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<<< Chapter 2 >>>

The Red Cloud Over Texas

I hadn't meant to spill so many of those particulars, about my childhood and my parents and all those marvelous magazines, but this thing is sort of out of my control already. Like a plane with a heavy stick and a mind of its own, misbehaving and jerking me all over the sky. I remember too much.

I remember smoking, for example.

It's been fifteen years since I last had a tobacco cigarette, and God Almighty, I could use one now. My body chemistry doesn't comprenez-vous the local stuff; I might as well be smoking wool. Hell, I suppose I'm just lucky I never killed myself lighting up my various Martian experiments. For all I knew when I got here, the red planet equivalent to nicotine might have been potassium cyanide.

But now that I'm dredging up these memories the craving is back, unshakeable. The memory burns in my hands and lips and lungs. I used to smoke like a locomotive when I was writing, flicking ashes into the cut-down C-Ration can I kept beside my typewriter.

A typewriter! Another casualty of exile. What a lamentable loss that old machine was, my glossy black 1936 Royal DeLuxe with a rebellious 'w' key. All those post-war days I spent in Old Crooked House, waiting for paying work to ring the telephone, staring at a blank white sheet of paper and trying to dream up science fiction stories that wouldn't use too many 'w' words...

And smoking.

I am going to drive myself mad if I keep dwelling on that last, lost pack of Chesterfields I had tucked inside my jacket that afternoon I vanished from the air over Texas and wound up here.

*****

But back to class 43-W-4.

In 1943, I could smoke all I. . . cripes, Violet. Get ahold of yourself.

WASPs, they called us. Eventually.

Women's Airforce Service Pilots. In late 1943, after I'd graduated, the WAFS and the WFTD were slammed together into one glamorous sandwich, training and operations procedures standardized. We handed in our competing acronyms and became WASPs, once and for all.

Now, I'm heaping more assumptions on your head, imaginary reader. I'm assuming that you'd even heard of us before I started unrolling all of this. When the WASPs were deactivated in 1944, the official records of our service were sealed, classified, and thrown into the deepest dungeon in the government archives, down there in the dark with George Washington's false teeth and the secret formula for Coca-Cola.

Yes, classified, even though we'd been recruited with the equivalent of a public ad campaign. We were posted to a hundred different duty bases, and publicized or vilified in the national papers for nearly two years! We weren't parachuting spies into the heart of the Third Reich, we were flying domestic transport missions in aircraft any school kid could identify at a glance. Classifying our work made about as much sense as classifying the fact that cats have fuzzy asses.

But then, there were a lot of things about the WASPs that are difficult to understand.

For starters, we were never an official military service, although we trained to military standards, to fly military aircraft, in the military fashion and in constant partnership with military men, in the middle of the biggest war in history. We were technically civilian contractors, and every one of us that arrived at Avenger Field to begin her WASP career paid her own way to get there, and would go on paying for room and board out of the salary she received.

In fact, if I remember it right, just about the only things we didn't pay for in my first few months of training were our jackets, goggles, and parachutes. In the barracks at night, we joked that our oxygen masks would be coin-operated.

Aviation wasn't a poor woman's game in those days, and an awful lot of us took pay cuts for the sake of doing our part. I don't mean to paint myself with that brush, mind you- with dad's plane in the hangar for the duration, I was more than breaking even on the deal. However, a few of the gals in my class had set aside incomes or inheritances that made me feel dizzy when I found out about them.

Other than the little indignities like room and board, what did it really mean, not having been militarized? It's hard to describe without sounding selfish, since life was damned hard all over during the war- four hundred thousand American men and boys came home in caskets, or not at all.

Every service had its official women's auxiliary, even the Coast Guard, and their entitlements were more or less the same, at least in theory, as any man in the same uniform. A WAC or a WAVE or a SPAR that dropped dead on duty could receive a flag-draped casket and an honor guard, even if her duty was filing papers at an office in Philadelphia.

A WASP that lost her life in the course of her duties- flying high-speed aircraft across the United States, towing gunnery targets for live fire exercises, safety-testing rebuilt airframes (now there was a roll of the old dice!)- got nothing from Uncle Sam. She wasn't merely entitled to nothing, she got nothing.

I know, because I was there when we literally passed a hat to collect the money needed to ship a dead WASP back to her family, so they could even have the body in hand to bury it on their own dime. That was a member of my class, Jane Champlin, killed in a night-flying accident shortly before graduation.

