Evie curled up on the chairs in the ready room at the landing field. I sat with my head against the wall, my legs stretched out and propped on my B-4 bag. The place was empty except for us, the field quiet after a day full of roaring engines.
We had just ferried a B-26 bomber to Harlingen Army Air Field in the far south of nowhere Texas. It was late, so we had to wait until morning to catch the bus to Corpus Christi, where we could find a train back to New Castle in Delaware. WASP weren't allowed to hitch rides on Army planes with male pilots--just didn't look right, according to the powers that be.
I had started to doze when the door opened and two military types walked in. One wore a flight suit and bomber jacket without rank markings or insignia. The other was an Army colonel. He looked like he'd stepped straight out of a war bonds poster. He'd say, "I need you," and you'd say, "Yes sir." He was tall, broad through the shoulders, and fit. He could probably still make it through Basic--couldn't say that about a lot of colonels.
I shook Evie awake. She rubbed her eyes as the men stopped in front of us.
"You two are WASP?" the colonel said, before we could stand.
What else would two women wearing flight suits be doing at an Army air field? I nodded and answered more politely, "Yes, sir. I'm Jane Bateson, this is Evelyn Harris."
"Colonel Avery. Doctor Cook. Army Intelligence." The colonel tipped his head at the man in the flight suit, who shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket and shrugged. "Do you girls feel up to ferrying a B-26 to Wright Field tonight?"
Evie's eyes sparkled; she was already nodding. Never turn down a chance to fly, you didn't know when they'd ask again.
"Fuel will be tight," I said. "But sure, we can fly it."
"You are experienced with this craft?" Doctor Cook asked. He didn't look much like a doctor, couldn't have been more than twenty-five or so, skinny as a whip, uncomfortable in the flight gear. He wore glasses.
I crossed my arms and drew myself straighter. "I graduated with the first WFTD class at Ellington Field. I had a thousand flight hours before that. You know the B-26 that came in this afternoon? Evie and I flew it. We can fly your plane." Some pilots called the B-26 the Widowmaker. A tough plane to fly, it was fast and hot and took a sensitive hand.
My act cowed most fly boys. Cook shook his head, oblivious. "But this isn't a standard B-26. It's had--modifications." Colonel Avery gave him a sharp look.
My eyes narrowed. "We don't normally receive our orders from Army Intelligence."
"Miss Bateson, let me be frank. Cook is right, this plane isn't standard. What's been done to it is highly classified. Highly classified. Don't misunderstand me, you can still fly it. In fact, you two are the only pilots available who are checked out on the B-26. And this plane needs to get to Wright Field as soon as possible."
Evie was still nodding. If it had wings and an engine, she'd fly it.
"All right," I said. "Show us the plane."
The four of us walked out of the building to the hangars on the far side of the strip.
Avery said, "This is an unusual situation. The security clearance is of the highest order. If you speak of this to anyone, I'll have you court martialed so fast--"
"No you won't, sir," I said.
"WASP are a civilian auxiliary. You can't court martial us."
That only broke his rhythm for a second. "Then I'll have you up on treason charges so fast your head will spin. I don't expect you to understand what you're about to see. Just get the damn thing to Wright Field. Understand? Cook will ride along, he's one of the head scientists on this project."
My mind turned over the possibilities. Had the bomber been mounted with a new kind of weapon? A new kind of engine? I'd heard they were working on new instruments that could see in the dark or through fog.
"What are you a doctor of?" I asked Cook. It was a subtle enough question to fish for a clue.
I couldn't imagine what they had done to this plane.
We entered the last hangar through the side door.
The B-26 Marauder was a sleek plane, bullet-like, powerful. It seemed to crouch, waiting to spring into flight. It had two wing-mounted engines with propellers as tall as I was. The cockpit canopy perched up top; a gunner would sit in a plexiglass bubble at the nose.
I saw the bomber, alone on the concrete pad, before Avery hit the switch to illuminate the bank of lights. It glowed, a beacon in the dark. Colors played on it, reds flashing into purple, fading to blue, like some kind of Technicolor test on a movie screen. Rainbow bands traveled around the fuselage, bending with the curves of the plane, swirling, dancing, emitting light that pulsed with the rhythm of a heartbeat. The hangar lights didn't diminish the patterns at all.
