Outside the cockpit, the clouds turned until they leveled with the canopy framing. Nathaniel Cannon felt his weight settle back into his seat, rolled his Kestrel fighter into a gentle turn, and took a look around.
The sun settled toward the horizon, casting bronze light off the clouds, puffy and scattered. Ten miles north, Cannon’s zeppelin Inconstant ran for a line of dark squalls further ahead. Ten miles south, HMS Sparrow of the Royal Naval Air Service gave chase. Two thousand feet below, sunlit specks danced a deadly dance, linked by lines of tracers. Cannon’s pilots flew cautiously, knowing that if they were shot down, they would be picked up by the British and doubtlessly hanged for air piracy.
Looking over his shoulder, Cannon saw Joe Copeland’s Kestrel in loose formation a hundred yards away. A slender forward fuselage held the .50- and .70-caliber machine guns, flaring at the cockpit and then swelling further to accommodate the coaxial twin radial engines and aft-mounted propellers that made these modified Kestrels some of the fastest planes in the skies. Narrow, sharp-edged wings tipped with vertical stabilizers swept back from just behind the cockpit frame.
Cannon’s radio crackled, carrying Joe’s deep voice through the static. “‘Nother flight of bombers southeast of the furball, boss. Four of ’em.”
Cannon thumbed his microphone switch. “Roger that,” he said, leaning to the left to look out the side of his cockpit. “I can’t mark them,” he added after a moment, throttling back. “You take the lead.”
Joe’s plane slipped ahead, then rolled into a dive. Cannon followed him, spotting the bombers as he settled onto Joe’s course and watching as they slid from the left of his windscreen toward his gunsight. He twitched the controls to line up ahead of the third bomber in the formation, judged the lead to be about right, and pulled the triggers. A long line of bullets filled the sky in front of him, chewing into the right-side engine nacelle of the bomber, then walking up the wing toward the fuselage. Ahead of him, Joe opened fire, and Cannon nudged his stick to bring his sights over the tail-end charlie. Smoke poured from his first target’s stricken engine, and it fell out of formation, turning back toward the British zeppelin.
The gunners in the remaining bombers finally realized they were under attack, and tracers flashed up toward Cannon. He ignored them, firing a long burst into the fuselage of his second target. Flashes peppered the aircraft’s flank as the bullets struck home, and as Cannon whizzed by beneath it, he caught a glimpse of flames licking at its tail. Glancing in the shaving mirror hanging from the bar over his head, he saw the bomber trailing thick, black smoke. Behind it, parachutes popped open.
Joe’s fighter, still ahead, pulled up into a steep climb, and Cannon followed him. As they leveled off, he saw only one of the enemy bombers still on course for Inconstant. Joe wheeled about to dive on it again, and Cannon circled overhead, scanning the skies for incoming threats.
He hadn’t planned on tangling with the Royal Naval Air Service today, but a patrolling British flying boat had chanced upon him over the Indian Ocean, and soon after his pilots had forced it down, they’d spotted the Sparrow making a beeline for Inconstant. The two zeppelins and their air wings were evenly matched, more or less, and that spelled a fair fight Cannon didn’t have the time for.