Better Than Gold

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I love to fly more than anything else in life! And sometimes, I like to write too. "Better Than Gold" is a serial-style short story I've been writing for nearly a year now, purely for fun. A new part will be typed and posted here when I can find the time.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Dire Route

At six thousand feet the ocean became a vast blue rind that covered all of the round earth below. Unbroken and sparkling, it stretched out to all four compass points to fill a pilot’s view with nothing but deep indigo water, save for a chain of four emerald islands that curled in a bed of brilliant turquoise surf. Far away to the northwest a long and scraggly ridge of low rock made an irregular spine against the horizon, but it was still over two hundred nautical miles away, and misty with atmosphere.

A few puffy white clouds lingered over the largest island like lost sheep, but aside from that the gawky Kolibri floatplane goosewinged its way through a sky that was fine and clear. In the back seat of the plane Duke admired the view of his island until it had receded far behind the aircraft’s tail. He then twisted back around and heaved a contented sigh.

“It’s nice to get back up again,” he said happily.

Squashed in the pilot’s seat, Fran was not as enraptured. Five minutes after take-off the turn and bank indicator had begun to flutter in its liquid-filled case in a manner that had nothing to do with her flying. And just now she had reached into the side pocket to fish her chart and had come up with the withered little carcass of a dead lizard instead. She held it by the tail and twirled it between her fingers. It was as dry and stiff as a barbequed newt.

“Exactly when was the last time you flew this vehicle?” she said testily.

“I told you, about two weeks ago. Quit worrying. She’s not scheduled for maintenance for another twenty-two hours.”

“You may want to shave a few hours off that time,” said Fran as she stuffed the lizard back into the pocket and dragged up her chart. In another half an hour she expected the turn and back indicator would fizzle out entirely, but fortunately the seat of her pants didn’t have a very good view of the dial, and indeed didn’t need it to fly on a clear day like this.

She held her chart against the stick and frowned at the clock on the instrument panel, at the map and then down at the ocean passing beneath their nose. In another eight minutes or so they would be across the channel and over Young’s Point, where she would turn into the heading that would direct her to her first waypoint some twenty miles to the northeast. From that point it would take them roughly four hours to reach their destination, although Fran expected that number would change by the time they reached the waypoint and she could more accurately calculate an estimated time of arrival based on the distance they had travelled versus the time it had taken to cross it.

Luckily it was still early enough in the morning that the winds were still light; by the time the sun sat high overhead the heat would have urged sea winds to drive hard inland, creating a formidable drift for her to crab against just to maintain her course. Four hours was a generous estimate.

Had Fran been inclined to fly a direct route to their destination, the whole trip would take less than two hours. Upon her tightly folded chart were dozens of straight routes drawn in dark pencil, with headings and distances scribbled in more pencil along the wide blue areas of empty ocean.

But there was one bold route blackened in ink and traced in red that didn’t make a straight line. It was a long broken line that wandered back and forth between the islands to touch certain landmarks before darting off in a new heading, seemingly at random but nevertheless angling casually in a north-western direction. A third person following them from the ground or the sea or in another aeroplane would only see a pilot jinking back and forth across the archipelago as if taking in all of the sights, and would likely grow bored with their antics. But Fran knew where that long scarlet line eventually ended, and why once a year she needed to fly a scattershot route filled with precise turns, uneven legs and wild changes in altitude to get there.

And even then the route did not take her to her true destination. That she would navigate to by memory alone once she reached her final waypoint. A chart could be lost or stolen and deciphered, but there were very few people who had seen what Fran had seen over the course of her life, and even fewer that could crack into her head and chart her memories for their own use.

The ocean slid past. Running lean, Duchess grumbled her sleepy protest as a thermal rudely shoved at her right wing. Fran quieted the floatplane with her feet and hands and twitched the throttles, threading a little power from the engines to let Duchess settle back down to her original altitude before turbulence pushed her too high aloft.

