Captain Collie and the Leviathan
In which we discover the military potential of whales, among ...
"Welcome back, Ca--well, who's this?" Chuck Davis seemed to have discovered the presence of Mitchell's passenger, who had hopped down off the Jensen Jester to the metal ground of Pacifica. "Hello there, ma'am."

Captain Collie sighed, unsure if he should feel somewhat chagrined or not. "This is Kalinda Garcia. Kali, this is Chuck. He's not as bad as he sounds."

"Pleasure to meet you, Chuck," Kali said, and shook Davis's hand.

"Guess the stateroom's for you, huh?"

Kali smiled warmly. "Guess it is, Chuck. Show me the way?" The trio walked back towards the island, during which Mitchell made an attempt to explain things.

"We, uh, met at the gala. You remember you said there might be pretty girls there? Well there was one. Anyway, I owe her my life twice over."

"Three times," Kali said, and both of the men turned to her. "Uh, the car ride, the plane, and then in the kitchen, there."

Right, that too. Captain Collie shut his eyes tightly and tried to forget that part, failing grandly in the attempt. "Yeah, ok. Three times. Anyway, she's a natural with an airplane. I want to get her started on training as soon as possible."

"I'll bet," Chuck said. They had reached the stateroom, and the Texan pushed the door open. "Make yourself at home, miss Garcia. We'll be on the bridge."

"We will?" Mitchell frowned. "I guess we will. Back in a jiffy, Kali."

Out of earshot, Chuck laughed heartily. "Oh, what have you gotten yourself into, Cap'?"

"It's worse than that," Mitchell admitted.

"You get her pregn--"

"No! Christ, what's wrong with you, Chuck?" The big wolf only shook his head. "Anyway, it's not the flying. Like I said, she's a natural in the cockpit. The problem is--well, Kalinda Garcia?"

"Yeah?"

Now it was Mitchell's turn to grin. "Josť's daughter."

Chuck stopped, because they were at the door to the bridge. "Shit."

"Yeah, that's exactly what I said."

"Must've been awkward. Did she still have her clothes on when you told her?"

"What is this obsession with you and the carnal?" Mitchell managed a good enough show of pretending he was not inclined towards thinking the same way--though naturally, Chuck would not be especially fooled. They'd been together far too long for such a ruse to work well. "No, we were both clothed. And we had a... a very well-reasoned and productive conversation about it."

"I bet."

"Bet all you want. Anyway, how were things when I was gone?"

"Normal. Nothing happening. I've got, uh, Snow up there with Groundhog and Boot." Mitchell tilted his head questioningly. "Oh. Uh, Tony Hill. You know, Boot 'cause of the Hill part."

"Of course." He lingered for a moment, trying to look captain-ish. "Well, you seem to have things pretty well taken care of, here." Davis looked at him blankly. "So, I'm going to go see how Kali's getting along. Let me know if anything happens--but, uh... can I get a few minutes first? I want to help her get settled in."

Davis only shook his head, tossing in a wry smile for emphasis before, leaving Mitchell behind, he stepped over the hatch into the bridge. "Just don't do anything crazy, Cap'."



***



Not that he had said what he wanted to use the time for, which meant it could have been (though was not) entirely innocent. Kali's hatch was closed and he knocked on it with the back of his hand. She opened it quickly, and he entered, spinning the wheel to latch the door behind him. Of course it looked the same as all the other rooms--it wasn't as though she'd had time to decorate or the space to bring many personal belongings. "So? What do you think?"

"I thought it would go back and forth more," she said.

"It's big enough that we don't really feel the ocean. Unless the weather gets really bad. You'd notice then, trust me. Will the room be ok?"

Kali rolled her eyes. "Yes? Why wouldn't it be?" She sat heavily on the bed and, after a moment's reflection, he joined her. "See? Comfortable enough."

"Well. It's just that--" Kali had demonstrated a remarkably low tolerance for his prevarication, and now her mouth cut him off in deliciously unequivocal fashion. That was fine by him, as it was when she swung herself over him and forced Mitchell flat on his back.

Panting, she finally let him go, smirking. "You were saying?" He was saying nothing, naturally; nor did he say anything when she pulled her shirt over her head and discarded it off to the side. This allowed him to run his hands through her fur, pulling it the wrong way as he moved up her back, then smoothing it down. When he discovered her bra to have met the same fate as her shirt, then he spoke.

"We're going to, uh... going to have to have a talk about... keeping things..." The absurdity of this struck him hard, especially since by the time he said "shipshape" she was rolling her eyes again. She cut a remarkable figure, really, and he chose to focus on this instead. He had originally kind of considered her a sandy colour, but now decided she looked more the part of coffee with just a little milk mixed into it--save for her front, which he happened to be focussed on at that moment and which was itself a more pure white.

"That's better," she told him, when his paws found her chest (technically, of course, he knew where it was; they just took their time getting there), and then she leaned down to kiss him again. The movement eventually put his paws in an awkward position and having little better to do with them he used them on her jeans. There had been a belt earlier, he recalled, and surmised that it, too, must now be litter on the floor.

"Kali," he said, when she was finally nude. "You are stunningly beautiful." She arched an eyebrow, and he looked suitably pitiful, though in point of fact he was more concentrating on her shape and, beneath his roaming paws, the soft and rather supple nature of her body. "Oh, just be glad I'm managing complete sentences."

"Fair enough." She drew what he imagined to be a mystic rune on his chest, unbuttoned his shirt, and traced it again in the bare fur. "At least you're not taking me to task for my cleanliness anymore. Seriously, 'shipshape'?" He was unable to protest. "Get up, will you?" Captain Collie did as ordered, which permitted her to remove his shirt altogether. "Good boy."

He mumbled something in reply, and continued to mumble as she divested him of the remainder of his garments, leaving them both startlingly naked, at which point she returned him--again on his back--onto the bed. They looked quite unique; Mitchell had the colourations of an orca whale, and Kali those of her native Arizona. He found he preferred the earth tones and, running his paws down the length of her torso and ending up 'round her tail, told her again that he found her incomparably gorgeous.

"You," she said, shifting her position a bit so that he brushed against her in a quite intimate way. "Should talk less."

Captain Collie answered with a series of stammering noises, which he resolved into words with an effort. "Are you, uh--aren't you worried about, uh, getting--"

"Not at the moment. Not that time of the year."

"Well, I mean, what about--"

"Are you making excuses?" Kali looked at him severely, and he had to admit that she was being fantastically persuasive. He shook his head quickly and with a quick, sudden movement of her body he found himself inside her. "Good then," she said--though now her voice was momentarily a bit shaky too, which he appreciated, at least insofar as it suggested he was not alone in this emotion.

Having less use for hesitation now he put it on sort of a back shelf, or in an attic somewhere, and helped her along willingly, his back arching up beneath her now in a motion that elicited a sharp, badly muffled cry of pleasure from the coyote.

She had been using his chest as a resting place for her hands, but he pulled her down to him in an overpowering way and she gave up on that. For the better, so far as he was concerned; his muzzle sought hers out and this time he was the one kissing her, hungrily. It kept her from making any further noises, an action to which she was evidently quite inclined--the lack of audioproofing to the bulkheads notwithstanding.

It had been awhile, admittedly, and he ended first, stiffening beneath her with a terminal growl. Presently, Kalinda collapsed heavily atop him, and he rubbed at her back curiously. She opened one of her eyes to meet him, and she too was panting quickly. "That'll... that'll do, I suppose. For now."



***



They shared her room that night, and awoke to the sounds of the ship's klaxon and a voice distorted by volume. "General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your stations. General quarters, general quarters, all hands..."

"Bloody hell," Kali yawned. "You have a way with sirens."

"Fuck," Captain Collie said, and pulled himself to his feet, rummaging quickly for pants and a jacket that, he recalled suddenly, he had left on a mooring mast in New York City.

"Maybe later." The coyote sat up, stretched again. "Where's my station?"

"Here, I guess. Or on the bridge. Get dressed first, though."

Chuck was already there. Mitchell ran to the windows, scanning the sky with binoculars at the ready, but the Texan shook his head. "No, nothing like that Cap'. There was a thud, and we're taking on water. Right aft of this frame here, by starboard fuel tank six."

"How bad?"

"Not bad. We'll have to get divers down to fix it, but I've sealed the section. Thorny and Stagecoach are up right now. They say they don't see anything."

"You want to take the sub out?"

Davis regarded the collie as though he was not a little insane, and deferred the task. "That's your job, boss."

Having little recourse, Mitchell met the sub's builder, ship's engineer Vince Stewart, down by the crane that held the little contraption. "Ruddy, is she prepped?"

"Ready as she'll ever be, Cap'. You first?"

It was a cramped little thing--in theory it had room for three, but he felt the onset of claustrophobia with only him and the fox--who while, admittedly, on the large side, was not that large and failed to account for the feeling in Mitchell's opinion. They hit the water hard, the blue Pacific swallowing them quickly--a hard sensation to get used to, for a denizen of the clouds.

"What's this I hear about a girl, anyway?"

"Can it. She's a new pilot. I met her in New York."

"Chuck says she's a looker."

