PART 21 - CUT LOOSE AND CAST ADRIFT
A sky blue seaplane materialized out of thin air several hundred feet above the vast expanse of the Pan Orient ocean, trailing a plume of black smoke as flames flickered from the cowling of it's right engine. It listed to the right, lurching drunkenly as it came in low for a landing before correcting at the last minute, splashing down in the surging waves with a spray of foam as it cut a deep white wake behind it.
After the sea plane had coasted to a stop, the hatch on the side popped open and a frantic female raccoon in coveralls clambered out and up onto the roof with a dented copper canister tucked under one arm and bounded across the wings to the right engine cowling. She cursed vehemently through clenched teeth as she furiously twisted the wheel on the top of the canister and sprayed the engine down with a spray of sodium bicarbonate.
She turned, holding out the hose as she doused the smoking engine cowling with a thick layer of snowy white foam, and shouted down toward the cockpit. "GWEN! Shut it down! Shut it all down and get your tail up here!"
Jane Early smiled across at her as she began to unbuckle her own belt and shoulder restraints. "I've seen that bling o' yers pull some amazin' stunts, darlin', but that one was a show stopper."
She turned, cocking an ear as a tentative voice came from the young canine beside her. "You... you speak the Vestcommon, ja? Er... Yes? I am sorry, if you please, my Vestcommon is not the good. I vant to say the thank you for the saving me."
As Dorothy and Jane turned their attention to her, she blushed, bowing her head repeatedly. "I am sorry, if you please, if I am not saying the vords vith the good. Ve must learn the Vestcommon in secret so ve do not take the hitting vith the sticks from the vulfs."
Jane turned in her seat and laid a gentle hand on the young canine girl's knee. "It's okay, darlin'. I know a li'l bit o' Steppesprecht from fightin' them mangy, rag-tail varmints. I can help y'all out a li'l."
The canine looked at her in amazement. "No vun has ever had the speaking of the vulfs in that vay vith me!" A faint blush and a smile spread across her face. "I think I have the liking of it! Yes. They are! They are the varmints vith the mangy rag tails. They are big dumb smelly fools!"
She bunched up her shoulders, covering her mouth and suppressing a giggle as her brown eyes danced merrily.
Jane glanced across the cabin at her feline cohort with a lopsided grin. "I think I like this gal's habañeros."
She turned back to face the young refugee. "My name's Jane Early, and
this here's Missus Dorothy Pearl. What's yer name darlin'?"
Before Jane could ask another question, Gwen came through the doorway
from the cockpit, rushing down the length of the cabin as Loretta's
angry voice echoed indistinctly from above. She paused and looked over
at Dorothy, as the feline met her eyes. "Missus Pearl, that was amazing!
You really saved our bacon back there."
The vixen smiled, blushing, then turned to face Jane and the young canine. Vanya hunkered down a bit, her clipped ears dipping as she looked up at the vixen inquisitively.
A warm smile spread across Gwen's face as she extended her hand. "Speaking of impressive. That was some crazy flying you did to get that contraption down on that sandbar."
The dingy yellow furred canine stared up at her, tentatively reaching up and clasping the vixen's hand. "You... you are the red fox, ja? You have the beautiful as much as the old stories say!"
Before Gwen could parse this, the sound of stomping feet echoed from above and Loretta's angry, upside down face poked in through the side door, her frazzled dark hair hanging down between her ears. "Gwen! Are you going to get up here and assess the damage with me or am I going to have to come down there and cause some more with your head?"
With that she snorted through her nostrils and disappeared, her thudding footsteps receding back across the roof and down the wing.
The vixen gave the young canine and the feline and rabbit doe a wry glance. "My partner's a little cranky right now. We'll talk later."
She turned and headed out the door, her shapely legs and swishing orange and white tail trailing behind her as she grabbed the top of the hatch and pulled herself upward and out of sight.
Vanya looked at Dorothy and Jane with wide eyes. "I have never met the one of her kind, or of yours. You are the cat, ja? And you are the long-eared rabbit. I know this from the moving pictures the vulfs allow us the seeing of, and from the stories our grandsires and grand dams tell us from the Great Var. The vulfs say you are the trouble makers and the parasites, that you are veak and full of the lies, vhich is vhy they drive you all from the Steppeland so long ago. Our grandsires and grand dams say that you are the good people, and friends vith the free dogs of the Vest. I hope very hard my grand sire vas the vun who says to me the true thing." She gave them a nervous smile. "I hope very hard even though I am not the free dog but the escaped thrall."
Dorothy and Jane glanced at one another, and the feline smiled at the young dog. "I'd like to think your grandfather was right, Vanya. We mean you no harm."
A wide grin spread across Jane's face. "And as fer y'all bein' a slave, well..." She reached into the back pocket of her trousers, pulled out an Alpine army knife, and unfolded the blade. "Let me git that thar coller off y'all."
At this Vanya let out a gasp, her trembling hands reached up to the
worn leather collar locked around her neck. "V-vhat. But..."
Dorothy's eyes began to glimmer in the shade of the cabin, as the young dog craned her neck to allow Jane to carefully work the blade of her knife between her throat and the leather encircling it. In a moment, she had cut through, and pulled it away.
The feline smiled warmly to herself as she focused on the canine girl's aura, watching the hope she had seen gleaming from well over a mile explode into a cascading fountain of purest joy, the youthful female's restless, constrained soul instantly expanding to fill her inner universe, never to be so caged again. She felt honored and fortunate to be able to witness such a transformation with the help of the Eye of the Guardians. There were times its burdens were much offset by its blessings.
In the physical world, the result appeared much quieter, as Jane laid the severed slave collar in Vanya's shaking hands. It would never close again. The drab yellow furred canine looked down at it with tears flowing freely down her face, hunched forward as her shoulders shook. She murmured something in Steppesprecht, her grubby fingers closing around the strap of leather. She looked up at the feline and rabbit, repeating the phrase as her brown eyes shone.
She struggled out of her harness and stood on shaking legs, and ran over to the door. A furious motion was visible at the base of her spine beneath the rough cloth of her sodden coveralls, as the nub of her docked tail wagged ecstatically against the fabric where no taillet had been sewn. Vanya hauled back and threw the collar as hard as she could, howling in pure joy as it plunked down in the swells and vanished forever.
Loretta's angry voice sounded from down the right wing. "Keep it down over there! I'm trying to work here!"
Vanya turned back into the cabin and bounded over to Jane as the rabbit pocketed her Alpine knife. "Oh! The blessings for you from Father God and all the Saints and the Angels! You have set me free!"
The tan furred doe gave her a smile and patted her on the cheek. "Y'all set yerself free, darlin'. I jest cut th' collar."
The young dog leapt up into the rabbit doe's arms and hugged her tightly as Jane turned and smiled over at Dorothy, squinting an eye as the yellow furred canine peppered her face with kisses. She gave her cohort a wink. "This is one o' th' best benefits o' fightin' th' wolves. This sorta thing never gits old."
The feline smiled back at her and wiped a small tear from her own ice blue eyes. "Believe me when I say I can definitely see why."
As she spoke, Vanya released her hold on Jane and leapt across to
embrace Dorothy, who braced herself just in time as the petite canine
leapt into her arms and gave her more of what she'd just given the
The yellow furred dog cocked an ear, shaking her head. "Based. I do not have the knowing of vhat this base is?"
The feline's eyes narrowed. "Where does the submarine dock for maintenance, refueling, and resupply? Where do the wolves keep their submarine fleet in these waters."
The young canine shook her head earnestly. "Ve have not docked vunce in the four moons since ve have the leaving of the Seevald. Ve meet vith the freighter sometimes to get the food and diesel gas out in the ocean vhen the sky is dark in the night. There are no other of the submarines except for the Jormungandr. I know this from hearing the vulfs make the talk vhile ve serve them the food."
Dorothy's eyes flared with unearthly light. "Please Vanya. You're free, you have no need to fear or obey the wolves. I don't want to have to compel you to tell me the truth."
The liberated dog drew herself up, a look of nervous indignation on her youthful face. "I do not say the lie! I have been inside that bad smelling place of allvays loud noises for four moons. I kept count for the whole time."
Jane rubbed her chin and cocked an ear, looking pensively at her feline cohort. "Y'know, she's probably tellin' the truth, darlin'. If'n that's so than what we're lookin' at here is some kinda advanced prototype. If'n y'all think about it, make's a heck of a lot more sense than a whole submarine bunker that them varmint's somehow built under everbody's nose on th' other side o' th' world. Whar I come from they got subs that can stay deep fer a whole dang year if they need to."
Dorothy looked away from Vanya and over at Jane, her hands going to her mouth. "H-holy Mackerel! If... if that's the case then we have just gotten extremely lucky, Jane."
The rabbit gave her a grin and slapped the bottom of one of her padless feet. "That's the payoff o' havin' an unlimited supply o' rabbit feet, darlin'."
The feline gave her a grin in return and turned back to Vanya with a grave expression on her face. "So it was this one sub, this Jormungandr, that sank all seventeen of those freighters?"
At this, the young canine's face clouded over, and she let out a little sob and slumped back on the bench, hugging herself miserably. "J-ja... Yes... And... and I h-helped the vulfs find f-four of them, flying in the Bachstelze."
Fresh tears began to roll down her face as she looked at them with haunted eyes. "That... that is vhy vhen I saw your airplane I decided to pull the cable release pin and have the running avay. The... the vulfs, they put down Pavel, the thrall who vas on Jormungandr to do the flying on the Bachstelze. But he raised his eyes at them. At the great Beta Captain, even. He refused, and I know now the vhy of this thing he did. I did not know before. It vas not my place to hear vhy Pavel refused, ve vere just sad he vas gone. Say a prayer as they send him out the torpedo tube. Now I know how great poor Pavel vas. Greater than the great Captain. G-greater than the Prime Alpha even..."
She shuddered, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "Then the vulfs, they order a volunteer. I take the step forvard. All I know is I can get out of the bad smell and the loud noise vithout ending and into the fresh air for the little vhile. The great Beta Captain, he thinks hard, then he says yes, since I am the small bitch and am light for the Bachstelze. The telefunken officer teach me the vay of knowing vhat ships are vhat, from the prey boats to the navy boats of the Vestingland and the Sylvania and other places they say are enemies of Steppeland. So I got up in the sky, and it vas like being in the dreams, and I do good for the vulfs. I see the battleships and varn them, keep the Jormungandr safe. They call me the good dog and give me the extra ration of the fresh mutton from the cold chest for the eating. I see the first prey ship, they bring me in and call me more the good dog. I ate the food and slept in my little space in the kitchen like the puppy. I did this two more times, all not knowing. Fourth time, I spot more of the prey ship, they bring me in and call me the good dog. As I stow myself in my berth, I hear the torpedoes launch, as they always do vhen the prey is spotted. Then... then a vhile later I hear the sounds of the rapid fire rifle guns above."
Her lip began to quiver as her eyes and nose began to drip. "I vunder. They say for a dog to vunder is a thing that fetches the stick. And it did. I vunder vhy the vulfs use the little guns on such a big thing like the steam power ship. Then I know vhy. I cannot stop my crying, vhen I know vhy this is happening. I vish the mutton I eat vas the poison. I know I am not the good dog. I am the vorst dog ever."
At this she broke down completely, falling into Jane's arms with a wail as the rabbit held her, stroking her heaving back. The tan furred female cooed softly in her clipped ear. "Shhh. Shhh, darlin'. Y'all didn't pull them triggers."
The young canine shivered in her embrace, her eyes clenched tightly shut as she shook her head. "Nien. But I pointed the guns for the rag-tail varmints. I helped them do these things."
She pushed back from Jane and looked at her with pleading, tear stained eyes. "Vhen I know the truth, I still go up. To raise eyes and refuse was to be put down like poor, great Pavel. But I start to forget I see the ships that I see. I say nothing vhen I see the smoke plume in the far away distance. My eyes go blind for vhen they see the slow freighters."
Her brow furrowed in bitterness as she reminisced. "The great Beta Captain he begins to have the wondering about me, as many of the days pass without the prey. They have the uberhunds hit me with the biggest stick to make me tell on myself, but I bite down on my lip and keep the quiet. I say I am the loyal bitch. I say I am the good dog, even though I know in my heart I am not. Since I did the good dog's job before, the great Beta Captain says he vill give me more trips up on the Bachstelze, so that they do not have to train another thrall to do the flying."
