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Chapter One:
Raiders from the Sky

Chapter Two:
In Enemy Hands

Chapter Three:
Old Debts

Chapter Four:
Under the Gun

Chapter Five:
Caught in the Act

Chapter Six:
Old Friends

Chapter Seven:
Making the Cut

Chapter Eight:
The Cut

Chapter Nine:
The Shell Game

Chapter Ten:
Serpents In Paradise

Chapter Eleven:
Into the Storm

Chapter Twelve:
Owning Up

Chapter Thirteen:
Interesting Times


"Genghis" Kahn & The

Manchurian Gambit

—A Tale of the Red Skull Legion—

By Mike Lee


Chapter Eight: The Cut

"Deadeye" Dugan made his way stiffly through the crowd, his jaw set and his shoulders straight. Almost a dozen Red Skulls stood behind him, some of them fingering the red and brass emblems pinned to their flight jacket collars—the winged skull insignia of the Red Skull Legion.

For more information see:
The Red Skull Legion

Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn studied the men and women packed into the Machiavelli's hangar bay, and didn't like what he saw. The men on their feet looked guilty as blazes...and once the first set of wings fell into the glass jar he'd set before them, things would quickly gain momentum; within minutes the Red Skull Legion would completely fall apart.

For more information see:
Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn

Despite his rising frustration, Kahn couldn't bring himself to blame the crew for wanting to cut and run. The Red Skulls were at the end of their rope; they had arrived in the Free Colorado pirate town, Sky Haven, shot full of holes and practically out of fuel. Kahn had given them the choice to jump ship, and now he would have to live with the consequences.

For more information see:
Free Colorado

Dugan stepped up to the jar. He reached up—not to his collar, but to the mass of scar tissue that twisted the left side of his face. His hand came away with something that gleamed dully in the overhead lights and clinked like a marble as it rattled against the sides of the jar.

The old captain's green glass eye came to rest against the side of the jar, glaring balefully at the ceiling. Dugan turned to face the rest of the crew, the left side of his mouth pulled back in a snarl.

"You want to come up here and throw away your wings, go right ahead," he growled. "That," he said, pointing to the jar, "is so you'll know that I'm watching. I'll remember, and if it takes the rest of my days...I'll make sure you pay for it."

Several of the men on their feet shuffled uncomfortably and more than one blanched. None would meet the captain's grim stare. Dugan leveled an accusing finger at one of them.

"You," he snarled. "Jimmy Collins. You've been a Red Skull for two years. What were you doing when Kahn took you on?"

Blake ran a hand nervously through his curly, red hair. "I was...you know...sellin' apples in Chicago."

"You were a starving little runt who robbed drunks and played lookout for rumrunners," Dugan barked. "And that's where you'd be now if it wasn't for the boss." The captain's one good eye swept the crowd. "Amos Jones: you were headed for the hangman down in New Orleans. Pete O'Neil: you wouldn't have a finger to call your own if the boss hadn't covered your debts in Atlantic City. And then there's me," he said. "I'd been given my walking papers after twenty years' service. Kahn didn't give a damn what I looked like, only how well I handled a ship. If it hadn't been for him I'd be at the bottom of a bottle right now, or pushing up daisies in Potter's Field.

"Now I'll be the first one to say Kahn's no saint," Dugan said, nodding at his boss. "But there isn't one of you in this room who doesn't owe everything you've got to him. He made you part of the Red Skulls, and now you're known from Hollywood to the Empire State. The Nations of North America sure don't like you, but they do fear you. All because of those wings you're wearing."

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood; The Empire State

Dugan folded his arms. "So...which of you weak-kneed sob sisters wants to cut and run just because things have gotten tough?"

"Tough?" One of the men found his courage. "C'mon, Dugan, we've all got ten grand sitting on our heads. What do you want us to do?"

"I want you to act like the kind of man the boss pegged you for when he gave you those wings," Dugan snapped. "Ruthless. Aggressive. Somebody you'd want at your back when things get hard."

