THE ZEPPELIN JIHAD
(STEAM POINTE #1)
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Series Hero, LLC
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form. A Series Hero Production.
Cover art by Deranged Doctor Design
First Series Hero Printing, March 2016
&I came of& age in the ’90s, that holiday from history between the Cold War’s end, and the post-9/11/01 world’s start.
Collective memory paints that decade as halcyon days of plenty, and compared to the present era of economic stagnation and social decline, perhaps it was. Yet it didn’t seem so shining at the time.
Sad but true: for the U.S., no worthy foreign enemy also meant no purpose. And this in turn made the entire culture feel rudderless. The period’s casual nihilism was typified by the era’s grunge sound and slovenly fashion, both of which signaled, “Why even bother?”
Against this backdrop, the photos of 19th century scientists, explorers, writers, and statesmen that occasionally appeared in my high school European history textbook may as well have been examples of alien life. Their neat, formal clothing. Their serious expressions. The sharp confidence in their eyes. It was like these people had something they believed in. More than that: that they had something worth believing in.
I remember thinking that would be very nice to have. A society that hadn’t lost its way. What would that even feel like?
It was the kind of idle thought you have while daydreaming in class. Except this one would linger with me enough that I’d revisit the Victorian period in both nonfiction and prose again and again over the next decade or so. My father’s copy of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s biography here; a second-hand copy of The Adventures of [Sherlock Holmes _]there; Niall Ferguson’s history of the British Empire, and Mark Frost’s fantastic novel, _The List of Seven, thrown in for good measure. No real agenda or reason to it, just an instinctual return to a time when the West believed in itself.
This was all somewhat of a guilty pleasure, especially since mainstream culture saw mostly horror when looking at the same era. Part of this is the era’s general attitude towards the sexes and race. Sometimes though it was more specific: King Leopold’s Ghost, a bestselling history from the late ’90s, detailed the barbarism of 1880’s Belgium imperial practices in the Congo. Closer to home, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City masterfully used the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to show a darkness existing just below the surface of the late 19th century’s optimism and ingenuity.
For whatever reason, in today’s culture the existence of any past sin stains not just the entire era, but all of western civilization as well. Yet there developed in literature a workaround from this staining guilt when wanting to write or enjoy a Victorian era adventure.
If you’re reading this, I assume you already know what steampunk is, but the OED’s definition is nonetheless useful for our discussion: “A genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.”
Serviceable enough. Left unmentioned is that steampunk is often everything we moderns would like from the late 19th century—for me, it’s the age’s confidence, for others it’s the aesthetics or sense of decorum—without all those things we are uncomfortable with. In other words, steampunk is the 19th century set to safe mode.
And it’s fun, isn’t it? The retro tech, the civilization that believes in itself, the improbable adventures that result from mingling the two, all available in a guilt-free package. What’s not to love?
And yet . . .
I wonder if we don’t lose something doing it this way. Some unhappy but necessary bit of truth: all things have a cost.
Maybe the cost of a confident civilization on the upswing is brutality and chauvinism.
Maybe the cost of all our modern technology and convenience is weakness and decline.
That’s an idea I play with here in Steam Pointe, the series you’re about to begin. It’s a little different from the type of steampunk you may be used to. On Steam Pointe, all the steam-powered tech exists contemporaneously with the cell phone, tablet or computer you’re reading this on. But this is less about ornate and antiquated machinery clashing with its smooth and tastefully understated contemporary counterparts.
Rather, it’s about us meeting this retro mindset. It’s about a people with the same confident eyes as I saw in those history book photos from decades ago, locking with our own modern, less certain gaze.
This isn’t steampunk as the 19th century set to safe mode. It’s steampunk setting the 21st century to “armed”.
I hope you like it.
&The Zeppelin Jihad &
&(Steam Pointe #1)&
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1 ~ Coming to Steam Pointe
3 ~ Fight the Sky
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&Coming to Steam Pointe&
&It felt less& like looking out an airplane window than staring through a time warp into 1890. The flight attendant saw the look on my face. “First time to Steam Pointe, miss?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s one thing looking down on it with Google Earth. Quite another in real life.”
Even at this height, I could see great, gilded smokestacks stabbing into the sky, their dyed plumes painting the horizon surprisingly pleasing shades of violet, orange and red. Dirigible airships hovered here and there like storm clouds.
The flight attendant shook his head, his perfectly gelled, frosted-tipped hair never moving. “I can’t understand a country where you have to check your laptop, cell phone, and iPod upon entry. I take it you’re here on business? Not many people would consider it a fun escape spot.”
I certainly didn’t, not that the FBI cared. Who’d want to be someplace that practiced technological apartheid? Where you couldn’t get something as simple as, say, a hairdryer, instead having to rely on some coal-fired, magnetic, or gear-grinding contraption.
“Have you explored the island much? I wouldn’t mind some advice on dealing with the natives.”
“They don’t particularly care for my kind, so I usually stay at the airport guesthouse during layovers,” he said. I’d been given a hurried briefing on island culture by the State Department: traditional as Steamies were, having a gay flight attendant flitting up-and-down their cobblestone streets would have gone over like a pregnant pole-vaulter.
“Of course,” he continued, as if we were sorority sisters getting our nails done, “they may not like you either.”
“Because I’m a woman?” I asked.
“It’s not women they dislike. It’s just that they expect them to be ladies,” he said, rolling his eyes. Then he continued down the aisle, checking for seats that hadn’t been returned to their upright positions.
The island—“Pointe Island” on the maps—rose from the ocean on sheer cliffs that could have been castle walls. Probably why it wasn’t successfully settled until the 1800’s. Mountains peeked over the horizon, and even at this distance I could see the mining scaffolding that completely encased some of them. There were patchworks of farm fields like you’d see in flyover country back home, but these were intermingled with perfectly square forests. Trees here were just another crop. Railroad lines, some of them raised and as wide as an interstate highway, crisscrossed the countryside. Cargo ships came and went from the man-made barrier islands that ringed the coast.
I could make out distant cities, some of them darkly brooding masses as though every building were part of a single, massive factory. Others gleamed whitely in the sun, the Potemkin utopias of 19th century World’s Fairs finally made real.
Somewhere between these extremes was Boothcross, Steam Pointe’s largest city. Its skyscrapers were laced together with a spider’s web of elevated tramlines. Great Tesla coils were worked into some buildings’ designs, and arc lightning sparked from them like Thor’s hammer. Rising above these were the city’s Faced Towers—four art nouveau buildings linked by a dozen skyways. Each was crowned with a sculpted face of copper that stared in a different cardinal direction. The tallest structures on the island, they were always featured on postcards.
At the airfield, I checked my electronics into a security deposit box. I’d been concerned they were going to give me grief about the Glock. It was a polymer framed autoloader, after all, and I wasn’t sure if that would get it on the forbidden technologies list. But the customs agent handed it back to me without comment after he’d finished rifling through my bags.
“Enjoy your stay, miss,” he said, smiling politely. Maybe it was the Steamies’ weird accent—the bastard child of a Central Pennsylvanian dialect wrapped in a Victorian grammar obsession—but the way he said miss made it sound like he was dubious I’d actually qualify.
There was a small crowd of travelers moving through customs, mostly returning Steamies. Some of the men had worn more traditional western suits, as you might see on the streets of New York. Even so, the occasional pocket watch, handlebar mustache, or dueling scar betrayed their citizenship. The rest, however, hadn’t even bothered trying to mask their nationality while overseas. These men wore dark, three piece suits and derby hats, a look which, though slightly updated with deep blue or crimson shirts and gold cravats, had probably last been fashionable in America when Jack the Ripper was making a name for himself.
