Reggie waited for the precise moment. Not that he could know when it would come. Not that there frankly was a good moment. As the dragon came hurtling toward them, faster than any aircraft ever built (this being 1926), he knew he would only get one chance. He braced himself for the impact, for all the good it would do. Flexed the fingers of his hand so he didn’t grip the stick so hard it broke.
The dragon kept getting bigger. It was damned inconvenient, he thought, of whoever designed the universe, that things moving toward you kept getting bigger and bigger. It just made them look so dangerous.
The moment came. The dragon was a split second from smashing them to flinders. Reggie pulled back hard on the stick and pumped the throttle. The Jenny lurched upward like it was being pulled by the nose, looping upward and over, describing a perfect circle in the air.
The dragon flew right through that circle and kept going.
Reggie didn’t stick around to see how far it overshot. He leaned hard on his stick at the top of the loop and the ‘plane rolled, dark sky and darker woods switching places back and forth like two rabbits pulling each other out of magicians’ hats.
All of his blood had left his brain and pooled in his feet in the maneuver, which might help explain that tortured simile.
When he came out of his roll he was level and racing at high speed to the east, away from the dragon. Up ahead the woods gave way to seaside cliffs and then the glittering darkness of Long Island Sound. Reggie had a plan.
So did the dragon. The dragon’s plan was the simpler one, so let’s start there: it was going to fly directly at the offending biplane and smash into it with all its weight and momentum. Which would be more than enough to reduce the Jenny to splinters and bits of metal and probably a lot of little scraps of linen bandages.
“To the left a bit, please,” Neville called. The mummy also had a plan, which was to take a clear photograph, but really, that’s all we need to say about it.
Reggie’s plan, then—except, honestly, the dragon was coming after him very, very fast and that is hard to ignore. Its stinger had not been damaged in the slightest when it slashed apart the ‘plane’s fuselage, and it held it up high over its back again. Ready for another strike.
Up ahead a line of cliffs grew closer and closer. Reggie couldn’t see them from his angle, but he knew they were there. He’d driven Neville all over this stretch of the county and he knew its geography perfectly. At least, he sincerely hoped so. If he didn’t he was about to die.
You see, Reggie’s plan was to—
“Yes, perfect!” Neville said. “Now, just give me, oh, twenty seconds of level flight. A little more if you can, for the best exposure.”
Through gritted teeth Reggie stared at the last of the treetops. The water beyond was placid, a wrinkled mirror showing him a perfect image of the moon. The moon that called to him, the moon that ruled his transformations.
“Not bloody now,” he told the moon.
Behind him the dragon was almost upon them, its six wings flapping and spinning around each other in a manner that made no sense at all. In another second—
But really, we must get to Reggie’s plan. Which was this:
Just as the Jenny skimmed the last of the trees and passed over the cliffs, Reggie slammed his throttle shut and put his nose up, intentionally stalling the ‘plane and putting its wings up against his direction of motion. The canvas wings caught the wind like a pair of sails, sails which were pointed exactly the wrong direction. Air resistance canceled out the Jenny’s velocity in the same amount of time it took you to read this sentence.
Assuming you are a very fast reader.
With the engine idling and delivering no power to the propeller, the biplane dropped out of the air like a—yes, like a rock, because that is exactly how ‘planes act in such a situation. The Jenny fell out of the air, rushing past a sheer cliff face Reggie had been quite right to think would be there. Two hundred feet below lay the shore where lacy waves washed pointy, pointy stones.
The dragon flashed by overhead, roaring in frustration. Already starting to turn to come diving at them again.
Reggie yanked open his throttle and fought the ‘plane for control.
A number of times during the war, Reggie had heard stories of ‘planes whose pilots had fallen out of them in mid-flight. He’d heard how, lacking any human control, they acted like kites. That they would stunt, doing loops and rolls and flat spins all of their own accord, tossed about by the four winds, flying themselves as if for the sheer joy of it. That night the Jenny, having apparently decided that Reggie had abdicated his role as pilot, decided to execute a quite perfect and graceful “falling leaf” maneuver. Heavily in favor of the “falling” part.
He managed to regain control with the ‘plane just a few dozen feet from the ground. He pulled up smartly and climbed back toward the top of the cliff, only to see the dragon wheeling around out over the water, only a few hundred yards away. Had it lost sight of them? Well, that would require far more luck than Reggie possessed. Its wings blurred and it started in for another diving attack and he knew this time there was little he could do—he was pinned up tight against the cliff wall, with no direction to fly that offered even the remote possibility of safety.
He looked from side to side—and then he saw it, the stupidest idea he’d ever had, and knew it was their only chance.
Erosion had not been kind to the cliff face. Bits of it had fallen away over time, were still falling away. The river must have flooded at some recent point in the geological past, carving away at the soft earth and leaving spires of rock that stood out from the cliff like the columns that graced the front of Grimbly Hall. One such spire had partially collapsed back into the remaining cliff, forming a natural arch like a flying buttress.
A very nimble biplane might fly underneath that arch, if the pilot were completely suicidal and didn’t mind flying through sideways. The dragon, Reggie was certain, would never fit through.
It was now or never. He poured on speed even as the dragon came swooping in to destroy him. “Boss,” he shouted, “get your head down and strap in!” Then he pushed the stick over to one side and sent the Jenny hurtling toward the arch, which rushed toward him at terrifying speed.
Neville had been attempting, at that moment, to load a new plate into his camera. Reggie had not bothered to look back to see whether his employer was sitting down. He was not.
Neville just had time to say “Strap in? Why on Earth—” before the ‘plane stood up on its side, its wings perpendicular to the ground.
In the interest of clarity, the following series of events is laid out as if it happened over a reasonable length of time. Be assured, dear reader, it only took a moment.
Unaware of Reggie’s intent, Neville completely failed to even brace himself. Several hundred dollars of very impressive camera equipment fell out of the ‘plane—the camera itself, its monopod, two lenses ground by hand in Switzerland, and three prepared photographic plates. A great loss indeed, but one we can pass over unmourned because they were followed in short order by Neville himself, who very briefly learned what it was like to fly without the benefit of mechanical assistance. He landed with a crash on the rocky shore, bounced a few times, and then came to a stop in such a posture that he had an excellent view of the Jenny receding from him at high velocity.
It was a hard landing on bad ground. Four thousand years of decay and boredom had failed to kill Neville, however, and a few nasty bruises wouldn’t do it either.
The biplane, flying at an angle man was never meant to know, passed through the natural arch almost unscathed. Almost. It did lose a wingtip that sheared off without fuss and went spinning away into the water. It came out on the other side to the sound of a wolf howling at the moon, if said wolf were capable of simultaneously howling and screaming in terror.
The dragon went by over Neville’s head so fast he barely felt the wind of its passage, though one of its claws nearly took his helmet off. Furiously intent on catching the ‘plane, or perhaps just not very bright (its head, other than that giant compound eye, was small compared to the rest of it) it tried to thread the needle just as the biplane had before it.
In this attempt it was spectacularly unsuccessful. Its wings hit the spire of rock first, smashing into the stone with a meaty thwacking sound like half a dozen tennis rackets volleying balls made out of compressed hamburger. Only much louder. Its stinger hit next, slamming into the top of the arch with enough impact to pulverize the rock.
It might have burst through the arch, smashing it to boulders in the process, except that it didn’t. Instead it merely reduced the arch to several hundred tons of flinty rubble which collapsed on top of it all at once. Not even a dragon could stay aloft with that much loose rock avalanching down on its back, and the dragon was smashed to the ground with a sound of thunder, swatted down like a very large ungainly fly and buried under a brand new hill’s worth of debris.