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Chapter One:
Bourbon and Red Ink

Chapter Two:
A Wing and A Prayer

Chapter Three:
In The Crosshairs

Chapter Four:
Ghosts In The Sand

Chapter Five:
No Graceful Exit

Chapter Six:
The Big Fall

Chapter Seven:
Pointing the Finger

Chapter Eight:
One Way Out

Chapter Nine:
Chasing Shadows

Chapter Ten:
Pirate Try Outs

Chapter Eleven:
Under a Banner of War

Chapter Twelve:
One-Man Invasion

Chapter Thirteen:
The Lady And The Tiger

A Word From The Editor

It began as a simple delivery job. Paladin Blake—young, struggling and looking to make a name for himself—was hired by Lockheed to deliver a prototype flying wing to a secret test site in the Hollywood desert.

But what started out as a simple job turned into a web of deceit, danger and death, as Blake was himself framed for the theft of the prototype. Dodging bullets, battling sky pirates and air mercenaries, Blake tracked the real thieves to their hidden lair and discovered that they weren't petty crooks or mangy pirates. Instead, he found a deadly crew of military-trained soldiers and highly effective mercenary pilots.

Following a lead to a secret pirate "audition," Blake had to fight his way through scores of desperate, dangerous air aces. Now, accepted into the ranks of the mysterious "pale man's" troops, can Blake foil an even more sinister plot before its too late?

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press

The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund

Chapter Eleven: Under a Banner of War

Paladin was exhausted. He couldn't let his guard down, though. If he nodded off he'd wake up with his throat slit.

He sat in the dark, along with dozens of soldiers, pirates, and mercenaries, any one of whom would have gladly tossed him overboard if they knew who he really was.

The thrum of the engines reverberated through the chamber—a section of the zeppelin's interior superstructure. Instead of a gasbag, there were crates, spare airplane parts, and three bleachers arranged before a small projection screen.

A beam of light pieced the darkness. The pale man stood in front of his audience, hands held in a steeple. He wore a linen suit, had slicked back his thinning hair, and sported a monocle. His white suite and pallor blended into the screen behind him so he appeared—to Paladin's sleep-deprived eyes, at least—to step out of the flat surface.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "thank you for accepting our invitation. Now that we are close to our destination, I can brief you on the mission."

Paladin counted his lucky stars to have made it this far. It had been a full day since he had docked with the George Washington, eased "Lighting Girl" under the battle zeppelin's machine guns.

When he got out of the cockpit, he kept his leather helmet and goggles on. Unlike Lady Kali, someone in this group might recognize him. If not one of the hired pirates, then one of the George Washington's crew. They wouldn't soon forget the man that had stolen their pilfered prototype from the heart of their secret base.

So far, no one had grabbed him or put a gun to his head. Yet.

Each pirate lined up, signed a contract (with the usual clauses stipulating non-payment in the event of mutiny and cowardice), and got paid three hundred dollars in the national script of their choice. Another five hundred dollars plus bonuses were also promised, upon completion of the mission.

One clause in the contract had caught Paladin's eye, however. It gave the pale man and his crew permission to reinforce his plane's hardpoints. "Lightning Girl" could already carry rocket racks and extra fuel tanks so what gave? He didn't ask. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to himself.

Along with the new pirates that had survived the "interview" process, there were another two dozen mercenaries on the zeppelin, and a comparable number of solders in drab gray-green uniforms with shorn heads and black circle insignia.

He and the rest the hired help had been fed pheasant, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, before being assigned to cramped berths. The others in the informal "barracks" played poker or told wild tales of their exploits to pass the time.

Paladin had curled up in his bunk and pretended to sleep. He tried to rest but his heart wouldn't stop racing.

It probably wouldn't be too suspicious to keep to himself. Pirate's and mercenaries weren't noted for their friendliness. That wasn't too much of a problem. But where were they? The zep's engines had been running at full throttle for twenty hours. If they had caught a trade wind or a jet stream they could be two or three thousand miles from Hollywood—anywhere from Panama to Hawaii to Alaska.

For more information see:
Hollywood; Kingdom of Hawaii; Alaska

"Our mission is clear," the pale man said, snapping Paladin back from the edge of his groggy recollections. "Our mission is destruction."

This brought murmurs of approval from the audience.

The pale man nodded. There was the ratcheting of a mechanism from the shadows and an aerial map of a city flashed upon the screen behind him. Two river tributaries ran down either side. On the left there was a grid of buildings, but the right side had only a few structures, acres of green lawn, and rows of trees.

"We have prevailing cloud cover today at four thousand feet. Two of the three zeppelins in our battle group will hover just above this altitude with their escort squadrons."

Another slide and three zeppelin silhouettes appeared in the corner.

Paladin spied a figure sitting in shadows next to the stage. She sat just close enough to the illuminated screen so he could make out her features: a fall of dark hair, full lips, a tiny dimple in her chin, and wide expressive eyes. Paladin instantly recognized her— the pale man's companion, the one Blake had seen during his raid on the pirate base.

"The George Washington," the pale man continued, "will launch our two dozen fighters, half of which will proceed toward"—he nodded again and a large arrow flashed upon the map from the zeppelins to the center of the city—"this green belt. There, they will briefly engage the defending units, perhaps four to five squadrons, which will have been scrambled to counter our attack."

A voice shouted from the dark: "A dozen planes against five squadrons? That's nuts."

"Hardly," he said and peered into the shadows. The light reflecting from his monocle made the one eye seem huge. "I said 'briefly engage.'" He turned back to the map. "Napoleon called it the passive lure."

Another arrow appeared from the center of the map back to the zeppelins.

"You will let these defenders chase you to the George Washington. Climb to four thousand two hundred feet. The Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams will then enter the fray." He inhaled deeply and let out a sigh of contentment. "Between the machine gun fire and our initial salvo of rocket fire there will be little resistance left for our fighter escorts."

The pale man snapped his white-gloved fingers. "Phase two."

He pointed with his cane to a white rectangular building on the map. "Our heavier planes in reserve will then proceed unopposed to the primary target."

This structure looked familiar to Paladin.

"These planes have been have been fitted with two quarter-ton incendiary and two high explosive bombs. When the primary target has been destroyed—" the pale man pointed to another building—" this will be your secondary target. And this—" he indicated a tiny square that cast an unusually long shadow—"is our tertiary target. Destroy them all, ladies and gentlemen, and your pay shall be doubled."

The motley crew in the auditorium broke out in applause.

Paladin, however, had a sinking sensation in his stomach. Not only for the defenders of this city who were certain to get blasted into confetti by the three battle zeppelins...but because he finally recognized the targets.

It was that long shadow that gave it away. The tiny white square came to a point at the top. Paladin stretched out the shape to match the length of the shadow compared to the relative sizes of the other buildings' shadows. The structure had to be a hundred feet tall, maybe more. There was only one building like that in North America: the Washington Monument.

And the secondary target across the beltway park? That was the White House.

The primary target, east of the others, that was the Congress Building—just like he had seen it in the blueprints from Peter Justin's locker.

For more information see:

"Ready yourselves, pilots," the pale man said. "We will be arriving shortly."

The audience started talking excitedly to one another as they pushed their way out of the auditorium. Paladin sat there numbly for a moment and stared at the map until they were all gone.

"You see, perhaps, a flaw in this plan?" a female voice from the dark asked.

The woman who had been near the stage, the one who had always been by the pale man's side, was seated a few feet away from Paladin on the bleachers.

His heart skipped a beat then pounded in his throat. She, if anyone here, would recognize him. She had gotten close to Paladin before. Maybe she couldn't quite see him in the darkness.

"No flaw," he replied.

What stumped Paladin were the pale man's motives. No unionist in their right mind would attack the Capitol Building of the old United States. Paladin couldn't ask him directly, but maybe his friend here might spill the beans.

"I don't see the analogy between this plan and Napoleon's passive lure," Paladin said in the calmest voice he could muster. "The French used cannon, cavalry, and infantry. We have none of that."

"An educated pirate?" she cooed. "On aura tout vu. I'm impressed, mister...?"

"Call me Dashiell," Paladin told her.

She moved closer. From the reflected light off the screen Paladin saw she wore a tight skirt that flared around her shapely calves, a tight blazer and ruffled white shirt. He also spied the sparkle of diamonds on her fingers.

"Well, Dashiell," she said, "the analogy does hold. Our zeppelins carry over a hundred rockets. The exhaust backwash is ducted out the opposite side so we can launch dozens simultaneously. That is our artillery. The machinegun nests next to them are the infantry. And you, and your fellow flyers, are the cavalry."

Paladin imagined the battle: rockets could do a boatload of damage from a considerable distance to a tight formation of planes. If they got closer, the machine guns would finish them off. Add a dozen fighters and two more zeppelins bombarding the incoming wave of advancing planes...there'd be nothing left of them but smoke.

"It will work," Paladin admitted, "but why bother? I mean, bombing a few buildings hardly seems profitable. Unless profit isn't your motive?"

"Are you sure you're a pirate?" she asked. "Most pirates concern themselves only with money."

Paladin started to say he was a pirate—but he checked himself. He always tried to tell the truth, because frankly, he was lousy at lying. Most people picked up on it.

"I'm not a pirate," he whispered. "I'm a patriot. My great-grandfather fought in the American Revolution and my grandfather lost both legs in the Civil War. My father died when the states fell apart. I guess my family always ends up fighting and dying when their country is in need."

That was not far from the truth. Paladin's father had died during the break up of the states—but on a bootlegging run gone sour.

Was telling her this the right approach? Were the pale man and his crew Unionists? Paladin had found a Unionist signet ring in the pale man's room, but that didn't mean he was member of the Brotherhood of America. It could have been a trophy taken from an enemy, or for that matter, he could have picked it up in a pawnshop. Yet, would a man like Peter Justin have allied himself with anyone but a patriot? Paladin decided to take a gamble.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that a real American has to operate outside the law when he lives in a country that itself is illegal."

"Eloquently put." She set her hand consolingly on his. "Would it help if I told that you are in the right place at the right time to serve your country?"

Her touch gave him the chills. Paladin didn't move away, even though every instinct screamed that this woman was poison.

"How, exactly?" he asked.

She was silent a moment as she considered his question, then she said, "As we speak, representatives for every nation in North America are in the old Capital making deals to strengthen their political ties and lower trade barriers."

"Isn't that a good thing?"

"Good?" She withdrew her hand. "I suppose it is good for the tiny state nations. Good that they will become complacent with their diminished status. And good that their divisions with be all the more permanent, cemented by new treaties and agreements and guarantees of peaceful coexistence. But there is another way...not necessarily easier, but better for all in the long term."

"I think I see where this is going," Paladin murmured.

He had heard similar words seventeen years ago in Europe, and he had witnessed the brutal consequences.

"Then you understand," she said. "We disrupt the talks and encourage the state nations to believe another state was responsible. We drive them toward conflict. The most aggressive we back with money and weapons and guidance. Only as strong nation, willing to risk everything—to do anything—will have the willpower to reunite our country and make it great again."

"Under a banner of war," Paladin said.

She gave his arm a squeeze. "Yes."

Paladin had a couple of other names for this deal: Nationalism. Fascism. Rotten through and through.

But as much as the morals of the pale man's scheme repelled him, the logic driving the plan was sound and its eventual outcome was horrifyingly possible.

A klaxon blared, echoing throughout the chamber.

"We are preparing to launch phase one," the dark woman said. She kissed Paladin lightly on the cheek. "You must go."

"Yeah, I better," Paladin said and stood.

It looked like he was going to be a patriot after all. He had to stop the pale man—even if he had to die doing it.

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