The women wore high-collared blouses and ankle-length skirts. Yet what could have been a stern style was mitigated by bright violets, yellows, and emeralds. Their hair, too, kept them from looking like daguerreotypes of Emily Dickinson. They wore it long, kept in place by jeweled hairbands. In addition to their bags, they collected their pets from the crates where they’d been stowed during the flight. Trained raccoons had first been used here to remove gear obstructions from heavy machinery, and had eventually been domesticated.
Making my way through stares and whispers from women who had raccoons peeking out from their purses, I eventually made it through customs. A tall man in a dark suit was waiting for me.
He was maybe 6’4”, with eyes as blue as frozen seawater. I figured he was in his late thirties—about 10 years my senior—but the mustache made him look older. His hands were hitched at his belt, on which hanged a holstered revolver, and sheathed dagger.
“Mackenzie Hoff, Federal Bureau of Investigations, I presume,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said brusquely, annoyed by the looks I’d been getting. Didn’t these people know it was wrong to judge others? To make them uncomfortable?
“Hiram Speer, Sensitive Inquiries Office, Boothcross branch,” the tall man announced. He held up his left hand to show me a ring inlaid with a red jewel and I saw that his knuckles were misshapen and swollen, as if repeatedly broken. It made me think he must have been a boxer.
It occurred to me that I should probably show him ID. “Please, don’t bother showing me your badge,” he said as I reached inside my jacket pocket. “One doesn’t have to be an Arthur Conan Doyle protagonist to recognize you as an American federal agent.”
“How so?” I asked, prepared to be flattered.
“The harsh coarseness of your pantsuit combined with an overly aggressive attitude, as if you’re an actress in a man’s role playing your part more for stereotype than for nuance. Also, I received your description over the telewrite, and knew you were a redhead.”
I was stunned by his rudeness, but all that came out was: “I’m strawberry blonde.”
“Of course you are,” he said evenly. “Shall we?” He turned on his heel and walked away without asking if he could help me with my bag. Back home I wouldn’t really have expected an offer. But it surprised me that a Steamie wouldn’t do so. The implication seemed to be that I wasn’t worthy of such consideration.
I’d imagined the streets would have been filled with carriages and hansoms, and while there were some of those, Speer showed me to his car. At least “car” was as good a word as any. Less of a mouthful than “ornate, rolling furnace.” I rode shotgun as Speer released some levers. The car whistled like a locomotive, and we chugged into traffic heading for downtown Boothcross.
“I received the primer regarding your errant terrorist,” Speer said. “We haven’t found Mr. Mohammad Talib as yet, unfortunately. But I had some of our men target likely information founts.”
“Have you increased security around here?” I asked. “Talib’s cell blew up three movie theaters before fleeing the States. He’s more than capable of doing the same thing to one of your opera houses, model zeppelin clubs, or whatever else you people have around here.”
“Talib was using electronic detonators—mighty difficult to requisition on Steam Pointe,” Speer replied.
“Our intel says he got here by stowing away on a cargo ship carrying helium. Would have been easy to smuggle some detonators too, huh?”
“Yes, I’m aware of how easily he escaped you all. But I expect he’ll be running to ground rather than leisurely seeding bombs around town. We have posters up. Given how visibly he stands out from most Pointers, he’d be a fool to show himself. Most of our citizens go around armed, after all.”
On the sidewalks, men walked confidently in their fine suits and canes, ladies in their elaborate dresses and gloves. However colorful their clothing, the people themselves were decidedly monochromatic.
“I guess he would stand out here,” I agreed. “A grain of brown rice in a sea of salt.”
“Best watch it. By that metaphor, yours is a rather salty complexion, too. Besides, if you have a grain of brown rice in a container of salt, or vice versa, then by definition you have an impurity. Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if that impurity were removed?”
“The natural world is full of blending. It makes things better, stronger. Combine iron and carbon, you get steel.”
“Doesn’t that depend on your components?” Speer asked. “Gold, for instance, doesn’t react with most metals. When it is formed into an alloy, the more base metal that is included, the less valuable the whole. Other elements are quite dangerous when brought together. Take hydrogen and chlorine, combine with water, and you have hydrochloric acid. Carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, and sulfur can form mustard gas. Iron oxide and aluminum give you thermite. What kind of reaction do people like Mohammad Talib make when introduced to a civilized society?”
I ignored the disgusting racial jab. “With that kind of knowledge about chemistry, you’d be on a terrorist watch list back home.”
“Land of the Free, indeed,” Speer said with a smirk. “Look around you. Engineering and Chemistry are our gods, and Pointe Island is their temple. I’d say as between hard sciences, and Female-African-Sodomite Studies or whatever it is American universities teach these days, we made the correct choice.”
We passed the rest of the drive in silence. Given our countries’ bad blood, maybe it was inevitable we’d be at one another’s throats.
Steam Pointe’s seed had been the chemists, architects, mechanics, and engineers that Lincoln secretly turned loose on the South during the Civil War. The Experimental Munitions Regiment. Warrior scientists, they were good at killing Confederates. Horrifyingly so, as it turned out.
They offered a glimpse of 20th century warfare, and mid-19th century America recoiled.
Before Congress could have them hanged, the officers and enlisted men of the experimental unit collected what family they could and fled the country they’d fought for. They had settled here, making a nation in their own image. Isolated on this island, their descendants—along with what few immigrants they thought worthy—remained frozen in time, socially and morally Victorian, even as the industrial sciences they practiced continued evolving and mutating, like bacteria in a Petri dish. The whole thing was like a vast uncontrolled experiment in parallel social development. Men like Hiram Speer were one of that experiment’s results.
We pulled into what looked like New York’s Flatiron Building had it been trimmed in jade and brass: the Sensitive Inquiries Office HQ.
Once inside, Speer led me down into the building’s bowels. “You mentioned leads. How did you drum them up?” I asked. They hadn’t cell phone intercepts, cameras on every building with facial recognition software, or any of the other standard counter-terrorism tools afforded by modern society. The island was a black hole to any intelligence apparatus geared towards signal intercepts. It was why, the FBI and NSA figured, Talib had come here.
“Simple,” Speer said, leading me down a gaslit hallway. The doors we passed looked thick enough to hold off invading medieval armies. “We have only twenty-six Arabs in all of Steam Pointe, fifteen of whom are here in Boothcross. None of them are citizens, so naturally we didn’t need a warrant to search their residences. Of those fifteen, three were found in possession of pro-jihadist books or pamphlets.”
“Like what? A Koran?” I asked.
“Don’t be stupid. That is merely anti-Western. Despite what common sense and fourteen hundred years of inter-civilizational conflict might suggest, such a tome would not be dispositive of conspiracy. In this investigation, at any rate.”
My voice was loud enough to echo down the hall. “Race might not be dispositive either.”
“True,” he conceded, “but irrelevant. We have an Arab terrorist hiding in this country. If he were to find assistance here, it would most likely be amongst those with whom he shares language, culture, and religion, not to mention physical appearance. If you were looking for a Chinese spy, absent any other information would you begin in a given city’s Irish pubs, or its Chinatown?”
I felt like I had landed on another planet. Such obvious profiling would have meant a lawsuit back home, and dismissal from any police force.
He paused, awaiting my reply. I didn’t give it to him.
“Irish pubs, obviously,” he said before opening one of the doors.
Inside was a thin man in a black suit. He looked younger than Speer, and his skin was such a phosphorescent white, it was as if he never left this basement room.
“Special Agent Mackenzie Hoff, this is Inspector Deacon Harker,” Speer announced. “He handles our interrogations.”
“I guess that explains the black suit,” I said.
“Actually, I borrowed this from our guillotine fellow,” Harker said. “My other suits are being laundered.”
I almost thought he was serious until Speer erupted laughing. Harker’s thin face broke into a smile, and he extended his hand. I put mine out as well, but to my surprise he bowed to kiss it like a French courtier. “I hope you don’t find this offensive,” he said, “but such is the nature of our rather traditional etiquette.”
