From the author: In this slightly 'punk, slightly magical tale, a squadron of WW2 female pilots are on a mission to cause nuisance. Inspired by an open call by the wonderful Gallery of Curiosities, this story is a mixture of real WW2 information and magical re-imagination. Extra points for those who can spot the real life parts.
“How the fuck do you fly so well in the fog?” The Commodore was angry, face red as he got up close to Mary, squinting at her through his glasses
“Grew up on an island, Sir,” she said with a nod, as if this was enough of an answer.
“Last time I checked, islands were still on the ground.,” he growled.
“Only if you choose to stay on it, Sir.”
“You didn’t have any flight experience when you signed up.” He sighed, taking his glasses off to wipe them enthusiastically with a handkerchief.
“No, Sir, but I spent a lot of time going up and down cliffs, having to navigate boats in the sea mist. We were all trained to sail blind after the Opal and Narborough went down in 1918.”
“You’re telling me you know how to fly because you were on the water?”
“I believe she means that the experience with ocean fog makes it easier, Sir,” Flight Captain Miller said, giving Mary a side long glance. She shrugged as the Commodore looked over.
“Summer and winter solstice you’d get it thick as smoke,” Mary said, taking the line up. “And they drilled it into us after those ships went down. I wasn’t around then, but the parish didn’t want it to happen again. There was only one lad survived, out of two ships, it was a wicked thing.”
“Not much faith in the Navy to think we’d sink two of our own again,” the Commodore said, eyeing her as he put his specs back on with a huff.
“With respect, Sir, once is enough.”
“Can all your lot fly like her?” the Commodore asked, looking away from Mary and back over to Flight Captain Miller. She smiled, determined to smooth something out of this tangled mess.
“Mary’s the best of them, but they’re all good. More capable than they’re being given credit for.”
“Some of the gents are precious about you flying,” the Commodore said, looking between the women. “Worry women will be targets.”
“That’s rather the point,” Mary said with a snort, shaking her head. Her hair wobbled, sun catching it in flashes of red. “We’re not in the air to be subtle, we want them to know it’s us. Nothing worse for those bastards than to know us little women are tearing their cities apart with fear and fire.”
The Commodore turned to look at her, blinking in her response.
“Sir,” she added, in case that was the problem.
“The feeling amongst the women is that it would be beneficial for the war effort,” Miller said, hoping to redirect the shock. “Good propaganda. They’re using the Clydebank raids against us, let’s use this against them.”
“Well, yes, I can see the presentation like that,” he said with a firm nod, eyeing Mary over again. “The men can be…. peculiar. Superstitious about women. They might want you to fly alone at first.”
“Let them be. I grew up on an island, plenty of superstition there.”
“Indeed. Right you are. Miller, we’ll speak after review.”
“Yes, Sir,” she said, standing as he left the room.
“That went well,” Mary said quietly, watching the man disappear down a corridor.
“You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t think you’re a spy.”
“I’ve got seven generations in the kirk yard, he can dig ‘em up,” Mary said, rolling her eyes.
“I know. You still need to keep your head down.”
“I’m not pretending to be a weakling.”
“I don’t want you to do that, just be careful. You barely got away with that solstice comment, don’t give them more reason to ask questions. We only need a couple of good flights.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mary said, folding her arms. “I’ll be good, but I’m no’ giving any of the guys an easy time.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,”
They stood on the airfield, checking equipment as they waited for the nod. The fog had rolled in, thick enough to hide them on the way out, which was all they needed.
“You ready?” Irina asked, tossing a lighter over to Mary so she could light her own cigarette.
“Of course,” she said with a wink, dragging on her filter to catch the tabaco, “Soon as we have the call I’ll hop in.” Mary liked Irina, she was solid and pretty. She kept her hair short and neat, styled close into her skull to sit inside the helmet without fuss, and she had the nicest smile Mary had seen since she left the islands.
“You’re covering everyone?”
“I can cover us four, we get any more then they’re on their own.”
“Four is good,” Irina said, giving a nod. “Anyone else won’t know what to do with you anyway.”
“You say the nicest things.” Mary smirked at her, rolling her eyes at the kiss pecked her way.
“Less chat, we’re heading up in five.” Eilish Miller was striding towards them, eyes shining with the focus she poured into every mission. Laura Christie, lanky as a willow with hair the same colour as it’s bark, followed on her heels.
“We going in wide or tight?” Mary asked, slipping into her seat and tapping Irina’s thigh as she settled beside her.
“Hamburg, we’re off to cause a nuisance,” Eilish said, hopping up into her own plane. She was joined in a flash by Laura, grinning wickedly over at the other women.
They were up in the air without more discussion, clipping long and low through the night towards the city. The fog was cold and salt, buffering in around them like sea water as they moved through the darkness. It almost glowed, with the promise of the moon hanging somewhere above them. Almost.
“You ready, Zelenyy?” Irina asked as they started to close in, voice plump with amusement even over the radio.
“I told you not to call me that,” Mary snipped back, wriggling lower in her seat.
“Tough, I like it, my little green. You need me to take over?”
“Soon, when we know we’re in sight.”
“Keep it down you two,” Eilish’s voice crackled.
“Just checking protocol, boss,” Irina said with a laugh, reaching over to crinkle the slip of hair that peeked out under Mary’s helmet. The noise that followed could have been static or Laura’s laugh, no one checked.
They were almost there, Mary knew, and she began her internal system checks.
“We good?” Eilish asked.
“Ready when you are,” Mary said, steadying herself.
“On my count. One. Two. Three.”
The engines cut out as Mary lifted her hands, palm up, a faint purple fire glowing off them. It flared higher, spilling up to her elbows, ebbing and flowing with her breath. The same fire coated the wings of their planes, low as embers, driving them on quicker than the engines could take them.
“We’re good,” Irina said, patting Mary’s shoulder in assurance.
“Target’s ahead, you able to keep us going?”
“Aye,” Mary said, letting the fire sing in her blood. It purred along her skin like a lynx, the promise of fury and blood on the tip of her tongue.
“We’ll drop as soon as we see the river – force without restriction. Laura, marker out as you will,” Eilish said.
Laura clapped her hands together with a sound like a bell, ringing clear against them in the night. A spark of white flashed up like lightning, darting away from them in jagged leaps before arcing down towards the earth.
“Easy, clear path,” Eilish said, “So long as they don’t send anyone to look at that lightning.”
They swooped closer to the town, low as Mary could manage them, before another bell clap rang out.
“Snappers!” Laura yelped, lances of white branching out in four different directions above them.
“Are we seen?” Irina said, grasping Mary’s arm and giving it a light squeeze.
“Looks like it, we’ll have to get distance,” Eilish said. “We need another two minutes, can you manage that?”
“I’ll keep us in the air, you do what you’ve got to otherwise,” Mary said, clenching her fists and pushing back against the headache starting to bud at the bottom of her skull.
“On it, little green,” Irina said, taking control and beginning to play her game. The mosquitos weren’t Irina’s favourite, they didn’t spin and flick like her old U-2 would, she’d always told them this. She could make it dance on a pin head though, which was why she was Mary’s favourite. Well, that was most of the reason.
Another bell chimed and Mary saw Eilish manoeuvre up, slippery as an otter in a stream, then spotted the tell-tale flare of fire peppering the space they’d been in.
“Just a little longer,” Mary whispered, pressing a fist into her eye to try and disrupt the pain beginning to push against the back of it.
“We’re nearly there, little green, hold on,” Irina whispered, glancing over to her. “Nearly there and then we’re on the way back.”
“I’m ok,” Mary said, taking the hand away to focus on the shape of Eilish and Laura above them, the low growling burn on her skin.
“We’ll release first, come in tight behind,” Eilish called, driving down and close to the target. Irina matched her, slipping them as close to the other women as she could while keeping out of fire.
They heard a further bell but pushed forward, releasing their loads in quick succession before banking up and splitting apart. Shots rattled against their frame and Mary flinched, biting her cheek against it. The bombs tumbled, flaring up with bright vengeance upon impact.
“Yes, spot on,” Irina whooped, echoed over the radio by Laura, and Mary felt a swell of pride.
“No time to celebrate, systems on and let’s go,” Eilish said, just as another chime rang out. “Company on top!”
“Get moving,” Irina said, kicking the engine into life and starting to slip between their pursuers, flipping them back round to head home. The four planes were quick and smart, straying between each other and herding at the women.
“Think we need some more distraction?” Mary asked over the radio as she dropped her arms, the purple dissipating into the cockpit.
“What did you have in mind?” Laura asked.
“I’ll get us a show if you get us out of here.”
“Sounds good to me but speed it up,” Eilish called against a burst of fire from the closest plane.
“This might be a bit slap dash but here goes nothing.” Mary closed here eyes, reaching outside herself, down to the fire raging from the ground below. Her usual sparks came from inside and she pulled these flames in the same way, coaxed them up and towards her with the promise of direction, purpose. The fire lanced up, changing as it came, the colours flitting from white to orange to a luminous, heather purple.
“What on earth are you doing?” Irina asked beside her and Mary laughed against the strain, panting a little.
“They want a spectacle, we can do that.” She pulled harder, yanking the flames against the wind and pouring the direction of death and destruction into them as she shoved them towards the Fw 190s, batting two of them aside like midges in the summer.
“What the fuck?” Laura squeaked over the radio, over the sound of Eilish’s laughter.
“That ought to do it,” she called, pride and venom in her voice. “That’s fabulous, let’s get home.”
“What the fuck was that?” The Commodore was in the hanger, face almost the colour of Mary’s flames.
“How does he know already?” Irina whispered to Laura, who shrugged.
“A successful mission, Sir, we struck the target as intended and returned safely,” Eilish said, standing between him and the others.
“Half the city is on fire.”
“Yes Sir. We were dropping bombs.”
“You were dropping on a set of docks, at low tonnage.”
“We’re efficient, Sir,” Irina said, giving an enthusiastic nod.
“Is that what you’d call it?” He snorted.
“Are we being criticised for being too effective, Sir?” Eilish asked, bristling up to her full height.
“No,” he said, shaking his head and wiping his brow with a grey stained handkerchief. “You’re about to become a lot more needed though. How often can you fly?”
“As often as the planes can be ready. Will we be working alone?”
“No one else will fly with you after a stunt like that.”
“No danger, let them follow our trail,” Mary said with a laugh, leaning against the plane. “No one can accuse us of being too subtle.”