What’s a budding musical prodigy to do on her summer vacation?
Jane began it by touring. Polytech had secured her an agent with the Kuznetsov’s oversight. Jane was only the latest of their many talented students. For this they got a five percent cut of the agent’s fifteen percent for the first year only.
Her first gig was with the LA Philharmonic orchestra. She spent a week with the lead conductor who helped her organize and rehearse the orchestra. Then on a Friday night she led the orchestra in the “Requiem.” The next day she repeated a matinee and evening performance, then did the same on Sunday.
People came from all over the southern California area. A few came from the East Coast and one person (a Japanese critic) came from Tokyo.
She did the same in San Jose. They were sold out and persuaded her to do a Monday and a Tuesday performance.
Next she flew to Seattle for a weekend and a rental car’s drive across the Canadian border to Vancouver for the succeeding weekend. Her parents were her drivers and chaperones. She was happy to have them to intercede with sometimes too-exuberant fans. Her hand grew tired autographing programs.
A plane flight took her to Toronto in east Canada. From there she went to New York for two weekends and a mid-week evening. Finally she went to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Miami.
Lastly, they flew back to LA. She’d had offers from all the major cities in Europe, Russia, and Israel. But she was tired. And by now the “Requiem” was engrained in her memory and was becoming boring.
Her agent was highly annoyed at her refusal. The tour was very profitable. But she was consoled by a record deal. Jane conducted the “Requiem” one last time: with an orchestra that did a lot of movie sound tracks. In some way that was her best experience. She could enjoy it one last time, with an absolutely superb orchestra, and know that the CDs and downloads would please people for months and years afterward.
One upshot of the tour and the money she’d gained was pleasing to her and alarming to her parents, as she thought them even though they were still foster parents and Natalie still her guardian. She wanted flying lessons.
The pilots in her last few flights had let her come forward and sit in the cockpit. While one pilot remained at the controls and alert to outside problems, the other had sat behind her in a navigator’s seat and explained the controls. She’d been allowed to place her hands on the controls when they were temporarily disconnected from controlling the plane and feel the minute changes in the control yoke as the pilot steered the craft.
She’d felt perfectly alive. Her inner senses of the nature and changes of her inertial frame were enormously satisfying. The feeling of being at one with the craft was too, even as diffuse as it was with all the safety features between it and her and the alert oversight by the pilot watching over her.
Jane was so compliant most of the time that the Kuznetsovs had forgotten that she had a will of steel. Not one word they said could budge her one micrometer from her decision.
She finally said, “I’m done talking. You can let me do this now with your oversight, or I will do it when I’m eighteen and no one can stop me. Or oversee me.”
The right choice was clear to her parents. She would take lessons now.
With that Jane instantly became the loving compliant girl again. She cooperated with Alex in finding a training school and an instructor and the kinds of craft they put her in. He also limited the time she would spend in the cockpit, never letting her go beyond the point where she’d become tired. This was far less sooner than her limits, which she knew was days not hours, but she never let on.
El Monte Airport was a few miles to the east and south, about nine miles by local streets, ten if you wanted to go by way of the freeway, which was faster. That’s how Alex went.
The land seemed to her even flatter somehow than the equally flat land around her tree-shaded home. She guessed it was because the area was nearly bare of trees. The hot dry summer day gave a somewhat sterile feel to the air.
The street south from the east-west 210 Freeway was two two-lane streets with a narrow separator between them. The separator was planted with low bushes or, in some lengths, pine or other trees. The two-lane streets had an additional lane to each side upon which cars were, very rarely, parked. The land on each side of the street, Santa Anita, contained buildings which were low and utilitarian. This gave her a feeling as if the world were naked, exposed to space.
They turned in to the entrance to the airport. The utilitarian motif continued, very unlike the smooth elegance within airports she had become used to. The main building itself only had a single high floor with a projecting second story which must be the control tower.
She didn’t see any antennas, communication or radar, but she knew there must be some. The web site propaganda mentioned a new ultra-modern FAA-approved tower.
