That morning, when the war began, I was on the run, at least in the eyes of the law. In the Republic of Karquim a woman reaches legal age on her 25th birthday, and since I had bicycled away from the college at night without permission, I was a juvenile delinquent. But my absence should not be discovered until nine o’clock and by then I ought to be in the air, heading for the Dutch East Indies.
Karquim cloudport is a second-rate facility where most services close at midnight. The ticket office would open at seven o’clock, so I had to wait in the all-night café where a young man sold stuffed baguettes and strong coffee. It served as a waiting room for some half-asleep European businessmen in dark suits and provided a table for a team of breakfasting native stevedores who soon would join the morning shift. They chatted in a dialect I did not understand while looking curiously at me, sitting alone at a window table with an view eastward across the civilian cloudship field. My plus-fours and linen jacket and the cloth cap I had put on the table probable made them wonder: what kind of person is that?
The grounded cloudships were vague shapes in the dark, each with a few illuminated portholes. I saw five, but I could not determine which one was C/S Wilhem Tell, which in a few hours would fly me west to another continent.
One hour after finishing my simple meal, the horizon began to glow in pink and illuminate the undersides of the scattered clouds. Soon the sun disk floated into the sky and the cloudships’ bulging metal hulls glittered in the golden light. Beyond them half a dozen small civilian aeroplanes were lined up on the grass.
The stevedores grabbed their hats and left the café. Time to head to the main hall, I thought, gathering my belongings and gulping down the last drops of coffee. When I looked out across the cloudship field, a swarm of black dots appeared around the low sun. I squinted to discern what that could be.
A klaxon’s scream pierced my ears.
Air raid! War!? The realization jolted me. Will I die because I fled too late?
The dots grew into a group of single-engine propeller planes dashing west across the civilian field and disappearing from my sight above the café window. I throw myself onto the floor. Machine guns fired and bombs thundered from the military area west of the cloudport terminal buildings.
The klaxon stopped howling. Slowly I raised my head and looked east through the intact café window. On the civilian field cloudships’ foghorns wailed while people fled from all open spaces. Two ships had their airscrews running at the same time as men toiled at their ramps with wooden crates, either pushing them away or dragging them onboard.