“Are we going up today, sir?”
Archamae de’Cailleach blinked a drop of sweat from her eyes, standing at attention and waiting for the major to address her. She stood before her commander as she had each sunrise for weeks on end, repeating the same question, waiting for the same answer. When the man’s pen continued it’s methodical scritching across the pages of a log book, she cleared her throat and tried again.
“Patrol, sir. It’s been a month since we’ve had eyes out west. I believe a lone, high alt reconnoiter flight over Sava Reef would-“
Clad in a black wool jacket buttoned to the throat, Major Wilhelm Thaw hummed his response with feigned attention. He would pause his writing long enough to mop his receding forehead with a silk handkerchief, completing the hygienic circuit with a final wipe across the thick mustache traversing his lip. The silver wings on his collar were buffed until they glittered in the faintest light, the insignia on his shoulder resewn each time a thread worked its way loose. That the man maintained propriety despite the environment was testament to his dedication to the institution of the Eschen Air Service. The open-aired campaign tent kept the tropical sun from burning the words from the logbook, but even the shade and a breeze from off the nearby water did little to stymie the unbearable heat. The two officers stared at one another, pouring sweat into their uniforms as the sun climbed out from behind the eastern horizon.
“I grow weary of this dance, Lieutenant.” Major Thaw dropped his pen and waved a hand to fan the row of numbers written in a precise hand. His neatly trimmed mustache twitched and his eyes hardened into a familiar glare as he stared at Archamae.
“Major, the squadron is whispering. They are restless, weary, questioning the mission. I fear for morale-“
“Taking the self-righteous approach today, Miss de’Cailleach?”
The major knew her too well. Archamae pivoted. “Have we been forgotten out here?”
“Our cache of supplies says otherwise. Try again.”
“If we sent word of the fuel situation-“
“Enough! When resupply arrives, I’ll send you up first. And I’ll keep you up there. I’ll have you flying from sunrise to sunset until you can’t tell where your ass ends and the bench begins. But until that day comes, grease your rig and point those eyeballs of yours at the blue.” He reached for a fresh nib, returning his attention to his desk. “Any more of this from you and you’ll be digging latrines until I can send you home in a crowded berth. Am I clear, Lieutenant?”
The tall woman snapped a salute and spun her heel in the sand. The moment Archamae faced away from her squadron leader, she rolled her eyes into the back of her head until painful stars filled her vision. Stranded, she thought, grounded at the ass-end of the world. Nowhere to go. No one to fight. No fuel to fly. Not even a sip of gin to be had. She tugged at her collar, ripping open the top three buttons on the black coat she had done up for the occasion. She pulled a silk scarf from her head and pale white hair spilled from a tightly wrapped bun into a cascade that fluttered in the wind. She shrugged out of her uniform’s coat and slung the cursed wool over a shoulder. Only the major cared for propriety, and on this lonely island Eschen military regulations did not account for much.
As her vision returned, a familiar vantage greeted her. Beyond a shell strewn beach lay breaking waves, rocky shoals, and an azure ocean stretching to the horizon until one could not tell where the water ended and the sky began. If she turned around, Archamae would meet the same sight, sand and water looming just over a pathetic strip of wind-battered vegetation. Rolling water and biting salt spray were as intimate now as the towering mountains and foreboding forests of her homeland. While the sounds of the ocean once acted as a soothing balm, a panacea against the frenetic outside world, it now served as an endless, clockwork metronome, reminding Archamae of how trapped she truly was.
“We’re going up this time, yeah?”
Glen Messier stole upon Archamae, unheard over the cursed ocean. The young lieutenant went shirtless, a pair of faded black coveralls unbuttoned and tied around his waist. He wiped grease from his hands with a filthy rag, a hopeful, gap-toothed grin painting his face.
“The emperor sees to it to send more oil than water.”
“Awe, fuck.” Messier said, his voice holding thinly veiled sarcasm. “You’re gonna forget all that pilot shit before any real action comes our way.”
Archamae sighed. The morning ritual of asking the major for patrol concluded with Glen mocking her. So long as the resupply ship stayed away, their squadron did not have the fuel and water to spare superfluous flights. Despite knowing this, Archamae did not give up trying.