"What is it?" Evie said with a sigh. "Some kind of phosphorescence?"
Cook shuffled a little, shrugging his shoulders nearly to his ears. "Well, we--ah, don't precisely know. That's part of the problem."
Evie moved toward the plane, stepping cautiously at first, then quickening her pace when the men didn't stop her. By the fuselage, she reached up and touched the metal. Rose colored circles rippled from her hand along the belly of the plane. She laughed a little. "It's incredible."
"It's not camouflage," I said. "Are you trying to make sure the Germans can't miss?"
"You're not flying it to Germany," Avery said. "Don't ask so many questions." Avery was one of those young hot shots, thirty-five or so, being groomed for four-star and a Chief-of-Something post. He gestured, walked, and spoke at double-time.
"You say it flies just fine?" I circled the plane, keeping my distance, unwilling to get too close. Did I hear it humming?
"Yes," Avery said. "Practically flies itself."
"I've never heard anyone say that about the B-26, Colonel," I said.
He joined me. Side by side, we both stood with our arms crossed, staring at the bomber. Its aurora played over our faces--ribbons of purple, yellow, green. The colonel's skin reflected the colors. Even he wore an expression of wonder, his lips parted.
"This war has produced some strange things." He shook his head a little. "Strange ideas. Gadgets we only dreamed of five years ago. Right off the cover of a comic book. Ray guns, smart machines. The world is changing, Miss Bateson. This war is changing it."
I did a careful walk around, taking twice as long as I normally did. It looked like a normal B-26. Tires filled, landing gear in good shape, no leaks. Its weapons had been stripped. Only the strange glowing metal didn't match up with the checklist. Evie helped with the inspection, but not much. I kept having to ask questions twice. Each time, she always acted surprised to hear I was talking to her.
I collected charts and plotted a course, double checking headings, landmarks, and radio range frequencies all the way to Ohio. Avery kept pushing me to hurry, but as strange as the plane was, I didn't want any surprises during the flight. I prepared a flight plan--and Avery took the paperwork, assuring me that he would file it properly.
"Oh, and you're to keep radio silence through the trip." Avery slipped in the order almost as an afterthought.
"Excuse me? What if we run into trouble? If we have to contact someone--"
"This trip is classified. You never know who might be listening in." He patted my shoulder. "You'll do fine, Miss Bateson."
Evie, Doctor Cook and I boarded, lugging our bags and parachutes with us. Avery saw us right to the crew hatch.
"Is there anyone at the tower to clear us for take off?" I asked.
"I've already taken care of your authorizations," said the Colonel. "Just take off whenever you're ready. You won't have any traffic for a hundred miles."
Army Intelligence, sure. I forgot they could take care of things like that.
"Good luck," he said before I closed the hatch. His smile was tight, his voice thick with genuine worry.
Evie and I traded piloting and copiloting duties on each trip. This time, Evie was pilot on the left, and I sat in the copilot's spot on the right. Cook crouched between us, even though I told him he'd be more comfortable down below, in the radio operator's station. But no, he wanted to watch.
I continued the pre-flight checklist, taking the maintenance log out of the pocket on the right side of the cockpit. I had to list our point and time of departure, the condition of the craft, any maintenance problems, and sign off. At our destination, I'd make the same entries.
The arrival columns for this plane's last two flights were blank.
If one of the flights had been left blank, I might have believed that the pilot had been careless. But two? It looked like the plane had taken off twice and never landed.
I turned to Cook. "Do you know why these pilots didn't log out?"
He shrugged. His whole body seemed to shift inside his bomber jacket. "Maybe they forgot."
If it had been any other plane than this one, I might have believed that.
"What are these?" Evie lifted some coiled black cables that had been lying on the instrument panel. On each cable, a steel plug dangled from one end, and bare copper wires protruded from the other. They looked like cords from a telephone switchboard.
