No Sign of Industrial Activity
"Life is good; then you’re shot down.”
This quip, so timeworn in Air Corp bars and barracks that it gnawed, now found itself in the mouth of an outsider, the wagon’s driver, a dirty and decrepit goat. His only passenger, the new pilot tagging a ride along with the cargo, frankly stared. It galled him that the old man sought response now after fourteen miles of gravel road, over which the lieutenant had seen only the teamster’s back, the massive rumps of the horses, the long grass into which the driver spit. His spirit had sunk into that grass and that quiet. Gripping the handles of his kit bag, he jerked his eyes away, thought of sliding off the buckboard and simply walking. The old goat’s eye’s, however, pressed upon him, waited, and he briefly glanced up at the face, the bristly beard, the yellowed teeth, the contorted horns. With an inaudible grumble, he dug into his pocket for the requisite tip. He tossed it to the goat man and slid off the buckboard onto the solidity of the tarmac.
He faced his new home, narrowing his eyes at the airfield’s blatant bareness. Two hangers of flat-faced sheet metal stood opposite a hut with antenna and watchtower, which could only be the main control building, although he had never seen one so small. A barrack stood beyond. Stretching away to his left and right ran the single airstrip. Downfield stood the fuel tower. A windsock hung limp. That was it. He wondered if anyone had considered the impact of fresh paint or shrubbery.
“So little here,” the Lieutenant thought aloud. “I wonder how often they get to town.”
The driver picked up his luggage from beside him.
“Light,” the driver said.
The pilot’s eyes fell back down to his baggage. “Yeah.”It was sparse as the field: a change of flight uniform, dress blues, a couple of books.
“I’ll bring yer things to the barracks,” said the old goat. “You go on and meet your new commander, eh? Better watch out!”
“What? Some kind of martinet?”
The impish oldster smiled and leaned in. “A female,” he bleated. “A hot one!”
The Lieutenant turned. As if his horizontally-barred pupils and twisted horns were not disconcerting enough, he had to accentuate his goat genes with that toothy grin. The oldster ambled off with the Lieutenant’s bag, chuckling, but only made it a few meters before turning to bellow one last barrage: “The legs! Don’t look at her legs in her office! She don’t like it!”
The Lieutenant winced at his volume.
When he opened the door, he stepped into the unmistakable smell of swine. Immediately inside sat a radio pig. He eyed the lieutenant and rubbed his snout.
“You the new pilot?” the pig asked.
“Yeah – airfield commander?”
The radio pig threw up his trotter in the direction.
“Don’t look at her legs.”
The lieutenant nodded. “Yeah: been warned.”
His shoes tapped down the wooden hallway. He paused, and then knuckled the door. The word “Enter” sounded – feminine, but stern and busy. He opened it.
The office floor was four steps up from the hallway. The Airfield Commander sat at a folding table facing the doorway. Paperwork occupied her. Her eyes were down, her hand scrawling. Below the table were the legs.
The skirt – what there was of it – bound only the very uppermost of her thighs. The Commander tipped her knees decorously to the side, precluding a full view. That skirt couldn’t be regulation, he thought. It must be a test. The Airfield Commander’s tail, long and feline, slowly wrapped around her feet. The motion unlocked the Lieutenant’s gaze. He jerked his eyes upward.
“New pilot reporting to Airfield Commander,” he said. He threw up a salute and waited.
She rotated her gaze to him, up from the paperwork, across the table, slightly downward to his face. Her eyes were amber. The wide windows faced the field and flooded the office with glare, reducing her pupils to vertical blades. Her brows, taut at the interruption, relaxed and she tried to smile. It didn’t last. Her fingers stroked her hair, auburn, pulled tightly around her upright ears. She motioned for him to approach.
“Your paperwork,” she said.
He gave it to her. She brushed the filecase open and flicked a few pages, a single claw appearing and retracting with each page turned.
“May I ask who recommended you to the Academy?”
“An uncle – my father’s younger brother works for the Administrator of Public Services. I’m sure he has the ear of somebody-or-other that’s important.”
