Dane Madousin swept a rapid arc through the atmosphere, testing the speed of his new aircraft. The two-man ship cut a silent swath through the azure sky. “Sharp,” Dane murmured to the machine, then flipped its light hull upside down.
His head dropped back, his gaze spotting the planet’s surface. Chivalry’s vast foliage stretched beneath him: fir and hemlock, maple and aspen, greenery tinged with reds and browns, split now and then by a ribbon of blue or, more often, a dry creek bed. Pure nature, Dane thought, wishing he had been assigned to this sector earlier.
He was sick of the artificial surface of the base and the tall skyscrapers of the planet’s only city. Here was where the action was, where the blasting hot summer winds met with dry tinder and plenty of fuel. Prime conditions for a fire.
“I think we got something!” a boy’s voice shrieked over the radio.
Dane turned down the volume. “Well, where is it?” he heard the fire chief say. “Southeast quadrant,” the boy said. “Looks like coordinates fifty-four by sixty-one.” Dane cocked his head, not bothering to check the map pinned to the visor. He knew the place was in his sector. “Let’s go, Gold Dust,” he said, flipping the aircraft right side up and punching in the coordinates.
“You got that, Madousin?” the chief’s voice came again over the radio. Dane picked up his mouthpiece. “Yeah, in motion,” he said. Finally. Two summers flying old beaters with the company and nothing more exciting than a brush-fire in City Park. Then this morning he had cashed in his savings for an interplanetary plane, and now, on the same day, had the chance for some action.
Not that the two were related. Dane knew the only reason he had been assigned to this sector was that the big blaze in the northwest required all the experienced fighters. Flyers under seventeen were usually kept in ad hoc, and he had another two weeks before crossing that milestone.
“What level of fire are we looking at?” asked the chief.
“Um, on the view screen the smoke looks black and kinda high,” mumbled the boy.
That was helpful. Dane kept his sarcasm to himself. Being short on fighters meant the person running the monitors had next to no training.
“What type of material is burning?” the chief said in a patient voice.
“Trees?” the boy said.
“Trees around a house? Or a stream? Or a forest?” asked the adviser.
A damn forest, Dane got his answer through the cockpit window, not the radio. Black smoke billowed into the air, much too dark for a small stand of ground fuel. He grabbed for his mouthpiece. “I’ve got a forest fire blowing west, at least level three.” He kept his voice calm as he had been trained, but his mind was screaming inside.
Stupid kid should never have let it near level three before calling in. This was not the kind of fire you could miss on your radar screen. Not if you were paying any kind of attention.
“Five planes in your radius. That going to provide enough support?” the chief asked.
By this time, ashes were pelting Dane’s windshield, and he was thankful for the flame retardant that blocked out the smell of the smoke and kept the metal from scarring. He could see for certain now that the fire was out of control. Five planes were not going to cut it. They would be lucky even to make a dent. “We’re going to need at least thirty planes here,” Dane replied. “This thing has crowned.”
“Crowned?” For the first time, the chief’s voice faltered. “You’re telling me the flames are out of the underbrush and burning leaves?”
“Needles. We’re talking hundreds of fir and hemlock stretching far as the eye can see.” Which was not all that far, considering the muffling gray haze filling the air.
There was a rustling on the other end of the line, and a new voice replaced the chief’s. “Madousin, get the hell out of there. You aren’t of age to fight a level four.”
Dane reached down reluctantly for the throttle. The ash fall was growing thicker. Frowning, he peered out his windows. The smoke all but eliminated his view now. This thing was growing fast, and, from the looks of it, the hot zone was approaching at a rapid clip.
As he started to reverse, static flared up on the radio. He thought he heard the word help but couldn’t make out anything else.
“This is Dane Madousin. Didn’t catch that last. Please repeat.”
“Don’t mess with me,” came the voice from control. “I said to get out of there.”
“No,” Dane tried to explain. “I thought I heard something else. Is there anyone out there?”
More scratching and nothing clear.
Dane glanced at his radar. No sign of the promised backup planes. But something was sending off a signal, very faint and not very far off, behind him.
“Tell the chief I think there’s someone—”
“Madousin, get back here now!” the fire chief boomed.
