The Pursuit of
"Bugger This For A Lark..."
A Steampunk Adventure & Romance
Dan L. Hollifield
A Preview of Book IV
Against All Odds...
"They're landing," said the elderly woman as she stood near the front windows of the little house. She looked through the sparkling, clean glass of the windowpanes, absently flicking a dust rag at imaginary traces of grime on the windowsill. Patting her gray-streaked hair as if to insure that no stray wisps had escaped the tight bun she confined her glorious tresses to while she did each day's housework. She turned to the old man sitting as if dozing in a motorized wheelchair, gazing into the fireplace, sleepily contemplating the flickering flames.
The old man grunted wordlessly, then rolled his chair forward so that he could poke at the burning logs with the fireplace poker. Small puffs of steam from the chair's engine escaped its comically small smokestack. The steam-driven Tesla turbine on the back of the chair whined quietly as it generated electricity to turn the chair's wheels. The old man's face was wrinkled into a slight frown as he poked angrily at the fire. In the reflected firelight, his face looked like a mask worn by a skilled actor on some dramatic stage. Only his eyes betrayed some trace of his former youth and active lifestyle.
"I hope this doesn't take long," he said, finally satisfied with his unnecessary prodding of the fire. "I promised that I'd take the kids fishing."
"You promised to take them tomorrow, dear. I think it's still too early in the Spring," said the woman. "The mornings are still too cold. Fish will be hiding near the bottom of the lake, trying to keep warm. You won't catch a thing 'til almost dark."
"That's not the point," grumbled the old man. "They just want to spend time with Grandpa. Catching something would only be gravy on the biscuit. Damn Desmond's curiosity anyway! His father never dared disturb us here. And Joshua-"
"May he rest in peace," said the woman.
"May he rest in peace," agreed the old man. "He only sent cards on Holidays, not Secret Service agents on some damn fool quest to ferret out our secrets. Years of faithful service meant something to him! These kids today, no respect for their elders. I've half a mind to send these two busybodies packing without any answers."
"Then Desmond would just send spies to find out what he wants to know, instead of telling us to expect these two agents," she said, gently. "This way we've been able to prepare. We'll tell them just enough to satisfy the Emperor, and maybe we'll be left alone from now on. It isn't our fault. This was done to us against our will. We didn't seek it out. That bastard-"
"May he rot in Hell," muttered the old man.
"May he continue to rot in Hell," the woman agreed. "He meant to torture us, not give us this gift." She turned from the window to go and stand at his side. Taking his hand, she smiled down at his angry expression. "Besides, you destroyed his equipment. It isn't like we know how to reproduce his experiments. His process went to the grave with him. All we can do is go on, like we have been, and count every day as a blessing."
"Hah!" he snorted. Then looking up at her, his anger faded, the lines in his face softened, and he summoned up a smile. "At least we have each other, still."
"Yes," she said. "At least we still have each other. And our children. And our grandchildren- and their children. Now shush! They're almost to the porch. Two of them. A man and a woman. She's a pretty little thing- You keep your hands to yourself, you horny old goat!" Cita smiled as she spoke.
"You're the only woman I want," replied Vila, gazing up into Cita's still beautiful face. "Always have been, always will be. My love, my life, my reason for living-"
"Shush!" Cita repeated. "Now get your hand off my bum and let me go answer the door."
"Spoilsport," Vila said, summoning a wider grin just for Cita's eyes. "When this is over-"
"Hold that thought until after this interview," Cita interrupted. Walking gracefully to the door, she opened it and welcomed their visitors inside.
"Thank you, your Grace," said the taller of the two agents as he gave Cita a courtly bow. "My name is Fox. Please excuse our, no doubt, unwelcome intrusion. We will try to make this as brief as possible. This is my partner, Dana."
The shorter agent ducked her head as if unsure whether to bow, curtsy, or just blush with embarrassment. "The Emperor gave us explicit instructions to make this as painless as we possibly can," she finally said. "Beautiful place you have here," she added. She swept her gaze around the large room, noting the cast iron kitchen stove with a blue enameled coffeepot sitting on one burner and puffing its fragrant scent into the air, the breakfast nook set with several plates covered with polished copper domes to keep the food underneath from cooling, the large living room, and the spotless cleanliness of the entire cabin. Fine wooden paneling covered the interior walls. Comfortable furniture was scattered about, obviously spaced widely enough for the wheelchair to easily move between. Priceless china glowed with loving polish from inside a glass-doored cabinet against one wall of the dining area. Oil paintings and bookshelves vied for space on the other walls. "Is this hand carved?" she asked as she ran a hand along the dark woodwork of one of the living room chairs. "Everything is so- I'm at a loss for words. This is all so lovely."
"Thank you," said Cita. "We've done our best to make a home out of a house. Please take a seat. Would you like some coffee? We have biscuits and gravy and bacon and scrambled eggs on the table if you haven't eaten yet. I know it's quite early, but we usually get up long before sunrise. Please help yourselves."
"Oh! But-" Dana began."
"That would be heavenly," said Fox as he glanced over at his flustered partner. "Everything smells wonderful. Did you..."
"Of course I cooked it myself," Cita replied, smiling. "We have no need of servants here. We'd be gossiped out of the county if we put on those sorts of fancy airs and graces, here. Vila is a respected Elder of the local branch of the tribe, but a lot of that respect stems from his insistence that we be treated just as any other family. His reputation is known, but he is dismissive of any attempt to paint us as anyone special."
"But you are special," said Dana as Fox strode over to the table and lifted one of the copper dish covers, taking a deep sniff of the steaming biscuits revealed underneath. "The Admiral is a highly decorated hero, and you-"
"Dana," said Fox as he started filling a plate with eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy. "Don't act uncultured. Her Grace has been up for hours cooking. We'd be rude not to accept breakfast. May I help with anything, Ma'am?" he asked Cita.
"I'd like a refill on my coffee," said Vila, holding his cup up in one hand.
"I'd be honored Admiral," said Dana, blinking and obviously readjusting her preconceptions upon how a war hero and a former Queen should act when presented with unwanted house guests. "Your Grace, please be seated and allow us to-"
"Please," said Cita. "Get yourself some breakfast while I refill Vila's cup. And call me Cita. I left my throne behind long before you were born."
Dana nodded again, then joined her partner at the breakfast nook as Cita poured them each a steaming cup of coffee and carried the pot over to Vila's wheelchair to fill his cup in turn. Fox and Dana found themselves seats and began to eat. Cita looked on in obvious pride at the enjoyment written upon the two agent's faces as they dug into the repast that she had prepared. Shortly afterwards, Dana paused between bites and once again attempted to get back to the business that had brought them to intrude upon Vila and Cita's quiet retirement.
"The Emperor wanted us to ask you for any explanation-" she began.
"As to our peculiar condition?" Vila asked without any hint of ill will.
