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Chapter One:
Swimming With The Sharks

Chapter Two:
Keep Your Enemies Closer

Chapter Three:
ShowTime

Chapter Four:
A Girl's Best Friend

A Girl's Best Friend

Chapter Five:
In The Rough

Chapter Six:
Shadow Play

Chapter Seven:
Southern Hospitality

Chapter Eight:
Clear as Crystal

Chapter Nine:
The Home Stretch

Chapter Ten:
The Final Hurdle

Chapter Eleven:
The Last Dance

Chapter One: Swimming With The Sharks

The explosive rocket sheared off the starboard wing of the Fairchild F6II Brigand in a jagged slash of flame and metal. The crippled plane nosed up and pirouetted in the air with surprising grace—then dropped out of sight.

For more information see:
Fairchild Brigand

Justine "Battleaxe" Perot—leader of the infamous Medusas gang—pulled back hard on the stick and wrestled her McDonnell S2B Kestrel into as tight a turn as the lumbering twin-fuselage plane could handle. She felt the airframe shudder in protest as the engines increased their bass thrum. She banked hard and craned her neck to watch her newest recruit's plane plummet towards the ocean's surface.

For more information see:
McDonnell S2B Kestrel

"Bail out!" she yelled into the radio. It was a futile gesture.

Moment later, the wingless Brigand slammed into the Pacific. White spray mixed with fire and smoke billowed up from the impact, and the plane vanished beneath the waves in a heartbeat. "Damn," Justine muttered.

There wasn't time for a eulogy—Justine had a more immediate problem to deal with: Nathan Zachary, the man who had just butchered her squadron-mate.

For more information see:
Nathan Zachary

The radio blared once more, this time with the clear commanding voice she'd heard only this morning as she climbed out of bed. "When you hit the water, tell 'em Nathan Zachary sent you!" The voice grated like broken glass on metal. He had to know she couldn't hear him, but Zachary loved to showboat in the clear for the benefit of the rest of the "audience." He just can't help himself, she thought with a sneer. The creep acts like he's in a movie serial.

The radio crackled as Nathan addressed her directly. "I gave you the choice to pull out with no hard feelings, Justine. Drake's treasure is mine."

"Only until a woman comes along to spend it for you, Darling. Why don't we cut you out of the deal and have the treasure go straight to the women?"

She heard the higher-pitched engine of Nathan Zachary's Hughes P21-JMkIII Devastator pass by on her starboard side, and noted the red-and-black fighter in her peripheral vision. She quickly judged the airspeed and drew a picture in her mind of where he'd be in three seconds when she completed her turn.

For more information see:
Hughes Devastator

Without warning, she let up pressure on the stick and shoved hard forward to abort the turn and bring her nose back down toward Zachary's Devastator. A grin crossed her lips as she twitched her finger on the trigger. "This will be sweet as honey—"

The Kestrel carried a trio of heavy .60-caliber machine guns, and a pair each of .40-calibers and .30-calibers, all mounted on a center-line pod...which was about to point right at Nathan Zachary's tail. Zachary's Devastator was tough and agile, but the Kestrel's guns would only take a few seconds to tear it to scrap metal. Her grin sharpened into a bare-teethed snarl as the Kestrel swung back toward Zachary.

"Hey!" She exclaimed to nobody—because nobody was who she saw in her sights. She sucked breath in alarm and whipped her head around in a frantic search, but it was too late.

The Kestrel bucked as .40-caliber slugs tore through the port wing. She yanked the stick hard and rolled the plane. She had to decrease the profile of her wings to Zachary's fire, but the Kestrel's maneuverability was as poor as its firepower was great. There was no way to move fast enough. He may be a creep, she thought with a grimace, but the bastard can shoot like the Devil himself.

Zachary fired again, and a line of holes stitched across her engine cowling—and almost reached the canopy. Sparks flew as several rounds pinged off the engine block and ricocheted back through the cockpit. A fiery band of pain seared across her leg, as if someone had slashed her with a red-hot knife.

The engine growled like a bear and belched a thick black cloud of smoke that collected instantly on the front of the canopy as a blinding greasy film. "Son of a—" The engine coughed, spat oil and began a terrible shimmy. Suddenly the Pacific was moving in rapid circles and coming up fast. Justine gripped the stick with white knuckles. She could feel the control surfaces straining against the forces of nature. Her biceps burned as she fought with the stick and cursed Nathan Zachary's name.

The stick pulled back a hair, then a little more. She felt the rudder's effect against the spin, which made it easier to force the elevators into position. The Kestrel nosed up, still sputtering, but under marginal control. That was when she noticed the telltale wisps of smoke from the bullet holes in her port wing—Trust Zachary to use magnesium rounds—as the incendiaries burned their way to her fuel tank.

For more information see:
Specialty Ammo

Justine grabbed the photo off her instrument panel and stuffed it in her vest as she reached for the canopy release. Suffocating smoke seeped into the cockpit. She coughed hard and felt for the latch. With practiced precision she released it and shoved the canopy backwards along its track.

A blast of razor-cold wind stung her face. She started to climb out, but something was holding her left leg down. Her pant leg was soaked in blood, and there was a sloshing wine-red pool on the floor of the cockpit. Her leg felt like a side of beef—a dead weight attached to her hip.

She grunted and pulled herself up and out of the cockpit; she only had seconds to get out before the portside fuel tank blew. Zachary's voice emerged from the static of her radio again. Even over the dying engine and roaring wind she could hear him say, "Nice dancin' with ya, Sister! Hope you have fun down there with the rest of the sharks!"

Justine shoved herself up and tumbled free of the dying Kestrel. A fraction of a second later the plane detonated. The shockwave from the blast hit her like a hot brick wall. Nearly deaf and blind, Justine clawed at the ripcord with the last of her strength. The chute ruffled upward and billowed for a moment before it caught the air with a life-saving snap. Two seconds later she hit a concrete slab that looked like water.

Pain shot through her injured leg as the stinging salt water engulfed her. She bobbed in her life vest and gazed skyward. The Medusas zeppelin, Gorgon, was descending toward a nearby island, flames licking from its lower compartments. She felt herself begin to black out, as Zachary's final comment about "the rest of the sharks" echoed in her mind...

Justine opened one eye and peeked at the man snoring loudly beside her. She poked him in the ribs with her finger, then shook him gently, then harder.

He snorted, stirred—then rolled over, dead to the world.

She grinned at the empty glasses on the cabin's table, then sat up and slipped her legs over the side of the bed. The deck was cool against her bare feet, and she could feel the vibration of the zeppelin's engines, running at about half speed. She absently rubbed the scar on her calf and tested her leg before standing; it had taken nearly a month to get back on her feet, and another two to get the Medusas back on theirs, so to speak. She just wished that it hadn't cost so much, in time, in blood...and most of all, in cash.

Justine stood and circled around the bed. It took only a minute to pull her uniform on. She flicked a piece of lint from the Lone Star Air Transport patch on her shoulder and tucked her hair up under her watch cap. She'd left her duty coat in her own cabin, so she borrowed his—He won't be needing it, she thought—and inspected herself in the mirror.

With his keys in her pocket, she picked up one of the glasses off the table and paused for a moment to assure herself it was her own drink, and not the drugged one. Satisfied, she downed the remaining liquid in one swallow.

"That's better," she sighed. She nodded at her reflection in the mirror, then walked purposefully from the stateroom.

The ship was quiet; third watch was the safest time for a traveling zeppelin. According to aviation security "specialists," no pirate in her right mind would try to launch an aerial attack in pitch darkness. Nobody in her right mind, huh? she thought with a smirk.

She made her way aft along dim, deserted hallways and gangplanks. The aft cargo bay was used mostly for consumables for the crew. The keys obligingly provided by the unconscious Cargo Purser let her slip inside without incident, and she got busy looking for the winch to crank down the zeppelin's "landing hook" that allowed airplanes to dock under the mammoth cargo airship.

To one side of the compartment, a thin pylon jutted from the floor, topped with a flat metal panel of controls. She mashed her thumb down on the red button in the panel's center and licked her lips as a large section of the floor louvered open with a hydraulic whine. The doors pivoted down and pulled to one side to reveal a large hole, open to the void below. The noise of the zeppelin's engines filled the compartment, and she pulled the duty coat tight around her against the chill wind.

Justine knew that a warning light on the bridge would alert an officer that the doors were open, but at this ungodly hour it would take several minutes for anyone to rouse themselves enough to see what was going on. Justine mashed down a second button on the panel. She rubbed her hands together to warm them, and smiled at the green lights that pulsed below her, illuminating the docking hook. She breathed a sigh or relief. Everything was going perfectly so far.

"Hey, what're you doing?"

Justine froze for a second, then cracked her jaw and slipped into an easy Texan drawl as she turned with a grimace, "Darn winch light wasn't readin' right. Says the thing is down when it's up. Figured this'd fix it but now I cain't git it back up, th' piecea junk." She gave the pedestal a kick.

The senior crewman's scowl turned into a raised eyebrow as he snorted derisively. "Kicking it'll make it worse. Cut that out."

"Sorry, sir." Justine walked around the podium to stand at the edge of the open bay doors, on the wrong side of the yellow line labeled: Stand Behind This Line When Doors Are Open. She looked over the edge of the open door down at the landing hook dangling beneath the zeppelin. "I can hear the problem—that joint right there is makin' a bad grinding noise." She took off her hat, shook her hair down over her shoulders, scratched her head and replaced the cap. She could feel his attitude change. It was a long, boring flight after all, she thought, and boys will be boys.

The crewman stepped up beside her and looked down at the hook with only half his attention. "I haven't seen you around before, have I?"

She flashed a megawatt smile. "Jo-Lynn Petty, Purser's Assistant. I came on at Oklahoma City. Pleased to meetcha," she said, and stuck her hand out. He took it with a firm, but gentle, grip.

Seems like a sweet fellow, Justine thought. Pity.

She looked down through the bay doors at the landscape more than a mile below—the full moon illuminated the Texas desert in a dull blue-white that made it seem almost like ocean. "Purty, huh?"

For more information see:
Republic of Texas

"I guess," He pulled out a pack of smokes—General Lee's, genuine Dixie tobacco—and inclined the pack to her. She took one with cold fingers and sheltered it with her hand as he lit it for her, then his own. They stood for a contemplative moment, as smoke curled around them.

For more information see:
Confederation of Dixie

"You want me to try and bring it up so you can hear it?"

He took a long drag and sighed as he blew smoke out into the chill air. "Yeah, which joint was it?"

Justine pointed to the farthest and hardest-to-see joint of the assembly beneath the zeppelin. He leaned forward just a bit to examine it for himself, and for the first time wasn't paying attention to Justine.

Sheila "Owl" Carter and "Bold" Amanda Hart climbed up the ladder from the Grumman E1-C Avenger hanging on the landing hook. They carried several canvas rucksacks between them. Justine waited nearby, casually smoking the last of her cigarette.

For more information see:
Grumman Avenger

"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 radioman—Stockard, 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, though—and 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 last—naturally—at 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."

 


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