Chapter Four

Luz yawned and stretched and looked past Ciara’s head where it bent over a book—An Initial Stratigraphic Geography of Northeastern China and Mongolia—and out the carriage window at a landscape dun-colored most of the year but green with crops and grass now, under a bright morning sun.

They’d left Peking at dawn, and the train was Imperial Chinese Railways. Like that Empire in general, it was currently a Japanese-Chinese partnership, with the basic relationship rather like that between a rider and a horse.

The standard-gauge line from Peking to Kalgan on the Great Wall at the southern fringe of Inner Mongolia had been completed twelve years ago, and rebuilt recently with double-tracking and better grades to handle the growing traffic in coal and iron-ore from brand-new Japanese-owned mines to the brand-new Japanese-owned steel mills at Tangshan on the coast. It used second-hand but sound Japanese rolling stock—itself copies of older-model American National Railways gear for the most part—and the ride had been smooth and the coaches clean and comfortable though nothing fancy; flatcars and boxcars to the rear held the expeditions’ lashed-down White motor-trucks and Guvvies and the piles of crates.

The smell was a little different from what she was used to. More than half of American National Railways used oil-fired locomotives these days, everything in Mexico and points south, and most of the area west of the Mississippi, so the harsh sulfurous gusts of coal-smoke and soot were a bit old-fashioned. The eastern routes still used coal, but they were being electrified as fast as possible.

“Smoother than it was in 1918!” Roy Andrews said. “Single-track then, too. The Japanese have done a lot in only a few years… I wonder that they have the capital to spare, with all the calls on their funds, and building up their fleet and air-arm.”

“They don’t need much money for earth-moving equipment, Mr. Andrews,” Ciara said. “Because they use Chinese instead.”

A few of the scientists grimaced slightly. There was a big maintenance gang working on the roadbed just fading out of view behind them, all in the ragged blue padded coats Chinese peasants wore in cold weather. None of them had looked very well fed, even by this starveling country’s standards, and the overseers had swaggered among them with four-foot split-bamboo canes, with a few soldiers from the Chinese puppet-army behind them with fixed bayonets.

There were a couple of Japanese engineers and technicians with drawings and measuring gear, but otherwise the most sophisticated piece of equipment had been a two-wheel oxcart and there had been a scattering of laborers lying unconscious or dead around the fringes.

“That way they can save their money for things like open-hearth furnaces and rolling mills and chemical plants where you can’t just substitute labor,” Yvette said shrewdly. “But there’s only so many peasants they can round up to dig and break rock, without losing the crops—and they need those too. They’re not going to have tractors or harvesters here any time soon!”

“Not necessarily a problem, if the farmers aren’t from hereabouts, Mrs. Andrews,” Ciara said.

It’s odd, Luz thought. On a personal level, my beloved doesn’t have much money-sense—even less than I do. But put it in abstract terms, and she’s a whizz. You might say she understands economics, just not so much what’s in her purse.

“Before the Great War there were millions of Chinese peasants pushing north, settling on the grasslands there.”

“We saw that on our earlier visits, the frontier of cultivation moving north across Inner Mongolia every year, Roy said. “Like us pushing west across the Great Plains.”

Luz nodded: “With the Mongols playing the Sioux; and back then, China had a government… of sorts… backing the settlers up.”

“It doesn’t any more,” Roy said grimly. “Unless you count Yuan Kèdìng.”

Everyone listening snorted. The soi-disant young Emperor of China could probably empty his bowels on his own initiative, but he’d need permission from his Japanese advisors to wipe. And Japan regarded Yekhe Khan von Ungern-Sternberg with a benevolent neutrality.

“And the Yekhe Khan’s men killed a lot of the settlers and ran most of the rest out, these last few years,” Luz said, put out a hand palm-down and waggled it. “They’re gone, más o menos.”

“If I know the Mongols, which I do, they’ll love him for it,” Roy said. “Hard to blame them, since they were being pushed back from the Great Wall towards the Gobi. Away from the good grazing, which meant they and their families would starve.”

Luz nodded: “Those Chinese, though, they left the villages where they were born to go bust sod up there because they couldn’t get enough to eat in the homes of their ancestors, and now they’ve lost everything they built up beyond the Wall. Even one bowl of weevily noodles a day from the Japanese with a kick for sauce looks good, and then the Japanese don’t have to take too many men from the farms here.”

That’s one way Dai-Nippon’s catching up fast, concentrating expensive technology on essentials and using human beings as fuel where they can, Luz reflected. Using them up. Using up Chinese and Koreans and Javanese and Siamese and Russians where they can, though their rulers squeeze their own common folk hard enough too, which is why Midori and Fumiko’s parents left. Of course, if they didn’t do all that they’d get ground to powder by someone else… just the way they’re doing to China.

She yawned and stretched again as the carriage swayed to the hypnotic click-clack, patting her mouth with the back of her gloved fingers in polite reflex.

She’d spent a lot of time riding trains from one place to another in her thirty years, like anyone who travelled—before airships it had been the only overland alternative except a horse or later an auto, and even these days nobody except explorers and tourists and publicity-seekers drove an auto more than a couple of hundred miles if there was a railroad available. If you needed an auto at the other end of a long trip these days, back home you just signed for one as part of the ticket and American National Railways had it waiting for you at the destination with your luggage already in the trunk and a key in the ignition.

Often since 1912 she’d travelled by train because she was sent, in a way rather like a round of ammunition in a belt making its way through the innards of an automatic weapon, and the sway and click-clack evoked memories ranging from profound boredom to explosions and raw terror jolting her out of exhausted sleep on a hard bench or the floor of a boxcar.

Not all bad memories! There was riding the Federal Express from Boston to Washington with Ciara, after we got the information about the V-gas plot to Chamber HQ in Boston. That was wonderful, and not just by contrast with crossing the Atlantic in a U-boat. Though I was still working up the courage to tell her I loved her, and vice versa. There are times when a touch of hands and a brush of the eyes is everything you want, and all of you sings with it.

They weren’t far from the border-town of Kalgan and now the train was out of the flat plain that held Peking and winding through a landscape of loess hills—ancient khaki-brown windborne dust mantling the land hundreds of feet deep, often eroded into weird badlands, with its own distinctive sharp smell and faintly metallic taste even when you couldn’t see any haze in the air.

It was fertile, though, and the undulating fields were green with wheat and sorghum and row-crops, the odd group of grazing horses or sheep, and villages of earth-walled huts for the Chinese peasants whose skilled toil kept it producing. A long range of rounded hills appeared to the north and west, first a faint suggestion on the horizon, then larger and larger, massive as worn-down mountains.

