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.

“Hmmm.”

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.

3 Comments:

Blogger Cibo said...

haha, I love Duke. XD He makes such a great sidekick, and his commentary is funny. XD The tension and sharp contrast between the personalities (Red Rum vs Fran and Duke) is superbly played out in such short notice; it's great! :D

5:34 PM  
Blogger Cibo said...

duh. KATE. I'm weetoddedd. XD

5:59 PM  
Blogger btg said...

HAHAHA, I actually had to say 'weetoddedd' aloud to figure out what it is! I AM SO SMRT XD.

And thank you again, wow :D. Duke, Fran and Kate were such fun to goof around with. They never really throw down and fight, just sorta push buttons at times XD.

4:07 PM  

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