This pastiche, inspired by Kipling's With the Night Mail
, was originally written as framing text for The Queen's Own Aerial Hussars
, part of my Forgotten Futures
role playing game, published in 2004. In this setting the invention of flight coincided with Dracula's visit to Britain, and the first aerial units were formed as a response to vampires and other supernatural threats. Vampires in this setting work by somewhat different rules to the Buffyverse. The original is here:
The technology of the setting is based on aeronefs, flying ships with air-screws and wings to keep them in the air, a common idea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They're powered by coal-dust turbines, burning coal dust instead of liquid fuel. See the game for more of the background and technology. You may notice a few references to fictional sources, and at least one in-joke for Buffy fans...
All characters and sources explicitly mentioned are out of copyright - for everything else there is no intent to infringe on rights etc.Extracts from Kipling's "With The Night Raid"
Marcus L. Rowland
On a warm autumn afternoon in October 1898 I set out to dine at the mess of the Queen's Own Aerial Hussars. It was the first time I'd visited the regiment, and I was looking forward to meeting the officers and men who have done such sterling work for Britain and humanity since the present crisis began.
I reached their base near Coventry a little early, and expected to spend a comfortable hour chatting with my old friend Captain T___, commander of the Fifth Squadron - I should explain here that there is a policy that serving members of the regiment should not be named, to protect their families and homes from unwelcome attention - before dressing for dinner. When I arrived I found that things were not to go as planned. The base was bustling with activity and the gates were closed; I was nearly turned away by the guard, but fortunately his sergeant recognised my name and was prepared to admit me. As I parked my steamer near the landing field wagons laden with shells and powdered coal rattled past, and I could see dozens of men working on the field. It was obvious that several air-ships were being prepared for flight. From the grim attitudes of some of the soldiers I passed, it was more than a drill...* * * * *
...and so it was that thirty-one men boarded the Broadsword-class air-ship AAS Balaclava
that evening; ten crew, twenty officers and men, and one supernumary journalist wearing a borrowed uniform. The commander of our gallant craft was Lieutenant P____, a keen youngster who made an alarmingly accurate guess of my weight, yelled at the ground crew to unload the requisite ballast, and rang "Full power" less than two minutes after I'd boarded. Overhead the three twin-bladed air-screws began to turn, slowly at first then gaining momentum. Scraps of litter and coal dust blew from the hastily-cleared decks, and I distinctly saw someone's forgotten cap fly overboard. With a slight wobble we rose into the air; Lieutenant P____ immediately rang for full power on the aft screws, and we began to gain speed. It was a far cry from the stately rise of a fifty-screw Navy cruiser, where every manoeuvre seems part of an elephantine ballet. In less than a minute we were above the clouds and moving forward at a brisk pace, and Lieutenant P____ ordered the wings extended.
"This is where we have to be careful" he said "Swing the wings out without slowing the lift screws and they'll tear off from the downdraught. Slow too much, before the wings are extended or we reach cruising speed, and we'll drop like a stone. Let either wing open much more than the other and we lose our balance. That's what happened to D'Urban
last month, the port wing jammed half-open at five hundred feet and they couldn't get the balance right before she hit the ground. Lucky they weren't all killed." As he spoke he deftly juggled the telegraphs for wing position, lift screws, and rear screws, barking orders to the helmsman as needed, without a wasted motion. Through the side portholes I could see the wings sweep forward, each opening fan-like to curve forward through a semi-circular arc like those of a gliding hawk. Ahead the twin guns glinted dimly in the moonlight, their metal deliberately dulled to reduce reflections. A hundred yards to port another air-ship, the Alexander
, was going through the same manoeuvres, with Flashman
and Cromwell II
on our starboard bow. We rocked slightly as a small Rapier-class, the Edgehill
, completed the evolution and surged ahead to take up a position leading the squadron. "Show-off," said Lieutenant P____, "but it's probably the most excitement he'll get tonight, the lads down below will probably be doing most of the work, with our guns to help them if needs be. The small fry just cover us with their Maxims, or maybe drop a few five-pounder bombs if we need it, but they're generally more dangerous to us than to anything we'll be fighting."
"A couple of hours to wait now" said Captain T____, leading me aft from the bridge (if a compartment the size of a small larder can really be called that) and down to the saloon. "By the way, you don't want to believe all he says about the Rapiers, they're actually very useful. Faster than us, and nippy enough to suppress threats to our troops before we run into trouble on the ground. But they're still a little temperamental, and some good men were hurt when D'Urban
These small air-ships are cramped, and twenty men and their equipment were crammed into a space little larger than a third-class railway compartment, lit by dim red lights to ensure good night vision. A hatch aft led to the engine room, and I thought of going to take a closer look at her turbines, but one glance through the opening convinced me that there was no room for sightseers. Two stokers were manhandling sacks of powdered coal to the feed hoppers, while the engineers tended to valves, dials, and a complicated network of pipes and ducts, some glowing red-hot, all the while deftly avoiding the rotating shafts and gears that make any engine room a death-trap for the unwary, in temperatures that would fry an egg if anyone dropped one on the deck-plates.
