Aboard ANA Airship Manila Bay
Province of Pernambuco
Republic of Brazil
November 21, 1916(b)
“Ahhh,” Luz murmured.
She blinked against the brightness as they climbed the last stage of the stairway onto the bridge level. From the top you could see right out past the helms, and things got better as the group walked forward. The view from the passenger galleries was spectacular. That from the airship’s bridge was…
Entrancing, she thought.
The horseshoe-shaped control room of the Manila Bay jutted out from the underside of the airship’s blunt bow like a chin, and it was surrounded on three sides by tall windows slanting inward from the top at forty degrees and showing sweeping vistas of green sugarcane, bands of tropical forest, and endless palm-lined white beach fringed with white surf. They were about the same height as the tip-top of the Eiffel Tower—if it still stood in the blighted wasteland of central Paris—but they were moving. It was like the view from a cloud, or through the eyes of a falcon.
Ciara made her own unconscious sound of excitement, though Luz thought it was directed more at the airship, with the view proving how marvelous the great machine was.
They droned on across Brazil’s Pernambuco province toward the regional capital of Recife, and the shallower water near the shore was jade-green, fading to a deep cerulean blue farther out and patches of white foam breaking on reefs. A windjammer was standing in below them, its four masts a white-and-black geometry against the ocean with the doll-tiny figures of the crew in the rigging plainly visible from a thousand feet up.
“Now, are there any questions?” the blue-uniformed third officer said brightly; his name was Alan McCredie and he was no more than a year or two older than Ciara.
He had already explained what the vertical and horizontal helms were for, and the banks of brass-rimmed dials and switches that let the bridge watch monitor and control the engines and gas pressure and dozens of other variables. He’d managed not to sound bored while he did it, but…
He probably is, Luz thought.
Dealing with the passengers on this tour was one of his duties, and it probably wasn’t an accident that the junior deck officer got saddled with it. Another way an airship wasn’t much like an ocean liner was that the crew was far smaller, sixty or seventy, and airships were vastly more fragile, new to everyone including their crews, and had to be flown every single moment.
Ciara was virtually dancing without moving her feet, and Luz was interested herself; how could you be so stodgy that you didn’t pay attention to something so new in the world? Luz O’Malley was a young woman, but she could remember the day when Graf von Zeppelin launched the first of his monsters and touched off the airship race between the United States and his homeland.
Though we only started catching up when Uncle Teddy put his National Aeronautical Administration onto it, she thought. Then we jumped ahead.
Ciara raised her hand.
“Yes, Miss Duffy?” the officer said.
“I know you use gas for fuel on the latest airships because it has the same density as air and doesn’t affect the buoyancy as it’s used up, so you save on hydrogen lifting-gas and ballast,” she said. “What I was wondering was how you deal with the way differences in ambient temperature affect buoyancy by making the lifting hydrogen expand or contract and altering its pressure and density.”
The officer opened his mouth, then stopped as the question visibly made its way through his ignorant-passenger and young-blond-woman-nice-figure filters. Luz made a slight tsk sound; Ciara was attracting attention. It was probably, almost certainly, harmless, but she’d do some gentle reproof later.
Although that look on his face is priceless, she admitted.
“Ah…” He combed a hand through his cropped auburn hair.
The whole crew were rather young, since this was a new field, and McCredie had a blue-eyed, corn-fed, aw-shucks look to him like one of the covers for Boys’ Life by their brilliant new artist, the one who was attracting so much attention now that the Scouts were part of compulsory school attendance.
Rockwell, that’s his name.
When he smiled at Ciara his expression was genuine.
“Well, the control ballonets inside the gas cells can be expanded or deflated to maintain volumetric pressure control,” he said.
He visibly aborted an explanation of what that meant when she nodded eagerly. It was an exceptional man who didn’t appreciate that look of intense interest from someone like Ciara.
“And if we need to raise the temperature, we vent heated air from the engines around the gasbags,” he said. “And if the sun and the outside temperature do that, we rise and it’s cooler at higher altitudes so it’s self-correcting to a degree. But we have to be careful not to rise or fall too fast, of course, or to porpoise, because then we would have to valve gas or drop ballast to maintain control.”
“The same with rapid updrafts or downdrafts, I suppose,” she said thoughtfully.
“Yes, that can be a problem, particularly in bad weather,” he said, looking a bit desperate. “We use the horizontal rudders and dynamic thrust for active damping. Now, if you’ll all step this way…”
At the rear of the control bridge where it was faired into the main body of the airship, a ladder ran upward. And up, and up, and up. There were murmurs from the passengers as their necks craned backward. The bridge had its own ceiling, but here they were out in the interior of the hull itself, vast and dim and shadowy and vibrating to the slipstream and engines, lit by gleams from the windows along the galleries or bulbs spaced along the walkways.
The structure of the airship inside the smooth exterior teardrop of taut doped fabric was exposed, triangular truss-girders of riveted duralumin alloy, the bracing rings at intervals, and the long coaxial keel that ran through the center. Most of that space was filled with the cylindrical lifting-gas bags that limited the view; they were cut off at the bottom, and the remainder of their shape filled out by the smaller fuel-gas bags, all confined by henequen-rope nets that kept the huge containers of canvas lined with goldbeater’s skin from surging too much.
“The ladder here runs up a hundred feet to the observation dome on the top keel of the Manila Bay,” the officer said. “That’s where we take sightings of the sun and stars for navigation—not unlike surface ships. We also have other means…”
Ciara seemed about to say something; probably about the alarmingly new system of estimating location by triangulation from radio transmitters.
Luz gently nudged her ankle with one foot and got a muttered: sorry!
“The captain’s day room is to your port… left… here, and the wireless communications room to the starboard… the right. And if you’ll follow me, this is the side gallery where the engines are mounted; there’s another just like it on the other side.”
They were about one-third of the airship’s diameter up from the ventral keel here. A long curving corridor ran along the ship’s side, open to the hull on the inside and with occasional windows through the doped fabric of the outer skin on the other; they could see across to the other side because this was where the lift-gas cells were separated from the fuel-gas ones below. Once they were a hundred feet back from the bows, regularly spaced broad platforms marked the spots where each of the five engines on this side was mounted, with bracing beams and cables to transfer the thrust to the greater structure of the airship. A scent of oil and hot metal and solvents grew stronger as they approached the first one, though the way the engine pods were mounted outside swept the exhaust away in their wake; the platform had tables and workbenches, and there were racks and bins for tools and spare parts, all neatly labeled and fastened down—an airship of this size was usually extremely steady, but that could change if the weather was bad enough.
“It’s not like aeroplanes that never stay up for more than an hour or two so that all the overhauls can be done on the ground; we’re aloft for over a hundred hours on the longer passages. These bays can do anything up to a complete teardown when we dismount an engine and bring it inboard, and we carry several spares so that whole engines can be replaced while underway if necessary. Though that’s a bit… bit of a big job and we only do it if we must.”
Three men in mechanic’s overalls of blue so dark it was nearly black had something complex and mechanical strapped to one end of the worktable and were doing things with brushes and screwdrivers amid a harsh chemical stink. They didn’t look up after nodding to the officer, focused entirely on their task.
“Ah, working on a carburetor,” Ciara said—very quietly.
Luz could recognize an automobile’s carburetor easily enough, and even disassemble and clean one, because she’d had to help repair motor vehicles in the field in the Protectorate; however wedded some officers were to horses and mules, the American military and government did use more motor transport than anyone else. This one was rectangular, bigger than a man’s head and considerably more complex than the ones she was used to, but after her partner had given it a label she could see the resemblance.
The officer pointed outward. “As you can see, the engine nacelle is connected to the hull by a framework of girders covered in a wing-shape of hull fabric. It’s big enough that mechanics can go out and work on the engine without being exposed to the wind while we’re in flight, and since we have ten in all, we can stop up to four or five for maintenance if necessary—though it’s rare for more than one to give real trouble at a time. The engines are the new Curtiss-Martin Mk. VII radials, nine-cylinder, three hundred fifty horsepower. The fuel is gas, and the pipes run under the walkway…”
Then he stopped and looked back over his shoulder; Luz followed his eyes. One of the passengers was bent over the walkway, holding the matting with one hand and his other underneath the metal planking at the side.
