The convoyed airship swept onwards across Scotland. It was fast - at least, according to its kind - but nonetheless a lumbering Leviathan compared to the tiny predatory warplanes which were forced to cut and swerve around it in far-ranging ellipses, lest by slowing their speed to that of the airship they escorted they might stall their engines and tumble from the sky. Necessity compelled those wild swoops and leaps across acres of open sky: but it lent them the advantage, too, of having a vast volume of space constantly under review by multiple pairs of eyes. It would not be easy for an enemy to sneak up upon them.
That thought was a comfort, since already one of the six escorts who had taken off that morning had unaccountably fallen behind, and though no doubt the pilot would soon reappear, having dealt with whatever operational necessity had compelled him to linger in Wester Ross, nevertheless the other five felt exposed - even, perhaps, somewhat aggrieved -by his absence.
The airship, laboriously, gained altitude to clear the range of mountains that reared up jagged-toothed ahead, and vanished momentarily into the low cloud-bank that capped them. In turn, each of the escorting warbirds took the plunge into the blindness of the cloud cover, switching automatically from sight to dependence on their instruments with the cool efficiency of long practice.
Cool efficiency, however, each pilot realised in the split-second's transition between the low winter sunshine and the clammy suspended-in-time Neverwhere that was the place inside the fog was not - had never been and would never be - enough.
For this was not, after all, just any mission. For the first time, perhaps, the eerie silence of the blanketing cloud brought home to each of them the enormity of the task on which they were engaged, and, contrasted to the scale of that enterprise, how tiny each machine's cockpit seemed, and how isolated and alone her pilot.
From somewhere - distance and direction were alike rendered meaningless by the heavy blanket of the cloud - came a dull thundering. Each pilot felt the adrenaline in his system spike; the grip of hands on joysticks changed, fingers stole towards firing buttons, eyes strained through cockpit canopies to detect shadows, movement, the presence of those Others whom that thunder heralded.
The sixth pilot's continued absence acquired a new and sinister significance.
The pilots may, perhaps, have been bad men or fools; men deluded by hope of gain or by the foetid glow of that shining evil Destiny a bare step ahead. But no-one would deny their bravery or their skill. They closed up around their charge, knowing that the slightest miscalculation of position could spell disaster, knowing themselves at last to be the hunted, not the hunters. Their course and objective were fixed; the covert preparation of years hanging on the next ninety minutes. They had not expected opposition at this juncture, but they were prepared and armed to resist it, even so.
And resist they did.
When the howling and spitting storm of molten lead burst around them they resisted still: swerving, diving, rolling; prodigal of aerobatic feats which would have won the breath of the Bank Holiday Farnborough crowds again and again had they been there to see.
On and on the enemy pilots fought their unseen unexpected enemy in the enveloping murk. They fought for their lives and their for prides - not less dear the one than the other. They were there only because they had valued the whim of the Best above the will of the Many; and they were ready and more than ready to die for that truth.
And so they lashed out - as best they might - at the harrying, barely-glimpsed ghosts who rained death in on them out of the depths of the fog, and the dark places of their own souls.
One of the original five was missing when they at length won free of the mountains and could drop again below the cloud-base with over eighty miles still to Balmoral. And their enemy remained unseen.
Grimly the four remaining pilots bent to their task. They would win this war, or perish in the attempt.
They had, after all, no option left.