7440 words, short story
The Long Haul
From the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION,
The Pacific Monthly, May 2009
Sidewise Award Winner for 2014 Best Short-Form Alternate History
Twenty-five years ago on this day, the Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic for the first time. Today, it will cross it for the last time. Six hundred times it has accomplished this feat, and in so doing it has covered the same distance as more than eight roundtrips to the Moon. Its perfect safety record is a testament to the ingenuity of the German people.
There is always some sorrow in seeing a thing of beauty age, decline, and finally fade, no matter how gracefully it is done. But so long as men still sail the open skies, none shall forget the glory of the Hindenburg.
—John F. Kennedy, March 31, 1962, Berlin.
It was easy to see the zeppelins moored half a mile away from the terminal. They were a motley collection of about forty Peterbilts, Aereons, Macks, Zeppelins (both the real thing and the ones from Goodyear-Zeppelin), and Dongfengs, arranged around and with their noses tied to ten mooring masts, like crouching cats having tête-à-tête tea parties.
I went through customs at Lanzhou’s Yantan Airport, and found Barry Icke’s long-hauler, a gleaming silver Dongfeng Feimaotui—the model usually known in America, among the less-than-politically-correct society of zeppeliners, as the “Flying Chinaman”—at the farthest mooring mast. As soon as I saw it, I understood why he called it the American Dragon.
White clouds drifted in the dark mirror of the polished solar panels covering the upper half of the zeppelin like a turtle’s shell. Large, waving American flags trailing red and blue flames and white stars were airbrushed onto each side of the elongated silver teardrop hull, which gradually tapered towards the back, ending in a cruciform tail striped in red, white, and blue. A pair of predatory, reptilian eyes were painted above the nose cone and a grinning mouth full of sharp teeth under it. A petite Chinese woman was suspended by ropes below the nose cone, painting over the blood-red tongue in the mouth with a brush.
Icke stood on the tarmac near the control cab, a small, round, glass-windowed bump protruding from the belly of the giant teardrop. Tall and broad-shouldered, his square face featured a tall, Roman nose and steady, brown eyes that stared out from under the visor of a Red Sox cap. He watched me approach, flicked his cigarette away, and nodded at me.
Icke had been one of the few to respond to my Internet forum ad asking if any of the long-haulers would be willing to take a writer for the Pacific Monthly on a haul. “I’ve read some of your articles,” he had said. “You didn’t sound too stupid.” And then he invited me to come to Lanzhou.
After we strapped ourselves in, Icke weighed off the zeppelin—pumping compressed helium into the gasbags until the zeppelin’s positive lift, minus the weight of the ship, the gas, us, and the cargo, was just about equal to zero. Now essentially “weightless,” the long-hauler and all its cargo could have been lifted off the ground by a child.
When the control tower gave the signal, Icke pulled a lever that retracted the nose cone hook from the mooring mast and flipped a toggle to drop about a thousand pounds of water ballast into the ground tank below the ship. And just like that, we began to rise, steadily and in complete silence, as though we were riding up a skyscraper in a glass-walled elevator. Icke left the engines off. Unlike an airplane that needs the engines to generate forward thrust to be converted into lift, a zeppelin literally floats up, and engines didn’t need to be turned on until we reached cruising height.
“This is the American Dragon, heading out to Sin City. See you next time, and watch out for those bears,” Icke said into the radio. A few of the other zeppelins, like giant caterpillars on the ground below us, blinked their tail lights in acknowledgment.
Icke’s Feimaotui is three hundred and two feet long, with a maximum diameter of eighty-four feet, giving it capacity for 1.12 million cubic feet of helium and a gross lift of thirty-six tons, of which about twenty-seven are available for cargo (this is comparable to the maximum usable cargo load for semis on the Interstates).
Its hull is formed from a rigid frame of rings and longitudinal girders made out of duratainium covered with composite skin. Inside, seventeen helium gasbags are secured to a central beam that runs from the nose to the tail of the ship, about a third of the way up from the bottom of the hull. At the bottom of the hull, immediately below the central beam and the gasbags, is an empty space that runs the length of the ship.
Most of this space is taken up by the cargo hold, the primary attraction of long-haulers for shippers. The immense space, many times the size of a plane’s cargo bay, was perfect for irregularly shaped and bulky goods, like the wind generator turbine blades we were carrying.
Near the front of the ship, the cargo hold is partitioned from the crew quarters, which consists of a suite of apartment-like rooms opening off of a central corridor. The corridor ends by emerging from the hull into the control cab, the only place on the ship with windows to the outside. The Feimaotui is only a little bit longer and taller than a Boeing 747 (counting the tail), but far more voluminous and lighter.
The whole crew consisted of Icke and his wife, Yeling, the woman who was re-painting the grinning mouth on the zeppelin when I showed up. Husband-wife teams like theirs are popular on the transpacific long haul. Each of them would take six-hour shifts to fly the ship while the other slept. Yeling was in the back, sleeping through the takeoff. Like the ship itself, much of their marriage was made up of silence and empty space.
“Yeling and I are no more than thirty feet apart from each other just about every minute, but we only get to sleep in the same bed about once every seven days. You end up learning to have conversations in five-minute chunks separated by six-hour blocks of silence.
“Sometimes Yeling and I have an argument, and she’ll have six hours to think of a comeback for something I said six hours earlier. That helps since her English isn’t perfect, and she can use the time to look up words she needs. I’ll wake up and she’ll talk at me for five minutes and go to bed, and I’ll have to spend the next six hours thinking about what she said. We’ve had arguments that went on for days and days this way.”
Icke laughed. “In our marriage, sometimes you have to go to bed angry.”
The control car was shaped like an airplane’s cockpit, except that the windows slanted outward and down, so that you had an unobstructed view of the land and air below you.
Icke had covered his seat with a custom pattern: a topographical map of Alaska. In front of Icke’s chair was a dashboard full of instruments and analog and mechanical controls. A small, gleaming gold statuette of a laughing, rotund bodhisattva was glued to the top of the dashboard. Next to it was the plush figure of Wally, the Green Monster of Fenway Park.
A plastic crate wedged into place between the two seats was filled with CDs: a mix of mandopop, country, classical, and some audio books. I flipped through them: Annie Dillard, Thoreau, Cormac McCarthy, The Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Composition.
Once we reached the cruising altitude of one thousand feet—freight zeppelins generally are restricted to a zone above pleasure airships, whose passengers prefer the view lower down, and far below the cruising height of airplanes—Icke started the electrical engines. A low hum, more felt than heard, told us that the four propellers mounted in indentations near the tail of the ship had begun to turn and push the ship forward.
“It never gets much louder than this,” Icke said.
We drifted over the busy streets of Lanzhou. More than a thousand miles west of Beijing, this medium-sized industrial city was once the most polluted city in all of China due to its blocked air flow and petroleum processing plants. But it is now the center of China’s wind turbine boom.
The air below us was filled with small and cheap airships that hauled passengers and freight on intra-city routes. They were a colorful bunch, a ragtag mix of blimps and small zeppelins, their hulls showing signs of make-shift repairs and shanzhai patches. (A blimp, unlike a zeppelin, has no rigid frame. Like a birthday balloon, its shape is maintained entirely by the pressure of the gas inside.) The ships were plastered all over with lurid advertisements for goods and services that sounded, with their strange English translations, frightening and tempting in equal measure. Icke told me that some of the ships we saw had bamboo frames.
Icke had flown as a union zeppeliner crewman for ten years on domestic routes before buying his own ship. The union pay was fine, but he didn’t like working for someone else. He had wanted to buy a Goodyear-Zeppelin, designed and made one hundred percent in America. But he disliked bankers even more than Chinese airship companies, and decided that he would rather own a Dongfeng outright.
“Nothing good ever came from debt,” he said. “I could have told you what was going to happen with all those mortgages last year.”
After a while, he added, “My ship is mostly built in America, anyway. The Chinese can’t make the duratainium for the girders and rings in the frame. They have to import it. I ship sheets of the alloy from Bethlehem, PA, to factories in China all the time.”
The Feimaotui was a quirky ship, Icke explained. It was designed to be easy to maintain and repair rather than over-engineered to be durable the way American ships usually were. An American ship that malfunctioned had to be taken to the dealer for the sophisticated computers and proprietary diagnostic codes, but just about every component of the Feimaotui could be switched out and repaired in the field by a skilled mechanic. An American ship could practically fly itself most of the time, as the design philosophy was to automate as much as possible and minimize the chances of human error. The Feimaotui required a lot more out of the pilot, but it was also much more responsive and satisfying to fly.
“A man changes over time to be like his ship. I’d just fall asleep in a ship where the computer did everything.” He gazed at the levers, sticks, wheels, toggles, pedals and sliders around him, reassuringly heavy, analog, and solid. “Typing on a keyboard is no way to fly a ship.”
He wanted to own a fleet of these ships eventually. The goal was to graduate from owner-operator to just owner, when he and Yeling could start a family.
“Someday when we can just sit back and collect the checks, I’ll get a Winnebago Aurora—the forty-thousand-cubic-feet model—and we and our kids will drift around all summer in Alaska and all winter in Brazil, eating nothing but the food we catch with our own hands. You haven’t seen Alaska until you’ve seen it in an RV airship. We can go to places that not even snowmachines and seaplanes can get to, and hover over a lake that has never seen a man, not a soul around us for hundreds of miles.”
Within seconds we were gliding over the broad, slow expanse of the Yellow River. Filled with silt, the muddy water below us was already beginning to take on its namesake color, which would deepen and grow even muddier over the next few hundred miles as it traveled through the Loess Plateau and picked up the silt deposited over the eons by wind.
Below us, small sightseeing blimps floated lazily over the river. The passengers huddled in the gondolas to look through the transparent floor at the sheepskin rafts drifting on the river below the same way Caribbean tourists looked through glass-bottom boats at the fish in the coral reef.
Icke throttled up and we began to accelerate north and east, largely following the course of the Yellow River, towards Inner Mongolia.
The Millennium Clean Energy Act is one of the few acts by the “clowns down in D.C.” that Icke approved: “It gave me most of my business.”
Originally designed as a way to protect domestic manufacturers against Chinese competition and to appease the environmental lobby, the law imposed a heavy tax on goods entering the United States based on the carbon footprint of the method of transportation (since the tax was not based on the goods’ country-of-origin, it skirted the WTO rules against increased tariffs).
Combined with rising fuel costs, the law created a bonanza for zeppelin shippers. Within a few years, Chinese companies were churning out cheap zeppelins that sipped fuel and squeezed every last bit of advantage from solar power. Dongfengs became a common sight in American skies.
A long-haul zeppelin cannot compete with a 747 for lifting capacity or speed, but it wins hands down on fuel efficiency and carbon profile, and it’s far faster than surface shipping. Going from Lanzhou to Las Vegas, like Icke and I were doing, would take about three to four weeks by surface shipping at the fastest: a couple days to go from Lanzhou to Shanghai by truck or train, about two weeks to cross the Pacific by ship, another day or so to truck from California to Las Vegas, and add in a week or so for loading, unloading, and sitting in customs. A direct airplane flight would get you there in a day, but the fuel cost and carbon tax at the border would make it uneconomical for many goods.
“Every time you have to load and unload and change the mode of transport, that’s money lost to you,” Icke said. “We are trucks that don’t need highways, boats that don’t need rivers, airplanes that don’t need airports. If you can find a piece of flat land the size of a football field, that’s enough for us. We can deliver door to door from a yurt in Mongolia to your apartment in New York—assuming your building has a mooring mast on top.”
A typical zeppelin built in the last twenty years, cruising at one hundred ten mph, can make the sixty-nine-hundred-mile haul between Lanzhou and Las Vegas in about sixty-three hours. If it makes heavy use of solar power, as Icke’s Feimaotui is designed to do, it can end up using less than a fraction of a percent of the fuel that a 747 would need to carry the same weight for the same distance. Plus, it has the advantage I’d mentioned of being more accommodating of bulky, irregularly-shaped loads.
Although we were making the transpacific long haul, most of our journey would be spent flying over land. The curvature of the Earth meant that the closest flight path between any two points on the globe followed a great circle that connected the two points and bisected the globe into two equal parts. From Lanzhou to Las Vegas, this meant that we would fly north and east over Inner Mongolia, Mongolia, Siberia, across the Bering Strait, and then fly east and south over Alaska, the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia, until we hit land again with Oregon, and finally reach the deserts of Nevada.
Below us, the vast city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, stretched out to the horizon, a megalopolis of shining steel and smooth glass, vast blocks of western-style houses and manicured gardens. The grid of new, wide streets was as empty as those in Pyongyang, and I could count the number of pedestrians on the fingers of one hand. Our height and open view made the scene take on the look of tilt-shift photographs, as though we were standing over a tabletop scale model of the city, with a few miniature cars and playing figurines scattered about the model.
Ordos is China’s Alberta. There is coal here, some of the best, cleanest coal in the world. Ordos was planned in anticipation of an energy boom, but the construction itself became the boom. The more they spent on construction, the more it looked on paper like there was need for even more construction. So now there is this Xanadu, a ghost town from birth. On paper it is the second-richest place in China, per capita income just behind Shanghai.
As we flew over the center of Ordos, a panda rose up and hailed us. The panda’s vehicle was a small blimp, painted olive green and carrying the English legend: “Aerial Transport Patrol, People’s Republic of China.” Icke slowed down and sent over the cargo manifests, the maintenance records, which the panda could cross-check against the international registry of cargo airships, and his journey log. After a few minutes, someone waved at us on from the window in the gondola of the blimp, and a Chinese voice told us over radio that we were free to move on.
“This is such a messed up country,” Icke said. “They have the money to build something like Ordos, but have you been to Guangxi? It’s near Vietnam, and outside the cities the people there are among the poorest in the world. They have nothing except the mud on the floor of their huts, and beautiful scenery and beautiful women.”
Icke had met Yeling there, through a mail-order bride service. It was hard to meet women when you were in the air three hundred days of the year.
On the day of Icke’s appointment, he was making a run through Nanning, the provincial capital, as part of a union crew picking up a shipment of star anise. He had the next day, a Saturday, off, and he traveled down to the introduction center a hundred kilometers outside Nanning to meet the girls whose pictures he had picked out and who had been bused in from the surrounding villages.
They had fifteen girls for him. They met in a village school house. Icke sat on a small stool at the front of the classroom with his back to the blackboard, and the girls were brought in to sit at the student desks, as though he was there to teach them.
Most of them knew some English, and he could talk to them for a little bit and mark down, on a chart, the three girls that he wanted to chat with one-on-one in private. The girls he didn’t pick would wait around for the next Westerner customer to come and see them in another half hour.
“They say that some services would even let you try the girls out for a bit, like allow you to take them to a hotel for a night, but I don’t believe that. Anyway, mine wasn’t like that. We just talked. I didn’t mark down three girls. Yeling was the only one I picked.
“I liked the way she looked. Her skin was so smooth, so young-looking, and I loved her hair, straight and black with a little curl at the end. She smelled like grass and rainwater. But I liked even more the way she acted with me: shy and very eager to please, something you don’t see much in the women back home.” He looked over at me as I took notes, and shrugged. “If you want to put a label on me and make the people who read what you write feel good about themselves., that’s your choice. It doesn’t make the label true.”
I asked him if something felt wrong about the process, like shopping for a thing.
“I paid the service two thousand dollars, and gave her family another five thousand before I married her. Some people will not like that. They’ll think something is not altogether right about the way I married her.
“But I know I’m happy when I’m with her. That’s enough for me.
“By the time I met her, Yeling had already dropped out of high school. If I didn’t meet her, she would not have gone on to college. She would not have become a lawyer or banker. She would not have gone to work in an office and come home to do yoga. That’s the way the world is.
“Maybe she would have gone to Nanning to become a masseuse or bathhouse girl. Maybe she would have married an old peasant from the next village who she didn’t even know just because he could give her family some money. Maybe she would have spent the rest of her life getting parasites from toiling in the rice paddies all day and bringing up children in a mud hut at night. And she would have looked like an old woman by thirty.
“How could that have been better?”
The language of the zeppeliners on the transpacific long haul, though officially English, is a mix of images and words from America and China. Dao, knife, dough, and dollar are used as interchangeable synonyms. Ursine imagery is applied to law enforcement agents along the route: a panda is a Chinese air patrol unit, and a polar bear Russian; in Alaska they are Kodiaks, and off the coast of BC they become whales; finally in America the ships have to deal with grizzlies. The bear’s job is to make the life of the zeppeliner difficult: catching pilots who have been at the controls for more than six hours without switching off, who fly above or below regulation altitude, who mix hydrogen into the lift gas to achieve an extra edge in cargo capacity.