Dane switched off the radio. He eased Gold Dust into motion, backing toward the signal. As the smoke cleared enough to spot the ground, he searched for a break in the tree cover. Spaces meant water or a protection zone around a man-made structure. Whatever his radar had picked up, it was not natural, and no zone was going to be much help in the face of this fire.
He rifled through his memory, trying to remember if he had seen any structures on the map. No, there should not be any buildings here at all. Unless the map—
Then he saw it, coming out from this side of the blaze. Not a building but a straight strip designating a road. A rusty red land vehicle stuttered out of the smoke. No way was that contraption going to outrace the blaze. One change in the wind and the wheeled machine would be fodder for the flames.
Dane shifted his plane into motion, and it swept down in a sloping crescent. Squeezing into the narrow space between the tree trunks and the land vehicle, Gold Dust hovered beside the other machine. Dane motioned to the driver to pull over, but the haze was so thick he was not sure the frantic hand motions could be seen. Not until the land vehicle jolted to a halt.
Pulling ahead, Dane dropped the plane down onto the hard-packed earth. In the danger zone now.
He felt a lurch of adrenaline as he slid on his oxygen mask and then, with one fluid motion, shoved open the pilot’s side door and leaped out, dropping six feet to the road’s surface.
A booming roar shocked him to the ground, the sound of fire battering through timber. He dragged himself up into the stifling air and sought out the land vehicle. The driver had left his cab but seemed to be having trouble walking. His clothes were caked in soot, and he stumbled, his back hunched over, his chest lowered to his waist. Smoke inhalation.
Dane hurried forward, grabbed the man around the back, and hauled him toward the far side of the plane, one lurching step at a time. Hot air whipped strong in Dane’s face, a reminder they were at the wind’s mercy. Gone was the plane’s shimmer of fresh paint, its golden color smeared with blown ash. Releasing his hold on the man in order to scale the side of the aircraft, Dane jerked open the door and leaped again to the road.
The man had slumped to the ground, his body on its side, curled in a tight ball. He struggled to sit up but collapsed back against the earth. Dane reached down to help, then somehow pushed, heaved, and shoved the weak body up toward the open space in the cockpit doorway.
A drooping arm caught in the strap of the oxygen mask, pulling the cover out of position. Acrid smoke invaded Dane’s lungs. Gagging, he thrust the body into the passenger seat and slammed shut the door, then raced around the plane’s nose, fingers tearing at his mask, but only managing to tangle the strap. He gave up, needing his hands to climb into the pilot’s seat.
Within seconds, the plane lifted off the ground. The cockpit had filled with smoke, and Dane’s eyes watered as he steered the aircraft out of the fog.
He tried to switch the radio back on to no avail. No response, not even static. The radar remained blank. Either it too was failing or the extra planes had never arrived.
Harsh coughing echoed from the man in the other seat. Soot coated his skin, making age and facial features hard to discern, but the pain was easy to read. Dane finally wrenched off his own mask and slipped it around the man’s head.
Then he set the coordinates for the hospital on base and shifted into a higher gear. Zhzhzh! They were soaring. Way, way over the speed limit, but the hell with that. The passenger had slumped over, his head upside down at an odd angle against the door, and there was no telling if he was still breathing.
The outskirts of the city drifted into focus—rectangular shapes, straight walls, and pointed pyramids littering the horizon. Dane swerved to the left, hoping to avoid the traffic and the city flight patrol. He veered around the city’s rim.
The sterile gray-green structures of the Alliance Air Force Base stretched out to the west. Dane ripped into military airspace without missing a beat, eased up on the power as he spotted the hospital landing pad, and touched down with a precision that would make any pilot cringe in envy. Even his father.
But there was no time to savor the moment. Figures rushed toward the plane. Coughing himself now, Dane wrapped his arms around the passenger’s sooty chest and lowered the listless body into the outstretched arms of a medic.
He scrambled down to answer questions, but a heavy arm shoved him up against the side of the plane.
“Dane Madousin?” The harsh voice grated in his ear.
Dane coughed. “Y-yes.”
Cold steel closed around his wrists. “You’re under arrest.”