WHENEVER SOMEONE asks how my life came to take such a sharp and unexpected turn—and they do ask, because people are insatiably nosy—they get my most charming smile. I know it’s charming because I practice it every morning in my shaving mirror. It’s devastating.
It’s even better without the shaving soap.
The short answer is “I crashed one of the old Queen’s aerofighters into the African veldt, fighting the Boers.”
The timing is the most important thing. Wait a heartbeat, savor a mouthful of the best coffee in Londinium while they absorb that, and as their mouths open to ask more questions, drop in the next line.
I put a little gap between the syllables so they can’t miss it. Koffie—pause—fontein.
Some of them laugh. The clever ones, the ones who see the delicious irony when they think about how my life changed. How I changed. Not all of them do. Most people are… how shall I put this? Not the brightest lucifer in the box. It takes them a few minutes to understand before they snigger and nudge their companion with a “Koffie! Like coffee, see. One of them Boer places, likely. Coffee fountain or some such. That’s rich!”
No. Definitely not the brightest.
I saw the irony at once, though. Given my life since then, it had to be some sort of divine joke, a little prod to the ribs from the Almighty. “Wake up, Rafe Lancaster, and pay attention! Change is coming.”
It was a sign, of sorts. The first step into a new life when the old one was taken from me, sending me in the right direction—the crash at Koffiefontein, selling my mother’s jewels, reopening relations with my House, and yes, even the scarab. All of those things came into play.
Mostly it was luck. The famous Lancaster luck. They should name things after it. Ships, or aerofighters.
Or perhaps a racehorse.
BACK IN 1899, I was more formally known to Her Britannic Majesty’s Imperial Aero Corps as Captain R. J. Lancaster, squadron leader. I was based on the Ark Royal, the biggest aero-dreadnought in the Corps. A prestigious posting, of course, but then I was the best aeronaut the Queen had.
Bar none. Not the most modest, I grant you. Merely the best.
That autumn we were in action over the Orange Free State in what the newspapers liked to call the Boer War. It wasn’t a fully fledged war with big staged battles like Waterloo, but attack-and-run raids from the Boers, with Her Majesty’s forces involved in short, scrappy fights to stop them. In my case, it involved leading my squadron of biwinged aerofighters to swoop down over the veldt to get the rebels to break off their attacks on an Imperium Army column, say, or an English-owned farm, or the railway line to the coast.
I had flown dozens of missions where small fast aerofighters dive over the enemy at only a few hundred feet and a hundred miles an hour, firing phlogiston-filled rockets or dropping bombs. Disconcerting for the people on the ground, I expect. It stood to reason they weren’t going to take a bombardment lying down.
The Boers had smuggled arms shipments though Germany and the Americas. They had cannons. Not popguns, but real laser-guided cannons, throwing out flechettes filled with phlogiston in a mercurial mix with aether and petroleum distillate. They didn’t hit very much, of course. To hit something moving as fast as an aerofighter takes skill and training. But they were enthusiastic about trying, and, heaven knows, tearing around the sky and throwing my ship into one maneuver after another while flechettes flashed past or exploded in a shower of sapphire and olive green sparks, was thrilling. Like flying through fireworks. Sometimes I had the little fighter standing on her nose or flipped over and flying upside down. Pure exhilaration.
But that particular day was a little too exhilarating. I’d dodged through one barrage, dropping a charge right on the heads of a gun emplacement, when another artillery unit got in a lucky shot. The shell glanced against the side of the aether chamber powering my fighter and cracked it open, sending me spinning out of the sky.
I had no warning. A loud bang, a flash of light, and the rudder wheel jerked out of my hands. The ship plummeted, venting aether and steam. I had been an aeronaut for almost ten years, but all my experience and skill didn’t prevent that instant where a man is too dazed and astonished to do anything but react. I yelled something most definitely unfit for the ears of the ladies, and my heart felt as if it were jumping right out of my chest.
