I. Love Affair
Over Totenkopf's island, a bright flash lit the sky, imprinting itself like a bruise on Dex's vision. He held his breath for a subjective eternity. In real time one moment passed, then another, and the slow rumble of the explosion poured down like rain. The initial fireball faded, no conflagration spreading from the great rocket. The sky was scarred with contrails, bruised with smoke, but it didn't burn.
"He did it." Dr. Vargas said, clutching Dex's arm. "The Sky Captain stopped the rocket. We are saved."
Dex still couldn't breathe, staring up into the blue. The afterimage of the explosion hovered over him like a shadow, and then a speck swam in the murk before his eyes-- real? Not real? Unable to tear his gaze from the sky, Dex shouldered Dr. Vargas aside and fumbled for the pair of binoculars he'd stashed in the equipment cache of the hovering freight transport. He lost sight of the speck in the second it took to bring the binoculars to his eyes, and then it reappeared, larger, and falling.
An escape pod.
"He did it," Dex said. But of course he had. He was the Sky Captain.
Dex watched through the binoculars till the escape pod touched down in the surf. A few moments more, and the hatch at the top opened. A silhouette emerged into the light, and then another, and Dex grinned, jumping down to take the wheel of the hovering transport. His fellow captive Dr. Lang had been doing a pretty snappy job of piloting the thing. For an elderly German scientist, anyway. But, to be honest, Dex had kind of gotten used to being the one with his hands on the wheel, coming in for the big rescue just in the nick of time. Might as well enjoy the opportunities while he had them.
As he steered the transport around the ark chambers floating in the surf, Dex found that his hands were still shaking from witnessing Joe and Polly's near-escape from death. He shouldn't have doubted Joe, not for a second-- he knew that now. During the time he'd been abducted, he'd been able to hope, able to make plans and gather knowledge, because he'd known it would be useful in the end; he'd known Joe would come. And Joe had. Sure, it had looked tight for a while there, but Sky Captain and the Flying Legion had gone up against tougher joes than George Totenkopf. Okay, maybe they hadn't faced anybody quite as smart, and Joe hadn't even had the Legion for backup this time around, but still. He was the Sky Captain, and he'd saved the day. Saved the world. Just like always.
Dex pulled the freight transport closer. The pod was bobbing in the waves, and even without the binoculars he could see that it was Joe and Polly standing in the hatch. He slowed the transport to a crawl, despite a curious glance from Dr. Lang, and lifted the binoculars to his face again. He focused in on their faces just in time to see Joe staring at Polly. His heart turned over in his chest. He told himself it was happiness for his two friends-- but then there was an odd look on Joe's face that Dex couldn't pin down. Fondness, surprise and maybe even some nervousness. As if Joe would ever be nervous about something like kissing a girl, even a girl as pretty as Polly. But he didn't kiss her. His lips moved, and then he grinned, and then he leaned back against the hatch and laughed so hard Dex could nearly hear it in his head.
Curious, he watched as Polly lifted her camera-strap from around her neck. Raising it over her head, she brought it down against Joe's arm, quickly raised to defend himself. A shriek of frustration and anger rang out, one that Dex could hear even over the noise of the waves and the cries of Totenkopf's captured creatures. He gulped and gunned the engine of the transport. Looked like Joe might need that timely rescue after all.
It wasn't easy getting Polly down onto the transport, since there weren't any ladders on the outside of the pod and she refused to let Joe assist her in any way. Batting away his outstretched hands without even looking in his direction, Polly clutched her camera carefully to her chest, braced herself with her other hand, and slid down the side of the pod. It was an entirely graceful attempt, if one that showed off more of her legs than Dex was really used to seeing, and then she stumbled over the edge of the transport's railing and fell into his arms.
He caught her, pulling her forward against him so that she wouldn't fall back into the water. The camera-lens slammed into his gut, and Dex choked, suddenly finding himself clutching at Polly for support. Her cheek was cool against his, and she was trembling. Even here and now, she smelled like flowers, though Dex didn't know enough about flowers to say what kind exactly.
A solid thump announced Joe's arrival on the deck of the transport. "That's a fine welcome for Miss Perkins," he said, and Dex jerked back. He tried not to push Polly off-balance as they disengaged, but wasn't entirely successful. Polly fumbled at her camera, nearly dropping it, and Joe slung an arm around Dex's shoulder, pulling him nearly as close as Polly had. "How about a little appreciation for your captain?"
"You got it," Dex said, and slapped him on the back. He smiled as Joe pushed his hand into Dex's hair and ruffled it, grinning. Joe had a bruise on his cheek and another on his jaw, and his forehead was bleeding a little, but he looked entirely exhiliarated, eyes bright and darting about to the various incredible aspects of the scene that surrounded them. "Welcome back, Cap," Dex said quietly, and Joe aimed his gaze in Dex's direction for a moment, eyes intense and alight with victory. He looked-- well, he looked like Sky Captain should, that was all. Like someome out of the four-color comics, Astounding Tales or Amazing Stories. Someone too good to be real.
"Be a good boy, Dex, and take us in," he said, turning to the railing. "I imagine we've still got a spot of work to do."
"Just drop me off anywhere," Polly snapped. She'd taken a seat next to Dr. Vargas and Dr. Lang, the two remaining members of Unit Eleven, her camera cupped protectively in her hands.