“Mr. Hansen… sir… what are you doing there?” he said.
“I ins… was inspecting it,” the passenger named Hansen said, straightening up and pulling the section of tough woven henequen laid across the walkway’s metal grid back into place.
Wait a minute, Luz thought. He’s an odd one. And…
Her fine linguist’s ear was twinging.
Something off there in the way he talks. It’s slight, but…
“Why is there a covering?” Hansen asked. “My firm in Minneapolis makes industrial floor coverings. We’re investigating new sources of supply in Brazil since henequen prices are so high.”
That was as much as she’d heard from Hansen all voyage.
Interesting accent, she thought, keenly focused now.
Human speech in all its varieties was endlessly fascinating to her even aside from work.
Basically General American, Upper Midwestern, but there’s definitely something underneath, whatever it was his parents spoke. Of course, that’s true of every fifth American these days, more outside the South. Including me, if I weren’t good at switching my voice.
She ran through the likely candidates for someone with that name from that part of the country.
Swedish? No, not hurby-gburby-yurgy enough. Not Norski either, not musical enough. Harder and with more of a potato in the mouth and croaking… possibly Danish… but not German, not with the way he handles p- and f-sounds. Or not standardGerman at least, or any of the Hochdeutsch varieties. Low German? Frisian? Dutch?
Most of the passengers had at least exchanged a few words in the usual social rituals of the polite world; Hansen had kept strictly to himself, more so than any of the other passengers… except the three hacendados. And they had an extra reason to avoid her and Ciara now, since the American military men were keeping an eye on them with malign intent.
Hansen had been suspiciously quiet, now that she thought about it… and doubly so in retrospect now that he was breaking the routine he’d established. Most human beings, particularly middle-aged ones, were nearly as attached to routine as cats.
“The floor covering makes it less slippery if lubricating oil gets on the metal treads, sir,” the officer said. “And now if you’ll all follow me…”
They did, but Luz was frowning. There was a jarring note in the pattern of the day. Seeing things that didn’t fit, having them spring out of the picture and call for attention, was part of the set of skills that had kept her alive. It might be as simple as Hansen being the sort of person who somehow couldn’t learn the basics of dealing with others and was awkward whenever he tried. Some people were just like that, though she’d noticed the same ones were often good at memory tricks or mathematics.
Ciara’s a bit like that… a very small bit. Tesla considerably more so and just plain crazy to boot.
“Mr. Hansen, you’re from Minneapolis?” she said, on impulse, dropping back to walk beside him; Ciara was sticking close to the third officer, the source of fascinating technical tidbits.
“Yes, Miss Robicheaux,” he said.
He was a middling man—middling in height, an inch or two taller than her five-six, pale, with middling-brown hair that had a few flecks of gray and a rather ordinary snub-nosed generically northern European face, and blue eyes like paint on white china, so different from Ciara’s turquoise, magnified by the large wire-rimmed glasses he wore.
If you’d looked up moderately successful, slightly pudgy Upper Midwestern businessman in an Encyclopedia of Types, he’d have been a good illustration.
He’d let himself go more than was fashionable these days, but there were still plenty who thought the strenuous life was folderol and useless sweat, especially if their families weren’t long off the farm or from other manual-labor backgrounds. Some others shunned the build your body to build yourself maxim because it was a safe way to kick the Party in the shins, too.
In fact, he might have been designed to be inconspicuous… which would make him an ideal spy, far better than many in that line of work.
Men are far less likely to forget my face, for instance. But if you start thinking every inconspicuously average man is a German spy because they’re so unremarkable, you’ll go absolutamente loco. Is there anything else? What is it that I’m noticing but can’t put my finger on?
That doughy bespectacled face was expressionless now…
… but he was sweating, sweating very heavily indeed. It was warm inside the airship’s hull, with a stuffy feeling like a canvas tent in the sun, but they were also over a thousand feet up and flying, there was a steady draft designed to keep the air circulating and prevent buildups of leaking gas, and it wasn’t that hot.
