by dm gillis
read deco 1 here
The Group Captain reached for a cigarette and checked the glowing alarm clock. His room was a monotony of straight lines and curves of wood and steel that made no sense. The ceiling fan was still, or he might have counted.
He’d planned the attack one final time in his last dream before waking, the details of erasing the City’s genius with a rake of zeppelins and aeroplanes. The City with nothing between it and the horizon, a terrifying silhouette of sacred steeples and obelisks.
He knew he must breathe. It would slow his heart.
He sat up and placed his feet on the floor, and lit his cigarette. The alarm clock rang, 04:15. There was a knock at his door.
“Come,” he said.
A greying Mess Corporal entered with a breakfast tray.
“There’s sausage this morning, Sir,” the Corporal said. “It was taken from an evacuation liner, boarded by one of our submarine crews in the Norwegian Sea. They took what they could fit into the sub, then torpedoed the ship. Sent her to the bottom. No survivors, shame. There’re no eggs, though. Too bad.”
“Thank you. Please go.”
“There’s coffee, Sir,” said the Corporal, brightly. “No white sugar. Demerara, though. Something about a lack of refining capacity. Shall I pour you a cup?”
“How would you know about submarine attacks or refining capacity, Corporal?” the Group Captain said, putting on his socks. “How would you know anything?”
“Loose lips, Sir,” the Corporal said. “I work in the Officers’ Mess, after all. You’d know all this too, if you ate with the other officers.”
The Group Captain made a mental note to compose a memo.
“What are they saying about today’s attack?” he asked.
“Gung-ho, Sir,” the Corporal said. “Most of them.”
“Just so, Sir.”
“Who’s not gun-ho?” said the Group Captain.
“I never bother with names,” the Corporal said. “Not good practice for a Mess Corporal, Sir.”
“I could have you tortured.”
“Then I’d likely tell you the sky is made of marmalade, Sir, if you wanted me to. That don’t make for good intelligence gathering.”
The Group Captain was at his closet now, looking for a clean shirt.
“You know nothing about intelligence gathering,” the Group Captain said. “And you’re far too familiar, Corporal.”
“Yes, Sir. It’ll be the death of me, Sir. Is there anything else?”
“No. Just get the hell out of here.”
The Mess Corporal closed the door quietly behind him.
The base was coming to life. Massive bombs and incendiaries were being loaded onto airships. Biplanes fitted with smaller bombs and loaded with machine gun ammunition. The first briefing was in an hour. He would stroll the base until then. Smell the gasoline and odorized hydrogen. Trust in his sidearm and the tidings of Command.
There were arias from Italian opera playing over the PA. Some of the pilots huddled, hunched in nicotine clusters discussing air and ground victories, personal and shared, knowing that some of them would die in the late morning’s action. Knowing their aeroplanes would fail in a barrage. Even damn fool pacifists would have antiaircraft guns on rooftops.
Other pilots stood alone, knowing death was a lonesome business, and resented it in advance. The Flight Lieutenant was one of these. He stood in a doorway with a mug of something improved with rum. The Group Captain stepped up to say hello. The Flight Lieutenant greeted him with an indifferent attempt at standing to attention, and a lazy salute.
“Ready for the day’s work?” The Group Captain asked.
“Technically, yes Sir.”
“You’ll do your job, I know it.”
The Group Captain ignored the reticence. It was welcome honesty, lacking in the jingoism of Air Command. Besides, the Flight Lieutenant had been among their greatest sources of intelligence. A scholar on the subject of the City, a champion. He’d flown over the City on surveillance runs more than any other pilot. He’d shot down more aircraft in battle, against more worthy enemies. His modified Vladimir Model X flew faster and higher than any other plane. He’d even walked the streets of the City as a spy, and he knew the people and their art, the philosophy behind its superb architecture and civil systems. He was a hero who should sit out the attack, but who must fly by virtue of his heroism.
“What will it be like, do you think?” the Group Captain asked.
“We will win the battle,” said the Flight Lieutenant. “The City is poorly defended. They’re poets. No history of militarism.”
“Yes, that confirms what Command has said.”
“But what will be gained from it, Sir?” said the Flight Lieutenant.
A difficult question. Asking it was treason. Answering it may have been, also.
“Greater glory,” was all the Group Captain would say.
“I encountered a biplane once,” the Flight Lieutenant said, after a short pause. “From the City. Over the desert, in the demilitarised zone.”
It was an unusual thing to say. The Group Captain considered it, and then decided to follow along in conversation.
“And the pilot saw you?” he said.
“And so, you shot him down.” Not a question, a statement of presumed fact.
“No,” said the Flight Lieutenant. “The pilot was a woman, a civilian, which in itself was no reason not to shoot the plane down. But I didn’t, nonetheless.”
