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Into the Night
Some kinds of love endure in unexpected circumstances.
Issue #15, Monday 26 September 2022
Into the Night
A soft drizzle of rain was falling in the London night as Phillip Henderson stood waiting outside the dance hall. A motor-carriage trundled past, puffing small clouds of steam. All along the street, the gas lights glimmered off the newly wet surface of the road. No blackout required tonight.
Phillip tipped down the peak of his cap to ward off the drips from his face, and pulled his great-coat tighter over his uniform jacket. He hoped to hell the weather would clear up by the following night.
From inside the hall, he could hear the welcoming sounds of music and laughter. He could go inside to wait, but he didn't want to miss his girl, or take the chance that someone else would try and chat her up before she found him.
As he stood there, another man approached along the pavement, dressed in the same Aeronautical Corps uniform as his own, the great-coat flapping wide. A moment later, Phillip heard a familiar Scots voice: "Phillip, y'old bugger. What're you doing here? Waiting for that wee bit of a girl of yours?" It was Jim MacDonnell, his navigator and his best friend for many years.
Phillip laughed. "Yes. Are you here for the dance, too?"
"Me? Not likely, I canna dance a step. No, I'm off down to the Dragon. I reckon I've got a look in with that big barmaid of theirs." He shoved his hands into his coat pockets. "It's a braw night to be standing in the rain. Is she late?"
Phillip smiled. "Yes. She often is, I'm afraid."
"That skinny chit from the typing pool, is it?"
"Yes. Mary, her name is. I..." Phillip hesitated. It was all too easy to be embarrassed by your male friends if you dared reveal your true emotions. And how he felt for Mary was hard to put into words. You couldn't say to someone like Jim that your girl made your heart want to sing, now could you? No.
"Aye, well," said Jim, "I'll be off, then. Tomorrow night, it's still on?"
"If the weather's good and the wind's in the right direction." Then Phillip dropped his voice to a whisper, "And if they have that new bomb ready to go."
Jim nodded soberly. They had been to a demonstration of the new secret weapon just last week at Finchley and had attended a lecture on how to drop and trigger it without danger to the airship. A new type of bomb. It was all timed by clever clockwork. First a container of highly compressed, volatile fuel broke open, creating a huge cloud of vapour. Then a few moments later, the conventional explosive went off, igniting the fuel and adding its own force. The result was a tremendously wide-spread and powerful explosion, and one guaranteed to set fire to everything within range. Watching its destructive power had shaken them both.
"Bloody boffins, always something new," Jim said quietly. "And usually useless. That bomb, though... Still, if it works it'll be a good kick in the trousers for old Boney, eh?" He laughed, saluted Phillip mockingly, and walked on down the road. He stopped and turned after a few steps. "Oh, and good luck with the wee lassie, eh?" He waved, and went on.
Only a few minutes passed after that before Phillip saw a slight figure hurrying down the street, wearing a belted raincoat and carrying an umbrella. Golden hair reflected back the street lights. It was Mary. She came up to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Brrr.... let's go inside!" she said, and so they did, arm in arm.
The hall was crowded with servicemen and their girls. Men from all of the different arms of the military. Royal Navy men, of course, many of them. They were still the frontline defence against a French invasion. Several Army officers, too, in their bright red dress-uniforms. Phillip had heard that in the field the infantrymen were now wearing darker colours, a funny muddy mixture of green and brown, the better to hide from Frenchie snipers. But no Army officer worth his salt would dream of turning up to a social occasion in such a drab outfit.
Together with the Army and Navy men, there were just a handful of officers like Phillip from the Royal Aeronautical Corps, the newest branch of the armed services.
Mary was a wonderful dancer, and Phillip always felt clumsy with her on the dance floor, though he had taken a few lessons. Still, she didn't seem to mind his straying feet.
A couple of hours later, exhausted at last from dancing, and just a little tipsy from the spiked punch that the Ladies' Auxiliary served up, Mary and Phillip decided to leave. There was a bright, speculative sparkle in Mary's eyes as she said to him, "How about coming back to my flat? My room-mate's out tonight, staying with her sick mother."
"I'd love to," Phillip said, a warm eagerness growing in him. Could this be the night? "There's something I'd like to talk to you about, anyway."
She smiled, her bright red lipstick so attractive on her pale face that he could almost cry. "Let's go then," she said, and they left.
In her flat, Phillip sat down on the edge of the room-mate's bed as Mary sat on her own. He found that he was trembling. How stupid! He had faced dozens of missions over enemy territory, every moment risking being shot down by one of the deadly French rocket guns. There had been many times when he had been afraid, but never paralysed by terror. Now, though, he found himself almost unable to speak as he looked longingly across at the lovely girl opposite.