After a moment’s silence contemplating Greater Japan’s drive for modernity… and its by-products… one of the scientists said:

“Well, thank God I’m an American!”

“Amen,” Roy said.

Yvette murmured agreement, along with many of the others; Luz did herself… albeit her cover identity was a naturalized American of Mexican birth, though more and more these days that was a distinction without much difference in it. Everyone could see that the Protectorate was slated to be fully incorporated over the next generation or two, and millions of all backgrounds were already moving back and forth over the barely-noticeable former border.

American was about the luckiest thing to be in all the world, this Year of Grace 1923. America was strong and… relatively speaking… safe behind her ocean barriers and the Navy, and had come out of the Great War with far less damage than any of the other main participants.

America was prosperous, too. She had been since 1912, then all through the war, and apart from a brief recession right after the Armistice now more than ever; so much so that they were calling the new decade the Roaring Twenties. And while the rich got richer, the Party and its affiliated unions and the Country Life Program and its co-ops and the vast public-works programs the Party adored saw that the factory-workers and miners and loggers and farmers all got a goodly share; even the former sharecroppers in the South, now that they were getting the land as their own. Mexico and the other new southern territories were still poor compared to those north of the old border, but investment was pouring in there to take advantage of the juicy opportunities bringing them up to scratch presented.

The Department of Public Information’s ubiquitous posters back home called it Building America with suitable symbolic prints of brawny workers and farmers toiling and heroic soldiers guarding and compassionate nurses healing and square-chinned decisive engineers with theodolites and blueprints, and wise scientists in white coats peering through microscopes or holding test-tubes, and the new city centers and housing and roads and dams and aqueducts the Party loved to boast of.

Even the ragged millions of immigrants from Britain and Europe, dwarfing the pre-1914 surge that had seemed so huge… and even the ever-growing flood of Mexican peons booted out of their medieval oxcart-and-wooden-plow village existence by Fordson tractors and John Deere harvesters… could get jobs that fed and clothed and housed them and their families. And they could hope for anything for their children, because the Party was building hospitals and clinics and schools and colleges and technical-training institutes everywhere there was room, too.

“And yet here we lucky Americans are, heading for Inner Mongolia and tempting fate with every mile,” Midori Taguchi said.

Not looking up from the paper she was reading with her sister, a Hollywood scandal-sheet that was half lurid photographs, often involving people holding hats or hands over their faces or caught in salacious poses in scanty garb.

Fumiko took up the remark: “When we could be back home in our hammocks in…”

She didn’t slip and say Santa Barbara, which was her hometown as much as it was Luz’; instead she used the cover-identity that went with being a retainer of Mrs. Smith.

“…Colima sipping a vodka-spiked horchata. Now, are we dauntless heroic adventurers risking hardship and danger to advance the cause of science for the glory of America… or are we all just too stupid to live?”

That got a chuckle. Yvette Andrews got a bigger one when she asked:

“Is that a valid distinction, Miss Taguchi?”

In another hour they’d be pulling into the border town of Kalgan, anciently part of the Great Wall defenses—

Luz frowned, the yawn dying as she slitted her eyes and concentrated on some sound she couldn’t quite hear.

“Something isn’t right,” she said quietly.

That was a feeling she’d come to trust, that tickle in the stomach and tensing of the skin on your face. It was your mind’s depths—what they called the subconscious these days, in the terminology made popular by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and his excessively-Germanic and hence now verboten rival Freud—putting together signals you couldn’t consciously detect.

Ciara looked up from her book where she sat in the window, frowning a little as she wrenched herself out of its fascinating complexities.

Screams in Chinese came from the roof above, from where the guard detail they’d taken aboard at Peking was stationed; twelve soldiers and a sergeant. They were Chinese but dressed in hand-me-down Japanese uniforms and equipped with Japanese weapons… semi-obsolete ones that Japan proper hadn’t used in quite some time, handed on to the puppet army of their puppet Emperor in Peking. Those included a cumbersome Hotchkiss machine gun in a sandbagged nest, a copy of a pre-1914 French weapon.

The screams weren’t really understandable. Luz could more or less follow the soldiers’ northern countryside dialect of Mandarin face-to-face, if they spoke slowly. High-pitched with panic and muffled through the roof, no. Fear was unmistakable, and she did catch tǔfěi—bandits.

Something something bandits! something coming!, she thought.

Luz came smoothly to her feet, moving fast but not giving off haste-signals. She was dressed—like the Taguchi sisters and Ciara—in high laced boots, jodhpurs and four-pocket khaki bush jacket over a roll-necked sweater. There was a .40 Amazon automatic pistol in a holster high on her right hip, also like the rest of her party; everyone in Roy Andrews’ group of scholars and technicians had either revolvers or various automatics at their belts too.

Susan had the boots and pistol-belt, but wore a Chinese-style outfit of knee-length jacket fastening to the right, and loose pants, both in tough reddish-brown wool. Pants on women weren’t a novelty in China the way they were in the West, but they did have lower-class connotations, precisely because they were practical. Or sporty modernity, these days, in some circles.

Luz reached up to the luggage rack and took down a suitcase—one designed not to look like a rifle case.

It snapped open after she laid it on her seat; the Sharpshooter was inside, in a carefully shaped hole in rubber padding encased in green baize, amid a smell of metal and fruity gun-oil. She took out the infinitely familiar fourteen-pound weight and twisted the lens-covers off the telescopic sight; Ciara reached in right after her and produced a Remington shotgun with an extended seven-round magazine below the barrel, and slung a bandolier of fat cartridges full of double-ought buck or rifled slugs over one shoulder. She also stuffed a box of Sharpshooter ammunition into a pocket; she loaded for Luz, when circumstances made that possible.

The Taguchis had been snickering together over their feast of salacious Hollywood gossip about a love quadrangle and orgies on the set of Douglas Fairbanks Plays Robin Hood. As Luz moved they dropped it and pulled Thompsons from their duffle-bags, clicking home fifty-round drums, coming alert like two ferrets. So did Susan—the children were staying at the Scelham country mansion for the week this was supposed to take, along with his boy and girl, her two and Henrietta Colmer and several inconspicuously deadly employees of Universal Imports.

Susan pulled her twin hook-swords out of a large attaché case, or what looked like one, and an R13 semiauto rifle out of an elongated box.

Roy and Yvette looked up in alarm, but with less incomprehension than the rest of their party of savants. Many of the scientists were ex-soldiers, like nearly all fit males of their age-group in the US these days, but they also mostly hadn’t spent much time on their own in dangerous places without the massive structured presence of the military all around them. Explorers and spies shared that experience, of your life being in your own hands in places where safety was hardly even a word.

“Bandits,” Luz said grimly to their unspoken question, and jerked a thumb upwards towards their yelling guard-detail.

