both shelter under it. He did not speak, and only looked ahead. Though polite in his actions, Desmond was reserved in his manner. Karen decided it was best to just follow where Desmond led, and not to disturb him with questions. Whiteley peeked out to see what was happening, then snuggled back into the pocket where he was safe from the cold rain. When they crossed the brow of the hill, Karen could immediately tell where Desmond was headed. A shack stood near a beech tree. It was the only building standing upon the hill itself, and it stood by the only tree. The shack was little more than a wooden shed with a corrugated iron roof and windows on either side. Off-duty birds congregated on the tree’s branches, resting and sheltering from the rain. Their chatter grew loud as Karen and Desmond approached. Desmond shooed away a young kestrel that had briefly perched on top of the shack, then he leaned against it, sheltering from the rain, and rapped his knuckles on the window. “Thomas? It’s Desmond.” The window swung open, and a large bearded man looked out, without rising from his chair.
“What do you want?” asked Thomas.
“This ’un here says she’s from England.” Desmond nodded towards Karen.
“That’s a strange thing to say,” said Thomas. He was talking to Desmond, not Karen.
“Why would she make it up?” observed Desmond. Thomas looked Karen up and down. Desmond stood impassively; the fine features of his face revealed nothing to Karen.
“She’s got the right kind of clothing on,” said Thomas, more to himself than anyone else. Karen put her hands in her pockets so she could fidget with her fingers. She forgot that Whiteley was in one of the pockets, so she accidentally poked him in his tummy. He nipped her finger in return. She pulled the finger out and shook the pain off, turning away from the gaze of Thomas and Desmond so they could not see. She glanced at the wound; it was only a very small scratch. Karen pulled her hood forward, and she held her hands behind her back, one hand squeezing the finger that Whiteley had bit. All the while, Desmond kept blankly looking at Thomas, and Thomas looked lost in thought.
“I just want to know if there’s an airship that flies to London, or anywhere in England,” said Karen, eventually breaking the silence.
“You’re from England, are you?” asked Thomas.
“Yes,” said Karen, nodding.
“Which city-state are you going to?”
Karen did not understand the question at first. “I want to go to London. London, in England.”
“You’re planning on going back to England? Aren’t you supposed to go somewhere else?”

Karen was speechless. Thomas’ questions were so peculiar. She looked to Desmond, but his expression remained impenetrable. She stumbled over her words. “No, err… I’m not, there’s not anywhere else I’m supposed to go. I’m supposed to go home. My dad will be wondering where I am.”
“There’s nobody escorting you?” asked Thomas.
“No. I came on my own. I came here to get a flight back home.”
Thomas turned back to Desmond. “Is the girl all alone?”
“There’s a rodent in her pocket, but that’s all. There’s nobody looking after her, I’m sure of that,” answered Desmond, who then sucked his teeth again.
Thomas told Desmond: “get rid of her, she could be trouble,” and he pulled his window shut.
Desmond’s face did not flicker. He stopped leaning against the shack, and stepped toward Karen. “We’d better go.”
“I just want to buy a ticket to fly to London,” pleaded Karen, “I’ll pay!”
“Nothing doing,” replied Desmond.
Karen backed away from Desmond. The two of them circled the shack like that, with Desmond walking toward Karen, and Karen walking backwards, her hand trailing along the shack’s walls. “Why don’t you sell me a ticket?” asked Karen, but Desmond did not answer. When Karen was on the far side of the shack she saw the door, grabbed the handle, and jumped inside before Desmond could react quickly enough to stop her. Once inside, she put her back to the door, preventing Desmond from pushing his way in.