Duchess gratefully complied, shuddering briefly before she sank back into smooth and level flight. Duke’s aeroplane was a creaky old bat, Fran noted, her sky blue and white paint peeling with age and spattered with insects. There was dirt scrubbed into every cranny and grubby or missing dials, but she was simple and docile to fly. Her twin engines were young and strong and her deep tanks held plenty of fuel for long distance flights. And with two tandem seats she was much friendlier towards extra passengers or baggage than Wildman was. Fran couldn’t imagine why Duke didn’t bother to fly her more often than he did. With steady airtime and a little work in the cockpit she fancied that Duchess would make a very nice cross-oceanic flier.

She was perfect for this flight. Especially when you remembered that the old Kolibri floatplane wasn’t nearly as familiar a sight around the islands as Fran’s own Wildman was…

Over her headset Fran heard Duke humming idly to himself as he scanned the sky. After a few minutes she heard his tune give a startled little hitch. She felt the aeroplane shift and jolt slightly as he began to pivot in the back seat.

“What’s up?” she said.

Duke’s voice was strained from the exertion of twisting around in his seat. “We’ve got somebody coming up on our tail.”

Fran glanced at the small mirror mounted on the centre of the dash. She couldn’t see anything beyond the tail reflected in the shivering glass other than blue sky, but she could see the side of Duke’s head as he tried to look back.

“Which way are they heading?” she said.

“Straight for- no, sorry, slightly east. It looks like they’re gonna overtake and pass us.”

Fran relaxed. “What altitude?”

“Our level.”

“How far out?”

“Maybe seven, six miles?”

“What colour?”

“It's not black or white. Wow, make that red.”

Beneath her flight cap and goggles Fran’s brow furrowed in thought. Black meant pirate and white meant White Knight, but who flew in a red livery? Certainly not the Bird Dogs, and another salvager couldn’t afford that kind of a paint job…

“Must be a private,” she said aloud.

“Or a privateer.”

“Could be.”

Duke’s worried face vibrated in the mirror. She felt him lean sideways to press his face against the canopy. “You’re, er, all paid up on your guild fees for the rest of the year, aren’t you, Franny?”

“We’re in your plane,” said Fran. “You’ve paid all of your rent to Maxine for the month, haven’t you?”

“Lord, this thing is a mover,” breathed Duke. “It’s less than a mile out now, still east, on our heading- there go the wings!”

Tired of his running commentary, Fran finally twisted around to get a better look at the other aeroplane for herself. Her shoulders jammed in the narrow cockpit and her chart crumpled against the stick but she managed to get turned around enough to spot their scarlet pursuer lagging a short distance behind their right wing. It was a big plane, long and lean like a shark, all nose and streamlined fuselage with a tiny cockpit sunk well behind the wings. From spinner to rudder it was painted a solid red colour, save for the pale silver undersides of its floats and some elegant yellow cursive scrawled by its tail.

Sure enough, it was rocking its wings back and forth in a polite bid to gain their attention. Some of Fran’s alarm drained away, leaving gravelly irritation behind.

“’Less than a mile’?” she growled. “How did you let it get so close?”

“Hey, I gave you the eight mile warning. If you had been watching it you would have seen for yourself how quickly it came up onto our tail.”

Fran muttered under her breath but acknowledged the other aeroplane’s signal by rocking Duchess’s wings as well. With permission to approach the red aeroplane rolled slightly and sidled closer, until it had tucked itself neatly behind Duchess’s right wingtip. Its big prop whirred like a menacing silver saw blade. Fran could hear the roar of its powerful engine straight through the canopy and headset.

Both Fran and Duke peered at it. All that was visible of the pilot sitting in the tiny cockpit was his leather cap and goggles and fur-lined throat, but Fran could see him reaching up to make a motion above his head with one gloved hand.

“I didn’t catch that,” she said. “Signal for him to repeat it, would you?”

Duke dutifully gestured to the other pilot. A moment later he said, “One-two-six decimal eight. Looks like he wants to talk.”

“Lord have mercy,” grumbled Fran, but she dialled up the frequency on the radio. “I wonder what this is about. We’d better not have bent anything on this wreck taking off.”

“Smile when you say that, sister!”

Fran’s headset crackled with the sound of wind and static.

“Hullo there!” A brightly accented female voice broke through. “Duchess, this is Red Rum.”

“Eudonian,” muttered Duke.

“I heard it,” said Fran. She keyed her microphone. “Roger, Red Rum, go ahead.”

