“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.