12. The struggle continues - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Joe cursed under his breath. They had not the resources to spare for mistakes, and he and Red should have made more of that fortuitous cloud bank.
They had had the advantage of clearer sight over the enemy in the murk - Dex had ensured that. And surprise, too. Yet they had downed only one of the foe - besides, admittedly, the one slain in his careless gloating by Red earlier.
To give Shuttleworth’s airship time to get into position, and Dex a chance to disarm the weapon, they needed to take out the remaining four escorting birds in the next ten minutes at the absolute outside, but the skies were now clear all the way to Balmoral, and they had lost the advantage of surprise.
And they were still outnumbered two to one.
Still. Spilt milk. No point repining.
Joe swung in, fast and low. The bulk of the airship gave him a little cover; on the other side Red, well-disciplined, mirrored his manoeuvre. The enemy swarmed out, and he knew the fierce surge in his blood and the leaping of his heart as he entered his native element. The guns spoke beneath his hands, and the Warhawk answered to his thought, and he exulted in the conflict even as the cold calculating part of his mind assessed the odds, and found the answer to his sums unfriendly.
For they were good, the enemy: three of them had converged upon him even as the white ‘plane which had led the formation - the one with the bluntly aggressive stubby, swept back wings, the hallmark of one of the newer Continental designers - had taken on Red and was plainly proving as much as he could handle.
Three aces on one were about as much as Joe thought he could handle, too. He carved a path outwards and away, the other aces on his tail. If only he could take the battle away from the vicinity of the airship and let Dex’s team edge a little closer in their own blimp - not that they could chance the interception until all the aces were accounted for. But if he -
The Warhawk climbed; steeply, unexpectedly and to the confusion of her foes. At the apex Joe flipped her over on her back, round and back and up and back again in a fast, flattened figure of eight. It did the trick: the leader of the three attackers - confused by Joe’s manoeuvres - took the full charge of Joe’s port-mounted gun in his fuselage. Smoke trailed out scarf-like behind him, and he broke away, lost on the wind: the plane spiralling aimlessly, her pilot dead or dying.
The two laggards now took up the challenge, trading Joe shot for shot as they locked in battle over the far moors and snow-capped bens. One lucky burst accounted for the smaller of Joe’s attackers - in the brief split second of respite before battle was joined again with the last of the enemy he caught on the cockpit radio Red’s pre-arranged, one letter signal, repeated over and over on automatic transmission.
Baling now.. Alive, thank god, but no longer active in the fight.
The battle was Joe’s alone.
The two planes snarled and yapped at each other, weaving in and out, throwing every trick they had learned at each other, trading lead with prodigal hands, battered and shaken almost to pieces by the recoil of their armaments and the pressures of the G-forces on their bodies, deafened by the scream of bullets and the dense pressure of explosives, their nostrils thick with the smell of cordite and their mouths parching for a sip of water.
But Joe had the edge on the other flier; their duelling was wearing the other out faster. Once - twice - openings offered, which Joe exploited with some effect, though not to deliver the coup de grace. And then - a third chance offered itself, and Joe gave it his best shot. The other plane immolated itself, and a leaping plume of flame and smoke which arose from the braeside far below.
Joe wrenched the Warhawk round again, and headed back towards the airship. Three down for sure, and if Red had taken his man with him before ditching - and with any breath of the luck they had surely earned he must have done - then the way lay clear for Dex’s team to bring their ‘ship in line above the blimp and board. All that was needed now was -
The white plane with the aggressively backward swept wings came up from a fold of hills like a wolf erupting from the thicket where it had lain in ambush.
Joe’s hand went to his firing button -
And nothing whatsoever happened.
Whether his gun had jammed - but it had been overhauled by Dex before the fight, and guns overhauled by Dex never jammed - or whether a lucky shot by his last enemy had ripped something away, or that he had simply exhausted all his ammo was immaterial. In that icy eternal split second as he looked straight at the on-coming enemy Joe knew with a bone-deep certainty that he had thrown the dice and lost, and that there would be no return match.
Belatedly JOErecognised the significance of the white ‘plane. Unarmed, he looked down the barrel of a gun aimed by man who had once boasted that if the Armistice had not come so early he would have downed more Allied fighters than both the brothers Von Richthofen combined.
They had said that in such circumstances one saw one’s whole life pass in front of one, but Joe knew now with absolute certainty that it was a lie; all he saw was a pair of squirrel-alert dark eyes, set in a face so familiar he could have sketched it in the dark. His lips moved in a final phrase of love and farewell.
An Avro - its nose-cone and forward fuselage painted with the rippling flame-red device of the risen phoenix - came up out of nowhere already charged with the screaming anger of battle, and reared up between him and the enemy.
Joe’s radio crackled into life.
“Let the RFC end what the RFC started. This fight is mine.”
The voice - phrasing, timbre, accent - was chillingly familiar - in, Joe realised abruptly, with the cold ache which comes of belated revelation too late to do any conceivable good, both its contralto and baritone variations.
The pilot of the white plane bent to his guns, but Charlie had clearly planned this encounter from the moment Joe had shared his suspicions about the aces recruited by the New Jacobite Brotherhood. He wasted no time in subtlety, but powered the Avro right into the heart of the maelstrom, firing as he went. The two planes went down together in flaming fragments, and Joe was left master of the skies, dry-eyed and heartsick behind his empty guns.