By Derrick T. Perkins
Captain's Note: This is another in the series of cracking adventures starring Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux and his handpicked team of Air Pirates. Once again, the Colonel (and Derrick, have done the Renegade proud.
Lightning played out over the control panels, finger-like tendrils of blue dancing between the array of knobs, switches and buttons. Smoke rose up in thin lines as circuitry burned. A bundle of wires, slung overhead, broke free and tumbled down, adding to the chaos. Klaxons screamed, each warning of a new hazard and demanding to be the first heard.
The airship lurched leeward, shuddering anew. A glance at the flickering instrument panel showed the little vessel wallowing in the humid Caribbean air. By no small measure of grace, her back had not been broken. But she would not hold together long.
Wiping blood out of her eyes, Sergeant Siobhan O’Leary did her best to regain her bearings. Panic threatened to bubble up from within her; pain dug in like daggers at the edges of her eyes. Ignoring the smoke and the noise, she grabbed for the comms and brought the handset down to her mouth. Hails to the engineering deck and gunnery crews went unanswered. Maybe it didn’t matter. For all she knew, she was the only one aboard left alive.
Desperately, O’Leary looked for a solution, some unbeknownst mix of grit, self-reliance and inspiration that would save her little airship. In her twenty-five years on this Earth, she had never known a tough spot she could not get out of.
But all she saw was destruction. Her pilot, who insisted they all call him the ship’s sailing master as if it were still the golden age of sail, was slumped over his controls, unconscious--or dead. Blood trickled down from a gash on his head. The smoke hanging in the air was thick and acrid enough to make her eyes burn. The air was positively alive with electricity, the way it feels before a spring thunderstorm rolls through. Every hair on her body stood on end.
One by one, the lights on the array of control panels winked out. Her opportunity to do anything other than wait for the inevitable was fading. O’Leary patted her side. She still had the Taurus PT111 and enough bullets to make it sporty if they chose to board. A big if, that. If the hunters were looking for better prey than an outdated and undergunned cargo zeppelin, they might just blow her out of the sky. She had not seen her attacker, only the fury of the assault.
As much as she hated it, she had to ask for help. Then she could go out in a blaze of glory. O’Leary grabbed the handset again and flipped through the various channels with her free hand. The enemy salvos likely knocked out the transmitter, but it was worth a chance. Maybe she could get something off.
Taking a deep breath, she spoke into the microphone as deeply and clearly as she could.
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”
Somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, a few days earlier
The private yacht rolled pleasantly in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Overhead, the sun burned red as it began the final leg of its descent beyond the horizon. If you were killing time, O’Leary thought while reclining on a beach chair, this was the place to do it. All she needed was a good book, a cold beer and about a gallon of suntan lotion for her pale skin.
Of them all, only the German pilot Gustav Hanover looked as relaxed. Thin sunglasses resting on his sharp features, he sipped a mix of seltzer and wine he called a Riesling schorle while checking the international markets on his phone. Every once and awhile, he glanced up to check the sky as if expecting an impending storm. Then he went back to scrolling.
Corporal Logan Winters, the New Zealander with a love of all things fully automatic, sat with a bored look on his broad, stubbled face. Head covered by a weathered boonie hat, eyes hidden behind the wide, mirrored facade of aviators and a zinc stripe on his nose, he stared off at nothing in particular. Or he was sleeping. O’Leary never put it past the SAS veteran--getting shut eye when you could was a skill most soldiers picked up after a fashion.
And then there was mechanic’s apprentice Joe Miller, who managed to look out of place anywhere except the underbelly of an airship. He paced the bridge of the big yacht, peering out into the ocean behind a pair of binoculars whenever he stopped moving. O’Leary smiled at his nervousness. He wasn’t terrible under fire--for the most part--which was worth a point in her book. Unlike the rest of them, he seemed the least suited for air piracy. Just how an MIT graduate ended up on The Renegade remained a mystery. And mysteries were appealing to O’Leary.
