The bookstore (there still were a few around) was as good a place as any to meet. It was quiet, not too public, and they didn’t mind if you hung around for a while without buying anything.
When Mrs. Nagai showed up, she had a book and a handful of papers with her.
“You know we’ve been talking about using an ultralight to explore the other side,” she said. “Thing is, I’m going to be needed back home in a few weeks, so I won’t be able to pilot it. So I need to teach someone else how to fly.”
Lock nodded. He wasn’t sure why she was telling him all this, but he figured she’d get to it.
“I’m looking for somebody who’s reasonably intelligent and alert to his surroundings. Somebody who doesn’t panic when things go wrong. Somebody who can handle extended periods of solitude. Somebody who doesn’t weigh too much, so the plane can go a little farther on a tank of fuel. You know anyone like that?”
If she hadn’t said “his” and put in the thing about solitude, Lock would’ve thought she was talking about Rikki. As it was, he was stumped. Then it hit him — she means you, dummy.
“I don’t know if I made it clear just how impressed I was with your performance yesterday,” she said. “I see a lot of potential in you.”
“You want to teach me to fly?”
She gave him the book. It was an aviator’s handbook. There were also a couple of packets of instructions.
“Don’t make up your mind just yet,” she said…
On Monday morning, when Lock got a look at the thing he was expected to be flying, he was even less sure. It didn't look like a plane. It looked like a very big kite with an engine and a cockpit. Well, sort of a cockpit — a seat and some controls. It didn’t look like something you’d trust your life to. People do this all the time, Lock thought.
“Do you understand how it flies?”
“Okay. Explain it to me.”
Oops. Lock had read the description of “lift.” It had been something about the air moving over the top of the wing faster than it moved over the bottom and it had sounded like it couldn’t possibly work.
He drew a blank for several seconds. He looked around, as if hoping to see someone standing around holding a sign with the answer written on it. The airfield was small, and almost deserted.
“So you don’t understand.”
Lock nodded again, his face turning red.
“That’s all right. I just need you to answer my questions honestly. Define ‘relative wind.’”
This he got. “That’s when you’re moving so fast it feels like the wind is blowing in your face, even if there isn’t any wind.” It was a feeling he’d known often enough as a sprinter, so he recognized it when he read about it.
“Much better. Define pitch, roll and yaw, and tell me how you control them.”
“Pitch, roll and yaw are the ways a plane moves,” said Lock. “Pitch is, like, when the nose of the plane goes up and down. You control it with the elevator. That’s how you take off and land.”
“Technically, the nose and the tail rotate around the lateral axis. Go on.”
“Okay…” Lock thought for a moment, then stretched out his arms.
“Roll is when the plane goes like this” — he tilted himself to one side, then the other — “and yaw is when it goes like this” — he twisted on his waist, sweeping his arms around in arcs — “unless it’s the other way around.”
“It isn’t. You were right the first time. Go on.”
“The, uh, ailerons” — Lock had no idea if he was pronouncing that right — “are for roll and the rudder’s for yaw.”
“Tell me which way the wind is blowing.”
There was hardly any wind at all. Lock glanced around. Finally, feeling like he was cheating, he looked at the windsock.
“That way,” he said, pointing, “but not much.”
“Point out the altimeter and airspeed indicator.”
Lock looked at the cockpit.
“This looks totally different from the handout.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” The corners of her mouth twitched again. Lock hated it when teachers made things harder just for the hell of it, but it took only a few moments to figure out where everything was on this model.
He spent the next twenty minutes going through the “pre-flight checklist,” which was, basically, checking out the whole plane and making sure everything worked and nothing was going to fall off in midair. This was tiresome, but the machine was already so delicate-looking that Lock would have had a hard time saying it didn’t need to be done.
The rest of the lesson he spent taxiing. He put on a helmet, buckled up and drove around the airfield like a little kid in a bumper car, learning to speed up, slow down and use the rudder. Nagai said you had to get comfortable doing this before you could really start flying. She rode alongside him on a bicycle, watching what he was doing.
Just to mess him up some more, they measured speed in something called “knots.” A “knot” was a little more than one mile an hour. Actually, it was one-point-one-five-something-something miles an hour, so 10 “knots” was eleven and a half miles an hour, more or less. (And people complained about the metric system.) The important thing was that if he drove the ultralight faster than 30 knots, it would take off. So, for the most part, he drove it only a little faster than he could run.