Stateside, guys might open doors on the first few dates, but a year in, it was a miracle if they didn’t burp in front of you. I got the impression that a man like Harker never would.
I suppose I should have been bothered that I wasn’t being treated like one of the boys, but it was better than being treated like a lesser life form by Speer. “Thank you,” I said, looking sideways at Speer. “You’re actually the first person to extend such courtesy on this trip.”
“Don’t consider Hiram representative,” Harker said. “Many Pointers enjoy chatting with the few Americans they meet.”
“Only because they haven’t spent as much time amongst them as I have,” Speer cut in. “By the bye, isn’t there a terrorist we’re supposed to be hunting? Why yes, I recall that there is. Did you get anything out of those three Arabs, Deke?”
There were two desks in the subcellar office, both with papers neatly stacked on them. Harker pointed to the documents on one table. “This is what we found when we tossed their apartments. Two of them had receipts for several questionable Middle East charities. We also found printed-out Internet journal articles they must have brought from home in the ‘Kill Jews, Kill Christians, they’re the root of all your life’s failings’ genre.”
Internet journal articles. I guess he meant blog posts. These would have had to be printed out by Talib before he came here since computers were illegal in Steam Pointe.
“In other words,” Harker continued, “they were more like armchair-Mujahidin than the actual thing. Their responses to questioning were consistent with that interpretation. One of them even cried during our discussion. I am having them held pending deportation.”
“And the third?” Speer asked.
“The third is a man named Omar Khaliq.” Harker picked up a sheaf of papers from the other table and handed them to Speer. “He is more the genuine article.”
Speer looked them over with a mild look of disgust before handing them to me.
These sheets were a heavier bond, more like parchment than anything you would stick in a laser printer. I could feel the slight imprint where the old-fashioned mechanical press had stamped the words, and the seal of the Steam Pointe government.
The first couple pages were a list of all incoming cargo vessels. One listing was circled in pencil, a ship out of New York carrying, among other things, helium. It had arrived in Steam Pointe three days earlier.
“The ship we think Talib escaped on,” I said. “This man knew.”
“Khaliq probably picked him up at the docks himself,” Speer said.
“What are these other documents?”
“Those,” Speer said with a grimace, “outline the government’s production of hydrogen, our security protocols for same, and the airship routes that employ hydrogen zeppelins.”
Hadn’t these people heard of the Hindenburg? “You use hydrogen blimps?”
“Rigid airships,” Harker corrected.
“Helium has to be imported from the United States, and so is relatively expensive,” Speer explained. “Hydrogen we can cheaply produce here through industrial electrolysis. We use the helium for military and passenger airships, and any others whose routes take them over populated areas. Hydrogen primarily gets used for industrial heavy-lifters traveling just off the coast.”
“Talib wouldn’t need any of his plastic explosive or electronic detonators. All the explosives he needs are right here,” I said.
“If they’re so interested in finding accessible explosives, it follows that Talib isn’t here to hide. He’s planning another attack,” Speer said.
“But what would be the target?” Harker asked. “We’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far from any vital international sea lanes. The only American interest close-at-hand that I can think of is their consulate.”
Speer shook his head. “I don’t think the target is American. I think it’s us.”
“How do you figure? It’s not like you guys committed troops to Afghanistan or Iraq,” I said.
Speer shrugged. “We’re not Muslim. Need they another justification?”
“Well then,” Harker said before I could get into an argument with Speer, “I suppose that means I should continue my conversation with Mr. Khaliq. I was just taking a breather when you all came by.”
Harker led us into a darkened room. I could sense more than see its cathedral-like scale. From high above, a single point of light—too bright for a gaslight, this was electrical—stared down onto the floor like the angry eye of God. Inside the light’s cone was a man strapped to a chair. It made me think about old pictures I’d seen of Thomas Edison’s electric chair.
We crossed the room’s vastness towards the man in the chair, our steps echoing like gunshots.
The prisoner was an Arab, mid-to-late 20’s. He was naked. His head hung down on his chest, and though the room was cool, sweat beaded along his receding hairline. I smelled the vomit before I saw it, stuck in his hair and smeared on his chest and groin.
No injuries, though. At least, not on the outside.
Like a man anxious to return to his muse, Harker’s gait had sped up as we’d entered the room. He was far ahead of us when I hissed to Speer, “This is inhumane. What have you done to him?”
“You’ll see,” Speer said.
“No. Make him stop.”
“And give up our only lead?”
“How are you any better than he is?” I hated how Pollyanna I sounded, but it was true. This job had taught me that the world was colored in grayscale, and sometimes rules had to be bent. But there was a difference between bending rules and not having any.
“I am better than he,” Speer said, “because I do not blow up theaters showing the latest Disney movies to maximize child casualties. Nor do I enable, celebrate, or excuse those that do. I stop such people.”
“Nice rationalization. You’re white, racist xenophobes with an enthusiasm for torture. Nazis, basically.”
He actually laughed at me. “One man’s racism and xenophobia are another man’s common sense.”
“Sounds like a police state,” I said.
“Does it? Applying common sense to counterterrorism, for instance, one would naturally focus first on those coming from Islamic countries, and next on legal residents of Arab extraction, while allowing the rest of the citizenry to go about their daily lives unmolested. Ignoring common sense, one might very well wind up with a regime where all citizens are subject to checkpoint stops, surveillance, and offensive searches as they simply try to travel around what used to be their country.”
That stung. My badge had spared me from being groped by the TSA on the flight out of JFK, but I’d still had to wait in line half an hour for the privilege of getting irradiated by a body scanner.
Speer was on a roll now. “Civil society is organized to protect citizens, not vouchsafe the sensitivities of foreigners and their imbecilic champions among the native population. When did you people forget that?”
I was tired of this. I needed Talib found. So this would be one of those moral compromises we make for the greater good. At least any blood was on the Steamies’ hands, not mine.
We caught up with Harker. Just outside the light now, I could see a series of levers jutting out of the floor. Weirdly, an umbrella stand was also nearby.
“Hello again, Omar,” Harker chimed in the same pleasant tone with which he’d greeted me. “Do we feel more cooperative now that you’ve had some time to think? Or would you like to go for another spin on the Merry-Go-Round?”
There was fear in Khaliq’s eyes, but the Arabic that came from his throat was guttural and defiant. Harker responded himself in brief, polite-sounding Arabic before throwing one of the levers.
The floor shook slightly, as if a dragon was awakening beneath us. Then there was a hiss of steam, and the groan of massive iron gears limbering.
“What did you say to him?” Speer asked, as the steam’s whine grew louder.
Harker smiled. “Bon voyage.”
Dozens, maybe hundreds of gaslights suddenly came to life. The cavernous torture chamber glowed orange, and I could see now what the darkness had been hiding.
Weaving all around and above us was a hopeless tangle of what looked like rollercoaster tracks. Silhouetted black against the orange light, it might have been an amusement park designed in hell.
My eyes couldn’t follow the layout, but Khaliq’s scream drew my gaze back to him. I noticed now that there were wheels on his chair’s legs, threaded into tracks beneath him. Carnival music—popping and skipping as if played on a phonogram—blared on, and the chair shot away from us down the length of the room.
It was going almost too fast to follow as the chair took Khaliq up and up, never slowing before sweeping down even faster through the tracks’ absurdist architecture.
With the chair’s every turn, I could feel the rush of wind in my hair. It had to be going fifty or sixty miles per hour.
“You may want to get an umbrella,” Harker yelled over the music and clatter. “I’d think his stomach would be empty by now, but one never knows!”
I leaned into Speer so he could hear me. “You torture people with rollercoaster rides?”
“Just watch,” he said.
Harker began throwing levers like a mad scientist. As he did, not only would Khaliq’s chair react, so would the room itself. The chair stopped suddenly, and jerked onto another track close to the wall where an iron panel retracted. Out slid a small pool, and the chair swung him upside down, dragging his head through the water.
