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 If the hunters were looking for better prey than an outdated and undergunned cargo zeppelin, they might just blow her out of the sky.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.”
For a long time, the only sound in the ready room was the gentle thrumming of the airship’s engines contrasted with the sharp tap of a clock’s minute hand.
“I assume that you have explained all this to The Renegade’s Captain XO and that is the reason why he dispatched myself and my compatriots to this place rather than the airship itself,” de Curieux said.
O’Leary glanced his way. He seemed, to her consternation, mildly amused. A smile played at his mouth. She looked back at the assembled representatives of the trade republic. Duca was nodding. Phillips looked as if he were caught in the act of committing a crime. Van Der Witt could have melted steel with her eyes.
“Brass tacks?” Duca offered, his hands open.
De Curieux nodded, his gaze never wavering.
“We think it’s an airship, and we want you to flush it out.”
The military attaché exuded an air of mild curiosity. He scratched at the hint of a beard on his chin.
“I am sure you have heard of our confrontation with a certain Degory Blackwood, formerly of Miskatonic University, and his airship The Grafvitnir,” de Curieux said. “Is there a chance that this is his doing?”
“Not at all,” Phillips said brusquely. “We ruled that out immediately. This is not Blackwood’s work.”
“And you are sure?” de Curieux asked, and O’Leary could hear a cold edge to his question.
“We would have noticed a Konig-class warship,” Van Der Witt replied. “To insinuate that my personnel would fail to discern find The Grafvitnir is a personal insult.”
De Curieux held up an apologetic hand.
“I believe we can reach an arrangement,” he said. “I have several thoughts, but I would like to discuss them with my team. I will also need to raise The Renegade and speak with the Captain XO.”
“Of course,” Phillips said while Van Der Witt fumed. “Anegada is at your disposal.”
He gestured out the porthole at the island coming into view. O’Leary was taken aback--she had expected the mix of luxury and poverty she remembered from vacationing in the Caribbean as a child. But the little island was positively gleaming. Silver skyscrapers reached for the heavens amid lustrous copses of palm trees. The tallest had built in helo pads and even mooring docks for moderately-sized zeppelins. From their vantage, she could see twin engine planes, rotorcrafts and small blimps buzzing the miniature city.
Two massive zeppelins she figured as the Led Zeppelin IV and Jefferson Airship drifted gently above the cerulean bay forming the main harbor. Under their watch, ships of all sizes and shapes crowded the docks. O’Leary counted a handful of elegant twin-masted sailing vessels, brigantines, barques and schooners, amid the pleasure yachts.
“Beautiful, isn’t it,” Hanover said, coming up next to her. “They call it the new Venice, the Byzantium of the Americas.”
“Been here before?”
“Yes, once,” he said. “It was under unpleasant circumstances.”
“Dare I ask?”
Hanover offered a wolfish smile, all teeth.
“Technically, I am forbidden from returning,” he said. “But our friends have not mentioned that yet, so the situation must be bad.”
The lights flickered out again. This time darkness reigned supreme.
O’Leary swore, a gutteral mix of curses in several languages she had picked up in her travels. For a second, she thought of her mother, who would have been absolutely horrified at the words she had learned, and even more horrified at the men she had learned them from.
With shaking hands, O’Leary reached down and plucked a penlight from her utility belt. The LED-powered beam cut a thin line through the darkness. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.
The cramped corridor was lined with six bunks, meant for the crew if they were out on a multi day excursion. Ahead was the folding table, tucked back against the wall, where O’Leary had enjoyed exactly one meal as the airship’s commander. One of the young guys with a penchant for odd history and awkward dinner conversation had said that the table was designed to double as a makeshift surgeon’s table.
Pushing the memory aside, O’Leary moved forward. The ship was still listing, enough that she had to keep a hand against the wall to stay balanced. With the engines now long dead, she could hear the wind whistling against the hull outside. Somehow, though, she was still aloft. Time wasn’t on her side, she reminded herself.
Ahead the rear hatch loomed. Bracing herself against the wall, O’Leary twisted the heavy rotating dog rack. In their infinite wisdom, the ship’s designers had married two gondolas to the airframe, one housing the bridge and the aft capsule home to the engineering deck. The concept promised overall stability while dropping the vessel’s overall weight. More immediately, it meant O’Leary was going to have to cross a narrow, thirty-yard catwalk on a dying airship.