As far as enigmas went, though, Col. Thaddeus de Curieux stole the show. The pirate zeppelin’s military attache--a catch-all title for the various shenanigans he dabbled in on behalf of The Renegade--was passing the hours with a collection by Siegfried Sassoon, looking every bit a member of English nobility. Although O’Leary had broken bread and spilt blood alongside him, he kept his lips tight on his past. Despite his overwhelming good nature and unflappable optimism, she occasionally saw pain in his eyes, and that piqued her curiosity.
While she watched him behind shaded eyes, he checked his watch and gently closed the book. Standing, de Curieux strode quietly to the bow of the yacht and peered off into the distance. Then he motioned for them to join him.
“What’s up, sir?” O’Leary said after Miller made his way down from the bridge, binoculars still in hand. There was nothing yet on the horizon, not that they knew what to expect anyway. De Curieux had summoned them in his usual flurry of changed orders and travel documents. But he had kept mum about their destination or what they might face. “The situation is delicate,” was all he said as they landed in Tortola.
Now, though, he seemed eager with anticipation.
“Unless I miss my guess, our escort should be arriving shortly,” he said, gesturing at the vivid sunset. “The Free Republic of Kallipolis never misses an opportunity to make a scene.”
As if he were a god of old, commanding from on high, the sharp prow of a zeppelin burst forth from the darkening clouds in the western sky. She was long and sleek, and rippling with a single row of turrets. Against the light of the dying sun, the white and black airship was beautifully illuminated, bathed in a red glow. Like an romantic painting, O’Leary thought, if the romanticists had painted war zeppelins.
“She’s beautiful,” O’Leary breathed as the airship tacked to the wind.
“Looks like a Herzog-class, but more lightly armed.” Hanover said. “Quite unusual.”
“The problem with air pirates and admirals alike,” de Curieux said, “is that bigger always is better. The Royal Navy developed a fast, capable ship in the early 18th century, but it required the crews keep the bottom gun deck empty. Of course, military men could not abide that and the vessel was inevitably laden with extra cannon. As a result, she and ships of similar design earned a misguided reputation for poor handingly.”
“The Free Republic has no need for a first-rate ship of the line,” he continued. “Firepower is secondary to maneuverability. She’s a frigate, quick and nimble, and very dangerous in her own right. I have never seen her at flank speed, but I am told she more than matches The Renegade.”
“Fascinating,” O’Leary replied as the airship grew closer. Although undersized for a zeppelin, she still took up a good portion of the view. “How do we get aboard her, though?”
“That,” de Curieux said as a tethered basket emerged from what likely served as the ship’s hold. “Is a less graceful maneuver.”
A little nausea aside, the quintet made it aboard the vessel no worse for wear. O’Leary was the last to ascend, a trip she would not particularly want to make again. She tried to keep her nerves under control, a hard task considering how much the basket danced in the wind. Thankfully, Miller and Winters were a full shade of green when she disembarked. Only Hanover thanked the trio welcoming them for the wild ride, and he looked like he meant it.
O’Leary studied the group that met them. Aside from a few jumpsuits checking the straps on an assortment of cargo, they were the only people in the hold. Of the three, the sole woman was the most striking, wearing a dress uniform of a style unknown to O’Leary. Functional, yet fitting, it boasted only two pieces of silver insignia denoting the rank of admiral. A single patch was sewn onto her shoulder: A large, green tree against a white field.
She was joined by a tall, balding man in an rumpled business suit that made O’Leary think of her financial advisor father after a long day at the office. The third struck her as the most out of place, a short pudgy man sporting a white beard. He wore sandals, a pair of khaki shorts and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. His similarly white hair was tied into a ponytail.
“And this is Sgt. O’Leary, my social media and explosives expert,” de Curieux said, introducing her. O’Leary received a wave from the crunchy granola fellow, a handshake from the businessman and an appraising look from the officer.
“Sgt. O’Leary, I am pleased to introduce Admiral Van Der Witt, Vice Consul Phillips and Secretary Duca of the Safety Committee,” de Curieux finished.
“Welcome to the Free Republic Airship Constitution, sergeant,” the admiral said crisply. She turned to the group as a whole. “Now that you’re all aboard, I’ll ask that you join me in my ready room to discuss the situation.”
With that, she turned smartly and strode toward the main hatch, not waiting to see if she was being followed. Not one for pleasantries, O’Leary thought, joining the others in hurrying along.
“I like the name of the ship,” she heard Miller say to the vice consul as they strode down the bare corridor. “Like the one in Boston Harbor.”
“Probably because we had Old Ironsides in mind when we named her,” Phillips replied as they passed underneath the entryway. “We even gave her the same paint scheme. Like her namesake, she doesn’t look particularly fearsome stacked up against some of the bigger zeppelins out there, but she can run circles around anything in the air.”
“She’s the pride of the fleet,” said Duca, keeping up the pace despite his ungainly appearance.
“The fleet?” asked Hanover.
“Sure, we’ve got three of these things, but the Constitution is the best of the bunch. We designed and paid for her ourselves a few years ago,” Duca replied. “The first is an older style Königin-class we bought second hand from the Limeys when they downsized their military a few years ago. We call her Led Zeppelin IV, after the greatest album in the band’s discography.”
“That’s not true, Duca, and you know it,” Phillips said without glancing their way. “That was just their most commercially successful album.”
“He prefers Physical Graffiti,” Duca told Miller in hushed tones. “Nothing wrong with it, you know. But then you’ve got ‘Black Dog,’ ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ‘When the Levee Breaks.’ It’s not worth even arguing.”
“Page and Plant both considered Physical Graffiti their zenith,” Phillips replied.
“You said there were three,” O’Leary broke in, hoping to steer the conversation back on track. They still didn’t know, after all, why they were there. Obviously, it had to do with a security issue of some variety.
“The last girl’s a lively one, a little on the older side. Got a great personality, though. She was donated by backers in the States after the Free Republic really got rolling,” Duca replied. “Runs on diesel, so she’s not exactly quiet. Also a Königin-class airship, with a few modifications to make up for the technology gap. We call her Jefferson Airship.”
“Jefferson Airship,” O’Leary said, her tone flat.
“See, Thomas Jefferson is one of our inspirations and all of us early founders of the Free Republic are connoisseurs of rock’n’roll,” Duca said.
“Gotcha,” she said.
“And Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship were…”
“Really,” O’Leary said, blinking at him. “I get it.”
He stopped talking.
The sailing master was dead.
O’Leary had worked her way carefully over to the body despite the increasing list in the airship. Assorted pens and pencils, a mug of coffee, a compass, anything not nailed down began to roll and clatter, bowing to gravity. Gingerly, she had made to move him so she could get a pulse. A closer look at the bloody wound where his head had met his yoke steeled her for the worst. O’Leary slumped to the ground not long after, a hand on her head, the other on the flooring.
Then the lighting systems failed and O’Leary was plunged into darkness. A few seconds later, the emergency backups flickered on, giving the room a ghastly pallor.
“Let there be light,” she muttered, hoping for inspiration. Nothing came to her. The wound on her scalp was bleeding again; she could feel the hot, sticky fluid trickling down her skin.
Beneath her, the airship groaned. O’Leary patted the steel grate flooring gently.
“I’m sorry, girl,” she whispered.
On the bright side, they hadn’t been shot out of the sky yet. Maybe they were waiting for her to go down on her own, O’Leary thought. They wouldn’t wait long. Save the energy in the Tesla guns. Waste not, want not.
She rolled her head back and let it rest against the hard, cold wall. Her first command. That didn’t last long. Her thoughts kept drifting back to high school, when nobody would loan her a car because of the way she drove. All she wanted to do was have a little fun. What the hell. At least, she probably wouldn’t survive this scrape with death. There would be no living in ignominy.
After a few more heartbeats, O’Leary got back to her feet. Maybe she was alone, maybe she wasn’t. Even if her first command was an absolute disaster, even if it ended with the flaming wreck of an airship, even if she died aboard the little Valkyrie, she was going to do it right. She would do a check for survivors and see about getting them off-ship.
O’Leary started walking, trying not to guess when the final salvo would come.
“Someone or something is shadowing our ships,” Admiral Van Der Witt said, passing out packets of information to the crew from The Renegade in her ready room. “From what we can tell, it likely began a few weeks ago. Airmen on several of the larger trade caravans noticed strange radar readings in bad weather.”
“How so?” Hanover asked.
“Radar angels,” replied Van Der Witt. “That’s what they described anyway, and we chalked it up to too many hours at watch and too much to drink while on liberty. As I am sure you have seen, stories tend to grow in the cramped confines of civilian and paramilitary airships. Lack of discipline.”
Her eyes flickered to de Curieux for a second before returning to the precisely typed pages on her desk.
“Present company excluded, of course,” she said.
“No matter how times change, sea tales remain a constant,” de Curieux said mildly.
O’Leary, though, felt her dander rise at the shot. A longstanding grudge against authority, especially uniformed authority, threatened to resurface.
“Sea stories until your crews documented the same thing?” she said, trying and failing to keep the hostility out of her voice.
“Precisely,” Van Der Witt said. “Radar personnel aboard FRA Jefferson Airship tracked the same anomalies while escorting in a merchant vessel three weeks ago. Since then, teams on the Constitution and Led Zeppelin IV have increasingly reported instances of the phenomena.”
“Oddly enough,” Duca said, “stories coming out of merchant airship crews have nearly dropped off--unless they were traveling under the protection of one of our warships.”
“How often do you provide security services?” Hanover asked.
“It depends on the cargo and the relationship with the ship’s owner,” Phillips replied. “This is a free trade zone and we do business with merchants of various standings.”
De Curieux smiled and turned to his teams.
“He means the Free Republic does business with pirates, thieves, smugglers, information brokers, and all manner of blackhearted scoundrels,” de Curieux said.
“Mostly reputable businessmen,” Phillips said, but he did not argue the Colonel’s point.
“Reputable businessmen do not require the protection of a war zeppelin,” de Curieux replied. “A ship full of stolen antiquities bound for a private dealer or a cargo of arms destined for a civil war may draw unwanted attention from outside law enforcement agencies. And militaries.”
“It’s not a common problem--”
“I seem to recall Brussels taking issue with shipments of small arms headed to Africa in exchange for raw materials and precious stones,” de Curieux replied, with a raised eyebrow.
He waved a hand as Phillips started to reply.
“I meant no disrespect,” de Curieux said. “I am merely attempting to keep us grounded in the realities of our work and the situation at hand.”
“That’s plenty fair,” Duca said. “Believe me, there was a time when I would never have thought upholding the principle of free trade would keep me up at night, but it does. Where there’s a buyer, there’s a seller. And usually they need an honest middle-man.”
Seeing the disgust on O’Leary’s face, Duca gave a faint smile.
“Who do you think The Renegade uses as a fence and, at times, a laundromat?” he said. “Seem to recall… trinkets… from the British Museum passing through a few weeks back.”
“Those pieces were originally stolen from--” she started.
“From Napoleon’s men in Egypt,” Phillips said. “Who took them from Mamluks and the Ottomans by extension. And so on back to the Romans and Macedonians before them.”
“We are dangerously off topic,” Van Der Witt cut in, her voice as pleasant as a sharpened knife, eyes flashing with cold fury.
“Indeed,” de Curieux said. “What is the Free Republic asking of The Renegade?”
Somehow, Van Der Witt’s face grew even darker while Phillips and Duca exchanged awkward glances. Both men demurred.
“Well?” de Curieux asked.
“It’s political,” Phillips said, finally. He adjusted the knot of his tie with clumsy fingers.
“Ah,” de Curieux replied.
“We shouldn’t even be meeting with you,” Duca said. “Neither the Safety Committee nor the House of Delegates have authorized us to approach The Renegade formally.”
“We would have to go on a war footing to do so, and that would require a formal vote in the House,” Phillips said. “There is little support for that given the lack of a declared enemy or any actual threat beyond radar anomalies.”
“War is expensive,” Duca said with a shrug. “And it’s bad for business. Ginning up support for a war effort without an obvious antagonist is a fool’s errand.”