"Drake! Wake up, we're going."
Robert Drake shot up so quickly he nearly fell off the narrow cot. Squinting against the glare of the rising sun, the young pilot jumped awkwardly to his feet and snapped a smart salute.
"Captain Logan, sir," the flustered seventeen-year-old said, his eyes starting to water as he struggled to bring the shorter officer's backlit silhouette into clearer focus. "I—I'm so sorry sir. I don't know how I could have overslept…"
"At ease, kid." The gruff Canadian grunted, the glowing tip of his cigar seeming to brighten as he stepped out of the sun. "You didn't miss our appointment. And you didn't oversleep neither."
Drake blinked, completely at a loss. "Then…then sir, why—"
"No questions," Logan said, already turning to go. "Just get dressed. You're with me today."
"The airstrip. Ten minutes. I'll be waiting."
The rising sun lent the sky a rich orange glow, bathing the airstrip in golden light. Drake jogged past the gleaming aerodrome to where Captain Logan was running a final check on his machine, breathless and eager to find out why he'd been called out of bed so early.
Finished with his check, the captain tossed his notepad to a yawning mechanic and climbed up into the cockpit.
Logan flew a Morane Parasol, a two-seater monoplane of French design with an eighty horsepower Le Rône rotary engine. Its wing was situated well above the body of the aircraft, which made it extremely useful when taking reconnaissance photographs of enemy positions.
Yet, despite its advantages and general reliability, the Morane had a reputation among pilots as a death trap. It had to be consciously flown every second: if the pilot ever let go of the stick even for a moment, instead of simply leveling out, the aeroplane would fall at once into a nosedive. To control a Morane required constant vigilance and a careful hand, and the fact that Logan had managed to build up such an impressive record of success behind its controls was a testament to his enormous courage and skill. Drake couldn't keep himself from grinning.
"Fantastic!" he exclaimed, and rushed over to rest an awed hand against the side of the captain's famous kite. "Don't tell me you're honestly planning to take me up in your Morane, sir!"
"Quit your slobberin' and climb in." The captain grimly chomped on the cigar lodged between his teeth. "Old man Xavier's got a mission for us. You're to be my observer this mornin'."
Drake nearly passed out right there. Him, Captain Logan's observer? Sitting behind the greatest ace in the Royal Flying Corps? Pointing out enemy troop locations, warning the captain of approaching German aeroplanes? It was too incredible to be true. But from the way the rugged Canadian was glaring at him, it had to be.
"What are you waiting for, Christmas?" the captain growled. "Get up here!"
"Yessir!" Drake squeaked, clambering into place and banging his knee hard against the curved back of the pilot's chair in the process. But the pain was nothing next to his elation.
"If I may ask, sir," the teenager called out as the captain began to taxi down the strip. "Where exactly are we going?"
"I'll tell you when we're in the air," the captain shouted back. "Now shut-up."
The Morane buzzed through the air some 5,000 feet above the ground. Drake peered down over the side, reflecting how strange it was to be able to look down without a wing getting in the way of the view. The seventeen-year-old had been with the RFC now for almost a year, but no matter how many times he rose up past the clouds, he would never cease to be amazed at how tiny everything looked on the ground below.
The entire battlefield sprawled before him, like a giant brown, black, and greenish canvas that stretched on forever. He could see both sets of trenches—those of the allies and the enemy—parallel gouges in the earth separated by the barren, cratered waste of No Man's Land. Beyond the front lines ran a complicated network of communications trenches, then came the second-line trenches followed by more communications trenches, and finally the third-line trenches. It was a strange, surreal sight, horrific and fascinating at the same time. All the contours, hills, and valleys that were of such strategic significance on the ground lost all meaning in the air. It really made him wonder…
"Hey, kid." Logan's gruff voice broke into his wandering thoughts. "You're awful quiet back there."
"What? Oh, sorry sir," Drake said quickly. "I was just thinking."
Logan nodded. "Flying kinda has a way of putting things in perspective," he said. "But that's no excuse for lettin' your mind wander. I need you sharp and focused, especially considerin' where we're headed."
"Where are we headed, sir?" Drake asked. "You still haven't told me."
"Haig's getting ready to launch a new offensive," the captain told him, referring to Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force fighting in France. The Royal Flying Corps was attached to that service, its main function being to act as the eyes of the infantry. "It's up to us to scope out and photograph the enemy position. We'll be flying over the German lines today, kid."
"Fantastic!" Drake exclaimed, his pulse quickening at the very thought. "I can't believe it—after all these months of training, a real mission at last!"
