PART 25 - RED FLAGS
Late the next morning Gwen stood on the roof of the Glass Goose with a sextant and a chronograph, taking a sighting of the the broiling Pan Oriental sun as it climbed toward its zenith in the wide azure sky. A stiff breeze blew the loose sleeves of the denim coveralls knotted below her navel as it ruffled the mellow orange and white fur of her svelte torso.
She kept a well marked sea chart pinned to the wing with a dark furred foot as it fluttered and snapped in the wind. With a nod of satisfaction, she crouched down and set the delicate tools in a battered briefcase that pinned down the other corner of the map and pulled out a pencil and a metal ruler, striking a line from one point on the map to a spot marked with an ink X.
She turned toward Loretta, who sat cross-legged atop the tarp by the side of the seaplane's engine, squinting in the bright light beneath her broad brimmed hat, her dark furred hands elbow-deep in engine works. Vanya knelt in patient attendance at her side, watching her work with a solemn expression on her face.
The vixen called out to her partner with a weary look on her face. "Well, a little good news, I guess. We actually drifted a couple miles closer to Nobikini last night, from my calculations."
The raccoon let out a grunt in reply . "Hmh. At least we're making some kind of progress. Vanya, hold the mirror right there, okay?"
The young canine picked up a compact mirror and allowed Loretta to pull
her thin wrist into position, then held her hand as still as she could.
The raccoon leaned in again, reaching into the engine with pliers in her hands. "Beautiful. Riiiiiiight there."
Jane Early was lying on her belly atop a couple of the towels on the left wing, letting the tropical sun soak into her tan pelt. She flicked the tuft of her cotton tail and propped herself up on her elbows, looking over at Gwen as the vixen carefully folded the chart and placed it and her tools in the briefcase, snapping the lid shut. The vulpine pilot carefully set the case on the flat expanse of the wings behind her and then sat down with her legs straddling the cockpit, kicking them idly as she leaned back on her hands and let out a sigh.
Jane called out to her, causing the vixen's ears to perk up. "How long y'all reckon it'll take us t' git back t' base once we git this bird in th' air, darlin'?"
The sandy haired pilot shrugged. "That depends. Do you want to push it or do we take it easy on poor GeeGee's ickle right engine."
Loretta's half muffled voice came from the depths of the engine
cowling. "You know what my answer would be. Mirror up a little, Vanya."
Jane flicked an ear and cocked her head toward the open door of the
cabin. "I reckon y'all can guess what me n' Dorothy would say, too."
Gwen opened her mouth to reply but was cut off as a tremulous, plaintive voice called out from inside the plane. "Jaaannnne? Where are you Jaaane? Haaaalp!"
The vixen glanced languidly back the length of the seaplane. "Huh. Guess she just woke up."
Jane pushed herself up off of the wing and rose to her knees with a wry look over at Gwen as she scratched at her sides. "Or else she jest worked th' gag outta her mouth."
The feline's voice sounded again, with a note of desperation. "Jaaaannne! This is really uncomfortable Jaaane! I gotta goOo!"
The rabbit climbed to her feet and ambled across the wing with a sigh. "Better untie her."
She dropped down into the cabin as Gwen shook her head and looked out over the endless ocean stretching in all directions around them.
A few minutes later the brown furred tabby lurched into the sunlight, clutching her satin robe tightly closed around her huddled frame as she sagged against the edge of the hatch. A tangled thatch of disheveled brunette hair framed her wan, sluggishly mortified face as she blinked, bleary eyed, in the brisk noontime breeze.
She muttered to herself in a cracked voice. "Never again..."
She flinched violently at the cheery sound of Gwen's voice above her, her levered back ears pulling even tighter to her head. "Good afternoon, Missus Pearl. I trust you had a pleasantly restful evening."
The disheveled tabby looked cringingly up to see the sandy haired vixen seated on the spine of the plane, her dark hands gripping the upper curve of the hatchway with her denim wrapped legs splayed to either side and her brush waving back and forth on the curving roof of the cabin behind her. A broad grin spread across the pilot's pointed muzzle.
Dorothy didn't like the look of that at all. "G-good morning, Miss R-riley. I... I hope you had the same."
Gwen's smile became a bit fixed. "Oh sure, once you exhausted your impressive repertoire of Perry La Rue numbers. I'll never be able to listen to "You, Me, and the Moon" in quite the same way ever again. Especially after that little bump and grind bit you did to go along with it."
The tabby's forehead stripes furrowed as she hung her head and slapped a palm over her eyes. "Ohhhh. Next time I'll just have Jane kick me in the head..."
Gwen turned as Loretta's voice sounded behind her. "Hey Gwen, I think I've got the last of the breaks spliced. Get behind the stick and fire up the engines for me, will ya?"
The vixen gave her partner a wave, and looked back down at Dorothy. "'Scuse me, Missus Pearl. Gotta see if we're gonna be able to take your little burlesque act on the road today."