She grunted and swung the door opened. Air and sunlight rushed in, thankfully clearing the smell of burnt electronics, but nearly throwing her to the ground. Not a great start to her next endeavor, O’Leary thought as she put the penlight away.
Straining, she straightened up and took in the vista. Below, she saw nothing and everything. Just the swirling clouds and a glimmer, perhaps, of light playing out on the ocean surface. A long drop, she thought. Plenty of time to watch her life story play out.
Logic told her the catwalk was stable. It had been built for crew to hurry back and forth, just with austerity in mind. Steel poles about five yards apart riveted the platform to the ship’s frame above her. Even so, she put a tepid foot out onto the metal. A gust of wind sent her yanking it back.
Remembering the safety briefing, O’Leary reached around the side of the door and found a carabiner and a short line. In poor weather, mates would hook in to a free standing rail above for extra security. In really bad weather, they could belay one another across the expanse.
Forgoing the time it would take to dig out one of the harnesses, she hooked the carabiner into her belt and gingerly stepped out into the howling wind. With each step, she could feel the walkway shift under her weight. But it held.
“Remember, don’t look down,” she mumbled to herself.
All went well until she reached about the midpoint, fifteen yards in either direction to the relative safety of a gondola. Then she heard the steel groan and felt it twist beneath her feet.
“Nope, nope, nope,” she said aloud, to no one but the gods above. “This is not gonna happen.”
A bolt let go, cracking like a gunshot. She grabbed the starboard side railing with both hands, tighten enough to turn her knuckles white. There was time enough for a prayer, but O’Leary held her tongue.
Then she plunged into the abyss.
De Curieux concluded his telephone conversation with a rapid exchange in a language unfamiliar to O’Leary. She glanced up questioningly as he slipped his mobile phone back into his breast pocket.
“Tlingit,” he said. “The U.S. military confounded the Japanese with it during the Second World War. Captain XO and I have put it to good, if extremely limited, use since.”
She opened her mouth to ask a question, but remember Miller’s old maxim when it came to De Curieux: “You’d have more luck getting a straight story from a rookie Bold Hussar straight off his first assignment.” Her mouth closed. Sleeping dogs and all that.
De Curiuex rose out of the plush chair and jauntily strolled over to the balcony. The politicians had arranged for them to stay in the finest hotel in Anegada for the duration of the mission. From the sixth floor, they had a commanding view of the skyline. Somewhere up above private helicopters landed and departed, dropping off visitors who would rather avoid being seen on the city streets. Below, tourists, businessmen and merchants mingled on the wide, tree-lined sidewalks and in the many plazas.
“So what’s the game plan, sir?” O’Leary called from the couch. Hanover was busy watching one of the German news channels on the satellite television while Winters cleaned yet another gun at the small dining table in the center of the room. Miller, for his part, was reading one of the local tourism brochures.
“We wait and see what our new employers propose,” de Curieux said. “Captain XO has full confidence in our abilities even if he questions the mettle of the Free Republic.”
Miller tossed his pamphlet aside haphazardly.
“Speaking of which, does anyone else get the impression we’re not really wanted here?” he asked.
“I can tell you that the good admiral isn’t exactly enamored with us,” O’Leary replied. “I don’t trust that Phillips guy, either.”
“Never trusted politicians,” Winters grunted. “Got my arse shot off to save their arses more’n once.”
De Curieux turned from the balcony, hands behind his back. He offered them one of his thin, confident-yet-wary, smiles.
“I share your concerns,” he said. “But I believe something larger might be at play here.”
“You think it’s The Grafvitnir,” O’Leary said.
“For the sake of our employers, I hope not,” de Curieux replied.
A knock came from the door and all eyes turned to see Duca poke his meaty head through. He gave a awkward wave and slight grin.
“Mind if I join you?”
“We were just speaking of politics and politicians,” de Curieux replied.
“Nothing good, I hope,” Duca said with a hearty laugh, and let himself into the room. O’Leary could not help but like him, politician or not. Not asking for permission, he grabbed a spare chair and sat down in it backwards, slinging his legs over the sides and leaning into the group.
“So we’ve had a long talk and we think we’ve got a handle on how to use you,” Duca said.
“I might have thought you would have determined that before our arrival,” Hanover said. He had switched off the television and trained his frosty gaze on the newcomer.