There was a brief pause as the other pilot absorbed the curt greeting. Then the radio sprang to life again.

“Duchess, I left Five by Five shortly after you did,” said Red Rum. “Sorry to barge up behind like this, but I wanted to catch you before you changed your heading. I hope I didn’t startle you.”

“Negative, Red Rum, we had you in sight.”

“Ah? Oh, very good, bravo.”

“Cheeky,” muttered Duke.


Oblivious, Red Rum continued. “I don’t mean to be a bother, so I’ll keep this brief. Would it be too much trouble if I were to ask you to land? I’ve got a little proposal I would like to run past you, and I don’t really trust it to come through clearly over the radio.”

Fran was much too surprised to say anything. Duke sputtered in the back seat.

“She wants us to do what?” he exclaimed.

“To land?” said Fran. “Out here? Is she mad?”

“Just to talk?”

“How ridiculous.”

“What do you think? Could she be a privateer?”

“She’s the cosiest one I’ve ever met.”

“Some sort of bounty hunter, then?”

“How much trouble could your plane have gotten into if it hasn’t been flown in two weeks?”

“I don’t like this proposal business.”

“Me neither,” said Fran. “Hang on, let me sort this out.”

Over the frequency she cleared her throat and said, “Red Rum, this is Duchess- say again, please.”

The radio spit and crackled.

“I don’t want to get into any details over the radio,” said Red Rum. “Evil ears are everywhere. If you would just land we could have a nice chat face to face and I could explain myself and my little proposition without the risk of being overheard. How does that sound?”

“Like a scam,” said Duke.

Fran craned her head back. “You don’t trust her?”

“People who say things like ‘a nice chat’ rarely strike me as sincere.”

“Must be a freelancer,” said Fran with a scowl. “She’s looking for work and she thinks we’ve found some and wants to share it, just not with anyone else who may be listening in.”

“If that’s the case we should ditch her, and fast.”

“Ditch that?” Fran jabbed her thumb against the canopy in the direction of the red aeroplane. “That’s a Rapier Lion M.4 she’s flying. Lombardi won the Schroeder Oceanic in an M.4 last year. He beat a pair of S.8 Swordfish and a Fierro Swei to get the cup. Trust me, they don’t ditch easily.”

“That’s a little too much plane for a freelancer, don’t you think?”

Fran frowned. He had a point.

“Did you get a good look at the nose?”

“Yeah," she said. "Fifty millimetres, two of them.”

“I don’t like this plane, Fran.”

“I don’t like this pilot. The plane is beautiful. But let me try something…”

Once again she keyed her microphone. “Red Rum, the waves in this open water look far too choppy for a landing here, but in five minutes we’ll be over the west coast of Largo. Until then could explain a little more clearly what it is you want to talk about?”

Red Rum was silent for a moment, as if mulling over the request.

“All right,” she said. “It’s simple, really. You probably don’t know it but I was admiring you two earlier, back at the restaurant. I watched as you prepared to leave. And then when I heard you would be gone until midnight, given what day it is I thought you might be going to a place where you would not be averse to a little friendly assistance.”

Duke whistled.

“Too close,” he said. “Better stomp out this one quick”

“Negative, Red Rum, Duchess does not require assistance,” said Fran cautiously. “We’re only out sightseeing for the day.”

“Dressed as very authentic members of The Rovers, yes, of course you are,” said Red Rum dryly. “Let me be blunt. We can either set down here or at Largo, or I can simply follow you until you reach your destination. I’ve got plenty of fuel in my tanks, so it really doesn’t matter to me. In the end I will wind up wherever you are going, and once I get there I expect I shall find what I’m looking for. So, what do you say? Shall we work out a plan together like good wingmates to avoid bumping heads, or work independently and run the risk of shooting each other’s tails off in the inevitable confusion? Which would you prefer? Please take a moment to discuss it between yourselves, but I’d rather you didn’t keep me waiting for much longer than, say, five minutes?”

The pleasant voice had taken on a sharp edge of warning, like a singing blade. Duke was speechless. Fran’s heart felt light, as if all of the air had been struck from her chest.

“Red Rum, stand by,” she said distantly.