The Red Skulls looked uneasily at one another. The men who'd lined up behind Dugan seemed to shrink in upon themselves. Jimmy Collins stuck his hands in his pockets. "Well, I'm not gonna touch that jar now that you put your damn eye in there." The rest of the crew laughed, and the tension broke. Within moments there was no one left standing but Dugan and Kahn.

The pirate boss did a poor job of concealing his relief. It doesn't mean a thing, he told himself. This is just a scam like all the rest. One day, when things get too bad, I'll just chuck it all and run away. But the vise squeezing his heart slowly relaxed, and it felt like he could breathe again. He stepped forward, clapping Dugan on the shoulder. "That was the biggest load of hogwash I've heard in my whole life," he told the crowd. "I think you missed your calling, Dugan: you should have been a politician...or a used autogyro salesman."

Dugan shook his head. "Not me, sir. I prefer to lie steal the old-fashioned way: at gunpoint."

More laughter rang off the hangar walls. Kahn raised his voice over the din. "All right, Red Skulls, the party's over. You had your chance, and now you're in it for the duration. I want every drop of fuel and every round of ammo we've got left packed into the birds. We'll transfer them to the airfield and then hit the saloons. Drinks are on me." A ragged cheer went up from the crew as they climbed wearily to their feet. Within minutes a pair of grease monkeys were banging away at Jones' fire-damaged Vampire. The Red Skulls were back in business.

For more information see:
Sanderson Vampire

Kahn worked his way through the bustling crowd, already trying to figure the angles for the next day's showdown. Suddenly he found himself face to face with Hetty. His wingman looked up from the clipboard in her hands. "The hangar monkeys say it's a fifty-fifty chance they can get Jones' bird ready by tomorrow, which leaves us with only seven planes.

"If we drain the zep's fuel tanks," she continued, "we can top off the fighters. We can take the fifty-cal and sixty-cal ammo from the gun positions to give some of our heavies something to shoot with. That's the good news." Hetty lowered her voice. "The word at the airfield is that Nesbitt's put out an open call to pilots to 'join' his crew in time for tomorrow's duel. He's promising them anything they want off the Machiavelli after they've beaten us. There could be a whole hell of a lot of planes on his side come the dawn."

The pirate boss regarded his wingman with some surprise. "Sounds like you've been doing some legwork," he said bemusedly. "I thought you were ready to call it quits."

Hetty's eyes went wide. "Where the hell did you get that kind of idea? I'd fly with you to the ends of the earth!" Her eyes flashed angrily. "If you weren't my boss, I'd knock your teeth in!" She tucked her clipboard under her arm, spun on her heel, and stalked out of the hangar bay.

Kahn watched her go, trying to figure out exactly what had just happened. Dames, he thought to himself. Go figure.

Something Hetty had said stuck out in his mind. "Hey!" he called out. His wingman stopped at the hangar's entryway. "Did you just say that Nesbitt's doing a cattle call for pilots tomorrow?"

Hetty rolled her eyes. "I hadn't planned on making a public announcement about it, but yeah. Why?"

"Perfect!" Kahn said with a feral grin. "That's just the angle we need!"

She looked at him like he'd lost his mind.

As far as Kahn was concerned, was the first normal thing she'd done in days.

"You're out of your mind," Angela Dane said flatly. "I wouldn't help you if you put a gun to my head."

"An interesting figure of speech, under the circumstances," Kahn replied. He reached in his flight jacket for one of the cigars he'd purchased in town. Sky Haven's airfield was still shrouded in darkness, though the rutted field bustled with activity. Dawn was less than a half-hour away, and he stood with Dane and a cluster of the Machiavelli's engineering crew by the nose of his plane, the Whitney's Neglect.

"Comrade Captain," Kahn said, "has it occurred to you that, if Nesbitt wins this little contest, you will be turned over to him, along with everything else the Red Skulls possess?"

The pirate leader bit off the end of the cigar, grimacing at the taste; it had been months since he'd had one of his preferred hand-rolled Cubans. "Nesbitt lost a lot of men to you and your townsfolk. I doubt he'll be as...congenial as I have been. Besides," he said with a shrug, "if we win you can legitimately say you were instrumental in putting a notorious aerial pirate out of business. Surely that has to count for something."

The People's Collective fighter pilot glared defiantly at Kahn, but he knew that he had her hooked. He nodded at the leader of the engineering crew. "You know what to do, Tony," Kahn said. "When Regen starts his speech, you make your move." He tossed a tired smile at Dane. "Good luck, Captain. See you at the finish line."

For more information see:
The People's Collective

Tony and his men led the reluctant Dane into off into the darkness. Kahn walked around the wing of his Devastator heavy fighter and started his preflight inspection. He was halfway through when Hetty found him. "They're buzzing like bees over there," she said, nodding in the direction where Nesbitt's planes waited. "Looks like he's got eighteen planes."

For more information see:
Hughes Devastator

Kahn nodded, still looking over his plane. "How many of those are Nesbitt's new friends?"

"Almost half."

"Perfect," he replied. "We couldn't ask for much better."

Hetty shook her head worriedly. "I hope you know what you're doing, boss."

"I know exactly what I'm doing kid. I'm just not certain if it will work."

Within ten minutes, the sky over the field had turned pale gray, hinting at the sunrise to come. Kahn climbed into his cockpit, wincing at the feel of the cold, metal seat, and surveyed the dark silhouettes of Nesbitt's aerial fleet. The pirate's assembled planes stretched nearly half the length of the airstrip, parked wingtip to wingtip.

Karl Regen and a few other town leaders had gathered at the airfield's control tower, along with a surprisingly large number of spectators. Many would be making bets on who would win, or who would enter the Cut but not make it to the other side. No one knew how many people had died flying the canyon route since the challenge became popular.

They just knew that the number of fatalities in the Cut was very, very high.

The first faint streaks of color were staining the sky as Kahn pulled on his flying cap and plugged in his radio. Across the field a set of speakers hissed and popped, and Regen's voice carried across the still morning air.

"When I give the command, you will start your engines," he declared. "Once both sides have taken off, you will circle the field until the green flare is fired, then you can make your way to the Cut. The rules of the challenge are clear: the first pilot from either side to complete the course and land back at the field wins the duel. No firing is allowed until you have entered the canyon. Once inside, anything goes. Start your engines!"

Kahn pressed the starter and the Whitney's Neglect's powerful engine roared to life. He looked down the length of the Red Skulls' parked planes, and fervently hoped Tony had done his job.

"Okay, Red Skulls, you know the plan," he barked into the radio. "Stick to your wingmen and go after Nesbitt's old timers first. The rest are amateurs."

Kahn released his brakes and the fighter rolled forward across the bumpy ground. Within minutes, friend and foe alike were racing down the strip, wingtip to wingtip. Kahn searched the field and caught a glimpse of Nesbitt's Peacemaker 370. He threw a mocking salute at his adversary, then sent his fighter hurtling into the sky.

For more information see:
William and Colt Peacemaker

The fighters took to the air like crows, circling tightly over the airfield. The air itself quivered from the combined thunder of twenty-four high-performance planes. Already the pilots were pushing their planes to the limit, making the tightest turns they could in anticipation of the start flare. They didn't have long to wait. The last plane was scarcely off the ground when a streak of green shot into the sky and the pirates raced for the mountains to the east.

Nesbitt's recruits were already pulling into the lead. Four light fighters, a mix of Bloodhawks and Valiants, pulled ahead of the pack, their engines wide open. The rest of Nesbitt's planes were strung along in their wake, ready to provide cover in case the Red Skulls went after them. They were the barrier Kahn and his pilots had to break through.