“This is Japanese-controlled territory!” Roy said.

The Japanese frowned on private-enterprise competition in the business of plunder with a true monopolist’s zeal.

“The ground is Japanese-controlled,” Luz said, working the bolt of the sniper rifle.

Snick-snak-clack as a round went into the chamber. Similar racking sounds echoed it as the Taguchis pulled back the cocking-handles of their machine pistols, Susan armed her rifle, and Ciara worked the pump action of the Remington.

Every sense suddenly seemed keener, taking in everything from the scratches in the scuffed linoleum of the floor to the stuffy smell produced by the steam heating pipes.

Better safe than sorry, she thought. Aloud she went on:

“I think I’ve been hearing engines. In the air. And the guards think we’re about to be—”

The screaming on the roof gave way to a banging of rifle-shots, and then the stuttering of the Hotchkiss—those fed from a 25-round horizontal clip which made them rather slow by modern machine-gun standards. Everyone jerked into alertness at that. Her generation were deeply sensitized to that machine-gun music; you might say the whole world had been dancing to it since August of 1914.

“—attacked,” Luz finished; someone swore and pointed out the right-side window exclaiming:

“That’s an airboat! It just came up from behind that hill! And they’re—”

Then there was another sound, a mad chuttering crackle, and…

Shooting at us!

“Down! Cover! On the floor!” Luz yelled as her mind drew a picture of what it meant, and suited action to words in mid-phrase.

Roy echoed her a moment later as he dove for the linoleum. The whistle of the locomotive shrieked. Everyone—nearly everyone—followed suit in frantic flops and tumbles, primed by the sound of the machine-gun on the roof. Ciara landed half-across her, driving out an ooof! as an elbow and a hundred and forty-five pounds struck.

She ignored the sensation. The prospect of being shot at with machine guns made that easy. It hadn’t happened to her in years—since late 1916, in fact—but it was an experience whose memory was utterly without nostalgic pleasure. Her lips moved silently in the long moment that followed, in Spanish; English profanity was not her first resort.

There was a sound like a giant ripping huge sheets of tough canvas, or the snapping of a thousand thousand steel wires, coming from no more than a few hundred yards away… and that distance up in the air, too.

The locomotive’s whistle screamed again, and there was a tortured squeal of metal on metal as the operator threw the driving wheels into reverse, shedding rooster-tails of sparks they couldn’t see but the mind filled in. The whole train shivered and lurched as momentum fought gravity. The firing went on and on, but she thought whoever was shooting had been leading the train a little too much. Not that that was going to matter, since—

Make that multiple machine guns.

No single weapon could spew out rounds like that.

Then a peening clangor, something like dozens of pneumatic hammers in a shipyard driving rivets home full-tilt against steel plate; that would be rounds raking the locomotive, followed by the shrill hiss of escaping steam from the punctured boiler, like a gigantic and very unhappy snake. A wet metallic smell came with it, and it died away as the last steam vented.

Someone muttered a veteran’s blasphemous parody of grace before a meal:

“For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful!”

Luz’ whispered curses grew more emphatic. It wasn’t so much the danger she hated—though danger to Ciara was worse than risk to herself. It was the helplessness of being under fire and not able to do anything about it but hope the dice fell in her favor.

Then an endless shatteringly loud snapping-crackling, as the bullets chewed into the old-fashioned wood-and-steel bodies of the passenger carriages. Luz rolled over, which put her body on top of Ciara’s. That wouldn’t do much good if they were in the path of fire, but it felt infinitesimally better.

And it put their faces fairly close together; she could see her partner’s eyes screwed shut, and her lips moving too… probably in prayers from her childhood rather than curses. Neither that or her own mix of blasphemy and obscenity—right now variations on Santa Maria with unlikely job descriptions from the entertainment industry tacked on—was likely to accomplish anything but a slight relief to the feelings.

Shouts, screams and swearing added to the racket as the expedition’s scientists turned the air blue. Yvette Andrews was lying a few feet away, under the seat she’d been on, glaring and with her revolver in her hand.

The rounds slanted in from the north, on Luz’ right, an astonishing buzz-saw swarm raking backward along the compartment as she watched. The impacts started up high on the wall on that side but below the ceiling of the car, in a shower of dust and fragments and ptack-priiiin sounds. They covered the entire roof too, and then most of them punched out the windows on the other side in a glittering shower of slivers and dust. That was tight grouping, keeping the aiming point steady and letting the train’s own motion drag the target across their sights.

Forty-five degree slant on the trajectory across the carriage from right to left, she thought automatically; calculation was an alternative to gibbering or screaming. Close, but above us. They’d have a better distribution… more horizontal… if they backed off a little.

Light streamed in, not only through the thousands of neat holes, but as entire chunks of the roofing were chewed loose and fell on their heads. It was probably about eight guns, Maxims; call it fifty-two hundred rounds a minute… which meant around a hundred bullets striking every second… in an oval about nine feet by four…

The terrified shrieks of the soldiers above rose and then abruptly cut off; so did the sound of their shooting.

Sparks and peening noises marked where rounds… many of them… were hitting the metal frames and stringers of the carriage and slamming off in unpredictable directions. There was a scream of pain rather than fear or rage as at least one struck home.

All of Roy’s party but one had hit the floor fast, being mostly veterans of the Intervention or the Great War or both, with the reflex to do what Army double-entendre slang called going down on Missy Dirt ground in. The exception was a Frenchman named de Chardin, a charming Jesuit paleontologist in his forties she’d enjoyed chatting with about subjects ranging from his science to philosophy. He was a Great War veteran too, but didn’t quite make it, just starting his dive when it became too late. Luz was looking his way when what must have been thirty or forty rifle-caliber rounds struck in less than a second between his breastbone and the top of his head.

He splashed.

The three-quarters of him that collapsed into his seat was as ragged as if bitten off by an enormous hound, juts of bone and ropes of sinew showing for an instant where his shoulders had been before the spouting blood hid everything as the body jerked in a single spasm and went limp, both arms hanging by a few scraps. The sulfur smell of the ricochet sparks was drowned in a sudden rush of salt-iron-copper from the blood and body-fluids.

The shooting seemed to last an eternity, a mental stretching she had been used to since she was nineteen or so. In fact it took no more than thirty seconds from the time the first bullets hit the locomotive. It didn’t continue on to the flatcars or freight wagons either; fingers came off the unseen triggers instantly rather than shoot those up.

“Sky-pirates!” Luz said loudly to cut through the babble, coming to her feet and giving Ciara a hand up.