Her mind raced furiously. How had this red aviatrix come to learn what they were doing? How much did she know? And by the sly tone of her voice she certainly knew something was afoot, if not much of the story behind it. Someone back at the café must have told her, unless she had arrived from Eudonia with an unusually keen grasp of island traditions.

Dark suspicions prowled through the back of her mind. Fran had been running this risk for seven years now, ever since that horrible day when it had all started. Not once had she been confronted as she grimly flew the dire route. The pilots who regularly visited Duke’s restaurant didn’t dare interfere with her business out of respect for her temper. They only watched her closely and swapped rumours and old flying tales, and every year they slowly pieced together a little more about the dangerous ritual she embarked upon every Mardi 13th.

But she knew they still hadn’t managed to pry the whole story from the archipelago’s bloody history. Even Duke didn’t know all of the details, and he had been there seven years ago. Only the ocean and the terrible wrecks buried deep in its sunken abyss knew the truth behind the mystery. She was determined no one else ever would.

What was this woman looking for?

Her thoughts swam back into the cockpit. Absently she heard Duke cursing in the back seat.

“When I find out who has been talking back home, his feet won’t touch the ground,” he swore.

“Who can say?” murmured Fran. “Maybe she just has an ear for gossip.”

“Ha! And two large blue eyes and blonde hair and a nice figure as well, I’ll bet. I know my customers. But I suppose there is nothing we can do about it now. We certainly can’t outrun her, and I don’t think we want to try seeing who runs out of gas first, not over the Black Wall. It’s your call, Franny.”

“I guess we'll just have to land.”

Duke made a disgusted noise. “What a waste of time and fuel.”

Fran shook her head. “Not here, though. We’ll take her all the way out to the Black Wall. We have to stop there and make camp until nightfall anyway. That’ll give her four whole hours to sit and stare at all the water and wonder where the hell we’re going.”

“I’m sure she’ll enjoy the view.”

Fran almost smiled. If you weren’t used to it, flying over the ocean with little or no land in sight was one of the most harrowing challenges an aviator could undergo. Even most experienced island pilots dreaded the thought of wandering far from shore in a small single-engine seaplane. It was often said that the greater the distance between you and safe land, the more ragged your engine seemed to run, the more you feverishly imagined it clanged and rattled and hiccupped, and leaked horrid fumes into the cockpit.

“I’m sure she will,” said Fran. “The ocean inspires deep reflection.”

Duke’s voice took on a sombre note. “But what are we going to do with her once we get to the Black Wall? Are you seriously considering letting her help us?”

“Not really. I’m certain we would have no better luck doing this with three people than two. But we’ll see once we get there.”

“And if she insists? That’s a lot of plane she’s got backing her up.”

“Once it lands it’s nothing more than a lousy boat. And as for the pilot…”

Duke gave a short laugh.

“Well, I guess we’re dressed for the part,” he said. “All right, I’ll leave that up to you. Let’s just get to the Wall first.”

“That’s my plan.”

“Do you think you could ask her to back off a little in the meantime? Two planes are easier to spot than one.”

“Good idea,” said Fran, and keyed her microphone. “Red Rum, this is Duchess- descend and clear back four miles. Match our speed but not our altitude, all legs. We’ll land together at our destination.”

“Roger, Duchess,” came the cheery reply. “Marvellous. I’ll see you shortly. Have a nice flight.”

Fran saw the red aeroplane waggle its wings before it dipped one and peeled off sharply. The red wings flashed against the sun and the great engine howled into the distance. She tried to follow the path of its sweeping departure but her shoulders jammed in the cockpit again and the fleece throat of her jacket bunched up around her chin. She cursed soundly.

“Damnit- Duke, which way did she go?”

“Up,” he said gloomily.

“Goddammit! I said descend!”

“And into the sun,” added Duke. “Just like a real ace. I don’t think those guns are only for show.”

Fran beat down her jacket and smoothed out her rumpled chart. Behind her goggles her eyes flashed in annoyance.

“I think I’m actually looking forward to landing,” she said. “After four hours of sitting through this nonsense I imagine there will be plenty of things I’ll want to stretch.”