Within the building was a broad area which looked like a lounge with a couple dozen comfortable leather or fake-leather chairs. There were no crowds as in a big-city airport. There was a store behind two large transparent doors on one wall. In another wall was an open door through which she could see a woman at a computer. The woman looked up as Jane and Alex came in.
“How can I help you, sir?”
“Don’t look at me. She’s the boss. I’m just the chauffeur and the gofer. You know, go fer this, go fer that.”
Jane had to control her face at his joke. He was dressed in jeans and a checked shirt and wore a nice leather jacket despite the heat. Somehow he contrived to look none too smart.
“I’m looking for the pilot training school.”
She gave instructions to walk about two hundred feet “thataway” and pointed.
“You’ll see the sign BAKER AIR on the shed. Below it are the words Pilot Training.”
The “shed” was a large one-story metal building with no windows which looked like a warehouse. Inside it was roomy and cool with three offices lined up on one long wall. Doors to each were open. Only one was occupied.
This was an older woman in bright orange coveralls blotched with faint stains of washed away oil or gasoline or the like. She sat at a cluttered desk scowling at the screen of a desk computer through a VR/AR headset which people had become calling a “vear.”
A bright smile lit up her face when she realized she had visitors.
“Hello. How can I help you?”
Jane said, “I’m here to consider signing up for basic flight training.”
“You came to the right place. We’ve been in business for–“
“Yes, I know. I studied your web site and researched you on the Web. I was impressed with everything I learned. Which of your instructors is available?”
“We have four. Two are available.”
The woman told her.
“I’d prefer James Walters. I liked his record.”
“He’ll be delighted. He really enjoys teaching.” Something about her manner suggested otherwise.
“Now our fees–“
“Yes, I know. I did read your Web site. Your fees are no problem.”
“Good. I need to see some ID.”
She handed him her driver’s license. A few weeks ago she’d had her (long ago calculated) birthday. It had caused the license to be upgraded from Provisional to Adult.
“Your rules say that students had to be 17 or older.”
She gazed at Jane who was small and seemed closer to 16 though lately she’d begun to fill out more. She was dressed in blue denim overalls with the bib cutout so that the graphic on her bright orange short-sleeved T-shirt was visible.
“It’s the school I go to. I play soccer.”
The woman’s gaze sharpened on her face. She looked down at her driver’s license again, then back up.
She near whispered, “You’re her. You’re really her.”
“Urhh, yes?” Which her? The soccer Her or the composer Her?
“My daughter obsessively plays ‘Requiem.’ She went from being a pain in the ass to the sweet girl she used to be. She says it was time she grew up.”
She scrambled around on her desk and came up with a 3×5 gold note card.
“Could I have your autograph?”
“Of course.” She took the proffered ballpoint pen and wrote a flourished JaneK, then surrounded it with a crude Valentine heart.
“Jimmy is on the tarmac directly in front of this building, at a Piper Archer. It has a blue tail with red text reading BAKER. I’m Baker, by the way.”
She scrubbed a hand on her coveralls and held out her hand toward Jane to shake, which she did.
“If you go to him he’ll interview you– I mean you can interview him. He’ll give you a free ride. Tell him Baker said so.”
“Thank you, Baker. Dad?”
“You go on ahead. I’ve been on a plane.”
In fact he’d flown on a developmental suborbital spaceplane as a consultant among others.
“Now what problem were you frowning over, young lady?”
As she left he’d taken over Baker’s seat and was frowning at the screen through his own VR/AR faceplate. Baker was doing the same through hers, bent over one of his shoulders and pointing. Her father had morphed into his Wise Professor role.
The flat concrete surface outside the Baker offices radiated heat at near midday. Jane could feel the sweat begin to rise all over her body. The surface seemed to extend into infinity toward every compass point, the perfectly blue sky to infinity above her. In front of her dozens of light single-engine planes were parked in neat arrays. Each was white with various painting schemes.
One of Baker Aerospace’s three planes, all Piper Archers, was indeed directly in front of the Baker offices. It was about a hundred foot walk to where he and another man were looking at its engine. The cowl covering it had been removed and stood on end nearby.
“Jimmy” Walters was in his fifties (53 according to Jane’s web search) and lean. He was still good looking. The grey on the side of his short hair helped give him a distinguished air.
