Dirk Dynamo pedalled frantically, legs going hell for leather to keep the pedalo-thopter’s wings flapping. A fierce wind lashed at him, stray cloud brushing his face like Death’s own icy fingers. He was glad he’d worn a thick jacket.
“Nearly there,” Timothy Blaze-Simms called from the front of the machine, tailcoat flapping as he stood excitedly in his seat.
“We’d be nearer if you’d sit down and pedal,” Dirk said.
They burst out of the cloud bank into clear blue skies. Below them, the Atlantic was just as clear and empty, a carpet of rippling blue from horizon to horizon. The only other sight was their target.
The Storm of the South hung in the air ahead of them, looking for all the world like a whale of the skies. Most of the airship was made up of its vast gas bag, acres of treated canvas straining under the pressure from within. A lightning rod rose from the top, and Confederate battle flags hung from its bows, blue crosses dark against the crimson background. A stain on his country’s recent history that Dirk would rather the world could forget. Stopping this floating menace, with its piracy and slaving, could only help.
“Are those seagulls?” Dirk asked as they closed on the airship. His legs ached like hell and he was getting short of breath, so he welcomed the distraction.
“Too big,” Blaze-Simms replied, peering through his binocular goggles. “I do believe they are vultures.”
“At sea?” Dirk leaned forward, pedalling faster for one last surge.
“One sees very few Confederates since they lost the war,” Blaze-Simms said. “Why not vultures who have lost the land? Oh look, almost there.”
The back of the gas bag was now beneath them. Dirk lifted himself off the pedals, checked the knife tucked into his boot and the Gravemaker snuggly holstered at his side. Both gave solid reassurance against the battering wind and the sea so far below to either side.
“Ready?” he called out as the pedalo-thopter started to wobble and lose height.
“Ready,” Blaze-Simms replied, grasping his swordstick and securing his top hat with a strap.
“Then let’s go.”
They leapt. Dirk landed with a thump that knocked the air from his lungs. With one hand, he grasped a rope running around the gasbag, securing himself in place, while with the other he grabbed Blaze-Simms as the Englishman slid past.
They watched the pedalo-thopter bounce off the back of the airship and tumble forlornly into the sea.
“I suppose I shall have to make another,” Blaze-Simms said. “But this is hardly the moment to worry about it.”
“Damn straight.” Dirk looked around for the nearest ladder to climb down by.
“I believe it’s time for tea.”
“Dammit, Tim, this is not the time.” Dirk glanced around the compact space of the galley, wary that they might be caught out before they found the captives—slaves, Colonel Storm had labelled them, hostages and victims, their families insisted. Innocent folks either way.
“Thirst can be crippling to a chap’s fighting capacity,” Blaze-Simms replied, putting cups and saucers on the gleaming steel work surface. “And besides, who knows what intelligence we might find?”
“Intelligence? In the kitchen?” Above Dirk’s head, pans and kitchen knives swung in the breeze around the air vents.
Blaze-Simms opened another cupboard, blinking in surprise.
“Actually, yes,” he said.
Dirk peered over his friend’s shoulder. Inside the cupboard huddled a girl, maybe twelve years old, pale and trembling, and wearing the remnants of a once-expensive yellow dress.
“You alright there, miss?” Dirk held out a hand, but the girl shrank back, eyes wide with fear. He caught a glimpse of a tear across the back of her dress, and an all-too-familiar injury on the flesh beneath.
Dirk’s blooded boiled. Hadn’t they left this behind?
“Someone whip you?” he asked as gently as he could.
“Bad man,” the girl whispered, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Don’t worry,” Dirk said. “We’re here to save you from the bad men.”
She shook her head.
“Bad man.” She held up a single finger.
“There’s just one of them running this place?” Dirk frowned. That made no sense. A vessel this large…
“One man and the hundred captives he’s taken off ocean liners,” Blaze-Simms said, once more rummaging through the cupboards. He turned to the girl with a smile. “I say, you don’t have any tea in there, do you?”
She shook her head.
“Coffee would do, at a push.”
“Chicory,” she whispered.
“Good lord.” Blaze-Simms shook his head sadly. “What war’s privations will do to a man’s tastes.”
“Tim, this really ain’t the time.” Dirk scratched his head. Something was bothering him, a piece missing from his sense of the situation. “If he’s got no crew, then how’s Storm capturing those ships?”
“By bein’ an awful sight smarter than y’all,” said a voice behind them.
Dirk spun around, hand going for his Gravemaker.
