So hook yourself up to an airship
Strap on your mask and your knife
For the wide open skies are a-calling
And oh, it’s a glorious life!
—Conductors Recruitment Advertisement, 1890
The balloon of a Phoenix-class airship is better than any view from its cabin windows; half a mile of silk pulled taut across three hundred metal ribs and a hundred gleaming spines is a beautiful thing. If your mask filter is dirty you get lightheaded and your sight goes reddish, so it looks as though the balloon is falling in love with you.
When that happens, though, you tap someone to let them know and you go to the back-cabin Underneath and fix your mask, if you’ve any brains at all. If you’re helium-drunk enough to see red, soon you’ll be hallucinating and too weak to move, and even if they get you out before you die you’ll still spend the rest of your life at a hospital with all the regulars staring at you. That’s no life for an airship man.
I remember back when the masks were metal and you’d freeze in the winter, end up with layers of skin that peeled off like wet socks when you went landside and took the mask off. The polymer rubbers are much cleverer.
I’ve been a conductor for ages; I was conducting on the Majesty in ’78 when it was still the biggest ship in the sky—you laugh, but back then people would show up by the hundreds just to watch it fly out of dock. She only had four gills, but she could cut through the air better than a lot of the six-fins, the Laconia too.
They put the Majesty in a museum already, I heard.
Strange to be so old and not feel it. At least the helium keeps us young, for all it turns us spindly and cold. God, when we realized what was happening to us! But they had warned us, I suppose, and it’s fathoms better now then it was. Back then the regulars called you a monster if they saw you on the street.
The coin’s not bad, either, compared to factory work. They say it’s terrible what you end up like, but if you work the air you get pulled like taffy, and if you work in the factory you go deaf as a post; it’s always something.
I’m saving a bit for myself for when I’m finished with this life, enough for a little house in the Alps. I need some altitude if I’m going to be landlocked; the air’s too heavy down here.
The very first ships were no better than hot-air balloons, and the conductors kept a tiny cabin and had to string themselves outside on cables if something happened. I can’t imagine it—useless.
I didn’t join up until after they moved conductors inside—it showed they had a lick of sense to put conductors where they could get to things that went wrong, and I’m not fond of looking down from heights.
The engine-shop shifted to airships as soon as they caught on, and I made two thousand ribs before I ever set foot inside a balloon. It makes for a certain confidence going in, which carried me through, thank goodness—I had a hard time with it at first.
You have to be careful how deeply you breathe so the oxygen filter doesn’t freeze up on you, and you have to make sure your air tube doesn’t get tangled on your tether, or your tether in someone else’s. You have to learn how to fling yourself along so that the tether ring slides with you along the spine, and how to hook your fingers quickly into the little holes in the ribs when you have to climb down. You have to learn to deal with the cold.
The sign language I picked up at once. We had that at the factory, too, signals for when we were too far apart or when it was too loud. I’m fond of it; you get used to talking through the masks, and they’re all good men in the air, but sometimes it’s nice just to keep the quiet.
Captain Carter was very kind those first few months; he was the only Captain I’ve ever had who would make trips into the balloon from the Underneath just to see how we were getting along. Back then we were all in it together, all still learning how to handle these beautiful birds.
Captains now can hardly be bothered to leave their bridges, but not Carter. Carter knew how to tighten a bolt as fast as any airship man, and he’d float through and shake hands whenever we’d done something well. He had a way of speaking about the Majesty, like a poem sometimes—a clever man. I’ve tried to speak as he did, but there’s not much use for language when we’re just bottled up with one another. Once or twice I’ve seen something sharply, the way he might have seen it—just once or twice.
You won’t see his like again. He was of the old kind; he understood what it meant to love the sky like I do.
“A patient in the profession of Zeppelin conducting has, after very few years of work, advanced Heliosis due to excessive and prolonged exposure to helium within the balloon of an airship. His limbs have grown in length and decreased in musculature, making it difficult for him to comfortably maneuver on the ground for long periods of time. Mild exercise, concurrent with the wearing of an oxygen mask to prevent hyperventilation, alleviates the symptoms in time but has no lasting effect without regular application, which is difficult for conductors to maintain while employed in their vessels.
