tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Phantom Pilot

The Phantom Pilot


Three Fokkers dropped from the cloud cover above.

A Spandau machine gun chewed a dual line of holes through my starboard upper wing. What was left of the bracing wire began to flay the Camel's lower wing to pieces. A burst from my Vickers put one of the German planes out of the dogfight, but I had no time to glory in my kill. I pulled up on the stick in a vain effort to climb and spun out of control. A chap from Sopwith Aviation had warned me, as well as a hangar full of other RAF flyboys, about the inherent spin characteristics during training last summer. At low speed the machine displayed a tendency to go into a tailspin.

That morning's flight was to be reconnaissance only. My wingman, a major, and I were to locate and report any observation zeppelins gathered over some troop formations the generals wanted to keep a secret.

"That locate and report business is rubbish," my friend the major said as we walked out of the hangar and across the airfield, "We're going to do some balloon-busting."

I had crawled into the cockpit of my Sopwith Camel.

The major's bi-plane took off ahead of me, trundling down the grass runway ahead of my own machine and lifted into the wind. I followed into the sky, hoping for a chance to see some action. But two hours into the patrol we still had nothing to report. For a skyline allegedly swarming with gasbags the sky remained overcast and uneventful. At least I was airborne. I'd rather fly a plane than a desk any day. I took a fuel gauge reading. Low.

Time to head back to the Aerodrome.

The major branched off, flying out of my sight. I never saw the major again; I hope he's well.

I remember thinking, "Bloody hard to see out of these goggles," when I'd become preoccupied with the Fokkers. The remaining two buzzed overhead like angry bees. My folly was attempting to outmaneuver them. I climbed when I should have dived. My Camel also chose that critical moment to stall. At that altitude the instant silence of a dead engine can send a pilot's heart into his mouth. I thought my heart would burst from the sickening falling sensation.

As I plummeted toward France those Spandau machine guns chattered again. Bullets ripped into my right leg. Hot pain lanced through me before an icy calm of shock swam over me. The square patterns of the fields spun round and round faster, but I saw everything with an unreal clarity. My starboard wings shredded as if beaten by ferocious steel whips. One of the Fokkers flew into my line of sight. My head drooped. I noticed the cockpit awash with blood.

The face of the French girl from the night before reeled through my mind, but I could not remember her name. Nor could I recall the name of my wife as the Sopwith Camel plunged into the unforgiving winter soil.

A number of things registered at the point of impact.

The jarring cessation of downward spiraling motion accompanied by an explosion and the heat of flames.

Then I felt nothing.

I awoke to the sound of running water, the voices of people shouting.

A high bluff overlooked where I lay on my back, unable to move. From the cliff a group of savages looked down at me, their faces smeared with war paint. They cheered my predicament and waved their spears. I closed my eyes for a moment, when I reopened them the men were gone. Apparently they had left me for dead. My head lolled, sluggish syllables poured from between my lips. The unmistakable feel of grass touched my bare legs, but my back brushed against sand.

I smelled sweet flowers in the warm breeze. A layer of sand stuck to the sweat of my tattooed arm.

My tattooed arm? I, Colonel Daniel Walker, aged fifty, of the Royal Air Force, had no tattoos! But I could only see my arm however and couldn't lift it for a closer examination. I wanted to spit the vile taste from my mouth, but lacked the wherewithal. I must be delirious, I thought.

But not dead!

All five senses were accounted for. Despite a bad taste in my mouth the scent of flowers filled my nostrils. I felt the surface of the ground beneath me, had heard and seen people above me. My limbs lay motionless but my chest rose and fell with labored breathing.

Why was I not a cinder in the French snow?

As my eyes traveled down the expanse of my body a cold finger of panic probed my guts. Below my waist was a scarlet mass. All the dizzying hope of still being alive faded in bitter disappointment. Had I been unmanned by the hail of lead from the Spandaus? I remembered the cockpit splashed with blood. Had I survived a terrible crash only to emerge as half a man? Any soldier preferred death over dismemberment. Sadness descended on me.

I groaned as I looked again down the length of my body and saw bright red. Something gold glinted just below my navel. What in God's name? Then the breeze blew on my legs, high on my legs. Would a man still have feeling in that area if so sorely wounded? A gust of wind caused a scarlet flap to flutter in the air like silk. I squeezed my eyes shut having no desire to look upon so ghastly a wound. My arm wouldn't move, but my fingers would. Cautiously I shifted my hand and touched my hip, felt the feel of silk between my fingers. That encouraged me to open my eyes again. What I had thought a red mass of torn skin and organs was a garment of some sort. I blinked several times unbelieving.

