There comes a moment when you’re falling, nay, plummeting towards the ground and you’re slowly being overtaken by your own prosthetic leg that you’d think that you’d like to reassess what are now the admittedly poor decisions of the last few months. Only gravity really isn’t going to give you the time that you need to do that kind of insightful analysis that would so make one of these new-fangled psychoanalysts go “Hmmmm” in that special well done kind of way they have when they’re trying hard to not show how well you’re doing for fear of losing what is undoubtedly going to be a lucrative client. Hazel looked at the ground she was rapidly approaching and let out a sigh instead. Evidently, this was not at all going to plan.
Slowly spinning as she fell, the airship she was currently falling away from came into view. Just as she was beginning to think that she would have been better off in the airship after all, it combined most of the hydrogen in its buoyancy tanks with the surrounding oxygen in an astonishingly quick and explosive manner. It wasn’t much better, but Hazel was definitely better off now than she would have been had she stayed aboard. The thought that falling to the ground was the better of two choices did nothing to comfort her.
She was still dropping like a bowl of petunias attempting to fly.
She was still rapidly running out of time for a solution to present itself.
Grabbing hold of her leg as it passed, Hazel realised that she probably won’t get the opportunity to put it back on. She liked that leg. It was much better than the last one she had lost. This one had the toenails painted on.
Hazel’s pace slowed as she made her way towards the rudimentary hanger that served as the embarkation lounge. It was dwarfed by the silver airship behind it. It should not be allowed, thought Hazel, let alone fly. It was just too big. Even now – 300 feet away – the name painted on the side was easily readable: Airship Australis. She’d read the gushing pamphlet on her way down here to the Point Cook airfield and put the surfeit of superlatives down to an overexcited copywriter, but now it was here and she was getting ready to board, Hazel began to have serious doubts about her plan. The enormity of the craft in front of her made her wonder if she was going to be able to track her quarry down. She had assumed the passenger compartment on the Australis would be much smaller than it appeared to be and that isolating the suspect from the other travellers would be easy as there’d only be a handful of people to work through. From here it looked like the passenger compartment had two storeys; it was bigger than the embarkation lounge. Hazel realised that she was looking every bit like what she was – a naïve country girl gobsmacked by the world that is the city. Nearly dragging her case through the dirt. Hazel set her head straight, hoisted her luggage, and picked up the pace again.
Walking in through the main door, Hazel realised that calling this a “lounge” was, at best, a stretch. A flat out distortion of the truth was closer, but it was more like what she expected from reading the pamphlet. She pulled it out of her handbag again, noting that it had actually used the word “luxurious” to describe what could be more accurately called “a big shed”. It was something a sheep would find luxurious, but only because it spent all its time outside; but then big embarkation shed just didn’t have a ring to it.
They’d tried. There were gentlemen in smart suits and porkpies to open the door, and a young lad had rescued her from her luggage, whisking it off for loading, but overall, a general air of sheddiness managed to pervade everything. The floor was utilitarian concrete, the actual lounges looked like they had recently retired from a not quite excellent hotel, and the bar looked – well, the bar looked like it had been thrown together from whatever bits were left behind by the previous inhabitants of the shed when this enterprise moved in, but my goodness, thought Hazel, it was a bar. And it looked like it needed sidling up to.
“A Gibson, with a twist of lemon.” replied Hazel, recalling the only fancy drink she could think of. Watching the bartender turn and prepare her drink, Hazel realised that she actually had no idea what it was that she’d just ordered. She wasn’t even one hundred percent sure that a Gibson was a drink. She’d heard the name before surrounding the general context of drinks, but being new to this alcohol lark, she wasn’t sure. With doubt about to overtake her and send her slinking away, the bartender turned, placed a glass in front of her, and with a final flourish, a “Ma’am, your Gibson”, he dropped in the twist of lemon and turned to the next passenger.
Hazel picked up the top heavy glass and carefully swung around on her seat. Examining this Gibson thing, she noted that it was decidedly clearer than most water she had drunk so far in her life. She looked up and began surveying the room, looking for her quarry, and doing so, brought the Gibson up to her lips and took a decent sip. Her face made the face of someone desperately trying to look sophisticated and in control whilst trying to suck on a grapefruit. Surely something that everyone is drinking couldn’t be this bad? Hazel took a second sip. It wasn’t so bad second time around. She might be able to pass herself off as a young sophisticated lass after all.
