Maddie's flight

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
In a dystopian future on a mostly flooded Earth, 3 factions continue to wage war for dwindling precious land and resources. Madeleine Drummond, a young gifted pilot, attends the yearly Air Pageant with her fighter plane, hoping to fly well enough to be accepted into her country’s High Guard, but instead, finds herself flying into a deadly naval battle which if lost, could have devastating consequences.

Submitted: May 18, 2019

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Submitted: May 18, 2019

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PRELUDE

 

Maddie knelt by her tent and looked out across the wide expanse of the airfield, watching the hustle and bustle of the other competitors and crews busily preparing their planes for the next day’s Royal air pageant. To her left, 22 planes of all shapes and sizes were being readied by their crews, each going about their business in their own way, each keeping a watchful eye on their own planes and looking intently at the others. To her right and down the slope was the small harbour where her houseboat was tied up and next to it, bobbing gently up and down on the water, lay her small jet sea-plane; her pride and joy and her family’s most important possession. It too was being prepared by her own ground-crew, 4 working and 2 standing guard, all people she had grown up with in their little coastal village. Maddie felt a real sense of pride as she looked at the plane with its three wings and twin floats painted black and red in contrast to the metallic brass coloured fuselage. Keno, her crew chief, noticed Maddie and gave the hand signal for “all is well” and Maddie returned the gesture with what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

 

‘No large bombers this year’ Maddie sighed to herself as she went back into her tent, thinking about how the shortage of parts, materials and ordnance was beginning to effect not just the Royal High Guard fleet but also the reservists like Maddie who hoped to join it.

 

Inside the tent, her husband Josh was tending the oil stove and cooking a stew which, for a welcome change, had meat in it. Maddie didn’t care what animal the meat came from but was just grateful for the change from fish.

 

‘You need to eat then rest, Maddie! Busy day tomorrow’ Josh said softly as he ladled the stew into bowls for her and the crew. Maddie nodded absent-mindedly, sat down on her bed-roll next to the stove and started to eat, while Josh put the other 6 bowls on a tray and set off down the slope to give the crew their meals.

 

As Maddie ate, she thought about what might happen the next day; everything from putting on a great flying display for the Royal Entourage and being accepted into the High Guard as a full pilot, to not flying well enough, to crashing and maybe even dying, but strangely, her main concern was that she might let down her family and her village if things did not go well. She was just glad she had drawn an early slot in the pageant as she hated waiting around and simply wanted to get the whole thing over and done with. Josh entered the tent and smiled. ‘Plane’s fuelled and ready, guns and cannon are armed, the crew are happy, and they’re getting ready to bed down for the night’ he said as he joined her by the stove and started to eat his own meal.

 

As late afternoon turned into early evening, the airfield took on a different feel. Campfires were lit, electric lights were switched on by those lucky enough to have spare battery power and one by one, crews and pilots settled down to rest, except those picked to stand night-guard over their planes. Maddie and Josh passed the time by making small-talk and as night fell, Maddie finally felt tired enough to lay back and close her eyes while Josh busied himself with chores. Eventually, Maddie fell asleep, still wondering what the next day might bring.

 

ALARM AT DAWN

 

Maddie was dreaming, as she often did, about the old clock tower in her village with its little bell gently tolling noon but this time, the bell kept on tolling, its sound getting harsher and louder until she suddenly woke up, startled to realise that there really was a loud bell being frantically rung somewhere across the airfield. Josh was awake too and they both scrambled out of the tent to see what was happening. As her eyes adjusted to the pre-dawn light, Maddie looked towards the hangar buildings and saw soldiers and civilians running frantically towards their planes then heard props and jets begin to spin up. Maddie saw Samuel, pilot of the plane parked opposite her tent, running towards them:

 

‘The whole High Guard is being scrambled! reservists too!’ Samuel shouted ‘Everyone needs to get prepped for flight! Big enemy fleet headed our way, been told to stand by and wait for instructions’

 

Samuel’s crew were already starting to “pull the props through” on his sturdy twin radial engine fighter-bomber and seeing this, Josh ran to the top of the slope and signalled down to their own crew to get their jet started. Keno immediately started the little compressor to spin up the jet while Blake jumped into the cockpit to monitor the gauges. Maddie, her heart now pounding, ran into the tent, quickly pulled on her flying clothes and ran back out just in time to see the King’s tri-motor and an escort fighter rumble past on the runway, take off, and turn South.