"Yes, Admiral," Dana replied. "Among other things. We've been charged with adding to and correcting the 'official' records of the alien invasions, the early days of the Confederation, and- Well, whatever contributions your testimony can add to the historical record. Your eyewitness account of events could prove invaluable to helping us understand just how North America grew and changed over the years since the first colonies were founded. You've lived through some of the most significant events of the last century. Anything you could tell us about those times would be very important, Admiral-"
"Young lady," said Vila with a sigh. "This will go a lot faster if you'd dispose of your hero-worship and just call me by my rightful name. Please, just call me Vila."
"This is excellent, Lady Cita," said Fox as he sopped up the last of his gravy with the remains of his last biscuit. "You're a wonderful cook."
"Vila's mother gave me her recipe for the gravy, and the biscuits too. I am pleased that you like them," Cita said, smiling with pride.
"Vila," said Dana. The agent was still obviously uncomfortable with the familiar tone that had been requested of her. "The Emperor would like to know the secret of your longevity. You and Lady Cita have outlived his grandfather and father- You must have some information that we can take back to him. Something-"
"It isn't something that we can share," said Vila with a sigh. "Oh, we can tell you how it happened, but no one can reproduce the method. That went to the grave with the villain that invented it. Neither of us knows any secret to extend life. We were cursed with it! The bloody bastard intended to torture us to death over and over again, for his own sick amusement. It just so happened that we killed him and destroyed his laboratory as soon as we escaped. Any secret, he took to his grave. We know nothing of how he did it or what he did. That's the long and short of it." Vila sighed again, stretched his neck as if it was stiff and sore, then turned his wheelchair to allow him to look once more into the cheerful fireplace blaze. "We didn't ask to outlive all our friends. Do you have any idea what it's been like watching friends and family and loved ones grow old and die while we kept dragging onwards, day after day, year after year? It's a curse, I tell you! How many funerals do you think you can attend without going stark, staring mad? We killed the bastard, but he got the last laugh." He turned his chair back around to face the two Secret Service agents.
"How did it happen? Please tell us," Fox said gently. "I'm sorry to dredge up painful memories. But we need to go back with answers that will convince the Emperor that he should leave you alone, in peace."
"It's a long story," said Vila. He took another sip of his coffee, then awkwardly set down the empty cup on a side table. He reached into a pocket for his brier pipe and a pouch of tobacco. Shaking his head, he began to load the pipe.
"We're here to listen," said Fox. "We only want for you both to be free of any more bothersome inquiries."
"It's a long story," Vila repeated. "Several long stories, really. I don't know exactly where to begin. The first invasion? That was before my time. I was barely old enough to have enlisted before the second invasion took us by storm. I moved around a lot, back then. I've served in almost every Republic of the Confederation. It was only later that I was discharged from the Combined Air Service and became a full-time Secret Service agent. So long ago... So many good friends gone. And the Emperor wants me to relive all those memories?" Vila shook his head sadly. He glared at the two agents for a short moment, then let out a heavy sigh. He lit his pipe and puffed it into fuming life. Finally, he looked up at his wife and asked "Cita, is it too early in the day for me to have a glass of Brandy?"
"As you wish," Cita replied as she went to a corner shelf and poured Vila a generous dollop into a glass. Returning to his side, she handed him the glass and then curled up as sensuously as a cat, to sit on a cushion on the floor by his side. Reaching up, she took his hand, kissed it lightly, then gazed into the fire as she held his hand. He looked down, love writ large in his sparkling green eyes, then looked back at his guests. His back to the fire, his hand in Cita's hand, he took a sip of Brandy, took a deep breath, and began to relate his tale.
"It was 1880- something," Vila said. "Or was it '79? No, it was '85. I remember now. I'd been Captain of the Nemesis for several years. I'd been a Secret Service agent for nearly twice as long. I'd run up against pirates, madmen bent on world conquest, mad scientists, small-time dictators, gun-runners, smugglers... Just a walk in the park after surviving the Martian Invasion back in the '60s! I'd made a lot of enemies over the years, and so had Cita. We even had a few in common. Sometimes we'd run into each other at some social function, or in the air, even in a dungeon or two. We had some times together, back then. But she was a Queen and I was an airship Captain, so we had to put our duty above our love for each other. Even back then we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. But we couldn't figure out how to manage it without betraying our sworn duties. So we waited for duty's end, and a chance to retire somewhere together. But then fate took a hand..."
Against All Odds...
"A History of the CNAR - From
Colonies to Freedom",
©1970 by George Alonzo De Soto, PhD:
"The reign of Emperor Joshua Norton I - Emperor of California and Protector of Mexico, if in name only - saw the Executive Council of the CNAR establishing its policy of remaining 'officially neutral' in almost all international relations. But in the following decades, public outcry within the CNAR gave rise to massive volunteer forces participating in such troubles as the (3rd recorded) Martian Invasion of Great Brittan and Europe in 1898 - 1901, the Cuban Revolution against Spain, the First European War, the Defense of China against the Japanese invasion forces, and the Second European War.
So, in the fullness of time, the great airship fleets of the CNAR became famous for their globe-spanning travels to render humanitarian aid to, and defend the downtrodden. Great Brittan, France, Germany, and Switzerland also became famous for their airship navies. It was also during this 'Golden Age of the Airship' that various nations worldwide banded together against the new threat of Airship Pirates.
The most notorious of these was the infamous Airship Pirate Captain known only as Cita Mouse, often called 'the Terror of Caracas.' This Venezuelan-born pirate chieftain is now thought to have been of British extraction, highly educated, and a woman who was rumored to be "death incarnate" to those who choose to invade the sanctity of her beloved Venezuela. Her career as a Privateer and as a Pirate is generally thought to have run its course between the years 1860 and 1880. Nothing is known of the final fate of this Lady Cita Mouse. She disappeared during the late 1800s without leaving a trace of her present whereabouts. It is rumored that she surrendered to an un-named CNAR Air Marshal - one of Emperor Norton's notorious 'Ghost Riders' - who took her to wife and moved her to the western or southeastern CNAR. The rumor goes that they settled on a small farm there to enjoy a quiet retirement together as husband and wife, far from the eyes of the civilized world..."
The Journey Begins
"Course and speed, Captain?" The Steersman of
the giant airship asked, his voice a bit gruff from an old injury.
The spacious bridge of the CNAR airship Nemesis gleamed with
loving polish. The brass work was as shiny as a newly minted coin.
The pecan and mahogany woodwork had been waxed and rubbed until it
rivaled the shine of the brass trim. The silvery hue of the aluminium
support beams that were regularly spaced throughout the room served
to contrast the brass fittings and wood paneling. The Nemesis
was a thing of beauty, inside and out.
"Due South, Cyril. There's a Texan refueling tanker waiting for us dead center of the Gulf of Mexico. It's at, " the Captain marked a spot on the navigation charts, "this position. Or it will be when we get there. All available speed."
"Very good, Sir." Both men turned to look ahead through the wide observation windows. The air at this altitude was clear, for once without the normal haze that usually hovered near the busy towns, factories, and farms below. Extensive tracts of forest could be seen ahead as the farmland surrounding the city behind them gradually gave way to woods.
"And Cyril," the Captain said after a moment's pause.
"Start the heating elements in the ballonettes. I want our absolute maximum altitude. Any observers on the surface- Well, they need not see us as anything but a speck in the sky. We'll cool the gas and pump enough into the storage tanks to make a rapid descent once we reach the tanker's position."
"Then back up and off to our new assignment?"
"Exactly. I was given a sealed envelope that I'm not supposed to open until we finish refueling."
"Wonder where to this time?"
"Cuba, I expect. Things are heating up there, Cyril. Or possibly South America. There's always a war on, somewhere."
"Brazil would be nice. I hear the girls there-"
"Are equipped in exactly the same fashion as women anywhere else, Cyril." The Captain grinned at the wiry steersman. "Brazilian women simply aren't as shy about displaying their," he paused, as if to choose the correct word. "Equipage," he concluded with a wry smile.
"Precisely the point I was going to make, Captain. Very friendly they are, too. Or at least, that's what I hear."
"A girl in every port, Cyril?"
"One can only hope, Captain. One can only hope. We've reached cruising speed and we're ascending steadily, sir. We should reach our ceiling in roughly fifteen minutes. Estimated time of arrival to the charted position is eight hours from now - give or take a bit for contrary winds."
"Very good, Cyril. Who will be the steersman on duty when we reach the tanker?"
"Young Mister Anderson, sir. I'm glad that you asked. He'll be fine on the navigation and descent, but I'd recommend that I, or one of the other senior steersmen, are on duty to handle the docking. This is Anderson's first tour of duty with Nemesis. And while I'm sure his schooling is up to par, I'd rather not risk my ship in his delicate pink hands just yet. Not for a docking with a fuel ship that's bobbing up and down on the sea. No sir, not just yet. With all due respect, sir."
"Point taken, Cyril. I'm no more eager than the next man to anger Miss Scott by damaging 'her' ship."
"Agreed, sir. I totally agree!" The steersman grinned, as did the rest of the bridge crew. "That is one lady I'd take pains to avoid angering, indeed she is. Top-notch Engineer, though. She knows her stuff, and no mistake! Nemesis is in the best of hands with her aboard as Chief."
"My feelings exactly, Cyril. All right, I'm going to my cabin. Mister Carter," the Captain nodded at his First Officer. "You have the con. I'll be back on the bridge by the time we reach our rendezvous. Have the wireless operators maintain communications blackout until further order."
"Very good sir," replied Carter. "I'll keep an eye on Mister Anderson when he comes on duty, rest assured. Miss Kelly will be available to perform the docking procedure. Her shift would begin shortly after our arrival at the coordinates, in any case. Steersman Cyril's concerns are the same as my own, sir."
"Too right," said Cyril. "She'll keep Anderson in line. I can sleep soundly if Kelly's the one doing the docking with that tanker."
"Excellent. Good day, gentlemen," said the Captain as he left the airship's bridge. The double doors swung closed behind him. The left-hand door gave out a slight squeak as it closed the final few inches. First Officer Carter made a note on his clipboard to remind himself to request someone in Miss Scott's maintenance crews to come up and oil the door's hinges.
The day was drawing near to sunset as the Nemesis reached the area that the Captain had marked on the navigation charts on the bridge. The first shadows of evening were already darkening the surface of the sea far below her keel. As she began a spiraling descent towards the tiny dot that was the refueling tanker, the airship hummed and throbbed with the sounds of the gas compressors reducing the volume of Helium in her internal gasbags. A faint whine issued from each ballonette as their internal cooling devices further reduced the lifting power of the airship's Helium supply. The great airship sank towards the sea below as would an elevator descending upon its cable. Slowly, carefully, the ship and crew performed a delicate ballet of organized chaos intended to bring the airship and refueling tanker together without incident.
"Captain on the bridge," said the First Officer as the Captain entered.
"Carry on," replied the Captain as he took note of the progress of the docking maneuvers. Mister Anderson, the most junior steersman, flashed a brief look of panic towards the Captain, then returned his attention to Miss Kelly's quiet lecture as she explained every step of the procedure she was performing. The Captain pretended not to hear her delicately whispered cursing at the junior steersman "Damn it! Look at me, not the Captain! Pay attention to what we're doing, boy..."
"Mister Carter, report," said the Captain.
"On schedule and descending to the tanker, sir. It is in position and spotlight code signals have been exchanged. They have properly identified themselves and are making ready the fuel transfer piping. We'll be connected and refueling within seven minutes," said the First Officer. "Miss Kelly is giving Mister Anderson a tutorial on the docking, as ordered. All lookouts are manning their telescopes and the area looks deserted - so far. We've seen no ships since we crossed over into the Gulf, but we might have been observed as we passed over New Orleans." The first Officer smiled briefly, then continued. "But only if someone was emptying their drinks as we flew overhead."
"Very good," replied the Captain. "Proceed with the docking and refueling. Is there a weather report?"
"Yes sir," Carter replied. "I hope that our orders don't send us towards Cuba. We've picked up some wireless message traffic from merchant seamen East of there. They report that a storm is brewing. Possibly a hurricane, but it's still too early to tell."
"Understood," said the Captain. "we'll simply have to pray that we're being sent somewhere besides there."
"Docking complete, Captain. The tanker has attached the transfer pipes," said Miss Kelly. "Surface winds are as close to nil as we could pray for. Fuel is being pumped aboard."
"What about our lift?" Mister Anderson asked. "Won't we have to compensate for the added weight of the fuel?"
"Very good, Anderson. We will indeed," said Miss Kelly. "This mechanism here," she added as she adjusted a lever on the control panel, "sets the amount of gas being pumped into, or out of, the ballonettes. This dial shows the total weight of the ship. Pay close attention as it changes from the weight of the fuel being pumped aboard. This one right next to the first shows the amount of buoyancy from the Helium. The trick is to keep the two readings as close to equal as humanly possible. We can also heat or cool the Helium in the gasbags to fine-tune the amount of lift."
"Still," the young crewman sighed. "Liquid Natural Gas is nothing to take for granted. One spark, and we go up like a fireworks on the 2nd of July."
"Mister Anderson," replied the Captain. "You are exactly right. That is why the pipes carrying the fuel are made of brass, and the gaskets on those fuel lines are made of rubberized fabric. To prevent sparks. Still, I suppose that this is far better than shoveling coal. Plus, our gas-fired steam engines are lighter and more powerful than a coal-burning set would be."
"It's certainly faster than shoveling coal," replied Mister Carter. "A quarter of the transfer is complete. Fuel tanks are now at 50% and the ballonette pressurizing equipment is running smoothly. We should be finished refueling in half an hour, at this rate."
"Refueling complete," the First Officer reported. "Standing by to cast off the supply pipes and begin our ascent."
"Good," said the Captain. He pulled a sealed envelope out of the inside breast pocket of his blue and gray uniform coat. "We shall soon see what fortune has in store for us. Cast off from the tanker ship. Increase lift. Prepare to start the main engines on my command. Once we're clear of the danger zone from any fuel that might have leaked, we'll grab some altitude and find out what our next mission will entail."
"We've cast off and are going up," said First Officer Carter. The Captain slit open the envelope with his pocketknife and removed several sheets of paper. Reading swiftly, he flipped through each page in turn. Then he folded the pages carefully and returned them to their envelope. He sighed deeply, then walked to the forward windows and looked out into the rapidly darkening evening sky. His bridge crew waited as he considered his orders. The frown on his face was reflected in the forward windows.
"So," he finally whispered to himself. "It's fated to be a game of Cat and Mouse..."
"Sir?" asked First Officer Carter. "Course and speed?"
The Captain turned to face the bridge crew. "South by Southeast, Mister Carter. Full speed ahead," replied the Captain. "Maximum altitude and continue communications blackout."
"Our destination, sir?"
"The East coast of Venezuela," replied the Captain. Remorse was evident in his voice. "We're going Mouse hunting," he added.
"The Terror of Caracas," said Miss Kelly. The tall blond woman was obviously shaken by the news.
"What?" asked Mister Anderson.
"The Lady Cita has become a thorn in the side of some powerful European traders," said the Captain. "All effort must be made to capture or contain her airship and crew. Those are my orders."
"Doesn't the Council know-" began Miss Kelly.
"Those are my orders!" snapped the Captain. "There's a price on her head now. She's managed to disrupt exactly the wrong businessmen. All Europe is up in arms. France and Germany are ready to declare war on Venezuela. Italy and Spain are outraged and prepared to join forces with them. Portugal is threatening to send troops into Europe if Venezuela is attacked. England, Russia, and Poland are backing Portugal and Venezuela. China and Argentina are upset with England. India is negotiating with Australia, the Philippines and Peru to come to the aid of Venezuela if they are attacked. And half of Africa is spoiling for war against the European nations that used to have colonies there. They're out for revenge, pure and simple. If Cita isn't stopped soon, the world could be plunged into a huge, bloody, useless war."
"And the Confederacy?" asked young Anderson.
"We're neutral," snapped the Captain in reply.
"Yes," said First Officer Carter. "But neutral on whose side?"
"Our side," replied Miss Kelly. "Of course. Still-"
"Bloody damn pirates," said Cyril Jones as he entered the bridge. "Always been trouble. Begging the Captain's pardon, Sir!" Cyril added as the Captain turned to glare angrily at him. "But it's true, I've always said that she'd cause you more trouble before everything was said and done. I can't change the facts, Captain."
"You're right, Cyril. But I can't change the past," the Captain replied.
"Merde," Miss Kelly said quietly.
"What's the matter?" Anderson asked her, his voice no louder than hers.
"Cita Mouse and the Captain," she replied. "They have... some history."
"Ah," said Anderson, as if he understood. No one on the bridge crew was fooled. Anderson was far too young to comprehend what was really happening.
"Yes," said the Captain. "And now I have to either kill her or capture her for trial."
"Merde," Miss Kelly repeated.
Ten hours of flying time later, the Nemesis was perched high above the Northeastern coast of South America. The paint on her metallic skin blending in almost perfectly with the sky, Nemesis pointed her bow Eastward, towards the coming dawn. Her steam engines easily turning her many propellers, serving to keep Nemesis stationary against the high-altitude winds. From the ground below she appeared as innocent as a dust speck, only slightly lighter in color than the slowly brightening sky itself. Only the sharpest of eyes would be able to discern her presence. Only the keenest of ears would be able to gather the merest whisper of her engine's muted drone.
Far below, the city of Caracas slept. Early morning light began to wash the streets and buildings. Gradually, the people of the city began to stir, ready to start another day. In the streets of Caracas, the scent of fresh baked bread wafted through the early morning air. Milkmen and paperboys nodded greetings at each other as they went about their appointed rounds. Roosters squawked quietly to themselves, preparing to herald the swiftly nearing dawn. Night-hunting animals settled down in concealed roosts for another day's rest in the edges of the vast, sprawling jungle that surrounded the slowly stirring city. The innocent inhabitants of Caracas slowly prepared to begin yet another day, all the while remaining unaware of the great airship which hovered high above them.
"So the Captain and this lady pirate have had run-ins in the past. I understand that. He's been in the service for ages. But I'm still not sure of one thing. How shall we find these pirates?" The question seemed innocent enough. Young Midshipman-Trainee Anderson and Miss Kelly were sharing a breakfast table in the airship's Mess Hall - talking shop and sharing memories from their training days - so Anderson's question was perfectly reasonable. After all, he was one of the newest crew members to have joined the Nemesis, only having been aboard a matter of a very few months.
"Run-ins?" Miss Kelly's voice was tinged with mild, good-humored sarcasm. "I suppose that's one way of putting it. They've crossed paths loads of times in the last few years. Even shared a dungeon or two on occasion... Still, finding her in the past always seemed to be a matter of chance. It's a big ocean, and an even bigger sky. If she isn't down there in Caracas at the moment, we'll simply have to figure out the most likely places for her to be, and then check each one as quickly as we can travel to them. Eventually, we might get lucky. Her airship isn't the sort of thing that can be hidden easily."
"I gather that she's not quite the villain that she's been painted?"
"Of course not. She's helped the Confederacy more often than not."
"Sort of like Jean Lafitte back during the first Martian attack? When his pirate fleet joined up with the old US Navy and helped bombard the cylinder that held New Orleans under siege?"
"Yes," replied Miss Kelly. "Exactly like that. Sometimes an ally, sometimes an enemy - Well, no. More of an adversary than an enemy. But always a law unto herself."
"So that's why the Captain doesn't really want to capture her. She's been an ally-"
"You don't quite see it, Anderson-"
"Mark. Please, call me Mark. I hate being addressed my my last name when I'm not on duty."
"Fair enough, Mark. And while we're off duty, please call me Alice. But you still don't get it. They're in love! They've been avoiding having to face up to that for years. Duty and honor over all, I suppose."
"He's going to have to jail-"
"Or kill," Alice reminded him.
"Or kill, as you say, the woman he loves? Surely the Council knows-"
"Of course they do!" Alice exclaimed, still trying to keep her voice down. "They aren't fools. But personal feeling isn't always the same as duty. He has his orders, does our Captain Resthal. And he'll follow those orders to the letter, no matter how much he hates them."
"That's - that's terrible! Surely he can't be expected to kill the woman he loves!"
"Not even to stop a war? Yes he can - And would, if he had no other choice. But I suspect that isn't what the Council actually expect him to do."
"I suspect that they expect him to find an alternative solution. Something that prevents this 'World War' from happening, and yet removes the threat that Lady Cita represents - without her having to die. Something that they can't foresee. Our Captain has a reputation for turning defeat and disaster into a fighting chance for survival. Have you studied his record?"
"Well, no. That's not the sort of thing a Midshipman-Trainee is allowed to go to the files and look up, is it?"
"You'd be surprised what a determined trainee can get away with doing, Mark. In any case, Captain Resthal's record is quite educational. Or, at least the parts of it that haven't been deeply classified. He's made himself a name for being able to accomplish the impossible. Or the near-impossible. Pirates, smugglers, foreign governments, even the Martians respected him."
"What about Cyril Jones? He doesn't seem to respect the Captain in the slightest bit. Cyril is downright disrespectful at the best of times."
"Cyril? He's... That's just his way. Cyril and the Captain have been together since their Cavalry days. Cyril can get away with arguing with the Captain in situations where anyone else would risk getting shot for treason. They're that close. Cyril's been a second father to him. So the Captain 'overlooks' any insubordination from that quarter. Think of Cyril as a 'valued adviser,' maybe even a 'father confessor' figure, if it helps you to understand their interpersonal dynamic at all."
"I see," said Mark. He took another bite of sausage, then another sip of coffee before he next spoke. "Things are always more complicated than they look. But you were talking about the Captain's official record."
"You know he's one of the Ghost Riders?"
"What?" Mark gaped in surprise, a fork-full of scrambled eggs halfway to his mouth. "Emperor Norton's hand-picked special operatives? Those Ghost Riders?"
"Keep your voice down!" Alice hissed. "The very same. But don't let on that you know. They're not something that a mere Midshipman is supposed to be aware of."
"Aware of? They're not even supposed to exist! They're..." Mark's voice trailed off as he desperately searched for the right thing to say.
"They're a rumor," Alice replied. "A legend, something to strike fear into the hearts of criminals."
"How did you find this out?"
"Easy," Alice said. "I was Records Officer on the old Enterprise several years ago. I got curious about the Captain- Well, he was First Officer back then and was being promoted and transfered ground-side for special duties. So I picked the lock on the Classified file cabinet in the records section to sneak a look at his transfer orders. Nearly got caught, too. But I managed to sneak a look into the files, before anyone noticed. I wasn't cleared to look at that sort of thing, but I got away with it just the same. Our Captain is a legend in the service."
"And after seeing that, you trust him? The Ghost Riders are illegal. By the Articles of Confederation anything even remotely resembling a secret service of secret agents is forbidden. Secret Policemen? The Confederacy doesn't allow that!"
"Nevertheless, they're real. And what's more, they're necessary. Someone has to have the authority to police even the members of Governments. Without some sort of checks and balances, what's to stop a government from becoming corrupt and all-powerful? As far as trusting Captain Resthal, I trust his sense of honor over that of anyone I've ever met. He's a knight in shining armor, he is. No one has ever been appointed to the Ghost Riders that didn't value justice above everything else..."
"Granted," Mark replied. "I've always trusted him. I respect him. Matter of fact, I think that I'll be able to trust him even more, now. But still..."
"Nevertheless," Alice overrode Mark's objections as if they were trivial. "He's proved time and time again that he will always do the right thing, even if it costs him, personally. Even if it means he'll have to do something he doesn't want to do."
"Like hunt this lady pirate down?"
"I'm not man enough to disregard love. I just couldn't do it."
"One day, you might have to, Mark."
"I hope that day never comes," Mark said determinedly. "Never!"
"Oh, finish your breakfast," Alice said with exasperation plain in her voice. "We've both got to get some sleep before our next duty shift."
"Yes Ma'am." Mark replied. Then both of them wordlessly set to finishing off their meals. Around them, the rest of the graveyard shift of crew members went about finishing their own meals, preparatory to retiring for eight hours of well-earned rest.
"We can't go on much longer just hanging over Caracas, sir. Even station keeping uses up fuel that we're sure to need later." said Second Officer Wilson to the Captain as the Nemesis began her third day of hovering out of sight of the city below. "Have you thought of a way to bring Cita Mouse out into the open?"
"Yes Wilson, I have."
"Oh, very good, sir. Your orders?"
"Maintain station keeping, Commander Wilson. Hold our position until something happens."
"But sir, that could take forever!" Commander Wilson's discomfort was plain. He was a man who preferred direct action above all else. This period of forced inactivity grated on his nerves.
"Sir! Topside lookouts report an unidentified airship," announced the young lady at the inter-ship communications station. "They are above us and to our stern. Descending rapidly and closing on an intercept course."
"Or," said the Captain with a slight smile. "It could take just a few more moments. Patience is a virtue, Commander. You should cultivate it."
"Very good, sir. Your orders, now?"
"Signal the engine room. Make ready to stop all engines and switch to full reverse thrust - on my order. We won't have much of a safety margin. Have everyone stand by."
"Weapons stations too, sir?"
"Exactly, Wilson. Man all weapons. Make ready to fire on my command - But only on my command. If anyone fires without my express orders, I'll skin them alive and make drum heads out of the pelt. Make that clear to all the gunners, Commander."
"Sir! Yes sir!" Wilson snapped off a salute and strode over to the communications station to issue orders to the crew. "Battle stations," he shouted into the ship's internal communicator. "This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. Look lively now! Prepare for special maneuvers, on the Captain's orders. Miss Scott, make ready to reverse thrust on all engines! Captain Resthal will give the word. Gunnery crew! Man all weapons! Wait for the order to fire. The first man that fires without orders will face the Captain's extreme displeasure. Snap to it!"
The Captain walked over to stand near the helm. Cyril Jones strode onto the bridge, still buttoning his tunic. "I'll take the helm, Miss Kelly," he said. "You stand by in case I need another pair of hands, please."
"Very good, Mister Jones. You have the helm."
"Don't get into a huff, Miss. If that's the Lady, then we'll either be in combat and taking fire, or having to dock airships, in just a few moments. Either way, I'll need your help. I trust your reflexes," Cyril said absently as he took his station. "Aside from me, you're the best there is, girl. Stand by for action!"
"Thank you, Mister Jones... I think," Miss Kelly replied.
"Airship still on an intercept course," the communications officer said as she relayed word from the lookouts. "Gunnery crew standing by. Engine room standing by. All stations report ready for battle, sir."
"Any sign of them identifying themselves?" The Captain's voice was calm. He radiated confidence in the way he stood, the way he looked around the bridge in approval at the controlled chaos of the crew coming to action stations. The crew was reassured even more by his utterly relaxed readiness. He demonstrated this ability - to spring into action in an instant - just by standing there as if he already knew what the future held in store. At times like this it almost seemed as if the Captain was merely waiting for the perfect moment to arrive. To the crew, a Captain who never seemed frightened or disturbed by unexpected dangers was a Captain to treasure.
"No sir," replied the communications officer. "No signals either by wireless, flares, flags, or lights. They're just diving headlong at us. Lookouts estimate less than one minute until intercept, sir."
The Captain nodded. "That's her then. I'm betting on it."
"The Lady, herself?" Cyril asked. "Or someone using her tactics? And how the devil did she get above us?"
"No matter," replied Captain Resthal. "Her or not, we're ready. Stand by for my command. We'll move out of the way at the last moment, then bring all guns to bear. Stand by, engine room. Stand by, gunnery crew. Ready the Heat Ray," he ordered. "She's using Hydrogen for lift, instead of Helium as we do. Or a little bit of both gases. Even if the two ships were the same size, she could get an extra eight percent of lift over the best we can manage. But there's a price to pay for using Hydrogen. A very high price, at that."
"What does he mean?" Alice Kelly's question to Cyril Jones was whispered.
"Hydrogen burns like a torch," Cyril replied quietly. "One shot from our Heat Ray and the Lady's ship is a burning ember."
"But-" Miss Kelly began.
"It won't come to that," Cyril replied, whispering back. "Trust the Captain. He's the best that there's ever been."
"Still," Miss Kelly said. "I hope you're right."
"I hope you know what you're doing!" Cyril called back over his shoulder at the Captain.
"Don't I always?" came the Captain's voice in reply. "Stand by..."
"That thing is three times our size! The lookouts report that we're about to collide," reported the communications officer. Her voice was shaking.
"Closer to five times our size," said the Captain. "Any moment now... Stand by Engine Room!"
"We're cutting it close," said Miss Kelly.
"You just think we are," said Cyril. "If the Lady wanted us dead, there are rockets on her ship that could have blown us out of the sky before she ever got close."
"Engine room! Stop all engines, now! Apply reverse thrust," shouted the Captain. "Now! Gunnery crew! Ready all weapons!"
With grace that belied her size, the Nemesis began to ease backwards under the influence of the headwinds that she had been resisting for the last three days. As her mighty propellers stopped, then reversed direction, Nemesis quickly picked up speed. Within seconds, she was a thousand yards Westward of her previous position, then two thousand yards.
"Engine room! Full stop! Go to station keeping!" came the shouted orders of her Captain. As the bridge crew looked on, the enormous bulk of Lady Cita's airship, Sky Queen eased to a stop where the Nemesis had once stood. Slowly, the mammoth airship commanded by the lady air pirate began to turn more directly into the headwinds from the East, while at the same time, its engines forced it to drift slowly sideways, to the North. Wireless signals began to flash between the two airships. Finally, communication was achieved.
"Identify yourself," came the message from the Sky Queen. "You are invading Venezuelan airspace. Foreign adventurers are not welcome here. Give me one good reason I shouldn't open fire!"
"Cita, this is Vila," came the reply from the Nemesis. "Do I need to rescue you?"
"Vila! But how do I know it's really you?"
"How should I prove it to you, Cita?"
"Tell me about the day we first met, face to face," came the reply from the Sky Queen.
"It was a warm October day," Captain Resthal replied in turn. "I met your landing craft in Athens. The sky was a cloudless blue, the birds were singing, and you stepped down onto the ground carrying nothing but a back pack full of clothes. We drew close together, and we kissed. Time stopped. The whole of creation stood still waiting for us. Then we stood there in each other's arms for a long time. Once we felt like moving again, we walked up a small hill towards my carriage. We rode around the city looking at all the old buildings. We talked endlessly about how much better it was to be able to be together instead of talking by wireless. After a while, I took you to my home out in the country. I carried you across the threshold of my little house, then I cooked dinner for us. Spaghetti, but I almost forgot the garlic bread. We ate, drank a couple of bottles of very good wine, then we-"
"Enough! It is you," came the signal from Cita Mouse. "Now shut up!"
"But I hadn't even gotten to the-"
"Shut up! Wireless is too public, you bastard."
"I'll have you know that my parents have been married for sixty five years," quipped Vila. "Ever since they were teenagers. And they've never wanted to get divorced."
"It is you, and no doubt. Why are you here, Vila?"
"You know why I'm here. You're being used as an excuse to start a major war. The two of us have to find a way to turn the tables on the people trying to start that war. Damn it, Cita. I love you. I'm not about to let some stupid banker blame his greedy war on you for protecting your country from his rapacious schemes. We've got to talk, before their plans can go any further."
"Agreed. Dock with the Queen and come aboard. I'll have the cooks lay on something special for dinner. You can have your crew come over, too. But make them take turns. A few at a time shouldn't get you into too much trouble with Josh and his cronies."
"It wouldn't be Emperor Norton that would bother me, Cita. But you're right, it would do some of my crew a fair bit of good to see what life is like on a Privateer airship commanded by a foreign ally."
"Ha! We're not foreigners, you lot are. Hurry up and dock. I've missed you. Sky Queen out..."
"Cyril, you heard the lady. Mate our dorsal hangar with the ventral hangar on the Sky Queen. Be gentle, or she'll skin you alive," said Captain Resthal with a smile.
"Aye, aye Captain. Miss Kelly, if you'd be so kind as to assist?"
"Of course," said Miss Kelly.
"Mister Wilson," said the Captain. "Divide the crew up into groups of fifty, liaise with Lady Cita's Butler for scheduling and send each group over to the Queen for dinner and a guided tour of their ship. Mister Edgar will let you know how long to allow each group to stay aboard the Queen."
"Is that wise, sir?" Second Officer Wilson asked.
"Can you think of a better way to keep them occupied," replied the Captain as he grinned, "than to give them half a hundred of our crew members to keep track of while the Lady and I are in conference? Besides, you'll like Mister Edgar. He's a man after your own heart. Former Royal Marine of the British Empire, decorated almost as many times as you've been, as loyal to Lady Cita as you are to the Confederation... Assign First Officer Carter to lead the first group. You lead the second group. Assign Commander Swift to lead the third group, then follow the roster on down the line. Oh, Miss Scott is to be exempt from the rotation. She'll doubtlessly find her way to Lady Cita's engine room and stay there until we drag her out. That'll be useful. Scott will be our eyes and ears for the technical observation end of things. Give her free reign, but assign an aide that will be able to remind her when it's time to come home. Henderson, perhaps. He's always been able to deal with Miss Scott's peculiar habits."
"Very good, sir. I will see to it right away," said Second Officer Wilson. "You may depend on me, sir."
"Excellent," said Captain Resthal.
"Ready to begin the docking, Captain," Cyril said. "We've descended and aimed ourselves properly to mate up with their ventral hangar connection."
"Good," said Captain Resthal. "Proceed as needed, Cyril."
"Captain! Lookouts are reporting four airships on intercept courses," shouted Harris from his station at the communications equipment.
"What the..." said the Captain. "Contact the Sky Queen and warn Lady Cita!"
"Yes sir," Harris replied. "They're already warning us, sir. They signaled 'dinner shall be late' after telling me about the incoming airships."
The Captain laughed. "Never a dull moment when Cita is around," he said. "Where are the buggers?"
"Two ahead and two behind," said Harris.
"Tell the lookouts to watch for more coming at us from the sides," said Captain Resthal. "Cyril, spin us around to face West. Harris, signal the Sky Queen to take the two coming from the East while we take the two approaching from the West. All gunners, stand ready! Mister Wilson, ready the special squads to launch on my orders."
"Sir! Yes sir," The Second Officer responded. Turning to the ship's internal communicators he began shouting for the 'Specials' to board their craft and prepare for combat. "Battle stations!" Wilson said loudly into the communicator mouthpiece.
"Harris, keep in constant contact with Lady Cita's ship," the Captain said. "We'll have to work together on this or we'll all die."
"Yes sir," replied Harris.
"Cyril, keep us well below Cita's ship," Captain Resthal said. "If we have to use the emergency engines I don't want to set the Sky Queen on fire."
"Way ahead of you sir," Cyril replied. "I dropped down lower while we were turning around. She seems to have had the same idea and rose up somewhat at the same time. There's plenty of space between us vertically."
"Good," replied the Captain. "Mister Wilson, launch the Special Squads when the enemy comes within four miles of us."
"Yes sir," Wilson said. "Nearly there now, in fact."
"What is it, Harris?"
"Identification signals coming in from our pair of targets," Harris said. "It's the Lexington and the Detroit, sir. Correct recognition codes and everything. I know the wireless operators on both ships, sir. I took the liberty of asking them test questions only they could have answered. It's really them."
"Very good, Harris. And word from the two behind us?"
"No sir," Harris replied. "And that's worrying. They've had time to identify, and they haven't. I'm ready to signal Sky Queen that the two in the West are allies. Waiting on your order to do that, sir"
"Send it, Harris. Mister Wilson, are the Eastern targets within range?"
"Our lookouts report that they are just now crossing the four mile limit, sir."
"Launch the Specials," said Captain Resthal. "Set two of them to watch the North and South. Assign them stations at a distance of one mile, and the rest of the Specials to orbit our position at half a mile."
"Yes sir!" Mister Wilson turned to the communicator, then gave the launch orders.
"Harris," said the Captain. "Signal Lexington and Detroit to position themselves to our North and South at a distance of three quarters of a mile, and ask them to keep a sharp lookout for other unidentified airships. Cyril, spin us around again to face East."
"Spinning now, Captain," Cyril said.
"Done, sir. Signals sent and confirmations received," Harris said. "Signal from Lady Cita, sir."
"Oh? What does she say, Harris?"
"Her lookouts report that the approaching airships bear no markings at all. She says-" Harris paused, his face frowning in concentration.
"Sorry, Captain," Harris replied. "She stopped speaking English for a moment and I had to translate. Her Spanish is very rapid. But she says that they're either pirates, or idiots, or both. She's- Well, sir..."
"Never heard such language from a lady before now, eh Harris?" Captain Resthal grinned.
"She's switching languages faster than I can keep up, sir," Harris replied. "Spanish, French, German, Greek, what sounds like Apache - but I don't speak that one. Now she's cursing in Russian, sir. From what I can make out, she thinks that something stinks. These two airships are outnumbered and out-gunned, but they keep on coming closer. Signal coming through in English now, sir. She says that she thinks that it's a trap."
"The Specials and our sister airships are in position, sir," Mister Wilson reported. "Should I assign one Special to guard our rear?"
"Mister Wilson," replied the Captain. "You just read my mind. Do exactly that. There's something wrong. I can feel it. Cita is right, this feels like a trap.Where are we not looking? That's where the enemy will be..."
"The only place we're not watching," said Cyril. "Is the ground. And the sea, I suppose."
"Ah!" said the Captain. He looked at Wilson, but before he could say a word, Wilson turned to the communications station and began shouting.
"Ventral lookouts, all ships! Watch the ground and the sea," Wilson ordered."Dorsal lookouts, all ships! Watch out for anything in the skys!"
"Incoming! Lookouts report rockets fired," Harris said. "They're- they're targeting the city! Sky Queen is firing all guns at the rockets, sir. She's dropping down below us to try and stop those rockets."
"Cyril, pick a target," Captain Resthal said. The anger in his voice was frightening. "Ready all weapons. Heat Ray, make ready to fire."
"Target chosen, sir," said Cyril. "All engines online and running. Ready to apply the emergency engines."
"Engine Room," the Captain said. "Emergency thrust! Full steam ahead!"
The Nemesis leapt through the air towards the two attacking airships. Her mighty propellers whirling with a thunderous roar. In her engine room, steam engines began spinning a great shaft, to which was affixed turbine blades taller than two men. As the compression built up, liquid natural gas was injected into combustion chambers. Tamed lightning sparked the fuel to ignite. From deep within the Nemesis, a blazing flame leapt out through a cone-shaped nozzle affixed to her stern. Nemesis bolted through the sky like the vengeance of an angry god.
"Target in range," Cyril said. His hands were white-knuckled from his grip on the wheel. "I've got them both lined up, one behind the other."
"Heat Ray," said the Captain. "Fire!"
From the nose-cone on the bow of the Nemesis there sprang into being a bright, white light. Like a lighthouse beam it focused on the first enemy airship. Then, punching through the first ship, it fell upon the second. Both airships caught fire in scant seconds. Wood and fabric burned, metal melted, then everything the heat ray touched flashed into vapor. The two airships exploded.
"Cease fire," said the Captain. "Stop the turbines."
The rogue airships burned as they fell from the sky.
"Cyril, take us back to Caracas," said Captain Resthal. "Harris, what about those rockets?"
"Lady Cita's crew got three of them," Harris replied. "Lexington and Detroit shot down one each. The last rocket struck the ground well outside the city. It didn't explode. No damage to any of our airships."
"Good, perhaps there'll be enough of it left for us to discover who made it," said the Captain. "Mister Wilson, recall the Special Squads." Captain Resthal paused for a scant moment. "Belay that! Cancel that recall order," he said. "Tell the Specials to circle the city. A group at one mile, another at five miles, staggered altitudes. Ask the Lexington and the Detroit to join the group at the five mile distance. We'll descend to treetop level and drop anchors. Prepare a team to investigate that rocket. Put our best people on the job."
"Consider it done, sir. I'll lead them myself," said Mister Wilson. "Harris, summon the First Officer to the bridge. Signal the hangar deck to make ready a landing craft." He scribbled several names onto his clipboard and then ripped the paper from it. Handing the paper to Harris, he gave instructions for those crew on the list to report to the hangar bay.
