Beat the Devil's Tattoo
by Derrick Perkins
A heavy knock at the door startled a half-slumbering mechanic’s apprentice Joe Miller nearly out of bed.
Sitting upright, his heart thumping, he grabbed the alarm clock on the stand next to him and squinted. It read 1:33 a.m. He had nearly another four hours of sleep before his shift on The Renegade’s engineering deck began. Miller had hoped to enjoy every minute of it.
The knocking continued as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stumbled in the dark toward the cabin hatch. With a groan, he swung the door open. Shading his eyes from the red light illuminating the corridors of the pirate zeppelin at night, he made out a blurry, but decidedly feminine form.
“O’Leary,” he blurted, recognizing the wiry woman as his eyes quickly adjusted to the longer wavelength light. Considering that the last time he received an unsolicited visitor at his cabin it had led to a near fatal duel, death-defying high dive, and a hijacking, this was a welcome surprise.
The sergeant, with a hand on her hip, reviewed him coolly.
“Do you greet all of your guests so casually?” she asked.
Miller glanced down, realizing suddenly he was naked save for a pair of underpants.
“It’s … uh … “
She slapped a thin manila envelope on his chest.
“Duty calls. The good colonel said he would have done it in person if time allowed,” she said. “Somebody went missing. Someone important. We leave in two hours.”
Miller took the envelope. It was thinner than normal, containing no more than a few pages.
“What do I pack?”
“Read the dossier,” O’Leary said, turning to walk away. “More than what you’ve got on, though. Warm, definitely warm.”
The mechanic’s apprentice swore and began ripping open the package. He suddenly felt wide awake. A cup of coffee couldn’t touch the flood of adrenaline surging through his system.
O’Leary stopped a few feet away. She turned to glance over her shoulder.
“Yes,” he replied, looking up from the scant handful of double-spaced pages in front of him.
“You don’t look half bad in a pair of skivvies.”
She laughed gently, like wind blowing through chimes, and resumed walking. Miller glanced down at himself. Well, there were worse ways to start off the morning, he supposed.
Two hours later he was attempting to board a nondescript Cessna 172, trying and failing to keep the North Atlantic wind from clawing at his skin. At this hour of the morning, the only people on The Renegade’s forward deck were the peacoat-clad crew members pulling watch; they floated eerily in the cloud bank the airship currently called home. Off in the distance, a line of blinking lights served as the sole evidence that the zeppelin’s flight control center existed.
Miller felt very much alone. He took one last look at his home and hurried up the stairwell into the belly of the light aircraft. The door thudded shut behind him as he beelined to the remaining open seat. Already, the engine was throttling up.
Glancing around, Miller saw that O’Leary, an erstwhile member of the ship’s public affairs office, sat beside him. Like him, she was dressed in heavy winter gear, her face shielded by a balaclava and a pair of heavy goggles. The hood of her jacket was up, covering what remained of her head. Across from him, Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux sat similarly attired, though he managed to make the thick clothing rakish-looking, as if he had sprung from the pages of a Victorian-era lithograph of a mountain climber.
The colonel motioned toward a headset laying on the seat beside Miller. The mechanic’s apprentice picked it up and slipped it over his ears in time to hear the pilot confirm permission to take off from the control center. Judging from the stilted accent, the errant medical student-turned-assassin-then-flyer Gustav Hanover was behind the yoke.
“Good to see you could make it, Mr. Miller,” came de Curieux’s voice, loud and clear despite the noise as the plane inched forward.
“I never miss an adventure,” Miller replied, nervously looking out one of the windows. Despite the cloud bank, he could see the flight deck hurtling past. He had read the literature on how air carriers worked and understood physics well enough to know the Cessna likely would launch from the massive zeppelin without fail. He still preferred getting on and off The Renegade when she was docked at ground level.
The sudden sensation of falling filled his gut, and Miller instinctively gripped the underside of his seat. He breathed heavily as he felt the plane straighten out and then bank westward. Somewhere below them the unseen Atlantic stretched out, cold and barren.
“An airship mechanic who doesn’t like flying,” O’Leary’s voice crackled through the headset. “There’s a joke in there somewhere.”
Miller forced a laugh.
Across the way, de Curieux motioned to get their attention.
“I would very much enjoy the banter if this was not so dire a situation,” he said. “Unfortunately, I have not been given nearly the time I would like to prepare for an outing, which explains why my dossiers made for such light reading.”
He produced his copy and flipped through the pages, selecting one with a small photograph clipped to it. He held it up so that they could see the image: a pretty young, bespectacled woman grinning, hands folded on her lap as she sat in front of The Renegade’s standard.
“I am sorry I could not name our target ahead of time,” de Curieux said. “Naturally, I trust you two intimately, but old habits die hard and I would hate for rumors to spread. Do you recognize her?”
O’Leary shook her head while Miller gasped.
“That’s Isabella Hull, chief of engineering,” he said. “She’s a legend. She took everything The Renegade had going for it and improved upon it. Half of the electrical systems technically operate at 150 percent because of the workarounds she designed.”
“Correct, which makes her disappearance while on liberty cause for significant concern,” de Curieux said.
“I dunno,” O’Leary said. “Lots of people come and go on The Renegade. They meet a nice guy or gal, decide to retire from air piracy, get a corner job somewhere with benefits. She wouldn’t be the first to jump ship at a port of call.”
“That might be the case if it weren’t for distress signal an imaginative radio operator picked up last week. A sequential burst of high and low waves on a frequency The Renegade regularly uses for mundane communications. The operator, curious and following a hunch, converted it to old Morse code. It was an SOS broadcast. With her initials included.”
“Who the hell would kidnap an engineer?” O’Leary asked. “Especially one who works for The Renegade. That idiot’s asking for trouble.”
“Exactly,” de Curieux replied. “But just consider for a moment the trouble you could make with the help of someone like Hull.”
“She knows the ship better than anyone,” Miller said. “If I wanted to learn her weak spots, the chief engineer is the one person I’d ask.”
“That’s certainly one possibility, and perhaps the most immediately concerning,” de Curieux said. “Her rescue is a priority. Thankfully, the signal was traced. We are due in northern Vermont in the next few hours.”
“A ski trip?” O’Leary asked.
De Curieux offered a faint smile.