Cook leaped at them. Out of sheer surprise, Evie dropped the cables into his outstretched hands. He quickly bunched them together and shoved them inside his jacket. When they were hidden, he glanced back and forth at us guiltlessly, like we might not have noticed.
"Jane, look." On the instrument panel in front of her, Evie touched a metal socket, about the size of a dime, set in a plate that had obviously been bolted on after construction, squeezed in between the standard instruments and dials. She pointed--a similar socket was located at the corresponding spot on the copilot's side. The plugs on those cables would have fit in those sockets. I could assume these had something to do with the 'modifications.'
"You're not telling us everything," I said to Cook.
He glanced away and pursed his lips. "It's a security matter, ma'am. Need to know basis."
Evie looked at me, her brows raised in a question, and I shrugged a little. I had no idea what the things were for. We could have made a stink, told Cook and Avery were weren't going to fly until they told us what was up--and they'd just find a couple other pilots. If the plane wasn't airworthy, Cook wouldn't be riding along. That was a comfort, I supposed.
When I didn't complain, Evie got back to work. She'd been waiting for my cue. She nodded curtly and said, "All right, then. Hold on, Doctor."
Evie started the engines. They choked once and flared to life. The props spun and blurred to invisibility. The instruments were all reading normal. Avery himself opened the hangar door for us and removed the plane's chocks.
We taxied out of the hangar and onto the runway. Evie opened the throttle. We pointed toward the long stretch of tarmac. Sparse landing beacons marked its edges. The plane's light display faded enough for us to be able to see beyond the corona and into the clear night.
We accelerated, the force pressing us back in our seats. Faster and faster, the engines roared like thunder until we hit decision speed, and Evie pulled back on the yoke. We bounced, rumbling along the tarmac. Then stillness. The plane tipped back as it lifted off its nose gear. Then off the main gear. We climbed, with nothing but air all around us. Nothing but the bomber's pulse, the drone of engines, and flight.
The engines revved to a higher pitch for a moment, and the plane jumped, leaping a dozen feet in altitude before settling into the ascent. Cook grabbed the back of my seat.
"Did you do that?" Evie said.
"No." I shook my head and gripped the yoke, waiting for another jump. Every plane had its quirks; we'd just discovered this one's.
"Ooh," Evie said. "This baby has some kick!"
We soared. Half-moonlight turned the desert below an icy silver. Scrub made weird shadows. The Gulf of Mexico to the east shone like mercury. We climbed to 10,000 feet and cruised.
We glowed like an opalescent beacon.
My parents had been barnstormers. Mom was one of the original Ninety-Nines, Amelia Earhart's association of women pilots. I had a blurry photo of Mom and Dad from the Twenties, my mother posing on the top wing of their biplane in a swimming costume, my father by the propeller, hands on his hips, looking like a fighter ace with his white silk scarf, leather flight cap, and handlebar moustache. These days they ran a charter service, flying rich tourists and thrill seekers up and down the California coast. They also headed up the local Civil Air Patrol.
The image I had of them, great pilots and adventurers, was a tough one to live up to, but I tried. I liked to say I was flying before I was born. I got my pilot's license when I was sixteen. I worked for them as a pilot and mechanic while I was still in high school. This was after Lindbergh's famous flight, long after the Great War, and flying had become routine, losing some of its romantic appeal. It was a job, something I'd done my whole life. I was practical about it. I took it for granted.
Evie, on the other hand--Evie's voice got low and breathy when she talked about flying. She was from a good Pennsylvania family, a debutante, went to Smith. She rode in a plane for the first time on a charter--like my folks ran--while on vacation at Martha's Vineyard. It hooked her. A lot of pilots had stories like that--one flight, and it was like they'd been called by God. Of course, piloting wasn't something a well-bred girl from Philly aspired to. She talked an instructor at a local airfield into giving her lessons, she scraped the money for it together by selling her old clothes, and got her sister to lie for her and say she was spending all that time at the library. Somehow, she managed to learn, managed to solo, and got her license. For her, every hour of flight was stolen. Even now that she worked as a pilot, she treated flying like a treasure that might be taken away from her. In the cockpit, she was like a kid in a candy store, all eyes and smiles.
