FLYING FREE • by Jonathon Mast

It’s probably a bad idea to steal a mechano-pteradon, but I’ve been known to have worse ideas. I think.

Nabbing Gatlin’s mount probably pays off what he owes me for ten years’ work, though. “Just a reward to be in my presence,” he says to me all the time. “Yer just an indentured coalboy, anyway.”

Well, I’m taking my pay. I’m the one who takes care of her, after all. And no one loves a mechano-pteradon as much as I love my Karen.

Yeah, Karen. I named her for my mother. You wanna say something about that?

Gatlin’s not going to wake up for a while anyway, what with the drunken revelry. Not every day you shoot down a Tommie Zeppelin. With the whole town partying, no one’ll look up until we get away.

I load the hopper with plenty of coal. Check she has plenty of steam. She looks at me but doesn’t sound any alarm. Since I tune her pipes, she and I, we got an understanding. She hides me under her wings when it snows, and ain’t no nest better than a mechano-pteradon’s. She’s been fussy since Gatlin installed some new equipment, but the pipes, the steam, I belong to them, and that means I belong to my Karen.

I lead her out of the stable and struggle onto her back. The warmth of her boiler heats my bottom, but my hands shiver in the cold. Should’ve nabbed Gatlin’s gloves. The strange hump of the new equipment presses against my back, but I’ll deal with it later.

When we’re free.

So quiet in the stable’s yard. I take a deep breath. She vents some steam. She tenses.

She leaps! The air bites my face. The stables and my stomach lie far below. I guess freedom feels a bit like airsickness, but I don’t care.

We’re free. We’re flying! As long as I keep an eye on her steam levels.

It’s all right, girl. We’ll find more coal. I won’t let you go dark.

Dang, you ever see a moon so big? Think we could fly there? Just you and me?

Whoa! See that?

Yeah. Tommie Zeppelins. Three of them!

They’re going to bomb the town, ain’t they? Everyone’s partying. They won’t notice until the fire falls. All the geared beasts are penned up for the night.

No. We ain’t going back. We’re free. Bank through those clouds. They’ll hide your steam exhaust.

Yeah. The city’ll burn. I guess. The rest of your batch, the whole flight of them. The rest of the indentureds, too.

But we go back, I’ll never get to fly you again.

Stop it. Your steam’s dropping! When you croon your gauges go wonky!

Fine. You want to save the town? Fine!

Think. Think. We don’t have ranks of mechano-pteradons for a good broadside. I didn’t grab a pistol, so I can’t shoot at the pilot. We can’t do it like Gatlin. We gotta do it like us, like you and me, Karen.

I’d rather be under your wings. Safer there.

With your talons.

I think I have an idea. Climb higher. Higher than the zeppelins. How fast do you think you can fly, girl?

They’re banking into the clouds. They haven’t spotted us.

All right. All we have to do is strafe the top of their airbags. Your talons should snap through that metal, right? One good gash on each of them, fast as starlight, and we’ll save the town. I don’t know why Gatlin never pulled that maneuver, always fighting like a gentlemen and firing his rifle at the pilots. And never treating me like a gentleman, or you like a noble steed.

Let’s do this.

Quiet as the moon, racing from the clouds, and — There! You got her, girl! Hear that rip! Glorious day! It’s falling!

Oh, it’s cold. Biting into my hands again.

Bank sharp, here! Come on — right there! We’re off! Two falling, simple as gears!

Don’t worry, Karen. I’m good. Faster! You got a good head of steam! Keep moving!

The last one’s starting to turn away — Let’s go let’s go let’s —

Whoa! No, I’m fine! Just slipped a little. My fingers are so cold! I’ll put them up here against your boiler. It’s fine, girl! Keep going!

Ah! They’re shooting!

No! Turn back! We gotta take them down!

Nah. They can’t hit me. Your wings’ll protect me. I know they will.

No. No, I’m fine. A little close, that’s all. Come on, Karen.

Fly higher! We gotta get above that gunfire! Come on! Up! Up!

Think about that. The runaway heroes, you and me, Karen.

Oh. It’s so much colder this high up.

Dive! Let’s go, Karen! Let’s go!

Whoa!

Whoa!

Karen! I can’t —

It don’t matter. We did it. We’re heroes. I’m falling now. Lost my grip. There I go. The zeppelin’s falling after me. Two more already hit the ground. The wind is so, so loud.

Oh, Karen. The impact must’ve jarred one of your intake valves. Gatlin probably broke something putting in that new equipment. There’s no hiss left in your pipes. Steam’s gone. You know, don’t you? It’s too late.

Oh, girl, it’s been good. We were free. For a little bit.

Oh, look at your wings. Your magnificent metal wings. You’re using the last of your steam to come get me? I’m not worth it, girl.

Oh, your talons. You’ve got me. We’re falling. Together.

I got my Karen.

She croons at me. It’ll be ok, girl. It’ll be ok.

I didn’t know mechano-pteradons could wink.

Something clicks in her. And then something roars. It ain’t steam, but I recognize the sound: gasoline.

Gatlin upgraded her! He upgraded her, and I never knew, and she was keeping quiet with the steam, but now — the noise don’t matter! We’re flying again in her second mode, and we’re free, we’re free! We’re heroes, and we’re free!


Jonathon Mast lives in Kentucky with his wife and an insanity of children. (A group of children is called an insanity. Trust me.) He currently owns no geared animals, much to his dismay.


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