Jane had quit her job when she'd heard about the WFTD, and desperately crammed in the flight training hours she needed to jump her paperwork over the mountain of rejected applications. Then she blew her entire bank account on corrective sinus surgery so she could manage to pass the Army Air Force physical. She'd done all that with a lightness in her heart, for the sake of her chance to serve. She was the first of thirty-eight WASPs to die in the air.

And for that she got no men in uniform to send her on her way, no flag on the coffin, no benefits to her family, no service markers on her tombstone or notice in the newspaper. That's what not being militarized meant... that little portion of honor which should have been alloted to us at the grave, if nowhere else at all, was held back like some piece of flying equipment our instructors had neglected to check us out on.

*****

I never knew that I could scrawl furiously. Bang keys in anger, sure, but I just about murdered my Martian scribing table a moment ago, wielding this little electric pen like a scalpel. I am still bitter, after all these years. It's back like the ghost of smoke in my mouth.

Terrible things happen in war... and you expect them, from your enemy. You expect lies and treachery and death before the end, because that's just the way it is in a fight. But you never expect terrible things from your friends, from your brothers, from men that you love and look up to.

I remember, at the height of the war, when millions of men were in uniform, millions of women stepped forward to take their places at the jobs they'd left behind. We built the ships and planes, we cleaned the furnaces, we packed the ammunition, we rain the trains, and we were mostly welcomed for it. Those of us flying aircraft were just the tiniest droplet on the leading edge of one hell of a wave.

After the war, that wave receded. Those millions of men wanted to shed their uniforms and get their old jobs back, and God, I don't blame them. I don't know who to blame.

In 1948, I was at the Abilene air terminal, unwinding after a flight, paging through some magazines that had blown into the hangar like tumbleweeds. In one of them I found an article offering advice to industrial managers on how to handle female employees, and I didn't know whether to laugh or load a shotgun. There I was, leaning against the fuselage of a plane I'd just brought down from the edge of a thunderstorm, listening to the pop and creak of the still-cooling engine, reading a piece of tripe about my lack of initiative, my inability to handle stress, my need for constant supervision, and my preoccupation with lipstick.

Things hadn't gone back to 'normal' after the war. There'd been a kickback, an ugly, underhanded sort of thing, and it was everywhere. When the guns were booming we were crucial partners, responsible adults, trusted and encouraged. Just a few years later it seemed like we were swept back to the kitchens and cosmetic counters. Competence itself became suspect, if the source of that competence could wear nylons.

Maybe things are better for you, imaginary reader, in your where and when. I can only hope so. But what happened to women in general, after the war, was more or less what happened to the WASPs while the bullets were still flying.

*****

Was it all bad? Was it all bitter? Oh, sweet Jesus, no. We wanted to risk our lives for our country, and we got a roaring full-service carnival of chances. We were desperate to spend as much time as possible flying the planes we loved, using the skills we'd fought so hard to build, and for a short, golden time the Army Air Force worked us like mad.

If I could step into a time machine, and find myself on that train platform in Abilene, on March 4, 1943, knowing what I know now, would I still take the trip? Would I do it all over again?

You'd have to kill me to stop me.

I know any one of the thousand of us that graduated from that program at Avenger Field would say the same. I know the thirty-eight we left behind would say it loudest of all, even if they knew just how soon they'd be taking their last flights.

*****

So much Violet on Earth... so much Violet in history. "Another damned thick chapter! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Ms. DeVere?"

It's time to set aside Avenger Field. You'll hear more about the WASPs. You'll hear more about everything. But let's skip ahead. I picture my eight-year-old self, impatiently flipping through the early dialogue of some of those old stories, hunting for the bits with death-beams and rockets and monsters.

There are death-beams waiting to be seen, all right. And rockets.

And monsters.

*****

I came back home to Abilene in November, 1944. I felt entitled to a good, hard sulk, and my dad, as far gone as he was by that point, was still too sharp a student of human nature to risk his limbs by trying to yank my little black rain cloud off my head.

Congress had punched the WASP program good and hard, right across the jaw. A bill sent to the House floor concerning our militarization, incorporation into the AAF, and promised sojourns at Officer Candidate School had been flung down and danced upon. We were deactivated, classified, and shipped home- at our own expense, of course.

I still had my Civil Air Patrol membership, but for the first time in years, I didn't feel like flying. I don't believe I would have touched a rudder pedal for a thousand dollars, even if one had been available to me.

