Welcome to the teaser chapter of my novel Redwing, which I’m currently submitting to agents. Redwing is a Dieselpunk (Steampunk’s internally combusting big brother) fantasy novel about a people’s revolution that takes to the skies.
On the flying aircraft carrier Omnipotent, hangar deck crewwoman, Claire, is determined to become Avalice’s first woman fighter pilot. When Michel, ace pilot and the Admiral’s errant bastard son, grants her wish, Claire knows he’ll exact payment from her one day. While training on the flying aircraft carrier Omnipotent, Claire is persecuted by her fellow pilots who aren’t happy with a woman taking her place beside them in the sky, but finds an unlikely ally in Michel.
In the meantime, Avalice is restless, and the war is driving the poor to starvation. Rebellion stirs, led by one of Claire’s old friends from the hangar deck, and Claire fears she will soon be called upon to take up arms against her own people.
Claire wanted to fly.
It was an overcast day but the clouds were high in the sky and the air was calm when she walked out onto the River City Ground Base tarmac for pilot tryouts.
The concrete airstrip stretched out to her left, bright white in the diffused sunlight. The dreadnaught Omnipotent hung in the sky to the west, black and angular. The hangar deck crew were there in their canvas coveralls, but the fly-boys wore their leather flight jackets like badges of honour. Everyone was out to see who would make it into the Avaline Air Guard as a fighter pilot.
None of them knew that the C. Genaille who’d signed up today was a woman, but they would in a moment.
Apart from the others, Airman Michel Prideaux blew cigarette smoke into the wind. Call sign Redwing. He was tall and blond, with a look like a hungry stray dog from having grown up in Bonnytown. Not the kind of dog that whimpers and begs. The kind that’s big and mean and lunges from dark alleys. With the amount of time he spent in the brig for insubordination, there were two reasons he was still flying at all. One was the fact that he was the bastard son of a nobleman airship captain. The second was the fact that he was the best pilot in the AAG.
Michel glanced at Claire, and she felt like he could see right through her. Had guessed what she was there for?
Someone called out names. “Sebastien Sine, Quentin Chevalier, Rene Dufont, C. Genaille.”
Three young men stepped out towards the training planes taxiing onto the ramp. Claire steeled herself, held her head high and followed them, flight goggles in hand.
Claire had joined the Ladies Division of the Avaline Air Guard to work on the hangar deck, refueling and towing aeroplanes. Working alongside men who flew the machines that sailed among the clouds was the closest she might ever come to flying them herself.
And it wasn’t enough for her any more.
Others had spotted her now, and the whispers started. “Hey, that’s Thomas’s girl,” someone said over the beating of propellers. “Did he teach her?”
She’d cajoled Thomas, a young instructor at the flying club to teach her to fly before he and every pilot in the country got drafted and every aeroplane got requisitioned into the army last summer.
“Yeah, like he taught his dog to fetch his slippers.”
They laughed. But she’d known they would. It didn’t matter–she’d prove herself in the air. She was resolved to dig in her heels and do whatever she had to to make them see she belonged there.
Claire ignored the laughter and walked on to where Martin stood with the list to direct them to the four training aeroplanes. The others stood a little apart from her, and Martin raised his eyebrows.
“You can’t be serious.”
“I sure am,” said Claire.
Another laugh from the crowd that had gathered. Thomas pushed through them and grabbed her wrist. “Come on Claire, honestly, you’re embarrassing me,” he said, yanking her toward the hangar.
Claire twisted her wrist out of his grip. He made her skin crawl every time he laid his hands on her, and the other girls wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He bragged to the other pilots that she liked to do it in the sky, with no end of uncreative puns applied to the word cockpit. The only reason she’d let him take her to bed was for the few hours he’d sneak her out to let her fly his aeroplane.
“What’s the matter,” she replied, “are you worried I’m going to show you up?”
“Show me up!” He burst out laughing. “I’m only trying to save you from embarrassing yourself.”
“What does it matter if she embarrasses herself?” came Michel’s voice behind her.
Claire’s stomach turned to ice at his voice. He prowled around her and Claire felt the blood drain from her face. She did her best to keep her chin up.
Michel looked away from her and shrugged. “Let her. Teach her a lesson.”
It was the same argument she’d been planning on resorting to herself, but having Michel backing her hadn’t been in her plans. Not at all.
