It was an inspiring sight. All ten of the wings in service were finally together. They were carefully arranged in a crescent, with the mountains behind and crews in front, for a commemorative picture.
After the sixth exposure, for good luck, the crews broke and the tractors came to back the wings into the hangars. The ground crew were nervous, there was only clearance of a few digits from the tips of the wings to the hangar walls. It would not do to damage the pride of the Southern air force through clumsy reversing.
Harren watched, not really worried, then waved to the pilot of one of the other wings. Mirl was another veteran of the Stumps. He had been looking at the sorry collection of them that had been evicted in favour of the wings. “By the Tower, I had hoped to never see another of those things. Two days now since I arrived here and I can see them from my billet. I swear the deserter squadrons did not know what they were in for, or they would have taken the trip to the prison camps with their countrymen.”
They walked across the runway. At the far, western, end there were two thousand spans of new tar pack, still glossy black and incompletely cured. Tall seed grasses flanked the runway. They supplied the base with some of its food, and would stop a Stump that missed a landing. Hitting the field with a wing would turn it into so much chaff.
The wind grew. The seed grass rustled. On the far side of the river, dust raised and whorled around unseen attractors. “Why no farm land on that side?” Harren asked.
“The base commander wanted a good field of fire.” Mirl pointed out the guard towers arrayed from the northern edge of the base to the southern. “The river comes down from the mountains and bows around the base. Makes quite a good defensive line, but the seed grass grows taller than a man. A small force could sneak right to the river and cross at its shallowest point. So he ordered a thousand span killing zone in every direction. Cut everything down and sowed the ground with caustic and salt so nothing could grow on it.”
“This is a deserter squadron. The Plains people hate the deserters more than us. One of the flight crews went off base just before I arrived, and never came back. They were found yesterday, hanging from trees with spikes through their hands and feet and with their bellies split open so the insects could eat them alive.”
They passed the control tower, with its new RADIF array on the roof. “The base commander is sending the rest of the squadron up tomorrow to bomb the nearest town.”
“Will that stop other attacks?”
“More likely it will inspire them. Look at these.” Off to their left there was a large break in the seed grass. Nearly a hundred plane carcasses, biplane bombers, were parked haphazardly together. Some had been broken in the process; one large bunch had burnt, twisting together.
“The same. The deserters flew these, before we put them in Stumps. They would be better planes, with decent engines. The ones they used could barely even move my motor trike. It would have been cheaper to refit those.”
“But it would not have looked as good.” Harren remembered the propaganda pictures of the Plains Loyalists, as the deserters were officially known, receiving the first of their superior Southern aeroplanes.
The flight crews were converging on a small building near the barracks. “The seed ale is an acquired taste,” Mirl commented, “but the mechanics have a still which turns out a nasty liquor.”
“I am not going to try and drink you under the table. I learnt that lesson last time.”