From the author: This is NOT alternate history.
Katya-Otlichnitsa had her own preflight checklist. Fuel: Full. Check. Controls: Responsive. Check. Anger: a bracing cold breeze in her face, not enough to blind, nor distract. Check. Hate: a frozen sliver. Next to her heart, not through it. Check.
At her command, mechanics stepped away from the propeller. She turned ignition on and thumbed the starter button. The engine coughed, belched smoke, caught with a rattle. Prop wash reached around her windshield into the open cockpit, tugged at a flyaway strand of hair. Katya tucked it under her flight helmet. She listened to the engine for a few seconds, then gunned it.
The Kukuruznik jumped, then settled down. Katya released the brakes. The plane leaped ahead; the twilit meadow wide open ahead of it, no one could tell where taxiing ended and the takeoff run began, but in scant minutes the U-2 disappeared into the sunset, its engine's rattle dying down soon after, the smell of its exhaust the last to dissipate.
Katya-Otlichnitsa knew better than to trust magnetic compass this close to Donetsk. She flew due west above the vast steppes, spring grass and wildflowers over seams of coal and veins of magnetite ore, rusting tanks, slag heaps, burned-out towns. Before the sun’s last ember extinguished she found Ursa Minor framed between the starboard wing struts and turned slightly to keep Polaris as close as possible to the rear landing wire. Flying as low and as slow as she dared with four hundred kilograms of bombs, she ran her gaze over her instruments: oil temperature, green; fuel, adequate; airspeed, just above stall; angle of incidence, five degrees up, wings level. She spared no time for the useless compass, or the altimeter, pegged at zero. She was Katya-Otlichnitsa, Katya the Perfectionist, and in the air she had nothing to fear. She was the best of the Night Witches, the only one allowed to fly alone, taking an extra hundred kilos of bombs instead of a navigator and a parachute.
The thought took no more time than she had needed to turn her eyes from instruments to the darkness outside, and yet it wrenched from Katya a frown of annoyance. She was Katya the Perfectionist, and she did not put up with idle distractions. She looked down, leaning out from the open cockpit of the Kukuruznik.
The darkness deepened; shadows lengthened until they consumed the steppe below, robbing Katya of sense of altitude. She reached for her flashlight. It pointed down, fixed beneath the rudimentary “Turnip” bombsight. She thumbed the light switch; a circle of of light appeared on the ground. It was faint enough to indicate a good ten meters of clearance under the chassis. The light might make her visible at a hundred meters or more, the racket of the radial engine carried perhaps three times as far, but neither would give away her approach to the target. She'd disconnect the torch before she climbed for her attack, and chop the engine before making the bomb run. Night Witches struck without warning.
So did the Partisans. On the horizon, a fireball erupted, rose momentarily before dimming. Smaller flashes lit up the cloud that took its place. Katya corrected her bearing without a thought. She aimed just north of the explosion, and took note of the time.
The first rumble reached her twenty-seven seconds later. Her own cruising speed less than a tenth the speed of sound, that made it just over five minutes to the turning point, a burning German train beneath a wrecked bridge over the Donets. The train had been on time, and Partisans kept the assignation.
Far be it from me, thought Katya the Perfectionist, to fault the Fascists for being punctual.
She turned her light off and began her climbing turn to starboard when she could see people running past the fire, silhouetted against the glow, a half-kilometer or so away. She left it until nearly too late: seconds later she heard two split snaps, 'taback, kaback', and felt her airplane shudder, a tiny roll to port. She turned to look, and saw four holes: two matching pairs in each port middle bay, top and bottom plane. Streaks of fire went down and forward past her aircraft, each successively farther left.
Tracers, angling down and forward. A night fighter above her and to the rear, come lately to the dance to see what mayflies the fire drew.
Without a thought, she pulled the stick back and her throttle to idle, stomping on the left rudder pedal. Wings groaned as they bled airspeed and lift; the U-2 dropped tail first and left wing down in a sudden stall. Another swarm of tracers flew past, far in front, as somewhere a German pilot cursed his sleek fast fighter that could not stay with "Rus-Faner", the Russian piece of plywood, the “Coffee Grinder”, the “Sewing Machine”, the “Corn Clipper”, the Polikarpov-built antique that struggled to reach Messerschmidt's stall speed and turned inside a Heinkel wingspan and, when bombing a latrine, could choose which stall to hit. She shoved the stick forward and throttle to full, keeping her foot on the left rudder, and recovered into a diving turn that soon had her level out on a reciprocal course. She lost, in all, perhaps fifty meters of altitude, a minute of flying time, and the Luftwaffe fighter.
