• Chase Walker

Toxic Skies Over Bleeding Grounds

Roaring engines droned in Lieutenant Forest’s ears. Frigid sky stung his cheeks as the propeller washed the air over him. Ariman Sigrid’s leather helmet bobbed up and down in the cockpit in front of Forest’s.


Lieutenant Forest snatched up the communication hose and shouted into it, “Eyes up, Sigrid. We’ll be there shortly. I need you awake.”


The poor fool doesn’t know what awaits the squadron below. It was Sigrid’s first time flying a combat mission. Forest prayed it would be the last for the right reasons. He’ll learn how real this war is in a moment.


Forest held the stick firmly as turbulence threatened to yank it from his hand. When the sky settled, he slipped his gloved thumb and forefinger under his goggles to gently rub his burning eyes. Some sleep would have been nice. Coffee will have to do.


His Majesties 10th Fighter Wing danced and bobbed in the sun over a sea of sickly clouds. Forest kept his plane in his place in the flying V behind the lead plane. It should be a smooth mission. Escort the bombers to the eastern front. Eliminate any enemy armor that the artillery had missed. Drop the bombs. Return home.


Forest tugged at his leather collar. It should be easy. He said another prayer that the enemy hadn’t brought any of their devils to battle today. He wasn’t sure what damage one of those creatures could do to a biplane, but he wouldn’t want to find out.


A yellow streamer unfurled from the lead plane’s top wing. It was almost time to dive. Forest scooped up the communication hose again and held it to his mouth. Suddenly, he was at a loss for words. What could he tell Sigrid that might prepare the young man for what lies beneath the clouds? Forest supposed words of encouragement might be customary, but he had never been one for flowery words. They hadn’t done his gunners any good in the past.


“Stay alert,” Forest said. “Keep on the guns and off the stick. Let me do the flying, and I’ll try to get us both out of this alive. Deal?”


Sigrid gave a thumbs up and fascinated the chis strap of his helmet. Lieutenant Forest lifted his eyes one more time to the clear sky, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face. He did his best to ignore the roaring engines and the faint smell of exhaust that whipped past his nose. Everything seemed so calm up here.


Then the lead plane unfurled a green streamer from the top wing.


Dive.


The lead plane tilted forward, pointing its nose into the yellow-green clouds below. The next two planes followed suit. Lieutenant Forest lifted an arm out of the cockpit and gave the fuselage a thumping pat for luck. Then the following two planes dove.


“Here we go, kid,” Forest yelled, without using the communication hose. “Hang on.”


Forest pushed forward on the stick and the cloud horizon lifted before them. Forest became weightless as his body lifted out of the seat. His stomach levitated into his chest. The plane whined as it increased speed, dark clouds rushing up at them. Forest checked the planes around him before entering the blanket of clouds. He wouldn’t be able to see in there. A couple of small adjustments lurched the plane further down and to the left, just for good measure.


In an instant, Forest could see nothing but the misty clouds swirling around the propeller. Water beaded on his goggles and streaked away. His wet cheeks grew numb, and his teeth began to chatter. The water tasted synthetic. With the chemical weapons used in the war, he was not surprised.


Then, the clouds whipped away, and the ground rushed up to meet them. Forest pulled back on the stick with both hands, and the plane leveled out. The rest of the squadron made it through as well. Each plane made the necessary adjustments to fall back into formation.


Below, gray uniforms moving like ants dotted the mud-brown ground. They moved along trenches, scurried around artillery pieces, or passed ammunition boxes along a chain of troops to machinegun nests.


Forest’s gorge rose. To the south, hundreds of tanks rolled toward the eastern lines. The entire Second Armor Division lay below them. Thousands of infantry took cover behind the tanks as they advanced toward the trenches.


Creeping Death.


Something burst behind the plane, rocking it violently. A flash of light and suddenly, Forest couldn’t hear the roaring engines. He couldn’t hear anything but a muffled whining. The squadron broke formation as more anti-air shells burst around them. One shell struck a plane directly, shredding the upper and lower wings on the left side and causing the engine to burst into flame.


As the destroyed plane spiraled to the ground, Forest could only watch. Was that Charlie’s plane? He shook the thought from his mind and gritted his teeth.


Forest slammed the stick to the left and rolled the plane over. The force of the roll pressed him down hard into the seat. A shell exploded where they were before the maneuver. Forest leveled out for only a moment before pressing the stick down into another dive. The line of tanks stretched out in front of them, right in front of the biplane’s guns.


“Give ‘em hell, kid!”


Both guns spit fire through the propeller, and two lines of tracers marked a path. Forest drew the streams of .30 caliber death along the line of tanks just to their rear. Bullets tore into the enemy infantry that took cover behind the tanks.


Forest could hear nothing over the ringing in his ears, the muffled engine, or the drumming guns, but he imagined the men below were screaming. They fell to the ground. Some men took a direct hit, falling to pieces like a bloody jigsaw puzzle. Forest roared at the top of his lungs. He had to hate them. The enemy should be hated. How else am I to do this?


He pulled back on the stick, and the guns stopped firing, trailing acrid smoke from their barrels. Banking right, Forest circled the plane out over the eastern lines to make another pass on the enemy. The bombers dropped out of the bottom of the clouds and began their run.


A trail of firebombs, high explosives, and clouds of toxic gas exploded in the bomber’s wake. The heat coming off of the firebombs warmed Forest’s cheeks, even from that distance. He pumped a triumphant fist into the air as he watched the enemy line break into disarray.


One of the bombers banked into the bomber next to it, and they both fell flaming to the ground. Forest searched for an explanation. What happened? The remaining bombers split into two columns sweeping out to each side as if to avoid something. Scanning the ground, Forest found his explanation.


A single man stood in the open. He waved his arms, bringing another bomber down before the crew was able to bail out. It was just as Forest had feared. The enemy brought one of their devils to war today.


Banking, Forest steered the plane away from the monster below.


Enemy machine-gun fire struck a bomber’s left wing engine, and it exploded, tearing the wing apart with it. The bomber spun downward, and two parachutes opened. The crew made it out.


A stream of tracers streaked past one of the parachutes. Then again. That lump returned to Forest’s throat. They’re shooting at the pilots.


Lieutenant Forest growled as he banked the plane hard, pressing his body into the seat. He pointed the nose directly at the enemy machinegun and opened up the throttle. He picked up the communication hose and barked into it.


“Burn ‘em down!”


Sigrid opened fire, spitting a column of lead toward the enemy machinegun. Bullets pitted the mud under the nest. Forest carefully pulled back on the stick. The sandbags around the machinegun exploded into clouds of dust. Forest pulled back a hair. The gun, the stand it was mounted on, and her crew fell away in pieces.


Forest pulled back on the stick, and the engine roared as it climbed higher and higher. He turned to the parachutes, flying by at a safe distance. Enemy fire tattered one parachute. It flapped and whipped as the crewmember plummeted to the ground. The other parachute was intact, but the crewmember hung limply under it.


Lieutenant Forest muttered a curse through clenched teeth.


The sound of bullets punching through metal shook Forest back into the fight. Something hot and wet splashed into his face, and suddenly, he couldn't see anything. He frantically wiped at his goggles with his glove, but it was no use.


He could taste it now. Oil. A bullet had hit the motor. The engine sputtered and tacked wildly. Forest leveled the plane as best as he could and throttled down.


“Plug that hole, kid! I can’t see a thing!”


Sigrid unbuckled his harness and climbed out onto the fuselage. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed a corner down into a bullet hole. It wouldn’t stop the oil from leaking out, but it will keep it from spraying in their faces. Forest removed his goggles, and the cold air burned his eyes, but at least he could see again.


More bullets pitter patted down the wing. One thumped into Sigrid’s side, spraying hot blood onto Forest’s cheek. Sigrid tumbled over the side and fell into thin air. Forest’s eyes followed him down.


No chute.


Forest punched the instrument cluster and swore through a sneer.


Bullets hissed all around the plane, and Forest banked hard. He couldn’t bail here. He couldn’t bail anywhere this engine would be able to take him. The machine gunners would pick him out of the sky.


The engine belched black smoke and sputtered to a stop. Without power, the stick softened in Forest’s hands. He was gliding now. I’m going down no matter what.


Opening his parachute meant death. Staying in the cockpit might be better, might be worse. Forest cast his gaze over the side of the cockpit, looking for a safe place to crash land.


Below him, another man stood in the open. He held his hands out in front of him and clapped them together. Two fighters slammed into each other over his head and plummeted down to the ground, shattered.


Another devil.


Forest loosened his leather collar with an oily hooked finger and yanked the stick to bank as best he could. If I’m goin’ down, I’m taking one of those abominations with me.


Pointing the nose directly at the man in the open, Lieutenant Forest gritted his oily teeth and reached down beside his seat. His thumb hovered over the trigger button as he struggled to maintain control of the stick with his other hand. The devil was facing the other way. He won’t hear a motor.


Lieutenant Forest waited as long as he could before opening fire. He wanted to be as close as possible. He tried to make no mistake. This creature must die.


The devil spun to face him with surprise on his face. The expression was a human one. One might not suspect what destructive power this man possessed just by looking at him. Forest dropped his thumb on the trigger, and the machineguns drummed, rocked, and spat fire.


The devil lifted a hand, but it was too late. He deflected several streaking tracers to the side, but one bullet caught him in the shoulder, spinning him around. Several more tore through his back. The devil turned to the plane again and lifted both hands this time, deflecting each bullet into the ground or skipping off into the distance over his head. Forest roared, not letting off the trigger.


He carefully kept the nose of the plane pointed at the creature as the ground rushed up toward him. In that final moment, Forest released the trigger and the stick. He thrust his arms out of the cockpit on either side and shouted a curse at the creature.


The stagnant propeller slammed into the devil, and the rest of the plane crumpled into him, driving the creature into the ground. Forest’s head struck the front of the cockpit, and his suffering was over.


The plane and the devil exploded into a column of roaring flames. A dagger flipped and rolled across the muddy battlefield until it came to rest beside a splintered tree trunk.


And there it stayed as the war raged around it, over it, on top of it.


*****


Thank you for reading. Toxic Skies Over Bleeding Grounds is a spinoff of a popular short story I posted back in July. If you haven’t read The Little Wooden Box yet, I highly recommend it. Click here to check it out. Feel free to explore the blog and read my other short stories if you haven’t already.

Be sure to pick up a copy of my novel and part one of The Forgotten Ways trilogy, Well of Bones, by clicking here. Join the adventure soon because part two of The Forgotten Ways trilogy is on track for a November release. You won’t want to miss it.

In last week’s blog post, I mentioned that my time would be uncertain for the foreseeable future, so I will not be able to promise a short story next week. However, I will post something, so be sure to stop by around next Friday for more content.

Thanks again.

Until next week,

Chase


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