Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
THE FLIGHT OF THE GRYPHON
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
For the fifth time in as many minutes, Mavra compared the landscape below her to the map open on her knees and scowled.
Damned factory must be around here somewhere!
She rubbed tired eyes and stretched the ache from her shoulders as best she could in the cramped cockpit. It was late afternoon, and she had been airborne nearly 30 hours, with only two brief stops to refuel.
Though she had skirted occupied territory for as long as possible, getting to Cheltain meant crossing into it eventually. Dodging Vieden fighters and Ack-Ack had taken unceasing concentration, then thick fog had complicated the twenty-mile crossing. When she had finally sighted the famous white cliffs she had breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon, as it turned out. Twelve CAF fighters dived towards her, wary of this strange aircraft with its Arcadian markings trying to enter their airspace. Thinking it would be ironic if she had come this far only to be shot down by friendly fire, she was reaching for her radio, hoping Intelligence's gen on the frequency was accurate, when the leader waggled his wings and peeled off. His companions followed him, and the last she saw of them they were roaring southeast, in search of more appropriate prey.
She wasn't in the clear yet though. The fuel gauge was reading 'Empty'. She tapped it with a gloved knuckle; it wobbled then rose, but not by much. The next time it read 'Empty', she'd be flying on fumes.
I'd better find that factory soon.
The landscape unrolling below her was lush. Dense woodlands, meadows where livestock grazed, fields full of ripening crops, picturesque villages ... it couldn't be more different from her homeland. Cheltain's roads and railways hadn't been obliterated, and her farms, villages, and towns weren't piles of smoking rubble. Odd, for those ubiquitous church spires and towers must be a tempting target; perhaps Vieden bomber crews preferred to use them as landmarks. So far at least, the island kingdom's waters had protected her from the worst. She felt a twinge of envy that the Arcadian Republic had not been so fortunate.
Something flashed up ahead and Mavra came instantly alert. There it was again. Sunlight glinting off chrome, windshields, and propellers. She squinted. It was hard to be certain from this distance, but two fighter planes appeared to be attacking a third. Which was friend and which foe? She weighed her dwindling fuel reserves and the importance of completing her mission against the temptation to take a closer look.
The sun's behind me. It's worth a try.
Gaining height quickly, she levelled off and arrowed towards the three planes. As she drew closer, details became clearer. The attacking planes' cut-off wingtips were unmistakable. As were their bright yellow noses and black lightning-flash markings.
Vieden Sabres. She bared her teeth.
Their prey was the far less manoeuvrable Cheltish Nimbus. And for some reason it wasn't returning their fire. Instead it banked and weaved and hugged the land's contours, trying to shake off its pursuers. With limited success, if the bullet holes stitched in one wing were anything to go by. Mavra frowned. It must be fresh from the aircraft factory she was seeking, its pilot taking it elsewhere to have instruments and armaments fitted.
She's a sitting duck. So why haven't you finished her off? Decided to play cat and mouse to relieve the boredom? ... You're going to wish you hadn't.
Mavra flicked the gun button's catch from 'Safe' to 'Fire' and dived out of the sun. The engine noise increased to a scream and a draught whistled under the canopy as the nearest Sabre, still unsuspecting, grew larger in her sights. She clutched the stick with both hands, steadying the Gryphon as a hunter steadies his rifle, snuggled down and waited for the right moment.
Now. She thumbed the gun button.
For two seconds, machine gun bullets squirted towards her target, then she was pulling away into a steep climb, the smell of cordite acrid in her nostrils. A quick glance in the rear view mirror showed tongues of orange flame licking along the Sabre's fuselage. Oily black smoke plumed and it began to plummet. Its canopy stayed closed; either it was jammed or its pilot was already dead.
As it spun into the ground, Mavra craned her neck round, searching for the other Sabre. Where is ... Ah.
That roll would bring him out behind her. A slower plane flown by a lesser pilot might have been in trouble, but Mavra was a veteran. What's more her Gryphon was the fastest thing in the sky.
She sideslipped then went into the manoeuvre that had been named after her. The half-loop followed by a half-roll was perfectly executed, if she said so herself. It brought her out behind the startled Sabre pilot, slightly to his left. With a kick on the rudder, she corrected, got him in her sights, and let him have it.
A jet of flame shot upwards and the Sabre exploded. The whoomph was audible even above the engine roar. Lethal shards of metal and glass shot past the Gryphon's cockpit and she hauled back on the stick, climbing out of harm's way, then circled to assess her handiwork.
Below her, figures were running across the fields towards the smoking crater and charred wreckage of the first Sabre. They were farmworkers, by the look of them, though some clutched rifles. A woman in brown overalls that emphasised broad hips stopped and pointed up at her, mouth open.
Probably never seen an Arcadian plane before.
The presence of an audience was irresistible, and Mavra did a victory roll and waggled her wings before remembering how low on fuel she was.
Leaving the farmworkers to their gruesome task, she set off after the Nimbus, which didn't take long. It kept drifting to the left, forcing the pilot to correct. Mavra drew up alongside and turned to look at the helmeted head just visible inside the bullet-starred cockpit. A gloved hand waved at her, then gave the thumbs-up that in Cheltish means things are all right.
If you say so.
The other pilot would know the way to the elusive factory. Mavra reached for her radio, then paused. If the Nimbus had no guns or instruments, it was unlikely to have a radio.
The fuel gauge caught her eye again and she sighed. This time it didn't budge from 'Empty' when she tapped it. Fumes it is, then.
With a wave to the other pilot, she banked, arcing round onto a heading that would retrace the Nimbus's path. It was a huge assumption, both that the plane had come straight from the factory and that Mavra had calculated its course correctly, but what choice did she have?
I could land and ask for fuel and directions. But that would be embarrassing. And it would waste yet more time.
As it turned out, Mavra didn't need to ask for help. Within two minutes she had come upon a lorry and its work crew filling in bomb craters. The aircraft factory might be camouflaged, but the trail of damage left by last night's air raid wasn't. All she had to do was follow it home.
Mavra taxied to a halt on the concrete apron that connected the runway to the factory, and switched off the engine. After the continuous din, the silence was deafening. She slid back the canopy and saw an overall-clad work crew hurrying towards the Gryphon.
Throwing her kitbag out first, she eased herself free of the tight cockpit then jumped down. Her legs were wobbly from disuse and she steadied herself against the undercarriage while circulation returned. Then she removed her helmet and shook out her hair, and with relief unstrapped the heavy parachute — the straps had been cutting into her shoulders and thighs. She arched her back and pressed a fist into it to ease the ache.