Another lever, and the chair stopped and rotated like a spit as a different wall panel opened. This time, he found himself turning inches above hot coals like a cannibal’s appetizer.
Another lever, and a giant bell descended over the stopped chair, then clanged deafeningly.
On and on it went, one absurd, Wile E. Coyote contraption after another appearing from behind the walls or out of the floor or ceiling. Periodically, some vomit would rain down as Speer and I took shelter beneath our umbrellas. It felt like it went on for hours. It was closer to 15 minutes.
Finally, Harker returned the levers to their starting position, and Khaliq’s chair slid to a halt in front of us. The music died, the gaslights dimmed, and the rumbling machines quieted. Once again, a single finger of bright light spotlighted the prisoner.
“Shall we go again?” Harker asked. “No need to worry about keeping me up all night. I can have coffee brought down.”
Blood was coming down Khaliq’s nose. His voice sounded barely human. “No—I’ll tell you,” he gasped.
&Fifteen minutes later&, Speer was assembling his team in the courtyard. Twenty-five men in thundercloud blue uniforms milled around us, some checking their rifles, others simply smoking pipes or cigars. They looked like Civil War re-enactors to me, except I’m reasonably sure neither side in that war used cartridges as big as the ones in these men’s belts.
On the periphery were what had to be pilots. The goggles, leather jackets, and general swagger were a dead giveaway. I could see the noses of smaller zeppelins peeking over the building’s roof.
“Right,” Speer shouted, calling the group to attention. “The interrogation section has determined that the terrorist wanted by the Americans is hiding in the Blue Cliffs Industrial Airship Parks. While he is only one man, he has proven himself quite adept at explosives, so we will move on him in force. A Triclops[_ _]will be taking up the rear, with two infantry squad carriages leading.
“Infantry shall dismount a mile from Blue Cliffs and advance on foot through the nearby woods. Darkness will cover our approach. We would prefer to take him alive, and since smashing down trees, fences, and buildings tends to draw no small amount of attention, the Triclops will remain behind with the carriages until needed.
“Additionally,” Speer continued, “we will have three pocket-zeps to keep an eye on things from above, and to fire upon anyone who tries to slip our cordon. Any questions?”
Someone called from the back, “Is the girl coming?” Laughter followed.
I’m pretty sure I was blushing. I refused to lower my eyes, though. Instead I kept my head up, which is why I could see the smirk on Speer’s lips.
“With that keen eye for operational detail, Abernathy, I can’t believe you haven’t made sergeant yet. Special Agent Hoff is the United States’ eyes and ears on this caper. Here to make sure we primitives do a good job. Being that she represents a key trading partner, and that you would no doubt prefer your loved ones to travel by helium and not its more combustible cousin, yes, she will be joining us.” More laughter. “The Special Agent will accompany us in the infantry element. Sgt. Baylor will command the armored element.”
“How will the sergeant know to assist us if he’s so far away?” Abernathy asked. I’d been wondering the same thing. Radio has been around for over a century, but I’d yet to see one, and didn’t know if it was kosher to Steam Pointe orthodoxy.
“The way you queens will scream if anything goes wrong, I’ll be able to hear it even with my engines on,” Sgt. Baylor called out.
“Or we’ll simply launch a flare,” Speer said. “And with that spirit of team cooperation, I yield the floor to our esteemed Triclops commander.”
Baylor was a thickset man with a lumberjack beard. He looked like he’d have trouble catching anyone going faster than a slow jog, but if he did, it wouldn’t be hard for him to crush their trachea with those tree-trunk arms.
“As Inspector Speer mentioned during his comedy routine,” Baylor began, “your orders are to take this terrorist alive. You’ll be shocked not-at-all to learn that he’s Arab. His name is Mohammad Talib. You’ll be given photographs to help identify him, but just remember that if he has a deeper suntan than you, that’s probably our man.” With that, Baylor began outlining the route this steam-driven lynch mob would take.
The caravan rumbled out of the SIO’s courtyard just as the sun was beginning to set. The Triclops turned out to be a combination of locomotive and tank—an armored, self-propelled artillery piece with not one but three long barrels protruding out. Three small zeppelins whispered off the building’s rooftop, and shadowed us from above.
Inside the lead personnel carrier, I checked my Glock.
Speer sat across from me. “Nervous?” he asked.
“I just thought you might be anxious, given how you’re fidgeting with your sidearm.”
“You don’t think it’s a good idea to check your equipment before an operation?”
From his holster he pulled out his revolver to show me. It was large and long-barreled, like something a movie cowboy might use. Its black metal was inlaid with silver blazons. It could have been something from a museum except that the scratches made clear it had seen heavy use. “Unlike autoloading pistols, revolvers never jam.”
“I’d rather have an autoloader’s higher capacity,” I said, ejecting the Glock’s magazine and brandishing its ten rounds in front of him. “Not to mention the quick reloading.”
“We have rapid-loading as well. Plus, we enjoy more exotic bullet capabilities.” Speer opened his gun’s cylinder and pulled out one of its six bullets. The cartridge was thick as a .45, but longer than any magnum load I’d seen. “Jacketed hollow-point for ordinary circumstances,” he said. Then, depressing a button near the hammer, he detached the cylinder and put it aside.
From a vest pocket, he withdrew another cylinder, except this one was gold. He took out a round, and I could see its red tip. “Mercury-tipped explosive for more trying circumstances,” he said. Then he reloaded the bullet, and attached the cylinder to his revolver.
“You people use explosive bullets?”
“I’d heard that there isn’t much street crime here. Why such heavy artillery? I mean, why even have a three-gunned tank, much less feel the need to drive it around city streets?”
For the first time, Speer looked uncomfortable. “You are correct on that point. Except in a few communities to the south, and some of the barrier islands, murders and property crimes are rare here. But when you have a people who have put the physical sciences on such a pedestal, who are taught from childhood that they can bend the universe with iron gears, steam engines, and Tesla coils, that the only limits to what they can achieve are their willpower and imagination . . . Well, perhaps it’s inevitable that such knowledge would be used by some for evil. These are what you might call supercriminals. My office protects the people from them.”
There wasn’t anything about that in my briefing at State. I wanted to know more, but he quickly asked, “What caliber are you shooting?” pointing at the top of my magazine. “It doesn’t look like the .40 I understand many American law enforcer agencies use.”
“It’s a Glock 29. I shoot 10mm.”
He looked skeptical. “I read that the FBI stopped using 10mm back in the ’80s. Apparently it was too powerful a load, and certain agents—by which I mean female affirmative action hires—couldn’t control it.”
“Yeah, it is a hot load. I control it just fine.”
“Are you sure you’re not just firing a downloaded version of the round?”
When the 10mm turned out to have too much perceived recoil for a lot of people to use, they started to come out with a “lite” version—a nice way of saying “less powder” in the casing.
“These are full-power loads,” I said.
“Would you even know the difference?”
“I should. I had to beg for special permission to carry the round, and part of the deal was I had to pay for my own ammo.”
His eyebrows rose ever so slightly. I took that to mean he was impressed. His approval shouldn’t have felt as good as it did, but there it was: I was proud.
Our carrier stopped and we dismounted with the other SIO officers. It was fully dark now. I couldn’t see our trailing pocket zeppelins anymore. The Triclops remained behind while Speer, myself, and fifteen other men fanned into the woods.
We moved parallel to the road. Silently crossing a mile of broken ground, we finally came to a tall, wooden stockade.
Speer quietly ordered his men to dig beneath it with their pack-shovels, and once they had, we slipped under it.
The industrial airship yard was larger than even the airport, with only a few electric lights dotting its expanse. Still, I could make out hangars like low mountains in the distance. Far from us, there were a few airships anchored in the open.
Nearby was a squat, brick office building. It looked kind of like an aboveground bunker, which made sense given the tons of flammable hydrogen lying around. The lights were on, and I could see movement in the windows. According to Khaliq, Mohammad Talib was hiding there.