Duca, still smiling, spread his hands.
“Politics,” he said. “We knew we needed help. We opted to get going on that and figure out how to make it work legally afterward.”
“Sounds really above board,” O’Leary muttered, just loud enough so that Duca could hear her. The frustration in her voice failed to deter his joviality.
“I don’t make the rules,” he said. “Going on a war footing is …”
“...Complicated,” de Curieux finished for him. “Very well. You have hammered home the point. What do you propose?”
“I suspect you’re not going to like it,” Duca said. “Look, I wish we could just vote and put the fleet on alert. I argued it as soon as the analysts determined the phenomena had attached to our ships. Hell, I argued it this morning and again just now.”
He glanced around the room, wide eyes pleading with them.
“I want The Renegade, not just its semi-infamous ersatz covert ops team,” he said. “We should be out there with everything that can fly. They won’t even let me bring a motion to the floor of the Safety Committee. It won’t pass, they told me, but it might have the unintended consequences of scaring off traders and sending jitters through the market.”
Duca sighed and for the first time O’Leary saw frustration on his face.
“I naively thought that founding a nation would free us from most of the political bullshit I hated,” he said. “But here we are, circumventing rules I helped draw up a decade ago to avoid a hard debate to nowhere on the floor of the House of Delegates.”
Hanover looked unconvinced. He leaned forward, tapping on the table with a finger.
“I suspect, then, that your proposal will then be needlessly complicated,” the German said.
Duca stared at him in mock disbelief.
“How’d you ever guess?”
“I’ve worked for politicians before,” Hanover replied. He did not elaborate.
Duca half-shrugged, half-nodded, and produced a tablet computer, laying it down on the glass table. A few swipes later and he brought up a photograph of a small blimp with two awkwardly attached gondolas.
“We bought it second--probably third or fourth, honestly--hand a few weeks ago. It’s not much to look at, but we thought it might make for a good training vessel or something akin to a Coast Guard cutter,” Duca said. “The point being, no one knows we own this airship. It’s never flown under a Free Republic flag.”
He handed the tablet to de Curieux, who the image a bemused glance before passing it off to Hanover.
“Now, we also have a device that can spoof radar signals,” Duca said. “Don’t ask me how we got it, I’ll have to tell you it’s classified. And don’t ask me how it works, because I have no idea. I just know it works. We call it the Enigma Machine, because if you haven’t noticed, we’re not great at coming up with original names.”
“I’ve noticed,” O’Leary muttered.
Duca smiled at the jab. As much as she hated being led around in the dark and despised politicians, O’Leary gave him credit. He had thick skin.
“We know whatever this is, it’s shadowing our warships,” he said. “We’ll give this ugly thing the signature of the Constitution and toss it out like a lure. Let it zip around for a little bit. The real Constitution will stay in regular contact and, if we make a catch, she’ll come out and serve as the net. This way we can, at least, get the jump on it without breaking our mobilization laws.”
De Curieux tapped a finger against his jaw and his eyes grew distant as he considered the proposal. Sensing it might take a second, Duca stood and helped himself to a bottle of beer from the room’s mini fridge. The hiss of the cap coming off broke the silence in the room.
The military attaché came back to the here and now. He frowned and crossed his arms.
“It is a plan,” he said. “I will say that.”
“You don’t care for it?” Duca asked, but it was less a question than a statement.
“I suppose I do not understand why we are here,” de Curieux replied. “None of this requires our particular set of skills. We are happy to help, of course, an old friend of The Renegade.”
“If you can imagine, it’s yet another one of those happy compromises us political types like,” Duca replied. “Admiral Van Der Witt has fought tooth-and-nail to do this in-house. I worry that this phenomenon is more than we can handle. Phillips worries that whatever is out there will shake our trading partners’ confidence in our ability to provide a safe marketplace. Our solution was to come up with a plan that involved The Renegade without us having to take our hands off the steering wheel.”
“I am sure Captain XO would find a middle ground…”
“He would take charge of the situation, and you damn well know it,” Duca replied. “And that’s not even getting into the gray area of hiring a mercenary airship during peacetime. The real politicians--the folks who enjoy grandstanding--would have a field day. And I could end up dealing with an international incident.”
The tablet had made it to O’Leary’s hands. She stared down at the ungainly aircraft with open skepticism. She was no expert on the physics that kept The Renegade aloft, but she had serious doubts this twin-cabined monstrosity could stay in the sky. It looked more like a merchant vessel than anything else, where it might make sense to keep the cargo separate from the crew, particularly if you didn’t trust the men and women working for you.
“We want at least one of you aboard the bait ship,” Duca said. “The rest of you can remain here or accompany the admiral aboard the Constitution.”
“Just one of us on the bait ship?” de Curieux asked. “That, again, seems a very underwhelming application of our expertise.”
“Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness,” Duca replied. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with. Once we do, we can use your team more efficiently.”
De Curieux grimaced and raised an eyebrow.
“As much as I hate being quoted to, I can agree to this arrangement on one condition: My team member aboard the bait ship also serves as commander,” he said.
Duca sipped on the beer as he thought over the proposal. He nodded contemplatively.
“Van Der Witt will hate it, but I’m fine with it,” he said. “We’ll start briefing them on its workings immediately.”
The ill-conceived airship adopted a new sheen, at least to O’Leary’s eyes. All her life, she’d been told the big toys were for the boys. When she turned sixteen, she got a station wagon while her brothers got muscle cars and trucks. She showed them, though. No one thought she could get that mom-mobile up over a buck twenty on the highway.
“I’ll do it,” she blurted out, her eyes never wavering from the photograph of the airship.
Duca gave her a puzzled glance, as did Miller and Hanover. Winters looked relieved. De Curieux stared at her thoughtfully.
“Winters can’t command his way out of a paper bag,” O’Leary said, making her case. “The kraut is better in a chopper or fighter. Miller is … well, he’s got enthusiasm.”
No one spoke. When de Curieux kept quiet, Winters shrugged.
“She’s right,” he said. “Could’ve been nicer about it, but she’s right.”
“You know I love you, you big oaf,” O’Leary replied.
“Never claimed I could lead well,” he said evenly. “Last time I got left alone with the keys, I drove a LAV III into a pub.”
Finally, de Curieux acceded, giving her a nod. O’Leary held in a squeal of delight. Her first command.
“Sounds like a plan,” Duca said. “Let’s introduce you to your crew.”
“Does she have a name?” O’Leary asked.
Duca looked confused for a second and then glanced down at the tablet, now back in his hands.
“No, I think we just gave her a temporary designation,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“I want to call her the Valkyrie.”
O’Leary grunted as the line connecting her to the airship snapped taut and yanked at her clothes. The world swung dizzily around her as she flipped through the air beneath the Valkyrie. Below her, remnants of the catwalk plunged toward the sea, growing smaller until the bent steel disappeared completely.
She focused on controlling her breathing and slowing her heart, which beat a quick tattoo on her ribs. Hadn’t she looked death in the face before and made him blink? The thought did little to calm the panic seizing her body. Despite the wind and fresh air, she could feel sweat breaking out on her skin. Every time she thought things were getting under control, a fresh gust sent her bouncing around anew.
Cursing, O’Leary grabbed at the cord. That neither it nor the carabiner had snapped proved a miracle. This must be what a cat on its seventh or eighth life must feel like, she thought. Her sweat-slick hands made contact with the fiber and tightened as she clung for dear life.
Breathing heavily, she yanked upwards, using upper body strength and adrenaline to gain enough slack to brace herself upright on the cord with her legs. Not dead yet, she thought, resting for a heartbeat. That had to count for something.
There was no sight of the Constitution. How she would have loved to see her graceful bow cutting through the clouds.
Oh well. O’Leary braced herself and shimmied up a few more feet. Just fifteen yards or so to go. She focused all of her attention on climbing. At the very least, it distracted her from the yawning abyss below.
So deep was her concentration, she almost missed the flash of crimson and black before it was obscured again by the ethereal haze. Her heart skipped a beat. Her muscles froze.
O’Leary felt very, very exposed.
The clouds parted and, in the gleaming sunlight, exposed a glittering warship bristling with Tesla turrets. The sight of it cutting through the sky like a shark stole her breath away.
Miller fumed. Aboard the bridge of the Constitution, they could see the entire drama play out. The Valkyrie, cruising peacefully, suddenly battered with a salvo of Tesla bolts. The little airship was batted about recklessly by the force of the blasts. Finally coming to a shuddering halt, the Valkyrie began to list badly. A dead stick, she soon began circling like a dying bird.
