In this short story based on events that occur after DARKEST HOUR, young pilot Briley Bannatyne is tasked with leading a section of biplanes on what’s supposed to be an observation patrol–but she, the enemy and the weather have other plans.
Somewhere off the coast of England.
There was a storm staring Briley Bannatyne down and no way around it.
She could tell by the impossibly high gray thunderhead coming right at her. The collision of cold and warm air currents, resembling the shape of a blacksmith’s anvil, shot the cloud formation to the pinnacle of the sky, flattening the crown as it reached the thinner layers of upper atmosphere. Leading a section of five British biplanes, Briley knew there was no chance they could fly higher than that shock of turbulent air. The storm bank was a wide as she could see, stretching for miles and dragging along a dreary chain of black clouds.
Working the controls of her Konqueror Kestrel, she checked the compass and altimeter gauges mounted to the cockpit’s wooden control panel. The aircraft was reliable, but outdated. Wing Commander Lumis, her superior officer, dictated that Kestrels would fly in sections of six to make up for their lack of speed and firepower. There was safety in numbers. Besides, Briley and the other five were attached to the 377th Observation Squadron. Squadron Leader Tanner had made it quite clear they were to observe, not directly engage, with the enemy.
Not according to Briley. Although she was only seventeen and barely at the cutoff for new pilots, she was an Air Corporal. That made her the lead pilot officer on this mission. Down on the ground, Tanner gave the orders. Up here, she made the decisions. Somewhere inside this briar patch of turbulent air and rain was a flock of deadly enemy bombers belonging to the Black Legion. Briley was determined to stop them before they reached their target.
Despite her fierce announcement to pursue the bombers, there was much less enthusiasm among some of the others flying with her.
“White Rabbit One. You’ve got to be joking,” a familiar voice came over the radio speaker cups of Briley’s leather flying cap. “We’re not flying into that, are we?”
That was the voice of Helena Duxton calling from her own Kestrel just off to the right of Briley’s wing.
Briley could almost imagine the disapproval on Helena’s face while she sat in the cockpit, her ebony features forming a distinct frown. Helena was her closest friend in the Air Militia. Briley and her family were machinists by trade. She was raised on a farming village some four hours by railway line south of the airbase that protected the all-important port of Sky City.
The Duxtons, Helena’s parents, were successful barristers within the legal profession; both were of the most-serious mind. They believed they had a strong influence on their daughter. At university, Helena planned on following in their footsteps in the law, but she fell in love with flying instead. So it could be suggested the young woman had a rebellious streak inside of her. A very tiny one. She still didn’t like taking unnecessary chances.
“White Rabbit Two, this is Rabbit One. I didn’t put the storm there,” Briley replied using the microphone embedded in her flying cap’s chin strap. “We have to go after them.”
“White Rabbit One. Squad Leader Tanner’s exact words were…”
“I know what he said,” Briley shot back before she could finish. “But they have no fighter cover. We can take them.”
“But he said…” Helena tried again.
“The longer we argue here, the greater the chance we’ll miss them,” Briley cut her off. “We’re going after those bombers.”
“By flying straight into a storm…” the girl’s voice pointed out the obvious.
The dark clouds lurching towards them must have been a dead giveaway, Briley reasoned.
“White Rabbit Two, this isn’t a committee. The Legion bombers are ahead of us by at least ten miles. All White Rabbits, form up and follow me.”
As soon as she released the transmit switch, she could overheard Helena grumble back.
“We’re going to get in trouble…again.”
This wasn’t the first time Briley had countermanded Squadron Leader Tanner. Their purpose was to look for and track enemy attackers—not engage. Time and time again they had been told their Kestrels were no match for the enemy’s fighters. But Briley knew that by the time an interceptor section could be summoned, the enemy bombers would drop their weapons on some poor family and get away. Briley wasn’t going to let that happen.
The Black Legion had conquered much of the European continent in a few short months. Now their sights were set on Britain. The enemy attacked the eastern coast of the country, its cities and industrial centers, every day and night. As pilots of the Royal Air Militia, Briley and her squadron mates raced into the sky to confront them wherever they appeared. Even if that meant flying through a knuckle-biting storm.
However, there was nothing pleasant about sitting inside an open cockpit barreling through weather like this. The only thing she and the other pilots could do was burrow deeper inside their leather flying jackets and jumpsuits, duck behind their planes’ windscreens and try not feel even more miserable than they already were.
The crosscurrents that bucked the Kestrel’s fabric-covered wings and torqued the fuselage forced Briley to pay attention. She checked behind her, watching the five other biplanes twist against the storm. Shockwaves of strong air surged through the plane and tried to yank the control stick from her hands.
A bolt of lightning streaked across the black clouds before them, followed by a colossal explosion of thunder louder than any cannon fire. The skies went totally gray, along with Helena Duxton’s mood.
“Did I mention there’d be lightning?” Helena’s voice warned over the radio, more condescending than usual.
Cold rain splattered the windscreen in front of Briley. Small drops turned into huge blotches the size of toads. Briley and her charges passed through a curtain of wet, plunging into the storm’s erratic air currents. Sprays of chilly rain started dribbling down the back of Briley’s seat. A cold dampness sent shivers down her shoulders.
“White Rabbits stick close to me,” Briley struggled with the controls and rudder pedals. The storm’s onslaught threatened to pick up her Kestrel and just push it aside. The only way Briley knew how they were going to get through this was to treat the storm like an enemy. She S-turned; pushing the control stick hard left to bank across the strong current, then shoving the stick hard over to the right. Her late grandfather, a fisherman, would laud her for “tacking against the wind,” a technique he used to guide his little sailboat forward against a strong head wind.
The technique was working and their little group of six were making headway. Briley felt some small comfort that the enemy bombers they were trying to intercept were suffering the same rotten weather as they were. Except they had enclosed cockpits.
They passed through a gap in the storm. Sneaking a glance over the side, Briley barely made out the ghostly outline of the English coast and the whitecaps slapping the North Sea. A stinging sheet of rain pelted her flying goggles and the leather cap that covered her head. She ducked back behind the relative safety of the Kestrel’s windscreen. Another check of the compass confirmed where they were. Grasping the control stick, she banked towards a massive cloud, drawing the rest behind her.
“White Rabbits, look for the enemy…”
No sooner did she speak when the skies were filled with massive wings, spinning propeller blades and the snarl of engines. Her calculations were maybe a little too precise. They didn’t need to search for the enemy bomber formation—they were right here.
Planes on both sides of the conflict reacted, rolling away from one another to avoid collision. Briley overheard shouts of warnings and dozens of colorful epithets screaming over the radio. She knew that most of those colorful epithets were meant for her.
“White Rabbit One,” Helena grimly remarked. “Enemy aircraft in sight.”
“Evade, evade!” Briley called out to the other planes, trying to make sense of the confusion. At least it was relatively easy to determine which aircraft belonged to a side. Their Kestrels were biplanes with two wings and an engine up front. The enemy’s medium bombers had twin engines built into a single large wing and a double rudder tail at the back. The pilot and bombardier sat behind a rounded nose made of armored glass. Gun ports studded the waist and a dome atop the airplane.
One bomber passed so close to Briley she could make out the surprised expression of the Legion crew gunner sitting in the top dome. He was wearing a beige flying jumpsuit, inflatable vest, pilot’s cap and an oxygen mask that covered much of his face. His eyes went wide in amazement. Before he could pivot his machinegun at her and fire, she snapped her plane’s control stick, kicked the rudder pedals and spun away.
Surprise on both sides of the war evaporated into terror and aggression. Gunfire erupted across the lightning-streaked skies. Shouts for help and cries of victory filled the radio speakers in Briley’s ears. A blossoming explosion illuminated a foggy swirl off to Briley’s side. It was impossible for her to tell whether it was a foe going down in flames or a friend in peril. This wasn’t a dogfight, but a rain-filled scrum for survival.
“White Rabbit One?” Helena’s voice frantically called out. “Briley, where the devil are you?”
Flying through a lightning-streaked cloud bank, Briley came across the dark spread-eagle of a bomber and gave chase. The plane vanished and reappeared as she flew blindly through sheets of rain. Wiping the condensation from her goggles with the back of a leather glove, she kept up the pursuit. She and the gunner in the enemy plane’s top dome exchanged bursts of machinegun fire, neither striking.
An updraft caught both planes, tossing them wildly out of control. The Kestrel nearly stalled out, its wings no longer generating enough lift to support it. Briley seized the control stick, the muscles in her shoulders straining, refusing to let the bomber escape. The bigger plane plummeted several hundred feet and rolled over on its back, exposing its vulnerable belly to her.
The bomber was no longer an aircraft filled with men, but an elusive metal bird she was hunting. Briley clenched the gun lever on the stick. The Vickers machineguns hummed, vibrating the plane’s airframe and the seat under her rump.
Shells struck the bomber’s underside, slicing through aluminum panels. The plane twisted and shuddered as though it was a living thing. Smoke and oil streaked from the deep wounds.
