“The Captain’s Sphere” by Malcolm A. Schmitz
When Ava goes to the sky-docks on business, she dresses like a man.
Her uniform is perfect, her buttons burnished, her overcoat belted over the top. She hides her hair under an aviator’s cap, buckling the cap snugly around her chin; sometimes a dark strand of it falls out, and she tucks it back in. She laces her thickest boots tightly, even though they chafe against her false leg. For new acquaintances and potential partners, she allows her detested beard to grow and bears its scratch and torment.
The seedy office overlooks the sky-docks and reeks of Harrington’s stale tobacco. When she talks to him, she tries to do all the little things that will get her the respect she knows she’s earned, even though he’s known her for years. She splays her legs out, leans forward, and breathes in the pipe smoke like she was born for it.
“You’re going out again?” he asks.
“I need to catch an angel,” she tells him. “I’ll cover the expense.”
“Another one? How much time are you going to spend out there?”
“Enough. When last we were out, I found a throne.”
“A what?” He squints at her, pushing his glasses up. He resembles a walrus, all bushy moustaches and little dark eyes in a web of wrinkles.
“It’s a term of art. A group of angels. If I can approach them before we catch one, I may have a chance to study them in their natural habitat.”
“And you’ll risk your life and our ship for this, Lord Loftus?” He taps his pipe against the desk. “I know you like to study angels, but getting that close is real risky.”
She mentally sighs. She’s been doing this for years, since she was hardly more than a child: when she ran away from school, disguised herself as a boy, and went to sky. She’s known most of these people for a decade. But women don’t go to sky. Most everyone thinks of her as a man, because that’s how she acts.
The language of social spheres is one Ava understands, but she speaks haltingly and with an imperfect accent. Men lead and protect from the masculine sphere, women nurture and admire from the feminine sphere, and admen toil and build in the neuter sphere. It doesn’t matter what sort of body you have, or even what sort of mind, really – it matters what you do. When one does things that are ‘meant’ to be done by men, if one says one’s a woman, people will assume lunacy, and act accordingly. To act – and succeed – in the masculine sphere, she must become a pretender, and bear the epithets of Lord and sir and he.
The words are light as air, but they fall on her shoulders like heavy snow. Ava knows she ought to ignore them, but they still rankle.
“There’s no risk. We can observe from a distance until one strays, and then–” Her hand moves like a steel trap. “The usual.”
“If we’re really lucky, we might even catch two angels, and this voyage will pay for itself.” Ava keeps her voice low and steady, and narrows her eyes. She’s known Harrington for years, and she knows that he’s a tradesman to the bone. If she wants to get anything out of him, she has to prove it won’t hurt his wallet.
He looks down at the stack of papers on his desk. Finally, he nods.
“I trust your judgement,” he says. “She should be in good shape. Take her out.”
The weight of his words evaporates as she takes her leave, already falling into an
aviator’s rolling gait. She pulls up her collar as the cold air hits her face.
The hours slide past as she moves towards her goal. She talks to the quartermaster and gathers up her crew. She keeps moving through the masculine sphere – she grunts and snorts and peppers her speech with skylors’ slang, and lets them call her he and Lord and him.
And she bears the words with a smile. Moving in the men’s sphere is frustrating and painful, but it’s worth it for her freedom. Soon her ship will set sail, and she’ll be free to discover. She’ll open the secrets of the universe, someday; she just has to keep moving.
When Ava attends the scientific societies, she dresses like a scientist – that is to say, like a person of high quality and ambiguous gender. She permits herself the eccentricity of a hat with angel’s feathers in it, a blouse cut like a man’s shirt, with a drab skirt of sufficient length for propriety, but short enough to raise, and wears a stocking and slipper on her good foot while leaving her false leg bare. At such events, people want to examine the intricate machinery inside her leg. Most of the time, she permits inspection, that the design might prompt further aid to others, but their scrutiny makes her feel like the centrepiece of a zoological exhibit.
Usually, though, her reputation precedes her. She’s advanced angelology sufficiently that she can’t possibly be ignored. To her peers, she is and always has been A.V. Loftus, and they call her she and her and Lady. That respect of mind and self is the true prize she’s run the race to win. Each hearing flushes her face, speeds her heart, until she can barely contain her pleasure at hearing their acknowledgement. One good meeting like this erases an entire week of the masculine sphere.
