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24 February 2006
BY WALTER D. REIMER
The Woodcarver's Son
© 2006 by Walter D. Reimer
Their uniforms were the same as the petty officer’s, except for the rank flash: simple one-piece jumpsuits of dark blue that fit loosely, along with strongly-made leather brogans. Their civilian clothes were stored away, and the six students fell into line in front of Mills when they were finished dressing. She smiled at them. “Well, now you look like you’re supposed to,” she declared, “so – “ she paused as a patrol seaplane flew overhead “ – our next stop is your longhouse.”
The next day started with exercise, followed by something that was traditional for all parts of Rain Island society. Petty Officer Mills sat back and watched as the six students discussed the matter and chose Halli as their unit’s syndic. A syndic was no symbolic post; the fur chosen was the leader of the group, was responsible for the group’s actions, and acted as the liaison between the rest of the students and their instructor. Halli smiled and stood at attention as she passed her baseball cap to Mills. The petty officer affixed a small pin – a simple silver-tone disc – to the cap and gave it back to Halli.
The rest of the day was set aside for more exercise and for military drill, which they were assured would be the only day of the two weeks they would have to worry about it. “So try to remember it,” Mills had repeated, as the group went through the paces.
They had spent the entire morning of their second day in a classroom learning the rudiments of flight and aerial observation. Halli in particular had looked eager at the chance to actually fly. Now, Ranua and the other five students stood outside the hangars in a soft drizzling rain after lunch, facing a sleek twin-engine flying boat as it floated at its dock.
The haze-gray plane had twin rudders mounted on a slightly V-shaped tail. The two engines were mounted in the broad high wing, and it had two small blister windows on either side of the fuselage. The fuselage bore a round red-and-black Rain Island insignia, while both rudders bore the plane’s registration number.
Standing next to the plane facing them was a tired-looking lieutenant wearing pilot’s wings. “Good morning,” he rasped, then coughed. “This,” he said with a theatrical wave of his paw at the aircraft, “is the Kypriakos-Vollsted KV-3. It’s been the standard patrol plane for the Naval Syndicate for the past ten years, and I’m sure you’ve seen them flying around if you bother to look up,” he added with a lazy grin.
“It’s a little on the slow side,” he added, “but it’s a nice stable plane, and it handles really well. I’ll be sorry to see them phased out of the inventory, but that’s progress. Now, who here’s had any flying experience – and I don’t mean drinking Nootnops Blue?” Seeing that none of the six raised their paws, he nodded. “Okay, here’s what’s going to happen.
“The co-pilot and I will brief you on what to check when doing a preflight inspection, then we’ll take you up on a training flight. Don’t think that this is all there is to flight school; if any of you choose to go into the air arm, the training will naturally be more involved.
“The KV-3’s got room for a pilot, co-pilot and two observers who double as gunners. Two of you will ride as observers, and when we get over the patrol area you’ll be told what to look for. You’ll be graded on whether you spot the target, or note anything else out of the ordinary. The guns are removed just for today, so don’t start thinking about shooting anything.” He paused, then added, “And if any of you get airsick all over my plane, I’ll throw you out and you can swim back here.” He laughed, and the students exchanged uneasy smiles.
“Well then,” the pilot said, “choose up who gets to go first,” and he turned as the copilot stepped out of the hangar.
Ranua was in the second group with Ari, and the rat seemed almost as nervous as the terrier as they finished preflighting and refueling the aircraft and swung aboard. The plane’s two engines roared to life and the KV-3 taxied into takeoff position. The pilot passed two pairs of binoculars to the students and said, “Better sit down,” before advancing the throttles. Ari and Ranua barely had time to strap themselves into their seats and put on headphones as the plane lumbered into the air.
The wirehaired terrier felt himself pressed back in his seat, a scary dropping sensation in the pit of his stomach as the plane accelerated and gained altitude. He looked to his right and found himself looking almost straight down at the shipping channel as the plane banked. With a gulp he looked back at Ari, and saw that the rat’s eyes were as big as saucers and his whiskers stood straight out.
