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The Great Game, Part 6–When Stars Fall
by James Vachowski
Child! Quickly now, come here! Pull the drapes back, there’s a good lad, and roll me to the window. See…there! That flash of light!
What? A meteor? Don’t be a dunce, child, there’s no such thing. That was a star falling from the heavens, as sure as I’m alive. But draw the curtains now, if you please. A single shooting star is an omen of luck, but seeing several foretells death. I’ve seen enough death in my time, and I fear that my own summons cannot be too far off.
Ah, thank you. The stars are beautiful flashes of silver from afar, but terrifying when viewed up close. What? Of course I’ve seen a star up close, child! In fact, I’ve actually ridden in one!
Eh? You don’t believe me? Your disbelief is clearly fueled by pure envy. Here, pull up a chair and I shall explain. It was in Egypt, of course, that mystery of a nation. The city of Cairo was a sunlit nightmare by day, the heat rising up from the dusty streets and back alleys, but at dusk the air would cool and the imam’s call to prayer brought with it a pleasant peace. I would take my ease after each long day of directing Allenby’s moronic staff, content to lie on the roof of the Embassy and contemplate the pantheon of stars stretching out in the inky night sky. Our Earth itself is so young compared to the stars, but to be in Egypt is to be within Time itself. Ah, the memories! Yes, Cairo was probably my favorite posting during the War… at least until the bombs started dropping.
The Kaiser was a wily strategist, you see, and he aimed to cut a swath through the Levant by capturing the Suez. The canal was nothing more than a dredge torn through the Sinai, but during the War it became the lifeblood of our troops. Without it, transports bearing supplies and troop reinforcements would grind to a halt. If we lost the Suez, I wager to say that we could all but surrender India.
We knew an attack must be coming, child, but we knew not how. Our sharpest eyes were fixed towards the West, scanning for telltale dustclouds signifying the movements of enemy troops across the desert, but all was still. Then, from nowhere, a series of slow-moving shapes caught the sun’s rays on the horizon. They shimmered in the light, making their forms impossible to discern until they were nearly upon us.
The Kaiser’s aeroforces had slipped over our outer perimeter, racing in from Bulgaria on a brisk easterly wind. The watchmen raised the hue and cry too late, as the attack had caught us by surprise! While our men scrambled to arms, struggling to winch our machine guns skyward, the first bombs fell. The bloody Krauts walked them in on their approach, each successive impact louder and more forceful.
My actions were more of reflex than bravery, child, as my swift legs covered the mile to the airfields in mere seconds. I ran towards the nearest Sopwith and threw the propeller, twisting the engine to life. In a flash, I was aboard and taxiing down the runway, explosions falling nearer and nearer behind me. I pulled the throttle back with all my might, willing the aircraft to rise just as the runway came to an end. Feeling the impact behind me, I risked a glance back. The entire runway was pocked with craters, all of the hangers ringed with flames. In less than a minute, an entire wing of the Royal Air Corps had been destroyed!
All save for me, that is, but I feared my fortune might be short lived. Dozens of fighter escorts left their zeppelins and swarmed towards me, hailing down waves of bullets that turned the skies black. Five of them, then six and seven, went down in my crosshairs before a single lucky shot clipped my tail fin. The plane started spiraling downward at full speed as I fought to hold control, black smoke belching from the engine. Greasy hydraulic fluid spurt forth across the fuselage and streaked up over the windscreen. It was at that point, child, when I reassessed the odds I faced. As much as I despise cowardice, I began to think that a hasty retreat from the battle might be prudent.
With every last ounce of strength in my arms, I muscled the throttle back and somehow got the small plane level. We buzzed over the city rooftops, the Kaiser’s aeroplanes hot on my tail as I headed west, hoping to lose them in the setting sun. The pilots were tenacious beasts, though, no doubt hoping to win the glory of bringing me to ground. I heard the staccato hammering of their propellers as the fleet grew ever closer, their poorly aimed bullets whizzing close by.
We cleared the city walls, crossing low over the Nile River, and my hopes grew dim. Before us lay naught but open desert, with no cover for my escape. In an instant, though, a thin cloud passed over the setting sun and I spied the pyramids of Giza! My heart lifted, and I opened the choke to dump the remaining fuel. The little Sopwith shot ahead of the pack. I knew the gain in speed would be short lived, but hoped it would be just enough to make one last run for cover.
