"Okay, now no peeking," The soft, slight Scottish brogue filled Rachel's ears, his breath warm on her neck as he slipped the makeshift blindfold over her eyes. Rachel could smell Craig's cologne on the soft fabric of the Ascot as it gently hissed across her skin whenever she moved her head. It was an oddly comforting feeling, cocooned within her own mind, robbed of sight, guessing what was happening only by using her other senses.
The ground vehicle drew to a halt and Craig got out, gently taking Rachel's hand, and holding his other hand over her head to shield her from bumping it as she slowly got out.
Gravel crunched underfoot and the smell of spring grass filled the air in the gentle breeze. Rachel inhaled the scent, sweet from the recent rain shower. Craig gently moved her around and started to slide the Ascot away from her eyes.
"Ready?" he purred.
"Okay," Rachel answered, amused and excited.
"Happy birthday, Rachel," Craig smiled and finally freed her eyes, delighting at her expression.
Rachel gibbered and stared at the huge craft docked at the tower, finally finding her voice, "A Zeppelin! You insane bastard! A Zeppelin!"
Craig nodded, "Indeed. A Zeppelin. Come on, let's go for a spin in her!"
Rachel stood still for a moment, drinking in the sight of magnificent airship, then ran up the boarding steps and stepped inside the cabin. The wood panelling was complemented by brass fittings and quilted seating. Geoff the mechanical manservant trundled over with a box, announcing, "Welcome aboard, my lady. Happy occasion of your birth!"
Rachel opened the proffered box and her smile grew even brighter, "Goggles. How perfect. Thank you!"
She gave Geoff a kiss on his skull, then turned to Craig, "Thank you both. This is utterly amazing. There's so many places to explore, where do I start?"
"Start with a quick run, get used to these controls, then maybe start practising for this," Craig grinned and held up a small poster.
Rachel frowned and read out, "National Air Ship Challenge Awesome Race. April thirty-first." She stopped, "Wait, that can't be right?"
Craig looked at the poster, "Och, it should be International. Oh, and amazing, not awesome. Either way, you're the best pilot around, you'll win this in your sleep."
Rachel smiled modestly, "I'll do my best, of course. Let's go for a ride, Craig!"
"As your benefactor, my only request is that you go that-a-way. Just let the compass guide us," Craig laughed and waved his hand in a vague direction in the vicinity of North.
As the airship lifted higher and higher, Rachel smiled at the smoothness of the controls. The workmanship was sublime, even the screws had an individual filigree design. She smiled across at Craig, noticing he still had a twinkle in his eye.
"I know that look. What else have you got planned?" Rachel sternly asked, an eyebrow raised in challenge.
Craig turned to Geoff, "Do you hear that accusing tone? She thinks I'm plotting things!"
Geoff chattered a smooth reply, "She would be right."
Rachel chuckled, "See, robotic men know all." As the Zeppelin came to a clearing in a forest, Rachel gasped," Oh. YOU!"
On the ground, an arrangement of white sheets spelled out Happy Birthday, Rachel. In the middle stood two figures, waving up at them. Even before she turned on the goggles' zoom function, Rachel could see Anderson's white hair stand out against the lush, green grass. She grinned and waved back, then gently guided the airship towards the ground.
Anderson ran and leapt aboard, reaching back for the picnic hamper, before holding a hand out for Richard.
Engel laughed, before clambering inside, "Hey, I'm not geriatric enough to need a bunk up!"
With Geoff watching over the controls, the airship settled into a holding pattern in the now calm sky. Everyone gathered in the observation lounge with their champagne glasses.
"A toast to you, Rachel. Cheers!" Richard clinked his glass against hers.
"A toast to your soon to be race winning Zeppelin!" Anderson added.
"A toast to my delicious money!" Crag chuckled.
As cheating attempts go, what Mr. Beck did was pretty pathetic, albeit hilarious. The details are not important, but the sight of the gentleman flyer, face pressed against the glass of his cockpit, eyes streaming with tears as his scheme royally backfired and his airship slowly deflated and sank to the ground, was something to remember. Especially so since the cine-recordists were there to catch the scene.