"Chuck would say that about livestock. Where's the throttle again?" Stewart tapped the knob and Mitchell nodded, pulling it out to start the submarine in motion. "She's a nice person, and that's all that counts."

The fox sniffed a couple of times. "Smells like it, yeah." Mitchell avoided blushing by dint of a titanic exertion. He wondered whether or not it would be particularly kosher to pull rank in order to shut Ruddy up and, with an unvocalised sigh, decided it would not be. "None of my business, right Cap'?"

But at least Stewart would've played along. "Right. Now where's this leak?"

"Here. Swing it right--cut the throttle; don't want to add a second hole." Curling forward despite his bulk, Vince pressed his nose to the foremost glass window. "What the hell is that?"

It was a good question indeed: the Pacifica's heavy steel plates were buckled in along five or six feet of hull. Mitchell flipped on the searchlight, though it added little new illumination to the tropical mid-morning. "Looks like we hit something. Not an explosion."

"Not an explosion," Ruddy Stewart agreed, and tapped his finger against his cheek, disturbing the fur that gave him his name. "Water's a mile or more deep here, though. Ain't gonna ground the boat on anything, that's for sure. Not out here."

"Dud torpedo?"

"Hell no. Any torpedo with enough force to smash in the plates like that's gonna be the size of a U-boat. 'Sides which, anybody see a trail?" No, that they hadn't. "Hold on--can you come a bit lower?"

Mitchell tilted his head. "Yeah, what is that? Is that blood?"

"Must be rust," Stewart answered, shaking his head. "Maybe the plates were worn and a wave hit just right or something--kicked them inwards? I should've noticed that, though, last inspection. Shit, Cap', we'll have to drydock to fix it. Well, to fix it right, anyway--I can't weld those plates underwater."

"You sure?"

"Sure as sunrise, Cap'. I can fix it so we don't take on anything else, but it won't have any structural integrity with a soft patch. We'll have to put in."

Captain Collie sighed out loud this time. Sending the Pacifica back to drydock meant basing out of Pearl Harbor again and staging off the old escort carriers. Or zeppelins. Neither of these was a particularly promising avenue, and he had gotten used to the comparative luxury of the big ship. Back on the Pacifica's deck again, he stood and looked out on the ocean for a second before swearing heavily and stomping up to the bridge.



***



It was the next day, and he and Kalinda Garcia stood next to one another with Chuck Davis, watching a pair of P-39s spinning up their engines on the far side of the ship. Another training run, this time with Todd McAllister leading Tom Hansen, who as it turned out came from Duluth and became known as Square Dance based on some imaginary love of the art form.

"Sweeney, this is the tower, you're cleared for takeoff." Chuck kept the microphone close to his mouth, watching as Todd McAllister's Airacobra powered up. It swept down the deck cleanly and was perhaps five hundred feet in front of the Pacifica when there was a sudden vertical jet of water. Mitchell looked first to Chuck, then back out to the water.

"Tower, Sweeney, I'm hit, I'm hit, I'm hit!"

The P-39 was rocking dangerously, wingtips nearly touching the water on each pendulum swing. "Sweeney, pull up!" To his credit, McAllister did, and everyone in the tower breathed a sigh of relief that, no doubt, Todd was echoing.

The radio crackled. "What the hell happened, boss?"

"I don't know." Chuck turned to Kali and Mitchell. "Did you guys see anything?"

"Just a big spray of water," Kali said, and Dan nodded his agreement.

"That's a negative, Sweeney. Uh, inbound ramp two is the active, why don't you come around and land." The P-39 waggled its wings in affirmation and began the slow circle. Fortunately whatever had hit it hadn't damaged the landing gear; McAllister touched down and braked to a stop well before the arresting net. He had, also fortunately, a head calmer than his homicidal namesake.

While Davis supervised the landing, Mitchell wandered over to the sonar station. "Karl, can we ping the area?" The sonarman (he had no name but Karl, his technical surname--Schwarzkopff--being beyond the capacities of his fellow crewmen) nodded, and Mitchell was silent while the pings went out.

Silence. Suddenly Karl's head cocked. "Wait, I've got a return. Uh, zero four... no, zero-five-zero degrees, about. It's weird, though."

"Keep pinging. Chuck, get over here."

ASDIC, as Karl still occasionally called it, was new enough that nobody was exactly sure how to operate it, but they all knew that a return ping was ominous; Chuck and Mitchell commiserated in staring forlornly at the sonar station, though neither could properly interpret it, and their distraction meant that it was Kali who first spotted the thing on the surface.

"The sonar must've stunned it," explained Vince Stewart in the motor launch a few minutes later. They still weren't exactly sure what "it" was, drawing closer until at last an answer put itself forward. Mitchell blinked in surprise. "It's a whale," said Stewart, explaining for nobody's benefit. "What the hell?"

Indeed. "What's that?" Mitchell pointed to a boxy, clearly non-whaleish object near the creature's head, and Vince perked his ears forward.

"I don't know. Let's see."

The whale was too small to stand on, so they had to lean, propped against it for support. Whatever it was happened to be attached with great bolts, but Stewart had brought along his wrench. The work took a few minutes; then he was able to lift the box away. A hole of sorts remained, which filled with welling blood that made Mitchell uncomfortable.

Not, though, as uncomfortable as it made the whale who, a few seconds later and scarcely after Stewart was seated once more in the launch (whaleboat, actually, ironically enough), thrashed about once and then elected to expire. The occupants of the boat looked each other, and said nothing at first.

"That's kind of odd," Stewart finally managed.

It was, and so was the device, which Ruddy disassembled back on the Pacifica. It was, he determined, a transmitter, the installation of which evidently permitted some semblance of control over the whale, and the removal of which evidently terminated it, and the whale as well.

There was no writing anywhere, which made the device's owner hard to divine. It was a collection of little vacuum tubes and wires running this way and that; to be honest Mitchell hadn't the first clue what it was. He trusted Stewart, which was for the better because the fox could've told him it was a magic box used by whale fortune tellers to predict the future of other whales and he would've had to agree that, yes, that was probably what it was.

The whale made two strange occurrences in two days. Long, alcohol-fueled nights pondering the cosmos had already convinced Captain Collie that there was no such thing as coincidence. But they had only two pieces of the puzzle, and there wasn't much else they could do with them--so they waited.



***



Mornings were apparently a time for activity. Mitchell did not seem to recall this having been the case before his trip to New York, but since he had started sleeping with Kali they had not managed to wake up naturally. He enjoyed his activities with the coyote, and for her part she was rather enthusiastic, so he was willing to accept the tradeoff--but the general quarters klaxons, sounding again when he would rather have been sleeping (or at least doing something else with the lovely Kalinda) was definitely unpleasant.

Unpleasant too was the sight that greeted him upon mounting the stairs to the bridge. The Pacifica, using tethered blimps for observation instead of aircraft, was not moving. Around them, however, a ring of disturbed water suggested heavily that something else was, which Mitchell found distressing.

"More whales, sir," Karl said. "Would you like me to go after them with the ASDIC?"

As this appeared to be effective, a truthful answer would've been "well, sort of, yes"--but the reality was that there was now a rather substantial unanswered question, and instead he summoned Vince Stewart to the bridge.

"I think so. Give me a moment." He had asked Ruddy if it would be possible to triangulate the source of the transmissions to the pod. Determining where, even, the signals lived in the electromagnetic spectrum took a bit, since evidently merely telling whales to circle ominously around a gigantic aircraft carrier did not require constant transmission of an order to do so.

Half an hour later, and after repeated prodding, Vince was able to come up with an answer, and Captain Collie leapt into the cockpit of a P-40. James White and Tony Hill happened to be the active alert pilots and, while he had some doubts about Hill's experience, he ordered them both into their Airacobras.

"Tower, Geruda." He took a deep breath and looked over the dials a final time. "Ready for takeoff."

"Geruda, Tower, you're clear."

He pushed the throttle to its stop, the little Warhawk surging forwards. The Pacifica was long enough that they didn't use catapults, and he had ordered the three aircraft as far back as possible. Thus it was that he had altitude when he crossed the whale picket line, and while water spurted up around him none of it did much beyond spray the Warhawk, leaving little streaks behind on the canopy that the wind blew back in creative lines.

Mitchell circled until he was certain that Snow and Boot had managed their takeoff--White left a bit low and had to swerve around an inopportune spout--then ordered them to form up and headed out on the general bearing Ruddy had marked.

The comparative featurelessness of the Pacific beneath him permitted some meditation. The most pressing question, it seemed to him, was "what the hell is going on?". The Piasa Legion had encountered more than its fair share of strange things before, but none of them approached the level of remote-controlled cetaceans. Really, what was one to do with that? They didn't have any harpoons aboard the carrier.

"Boss, Snow here. Is it just me, or is this kind of messed up, Cap'?"

So he wasn't the only one perplexed. "Snow, Geruda. No, it's definitely FUBAR."

A third voice. "FUBAR?" A pause, then a repeat of the question, for the overstated sake of radio integrity. "Uh, Geruda, Boot. 'FUBAR'?"

"Snow here. A bad word, then 'up beyond all recognition,' Boot."

"Ah." Silence. "What bad word?"

"Think about it, Boot," Dan said.

"Boot, this is Snow. It's the obvious one, just, uh... there might be ladies listening."

