After their initial Q&A session, they all settled in, making themselves as comfortable as they could. The fact that Roger kept the Albatross equipped with half a dozen modular passenger seats helped, providing each of them with a place to crash. Roger himself kept the pilot’s seat almost constantly, even slept there on auto-pilot while Roxy monitored the tracker.
And sometimes seemed to forget he even had passengers, lapsing into his own off-key warbling, punctuated by the occasional belch.
Which mostly made Shades glad he took to carrying his Cam-Jam and his earphones with him everywhere anymore, even if it earned him an occasional glare from Justin.
In the interlude between conversations, all of them took time to gaze out the windows, at the sea below and the horizon beyond. Even Shades, who had done his share of flying in his younger days, when his father would be stationed in a different place every other year. Noting that the Albatross’ engines ran much quieter than any of the puddle-jumpers he had traveled in back when his father was stationed in Alaska.
He also took the opportunity to get a closer look at the controls, seeing that years of modification had altered the board into a mix-matched patchwork of original controls and instruments, and retro-futuristic components that looked like something from the set of some B sci-fi flick. Yet clearly it all worked, given that they’d been airborne longer than any plane he’d ever heard of, so all he could do was marvel at this meticulous merging of heretofore unknown technologies.
As afternoon wore into evening, the skies turning darker and cloudier even before sunset, Roxy’s well of relevant information seemed to dry up, and Justin simply tired of spinning his wheels fuming about a ghost from his past that he could do nothing about up here anyway. Whether it was because the bounty hunter felt she owed them for this mess, or because she was actually starting to open up to them, Shades chose not to question.
Instead, he decided to approach the pilot about a matter of great curiosity, telling him about the logbook they found aboard the Maximum when they first found her on that haunted island, Max and Justin corroborating his story at every turn, and, much as he expected, their host understood them all too well.
“I used to think the Bermuda Triangle was a load of crap,” Roger confessed. “Been flyin’ out there for years, without ever seeing anything unusual. Sure, I heard the tales, but statistically speaking, it ain’t any more dangerous than any other part of the sea.”
“But now we both know differently.”
“You bet your ass,” Roger chuckled. “To think, I was on holiday, flying out to Bimini, when I saw this giant wall of fog come looming out of nowhere. It was on top of me before I could even try to turn around. Of course, that was before I realized I no longer even knew which way ‘around’ actually was anymore.”
“Just like in the stories…” Shades breathed.
“It was the scariest moment of my life as a pilot,” he told them. “I was flying totally blind in there. My compass was spinning, my instruments were going haywire… Neither land nor sea passing beneath me. Drifting through nothingness.”
“What about your radio?” Shades made sure to ask that question, based on his own experiences.
“Nothin’. Couldn’t get ahold of any air traffic control, other planes, not even emergency frequencies, to save my life. Which is pretty much what I was tryin’ to do by that point. I no longer had anything to go on. No landmarks, no sun, no stars… No ground below, no sky above, I wasn’t even sure which way was up anymore. It was literally nowhere. Worse than dead reckoning…”
Each of them looked out the nearest window, at the grey skies around them, finding they could imagine the pilot’s nightmare all too easily up here.
“Hell, I didn’t even know how long that went on, since my watch was running backwards through the whole thing…” Roger continued. “The last part I remember was seeing a light piercing the fog, and gunning it for all I was worth, as it seemed to be shrinking, even as I got closer.
“Next thing I knew, I was back out flying over open seas again, although at a lower altitude than I was before. My compass was still wandering, but at least the rest of my instruments started to stabilize. Still no radio, but at least there was land off to nine o’clock.”
“How fortunate,” Roxy remarked.
“You have no idea. Especially since the place I wound up was an island called Centralict, a major port of call in this world. The seaport folks there were used to dealing with all sorts of weird goings-on in those parts, which helped me get my start there. Their library was especially useful.”
“You don’t say,” Shades commented. “I don’t suppose you ever visited the thirteenth floor, did you?”
“Oh no, some guy kept warning me away, though he’d never say why…”
“His name wasn’t Conan Swanson, was it?” Max asked.
“Why yes, I think it was, actually,” Roger replied. “To think, he’s really worked there all these years… Did he ever tell you what was up with that thirteenth floor biz?”
“Yeah, but we already stumbled across some of it by the time we talked to him,” Max explained. “There’s actually a doorway to another dimensions up there.”
“But not to ours,” Shades added, noting the look on Roger’s face. “It’s unstable, though, which is part of how I came to be here.”
“I see. And here I was hoping maybe you found something…”
“As you may have heard earlier,” Shades quipped, “there seem to be some people who might know a way back to our world, but they’re not the sorta folks you can just walk up and ask. As for me, I don’t feel right going back without finding my friends. Or at least what happened to them…”
“Even so, sometimes I can’t help but wonder why I came out there, of all places, like it was some kind of weirdness magnet…”
“That, and there’s the Harken Building…” Justin muttered. And that strange antique store he was only half sure he actually visited, but he kept that part to himself. “There’s a lot of weird shit on that island, but you’d never guess it just from lookin’ around.”
“The place just looks so… normal, y’know?” Shades remarked. “At least by our world’s standards. Still, you must make quite a splash most places you go. In all the time I’ve been in this world, the only other aircraft I’ve ever seen are some strange black jets flying by once.”
“The Black Angels…” Roger breathed. “You’ve actually seen the Black Angels?”
“The black what?” Max asked, though he nodded along with Justin, backing Shades up.
“No one really knows what they are, or where they came from,” the pilot confessed, “but they’re a very spooky tale among those of us who take to the skies in this world. Supposedly, a ‘lost’ squadron, a wing of elite fighters from an unknown realm. It’s been said their absence lost their homeland a major battle. According to legend, they’re eternally lost, cursed to never land again.”
“Creepy…” Shades shuddered, thinking of Flight 19.
Outside, the sky continued to darken, with flickers of lightning on the horizon.
“They say that on stormy nights, just like this one, they’ve been known to harass hapless pilots. A ghost squadron that attacks random aircraft, perhaps mistaking them for whatever enemy they were originally sent to fight. Over the years, they’ve been accused of shooting down at least a dozen pilots, though it might just be that they don’t want to admit going down for other reasons. Still, in all my years flying in this world, I’ve never seen ’em, not even sure they really exist, so I’m surprised you got to see them from the ground.”
“Well, we definitely saw something,” Justin insisted.
“That I don’t doubt,” he replied, turning back to the controls. “Of course, they also say that it’s bad luck to talk about the Black Angels while you’re up in the air. Though I’d say it’s more the weather that’s changing than our luck.”
Sure enough, even over the course of their conversation, the turbulence had increased, already starting to push them around against Roger’s expert handling.
“This isn’t good,” he told them. “We should climb to a higher altitude to ride above the storm.”
“But if we go too high, we’ll lose the tracking signal,” Roxy reminded him. “It only has a range of just two miles, which is why we’re flying low in the first place.”
“I know, but if we go down, we’re gonna be in deep shit,” Roger cautioned her. “The one time that happened to me, I was stranded out here for over a week, trying to use my wingflaps as crude sails to get back to land.”
“How long can you hold out?” Roxy pressed. “If we can pass through the storm, we could still track him.”
“I’ve since had my Albatross modified so that my wings can rotate vertical to function better as sails, but this hull structure and floats were never designed for prolonged exposure to such tall waves. I couldn’t care less what that bounty is worth, if it costs me this plane.”
“Very well,” she relented, noting the concern on everyone else’s face. “If it gets any worse, we go up. Much as I hate letting that bastard escape a third time, it’s not worth our lives.”
They flew on for about another fifteen minutes in stern silence, but the storm only got worse.
“Sorry,” he told them, “but I don’t think we can take much more of this. We have to go up now, while we still have the chance.”
Yet even as he pulled up, several energy beams streaked past them.
From behind, not below.
“What the hell!?” Roger screamed, his voice overlapping with a chorus of curses and exclamations from his passengers.
Shades spotted it first, coming up on them at three o’clock. A black jet, with sweeped wings, its contours limned against a flicker of lightning. For all the world bearing an uncanny resemblance to a modified F-14 Tomcat to him, bearing unfamiliar insignias. Their pilots vague shadows under tinted canopies. A startled yelp from Justin revealed another one cruising on their nine, as well.
And none of them would be surprised to see one of two them hanging on their six, or possibly above them.
“You’ve gotta be shittin’ me…” Roger groaned. “Come on, give me a break! You can’t just summon something just by talking about it. This is crazy!”
An unknown number of black fighters now had them completely surrounded, their formation boxing the Albatross in from all sides.
“Come on…” Roger muttered, fumbling with a radio that only saw use in some realms, scanning all frequencies. “They can’t be serious…”
“Dammit, we’re sitting ducks out here…” Roxy hissed, looking around for any possible way to fight back.
“A flying coffin…” Shades gasped, recalling an off-hand nickname of some old Soviet-era prop-fighter he once read about. “No matter how fast we open those cargo doors, they’re too agile for us. With the element of surprise we might nail one, but the rest would swat us right out of the sky like the civilian outfit we are… Do you have any parachutes onboard?”
“Yes, but there’s not enough for everyone,” Roger said, finally finding the channel these mysterious fighters seemed to be communicating on. “I’ve only got four, and besides, jumping into that mess would be suicide.”
“Jumping!?” Justin screeched.
“What about Bandit?” Max demanded.
“That’s exactly what I mean…”
Having found their hailing frequency, Roger flipped a speaker switch, so the others could hear what he was hearing.
“This is Shadow Squadron!” a harsh, militaristic voice declared. “Repeat, you have entered Deltanian airspace without authorization. You will land your craft immediately, and prepare to be boarded by our patrol ships.”
“This is the Albatross,” Roger responded, hoping for even a slight chance to resolve this peacefully, “and if we entered your airspace, it wasn’t on purpose. Please give us directions to the nearest landing site, and we will comply.”
“Negative,” the voice responded. “You must not be allowed to land on restricted ground. You will land here, or we will shoot you down on instructions from High Command.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Roger wailed. “We can’t land out here! We’d break up!”
“Shadow Leader!” another voice broke in, “Don’t listen to them! They probably scrounged that fossil up somewhere in Cyexia! Hoping to sneak below radar to spy or smuggle something!”
“Fossil!?” Roger bristled with indignation.
“Cyexia…” Roxy mumbled. “If they’re fighting Cyexians somewhere, they’ll immediately think I’m with them! If we surrender, there’s no guarantee they’ll listen to you if they think you’re with me, and no telling what they’ll do to you!”
“Duly noted, Shadow Four,” Shadow Leader acknowledged. “Shadows Two, Three and Five, prepare to engage! Unknown aircraft declared hostile!”
“What the hell are you people talking about?” Roger moaned. “We’re a civilian craft!”
“I’m beginning to think that wherever they happen to be flying is ‘their’ airspace,” Shades said darkly. Even as he spoke, he noticed something else about these fighters, as if he needed anything else to tell him they were bad news: their very flight didn’t seem to be slightest bit effected by the storm raging around them. As if they were cruising through a completely different reality. “They’re faster and more agile than us, plus they have us outnumbered. About all we can do is go in lower and see if there’s any safe place to land out here—”
Before he could finish speaking, Shadow Squadron opened fire, and Roger was forced to attempt whatever evasive maneuvers he could come up with against their superior firepower and maneuverability.
And learned right away that it would do them no good, as they sustained several hits right off the bat.
“Right engine down!” Roger warned them. “Left wing damaged! We’re going down!”
“That’ll teach ’em!” Shadow Four crowed as their radio signal started to turn staticky.
“Good shot, Shadow Two!”
As the Ocean loomed up at them, they caught a fleeting, lightning-strobed glimpse of a wooded shoreline, and a few tiny buildings up the shore.
“Alright, mission accomplished, everyone,” Shadow Leader congratulated them. “Now let’s head back to base.”
“I’ll try to set ’er down along the coast!” Roger grunted, struggling with increasingly uncooperative controls. “It’s our only chance! Brace yourselves!”
“Yeah, this recon mission seemed to take forever,” Shadow Two remarked. “I can’t wait to stretch my legs.”