Shock—it happens to the best of us.
It barely lasted a second. I grabbed the wheel and fought to get her nose up and keep it there.
Up you come. Up you damn well come!
The Lancaster luck was still with me. The laser shell hadn’t touched the petroleum distillate tanks or the phlogiston augmenter pipes. A little more of the famous luck… and yes! Just enough power in the pipes to trickle through to the engines. I’d get out of this mess. It might be a tight squeeze, but I’d get out of it.
As soon as I got her level again, I pulled in a big calming breath and got her limping back south on half-power. I wish I could say I straightened my shoulders and stared out of the cockpit window with the unwavering gaze, set chin, and steely resolve the illustrated newspapers employ to depict their heroes. But the truth is, I slumped in the seat and rested my head against the control panel while indulging in some heartfelt and inventive profanity. Very inventive profanity, if I do say so myself. Oddly, my breathing was hard and fast. Anyone hearing it would have thought I’d been running.
But there wasn’t time to indulge myself for long. I had to find somewhere to set the bird down, away from the Boers and close to help, before she fell out of the sky. I had to keep an eye on the instruments, of course, to make sure the phlogiston didn’t dip below the red line—that would mean serious, serious trouble—but mostly I stared out through the transparent aluminum canopy, searching the terrain ahead for somewhere safe to land.
My senior lieutenant, Ingram, brought his aeroship alongside mine. He was gesturing wildly through the clear canopy, but I sent him back with a sharp order to take command. Really, what was the boy thinking? He should be looking after my aeronauts, not flying alongside me waving like a coy village maiden spotting her errant lover. It wasn’t as if he could actually do anything, anyway, but watch me go down. He grimaced, waggled his wings, and curved away into a sky of the clearest, purest blue. Not a cloud in it but the man-made ones of smoke and electrified aether, shot through with dark actinic rays.
The aerofighter leaked aether like a sieve. She was as unsteady as a man after a night on the town, needing constant correction in her unstable flight. It was hard work. Damn close to holding the little fighter up by willpower alone. I’m not a nervous man as a rule, but I held the rudder wheel so tightly my fingers were white and aching. Every now and again I had to loosen my grip, flexing my hands to get the sting of the tension out of them, and rolling shoulders that insisted on hunching over.
Control on the Ark Royal, personified in the Comms officer, was squawking over the wireless Marconi communicator, demanding to know what was going on. I told him, although with less profanity than a moment or two earlier, because the way the Lancaster luck was going, the commander would listen in, and the commander didn’t hold with strong language. I was in enough trouble without adding him to the mix.
“You’ve tried bleeding through more phlogiston?” inquired Control. “Switch to circuit omega-delta-two.”
The only explanation for such inanity was that in times of crisis Control panicked, reached for a script, and stuck to it. Of all the stupid questions! Of course I’d tried trickling through more phlogiston, and I’d tried every circuit on the control board. But I needed to reserve some of the remaining phlogiston for a controlled landing, and the omega-delta-two circuit might as well have been on another ship for all the good it was doing on mine.
There was, of course, no point in losing my temper, but I was sorely tempted. Sorely.
“Tried it. No response.” Damnation. My voice shook. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t the Lancaster way. So I swallowed hard to get it under control and made myself slow down, not letting the words tumble out over each other the way they wanted. “The aether superheated and mostly vented. There isn’t enough to keep generating steam for the engines, and I’m running on fumes here. I have enough distillate for a controlled landing if I preserve the phlogiston to help it along. Altitude five hundred feet, but I’m continuing to lose height.”
“We’re tracking you. Options?”
I laughed aloud. I couldn’t help it. What options? There was no point in trying to land back on the Ark Royal. Hovering several miles away, she was close enough for me to reach, but her flight deck and landing bays were as narrow and confined as the mind of a maiden aunt. One mistake there, and I would have the dubious honor of taking Her Majesty’s foremost aero-dreadnought out of the sky with me. That wouldn’t look good on the record. I had no options at all.
“I’m heading for the base at Koffiefontein. More room there.” My hands were sweaty. I took the right off the rudder wheel, rubbing it dry on the leg of my flying suit. It stained the leather. I had a reputation to maintain—best aeronaut, luckiest aeronaut, nonchalant and devil-may-care aeronaut. This had to sound insouciant. “I’ll have the whole veldt to play in.”
The wireless communicator spat a burst of static at me. Whoever it was on the communications desk took a moment before answering. “Acknowledged, Captain Lancaster. We’ve advised Koffiefontein. They’ll be ready for you. We’ll continue tracking. Good luck.”
I was on my own. Koffiefontein being “ready” translated to two men pushing a water cart to deal with the aftermath. Getting the fighter there and getting her down in one piece… that was up to me. And as if to make the point sharper, my fighter took another downward plunge. By the time I corrected it and leveled her out, we were at two hundred feet.
Nothing to do but press on. The engines sputtered and popped every inch of the way, chuffing out clouds of steam and smoke and trailing bright sapphire sparks of escaping aether. It probably looked quite pretty from the ground.
The veldt is very different from England, home and beauty. No little fields and woods here, but vast flat grasslands spreading clear to the horizon. I passed over a stand of acacia trees, all sharp shadows thrown over the plain by the setting sun to my right. The aerofighter’s shadow slithered over grasses and trees and a herd of antelope bounding through the scrubby bushes.
Down to one hundred feet. The ship was on a long glide now, with barely any power at all. I nursed her along, preserving what little phlogiston was left in the tubes to give the engines a boost of power on landing.
Rows of grubby white tents showed against the yellowy-green of the veldt grasses, and beyond them, the narrow strip where the ground had been leveled to make a landing area. One of the Koffiefontein squadron’s aerofighters was parked to one side. With luck, I’d miss it. Small figures ran toward the spot where I’d likely come down. This was going to be close. But I could do it. I’d do it, and regale the officers’ mess with yet one more story of the legendary Lancaster luck.
I had too much petroleum distillate in the tanks for a safe landing. I needed to vent it as I approached, but not so much the engines would stop. A very fine line to tread, there.
I used the ailerons to roll her to the right, turning her into the wind to land. She shuddered and flexed. A dull, booming crack from behind was all the warning I got, and an instant later the aether chamber blew out completely. She went down like the proverbial stone, pitching and yawing like a boat in high seas. I yelled and pulled on the controls with every ounce of strength I had, turning the wheel sharply to starboard to bring her around again, because if I let her get away from me, it would be the end. I would get no second chances.
She bucketed and bucked. It’s odd what a man’s mind does in the face of terrible danger. I wasn’t thinking about flying, I know. Hands and feet, heart and soul did it all by instinct, as if the little fighter were a part of me. No thought needed. I simply did it. And no, my whole life did not flash before my eyes—thank goodness!—but for one brief, vivid memory of hunting in Leicestershire, with the Quorn in full-throated chase after a fox, hounds and horses streaming out over the December fields, and me taking a hedge on my brother’s big, rawboned chestnut. My stomach had flipped over then too. I much prefer betting on horses to riding the brutes.
Get the wheels down. Get them down now. Get them down!
Metal ground and groaned as the mechanism lowered the wheels into position and locked them in place. I leaned back in the seat, bracing myself, pulling back on the rudder wheel as if my weight would help bring the nose up, help slow her. The body of the fighter twisted. The canopy windscreen cracked, then shattered, showering me with shards of aluminum. I couldn’t see the ground for thick white steam and dust. I couldn’t see it.
I don’t remember the actual impact. I can recall an explosive bang, loud enough to make my ears bleed, and then silence. I was on my back, somehow—I don’t know how I got there—with ash and dust floating past me. The sky… so blue and far away that my heart ached. Everything ached. Damn and blast. Everything ached.
So I closed my eyes to shut it all out.