“The World Without Hindenberg” by K.C. Norton
The morning of the crash, Lettice wore her favorite pair of pink lighter-than-air tennis shoes, which were so buoyant that she floated up the stairs without her satchel, and had to remove one before gravity pulled her back down to the living room. Consequently, she was late for the dirigible.
It was early May, and the last hint of winter was still evident in the sharp coolness of the air. It must have rained in the night, and she slipped on the last step of her skystop, catching herself just in time.
Mr. Rosendahl had waited, but he glowered at her as she took the jump between platform and keel. Lettice smiled on her way past, swinging her hips; his glower darkened. He yanked a level on the dashboard and somewhere high above them a burst of steam expanded the envelope and they began to rise.
Zylph and Tish were waiting for her in their usual seats. “I’ve got cigarettes,” said Tish at once.
“Good morning,” said Zylph with a little, formal wave. She was sitting upright in her chair, ankles primly crossed. Tish was sprawled out beside her, one hand resting on Zylph’s shoulder, her skirt riding so far up that Lettice could see the edge of her neon green underwear.
“Hallo,” she answered, flopping into the chair beside them. “Thought the old ponker was going to pull off without me. Wouldn’a complained.”
Very carefully, Zylph leaned over and pulled Tish’s skirt into place.
“So,” said Lettice, turning her face toward the window. “Cigarettes?”
Tish smirked. “Told you I’d get ’em. Only had to jiggle my ta-tas at the boy in the shop.”
Lettice glanced at Zylph, but her beatific smile was still in place, and her hands were folded demurely in her lap.
“So,” said Tish, “you in?”
“Ya,” said Lettice. “Why not?”
“You, Z?” Tish pressed.
Zylph shrugged. “I’ll go with you. You know I don’t smoke.”
“Lettice don’t smoke,” snapped Tish. “Don’t mean she can’t. Don’t mean you can’t. Your da don’t gotta know.”
The dirigible came to another stop, collected a few more students, moved on again. Above them, the envelope throbbed with hydrogen pressure, a constant buzz in Lettice’s inner ear, while the damp, tinny smell of canned air wafted through the keel.
“I don’t smoke,” said Zylph. “That’s all. But you can do what you like.”
They had decided on the period before lunch, which was Lettice’s History period. She didn’t care for History anyway; it was only boring old Mr. Hendershot, pasty and pale, rambling on for hours about dead languages and dead civ. Dead for a reason, it seemed to Lettice. All those wars and things.
She bolted out of Sophomore Comp, her bag still unzipped and her notebook still clutched under one arm. She only made it three hallways before she collided with a boy, and almost lost her footing.
“Sorry,” said Lettice, “‘scuse me, didn’t see…”
Now that she got a good look at him, she realized he was in some of her classes, darker-skinned than Zylph, and broad where her friend was fine. Still, there was something similar about them, a kind of not-fitting; Zylph was always watching to see if she stood out. This boy, too, except he was tall enough that he couldn’t not be noticed. It made her feel a little sorry for him, and she paused instead of pushing past.
“No bother,” he said. His accent was crisp; nobody from around here spoke like that. From one of the Lower Continents, then. “We have got History next.” He paused while she nodded. “Shall we walk together?”
“Mmm,” she said. “Dunno.”
Now he grinned. “Are you skipping class?”
“Ya,” said Lettice, smoothing her hair. “Don’t tell, see?”
His mouth quirked. “Ya,” he said, imitating her drawl. “But you’ll have to let me come with.”
Lettice lifted her book-bag a little higher and bounced on the toes of her lighter-than-air tennis shoes. “Dunno,” she said again.
He gave her a very long look. “Forgive me,” he said. “Was that rude?”
“Extortion’s what it is,” said Lettice. “Girls ’round here don’t take right to blackmail. Might wind you up with a black eye.”
“Let us begin again,” he said, falling a step back and planting his feet wide, hands behind him, like she’d seen soldiers do in the filmstrips. “My name is Korinko. I would like very much to accompany you on your extracurricular–”
“Ya, ya,” said Lettice, grabbing his arm. “Fine then. Only let’s not get caught. Lettice, by the way.”