Thomas scoffed. “Oh, I’ll teach her a lesson all right, don’t worry about that,” he said, making another grab for her wrist. Claire dodged—and backed straight into Michel.
Claire chewed on the inside of her cheek as her temper flared to keep from snapping back a retort that would only make Thomas even more angry.
Michel laughed. Softly – Claire couldn’t hear it, only saw his chest move, and his mouth twist into that smirk again. “You are afraid she’ll show you up.”
That Michel was not well liked by really anyone wasn’t going to help her case, but that the other pilots would jump at an opportunity to make him look foolish just might.
Thomas snorted. His pride was delicate, and playing on it was the second easiest way to manipulate him. Michel might not be everyone’s friend, but Thomas wouldn’t stand to be laughed at by the best pilot in the Air Guard. “Fine,” he said to Claire. “Whatever. Have fun up there. Don’t crash the aeroplane, they’re expensive.”
Claire breathed a sigh of relief, but caught herself when she realized Michel was still watching her. He was planning something. He knew what he’d just done for her, and he didn’t do nice things for people.
Michel glanced at Martin, and no words were needed between them. Most of the other pilots were afraid of Michel. Martin shook his head, waved them toward the training aeroplanes and proceeded to assign them each an aircraft.
The other trainees kept their distance like they might catch something from her, though whether that was because of her own actions, or the fact that Michel had taken an interest in her was hard to say. The tall one answered to Chevalier when Martin pointed him to one of the training aeroplanes. The brown haired one was Sebastian. The last one, Du Font, was about Claire’s height, and looked too young to be going to war. But then, most of them did.
“We’re going to do some standard formation exercises. Then I’m going to have you do combat maneuvers individually, so I can evaluate you.” Normally there would be an experienced evaluator in each plane with the applicant. The army was badly short manned for pilots. Another reason Claire had high hopes.
Claire followed where he pointed. She felt Michel’s eyes on her, and fought the instinct to look back at him. When she climbed into the cockpit of the silver Almighty, he was still looking at her.
He hadn’t moved though. He just stood, dragging on a cigarette.
She pushed it from her mind. She couldn’t let herself get distracted now.
The new Almighty model was sleek, with a single set of wings attatched at the bottom of the fuselage. The Invincible’s bulky rotary engine had been replaced by a slender inline in front of the glass enclosed cockpit. The tapered wings angled slightly upward for more stability in a steep bank. To see one beside the old Invincibles was like standing a thoroughbred next to a pack pony.
The controls in the Almighty were blessedly similar to what she’d learned on at the flying club—the flight stick was a bit longer, and the altimeter in scientific rather than common units, but everything was in roughly the same place, aside from a few extra instruments on the panel. Around when she’d started working on the hangar deck, Michel had demanded the Senior Air Machinist install every newly invented piece of navigation equipment that existed. With it, he flew fearlessly into and above clouds, able to find his way home without sight of the ground, guided by nothing but the gyroscopic instruments, including an artificial horizon to help keep his wings level when he couldn’t see the horizon, and directional gyroscope, to minimize compass errors. Once Michel had proved their usefulness, the army had incorporated them into the new models.
Claire familiarized herself with the instrument panel while she waited her turn, and finally a ground crewman gave her the okay. She turned the prop key and the starter gear turned the prop over three times before the engine fired and roared to life.
When the ground crew waved their flags, she taxied the aeroplane off the ramp and down the taxiway. The leather wrapped control stick warmed under her right hand, but the cold metal seat didn’t. The cockpit was closed in with glass, and quieter than the old biplanes they flew in the flying clubs years ago. The ground crew got out of the way as she paused at the threshold and revved the engine for a fast run-up check.
“Trainer four, lining up,” she said over the radio, and pushed the throttle forward. Last to take off, she lined up the aeroplane on the runway.
The ground crew waved a green flag and got out of the way. “Trainer four taking off,” she radioed, and pushed the throttle forward all the way in a smooth motion. Her heart accelerated with her Almighty in anticipation of flight. The craft bumped along the concrete runway, and Claire kept it straight with the rudder pedals at her feet. She watched her airspeed come alive, rising into take-off range. Finally she pulled gently back the control stick and a familiar thrill ran through her as the wheels left the ground.
Claire refocused, and let the aircraft gain speed before angling into a climb after the trainer aeroplanes already in the distance.