Three hours into the flight, Evie still smiled, a vague, dreamy look in her eyes. She was humming. "Though there's one motor gone we can still carry on, coming in on a wing and a prayer. . ." I don't think she realized just what she was humming.
Cook was not prone to conversation. He'd spent most of the flight writing in a little notebook with a pencil stub, looking around occasionally with a tight, anxious expression that I chose to attribute to his earnest youth, or possibly a fear of flying--or of flying with the current pilots.
"You fly much, Doctor?" I said at a moment when the pencil rested. Cook had made himself as comfortable as possible, sitting wedged behind the two seats, knees pulled up.
"Not really. I'm quite interested in flight, but the Army wouldn't take me for pilot training. Bad eyes," he said, pointing to the glasses. "So I've made the psychology of flight my specialty."
"Psychology of flight?"
"Yes. What particular stresses do pilots experience, why do certain types of men seem drawn to becoming pilots more than others. Could the Army develop a profile for choosing the most psychologically fit pilots? Not something too many people have thought about. That just means the subject is long overdue for study. Don't you think?"
At this point, with thousands of planes dropping bombs all over Europe and the war in the Pacific escalating, with factories turning out hundreds more planes every month, the Army couldn't be too picky about who it chose to be its pilots. Evie and I wouldn't have been here if it could.
"So what does psychology have to do with this plane?"
Cook pursed his lips. "That's need to know."
Smirking, I turned away and flipped through the bomber's log. It only had a dozen flights logged since it was commissioned, one of the first batch of B-26's to enter service earlier this year. I recognized the names of the two WASP who had delivered it from the factory. It had been designated for use in towing targets at the gunnery school at Harlingen. But right below that assignment was a mark, a star and the word "special," that I'd never seen in a log before. I assumed that had something to do with Cook's experiment.
On the last two flights, the pilots hadn't checked out. They might have been under orders for security reasons, to cover up what they'd been doing. But then why log in? Or why not log false information? Avery hadn't given us any instructions about altering the log. Nothing gave any clue as to why this bomber shone like a carnival midway.
"So what have you found out?" I asked. "Does flying attract a certain type of person? Are certain types more likely to become pilots than others?"
"Well, men who become pilots tend to be risk takers. They tend to have a greater sense of adventure. They also tend to be dreamers. Less practical than the average individual. They have a greater sense of, oh, I don't know. Aesthetic. They're more sublime, if you will. Army pilots write more poetry than officers in other branches."
"I could have told you that without the Ph.D." Just about every pilot I knew started out as a kid who looked skyward when the drone of an aircraft engine sounded overhead. "So how about women?"
He shrugged, wedging himself more firmly into his nook. "I haven't studied the psychology of female pilots."
I didn't think they'd ever be able to quantify the old dream of flight that had once sent people jumping off hillsides in paper wings. It wasn't about numbers or types, but about becoming part of the sky, becoming free of gravity. Some people said an airplane was a crutch, substitute, not like being a bird at all because of the steel and engines and fuel. But there was something about the airplane, too--all that power, responsive to the touch of a finger. All that power at my command. I was in control of the height of modern technology, the pinnacle of what civilization had produced: a 35,000 pound machine that could fly.
It was about being part of the machine. Learning every nuance, reacting in the blink of an eye. The machine did the flying, yes, but it couldn't fly without the pilot, without me or Evie or any of the guys in the logbook. So it wasn't the plane flying at all, it was us.
According to the logbook, the previous pilot had been Captain Elliot Boyd.
I asked Cook, "Do you know Captain Boyd? Was he part of your study?"
"Yes," Cook said without looking up from his notepad.
"What's he like?"
He took a long time to answer, like he was gathering words and trying them out before speaking. "He was a good pilot," he said finally.
Was? "What happened to him?"
I looked over the logbook again. "And Captain McGlade? Where is he? And their copilots. Olsen? Todd?"
Cook shifted uncomfortably, pulling his cap over his forehead and lifting it off again. He wouldn't meet my gaze. That told me all I needed to know--the last two crews of this thing were dead.
I was about to lay into the good doctor when Evie spoke softly.