Sweating too much even with that duster-style coat he’s wearing… which is stupid, because we are on the equator, and that’s the sort of thing you’d wear in the woods in Minnesota at Halloween. And it’s not ordinary sweat. And a loose coat like that is perfect if you’re concealing something…
Working in the field in the Protectorate she’d seen, smelled, and shed most types of sweat herself; from the humid selvaof Chiapas, where it lay on your skin and its folds like a coating of rancid bacon grease, to the sort that happened in the Sonoran deserts where the air shimmered over black rock like the beginning of a migraine and the sun sucked the moisture out of you so fast that the salt lay on your skin like fine white dust under the gritty alkaline stuff the wind carried.
This was a distinctive type and had an odor all its own—acrid but mealy. Usually smelling trouble was just a metaphor, but in this case…
Fear-sweat. That’s a man who thinks death is coming soon. And fear like that makes you want to explode into action, lashing out or running. Fear makes you stupid. Add a little extra push, and…
Connections meshed in her mind, in a way she might have been able to describe afterward but that had nothing to do with the formal structures of logic. It was very much like hunting, where suddenly bird-sound and the movements of the tips of branches and things that couldn’t be defined meant you were sure that there was a deer in that thicket, just about to come out, and the whole world told you exactly where to have your foresight resting.
Except that this time the game was another predator.
“Tell me something, Mr. Hansen,” she said in a calm conversational tone that would press his make a polite reply button and put words on the tip of his tongue.
She was making a snap judgment. The downside didn’t matter; if it worked she’d flush an enemy from cover.
Then she dropped into German—which she spoke like a native, if the native was a Bavarian Uradel noblewoman who’d gone to a girls’ finishing school run by a certain impoverished but excruciatingly aristocratic countess near München, and hence trilled her r’s a little and softened the usually crisp sounds of Hochdeutsch.
“Are you working for Colonel Nikolai of Abteilung IIIb, or is it Lassen at the NIV, or has that dumb-head von Zimmerman at the Foreign Office stuck his spoon into the porridge again? They’re even worse than Nikolai’s people but they keep trying and we keep catching them. Still, as the saying goes…”
Then she threw in a proverb: “Auch der kleinste Feind ist nicht zu verachten!”
Which meant there were no enemies so insignificant they weren’t worth attending to, which made it very, very Germanic.
The man actually started to answer. Then he stopped and looked at her, realizing he’d given away that he spoke German… which plenty of midwestern businessmen did. After all, German was the largest single element in the American ethnic stew, unless you threw the Irish, Scots, and English together, which she wasn’t inclined to do. He hesitated on the edge of trying to brazen it out. Luz gave him her best carnivorous smile and leaned closer, whispering:
“You Germans are the worst spies in the whole wide world. We’ve been following you since you left for San Francisco. We’re planning a little chat with you. I’m Schwarze Kammer, fool.”
Which was a literal translation of Black Chamber; in Europe the term had usually referred to code-breaking operations, but if what she suspected was true, he would know exactly what she meant. In reality, as far as she knew nobody had suspected him at all, but a reputation for omniscience never hurt.
He’d also know that he was facing a trip to the Black Palace of Lecumberri, a grim-looking old pile of a prison outside Mexico City where the Chamber stashed—and interrogated—high-value prisoners under the Protectorate’s martial law, far away from prying eyes and inquisitive lawyers in the United States proper. That still mattered a little, though less all the time and much less than it had before the declaration of war.
Going there was usually a one-way journey, capped by a death certificate reading heart failure, which translated into plain English as shot in the back of the head. That did generally make your heart stop, after all. Hansen’s eyes narrowed a little and his right hand slid into a pocket…
And his left fist slashed out toward her face.
She’d hoped to spook him into revealing himself, and beyond that to paralyze him long enough to be subdued. Hansen, or whatever his name really was, reacted with rattlesnake speed instead, which meant he’d probably already suspected her at least a bit.
She barely managed to drop her chin onto her chest and avoid taking the fist in her face. A crackle of breaking bone was one or more of the man’s fingers as they impacted off-center on her skull. The lance of pain in her head and neck was matched by a flash of satisfaction; skulls were fragile, but not as fragile as finger bones.
She went back in a controlled roll-fall that put her weight on her shoulder blades and brought her feet up; then she flipped back upright in a flexing motion that left her in a squatting crouch. The navaja snapped into her hand and clicked open in the same motion, the layered steel and honed edge glittering like the grin that split her face.
Unfortunately the German agent had been drawing his pistol with his right hand as he punched at her, and he fired in a panic as she catapulted back toward him with six inches of wasp-waisted Toledo blade flashing toward his neck in a lunge as precise as a surgeon’s stroke.
And so quickly that it seemed simultaneous, the ptank of the bullet hitting the Duralumin of a girder. There was a cry of horror from behind them, and then a banshee battle shriek of pure instinct. That was Ciara Whelan, without a shadow of a doubt.
That’s my girl! some corner of Luz’s mind thought.
The rest of her was a snarl and a blade moving in blurring arcs to find flesh.
Hansen was bleeding from a minor cut on the chin, which showed how well he’d ducked, or that she’d been thrown off a bit by the pistol firing next to her ear; if it had gone where it was intended it would have opened his throat in a slanting cut from just above the collarbone to the Adam’s apple, crossing the jugular on the way.
“Tääv!” he panted, his eyes wild and showing the whites all around the rims.
That word was bitch in the Low German they spoke in Schleswig-Holstein, so his name really might be Hansen.
Luz ducked and wove, lunged and cut at his right hand as he backed up, making him pull the arm back sharply and keeping him off-balance. All three bullets missed, though something tugged at the swing of her skirt and cut the knit fabric as neatly as a seamstress’s shears.
The odds had been better than even on that as long as she kept him moving and off-balance. Many men carried guns but few were real snap-shooting pistoleros, not when fear and hate ran through them. Those few were as dangerous as they were rare—James Cheine was one, and Luz was nearly as good—but otherwise it took an amazing number of rounds to actually hit someone even at point-blank range. Lugers jammed a lot, too. The return spring was weak.
Of course, each time he shot at Luz made her odds a little worse, but one more step and she’d be closer than arm’s length, ojo a ojo, close enough to find flesh with every attack. At that distance the odds were all on a knife, as she’d demonstrated for herself several times over the past few years. And he’d already used up half the eight rounds in a Luger’s magazine. Knives didn’t run out of ammunition.
Get inside, sweep the edge of her left hand into his gun arm…
Hansen knew that too. He turned and ran back along the way the tour group had come, back toward the control deck.
But he leapt over the spot where he’d been holding up the matting on the gangway and stooping to fiddle beneath it when the ship’s officer called to him. That had started the whole business. Something was there. Something—
The knowledge of what it was flashed through Luz.
That stopped her lunge at Hansen’s back. She halted herself with a desperate rearward jerk of her torso while her right foot was poised to land on the spot he’d jumped over, so violently that the leg shot out while she went down on her left knee, hard enough to hurt. The extended leg quivered as she withdrew it. If it had come down…
This airship is a flying bomb, metaphorically. Usually it takes hundreds of hits from machine guns firing incendiary bullets to bring down a zeppelin. But an actual bomb will do the job nicely.
Beyond Hansen the three mechanics who’d been working on the carburetor in the repair bay were gaping at the crazy passenger running toward them. One of them plucked a socket wrench from a rack beside the workbench; the other two spread out across the walkway with their hands extended. They were operating under a running amok assumption, trying to catch and subdue him, and it might get them killed.
“Gun! Gun! Gun!” Luz called, loud but not shrill; it was amazing what people didn’t notice if they weren’t expecting it. “Look out!”
Hansen whirled and shot at her, taking an edge-on range stance but rushed because he had only seconds before the crewmen reached him. This time the bullet went close enough to clip a tuft of hair above her left ear, with that distinctive TACK sound and wash of heat of a near miss. Then he whirled again and shot the man with the socket wrench with the muzzle nearly touching the target. Shot twice.
Two dots appeared on the stained dark-blue surface of the man’s overall. He dropped the wrench and folded up with an uffff! she could hear, like a man punched in the gut. Unlike a punch, he wouldn’t be getting up from that; he fell sideways, with his head hitting a support strut for the walkway’s railing with a heavy clung sound, then landing facedown and exposing the much larger exit wounds glistening on his back, with fragments of bone visible before the blood covered them. The wrench spun down into the dimness of the hull’s interior and clanged in the distance.