“Whales?” I asked Icke. How was whale a type of bear?
“Evolution,” Icke said. “Darwin said that a race of bears swimming with their mouths open for water bugs may eventually evolve into whales.” (I checked. This was true.)
Nothing changed as an electronic beep from the ship’s GPS informed us that we crossed the international border between China and Mongolia somewhere in the desolate, dry plains of the Gobi below, dotted with sparse clumps of short, brittle grass.
Yeling came into the control cab to take over. Icke locked the controls and got up. In the small space at the back of the control cab, they spoke to each other for a bit in lowered voices, kissed, while I stared at the instrument panels, trying hard not to eavesdrop.
Every marriage had its own engine, with its own rhythm and fuel, its own language and control scheme, a quiet hum that kept everything moving. But the hum was so quiet that sometimes it was more felt than heard, and you had to listen for it if you didn’t want to miss it.
Then Icke left and Yeling came forward to take the pilot’s seat.
She looked at me. “There’s a second bunk in the back if you want to park yourself a bit.” Her English was accented but good, and you could hear traces of Icke’s broad New England A’s and non-rhoticity in some of the words.
I thanked her and told her that I wasn’t sleepy yet.
She nodded and concentrated on flying the ship, her hands gripping the stick for the empennage – the elevators and rudders in the cruciform tail – and the wheel for the trim far more tightly than Icke had.
I stared at the empty, cold desert passing beneath us for a while, and then I asked her what she had been doing when I first showed up at the airport.
“Fixing the eyes of the ship. Barry likes to see the mouth all red and fierce, but the eyes are more important.
“A ship is a dragon, and dragons navigate by sight. One eye for the sky, another for the sea. A ship without eyes cannot see the coming storms and ride the changing winds. It won’t see the underwater rocks near the shore and know the direction of land. A blind ship will sink.”
An airship, she said, needed eyes even more than a ship on water. It moved so much faster and there were so many more things that could go wrong.
“Barry thinks it’s enough to have these.” She gestured towards the instrument panel before her: GPS, radar, radio, altimeter, gyroscope, compass. “But these things help Barry, not the ship. The ship itself needs to see.
“Barry thinks this is superstition, and he doesn’t want me to do it. But I tell him that the ship looks more impressive for customers if he keeps the eyes freshly painted. That he thinks make sense.”
Yeling told me that she had also crawled all over the hull of ship and traced out a pattern of oval dragon scales on the surface of the hull with tung oil. “It looks like the way the ice cracks in spring on a lake with good fengshui. A ship with a good coat of dragon scales won’t ever be claimed by water.”
The sky darkened and night fell. Beneath us was complete darkness, northern Mongolia and the Russian Far East being some of the least densely inhabited regions of the globe. Above us, stars, denser than I had ever seen, winked into existence. It felt as though we were drifting on the surface of a sea at night, the water around us filled with the glow of sea jellies, the way I remember when I used to swim at night in Long Island Sound off of the Connecticut coast.
“I think I’ll sleep now,” I said. She nodded, and then told me that I could microwave something for myself in the small galley behind the control cab, off to the side of the main corridor.
The galley was tiny, barely larger than a closet. There was a fridge, a microwave, a sink, and a small two-burner electric range. Everything was kept spotless. The pots and pans were neatly hung on the wall, and the dishes were stacked in a grid of cubbyholes and tied down with velcro straps. I ate quickly and then followed the sound of snores aft.
Icke had left the light on for me. In the windowless bedroom, the soft, warm glow and the wood-paneled walls were pleasant and induced sleep. Two bunks, one on top of another, hung against one wall of the small bedroom. Icke was asleep in the bottom one. In one corner of the room was a small vanity with a mirror, and pictures of Yeling’s family were taped around the frame of the mirror.
It struck me then that this was Icke and Yeling’s home. Icke had told me that they owned a house in western Massachusetts, but they spent only about a month out of the year there. Most of their meals were cooked and eaten in the American Dragon, and most of their dreams were dreamt here in this room, each alone in a bunk.
A poster of smiling children drawn in the style of Chinese folk art was on the wall next to the vanity, and framed pictures of Yeling and Icke together, smiling, filled the rest of the wall space. I looked through them: wedding, vacation, somewhere in a Chinese city, somewhere near a lake with snowy shores, each of them holding up a big fish.
I crawled into the top bunk, and between Icke’s snores, I could hear the faint hum of the ship’s engines, so faint that you almost missed it if you didn’t listen for it.
I was more tired than I had realized, and slept through the rest of Yeling’s shift as well as Icke’s next shift. By the time I woke up, it was just after sunrise, and Yeling was again at the helm. We were deep in Russia, flying over the endless coniferous boreal forests of the heart of Siberia. Our course was now growing ever more easterly as we approached the tip of Siberia where it would meet Alaska across the Bering Sea.
She was listening to an audio book as I came into the control cab. She reached out to turn it off when she heard me, but I told her that it was all right.
It was a book about baseball, an explanation of the basic rules for non-fans. The particular section she was listening to dealt with the art of how to appreciate a stolen base.
Yeling stopped the book at the end of the chapter. I sipped a cup of coffee while we watched the sun rise higher and higher over the Siberian taiga, lighting up the lichen woodland dotted with bogs and pristine lakes still frozen over.
“I didn’t understand the game when I first married Barry. We do not have baseball in China, especially not where I grew up.
“Sometimes, when Barry and I aren’t working, when I stay up a bit during my shift to sit with him or on our days off, I want to talk about the games I played as a girl or a book I remember reading in school or a festival we had back home. But it’s difficult.
“Even for a simple funny memory I wanted to share about the time my cousins and I made these new paper boats, I’d have to explain everything: the names of the paper boats we made, the rules for racing them, the festival that we were celebrating and what the custom for racing paper boats was about, the jobs and histories of the spirits for the festival, the names of the cousins and how we were related, and by then I’d forgotten what was the stupid little story I wanted to share.
“It was exhausting for both of us. I used to work hard to try to explain everything, but Barry would get tired, and he couldn’t keep the Chinese names straight or even hear the difference between them. So I stopped.
“But I want to be able to talk to Barry. Where there is no language, people have to build language. Barry likes baseball. So I listen to this book and then we have something to talk about. He is happy when I can listen to or watch a baseball game with him and say a few words when I can follow what’s happening.”
Icke was at the helm for the northernmost leg of our journey, where we flew parallel to the Arctic Circle and just south of it. Day and night had lost their meaning as we flew into the extreme northern latitudes. I was already getting used to the six-hour-on, six-hour-off rhythm of their routine, and slowly synching my body’s clock to theirs.
I asked Icke if he knew much about Yeling’s family or spent much time with them.
“No. She sends some money back to them every couple of months. She’s careful with the budget, and I know that anything she sends them she’s worked for as hard as I did. I’ve had to work on her to get her to be a little more generous with herself, and to spend money on things that will make us happy right now. Every time we go to Vegas now she’s willing to play some games with me and lose a little money, but she even has a budget for that.
“I don’t get involved with her family. I figure that if she wanted out of her home and village so badly that she was willing to float away with a stranger in a bag of gas, then there’s no need for me to become part of what she’s left behind.
“I’m sure she also misses her family. How can she not? That’s the way we all are, as far as I can see: we want that closeness from piling in all together and knowing everything about everyone and talking all in one breath, but we also want to run away by ourselves and be alone. Sometimes we want both at the same time. My mom wasn’t much of a mom, and I haven’t been home since I was sixteen. But even I can’t say that I don’t miss her sometimes.
“I give her space. If there’s one thing the Chinese don’t have, it’s space. Yeling lived in a hut so full of people that she never even had her own blanket, and she couldn’t remember a single hour when she was alone. Now we see each other for a few minutes every six hours, and she’s learned how to fill up that space, all that free time, by herself. She’s grown to like it. It’s what she never had, growing up.”
There is a lot of space in a zeppelin, I thought, idly. That space, filled with lighter-than-air helium, keeps the zeppelin afloat. A marriage also has a lot of space. What fills it to keep it afloat?
We watched the display of the aurora borealis outside the window in the northern skies as the ship raced towards Alaska.
I don’t know how much time passed before I was jolted awake by a violent jerk. Before I knew what was going on, another sudden tilt of the ship threw me out of my bunk onto the floor. I rolled over, stumbled up, and made my way forward into the control cab by holding onto the walls.
“It’s common to have storms in spring over the Bering Sea,” Icke, who was supposed to be off shift and sleeping, was standing and holding onto the back of the pilot’s chair. Yeling didn’t bother to acknowledge me. Her knuckles were white from gripping the controls.
It was daytime, but other than the fact that there was some faint and murky light coming through the windows, it might as well have been the middle of the night. The wind, slamming freezing rain into the windows, made it impossible to see even the bottom of the hull as it curved up from the control cab to the nose cone. Billowing fog and cloud roiled around the ship, whipping past us faster than cars on the autobahns.
A sudden gust slammed into the side of the ship, and I was thrown onto the floor of the cab. Icke didn’t even look over as he shouted at me, “Tie yourself down or get back to the bunk.”
I got up and stood in the back right corner of the control cab, and used the webbing I found there to lash myself in place and out of the way.
Smoothly, as though they had practiced it, Yeling slipped out of the pilot chair and Icke slipped in. Yeling strapped herself into the passenger stool on the right. The line on one of the electronic screens that showed the ship’s course by GPS indicated that we had been zigzagging around crazily. In fact, it was clear that although the throttle was on full and we were burning fuel as fast as an airplane, the wind was pushing us backwards relative to the ground.
It was all Icke could do to keep us pointed into the wind and minimize the cross-section we presented to the front of the storm. If we were pointed slightly at an angle to the wind, the wind would have grabbed us around the ship’s peripatetic pivot point and spun us like an egg on its side, yawing out of control. The pivot point, the center of momentum around which a ship would move when an external force is applied, shifts and moves about an airship depending on the ship’s configuration, mass, hull shape, speed, acceleration, wind direction, and angular momentum, among other factors, and a pilot kept a zeppelin straight in a storm like this by feel and instinct more than anything else.
Lightning flashed close by, so close that I was blinded for a moment. The thunder rumbled the ship and made my teeth rattle, as though the floor of the ship was the diaphragm of a subwoofer.
“She feels heavy,” Icke said. “Ice must be building up on the hull. It actually doesn’t feel nearly as heavy as I would have expected. The hull ought to be covered by a solid layer of ice now if the outside thermometer reading is right. But we are still losing altitude, and we can’t go any lower. The waves are going to hit the ship. We can’t duck under this storm. We’ll have to climb over it.”
Icke dropped more water ballast to lighten the ship, and tilted the elevators up. We shot straight up like a rocket. The American Dragon’s elongated teardrop shape acted as a crude airfoil, and as the brutal Arctic wind rushed at us, we flew like an experimental model wing design in a wind tunnel.
Another bolt of lightning flashed, even closer and brighter than before. The rumble from the thunder hurt my eardrums, and for a while I could hear nothing.
Icke and Yeling shouted at each other, and Yeling shook her head and yelled again. Icke looked at her for a moment, nodded, and lifted his hands off the controls for a second. The ship jerked itself and twisted to the side as the wind took hold of it and began to turn it. Icke reached back to grab the controls as another bolt of lightning flashed. The interior lights went out as the lightning erased all shadows and lines and perspective, and the sound of the thunder knocked me off my feet and punched me hard in the ears. And I passed into complete darkness.
By the time I came to, I had missed the entire Alaskan leg of the journey.
Yeling, who had the helm, was playing a Chinese song through the speakers. It was dark outside, and a round, golden moon, almost full and as big as the moon I remember from my childhood, floated over the dark and invisible sea. I sat down next to Yeling and stared at it.
After the chorus, the singer, a woman with a mellow and smooth voice, began the next verse in English:
But why is the moon always fullest when we take leave of one another?
For us, there is sorrow, joy, parting, and meeting.
For the moon, there is shade, shine, waxing and waning.
It has never been possible to have it all.
All we can wish for is that we endure,
Though we are thousands of miles apart,
Yet we shall gaze upon the same moon, always lovely.
Yeling turned off the music and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“She found a way out of the storm,” she said. There was no need to ask who she meant. “She dodged that lightning at the last minute and found herself a hole in the storm to slip through. Sharp eyes. I knew it was a good idea to repaint the left eye, the one watching the sky, before we took off.”
I watched the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean pass beneath us.
“In the storm, she shed her scales to make herself lighter.”
I imagined the tung oil lines drawn on the ship’s hull by Yeling, the lines etching the ice into dragon scales, which fell in large chunks into the frozen sea below.
“When I first married Barry, I did everything his way and nothing my way. When he was asleep, and I was flying the ship, I had a lot of time to think. I would think about my parents getting old and me not being there. I’d think about some recipe I wanted to ask my mother about, and she wasn’t there. I asked myself all the time, what have I done?
“But even though I did everything his way, we used to argue all the time. Arguments that neither of us could understand and that went nowhere. And then I decided that I had to do something.
“I rearranged the way the pots were hung up in the galley and the way the dishes were stacked in the cabinets and the way the pictures were arranged in the bedroom and the way we stored life vests and shoes and blankets. I gave everything a better flow of qi, energy, and smoother fengshui. It might seem like a cramped and shabby place to some, but the ship now feels like our palace in the skies.
“Barry didn’t even notice it. But, because of the fengshui, we didn’t argue any more. Even during the storm, when things were so tense, we worked well together.”
“Were you scared at all during the storm?” I asked.
Yeling bit her bottom lip, thinking about my question.
“When I first rode with Barry, when I didn’t yet know him, I used to wake up and say, in Chinese, who is this man with me in the sky? That was the most I’ve ever been scared.
“But last night, when I was struggling with the ship and Barry came to help me, I wasn’t scared at all. I thought, it’s okay if we die now. I know this man. I know what I’ve done. I’m home.”
“There was never any real danger from lightning,” Icke said. “You knew that, right? The American Dragon is a giant Faraday cage. Even if the lightning had struck us, the charge would have stayed on the outside of the metal frame. We were in the safest place over that whole sea in that storm.”
I brought up what Yeling had said, that the ship seemed to know where to go in the storm.
Icke shrugged. “Aerodynamics is a complex thing, and the ship moved the way physics told it to.”
“But when you get your Aurora, you’ll let her paint eyes on it?”
Icke nodded, as though I had asked a very stupid question.
Las Vegas, the diadem of the desert, spread out beneath, around, and above us.
Pleasure ships and mass-transit passenger zeppelins covered in flashing neon and gaudy giant flickering screens dotted the air over the Strip. Cargo carriers like us were constricted to a narrow lane parallel to the Strip with specific points where we were allowed to depart to land at the individual casinos.
“That’s Laputa,” Icke pointed above us, to a giant, puffy, baroque airship that seemed as big as the Venetian, which we were passing below and to the left. Lit from within, this newest and flashiest floating casino glowed like a giant red Chinese lantern in the sky. Air taxis rose from the Strip and floated towards it like fireflies.
We had dropped off the shipment of turbine blades with the wind farm owned by Caesars Palace outside the city, and now we were headed for Caesars itself. Comp rooms were one of the benefits of hauling cargo for a customer like that.
I saw, coming up behind the Mirage, the tall spire and blinking lights of the mooring mast in front of the Forum Shops. It was usually where the great luxury personal yachts of the high-stakes rollers moored, but tonight it was empty, and a transpacific long-haul Dongfeng Feimaotui, a Flying Chinaman named the American Dragon, was going to take it for its own.
“We’ll play some games, and then go to our room,” Icke said. He was talking to Yeling, who smiled back at him. This would be the first chance they had of sleeping on the same bed in a week. They had a full twenty-four hours, and then they’d take off for Kalispell, Montana, where they would pick up a shipment of buffalo bones for the long haul back to China.
I lay in bed in my Downtown hotel room thinking about the way the furniture in my bedroom was arranged, and imagined the flow of qi around the bed, the nightstands, the dresser. I missed the faint hum of the zeppelin’s engines, so quiet that you had to listen hard to hear them.
I turned on the light and called my wife. “I’m not home yet. Soon.”
[This story was inspired in many ways by John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers.
Some liberty has been taken with the physical geography of our world: a great circle flight path from Lanzhou to Las Vegas would not actually cross the city of Ordos.
The lyrics of the song that Yeling plays come from a poem by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (1037-1101 A.D). It has remained a popular poem to set to music through the centuries since its composition.]