Hazel had another look around at the passengers while continuing to sip. Not knowing exactly who she was looking for made it a bit difficult, but she had a fairly good description from cajoling the odd tidbit from a handful of informants. There may have also been the odd cash enticement handed out here or there, but the various bits of information seemed to corroborate each other. All of it definitely pointed towards a rakish gentleman, so that ruled out the women and the corpulent. Two-thirds ruled out at a stroke, about a dozen left. Out of those, three were mere boys and five were somewhat advanced in age.
That left Hazel three to sort through. Her quarry supposedly had blond hair but Hazel was well aware of the ability to change hair colour, so she was putting no stock in that bit of information. One thing that stood out as consistent across her sources was his vast intellect and command of languages. That she knew she couldn’t tell by just looking. For that, courage must be summoned and the gentlemen approached. She sat the drink on the bar, waved off the bartender, and set off to board the Australis and subtlety interrogate them during the flight to Sydney.
A few days later
As everyone began filling the observation deck in anticipation of passing flying down Port Jackson to their final destination at Darling Harbour, Hazel grabbed the seat by the wall map and settled with the finesse and grace of an elephant seal. They were closing in on Sydney and after spending the previous evening and most of this morning attempting to nonchalantly probe her three suspects, she’d failed to sort out which one was the scoundrel. Face it, she thought, you don’t even have an inkling of what the plan is: just something dastardly and mischievous on the Australis‘ maiden flight. It could have been anything from an asinine attempt to drop paint on the populous they passed over to poisoning the passengers to create mid-air havoc.
Looking over her suspects, she realised that none of them were a threat. Sir Falshinghampton, although quite dashing and very blond, was unquestionably an imbecile. Looking at him now, she was astonished that he managed to do both stand and breathe at the same time. How he managed to command his limbs to enable walking was beyond her. He could barely speak the native tongue that he claimed lineage back through for 800 years, the possibility of his learning two was simply unimaginable.
Surreptitiously eyeing Major Pavey, Hazel felt he had the potential. He had the keen, logistical mind of a military officer used to command. Even Hazel had heard of his leadership during the Boer War, along with his great fall from favour. That gave him a motive, probably the only of the three with one. But his great displays of affection for the King and his disdain for anything not English ruled him out. She felt that even the word “envelope” would give him trouble given its le français origins.
That left Irvine Delbarch. Hazel couldn’t spot him at the moment and couldn’t work out why. He was always holding court in the observation lounge, extemporising about new world order this and proletariat that. He didn’t have the requisite hair, but he did have the language skills. Delbarch was the only one that looked askew at Hazel when she dropped the ashtray and cursed in Welsh. Hazel stood up straight and started looking around harder for Delbarch – he had to be somewhere, she thought, he was always here, at the table, right in front of the huge wall map…
Hazel’s gaze swept across the lounge again. She just caught sight of the door leading towards the control cabin closing behind a very much Delbarch shaped person. She paused to give some distance between them, and then working hard to make it look like she was meant to be going in an area off limits to the passengers, set off after him.
Making her way through the door and onto the catwalk leading to the control cabin, Hazel could see Delbarch ahead of her. Hazel let the door close quietly behind her. Not knowing what he was up to, and now being a lot less sure of the temperament of the man, Hazel felt it prudent to not alert him to her presence. Watching him now as he approached the door to the control cabin, Hazel saw him place a smallish, but obviously heavy box directly onto the frame of the airship beside the catwalk. Not sure what it was, she watched as he reached into his inside coat pocket and pull out what looked like a revolver. Deciding that it was best to be cautious, Hazel ducked down into a passing alcove and hid.
Looking across, she could see at the end of the catwalk a large, red pull handle with the words “Emergency Compartment Release 2” stencilled underneath. Puzzled, she looked around for “Emergency Compartment Release 1” and found it right above her head. An idea of which compartment they might release in an emergency began to form in her mind, but before that train of thought could be boarded, it was derailed by the sound of the door to the control cabin closing, then a thud, a gunshot, shouted words, and a second thud. Hazel was rapidly re-appraising Delbarch’s temperament and coming to a fairly bleak view of it. Delbarch was definitely a man up to very little good. Without stopping to consider the possibilities, Hazel went after him.
Reaching the door, Hazel turned the handle gently and prepared to make a sudden entry when she spied the box again. For some reason, it had an alarm clock attached to it. Why Delbarch would leave his alarm clock there was beyond her, it simply didn’t make sense. Leaning closer to take a look, Hazel was shoved off balance as the airship lurched around, throwing the door open. Struggling to stay upright, Hazel stumbled through the open door into the control cabin, tripping over a body lying prone on the floor. Sliding along the floor as the airship continued to turn, Hazel’s legs swung around and quite neatly took Delbarch’s out from underneath him where he was at the steering wheel, sending him to the floor and the airship rolled back in the other direction and began to level out.
