much the Kate Reed in him. She was not his conscience. He missed his old self, the boy he'd been before war made a man of him. The man he'd been before war made a monster of him. He owed explanations to Catriona. To Beauregard.

In concentrating on evening things with the Baron, he'd made himself a freak. This strange Edwin Winthrop was as repulsive as Isolde, pulling out her veins on stage, or the bat-staffel of JG1, demon monsters for the Kaiser.

The rush of air on his face awakened him, purging him. He opened his mouth and let the wind blow in. Pulling back the stick, he made the Camel climb. The higher he went, the more distance he got from the brutish business. He could burst through the Earth's bubble of atmosphere and be free of the war and its eternities of killing and waste.

Then he saw the flying creature, hugging burned-out treetops, moving with purpose, as alone as a hunting shark. A flight commander's streamers flew from his ankle. It was Richthofen. In the firelight, the Baron was truly red.

Winthrop hoped this was the last of the shape-shifters. He'd seen enough of them destroyed. The charm was off. They were creatures who bled and died like any others.

His doubts drowned in a red tide. Icy calm, he took the Camel down, fast. The miracle was that he still had ammunition left. The shape-shifter couldn't fire backwards. From behind, the Baron was easy meat.

Richthofen was alerted. The bat-ears must be enormously sensitive. The German tried to climb and turn, bringing guns to bear on the Camel, but Winthrop harried him with a burst - short, for he must conserve his bullets for the kill - and forced him to dip down into the forest.

Winthrop pulled up and skimmed across the treetops, watching the Baron weave through the canopy of branches. He was unbelievably agile, but the forest slowed him. He seemed to be swimming through the dense trees. Fire spread from the Attila. Thick wood-smoke churned upwards, stinging Winthrop's eyes, swirling around his propeller.

If the Baron chose to land, he'd survive the night. He could wait for advancing German troops and be carried back to Schloss Adler a hero. But Manfred von Richthofen would not duck out of a fight.

The forested patch was small. Winthrop overshot the trees and flew over plain ground, rising towards low hills in the near distance. There were Allied positions in the hills. Men streamed back to them. This was where the German offensive would break. Or where the war would be lost.

Winthrop turned back towards the forest just as Richthofen flew out of the trees and soared upwards, a prehistoric monster with twentieth-century guns. The Baron fired and Winthrop returned fire. Bullets sparked all around. There was a hideous pranging noise. Winthrop thought he had taken a hit on the prop.

They rushed at each other, and missed colliding in the air. Winthrop felt the wind of the Baron's wings.

What must it be like to be such a monster?

He turned the Camel tightly. The Baron was far more manoeuvrable, so Winthrop had to push his machine to its limits.

Richthofen must have nothing. A warrior-monk, thoughtlessly dedicated to his country. That must be a weakness. He had nothing to fight for. Nothing but the empty achievement of an ever-increasing score.

Winthrop didn't want to be the Baron's victory. But he no longer needed to kill. He no longer wanted to kill. Nevertheless, he fired his Lewis guns at the bat-shape swooping at him.

The Baron evaded the stream of bullets. He passed by close enough for Winthrop to see his shape-shifted face. With blue human eyes and fixed bat-snarl, it was a tragic mask, leaking blood at the mouth.

There was another aeroplane in the sky, hugging the trees, moving slowly. A two-man spotter. At a glance, Winthrop took in the kite's colours. A Hun.

The Camel was above and behind the Baron. Winthrop fired single shots, conserving ammunition for the killing burst. He crowded and drove Richthofen onwards.

The bat-creature darted from side to side, but could not break free of the funnel in which Winthrop had him penned. His ammunition was nearly out. If the Baron stayed beyond range of accurate fire for a few more moments ...

They were beyond the forest, half-way towards the hills, low enough to startle trudging troops. Men turned to whoop and cheer as Richthofen and Winthrop zoomed over them. Caps were whipped off by the windwash. Rifles were aimed at the sky and shots fired.

Bloody idiots. Both parties were moving so fast that a shot aimed at the leading flier could well strike the pursuer.

The spotter would be on the Camel's tail but Winthrop needn't worry about it yet. The fighter could outrace the pusher any night of the year and have juice left over to smash it into the ground.

A mortar barrage burst up into the sky ahead, startling Richthofen. The Baron soared up, flapping his wings. Winthrop gained on him fast, pulling back the stick.

The moon broke through the cloud like an eye opening.

Holding steady at speed, Winthrop realised the Baron was in his sights. If he depressed the firing buttons ...

His thumbs were frozen iron.

There was Archie ahead. Gun positions in the hills laid a carpet of shellbursts. Richthofen winged towards heavy fire.

Late, startled by explosions all around, Winthrop pressed the buttons. A stream of silver squirted forth. Red wounds exploded in the Baron's hide. He had tagged Richthofen.

He was still pressing the buttons, but his ammunition was out.

Richthofen's wings seemed to spread like an enormous curtain, filling his sky. Winthrop knew he was caught without defence between the Baron and the Boche spotter. If they came at him together, he would be truly dead. Maybe that was for the best: to die, rather than live on and risk becoming even more of a monster.

In the creature's eyes, Winthrop saw killing frenzy. The Baron was about to add Edwin Winthrop to his score.

He reflexively thumbed the buttons. His Lewis guns clicked, empty ...

But the Baron was struck again and again, as if Winthrop were hitting him with ghost bullets. Richthofen twisted in the air, wings struggling, riddled with bloody holes.

Winthrop was astonished.

It was ground fire, of course. Shocked out of his frenzy, he realised he was as likely as a Hun to be riddled by Archie and climbed above the dying flier. As he spiralled up, Winthrop saw Richthofen jittering in the air, as if kept up by the multiple impacts of shots fired from below.

The outspread wings were ripped ragged. The body dwindled, guns become anchors, limbs twisting. The dead thing fell towards the ground, disappearing into fire and darkness.

Shocked to his senses, Winthrop wondered what he was doing in alien air.



When they touched ground again, Poe was changed. His first experience of flight had been unrelieved nightmare. Free of the earth, he had been whirled into a sphere of chaos, a maelstrom of terror that destroyed the foundations of his vision.

The Attila was lost, a giant cloud of flame consuming the father of European vampirism. Baron von Richthofen was dead, a broken corpse transforming as he fell. Der rote Kampfflieger was incomplete; it would have to be published with an afterword of obituary. The offensive had broken through, but at what cost?

Theo taxied the aeroplane along the little strip by the lake. The shadow of Schloss Adler stood against the sky. No light showed. The castle seemed deserted. The machine came to rest with a lurch, wheels sinking into grassy ground.

Poe was shocked by the calm that fell on him, the equilibrium he suddenly felt. His face was stiff with dried tears.

Theo crawled out of the fore cockpit and dropped to the ground. He tore off his helmet and gloves and threw them away.

Вы читаете The Bloody Red Baron: 1918
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