Chapter 18: The Race is on
The amphibious craft flew in a straight line over the northbound tracks.
Benedict and Major Travas had taken off as soon as the airport opened at the crack of dawn, ascending as they left Raputoa City in line with the rails.
About two months earlier, Major Travas had traveled down the same set of tracks as he escorted a princess traveling incognito. This time, he was making much the same journey by plane.
The craft cruised at several hundred meters, following the flight plan Benedict submitted. Unlike the day before, both pilot and passenger were sitting with the windows open. The window in the pilot’s seat opened to the back, and the window in the passenger seat opened to the front, so when both were open, the two panes of glass overlapped.
They had also raised their seats as high as possible. This configuration left them both more exposed to the air, giving them a wider range of vision. They held back the freezing winds that battered them with their hats, goggles, and scarves.
It had been an hour since takeoff.
Once they were out of Raputoa City—and then its suburbs—they saw markedly fewer things from their seats.
To the right were the endless plains of Raputoa, stretching on to the horizon. Rice paddies just beginning to be planted, and the sun and the sky.
Below were four parallel sets of tracks that seemed to go on forever.
To the left was yet more land, and the surface of the Lutoni River in the distance.
Benedict confirmed that there were no houses, trains, or cars within sight before making his move. <The coast is clear. Let’s get going.>
<Right,> Major Travas replied, pressing the talk button. <I’m in your hands.>
<Hold on to your seat—it’s gonna be bumpy!>
The craft banked hard to the left and pulled into a rapid dive. The dirt of the plains quickly drew near.
Having descended west in an instant, the craft slowly pulled up again and began cruising at barely 10 meters off the ground.
Benedict kept the plane close to the ground to keep it out of sight. The grassy plains rushed past the sides of the craft.
Thanks to Benedict’s still-polished skills, the craft safely made it past the buffer zone and into the Lutoni.
The great river was hundreds of meters wide. As soon as Benedict reached the air over it, he ascended and slowly banked to the left, pointing the craft due north.
Then he flew low over the edge of the river on the east bank.
<We’ll head on north like this for an hour. Let me know if you spot something. I’ll keep an eye out too.> Benedict said, starting the stopwatch function on the chronograph on his left wrist.
Major Travas took up a small pair of binoculars and scanned the riverbank to his right.
He pulled his goggles onto his forehead and searched, alternating between his own eyes and the binoculars.
The river looked as if it were painted on, the same sights repeating over and over. Grass and weeds grew into massive tangles that painted streaks of brown and green without end.
The camouflaged aeroplane was buried somewhere in that landscape.
If only the vertical stabilizer had not been snapped off during the crash, Major Travas might have been able to use it as a beacon to find. But he was forced to search the hard way.
Benedict’s craft did not have enough fuel to travel up and down the Lutoni multiple times. If they could not find the craft within the day, they would have to return tomorrow. Neither Benedict nor Major Travas could allow themselves to relax.
About 10 minutes passed in tense silence.
<There!> Major Travas cried into the microphone.
<Where? I don’t see it.>
<Could you turn us around?>
<Sure thing. I’m landing us in the river.>
Benedict pulled up as he scanned his surroundings, then made a full turn to bring the riverbank to his left. Then he landed.
The plane came to a stop without bouncing once, as though it were sucked into the water’s surface. It left a white wake in the brown river. Benedict kept the speed to a minimum as he slowly cruised up the Lutoni, about 20 meters from the shore.
<A little more… Just a little further… It was somewhere around here,> Major Travas recalled. Benedict had to strain to find the craft because the wings of the plane obstructed the view from the pilot’s seat.
But several seconds later—
Benedict also spotted the wreck.
The fuselage was lying on the bank with the horizontal stabilizer submerged. The plane was missing its vertical stabilizer and its right wing.
<All right. I know where the craft is now, so I’m taking off for now.>
<Could you let me off here?> asked Major Travas. There was an inflatable life raft in the seat inside the fuselage.
<And let you cross over on a broken leg? You could pull it off, I’ll give you that, but it’ll be hard. I’m gonna see if we can land on the dirt somewhere around here,> Benedict replied, pushing on the throttle. The craft once again rushed over the water and took to the air.
Benedict flew low towards the riverbank. He tilted left and crossed the grass, searching for the nearest possible landing point.
<How soft is the dirt around here?> he asked.
<Quite soft,> Major Travas replied. <Just crawling over it left clear, visible streaks.>
<That’s no good, then. The landing gear might get stuck. Landing’s no problem, but taking off will be an issue,> Benedict sighed. If they could not take off, Benedict would be stranded as well this time. They would have the documents they wanted, along with a 30-kilometer walk out of the buffer zone. <No roads nearby?>
Even the buffer zone had some roads for local fishermen who had permits, and for military personnel on scouting and surveillance duty.
<I’m afraid not,> Major Travas said. <At least, I didn’t see any last time I was here.>
<That so? I don’t see anything, either,> Benedict replied as he circled the air. <Then I guess we’re gonna have to go boating,> he joked.
But a second later—
<We’ve got guests,> Benedict said. <In the nine o’clock direction. You see them?>
Major Travas turned to his left. He saw the Lutoni, the western buffer zone, and five black dots in the sky. From the direction, they were clearly Western crafts.
<The mastermind’s sent in a search party.>
If the crafts were flying over the buffer zone and approaching the border, they were clearly not an official search party.
The dots grew larger and larger. They were headed in Travas and Benedict’s direction.
<They’ve probably seen us. Silver sticks out like a sore thumb—should’ve asked Fi for an extra budget allocation for a paint job,> Benedict sighed casually. <Looks like we’re not gonna be boating now.>
<I suppose not.>
<They might have detailed flight plans from the crashed plane.>
<Most likely. They’ll probably find the wreckage.>
Benedict turned towards the approaching planes, which were clearly about to violate Roxchean airspace. He accelerated full throttle.
<We should normally be turning tail right about now, but let’s see how far we can push our luck before that! Get your rifle ready, Wil!>
<Sir! Unidentified craft in the 1300 direction! On the riverbank!>
Cornelius took out his binoculars. He glared at the target.
Circling the riverbank was an amphibious craft, a biplane shining a loud silver.
“Hah hah!” Cornelius guffawed, pressing the call button. <Looks like they’ve done our work for us!>
Four of the crafts from the former Teruto Base were surveillance seaplanes. They had been picked out of the planes left in the hangars, quickly made usable again after being refueled and repaired.
They were small biplanes with two floats each, once a mainstay of the sou Be-Il military but now slowly being phased out of use.
Though the model was theoretically intended for surveillance, it was also equipped with two 7.7mm machine guns, allowing it to engage in dogfights in a limited capacity. It was no slouch in speed, either, which was why the men had chosen this model. The crafts were painted in green-tone camouflage. They were two-seaters but carried only one man each, their aviator hats and goggles sticking out of their open cockpits.
The last plane was a brown liaison craft. It was long and thin like a fish stripped to the bone, with landing gear sticking out from its underside. The craft was unarmed.
Although it was an outdated model, it still boasted top-notch short-distance landing and takeoff capabilities. It could even land and take off on rough terrain.
In the past, when this model was still considered new, Benedict had flown the same craft—albeit with a different seat configuration—and landed in a square in Kunst with Fiona.
Cornelius sat in the back, wearing his camouflage gear. He ordered the pilot to bank to the right and break formation. Then he contacted the rest of his men.
<We cannot leave witnesses, whether civilian or military. Shoot it down. And kill anyone onboard if they attempt to escape.>
The men responded with enthusiasm.
Benedict’s plane and the four Western crafts passed one another by in the middle of the Lutoni.
If a plane were to turn to escape at this point, it would make itself completely vulnerable to enemy fire. Benedict climbed at maximum speed, lunging into the midst of the formation. His four opponents also accelerated to pass him by. This strategy had the downside of potentially leading to a midair collision, but it also opened up a chance for fly-by fire.
<They’re not gonna know my craft’s unarmed until it’s almost too late, though,> Benedict remarked casually. In the back seat, Major Travas was loading a full magazine into the assault rifle he had kept in a bag.
There were 10 seconds before the crafts passed each other.
“All right,” Benedict said, changing channels. <Hey! Don’t shoot, guys! It’s me!> he cried in Bezelese.
“Huh?” “What?” “Hm?” “Oh?”
The other pilots fell into a sudden panic.
In that moment of confusion, the crafts passed one another by without firing a shot.
“Those are some ancient surveillance models. Where did they dredge them up?” Benedict wondered, banking. <Dammit, men! I almost opened fire!> he said, catching up to the other planes and entering formation next to them. He positioned himself on the right side of the plane on the far right.
Benedict’s eyes met those of the man on the plane at the end. He grinned and gave a wave.
<Who are you? You’re from Sou Be-Il?> asked the man. Major Travas could hear his voice as well.
<Obviously,> said Benedict. <How else would I be talking to you? You’re looking for the missing aeroplane too?>
Several seconds later, the man replied with stunning honesty. <Y-yes. So who are you again?>
<C’mon, it’s me!>
<That doesn’t tell me anything! I’ve been ordered to shoot you down! Identify yourself, or I will open fire!>
<You’ve got some nerve, man! Who’s your commanding officer?!>
<None of your business! Now identify yourself, or I will open fire!>
<Calm down. I’m not even armed. See?> Benedict said, flashing the sides of his craft to prove his point. At the same time, he discreetly pushed the craft closer to the man’s. <You’re doing the same thing as me, right? Searching for the wreckage and retrieving the top-secret documents?>
“I knew it!” Benedict cried triumphantly from his seat, sliding in even closer. He switched to Major Travas. <They’re not official military men. Mercs working for our mastermind. Shoot them.>
An assault rifle roared over the Lutoni River.
Major Travas unfolded the stock, raised the gun, chambered the first round, and took precise aim. Then he opened fire.
It was one shot on semi-automatic mode. Blood gushed from the head of the pilot.
The man died instantly, his right hand going limp with the control stick still in it. The craft slowly ascended, but lost speed and balance—then it flipped over into a spiral before crashing into the Lutoni.
<One more! Get the engine on this one too!> Benedict ordered, sliding in closer to the next seaplane.
Major Travas switched the assault rifle to automatic mode and took aim.
He fired without a second’s hesitation. The pilot was still staring in a daze when the bullets came down on him like hail.
About five shots later, Major Travas turned to the engine and continued pulling the trigger.
Sparks flew from the engine near the nose. Then came a puff of white smoke.
Major Travas did not stop. He fought the recoil from the automatic fire with the strength he built up while in the hospital. Shell casings leapt from the right side of the gun and scattered in the wind.
Thirty spent casings later, the seaplane began spewing fire from the engine. And it fell to the ground in a trail of black smoke, carrying its fatally wounded pilot.
<All right, we’re pulling out! Hold on!>
Benedict gave Major Travas two seconds to put away his gun before diving hard to the right to escape.
Only then did the two remaining seaplanes notice that something was amiss.
“Damned maggots!” Cornelius roared, watching two crafts falling into the river. His craft was hanging back—putting its low-speed cruising capabilities to good use—and had just found the wreckage.
The liaison craft landed on the Roxche side, about 300 meters from the river. Taking off in the mud was not difficult for this model.
Cornelius slid the hatch open and stepped out, grabbing a Sou Be-Il military-issue submachine gun from behind his seat.
This was the same model that Benedict used during the commotion at Ikstova. It had a wooden stock and looked like a sawn-off rifle. The gun took curved magazines that held 30 handgun rounds.
Cornelius put on suspenders and a belt with a pouch containing three spare magazines over his combat uniform. He also wrapped a camouflage-patterned bandana on his head. “Stand by overhead and come back once the coast is clear!”
The pilot nodded.
Once Cornelius had gotten to a safe distance, the liaison craft taxied and took off in the blink of an eye. And it escaped at a low altitude to avoid the dogfight overhead.
Hefting his submachine gun over his shoulder, Cornelius crouched low and grabbed fistfuls of mud. He spread the mud over his face, ears, and neck.
His eyes glinted amidst the perfect camouflage. Cornelius took slow, determined steps towards the wreckage.
<All right! You got two!> Benedict cheered as Major Travas desperately endured the weight of the sharp bank.
The amphibious craft was circling to the right at full throttle. The surface of the Lutoni whipped past Major Travas’s eyes.
Behind them were two hostile seaplanes, hot on their tail and preparing to open fire.
Benedict flew out of the bank and began flying low over the water. He headed due north with the river.
There were less than two meters between the floats and the water’s surface. The altimeter was already pointing at zero.
The surveillance crafts pursuing the plane gave up on flying at the same altitude and attempted to shoot from above.
“Sorry, but no thanks,” Benedict said, moving slightly to the side. He easily avoided the attack. Bullets hit the water and left splashes on the river’s surface.
“Dammit!” the pursuer hissed. Attacking a plane flying low over the water from above and behind was dangerous, as he could easily lose track of his position while firing and crash into the river. This was why his shooting time was limited and his aim easy to predict.
Benedict checked his rear-view mirror as he quickly avoided the shots and resumed his position in quick succession. The mirror was a custom addition of his from the hangar at Ikstova.
The low-altitude chase continued for about a minute. But soon the two pursuers stopped their attacks, realizing that their efforts were in vain. They simply maintained a constant distance from Benedict as they chased him down.
<They’re smarter than I gave them credit for,> said Benedict. <Must have realized it would be better to chase me off than risk running out of bullets.>
<How are we on fuel?> asked Major Travas.
Benedict glanced at the fuel gauge. <Hm. We don’t really have time to be fooling around here, if I had to be honest.>
<Then please climb and turn us around. I’ll see if I can shoot them down.>
<That’s not gonna work. They know we’re armed, so they’ll keep their distance.>
<There’s no rush, man. I think it’s time for reinforcements.>
<Our hero should be showing up any second now.>
Major Travas furrowed his brow.
Benedict looked around. “Hah hah!” he laughed, and pulled the control stick.
The amphibious craft entered a rapid ascent. It climbed and slowly began banking to the right.
The pursuers also rose after him, closing the distance.
Major Travas alone was left confused. <Shall I open fire?> he asked.
<Nah, just sit down and hold on to that gun. We’re in for a rough ride!>
All Travas could do now was do as he was told. He clutched the assault rifle tightly and bore the weight of gravity upon him.
The amphibious craft was suddenly completely exposed. The pursuers took quick notice.
<Let’s get him!>
<Move, I’ve got this!>
<Bastard! First to shoot gets the kill, dammit!>
<Not if I shoot you first!>
<Hey! If you steal my kill, I’m shooting you down!>
<Gonna try and up your share, eh? Just try me!>
The men argued over the radio for some time, but finally came to a consensus.
<Gods damn you, fine! You shoot him down, and I’ll take care of the rest!>
The craft that had been flying closer to Benedict’s banked left, allowing the other pilot to take the kill.
<Fine!> the second pilot hissed, but then muttered to himself. “Gonna shoot me in the back, are you? Not if I shoot you both first!”
Benedict was not even circling at this point. He was simply flying due east.
The pursuer turned and gave chase at full speed. He quickly closed the distance, putting his finger on the trigger lever.
That was when Benedict’s craft suddenly banked left into a dive.
And another craft entered the pursuer’s sights. It was headed right for him.
The new craft was a green seaplane. A biplane with a wingspan of 11 meters and less than 10 meters from nose to tail, even including the floats. Although it seated two, the back seat was empty. Its pilot sat alone with a finger on the trigger lever.
“HEY! LEAVE MY HUSBAND ALONE!”
The threat never reached the pursuers’ ears. Instead, their eyes spotted two flashes from the new craft’s nose.
That was the last thing the closer pursuer saw.
The 7.7mm machine gun rounds tore into his propellers, engine, fuselage, and his head, killing him instantly.
The two crafts passed each other by. One of them evaded to the left. The other slowly tilted forward, left without a pilot. And it slowly descended with a thin stream of fuel ribboning behind it. Eventually, the craft drove itself into the Lutoni with a splash.
“Shit! Reinforcements!” cried the remaining pursuer, who had been planning to shoot his ally in the back. “But if I shoot that one down, I get all the pay for myself, right?” He nodded and tracked the new craft as it disappeared to the right.
Then the pursuer checked his left side. The amphibious craft he had been pursuing was long gone.
His prey decided, the man banked right into a dive.
<Hey, you two! How’s it going?>
<…Allison. It’s you, isn’t it?> said Major Travas.
<The one and only. Were you expecting someone else?>
Benedict spoke up before Allison could get a word in. <I didn’t say a word, honest!>
<It was Fi!> Allison said. <Sorry, Wil! Fi told me not to tell anyone! But you know, as soon as I heard you died in a plane crash, I got the feeling that you were still alive! —Whoops. So I went to a nearby base! And I talked to an old friend from the transportation unit who works there—hup! Aha! —Sorry! And borrowed this baby! I only knew the general location and stuff, but it took me a bit of time to get this craft discreetly—(ratatatatatatat) anyway, sorry I’m late! Both of you!>
Benedict and Major Travas looked in the direction of Allison’s craft.
