The Intelligence of Pegasus
“We’re operating blind, that’s the hell of it!” The captain glanced at the hills that prevented his scouts from watching the enemy.
“So you’ll let me go up?” The young lieutenant was practically panting with eagerness to show what he could do with his new-fangled machine.
Captain Carmichael-Jones caressed horse that looked over his shoulder, and scowled at the mess of wood and fabric that so excited Lieutenant Marsten. “This war is insane.”
“All war is insane, Sir,” Marsten replied.
The captain eyed his subordinate. “You say that?”
“I am eager to fly, Sir. But I’m not crazy. War is insane, but flying,” he gazed at the aeroplane as one contemplating a miracle. “Flying is sublime. Like childhood dreams of riding Pegasus.”
If Captain Carmichael-Jones thought his lieutenant wasn’t entirely done with childhood, he refrained from saying so. “You can go.” And may the gods bring you back alive, or your mother will have my guts for garters. He watched the younger man swarm over his beloved flying machine. The boy touched that blasted thing like a lover. Or, the captain admitted as he turned back to his horse, like a man grooming his favorite horse.
Carmichael-Jones mounted. What kind of a war had one man leading a bayonet charge on horse-back, while another took to the air like a bird?
He smiled, recalling the lieutenant’s words. Not a bird. A winged horse. “Rocinante, I’m sending Pegasus to spy out the enemy’s guns. Am I crazy?” The mare flicked her ears at the sound of the captain’s voice, but offered no advice.
If Captain Carmichael-Jones was dissatisfied with his decision, Lt. Marsten was not. He hummed as he went over his craft from stem to stern, checking every joint and lever, preparing to fly.
Marsten had learned to fly before joining up, and had brought the machine over at his own—or more accurately his father’s—expense, but in this obscure corner of a war being fought in two centuries, he’d been given no chance to fly, though all over France men were jousting on air.
“The Captain’s a good chap, Esmerelda,” he addressed his craft, “but he really doesn’t understand modern warfare.” The machine didn’t even have ears to flick in response to his voice.
While a ground patrol did best reconnoitering at dawn or dusk, Marsten had learned from other flyers, before his posting here at the end of the earth, that an aeroplane did best when the sun was high. Approach the target out of the sun, and they couldn’t look at you, so they couldn’t shoot you down before you’d swooped down and strafed the trenches, or dropped your bombs.
Marsten sighed. Esmerelda had neither guns nor bombs. She was a private aircraft and wouldn’t be doing anything but surveillance. He’d wanted to join the air corps, but his mother had put her foot down. She didn’t know that he’d shipped the plane out here. Not, at least, in time to stop him.
Marsten frowned as he took his seat in the open cockpit a half hour later. He hadn’t been up since arriving here. Captain Carmichael-Jones was afraid he’d be shot down.
“I’m going to do a test run over our own lines, Smithy,” he told the head of his hastily-assembled ground crew. “Just a little practice.”
“Right you are, sir. Captain warned the gunners you might.”
“Spin the prop, then, and stand back!”
Smithy had been drilled on this in hopes that one day Marsten would be allowed up. He gave the blade a deft yank, dodged back and aside, and watched while the lieutenant warmed up the motor and checked his controls.
The camp had no runway. Marsten turned the aeroplane onto the hard-packed dirt road that connected them to the rest of the Allies, and let off the brake. Esmerelda bounced some as she picked up speed, but at last he felt her leave the earth, with the rush of pure joy that moment always gave him.
A loop over his own lines told Marsten that he’d not forgotten how to fly, and proved to him that he could see plenty that would never be visible to a ground observer. He crossed the hills, considered the position of the sun, and swooped in on his approach. A smattering of bullets whistling past did nothing to diminish his joy.
“So that’s the whole layout,” he finished his report. Captain Carmichael-Jones studied the diagram Lt. Marsten had drawn, and nodded.
After that, Marsten went up often. On the day of their big offensive, Marsten was in the air with a lapful of grenades—pathetic armament, compared with the bombers others flew over the enemy’s cities. Captain Carmichael-Jones led the troops on the ground. No more superior officer had ever bothered with their branch of the war.
Weeks of flying over the enemy lines had taught Marsten to dodge and weave, never presenting an easy target. Lucky for him the enemy here had no anti-aircraft guns. His fragile Esmerelda was vulnerable enough to rifle fire. He’d patched her a few times when shots had gotten too close.
While the two armies charged toward each other, each side led by mounted officers, Marsten circled overhead, dropped his charges, and signaled flanking movements. At first he seemed immune to gunfire, but eventually it started to take a toll. By the time the captain’s troops overran the enemy camp, Marsten was coasting in for a rough landing, wings tattered and engine dead.
It wasn’t a great landing. He would heal, but Esmerelda would not. There were tears on Marsten’s face as he limped off to report to the captain.
He found Carmichael-Jones by the body of Rocinante, his own face wet with tears.
Smithy had his own comment on the scene. “Reckon,” he told Muggs, “this war’s moved beyond horses.” He glanced at the smoldering wreck that had been Marsten’s love. “But maybe it ain’t ready for them flying machines either.”
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016