Weird War Stories: “Into The Valley”

East England, May, 1943: The turning of the tide of World War II. The seven crewmembers of the Avro Lancaster bomber “Resurgam” board their plane, ready for their final bombing mission.
Their journey will take them beyond life … beyond death … and beyond the edge of reality itself …

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EXCERPT:

As the jeep carried them along the runway, the bulky silhouette of the Avro Lancaster airplane Resurgam grew larger and sharper in the evening light, the painted green and gray metal catching the glow of the sunset.

The armament crew waved, signaling the bombs had been loaded. The fuel crew was turning to drive away on their empty tractor. Flight Engineer Beatrice Sheridan looked with mixed excitement and fear at what she had come to regard as ‘her’ plane.

The Avro Lancaster bomber stood seventy feet long and almost twenty feet high, with a wingspan of a hundred and two feet. It weighed thirty tons when fully loaded with bombs and fuel. There were four liquid-cooled twelve-cylinder Merlin engines, two on each wing. It could reach a speed of two hundred and eighty miles per hour with a service ceiling of twenty-four thousand feet, and a range of one thousand six hundred and sixty miles. Two 0.303-inch Browning machine-guns were stationed in the nose and dorsal turrets, plus four in the rear turret.

Along the sides of the plane, and under the red white and blue RAF roundels, the paint had been renewed on the Seven Outer Order Lamens of Protection: the Hierophant, the Hierus, the Kerux, the Hegemon, the Stolistes, the Dadouchos and the Phylax.

The seven members of the Resurgam’s crew got out of the jeep and stood looking up at the plane. Beyond it stood the waiting forms of other Lancasters, lined up along the runway.

Nobody spoke; this was their moment of meditation and prayer, before the mission commenced. They stood to attention in their heavy, fleece-lined pants and boots, leather flying jackets with wide sheepskin collars fastened over their uniforms and thermal underwear beneath. The faint tang of sulfur hung on the wind, a relic scent from the afternoon’s exorcism.

After their moment of contemplation, Ursula Gibson moved to the edge of the concrete strip for one last smoke. She pulled the long black cigarette holder from her pocket and lit the Woodbine with her Zippo.

Beatrice walked over to offer her some company. “I’ve never liked those scarecrows,” Ursula said, pointing across the fields, smoke leaking from her lipsticked mouth. “I keep thinking someone’s going to stick huge pins in them.”

“Not much we can do about them, Tabbie,” said Beatrice, using Ursula’s nickname. She peered at the several man-shaped figures standing in the twilit fields, their straw-filled heads turned toward the runway, their arms jutting out stiffly from their bodies. “The farmers around here have enough to cope with, we can’t ask them any more favors.”

“At least we don’t have to blame anything on bad luck,” Tabbie answered. “No more lucky scarves or St. Christopher’s medallions or patting the wing of the plane before we take off.”

“No more boyfriends or girlfriends blamed as jinxes, either.”

“Thank the Goddess for that.”

Tabbie ground out the half-smoked cigarette beneath her boot and they rejoined the crew. The metal framework of the Lancaster towered above as they walked up to it.

Five of them entered the plane through the nose hatch while the two gunners headed for the waist hatch at the rear of the plane. Roy Westerby, the pilot, was the first into the cockpit. He maneuvered his body into the seat and immediately began the instrument checks.

There were dozens of switches, gauges and buttons on the instrument panel, and more on the port and starboard walls below the windows. Between the seats was the control box that contained the ignition switches, engine controls, and throttle levers. Below that were the propeller speed levers and rudder controls.

“Hydraulic pressure,” said Roy.

“Check,” answered Beatrice.

“Fuel transfer valves.”

“Off.”

With the instrument checks concluded, they sat for a few moments, staring into the sunset. The Plexiglas distorted the colors of the landscape surrounding them – a little like a stained glass window, Beatrice had always thought – and fragmented the setting sun into a round tangle of golden wire.

“I keep thinking about what you said last night in the officer’s mess,” said Roy.

“What did I say?” asked Beatrice.

“About the sky not being Mankind’s natural element. We don’t belong here.”

“I’d been drinking wine,” Beatrice said, trying to smile. “You know how morose I get when I drink wine. I wasn’t serious.”

“I was scared of the officers when I was a new recruit,” Roy said. “I was terrified of what they might say if I got something wrong. These days, I sometimes think the scariest thing in the RAF is you and your friends in the back.”

“Now who’s not being serious?”

They turned to each other and grinned. “But really,” continued Roy, “I hope the Nazis are scared. They should be, by now.”

A voice from the control tower crackled over the radio. “Resurgam, you’re going up! Takeoff in five minutes!”

“Here we go,” said Roy, hands reaching out to the instrument panel. “Per Ignum …”

“Ad Lucem,” Beatrice finished for him.

Engine One cleared its metallic throat, spat a white-blue plume of smoke, and the propeller blades began to revolve.

The five other members of the crew waited in the radio room. No one was permitted in the rear section of the plane at this point; the extra weight would cause the tail to droop. The radio room, square between the wings, was the most substantial and well-protected part of the aircraft.

Engine Two growled into life. The fuselage began to vibrate from the turning of the propellers. The desk in the navigation room shook, but all of the maps, charts, pencils, rulers, and Tarot cards were safely attached to the desk or wall.