The enemy plane righted itself and Briley pulled up sharply, keeping behind the injured bomber. A dull orange glow came from the forward cockpit windows. The gunner in the dome turret fired back at her. She shoved the stick and the Kestrel rolled, struggling to avoid the puffs of smoke streaking past her. The two planes danced like this, rain and lightning filling an angry sky that was as dark as her heart.
Briley fired again and again, emptying the guns’ ammunition stores until the Vickers dry-clicked and stopped. The orange glow inside the bomber turned yellow hot and intense.
The bomber’s pilot put the plane into a long swooping dive. She followed the plane down, carving a path through tendrils of black storm. A hatch opened and several shapes fell away from the stricken bomber. They plummeted like sacks of grain until canopies of silk and cords fluttered over their heads. Parachutes.
“White Rabbit One…” Helena tried to rouse Briley from some stupor. “Get back! You’re too close!”
The dying Legion bomber blossomed into a violently-expanding flower of flame and smoke that slammed against Briley’s Kestrel. Almost blinded by the blast, her head bounced against the leather-wrapped side lip of the cockpit and dazed her. The world spun about in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors: prismatic whites, crystalline yellows and ruby reds.
She and the plane plummeted through the storm clouds, diving towards the green sea. Weak and stunned, Briley imagined letting go of the control stick. Gravity would solve all her problems. The world could care less about one young girl fluttering to the ground like a spinning seed from a maple tree.
“Remember, Briley. Don’t let go of the stick.”
She was twelve and learning to fly her father’s clunky old Jenny. Her brother was standing there right beside her. Mackinley had tied blocks of wood to her shoes so she could reach the rudder pedals. She was shaking in fear and anticipation, her body shivering in time to the airplane’s puttering little engine. Mackinley was encouraging her, guiding her through the controls one last time.
“Forget about the gauges. You have to feel the plane to fly it. It’ll tell you what’s wrong. If you feel what the plane is doing, you’ll always find the nicest part of the sky,” he shouted over the engine noise. “Don’t let go of the stick. Promise?”
“I promise,” she yelled back, halfway between nervous and excited.
“You let go of the stick and that’ll tell her you’re giving up,” he prodded her. “She needs your attention all the time.”
“I know, I know.” She was ready to prove to everyone she could do this. No one at their county school believed her when she said she was going to fly, just like her father and brother. “I said I promise, you pesky nit!”
“All right,” he put his hand on her shoulder. “She’s yours to fly.”
He started to climb down. She lunged for his hand. Mackinley had always been instructing her from the plane’s rear seat before, taking her up and letting her fiddle with the controls before taking them back.
“Aren’t you coming up with me?”
“Not this time,” he shook his head and smiled.
“Briley, even if I’m not in the other seat, I’m always going to be up there with you. You can do this, wee sister. Just point the plane where you want it to go. She’ll take you there.”
Mac jumped down off the wing and playfully saluted her.
“Don’t let go,” he mouthed the words.
He would always be there.
Helena was screaming inside her ear.
“Briley, pull up!”
A thought fluttered through Briley’s head, waking her from some groggy form of sleep.
Falling into despair was easy. Flying out of it was hard.
Briley pushed the engine’s throttle control as far as it would go without breaking the lever. The Kestrel’s peppy engine responded with an unsettled growl. She pressed the switches to drop the biplane’s landing gear and the landing flaps, forcing the aircraft to be less of a bullet and more like the graceful bird from which the plane was named for. Briley hauled back on the control stick with all her strength, her foot planted down on the right rudder pedal to counter the spin. The world stopped rotating about. The plane caught the air currents and finally righted itself.
Her body shaking from the effort, Briley settled for keeping a straight and level course. She saw a flicker of movement and Helena’s plane was beside hers once again. Several more Kestrels appeared from the storm’s bottom while the remainder of the Legion bomber force, scattered and in disarray, headed away from them. Briley quickly counted them. Together, they made six. They all made it.
“What were you thinking?” her friend begged. “Are you all right?”
Briley’s plane was in as poor shape as she was. The bomber’s explosion was very nearly the end of her. On the lower wing closest to the exploding bomber, some of the fabric skin had been ripped to shreds. Slender pieces of jagged metal shrapnel, flung outward like spears, had impaled the engine cover and the cockpit wall. The engine grunted and skipped; a sure sign that something internal was damaged.
Pressing against the sore lump growing on her temple with the back of her hand, Briley finally answered back. Hidden inside the damp cockpit, it was easy to lie.
She called out to the other planes, gathering them for the return to base as though nothing had happened.
“White Rabbit One to all White Rabbits. Let’s hop along back home.”
Copyright © 2016, Tony Russo. All rights reserved.