They reached the nearby mountains in moments, and ahead loomed the knife-edged cleft that marked the start of the run. Nesbitt's light planes reached the Cut first, a decided advantage, but Kahn's birds were close behind. The pirate leader rolled his Devastator onto his port wing and hurtled into the narrow, twisting canyon. "Let's get 'em, boys!"

The walls of the Cut were barely twenty yards across, forcing Nesbitt's planes into a tight mass of darting, swooping shapes. There was no way past, but on the other hand, they were almost impossible to miss. Kahn checked his meager store of rockets and selected half of them. "Flash rockets!" he called, and let two of them fly amid a storm of tracer fire.

The rockets streaked into the middle of Nesbitt's group and exploded, throwing stark shadows against the close-set rock walls. The pirates scattered, climbing and diving like sparrows, but two weren't so lucky. A Brigand banked right into the path of a black-painted Raven, sending both of them tumbling to the canyon floor in a tangle of twisted metal.

For more information see:
Fairchild Brigand; M210 Raven

Another of Nesbitt's planes, a Defender, veered sluggishly to port, its ailerons and rudder damaged by the torrent of fire from the Red Skulls. Just ahead the canyon twisted to the right, and the pirate fought to bring the nose of the Defender around. Just short of the turn the Defender's wing clipped the side of the canyon and the plane and exploded in an orange flash.

For more information see:
Marquette PR-1 Defende

Kahn whipped his plane through the turn. Ahead, four of Nesbitt's men were pulling into high, tight loops, ready to come down on the Red Skulls' tail. "Hold 'em off," Kahn called back to his pilots. "We've made the hole. O'Neil, Young and Walker, you're up."

Three of the Red Skulls' planes—O'Neil's Valiant plus Young and Walker's Bloodhawks—surged ahead like thoroughbreds, leaving the heavier planes behind. Nesbitt still had ten planes waiting ahead, a deadly gauntlet for the light planes to run. "Hetty, we've got to cover their tails," Kahn called to his wingman. "You with me?"

For more information see:
Bell Valiant; Hughes Bloodhawk

"Right on your tail, boss," she said confidently.

Four of Nesbitt's planes completed their loops, and Kahn's remaining heavies rose to meet them. They came together in a twisting, slashing dogfight that was quickly left behind. Nesbitt could afford to tie up all of the Red Skulls' planes—and still have plenty left to concentrate on winning the race, Kahn knew.

Kahn's three light fighters were well ahead, closing fast on six enemy fighters. Nesbitt's four nimble recruits still led the pack, well ahead of the rest of the combatants.

O'Neil's Valiant led the Red Skulls' charge, plunging through the enemy formation. They passed Nesbitt's heavy planes nearly close enough to touch, but their guns stayed silent; their meager ammo loads had to be conserved for the front runners yet ahead. Nesbitt's men, however, had no such compunctions. They unleashed a torrent of cannon fire leapt after the nimble fighters, and there was little room to dodge. A moment later, there was a bright flash, and a streamer of black smoke poured from the engine cowling of Hiram Young's Bloodhawk. The fighter lost speed immediately.

Kahn cursed and lined up one of the enemy planes in his sights. He sent his last two rockets streaking at the enemy Brigand and ripped apart its left wing. The pilot jumped clear as the plane spun out of control. If there was anyone in the fighter's rear turret, Kahn noted, smiling, he didn't make it out. Good riddance.

Hetty lined up behind the Brigand's wingman, a Vampire, and let off a long burst that tore into the heavy fighter's tail. Telltale smoke trailed from the magnesium rounds burning steadily through its skin, but the plane stayed in the air, jinking sharply out of the line of fire. Kahn watched as the enemy pilot dropped his flaps—which killed the Vampire's airspeed, and allowed the Vampire to drop into position behind them. Short bursts flashed past Kahn's canopy.

"Do you want me to take him?" Hetty called.

"No! Keep covering Walker and O'Neil!"

