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Gumshoes and Grimm Tales
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I Am Neither GrimDark Nor PollyAnna

Journal Entry: Sun Oct 19, 2014, 2:05 PM
Tarien's Scribbling

While reading the ever-amusing Ace of Spades Book, I followed a link to this article, where it seems that some have had their fill of Sci-Fi Dystopias.…

This does not surprise me, as I suspect Dystopias grew popular in science fiction for the same reason that GrimDark rose to rule Fantasy. (A fact the author of the above article misses completely.) That is, that anti-heroes have grown from a once legitimate literary device to complement the hero/villain structure, to turn all of writing into a gray ammoral world where the only difference between protagonist and antagonist is who the primary point of view indicates we should root for. A fact Sarah A Hoyt commented on in her Human Wave manifesto (indicating this is no new concern):

5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining. (Unless it is to see how the book bounces off the far wall, and that has limited entertainment. Also, I’m not flinging my kindle.)

I am pleased to see those who hailed the arrival of these ‘ambivalent heroes’ now finally come to the ground we have held for most of a decade. I find it amusing that of all people to blame for no longer envisioning big futures, ASU’s president picked Neal Stephenson. Whose Anathem was probably his biggest and most optimistic future, set well after the more dystopic cyberpunks that made him famous. And even his retro-futures, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle provide optimistic glimpses of science, finance, and the progress of society. There are MUCH better targets to aim this charge at than Neal Stephenson. Also, at this point, I remind you of my posts on dystopic Sci-Fi’s mystic cousin, Grimdark fantasy…, and…. Blatant pessimism, moral ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, and no attempt to even FIGHT for a better world does not make for an entertaining story. Not fantasy, not sci-fi. And the prevalence of this nonsense is a large part of the reason for Mysteries being the big genre fiction for profit today. At least in those, there is closure, resolution, and a knowledge that justice has been done.

I don’t like them, by and large. As they are too formulaic, and the contrivances of the genre do nothing for me. However, their elevation at a time that Speculative Fiction is screaming ‘Diversity” and “realistic characters,” and hemorrhaging readership all the while, probably hints at a problem in the mindset. A problem that runs through the love of Dystopias, antiheroes, and an unwillingness to embrace a true heroic journey. You see, if you’re committed to moral relativity, there can’t be heroes. Everyone is just a different point of view. We can’t accept that some things are legitimately beyond the pale. A mystery gets around this by having a protagonist who is only judging the ‘facts.’ But what speculative fiction writers have to realize is that sympathetic aspects to a culture, or a villain, don’t make them heroic, as such. Just like flaws in the hero don’t make for anti-heroes, as such. A hero seeks to overcome their best qualities. A villain makes a virtue of his vices. A hero admits there is darkness and accepts a measure of (gasp) hypocrisy in any moral creature is unavoidable. A villain spreads his arms like Don John and says, “At least I am plain dealing!”

Yeah, that doesn’t commend him much. This isn’t to say villains can’t be redeemed (over time), or that heroes won’t fall. This isn’t to say people can’t die trying to change the world, and the villains maybe even win. It means that we accept that morality exists outside of who wins or loses. And that the true hero may calculate the odds, but that doesn’t mean they refuse to do the right thing because of them. Or for comparison, let me leave with this:

A hero: The Iron Code of Druss the Legend: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.

An Antihero: Jayne Cobb from Firefly: “Like my Daddy used to say, ‘If you can’t do the smart thing. Do the right thing.”

A Villain: “Kneel Before Zod!”

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(Contains: sexual themes, violence/gore and ideologically sensitive material)

Chapter 29

    If the shindig assembled to watch Barclay Jamison Willis’ neck get stretched wasn’t the largest ever assembled in the Crux’s history, Phoebe hadn’t been alive to see its better. She sat beneath a pavilion with Underground to her right, Quique to her left, and the Witthered wearing a cowl and sitting next to a red-headed man he introduced as his captain, Treacy Yeang.

    They watched the crowd singing hymns, the Grangers praying that the end of this blight on the Crux would bring back the forgotten gods. A glance at the Hunter revealed a wistful look on his face. Phoebe reached over and squeezed his hand with hers.

    “You’re sitting next to me, mighty Hunter,” she reminded Quique while fluttering her lashes at him. “It can’t be that bad.”

    He almost chuckled, but caught himself with a furtive glance at the surroundings. She had to be contented with his wry, crooked grin. “Not bad at all, Phoebe. The song reminded me of when I’d go to Meeting before I turned to wandering, is all.”

    Phoebe wrinkled her nose at their words. They sang of the day the ones who had forsaken them would return from their voyage and heal this broken world and shivered. “I hope not. Because they won’t get what they want.”

    Quique regarded her with an arched eyebrow, but glancing back at them, he nodded. “I doubt I’m ready for that day either.”

    If only it was that, my brave gunslinger, she thought while recalling her night in the circle, and the claims of the demon who still held a promise against her. She managed a weak grin and replied, “I’m fairly certain I’ll never meet their definition of pure in heart, Quique.”

    Underground, whom Phoebe had known for years as Madame Amber McCrea, pondered the two of them with a finger curled under her chin. “I would not have imagined him to be the one to catch you, Miss Hanako. In fact, I’d wondered if I could entice you with my offer this time. I’ll be needing someone to take over The Fair Shake eventually.”

    Phoebe smirked. “But you made me a citizen. Why would I have to do that now?”

    Amber returned the expression. “Who said anything about need, Miss Hanako? We both know the folly of spurning desire. I have a friend who works in Antura. You would be trained by the finest of courtesans. That doesn’t interest you?”

    Phoebe felt Quique’s hand tighten around hers. Glancing up at him, she saw his eyes were narrowed. Her stomach fluttered, flattered and frustrated at once. She knew what the woman Quique wanted her to be should say. But everything in her experience reminded her that the kind of security Amber was offering could open doors to the heart of the Crux. Before she could bring herself to answer, Amber rocked back and clapped her hands. “You two are sweet on each other!”

    As Phoebe blushed and Quique cleared his throat, Amber waved her hand. “Even scoundrels like us deserve company when we can find it. Enjoy yourselves while you can. The Crux will have need of you both again, and I won’t forget about either of you when it does.”

    Turning to the pirate behind them, Underground added, “Or you, Captain Yeang.”

    Chortling, Treacy answered, “Here I was ready to sell my dreadnought to the Crux and hang up the rapier. After you generously honored Mistress Smallwood’s contract, I don’t think I need the headaches anymore.”

    “You will always want to fly,” Duma’s voice rattled despite his attempt to speak in a hushed tone.

    Treacy rolled his eyes. “You were a blazin’ awful second. I don’t know why I let you rejoin my crew.”

    “Because it’s a lot harder to get shot when his staff is spinning?” Quique supplied.

    The Captain nodded sagely. “That’s it. Self-preservation. The most important instinct a pirate can possess.”

    “I’m sure Outside would be grateful to trade that dreadnought you’ve acquired for a dirigible more to your liking?” Amber tapped her chin and shot a knowing glance at Phoebe.

    “It’d be built to my specifications?” Treacy inquired.

    “Within reason, Captain,” the Madame replied. Her eyes sharpening as she continued, “The Crux has already given you two large payments in the last two months.”

    The pirate chuckled. “Are you trying to whittle me down before Outside gets his whack at me?” He winked at her. “Since we’re clearly negotiating, maybe you’d provide me with an incentive to be receptive?”

    Quique’s eyes raised to the top of his brow, and Phoebe shook her head. But Amber smirked. “Very bold, Captain. Don’t let my son hear you speak this way to me. But it’s been some time since I’ve heard a man be so brave. We’ll speak again.”

    The singing stopped as the sun reached its zenith, directly over the gallows, where a lone woman sat between two deputies and the hangman. A prison cart’s wheels squeaked until stopping at the foot of the scaffold. A door opened, and Barclay Willis was thrust forth from within, tumbling to the dirt when his manacled feet got tangled in the chains. A burly deputy hoisted him upright and shoved the condemned forward.

    Willis’ eyes rose to the noose, and his posture straightened as one who has seen the face of his god. Phoebe knew the look well and leaned into Quique’s side. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and the memory of the Circle faded to a dull presence. The hangman placed the noose around Willis’ neck and a Sheriff stood before him.

    “The condemned before us,” his voice boomed across the Wastes without sounding like a bellow. “Barclay Jamison Willis, has been found guilty by a jury of his peers of Treason, five counts of Murder, Conspiracy against the City’s Government, Conspiracy to commit murder, Theft of Crux property, consorting with enemy powers without permission of the Ten, and seven counts of assault. He is hereby sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. But before your execution, your widow would speak.”

    The tall, slender woman stood as a foal testing her legs. She gathered herself and accepted a speaking horn from the deputy alongside her. She looked over the throng and then announced in a clear voice. “I am Lyla Smallwood, wife of this traitor. I disavow all his actions and murderous liaisons. He brought foreigners into our home and threatened the lives of my son and me if we did not keep silent about his scheme to overthrow the Ten. I swore before Preacher Gaal, whose life I helped save, that I had no part in his schemes or desire to see the Crux overthrown.”

    Returning the horn to the deputy, she turned to face her husband. Phoebe tightened her free hand in a fist as the two Willis’ stared at one another. The silence was broken with the sound of a slap as Lyla struck Barclay across the face. After spitting in his face, she sneered, “Bark in Hell tonight.”

    “Nice theater,” Treacy muttered. “I don’t believe a blazin’ word of it.”

    Amber’s face as she drummed her fingers once on the chair. “As likely as not you’re right. But enough trouble for one day. Founders won’t like it. But we’ll watch her.”

    Lyla stepped away and the hangman pulled the lever. The trap opened and a groan rose from the throng. A crowd of urchins ran for the platform. They were common to every hanging, seeking to drape themselves on the hanged man’s legs to finish him quickly in return for the few coins he kept in his shoes or pockets. But this time the deputies ringing the gallows pushed them away, ensuring the traitor would suffer.

    Willis kicked at the air three times in rapid succession. But his feet remained four feet from the ground, hanging suspended between sky and ground. Then the spasms began, as the life was choked from his body. Phoebe found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the scene until his twitching came to its end. Then, in a final display for one whose family had once traced back to the Original Ten, they left his body hanging for the carrion birds to feast when the crowd left.

    The singing began again as the Grangers filed out. The deputies ushered the children away as well, giving them candy in place of their hoped-for gold. Quique offered Phoebe his hand, she accepted it, whispering, “I’ve never known a man who deserved to hang as much as him. But it’s still ghastly.”

    “I’d never watch one of these if I didn’t have to,” Quique conceded. “Not even his.”

    The Crux had rolled the Heroes of ‘The Estanian Incursion’ as it was already being called, in by coach. (The Estanian Kingdom, for its part, was disavowing any aggressive intent, and claimed the squadron had veered off course after overreacting to a pirate attack.) Now it carried them back to the city. Quique and Phoebe shared one, and he helped her up to it, with his hand lingering on her back before joining her inside. When the door closed and wheels turned, she saw the Hunter regarding her with a wolfish gaze that traversed every inch of her frame.

    “What are you thinking about, Quique De Soto?” she asked in her most innocent voice. Though it was betrayed by the flick of her eyes along his rugged body.

    He reached into his inside vest pocket and produced a deck of cards. “I thought of an intriguing way to pass the time with a pretty gambler.”

    “Oh ho! You think you can beat me at my game?” She laughed and clapped her hands. “What are the stakes, darling?”

    Quique shuffled the cards in his hands. Her eyes instinctively following for any skifting his deft fingers could manage. “Whatever you wish to play for,” he answered in a seductive voice. His eyes ignoring the shifting deck to rest on her bosom.

    Leaning forward to allow him a better view, her teeth peeked out to nip at her lower lip before replying in a husky tone, “I see a problem with this proposal. That being we both want the same thing, darling. Who is the winner in a game that cannot be lost?”

    He began to put the deck away and sighed. “Then you don’t wish to play?”

    Her hand darted out and caught his hand. Tracing his palm with her fingertip she smiled coyly at him. “I’m sure I can imagine something to make the game worth playing.”

    His wry smile returned and she felt her heart begin to pound as the cards flew. This was living! she exulted. And it might even be fun to let him win.

    She paused to pick up her hand before adding, Every once and a while.

A Winning Hand? Hanging Fruit
Well, what better way to organize a shindig than promise a wealthy villain gets his just desserts? And this is pretty much the only scene all our 'heroes' have been together all book. ;)

~1800 words for this final chapter. The full manuscript is 93,000 words, of which approximately 90 are included here. 

Thank you for reading, and if you've enjoyed this, please let me know! 

I Have Never Been Big On MMOs

Journal Entry: Tue Oct 14, 2014, 4:44 PM
Tarien's Scribbling

But I am an unquestioned Browncoat.

So this fascinates me:…

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(Contains: violence/gore, strong language and ideologically sensitive material)

Chapter 28

    “The Crux thanks you and your absent friends for the service you’ve rendered us, Master De Soto.” Amber McCrea said with a curtsy. Her cheeks had grown taut with the current ordeal, and her cheeks had taken a ghostly pallor.

    “I’m glad to see your son returned to you, Ma’am,” Quique answered.

    The light in her eyes promised the marks of worry would fade if they could survive the next hours. She cast a warm glance at Isaac and the tall, attractive woman sitting near her. “Yes, Lyla appeared appreciative you and your friends arrived when you did. Time will reveal how deeply she had enmeshed herself in her husband’s schemes. But my son has nothing but good to say about her. The Preacher testified similarly.”

    Quique did not have to be a politician to hear the subtext. The Ten would exonerate Lily Smallwood, and probably give her back most of her family’s property. The City did not like the appearance of their saviors being a bounty hunter, a gambler, and a Touched Witthered. The Big Bugs needed their own hero, and the woman who stood up to her husband was going to be it.

    So with a nod, he turned his gaze to the Aethercannon, pointed at a forty-five degree angle through a role in the roof, similar to the Black Rock Observatory. A telescopic sight sat on the barrel. And the operator turned a series of knobs and dials before tapping a gage and humming tunelessly to himself.

    “I have to admit, it would be fun to shoot that,” Quique observed with a wink at Madame McCrea.

     “Just a bigger gun to you?” Her wry smile succeeded in peeling away the politician’s facade and bringing back the charming Queen of Hospitality. “I have to admit, I would feel better about aiming that by hand if one of the Crux’s best shots was lining up the sights.”

    The bald, scarred Colonel watching the weapon warm up turned around and crossed his arms. “Airships are big and slow in comparison to a beam of near-pure energy. Hitting them will not be an issue.”

    “And if they have Whirleybirds?” Amber countered.

    Quique frowned. “If they bring those, I don’t know I wouldn’t be better with my rifle in hand anyway.”

    “That’s actually a capital idea!” Colonel Cornwall, known to the Ten as Outside, clapped his hands and then hurried over to squeeze Quique’s shoulder with a strength the taller man would not have reckoned he possessed. “I have just the gun for your skills, Master De Soto. Follow me.”

    Casting a sidelong glance at McCrea, who waved while covering her mouth in response, Quique complied. As they walked, the Colonel said over his shoulder, “You have my thanks for rescuing Preacher and Mister Barider as well. This has been our worst nightmare. If Underground hadn’t had the foresight to hire you, we could very well have been prostrate before the Estanians.”

    Quique shrugged. “I’m glad my friends and I could help.” A pang went through him at the memory of Phoebe. They had parted after seeing Wilis handed over to the Sheriff. She had given him a look of such promised passion that he had ached with need. Then her lips had brushed his cheek and she disappeared. The gambler had neither gone to his bolt-hole nor sent word to Hunter’s Hall. Not that he had been given time to look for her, with having been pressed into becoming the public face of Underground’s defense of the City. Duma had also made himself scarce. But that was understandable. With the entire Crux-and-Spokes like a hair-triggered scattergun, having a member of the city’s mortal enemies was asking for a short, bloody end. Hero of the hour or not.

    “Ah! Here we are!” Colonel Caldwell motioned to a double-barreled, skyward-aimed barrage gun. “Lieutenant Monfort will show you how this works. Though I suspect you will adapt to it quickly.”

    “Colonel?” the sharp-looking officer’s face contorted as he saluted.

    “Liuetenant, I’m certain Master De Soto will prove more than competent at aiming and firing a gun. No matter how sophisticated the machine,” Colonel Caldwell replied.

    Quique chuckled as the Lieutenant smartened his salute and then nodded at the Hunter. “Of, of course he is. This way, Master De Soto.”

    “Thank you, Colonel.” The Hunter offered his hand to Outside.

    “Thank me by sending one of their dreadnoughts up in smoke, Hunter,” Caldwell answered while accepting it.

    Quique followed the Lieutenant up three metal stairs onto a platform, where a loader was preparing the ordinance and a sergeant was examining a pressure gage. Above, the sky remained devoid of anything but translucent wisps of clouds in the upper atmosphere. It lent an illusory sense of calm, enhanced by the routine way the two enlisted men went about readying the barrage gun as the Lieutenant explained the operation to him. When they had finished checking the weapon, the sergeant loaded a shell into the breach of each gun, and then flipped a red sign reading, ‘Ready.’

     The barrels were far enough apart that one could be loaded while the other was aimed. The whole operation could be performed, from target acquisition, to reloading the second barrel, within a minute.

    “Oh, and word to the wise, Hunter. Don’t drop these,” Lieutenant Monfort pointed at the box the shells had come from with his boot. “They’re incendiary shells. Make a damned impressive boom.”

    “I imagine.” Quique’s mouth curled as he examined the box with all the respect he handled a loaded six gun. “But these would shoot clean through the gasbag without exploding, right?”

    “On a balloon? Sure,” Monfort agreed. “But a dirigible has a rigid frame supporting the envelope. Strike that with one of these, and you make a bonfire worthy of Founder’s Fest. Still, in practice, we shoot for the gondola.”

