DRAKA FORCES BASE KARS, PROVINCE OF ANATOLIA
APRIL 14, 1942: 0600 HOURS
The barrage lit the sky to the east, brighter than the false dawn. Forty kilometers, and the guns were a continuous flicker all along the arch of the horizon, as of heat-lightning, the sound a distant rumbling that echoed off the mountains and down the broad open valleys.
Johanna von Shrakenberg stood to watch it from the flat roof of the two-story barracks. She had risen early, even though her lochos was on call today and so spared the usual four-kilometer run, slipped out from between Rahksan and the sleeping cat, and brought her morning coffee and cigarette up here. The cold was bitter under the paling stars, and she was glad of the snug, insulated flight suit and gloves. Steam rose from the thick china mug, warm and rich, soothing in her mouth as she sipped.
The guns had been sounding since the start of the offensive. She tried to imagine what it was like under that shelling: earth and rock churning across square kilometers, thousands of tons of steel and explosive ripping across the sky . . . the artillery of sixty legions, ten thousand guns, everything from the monster 240s and 200s of the Army Corps reserve to field guns and mortars and rocket launchers.
“ ‘Only the mad inhuman laughter of the guns,’ ” she quoted softly. Beyond that was the Caucasus, and the passes where the Airborne legions had landed in the German rear. Her brother among them . . . she shook her head. Worry was inevitable and pointless, but Eric’s grip on life was not as firm as she would have liked. The sort of man who needs something or someone to live for, she thought. I wish he’d find one, this business is dangerous enough when you’re trying.
Dawn was breaking, rising out of the fire and the thunder. Shadow chased darkness down the huge scored slopes of the mountains, still streaked with old drifts. Rock glowed, salmon-pink; she could see a plume of snow trailing feather-pale from a white peak. Below, clusters of young trees marked the manors the Draka had built, and fields of wheat showed a tender, tentative green. A new landscape, scarcely older than herself.
There had been much work done here in the last generation, she thought; it took Draka to organize and plan on such a scale. Terraces like broad steps on the hillsides, walled with stones carted from the fields; canals; orchards and vineyards pruned and black and dusted with green uncoiling buds. All of it somehow raw and new, against this bleakness made by four thousand years of peasant axes and hungry goats.
Well, only a matter of time, she mused. Already the Conservancy Directorate was drawing a mat of young forest across the upper slopes; in another hundred years these foothills would be as lush as nature permitted, and her grandchildren might come here to hunt tiger and mouflon.
The scene about her was also Draka work, but less sightly. Kars was strategic, a meeting of routes through the mountains of eastern Turkey, close to the prewar Russian border. The conquest back in 1916-1917 had been a matter of foot infantry and mule trains and supply drops by dirigibles. Castle Tarleton had enough problems guarding six thousand miles of northern frontier without transportation worries; even before the Great War was over, a million laborers had been rounded up to push through railways and roads and airship yards.
So when the buildup for the German war began there was transport enough; just barely, with careful planning. The air base around her sprawled to the horizon on the south and west, and work teams were still gnawing at scrub and gravel. Others toiled around the clock to maintain the roads pounded by endless streams of motor transport; the air was thick with rock dust and the oily smell of the low-grade distillate the steam trucks burned. Barracks, warehouses, workshops, and hangars sprawled, all built of asbestos-cement panels bolted to prefabricated steel frames: modular, efficient, and ugly. On a nearby slope the skeletal mantis shape of an electrodetector tower whirled tirelessly.
Johanna flicked the cigarette butt over the edge of the roof and drank the last lukewarm mouthful of coffee. “Like living in a bloody construction site,” she muttered, turning to the stairwell.
The bulletin board in the ready room held nothing new: final briefing at 0750, wheels-up half an hour later, a routine kill-anything-that-moved sweep north of the mountains to make sure the Fritz air kept its head down. Merarch Anders was going over the maps one more time as she passed through, raising his head to nod at her, his face a patchwork of scars from twenty years of antiaircraft fire and half a dozen forced landings. She waved in response, straightening a little under the cool blue eyes. Anders was the “old man” in truth, forty-two, ancient for a fighter pilot. He had been a bagbuster in the Great War, flying one of the pursuit biplanes that ended the reign of the dirigibles. And even in middle age the fastest man she had ever sparred with.
The canteen was filling with her fellow Draka. The food was good; that was one of the advantages of the Air Corps. The ground forces had a motto: “Join the Army and live like a serf,” but a pilot could fly out to fight and return to clean beds, showers, and cooked food. This time she took only a roll and some fruit before heading out to the field; combat tension affected everybody a different way, and with her it tightened the gut and killed her appetite and any capacity for small talk.
The planes of her lochos were having a final checkover in their sandbagged revetments, sloping pits along either side of an accessway that led out into the main runway for this section. Technicians were checking the systems, pumps chugged as the fuel tanks filled, armorers coaxed in belts of 25mm cannon shells for the five-barrel nose battery.
Her ground crew paused to smile and wave as Johanna settled herself on the edge of the revetment and sat cross-legged, watching. On excellent advice, her father’s among others, she had gone out of her way to learn their names and take an interest in their conditions. They were serfs, except for the team commander; not Janissaries, unarmed auxiliaries owned by the War Directorate, but privileged and highly trained. Their work would be checked by the inspectors, of course, but there was a world of difference between the best and just-good-enough.
She sighed as she watched them work on her aircraft. Even earthbound, with the access panels open, the Eagle was a beautiful sight: as beautiful as a dolphin or a blooded horse, enough to make one’s breath catch when it swam in its natural element above the earth. It was a midwing monoplane, the slender fuselage just big enough for pilot, fuel, and the five cannon, slung between two huge H-form 24-cylinder Atlantis Peregrine turbocharged engines in sleek cowlings. Twice the power of a single-engine fighter and far less than twice the weight: not quite as agile in a dogfight, but better armored and more heavily armed, and much faster . . .
Like most pilots, she had personalized her machine: a Cupid’s bow mouth below the nose, lined with shark’s teeth, and a name in cursive script: Lover’s Bite. There were five swastikas stenciled below the bubble canopy, the marks of her victories.
Johanna’s mouth quirked. Flying was . . . flying was like making love after a pipeful of the best rum-soaked Arusha Crown ganja; she had always had a talent for it, and the Eagle was a sweet ship. And somewhat to her surprise, she had turned out to be an excellent fighter pilot; she had the vision and the reflexes, and most important of all the nerve to close in, very close, right down to 100 meters, while the enemy wings filled the windscreen and her guns hammered bits of metal loose to bounce off the canopy . . .
And frankly, I could do without it, she thought. There were worse ways to spend the war: sweating in the lurching steel coffin of a personnel carrier, or clawing your hands into the dirt and praying under a mortar barrage—but dead was dead, and she had not the slightest desire to die. Nor to spin in trapped in a burning plane, or . . .
She shrugged off the thought. War was the heritage of her people and her caste; it was just that she would have preferred to be lucky. Peacetime duty for her military service, then, hmmm, yes, Capetown for her degree. Nothing fancy; a three-year in Liberal Arts and Estate Management and an aristocratic A- grade. And days spent lying naked on the beaches of the Peninsula, surfing, going to the palaestra to run and wrestle, throw the disk and javelin and practice the pankration. Wearing silk and skirts; concerts and theaters and picture galleries, love affairs and long talks and walking under the olives on starlit nights . . .
“Well, on to the work of the day,” she murmured. Then: “Got her ticking over?”
One of the technicians looked up, grinning as the last of an ammunition belt ran across the leather pad on her shoulders and into the drums, the aluminum casings dull against the color-coded shells: red for tracer-incendiary, brown for explosive, blue for armor-piercing.
“She-un loaded fo’ lion, Mistis,” the serf said. Johanna’s mind placed the dialect: Police Zone, but not the Old Territories—Katanga or Angola, perhaps . . . serf specialists were given a thorough but narrowly technical education, which did not include master-class speech patterns. “Giv’t to tha Fritz, raaht up they ass,” she continued.
“I intend to, Lukie-Beth,” the Draka said, and considered lighting a cigarette. No, a bad example to break regulations around so much high octane. Instead she threw the package to the crew chief, who tucked one behind his ear and handed the others around. He nodded a salute as she rose, touching the steel hook on the stump of his left wrist to his brow.
“ . . . and engage targets of opportunity on the ground,” the briefing officer concluded.
Merarch Anders rose and walked to the edge of the dais. “All right, you glory hounds,” he said. The harsh voice dampened the slight murmur that had swelled across the ranks of folding chairs.
Here begineth the lecture from the Holy Book of Air Operations, section V, paragraph ii, Johanna thought with resignation.
“A few reminders of the facts of life,” the Merarch continued. “The Air Corps does not exist so you can dogfight and rack up kills. It exists to help the Forces win wars. Its most important function is reconnaissance; the second most important is ground support. We have a fighter arm to protect the scouting and ground-support units, and to shoot down any enemy aircraft who try to do the important stuff for the other side.
“Another fact of life: Eagles are pursuit craft. They are designed to shoot down bombers. The Falcons are supposed to shoot down fighters; that’s why we have lochoi of the buggers flying cap-cover for us. You will not engage enemy fighters except defensively, and then only if you can’t run, which should be easy, seeing as the Domination has gone to the trouble of giving you the fastest aircraft on earth. I see anyone glory-hunting”—his seamed face jutted forward, one half a pattern of scars, the other smooth—“I goin’ to see that he suffer. Understood?”
“Sir, yes sir!” the lochos replied.
The cockpit smelled of rubber, oil, and old sweat. Johanna wiggled her shoulders in the straps and folded the seat back into the semireclining position that helped you take g-force without blacking out.
Her hand moved the stick, feet pumped the pedals; she glanced back over one shoulder to check the flaps and rudder, and the flipped-up visor of her bonedome went clack against the metal rim of the seat. The synthetic of the face mask rested cool and clammy against her cheeks, and sounds came muted through the headphones of her helmet, even the start-up roar of engines. That faded again as she gave a thumbs-up to the ground crew and the bubble canopy slid down over her head.
Training sent hands and eyes in a final check over the instrument panel: gyrosight, fuel, oil pressure, RPM, pitch control. Static buzz and click in her ears, sound-offs as each plane called go-condition, her own voice like a stranger’s.
“Green board, von Shrakenberg” she said.
The override call of the control center came through: “Lochos cleared, two and four, Merarch. Next ten minutes.”
Her fingers touched the throttles, and the Lover’s Bite rolled out of the revetment and onto the holding strip. She moistened her lips in the cool, rubber-tasting air flowing from the mask, and touched the shoulder pocket of her flight suit that held Tom’s picture. They had exchanged special photographs, cased in plastic with a lock of hair: two “Knights of the Air” going into battle with their lover’s favor on their sleeve.
Policy let spouses or fiances serve in the same unit if they chose, but suddenly she was glad they had decided against it; he could spend the next few years in safe boredom, deterring the Japanese in China. There would be no war with Nippon, not now; the Domination would let the Americans pour out blood and treasure to break the island empire’s strength, then leave the Yankees holding a few South Sea isles while the Draka snapped up Japan’s rich Asian provinces.
She saw him, sharply: broad freckled face and hazel eyes cold with that ironic humor; wide thin-lipped mouth, stocky muscled body fitting so comfortably against hers . . . They had settled the future. A land grant in Italy, Tuscany by preference, Pa could probably swing that, and there were plenty of nice villas that could be renovated easily enough. Children, of course: four, that was enough to do one’s duty by the Race. Breeding horses, dabbling in estate-bottled premium wine, snapping up a surplus light transport so they could fly over to Alexandria for big-city amusements now and then.
She smiled more widely and touched the pocket on the other shoulder. Rahksan had presented her with a favor, too: a silk handkerchief, with a lock of her hair and an inked pawprint from Omar, Johanna’s cat—“Jist t’ get us awl in theyah, Jo’ darlin’.” Johanna sighed: it was good to have that gentle and undemanding affection to hand, and Rahksan would make a good nursemaid, she was marvelous with children.
Oh, what a happy little Draka I shall be, she thought mordantly. If I survive—so stop woolgathering, woman!
The planes of the 211th Lochos taxied in file down the approach lane; an orange-uniformed flight launcher waited with signal paddles in hand to key them on to the takeoff runway. Engine roar rose to a grating howl as the dozen Eagles boosted their craft from idle. Her turn came; she glanced across at her wingman, young de Grange, and gave a clenched-fist salute. He answered with exaggerated decisiveness.
Natural, she thought. A newbie—this was only his second combat mission. In air-to-air combat the minority of veterans did most of the killing, the novices most of the dying. Unfair, like life. The solution was to win; and as the old saying went, if you couldn’t win, cheat.
She pressed the throttles forward, props biting the air at coarse pitch, then released the brakes. Acceleration pushed her back into the padding of the seat; the tailwheel came up; the controls went light as the Lover’s Bite left the earth, with a tiny slip-sway as her hand firmed on the stick.
Formation came automatically, a tight box of pairs here in the crowded airspace over Kars. The airfields were laid out in circles, neat as a map beneath her as she gained altitude: rings of silver thousand-foot transport dirigibles; rows of six-engined Helot cargo planes, like boxes with great slab wings; rank after rank of Rhino ground-strike craft, shuttling back and forth at low altitude to the front. And the vehicle parks of the armored legions, huge blunt wedges stacked beside the roads, flat beetle shapes of the tanks and infantry carriers, flashes as their heavy self-propelled guns fired, tasked to support the Janissary units in contact with the enemy.
The Eagles climbed, clawing at the thin air with whining turbochargers, through a layer of cirrus clouds into a high brightness under a sky that seemed ready to bleed lapis lazuli as the props sliced it. Four thousand meters altitude, and the front was invisible as they passed, only a ragged pattern of explosions pale in the bright sunlight, lines and clumps that must indicate Fritz strongpoints, fading to scatterings on road junctions behind the lines. Columns of smoke rose, black pillars fraying at their tops, brutal and emphatic in the cool pastels of the upper air. Ahead were the mountains, through the clouds and ringed by them, snow-peaked islands lapped by fleece-surf and patches of darkness where earth showed through.
Johanna waggled her craft and her wingman closed up with a guilty spurt of acceleration. The lochos had spread out into the loose pairs-of-pairs formation that was most effective for combat, and she began a constant all-around scan. That was the reason pilots wore silk scarves, to prevent chafing; not derring-do, but survival. The electrodetectors in the dirigible warning and control craft hovering south of the mountains were supposed to pick up enemy aircraft long before visual contact, but electrodetection was in its infancy. You could still get jumped . . .
Minutes stretched. She concentrated on her breathing, keying into the state of untense alertness that kept you alive. If you let your glands pump adrenaline into the bloodstream you could end up wringing wet and exhausted in minutes, even standing still. They reached cruising altitude at six thousand meters and crossed the mountain peaks; there was less cloud cover north of the Caucasus, a clear view of forested slopes rippling down to an endless steppe, bright-green squares of young grass and coal-black ploughland. And . . .
“Target,” the Merarch’s voice spoke in her ears. “Three o’clock; Stukas. Follow me.”
Christ, he’s got good eyes, she thought, tilting her craft to scan down and to the right. Black dots crawling north; they must be hedgehopping to avoid detection, moving up to support the Fritz units trying to clear the passes, or even hoping to cross the mountains. Smoothly, the lochos peeled off and began a power dive toward their prey.
Her hands moved on the controls, and the Lover’s Bite banked, turned, fell. There was a moment of weightlessness while the world swung about her, then a giant soft hand lifting and pushing. Her own gloved palm rammed the throttles forward, and the engines answered with a banshee shriek. They were diving head-on toward the Germans, a three-thousand-meter swoop that closed at the combined speed of the two formations. Acceleration pushed her back into the padding of the seat; she could feel it stretching the tissues of her face, spreading lips into a death’s-head grin beneath her face mask. The airplane began to buck and rattle, the stick quivering and then shuddering in her hand.
Mach limit, she thought, easing back slightly on the throttles until the hammer blows of air driven to solidity died down to a bearable thrumming. Air compression just under the speed of sound could break an aircraft apart or freeze the controls. They were closing fast now, altimeter unreeling in a blur, the Germans turning from specks to shapes. Stuka dive bombers, single-engined craft with the unmistakable “cranked” gull wing and spatted undercarriage. Johanna’s thumb flicked back the cover over the firing button on the head of her joystick, and the gyrosight automatically projected a circle on the windscreen ahead of her. Dream target, went through her gleefully. Only a single rear-mounted machine gun for defensive armament, slow, unhandy.
Less than a thousand meters, and the Germans spotted the Draka fighters stooping out of the sun and scattered, their formation breaking apart like beads of mercury on glass, diving to hug the ground even more closely. Johanna braced and pulled back on the stick, gray creeping in at the edges of sight as the g-force mounted. The black wings grew, filling the center ring of the gunsight, then overlapping the outer circle. Time slowed; her thumb came down on the firing button as the Stuka’s fuselage touched the outer rim. The aircraft were closing at well over seven hundred KPH; the burst was on target for barely four-tenths of a second. Beneath her the revolver-breeches of the cannon whirled, and two hundred shells hosed out as her thumb tapped the button; more than half of them struck.
The Stuka exploded in a globe of orange light, folded in half and tumbled to leave a burning smear on the ground a hundred meters below, all at once. The shock wave slapped the Draka Eagle upwards, even as Johanna pulled back on the stick, rolling up in an Immelman and trading speed for height.
“Ngi dHa!” she shouted the old triumph cry her ancestors had borrowed from the tribes they overran: I have eaten. The sudden jolt of exultation ran belly-deep, raw and primitive.
“Warning.” The voice cut through the static and chatter on the lochos circuit, cool and distant; from the control dirigible south of the mountains. “Hostiles approaching from northeast your position, altitude ten thousand meters. Speed indicates fighters, estimated intercept, two minutes.” Johanna could feel the excitement wash out of her in a wave, replaced by a prickling coldness that tasted of copper and salt. She worked pedals and stick, snapped the Lover’s Bite back level, scanned about. Most of the Stukas were splotches of black smoke and orange flame on the rumpled landscape below, the Eagles were scattered to the limits of visibility and beyond, and her wingman was nowhere to be seen.
“Shit!” That was Merarch Anders. She could imagine what was running through his mind; height and speed were interchangeable, and the Fritz had too much. Too much for the Draka to run for it.
“Anders, control. Where are our Falcons?”
“Sorry, Merarch: diverted on priority.”
The lochos commander wasted no time on complaints. “Form on me, prepare for climb,” he said. “One pass through them, then we turn and head south.”
Johanna closed in, climbing, and keyed her microphone. “De Grange, close up. De Grange!”
“I’ve almost got him—”
“Leave the fucking rabbit and close up!”
“Yessir . . . ah . . . where are you?”
She could imagine his sudden frightened glance around a sky empty of motion. “Look for the smoke plumes, de Grange.” She switched to lochos frequency. “Merarch, my wingman’s got himself out of visual.”
“He’ll have to find his own way home. Radio silence.”
The lochos climbed steeply, clawing for altitude as they drove northeast to meet the approaching Germans. A head-on passing engagement was quick, and would leave the Draka above their opponents, able to turn and head for home. If we live, Johanna thought, moistening her lips as she flipped down the sun visor of her helmet and squinted into the brightness ahead: pale blue sky and white haze and the sun like a blinding tic at the corner of her eye. The insides of her gloves were wet, and she worked the fingers limber around the molded grip of the joystick.
“One minute.” The voice of the controller sounded, olympian and distant; Johanna felt a moment’s fierce resentment that faded into the blank intensity of concentration. Nothing . . . then a line of black dots. Growing, details; single-engine fighters. Large canopies set well back, long cylindrical noses. Focke-Wulf 190s, the best the Germans had.
Oh, joy, she thought sardonically, picking her target. This would be a celestial game of chicken, with whoever banked first vulnerable. The oncoming line seemed to swell more swiftly, speed becoming visible as the range closed. Hands and feet moved on pedals and stick, feedback making the Eagle an extension of her body. Like another body: she had seen a barracuda once, spear-fishing along a reef off Ceylon, on a summer’s holiday with a schoolfriend; hung entranced in the sapphire water, meeting an eye black and empty and colder than the moon. A living knife, honed by a million years of evolution. Here she had that, the power and the purity of it . . .
The Focke-Wulf was closing. Closing. Toy-model size, normal, huge, filling the windscreen—the crazy fucker’s not turning now.
Her thumb clamped the firing button just as lights sparkled along the wingroot firing ports of the Focke-Wulf. Fist-blow of recoil, like a sudden headwind for a fractional second, and a multiple punk-tinggg as something high-velocity struck the Draka aircraft’s armor. Then she was banking right as the German flipped left; they passed belly-to-belly and wings pointing to earth and sky, so close that they would have collided had the landing gear been down.
A quick glimpse into the overhead mirror showed the German going in. Not burning, but half his rudder was missing. Johanna flipped the Eagle back onto the level with a smile that turned to a snarl as a red temperature warning light began to flicker and buzz on the control panel. Her hand reached for the switches, but before she could complete the movement a flare of light caught at the corner of her right eye. A rending bang and she felt the Lover’s Bite shake, pitched on her side and dove for the earth six thousand meters below in a long spiral, trailing smoke from the port engine nacelle; more than smoke, there were flames licking from ruptured fuel lines; a sudden barrage of piston heads and connectors hammered the side of the cockpit as the roar of a functioning engine abruptly changed to the brief shriek of high-tensile steel distorting under intolerable stress.
G-force worse than the pull-out from a power dive pushed Johanna into a corner of the seat, weighing on her chest like a great soft pillow. Will and training forced her hand through air that seemed to have hardened to treacle, feathering the damaged engine and shutting the fuel lines, opening the throttle on the other. Stamp on the pedal left stick . . . she could almost hear the voice of her instructor, feel the wind rattling the wires of the training biplane: Recruit, next time you needs three tries to pull out of a spin I’ll put us’n into a hill myself to spare the Race the horror of you incompetent genes . . .
So you were right, she thought. You’re still a son of a bitch. The Lover’s Bite came out of the spin, straight and level. Also horribly slow and sluggish, and she had to keep the stick over . . .
“Mayday.” Her voice was a harsh blur in her own ears. “Mayday, engine out, altitude—” She blinked out the cockpit at muddy fields grown horribly close, unbelievably fast, “—three thousand.” A glance at the board. “B engine running, losing hydraulics slowly, fuel fast.”
“Acknowledged.” The Merarch’s voice was steady, calming. “Run for it, we’ll cover as long as we can.” A pause. “And your stray duck de Grange is back.”
“Acknowledged,” she answered shortly. Mind and body were busy with the limping, shuddering aircraft. For a moment sheer irritation overrode all other feeling; the effortless power and response of the Eagle had become part of her life, and this limping parody was like a rebellion of her own muscles and nerves. Her eyes flicked to the gauges. Hydraulic pressure dropping steadily; that meant multiple ruptures somewhere. The controls were growing soft, mushy; she had to overcorrect and then correct again. A glance at the ruined engine: still burning, fuel must be getting through somehow, and the gauge was dropping as if both engines were running on maximum boost. And—
The Focke-Wulf dove from over her left shoulder. Reflex made her try to snap the Eagle aside, and the unbalanced thrust of the single engine sent the aircraft into the beginnings of another flat spin that carried her six hundred meters closer to the ground. Cannon shells hammered into the rear fuselage; then the Lover’s Bite pitched forward in the shockwave of an explosion. Pieces of the German fighter pitched groundward, burning; another Draka Eagle swooped by, looped and throttled back to fly wing-to-wing, the pilot giving her a thumbs-up signal. He was as impersonal as a machine in bonedome, dark visor and face mask, but she could imagine the cocky grin on de Grange’s freckled face.
“Thanks,” she said. “Now get back upstairs.”
“That’s an order, Galahad! If I want a knight-errant, I’ll send to Hollywood.”
Reluctantly, he peeled off and climbed. She fought down a feeling of loneliness; an Eagle had the advantage in a diving attack on a Focke-Wulf, but in a low-and-slow dogfight the smaller turning radius of a single-engine fighter made it a dangerous opponent.
Until then emergency had kept her focused, consciousness narrowed down to the bright point of concentration. Now she drew a ragged breath and looked about. More smoke and fire trailed from the right engine, and she could smell somewhere the raw stink of high-octane fuel. That was bad, fuel didn’t explode until it mixed with air . . . Ahead and high above shone the peaks of the Caucasus; very high, she must be at no more than two thousand meters. A push at the stiff joystick and the plane responded, slowly, oh so slowly. Still losing pressure from the hydraulics; it was a choice between the controls freezing up, midair explosion, and the last of the fuel coughing through the injectors. As for clearing the mountains, even through one of the passes, as much chance of that as of flying to the moon by putting her head between her knees and spitting hard.
But I’m me, something gibbered in the back of her mind. I’m only twenty, I can’t die, not yet. Images flashed through her mind: Tom, Eric, Rahksan, her mother’s body laid out in the chapel, Oakenwald . . . her father giving her a switching when she was seven for sticking one of the housemaids with a pin in a tantrum. “You will use power with restraint and thrift, because your ancestors bought it with blood and pain. The price is high; remember that, when it comes your turn to pay.”
“Dying, hell,” she said. “Damned if I’m going to do that until I’m fuckin’ dead.” Her hand reached to hammer at the release catch of the canopy. Jammed: she flipped up a cover on the control panel and flicked the switch beneath that should have fired the explosive bolts.
“No joy,” she muttered, then looked down sharply. Fuel was seeping into the cockpit, wetting the soles of her boots. “Shit!” A touch keyed the microphone. “Merarch, she’s a mess, no hope of getting her home.”
“Bail out. We’ve seen those Fritzes off, we’ll cover you.”
“Can’t. Cockpit cover’s jammed, I think part of the engine hit it. I’ll have to ride her in.” There was a moment’s silence filled with static buzz and click. “I’ll see if I can shoot out the catch, then make it to our lines on foot. Got my ‘passport,’ anyway.” That was the cyanide pill they all carried; Draka did not surrender and were not taken alive.
“Right . . . good-bye.”
The other voice murmured a farewell; high above, she could see the silver shapes turning and making for the south. Johanna set her teeth and forced her eyes to the terrain ahead, easing back on the throttle. If the fuel lines were intact it would have been better to fly the Lover’s Bite empty, less risk of fire, but by then the stuff would be sloshing around her feet. Easy . . . the plain was humping itself up into foothills, isolated swells rising out of the dead-flat squares of cultivation. All the arrangements had been made: updated letters to Tom and Eric and her father, a new home for her cat Omar, a friend who had promised to see Rahksan safely back to Oakenwald, and Pa would see her right. Patches of forest among the fields now, the blackened snags of a ruined village, a rutted road . . . almighty Thor, it was going by fast; speed that had seemed a crawl in the upper air becoming a blurring rush as she dropped below a hundred meters.
Slow down. Throttle back again, flaps down, just above stalling speed. Floating . . . up over that damned windbreak, White Christ she’s hardly responding at all . . . good, meadow, white-and-black cows scattering . . . floating, nose up and—
Slam, the belly hit, rending scream of duralumin ripping, pinwheeling, body flung forward in the harness, something struck her head . . .