She let out a shudder as her shoulders bunched up and her clipped ears laid back against the thatch of unruly tan hair on her head. "He says to me if I am telling the lies he vill give me to the omega vulfs for the vorse punishment before I get the bullet between my eyes."
A hard look settled on Jane's face, and she glanced at Dorothy, who returned her gaze with a curt nod, her ice blue eyes smoldering and her ears laid back.
Oblivious in pouring out her sorrow, Vanya continued her story. "I sneak a little more of the time by spotting the Sylvanian battle ship and giving the warning. I do not vant to die, or go down vith the ship to the bottom. They don't give me the mutton and it vas fine to me for I vould rather choke on the mutton now. But soon, more of the days vhere none of the ships are told about. My time is running low, and then thank Father God I spot the shining blue airplane in sky. And the rest you have the knowing of. "
She gave a shrug and looked at them with a sorrowful expression, her voice and eyes raised steady with only the slightest quaver in each. "I... I am so sorry for doing this things, if you vish to throw me into the ocean and let me have the drowning it vould be all right. I do not vant to die, but I vill accept it if it vill make the fixing of things. At least I vill die as the free dog, and may my soul be the same vhen it stands before Father God, and I can say how sorry I am to the sailors who die because I see them from the Bachstelze and tell the vulfs."
Dorothy's eyes flickered, and she gravely shook her head. She rose to her feet and crossed the cabin, kneeling down and taking the young canine into her arms from Jane. "I felt that way once, long ago. I've taken life with these hands of mine. Maybe they deserved it, maybe they didn't. One thing I came to see, though, is that my death would not bring them back, but my life might be used to save other lives."
She pushed Vanya back so she could meet her gaze. "Vanya, you are free now. You may live your life in whatever fashion you wish, and I hope you can do so with a heart full of light and joy. If you feel you must atone for things you did while a slave, then I charge you to share that life, that freedom, that joy, with others wherever you go. Do you understand?"
The young canine bit her lower lip and nodded, her eyes brimming, and surged forward to throw her arms around the feline's neck once more.
Jane clapped her on the shoulder and stood, stretching her sinewy frame and heading for the door. "Good. Now I reckon if'n we all wanna live our lives t' th' fullest, we oughta git this bird back in the air. I'm gonna git on up topside n' see if'n Gwen n' Loretta need a hand."
Dorothy nodded to her. "I'll come with you." She gave the young canine a
squeeze and disengaged, smiling down at her as she stood. "You stay
here and make yourself comfortable, dear. We'll be back in a little
The young vixen dared a trembling glance over the blanket with wide, fearful eyes. Jane mimicked eating to her, her ears cocked in annoyance. Kaleia let out a gasp and ducked all the way under the blanket, forming a shivering lump in the cocoon of brightly dyed woven cloth.
The rabbit doe tsked in exasperation and rolled her eyes. "I ain't gonna eat you, y'idjit. Aw fer..."
She was interrupted by the distant baying of a ship's horn. Not long after Junko's voice could be heard calling from the direction of the meeting hut. "Jaane saan!"
The tan furred rabbit cast one more rueful glance at the bundled up vixen and turned away, bouncing down the steps and onto the sand.
A few minutes later she and the graceful usagi stood at the end of the pier, Jane peering through a pair of binoculars at a dull grey and rust colored ship that slid across the vast blue table of the ocean toward them.
The tan furred doe pursed her lips as she scanned the approaching vessel. "Hmmm. Brass Kingdom flag. The SS Hei Long. Looks like they got signals flags up too. Hang on... If'n I got my codes right that means engine trouble... Huh..."
She lowered the binoculars as Junko tugged at the sleeve of her khaki shirt. The pale furred usagi gave a nervous nod toward the ship and then cocked her head toward the west end of the two islets, where the Mermaid's cave lay.
Jane thought for a moment, and then smiled at her and shook her head. "Don't worry, darlin'. These folks might be in trouble. If the ARE trouble, well, I can handle 'em."
She turned toward the approaching ship with a searching gaze as it
glided towards the rocky islets at the trailing edge of the atoll.