“What the devil!” exclaimed Delbarch as – having the better and more complete complement of legs – pulled himself back up to standing. “It’s you, the inquisitive trollop from last night. Thought my unassailable charm had won you over.” Delbarch reached into his coat and pulled out what was from this distance most unmistakably a revolver and levelled it at Hazel as she dragged herself upright. “My aim was to have no audience for this, hence the demise of these two. Not making an exception for you.”
As Delbarch cocked the revolver, Hazel put her hands up. “Wait, wait. Just. Wait. I’ve been chasing you down for I don’t know what reason but I’m guessing it’s not to drop paint on Sydney.”
Delbarch relaxed his aim. “Drop paint on Sydney? Why on earth would I do that? What would that achieve?”
“I don’t know,” panted Hazel. “Smear the good name of Victoria. Force the capitol to move to Sydney or some such.”
“Rydych merch anwybodus.” spat Delbarch. “You understand that though, don’t you. You lot never could let go of your esteemed Welsh heritage. It was taken from you, wasn’t it? Who, in this country, is prepared to identify as Welsh? Well, I am Victorian, and I will not let us be usurped by those northerners. I’ve planted enough evidence on my travels to make sure that when I blow this up, blame falls squarely deep within the New South Wales Government. Victoria will have no choice but to declare their renewed independence and war on New South Wales.”
Hazel was astonished. “You’re going to blow this up to force this country to civil war? Why? Victoria will still exist. You shall still be Victorian. Are you aiming to be Prime Minister? Is that what you plan to get from this?”
“Prime Minister?” Delbarch drew himself up. “No, definitely not prime minister. Nothing so degrading. It’s much simpler than that. I own, through a web of interests, the major munitions factories in both states. I stand to make an absolute fortune as both sides hurl them willy-nilly at each other.”
With that, he fired at Hazel.
The bullet glanced off of Hazel’s leg and with a ping ping ping, it ricocheted around the control cabin, striking Delbarch in the knee and dropping him to the ground.
“Nothing like a good bit of red gum veneer” said Hazel as she hoiked up her skirt and swung the considerable heft of her red gum clad leg into the side of Delbarch’s head. He dropped like a sack of spuds.
With little time left, Hazel ran up and out of the control cabin and sprinted down the catwalk. Heading back past the bomb, she glanced at the timer; she had 20 seconds left to save the passengers and herself. She’d have to come to terms with Delbarch later.
Thirty feet from the compartment, Hazel spotted the red pull-handles. It now clicked what these were for. Running to the first one, she pulled down and heard a series of heartening clunks and clinks and a jolt went through the airships frame. Hazel ran across to the other, took a deep breath and pulled. With a loud clunk, the airship suddenly lifted as the passenger compartment dropped away.
Hazel went back to the main catwalk and began to run back down it. With absolutely no plan from here on in, any future decision making was taken from her as she felt her leg strap give way. Running with one real leg and one false one – no matter how finely crafted – was hard enough; suddenly trying to run on just one leg was impossible. Hazel stumbled and rolled out into the void where the passenger compartment had been.
A little bit later
Hazel kept rotating around to face the ground again. She could now see the passenger compartment below her dropping to the ground under huge silken parachutes and she realised that this might be her chance. Keeping tight hold of her false leg, she spread her arms out to slow her spin. The compartment was not far from the ground but Hazel was dropping fast. She had one chance at this and there was nothing she could do to improve that chance.
Just as the passenger compartment touched the ground, Hazel hit the billowing parachute. In the briefest of moments, she was enveloped in the white of the parachute as it collapsed around her, barely cushioning her impact. Her impact pushed the parachute across, tangling the lines around a tree branch, leaving it along with Hazel, still safely packaged up, swinging underneath just a few feet short of becoming a crater.
Hazel quietly swung there, listening to the debris from the Australis thud down around her and hugging her favourite leg. As far as plans go, this one had definitely been a poor one but she had survived. She could hear the other passengers beginning to emerge from the compartment, trying to work out what had happened. The words “accident” and “sabotage” began to be thrown around with differing degrees of abandon and certainty below her. Realising that within the confusion the genesis of war was about to emerge, Hazel knew that she had to attempt to nip it in the bud.
“Hallo?” called Hazel. “Can someone help get me down?”