Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In
Last week our intrepid party-goer Ellie met a rather curious bar-tender and found herself in a bit of a pickle as she hit the bathroom floor. The question is, where did she wake up?
(What do you mean you didn’t read last weeks installment? What are you waiting for, it’s right here: When The Tide Comes In Part 1)
And so the story continues……
Ellie remembered a bathroom floor.
Had she managed to throw up?
She was groggy, but the cold air blowing in from the car window was bringing her around from some nightmare about an old aeroplane. The car bucked and bounced through a pot hole. Jon must have found her and they were on their way home….
Next to her she heard voices speaking low.
“Jon?” she murmured, still half gone.
Damn, it felt cold. Didn’t he have the heating on?
Her eyes cracked opened in search of the window winder but instead found the cramped interior of a truck. The sound of its heavy engine surfaced through the haze of her thoughts as a sudden wave of cold morning air swirled in under the heavy canvas covering. The chill snapped her fully awake; she was wedged between two soldiers, and her head throbbed with a persistent ache. She reached up and probed the bandage gingerly.
“What the f – ?”
The truck bounced through a deep pot hole, nearly pitching her to floor but for the strong hand that held her steady. She looked into the face of the soldier next to her, weariness and resignation haunting his face. He nodded at her and went back to staring at the floor.
Ellie took a deep breath and closed her eyes against the vertigo rising up through the soles of her feet. There had been a bar…. the pill….. Was she still tripping? Dreaming perhaps? But it was all so real as she looked around at the soldiers, eyes glazed and staring at nothing, rifles held across laps or stood upright between their legs. No one seemed to have the energy to speak beyond a few mutters of gratitude for the pack of cigarettes being passed around like a form of communion, and she wasn’t about to refuse this small salvation from absurdity. The soldier next to her struck a match, lit up and offered her the flame.
She nodded her thanks and a moment later sat back with eyes closed against the weightlessness of her mind. She felt like a dandelion seed desperately clinging to its stalk while the wind howled and raged…..
* * *
It was the voice, not the name it called, that roused from the vague respite of slumber.
Ellie stared into Jon’s face, but the schism in her mind was prepared this time. The man standing over her wasn’t the same Jon she knew: he wore a flying jacket similar to hers, his hand gripping the overhead rail as he looked on her with grave expression. Despite the knowing that it wasn’t him she couldn’t hold the name back, “Jon?”
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “It’s me, Theran.”
“And who’s Jon?” Theran asked with a smile trying to cover his worry.
“No one, I…. I just got confused.”
“Not to worry. We’re nearly back.”
“Good,” Ellie replied, closing her eyes again. She took a deep breath to steady herself, and searched through her mind for the thread of reality that told her this was all a dream, but instead there was only a void, and she was floating between two memories: both were hazy, like dreams, and she didn’t know which one to go to any more. When she tried to retrace her steps, the place she wanted to go to receded further away until the memories she tried to coax from her brain just seemed like faint after images; she’d been at a party, with other people somewhere, and there had been a stranger in dark clothes. He had given her something and she had woken up here….
Or she had been in a plane crash and just dreamed about a party. That was the more probable explanation. As she wrestled with her thoughts the truck started to slow until it halted and soldiers began to stand, shuffling about and jumping out the rear.
“Like the fucking Matrix or something….” she muttered and opened her eyes to find Jon – no, Theran – staring at her with concern.
“What’s the Matrix?”
She frowned. “You know, I can’t remember. It’s a…. book, maybe?”
“The medic said you might have a mild concussion,” he said.
Ellie shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the problem….”
“You’ll be fine,” said Theran with a wide grin. “Which is good, because we’ll have to be back in action for tonight.
“Aye, can’t be flying without my navigator.”
“I swear, you must have bumped your head harder than I thought,” he chuckled and jumped down from the back of the truck. “Come on, it’s not much of a trek back.”
