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Chapter 1: The Assignation
Fading traceries of dogfights spread across the sky, a monument to the transitory. The smoky remnants of men and planes were smeared upon the wind like ephemeral runes of an Animist prayer: loops and half-circles, cross hatchings of tracer bullets, and thick spirals corkscrewing down to the ground.
Captain Hollister Congrieve had been forced to linger in No Man’s Land for more than an hour, prisoner to an appointment with Orville Wootin. Gravity impaled him upon the ground which he detested because it wasn’t sky. The distant cannons tossed their percussive rainbows, sending shells arching across the air to land in a shower of golden fire. The hated ground shook as if beset with gargantuan epilepsy.
In the waning days of 1917, even soldiers of Congrieve’s caliber consorted with spies. Their assignations lent a spirit of romance to the business of war which was otherwise becoming mechanical and banal. There were too many commanders who believed that victory would only come to those who never retreat, and their stubborn bravery denigrated the ground war, making its very name suggest the grinding of sausage. Gatling guns had replaced sabers; cannons had replaced catapults, and raptors of canvas had replaced noble steeds. But espionage had not varied from its time honored rituals of codes, masks, lies, and throats slit in the night. The spies renewed the war’s spirit the way a judicious confabulation or occasional adultery might revive a plodding marriage.
Congrieve rested against a petrified tree. He kicked at an ancient but still living vine whose immeasurable length wound through the eye sockets of countless skulls, fallen in these fields over many generations; former comrades and their enemies and their sons and grandsons and great grandsons now strung together at the base of the tree like a necklace of pearls.
Out of the tail of his eye, Congrieve caught sight of a woman seated in a distant corner of the bar. Her skin shone through the smoke, for it was luminous with whiteness like the surface of the moon. She had the achromatic look of an albino, except for her hair which defied depigmentation with its blood red hue. Long and lustrous, it poured past her shoulders as if from a lacerated scalp. At first, her eyes were closed. Her white lids gave her the look of a corpse with its pupils rolled back into its sockets.
But then she opened her eyes.
With her eyes open, she looked even more terrifying.
The sclera of her eyes had the same blood red hue as her hair. The irises were not visible. Her pupils looked like bleeding puncture wounds.
With dreadfully red lips, she smiled at the men around her, and drew smoke with kissing gestures through a long black cigarette holder. The men in the bar seemed not to mind her terrible eyes, just as she seemed not to mind their scars and stumps. She dressed in tight fitting black chamois cut to display the fullness of her breasts, but also far too much of their hideous whiteness. She presented with a wanton air, but there was something haughty about her, too. She held herself with a military posture. Her movements suggested discipline. Despite her apparent easy manner and her casual familiarity with all the men, something made her seem detached from life, a cold object beyond morals. It was a quality even more foreboding than her horrible coloring.
It felt good to stab at Bainbride, to see the bullets draw blood and rend spruce. Weaving among the writhing icy tendrils, the Fokker found refuge under frozen eaves and awnings. Congrieve’s bullets and tracers roused crystal sparks as they ricocheted off the ice.
They fought through twists and razor portals. Aureoles dazzled amid the shining stalactite daggers.
They careened into a chasm of infinite area. The sky stretched forever, as did the battlefield, but Congrieve was beginning to understand the turbulence of this place. Sometimes the sky was above, and sometimes it was below. And sometimes the sky and ground bisected one another, and sometimes they warped into coils that appeared to be tunnels.
The Fokker slashed upward in a magnificent chandelle. It loomed just beyond the reach of the Vicker’s fiery lashings.
Congrieve kicked the rudder, and arced the nose of his Spad to almost pure vertical, to give chase. Higher and higher he climbed.
The Spad’s Hisso choked. Dead stall. Suddenly, a whirlpool of frigid blues engulfed his vision. He was spinning.
Congrieve shoved the Spad hard into a curling glide. The propeller spun sluggishly. His wings were tipsy. He gunned the throttle. The Hisso rumbled and gurgled, but then it caught. The pride of pistons resumed their coordinated growling. Bainbride had surged out of range. Still, Congrieve pursued the glowing Tripe through the gauntlet of razor edged prisms.
Congrieve punished the Spad for speed, and felt the engine breaking its own heart with a headlong assault into full throttle until he once again had the Fokker in his crosshairs.
The General dipped and turned, then he came around.
The two planes faced each other. It was, after all, a duel.
Oil continued to drip from Congrieve’s engine. It now contained almost as much red as it did black. Here and there, his linens rippled with tiny shivers.
Congrieve knew the Spad had little life left in it, and he likewise.
And Bainbride as well.
They charged straight on, guns erupting.
At the last minute, they swerved.
They paced out and turned to confront one another again.
Another headlong charge.
They ripped at each other. They stabbed. There was a wild outpouring of blood and oil and splinters and rags from both planes. This final approach was more cock than dog fight.
–From Drones of the Ravaging Wind, the June, 1935 issue of the Twilight Patrol.