(Finalist, Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story of 2013)
There was a tower at Petrovsk. A monstrous, broken-topped spike like the one the Allied forces had found at Astrakhan. Having to look up, even flying at two thousand feet, past the upper wing of his Avro biplane to see its top made Masaru dizzy. He groped for the small lump of the embroidered omamori amulet hanging from a cord around his neck. The other Avro, painted blue like his, followed as he banked into a wide downward loop, the Australian woman for once holding her proper station off his right wingtip.
Masaru peered past the struts and wires between his biplane’s wings, trying to take the sight in. The tower’s proportions were such that it upset the perceptions and seemed to distort the flat landscape around it. Its base was a madman’s helter-skelter ziggurat, made of impossible stone blocks the size of townhouses, that cut a swathe across the city’s snow-covered grid of tenement blocks and terraces between the Caspian shore and the abrupt incline of the escarpment to the west. From the ziggurat’s peak, the ragged-toothed tower reached up to a dark stain of cloud fixed in the sky directly above.
Just like at Astrakhan.
Impossibly huge though it was, this tower was barely half the height of the one there. The realization brought Masaru back to his proper senses. Why the difference?
He turned his attention to the city below. There was smoke coming from the ruined medieval fortress on the escarpment. There were more fires in the town itself. As at Astrakhan, stones from the tower lay scattered among the buildings, with ruin all about them as if they had fallen from its peak. The dome of the mosque, miniscule in the shadow of the impossible edifice, was cracked open like an egg.
Red Bolshevik flags flew above the fortress. As Masaru and Edie swung low overhead, smoke puffed from the mouths of artillery pieces along the wall. Dirt and snow burst amidst a swarm of figures laboring up the slope. A pair of tanks crawled alongside the troops. White banners bearing the two-headed Imperial Russian eagle identified the attacking force.
Masaru shook his head. Even with that tower in their midst, which made the rival Russian forces looked like ants warring in a man’s shadow, and even with shape-changing monsters running loose in their country—hordes of them, like those the Allied forces had driven at such cost from Astrakhan—still the Reds and Whites would rather fight each other.
There were red Bolshevik and white Imperialist flags scattered too, among the roofs of the city’s buildings. There were many more in different shades of blue, with the common populace aping the color chosen by the Allies to declare their newfound neutrality in the war of Red and White. As the biplanes circled, bright blue banners unfurled from the twin minarets of the shattered mosque.
Masaru’s loop took him away from the tower and the battle at the fortress towards the port and the Allied airfield. There was no sign of conflict on that side of the town. Indeed, both the port and the airfield seemed deserted. Masaru was disturbed to see that there were no vessels at the wharf, no planes parked at the airfield. He saw no movement near either. The queasiness returned to his stomach. Petrovsk airfield was base for two R.A.F. fighter squadrons and a large Allied garrison. Where were they?
For the umpteenth time since they had flown out of Astrakhan, he scanned the sea to the east, hoping to see the ships of the Allied fleet already on their way north from Baku, bringing reinforcements for the next big push, inland along the Volga. The water was clear of anything but patches of floating ice, all the way to the horizon. He could feel the bulge of the dispatch wallet inside his jacket, with the urgent demands from the field commanders at Astrakhan for those extra divisions. Edie carried an identical set of papers—the normal contingency. One plane, at least, usually got through.
He checked his rear left quarter, where her Avro was wobbling from side to side, out and back again, rather than holding a steady line at his wing. Masaru felt a surge of irritation. The woman flew like an undisciplined child kicking its heels. He still couldn’t believe they had given him a woman for a wingman. And an uncouth, irreverent, barely-civilized Australian adventurer woman at that!
Abruptly, it occurred to him that she wasn’t waggling her wings idly. He realized his fist was bunched, about to punch the cockpit wall. Masaru took a slow breath, then throttled back to let her come alongside.
She flew in close enough that he could see her shivering. Her scarf only covered her neck, and her cheeks were chapped raw, her lips a pale purple-blue.
She pointed down at the airfield, then raised both palms. Should they land? Masaru chewed his lip in indecision. His eyes were drawn back to the tower, as by a magnet. He did not want to land anywhere near that monstrosity.
They had no choice in the matter, regardless of his fears. Even with its added fuel tank where the trainee’s forward cockpit normally was, the Avro’s range was barely three hundred miles. Astrakhan to Petrovsk was over two-thirty, and it was another two hundred or so from Petrovsk to Baku. The dispatches had to get through to Baku.
Finally, Masaru nodded. It seemed a forlorn hope that the Allied garrison wouldn’t have taken all the fuel stores with them when they abandoned their base. If they hadn’t, it meant they must have left in haste, perhaps even under attack, and then who knew what might be lurking down there. Swearing softly to himself, he pushed the Avro’s stick forward to begin his descent.
No-one emerged to meet them as Masaru taxied across to the airfield’s fuel shed. Leaving the engine running, he lifted himself up to perch on the back lip of the cockpit and looked around. The maintenance hangar stood open, the shadows within cavernously empty. Beyond the hangar, the door of the dispatch office was propped open against the wall. Nothing moved inside.