“I just mean,” Glen continued, “I only care ’cause you’re going to get me killed. Because you’ll be out of practice. Because you’ll forget how to fly. Because you’ve forgotten how to-”
“Yeah, alright, got it. Help me keep the sand out of the gears.”
“Easy enough, they’re the only things not falling apart. The throttle valve’s movin’ again, but I can’t unstick the pedals. I think it’s in the lines beneath the tanks, which aren’t looking so good themselves. Does the major know what salt water does to steel? Did you mention that even with fuel we can’t fly without new filters-”
“Leave it.” Archamae spat her displeasure into the sand, tossing her head towards a makeshift runway hammered into the bleached coral. Running the length of the island, hacked from the vegetation and leveled by hand, the flat, narrow runway was a vital fixture in their life. The crude surface was the only thing permitting the squadron’s existence on the distant atoll.
Sitting in the shade of overhanging palm trees rested a twin-winged aero. Crimson canvas stretched taut across overlapping wings that covered a pilot’s well, behind which was positioned a rear-facing propeller and smaller tail fins festooned with the Eschen insignia. Wires and rigging strung between each of the wings, keeping the frame rigid. From the nose of the aircraft protruded half a dozen open-ended pipes, while at the rear the casing over the engine stood open, a stepladder and open tool box testifying to Glen’s recent efforts. The crews of three other aeros worked on their own machines, sweating in the shade and conducting the cursed routine of keeping their aeros flight-worthy against the tropical elements.
For more than a century civilization joined with the skywhales dancing among the clouds. Harvesting the odeum powder from Shards of the All-Father, enterprising minds discovered that a mixture of refined powder and water cycled through coiled pipe could lift near on anything skyward. Vast forests could be traversed with ease, oceans became trivial, and mountain ranges surmountable. In time, sleek hulls replaced barnacle-encrusted trawlers, oderic-driven propellers supplanted unreliable sails, and aerofoils complemented simple levitation. While the vast majority of flight remained with hulking freighters lifted from the sea and pushed around on the wind, the powers-at-be found plenty of uses for the lightweight, fast airships known as aeros. Faster and more maneuverable than airships, Archamae and her squadron of Eschen interceptors were stationed at the ass-end of a far-flung archipelago in the Vaantic Sea, waiting to catch an unwary enemy. The machines could take to the sky at a moments notice, cavalry impeded by no landmark, ready to deliver destruction or salvation.
To date, their foe had yet to present themselves, and so they waited.
“How far did you get?” Archamae asked, picking up a maintenance checklist littered with scrawled notes, doodling, and commentary.
“Got through the inspection and started in on the starboard strut hooks. Tightened ’em down like you asked. I need your hands for those pedals, though, so I started in on the grease job. Hey, what do you think of the drawing of Sair getting bit in the ass by that shark? I’m getting better at the shading and-“
“It’s fine. Did you clear the rods?” The crude illustration might pique her interest come afternoon, but after being put in her place by the major, Archamae wanted to get on with the work. The oderic pipes that ran from Glen’s seat, straddled her own, and out the nose of the aero were what the craft had been built around. The weapons could loose rods of odeum lead deadlier than bow shot, drilling holes into an airship’s levitation system, or cutting an aero in two. At least, so long as the delivery pipe and ammunition were smooth and lacked corrosion.
“As clear as they were yesterday. And they day before that. And the day before-“
“I’ll do it.” The pilot dropped the checklist to take up a wrench. “First let’s get that housing put back together.”
Glen cast a forlorn glance at his drawing before moving to help Archamae. The pilot sighed. She would have to apologize later.
See the world. Smell the clouds. Join the fleet. The Eschen Empire possessed the finest oderic machinery the known world had seen. The air service could fly over any mountain, across any ocean, and call upon any city. Great wages. Comfortable airships. The adventure of your life. The thrill of the sky. When Archamae volunteered, she did not think of the foreign ports, cramped berths, or pathetic amount of coin. She signed up to live in the blue. To taste flight. To dance close to the heavens.
But the thrill of floating boats only took her so far. When the opportunity arose to join with the nascent aerofoil division, she did not hesitate. It was the chance to fly higher and faster than anyone. To turn, dive and spin like a kite on the wind. To be pressed into the back of a burning leather seat, the vibration of an engine rattling the bones, the roar of the propeller drowning the ears. If flying on an airship was living a dream, piloting an aero was paradise.
Training lasted a year. Her first flight, stuffed into a bucket bolted to a balsa wood fuselage, validated Archamae’s choice. The sharp banks, plummeting dives, and cutting wind surpassed her wildest imaginations. With each successive flight she pushed herself further, choking the machine until the propeller nearly gave out, straining the wings almost to their breaking point. She was the first in the sky and the last to land. Each flight possessed enormous risk. Archamae’s first instructor died in a crash a week into her training. Half of the eager pilots in her class would die fiery deaths even before becoming ‘fit for duty’. The machines the pilots rode were crude constructions, unreliable, untested. They caught fire without warning. They broke apart in simple turns. Their engines quit. Their controls failed. But for most, the pursuit of speed was insatiable. Each time an aero went down, they learned a little more, valuable information applied toward keeping the next machine in the sky, testing the boundaries of the thrumming pieces of wood and metal beneath their feet. Archamae soldiered onward, finding the limits of her machine and pushing that edge further, beyond her own ken, eager to feed her body the thrill of a sharp turn and vertical dive. She was the consummate student, absorbing new information and applying it to her trade to succeed where others failed.
In addition to piloting, the crew had to learn how the machine they rode worked. After each flight, under normal conditions, the aeros internals needed tending. Moving parts required lubrication, odeum pipes needed flushing, and stripped gears replacement. Unlike a bloated airship with its redundant systems of levitation, the flimsy aeros were kept aloft on wings and forward momentum driven by a spinning oderic propeller. If that failed, as it often did, the only recourse was to glide to ground, trusting in the wire-strung controls fashioned to silk rudder and ailerons. The whole production required an obscene amount of man-hours to function properly.
On the mainland or aboard an airship carrier, Archamae would have a complement of men to maintain the machine, so she could focus on flying the damned thing. But when her squadron was ordered to the remote South Vaantic Sea, they did so bereft of the support staff. A planned week long stopover turned to a month-long posting, which became a six month station, all without reprieve or reinforcing ground crew. The brief interdiction of Itibese aggression at the end of a distant archipelago evolved to protracted conflict, and high command forgot about the needs of a lonely squadron of salt-stricken aeros in the middle of the ocean. But manpower or not, the maintenance had to be done, and with more ritualistic care than ever considering the environment.
“Etel speared a thornback this morning.”
“Those spiny, striped fish?” Archamae asked, retrieving a handful of gears from the bottom of a bucket of oil. “They’re venomous.”
Glen took the gears and stretched an arm into the engine housing to replace them one by one. “Nah,” he hauled on a wrench, grunting with exertion. “You can eat ’em just fine. Took awhile to clear it, but the thing tasted great.”
“No, that’s not- I didn’t say poisonous. Those barbs of theirs are supposed to do more than hurt if they puncture your skin.”
“Oh. Huh. That explains the welt on his arm.”
Archamae sighed. No one paid attention to the debriefings. Her squadron mates heard ‘the tropics’ and thought of sun, sand, and bare-chested natives. Archamae heard salt, humidity, and heat. She tugged at her shirt in a vain attempt to catch a breeze down her back.
In the dawning age of the airship, the nation-states of the known world saw a chance to seize far flung riches. The vast oceans and unclaimed deserts offered untapped resources. Fuel sources. Minerals. Trade routes. The civilized world bickered over forgotten lands with a fervor never before seen. Men and women who had never set foot out of their farming town were uprooted and sent over the horizon, destined to carry out the will of their unseen leaders. Archamae did not concern herself with the political reality that governed her posting so far from home, so long as she got to fly. But, she needed to know who she would be going up against, and where. In their case, the tropics of the vast Southern Vaantic Ocean provided their own challenges, including a corrosive environment, high probability of drowning, unrelenting heat, and dangerous wildlife. That Etel, her wingman, neglected to heed the warnings of the location debriefing meant their squadron would be down a good pilot.
“Doesn’t matter,” Archamae slapped the hood closed on the engine compartment. “He only needs one arm to spoon beans.”
“Or wipe his ass,” Glen laughed. “Besides, it’s just a bump. Doc Braunen will see to it.”
Braunen was not a doctor, but a rear-seat loader with an herb lore background from the Vogtland wilds. Even if she was the closest thing to a medic their squadron had, Archamae would sooner trust Braunen to fly an aero before treating a wound, and the woods witch had failed every flight qualification.
“What’s the big deal, anyway?”
Glen smiled at the pilot, his eyes shining with honesty. The younger man’s hair had bleached during their time in the sun, and while some in their squadron had developed a browning tan, Glen’s complexion had only permitted an explosion of freckles and a red, blistering burn. When Archamae had been assigned him as her rear-seater, she soured at his perpetual cheerfulness and unwavering optimism, bordering on naivety. But whether it was through time or persistence, she grew used to the young man’s casual attitude. After six months ostensibly at sea, Archamae found Glen’s carefree wit a necessary foil to her vocal frustrations, helping to keep her sane and focused on the mission.
That mission said to interdict Itibese flights attacking cargo shipments. And so far the enemy had not shown herself over this stretch of useless ocean.
With no one to fight and no fuel to ply the skies, the few men and women of the pursuit squadron turned to the tired routine of the military minded. They labored over their aeros. They kept eyeballs turned to the empty sky. They lingered by their greased aircraft, ready to take flight at a moment’s notice. And for those blessed with downtime from the monotony, they enjoyed crude distractions and innovative entertainment. They gambled future pay. They fashioned driftwood spears to fish among the coral shoals. They hunted seabirds with bolas made of shells and twine. They joked to keep morale. They boasted to build their own mythology. They drilled to keep sharp. They dreamed of an uncertain future. And they drank their gin ration to while away the twilight hours.
For Archamae, the dismal posting at the edge of the world was the passing of valuable time best spent living on the edge of a knife. Each hour was one of wasted youth. Her fitness, eyesight and reaction time was at its prime, and she believed her time was best spent in the cockpit, not flitting about the agonizingly small atoll, trying in vain to ignore a growing anxiety. Testing her accuracy with a bola on an unwitting albatross was a poor substitute for an inverted dive. Fishing was too slow, too monotonous. Someone constructed a boat, which turned out to be more exhaustive than exciting. Her luck with the cards and dice ebbed and flowed, but after winning, losing, and then winning back most of the crew’s combat pay, she tired of the exercise. When the last cask of gin ran dry, their station took on a new sense of apprehension. An unscratched itch grew stronger in the back of Archamae’s mind. The sky called to her.
Major Thaw kept the squadron on task. Much like the Vaantic golems of mythology, the man acted as an automaton, performing his responsibilities without hesitation. He ran his charges as if they would be called to the fight at any time, despite the months of continuing doldrums. When someone quailed, he shouldered their burden for the day, setting an example the rest could not ignore. When he was not busy recording the repetitive happenings of the day, he kept his own aero tuned and free of sand, watched the sky with binoculars, and maintained a fastidious record. When the sun set, he attended to the needs of the men and women beneath him before his own.
But he would not let them fly. The refined odeum powder and fresh water that drove the propellers was in short supply, and should the enemy appear in the skies, it would be needed. With each day they waited, hurrying to purge the sand and salt from their aeros, hurrying to wait. Each day the major laid out the same, tired assurances. The resupply ship would return, and with it fuel, food, and relief. They were not forgotten. It was their task to watch the skies and wait, their sworn duty for the glory of the empire. So they did.
“You gonna tell me?”
“What?” Archamae pulled herself from the pilot’s well, tossing a frayed twine cable into the sand. “Tell you what?”
Painted atop the red canvas fuselage were three winged silhouettes. Glen touched each of them, twisting his mouth and peering at Archamae. “Half a year, you said. Half a year to get to ‘figure out who I am’ before you’d tell me about your victories. Well, by my reckoning, we’re nigh on six months together, and I’d say we’re smashing good mates, yeah?” Glen smiled, slapping the side of the aero again, vibrating with excitement. “C’mon!”
“I didn’t think you’d live this long,” Archamae said, somewhere between serious and joking.
“Stall, stall, stall some more. I ain’t going to let this one go, Arch, I ain’t.”
“Hells, that’s how I got one. Caught him in a stall.”
“What? No. Major says you’re the best, and you bagged a simply floater? C’mon,” Glen prodded, but Archamae had focused on the sky. He must have taken her furrowed brow as contemplative, as he coughed to try and hide a laugh. “Oh. Alright, then. What about the others? Rebels, yeah? Did you grease ’em solo or use a weave to-“
“Spin her up, Glen.”
Archamae snapped the lid of a toolbox closed and kicked it aside, an urgency creeping into her actions that had not been seen for months.
“Give it a minute, will ya? We’ll test the rotors I just need to-“
“Not that, we’re going up. C’mon!”
“We goin’ rogue? About time, I’d have flown out of here with you a month ago if you gave the word-“
But Archamae’s outstretched finger was fixated on the western horizon. Before Glen could trace her gaze, a bell rang. The men and women of the pursuit squadron stood, raising their eyes, searching not for the source of the sound, but for the cause of the alarm. Six months of waiting for that bell to call them to the sky. Six months of waiting to get into a fight that had left them behind. Six months of tension, boredom and anxiety slackened their response, kept them rooted in place when every second counted. Archamae did not freeze. She hoisted herself into the cockpit of her aero.
“Just some more skywhales,” Glen dismissed, waving at their stationary companions. Archamae ignored the uncertainty, priming the oderic pump to being cycling the fluid that would spin the propeller. The rear-seater gripped the rim of the cockpit. “Arch, hold up, wait for the major to-”
But it was the commander that came sprinting from the direction of the bell, tugging a leather flight cap onto his head. He twirled a finger in the air, silencing any doubt from Glen and the rest of the squadron.
“Spin up you bums! West by southwest,” the major shouted, tearing up sand as he sprinted for his own machine.
“Get in here, X!” Archamae barked, the burgeoning roar of the propeller drowning her words. The aero rocked as her rear-seater slipped into the cockpit, and Archamae wasted no time releasing the wheel brake. Her machine was the first of the squadron to move, bobbing forward on stiff struts to maneuver the short distance onto the crushed coral runway. As Archamae made the single turn, Glen’s hand gripped her shoulder and his voice filled her ear.
She shrugged, rapping a knuckle on a pressure gauge.
“Itibese? What type?”
She shrugged, twisting a valve and rapping the gauge again.
“Fighters? How many are there?”
She looked over her shoulder, hoping her eyes would silence the questions to which she did not have answers. Glen fell into his seat with wide eyes, his face ashen. The man had flown with Archamae countless times, but never into combat. But she did not have time to assuage his fears. The bell rang out, and she would follow Major Thaw up, she would rise to meet the enemy. This was the work that had called her to the lonely atoll. The pilot cinched her harness tight and snapped a pair of goggles over her eyes. Above the nose of her aero, the runway terminated at the shoreline, and beyond, the wild blue.
With a final concerted breath, Archamae felt the last vestiges of tension leave her body. The chop and thrum propeller whirling at their backs faded as Archamae melded with the machine, her hands relaxing over the controls, her feet settling on the propellers with a familiar caress. Easing the throttle forward, the aero responded to her touch, lurching forward into the oncoming wind, towards the ocean, towards the sky. As the movement pushed Archamae into her battered leather seat, a shiver ran through her body. The fine hair on her arms stood on end. Her vision sharpened. Time slowed down. Joy surged through her body and she was unable to stifle a manic grin.
The wheels carried them across the sand with reckless bounces, threatening to tip over. The crashing waves of the sea grew closer with each passing second, but the runway proved long enough for them to gain enough speed for the wings to take charge. The machine responded to each touch from Archamae with precision, turning with pressure on the rudder pedal, climbing as she nudged the stick back, and then accelerating as she tipped the nose down. As they cleared the coral breakwater, Archamae let loose a blissful shout, the primal outburst of a caged bird let free. She cheered not for a successful takeoff, not for an escape from boredom, and not for the chance at engaging the enemy. She sighed with relief to be again joined with the skies. To return to the home where she belonged.