Ellie got up and followed Theran to the rear of the truck, hopping down onto a hard packed, gravel strewn road. As she stood in the morning light there didn’t seem too much out of the ordinary. The land here was a mossy heathland, purple heather and soft clouds scudding across the chill sky. The confusion she had felt was like a lurking discomfort, but every time she passed through it her mind became clearer: how could she have forgotten that she was Theran’s co-pilot and navigator? They had flown over a hundred night missions in their time together. Last night they had been on the return from bombing the hordes of creatures collectively known as the Tide when an engine failure had forced them down. They had been lucky to ditch on their side of the Front.
“Stand clear!” someone shouted, snapping her out her recollections as the truck ambled off in an arc, heading back the way it had come; it was heading back to retrieve more of the soldiery as they fell back. Ellie watched it dwindle away, passing an approaching truck laden with more retreating troopers, then she turned to follow Theran up the road –
– and gasped.
“What’s the matter?” asked Theran. “You look like you’ve never seen home before.”
They were a good mile off yet still the edifice’s tiered walls rose immense against the sky, bristling with artillery emplacements and gun platforms. The bulk of it was sunk into a rocky cliff face, and access was across a bridged chasm and through a heavily fortified gatehouse. This was the last redoubt of human courage, the hardened spirit of survival made from concrete and steel. It’s walls were thick enough to resist anything that the Tide had thrown at it, and it’s cannon barrages could pound any attack for mile upon mile, thinning their numbers with each step forward.
For a moment she stood amazed, as if she really hadn’t seen it before, but the fortresses name sprang instantly to mind, as if it had been there all along like a book forgotten on a shelf just waiting for her finger to run the length of its spine.
Bastion; last redoubt of a beleaguered humanity.
Aphelia was home.
* * *
Via the bridge and through the gatehouse, Aphelia and Theran made their way through the armoured bulk of the fortress for over two miles until they reached the enclosed airfields on the other side. Row upon row of assorted biplane stood waiting, engineers and crews working on those that had made it back and those that were to fly soon. These represented the last of their airborne capabilities, a hodgepodge of retrofitted civilian aircraft, trainers and purpose built scout bombers.
It was a scene so familiar that Aphelia wondered how she could have ever been confused about where she belonged. It was her workaday world, the reality she had lived for years as she and Theran bombed the advancing Tide over and over, sometimes flying three, four, even five sorties in any twenty four hour period until they bought themselves respite for a week, maybe two. Even so, the Front was a constantly shrinking series of trenches as humanity slowly retreated from the apparently unending numbers of the enemy.
The weight of that knowledge settled on her then, the nudging worry that the enemy was getting closer and closer, day by day. Yet somehow this place had become a mental fortress against the creep of an inevitable end. It’s walls were high and thick, impervious like its defenders.
So too did they had food, water and enough raw materials and manufacturing capability to last many more years. The notion that they could hold was reinforced upon them every day by the sermons of the Clerics who rallied spirits with their exhortations to not lose hope, to fight on, for the enemy must have its limits and it was humanity’s task to rain fire on the unholy creatures until those limits were found, until their numbers ran dry. It was a burden that Theran embraced with casual enthusiasm, dragging Aphelia in his wake day in and day out.
And right now he was gearing up to take them straight back out there, despite ditching in the field and with a navigator-cum-co-pilot who might have mild concussion. It had clearly caused some sort of strange bifurcation of her thoughts when she had bumped her head, but she was fine now, wasn’t she? As her comrades in the hangars hailed them with cheers she was certain the fugue in her mind had passed off.
“Aphelia! Aphelia!” roared a woman who looked like she could wrestle a bear. The ground veritably shook as the giant engineer Merrietta came running and scooped her up in her arms. “Dah! When I heard you had were down I feared the worse, but here you are with a head wrapped in bandages.”
“It’s nothing,” said Aphelia.
“Nothing? Pah!” snorted Merrietta and poked a finger at Theran. “I told this buffoon that the kite needed more work. Now he has lost us a plane and nearly lost us you.”
“Hey,” Theran held up his hands, “It wasn’t a complete waste. I managed to radio in the movement through the Gottane Valley.”
Merrietta nodded. “Dah, they are squeezing us tighter and tighter. I hear most of the troopers made it out.”