My plane came in long and low, the rubber wheels bouncing thrice off the rocky desert sand. I shot straight for the Great Pyramid of Cheops and just as I had planned, the German planes pulled back. The fools thought I was landing in order to surrender, so they gave me room. At the last second, however, I stomped down hard on the pedal to bank left. The first two of the Kaiser’s men shot past as I tilted around the base of the pyramid. I was so low that my wingtip grazed the sand, and it took all my skill to wrench it back level. Seconds later, I pointed the nose into the sand for a hard stop, landing directly between the legs of the Great Sphinx.
There was no time to pat myself on the back, though! The sound of buzzing propellers grew louder, followed by rows of bullets zipping into the sand behind me. Ahead, I spotted a dark doorway at the base of the Sphinx, so I raced forward and dove inside, straining to push the stone door back on ancient hinges. It slammed shut with a thud, just as scores of bullets impacted on the outside.
I was safe! Trapped inside of a rock, yes, and surrounded in thick darkness, but safe! I paused briefly, hoping to catch my breath. My hands trembled as blood surged through my veins, and I fought to clear my head. It seemed there was no way out, and I wondered if I had just traded a swift dispatch from German machine guns for a slow demise by way of asphyxiation!
After several more long moments, my eyes began to adjust to the darkness. I sensed the dimmest blue glow, and could make out what appeared to be a long tunnel that cut through the rock. With a heavy heart, I summoned my courage and shuffled further along. There was no way of knowing what awaited me, but what lay outside the Sphinx was an absolute I had no desire to face.
I must have walked for a hundred yards, or it could have been a hundred miles, before the rock opened around me and the light grew exponentially brighter. It was an open chamber, child, in the heart of the Great Pyramid itself! The floor was surfaced in slick marble, and when my eyes came to focus on the center of the room, I could not hold in my gasp. There before me was a great silvery object, shaped like a walnut and pulsing with cool blue light. Believe me when I say that I had traveled half the world by that time, but had never beheld such a wondrous saucer. Even now, with all my years, I struggle to describe it.
My shock at this sight was such that it seemed no more unusual that the starry craft should be tended by an equally obtuse pilot. He stood half my height in his naked, grey skin, with a bald bulb of a head and the black eyes of a cat. I should have been scared, I suppose, but I knew not what to make of him. We stood there regarding each other for the longest moment. Looking back, I suppose he should have felt the same curiosity about me!
We spoke no words, but somehow I knew he sensed my anxiety. A picture of the Kaiser’s mighty zeppelin air force flashed through my mind, and I spotted the creature’s head tilting slightly sideways. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew, that we were sharing the same image. His chin dipped forward in the most imperceptible of nods. Slowly, he opened his hand and pointed four fingers toward the cosmic galley. It was an obvious invitation; one I had no intention of refusing.
A hatch appeared before us, closing just as quickly once we climbed aboard. A seat stitched from the finest Corinthian leather rose to meet me. My newfound ally stood tall, somehow bringing the craft to life with his mere thoughts. I felt the briefest pulse as the ship flashed blue…and in an instant we were outside, thousands of meters in the air! When the shock of the teleportation had passed, I found myself looking down on the Kaiser’s fleet of dirigibles. Night had fallen, and we floated overhead as just one more blue star in the sky.
The sight of those murderous blimps below filled me with rage. The creature must have sensed my heated thoughts, for he dipped his head in a nod of acknowledgement. Seconds later, we were slanting downward, diving straight towards the airfleet! Jets of laser-hot rays shot forth from our ship, turning the mighty gas-filled zeppelins into nothing more than a quick succession of floating fireballs. This battle was over before it even had a chance to begin, my child! Ah, the horrors of that War still play fresh in this old mind, but none more so than the sight of those burning steel hulls tumbling downward to melt into the still desert sands.
Before I could comprehend the sheer impossibility of what had just transpired, I found myself standing down in the desert itself, just outside the city walls, watching the last of the zeppelins burn. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a blue burst of flame rising up into the sky. The airship was bound for the heavens, I suppose, or to some other galaxy in need. And though my eyesight is not what it once was, I still look towards the constellations each night, hoping to catch a glimpse of my old friend and his star ship. Alas, I have never again seen a falling star quite like his, but sometimes I look up in the sky and wonder…