A Lifetime's Wonder
Note: Image associated is from Ironage.media, specifically their prompt 'The Sloop'
For centuries Man had stared at the skies, envious and enamoured of the birds, bees, and butterflies.
Their seeming specious flout of gravity, in the face of those who lacked their lev'ty.
Knowing not of Man's ingenuity, and ignorant of Man's antipathy.
That Man would defy their impediment, to join the waltz in skies in merriment.
But their balloons could not dance in the sky, and so they tried to go ever more high.
- Willem Rostov on the Derrida Model 3 and what it says of Mankind.
A century ago, Nicholas Derrida's Grandfather, Cornelius, had changed the world. In his youth, he had been regaled by the tale, time and time again, of his Grandfather's success. Small wonder that he would seek to outdo him, as Nicholas had always been competitive, even if Cornelius would no longer see him exceed his heights figuratively and, with a bit of luck, literally. The Derrida Model 3 had been so successful and straightforward to produce that no competitor had even tried to improve on it, even after its essential assemblies had become public record, let alone when its design was entered into the National Museum 'to preserve its genius forevermore.'
100 years this month, and even Nicholas' father had never figured out how or if the Model 3 could be improved. What could it have needed? Its balloon was both substantial and powered well enough to carry many thousands of pounds in cargo or even over 100 people while still holding seats, snacks and water to suit 4 hours of travel. The sails on the sides and between her decks were large enough to catch even a weak wind to push one along in whichever direction the Captain wished. Its design was simple and robust enough to need only 4 to crew it, including her Captain, and little training was necessary to operate it such that most crews consisted, even to this day, of one adult to Captain her and three youths, most often boys though some girls were found in the larger fleets.
So what was Nicholas thinking that he thought he could improve on such a masterpiece of carpentry? Well, to put it simply, he wasn't. Nicholas was instead thinking of how to make something to outpace the Model 3. Something to truly fly, not merely float along with the winds in the mile-high sky. And by Otmar's breath, he may have just done it. Or at least proved it was possible to achieve flight without a balloon. All that remained was to turn it on and try to fly.
Rolling his fine-boned wood and canvas beast from the warehouse on his Grandfather's original disused balloon field, he checked the propelling arms at the front and rear of it. They turned in time with each other, sharing an operating rod, or axle as he had started calling it, from the heart of his daft creation, a modified engine from a Model 3. Rather than simply producing a directed flame, it used that same flame to heat an empty chamber, using pressure changes to drive a piston along a transfer wheel to turn the axle continuously. By feeding more or less flame, you could alter the speed of the piston, though it did require a small amount of time to heat up and a manual twist of the wheel to get started. Its scale model had some success at high RPMs; Nicholas was hoping that, like how larger birds don't need to move their wing as often as their smaller cousins, the same would be true of his prototype. It was now or never, he thought as he started the engine's flame.
The longest 30 seconds of his life followed as he let the brass chamber warm up in the flame. He touched the transfer wheel slowly, almost afraid to start it. He had spent 18 months on this project, 18 months studying birds, studying the Model 3 engine, acquiring the materials, and testing the scale models, all for this moment. He gripped the handle, pushing it clockwise until he felt the piston begin to take over, and he let go. The piston just about finished a rotation but stopped at its starting position. Nicholas' heart fell from his throat to well below his stomach as he saw it stop. He pushed it one more time, more to assuage his disappointment than to try again, and the piston made two slow rotations this time. Perking up as he saw it, Nicholas turned up the engine's power, waited around 15 seconds, and pushed the transfer wheel again, much like a child first finding out how a wheel works on a toy. The piston moved sluggishly, seemingly slower than before, but it ran once... twice... three times and started to speed up rapidly as Nicholas lost count of how many turns the axle was making. The propelling arms were also turning well, staying even with each other.
Nicholas was so lost in joy at seeing the engine run in full size that he didn't notice that his creation had begun rolling slowly away from him. It had managed to move a foot before he realized, rushing to hang on and power the engine and its speed. The engine was now proven to work at this size. Now, could it actually fly? He wasn't sure in truth. The scale models had shown some promise, and as the propelling arms became a blur in front and behind, it seemed more and more possible by the second. He couldn't rightly tell, as he was alone, but it seemed to him that his creation was now moving at about the speed he could run, but it hadn't left the ground yet. He increased the pressure on the flame mouth, the colour shifting from the normal orange-red to a bright yellow, and the piston seemed to run a little faster. The ground began to run by faster beneath him, and he felt his creation try to lift at the front, the wheels presently hopping and skittering over the earth. He could do it. He could revolutionize the business his Grandfather had created. All he had to do was to refine his creation.
But first, he had to turn it off. Looking at the rapidly spinning transfer wheel, he realized that it absolutely should have been figured out before he tried to fly.