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Ancient and Tattered Airmen

A reader says, "I loved the other teams in Steel Blues. Will we see them again in later books?"

Oh yes! Paul Rayburn of Comanche Air will be back in Silver Bullet. May Saltonstall will be back in Silver Bullet and Fire Season. And Conrad Jezek, designer and pilot of the Corsair, will be a more major character in Invisible War. I'll share Connie and Alma's reunion from Invisible War, in August of 1940, as Alma starts a new chapter of her life.

A perfect summer morning, with the sun lifting above the southern horizon. Swallows played above the flight line, darting and diving around the collection of planes assembled there. A big Hudson bomber brooded in the back, four massive engines still and waiting. Tucked in almost beneath its wing was a DeHavilland Mosquito, small and light and made of wood like the old biplanes rendered sleek and deadly. A trainer sat in front of them, while a Catalina PBY rested on wheels rather than floats, and Alma smiled at it like an old friend. It was an old friend, really. Of all the planes here, that was the one where she was sure she could hop in the cockpit and excel.

Alma smoothed her one piece navy blue flight suit, hoping she didn't appear nervous. The collar bore a single gold bar -- third officer, the civilian ATA equivalent of the RAF Pilot Officer. She could almost feel Lewis's hand smoothing her collar for the first time, see his rueful smile, proud and envious at once. "The oldest ensign in the RAF," he'd said. At fifty she probably was the oldest.

But as she approached the group assembling at the flight line, if she was the oldest it wasn't by much. Four men and five women waited, two of the men and one of the women with gray in their hair. One of the women was big and rawboned, brown hair pulled back sharply in a severe bun, talking nervously and too loudly with a thick Eastern European accent. Another seemed like a schoolgirl, tiny and blond with permanent waves and enormous blue eyes, the kind of girl who wouldn't muss her manicure, much less fly a fighter plane. She was even shorter than the man who stood beside her. He turned and his face lit when he saw Alma.

She felt herself smile in answer, absurdly glad to see him. "Conrad Jezek!"

"Alma Segura." He took both her hands in his, looking at her brightly over his glasses, and leaned up to kiss her on both cheeks. "My dear lady! It's good to see you."

"It's so good to see you too," she said. "How've you been, Connie?"

He shrugged expressively. "Well enough," he said. "I've been shopping for an air force. Oddly enough the RAF wouldn’t take me." His mouth twitched with an ironic smile. "Perhaps because I am forty-three years old, five foot four inches, and have a heart murmur. Oh, and this." He tapped the frame of his glasses. "Nearsighted. But the Air Transport Auxiliary felt they could overlook those little drawbacks."

The tall brunette turned around. "They call us the Ancient and Tattered Airmen," she said with a throaty laugh. "Even when we are not men." She stuck out her hand. "Jasna Czartoryska."

"Alma Segura," Alma said.

The brunette nodded. "Spanish?"

"American," Alma said.

"Polish," Jasna said.

"Czech," Connie said. "We are a regular Foreign Legion of the air. Matias there is Norwegian. And then you have Sureyeh Blake." He nodded down the line to a stunningly pretty woman standing under the wing of the Hudson looking up at it. "Anglo-Indian."

"She won the Melbourne cup in '38, didn't she?" Alma asked. "The trans-Australia race?"

Connie nodded. "And the last group, the ones who just graduated, had Anna Leska. She stole a grounded Polish Air Force plane from a guarded flight line after Warsaw fell, took off under fire, and flew it to Romania. They've got her flying bombers now." He looked down the line again. "All of us have more than 600 hours in the air, or about three times what the RAF averages."

"More than 900 myself," Alma said. She did feel that she had to put her foot in.

"Myself also," Connie said. "And you bested me by a hair in the Great Passenger Derby."

"By a hair," Alma said. "And that was a hell of a dive for second place. I didn't think you could catch United."

Connie looked smug. "The Corsair is a much better plane."

"You flew it?" Jasna said.

"And built it." His smile grew. "So who cares if we are ancient and tattered? We will show the Nazis a thing or two."

"So what are we waiting for?" Jasna said. "We have been standing here a quarter of an hour."

"Waiting for him," Alma said. Coming across the tarmac was a British officer. His uniform was pressed and immaculate, the three gold bars of a squadron leader on his shoulder. He had a carefully groomed pencil mustache, a black patch over his left eye, and a ramrod straight military bearing.

"Good Lord," Connie said quietly. "Is that actually a swagger stick?"

"I think so," Alma said.

All conversation stopped as he approached, everyone turning expectantly toward him. He drew himself up. "I am Squadron Leader Trilby," he announced in the fruitiest of BBC voices. "I will be your trainer as you attempt to master the intricacies of flying high performance aircraft." His one-eyed gaze swept over them scathingly. "If you prove capable of doing so."

The man named Matias stirred. "I beg your pardon," he said in thickly accented English. "But I have flown a Gloster Gladiator for the Norwegian Army Air Service." He held out his right hand, all two last fingers of it. "I would be in your RAF if not for a mishap."

A shiver went over Trilby's face, ruthlessly stilled. "So would many of us, Mr. Forsvars. But we do not have a choice. The question is whether or not you are still capable of flying high performance aircraft." He glanced up at the Mosquito. "They are not forgiving."

Connie let out a breath that was something like a snort, and Alma thought she could hear the unspoken thought. As though the Corsair were forgiving? Or perhaps racing planes weren't considered high performance?

Trilby's eye fell on the little permed blonde. "This is not a game for little girls. Miss Elizabeth McTavish? I understand you are all of twenty-two. You might be profitably celebrating your season. Playing tennis." He transferred his gaze to Alma. "Nor is it a game for mothers who ought to be home taking care of their children. I believe some of you are old enough to be my mother."

"Grandmother, actually," Alma said with a sharp smile. "You're very young yourself. But we'll promise to overlook that in light of your obvious expertise."

Trilby visibly flinched. "Mrs. Segura. A pioneering aviatrix much mentioned in the press."

"It's my second war," Alma said cheerfully. He was very young indeed, hardly more than thirty for all his stiffness. And that wasn't natural either. The way he held himself spoke of a back injury to her experienced eye. Clearly he could walk, but he probably wasn't up to the G-forces required for fighter combat. Not to mention that with one eye he had no stereoscopic vision. He was probably one of the RAF Spitfire pilots who'd fought it out in the Battle of France or at Dunkirk three months ago, bailed out or landed or crashed on friendly soil, but hadn't exactly walked away from it. So now he was sent to Canada to train Ancient and Tattered Airmen, away from the skies of home, away from friends and squadron mates who rose each day to meet the waves of Luftwaffe bombers. Perhaps his family sat under the air raids while he was safe in Canada. All this went through Alma's mind in a moment, and she felt her shoulders relax. They were all misfits, and she was old enough to be gentle rather than to bridle visibly like Elizabeth McTavish and Jasna. It had everything to do with Trilby and nothing to do with her. "I'm sure you have a lot to teach us," Alma said. "It's an honor to fly for Britain, and we'll do our best to come up to standards as quickly as we can."

Sureyeh Blake's eyebrows rose almost to her hairline. "Of course we will do our best," she said. Her accent was public school all the way and made Trilby's seem an affectation. Alma thought she remembered reading that her father was a cousin of Lord North and Consul General of one province or another, while her mother was a Rajput lady who traced her descent to Maratha princes. The press had been fascinated by Sureyeh Blake too. If anyone around here could be sitting out the war playing tennis, it was her rather than Elizabeth McTavish.

"Ja," Matias Forsvars rumbled. "That is what we are here for. We will get some back."

"That isn't your job," Trilby snapped. "The Air Transport Auxiliary is not a combat force. Your job is simply to fly planes from one place to another, thereby freeing RAF pilots to do what they do best -- engage the Hun. In this case, your job will be flying light aircraft like the DeHavilland Mosquito from the factories in Canada and the United States to a field near St. Johns, Newfoundland, and eventually to fly longer range aircraft like the Hudson across the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to the United Kingdom. That is all you will do. You will not be in contact with the enemy, and you will not take any risks. The aircraft are valuable. You are not. Which is why you are in the ATA."

He stopped short, and Alma felt a rush of sympathy. Was he talking to them, or to himself?

"We understand that," Jasna said impatiently. "Now let us at the planes!"

Trilby gave her a quelling look. "First, we will begin with basic flight instruction…."


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 21st, 2013 02:30 pm (UTC)
It's kind of silly, but my first reaction to this was a delighted "older people being awesome and having adventures yay." It's so rare to see and I'm so glad to see it here.

Trilby gave her a quelling look. "First, we will begin with basic flight instruction…."

...I don't think I've ever seen a laughing facepalm gif, which is unfortunate, because it would be very appropriate here.
Aug. 21st, 2013 09:55 pm (UTC)
They are very awesome! :) I love middle aged heroes who succeed because of their experience and hard work rather than kid geniuses.

Hee. I do love Trilby too. I think he'll grow on people. Alma's right that he's got problems of his own.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 03:21 am (UTC)
Heh heh heh heh...

Yes, not ALL the stories out there have to be about Special Youngsters with Destinies. Sometimes mature heroes still have destinies to fulfill, and sometimes they just forge their own paths!
Aug. 22nd, 2013 01:15 pm (UTC)
Our society is so stuck on "genius" as the cause of success, rather than hard work. The truth is that every single person I know who was identified young as a "gifted writer" and who had the benefit of special programs and creative writing classes and advanced courses fizzled out in their twenties. All those "early talent identification" programs failed to actually identify talent. Or rather, they identified potential, but not the personality traits that turn youthful promise into adult achievement -- persistence, hard work, being a self-starter, the ability to take criticism, and most importantly the adventurous spirit necessary to have the life experiences that actually result in books.

Or is it rather that being identified as a youthful talent or an up and coming genius actually prevented the development of those qualities? Many of those qualities are developed by adversity -- like sticking to a project when it's failing and you have little encouragement -- and without those negative experiences, those qualities are absent in the adult.
Aug. 21st, 2013 04:45 pm (UTC)
This sounds fantabulous. However, I wonder how long it is before the airfield is empty of planes and the janitor finds Trilby tied up in the bathroom with duct tape over his mouth. Meanwhile the others are skylarking at 10,000 feet. Respect for the uniform will only go so far, methinks.
Aug. 21st, 2013 09:58 pm (UTC)
Oh dear! That would be a problem, yes! Although I kind of love Trilby too. He may grow on people. And any resemblance between Connie Jezek and Radek Zelenka is surely only in my mind....
Aug. 22nd, 2013 02:38 am (UTC)
Radek Zelenka, one of the true greats of Stargate Atlantis. And I'm sure Trilby will become a great character. But at the moment, he's just an amusing jerk who doesn't realize who he's talking to. But I'm sure that will change. And maybe he'll teach THEM (the smug elders who think they actually know everything) a thing or two.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 01:07 pm (UTC)
I love Radek so much. He's just awesome. And though he wasn't originally intended that way, Connie Jezek has a good deal of Radek in him.

Trilby, on the other hand, I visualize as something like Declan McRae in Sanctuary. (Another minor character I loved to pieces.)
Aug. 21st, 2013 08:20 pm (UTC)
I adore this scene, so much.
Aug. 21st, 2013 09:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )