Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2008 by Walter Reimer
The interior of the little house was as neat and trim as the outside, furnished simply. A cross was on one wall, flanked by two pictures of elderly furs. Shin stood in the living room while Esther busied herself in the kitchen.
“Nice place,” the red panda said dryly.
“Thank you,” the equine said as she emerged with two glasses on a tray. “William – that’s my husband – and I just moved into the house six months ago. He’s bringing our son home from school.” She set the tray down and asked, “Do you have any children?”
Shin smiled. “Not yet.” She reached for one glass, hesitated and took the other. It was green tea, but served cold in that peculiarly American fashion.
It was good, though.
“Have you been a pilot long?” Esther asked.
“I got my license in March,” Shin replied, “but I’ve flown before that. Can I see the plane?”
“Sure!” the woman said brightly. “Come on back and you can check it out.” She led Shin through the kitchen and out onto the dock.
The Chinese girl’s eyes widened. The plane wasn’t what Fisher said it was; it was a biplane with a radial engine, painted white with its registry numbers and the letters FMAS in bright blue. It rode on the water easily on two large floats.
Swallowing to moisten her suddenly dry mouth Shin asked, “Do you mind if I look it over?”
Setting the glass on a piling, Shin started to give the plane a cursory inspection, poking her muzzle into the engine cowling. The plane’s engine was a Wright model, rated for two hundred and fifty horsepower according to the small manufacturer’s plate on one cylinder head. She opened one door and looked at the plane’s identification plate.
Her head snapped up, almost hitting the top of the doorframe. “This plane’s only three years old!” she exclaimed.
“Yes,” Esther replied. “It was donated by a few friends back east, in California. Is it suitable?”
“Uh . . . ah . . . “ ‘Suitable’ wasn’t the exact word. Three years old meant that the plane, described as a Waco CJC, was practically brand new and surely newer than anything she’d ever flown before.
Had she been canine, she’d be drooling uncontrollably by now.
Finally she got herself under control. “Yes, it’s suitable. Should have some great range on it.”
“About six hundred miles,” a man’s voice replied, and a taller, brown-furred equine hugged Esther. “I’m William Gallup. You must be Wo Shin.”
“That’s me,” Shin replied. “Very nice plane you have here.”
“Thanks,” the man said. “We took delivery of it last week, and Fisher and Cobb decided to hire it from us for their trip.” He looked at her. “You will bring it back in one piece, right?”
Shin laughed. “Since the contact says I forfeit my pay if I don’t, you can be sure I’ll do everything I can to bring it back.”
After doing a thorough inspection of the plane she went to the main air terminal on the island and carefully completed the paperwork to file a flight plan. When she reached the ‘Destination’ blank she paused.
A flight plan that told the world where she actually intended on going would likely land her in Meeting Island Hospital – in the psychiatric ward. She thought a moment, then wrote in ‘Mildendo Island.’ It was a legitimate destination despite the island’s unsavory reputation, and where she went after that was no one else’s business.
When she turned it in, the clerk read it over. “Friends Mission Air Service?” he asked. “What are you doing taking missionaries up to Mildendo?”
She almost blinked at that but replied, “That’s where they want to go.” She shrugged. “I’m just getting paid to take them.”
“Uh huh. Okay, everything looks to be in order. Departure time will be 0900 Saturday.”
“Saturday morning, nine o’clock.”
“Excellent, Mrs. Wo,” Allan Fisher said, his voice sounding a bit tinny over the phone line. “Edmund and I will meet you at the dock then.”
“Right.” She hung up the phone, paw lingering on the pawset as she drummed her fingers for a long moment. “Now, precautions . . . “
“Shin?” The Chinese girl paused in brushing out her tailfur before leaving the dorm Saturday morning.
“I told Mother what you were doing.”
“Oh?” Shin knew that the Russian had somehow gotten adopted or something to a priestess, probably on Main Island somewhere. The information was nothing she could use, so she had merely accepted it. Priestesses were strange people. “And what’d she do? Give you some sort of mumbo-jumbo for me to carry with me?”
Tatiana smiled. She knew Shin’s opinion, but refused to rise to the bait.
There’d be plenty of time for that after finals.
“Nyet. Just some advice, whether you take it or not.”
“Okay. What’s the advice?”
“Trust nothing,” the sable said, and left the room. Liberty was the only second-year who stayed at Songmark voluntarily on weekends; everyone else usually made themselves as scarce as possible before the Tutors pressed them into service.
“As if I need to be reminded,” Shin muttered as she gathered up her charts and left the room.
“Well!” Cobb said cheerfully as Shin walked up to them. “Our young adventuress believes in being prepared.”
Shin had taken the time the day before to do some shopping, figuring that the money she expected to make would compensate the drain on her bank account. She wasn’t wearing her leather Sidcot suit, but a heavy cloth flight suit similar to those worn by the Naval Syndicate pilots (she’d seen it in a used clothing shop). Part of the evening had been devoted into sewing various items into the fabric of the garment. She also carried a revolver in a leather shoulder holster and the hilt of a knife peeked from the sheath strapped to her left boot.
This was to say nothing about what she had hidden under the baggy clothing, or what might be woven into her fur.
She laughed as she stowed her charts and started to do her preflight inspection. The Gallups were watching, and she felt that they might be critiquing her performance. “Well, the school I go to says that we need to plan for anything,” she said as she stepped onto a float to check the engine.
“I heard. When we get back I’ll be sure to give you a glowing recommendation.”
She glanced down at the pigeon as she opened the engine cowling. “I wasn’t aware I’d be bringing you back.”
“Oh, you won’t. Allan and I will find our own way back.”
The red panda nodded as she started going over the Wright R-760. Her two passengers wore what looked like lab coats, but in purple and green cloth, and apart from a small case apiece they carried no other luggage.
Lunatics, both of them.
The Waco CJC lifted off at its scheduled time, and Shin followed the tower’s instructions until she was over Main Island, headed north.
“Very good flying weather today,” she remarked to her passengers. “Now, our flight plan takes us to Mildendo, so I’ll touch down there in case you want to stretch your legs.”
“I thought you said that Mr. Gallup told you that this plane had the requisite range,” Fisher said.
“And you said this was a monoplane,” Shin retorted. “We do have the range, but I prefer not to push it. This thing doesn’t belong to me, and if I crash it I don’t get paid.”
“Conservative. I like that,” and the feline settled back in his seat.
The stopover at Mildendo had gone without incident (possibly because of the weapons that Shin was displaying) and after adding more fuel to the plane’s tanks they lifted off again. According to Mildendo’s records, the plane was still there, and would be until Shin left again for Spontoon.
Almost an hour later a broad, dark shield of land became visible on the northern horizon. Shin adjusted her course and announced, “Cranium Island ahead. Where do you want to set down?”
Not hearing an immediate answer she looked behind her.
Edmund Cobb was sitting rigidly, the avian’s nictitating membrane firmly over his eyes and making him look blind. Fisher was gazing intently at him until the pigeon said in a soft voice, “East . . . land to the east, cove . . . you will be met . . . “ He sighed, tensed, and his eyes opened as his companion patted his paw reassuringly.
Fisher looked at Shin. “You heard? East side of the island.”
Shin nodded and she banked the plane to circle the island. The plane responded easily, and she was suddenly jealous of the Gallups for having such a craft.
She entertained the idea of stealing it, but only momentarily – she had flying to do.
Finding the cove was easy; it looked as if someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the land, and its distance from the island’s barrier reef gave her ample space to land and take off again. After circling the area, Shin gently set the plane down.
She cut the engine off a distance from shore and stepped into the knee-deep water to stop the plane’s forward motion about fifty feet from the sandy beach. While Cobb and Fisher disembarked, she studied the scenery.
Trees, dense brush and vines – almost none of which looked to be normal for so far north.
Unaccountably, she shivered.
Fisher spoke, turning her attention back to her job. “Mrs. Wo, thank you for a pleasant and efficient flight. Edmund and I will go on from here.”
As the feline and the avian waded out of the water and moved off into the woods they started to chant, low singsong words in some language Shin couldn’t quite place.
The red panda watched them disappear into the dense foliage before calling out, “Take care! Have fun!”
In a lower voice she muttered, “Don’t forget to write.”
She busied herself with turning the Waco around, at times struggling against the waves as they tried to push the plane closer to the beach. Finally she got it far enough away from the surf line, and she put one foot onto a float while turning back to look at the forest.
The sun’s position must have changed, because the trees and brush no longer looked so forbidding.
In fact, it looked pretty nice. That stand of bamboo – she recognized the leaves; it was her favorite variety. And there seemed to be a clump of banana palms in the distance, with hands of beautifully ripe yellow fruit ready to be picked.
Resting a paw on the plane’s float she turned, standing in the now waist-deep water and looking at the foliage.
Her eyes widened as the bushes started to move aside.
When whatever it was had cleared the tree line, she felt her heart skip a beat.
The figure was a red panda, like herself, but taller and an almost idealized picture of male perfection. He wore a ragged shirt and cutoff shorts that left little to the imagination. He stepped out into the sunlight, stretched, looked around and saw her.
A wistful smile touched his lips and he waved at her.
Without thinking, she waved back. “Hello.”
His smile grew a bit more enticing, and Shin started to feel her heart hammering in her chest.
If the other girls had been nearby, they would have laughed at the musk wafting around her. When a bit of seaward breeze moved past her, though, the smell of the male would have stopped their laughter just as effectively as it would lock their tails to one side.
The man waved, a come-hither gesture. When she hesitated, he abruptly tore away his shirt, revealing a strongly muscled, athletic body under a lustrous coat of dark fur. He waved again.
Shin took a step forward, but paused as a wavelet caused the float to bump into her. She looked at the plane.
Taking her eyes away from the man seemed to clear her head a little. She shivered, and dunked her face into the cool salt water almost by reflex. Surfacing she gasped, “If it looks too good to be true, it is,” and started to climb up onto the plane’s float.
Climbing hastily into the cockpit and starting the engine, she risked a look behind her. The man was still there, now looking very wistful and sad, and his expression almost made her eyes tear up.
She advanced the throttle on the biplane, and moved away from the shore as fast as she safely could.
The being watched the plane lift off of the water and climb into the sky, and watched as it dwindled to a speck before being lost in a high bank of clouds. It had almost succeeded in attracting the female.
It felt no impatience, however; there would be other opportunities.