"This is the last plane they ever flew."
"I can hear them. Listen." Her gaze was distant, not on the instruments at all.
I heard the engines, their power vibrating through the body of the plane. The drone was hypnotic, comforting. Surrounded by the colors dancing outside the canopy, I felt cocooned. Warm and safe, like I was falling asleep in front of a campfire, with the hum of crickets all around.
"Now that you're here, things are perfect. I always take girls flying on the first date. They love it."
I thought for a moment another plane's radio signal was bleeding into our channel. But our radio was turned off, not even hissing static. Yet, I heard a voice.
"Nice night for flying, isn't it? 'Coming in on a wing and a prayer. . .'"
Someone grabbed my arm.
"Miss Harris! Miss Bateson! Snap out of it, for God's sake!"
Cook, breathing hard, shook my arm in a panic.
I blinked and rubbed my face. I'd been dozing. I'd never fallen asleep in the cockpit before. Never. That was a fast way to turn yourself into a smoking pile of wreck on the ground. I took a quick scan of the instruments, looked out the canopy--spotted the Mississippi, a glowing ribbon in the moonlight, a distinctive landmark. Everything looked fine. Except for those damn colors, like light through a stained glass window. What did we look like to a kid on the ground? Like a comet? A space ship?
Evie had her head cocked, like she was concentrating, listening closely.
"How'd you get in here?" she said softly. She smiled suddenly, like someone had told her a joke. "Oh really?"
Cook gripped her arm, but she brushed him away. He sat back, stunned, his eyes wide.
"Do you hear anything?" I asked him.
"This shouldn't be happening," he muttered, shaking his head.
She gave me a sideways glance. "Can't you hear it? They're talking."
I heard--the engines. The wind. A whisper.
"Come on, Jane. Be a sport and join in." Male voices, like cocky pilots flirting and teasing. I couldn't think of where they came from, except my own imagination.
"This is some plane, huh? Why don't you see what it can really do?"
I didn't hear anything, not a damn thing.
The lights glowing on the surface of the plane pulsed, throbbing red like a heartbeat. Nothing about the plane's mechanics had changed--still running at the same speed, altitude, RPMs. Fuel still good, pressure gauges normal. Everything normal, as far as the dials were concerned. But this plane was haunted.
The skin glowed so brightly now, I couldn't see anything outside the plane. The world was a circle of light. Beyond that, blackness, emptiness. We had to fly by compass readings.
"Evie," I said, quelling the desperation that tinged my voice. "What is going on?"
She flashed me an achingly familiar look of annoyance. "This plane. . .it's different. Look." She wasn't holding her yoke. I wasn't holding mine. Yet we were aloft, maintaining speed and altitude. "What if it's alive, Jane? I can hear it talking to me."
Ray guns. Smart machines. Strange ideas, like Avery said.
"What did you do to this plane?" I said to Cook. "To those pilots?"
He shook his head continually, a fast, trembling gesture. "This shouldn't be happening, it can't be happening."
"What can't be happening?" I had to shout in his ear before he responded.
"This. The link-up," he said weakly.
"She's not really hearing anything. She's talking to herself. It's a hysterical response, women are unstable in stressful situations--"
"Does she look like she's under stress?" Evie's fingers hung loosely on the yoke, her smile was easy. "You're the one who's hysterical, Cook." The psychologist cringed on the floor of the cockpit.
"Why, thank you," Evie said--not to either of us, but straight ahead, to the canopy. "I always sing to my planes."
A finger of luminescence seeped under the canopy. It had substance, mass, like a pool of honey pushing into the cockpit. Evie unbelted her harness, reached over the yoke and touched the pool of light. Her hand went into the light, through the light, and kept going into the instrument panel. She pushed her arm into the metal of the plane. Her face glowed, her eyes were half-lidded with a look of bliss. "Yes, I can feel it," she murmured. "Flying, oh yes!"
I grabbed a fistful of her flight suit and pulled her back. "No, you don't!" I didn't know if I yelled at the plane for taking her, or at Evie for letting it take her.