But it was too late. There was a bright flash of light and his whole body flared with pain. He fell to the floor, blackness closing in on him. The last things he saw were a beard like a shovel, and a pistol that seemed to glow.
Dirk woke to another jolt of pain. He screamed and snapped his eyes open. He found himself looking down at vultures circling above the wide blue of the sea. His body was being stretched out, hands reaching towards the ocean as he hung upside down, strapped by his feet underneath the airship.
To his left hung Timothy Blaze-Simms, still unconscious—and still with his top hat strapped on. As Dirk looked at him, a screwdriver fell out of Blaze-Simms’s pocket and tumbled end over end, glinting in the sunlight, until it was lost to sight against the vastness below.
Turning to the right, he saw another man standing proud amid the riveted beams of the airship’s landing struts. The wind tugged at an all-too-familiar grey uniform, crisp and clean except for an old bullet hole near the right shoulder. The man wore a holster on one hip and a whip on the other. Above a thick, neatly-kept beard, blue eyes sparkled like hate-filled diamonds.
“Colonel Storm?” Dirk’s tongue felt thick in his mouth, and every nerve tingled.
“Captain Dynamo.” Storm spun his pistol one last time, the glass bulb on the back glowing, and holstered it. He gave a casual salute. “Or do you no longer go by rank, sir?”
“Not in a few years.” Dirk heaved himself up enough to see the straps binding him to the beams. They were riveted in place, without buckles or laces he might undo. “I seem to remember we met during the war?”
“I crossed paths with most Pinkertons in my day,” Storm replied, fingers brushing the ragged hole at his shoulder. “The War for Southern Independence made us some strange enemies, and stranger bedfellows.”
“We’ve all done things we ain’t proud of.” Dirk tried to keep the loathing from his voice; loathing for his own past as much as for this man with his slaver’s suit. “Looks like you’re fixing to do more now.”
“Oh, I am proud of my achievements, Captain. And I am proud of my country.” Storm looked towards one of the Confederate flags hanging from the beams, and a tear sparkled in the corner of his eye. “You Yankees may have the upper hand for now, but a wind will rise from the South, sir. It will rise like God’s fury let loose upon your vile Union. It will come a-roarin’ and a-poundin’ against the walls of Washington and New York and all your proud, gleaming cities. The South will rise, sir. The South will rise!”
Storm whipped out his pistol. Lightning burst from its barrel and jolted into Blaze-Simms, who woke with a scream.
Colonel Storm holstered the pistol, its globe glowing a little fainter, and took out his whip. He swung it in long arcs and the vultures circled in towards the hiss. Their eyes shared Storm’s hateful gleam, and razor-sharp blades gleamed on their beaks and talons.
“I ain’t bein’ brought low again, boys.” Storm cracked the whip. Pain lashed Dirk’s cheek. Blood dribbled down his face and into his hair. The vultures screeched excitedly. “Not by the thievin’ Yankee government. Not by the lyin’ Pinkertons. Certainly not by some two-bit adventurin’ club come boardin’ my fine ship on a flyin’ bicycle.”
The whip cracked again and Blaze-Simms yelped. Blood trickled from his chin.
“Goodbye, gentlemen.” Storm saluted the flag and disappeared up a ladder into the airship proper.
The vultures cried out and circled closer.
“I say, old chap,” Blaze-Simms mumbled, patting at his many pockets. “What on earth is going on?”
Dirk heaved himself upward, stomach muscles tightening until his head came above his waist and his hands could reach his feet. Being upside down might be a problem for Storm’s usual victims of trans-Atlantic emigrants and scared cabin boys, but not for a man who’d made the effort to build up his own body. He reached down the side of his boot, but—as he had feared—the Bowie knife was gone.
He felt a swift lash of pain as razor talons skimmed the back of his legs. Another vulture swept past his head, its beak ripping the back of his jacket.
“Ouch!” Blaze-Simms flailed wildly, as if his thin flapping arms might deter the birds.
Dirk tried to twist his foot loose but it was no good—his ankle gave an agonising pop, and the straps showed not the least sign of movement.
“You got any scalpels?” he called out as another vulture tore a gash in his arm.
“Sorry, no.” Blaze-Simms looked pale and frantic, his shirt and tailcoat ripped open in a dozen places, blood soaking the cloth.
“Sorry, nothing pointed or burning or argh!”
Blaze-Simms screamed as one of the birds raked its beak down his back.
“OK, then.” Dirk looked back at the vultures. He needed something to cut himself free. He had nothing. Blaze-Simms had nothing. That left one option.
A vulture swooped in close, bladed claws reaching out towards Dirk. Instead of trying to avoid it, he swung towards the bird. It squawked in alarm as he grabbed hold, one hand around its wing, the other around its neck. Two-foot–long wings battered at Dirk while bladed claws hacked at his arm. He squeezed his fists tight and twisted. There was a crack as the bird’s neck snapped, and it went limp.
“Sorry,” Dirk said as he yanked the blade from its beak. “It ain’t personal.”
He let go of the body and it tumbled away towards the sea, the other vultures chasing it down. Carrion birds always had an eye out for easy pickings.
“It was trying to kill you,” Blaze-Simms said. “That seems awfully personal to me.”
“Just an animal,” Dirk said, heaving himself up to his foot-straps once more. “It’s never the critter that’s to blame. Always the owner.”
He set to cutting himself free.
Dirk and Blaze-Simms crept out of a corridor and into the wheelhouse of the airship. Dirk limped, trying to keep the weight off his injured ankle while still staying quiet. He clutched the blade he had taken from the vulture, while Blaze-Simms wielded a mop handle they had found on the way up through the vessel.
Wind lashed at them as they emerged. The space was less a wheelhouse and more a wheeldeck, wide open to the elements at the front. The great wheel was strapped into place, keeping them on a straight heading, and there was no one to be seen. More Confederate flags flapped above the edge of the deck, where a plank protruded out into the open air.
“Stop right there, gentlemen,” came the Colonel’s distinctive voice.
Dirk turned to see Storm standing in the shadows of the far corner. The glass bulb on the back of his pistol glowed less brightly than before, but it lit his face a stark white as he pointed the weapon towards them.
“Drop that there blade.” The Colonel walked slowly towards them, gun steady in his hand. “The stick too.”
Dirk, letting the knife go, heard it and Blaze-Simms’s mop handle clatter onto the deck.
“Now, over towards the edge,” Storm said. “And don’t you think of makin’ any funny moves.”
They slowly sidled across the deck, watching the Colonel’s impatient scowl.
“Faster,” he growled, blasting the floor by their feet with a bolt of electricity from his pistol.
“I say, that’s a frightfully clever device,” Blaze-Simms said, as they hurried over towards the plank. “Do you have a generator to power it?”
“Lightning,” Storm replied. “Got me a mast catches the power.”
“How ingenious!” Blaze-Simms’s face lit up with excitement. “But it looks to me like you’re running low on power.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to deal with you by other means.” Storm raised an eyebrow, gesturing towards the plank.
“You gonna make us walk that?” Dirk asked.
“Reckon I am. You first, Captain.”
“And if I don’t go?”
Storm gave the trigger the slightest squeeze. The bolt of lightning that leapt out was small, but it was enough to make Blaze-Simms scream and fall to his knees, flames flickering from the top of his hat.
“Well, alright then.” Dirk turned and stepped onto the plank. It was good, solid wood—pine, maybe. It had a little spring to it, and he felt it start to bend beneath him as he walked. There were times he’d thought he might die beneath the Confederate banner, but not like this.
Not that he intended to die.
He bent his knees, his twisted ankle aching, and leapt. The plank gave him extra spring as he flung himself sideways, grabbing one of the flags and swinging on it towards the deck.
Storm screamed in fury at the desecration of his precious banner. Pain juddered through Dirk, frying his every nerve end, but he clung on tight. There was a ripping sound, and he freewheeled through the air, slamming into the deck with most of the flag still in his hands, his heart hammering and his head pounding. Darkness crept into the edges of his vision as he staggered to his feet.
“Damn you, Yankee scum!” Storm raised the pistol, but there was barely any glow in the bulb now. It only buzzed as he pulled the trigger.
Storm reached for his belt, fumbling at a round pouch. Dirk staggered towards him, each step a strain on his screaming muscles, twisting the banner around.
The Colonel opened the pouch, and pulled out another glowing globe. Dirk lashed out with the tightly coiled flag. His improvised whip knocked the ball from the Colonel’s hand.
Storm scurried after the globe, leaning down to grab it at the edge of the deck.
Before he could find his balance, Blaze-Simms flung his top hat, the flaming headgear hitting the Colonel in the back of the head. He gave a pained yelp, lost his balance, and went tumbling over the side.
Dirk leaned out and watched as Storm fell, end over end, towards the sea far below, his vultures circling down after him.
“Guess we let the prisoners out now,” Dirk said, turning towards Blaze-Simms. “Take ‘em all home.”
His colleague staggered to his feet.
“Any chance of a cup of tea first?” he asked.
“Only chicory, remember?”
“Of course. What more can one expect of a pirate?”
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