 

The whole airfield was now a chaotic riot of noise and smoke, with props spinning and jets whining into life and amidst it all, soldiers from the Kings troop were riding back and forth shouting orders to pilots and crews. Planes from the Kings fleet were lining up at the end of the runway and competitors’ planes were being marshalled onto the taxi ways. As the first plane began speeding down the runway, a group of Horsemen from the King’s troop galloped up to them and one shouted:

 

‘Plane 4! Where’s the pilot of Plane 4?’

‘Here!’ shouted Maddie, running forward.

 

The trooper jumped from his horse and shouted above the noise:

 

‘Listen carefully! Not much time! High Patrol have spotted an enemy naval flotilla, biggest we’ve ever seen, heading in from the North. Not sure if they’re Imperials or Strangers, but they’ve got fighters in the air going after our recon units and they’re firing at anything else that moves. Radios are being jammed but last clear signal said that they have some sort of giant carrier laden with bombers. If we don’t stop them in the next 3 hours, they’ll be in range of the Capital. These are your instructions so listen well!’

 

‘We’re sending you and the other torpedo bombers in to attack that carrier. You need to get airborne in 5 minutes and form up under the yellow and black spotter. Once in formation, you follow the spotter North. You stay below 500 feet and you keep the spotter above you at all times. Once you see the enemy fleet, you go in low and use your torpedo on that carrier and ONLY on that carrier, understand? Aim for the engine or steering gear if you can. That carrier must be stopped! Ignore everything else: just take out that damned carrier!’

 

With that, the trooper leapt back on his horse, spurred it round and galloped back towards the hangars.

 

Maddie started running towards her plane but as she ran past Josh, he grabbed her arm:

 

‘Maddie! What’s happening? Please tell me!’ he shouted.

 

‘Josh, I need to get airborne right now!’ Maddie replied. ‘If that fleet gets in range of the capital, they can reach our village too! As soon as I’m airborne, break camp and get ready to sail South. There’s not much time!’

Josh nodded and ran with Maddie down the slope towards her jet while to their left, planes of all shapes and sizes roared, rumbled and screamed into the air, most from the runway, a few from the water further along the harbour.

 

Maddie jumped from the harbour wall onto the right float of her plane and, like they had practised countless times before, Blake climbed out of the cockpit, reached down and helped Maddie up to the middle wing and into her seat. Meanwhile, Josh disconnected the compressor and Keno and the others untied the lines and grabbed boat hooks ready to push the plane away from the harbour wall. As Blake closed the canopy and jumped clear, Maddie quickly looked at the dials and switches, listened to the whine of her jet engine then gave the hand signal for “cast off”.

 

As soon as her plane was pointed away from the harbour wall, Maddie eased the throttle forward to the first notch and let the jet slowly spool up from idle to taxi speed. The water in the harbour was calm under the floats so she throttled up more. As the speed increased towards the “rotate” mark on the dial, she pulled back on the yoke, pushed the throttle to max and to her relief, her jet lifted from the water, accelerating strongly as it climbed away.

 

Josh, Keno and the others stood on the harbour wall and watched Maddie take off and turn North.  A strange silence fell over the now empty airfield as Keno turned to Josh:

 

‘What happens now?’ asked Keno.

‘Now?’ replied Josh, ‘We do what Maddie ordered; we break camp, get ready to sail, and…….hope.’

 

NORTHWARD FLIGHT

 

Maddie pushed the yoke forward to level off at 300 feet and rolled gently to the left, all the time looking for the spotter plane. Ahead, she could see 2 other planes circling, and a few hundred feet above them, the distinctive wasp-colours of the spotter. As she reached the planes, the spotter turned North and as instructed, Maddie and the others did the same.

 

Maddie settled into the routine of watching the gauges, checking heading and altitude, watching the sea and sky outside, listening to the whistle of the jet and even sniffing for electrical burning and this familiar ritual had the effect of calming her pounding heart. She gave a silent prayer of thanks to Josh and her crew for getting the plane so well prepped then looked more intently at the sky around her.

 

A hundred yards to her left and slightly above was her friend Kristen’s torpedo bomber, with its twin jets below the wing and tail-mounted contra-props. Its dorsal turret was turning slowly back and forth, and she could just see the front gunner in the bomb aimer’s blister. Further away to her right was a plane whose pilot, Temm, had flown in the previous year’s pageant and had belly-landed when his undercarriage failed to lower. Temm’s plane looked ungainly with its shoulder mounted wings, one large turbo-fan buried in the tail-fin and 2 small props slung from underwing pods. Maddie could see no less than 5 torpedoes mounted on the plane’s fuselage and wondered if Temm was having problems handling his heavy plane alone as he seemed to be struggling to maintain constant altitude. High above and now in full sunlight, Maddie could see the dots of other planes flying at medium altitude and, higher still, above and between the clouds, the con-trails of high-altitude aircraft, all flying due North. Five Minutes later, she saw below, a line of ships from the King’s Naval Guard steaming North at full speed.