When her darling Clara goes with her – as she has, on this occasion – she calls her she too – she and her and love and sweetest and dearest – and their displays of affection, though subtle, are clear. In scientific circles, even where they overlap with Society circles, this sort of thing is ignored.
An eminent angelologist from Abyssinia named Berhanu takes the podium, and begins to speak on the nature of the elements. Ava listens, out of politeness – after all, he’s come very far to speak – but she quickly realises that he hasn’t said anything she hasn’t heard before. She’s already read his monograph on the subject. Angel magic is tied up into fire and air, and forcing earth or water to cooperate with it is difficult. Some people say it’s impossible, and he’s one of them. He’s suggested a system that uses fire and air to manipulate the other elements, but she privately thinks it’s inefficient.
Ava hopes to prove him wrong in a few weeks, but even if she can’t, she soon finds her mind wandering towards the voyage – up through the clouds, to the endless islands scattered through the sky. She turns her attention to Clara, gently squeezing her warm, delicate, gloved hand. It’s warm, even through their gloves.
“Remind me when you’re leaving, again?” Clara asks, in a whisper.
“In a fortnight. We’ve found a throne, and I’d like to study it.”
“Shall I go this time?” Clara bites her lip. “I want to see what it is you do up there, my love.”
“It’s dangerous,” Ava says.
“And our work isn’t?” Clara caresses her thumb.
“Not this time. Next time.” She sighs. “When we’re not trying to study a throne. I’ll take daguerres, I promise.”
“I won’t let you reverse yourself,” she warns. “Are you certain?”
“Yes. I promise.”
Clara’s fingers twine back in Ava’s, and through the rest of the talks, Ava’s face feels warm.
The speaker steps down, and soon, the society members set to conversation. This is Ava’s least favourite part. Social niceties seem less charted than the currents of the sky. She can usually manage herself when she’s speaking to her fellow scientists, but there’s always a few ludicrously important people there who have come to see how their money’s being spent, and so many of them seem interested in being, quietly, rude to her.
When Lady Somesuch or Earl Whoever calls Ava he, in that very pointed tone of voice that the Haute Tonne use to tear one down, Clara says, very sweetly, “I do believe you’re mistaken,” and redirects the conversation. She squeezes Ava’s hand gently.
This sort of thing doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Ava feels a headache bursting behind her eyelids, and her skin starts to crawl. She keeps her composure – she needs to be able to cut anyone who calls Clara a country girl in that sneering voice, the one that means whore, back down to size. They have to look after each other.
She hails a cabriolet and they leave. A hundred subtle cruelties leave Ava feeling bruised and dispirited, despite the armour of Clara’s affection. But Clara’s arms around Ava’s neck and the soft smell of lavender in her nose salves the wounds, a little, and will be a talisman in the coming days.
They exchange last tender words and caresses through the morning’s breakfast. As always, Ava takes a last lump of sugar, and presses it to Clara’s lips as a charm to ensure her safe return.
Clara helps Ava tape her hair up, to keep it out of her way when she’s on board. Her soft fingers move over Ava’s hair, braiding it and coiling the braids up on her head, tying them tight, and sticking a matchstick in for luck. It’ll hold for weeks.
After all the goodbyes she can say are said, Ava presses one last, soft kiss to Clara’s lips, and leaves. She leaves through the dull fog that rises up in low sky, the kind that smells like smoke and wet ash. It’s a bad omen, not as bad as a red sky, but close. Clara waves goodbye from the balcony, and Ava can see her hand clutching the locket she gave her tightly.
Ava hopes she’ll see her again, soon.
Aboard ship, Ava dresses like a captain.
There’s no time to burnish her buttons; more important things take up the hours. Her hair stays taped up, and her set of pinhole goggles hangs from her neck. She keeps the thick jacket on, out of necessity – the skies above London are cold, and prone to rain, even in the higher reaches. But she discards the boot that goes over her false leg, and she feels much freer, much less like she’s playing a part.
When it’s safe to, she shaves regularly. It’s dangerous to sharpen blades in deep sky. Magic crackles in the air, and metal on stone can scatter sparks that set the air ablaze, making your cabin into your very own funeral pyre. And that isn’t even the worst thing that happens when magic casts itself. It’d be safer to mimic the other sailors, and stay unshaven until they make landfall again. But she can’t stand the way hair feels on her face and her arms and her chest, so she keeps a stash of razors in a box under her bed, and ties it down so the razors won’t bump against each other.
Her men and admen call her Captain, or they, or boss, and she can live with that. They don’t seem too inclined to think of her as a woman, but at least they’re not calling her a man. It has taken some work. She’s had to explain the situation to every one of her officers, and they’ve done the same for the crew. On one memorable occasion, an insubordinate crew member called her a “sheman” and a “freak” to her face, and she took him to her cabin for a lesson in manners.
Ava pointed out, quite plainly, that aboard ship, her word was law. If she wanted to, she could punish him for insubordination. The Naval Guide has a list of sentences for each shipboard crime, and she read some of them to him. They were both archaic and gruesome.
He left pale-faced and shaking, and she poured herself scotch and rubbed her temples. Then, she called the first mate in, and instructed him to send the offender up to the brig for a few hours. When he came down, he’d be less eager to spew hatred at her.
The words were just air, but they burned like fire. She wondered if she’d overreacted, but shrugged her misgivings away. The sky was dangerous. She needed her men to obey her; an insurrectionist crew would be the death of everyone aboard.
She tells herself that all she can do is tell them what she wants to be called, and let it go at that. She’s not powerless. She’ll give the orders, and set her men on watch, and then they’ll bag an angel and go home, and she can be alone and be herself again.
For once, that’s exactly what happens. On the fifth day out, the lookout cries, “Thar she flies,” and as the ship turns to his orders, Ava spots the throne.
An individual angel is a vast, twitching mass of feathers and eyes and spurts of flame. Multiply that by a hundred, and you have a throne. They’ve made a vast sphere, larger than the dome of St. Paul’s, and it hums eerily in a minor key as they approach. It seems to spin without motion, pinned to the sky, yet endlessly moving. It’s a dizzying, almost nauseating sight – people aren’t meant to look at angels, and it makes her eyes water just to see it sitting still. One can’t look at angels in flight for long.
Ava orders her crew to switch to secondary propellers and hold fast some hundred yards out. She raises the daguerroscope to its tripod. It’s heavy and clunky, but much better suited to long-range pictures than a handheld camera. She takes the picture she promised Clara, and then lowers the daguerroscope, putting it back in its case.
The angels are still moving-without-motion, but a noise like a church bell comes from the centre of the throne, echoing and pulsating. The wings of the angels on the outside of the sphere change colour. She takes careful notes.
The air shivers on the first note of a cacophony that sounds like a choir, all singing different keys, and then–
In a flurry of heavy, beating wings, the throne breaks apart.
The crewmen were given their orders in advance, and they move – most of them, to below the decks. The ship’s reinforced, and they’ve plugged their ears with wax – they’ll be safe there. Only two remain above: the helmsman, who also has plugged his ears and has lashed himself to the helm; and Ava herself, who’s tied to the mast.
She watches the angels pass the ship. She sees things, then, that no one should see. She has no words for the numinous mystery that is their presence – they’re holy and strange and divine.
Afterwards, she’s got nothing to remember it by but a few notes she scrawled in the immediate aftermath. She wrote about bright cities and eating a book that tasted bitter in her mouth and golden beings that told her she was going to turn the universe inside out and that’s exactly what she did, she bent its inside to the outside and then crumpled it up into a ball and threw it and as she floated in nothingness she watched it arc gently by. It looked like a bead on a cloth of black velvet, but she was also part of the bead, and it pulsed around her and within her. She was nothing, she was everything.
The feeling passes soon enough, and she comes back to herself with a pounding headache. She tries to get a sense of her bearings, and, after the helmsmen unties her, jots the perfunctory notes. It feels strange, after that, being in a body that’s so small, and pins-and-needles course through her hand sharply, but she doesn’t let them distract her. She has to get the words down before she forgets what happened.
The angels have mostly fled – she can see them moving on the horizon, impossibly fast for their size, and trailing fire behind them. There’s only one straggler. It’s medium-sized, not small enough to be a curio and not large enough to be a mine of feathers, but it’ll have to do.
She straps on her goggles, goes below and signs orders to the crew – back up on deck, goggles on, gliders out. Her crew moves swiftly and silently, coming up from beneath and taking to the sky.
Ava watches as the harpooners move out, circling the angel. The first one, and the second, fire, and their silver blades dig into the angel’s sides. It screams and thrashes, tugging the glidermen to and fro like beads on a string, but they hold firm as it begins to die.
They have the callousness and strong stomach of a band of butchers. In its death throes, looking at an angel is like staring straight into the sun, and it pulses and bleeds thick and blue and screams. Even Ava can barely bear to watch, and she has a set of pinhole goggles that lessen the brightness of its death.
The angel stills. It’s reduced to a pile of feathers and clouded eyes. The dead angel looks like nothing more than the insides of a child’s doll.
The glidermen tug it back, their motors chugging along quietly. The gliders look like winged ants, at this distance – the iridescent sails of the gliders, made of angels’ skin, catch the light. A thin trail of smoke comes behind them as they tug the angel to its resting place. They lash it to the poop deck of the ship.
Ava’s eyes light up as she looks it over. It’s a little bigger than she thought: too big to fit through the doorway of her home. A disappointment, to be sure – normally, she takes them apart. Angels’ feathers and angel bones and angel flesh are all catalysts for powerful magic, the stuff that keeps the lights burning in London and Prague and Peking, the stuff that powers ships and keeps the world moving. It’s the breath of life, once burned, and commerce in angelic curiosities, both legal and illegal, circles the globe.
She, of course, doesn’t engage in that sort of thing; she has people for that. What her agents can’t sell, she studies.
Her crewmembers get one of the spare sails out from the hold. It’s a vast India-rubber sheet, and they unroll it; it covers half the deck. Then they lower the angel down.
As she helps the crew pluck the angel, she feels power surging through her hands, even through the thick gloves that muffle her movements. She feels like anything that stops her can be pushed aside.
The feeling passes, as feelings do, but it takes a great while. She’s still feeling ghosts of it days afterwards.
Until she goes home, sees her aunt’s carriage in front of her home, and realises that she’s got a long battle ahead.
When Ava’s with her family, she dresses like a lady.
Her gentlewoman’s clothes feel like a costume, even more than her gentleman’s clothes do. But she’s a born actress, and her costume is impeccable.
Ava pins her hair up in an elaborate twist, with two long strands dropping down behind her ears. She forces her broad frame into a pink organdie dress that really never fit her – she had been too embarrassed to ask for the proper adjustments – and encases her arms in too-tight gloves. She pins flowers to her chest and shaves one more time, just to make sure she didn’t miss a spot, before sweeping downstairs in all her effeminate glory.
The people who call themselves her family call her she and her and William – I mean Ava, darling and have convinced themselves that that is the height of Radicalism. She doesn’t care enough to argue with them. The last time she did, her aunt sat up straight as a poker and screamed in Ava’s face, accusing her of being an ungrateful, spoiled child. Ava mollified her, and apologised, but she didn’t want to endure that again.
To give them their due, they are radicals, in a sense. When Ava, at the age of thirteen, told them that she’d quite like them to call her a girl now, they hadn’t batted an eye. Ava’s mother took her to the modiste within a week, and she was sent off to an academy for fine young ladies who didn’t quite fit the accepted definition of ‘lady’. She never got as much hatred as some of her school chums had for it, and even when she started using magic to adjust her body, her family didn’t say a word. She feels like she really is ungrateful for being upset with them sometimes, because they stumble on details, not the broad outlines.
But details matter, as Ava has learned in the sky and the docks. Her posture, her clothing, mentions of her ships and crew bring on an outbreak of sidelong glances and sniffs of disapproval. Ladies of quality may own ships, but are most certainly not supposed to fly them.
Occasionally, if she sits next to her mother or her aunt at supper, she gets an elbow in the side and a whisper of that’s not ladylike, Ava. She’s been asked – more times than she wants to recall – whether she’s met a nice young gentleman, whether she’s planning on having children, how she plans to have children since she modified her body, and when she’s going to stop with this ‘silly lady magician’ thing and focus on things that are really important, like her family.
As always, it’s a matter of spheres. When she declared herself a girl, so many years ago, she couldn’t have known how proscribed her sphere would be. Now her world is too big for the delicate sensibilities of the people who think in terms of spheres. They prune her sphere and her very self to fit in the small spaces they made for her.
Ava doesn’t want to go back, and they can’t make her for all the tea in the Celestial Empire. But sometimes, when she’s in bed on land, she stares at the ceiling in the middle of the night, and she wonders if they’re right.
She’ll try to make herself smaller, the day after. She’ll cross her ankles, avoid slang and vulgarisms, try to speak and walk and dress like a lady. She’ll brush her hair back, eat less, drink less, swear less – which is a bloody challenge, considering that she’s more a skylor than a gentlewoman, any day.
It never lasts long. She’ll let forth a few oaths, unminced; she’ll sprawl, most unladylike, over the sofa as she composes a letter or a monograph; she’ll pepper her speech with angeler’s slang, and by the end of the next day, she’ll feel like herself again.
When Ava’s at home, by herself, she dresses however she wants.
Sometimes this is her skylor’s kit, though with the jacket slung over the back of a chair and without shoes. Sometimes it’s a dress – though even when it is, it’s dark red or olive-green and cut more like a gentleman’s riding habit, with slits in her skirts so she can climb more easily. Sometimes it’s just her underclothes, and sometimes nothing at all.
Her handful of servants do call her she and Lady and mistress. Her modiste, her doctor, and her priest have been similarly apprised, and they use the right words for her, most of the time. It feels good when they do, like a small sun settling in her chest and shining bright.
The best times, though, are when she doesn’t need to be called anything at all, except maybe you.
When her nose is buried deep in a book, her eyes skim over the page like coursers on a straight road, she’s alone with people who will never call her anything, but she calls friends. When she’s playing with her kitten, Bucephalus, she watches him, the tiny, half-blind, improbably-named ball of fluff that he is, charge madly at a piece of string. Bucephalus calls her mrrt, which, she thinks, sounds like mum, and it makes her smile.
When she’s in bed with Clara, twined together in the soft, sweat-scented morning light, they don’t need words at all, just soft touches and gentle caresses. Everything they do, at times like that, trembles with tenderness, and though there are words there, they’re soft and they mean much less than what she does.
When she’s elbow-deep in the guts of a dissected angel, trying to figure out exactly how they work, her mind goes incisive and sharp, and she sees things that she couldn’t have seen without that state driving her forward. She’s spurred forward, in a wordless plane of joy, and that joy happens to be made of feathers and flesh and blood and bone and a very sharp knife.
Best of all is when she’s in the lab with Clara, and they’re working together, performing feats of scientific magic. They need words, then, but they’re words like stop and all right, I’m ready and stand clear, and names aren’t necessary. Clara sets up the etna apparatus, she prepares the feather.
“Ready?” she asks.
“Ready.” Clara straightens up, hand on the lever.
“Clear,” Ava says.
Clara pulls the switch, and the etna ignites. The feather, suspended over it by a thin magical field, starts to burn.
They both concentrate. Ava can feel the power rising through her arms and her fingers. She takes a deep breath, and focuses–
When she opens her eyes, her heart races. Ice crystals are spreading over the walls, lacing themselves together.
“Oh my goodness.” Clara reaches out and touches the wall; the ice melts under her fingers. “Berhanu said it wasn’t possible–”
“It is.” Ava feels like she’s about to burst. She starts to move forward – in this moment, she wants nothing more than to embrace Clara.
Clara reaches out and turns off the etna, and then pulls Ava into her arms. Ava holds her close, and she feels so happy that she thinks she might be glowing. She feels like herself, messy and whole and pure and alive, and nothing in the world can take that feeling away from her.
About the Author
Malcolm Schmitz was born in a small-town hospital in Ohio, where the doctors said he was a girl. Shortly after that, a doctor said that he was autistic. Only one of those things proved to be true. He currently lives in the American Midwest, where he writes books full of aliens, dragons, and gay people.