The other two mechanics were brave men. They didn’t run, and froze only for a moment at their workmate’s sudden death. That was enough for Hansen to twist between them, clouting one of them viciously on the side of the head with the pistol. Luz ignored him for an instant, because catching him was irrelevant if they all went up in a flaming torch. Instead she dropped flat, pivoted on her belly, grabbed the edge of the strip of woven henequen matting, and held it up with her left hand while she slashed with her right. It took three strokes with the keen working edge she kept on the weapon to cut across the yard width of the strip and throw it back.
The metal surface beneath was stamped grillework, and she couldn’t see the details… but something was definitely under there, resting just above the six-inch pipe that brought the fuel-gas to the engine. Logic filled in what sight couldn’t; it had to be some sort of bomb. When you threw in Hansen’s jump over that spot it also meant a dual fuse, pressure and at a guess a timer too. Hydrogen would burn eventually if it was mixed with air, but the fuel for the engines was much more like the domestic gas used for stoves. It would really burn the moment flame touched it, and it would blow back into the fuel cells… which were below the hydrogen gasbags and would set it all off nicely.
Ciara was beside her. “Bomb!” Luz said, pointing.
The Boston girl’s face had gone milk-white, but after she’d taken a long breath and let it out her lips were compressed and her eyes were steady. She was taking in everything that happened without a trace of shock or the glassy befuddlement a lot of people showed in situations like this as their minds rejected things they really, really, really didn’t want to see or believe in. She threw herself down beside Luz and started to run her fingers—lightly, delicately, absolutely steady—around the section of perforated aluminum planking.
“I’ve got it. Go!” she said.
She had been raised in a Fenian family involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, after all. Bombs wouldn’t be a total novelty, and given her technical skills… which would have included handling a lot of dangerous machines…
Luz came erect without using her hands. The young ship’s officer was there, looking alarmed but bewildered too, with the passengers gabbling behind him—probably only a few of them had even realized that there had been shooting; people who weren’t accustomed to it often did that, which was all to the good. The light was dim except where the overheads put a puddle of brightness on the worktable, and the acoustics inside the airship’s hull were like nothing she’d ever encountered before.
“Your man’s dead,” Luz said to him.
She jerked her head to where one of the intact crewmen was bent over the one who’d been shot; the other was down groaning and holding his hand to the bleeding side of his head.
“Hansen’s a German agent, and he planted a bomb. My friend’s disarming it. No!”
He’d started to bend toward Ciara, probably intending to pull her away. Luz grabbed him by the throat with a pinching fingers-and-thumb hold that immobilized anyone, one her teacher had called the tiger claw—Uncle Teddy had been one of the first gaijin in America to study those arts and he’d gotten instructors for the Chamber. That stopped the officer long enough for Ciara to bark over her shoulder with the authority of total focus:
“Double-action pressure detonator—that and a timer. I can’t let this go at all. Get me a pair of needle-nosed pliers and a Robertson-head screwdriver!”
“We’re American secret agents,” Luz said—which was usefully nonspecific, while holding the knife down by her thigh where hopefully nobody would notice.
“Understand? Do you understand?” she said, in a voice pitched to cut through the fog of shock.
If he didn’t she was going to have to clamp on his carotids until he passed out, then stand here guarding Ciara while Hansen shot people and did y Dios sabe qué else.
“I under… stand!” he choked out. “It’s a bomb, she’s disarming it!”
She released him and saw that his fear was now tightly controlled, and he nodded; timid people weren’t likely to become airship officers, and he was used to situations where everything had to be done right or people died.
Luz also hoped none of the passengers milling a dozen feet beyond had heard the word bomb. German saboteurs and bombs were even more in the public mind now than their revolucionario terrorist equivalents had been for the last few years of the Intervention, and that had already been true before the horror-gas attacks got people really on edge.
“Good man! I’m going after Hansen. Alert your bridge officer.”