 

The next half hour was uneventful. To her right, Temm’s plane was now flying more stably, having used some fuel and to her left, Kristen’s plane was easily keeping pace, despite being more than twice the size of Maddie’s and having more drag from its turret and guns.

 

The spotter above waggled his wings and made a slight turn to the left and as Maddie matched the turn, she saw high above, fast contrails coming from the North, headed for the High Guard planes. At that same moment, the planes at medium altitude suddenly broke formation and then Maddie saw, for the first time in her life, enemy planes diving down to attack.

 

BATTLE JOINED

 

Above Maddie, planes started to turn and twist in the air making it hard to tell friend from foe. She had to resist the urge to fly to their aid, remembering her instructions to press on to the enemy fleet and attack her target. Instead she eased the throttle forward to increase speed and pressed the switch to arm her wing guns.

 

In her right periphery, Maddie suddenly saw a flash of tracer bullets and instinctively pulled back on the yoke, wrenching the plane into a hard climb. Rolling in from the side was a Stranger fighter plane; ugly, heavily armoured and dark green. Its guns were still firing, not at her this time but at Kristen. Maddie rolled left and down to try to line up on the enemy but at that moment, another small jet dived from above and fired at the Stranger, hitting it several times just aft of the cockpit. Smoke burst from the enemy plane and it passed behind Kristen in a straight line, damaged but still flying. Maddie rolled right and looked for the spotter plane but could see neither it nor the fighter that had just saved Kristen. She pushed the yoke forward, forcing her plane back down to 300 feet and eased the throttle back slightly to conserve fuel. “Where’s the enemy flotilla?” Maddie thought as she resumed her course.

 

Near the horizon, Maddie could now see a bank of grey haze over a mile wide and she realised that the enemy were putting out a huge smoke screen, perhaps as a decoy or maybe to hide their carrier. She rolled to the right slightly and gained height, all the time looking for signs of movement within or beyond the smoke-screen and in doing so, failed to see the gun-boat firing at her from the sea below.

 

Suddenly, the plane shuddered violently and heeled over to the right. Maddie grabbed the yoke with both hands, rolled back level and looked to her left to see a row of large bullet holes in the lower wing. Maddie’s mind raced, trying the remember if there were vital parts in that wing; maybe the ammunition feed for the lower wing gun but nothing else. Looking below, Maddie could see the gun-boat now; a long thin hull, open cockpit and the gun turret on its stern that was firing at other planes. She pushed the yoke forward and dived towards the speeding boat, trying to get it in her gun-sight. The damaged wing was causing her plane to shake, and the gun-boat was weaving left to right, so she was down to less than 100 feet before being able to open fire on it. Maddie pressed the fire button and to her relief, all 6 wing-guns opened up, hitting the gunboat across its sharp prow but not causing any real damage. As she pulled up past the gun-boat, she saw Temm’s plane diving at it from the right, firing its huge ventral cannon. As it flew over the boat at less than 50 feet, a small canister fell from the plane and burst into flames across the gun-boat’s cockpit.

 

Trying to ignore the frantic battle around her, Maddie rolled back towards the smoke-screen and saw that it was dispersing in the wind. She could now see dozens of small boats spewing smoke from pipes mounted along their superstructures. Hoping that she could use the smoke-screen to her own advantage, she dropped back to 100 feet, pushed the throttle to max and flew straight into it.

 

BLACK FLOWERS

 

As Maddie plunged into the smoke screen, she instinctively pulled the plane into a gentle climb, fearful of getting disoriented and crashing. A few seconds later, she was through the haze and saw spread out in front of her, the enemy flotilla, and her target, the carrier, steaming steadily South.

 

Immediately below, a large battleship was listing heavily as it turned, leaving a curved wake. Its main gun turrets were lowered but smaller gun-mounts along its length were following her flight and opening fire. Beyond and to her left was another battleship holding its course South, and arranged to either side were several small boats, each towing a floating platform with a huge anti-aircraft gun mounted on it. The guns were firing almost straight up, and above her, Maddie could see the flak shells bursting like black flowers, spraying deadly shrapnel into the path of the planes above.