Crag's hoots of laughter echoed throughout the Zeppelin as he watched, moaning, "Oh, you sad, dumb fucker!"
Rachel shook her head, body shaking with delight, "We really shouldn't be laughing. What's the opposite of hoist by one's own petard?"
Craig heaved with laughter again, his feet falling off his desk, unable to speak, he simply pointed out the window. That is.
Down on the ground, Mr. Beck's co-pilot was busily making it plainly clear that he was now his former colleague.
"Onwards and upwards," Craig raised his glass of synthetic whiskey, looked at the map and corrected himself, "downwards?"
"Southwards. South America," Rachel tapped the map with a smile and set the course.
As the airship pulled away from the rest of the racers, Anderson and Richard waved a last farewell and turned back to enjoy the sight of the sobbing man stomping away from the impotently irate flailing figure of a Mr. O'Reilly.
In his quarters, Craig unscrewed a bottle and dampened a cloth, "This is no weather for a mechanical man, is it?"
"At least I don't have sweaty balls," Geoff replied philosophically as Craig worked the oil into his gears and servo mechanism.
"Indeed, the last thing you want in this humidity is sweaty balls," Craig shifted his weight slightly. "Ohhhh, that's better.” He leaned in closer and murmured, ”Now, just relax and let me rub you and rub you and rub you until you feel better."
Rachel watched in awe as the thunderstorm raged in the distance. There was almost constant lightning as the ominous gray clouds billowed high into the sky, enormous hammer-headed monsters rammed flat by the cold air at the vast heights. Down below, the tropical rainforest spread out in shades of green to the horizon, a great sliver and brown river coursing down the middle.
"The storms will reach us within an hour. We need to have completed this stage before then, or we'll be stuck here, at the mercy of the weather," Rachel announced, her voice tinged with stress.
The dark eyes of Mezquite, their stage guide lifted from her calculations. She smiled and looked out the window, "Don't worry, I'm almost finished. I’ll have the course deciphered momentarily."
Rachel watched the young woman work, her fingers flicking the slide rule and noting down results in her tiny, elaborate handwriting. She marvelled at the complexity of the race. Not only a traditional competition of who could get to the finishing line the fastest, the contestants had to figure out challenges within each stage to unlock the location of the next stage. Finding locals who could help them was part of the fun. Anything from art history to mathematics to dirty jokes in local languages could crop up as a clue.
Rachel blinked as she found her gaze suddenly returned as Mezquite underlined her final numbers and held up the paper. As she took the sheet, Rachel's fingers touched Mezquite's for a moment. A warmth in the guide's eyes developed as her smile reached her eyes, "Rachel, when we win, I would very much like to celebrate with you."
Rachel took the paper with a sincere, "Thank you." She turned to the control panel and set course, rotating delicate little knobs and thumbing a cog-wheels to fine tune the settings.
Slowly, the airship banked to port, the afternoon sun breaking through the clouds and catching Mezquite in the golden glow as she came to stand next to Rachel. She raised her dark honey coloured hand to shield her eyes and Rachel thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Mezquite slowly reached over to Rachel's forehead, gently wiping away a bead of sweat. As she moved, her shirt revealed some extra skin, a birthmark or blemish showing at the start of the rise of her breasts, a detail Rachel kept for future reference.
Her hand drifted down to Rachel's cheek and she leaned in closer. Rachel tilted her head down, drawing Mezquite in with her free hand, her lips pressing against Mezquite's. Breaking off slowly, the passionate kiss had left her wanting more, but Rachel knew she needed to concentrate on the ship's course, keeping an eye on that storm in case it changed direction and cut them off.
Mezquite nodded in understanding, "I shan't distract you. Not until later, at any rate. When we're celebrating."
Rachel smiled as she watched her leave the control cabin. Returning her eyes to the control panel, she noted the compass had been spinning. It slowly settled into place, guiding their true course.
Even if she didn't end up winning the race, she felt she'd already won.