A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows

Page 5

The cloud was thin here, drifting waves of mist, but getting thicker. He saw a solid-looking bank of cloud moving slowly in from the west, but still a good distance away. It was cold, too; his face was chilled. He might be picking up ice if he went too hi—There.

The other plane, closer and higher than he’d expected. The other pilot spotted him at the same moment and came roaring down on him, too close to avoid. He didn’t try.

‘Aye, wait for it, ye wee bugger,’ he murmured, hand tight on the stick. One second, two, almost on him—and he buried the stick in his balls, jerked it hard left, turned neatly over, and went off in a long, looping series of barrel rolls that put him right away out of range.

His radio crackled and he heard Paul Rakoczy chortling through his hairy nose.

‘Kurwa twoja mac! Where you learn that, you Scotch f**ker?’

‘At my mammy’s tit, dupek,’ he replied, grinning. ‘Buy me a drink, and I’ll teach it to ye.’

A burst of static obscured the end of an obscene Polish remark, and Rakoczy flew off with a wig-wag of farewell. Ah, well. Enough skylarking, then; back to the f**king cameras.

Jerry rolled his head, worked his shoulders and stretched as well as could be managed in the confines of a II’s cockpit—it had minor improvements over the Spitfire I, but roominess wasn’t one of them—had a glance at the wings for ice—no, that was all right—and turned farther inland.

It was too soon to worry over it, but his right hand found the trigger that operated the cameras. His fingers twiddled anxiously over the buttons, checking, rechecking. He was getting used to them, but they didn’t work like the gun triggers; he didn’t have them wired in to his reflexes yet. Didn’t like the feeling, either. Tiny things, like typewriter keys, not the snug feel of the gun triggers.

He’d had the left-handed ones only since yesterday; before that, he’d been flying a plane with the buttons on the right. Much discussion with Flight and the MI6 button-boffin, whether it was better to stay with the right, as he’d had practice already, or change for the sake of his cack-handedness. When they’d finally got round to asking him which he wanted, it had been too late in the day to fix it straight off. So he’d been given a couple of hours’ extra flying time today, to mess about with the new fix-up.

Right, there it was. The bumpy grey line that cut through the yellowing fields of Northumberland like a perforation, same as you might tear the countryside along it, separating north from south as neat as tearing a piece of paper. Bet the emperor Hadrian wished it was that easy, he thought, grinning, as he swooped down along the line of the ancient wall.

The cameras made a loud clunk-clunk noise when they fired. Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk! Okay, sashay out, bank over, come down … clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk … He didn’t like the noise, not the same satisfaction as the vicious short Brrpt! of his wing guns. Made him feel wrong, like something gone with the engine … Aye, there it was coming up, his goal for the moment.

Mile-castle 37.

A stone rectangle, attached to Hadrian’s Wall like a snail on a leaf. The old Roman legions had made these small, neat forts to house the garrisons that guarded the wall. Nothing left now but the outline of the foundation, but it made a good target.

He circled once, calculating, then dived and roared over it at an altitude of maybe fifty feet, cameras clunking like an army of stampeding robots. Pulled up sharp and hared off, circling high and fast, pulling out to run for the imagined border, circling up again … and all the time his heart thumped and the sweat ran down his sides, imagining what it would be like when the real day came.

Mid-afternoon, it would be, like this. The winter light just going, but still enough to see clearly. He’d circle, find an angle that would let him cross the whole camp and please God, one that would let him come out of the sun. And then he’d go in.

One pass, Randall had said. Don’t risk more than one, unless the cameras malfunction.

The bloody things did malfunction, roughly every third pass. The buttons were slippery under his fingers. Sometimes they worked on the next try; sometimes they didn’t.

If they didn’t work on the first pass over the camp, or didn’t work often enough, he’d have to try again.

‘Niech to szlag,’ he muttered, Fuck the Devil, and pressed the buttons again, one-two, one-two. ‘Gentle but firm, like you’d do it to a lady’s privates,’ the boffin had told him, illustrating a brisk twiddle. He’d never thought of doing that … Would Dolly like it? he wondered. And where exactly did you do it? Aye, well, women did come with a button, maybe that was it—but then, two fingers? … Clunk-clunk. Clunk-clunk. Crunch.

He reverted to English profanity, and smashed both buttons with his fist. One camera answered with a startled clunk! but the other was silent.

He poked the button again and again, to no effect. ‘Bloody f**king arse-buggering …’ He thought vaguely that he’d have to stop swearing once this was over and he was home again—bad example for the lad.

‘FUCK!’ he bellowed, and ripping the strap free of his leg, he picked up the box and hammered it on the edge of the seat, then slammed it back onto his thigh—visibly dented, he saw with grim satisfaction—and pressed the balky button.

Clunk, the camera answered meekly.

‘Aye, well, then, just you remember that!’ he said, and, puffing in righteous indignation, gave the buttons a good jabbing.

He’d not been paying attention during this small temper-tantrum, but had been circling upward—standard default for a Spitfire flier. He started back down for a fresh pass at the mile-castle, but within a minute or two, began to hear a knocking sound from the engine.

‘No!’ he said, and gave it more throttle. The knocking got louder; he could feel it vibrating through the fuselage. Then there was a loud clang! from the engine compartment right by his knee, and with horror he saw tiny droplets of oil spatter on the Perspex in front of his face. The engine stopped.

‘Bloody, bloody …’ He was too busy to find another word. His lovely agile fighter had suddenly become a very clumsy glider. He was going down and the only question was whether he’d find a relatively flat spot to crash in.

His hand groped automatically for the landing gear but then drew back—no time, belly landing, where was the bottom? Jesus, he’d been distracted, hadn’t seen that solid bank of cloud move in; it must have come faster than he … Thoughts flitted through his mind, too fast for words. He glanced at the altimeter, but what it told him was of limited use, because he didn’t know what the ground under him was like: crags, flat meadow, water? He hoped and prayed for a road, a grassy flat spot, anything short of—God, he was at five hundred feet and still in cloud!

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.