The interruptions in her explanation came from her sliding away from her enemy’s line of fire, and the gunfire came from her shredding the pursuer’s craft—which had leapt ahead of her—and turning it into scrap for the Lutoni to swallow.
Having shot down a plane in the middle of the conversation, Allison pushed her craft back to full throttle and flew side-by-side with Benedict.
Major Travas raised his goggles with an incredulous look.
<All right! What’ve you got planned next, Wil?>
He smiled at the sound of her voice.
<I want to land in the river and head for the wreckage. Cover me from above.>
<Allison, they’ve got one more aeroplane—a liaison craft. He might go and call for reinforcements,> Benedict warned.
Allison began flying protectively around Benedict’s plane, almost fluttering.
<Looks like Roxche’s developed another monster…> Benedict mused with a hint of bitterness.
<Isn’t she great? A new surveillance seaplane that can match even a fighter craft!>
<And you borrowed one without permission? You’re not going to have a job left when you get back to the Air Force,> Benedict mused casually about Major Travas’s biggest concern.
<Then I suppose some royal family somewhere’s going to be getting two new hires soon. A dishwasher and maybe a shepherd?>
<I’ll ask the wife.>
Benedict once again landed his craft in the river. He stopped at a safe distance of 30 meters from the shore and turned off the engine.
<Can you see it, Allison? The wreckage is on the shore to your left.>
Allison banked almost a full 90 degrees for a look. <I see it.>
Cornelius watched the biplane fly over as he crawled across the ground. It never came back.
“It’s not over yet!”
Realizing that he had not been spotted, he continued to crawl—with submachine gun secured in his arms, head bowed low, moving as slowly as humanly possible.
He advanced at the speed of a tortoise, or perhaps even slower, as he headed for the downed aeroplane.
“All right. Good luck!”
Protected by Allison and seen off by Benedict, Major Travas stood from his seat. He wrapped a microphone around his neck and stuck an earpiece into his left ear, wrapping the radio around his waist, pouch and all.
Then he heaved the assault rifle over his shoulder and put the bag with the spare magazines across his right shoulder.
Using only his arms and right leg, Major Travas climbed over the left side of the amphibious craft and onto the lower wing. There he reached into one of the windows and pulled out the emergency raft. He threw the raft into the river, holding on to the rope connected to it. The raft inflated on its own into a small two-seater.
<Can you hear me? I’m leaving my crutches behind; they’ll only get in the way. Please toss them down from above if necessary,> Major Travas said to Benedict as he tested his connection.
<You’re not planning on covering 30 kilometers on crutches, are you?> Benedict sighed.
<It will be easier than crawling,> Major Travas replied, expertly sliding off the wing and into the raft. Benedict breathed a sigh.
Major Travas stretched his legs forward and took out a small folding oar. He would have to switch sides often because he only had the one.
<I know you don’t need me to remind you, but don’t push yourself. You’re still injured,> said Benedict.
<Do your best! You have things to get done, so do push yourself!> Allison said from overhead.
Major Travas began to row.
The Lutoni was calm, but if he did nothing, the currents would carry him off. He oriented himself a little more upriver than his destination as he struggled.
The arms that he had taken care to train—even at the risk of being scolded by the nurses—carried him all the way to shore.
Major Travas finally made it to shore about 3 meters upriver from the wreckage, on the right side of the plane. First, he tied the oar to the rope on the raft and stuck the oar into the mud.
Then he crawled out of the boat and continued crawling towards the craft on his left.
He opened the hatch on the right side of the fuselage and entered the plane for the first time in over 10 days.
Nothing had changed inside the aeroplane.
Even his old seat was still the same.
He looked under it.
The attaché case secured under his seat was still there.
With a sigh of relief, Major Travas unfastened the case and pulled it out. He checked it for traps, just in case, but soon confirmed that the case was just as he had left it last.
<I have the documents. I’ll be out shortly,> he said to the others over the radio, and turned. That was when he spotted two small batons.
Two signal flares. The ones he had left behind.
He had to hide the fact that he had never used the flares.
“Maybe I should get rid of them…”
Major Travas picked them up and stuffed them into his jacket.
With the attaché case in his left hand, Major Travas crawled across the aeroplane.
He left out of the hatch on the right side of the fuselage, the same way he had come in through.
And he was shot.