All of them sat in terse silence, strapping themselves in as the storm-tossed sea filled their windows, screaming in near unison at the impending impact.
“When will we get back there?” Shadow Five piped up. “It seems like every time…”
Their voices faded into static as the Black Angels departed, riders on the storm, leaving their newest victims to the mercy of the elements, spiraling down into the stormy seas below as Roger attempted a desperate emergency landing.
-word draft: March 11, 2014 - August 14, 2015
-additional revisions: August 20-5, 2015
If it feels like it’s been forever since Tradewinds 18, you’re not alone, and all I can do is apologize for the longest hiatus in the series’ history, even longer than the gap between 3 and 4, which mercifully none of you folks had to suffer through (only me, since I hadn’t released anything publicly back then). Since 2012, I’ve been through four apartments, three jobs, and two computers, as well as ditching Windows and working with three different Linux distros (Ubuntu, Xubuntu, and more recently, Kubuntu). I can even look at the original manuscript, and tell each place where I lost my footing due to real-world disruptions, and how long it took me to get back into it again. (But I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention I’ve also been through Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Torchlight II, and the entire Mass Effect trilogy in the meantime, and that probably didn’t help my progress any.) But before anyone comes down too hard on me for that, I must also disclose that I’ve also been working on a massive world-building endeavor behind the scenes, which will finally bear fruit starting with Tradewinds 20.
Originally titled “The Unfriendly Skies” (despite that part not even coming up until the final leg of the story), this also proved to be a tricky tale to tell, both because of the events of the last couple stories leading up to it, but mostly because, when I looked over my old notes, I found I had no real plot to speak of, just the return of Erix, so I had to build most of the scenario from scratch, including what he was even up to in Anchor Point in the first place. Even more so than the Excelsior’s delightful maiden voyage, since at least half of that was rooted in an actual story plot (even if it wasn’t going anywhere useful in the original notes). This one also took a lot of rejiggering, tweaking details to add up to the right clues, giving me a whole new appreciation for mystery writers, even if the culprit of Roxy’s investigation turned out to be rather less than mysterious. On top of that, I had just enough new characters that I was still getting the hang of. I also had to deal with the loose ends of Maximilian’s plot thread, in a way that would lead them to the next leg of their journey, but also leave a character who hung around a lot longer than I expected with some measure of closure. (Though I would not be surprised if they crossed paths with the Young Master later in the series, I think we can all agree it really was time to move on.)
The later chapters proved more fun and interesting to write, especially the battle at the Docks warehouse, and Erix’s jailbreak, refreshing after all the dithering over the early chapters. I can’t help but think I fussed around with them too much in the notebook draft, and in hindsight, I probably could’ve finished this sooner if I’d saved that stuff for the word-processed draft, like you’re supposed to… It was a constant feeling of being blindsided, almost every time I sat down to work on the early chapters, details I hadn’t thought about, plotholes in need of filling, and having to delve deeper into the history of Anchor Point’s gangs than I originally expected, but at least that part was interesting, and also yielded a fun and enlightening sidetrack about Kimo Daji and Striker’s origins. Whereas the later chapters allowed me to reap the fruits of all that detail work on the early portions, and just cut loose on the storytelling itself, which flowed much more smoothly for it. I also enjoyed seeing some payoff for several character arcs, especially Justin’s, as well as dropping a few more pieces of other puzzles. Still, after a two-year real-world gap, I just can’t help feeling a day late and a buck short with it.
If nothing else, I believe I learned a valuable lesson here, about the importance of focusing on forward progress above all else in the rough draft, and not sweating the small stuff until the working draft. I just created far too much pressure for myself, the longer this dragged out, and that’s a mistake I intend to avoid going forward. All I will say about Tradewinds 20 is that it is coming along nicely. I’ve found I always seem to jinx myself when I make projections, so I’ll just settle for saying that I’m making steady progress, and leave it at that. After all, it’ll be ready when it’s ready, and when it’s done, you’ll be the first to know, so stay tuned for Tradewinds 20: Wherein in a plane wreck is only the beginning of their ordeal.. :)