She cried out. The light flashed to orange, angry as fire as her arm came free and she wrenched away from it. The engines revved--all on their own--like a growl. I grabbed her around the waist and held--she tried to lunge forward to the instrument panel, back to the light.
"Cook, help me hold her!"
Cook was pulling on the straps of his parachute. "We've got to either land this thing or get out of here. If this goes on, we'll all die."
"We won't," said Evie, struggling against my bear-hug. "The other pilots aren't dead. You don't understand, they wanted it to happen. They're still here. They're flying." She pulled my fingers, desperate to wrench out of my grasp.
We fell off balance as the plane pitched into a dive. The lights on the hull were searing, hot like flames. All around the canopy seams, the glow pushed inside the cockpit, oozing like slime.
"See, Jane? You're upsetting them."
I grabbed the copilot's yoke and pulled, leaning against the tension, trying to level us off before we plunged into a spin. Altitude dropped, speed increased.
Evie took the pilot's yoke and helped. Together, we pulled the bomber back under control.
She whispered, "It's okay, baby. You just scared her is all. She doesn't really want to hurt you." Tears glistened on her cheeks.
"Who the hell are you talking to?"
"Jane, if you'd just listen."
"This is crazy," I murmured.
A sputter rocked to starboard, followed by an ominous quiet as the usual background roar diminished by half. I looked out the window; the right prop fluttered, stalled.
"We just lost starboard engine," I said, leaning back on the yoke and slamming the rudder hard to hold our position. "Evie, tell me what's wrong? What happened to that engine?"
Evie scanned the gauges. "Fuel pressure is at zero. There's nothing mechanically wrong. I think they're trying to scare you."
"That's right, don't fight it and no one gets hurt. You want to fly, don't you? I'll show you real flying."
Our altitude was dropping. We weren't in a dive anymore, but we didn't have the thrust to stay airborne. I fire-walled the throttle, but I couldn't get the power to climb. We were still fifty miles from Wright Field.
Damned fly boys, always think they know best. "We fly on my terms, buster." Fly--or not. "We're going to have to land now. We're going to have to put down in a field somewhere."
"There's no way," Cook said, a waver in his voice. "Not with this plane, not at this speed. The best pilot in the Army couldn't do it, and, well, you're just--"
"We're just what?" I said, murder in my voice. He didn't have to say it, I heard it every time I showed up on an air field in my flight suit. "Can you fly this thing?" I shoved a roll of charts at him. "Here, look at these and tell me there's a field we can put down in." He disappeared down the hatch.
I didn't lower the landing gear; it would be better to belly in on soft earth. I prayed there was an open field with good, soft earth.
Desperately, Evie pleaded, "Just let me talk to them, it'll be okay if you'll just let me--"
"Evie, this plane is trying to kill us! Now help me land!"
"They're not trying to kill us. They just want to fly and you don't understand."
She put one hand on the yoke and reached the other toward the pool of light. It stretched to meet her, engulfing her arm in its radiance. The light poured in one hand, through her whole body, then out the other hand and into the yoke, completing the circuit. Her face glowed rose. She closed her eyes, and the plane steadied. The intense pressure eased off the yoke.
Holding the plane level had taken all my strength. I'd been shaking with the effort. But Evie held it with the touch of one hand.
Cook was wrong, trying to quantify the characteristics of the typical pilot so the Army could make a checklist and screen its candidates more efficiently. Good eyesight and a sense of daring, that was all a person really needed to be a pilot. To be a good pilot? A lot of us did a good job just by following the rules and using common sense. But to be a great pilot? Some pilots knew their plane's condition without looking at the instruments. They could sense a change in the weather the moment before it happened, they could react before the plane itself did. I'd heard of guys coaxing their fighters out of flat spins just by talking to them, treating the planes like the sexy ladies they painted on the noses. It was instinct, a sixth sense that let a pilot be a part of his plane. You either had it or you didn't.
Evie could fly a rock, if she put her mind to it.
"Evie? Evie, what's happening?"
"Don't worry," she said, looked at me, and smiled. "We'll make it."