Martin’s voice came over the radio. “Form up, you bunch, we don’t have all day. I want Chevalier on my left, then Dufont, Sine, and Genaille, in that order.”
Fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed and purple flax rippled in the wind like water and fell away as Claire climbed up to where the others were forming into an echelon. She took her place on the left end of the diagonal line, with the River City on her left, a dreary scab of smoke spewing factories stretched over the fork of two rivers.
Martin—Finch was his call sign in the air—led them in his yellow and black Almighty. Simple motions first, then the more complicated steep turns. Claire executed them flawlessly—she knew she had to. All of her being was focused on perfection. The smooth air made things easy. And yet, even when they got into the combat maneuvers, Martin kept to the simple ones.
He had them fire at targets hanging from one of the smaller dirigible airships. Their training guns were pneumatic, loaded with gelatin spheres of blue paint. Harmless, and not the most accurate, but it was only for training.
They finished the maneuvers, and Claire managed not to mess anything up.
She didn’t manage to stand out either.
Claire circled, trying to enjoy the remainder of her flight while she waited for the order to land. It could be her last flight. If her skill wasn’t enough to convince them to let her join the Air Guard, this would certainly be the last time she would sit in the cockpit of an Almighty.
“Form back up and we’ll start landing, Sine first.”
Claire pulled back into formation with the others. As she took her place on the end again, something caught her eye. Something diving from above.
She yanked the flight stick back and applied the rudder hard, pulling out of the way barely in time.
One of the training aeroplanes hurtled down, pelting Sebastien’s aeroplane with blue paint before looping around right in front of them.
Martin’s voice came over the radio. “Who the hell is that?”
“Watch out Dufont, he’s coming for you next,” called another voice—Claire guessed it was Sebastian.
Dufont banked and tried to swoop, but the new pilot was on his tail in another second. René wove, back and forth, trying to keep from giving the attacker a clear shot. The aeroplane behind him swung to and fro in an almost leisurely way, taking his time to line up the shot.
Martin continued to shout over the radio for the pilot to identify himself and get out of the training airspace, but Claire wasn’t listening.
She shook her head, heart pounding, and nosed into a climb. The unidentified pilot had nearly clipped her wing diving between the training aeroplanes. Only Michel would be so reckless.
“Just having a bit of fun with the trainees,” came Michel’s voice as he swooped sharp after René.
“Redwing, what the hell are you doing?” Martin shouted over the radio.
“Giving them a challenge.”
Michel was closing in on René, turning sharper, keeping up with René’s every attempt to evade. René pulled into a loop to try and shake him, but Michel was right behind him.
As they came out of the loop, Claire banked toward them, still climbing. That was what he wanted, wasn’t it?
She tried to remember everything she’d heard about combat flying. She gained altitude while René distracted Michel, but she couldn’t put the sun in front of her with the overcast clouds diffusing the light.
“Finch to Genaille, ignore him and land immediately,” said Martin.
Claire tightened her hand around the control stick. Was Michel trying to scare her away from flying, or was he trying to get her to ruin what little chance she had by disobeying orders? Insubordination could get her thrown out of the military entirely. Michel could get away with it, but he was a Captain’s son.
But then, how likely were they to let her fly combat at all? And if this was going to be her last time behind the controls, what better way to spend it than a mock dogfight with the best pilot in Avalice?
Michel dove after René, and Claire dove after them.
She wouldn’t catch him off guard. They went into another loop coming towards her, and she dove, lining herself up for a shot where Michel would fly if he followed René out of the loop.
But he saw her, and instead of following the loop through, he shot straight up into a stall turn—a favourite of his. She’d seen him practice it, and she knew exactly how he’d come out of it. She flew past, pulled up and over, rolling level at the top of a half-loop. Michel was tipping down now, belly to her.
When he didn’t spot her he rolled in his dive before starting to pull out of it. Claire could tell the precise moment he spotted her, because he pulled out of the dive to the left. Claire banked onto his tail.
And then the radio erupted in sputters as transmissions came in.
“Good on you Genaille, get him!” shouted Sebastian.
“Redwing, get the hell out of my training airspace.”
“Go Genaille! Paint him up!”
Claire nearly lost focus when she realized everyone was cheering for her. No one had ever cheered her on before.