"I've never felt anything like that," Miss Kelly said to Cyril. "The power in that turbine engine! We must have gone four miles a minute!"
"Close to that," Cyril replied. "But look at the amount of fuel that it burned." He tapped a gage on the console as he shook his head. "Fast it may be, but wasteful. That's the real reason we only use it for emergencies. That engine is what makes Nemesis one of the fastest things ever built. Only other Interceptor Class airships have them. But our steam engines could have turned our propellers for three days on that same amount of fuel."
"But how did we survive? Why didn't the engine explode? The forces involved must be tremendous," Miss Kelly said.
"Thank the Martians," said Cyril. "We've had nearly sixty years to study the secrets we've uncovered from their equipment. Every single Martian ship or tripod taught us something from the wreckage left behind. New metals, new machines, even whole new sciences. We got more than the Heat Ray from them, that's to be sure."
"What is it, Harris?"
"Message from Miss Scott, sir. She wants to check the whole ship for damage from using the emergency engine."
"I agree," said Captain Resthal. "That thing is just too powerful. We must have strained every rivet on the ship. Very well, tell her to get her crews on it. Check everything, stem to stern."
"Yes sir," Harris replied.
"Approaching the city," Cyril called out. "Beginning our descent." In a quieter voice he continued. "Miss Kelly, would you take charge of the compressors and the cooling equipment for the gas bags, please? There's a lot of play in the helm. Bloody turbine. Must have strained the mechanism, somewhere."
"Happy to assist, Mister Jones. Compressors started. Cooling- started," Miss Kelly said in reply.
"Signal from the Sky Queen," Harris said. "They're matching our descent and will meet us when we anchor."
"Good," said the Captain. "Request another landing craft from our hangar bay. Message the Sky Queen that I'll meet with Cita on the ground. She'll want to look the situation over first-hand, in any case."
"Message sent, sir. hangar bay asks if you'd prefer to use your personal craft, or the Black Hawk,"
"The Hawk will do," Captain Resthal replied. "I think the Thunderbird would give the wrong impression."
"Very good sir," said Harris. "Message relayed to the hangar."
"Thank you, Mister Harris."
The bridge doors swung open. First Officer Carter entered, accompanied by several of Miss Scott's workmen. Carter conferred briefly with Second Officer Wilson, then approached the Captain. Mister Wilson left the bridge to join the crewmen who were assigned to examine the fallen rocket.
"So that's what using the emergency engine feels like," he said to Captain Resthal. "I'm glad that we don't have to do that on a regular basis. Here's a list of injuries, ship-wide, sir. Nothing major. Some bruises from bad falls - crewmen who weren't quite fast enough to make it to their acceleration seats. I've taken the liberty of writing up a schedule for a few drills to give them some practice for future emergencies. Doctor Smith sends his compliments and pointedly requests that you wait until he musters out of the service before you order the turbine used again." Mister Carter grinned, then handed the Captain the list.
"Zachary is a prissy old fuss-budget," replied Captain Resthal with a smile. "The day he stops complaining is the day I'll start worrying he's gone back to working for his old spy-masters in Quebec. He's danced away from death more times than anyone else in the crew. After surviving two Martian invasions, plus thirty years of being a spy, he should be used to emergencies by now."
"Truth to tell, sir," Mister Carter smiled as he replied. "I think that one of Cyril's maneuvers caused Doctor Smith to spill a pot of coffee. And you know how he loves his coffee."
"Yes, I'm aware. But on to serious matters, John. How did the Heat Ray gunners fare when we attacked?"
"Captain, half of them were scared to death of the weapon blowing up when we fired it. The other half were scared of being blamed if Cyril mis-aimed the shot. You should have heard them yelling cheers when everything worked out correctly. Now all of them are checking and double-checking the machine to see if it did itself any damage. On my way to the bridge, I stopped off at the engine room. I talked to Miss Scott and she agreed to assign a double work crew to inspect the Heat Ray mechanism."
"Good. I'll leave that in your hands. But for the moment," Captain Resthal frowned. "I have to worry about diplomatic matters instead of my ship. Cita and I will have a meeting shortly. Somehow, I've got to carry out my orders as well as keep the woman I love out of the brig - and out from in front of a firing squad."
"A tall order, Captain. But given the way we were attacked, in addition to her risking her ship to try and stop the rocket attack on Caracas, do you really think that she's the one that's been harassing the French and German shipping in this area?"
"Frankly, no. I think some European power is attempting to cause a major war - using Cita's reputation as a pirate to keep us from seeing through their plans. She's being used as a decoy. I'm sure of it. There are plans within plans within plans..."
"I see another alternative, sir. I think that you're missing something."
"Oh? What is your view, John?"
"Somehow," Carter said. "I think this is aimed at you as well. Someone wants you both out of their way. It might be a good idea for the two of you to try and deduce who would be likely desire the destruction of both of you, together. Someone you both faced in the past. Someone insane enough to think of pitting Lady Cita and yourself against each other as some sort of artistic form of revenge."
"Oh, bugger. As if I didn't have enough to worry about already. John," Captain Resthal paused, then sighed deeply. "I think you've just hit on the truth. Cyril said something similar to me a couple of days ago. But I didn't give it enough credence."
"Cyril and I agree on something?"
"We're doomed," Mister Carter said with a grin. "The world is about to end. I wonder if I have time to resign my commission and move to Hawai'i. I feel a sudden need to become a Quality Control Inspector in a brothel..."
"As Cyril is fond of saying, we can dream, can't we?"
"Yes sir, that we can. Do you have any suspects?"
"None worth mentioning, at the moment," Captain Resthal replied. "But I'll be sure to talk with Cita about it and see if we can come up with a likely villain. In the meantime, I'm going down to the hangar bay. You have the bridge."
"Very good, sir," said Carter. In a quieter tone he added, "I think Ensign Briggs ought to go with you on the ground party, sir. He's green as a gourd, but he's been hitting the books altogether too much since he got this assignment. This is his first tour with Nemesis. I believe he needs to interact with other crew members more - As well as getting over being afraid of we senior officers."
"I see," replied the Captain. "Does he have any special skills that would relate to this investigation?"
"Sir, if there is anything that he doesn't know about foreign munitions, I've yet to discover it. What he needs is to have some responsibility thrust upon him."
"To crack him out of his shell?" Vila asked. "I understand."
"Exactly, sir. It would do him a world of good. He's over there at the communications station."
"Very good, Mister Carter," the Captain said. In a louder voice, he said "Ensign Briggs."
"Sir, yes sir!" Briggs replied, standing to attention as he turned to face the Captain.
"First Officer Carter informs me that you have been studying foreign weaponry. I may need you on this ground party, then. You're with me. Mister Carter, you have your orders."
As the First Officer began issuing orders to the bridge crew, Captain Resthal left the bridge with Ensign Briggs in tow.
To Be Continued...