Dex glanced at Joe, hoping for a cue as to how to respond. Joe pretended he hadn't heard a thing. Dex offered Polly an apologetic smile. She gave him a wry look, but sat back in her seat.
"Well, uh-- you're right about that, Captain." Dex shook his head as he turned the transport's wheel, steering them back towards the island. "To start with, we've got to make sure Totenkopf's machines are all completely kaput. They have independent programming-- they can repair and rebuild themselves. We can't leave even two pieces of metal bolted together on that island."
Joe nodded, glancing upward at the silhouette of Manta Station. It was barely visible through the smoke and fog surrounding Totenkopf's island. "We'll let Franky know. Have one of the attack squadrons make a clean sweep of the place. That ought to do it."
"A clean sweep?" Now Polly stood, ignoring the rocking of the transport and shaking off Dr. Vargas' attempt to guide her back into her seat. "What does that mean? Does that mean you're going to bomb it? What about all the animals? What about-- what about those?" She pointed upward as the transport swept neatly under the arching neck of a brontosaurus.
Dex had seen enough weird creatures during his stay on Totenkopf's island to put a guy off Amazing Jungle Tales for life, but he knew from experience that the first good look at one of the beasts could be a real doozy. Joe didn't even turn his head to glance up.
"Don't you ignore me!" Polly raged behind him. "Not now, not after everything I've been through for this story--"
Joe's eyes narrowed. He set his jaw and turned on her. "Don't help you, don't ignore you--! You're a real peach when you want to be, do you know--"
"Oh ho," Polly said, "don't flatter yourself that I care what you think, Joe--"
They were nearly to the docking station. Dex gritted his teeth. He really didn't want to look back to see what Dr. Lang and Dr. Vargas were making of Joe and Polly's spat. It was so strange; Dex had spent his life wondering why concepts that were rock simple to him seemed completely loony to everyone else, but he'd never hit a jam quite like Joe and Polly before. Joe was the greatest guy in the world and Polly was the best girl-- they were a match. It was perfectly obvious to Dex, so why couldn't they see it? Watching them fight was like watching the first couple of versions of the Manta flying fortress crash and burn.
Luckily, guiding the floating transport into the docking tunnel took up most of Dex's attention, so he did manage to tune out most of the rest of the shouting. Finally they emerged from the tunnel, into one of the loading bays. Just as Dex had suspected, at the far end of the great curved bay several dozen of Totenkopf's smaller drone robots were hard at work.
"--so damned sick of your womanizing and your lies--"
"--just really rich coming from a saboteur and-- and--" Joe trailed off, noticing the robots.
"--and your god-damned milk of magnesia--"
"Polly, shut up!" Joe snapped. Polly sputtered, then noticed the drones and fell silent.
Not for very long, though.
"You shut up," she muttered under her breath, eyes fixed on the repair drones. Joe frowned but chose not to dignify the sally with a response. Dex winced, pinching the bridge of his nose. The principles that his theory was based on-- they were sound, he still believed that. It was just the execution that always seemed to be lacking somehow. But you never could plan well enough to account for all the variables that the human element inevitably added in.
Despite the noise, the drones took no notice of the transport and continued their work, lifting large metal plates back into place and welding them together to repair a section of wall with several large cracks in it. It had probably sustained the damage during the tremors caused by the giant rocket launch, Dex thought. Carefully, he slowed the transport to a stop, settling it down on into its docking niche. "If I can get to the control room, I can rig up a way to send those robots right to sleep, Joe. No need to waste Franky's munitions."
Joe glanced at him suspiciously, then nodded. "Right."
"As it is, you leave 'em alone and they shouldn't bother you," Dex said.
"Film," Polly said, and he risked a glance back. "Where can I get film for my Leica, Dex?"
"I think Dex has better things to do--" Joe began sharply.
"I wasn't asking you!" Polly burst out, her voice more ragged than Dex had ever heard it before. Even Joe looked shocked.
"There may be supplies," Dr. Vargas said nervously, "in the laboratory stocking units on the fourth level..."
"It's okay," Dex said, nodding to the elderly scientist. "Show her. Just-- stay out of the way of the machines," he added, since it didn't look like Joe was going to say anything about it.
"Thanks, Dex," she said. He was already staring off into the distance, rerouting circuitry in his head. He was startled when she reached out to touch his wrist. When he looked up, something in her face softened, and she leaned in quickly and kissed him on the cheek. "I really am glad you're all right, sweetheart. We-- I worried."
"Well, I, uh. You know me. Like a bad penny," Dex managed. Polly squeezed his hand, then followed Dr. Vargas off the transport.
Joe muttered something under his breath that Dex didn't catch and wasn't sure he wanted to. Rubbing his hands together, he turned to Dr. Lang. "Well. No rest for the wicked, Doctor."
"No," Dr. Lang said, "no, indeed." His tone was dark and made Dex instantly regret his choice of words. He frowned and turned to lead Joe and Dr. Lang through the twisting hallways.
It only took a few minutes to reach the control room, where orders were sent out to the larger robots and smaller drones, directing each one in their tasks. Dex had only seen it in passing, before, and now he wondered how he could've been so blind. There were only banks of transistors and electronics-- no chairs, no monitors. This room hadn't been constructed for human comfort, just as the last stages of Totenkopf's plan had been carried out entirely free of any human control.