That quieted the rising fug of vocal alarm, despite the way the train lurched, slowed, and then went bang… bang… BANG! with violent shocks as the cars smacked into each other and then into the locomotive as it stalled and the drop in the air-pressure lines activated the brakes on each bogie. From the swaying and rocking of the last impact, at least some of the wheels somewhere had come off the tracks, but gracias a Dios they didn’t topple.

“They’re after the freight, and may want prisoners to ransom. Get ready to give them a reception!”

Her six-man squad of gardeners was in the carriage up ahead, along with Eric Zhou’s fifteen nationalists. They had their arms…

Something warm and sticky landed on her hair. She looked up. Blood was dripping through the gaps in the ceiling, showing what had happened to most of the guards.

“Fumiko, left,” she said. “The rest, right. Give me a boost, querida,” she added, and Ciara bent and linked her fingers to make a stirrup of her hands.

Luz slung the Sharpshooter muzzle-down across her back, sprang, and her foot landed on Ciara’s hands. A strong upward thrust from her partner’s arms and her own leg-muscles put her head-and-shoulders through a hole, and she slapped her arms down and lifted herself out with a push and swing of the feet. A smashed body hung over the edge of the little sandbagged position—the bags were tied down with netting laced to eyebolts, so they hadn’t shifted much. Eleven or so more bodies were scattered around, also usually in bits and pieces with splotches of brain tissue and skin and hair and severed fingers. That was familiar too: enough bullets could chew you up almost the way artillery did.

Off to the left, the southward, one khaki-clad figure was making for the distance in a staggering run through a field of young blueish-green wheat; he slowed, fell, got up, fell again and began to crawl. Another thing she’d learned long ago was that sheer freakish chance could preserve someone through a storm of fire you’d swear a mouse couldn’t dodge. At times a you-shaped hole was there in the shot distribution, if the dice fell just right.

The source of this particular storm of fire was obvious, a biggish airboat off to the right, northward; it had the usual turrets at the bow and stern of its sixty-foot two-story gondola, each mounting twin machine-guns, and four more sticking out of windows. Chinese characters were painted on its bows: she had enough command of the script to read Heavenly King. For the rest it was painted blue and white on the bottom of the gasbag, and a mottled greenish-brown above, yet more evidence if that was needed of what its trade was.

“Not moving,” she muttered. “Moored!”

A line ran from the rear of the gondola groundward on the other side of the hillcrest, thread-tiny at this range, and the slanted wedges of steel at its end must have dug into the porous loess soil. Another ran from the prow of the gondola, its bottom also hidden behind the crest. The engines were idling, their sound a low burble, and the four-bladed aluminum propellers just barely turning.

They anchored down there where they weren’t visible, Luz thought. Not from the ground, and not easily from the air either. With a man on the ridge to give the signal when the train reached a certain spot—they probably paced that out beforehand so they could set their sights for the distance. Then they slacked the cables and popped up and opened fire on the preselected spot.

Men slid down the anchor cables and then down a dozen smaller lines dropped from the gondola’s belly, sending the airboat up a little when they landed as its mooring lines went taut. They vanished from sight as they dropped to earth behind the ridge, then appeared on its crest, moving forward.

She unslung the Sharpshooter and used the telescopic sight; the battered aluminum of the gondola sprang into it, and then the men fanning out and running towards the train below. The airboat was winched down again until the machine guns just barely cleared the ridgeline. From there it could be pulled down into concealment or released to spring aloft.

Bandidos, bien, she thought as she ran the sight down the line.

She’d rarely seen a riper crew, and she had a large fund of memories to judge by.

Fairly clever ones. Probably came in low at night from Mongol territory to make sure no Japanese air patrols or telemobiloscopes spotted them, anchored there and waited.

There had been rumors just lately that cheap detectors for wavelengths in the Telemobiloscope ranges were available, so you could tell if you were being ‘painted’ by one. Ciara said that militaries in all the blocs had them and it would be simple to make them…

But they were too high when they opened fire for maximum effect.

And it would be so tempting to shoot now herself, but…

But there were eight machine guns pointing right at her, aircraft-model Maxims from the look of the perforated jackets, and the range was only about three or four hundred yards. Some distant part of her was aware how the blood… and shredded body parts… of the soldiers were being plastered to the cloth of her coat and breeches. The rest of her was concentrating.

Decision was instant; they didn’t have long before the pirates reached them. She sprang up and ran forward crouched over to be less conspicuous, careful not to land on gaping holes or weakened spots, leaping onto the canted roof of the next passenger car, the one just behind the locomotive and its water and coal tenders, now jacknifed into a shallow V with its front bogie off the rails.

She went flat on the roof again there, and stuck her head through a gap blasted into the ceiling by the fusillade.

The interior was chaotic; there were more people in it, and the impact had been harder with the slightly different angle. More looked as if they’d been caught in the hail of machine-gun bullets; the fecal smell of ripped bellies confirmed it. The John Hopkins graduate was hard at work, with a bandage across his own forehead.

“Shen!” she shouted. “Shen Si!”

The head of her gardeners looked up from where he crouched with the Thompson she’d provided and grinned, a taut expression much like a snarl. His street-name meant Clever Shen, or Shen the Thinker, and she’d found it justified. He was a slim wiry man of medium height for a Chinese villager, two inches below her five-six, and probably a few years younger than she. Probably a soldier at some point, too, quite possibly a bandit, and considerably more prosperous than he’d been before coming into her employ when she’d arrived in Shanghai last year. His followers had mostly blown their shares of what they’d taken from the Yekhe Khan’s men in the Green Gang fight on the usual dissipations albeit with a very Chinese emphasis on high-stakes gambling; he’d invested most of his, following her advice, and now owned a building in Shanghai profitably rented out to half a dozen families. Eric Zhou had managed the purchase for him, at her request.

“Two wounded of my five, but not badly, they can fight if they don’t have to run, Madam Smith,” he said in Shanghainese dialect. “Four dead—two of them the Kuomintang men.”

Both groups were getting their weapons ready, mostly the American R-13 Colt-Browning semiauto rifles she’d provided, besides their personal handguns and blades. That gave her fourteen armed men here. The majority were Eric Zhou’s recruits for the expedition’s work force, including the Johns Hopkins doctor, and they were mostly still flat on the floor. Zhou’s political enthusiasts weren’t hers the way Shen Si and his squad were, but they’d seen her in action against the Green Gang and the Khan’s men last October.

“It’s sky-pirates from Mongolia. Don’t open fire until I do,” she said.

In the same dialect; the only detectable difference was that she spoke it like an educated upper-middle-class woman—like Susan Zhou, in fact—while his was gutter argot.

“Yes, Madam Smith,” Shen Si said. “They’ll just rip us up with the machine guns again if we do that before their own men block them.”

Good, she thought. It is so much less effort working with non-idiots.