The young man wet his lips and called to the mechanics as he went to one knee and extended a hand:
“Jones! Robertson-head screwdriver and a pair of needle-nosed pliers, now! And then get the captain on the wire.”
She dismissed him from her mind, leapt agilely over Ciara where she lay with the section of decking up, one hand blocking the plunger of the pressure trigger and the other beckoning impatiently for the pliers that presumably-named-Jones was stretching anxiously to hand over, and ran down the shadowed length of the walkway. Hansen was at the base of the ladder behind the control deck. He spotted her, leveled the pistol… and didn’t fire, even though it was a straight no-deflection shot.
The one in the chamber was his last bullet, and he’d been counting. His unremarkable face wasn’t mild at all as he looked at her onrush, then over his shoulder at where men would boil out of the bridge as soon as the intercom call went through. Evidently he didn’t think he could hold either threat at bay with one shot or an empty pistol, which was a good bet.
Instead of firing he thrust the Luger inside his jacket, leapt onto the ladder, and climbed with the garment billowing around his calves. Luz gave a she-wolf grin; by the time she arrived below him he was high enough up that shooting downward at her was not likely to produce anything but a flash, a loud noise, and an empty gun.
“Let’s not give him time to reload if he has a spare magazine,” she muttered inaudibly to herself.
Then she put her knife between her teeth and began climbing the ladder after him. Luz had studied the schematics for the Battle-class airships before she made her first voyage on one a few months ago disguised as Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez, agent of the Mexican Partido Nacional Revolucionario; and she’d also looked through a file of photographs. The hull was shaped like a symmetrical killer whale, or an elongated teardrop with the larger end forward, and it was just under eight hundred feet long and a hundred and fifty from keel to top at the broadest point. From bridge level to the circular domed observation chamber was about a hundred feet.
A hundred feet up a ladder wasn’t much. She climbed economically, letting her feet do the work in a steady quick tap-tap-tap of pushing effort, keeping her hands on the uprights of the ladder and using them to guide her and breathing deeply through her nose. She was going to need limber quick-moving hands and arms when they got to the top, and for that you used your legs to do the donkey-work.
Hansen looked down to see her following like the shadow of incarnate Death, teeth showing around the navaja in an expression that would have been cruel on a shark; his face was a pale blur above, and she could hear him panting. She was probably even more of a blur to him, because a cone of sunlight came through the open hatchway from the greenhouselike glass dome on top. It meant he was effectively standing in a lighted room looking into darkness, which destroyed your night vision.
She’d killed sentries standing beside blazing campfires and trying to peer out into the night, usually without much more difficulty than cutting a blind man’s throat… less, because blind men at least knew they were blind.
Halfwits in training to be idiots, she thought.
Grinning around the taste of steel and brass in her mouth as she climbed.
Hansen drew his pistol again and pushed himself up into the observation chamber, leading with the weapon. There was a yell, and an instant later an echoing crack. Nobody up there would know that it was the last bullet, and there wouldn’t be enough crewmen to be confident of mobbing him anyway.
Luz went into a full-out sprint up the remaining few feet, crouched on the third-to-last rung and leapt into the little room, slitting her eyes against the bright light. She landed with her feet astride the hatch, her skirt billowing up almost to the garter belt for an instant because it already had a natural bell-flare. She spat the knife into her right hand as she landed.
The scene printed itself on her eyes like a photograph. There were two crewmen in the blue ANA uniforms there. One was down, clutching a shoulder with blood running out between his fingers. The other was backed up against the padded bench that ran around the circular room at sofa height, with his hands in the air.
Hansen was struggling into a big drab-colored cloth knapsack-like thing, one of the parachutes stored at duty stations throughout the airship like life rings on an ocean vessel. He was hindered by the complex straps and the need to keep his gun pointed at the ANA man, who was bigger and younger and glaring at him murderously, but had just about managed it by the time Luz came through the hatch. A rearward-facing door had been thrown open, and the thuttering whistle of the airship’s passage filled the chamber with air that seemed cool by contrast with the stuffy interior of the hull.
The German agent was already backing out into it as Luz came up through the hatchway like a jack-in-the-box.
“Auf Wiedersehen, Schlampe!” he called, then threw the pistol hard at Luz’s head and whirled to run.
That meant Until we meet again, bitch! but this time in High German.
Luz threw herself forward in a pasada baja the instant the balls of her feet touched the decking, a stepping lunge, falling forward, her left hand smacking down on the floor and the point of the knife in her right lancing out. The Luger whirled over her head.
The steel should have ended up in the back of Hansen’s thigh, neatly hamstringing the man for capture, but the resistance she met felt entirely wrong for finding flesh. The parachute hung down below his buttocks. The long clipped point of Luz’s navaja slammed home through the outer surface of the canvas container with a pop, then through the folded silk cloth and cords within… but it had the full weight of her body behind it, and she’d been moving very fast. The locking ring at the join of blade and hilt pinched the web of flesh between her thumb and forefinger as it kept her hand from running up on the blade.
Hansen lunged forward onto the top keel of the airship, leaping… and also pushed by the impact of a hundred and thirty-odd pounds of Black Chamber agent behind a very sharp knife. The walkway atop the Manila Bay’s hull was aluminum stampings too, with eyebolts every so often, to let crewmen fasten safety lines and rappel down to work on the hull. The German didn’t try to stop himself when he staggered off the walkway; instead he laughed and went down on his belly, like a boy riding a toboggan down a hill. The hard, doped cotton was as slick as silk and smooth as a baby’s cheek, and he gathered speed quickly until the curve launched him off into space.
“¡Joder!” Luz cursed softly, as the parachute blossomed below and behind the airship. “Now we’ll have to try to find him, and do it through the Brazilians!”
Who couldn’t find the ground even if they tripped and fell on their faces. And who don’t like us anyway, so they won’t even really try.
And if Hansen made it to someone who could communicate with Germany, he could probably scupper this operation; a description of a female American agent matching her… or of Ciara… would ring bells in Berlin, ring them very loudly. They’d be waiting at the border.
He probably will get help.
Brazil had plenty of German immigrants, and even more of their children and grandchildren. Someone would help, and the Brazilian authorities, such as they were, wouldn’t really try to stop them.
In public Rio was very, very cautious and extremely polite around the ever-more-colossal Coloseo del Norte these days—hence the swift lease of extraterritorial basing rights at Recife when D.C. had made a polite request. But neither Brazil nor any of the other Latin countries were particularly happy about the way Washington had swallowed and consolidated everything from Panama to the North Pole into what amounted to a single homogenous political bloc over the course of Uncle Teddy’s ever-increasing list of presidencies.
“¡Qué coñazo!” she snarled; this merited some heavy-duty cursing, and English profanity had never seemed very satisfying to her. “Maybe frightening him with the Chamber’s name was a touch too much.”
Then she stopped. The parachute had opened into a white dome shape with the doll-like figure of a man beneath it as he fell behind the speeding airship… but there was a rip in it, and one side sagged in with the cords flapping loose. As she watched the rip extended further and further… and the man fell faster and faster.
¡Toma! And it’s a long way down, she thought much more happily; her lunge had killed the man, just a little more indirectly than ramming the blade into a kidney.
“¡El que ríe último ríe major!” she called, laughing, and almost went to the trouble of translating who laughs last, laughs best into German even though he was far beyond hearing.
Hansen was probably just realizing that he hadn’t gotten away after all; though he’d avoided being questioned in Lecumberri, which would have been the best ending to their encounter from Luz’s point of view. For starters, she would have liked to know if he was after the Manila Bay in general or one Luz O’Malley Aróstegui in particular. Or, worse still, after Ciara.
She waited until the ’chute was a stream of rags plummeting through the sky above a figure with legs frantically pumping at nothingness before she turned, still chuckling. The expression on the crewman’s face as she turned back into the observation chamber made her stop laughing. Although she was still smiling as she reached for the telephone with her left hand.
Her right wiped the blade of her knife on the sleeve of her jacket before she closed the weapon with a clack. Stabbing it into the parachute’s silk would have cleaned any blood off, but you could never be too careful with your tools.
“Captain Woźniak, please,” she asked as the airship’s switchboard controller answered.
Now for the housekeeping.
Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling