by Carrie Vaughn
Natalia Voronova slammed against the side of the Yak-3’s cockpit, her head and leather cap hitting the canopy. Her ears rang, her vision splotched, but she shook off the pain, blinking through her goggles.
The world outside lurched.
“Nyet!” she yelled and hauled back on the stick. She wasn’t quite in a spin yet; if that happened she’d soon be nothing more than a streak of debris on the ground below. Another Stalingrad casualty.
“Voronova, you hit?” a voice scratched in her radio headset.
Her wingman, Elena Kirova. Natalia was too busy to answer coherently and growled instead. The Yak fought her, drag pulling down even as she worked to get the nose up. And then, she was level, soaring, the engine a healthy rumble instead of a screech. Vibrations traveled under her seat, up through her hands, and she searched for the least hiccup. But the Yak was hers again. She opened the throttle, roared ahead, and looped back to the fight.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she called back to Elena. “Got hit with some debris. Coming around for another run.”
Patrols had spotted the formation of German bombers, and the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment scrambled to intercept. The bombers had a thick escort of Messerschmitts, like a swarm of wasps. The cold, clean air filled with the noise of engines, the buzz of insects writ large.
All was turmoil. The dozen other fighters from her squadron, the dozen German fighters working to draw them away from the bombers. She could dismiss the bombers; that task belonged to another wing. Her job was to occupy the fighters.
Fear was ice in her arms and legs. Fear told her not to move, that if she hid, maybe she would be safe. But it was far too late for that, thousands of feet in the air, closing on the enemy. Ignoring her racing heart, she relied on her training, the memory embedded in her body, and the overwhelming desire to kill German planes.
Natalia scanned for Elena, who had broken from the fight to look after her and now raced along off to her side. The fighters banked and juked to keep out of each other’s sights. She followed the arcs and rolls, trying to predict where each plane might end up next. Shoot not where they were but where they’d be a heartbeat later. And if she were very lucky, one would pass right over her crosshairs, and she’d have the instincts to press the trigger in that same moment, before her mind knew what she was seeing.
This moment happened, a Messer swooping down, right in front of her, lingering for her benefit and offering itself as sacrifice. She fired, the gun bratted out a line of bullets—and she missed. Burning trails flung off into the air, and the German fighter soared on, unscathed. Natalia swore and thumped the side of the cockpit. She had it—
Then the aircraft fell to pieces anyway. Scraps of metal curled and scattered, popped rivets tumbled like confetti. The engine exploded, trailing black smoke, and the Messer turned into a cloud of debris and smoke, containing a glimpse of a tumbling body that may or may not have been flailing, slapping itself in search of a parachute release it couldn’t find.
She was so close she flew through the debris. Scraps of it thudded against her canopy—she ducked reflexively. Her propeller stuttered, cutting through something that fell into it. She opened the throttle, and the engine roared back, stayed strong.
In two seconds of smooth flying, she made a visual check. All her instruments—altitude, pitch and yaw, engine RPMs—all steady. Canopy wasn’t cracked, remained secure. No apparent bullet holes in the fuselage. Wings still in one piece. Except—looking on the right, something was caught on that wing’s leading edge. A scrap of fabric? A round mass, dark gray, incongruous. Surely nothing like a body; she was sure the pilot had tumbled away to whatever fate held for it. She glanced back at the wing, and again expected the wind to take hold and whip the object away. But it stayed. And . . . did it move? Buffeted by the wind, it clung.
And then it slipped over the edge, under the wing, out of sight.
She was seeing things. Or going crazy. She supposed it was inevitable, through all this war, this fighting.
Elena laughed over her radio. “Natalia, you got him!”
“But I didn’t,” she murmured, baffled, looking out at the wing again, waiting for what she had seen to reemerge.
While she had been preoccupied with the disintegrating Messerschmitt and what had fallen away from it and onto her, the air around her had cleared. The forest ahead was blooming with explosions and smoke—the bombers had dropped their payloads early and fled for home, the remaining fighter escort offering cover. A voice on her radio was telling her to break off, they were done, their mission had been successful.
Elena repeated, “Natalia! You scored! Your first kill!”
She was sure she hadn’t hit it. She’d been chasing the fighter, yes, lining up for another go. Then it had just . . . fallen apart. How could she explain what she’d seen? No one would believe her version, because what she saw was unbelievable.
“Let’s go home,” Elena radioed happily.
Whatever had happened—Natalia left it behind. One of those things. Optical illusion born of the sun, smoke, and chaos.
* * *
Her Yak, a sleek, bullet-shaped fighter, rolled to a stop at its spot on the flight line, the propeller winding down to stillness. Her mechanic, Lina, ran up to plant chocks under the wheels. Natalia didn’t wait for help, but yanked open the canopy herself and slid down to the right wing to look. To prove that nothing was there, that she’d imagined the whole thing.
“Natalia!” Lina called. She was a short, sturdy woman in grease-stained gray coveralls, her gloved hands propped on her hips.
Natalia held up her hand, keeping Lina at bay. Reaching, she ran her hands over the wing’s edge, studied the skin, touched every rivet. Nothing, just as she thought. She sighed.
“Something wrong?” Lina asked, approaching cautiously. Natalia must have had a crazed look in her eye, lingering alarm from the strange flight. By now, the other pilots in the squad had landed and were running over, cheering. Celebrating a victory Natalia didn’t feel.
“What’s the matter with her?” Elena, flight cap off and brown hair coming out of its braid, asked Lina.
“Don’t know, she’s spooked.”
“She scored her first kill. Maybe it’s got her rattled?” Her wingman called, “Natalia? Don’t think about it like you killed someone. Think of it as protecting your friends. You saved us!”
In her mind’s eye Natalia saw the body again, the German pilot tumbling, his parachute out of reach. She almost argued again that she didn’t kill anyone, it had been a mistake. But she suspected she’d already lost that battle. She hoped they didn’t try to give her a medal for it.
“Give me a minute. I just want to make sure the debris didn’t hurt the plane.” Her comrades stayed back, waiting for her to perform this small ritual. They all understood—your plane was your life. They all developed rituals.
Wings were fine, wheel wells were fine, propeller was fine. But tucked inside the engine cowling, Natalia found what she didn’t want to find. An anomaly. A thing that didn’t fit, that might have slipped from air to wing and then to engine. A hint of a surface that wasn’t metal. Smooth, it seemed oily, iridescent. It had the soft give of flesh. And it was shivering. Natalia flinched away.
“Natalia?” Elena asked softly.
She must have frozen in shock. She didn’t know what to do. If she said anything, she’d sound hysterical. Part of her believed this must have been a hallucination. She’d breathed in too many petrol fumes. She shook her head and managed to speak calmly. “You all go on ahead. I just need a minute more. I’ll meet you at command.”
“Don’t be too long.” Elena glanced back with worry as they walked off down the flight line.
This couldn’t be real. Natalia wanted to have her breakdown in private, to spare Elena the burden of trying to put her back together. Trembling, she took off her gloves and touched what must have been skin—supple, warm, like leather. The thing uncurled from its hiding place. A pair of boneless limbs gripped the edge of the metal, and a flattish head with two silver eyes, round and unblinking, looked down at her. She yelped and flinched again. Apparently this was real. Some Nazi trick or secret weapon tumbled out of the sky to curse her.
They stared at one another. The creature coughed and shivered harder. It folded in on itself, as if it thought it might still go unnoticed, and Natalia saw the cuts and abrasions across its back. The shining skin split open, exposing gray flesh. The kind of wounds that tumbling, shredding metal might make. The impossibility of it fell away before the obvious fact that it was hurt and scared.
Doing good was so difficult in this terrible war. Often, she and the others felt less like they were fighting for victory than they were simply fighting for a few more days of life for themselves and their country. If they could hold on a few more days . . . Like clinging to an engine cowling while injured. Who knew what might happen, if only you survived? Later she would wonder why she took the creature in, but suspected it came down to the chance to perform one small act of kindness.
“Shh, it’s okay. Let’s see what we can do for you.”
She opened the zipper of her jacket, making a much nicer pocket for the creature than cold metal. The thing took more coaxing, but it uncurled, revealed itself to be no bigger than a melon but powerful, sinewy, all muscle, with four limbs ending in strong, curling appendages meant for gripping. It slipped inside her jacket and rolled into a still ball.
Now what was she supposed to do?
She zipped up the jacket, steadied her expression, and walked to join the others, who had gathered at the command dugout. Elena gasped when she noticed Natalia. At first Natalia thought she’d done a terrible job of hiding the injured creature—they could all see it bulging out of her jacket and were horrified.
She couldn’t show them. How would she explain? This brought down the German fighter, not me. Natalia didn’t have time to worry; Elena was on her, fussing.
“Nat, you’re white as snow,” Elena said. “I didn’t realize how rough that flight was—you need a drink. Come on, we need to toast you and get your kill recorded.”
She must have been in shock, maybe a little bit frozen, but she hardly noticed the chill from the flight. She didn’t have to think right now, because the women surrounded her and pressed her forward. Their hands on her arms and shoulders were meant to be comforting, and the touches brought her back.
The creature had pressed itself closer to her body, clinging to her flight suit, and was invisible under the jacket. Just another fold of leather.
Elena Kirova rattled down the stairs and announced that Natalia had scored her first kill, and Captain Markov, a stern man with a pockmarked face and kind eyes glared seriously and asked for the whole story, and everyone talked at once while Lina produced a bottle of vodka, far more than her daily ration should have allowed, but the captain didn’t say anything because if he discharged her for having too much vodka, he would have had to discharge them all, and the squadron was already short of pilots.
“But I didn’t,” Natalia finally said when Markov looked at her for her side of the story. “It wasn’t in my sights at all when I fired. The plane just fell apart.”
In the pause, she could hear disappointment settle, making the air heavy.
Then Elena put a hand on her hip. “Well, I saw an explosion. Something hit that plane, and I’m sure it was your bullets.”
“There was so much smoke you probably didn’t see it clearly,” said one of the other pilots, and the other girls nodded and made affirming noises.
“Besides, those Messers are such garbage it doesn’t take much to make them fall apart. You probably didn’t have to hit it much.”
It wasn’t true, Messerschmitts were tough, but everyone laughed, because this was war and this was how they talked. Lina put a cup of vodka in her hand, and Natalia gratefully drank a large swallow of it, and relaxed into the shock of heat flowing from her gut.
The creature shifted, and she smoothed down her jacket, willing it to settle. It did.
Markov played at being stern, but a smile crinkled a corner of his lip. “How about we record it as an assist? You were there, you fired at it, you witnessed it.”
“I won’t argue with you, Captain.”
“Did you see what happened to the pilot? Did he land, can we get a prisoner?” Markov asked.
“I never saw a parachute,” she said.
They cheered again.
* * *
On the airfield at twilight, Natalia could pretend they weren’t in the middle of a war. A lone engine rumbled, a mechanic making tests. A cluster of people stood at the edge of the tarmac, passing a canteen and trading stories. Laughing, now and then. A few others walked to the dugout that housed the kitchen. They’d survived another day, and now the setting sun cast familiar shadows. A chill in the air hinted at autumn, and one could imagine walking home to a warm fire, tea, and family, all the way it should be. She closed her eyes for a just a minute, and imagined.
At the kitchen dugout, Elena put a hand on Natalia’s shoulder, looking into her eyes like she could see into her mind and what was stewing there. “You’re sure you’re all right?”
“I’m a little shaken,” Natalia admitted, because yes, something was wrong, everyone could see it. She needed to deflect their attention. “But I’ll be fine. A good dinner and some rest will have me right again.”
“A good dinner, here?” She snorted. No one this close to Stalingrad had eaten well in months.
Inside the kitchen was crowded, folk arriving early to make sure they got food that wasn’t scraped up off the bottom of the pot. Watery soup and coarse bread, same as always. At least it was hot. The warmth helped ease some of her nerves.
Grinning, Elena called to the cooks, “I hear there’s rat in the stew, is it true? That you catch rats from the barracks and put them in the stew?”
One of them called back, “One of these days we’ll say yes, and then what will you do?”
Natalia kept waiting for the thing curled up inside her jacket to move, make a noise. Break free and charge across the room, horrifying everyone. How would she explain it? While it shifted now and then, curling a limb or adjusting its head, it stayed hidden. She didn’t know what she was worried about. Instead of hiding it she ought to tell someone, make it someone else’s problem. Or just leave it somewhere. A wooded copse lay a hundred meters away; it would probably be happier there.
“I’m going to take a walk,” she told Elena and the others. “Clear my head. I’m fine, really I am.” Worried expressions answered her, but they let her go.
Tugging a stocking cap over her short-cropped, dusky brown hair, zipping up her fight jacket, she smuggled out her cup with a last bit of soup in it. Just a little, no one would notice. Walking too quickly, glancing over her shoulder in too suspicious a manner, she found a spot behind a storage bunker and unzipped her jacket. Maybe the thing had died, and she wouldn’t have to worry about it. But no, exposed to the air it uncurled, stared at her, and smacked its wide, frog-like mouth. It was like some undersea creature, a stout salamander. How had it ended up in her engine cowling?
“Hungry?” she asked it. “Come on, you must be hungry,” Natalia murmured, pressing the cup to the thing’s thin, rubbery lips, tipping it to draw the liquid close. She couldn’t see anything like a nose on it, but surely it could sense the food.
Soup touched its skin; it flinched back, gave a violent shake, almost throwing the cup from her hand. She tried again, murmuring to it as she would to a kitten, and it hissed at her.
Maybe she’d offend it into running away.
For a moment it stood on her lap, on the very tips of its limbs, and seemed poised to do so. But when it looked around, opening its mouth, revealing not teeth but bony, shining plates within, its gaze settled back on her jacket, on the side pocket. Grabbing the edge, it pulled itself toward it. She was too startled to stop it. It plunged its head inside and rooted around.
“Hey! What are you doing?” She tried to pry it off her, but those limbs were powerful, and once they curled around a thing they didn’t let go. She put both hands around the creature’s body and pulled—the pocket ripped. Metal crunched, and Natalia cried out. Her father’s pocket watch, which he’d given her for luck, which she’d kept close this whole damn war, and the thing had it in its mouth.
Finally it looked up at her, its jaws working slowly, metal shavings and bits of springs falling out of the corners of its mouth. It seemed so contented, the silver eyes gone dark and dreamy. The watch might have been fine caviar, the way it savored the pieces, turning it over. She could hear scraping, crunching. Those terrible plates, able to chew metal.
“How could you?” she murmured, tears falling. She scrubbed them away with her sleeve, furious at herself. All this time, this whole war, she hadn’t cried, not once. She wouldn’t cry, no matter how long the war went on, no matter how hard things got.
“I was only trying to help you, why would you do this?” she hissed, and it stared back, uncomprehending.
She meant to throw it. Peel it off herself and throw it into the woods as hard as she could. She twisted its limbs, intending to rip it off her however she could, then stomp it into the ground. It made a plaintive squeak and gripped harder, hugging bunched-up fabric in what might have been desperation. Pure muscle, it clung to her with its whole body, until her legs gave way and she sat on the ground, her lungs wrung out, her whole self exhausted.
The creature whined softly and burrowed into her pocket. It chewed twice more, the last bit of her father’s watch crunching and disappearing.
She studied it, this parasite. The next step was to take off her jacket and leave it behind. There was a solution to this. She saw, then, that the cuts and abrasions on its back had healed. The oily skin was smooth, uninjured.
“What are you?” she said.
The creature curled up against her. The silvery tint in its eyes seemed to dim. Maybe it slept. It weighed so little, she hardly noticed it was there. It had come from thin air for her to find. Maybe she never should have looked. But it was here now.
Natalia didn’t take off her jacket, didn’t leave the creature behind. She knew why the Messerschmitt had disintegrated, and she couldn’t let the thing loose near the airfield and the dozens of planes parked there.
She didn’t know what she was going to do.
* * *
That night, Natalia lay on her bunk and stared at the dark ceiling, listening to the snores around her. She’d folded up her jacket with the creature still inside and put it under her pillow. If it tried to escape and get into anything, she’d know it. She couldn’t sleep, waiting for it to do something.
A scuffle sounded at the next bed: Elena, throwing back her blanket, scurrying over, and pulling back Natalia’s blanket to crawl into bed with her. No good arguing with her about it. Natalia pulled up the blanket over them both, arranged their wool-clad legs and feet so they could both fit, and settled in as Elena snuggled close.
“You aren’t sleeping. I can tell,” Elena declared in a whisper. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry. I’m just . . . distracted.”
She sounded bemused. “Did shooting down that Nazi really bother you that much?”
Again that image seared on her memory, the German pilot flailing, plummeting. “That’s just it, I didn’t shoot him down. He just . . . fell!”
“Then what’s bothering you?”
I have a demon living in my pocket . . . “It’s nothing. Really. I’ll be fine.”
“Quiet!” someone in the barracks hissed at them. The pair ducked further under the blanket.
“It’s the war,” Elena whispered. “We have to keep our spirits up. We have to keep each other’s spirits up if we’re going to get through it.”
“Yes. I know. Thank you for looking after me.” Natalia hugged her friend back.
“So do me a favor, yeah? Take a deep breath and get some sleep.”
“All right. I promise.”
“Good.” Elena kissed her cheek and rolled off the cot, tucking Natalia in before hurrying back to her own bed.
Natalia took a deep breath, rolled over and closed her eyes. And slept.
* * *
On the other side of the airfield was a repair bay and machine shop, and behind this, a scrap pile. Nothing was ever really thrown out, but parts, chunks of broken metal, oil-covered gears, drive shafts and bolts and rivets, sections of plywood and misplaced canopies and propellers, were piled here, waiting to be used. With enough determination someone could probably build a whole plane out of the cast offs.
The creature could eat any of it.
At first, Natalia slipped a few bolts and screws inside her jacket. The creature grabbed them and shoved them into its mouth. Its chewing sounded like tearing steel, and she’d hide lest anyone hear it and wonder what was crashing.
Within a few days, they found a routine. Natalia casually strolled by the scrap pile when no one was watching, unzipped her jacket, and the creature leapt out, plunged into crevices of broken metal, chose its own bit of wreckage—usually something with grease on it—and returned to its hiding place, so fast it was almost invisible. She remembered not being sure she had seen it, when it landed on her plane.
Eventually it even learned to eat quietly.
She tried to leave it behind. She explained to it that it could live in the women pilots’ bunker, sleep in a box under her cot, hiding there easily enough. But it refused to leave her. Her jacket became its home. When she folded it up on top of her trunk, it would stay tucked up inside, sleeping.
The creature came flying with her.
That first flight, she was nervous. It was a standard patrol, nothing to worry about. But this thing ate machines, and she didn’t want it trying to eat hers while they were a couple of thousand feet up.
At the first sound of the engine stuttering to life, the creature emerged. Poked its head from her pocket, turned its silver eyes to the sky. It puffed up, seeming to draw energy from the sunlight. It pressed a limb to the side of the cockpit, letting vibrations pass through it. Its mouth cracked open in some kind of expression—but who knew what it was feeling?
When she pulled back on the stick, lifting off, and the plane climbed, it scrambled free of her jacket and pressed its face to the canopy. Like a kid against a train window, watching the land pass by.
“You like to fly, eh?” she asked it.
It stayed like that for an hour, until the patrol ended and she turned back for home. As soon as the tires bumped on the runway, it returned to her pocket, curled up and small, unnoticeable.
That was their routine. It flew with her because it loved it, and she couldn’t say no. She understood, the allure of the fierce sun and clear sky above the clouds.
Then came the next battle.
* * *
“You might want to stay there,” Natalia said to her pocket. Her cap and goggles made the cockpit feel hot and close; if she tried to spread her elbows she’d bump them on the sides. She was contained. “This might get rough.”
The squadron, Elena on her wing, raced toward the battle already in progress. This German bomber squadron had caught a patrol off guard, the escort fighters were hunting them down. The patrol radioed for backup, and here they were. Battling Germans was like trying to keep rats out of a barn—there were always more, they just kept coming.
Straight ahead, fighters swarmed. Bursts of fire and smoke decorated the scene, which seemed oddly silent and peaceful from this far away. One plane spiraled downward, trailing black smoke—a casualty. A Yak, from the profile. Natalia wondered if she knew the pilot. She couldn’t think of that now.
The creature crawled out of her pocket as usual, planting its gripping limbs on the canopy, eagerly reaching for sunlight.
“This is going to get loud,” she said, but the creature didn’t pay any attention.
“Here they come!” Elena’s voice cracked in her radio. The sharp rattle of machine gun fire followed, and Natalia pointed the Yak into a dive, getting out of the way even as she looked up for the enemy. A couple of Messers raced overhead, and Natalia hauled over the stick, banking and coming around to give chase.
The creature panicked. At least, that was what it looked like, and all over again Natalia cursed it. She couldn’t be distracted, not now. Yet here it was, pounding on the canopy as if it wanted to get out.
“Hey, stop it!”
It reached up, stretching so that it seemed to double in length, gripped the canopy, and lurched to open it. Wind battered Natalia’s face; she ducked away, squinting through her goggles.
“What are you doing?” she yelled against the blast of air.
The creature seemed to grin. Then it jumped.
She cried out and tried to track its path, which she assumed would have it plummeting to the ground. Well, she’d wanted it to go away, hadn’t she? It had found her in the air; maybe it lived up here, somehow. She shoved the canopy back closed and flew. One of the Messers had come around, racing up her left flank. She climbed and rolled away, but it followed her. The staccato of gunfire would burst out any moment.
And then the plane fell apart. Orange flames licked out from under the engine cowling, and the propeller exploded, flying apart and showering the canopy with debris. With a horrendous coughing, the fighter dropped from the sky.
Craning her neck, she looked around. None of her squadron seemed close enough to have shot it; she didn’t remember hearing gunfire. She certainly wasn’t in line of sight—she was sure she wasn’t the one who’d fired, even more than last time. She eased her Yak into an arc around the battle, trying to make sense—
And jumped in her seat when a thunk pounded into her wing. The creature sat there, grinning up at her, its limbs gripping hard. It was chewing, and bits of metal trickled out of its mouth, carried away by the wind.
Their squadron leader came on the radio. “Who shot that one? Did anyone see who got it?”
