How I Fell in with Air Pirates, Part 9
Andrew woke up slowly and stretched. As he did, he suddenly realized he was not in his bunk, but rather he was in the Lazy-boy recliner that he kept in his cabin, and he had no idea why. Sleeping in the recliner always left him stiff, the drawback of being over 40, and that was the exact feeling he was experiencing now. He blinked a couple of times to clear the sleep and then leveraged himself up a little straighter and looked around the dimly lit room, then he remembered.
Talia and Grace were still sleeping in his bunk, right where he found them when he returned to his cabin after the Renegade left Greenock. He had another bunk that he could have set up above them, but he had decided not to disturb them, and just use the recliner for a few hours of sleep. As he quietly shifted the chair out of the recline position so he could put his feet on the deck, he again questioned that decision. Yeah, getting older has its drawbacks. Rubbing his face, he decided there was no point in trying to sleep more, so he stood up and went over to the bags that he had brought into the cabin before he crashed for the night.
True to his word, the Captain XO had called the Kommandant up to Greenock in order to fully resupply the Renegade for an extended overseas trip. The Kommandant’s crew brought plenty of drink, bacon, snacks, ammunition, and clothing for everyone, whether they wanted it or not. Andrew was thankful that Badger’s wife took it upon herself to pack some bags for his family, and that she delivered them personally to him, not trusting Badger or anyone else to handle them.
Digging through the one for him, Andrew pulled out a change of clothes before going into the bathroom to shower and change. He didn’t shave, it was Monday after all and he had shaved for Church the day before, but the shower did help him to wake up and wipe away some of the memory from yesterday evening. Andrew pulled on clean pair of khaki cargo pants and a red long sleeve shirt with the Renegade logo emblazoned on the upper left front, then he stepped back into his room to put on boots, grab his holster and a jacket. Once he had everything together, he headed out the door of his cabin, leaving his wife and youngest daughter to sleep some more.
Initially, Andrew wandered around the decks, passing crew that were on duty, stepping over others that had passed out on the deck from their drinking, and praying to himself that his oldest daughter would stay safe and praising the actions of the crew in their attempts to rescue her. Eventually he arrived at the Plunder and Lightening for something to eat. When he entered there were a couple of crew members doing the same thing, and Kiwi was at her usual place behind the bar keeping an eye on things, with Yoda lazing in front of her occupying one hand.
Andrew smiled as he walked past her heading for the table of food. “Good morning, Kiwi.”
“Good morning Redleg. Or should I call you Sean now?”
Andrew chuckled as he grabbed some bacon, biscuits, and honey butter. “Redleg or Andrew is fine,” he said. “We made the choice to change names and shed the old life. It wasn’t easy, but we knew we would never be able to go back. Plus, with new names our families back in the States can’t be threatened with anything. It kind of sucks, but we knew it was the best way to go forward.”
Kiwi nodded as she continued to stroke Yoda’s fur and Andrew sat down at the bar.
“Yeah, I can see your point. Ok, Redleg it is. So, would you like your normal Mountain Dew (CAPTAIN’S COMMENT: I literally shuddered when I read this) or a Hot chocolate?”
“Hot chocolate please,” replied Andrew. “A regular mug now and a thermos mug to take with me when I go. It’s just chilly enough to need something warm.”
Kiwi smiled again, “No problem.” She turned to go grab a mug, much to Yoda’s displeasure as he sat up to look and see where Kiwi went. This caused Andrew to laugh out loud, something he immediately regretted as Yoda then leapt off of the bar-top and crashed directly into Andrew’s chest causing him to drop his bacon biscuit back onto the bar as his hands grabbed the cat. The force of Yoda’s “attack” could have knocked Andrew off the stool he was sitting on if he hadn’t already had a foot under the foot-rail.
“Dang it, Yoda!” Andrew snapped as he stared into the cat’s eyes that were now less than an inch from his own. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Yoda started to purr, loudly, and Andrew swore the cat smiled at him. From behind the bar Andrew heard Kiwi, “It’s a good thing he likes your family, Redleg, otherwise I’m not sure he would let you out of here without a good shredding.”
The purr got louder.
After his breakfast and surviving the encounter with Yoda, Andrew grabbed the thermos of hot chocolate that Kiwi had prepared. He headed out so he could check out the gunnery stations before he headed up to the CIC to get a status of their travels so far, and to see if Jerri had any better data on their Target in Utah.
Andrew knew that Gilead was headquartered in Utah, but he was never able to get anything more detailed. He avoided any kind of internet research, not wanting to open himself up to any back-tracing, and really the best info he came across was open-source news and recruitment tracts. Even then, the facts were thin; most of his knowledge, such as what he knew about the ‘Eyes’, was based on personal experience.
The most relevant information that he’d come across was some news articles comparing The Handmaiden’s Tale with Gilead, but even that involved some guesswork. Anything that was denied or explained away, Andrew took that as confirmation that it was true. Considering how everything had gone so far, he felt that they were still behind in the information game.
His morning checks were also a habit during missions. It let him check on the gunnery crews, discuss the upcoming mission (and potential loot) with them, and follow up on anything from past discussion. He knew that Smoke Cooper would tell him if there was anything critical with a gunnery member, but Andrew also knew that it was just good leadership to get in and around the crew. He checked the ventral turrets first, then went all the way down to the dorsal ones, before coming back up to the main deck on the starboard side and then heading forward so he could loop around and check the port turrets.
As he went past the forward hold to head down the port side, he was suddenly aware that another member of the crew was with him. Smiling, but not looking, Andrew spoke out loud, “Good morning Vlad, how are things?”
A chuckle, then a reply. “I’m good Andrew. How are you? More importantly, how are Talia and Grace?”
“Still asleep, thankfully,” said Andrew. “Let’s see how things go today. Yesterday was not something I ever thought we’d go through and I have no idea how they will be when they wake up.”
“Interesting thought considering your past,” Vlad continued, “I always knew there was more to you and your family, but I decided that your business was your own.”
Andrew paused before replying as he ducked his head into Turret #4. The crew was awake, not drunk, and no one was duct taped to the bulkhead. Everyone nodded and the chief gave a thumbs up, so Andrew moved on and replied to Vlad. “Not talking about it was a form of protection. If no one else knew, then they couldn’t talk about it in a bar where others could overhear them.”
Vlad nodded in understanding. “Oh, that’s not a criticism, and I completely understand. Most of the crew do not know a lot about me either and I will admit that I do my part to help perpetuate certain rumors in order to keep people guessing. In fact, I think your daughters know more about me than anyone else.”
Andrew had just traded nods with the Port Lookout, so he wasn’t fully listening to Vlad and now that last comment confused him. “Wait, what?” said Andrew as he gave Vlad a surprised look.
“What?” was Vlad’s confused reply.
Andrew stopped to look at him. “What did you say about my girls knowing stuff about you?”
Vlad smiled. “Aahh, so they’ve kept their word. I knew I could trust them.”
“Vlad” Andrew growled.
“There’s nothing to worry about” Vlad said evenly. “The two of them have an intellectual curiosity to learn and a disdain for the ‘Twilight’ books. We’ve spent quite a bit of time talking when they’ve been on the grounds of Castle Wick. They even help perpetuate the rumors about interns.”
Andrew cringed and then continued to walk towards Turret #5. “Suddenly I’m not feeling so good about allowing my girls to wander the grounds. On the bright side there’s no Department of Child Welfare that’s going to start asking questions”
Vlad chuckled. “Your girls are stronger than you think. I believe you’re the one who always tells people to have faith?”
Andrew stopped at the turret and then turned as he replied, “Yeah, that’s true. Thanks for the reminder.”
“What are friends for?” Vlad gave a toothy smile. “I’ll check in with you later.”
Andrew smiled back and then he ducked into Turret 5. Martin was on duty, and he looked up from his still as Andrew entered. The two stared at each other, then Martin smiled and offered his flask to Andrew, knowing full well that Andrew didn’t drink. Andrew just held up a hand and smiled. “No thanks. How are things?”
“All good,” Martin replied. “No reason to have a full crew when we are making a speed run, plus I needed the time to try a new brew.”
Andrew held up his hands. “As long as it doesn’t put you in sick back, I’m good”
Martin laughed. “One time I don’t verify an ingredient, and you never let it go.”
“Hey, I’m just glad you’re here” replied Andrew. “Also, that was some good shooting last night, thanks.”
Martin toasted Andrew after the compliment, then he took a drink of his new formula. His face tightened up as if he bit into a persimmon, then his watering eyes snapped open and he let out a blast of air. “Woah, that hit the spot. Yeah, I think we’ve got a live one here.” With that he sat back in his chair and Andrew thought he was about to pass out. Instead, Martin smiled and looked back at Andrew. “Oh yeah, this will be fun to go through with the rest of the crew.”
Andrew chuckled. “Good to know. Ok, I’m headed to CIC.” He went back out of the turret and headed back amidships until he arrived at the CIC, nodding at a member of the Zouves that was on guard duty as he went through the hatch. Not surprising, Jerri was inside with her team of intel specialists. What was surprising is they were packing up and as if they were about to leave the room.
“What did I miss?” asked Andrew.
Jerri looked up and realized Andrew was there. “Oh, hi Redleg. We’ve got a brief for the staff in the P&L in a few minutes. Didn’t you get the word?”
Andrew shook his head. “Nope. When did this come down?”
“We just sent it out over the ship’s intercom.”
“Aahh, apparently the intercom isn’t ‘working’ in Turret #5 again, I was just there talking with Martin.” Andrew smiled then continued, “Color me shocked”.
Jerri smiled knowingly. “Come on, we’ve got some information that I think will interest you.”
Andrew followed Jerri back down to the P&L. Kiwi had drinks and snacks out, and Andrew could smell the next meal cooking already. Teriyaki chicken, probably on skewers. Grace would like that; she was a chicken fiend. Andrew got to his place and found another mug of hot cocoa waiting, so he figured he would keep the thermos for later. He saw that Angel was helping Top with his food, despite his grumbling that he could do it himself, while Turbo, Kim, Loggie, Smoke Cooper, and several others were already seated.
As Andrew sat down, Captain XO walked in, followed by the ship’s library staff. XO headed for his spot, an extra-large coffee mug in his right hand. Andrew looked up at the ship’s clock that was over the bar and saw that it was still before noon “ship’s time.” That meant that the mug only contained coffee.
Actually, Andrew had been wrong about what was in XO’s coffee mug so many times in the past that there was no telling what was in it. It was still entertaining to guess.
“Ok, Deuce,” said Captain XO, “what have you and your wonder geeks dug up on these cultists?”
Jerri looked around the room and then nodded to one of her analysts. The first picture appeared on the large screen TV that dominated one of the bulkheads, and suddenly the mood in the room jumped through the roof as everyone there had the same thought. The Renegade was going to make Bank.