I was morose for weeks. My only physical act was to look into some long-neglected repairs around the house, in the grand DeVere tradition. If dad had been a mediocre carpenter, I was no doubt the worst since Jesus had changed careers.

It took a lot of old friends to finally calm me down. I had no social engagements, few chums in town outside my acquaintances at the air terminal, and very little to do all day except smoke and mope in quiet commiseration with the people that seemed to know me best... A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, C.L. Moore, Cliff Simak, Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein...

*****

The thing about catharsis is, I don't think anyone can understand it or appreciate it until they've needed it, badly.

When I was a little girl, my magazines had pointed the way to the sky, and their dry smells of paper and glue had been the sweet bouquet of ambition itself. In my funk as those last few months of the war went by, what they offered was consolation. Not just something to lose myself in for a few hours at a time, but the promise of an entirely new ambition. Those stacks of Astoundings pointed the way to a card table in one corner of my room, where I set a typewriter down next to a pile of old notebooks and pulled up a chair.

With flying off the menu for at least a few months, I set out to become a science fiction writer.

*****

"How's my ink-stained wretch?" dad croaked one night as I settled his huge old gray wool blanket around him on the couch. Actually, it wasn't that huge- there was just less of him than ever for it to wrap around. He was always cold, even when the sun was high and bright, and he had that blanket perpetually draped around his shoulders, like a convalescent Superman.

"Not bad at all," I said, and I think I actually meant it, for the first time since my return. There were Marines on Iwo Jima at that point, so it must have been February or March, 1945. We listened to the radio constantly. Without it, I think we both realized, Old Crooked House would have been as silent as a monastery save for the creaking of the walls and the echoing CLACK CLACK CLACK of my mechanical writing partner.

"I may die of shock," said dad, "depriving several local quacks of the satisfaction of seeing their other predictions come true. You've lost some of that vinegar you came home with."

"Maybe," I admitted.

"Oh WASP, where is thy sting?"

"Yanked by act of congress," I said.

"To hell with those idiots," dad wheezed. "Vee, you did more than your duty. Someone's gonna see that, some day. The world doesn't stay stupid forever, about the important things."

"I dunno," I said. "If you'd had a little Victor DeVere, or a Virgil DeVere, I might still be flying somewhere. I'm pretty sure I'd have made it to OCS, at least."

"Do you really, honestly, feel that way?"

"I just don't know. Haven't you ever wondered-"

"Violet Elizabeth," he said with real venom, "the Lord gave me a daughter for a reason, and any man who got you and still wished for a boy, sight unseen, wouldn't deserve a child in the first damn place!"

"I'm sorry, dad, I'm sorry." I put my hand against his clammy cheek and he held it there with his own, mustering about as much strength as I might have, as an eight-year old.

"I oughta slap you so hard you wouldn't find your face again until next Tuesday," he said, sighing. "But I'm afraid that would interfere with the production of the first Violet DeVere masterpiece."

"At the rate I'm improving, dad, that first masterpiece ought to be ready some time around 1995."

"What's half a century?" He closed his eyes and shifted slightly away from me on the couch, where he was sleeping most nights, near the comforting murmur of the big cabinet radio. "I've had my first fifty years. Waiting out the second should be a lot easier."

"Can I do anything for you before I go to bed?"

"I may have left a slight chemical disaster in the kitchen, wrestling with that blasphemous instant coffee crap. If you could-"

"I'll take care of it before it hardens into a museum exhibit. Anything else?"

"Yes. If you stumble across a cure for cancer, you go right ahead and wake me no matter how late it gets."

"Dad! That's not funny!"

"I'm the one all wrapped up in it, beautiful. It's funny if I say it is."

*****

The war ended with a big damn world-changing burst of Scientifiction in August, 1945.

Dad and I made tentative plans to get DeVere General Aviation Services out of hibernation. He knew he wouldn't be getting any higher off the ground than a tall set of stairs would take him, but he seemed eager to keep the books.

In September, 1945, I received my first rejection letter from Astounding Science Fiction, sent in exchange for a truly awful piece of writing that adroitly plagiarized the worst bits of a dozen stories from the magazine's 1944 issues. Dad cackled with glee, as though I'd just been awarded a Nobel Prize on a bed of hundred-dollar bills. He made me hunt up an old picture frame, and in short order that rejection was hanging above his couch like a battle trophy.

