Jul 27 2013 9:00am
Dangerous Women: “Raisa Stepanova” (Excerpt)
We are very excited to be able to preview Dangerous Women, a new anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and featuring 21 new stories from some of the biggest authors in the science fiction/fantasy field. The anthology is available on December 3rd from Tor Books!
Every morning until July 30th, we’ll be previewing excerpts from the stories, returning you to the world of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Brandon Sanderson’s cosmere, and even Westeros itself. Keep an eye on the Dangerous Women index to keep track of them all.
In “Raisa Stepanova,” Carrie Vaughn takes us to the front lines in Russia during the darkest days of World War II for the story of a young woman flying the most dangerous of combat missions, who is de- termined to do her duty as a soldier and keep flying them, even if it kills her—which it very well might.
My Dear Davidya:
If you are reading this, it means I have died. Most likely been killed fighting in service of the glorious homeland. At least I hope so. I have this terrible nightmare that I am killed, not in the air fighting Fascists, but because a propeller blade falls off just as I am walking under the nose of my Yak and cuts my head off. People would make a good show of pretending to mourn, but they’d be laughing behind my back. My dead back, so I won’t notice, but still, it’s the principle of the thing. There’d certainly be no Hero of the Soviet Union for me, would there? Never mind, we will assume I perished gloriously in battle.
Please tell all the usual to Mama and Da, that I am happy to give my life in defense of you and them and Nina and the homeland, as we all are, and that if I must die at all I’m very happy to do it while flying. So don’t be sad for me. I love you.
Very Sincerely: Raisa
“Raisa!” Inna called from outside the dugout. “We’re up! Let’s go!”
“Just a minute!” She scribbled a last few lines.
P.S. My wingman, Inna, will be very upset if I am killed. She’ll think it’s her fault, that she didn’t cover me. (It won’t be true because she’s a very good pilot and wingman.) I think you should make an effort to comfort her at the very first opportunity. She’s a redhead. You’ll like her. Really like her, I mean. I keep a picture of you in our dugout and she thinks you’re handsome. She’ll weep on your shoulder and it will be very romantic, trust me.
Raisa folded the page into eighths and stuffed it under the blanket on her cot, where it was sure to be found if she didn’t come back. David’s name and regiment were clearly written on the outside, and Inna would know what to do with it. She grabbed her coat and helmet and ran with her wingman to the airfield, where their planes waited.
The pair of them flew out of Voronezh on a routine patrol and spotted enemy planes even before reaching the front. Raisa breathed slow to keep her heart from racing, letting the calm spread to her hands to steady them, where they rested on the stick.
“Raisa, you see that? Two o’clock?” Inna’s voice cracked over the radio. She flew behind and to the right—Raisa didn’t have to look to know she was there.
“Yes.” Raisa squinted through the canopy and counted. More planes, dark spots gliding against a hazy sky, seemed to appear as she did so. They were meant to be patrolling for German reconnaissance planes, which only appeared one or two at a time. This—this was an entire squadron.
The profile of the planes clarified—twin propellers, topside canopy, long fuselage painted with black crosses. She radioed back to Inna, “Those are Junkers! That’s a bombing run!”
She counted sixteen bombers—their target could have been any of the dozens of encampments, supply depots, or train stations along this section of the front. They probably weren’t expecting any resistance at all.
“What do we do?” Inna said.
This was outside their mission parameters, and they were so far outnumbered as to be ridiculous. On the other hand, what else were they supposed to do? The Germans would have dropped their bombs before the 586th could scramble more fighters.
“What do you think?” Raisa answered. “We stop them!”
Raisa throttled up and pushed forward on the stick. The engine rumbled and shook the canopy around her. The Yak streaked forward, sky a blur above her. A glance over her shoulder, and she saw Inna’s fighter right behind her.
She aimed at the middle of the German swarm. Individual bombers became very large very quickly, filling the sky in front of her. She kept on, like an arrow, until she and Inna came within range.
The bombers scattered, as if they’d been blown apart by a wind. Planes at the edges of the formation peeled off, and ones in the middle climbed and dived at random. Clearly, they hadn’t expected a couple of Russian fighters to shoot at them from nowhere.
She picked one that had the misfortune to evade right into her path, and focused her sights on it. Fired a series of rounds from the 20mm cannon, missed when the bomber juked out of range. She cursed.
Rounds blazed above her canopy; a gunner, shooting back. She banked hard, right and up, keeping a watch out for collisions. Dicey, maneuvering with all this traffic. The Yak was fast—she could fly circles around the Junkers and wasn’t terribly worried about getting shot. But she could easily crash into one of them by not paying close enough attention. All she and Inna really had to do was stop the group from reaching its target, but if she could bring down one or two of them in the meantime... One second at a time, that was the only way to handle the situation. Stay alive so she could do some good.
The enemy gunner fired at her again, then Raisa recognized the sound of another cannon firing. A fireball expanded and burned out at the corner of her vision—a Junker, one of its engines breaking apart. The plane lurched, off-balance until it fell in an arc, trailing smoke. It waggled once or twice, the pilot trying to regain control, but then the bomber started spinning and it was all over.
Inna cried over the radio. “Raisa! I got him, I got him!” It was her first kill in battle.
“Excellent! Only fifteen more to go!”
“Raisa Ivanovna, you’re terrible.”
The battle seemed to drag, but surely only seconds had passed since they scattered the formation. They couldn’t engage for much longer before they’d run out of ammunition, not to mention fuel. The last few shots had to count, then she and Inna ought to run. After those last few shots, of course.
Raisa caught another target and banked hard to follow it. The bomber climbed, but it was slow, and she was right on it. By now her nerves were singing and instinct guided her more than reason. She squeezed hard on the trigger before the enemy was fully in her crosshairs, but it worked, because the Junker slid into the line of fire just as her shots reached it. She put holes across its wings, across its engine, which sparked and began pouring smoke. The plane could not survive, and sure enough, the nose tipped forward, the whole thing falling out of control.
Inna cheered for her over the radio, but Raisa was already hunting her next target. So many to choose from. The two fighters were surrounded, and Raisa ought to be frightened, but she could only think about shooting the next bomber. And the next.
The Junkers struggled to return to formation. The loose, straggling collection had dropped five hundred meters from its original altitude. If the fighters could force down the entire squadron, what a prize that would be! But no, they were running, veering hard from the fighters, struggling to escape.
Bombs fell from the lead plane’s belly, and the others followed suit. The bombs detonated on empty forest, their balloons of smoke rising harmlessly. They’d scared the bombers into dropping their loads early.
Raisa smiled at the image.
With nothing left in their bomb bays and no reason to continue, the Junkers peeled off and circled back to the west. Lighter and faster now, they’d be more difficult for the fighters to catch. But they wouldn’t be killing any Russians today, either.
Raisa radioed, “Inna, let’s get out of here.”
With Inna back on her wing, she turned her Yak to the east, and home.
“Raisa Stepanova” © Carrie Vaughn
Keep an eye on the Dangerous Women index to keep track of all our excerpts and reviews!