“This is the Temple of Gilead,” Jerri said, “and as you can see, it’s covered in gold. Not just gold leafing on the flat surfaces, but also statues and other ornamentation. As best we can tell, the building was built to rival Saint Peter’s Basilica in size. It’s definitely got the upper hand in the gaudiness department. The walls and pillars are solid, lots of stone and iron went into the building. From what we’ve found out, the entire population of Gilead can fit inside, assuming the information that we have on their total population is accurate, more on that later. We’ve also confirmed that in addition to all of the gold, the temple has a lot of other decorations that are either precious metals, precious gems, or art works. If we manage to grab all of it, our most conservative estimate is that everyone’s net worth is going to triple, and the retirement fund won’t run dry until long after our great-grandchildren are dead.”
Top let out a long whistle, which summed up the feeling in the room. Andrew was in shock, he had no idea that Gilead had that much wealth, and obviously had no idea where they got it, or how they had built this Temple.
Finally, Badger spoke up. “Oh goody, what do we get to steal first? Hehehehe.” That brought a round of chuckles to the room and a smile to Andrew’s face. “More importantly” said Captain XO, “where is the temple dand where did they get this wealth?”
Jerri smiled in reply. “Coming to that boss, next picture.” Now everyone was looking of a map of Utah. The Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake City were easily identified, as was the town of Provo. Right between them, was an X indicating the treasure site that the Renegade was aiming for, because of course an X always marks the spot.
Seeing that X, Andrew did a double take, but PSG Kim was the first one to speak up.
“Hey, that’s where we hit the gold train two years ago, and where we picked up Redleg and his family.”
Jerri nodded. “Correct. Apparently after that raid, Gilead moved in and took over the community of Bingham Canyon. I wasn’t part of the crew then, so I can’t speak to the damage you did, but from the photos we’ve obtained the entire place has been rebuilt and upgraded. Our evaluation is that Gilead used the local gold and other building materials to build their temple. They also used the threat of future air pirate attacks as a way to control the population. What we can’t figure out is how they did it all in two years.”
XO snorted. “Ok, we know where they are and where at least the gold came from. I’m guessing the rest is from donations from their followers and such?”
“That’s part of it,” Jerri agreed, “we are pretty certain the rest comes from their transport operations, both legitimate business and the smuggling that they do. In fact, we found a correlation between their missionary work and missing art and treasure from various parts of Europe, Central America, South America, and Africa.”
“That explains why some of our raids have been coming up short in expected high value treasure.” This came from Cindy Lou, the resident curator and appraiser of rare stuff. “That’s annoying, we put a lot of work into planning for those items, it cost us.”
Captain XO looked at Cindy and nodded in agreement. “So more for our haul after we rescue Morgan, and potential opportunities to ransom back a lot of stuff. This operation is going to more than pay for itself.” He then turned back to Jerri. “Ok, what about the population? How many shooters and supporters of the cult, and do we have any idea how many people may simply be trapped in their circumstances?
Jerri shook her head. “All we can tell for certain is that the population is definitely a mix of real supporters and those being compelled. Everything that Gilead releases to the public is nothing but praise, but we’ve found evidence that there is a lot of dissatisfaction, especially among the people that already lived in Bingham Canyon. The problem is Gilead seems to be pretty effective at killing off critical voices of former members. A lot of dead critics makes for a lot of people not wanting to draw attention to themselves.”
“I can appreciate that,” said Andrew. Jerri nodded in agreement.
Top then spoke up from his seat. “We know how to keep from killing civilians, but do we know anything about the mystery creature that attacked us? Or if they have any more?”
Jerri shrugged. “We don’t know, and that’s not my area of expertise.” She then looked at Captain XO. He shifted in his seat, took a drink, and then began to talk. “So, 2 years ago, we picked that particular gold train because the gold in this region is of a distinct quality, with certain impurities that certain people claim are mystical. I learned later that the reason for the impurities is due to the mine having an actual mystical connection due to how deep it goes. That creature that attacked the Zouaves was from the mine.
Top stared at XO. “Wait. Are you saying that we fought a Balrog?”
Instead of XO, it was Chimaera, the Librarian and Archivist, that answered. “Balrog’s don’t have tentacles, so no, you didn’t fight one. Besides, if one still exists, it would be in England and we would have heard about it long before now.” Top sighed with some relief but then kept looking at Chimaera, waiting for more information. He was not disappointed. “We’ve dug through our own books and papers, and we’ve found some references to that creature. As best we can translate, it’s called a behemoth. You’re lucky you survived, you also demonstrated that they can be killed.”
“The temple is built directly over the mine where it came from,” said Jerri, “could it be drawing ‘power’ from whatever is down there where this behemoth came from?”
Chimaera nodded. “That’s what we believe. Gilead’s use of the gold isn’t just for decoration, it’s to give them control over the people, and I am assuming it gives them a combination of control and power enhancement for any other behemoths. It’s also a valid explanation for how they rebuilt so fast. The sooner we can take out the mine, the better.”
Andrew frowned. “The electrical conductivity of gold is going to cause problems with the Teslas, and I imagine the mystical properties won’t help. Plus, the malleability of the gold is going to dampen the effects of any explosives. We’re not going to be able to blast our way in with anything in our inventory.”
“Yes,” said Chimaera, “we need to find a way around the Gold, not just so the Teslas will work, but also to dilute the power of Gilead. It’s an interesting conundrum that I don’t have an answer for.”
“What if we used the Teslas to melt off the gold first?” This came from Smoke Cooper, who was obviously already thinking of a way to do just that.
Chimaera looked back at Cooper and smiled. “That would work I think, then we just have the stone and iron framing, nothing in our research shows that’s a problem, it’s just regular earthly material.”
“How long to adjust the Tesla’s, Smoke?” asked Andrew, “And what will it do to their effectiveness against other targets?
Cooper smiled. “Don’t worry boss, with what I’m thinking, it will mean the creation of a new power setting that gunners can switch to. The only drawback is the amount of time it will take to set up each Tesla. I think I can have two of them set up before we get to Utah, but I make no promises about more.”
Andrew smiled back. “Two should be sufficient. Do numbers 4 and 6, that way we can cover the front and both flanks of the Renegade.” Then Andrew turned to Captain XO. “Melting the gold also means we can recast it into bars for transport.”
“Nice.” XO then looked back at Jerri. “Ok, as much as I want to stare at gold and imagine swimming in it, what are the defenses that we need to take out first?”
Jerri clicked a key and the photo changed. “From what we’ve learned we may face Dirigibles similar to what we fought in Greenock, but no other air power. We’ve seen no signs of any air defense assets but I anticipate we could see some ground mounted Teslas similar to what the Q-ships had. We have confirmed they have a police force that appears to be a paramilitary organization and it’s larger than our own ground force, but we haven’t found any evidence or information that they have anything more than small arms. Knowing the capabilities of our teams and the Renegade, I do not assess the police to be a significant threat. The big question is: what other paranormal surprises do they have?”
Leaning back in his chair, XO took another drink form his mug as the rest of the staff waited to hear his guidance. After a few more seconds, their patience was rewarded. “We prepare for anything and everything. If it points a weapon at us, then we put it down with a head shot. If it’s in a brown dress, assume it’s another one of those tentacled behemoths and put it down with a head shot. If it is running at you screaming bloody murder, just shoot it in the head before it turns into something that will give Vlad nightmares. But remember, if anyone surrenders, we take them captive. We might be air pirates, but we do not engage in wonton destruction when there is a potential for innocent bystanders to be there. Now based on how these cultists acted in Greenock, I doubt any of the true believers will surrender, so if someone does, they are probably being held against their will. Secure them quickly and then move on to finish whatever objectives each team is assigned.”
He took another drink and looked back at Jerri. “Anything else Duece?”
Jerri nodded. “As a matter of fact, there is. Within the last hour, we’ve picked up some chatter that both Bermuda and Miami are expecting raids from the Renegade in the very near future. We don’t have anything specific from Miami, but everything out of Bermuda is screaming hysterically that the island has been marked for plunder. Are you running some kind of recon that I don’t know about?”
Captain XO’s eyes narrowed at the question. “If I was, I wish I would have told myself about it. Anything else besides the SIGINT?”
“We also intercepted the “Mark” in question, though it’s more of a graffiti tag. We pulled it off of the secure channel that the North American Federation uses.” Jerri clicked her keyboard again and the picture changed to show some red graffiti, written on what looked like a door. The message was simple: “The Renegade Cometh.”
Written below those words were the letters WDWST and then a caricature of a smiley face that looked like it was either beaten up or hung over. “This was tagged on the inside part of a bathroom door at a bar on the aerodrome in Bermuda.”
Contemplating the graffiti, XO looked closely at the message. “It’s simple, but not bad. Now if I was going to have anyone tag a target, it wouldn’t be placed inside a latrine. That is nowhere near the level of boldness and ostentatiousness that I require for warnings whenever I feel like giving them. At least they took up the entire door.”
“Okay,” Jerri replied. “So, it wasn’t one of your retainers that you haven’t told me about? I just need to be sure for my own analysis.”
Captain XO shook his head. “No, you might not know all of my contacts, but you know all of the assets we use. If I sent someone out to cause some disinformation or prep a target with some psy-ops, you would know.” Jerri nodded in acceptance as Captain XO continued. “Now the mystery is, who is out there tagging places we’ve never been with threats that we are going to raid them? Bermuda would make sense if there was a Muscovy Yacht convention, but it’s more of an R&R spot and the locals try really hard to maintain a sense of neutrality. Miami makes no sense. It’s easier and more profitable to pick off airships and yachts that are outside of the 12-mile limit then it is to tempt fate and get inside their air interdiction zone. So, is someone playing games or is this some kind of false-flag operation by the NAF?”
The Captain’s question was met with silence for several seconds, until Andrew spoke up. “Neither, it’s Morgan leaving a trail.”
XO turned to face Andrew. “There’s not enough in that bit of graffiti to assign it to anyone specifically. I know you want your daughter back, so do the rest of us, but don’t read too much into this.”
“I’m not,” Andrew replied. “We have a white board at the house for messages and reminders. Morgan has abbreviated the motto on it several times. We Drink and We Steal Things. WD WST. The flair in the W’s is just like what she draws at home.”
XO thought for a few more seconds before replying. “I’m beginning to doubt that you really are an evangelical Christian if your oldest daughter knows our motto and she’s barely old enough to drink.”
This brought a smile to Andrew’s face. “You’re welcome to join us for a Bible study, then we can discuss it further.”
XO simply snorted in reply, then he turned to look back at the picture of the graffiti. “Bermuda is along our route; it shouldn’t be hard to chat with the locals and ‘convince’ them that we won’t pillage the island if they simply give us rest and relaxation rights for our return trip.”
Several hours later, and the Renegade sat at the edge of the landing strip for Bermuda. Captain XO announced several times that the Renegade was only dropping by to investigate who was telling lies about its intentions. Based on the airships and yachts that stayed or fled, that was a good indication of who believed him and who didn’t.
The Captain, Redleg, and Talia disembarked and headed towards what looked like the terminal, while Viking and his merry band of hooligans masqueraded as linesmen in order to keep the Renegade in place, while also being prepared to mount a short notice rescue if needed. The rest of the crew did a great impression of looking as drunk as possible (which for many wasn’t hard) so they could give the appearance that the Renegade was no threat at all.
When Puck confirmed that Bermuda was right along their flight path, XO ordered the Renegade to plan for a visit. Normally, this would involve the insertion of a number of HUMINT assets to assist with scoping out a target and finding the best places to drink. In this case, since they were seeking information about the McCall’s daughter, he decided on a different approach.
“Ok,” he said right before they departed the ship, “you two are coming because Morgan is your daughter and you may notice something that no one else would. Plus having a female along can put those we are meeting at ease”, then he pointed at both of them as he continued, “but, neither one of you are trained in interrogation or intelligence gathering. Let me ask all of the questions. You two are there to observe, got it?”
Talia gave a sharp nod. She knew she was out of her element, just being on the Renegade was outside of her element, but she wanted her daughter back. If Captain XO wanted her dressed as a member of the crew, and with him for this visit to Bermuda, she would do it.
Andrew gave a simple ‘Check,’ which caused XO’s eyes to narrow. Andrew typically used ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘Check’ to acknowledge Captain XO’s orders. ‘Yes Sir’ meant he would follow the orders to the letter. However, if he replied with ‘Check’, then he reserved the right to ‘improvise within the Commander’s Intent’ as they had both learned back in the US Army. On one hand, XO knew that Andrew understood the limits that he could operate under. On the other, XO was looking forward to the day that Andrew exceeded those limits, forfeited his stipend for whatever raid they were on, and became subject to air-keelhauling. Would this be the day?
XO didn’t know, but he managed to hide a smile as he said, “Let’s go.”
All three were dressed comfortably for the weather. Comfortable trail shoes, cargo shorts (much to Talia’s dismay), and loose-fitting polo shirts with the Renegade logo emblazoned on the upper left. All three also had sidearms concealed under their shirts while XO and Redleg both had a short cutlass at their sides.
As they walked, XO and Redleg both noticed a couple of places on the ground with dark stains and a lot of flies. They exchanged glances, but neither said a word about the signs of blood being spilled; no reason to worry Talia. As they approached the terminal, they passed by the door to the Bermuda Rest, which opened and a very tall and dark male, who was probably Bermudian, yelled at them. “Are you here to clean my door?” The group stopped and stared, then XO answered. “That depends, let’s see it.” The Bermudian stepped back inside, and the trio followed.
Inside they found an establishment that could be described as a bar and grill if one were being friendly. A pair of ceiling fans were trying to move the air, and it was fortunate that the windows were open to let in daylight. There were tables and chairs scattered around, a few patrons that were eyeing the group, and a few more that were oblivious to their surroundings. Someone that was probably an employee was scrubbing the floor, trying to get up what looked like more dried blood. Andrew was starting to wonder what happened before their arrival.
The Bermudian led the way over towards the ladies’ room, only the door was off of it’s hinges and leaning against the wall. In red writing, the three could read the graffiti that matched what Jerri and her crew had intercepted. Their host turned and pointed to the door.
“We found that last night after the gun battle that those idiots from the Drunken Swan started. I don’t know what they did to annoy you, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t take it out on my aerodrome. They were wrong to start a fight, we pride ourselves on being a neutral safety zone that anyone can come to. I don’t know what you have against them or why you may be working for those crazy Gilead’s, but we don’t want any trouble here.”
Talia made a noise like she wanted to say something, but Andrew grabber her hand as XO spoke. “The Renegade doesn’t work for Gilead; in fact, we are pursuing a family member that was kidnapped by those sick cultists.” Andrew continued to be amazed at how XO could sound both sincere, polite, and ice-cold serious all at once. “If you know something about that, then we would appreciate any information you can give us.”
The Bermudian kept looking at the Captain, blinked a couple of times, then spoke again. “If that’s true, then you need to talk with Angie.”
XO didn’t change his tone at all, he knew how to question someone to get answers. “Angie?”
“She’s not been in here today, so she’s probably in the terminal. Her company keeps an office there,” said the Bermudian. “Go into the terminal and she’s the second office on the left, the company is called Delivery.”
“Thank you.” With that, XO turned around and headed towards the door.
“Hey” called out the Bermudian, “what about my door?”
XO looked back over his right shoulder as he walked and replied, “We’re going to stop by here on our way back. I’ll bring you a new one.” Then he was out the door with Andrew and Talia hurrying to keep up.
Andrew knew that whatever else the Bermudian knew, it probably paled in comparison to whatever ‘Angie’ could tell them, if she was willing to. As Andrew stepped back outside to follow his wife and the Captain, he gave another quick prayer, which was interrupted by the alert tone on his radio. Andrew fished it out of his right cargo pocket, which slowed him down some. Captain XO kept walking towards the terminal, but Talia slowed and turned to see what had slowed Andrew down.
Keying the radio, Andrew answered “Redleg here.”
“Redleg, Puck. Not to rush you guys, but we are now tracking two NAF airships heading this way. I’m guessing we have 30 minutes if we want to avoid an engagement.”
Andrew thought fast and then replied. “Understood Puck, I’ll tell the boss. Be ready to make a quick pick-up just in case.”
“Roger that,” came the reply from Puck. Andrew dropped the radio back into his cargo pocket and then he caught up to Talia and slipped his right hand into her left and gave it a squeeze. He also saw XO stride through the door into what looked like the terminal building. They picked up the pace so they could catch up, and as they both went through the door, they spotted XO down a hallway in front of them knocking on a door.
Suddenly XO jumped to the side and Andrew heard the sound of glass breaking, shots being fired, and bullets slapping into a wall. Before he could draw his own weapon, XO was already charging into the room with his .38 Super Colt pistol and cutlass in hand.
Andrew turned to Talia, pointed back towards the door and said, “Cover the door, I’m calling for back-up!” Next, he drew both his Glock and a radio. The Glock was held down at the ready, the radio came up and Andrew spoke fast but clearly. “Booze-fighter, booze-fighter, booze-fighter,” then he dropped the radio into a cargo pocket and finished his rush to the door, stopping quickly to assess what was happening before he entered. It was then that Andrew realized that the shooting had stopped. He inhaled sharply, ready to shout out when XO calmly stated, “Get in here Redleg.”
Andrew cautiously turned into the room, his pistol still down and ready, but he quickly assessed that there were no more immediate threats. Shaking his head, he looked around at XO’s handiwork and said, “You just had to take all the fun for yourself, didn’t you?” One male was dead on a couch, a pair of bullet holes had caved in his face. Another male was pinned to the wall with XO’s short cutlass, struggling to free himself but not having much success. A female was lying on the ground, tied to an office chair, and it looked like she had been worked over by the other two. XO was already sorting through files on the desk with practiced skill as he started to give instructions. “Did I hear you make a ‘booze-fighter’ call?”
“Yes, I did, because you didn’t give me much choice,” was Andrew’s reply. “Puck called before you entered and reported two NAF airships are 30 minutes out, then this action occurred and I decided it would be nice to have some back-up, not that you needed it.”
XO nodded and smiled, “Call them back and get a medical team down here for an extraction. You and Talia go up with her,” he gestured to the female on the ground, “I’ll be along in a few minutes after we toss this place and have a talk with our friend on the wall.”
With that, Andrew lifted the radio back up as he started to hear the Renegade getting closer, then he stopped, looked at the guy pinned to the wall, and said, “Eyes.” That caused the pinned individual to look up sharply at Andrew, but he didn’t say a word to him, just stared. “Yeah,” said Andrew, “that’s what I thought.” Then he left the room to call the Renegade and arrange for the medical and intel teams to come down, and to tell Talia that she could relax before she accidentally shot someone coming through the door.
A half hour later and the Renegade was back at maximum speed, aiming for the southern tip of Florida so they could then head across the Gulf of Mexico before following the Rio Grande up into the United States and Utah. The airship had no problem deftly avoiding the two NAF airships that thought they could pursue them. Captain XO even authorized Puck to tease them both into following the Renegade just so he could go up to the crow’s nest with Badger and make rude gestures at the NAF ships.
Andrew, Talia and Grace were all in sick bay with Jerri where the ship’s doctor and her team had just finished dressing the injuries of their guest, who did give her name as being Angie when the medical team started treating her. The one surviving member of the “Eyes” never made it aboard the Renegade. According to XO, he was not forthcoming in information despite being pinned to a wall with a cutlass, and he eventually bled out enough that whatever ‘revive’ technique they had pulsing through their veins, it wasn’t enough to completely overcome a cutlass through an aorta.
Andrew did not consider this to be a great loss; they knew where Morgan was being taken.
Angie recognized Talia and Grace immediately as being the mother and sister of the young lady who was previously in her charge. Andrew felt that was obvious since the girls got their good looks from their mother, a point that XO liked to remind him about. Angie was unable to provide much except that Morgan was alive and well when the plane that brought her to Bermuda also left with her. She also did not know why the Eyes came to question her, or why they didn’t believe her when she told them that Morgan had departed, and no other planes had arrived.
According to Angie, one (or both) of the Eyes had some kind of wrist mounted dart gun that they used to subdue her before tying her up. Angie swore that she never saw a weapon in either person’s hands, but she surmised it was short range due to how close both of them were to her when she started to lose consciousness. Andrew glanced at Jerri, and sure enough she was taking notes. Andrew knew that if the intel team that helped toss the office had missed something so obvious on either of the goons that Captain XO neutralized, then Jerri would be docking their pay and liquor ration.
Finally, the questioning from Jerri was over, and now Angie had one of her own. “So, what happens to me now?”
Jerri glanced at Andrew, who shrugged, then looked at Angie and asked, “What do you want?”
Angie’s eyes narrowed. Andrew had not said a word throughout the interrogation. She had decided that he was some kind of security, or a second observer for the interrogation, but something about the way he spoke told Angie that he was a bit more important. Then her eyes got wide as she realized, “You’re the girl’s father.”
Andrew nodded, then spoke again. “Yes, I am, and thank you for taking care of her during the stop-over here.”
Angie sagged back onto the bed. “You’re welcome. It’s the job.” She closed her eyes for a second and then looked back at the three McCalls as she spoke. “Look, let me say again that it’s just a job. We didn’t know who the girl was, just that we were hired as a back-up transportation to deliver her if needed. It’s not the first time we’ve been back up for a Gilead mission, but it’s the first time that part of the contract was activated, at least as far as I know.”
At that, Talia’s eyes narrowed, and her voice got sharp. “Meaning what? This isn’t the first time you’ve engaged in kidnapping and human trafficking?”
Angie shook her head. The exhaustion in her gravely voice was apparent as she spoke. “Look, we move all sorts of people, but typically they aren’t angels themselves. That said, I’ve never seen a human trafficking victim on any of our flights or heard any of our pilots talk about it. The people we transport have bounties on them or are being ransomed off. We’re just the middlemen. The contract for your daughter said we were to be available to transport a handmaiden of Gilead, that’s all. Most everything I’ve heard is that handmaidens are there voluntarily, even if all of the stories out there don’t add up. Besides,” she said as she glanced at Andrew and Jerri, “it’s air pirates like the Renegade that engage in human trafficking.”
Jerri chuckled at that, while Andrew just shook his head. “Look” replied Jerri, “we don’t do human trafficking, that’s a rumor that the North American Federation put out. That’s part of the reason why we tend to punch holes in their blimps when we see them.”
Angie listened and nodded; her mouth tight as she thought. “Okay, say I believe you. You still haven’t answered my question. What happens to me now?”
Andrew answered again, “Same question in reply, what do you want?”
Angie looked back and Andrew. “I want my bolos back and I want to be dropped off in Houston. We have a main hub there, and Gilead doesn’t.”
Andrew looked at Jerri, who was looking at him. “Sound good to you” he asked?
Jerri nodded. “No reason to hold her, no coin in it and she’s been quite cooperative.”
Andrew nodded back in agreement. “Okay.” Then he turned to Angie. “You stay here until we’re close and then we can see about sending you to Houston or arranging an in-flight pick-up. I’ll go talk to the Captain and see what he wants to do.”
With that, Jerri and the three McCalls left sick bay. Grace had not seen much of the Renegade yet, so Andrew gave her the dime tour as they traveled up to the CIC to talk to Captain XO. Getting to the door, Andrew poked his head in first to make sure XO wasn’t passed out on the chart table or running around half-naked, regaling the watch crew with his antics taunting the NAF airships. Jerri didn’t care herself; it was always fun to gather blackmail material on the boss. Andrew was more concerned with his daughter. However, this time, Captain XO was simply sitting in his chair staring down at the chart table. Andrew held the door open for the three ladies and then followed them in.
Jerri started off by explaining everything they had learned from the questioning, then Andrew relayed the recommendation to return Angie to the ‘Delivery’ hub in Houston. Captain XO mulled that for a couple of moments, taking a drink of a light brown liquid from a tumbler. “Okay, we can do that. Drop a message to ‘Delivery’ and see if they can meet us near Houston. I’d rather not enter their airspace if we don’t have to. I was debating cutting across Texas or going up the Rio Grande, but this helps make that decision. It shouldn’t be hard to avoid any of the NAF patrols down here, plus it’s a more direct route to Gilead and we don’t have to bribe the local Mexican authorities.”
“Aye, aye,” said Jerri, who was one of the only members of the crew that could say that and not sound ridiculous since she had served in the Navy before joining the Renegade. Andrew watched her go to her section, then he glanced at the chart table, which held a map of their target area. The temple was obvious, as was the rail line and roads going through the area, and several hills surrounded the town.
Andrew could see some possibilities for both ground action and fire support, but he also knew that Captain XO liked to plan things out himself, then invite people to provide opinions and options. It might not be the most efficient way to do things in Andrew’s opinion, but he wasn’t the Captain of the airship, so he just rolled with it.
“I’m giving Grace a tour,” he told XO, “call it a long delayed ‘Take your daughter to work day’ since she’s been asking for a while now.”
XO smirked. “No problem. I’ll let you know when we it’s time for you and Smoke to do some fire planning. I want your opinion on things first before I bring Loggie and his mortar section in to give some recommendations.”
Andrew smiled. “Time to let the mortars loose?”
“Yeah,” came the reply. “This is just big enough that we need everything we can use.” At that he glanced up at Talia and Grace. “Oh, don’t worry, we can win this thing, I have every confidence, but why take chances.”
“Just so long as your plan doesn’t get my daughter burned down in the process,” Talia replied immediately, the story about the mortars burning down the London docks fresh on her mind.
XO shook his head at that. “Oh no worries, that’s why your husband is going to do the fire plan first. Plus, I have a nice spot picked out that should keep the mortars from hurting any of our own people if they decide to do something on their own.”
With that, XO went back to the map, while Andrew steered Talia and Grace out of the CIC. Time for a tour of a Tesla, and maybe let both of his lady’s fire off some nuclear charged lightning streams just to give them something to do.
Several hours later, and Andrew was on the main gunnery deck with Smoke Cooper. All the Tesla’s were set for an air-to-air confrontation just in case their guest turned out to be something more than a simple taxi service for Angie. Captain XO agreed that a plane could come and dock with the Renegade if it were unarmed and didn’t try to do anything stupid. Andrew doubted anyone would try anything in this particular case, but past experience with the crew’s drinking habits had ingrained in him to always assume that someone was about to execute ‘the greatest idea ever thought of and of course Captain XO would approve of it and reward them with piles of gold and barrels of whiskey.’
While XO typically had great patience with such ideas, Andrew explained to the gunners that this was not the time, and everyone should save the ideas for their next trip to Moscow. This seemed to placate everyone, though Andrew was concerned about some enthusiastic whispers about ‘murder chickens’. He decided that for now, he didn’t want to know.
XO also decided to play it safe, and he launched all four of Turbo’s parasite F-4s with the instruction to watch the perimeter and provide plenty of warning if anyone (like the NAF) decided to show up. He didn’t think ‘Delivery’ would do anything untoward, but he also didn’t become the most successful air pirate of the modern age by not being prepared.
Andrew watched as the F4 approached for a mid-air trap, with the ventral Teslas tracking the aircraft all the way in. The fact that all three of the ventral Teslas could rotate 360 degrees and cover the entire underside of the airship was one of the features that made the Renegade so lethal and successful. It tended to be a rude surprise to those that the Renegade encountered. In this case, everything went smoothly, and once the ‘Delivery’ F4 was secure, Andrew returned to monitoring the overall air-to-air situation. Since he wasn’t supposed to be involved in the transfer and had nothing to do with flight operations, it was a surprise when the call came for Andrew to report to the parasite hanger. He looked at Smoke Cooper, who nodded knowing that he was taking over control of the gunners, then Andrew headed into the airship and down to the hanger.
When he arrived, Andrew saw that Angie had already been placed into the F4, but the pilot was outside of the aircraft, standing on the deck next to the chief that ran flight deck operations. A few of the Zouaves were also present; Andrew new they had been positioned here just in case, but with the pilot out of the aircraft, they seemed a bit more alert than normal. Sensing that his place was with the chief and the ‘Delivery’ pilot, Andrew headed to them.
“Redleg,” said the Chief when Andrew was next to him, “this guy says he has information for the Chief Gunnery Officer of the Renegade. He wouldn’t tell me anything more than that.”
Andrew nodded at the Chief, then he looked at the pilot who was wearing a standard U.S. Air Force flight suit that one could find in any flea market, but only a single one of the extravagant patches that pilots typically wore all over them. In this case, the one patch was a pretty decent re-creation of the Peanuts character Snoopy flying his doghouse. Andrew fought down a smirk, then said, “I’m the Chief Gunnery Officer. What can I do for you mister…” Andrew’s voice trailed off as he gave the pilot a chance to respond.
The pilot smiled. “You can call me Snoopy.”
“Snoopy” said Andrew, that figures. “Okay, so what can I do for you?”
“Officially, I’m here to tell you, on behalf of corporate, that we are grateful for how your team saved our employee, tended to her injuries, and are willing to allow me to come in and retrieve her.”
Andrew nodded. “You can tell your leadership that it’s the least we could do. Our Captain takes a dark look at those that abuse people and he never leaves wounded non-combatants to suffer.”
Snoopy nodded, and then he stood there. Looking in his eyes, Andrew could tell he wanted to say more, but either he couldn’t, or he couldn’t volunteer it without being asked. Sensing the later, Andrew spoke again. “So, is there an unofficial reason why you’re here? Your thanks could have simply been passed by the radio.”
Snoopy shuffled his feet and looked down, then he looked over at the flight ops Chief before starting to speak as he turned his head back toward Andrew. “Unofficially, I’m letting you know that I delivered your daughter Morgan safely to Gilead about 10 hours ago.”
Andrew felt a surge of both relief and dread hearing that news. He fought hard not to react at all, but he was fairly certain that the pilot could see the conflicting emotions that Andrew was dealing with upon hearing this news. Then he noticed the flight ops chief shifting his weight, and Andrew realized that if he didn’t say something, then the chief was likely to start trying to beat more information out of Snoopy.
With that in mind, Andrew shifted his own feet to spread them out, folded his arms across his chest, and replied “Okay, I appreciate the news. It sounds like you had a conversation with my daughter since almost no one outside of this crew knows we’re related and what my job is.” Snoopy nodded at that comment, so Andrew continued. “Since this is unofficial information, is there anything else you can tell me?”
Snoopy seemed to exhale in some relief, then he continued. “I landed at a private field near Bingham Canyon. There was a single air-search radar running, but nothing else in the area, and nothing military that could have been used as fire-control. Your daughter went with the escort that was waiting for us, I was paid for the delivery including getting refueled, then I was cleared to leave. I did find it curious that for both landing and taking off, they required me to stay to the south and not overfly the town to the north. I can also tell you that I did not see any other aircraft on the field, nor any airships.” With that he stopped and stared at Andrew.
Interesting thought Andrew. Then he caught a motion from the Chief indicating the time, and Andrew realized that they needed to wrap this up. “Very interesting. So why tell me?”
Snoopy gave a tight smile, then half turned back to his F4. “Because she’s a fascinating conversationalist, even if she’s a bit obsessed with dragons, and honestly I can’t stand the thought of her being stuck in Gilead. When I heard that the company needed a volunteer to come and get Angie from the Renegade, I decided to be the taxi to see if what Morgan had been saying was true. Turns out it is, so now I’m hoping that I’ve given you some useful intel for the raid that I’m certain you’re planning to get her back.”
At that, Andrew couldn’t help himself and he smiled. “One can never have enough intel about future raids.” Snoopy nodded at that and then started climbing up the ladder to his F4 when Andrew called to him, so he stopped and looked back.
“I’d also advise your organization that doing business with Gilead is no longer a good idea” shouted Andrew. Snoopy replied “I’ll tell the bosses that.” Then he finished his climb and got into the cockpit. Andrew turned and headed away from the fighter to a safety zone where he waited until the F4 was launched out and he heard the afterburners kick in. Then he turned to the Chief and said, “Call up to the CIC and let XO and the S2 know that I’m on my way up.”
Then he turned and walked out.