Around my hips I wore a scarlet loincloth and the gold object below my belly appeared to be an elaborate belt buckle. "Walker, you're delirious," I said aloud. The words sounded foreign to me. I knew what I meant to say and had said it, but the words didn't come out in English. Or French either, a language I know very little about.

Relaxing the muscles in my neck I allowed my head to roll back to the side. The sight of the tattoos on my arm added to my certainty of delirium. Off to my left, water blazed in the sunshine and I shut my eyes. I listened to the water, ignoring the questions roiling in my mind.

Something tickled my cheek. I cracked my eyelids. A long lock of black hair, like a woman's, brushed my chin. Ah, my French lover had black hair; she came to rescue me; what was her name? I sought to look upon her face, but no woman leaned over me so the hair must be mine, except I had had a haircut a week ago in Bois de Marmal. My gray hair didn't reach my ears let alone my chin. I was hallucinating, seeing painted warriors with spears and women's hair, babbling in a strange tongue.

My eyes closed again.

I surrendered myself to blissful darkness.

Footsteps crunched through the sand and came to a halt close to me. I tried to look up, but the effort kept me from doing so.

The toe of a shoe, or boot, nudged my arm. I mumbled wordlessly.

"By the seven gray gods, he lives," a voice spoke, the language foreign to me, but I understood the words well enough.

"No one could survive that fall," a second voice disagreed. "Look how high the top of the cliff is from here."

"I don't believe it myself, " the first voice replied. The toe prodded at me again. "He just tried to say something. He moved his head."

"It cannot be," said the other man. I heard the rustle of cloth beside me. I smelled a strong odor of sweat. Fingertips touched my chest, the palm of a hand pressed down over my heart.

Not opening my eyes I asked, "Who are you?" The words sounded odd on my lips yet once more I understood.

"Does the Sheikh believe me now?" asked the first man.

"His heart's beating." The hand left my chest, fingers touched my face, turned my head back and forth. The voice of the Sheikh hissed in my ear: "Thwart, Thwart! Gather your wits about you, man."

"Must drink," I grated, "thirsty."

"Don't just stand there, Namtor. There's wine in the saddlebag."

I heard footsteps in the sand.

Someone knelt beside me. A hand clamped my jaw and propped my head back, liquid dribbled across my lips, sprinkled across my tongue. I drank hungrily at the sweetest wine I'd ever tasted.

"Enough, Namtor, we don't need a hurt man who's drunk to look after," snapped the Sheikh. "Put him over the back of one of the dromendaries. We must make haste back to the camp. The Askaar are no doubt still nearby."

Briefly my eyes opened when I felt myself being lifted. The whole world tilted and I saw sand and sky, tropical greenery. Long hair hung in my face. I glimpsed a man in a dirty white burnoose standing next to a line of camels.

From faraway somebody said, "Better not forget his sword, over by the water."

My sword? I thought how utterly ridiculous and passed out.

I regained consciousness on my back on a blanket on the ground. Voices spoke in the language I curiously understood. I kept my eyes and my mouth closed.

A man's voice I recognized from before was saying: "I'd've thought that drink of wine would've brought Thwart around. That crazy fool always did like his wine."

"His breathing is regular again," a female voice said. Links of chain clinked. A cool hand touched my forehead. "But he is feverish."

The male said kindly, "Thwart's fortunate to be alive, Jadda. The Sheikh wanted me to check him for broken bones and other damage away from the eyes of the camp. You know he doesn't like idle tongues wagging and rumors spreading among his retinue."

The woman began speaking, but stopped in the middle of her question.

"Namtor, is he going to . . .?"

"Going to live? Without a doubt. He's bruised and battered, but there are no broken bones."

"Thank the gods," Jadda said.

"There is a knot on the back of his head the size of an egg. But that's nothing. For a man who fell off a cliff."

"Did the Askaar push him off that cliff?"

"All I heard was yelling and fighting, I saw nothing. Maybe Thwart jumped."

"I wouldn't be surprised. He's too foolhardy for his own good."

Namtor chuckled, "I saw blood on his sword when Portor retrieved it on the beach. He got a piece of one of them anyway."