 

Maddie made a hard roll to the right and pulled level to avoid the second battleship and saw ahead, a High Guard fighter diving almost vertically at one of the gun platforms. The Fighter’s guns flashed briefly, and the gun platform exploded violently. Maddie could see several people in the water where the platform had been; none were moving.

 

Over half a mile long and hundreds of yards wide, the carrier looked more like a floating town. Multiple hulls, pontoons and metal walkways made up the lower half while flat decks above each hull supported the two runways. Towards its stern on either side were two giant superstructures, one with gun turrets firing upwards, the other looking like a castle made of steel. Between those two structures, she could see dozens of huge, ugly Stranger bomber planes, some standing idle, others with their giant propellers already turning. Between the bombers, she could just see the figures of people running back and forth, frantically preparing them for flight.

 

Maddie rolled left then right, looking for her comrades. The only plane she could make out clearly was a large black push-pull aircraft, main wings aft, canards forward. The plane was flying towards the closest battleship at an even lower altitude than Maddie but then the pilot pulled up sharply and ignited RATO packs beneath the wings. His plane shot skywards like a huge firework and as it did so, released a single large bomb, almost as long as the plane itself. The bomb arced over, fell, and hit the destroyer midships, exploding in a huge, blinding fireball.

 

Maddie realised that to carry out her mission, she would need to fly the whole length of the huge carrier to attack it from the rear, so she banked until she was flying parallel with it and forced the plane down until she was lower than the runway deck. To her right, another jet appeared alongside briefly then pulled up and over her plane, rolling towards the carrier’s deck. As soon as the plane was higher than the huge runways, the pilot fired his guns at the bombers but at the same time, the carrier’s guns hit the jet’s V-tail, severing it completely. The plane rolled inverted and spun into the sea, its guns still firing. Maddie eased to her left, flying even closer to the carrier, hoping to deter the gunners around her from firing at their own vessel. Above, she could just see Kristen’s large plane weaving and twisting through the hail of gunfire, descending as it did so. To her right and behind, 3 jets in close formation sped across the carrier’s deck and dropped incendiaries. She was almost at the stern of the carrier now and had to force herself to ignore the chaos around her and focus on her attack.

 

LOW AND SLOW

 

So far, Maddie’s high speed, low altitude, and the smallness of her plane had saved her from the gun barrage around her, unlike the aircraft at higher altitude who had to fight their way past the Stranger fighters and the picket of gun-boats, only to be met by anti-aircraft fire from the flak guns. She realised that the most dangerous part of her mission was about to happen; she was flying full throttle at over 260 Knots, but her torpedo had to be dropped while flying straight and level at no more than 100 Knots and this, she knew, would leave the plane at its most vulnerable.

 

She was now past the carrier and rolled slightly left to look for her target. The stern of the carrier was formed from three giant hulls that must have once been whole ships. Her heart sank as she saw that each hull had its own huge propeller and rudder, each leaving a churning wake, so even if her one torpedo found its mark, the vessel might remain seaworthy. Her only hope was that Kristen, Temm and the others would also press home their attacks.

 

Maddie rolled level then hard right, pulling the plane round in as tight a circle as possible and as she did so, eased the throttle back. She glanced at the airspeed gauge then at the stern of the carrier and as it swung into view straight ahead, she rolled level and pushed the yoke forward, bringing her height to less the 100 feet. At this speed and height, her little plane with its damaged lower wing was being buffeted by the wind and it was all Maddie could do to hold a steady course. Her feet were dancing on the rudder pedals as she tried to line up on the left hull of the carrier and she was fighting against the headwind that was lifting the plane’s nose.

 

To her right, Maddie glimpsed a large gun-boat swinging its turret towards her and saw the flash of bullets as it opened fire. Tracer flashed past just above her cockpit and she forced the plane even lower, convinced she was about to die, but then saw that the gun-boat was now firing above her at the familiar shape of Samuel’s large fighter as it dived down from the left. Samuel’s plane was surprisingly agile for its size and as he rolled his plane from side to side to dodge the hail of bullets, he opened fire with his nose-guns, strafing the gun-boat along its whole length. The gun-boat burst into flames and Maddie saw its crew jumping into the sea to escape. Maddie tried to slow her breathing and forced herself to concentrate on the looming shape of the carrier ahead and at her air-speed gauge. Her speed was still too high, so she eased the throttle back even more, all the time fighting the urge to speed up and gain height.