Michel rolled to the side as René leveled out in front of them. René wasn’t fast enough, and Michel sent a spray of paint filled ammunition across his fuselage. He could have done it ten times already, but Claire supposed he was getting ready to turn on her. She supposed it was a compliment that he’d decided he didn’t want to take on both of them at once.
René pulled away. “I’m out, he’s all yours Genaille. Good luck.”
Michel dove into a retreat; he was fast, but Claire managed to follow him again, and when he tried an upside down loop, she was right behind.
They circled one another, both trying to get the advantage. Claire’s blood thundered in her ears. She evaded his attempts to get her in his gun sights. Sometimes just barely. She saw balls of paint fly past her cockpit windows more than once.
Claire’s heart pounded as she followed Michel into another steep bank. As she pulled tighter, the whole craft began to shake, warning her that she was about to stall. She didn’t dare pull the turn tighter, but she pushed the throttle to full power to stave off the stall, praying it wouldn’t send her into a spin. The Almighty handled beautifully, turning sharper than the old Invincible she’d last flown with Thomas. She wondered if Michel was getting as dizzy as she was.
Michel banked suddenly the opposite direction, whipping through her sights. Claire held down the trigger and sprayed paint as she leveled out and followed.
All at once it was over. Michel wagged his wings and swooped toward the landing strip.
“You can take that aeroplane in as soon as he’s down, Genaille,” came Martin’s voice, his annoyance poorly hidden. The words left an empty place in her chest. Reluctantly, she banked toward the runway, wondering how she should act when she set foot on the ground. She wanted to shout at Michel—tell him that he wasn’t going to frighten her. That wouldn’t do, of course. He was an arse, but he was her superior officer.
No. Curt, polite protocol. That was always proper in the military. And least likely to land her in a court marshal. As it was, she’d disobeyed Martin’s first order to land. Martin wouldn’t let her in the training class now. She’d ruined her chances.
Had she ever had a chance to begin with?
She leveled her wings and touched down on the runway as lightly as she could. She touched down too fast and the aircraft bounced back up in the air. Claire leveled off again to bleed off more speed, feeling her face go red at the sloppy landing. Damn it, she was distracted. Even more surprising was how shaky her arms and legs were as she climbed out of the cockpit. She leaned against the Almighty to steady herself.
Michel was waiting for her.
Martin joined Michel on the airstrip. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were arguing, and then Michel nodded to her. Martin looked over his shoulder and started over, and Michel followed, putting a cigarette in his mouth and pulling a book of matches out of his pocket. Martin slapped the matches out of his hand with a muttered remark about the proximity of the diesel tanks.
Claire mustered the last of her courage to raise her head high as she pushed up her flight goggles. Wisps of mouse brown hair floated around her face as the other applicants congratulated her.
“You showed him, didn’t you.”
Only Thomas looked angry.
Martin glanced at the group. “Successful applicants will be posted on the front bulletin board in the morning,” he snapped, and walked away.
Sebastien passed her on his way out. “That was some fine flying,” he whispered.
Claire put her hand on the Almighty to steady herself again as the applicants filed out to the rail platform. She turned reluctantly toward the dock, where an airship would take her, and the others stationed on the Omnipotent back to their posts. She walked slowly, trailing her hand along the shining metal of the aeroplane, feeling every rivet pass under her fingers.
She wished they’d just tell her no, rather than leaving her in limbo, and making her slink back in the morning just to have her heart broken when her name wasn’t on the list of accepted applicants. Probably wanted to watch.
When she looked up, Michel was still there.
Claire left the aeroplane, walking fast across the runway to the walkway that led to the airship. Michel cut her off at the door and put his hand on the brick wall in front of her.
Her anger boiled up, and she did something she probably shouldn’t have done. She shoved him with both hands and pushed past.
“Hey,” he said as she started off.
Claire whirled around, hoping fruitlessly that she might come up with something clever to say when she snapped back at him. He looked at her and took a drag from his cigarette with a bemused expression.
“I did you a favour, you know,” he said, throwing the spent cigarette butt into the grass. “You just don’t know it yet.”
Trying to protect her from the dangers of combat—that’s what the men always said.
She wanted to snarl at him as he walked away, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She bit her lip to keep the tears from falling.
Instead, she focused on what she’d seen above Michel’s head as he’d stood under his own aeroplane—across the fuselage, a brilliant blue smear of paint.