"There's two hundred acres of empty farmland within range, heading north." Cook climbed back through the hatch, a chart rolled up and tucked under his arm. "We can still bail out," he added hopefully.
"I'm not leaving," Evie said.
"I'm not leaving Evie," I said.
"Awe, Jesus," Cook said, sitting heavily.
Evie turned the wheel. The plane banked and hiccupped, dropping ten feet in a second as the remaining engine whined. I braced. Cook grabbed the back of my seat. Evie didn't flinch. She murmured, words I couldn't hear.
They were the most agonizing ten minutes I'd ever spent in a cockpit. I watched the altimeter--it was all I could do. Two thousand. Fifteen hundred. One thousand.
The glow filled the cockpit, but around Cook and me, it formed a bubble of dark, isolating us. Evie was fading. I could see through her to the side of the cockpit. I could see the instrument panel and the padding of the wheel through her hand. I wanted to stop her. I didn't want her to go. I was afraid to touch her. She was flying.
A winter-razed cornfield, covered in the dry stubble of last year's crop, loomed ahead. It stretched, warping with the oddness of our perspective. I glanced at the airspeed indicator. We were only going a hundred and ten. If we didn't land going at least a hundred and thirty, we'd stall. One of the quirks of the Army's most advanced and sensitive bomber.
"Evie, we're too slow. We can't land at that speed."
"We only have one engine, Jane."
"We'll stall out."
"We'll be fine."
Five hundred feet. Four hundred.
"Cook, get to the radio and belt in," I said. I secured my own harness. "Evie, flaps aren't down."
"They don't like you taking control. They don't want to land," she said matter-of-factly.
"Would they prefer a nose-dive? We gotta land if we're going to get out of this."
"Come on, baby. Let me put the flaps down." She shook her head. Nothing.
Evie had sided with the plane. It had changed her somehow, like it had the other pilots. They didn't want to touch the ground anymore.
I grabbed her and pulled her away from the yoke. She grunted, fell out of the light and collapsed into my bubble of darkness. I surprised them both and stole back control from whatever soul inhabited the bomber. I pulled on the yoke, lifting the nose, and lowered the flaps. Fifty, forty. We were still too slow. And for spite, the other engine cut out. We sailed in silence, plunging toward the earth like a bomb. I could only hope that we hit belly first and slid to a halt before we flipped.
I don't remember what happened after the first impact. There was a jolt, the world through the canopy lurched, and we skidded. We skimmed on our belly like a rock on water, turning slightly so the port wing led. Must have crossed the whole two hundred acres like that. We didn't flip. Eventually, we stopped. The monster came to rest at the end of a long furrow.
Smoke and dust filled the cockpit. I took slow breaths and the world came back into focus as I realized I could feel again. I was sore where the straps had held me. My heart pounded like a piston. But I wasn't in pain. I wasn't broken. I laughed with relief; the sound made me light-headed.
She lay across the instrument panel. There was a crack in the canopy right above her head. Blood matted her dark hair. The canopy, the glass fronts of the instruments, shone with blood. She hadn't secured her harness.
I undid my belt and touched her neck. I didn't want to turn her over. I didn't want to see her face, to see what she looked like with her skull smashed in.
Cook came up through the hatch. Apart from a cut on his brow, he looked fine. He saw Evie and didn't say a word. He helped me pick her up and take her to the top hatch. Together we carefully lowered her to the wing, then to the ground, and carried her away from the plane.
The bomber's skin was metal, dull gray. It had a faint, lifeless sheen in the predawn light.
I held Evie on my lap and stared at the bomber.
"You knew this would happen."
"No. No, I--" Cook sat among dead cornstalks and stared at the wreck. He held his notepad, but didn't write. I think he lost his pencil. He shrugged, and I wanted to hit him. "Sure, we lost Boyd and Olsen, but it shouldn't have happened to--"
"Cook, tell me what that thing was," I said, my voice tight with anger. "Tell me why it killed Evie." Never mind that she had known what she was doing and if I hadn't grabbed her. . .if she had belted in properly. If. . .if. . .
He shook his head. "I-I can't. It's on a need to know basis--"
I lunged at him and grabbed the collar of his jacket. I twisted the leather in my hands and pulled him so his face was inches from mine.
