Dr. Griffin rubbed his temples. “Young lady, you have a great deal to explain.”
“All right,” Jenny began hurriedly. “So these guys are the city council, right? The most bloated, stinky, oafish bags of loser dung Rust Town ever–”
“I know who they are,” Griffin said quickly, standing up before Jenny could offend the short one enough to make him do something drastic. “Why are they in my workshop?”
“I mean…” Griffin had lived with his niece long enough to tell when a retort was fighting behind her eyes with her desire to be respectful. The retort won, sort of. “I already explained that. With the blowing up bit.”
Griffin sighed, and decided he’d have more luck working on the street thugs. “You,” he addressed Aiden. “That’s some sort of explosive, then?”
“The strongest I could find. Direct from the Toral capital.” Aiden grinned.
“Really? What’s the chemical–” Griffin stopped himself. “Then you can turn around and take it back there, sir. I’m not interested in buying it.”
“Sure you don’t want to know the recipe?” Aiden’s grin kept widening. It made him look monstrously irritating. “You could whip a batch up and finally make some money out of this hole.”
“I’m an engineer,” Griffin said through gritted teeth, “not an arms dealer. Though even that would be more than you leeches do for this town.”
“Hey, you should try calling us names again.” Finn flopped down in the chair Griffin had vacated. “I bet we’ll leave if you hit us with a few more.”
Aiden leaned against the tool bench and crossed his arms. “Glow coming tonight, so they say.”
Griffin shot back, “A meaningless calculation by overzealous numerologists.”
“Be that as it may,” Aiden’s smile was gone, “you need to have a talk with your niece.”
Dr. Griffin looked around his workshop for the second time in two minutes. It suddenly seemed to be much smaller. His eyes skipped over the plane, over the near-repaired implements in the corner…shrinking the room to the size of himself, two violent criminals, and Jenny.
Different truths dawned on a man at different speeds. He was old enough to know that. This one had taken a minute, as the worst ones often did.
He knelt down in front of Jenny in the only open spot on the grass floor. His hands shook. His niece’s blue eyes and her face were unreadable: terrified, excited, feeling bad for being one when she should have felt the other.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said.
Jenny shook her head. “They’ll kill you if I don’t.”
“They know me. They know I have a policy. Nobody flies a Griffin aircraft but me.”
“I’m a Griffin.”
A brief vision flashed through his mind: a green cloud, a roll of thunder, a lightning strike. A vast gulf in a man’s heart, empty and lost.
He blinked it away. “That’s not the point. We’re at a stalemate. I won’t let him go, so he’s going to have to kill us all.”
Living in Rust Town brought one in contact with danger more often than anyone from the outside could guess. He had learned a bit about situations like this. If the aggressor could be made to hold back their final card, the defender controlled the situation. Unless something horribly unexpected happens.
A shout came from outside. Several shouts. Jenny strained to hear them.
Then she shouted, though it would have been better not to, as though she couldn’t keep it in.
Finn darted to the door, flung it open, and nodded vigorously. “It’s bright! The crystal’s shining!”
The sphere, Dr. Griffin thought. Soon they’ll see the sphere.
A cold steel blade pressed against his throat and he nearly gagged with the shock. A bar-like arm wrapped around his and yanked him to his feet.
My working knife. Griffin could have kicked himself if he hadn’t been afraid to move. He should never have taken his eyes off his workbench.
“Got to disagree that this is a stalemate,” Aiden hissed. “Put those wings on, girl. Finn here will be your assistant. Your uncle and I will supervise.”
If the Carpenters could have seen how easy it was for Jenny to attach the wings, even with Finn getting in the way, they’d never dare call her uncle absent-minded again. Dr. Griffin had prepared the nameless craft perfectly. Fitting the wings took seconds, stretching the canvas over them barely a minute more.
Jenny’s heart beat faster. The castle was here. And their plane was ready.
Truly, if only there hadn’t been two armed thugs in the workshop, it would have been the best day of her life.
Before getting back to work, she shot a brief glance at Dr. Griffin. Some said her uncle’s prematurely greying hair and close-trimmed beard and the work coat he wore at all times gave him an air of more wisdom than he possessed.
They were wrong. He was even wiser than he looked. Catching his eyes gave her the strength to finish.
“That’s enough,” Aiden snapped as she finished stretching the last corner of the canvas into place. All around the shack’s walls, footsteps were pounding as people raced to their planes. There would be a hundred launches from the square, and from rooftop strips in every corner of the town. Already, over her head, the roof shook as feet and then wheels dashed across it.
“It’s not ready,” Uncle Griff gasped, wrestling against Aiden’s knife arm. “She’ll be in danger up there. You want someone to come back with your gold, send me.”
Finn’s head poked over the other wing. “Not happening, man. Kids are way lighter. Everyone oughta be using ‘em.”
Jenny swallowed a lump in her throat and wished Griff could just fight his way free. But though her uncle worked constantly with his hands, it didn’t translate into brute strength.
She decided instead to wish he’d just let her do it. She’d go up, come down, and the city council would melt into the background again. The fact that she’d be giving up the sphere only led to the tiniest twinge of shame.
Her uncle jerked his head toward the one blank wall, which Jenny pulled two switches and slid away. She and Finn wheeled the skycraft out into a small courtyard shared by six other huts around it. At the other end of the scrubby patch of grass, a gentle slope supported by wooden beams led up to the roof.
In front of them, a propellor thudded to life. Jenny bit back a gasp: the sky above her, dark and speckled with stars, was alive with planes.
Four of their neighbors had already launched. The fifth, a pair of young women, barely spared a glance for the party edging out of Griff’s shop, armed with high explosives and at least one knife. One of them was strapped into a craft that looked like a massive square sail on wheels.
Jenny winced as the woman’s partner ran her down the skyway and separated her from her wheels. She would need to be good to stay out of the ocean.
Finn nudged them forward. “You’re late!” Aiden barked. “Time to fly!”
“I know, damn it!” Jenny yelled back. “Don’t rush a pilot!”
“You are not a pilot!” Uncle Griff bellowed into the wind from the bottom of the ramp. “Aiden, I’ll scalp you for this!”
Jenny banked the surprisingly light craft left to face down the landing strip. It was a classic Rust Town airway: made of uneven boards, rotting through, and barely long enough to get up to speed.
She belted her explosive to her waist and took a deep breath. I’m gonna have to trust it.
She’d practiced. Hanging from ropes in the mountains, banking back and forth in the shop late at night while Uncle Griff snored on his cot. Borrowing any glider anyone would agree to let her clean, just for a moment in the sky.
Flights of airplanes leapt up around her. High above, in the deepening night, she caught sight of the sphere: a shadow against the stars, large as a coin held out.
She narrowed her eyes. I’m coming for you.
Down in the courtyard, Griff worked one arm loose and slammed his elbow into Aiden’s gut. The city council man gasped, hacking something up.
Jenny shouted. Her uncle went for the knife instead of the bomb, but Finn leapt onto his back–
“–Jenny, go, go to the mountains, I’ll find you–“
She ran. When momentum picked up, she slammed her feet into the two wing pedals astern. The weights she’d dragged across the whole plateau turned into lifts. Right at the edge of the roof, a board broke under her landing gear, and as it tumbled to the ground, Jenny joined the rest of Rust Town in the bracing night sky.
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