Chapter 1 - Metal Fatigue by A.J. Hall
Joe leaned against the wing-tip of his plane. His hands were clammy; there was a cold sweat starting on the back of his neck under the white silk of his scarf. He tried and failed to imagine how he was going climb aboard in the next few minutes, close the canopy, and endure its pressing down on him as though it was the earth piled on top of a grave in which he’d been buried alive.
The punishment cell in the camp had been underground; a dug-out six feet by five by four. Often there were scorpions, occasionally a snake. The cell smelt of accumulated fear. When they dropped down the heavy lid, and tied it down with bamboo strips it was almost entirely dark. The only sounds which could be heard were one’s own breathing and the scuttling of insects in the dark. There was no telling when the smooth-faced, impassive guards would trouble themselves to release you. As if one could tell how time was passing anyway, alone in the foetid dark.
He pressed the hard clean edge of the wing against his chest, hoping it would steel him to go out and reclaim all that he had lost - had had stolen from him. A line from a half-forgotten play swam up into the forefront of his mind.
I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.
He took a couple of deep breaths. Come what may, within the next two minutes, whatever he felt about it, he was going to have to climb inside that plane, and take off. And just hope that the events of the day before yesterday had been an isolated, never to be repeated, blip.
That day, some freakish combination of factors had forcibly brought back those particular memories of the camp while he was on a routine flight. For the first time in his life he’d felt the cockpit of his plane not as the second skin it had always been for him, but as a small enclosed space, sucking him into its claustrophobic grip without help or hope.
All but doubled over at the controls, tight bands of pain forcing the breath out of his lungs, he’d barely managed a scrambled emergency landing in a field, and spent over an hour shuddering uncontrollably under the shadow of the fuselage before he was able to climb - somehow - back into the plane and limp back to the base, where he was seriously overdue and there was a major flap on in consequence. And the best he could come up with by way of explanation was a rather feeble excuse about an intermittently flickering fault-warning light on his display, and his attempts to see whether it was something he could isolate and deal with himself, before giving up on it as a bad job and heading home.
He wasn’t sure the men had bought the story though; especially since Dex and his team had crawled all over his plane in the intervening forty-eight hours and come up with precisely nothing.
But he had had no option but to lie. It was a truth every flier knew; once a pilot lost his nerve he was not someone you could ever trust at the controls again. And he thought he had detected, over the last couple of days, a few sidelong glances, and conversations being abruptly cut off as he came into earshot.
So it was hardly as if he had any choice about climbing into the cockpit today.
Joe looked up. Dex was trotting purposefully across the hanger towards him, dressed, unusually, in full flying kit. Joe’s attention was drawn even more by the object which Dex was towing behind him on a wheeled trolley. It was solid, square, about the size of a compact radiogram, and sported bakelite head-phones and an assortment of dials, levers and miscellaneous twiddly bits of unspecified and opaque functionality.
Joe boggled at it.
“Dex - what the hell -?”
“It’s the offog,” Dex said. “Give me a hand up with it, will you, Cap? Don’t worry: I put the chocks and braces in place yesterday myself. It shouldn’t stir a fraction of an inch whatever you put the kite through.”
He hopped up onto the wing, and looked down at Joe on the concrete apron, gesturing towards him. Joe, in turn, looked down at the gadget on the trolley.
“You’re expecting me to put that thing in my plane? What’s it supposed to do? And what did you say it was, again?”
“Oscillation, Fogging and Feedback Operational Gradometer,” Dex said briskly. Joe boggled a bit more. Dex looked impatient, and swung himself into the passenger seat, starting in a businesslike way to strap himself in.
“Do hurry up with it, Cap. It isn’t as though we’ve got all day.”
Joe’s jaw dropped.
“Look, Dex, you can’t possibly be planning to fly with me today -“
Dex unwrapped a sliver of gum and popped it into his mouth.
“Jeez, Cap, how else do you think we’re going to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with the plane if I don’t go up with you? And it’s hardly as if you could operate the offog at the same time as flying her, even if I did give you the instruction manual. You have to be tuned in the very moment when the fuselage’s normal harmonic vibrations turn into a high pitched wail, and then, provided you adjust the damper sensibly and use the squelch, you ought to start getting something like a locational analysis. Hopefully, anyway. It’s a bit experimental at present.”
He opened his eyes very wide, looking straight into Joe’s baffled face, and added,
“That’s the trouble with intermittent faults. Detecting them. Now, with any luck if we can reproduce the conditions which threw up the fault, the offog should be able to give me a reading on where it’s coming from.”
Joe paused. There were a couple of the men passing, casting would-be casual glances in their direction. And there was absolutely no way he could throw the base’s resident genius and his latest pet diagnostic gadget off his plane without them realising the exact truth.
That there was nothing whatsoever wrong with his plane; only with its pilot.