"Cook? I need to know."
He pushed away, scrambling awkwardly until he collapsed. He rubbed the cut on his forehead.
He took a breath, then spoke evenly, as if lecturing. "It was an experiment in pilot-aircraft interface. We were examining methods to increase pilot reaction speed--hypnosis, electrodes, pharmaceuticals--and aircraft responsiveness to control. We hit on a method of translating nerve impulses into electrical impulses which could be transmitted directly to the aircraft controls." The cables, the sockets, yes. "But something happened. On the first flight, the plane landed empty. The crew was just gone, and the plane's skin started glowing. We didn't know what happened, except that maybe the experiment worked too well. There are studies being done now by another research group, advanced physics and mathematics describing the conversion of mass into energy--" He waved the explanation away, like he was swatting at a fly. "We sent the plane up again, just a test flight without using the linking apparatus. The same thing happened. Then we thought something about the pilots, their ability and sensitivity to the aircraft, the responsiveness of the B-26, caused a link-up to form without the apparatus. We were at Harlingen because it's isolated, not as susceptible to security breaches. After the--anomalies--Avery wanted to send the plane to Wright, where the engineers could examine it more closely. We believed--" He took a deep, shuddering breath. "--that female pilots weren't as sensitive as male pilots and that therefore they would not form a connection with the plane."
Evie and I being at Harlingen to ferry that plane probably hadn't been a coincidence. Avery must have pulled strings to get us there. Of the WASP, we had the most hours in the B-26. Whatever else Cook and Avery thought about women pilots, they must have thought we at least had the experience to successfully ferry their precious experiment.
"How do you know anything about women pilots? You said yourself, you haven't bothered studying them." My hands clenched in my lap. I said softly, "Evie was every bit as good as your best. You weren't expecting that, were you?"
He looked away, digging into the earth with a boot heel. "What I don't understand about this flight is why you didn't form a connection with the plane. You're a good pilot. I didn't think anyone could get us out of that fix, but you did."
"I didn't do anything. It was all Evie."
I'd heard the voices and ignored them. I fought the plane instead of being a part of it, and every good pilot knew you couldn't fight something that much bigger than you, you had to coax it on its own terms. Evie knew that. She tried to tell me.
Maybe I'd remember, if I ever managed to climb inside a cockpit again. I wanted to laugh--if I'd been a great pilot, I wouldn't be questioning whether or not I'd ever fly again.
The thing hunkered in the field like a dying beast of legend. The fuel lines had to be leaking after a crash like that. If the electrics started sparking, if there was a fire--I waited for the fire and the explosion, but it didn't come.
"Cook, do you have a match?"
He patted down his pockets and came up with a box of matches. He looked at me questioningly when he handed it over. Carefully, I lay Evie on the ground. I went to the bomber.
"What are you. . .?" Cook started. I kept walking.
The wings had ripped during the crash. They hadn't come off, but the metal was scraped and twisted, the propellers bent and curled like tin daisies. Part of the engine casing on the left wing had torn off, exposing the motor and fuel lines.
I climbed up on the wing and waited. I half expected the metal to gape open and swallow me, but it didn't. Didn't want me before, why should it take me now? I reached into the machine and pulled. I tore at electrical cables, ripped fuel lines. I made sure the liquid ran over the wing, made a path that led to the fuel line, which would carry the poison to the tank. This late in the flight, the tank would be filled with fumes. Very volatile.
I struck a match, dropped it.
"No!" Cook scrambled to his feet and raced toward me, then changed his mind mid-stride and backpeddled.
The liquid caught, flaring to blue and orange life--a more natural, more comprehensible light than the other--and I ran.
"You'd better duck," I called.
Cook collapsed face down and wrapped his arms around his head. I covered Evie's body with my own as the thing exploded. Debris rained. The air smelled of fuel and scorched metal. The flames were orange.
Cook sat up, gasping like a fish. "Why? Why did you--that was priceless--irreplaceable--"
"Must have been a hysterical response due to stress."
A convoy from Wright Field picked us up less than an hour later.