“I suggest you start with her neck,” chuckled Duke.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Five by Five

Kate absently stirred her slice of lemon through her iced tea, making her ice cubes bob and dance. She lifted it to her lips and bit it in half. As she chewed thoughtfully her eyes didn’t have a chance to swell with tears at the sharp citric retort bursting on her tongue. They were much too busy studying the two pilots that were grappling with their outfits on the other side of the restaurant.

She had been closely watching the two pilots for the last ten minutes. They were most certainly a pair of local characters, she humorously decided. They swore colourfully and unabashedly as they wrestled into their ridiculous costumes, knocking over menus and pepper shakers and swiping through omelettes with the tips of their sabres as they did so. Amazingly, no one was knifed in the ear.

The other pilots seated about the small eatery were also watching them with amused interest, even those who had to lift up their plates to avoid getting their eggs stabbed. When the smaller of the pair barked at a waitress to fetch him a silver coffee pot she stumped off to do so without argument, then stood behind the counter and watched him with a sour look on her face as he peered at his reflection in the bottom of the pot and dashed his swarthy black hair back and forth across his forehead.

“What do you think, Franny?” he said with a scowl. “Right eye or left eye, Franny?”

“I don’t care,” grumbled his giant companion as he untangled the four bandoleers snarled across his chest. “Just pick one and let’s go.”

“This is important! I’ve gotta look authentic. If I choose the wrong eye our whole cover could be blown. These things are all part of the code, you know. The code!”

“It’s left,” called out one pilot. “Left means you’re dangerous, you’ve killed five men or more.”

“It’s not left, it’s right,” argued another. “Left means you’re just a sailor, a seaman. Don’t slap it on the left side or they’ll figure you out at once. It’s the right side you should stick it.”

“I imagine they wear it on whatever side they’re missing the eye at,” said an old grey pilot in a dry voice.

Without turning from the counter he flapped up his newspaper and felt around for his toast. “And you probably shouldn’t be wearing it at all if you’re going to be flying.”

Kate nearly laughed aloud as she chomped on her lemon. That was exactly what she had been thinking.

The swarthy man wheeled around and gave the back of the newspaper a thin look. The black eye patch was pushed up onto his forehead, as if it were guarding a third eye.

“Hey, I’m not the one who'll be flying,” he said. He pointed to his companion with his thumb. “That’s women’s work.”

The giant rounded on him. Kate was surprised to see that the person she had assumed was a large man was, in fact, a very large woman. She had broad shoulders that stretched her leather vest until it was taut and creaking and bare bronze arms and a mass of bushy red hair, which she was crowning off with a dirty bandana.

“Excuse me?” she rumbled. A savage jerk of her hands knotted the bandana tight. “Excuse me? I’m flying? When did we decide this?”

“Last year actually, when we had this exact same argument. This is all your plan, Franny. I’m just the extra eyes.”

“Extra eye,” the waitress corrected him.

The giant woman frowned but didn’t seem inclined to quarrel over the matter any further. Instead she picked a great pistol up off the counter. It was the length of Kate’s forearm and limned in bronze and eggs, but she carefully shook it off and reached around to thrust it into her belt, so that it was fixed snugly at the small of her back.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll fly- but we’re taking your plane.”

“Fine,” said the man. “Wait, hang on-”

“Yours will squeeze in three people,” she pointed out.

“Yes, but it’s out of fuel!”

“Then it’s a good thing you own your own pumps, isn’t it?”

The man glared at her but grumbled from the side of his mouth, “Angie, go run out to the gas shack and tell them to get Fran’s tab ready.”

“And for the record,” said the woman as she reared back to address the rest of the restaurant with her flight bag slung over her shoulder. “It’s not eye patches you’re thinking of- that’s earrings.”

All of the pilots exhaled in a satisfied sort of way.


“I knew it was them.”

“Don’t wait up for us,” warned the man. “With any luck we'll be back after midnight. Light a candle, ladies, say a prayer, fill up all the salt shakers before you leave.”

There was a general mumbling of good wishes. Kate gave the assorted pilots seated around the cafe a curious glance. They were a shabby crew dressed in fleece and leather and lean brown skin. Every one of them was an airman and as worn as teak, and yet they were watching the pair with the fascination of orphans at a nickel matinee while their coffee lost its steam and their breakfasts cooled into a lumpy mush on their plates.