“Well,” she said, “you not only got in, but you got out with pretty good marks.” She closed the filecase and turned to him. “You look pretty good. I’d like to try you out as soon as possible. I’ll be sending you up tomorrow morning.”
“Great: What kind of mission?”
“Recon. With the fuel situation, it’s practically all we do anymore. You’ll be taking up one of the Sprites. Ever flown one before?”
“Haven’t even seen one.”
“Well, no matter: they’re very similar to the Rogers training model. Doubtlessly you flew them in the Academy. The Sprites are even more lightweight.”
“Lighter than a Rogers? On a breezy day they blew about like kites.”
“Yes – well: Sprites have got great range, and that’s what you’ll need for the recon. We’ll be sending you up north to check out some factories there. Get the maps from the Field Navigator before you leave. I send out a recon flight twice a week. Dates and destinations are always hush-hush. You will keep the lid on all information so the folks on the ground don’t get wise.”
The Lieutenant understood. Even full-scale factories could start up if a reliable surveillance schedule were leaked out. If Tuesday was your flyover day, just shut down the furnace Monday night. Everybody could take the day off.
The Commander tucked the Lieutenant’s file away and thrust his authorization packet at him. “Better get out to the hanger, meet your mechanic, see your plane. I believe you’ll find the rest of the pilots in the bunk.”
He grasped the packet, but the Airfield Commander held tight, gave him a hard stare.
“Don’t let them put you through your initiation drunk until after tomorrow’s flight – am I clear?”
Her claws retracted and her grip on the packet was released.
The Lieutenant saluted. “Clear, Ma’am.”
“Be on the airfield at eight.”
He had met the other pilots and his ground crew. They had laughed together and he listened to their stories over a dinner of beef and roast vegetables. He washed it down with a beer, but threw up a palm when offered a second: “Whoa, guys – tomorrow night, okay?”
Before bed, he checked out the Sprite, so it was no surprise in the morning. The Commander wasn’t kidding when she described them as light. The fuselage was graphite, but the long, narrow wings were merely frames covered with a sheet of fabric, clear, artificial, and tough.
The liftoff that morning was slow but smooth, as he expected. The windsock had tightened a little since yesterday. He banked into his northerly route, away from the coasts. As a young cadet, his dream mission would have in the opposite direction. He would lead an attack on the south, against the antagonistic Island Confederation. He would sit in the fuselage of a fighter, fast, agile, and deadly – everything this craft wasn't.
He entered the air world and the surface below transformed into its alter ego. The ordinary landscape morphed into an unreal topography that never existed while his feet touched the earth. It contained no flaws: no muddy barnyards, no ponds covered with scum, no rutted and potholed roads. From the heights, the ponds were emerald jewels; the fields, beautiful patchwork; the forests, rumpled green wool. His plane’s shadow wrinkled over their textures. Immediately, he began surveying for industrial activity.
He knew all the signs that people were threatening the environment or trying to rise above their neighbors – the Academy had trained him well. He had already spotted over a hundred simulated surveillance targets set up near the training field: large sheds with heavy traffic patterns worn into the sod around them; barns retrofitted with smokestacks for a clandestine blast furnace; even underground buildings left signs of disturbance that could be seen from the air. He smelt stale beer.
One of the pilots he had met last night had overindulged. She had tried to cozy up to the new guy and instead slopped beer down the sleeve of his flight jacket. It was new, a graduation gift from his uncle in the Administration of Public Services, the one that had recommended him to Air Corp Academy. If ruined, it would take a month’s salary to replace. It was more than the money. It was a symbol of his membership in the pilot fraternity, of his success, and a sign that he was not some ordinary slob without achievements or connections. He arrived over his first surveillance target.
“I’m over the old battery plant," he said into his radio. "No sign of industrial activity.”
“There used to be a little bicycle factory just to the west,” said an unexpected voice. He had anticipated the radio pig; the voice, however, was feminine, firm and authoritative. “Check that out while you’re there.”
He tilted wings and swooped to the west side of the complex. The shed was caved in on the far side. Kudzu covered most of the roof. Everything looked very abandoned.
“No – nothing. All overgrown with vegetation – no paths, no recent repairs, no spilt coal.”