"That's from New York City," he said impishly, when I rolled my eyes at his excitement. "They only tell the very best sort of people to go screw themselves, you know!"

In October, I added a second, third, and fourth rejection letter to my collection. In November, I spent a week at the air terminal, taking the heirloom D-25 out of storage, eyeballing every square inch of fuselage and wing and aileron, greasing and oiling and massaging the engine back to smooth-running life. I loved that old thing, but it sure was a quaint ship compared to the aluminum birds I'd flown for the army.

There were rumors floating around that the War Surplus Administration was about to flood the market with cheap service planes and parts. Dad and I agreed that we should restore the D-25 to solid flying condition, then sell it off and try to pick up something newer from the government, preferably something I'd been certified in as a WASP.

On November 17th, 1945, I flew for the first time in a year, under a cool gray sky with a strong wind out of the east. I meant to stay up for half an hour but stretched it to twice that, banking up and up and up, in loose counter-clockwise circles over that triangle of airstrips that turned into a miniature model beneath me. I still needed to use a ration card when I went into town for our groceries, but the choking grip on aviation gas had been loosened a bit, and that afternoon I flew my money's worth out of that tank of fuel.

When I got back home, chilled but excited from the flight, I found my fifth rejection slip waiting in the mailbox. It was just like all of its fellow harbingers of inadequacy, except for five words scrawled in neat black script in the lower right-hand corner:

Shows promise. Please keep submitting.

"Better push your timetable up, Vee," said dad, glowing so brightly that I could have hung a lampshade on him and sold him for decent money at Woolworths. "No radio for me tonight. I want to fall asleep listening to you pounding on that typewriter like it owes you money."

I did as he asked- I hit those keys until exhaustion fogged up my brain, and I stumbled into bed without leaving my room once more to check on him. So I've never been sure just when it happened- but I came down in the morning to find him still and silent on his couch, and already cold.

*****

I had him buried in his old leather flight jacket, in a plot he'd arranged right next to mom. There weren't many people at the funeral- pilots and ex-pilots, some of the farmers he'd done work for, a few old associates from town. His only real close friend, of course- old Mr. Derryberry from the air terminal. A swell guy, quite beside himself. We had no other family. Whatever tree of DeVeres we'd sprung from, the Abilene branch had narrowed down to a very fine tip.

I went home that afternoon, after he was in the ground, and for once, just once, there wasn't a breath of wind outside. That house was the quietest goddamn place on earth. I slumped against the radio cabinet and stared at his couch, at the neatly-folded gray blanket, and I cried until I didn't have any more water to squeeze out.

Then I got up, got my hands on all of dad's recent business paperwork and files, and dumped the mess on the kitchen table. I made instant coffee, and smoked up a fine haze, and sifted that stuff until the moon had climbed halfway up the black sky outside.

The next day I started making phone calls.

*****

Dad left me full title to DeVere General Aviation Services, of course, along with the family plane and a healthy bank account. He hadn't blown much of his money on treatments for his illness, because there were no treatments.

He left me more than that, though. Two things in particular had a value beyond numbers on a bank ledger.

First was Old Crooked House itself. For all the fresh blemishes we'd installed in our attempts at repairs, it was still a fundamentally sturdy place, and paid for. My own hillside fortress, where I could maintain a comfortable anonymity as far as the world beyond Abilene was concerned.

Some gals were writing for the science fiction magazines under their own full names, but there weren't many of them. It was easier (unless you had one of those rare double-duty names like Francis) to go by initials. From the glorious isolation of my big Texas house, I could write as V.E. DeVere, and there was nobody within a thousand miles who could know any better. I filed papers at the county courthouse to do business by those initials, in the air and in front of my typewriter.

The second thing dad left me was a cushion of good will at the Abilene Air Terminal, with its tight-knit little crew of operators. Everyone had known Howard, and even the dusters he'd more or less put out of business in the 30s hadn't begrudged him his luck. Nor did they really begrudge me my place- they'd known me since I was a little girl, had watched me rack up hundreds of hours in the D-25, had watched me go off to the WFTD with something like real pride. With the earth still fresh over dad's head, nobody offered so much as an unkind word when I took over as pilot-proprietor of dad's shop.