Five by Five had been recommended to Kate by a gyro pilot she had met in Kristoff. Upon his good word of the grilled sausage sandwich she had decided to make a stop while she was en route to the islands. It was a small eatery worn down into a state of good natured scruffiness, but it was clean and brightly lit. Sunlight streamed in through the bay windows, which gave a wide view of the aero docks and the ocean. There were tables for customers that wished to sit and eat at their leisure, and a sleek bamboo counter with old leather stools to sit on. Frosty glass cabinets held a few peach and lemon pies with fresh slices already carved away. A coffee maker with three full pots sat next to a line of soda taps; dirty dishes were piled haphazardly in the sink. Everything seemed to be trimmed in either palm fronds or grass fringe.

Paintings of airplanes and old black and white newspaper photographs of famous, and infamous, aviators hung on the walls. Kate was rather relieved not to spot her own smiling face tacked up amidst them. It was still a little too soon for her reputation to have caught up with her from across the ocean. Or so she hoped.

Meanwhile, the two pilots were already stomping out the front door and into the morning sunshine, chains jangling, beads rattling, belts bristling with exotic weaponry and their flight bags clanking like a burglar’s pocket. A little moment of silence followed them out and then conversation resumed at a lazy pace, mingled with the whisk of knives and forks and the pop and sizzle of the grill.

Kate tilted back on her stool and looked out the windows. She waited until the pilots had trooped to the far end of the docks. Then she grabbed her glass and her flight bag, slid down a few stools and leaned in intimately towards her new neighbour, the salt and pepper looking old pilot with the newspaper.

“Pardon me,” she said. "Excuse me- sir?"

The old pilot bent down his paper and peered around at the sound of her soft accent. She smiled charmingly when his eyes met her face.

“Awful sorry to interrupt, but I’m rather curious," she said. "Who were the two people that just left?”

“Them, miss?” he said. “That was just Duke and Fran.”

“Duke and Fran?”

He nodded.

Kate looked after them. “Do they live here, on the island?”

“Duke’s the owner of this place.”

“Oh my,” murmured Kate. “He owns the aero docks and the inn too?”

“The docks and the gas office, yes,” said the pilot. “The inn, no. That belongs to Madame Maxine.”

Kate endeavoured to look impressed. “Madame Maxine, from Fierro?” In reality she had no idea who the woman was, but she had learned long ago it never hurt to sound vaguely familiar with local landmarks when you were visiting the islands. Maxine was a good Fierro name. And a woman that merited the title of ‘Madame’ sounded like a noteworthy sight indeed.

“That’s probably the same one. She used to own a number of bed and bars around Largo, but they’ve since, er, switched hands.”

“I see,” said Kate. “And that woman with Duke, that was…?”

“Fran, yeah. You know Franny?”

“I’ve heard of her. I had no idea she was that- large in person.”

The old pilot only shrugged one shoulder and tried to turn back to his newspaper. “That’s just Fran,” he said.

“So tell me,” urged Kate, laying a thin hand on his sleeve. “What was all the excitement about?”

“What, with the two of them?”

“Oh yes. I mean, weren’t they dressed as…?”

She trailed off suggestively. Both of his eyebrows shot up at the playful ripost she made at his chest.

“Well, yeah,” he said. “But that was just costumes, not the real thing.”

“Then they’re not-?


“They looked very authentic.”

“You aren’t the first one to have thought that.”

“I must say, they certainly caught my attention when I first stepped inside,” said Kate. “For a moment I thought we were under invasion, ah ha.”

To her surprise the old pilot looked amazed enough by her poor attempt at humour to lay his newspaper down flat on top of his plate, squashing his eggs.

“Don’t you know what day it is?” he said.

She drew back her hand uncertainly. “It’s the thirteenth, isn’t it?”

“Yes, of what month?”

A fierce crumb of light glittered deep in his eye. Kate was taken aback by the sight of it and wracked her brain for a reason that might have fanned that blazing spark alight.

“Of Mardi, of course,” she said. “But I don’t see-“

“How much of the island history do you know, miss?”

Kate’s strove to look artfully confused. Inwardly she winced. In the seven years that had passed she had come to greatly dislike moments like these, tricky bits of time where she was caught between the truth and prudence.