Sergeant R____ and Corporal K____ made room for me on one of the benches, and the latter passed me a tin mug of tea from an urn at the rear of the cabin. His skin seemed a little grey, and I wondered if he was quite well, then noticed the scars on his neck. He saw my poorly-concealed stare, and said "Vampire bite. Ten seconds to get bit, then a month feeling like death while the quacks pumped silver muck into me blood every few days. If they cremate me when I die they'll get enough silver back to pay for the funeral."
I asked "How did it happen?" He shrugged and said "We was clearing out a castle on one of the Scottish islands, belonged to a blood-sucker called Ruthven. Not one of your Balkan mob, although I suppose he could have been bit out there. Been around for centuries, married women and killed them, pretended to die then posed as his own son to take over the estate. Had the locals so mesmerised that they never noticed what was going on, but someone visiting the island for a holiday looked at the parish records, spotted it and raised the alarm. That was a real b_____ - he was so old that he could look more or less human, even in a mirror, and it turned out he could go outdoors in daylight if he had to. Sneaked around behind us while we were closing in on his tomb, killed two of us before he got me. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, just got a shot off before he had me, and that brought in the rest of the lads to chase him back inside. We got the servants and their families out but ended up having to shell the castle, left him buried under a few hundred tons of rubble. Mind you, that one's supposed to have come back from the dead at least twice, so we may have it all to do again one of these years." I laughed, then realised he was deadly serious. "Aged me five years, they reckon, the bite and the medicine, and my skin will always be grey now. Better than being a bloodsucker, I suppose."* * * * *
...showed me a razor-sharp claw, about two inches long, that he kept as a souvenir. "This came from the Bodmin Moor werewolf. We caught up with it after it had killed a little girl - wasn't even hungry, she just disturbed it when it was sleeping. We've got the head over the fire in the mess." He looked distant for a moment, then added "You can't think of a monster like that as human, or give it a Christian burial, it's better to think of them as animals. In a way they are, of course, they have no idea of good or evil, just mindless hunger. No way of finding out who it was originally, of course, once they're dead they never change back. I don't know what we'd do if we ever caught one alive, or when it wasn't changed."* * * * *
Sergeant R____ is an American soldier who is spending a year with the Hussars before returning home to train his countrymen in this style of fighting. He told me "We have to face facts. There have already been vampires in America, we've been lucky so far but sooner or later they'll become a real threat. There's already rumours of colonies in some isolated places - there's towns in California and along the Massechussets coast that're scheduled for a flying visit as soon as we're ready." He's not the only outsider in the company - there are Russian and German observers aboard Edgehill
, and two Royal Marines aboard Alexander.
After a few questions he handed me a Continental 'Transylvania' .47 smoothbore, much like a cut-down elephant rifle, with short thick double barrels and a bandolier of long cartridges fitted with 4" silver-tipped hardwood rods as bullets. "You've hunted big game? Then try this. Short range, and it'll kick like a mule if you have to use it, but it'll take a vampire down if you get him in the heart or head. The silver cap breaks off and stays inside if the shaft is pulled out, and that'll eventually poison him. Just don't shoot any of us! Oh, and don't waste them, they cost three shillings a round." Most of the other soldiers carried the same weapons, with larger stakes in loops on their belts, and silver-plated cavalry sabres. Some of the bigger men were loading 10mm long-barrel Mauser 'Balkan' rifles, taking longer but slightly narrower cartridges and fitted with bulky telescopic night sights. Here the base of the teak bullet is a hollow lead cup, which expands and grips the rifling like a Minie ball when fired. Range is greatly improved, but they are awkward weapons and weigh nearly eighteen pounds. It takes a strong man to fire them! A huge Scots corporal was sharpening a two-handed sword. The sergeant noticed my interest, and explained "Corporal Mc____ comes from a highland clan that has a tradition of swordsmanship. He's as fast with that as I'd be with a sabre, and he can do a heck of a lot more damage if it connects. I've seen a vampire run from him - didn't do it much good, there were two of us waiting with rifles."* * * * *
One of the corporals handed round a box of silver crucifixes, but most of the men declined them so I followed suit. Corporal K____ told me "They reckon they work if you believe in them, and the vampire believes in them, but I've never seen it. Besides, things usually go too fast to mess around. We tried taking a priest with us once, but the poor bleeder got too close to the first vampire he saw. Thought he could save its soul or something, but it had him before he'd got his bible open. I could have told him, vampires ain't got no souls. Vampires with souls, you might as well believe in angels. Still, I suppose he died a martyr."