"Why didn't you help him?" Jadda asked. She wiped at sand clinging to my face and shoulders. The links of chain rattled with the movements of her hands.

"Thwart jumped out of the bush ahead of the rest of us. When the Sheikh saw how many Askaar marched along the trail he had us retreat."

"To leave Thwart to die alone?"

"I wouldn't be talking like that, Jadda. What if the Sheikh heard you?"

The woman answered, "You won't betray me, Namtor."

His hushed reply was sincere. "You know I won't repeat what you say, but if anyone else should hear you you know the consequences."

"I've survived the Sheikh's lash before," she stated boldly.

"Why bring trouble down on yourself?"

I thought it about time I entered the conversation. I meant to speak more forcefully, but the words came out in a croak: "No one is not going to harm a hair on your head."

"Thwart!" the girl cried.

I saw the shapes of the two people in the falling darkness. A tall black man stood leaning against a giant sword the way a shepherd leans on his staff. The blade looked more like an enormous meat cleaver than a sword. The man, Namtor, wore only baggy trousers with broad vertical black and white stripes tucked into boots. The dark-haired girl on her knees beside me possessed curves and contours I had only seen on statues. Olive-skinned and darkly beautiful, she wore nothing but a length of chain fastened to a steel cuff on each wrist. That chain was joined in the middle to a shorter one that attached to a chipped enameled steel collar that had seen many necks before hers. She seemed as oblivious and unselfconscious about the chains as she was of her nudity.

I shook my head once, but only once, it hurt too much to do it again.

"Who is this Thwart character everybody keeps talking about?" I asked.

After a stunned silence the girl yelped delightedly.

Namtor spoke first. "Welcome back to the living, man," he congratulated me. "How you feeling, Thwart?"

"Walker is my name," I stated; again, not as emphatically as intended.

"Walker?" Namtor inquired. "You've called yourself Thwart since I met you two or three seasons ago in the Silver Cities."

With a cry catching in her throat Jadda knelt over me. I felt her hair and her kisses on my face, also metal links of chain. Murmuring endearments in my ear Jadda crushed her body to mine. She was firm, but soft and smelled wonderful.

I could hear Namtor say, "Perhaps what you do is unwise, Jadda; if the Sheikh sees this, he'll punish you. You well know he doesn't allow slaves associating with the men unless he commands it."

"I will have words with this Sheikh," I rumbled, that time with emphasis.

Namtor and Jadda laughed in surprise.

Finally Namtor said, "You never were one to disparage your benefactor, Thwart."

"What benefactor?" I demanded. "And why do you persist in calling me Thwart?"

"Because you are!" Jadda insisted.

Namtor explained, "The Sheikh took you out of the arena in the Silver Cities. You've sworn your fealty and your sword to him. Remember?"

Jadda: "You don't remember you're in the Sheikh's employ?"

"Who is this Sheikh everyone's talking about? Don't remember him."

"Do you remember me?" she asked.

When I said no Jadda choked back a sob.

Namtor whispered to her, but I overheard: "Thwart's lost his memory."

"I've lost my bloody mind is what I've lost!"

Jadda ignored me and said to Namtor, "He has suffered a bad fall."

He said to her, "He's not himself."

"Thwart was always so strong," Jadda sniffed.

"Quit talking about me like I'm not here!" I said. "I am not Thwart! I am Colonel Daniel Walker of the Royal Air Force," but added unsurely, "or at least I was this morning."

"He's incoherent," Namtor shook his head sadly.

"But he's alive," said Jadda, "I will make him remember me." She gazed into my eyes and ran her fingers through my hair.

A flood of confusion whirled through my mind. These people knew me, but I did not know them. I knew a tangible desire for Jadda, felt like Namtor was an old friend. I had undergone the strangest of transformations in death, but was not dead. The thought occurred to me that Colonel Walker might be my imagination and Thwart the reality. He certainly had a developed sense of hearing. The sound of steps in the underbrush chased all speculation from my mind.

Jadda got to her feet and backed away from me. A man I understood to be the Sheikh appeared, the man I'd seen earlier in the dirty burnoose. A billowing ghutra secured with an agal flowed around his shoulders. I don't know how I knew the names of this exotic desert headgear yet I did, knew the black agal to be woven from goat hair. After I died I somehow amassed a certain knowledge. Most of it dates to the modern computer information age. Maybe not so much knowledge as memories of those who had lived in future times. In other words, I have memories other than Walker's crystal clear ones and Thwart's blurry ones. The knowledge contained in them is often disturbing, not knowing its origin. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I saw sandals on the Sheikh's feet. A scimitar and a bullwhip hung from the sash around his middle. He carried a short leather switch in one hand, the kind used to lash a horse. Or a slave.