The old pilot was studying her with reedy cant to his gaze. It was an expression that Kate had become very familiar with. She could glumly imagine that he was remembering a photograph he may have once seen in the newspaper. Her jacket was different and phoney emblems were stitched on the sleeves, but her face never changed in any of the pictures it was captured in, and in print and in real life it tended to draw much attention. She quickly assumed a brilliant smile to ward off his stare before his eyes had a chance to wander up to her hair, where she was certain the boot black glistened with an unnatural sheen.

It would be very easy to brush him off with charm and lies, she thought. But from the corner of her eye she could see that more and more of the pilots sitting nearby were discreetly leaning into the edge of the conversation. Despite all of the casual slurping and mashing of pancakes into syrup that was taking place she suspected that it would take very little prompting for them to forget all about food and tune themselves into the story she was about to hear. With so many experts of the local lore hanging about her elbows it seemed unwise to make any attempt at greasing her way through it herself.

An expression of embarrassment was easy to feign, at least.

“Very little, I’m sorry to say,” she said meekly.

Well! Didn’t she hear it!

By the time Kate had dashed down to the end of the aero dock the two pilots were gone. Their seaplane had already lifted off the water and was fast becoming a glittering dot high above the ocean. It had left nothing behind it but an arrowhead wake that was already being swept away by the wind and waves, and a lingering odour of petrol.

Slightly chagrined, Kate stood on the dock and silently watched the seaplane disappear, her flight bag crooked over her shoulder and her hand angled over her eyes to fend off the sun’s full glare. The sound of its engine was a dim roar in the distance, made even more large and faint by the wide blue sky and nearly drowned out by the cries of the gulls wheeling overhead.

A sea breeze ruffled her curly hair and teased the end of her scarf. Waves rolled lazily into the dock, making it bob beneath her feet. The seaplanes tied nearby also rode up and down on the surface of the water. They rocked their wings and jerked their ropes taut whenever they reared high on the crest of a wave. Surf crashed against the beach. Kate heard a lonely bell chime somewhere on the other side of the air harbour.

Something old and mechanical belched into life behind her. Kate glanced aside in time to see the fuel pumps on the next dock erupt with activity. Grimy men had fired the primer and now spun out mooring cables from small irons spools bolted to the woodwork, or else lined themselves on the side of the dock with boathooks raised in their hands. It didn’t take her long to see what the hullabaloo was all about; a big twin engined Bluenose seaplane had just splashed down inside the lagoon and was taxiing gently towards the pumps with its radial engines idling. The gas men were waving and yelling at it to shut down. Kate could see the pilot inside the cockpit yelling and waving at them to clear out of his way.

Kate watched the Bluenose as it drifted in towards the dock. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. If its tanks were even half-empty, a big plane like that could be docked at the pumps gulping down fuel for a good fifteen minutes. By the time its pilot had checked the fuel level and caps and climbed down from the wings to pay for his purchase in the little shanty next to the pumps nearly ten more minutes would have been wasted…

She gazed back out over the ocean. The departing seaplane stood out against a few early clouds, but she could see that in less than a minute it would be lost from sight, swallowed eagerly by the sky.

Her mind raced furiously. At four to six thousand feet, at a cruise setting, running lean, Red Rum would burn its fuel at a rate of six gallons an hour… and she had already flown for two hours since her last stop at a ground speed of roughly one hundred and forty knots…

After a minute of rapid calculations Kate smiled. She strolled back down the dock, whistling cheerfully.

When another seaplane added its nine hundred horsepower greeting to the morning din barely any of the gas men paid it any mind, being far too preoccupied with swearing and wielding their boathooks to fend off the Bluenose twin that had just lumbered into their dock and now butchered the air over their heads with its giant whirling props.

But after the Bluenose pilot had shut down his engines he instinctively turned towards the sound himself with a shiver of unease and amazement. He pulled his headset down around his neck and leaned forward with his hands on the dash and watched a blazing red floatplane taxi away from the furthest dock. Its engine snarled against the throttle and its prop pawed the water beneath it into foaming shreds.