Korinko hurried after her. From this close, he smelled like seawater and incense. “The leafy green?”
“My name, ponker,” she said, hurrying up the stairs. “D’you puff?”
“Not cigarettes,” he said. “Or I haven’t yet.”
She paused to look back at him. Even standing a few steps up from him only brought her to eye level. “What have you smoked, then?”
“It does not grow here,” he said. “I don’t know your word for it. Much stronger than tobacco, though.”
“Hm. Sounds like the sort of thing Tish’d go ripe for.”
But she was already moving up the stairs, and didn’t pause to look back at him.
The roof was empty, except for dropped candy wrappers. Lettice gave the area a quick survey before hurrying over to the roof’s edge, motioning for Korinko to follow her. His expression was one of pure stupefaction, but he loped along in silence.
The fire escape wrapped around the building, and was about a hundred years old by Lettice’s best guess. When Korinko put one foot on the narrow, rusted steps, the whole structure gave out a groan like a wounded dragon. They both paused, looking at one another in surprise.
“Hope it don’t fall,” hissed Lettice. “You won’t trust me again if it does.”
“I will probably not have a second opportunity to trust you,” said Korinko, “in that case.”
A cool wind pushed between the buildings; it carried wrappers and rubbish over the edge of the building, so that tiny, crackling stars seemed to be falling all around them.
“Just a little ways,” said Lettice, and continued down, without looking back to see if he’d followed.
“As the crow flies,” he said, looking over the edge.
“It’s only, what, seven stories? My flat block’s taller than that. Never been on a block roof, eh? They not have ladders where you’re from?”
He pulled a face at her. “Where I’m from, we have lions.”
“And tigers and bears, ya? And wicked smokes. Hurry up, if you’re coming.”
Tish and Zylph were around the Western corner of the fire escape. For all that they’d shook the ancient stairs the girls had not noticed they were coming. Zylph was sitting in Tish’s lap, her legs tucked primly to the side. They were kissing.
“Ah,” said Korinko, coming up behind her. “One of these girls is Tish?”
Zylph looked up at them in surprise and made to move, but Tish caught her by the waist. “Ya,” she said with a smirk. “Who’s asking?” Her spiked hair was even wilder than usual, and her pale cheeks were flushed. “Now now, Let, got you a boy there, don’t you?”
“He’s never had a cig,” said Lettice a bit lamely. She looked between Korinko and her friends, not quite sure how to explain things, suddenly uncomfortable with everyone. “Wanted a puff.”
“Does he have a name?” asked Zylph, managing to look imperious even in her girlfriend’s lap.
“Korinko,” said Lettice and Korinko at the same time. “He’s in my History.”
“No he ain’t,” grinned Tish. “Not now he ain’t.”
“The snarky one’s Zylph,” sighed Lettice. “The snarkier one, that’s Tish.”
“Korinko,” said Zylph, finally disengaging from Tish’s grasp. “Is that African?”
“Masai,” he said, undoing two buttons at the top of his uniform. “Zylph is not an Indian name.”
“No,” Zylph said. “It isn’t.”
“All right,” said Korinko.
“Cig?” asked Tish, pulling a yellow and slightly squashed-looking box out of her cardigan pocket.
Lettice leaned back against the wall. “Ya, thanks.” An enormous zeppelin was drifting through the sky very slightly above them; it would probably sweep just over the roof. She thought about the people on board, wondered who they were – who would see them, sitting out on this trembling skeleton of a stairwell, having a puff instead of studying Subaquatic Theory and History the way they ought.
Korinko bent to take the cigarette Tish was waving in his direction. “Do you have a light?” he asked.
“Wait,” Tish answered, slapping at her pockets. “Gotta be here, ponking thing…”
The zeppelin was closer now, and seemed to be losing altitude. “Hoy,” said Lettice. “Have a look.”
Tish began extracting various object from the pockets of her cardigan: a house key, three sticks of gum in shiny silver wrappers, something that looked rather like a ball-bearing, a plastic toy kitten…
“It will be hard to smoke without a light,” said Korinko wryly.
“They are flying very low,” said Zylph in a soft voice.
“Ya,” said Lettice. “And don’t it–” but she could see for herself that the zeppelin was falling towards them, and a few people on the decks were waving their hands and shouting unintelligibly. She smelled it again, the metallic waft of compressed air.
“Get up,” said Lettice, rising to her feet.
“Gotta be here,” Tish repeated.
Zylph tugged on Tish’s sweater, and Korinko seemed to finally have realized what was happening. “Down,” he said, “not up.”
Before Lettice could ask why, the envelope bloomed with flame. She grabbed at Korinko with one hand, Tish with the other. They made it perhaps ten steps before the zeppelin heaved into the side of the building, rattling the bricks, spewing fire and smoke, and tearing the fire escape loose. For a moment, that was all she could see: light, ash, the stairs in front of her standing still while the wall tilted away, until she realized it was the other way around.
“Keep moving,” demanded Korinko’s voice. He couldn’t have been more than a few inches from her, but the fire was loud, almost a scream.
No, that was Zylph screaming, only a few steps away from them, clinging to the rail. “Tish! Agni, lord of fire! Vishnu! Tish!”
It was up to Korinko to haul them onward, but the escape only carried them halfway down the side of the building before it wrapped around once more to where the smoldering debris of the aircraft hung in fiery tatters from the trembling ruin of the stairs. Here the ash was so thick she could hardly breathe, and there was something else too, a smell she could not place.
“Tish,” moaned Zylph.
“Not now,” said Korinko. “Lettice, you will have to jump.”
“Jump?” she asked. The ground was far away, fifteen or twenty feet, maybe more. “Break my ponking neck! You mad?”
Korinko kicked off his loafers. “Give me your shoes.”
She couldn’t make sense of it, but there were sirens wailing somewhere in the city, and Tish was gone, and Zylph was grabbing onto her and crying out the names of gods she did not know. So she peeled her shoes off and handed them to Korinko, who tore at the laces and shoved them onto his feet, though they were too small by half. Then, heaving himself over the rail, he let himself fall. He landed in a crouch, and she could see the sense of it now, how the shoes, lighter-than-air, had broken his fall. She felt heavier, earthbound, even as the stairs shifted beneath them.
“I’ll catch you,” shouted Korinko. “Hurry!”
It didn’t seem right to leave Zylph standing there while she jumped. “Come on,” she said, “over the edge. Good girl.”
Zylph shook her head, so Lettice had to lift her up, and after a moment Zylph obeyed, swinging both legs over the rail and taking a shallow, ashy breath before letting herself fall. Korinko caught her, stumbled under her weight, and finally set her down.
The stairs gave a creak, and someone on board the ruin cried out before coughing themselves into silence. I should help, she thought, but the stairs gave another lurch and she forced herself to follow Zylph over the railing. She landed, safe, in Korinko’s arms.
“We need to move,” he said, looking up nervously at the building.
But Zylph had peeled away back toward the crash, screaming Tish’s name.
“We gotta stop her,” said Lettice dumbly, but Korinko was already heading after her. With his long legs, still wearing Lettice’s favorite pair of lighter-than-air-shoes, it wasn’t a real race. He caught Zylph easily, and stood for what seemed a very long time, holding her back while she called for her friend.
There were tears on all their faces. From the heat, Lettice thought.
“This is not what I was expecting,” Korinko told her.
She looked across at him blankly.
“I saw a pretty girl I recognized, and I thought, I will ask to go with her, I will finally make friends. But,” he rubbed his hands across his face. “Absurd.”
The hospital room was white and cool, too sanitary, with yellow-blue bulbs that cast a harsh glow on everything and made the shadows too deep. Her hands were blistered from where they’d touched the railing, and a curt aide had wrapped them in gauze.
“Don’t mean we can’t be friends,” she murmured, resting her hands on her knees. “Well. Gotta be friends now, ya? After that?”