Captain T____ gave us a final briefing. A day earlier a visiting vet had noticed odd bite marks on some cattle he was treating, and realised that everyone in the farm seemed to be a little dazed. The child of the family had mentioned seeing something horrible in the woodshed. He ended "Could be a false alarm, wouldn't be the first, but some vampires can feed on animals as well as humans. Might be sleeping in the shed by day, and coming out to feed at night. One thing to remember - there's at least one child there, and we need to make sure that she doesn't come to any harm. Assuming she isn't another vampire, of course."
The soldiers began to smear burnt cork and grease on their faces and hands. A few strapped odd periscopic devices over their left eyes, which can sometimes reveal the presence of vampires.* * * * *
Our arrival was timed to coincide with the passing of a goods train on a nearby line, its driver briefed to make as much noise as possible to mask the sound of our engines. Balaclava
glided down in eerie near-silence, with a brief burst of power to kill our speed a few feet above the ground, and landed on the far side of a ridge from our target. The other Broadswords were disembarking more troops on the other side of woods a mile or so beyond the house, while Edgehill
circled the area at height, ready to move in if needed. The silence seemed total to my ears, numbed by the noise of the flight, but in fact the engines were still turning quietly, ready to go to full power in moments if need be. Now the guns were manned and starshells loaded, ready to illuminate our attack.
Captain T____ shivered and whispered "After a while you get an instinct, and this place... it feels like the real thing. Stay close, and for God's sake make sure you know what you're shooting at."
We climbed the hill, and the men scattered into the undergrowth. For several minutes Captain T____ scanned the farm-house with field-glasses. "Nothing obvious... wait a second... there you are." He passed me another pair, and I looked at the buildings. "He's loading boxes onto the cart to the left of the house - could be coffins, or crates of earth." I could see a stooped figure, handling a man-sized wooden box as though it were made of cardboard. "No doubt about that one. When he stands upright take a look at his face, he isn't even hiding what he is. Doesn't know anyone is looking, I suppose." A moment later he obligingly stood, and I barely repressed a gasp as I saw the gruesome visage thus revealed - elongated jaws with fang-like teeth, and a feral ugliness to the rest of the face. There was something odd about the ears and cheeks, and Captain T____ whispered "Soft tissue. Must have rotted in the grave. Not as bad as some I've seen." He looked again and swore softly. "Not much cover, and I've a feeling he isn't planning to stay put. Must have guessed trouble was brewing. We'll have to do this the hard way." He fired a red flare - the evening's signal for an attack - high into the air. A few seconds later something whizzed overhead, and a star-shell burst high above the farm, bathing the buildings in a fierce actinic glare.
As the flare fell soldiers rose from cover nearer the house and began to open fire, and the vampire lept towards the horse. I could see spurts of brick dust and splintering wood as our bullets hit the wall, but the vampire seemed to be unharmed - he ducked behind the horse, then leapt onto its back and tried to ride away from the farm. For a moment the horse bucked, and I thought that he would be thrown clear, but something drew blood from the horse's rump, and it suddenly bolted.
"Good - I wanted him clear of the house," said Captain T____, "now we can really get to work." He blew three sharp blasts on a whistle, then fired a blue flare after the fleeing horse. The fields, which had previously seemed empty, suddenly filled with soldiers, rising from cover to fire at the fleeing vampire. There was a sudden roar from above, and Edgehill
swooped after horse and rider. As she passed overhead I could see the gunners manning the rear Maxims, secured by strong canvas straps to stop them being blown overboard. Suddenly Captain T____ swore: "He's heading for the railway, and another train's coming!" He fired another flare, this one yellow, then urged me to my feet to follow the fleeing vampire. Behind the hill I could hear the Balaclava's
engines roar back to life - a minute later she grounded in front of us, her propellers still spinning, and Captain T____, his men, and I scrambled back aboard, lining the ship's rails with our guns ready to fire. Forward the gunners fired more star-shells, illuminating the fleeing vampire and the other soldiers. Somehow he had passed the gauntlet unscathed, and was making for the approaching train.
"Is he using an illusion to make himself harder to hit?" I asked. Captain T____ shook his head: "We've hit him at least twice, but it takes a heart or head shot to put them down, anything else just annoys them. If there's silver in the wound he'll die eventually, but that could take hours." Behind us the soldiers on the ground were moving to surround the farm and make sure that no other vampires remained, while Edgehill and Balaclava pursued horse and rider. We'd lost time boarding, but Edgehill's gunners were busy spraying rider, horse, and the ground around them with silver bullets at thirty-five pounds the belt. "I can't believe he isn't hit!" I said, and at that moment the horse went down, its rider scrambling clear and continuing to run for the train. "Vampires are tough, and it takes a lot of silver to kill them instantly. He's dead, but he doesn't know it yet."
The vampire reached the train, which must have been making thirty miles an hour, but seemed to have no trouble catching up and climbing aboard. It leapt aboard the guards van, and moments later we saw the horribly mutilated body of the guard thrown out and the vampire working its way forward atop the wagons. "Get down there!" shouted Captain T____, and the Balaclava
swooped low above the train, while the vampire ripped its way into one of the covered wagons and vanished. At Captain T____'s urging she matched speed with the train, a few feet behind the cab of the engine, and Captain T____ and Sergeant R____ jumped nimbly to the roof of a goods van, followed by four others. We dropped back to the rear of the train, lest our wings or the wash of our propellers knock someone off the train, then dropped more men just forward of the guard's van, with Corporal Mc____ leading the party. This time one of the soldiers went over the side, plunging to the track, his leg at an awkward angle and almost certainly broken. Moved by a stupid impulse to help I moved to jump after them, but a burly private stopped me. Within seconds Balaclava
was well off to one side, and both Balaclava
were using searchlights to illuminate the roof of the train and the wagon where the vampire had gone to ground. Grimly the soldiers began to converge on it. "Tunnel in five miles," Lieutenant P____ shouted, "Eight minutes at this speed."
As the soldiers approached the wagon from opposite directions, Captain T____ began to make a series of hand signals whose meaning I could only guess at. Everyone stopped, and one of the privates in his party crouched, rummaged in a canvas bag, and somehow lit a fuse. He hurled the bag into the wagon, then everyone crouched, waiting. Seconds later there was a powerful explosion, and Balaclava
rocked sickeningly and plummeted ten or fifteen feet before levelling off and climbing. There was a loud tearing noise, and fragments of leaves and twigs swirled around the stern. "Hit the top of a tree, hope the wings are all right!" shouted Corporal K____. The wagon was burning furiously, and I was certain that nothing could survive such an inferno. I was wrong.
An awful form erupted from the blazing canvas, its clothing ablaze, and was instantly caught in the cross-fire of the waiting soldiers. In the pitiless glare its skin was bubbling and peeling, revealing the rotting flesh and bone underneath. I saw it hit three or four times, but still struggle towards the rear of the train. Corporal Mc____ was there to meet it, and despite the rocking of the train somehow swung his huge sword as any normal man would swing a golf club. It struck true, and the creature collapsed, its head completely severed from its body. Corporal Mc____ almost fell from the train, but half a dozen hands pulled him back. Balaclava
flew forward and ahead of the train, signalling for the driver to stop.
With a squeal of brakes the train slowly shuddered to a halt, and we landed beside it. Fortunately there was a stream near the track, and it didn't take long for all hands to put out the fire. Soldiers wearing heavy gauntlets and surgical masks gathered the remains of the vampire in an oilskin sack - there is reason to believe that their flesh can carry the infection even after they have been killed - and transferred it to a steel locker for the return journey. Edgehill
flew back down the track to recover Balaclava's
sole casualty, finding him limping towards us with his rifle for a crutch.
At the farm it took several hours to search everywhere and determine that there were no other vampires, although everyone that lived there had been bitten, and was to some extent under the vampire's spell. All, including the child, would have to be treated with silver; I later heard that the grandmother of the family eventually died. The herds were to be slaughtered and burned; it seemed likely that the vampire had used them to supplement its diet, and might have infected them. Eventually the barn, a coffin, and four crates of earth would also be incinerated. Three soldiers from other craft were injured; two, clawed by the vampire as it escaped, would also need treatment but thankfully made a full recovery, the last was accidentally grazed by splinters from a bullet. By the time we were ready to leave half the county was there, along with the press. Fortunately we were airborne before the mayor and other local dignitaries arrived, or we might have had to sit through half a dozen speeches.
We returned to Coventry at noon the following day, the regimental band greeting us with a stirring march as our air-ships landed and the tired soldiers unloaded their equipment and wearily went to their barracks. "Well, that went reasonably well," said Captain T____, "apart from forgetting to stop the trains on that line. Have to write that one up, make sure it doesn't happen again. Never mind, wish they were all that easy," and went off whistling to make his report. I laughed, but as I went to my borrowed bed in the officer's mess I knew that he wasn't joking.End.