The Sheikh eyed me for a moment. "It gladdens my heart to see you with your eyes open, Thwart." He asked Namtor, "Has he recovered?"

"He's not himself."

"He looks like himself to me."

Jadda interjected, "He's lost his memory."

She cowered when the Sheikh raised his switch.

"I'm talking to Namtor, not you." He lashed her across her bare buttocks. Stung, Jadda leapt back with a cry of pain. The switch moved to strike her again.

I sprang to my feet, the point of my sword under the hooked nose of the Sheikh before I knew where the sword came from or how it got into my fist.

The Sheikh regarded me incredulously, with contempt, without fear. He said nothing.

Before I could utter a threat Namtor placed a hand on my arm. He asked, "You lost your mind?"

"I already told you I have," I yelled.

"Thawart, stop this, now!" Namtor said sharply.

"Stop calling me that!"

The blade trembled from rage in my hand, but the point remained very close to the Sheikh's face. He lowered his pony whip, his eyes locked on mine. Without breaking eye contact he eased his empty hand up, the one without the switch. His palm touched the flat of my sword and gently eased it away. For the first time I became acquainted with the almost hypnotic power of the Sheikh. He exuded a powerful blend of strength and calm, his confidence almost messianic.

I offered no resistance as he removed himself from danger by pushing my sword blade away from his face, down to a position by my side. Finally the Sheikh's hand left my sword and returned to his side. With my point angled at the ground I seemed to come out of a trance. Suddenly the pleas of Namtor filled my ears, urging me to take it easy, and Jadda, begging me to set aside my sword. I knew from the weight of the concern in their voices that things were not what they seemed, not through my eyes at any rate. In my new incarnation as a tattooed swordsman I realized I had broken a code of conduct unknown to me, reacting like Walker instead of Thwart; a young man who, I reminded myself, dressed in a loincloth and wielded a sword as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

And I wondered what world I inhabited.

I died on Earth in 1917, but I still lived.

But where did I live? And in what day and age?

Both men and the woman looked at me with disbelief. Events even more unbelievable than the erratic behavior of total strangers had happened to me in the last few hours. Apparently I cheated death not once, but twice. Had I not witnessed savages in war paint, men in the garb of desert tribesmen or from the Arabian Nights, met a naked slave girl in chains? I was in their territory, not mine. They obviously had relationships with the man known as Thwart long before I inherited his body.

Things would go easier for me had I inherited his mind too. As far as I was concerned my mind and soul controlled the instincts of Thwart's body. I began to think of his body as mine. Although I retained part of his memory and possessed his youthful reflexes, his physical body now belonged to me.

How did the spirit of Colonel Walker come to inhabit Thwart? And not only how, but why?

Had I been reincarnated?

Was I in heaven or hell?

Such questions overwhelmed me despite how much modern knowledge I possessed. Not solely because of the magnitude of them, but because I had no answers and saw no one around me who did.

And I had other things to concern myself with just then.

The Sheikh regarded me, appraising me from head to toe. Finally he asked, "What have you got to say for yourself?"

Time to play the part. If I babbled on about Walker, these superstitious and primitive people might think me possessed by demons, or worse. That could get me boiled in oil or burned at a stake. I saw no sense in lying, but had to buy some time too. "I have suffered a bad fall, Sheikh. Forgive me, I am not myself."

He waited before answering as if he was staring into my soul. "I'm glad you're still alive, Thwart. You're a valuable man," he touched a hand to my shoulder, "and a friend."

At the time I didn't know whether he told the truth or not. "You have my thanks. I remember very little."

"Concentrate on healing. I need you healthy, Thwart."

I nodded.

The Sheikh said, "Jadda, I want you to bathe and minister to Thwart. Ha, I thought you might enjoy that! Revive him, all right? But afterwards you will appear in my tent, also bathed."

Jadda bowed on her knees in front of him, her back to me. Her posture caused the naked halves of her buttocks to part. Between them I was able to see all of her secrets. An upraised welt from the switch glowed on both olive-skinned cheeks. My desire for her increased and I shifted from one leg to another, thinking no one would notice. She looked very lovely bowing in subservience.

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