Air France

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Somewhere in France, 1634

 

The first rays of dawn touched his face, awakening him gently to a new day. Two heads on the same pillow were all that were not tucked warmly under the woolen covers topping the tavern's fine feather bed. His eyes still closed, Jacques slowly drifted his hand down the soft, smooth curve of her back. He came to a stop at the last curve of her waist. She breathed heavily, still asleep from the night's exertions, barely stirring from the lightness of his touch.

"What is her name?" His mind raced. He had no idea. She faced away from him and all he could see was the tangle of dark hair which obscured her face.

With blurry eyes, he tried to focus on the cracks in the ceiling, imperfectly hidden by the recently applied whitewash. Clearing the cobwebs of sleep, he hoped her name would come to him. The familiar plaster of the post and beam walls of the fifty-year-old room offered no whispered clue. He looked at the basin and pitcher on the finely-crafted wash stand, then across the floor at their clothes, tossed randomly in the heat of passion the night before. None of this helped either.

He took a heavy breath and marveled again at such fine accommodations. As a former townsman, he was still unaccustomed to the kind of life he lived here at le Laboratoire, though it had been nearly six months since he had received the invitation to come and work at the facility, one of France's closest-held secrets. That such fine accommodations were made available to those who worked here was testimony to the importance of their task—to perfect an aircraft design that would take France into the skies.

The floor of his room was clean, even if scratched and scuffed. Its wide wood planks extended from underneath the luxury of a Persian carpet. Elsewhere such carpets would have been displayed on the wall, but not now. The books at the Grantville library had shown them the luxury of such things and there wasn't a noble in France that hadn't thrown their carpets down on the floors to demonstrate their wealth and modernity, as shown in countless up-time books.

The upstairs bedrooms of the old tavern offered excellent beds. The recent redecorating had been welcome, indicating that the successes achieved so far at the Motor Vehicle Research Station had raised it even higher in the favor of Paris. His section of the Research Station was carefully named with intentional mystery to conceal its true purpose of achieving powered flight. They called it "le Laboratoire," and this was the crown jewel of the Research Station's efforts.

AS a result, the researchers and test pilots lived pampered lives. The furnishings were of the finest quality, the food elegant, the wines fit for nobility, and the girls . . . Ah, les filles—of the many things provided, the girls were the finest of all.

"What is her name?" he wondered again silently. "Should I ask? Or does it matter?"

After some consideration, he remembered his father's advice about women: "Yes, it always matters."

The least he could do was remember their names, but with so many, that was not an easy task. The party last night had been a grand affair, given in his honor as the newly-promoted First Pilot of le Laboratoire. He was proud of his role and pleased to be selected the first among the cadre that had assembled to test the skies. As the First Pilot, his name would be forever remembered and written in the annals of history. He was Jacques de Nonette, the one selected to fly the newest "aero machine" in the morning.

The researchers and pilots, after long debate, had decided that the correct term for such a machine was "aero machine." The term airplane sounded too English and was not at all pleasing to the ear. Moreover, to call it an airplane might imply that they had copied the works of the others. They were building machines for the air—aero machines—and he was one of the lucky ones who had been chosen to fly them.

For pilots like Jacques, there was music, good wine, distilled spirits, and les filles—always les filles. They were all young, busty brunettes, and all so very willing as the tavern girls were hired to be. Les filles were a way of distracting the pilots at le Laboratoire from what they faced every time they flew, or more accurately, tried to fly. Also, they kept the men from sneaking off to town where, after a few drinks, they might give away the secrets of the Station. There were many who would pay dearly to know of the works and progress.

"What is her name?" he asked himself again. "Antoinette?" He paused, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Yes, Antoinette."

Then he reconsidered—No. Antoinette was Tuesday. It must be Martine? Or was it Lucie? Juliette? After so many conquests, how could a man remember?

Despite all the girls and trysts of the past six months, the one conquest that mattered most to him had been the most elusive; to fly under power one of the new aero machines across the sky of the Research Station. Gliding they had achieved, but not yet powered flight. However, today was the day that it would all change. It felt like a new door had opened to a future where France could fly—and fight. They had fixed the last problems, though the flames from that last crash had nearly burned all the evidence of what had gone wrong. They must have done it correctly this time, he reasoned. Today, it was his turn, and he was confident that he would succeed.

He smiled. It would be a glorious day.

Then with a start he said out loud, "Mon Dieu! I'm supposed to be at the hanger at dawn."

