As the plane from the Renegade pulled away, Morgan fought back tears. The last few hours had been a whirlwind of action and drama, but through it all she relied on faith and the training that her dad had put her through over the last two years. It helped when Grace was with her, because then she had to be strong for her little sister. Now, though, she was alone with someone that she didn’t know flying through the air headed back to the one place on earth that she wanted to avoid.
I can’t give in, she thought, if I do then they win, and they don’t deserve to win. She closed her eyes and began to pray, for protection and for peace. Just those two things, over and over again. She had no idea how long she’d been praying, or even that she’d started to whisper her prayer, until the pilot called over the intercom.
“Okay lady, I don’t care who you’re praying to, but since you’re only saying the same thing over and over again, I’m going to put on some music before I’m driven to hitting the ejection button.”
Morgan stopped praying, opened her eyes, and looked around. It was still dark outside, and the pilot had shut off the interior lights that had previously illuminated the cockpit when one of the parasites from the Renegade flew above them in that ridiculous reenactment of a movie scene and Morgan had waved at them. Now there was only the glow of some of the instruments. Since the pilot had made a first comment, Morgan decided to see if he was willing to have an actual conversation.
“So, you weren’t actually telling the truth when you told the parasite from the Renegade that you were more interested in getting paid for my delivery?”
“Oh no, that was the truth, but your repetitive mumbling was getting on my nerves, so I decided it was time to threaten you myself”
“That’s a pretty empty threat since the F-4 Phantom doesn’t have an ejection button. You have to pull the handles to eject. I’m guessing the rear ones are disabled and the only way for me to eject is if you also eject.”
There was a pause, then: “You’ve got a pretty smart mouth. Now I’m definitely putting on some music. You may as well get some sleep; we’ve got a few hours before our first refuel point.”
Morgan smiled. To her at least she scored some points by pointing out some knowledge of the F-4. While she had no desire to be a pilot, she was still fascinated by all of the different types of equipment that the Renegade used. She listened for a few seconds, waiting for the music to start. When it didn’t, she asked, “Are you the only one that can hear the music?”
“Quiet,” he said gruffly, “I’m trying to shut off your intercom and so I can hear my tunes.”
“What if I need to tell you something?"
“Ha, there’s nothing I need you to tell me. I’m the pilot, you’re just cargo. Why isn’t this working?”
“But what if a giant fire-breathing dragon flies over head? Isn’t that something you need to know?”
“A fire-bre…what? There’s no such thing! And how am I still hearing you, I turned off your part of the intercom!”
“Well I didn’t do anything; I can see that the intercom switches back here are frozen in VOX position with epoxy.”
“That’s normal for when I transport someone. What’s not normal is me hearing the cargo talk.”
“My name is Morgan, and it’s not my fault if your equipment stopped working.”
“This is what I get for rushing my take-off, and I don’t care what your name is, just as it doesn’t matter what you think you have to say.”
“So, you don’t care if I see a fire-breathing dragon flying next to us?”
“Sheesh, I told you there’s no such thing as a dragon, fire-breathing or otherwise.”
“How do you know? We see lots of weird things in the world today, why not a dragon?”
“I hear enough weird stuff from other pilots that I would know if someone saw a dragon breathing fire.”
“Weird stuff like what?”
“What? I shouldn’t be able to hear you, I hit play on my iPod.”
“Well obviously that isn’t working either. So what kind of weird stuff have you heard about from other pilots?”
“Fine. It looks like nothing is working right now. Look, pilots talk, and a lot of them have talked about seeing stuff like strange lights, or phantom airship sightings.”
“Oh, so you’ve seen the ‘Flying Dutchman’?”
“What? No, I haven’t, that’s what others have said, but no one ever mentioned the ‘Flying Dutchman’.”
“Well it had to have been the ‘Flying Dutchman’ since that is the only certified phantom airship in existence.”
“There is no such thing as the ‘Flying Dutchman’, that’s a rumor that won’t die.”
“No, a rumor that won’t die is that Renegade Interns are eaten as a food source. My sister and I help spread that one in town to the new interns. The stories about the ‘Flying Dutchman are true as the Renegade has documented its existence.”
“Wait, what? What did you say?”
“I said three different things, which one are you questioning?”
“All of them because now you have me completely confused. What rumors about cannibalism?”
“It’s a rumor, like I said, meaning there is no truth to it. Vlad likes to help. We just like to scare the interns with it since a lot of them have some romanticized views about air piracy and vampires.”
“Ensign Vlad, he’s an assistant engineer.”
“So, the guy likes to play-act that he’s a vampire?”
“Oh no, he’s a real vampire. He joined the Renegade when they went to Transylvania last Halloween.”
“Joined the crew? And they let him stay?”
“The Captain doesn’t like him for some reason, but he’s good at his job and really a nice guy.”
“Is that a touch of admiration I hear? Maybe some vampire swooning?”
“Really? I didn’t take you for a fan-boy of the ‘Twilight’ series.”
“Hey, work can take me on some long trips, I watch all sorts of movies.”
“I get that, but still, ‘Twilight’?”
“Hey, this isn’t about me, you’re explaining about a vampire that’s a member of an air pirate ship.”
“No, I’m telling you about a rumor related to the vampire that’s a member of an air pirate crew. There’s a difference.”
“Okay, whatever. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that you know a vampire.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Of course it is! They don’t just hang around meeting people in public. I’ve only heard of them from stories about bad encounters.”
“Oh, okay. Well I only know what Vlad tells us. From him most of the stories out there are exaggerations.”
“That I can’t say, he made us promise we’d keep what he told us a secret. How do I know you aren’t working for a group of vampire hunters on the side?”
“Oh please, those guys are nuts. Besides, I like to fly. Hand-to-hand combat with a vampire does not sound like something I want to mess with.”
“Well that’s good to know. I’m still not going to tell you anything else about Vlad. I mean, you aren’t going to tell me anything about the contract you’re working that has me a passenger, are you?”
“Nope. All you need to know is that I’m to deliver you safely to Utah.”
“And you always fulfill your contracts?”
“I don’t get paid if I don’t, and I like to get paid.”
“You sound like a member of the Renegades.”
“Heh, those guys like to fight and drink if the stories are true.”
“They drink and they steal things, that’s their motto.”
“Why would you know their motto?”
“Because I’ve heard it?”
“Okay, now you’re starting to sound like an Air Pirate fan-girl”
“I’m not a fan-girl; I just pay attention.”
“Is that how you know some stuff about the F-4?”
“Yep. Too many people assume that just because you’re a girl, you don’t pay attention to stuff around you. You’re too worried about your hair, or your nails, or a cute guy, or a million other vacuous things.”
“That’s a pretty dumb attitude for someone to have. We’ve got women pilots in our company, and their just as good as any man.”
“Oh, it’s nice to know that you aren’t the sexist mercenary that I originally took you for.”
Laughter. “Hey, don’t judge based on my job.”
“I will do my best not to.”
"Fair enough. So how did you fall in with these air pirates in the first place?”
“I didn’t, I’m not a member of the crew.”
“Well then how do you know stuff about them, and why were their fighters trying to get me to turn around and land? The pilot we talked to seemed to know a lot about you.”
“Are you contractually obligated to tell your employer anything I tell you.”
“No. Normally my passengers are unconscious or they’re trying to bribe me, so I shut off the intercom. This is the first real conversation I’ve had in a while. But no, I don’t tell the employer anything. We aren’t interrogators, just transporters.”
Morgan weighed his words for a moment, saying a quick prayer at the same time. Telling him about her and the families background seemed like the right thing to do.
“My dad is the chief gunnery officer for the Renegade.”
“Yep! I’m being completely serious. He’s had the position for a couple of years now.”
Pilot did some quick thinking of his own.
“That’s about as long as the Renegade has been running rampant. Your dad is an original member?”
“No, he joined the crew after they rescued us, and he helped them to fix their Tesla cannons.”
“They rescued you? A bunch of air pirates?”
“Yes, they did. Is that hard to believe?”
“Kidnapped I would easily believe. Rescued is hard to swallow.”
“They only kidnap Russian Oligarchs so they can ransom them for money.”
“So, they don’t traffic women for slavery purposes?”
“No, my Dad would never work for them if they did. Probably most of the crew would quit too. For air pirates they’ve got some interesting morals.”
“Well that’s new. There are stories about how all these different air pirates are grabbing people and selling them.”
“Oh, I’ve heard stories about crews like that, but the Renegade isn’t one of them.”
The pilot thought about that for a few seconds. “How do I know you aren’t just telling me that?”
“Why would I? I mean seriously, what would I gain by lying about that? At the least it would poison any future discussion.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that. Tell you what, I need to prepare to land for our first refueling. Let’s pick this back up once we’re airborne again, okay?”
“Sure, can you tell me where we are landing?”
“It’s a neutral site in Bermuda. Hang on.”
Morgan couldn’t see much as they came in for a landing since it was still dark. That was disappointing since she had never been to Bermuda before. It also meant she really didn’t have a good chance to escape since she couldn’t see any place to escape to.
The Phantom touched down, rolled to the end of the runway, and then turned onto a taxi way. Morgan could see the lights of where a terminal was, probably, but she doubted that’s where they would be going. She could hear the pilot talking on the radio, acknowledging directions for what to do. Finally, the pulled onto a part of the taxiway and stopped. Morgan recognized the shutting down of the engines, then the pilot spoke.
“Okay, while the place gets refueled, we can refuel too. Now before I open the canopy, let me explain a few things. You will have an escort, she’s a member of the company I work for. Don’t try to mess with her; she would have no qualms about subduing you, got it?"
“Got it, be nice to the lady that’s going to show me to the bathroom.”
“That is probably more information than I needed to know, but you’ve got the idea. Okay, here we go.”
Lights came on and the canopy started to rise. For the first time Morgan could see her full surroundings, though not as well as she would if the sun had been out. Still, it let her glance around quickly as she also looked to see how to undo her harness. There wasn’t anything she could use as a weapon, or to call for help. She started to undo the harness as a ladder came along the right side of the cockpit, when she noticed a red sharpie marker sitting among the instrumentation. She had not felt it during the earlier part of the flight, but it was there now, and she quickly palmed it just before someone appeared at the top of the ladder.
Hands reached in from the side with the ladder and Morgan jumped.
“Hold still,” said a gravelly voice, “otherwise I can’t undo the straps, and I am not cleaning up after you if you make a mess.”
Morgan looked at the face as the lady finished undoing the harness straps. She looked about her parents age, but she sounded older. Then Morgan realized she could smell cigarette smoke on her, so her voice was probably from years of smoking. That reminded her of some of her relatives from back in the states. The lady backed away and looked at Morgan.
“You can take off the helmet as soon as you are on the ladder, just leave it in the seat. Now come on out and down. We haven’t got all night.”
“Yes ma’am.” Morgan stood up in the cockpit, carefully put her hands at what appeared to be appropriate spots, and then stepped out onto the ladder. It wasn’t easy thanks to the length of the dress that “Aunt Sarah” made her put on, but she managed. Once she was fully out of the F-4, she took off the helmet and put it on the seat. Then she stepped down to the ground and turned to face ‘gravel-voice’.
Gravel smirked and said, “I half thought the politeness was an act.”
Morgan tilted her head and said, “Excuse me?”
“I’ve had packages in the past that acted nice and then they tried to run before they hit ground,” replied Gravel
“Oh,” said Morgan. “So what would you have done if I had tried to run?”
“Just take my word that I am very good with a bolo,” said Gravel.
“That is very cool, I’ve always wanted to learn how to use a bolo.”
“Well if we had time, I’d teach ya, but since we don’t, I think we should just head over to the snack bar so you can get something to eat.”
Morgan headed towards the lights that ‘Gravel’ had pointed at. As they got closer, she was able to make out a Quonset Hut with a sign advertising itself to be the Beach Rest. Not very original. Stepping inside, she immediately wished for hand sanitizer and was hoping she could hold her breath for the duration of her stay. A pair of ceiling fans, moving at different speeds, were attempting (and failing) to circulate the air. Clouds of second-hand smoke hung over different tables, with patrons in a variety of inebriated conditions. Morgan thought this must be what the Zeppel Inn looked like after the Renegade returned from a raid, which explained why her father never stayed for the after-parties.
Looking to her left, Morgan spotted a sign for the female restroom. She turned towards it and glanced at ‘gravel-voice’. “Do you mind if I use the bathroom first? It suddenly occurred to me that I haven’t gone since lunchtime.”
“Be my guest. There are no windows, so I’m not worried about you escaping. I’ll be at this table right outside, so no running.”
Morgan nodded and entered. Her opinion of the cleanliness of the Beach Rest went up a notch since the bathroom was at least as clean as the ones at the Parr’s house. They had boys, so clean bathrooms were not always to be expected there. She took care of her business, made sure her weapon was still secure in her thigh holster, and that the thigh holster was still secured to her leg. As she was washing her hands, she noticed that the door was surprisingly clean. That gave her an idea and she resolved to make another trip after she had eaten. She then exited the bathroom and went immediately to the table where ‘gravel-voice’ was seated. As she sat down, ‘gravel’ nodded in approval.
“You have got to be the politest package I’ve ever worked with. Are you acting that way just to get my guard down so you can try to get away?”
Morgan shrugged. “What’s the point in resisting? You guys have treated me better than those thugs from Gilead, so I may as well make the best of things.”
Gravel made a face when Morgan mentioned Gilead. She guessed that Gravel didn’t like them either. Then ‘Gravel’ spoke again, “Our client insisted that we provide you with appropriate breaks and food, so you can order whatever you’d like. That said, I recommend you avoid all the stews and red meats unless you’re partial to food poisoning.”
Morgan thought about that for a second. “How’s the chicken?”
“Decent. Go for the chicken fingers and fries.”
“Works for me. Thank you for the recommendation.”
Morgan ordered the chicken finger basket and a bottle of Dr Pepper, while ‘Gravel’ didn’t order a thing. “Not eating?” asked Morgan.
“I ate before you ever landed, it can be tough to watch over cargo when you’re feeding your face.”
Morgan nodded in acknowledgement and sat back to wait on her food while she looked around the room to pass the time. Most of the patrons were focused on their food or drinks, but Morgan noticed someone through the haze that appeared to be watching her. It could just be they were looking at ‘Gravel’, but Morgan started to feel uneasy about him.
A few minutes later, her food showed up along with a second basket. Morgan glanced at ‘Gravel’ who simply replied, “It’s for the pilot.” With that in mind Morgan bowed her head to say grace, then she opened the Dr. Pepper, took a drink, added some ketchup to a corner of the basket, and started to eat.
As she was halfway through her second chicken strip, the pilot sat down in the seat in front of his basket. He started to squirt ketchup and mustard from the bottles on the table as he spoke to ‘Gravel’. “No sign of Crockett and his aircraft. If they had taken off shortly after we did, they would have been here by now, or at least close enough to report in over the radio. I’m thinking they never made it off of the airship.”
Morgan’s heart leapt at that news. If the other aircraft never left that cargo airship, then the odds were high that her sister was rescued. She kept eating while the pilot and ‘Gravel’ kept talking.
“It’s a good thing the contract is set up for delivery of each girl, instead of a guarantee for both of them at once,” said ‘Gravel’. “Otherwise we might not get paid.”
The pilot nodded as he chewed through some fries. He swallowed, took a drink from a bottle of coke, and then said “Too true. I’m even more motivated to get this girl delivered safely now. I’m sure corporate would appreciate some funds for this venture, especially considering how expensive F-4s are.”
He started eating another chicken strip when Morgan decided to risk a question.
“Is there any place else they could have gone?”
The pilot snorted as he finished eating. He took another drink and replied, “Besides ditching in the ocean? No. Bermuda is the only place he would go. We don’t have continuously operating facilities in Europe, we just rent stuff at certain airfields when it’s needed. If he were to land anywhere else, then his aircraft would be confiscated, and he’d lose his cargo. That I would have heard about, but there’s been nothing.”
Morgan nodded and looked at her plate. She was pretty full, but she decided to finish her fries and Dr. Pepper. Once she swallowed the last of the soda, she looked at ‘Gravel’ and asked, “Can I use the restroom again? I imagine it will be a time before I can go again.”
‘Gravel’ nodded. “Go right ahead, nothing has changed from last time, we’ll be right here when you get out.”
With that, Morgan when back into the ladies’ room. No one else was in there, and so as soon as the door was fully closed, the red sharpie came out of her pocket and she quickly wrote on the back of the door. Stepping back, she looked over her handiwork and then stepped up to the sink to wash her hands, the sharpie going back into her pocket. Once she was done, she headed back out, hoping she had used up an appropriate amount of time. She found ‘Gravel’ and her pilot waiting by the door, facing off against three others that looked like air pirate rejects. Morgan realized that the one in the center was the person from the other table that she thought had been watching her.
“We said we want the handmaiden,” said the one in the center. He was short, probably shorter than Morgan’s mother, so maybe he was a dwarf? Morgan had a picture of some dwarf character from a series of books that were popular with the more literate members of the Renegade. She’d gotten half-way through the first one and decided it wasn’t her thing, but she remembered the dwarf character. This guy wasn’t as intriguing as that character had been.
“Not going to happen,” said the pilot, his right hand on the butt of a holstered pistol. “She’s my package and you’re not getting her.” He looked at each of their opponents as he spoke. “Besides, this is neutral ground. If you start anything, I’m not obligated to let you live, and if you’re part of a crew, you’ll be banned from this site.”
A sneer crawled over the dwarf’s face. “You think we care about any penalties? The ransom for a handmaiden is worth enough that we can buy our way into anywhere we want.” As he was talking his two companions started to shift to the left and right. The tallest of the two was also the skinniest, his hands rested on a pair of knives at this belt. The other one was stockier, and didn’t appear to have any weapons, he just kept flexing his hands in a way that Morgan guessed meant he was a brawler.
“Your funeral,” said the pilot, then he shrugged, and his pistol cleared the holster and a shot rang out. The brawler made a gurgling sound and grabbed his own throat, trying in vain to stop the blood flow that erupted. In the next instant, Morgan heard a buzzing above her head, and then a loud WHAP as ‘Gravel’ brought her arm down and a pair of bolos impacted on the crown of the head of the tall skinny guy. His two knives clattered to the floor just before he did and ‘Gravel’ switched to the dwarf, this time swinging the bolos to hit him on his right shoulder. Morgan heard a crack as bones broke, and then the pilot lunged forward, knocking the dwarf down, and shoving the muzzle of a revolver into his throat.
Morgan backed up against the wall behind her and watched as the room became very still and quiet. The pilot spoke softly but it was easy to hear his words. “We’re going to leave now, and unless you want to end up like your two buddies, you’ll be smart and leave us alone. Got it?”
The dwarf nodded slowly. The pilot got up two his feet and nodded at ‘Gravel’ as he went to the door. ‘Gravel stepped back to Morgan, put a hand on her elbow, and guided her outside. “Still not trying to escape?” Morgan shook her head. “Why would I when it’s more apparent I’m safe with you?” ‘Gravel’ smiled and replied “Stick close to us. These idiots may have been part of a larger crew.” Morgan nodded, as they went outside and started down the walk heading towards where the plane was sitting.
Morgan could see it illuminated by flood lights, which made this the first time she’d paid attention to how it looked since she only saw it from behind back in Scotland. If anything, the pilot kept it in good shape, though she suspected his company had something to do with that.
About halfway there, the pilot suddenly turned towards something in the dark and yelled “Down!”
Morgan ducked, but noticed the pilot’s revolver was out, that’s when Morgan heard the sound of feet running at them. She also heard the whirl of the bolos. Looking up she saw ‘Gravel’ give them a final spin before releasing them towards a target in the dark. A scream was cut off right before a shot rang out, then both the pilot and ‘Gravel’ ducked down and split to the left and right. Morgan just sat there, kneeling on the ground, not knowing where to go, but also knowing she was probably safest staying put.
Another shot that sounded like the revolver again, something clattered to the ground nearby, and again Morgan heard the buzzing whirl of a set of bolos. Morgan couldn’t see a thing, but suddenly she realized someone was behind her. She started to turn just as an arm wrapped around her waist.
“Quit trying to run or I’ll cut you down.” It was the short guy from the snack shack, the one that threatened the group earlier. Apparently, he didn’t give up easily. Morgan relaxed, then let him start to pull her back and away from the fighting. “That’s right,” he said, “just come with me and…”
As Morgan felt Shorty take a step, she grabbed his wrist and pinned it against her. Then she ducked down and spun, rotating under his arm while also twisting it opposite of the direction it was supposed to go. Shorty was taken completely by surprise and he screamed as his arm torqued and he lost his balance. His scream turned to a shriek as he landed on his broken shoulder, then it caught in his throat as Morgan’s foot impacted with his groin and he passed out from the pain.
Morgan saw a pistol handle in Shorty’s belt at the same time she heard footsteps running up behind her. Knowing the pilot and ‘Gravel’ were to her front, she knelt down, grabbed the pistol, worked the slide of the unknown semi-automatic, and then turned around just in time to see a pair of dark shapes rushing at her. Her thumb flipped off the safety and she fired several shots. Both fell and didn’t move. Morgan didn’t know if they were dead or not, but if they weren’t a threat anymore then she didn’t care. She started scanning for other threats, and then noticed that she didn’t hear any shots or other fighting behind her, meaning her two captors were probably on their way back to get her. Well she thought, there was still no where for her to run, so she may as well stay put and make sure no one else tried to get at the group from the direction she was watching.
She didn’t have to wait long before she heard another pair of footsteps approaching from behind her, then a gravely voice said, “Okay honey, why don’t you put that down. We got rid of rest of those pirates.”
Slowly, Morgan shifted her hands so she could drop the magazine, then she locked the slide to the read. She held the pistol up and to her right side, and then set it down before standing up and facing the pilot and ‘Gravel’.
“So,” she said with as much poise as she could muster, “do I qualify for any compensation for protecting myself from these ruffians while the two of you were otherwise engaged?”
She saw them both glance down at Shorty and the two unknowns, then look at each other. The pilot shrugged and replied, “Unfortunately there’s nothing in the contract about that, so you’ll just have to accept our thanks.”
Morgan thought about that for a second. “You’re welcome. Now would it be possible for us to leave before something else happens, like a fire-breathing dragon arriving to nest?”
The pilot groaned while ‘Gravel’ simply gave a “What?”
“Don’t ask,” said the pilot, “okay, let’s go.”
The group headed over to where the Phantom was sitting. No one else was around, and the aircraft looked undamaged. The pilot looked at ‘Gravel’ and said, “Get her strapped in while I do a walk-around.”
Morgan went up the ladder to the back seat, picking up her helmet and putting it on before she climbed in and started to buckle her straps. ‘Gravel’ came up the ladder next and double-checked Morgan’s straps to make sure everything was proper, then she looked at her. She gave her a thin smile and said, “Good luck kid. I hope things work out well for you.”
Morgan smiled back and replied, “I have faith. I know that God is in control. I do want to thank you for helping out here.”
‘Gravel’ nodded, but Morgan could see the doubt in her eyes. She disappeared down the ladder and then Morgan caught sight of the pilot climbing into his seat. The engines started, and the canopy started to close. The pilot went through his start up sequence, got clearance to taxi to the runway, and then Morgan felt a steady acceleration as the Phantom picked up speed and took off into the night. The G-forces kept her from looking around much, but even then, she knew she would not have seen much due to the darkness. As they climbed higher, Morgan finally felt very tired; as if all of her adrenaline from the day’s events had suddenly left her.
“Hey, uh, Mr. Pilot?” she said in the hopes that the intercom still worked.
The pilot replied immediately. “Heh, I guess I never gave you a name, did I?”
Morgan grinned, not that he could see her. “No, you didn’t. Am I allowed to know it?”
She heard a chuckle, then he said, “You can call me Snoopy.”
“Yep, Snoopy. Not only am I a huge fan of the Peanuts Cartoon, but Snoopy and his World War One flying ace stories were a huge reason for me wanting to become a pilot. That story got out in flight school, and the call sign was born.”
Morgan thought for a second, “That’s a pretty good story. I like it.”
“I’m glad, so do I,” he said, then he sounded more business-like. “Now then, did you have a question?”
“Yes, I did. Can you tell me how long it is until our next stop? I’m really tired and was wondering about trying to sleep.”