“You’re not allowed in here,” said Thomas. He stood up behind his desk, which was a table top balanced upon two large crates. The desk was covered in many piles of paper, each pile at least a foot high. Thomas laid his enormous hands over the top of two of the piles, then started turning over the top sheets of the other piles, to stop Karen seeing what was written on them. “This here’s the filing office, and we’ve got confidential paperwork in here.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be here. I don’t want to be here, but I am,” said Karen. “I’ll go, I promise. Please just tell me why you won’t sell me a ticket to England.” Desmond kept pushing at the door. Occasionally it would open a chink, but Karen leaned back hard and pushed with her legs, forcing it closed again.
“Leave it Desmond,” shouted Thomas through the window, and Desmond stopped pushing at the door. “I don’t know if you’re from England or what, but wherever you’re from, you’ve got to go. I have work to do.”
“Tell me about flights back to England.”
Desmond was looking in at the window. Thomas noticed, and rapped the back of his hand against the glass, driving Desmond away. “You know it’s entrapment, to ask questions about illegal places. If I answer, you can’t use it against me in a court of law.”
“Entrapment!” squeaked Whiteley. Now they were inside from the rain, he had popped his head out to check what was happening.
Karen shook her head. “You’re being silly. England’s not illegal.”
“It is here.”
“How can England be illegal here,” rejoined Karen, “when England isn’t here? You can’t make other countries illegal.”
“I don’t make the laws,” replied Thomas, obliquely.
“And why’s it illegal?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Is it illegal to tell me?”
Thomas said nothing, but he looked away sharply.
“So, it is illegal to tell me,” guessed Karen.
“Did I say that?”
“No.”
“Eyes did,” said Whiteley, butting in.
“Not my mouth,” complained Thomas.
“Mouth no, eyes yes, good game, next guess?” said Whiteley, who made about as much sense as Thomas.
“My next guess is that you’re at secret war with England,” pronounced Karen, pointing at Thomas. Thomas rolled his eyes.
“Bad guess,” said Whiteley.
“You’re smuggling something illegal to England?”
Thomas scowled.
“Getting warmer,” said Whiteley.
“You’re buying something illegal from England?”
“No. I shouldn’t tell you this, but no airship flies to or from England. Satisfied?” Thomas’ tone was final.
Karen grasped the door handle, needing it for support. “No flights? None?”
“Not now, not never. Even if somebody wanted to fly there, nobody knows how to.”
“How can they not know how to fly there? You point the airship in the right direction, then go!”
“They might point it in the right direction, if they knew which direction.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not on anyone’s maps, sweetheart. Otherwise I expect we would fly an airship that-a-way, supposing it was legal to run an airship in that direction, which it might not be. Then again, some might fly there even so. But legal or otherwise, they can’t fly there if they don’t know where it is.”
“But you’ve heard of it?”
“All I know is that every so often we have a kid from England travelling through, on their way to one of the other city-states. That’s all. And I’m not supposed to talk about those kids to anybody. You’re the first kid I’ve met that says she’s from England that’s been travelling on their own. The others always have… company, so to speak.”
“How do you know they’re from England?”
“That’s what it says on the insurance paperwork.”

Karen persisted but Thomas would not reveal any more. He acted like he did not hear the rest of Karen’s questions, though she tried one last time: “do you really have no idea where England is?”
“Look at the map,” said Thomas, gesticulating to the wall behind Karen. Karen turned toward it. A big red dot signified Lundern. Straight red lines shot out in multiple directions from the dot, representing the routes flown by the airships. Many went to various points within the coloured blocks of land that immediately surrounded Lundern. Other lines stretched much further, stretching to other red dots with names like Duncester, Nidaros and Ilipa. The strangeness of the names were bad enough, but that was not the strangest thing about this map. The map showed two circles of blue sea, joined in the middle. In the middle of one circle there was a single land mass. The island continent was roughly in the shape of a lower-case letter ‘h’, with Lundern at its middle. On the other circle, there were two islands. One looked like an onion with a large bite taken out of it, whilst the other looked like a wedge of swiss cheese. Big bold letters were written right across the top of the map. They read: “A New And Accurate Map Of The World”. Geography had never been Karen’s favourite subject, but this lesson was much worse than most.

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