There were footprints and tire marks all over. The snow was thin enough that the matted, frozen grass underneath showed through in the tracks. A refueling car was parked nearby.
His eyes were drawn once again, unwillingly, to the tower, and up higher to the dark stain of cloud above it. Never had he imagined that such things could exist in the world. It reached up higher than any structure built by man. Impossibly high. The ragged tops of both towers and the scattered stones at their feet made it appear that they had been broken off, somehow. But by what means had either of them been built at all? Where had the stones come from, and how?
And what was the link between these towers and the monsters—Changelings, as the Russian peasants called them—that had been emerging from Bolshevik territory for the past year?
Once again, his hand was drawn to the omamori at his chest. His sister had given him one for protection against injury the first time he went away to war as a young man. She had sent him a new one every year since. He had always kept his promise to wear them, but mainly as a reminder of her. The tower’s baleful presence prompted him to wonder if he should write to ask her for an amulet to protect against supernatural harm, instead.
Edie’s biplane taxied up beside his, the throttle cut and the propeller winding down. She was already out of the cockpit, hopping nimbly down onto the wing and hanging one-handed from a convenient strut, one foot swinging carelessly. Before the plane had stopped rolling, she jumped lightly down, her boots crunching on the snow.
Masaru ground his teeth in exasperation. Circus pilot, he thought. He had heard she had been a wing walker in an American flying show before she’d come to Russia. He reached down to close his Avro’s throttle. His ears rang as the roar of the engine wound down.
“It’s quiet,” Edie said, sauntering over. “Where is everyone?” She took off her flying cap. Blonde curls spilled around her face, caught by the wind.
Arrogant. Like most Allied personnel, Masaru kept his own head shaved to avoid lice and the threat of typhus they carried. He said, “What use are you if you break your leg performing childish stunts? We have a mission.”
Her face registered surprise, then she put her fists on her hips, ready to argue.
“We will not dally here,” Masaru continued. He jumped down on the opposite side of his plane. “You stand guard.”
He paused before walking over to the refueling car and stooped to examine the tracks in the snow more closely. The uppermost prints were still crisp around the edges. Perhaps as recent as the day before. He stamped across to the refueling car, trying to work some feeling back into his legs. The stillness of the buildings—that should have been bustling with pilots and ground crew—was oppressive, the quiet broken only by the distant thud of artillery fire from the fort. Masaru undid the button of the holster at his hip, trying to ignore the nervous crawling sensation at the back of his neck.
The drum on the tray of the refueling car sounded full when he knocked it and, for a miracle, the car’s engine turned over on the third attempt. Masaru gave it a bare handful of seconds to warm, then drove over to park between the biplanes.
Edie had wandered off a short distance. She was at least treating the situation seriously enough to have her revolver in hand. But when Masaru turned around again after filling her Avro’s tanks, she had her jacket off and overalls down around her calves, squatting bare-arsed in the snow to piss.
He averted his eyes quickly, his face heating. He cocked his fist at the fuel car door, stopped himself. Then, ever so carefully, he pressed his knuckles into the cold metal.
Small arms crackled somewhere in the city, not far away. Masaru drummed his fingers impatiently as the fuel poured into his auxiliary tank. Two fighter squadrons and a garrison of British and American infantry had been based here. Where had they gone?
Done at last, he drove the refueling car clear of the planes and tramped back across the snow.
“Edie!” he called.
She looked his way, shrugging herself back into her jacket, and raised an arm to point. “There’s someone over there, outside the fence.”
“More reason for us to leave now,” Masaru said, not bothering to hide his impatience.
“He’s wearing flying clothes.”
“What?” Masaru looked.
Sure enough, there was a lone figure outside the wire mesh of the airfield’s perimeter fence, facing them. Even at a distance, it was clear he was dressed as a flyer—leather cap, high boots, wool-collared leather jacket over padded flying overalls.
There was something odd about the way the stranger stood, though—his shoulders hunched unnaturally, as if pulling too-long arms up into his jacket sleeves. His legs seemed strangely bent above his boots. Masaru squinted at the stranger’s grinning face.
The monster sprang forward. Inhumanly long forelimbs thrust from its sleeves. It bounded, ape-fashion, towards the fence, cackling like a hyena.
Masaru scrabbled for his sidearm.
The Changeling leapt at the fence, bouncing off the top of the wire and landing with an explosion of powdered snow. It charged, mouth split open from ear-to-ear to show needle teeth and a lolling black tongue.
Edie raised her pistol two-handed and fired. The monster yelped, rolling. Masaru was amazed. A hit! Then it was up again, whooping and giggling, skittering side to side as it continued its charge. Edie fired again and missed. She held her ground, tracking its approach with her revolver.
Masaru dashed forward, raising his own weapon as the monster sprang. He shoved in front of Edie and fired into its chest. The impact of the bullet sounded like a hammer striking wood. The Changeling was flung squealing backwards. Masaru was aware of Edie swearing. The Changeling thrashed its limbs to right itself and leapt at him again. Masaru aimed his pistol, too slow. A cloven-hoofed forelimb knocked it aside. He threw up his arms to protect himself, and the monster sank its teeth into his hand.