“Other side effects are phrenological. Skin tightens around the skull. Patient has noticeable growth in those parts of the head dedicated to Concentrativeness, Combativeness, Locality, and Constructiveness. The areas of Amativeness, Form, and Cautiousness are smaller than normal, though it is hard to say if these personality defects are the work of prolonged wearing of conductor’s masks or the temperament of the patient. I suspect that in this case time will have to reveal what is yet unknown.
“The Zeppelin is without doubt Man’s greatest invention, and the brave men who labor in its depths are indispensable, but it behooves us to remember the story of Icarus and Daedalus; he should proceed wisely, who would proceed well.”
—from Doctor Jonathan Grant’s address to the Health Council, April 1895
The Captains’ Union set up the first Society for us, in London, and a year later in Paris.
They weren’t much more comfortable than the hospital rooms where they used to keep us landside, for safety, but of course it was more dignified. Soon we managed to organize ourselves and put together the Zeppelin Conductors’ Society, and we tithed our own wages for the dues to fix the buildings up a bit.
Now you can fly to any city with an airdock and know there’s a place for you to sleep where no one will look at you sidelong. You can get a private room, even, with a bath in the middle big enough to hold you; it’s horrid how long your limbs get when you’re in helium nine days in ten, and there’s not much dignity in trying to wash with your legs sticking two feet out of the bath.
And it’s good sense to have a place you can go straight away; regulars don’t like to see you wandering about, sometimes. Most times. I understand.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU SEE A CONDUCTOR
1. Do not panic; he is probably as wary of you as you are of him. He will pose no threat if not provoked.
2. Do not stare; scrutiny is vulgar.
3. Offer a small nod when you pass, as you would to another gentlemen; it pleases them.
4. Avoid smaller streets between airship docks and the local Conductor’s Society. The conductor is, in general, a docile creature, but one can never be sure what effects the helium has had on his temperament.
—Public Safety Poster, 1886
January 1, 1900
PARIS—Polaris was eclipsed last night: not by any cosmic rival, but by a man-made beauty. The Laconia, a Phoenix-class feat of British engineering that has become the envy of the world, never looked more beautiful than on its evening flight to Paris as we began a momentous New Year.
Captain Richard Marks, looking every inch the matinee hero, guided the ship safely through the night as the passengers within lit up the sky with conversation and music, accompanied by a champagne buffet. Miss Marie Dawlish, the English Lark, honored the company with a song which it is suspected struck the heart of a certain airship Captain who stepped away from the bridge in time for the performance. Though we at the Daily are not prognosticators, we believe that the coming year may be one of high romance for Captain Marks, who touched down back in London with a gentle landing, and no doubt a song in his heart.
The Societies have the Balls each year for New Year’s, which is great fun. It’s ripping good food, and sometimes someone comes in a full evening suit and we can all have a laugh at them; it’s an expensive round of tailoring to wear just once a year. You know just by looking that they who dressed up had wanted to be Captains and fallen short. Poor boys. I wouldn’t be a Captain for all the gold in Araby, though perhaps when you’re young you don’t realize how proud and empty the Captains end up.
You don’t meet a lot of ladies in the air, of course, and it’s what all the lads miss most. For the London Ball they always manage to find some with the money from the dues—sweet girls who don’t mind a chat. They have to be all right with sitting and talking. The Annual Gentlemen’s Ball isn’t much of a dance. The new conductors, the ones who have only stretched the first few inches, try a dance or two early on to give the musicians something to do. The rest of us have given in to gravity when we’re trapped on the ground. We catch up with old mates and wait for a chance to ask a girl upstairs, if we’re brave enough.
Sometimes we even get conductors in from other places—Russia, sometimes, or once from China. God, that was a night! What strange ideas they have about navigation! But he was built like an airship man, and from the red skin round his eyes we could tell he’d paid his dues in the helium, so we poured him some Scotch and made him welcome. If we aren’t kind to each other, who will be kind to us?
