Dragons and Coal Cinders
They teach us in school that wandering alone at night isn't a smart idea for many good reasons. They hadn't mentioned this one.
Standing in the dark at midnight in front of wrought iron cemetery gates probably wasn't a common event for the young tourist in Dundee. The old-world cemetery was like many others in Scotland; a high stone wall separated graves and tombs from the noise and activities of the living.
During the daytime, the view between the black bars of the street gate into the graveyard was pleasant, even picturesque. Aging trees threw a canopy of brown over the uneven rows of worn headstones. Green moss climbed the old stones, imparting its own touch of living beauty in death. Humanity could find, under the sun and inside the walled cemetery, a peaceful refuge. Yet coming back at night, the flowerless cemetery felt cold and disturbing. The arched, columned gate entrance that looked splendid and full of character during the afternoon now felt strangely foreboding.
Stamping my feet on the cobblestone street to ward off the April cold, I wondered why I'd returned to visit the dead in the middle of the night. It was my mother who loved genealogy, going through old records and visiting churches in a treasure hunt to check baptismal and marriage records to further her research on relatives. Where was this Needham or that Green buried? She loved gathering information, the hunt, the adventure into the past. We had visited this church during the day to follow up on one of her leads, and now I am back. The broad street was without light, and the double gates of iron could not hold back the pitch blackness of the cemetery. Only the full moon and the three aligned planets in the sky offered illumination.
I had been restless in an unfamiliar bed, and had left the inn to take in the night air. The Daily Mail had reported that Venus, Jupiter and Mars, in a rare grouping, could be seen together in the sky this week. A compelling impulse had called me to view the planetary conjunction from the cemetery away from the town's lights. We were vacationing with no real time constraints--a carefree feeling leading me to something impetuous. It struck my fancy to be able to say that I saw the unusual celestial event in Scotland, and then use it as a pick-up line with attractive women.
A feminine voice called my name in a seductive whisper from among the dark trees. "William, come to me."
I laughed out loud, mumbling, "It's only the wind. My mind is playing tricks."
With some effort accompanied by much groaning from the old hinges, I pushed one of the gates open and entered the cemetery. The short cobblestone driveway lacked any protective covering. A break among the trees opened a view of the sky, granting me the vista I'd come to see. At the other end of the graveyard, something reflected a wisp of a flame, perhaps a lighter. "Another mind trick," I said aloud to boost my sagging confidence.
As I walked along the driveway a few paces, a freshened breeze swayed the tree canopy. My eyes wandered over the cold sky, fascinated by the clear view of the full moon and bright planets. The loveliness of the heavens stilled my wandering for a few minutes. Unconsciously, I tried to stamp the cold out of my tennis shoes and then rubbed warmth into my hands.
"This is worth a midnight walk," I announced, noticing the vapor of my breath was thicker than it should be.
Suddenly a sense of wrongness fell upon me like a smothering blanket.
The stone church and surrounding walls stood guard over the hallowed ground, but my new awareness of the peculiar scene increased my discomfort. Tingling goose bumps caused a shivering, and the hairs at the base of my neck flickered up to my skull. A wisp of light danced in the blackness like a firefly, not twenty feet from me. A shimmering fog froze me in place. The thickening air made it harder to breathe. Before I fully processed more of the unnatural whispers of the wind trapped in the branches, I was driven to my knees. The distant sky exploded in brilliant colors.
"Soul mate, come to me," the trees called. I felt faint.
"What is happening to me?" I groaned out, shuddering in the intense cold.
My arms went limp while I swayed upright.
An apparition of a beautiful, naked woman shimmered in front of me, painting a smile on my face and igniting a myriad of sensual wishes. Time seemed to stop as her softness merged with me.
"What a way to go," I thought, falling forward.
The light shadows of the world went dark.
The clanking of an engine and the smell of oil woke me to a confusing sight. Wisps of clouds close enough to touch and the intense, low morning sun stung my eyes. I sat perpendicular to the world in an open cockpit with a man screaming into my leather helmet.
