by Robert Lyman - 2021
We crossed into Free Maritime airspace just after sunset. The Renegade was well past the eastern horizon by now, slipping her way northward before turning west towards the Free Maritimes and a quick resupply. Once there they would spend about three days taking on supplies and in general causing mayhem that only the crew of the Renegade can cause.
“What’s on your mind, Piper?” Zilla asked from the rear seat.
I didn’t answer. In the last twelve hours I’d lost almost everything I’d worked for in the last several years. Both Remoras. Ack-Ack’s to being stolen back by a spy and mine to fire damage. Mine was a total loss, the fire causing so much damage as to make the plane unflyable and too difficult to repair. It was placed in the launch bay right after we launched and dropped into the sea with Ack-Ack’s body in the pilot’s seat and Jones in the rear. We circled from a distance and watched as it plummeted to the surface, breaking up on impact. There would be nothing to salvage and the bodies were weighted to help with burial. Finally, along with the aircraft, I’d also lost a good friend whom I tried hard to help. It was the last bit that was biting hardest of all.
So yeah, talking was not exactly tops on my list of things I wanted to do at the moment. All I really wanted to do now was fly the damn plane in silence.
“Seriously, I hate uncomfortable silence,” she said.
My mind screamed ‘No!’ but in the end my heart wasn’t in it and I acquiesced to her need to chat. I caved.
“What’s on my mind?” I paused for a moment to check six and then continued. “What was that thing you did in your quarters? I mean I’ve seen some amazing feats of strength, but that was, on the whole, some very, very, spooky shit to say the least.”
“Yeah, about that,” she said. “It’s going to take a bit to explain.”
“You wanted to talk,” I replied.
“Duly noted,” she replied. “Bit of background, my clan is part of what’s known as the ‘Bear Clan’ in the UNC.”
“Okay,” I checked our altitude. We were holding at around three hundred meters, give or take, with our speed around six hundred knots. It was the agreed upon altitude and speed so the FM wouldn’t shoot us down when we popped on their radar, which probably happened about ten minutes ago. After that, we’d been cleared for any necessary maneuvers we required in their airspace.
“So being part of the Bear Clan means that we share some traits with the clan totem which is of course, a bear.”
“Hold that thought, gotta do some work,” I said. I banked the plane right for a more north by north westerly approach. We held that course for several minutes before banking back on a full northwesterly course. The goal was to stay over water through the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, then follow the Saint Lawrence River low and fast to Tadoussac and then pop up and make a run for northern Ontario and the town of Timmins. Northern Ontario was relatively friendly towards the UNC, whereas the southern portions having been annexed by the Quebecois Nation and the NAF were significantly less so. Timmins was far enough north that we could skirt any NAF air defenses in the south. From there we’d head west towards the old provinces of Manitoba and Saskathawan which in the Breakup had combined with the old upper Midwest of the USA. It went as far south as the northern edge of what was Nebraska, west into old Wyoming, and then finally east into the upper portion of Minnesota. This was what made up the UNC.
“Okay you got a few minutes,” I said.
“Some of us share more traits than others. The most gifted can fully shapeshift into a bear,” she said.
“Is that what you were doing?”
“Not exactly, I am not that gifted. I am gifted enough that I can express the strength and body the way you saw, but not much more,” she said. “Plus, it takes a lot of energy to make it work and afterward, I can be very tired and extremely hungry.”
“Hold that,” I glanced at the surrounding landscape and what I could see of it even with the night vision enabled helmet. Thankfully for us it was a cloudy night over this area, which did a lot to help hide us.
Two small land masses separated by water began to take shape on the horizon. To the port side would be the northern coast of Cape Breton and to the starboard, the southern coast of Newfoundland. The middle was the entrance to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
“Okay, here comes the tricky part,” I said as I dropped our altitude to a mere thirty meters off the deck. Ships were a concern, but the bigger issue was how close we would be to Quebec which was just on the other side of the gulf. Time to earn my pay as they say.
The plan was to keep to the near side of Anticosti Island which would provide us with additional cover. The downside to this was it would make for a tighter turn into the Saint Lawrence River basin. I had slowed us down as much as I dared to three hundred knots. I could slow us down a notch or two more and we’d be better able to make that transition, but bleeding speed to increase one safety margin only decreased the other. Not a fair trade in my book.
Anticosti was looming big in the view now along with the make or break point right...about...now. I banked hard left and yanked back on the stick which put the plane on its side barely touching the water. G forces pulled at our bodies and for a moment I wondered if I’d made a mistake as I felt the pull of physics on my chest.
And then the river opened before us.
I righted the plane only to feel a thump! against the hull as it leveled off. No alerts on the console and no alarms in my ears.
“What was that thump?” Zilla asked.
“Not sure. We were pretty close to the water so I suspect we may have hit a mast or something. Anything larger and we’d be dead,” I replied.
“I’m not big on thumps, especially when we’re travelling at three hundred knots,” she said. “So can we keep the thumps to a minimum please?”
“I will certainly try,” I replied.
I tested the rudder gently and it performed accordingly. Banked left a little. No change there. Went to bank right and well, it would do it, but there was fight in it.
“We have a problem,” I said. “Right turns are sluggish at best. Must have damaged the port side aileron.”
We were fast approaching our final turn before we raced across Quebec and right now that was going to be difficult at best and possibly downright impossible.
“Okay hold on, going to try something,” I said. We’d come up on the turn so it was now or never. I shoved the stick to the right, pulled back hard and stomped on the rudder pedal. I’d yaw us through this turn if that was what it took.
The plane was sluggish and the terrain was flying past beneath us at distances that were insane for even a master pilot. Once again G forces squashed us hard in our seats, so hard I was having a difficult time holding the stick even with both hands. Blood drained away from my face and I felt my hands losing their grip on the stick. A tall building loomed in our view, one that at the moment I was certain we’d plow right through, thus ending our journey in its infancy.
I braced for the impact and after a moment felt the tension of gravity release its hold on me. I heard a loud exhale from behind me through comms as the plane leveled off in a westerly direction.
“All yours again,” she said. “I need a nap.”
“Thanks,” I replied. I checked our course and adjusted it as best I could. I dropped our altitude as low as I dared to around fifty meters and ramped our speed up to just above six hundred knots.
One hour and thirty to Timmins. We’d land, refuel, and finish the trip to the UNC.
One hour and twenty to cross Quebec.
One hour and…if we have enough fuel. The left tank fuel indicator was dropping faster than I’d like which meant we probably had damage to it as well as the aileron.
I backed off the speed. Might save us some gas, but once I made the switch to the other tank, all bets were off. At the current rate of burn and loss that would be in about ten minutes I figured. I did some more mental math and it was going to be close. Best case, we’d land with plenty to spare. Worst case? Well let’s not get ahead of ourselves shall we?
Right about the twelve-minute mark I had to switch tanks. That was it. This was all or nothing to Timmins. This left no room for maneuver against unfriendlies, air or ground.
Now that I had some time to myself to think, I was surprised we didn’t encounter any defensive fire along the Saint Lawrence, but truth be told, our speed through the area probably negated any chance of hitting us and probably increased the chance of hitting something on the Free Maritime side. Who knows?
Obviously, the Chief had saved us back there and I had to remember to thank her when she woke from her nap. I’m fairly certain without her we’d have cut that building in half. Other pilots have said ‘Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good’, and prior to this flight, I’d have been one of them. Now, not so much.
Now I say ‘Sometimes it’s better to have a Bear Clan member in the rear seat, than be good.’
We were heading out over the middle portion of Quebec and out of any relative danger that we knew about for the time being. This was no time to relax necessarily, but I felt a moment of respite was needed so I set the autopilot and relaxed my poster a bit.
I turned off the night vision viewer and raised the visor. I liked to look at the ground clutter at night, but more so, if possible, catch the night sky. I dimmed the console lights and leaned my head back and gazed upward.
The clouds had given way to an incredibly open night sky, fertile with stars in their clarity and brightness. A quick glance around and I found the constellation Hercules, to the left was Lyra, and above that, Cygnus. Part of why I liked being a pilot, I got to see the night sky in ways no one else could. As a kid my family would vacation at my Uncle’s country place in the summers. I drove my parents bonkers because I’d spend all night in the pasture with a telescope and my dreams. I’d memorized every constellation and star I could find and had dreams of flying higher than any human ever had, maybe even to the moon. I missed those days.
I was so wrapped up in my nostalgia that I almost missed the best prize of all. I turned my head to the right and my mouth dropped open.
“Fuck me,” I said to no one in particular.
There it was in plain view, Ursa Major.
The Great Bear.
Kind of makes you wonder sometimes at the majesty of the universe and whether God or some other supreme being really does “play at dice.” It is all such a mystery and the wonder of it still amazes me after all this time. I never get tired of gazing upon it and gaze upon them I did for quite some time.
Eventually I dialed up the console lights to check the fuel status and yeah it was looking bad, but at least as far as I was concerned, we’d make the landing with enough to spare.
“Where are we?” Zilla asked. Her voice groggy over the comms.
“Well, hello there!” I replied. “Welcome back, and thanks for the help back there. Not sure we’d have cleared that building had you not intervened.”
“Yeah, kind of figured we were in trouble,” she replied. “And now you know why I only do two shows a night. Wipes me out. How long was I out?”
“We’re about halfway across Quebec with just enough fuel to get us to Timmins,” I replied. “You were out about twenty minutes or so. I’ve kept us just low enough that we should be nothing more than chaff to any radars. So tell me, what is the deal with Mr. Smashy?”
There was silence for a moment, “Mr. Smashy is a spanner and pretty much my favorite tool. Just like the medicine bundle, it is enchanted. The Renegade engineers and a couple chaplains decorated it with glyphs and sigils. These give it it’s powers.”
“Okay, figured that, but it has a personality?”
“You could say that,” she replied.
“I did say that.”
“Right, so yeah in a way it does. When I use it for work, I get a sense that it guides me on placement, et cetera. Kind of like telling me the best way to utilize it in the most efficient way,” she replied. “When I use it as a weapon, it enhances my sense of situational awareness. Kind of like an enhanced sixth sense.”
“And it misses you when you aren’t around?” I asked.
“I guess you could call it that. See it—” The lock on warning light flickered like someone or something was trying to get a fix on us.
“Hold that thought,” I said. I disengaged the autopilot taking full control of the aircraft. I reestablished the night vision, checked six, and didn’t see anything immediately, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something there. A good pilot trusts their instincts and mine were nudging me pretty hard at that moment.
“Think we’re being followed?” Zilla asked.
“It’s possible. I took great pains to keep us low and away from populated areas. Doesn’t mean we weren’t spotted by someone along the way though,” Though why a random stranger would I’m not sure, which means it was more than likely a Quebecois unit out in the bush or that one of their radars picked us up. Which means there is probably a Quebecois fighter or two behind us in the dark somewhere.
“Okay tighten up, because we’re going to test a theory,” I slowed us down quite a bit, airbraked and pulled up on the stick just a touch to give the airbraking some help. Couldn’t push down since down would end very badly. Held that for a minute or so and then settled the plane back down and waited.
It didn’t long for them to overtake us. I throttled up and went to work. Any kind of complex maneuvering was out of the question given our damaged wing so I opted for a more direct approach.
A Parasite fighter is armed with a 15.5 millimeter rotary cannon and a pair of AIM-9 Sidewinder heat seeking missiles. I armed the missiles and lined up behind the trailing plane. I got the lock tone, and pressed the button.
Moments later what looked to be an old RCAF Sabre Mk. 6 exploded in mid air. The second plane wasn’t going to be so easy but at least the odds were better now. In reality, all I had to do was get us over the provincial border into Northern Ontario and we’d be relatively safe. Relatively being subjective of course.
“Nice shooting,” she said.
“Luck, nothing more, but at least the odds evened up a bit,” I replied. “Hang on, we’re going to go through some things.”
The other plane had banked off to the left before I could get a missile lock. I cut left to the inside of their arc, lined up the gun and fired. A stream of light erupted from the nose, lancing out towards the enemy aircraft. Maybe a hit, hard to say at night. They banked right and that right there was a problem. We couldn’t bank right without understeering as they say in auto racing, thus creating a long wide turn allowing them to turn inside us all day long.
I banked right to follow, but rather than force the issue to keep tight with the target, I let the plane dictate our turn. When it was obvious we couldn’t keep the pace with them, I cut back to the left and kept the plane hard over into that turn. As we banked around I spotted movement and sure enough there they were completing their own turn, probably thinking we couldn’t match theirs and they’d get in behind us. I lined it up and let loose a burst from the gun.
Definitely, a hit. I was pretty sure I saw sparks off the hull. I pulled away and banked us back on course for Timmins and hopefully safety.
We were close to the line, I just knew we were. I put the bird on the deck and pushed the throttle to the limit. It shuddered a bit, but held together. The only problem was fuel. We had enough without this, but now that a chase was on, we were burning it faster than imaginable. And without altitude, a dead stick glide was going to be nasty, brutish, and short.
Tracers flew past the canopy and I felt a few thumps on the hull. I tried to swing the aircraft back and forth, climbing and falling, to throw off their aim, but for the record I wasn't sure how effective that would be.
“You okay back there?” I asked.
“Just peachy,” Zilla replied.
“Hang on, we’re almost to the line,” I said. More thumps and a few lights on the console and a couple alarms. Shit. Not good. I silenced them.
Another stream of tracers past the canopy and then...they stopped. Like someone turned off a flashlight beam.
We must have passed the provincial border.
Then the lock on alarm screamed to life. I checked our altitude and sure enough we’d crept up to almost five hundred meters. More than high enough for their radars to see us. No wonder the other plane backed off, they didn’t want to get shot down by mistake.
I put us in a dive and leveled us out at the tree tops. Zilla was rear so she hit the chaff and flares as we descended for cover. The dischargers produced light thumps in the hull as the devices left the plane. We eventually felt the shock wave of at least two, possibly three explosions behind us, but nothing close enough to cause any damage that we could tell.
To the left I spotted a gap in the trees that seemed to run parallel to us so I slid the plane in that direction and sure enough there was a long two lane road stretching out in the direction we needed to go. I put the plane into that trough and punched the throttle as high as it would go. At least if we ran out of fuel, a dead stick landing on a road was a lot better than an open field, or even trees for that matter.
I silenced the lock alarm and after a moment the light went out indicating they most likely could no longer see us. Best of all possible worlds at the moment so I took a long deep breath.
What seemed to be a large lake appeared to our left and at that point I knew from the maps that we had crossed into northern Ontario. It also meant that the road we were following would no longer be straight so I pulled us up to about fifty meters and backed off the throttle.
Then I glanced at the fuel gauge. Not good. In all the excitement I hadn’t time to monitor it and for our efforts the gauge effectively read ‘Empty.' We weren’t far from Timmins’ small airport so we just might make the landing.
I broke the long silence, “Going to be close,” I said.
“Thanks for the happy news,” Zilla replied. As always, cheerful to the end.
I altered our course for the airport and prepared for landing. Gear dropped with no issues so small favor there. I lined up with the runway and began our approach. Since Timmins’ airport is not manned twenty-four hours a day, the plan had been for the Captain to send a message to a contact in Northern Ontario who would then have someone meet us at the airport. It wasn’t optimal, but given the time constraints it would have to do. Just have to trust gut instincts on this one.
No landing lights, but with the night vision I didn’t really need them. The plane was buffeted by a small crosswind, but nothing unmanageable. I deployed the flaps and then the plane began to buck to the right as I tried to keep it lined up on the runway. Shit didn’t think about that. With the damaged aileron, that would include the flaps as well. Fuck!
I worked the rudder pedals along with holding the stick to the left a bit and that seemed to balance it out enough that we were effectively landing like we were sliding into home plate at a baseball game.
We passed the berm at the end of the runway and were now over tarmac. I dropped the throttle and lowered the plane. Just as I thought we were about to touch down I pushed the left rudder pedal to straighten us out, dropped the throttle to the minimum and put the plane on the deck. It bucked and bumped and I shoved both rudder pedals down to brake. Tires squealed and smoke billowed behind us until finally I let off the brakes as the plane coasted to a stop.
We’d made it.
I took a quick look around and spied a hangar with a light on to our left. I taxied us towards it and a few minutes later stopped us just outside the hangar door. I was about to shut the engines down when they both cycled down on their own.
Sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good.
I popped the latches on the canopy, unhooked the straps and lowered the boarding ladder. My feet no more than touched the ground when the hangar door began to rise, casting a large volume of light across the front of the plane. A figure about my height stepped into the light, following it as the door opened to its full height. Back lit as they were I had to shield my eyes against the glare with one hand while placing the other on the butt of the Colt 1911 in the chest holster.
“Hold it right there,” I said. At that moment I heard the thud of the Chief’s boots hitting the pavement behind me.
“The evil that men do lives after them,” the figure said. Their voice deep and husky, so most likely male.
“The good is oft interred with their bones,” said Chief Zilla before I could get a word out.
The man stepped forward with an outstretched hand. He wore a standard set of grey coveralls with a patch here and there. On his head was a baseball cap with the logo of what I assumed to be a local ball club as I didn’t recognize the emblem.
I reached out and we shook hands.
“Much obliged to any help you can give us,” I said. “I’m Commander—”
“No names, makes it easier when the Quebers come through here snooping around, Eh? You can however call me George,” he replied. “And, yes they do.” He turned and spat something on the ground. “In fact they ought to be here before too long, seeing as the provy’s ain’t got much to stop’em with, eh. I give’em an hour, seeing as how you were probably part of that light show earlier off to the east there. Maybe two. Depends on how frisky they are tonight. So how can we help you?”
“We need fuel and my mechanic will need to use your shop. Need to manage some minor repairs as a result of that ‘light show’ you just mentioned,” I replied.
“I think we can accommodate that. Let me get the tractor over here and we’ll tow her under roof so’s you can get her fixed and on yer way.” The man turned and disappeared into the darkness.
“Really?” Chief Zilla said. “Mark Antony’s speech was the call response code?”
“Hey don’t look at me, it was the Captain’s idea, though in my defense I didn’t object, but I’m biased since I’m a fan of the Bard,” I said. “Didn’t know you knew the Bard that well.”
She shook her head and started into the hangar, “More than you know.” Moments later a pair of headlights appeared out of the darkness followed by the silhouette of a small plane tractor with George behind the wheel. Not long after that the plane was in the hangar and the door closed.
While the Chief worked her magic, I decided a cup of coffee was in the offing. Turns out George was a step ahead and already had a pot brewed, ready, and waiting. I poured a cup for me and one for the Chief.
“Mind you, I wouldn’t take too long on those repairs as the Quebers’ll definitely show up,” George said before he disappeared into the adjacent office.
The Chief did not look pleased when I showed up with her coffee. The coffee was fine, it was the plane that had her worried.
“So, what’s the damage? Just a scratch right?” I asked, trying to inject some humor into a very delicate situation.
“I only wish,” she replied before taking a sip of the coffee. Her face scrunched up at the taste. “I can fix the aileron flap problem pretty quick. There’s some damage to the wing skeleton which is impeding their operation. I can remove the impediment and they should resume normal operation. It will lessen the wing strength a bit, but we should be okay with it. The fuel tank is another issue.”
She walked under the wing and sure enough, whatever hit us on the Saint Lawrence had gouged open the wing, forcing a rib to interfere with the control surfaces. Said rib also poked a nice big hole in the left fuel tank about the size of a softball. Without the proper supplies, that wasn’t getting fixed in an hour let alone two. It needed to be removed and replaced. That was something Timmins wasn’t equipped to do, especially on a military aircraft such as this.
I looked it over and then a thought occurred to me from when Ack-Ack and I were kids. “Would fiberglass work over this hole?”
“Sure, but not as a permanent fix. Trouble is, we don’t have any fiberglass and we certainly don’t have twenty four hours to let it cure,” Zilla said.
“Hah! Give me a minute,” I ran off to find George who was right where I’d left him, lounging in the office.
I knocked on the doorframe, “Hey, ah, George, do you have any fiberglass materials? You know resin, hardener, and cloth?”
“As a matter of fact we do. In the cabinet in the back of the hangar. Kenny was round here the other day trying to fix a hole in his fishing boat. Damndest thing that hole, swears he didn’t know how it got there. Thing was aboot two inches across with a few smaller holes all around it. Guess he was shotgun fishing again eh?” he said with a slight chuckle.
“Yeah, too bad about that. Hey thanks!” I said and ran out to find the Chief. She was working on getting the damaged portion of the rib cut out when I stopped her.
“Hey, we can do this, keep working on that and I’ll get started on the fuel tank fix,” I said.
I got a thumbs up from her and she went back to work. I found the materials right where he said they’d be and got to work.
When Ack-Ack and I were kids, we borrowed his father’s fishing boat to, well, go fishing. Sort of. We were teenagers and we’d scored a case of beer and wanted to hang out on the water, fish, and drink. Mostly drink. Well one thing led to another and we ran aground. Wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t hit an old chain link fence post stuck in the ground at an odd angle. It punched a good size hole in the bow of the boat. Long story short, a neighbor saw us and helped us fix it. We still got in trouble, but I learned something that day.
When you need the resin to cure faster one trick is to heat both the resin and hardener bottles in hot water for five to ten minutes. This speeds up the curing by jump starting the reaction with some extra heat.
I went back to the plane and explained my procedure to the Chief who was wrapping up her adjustments to the wing rib. She’d removed a portion of the wing skin to better expose the hole in the fuel tank. Yep, this will work. It had to as there was no way for us to make UNC airspace on only the right fuel tank.
We got everything setup for the process, including a heat gun to help things along once everything was applied. I glanced at the clock on the wall. We landed around 0100 and it was now 0135. We had twenty five maybe thirty five minutes to wrap this up and be gone. I set an alarm for 0200.
“Go find George and get the fuel truck over here. We can at least get the right tank filled while this cures,” I said.
“Roger that,” she replied. And took off for the office and not long after that while I was applying the treated fiberglass, the hangar door opened and they rode in with the fuel truck.
Now was the tricky part. Heat and gas fumes don’t mix too well and heat guns put off a lot of heat. Especially with a glowing heat element at the end. Took a few minutes but once it started to firm up I figured we were in the clear on that front.
I just set down the heat gun when the watch alarm went off. Not bad. Chief Zilla had already filled the right tank and so she hooked up the fuel line and began filling the left tank. So far so good, no leaks and the patch was holding.
A ringing sound filtered out from the office area. That was a phone. George ran off to answer it.
“I’m betting that’s not a ‘honey, stop at the store for a quart of milk’ call,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m betting it ain’t either. I’ll close up the wing, you get that fuel truck out of here once this is done,” Zilla said and then went to work replacing the piece of skin that had been removed.
“Okie dokie,” I replied. I watched the fuel counter on the truck as we needed all we could get. Moments later George returned.
“Eh, just got word the Quebers have crossed over. That’ll put them aboot an hour or so out for the guys on trucks. Kenny says there seems to be a couple of helicopters with them, so they’ll be here in about ten to fifteen minutes. Get the fuel tank closed up and I’ll push you out,” he said as he turned to mount the tractor.
Zilla put the last screw in while I moved the fuel truck. By the time I parked it off to the side of the hangar, the Parasite with Zilla in the rear seat was parked in front of the hangar, ready to leave. I ran up to George and shook his hand, “Thanks again George. Now get going.” He nodded and disappeared from sight and moments later the hangar and everything around it was cast into darkness.
I climbed into the cockpit, closed the canopy and began engine startup. Fuel gauges for both tanks read full. We just might make this work after all.
We couldn’t wait for standard startup of one engine before starting the other so we were breaking protocol and starting both at once. I figured ten minutes and we’d see lights from the helos approaching the airfield and if we were still waiting on one to start it was game, set, and match.
A couple three minutes later we were moving down the taxiway towards the runway. Off in the far distance there were a pair of lights with some distance between them. Helicopters.
We made the last turn to the end of the runway and I punched the throttle forward, the sudden thrust throwing us back in our seats. Running lights were off so the only light emission would be the soft glow from the engines as we sped down the runway.
The white lines on the runway flew past faster and faster and then disappeared as I pulled hard on the stick and banked us away from the incoming helos. A few tracers flew at us, but no hits.
Next stop UNC.