"Mary, I..." He stopped, and she smiled, encouraging him to go on.
"Well, tomorrow night, there's a mission. I think it's going to be very dangerous. I don't know the details yet, of course, but the rumour is that it's audacious, something the French aren't going to expect. If we're lucky, it might even bring this damned endless war to a close." Endless was the right word. The English had been at war on and off with the French Empire ever since the first Napoleon Bonaparte had come to power, three generations ago. Now they were fighting his great-grandson, Napoleon IV, newly ambitious to attack England's interests.
"Oh, Phillip," Mary said. "I hope you'll be safe, darling. Can you tell me any more about it? Are you flying one of those new stealthy airships?"
He frowned and looked at her a little sharply. "How do you know about those?"
She laughed. "Darling, I do work at the base, and I do have eyes. I type most of the Commander's memorandums and orders. It's only the most secret ones which he tries to thump out himself, poor old dear."
"Oh, I see. Well, look.... Oh hell, I'm making a mess of this. The fact is, Mary, that I might not come back. And I wanted... I wanted to ask you to marry me."
She came across to him then, put her arms around him and kissed him. "Of course I will, Phillip, of course I will. I love you, darling." Then she paused, and looked down. "Only... well, I need to tell you something about myself first. You might change your mind after I tell you." There was a little catch in her voice, and then she buried her face in her hands and began to sob loudly.
Phillip was astonished and concerned. He held her tightly. "It doesn't matter," he said, "whatever it is, it doesn't matter."
Her face still in her hands, she said in a muffled voice, "The fact is... the fact is, Phillip, that I'm not a virgin. There was a man when I was quite young, who, who... I struggled, but I couldn't stop him."
"Oh. Oh, I see." He was silent for a long moment and then made up his mind. "That doesn't matter. It wasn't your fault. Let's not talk of it again."
Sniffing, she looked up. "You are so good to me, Phillip. I'm so relieved."
They sat silently for a long while, before she said, "Let's get married just as soon as you get back. Tell me a little more about your ship. I want to know how well you will be protected. Will you really be hidden from the spotters? I just want to know so that I can keep calm about your mission."
Phillip found himself telling her about his pride in the new airship and its special features. It was a little against the rules, of course. Well, a lot against the rules. But after all, Mary worked at the airbase herself, and she must have been screened by the security people, particularly if she was regularly typing the Commander's work as she said. The only thing he didn't mention to her was the new bomb which he and Jim had seen demonstrated. That was too fearful a weapon for him to want to dwell on, even in his own mind, and he knew it would just make Mary more afraid for him.
There came a moment when she snuggled close to him and he cautiously placed a hand on her warm breast. Not long after that, they were together in her narrow bed, their clothes scattered on the floor.
The next day, feeling a warm glow of happiness, Phillip was at the airbase, staring up proudly at the black bulk of his new airship, the HMA Agincourt, named for England's most memorable defeat of their ancient enemy, the French. The ship swayed a little in the freshening wind, but it was firmly attached to the mooring mast and securely tethered to points on the ground at three other places.
It was late afternoon. Darkness would be falling soon, and he had better get ready for the mission. The rain clouds had thankfully moved on, and the wind was from the north-west. Perfect conditions for the trip out, though coming back would be much slower.
Here across the field came Jim MacDonnell and their rear gunner, Brad Palmer.
Jim slapped Phillip on the back. "Ready then, my old mate?" Phillip nodded. Brad, a rather glum, solitary man, just nodded to them both and climbed up into the airship.
"Do you ken where we're going tonight?" Jim asked.
Phillip held up a sealed envelope. "Not to be opened until we're on the way. But I've got a pretty shrewd idea."
"Aye, well, let's get on with it, then." Jim started to climb up the narrow steps.
Phillip looked back at the administration building. Somewhere in there Mary would be working. Maybe she was looking out now. He gave a half-wave, just in case, and then followed Jim up into the cockpit. Brad was out of sight, already installed in the rear turret, no doubt.
The sun finally set, and the dusk was brief. As soon as it became fully dark, Phillip gave a sign to the ground staff to release the tethers. The ship started to rise, and he engaged the engines. They set off towards the coast, headed toward France.
Only once they were over the Channel did Phillip break the seals on their orders.
Paris. The very heart of Boney's empire. And the frightening new bomb was already aboard and armed. Phillip prayed that it didn't go off prematurely due to some miscalculation by the boffins.