That was a pleasant thought, considering that to the best of his knowledge (that is, presuming no contraband on the Pacifica) there was only one lady he knew of who might be listening. The radio came to life again. "'Fuck,' you numbskull." Yes, and that was her.

Hill sounded chagrined. "Oh."

"Red flight, Pacifica. Sorry, she stole the mic. Uh, Cap', I think the whales are getting agitated. They keep feinting at us." There was a mix of sentiments in the Texan's voice--concern, yes, but also a little bemusement, and the collie realised the debrief would involve a significant quantity of alcohol.

They had work to do first, though. Mitchell looked at his map; the flight was perhaps thirty miles from the little circle Ruddy had drawn indicating the probable location of the transmitter. "Alright. Red flight, Geruda. Let's push it."



***



'Snow' White was higher than the other aircraft in the flight, and he saw them first. "Cap', Snow. Tally two, right one." Dan Mitchell--who nominally went by 'Geruda,' although he was the only one who liked this name and nobody else used it, to his unending disappointment--swivelled and focused in.

"Roger that, Snow. Make that... four. No, five. Boot, you got 'em?"

A pause, even as they banked to the right a bit. "Uh. Yeah. Roger that, boss. Tally five."

Four little, one big. Escorts. Mitchell clicked the radio. "Two fighter elements. I think they're splitting."

"Snow, affirmative. They're breaking off."

Captain Collie turned his arming switch on. "Snow, Boot, check your weapons." They called in a second later, and that was all the preparation they had time for. One of the two elements had gone high; the other was now on an intercept course. "Red flight, cleared hot." He made a few mental calculations. "I'm committing, over."

"Snow here. Got you covered, boss."

The larger dot, he thought--leaning forward and against the canopy glass, as though that would help him tell--looked like a twin-engined bomber. Yes--a G4M, or something remarkably similar. Well, that told him who they were up against. "Red flight, take those fighters. See if you can't keep my tail clear."

A pause. "Boot, engaging."

"Boot, this is Snow, visual. Kill 'em."

The fighters--A6Ms, he thought, but it was hard to tell on the quick pass--indeed had bright red circles painted down their middles. Unanswered was the question of what the IJN was doing in the middle of the Pacific, and with some of their most advanced fighter aircraft--but that could come later.

The G4M was banking away, and his closure rate was too high; Mitchell backed off the throttle a tad and pushed the P-40 over into a dive. The task at hand, to his way of thinking, was to protect the Pacifica, which--he suspected--meant downing the bomber. The problem with this was that he had only tangled with the Japanese once before, and had learned little of them except that they were good--dedicated, fearsome warriors. He kept an eye out for the remaining A6Ms.

Tracers snuck past him to his port; he banked away from the big cannon on the bomber's tail. Finally he judged the distance to be close enough, squeezing the trigger. Solid black smoke erupted suddenly from the G4M's starboard engine. He fired again and the bomber began a lazy spiral towards the Pacific Ocean below. That was that.

He presumed they would ditch, and that was ok by him. Throttle back at its stop, he pulled the P-40 up and into a climb, rotating his head as though on a swivel. The radio snapped on in his ear. "Boss, Pacifica. I think that did it; they're... moving off." Mission accomplished--now just to get out; he kept his eyes on alert and moving. At some point Snow and Boot had separated--and he was not sure which was which, but one of them had acquired a pair of Japanese lovers.

"Uh, this is Boot, I've--I've got some problems over here."

Which meant it was Hill, the rook. "Boot, lead. Visual. I'm about twenty seconds out."

"Thank God." He sounded nervous--which was understandable, since the tiny little A6Ms nonetheless packed a serious punch. Twenty-millimetre cannon, if he remembered correctly. He watched Hill's plane bank sharply and begin a hard turn.

"Watch it, Boot. Don't try to turn with them."

"God damn it, they're eating me alive!"

From the looks of the fight, this was true. "Try to get some distance. Or climb; the 'Cobra will outclimb them. Just don't turn."

An understandably terse reply. "Roger that, boss." Hill's P-39 nosed over and dove away from the two A6Ms which, while neither the most useful extension nor a climb, worked as well.

Mitchell turned his head in time to see the little green fighter settle into his six o'clock--time enough to bank away. He looked to the other side and, well, yes, there was his new wingman's friend. Splendid. The cannon rounds spun down to the water, well to his starboard.

Like the Airacobra, his Warhawk was also faster than the Japanese but, heavier and with a less powerful engine (he was loathe to use the nitrous unless it became absolutely necessary), it wasn't nearly as adept on the climb. Diving, though... the IJN fighters receded from his mirror, momentarily solving that problem.

