Chapter 1

 

Wyla's eyes shot open. She was torn from fitful sleep by a deafening sound that filled every square inch of her tent; pulsing up and down in decibels, but never stopping it's sonic onslaught. Wyla was all too familiar with this sound. An air raid. Not a moment to waste. She reached for the gun that lay upon a stool next to her cot. Wasted moments bring death. She felt her fingers curl around the handle of her pistol, and, in the same breath, she rolled out of bed and stuffed the gun into the back of her pants. The second her foot touched the ground, she was off and running.

With an ever quickening pace, Wyla dashed across the tented alleyways of the Coastal Army's field base. The tents, barely visible in the predawn darkness, were left with their canvas door-flaps waving in her wake. Why wasn't anyone else out of their tents? Were they attempting a lights out? A worthless idea. Wyla wasn't going to hide in her quarters waiting for death. If she was going to die, she'd go out fighting.

As the hangar grew larger in her vision, her battle plans grew larger in her mind. She couldn't hear propellers overhead. No propellers meant no flyers. So it must be a drifter squadron. Drifters were heavily armed, but attacking from overhead would place her in their blind spot. The gas filled balloons that gave them lift were also their greatest weakness. The tracer rounds would do the trick. One tracer was loaded as every fourth round in her ammo belts. That meant four rounds per balloon. At four balloons per drifter, she'd need sixteen rounds per drifter. Wait, she'd only need to shoot out three to drop the drifter. Two if they were on the same side. That's only eight! Wyla smiled to herself as she cleared the hangar door

"I've got eight rounds to shoot each one down," she said to herself. Her voice echoed around the cavernous hangar with accompaniment by her pounding footsteps as she made a bee-line for the bay-door. Grasping the rope that lifted and lowered the door with both hands, Wyla leaped into the air and heaved her body weight downward. The hangar door swiftly lifted, rattling against it's rails and banging hard against the ceiling. A few dusty rays of sunshine drifted into the hangar and bathed the lines of flyers in its amber hues. She sprinted towards her flyer. Slapping her hand down on the wing, she hauled herself up into the open cockpit in one smooth motion. She flipped the ignition and was greeted by the whine of the steam pipes opening. They hissed and popped as the hot vapor shot through them. The engines shivered to life, spinning the propellers and causing the flyer to vibrate. The smell of drake throat coal filled the air as she shifted the throttle forward and began to taxi out towards the runway.

"Lt. Remsca," a voice boomed over the din of her engines. "Cut your engines this instant!" Wyla turned her head in the direction of the dispatch bunker. Behind the glass that separating it from the runway was the face of her commanding officer, red with anger. In one hand he held the call pipe for the runway, his other was a clinched fist which he repeatedly brought down heavily on the desk in front of him. Wyla cut her engines without breaking her gaze and leaned back in her cockpit. A sigh escaped her lips as she sat in wait for the dressing down she would receive. The commander stormed out of the bunker and marched across the runway towards her, his footsteps booming through the now silent air. The smell of coal dust had begun to subside, being replaced with the scent of a cool summer breeze. She rolled her head back and stared up at the dawn sky.

"What in the fires of Malia do you think you're doing?" The commander had reached the edge of her wing. "Why are you taking your flyer out of the hangar without clearance? And during a drill none the less. Have you lost your mind?" Wyla twisted her head to face her commander.

"Sir, I was not informed that there was a blackout drill this morning." Wyla kept her eyes locked onto the commander's. He was a large man, his head and face shaven clean. Only his eyebrows remained, although his left one was split by a small scar. She watched as he pressed his fingers against his temples and rub small circles into his skull. His eyes drifted down from Wyla's face to her attire.

"So," he began. "Not only did you not read this week's operations plan, but you didn't even ready yourself for battle." The red in his face began to fade, yet his anger remained. "You didn't even ready yourself for battle," he repeated himself under his breath. "I'm certain the shrapnel would take it easy on your pajamas." Wyla stared down at her clothes. He was right. Her life would have been quickly ended by one rouge piece of shrapnel. Her flight jacket was back in her tent, draped across the foot of her cot. The commander let loose a deep, rugged sigh. "Why have you chosen to ignore all procedures?"

