The signalman wig-wagged him and he turned up the throttle, feeling the plane begin to move.

He touched his pocket automatically, whispering, ‘Love you, Dolly,’ under his breath. Everyone had his little ritual, those last few moments before take-off. For Jerry MacKenzie, it was his wife’s face and his lucky stone that usually settled the worms in his belly. She’d found it in a rocky hill on the Isle of Lewis, where they’d spent their brief honeymoon – a rough sapphire, she said, very rare.

‘Like you,’ he’d said, and kissed her.

No need for worms just the now, but it wasn’t a ritual if you only did it sometimes, was it? And even if it wasn’t going to be combat today, he’d need to be paying attention.

He went up in slow circles, getting the feel of the new plane, sniffing to get her scent. He wished they’d let him fly Dolly II, her seat stained with his sweat, the familiar dent in the console where he’d slammed his fist in exultation at a kill – but they’d already modified this one with the wing-cameras and the latest thing in night-sights. It didn’t do to get attached to the planes, anyway; they were almost as fragile as the men flying them, though the parts could be reused.

No matter; he’d sneaked out to the hangar the evening before and done a quick rag-doll on the nose to make it his. He’d know Dolly III well enough by the time they went into Poland.

He dived, pulled up sharp, and did Dutch rolls for a bit, wigwagging through the cloud-layer, then complete rolls and Immelmanns, all the while reciting Malan’s Rules to focus his mind and keep from getting air-sick.

The Rules were posted in every RAF barracks now: the Ten Commandments, the fliers called them – and not as a joke.

TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING, the poster said in bold black type. Jerry knew them by heart.

‘Wait until you see the whites of his eyes,’ he chanted under his breath. ‘Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”.’ He glanced at his sights, suffering a moment’s disorientation. The camera wizard had relocated them. Shite.

‘Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.’ Well, away to fuck, then. The buttons that operated the camera weren’t on the stick; they were on a box connected to a wire that ran out the window; the box itself was strapped to his knee. He’d be bloody looking out the window anyway, not using sights – unless things went wrong and he had to use the guns. In which case . . .

‘Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out.” ’ Aye, right, that one was still good.

‘Height gives you the initiative.’ Not in this case. He’d be flying low, under the radar, and not be looking for a fight. Always the chance one might find him, though. If any German craft found him flying solo in Poland, his best chance was likely to head straight for the sun and fall in. That thought made him smile.

‘Always turn and face the attack.’ He snorted and flexed his bad knee, which ached with the cold. Aye, if you saw it coming in time.

‘Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.’ He’d learnt that one fast. His body often was moving before his brain had even notified his consciousness that he’d seen something. Nothing to see just now, nor did he expect to, but he kept looking by reflex.

‘Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.’ Definitely out. Straight and level was just what he was going to have to do. And slowly.

‘When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.’ Irrelevant; he wouldn’t have a formation – and that was a thought that gave him the cold grue. He’d be completely alone; no help coming if he got into bother.

‘INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.’ Yeah, they did. What meant something in reconnaissance? Stealth, Speed, and Bloody Good Luck, more like. He took a deep breath, and dived, shouting the last of the Ten Commandments so it echoed in his Perspex shell.

‘Go in quickly – Punch hard – GET OUT!’

‘Rubber-necking,’ they called it, but Jerry usually ended a day’s flying feeling as though he’d been cast in concrete from the shoulder-blades up. He bent his head forward now, ferociously massaging the base of his skull to ease the growing ache. He’d been practising since dawn, and it was nearly tea-time. Ball-bearings, set, for the use of pilots, one, he thought. Ought to add that to the standard equipment list. He shook his head like a wet dog, hunched his shoulders, groaning, then resumed the sector-by-sector scan of the sky around him that every pilot did religiously, three hundred and sixty degrees, every moment in the air. All the live ones, anyway.

Dolly’d given him a white silk scarf as a parting present. He didn’t know how she’d managed the money for it and she wouldn’t let him ask, just settled it round his neck inside his flight jacket. Somebody’d told her the Spitfire pilots all wore them, to save the constant collar-chafing, and she meant him to have one. It felt nice, he’d admit that. Made him think of her touch when she’d put it on him. He pushed the thought hastily aside; the last thing he could afford to do was start thinking about his wife, if he ever hoped to get back to her. And he did mean to get back to her.

Where was that bugger? Had he given up?

No, he’d not; a dark spot popped out from behind a bank of cloud just over his left shoulder and dived for his tail. Jerry turned, a hard, high spiral, up and into the same clouds, the other after him like stink on shite. They played at dodgem for a few moments, in and out of the drifting clouds – he had the advantage in altitude, could play the coming-out-of-the-sun trick, if there were any sun, but it was autumn in Northumberland and there hadn’t been any sun in days . . .

Gone. He heard the buzzing of the other plane, faintly, for a moment – or thought he had. Hard to tell above the dull roar of his own engine. Gone, though; he wasn’t where Jerry’d expected him to be.

‘Oh, like that, is it?’ He kept on looking, ten degrees of sky every second; it was the only way to be sure you didn’t miss any— A glimpse of something dark and his heart jerked along with his hand. Up and away. It was gone then, the black speck, but he went on climbing, slowly now, looking. Wouldn’t do to get too low, and he wanted to keep the altitude . . .

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.

br />

The signalman wig-wagged him and he turned up the throttle, feeling the plane begin to move.

He touched his pocket automatically, whispering, ‘Love you, Dolly,’ under his breath. Everyone had his little ritual, those last few moments before take-off. For Jerry MacKenzie, it was his wife’s face and his lucky stone that usually settled the worms in his belly. She’d found it in a rocky hill on the Isle of Lewis, where they’d spent their brief honeymoon – a rough sapphire, she said, very rare.

‘Like you,’ he’d said, and kissed her.

No need for worms just the now, but it wasn’t a ritual if you only did it sometimes, was it? And even if it wasn’t going to be combat today, he’d need to be paying attention.

He went up in slow circles, getting the feel of the new plane, sniffing to get her scent. He wished they’d let him fly Dolly II, her seat stained with his sweat, the familiar dent in the console where he’d slammed his fist in exultation at a kill – but they’d already modified this one with the wing-cameras and the latest thing in night-sights. It didn’t do to get attached to the planes, anyway; they were almost as fragile as the men flying them, though the parts could be reused.

No matter; he’d sneaked out to the hangar the evening before and done a quick rag-doll on the nose to make it his. He’d know Dolly III well enough by the time they went into Poland.

He dived, pulled up sharp, and did Dutch rolls for a bit, wigwagging through the cloud-layer, then complete rolls and Immelmanns, all the while reciting Malan’s Rules to focus his mind and keep from getting air-sick.

The Rules were posted in every RAF barracks now: the Ten Commandments, the fliers called them – and not as a joke.

TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING, the poster said in bold black type. Jerry knew them by heart.

‘Wait until you see the whites of his eyes,’ he chanted under his breath. ‘Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”.’ He glanced at his sights, suffering a moment’s disorientation. The camera wizard had relocated them. Shite.

‘Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.’ Well, away to fuck, then. The buttons that operated the camera weren’t on the stick; they were on a box connected to a wire that ran out the window; the box itself was strapped to his knee. He’d be bloody looking out the window anyway, not using sights – unless things went wrong and he had to use the guns. In which case . . .

‘Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out.” ’ Aye, right, that one was still good.

‘Height gives you the initiative.’ Not in this case. He’d be flying low, under the radar, and not be looking for a fight. Always the chance one might find him, though. If any German craft found him flying solo in Poland, his best chance was likely to head straight for the sun and fall in. That thought made him smile.

‘Always turn and face the attack.’ He snorted and flexed his bad knee, which ached with the cold. Aye, if you saw it coming in time.

‘Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.’ He’d learnt that one fast. His body often was moving before his brain had even notified his consciousness that he’d seen something. Nothing to see just now, nor did he expect to, but he kept looking by reflex.

‘Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.’ Definitely out. Straight and level was just what he was going to have to do. And slowly.

‘When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.’ Irrelevant; he wouldn’t have a formation – and that was a thought that gave him the cold grue. He’d be completely alone; no help coming if he got into bother.

‘INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.’ Yeah, they did. What meant something in reconnaissance? Stealth, Speed, and Bloody Good Luck, more like. He took a deep breath, and dived, shouting the last of the Ten Commandments so it echoed in his Perspex shell.

‘Go in quickly – Punch hard – GET OUT!’

‘Rubber-necking,’ they called it, but Jerry usually ended a day’s flying feeling as though he’d been cast in concrete from the shoulder-blades up. He bent his head forward now, ferociously massaging the base of his skull to ease the growing ache. He’d been practising since dawn, and it was nearly tea-time. Ball-bearings, set, for the use of pilots, one, he thought. Ought to add that to the standard equipment list. He shook his head like a wet dog, hunched his shoulders, groaning, then resumed the sector-by-sector scan of the sky around him that every pilot did religiously, three hundred and sixty degrees, every moment in the air. All the live ones, anyway.

Dolly’d given him a white silk scarf as a parting present. He didn’t know how she’d managed the money for it and she wouldn’t let him ask, just settled it round his neck inside his flight jacket. Somebody’d told her the Spitfire pilots all wore them, to save the constant collar-chafing, and she meant him to have one. It felt nice, he’d admit that. Made him think of her touch when she’d put it on him. He pushed the thought hastily aside; the last thing he could afford to do was start thinking about his wife, if he ever hoped to get back to her. And he did mean to get back to her.

Where was that bugger? Had he given up?

No, he’d not; a dark spot popped out from behind a bank of cloud just over his left shoulder and dived for his tail. Jerry turned, a hard, high spiral, up and into the same clouds, the other after him like stink on shite. They played at dodgem for a few moments, in and out of the drifting clouds – he had the advantage in altitude, could play the coming-out-of-the-sun trick, if there were any sun, but it was autumn in Northumberland and there hadn’t been any sun in days . . .

Gone. He heard the buzzing of the other plane, faintly, for a moment – or thought he had. Hard to tell above the dull roar of his own engine. Gone, though; he wasn’t where Jerry’d expected him to be.

‘Oh, like that, is it?’ He kept on looking, ten degrees of sky every second; it was the only way to be sure you didn’t miss any— A glimpse of something dark and his heart jerked along with his hand. Up and away. It was gone then, the black speck, but he went on climbing, slowly now, looking. Wouldn’t do to get too low, and he wanted to keep the altitude . . .

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 maÄ?! Where you learn that, you Scotch fucker?’

‘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 sky-larking then; back to the fucking 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 only had the left-handed ones 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! OK, 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 fucking 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 500 feet and still in cloud!

‘Christ!’

The ground appeared in a sudden burst of yellow and brown. He jerked the nose up, saw the rocks of a crag dead ahead, swerved, stalled, nose-dived, pulled back, pulled back, not enough, oh, God—

His first conscious thought was that he should have radioed base when the engine went.

‘Stupid fucker,’ he mumbled. ‘Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best. Clot-heid.’


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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