"Boss, this is Snow. I've been hit. I think I've lost control." White's voice was oddly calm.

"Boot, cover him!" He looked around for White's plane frantically as Hill acknowledged. There it was--it looked undamaged, but he trusted that if White said his bird was broken, it was.

"I've got it for the moment, boss, but I'm out of this fight." Still calm.

"That's alright. Just take care of yourself." As he watched, Hill's P-39 swept down on the Japanese and, while his bullets missed, they still saw fit to break off their pursuit of White's Airacobra--but now it was two against four. Captain Collie swallowed hard and steadied his grip on the joystick.



***



It took him a few minutes to fight his way over to Hill. The Japanese birds had split back into their two elements, one per Legionnaire. This was, Mitchell remembered suddenly, Hill's first experience with combat--outnumbered two to one by highly-experienced pilots in the nimble, death-dealing Zeros. For his part, Mitchell wasn't quite certain what the best way to deal with the situation was, anymore.

Normally, he would want to extend away. Both Hill's P-39 and Mitchell's own Warhawk had the capacity to do so, the more so with the P-40's nitrous injection. However, they also had a damaged aircraft about, and he was loathe to abandon White to the Japanese--everyone had heard stories of what they'd done in Manchuria. That meant sticking with the fight, and the consequences be damned.

Captain Collie had faced worse before; what he really worried about was that Hill would lose his cool and do something foolish. That would leave the odds at 4 to 1, which--while he thought were still probably survivable--would not seem to make for a fun day. He frowned and, sour expression still writ on his face, dove away from a Japanese attack.

"Cap', this is Boot! I can't shake this one!" Yeah, there was that too. He wasn't only looking out for himself. Mitchell turned the Warhawk towards Hill's twisting Airacobra.

"Ok, it's alright, Boot. Look, uh, break left on my mark, ok? Three... two-one-mark!" The A6M had added on some unexpected power. True to the order despite its prematureness, Hill turned quickly, and Mitchell sent a burst of machine gun fire into the IJN fighter. Hit or not, they broke off the attack, which had been the intent in the first place. And it had been a hit, anyhow; he could see bullet holes in the plane's wing.

He wondered how Hill was doing. Dogfighting was tremendously draining; it took a long time to build up the necessary stamina. White had it, but White was limping away from the battle. Mitchell had it, but there was only one of him. Distantly Mitchell wondered what bit of folly had told him to let Hill come along for this trip. Watching his movements, he thought the rookie was starting to lose his edge.

Which was to be expected. But the Japanese, experienced pilots that they were, did not appear to be so encumbered. Mitchell redoubled his efforts, though it was hard to get a firing solution with the two aircraft on his own tail frustrating every manoeuvre. He figured they had ten minutes until things started to become critical.

Three minutes later, and with the manoeuvring only intensifying, he revised this estimate down to only another two or three. He continued to urge Hill on, to less and less effect--they were going to have to disengage. Captain Collie himself was becoming a bit lax in his surveying, which is why it took him by surprise when the A6M in front of him and directly behind Hill's P-40 exploded.

There was an Indian war whoop, then, over the radio, which caught Mitchell off guard nearly as much as it thrilled him. "Red lead, Stagecoach. Use some help?" In the heat of the moment he could not quite recall how Eric Walker had acquired the name, and to be honest no longer quite cared.

"Do we ever. You're a sight for sore eyes, Stagecoach. Do your damndest."

"Roger that. Blue flight, cleared hot. Commit, commit, commit!"

Mitchell rolled away, slightly more leisurely now that the Japanese were distracted. "Stagecoach, lead. Who do you got with you?"

"Uh, Thorny, Bullseye--and your gal Kali, boss."

He shook his head, invisible to all but him and possibly his pursuers, who wouldn't have understood anyway unless their spies were much better than Mitchell was prepared to grant. "Kali?"

"She insisted."

"Right." So much for that--tangling with Zeros over the south Pacific was not really a good place for arguing. Speaking of which. "Uh, Red lead is defensive."

A beat. "Lead, Stagecoach, visual. Committing." Mitchell watched Walker's Airacobra edge closer and pulled the Geruda into a little turn to help things along. He and Eric were on the same page. "Stagecoach, engaging. Lead, break right--now now now!"

He did so, vision darkening at its periphery, then brightening slightly for a moment as another of the A6Ms underwent a sudden and unplanned expansion. Fortunately for the Legion, the Japanese had not seen fit to armour their aircraft, nor to protect their fuel tanks. Having had enough excitement for one engagement, the other two paired off and climbed up further into god's own attic. Mitchell let them leave.



***



"That's two, both for me," Walker said.

"You can have 'em. How are you on gas?"