“I wasn’t in line of sight.”
“No, I didn’t see.”
Natalia said, “Maybe . . . maybe the engine just gave out. Malfunction.”
“Drat, I’d rather one of us get credit for it.”
Perched on the wing of her Yak, Natalia’s creature seemed to be savoring its meal. The fight was still going on. She remembered to look around, monitor her own squadron as well as the enemy fighters they engaged. Despite the battle, the air seemed still. Otherworldly. She could hang here forever, and all would be well.
“Natalia! Two o’clock!”
The radio blared, she juked her plane left, marked the roar of other engines. When she looked at the wing again, the creature was gone. But she knew, just knew, that it would return. No sense in wondering how.
It seemed both forever and no time at all had passed when the squad leader radioed for them to fall back. Natalia wasn’t sure what had happened, how the battle had fared, if the German bombers had reached their target or been repelled. For now, she cracked her canopy open and waited.
A flash of movement, light glinting off oily skin, and the creature hauled itself up the canopy seam and slipped inside. Natalia imagined it had grown, or at least rounded out, full with a huge meal. It rested on the instrument panel, its limbs drooping, looking nearly drunk. She almost laughed.
“It isn’t just machines you like,” she said. “It’s destruction. This war must be heaven for you.”
It smacked its plated teeth a couple of times, then crawled back in her pocket.
* * *
Natalia developed a reputation: nothing touched her. German fighters seemed to disintegrate around her. Natalia had the best luck, a guardian angel looking after her. Or something like it. Which was why, when Elena Kirova was killed, Natalia blamed herself.
“What happened?” Natalia asked blankly when Lina, her face puffy from crying, came to the barracks to bring her the news.
“Coming back from patrol this morning, that fog bank rolled in, remember? Collision. Another plane was trying to land and didn’t see her. Other pilot got out fine, but Elena—” She shook her head.
Natalia sat on her bunk a long time. It didn’t make sense. She should have been there; if she’d been there, she could have helped Elena, protected her. Natalia hadn’t even flown that day, but if she’d been looking after her wingman like she was supposed to, Elena would have lived, she was sure of it. If she had confided in Elena about her creature, the strange demon living in her pocket—maybe Elena would have lived. Mealtimes became somber without Elena’s jokes, but no one could bring themselves to pick up her banter. So they trudged on, day after day.
But after Elena’s death, everyone wanted to be Natalia’s wingman. Lucky Natalia. She didn’t want another wingman. If she could have flown alone she would have, but it was safer, having someone in the air with you watching your back. She just didn’t want anyone looking too closely. She should have told Elena about the creature. Elena would have given good advice.
The war went on. Rumors started of a planned American invasion, but came to nothing. The great Soviet army turned back a German advance at Kursk—lots of vodka flowed at that news. Liliia Litviak became the first woman fighter ace when she shot down her fifth plane. Then she was killed, like so many others. Meanwhile they flew, they fought, they died. This would go on forever, the terrible conditions, the constant roar of engines, the wait for news and the hope that it would be good. Eventually the news would have to be good, when it couldn’t get any worse.
Natalia felt safest when she flew.
Air was a membrane. Air was timeless. Slow and endless, no obstacles to interrupt her transit. To fly was freedom. Her actions, hers alone, translated to power. The sun was purer here. Infinity came closer. The higher one flew, the more blue the sky became, until it deepened to the richest lapis, and then beyond to the black of space, so she’d heard. She had never flown that high herself. She had taken her Yak to the edge of its range, over thirty thousand feet, to where the air was too thin to breathe and the cold destroyed skin. To where the engine began to stutter and she risked it stalling. Her Yak was powerful, loyal, beautiful. But she never pushed it farther than it could go. And so she’d lever over the stick, adjust the flaps, and dive down, back to safer altitudes, to gravity. She tried not to resent the tether that kept her grounded. She was lucky to fly at all, to even have this taste of the infinite.
If she could stay in the air, simply cruising, peaceful, she might not have minded the rest of it so much.
And then it was over. It was over.
* * *
A voice chattered on the radio in the command bunker, and they could hardly understand it. Germany surrenders. Military is standing down. Victory.
The crowd of them gathering to hear the announcement stood in silence. There should have been cheering and fireworks, but they couldn’t even speak. Natalia suddenly wondered what Elena would have said at this moment, and couldn’t think of anything at all. There should be parades and dancing, and in the days to come there would be all these things. But right in this moment, there was disbelief.
“Now what do we do?” Lina asked plaintively. Someone began crying, and then they were all crying, then laughing. Elena should have been there for it.
Natalia did wonder what came next.
* * *
The next afternoon, she fled to a spot behind the hangar, where she sat with her back to the wall. She’d found a leather courier bag. The creature fit perfectly inside and even seemed to enjoy nestling there, quiet and in hiding. She held the bag in her lap, and she and the creature looked out over a quiet airfield. She couldn’t remember ever seeing it so still, not even an engine rumbling. The silence was almost painful.
She fed the creature rusted bits of scrap metal. It took each one and chewed it carefully, almost daintily. When it had enough to eat, it was calm.
“We can’t go on as we have,” she said. “There aren’t Germans to hunt anymore. But we’ll figure it out. I’ll take care of you, I promise. I suppose I can find a place to live near a junkyard.”
It looked back at her, its eyes like silvered canopies. She fancied she could read some understanding there. Some agreement. Some sense that it believed her, and trusted her.
The creature dived into the bag and she shut it up, quickly getting to her feet. She was just taking a walk. Nothing suspicious here.
“What is it?” She steadied her breathing and marched to the end of the hangar, where the shouting was coming from. She hoped she didn’t look too flushed.
Lina almost bumped into her, coming around the corner. Her shirt collar was open, and her coveralls were still covered with grease, even though no one had really worked since the cease-fire announcement.
“There’s someone here to see you at ops. Political officer.” Lina didn’t stand too close, as if whatever trouble had gotten to Natalia might rub off on her.
“You’d better go quick, don’t you think?”
Oh no, was all Natalia could think. Oh no.
With the war over, this should all be done, yes? If she’d done something wrong—if she looked like she’d done something wrong—it shouldn’t matter anymore. But it did.
The officer, Colonel Lebedev, was big, broad. He should have been punching Nazis on the front line. Maybe he had. With his lined frown and permanently furrowed brow, he didn’t seem in the mood to put up with anything. That was what probably got him the political officer job. No one would dare tell him anything he didn’t want to hear.
He invited her into the base commander’s office, which had a door. The closed off space felt like a luxury, and the silence within was heavy. After brief formalities, Lebedev invited her to sit in the chair across the desk from him. She didn’t want to sit; she wanted to run. But she sat.
Lebedev folded his hands on the desk and studied her a moment. Then he asked, before any other nicety, “Have you ever smuggled anything?”
“What? No, sir.” The courier bag was sitting at her feet. The creature inside was very quiet.
“Cigarettes, chocolate maybe? Coffee?”
She hadn’t seen coffee in months. Maybe years. “I wouldn’t know where to find any of that, sir.”
“There are sources. Clever people have found ways to bring in such items and sell them on the black market. You know how it is.” He acted so casual, like he was asking about the weather.
Horrified, she sucked in a breath. “That would be illegal.”
Lebedev nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, it would. And yet, I’ve heard some stories. That you may be a little more secretive than you should? That maybe you have something to hide?”
She knew she flushed, then. The burning flashed over her cheeks and up to her scalp. She couldn’t do anything to stop it. She had so little practice at lying. But she was able not to steal a glance at the bag at her feet.
“Your father . . . died in prison, I’ve heard? A dissenter? Do I have that right?”
Yes, he’d died in prison, but she’d never believed the charges. She’d worked so hard to prove her family’s loyalty. To redeem his name. “Oh no, sir. He was loyal.”
“Hm. All right then.” He flipped through a file of papers on the desk, skimming them. Obviously a prop, all for show—his gaze didn’t linger on the pages long enough to read anything on them. “You have quite the record. It’s unusual, being a woman pilot, isn’t it?”
“There are quite a few of us,” she said, thinking of the two regiments of bomber pilots, her own regiment, women pilots all over the Motherland, Elena, Liliia, and all the others who’d been killed. Wondering if their service, their sacrifice would just be forgotten. Conveniently un-remembered.
“Of course. Do you know I heard Marina Raskova speak once?”
Raskova, Russia’s greatest woman pilot. Godmother to them all, may she rest in peace. “I would have liked to meet her, sir.”
“She was impressive. May I have a look in your bag there?”
“I—I’d rather you didn’t.” Her stomach dropped. She was doomed. She was finished, with this.
Lebedev smiled kindly, the expression of a venomous snake hypnotizing its prey. “Trust me, I doubt there’s anything there I haven’t seen before.”
Her throat and nose clenched; she wanted to cry. This, after she’d just promised to protect the creature. She didn’t know what to do, there was nothing she could do—
“Please, Comrade Voronova. Just a quick look. I’m sure you’re not hiding anything.”
Oh, but she was.
She picked up the bag, feeling like she moved as slow as glaciers, like her body was not her own. Maybe the creature could run, maybe it could escape. Her own fate was likely decided, but maybe the creature could find somewhere to live out its days safely and wouldn’t be captured. She wouldn’t have called it praying, since at the moment she didn’t feel like she had anything to pray to.
She set the bag on the desk in front of Lebedev and returned to her seat. The colonel stood and opened the flap. Peered inside. Looked at her a moment. Then picked up the bag and held it upside down.
Nothing. Nothing fell out, there was nothing inside.
Natalia could have cried. Or laughed. Something. But she was confused, and her training—and the nerves that had kept her alive during two years of combat—held her upright, still and calm. Yes, of course she had expected this. She met Lebedev’s gaze across the desk, tilted her head inquiringly.
“You carry around an empty bag?”
“It’s a good luck charm,” she said. “Silly, I know. It’s embarrassing, really. That’s why I’m so touchy about it. I’m sure you’ve heard very strange things about pilots. We’re all quite superstitious.” She even sounded like she knew what she was talking about.
“Hm. Yes.” He felt inside the bag, as if searching for a hidden compartment. Shook it as if listening for rattling. Pressed all along the seams. Glared at her with suspicion again. But he found nothing.
And where was the creature? She donned a thin smile and very decisively didn’t panic.
He set down the bag and pushed it toward her. “You may go, Voronova. For now.”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
Grabbing the bag, she fled. She waited for the door to close behind her before peering into the bag herself—and there it was. The creature, big round eyes staring back at her. She swore it was grinning. Closing it up, she tucked the bag under her arm and marched away, so she could have a nervous breakdown somewhere safe. She fled to a storage closet, shut the door, turned on the light, and finally dared to open the bag again.
The creature flopped limbs over the edge and considered her.
“What did you do?” she asked. “Where did you go? You nearly stopped my heart.”
Maybe it had turned invisible. Maybe it had fled so quickly neither of them had seen it. Maybe it really was magic.
“You don’t need me, do you? You can take care of yourself. Maybe you’d be better off on your own.” She slumped to the floor, put her head in her hands.
The creature reached, its limb stretching, and touched her wrist. Just a light pressure. Friendly, even. She smiled weakly.
“You saved my life, you know. I owe you.”
It didn’t speak. She wished it could, but that touch seemed to say everything. They were stuck with each other, no matter what happened.
This wasn’t over. She was never going to be finished with men like Lebedev. Especially if she went to Moscow to try to get a job as a flight instructor, as she’d been thinking she might do.
She didn’t know where she could go. Or . . . maybe she did. Away. She needed to go away.
* * *
Two dozen Yaks crouched on the airfield. She had to do this now, immediately. That very night, even.
She didn’t like flying at night. It wasn’t safe. Not that anything she’d done in the war had been safe, but this was something else. The hard part was not being able to say goodbye to the girls—but she couldn’t risk word getting out.
She knew the guard rotation. Knew when her best chance was. She didn’t bring much with her: some rations, a canteen of water, a blanket, a change of clothes. Her papers, for all the good it would do her. She had never been without them and it seemed strange leaving them behind. And the courier bag.
What would Elena think of this? She’d think Natalia was mad. No—she’d kiss Natalia’s cheek and tell her to go, to fly.
In the black of night, by the dim light of a waning moon, she stood by the hangar and looked out at the lurking beasts, the row of aircraft, lined up along the stretch of runway. No one else was around. She opened the bag; the creature immediately climbed out, up her arm, and perched on her shoulder. It seemed at home there, sitting as it often did in the cockpit, tucked up against her leather cap, watchful. The silver eyes seemed to take in the light and glow.
“You think we can do this? We need to not be seen.”
It squeezed her shoulder, adjusting its grip. Or was it trying to tell her something? “I don’t know what you are, or everything you can do. But I’ll say what we need: to move fast, and quiet, and not be seen.”
The creature hunched down. It felt determined.
Calm. Natalia would do everything calmly. She moved along the shadow of the hangar, walking calmly. Someone would be more likely to see a flash of movement than a person simply walking, perfectly normal. She held the straps of her bags in a white-knuckled grip.
The creature sprang from her suddenly, landed on the wall, scurried along it like a spider. Hesitating, the creature looked back, clacked teeth in what might have been a warning. Continued on a few steps, looked back again, waited.
Natalia followed it.
At the corner it stopped, grabbed her shoulder, pulled her to the wall and held on tight. Then she heard the footsteps. Heavy boots on gravel, a steady stride. She held her breath.
The patrolling guard walked around the corner a moment later, a big, grimly staring man, rifle propped on his shoulder. The war might have officially ended, but he was taking this job seriously. He walked a few paces on, gazed out over the runway and flight line. Then turned back around. He’d see Natalia, and she didn’t have any reason for being here—
The creature kept pressure on her shoulder and stared at the guard with round, gleaming eyes. Neither of them moved. Even the air seemed frozen, though her face was burning.
The guard didn’t see them. Natalia would have sworn that when he turned around to continue his patrol he was looking right at her and the creature. She could almost have met his gaze.
But somehow, some way, he didn’t see them and continued on. The footsteps faded into the night, and they were clear.
She reached up and put her hand on the creature’s limb. An unthinking gesture of comfort. The creature clung back. It peeled from the wall and returned to her shoulder where it settled calmly. While she didn’t dare speak, she could finally breathe again. Together, they set off across the runway to the flight line.
Finally, she reached the Yak at the end of the row. Went through the fastest pre-flight check she’d ever done. The risk of not running a careful check didn’t outweigh the anxiety of getting caught. The creature held onto her shoulder, sitting tall, its head craned up and looking around—her own guard. She couldn’t tell if it did anything more—if it really did have some kind of power to make them invisible. But she relaxed some. It was standing watch, so she could focus on what she needed to do.
Removed the chocks from the tires. Checked the propeller, the fuel tank. Climbed into the cockpit. The creature was practically vibrating, jumping from her shoulder to the instrument panel, looking out. She was about to slide closed the canopy when it sprang out again, planting itself on the nose of the aircraft, limbs spread to steady itself, head lifted. Like the hood ornament on a fancy car.
It must have known what it was doing.
Once she started the engine, she had a minute or so to get in the air before anyone stopped her. If they started firing at her, she’d be done. She’d deserve it.
She met the creature’s gaze. “We can do this. Yes?”
She cranked the starter. Eased up on the throttle. The plane inched forward. Then it raced.
Everyone must have heard it. The growling engine of a plane after so much stillness must have woken everyone for a mile around. Natalia couldn’t think about that. She had to keep moving down the path she’d chosen. She opened the throttle, pulled back on the stick, lifted the nose—Then came that moment, that thrilling stillness as the plane left Earth, as its wings carried it up, and up.
No one chased her. No other planes took off to follow her, to shoot her down. She climbed, leveled off. She escaped. She wanted to laugh and cry both.
She’d thought about where to go, and narrowed it down to two choices: north, or south. In either case she would run out of fuel before she left Soviet territory. She could think of little beyond getting across the border. Since she had stopped being able to see a future for herself, where she went didn’t seem to matter much.
She chose south because the border was closer. And so she flew on as the sun rose.
* * *
Her first breath of Kuwait smelled like dust and burning oil. Captain Elena Kramer arrived on base jet lagged and exhausted, a bag full of gear over her shoulder, and stopped to stare at heat mirages rippling over the tarmac. Since everyone else had stopped too, she hoped she didn’t look too hapless. They went through processing, got to their assigned bunks in prefab barracks that didn’t have air conditioning, and were told to rest. Their tour started in the morning with flight checks. She couldn’t think that far ahead, and once she sat, couldn’t seem to summon the energy to lie the rest of the way down. So she unpacked. And immediately had to confront the one thing she hadn’t intended on bringing to the war at all.
Sitting at the foot of her cot, she studied the vintage leather courier bag slumped on the concrete floor, a couple of feet out, in isolation. Like it needed its own space of air. It was just a bag. A mysterious old bag that she’d been instructed not to open until she deployed.
“For luck,” her grandmother had explained, a serious and over-bright glint in her eye.
“Do you know what she’s talking about?” Elena had asked her father later.
“She had that bag in the war,” he’d said. “I think she thinks it brought her luck. She wants you to have it. Can’t hurt, can it?” He’d shrugged.
Put like that, the bag took on talismanic qualities. Natalia Voronova had survived the siege of Stalingrad during World War II. She’d been a fighter pilot, which would have been astonishing enough on its own without everything else she’d been through, with the war, defecting from the Soviet Union after the war, trekking to America, and all the rest. She’d done the impossible several times over and lived to tell the tale.
“Take it on the plane with you when you fly missions,” Nana Natalia urged her, and instead of disregarding her out of hand, which was the logical thing to do, Elena planned how she was going to sneak the beat-up old thing into the cockpit of her A–10. Because her grandmother asked her to.
“You love your plane?” Nana asked, her Russian accent plain, rounding the words, singing. The music of far away places and times.
Elena smiled by reflex. “Yeah, the A–10’s a beast. Best plane that ever flew.” Every pilot of every type of craft said that, insisted theirs was the best. But Elena was right.
Natalia clicked her tongue. “Not as good as my Yak, but what can you do? If you love your plane, it takes care of you. But bring this with you, for me.”
“Can’t explain. You must see. Just do it. Please, my Elena.”
An old woman’s whim. Natalia had seen war up close. Her hands held worry and tension when she squeezed her granddaughter’s. She knew what Elena was flying into.
Elena had carried that bag halfway around the world and now wondered why. There was writing on it, Cyrillic letters carved along the edge of the flap. She knew just enough Russian to be able to read it: drook. “Friend.”
The bag had a story. Was filled with a story Natalia hadn’t told her. But she would see, and this made her nervous. She second-guessed herself about what exactly Nana had told her. Did she open the bag now, or when she was in her plane? Now, Elena thought. Mostly because there was no way in hell she was going to open a mysterious bag for the first time while locked in her cockpit. She set the bag on her cot, opened the flap, cautiously looked in. A strange gray ball nested in the bottom, about the size of a cantaloupe, lumpy, unsettling.
Then the leathery ball uncurled and stared at her.
Elena screamed, a sharp startled burst, then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked around to see if anyone had heard. But no, she was alone in her curtained-off bunk. And the thing in the bag was still looking at her with round, unblinking silver eyes.
She shut the bag. Held it shut, found that she was gasping for breath. Her first thought, that her grandmother had somehow stashed a ferret in her gear and she’d carried it halfway around the world, was clearly not right. This wasn’t a ferret, though its body suggested coiled, sinewy muscles. It was dark gray, oily-looking, smooth-skinned. Strange. Not a ferret, guinea pig, or python. If she didn’t look at it again, she wouldn’t have to deal with it.
But she was going to have to deal with this.
She lifted the flap of the bag, looked. Yes, eyes looked back at her. And a wide, lipless mouth, which opened, showing steely plates where teeth would be if it was a normal thing, a recognizable creature. It made a noise, a growl, creaking like rusted hinges.
Elena shut the bag again. With shaking hands, she secured the metal clasp. Then stashed the bag in a locker, triple checking that the locker was really locked, that no one would stumble on this . . . this thing.
She had to make a phone call.
This wasn’t a simple endeavor. Personal calls were rationed out, there were wait lists, time limits. But this was an emergency. Could she convince the duty officer that this was an emergency?
“My grandmother,” Elena explained, trying to do puppy-dog eyes but it mostly came out as a wince. “She’s very old.”
This was met with skepticism. But she got her call.
Only belatedly did she calculate the time difference and make sure she was calling at a reasonable hour. She probably would have called anyway. This couldn’t wait.
Thankfully, Nana picked up after just a couple of rings.
“Nana, it’s Elena—”
“Oh my dear, where are you? Is everything all right?”
Yes? No? She didn’t know? “I can’t talk long, but I have to ask you. That bag you gave me, that you said not to open till I got here. The good luck charm. I . . . I opened it.”
A long hesitation. Elena imagined Nana sitting at her kitchen table, looking up at the ceiling.
“And how is Drook?” she asked finally, her accent rolling the “r” and landing soft on the “k.”
What is Drook? Elena thought in a panic. And how could she tell how it was?
“Nana, I can’t keep it! I’m not supposed to have pets!”
“Elena dearest, is not pet. Drook will save your life. But you have to feed it junk. Scrap metal, broken machines. Before it goes looking.”
“Will you listen to your grandmother?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Bring with you. Tuck in your flight suit. Curls up very small, will be fine, no one will know. But Drook will save you, if you let it. Promise me, Elena.” Nana had never sounded so fierce. This woman had killed Nazis, Elena reminded herself.
She could seal up the bag and shove it in the bottom of her locker. Stuff it in the trash. Nana would never know. Except it was alive. Clearly alive. Maybe she could set it loose in the desert . . . and then what?
“Promise, Elena, that you will keep Drook with you.”
Grandmothers. Nana was crazy. “Okay, yes, fine, I promise.”
“Good. Then you will come home safe.”
She had no way to argue with her. They could go back and forth on the phone for an hour and not get anywhere. Nana had already gotten what she wanted: that promise. And now Elena had to figure out how to follow through.
“So I feed it junk. What kind of junk?”
“Whatever they throw out at the machine shop. Any metal trash from the airfield. Will be fine.”
She had to trust that Nana knew what she was talking about. “Okay. I love you.”
“Remember! Stay safe!”
Copyright © 2019. Gremlin by Carrie Vaughn