    “Thanks,” Quique squinted at the sky and wished he had brought his spyglass. Instead, he slipped into the gunner’s chair and slid it until he looked through the barrel on the right hand side. The optical sight magnified the sky in the gun’s line of sight. In the distance, he spied a mammoth black cigar-shaped airship. Then three, and more until a dozen appeared, with biplanes buzzing around them.

    “Game’s afoot,” Quique warned.

* * * *

    Underground stood behind the Aethercannon as Colonel Caldwell returned. The gunner, an engineer named Caius Grewel, pushed his pinched-nose glasses back into place. He kept his hair too short to be unkempt. Otherwise, Amber would have imagined it would be standing on end as he announced, “We have full power and nominal readings. The Aethercannon is ready in all respects, Sir.”

    “I’d like to test that,” Caldwell answered with a sigh. “But we can’t risk using up the gun on a test. Besides, our spotters just signaled time’s up.”

    “How many times will this shoot?” Amber tugged at an earlobe.

    Grewel turned and cut in, “If I had the time to build a steam turbine, I could run a generator from it that would keep it perpetually charged. Then the only question would be keeping the barrel cool. But all we had were the generators on site. So I have no idea how long it will take to recharge between cycles.”

    “In other words,” Colonel Caldwell explained, “This is going to be a Demon’s-own Theory-to-Practice.” Clearing his throat, he grimaced. “Pardon the colorful analogy.”

    Amber laughed softly. “I’m hard to embarrass, Colonel.”

    Outside barked a laugh and then pointed at the display to the left of the Aethercannon. “This is the only salvaged radar set in the Crux. The blips to the east are the incoming enemy. This group to the southwest is our fleet. We kept them there in case they moved straight for the city instead of trying to neutralize us first. Once the signalmen get through to them that the Estanians are moving on us, they’ll come back.”

    “Surreal,” Amber whispered.

    “It will seem very real in a few seconds,” Caldwell replied.

    The drone of whirling propellers and buzz of biplanes brought home the reality of this deadly encounter to the Amber. Outside leaned forward, with both hands on the back of Grewel’s chair. “Fire when in range. I want the odds as close to even as possible before the fleets engage.”

    “Aye Colonel,” he replied. “Estimate they will enter maximum effective range in ten seconds.”

    Amber watched the wall clock and whispered the countdown, along with a half-dozen other onlookers. She clenched her fists until her knuckles turned white.

    The gunner hesitated an extra half-beat after the time was up. Then he pressed the red firing button in the center of the dials and gages. The Aethercannon’s barrel was engulfed in pale blue light in three stages, the last being a conical convergence of the energy into a beam at the tip of a lightning rod. As it powered up, Amber’s hair tingled, and would have stood on end if not for it being safely ensconced in a hat. The weapon discharged with the zap of someone who put their tongue to an electric motor.

    Its beam lanced skyward, too fast for the eye to follow, though the residue of its burst burned itself into Amber’s cornea despite her closing her eyes against the glare. When the light faded, Amber looked up through the hole in the roof to see a second sun blaze to life in the sky. Fire glinted off shards of metal that began to fall to earth, and a plume of flame engulfed the Estanian airship.

    “Kill confirmed,” a spotter reported.

    “Aethercannon’s at fifty percent capacity.” He stopped to smile wickedly. “And charging, The weapon will be ready to fire in thirty seconds.”

    “Commence targeting,” Colonel Caldwell ordered as cheers resounded around the command center.

* * * *

    It was more like a giant bushwhacking than any battle from tales, to Quique’s mind. Even the dogfights between the heavier-than-aircraft were more often decided by a third party shooting down one of the others while they were distracted than by any skill of the pilots. It brought to mind when he had dispatched Skulls. Did I deny him a chance because I was angry about what he had done? Or because I didn’t know which of us was faster and didn’t want to die?

    A second blast from the Aethercannon lanced the sky. This time Quique knew to look away before its target exploded in a fireball. When the explosion died, he spun the gun into position and watched until the leading edge of a Dreadnought appeared. Pulling the lanyard, he yelled, “Fire in the Hole!”

    Despite wearing a helmet to deaden the noise, Quique's ears rang as the barrage gun roared. A half-dozen others followed from various places on the base. Shells were propelled into the atmosphere as the crewmen reloaded the first barrel. He slid the chair across to the left. He counted seconds until he thought he had missed. But then a thump was followed by flame from the dreadnought’s bow. A second explosion caused the dirigible to shudder in the sky, it’s propeller stalling as fire ascended to the gasbag, turning the entire craft into a bonfire.

    Quique whooped as he began turning the chair toward his next target. But when he looked through the reticule, he saw a swarm of biplanes buzzing toward them. Volley guns spat angrily as they dove toward his crew. De Soto screamed for them to take cover and then jumped beneath the platform. He pulled the collar of his duster up to protect his head as bullets pinged off his chair and the tell-tale click of a grenade on metal. Thunder and heat built until he gritted his teeth against the piercing pain in his left war. Shards of metal scythed through the air, punching his back and driving him back to the ground. At last there was silence. He welcomed it at first. Then he realized it was too deep to be natural. He snapped his finger by his left ear and didn’t hear them.

    Staggering to his feet, Quique reached for the railing, but it had been twisted into razor sharp shards of metal. The rest of his crew had been torn apart as if a Witthered war party had found them. Somehow his Duster had saved him again. Phoebe had done better carving the rune than he ever had.

    The Aethercannon pierced the sky again and Quique dumbly stumbled toward it. Above, the battle grew desperate, as a row of dreadnoughts loosed a broadside, shredding four Crux dirigibles. The sky was filled with the debris and smoke of dead and dying airships plummeting toward ground.

* * *

    Captain Treacy Yeang had stumbled across the Estanian squadron a day before. While moving into the rear of the dreadnoughts’ line, he had signaled they had taken some damage from the ‘Intruding pirate vessel’ before dispatching it. Now they would help make certain no more of them intruded on the Great Kingdom’s airspace. He had learned the signal flags of both Estania and the Anturan Republic, along with those of the Crux. After all, it was twig to be able to communicate with any ship he encountered. All the better to demand their surrender. Despite this awareness, he had kept the Estanian signalman, Turi Zatarain, on the bridge, just in case one of the ships communicated in code he would recognize.

    Corona stood behind him, hand on her cutlass, as an ever-present reminder of where the former ensign’s loyalties lay now. It was a precaution taken with all the former Estanians. No two of them were allowed together without one of his mates anywhere on the ship. Working, eating, or sleeping, it was one of his own for one of theirs. When he saw the Estanian squadron, he hoisted the Lion over the Madra and his entire crew changed into Estanian Air Fleet black uniforms. His coat was a little tight, a fact Treacy reminded himself of by patting the unbuttoned frock presently. But it would pass inspection from anything an officer in a spyglass on another ship might pose. With his ship, the Kingdom’s assault force consisted of eight dreadnoughts, four troop transports, and eight combat dirigibles of smaller sides. Buzzing around them was a host of biplanes. No whirleybirds had joined the force, which made him ponder if it was a simple raid.

    As they approached Potassi from the west, Treacy saw the Belle Pointe Spoke in the distance, with the Crux’s most fertile land pass below. Further on, he saw the first hints of the scrambling Air Base. It surprised him at first they did not terrorize the citizens below as they came on. But then it occurred to him that this was no simple raid. The Estanians wished to take the Crux-and-Spokes, the whole kit and caboodle. But if so, why had Lyla Willis sent him to the very base the Estanians had used as their base? He would have words with her after this was over.

    Potassi Air Field grew ever larger below. Once an indistinct blur, now the hangers and mooring spires were clearly visible. As was a blue flash. Before Treacy recognized what caused it, the lead airship, the Baltez, disappeared in a ball of fire that engulfed a flight of surrounding biplanes as well. Ahead of the Madra, the San Isidro and the Conquistadore collided while seeking to avoid the conflagration. Their rigging lines tangled while their crewmen sought to extricate themselves. It left them an opportune target for the next blast from below.

    “Is that the blazin’ Aethercannon?” Corona shrieked.

    Captain Treacy’s grunted his affirmative and pondered the irony that he was minutes from being blown to Hell by a weapon he had sought half a decade for. Of course, the Crux’s sole purpose in buying it was to prevent the very kind of attack he now found himself perpetrating in an Estanian Airship of the Line. A fourth dirigible was struck by two incendiary shells. The craft ignited like a bonfire in seconds, providing a visceral display of why the conventional ordinance remained the most feared weapons against dirigibles.

    Fluttering signal flags were raised from the flagship, Pluton, the sister ship of the annihilated Baltez. They read, “Defense Craft stay in formation. Ground Attack Squadron target enemy Anti-Aircraft barrage guns. Lighter-than-air craft form line of battle and target enemy dirigibles.”

    Jaw muscles beneath his beard working, Captain Treacy debated continuing on course. That would bring his ship broadside to the fleet, where he could pummel several Estanian ships before they could respond. But that would leave them a lone target for anything that survived their attack. He felt some loyalty to the Crux. But he wasn’t that patriotic. More to the point, he didn’t count on that kind of loyalty from the Estanian half of his crew.