For a moment they braced, arms and forelimbs locked. Masaru stared into its eyes, pinprick black pupils ringed by red and orange bands. Its breath on his face smelled of hot metal. There was nothing left of the man it might once have been. Edie stepped around him, put her pistol to the monster’s temple and pulled the trigger.
The blast was deafening. The Changeling’s head snapped to the side, and stayed there. Its eyes glazed, and it slithered limply to the ground.
Masaru’s ears felt stuffed with cotton wool. He stared in horror at his lacerated hand. The Russian peasants had named them Changlings after the hideous fairy children of their folk tales. The Reds’ Plague, the Whites called the affliction, the result of some germ or chemical cooked up in the Bolsheviks’ vile scientific experiments. Contagious, virulent as rabies, they said.
Edie called something, but he couldn’t make out the words. He cast about for his pistol, spied it in the snow a few yards away, and staggered over to scoop it up.
“Stop!” Edie cried as he began to lift the gun to his head. She smacked his wrist with the barrel of her pistol, sending shooting pain up his arm. His gun tumbled from his grasp once more.
He stared at her in shock. How could she think of stopping him?
“You won’t become one of them,” she said. “It’s not contagious.”
He raised his injured hand for her to see, then waved it at the dead Changeling. “That was a man once!” He saw himself turning into another leering monstrosity, shook his head violently. “I will not—”
“It was never a man!”
“Then where do they come from?” he demanded.
Her mouth opened, shut; answers started and discarded.
The tower, Masaru thought. From that mad tower. But how? And where had the towers come from? His gaze was drawn up to the immobile patch of darker cloud above it.
“I don’t know,” Edie said, at last. “But I’ve seen men bitten and they have not changed.”
Masaru had, too—men injured in the bloodbath outside Astrakhan. Days later, still strapped to their hospital beds, they remained men, begging to be released from their bonds. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t change. Who knew how long it took? Most soldiers who were bitten killed themselves or were shot by their comrades. He imagined his body corrupting, his mind falling into madness.
He lunged for his pistol. Edie kicked his knee, knocking his leg out from under him. Masaru went down with a yell. Edie scooped up the gun and backpedaled clear of him.
“Enough,” she said.
“Then you do it,” he spat, getting to his feet.
“Who’s waiting for you?” she asked, abruptly.
He scowled at her, confused by the question.
“Who have you got at home?” she said. “A wife? Children?”
Affronted by her presumption, he drew himself up. “I have a sister. She has children.”
“You provide for them?”
“Their father was a soldier,” he said, stiffly. “He died in Manchuria.”
“And what will happen to them if you shoot yourself?”
Masaru remained silent.
There was a rolling boom from the escarpment—another salvo of artillery fire.
Edie held up his gun. “Can I give this back to you, now?”
Sullenly, he nodded. She tossed it onto the snow in front of him.
“Stay out of my way next time. I don’t need you to save me,” she said. “Come on. There’ll be more of them, and we’re stuffed if they turn up in numbers before we get airborne.”
The wind at five thousand feet was burning cold. Masaru pulled his scarf up closer to his goggles. His legs were going stiff, his backside already numb from the cold and sitting in the cramped cockpit.
With a grimace, he forced the fingers of his injured hand to flex. Edie had doused the wound with gin from the bottle she kept in the cockpit of her plane, before binding it with a strip of cloth torn from Masaru’s shirttail. It throbbed abominably, the fingers stiff with cold and swelling.
The injury to his pride from being saved by a woman—a gaijin woman—felt almost as painful as the injury to his hand.
The fingers of his good hand twitched towards his neck. He hesitated, then grabbed at his scarf and pulled it loose. He opened the collars of his jacket and flight suit to get at the cord around his neck. Holding the flying stick between his knees, he wrapped the cord around his injured hand and gripped the omamori in his palm, clenching his fingers painfully around the little embroidered parcel. Through the swelling and his fleece-lined glove he could not even feel the wooden tokens inside, written with the prayers his sister had bought for his well-being.
Was Edie right? Or was it just his own cowardice that had allowed her to convince him? The thought of becoming one of those… demons was just too much to bear. Why would the Changelings’ affliction be known as the Reds’ Plague, if it was not a contagion?
He pushed down his doubts.
Even if Edie was wrong, he told himself, he had time to complete the mission before the Plague took him.
Their flight ceiling had lowered even further, the clouds darkening overhead. Lightning flashed from time to time deep within, although the thunder was lost in the engine’s roar. Just an ordinary storm. He hoped it wouldn’t break before they reached Baku.
The peninsula should soon be in view, where stood the ancient Azeri capital, surrounded by its sprawling acres of oil wells, their pumpjacks nodding like a thousand iron birds dipping their beaks for water. Masaru squinted into the distance The clouds seemed to deepen and darken even further, funneling closer to the ground. Lightning stabbed earthward. One hell of a storm, Masaru corrected himself.
There seemed to be a steep-sided silhouette, like a child’s drawing of a mountain, rising up to meet the descending storm. Masaru felt a deeper chill than the frigid air. He tried vainly to peer harder, uncertain if it was a trick of the gloom. Was their heading too far west, flying into the foothills of the Caucasus rather than skirting their eastern fringe?