With a shrug of his sheepskin-jacketed shoulders he admitted defeat. He bent to heave the - offog - up to Dex in the rear compartment. It was surprisingly light for its size; Dex must have come up with something amazing this time to save weight on the batteries or whatever it ran off. With Joe’s strength behind it, it sailed up with more vigour than he’d intended.
Dex emitted a sharp sound of annoyance. The kibbitzers turned their heads in unashamed interest.
“Jeez, Cap! These are some of the most delicate electronics on the base. Do be a bit more careful.”
Dex bent and fiddled with straps and clamps by his feet. Then he settled the head-set over his ears, nodded, and Joe, his heart sinking down towards the level of his boots, clambered aboard, dropped the canopy down, and started taxiing towards the door of the hangar, his hands on the controls feeling so cold and remote they might have belonged to someone else.
A high, tuneless humming started up from the passenger seat. Joe set his teeth.
There was no response. Joe tried louder. Much louder.
There was a pause, presumably while it got through the obstruction of the headphones.
At that moment a sharp crackling came from the microphone in front of him, and a tinny voice rattled through standard clearance procedures for take-off in a bored way. Joe bit back what he had been planning to say - it would never do for the Legion’s Commander being caught over the WT reaming out his chief engineer for humming. And it certainly would do absolutely nothing to squelch any rumours that might be circulating to the effect that said Commander was currently afflicted with a major fit of the heebie-jeebies.
Joe responded to the interrogator in a clipped staccato, and climbed from the take-off a lot more steeply than he had originally intended. When they were at the height SOPs prescribed he cut the mike, and hissed in an exasperated way,
“Dex! For Christ’s sake! Can that bloody noise!”
Dex’s voice was puzzled.
“Noise?” Then, with a note of guilt in his voice, “Jeez, sorry Cap. Was I humming?”
Joe took a deep breath. “Well, put it this way. Either you were humming, or we’re sharing this cabin with a mosquito whose repertoire’s limited to Danny Boy, seriously off-key.”
There was a pause. Then Dex said, “Actually, now I think about it, I think it was supposed to be Dixie.”
Joe strove very hard to make his voice sound calmly conversational. He wasn’t entirely sure he succeeded.
“Was it, now? Remind me. Your - offog - depends for its fault finding on your being able to spot a change in the note of the fuselage’s vibration at a crucial moment, doesn’t it?”
Dex’s voice held the note of enthusiasm he saved for discussing his pet inventions.
“That’s the general idea, Cap.”
“God help us both,” Joe said.
When Dex next spoke there was the faintest possible note of affront - almost hurt - in his voice. Evidentially Joe’s levity about Dex’s musical ear had not gone down well. Dex’s voice sounded cool.
“I’m sorry, but would you mind doing a loop? Now, please? So I can properly baseline the offog? D’Angustville’s theory suggests -“
Joe had no mind to be treated to D’Angustville’s full theory as commented on by Dex. And it was hardly as though a backwards flip was anything - should be anything -
Suppressing an inner, silent scream, he took the plane up on her tail - and then - that little further. He flipped the kite backwards in a loop, and she responded like the falcon he’d always privately considered her.
“Yes?” The enquiry was hissed out through gritted teeth as they came upright. Word in the mess said that no tech would dream of standing what a pilot endured daily. Surely in due course the odds would turn in his favour and Dex would beg that they stopped flying. Before he was reduced to doing so himself.
Dex’s voice was faintly apologetic.
“Um - well - nearly. Look, you couldn’t possibly swerve a bit leftwards, could you? I thought the offog was getting something then. But then I didn’t know I - it - was so sure. If you could possibly manage a swerve, and then a dip. Um - about now would be good.- I’ve just got it adjusted -“
Joe’s voice was savage.
He flipped the kite over on her back, came out of it and this time spun her along her horizontal axis. Twice. The tight bands of the day before yesterday began to squeeze across his chest; he caught a couple of gasping breaths before ruthlessly steadying his response by sheer will-power, and comforted himself that Dex, with the offog’s headphone’s clamped to his ears, could hardly have detected his distress.
The voice from the passenger seat behind him sounded even more apologetic.
“Uh - that was along the right lines, but - uh - I do need something more stable for my analysis.”
“Stable?” It was an effort to stop it coming out as a shriek. Joe clamped his jaw and stared fixedly out through the canopy, his instruments blurring below his gaze, willing himself to believe in the infinity of boundless space just a few fractions of an inch away, not the tight oppression of the compartment in which he was confined.
“Uh - well, perhaps stable was the wrong word. More like - continuous. Uh - extreme, but prolonged. Something on the edge, but for longer than a loop.”
He risked turning his head to cast an incredulous glance behind him.
“Dex? You are aware you’re currently sitting in a machine with an untraced intermittent fault, aren’t you? No-one in their senses would take this kite stunting in those circumstances. Or if you want me to spell it out, if you want me to go through with this one I hope you’ve booked your burial plot.”
Dex shrugged; his eyes were still open and guileless.
“Oh, I trust you to get us out of anything that blows up, Cap. Tell you what, if the offog starts squealing, I’ll yell straight away. How about that?”
It was possible, Joe reflected, that he was capable of telling Dex exactly how he felt about that. But he felt it would impose severe strains upon the limits of his vocabulary. Instead, he yanked brutally at the joystick, putting the plane into the steepest of possible climbs. Once at the height he wanted, he levelled out, and pushed the plane’s speed to the max, arrowing back in across the blue, sparkling water towards the speck that was the base.
Just before they crossed the boundary between land and water he put the plane into a dive, spinning downwards and downwards until it seemed they must explode in flames as they hit the cliff edge. And at the last possible moment he pulled her out of it, flipping the plane over as he did so, and screamed upside down along the whole length of the base at an altitude so low he could see the men on the ground below him scattering for cover in case he failed to clear the main hangar roof.
It was not until he had crossed the base and was over water again that he flipped them right way up again, and climbed sedately to a normal altitude.
It was with a sense of angry satisfaction that he detected the hint of a shake in Dex’s voice.
“Yes, Cap. I think I got enough from the offog that time to give me a decent chance of tracing the glitch.”
Joe exhaled. “Good. Well, in that case I suggest we get back to base, and you can actually start doing some work for once, rather than making me do it.”
“Sure thing, Cap.” And the tuneless humming from the seat behind him started up again, as Joe switched on the mike, and called up the base.
A gaggle of volunteers came racing out as he landed, to help in wheeling the plane in towards the hanger. One of them grinned up at Joe as he pushed back the canopy.
“Whew! Quite some fancy flying up there, Cap. What was the idea? Planning to turn the Legion into a flying circus? Or just full of the joys of spring?”
“Ask the engineer,” Joe said curtly. “He asked me to put her through a few moves. So he could listen in, try to see if he could hear a high-pitched whine.”
The group of men exchanged glances. The tallest one raised his eyebrows. “I expect that would have been from anyone who happened to be in the mess-hall when you went screaming over. I’m not saying you cut it fine, but I’m glad your kite didn’t have an extra layer of paint put on it any time recently.”
A muscle at the corner of Joe’s mouth flickered. “Apologise to the boys on my behalf for ruining their meal.”
The guy who had spoken first looked at him and grinned. “Oh, the canteen had done that already. And their heads knew you weren’t going to screw up. It was their stomachs that took a bit more convincing.”
Joe ripped the helmet off and tossed it into the plane, following it with his gloves. “Finish up here, Dex, will you? Whatever you need to do. I’ll be in my office if anyone wants me.”
He sat at his desk for a long time. Eventually, a thought struck him, and he started to laugh, helplessly.
The sun was setting when he emerged. The base was semi-deserted, except, of course, for Dex, who had the engine cover of Joe’s plane up, and was working away with a spanner. Joe strolled casually over towards him.
“Well?” he enquired. “Found the problem?”
Dex unwrapped another sliver of gum, and started chewing. “Oh, yes.”
Joe looked steadily back at him.
Dex shrugged. “It was what I suspected, actually. A component had just got a bit deformed - pressed out of shape under unusual stress. Happens a lot.”
Joe made his voice very matter-of-fact.
“So? What do you recommend? Scrapping it and replacing?”
Dex shook his head. “I doubt that’s necessary. From what I can see, looks like it’s bending back into proper shape in normal use. That happens, too, more often than you’d think. If so, it’d be a crying shame to scrap something that’s been proved in action, and still’s got a long useful life, for some untried alternative fresh from the stores.”
Joe glanced down. To reach that part of the engine, Dex had had to stand on something. A square box which looked most awfully familiar. He coughed.
“Er, Dex? Didn’t you tell me that the - offog - contained the most sensitive electronics in the base?”
Dex sounded nervous.
“Sure I did, Cap.”
Joe made his voice very patient; very gentle.
“In that case - what are you doing standing on it?”
Dex looked down at his feet; the faintest hint of a flush tinged his skin. He, in turn, coughed.
“Oh - well, Cap, you know how it goes. It didn’t do a bad job today - but, heck, it’s the Mark One. I reckon I can fix all the glitches in the design, and turn out a Mark Two which will make this one look like a heap of dials and levers tossed into a casing at random. If I need to. But I don’t think it’s a priority.”
He turned to the engine again, and started to whistle.
Danny Boy. Quite recognisably. And in tune. Joe grinned at him.
“Good boy, Dex,” he murmured, and strode out of the hangar, feeling a lift in his stride he’d thought he had lost forever.