    The leading ships of the line, now arrayed for battle, loosed a broadside that crushed two of the Crux’s flotilla before they could array for battle. A third took fire, but its crew, through superb damage control, kept itself in the fight. Still trailing smoke, it was raw meat for the dingos, and every gun in the Estanian fleet seemed to focus on the ship until the sheer weight of lead drove it from the sky.

    The reek of fumes, burning hydrogen, and seared flesh mingled with the omnipresent coal fires to turn the sky red and black, pierced by blue as another blast from the Aethercannon sliced clean through a transport. Now the Madra had cruised into the midst of the battle, and Treacy knew he had to make a choice of lethal importance. One large enough to decide the fate of two nations.

    “Make ready all guns!” Captain Yeang ordered.

    Zatarain laughed from his perch alongside him. “If I’d known you were going to fire on your fellow pirates, I’d have advised Captain Orin to offer you places in his own crew from the first.”

    Treacy ignored the jab, instead watching for an opportunity to maneuver away from the fight. But the dreadnought’s sluggish handling left any sort of rapid turn impossible. If he broke rank, the game would be over, and he would be dead. He would have one throw of the dice, at best.

    His eyes rested on the twin engine bells and a smile curled on his lips. “Mister Zatarain, signal, ‘Port Engine Malfunction.’”

    “What?” the bearded Estanian protested. “We’re not having-”

    Treacy rang the port engine down to ahead one-quarter and smirked as the propellers whined behind him. “Now we are.”

* * * *

    Amber McCrea gasped as Quique stumbled back to the observatory-turned-gun placement as the Aethercannon fired the third time. But her sympathy for the bloody and battered Hunter was curtailed by a pop and a sizzling hiss as one of the generators powering the Aethercannon died.

    Colonel Caldwell loosed a string of profanity that not only succeeded in making the shameless courtesan blush, but caused Quique to arch an eyebrow. Before he had finished, he had cursed the Estanians, Crux, the weapon itself, and those working on it, along with every god that had forsaken the Waste, he barked, “Tell me you can get the sonuvabitch started!”

    Grewel offered a sheepish shrug as he looked over his shoulder. “I’ll check, Sir.”

    A perverse part of Amber’s disposition wanted to laugh at the scene of ten headless gnomes, led by Caius Grewel, darting between the Aethercannon and its generators. Meanwhile Outside berated, cajoled, and cursed them with a face as red as a forgotten pot on a roaring fire. The spit flying from his mouth a passable impression of steam from the spout.

    “Shit! You godscursed buzzards! What’s wrong, and can you fix it?!” Caldwell bellowed from less than six inches away at the engineers.

    It all would have been hilarious, if Amber had not possessed a certainty in her bones they would lose without the weapon. A fear confirmed by the radar display showing that for every one Estanian airship downed, two of their own died.

    “Sorry Colonel,” Grewel admitted. “It’s going to take an hour to replace the blown transfer switch.”

    “We don’t have a blazin’ hour!” Outside shot back. He spun off and stomped his feet, only to nearly run straight into Quique. “Oh damn! Master De Soto, what happened?”

    “They called it strafing,” the Hunter answered, his voice louder by half than normal. “I call it, ‘Getting shot repeatedly with large caliber weapons.’” He managed a weak grin and snapped his fingers near his left ear, frowning at the result. Shaking his head clear, he studied the smoking case. “I might have something.”

    “What does a gunhand know about this?” Grewel protested, interposing himself between the machine and the tall interloper.

    “Nothin’ but what I’ve seen,” Quique answered without rancor while reaching into his duster to produce an obsidian knife. “But I think I can scribe a rune to force this to work for a few minutes.”

    “You’re not barking serious!” Grewel shouted. “Please don’t!”

    Quique set his left hand on the large pistol on his hip and the engineer gave ground. The Hunter worked quickly, scribing two leaning hut figures with three slashes between them. When he drew the last line, the generator spun to life. Grewel’s mouth dropped open, and then he darted over to the cannon.

    “We’re at full power!” he exclaimed with a hand to his forehead.

    “Then shoot something!” Caldwell ordered, pushing with his hands.

    The Aethercannon fired as fast as Grewel could identify targets. Quique slumped to the floor against the running generator and watched through the hole in the roof with his hat tilted back. Amber allowed herself to exult in the thought they would actually fight off the Kingdom’s forces. Then the generator whined and stalled once more.