High at two o'clock he spotted movement – two planes. Even at this distance, he could identify the pair as fighters. The Airfield Commander was keeping close oversight on his first mission. He quickly recounted his flight so far, trying to tabulate any missteps he may have taken. He had almost concluded that his performance was, if not exemplary, at least by the book. The planes began an attack dive.
Alarm spread through him. He realized too late the model was unfamiliar. The wings had a certain angle in them, downward sharply from the fuselage, then tips veering sharply upward.
The lead bird opened fire on him, a single burst of automatic. His right wing erupted, the transparent fabric bursting into shreds.
He looked behind him. His rear fuselage and tail were both ripped through as well. His engine was untouched, and his fuel tanks intact, but he was unarmed, slow, and flying beneath his enemy. He began a sharp descent before they could circle around for a second attack.
His came down in a field of sunflowers. The lightness of his craft allowed an easy set down. He popped open the canopy and looked around. Above him, he saw no sign of his enemies. He felt an irrational disappointment. They had moved on so quickly. It wasn't even worth their while to destroy his plane on the ground.
He gazed around. The yellow faces of the sunflowers carpeted silent hectares around him. The only manmade object in sight was an array of five solar panels in the distance. Once, commanded by a centralized control, they had tracked the Sun, turned their faces toward it all day long. Now they were broken. No one from Government Central had been that way in ages to give them their regular maintenance. The sunflowers, of course, each turned individually toward the Sun, without any centralized control.
He made a few attempts at radio communication. This failed, and he clambered out.
A physical shock raced through the ground beneath him – a triple explosion from distant hills. He crouched immediately, but then stood and gazed in the direction of the blasts. More were coming from farther away – almost certainly the bridges over the Vessa River. He realized the fighters that shot him down were only the vanguard of a larger expedition. For the first time in over two decades, his nation was at war.
The sound of running brought his attention up. Many feet were running through the sunflowers. Men were coming. He loosened the snap of his holster.
Ten men burst through the sunflowers, and a dog barked them encouragement. He faced them, his hand on his pistol, but not pulling it. No one even looked at him. They surrounded the plane. The basset hound took control immediately.
"Four under the engine," barked the dog. "Two under each wing. You two: get the tail – let's go!"
They hoisted the light craft above the sunflowers and moved it. In seconds, it was disappearing to the west.
"Hey!" he cried. "Wait a minute!"
He had no idea whether this was a rescue and recovery operation, or whether his plane was being stolen.
The dog returned.
"What's your name?" asked the dog.
"What's your first name?"
They left the field. Ahead of them, the men were strapping his airplane onto a flatbed wagon behind two horses. The dog leapt aboard. "Let's go!"
Drake clambered on. The driver, a shepherd dog, giddyapped and the wagon moved forward. As it rolled down the country lane, the team of men broke out tools. The wings were quickly removed from the fuselage and carefully maneuvered around the wagon, a beetle slowly folding its transparent wings into its carapace. Then they strapped them parallel to the plane's body. Within minutes of finishing, the wagon dipped below a railroad, traveled through a stone archway far too narrow to have accommodated the Sprite's wingspan.
After a few miles’ ramble through the countryside, the basset called a halt.
“Why we stoppin’ here?” asked one of the men. “We’re still four miles from Alessandro!”
“And that’s where she’ll stay for now. Come by my office first thing in the morning for your pay.”
“In the morning? Work done today ought to be paid for today!”
“Can’t do it,” said the basset hound. “If we paid you tonight, you’d be drinking tonight, and half a dozen agents of the secret police would know our plane’s moving into town. The money will be good! You know this business – we have to keep it tight.”
The men began dropping off the wagon and walking to town, some of them with back-glancing scowls.
When they were gone, the basset turned to Drake. “As it is, we’ll have to move it to a warehouse away from the shop – just until it cools down.”
“I don’t think I caught your name,” Drake said.
The basset reached out a thick-fingered hand. “Hammachek,” he said. “I’m in charge of the crew.”
“And who is it you work for?” Drake asked.
The German shepherd driver turned and gave a little salute.
