A quick jaunt into the blue. Whilst avoiding sloshing anything upon one's shoes.
|"Thinkin' 'bout heading out?"|
Salsaboot perched, squat and round, atop an overturned bucket just to one side inside the hangar bay doors. Sunlight spilled through the opening creating a picturesque venue of blues, reds, and yellows. Heat wreathed everything washed within the sun's rays early as it was. Nevertheless, head to toe in his flying leathers and lambswools, heavy, radiation resistant goggles pressed tightly against his eyes, Salsafoot scowled down at the wooden dowel he was whittling before pushing his weary, battle tested gaze toward the dawn and lowering his knife.
He scrutinized the horizon and waited for a reply, wiped some spittle from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand.
Gonifer "Etherburst" Halligan halted mid stride, helmet in hand. He hadn't noticed his commander sitting sentinel just inside the opening. More'n a bit hungover from the previous evening, Gonifer just needed to clear his head. He squinted into the glare. The rising sun was a baptism on his skin no matter how desperately his eyes threatened to elope away from his skull. He felt a massive headache rising, yet he took in the warmth and raised a gloved hand to shield his pupils from the sting and the strain created by the sunlight.
"Was thinking about it." Gonifer indicated dully. He glanced tentatively toward the haggard battlecommander. It'd always amused Gonifer how closely Salsafoot resembled some Hobgoblin from the old stories his maw used to tell him. Big head. Huge ears. Warty nose. Sparse hair framing a grumbling, green tinted face. Just like the stories recalled from that wondrous time before the end came.
"Hrrm." Salsafoot grunted. He nudged his goggles up and pinched at the bridge of his nose, set his slender blade to wood a final time. A pale shaving leapt away and bounced around the deck between his boots.
"That create a problem?" This was a waste of time. Gonifer's eyes were stinging, and he could feel the dull stinging headache rising. He fought the urge to wretch and washed a feeble amount of saliva around the inside of his mouth with his tongue. The action did nothing to allay the fetid taste of pickled beets and cabbage behind his teeth.
No clouds. No breeze. Perfect day for it. Should he ever get past the doors.
Salsafoot's growls brought him back to the here and now. "Nah. Not really. 'Cept you aint filed any flight plan, and I don't recall seeing your name on the docket for today. Not for this leastways. Latrines maybe ... yes indeed," he said scratching at the hairline near his temple. "It's a great day for latrines."
"C'mon Chief ..."
"What c'mon? Don't gimme that." Salsafoot poked his knife in Gonifer's general direction before waggling it absently toward the end of the platform. "You know you're on probation. You haven't even started your comm service to date ... not that I know of anyway." His eyebrows shot up while he considered his work. "AND you gotta pass a physical."
"Yeah yeah yeah. I'll buy you another donut."
"Don't be coy with me son. There aint another one over a thousand miles from here. Not only that, but you aint got the scratch."
"It was just a donut." Gonifer scrutinized the gloss on his boots. His eyes couldn't bare the glare any longer.
"Hell it was. M'friggin granddaughter sent it to me. Aint no replacin' it."
"And you know it."
They'd both said it at the same time: Gonifer's face displayed a whole tribe of mockeries.
Salsafoot set his underbite hard. His eyes burned a hole in Gonifer's cheek.
"Stand down Captain." warned the Commander with a hiss.
Gonifer glowered straight into that hard-set, wrinkled old stare. They stayed locked and silent for prolonged moments thereafter. Eventually, Gonifer Halligan shrugged, lowered his helmet to his side and puffed out his cheeks in defeat.
"Ok." he shrugged before turning crisply upon one heel and headed across the hangar, setting his back to the Commander and his bucket.
"Yeah. Ok!" Gonifer yelled, motioning over one shoulder as he retreated into the shadows.
"Really." the old Hobgoblin cocked an eyebrow. "That simple."
Gonifer pirouetted upon one heel and waved. "S'okay! Don't worry 'bout it."
Salsafoot dismounted his bucket and creaked to attention, folding his knife before sliding the implement into his breast pocket.