    “I’d hoped for a bit more,” Quique grumbled. “Ain’t gonna work again.”

    “We’ve got three targets left, and sufficient power for one shot,” Grewel advised. “Orders, Colonel?”

    Silence fell over the control room. Three Estanian dreadnoughts remained. Two would be enough to sweep the sky of anything the Crux had remaining. Or one could be a troop transport, capable of unloading a company of elite commandos. Even if such a force didn’t take the city, it could cause the Crux months, if not years of grief. They could kick up a row plenty big enough to encourage them to try again.

    “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo, Catch a Witthered by the toe,” Amber McCrea whispered under her breath.

    When she had finished the childhood rhyme, a broadside fired from one of the dreadnoughts. Amber blinked as a collective gasp went through the room. Not one borne of rage, but rather disbelief. But their eyes had not deceived. A second Estanian ship shuddered from the blast. Seconds later, another barrage from the turncoat ship blew its target to pieces.

    “Fire at the remaining craft!” Caldwell ordered.

    Grewel lit off the Aethercannon, and its blue light pulsed a final time. The near-instantaneous burst took hours to Amber’s jangled nerves. But at last, a two stage explosion rippled through the final Estanian capital ship. A volley from the turncoat, from whose stern the pirate’s flag now waved, finished it off. Then it, along with the remaining Crux ships, gave chase to the handful of remaining Estanian craft.

    Cheers roared from the ground, Amber spared a glance at Quique, who rubbed both cheeks with his hands. She noticed a sigh from Lyla, and a strange look in her eyes. But Amber could not bring herself to fret on tomorrow’s problems. They had survived, and the Kingdom would think twice before trying to reach through the skies at the Crux again. She walked over to the Hunter and leaned on the broken generator.

    “Master De Soto, I think you’ve fulfilled your bill.”

    He looked up at her and grinned wryly. “Good. Because I reckon I’ve a right book full of expenses to charge the Crux.”

    Amber McCrea, Underground of the Ten, tried to keep a serious face, but she dissolved into giggles before helping the Hunter to his feet and planting a courtesan’s kiss full on his lips.

A Winning Hand? Battle of Potassi
The noisy neighbors come calling on the Crux, and it's airships and Aethercannons, with Quique on the ground, and Treacy forced to make a hard decision. 

The Previous:  A Winning Hand? Showdown at Smallwood RanchChapter 27
    Daybreak’s first angry red gleam broke through the sky before Quique and his companions arrived at Smallwood Ranch. The Hunter took advantage of that to peer through a spyglass. “If those are simple ranch hands, then I’m about to be appointed Mayor.”
    “Forgive me for being a croaker, dear,” Phoebe curled her hand in front of her mouth. “But I’m not sure my magic is going to make a big difference in broad daylight. Especially if Duma is going with you.”
    “I am,” the Witthered grunted.
    “ I didn’t expect any different. But every little bit can help, poppin.” Quique shrugged. “And as much as I’d like to wait for help, I don’t think that’ll make things better. If no one’s tried him yet, they’re not going to be inclined to do so if we ignore him too. We can take h
 The Finale:  A Winning Hand? Hanging FruitChapter 29
    If the shindig assembled to watch Barclay Jamison Willis’ neck get stretched wasn’t the largest ever assembled in the Crux’s history, Phoebe hadn’t been alive to see its better. She sat beneath a pavilion with Underground to her right, Quique to her left, and the Witthered wearing a cowl and sitting next to a red-headed man he introduced as his captain, Treacy Yeang.
    They watched the crowd singing hymns, the Grangers praying that the end of this blight on the Crux would bring back the forgotten gods. A glance at the Hunter revealed a wistful look on his face. Phoebe reached over and squeezed his hand with hers.
    “You’re sitting next to me, mighty Hunter,” she reminded Quique while fluttering her lashes at him. “It can’t be that bad.”
    He almost chuckled, but caught himself with a furtive glance at the surroundings. S


Artist | Hobbyist | Literature
United States
I'm a wizard, nah, I'm a spy, no no, I'm an evil genius! Yeah, that's it. :iconfoxevillaughplz: Alright, actually I'm a writer, which just means I've been restrained by society from fulfilling my desire for global domination through illegal means, and instead torment my characters.

Tarien Cole may only be the pen-name, but it's much more interesting than real life. ;)

I write, primarily in novel form, across the Speculative Fiction spectrum. Classic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, Weird Western, & Space Opera.

:iconparentaladvisory2plz: I mark many of my Deviations Mature and Strict Mature because I respect the dA filter system. Please do the same when you read.


:iconfantasyliterature: :iconmidtownmagic:



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