"I wouldn't get too excited just yet," Logan cautioned. "I still haven't told you everything."
"What else is there?"
Logan snorted, turning his head just far enough to shoot the teenager a look from the corner of his eye. "Old man Xavier's been keeping this part quiet," he said. "Didn't want to start a panic among the ranks…"
"A panic?" Drake frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"Der Nachtflieger, that's what I'm talking about," the captain said grimly. "Though you prolly know him better as the Midnight Aviator. He's out there, waiting just behind the lines. And we're about to fly straight into his turf."
Drake stared, truly stunned by the captain's words. The Midnight Aviator was the stuff of legend among the British fliers. Together, he and his striking black and red Fokker aeroplane were the menace of the RFC. The prospect of actually facing him in the air was overwhelming. Drake swallowed.
"Sir," he said, forcing his suddenly shaky voice back to its usual register. "You've faced the Midnight Aviator before. What can you tell me about him?"
"He's the greatest ace the Germans have," Logan said. "Even the Red Baron had to acknowledge it after the Aviator managed to make a perfect landing in the dead of night with no lights to guide him. Dumb luck, if you ask me, but that stunt's what earned him his name. Other than that, hardly anything is known about him. Not even his real name. Just a lot of hearsay."
"Is it true that no one's ever seen his face?" Drake asked. "That's what I've heard the others saying. They say he always wears a long coat with a deep hood, and that he never takes off his gloves."
"That might be true," the captain acknowledged. "I was there the one time we managed to bring him down. His kite was a blazing inferno. We all expected he'd been killed. But when we got to the site, the Aviator was nowhere to be found. I could buy he was left with some pretty disfiguring burns."
"Maybe," Drake said, not quite convinced. "But what about the other stories? They say he can vanish in a puff of smoke, like the Devil himself! And Madrox told me the Aviator can outmaneuver shells and bullets with such uncanny precision, it's as though he can sense where they're going to strike ahead of time!"
"Let's not get carried away now," Logan cautioned. "It's probably Jerry spreading most of that rot anyway, tryin' to build up the mythos. The Aviator's a man, just like you and me. Don't forget that."
"Yes, sir," Drake said, but though that ended the conversation, it didn't stop the teenager's imagination as he rode along in the back of the aeroplane. What was the Midnight Aviator really like? And even more pressing--would he, Robert Drake, have the courage to stand up to him if they should meet in the skies?
It was still early when they reached the German lines. Drake could see very little troop movement among the trenches, and the skies were completely clear.
"All right, let's get this done quick," Logan called back, his hand already on the camera's ring.
The camera was a large, square box the color of mahogany that was clamped to the outside of the fuselage just beside the pilot. The pilot looked through a ball and cross-wire finder to sight the picture, then pulled a ring at the end of a cord to make an exposure. To change the plates, he had to stretch his arm out into winds of up to seventy miles per hour and push the camera's handle back and forth, flying all the while with his left hand. It was a tricky procedure, but Captain Logan was an expert in the as-yet primitive art of aerial photography.
One of the massive disadvantages of photographing the battleground from the air was having to fly straight for extended periods of time. For a long while, Logan and Drake proceeded with their mission unmolested, but all too soon Drake spotted a small puff of gray smoke just below them.
"Archie!" he cried. "They've got us in their sights!"
"It's all right," Logan called back, apparently unconcerned and more than preoccupied with operating the camera. "They don't have the range yet. We've got some time."
"Um…sir…no we don't," Drake responded in a choked voice. "Look to the left. Aren't those—"
"Damn!" Logan snarled, abandoning the camera and turning his full attention to the Morane's controls.
"They're Fokkers, sir. Five of them."
"Grab the gun, kid, and hang on tight," the captain shouted. "You're in for some fancy flyin'."
The Fokkers were coming up close on their tail, hovering like flies in the clear, early morning sky. All too soon, they were near enough for Drake to make out their markings. The sight of one striped aeroplane in particular made his blood run cold.
"Sweet Jesus," he breathed, a shudder of fear running up his spine. "It's him! Captain Logan, it's the Midnight Aviator! He's right behind us!"
"Keep your head, kid," Logan shouted, swerving the Morane back and forth, making it more difficult of the Fokkers to aim at them. "If you let the stories get to you, you're giving him the advantage. Focus on firing. If you can bring a few of them down, we might actually stand a chance of getting out of this in one piece!"
"AAHHHH!" Drake shrieked despite himself as a bullet ricocheted off the Morane's wind-shield, leaving a spiderweb of fine cracks in the thick Triplex. Grabbing firm hold of his gun, he poured all his terror and adrenaline into firing----