Stacks of shipping containers and I-beams lay here and there about the yard, but nowhere near the building. It was the only structure in the immediate area. Nothing else to offer cover for a hundred yards around it.
Speer gestured to his men. Two squads moved across the grass towards the building, silent as ghosts while Speer and I hung back with the third squad.
Then an explosion shattered the quiet.
It took me a second to process what my eyes had just seen: one moment, a squad leader was halfway across the field. The next, there was a fiery plume of dirt, hurling the man into the air and blowing off his leg below the knee.
“Minefield!” one of them yelled. “Fall back, fall back!”
Blinding floodlights hummed to cruel life atop the building. The field was suddenly brighter than Miami at noon.
Speer’s head swung around, looking at the stockade that would block any escape, and yelled to his squads: “No, it’s a trap! Switch to mercury rounds, shoot out a path through the minefield, and keep moving forward!”
The advance squads stiffened at Speer’s command, pulled the standard-round clips from their rifles and loaded red-tipped cartridges.
“Smoke grenades!” he yelled. “Conceal our advance!”
Men pulled white canisters from their bandoliers and tossed them in an arc towards the building. They hissed as they hit the ground, spewing out thick white smoke.
Speer ordered someone to launch a flare. It rocketed into the air before bursting.
The smoke was starting to rise, obscuring the building. Speer and I, along with the squad we’d attached to, began moving towards the stranded men. Everyone that could began shooting into the windows to discourage anyone from firing on us. Mixed volleys of regular and explosive bullets punched into the building, the sharp ping of empty clips being ejected from SIO rifles punctuating the gunfight.
The suppressing fire didn’t work, though. From one of the smoldering, bullet-shattered windows there was a terrifying BOOM, and a plume of smoke. I perceived more than saw something cut across three men before they fell to the ground, their upper bodies detached from the bloody stump of their lower halves.
“A cannon?” I dumbly asked no one.
Over the ringing in my ears, I heard Speer shout to his men that it was chain-shot. My mind grasped for the only time I’d ever heard of chain-shot—a guy I was dating droning on about some Aubrey/Maturin novel he was reading.
For a second the smoke cleared. It was then I saw another large object being rolled into position at one of the windows: a Gatling gun.
The 19th century’s version of a machine gun, it had six rotating barrels and fired each one in turn as fast as you could turn its crank. I hadn’t seen anything like it except in westerns.
“Speer!” I shouted. “They’ve got some kind of Gatling in there!” I spoke quickly, trying to warn him. I didn’t have time to mention that its barrels looked larger than the .50 BMG I’d been allowed to shoot at Quantico.
The Gatling opened up, shooting blindly into the concealing smoke. But it was brutally effective, punching through men where they stood. Even a grazing shot ripped an arm from one man.
There was something else about these bullets—after a certain distance they exploded, sending shrapnel in all directions, cutting more men down as they dove for cover.
“They’re too strong!” I screamed to Speer.
As if in answer, I heard the cannon BOOM again, and more screaming from the wounded nearby.
From above, rockets rained down. It took me a second to realize they were coming from our pocket zeppelins. These weren’t anything so sophisticated as heat-seekers or wire-guided missiles, probably just point-aim-shoot, but they did the job, blowing apart the room from where the cannon had been firing.
“We’ve got to get these men out of here,” Speer said, standing up. His revolver was in hand, the golden cylinder in it. The cannon and Gatling fire had shot through the stockade behind us, taking chunks of the thick wood with it.
Speer fired two mercury-tipped rounds into the most-damaged section of the fence, blowing open a hole large enough for two men to run through at a time. “Collect the wounded and retreat through the breach!”
A breeze cleared the smoke for a moment, and I again saw the building relatively clearly. The zeppelins fired another volley, but the rockets were off-target, exploding in front of the building. The Gatling had been withdrawn from the window, and I almost convinced myself that the bad guys had run off.
Then I saw the Gatling’s bullets ripping out of the building’s upper wall and roof, firing at our zeppelins. I could see sparks in the sky as the shrapnel rounds exploded.
One of the small zeppelins came crashing down. It had taken a direct hit, its pilots already a red smear before it hit the ground. Another drifted down more slowly, some of the shrapnel having apparently burst its helium bags. The two pilots in the open gondola were frantically trying to maneuver it beyond the stockade when the Gatling reappeared in the window. I watched it draw a bead on the crippled mini-airship. The smoke reasserted itself, covering the scene, so I only heard the rip of the Gatling firing.
Speer grabbed my arm and dragged me to my feet. “Get out of here!”
I nodded, wanting badly to get out of that hell, and glad that no one would think less of me for doing so. Then I saw Speer turn back towards the building.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Some of the men from the advance squads may still be alive!” he said, and dashed into the smoke.
Through the stench of cordite, burnt earth, and blood, I followed.
I was just a few steps behind him, firing my Glock blindly towards the building, more to give me courage than in the hope of actually hitting anything. Speer was firing mercury bullets into the ground. Two exploded harmlessly. Two more managed to set off mines, knocking us back before we pressed forward again.
We reached where the advance teams had first been cut down. The man who’d lost an arm was lying inert on the ground. We turned him over to check if he was still alive. Covered in blood and dirt, at first I didn’t recognize him—it was Abernathy.
“Hello, Charlie, how are you doing here?” Speer asked, forcing a smile.
“Better now that you brought me a nurse,” Abernathy said, weakly gesturing towards me. “I would have preferred her in a white dress and longer hair, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?” He wore a brave face, despite the tear stains on it.
Speer holstered his revolver, pulled out a pocketknife, and cut the sleeve from his own suit. “Make a tourniquet,” he told me.
I did as he said.
“There’s someone else out there,” Speer yelled. I could hear it too, the delirious moaning of a wounded man calling for someone named Rebecca. “You help Abernathy through the stockade—I’m going after that other man.”
I looked towards the building. “There’s no time—the smoke’s clearing!” I shouted.
He paused. “Do you feel that rumbling?” he asked, so calmly I thought he had lost his mind.
“What?” I asked.
“We’re going to be fine.” Then he disappeared into the smoke.
I couldn’t feel any rumbling outside my own jackhammering heart. That and the Gatling gun drawing a bead on us were the only things my senses could process.
So I barely perceived it when the Triclops came crashing through the main gate, two hundred yards from our position.
The Gatling’s operator saw it before I did, swinging his barrels around and opening fire. The heavy rounds pinged off the tank’s armor as it advanced, leveling one of its three cannons.
The left-most cannon fired, and an artillery shell smashed a hole into the structure the size of a bowling ball.
I would have expected the entire building to explode, taking us with it. Instead, there was a seconds-long pause before all the windows and doors blew out, sending papers, bodies, and even the Gatling gun flying from the building. The building’s floodlights cut off. A rush of hurricane-strength air blasted over us, clearing what remained of the smoke.
Now I could see Speer again, just fifteen yards from me. He had taken off the remains of his suit coat and was using it to compress a man’s chest wound. “See? I told you we were going to be fine,” he called wearily. “Wish I could say the same for everyone.”
The Triclops[_ _]drove towards us, guns trained on the building, with the two personnel carriers chugging behind. From the carriers, medics rushed out to take over care of the wounded. They took over from Speer on the man with the chest wound.
One of the Triclops’ hatches popped open, and Sgt. Baylor and several of his men climbed out. He joined us near the ruined office building.
“Thanks for not going with nitro shells there, Lawrence,” Speer said.
“I figured we might have men close-in, so a hyper-compressed air shell was the safest wager,” Baylor said. “Of course, the downside is that some of these animals might still be alive. Shall we?” He pulled his long-barreled service revolver from its holster.
Speer removed the empty golden cylinder and replaced it with the black one. “Yes, let’s. Care to join us, Special Agent Hoff? Let’s see if your man is living or dead.”