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We were airside the last night of 1899, the night of the Gentlemen’s Ball.
We had been through a bad wind that day, and all of us were spread out tightening rivets on the ribs, signaling quietly back and forth. I don’t know what made Anderson agree to sign us on for the evening flight—he must have wanted the Ball as much as the rest of us—and I was in a bit of a sulk, feeling like Cinderella. It was a cold night, cold even in the balloon, and I was wishing for nothing but a long bath and a long sleep.
Then Captain Marks shoved the woman into the balloon.
She was wearing a worn-out orange dress, and a worn-out shawl that fell away from her at once, and even as the captain clipped her to the line she hung limp, worn-out all over. He’d been at her for a while.
I still don’t know where he found her, what they did to her, what she thought in the first moments as they carried her towards the balloon.
“Got some leftovers for you,” the Captain shouted through his mask, “a little Gentlemen’s Ball for you brave boys. Enjoy!”
Then he was gone, spinning the lock shut behind him, closing us in with her.
I could feel the others hooking onto a rib or a spine, pushing off, hurrying over. The men in the aft might not have even seen it happen. I never asked them. Didn’t want to know.
I was closest to her, fifty feet, maybe. Through the mask I could see the buttons missing on the front of her dress, the little cuts in her fisted hands.
She wore a mask, too. Her hair was tangled in it.
She was terrified—shaking so hard that I worried her mask would come loose—but she didn’t scrabble at her belt: too clever for that, I suppose. I was worried for her—if you weren’t used to the helium it was painful to breathe for very long, she needed to get back Underneath. God only knew how long that second-rate mask would hold.
Even as Anderson hooked onto a spine to get to her she was shoving off—not to the locked porthole (there was no hope for her there), but straight out to the ribs, clawing at the stiff silk of the balloon.
We all scrambled for her.
I don’t know how she cut the silk—Bristol said it must have been a knife, but I can’t imagine they would have let her keep one. I think she must have used the hook of her little earring, which is the worst of it, somehow.
The balloon shuddered as the first rush of helium was sucked into the sky outside; she clenched one fist around the raw edge of the silk as she unhooked herself from the tether. The air caught her, dragging at her feet, and she grasped for purchase against the fabric. She cried out, but the mask swallowed the noise.
I was the closest; I pushed off.
The other conductors were shouting for her not to be foolish; they shouted that it was a misunderstanding, that she would be all right with us.
As I came closer I held out my hands to her so she could take hold, but she shrank back, kicking at me with one foot, the boot half-fastened.
My reflection was distorted in the round eyes of her mask—a spindly monster enveloping her in the half-dark, my endless arms struggling to pull her back in.
What else could she do?
She let go.
My sight lit up from the rush of oxygen, and in my view she was a flaming June in a bottle-green night, falling with her arms outstretched like a bird until she was too small to be seen, until every bright trace of her was gone.
For a moment no one moved, then the rails shuddered under us as the gills fanned out, and we slowed.
Anderson said, “We’re coming up on Paris.”
“Someone should tell them about the tear,” said Bristol.
“Patch it from here,” Anderson said. “We’ll wait until Vienna.”
In Vienna they assumed all conductors were lunatics, and they would ask no questions about a tear that only human hands could make.
I heard the first clangs of the anchor-hooks latching onto the outer hull of the Underneath before the church bells rang in the New Year. Beneath us, the passengers shouted “Hip, hip, hurrah! Hip, hip, hurrah!”
That was a sad year.
Once I was land-bound in Dover. The Conductor’s Society there is so small I don’t think ten men could fit in it. It wasn’t a bad city (I had no trouble with the regulars on my way from the dock), but it was so horribly hot and cramped that I went outside just to have enough room to stretch out my arms, even heavy as they were with the Earth pulling at them.
A Falcon-class passed overhead, and I looked up just as it crossed the harvest moon; for a moment the balloon was illuminated orange, and I could see the conductors skittering about inside of it like spiders or shadow puppets, like moths in a lamp.
I watched it until it had passed the moon and fallen dark again, the lamp extinguished.
It’s a glorious life, they say.