Roy flicked two more switches, bringing Engine Three into action, then Engine Four. The grass in the surrounding fields rippled like seawater, and dust whirled up from the concrete strip. The air inside the plane was tinged with fumes of gasoline, overwhelming the faint residue of brimstone.

The Resurgam awaited its turn to swoop down the runway, holding its deadly cargo of bombs and fuel within it. To Beatrice, the Lancaster bomber was a sleeping giant, awakened by the commanding voice of the four Merlin engines.

A flare arced over the fields to their right. The ground crew ducked under the spinning propellers and pulled the chocks from under the massive wheels.

Beatrice reached down to the lower control pedestal and released the tail wheel brake, then the front wheel brake. The plane rolled off the hardstand and onto the perimeter track. In front of them, the other Lancasters were taking off, rising into the skies in a steady pattern.

“Three, two, one, go!” Beatrice shouted.

Roy eased the throttles forward, and the bomber started to roll down the airstrip. Beatrice scanned the gauges for any irregularities and kept listening for any vibrations that sounded out of phase. Tabbie hung on to the doorway behind them, watching the runway though the Plexiglas. They picked up speed: sixty, seventy, eighty miles per hour.

With the ease of experience, Roy pushed the throttles forward smoothly, bringing the tail end up. The force and speed pushed Beatrice back into her seat, her spine tingling, adrenalin beginning its first rush through her body as five thousand horsepower grasped the air and sixty-eight thousand pounds of airplane trembled in the wrestling match with gravity. Beatrice took the throttles, sliding her hand under Roy’s, as the pilot used both hands to haul back upon the control column and force the nose up.

There was a gentle bounce, and another, and then they were weightless. Airborne. The front wheels left the ground, the massive wings scooped the air underneath them, and the Resurgam rose into the sky.

Siobhan McDonnell, the Navigator, called out the airspeeds from her indicator beside the navigation desk. “Ninety … one hundred … one hundred and twenty …”

“Climbing power,” chanted Roy.

“Climbing power,” Beatrice answered.

“Wheels up.”

“Wheels up.”

Beatrice flicked a switch on the throttle box. There was a high-pitched electric whine as the landing gear retracted into the bottom of the plane.

The Lancaster soared through dazzling blue sky, with the sun gently sinking below the horizon and turning the fields into a landscape of gold and verdigris.

“Flaps up.”

“Flaps up.” Beatrice eased the throttles with a seasoned indifference. The nose dropped slightly and the Lancaster assumed its standard flying motion.

“Fuel pumps for all tanks off,” reported Beatrice. “No warning lights.”

“Is the generator behaving, Beattie?”

“Perfectly, Skipper.”

Bomb Aimer Tabbie Gibson was already full-length in the nose underneath them, watching the dusk flow over the landscape beneath her. The squat grey box housing the Norden/Mathers Bombsight was perched in the very tip of the nose. It was a computing machine capable of calculating the wind speed, speed of the plane, weight of the bombs, air resistance, and astrological alignment of the stars to make sure of a perfect hit on the target.

On the starboard front wall of the nose was a panel of bombing instruments. Directly above her instruments was a .30-caliber machine gun. There were more instruments on the left, including the bomb-bay door and the bomb release button. The release had a protective cap to keep the bombs from being released accidentally.

Behind the cockpit and shielded by a curtain, Siobhan sat farther back at a little desk that jutted out of the port side bulkhead. Above and behind the desk was her navigational equipment: radio compass receiver, drift meter, tuning controls, astrological chart and Tarot cards. In the ceiling was a glass dome in case she needed to steer by the stars.

Len Murphy, Wireless Operator, hunched over his table in the radio room behind Siobhan’s desk, busy with sending the test signals. His desk was bolted to the left forward bulkhead, and held his receivers, transmitters, and Morse code key. More equipment was attached to the right bulkheads, fore and aft. There were two small windows, one in the port side of the fuselage and one in the starboard. A .50-caliber machine gun stuck out of an opening in the ceiling.

Both the navigation room and the radio room were under protection. Fastened to each ceiling was a large five-pointed star that stretched from wall to wall, formed of long glass neon tubes giving off a cool blue light. Behind the desks were five brand new horseshoes, vials of salt, herbs and water, Two circles had been drawn in chalk on each cabin floor, with a number of Cabalistic formulae and Zodiac signs within their borders.

Roy began a gentle turn. As the wing banked, the verdant countryside tilted slowly forward. Below the planes, long military convoys and civilian trucks rolled to and from the airfield.

“Beattie, take over for a second,” Roy said. He released the control wheel and Beatrice grabbed hold of it. It took all of her brute strength to hold the plane steady in the air.

Roy reached beneath his seat and picked up two thermos flasks from underneath. “One coffee, one Bovril,” he said. “Cheers.”

He sipped his coffee and then took the controls back from Beatrice. She opened the flask cautiously, the steaming liquid inside misting her goggles. She sipped at it tentatively. She would be grateful of the heat later; it was icy cold in the higher regions of the sky.

When Beatrice had been a little girl, she’d once said that she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up. Her parents had laughed a lot over that one.

It was funny how things turn out.

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About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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