He was smoking a cigarette.
The man beside him looked around first. He was a fit young man, about thirty. Jane guessed he was a mechanic based on his oil-stained grey coveralls. He smiled at her and said, “Incoming. Pretty lady alert.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Jane said to him. And to Jimmy, “Smoking can kill you. Especially when you do it around gasoline.”
He turned and scowled at her through his aviator sunglasses.
“And who might you be?”
“Your next pilot trainee if you don’t drop dead from heart disease or blow us all up.”
The young man clapped him on a shoulder and said, as he walked away, “She’s got your number, old man. See you later.”
Jane ignored him and stood on tiptoe to look in at the engine. She recognized it from her web search and knew its specs.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing. It just could be more efficient.”
He let her look at the engine while he took a last puff on the cigarette and dropped it to scuff it out.
“I read that. Gonna fix, ahh, improve it?”
“No. That skinflint Baker won’t spend the money on a 1.1% efficiency increase. That 1.1% might be the difference between dying and living.”
“What if I could get a CalTech mechanical engineer to look at it and give a second opinion?” She meant George Liszt, one of her father’s friends. He looked favorably upon her and might actually do it. He often liked to get his hands dirty with “real” work instead of the highly technical and theoretical work CalTech and their sometimes donors paid him very well to do.
“So you pal around with high mucky mucks, do you, little girl?”
“I TEACH high mucky mucks at CalTech, old man.”
He gazed at her, catching her blue overalls and bright orange T-shirt, aviation sunglasses, and Air Force 3 running shoes.
“Hmm. You want to fly?”
“I’m DESPERATE to fly. But not with some careless broken down pilot who ignores safety issues.”
His demeanor changed to serious.
“On the ground I may act stupid. Not in the air. The one thing I’ll drill into you above all else is safety, safety, safety.”
“Then let’s do this. Oh, and by the way, Baker says I get a free ride, on her.”
“Oh, she does, does she? Well, she pays for the avgas and the maintenance. Let’s go up.”
GOING UP on her first flight meant filling out a form including proof of financial responsibility and several other matters. This included declarations of good health. Since she was 17 her father had to cosign the form.
“She’s definitely in good health. Her personal physician is a friend who makes sure of that. And she’s a high-performing athlete.”
Baker nudged Jimmy with a tablet computer. He took it and started playing the video on it. Jane was sure which video it was, her upside-down kick, and Jimmy’s response proved it.
“You did this?”
“Yeah. There’s a technical reason for it besides pure fun.”
“I bet it WAS fun, though.” He seemed to understand that well.
After the signing Jane had to swap her overalls for pilot’s coveralls, a bright orange. Jimmy inspected her sunglasses and approved the fact that they had a polarizing filter to improve vision. Her shoes were OK, too, though he suggested she get ones with a thinner sole to better feel the aircraft control pedals.
The last item was a baseball-type cap with a bill which could help shield her eyes from sunlight. On its blue front in red text were the words BAKER AIR.
In the four-seater aircraft Jimmy had her learn to strap in and unstrap. He had her practice this several times.
“If you have to get out in a hurry you don’t want to fumble. Even if you’re upside down you can get out.”
He peered at her from under his cap.
“Normally I’d just have you strap in, give you the absolutely basic safety lesson, and fly. Maybe do a few mildly acrobatic maneuvers to give you a thrill and be sure you didn’t get airsick. But I think you’re smart and serious. So if it’s OK with you we’ll make this partly your first lesson.”
“I’d be abso-fucking-lutely thrilled to get a real lesson.”
“Little girls shouldn’t have a foul mouth.” He was frowning and serious.
He went over the instrument panel. It had a bunch of manual buttons and switches but the main focus of each pilot was two flat panels directly in front of the steering yokes. One was tailored specifically to flying this particular aircraft and the other was a general one like the personal tablet computer which she had holstered in its folded-up configuration on her belt. On the general screen you could call up maps and web pages and in general anything on the internet.
“These are tied in to a comsat and have emergency power. So even in an emergency you have communication abilities. Play with it for just a moment.”
He had her try out several of the most basic functions, then called up the control tower.
“El Monte Control, this is Piper single-engine on your tarmac body number N937CZ. Requesting ground maneuvers on far lane.”
“Roger Piper 7CZ. Request granted. Be aware several incoming on near lane.”
Jimmy acknowledged and said, “You’ll learn all the rules for communication with the tower and other aircraft. But for now that should give you some of the feel for it. It’s fairly simple. It has to be to be clear, especially since a lot of planes are flown by foreigners with limited English.”
The ground maneuvers got her basic familiarity with the foot-pedal controls and the control yoke. With her hands on the yoke and her feet on the pedals she began to feel more connection between herself and the beast around her.
The super smart robot in every cell of Jane’s body began to wake up.
Jane’s breathing began to come from deeper in her lungs and the breaths fuller. Her blood began to take in more oxygen and break glucose down into sugar and burn the sugar. Images became minusculy brighter and their edges sharper. Time slowed just enough for her to notice and realize something profound was happening. A tiny kernel of joy lit within her.
Jimmy gave the controls to her with him able to over-ride her controls, called the tower for clearance, and had her drive the plane on the ground to the takeoff point. There he took back the controls, called the tower again and, after a brief wait, began his run to the takeoff point.
Jane’s world slowed infinitesimally more as the runway and the fences to the sides sped backward faster and faster. She KNEW when their speed was just right and the air around them felt just right. And the plane lifted gently into the air and tilted back to climb into the sky.
For a half hour Jimmy flew them in an oval flight path, giving her pointers, having her look at the ground below and pick out land features, scan the sky in front of and above and far to each sides. Air traffic control, he said, was very good but even they could make mistakes and let airplanes get too close to each other.
He let her take over the controls and perform very gentle maneuvers. Soon she felt she had perfect control of the craft. It became intuitive to turn at exact angles in any direction, raise and lower engine speed, and the many other activities it took to fly a machine in the four-dimensional realm of flight. Her feel for her inertial frame was perfect.
She did not let on any of this. It would make Jimmy think she was delusional. But she wasn’t. She had too much proof of this in her extraordinary athletic performance. And in how it felt when she’d traveled in high-speed commercial jets on her musical tour. Then she’d been able to shut her eyes and know just where and in what attitude her body was in four-space.
Finally they landed, Jane feeling on her locked-out controls the yoke’s and the foot pedals’ movement which brought them safely down. Then she took over and drove them back to the plane’s parking slot. Thus began her weekly pilot lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
On the Monday before the first official lesson when dinner was done Alex and Malena told her they had a belated birthday present for her.
Jane had been suspicious all throughout dinner that something was up. She’d seen this behavior before from the two of them, but she waited for them to “surprise” her. To do otherwise would ruin their pleasure.
They led her out to the garage. It held Malena’s SUV and normally Alex’s sky-blue Porsche. It was missing. Until they raised the garage door and she saw it in the driveway. Atop it was a huge red bow.
Alex handed her the keys and said, in unison with his wife, “Happy birthday!”
Jane gasped, truly utterly surprised. A jolt of joy shot throughout her body.
She took the keys from his hand, her arm and hand running on automatic, staring at–her–car in a daze lit only by the sight of the beautiful machine. Her gaze brightened, color contrasts increased, the edges of the image before her sharpened.
“But–” turning toward them “–you love her.”
“I do. But you need a car. I can get that new Tesla which I’ve been thinking about for some time. Perfect conjunction of need and desire.”
Malena said, “More correctly, he’s been DREAMING about that new car. Very annoying when I’m trying to get a full night’s sleep. Close your mouth. Flies will get in it. Go for a drive.”
Jane turned and pulled the two of them into a three-body hug.
“Thank you thank you thank you!”
“Hey,” Alex said, “that hurts.”
She was indeed hugging too tight. She sometimes forgot her strength. She released them, took the keys, and went for her solo ride in her new car.
The night wind blowing in her hair, she drove on Hill Street north and then onto the 210 Freeway. There she let the legs of the Porsche stretch though never beyond the speed limit. Driving neither too fast nor too slow for the traffic Jane became one with the engine and the car’s body and the air caressing that body.
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