The next day was pretty much the same. He never went over 20 knots and he never went off the ground. It was starting to get boring.
On the third day there was a little bit of breeze. Looking at the windsock, Mrs. Nagai said the wind was “about 15 knots.” She also warned that the wind would try to “weathercock” him. She didn’t explain what that meant, but it sounded bad.
The wind did seem to be affecting the plane a lot more than it did Lock. It was like a giant hand that kept trying to push him off course. The first time he turned, the plane started tipping over to one side. Thinking quickly, he used the ailerons for the first time to get the wings level again. Nagai gave him a thumbs-up.
This cheered him, but he had to concentrate on keeping the plane on course. Also, the airspeed indicator was making no sense. When it started claiming he was standing still or going backward, he decided to ignore it and make a mental note to tell Mrs. Nagai to get it fixed.
He turned straight into the wind. It almost slowed him to a stop, so he gave the engine a little more gas and got back up to what felt like the right speed.
The plane leaped off the ground.
Lock was too startled even to swear. He’d been looking forward to flying, but not right now.
He cut back on the throttle. It was all he could think of, and he wasn’t sure it was going to work — it should, but then, this thing shouldn’t have taken off in the first place, so what did “should” even mean?
For a long moment, it didn’t work. Lock just glided, about six or seven feet over the runway. He thought about cutting power to the engine completely, but the engine was the only part of the plane he was sure he could still control. He reached for the handbrake, then realized the brakes were only attached to the wheels and would be completely useless until those wheels were touching the ground. Don’t lose it, he thought. You’re not that high up, you’re not going that fast, and there isn’t anything you could crash into up ahead.
Finally, gravity started paying attention to him again. The plane didn’t quite drop to the tarmac, but it met the ground hard enough to make his teeth rattle. It bounced a little, but then started to taxi. Now he could cut the engine and use the brake. (Dammit, she said this thing wouldn’t take off until you hit 30 knots! What the hell is going on?) The plane went off the tarmac and onto the grass, but only for a few feet.
He got out of the plane. She had kind of a poker face, but she didn’t look surprised, or angry like she thought he’d done that on purpose. It occurred to him right now that she knew better than he did how fast he’d been going, since she’d been keeping pace with him on her bike, which had a real speedometer.
“Was that supposed to happen?” he finally said.
“But… you said the speed…”
“Stop and think, Lock,” she said. “Which way was the wind blowing?”
“Right in my face.”
“So, you already had a 15-knot headwind blowing over the wings, and you were going about 20 knots. What’s 15 plus 20?”
Oh, thought Lock. If you added the real wind to the relative wind… yeah, that would explain it. The part of his brain that couldn’t really believe in “lift” had just been convinced. Maybe the airspeed indicator wasn’t broken after all. Had she been testing him just now, to see how he’d react when the plane took off for no reason? Or had she been expecting him to realize beforehand that this was going to happen, like Gary might have?
“Your landing was a little rough,” she said. “Try it again, on purpose this time.”
The next day he did nothing but practice takeoffs and landings, never getting more than ten feet in the air. It was more than he’d known how to do even two days ago, but it was already starting to feel confining. He was sure he could do a little more than she was letting him. (Then again, his dad had always said takeoffs and landings were the most dangerous part.)
She seemed to guess how he was feeling. At the end, she said, “Want to do some real flying?”
“Then you’ll love tomorrow’s lesson. Be sure to bring a sweater and long pants.”
He didn’t know whether to be excited or scared. Hey, why not both?
Lock would have forgotten the sweater and pants if Mrs. Nagai hadn’t called and reminded him before he was out the door. He put them on over his T-shirt and gym shorts in the airport bathroom.
Of course, the day was in the high nineties, and as soon as he left the air-conditioned building dressed like this, he erupted in sweat. Next time, wait until you’re at the plane to put the extra clothes on, he thought. There were two ultralights out there.
He was a little surprised to see Gary and Tara talking to Mrs. Nagai. His teacher turned to him. She was wearing her aviator glasses again.
“I’m going to go up first,” she said, pointing to the other ultralight. “On my signal, you’re going to do the same. We’re going to go for a flight ceiling of 5,000 feet.”
“What?” yelped Tara. “Five thousand feet?”