 

“Speed good, height good.” Thought Maddie “but when do I drop the torp?” she was desperately trying to judge her distance from the carrier’s stern, knowing that if she dropped the torpedo too soon, it might stray and miss the hull, too late and it might not stabilise and arm itself. Her view was hampered by smoke so there was no sense of scale, but she realised that this was probably her only chance of a clear run, so she pushed the plane down to just 20 feet and pressed the torpedo release button.

 

HIGHER VIEW

 

As soon as the torpedo dropped, Maddie jammed the throttle to max, wrenched her plane up and banked hard left, desperate to get clear of the carrier and the gunners around it. She could see nothing of the battle around her as the planed banked, just sea and sky. She held the turn until she was headed away from the carrier then rolled left again, all the time looking for threats from above and below and straining her eyes towards the carrier.

 

She had lost all sense of time. Was it seconds or minutes since she dropped the torp? Maddie was just wondering if the torpedo had failed when she was almost blinded by a huge explosion from the stern of the carrier. A ball of flame leapt sideways from the hull then a series of explosions erupted below the deck, hurling debris hundreds of feet in the air. Maddie blinked hard and levelled out, transfixed by the destruction her torpedo had caused. She could now see that her torpedo had missed the steering gear of the carrier but had hit something just as vital; fuel tanks further forward. The sea around the hull was on fire as fuel from the ruptured tanks poured into it and on what was left of the decking immediately above, people were running and stumbling away from the inferno.

 

Maddie shifted her gaze upwards and saw that the flak barrage from the anti-aircraft guns was much less intense than before and guessed that their ammunition was running out. To her right and below, she suddenly saw another torpedo bomber flying in at high speed and being chased by a Stranger fighter. The bomber, a twin-boomed aircraft with a small fuselage mounted aft, was firing at the Stranger from its small rear barbette but the Stranger, being more agile, was easily evading the bullets as it closed in. Maddie pushed the stick forward, dived towards the enemy fighter from the side and rolled almost inverted to get it in her gun-sight then, as the front of the enemy fighter appeared in the cross-hairs, she opened fire. The gun in the lower left wing jammed, but the remaining five found their mark. Her bullets hit the enemy’s left wing, but the tough, heavily armoured plane continued to close in on the torpedo bomber. Maddie rolled level then left and opened fire once more, this time hitting the fighter’s cockpit and as she flew past, the enemy fighter rolled over and into the sea below.

 

The torpedo bomber was still flying straight and level towards the centre hull of the carrier, but its speed was far too high. Maddie wondered if the pilot was going to deliberately crash into the carrier but as it got within range, the pilot deployed huge air-brakes from its fuselage, causing it to suddenly slow down and at the same time, four torpedoes dropped from its underwing pylons. Maddie put her plane into a gentle climb and watched as the torpedo bomber pulled up and away, climbing fast and rolling at it did so.

 

She was now flying at 500 feet and could see more of the battle around her. The flak from the anti-aircraft guns had almost stopped and there were now more Stranger fighters flying in from the South. The hull she had torpedoed was still ablaze but less fiercely than before and above the carrier’s deck, planes criss-crossed the runways, attacking with incendiaries and small bombs, while being attacked themselves by Stranger fighters. Suddenly, the sea erupted in a series of explosions as the four torpedoes hit the centre hull. The rear of the hull was ripped open by the force of the explosions and as sea water flooded in, steam and smoke belched out. Maddie saw that the carrier was now almost at a standstill in the water; the whole gigantic structure was slowly turning to port, being pushed round by the one remaining propeller.

 

Although the giant carrier was barely moving under its own power, it still posed a threat. Even as she watched, one of the huge Stranger bomber planes lumbered into the air from the starboard runway, firing from its gun turrets as it did so. On seeing this, Maddie banked left then lined her plane up with the runway. She knew that her wing guns would have little effect on the heavily armoured bombers, so she flicked the selector switch to arm the rotary cannons.

 

Maddie had never fired the two large six-barrelled cannons; the ammunition was far too precious to waste on practise, but she knew that the complex rotary mechanisms were in good order. She had enough ammo for perhaps a two second burst from each gun, so she would need to pick her target carefully. Ahead, another Stranger bomber started to speed along the runway and she realised that this was her best target; if she crippled that plane, the runway might become unusable. On her right, Maddie suddenly saw another plane in her periphery and almost pulled away, thinking it was an enemy fighter but to her relief, saw that it was a friendly; a small twin-jet with graceful swept-back wings. The pilot of the other plane pulled alongside Maddie and as she pushed the yoke forward to dive, so did the other.

 

Maddie’s plane was now lined up with the centre of the runway, but she could see guns on the carrier’s superstructure turning to fire at her, so she jinked the plane as much as possible, thankful that it was so small and agile. The fighter on her right peeled off slightly, dived towards the carrier’s superstructure then opened fire on it with its wing-tip guns and this drew most of the gunfire towards the fighter and away from her. She had now almost reached the carrier’s stern and, ignoring the gunfire around her, she levelled out, flew through clouds of smoke and steam, lined the enemy bomber up in her gunsight and pressed the fire button.

 

The effect was startling and devastating. Maddie was momentarily blinded by flames and smoke from the cannons and the brief thunderous noise made her ears ring; the shuddering recoil slowed her plane’s speed to where it almost stalled and she had to fight to keep control. As the plane regained speed, she pulled up into a vertical climb and strained to look back over her shoulder. The hail of cannon shells had almost disintegrated the large bomber. Maddie could see wreckage and bodies scattered across the runway.

 

As she continued to climb, Maddie rolled the plane while looking at the battle around her and wondered what to do next. The flak barrage had stopped, and planes were now engaged in dog-fights all the way from sea level up to the thin cloud layer. To her left and above, a delta shaped High Guard fighter streaked past in a rolling dive, pursued by a small twin-jet Stranger. Smoke was trailing from one of the High Guard’s three pulse-jets and the pilot was struggling desperately to maintain control and shake off his attacker. Maddie pulled back on the yoke until her plane was inverted then rolled into a level dive towards the Stranger. The enemy pilot must have seen Maddie’s plane and suddenly rolled left and away from the High Guard plane but at that same moment, bullets slammed into the fuselage of Maddie’s plane from another Stranger that had dived at her from the right.

 

Her plane shuddered under the bullets’ impact as if struck by several staccato hammer blows, then part of the canopy to her right shattered inwards, showering the cockpit with shards of glass. Maddie instinctively closed her eyes, ducked her head down and pulled back on the yoke, desperate to escape and gain height.

 

She was completely disorientated. Her eyes were tightly shut and the howling wind from the broken canopy was almost deafening. Maddie had to force herself to open her eyes and as she did so, she saw that she was climbing almost vertically and slammed the yoke forward to level out.

 

TAKING STOCK

 

Maddie looked for the plane that had shot at her but could see neither it nor the damaged High Guard fighter. She glanced quickly at the instrument panel then moved the yoke and rudder pedals to feel if the flight controls were damaged. The rudder felt stiff to move but seemed to be working properly and Maddie hoped control cables were not snagged or damaged.

 

‘What do I do now?’ thought Maddie. She tried to slow her breathing and moved her head as far as she could away from the blast of wind from the damaged canopy while taking stock of her situation.

Her plane was damaged but still in one piece and, apart from the stiff rudder and damaged lower wing, seemed to be flying well. She only had a few seconds of ammo left in the 5 functioning wing guns but saw no immediate threat or target. She put her plane into a left bank and eased the throttle back, worried now about her fuel.

 

The air battle around her seemed much less intense now. Above, she could see perhaps a score of planes twisting and turning through the air and nearby, the severed wing of a large aircraft fell smoking towards the sea, spinning like a sycamore seed. Maddie rolled the plane carefully from side to side and could see below several Strangers circling over the carrier. The fires that she and her comrades had caused were less severe, but columns of black smoke still rose from the damaged stern of the huge vessel. Further out, she could see a battleship and several smaller boats steaming towards the carrier while other vessels seemed to be dead in the water.

 

Maddie glanced up at a sudden movement above and saw two High Guard fighter jets flying over in full re-heat, launching bright green flares as they went. It was the signal to withdraw.

 

STRATEGY

 

As she turned South, a feeling of weariness came over Maddie as she took a last look at the strange, chaotic scene around her. Relief at flying away from immediate danger was mixed with a feeling of confusion as to whether she had carried out the mission well or had done the right thing in the heat of battle. She glanced up at the sun, trying to get a sense of time and was astonished to see that less than two hours had passed since she had taken off from the harbour at base camp. Maddie’s fear now was that she might not make it back.

 

Navigating would be easy; provided she held a course roughly South; she knew she would reach the coast, but she had no wish to land in a remote area then have to wait to be found. Maddie’s biggest concern right now was fuel. The gauge showed she had just over one third left so she decided to make a gentle climb to 4000 feet into what she hoped would be calmer air; this would also allow her to see the coast and give her leeway to descend gently with minimal throttle or glide in if she ran out of fuel. Coming down a long way from the coast was also a concern for Maddie, even in a float plane; the floats might have been holed, the sea might be too rough, or once down she might not be rescued. Despite those worries, now that she had a plan of sorts, Maddie felt a little calmer as she eased the plane into the gentlest climb possible. She watched her altimeter and as she neared her chosen height, levelled out and eased the throttle back until she was at what she hoped was the optimum speed for the remaining fuel.

 

The freezing air rushing in through the broken canopy was now making Maddie’s head and neck painfully cold and numb. She felt thirsty and was so exhausted that, despite the cold, she simply wanted to close her eyes and sleep. She tried to ignore these feelings, shook her head and looked at the sky around her. There were no aircraft nearby, but as her eyes adjusted, she could see the small shapes of many aircraft dotted across the sky at different altitudes, some flying fast and high, others lumbering along more slowly, all headed South. A few minutes later, a half mile to her right, she passed an upturned plane floating in the sea. A large bi-plane flying boat was just taxiing towards it and she prayed that the pilot and crew of the crashed plane were alive to be rescued. Maddie moved her head as far as she could out of the icy wind and flew on.

 

Maddie felt alone and vulnerable in her small aircraft. She felt like her plane was motionless while the ocean and sky rolled past, being driven by some unseen godlike force. She suddenly remembered the little globe in her father’s room and how he would point his finger at the names of long-lost countries and cities as he spun the globe with his other hand, while recounting stories of how the world was before the seas rose. How old would she have been then? Six or seven? It all seemed like a lifetime ago, but that simple memory made her smile.

 

Maddie suddenly jerked herself upright in her seat and looked frantically around her, realising that she had just fallen asleep. Her plane was in a slight roll, so she grabbed the yoke, pulled back level, took a few deep breaths of the cold air and flew on.

 

MIST AND RAIN

 

The dark line of the coast appeared through the misty haze ahead. Maddie breathed a sigh of relief and eased the throttle back to slowly descend, all the while peering forward to look for landmarks. By the time she reached 2,500 feet, she could just see the distinctive steep, dangerous cliffs of Draco’s Bluff and, realising she was about six miles East of home base, made a gentle right-hand turn. Looking ahead, Maddie could see no other aircraft, but saw that the sky was darkening with rain clouds. Flying in bad weather would not normally have bothered her but with her fuel running low and the damage to her plane, Maddie just wanted to get down before the rain-front arrived.

 

By the time Maddie finally saw the familiar shape of home base, with its two runways and small harbour set below the old dead volcano, the visibility had worsened considerably. She throttled down to just above idle and descended to 500 feet, just as the first raindrops hit her windshield. She glanced at the fuel gauge and realised the tanks were just about empty and got ready to land, quickly cranking the flaps down and unlatching the canopy slightly in case the plane flipped, and she needed to swim clear. She peered down through the misty rain to look at the sea conditions and was glad that there was just a gentle 3 feet swell but at that moment, with her height at 200 feet, her little jet engine fell silent. She only had a few seconds to react, so she quickly levelled the wings then as she was a few feet above the sea, eased the plane into a nose up posture. She felt both floats briefly skim across the top of a wave then, as she pulled back on the yoke to keep the front of the floats from ‘digging in’ her plane settled into the water.

 

Maddie sat still in her cockpit for a few moments, not quite believing the was down safely and still alive. She slowly reached up and slid the canopy half open, unstrapped, and looked around. The rain was steady but not heavy and she could just see the outline of the harbour and the slope up to the airfield about a mile away. She looked down at the floats and to her relief, they seemed to be intact and water-tight. Maddie sat in her cockpit and wondered what to do next. She knew she would eventually be rescued but didn’t relish the prospect of bobbing up and down in the rain until the weather cleared and someone on the shore spotted her.

 

A few minutes later, Maddie heard a soft droning hum from to the North then saw a huge High Patrol reconnaissance plane gently descending through the thick cloud layer above. Its contra-props were spinning slowly as it almost glided along, and the undercarriage was already down. The pilot must have spotted Maddie’s plane and banked gently towards her then as he flew overhead at 200 feet, one of the crew in a rear observation blister fired a bright orange flare into the air above. Maddie waved and breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the High Patrol plane would also radio the shore base.

