Chapter 1: A Day Off
Smolensk, June 22, 1941
Ceding control was the hardest part for Aelya.
“Yuri Antonovich!” she shouted over the wind. Formally addressing Yura always kept him on his toes. “Take over!”
“Yes, Comrade Instructor.”
In the front seat of the biplane, Yura glanced furiously between the instruments and the ground, searching for the next waypoint. Aelya wished she could remove her goggles and helmet, let the wind flow through her hair, and allow the engine to calm her with its hypnotic juddering. But she hated taking her hands off the stick. It felt unnatural to her as a pilot.
Her mother would say that just being a pilot was supposed to feel unnatural. “Man was not meant to fly,” the true red Socialist always said. “When you ascend in an airplane, you’re proclaiming your triumph over nature.”
Her father, when his wife was out of earshot, would counter, “When you’re in the air, nothing feels more right. How can that be unnatural?”
Focus, Aelya thought. Let Yura learn the nuances for himself and observe. For Aelya, traversing the air came as easily as gliding through water did for an Olympic swimmer. It took hours and hours of practice for a complex machine to become an extension of oneself. She kept her patience, resisting the urge to correct her student.
The plane crossed the last of the waypoints, a marker flag in the vast open field behind Aviation Plant No. 35. Now for final approach. Time to take up the slack. If Yura made any mistakes trying to land, he could damage state property. That would be on her, a blemish against her future Communist Party membership. She was already under enough scrutiny as the aeroclub’s youngest instructor.
“Turn now. You’re late!” she shouted.
The plane jerked violently as he overcorrected on the rudder. Aelya lined it up properly with her controls in the back seat. Now the descent.
“Flare up! Flare up!” He always nosed up late when touching down. The wheels hit the ground hard. The aeroclub had the privilege of using the paved runway at the plant’s test facilities, so the plane remained level.
As the propeller made its last few revolutions, a technician met the slowing plane on the tarmac. They climbed out of the aircraft, Aelya declining Yura’s hand despite her small frame. The technician guided the plane toward a hangar while they approached the aerodrome office to go through post-flight forms. Inside the low clapboard building, they removed their helmets and jackets in the stifling early-summer heat.
“I think you need more rudder pressure on takeoff,” she said, looking at his neck. There was a gap of smooth, pale skin showing between his blue worker’s jacket and white woollen scarf. She thought of another criticism and braced herself to look him in the eye, but his gaze fell somewhere over her shoulder. She turned and caught a glimpse of golden-blonde hair.
“Dear Spacegirl, you’re not giving poor Yura a hard time, are you?” Vasya beamed. Though the nickname was meant to be derisive, Aelya had embraced it ages ago. Being named after a fictional Queen of Mars, she had to. Her elder sister only dredged up “Spacegirl” to belittle her in front of boys.
Vasya fidgeted with the strap of her fashionable red leather handbag and drew near to kiss Yura on both cheeks, her vibrant locks flicking from side to side. Aelya ran her fingers through her own matted hair. Why did she have to sweat so much in her flying helmet?
“Dear Vasya, were you waiting here for me?” asked Yura with a lopsided smile that other girls apparently found endearing.
“Oh Yura, I thought you were so wonderful. Surely Spacegirl will let you fly on your own soon?”
Yura turned the smile on Aelya. “What do you think, Aelya, er, Comrade Aelita Petrovna?”
“Yuri Antonovich, you might need some more time yet.” Aelya badly wanted to wipe his smile away. He was still too sloppy to solo. To let him do so would reflect badly on her teaching. But she just couldn’t say it. She shoved the clipboard into Yura’s chest. “Please complete these forms and I’ll see you outside. I have to get changed. My sister and I have to be somewhere.”
Yura frowned as Aelya hustled toward the ready room, dragging Vasya away from her shameless flirtation. She would have preferred keeping on her flying uniform to changing into a summer dress, but it made her father happy. Back outside, she completed the sign-offs with Yura, then said goodbye as quickly as she could and walked out of the aerodrome toward Frunze Street.
Vasya rushed to catch up. “That was very rude, Spacegirl.”
“I thought I was being as polite as I could.”
“Well, I didn’t have a chance to say a proper goodbye,” Vasya complained.
“Why don’t you stay and talk some more? I don’t need you to escort me to the tram.”
“It’s better this way. I can’t seem too eager. Anyway, we’re late enough for the picnic as it is.” She turned to blow kisses at Yura as he crossed the street toward the workers’ dormitories.
Aelya spotted a tram coming down the rails and started running.
“Wait, it hurts to run in these heels,” said Vasya.
“You’re the one worried about being late.”
As they reached the stop just in time, Vasya caught her breath. “I just don’t want to waste Mama and Papa’s Sunday off. It’s bad enough you had to use up the morning in your greasy contraption.”
“Then you should be at Lopatinsky Garden already. No need to haul yourself up here to get me. Oh, I forgot—you’re such a flying enthusiast.” Aelya flicked her eyes back up the street toward Yura. Vasya burst out laughing.
They boarded and the tram squealed, pulling away from the stop, passing the massive cinder block edifice of the aviation plant where their parents worked. Two men offered their seats, doffing their hats toward Vasya.
“That greasy contraption,” Aelya said, “lets us see the world from up high. Just think. A few decades ago, no one had ever done that. It’s surely worth a smudge or two. I should take you in the trainer next time.” She envisaged doing a roll and a couple of loops to make her sister sick, then terrifying her with a stall turn. She smiled.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in an airplane,” Vasya said.
“But what if Yura wants to take you flying? He’s going to be an Air Force pilot, after all.”
“Oh come on, Aelitochka. Flirting with Yura’s just a bit of a lark. I have university to think about.”
Yura seemed to really be in love with Vasya. It was a bit cruel to lead him on, even if he was a blockhead. But Vasya would aim higher. Sometimes she thought Vasya had only joined the Komsomol to meet boys with good Party prospects.
“Don’t give me that,” Vasya said. “You’ll understand when you’re old enough.”
“I am—” The rattling tram wheels drowned her out as they crossed the Dnieper River bridge into Smolensk’s old town. Some men at the front of the train chatted, sounding agitated.
Aelya looked out the window. Despite the Assumption Cathedral’s czarist decadence, she admired the way its golden-capped towers reached up to the heavens. Its magnificence could only be fully appreciated from the air. Perhaps the builders had thought of that, intending only God to have the best view.
At the first stop across the bridge, the men at the front rushed off. There was a commotion on the street as the tram continued rolling alongside the river. More people than usual were lining up at the shops.
“Oh no,” Aelya said. “Do you have the pirozhki?”
“Did you think they’d fit into my handbag? I thought you were bringing them.”
The tram lurched to a halt to make way for a cluster of people heedlessly crossing the street as the driver cursed at them.
“It would have been just as easy for you to carry them as for me,” Aelya muttered. “Except I had to fly an airplane. Molotov University will be humbled by your genius.”
“Oh, don’t get in huff. You could have stashed them in your ready room.” Vasya strained to look past the passengers on the other side. “Let’s get off at the next stop and head back across to the bazaar.”
Aelya gathered her bearings. Two couples taking Sunday strolls alongside the river had stopped to talk. It didn’t seem to be a happy conversation. Through the opposite window, she saw a group gathered around a radio set up in the doorway of an apartment block.
Vasya said, “Since it was supposed to be your job, we’re getting the apple pirozhki.”
“Ugh. Come on. Half apricot.”
They got up and pushed their way toward the doors. Out on the street, more people were gathering in crowds. Other passengers craned their necks to see what was going on.
The tram came to the next stop. A man rushed up the vehicle’s front stairs. He shouted two words that jolted everyone to attention.
This preview of Sparrow Squadron continues in Chapter 2.
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