“Higher is better,” said Lock. “Really. Less stuff to run into.” (The way his father had always put it was “nobody’s ever crashed into the sky.”)
“Once you’re up there,” Nagai continued, “we’re going to see how you are at recovering from stalls.”
“How do you know the plane’s gonna stall?” said Lock.
“Simple. You’re going to make it stall.”
Oh. Lock knew what a “stall” was, of course. When you tried to climb too fast, at too steep an angle ("angle of attack" was what they called it, for some reason) something happened to the flow of air over the wing that he was still having trouble picturing in his mind, but it made the plane lose its lift. (It could also happen if you slowed down too much or banked too sharply. In fact, there were lots of different ways you could stall.)
And if you were going to do a stall on purpose, which apparently he was (how had he gotten talked into this again?) that was another reason it was better to be higher up. Falling five thousand feet wouldn’t kill you any deader than falling five hundred feet (wow, that made him feel better) and it gave you a lot more time to straighten things out.
“Shouldn’t he have a parachute?” said Gary. Lock had been meaning to ask about this himself.
“There’s a parachute on top of the wing,” said the pilot.
“What’s it doing up there?” said Tara. “What if he suddenly needs to put it on? Like, right away?”
“I think the parachute is for the whole plane, not just him,” said Gary. “That’s why they call it an ‘ultralight’ — it’s so light they can give the whole thing a parachute. So if anything goes wrong, instead of bailing out, he just stays in his seat and rides it to the ground.”
“I’m glad you’re here to explain these things, Gary,” said Nagai. (So was Lock, but he wasn’t about to admit it.) “Now, Lock, how hard is the wind blowing?”
Lock looked at the windsock. “Can’t be more than five knots.”
“You see those clouds in this distance?”
“Tell me about them.”
Lock tried to remember what he’d read last night about reading the clouds.
“They’re… the plain white kind. Cumulus. They basically mean everything is cool for flying. The tops are kind of billowing up, there and there, which means there’s gotta be updrafts right underneath.”
“Which is important because…” This is taking forever, he thought. As nervous as he was, he kind of wanted to get started. His back was completely soaked with sweat.
“Because the plane doesn’t weigh much and if I flew into the updraft, that would, like… affect how it flew,” he said.
“I think you’re ready,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
“By the way, Locksmith,” said Tara, holding up her cell phone, “I’m taping you doing this and I’m gonna e-mail it to June. So make sure you look cool up there.” Thanks for showing her my giant sweat stain, thought Lock. He’d e-mailed her a couple of times this week, just to stay in touch.
His mom was by the plane, standing next to a man a couple of inches taller than she was. The man had a bald crown and thick black hair on both sides of his head. “I mean, I have a lot of respect for the old man,” the man was saying, “but what the Stormshelter really needs is a leader with a little more youth and energy.”
Then he turned and saw Lock. He was wearing a suit and tie in spite of the heat.
“Speaking of youth and energy, is this your son?”
“One of them, yes. This is Lachlan. Lachlan, this is…”
“Frank Corbie,” said the man. His cheeks were clean-shaven, but his black goatee was so thick it almost covered up his mouth. He grabbed Lock’s hand and shook it up and down, hard, like it was a ketchup bottle. “Pleasure to meet you, young man.”
“Don’t forget the pre-flight check,” said Nagai.
Lock went over the plane. As he did so, he pointed out to Mom the parachute on top. “So no matter what goes wrong, there’s that,” he said, hoping she wouldn’t worry so much.
His mother shook her head. “I thought it would be Bill doing something like this,” she said. “You were always… well, never mind. Good luck.”
Then she hugged him. She had never managed to break his ribs or arms doing this, but Lock was sure it was going to happen one of these days. I really hope Tara isn’t filming this part, he thought.
And now he was in the seat, and his teacher was taking off. His helmet was on. His seatbelt was fastened. It was like the moment just before the start of a race, only a lot more so.
Nagai’s voice came over the headset. “Are you scared?”
“Yeah,” said Lock, seeing no reason to lie.
“Good. Now get moving.”
He took off into the wind to make things a little easier. He did it as smoothly as he’d ever done it. When he was a hundred feet in the air, Nagai gave him his next order.
“Bank thirty degrees left.”
Turning turned out to be harder in the air than on the ground. The first time he tried it, the plane tipped alarmingly to one side. Controlling the rudder and ailerons at the same time was only a little more complicated than patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time… except for what would happen if you screwed up. You wanted this, genius, he thought.
Two hundred feet. Lock wasn’t quite sure where the if-you-fall-from-here-we-guarantee-you-die point was, but he knew he must have passed it by now. And there were 4,800 more feet to go.
Four hundred feet. He passed over the road that went by the airfield. The cars looked like the old Matchbox cars he’d found in Mom-mom’s basement. The horizon was already starting to look a little bigger.
“Remember,” said Nagai, “spend one second out of every ten looking at the controls.” Lock nodded.
Seven hundred feet. He was beginning to get the hang of turns. Six-banana seven-banana eight-banana nine-banana ten-banana — everything checked out — one-banana two-banana…
One thousand feet. “Now, slowly and carefully raise your angle of attack and go in a circle, clockwise, until you reach your target altitude. Then level off. Try to stay over the airfield.”
If he stalled here, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to recover in time. He also wasn’t sure the parachute would work so close to the ground. With this in mind, Lock raised his angle of attack very slowly and carefully. His eyes seemed to have gotten the rhythm of the ten-second rule, so he didn’t have to bother counting out seconds.
Two thousand feet. His first few tries at a circle hadn’t exactly turned out perfectly round, but after some fiddling with the rudder Lock managed to fix it. He nudged up the angle of attack another couple of degrees, and it didn’t do any harm. This wasn’t so… he knew if he let himself finish that thought, something godawful would happen right away, so he left it there.
Three thousand feet. The last time Lock had flown (before this week) he’d heard it had been around 30,000 feet. But he’d had a lot more plane around him then, and he hadn’t had to worry about keeping it up in the air himself. Riding in a commercial jet looking at the sky through two layers of windows no bigger than a hardback book was very different from riding in an overgrown kite with nothing but sky in every direction but down.
Four thousand feet. The landscape was spread out under him like a living map. He didn’t need reminding to spend most of his time looking around him — if anything, he had to remind himself to look at the controls every ten seconds. And she’d been right about the temperature — it was definitely cooler up here. Right now, his clothes were almost comfortable.
And… five thousand feet. Here he was. He was flying back over the airfield, but he would never have been able to see Gary or Tara at all if he hadn’t known exactly where to look. They were specks in the distance below, at the edge of the parking lot. The parts of his clothes that he’d sweated through actually felt cold.
To his left, he saw Nagai flying at about the same height as he was.
“In your own time,” came her voice, “make the stall.”
Lock took a few long, deep breaths. Then, when he decided he was as ready as he was going to get, he throttled back, cutting his speed by about a third, and raised the angle of attack to almost 45 degrees.
Maybe it was just his imagination, but everything seemed to get hushed for a moment. Then the wing made a strange, burbling noise, almost like running water.
Then it started shuddering, violently, shaking the whole plane — wires, seat and all — to the point where it felt like it was about to come apart around him. Lock had to clench his teeth to keep from biting his tongue by accident.
Even with all that going on, he felt it when the plane lost its lift. It was a sudden sensation of free-fall, a lot like the feeling of passing through the middle of the portal… except that it brought with it a rush of blinding terror. He was almost a mile in the air, and the one thing that was keeping him up there had just stopped doing it. Nothing could have prepared him for this.
Desperately hoping this worked like it was supposed to, he pulled the nose down and revved up the engine to full throttle. The plane shook again, almost as badly as before.
And then the lift came back. The feeling of free-fall went away. The altimeter told Lock he was holding steady at around 4700 feet. He had just made the recovery. His heart was still pounding in his ears like it hadn’t gotten the news. Now he was laughing, almost hysterically, and he had no idea why. That had been… while it was happening it had been terrifying, but right now it felt just plain awesome.
“Watch your airspeed,” came Nagai’s voice. Sure enough, the indicator was going up towards the red line. Dad had been very clear that no matter how much you were enjoying flying, you never went past that line, ever. A little reluctantly, Lock obeyed her orders. Then he started climbing again, trying to get back his lost altitude.
When he reached 5000 feet, he radioed Nagai and said, hardly able to believe the words were coming out of his lips, “Can I do that again?”
At this point in the story a little over a month has passed since the end of "Locksmith's Closet." The Save-the-World Committee has made some new allies, and is now planning to go a little further in their exploration of the future.