It is common knowledge among the Airborne Division, and the rest of the military in general, that pilots are narcissists. Each one is the hero in their own grand epic, and there is reason for this.
The Airborne Division actively looks for such a breed to pilot. An airship has armor, defenses, lifeboats, but a fighter plane has none of these. It takes a unique breed of soldier, one who thinks themselves invincible, to pilot such a craft in battle.
Furthermore, aboard a fully staffed airship, every member of the crew is a cog in a machine of war. Every action of the ship, every maneuver, every firing of the guns, is the result of combined and coordinated effort. Behind the controls of a fighter, every twitch is your own doing, every kill is yours, there is no one else. The pilot, the machine, and the sky.
Such an arrangement tends to stroke these egos.
Lt. Col. Jackson fully embraced this stereotype. Why shouldn’t she? Af far as she could tell, she was amazing. What man or woman wouldn’t be awed by her unbelievable skill behind the yoke of an aircraft? Who could refuse her advances, knowing her impressive deeds on the battlefield.
So thoroughly did she embrace this idea, that it had predictably landed her in quite a bit of trouble.
Elizabeth Jackson boasted the second most demerits of any pilot in the Airborne Division, and the foremost in demerits for a pilot who had not been dismissed from the service. Yet even this failed to dampen her ego. Quite the contrary, it was a point of pride. She would boast at length of her many many many citations.
At least, she had in the past.
Beth had finally finished her meeting with Vic around 2 AM, been dismissed, and ‘ordered’ to get some sleep. She had tried. For an hour she had tossed and turned in her bunk, failing to sleep, trying to ignore a voice in her head that just got louder and louder.
“You have to do it. You have to tell them.”
Finally, she threw her blankets aside, dressed, and quietly made her way down towards the engine room. Wireless communication aboard an airship in enemy territory was risky. Interception of even a coded transmission could be triangulated and spell disaster. Fortunately, the there was so much wireless traffic in Europe these days that the Airborne Division had developed an ingenious way of disguising its transmissions. Making them appear to be uncoded, but garbled, local chatter. Triangulation would still give away the ship’s position, but the intent was to make the signal so innocuous as to be below the attention of anyone listening.
This code wasn’t often used though, as it required a bulky difference engine to code and decode, and friendly difference engines often ignored the transmission for the very reason enemies did. It looked like local chatter to them.
Beth made her way down to a room just above the engines, took a small metal cylinder from her pocket and slipped it into a tiny hole in the far wall.
There was a click, and a panel of the wall swung slowly out. Beth pulled it open, revealing the controls of a difference engine, built into the wall.
She keyed in a message slowly.
Operative in Italy compromised.
She waited, holding her breath.
A minute later, a return message was spat out by the machine.
The skymarshal is returning home then?
Beth scowled at the tape, then keyed in her response.
Mission goes ahead on schedule. Skymarshal’s orders.
The difference engine whirred and clacked away at lightning speed, occasionally venting a bit of charged gas safely outside the ship. Beth held her breath again. She knew the machine had been installed to avoid detection. This close to the ship’s engine, the gas expulsion of the difference engine wouldn’t be noticed, and the cloud of charged gas moving the engine’s great turbine would keep the ship’s communications from picking up the rogue signal.
Still she worried. If she was caught…how could she explain? She hated doing this. Victoria was probably her closest friend.
The machine spat out another short message tape.
Beth’s fingers went back to the keys.
Alternative operative selected. Best available on short notice.
The engine whined as it translated the message. Engineers insisted that automata and difference engines didn’t have emotions or even thoughts like real people, but Beth was positive it was complaining about the constant use of the chatter-code.
The response didn’t come for quite some time, and Beth dared hope for a moment that they conversation was over.
Send us the operative’s dossier. We will consider further action at that time.
‘Further action.’ A terrible thought ran through Beth’s mind. Further Action. She began to key out a question, then flipped a switch removing it. They wouldn’t…they couldn’t have anyway. Even Beth hadn’t known the specific operative they were using until after the briefing that evening. She had told no one. Besides, they would never have compromised the identity of a British agent. Would they?
Her teeth ground together.
Dossier will take time to compile. Not readily available.
She sent the lie and waited for the response.
Need I remind you of our deal, Lieutenant Colonel?
Her teeth could have crushed diamonds.
No. Need more time.
The reply was quick, and clear.
Quickly, Colonel. Quickly.
Beth put the panel of wall back in place. She couldn’t send them the dossier. Not until she was sure. She knew they wanted the mission to fail. She didn’t know why, but she suspected it had something to do with the Admiral or Victoria. Maybe both. They were both high enough in the ranks to have made a fair number of enemies, but who would go so far as to compromise a British agent. That was treason.
Beth pressed her head against the wall.
Was that what she’d gotten involved in? Treason? And over what? A dance. A kiss. A jealous husband. That she said she’d be willing to do anything to keep flying.
Damn it all to hell.