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An Escape-"Orphans Don't Fight Back"-
Pinn Flounders-Destination: Up
Darian Frey was a man who understood the value of a tactical retreat. It was a gambler's instinct, a keen appreciation of the odds that told him when to take a risk and when to bail out. There was no shame in running as if your heels were on fire when the situation called for it. In Frey's opinion, the only difference between a hero and a coward was the ability to do basic math.
Malvery was to his left, huffing and puffing through the undergrowth. Alcoholic, overweight, and out of shape. Pinn, who was no fitter but a good deal dimmer, ran alongside. Behind them was an outraged horde armed with rifles, pistols, and clubs, baying for their blood.
The math on this one was easy.
A volley of gunfire cut through the forest. Bullets clipped leaves, chipped trees, and whined away into the night. Frey swore and ducked his head. He hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself small. More bullets followed, smacking into earth and stone and wood all around them.
Pinn whooped. "Stupid yokels! Can't shoot worth a damn!" His stumpy legs pumped beneath him like those of an enthusiastic terrier.
Frey didn't share Pinn's excitement. He was sick with a gray fear, waiting for the moment when one of those bullets found flesh, the hard punch of lead in his back. If he was especially unlucky, he might get blinded by a tree branch or break his leg first. Running through a forest in the dark was no one's idea of fun.
He clutched his prize to his chest: a small wooden lockbox, jingling with ducats. Not enough to be worth dying for. Not even worth a medium- size flesh wound. But he wasn't giving it up now. It was a matter of principle.
"Told you robbing an orphanage was a bad idea," said Malvery.
"No, it was Crake who said that," Frey said through gritted teeth. "That's why he wouldn't come. You thought it was a good idea. In fact, your exact words were: 'Orphans don't fight back.' "
"Well, they don't," said the doctor defensively. "It's the rest of the village you've got to watch out for."
Frey's reply was cut off as the ground disappeared from under his feet. Suddenly they were tumbling and sliding in a tangle, slithering through cold mud. Frey flailed for purchase as the forest rolled and spun before his eyes. The three of them crashed through a fringe of bracken and bushes and ended up in a heap on the other side.
Frey extricated himself gingerly from his companions, wincing as a multitude of bumps and scratches announced themselves. The lockbox had bruised his ribs in the fall, but he'd kept hold of it somehow. He looked back at the moonlit slope. It was smaller and shallower than it had seemed while they were falling down it.
Malvery got up and made a halfhearted attempt at wiping the mud off his pullover. He adjusted his round green-lensed glasses, which had miraculously stayed on his nose.
"Anyway, I've reconsidered my position," he said, continuing his train of thought as if there had been no interruption. "I've come to believe that stealing from a bunch of defenseless orphans could be seen as a bit of a low point in our careers."
Frey tugged at Pinn, who lay groaning on the ground. He'd been on the bottom of the heap, and his chubby face was plastered in muck. "I'm an orphan!" Frey protested as he struggled with Pinn's weight. "Who were they collecting for, if not me?"
Malvery smoothed his bushy white mustache and followed Frey's gaze up the slope. The forest was brightening with torchlight as the infuriated mob approached. "You should tell them that," he said. "Might sweeten their disposition a little."
"Pinn, will you get up?" Frey cried, dragging the pilot to his feet.
Even with the moon overhead, it was hard to see obstacles while they were running. They fended off branches that poked and lashed at their faces. They slipped and cursed and cracked their elbows against tree trunks. It had rained recently, and the ground alternately sucked at their boots or slid treacherously beneath them.
The villagers reached the top of the slope and sent a hopeful barrage of gunfire into the trees. Frey felt something slap against his long coat, near his legs. He gathered up the flapping tail and saw a bullet hole there.
"Give up the money and we'll let you go!" one of the villagers shouted.
Frey didn't waste his breath on a reply. He wasn't coming out of this without something to show for it. He needed that money. Probably a lot more than any bloody orphans did. He had a crew to look after. Seven mouths to feed, if you counted the cat. And that wasn't even including Bess, who didn't have a mouth. Still, she probably needed oiling or something, and oil didn't come for free.
Anyway, he was an orphan. So that made it okay.
"Everything looks different in the dark," Malvery said. "You sure this is the way we came?"
Frey skidded to a halt at the edge of a cliff, holding his arms out to warn the others. A river glittered ten meters below, sparkling in the moonlight.
"Er . . . we might have taken a wrong turn or two," he ventured.
