"Crimminy, Justine, we've been tailing this bag half the night. What took you so long?"
"I stopped for a drink. C'mon let's get moving."
"Hey," said Sheila, noticing Justine's cigarette, "got another one?"
"Sorry," Justine blew out a plume of smoke and tossed the butt out into the void below them. She watched the tiny orange ember spiral down out of sight. "I dropped the rest of the pack."
She took a rucksack and went forward while Sheila and Amanda hurried further aft, toward the back of the airship. Justine needed to be in position before everything hit the fan. Her boots clanked on the metal deckplates as she jogged up the port gangway and stopped midway along its length. She pulled a screwdriver from her bag and jabbed the edge under the lip of the ventilation grating. The grate popped off and clattered to the deck while she reached once more into her bag.
Her task took only a few moments, and her bag was lighter when she reached her position just behind the bridge, huddled against the wall. She ticked off the seconds in silence, the hum of the zeppelin's engines keeping her company. Finally, alarms began to wail on the bridge. The voices were muffled, but a sense of urgency was evident, and the sound of orders being given came through the door loud and clear.
The alarm suddenly got louder as the door swung open and banged against the bulkhead. A half-dozen crewmen rushed out and tore down the hallway at a dead run. Justine let them pass by, then stepped smoothly around the corner and caught the edge of the door before it closed completely.
The room was buzzing with activity, despite the reduced bridge complement.
"I need a location, Mister Stockard," the white-haired captain called over the chatter of his officers. Captain Wilcox was a large man, with a wide Texan mustache that tapered to a tip at each end, and bushy eyebrows under the visor of his officer's cap.
The radioman furrowed his brow as he listened to the buzz of information coming through the intercom to his earphones. "Can't pin it down, sir. There's a lot of smoke, but nobody can eyeball the fire."
"Maybe I can help," Justine said in her "Jo-Lynn" drawl. She accented her words with a .45 automatic, which she leveled at Captain Wilcox. From her position in the doorway she could see the entire bridge, now with fewer than half of its normal officer complement present. The navigator, to her far right, tensed before he lunged at her. He might as well have sent a telegram.
She fired a clean shot that passed through the navigator's shoulder and ricocheted off a girder with a twang that made the other officers duck.
The navigator clutched his bloody shoulder, cursed, and stumbled back. Justine had her gun trained on the Captain in a half-second. "Anyone else want to play hero?" she sneered. The men stood fast.
"Captain, you're going to give the order to abandon ship," Justine ordered.
Wilcox stood erect and threw his shoulders back defiantly. "No, young lady, I will not do that."
Justine had counted on this since she met Wilcox two days ago in Oklahoma City when she signed aboard as "Jo-Lynn Petty." He had a reputation for bravery, and for stubbornness. Texan to the bone, she thought with a grin. Brave, honorable...and oh so predictable.
She took two quick steps to her left and placed the pistol against the head of the seated radiomanStockard, the Captain called him. Stockard turned gray.
Justine brushed the hair away from the young man's forehead and purred sweetly, "Darling, will you please order all hands to abandon ship?"
The crewman looked nervously between Justine and the Captain, as sweat beaded on his forehead. Justine met the Captain's gaze, then purred seductively into Stockard's ear. "I've asked you nicely once, handsome. If I have to ask again, I'll get mad."
Stockard's brow was beaded with perspiration, and his hands trembled. "Captain...please..." he croaked.
Wilcox stiffened, his eyes clouded with anger. "Mister Stockard," he said through clenched teeth, "on my authority as Captain, order the crew to abandon this ship."
Justine grinned savagely. "There," she said, patting the radioman on the head, "that wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Abandon ship" isn't something that a zeppelin crew wants to hear come over the speaker, especially at night; cruising over the flat Texas desert isn't the worst place to drop, thoughand it's a lot better than going down in a flaming zeppelin. The crew of the airship took mere minutes to don their chutes and make for the exits. The Captain left lastnaturallyat the point of Justine's pistol.
As he stood in the doorway with his thumbs hooked in the straps of his parachute harness, Amanda and Sheila entered, carrying an armload of metal canisters.
"He's the last of them, Boss." They dumped the canisters on the floor with a hollow metal thud. Justine smiled as the Captain looked at the pile.
"Smoke bombs," she confirmed. "Now, I'm sure you've heard that the Medusas always leave a dead Captain as our calling card..." She brought her pistol up and sighted right between the man's eyes. With a panicked yell he flailed wildly backward into the abyss and dropped out of sight.
Justine laughed and turned to her cohorts with a satisfied grin. The pistol snugged into her belt comfortably. "Ladies," she said proudly, "welcome to the new Gorgon."