The feline stepped back from the hatch and slumped onto the nearby bench seat as Gwen brought her feet together and dropped down through the doorway. As the vixen passed toward the front of the plane, the tabby's ice blue eyes focused on Jane, who busied herself rolling up a bedroll and suppressing a smirk as she glanced at her feline cohort and hastily averted her eyes.
Dorothy leaned back against the bulkhead with a heavy sigh, rubbing the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger. "The Midnight Phantom never had to put up with this sort of thing..."
The rabbit doe snorted. "Th' Midnight Phantom never downed half a bag o' catnip n' got in touch with his inner showgal neither. Least not on any o' th' shows I've lissened to."
Dorothy let out a groan and covered her face in her hands.
A tender look stole across Jane's face as she glanced over her shoulder at the stricken feline. "Did y'all at least have some good dreams 'bout yer fella? That WAS th' whole durn point o' th' exercise, after all..."
The brown furred tabby looked up from her cupped palms, a pensive look on her face. Slowly, a broad, sly smile spread across her features as her blush intensified, and her striking blue eyes glittered merrily. She hugged herself and squirmed luxuriantly in her seat, her faintly striped tail curling languidly behind her. Jane turned away with a grin and a shake of her head as her feline cohort answered her question with a throaty chuckle.
Both female's turned their head inquisitively towards the front of the plane as Gwen's voice sounded from the cockpit. "Contact!"
With that, the engines hummed and began to sputter and cough, unevenly spinning up to full power. The left engine wound up to a throaty hum in short order, while its sister on the right stammered and hesitated for a few moments before finding its voice and matching its twin with only the slightest occasional hesitation or stutter. A sound of joyous whooping could be heard from above on the wing, soon echoed by the vixen in the pilot's seat.
Gwen leaned over to look back into the cabin, meeting Jane and Dorothy's ecstatic gazes. "Looks like we're back in business, ladies! Lets get packed up and in the air!"
A grave look crossed her tabby lined features as she glanced at the vixen and raccoon. "I understand that right engine's in a delicate state, but we've lost almost a whole day. The sooner we can get to Nobikini the better."
Loretta stared pensively at a clipboard as she checked off the preflight checklist. "Sure, but if we push it too hard, there's no telling what might pop loose again. I understand the urgency, but do you think it's worth it if we have to make another emergency landing and end up bobbing on the water for a couple more days?"
Dorothy reached up and gripped the raccoon's shoulder with a smile. "I'm trusting that you did a good enough job the first time around."
Her face became serious as she looked out the front windshield. "That being said, I'm also willing to trust you two as the experts. Go as fast as you feel safe going."
This got a confident nod from the young owners of the seaplane. Loretta looked over at her partner. "Understood. Gwen, you'd better throw up the red flag for when we hit Nobikini."
The vixen nodded, and reached up to pull a lever on the dash. At Dorothy's questioning gaze Gwen jerked her head toward the back of the plane. "Lori's little flag flying device does more than signal the mermaids' wardrobe selections. A red flag means "trouble". They'll be ready to hustle when we touch down."
The feline nodded in satisfaction. "Good. I'm gonna go strap in and put on my blindfold."
She reached up and laid a hand on Gwen's shoulder as well. "And I just want you to know, you two have more than earned the full fee for this job. I'll talk to my contact at the Capitol to see if we can't arrange for a bonus, at least for the cost of repairs and refitting."
The raccoon and vixen grinned at one another, and smiled back at their feline employer. Loretta's grey eyes danced in the dark fur of her mask. "That's music to my ears, Missus Pearl."
She cocked an ear at the thrum of the engines, and turned to Gwen. "And so's that. I think we're clear for takeoff, Gwen."
An intense look settled on the young vixen's features as she nodded, and started the Glass Goose taxiing forward.
The young canine looked across at her, cocking her head curiously. "Vhy are you putting the clothes over your eyes, Dorothy?"
The feline let out a sigh and inclined her head in her direction. "It seems I've got kind of a problem with heights, especially over water. I... I get really afraid and sort of lose my head a little."
The golden furred female pondered this for a moment, as the plane began to pick up speed. With a glance at Jane, she unbuckled her harness and moved to the other side of the cabin, sitting next to Dorothy and shrugging into the harness of the space next to her.
She reached up and grasped the tabby's hand, interweaving her fingers with the surprised feline's and giving a reassuring squeeze. "I do not mind the high places. I have the liking of them. Maybe you can have some of the liking I have from me so you are not afraid and keep your head where it is."
She looked across at Jane. "I hope you do not mind, Jane. I think you have more than enough of the brave to sit by yourself."
The rabbit smiled warmly across at her. "Yeah, I reckon' I'll be okay, darlin'."
Dorothy reached over and patted the young canine's hand. "I think I will too, thanks to you, Vanya."
The young canine gave the tabby's hand another squeeze as the Glass Goose
lurched into the air, its right wing dipping a bit as its engine
hesitated and sputtered then gained momentum, leveling off the plane's
ascent as it climbed into the broad, Pan Orient sky.
Gwen's sharp eyes narrowed as the tiny ring of islets came into view on the horizon. The long, rust brown and grey hull of a freighter was moored on one of the rocky outcroppings along the western curve of the atoll.
She nudged Loretta and pointed. "Looks like we've got company, Lori. Get out the binoculars and see what colors they're flying."
The raccoon rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and complied, quickly pulling out the binoculars and raising them to her dark encircled eyes. "Hmmm. Brass Kingdom. They've got signal flags up. Looks like... engine trouble."
The vixen snorted as she brought the plane around in a broad arc. "Huh. Guess it's contagious."
She cocked an eyebrow as a thought struck her. "Maybe it's that freighter that Dorothy was talking about. The one she says the sub's gonna hit."
Loretta squinted through the lenses. "If it is I'm not sure whether that's good luck or bad luck for us. Mmm. Can't make out the name on the prow from here. I guess we might as well take GeeGee down and see what's up."
She stowed the binoculars and started to unbuckle her seat belt. "I'll go back and let 'em know."
Back in the cabin, Jane stretched in her seat and smiled across at Dorothy and Vanya. The golden furred canine had fallen asleep, and was just stirring as Dorothy relaxed beside her, the tension draining from her shoulders and back as she felt the gentle bobbing of the surf beneath the plane once more.
She reached up and pulled the blindfold down around her neck, heaving a sigh of relief. "Well, another happy landing, eh Miss Early?"
Dorothy's eyes flared as she peered forward with her preternatural vision, looking through the hull of the Glass Goose and through the crystal clear waters of the lagoon. She let out a gasp of alarm as she saw a row of dark, knobby spheroids tethered by lengths of cable to boxlike apparatus half buried in the sand of the sea bed at intervals along the stretch of dock that extended from the little compound into the water.
Her tail frizzed and her ears levered back as she shrieked toward the cockpit. "THERE ARE MINES AT THE DOCK! DON'T GO TO THE DOCK!"
The vixen's head snapped around in alarm. "WHAT!?"
The tabby started to struggle in her harness. "GWEN! STAY AWAY FROM THE DOCK! THERE ARE MINES! STOP US OR WE'RE ALL GONNA GET BLOWN SKY HIGH!"
Below them, Junko's almond eyes rolled back into her head and her body went limp. She tumbled away from the plexiglas bottom windows and out of sight in the bubbling wake of the plane's progress.
A split second later a duplicate Jane sprang to her feet next to the fully clothed rabbit doe who strained at her harness. The tan furred double tumbled across the cabin into Dorothy and Vanya's laps as the plane turned sharply to the left.
With a muttered curse, the duplicate shoved off from her feline cohort and the young canine and threw herself across the cabin toward the hatch, hastily throwing it open and leaping out into the lagoon. A torrent of water sloshed into the compartment from the plane's inclined angle, leaving several inches of water on the floor around the feline and dog's ankles, before the Glass Goose bobbed to a more level position as it headed perpendicular to the entry to the lagoon and coasted to a stop.
Her head whipped around as Jane's voice sounded from below the hatchway. "HEY! HELP! OH GOD! HELP ME UP, QUICK!"
The raccoon engineer rushed over to the hatch, scarcely noticing as another duplicate rabbit rose from where Jane was still struggling out of her straps and joined her. Down below an identical tan furred doe was struggling to support the inert form of Junko, who hung limp in her grasp as she frantically reached up with her free hand. Loretta and her duplicate reached down and took her hand, pulling her and her unconscious companion out of the water and into the plane.
They carried the pale-furred usagi across the flooded cabin and laid her out on one of the benches, her dark hair draping like seaweed on the canvas cushions. Her body was covered with bruises, and her skin beneath her slicked-down fur was a bit blue. With a frantic cry, the tan furred doe pried the usagi's mouth open and cradled the back of her head, bringing their lips together and breathing several puffs of air into her throat, while the double that had swum out to retrieve her slouched on the seat beside her, panting with exertion and looking down at Junko with drooping ears and ashen cheeks. The third Jane finally got loose from her harness crossed the cabin, dropping to her knees in the ankle-deep water and grabbing Junko's limply hanging hand, gripping it tightly and whispering in a hoarse voice as tears began to roll down her face. "Gambatte, darlin'! Gambatte! Come on!"
A gout of sea water spilled out of Junko's mouth and nose, as she convulsed on the bench and started to cough violently, vomiting more water as they rolled her onto her side. She flopped back onto her back and took in deep gasps of air. Overcome, the Jane who'd administered the kiss of life scooped her up into her arms as the other two crowded in close around her.
The usagi's eyes fluttered open and she looked about disoriented at the expectant faces around her. She shook her head to clear it and her almond eyes went wide when she saw who was holding her. She pushed back from Jane's embrace and looked at her, unbelieving, reaching a tentative hand up to lightly touch the smiling, weeping, tan- furred doe's ribs along her left side.
A look of mystification spread across the usagi's features, followed by
tears accompanied by a sweet smile of relief. Junko surged forward and
drew the rabbit doe into a tight embrace, planting a deep kiss on Jane's
lips. A shiver went down the tan furred doe's spine and caused her toes
to curl and her cotton tail to shake like a leaf.