She turned to port when the glow was far behind her. It would be harder to find the railroad, farther from the burning train, but also impossible for the night fighter to reacquire her. She was Katya the Perfectionist, and she would win.
Once again, she headed due east, keeping her eyes mainly to the south, keeping the fire on the horizon off her starboard wing until its orange glare extended for a moment into a streak pointed straight at her.
The railroad, its iron polished by wheels, reflected the flames for only a moment, but that was enough. She relit her torch, descending again to ten meters. She found the rails by the telltale reflected flash, banked to a reciprocal heading, and sideslipped until she saw the rails blur in the propwash.
She saw the train much earlier than she expected. It approached head-on, its speed nearly matching Katya's. She had expected it to stop wherever it was when its crew learned of the bridge's destruction, but if it carried repair supplies it would continue.
No matter. Katya shut off her torch, advanced the throttle, climbed above the rail bed, and cut off the ignition.
The engine died. The silence was complete for a few seconds, but then her ears adjusted, and she heard whistles: a whisper from the wires to starboard, a shriek from bullet holes to port. The glide slope was steeper for the bomb-laden plane but she had compensated for that, and for the train's own movement. The column of smoke from the locomotive blew straight at her, its odor drier, dustier than her own plane’s gas fumes; she corrected for the headwind by waiting a fraction of a heartbeat longer --
She hit the bomb release and pulled the stick back to level out of the dive, anticipating the change in trim as her plane lightened. Part of her mind followed the twenty-kilo charges into the locomotive and the caboose. She could not see them beneath the belly of the plane, but she knew they'd fly true. She was Katya the Perfectionist. She never missed.
"Take that!" she muttered to herself, but her next words, heard by no one else, startled her. It should have been, "Take that, Fritz!" or "Take that, fascist swine!"
Why was it, "Take that, Anya?"
The steppe flashed yellow, once, twice, too many times to count. Explosions shook the plane, shock waves buffeted the wings and tail, rattled her teeth, blurred her vision. One blast sounded deeper than the others, and seemed to go on longer.
The boiler, had to be, burst by a square hit on the steam engine.
She restarted her engine and climbed at full power; whoever watched below would be deafened by the bombs. If anyone saw her it was by the light of secondary fires, and she needed to depart, and quickly.
As if in answer to her thoughts, a bullet snapped through her plane's front seat: where her navigator should have been. Where Anya had been, her first flight out.
The regimental Komissar did not look kindly upon Katya’s request to fly without a parachute and a navigator. She relented after taking a flight with her. "Katya never flies above a hundred meters," the Komissar reported to the Major, "and never asks for a heading or a map check. A parachute would help her not at all in such flight envelopes, and a navigator would be put at risk without contributing to the mission."
The Major agreed, and signed her name to the regimental order granting Katya an exemption. Since April, Katya flew alone. She was alone much of the rest of the time, too.
Surely she could not hate Anya worse than she hated Germans. Germans invaded her land, her sacred Russian land. They slaughtered her people. Not her family; her parents and younger sisters were safe in Siberia, thanks to the Peoples’ Leader. Comrade Stalin always did what was right. When her grandfather was shot and her parents exiled, it was in a great cause: to make her country strong enough to stop the Fascist hordes; to place her, Katya the Perfectionist, where she could use her talents to save her Motherland. Of course she loved Comrade Stalin, and hated Germans. Her feelings were strong, and patriotic, and yet, she was ashamed to admit, since she never met Iosif Vissarionovich, or saw any Germans who were not fly-covered corpses, her feelings were somewhat – theoretic. Impersonal, perhaps, would be a better word. Anya, though...
Katya shook off the thoughts and turned back to the train. She did not carry enough bombs to destroy the whole train, that was for the Shturmoviki and Peshki who would swoop down at daybreak, but there was one thing more she could do before she turned for home.
She turned her flashlight on, and started a shallow power dive.
She could ignore the small, scattered sparks that erupted from several cars, looking for the steady blink of a machine gun, and sure enough, it came, twin Spandaus flickering like dragon’s eyes, and she corrected her course and attitude, closed her right eye and triggered the rockets.
Six PC-82's shrieked off their rails, their exhausts blinding her open left eye. She opened her right in time to see the explosions: one, uselessly, in the steppe, two on a neighboring flatcar, and the rest flew true into the antiaircraft position. One less hazard for the day bombers.
She turned toward the river.
Ten meters beneath, in moonless darkness, stars' reflections jumped about the Donets waves. She followed the river south, advancing the throttle as she came closer to Lugansk. She'd have to depart he river valley before she reached the city, surely crawling with machine guns and spotlights.
Katya aimed for a gap between two hills. She could not see it, but she'd memorized the map. She turned right when the river turned left, certain she’d go through safely. She was, after all, Katya the Perfectionist. Nothing but fives in school, classwork, homework, or conduct. When she enlisted, straight out of tenth grade, she was sure they'd send her to interpreters school. Nothing but fives in German, since fourth grade. She really should hate Sveta, of all people, Sveta who was either asleep at the barracks, or on duty. Sveta whose voice could make melodic purrs from harsh Teutonic syllables, to say nothing of the Russian she directed, along with glances from her luminous green eyes, at those strong, polite, lonely Intelligence officers. Or Masha, the radio operator. No one filled a uniform tunic better. Katya could have been a radio operator. If she had to talk all day, surely she'd find something she could say to a man, off duty.
What could she possibly have against Anya? That first mission – it went quite well. Except... It should not have mattered. Near the end, approaching home with empty racks and low on fuel, they saw tiny glowing sparks in a Soviet forward trench. "Navigator's plane," said Anya and took the forward controls. Katya raised her hands and tapped Anya's shoulders to show she understood.
Anya curled in a slow climbing turn, chopped the engine, and glided toward the trench. When they could see not only the lit cigarettes but the soldiers' faces as well, she opened up. Not with a gun; with words.
Katya had heard such words before, but never from a woman, certainly not in a high, piping, girlish voice. Anya called them uncensorable names, accused them of unmentionable acts that made their brains rot in what passed for their heads, accused them of inviting Germans into their foxhole (which, with the cigarettes lit, they'd have no trouble finding) to slice off most of the unutterable parts of their bodies they had not previously lost through their unprintable stupidity.
Through the whisper of their glide they heard the soldiers' startled curses, and saw their cigarettes extinguish.
"Pilot's plane," said Anya, leaving it to Katya to restart the engine.
Katya shook away the vision. She was Katya the Perfectionist, and this was no time for reminiscences. Her home field had to be near; she could not see the anything but forest and meadow, but some of what looked like haystacks were planes under "maskirovka", and potted bushes broke up the outline of the landing strip.
Katya flew in a wide circle at full power. No German engine sounded like an M-11; nothing that flew, that is: there were, perhaps, motorcycles or racing cars powered with an unmuffled, aircooled five-cylinder engine, but no one could imagine a warplane that made do with a hundred horsepower.
She saw small lights move below: the ground personnel brought out the kerosene lamps to mark her approach. She banked toward the flickering string and idled her engine for the final descent.
I hate her, Katya thought, because she is almost like me. She is short, skinny, flat-chested, with mousy hair and muddy brown eyes, her teeth are crooked like mine, but where I keep my mouth shut, hers is never without a quip or a smile, her eyes stare straight into the eyes of officers a head or more taller, and sparkle, and invite; and when 'at ease', she keeps her shoulders back, her epaulettes level, not slumped, like mine.
I hate her because she has courage, and I do not. I'm Katya the Perfectionist who never risked an argument or a rebuke, or any grade lower than a five, especially for conduct. I'm Katya the teacher's pet, Katya of the neat bows on immaculate braids, Katya of the neatly pressed red Pioneer ties in school, all homeworks on time in perfect penmanship, all compositions peppered with proper Party slogans, all patriotic sentiments eloquently expressed. I hate her because I’m a coward.
The wheels touched down with the merest bump; the plane rolled to a stop. Mikhaylich, the mechanic, ran forward with the ladder.
"How was the mission?" he shouted, his eyes seeking hers.
"Routine," she said, her eyes on the bottommost step of the ladder.
This story originally appeared in Tales of Old Podcast.