I got lucky with the D-25 and managed to sell it to a fellow down in Dallas who was looking to start some sort of air show. I rolled that cash together with dad's savings and my own, and after a couple months I finally scored a near-mint Taylorcraft L-2 from the War Surplus folks. "Only flown on Sundays," said the guy who handled my paperwork, "by a little old Army pilot who swore he didn't let the Germans take too many shots at him."

Sweet old guy. He didn't give me any trouble at all- turned out one of his nieces had been a WASP about five classes behind mine.

The L-2 was a liaison bird, one of the 'grasshoppers,' a no-fuss little redneck sort of airplane. Grasshoppers were built light and sturdy and simple, designed so that anyone with the brains of a standard-issue 12-year-old could yank one out of its crate, get it flying, and patch it up when it came back full of holes. It could take off in any weather short of Judgment Day. In fact, given a good stiff wind, it could start at home plate on a baseball diamond and be up in the air before most of the outfield was gone. I had checked out on the L-2 in early 1944, and flown about twenty of them to army bases on the West Coast.

I flew my baby home from the surplus depot in Houston. It took us an hour or two to learn each other's quirks, but after that we settled into a fine working relationship. The air was as calm as a warm blue lake all the way to Abilene, with one stop for gas and lunch along the way. That was April 26, 1946.

V.E. DeVere's seventeenth rejection slip was in the mailbox when I got home. I pinned it to the wall in my room and kept typing.

*****

I might as well settle the suspense now and let you know that I did eventually manage to sell something to John Campbell at Astounding. I pulled my sixty-third rejection notice out of the mail on August 8, 1948 and found that it wasn't a rejection notice after all. I suspect that I had finally exhausted their supply, and they had no choice but to send an acceptance while they were getting more rejections printed. You can find "A Case of Mid-Space Turbulence" in the January, 1949 issue, right next to a decent offering from Asimov and a killer (in more ways than one) story from Lewis Padgett. I can recall that issue almost word-for-word, as vividly as the first few magazines I read as a girl.

Hell, if Old Crooked House is still around, and nobody's gone in and moved my things (which might be a stretch- I'm pretty sure I've been legally dead since 1950), you could even go to Abilene and grab a copy. They'd be a bit stiff and yellowed by now, but I owned twenty of them. If they're still there, help yourself.

*****

I typed most nights in my big empty house, and I worked most days down at the hangar, trying to put my pre-war connections back together like a mechanic soldering a rusty old piece of electrical gear. Some men didn't want to work with me, or have me working for them, but enough did that I was soon comfortably in the black- crop dusting, surveying, even puddle-jumping the occasional passenger or express cargo.

It sounds lonely, the way I've written it, but I had so many messages in bottles washing up on my remote little island that I really didn't feel at all unsociable. I struck up correspondences by mail with about a dozen fellow sufferers of science fiction-itis, most of them part of a loose confederacy of Texas eccentrics called the Rolling Plains Amateur Press Association. I even got letters from folks in New York, from time to time.

In 1948, the Army Air Force cut the apron strings and became its own sovereign service, and someone decided to throw a meatless bone to the former WASPs. I remember finding that big official envelope in my mailbox. It was an invitation to apply to the new Air Force, offering a chance at OCS and a lieutenant's commission. Flight certification would not be considered, and flying duties were out of the question.

I didn't even bother writing back.

*****

So, I wasn't rich, and I wasn't famous, but I guess you could say I'd achieved a comfortable equilibrium. I got a couple more stories published, I gossiped with my fellow ray-gun nuts, and I spent many, many agreeable hours flitting around the sky.

It was a good enough time, and it lasted until August 19, 1950.

*****

I remember that day, and everything about it, with unnatural clarity. It's there like a box in my memory, with every little item from those last twenty-four hours neatly catalogued. A police evidence file, almost. The contents of the victim's pockets from the day the All-Sovereign murdered her former life.

It was a Saturday, bright and hot and muggy. The sun came up mean, throwing punches at anyone it saw scuttling around below. I stayed inside all morning, drinking real coffee, smoking Chesterfields, listening to my papers flutter in the breeze from my little electric fan. I was staring at a note from John Campbell that might just herald the acceptance of my fourth story for Astounding, assuming I was willing to perform the surgery it advised:

"Dear DeVere-

I could please myself immensely by cutting you a check for "Out of the Green Silence," but I think I'd be doing both yourself and the magazine a disservice. It's nearly there, but nearly there doesn't cross the finish line. I talked about my feelings on the subject of your quasi-Spartan fish people in our last game of postal tennis, and no miracle has since shifted my resolve. They're a cheap gimmick resolution for a plot that was otherwise humming along very sweetly; they'd be a cheap gimmick for Asimov and a cheap gimmick for Kuttner and I hope you'll accept it as a token of prestige when I insist that they're a cheap gimmick for DeVere. Let us say the ball is now bouncing on your side of the net- and when are you going to send me that follow-up to "Cold Windings of the Murthalump?"

Regards,

John"

I was having trouble coming to a decision. That dangling paycheck was like a gravitational anomaly, distorting the usual orbits of my thoughts. Furthermore, I was a bit melancholy- my one fellow female in the Rolling Plains APA, bright and funny little Pat Medford, had just departed Texas for California. She was the only correspondent I ever entrusted with the full meaning of my initials. Pat was bound for Santa Barbara, chasing an advanced degree in zoology- myrmecology, to be precise. The study of ants. Her father was famous for it, and she wanted to be the second Dr. Medford in the field. We seemed to have a great deal in common, and she promised to keep reading and writing, but I knew a quest for a PhD would keep anyone busy enough for five people.

I've thought about her a few times in the years I've been here. It'd be nice if she got that doctorate, and if myrmecology turned out to be the adventure she was hoping for. I suppose I'll probably never know.

Anyhow, that brutally hot damp Saturday morning, the loud ring of the phone was a welcome distraction from my fairly congealed thoughts. I stubbed out the smoldering fragment of my cigarette and grabbed the handset.

"Hate to trouble you, Violet." It was Jubal Akers, the part-time manager down at the air terminal when Mr. Derryberry wasn't in town. "Would you by any chance be averse to going up today?"

"Why Ake, when I don't feel like going up you'll know I've accidentally cut off my own head. What gives?"

"There's a fellow hurt bad up in Paducah, and their doctor's off somewhere. Doc Soames needs to get up there mighty fast."

"Mercy mission, huh?" My head lost its fuzz in a hurry. "I'll come straight down."

"Thanks, Violet, I knew I could count on you. We'll figure out something for your gas and time-"

"Hey, I didn't ask!"

"Just looking out for you, Violet. You know me. See you soon."

Paducah was about a hundred and ten miles northwest as the crow flew, and probably a bit more as the Oldsmobile crawled. I could heave a doctor up there in just over an hour, two or three times as fast as anyone in a car.

I dressed in a hurry- plain old work shirt, gray mechanic's trousers, scuffed loafers. I yanked my hair back and tied it with one of dad's handkerchiefs, and left most of my assorted junk on the kitchen table. All I had when I ran out the door, by way of gear, was my own leather flight jacket, my sunglasses, and my little black wallet with a few bucks and most of my license cards. In the inner pocket of my jacket was a single open pack of Chesterfields and a matchbook. Nobody'd bothered to tell me I was packing to leave the planet.

*****

Ake had my L-2 out of the hangar before I screeched up in dad's 1940 Ford pickup, which had once been a bright beautiful red, before ten years of weather made a mobile Picasso out of it. Dr. Emerson Soames was pacing nervously in the shadowed hangar interior, keeping out of the sun like an ant that's spotted a magnifying glass. As I hopped out of the truck, my mind was whirling with calculations for the flight.

"Hey, Doc," I shouted. Soames was a pleasant old gnome of a man, with piercing dark eyes set in a face seamed and wrinkled like a clay pinch-pot. He was good at what he did, and trusted around the air terminal. "How much do you weigh?"

"What an impertinent question, Miss DeVere." He raised his eyebrows, and with some of his wrinkles formed a smile. "But for the record, one hundred and forty-three pounds, not counting my shoes. Or my bag."

"What about the bag?"

"Ah, I'd say thirty pounds, maybe." He gestured to a heavy satchel sitting against the hangar wall. "Not sure what I'll need, so I packed the big bag. Sulfa, splints, my-"

"What's the emergency?"

"Fella got thrown off a horse. Compound fractures in his right leg, and they're afraid to move him. Rightly so, it sounds like."

"Well," I said, "I'm guessing we'll be about seventy minutes in the air, pushing her for all she's worth. Will that be good enough?"

"It's the best the poor guy's gonna get," said Soames.

Akers helped Soames and his bag into the little cabin of the plane while I did some quick work with my slipstick. One hundred and thirty pounds of Violet, plus one hundred and seventy pounds of Doc and gear. . . we were far within my L-2's weight limits, but I had to figure out how much fuel I could afford to leave behind for the sake of a little extra speed, without letting the tank go dry twenty miles early and a few thousand feet too high.

When I'd done my math homework Akers and I did a pre-flight check, and I hopped into the cockpit. I buckled in, then set my flight jacket on my lap- it might have been hot enough to turn pigs into bacon at ground level, but once you get up a few thousand feet, you can never be sure what sort of conditions you might discover.

"Ever done much flying, Doc?"

"I'm afraid this will constitute my introduction to the wild blue yonder, Miss DeVere."

"Nervous?"

"It's fair to say that poor bastard up in Paducah is lucky I took a solemn physician's oath, yes."

"Well, don't fret. This sweetheart may rock a little on a hot day like this, but the good news is, she can take off or land from the back of a cow, if the cow just stands still for a moment."

"What's the bad news?"

"I didn't say there was any bad news, did I?" I turned and favored Soames with what I hoped was my most wolfish hot-doggin' air-ace grin. "You strapped in tight?"

"Yes. Although, I do hate to ask, but, I didn't have much of a chance to eat or drink before I got the call. Is there-"

"My complete patented emergency sustenance kit is located directly under your seat, Doc. Help yourself."

My complete patented emergency sustenance kit consisted of one bottle of Sun Tang Red Cream Soda. Soames nursed it with surprisingly steady hands as I spun us up to flight speed and sent us into the wind, cranking my baby's four-cylinder engine for every last one of the sixty-five horses it was good for. In moments we were banking over the field, turning northwest at five hundred feet. I gave our wings a gentle waggle for good luck, and then we hauled tail for Paducah, climbing gently as we went.

*****

Wind was out of the southeast, at about ten knots. Temperature at ground level was about a hundred and five. The sky above was thick with wispy cirrus clouds, looking like a field of unravelled asbestos fibers, but that was all well past twenty thousand feet. I leveled us off at sixty-five hundred, in warm clear air with perfect visibility ten miles or more in any direction. We got a good hard bounce every few minutes, but when the sun beats down on the countryside like that you can expect some air pockets to float on up and make your acquaintance.

I was having a fine time- this wasn't just a job, it was a mission, with a wistful tinge of my old WASP days. We'd been in the air about twenty minutes when Soames tapped me on my left shoulder.

"Miss DeVere," he shouted, "I hate to bother you with what might be a silly question, but what am I looking at directly behind us?"

I checked six, and past the dark line of the rudder, against the bright blue sky I saw a thin, rippling red line.

"Doc," I said, mouth wide open, "I can honestly say I have no idea."

I watched for a few moments, directly and in my mirrors, as the rippling strand of crimson grew larger, like a bleeding gash in the sky. I couldn't yet tell whether it was getting closer or simply spreading, back wherever it was. I decided to get on the horn.

"Abilene Terminal, Taylorcraft six-one-niner Able," I said into my radio headset. I got nothing but static back. "Abilene Terminal, Taylorcraft six-one-niner Able!"

"I could swear it's getting closer," said Soames.

I saw that he was right- the details within the redness were more distinct. The thing had a rippling, gaseous sort of texture- it was almost like a cloud, though it had a tint that no ordinary cloud had any business showing off in the middle of such a healthy blue sky.

"Might be some kind of St. Elmo's Fire," I said. "Spend enough time in the air, you'll see the damnedest things. I'm gonna take us up a ways to get over it."

While I hauled back on the stick, I continued my fruitless attempts to make radio contact with anyone that might know more about what was going on. "Abilene traffic, Taylorcraft six-one-niner Able, please respond. Any Abilene traffic, please respond, over."

I did not like the static I was getting in return. It meant that either the radio I'd checked on the ground less than half an hour before had suddenly failed, or something was messing with transmission and reception. I leveled us off again at seventy-eight hundred feet.

"Seems to be moving on the same heading we are," I said. "That should give it some room to pass beneath us. Makes me wish I'd brought up a camera."

"Miss DeVere, I hate to complain again, but I'm afraid-"

"Holy hell,", I said before he was even finished. The scarlet thing climbed, with two or three times the vertical speed I'd just managed, until it was once again directly level with us, and closer than ever. I couldn't be sure, lacking any real frame of reference for the sinister red phenomenon, but I'd say at that point it was no more than four miles away. "Hang on, Doc."

I banked us to the right, a good hard turn that pointed us due east. I watched the thing out the starboard cabin window- flowing like a bloodstain in water, it surged along with us, still closing all the time. Two miles now, at most. I had a fiercely cold lump in my stomach.

"I don't think that's a cloud." I muttered. "Really hold on, Doc." I banked left and gave us a hard yaw, which pitched our nose down below the horizon. Brown and green fields whirled below us as we twisted and dove, with the engine roaring and the air screaming around us. I whipped us back up at five thousand feet, and then checked our six and swore.

The cloud was racing straight down upon us, from above and behind and all sides, unfolding and billowing. I could see white flashes of energy, like heat lightning, stabbing the air from within its boiling red depths.

"Mayday mayday mayday," I hollered into the radio, "mayday mayday mayday, Taylorcraft six-one-niner Able, in need of... oh, shit, mayday, God, we need-"

The air was filled with a throbbing, pulsing rhythm, and the L-2 shook like a toy in the hands of an irate toddler. My airspeed counter started rolling off nonsense numbers, and my dash compass went mad. The red cloud enfolded us, and the control column started bucking in my hands. I lost track of our orientation- the world outside vanished in the redness, and we tumbled crazily, with white-hot electrical arcs rippling across the wings and spars. I could see fragments of wing skin peeling away into the maelstrom. Doc's bag tumbled around the cabin, along with an empty glass soda bottle.

The air stank of ozone, and the sizzling crackle of the unearthly lightning grew so loud I couldn't even hear myself screaming. The world flew to pieces around me, and I thought for sure that we were dead.

*****

A cotton-candy sensation in my stomach, a tickle. Like the little instant of free-fall you can get plunging back and forth on a playground swing, if you do it just right. I drifted in soft darkness, too confused to think. A moment later, I had solid weight again, and I hit the dirt so hard my consciousness held up its hand to the waiter and said "Check, please!"

I was only out for a few seconds, I'm sure. The pain saw to that. The plane was gone, along with my chair and my straps, and somehow I was sprawled face-down on loose, cool sand, with my flight jacket stuffed under my left cheek. Most of the impact on my upper body seemed to have been taken by my breasts- and that's not what they were meant for. Let me tell you, imaginary reader, that I had a good long howl before I did anything else.

What the hell had happened? I rolled sideways and pulled my legs in toward my stomach, unashamedly going fetal. I ran my fingers through the sand and gravel, the orange-red sand and gravel of my resting place, and I tried to gather my wits. Not moments earlier I'd been tumbling out of control, probably moving straight down at about two hundred miles an hour. I'd landed hard, sure, but something had clearly decelerated me with incredible efficiency just before that. Human beings who met the ground with the momentum of a crash dive didn't yowl over their bruises, they turned into spaghetti sauce.

It took me a moment to realize that along with the pain, I felt a strange lightness all over my body. An unnerving sensation, but almost pleasant despite everything. I pushed myself up to take a look around, and received my first two major shocks of a day that would have plenty of shocks to spare.

The first was that my little nudge jack-knifed me backwards and carried me to my knees. I'd exerted about as much force as required for a single meek push-up, and popped upward like a spring.

The second startling thing I noticed was that I was kneeling in the shadow of the most incomprehensibly vast structure I'd ever seen- a tower like a dozen madly-stacked Chrysler Buildings in dull red stone and cold blue metal. Its dark heights soared past the point of visibility under a deep black sky that was on fire with stars. They glowed up there like the image of ten thousand grains of radium dust thrown across a sheet of photographic film.

I knew in an instant that if I wasn't dreaming, this wasn't Texas. This wasn't Earth.

I heard a choking sob from just behind me. I turned clumsily, and saw Doc Soames curled up there on the red sand, trying to move. His busted glasses were shattered beside his face, and his medical bag was in a little crater of its own, crumpled like road kill.

Doc wasn't alone.

There were twenty or thirty of them standing just beyond him, tall, dangerous-looking figures in dark suits... no. Armor. The impossible starlight gleamed on their steel-gray armor, ribbed and segmented like drawings I'd once seen of Roman legionaries. They wore long cloak-coats the color of dried blood, with the mantles thrown back over their shoulders, and they had gray iron masks that cast their eyes into deepest shadow.

Every one of them carried a long, hard object that had to be some sort of weapon. Moving in unison, they came forward across the sand, armored hands outstretched toward Doc and myself.

*****

Next: The Representative Sample


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