"I'm..." Mitchell could see clearly in his mind the slightly-embarrassed look Walker would be giving his fuel gauge. "Well, we kind of rushed out here."

"Alright." He thought about this. "Stagecoach, Thorny, Kali: form up on my wing. Boot, go home. You did good, kid." He hoped Hill would take it as sincerely at it had been meant. "Bullseye, stick with him and make sure he doesn't get lost. That everyone?"

Stagecoach answered. "That's everyone, boss. Thorny, Kali--you heard the man." A few seconds passed as the orders gave way to actions. "What are we up to?"

"Snow's gone," Mitchell said, and heard a groan from someone over the radio. "He took a hit and bugged out--I don't know if he ditched or what. Now, we both know we're not going to find him after nightfall, and I don't know where to look, exactly. So I figure we'll form up in elements for protection and fly a low sweep. Call in if you see anything, but don't be stupid. If you hit bingo, tell me and head for home. Don't want to lose anybody else."

"Uh, roger, boss." Walker's voice returned a few seconds later. "I figure everybody from Blue flight's got an hour or two. Thorny, Kali, pair up. I'll fly your wing, Cap'."

Fine. "Ok. Everybody, set your secondary radios to the emergency frequency."

The search was tedious, as he knew it would be. It was also fruitless, which he had half-suspected. There was a lot of ocean and not much four eyes could make of it. When his fuel gauge dropped below the little line he had drawn on it, Captain Collie sighed and pulled the Warhawk up to head in.

One problem with commanding a squadron was that it was made up of individuals, and he tried to remember individual things about them. Why Jim White was called "Snow" took only a few seconds thought: a husky of some kind, from North Dakota, he talked often of the white stuff, had a bleached-looking blaze down his front, and a surname that practically begged for the appellation.

Now Mitchell tried to think of other things. He thought it was White who always beat him at chess (well. Among others, White did, but White stood out in his mind as a chess victor). He thought it was also White who swiped Mitchell's coffee mug from time to time. God damn it. Who was this White fellow, anyway? Human, Captain Collie supposed.

Losing a pilot was never easy. He tried to avoid it, when possible--but it wasn't always possible; the Piasa Legion had, to this point, seen eighteen men die in combat. This was the rather less fun part of his job. He would congratulate Walker on his victories later; for now, as they landed, the banter was muted and most of the radio traffic limited to directions from the tower.

He debriefed them quickly; they'd done their jobs well. Especially Hill, whom he singled out for a one-on-one afterwards. He didn't regret his scepticism about sending the young man into combat, but he clearly had the right stuff to become a fighter pilot. Hill would make a good Legionnaire.

The pilots from the day's activities were clustered in the briefing room, looking over charts of the area--they would go back out soon to try again for White, before the sun went down and hopefully before the sharks came out--when the droning sound of a plane's engine appeared lightly, and from a distance. Miguel Mendez, whose demeanour had seen him branded 'Thorny,' heard it first, and then they all raced outside to see what was the matter.

"What was the matter" turned out to be a battered, slightly wobbly Airacobra, engine beating unsteadily as it loomed closer to the Pacifica. Presently it took a sharp upward tack and, from a thousand or more feet up, faltered and plunged into the ocean well to the carrier's stern. All eyes followed this.

Then all eyes swept upwards to the parachute, rocking back and forth in the early afternoon breeze, until it landed fifty feet in front of the island, revealing a figure that picked itself up, staggered a bit until it had cut the ropes of its 'chute, and stumbled forwards to join the somewhat apprehensive crowd.

"Took you long enough," said Captain Collie, and White shrugged.

"Bit of a slog," he admitted.



***



"I lost my ailerons," White explained over a beer in the squadron mess. "So picture this: I have my elevator, and my rudder. Except the rudder's jammed. It'll only go right. So I can only make these... these big starboard turns."

"And there were the Japs," Eric Walker pointed out.

"Right, the Japs. Well, they left me alone. I guess you guys must've cleaned up pretty good."

"He did," Mitchell indicated Walker with a finger. "Two of 'em; the other two saw that and ran with their tails between their legs. Can hardly blame 'em."

"Oh, I can't either," White agreed. "'Coach scares me too. Anyway, I had to make a long right circle, and then I realised if I did that I'd be coming back to you all. So I flew straight for awhile."

"Must've been fun," Jackie Rait opined. "Nothing but that water there, and you with a bent bird."

"Oh, no. I'll tell you fun. Guess what I saw."

Murmurs. "A sea monster," someone shouted.

"Better. A Jap destroyer. At least, it had that rising sun thing on its flag. Headed quick as a jackrabbit right for you guys. Probably picking up that G4 the boss took out."