They moved swiftly on, the engines working with the direction of the wind. Outside the cockpit window the night was dark, dark; as dark as they could have hoped for, and more. Phillip could barely make out the division between land and sky. It was so faint that there were times when he felt that he was only imagining it. He looked down at the reassuring gleam of his instruments, the only illumination in the cockpit. Not long, now, surely, before they passed over the coast of France and into enemy territory.
Even as he had that thought, Jim confirmed it. "Just passing Dieppe," he said. "Three hours should see us over Paris with our little present for young Boney. If we get that far, o'course."
"Jesus, Jim, cheer me up, why don't you?" said Phillip, but Jim just laughed. That was always Jim's way.
"Turning on the noise suppressor," Phillip said, and flipped a switch. Immediately, the already moderate sound of the airship's engines dropped to no more than a hum. Their forward speed also slowed a little. The suppressor worked well, but it also reduced the engine efficiency. Still, it was better than being picked up by the giant 'ears' of the enemy's AUDAR installations. And the boffins assured them that their new, top-secret, matt black, sound-absorbent coating would make them essentially invisible and inaudible. Phillip hoped to God that it worked.
Not much to do now for a couple of hours until they reached Paris, at which point it would start to get really hairy. Though of course they always needed to keep a watch along the way for enemy spotter balloons and the tethered blimps the French used as gun platforms.
Jim leaned back. "Did your girl turn up last night?" he asked. "I was rogering that barmaid from the Dragon. Told her it might be my last chance, she ought to be kind to me."
Phillip laughed. It was better than thinking about the dangers of this mission. "You tell every girl the same thing, a different girl every week."
"Aye, well, it'll be true one day," Jim said, sounding mock-offended. "But how about you? Did your lassie turn up for the dance?"
"Yes. Yes, she did," Phillip said, then stopped abruptly, not wanting to say much more, his heart swelling as he thought of Mary, her gentle nature, her soft dark eyes, the smooth curves of her pale body lying on the bed last night.
"In fact," he said after a pause. "In fact, I proposed to her last night. And she said 'yes'. We're going to be married as soon as we can manage it, in case, you know..."
"Aye, I know well enough. Well man, congratulations! Though I don't know what she sees in an ugly lump like you."
Phillip gave him an affectionate but solid thump on the arm.
Jim flipped on the intercom so that he could talk to Brad, in his lonely bubble at the rear of the airship. "Brad, man, did you hear? Old Phillip here is going to get hitched!"
Only silence came back, and a little static. "Brad?" Jim called again. "Are you asleep back there, you old bugger?" Nothing.
"That's funny," said Jim. "Intercom out, do you think? I reckon I'd better go back and check he's OK." He began to stand up.
"You don't need to move," came a soft voice from behind. "Brad's having a little lie down. He was quite surprised to see me. And my knife."
Phillip whirled around at the sound of that voice. A voice he knew well. Barely visible, outlined only by the faint orange light from the instruments, stood a woman, her arm outstretched towards them.
"My God! Mary!" he said. "What on earth are you doing here? How...?"
Jim came to his senses much more quickly than Phillip, and surged to his feet. "She's a fucking spy, you idiot!" But before he could make a step forward, there was a bright flash and a deafening bang. Jim screamed, and fell back to the floor. He lay squirming and cursing with pain.
Phillip was stunned. "Mary, what...?"
She stepped forward, closer to the dashboard lights. She was holding a gun, and her face was calm but unsmiling.
"It's Marie, actually. Marie Girard. Of the Direction de la Sécurité Impériale. Your friend was quite right, you see."
Phillip's mind lurched. He felt as though his world had been shattered and put together again in a new, crazy pattern. Bewildered, he looked down at Jim, still writhing on the floor, but now becoming quiet. Even in the dim light, Phillip could see the dark patch of blood spreading on the front of Jim's uniform. "You... you've killed him," he said, with a stab of awful grief.
"My, my, we are sharp tonight, aren't we?" said Mary. Said Marie. Marie. He couldn't believe it. Only last night...
"Now," she said. "We are going to take this ingenious craft as a gift for the Emperor. So good of you to tell me all about it while we were in bed. The stealth technology will prove very useful for our own airships when we return to bomb London. You may think the war has turned in your favour. But you are wrong. His Imperial Majesty has many tools at his disposal. I, for example, am one of them."
"Mary," he said hopelessly as he stared at her lovely face, her blonde hair a faint halo in the dim light. "I thought that you loved me... Oh God! I've been such a fool!"
"Yes," she said. "You have. Now, no more delay. I cannot allow you to bring the airship and its bombs any closer to Paris. Instead, we will divert to the airfield at Rouen."