I loaded a fresh magazine. “Sounds lovely.”
Before we could enter, the last of the pocket zeppelins descended slowly towards some nearby tarmac. Speer called up to the pilot, “MacBride, get skyward again immediately!”
But the zeppelin kept drifting down.
We ran to it where it landed and saw that both pilots were injured. It had to be shrapnel from when the Gatling was hosing down the sky with lead. One had a head wound and wasn’t even conscious. The pilot sitting in the lead position was alert despite the chest wound making a dark, spreading stain on his uniform. “Sorry, sir. I think we’re both in a bad way.”
As Speer yelled for medics, Baylor’s voice was low to me. “I hope you report to your superiors the amount of good men’s blood we spent for them.”
“I will,” I said.
&Fight the Sky&
&We didn&&’&&t find& Talib in the shattered building. But among the debris we found Korans, communiqués from Middle Eastern charity fronts, a smuggled-in satellite phone, and weapons.
We also found air route maps.
“Look at these,” Baylor said, picking up one of the maps from the wreckage. “They must have been planning to hijack some of the industrial airships.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I mean, this is an airship yard. Couldn’t these just be maps from the building?”
“Oh, they have lots of maps in here, miss, same as you’d find in any yard office,” Baylor said. “Except Pointers don’t generally plot routes with hydrogen-filled airships over residential areas. Much less with their final destination being the nation’s tallest buildings.”
They had been planning on destroying the Faced Towers. “Looks like we just avoided your 9/11,” I said.
“Hopefully that will be some solace to our casualties’ next-of-kin,” Speer said as he entered the room.
“I don’t suppose you had any luck?” I asked.
“No,” Speer said. “Talib’s definitely not among the dead. Even the ones killed in the rocket attack weren’t burnt beyond recognition. None of them were even Arab.”
“Any word from the patrols?” I asked. Speer had had more SIO men brought up to set up a cordon and search the area. “I still think he might have slipped out during the firefight. If that’s the case, he can’t have gotten far.”
“No sightings reported as of yet,” Speer said.
“Perhaps the survivors will have some information on where he’s gotten to,” Baylor offered.
The few that we’d captured alive had been dazed. Blood was coming out of their ears, the hyper-compressed air having burst their eardrums. “Going to be hard to question men that can’t hear,” I said.
Baylor shrugged. “I have a feeling Deke Harker will find a way to make them talk.”
I looked over at Speer with his shirtsleeves rolled up, tie undone, and his vest smeared with blood. Dirty-faced, hair a mess, he looked stylishly disheveled, like a hero at the end of an action movie.
That is, except for the frown on his face as he stared at one of the terrorists’ corpses.
“Something wrong, Speer?” I asked, which I realized was a stupid question. With as many men as we’d just lost, what in the world could count as right?
“It’s just . . . did you notice none of them were Arab?”
I nodded. “Yes, you mentioned that.”
“That means they’re all Pointers. Native born.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand how they could join with something like this.”
A Koran that had survived the brief battle sat politely on a fire-singed work desk. He picked it up, considered it for a moment, then tossed it on the ground. “I’m going out for some fresh air.”
I sorted through more captured papers for a while before heading outside to take a break myself. I found Speer stretched out in the pilot seat of the still-functioning pocket zeppelin. He was smoking a cigarillo, looking up at the stars.
“Nice night,” I said.
“I would have expected it to be much colder.”
“There are many unusual aspects of Pointe Island’s geography. Our mild climate, notwithstanding the island’s latitude, is just one of them.”
“You people are lucky to have such a special homeland.”
“I used to think so,” he said. “If that’s the case, though, why did those men ally with a filthy foreigner? Supercriminals I can understand. The desire for money and power make sense. But to betray your nation? Your people? It’s beyond disturbing.”
“I can see why it would be,” I said.
“Yes. A bitter lesson. Ideology trumps race,” he said.
I sighed. “I take it the patrols haven’t sighted Talib?”
“No, although I believe we’re still awaiting one’s return.” He tossed away the cigarillo and took a pocket watch from his vest. “In fact, they should have returned by now. Let’s check on them.”
We walked towards the three massive airships that weren’t hangared. “They were probably going to use these for their attack,” I said.
“No doubt. Perhaps that last patrol is still searching one of them. These industrial airships are so much larger than their civilian cousins.”
I’d never given much thought to airships until coming here. The closest I’d come to seeing one in person was the Goodyear Blimp at a football game. My briefing packet had actually included diagrams of them; the part where passengers rode was called the gondola. The rigid outer structure contained the unceremoniously named gas-bag that made them float. Propellers were usually located aft of the gondola; rudders and elevator flaps on the butt-end made them look like fat torpedoes.
There was a stack of cargo containers obstructing our view of the airships’ gondolas. We walked around them, and as we turned the corner into the shadows we came across the missing patrol.
The two uniformed men were lying in a pool of blood. Their throats had been slit, and their rifles taken.
“Bloody hell,” Speer whispered.
Just then, I saw one of the airships move. It was the one furthest from us, and I couldn’t believe how rapidly—and silently—it drifted up. Especially given that beneath their gondolas, these industrial airships each had a huge cargo-carrying palette. The one taking flight was carrying a payload of I-beams. I could see its name on the top rudder: Highwhale.
Speer checked his pockets. “Dammit, I’m out of mercury rounds,” he said, as if he’d have been able to hit it at this range.
Once it was two hundred feet in the air, I heard its propeller begin to buzz, and watched as it changed direction towards Boothcross.
“Come on!” he shouted, already running back towards the building. “Maybe Baylor can shoot it down!”
I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. We were both shouting to get Baylor’s attention as we passed the pocket zeppelin. Baylor came out of the building. “What is it?” he yelled.
Before we could answer, he and every other man on the yard looked up at the zeppelin now above them. Suddenly, the palette holding all those I-beams was released from the Highwhale’s body. Baylor and his men ran as, with a horrible series of clangs like gods chiming the end of the world, the I-beams fell to the earth.
Hundreds of I-beams and the palette itself carpet-bombed the area, crushing the office building and the Triclops.
“Well,” Speer said after the rumbling had ceased. “So much for that idea.”
“What now?” I asked.
“Now I ask if you’re afraid of heights.”
“Um . . . no,” I said, dread creeping into me about where this was going.
“Well, you may yet be.” I followed him to the pocket zeppelin, and he quickly threw off the anchoring lines. Then he jumped into the pilot’s seat, and told me to get in the copilot’s seat behind him.
“Are you crazy? I’m not getting on that,” I said. It wasn’t even an enclosed gondola. In fact, it wasn’t a gondola at all—more like a motorcycle chassis realized in mahogany and brass.
“We don’t have airships patrolling our cities. Neither the SIO nor the Army Aero Brigade will be able to scramble anything in time to intercept.”
My heart was racing just thinking about climbing onto the thing. I took a deep breath. “Okay.”
“Here, put these on,” he said, handing me a pair of goggles he’d taken from a compartment. He put on a pair too. “They’ll keep the wind from freezing your eyes.”
“Terrific,” I said. Speer released a few levers and the tiny airship came to life.
I had the handles in a death grip as we began to drift up. I felt sick watching the altimeter mark fifty, then a hundred, then two hundred feet.
The dust kicked up by the I-beams hadn’t settled, but I could just make out Baylor looking up at us. He and most of the men had gotten away, thank God.
Suddenly, we banked sharply. I screamed, and double-checked my seat harness. I felt silly asking, but I couldn’t help myself. “You know how to fly this thing, right?”
“All cadets are checked out on pocket-zeps upon joining. Although it has been a while.” He engaged another lever. The aft propeller whined, and we began tailing the industrial airship.
Between the wind at altitude and our own speed, we had to shout to hear each other. “Do you think it’s Talib?” I asked.
“I’d put money on it,” Speer shouted back.
“Can we shoot it down?”
Speer looked down. “It’s too late. We’re over a residential area.”
Even though the height made me dizzy and I wanted to vomit, I forced myself to look.
The gaslit streets beneath us were orange valleys, and I could see the roofs of large houses. Men no doubt worked hard to afford these nice homes, their neo-Victorian wives keeping house, their half-dozen children playing in the rolling yards.
But there was a good amount of space between the houses, certainly less than in the denseness of downtown. “Speer, we’ve got to bring that airship down now!”
“There are Pointer children down there!”
“And every second we wait, there are more beneath us as we get deeper into the city!”
“As if you care—they’re not your people!”
No, but they were close enough. Images of the World Trade Center danced through my head. I cared about them whether he thought so or not. “Believe what you want about me, but remember: the choice is between a dozen now or thousands in a few minutes!”
Even through his goggles, I could see the anger in his eye, the rage in him. I almost thought he’d toss me off.
Instead, he turned back to the controls, and we began gaining altitude so that we were above the airship. “I’m going to angle down on it and fire a rocket,” he said. He pointed our nose towards the target. We were lined up right behind the Highwhale, three hundred yards away. Speer turned a valve and pulled a lever.
A single rocket fired. I didn’t breathe as I watched it reach out into the night. I could even see its light reflecting off the big airship’s rigid hide.
The rocket struck it towards the side and grazed off the Highwhale’s skin before traveling a little ways further and detonating harmlessly.
“What happened?” I shouted.
“The rocket needs to impact if it’s going to explode. We hit it at too gentle an angle. We’ve got one more. I’m going to set it to detonate in three hundred yards. If it’s close enough, the explosion should puncture the skin without the risk of deflection.”
I nodded like I was entirely clear what that meant. Speer played with the controls, setting one of the dials to 300. Then he again angled us towards the airship, and fired. Unlike the first, this shot was centered.
It struck the top rudder, the explosion as blinding as a .44’s muzzle flash. Speer veered off instinctively, trying to avoid having us burn in the fireball.
He needn’t have worried. As I squinted through my goggles, I saw Talib’s airship still flying.
“Are you kidding me?” I whispered.
The rocket had blown apart the top rudder and left a large, smoking gash in the airship’s rigid airframe. Metal supports twisted out from the hole like a blooming flower. In the small, rapidly dying fires the rocket had caused, I could see what happened. The airframe had a secondary hull inside it, protecting the hydrogen gasbags.
I was stunned. I’d honestly thought a match could bring down one of these things.
I could barely hear Speer. “I’d hoped that would be enough to puncture its secondary hull,” he said. “We make them too good now. Even if we rammed it, we probably couldn’t blow up the damn thing.”
He was quiet for a moment as smoke from the explosion washed over us. “All right, it’s time for my backup plan,” he said.
“What’s that involve?”
“You finding out why I wanted you along on this trip.” He angled us after Talib’s airship, and we picked up speed.
In the distance, I could see Boothcross’s bright heart. Above the smokestacks and surrounding skyscrapers were the four Faced Towers, awash in emerald lights with their massive, stylized faces looking out over the city. Like an idol, the southern tower’s face stared directly at its approaching attacker.
“They’re heading towards the Towers,” I yelled. “Will anyone be there this late at night?”
“They aren’t just office buildings—hotels and shops and apartments are in there too.”
Our rocket had slowed the airship. The airframe’s perfect smoothness ruined, it shook as it struggled to remain on course. But it still was moving relentlessly towards the Towers.
“We’re not going to be able to stop it,” I said, softly enough that Speer didn’t hear.
The Highwhale’s payload palette had been supported by a metal superstructure beneath the gondola. It held the palette at a dozen or more spots. Now that I was closer, I could even see the pistons that had flexed to drop those I-beams on Baylor and his men.
But the superstructure wasn’t meant solely for connecting the payload to the airship. There were catwalks built into it, where men could walk from the airship itself to the cargo below, even in midflight.
“Grab up one of our anchoring lines,” Speer said as he drew us just above one of those catwalks.
I did as he said. “Got it.”
“Very good. Now, I want you to jump down onto that catwalk and tether our zep to it quick as you can.”
“Are you crazy? That’s a ten-foot jump!” Not to mention the hundreds of feet below that.
“We’ve got to get aboard—would you rather fly and I’ll jump first?”
Not especially, but before I could answer, the Highwhale quickly gained twenty feet and veered to port—right into us.
Speer barely dodged the collision. “Evidently, we’ve been seen,” he said.
“Guess the rockets tipped them off, huh?”
Speer brought us back into position, this time only about eight feet over the catwalk. “Can you do this?”
No, I thought, but I undid my seat harness anyway. Three quick breaths, and then I jumped—and landed hard on the catwalk, grabbing the rail so tightly my fingernails cut into my palms.
I could only see in tunnel vision, a blessing considering the vistas all around me. The only thing I was aware of was the rope in my hands. I quickly tied it with a Boy Scout knot my father taught me a million summer vacations ago.
I waved back to Speer. He readied to jump, flipping a lever as he did. The small zeppelin turned quickly away as he leapt.
The Highwhale’s driver just then swung his airship back into us. Speer nearly overshot the catwalk, landed on the railing, and doubled over it into the empty space beyond.
He caught onto the handrails’ spindles, saving himself. I grabbed hold of him as he climbed back onto the catwalk, and we collapsed onto the decking.
I was breathing hard. So was he.
The knot I’d made held. Speer had rigged the pilotless zeppelin to run at full power, pulling the Highwhale in the opposite direction.
“Not much power compared to this industrial carrier,” Speer said, “but it will make the thing harder to steer, and slow them down some.”
“Every second counts.”
“Speaking of which,” he said, drawing his revolver. “Ready?”
Not especially. I pulled my Glock. “Of course.”
A stairway led up to the gondola’s belly. At the top of the stairs was a door. Locked, naturally.
He leveled his gun at the lock. “If rockets won’t bring it down, I imagine we needn’t worry about stray bullets.”
“Let me. More rounds, remember?”
“Use them for suppressing fire. If they don’t yet realize we’ve boarded them, they’re about to.”
As he shot out the lock, I kicked in the door and blindly fired two shots into the narrow hallway beyond.
Speer had been right—my rounds didn’t hit anyone, but I scared them enough that their return fire didn’t hit us.
Speer pushed me back and hurriedly closed the metal door, the rounds heavy enough to dent it.
The shots were overlapping, meaning there was more than one shooter. But one of the guns fell silent with a ping before beginning to fire again.
“It’s one of our rifles. They ping when they eject their clip,” Speer said. “Next ping you hear, we charge.”
I nodded. We weren’t in a position to see the Towers, but over the railing I could see the city unfolding beneath us, dense with buildings. We were getting close to downtown.
More shots. One of the enemy rifles pinged.
Speer shouldered open the door and fired his revolver like a madman. I followed, holding my fire for fear of hitting him. The wall of lead he threw up was enough to suppress the shooters, and we crossed the distance to where the narrow passageway came to a large mess room.
There was a shooter on either side of the hall, both female, wearing traditional Muslim garb.
Speer went for the one on the right, who’d been ducking behind the wall for cover. His revolver was empty. He grabbed her rifle barrel as she tried to level it and brought his own gun smashing against her temple, continuing to rain down blows as she fell to the deck.
The one on the left was the shooter whose gun had pinged—when I came on her, she’d been reloading.
Through the slit in the fabric covering her face, I saw her wide green eyes. Then I put a bullet into one of them.
I looked over at Speer as he pulled off the mask covering his shooter’s face.
She was white and no older than twenty, with a sprinkling of freckles over a nose that, until Speer had shattered it, was no doubt cute. Her hair, once dirty blonde, had been stained an absolute red by the blood coming from her mouth, nose and ear. Her eyes stared up at the ceiling dead and unseeing.