More murmurs, appreciative ones. "Didn't it shoot at you?"

"Huh uh. Maybe they didn't want to start anything. Maybe they didn't see me; I don't know. Can I get another beer?" Mitchell poured one and handed it over. "Thank you, boss. But that's not the best part. So I saw this guy and, well, I popped some altitude. I don't want to tangle with a whole destroyer, not with my 'Cobra all broke up. I lived in the clouds for a bit--you know, those nice, low-lying clouds. They're a godsend."

"Even more boring than the ocean."

"You're so optimistic, Jackie. They kept my ass safe, and that's what counts. Don't be such a fucking--"

"Hey, hey." Tim Kirtland wagged a finger. "Watch your language."

"Oh, right. Sorry," White apologised to Kali, who raised an eyebrow dryly and waved dismissively to convey her lack of concern over the profanity. "I guess you don't care much, though, huh? Uh. Look at this, Jackie; you broke my train of thought."

"Train? Can't have a train with no tracks and no stations."

"Shove it, Todd. Didn't see you out there trying to avoid the whole god-damn Jap navy."

Mitchell tilted his head. "The whole navy?" That was a lot of boats. But then, pilots had only a very tenuous grasp of the truth, which tended to get bent, now and again, to suit their own agendas--namely, self-aggrandisement. If a pilot told you his plane managed four hundred miles an hour, three-fifty was a safer bet. If he said the barfight had fifty participants, it was reasonable to assume that forty or so were still seated and drinking during the altercation. If he said his gal was a ten on a ten-point scale, she was probably around an eight--but no less than a six or a seven, airmen being discerning types.

(Captain Collie made a clear exception for Kali, who was obviously a ten anyway. At least)

"Most of it," White continued. "That's the best part. I dropped below the cloud cover for a second, and found the whole damned fleet. Well, battlegroup anyway. Two flattops, a couple cruisers, and a whole passel of destroyers. Making west-northwest like they had the devil's hounds on their heels. I'd guess that's where that flight came from, boss."

Captain Collie was sceptical about this. "Even the Betty?"

"One of their big new carriers. Twelve hundred feet if it's an inch."

Probably this made it eight hundred, a thousand on the outside--which was still a short strip for the medium bomber. "Take a lot of guts to get a G4 off a carrier. Even more to get it back down."

"If there's one thing they got, it's guts," White pointed out, and everyone agreed. Democracy seemed to agree that such a move was possible--well, "possible" again defined within the narrow bounds of what pilots considered reality to be. Mitchell knew that pilots also believed in gremlins and, god knew, probably unicorns as well, so it had to be taken with a grain of salt.

"So you avoided Yamamoto--twice. Three times, if you count the A6s. And then you wound up here?"

"Sure thing, boss. Pretty boring, really."

Mitchell laughed. "Well. Good to have you back. But next time you decide on an ad hoc recce mission, bring a camera?"

"You're not doubting me, are you?"

No. No, he wasn't, not really, and it was good to know the Japanese were apparently going to leave them alone--not entirely surprising; the Mikado had no reason to provoke the United States, which an attack on the Legion would be sure to do. But Captain Collie did not intend to be so clear. He grinned, cocked an eyebrow. "Me? Doubt you? 'Course not."



***



Like most of them, Kali was still in her flight suit. This meant--he distracted her from correcting this situation with a paw, trailing down her torso until he could pull her to him from the small of her back--that she smelled of sweat, of (more or less) honest exertion. Something else, though, too; an inherently feminine scent he found, for lack of a better word, intoxicating.

"Mm," he said, to communicate this concept, but Kali had grown adept at interpreting such things and answered with a light kiss. Mitchell thought it would've been better had it lasted longer, but it took two of them to do such a thing and he had to defer.

"Mm indeed," Kali echoed at its conclusion, her arms draped over his shoulders.

"What do you think of the boys?"

She grinned. "I think they're a great lot. If I fit in, I'd love to hang around."

"They seem to think you do." Walker had said as much after their brief outing together. "How's training coming along?"

"Boringly." He thought this word was probably invented. "Most of it's stuff you already know, just without thinking about it."

An excellent sign--some of the basics took the rooks at least a few weeks to appreciate and a good couple months of combat duty to truly absorb. "Ah, wonderful. Then you will fit in--we need good pilots more'n anything else. You ok in the Airacobra?"

"Getting used to it." She had drifted inexorably closer throughout this exchange, until her body was flush with his. "You know, we should probably get changed."

"Well, yes. Into?"

The coyote raised an eyebrow, answered first with a second kiss and then, after a moment's reflection: "Into nothing?"

Kali always had the best ideas. She was a natural at that, too.


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