 

Only a short while later, as the rain was easing to a slight drizzle, Maddie saw one of the tender boats from the shore base headed towards her. Maddie opened the canopy and climbed gingerly on to the top right wing, glad to be able to stretch her legs after such a long time, and as the tender got closer, she climbed down to the right float and waited until it pulled alongside. A crewman threw a line across and while Maddie tied it to the float-hook, another crewman jumped into the water, swam across to the other float and tied a line to the other float. The crew pulled on the lines to bring the plane closer to the boat then two cadets helped Maddie aboard.

 

As the crewmen helped her to a seat, Maddie looked at her plane and could now see a row of bullet holes stretching almost the entire length of the fuselage and realised how lucky she was to have survived the battle. A young cadet in his early teens came over to her and spoke:

 

‘Ma’am, it’ll take a while to get ashore with your plane in tow, but right now, I need to get a bandage on that head-wound’

 

Maddie felt confused and replied, ‘What head-wound?’

 

Maddie pressed her hand to the back of her head then looked at her palm and, seeing it covered in blood, did the only reasonable thing possible: She passed out.

 

THINGS TO CONSIDER

 

As Maddie regained consciousness, the first thing she noticed was a pounding headache. She slowly opened her eyes and saw above, the familiar wooden ceiling of the cabin in her house-boat, then as she carefully looked to her left, she saw Josh, a look of concern on his face turning into a gentle smile as he saw she was awake.

 

‘Welcome home, pilot’ Josh said softly, giving the familiar greeting he always gave Maddie after a flight.

 

Maddie tried to speak but her mouth felt too dry. Josh put a finger to his lips ‘Ssshhh, don’t speak just yet, let me talk for a moment while you drink this’ Josh helped Maddie to sit up, propped up her back with cushions, then gave her a small beaker of liquid. ‘sip it slowly. I figured water would be too easy, so I put a shot of Keno’s moonshine in it. Best pain-killer known to man!’

 

Maddie took a cautious sip of the drink and touched her bandaged head with her other hand.

 

‘Before you ask’ said Josh, ‘The plane is fine, the crew are working on it now and it should be flyable in a couple of days. You, on the other hand, are going to need longer, at least 5 days according to that idiot from the air base who calls himself a medic. Never seen such ugly sutures!’

 

‘That’s not what I was going to ask’ Maddie replied. ‘Did we win? I mean, did we succeed? It was all so…..messy..’

 

Josh shrugged. ‘Not been hearing much. Word is, that carrier thing is under tow and headed slowly East. Navy are going after it and the night squadron is getting prepped. Only news we’re getting is from the ground crews and pilots’

 

Hearing the word “pilot”, Maddie said ‘Josh, I lost track of the others. Do you know what’s happened to them? Did Kristen, Samuel and Temm get back?’

 

‘Kristen made it back’ Josh replied. ‘Plane’s badly beaten up, dorsal gunner took some shrapnel in her chest, probably won’t live. The torpedoes didn’t arm for some reason, but Kristen shot the crap out of a destroyer before leaving’

 

‘And Samuel? Temm?’ asked Maddie.

 

Josh looked down and shook his head slowly. ‘Missing, presumed dead. It’s possible they’ve reached the coast somewhere, but…..you know how it is….’

 

Maddie nodded and sipped the drink, her mind full of mixed emotions. They sat in silence for a few minutes then Josh spoke.

 

‘One thing has been announced, and this is official: All reservists who flew the mission today are gonna be accepted into the High Guard if they wish. Planes will be named, and assignments given within the next seven days. We’ll most likely get posted either nearer the border for coastal patrol or on a destroyer with catapult launching. Either way, we get full pay and privileges’

 

Maddie listened to Josh but did not feel any sense of achievement. She stared ahead for minute then looked down at her drink.

 

‘Josh, I don’t know if I can go through with this……’  Josh looked at the floor then looked at Maddie but kept silent, guessing what she was about to say. ‘Josh, I didn’t just hit my target today, or destroy enemy assets……I killed people. People with families…….I just….don’t know if it’s the right thing to do…’

 

Maddie’s voice trailed off. Josh, coming from a military family, understood the deep soul-searching that Maddie was going through and knew it was best to leave her to come to a decision in her own time. They sat in silence in the cabin of their house-boat, both deep in thought, and listened as a large patrol aircraft rumbled into the air from the runway above.


© Copyright 2020 Treadmill103. All rights reserved.

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