“And get out of the carriage and onto the roadbed on the south side. You can shoot through the gap between the tracks and the bottom of the carriage—that’ll give you real cover. Get everyone who’s alive out, but don’t let them see it. We’ll let them get close, then open up. Fast!

She rolled to her belly as he started shouting orders and from the sound of it kicking backsides, slid feet-first off the roof of the carriage on that side herself, caught the edge in her hands and landed in a crouch. The gravel that held the railroad ties crunched under her boots as she dashed back the way she’d come; much better not to give the pirates any idea that things were getting organized here. Fumiko waggled the muzzle of her machine-pistol as she went by, her eyes bleak and alert and utterly without her usual mischief.

Then they twinkled just for an instant, and she mouthed Sky-Pirates!

That was one of her daughters’… and of Suzan Zhou’s daughters, more recently… favorite games, fighting the dastardly robbers of the heavens. It was a good deal more fun as a children’s game with Fumiko and Midori playing the villains and doing spectacular death-rattles, or as a tale in Argosy All-Story or one of her other favorite pulps, by Stevens or Kline or Burroughs or this new youngster Howard from Texas.

This is business, she thought grimly.

The pirates were used to hitting victims too stunned by the initial hail of gunfire to fight back, and they’d probably just bull straight in… but you couldn’t count on them not being sneaky.

Putting their airboat behind that ridge… that was sneaky, all right. And they must have a fair bit of nerve, to raid Japanese-held territory. Higher reward, it isn’t picked bare, but much, much more risk, which is why it isn’t picked bare. The Khan’s men won’t be happy with them if that’s where they’re based; they have an under-the-table agreement with the Japanese to plague the independent Chinese but leave Japanese possessions alone.

With luck, the pirates would think they’d wiped out any possible opposition when they blasted the soldiers off the roof, and could clean up any remaining witnesses by hand. The Mongols were running into the problem with using criminals as proxies: bandits generally weren’t good at abiding by anyone’s rules.

At the end of the carriage she sprang up, grabbed the railings, vaulted over onto the platform and went through the entrance, agile as a cat on the hunt and feeling the same ticking instrumental focus.

“Roy!” she called; they were on first-name terms now.

He looked up from peering out the window at the distant figures of the pirates trotting towards them, with his Colt 1911 .45 automatic in his right hand but held sensibly muzzle-up. First-aid was being given to the injured, of whom there were about half a dozen. Luckily there were several kits and plenty of experienced hands.

“Twenty, twenty-one coming; mostly rifles, a Lewis gun and at least one machine-pistol. Don’t open up on them until I do wit’ the machine-gun on the carriage roof,” she said. “When they are close, they mask the machine-guns in the airboat. And let us get everyone out and on the side of the embankment. These carriages give concealment but cover, not, eh?”

He knew the distinction—in military jargon cover had to be able to stop a bullet, while concealment just kept out prying eyes. He still looked a little mulish, as if he was going to try and take charge, until Yvette spoke quietly in his ear. Then he nodded and started to get his party moving. Ciara looked at her steadily.

“What are you going to do?” she said.

“Applied science,” Luz said and jerked her thumb upward towards the roof of the carriage. “Care to join me, querida?”

Ciara smiled gamely, and then handed her another set of packages from the rack, both about three feet by two and both labelled Scientific Instruments Handle With Care. Luz took them and tossed them up above, boosted Ciara up, and followed her via a jump to a seat-back and a spring from there.


Ciara grimaced slightly as they rolled the mutilated body out of the waist-high circle of sandbags and crawled into the sopping-wet place themselves. The bottom of the circle within had fewer holes in it than the rest of the roof, which was probably what had prevented the weight of the bags from dropping everything into the carriage below. The bulletproof barrier was still fairly intact, despite some rips and leaks; everyone had learned how to do that in the Great War, or from veterans since, starting with the fact that a rifle bullet would go through a single sandbag lengthwise, or two side-to-side.

It had been the angle of attack that made it useless as a shelter to the unfortunate detachment.

Ciara’s round wide-mouthed snub-nosed face relaxed as she went over the Hotchkiss, her fingers quick and sure.

“Nothing essential damaged, acushla,” she said briskly. “Just a chunk taken out of this cooling fin, see? And that doesn’t matter.”

Maxims and most other automatic weapons of that vintage used water-jackets around the barrel to keep from overheating, which was heavy and awkward but worked. The Hotchkiss had massive iron disks on its barrel instead, which were supposed to radiate the heat into the air. It was just as heavy as water and didn’t work very well, so you’d get jams with sustained firing. Modern equivalents used spare barrels and a quick-change mechanism that allowed them to be swapped out in a few seconds, meaning that with a little care you could keep firing indefinitely without the weight penalty.

“Get it ready, but don’t make it move,” Luz said.

Ciara grinned, a genuine expression if a little strained. “Waggling machine-gun muzzles attract the eye!”

She kept her head low while she did it, too. From this angle the pirates on the ground couldn’t see the roof well as they trotted upslope towards the railway, but the ones in the airboat were another matter. It didn’t do to tempt fate when you didn’t have to.

Ciara detached the open clip from the left side of the heavy weapon and inserted a fresh one from the box, then ducked around and worked the action to load—with a slight grunt as she pulled it back and pushed it forward.

“Tsk,” she said, frowning; bad maintenance offended her at a moral level. “The oil is old; it needs to be stripped and cleaned and then relubricted with fresh.”

The clip held twenty-four rounds, and the open build let you see them all. It also let potentially jam-making debris into the action, another thing which reminded you that this was a first-generation design.

That didn’t mean it couldn’t kill people, of course: just that it was likely to stop doing so at the precise moment you needed it working, to stop them killing you. It was also what they had, and fights weren’t fair—she’d certainly used every unfair advantage to hand in every one she’d ever been in.

Fortunately, the products of American ingenuity… specifically Robert Goddard of Clark University’s ingenuity… are with us, Luz thought. Via the National Advanced Research Projects Institute.

She opened the first of the boxes labelled scientific equipment, though first she wiped her hands on her thighs. That left bloody tracks on the tough fabric of the jodhpurs, and she smiled slightly at how symbolically appropriate that was—bloody-handed was a proverbial description grounded in reality. It was also practical. Blood was like glue when it dried and could jam up the internal workings of weapons very effectively.

Human bodies do leak so. We’re bags full of contaminated seawater, when you get right down to it.

Within the box were two aluminum-alloy tubes, each a yard long and precisely 3.5 inches in diameter on the interior bore. Luz took them out; they locked side-by-side with lugs, and the combined weight was about sixteen pounds.

Remove the elastic cords that bound them. Lift and twist, and they came free. She lay back and took one between her knees, locking her feet around it to steady it, and fitted the other to it. Fit, push, twist…


Now she had a six-foot tube. On the bottom were two pistol grips, the rear one with a long trigger inside a loop guard, plus a metal shape to make a stock for the firer’s shoulder, and an adjustable aperture sight. Ciara had finished with the machine gun. She opened the other crate, and pulled out one of the rockets within—a tube 3.5 inches in diameter with a bluntly pointed nose and about twenty inches long, with a foot of a smaller tube at its rear and then four fins enclosed by a circular strip that made it the same diameter as the warhead.

“So clever,” Ciara murmured. “The de Laval venturi makes it much more efficient. It’s a pity it’s only for blowing things up…”

“Remember where we found Rebecca and Alice,” Luz said, leaving:

Some people really need to be blown up.

… unspoken.

Ciara’s eyes went hard as she worked a bolt-like arrangement at the rear of the rocket launcher, slid the rocket in and worked it again.

“Contact with the igniter,” she said in clipped tones. “Weapon is up.”

The girls who were now Zhou’s daughters had been in a shipment of young women for sale to the Green Gang as samples to tempt further purchases, and their eerie elfin prettiness had made it quite plain why they’d been part of the shipment. Ciara did not like slavers in general, and child-traffickers in particular.

I don’t myself, Luz thought. Killing them was a pleasure. Though it’s not as… passionate for me as it is with her.

She put the loaded tube aside; it was remarkably light for something that packed that much punch, but it didn’t have much range. The US Army would only be getting these next year, and it would be a while before they filtered down to the ordinary infantry. One advantage of being in the Black Chamber was that you had the Technical Section—headed by Nicolai Tesla—to back you up, and favored access to the best new toys besides.

“Here they come,” Ciara said, ducking down behind the sandbags.

For a wonder, nobody on their own side had opened fire yet. That was what she wanted, but that didn’t mean it was going to happen, especially with a scratch group like this. Waiting was hard, shooting released tension, and it was always a temptation to open up just so you felt like you were doing something rather than waiting for death to fall on you like a toppling wall. Luz edged her head up again, slowly to avoid drawing eyes, and the string of trotting dots was much closer. Close enough to be doll-small human figures.

Twenty-one, she thought; she’d been right about that.

They were spread out in a loose line, moving forward at roughly the same speed without slowing down or speeding up, in the manner of men who’d worked together before. As she watched they all dropped flat about forty yards out, which put them behind a little swell in the rolling ground. Someone over there would be raking the semi-wrecked train with binoculars.

Luz hissed in annoyance. That was the right thing to do from the pirates’ point of view, and she’d been hoping for hopeless incompetence. The problem was that in the world as of 1923, people with actual combat experience were common as dirt and doing the right thing had become conditioned reflex with an inconveniently large fraction of them.

Because the others were dead.

Along with a hundred and fifty million or so others since 1914, a hair under ten percent of the human race… though that was probably a gross underestimate, since nobody was getting statistics out of Russia, or the Ottoman Empire, or…

Or places like this, Luz thought. Let’s see. There was one Lewis gun—German, probably early-war model.

The American Army had adopted the Lewis light machine gun in 1913, right after Uncle Teddy and the Party swept to victory accompanied by their worship of science and engineering. His military right hand Leonard Wood had kicked out the deadwood in the Ordnance Department as America lunged over the Rio Grande in response to revolutionario raids across the border and attacks on Americans in Mexico.

The German army had followed suit with the Lewis a few months later, unwillingly, because Uncle Teddy was filmed firing one from the hip, grinning his square-toothed grin as he smashed targets to splinters, and the Kaiser threw a jealous tantrum when he saw it and demanded that his army have the same right now.

The German high command saw no tactical need for such a weapon, and delayed the Imperial whim as much as they could by insisting on ‘improvements’… one of which, a quick-change barrel, actually had been an improvement. By the time the fighting started in 1914 their cavalry and Jaeger light infantry and the Imperial Guard regiments had about a thousand Lewis guns between them; within a few weeks German combat commanders started screaming in earsplitting unison for more. Everyone else adopted it too, except the French, who insisted on an authentically local, and also rickety and jam-prone abortion called the Chauchat instead.

And two Thompsons.

John Thompson had developed his deadly surprise around the same time and in jig time, a simple blowback weapon that sprayed heavy .45 pistol slugs from a drum to help with street-fighting and ambush-prevention in the Mexican Intervention, where close-range eruptions of machete-wielding guerillas had been a real problem.

Everyone else… even the French… on both sides had started copying it in various calibers as soon as the Western Front congealed into trenches mostly less than a hundred yards apart. Nowadays they usually turned up just where you didn’t want them.

The rest of them have rifles… gracias a Dios, all bolt-action, no assault rifles.

Her mind juggled factors. The numbers of actual armed fighters on the ground favored the pirates slightly… if you didn’t count the scientists and their gats, and she didn’t, because pistols were useless except at very close range and with exceptions (one Luz O’Malley Arostegui came to mind) in most people’s hands they were nearly useless even then.

Her side had a bit of a firepower edge with their dozen R-13’s and three Thompsons and the Hotchkiss. And as nearly every battle, skirmish, ambush and affray since 1914 had shown, shooting from cover against attackers gave you a massive advantage unless the attackers were coming at you in a tank.

But ese completamente maldito airboat… eight Maxims… that is a hard problem. This is going to be very tricky.

A tense silence fell for about thirty seconds. Then the pirates surged to their feet; their good sense didn’t extend to leaving the Lewis to function as a base of fire for support, probably because the man carrying it didn’t want to be left out of stealing wallets and gold watches or raping any accessible passenger.

Nice people don’t take up piracy as a career choice.

For that matter, Robin Hood had probably been a murderous rapist thug too, if there was a real person behind the stories at all.

“Time,” she said quietly, and levelled the Sharpshooter, the burlap of the sandbags gritty and harsh against her hands.

The cocking-handle of the Hotchkiss went back and forth with a clack-clack sound as Ciara worked it again, just to be sure.

One target that sprang to fill the reticle of the Sharpshooter’s telescopic sight was irresistible—a European-looking man who had a swath of English-style grenades across his chest, secured by the pins, of all things. He’d wrenched one loose in either hand and was storming forward screaming, a Mills bomb in both fists. If he got within throwing range of the train, he might actually do some real harm with a stream of the things bouncing through under the carriage and down the other side of the embankment. He’d certainly be a menace to the two of them in the sandbagged circle with the Hotchkiss.

Comienza el baile,” she murmured, as she began to squeeze the trigger: Begin the dance.


A thump against her shoulder. The .30-06 Spitzer round punched precisely into his sternum and out his back in a shower of blood and fragments of ribs and spine and slivers of heart and lungs. Luz would have been shocked if it hadn’t struck precisely where aimed, in good light and at forty yards with this weapon from a secure rest. Momentum carried his upper body forward and down as his legs stopped working; his face had just enough time to begin to show surprise before he planted it in the field of canola.

An instant later both the grenades went off. He’d landed with them under his body, so an instant after that all the rest of the ones on his chest and belly exploded like an extremely fast chain of firecrackers.

Individual grenades were very dangerous if you were close but they weren’t very dramatic, just a snapping thump and high-velocity metal heading your way with impersonal, invisible malice. A couple of dozen going off all at once in the same place were equivalent to a field-gun shell.

Grey-brown powdery dirt erupted in a reverse-Christmas-tree shape to the sound of a deep massive WHHUUDUP and a brief sparkle of red dots of fire too quick to really see. The dirt mercifully hid the instant vivisection of the pirate and the chaotic scattering of bits and pieces. Several of his crewmates to either side went down too, from the blast or the fragments of the cast-iron casings. War-bellows turned to screams of surprise, fear and the unmistakable tearing shrieks of men who’d suddenly had their flesh rent apart by flying metal.

The rest of the train-party had been on a hair trigger, most of them probably sweating with stress as they awaited her signal—the pirates wouldn’t leave any witnesses if they could. Ciara came to her knees behind the Hotchkiss, took the pistol-grip in her right hand and began tapping off neat two-second bursts, thumping the heel of her hand against the D-shaped rear grip between them to traverse the gun in precise increments.

Ciara was better than passable with a pistol despite having no natural talent, because she’d practiced diligently for years under experts; rather better than that with a rifle. At shooting a heavy machine gun from a tripod she was actually very good, precisely because it was more like operating a machine than the savage pinpoint trance state that close-quarter combat with hand-arms needed.

She’d make an absolutely crackerjack artillerist; that is operating a machine, with math thrown in.

More of the pirates went down, some shot, some just throwing themselves down with life-saving reflex. The R-13’s of Luz’ party were cracking and the Thompsons in the hands of Shen Shi and the Taguchi sisters stuttering in precise short bursts before the end of Ciara’s first brief fusilade, and the scientists added a popping chorus from their pistols that might do some damage at this range and certainly did give them something to occupy their minds.

The surviving pirates sprang up and dashed back to the fold of ground they’d just left; one continued on through it and ran back for the airboat, throwing aside his rifle to run faster. It didn’t help; his body jerked and flexed as multiple rounds struck, and then more kicked up spurts of dirt around the corpse as he flopped limp.

Luz heard three or four different voices shouting cease fire down behind the embankment, in English and Shanghainese.

And one calling in exaggeratedly plaintive tones: “Can’t I at least fire at Will, there, before I cease?

In Japanese; that was Midori, with Fumiko throwing in a snigger at the bilingual pun, before adding:

“Hand me a spare drum, Will you, sis?” in pellucid Californian English. “I’ve ceased because I’m out. I did fire at Will, though.”

The firing did cease, though raggedly; the last was more popping from the scientists’ pistols, silenced by a vividly-phrased set of orders from Roy Andrews down on the embankment behind her. Luz couldn’t see them, but the sound was clear enough. She raised her voice:

Roi!” Luz shouted, with a hint of Cayetana’s trilled r-sound. “We got about half of t’em!”

That included seriously wounded as well as killed; a very good total for a short engagement like this.

She had a much better viewpoint up here. That was another way of saying was very exposed up here, of course. A blast of fire from the Heavenly King emphasized the point; she and Ciara kept well below the top of the sandbags, but rounds thumped into the berm as well as crackling, crunching and peening as they snapped through the carriages and sparked off the crushed rock of the roadbed beneath and the rails themselves. Fortunately with its gondola just clearing the ridge it didn’t have the angle for plunging fire on them.

“Should we let them run?” he shouted when it stopped.

From the rhythm, the pirates had only one gunner on each Maxim, meaning they had to stop to load new belts too.

¡Diablos, no!” Luz called, as a few more keep-their-heads-down bursts crackled into the train. “If they get back in the airboat now, they’ll work the whole train over with t’ose malditos Maxims from above so nobody can finger them for the Japanese, who’ll be here pretty soon.”

“They’ll know the Japs are coming too, though.”

“Right! The longer we delay them, the more likely they’re to do something stupid or just lárgate rápido. Or the Japanese will arrive before they leave and kill them all.”

“Good!” Roy said savagely. “de Chardin was a brilliant scholar. Was that you who got the one with the grenades?”

Si. The bastardo got hoist with his own petard—literally.”

Which was true; the Shakespearean phrase meant blown up by your own bomb in the English of 1604.

“Can any of you men handle a Hotchkiss?” Luz went on.

Several voices yelled in the affirmative. Luz and Ciara decoupled the machine-gun from its mount, and pushed both and the box of ammo strips to the south edge of the roof into waiting hands, eeling on their bellies to stay out of sight from the pirates behind their low swell. Ciara nodded to Luz as they resumed their places and a stuttering burst from underneath the carriage kicked up a line of dust-spurts along the low ridge.

“Low odds,” she said, and Luz nodded in turn and handed her the Sharpshooter.

“Full magazine,” she added.

Ciara had meant low odds of damaging the airboat. You could shoot down airboats or airships with machine-guns, but the Great War had shown it wasn’t easy. Hydrogen would only burn if it was thoroughly mixed with air, and then you had to set it alight before it dispersed to concentrations too low to catch. Fighting-scout aeroplanes had eventually gotten the upper hand on Zeppelins, with the destruction of London and Paris and Bordeaux as the airship-bomber’s last hurrah; the cities had died, but not many of the dirigibles that killed them made it back to base. But the aeroplanes had done it by massed attacks with incendiary rounds, or by firing rockets from under their wings.

The shared a glance. They could have crippled or killed the stationary airboat at four hundred yards with the Hotchkiss… if the eight Maxims on the Heavenly King stayed obligingly silent, which was unlikely in the extreme. The pirate machine-guns opened up again now, but firing low and trying for the space between the bottom of the railway carriage and the rails. That produced cursing from Roy’s savants and plenty of wild ricochets from the steel rails, but no fatalities. Not yet. It would if it went on long enough.

Better cover down there, Luz thought. And better them than us. And we need them to keep the pirates focused on the embankment, not on the roof here. They’ll keep their eyes on our machine gun.

Individuals from the pirate landing party bobbed up and shot occasionally, ducking down again… though Luz got one with a head-shot when he forgot that she could see more of the backslope than the shooters on the ground. She chuckled quietly to herself when the one who seemed to be the chief… he had a very large nine-ring sword slung over his back and a shaven head… crawled backward. She couldn’t see much of him, not enough to shoot, but she could see his frantically moving hands. They were making emphatic gestures towards the airboat:

Come here come here come here and get us right now!

She wasn’t surprised when the Heavenly King slipped its anchors—to save time—then vented gas—to keep from bobbing up too high—and its engines settled into the rasping growl of radials shoving up the cycle. The lazy circling of the propellers turned into a blur, and the nose of the airboat swiveled towards them.

“Brace yourselves!” Luz shouted, repeating each phrase in Shangahinese. “Esto sera going to get completamente desagradable for a bit!”

Ciara handed the Sharpshooter back to Luz. “Five in the magazine, one up the spout,” she said tightly.

“Nice to have someone you can really rely on,” Luz said softly, and got a quick flash of a smile.

“Really disagreeable?” Yvette Andrews yelled back from the embankment below. “Gosh and golly gee, Cayetana, just when we were all having so much fun!”

That got a ripple of harsh laughter; then another further along, as someone who spoke English translated it into Chinese. The airboat surged towards them, swelling to an enormous bulk and following the ground. It had to, if the dangling man-ropes were to stay within reach of the pirates on the ground; it was skillful low-altitude piloting, but that wasn’t surprising considering what the Heavenly King spent its time at. The forward turret under the gondola’s chin kept snapping off warning bursts at the embankment.

When they were nearly to the gone-to-ground landing party the airboat slowed and swiveled, as one engine was idled. That put it broadside-on to the train, and all eight of the Maxims opened up… also firing low at the embankment, as she’d hoped. It was suppressing fire, to cover the landing-party. Those who still could jumped frantically for the ropes and scampered up like acrobats or monkeys.

The bald man with the nine-ring sword… now that he was upright she could see his exposed torso was covered in writhing tattoos—capered and jumped, urging the others forward, then leapt for a rope himself and began to haul himself up. Rather more slowly than the rest, since he seemed strong but rather heavy-set, and had to use his feet as well as his hands.

Lo siento, barrigón, but you only think you’ve escaped,” Luz murmured.

They were very close now. The radial engine on its strut filled the scope. Just ahead of the pusher-propeller, where the circle of cylinders would be pumping away as they prepared to either depart, strafe the wrecked train from above, or both…


The aluminum of the cowling dimpled. She ignored it, moving the muzzle just enough to keep the engine in the crosshairs as her hand worked the bolt as fast as she could, keeping her arms and shoulders firm but not tense, breathing… in… halfway out… hold… squeeze…


She managed four shots before the target was wrenched out of her sight picture, and her mind out of its particular zero-point focus. The airboat dipped, lurched and began to turn on its own axis as the propeller on that side seized up with a screech clearly audible here.

Then there was a shattering BANG and the defunct radial began to trail black smoke, too, and parts of the engine itself shot out through the cowling and fell towards the ground as inertia and unbalanced forces tore it apart.

Clear below!” Luz shouted as she laid down the Sharpshooter and snatched up the rocket launcher, coming to her feet so she could aim over the four-foot parapet.

It was going to be fairly alarming, and nobody else knew she had this… or even what this was.

The airboat’s Maxims had mostly stopped firing as the aircraft lurched unexpectedly; the ones that hadn’t were trying to shoot down the sky as the craft yawed and spun with ponderous wild speed—probably the gunners were just clutching the grips to try keep from being pitched across the gondola. She swung the tube to her shoulder, tucked the stock into her shoulder, and looked through the ring-and-post sight. The Heavenly King nearly filled it.

Its captain hadn’t fallen back to the ground, but that was only because he’d caught his ankle in a bight of the rope as he toppled; now he was swinging in a huge circle fifty feet up, his face an O of distended mouth and bulging eyes, and his scream threading through among all the clamor. Luz clamped her hand on the trigger; the solenoid sent a surge of current through the wire in its narrow tube on the side of the launcher, and into the fuse at the base of the rocket.


A stunning screech like the world’s largest cat vomiting and unhappy about it. All the fuel in the rocket burned before it left the tube, and a hot leaf-shaped spear of orange flame eighty feet long shot out the back. The heat of it washed the back of her body, not quite painful on her bare neck. Anyone caught in that flame would have a short painful life spent as a shrieking torch. Nobody was, this time, but there were startled yells as the banner of fire went back over the heads of those huddled on the south side of the embankment.

The rocket took less than a second to punch into the gasbag… and out the other side, exploding in the air in an off-white puff.

Mierda!” Luz swore.

Ciara knelt by Luz’ left side. She worked the bolt and had it loaded again in about four seconds; Luz felt the tube move and then grow tail-heavy again as the nine-pound rocket was locked home.

“Up! Up!” Ciara said, slapping Luz on the leg twice, the call for loaded and ready.

She added urgently: “Aim lower! The keel-struts just above the gondola!”

The Maxim-guns were firing again, and this time they were trying to hit her. An eighty-foot lance of searing fire drew the eye, no doubt about it. In a few seconds…

A little lower. A bit lower than that…

Semi-rigids didn’t have a full internal skeleton, and the envelope kept its shape because it was inflated, like a balloon. Ciara had reminded her they did have a keel inside the gasbag, two curved duralumin girders below and one above held together by triangles of bracing rod and laced to the envelope along their length; the gondola and engines hung from that. The problem was that it didn’t fill anything like the majority of the interior; if you drew straight lines through it, most of them wouldn’t hit anything solid. The two girders below, though—


This time there was a muffled bummppfff! as the rocket struck, followed almost instantly by a huge soft WHUMP!

“It must have hit the girder right next to the ballonet full of fuel-gas,” Ciara said with technical precision.

Flame billowed upward, blue-white shot with red, and the airboat’s long envelope began to bend in the middle. It also began to fall. Slowly at first, so that the pirate chief hanging below hit hard but was still conscious as the whole flaming mass dropped onto him with abrupt speed.

Luz dropped the rocket launcher and went to her knees. She and Ciara wrapped their arms around each other and buried their faces in each other’s necks, squeezing their eyes shut.


A wave of heat washed over them, and there was a flash that was visible even with eyes tightly closed and heads below the parapet. The carriage lurched beneath them, hesitated, and then slammed back down on its tracks. Shouts and screams from the folk lying on the embankment turned to cheers amid the rapid-fire crackle of the Heavenly King‘s ammunition all going off at once.

Luz sank back, then slumped to sit on the roof of the carriage with her back to the sandbags. There was concern on Ciara’s face, and Luz reached out to pat her gently on the cheek.

It took a considerable effort.

“That…” Luz said, then gathered her thoughts. “That was more excitement than I really wanted.”


Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling