Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in Great Britain in 1942. Zena Mathews, a young New Zealand woman, and her navigator Gabrielle Parker work as pilots in the British Air Transport Auxiliary. They are taken on as members of a secret Government organisation, part of SOE—Special Operations Executive, operating beyond the Civil Service radar where no records are kept.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
In July 1942 London was a place of mixed scenes. Most of the metropolis was still working normally; but the centre of the City and the wharves, jetties, warehouses, docks, and streets on both sides of the Thames around the Pool had been fiercely bombed by the Luftwaffe, leaving behind wholesale destruction. St Paul 's dome rose into the sky like the one remaining building in a ruined Roman city. The cathedral was literally surrounded on all sides by acres of bombed out houses, shops, and offices; with the winding traces of former roads and lanes twisting amongst the rubble. In the still remarkably crowded streets almost two thirds of pedestrians wore a uniform of one kind or another. Near the Air Ministry the large office-entrances were protected by walls of sandbags which, outside some Departments, reached thirty feet in height. Into the sky rose the vertical cables of innumerable Barrage Balloons. The Balloons themselves floated at a uniform height, for all the world like a shoal of aerial whales swimming through the sky; and of almost the same silvery-grey colour.
Group Captain Graham had led his two visitors up from one of the entrance-halls of the vast building which was Somerset House; where they had both been waiting, in awe of their surroundings. Now he was marching purposefully along the third corridor he had entered on this, the fourth floor. Flying-Officer Zena Mathews and Flying-Officer Gabrielle Parker had long since lost their bearings, and begun wondering how long it would take them to find their way back out of this labyrinth. Finally Group Captain Graham strode round the corner of a small subsidiary passage leading off on the left of the main corridor; taking no note of whether his visitors were still behind him or not; passed three doors, and stopped at the fourth on the right: their voyage apparently being over.
The brass nameplate on the door read ‘P.M.M.', and immediately below was a square wood plaque with the door number written in white paint. ‘23D'.
“Here we are, ladies.” Graham straightened his cap, gave the two women's appearance a cursory glance and opened the door with a flourish. “Come in. Welcome to the ‘ Personnel Movements, Military ' department. Of course we don't actually exist, you understand! So there's no going telling anyone about us, eh!”
Inside was a small room, almost merely a cubicle, with one window and one seemingly dis-interested female typist. On the far side was a wood and glass ceiling-level partition with one door. Graham opened this and motioned his visitors through; where they found themselves in a larger, though still not extensive, room. Two windows on one side gave bright illumination; a solid wooden desk, looking Victorian and as if it had been built in situ, stood before a fireplace with a carved marble surround and head-height mantelpiece; while much of the available wall-space held bookcases filled with ancient leather-bound volumes which looked as if they had not been consulted within the last hundred years. Graham stepped behind his desk, where a padded leather chair awaited him, gesturing the women to two plain straight-backed chairs in front of the desk.
“The building is a bit of a maze, I admit.” Graham obviously thought apologies were in order. “I remember the first time I came here. Wandered up and down for about thirty minutes before finding this office. Now, you'll be wondering what the blazes you've been summoned here for, eh?”
Zena, after a glance at her companion, took the responsibility of answering.
“Well sir, we thought you were considering making us both typists, or something.” She shifted uncomfortably. “We oughta tell you neither of us can type a, er, typewriter for toffee. All we can do is fly planes, sir.”
“Ha, typists! That's a good one.” The Group Captain obviously saw the funny side of the New Zealand woman's remark. “No, no. We have a plethora of typists, thank you. In fact our own expert in that area; you saw her on the way in, is perfectly adequate for our needs. Miss Murchison, or ‘M' as we all call her here, is the back-bone of our whole operation. Don't know what I'd do without her. Where was I?”
Gabrielle chipped in, trying to bring the conversation back on track. She was like that.
“You were about to tell us what we are needed for, sir.” She compressed her lips, and tried to look intelligently interested. “If it's to have training for another type of aircraft—”
“Oh, no, no, no.” Graham searched around amid the pile of loose documents scattered wholesale over his desk. “Nothing like that. Here, I have both your service records. I see you've each learnt how to fly a remarkable number of aircraft; you both seem to have almost as many as is necessary under your belts, as it is.”
He peered at the papers between the two brown folders, covered in tightly spaced typing; then held up a single sheet from each, both of which appeared to interest him greatly.
“You, Flying-Officer Parker, can fly Spitfires, Hurricanes, Ansons, Wellingtons , Halifaxes , Mosquitos, and, Good God — Short Sunderlands! I'll be damned! You're qualified on single, double, and four-engined machines. That's as much as you or I need, I think.” He paused for breath, while scanning the second sheet. “And you, Flying-Officer Mathews, let's see. Spitfires, Hurricanes, Hudsons, Wellingtons , Lancasters, Beaufighters, and Douglas DC3's. What are they? Oh yes, Dakota's. Well, that seems enough for any reasonable person to be going on with, don't y'think? Now, to business. Why are you both here; that's the point, eh?”
Both women shifted in their seats. If asked they would have said that having started, and progressed in fits and starts, the Wing-Commander had very efficiently, or perhaps in -efficiently, brought them back to the beginning again.
“Er, so it's not another plane, sir?” Zena raised an eyebrow inquisitively, but not dis-respectfully. She had found these British officers could be touchy at times. “Some other kind'a operation, sir?”
“Precisely, Mathews.” Graham almost barked this abrupt compliment. “The fact of the matter is, we need trained, efficient, capable, trustworthy pilots for a very important role.”
He stopped here to sit back and simply fix both women with a steady gaze, as if expecting some kind of answer. But as neither Zena nor Gabrielle could think of anything relevant there fell a gentle silence in the room. Wing-Commander Graham suddenly sat up straight again, and finally proceeded to explain matters.
“In this modern war we're using modern methods. Some, rather dubious, I admit.” He leant one forearm comfortably on his desk and bent forward confidentially towards his listeners. “And one of those methods is Secrecy! Not your common or garden type, but real mean, behind the scenes, we-were-never-there sort of thing. We—our Department, that is,—doesn't exist, and there ain't going to be any records kept. Not permanently, anyway. When this show's over they'll all be incinerated, leaving not a trace behind. And there aren't going to be any medals for your trouble either, Ladies. So if you have dreams of attending memorial ceremonies after the war covered in decorations, forget it!”
“We wouldn't think of it, sir.”
This remark, by Zena, brought the Wing-Commander up short; his mind obviously processing the possibility of her words being somewhat sarcastic, before dismissing the thought.
“The details,” He continued. “are as follows. By the way, I may as well say here that our Department, very hush-hush, is known as the Special Operations Executive. We, er, operate in the dark. Rules don't apply—that sort of thing. That's the last I'll mention the Department's name or functions; and, for God's sake, don't ever talk about it to anyone— anyone —for whatever reason. If you do, the Tower of London ; a stone wall; and a firing-squad awaits you—never say I didn't warn you! Now, The Air Transport Auxiliary, as part of its duties, ferries important officers and other personnel from place to place when required. But there are other persons, who are themselves engaged on matters of utmost secrecy, who cannot utilise these, er, open services. People and equipment needed for secret operations must be transported somehow. We do not have the military pilots available for such sustained operations; so have fallen back on the ATA. We have discovered that women are, in some ways, even better than men in these circumstances. Hence the fact that we are open to recruiting such as yourselves. You both did splendidly earlier last month in that little concern over France , and so I now give you both the opportunity to expand your experience. Well?”
Zena and Gabrielle looked at each other. It was certainly a matter which needed thinking about; though it appeared Wing-Commander Graham was awaiting an immediate decision. Gabrielle, meanwhile, raised a pertinent point.
“Sounds a bit like an aerial taxi service. Are we going to work as a team, sir?” She glanced at Zena as she brought this up. “Or separately, on different operations?”
“Yes, you will be a team, working together.” Graham nodded, as he considered this point. “It is actually down to the planes involved. They'll need a two-man—I mean, a two-woman crew; so it seems best to keep you both together. And I think you'll find it much more, er, exhilarating than driving a taxi along Shaftesbury Avenue . Well, have you reached a decision?”
Zena and Gabrielle looked at each other, and both saw the light of acceptance glinting in the other's eyes.
“Yes sir.” Gabrielle smiled widely as she nodded at the officer. “I can speak for Zena, er, Flying-Officer Mathews too, sir. We'd both like to accept your invitation.”
Graham sat back in his leather chair, satisfied. It would have taken a large chunk of his important time that morning if they had refused; necessitating them signing all kinds of official documents to keep their mouths shut. So he was vastly relieved at the outcome.
“Splendid. You won't regret it, I'm sure. Well, fairly sure—depending how successful you are, of course.” He realised he was teetering on the edge of babbling, and pulled himself up with a jerk. “Right. So, we may as well get down to the nitty-gritty immediately. The first thing is to tell you that your operations will, to all public intent, still be under the umbrella of the ATA. Though, of course, they'll actually have no idea what you're up to. You answer only to me. The most important thing is, for the next few months your seat of operations is going to be in the North; to be exact, Scapa Flow.—”
“That's a Naval Base, sir!” Gabrielle spoke before she could help herself, regretting her impulsiveness at once.
“I—yes, I do know that, Flying-Officer.” Graham smiled thinly, to show he wasn't really annoyed. “The fact has not escaped me during my 11 years in the Air Force. But a large area of enclosed, protected water means space for flying-boats and sea-planes—what the Americans insist on calling float-planes, I believe. That is your next window of opportunity.”
“Is Gab—Flying-Officer Parker going to fly Sunderlands in and out of Scapa then, sir?” Zena felt rather left out, not herself having any experience in that type of plane. “We'll need more than two crew for those, sir.”
“She might.” He nodded slowly, as if mentally contemplating the possibility.”The situation may well arise. However, before either of you go North you will both first attend another training course down on the South Coast at Southampton . Supermarine Walruses. After which you will then fly to Scapa Flow . The particular details of your coming operations will be sent to you in coded telegrams via the RAF station there. To give you a clearer idea of what is required; I can say that many of your sorties will be to Denmark , Norway , and the Faroe Islands . There will also be occasions when you will intercept and land beside various warships of His Majesties Navy as they go about their duties. That seems to cover the general scope of things; now, to consider the details, first—”
Scapa Flow was cold. It was the height of Summer; the sky was of an unbroken blue; the grass was green and tender; and the many un-surfaced roads and lanes on the surrounding islands were thick with earthy dust. But it was cold! A steady, firm, established wind was blowing robustly, with no sign of its relenting in the near future; and it blew direct from the North Pole, by way of Iceland . It was damned cold.
“It's damned cold!”
Zena had listened to her companion's recriminations about the weather for an hour, and now rebelled.
“No it ain't, Gabrielle.” She favoured the short blonde figure by her side with a withering glance. “20 degrees below zero, with your toes falling off from frostbite, is cold. This is merely chilly.”
They were presently on the mainland of Orkney, reclining on a grassy bank above a small pebbly beach looking over the vast expanse of calm water that was the Flow. On the far side, in the distance, rose the great bulky outline of Hoy. On the water itself were a remarkable mixture of Navy ships, ranging from battleships, cruisers, destroyers, to corvettes and mine-sweepers. The last being by no means the least important vessels. The various entrances to the enclosed bay which formed Scapa Flow were protected by a variety of blockships, causeways, and minefields which needed constant attention. On the slopes and hills of the islands which formed the backdrop to the bay were numerous fortifications, observation posts, and gun emplacements. Nearby was a small RAF establishment and, of course, part of the Flow held flying boats and sea-planes.
“Zena.” Gabrielle proceeded undaunted, merely diplomatically changing the subject. “Most of the Royal Navy seems to be sitting at anchor out there. So how are we goin' to win the war with whatever we have left?”
“That ain't the whole of the Navy.” The tall New Zealander shook her head scornfully. “There's twice as many ships out patrolling the oceans as you can see here. You have no idea how big the Royal Navy is, have you?”
“Oh well, I'm up in the air anyway.” The petite girl rose to her feet from the grassy bank. “Away from all those waves; and choppy seas; an' bouncing up an' down; an' —”
Here the blonde suddenly stopped, with a thoughtful expression, and put one hand to her mouth. She did not look comfortable at all.
“Wassup, lady? Feelin' ill? What's wrong?”
“Zena, I have a confession to make.” Gabrielle turned and gazed at her companion as they began walking back down the lane towards one of the few main roads. “I gotta—thing, about the sea. The sea; and waves; an' just generally being, y'know, on a ship. I get sea-sick just thinking about bein' on the sea. An' when I actually do go aboard a ship well, you can count me out for the duration. I loathe it!”
Zena absorbed this information for a while as they walked along the empty road leading along the edge of the bay. Out on the water the silhouettes of some of the most powerful vessels in the Royal Navy could be seen as they swung calmly at anchor; but her mind was on something more important that had just occurred to her.
“Y'don't like the sea. It makes ya sea-sick.” She was launched on a voyage of discovery herself now. “Sort'a putting those two facts together, Gabrielle, the question has to be asked—what happens when you're taking off in a Sunderland ? Y'know, the choppy run across the water picking up speed; then of course, there's the even choppier bouncing when you land. Gabrielle, what's wrong?”
The short blonde had jumped the few yards to the waves at the edge of the shingle strand; where she bent over and commenced to throw up, spectacularly.
“So, ya won't be taking any boat trips out to inspect the ships then?” Zena wrinkled her nose in disgust, and stepped back a pace or two. “Oh, that's nasty!”
While Group Captain Graham necessarily stayed in his London HQ, his several operatives received cabled orders via local units of the Air Force. These units were always sworn to secrecy on this subject; quite a straightforward matter, during these dark days of war. No questions, in fact, were asked by the local military authorities; the London telegrams simply being passed to Zena and Gabrielle, who de-coded them with a code-book they had been given before leaving London .
These telegraphed messages were often short and terse. Sometimes to the point of being almost un-readable, if you weren't in the know. Such was the case with the latest dispatch.
“CRM 114. L F G. Som. Ho. P.M.M. 23D. Captain Grover Unit B SOE. Jt Tech Brd. Sc. Fl. Three items transport Faroe Wed 17. 18.30 pip emma. Return immediate. Out. G.”
Zena read the content of the message aloud as they sat in their Nissen hut. The hut was assigned only to them, with no other inmates, so they had been able to make themselves quite comfortable. The telegram had been delivered from the local airfield by a motor-cycle rider just half an hour ago. The time was now 4.45pm.
“Short but sweet, eh.” Gabrielle leant over her friend's shoulder, as Zena sat at the wooden table with its small oil-lamp. “What does it mean? I can't get used to this military—what d'they call it—conciseness.”
“Well, the intention ain't t'send you a love-note, so they stick to the salient points.” Zena, on the other hand, seemed to have an aptitude for unravelling the hidden content in these brusque messages. “We have to take three, ah, agents from the local Army base to the Faroe Islands , an' come straight back.”
“Oh, is that all.” Gabrielle's tone was ironic. “They'll just love being bumped around in the bowels of a Walrus for 3 hours, with no seats!”
“They're men, Gabrielle, an' highly trained soldiers. They'll take it just fine.” Zena gave one of her mirthless laughs. “You know men,—rather suffer in silence an' act tough than ask for a cushion for their butts.”
“Zena, the older you get, the meaner you get; and I've only known you a coupl'a months!” The blonde turned to her bed in the corner, where she had laid out a duffle-bag and was now selecting various items ready for their evening assignment.
“Ha!” Zena grunted good-humouredly, as she threw the scrawled telegram form down and went to her own small wardrobe. “Yeah well, I got a history with men. Remind me to tell ya sometime. It'll lift the scales from your eyes, I bet'cha.”
“Can't wait, girl. Gods, I love gossip.” Gabrielle was looking dubiously at the pile of assorted clothes and other things Zena was tossing on her bed. “Just so I know, Zena. What use is a steel helmet to a pilot? Or that gas mask?”
Zena paused in her house-keeping to survey the pile of assorted clothes and accessories now covering her blankets. It was remarkable just how much could be squeezed into a five foot high by eighteen inch wide army issue wardrobe, if you had ruthless determination.
“Er, gas mask? Oh yes, well that's just for casual wear.” The tall woman shrugged. “What I really want is that new leather sheepskin-lined jacket. Seen it anywhere, Gabs, it ain't here.”
The lady in question raised her eyes to the curved corrugated iron of the roof, and heaved a sigh. Looking after this New Zealander was turning out to be a full time job. Gabrielle had visions of asking Group Captain Graham for a pay raise for services rendered; and instructions on how to join the National Union of Flunkeys. Instead she crossed to Zena and grabbing her arm turned her gently.
“You see that chair, dear.” The blonde nodded at the nearby article. “You see your smelly old socks, and other things, lying underneath it? Gods, Zena you really need'ta do your laundry more often. You see the new sheepskin jacket hanging over the chair back? That's your new sheepskin jacket.”
“How far away are the Faroes again, Gabrielle?”
Zena was settling into the co-pilots seat on board their personal Walrus, while the three army men made a hell of a racket getting comfortable inside the hull of the small flying-boat; a proposition which was probably impossible to any real extent.
“From here, about 190-200 miles or so. Say 2½, maybe 3, hour's flight time.” Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder at the small hatch leading into the hull. “Gods, those men are noisy. What're they up to? We're gonna take-off in about three minutes.”
“Gettin' their gear stowed.” Zena raised her eyebrows a trifle and made a face. “ Lot 's of guns an' ammo an' strange boxes I didn't like to ask about.”
“Gods, hope nothing blows up in flight.” Gabrielle muttered something else under her breath, then came back to the surface. “That'd just be dandy!”
The water in Scapa Flow was calm with only a slight swell rocking the flying-boat. Which was just as well, because otherwise the small relatively light and decidedly un-seaworthy vessel would have bucked like an angry bronco and spent forever trying to take-off, if it ever did. Finally a call came from the cramped interior signifying their passengers were set and Gabrielle revved the huge Bristol Pegasus radial engine, steering away from the beach using her tail-plane rudder.
After getting the all clear from her co-pilot; it not being considered politic to bump into a destroyer three-quarters of the way down their take-off run, Gabrielle really gave the engine its head. There was a roar that seemed to physically smash against the eardrums; a period of bouncing around as if on a fair-ground ride; then came a sustained shaking as they headed across the wide open expanse of the Flow. In what seemed a remarkably short time she pulled back on the wheel and the plane climbed away from the water into its more natural element. The sense of smooth tranquillity being then almost palpable to the shaken passengers.
“D'you think we'll meet any Jerry fighters, Zena?”
“Well, it's mid-evening now. They'll be out hunting, for sure.”
Zena leaned forward to squint first through her half of the segmented windscreen; then Gabrielle's half; then straight up through the ceiling of the cabin, which was itself simply a glass panel.
“Nothing in sight.” Zena shifted back into a comfortable position. “If they do appear, I can crawl through to the nose gun, and one of those soldiers has already been told off to look after the waist gun.”
“Two single Vickers guns, Zena.” Gabrielle's tone was mocking. “Not exactly a broadside, if we meet a trio of Junkers 88's!”
“Oh, depends who's doing the shooting.” Zena grinned evilly, an action which always made Gabrielle's blood run cold. “Anyway, you can always use that move you told me about; y'know, looping the loop! That'd throw them off.”
Gabrielle laughed sardonically, throwing a quick glance at her companion; then checked her instrument dials. Zena was acting as navigator, but Gabrielle also had a map spread out on her knee with a pencilled course marked out. Flying over a vast expanse of featureless water stretching to the horizon all around always made her nervous.
“Yeah! Looping a Walrus. That'll be right.” The blonde pilot shook her head firmly. “I only did it once, like I told you, an' then about five gallons of stinking sea-water from the hull bilge came shooting through the floorboards and soaked me an' everything in the whole plane. Nearly short-circuited everything there was to short-circuit. The Squadron-Leader said things, afterwards, no gentleman ought to have said to a lady; but, mind you, some of them were worth remembering.”
“I bet!” Zena chuckled, as a vision of the unhappy event materialised in her imagination. Then she thought it safer to change the subject. “Gabrielle, I had a curious dream last night. I've been meaning to tell you about it all day, but this is the first chance I've had.”
Their conversation was interrupted without warning as the unwieldy aircraft suddenly dropped out of the sky, like a lead weight. It was just as if the floor had disappeared and they were all falling through into a very deep cellar. Then the plane reached bottom with a wrenching thud and a series of forward bounces that had Gabrielle clutching the wheel with all her strength before she managed to regain control.
“Jesus Christ! An air-pocket.” Gabrielle gasped for breath. “Damn big one too. Good job we're flying at 7,000ft.”
“5,000ft now, Gabrielle.” Zena pointed at the altimeter. “We don't want any more of them or we'll be hitting the briny, uninvited.”
A youthful head, with brown curly hair and a thin trail of blood running down from the right temple, pushed through the hatch from the interior. Captain Grover had arrived, bearing messages of sorrow and regret.
“What the Hell! What the bloody Hell!” He obviously liked to be emphatic. “ Can you fly this damned monstrosity? You nearly killed us all, then. And most of our equipment's scattered all over the place. Some of it usually goes off when you just breathe on it, y'know. What in hell d'you think you're—”
Zena slid out of her seat in one fluid movement; placed a strong hand on the officer's shoulder, and firmly pushed him backwards as she ducked slightly to negotiate the hatch into the body of the plane's hull. On the other side, still maintaining her grip on his shoulder, Zena calmly looked into the young man's eyes.
“Captain Grover, I have to report the plane just entered a large air-pocket.” She casually looked from right to left at the other two men crouching uncomfortably in the shadows. “These things happen. Nobody's fault. If we didn't have a pilot of Flying-Officer Parker's experience and professionalism, this plane would be at the bottom of the North Atlantic right now; and you'd be dead. Perhaps you'd like to go forward and thank her for saving your life, Captain? Only a thought. I'll stay here and listen admiringly to your friends, lying about their exploits. Go on, Gabrielle doesn't bite.”
Zena looked into the young man's eyes; and, with a great deal more nervousness, Captain Grover looked into the icy blue eyes of the most frighteningly dangerous woman he had ever met. He made a decision, quickly.
“Er, ah, quite right. Yes, absolutely.” He nodded, in a sort of dazed way, and moved to slide past the woman. “Damn fine show. I'd, er, like to compliment her. Won't be a moment.”
Captain Grover ducked down to squeeze back through the hatch; then all that was visible in the semi-darkness of the interior was his khaki-covered butt. Zena turned to the two anonymous soldiers, who had kept a diplomatic silence throughout.
“Well, boys.” She favoured them with one of her most unrestrained clenched teeth grins. One of the men actually whimpered. “Looks like it's just you an' me for a while. So, either of you two got girlfriends? How're ya doin' with them? More to the point, what kind'a condition—ya know what I mean—will you be in when ya meet them next? Lem'me tell ya about a man I met in London a year ago. Well, I say met—he sort'a jumped out at me one night when I was goin' along a deserted street under a railway arch in Wapping. He wanted to have the joys of intimacy, without the boring need to buy flowers or chocolates first. Shall I tell ya what I did to him? I mean, exactly what I did to him?—”
“You're bad, Zena.”
“Gabrielle, I know it!”
Captain Grover had spent an extremely uncomfortable five minutes with the blonde pilot, trying to apologise diplomatically yet thoroughly; while the two soldiers back in the interior spent the most anxious five minutes of their lives listening, horrified, to Zena's reminiscences. Eventually everyone had changed places again and Zena returned to her friend; while the hatch-door to the inside of the plane was once more closed.
“That was nice of you to stand up for me” Gabrielle smiled slightly shyly. “Kind'a like a knight of old saving a princess from a dragon, or something.”
“Oh, it was nothing.” Zena found herself actually blushing, if her hot cheeks were anything to go by. “Now, about that dream I was goin' to tell ya—”
“Hey, Zena, what's that? About ten o'clock on your side. Looks like a bandit.”
“Goddam! Lem'me see.”
Zena peered up through the glass high into the zenith. After a few seconds she saw what had caught her pilot's attention. At first Zena too thought it was indeed another aircraft; then something about its flight pattern made her take a closer, more attentive, look.
“Gods, it's a bird, Gabrielle. A bird.”
“A bird? You're joking.” Gabrielle leaned sideways towards Zena to get a clearer look. “Must be a bloody big bird. Still looks like a plane t'me. About two, or three, thousand feet above us. A Messerschmitt maybe; or a Focke-Wulf?”
Zena kept her eye on the silhouette, soaring high above them, with horizontal wings stretched out unwaveringly. Then she made her mind up.
“It's an albatross, Gabrielle.” She looked at her companion's doubtful expression. “Yeah, I'm sure. An albatross. Maybe a touch less than a thousand feet above us, just soaring. Soaring, that's what albatross's do,—soar.”
“Soar, my Aunt Fanny.” Gabrielle was still very far from convinced. She leaned even further over; putting a hand on Zena's trouser-covered thigh for support. “Damned biggest albatross I've ever seen, if it is. And it ain't. Get through to the gun, Zena. I'll try gliding to port; t'get the sun behind us. It's probably a Junkers 88.”
“Are there any aircraft of the German Luftwaffe you've left out, Gabrielle?” Zena's patience, never her strongest attribute, had departed entirely. “It's an albatross. A goddam albatross! It's a bird, about a thousand feet above us.”
Just as things began to seem as if the argument was going to metamorphose into a war there came a change. The, till now, outstretched wings of the unidentified flying object seemed to pull in to half their length; it performed a tight turn impossible to any known aircraft, then its wings resumed their former outstretched rigidity. It was indeed an albatross.
Thirty seconds is a short period of time, but to some it can seem like an eternity. Gabrielle, for instance.
“Gabrielle?” Zena was regal in her triumph, disregarding the common epithet that had passed her pilot's lips a moment ago.
“Would you kindly take your hand off my leg? I'm losing the feeling in it. You've got a grip like a grizzly bear.”
Gabrielle sat back and resumed command of the aircraft, staring fixedly ahead; a bright flush reddening her cheeks.
“Now, where were we? Oh yes, I was about to tell you about my dream.” Zena smiled broadly. Gods, it felt so good to be right! “What happened was that just after I'd fallen asleep I found myself in a curious city. It was old; an' there was a hell'uva lot of marble an' statues everywhere; an' the sun was shining from a blue sky; an' then I realised where I was, like you do in dreams.”
“Where?” Gabrielle decided to humour her friend. After all it was one way to pass the time, and she needed to offer an olive branch for her late stupidity. “So, where?”
“Athens, Gabrielle. The centre of the world in old times.” Zena scratched her chin; not easy when wearing flying-gloves. “I don't exactly know when, but everyone was wearing toga's and sheets wrapped round themselves; an' whatever ya call those dresses the women used to wear back then.”
Gabrielle checked her altimeter. She had been gaining height ever since the air-pocket hit them; but the Walrus was notoriously slow at climbing. Then she tapped the glass cover of the fuel dial; then glanced out the windshield from left to right, to check they were flying level. She pulled back on the joystick slightly, and used her left hand to open the throttle a little. Then she transferred her attention back to Zena.
“Well? Does this story have a plot? Or is it all description?” Gabrielle shook her head to clear the cobwebs. “Come on, let's get to the heart of the matter. You picked a big butch gladiator, and did the business with him; is that it?”
“I'll have you know there weren't any gladiators in Athens , dear.” Zena tried to grab back the initiative. “OK, forget the scene-setting. Imagine the inside bit of a small house. I don't know what it's called. It was open to the sky, with a sort'a small garden. A courtyard sort'a thing; an' there was a young girl sitting on the low flat stone wall that bordered a central pond.”
“Beautiful!” The blonde pilot affected a bored yawn. “Too much description. Get on with it.”
“OK, OK.” Zena frowned in annoyance. Obviously a cold audience in the theatre tonight, she thought. But wasn't mad enough to say so out loud. “There's just a teeny-little bit of description left, then I'll quit it. I looked down at myself; clothes an' boots an' that sort'a thing, y'know. Well, I appeared to have a skirt made of loose pieces of leather only sewn together at the waist. The hem was so way above my knees I had some trepidation about the proprieties. And I had some kind'a tight-fitting jacket or corset, or something. It was covered in metal ornaments. Then I felt something pulling at my back, so I put a hand round to feel what it was. It was a sword sheath, with a sword in it! And, also, I was wearing the biggest heaviest pair of knee-length boots you've ever seen! It was the damndest thing out. So I looked at the young girl again, and some kind'a impulse made me walk round to face her and introduce myself, as you do. And what d'you think?”
“Gods, is this a two-way cross-talk comedy act, Zena?” Gabrielle bent forward to take a long reconnaissance through the windscreen. “Cut to the chase. Who was she? And what did you do? If you did anything, that is.”
It was Zena's turn to pause. She leaned across to stare out her side window. Followed this with a detailed survey of the whole empty expanse of blue sky above them. Then returned to her captive audience.
“This girl,” Zena couldn't help smirking as she went on. After all, she knew the outcome of the tale. “had another short skirt. It was, in fact, shorter than mine. An' all she wore on her, er, top part was a sort'a bra held up by thin strings. It was damned erot—I mean, sort'a charming in a wholly innocent kind'a way. She was also muscled like a gladiator. You could see her abdomen, an' the muscles there were something!”
“This is getting to be a very peculiar dream, Zena.”
“Wait till ya hear the rest of it.” Zena chuckled at what was coming. “She had heavy boots too. Though they seemed to be made of buckskin, or something. And strapped on the outside of each was a long-bladed dagger. I mean, this gal was packin', an' loaded for bear!”
“Zena, this isn't a dream. You're just having a-a fantasy!” The blonde pilot looked at Zena from under raised eyebrows, with a very I-don't-believe-a-word-of-it expression. “Gim'me a break!”
“No, no, it was a dream.” Zena shook her head in confirmation of her truthfulness. “She had short blonde hair, just like yours. No, let me go on—nearly there. One of her legs was stretched out straight, while she made shapes in the sand with her heel; and both hands were supporting her as she leaned back on the low parapet. Then I came round in front of her and saw her face. She looked exactly like you , Gabrielle! The spitting image. And then she stood up, without a moment's hesitation, an' kissed me. I mean— really kissed me, if ya know what I mean.”
Being given a sudden shock is a very dangerous thing in an aircraft, especially when you're the pilot; and Gabrielle responded in the natural manner. Her foot jerked down on the pedal that operated the left flaps; she pushed the joystick forward involuntarily; and accidentally clipped the throttle with an elbow. They had now reached 8,000 feet; but the Walrus suddenly decided it wanted to re-visit the surface of the ocean again. They went into a steep dive.
“ Gaaa-briii-eee-llllee! ”
Order was finally restored 4,500 feet above the rolling waves. This time it was Gabrielle who had to apologise to the passengers; by yelling through the open hatch behind her seat. Not a very lady-like, or convincing, way to say sorry. But by this time Captain Grover and his myrmidons had given up, and only wanted to reach journey's end in one piece. The thought that the German Army was a safer bet than their present associates was written plain to see on all three male faces.
Zena finished rubbing her bruised left forearm, which had been brought into violent contact with the metal struts of the windshield when she was thrust violently forward. She wasn't sure but that her right ankle was twisted too. And there was still a singing sensation in her head, from the sudden descent. Altogether not an experience to be repeated.
“Gabrielle, are you alright?” Zena spoke with real feeling. The position had been extremely dangerous, and the blonde girl had reacted with cool efficiency for the second time. “That was some brilliant way you regained control. Well done!”
“Ha, thanks.” The pilot was still somewhat breathless, and glanced nervously all round the cockpit and at the instruments. “So it's true, we are still alive! I'll be damned!”
“Just as well, the Faroes are coming in sight to the North.” Zena pointed out the window. “See those heavy black silhouettes? Can't mistake those high mountains. Time t'go into landing mode, eh.”
A few minutes later they were approaching the channel, between the main island of Streymoy and the smaller island of Nolsoy , on their way to land on the water beside the harbour of the island's capital town, Torshavn . But their worries weren't quite over yet. Both islands were heavily mountainous, especially beside the capital. It would need some precise flying not to fly into one of the steep-sided mountains that proliferated in the region.
“Thank God it ain't foggy!” Gabrielle spoke with real relief. “It it was, we'd a'had to abandon the flight and go home.”
“Yeah well, just take it easy an' land us like thistledown wafting on the breeze. I'd like that, please.” Zena saw the expression on her friend's face and instantly repented. “Not that you won't make a wonderful job of it, I'm sure. You know I don't like flying with anyone else but you, Gabrielle.”
“Ha!” The blonde pilot merely shrugged, as much as space allowed her. “Next trip you do the flying, girl; I'll sit beside you an' complain. Bet I get you swearing foully, like a fish-wife, in the first twenty minutes.”
“We'll see about that.” Zena glanced out the window. “Nearly at optimum level for landing approach. She's all yours, pilot.”
A smooth landing, though on much choppier water than back at Scapa Flow . A run across the rolling waves to catch the military launch waiting for its secret cargo. A quickly waved good-bye to the three men. Then Gabrielle immediately turned the small plane, rolling somewhat heavily as it came round, and they were racing across the water again. Seconds later they rose into the air, heading this time back to the Orkneys.
Just over two hours later, as they approached Scapa Flow once more in the Summer twilight, Gabrielle took up the burden of a conversation they had abandoned earlier in the flight.
“This dream of yours, Zena. What d'you think it means, then?”
“Ah,—oh,—umm.” The dark-haired woman scratched her chin; this time sans glove. “I, er, think it might'a been a—a—a—”
“A what, Zena?”
“Gods, I don't know, Gabrielle.” Zena gave up, she was beaten. “It might'a been a sub-conscious something-or-other. Or a nightmare. Or an uncritical figment brought on by too much cheese. I don't know. Forget it.”
There was a pause, as Gabrielle ruminated on the whole complex problem. When Gabrielle gave something all her attention she really sat down and thought about it deeply, till she found an answer. And this strange impulse on her friend's part to introduce Gabrielle's presence into her dreams, in a very curious manner, was certainly interesting.
“Tell you what, Zena.” Gabrielle glanced forward through the windshield; then back at her co-pilot, with a tender expression. “We're going to land in about two minutes. Then we moor the old crate, and sign-off on the mechanics receipts. Then we go back to our hut and make out our report for this trip, and you take the motor-cycle to the airfield to have it telegraphed to HQ in London . By which time it'll be dark so we sit back with cups of cocoa when you return, and have a jolly old chinwag about your dreams. You never know, I might find them fascinating. You know, really fascinating. You don't actually know me very well as yet, do you, Zena? OK! Here comes the water. Don't bounce about too much; you'll just be showing off. I'm gonna land this bird like an Autumn leaf falling on the grass on a calm day. Watch me.”
And Zena did watch her.
1. Pool of London . Part of the Thames reaching from London Bridge to Tower Bridge . There were many wharves and piers and warehouses there, where large cargo ships unloaded.
2. Somerset House. This building hosted several Government and Admiralty offices.
3. Zena, with a ‘Z', was a known women's name in Britain in the early 20 th century.
4. S O E. ‘Special Operations Executive' was a secret British espionage Department during WW2.
5. A T A. ‘Air Transport Auxiliary' used civilian pilots, both men & women, to ferry fighter & bomber planes from factory to airfields, etc.
6. Scapa Flow . This is a large enclosed bay formed by the proximity to each other of several islands in the Orkney group, off the coast of Northern Scotland . Its calm protected waters were perfect as a British naval base throughout WW1 & WW2.
7. Faroe Islands . Located between the Shetland Islands and Iceland . They were in Danish possession, but when Denmark was invaded by Germany Britain sent a task force to take over and fortify the Faroes, which stayed under British control throughout the war.
8. Hoy. Island in the Orkneys. Mountainous with dramatic high cliffs.
9. Looping a Walrus. Apparently when a test pilot actually performed this unlikely act even the plane's designer was astonished. The water from the bilges is a recorded incident, also.
10. Bandit. Slang term, actually a war-zone brevity code, identifying an enemy aircraft.
11. Myrmidons. Warriors in the ‘ Iliad ' under Achilles' command. In modern times the word came to mean a minion or loyal follower.
Return to the Academy