Theran smiled. “So, one plane for how many soldiers?”
“I’ll let you have this one then,” replied Merrietta and crossed her arms, returning her eyes to Aphelia. “More importantly, if you hadn’t made it back, then you were going to leave me that bottle of rum, dah?”
Aphelia grinned. “No chance of me not coming back while there’s still a drop of that left. I could use a glass right about now.”
“That,” Theran interjected, “Will have to wait until after we make a report to the captain.”
Aphelia groaned as Theran began to drag her away, and all she could do was give Merrietta an apologetic shrug before falling in line with Theran as the engineer waved and went back to her tasks with a rueful smile.
In the middle ground of the hangars stood the aerial command bunker, and together the pair descended through cordons of guards and officials, down corridors lined with bare bulbs hanging from cords. They were directed to a briefing room where Captain Nerrund sat amid a whirl of paperwork; he was the eye of a storm as his three secretaries organised, tidied and redeployed orders and communiques before they were lost to the constant threat of over-spill.
Theran knocked and the whirlwind paused. A moment later they stood before Nerrund who had suddenly become an isle of calm peering over his steepled fingers with faint gratitude.
“Good to have you back. You were instrumental to our successful withdrawal.”
“Thank you sir,” Theran saluted. Aphelia followed suit.
“And,” Nerrund continued, “I can see you’re ready for more.”
“Of course sir.”
“What about you?” Nerrund asked Aphelia. “You have a head wound?”
“Just a bump,” Aphelia replied. “I’m fine.”
Nerrund sighed. “I’ll have to take your word for it because tonight you’ll be flying resupply.”
Nerrud nodded and Aphelia groaned. “Fly by” meant skimming the ground and dropping supplies literally on top of the friendlies. While she had never missed a target, it was the most stressful kind of mission because you couldn’t make a mistake.
That, and the fact that there were Tidlings that could jump high enough to reach the plane. She’d seen it happen before: a crew in front were intercepted by dozens of creatures resembling giant, multicoloured frogs. They came arcing through the air like a jet of water, splashing over the plane and causing it to plummet. Theran and Aphelia has pulled up just in time to escape a similar fate.
“Who are they?” Theran asked.
“We have an outpost in the Chencorn Pass that was cut off. They’re still broadcasting, and the main flow of the Tide is heading past them on the east side. We’ll try and give them enough time for us to move the 7th Artillery Battery up from Pallasad and clear a path for them. So once you resupply you’ll be flying straight back out and pounding the Tide to stem the flow on the eastern side.”
“Very good sir. Who’ll be flying cover?”
“Sorry,” Nerrund shook his head. “You’ll be flying without escort.”
“That’s madness,” Theran retorted, then remembered himself, “Sir.”
“It’s unfortunate, but nothing I can do. We’re low on numbers and I need them covering the artillery.”
“But – ”
“Those big guns are sitting ducks, while you have the advantage of speed over the enemy.”
“No good if we fly straight into them. It’s a full moon out there, and they’ll see us coming if they’re looking.”
“Of course,” sighed Nerrund, trying not to bristle. “I don’t like it any better than you do, but we’re stretched and there’s a whole battalion of troops out there. I have to weight the risks – a half dozen resupply planes against the loss of an artillery battery and a battalion of men. I’m sorry, but I can only do what I can do. You’ll have to pray that it clouds over.”
“But sir – ”
“Dismissed!” snapped Nerrund in a voice that brooked no argument. Everyone stiffened. Theran’s jaw bunched and he looked like he was chewing a mouthful of bees as Nerrund added. “You’ve got six hours to rest, so I suggest that you make the most of it.”
The pair saluted and made to leave.
“And Aphelia,” Nerund called after her, “Get that head of yours looked at.”
“Yes sir.” With a casual salute she pulled the door closed behind her and found that Theran had disappeared. She sighed, and went to find Merrietta.
It was time for that glass of rum.
End of Part 2
Tune in next week as our heroine has an (un)expected visitor and takes to the air.
In the meantime, hope you’re all keeping sage and sane.
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