Pyrope of 266
The mess of 266 Squadron at Maranique was warmed by a blazing fire to ward against the January frost creeping at the windows. Captain Terezi Pyrope was sitting by the fireside, whisky in hand, brooding into the flames. Her fellow ace and member of her flight, Lieutenant Dave Strider was sitting opposite, manning the gramophone. He had received a new record that morning and had quite exhausted the patience of the whole squadron playing it.
“Oh leave off, Strider,” complained Rose Lalonde, the laconic Squadron Major, from where she sat tapping cigarette ash onto the mornings’ dispatches.
It had been grim weather all week with very little flying. Too many pilots with too little time aloft spelt trouble. There hadn’t even been the dubious pleasures of Amiens as the squadron transport had broken down and was awaiting spare parts.
It was into this dull reverie that the blipping of a Rolls Royce engine broke. The squadron was up as one, and hurrying out onto the veranda. Through the dense grey cloud, an SE5 could be seen descending. It made as if to land, before giving a sudden burst of the throttle and zooming up narrowly clearing the chimney stacks of the mess. It went on to put on something of a show, executing enthusiastic if on occasion sloppy spins, loops, rolls and one rather fine Immelman turn. As the squadron clapped and cheered, it made a smooth landing, pulling right up to the mess before cutting its engine. The ack-emmas were hurrying out to pull the machine round and chock it, as the pilot leaped down from the cockpit.
She pushed the goggles up from her oil smeared face. it was Captain Vriska Serket of 413 Squadron.
“It’s me!” she exclaimed, hands on hips.
“Hurrah!” cried a young Second Lieutenant, newly in France.
Terezi cuffed the fledgling pilot around the ear.
“Be quiet you, she needs no encouragement.”
“Pyrope,” nodded Vriska.
“Serket.” Terezi returned the gesture.
“Well, aren’t you going to offer a fellow comrade of combat a drink in this filthy weather?”
“I suppose we must,” conceded Terezi, and lead the squadron and its guest back inside the mess.
Vriska pulled a chair up by the fire, taking her flying gloves off and warming her cold-stiffened fingers by the flames. Terezi resumed her previous position, and observed her rival over the rim of her whisky glass.
“What brings you to our neck of the woods?” she asked.
Vriska flipped the hair out of her eyes.
“Oh your know, just felt like stretching the old legs. Thought I’d drop by and show your chaps a thing or two about flying.”
Terezi snorted. “About recklessness, rather. The brasshats don’t approve of taking risks with expensive machinery, you know. We don’t need to help Jerry in his efforts to bash British biplanes.”
“We all have to find our entertainment somewhere,” dismissed Vriska, helping herself to the whisky. “Young Strider has his gardening,” she indicated Dave, who had abandoned his record in favour of a book on horticulture. “I have my stunts. Don’t be such a stick in the mud.”
“Now listen here, laddie. I won’t have you coming in here and rilling up the new bloods. They’re liable to get a head full of steam and go off on some crazy mission and then we’ll be needing more than just new planes.”
Before Vriska could reply, the Squadron adjutant Jade Harley burst into the room.
“Look lively, chaps! Colonel Vantas is here to see you Pyrope!”
Terezi and Vriska were both standing smartly to attention in seconds flat, just in time before Karkat Vantas strode through the door.
“All right, all right, at ease,” he instructed.
The rest of the squadron went back to their previous occupations. Karkat came over to Terezi and Vriska.
“Pyrope, excellent, and Serket as well. Exactly the fellows I wanted to speak with. I have a proposition for you, if you’d care to listen.”
He waved for them to take their chairs.
“The matter of propaganda has been brought to my attention, and it occurred to me that this task could be undertaken at the same time as bringing a little levity to proceedings. I hope you follow.”
“Not really, sir.”
“Well you should shut up and listen properly, then, Pyrope,” he snapped. “It really is very simple. GHQ has given me a quantity of flyers that are to be dropped over enemy lines. Of course we have already sent plenty over the enemy trenches themselves. The intention this time is to penetrate as deeply into enemy held territory as possible. Now, this is where my very clever plan comes in. We have noticed in the past it is rather difficult to persuade pilots to take the risk of flying to the limits of their fuel. So I have decided to introduce an element of competition.”
Vriska and Terezi glanced at each other, fingers tensing on their respective glassses.
“Whichever squadron provides proof of leafleting furthest into enemy ground by, oh say this friday at midday, shall win. I would think an areal photograph should suffice for proof.”
Vriska leant back in her chair.
“I suppose that does sound like a piece of sport - but what’s the prize?”
“Prize?” snapped Karkat.
Terezi leant her elbow on the arm of her chair.
“Yes, sir. If you want us - as you said yourself - to risk flying at the limits of our petrol supply, then surely you must be offering some sort of reward?”
Karkat glared at the two of them.
“I had rather thought that the promise of glory and serving King and Country would have been enough, but I see we must be more mercenary than that.”
His eyes fell on the nearly empty whisky bottle, and a wicked smile spread across his face.
“How about this. The squadron to go furthest will win a crate of whisky from the supplies of GHQ.”
Terezi and Vriska grinned, and looked at each other.
At a quarter past eleven on Friday morning, Terezi found herself hedge hopping back to the lines on the last of her fuel. Fabric trailed from the wings of her Sopwith Camel, one aileron was hanging awkwardly by a single hinge. She greeted the rifle shots that met her as she reached the reserve trenches with relief. Once over the lines it was a scant few miles to Maranique and a bumpy landing in front of the assembled members of 266 and 413 awaiting Colonel Vantas’s judgement. She hopped out of the cockpit, clutching a camera. She passed it to the waiting mechanic as she sauntered over to the gaggle of pilots.
Vriska was amongst the crowd, leaning against the ‘plane sheds. Terezi pulled off her flying cap and goggles and surveyed the waiting crowd.
“What’s all this? Taking a holiday? Surely His Majesty’s Flying Corps can find gainful employment for some young airmen.”
Vriska scowled. “Careful, Pyrope, or you’ll cut yourself with that wit.”
“Yes, Pyrope, it wouldn’t hurt you to watch your tongue,” added Colonel Vantas.
“Sorry, sir, can’t abide time wasters like Serket here. Just take a look at this past week, she’s been trundling about the sky like some poor boob straight out of training and wasting everyone’s time. Why, I hear you hardly made it past Mons.”
Mons was almost 60 miles within enemy territory. Vriska had been smug in her victory, but the small smile Terezi was hiding badly had begun to give her doubts.
“And where have you been?” inquired Vriska cooly.
“Oh you’ll find out soon enough.”
It was not long before the mechanic came running back with a developed photo. He handed it to Karkat, and the assembled aviators drew in a collective breath.
A look of realisation followed swiftly by shock transformed the features of the colonel.
“Why - this is Brussels!” he ejaculated.
Vriska snatched the photograph from his hands, momentarily forgetting to whom she was talking.
“Impossible!” She peered at the photo. “There’s no way you would have enough fuel to manage that!”
For indeed it was Brussels, many landmarks quite clear in the photograph that showed countless fluttering sheets of paper.
“That’s why I had Dave follow me over with as many cans of fuel as he could strap to his bomb racks.” She nodded to Dave, who was being clapped on the back by their fellow Camel pilots. “It’s a little trick I picked up called forward planning, Serket, you might care to try it some time.”
Vriska was fuming.
“But that’s not fair!”
“There were no rules about refueling,” interjected Karkat. “Better luck next time, eh?”
“So we’ve won?” asked Jade eagerly.
Karkat nodded. “266 have it.”
The gathered members of 266 erupted into a cheer, as the 413 pilots slunk back to their transport. Vriska stalked past Terezi, knocking into her with her shoulder.
“Oh, don’t be so sour,” cajoled Terezi. “Why don’t you chaps come over for dinner tomorrow and we’ll break out the whisky together? No hard feelings and all that.”
“Fat chance! You just want to crow about your victory,” snapped Vriska. “Well, I’ll tell you this for nothing, Pyrope. That whisky was obtained through villainy and cheap tricks! It belongs to 413 and that’s that.”
She left with her squadron, leaving Terezi to celebrate with Dave and the rest of 266.
By lunchtime the next day, Vriska had softened and they received a wire informing 266 that all the free airmen of 413 would be pleased to join them for dinner. It was a merry affair. It seemed Vriska was out to prove that holding the moral high ground did not mean she would be sore about it forever. There was much banter exchanged, and the squadron’s supply of records was quite exhausted. Vriska excused herself just as Terezi had been planning to suggest opening the whisky.
Vriska did not return, and shortly after the rest of 413 left.
“Well, that was a bit rum, I must say,” declared Terezi.
“Rather,” agreed Dave. “Fancy making all that show about coming to dinner, and then quite forgetting the dashed whisky!”
The squadron discussed their victory a little further, before Terezi eventually rose from her chair to fetch the spoils. She was gone barely a minute before the rest of the aviators in varying states of inebriation were rushing after her, upon hearing her yell of shock.
They burst into the ante-room to find Terezi standing where there should have been a crate of the finest pre-war whisky, normally reserved for only the top echelons of command. However the space was empty.
“What rotten beggars!” exclaimed Dave. “They’ve absconded with the lot!”
Major Lalonde pushed her way to the front of the crowd. Terezi was seething.
“We should have never trusted any of those SE-merchants. Not a speck of integrity amongst them.”
Rose surveyed the damage.
“Well, it does appear that we have been well and truly duped. Though I’m afraid to say, there’s very little we can do about it.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” announced Terezi, grabbing Dave’s arm. “I’ll make her pay for this!”
The next morning, Terezi arrived back from dawn patrol in an even blacker mood. Dave was waiting for her, sitting uncomfortably on an up-turned chock. She had been set upon by three Fokkers after a monumentally dull patrol, and had been harried all the way back to the lines.
“Gosh, you’ve been having some fun,” suggested Dave.
“You call this fun!” she gestured to her machine. “That’s another kite torn to shreds in as many days, and for what? Not a drop of whisky to be had, no thanks to Serket’s dirty tricks.”
“All right, all right, don’t get the screaming willies!”
“Never mind the screaming willies, it’s about time we gave a certain aviatrix of our acquaintance some of her own medicine.”
Dave observed her dubiously. “I imagine you have some sort of cunning plan?”
“Naturally! Now listen up, laddie. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
She drew Dave to one side, a little way behind the ‘plane sheds, away from prying eyes.
“I need Vriska away from her squadron as long as possible - that’s where you’ll come in. You go and ring her up on the telephone and tell her you’ve remembered you found somewhere in Amiens selling the most extraordinary dice. Really lay it on thick. Eight-sided jobs with limited edition gloss imported from the East and so on. Make her mouth water so much she slobbers into the telephone. Then invite her along this afternoon. Have her fly over here straight away - but to tell her fellows she’s off on some show, as you’re not supposed to have the tender. D’you see?”
Dave nodded. “I think I understand. I’ll take her into Amiens for as long as I can distract her.”
“Exactly. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking care of the other half of this plan. Bring her back here when you have to, then you’ll see what real fun is!”
Dave departed on his mission, while Terezi went to the ‘plan sheds. Amongst the Sopwith Camels in varying states of repair was a Pfalz Scout shot down only a few days previously, during a bombing raid on the squadron. She checked in her pocket for the letter she had typed up the night before. One of the mechanics owed her a favour, so it was not long before she was taxiing the machine down the tarmac ready to take off.
She was comfortably seated on the veranda, book in had, when Dave and Vriska arrived in the tender from Amiens.
“You really need to have your chaps checked out,” began Vriska. “This poor boob here was convinced he knew somewhere that sold dice in Amiens - I told him it was a long shot, but he did carry on so. Well of course nothing to be found!”
“Yes. How strange,” agreed Dave through gritted teeth. “Must be my memory.”
Vriska laughed and tossed her hair back.
“Why don’t you come back with me to 413,” she offered, a smug grin lighting her eyes. “I see you fellows are running a little dry on whisky.”
Dave grabbed Terezi’s wrist to prevent her from starting forward, but she steadied herself, positioning the bannister of the veranda between her and Vriska.
“Why not,” she mumbled. “No hard feelings, after all.”
They took the tender over to 413, Vriska talking up a storm the whole way about the dubious mental capacity of Camel-flyers. Dave sat between the two Captains, acting as a buffer.
When they stepped out of the vehicle at their destination, the SE pilots were at tea. Vriska strode into the mess, a look of scorn on her face.
“That’s nice! How about waiting for your Captain before guzzling the best of the cakes? Perhaps we need another lesson on discipline.”
A deathly hush met her arrival. The aviators as one were staring at her, eyes wide.
“That’s right! You better be struck dumb with fear - you remember what happened last time I had to remind you of proper conduct towards superior officers.”
Kanaya Maryam, a young Lieutenant in Vriska’s flight slowly rose from her chair. The scraping of the feet across the floorboards was the only sound to be heard. She walked slowly towards Vriska, and stopping a foot away from her, reached out one shaking hand to touch her chin.
“Goodness, Kanaya, have you really forgotten so soon? Touching without being invited was certainly on the list of forbidden behaviour.”
Vriska’s annoyance was slowly turning to amazement as another Lieutenant in her flight, John Egbert, came rushing up behind Kanaya to clutch
Vriska’s hands. She snatched them back, looking around in shock.
“What’s this all about? I demand to be told!”
“Is that really you?” whispered Kanaya.
“Absolutely! I can verify that this is certainly Vriska Serket. The stench of lies is unmistakable,” pronounced Terezi.
“I - I’ll just have a wash and brush up before dinner,” stammered Vriska, before backing out of the mess rapidly. Terezi, Dave, and the rest of the mess followed her. They found her standing in the doorway of her room, staring at the chaos within. Drawers had been left on the floor, her valise open on her bed, possessions tossed every which way.
“Some skunk’s gone through my things! What on earth is happening here!” she span on her heel and surveyed the massed pilots. “Where are my pyjamas?”
Kanaya came forward, still trembling.
“Er - I’m afraid they’re at Douai,” she explained.
“What the devil are they doing in Douai?”
“Well - I took them there.”
She stared at Kanaya blankly. “You’re off your rocker. Pyrope, your squadron’s bad habits are rubbing off on my pilots.”
“No - I … a hun came over and dropped a message to say you’d been taken prisoner! So we made up a packet of your things and took them over to Douai - “
Kanaya was cut off by the sound of a Mercedes engine. They all rushed outside in time to see something drop from a Pfalz that rapidly disappeared into the darkening sky. They all dived into the trenches dug around the airfield. Vriska flung herself towards a mounted machine gun nearby, and trained it on the package.
“No one move!” she cried. “I’ll handle this!”
With that, she let off round after round of tracer bullets at the object where it lay on the grass. It rolled over, jerking across the ground.
But nothing more. It did not explode, or give any sign of being incendiary. Vriska cautiously made her way over to it as Terezi and Dave clambered out of the trench. Vriska stood over the tattered remains of the parcel.
“Why - it’s clothes!” she called.
The others gathered closer to see what appeared to be a heap of rags. She toed it gingerly.
“Hold hard! I recognise this.” She bent down to pick up a scrap of stripped material. “By George, these are my pyjamas!” she declared.
Kanaya retrieved a note from amongst the scraps of cloth.
“Hello, what’s this?” she unfolded it. “From Jagdstaffel Commander, Douai. No Captain Serket taken prisoner. Personal effects returned with compliments.” She looked up at Vriska. “Oh no.”
As realisation dawned across her face, her hands formed into fists. “It’s oh no all right. Where are Pyrope and Strider?” she demanded. “Strider took me off on some wild goose chase all afternoon for the great bloody disappearing dice of Amiens. I’ll bet my boots Pyrope borrowed a ‘plane somewhere and was the one who dropped the note saying I was a prisoner! That dirty cheat has sunk to a new low with this one!”
The squadron looked around, but it was too late. The tender that had been idling a moment ago was racing along the road out of the air field, the sound of laughter drifting back across the warm evening air.