"Well?" Joe asked impatiently. "Can you shut them down?"
"First I have to hook into the system, which, since I'm not made of circuits, is gonna be tricky. Then there's that coded syntax, so I'll have to break the encryption. Oh, and I gotta figure out how to generate a frequency that'll feed our orders back through in a way these metal men will accept." Dex grinned. "Might take a couple minutes."
A ghost of a smile crossed Joe's face. "Good boy."
Dex turned to the computer bank, still grinning, and hiked up his pant leg to pull out a small makeshift screwdriver out of his sock. He'd managed to make it himself, out of the handle of a fork, and it had come in pretty damn useful over the last couple days.
There was still a lot of work to do, on the island. There would be even more to do at home. He'd laid awake most nights, here in Totenkopf's hideaway, thinking of the damage that the madman's Flying Wings had done to the Legion's base. He and Joe had a tough slog ahead. Still, he found himself whistling softly as he began to unscrew the coverplates.
Off we go into the wild blue yonder
Climbing high into the sun...
II. Borrowed Time
After a while it got hard to stick around in the control center with nobody for company but a old skeleton of a scientist and Dex, whistling like some sort of particularly tuneless robin. It had been Lieutenant McVicker, Joe remembered, who'd taken to tactically placing packs of gum around Dex's lab. Bit harder to whistle with gum in your mouth. He knew Dex wasn't hitting the wrong notes purposely, but it still hit him right between the eyes, every time. It was eerily similar to the whine of a smoking engine just before it started to sputter and choke. He closed his eyes, drinking in every shrill note.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor outside the main room, human footsteps, and he turned to look. It was Franky, in a crisp new uniform tunic and cap, leading several airmen. He met her just outside the door, and she lifted a black-gloved hand to offer him a swift salute, an appreciative smile curving her lips. Joe was always amazed by how truly warm Franky could look, at times. Given the right motivation.
"Captain Cook," he said, returning her salute and her smile. "If you're looking for Totenkopf's office, it's three levels up and about forty degrees east. Unfortunately, we had some trouble apprehending the man himself."
Franky arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"He's dead," Joe said, and Franky nodded. For the moment, Joe decided to leave out exactly how long he'd been dead. He really wasn't in the mood for long explanations. "Dex is working on a way to command the remaining robots. There's a set of blueprints in the inner office that'd probably be of some use, if one of your men wouldn't mind."
"Of course," Franky said, stepping back into the hallway to instruct her team. They split off onto their own assignments, and Franky turned back to Joe, allowing a look of concern to show on her face. "You ought to get that cut on your head examined." She glanced around the control room. "Where's the girl reporter?"
"Polly? Out doing her damnedest to stuff herself down some monster's throat," Joe said, barely biting back the 'and good luck to her' that he really wanted to finish up with. So he'd laughed when she left the lens cap on-- who wouldn't have? Polly just didn't understand, and it was just like her to overreact. He shook his head and whistled sharply at Dex. Elbow deep in the guts of Totenkopf's machinery, he took a moment to look up.
Joe felt something clutch deep in his belly at the sight, and wondered if, just maybe, somewhere on this damned island there was a bottle of milk of magnesia. The way his luck was running today, of course there wouldn't be. "Captain Cook and I will be examining the launch site," he said, using Franky's title more for Dr. Lang's benefit than anyone else's.
"Sure thing, Joe," Dex was already absorbed in his work again, his manner as easy as if they were back home at the base and Joe had just announced that he was heading over to the commissary for an egg salad sandwich. Just as if he'd never been kidnapped at all. Joe clenched his hands into tight fists. It hurt-- he'd hit that robot Valkyrie of Totenkopf's enough to make sure of that-- but it wasn't quite enough.
Twenty steps to the end of the corridor. Franky walked one step ahead of him the whole way, like a slim black shadow. Just as they reached the turn, he reached out, grasping her arm just above the elbow. His heart pounded. Even when you had an longstanding arrangement with a girl, even when that girl was a soldier like you and understood soldier's ways... it always felt like taking a leap. And Joe loved it.
He was surprised when she reached to touch his face, her expression more kind than knowing. "It's all right," she said. "He's all right."
Joe took a breath. His jaw felt tight, locking the words deep in his throat. After a moment he shook his head. "I just... Not yet."
"All right, then." Franky considered Joe's forehead and reached up to touch his cheek, gloved fingers brushing over the bruises. "Come on. Let's see to that."
"What?" He lifted his hand, fingers encountering the half-sticky streak of dried blood. "Oh-- it's nothing, Franky. A scratch."
Franky's expression said: you know me too well to argue with me on this particular point, don't you?
He had to admit that he did. Of course, that particular blade was double-edged.
He stood in the middle of the hallway, watching as Franky unsnapped one of the compartments on her belt and produced a small bottle of iodine and a tiny pack of gauze bandages. Matter-of-factly, she spit on one of the bandages to moisten it and set about cleaning the worst streaks of dried blood from Joe's forehead and around his eye.
"It really is just a scratch. You have the devil's luck," Franky said. "You and Dex... and apparently that Perkins."
Admittedly, Joe wasn't feeling too charitable towards That Perkins, but he still had to smirk. "You weren't very nice to Polly earlier."
Pausing, her makeshift sponge half an inch from Joe's skin, Franky tilted her head down slightly to look him in the face. "No. I wasn't."
Joe smiled-- carefully-- and continued. "You weren't very nice to me, either."
She glanced down the corridor, just as Joe had known she would. He took her by the arm and pulled her around the corner, and then turned again, leading her into a deep alcove. A metal door was set back in the shadows against the far wall, and Joe pushed Franky up against it, leaning in so that his lips barely brushed her neck.
"'It's been a long time since Nanjing, Joseph,'" he said, mocking humor sharpening his voice. The barest tremor, too small to even be called a shiver, pulsed in Franky's throat. "It has been a long time since Nanjing."
Franky's lips drew back from her teeth. The bottle of iodine clinked and splashed, falling to the floor and she was on him, pushing his jacket onto the floor next to it, loosening his collar and unbuttoning his shirt. "Good," she said. "I'm better at this bit anyway."
Joe shivered as her hands brushed against his bare flesh, and he caught her wrists in his hands. "Stop. Gloves off, all right? I've-- I want to feel you," he murmured, and laid a series of slow kisses on her neck and jaw and finally her mouth. "Skin to skin."
A snarl rattled low in Franky's throat. She stripped off her gloves and stuffed them into her belt, scratching her short nails down Joe's chest. He shivered and ran his thumb over the bit of hair exposed between Franky's cap and her ear, then stopped as his hand brushed the strap of her eyepatch.
Franky's remaining eye met his gaze coolly, and Joe opened his mouth, knowing even as he did so that she'd never let him apologize, not now and not ever. Hooking an arm around the back of his neck, Franky took his mouth, pulling him close so that his knee slipped between her thighs. She rode him for a moment, her tongue's thrusts hot and rhythmic. She tasted like salt and felt like heaven, the material of her tunic hard and sleek against his bare chest, her muscles flexing and rolling underneath it like a second skin.
"Tell me something," Franky said as Joe rucked her tunic up to her waist, fumbling at the belt of her uniform trousers. "Is this about that girl? Because I won't be a weapon in your little love match."
Joe jerked the buckle open and tugged Franky's trousers down around her thighs, sinking down to his knees as he did so. From his crouched position at her feet, he contrived to look as absolutely innocent as he could. "But you make such a wonderful weapon, Franky."
He moved to press a kiss to her lean thigh, but she tangled a hand in his hair and held him off, eyes searching his. He frowned, never having known Franky to be jealous before-- she just wasn't that kind of girl. "It's not exactly what you'd call a love match anyway," he reassured her, hands shifting on her thighs. Distractedly, caught in her scent, he rubbed his thumb over the softness of her plain cotton knickers. Franky smelled of the ocean, the salty sweetness of a woman and regulation-issue soap. Because of course Franky wouldn't bother using anything better. These weren't the old days. "We're hardly even friends. Not like you and me-- Franky, I just wish--"
She cut him off by flexing her wrist and pressing his head forward, using her free hand to tug her knickers aside. The move effectively silenced him, which was fortunate, because he wasn't sure exactly what he'd been going to say, or even what he'd wanted to say, really. The hard knot of frustration he'd been carrying somewhere behind his sternum didn't exactly disappear, but at least it shrank somewhat as he pressed his mouth to the heat between Franky's thighs. Taking Franky over the top was as familiar as sliding into the cockpit of his Warhawk, but equally as exciting every time. Just as perfect, every single time.
He had known Franky for years, even before he'd met Dex or Polly. Before the Flying Legion. Before Franky had lost her eye. Back when she'd been a thrillseeker and a daredevil, just like him. Funny that they'd never done this, not back in the days that Joe thought of as 'the old days' with Franky. There were so many other kinds of trouble to get into at the time, and they'd gotten into just about all of them, and now-- although he certainly loved this, sometimes he missed that other Franky. Her total unpredictability. Her insatiability in every aspect of life, not just in the bedroom.
It had been Franky's choice to lock down that side of herself. She might never show it to the world again. But Joe had never been able to accept that it was truly gone, and it was in moments like these that his faith was rewarded. Here in the heat of her, the slick wet wildness that welcomed him. The old Franky was in every uncontrolled shudder, in the way she bucked against him as soon as he touched her, a short exclamation caught between her teeth.
Joe stroked the insides of Franky's thighs with his thumbs and lavished her with slow strokes of his lips and tongue, sometimes with a touch of teeth to make her gasp. He was trying not to think, trying to lose himself in the murky depths of lust. Franky certainly didn't deserve to have his attention divided right now, not while they were in this position. But he couldn't let it go. A captain wasn't supposed to admit to being frightened, but he'd been so damn scared when he'd thought Franky was going to ram that underwater machine so that he and Polly could get through. As if he didn't already owe her enough-- more than he could ever pay back even if he lived nine lives, like a cat.
It wasn't even any good telling her not to do it again. Franky was just like him. She'd never listen. He lifted a hand and slid his fingerstips against her cunt, barely slicking them with her wetness before pushing three fingers inside her and twisting. Franky bit back a shriek above him, and Joe growled against her. She clamped down tight around him, shaking, one quick breath drawn in through her teeth, and then she pulsed and bucked against him, fists clenching tighter in his hair, holding him tight against her as her hips rolled.
"Oh, damn you, Joseph, oh," she gritted out, and he twisted his fingers again, jolting her higher and only wincing when she thumped his head with the heel of her hand. The dozen or so bumps on the head he'd gotten over the last few days didn't hurt so much right now. Actually, Joe felt pretty damned good. He leaned back on his haunches as Franky's hands slipped from his hair. She patted his face affectionately, running a thumb over his lip, then tugged her knickers back into place and started to straighten her uniform.
"Protect the rabbits," Joe said, for no particular reason except that he wanted to see her laugh. She did, just like always; it was an old story and a well-worn joke, but sometimes old habits were the best.
"No rabbits here, but I'd say that's quite a cat-that-got-the-cream expression," Franky observed. She finished buckling her belt and tugging her tunic back down into place, then leaned over, grabbed Joe's collar and jerked him to his feet. It was her turn to undo his belt, working the buckle with the ease of experience.
"And you don't look particularly in need of protection..." Franky's grip on his collar and the waistband of his trousers let her easily swing him around so that it was his back against the wall, and she leaned in to kiss him greedily.
"You don't know," Joe said. "I might pop a rivet."
Franky grinned, glancing down. "You just might."
"Come here." Joe pulled her hands away from his belt, leaning in to cradle her face in his hands and kiss her.
He knew that after he'd had his turn, that would be it for this mission. It was just how Franky went about doing things. Her own way, of course. In all those three months in Nanjing, and the handful of times they'd managed to indulge themselves in the in-between time, Joe didn't think he'd ever gotten her entirely naked. Once he'd gotten her down to nothing but her dress boots and a pair of thigh-high silk stockings before she'd tumbled him down to the floor. On another memorable occasion, she'd stripped down to nothing but the cap, the patch, Joe's jacket and a handful of hairpins. But he hadn't yet seen her entirely au naturel.
It wouldn't be today, of course, and probably not soon, either, which was why Joe was getting his kisses while he could. Franky didn't like her lovers to get too used to her. One round per mission was usually her limit, and it would be pushing Joe's luck to try for two. Not that he didn't usually try. She'd explained her reasoning to him once, back in the old days, although he'd been terribly drunk on awful Belgian beer and hadn't completely gotten it all straight in his head. It hadn't applied to him then, anyway.
She was here now, though, kissing him now, and Joe pushed away thoughts of the old days, losing himself in her soft, urgent mouth. At least they were here, he told himself, and at least they were alive. To fight or fuck another day. What else could you ask for in this world?
III. Rules of the Game
It only took a bit of searching afterwards, and Joe managed to stumble on a storeroom stocked with several tanks of distilled water. Supplies for all the animals on the ark, he'd explained, although such a statement, needless to say, required quite a bit of explanation in and of itself. Joe had always been good with words, though, so everything was rather thoroughly explained by the time they had both freshened up and Franky had gotten the cut on Joe's head cleaned up to her satisfaction.
Joe was whistling as he led the way back towards the control center. Franky wondered if he was aware that the tune he'd chosen, although certainly cheerful, was a traditional American Air Force song. Well, all too likely he'd picked it up from Dex.
Dex wasn't in the control room when they got back, but several more of the metal platecovers had been removed from the machine consoles, and a half-dozen braided ropes of wires looped and crossed from one to the other. One of Franky's men, Lieutenant Carroll, was standing guard over the door. "Captain," he said, and saluted crisply. "Mr. Dearborn said to tell you he'd be in the docking bay, sir. He's inspecting the wreckage collected by Team Five."
Franky nodded and walked on and Joe followed. He was whistling and even swaggering a bit now, hands pushed into his pockets. She could barely imagine how worried he must have been, not knowing for weeks whether Dex was alive or dead, and of course it would be worse if he and Dex were already lovers. Joe hadn't mentioned anything about that, though, so perhaps they weren't. Could he really still think Dex's feelings were a simple case of hero worship? For that matter, could Dex?
Franky really hadn't thought Joseph could be quite that obtuse, but she supposed she wasn't really one to throw stones. Not when it came to matters of the heart.
"What the hell--?" Joe's exclamation broke into Franky's thoughts as they
reached the bottom of the ramp that led down to the docking bay. Dex was bent over a gray tarp that had been spread out over the concrete floor, and laid out on the tarp there were pieces of a... a thing that looked almost like a human corpse, limbs and hands and half a face, but all made out of electronics. Joe stormed up to Dex, scowling. "Damn it, Dex, do you know how long it took me to kill that thing?"
"You didn't say she was a robot!" Dex glanced up, his eyes shining-- Franky hadn't seen him that excited since the day of Manta Station's first uninterrupted launch. "Joe, do you know how advanced these electronics are? Just one of her *hands* has got as many circuit relays as a whole squadron of the flying wings or the--"
"Dex." Joe said sharply, cutting him off. "If what you said is true, about Totenkopf's machines being self-repairing, do you think it's really safe to have all its pieces-- together? Like that?"
"No, no, it's all right," Dex reassured him. "All under control." He pointed to a hastily assembled console, a few banks of switches and a transmitting radio station tied onto a rolling cart with spare wires. "Totenkopf's machines are on standby till I say different. I mean, until you or Captain Cook say different," he said, offering Franky a shy smile. "Hi, Captain."
"It's good to see you, Dex. And it's Franky," she told him, for at least the thousandth time. "Unless you'd like me to start calling you Doctor Dearborn again."
"Oh, uh-- uh, no," Dex said, flushing and turning away from Joe's inquiring look. So he hadn't ever told Joe about that, then. Interesting. And just the slightest bit adorable, although that wasn't a word Franky often found a use for.
"Take the parts you want, then, and slag the rest." Joe turned to Franky. "Captain, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to go over the reports as the reconnaissance teams bring them--"
"Actually, Joe, I--" Dex stammered as Joe looked back, startled at the interruption, but forged bravely on. "If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to Captain-- to Franky. Just for a second. Um, alone."
Joe glanced at Dex, who fidgeted but stood his ground, then turned a smirk in Franky's direction. "Why, Captain Cook. Dex. Is there something you want to tell me?"
Franky couldn't tell if he was being serious or mocking her. She'd been better at that once.
"Nothing that's any of your business." For a moment she imagined stepping past Joe, locking an arm behind Dex's neck and inclining her head to kiss him firmly on the mouth. He'd taste of cheap bubble gum, of course, and kiss like an American boy, all tongue and slobber, but still sweet for all of that... She dismissed the thought with a blink. As tempting as it was to give Joseph a shock, Franky simply couldn't afford to pull stunts like that. Not any more. "If you wouldn't mind, Joseph?" she added pointedly. He frowned, but gave them their privacy, heading out towards the tunnel that led out onto the beach.
Dex waited until Joe was entirely out of earshot before he spoke. "You trust me, don't you Capt... Franky?"
"Of course," Franky said immediately. Just the fact that Dex was one of Joe's men, one of the Flying Legion-- even though he wasn't a pilot, that was enough to grant him a significant amount of credit in Franky's book. In addition she'd gotten to know Dex quite well during the construction and launch of the first Manta airship. He'd proved himself then to be the sort of man who, despite his devotion to terrible American food and worse American culture, truly embodied the ideals of the borderless Legion.
"Well... okay. I just... Being here, with all this junk of Totenkopf's, it makes a guy think." He stared up at the arching vault of the concrete roof, then started to pace up and down past the tarp with the pieces of Joe's robot antagonist laid out on it. "I mean about best intentions and the road to-- Well, you know. But most of all I wouldn't want you to think that I-- It'd be up to you. You say the word and I will slag it, all of it, but I just can't stand to think that I could at least try. If you say yes--"
"Dex!" Franky said, catching him as he was about to turn away again. "Say yes to what, exactly?"
"Her eyes," Dex said, earnestly. "In the front of the faceplate, the lenses... they're like nothing I've ever seen before. The filaments-- they work like nerves, Franky. I'm no doctor, but I think... I think there's enough there to salvage. And... and you're squeezing my arm. A little. Too hard--"
She let go, hissing a curse between her teeth, pulled her hand back and flexed her fingers to get some of the feeling back. Dex rubbed at his arm, his masculine pride preventing him from wincing too much. "Tell me again, Dex," she said. "Slowly. Use small words. As if you were explaining it to an admiral."
"This robot..." Dex gestured. Franky scanned the remains again. This time her gaze fixed on its faceplate, a broken doll-like mask with a pair of round, protruding smoked-glass circles for eyes. She tried not to picture it, but she couldn't help but see herself wearing the same face, with a pair of eyes like an old-fashioned gas mask. She pushed the initial revulsion away and listened to Dex. "...I don't even know if I should call it a robot, Franky. It's so far beyond anything I've ever seen, it makes Totenkopf's other creations look like wind-up toys."
"And its eyes--?" Franky rubbed her gloved hands against her thighs, then made herself stop fidgeting, stand at attention and listen.
"The others run on radar, but this one, she pulls in visual input and the eyes transform it into electrical impulses that are sent here," Dex said, kneeling and picking up a half-shell of waterlogged and burnt circuits, "to the brain. Just like a human eye. It's just a matter of your brain learning to take in a different kind of input. And you could, Franky, I don't see why not. We have artificial limbs, artificial hands-- why not artificial sight?"
"Why indeed," Franky said, trying to keep her voice level. It was ridiculous, of course. Pure science fiction. Dex often had good practical ideas, but then he tended to get caught up in fantastical tangents, inspired by some ridiculous comic strip more often than not. At that point it was up to someone with some common sense to guide him back to more achievable goals. She took a breath, almost wishing that she didn't have to.
"Also, I could put in some kind of laser or sonic disruptor. Well, maybe not a sonic disruptor, you wouldn't want the unit overheating once it was, uh, installed." Dex looked thoughtful. "A laser, though, that'd be something. Kinda like in Thrilling Space Stories, where the Martians can shoot fiery X-rays out of their eyes..."
"Fiery x-rays?" Franky finally managed. Dex caught her eye and sobered.
"Well, uh, maybe not."
"And--" Franky stopped talking and bit the inside of her cheek until the urge for hasty speech had passed. "You really think it can be done."
Dex met her gaze, his eyes serious. "Well, I'd definitely want to work with some kinda doctor if-- if the project got a go-ahead from Joe. But I think it's possible, Captain. I really do."
"I will give your proposal its due consideration," Franky said, and turned towards the tunnel that led out of the docking bay. "Don't slag anything," she tossed over her shoulder, then pressed her lips together, frowning.
"I won't!" Dex called after her, and Franky flinched.
She walked alone through the tunnel, thinking of flying again. Real flying. Being allowed to lead attack runs that weren't suicide missions. Being herself again... The light at the end of the tunnel broke into her contemplations, and Franky's ironic chuckle echoed back to her like a stranger's laughter, bouncing off the tunnel's curves. She emerged onto the beach and blinked up at the stars that were slowly beginning to gleam through the soupy fog that seemingly surrounded Totenkopf's island at all times.
Joe was sitting out on the beach, perched nonchalantly on the protruding edge of one of the ark cells that were even now, slowly but surely, drifting or being towed in to shore by Franky's men. Judging by the soft sounds from inside the enclosure, this one held pigeons, or possibly turtledoves.
"What's the matter," he was saying to Polly Perkins, "cold?" Miss Perkins' short skirt and showy jacket, Franky observed, weren't doing much to protect her from the oncoming chill of the night.
"A gentleman would offer me his jacket, but I think we've established you aren't one," Polly said. She was circling the pod slowly, obviously trying to find an good angle to photograph it from that didn't have Joe in it.
"A gentleman would offer a lady his jacket," Joe corrected, "but I think we've established you aren't one."
Franky considered simply heading back into the tunnel, but then Polly glanced over and saw her. "Oh, Captain," she said, and smiled. "Will you tell this lump to get out of my shot?"
Franky looked at Joe. Joe shrugged.
"A word to the wise, Miss Perkins," Franky called as Polly disappeared around the far side of the pod. "Totenkopf is fair game, but should you photograph any Manta Station equipment or personnel, be aware that I will consider it an act of espionage against the British government and you will be arrested for spying-- I don't care who you work for."
Polly appeared again, closer to Franky than she had been before. "For whom I work, Captain Cook," she corrected serenely, lining up the shot of the pod. "You don't care for whom I work."
"Oh, leave Pol alone, Franky," Joe drawled. Polly looked startled, but Franky just waited for the punch line, and Joe obligingly provided it. "Knowing her, all she'd get is pictures of the inside of her lens cap."
Franky sighed. Joe chuckled, pleased with his own wit.
"Fuck you, Joe!" Polly snapped, rounding the pod again to glare at Joe. Holding her camera out in front of her without even looking through the viewfinder, she snapped the flash right in his face. "Hope you smiled for the birdie, because that'll be the last picture of the great and mighty Sky Captain that I ever take in my entire life!" She stalked away, down the beach, then turned back, "And for your information-- ooh! Never mind. I don't suppose you'd be interested in what I found back at the main entrance!" The hook being set, she stalked off. Joe rubbed at his eyes.
"All right, go talk to her," he muttered to Franky.
"You're joking," Franky said, not quite as evenly as she might have wished. She couldn't put Dex's proposal out of her head. Some part of her was pathetically grateful to Polly for making it impossible for Joe to look directly at her, at least momentarily. No pilot she'd ever met was any good at defensive strategy, only offensive.
"She was trying to tell me something, and I just didn't want to listen," Joe grumbled, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes. "Look, I know Polly. She's not a... Well, she is a liar, and a cheat when she needs to be, but not just for kicks. If it's important enough to bait me with, well... it's important."
"I remain astounded that you haven't already married this paragon of maidenhood," Franky said. "Go and talk to Dex, will you?"
"I still want to go over the reconnaissance teams' reports," Joe said as he passed her on his way into the tunnel.
"And I want to be anywhere besides a monster-infested island, tasked with prying secrets out of Our Miss Perkins," Franky replied, sarcasm sharpening her voice, "but as Sun-Tzu once noted, life is shit."
Joe's footsteps stopped, and then she heard him turn. She bit the inside of her cheek again, hard. She was being a fool, Franky told herself, acting as if Dex had already accomplished what he'd offered.
She didn't turn around. "Talk to Dex, Joe."
Night came on fast on Totenkopf's island, although the moon was out, allowing Franky to track Miss Perkins through the sand without too much trouble. She hadn't gone too far, just around the cove to a cluster of rocks. She was sitting with her camera in her lap like a cat, shoes in one hand and her toes trailing in the waves. Even bedraggled, runs in her stockings and a bruise on her jaw, Franky had to admit she was beautiful. She could see why Polly appealed to Dex. The curves of her hair and the twist of her mouth lent her a resemblance to one of his pulp heroines, perhaps a jungle queen or spaceship captain.
She could also understand why Joe was drawn to Polly; he was just too narcissistic not to be.
"Isn't that cold?" she asked, gesturing to Polly's feet in their ragged stockings.
"A little," Polly said, and sighed. "I know it's probably not too smart to be out here after dark, but if you don't mind we could sit here for a while and make Joe wait for it instead of running back with the answers like a couple of secretaries."
"Interestingly enough, I don't actually plan to bond with you over any real or percieved similarities that exist because we both happen to be female," Franky said.
"You don't have any clear buckle polish, do you?" Polly said, buffing her nails on the sleeve of her jacket. "I know it's silly, but my manicure's absolutely destroyed and I just can't concentrate on a thing with my nails looking such a mess."
"Buckle polish," Franky repeated, not sure if the blonde was pulling her leg or not.
"Oh, it works. I used to steal Joe's all the time. Of course, that was back in Nanjing where you couldn't get decent French tips for love or money." Polly smirked. "Though I suppose you didn't have that problem."
Absolutely infuriating, Franky thought. Perkins was obviously a bloody brilliant reporter. Else someone certainly would have strangled her by now. "What did you find by the main entrance to the base?"
"Oh, just a big... creature. It's really horrible," Polly said, reverting to the same distant tone she'd used to discuss innovative manicure solutions. "It looks like he took one of his monsters and grafted robot parts onto it-- or grew a monster inside a robot, or something disgusting like that. It's as big as a house and it's got these awful spikes..." She patted her camera absently. "I got some nice pictures, though. And then I came back and Joe was just..." She sighed. "I really shouldn't be so angry with him."
"No?" Franky had never expected fidelity from her sexual partners, and so had never been shocked or betrayed by lack of same, but it seemed-- to Franky at least-- that Polly and Joe hadn't been quite clear on that issue.
Polly glanced at her, then hopped off the rock, feet splashing in the waves that had rolled up just then to greet her. Falling in at Franky's side, the two women turned and headed back towards the tunnel. The jungle was on Franky's blind side, and it made her nervous, but there was nothing to be done but get back inside as quickly as possible.
"It was worse when I didn't know who it was," Polly explained. "I knew he was running around on me, I just knew it, but I figured it was one of those floozies who hang around the officers' club. Office girls who make fifteen dollars a week and somehow always have real silk stockings-- the kind of girl who thinks sophistication means a silver fox coat. They're the same everywhere. I couldn't stand the thought that-- well. I didn't know it was someone like you."
"Is it true, what Joseph thinks?" Franky asked. "Did you really sabotage his plane?"
"Well... yes. Black's a very flattering color on you, you know that?" Polly cocked her head thoughtfully. "It's so sensible, you know? Sensible and clean... I can't wear it, it makes me look an absolute ghost. Now, gray or camel, which I love, they look nice on someone fair. Really fair-haired, not that common straw color you see everywhere. Camel is a nice springtime color--"
Franky turned her head away from Polly, towards the jungle, and smiled. "He does still love you. Always will. Do you know that?"
"You want me to keep talking about clothes, don't you." Polly pushed her hair back with a careless hand. "I worked the fashion beat my first year. I can keep going for a long time. Trust me."
"Honestly, each word makes me pray silently that a poorly maintained rudder on the Manta will come loose, plummet from the sky and kill you."
Polly laughed out loud. "You know, Captain, when you loosen up some, you're really not so bad."
They had reached the entrance to the tunnel without incident, pausing to let Polly slip her shoes on, but Franky saw no reason to linger out in the open. "After you, Miss Perkins."
They walked most of the rest of the way back in silence. Just before the final bend that would lead them to Dex and Joe, Polly glanced over at Franky, eyes half-lidded with weariness. "The writing on the plane-- the-- what is it. The numbers. You probably figured it out right away."
"The call sign on the Warhawk? Oh, yes. So did Dex and most of the Legion. But of course they all pretended not to. Joseph really is a sentimental bastard..."
"He loves me." Polly sighed as they caught sight of Joe and Dex. "And you, and Dex, and flying, and being right... It's easy to be sweet to people before you love them."
"Dorothy Parker," Polly said wryly. "All my best lines-- Parker-- and now you know all my secrets, really."
Dex was bent over the tarp, arranging the pieces of the robot in something like their original configuration. Joe was slouched against the foot of one of the large walker robots, reading a book from Totenkopf's library and chewing on a ration bar.
"What's for dinner, Joseph?" Franky clapped her hands together as she approached.
"Turtle soup as a starter, then eggs stuffed with pate de foie gras in mushroom sauce, with the main course being chicken croquettes. You can order a whisky and soda at the bar." Joe tossed her a ration bar without looking up.
"Can I get a salad instead of the soup?" Polly asked, and Joe tossed her a ration bar as well. He even aimed for her hands, which Franky thought was a sign of something. Perhaps progress.
Franky found herself a seat on the walker robot's boot, and Polly settled down on the edge of the tarp, next to Dex. Someone had found him some bubble gum, and he was snapping it rhythmically as he worked. Franky allowed herself to spare a thought to the possible potential uses for a mouth and tongue as quick and strong as Dex's potentially were, given the exercise said mouth and tongue were nearly continually engaged in. Something to consider, she thought, if Polly and Joe ever managed to be near each other for more than a week without the world ending.
But that was a thought for the future, as was Dex's plan to build her some sort of science-fictional new eye. Like Scarlett O'Hara, although Franky hadn't really liked that movie-- she'd think about it later. Not tomorrow. Tomorrow had quite enough on its agenda, with two of every sort of animal still washing up on the beach, and a great monstrous machine-beast loose somewhere near the entrance to the base, and all sorts of other mysterious and horrible and fantastic possibilities. Lurking, out there in the night.
It would, she thought, be a good day.
Ignoring Joe and Dex's twin shocked looks, Franky leaned back against the shin of the walker robot, crossed her ankles, and started to whistle.