He nudged her gently, even if he was still uncertain of her name. She didn't move. He nudged again, and then started to slide himself out of the bed slowly. Then, with a sudden flash, it came to him; this was Martine. He jostled her awake more urgently now, whispering, "Martine, Martine . . ."

Her eyes lazily opened, "Oui?"

"Martine," he spoke louder with more confidence, "I have to go fly now. Pray for me." With a final push, he slid free of the bed and landed on the floor with a thud.

She rolled over to look at him, smiled, and nodded. He stood from the floor and stretched, then pulled on his linen overalls and shiny black flight boots. Turning quickly, he opened the glazed window, opaque with its wavy and bubbled glass, and gazed out beyond the village and across the fields of the Research Station to check if things were already stirring there. Spread before him in the soft morning sun were all the secrets of le Laboratoire. This was the place that would carry France to success in the air.

The flying field with its winter brown stubble, was wide and clear. It had once been a simple pasture but no longer. Now it was trimmed closely to ensure the tall grasses would not snag the landing skid of one of the aero machines gliders on landing.

Bare trees lined the edges of the field, their dense limbs shielding the winds. As well, they served as a screen to block the prying eyes of those who might seek to look in and know what was taking place on the field. A hill on the other side of the main field supported a long, black ramp that had been built to launch their aero machines. The bottom of the ramp was crafted much like one of the ski jumps that he had seen on screen at the electric theater in Grantville. The ramp was his own innovation, one of the things that he was most proud of from his time at the Research Station. It angled sharply skyward so as to launch the aero machine gliders into the air once they completed their run downhill to gain speed. They had done it many times with the gliders and now they hoped that the power of a gasoline engine would let them do more than glide once they had cleared the end of the ramp.

He considered the words of Le Compte, the man who had sponsored le Laboratoire, "With wings, no battle can be lost! No enemy can hide or move undetected! No message cannot get through! And think of it, Jacques, you will be one of the pilots to achieve it!"

The small corps of pilots stayed full time at the Research Station, which offered safety and security from discovery. Jacques had been there since returning from Grantville. There, at the library, he had quietly done his part of the research that France needed to learn how to fly. He and the others had made huge strides.

The others . . . He paused, remembering their faces. Among the first cadre of pilots who had traveled to Grantville, he was the last still alive. Grimly, he knew too that this was the reason that he was now First Pilot. The others ahead of him, perhaps better than him, had all died. He advanced to this position not by skill, knowledge, or talent, but by the simple fact of being the last survivor. All of the other pilots at the tavern were new faces, men who had not gone to Grantville in the early days. They picked up where the others left off, learning the lessons from each crash—and each death—in hopes of carrying forward and finally achieving flight. With sadness, one of the engineers at le Laboratoire had once confided to Jacques that they learned more from the crashes than from the successes. Jacques had vowed that they would learn nothing from him. He would never crash, so he told himself. And so far, he had been proven correct in his assumptions.

So far, he reminded himself. So far.

The losses they had suffered among the pilots were to be expected, of course. Still, it was not supposed to be like this. There weren't supposed to have been this many losses. They began with the aero machine gliders. Step by step—or more properly, crash by crash—they had learned the ways of flight. The costs of those lessons were measured in empty chairs at the dinner table. Each time, however, a week or two would pass, and then the empty chairs would be filled with fresh, new, and always bright young faces. Each new pilot was full of confidence and immortality at the beginning. Each eager to learn and build on the preceding accomplishments. Each was a smiling face in his memory with a devil-may-care attitude that toasted the fates.

Those attitudes lasted until a friend or two was lost. Then each would come to recognize the peril of this business at le Laboratoire. The day they lost their closest friend usually marked when they would more earnestly take solace in the arms of les filles.

Yet it hadn't been for naught, at least that was what Jacques kept telling himself. The lessons learned had been extraordinary. They had learned where the balance point should be along the wing. They understood how the controls should be wired. By trial and repeated error, they had learned what was too heavy to fly and how to lighten the fuselage and wings without losing too much strength. They had come to understand what wood to use and how to build a wing spar strong enough so it did not fold with catastrophic results.

Many men were buried beside the old red-yellow brick chapel that was across the street from the tavern. Their new tombstones were laid out in steady rows, almost as if to reassure those still living of their earnest work.

Suddenly he muttered out loud, "What will they write on my gravestone?"

Behind him, he heard movement on the bed as Martine sat up to listen. He glanced back and saw that she was regarding him with a seriousness he had not seen before. He winked, gave her a wry smile, and turned to look back across the flying field to the hangars beyond.

He fixed his mind on the upcoming flight—this was to be the first powered flight with an engine. Again, he repeated to himself that this day, today, would be His Day, the day that the name of the First Pilot, Jacques de Nonette, would be forever written into history. He smiled more broadly and turned to his armoire to retrieve his things.

First, he put on his best cap and adjusted its long white plume, his arm slowly curving back to ensure that it was straight and clear. This feather signified his rank among the pilots as the leader among their ranks—the First Pilot. Then he tightened his belt. He was the best of those still alive. Crash after crash, he had crawled from the wreckage, never seriously hurt. Flight after flight, he had landed successfully or at least walked away.

He had heard les filles whisper that he was blessed by God, that he was immortal. He didn't trust that thought himself—not yet, at least—but he was thankful for the faith that somehow seemed to have propelled him to this point.

As he moved toward the door, he glanced back at Martine and caught a glimpse of her bright watchful eyes. She gazed at him over her pert turned-up, button nose. He hoped it wasn't the final time he would see her face.

She had been resting her head on a hand, propped up on her elbow. He saw again that she was watching him carefully. He realized that perhaps it was true—les filles were there also to watch for signs of nervousness or weakness among the pilots. She had seen that first sign of weakness perhaps already when he had spoken accidentally aloud about his tombstone. If it was true, that they were reporting on all of the pilots to the commandant, then there was nothing he could do about that. He smiled at her and shrugged. He would give no further sign of the stress starting to build within him.

Making a show of it, he bowed low and said his adieux. She smiled and, as he walked out the door, she called after him, "Bonne chance! But remember next time I'm Claire. . . . I will tell Martine you've given her a very high compliment. . . ."

He laughed, shook his head, and closed the wooden door. Then he walked down the squeaky wooden stairs hoping he wasn't too late for a quick déjeuner. There could be no better way to start the day. He hoped he could stomach a hunk of fresh baguette and knew the tavern would be well-stocked with rich, creamy butter. He hoped to take a slice of the fine aged cheese the kitchen often had at hand and an apple from the orchard just outside the village. That small, but impeccably-kept orchard had been attached to the horse farm before it became the Research Station.

He thought that with Claire, at least he had escaped one potentially disastrous challenge—not remembering her name—though that was only due to her forgiving him, after all. Anyway, he recognized with another shrug that he was not quite unscathed. Perhaps he would pay for that slip later. Anyway, a much greater challenge was ahead.

What he didn't know was that the girl he left behind in his room was not overly offended that he had forgotten her name. The girls at the Research Station viewed the test pilots as their collective property. If any man got into the cockpit of a plane without having had his ashes recently hauled, it certainly was not their fault. Likewise, if you lived to walk into the tavern after "going up," you knew before you could sit down you'd be dragged out of the common room for a proper hero's welcome. Les filles took pride in their work, too, because they knew the importance of the effort.

Most of les filles had been brought down from Paris, where they had been in similar, though much less pleasant employment at one of the many brothels that the city offered. Most had been selected because of their beauty and little more. When they were selected, they hadn't known to what purpose and had feared the worst. After being brought to the Research Station, however, they had come to know all too well that they were the lucky ones.

At the Research Station, unlike in the brothels, they were treated well. They were given the finest food, drink, and lodgings. They had the freedom to pick the men that were most to their liking. Nothing was forced on them. No money was charged. And they had developed a sisterhood that had one goal—to help achieve France's first flights. They had each been told that when it was over, they would have a dowry for marriage. For them, the Research Station had been a dream ticket—to escape the slavery of the brothels and forget their past. Most were less educated and came from poor families. Some were destitute, orphaned, and without skills, except in the bedroom. But all had taken to the chance that was before them—as unlikely as it seemed, to escape a dark time in their lives and come to this, the Research Station, where all dreams came true—except for one dream which proved elusive, which was to fly.