The plane leveled off then, and both of them breathed sighs of relief. “We’re heading for the search area,” the pilot announced as the plane climbed further, heading northeast toward the furthermost tip of Main Island. “Open the windows – you’ll see better – and start searching. The target is a periscope, but keep your eyes open for anything else.”
“Yes, sir,” the two chorused. Ranua opened the observer’s window, and squinted for a moment against the slipstream-driven rain. It felt a great deal colder, but he concentrated on focusing on the water below and scanning for any telltale wakes.
After several minutes, Ranua reached out to the microphone by his seat, hesitated, then grabbed it and said, “I think I see it. Starboard, about three o’clock.”
“Distance?” the copilot asked.
Ranua took a long look through the rangefinder and replied, “Half a mile.”
The seaplane banked toward the location Ranua indicated, while he kept an eye on it. “Good try, kid,” the copilot said. “That’s a log.” The plane curved away to the north, then circled.
Ari suddenly shouted, “I see it! Ten o’clock, I see a wake!”
“You sure?” the pilot asked.
“Looks like it,” the rat temporized.
“See anything else?”
“Four o’clock,” Ranua said. “Looks like an armed party, small boat on the beach.” The plane descended and circled again, and one of the sailors on the beach looked up and waved.
Heading the KV-3 back to Moon Island, the pilot’s voice crackled over their headphones as he said, “Good job, both of you. The first pair saw the periscope, but missed the landing party.” Ari and Ranua shared triumphant grins as the plane headed back to the base.
While waiting for the third group to complete their exercise the others were assigned to sweep up the hangar and ramp area. During a break Ranua turned to Halli and asked, “What did you think of that?”
The rabbit grinned. “I loved it,” she said enthusiastically. “I think that when I get done with this school I’ll see about pilot training.” Her tail was twitching in an almost unseemly manner, and Ranua laughed as she blushed.
The rest of their first week was spent mainly in the classrooms on the base, as they were taught the basics of navigation and leadership. Petty Officer Mills was usually their instructor, but she seemed happy to defer to others who were better-qualified than her to teach.
One day had been set aside for firefighting school, and it was an experience that left all six of them looking shell-shocked. Ranua was not going to forget the utter darkness, the heat and the choking black smoke that left soot literally everywhere. The next day had been damage control training, and after standing for an hour in cold knee-deep water most of them had managed to get the soot out of their fur. But the training was vital, since fire and flooding were ship-killers.
Their second week started with a familiarization cruise aboard one of the three patrol ships that the Syndicate had stationed in the Spontoons. Enforcing the customs regulations in the waters around the Independencies required a combination of sea and air patrols, and the RINS was sometimes called upon to bring something more than its presence to bear in order to prevent smuggling and piracy.
The largest of the patrol boats, RINSS Proudhon, only had a crew of fifty but was equipped with two three-pounder guns and a torpedo tube. The students spent several days on patrol south of South Island aboard the craft in steadily worsening weather. Gunnery drills, fire drills and other exercises were performed, and the students were given more practical instruction to supplement their classes.
One night Ranua was acting as the ship’s duty officer, standing a watch with the helmsman, wireless operator and one lookout. Everyone else was either asleep or tending to the engine, and although this wasn’t the first time he’d had the duty, he was nervous.
Finally his pacing caused the fur at the wheel to break his silence. “Hey, Ranua,” the piebald equine said with a grin, “if you need to calm yourself down, take a walk around the deck. That’ll cool you off.”
“I’m okay,” the terrier said, looking at his paws in the dim red bridge light. “They’ve been cramming a lot of stuff into our heads the past week or so.” The horse nodded as he glanced at the compass and adjusted the course, and Ranua added, “And I’ll admit it – I don’t want to make a mistake.”
“Don’t worry,” the older fur said. “Jenny up there’s a good lookout,” and he jerked a thumb upwards, indicating the crow’s nest in the foremast, “and you know the standing orders.” He squinted at the compass again and nodded. “Take the wheel, will you? I need to get some coffee.”
Ranua changed places with the helmsman, gingerly placing his paws on the wheel. The horse pointed. “Just keep up on this heading,” he said. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He left the wheelhouse, headed aft to the boat’s small galley.
The wirehair terrier took a breath to calm himself. Earlier in the training cruise he had almost steered the boat into the path of an oncoming freighter, and he sincerely hoped he didn’t do anything so stupid again. He learned quickly, but he still made mistakes.
The ferret who was monitoring the radio brushed aside the curtain separating his equipment from the rest of the bridge and said, “Hey, kid, where’s Neil?”
“Hmm?” Ranua said, looking around before looking at the operator. “He went aft to get some coffee. Anything going on?”
“Plenty,” the ferret said. “Distress signal, some fishing boat hit the reef about two miles south of us.”
“What course should I steer?” Ranua asked as he tightened his grip on the wheel.
“Hang on and let me grab the chart.” The fur retreated into his compartment, then emerged with the map. He held it up to the red light bulb in the overhead and said, “Steer two-twenty; since the ship’s calling SOS already you’d better wake up the engines.”
“Okay.” Ranua grabbed the engine telegraph and rang for full speed as he started his turn. The sound of the engines changed pitch as the signal was acknowledged.
The speaking tube connecting the wheelhouse and the crow’s nest whistled and Ranua picked it up in time to hear the lookout ask, “What the hell’s going on? I almost dropped my sandwich.”
“Distress call,” Ranua said, eyes intent on the compass as he completed turning the vessel. “Boat hit a reef about two miles south of us.”
“Okay,” Jenny said. “I’ll sing out if I see anything.”
“All right.” Ranua turned to the ferret. “Could you wake up the Skipper, please? The Rules say he has to be told.”
“You’re learning, Ranua,” the ferret said approvingly, and went aft. Shortly thereafter the boat’s captain, a rat like Ari whose uniform sported a lieutenant’s stripe came into the compartment, zipping up his jumpsuit.
He favored Ranua with a glance, then looked at the compass. “We’ve changed speed,” he observed. “Report.”
“Sir,” Ranua replied, licking his lips nervously, “the radio operator reported a fishing boat had hit a reef south of us, two miles away. I altered course and signaled the engine room to increase speed.”
He faced front and didn’t flinch as the rodent stepped close to him, looked again at the compass and finally said, “Well done. Where’s the helmsman of the watch?”
“Here, sir,” Neil replied as he entered the compartment. “I went aft for some coffee and a head break.”
The rat nodded. “Relieve Ranua at the helm. Ranua, get into your oilskins, go forward and switch on the searchlight.” As the terrier relinquished control of the ship and started to put his raingear on, the boat’s siren sounded to rouse the rest of the crew.
Outside it was almost pitch black, the only light coming from the patrol boat’s wheelhouse and running lights. The rain had started coming down harder, and as Ranua jammed his hat down around his ears he made his way up the slippery ladder to the small platform just aft of the forward gun mount.
He switched on the searchlight and a broad finger of luminescence stabbed into the darkness. As he swept the light back and forth, searching for the source of the distress call, he looked down and saw that the rest of the crew was out on deck and equipping themselves with life preservers and ropes.
The finger of light moved to the left and stopped as it caught a flash of white paint. Ranua steadied the searchlight and saw a fur waving. The other members of the crew got ready as the patrol craft slowed to a crawl. Two furs went forward and started heaving sounding lines, making certain that the way was clear.
The rest of the patrol boat’s lights came on as it drew closer, finally stopping about thirty feet from the fishing boat. It was a fairly small vessel, and members of its crew were already starting to swim toward the Naval Syndicate craft.
The last remaining fur on the grounded boat kept waving and pointing, though, and Ranua’s ears dipped as he tried to figure out what the problem was. The man was pointing to starboard, and Ranua looked in that direction and his ears went up.
“Apart from that guy still on the boat, I think that’s all of them,” Jenny called from her vantage point on the mast. “I – what the - ? To your right!”
The captain and helmsman turned in time to see Ranua finish shedding his oilskins and leap over the side of the boat.