“Fairer sex, my eye,” he muttered.
I searched their bodies quickly for more weapons we might be able to use, but they’d only had the rifles.
Speer grabbed both of the rifles, slung one over his shoulder, and held the other at the ready.
“The airship’s bridge will be this way,” he said, and we rushed through the mess area and a kitchen. We passed doors as we ran—bunks and storage closets, probably—and I wondered if someone might be hiding behind them. I did my best to keep checking behind us to make sure we weren’t ambushed.
We came to the bridge, its large, panoramic windows looking out onto Boothcross. The southern Faced Tower’s sculpted head was huge and close. There couldn’t be a minute or two left before we smashed into it.
In front of the ship’s wheel and levers was Mohammad Talib. I could barely see him because he was crouched behind a white woman, holding a knife to her throat.
“Stay back!” he shouted. The woman screamed and struggled weakly, a fistful of her hair in Talib’s hand.
“I don’t have a clear shot!” I got ready to shoot her in the leg so she’d drop and I could take Talib.
“Not to worry,” Speer said as he opened fire. His rifle quickly blew four holes through the woman and into Talib. Both fell to the deck in a heap, blood everywhere.
“Why did you do that?” I shouted. I’d been to the scenes of execution-style homicides. The casual coldness of those murders is their most striking feature. You can tell right away that whoever did it had something missing, some key ingredient that makes us fully human.
I suddenly saw the same absence of humanity in Hiram Speer. It made me wonder if the Steamies in the Tower were worth saving. After all, they’d chosen a monster like him to be their guardian.
Speer quickly checked to make sure Talib was dead before rushing to the controls. “Tunnel vision is a cardinal sin, Hoff. In the corner, there’s a pile of black clothing. No doubt her religious garb. She was one of them.”
I looked and saw that he was right. Relief washed over me. But it quickly dissolved in the face of the rapidly approaching Faced Tower.
“Dammit,” Speer said. “The Arab bastard broke the lateral controls. We can’t just gain altitude and sail over the Towers.” We couldn’t have been more than a quarter-mile from the Tower—it was enormous, filling our wide windows.
Speer turned the wheel hard to the right while throwing a lever. I heard the engines stopping, but we were still moving forward. Another lever thrown, and painfully slow, the ship began to turn.
“Come on, dammit,” Speer said, leaning into the wheel with all his weight as it shook in his hands.
It was hard to gauge our true distance since the front of the Highwhale’s rigid structure extended about a hundred yards forward of the gondola. But we were closing too fast—no doubt about that.
Finally the airship began to break hard to the right.
“We’re not going to make it,” I said.
“We will,” he said, his face red, willing the ship to change course.
The [_Highwhale _]began to turn more swiftly. In the rightmost part of the control room’s windows, I could see open sky.
Seconds passed painfully, more open sky coming into view.
Finally, the turn was almost complete, all of the forward windows clear of any buildings.
Then there was a terrible rumble and screech from above us.
“We’ve hit the building!”
“Just grazing it with the outer hull,” Speer said.
Seconds later, the screeching and rending of metal stopped.
The sudden silence was unreal. The engines were dead, and we were now simply drifting in the night sky. The only sound was the low buzz of our pocket-zep still pulling at the airship.
My senses finally focusing on things that didn’t present an immediate threat, I noticed the outfit of the woman Speer had shot. She was wearing overalls, like a mechanic. Stitched into the material was an emblem for the Blue Cliffs Industrial Airship Yard.
He saw me looking at her. “Despite what you probably think,” Speer said, “some women do have careers here. She must have been the one driving the airship. That’ll teach the equality fetishists to be more circumspect when hiring.”
I knew I should defend my gender. It was another disgusting comment that should be roundly contradicted.
Yet somehow I didn’t have the heart. Bodies and blood were everywhere. It was horrible. But we’d won. Killed the bad guy, while spitting in Death’s face. Adrenaline washed over me, and I felt alive—more alive than I’d ever felt before.
Feeling like that, I just didn’t want to worry about what I should think or the appropriate thing to say. It was a strange sensation, letting go of all that. Strange, but not bad.
And it felt good to be around someone so confident. Speer still looked stylishly disheveled.
Looking through the control room door, I could see clear into the mess room. There were some couches there.
“Um . . . with lateral control out, how are we going to get down?” I asked.
Speer remained at the helm. “Not to worry—we’ll bleed hydrogen from the gasbag.”
“Well, no hurry.” I eased up close to him. “You know, if this were the end of an American action movie, the hero and heroine would probably have wild sex on one of those couches,” I said suggestively. Our bodies almost touched.
“And if it was a Steam Pointe novel’s conclusion,” he replied, “our hero would politely let the foreigner know he’s only interested in ladies, not women that have probably been passed around by more men than pocket change.”
My mouth fell open. I was speechless.
“Of course,” he added, “this isn’t a novel. So I don’t have to be polite.”
• • •
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FBI Special Agent Mackenzie Hoff knows the terrorist mastermind that killed dozens in movie theater bombings. Mackenzie even knows where he fled from America after the attack. And that’s the problem. Steam Pointe—called Pointe Island on the maps—is an island nation that has rejected modernity. Founded after the Civil War, and with a chip on its shoulder with America because of it, Steam Pointe evolved into a land of technological apartheid, taking 19th century-style industrial technology to a Jules Verne opium dream extreme. And it is to this place—beyond the reach of American law and technological surveillance—that Mackenzie’s suspect has fled. Sent to Steam Pointe in pursuit of the bomber, Mackenzie is partnered with Sensitive Inquiries Office investigator Hiram Speer. Speer is refined, arrogant, and fascistic, perfectly exemplifying the society he fights fanatically to protect. But even as they chase jihadists through Steam Pointe’s Tesla-lit cities and zeppelin-blotted skies, Speer and Mackenzie find their cultures in conflict: archaic versus cutting-edge, manly versus feminized, confident versus declining. With both their nations and worldviews in opposition, will they be able to stop the threats to their countries in time? The Zeppelin Jihad is the first book in the ongoing Steam Pointe series of steampunk action/adventure thrillers. Author Q&A Q: So, where did the idea for the Steam Pointe series come from? A: I always liked Victorian and Art Nouveau aesthetics. The artwork and architecture, their machines’ designs. But more than that, I liked the mindset, the confidence and optimism that the West had prior to World War I. Pointedly different from what we have—and what we are—today. I have been a prosecutor, and so have had a first-row seat to societal decline. One day, years ago, I was at the courthouse for another day of decline theater. I started to daydream about what a society on the upswing would look like. It would have to have that pre-WWI cultural confidence. It occurred to me that the steampunk genre might be a way to bring that largely lost mindset into the present. The result was Steam Pointe. Q: A lot of steampunk assumes an alternate history where 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery is cutting edge. How is your series different? Steam Pointe is an alternate history only as far as how it was founded. Everything else is essentially our world. We have this fantasy nation of airships, Tesla weapons, and ridiculously ornate steam engines coexisting with our own present of the internet, iPhones, and NSA surveillance. But it’s less about how the technologies interact since Steam Pointe bans most foreign tech. The series is more about culture. A people that have confidence in themselves against a modern society that feels a corrosive guilt for its success. Q: What benefit do readers get investing their time in the world of Steam Pointe? A: First and foremost, they get an action-packed thriller, full of adventure, exotic settings, and intense characters. If you like to feel something when you read, this is the place. Because all of my publisher’s series take place in the same shared universe, characters from our various series eventually team-up in future stories. So readers will also get to see and be part of a unique story-telling experience. For instance, Steam Pointe’s detectives will be facing off against the vampires of the Nightfallen series, which will be a lot of fun. Finally, readers will also get to experience a world far removed from their own: a society that believes in itself. Readers might not agree with what many Steam Pointers think, but to feel you are part of a confident society of people like you—who wouldn’t want that?