“I am glad to have your sense of optimism with us,” he said. “If there is time, I suppose. I have a nasty feeling that we will be spread quite thin, though. Any other questions?”
“Why send only us? I’d think Captain XO wouldn’t be pulling his punches on something like this, or at least I’d hope not,” Miller asked.
“The Renegade has an … understanding with the government of the United States,” de Curieux said. “Subtlety is key when dealing with the provincials. A few favors have been called in already to allow the passage of an unmarked, unaccounted for aircraft into U.S. airspace.”
“I’ve got one,” O’Leary said. “The hun is up in the cockpit and you’ve got me and the mechanic here. What are we, extra sets of eyes? It sounds like you want muscle and the big guy is nowhere to be seen.”
It had not occurred to Miller that Logan Winters, the New Zealander with a penchant for weaponry, was not with them. He felt suddenly even more alone than before. Terse and fearless, maybe even half mad, Winters was a good friend if you were in a bad way.
“Duty called,” de Curieux said, spreading his hands apologetically. “It seems the Bold Air Hussars had need of him.”
“Damn,” O’Leary said. “I feel like we’re going in with one hand tied behind our back. At least Miller won’t have to work too hard to make up for the loss in conversation.”
“My hope is that this is a matter a few choice words and the possibility of war zeppelin’s sudden appearance will clear up,” de Curieux said.
They sat in silence for a moment, the hum of the engine not loud enough to cover their imaginations at work.
“Do you really believe that?” Miller asked.
De Curieux shrugged.
Turners Falls, Vermont
Miller pulled the binoculars and let out a deep breath, sending a funnel of fog up into the overcast sky. From his vantage point on the deck of a small cabin sitting on the beginning slopes of Mount Chenoo, he could make out most of what constituted the town below him. Though situated not far from a popular New England ski resort, Turners Falls never seemed to have cashed in on the nearby success. He counted a pair of motels, three bars of varying allure and a handful of churches outside of the usual cluster of small shops befitting any remote village. You knew you were up in the north country when the local population could support a full-time butcher but not a Dunkin’ Donuts, he thought.
“Quaint,” said Hanover in his peculiar accent. Miller, who had not heard him come up from behind, jumped.
“How do you do that?” he spat.
“Practice,” the pilot said.
Before Miller could think of a good retort, they were joined by de Curieux and O’Leary. The colonel looked tired--they all were after the bumpy flight--but there was more than jet lag in his eyes.
“Beautiful country,” de Curieux said, nodding to the mountains hemming in Turners Falls. He smiled in a wistful manner that left Miller thinking he, too, would rather have been preparing for a day slopeside.
“Right,” de Curieux continued after a short pause to enjoy the scenery. “As soon as the source of the transmission was determined, Captain XO sent an associate here in the States to lay the groundwork. He will be expecting me shortly for a cup of coffee at the local diner. We are to be old friends, getting reacquainted. Hopefully, he will have running start.”
“How will you know him?” O’Leary asked.
“Tried and true espionage tactics,” de Curieux said. “He has been going to the diner for breakfast every morning since his arrival wearing the same pin. When I spot it, I will have found him.”
“And us, how may we assist?” Hanover asked.
“You shall stay. In the event of unpleasantness, we will need a survivor to contact The Renegade,” de Curieux said. “Sergeant, you and Mr. Miller will enter the diner before me. You will not know me. You will instead be a young couple taking a break from skiing. In fact, Mr. Miller, you injured your ankle yesterday and are recouping. There is a pair of crutches in the closet. Feel free to elaborate with anything you find in the medical kit.
“Stay until my meeting concludes and keep an eye on both us. And I would very much appreciate it, sergeant, if you kept a sidearm tucked away.”
Hanover, Prussian as always, snapped a salute and took the pair of binoculars from Miller. For his part, the mechanic just nodded. A cup of coffee and hearty meal sounded good. O’Leary, though, gave de Curieux an appraising glance.
“You don’t trust him?”
“If you dabble in air piracy long enough, you will make many friends,” said de Curieux. “Too long, and they will force you to remember why they were pirates in the first place.”
He turned and began walking down the steps to one of two rugged four-by-four pickups they had procured with the rented cabin.
“You’ve known him the longest,” O’Leary said as the engine fired up and the truck pulled out of the driveway headed the mile or two into town. “Ever seen him this upbeat?”
“No,” Miller said. “It makes me nervous.”
“Well, that’s not saying much, at least.”
Miller made no small attempt at chivalry, trying to open the door to the diner for O’Leary while resting the bulk of his weight on unfamiliar crutches. He nearly fell flat on his face for the effort.
“Easy, killer,” O’Leary whispered, steadying him. “Don’t really hurt yourself.”
He flushed, but accepted her help, and together they made it inside. The Mountain Side Grill was about what he expected from the outside. Two banks of booths with faded and torn benches led up to a counter. A couple of tired, but cheerful waitresses dressed in matching uniforms patrolled the interior, balancing platters of warm food on their shoulders. For such a small town, the place was practically bustling with customers. Miller recognized the types instantly: There were no suits here, just a lot of work boots, reflective vests and leather gloves. Nearly everyone was wearing a wool-knit cap despite being inside.
He eased into a seat and gave the room a hopefully subtle search. There were a few loners sipping on coffee or eating eggs, but none that particularly stuck out to Miller. O’Leary did the same before grabbing a pair of menus from amongst the stack of condiments. She handed one to Miller.
“There you go darling,” she said and chuckled.
“Thank you dear,” he replied. “You’re too kind.”
They sat quietly until the waitress approached, weathering the painful tick of the clock. When she asked for their orders, O’Leary leaned forward.
“I’ll have the eggs benedict and my wounded hero here will have as big of a heaping of biscuits and gravy as he can get. I want him to be all healed up as soon as possible.”
“Sure, honey,” the waitress replied. “Get into a little trouble on the mountain yesterday?”
“I love that he still tries to impress me,” O’Leary gushed. “But hitting the moguls was a bad idea.”
The waitress smirked a little.
“Better recover quick. There’s a big storm rolling in and tomorrow should be a powder day,” she said, and took the menus.
“You’re enjoying this, huh,” Miller said after the waitress departed.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been out on a date. Let me have my moment,” O’Leary said. “What do you want to talk about?”
“I’m not really sure. I was planning on just keeping an eye out. Like we’re supposed to be doing,” he replied.
“Oh lame,” she said, waving a hand. “De Curieux wants us to play the role. And nothing looks less conspicuous than a couple not talking over food. Have you ever been in a restaurant where a date is going badly? It’s like watching a train wreck. You can’t look away.”
He leaned back in the booth.
“Well, what do you want to talk about?”
“What should we name our dog?”
“If we’re going to be a couple, we need to have a pet. I’m thinking a big German shepherd that looks all tough but is really a sweetheart.,” she said.
The bell atop the door tinkled and Miller turned to see de Curieux enter. Like a chameleon, the military attaché had swapped out his usually dashing attire for more innocuous dress. There were no hint of noblesse, no flashes of chivalric flare. Instead, de Curieux wore a simple winter coat, driving gloves, scarf and flat cap. He had swapped James Bond for George Smiley.
“Trouble,” Miller said.
“Already?” said O’Leary, her face suddenly impassive.
“That’s what we name the dog. Trouble,” Miller said.
He leaned back, trying to ignore the temptation to fixate on de Curieux. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the colonel head down a row of booths before frictionlessly sliding into one. He plopped his gloves onto the table and leaned over to pass hushed words with the equally nondescript man across from him. In seconds, the two were deep in quiet conversation.
“It’s rude to stare,” O’Leary said, forcing Miller to turn his attention back to her. “What kind of house do we live in? Actually, where are we from?”
“No house. An apartment in Jamaica Plain. I’m on the tenure track and you’re trying to launch an Internet startup based around selling things using pretty photographs on Instagram,” Miller replied as the waitress returned to fill their mugs with coffee.
“Ooh, what do you teach?” O’Leary asked.
“Applied engineering,” he said.
“Boring. Way too boring for my social media maven,” she said, sipping at the coffee. “My man is teaching classics. I love it when you sweetly whisper Seneca quotes to me.”
“The Roman statesman. What did you learn in college, anyway?”
“How to fix things, mostly, and not kill myself in the process,” Miller replied. “Some theoretical stuff, too.”
He glanced back at the other booth. If anything, the military attache’s normally tan face was even more pale and drawn.
“See anything good over there?” O’Leary asked.
“Just two joes talking over a cup of coffee,” he said, glancing away.
Their food arrived and, despite the tension, Miller found he was hungry. He eagerly dug into the food.
“At least he still has a healthy appetite,” the waitress said, smiling at O’Leary.
“Don’t I know it,” she replied, patting one of Miller’s hands lovingly. “He’s a tough soldier.”
Miller ignored the attempt to get a rise out of him and continued eating. With de Curieux, there was no way of knowing when they would have another chance at a meal, let alone a good one in a restaurant.
He was so busy engorging, he did not see the colonel’s acquaintance get up to leave until O’Leary rapt his knuckles with her knife.
“You better finish up fast,” she said, fishing around her parka for the wad of American dollars that constituted their expense budget.
De Curieux lingered a while longer alone, waiting for the waitress to saddle over with the bill. After she moved on, he dropped a bill and stood, patiently reapplying his cold weather gear. Then he, too, departed, never once looking over at the obviously curious couple enjoying a late breakfast on a weekend ski trip.
“How much time do we give him?” Miller asked, putting his utensils down.
“Ten minutes or so, would be my--”
She sprung up as a gunshot cracked outside. Then another. The massive window pane facing the street shattered, raining glass down on the interior.
Miller instinctively threw his hands up over his face. Screams of terror rose all around him. O’Leary already was out of her seat, handgun drawn from its hidden home. She sprinted toward the front of the restaurant as the gunshots continued.
Bringing his hands away from his face, Miller quickly checked to make sure he was unharmed. Seeing no blood, he stumbled into motion, following his companion out onto the quiet street.
He expected absolute chaos, but instead the scene was eerily subdued even as a burst of automatic gunfire sprung up. A few motorists swerved and floored their engines in an attempt to get out of the way. There were no pedestrians to run and duck for cover, only snow falling gently from the sky.
Where was de Curieux? Miller wondered before the rattle of gunfire from down the street convinced him to seek cover behind a parked car. He threw himself flat against the station wagon.
“Miller, I need your help,” O’Leary shouted from across the street.
He raised himself up just high enough to look over the hood before another hail of bullets ripped into the car’s side panels, sending him back to the ground. All he had managed to see was the body of de Curieux’s contact, lying prone in a pool of blood and brain matter in the center of the road.
“Miller, now,” O’Leary hollered.
The urgency in her voice sent him to his feet. Heart pounding in his head, he dashed blindly around the front of Volkswagen. Following the sound of her voice, Miller hurtled the last few yards, throwing himself down and rolling between a construction Dumpster and a neatly stacked pile of lumber. He sat up and looked around. He was still all alone.
“In the truck, idiot,” O’Leary screamed.
Finally, he saw them. A gap of a dozen or so yards separated Miller from the four-by-four, passenger side door ajar. He still had no idea where the bullets were coming from, but if he had to guess it was either the rooftops or the second story windows above the main street’s shops.
That quick assessment did little to soothe his nerves. To make it to the truck, he would again be out in the open. Though the shooters were not particularly accurate, all it took was a lucky burst.
Seeing no other option, Miller got to his knees and leapt forward before his muscles went weak from fear. In a flash, he was out from between the construction supplies and hurtling toward the door. He expected to fall, stunned from the crushing force of a bullet ripping through his thin skin, at any moment. Instead, he made it to the door without hearing a single gunshot.
He tossed himself in, finding O’Leary in the driver’s seat with de Curieux hunched over in the middle seat. He was clutching his shoulder, blood squeezing out in rivulets between his fingers.
The trio were reunited for only a few seconds when the gunfire began again, this time concentrated on the truck. Miller realized only as the rear glass pane shattered why he had been spared in his mad dash from the Dumpster: Bunched together, they made an excellent target.
“Keep your head down, sir” O’Leary shouted, shoving de Curieux further down in the seat. He sank without protest.
She dropped the truck into reverse, the tires screaming as they built up traction on the snowy ground. Without a seatbelt to secure him, Miller flailed around the cabin, trying--and finally succeeding--to get the door closed behind him. O’Leary jammed the gear selector back into drive. The tires roared in protest a second time as she stomped on the pedal.
One hand on the wheel, eyes fixed on the road ahead of them, O’Leary stuck her sidearm in Miller’s face. He stared at it.
“Take it,” she hollered, and he snatched it from her fingers. The weapon felt heavy and clumsy in his hands as he groped for a proper grip on it.
“What do I do with it?” he shouted over the gunfire and the engine.
“Shoot. Back,” she growled as the truck lurched forward.
Miller tried to aim, but as they picked up speed, he gave up. Instead, he fired blindly out the shattered rear window, knowing he was breaking about half a dozen of the gun safety rules he had been taught in his time as a member of The Renegade’s crew. The thunderous blast of each pull of the trigger reverberated in his bones.
He stopped as a gut-wrenching left turn sent him sliding against the passenger side door. O’Leary had shot through the town’s seemingly only set of traffic lights, ignoring the red light, and cranked the wheel.
“Hang on,” she cried belatedly, and the truck picked up speed again.
It was all he could do to follow her instructions as O’Leary performed a series of evasive maneuvers taking them back halfway across the small town before circling back and heading for the mountain. It seemed a lifetime would pass before Miller’s heart would resume beating normally.
Finally, she lowered the speed of the truck closer to the town’s posted limits. Miller checked the gun, it was empty. He wondered if he had hit anything.
“How we doing, Colonel?” O’Leary asked, eyes on the road.
“In the words of my favorite comedy troupe, it’s merely a flesh wound,” he said, but Miller detected a hint of pain.
“However, I may still require medical attention from our German companion,” he conceded. “Promptly, if possible.”
He nodded down; the length of his sleeve had taken on a crimson hue.
“Miller, fix a tourniquet and then call ahead. I want Hanover ready to go,” O’Leary said, her voice a notch too loud either from the partial deafness brought on by close action or adrenaline. “Tell him to let The Renegade know we’re coming home.”
“Belay that last part,” de Curieux said, sitting a little taller in his seat. “The situation here is far too dire.”
As Miller fumbled for his phone, O’Leary gave de Curieux a questioning glance.
“There is only one way we could have been made so quickly,” de Curieux said. “Only a few knew of the chief engineer’s disappearance. Only Captain XO, myself, and our contact in town knew we were coming.”
He winced as they hit a frost heave.
“We have been betrayed.”
In the wooded mountainside, only the cracking of great white pines and soft pitter-patter of snow covered the whoosh of four sets of cross-country skis cutting through the white wilderness. Miller took up the rearguard in the single-file line, doing his best to stay in the track cut by the other members of the team. Growing up skiing, he had thought this expedition might be one he was, for once, uniquely prepared for, but the heavy rucksack on his back and AP4 LR-308 hunting rifle made each slide of the ski awkward and uncomfortable.
Looking up at the unfriendly, clouded sky, Miller mused over his own mortality yet again. The promised storm had arrived, and visibility fell as they ascended in elevation looking for the pass de Curieux had found on the map. Though the rate of snowfall varied, Miller figured the region had picked up a foot and a half since the early morning, judging by the depth of the powder covering his skis. Sunset was only a few hours off and all of them were exhausted.
But de Curieux had insisted, as Hanover bandaged him back at the cabin, that traversing Mount Chenoo was the only option.
“The situation is dire, indeed,” he had said, holding a glass of scotch as Hanover hurriedly cleaned the wound. “The information I received at the diner was not at all reassuring.”
“It’s probably all lies,” Miller said, trying not to look at the gushing blood. “The guy double-timed us.”
“I can detect a lie quite well,” de Curieux said. “He was telling the truth. Considering the trap laid for us, there would be no reason to lie. The gentleman behind all of this expected us--well, me--to be dead soon after. Unnecessary fabrications might have alerted me to our danger earlier. Given that our erstwhile friend lost his head in the ensuing exchange, the man orchestrating our destruction likely was quite assured of our fate.”
“Fine,” O’Leary said. “I believe you. But why do we have to do this? You’re hurt, our cover is blown and the authorities have to be crawling over this town by now. Let’s call The Renegade and ask for an exfil.”
Hanover, a thread and odd-looking needle in hand, nodded. Then he got to work. De Curieux grimaced as he shook his head. The bullet apparently passed through his shoulder, leaving behind a terrible-looking flesh wound.
“I will be fine. I just need a tonic,” he said. “And the snow, which has been falling heavily since this morning, hopefully will leave this mountain town cut off from the local officials for a bit. Long enough for our purposes.
“Because we survived that encounter, we hold a chance of catching our opponent off-guard. Yes, he will know we are coming, and he will prepare for our arrival. Regardless, as long as I have the opportunity to finish this in one go, I will take it.”
Miller sank back into his chair. The old wood creaked behind him as it gave against his weight. He had misgivings. O’Leary had made hers clear and Hanover looked about as enthused as ever.
“We don’t even know who or what we’re going up against, though,” he said.
“Fortunately--or unfortunately--I believe I do,” de Curieux said. “Before arrival, I perused local news accounts and public records. A massive swathe of land owned by a now-defunct paper company changed hands six months ago. The entire backside of this mountain was bought by a limited liability corporation by the name of “Ad Sepientiam Enterprises.
“A local environmental organization seeking to purchase the land and put it into a conservation trust was not pleased with its sale to a secretive third-party. They agitated enough that one of the area newspapers began investigating. While not quite the Times of London, they did an admirable job tracing the ownership to a former professor of physics in Massachusetts. His name is Blackwood, Degory Blackwood. Based on what our informant related, he is up to his old tricks.”
De Curieux paused as Hanover finished his bloody work.
“You got a history with this guy?” O’Leary asked.
“A bit,” de Curieux said. “We knew one another at Miskatonic University. We only collaborated a few times and often disagreed with what represented the fruits of our joint labor. He is as brilliant as he is devoid of humanity. It is imperative he is blocked at all avenues, at all times, at all costs.”
Miller glanced at O’Leary. She shrugged.
“Do I get to bring dynamite?” the sergeant asked.
And now they were trudging up a mountain in a snowstorm, climbing to meet the low hanging clouds. Miller’s breath came ragged as they bypassed rock outcroppings and patches of gnarled undergrowth. All of them wore white snow gear, making it increasingly harder for Miller to distinguish them. O’Leary, in front of him, had a distinctive sashay as she slid through the powder, but Hanover was only identifiable by the sniper rifle slung on his back. De Curieux seemingly vanished.
As hour bled into hour, Miller found his focus slipping from the mission. What was Miskatonic University? He had never once heard of it, despite going to school in Massachusetts. He was so busy rattling off the names of colleges he knew, he nearly bumped into O’Leary as the team came to a stop on an alpine ridge.
De Curieux pulled a pair of binoculars from a pouch and flipped up his ski goggles. As Miller and the rest of the team gathered around him, he motioned for them to take cover. Miller propped himself up on his elbows and peered over the rocky edge and down into the white expanse. There was seemingly only row after row of snow-covered northern white pine and the howl of the wind as it cut through the mountain range.
For an eternity, it felt like, they sat there, the cold seeping through their heavy gear. Hanover, who had taken up a spot at the very edge of the group, obeyed an unseen order and unslung the long sniper rifle from his back. He pressed his face against the scope.
Glancing back and forth between Hanover’s weapon and de Curieux’s binoculars, O’Leary leaned over until her face was next to Miller’s.
“I’m starting to feel left out,” she said.
“That’s me pretty much every mission where I’m not handling a wrench,” he whispered back. “Welcome to my life.”
“Do you know what they name of this mountain means? I looked it up before we left the cabin. I thought it had a funny ring to it.”
“No idea,” he said. “Is it French?”
“Not really,” O’Leary said. “It’s Abnaki-Penobscot. The Chenoo are something like zombies or white walkers. Their hearts have turned to ice and they consume the souls of the living.”
Miller turned from the valley to stare at her.
“Thank you,” he said. “I really needed to know that.”
“Right? It’s so apropos,” she said.
De Curieux shuffled closer to them and passed over his binoculars.
“There,” he said. “Right out in the open. The camouflage is just enough to prevent easy identification from a satellite pass. Blackwood’s hubris knows no bounds.”
O’Leary took the pair first and gave the valley a good once-over. Then she passed them along to Miller.
The world became clear as soon as he put them to his eyes. Miller could not guess at the technology that went into what looked like an everyday pair of field glasses, but suddenly he could see through the storm. So startling was the transition that it took a second to register the scene before him.
Gradually, the pine, birch and oak trees became increasingly obvious fakes, erected to cover a maze of dirt access roads. Lorries outfitted with plows, painted brown and green to blend into the background, zipped around despite the buildup of snow. White-clad humanoids--a few armed--thrummed over the valley, waving directions, unloading goods and shouting over the wind into portable radios. The centerpiece of the anthill of activity took his breath away better than the cold: a massive cigar shaped aircraft bristling with turrets, buttressed by launch pads.
Miller nearly dropped the binoculars.
“She looks like The Renegade,” he sputtered. “Goddamn. They rebuilt The Renegade in Vermont.”
De Curieux nodded.
“Normally, I could assume it a reverse-engineered knockoff, the type the Chinese are speculated to possess, or a less capable model, the kind The Renegade has forced down over Eastern Europe,” he said. “But with our chief engineer likely in their clutches, we must conclude it can, at least, match our capabilities.”
The colonel sighed and looked back out over the edge of the ravine.
“Before Ms. Hull went missing, she was working on a very important upgrade. I can only hope she has managed to keep safe the details of the project,” he said.
“She looks ready to launch,” Miller said, handing back the binoculars. “But compared to Wick, the middle-of-nowhere New England seems like a bad place to use as a staging area.”
“If I am Blackwood, assembling a ship here makes sense from a logistical standpoint. The risk of being found out is mitigated by the speed with which to construct the vessel. The locale also boasts access to both raw and finished materials as well as financial support and technical expertise. After that, though, I am willing to wager he has a more appropriate base of operations at the ready.”
De Curieux took another glance at the airship through the field glasses.
“There’s only one option: Disable her before she can lift off,” he said.
“What about Hull?” O’Leary asked.
Miller saw the colonel wince behind his goggles.
“A secondary concern now, unfortunately,” he said. “Rescue if possible. Downing this abomination is our primary goal.”
He looked at each of them in turn, before speaking further.
“I am generally equipped with a clever, if reckless, plan of attack, detailed all the way through,” he said. “This is no longer the case. As such, I cannot order you to accompany me. My plan is to ski down, abscond with a vehicle and launch a direct attack on the dirigible.”
Miller leaned back and breathed in heavily. He had never yet said no to the colonel. This was a big ask, though.
O’Leary, meanwhile, patted her rucksack.
“You’re probably going to need demolitions. Lots of them, too,” she said. “I’m in.”
Hanover, who had since gone back to reviewing the situation through his scope, glanced up for a second.
“I am at your service,” he said.
De Curieux looked to Miller.
The mechanic’s apprentice finally shrugged.
“The crew chief keeps saying I’m better at breaking things than I am at patching them up,” Miller said. “If you can get me inside her, I can see that she doesn’t fly for a while yet.”
De Curieux clapped his hands together, and a smile flashed across his face.
“Excellent. The spirit of the Pals battalions lives on,” he said. “Here’s what we’ll do when we go over the top.”
Slipping unnoticed into the hive of men and materiel surrounding the airship proved easy. At least, Miller thought so, despite falling off his skis once on the trip into the valley. He, O’Leary and de Curieux had hidden their pairs beneath brush near an unguarded motor pool where the demolitions hobbyist showcased her hotwiring skills.
“Got me out of a bad spot once in college,” was all she said as the engine on the oblong Oshkosh supply vehicle came alive.
Hanover remained a distance behind, perched on a rock outcropping with his sniper rifle. The last Miller had seen of him, the German had been sucking on snow to obscure his breath.
Though it remained early afternoon, night had very nearly fallen in northern New England. After a few minutes, O’Leary was forced to switch on the headlights, though the reflection from the falling snow nearly eliminated any visibility gained from the illumination. Despite the inherent danger of the slippery roads, she revved the engine.
“I say we rig this thing with the C-4 I brought and send it straight into the heart of that zeppelin,” O’Leary said. “I volunteer to steer. I want good seats for the light show.”
“You’re a woman with a hammer,” de Curieux said, snorting. “I appreciate the offer, but if she’s built anything like The Renegade, it will leave no more than a scratch.”
“I don’t like your plan,” she replied. “There’s no dash to it.”
Miller nodded. What de Curieux proposed lacked any of his usual flourishes. They were to get as close to the airship as possible before splitting up. O’Leary and he were to approach the maintenance crew entrance while the colonel used one of the boarding lifts to make his way to the bridge. If he could not disable the controls, then maybe they could damage the turbines. In a perfect world, they both succeeded.
De Curieux had warned them not to shoot if possible. If they did have to shoot, he had said, make a show of it. Miller had realized then how much they missed Winters, the stalwart small and heavy arms expert. At least Hanover would offer some level of overwatch from his perch.
“Say it all goes well,” Miller said. “What then?”
“Get out and look to the heavens for help,” de Curieux said as the Oshkosh rounded one last bend and the airship came into view. The sight of it so close gave Miller pause. Painted crimson and black, and adorned in banks of blinking lights, she looked like an outer space ray gun from a 1930s comic book. Long belts fed her an endless supply of crates--foodstuffs, ammunition and spare parts. Take off looked imminent.
Differentiating the crew from ground support was easy enough. Where the ground pounders wore white to hide in the snow, the airmen stood out in tight-fitting navy blue uniforms. They did not, Miller thought, appear all that far from Bold Air Hussars in dress.
“Pull up over there,” de Curieux said, pointing to a spot between two humvees. “Everyone get out very casually. Like tired military personnel.”
“Not exactly going to have to do much acting,” O’Leary growled, slipping the vehicle into place.
They hopped out and onto the frozen ground. Miller had forgotten how cold it was outside of the cab of the supply vehicle. For a moment they all looked around. No one had taken notice of them yet.
“Well, then,” de Curieux said. “Fortune favors the bold. I will see you again, I am sure.”
As O’Leary and Miller nodded farewell, he departed, walking briskly toward the uncovered, lattice-work elevator that seemed to stretch up toward a command deck. O’Leary watched him go for a beat and then tugged on Miller’s sleeve.
“Remember,” she said. “Act all casual-like.”
“Roger,” Miller said, following her.
Together they trudged off to the right, where they assumed the maintenance crew entrance could be found. If the airship was based on The Renegade, then the entry points were offset from the loading ramp, nestled between the giant turbines. Miller did his best to act as if he knew where he was going. He suspected O’Leary was doing a better job of it, judging from the bounce in her step.
The hunch paid off. The area around the great airship was nearly deserted, another sign of an imminent departure. Though it took a bit to walk nearly half the length of the dirigible, they found the hatch without trouble. A small, portable step ladder led up to the entry, meaning the ship already had achieved lift. As they approached, Miller placed a hand on the mammoth’s underside. She was vibrating--the giant turbines were running at half power, he figured.
O’Leary tapped the keypad and the door swooshed open. The locking mechanism had not yet been engaged.
“Either they don’t expect us,” O’Leary whispered, “Or they just don’t care.”
She looked at Miller.
“The way things have been going, I’m putting money on the latter,” she concluded.
O’Leary motioned for Miller to take the lead. Out of the two of them, he supposed he likely knew the layout best. They crept through a lengthy corridor before Miller found what he figured was a ceiling access hatch to the forward starboard turbine. If he could get inside and adjust the timing on the cylinders, it would effectively knock an engine out of commission.
In combat, a zeppelin like The Renegade could maintain lift and a measure of maneuverability down a turbine even two. Ascending without all turbines firing properly was generally seen as unnecessarily risky. And, hell, if they didn’t get caught, he could always knock out another for good measure.
Boosted by a sudden surge of confidence, Miller yanked on the handle, opening the hatch. A ladder dropped down from the ceiling. Too good to be true, he thought.
“You, you there,” called a voice. “All nonessential crew are to be at their stations.”
Miller glanced over and saw one of the navy blue-clad officers at the far end of the corridor. He opened his mouth, searching his mind desperately for a good lie, but O’Leary beat him to it.
“Last minute mechanical inspection,” she replied. “Crew chief has a funny feeling. Wants to double-check everything is running smoothly for liftoff.”
Miller shrugged. That was as good as anything he could come up with.
“The crew chief has a funny feeling, really?” the officer asked, walking stiffly toward them. “I did not know that.”
He stopped and reached for a sidearm holstered at his belt.
“And I should, seeing as I am the head of engineering on The Grafvitnir,” he said, the gun coming free.
O’Leary shot first, the blast deafening in the cramped confines of the corridor. The officer hollered in pain and rage, and bent over, clutching at his knee. She rushed forward and pistol-whipped him over the head, sending him to the ground in a hushed crumple.
“In the words of my hero, it was a boring conversation anyway,” O’Leary said, and pointed at Miller’s rifle. “Better get that at the ready; we’re going to have company.”
Trouble arrived before Miller could wipe the look of shock off his face. It announced itself with disorganized shouting and a barrage of bullets. Unnaturally coolly, he raised his rifle. He began to pull the trigger, ignoring the richotets, until he felt O’Leary’s hand on his shoulder.
“Let’s go,” she shouted over the din of close action. “It’s too hot and there’s no cover here. I’m not dying like this.”
He let the rifle drop to his side and turned to follow her. Together, they seemed to bound down the hall in slow motion. He thought he saw sparks as shells nicked the metal walls and grated floors. That they remained alive seemed a miracle.
With O’Leary in the lead, they leapt back down the entryway from whence they had come and out into the cold, dark storm. Time resumed its normal pace, and Miller realized he had been screaming--a shrill war cry. He only stopped when the wind swept through his jacket, stealing his breath away.
Bullets kicked up dirt and snow as O’Leary pulled him toward an abandoned John Deere M-Gator. The sole bit of machinery not yet evacuated from the launch area, it was their only chance. It made a poor man’s Alamo, Miller thought as he squatted down, idly wondering if he could remember how to reload his rifle or if he would have to ask O’Leary for help.
A trio of counterattacking crewmen sprinted down the gangway after them, guns blazing as they pressed their advantage. Miller braced for the expected storm of bullets to riddle the squat all-terrain vehicle, but it never came. Instead, he watched as, one-by-one, they dropped in a haze of blood and strangled cries.
“I guess someone is looking out for us,” O’Leary said. “I owe the Kraut a nice bottle of pilsner when we get back to Scotland.”
“You and me both,” Miller said, fighting hard to rip his eyes from the gruesome tangle of bodies.
“How are you for ammunition?” O’Leary asked.
Miller stared down dumbly at his rifle.
“Uh … um,” he stammered.
She grabbed it from his hands and swiftly began reloading.
“Remind me to show you around one of these at the range when we get back, too,” she said.
“It’s a date,” he mumbled. Despite the sudden death of their compatriots, the surviving--and reinforced--crew was beginning to get bold again. A bullet here or there cracked over their heads.
O’Leary, though, took no notice. She smiled brazenly at Miller.
“Aww, a second date,” she said. “And I thought this morning was kind of a disaster.”
That made him laugh. He had to laugh. There was nothing else to do.
“I hope de Curieux is having as much fun as we are,” O’Leary said, shoving the rifle back into Miller’s hands. “Now make sure you point that in the right direction.”
Hands in the air, de Curieux could not hide a wince when the clatter of gunfire billowed up with the increasingly gusting winds. He very much disliked the sound. It brought naught but ill tidings.
“Did you really think a handful of pirates could take on my entire operation?” the man holding a gun across the way from him said.
“But now again my spirit biddeth me stand and face thee, whether I slay or be slain,” de Curieux replied. “There was never a choice, old friend.”
Degory Blackwood stepped forward on the desolate landing deck, favoring his left leg. The wound from Magersfontein had never healed satisfactorily, de Curieux saw. A pity medical treatment had been so poor in that place. They truly had been young men then and laughed and drank in the company of death. Blackwood, still tall, dark and handsome now, even with the dash of white in his beard, had shed the youthful carelessness of those days. The infection that came with the injury had slowly spread to Blackwood’s heart, leaving him embittered and twisted.
“I’m glad to see you remember your Greek,” Blackwood said. “It has been so very long since I’ve had an intellectual conversation. How I wish we could do it over a glass of scotch. I believe I have the brand you favor downstairs in my cabin.”
“Perhaps another time,” de Curieux said. “I have an appointment back on The Renegade. Captain XO, I am sure, sends his regards.”
“That fool,” Blackwood said, stopping just inches from de Curieux. “I will pay him my respects soon enough.”
He scowled and waved his Kimber 1911.
“Lower your hands, for God’s sake, man,” he said. “Have some dignity. I will release you from your cursed life in good time.”
Relaxing his arms, de Curieux glanced around the empty deck. Somewhere below the rattle of gunfire continue, occasionally punctuated by deliberate blasts he took to indicate Hanover’s involvement from the ridgeline.
That part, at least, had gone to plan.
He turned back to Blackwood, studied his weathered face.
“Why Degory? You are no air pirate,” de Curieux said. “A scientist and academic of note, of course. I have no doubt you could learn to captain a vessel of this size, but the purpose of it all remains elusive, even to me.”
“Inquisitive until the end. Fitting. I might ask the same question of you,” Blackwood replied. “But you were always more interested in living life than understanding it.”
“Certainly more than manipulating it,” de Curieux said.
Blackwood tapped the side of de Curieux’s face with the barrel of the pistol.
“Don’t get cheeky,” he said. “Governments and militaries across the globe have studied the success of The Renegade closely, analyzing your campaigns and tactics. They are not alone. I have merely capitalized on outside business interests.”
He smiled devilishly.
“In return, I have a paid-for state-of-the-art zeppelin for which to pursue my own interests when time permits. My stake in the proceeds from our backers’ various undertakings will fund those investigations,” Blackwood said. “It’s all very simple.”
“You must know, though, that Captain XO will never stand for it,” de Curieux said stiffly. “I may die here, but he will never stop fighting you.”
“You will die here,” Blackwood said. “And The Renegade will fall from the heavens in good time. Your chief of engineering was quite cooperative after a few days in my care. It won’t be long before The Grafvitnir is undetectable by radar.”
He smiled as his eyes grew distant.
“I have foreseen it, the Renegade’s demise,” he whispered. “I can picture her adrift in the clouds, The Grafvitnir running silent alongside her, hidden. Salvo after salvo of Tesla cannons--lightning from angry gods. The confusion and shock and stink of blood and diesel.”
Blackwood snapped back to the here and now.
“It will be quite beautiful,” he said, “watching The Renegade fall aflame from the heavens.”
Miller had always wondered if you could truly smell fear, and he had learned that yes, you could. He stank of it, he realized, as bullets tore the air around him.
“You could shoot back, you know,” O’Leary shouted, reloading her rifle again.
Miller steeled himself and wildly fired at the entrance of the zeppelin. The situation, he saw, was not improving. Although Hanover’s mercilessly accurate fire kept the shipboard crew at bay, more and more white-clad ground pounders were arriving on scene. Slowly, the duo was becoming encircled.
Ducking back down, Miller stared at O’Leary.
“Tell me you have a plan,” he said.
“Nope,” she replied, rising to take his place on their makeshift fire step.
“The good news,” she said, sliding back down to his level a few seconds later, “is that I am nearly out of ammunition. So this isn’t going to matter in another five minutes or so.”
“Do the Geneva Conventions apply to air pirates?” he asked.
“No, but we have a code,” O’Leary replied. “It’s pretty fast and loose, though. Something, something, no quarter.”
Miller sighed. He glanced up at the blackened sky. The wind was howling, the snow falling in sheets. If it weren’t for the lights illuminating the airship, total darkness would swallow them up. A fitting landscape to die on, he thought.
He was turning to mention it to O’Leary when a deep growl rose through the storm. The earth around the little bullet-riddled gator seemed to rise up in spurts, as if clawed at by an invisible hand. The same force swept aside the encroaching enemy, swatting them down in droves and scattering the rest.
A boxy, triangular-shaped helicopter cut through the darkness. Then another. And another.
“Goddamn,” O’Leary yelled, laughing like a hyena. “Those are Comanches. I always knew they made more of those then they let on.”
That meant nothing to Miller, but he was plenty happy to see the logo freshly painted in bronze on their midsections: the Corinthian helm flanked by eagle’s wings favored by the Bold Air Hussars. The trio was closely followed by another party, this group shepherding in larger Chinooks, which Miller did recognize.
Despite the buffeting winds, the tandem-rotor helicopters began disembarking heavily-armed soldiers. As they fanned out, the lead attack craft made a second pass, this time unleashing Hellfire missiles into the side of the zeppelin. The flash from the explosions temporarily turned night to day.
Miller stood as any resistance to the sudden onslaught melted away. Over the thrum of chopper blades and the buzz of rotary cannons, he heard the engines of the airship roar to full capacity. She was lifting off, storm be damned, Miller thought. He watched her rise with admiration, nearly oblivious to the squad of Hussars bounding over to the duo. Though they had shot at him mere minutes before, he gave the crew credit. They were brave or insane, and either way, he did not envy them taking flight in this weather.
“Winters,” O’Leary yelled joyously, clapping her hands together. Miller tore away from the rocking zeppelin to see a mountain of a man approach them. Hefting an M249 SAW, the New Zealander uncomfortably returned the enthusiastic sergeant’s hug with one arm.
“Yep,” he said, patting her on the back.
Isolated bursts of gunfire sprung up as members of the airship ground crew regrouped in pockets off in the distance. Meanwhile, The Grafvitnir gained altitude, nosing its way toward escape despite repeated attempts by the Comanches to pierce her hide.
“Where the hell did you come from?” O’Leary asked, ignoring the shriek of the rockets overhead.
“De Curieux gets a lot of leeway, because he goes way back with Captain XO,” Winters said. “But the boss isn’t exactly keen on letting a good friend go off and get himself killed. We were in the air just after you left. It just took us a minute to get into position stateside.”
Miller shook his head in wonderment. He had never been so happy to see anyone.
“I’ve never seen the Hin action,” he said, admiringly. “I’ll have to start giving them more respect around Wick.”
“We’re not strictly hussars. This is an ad hoc, combined arms expeditionary unit,” Winters said. “Captain XO calls us Deus Ex Machina.”
He shrugged at their silence.
“He says it’s funny.”
They all looked up as ear-splitting scream cut through the air. A terrific, crackling bolt of blue ripped through the sky. It slowly dissipated into the night, but not before sending several of the Comanches into evasive maneuvers. Though The Grafvitnir was nearly completely shrouded in the cloud cover by now, Miller could see jagged streaks of electricity play out over a Tesla cannon. More and more of them were coming on line, he saw, rotating as the gun crews prepared for air-to-air action.
The attack helicopters responded in kind, raking the airship with missiles and bullets. Empty casings rained down on the trio, mixed in with snowflakes.
“You guys know de Curieux is still up there, right?” Miller asked.
Winters let out a long breath.
“If all goes right, not for long,” he said. “This could get dicey, though. Usually does.”
De Curieux clung to a loose bit of cable as the zeppelin danced in the storm. That he was alive still remained a feat of no small note. Despite his bounding self-confidence, Blackwood had not yet developed air legs. When the ship rose, trembling and bucking in the wind, he lost balance. De Curieux used the momentary slip to knock the gun from his adversary’s hands.
But even a man well accustomed to the eccentricities of a zeppelin in ascendance could not wholly predict the movement induced by the storm and battle. He found himself beside Blackwood on the deck, his exhausted body sliding toward the railing and, beyond it, vast nothingness. Frantically, he had grabbed hold of the railing as the airship juked.
Now he was clinging for life, the ache in his shoulder growing ever harder to ignore, as the ship reverberated with the discharge of Tesla cannons. At least, Blackwood was similarly indisposed, he saw. The other man had scrambled to one of the bay doors, using the frame to steady himself. The distance between them was measured in meters, and the 1911 was nowhere to be seen, it likely having slid off the deck’s edge.
As de Curieux looked for options, he was distracted by a helicopter improbably weaving its way through the arcing, cobalt Tesla bolts. Smiling with relief, he loosened his grip on the cable and worked his way closer to the threshold.
“De Curieux,” Blackwood screamed. “Get back here. You’re mine.”
“You had your chance,” de Curieux called back. “Better luck next time, friend.”
The helicopter swung around, giving the GAU-21 gunner the a line of fire. The gatling gun breathed fire as round after round riddled the deck. Blackwood dove into the interior of the beast; the last de Curieux saw of him was his bad leg, trailing limply behind as he sought shelter.
Keeping low, and with one hand on the cable just in case, de Curieux hurtled toward the hovering helicopter. Finally, he leapt into the arms of the welcoming crew. As the helicopter banked away--alarms screaming in the cockpit as the pilots fought to keep her under control--de Curieux followed the airship with his eyes. The Grafvitnir was swinging south, toward the Atlantic seaboard and a thousand different potential hiding spots.
“Colonel, we have a direct link to The Renegade,” the comms officer hollered over the clamor. “Captain XO is requesting a sitrep.”
“Copy,” de Curieux said. “Report critical mission failure. Main objective remains in enemy hands. Enemy airship is aloft and operational.”
He watched another flurry of missiles explode futilely on the airship’s hardened exterior. There was no stopping The Grafvitnir.
“Tell him I will resign my commission immediately upon return to The Renegade,” de Curieux said.
The comms officer nodded and relayed the information while de Curieux shook his head in frustration. They had done all they could, he supposed.
The officer tapped him on the shoulder and leaned over.
“Captain XO says to think more like MacArthur, less like Cornwallis,” he shouted. “Resignation not accepted. He wants a real sitrep.”
The helicopter swung low over the landing zone. Bold Air Hussars had illuminated the area in flares, and de Curieux could see teams of men weighed down by arms and ammunition securing the perimeter. In the middle, beside a bedraggled-looking all-terrain vehicle, stood O’Leary and Miller. They were both talking excitedly to a bulldozer-sized man de Curieux took to be Winters. A little further away, a lanky felling hefting a sniper rifle was skiing his way toward the trio.
That brought a smile to de Curieux’s exhausted face. He leaned back in his chair and looked to where he had last seen The Grafvitnir. It had vanished into the cold northern sky. Amazing, something so large could slip away so easily.
Not for forever, though.
“Tell Captain XO that Degory Blackwood is at the helm of a Konig-class zeppelin, with villainous intent,” de Curieux said. “All manner of blackhearted scoundrels will flock to his banner. He will be scourge upon the air.”
The colonel paused.
“Tell him Blackwood is beating the devil’s tattoo.”