Gonifer felt his weary eyes upon his back as he withdrew more deeply into the hangar. The opening to the canteen and the mess had always been back and to the right of the hangar bay doors. He made a great fuss pantomiming the removal of his gloves, pretending to thrust the pair into his upturned helmet. He gambled Salsafoot might only get a sense of him in relief at that distance buried in hazy shade.
Then, when he should've taken the hard left following the wall back toward the barracks, Gonifer lurched one way and vaulted back the other before popping through the maintenance door and onto the blacktop beyond. He yanked his helmet down, covering his face just in time to avoid a serious burn.
"God!" Salsafoot yelped and kicked and stomped in a circle. The wooden dowel clattered across the floor.
Gonifer wasn't sure about anything, but he could almost swear he'd heard the sound of a metal bucket clattering across the floor inside the hangar. Whatever the case, he was certain there now would be hell to pay.
The coms crackled to life inside his headgear.
"Get back here son." Salsafoot's tinny voice barked.
Gonifer ignored the demand. Too busy gulping breaths and running like his life depended upon it, his stomach heaved, and he panicked while resisting an urge to puke. Wide eyed, he bolted on.
Regurgitated sustenance inside one's helmet was not the most appetizing of morning repasts. It wasn't an uncommon almost autonomic responsive whilst being heaved around in all directions at highG. Something about the inner ear unable to synchronize with tracking signals inside the brain. Sitting there breathing canned air one moment. Next thing you know, you're covered in liquid eggs and gelatine, eyes to mouth, unable to remove your helmet. He almost heaved again just thinking about it.
A wavering, hazy shape waggled to life in the distance. His nausea faded as an ecstatic joy rekindled and swelled giving way to, dare he think it, an inner euphoria. He willed himself toward it as it wavered and wobbled, washed away and reappeared in a tide of heat. It would really suck if it were a mirage, but Gonifer knew it was there, solid and waiting. You beauty. he thought to himself and kicked into high gear. He could feel his heart thudding behind his eyes.
Clopclopclopclopclop. His footfalls rang along the hard surface retreating flatly behind him. He could feel heat from exertion beneath the souls of his feet. He hated that sensation but nothing could stop him now ... well, almost nothing ...
He could see her clearly now, at maybe a quarter mile. Harsh sunlight glistened along her cigar shaped fuselage, wings all lined in fire. His heart jumped as he pressed forward. Couldn't be more'n 100 strides; could it? Faster. Gotta go faster. He's gonna ...
And then he heard the whine.
Hovascooter coming in.
He pictured Salsafoot snarling behind the controls as he closed in.
Gonifer panicked, almost tripped, but stumbling, managed to keep himself upright as he lurched forward eyes fixed on his Salamander.
He felt the wind kick up from behind. Felt a sting of concentrated heat at the back of his neck. The whine became a roar and a whoosh.
Gonifer sensed a hard edge passing mere inches from his left shoulder. Air compression slammed into his waist, shoving him, and his feet floundered as he was lifted bodily within the jetwash.
The earth spun. Gonifer gasped as the blacktop slapped across his upper arms and his chest. He rolled helplessly, over and over, for what seemed like days.
Heated tarmac warmed him within his flightsuit as if he were a slice of toast as he lay, face down against the deck with his arms and his legs splayed out in submission. His labored breaths fogged the inside of his helmet. He rotated his faceplate a quarter turn to look.
So close. She was right there. He could almost reach out and remove her chocks.
He could hear the jackbooted footfalls closing in to collect him. He could almost feel them reverberating through the morning radiation. A shadow flittered across his Salamander's glorious yellows and blues, a paintjob of which he was especially proud.
He swallowed hard.
"Command. This is Gonifer Halligan, call-sign "Etherburst", regretting to inform you, your son may be an idiot but is in no way a significant threat."
He felt rough hands heaving him bodily upright. His feet smacked hard against terra firma once again. Hands clasped firmly behind his back, he expected instant manacles, tightly applied, cutting off circulation to his hands. He knew the drill. Knew it too well.
Surprisingly, a strong hand clapped down upon one leatherclad shoulder and spun him around.
"Where the hell you goin'?" came a decidedly husky, yet undeniably feminine voice. As familiar to him as his shadow. And a voice he'd heard as recently as a few hours previous. Although, hours before it haddn't held such a frustrated, slightly angry edge. Goosepimples crept all along his forearms as he took a step back. Gonifer expected a good, old fashioned, roundhouse slap to the face ... or faceplate.
Wincing, he raised submissive hands hoping to ward off a blow.
"Hey ... Gex ..."
Her all black, pyrian-cfoam jumpsuit left almost nothing to be desired accenting her athletic musculature in a way that made him instinctively avert his eyes. And then look. And then avert them again.
Standing about 3/4 his height, he knew she could easily take him down almost as an afterthought. He pictured full lips smirking at him behind the opaque faceplate worn by everyone within the security division. Baseline Division Adepts, she was a trainer and a specialist both. She scared the hell out of him. Beautiful and dangerous all at once. Same as a black hole might be. She was awesome.
She punched him in the chest, not at all playfully either. He doubled over gasping, desperate to hold let alone draw breath. He clutched at his solar plexus and at the release for his helmet at the same time. Thought twice about the helmet. Decided to leave it alone. High squeaking noises peeled across the space between them.
"Yeah, that's right dumbass. Eyes pop open this morning, look over, you aint there. Big ole empty space in the bed where your body shoulda been. No note. No nothin'. You wanna tell me what gives?!"
She kneeled down and gazed up into his visor. He caught his distorted reflection in her helmet's blankness.
He waggled his fingers at her begging a moment, still doubled over. The hangover reasserted itself. Here came breakfast ... again.
She rose, steadied him, but he held out a firm, insistent hand. He shifted hands to knees, forcing in only the teeny tiny breaths his body would allow.
God, it was already so hot. Wasn't it? Just. So hot?
He tried to stand, again held up a desperate finger, took in her bodysuit, forced himself to look away again. Discharged a harsh wheeze of stale air between puffed, distended cheeks.
"I (hack) ..." he gulped then swallowed. Cleared his throat. Bent. Replaced the weight atop his knees. "Yeah I ... really sorry. Just needed ..."
He inhaled one gasping, mighty breath, threw his shoulders back and took in the sky. Perfect day. No clouds. No wind. Just perfect.
Back to his knees.
"I just needed ..." he began again. "... to clear my head. Back in a few hours. That's all. I swear ..."
"You swear ... even after everything last night?"
He straightened. Every ounce of pain and of discomfort dissolving into a great gout of adrenaline.
"Yeah, uh. Well, about that."
"I mean, y'know. S'a big step, and I was ..."
"Uh huh; you certainly were ..."
He could feel her skeptical knife-edge cutting through him between his earpieces. And all at once he felt as confident and as useful as one in one million ball bearings covered a year's worth of rust. Goddamn booze.
He shook his head at the sudden flickering memory from the night before. Hand up. Hand down. Hand up. Hand down. Conniving little shot glass skittering across the bar. Guilt and frustration took him within one massive fist and shook him hard.
"So ... but don't think I didn't mean it. You KNOW how I feel about you. Please Gex."
She was staring at her feet. She made a couple of quick fists and then stood there rotating one heel back and forth but otherwise not speaking. Her silence, always ominous. Like a black hole.
She stood there a few moments more. And then she cocked her head at him.
"You better get outta here." she said finally motioning over her shoulder toward the hangar bay.
She casually turned away. Headed in the direction of the low buildings from which they'd come.
"Nah. I jammed his coms. No doubt he'll blame you for all this. Either way, he'll be on us inna coupla ticks. So ..."
"Gex ... I ..." he took a step toward her.
She spun around. Shoved him hard. Toggled the wrist settings for her hovascooter.
Her rig groaned and bobbed off the ground a couple inches. Compact and sleek with whirring, jet engines set at the corners set vertically, Gex vaulted onto the seat, flopped forward behind the windscreen. Turbines spun in a low whine and increased to a scream. She twisted the throttle, lifted slowly into the air. Gonifer marveled at the little black pixie astride her silver bullet overhead as she turned a slow circle.
He covered his eyes as she rotated across the glare. She canted to one side in her saddle and lowered her gaze to his.
"See you when you get back. We'll talk."
"Ok." he waved.
She sped away upon a column of swirling air.
"Th ..." but it was too late. She was gone.
Gonifer exhaled, following her with his eyes as she dwindled to a speck. "thanks." he whispered.
The sun was starting to bake into him. He could feel it through his leathers though the garment was designed to insulate against the harshest adverse conditions.
"Now for you." he turned back toward the Salamander, took about 4 strides and yanked back the chocks, freeing her landing gear.
He walked around, scrutinizing her lines, testing her flaps, checking the tensioners between her horizontal wingsets, just giving her a cursory inspection like any other driver might. Was no time at all before he yanked down the little access ladder and climbed aboard. He knew her well enough, he was confident all would be fine.
He straddled the yoke, sat firmly against the pad and into the seatback, checked the foot peddles. Rear flaps. Check.
He pushed the yoke around. Tail rudder. Check.
Gonifer scanned his left side. Clear. He scanned back to the right. Ch ... wait. A swirl of hot air emanated from somewhere near the compound. Appeared the hobgoblin was active. Be on him in no time.
"Shit." Gonifer said aloud.
His headset popped and crackled. Gravelly voice stabbed at his brain.
"Son. Cease and desist. Immediately. That is a DIRECT ORDER. You will not ignite those engines. You WILL dismount your machine and return to base." a voice rife with frustration and ruinous intent.
"Sorry sir. No can do."
"Etherburst. Make no mistake. YOU ARE MOST DEFINITELY GROUNDED."
A speck appeared at the far end of the tarmac. Hot air wavered and swirled beneath it as it drew closer. Gonifer could picture grated teeth and angry hobgoblin eyes firing angry lasers at him.
"Contact." Gonifer called.
A single quick plume of oily black smoke. A crack of thunder. And the Salamander growled to life.
Gonifer yanked the yoke right and slammed down the right pedal with his boot.
"C'mon girl." he slapped the choke and slammed the throttle forward to the maximum.
The Salamander roared. She lurched and vibrated and leapt, shooting all at once, out of her berth and into the lane. She accelerated down the strip until her tail came up.
Salsafoot's hovascooter grew larger by the second. Gonifer could just about make out his helmeted head coming on.
"Go go go!!" he called while spurring the Salamander forward, almost willing her faster and faster. Gooseflesh crept up his arms, once again the adrenaline overtook him. He resisted the urge to thrust his pelvis again and again atop the seatcushion. Settled for absent head bobbing instead. Realized he was biting his bottom lip.
Gonna be close.
The two machines closed head to head; no way there was enough taxiway between them to safely make speed and loft skyward ... except ...
... well, hell ... callsign ... aint fer nothing.
"Don't you do it." he heard Salsafoot's voice slapping at him between his ears like a parent admonishing their wayward child.
A flashing light blazed down and left just beyond of the periphery of his eyeline, and he grinned a little more.
In truth, the Salamander, Gonifer's Salamander design leastways, y'see, was modeled after a machine from First World War era blanketed in obscurity. The length of two and a half hovascooters, it was mostly cobbled together from wood and from cloth and from cabling and from other lightweight materials one might find in a junkyard or a salvage lot. During his early airman's training, Gonifer had lots of unconventional ideas he felt worth pursuing. But his original designs had been met with scoffs and with laughter by those employed with the last remaining aeronautics division. The most prominent specialists, years past, figured him for a nutcase regardless of his protestations. But his flight record stood out as he logged his AF hours training aboard the outdated snubfighters, performing maneuvers and in simulated combat. Then came the rumors circulating about "the kid" piloting his training rig into the stratosphere where it didn't belong. Most people figured the rumors were myth. Others regarded them with skepticism.
Eventually Gonifer found a few confidants willing to help him with his designs. They were the fools. The outcasts. Those who dared to challenge the norms. All on the down-low and after the official sessions concluded, the little group poured over designs, drank too much, and dared to dream on.
Every idea was rejected again and again by the authorities in charge.
Then during the 9th cycle, the hoard arrived. And tore the world apart.
People were just trying to get along. Trying to establish some kind of normalcy. Trying to resolve some baseline for the future generation's survival in a world nearly depleted of resources.
When out of the rural wastelands, thousands came calling. Crazed and emaciated and hungry. They were violent, taking at need without explanation or remorse. They didn't have a reason. They didn't need one. They just wanted to eat.
Gonifer created his machine in secret, high in the northern hills where he could see but not be seen. The Salamander became his love and his obsession. He'd been enamored of the ancient flying machines since he'd been a lad. But this Salamander, see, it was just the design. The Sopwith Company made such wonderfully streamlined and simple machines. They were inspirational. They were perfection. While in the hills, Gonifer'd studied and had become a cabale tinkerer surrounded by boozy expert dreamers inspired to create lightsabers and lasers ... all focused upon the technological ... the heretofore "impossible".
Gonifer met the horde. He came streaking over the treetops, a flash of blue and of yellow. He dipped and he spun and he pushed his machine near to the ground and high in the air to its limits; he tore into them with his experimental designs fancifully equipped enough that people had difficulty explaining what they'd seen.
He protected that little remaining pocket of humanity from which he'd been rejected. In the end, only those few who'd aided upon the near delivery of his dream even understood who he was. Even though he'd saved ... everyone.
Again, the little light flashed and flashed low in the dash. Gonifer glanced about quickly taking stock of his readings.
He reached down calmly, and with one gloved hand, flipped that switch that wasn't part of the original design.
So sunny. So calm. A perfect day for it indeed.
He began whistling "Killing me softly." into his headset as Salsafoot drew close enough he could almost hear the whine of his 4 tiny turbines.
A canopy closed over Gonifer's head. Wing material retracted exposing carbon composite beneath. A whine erupted within the Salamander.
"God dammit!" yelled Salsafoot, refusing to give any ground and so close they could almost touch.
Gonifer giggled, and the Salamander shot straight up at a velocity affording most a hyperG whiplash. But nobody knew his ship better than he did. He'd designed the entire thing himself. All that time, he'd spent essentially as an outcast, he'd successfully brainstormed with his team and together they'd come up with a few items most still could not possibly comprehend. ScramJet Beryllium turbines, for example, were the very least of the improvements.
"Go baby go!" he grimaced, teeth clinched, against unforgiving Gs. His forearms ached from holding her nose to aperture. The tac screen he'd installed in the HUD rolled and wavered, but he kept the yoke centered and level as he brought her down and shot toward the horizon.
His headset crackled.
"EtherB. EtherB, this is Security Control Gilchrist."
"Hey Gex. I got you. What's up?"
"Yeah so. Commander's pretty mad."
"I can imagine."
"Almost took his head off. That was a bit crazy. Even for you."
"Nah Gex. You know that aint true. Aint no one quite like me." he scoffed and pulled up the digital topography map. Highcliffs coming up, passing over the delta in quadrant 2. Almost back to the shop, and she was purring like a kitten. He scanned the dials and gauges. Pressures and levels were holding. Pulling back off the throttle, he flipped the low toggle switch to its original position when his airspeed almost caused the scrams to stall. The forward prop unfolded and popped to life once more with a buzzing growl and a puff of oily smoke. The noise was like a good night's sleep and a lullaby.
"Yeah, that's affirmative."
"So ... what's going on?"
"If you're feeling up to it, just a heads up. Got mutant activity southwestern quadrant. 11degrees 45'134""
He scrolled the topo around.
"... kinda remote. But I can check it."
"You got fuel?"
Gonifer tapped the dial. The needle wavered but settled well right of center.
"Think so ... if not, I can get some."
"Right. Sure." she sounded skeptical.
"Ok. I'll report on contact."
" ... th ... ggrt ... bzzz ..."
She was breaking up. Radio contact could be patchy at altitude and speed.
So 45'134" huh. He punched the coordinates into the onboard and yanked the yoke hard and left. A whiplash roar erupted from the machine's belly.
Once more, he checked the dials, taking stock of his readings. The little light flashed, and with a flip of a switch, Gonifer's body slammed hard, pressing against the seatback. Light trails erupted from beneath the Salamander's wings, wavering streaks of teal and of orange and of blue. Gonifer's helmet and his eyeline shook and shuddered as they sliced through the azure blues of the mid morning sky.
"Homebase, Etherburst here, broadcasting in the blind. I'm en route."