Part Ten of my Latest Free Serial
Breaking Ground is a Darkeningstone novella – it's a standalone book: a bonus story. I'm presenting it here in weekly parts. Each part on this site is tagged ‘breaking ground' so you can find all the published episodes easily. I'll add a link at the end of this episode. I hope you enjoy it.
Soon, Wing Commander Butterworth was hard at work, immersed in a world of memos and standing orders. The engine droned, and time slipped away. He picked up another blurred carbon copy and scanned it. Hadn’t he read this one already? He blinked and rubbed his tired eyes. Maybe I’ll finish the rest later, he thought. He checked his watch. Good, they should be landing soon. He needed to stretch his legs.
Suddenly, Corbett twisted in his seat, straining to see out of the window. He was a big man, and as he turned in the narrow confines of the cabin, his elbow dug into Butterworth’s arm. The Wing Commander bristled. What on earth did the fellow think he was doing? “I say, Corbett,” he said. “Are you quite all right?”
But he didn’t get a reply.
Corbett craned his neck toward the window, staring down and off into the distance. He ran a hand over his face. Were his eyes playing tricks? Or was he really looking down on the place where he’d spent nineteen years of his working life? He could scarcely believe it. He’d tried not to think about it for so long.
He searched for a landmark, a fixed point that would prove him wrong. But no. There was the church spire, the ribbons of road, even the high street. There was no mistake. This was his home. And beyond the huddle of houses, spreading from the town’s side like a malignant growth, a barren stretch of pale grey rock: Scaderstone Pit.
He took a slow breath. It was all right. He’d known they’d fly close by. I just wasn’t prepared for it, he thought. It was just a shock seeing it like that. He let his eyes roam over the pale-grey scar on the landscape, the place where he’d made his living for so long. From the air, it was almost worse than a bombed-out battlefield, so utterly empty, so purposefully laid to waste. “So ugly,” he whispered, “such an eyesore.”
Wing Commander Butterworth wasn’t accustomed to being ignored. “Listen, Corbett,” he snapped, “what’s going on here?”
Corbett flinched and turned away from the window. He couldn’t look Butterworth in the eye. “I’m sorry, Sir,” he said. “I didn’t mean to…cause an upset. It won’t happen again.”
“But whatever were you staring at, man?” Butterworth demanded. “Is something wrong with the aircraft?”
Corbett’s mouth hung open. “Oh no, Sir,” he said. “Nothing like that. No. It’s just, I saw the place I used to work – the quarry. It caught me unawares. It looked so different from up here.”
Butterworth ran his fingers over his moustache, smoothing it down. “Well thank god for that,” he said. “The way you were carrying on, I thought the ruddy wing was dropping off or something.”
“Sorry, Sir. I don’t know what came over me.” He hung his head. He’d done it now.
Butterworth studied the man’s woebegone expression. And he had an idea. He half rose from his seat and tapped the pilot on the shoulder.
Startled, the pilot glanced over his instruments then reached up and pulled the flap of his flying helmet away from his left ear. He leaned back slightly, keeping one eye on the view ahead. He forced a humourless smile. This would be a damn sight easier, he thought, if the Wingco would wear the correct headgear. Still, a Wing Commander must be humoured. “Yes, Sir?” he called over his shoulder.
“I say, Johnson,” Butterworth said. “Can you take this thing lower for a bit?”
Captain Johnson nodded slowly. Typical top brass, he thought, has to interfere, can’t let a chap just get on with his job. But he kept his expression blank. “Certainly, Sir,” he said. “The Messenger can go as low and slow as you like – built for it.”
“First rate,” Butterworth said. “You see that quarry down there on the right?”
Johnson raised his eyebrows. What was all this about? But he dutifully scanned the ground, fixing the quarry’s position and bearing in his mind. “Yes, Sir.”
“I want you to make a low pass – nice and slow. Let us have a good look at the place.”
Johnson checked the fuel gauge – it was fine. And so far they’d made good time. Besides, what choice did he have? “Will do, Wing Commander.” He shifted the joystick and pressed the rudder pedals. As the plane began to bank and turn, he called back to the Wing Commander: “Sir, with the greatest of respect, I suggest that you return to your seat.”
Butterworth smiled. “Will do,” he said cheerfully. He patted Johnson on the shoulder and sat back in his seat. He smiled at Corbett. “This’ll cheer you up, Corbett,” he said. “Give the old place a buzz, eh?”
But Corbett was pale, anxious. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. A sheen of sweat formed on his forehead. He’d heard most of Butterworth’s conversation with the pilot, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit. He opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly he felt the plane fall away from him as the pilot started a gentle dive. Vincent swallowed hard. There was nothing he could do.
“Chin up, Corbett,” Butterworth said. He reached across in front of Vincent and pointed out his window. “Look, we’re coming around. If only your old workmates could see you now, eh?”
Despite himself, Vincent obeyed and looked out of the window. And there it was: the bleak grey stone, rushing up to meet them. He ground his teeth together. Just get through it, he thought, it’ll all be over in a minute. And maybe it would be all right. After all, he’d been away for years – maybe it would all be different now. He clung to that thought, and let his eyes search out the far end of the quarry, willing himself to see nothing more than barren stone. But no. The dark patch of green was unmistakeable. The only living thing in the pit – a tangle of bushes and stunted trees still clinging to the slope.
It’s still there, he thought, the slab of dark rock hidden on the ledge, concealed by the trees. He looked away, a cold sweat beading on his brow. He didn’t want to see it. He’d promised himself he’d never have to see that place again. He closed his eyes and tried to think of home. But all he could see in his mind was that damned ledge, the accursed block of jet-black stone. He didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to think about what had happened there. He saw it often enough in his dreams. He pressed himself back as tightly as he could into his seat and groaned.
Captain Johnson checked their bearing and altitude and levelled off for a nice, straightforward pass over the quarry. He frowned. For a moment, he thought he’d seen a flash of light glinting across the glass-fronted gauges. No. Everything was fine. It was probably just a reflection. Even so, with a Wing Commander in the back he wasn’t taking any chances. He’d better keep an eye on the instrument panel. If it was an electrical spark, he might have to ditch. He glanced down at the quarry as they passed. Ugly place. Why on Earth would the Wingco want to see that? It was just a hole in the ground. Ah well, he thought, orders are orders. And it was done now. They could get back on course. As the quarry dropped away behind them, he pulled the aeroplane up into a banking turn, climbing, setting them up to return to their original heading. And that’s when it happened.
A blue light arced across the instruments. Johnson stared as the artificial horizon span erratically. The altimeter needle twitched and vibrated and the air speed indicator fell to zero knots. He blinked. It didn’t matter. He could fly this plane without a single instrument – he’d done it before. But he’d need to make an emergency landing. He started the procedure, and opened his mouth to start the proper radio messages. And the joystick jolted, almost jumping from his hand. He moved it left to right, back and forward, but it was limp, useless. He tried the rudder pedals. Nothing. He’d lost control of the plane. He reached out to the co-pilot’s joystick, but that too was useless. This can’t happen, he thought. It was impossible, wasn’t it? He swallowed.
And at that moment, the engine stuttered and died.
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