I swooped over the final peak between me and the open skies above the city. Far below, reconstruction workers were clearing the roads into the mountains. Crews were busy loading the last of the rubble from the outlying suburbs into dump trucks so the materials could be processed and recycled. Several houses looked untouched while others still had visible scars. Reconstruction in the city itself was progressing as well with electric tram lines, roads and maglev tracks returning to their former glory. Even the houses in the new communities were coming along nicely. Although it will be some time before everything returns to normal, I know that for the time being, the refugee camp will survive. Your father sat in the copilot's seat, silently watching the city pass under our Pegasus. Neither he nor Ms. AJ had said a word since we took off. I believe he was simply reflecting on how it felt to see you and your mother again. To be honest, the silence became increasingly uncomfortable and I was pleased that AJ spoke up.
"There were some mighty nice folks back there. I know I was only with them for a day but I think we're practically friends already." AJ tried to start a conversation but your father only shifted in his seat. "Speakin' of friends, I don't think we've been properly introduced. Most of the crew just calls me AJ."
Your father turned around and introduced himself with a friendly handshake. AJ sure surprised him with her firm grip and enthusiastic shake. "A pleasure makin' your acquaintance, sir!" He smiled and opened up to her. They talked about how they came to serve on the Crescent Sun and what their jobs were. Your father and her have a lot in common as it turns out. They both handle technical jobs on the ship except that AJ is more familiar with the food production and preparation systems.
"I'm no stranger to working with the kind of equipment on board. I've handled my family's farm since I was young. We hold on to the old ways where we can but that don't stop us from welcoming the future any. Most of the equipment we use only helps us manage our resources better. With proper care, sunshine and a little touch of old country quality, we grow some of the finest crops you'll ever taste. You should come visit us. Ya know, bring the family when this whole mess has been sorted out."
It appeared as if the emotion returned to your father. "I'd really like that." he said.
However, before they could continue talking, I received landing clearance from the airship and I had to ask them to fasten their seatbelts. "In fact, when we come home for good, all y'all are invited to come visit!" AJ said as she strapped herself into her seat in the passenger compartment. Outside the Pegasus cabin, the Crescent Sun cast its enormous shadow on the vast prairie as it remained suspended in the air. The air traffic controller's voice came though my headphones and directed me to land in the airship's lower hangar. I landed with ease and powered down my engines. To my surprise, I could not see any of my close friends who helped me organize the delivery missions except for our senior officer. She stood at the end of the hangar with her hair and service uniform in crisp condition. As the Crescent Sun's head of intelligence and mission coordination, she was always concerned with the smallest of details. At her side stood her trusted assistant, a short, young man with a data scroll in hand. I closed the cabin door and turned to greet them.
"Welcome back, all of you." she said warmly. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Strong." Your father introduced himself as I asked her why our friends were not present.
"Unfortunately, introductions with them will have to wait. We are needed in the north and I had them to return to their stations. All other preparations have been made and we are ready to leave. There is just one last Pegasus outside and as soon as Ash lands, we'll be underway." she said.
I thought I was the last pilot outside the ship but I was mistaken. "What is she doing out there?"
"Probably practicing her tricks again." Lt. Col. Strong's assistant said with a hint of humor in his voice. She gave him a sideways glance.
"We needed someone to give the ship a final visual inspection to make sure everything is in order out there. Speaking of which, Sergeant, you and your crew did a wonderful job on repairing the engines." she said.
"Thank you, mam." your father replied.
"Lt. Ashley was the first to volunteer. She'll jump at any chance to fly and squeeze in a bit of practice." she explained. Within moments, I heard the fluttering rotors of Ash's Pegasus as she brought it through the open hangar doors. With the airship at rest, she did not require any assistance from the automated landing arm and expertly set her craft down on the hangar floor. The space between the cabin and passenger compartment doors was decorated with several rows of tiny insignias, representing enemy aircraft and drones she had downed in combat. Further back on the fuselage, just before the tail boom, was a modified version of our airship's symbol that consisted of an upturned crescent moon below a cloud and lightning bolt; the mark of the Crescent Sun's defense squadron.
"Inform the bridge that all aircraft are accounted for and we are ready to depart." Strong said to her assistant who relayed the message through his data scroll. An alarm sounded and the hangar doors closed as Ash stepped out of her craft. Her confident grin and fiery red hair stood out against the grey fabric of her flight suit.
"Everything looks perfect out there. The ship's ready and the skies are just awesome for flying today. I hope I didn't keep anyone waiting." she said.
"Not at all. In fact, I believe we're moving now." Lt. Col. Strong said. "But I'm afraid proper introductions will have to wait until we have completed our latest assignment. Sergeant, you and AJ are to report to your stations. As for you two, I'll meet you in the briefing room in five minutes." Everyone headed their separate ways except for Ash and me. I followed her through the corridors of the ship until we reached the briefing room where several other pilots were already in their seats. I spotted another member of the crew who helped me start the care package deliveries, Lt. Abigail Libman. She sat off to one side of the room as she was usually less than comfortable next to the more rowdy pilots. Ash and I found seats next to her and struggled to hear her soft voice over the din of the room.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be there to meet you on your last delivery. I hope you understand." she said.
"I completely understand. But do you have any idea what's going on now?" I asked her.
She shrugged. We all sat back and waited for the briefing to begin. When Lt. Col. Strong entered, we stood and saluted her and she explained our next mission to us.
"We have received reports from a refugee camp in the north of a potent outbreak. Overcrowding and poor sanitation has led to the spread of several illnesses. In particular, the highly infectious P-type Pox has reached nearly epidemic levels." Lt. Col. Strong said. She displayed a few charts illustrating the number of infected refugees over the time since the war ended. "The doctors on the ground have used up all of their antiviral treatments trying to contain the Pox and they need someone to bring them more. This is where we come in."
She explained how the Crescent Sun was closer to the camp than any other possible relief force and we already had crewmembers moving antiviral medication from our infirmary to the hangars. Some Pegasi would carry medication while others would bring in food, water and medical personnel to assist the camp's doctors.
"Your cargo assignments have been sent to your data pads. Please review them carefully." Strong advised. "And one more very important thing. We will launch the Pegasi as soon as we are ready. The camp informed us that they have several patients in critical condition who need that medication as soon as possible. Unfortunately, in addition to racing this clock, we also have to outrun this." With a few taps on the briefing board, she brought up a map of the region with a real-time display of our airship's location in relation to a large red and orange splotch.
"This thunderstorm is predicted to cross our path to the camp by nightfall. The ship can push through it with little trouble but our meteorological data indicates that this is a supercell level storm. It towers several kilometers into the sky and the wind shears inside it will throw a Pegasus around like a leaf in a tornado. If you cannot pass the storm before it crosses your flight path, you will have to return to the ship. It is simply too dangerous for anyone to fly through it. For now though, get some rest until your aircraft are loaded. It's going to be a long night."
She dismissed us and everyone headed off to their quarters. I left the group to check on the loading operations where I found crews packing dozens of storage containers into the aircraft. However, when I looked for my Pegasus, I was informed that it had been taken for inspection and repairs after my previous series of supply deliveries.
"You can see if one of the other pilots will let you be their copilot on this one." the crew chief suggested. I nodded and headed back to the room Ash and I shared. Inside, she was lying on her bunk, reading something on a data scroll. She looked up when I came in and greeted me with a friendly smile.
"Oh there you are. I wondered where you disappeared to after the briefing." Ash said.
"I went to the hangar where I was told my Pegasus is out for maintenance. I was wondering if I could be your copilot for this mission." I said.
She tossed the scroll aside, the cover of some adventure novel flashed on the screen before the device entered sleep mode. "It's cool with me. Our cargo's gonna be a load of the antiviral meds. I hope they aren't too heavy or they'll just slow me down when I try out a new move I've got planned."
"Ash, this is a supply mission. You can't go looping and diving through the sky with cargo like this. I hate to tell you this, but you're not a dogfighter anymore." I lowered my voice. It must have been difficult for her to have to restrain so much passion. To cage her amount of skill on a routine mission seemed almost cruel.
"I know, I know. It's just with everything settling down out there, I'm afraid of the day they'll tell me I'm no longer needed. The day I'll be abandoned. So I can't let a day go by without flying. Just because I don't know how many missions I have left, I'll take anything if it means I can soar."
Her voice grew soft and she looked up at me, hoping that I understood. "They would never let someone like you go. You're the best pilot I've ever seen and I can't even count how many times you've saved my life or anyone else's for that matter. Besides, I'm your friend and I would never let them abandon you." I said.
"Thanks." Ash said.
"And look on the bright side, maybe we can fit in some trick practice after we're done. Just don't do anything too extreme, I nearly went cross-eyed trying to track you one time." Ash smiled and seemed to return to her usual positive mood. We joked and talked about trivial topics, calming our nerves before we would have to race the super storm in a few hours. I brought the display screen on our wall to life and selected an external camera's live feed. Through this digital window, I saw that the afternoon was upon us and knew that the mission was going to begin soon. When the time arrived, we donned our flight suits and headed to the hangar. Crewmembers in green vests sealed the cargo doors as the pilots climbed into their cabins. I sat in the seat to the right of Ash and helped her run through our preflight checks. I pulled on a pair of headphones and tested the radio systems along with all of the essential equipment onboard. Not long after we completed our checks did an alarm sound and the crewmembers clear the flight line. The hangar doors slid open to reveal the orange sky behind them. Ash reached into a pocket on her suit and removed a pair of aviator sunglasses. Even though she could have worn a helmet with a tinted filter, she usually wore the glasses instead. If there was ever a pilot with a style all their own, it was Ash.
"All personnel clear. Pegasi are clear to power up." came a voice in my headset.
"Copy, control. Engines are coming online. Standing by for launch authorization." I turned on the dual Cloudsdales that powered the craft and they slowly hummed to life. Our rotors gained speed and I felt Ash's tension to open up the throttle. Throughout the flight line, the other Pegasi were ready as well.
"Launch authorized. Proceed when ready." the flight controller said.
"Go for it." I said.
Ash released the landing clamps that held us to the floor and flew us outside and into the late afternoon air. She brought us around to get clear of the Crescent Sun and allow the other pilots to take off. With a wide turn through the sky, I saw her smile grow. The Pegasus climbed as she took us through a small cloud only to dive back down again.
"Easy. Let's hold off on that until we drop off the cargo." I warned her.
"Relax; I'm just getting a feel for the controls with that kind of weight back there."
I smiled as the rest of the Pegasi joined us. Dozens of them took off from both the upper and lower hangars and arranged themselves into several formations. We found our place in one of the formations and plotted our route to the camp. We were half an hour into the flight and everything had unfolded according to plan. Unfortunately, in the dying light of the day, I stared in awe at the only thing that could bring the mission to a halt. It loomed hundreds of feet above us and its gunmetal cloak stretched all the way to the ground. Clouds as dark, thick, and cold as a steel wall glowed every few seconds with electric anxiety. Thunder rolled through the sky with an oppressive force that surprised me with its ferocity.
"We're too late." Ash whispered into her headset.
"All Pegasi, be advised!" the flight controller's voice came through. "The supercell class storm has intersected your planned route. High winds, rain and electrical activity make it too dangerous to enter. You are to return at once."
In the distance, a bolt of lightning struck the ground with an amazing flash but inside the cockpit, our spirits were anything but bright.
"They're calling us back, Ash. What do you want to do?" I asked.
She gazed out at the storm and then to me. She took off her glasses and spoke clearly, her tone unwavering. "I can make it through the storm. I know I can. But I won't if you don't want to." she said.
I thought about the risk. Lt. Col. Strong said the storm would throw us around like a ball. I thought about my family and all those who I would leave behind if we crashed. It almost made me tell her to turn the Pegasus around. On either side of us, the rest of the pilots peeled off and headed towards the ship. Then I remembered you Lauren. I never would have met you if I had not chosen to act all those days ago. It made me wonder whose life depended on what Ash and I were carrying. They were counting on us. I knew I had to support Ash and continue the mission. "I think this is crazy and you might be a little nutty, but I'm with you either way. We have a job to do so let's make this happen."
"Are you sure? Have you ever soared past lightning? It's awesome to me but I don't want you to panic when we go inside this thing."
"Compared to the war, this will be a breeze. I'll be fine. The only ones you need to worry about are sitting back at command." I said. As I looked around, I noticed that we were alone in the sky. Our lone craft must have stood out on the Crescent Sun's radar because I soon heard the flight controller again.
"Iris 1-5, state your intentions." His voice was quite formal and I had a feeling that he would not understand Ash's refusal to turn around.
"Crescent Sun, we are completing the mission." Ash took the Pegasus higher and aimed the nose directly at the storm.
"1-5, coms interference is possible given your proximity to the storm. How copy?" he said.
"Solid copy, Crescent Sun. There is no coms trouble so I will make myself clear. We are flying through the storm and delivering our cargo. Over." Ash began to inspect all of the instruments and information displays as we approached the darkening wall.
"Iris 1-5, you are advised to return at once."
"And abandon the camp?" Ash said impatiently.
"Negative. The Crescent Sun can pass through the storm unharmed. We will still reach the camp." the flight controller said.
"Yeah, hours later! Those people on the ground don't have that kind of time!" Ash said angrily. "Why am I even discussing this with you? Find Lt. Col. Strong, and put her on."
A moment later, Strong's voice came through the radio. "What are you doing Ash?" She didn't sound upset, rather, she sounded concerned.
"What is the condition of the Pox patients, mam?" Ash asked.
"The camp sent us a report an hour ago. They just added a dozen more people to the critical condition sector. Without any treatment, they won't survive another day."
"There. Say all of that again and then ask me what I'm doing. I'm doing what I have to. Ditzy and I have already talked about this and she's with me." Ash replied firmly.
"Think about this. Both of you! Our readings indicate that the storm is too strong to fly through and by the time you fly around it, you might as well have come through it with us."
I spoke up, determined to show my support for Ash. "We have thought about it, mam. It may not be the smart thing, but it is the right thing."
"We took an oath to protect people when we joined. That doesn't mean we'll abandon them when the weather gets rough." Ash said.
There was a pause. No one spoke and all I could hear were our rotors and the rumble of thunder. Finally, Lt. Col. Strong returned. "I understand that the choice is only yours to make. You are clear to act as you see fit."
Ash and I exchanged smiles. "Thank you. We won't fail." Ash said.
"To both of you, from all of us here watching
"We'll see you on the other side of the storm. Iris 1-5, out." I signed off and nodded to Ash.
"I'm sorry I'm bringing you into this. I hope you
" she began. I held up a hand to stop her.
"I still say you're nutty. But, hey, I've done lots of nutty things."
She chuckled and brushed a lock of her red hair away from her eyes as she eased the throttle forward. "Let's just hope this won't be the last crazy thing we do."
Rain splattered itself against the polyglass canopy before the first gust of wind howled against the Pegasus. The sun was gone and we had only just breached the perimeter of the storm. The faint glow of our instrument displays and navigational systems provided the only light apart from the occasional brilliant flash of lightning. As we had expected, the wind shears attacked the craft violently but Ash fought them throughout the night. The turbulence slowed our progress but as dawn approached, we were confident that we could make it through unscathed.
"We're doing fine. Just a few more miles and we'll be in the clear." I said. Another fierce gust struck the Pegasus and forced Ash to wrestle the craft back under control. I had spoken too soon because suddenly a bolt of lightning lit up the sky and struck us. The internal systems flickered for a moment before we realized what had happened.
"You ok?" I asked Ash.
"Yeah, I think the shielding took the majority of the strike. We still have all our
" she trailed off.
"What? What's wrong?" I looked down at my own display and noticed that our engine output had dropped dangerously low.
"I think the rotors stopped. We've lost power." she said. "Hang on because we just became a rock."
She was right. The Pegasus began to dip and my stomach lurched as we picked up speed.
"I'm going to try and restart the engines! I need you to keep us level using the tail and rotor pods! They're not wings but they should at least make sure we're upright!" Ash shouted.
I gripped the control stick and planted my feet on the pedals. As we plummeted to the ground, I tried to keep us from being upside down as the storm did everything to resist me. Thunder peals echoed through the grey haze as Ash attempted to regain power.
"Come on!" she pleaded. I watched our altimeter count down and knew that we were almost out of time. I activated the terrain scanner which displayed a digital representation of the ground on our windscreen. It allowed us to see through the clouds but this only helped us visualize how close we were to our doom.
"Last try Ash! Take the controls. I'm gonna shut everything down and restart the whole system. Then it's up to you to get us flying again!" I shouted into the headset. Ash took over the Pegasus while I made the craft go dark. The ground disappeared into the storm as I counted to three. "Please work
" I whispered.
With a familiar and relieving hum, the engines came back online along with everything else. "Hit it!" I cheered as Ash shoved the throttle as far as it would go. The terrain scanner flashed a low altitude warning but Ash ignored it. The rotors roared with a ferocity that rivaled the wind as Ash pulled up. With the ground coming up to meet us, there was an earsplitting crack of thunder just as we avoided a crash. The Pegasus flew only a few yards above the ground at an incredible speed. Ash worked the controls until our nose tilted upward. We tore off into the sky again as the boom reverberated through the air.
"We did it! I can't believe we did it!" My heart continued to race as we swooped through the morning sky. Ash said nothing. She merely smiled like never before. The pure joy in her eyes was contagious as I took several breaths to calm myself. The clouds faded away as if they had been pushed back by Ash's mood. Within minutes, the sprawling city of tents was visible in the soft warmth of the morning sun. The camp's radio operator directed us to an empty field where we landed in the moist grass. Men and women in masks approached us as the rotors came to a stop. I opened my door and jumped down to meet them.
"We're from the Crescent Sun. I understand you have a Pox epidemic on your hands. We brought the medication you requested." I said.
One of the men stepped aside to speak with me while his companions unloaded the cargo crates. "You're from the airship we've contacted?" he said in disbelief. "They told us their transports had to turn back."
"Not us." I said.
"You flew through that?" He pointed towards the storm on the western horizon.
"Well, yes. Yes we did. The ship will be here later today with the rest of your supplies but we heard that some of the Pox patients can't wait that long." I replied.
"You have no idea how right you are. The Pox is especially deadly to the elderly and young children. I can't tell you how many parents will be thankful that you braved that dreadful storm when you did." the man said. Behind him, an all-terrain vehicle with a trailer pulled up to take the crates to the medical tents.
"Anything I can do to help?" I asked.
"That's quite alright but I'm afraid the Pox is too contagious for you to follow us much further into the camp. You've done more than enough already. Thank you." the man answered.
"It wasn't just me. You'll have to thank Lt. Ashley here." I said as Ash joined us. "It was her determination to fight through the storm that got us here."
"It was nothing really. I'd do it for anyone. Even it meant another close call." Ash said. The man looked at her, puzzled. I explained to him about our brush with death towards the end of the flight.
"Call it luck or skill or whatever you will, ladies. But I think you were destined to complete this mission." Ash and I looked at each other, unsure of how to respond. In the end, we thanked the man and let him follow the other camp workers to the medical tents. Ash crawled into the empty cargo bay of the Pegasus and found a spot to lie down. She yawned and tried to get comfortable as we waited for the Crescent Sun to arrive. I hesitated to join her as the mission had left me tired as well but I instead chose to give the Pegasus a quick inspection before I rested. When I reached the tail of the craft, I noticed something curious. The painted mark of Ash's squadron had been blackened by what I supposed was where lightning had struck us. The upturned crescent was barely visible and all that remained was the cloud and the stylized lightning bolt. I made a mental note to have the mechanics investigate how we lost our engines but I soon thought of little else besides resting. As I walked behind the Pegasus to reach the cargo compartment, I gazed off towards the retreating storm. With the rising sun at my back, I saw one of the most brilliant rainbows grace the dreary sky and return color to the horizon.
When we joined the Allied Air Force, we pledged an oath. Like our culture, many different pieces have become incorporated into it over time. We promise to uphold our beliefs, defend our nation and acknowledge that we are responsible for our own actions. We pledge loyalty to our leaders and each other, forming a bond of unimaginable strength that allows us to stand by each other in the face of hardships. However, for some of us, there is something deeper. Ash told me that her first sworn duty is to her conscience, no matter what the consequences. Her actions on the night of the great storm caused me to realize strength more powerful than I could ever have imagined. Her loyalty was not limited to only those she knew but also to those that she never met. In their hour of need, she did not abandon them as others did. She persevered in the shadow of the storm to help people while the other pilots turned back. I believe that our world needs more of her kind of uncommon loyalty because if we are to rebuild it, we must first learn to rely on each other. This willingness to take the first step in building new friendships can lead to victory even when the situation appears hopeless.
Now, more than ever, we need someone to depend on. However, with this true for everyone, we can be that person. We must stand by each other's side. Like the colors of a rainbow blending seamlessly together, we can return beauty to where there once was grey.
Your faithful friend,