Flight Mother

It was a calm, crisp autumn day. Perfect weather for jetpack flying.

Cadet Betty Clarke joined her partner, Cadet Margaret Leighton, looked smart in their sky blue uniforms and leather flight caps. They helped each other suit up on the flight field, checking over their instruments as they went. These were no longer the heavy packs that women had used during the war. These were streamlined affairs, sleek and beautiful.

Betty stood to attention in front of their Flight Mother as they received their instructions. “All right girls, nothing fancy out there. There are ten targets. You’re to retrieve them and return here within the hour. If you fail, points will be deducted from your graduation score,” the Flight Mother said.

She felt the wind on her face as they took off into the clear sky. The pit of her stomach dropped a bit as she looked down at the ground below, but it was exhilarating. She couldn’t help but smile as the flight school dropped further and further away. Flying was the only thing Betty had ever wanted to do.

The target field was ten minutes south by jetpack. The first five flags were easy. The two cadets scooped them up within minutes. The next five were hidden better. They were long red flags hanging below thick branches and behind fence posts. Betty and Margaret had to put their flight skills to the test to pick them up.

Dark clouds were building on the horizon. Betty knew that a storm would blow their jetpacks around like dry leaves. She saw the clouds, but she was busy ignoring them. There was just one flag left to find.

“Betty, we need to go before the wind gets here,” Margaret said.

Betty shook her head at Margaret. “Can you see the last one, anywhere? It has to be here somewhere.”

She swooped low over the field, trying to think where it could be hidden. She needed that flag. Just another minute or two and then they could go.

“Are you crazy?” Margaret asked, hovering above the field. “The Flight Mother will be pissed if we get hurt. Or if we hurt the jetpacks. Just leave it.”

Betty didn’t bother to argue. Margaret wouldn’t hear her at the height she was flying. She used her energy to scan the field for the last flag, checking her watch as she flew. Just another minute. It had to be here. And then they could go.

The first raindrops sounded like ball bearings pinging off of the brass tanks of her pack. It was just a few drops now, but that wouldn’t last. It would be a downpour at any moment. The wind was already gusting up to dangerous levels for their packs.

Margaret flow down to meet her. “We need to land. Now!” she shouted.

Betty checked her watch. “We just need to get ahead of the storm. If we put on some speed, we can get clear of it. Do you see the last flag anywhere?”

“What are you thinking? The storm is already here,” Margaret said. She held out her hand to catch the raindrops for emphasis.

In response, Betty simply pushed her jetpack forward. There was thunder in the distance as her pack flared to life. She was sure that they could still make it. They had to make it. She needed those points for graduation. Margaret followed, though Betty didn’t know whether it was out of loyalty or protocol.

But the wind picked up. Betty could feel it grabbing at the jetpack on her back. She tried to watch for the last flag but she had to keep her attention on the controls to hold her course. She could feel the straps holding the jetpack start to loosen. She pushed forward. If they were forced to land maybe they could make it back to base on foot. But Betty wanted to get as close as possible in the air.

The wind, tired of toying with the girls, grabbed Betty and tossed her sideways. She collided with Margaret and the two tumbled to the ground. Betty landed hard on her wrist and she heard a horrible crunching sound from her jetpack controls.

The ground beneath them had turned to mud and Betty was soaked from leather boots to flight helmet. She sat up gingerly, hugging her wrist against her chest. She called out for Margaret. She could see her lying in the mud nearby, but the other girl hadn’t moved.

Betty struggled to get up with one good hand and fell backward in the mud. She fumbled at the straps of her jetpack and managed to release the clasps, leaving it behind. Once free, she scrambled in the mud to get to her partner.

“Margaret?” She touched the girl’s shoulder. Still breathing. Thank God.

Her friend had landed hard on one side. The nozzles on that side of her pack were crushed. Even if she could get it into the air, she’d have no control over it. It would just fly around in circles like this.

Betty released the straps on the pack and let it fall away from Margaret. She rolled her over gently. Her goggles were cracked.

“Come on,” she muttered as she checked Margaret over. Her hands were trembling in the cold rain. “I need you to wake up now.”

They were in the middle of nowhere, still miles away from the base. Betty couldn’t drag Margaret all that way. And there was no way they were getting there by air. When the rain let up and they were overdue, someone would come looking for them. She just needed Margaret to be alright until then.

Margaret opened her eyes and Betty felt a weight lift off of her shoulder.

“Are we okay?” Margaret asked.

“Better now that you’re awake,” Betty said.

Margaret moaned as she sat up. “My shoulder hurts. And my head. Everything’s spinning and I feel like I need to throw up,” Margaret moaned. She dropped her head into her hands. “I can’t fly like this.”

Betty pointed to their jetpacks, abandoned an inch deep in the mud. They didn’t look so bad in the rain. “Neither of us is flying anywhere. Both of the packs are broken. Your stabilizers are shot and one side of my controls are crushed.”


The storm picked up and small hailstones started to fall on the cadets. Betty put one arm up over her head and got the other underneath Margaret’s arms.

“Come on. We have to get out of this storm. We can come back to the packs when it lets up,” Betty said.

She slipped in the mud trying to get Margaret to her feet. Margaret grabbed her wrist for balance and she bit down hard on a scream. They made their way to a barn that was nearby. The roof dripped on them, but at least they were out of the hail here. Margaret eased herself to the ground and tried to lie back in a haystack.

“I can’t let you fall asleep. You could have a concussion. You need to stay awake until we get back to base,” Betty said.

Betty checked her watch again once they were under cover.

“We’re already overdue,” Margaret said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Betty said.

“I’m sorry. I know you needed these points, today,” Margaret said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Betty said. She did need those points. She was right on the edge of not graduating at this rate.

“Why does this mean so much to you?” Margaret asked. “It’s not like the war is still on. You can find a good job somewhere if you’re that determined to work.”

“My brother was in the war, you know?” Betty said.

“A lot of brothers fought in the war,” Margaret said.

“Yeah well, mine was in the Air Corp. He served on the Airship Defiant,” Betty said. She still got choked up thinking about her brother. “He was on the ship when it went down.”

“I’m sorry, Betty. I remember what the papers said when it was lost. That must have been horrible for you,” Margaret said.

Betty wiped a soaking wet sleeve across her eyes. The chill of it took her by surprise and she used the shock to get ahold of herself. She shrugged at Margaret. “Yeah but before all that, when he was still alive, my mother was so proud of him. And I used to say that I wanted to be just like my big brother. I told him that I was going to join the Ladies Air Corp as soon as I turned 18. He used to laugh at me. He said that the jetpack girls were just glamorous carrier pigeons.”

“Not carrier pigeons. Larks,” Margaret corrected, referring to the slogan from the old propaganda posters: Send it with a L.A.R.C.

“Yeah. Well, he didn’t think very highly of us. Maybe I’m still trying to prove something,” Betty said.

Margaret was quiet for a while. “You know you don’t have anything left to prove, right?” she asked.

Betty didn’t remember telling her hands to ball into fists, but they did it anyway without her permission. Her heart was pounding like the first time she’d taken flight. “Yes, I do. I have to prove it to our Flight Mother. And to you. And to everyone I fly with. I have to prove that I can do this every day.”

She took her flight helmet off and threw it across the barn.

“There’s nothing else that I can do,” Betty sobbed, sinking into the haystack beside Margaret. She buried her face in her knees. “I never wanted to do anything else but fly. And I can’t go home like this. I can’t fail out of the program.”

Just one more flag. Her entire career was going to be dashed by one flag. She could have found it and made it back to base on foot, but she couldn’t leave Margaret. And once they told their story, well, a docked grade would be the least of her worries. Margaret would tell them all about the storm. Betty would probably be thrown out of the program.

“All I ever wanted was to make my brother proud,” Betty whispered. “And now I can’t even do that.”

Margaret put an arm around her shoulder. Betty remembered being held like that when she’d been told about her brother’s death.

“He would be proud of you,” Margaret said. “Betty, you’re the best in our whole flight. Everyone knows you’re going to make Flight Mother one day yourself. Why do you think that old warhorse is so hard on you?”

The rain started to let up and they could see sunlight through the barn door. “See that?” Margaret asked. “They’ll be coming for us, now.”

But Betty didn’t feel any comfort in that. Margaret wanted to get out into the sunlight so that they would be spotted by the rescue squad, and Betty helped her up. But she didn’t want to be rescued.

And there it was. The storm must have blown it loose from its hiding spot. The final flag was caught in a bush just in front of them. Betty walked over and plucked it free.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go home.”

Dianne Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and classic science fiction. She once dreamed of being an astronaut. Or maybe a lawyer. Or an artist. She settled for being as many of them as she could all at once through fiction writing.

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