Phillip finally gathered his wits and looked up at Marie, this stranger, this enemy. "I don't know how to find my way there," he said grimly. "And you've killed my navigator." My friend, he thought, mourning silently but painfully.
"It is not a problem. It has been arranged. Each night this week my compatriots will turn on the lights at Rouen, for one hour only, starting at midnight. We only need to be within range of the airfield to see the lights. Give me a moment."
Still pointing the gun at him, she bent and picked up Jim's map, on which he had been marking their position by dead reckoning. She made a quick calculation by eye.
"Turn the ship now, Phillip, to a bearing of... let me see, allowing for the wind, 192 degrees." She stood over him with the gun to make sure that he followed her instructions. His hands shook terribly, as he tried to stop remembering how he had felt about this woman. Mary... It was as though he had to mourn two dead people. Jim, lying on the floor at his feet, and the woman that he loved. Had thought that he loved.
Once the ship was turned in the right direction, there was little for Phillip to do. He tried to come up with a plan to overcome Marie, but with her gun pointed unwaveringly at him, he couldn't see any hope. He had no doubt that if forced to shoot him, she could still pilot the ship alone to her destination.
It was, in truth, not very hard to control these ships. Their huge flotation tanks full of hydrogen meant that there was no danger of crashing even if they ran out of fuel or the engines failed. It was just a matter of settling it down onto the ground. He had sometimes dreamed of flying in a more natural way, like the birds. A pity the boffins had long ago proved that heavier-than-air flight was impossible for any craft big enough to carry a person.
Phillip's mind was flooded with regrets. Losing the stealth technology to the Frenchies was bad enough, but there was another secret on board, far more valuable still. The bomb. The special bomb.
Their written orders had been to give the new and complex device its first operational test. The plan had been to drop it over the palace of the Emperor, hoping not just to kill the young tyrant and his court, but to create awe and confusion among his followers. Perhaps put an end for good to the long struggle between the two nations facing each other across the English Channel.
But that was all lost now, at least for Phillip and his crew.
Up ahead on the horizon, he could see a rectangle of bright lights in the otherwise dark landscape. Rouen airfield. Marie pushed the gun firmly into his back. "No silly moves, now, Phillip. I promise that you will be taken good care of. You'll be given the best treatment we can manage in one of the camps. And when this war is finally over, when France has won its birthright, well then, you will be released. Perhaps," she said in a gentler tone, "perhaps you can even get married then. But not, hélas, to me."
"Did you feel nothing for me, then?" he asked bitterly. "All those times we kissed, those times we talked. Last night, in bed. Was it all a sham?"
"All? Perhaps not all. You were not a bad lover, you know. Which is saying something, coming from a Frenchwoman to an Englishman, let me tell you. I would rather not, really rather not, have to shoot you. But do not make a mistake. I shall do so if you do anything stupid."
They approached the lights. With their benefit, Phillip could see ranks of motor-carriages drawn up around the airfield. No doubt there were a lot of French officials with their own Frenchie boffins, eager to examine the stolen technology of his airship.
Resignedly, he throttled down the engines, then gave them a little reverse thrust so that the airship would stay on station as it descended.
As he manoeuvred with half his attention, Phillip found himself thinking about how strange love was. The love he thought that he had had for Mary. For Mary but not for Marie. A false love, based on what? An attractive face? A gentle voice? A soft body? He hadn't known this woman at all, that was the truth of it.
He glanced down at poor Jim MacDonnell, now unmoving on the floor. As still as death. He had been a good friend, Jim, over many years. Phillip realised that he had loved Jim, in a way. That was a true love, based on mutual support and long familiarity. That kind of love demanded something of you, demanded that you be prepared to sacrifice something for it. And then there was love of country. That was something to be reckoned with, as well.
Marie was looking out of the cockpit window as Phillip descended to be level with the mooring mast, and nudged the airship towards it. It was always a delicate and nerve-racking operation. There had been that German airship a few years ago...
Marie's eyes were fixed on the metal framework outside, edging slowly closer. Phillip smiled a little, sadly, as he saw her momentary distraction.
He reached out and threw the switch to drop the new bomb.
Seeing his movement, Marie cried out and raised the gun. Phillip barely had time to register the searing pain through his chest before the terrible blast from outside. The cockpit lurched, and the world filled up with flame, engulfing them both in a last fiery embrace.
As he fell into eternity, Phillip felt only a triumphant joy.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About this story
Initially written as a piece of flash fiction in response to a photo prompt (of a zeppelin, I think), I then expanded it into a short story. It was published in the April 2013 issue of eSteampunk Magazine.
Thanks for reading. See you next time!