But when it had cleared the docks and weathercocked into the wind it endured a brief runup and then thundered across the lagoon towards the ocean, a long sleek shape roaring with fuel and fire, a red shark unwisely given wings. It rose onto the step, peeled one float out of the waves and muscled up into the sky, spitting back a fine spray of water in its wake.

With his jaw hanging ajar the Bluenose pilot watched it heel sharply to the northwest, flashing its underbelly at the docks. Its nose slanted upwards and it climbed steeply in a race for altitude. He didn’t need to read the name written on its tail. He had recognised the fearsome scarlet livery almost immediately. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He couldn’t believe who he was seeing.

The Bluenose pilot was incensed. Angry blood pounded in his ears. He ripped off his headset and threw it onto the right seat, then untangled his feet from its cord and kicked open his door.

“How long has Duke been in the habit of feeding and gassing up killers?” he hollered down at the gas men clambering onto his floats, having nearly just decapitated a few of them.

Their response was to seize him by his ankle and drag him, kicking and yelling, all the way down to the dock.

Monday, August 22, 2005

PART ONE: The Rescue

There was only one open exit from the tent. It sat directly across from Jasper, facing east, where the sky was the darkest. If he still had his knife there would have been two exits, and the second would have faced west, away from the sea, away from the beach and away from its carousing lodgers and their blustery fires.

It was a squally night. White-capped waves struck the beach and smashed foam high up onto the sand. The wind was low and strong. The smell of algae and brine swept through the tent flaps and struck him across the face, flooding his hair and nostrils. The warm prickle of rain lingered in the tropical air, filling the tent with the muggy haze of an unshed downpour. The heat was terrible.

Something wet trickled from Jasper’s armpit all the way to his hip. He knew it wasn’t sweat, the same way he knew that not all of the creepers running down his scalp and over the back of his neck were flies.

The tent flaps pouched gently in the breeze, giving him a glimpse of the long, sloping beach and the shell-shaped inlet. The sand was soft and littered in footprints. A fringe of nodding ginger palms lined the shore, hedged in thick island underbrush. The ocean was choppy and black. Whitecaps speckled the surface of the water like stars in the sky. Lightning lit up the heavy clouds that hung overhead with papery brilliance.

Jasper stared at the beach longingly through his one good eye. Were his feet not tied he could have stood up and crept to the entrance of the tent and pushed aside the flaps and seen the whole south end of the island. He could have put his nose to the wind and sucked down deep draughts of night air, and smelt the wood smoke from the fires dotting the beach, and the rich cocktail of cooking scents lingering over the campsite, like grilled fish and potatoes splashed with red nut beer and onions and chipporil herbs. He could have heard the brawny laughter coming from around the fires, the shouts and clatter of voices, the plink of tin plates and cups and the brisk crackle of flames, the death rattle of pistols and knives and belted sabres.

And were his arms not tied behind the stout wooden post at his back he could have freed his legs and bolted out of the tent without stopping. He could have run straight down the beach and into the foaming surf, where he knew a flight of scruffy seaplanes were anchored, braced high on their floats as their rode the waves and jerked their noses against their tethers.

And were four of his fingers not broken, he might have been able to push one away from the beach and start it before being discovered.

And were he a pilot, he might even have managed to fly it.


As if I don't already have enough journals to keep me happy!

Well, actually, this is less of a journal than it is a place for me to toss up installations of a short story that has been farting around in the back of my notebooks for a year or so. "Better Than Gold" is a little thing I like to hash away at for fun whenever I have the time, such as when I'm not working or flying. Suffice to say, it's very rough and very unfinished and not very well written at all... but it's fun to play with. And that's all I really want it for.

Originally I wanted to write it as sort of an old fashioned boys' adventure story; while I was musing over this idea it hit me to use either Blogger or Livejournal to post it on the internet - a quick and dirty way to serialize a quick and dirty serial-style story. Plus, it saves me from having to do a buttload of coding, mwa ha.

I can't say for certain I'll be updating this all that often, as the story is mostly handwritten at this point and I'm terribly lazy at typing out handwritten pages... but who knows. I love to fly and I love to write, so sooner or later I'll be all fired up about one or the other and will naturally wind up here again with a keen interest in this story again, which manages to include at least one of the above. And pirates.

Five by five!