Korinko dropped his hands to stare at her, but in the next moment Zylph was pushing between the double doors. Her eyes were red and her nose ran, but the glassy expression was gone from her face; Lettice was glad of that.
“Is she awake?” asked Korinko softly.
Zylph gestured for them to follow her, and headed back.
Lettice stood first, reaching for Korinko’s hand. After a moment’s hesitation, he took it, and let her lead the way.
It was strange to see Tish laid out like that – unreal – with hoses threaded through her, the posie-patterned hospital gown limp and loose about her thin shoulders. God, she was so pale.
“She’s concussed,” said Zylph softly. There was a mechanical quality to her voice. “She’s steady now, but brain damage is unpredictable.”
Korinko slumped into another chair, staring out the window. Lettice followed his gaze to the clear blue sky.
“It just fell,” Zylph blurted. “It just fell and there’s no way to fix it.”
“No,” said Lettice, straightening her skirt. “Guess not.”
There were three balloons in just the little slice of the sky they could see from the window. Lettice bounced experimentally on the toes of her shoes – battered and sooty, misshapen after Korinko had jammed them on his big feet. They were still light, still bouyant. Still weightless.
She pried one heel off with her toe, stepping out of her shoe. In an instant, gravity took hold of half her body, pulling her unstoppably down. Lettice looked at Tish, took a deep breath, and pried the other shoe off, too.
“She’s the one that asked me to step out with her,” muttered Zylph. “If she dies now, I’ll never forgive her.” She was clutching something in her hand; looking closer, Lettice could just make out the plastic toy cat.
Seven stories. It wasn’t that far, thought Lettice. Hardly anything unless you had to jump.
She was looking over the railing when Korinko found her. “I thought I saw you heading up,” he said, before she turned around.
“Didn’t think you’d notice,” she teased. “Practically ponking your girlfriend right there in the halls, you were.”
He couldn’t keep the embarrassment off his face. “You walked to school again,” he said.
Lettice turned to face him, and allowed the change of subject. “Ya,” she answered. “Might fly home, though.”
“I might never.” He crossed the roof to where she was, looking down over the edge with her. “Don’t you get scared up here?”
The wind ruffled her hair, so recently cropped short. A new fire escape zigzagged down the wall behind her, safer and more efficient than the old one, devoid of rust. “Some,” she said. “Not often.”
They turned when the door opened again – Zylph this time, leading Tish on her crutches. “Hoy,” said Tish. One side of her mouth slumped slightly, and her right eyelid drooped. “You ponkers skipping the next class?”
Lettice smiled, shook her head. “Na. Gonna go back after lunch, I am.”
“Bo-ring,” drawled Tish. She paused, leaning against Zylph, who put one thin arm around Tish’s shoulders. “Might go back too. Have a sit-down. Maybe a nap in Maths.”
“You had a nap in Sub Theory,” scolded Zylph. “You ought to pay attention sometimes, at least.”
Korinko chuckled. Lettice shook her head, then looked up to where a dirigble floated high above them. Like huge birds, she thought, and then, They could fall any time.
“Get off that ledge,” snapped Tish. “Come on now, Let.”
Instead, Lettice climbed out onto the fire escape. “Scared, then?”
“Ya,” said Tish. Zylph gave a wordless whine of agreement.
Korinko came over, though, and climbed out next to her, dangling his feet into thin air. “What’s with you, Lettice? You like falling? Like jumping?”
“Na,” she whispered. She bumped her shoulder with his; the wind caught her clothes and tugged at them. “I like landing on the ground again.”
“Feet first,” he said. He was laughing. When she looked over at him, she saw him kicking his shoes off; one brown loafer tumbled through the sky. She didn’t see where it landed.
Lettice smelled smoke then, and her heart stuttered within her; but it was only Tish with a fresh cig dangling from her neon lips.
About the Author
K.C. Norton tries to have one adventure a week and, despite her best efforts, usually ends up having at least two or three. She likes to make things up, but is averse to lying – thankfully, she discovered storytelling before that paradox became a real problem.