Kahn pictured the Empire State patrol zeppelins gliding through the darkness like sharks, peering through the darkness with searchlights and flares, drawing ever nearer to his stricken ship. They'd been lucky to lose their pursuers in the clouds over New York City, where a sane pilot couldn't risk groping blindly through the overcast with all the traffic filling the skies. The same didn't hold true out here, near the border, and Kahn couldn't shake the feeling that his luck was about to run out.
Kahn took a deep breath and tried to push the worries out of his mind. As long as he could still think, he could always find a way out. The pirate leader reached into his jacket and pulled out a cigar as he worked his way a little farther down the passage and pushed open the door to the zeppelin's sickbay.
The cold air in the small room smelled of smoke, blood, and death. Five of the sickbay's eight beds were occupied, and two more men sat dejectedly on the room's operating table, clutching bandaged limbs. One of the men stretched out in the beds moaned fitfully in a morphine-induced sleep. A short, broad-shouldered man with a grizzled crewcut stood in the center of the room and watched the moaning man worriedly, wiping his hands on a bloodstained apron. "Doc" Adams turned as Kahn entered the sickbay and nodded a tired greeting.
"How bad is it?" Kahn asked around his cigar. He had his lighter in his hands, but looking over the wounded men, he resisted the urge and put the battered Zippo away.
"All told? Two dead, eight injured," Adams said with a sigh. He gestured at the beds. "I did the best I could for the worst cases, but about all I'm really good for is simple first aid. Murphy took three rounds in the gut; I'm not sure he'll last the night." The former horse doctor looked guiltily at Kahn. "I've been giving him morphine pretty steadily, and it's used up almost a third of our stocks. I know how expensive the stuff is"
"Don't worry about that," Kahn said quietly. "Make him as comfortable as you can. We'll worry about the rest later." His eyes settled on the room's eighth bed, hidden from the rest of the room by a curtained screen. "What about our guest?"
Adams shrugged. "I gave her some laudanum, so she's sleeping now. Somebody roughed her up pretty gooda lot of bruises, maybe a cracked rib. Looks like she hasn't been fed much, either. You can look in her eyes and tell she's been through hell."
Kahn frowned. He'd only recently learned that the girl behind the screen was Chiang Liu-Mei, the daughter of none other than Chiang Kai-Shek, the President of the Republic of China. Supposedly she had been kidnapped to silence a Chinese delegation en route to the League of Nations to report Japanese atrocities in Nanking. Yet what purpose did torturing her serve? If anything, it would only add more fuel to the fire.
Kahn shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs from his sleep-deprived brain. Clearly there was more going on than Hayes, his old partner in crime, had led him to believe. Now Hayes was dead, and Kahn found himself fumbling in the dark, unsure of how to proceed but certain that there was no turning back now.
"Has she said anything, Doc? Anything at all?"
"Not a word," Adams said. "Boss, she's in deep shock. I wouldn't expect anything out of her for a good long while." He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I don't know what else to do. All I know are horses and airplane engines."
"Yeah. Okay." Kahn did his best to keep the desperation out of his voice. "You're doing okay, Doc. Stay here and keep an eye on everybody, and if she wakes up and wants to talk, you let me know."
Kahn stalked out into the passageway and headed aft, deeper into the shadowy interior of the ship. He could still smell smoke from the fire that had broken out in the hangar bay. The Red Skulls were in deep trouble, far worse than they'd ever been before. His hands curled into fists, but there was nothing and no one he could strike at that would drive out the frustration that he felt. If there was one thing his father had taught him, it was that a man survived by controlling events that surrounded him. Kahn wasn't in control any more, and he knew it.
He lit his cigar and started walking again, trying to think. Kahn's thoughts kept going back to his recent conversations with Hetty. The girl was worried; she was no dummy, and could see the signs as well as he could. She was afraid he was going to bail out on them.
And the more he thought about it, the more he saw that skipping out would be the smartest thing he could do.
Kahn kept walking, turning the problem over and over in his head. Without consciously intending to, he found himself wandering through the cargo deck. One of the cargo lockers was padlocked shut. There was no guard. Kahn considered the door for a moment, puffing thoughtfully on his cigar, then reached a decision. He pulled out a set of keys and undid the padlock. The cargo locker was windowless and black as a cave. Kahn figured Dane was probably asleep. Standing in the doorway, he reached for the light switch, and realized with a start that it was still turned on. She'd put out the light.
And that was when something came flying out of the darkness and smashed against his head.
Everything went white. Kahn fell to his knees. He felt a lithe figure try to force its way past him, and he grabbed blindly with both hands. His left hand closed on a small foot, and he jerked backwards, hard. Dane fell to the deck with a loud grunt, and he knew he'd knocked the wind out of her. The pirate boss forced himself to his feet, holding the trapped foot as high as he could and blinking furiously at the stars that danced in front of his eyes.
Dane thrashed and writhed in his grip like a snared tiger, kicking furiously with her free leg. Kahn's head began to throb with a dull, pounding ache, but the passageway came back into focus. He let go of Dane, who quickly sprang to her feet, ready to kill or be killed. Kahn looked over her diminutive form and scowled. "Save it, sister. You've got the brass, but not the muscle. And even if you did, there's nowhere to run." He looked down and saw pieces of porcelain scattered around the deck. Kahn picked up a shard, wincing at the pain in his head. "You hit me with a chamber pot?" He said, examining the fragment in the light.
"It seemed appropriate," Dane replied. She hadn't relaxed in the least, her small hands balled into fists. "And if you don't cut me loose you can expect a hell of a lot worse than that."
Kahn pulled his gun. "Of course, I could just shoot you and save myself the trouble."
Surprisingly, Dane gave him a humorless smile. "If you were going to kill me, you'd have done it a long time ago, pirate."
The pirate boss tossed the shard aside. "Touché," he said, and put the pistol away. "You're proving to be a headache in more ways than one, Captain Dane. In fact, I do have certain uses for you. Do you have any medical skill? A number of my men are seriously hurt, and need a doctor's attention."
Dane's lip curled in a sneer. "If I did, do you think I'd actually waste it on thugs like you and your men?"
"Where is your sense of humanity, Captain?"
The Collective pilot let out a derisive snort. "That's rich, coming from a man like you."
"Fair enough," Kahn conceded. "Then I'll settle for using you as a hostage if need be, or ransoming you back if the Collective will still have you." He picked out a piece of ceramic on the deck and methodically ground it under his boot. "If not, I'm sure we can find someone in Hawai'i willing to take you off our hands."
Dane's eyes narrowed appraisingly. "So you rescued the girl, then? You're the last person in the world I would peg for a knight in shining armor, Kahn."
"I'm not," Kahn replied darkly. "A long time ago, Artemus Hayes took a headstrong young man named Jonathan Kahn under his wing and taught him a great number of things, including how to fly a plane. He also saved my life." The pirate shrugged. "I owe him. And I don't like being indebted to anyone. It's as simple as that.
"Unfortunately this little errand has become a great deal more complicated than I'd bargained for. It's nearly dawn, and if we aren't across the border into the I.S.A. by then, things are going to get unpleasant." Kahn gestured down the forward passageway. "Let's go."
"You're not going to lock me up again?" Dane asked.
"I don't have enough healthy crewmen to keep an eye on you, Captain, and I don't want you left alone so you can come up with any more mischief."
The Collective Captain raised her chin defiantly. "Watch me all you want, Kahn. I'll still find a way to escape."
"Feel free, Comrade," the pirate said with a wolfish grin. "Assuming we can clear up the debris on the hangar deck to launch any planes there is a big enough reward on our heads that you'd get shot down or captured by the first militia you ran across, and I doubt they'd be inclined to believe your story. After all, the Red Skulls have earned something of a reputation for misdirection. For the time being, you're much better off with our company than without it."
Dane paled. Her mouth worked, but no sounds came out. The look on her face was the best thing that had happened to Kahn in quite some time.
Dawn found the Machiavelli still a hundred miles short of the border, but the Red Skulls luck still held. Snowstorms blanketed the Empire State's western border, cutting visibility to less than fifty feet and muffling the sound of the zeppelin's engines. On the downside, the airship's electrical heat failed shortly after daybreak, leaving the crew huddled and shivering in their flight gear for four long hours until it could be repaired.
Dugan and Kahn watched layers of ice build on the zeppelin's hull and deemed it an acceptable risk, given the alternatives. They crossed the border at a little after nine, but the crew knew better than to think they were home free.
All the radio stations were buzzing with the news of the Manhattan raid. According to the reports, LaGuardia was ready to send his zeppelins into the I.S.A. if that's what it took, touching off a heated exchange of threats between Chicago and New York. Kahn wasn't fool enough to think that the I.S.A. was staring down the Empire State for his sake; if anything, they probably wanted the credit for his capture as much as LaGuardia did.
Kahn kept the Machiavelli in the air, since the Red Skulls' hidden base was now a likely ambush site. Instead, he kept the airship headed west, well away from established commercial shipping lanes, and crossed over into the People's Collective the following night. As Kahn had hoped, the search for the Red Skulls hadn't yet spread into the socialist nation; according to the news, the authorities seemed certain that Kahn would go to ground somewhere in his home territory.
The Red Skulls needed a sanctuary, to be sure, but Kahn had another destination in mind.
Bright sunlight slanted through the zeppelin's bridge viewports, causing Kahn to squint against the glare. Beside him, "Deadeye" Dugan looked up from the bridge's map table and called out to the helm. "We're thirty seconds from the initial turn. On my mark, come to course three-three-five."
Ahead of them, the Rocky Mountains loomed in a jagged, forbidding wall of snow-capped rock. Kahn had run the treacherous route to Sky Haven dozens of times, but he still had trouble picking out the narrow defile that marked the beginning of the path.
Dugan held up a stopwatch. "Ready...Ready...Mark! Port engines back one-third, new course three-three-five.
The huge zeppelin seemed to pivot in place, her bow swinging to port and seemingly pointing straight at a sheer rock face. Finally, just past the point of no return, Kahn saw the cleft, just barely wide enough to let the airship through. The Machiavelli nosed into a tight, twisting defile that would eventually lead them to Sky Haven, pirate haven and unofficial capital of the Free Colorado State.