They swept around a hairpin turn to the left, then immediately right. The tight turns strung out the heavy planes even further, letting the lighter birds pull a little ahead. "I'm closing on the lead planes!" O'Neil called over the radio.

"Concentrate on the Bloodhawks," Kahn ordered. Just ahead, one of Nesbitt's recruits struggled to stay out of Kahn's line of fire. The pirate leader peppered the enemy Warhawk with short bursts that stitched across its starboard wing and tail. The inexperienced pilot was so preoccupied with Kahn he failed to notice Hetty, who fired two armor-piercing rockets into his tail. The plane exploded in a deadly blossom of crimson and orange fire, and metal shrapnel ricocheted wildly in the narrow canyon.

Rounds hammered into Kahn's plane, walking the length of his fuselage. The sound of the Devastator's engine turned ragged. Cursing, Kahn saw that his oil pressure was dropping. If he didn't slow down , the Devastator's engine would seize.

There was another tight turn to the right, and now they were through the midpoint of the course, heading back towards the airfield. "Got one!" O'Neil called out. "Boss, you better get up here! Nesbitt's goons are zeroing in on Walker!"

Kahn opened the throttle and watched the engine temperature rise. Nesbitt and three others were closing in on Forest Walker's Bloodhawk. "Hetty, you got any more rockets?"

"Way ahead of you, boss!" Two streaks of fire and smoke arced out and slammed into the wing of an enemy Devastator, sending it spinning to the canyon floor.

Harry Nesbitt himself settled onto Walker's tail and cut loose with everything he had. The light fighter blew apart under the withering fusillade of shells.

Kahn grimaced. "Pete, Walker's gone. You're all that's left."

"Yeah?" O'Neil replied. "Well, this one's for Walker, then."

There was a flash up ahead. The last enemy Bloodhawk exploded. Only the two Valiants remained, but were now far ahead of everyone else.

Kahn's oil temp indicator was well into the red. He could feel the heavy plane losing power fast. "Hetty, I'm almost finished myself," he called out. "You've got to cover Pete. I'll take care of the Vampire."

"Roger that, but I'm low on ammo."

Kahn looked back at the enemy Vampire, now closing in again for a sure shot. Abruptly he cut his throttle and popped his flaps; relatively speaking, the Devastator practically stopped in place. The Vampire flashed past, and Kahn cut loose, holding the trigger down in a single, long burst. Bits of armor burst from the enemy fighter's fuselage, and then its canopy exploded. Two of the Devastator's four guns jammed, but the enemy plane rolled over onto its back and plunged to the canyon floor.

Suddenly the canyon walls parted like a curtain. They'd made the Cut, and emerged south of the city. Another of Nesbitt's planes was plummeting to the earth, victim of Hetty's deadly accuracy, but Nesbitt and his wingman were closing steadily on O'Neil. Already tracer bursts were reaching for the speeding Valiant. "Keep 'em off me for another ten seconds and I can catch the rats!" O'Neil yelled.

"Hang on!" Hetty cried.

Kahn watched one of the Valiants peel off and come back at O'Neil. The two fighters raced head-to-head, firing as they came. Hits flashed along both plane's hulls, but still they charged at one another, neither willing to give way. At the last second, the enemy plane exploded as O'Neil's magnesium rounds found its fuel tank.

O'Neil whooped exultantly. "Got him, boss!"

That was when Kahn saw the rocket. A single streak of white flashed from beneath the wing of Nesbitt's plane. No doubt he'd saved the shot until the last, just in case.

The rocket ran true, exploding between the Valiant's twin engines. Kahn saw a shape leap from the plane's cockpit just before the fighter exploded, scattering wreckage across the snowy plateau.

Moments later Nesbitt's wingman fell from the sky, trailing black smoke. "I'm out of ammo!" Hetty cried.

The lone remaining Valiant lowered its gear and made a clean landing at Sky Haven's airstrip.

 


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