"What are you lot gawping at?" yelled the gaffer at his distracted men. Probably surprised to see that Arcadians don't have two heads. "Get that aircraft under cover at the double."
"We've been expecting you." The new voice made her turn.
A genial-looking man of about her height was smiling at her from behind his handlebar moustache. His crisp, dark blue uniform put her travel-stained flying suit to shame. "Good flight?" he asked.
"OK." She hoped her accent wasn't as bad as she suspected. Understanding Cheltish was one thing, speaking it another.
"We were worried about you. A couple of Vieden fighters got past the CAF."
She shrugged. "No longer problem."
He studied her then smiled. "Took care of them, did you? Good for you."
The workers were manhandling the Gryphon not into the hangars, as she had expected, but rather down a ramp into what looked like a reinforced bunker. He followed the direction of her gaze.
"Special treatment. She's why we're both here, after all. I'm Commander Harry Green, by the way. Ministry of Aircraft Production." He held out his hand.
She shook it. "Senior Lieutenant Mavra Vlasik of the 63rd Fighter Regiment."
"The creator of the Vlasik Turn?" His eyes widened. "It's an honour to meet you."
A yawn took her unawares, and his admiration changed to concern. "You've been flying since what ... early yesterday?"
She nodded. "Is somewhere to sleep?"
"Not at the factory, no. Men only, I'm afraid. We've arranged a billet for you at the Ferry Pool. It's a mile down the road."
Mavra's eyebrows shot up. "In pool?"
"Not a real pool, Lieutenant." He laughed and stroked his moustache — a habitual gesture, she suspected. "The ATA are based there." He saw her incomprehension. "Air Transport Auxiliary. They ferry our planes to maintenance units and airfields"
"Ah." Civilians in uniform. She stifled another yawn. If she didn't lie down soon she would fall down.
"Accommodation is pretty basic, I'm afraid."
"Floor would do."
"Oh, it's much better than that." He turned to a curly-haired corporal who had been lurking nearby. "Will you show the Lieutenant where she can catch the shuttle bus to the Ferry Pool, Perkins?"
The Corporal saluted. "Sir, very good, Sir."
"And when you're rested," continued Green, turning back to Mavra, "we'd like to debrief you. Our boffins are sure to have lots of questions about the Gryphon."
That jogged her memory, and she reached her hand inside her flying suit to an inner pocket. "These are ..." Her brain was too fogged to come up with the words so she held out the papers the Gryphon's designers had entrusted to her.
He riffled through the creased sheets, covered with diagrams and specifications, and gave a delighted smile. "Splendid! These'll make life a lot easier."
"Good. ... Now. I sleep for few hours?"
"Take as much time as you need, Lieutenant. With these," he waved the precious documents, "we have more than enough to get started. In fact," he thought for a moment, "why don't you come back tomorrow at noon? That should be early enough, and it will give you time to get some shut-eye and stretch your legs."
"Noon. OK." She suppressed another yawn, grabbed her kitbag with one hand and her parachute with the other, then looked at the waiting Corporal. "This shuttle bus. Is which way?"
He snapped to attention. "Follow me, Lieutenant."
Something roused Mavra from sleep. Voices. She cracked open an eyelid and saw light spilling through the slightly open door. Thought I closed it.
"But I can't possibly share with her, ma'am!" hissed someone. The whisper was coming from the corridor.
"Why on earth not?"
"Jack would have a fit. He thinks all Arcadians are degenerates."
"For Pete's sake! They're our Allies. Anyway, the fact that your fiancé has been taken in by Vieden propaganda is neither here nor there, Brooke. I had to put Vlasik somewhere and you've got a spare bed. ... Besides, it's only for two days."
"Davies has a spare bed —"
"This woman risked her life to bring us their new wonder plane. The least you can do is put up with a little inconvenience for a couple of days."
"Which brings me to my next point," continued the second voice. "I'm putting you in charge of Vlasik."
"What? But tomorrow I'm down to deliver five planes —"
"Not now, you're not. I've taken you off ferrying while she's here."
"Are you saying I'm not up to the job, ma'am?" The whisper was indignant.
"Of course not. ... But I'd have thought after today's taxi snafu you'd be only too glad of a break."
"A break? You call babysitting —"
"Enough, Number One!" The warning note was clear. "That's an order not a request. End of discussion. Clear?"
"Now, for God's sake, get some sleep. You look worn out!"
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am."
Footsteps departed down the corridor, and seconds later the door creaked open and someone tiptoed into the room. Considerately, she didn't switch on the light and closed the door as quietly as she could. Mavra listened to the rustle of movement that must be the woman undressing, then closed her eyes and let sleep overtake her once more.
Sunlight streamed through the window. She's raised the blackout curtain. But there was no sign of the room's other occupant, though her bed had obviously been slept in.
Mavra studied her surroundings: two beds, two chairs, two small chests of drawers (for clothes, presumably), and two bedside tables had been crammed into the tiny room, whose flaking walls were the same dirty beige as the corridor. She yawned and stretched, recalling a vivid dream of air raid sirens and bombs falling.
Swinging her legs out of bed, she ambled barefoot over to the window. The sandbags stacked to either side of it restricted the unexpected view: a field in which cattle grazed. She blinked at the animals, scratched an itch on her arm, then checked the weather and cloud cover before remembering she wouldn't be flying today.
On her roommate's bedside table lay several personal items: a leather bound Bible, some hairgrips, and a silver photograph frame out of which smiled a wellgroomed, handsome young couple. Their clothes were expensive, their teeth good. The woman's haircolour matched the fair strands tangled in the hairbrush. Is that Brooke? Mavra would find out soon enough.
A little wash basin was bolted to one wall, with a foxed mirror above it. The taps dispensed water so clear it was probably drinkable, and when was the last time she had seen running hot water? She washed quickly and dried herself on a towel, ignored the flying suit and the woollen jersey, shirt, and trousers that she had worn under it (I must get those laundered.), and reached for her kitbag.
Her pistol was lying on top of the dress browns her regimental commander had ordered her to bring (she was representing Arcadia after all). She set it aside and pulled out the uniform that had seen better days. On went her shirt and tie, then the wraparound skirt and belt. She stamped her feet into her boots, eased the single-breasted jacket over her broad shoulders and buttoned it. Finally, she combed her hair, gave her reflection a last rueful glance — brown really wasn't her colour — then set off in search of a toilet, which proved to be at the end of the corridor. After relieving herself, the aroma of bacon and coffee tempted her, stomach rumbling, to go in search of breakfast.
A sign said 'Mess'. Odd word for the dining room. Pushing open the door, she found herself in a smoke-filled anteroom where several women and a man with one arm, in uniforms of varying shades of blue, were joshing one another and helping themselves to tea and coffee from two urns. She gave them a curt nod that they were too surprised to return, then strode past them towards the canteen entrance.
Someone blocked her way: a pimply youth, a head shorter than she was, wearing the blue uniform that seemed to be ubiquitous. He froze at the sight of her, eyes bulging. She wondered whether to be flattered or insulted.
"I help you?"
"Sorry!" He flushed and stepped aside at once.
As she entered the canteen, the buzz of conversation died. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. The majority of those eating at the rectangular tables were women, but there was a sprinkling of men.
A fair-haired young woman at the table by the window half rose to her feet then sat down again. Her dark blue jacket had gold bars on its shoulders and sported an insignia: a circlet enclosing the letters ATA and a set of wings. Must be a ferry pilot. The face seemed familiar and Mavra remembered the photo of the smiling couple. Her nod startled the pilot, who blushed and resumed eating.
Mavra headed for the counter at the far end of the canteen and joined the queue. She imitated those ahead of her and grabbed a tray. The buzz of conversation resumed, but from the frequent glances in her direction she suspected that she was now its subject.
The apron-clad serving woman behind the counter gave Mavra an impatient look. She pointed at a tin full of something lumpy and yellow. The woman nodded and placed a dollop of it on a plate.
Again Mavra pointed.
By the time she had reached the end of the counter, her plate was full and her mouth watering. She added cutlery to her tray, then carried it to where the pilot was finishing her toast.
"You are Brooke, yes?"
Green eyes widened. "That's right. First Officer Gwen Brooke. How did you know?"
Mavra shrugged and smiled. "I sit with you?"
"Of course. I'm sorry you had to find your own way here, Lieutenant. You were sleeping so soundly that ... well, I was going to come and fetch you after I'd finished my own breakfast."
"Is OK. ... Please, call me Mavra." She sat down, picked up her fork, and transferred some of the yellow glop onto a piece of fried bread.
"Mavra? What an unusual name. ... You had better call me Gwen then."
"In my country Gwen unusual name." She took a bite, chewed, then let out a contented grunt.
"You don't actually like that muck, do you?"
Gwen pointed. "Powdered eggs. Tastes nothing like the real thing."
Mavra shrugged. "Is not cabbage." She took another mouthful then paused midchew as a redhaired pilot scrambled into the empty seat opposite her.
"You're the Arcadian combat pilot, aren't you? Everyone's talking about you."
"Joan, can't you see she's eating?"
The redhead waved Gwen's protests aside. Mavra resumed chewing and nodded.
"And that's some kind of special award, isn't it?" Joan was pointing at the Order of the Green Banner pinned above Mavra's breast pocket — the Co-Presidents themselves had given her that.
Again she nodded.
"All those triangles on your epaulettes ... What rank are you?"
"Senior Lieutenant Mavra Vlasik." Mavra transferred her fork and held out a hand. "How do?" That didn't sound quite right. She frowned and went over it in her head. How do you? How you do?
"Did you say Vlasik?" Joan appeared too awe-struck to notice the hand, so Mavra took it back and forked up more of her breakfast. "How many kills is it now? 70? 80?"
Mavra wasn't sure of the exact number. "93?" she hazarded. Gwen's eyes widened at the number.
"What is it like?" breathed Joan.
"Shooting down the enemy."
Was there a word to describe the satisfaction she got whenever she shot down the bastards who had tried to obliterate her country, her home, her family ... "Good," she said finally. It was inadequate but it would do. "Feels good.
Joan had opened her mouth to ask another question when she caught sight of her wristwatch and gave a little shriek. "Oh Lord! I'll miss the shuttle bus if I don't get a move on." She shoved back her chair and stood up. "See you later. Nice to meet you, Mavra."
Mavra nodded, watched Joan hurry from the Mess, then turned back to her breakfast. Gwen watched her from under lowered eyelashes as she piled baked beans on a slice of fried bread. Mavra wondered what she was thinking.
"I owe you a thank you," said Gwen.
"For saving my life."
Mavra pointed her fork at herself and raised an eyebrow.
"Unless there's another Arcadian pilot in Cheltain."
"No other." Ah. "The Nimbus under attack by Sabres ....You were pilot?"
Gwen nodded. "So ... thank you."
"Not so quick to thank. I owe you a ... a sorry. Is that right word?"
"An apology?" Gwen looked surprised. "Why?"
"Fighters waiting for me not you."
"Oh. ... I thought it was unusual to find just two of them lurking like that."
Mavra studied the other woman. There were shadows under the green eyes. She wouldn't be surprised if, head filled with her fiancé's bigotry, Gwen had spent all night worrying that Mavra was going to leap on her. Given the right circumstances, she wouldn't have minded doing just that — Gwen filled out her uniform in all the right places and (Mavra sneaked a glance under the table) her dark blue skirt revealed a pair of shapely calves — but she had been exhausted and anyway she liked her sexual partners not only willing but enthusiastic
"You sleep bad?"
Gwen gaped at her. "Don't tell me it didn't disturb you too? They bombed the factory again last night."
"There was air raid?"
The other woman rolled her eyes then chuckled. "I wish I could sleep that soundly." She pushed her plate aside. "Finish your breakfast. Then we'll get a cup of tea or coffee and you can have a gasper."
"Don't you smoke?"
"Me neither. Filthy habit, isn't it? And after that ... Well, it's up to you, really. What would you like to do this morning? ... I've been detailed to look after you while you're here," added Gwen belatedly.
Mavra remembered the whispered conversation from last night. Apparently the ATA pilot had decided to make the best of things. Good girl. " I must be at factory by noon," she said. "Before that I'm told to," she tried to remember the phrase, "lengthen legs?"
"Stretch." Gwen smiled. "I'll get hold of a couple of bikes and we can go for a ride. The countryside is pretty at this time of year and," she glanced out the window, "it's a lovely morning."
"OK." Mavra put down her knife and fork and gave her belly a contented pat. For the first time in ages she felt pleasantly full.
Gwen glanced at the now spotless plate and grinned. "And later we can stop for a cup of tea and a bun."
The sun was warm on Mavra's back as she cycled up the narrow lane behind Gwen, whose shapely backside was proving a distraction from the picturesque countryside. Birds twittered in hedgerows and crickets chirred in flower-dotted banks. It was hard to remember there was a war on, though the occasional bomb crater, vapour trails on the horizon, and Cheltish fighters buzzing overhead provided timely reminders.
A church steeple loomed up ahead and Gwen looked back over her shoulder. "We'll stop at the village for a breather," she called.
Mavra gave her a thumbs up — her calf muscles were aching from the unaccustomed exercise and she would welcome the break.
The village comprised a green given over to vegetables; assorted cottages and houses (some cradled in scaffolding, while bomb damage was being repaired); a church with an imposing spire; a pub named the Old Bell; a post office-cum-shop that was doing a brisk trade in postage stamps; and a tea-room known as The Bay Tree.
With a screech of unoiled brakes, Gwen dismounted and propped her bike against a hedge. Mavra followed suit.
"You don't have churches in the Republic, do you?" asked Gwen, tucking an unruly strand of fair hair back under her forage cap.
"No." And if we did, they'd be a pile of rubble now. Like everything else.
Gwen headed up the sandy path towards the church entrance, lifted the latch, and pushed open the heavy door. Inside she genuflected then turned to look back at Mavra, who was waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. Mavra was glad of her jacket; it was much cooler inside than out.
"Is it true Arcadians don't believe in God?" Gwen's voice had dropped to a reverent whisper.
"Is true." She rubbed her nose. The smell of mould, polish, and candlewax was threatening to trigger a sneeze.
Gwen frowned. "Don't your people believe in anything?"
Mavra considered. "Some did, I think. ... Before invasion." She wondered if anyone outside the Republic realised the extent of the devastation, the fear and desperation that gripped her people as they struggled every day not to go under. If such a thing happened to them, perhaps they too would no longer believe. She shrugged. "Now believe only in one another."
She looked at the stone font, the carved oak panelling, the mouldering tapestries, then turned her attention to the stained glass window at one end of the church. What were the bold, primary colours meant to represent? Was that a whale? And who was that bearded ancient in the long robes? A jagged crack down the window's centre showed that, despite initial appearances, the church hadn't escaped the War entirely.
"But is that enough?" persisted Gwen.
Mavra had lost track of the conversation. "Enough?"
"Belief in one another. At times like these, don't we all need someone ... something ... greater than us to believe in?"
Mavra pursed her lips. Believing in God doesn't make her exist. "Viedens believe in higher power," she said instead.
"They worship a war god!" Gwen's cheeks went rosy with indignation. "Surely you're not comparing us to them?"
Gwen made a conscious effort to calm down. "No, I'm sorry. It's my fault for bringing up religion. I think we'd better agree to disagree, don't you?"
Mavra unravelled that sentence. "OK."
Her companion glanced at their surroundings then back at Mavra. "You're not really interested in this gloomy old place or its history, are you?"
"You're such a liar!" Gwen grinned to remove the sting from her words. "Now, how about that tea and bun I promised you?"
Mavra smiled. "Better," she agreed.
Mavra prodded the knobbly-looking object on her plate with her forefinger.
"It's a rock bun," said Gwen. "Tastes much better than it looks. Try it."
She did. "Good," she mumbled, round what seemed to be currants. Gwen smiled and took a bite of her bun.
They were sitting at a corner table in the Bay Tree. A shocked silence had met the Arcadian's entrance, and some of the tea-room's customers had made loudly indignant exits. The teashop owner, a motherly woman with kind eyes and chapped hands, had welcomed her with a smile, however, and the remaining customers were contenting themselves with surreptitious glances.
Full marks to Gwen. She must mind being seen in my company, but she holds her head high, juts her pretty chin, and carries on regardless.
Gwen became aware of her scrutiny. "What?
Mavra smiled. "Nothing. ... So ... You like ferrying?"
"Most of the time. Though Joan says ATA stands for Always Terrified Airwomen." She chuckled.
"And airmen," added Mavra, remembering the men in the canteen
"We're a women-only pool," corrected Gwen. "The men you've seen around the place are ground staff and ATC cadets."
"Why some missing arm or leg?"
"Oh that's easy. The CAF gets first pick of the able-bodied ones. As for the rest ... some can still fly. They ferry with the other pools, though, or fly taxis."
"How else do you think we get back here once we've delivered a plane?"
Mavra took another bite of bun and thought while she chewed. "You flew planes before War started?"
"All of us did. We have to have A licences and several hundred hours in our log books before the ATA will take us on." She leaned forward, green eyes alight. "Ferrying is harder than it looks, you see. We have to be able to fly any aircraft we're given, based on a single test flight and an instruction manual. Single engine or twin; fighters or bombers.... I've flown Nimbuses and Bomfires on just a compass and gyro." She sat back, looking pleased with herself. "There's always a new challenge."
Mavra hadn't considered ferrying from that angle before. Her estimation of the other woman shot up. "Is waste you not allowed fly combat."
Gwen shrugged. "Joan would probably agree with you, but I don't mind, really. Besides, I don't think I could actually kill anyone. Jack says I couldn't, anyway."
"Jack is fiancé?"
Gwen blinked at her. "That's right."
"Set date for wedding yet?"
"You love him, yes?"
Gwen's cheeks pinked. "We grew up together," she said. "Our families have known each other for ages."
Which doesn't answer the question. Or perhaps it does. Gwen shifted under her gaze. "Jack is wrong," said Mavra.
Gwen looked alarmed. Did she suspect Mavra of eavesdropping on last night's whispered conversation? "About what?"
Wrong for you. "Anyone can kill," she said aloud, "given good enough reason."
A memory rose. Lilya, choking on her own blood, her face grey with pain, eyes full of shock and disbelief... Mavra pushed it away, as she always did, and took a gulp of her tea.
"Perhaps we can." Gwen didn't look convinced. "Anyway, delivering planes is enough for me."
Mavra replaced her teacup in its saucer with a clink. "Soon you will be ferrying Gryphons."
"Is that the plane you were flying yesterday?"
"Strange wing shape. She looks fast. Does she handle easily?"
"At first, too easy maybe. But after while you feel," Mavra searched for the words, "like wings sprout from own shoulders."
She shrugged. "You see yourself soon."
They talked for a while longer about flying. Mavra had first climbed into a cockpit when she was 14, and so, it turned out, had Gwen. Then she remembered her appointment at the factory, and checked her watch.
"There's plenty of time." Gwen had followed her glance. "I know a short cut back. ... Oh, while I remember. There's a dance tonight. At the Ferry Pool — Jack is taking me. Would you like to go?" She looked apologetic." I'm afraid there's not much else to do in the evenings ... unless you like playing darts in the bar."
Dances here were probably not like those at home, but Mavra loved dancing. "Dancing is good," she said.
Gwen gave a satisfied nod. "That's settled then."
"It says in your specifications," said a bespectacled little man with pockmarked cheeks, "that the Gryphon's maximum speed is 430 miles per hour. That can't be right! Even the Vieden Sabre can only manage 407, and that's the fastest thing in the sky."
"Was fastest," contradicted Mavra. "Gryphon fastest now. Have flown at 430 myself."
The men seated around the table, all except Harry Green, exchanged sceptical glances. "With respect, Lieutenant. Perhaps your air speed indicator was inaccurate?" suggested one with shaggy hair and 5-o'clock shadow. There was little respect in his tone.
From the start Green's boffins had gone out of their way to denigrate the Gryphon. They seemed incapable of believing that Arcadians, of all people, could come up with a better design. Anyone would think they didn't want to gain advantage of the skies. She ground her teeth. I could be cycling with Gwen in the sunshine instead of cooped up in this dingy, smoke-filled office with these idiots.
The pilot had said she would be catching up on chores like laundry and letter-writing this afternoon; she would probably welcome the distraction. But even as Mavra thought wistfully of Gwen, she knew she wouldn't give up on her mission just yet. She owed it to her countrymen.
She glared at her tormentors. "Weight much lighter. Engine has more horse power. Also shape much more streamlined than Sabre. See?" She stabbed the diagram spread out on the table with her index finger. "Here, here ... and here. Result: faster than Sabre ... or any Cheltish plane." It couldn't hurt to remind them of their inadequacies. "Do own tests if not believe." She brought her hand down on the table, the loud slap making them jump.
"We certainly intend to —" began 5-O'clock Shadow.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen." The scrape of Green's chair as he stood up brought instant silence. "This won't do. It really won't. The Lieutenant took a huge risk getting both her plane and her specifications to us, so let's not waste a valuable opportunity by creating obstacles where none exist." He threw her an apologetic glance. "After all, there's little to be gained from doubting her word or that of the Gryphon's designers but a lot, and I stress a lot, to be lost."
Expressions around the table became sheepish, sullen or obstinate. Like scolded children.
"When the first Gryphon rolls off the production line," continued Green, stroking his moustache," we will of course expect you to conduct tests. The question of maximum speed can be resolved then. We do have concrete evidence, however, that Vieden fighter losses over Arcadia have increased significantly since the Gryphon's introduction. Which speaks for itself, wouldn't you say?"
That observation got him a few grudging grunts of agreement.
"In the meantime ... The Lieutenant's time here is limited and we must take full advantage of it. If the Gryphon's specs are unclear, ask her if she can clarify them. Those of you writing the pilot notes, take advantage of her expertise. ... Ask your questions now, gentlemen, don't leave them until it's too late. All right?" He sat down, and for a long moment no one spoke.
"Point taken," said Pockmark, pushing his glasses up his nose and training his short-sighted gaze on her. "In that case, Lieutenant, I have a question..."
Mavra sighed and wished it was time for the dance.
Mavra stopped just inside the canteen door. The room had undergone a transformation since supper. Someone had strung bunting from the light fittings, and the chairs and tables had been stacked to one side, revealing quite a decent-sized dance floor. On the polished linoleum, uniformed couples were dancing to big band music. In several cases, the partners were both women — the presence of male guests had not altered the ratio of men to women by much. She looked round for the source of the music and saw a record player perched on the food counter.
"I forgot to ask," said Gwen, beside her. "Are you familiar with Cheltish dances?"
Mavra was watching the dancers' feet; the steps to this particular number looked complicated. She shrugged. "I pick up steps quick."
"Hello." They turned to find Joan beaming at them. "Isn't this the bee's knees?" She gestured at the bunting then turned back to Gwen. "Where's Jack?"
"Typical! He'll probably turn up squiffy too, the stinker," murmured the redhead. Gwen frowned.
"May I have the pleasure of this dance," came a male voice.
Mavra glanced round. It was the pimply young cadet who had blocked her path at breakfast. He hadn't grown any taller during the day, and Gwen and Joan exchanged an amused glance. Mavra ignored them. A dancing partner is a dancing partner.
"OK. But watch toes," she warned him. His ear tips went pink with pleasure. "I not know steps yet."
"It will be an honour to teach you," he said gallantly, spoiling the effect by adding, "Besides, these shoes have reinforced toes."
Mavra hadn't been lying when she said she was a quick study. She only stamped on the cadet's feet twice (he winced but soldiered on), and by the dance's end, heads were turning to watch her, and not just because she was the only Arcadian in the room. When the cadet, whose name was Archie, bowed and walked away, he was floating six inches off the ground. After that, Mavra didn't lack for dancing partners.
Gwen and Joan had stood watching from the sidelines, until a man asked Joan to dance and she accepted. Gwen too had her chances, but she declined them all. Mavra thought it a waste.
"Still no Jack?" Mavra was taking a breather after a vigorous number that had left her partner wheezing and red in the face.
"No," said Gwen. "I don't know what's keeping him."
"Unexpected mission?" He was a flier with the CAF, apparently.
The ATA pilot shook her head. "He's got a 24-hour pass. More likely he's popped in for a quick one with the chaps and lost track of the time."
"You know. A pint. Of beer."
"Oh." Standing up his fiancé in the process? The skunk.
"At least you're enjoying yourself." Gwen gave Mavra an envious glance. "You dance really well." She seemed surprised, and Mavra wondered what the Cheltish thought Arcadians usually did for entertainment.
"There are plenty who would dance with you," she said, gesturing towards the dance floor.
"Jack wouldn't like it."
"Bugger Jack!" Green eyes widened, and Mavra wondered if she had used the word wrong. "Is not right expression?"
"Well, it is but ..." Gwen's lips twitched.
"Has no right to spoil your fun," continued Mavra. "Dance with someone else." She gestured again. "Or with me."
Gwen blinked at her. "You?"
"Why not?" She pointed at the same sex couples. If every woman had to wait for a man to ask her to dance, she could wait forever.
"I don't know."
"I am good dancer, yes?"
"Well, yes. ... But you would have to lead."
"OK. I lead. Must not be too difficult." Mavra held out her hand. "Come." She was not going to take no for an answer. After a moment, Gwen sighed and let her lead her out onto the dance floor.
Things were a little stiff at first, but eased once they had sorted out whose hand went where and grown accustomed to being at such close quarters. A sweet, floral scent clung to the other woman; Mavra decided she liked it. And once she had proved that she could indeed lead without crushing toes, she felt Gwen relax in her arms.
A Quickstep followed a Waltz, which followed a Foxtrot, which followed something called the Dashing White Sergeant. After each ended, fresh partners tried to cut in. The first man wanted to dance with Gwen, but Mavra ungallantly refused to give way.
"Her fiancé not like it," she said, though she didn't give a fig about Jack's feelings. There was nothing she liked better than dancing with a pretty girl (except perhaps making love to that pretty girl) and she was damned if she was going to give way just when she was having fun.
When the next man turned out to want Mavra for his partner, it was Gwen who surprised her. Eyes twinkling, imitating Mavra's broken Cheltish, she said, "Her fiancé not like it." Crestfallen, the would-be dancing partner departed.
"I don't suppose he would, would he?" remarked Gwen with a smile, as they set off across the dance floor once more.
Mavra twirled her around and reversed direction, neatly avoiding a collision with another couple. "She," she corrected, accepting the male dancer's apology with a nod.
Gwen's steps faltered. "You're engaged to a ... a woman?"
"Was." Mavra gave her partner an assessing glance. "Name was Lilya. Dead now."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
She fully expected Gwen to tear herself free and march off the dance floor. But Gwen kept on dancing, and after a moment picked up the pace again.
"Is problem for you?" asked Mavra.
"I'm not sure." Gwen's eyes flicked to her face then away again. "I've ... well, I've never met anyone 'that way inclined' before."
Mavra smiled. "Just not know it maybe."
"Things aren't like that in Cheltain."
"Ah. Happen only in 'uncivilised' country, eh?"
Gwen's cheeks pinked. "I didn't say you were 'uncivilised', Mavra."
"Just think it, maybe." Mavra didn't know why she was needling the pilot, except that suddenly it was important to her that Gwen should think well of her.
The music ended and they dropped their arms and stepped back, staring uncertainly at one another. "Perhaps we should sit the next one out," suggested Gwen after an awkward pause.
A commotion in the doorway and murmurs of indignation and alarm made Mavra turn. A tall, fair-haired man in CAF uniform was pushing his way through the couples on the dance floor. She recognised him at once from Gwen's photograph. But this time Jack's handsome features were marred by flushed cheeks and a ferocious scowl; he was obviously drunk and in a bad mood.
He stopped in his tracks when he saw Mavra's brown uniform, then lowered his head like a bull charging. "Arcadian scum!" He lurched towards them.
"Jack!" Gwen took an involuntary step backwards, and Mavra placed herself between her and her fiancé.
It was obvious there was going to be trouble, and several of the onlookers, including Archie, tried to intervene. Jack was having none of it, though. He swore at those trying to calm him, and thrust them aside, then lumbered towards Mavra, halting only when she stiff-armed in the chest.
"If you've laid so much as a finger on her —" he bellowed, spittle spraying from his lips.
What on earth does she see in him? "Stop shaming Gwen in front of friends," she hissed, then ducked back as a fist lashed out, grazing her cheek.
"Stop it, Jack. You're making a fool of yourself." Gwen stepped round Mavra and laid her hand on her fiancé's wrist. "Let's go outside and cool off."
He shook her off. "Stay out of this, Gwen." There was a mean look in his bloodshot eyes. "This ... degenerate needs to be taught a lesson."
He took another swing. Mavra seized his wrist, twisted it and used his own momentum against him. She turned him round and forced his arm up behind his back. He cried out and bent forward to ease the pain.
"I say, steady on!" said someone. "You'll break his arm."
Mavra ignored him. "Listen, you." She pressed her lips to Jack's ear. "Want be cripple for rest of life? Make Gwen shudder every time she look at you. Hmm?" She wrenched his wrist higher still between his shoulder blades and he gasped. "Because this 'degenerate' can do that. Will do that if you not back off. Understand?"
His eyes met hers, and what he saw there leached the colour from his cheeks. "I understand. P ... Please. You're hurting me."
"Let him go, Mavra." She glanced round into anxious green eyes. "It's just the beer talking," said Gwen.
Mavra shook her head. "Beer reveal true nature." Gwen opened her mouth to protest then closed it again and simply looked at her in dismay.
Just then, the crowd parted to let through two MPs. "What's all this kerfuffle?" said the first, giving Mavra a frosty look.
"Drunk causing trouble," she said. Several onlookers nodded and voiced their agreement, and the MPs' demeanour towards her thawed perceptibly.
"Is that so?"
"Is so." Mavra shoved Jack at them, releasing her grip at the last minute so he stumbled and almost fell into them.
The MPs gripped him by his biceps. "Looks like you've got some sobering up to do. Come on."
As they frog-marched a subdued Jack out of the canteen, someone signalled to the woman in charge of the record player, and seconds later big band music was blaring out once more. But neither Mavra nor Gwen were in the mood for dancing.
"OK?" Mavra asked. A weak shrug was her only answer. "Not your fault," she consoled, but it seemed to make no difference. "Call it a night then? Long flight tomorrow."
Gwen looked if possible even more downcast. "You're going back to Arcadia tomorrow?"
Mavra nodded. "Factory has all it needs. Mission over." Back to cabbage.
"The perfect end to the perfect day."
"Nothing." Gwen turned and trudged towards the exit. "OK. Let's call it a night."
The sound of sirens and distant explosions woke Mavra. She sat up and looked around the little room, making out a darker silhouette by the window that must be Gwen peering round the blackout curtain.
"Air raid?" she asked.
"The factory's getting it in the neck again," came Gwen's disembodied voice. "It sounds much heavier tonight."
Mavra got out of bed and went to join her. "Probably is." She peered over Gwen's shoulder and saw irregular flashes of light to the west. "Viedens miss boat. Designs for Gryphon already go to other factories." Gwen turned her head, and Mavra saw the shine of her eyes in the starlight.
"Will they really make any difference?"
"Small, perhaps." Mavra shrugged. "But even small difference can tip balance, save lives."
"I hope so."
They stared out into the night, listening to the bombers droning overhead, the anti-aircraft guns, the spine-chilling whistle of bombs falling. Every few seconds an explosion flashed across the sky, the boom making the window frame rattle.
"I hate this bloody war," said Gwen.
Mavra imagined the hell that must be unfolding at the factory. "Me too." She rested her hands on the smaller woman's shoulders, feeling their warmth through the thin material of Gwen's nightdress. They tensed at her touch then relaxed.
"Not making advances," said Mavra, just to be clear.
"I know. Sorry." Gwen took a breath, then half-turned and leaned into her, tucking an arm around Mavra's waist. "I'm sorry Jack attacked you and called you names."
"Why? Not your fault."
"No, but ..."
"Not going to marry him now, eh?"
The silence stretched, and Mavra had almost given up on an answer when Gwen said, "Not after tonight."
"Straw that broke horse's back?"
"I think you mean camel's —"
There was a deafening boom, and one of the window panes popped free of its putty and flew past them. Seconds later came the sound of glass shattering somewhere in the room.
"Get back!" She pulled Gwen away from the now draughty window, felt the bedstead against the back of her knees, and sat them both down on it.
"Must have been a stray." Gwen sounded shaky.
Mavra draped an arms around her shoulders. She could feel the other woman trembling. "OK?" she asked, concerned.
"That was too close for comfort." Gwen pulled Mavra's arm tighter around her. After while, her trembling stilled and she sighed with relief. "Better. Thanks."
"Welcome." How could Mavra distract her from the bangs, crashes and malevolent whistles going on outside? They had been talking about Gwen's ex-fiancé, hadn't they? "About Jack," she said. "No loss. His type not love women, only own them."
Gwen let out a groan. "How could I have been such a fool?"
"Understandable. Family had expectations."
"Oh God! I'd forgotten about them. How on earth am I going to break the news? They'll be devastated."
"Will get over it."
"Are you always this pragmatic?"
"Try to be." Mavra shrugged. "Not always succeed."
Silence fell between them then Gwen said tentatively, "Did you ... love her?"
Mavra blinked then realised who she was referring to. "Lilya? ... Yes."
"How long since she ..."
"Since Viedens killed her? Three years next month." She paused. "You remind me of her ... little."
"I didn't think Arcadians had fair hair."
"Not hair colour. Or eyes — hers grey not green. She was taller too."
"Everyone's taller," grumbled Gwen.
"More her manner, attitude. And both of you have —" Mavra sketched an hourglass shape with her hands and grinned.
Gwen blinked at her then looked away. "It feels odd to hear a woman talking about me like that!"
"Not like it?"
"It's not that. I just ..."
Mavra chewed her lip. "Feel uncomfortable?"
"A little." Gwen threw her an apologetic glance.
"Trying to compliment not make feel uncomfortable. Stop now."
Gwen gave her a confused look. "Thanks ... I think."
Silence fell again, but it was a comfortable one and they sat in the dark, drawing simple warmth and comfort from each other's presence, until Mavra realised that the steady drone of aircraft had stopped, and so had the Ack-Ack. Moments later came the discordant wail of the All-Clear.
"Bombs stop," she said, yawning.
"Sounds like it." Gwen disentangled herself, reluctantly it seemed to Mavra. "We should try to get some sleep. ... You've got a long flight tomorrow, and I'm back on ferrying."
"OK." Mavra rose, stretched, and moved towards her own bed, feeling her way with care — she was barefoot and the last thing she wanted was to tread on a splinter of glass. She banged her shins on the chair, the table leg, and the bed but eventually made it in one piece.
As she pulled the sheets and blanket over her, she said through a yawn. "Good dreams, Gwen."
"You too," came the drowsy reply.
The shuttle bus screeched to a halt. "Everybody off," yelled the driver. "This is as far as we go."
Mavra and Gwen blinked at one another. They were still 200 yards from the factory.
"Bloomin' cheek!" complained a woman in a headscarf. "You're paid to take us to the gates."
"Hey, don't blame me, love," said the driver. "It wasn't me who put a ruddy great crater in the middle of the road." He pointed through his dirty windscreen and necks craned to look at the crater in question.
"Bloody Viedens," said a passenger at the back of the bus. "I'd like to bomb the lot of them to a pulp."
"Join the queue," muttered someone else.
Sitting wouldn't accomplish anything, so Mavra rose, pulled her kitbag and parachute from the overhead rack, and edged out into the aisle. "Come on," she told Gwen, and made for the exit. Unfortunately her companion wasn't as fast on her feet — the fact Gwen was also carrying a parachute didn't help — and got held up behind the other passengers as they disembarked.
While she waited on the pavement, Mavra took in her surroundings. The shops and houses in this part of town were a mess, and work crews were working hard to shore up walls left unsupported. Red gingham curtains hung from a single hook in the window of one building, and a pram, its frame scorched and badly twisted, stood just inside a hallway now open to the elements.
The loss of life must have been heavy. As for the road between here and the factory gates, there wasn't much left of it.
At last Gwen appeared. "Ready?" she asked. Gwen nodded.
They headed along the strip of pavement remaining, walking single file where the massive crater encroached. It would take the work crews quite a while to fill that in. Up ahead, what had once been a greengrocer's had been roped off and men from a bomb disposal crew were scurrying to and fro. Mavra soon saw the reason for the activity — the nosecone of a Viedon bomb was protruding from a wall.
"Stay back," yelled the leader of the crew, looking up as she approached. "UXB."
"Unexploded bomb," said Gwen needlessly, before shouting, "How long will it take to disarm it?"
He gave her an irritated wave. "As long as it takes, Miss. Could be minutes or hours. Or she could go up at any moment."
Gwen glanced at Mavra. "What shall we do?"
Mavra checked her watch. "Can't afford hours. We walk ... but keep as far from bomb as possible."
Staying on the opposite side of the road from the UXB, they hugged the ruined walls, Gwen huffing and puffing as she struggled to keep up with Mavra's longer stride. The other passengers from the bus had decided to wait, Mavra saw, as she glanced back. Gwen turned to see what she was looking at, just as one of the bomb disposal crew let out a cry of warning. His leader looked up, colour leaching from his face. Then came a huge gout of orange flame and a boom that threatened to rupture Mavra's eardrums.
Something rammed into her from one side and she was falling. She threw out her hands to save herself, glad of her gloves, but even so the impact drove the breath from her lungs. Momentum kept her rolling. Sky. Pavement. Sky. Pavement .... Something heavy landed on top her, halting her progress.
Mavra blinked and tried to get back her breath and her bearings. The weight straddling her didn't help, but then it shifted and disappeared and strong hands rolled her over onto her back. She gazed up at her kneeling rescuer. Gwen's face was coated with brick dust.
"Are you all right?"
"Think so." Mavra was relieved to be able to breathe once more. "Bomb blew me over."
"That was me. Sorry."
"The wall was coming down on top of us. Last night must have weakened it. The bomb finished the job."
Gwen twisted and pointed to where they had been standing seconds before. The pavement had disappeared beneath a mound of rubble from which choking dust was still rising. Mavra's heart missed a beat as she realised how close it had been.
"You saved my life."
Gwen wrinkled her nose at her. "That makes us even, doesn't it?"
The urge to kiss Gwen was strong. Green eyes widened, and Mavra could have sworn the other woman felt the same. She raised her hand and cupped a soft cheek, pleased when Gwen didn't pull away. A kiss from a woman, an Arcadian at that, in broad daylight and with an audience? said her conscience. That wouldn't be fair, now, would it?
With a sigh, Mavra brushed her thumb across Gwen's cheek, and let her hand drop. "Help me up?"
After a moment, Gwen extended a hand and heaved her to her feet.
"Anyone injured?" They turned to find a worried-looking medic looking at them.
"No. We're both fine," called Gwen, while Mavra gave him a thumbs-up. He nodded and wandered off in search of casualties.
Mavra slapped the worst of the dust from her flying suit, turning her face away too late to stop a sneeze, then looked for her kitbag and parachute. Ah there they are.
Gwen had wandered off a little way and now returned clutching her own parachute. "Better get a move on," she said. "They'll be wondering where we are."
Mavra shrugged. "Plane not go anywhere without me."
Gwen smiled. "You're lucky. If I don't turn up on schedule there's hell to pay. Not to mention the risk of getting stranded somewhere overnight because I missed the taxi back."
Mavra set off walking. "Come on then."
When they reached the factory gates, the young guard who took their papers, and who appeared to know Gwen well, asked, "What the hell happened to you, Number One?"
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Didn't you hear the bang?"
He shrugged and let them both through.
Mavra headed immediately for the reinforced bunker where the Gryphon was kept, only to find that someone had already wheeled her plane out onto the concrete apron. There were chocks against her wheels, and her nose pointed towards the runway, where work crews were filling fresh craters with dirt and rubble and packing it down.
That'll save time. Not that I'm in a hurry. She glanced at Gwen who had a quarter-of-an-hour to spare before she picked up her first plane, and so had come along to see Mavra off.
"Ah, there you are." Harry Green strolled towards them, his gaze tracking between Mavra and Gwen. His lips twitched and he stroked his moustache. "Looks like you've been in the wars."
"A UXB, Sir," said Gwen.
"No longer unexploded, I take it?"
He turned back to Mavra and raised an eyebrow. "Are you fit to fly, Lieutenant?" Her indignant look made him grin. "OK. OK. I had to ask." He sobered and pointed to the Gryphon. "She's all yours. Fuelled and ready to go."
"Thank you." She glanced up at the cloud cover, then at the windsock hanging limp beside the runway.
He followed the direction of her gaze. "The forecast is good. You shouldn't encounter any weather until tomorrow morning at the earliest." She gave a satisfied grunt. "Have a safe trip. And thank you. The information you've given us will make a big difference."
She pulled her flying helmet from her kitbag and put it on, tucking up her hair inside it, then reached for her parachute. Gwen ran to help her and Mavra gave her a warm smile. The Commander clasped his hands behind his back, rocked a little on his heels, and watched them with a benign smile — he was clearly at a loose end.
"I'm afraid we're running a little behind schedule, Number One," he told Gwen when she had finished buckling the last of Mavra's straps and stood back to assess the result. He gestured at the men repairing the holes in a hangar roof. "Lost four Nimbuses and two Bomfires last night. One of the Nimbuses was yours."
"Oh." Mavra could almost see the cogs turning as the pilot mentally rearranged her day. "Thanks for the information, Sir."
There was nothing else to delay Mavra, except the lack of ground crew. But two men were playing cards on a crate close to one of the hangars and they kept glancing in her direction. She put two and two together and signalled them. They threw down their cards, stubbed out their cigarettes, and started towards her.
She glanced at Green then at Gwen and thought, To hell with it. Two quick steps brought her to the ATA pilot's side. She wrapped the smaller woman in a bear hug, which, after a surprised moment, Gwen returned.
"Maybe we meet again, after War is over," said Mavra in Gwen's ear. "In meantime, take care."
"You too. Look after yourself."
"Will try. ... And you ... Remember. Jack not for you."
Gwen gave her a half-exasperated, half-fond look. "I'm not likely to forget, am I?"
For a moment Mavra couldn't seem to make herself let go, but she gave herself a good talking to and managed it in the end. With a last regretful glance at Gwen, she tossed her kitbag into the Gryphon's cockpit, then scrambled up after it, stowing it beneath her seat, and settling herself behind the stick. As she made herself comfortable, and went through some initial checks, the ground crew took their places.
"Contact," she shouted, and one man grabbed a propeller blade and yanked it.
The engine coughed once then roared into throaty life, and Mavra smiled as the familiar smell and din of her surroundings settled round her like a glove. She glanced down at the woman standing watching her and her joy dimmed.
Gwen waved, and Mavra raised a hand in reply. Then she tore her gaze away and started to run through her mental checklist for take-off. Satisfied everything was running smoothly, she signalled the men to remove the chocks and slid closed the canopy with a clunk.
When both men had got well clear, she checked her brakes and taxied out onto the runway. Even at this speed, she could feel the Gryphon trying to lift off, as though she were eager to get back into the sky, but she kept the plane firmly in check and opened up the throttle. Only when she had reached the right speed did she release the Gryphon from her constraints, and then at last, she was airborne. A hiss of pneumatics followed by two loud thuds was the undercarriage retracting. Good.
She should have set off home straight away, but the urge to circle back for one last look at the factory was strong, and she gave in to it. (Who are you kidding? It's Gwen you want to see.) From the air, the bomb damage was all too apparent. Green would have his work cut out getting production back up to speed.
On the concrete apron stood a forlorn, fair-haired figure in a flying suite. As the Gryphon roared overhead, she looked up, shaded her eyes with one hand, and waved.
Mavra did a wing-waggle, grinning as she pictured Gwen's expression. Bet she's thinking: That crazy Arcadian!
Then the factory was behind her, and her grin vanished. The temptation to circle back and land, to take Gwen in her arms again, was almost overwhelming but she gritted her teeth and pointed the Gryphon's nose southeast. Her country needed her, and it needed her plane. If she survived this bloody War... if Gwen survived ... they would meet again. She would make sure of it.
With that vow, the sudden ache inside Mavra's chest eased a little, and she set off on the dangerous flight back to Arcadia.
To those readers who think Cheltain bears an uncanny resemblance to Britain during WW2: well spotted. I wanted to write a story about two women pilots, (specifically a Russian fighter pilot and a British ATA pilot) but I couldn't figure out how to do it convincingly. No Russian woman pilot ever flew to England, as far as I am aware, and she would never have admitted to being gay either (homosexuality was illegal in Stalin's Russia). So in the end I used a fictional setting, which had the bonus of making the research easier. <g>