"Bloody hell, wake up, Jack! Your fits are going to kill us."
"Bloody hell, wake up, Jack! Your fits are going to kill us."
My bewilderment was complete. With an engine struggling for more power, I realized my plane was in a stall and I was the pilot. The immediate needs for improvisation and self-preservation had compelled my hands to grab the stick between my knees. The biplane continued its a left turning spin with its nose down to the ground. Hundreds of hours of training doused any rising panic. I guided the stick to a full opposite-rudder to the right, against the direction of the spin; we recovered into a straight dive. The early morning rays of light cast cloud shadows below us on a lush green landscape.
"A ghastly experience, but smart flying," a male voice with an educated accent shouted into my headphones. "Few survive a spin; we should be dead. What a frisky adventure. The captain might even forgive you if you tell him how you did it. Although, I dare say my wife doesn't need to hear of it."
Cold air whipped across my bare cheeks as I straightened us out of the unintended dive. A strange, wool scarf flapped around my neck. Nothing about my attire was familiar. The ancient altimeter said we were at 8,000 feet. Three planets were aligned, low on the horizon.
"Who's there?" I asked in the old fashioned microphone dangling in front of my face. "This is a dream, right?"
"What? Have you cracked up, Jack? It's Alfred, I am sitting directly behind you."
The sting of the cool air and the smell of the machine persuaded me it was no dream. My cockpit was tight-fitting and the equipment gauges antiquated. A spinning, wooden propeller, and an unpainted engine cowling of dull metal with a single, Vickers machine gun on it, convinced me this was a World War One airplane. Our yellow wings were made of canvas, and baling wire supported and connected the bi-wings. I cranked my neck around, and sure enough, a man waved at me from an observation seat, which had a Lewis gun pointed up in the air, facing backward. The fuselage was green and the tail had the familiar red, white and blue insignia of England. Yet, the headset didn't fit with the technology of the times.
"Alfred?" I asked, feeling confused and wiping my goggles.
"2nd Lieutenant, Alfred Radford, Royal Flying Corps," he answered, clearly upset. "I am not covering for your fits and chest pains anymore. This high altitude does your constitution no good. One minute you pass out and almost kill us, and the next you don't remember who your best friend is! Jack Green, I have to think of Mavis, she is too young to become a widow."
"Calm down, I'm fine. Just give me a minute to get my bearings."
"Look, catch up with the rest of the flight. The captain will probably ground you when we return to the aerodrome from the reconnaissance and dirigible exercise, anyway," Alfred responded in my headset.
Sure enough, above and behind us was a formation of five similar biplanes with fixed, wheeled undercarriages, perhaps a thousand feet above us. The other planes were green with yellow noses. I started to climb our craft at 86 m.p.h. without further comment. Alfred held his tongue, so I took stock of my plight.
I felt like I was a bold and adventurous man, but flying in a flimsy structure of wood, bracing wires and canvas is crazy. During this period, cataclysmic failures were known to happen to blameless pilots, because airplanes were fragile and inevitably had mechanical issues. It didn't help that pioneering aviators knew little of the fundamentals of flying. For novices it was the seat-of-the-pants approach. Flying a cloth-covered fuselage against machine guns isn't what flying is about to me.
Thinking things through, I vigilantly surveyed the sky around us for enemy aircraft. "Who knows where we are? Flying over France near the trenches?" I thought, fearfully. "The Fokker and Albatross are a deadly foe against two-seaters."
"What am I flying in? It's not as if there's an identifying label on this plane." I mumbled to myself.
"What, Jack?" Alfred asked.
"Thought, I saw something in the sun," I lied.
"Right." I looked over my shoulder and watched him check over his weapon, and then take it in hand. The Lewis swung around and Alfred began scanning the skies for opponents.
I felt bad about making things up, but I didn't dare ask my observer what year it was or where we were. He would make sure I was committed to an asylum. He was already going to ask an assortment of questions I couldn't answer when we landed. No, I couldn't tell him "My name is William Needham, not Jack Green; and by the way, I come from Iowa. You see I am a crop dusting pilot on vacation. A bolt of light in the form of a woman took me back in time and I am now in a stranger's body."
I am a terrible liar. It's best to keep my mouth shut.
Our plane was underpowered and it took an eternity to reunite with the rest of the flight. Having played hundreds of hours online in a multiplayer environment with World War One aircraft helped me appreciate differences in the airplanes. I hated flying a two-seater in games; they were slower than single-seater fighters and less maneuverable. Sure, the rear gunner was useful in certain situations, but the plane wasn't very sexy. Given time I'd remember the make and model of our plane.
We slid in to place at the end of the "V" formation at 9,100 feet. In the nearest biplane a man with a mustache shook his fist at me. His observer smiled at me, his Lewis gun hung on its mount unattended. I shrugged my shoulders, ignoring the pilot, going back to scanning the sky for potential German aircraft. It pleased me to see the ground had no trenches, nor anti-aircraft bursts of black smoke. My nerves were tight enough, not having to worry about flying over enemy territory was a bit of a relief. Since Alfred took my sun threat seriously, I decide to stay focused on scanning below and above us as something continued to worry him. Over the next twenty minutes our flight slowly lost altitude, and I felt more comfortable flying our aircraft.
I could see the coast ahead of us and a seaside town, which cheered me up. We were nowhere near the trench fighting of western Europe. Our flight leader started to descend. We followed him, maintaining our separation as we entered a small group of clouds. It was rather odd to see a bunch of two-seaters bounce around together in close formation. In my time, this sort of thing only happened at airshows because of federal regulations.
Below us, rolling farms and green trees showed an abundance of beauty, with sheep roaming the hillsides. Occasionally, we saw smoke drifting up out of chimneys as we flew over tiny hamlets. It was early morning and the farmers were in their fields, some in contraptions I didn't recognize, others were working with horses. As the flight approached a coastal town of some size, I noted a large cigar-shaped balloon was near the harbor about a mile ahead. A low cloud bank hung over the sea, blowing inland.
"The captain wants a low fly-over of Dundee to wag our wings and give the population something to cheer about before wyvern season," Alfred said. "The dirigible is our marker to turn and fly to Arbroath Abbey. This is William's first time leading a flight, so I expect him to run us around Dundee for a bit. He'll want to return to Montrose knowing we'll be the talk of the town, and then puff out his chest to the captain. These Bristols are modern wonders. I don't mind showing them off for the RFC."
"Scotland," I thought, laughing out loud. "We're safe."
"I don't have to tell you to watch for the signal and to follow in pairs, do I?"
"Certainly not, 2nd Lieutenant," I bark, feeling deeply relieved at the simplicity of our exercise and pleased to put him in his place.
We stayed in formation and dropped thru 2,000 feet in a gentle dive, half a mile from the coast. In a few places, I could see a layer of mist still covering the hollows of the countryside to about 100 feet. I stamped my feet to get the circulation going, this wasn't like crop dusting in a sealed cockpit with environmental controls to keep out the chemicals. I messed around with my riding boots pinching my ankles; they really needed to be bigger and fur-lined. My gloves were fur-lined and so was the flying jacket. "Why didn't Jack spring for better boots," I thought.
I looked around our flight, trying to keep my thoughts in the here and now until we landed. Our formation continued to drop lower towards the town. The very location my mother and I had stopped to rest, after getting off the motorway. Dundee is located on the east coast of the central Lowlands of Scotland. The town was smaller than its present day size, but perhaps more beautiful and certainly more rustic.
A shadow crossed over us, and I turned my head reflexively to see which plane had moved out of formation. A scaled flank flashed a rust-colored gleam as the sun shone on it, accompanying wings sweeping in graceful beats. My mind shifted to neutral, and questioning thoughts ricocheted around for a moment. A tail whipped down crushing a plane's rudder and flight controls. The creature's long neck arched, shimmering elegantly. Two powerful arms raked the fuselage next to the observer and green spit splattered the man before he could reach for his Lewis gun.
A voice inside my head screamed, "Bank!" I did, letting our craft slide into a dive, while looking over my shoulder.
A monster diving on us filled my view, as its wings swept in graceful beats to increase speed. An expectant mouth full of teeth smiled at us smugly, and the creature's two long arms extended with black talons the size of my arms. The spiky, encrusted head and flat nose snout looked every inch a dragon.
"I thought a dragon would be bigger and have hind legs," I mumbled.
A horrific smashing sound washed over us as another plane from our flight collided with a flying monster. Alfred unleashed a stream of bullets from his Lewis gun, to a point behind us. Almost instantly, a dreadful screech came from the creature only feet away.
I tightened our diving turn trying to avoid a disastrous collision, which allowed me to watch our pursuing dragon power-dive to the earth with a wing shredded by Alfred's machine gun. It was totally out-of-control, screeching its hatred at us.
"Blessed Jesus, I got him," Alfred hollered in my headset.
Another plane began to spin downward like a crippled pigeon and it promptly vanished from sight. We buzzed a church tower and I pulled up, fighting for altitude to maneuver. The town's streets were full of life. Horse drawn carriages raced to safety, some looked nearly out of control. In that moment, my brain burned every image into my consciousness; the position of each monster filled in like data points on a spreadsheet; the distance to the harbor dirigible; the parishioners running outside of the church. At an intersection, an old steam tractor lumbered with the cart it was pulling, full of lumber and adolescents who were pointing at the sky.
Our flight path took us over the harbor, well above the masts of idle ships and away from the dirigible attached to a pyramid-shaped tower of metal. I curved us inland, veering northeast, willing our plane to catch more air and climb faster. Our engine sputtered and coughed, throwing my attention to the fuel mixture, so I coached the throttle. I fed the motor more gas that roused it from its laboring resistance. The uncomfortable shoulder straps tormented me with each jink of the plane, as I tried to throw off another creature's approach. I looked over my shoulder and saw Alfred light off another short burst from his Lewis gun. Above Dundee the last remaining companion of our flight spun out of control with its wing torn off.
"Five Sea-Wyverns are still left in that clutch," Alfred reported, hyperventilating.
"Never tell me the odds!" I laughed at the absurdity and enormity of reciting Star Wars quotes while fighting for our lives.
Four of the five flying creatures were together over the town doing a victory circle; the fifth wyvern looked bigger than the rest. It aborted its dive on us as we veered back over land, flapping for all its worth as it struggled to gain altitude for another try. The big wyvern looked like it could outclimb our two-seater, the way it was so quickly moving higher. It roared at our escape--or perhaps it was summoning the other wyverns, which turned smartly and started after us too.
"Alfred, I am going to follow the road using the nape of the earth. If we try to climb out they'll close in, making short work of us. Watch our back."
Alfred snorted into the microphone. "That's why I'm back here."
"Let's keep Mavis happy," I quipped.
Alfred laughed again. "You're actually enjoying this!"
By using the geographical features as cover, exploiting small valleys and folds in the terrain by flying in, rather than over them, we held to 100 m.p.h and opened a little distance from the clutch. We zoomed over various strange farm vehicles on the road that belched out black smoke from oversized exhaust stacks, barely missing trees over the crest of the hills that I couldn't see until it was almost too late. Detaching my mind from everything but the next obstacle, we barnstormed house after house along the country road. Gray-stone farmhouses, grassy hills, twisting creeks and heather summits no longer held the same charms they did when my mother and I motored to Dundee.
"You can't keep this up, Jack. Get us some altitude until they get into range of my guns," Alfred pleaded, after five minutes of screaming his head off.
It was ludicrous to imagine that I would avoid every treacherous obstruction, so I began climbing in earnest. A glob of oil hit my nose while I focused on closing distance between the big wyvern and us. I suspected a valve seal on the engine was having an untimely defection from our cause and was leaking. There wasn't an engine temperature gauge; no safety features at all that offered notifications concerning our engine's real condition. The stench of the hot oil smelled yet stronger in the cockpit. We clawed our way to 1,200 feet but the strain on the engine rattled through my seat.
After a few minutes, through clenched teeth I announced the engine was getting rougher. Alfred didn't respond.
"I think we are losing oil somewhere, Alfred."
"Don't tell me. Wait until we return, and yell at our mechanic. It's not like he doesn't expect you to berate him every time you land."
"Am I really that bad?"
"Jack, I love you like a brother but you're an arsehole to him ... and while I admire your willingness to discuss your temper, this isn't the time."
Alfred fired his Lewis machine gun, toiling to get a hit on the big wyvern that still seemed out of range to me. The sharp menacing noise of the gun sounded like a woodpecker, repetitive and swift. If he was hitting the creature it was staying quiet.
"Perhaps the bullets can't penetrate his hide from long range, Alfred. How are you for ammunition?"
Alfred didn't respond right away. I craned my neck long enough to see he was examining the magazine on top of the weapon.
"I've been a little extravagant, Jack."
It was not unexpected, but was still a disagreeable answer. I was afraid the potential embarrassment would unnerve him, so I said, "It can't be helped. I'll have a go at him."
"Don't go all bull in a china shop, when we are still ahead of him," a sharp retort informed me.
I had an inkling Jack wasn't keen on slowing down. The problem was my airspeed was falling off a few miles-per-hour. The sun was out and there weren't any clouds ahead to offer cover.
"I don't want to maintain a false hope, but if we make it to Arbroath, the dirigible stationed there can support us," Alfred said. "They are expecting us for the exercise, so their captain will have all his crew turned out."
I felt marginally happier at his statement. "How much further do you think?"
"The entire distance between the towns is only fifteen miles," Alfred offered.
"We'll we didn't exactly take the coastal road," I replied.
"There is that," Alfred answered, managing to sound calm. "It's a dangerous game, but we have to make for it. Go east, we're over Kirkbuddo. I recognize the Roman camp ruins."
Briefly considering the ramifications, I kept up the banter to elevate our spirits, blurting out, "We'll make quite a stir when we arrive with the clutch."
The coast remained in sight, so I banked slightly to target the town up ahead. Alfred's gun clattered in a very short burst making the wyvern roar.
"Just keeping the male honest," Alfred explained. "He's dropping back a bit. There is the Arbroath and Montrose Railway; follow it south."
A look up confirmed the other smaller wyverns were flying high cover; and that meant they could dive on us at any time. Of course, if they missed they'd be left behind for a time, because were unlikely to attempt to climb again. If they had been online fighter pilots from my game, I'd compliment them on their pursuit advantage. Our respective positions being what they were, and the fact they were blood thirsty monsters, I wasn't about to express such a compliment.
"I am sure the residents of Dundee are mighty pleased that we drew off this clutch, which was smart thinking, Jack. Once their blood lust is up, after losing a member of their troop, they won't stop their pursuit."
He knew how to cheer a guy up. My only plan was to remove us from danger.
"It's a shame that dirigible crew was asleep at the switch. Having six twin-Vickers at our back, this would have been over already," Alfred rambled. "We're going to have words with that lot. Dundee would be full of carnage if it wasn't for us."
"No chance they will get tired, I suppose," I probed, trying to understand how the monsters had the energy to chase us at these speeds.
"Good man. Glad to see your memories are back. You had me worried for a minute. Dragon magic, you see. Nothing for it, have to kill them now."
It was incredible that we were still alive. If I'd had any idea where the aerodrome was when we were in Dundee, I'd have made straight for it and let them worry about dragon magic. However, not knowing anything until it was too late, posed a problem. I cursed myself, adventuring out of my bed just to view the night sky.
Alfred shattered my lament with a full-blooded shout. "Here one comes!"
Sure enough a wyvern started a shallow dive on us. A quarter mile ahead was a small coastal town and ruined abbey, quite large ruins on a hilltop. A dirigible was above the harbor, smoke seemed to be coming out of it.
"You watch. The male is going to be a nuisance, trying get my attention, so his mate can rip off an aileron and rudder," Alfred declared.