He started to turn in his seat, to signal to Edie, hanging too far back behind his left wing. Some fighter pilot’s sense made him glance up. Gargoyle shapes plummeted towards them from the clouds like stooping hawks. Masaru saw red eyes and shark-toothed grins.
Instinct took over. He kicked at the rudder pedals and shoved the flying stick forward, banking and diving at once.
A Changeling flyer shot past, folded bat-wings rippling behind its back. Another whisked by, missing the Avro’s fragile wood-and-canvas wingtip by barely a yard as Masaru kicked the other way. He held the turn, risking a flat spin and putting the biplane into a roll instead.
Then he was clear and looping around to find Edie. The Changelings were opening their wings like parachutes, some still above, some below, arresting their dives then flapping heavily as they began to maneuver. He spied Edie roaring towards them. The muzzles of her twin Lewis guns flashed. Changelings shuddered under the impact of the bullets. Masaru watched, expecting her to pull up, then cried out in dismay as she flew straight through the middle of the flock.
“Stupid gaijin….” He turned harder, bringing his own guns around to bear.
A Changeling dipped its wings and smashed into the side of Edie’s Avro. The impact knocked her into a spin and sent the Changeling tumbling earthward. The rest of the flock charged after her as she fought to regain control of her plane.
Masaru opened fire, strafing the Changelings. He saw bits of them come apart like splintering wood where the bullets struck. A couple fell with shredded wings. One glanced off the center of Edie’s top wing as she righted herself.
Edie ducked and put her Avro’s nose down, diving to gain speed and escape. So she had listened to someone, at least, Masaru thought. It was always the first lesson the veteran pilots tried to drum into the new recruits: “If you get into trouble, put your nose down and dive towards friendly lines.” He stood his own plane on its tail and soared over the top of the flock, then came around and aimed himself after her.
They left the Changelings quickly behind, the creatures’ straight-line wing speed no match for even an old Avro.
Daylight peeked under the clouds near the western horizon, lighting one side of the biplanes a pale gold. Masaru’s heart was still thumping furiously in uncomfortable discord with the plane’s vibration. Ahead, against the dark clouds of the storm, he could see clearly the mist of fine droplets that trailed from Edie’s top wing, catching the light. The impact of the second Changeling had cracked her main fuel tank.
He shot her a glare, willing her to turn and see his anger, but she was staring fixedly ahead.
The protests of his injured hand demanded his attention. He had flown two-handed during the dogfight, not thinking. He pulled back his flying glove to find fresh blood seeping through the bandage. Somehow, he had dropped the omamori.
He twisted sideways, trying to spot it in the foot-well of the cockpit. Swearing, he held the stick between his calves and groped around blindly on the floor. The plane lurched sideways as he bumped the rudder pedals. Flying like that bloody woman. He couldn’t feel a thing through his gloves. He swore again and thumped the inside of the fuselage.
Lightning flashed across the storm ahead, illuminating the tall silhouette within. Masaru had no doubt, now, what it was.
“Shinjirarenai,” he heard himself repeat, as they swooped in over the city of Baku. Shinjirarenai, over and over. Unbelievable. He understood, all of a sudden, these Westerners who exclaimed “My God!” when all other words failed them.
Gigantic stones swirled down out of the clouds, riding on a tornado wind at the center of the city. Each came to rest with mad precision on the tower’s ziggurat base, building the tower ever higher. Tinier objects tumbled among the gently falling stones. Changelings, in their thousands, falling slowly from the clouds.
Below, in the city, gunfire crackled in a vast, ragged circle around the base of the tower. Buildings and streets exploded from bombs or artillery fire.
A few stray raindrops pattered against Masaru’s flying goggles. He wiped them clear. His course had brought him close enough to the tornado to see the faces of the Changelings riding the whirlwind down, and see that they were attired as peasants and laborers, soldiers and businessmen. He saw policemen and nurses and even a robed Orthodox priest.
Close up, strange ripples of light encased the spinning storm, like a film of oil on water—a skin, almost. A barrier.
Masaru looked up, through the center of the storm. His mouth fell open in simple, stupid awe.
At the top of the tornado, there was a hole in the clouds and, through it, another tower—a mirror image of the one below. Its peak pointed downward, ever diminishing as its stones detached themselves to join the cyclonic dance. Changelings swarmed across the inverted ziggurat base and flung themselves into the whirlwind. Around it he glimpsed a land of cracked desolation, upside-down in the sky.
Something peppered the side of the tornado, leaving spots of brightness in its sheen. Lightning crazed outward from the spots. The tornado lost its shape where the lightning ran. Building stones crashed into each other. Changelings plummeted until they passed the unstable section and the whirlwind caught them again and slowed their fall once more.
Out towards the edge of the city, Masaru spotted the muzzle flashes of heavy artillery. Seconds later, more bright spots flared on the side of the tornado. It wobbled again.
He swooped down for a closer look, not checking to see whether Edie followed. A howitzer battery was arrayed at the edge of the city’s large airfield. Masaru saw only Red banners as he passed low overheard, saw nothing but red flying anywhere. No sign of Allied blue, nor the Star-and-Stripes or Tricolore of the Americans and French who had dominated the city.
Where had they gone?
He caught the flash of a searchlight from the airfield, throwing sparks of light through scattered sheets of rain, and banked instinctively. The expected anti-aircraft fire didn’t come, though. Masaru peered downward once more.
The searchlight crew were using the light to signal. Land. Fuel. Help. Land….
He looked up. Edie was circling directly above. His Avro was almost out of fuel. Her situation with one tank holed would be even more desperate.
Where else would they go, besides? And what might they find if they did?
Masaru put the nose of his plane down, coming around to land.
The front lines were very close to the airfield. A continuous rattle of small arms fire was punctuated by the crump of explosives. A squad of riflemen jogged towards the biplanes, slipping in the half-frozen mud as they fanned out to surround them.
Masaru pulled down his scarf and stood up slowly in his cockpit, his hands raised. His vantage gave him an excellent view of the howitzer battery. In front of them was a row of machinegun nests. The barrels of the machineguns were unusually elevated, even more steeply than those of the artillery pieces behind them.
Masaru saw why a moment later.
From the rubble of the nearby streets, Changelings launched themselves high into the air on grasshopper legs, over the machinegun nests. The machineguns opened up, shooting all but one of the creatures out of the air. The survivor landed in the middle of a howitzer crew. Masaru saw blood spurt even from a distance. An infantry reserve rushed to intervene. The rest of the gun crews kept to their tasks. Masaru was struck by the discipline of the Bolsheviks, far superior to anything he had seen from their White Russian rivals.
A rifleman called out, beckoning him down from the plane.
Masaru’s feet squelched into the mud when he hopped down.. Freezing liquid seeped through the loose stitching at the toe of his right boot.
“You speak Russian?” the squad leader said with a thickly Turkic accent, while another soldier relieved Masaru of his sidearm.
“I do,” Masaru confirmed. Carefully, he lowered his hands. “Where is the Allied fleet?”
“Gone.” The man indicated with a crooked finger that Masaru should walk with him. Others closed in behind, making refusal an undignified alternative.
About half the soldiers wore some item of military clothing, either scavenged from the Whites and Allies or because the men themselves were deserters. The rest of their garb was civilian. They were all bedraggled, as from a downpour that had ended only minutes before. Their only other commonality was the red Bolshevik star that each man wore, and even this appeared without uniformity on caps, shoulders, and breasts.
“How long ago?” Masaru asked.
“Two days.” The man tapped a cigarette out of a crumpled packet and rummaged for matches to light it. Finding none, he left the cigarette in his mouth anyway. It sagged damply. “The French and American garrisons evacuated overland when the Curse fell on the city, yesterday. Fortunately, the Baku Commune was already poised to launch the Revolution and we have stepped forward for the defense of the People.”
Masaru barely heard the rest of the man’s answer. Two days since the fleet sailed. But that would have had them arrive in Astrakhan before Masaru and Edie had left.
So where were they?
Edie’s escorts converged with his and herded her in beside him. Her face was smeared with the spray from her holed fuel tank, with outlines of cleaner skin left by her flying goggles and cap.
“What you did was reckless,” Masaru said. “The mission always comes first. The dispatches must get through.”
Her eyebrows shot up in disbelief. “You came back for me, too.”
With a snort, he looked away.
After a moment, she asked, “Where’s the fleet?”
“The fleet sailed two days ago,” he said.
“Then they should have reached Astrakhan before we left.”
Masaru nodded. “Where else would they have gone?”
“Ask him,” Edie said, gesturing at the squad leader.
Masaru felt his face heat.
“Turkmenistan,” was the reply. The soldier gestured with his unlit cigarette. “They sailed east, for Krasnovodsk.”
“Why would they go to Krasnovodsk?”
“There is a tower there, too.”
Masaru slowed. Of course there was. The soldier behind him gave him a bump with his rifle butt.
“Where are you taking us?” Masaru asked.
“The Comrade General wishes to speak with you.”
The Bolshevik general was a remarkably young Russian wearing round-framed spectacles, with the furrowed brow and pale complexion of an academic. He was hatless, his dark hair plastered across his skull. He stood with a mixed group of equally young Russians and Azeri a distance back from the howitzers, observing the effects of their bombardment. Mist rose from the group’s sodden shoulders in the chill air.
“If I had twice as many guns, I could bring that tornado down,” the general said, in English and without preamble. “As it is, this,” he gestured at the battery, “is hopeful at best. Planting a sufficient quantity of explosives where the tornado touches down would also work, but our line is under too much pressure to consider such an attempt.”
He turned to examine first Masaru and then Edie through partly fogged lenses. If he was surprised to see a woman flyer, he did not show it. “Your dispatches, please.”
Masaru and Edie reluctantly drew the oilskin envelopes from inside their jackets and handed them over. The general flipped open one and briefly scanned the pages inside. With a grunt, he handed both envelopes to one of his aides.
“So, you have come from Astrakhan.” He took off his spectacles and produced a handkerchief from his pocket. He squinted and waved the kerchief vaguely in the direction of the tower in its spinning storm. “The Astrakhan tower was stopped by the Red Army before it was fully complete. As was the tower at Petrovsk, which you have no doubt seen.” He wiped his glasses and put them back on before smiling primly. “At Astrakhan and Petrovsk we had more artillery.”
Masaru thought he had seen some of the guns that brought down the tower at Petrovsk, bombarding the White Russian forces on the escarpment above the town.
The general went on, “However, since then, much of our strength has been drawn away from the Caspian sector by the Imperialist offensives in the Ukraine.” He paused and peered intently, first into Masaru’s eyes, then Edie’s. “I need you to bring the Allied fleet back from Krasnovodsk. We lack the necessary strength here to prevent this tower’s completion, and once it is made, we will not contain the Curse here for long. We have sent messages by fishing vessels, but we do not know if they have succeeded.”
“The Curse?” Edie asked.
He flashed another neat little smile. “Rasputin’s Curse,” he said. “That.” He pointed as another wave of leaping Changelings were shot to pieces by the crews in the machinegun nests.
Masaru said, “Our mission is to bring urgent reinforcements to Astrakhan. The Allied command there suspects that Volgograd has also fallen to the… Curse.”
“‘The Reds’ Plague’, you meant to say.” The general chuckled. “Interesting, is it not, that each side blames the other?” He pushed his spectacles firmly onto the bridge of his nose, sobering. “Volgograd did fall, yes, but that outbreak was contained. The situation here has become most urgent. This is our war now—Bolshevik or Imperialist, Russian, Turk, American, British, French, Japanese. The Whites have not yet accepted this new reality, but I believe your Allied commanders have begun to do so. I have no aeroplanes. I have no pilots to fly yours. You must bring the Allied fleet back here.”
Masaru chewed the inside of his lip, almost hypnotized by the rising tower. Invaders from a land in the sky?
“Masaru?” said Edie.
“Please understand,” said the general, “I do not have the luxury of patience while you wrestle with your decision.” He turned to his aides and barked an order in Russian. It was relayed and a soldier hustled up, towing a boy of nine or ten by the collar of his jacket. The general pulled out his sidearm and touched the muzzle to the child’s temple.
Masaru blinked, unable to grasp for a moment what the man intended to do.
“Agree, or I will shoot this child, and I will continue to shoot children until you do agree.”
“You can’t!” Edie cried.
Masaru met the general’s wide-eyed stare. He saw unhappiness behind the man’s fogged spectacles, and desperation. He looked down at the child’s terrified, helpless face. The general must have sent his men to prepare for this when they first spotted the biplanes. Masaru drew himself up to rebuff the threat.
“Stop!” Edie said. “There’s no need.”
Masaru’s teeth clicked shut.
She caught hold of his sleeve. “The Allies can’t afford for Baku to fall, either.”
He shook his arm free of her. But she was absolutely right. Azerbaijan was the Allies’ lifeline to Persia and the Black Sea. Most Allied reinforcements and materials funneled through here, and Baku’s oil was critical.
Masaru let his anger go in a long breath. Stiffly, he inclined his head to the general. “We will do it.”
“Very good,” said the general, holstering his gun with – Masaru saw—evident relief. “One of you will remain here, the other will fly to Krasnovodsk.” He signaled to an aide, instructing the man to have one of the Avros refueled.
“Her plane has a damaged fuel tank,” said Masaru, in Russian. “It will not reach Krasnovodsk.”
The general and his aide both nodded, and the aide rushed away.
Masaru said to Edie, “You will take my plane.”
She flushed. “I told you, I don’t need you to—” She swore at him as he turned away from her.
He set his shoulders as a squall of rain and sleet blew across the airfield. The freezing touch of the drops stung his bare cheeks. Another volley from the howitzer battery struck the spinning storm. Masaru watched the purple cracks run across the tornado’s surface. Not enough, he thought. The Changelings would surely break through the Bolsheviks’ perimeter soon.
They need a bigger explosion….
The world seemed to slow around him, the noise of the battle dimming in his ears.
He turned to the Bolshevik general. “Would an aeroplane loaded with explosives be sufficient to collapse the storm?”
“What?” Edie exclaimed.
Masaru ignored her.
The general’s eyes roved over his face. The man nodded slowly. “It could work.” He nodded again, more firmly, and gave a little bark of laughter. “It would work.”
Masaru’s injured hand throbbed. “Then load the damaged plane with as much explosive as it will carry.”
Edie gaped at him in frank amazement, her hair hanging in damp ringlets around her face. The general gestured to another aide and repeated the instruction in Russian.
“You can’t do this.” Edie gripped Masaru by the arm.
He shook her off again. “One of us has to do it,” he said. “Can you think of another way?” He let her lack of an answer hang between them, before continuing, “It is the only way. If Baku falls to the Changelings, then what?” He pointed skyward. “If that hole stays open, then what?”
He was surprised to see moisture on her eyelashes. Not rain, he thought. Then she blinked and looked past him, towards the tower, and he wondered if it had been imagination.
“What will happen to your sister?” she asked.
The question struck hard. Masaru sought refuge in dignity. “She will understand. It will be an honorable sacrifice. She will be proud.”
“Like she was of her husband?”
A vision of his sister, grieving, swam before his mind’s eye. Proud, certainly. And broken-hearted.
Edie’s eyes were on him again, watching his expression intently. “Can she feed her children with pride?”
He shouldered roughly past her, meaning to stride away. Unthinking, he lifted his hand to his chest. His steps faltered. For a horrible, panicked instant, he didn’t understand why he couldn’t feel the omamori through his flight overalls. Then he remembered. Still in his cockpit, he hoped.
“There is another way,” she said.
He rounded on her, barely maintaining his self-control.
“I could do it.” She held up a hand to forestall him. “No, listen. I can line my plane up with the tornado. If you bring your plane up underneath mine, I can climb down onto your wing and get clear. My plane will hold a straight enough course without me at the stick.”
Masaru was shaking his head before she had finished speaking. “Not possible.”
“I’ve done it before,” she said.
“It is not—”
“Not for me to do? It’s my plane with the holed tank, me who went through the middle of those flyers. Remember?”
Masaru could feel the pressure of his answer in the back of his throat, unable to get out. He stared at her helplessly, this gaijin woman who had faced a charging monster with a steady aim, who had dived unflinching through a flock of the things, guns blazing. If she were a man, would he still reject her idea in favor of his own suicide? Could he really be rendered a coward by it just because she was a woman—a gaijin woman?
He teetered, caught between two answers, both of them true.
She grabbed his good hand, squeezed hard on his fingers. “We can do this.”
He stared. Then, slowly, amazed at himself, he nodded.
A breathless rifleman ran up. “Comrade General, it is done.”
Masaru started in surprise. His head felt light. So soon?
The general had been observing their conversation. He looked from Edie to Masaru. “I wish you good luck,” he said, offering his hand to each of them. “If you succeed, you will save many lives. If you fail….” He shrugged. “Well, one of you should still be alive to fly to Krasnovodsk.” He paused a moment, then added, “Do not fail. We cannot hold them if you do.”
Masaru accepted the general’s grip. Edie had already set out after the soldier, back towards the Avros. Masaru started to call after her, then paused. To say what? He hurried to catch up, his thoughts still unsteadily awhirl.
Lines of infantry trudged across the airfield through the mud and slush, herded by crack-voiced NCOs. These men were already exhausted, filthy and bloody, siphoned from other parts of the frontline to shore up the defense here.
A company shuffled wearily past in front of Masaru and Edie. A trio of tattered stragglers caught Masaru’s attention. Their gaits were even more lurching and uneven than those of the men they followed, peaked caps pulled low over their faces.
Wounded, was his first thought. But….
“Changelings!” he cried. “The Curse!”
The monsters’ heads snapped up.
“Changelings!” The warning was echoed across the field.
The Changelings’ torsos popped suddenly inwards, broken blades of ribs piercing their clothes. The creatures snapped off a blade in each hand. Two of them charged at the soldiers now converging on them.
The third came straight for Edie and Masaru. Did they know, somehow? How could it be possible?
Masaru’s hand went to his holster. He saw Edie do the same, both of them remembering in the same instant that their pistols had been taken. Their escort stood between them and the Changeling. It closed too fast, knocking his rifle aside as he fired. The soldier fell, clawing at the bone blade jutting from his neck. The Changeling snapped off another rib.
Masaru threw himself at the monster’s midriff. The impact was like diving into the trunk of a tree. The Changeling stumbled, feet slipping. A blade scored Masaru’s flank, ripping his flight suit. He tangled his legs between the monster’s knees, toppling it forwards. He scrambled on top of it, holding it down as the Changeling thrashed, crushing its face into the mud with his hands.
“Go!” he cried to Edie. “Go!”
She sprinted for the planes.
The Changeling bucked, throwing Masaru off. It sprang to its feet with a snarl. A volley of bullets staggered it. Masaru lunged into the mud after the fallen escort’s rifle. He scooped it up, rolling onto his back and firing just as the Changeling pounced. The bullet carved a path up the middle of its face. With a shriek, it flipped its bone blades point-down to impale him.
Soldiers barreled into it, hacking with bayonets, axes, and cavalry swords. Masaru curled into a ball, trampled and kicked as they charged over the top of him. The Changeling was dragged under by the frenzied attack.
An engine roared into life.
With a yell, spitting mud, Masaru pushed himself to his feet and raced towards the parked Avros. Edie’s plane was already rolling, with a hasty collection of sacks, cases, and rolled tarpaulins lashed to its fuselage. She hadn’t bothered with her flying cap. Her blonde curls whipped around in the draft of the biplane’s prop.
Masaru glimpsed her pale features as she looked his way. He couldn’t see her eyes behind her goggles.
The Avro accelerated. It bunny-hopped once and wobbled clumsily into the air.
Masaru sprinted for his own plane and scrambled up into the cockpit, yelling for the soldiers standing guard around it to spin the prop.
The biplane roared into the air. Edie was looping around, lining up for the long run in towards the tornado. Masaru flew to intercept her. His heart hammered. Could they really do this? Or would Edie end up making the honorable sacrifice in his place?
Winged figures dropped from the clouds towards Edie’s plane. Masaru cried a useless warning. At the last instant, the other Avro jerked aside, barely avoiding the first wave of attackers. Masaru watched Edie dodge and weave, the Changeling flyers swarming around her, as he raced to help.
He started firing as soon as he was in range and kept the trigger down as he tore through the middle of the flock. He banked hard and went back through for another pass. His Avro jolted violently, a Changeling colliding with the fuselage somewhere behind him. He glanced back, expecting to find half the tail missing and was amazed when he couldn’t see any damage. Facing forward again, he was just in time to dodge another plummeting flyer, slamming his plane onto its side. The Changeling’s claws tore strips of canvas from his top wing as it tumbled past.
Then he was clear of them and chasing after Edie.
Her plane was badly battered, trailing black smoke. A wing flap bobbed about uselessly behind her bottom right wing, dangling from one hinge that was still attached. Masaru wondered if the Avro would still hold its course without Edie at the stick. The whirlwind loomed in front of them, frighteningly close.
Masaru brought his biplane up underneath and to the left of Edie’s, easing his top wing as close to her bottom wing as he dared. Edie leaned over the side of her cockpit, gauging his position, then started to hitch herself up out of the plane. The Avro dipped when she let go of the stick. Masaru had to drop down to avoid having his wing clipped by her undercarriage.
Edie climbed out onto her plane’s wing and crouched. Heart in his mouth, Masaru brought his Avro back up under her. For a breathless moment, Edie held her place, clinging to the wet cables. The whirlwind filled the sky ahead of them. Masaru could pick out the individual Changelings twirling down among the slowly falling stones.
Edie stretched down with one leg. Her muddy boot found the top of his wing. The other foot came down. And then she was crouched between the two biplanes, fingers gripping the trailing edge of her plane’s bottom wing, booted toes at the very back of his top wing. She eased a leg past the edge of his wing, foot hunting for a strut to hook onto. Her arms stretched as the Avros drifted apart. Masaru didn’t dare adjust for fear of jolting her off.
Her foot found a strut. She slid her other foot off the wing and hooked it around the strut with the first, now dangling from the other plane by her fingertips. Then she let go.
She dropped. Her forearms bumped against his top wing as she slipped past, and for a moment Masaru was sure she would fall. Then she caught the strut, found a cable with her other hand and got herself in between the wings.
Masaru started to swing around. Edie worked her way quickly forward until she could lock her arms around the leading strut and lie flat across the bottom wing.
Masaru dove steeply, his immediate thought just to get clear. He spotted the airfield and adjusted his course, opening up the throttle and keeping the nose down, waiting for the blast. The city buildings rushed up towards them. Edie looked back from her place on the wing, hair whipping around her face, eyes slitted, her teeth bared.
There was a flash. Masaru twisted to see. A fireball split the whirlwind, blinding, expanding, like someone had smashed the sun into a disc.
Tenement rooftops whipped past underneath, frighteningly close, soldiers and Changelings in the streets below frozen like animals in a locomotive’s headlamp. The biplane cleared the howitzers at the end of the airfield. He was coming in far too fast. Masaru closed the throttle and pulled back the stick. The plane seemed to hover in the air, on the brink of stalling.
Then the shockwave hit them.
The Avro jolted, tipped nose-down. Masaru saw Edie bounce clear of the wing, legs flailing, her hands still clamped around the front strut. The airfield rushed up, Bolshevik fighters scrambling to get clear. Masaru’s arms protested as he hauled back on the stick. Just barely, he got the biplane level again. It smacked into the ground, bounced, hopped twice more before the undercarriage collapsed. The Avro slewed around on its belly, propeller splintering as it gouged up mud and slushy snow.
Eventually, it slid to a halt. Masaru coughed, winded, and looked down at himself, amazed to find that he was unhurt.
The omamori lay wedged in the corner of the footwell. With a huff of disbelief, he picked it up, then sat back in wonder. Shaking his head, he looked towards the wing.
Edie was no longer there.
When had she fallen?
He was up, half-leaping, half-falling from the cockpit, ignoring the cries of the Bolshevik soldiers converging on the wrecked biplane. Others were hurrying towards a prone figure back along his trail of wreckage and furrowed turf.
He ran, stumbling and slipping over the churned earth. He dropped to his knees when he reached her. A soldier was already cradling her head on his thigh. Edie’s face was deathly white behind a half-mask of mud. Splintered bone jutted through one leg of her flying suit.
Her eyes rolled towards him. She showed him a rictus grin. “We did it.”
“You’re hurt,” he panted.
She chuckled, then gasped in pain, her teeth still bared. “Broke both my legs. And some ribs.”
“Both your legs,” Masaru repeated. His jaw worked while he fought for breath. He laughed, suddenly. “I told you.”
He sat back on the cold wet ground, his fist clenched tightly around the omamori. High above, the whirlwind was coming apart, stones and Changelings tumbling down to crash onto the half-finished tower, or falling back up towards the collapsing hole in the sky.
He would be writing to his sister, he decided. He imagined the joy and anguish, amazement and horror warring across her face when she read his request for an amulet to ward against supernatural powers as well.
Return to Issue #123