The precipice ran for some distance to his left and right. Before them was a steely landscape of treetops, rucked with hills and valleys, stretching to the horizon: the vast expanse of the Vardenwood. In the distance stood the Splinters, one of Vardia's two great mountain ranges, which marched all the way north to the Yortland coast, thousands of kloms away.
Frey suddenly realized that he had no idea where, in all that woodland, he'd hidden his aircraft and the rest of his crew.
Malvery looked down at the river. "I don't remember this being here," he said.
"I'm pretty sure the Ketty Jay is over on the other side," said Frey doubtfully.
"Are you really, Cap'n? Or is that a guess?"
"I've just got a feeling about it."
Behind them, the cries of the mob were getting louder. They could see the bobbing lights of torches approaching through the forest.
"Any ideas?" Malvery prompted.
"Jump?" suggested Frey. "There's no way they'd be stupid enough to follow us."
"Yeah, we'd certainly out-stupid them with that plan." Malvery rolled up his sleeves. "Fine. Let's do it."
Pinn was leaning on his knees, breathing hard. "Oh, no. Not me. Can't swim."
"You'd rather stay here?"
"I can't swim!" Pinn insisted.
Frey didn't have time to argue. His eyes met the doctor's. "Do the honors, please."
Malvery put his boot to the seat of Pinn's trousers and shoved. Pinn stumbled forward to the edge of the cliff. He teetered on his toes, wheeled his arms in a futile attempt to keep his balance, and then disappeared with a howl.
"Now you'd better go rescue him," Frey said.
Malvery grinned. "Bombs away, eh?" He put his glasses in his coat pocket, ran past Frey, and jumped off the cliff. Frey followed him, feetfirst, clutching the box of coins. He was halfway down before he thought to wonder if the river was deep enough or if there were rocks under the surface.
Hitting the water was a freezing black shock, knocking the wind out of him. Icy spring melt from the Splinters. The sounds of the forest disappeared in a bubbling rush that filled his nose and ears. His plunge took him to the riverbed, but the water cushioned him enough to give him a gentle landing. He launched himself back upward, shifting the lockbox to one arm and swimming with the other. Only seconds had passed, but his chest was already beginning to hurt. He panicked and struggled for breath, clawing at the twinkles of moonlight above him. Finally, just when it seemed there was no air left inside him, he broke the surface.
Sound returned, unmuffled now, the hissing and splashing of the river. He sucked in air and cast about for signs of his companions. With the water lapping round his face he couldn't find them, so he struck out for the bank. The river wasn't fast, but he could still feel the current pulling him. He vaguely hoped Pinn was alright. He'd hate to lose a good pilot.
He hauled himself out, dragging the lockbox with him, which had inconveniently filled with water and was now twice as heavy as before. Jumping in the river had seemed a good idea at the time, but now he was sodden and cold as well as being dog-tired. He was beginning to think that getting lynched would be preferable to all this exertion.
Once he got to his feet, he spotted his companions. Malvery was swimming toward the bank with one hand, in great bearlike strokes. He was towing Pinn, fingers cupped around his chin. Pinn had gone limp, giving himself over to Malvery's strength.
Frey squelched along the bank to where the current had carried them and helped them both out. Pinn fell to his hands and knees, retching up river water.
"You rot-damned pair of bastards!" he snarled, between heaves.
"Oh, come on, Pinn," Frey said. "I've seen you take down four aircraft without breaking a sweat. You're scared of a little water?"
"I can't shoot water!" Pinn protested. He burped noisily and another flood spilled over his lips.
"There they are!" someone yelled from the clifftop. Bullets pocked the bank and threw up fins of spray from the river.
"Move it!" Frey scrambled away toward the trees. "It'll take them ages to find a way round."
He'd barely finished his sentence before the villagers began to fling themselves off the cliff. "We just want our money back!" an unseen voice called. "It's for the orphaaaaans!" The final word lengthened and trailed off as the speaker pitched over the edge and plummeted into the water.
"I'm an orphan!" Frey screamed, infuriated by their persistence. He'd done enough to deserve his escape. Why couldn't they just let him go?
His words fell on deaf ears. Angry faces broke the surface of the river and came swimming toward them.
"Don't those fellers give up?" Malvery complained, and they ran.
It was more luck than design that brought them to a familiar trail, which led them back to the Ketty Jay. The villagers had stopped shooting-their guns were soaked-but they showed no signs of abandoning the pursuit. In fact, they were gaining. A lifetime of unhealthy habits and too little exercise hadn't equipped any of Frey's team for a lengthy foot chase. Their waterlogged clothes weighed them down and chafed with every step. By the time they made it to the clearing where their companions waited, Malvery looked as if he was about to burst a lung.
The Ketty Jay loomed before them, dwarfing the two single-seater fighter craft parked nearby. Frey had long ceased to see her with a judgmental eye. He'd never have called her beautiful, but she wasn't ugly to him either. After fifteen years she was so familiar that he no longer noticed her squat, hunched body, her stub tail, or her ungainly bulk. He knew her too well for appearances to matter. That wasn't something Frey could often say about a female.
Harkins, Jez, and Crake stood before her, shotguns and pistols in their hands.
"Get to stations!" Frey panted as he entered the clearing. "Harkins! Pinn! Up in the sky, right now."
Harkins jumped as if stung and fled toward one of the fighter craft, a Firecrow with wide, backswept wings and a bubble of windglass on its snout. Pinn lurched off toward the other: a Skylance, a sleek racing machine, built for speed.
"We heard gunfire," said Jez, as Malvery and Frey approached, soaking and bedraggled. She eyed the doctor, who was unsuccessfully trying to catch his breath. "Has he been shot or something?"
Malvery's retort was little more than an irate wheeze. He staggered off toward the cargo ramp on the Ketty Jay's far side.
"Robbing the children didn't go to plan, then?" Crake asked the captain, one eyebrow raised.
Frey shoved the lockbox full of coins into Crake's hands. "It went well enough. Where's Silo and Bess?"
Crake regarded the leaking lockbox disapprovingly. "Silo's in the engine room, trying to fix the problems we had on the way over here. Bess is asleep in the hold. Should I wake her?"
"No. Get on board. We're going. Last one in, shut the cargo ramp."
He spared a moment to check on his outfliers before boarding the Ketty Jay. The Firecrow and the Skylance were rising vertically from the clearing as their aerium tanks flooded with ultralight gas. Satisfied they were on their way, he ran up the ramp.
Malvery was beached and gasping just inside the hold, surrounded by a large puddle. Frey paid him no attention. Nor did he spare a glance for the hulking metal form of Bess, standing dormant and dark by the stairs. She'd long ceased making him uneasy.
He sprinted up the steps to the main passageway. It was cramped and dimly lit, the cockpit at one end and the engine room at the other, with doors to the crew's quarters and Malvery's tiny infirmary between them. Hydraulics whirred as the cargo ramp closed, sealing the aircraft.
He pushed into the engine room, a small space cluttered by black iron gantries, allowing access to all parts of the complex assembly overhead. It was warm and smelled of machinery. Frey cast around for signs of his engineer, but the only crew member in sight was Slag the cat, a scraggy clump of black fur, watching him from an air vent.
"Silo! Where are you?"
"Up here, Cap'n," came the reply, although Frey still couldn't see him. He guessed his engineer was working around the other side of the assembly. The Ketty Jay, like most aircraft, had two separate sets of engines: aerium for lift and prothane for thrust. Both were tangled together in this room in a confusing jumble of pipes, tanks, and malevolent-looking gauges.
"Are we ready to go?" Frey asked, addressing the room in general.
"Wouldn't advise it, Cap'n."
"Can she fly?" he persisted. "It's a bit urgent, Silo."
A short pause. "Yuh," he said at last. "Gonna fly like a slug though."
"That'll do," said Frey, and pelted out of the engine room, his feet squishing in his boots.
Jez was already at the navigator's station when Frey bundled into the cockpit and threw himself into his seat.
"Destination?" she asked.
"Up," he replied, and boosted the aerium engines to maximum. The Ketty Jay groaned and shrieked as her tanks filled. Frey leaned forward and peered through the windglass of the cockpit. The first of the villagers had reached the clearing now, but they were too late. The Ketty Jay was dragging herself off the ground and into the air.
Some of them aimed rifles and tried to fire, but their weapons were still too wet to work. One of them made a suicidal dive for the Ketty Jay's landing struts as they retracted. Luckily for him, he fell short. The villagers raged and yelled and threw what stones they could find, but the Ketty Jay kept rising.
Frey felt secure enough to make an obscene gesture at his pursuers. "Thought you had me, didn't you? Well, let's see you yokels fly!" He slumped back in his seat as they cleared the treetops. Deep relief sank into his bones.
Jez got up from the navigator's station and stood next to him, staring into the night sky with sudden and worrying intensity. Frey followed her gaze.
There were several small, dark shapes in the distance, coming closer.
"Tell me those aren't what I think they are," he said.
"Yeah," said Jez. "It's the villagers. They've got planes."