Sadly too, they knew more than anyone at the Research Station, except perhaps the commandant and Jacques, the names of those who had died along the way. As a result, they became attached to those who survived the longest. Nobody had survived longer than Jacques. That les filles kept tabs on the pilots was suspected by the pilots, and it wasn't incorrect. They did keep le Laboratoire's commandant appraised. If a pilot looked like they were about to break from the stress and risk, the girls would report it. The pilot would be given some time off, usually by assignment to work with the engineers for a few weeks, and then, when les filles thought he was ready, they would submit a follow-up report. It was a system that worked well and kept the morale of the pilots at the highest point. Despite the commandant's original concern, none of the pilots had ever had to be grounded. A few weeks off here and there was all that was needed, despite the hazards that they had faced.

Downstairs in the tavern's nearly empty great room, Jacques glanced at the back wall that contained rows of painted names and little sets of angel's wings. At this early hour, there were only a couple of others at the tables. He shuddered inwardly, remembering the last smoking wreck at the base the hill. In that crash, he had found the charred remains of his good friend, still smoking and burned badly, twisted amidst the shattered boards and burned fabric. He had looked carefully, knowing that these were the charred remains of his best friend, Antoine.

Antoine had not deserved to die. The aero machine had launched upward into the air at the base of the ramp with the prototype engine mounted on the nose and the gasoline in the tank to ensure the right weight and balance. The flight was to have been a gliding test without the engine running. It was supposed to have been a short flight, straight ahead, and then a landing. Nothing to worry about, Antoine had said.

Jacques watched as Antoine had launched from the ramp. The aero machine was simply too heavy to fly. Worse yet, the balance was off, and the machine was nose-heavy. Instead of gliding to a smooth landing, the plane had arced down. With no way to pull out of the terminal dive, Antoine had simply ridden the aero machine downward into a terrible crash. He had probably realized that he was about to die in those last few seconds. The petrol on board had completed the catastrophe when it burst into flame. The fires had consumed everything, even melting the metal cylinders of the engine. The tank should have been full of water.

Jacques found himself fervently praying that Antoine's death had come from the impact and not from the fire. Hastily, the engineers had built a new aero machine with a new engine. The balance issues were worked out now, hopefully. Jacques felt his chances of success were vastly better.

Antoine had missed a good party that night after the crash. The tradition was that if you didn't make it back, the girls would throw a wake in your memory. It was a way of sending off the pilots to fly in heaven, to fly with the angels, as the saying went. The sadness of his passing hadn't been felt just among the pilots, but also among les filles.

For Antoine, it had been Juliane, the girl who had last been with him and had perhaps loved him most. She took the lead at his party, but not without a fight to earn that right. Another girl had demanded to lead the wake. After a terrible spat that stopped just short of coming to blows, Juliane prevailed, winning out on the basis that she had spent last three nights with him. The others had nodded. There were rules to their world, dominated by nights with les pilotes. Three nights was the undisputed fact.

With great ceremony and tears, Juliane had added Antoine's name along with a pair of bright pink angel's wings to the others on the back wall of the common room. Hot-blooded pink was the traditional manly color for pilots now since, as everyone knew, pink was the color chosen for the first planes when they flew over Germany. As they painted wings on the wall, the other pilots looked on, feigning disinterest. Some looked quietly into their wine and beer.

Jacques, too, had viewed the party with a cold disinterest. To watch the painting of the pink wings on the wall was the best way he knew to honor his old friend, but he was afraid enough of showing fear that he chose to be almost heartless about it—at least on the outside. Quickly, he muttered to himself, "Fly with the angels, my friend."

With the painting done, he emptied his wine and turned the glass bottom side up on the table. "C'est la guerre," he had said out loud, remembering the line from a pilot's biography that he had read at Grantville recounting the tales of flying in the future air war over France and England in 1940.

He wondered, too, did the Germans have a wall of pink wings and memories? Surely, they, too, were pressing ahead in the development of the next generation of aero machines there.

As he finished his breakfast, he vowed to himself, "I'll be damned if they have such a party tonight." There were already too many bright pink sets of wings painted on the back wall.

Suddenly, he felt Claire's presence behind him. He turned and caught her smile. She leaned in to kiss his lips, a bit more hungrily than necessary.

"Non, Claire," he said making sure that this time he said her name with confidence. "You know I have a test flight now."

She gave a fake pout.

"You'll have to wait for me to get back."

"But you might not be coming back," she said softly. He detected a tone in her voice that she might be testing him, to see if he was showing too much stress to fly. Non, this would be His Day. He smiled and shook his head.

"Eh, what? And disappoint ma petite Claire?" He gave her a sound slap on the rump. Then he leaned up from his seat and kissed the top of her head. It was a good thing that whoever did the recruiting liked petite women.


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