He expected the crew of the Free Republic warship to leap into action. He had even braced for the clang of a general quarters alarm. Instead, the staffers working the array of electronic equipment continued to relay information to the admiral in maddeningly calm voices. Van Der Witt’s orders to hold fast remained in place.
“Do something,” he hissed to no one in particular as the little airship drifted in the sky. O’Leary was aboard her, somewhere.
He glanced around. With Hanover, it was always tough to gauge what he was thinking. But the gaunt man’s face had taken a hard set, his eyes locked onto the video display of the Valkyrie on the command deck’s main screen. Winters looked mildly disinterested, as usual. But he had a hand on his waist where one of his handguns would have been if the crew of the Constitution had not insisted on checking them before liftoff. His fingers tapped ceaselessly against his empty holster.
As expected, the Colonel was displaying his anger in manner only a member of the English gentry or an old New England yankee could do properly. His jaw was clenched and lips drawn tight, eyes smoldering as they flicked back-and-forth from the screen to Van Der Witt’s spot at the helm. Miller had never met anyone who could broadcast his displeasure with such a minimalist flare.
The admiral took no notice of them. She had begrudgingly accepted their presence on the bridge when the team arrived under the escort of Duca. But as soon as he departed, she had insisted they be disarmed and told them to stay out of the way once the airship was underway. To ensure they understood, she posted armed escorts to accompany them.
Now Van Der Witt was peering over the shoulder of one of her radarmen, watching the screen intently. Her XO shadowed her, but occasionally glared over his shoulder at the Constitution’s unwelcome guests.
“It’s the same pattern, repeating over and over again, ma’am,” the crewman said. “It tracks with previous incidents. I can tell you there’s something out there, just not what it is.”
Van Der Witt nodded and clasped her hands behind her back. Straightening up, she took another look at the stranded Valkyrie.
“Sound general quarters,” she said, finally. A nerve-wracking whoop filled the bridge, sending chills up Miller’s spine. At least aboard The Renegade, he had a station to run to and a task to focus on when the crew was called to action stations. Activity kept his mind off the potential for impending death.
On the bridge, there was little change. The men and women in Free Republic uniform already were busy with work. He could imagine the bustle elsewhere on the large zeppelin, the nervous excitement as everyone from the gunners and Marines to the engineers and cooks rushed to their assigned posts. The heady mix of dread and anticipation as they awaited combat.
Yet, Van Der Witt held off on giving the order to advance. The sleek Constitution hung back under the cover of clouds as the Tesla gun crews came online.
De Curieux leaned over the railing and tapped one of the technicians on the shoulder. The young man glanced up from his monitor with a surprise look. According to the admiral’s explicit order, the Renegade crew were to remain “seen and not heard.”
“Could you be so helpful as to focus in on the Valkyrie?” De Curieux asked in a disarmingly pleasant voice.
Glancing around for a second, and seeing the admiral’s attention turned elsewhere, he nodded and tapped on his screen. The image of the little zeppelin grew larger.
“That object hanging below, might you focus on that, please?” De Curieux instructed.
Another series of taps and the camera zoomed in further. Miller felt his heart skip a beat as he realized the small black dot swinging back and forth beneath the Valkyrie was O’Leary.
De Curieux’s head snapped up.
“Admiral,” he called out, his sharp voice rising above the din. Van Der Witt’s shoulders stiffened, but she did not turn to face him.
“Yes, Colonel?” she replied with a disinterested tone.
“A member of my crew is in danger,” de Curieux said. “I request, nay demand, you take steps to secure her immediately.”
“There are more pressing matters at hand,” the admiral replied.
Alarms began sounding aboard the bridge, some shrill and others muted. Miller recognized one, and it sent fear flooding into his gut: the collision warning.
“Admiral, the anomaly is coming right at us,” an ensign called out.
The massive monitors in the bridge began flipping through various camera views as the crew tried desperately to track the incoming threat. Each new angle revealed nothing. Miller swore he could see sweat bead up on Van Der Witt’s forehead.
The collision warning roared louder.
“Admiral…” de Curieux said.
“Fire a salvo,” Van Der Witt barked, ignoring the military attaché.
Miller felt the airship rock underneath his feet as a surge of electrical power was unleashed into the atmosphere. Static from the interference broke up the video feeds.
He could imagine the blue bolts discharging into the ether, though. Large tendrils of icy-hot energy rippling through the clouds and ionizing the air. The whip-crack of Thor’s hammer swinging through the sky.
“Get those monitors up,” Van Der Witt barked at no one technician in particular. “Give me my eyes back.”
The static cleared and, one-by-one, the big screens came back into focus. Miller squinted, trying to pierce the cloud cover through sheer will alone.
But then, like a veil, they parted, making way for lancing bolts of energy. If the Constitution had swayed while firing, she absolutely rocked now. Miller slammed against the side of the wall, bruising his shoulder on impact. The discharge sent the cigar Winters was chewing on out of his mouth. Hanover clutched desperately at a railing. Even de Curieux seemed unmoored by the sudden fury of the attack.
Glancing back at the monitors, Miller saw the proud, black-and-crimson prow of a gargantuan war zeppelin slide through the ethereal embankment. Blindingly bright flashes of blue emanated from its rotating turrets.
Again, the Constitution roiled in the sky. At least he was ready for it this time, Miller reflected, as his sore shoulder slammed against the metal wall once more.
“Return fire,” Van Der Witt shouted over the ruckus. “A damage report, if you please.”
De Curieux, who had crouched low to keep his balance, stood. If he was surprised by the appearance of The Grafvitnir, he kept it well hidden.
“Admiral, I ask again that steps be taken to rescue our compatriot,” he said, ignoring the clamor around him.
“One more word, Colonel. Just one more word and I’ll have you locked up,” Van Der Witt growled.
By now, the Tesla gunners still operating joined the engagement. Miller could feel the rumble under his feet as turrets unloaded on the massive enemy.
“That bastard,” Van Der Witt said as the Grafvitnir tacked to slide ahead of the Constitution. Though not a strategist, Miller recognized the maneuver from a Patrick O’Brien novel he had read once. The tactic would let the captain level a broadside at his enemy while exposing his ship to return fire only from the most forward guns. He gulped.
“We had an agreement,” she spat. “A goddamned agreement.”
“No honor among...,” de Curieux started to say, but Van Der Witt cut him off with a wave of the hand.
“Corporal, assist them to the brig,” she snarled at the Marine standing by Miller’s side. The corporal reacted without thought, sidearm out and aimed directly at de Curieux.
He nodded toward the bridge’s main entryway.
“This way, gentlemen.”
Arms raised in surrender, they followed his directions.
From O’Leary’s vantage, it was hard to focus on finishing the climb. A short ways away, The Grafvitnir unleashed a wicked cannonade at the Constitution. The air around her seemed to come positively alive with electricity as the bolts flayed the Free Republic ship. A second or two later, the enormous thunderclap burst with such force she nearly instinctively let go of the rope to clap her hands over her ears.
Inching up a ways more, she could see the Constitution try and return the blow. It was eager and disciplined, but weak by comparison. Budding commander that she was, O’Leary could tell a couple of her gun crews already were down--dead or disabled by the force of the electrical storm.
The Grafvitnir did not miss a beat as it continued bearing down on its prey.
O’Leary turned her attention back to the challenge at hand. Muscles aching, fingers tired, she pressed onwards. With shaking hands, she reached up and grabbed the broken and twisted remnants of the catwalk. It seemed impossible to her that she had any reserve of strength left, but somehow felt it flow into her arms. With a grunt, she slid up and over, onto the few remaining feet of metal.
She lay there gasping for breath for what seemed a long while. Her muscles tightened and clenched rhythmically while the thumping of her heart reverberated in her ears. Time to get moving. But her body just wanted to lay still a moment longer.
A flash of weaponized lightning and roar of mechanized thunder got her to her feet. The Grafvitnir was running circles around the Constitution. With one, maybe two, engines out, the blockade-runner was losing steam.
As much as O’Leary wanted to watch, her the fate of her crew took top priority. She willed herself to her feet.
The Constitution shook again, nearly sending Miller onto his arse, as she took more fire from The Grafvitnir. He felt increasingly claustrophobic inside the flying deathtrap. How much longer before the mighty airship delivered its mortal blow? He abhorred the idea of dying locked inside the brig, feeling the long drop in the pit of his stomach as the Constitution plunged into the ocean.