When the crew had been gone fifteen minutes, they moved the Sprite down the road a few miles and then up a rustic lane, into a wood. There they waited. Hammachek produced a picnic meal, cheese and hard salami and a long loaf. There was dark wine, and while all three washed down their meal with it, Hammachek continued filling his glass long into the evening. Fireflies curled their bright ribbons above the grass. Finally, the shepherd said, "Let’s head out."
Within the hour, they had the Sprite stowed. At the edge of town, Drake helped them back it into a long sheet-metal shed. He wasn’t sure why. They seemed to be stealing a government plane, one entrusted to him by his Airfield Commander. However, if that were their plan, why did they let him tag along and see where they stowed it? They must be bucking for some kind of reward.
From the plane’s temporary hanger, they drove to the shepherd’s shop in the canal district. A chain-link fence enclosed the yard. Light spilled out from a crack in the door as they approached, then the door was thrown wide. A girl ran out, a pure human genetic.
“The secret police were here!” she called. “They were looking for a pilot – said he was a traitor.”
Neither Hammachek nor the boss turned toward Drake, yet Drake felt as if all eyes were on him and his leather flyer’s jacket.
“Let’s get inside,” said the shepherd.
They closed the door behind them. Hammachek and the boss hung their coats on hooks.
“This is Mattie,” Hammachek said. “She does the accounting here. We trust her with everything.”
Drake nodded at the girl. She had to be fourteen at most. Drake noticed she had also fixed dinner. They sat.
"You're in quite fix," said the basset. He doled out the potatoes. "New Government has set the Secret Police to looking for you. They're searching for someone to blame, since it sure can't be them. Your flight was just too conveniently timed.”
Drake hmmed. “And it’s quite possible I made some imprudent choices of friends at Academy,” he said.
“The citizens aren't going to help you, either. To them you represent Government Central. You've lived all your life on their taxes without struggling to survive."
“Not to mention the reward for turning you in," Mattie added.
Drake snorted. "There's loyalty for you. We Air Corp officers risk our lives...“
The shepherd’s fist came down on the table. "Government Central's plans have doled out nothing to the ordinary people but backward misery.”
Everyone was silent for a moment. The shepherd’s fist remained immobile on the tabletop. Hammachek continued eating unabated, his eyes on a magazine in his left hand.
"Well," Drake mused, "there may be something to that. Perhaps if their plan hadn't tried to convert the entire nation to renewable fuels so quickly..."
The shepherd laughed. Drake gave him a questioning look.
"You misunderstand. I don't criticize the government for their choice of this plan over that plan. I condemn them for having a plan at all."
Drake was honestly flummoxed.
"You want them to be derelict of duty?"
“At this shop,” Hammachek said, “we generally don’t think the government’s responsibilities include planning our lives.”
Hammachek continued eating as though this talk were all regular. Mattie returned to her dinner as well. Drake picked up his fork.
“If the government is going to develop a plan,” the shepherd said, “their first errand should be to decide what to do with the people that don't want to go along. People want to be free; the government wants them to follow its plan. It’s your job to make sure they do."
“I just wanted to fly,” Drake said.
“Yeah – and bomb people’s dreams.”
The shepherd threw his napkin into his empty plate and stomped out.
Drake narrowed his eyes. "Who does that dog think he is anyway?"
"His name is Mahlof," said Hammachek.
Drake raised his eyebrows. "Like the ace from the last war?"
"Not like – is."
Drake fell silent for a moment. "So what's a decorated war hero doing here in this canal-side workshop?"
"Designing airplanes,” Mattie said. “He wants to design airplanes. He wants to build them. Government Central, of course, will have none of it."
Drake thought about that. He had been thinking about the planes that had attacked him, about the turn and dive they did. He was sure the Island Confederacy’s planes were ahead of anything they were flying. Their nation, on the other hand, was struggling to produce even fuel.
The shepherd stood looking up into the stars, smoking a cigarette. The water on the canal flowed darkly by. The stars were sharp. Drake stepped down to the water's edge.
“Sorry I got so emotional on you,” Mahlof said. “I suppose you were raised on the “threat to equality” line and all that.”