"Sir, I didn't have time to read the plan. I got back late from patrol last night," her voice was calm and direct. A balanced response should keep the commander's anger at bay. The sputtering noise she received in response told her she was wrong.

"That's because you broke formation and flew low over the local town. Showing off again? Or were you just trying to crash into their clock tower?" His anger had found new life. "And what reasoning could you invent for that?"

"I thought I spotted a Royal soldier, sir." Wyla knew it was the truth. She had seen the familiar purple jacket of the enemy uniform. She had swung low over the town to get a better look. "Besides, I wasn't anywhere near the clock tower."

"You are aware of the procedure for reporting possible enemy presence in a local town, aren't you?" His anger was building. If smoke were to start billowing out of his ears, Wyla wouldn't have felt surprised. "You return to base, you report the possible soldier, and then we handle it!" And now he was screaming. Why was he always so angry? Wyla silently sat through the commander's barking until he was left a heaving, panting mess. "Now report back to your quarters!" He turned away from her and stormed back to the bunker. As he turned to slam the door behind him, he shot one last glare over at her.

Wyla pulled herself out of her flyer and began shuffling back to her bunk. The summer morning was beginning to turn into a bright day. The sky's rosy pink hues displaced by light blue. Wiping coal dust from her face, Wyla walked the same route she had just sprinted. It was almost as if the commander enjoyed yelling at her. He took any chance he had to indulge. Commanding officers were all the same. Follow the orders to the letter and you get a gold star, but take matters into your own hands and get berated. Of course she dropped lower to get a better look, how else was she going to confirm what she saw? If she reported an enemy soldier and she was wrong, he'd just yell about that. She couldn’t win.

Back before the war, she was an air-courier. She delivered letters and packages via the sky. The freedom was amazing. Now she was a dog and air-corps was a cage. To make matters worse, she was stuck in this cage until the war was over or she died. She closed her eyes and slowed her pace. The royal army would feel her fire as she burned them alive. She was a warrior of the sky. Wyla Remsca, the hero of the battle at Red Ridge. Wild-eyes. Wild-eyes?

"Hey, Wild-eyes." A voice called to her through her thoughts. Wyla pivoted in it’s direction. A soldier had his head through the canvas flap of his tent. "You forget about the drill?" He smiled.

"And you are?" The venom in Wyla's response caught the soldier off guard. His smile faded as he chose his next words carefully. Wild-eyes could see the gears turning as he thought as hard as he could.

"Private First Class Richard Malik," he stuttered. The blood rushed to his face as Wyla's gaze pierced him. She focused her eyes onto his, burning her gaze straight into them. He could feel the threads of conversation catch fire in her glare. Her eyes, green as emerald, were so cold. So menacing. How did she end up so bitter? He tried to shake a chill creeping up his spine.

"You know who gets to call me Wild-eyes?" Her fangs were out now. He knew he'd made a huge mistake. His blood ran cold as he tore his eyes away from her, forcing them downward until they landed at her feet. The wind began to pick up again. It shook his tent causing the canvas door to wave in front of Wyla; blocking his vision as she responded. " I hate that name." The wind stopped as Wyla turned away and began to stride back to her tent. "I hate it," she mumbled to herself. That name was a reminder of all the pain that this war had caused her.

She stepped back into her tent with a crestfallen shuffle, fastened the flap to the ground with a strip of leather, and began to undress. As she lifted off her shirt, her thumb caressed a scar that ran across her torso. She tossed her nightshirt onto her cot and ran her hand down the scar, tracing it from above her right breast to the top of her left hip. Red ridge. The anti-flyer battery. She reached her hand around to her back and touched the twisted scar that ran from her left shoulder to mid way down her thigh. It was deep. So deep that you could feel it through her clothes. Red ridge. She looked at her right arm. The scar down her forearm. It's match on the inside. Red ridge.

The battle flashed through her mind. She couldn't help but relive the moments. Dragged through a theater of her darkest hour., she remembered looking to her wing-mate just before the anti-flyer barrage began. He kissed a picture of his daughter that he kept in his cockpit at all time. A smiling little girl captured in sepia. An artifact of civilian life. In one moment he was there, smiling during what was supposed to be a patrol. The next, gone. Right before her eyes. She had watched as his flyer spun downward towards the ground. Sven. Sven Gallow. She ran her hand down the long scar on her front. From hip to breast. That's how the shrapnel flew. Wyla felt cold. The anti-flyer shell had clipped her wing. A shred of her own propeller had ripped through her cockpit. She looked at her right arm where the shrapnel had stabbed her it to the cockpit wall. How had she survived? And why? Why was she still alive?

"Lt. Remsca," the base's loud speaker blasted out. "Report to head office. Repeat: Lt. Remsca, report to head office." Wild-eyes was ripped from her silent agony. Head office? Had she broken the rules that badly? She pulled her pants down, only to have the gun she shoved in the back of her waist band clatter against the ground. If the commander had seen that shoved in the back of her pants, he would have really lost it. She quickly redressed in her uniform and shoved the pistol into it's holster. As she buttoned the strap that held the gun in place, the voice started again. "Lt. Remsca, report to head office. ASAP." Wyla sighed. Off to her court marshal.

She made her way through the base, her foot steps blending in with the its morning clatter. Soldiers leaving their tents and engaging in morning pleasantries. The capricious ways of war had made the few fleeting moments of calm all the more precious. She walked past various conversations, all of which seemed to bleed into each other. Soldiers lowered their voices and saluted her as she walked past. Wyla quickened her pace, avoiding eye contact. She just wanted to deal with this nightmare.

She rounded the final bend and approached the head office building. It was a rough canvas and wood structure with a lone door at it’s front. She pushed the door open and was greeted with the bustle of officers and secretaries. Motes of dust and dirt swirled around in the air, illuminated by lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The sound of morning conversation and shuffling papers filled the air. Wyla walked towards the announce desk and the small woman seated behind it.

"Hello." Full of hesitation as to why she'd been summoned, Wyla didn't plan on spending any length of time discussing the weather or exchanging platitudes. "Lt. Remsca reporting." The camp announcer smiled. Wyla grimaced in response. "I was called down here to-” She paused. “You already know that. You made the call.”

"The Commander is waiting for you in his office." The announcer's voice was crisp and cheery. A stark departure from her monotone drone that blasted through the loud speakers. "Don't worry, I'm sure he's not still angry about your little incident earlier." Good. Great. Wonderful. She knew about Wyla's attempted flight as well. Wyla sighed and headed off towards the back of the building with her head hung low.

As she shuffled past the few desks that lined the isle down the center of the main room she approached the hallway that lead towards the offices and storage rooms. He had laid claim to the room at the end of the hall. It used to be the camp armory before he decided he needed an office. They had to build a new building just to house their meager supply of weapons and ammunition. She was filled with an uneasy feeling as she closed in on the end of the hallway. She wouldn’t do well locked in a jail cell. She took a deep breath and pushed down the final stretch of the hall.

As she stood in front of the door, she heard the commander's voice bellow out from inside. "But sir," the commander stuttered. "She never follows orders. She needs a court marshal, not a-" He was abruptly cut off by a second voice.

"I'd prefer if you'd allow me to direct my orders as I have found fit. She's our first choice. She's a hero and an asset to our forces. What better choice could we make?" This second voice was very much deeper than the commander's. There was an air of joviality to it that set Wyla at ease. She reached her hand forward and knocked on the door. "Please, come in." The second voice had spoken before the commander had even made a noise. Wild-eyes twisted the knob and opened the door. The sight of the commander's hard-eyed glare was staunchly offset by the sight of a large man with a smile stretched across his face. His lengthy beard and well combed hair contrasted the commander's clean shaven look. "Hello Lt. Remsca, I'm general Lamb." Wyla snapped to attention the second she heard the word general. No need to enrage another higher up. "At ease," the general chuckled as he spoke.

"Lt. Remsca," the commander's voice was a bark. "The general has a request for you." His usual spite filled expression had sunk into a deep frown. He looked as if he would vomit at any moment. Wild-eyes shifted her gaze from the commander back towards General Lamb, who motioned towards an open chair, inviting her to sit. Wyla shook her head. The last thing she wanted to do was relax in the presence of the commander. The general shrugged and took the seat himself.

"I've a mission to offer you." Wyla felt her blood chill. A mission? What kind of mission? Should she ask that? No, he'd explain. He would have to explain. "I'd like you to deliver a message. A letter really. You used to be an air-courier, correct?" Wyla nodded. "Good. It need's to go to the Royal capitol." The Royal capitol? Mecbar? Really? The general could read the confusion in Wyla's face. "It's going to be a dangerous mission. You may not make it back."

"And if I refuse?" The mood in the room shifted from gentle tension to one of a full stand off. The commander began to raise from his seat, but his progress was stopped by a hand wave from the general.

General Lamb smoothed his beard with his left hand while reaching into his pocket with his right. "Then I make it an order." His words hung in the air with a palpable presence. Wyla shifted uncomfortably on her feet. An order? Who cares if it's an order? It's suicide mission.

"And if I refuse?" The general stood up, a look of disbelief on his face. She really wasn't going to accept this mission. He wriggled his fingers through his beard as his expression shifted back to a smile.

"Coward!” The commander stood up from his chair abruptly, causing it to scoot back violently. “Some soldier you are. The hero of Red Ridge. Fifteen enemy flyers downed. What a joke." Wyla flinched at the commander's comments. “I told you, sir. She has no valor.” Coward? She was no coward. How dare he call her a coward. What would he know? He never left the base. An arm chair commander at best. She focused her eyes on his, staring him down like a dire wolf on the prowl.

"I'm far from a coward." Wild-eyes leaned in towards the commander focusing her eyes farther. He backed down, falling into his chair. General Lamb smiled as he watched the exchange. "I accept!”

"Well then, I guess you should ready yourself." The general pressed a sealed envelope against her shoulder. She snatched it from him with more than a fair ration of aggression. Of course she wasn't a coward. She'd show them both. "If you leave now, you should reach enemy territory by night fall.” Wild-eyes looked at the letter in her hand. It was a simple white envelope with a red wax seal holding it closed. “Also, try and fly high. If you stay high, you should be able to avoid suspicion. The Royals will think you're one of their flyers on patrol."

Wild-eyes knew this was going to by dangerous, but the general's plan actually sounded like it might work. The Royals were prone to scouting the skys a good hundred feet above the Coastal flyers. On top of that, all their flyers used to be Royal owned at one point. The only thing the Royals could use to identify them was the pilot’s uniform. If they couldn't see that, they'd never know.

“Why is this letter so important?” Wyla’s question caught Lamb off guard. He looked over at the commander for help. The commander shrugged in response. “What makes this letter so special that I should risk my life for it?”

“Well,” Lamb began hesitantly. “It’s a letter of peace.” Wyla’s felt her jaw drop. Peace? The war could be over? “But that doesn’t mean you can waltz into Mecbar without taking a few bullets in the process. You’ll need to find your own way into the city.”

"You'll be on your own.” The commander interrupted, his voice having regained it’s usual tone. “Nothing that you do will be our responsibility. You are to deliver the letter. That's all. Do not engage with any Royal soldiers." The commander punctuated his words with his eyebrows, lifting them with every other word. "Now get out of my office and out of my sight."

Wyla marched out of the office and headed towards the hangar, her foot steps crashing hard against the ground. A letter. She'd deliver a letter. To the king. Wyla hastened her pace. A letter to the king. To stop the war. She broke into a sprint. A letter to stop the war. Wyla opened the door to the hangar. A letter of peace. Her hands wrapped around the rope that raised and lowered the bay door to the hangar. Peace. She heaved her body weight against the rope. As the door whipped upward, she pivoted on her heel and ran to her flyer. Wild-eyes lifted herself into the cockpit and flipped the ignition. The pipes opened and steam began billow through them, hissing and popping as it did. She opened the throttle and was bathed in the smell of drake throat coal dust. As the flyer pushed it's way down the runway, Wyla smiled to herself. Just as she'd done in civilian life. A delivery. Just like before the war had taken her away from all she had known.

The flyer gained speed quickly and began to lift, it's wheels removed from the ground below. The morning sun had fully broke free from the horizon as she soared over the fields that surrounded the Coastal camp. The ground below her grew distant from her as she climbed higher and higher into the sky, leaving all the people milling about the camp below as but dots in a sea of green grass and canvas tents.