“Perhaps I don’t want to hear more, Flight Lieutenant,” the Group Captain said. “I know spies do things for their own reasons, to gain information that would otherwise be unavailable to them.”
“Not this time,” said the Flight Lieutenant. “I did it for the joy of it. She saw me shortly after I saw her. It was over the high dunes, a few miles away from here. She was flying low, mapping perhaps. I came down from altitude, and greeted her with a wave. She shouldn’t have been there, naturally. Maybe she was a spy, like me. She wore the usual leather helmet and goggles, and the red silk scarf round her neck flew out of the cockpit behind her. Her aeroplane was a bright gleaming yellow.”
“Yours is red,” the Group Captain said, finding nothing else to say. “It must have been a marvelous sight.”
“We flew together for less than an hour,” said the Flight Lieutenant. “But side by side in our planes, we were like lovers. If something so impulsive and without reason can be imagined. We raced and laughed. Then we came to the desert mountains, and flew through the scorched valleys and up the slopes, over the peaks together. The desert finally disappeared, of course. And we came to the place where the terrain becomes green and with forests and rivers, a few miles outside of the City’s precincts.”
“And she landed not long after?” the Group Captain said.
“Yes. But she never radioed in. She never alerted her own side. I was able to fly along with her over the City, and see her land.”
“Have you seen her since?”
“Did you report it?”
“They are subtle,” said the Group Captain. “She held you in her trance.”
“No Sir,” the Flight Lieutenant said. “Not subtle. She simply had no capacity to fear me. They are trying desperately to understand enmity. But I don’t think its in them.”
“It’s difficult for me to know what to do with this story of yours,” said the Group Captain. “But their lack of capacity to fear us, their obvious enemy, surely means that they will fail to evolve, if you believe in that sort of thing.”
“Perhaps they have evolved,” the Flight Lieutenant said, sipping from his mug. “Beyond us. Hence beyond fear. They will lose the battle tonight. But they will win over us, ultimately.”
“I don’t understand.” Perhaps this was treason.
“They’re much cleverer than us,” said the Flight Lieutenant. “And have greater patience. A poet of theirs once wrote 1500 pages about his own death, by hand with quill and ink. He began it when he was twenty. He died when he was one hundred and twelve, of a form of ascetic starvation. The poem was flawless in its first and only draft, and he died on the day he finished it.”
The Group Captain said nothing.
“They have no religion, as we know it,” continued the Flight Lieutenant. “They believe in the spectrum of light, iambic and dactylic pentameter, and tangent lines. Their odd rationality may be their most potent weapon against us, in the end. But they do hold some myths dear, myths from a very far-away past. One of them is of a great storm, the Red Storm. It had many eyes and grasping hands, and it had raged across the world for one hundred thousand years. One day news came that the Red Storm would come out of the desert and destroy their City, if the people did not pay a ransom in gold. But the City’s Queen decreed that there would be no ransom. Instead, her greatest heroes would stand firm, and shoot fiery arrows into the Storm’s rage. And on each arrow would be attached a verse from a love poem once written to the Queen by a lover who had died in battle, for her sake.”
The Flight Lieutenant paused, to drink from his mug.
“What happened?” the Group Captain demanded.
“The Red Storm was infuriated by the Queen’s decree, and attacked the City with far greater violence than it might have otherwise. And when it did, the heroes stood and fired their flaming arrows of poetry, and the Red Storm roared in anguish as the love contained in the verse permeated its angry grasping heart, and it finally came to fade from the world. And when it did, the still fiery arrows fell to the ground with all of the ransoms the Storm had collected over thousands of years.”
“But any storm will end if you shoot enough arrows into it,” the Group Captain said.
“Not one so greedy, old and strong. With all of the ransoms of the world in its belly to sustain it. The ransoms that fell to Earth that day provided riches that made the City strong and soundly built. Now we are the Red Storm.”
“I see,” said the Group Captain. “What, I wonder, shall we ever do with all of the myths of our vanquished?”
“Some of us will study them. But mostly the myths we win in war will make us scared of the dark, and of each other. And those we believe we have vanquished will win, as a result.”
“Are you a prophet or a spy?” the Group Captain said.
“All spies are prophets, Sir. Prophecy is our business.”
The Group Captain lit a cigarette. “What’s in that mug?” he asked.
“Coffee, Sir,” said the Flight Lieutenant, taking a flask form an inner pocket. “And rum.” He offered the flask, and his commander took it.
“Lately,” The Group Captain said, taking a swig. “Everyday feels like my last. That I will fall dead in a moment, in spite of my health. What would a prophet say to that, do you think?”
“He’d tell you to steal an aeroplane and escape.”