“Well, so what if we don’t end up all equal? Some people would rather take the kids fishing on Saturday. Some want to work and make some extra cash. Let them. Who’s to say who is right?”
They watched the sky in silence again.
“Sky’s full of planes again. Like when I was a kid. What do you s’pose they want?” Drake asked.
“The Island Confederacy.”
“They want to force open our ports. They didn’t shut down their markets just `cause we did. They became more powerful as we fell back into agrarian ways.”
They both watched the stars, looking for dark patches eclipsing them, unlit airplanes traversing their skies.
“I think I ought to go back,” Drake said.
“Turn yourself in?”
“Well, it’s your choice.”
Drake eyed him sideways. This was where it cut: “If I could talk to my airfield commander... If I could turn my plane in...”
He waited for this to sink in.
Mahlof flicked at his cigarette’s end. “Well, I guess we’d only be out the men’s pay and our time.”
“You can have my jacket. It’s worth a month’s pay.”
Mahlof eyed it. “It’ll just about cover the patch job.”
The Lieutenant returned to the airfield the following afternoon. He lined up his Sprite on the airstrip below and slowed. As the grit in the tarmac came into focus, the Airfield Commander burst out of the main control building. Drake could see her long, feline tail whipping behind her. His wheels hit the tarmac. The Airfield Commander was too close to the strip. She should have been standing further away. Something was wrong. She pulled out a pistol, large caliber. She cracked one in his direction and followed up methodically, firing in a controlled manner until the mag dropped out. He instinctively veered; his left wingtip bounced on the sod. The right plunged back down. The plane veered sharply to the right. The wing struck the Commander. She flew backward, landing inert on the turf.
He threw open the canopy. The pistol lay on the grass, out of her reach. He ran toward her, stopped, returned for the first aid kit, and then ran to her again. He leaned close, over her face. She was alive and conscious.
She fluctuated between staring intensely at him and wincing.
“You stopped? Why did you stop?”
“You’re my commander. Of course I stopped. Why were you shooting?”
“I was so angry,” she said. She paused, pulling her lips tightly together. They looked dry. “I was told you had betrayed us.”
“I was shot down.” He pointed. “See the patches?”
She looked the plane over while he continued to fumble through the first aid box.
“I’ve got to get to a hospital,” she said. “What sort of fuel do you have?”
“We’re not going to make it to Alessandro. It’ll have to be the Island Confederacy.”
“Do you think that wise?”
“I think I’m bleeding inside. I may not make it further. You have a radio. Beg them.”
“I’m giving you something for the pain.”
He injected her, then paused for a moment to watch its effect. She visibly relaxed.
He opened the cargo hatch. A narrow compartment ran through the fuselage behind the pilot’s seat. She would have to fit. He returned to her. Her amber eyes were glazed, unblinking.
His thoughts raced. I didn’t just lose her, did I?
“Hey you,” he said aloud.
“I’m not ready to die yet,” she said slowly. “I haven’t found my pilot.”
“Ma’am, the painkiller’s confusing you. I’m your pilot.”
She turned toward him. Her eyes weren’t exactly focused. “I thought you might be. You were different.” She touched his face. “You didn’t look at my legs.”
“I’m going to move you now,” he said. “It’s probably going to hurt.”
He folded her arms in front of her, and then slid his left hand under her shoulders, and the right under her hips. He slowly lifted, and then tiptoed toward the plane.
“You!” she said gently.
“You’ve got your hand on my ass.”
He blushed. “Not a bad place for it.”
“But not exactly regulation, is it?”
“No,” he said, “but neither is your skirt.”
He slid her into the narrow compartment. The long, raised lid made it look uncomfortably like a coffin. She looked out at him dreamily.
“You’re going to kiss me, aren’t you?”
“I could be dead when you open this door again.”
He briefly considered whether she would remember later and whether that might be a good thing. He kissed her. He found he liked it more than he expected.
He shut the hatch and clasped it. He couldn’t start the engine quickly enough. The plane rose slowly, and he headed toward the Island Confederation as in his dream, but not on a mission of attack, but one of mercy.