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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

Paladin Blake's quest to bring the pale man to justice has taken several strange turns. After infiltrating a mercenary band recruited by the pale man, Blake learned that he wasn't dealing with pirates or petty criminals. Rather, the mysterious architects of the theft of a Lockheed prototype were Unionists, bent on reunifying the shattered United States...no matter how many innocents had to die in the process.

Now, only Paladin Blake stands between the sinister "pale man" and his mad schemes...

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press

The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund

Chapter Twelve: One-Man Invasion

Paladin Blake held his breath, carefully maintaining his plane's position in the double-arrowhead formation of warplanes. Paladin's every instinct screamed at him to blast his way out of this mess...but that would be suicide.

Instead, he gritted his teeth and pointed "Lightning Girl"—his modified P2 Warhawk—at the heart of Washington, capital of the nation of Columbia.

The pale man's officers had positioned their black Grumman Avengers on the tips of this double-V formation, herding the characteristically sloppy pirate pilots into a precise pattern of aircraft with no more than ten feet between any one of them.

It was a sight that the defenders of Columbia couldn't possibly miss—which was the point.

For more information see:
Warhawk; Avenger; Columbia

Paladin had been assigned a dual role on this mission of destruction. He was to fly "Lightning Girl" out and lure the defenders of the peace conference back to the Unionist zeppelins. After the zeps made confetti out of them, he'd turn back and bomb the Congressional building.

"Lightning Girl" had been singled out for both parts of the mission because the pale man's mechanics had been wowed with her horsepower, beefed-up armor and devastating firepower. They also knew she'd be one big, flashy target that would be irresistible to the defending militia pilots. And she could take far more punishment than the majority of the lighter craft on his Warhawk's wingtips. The Unionists had offered Paladin a hazard bonus for the extra duty, and he had accepted—itching to do something...anything to stop this.

But how was he going to stop them? He was just one plane against dozens, each flown by an experienced killer.

He glanced over his shoulder. The George Washington floated under a ceiling of iron-gray clouds at four thousand feet. The other two zeppelins, the Samuel Adams and the Thomas Jefferson were concealed just above her, nestled within the cottony banks of clouds.

Paladin dialed through the radio frequencies, hoping to pick up some chatter, trying to remember what channel Columbia's militia used, but only heard static. He reset his radio.

"'Lightning Girl,'" a voice growled though his speaker. "Get your nose up!"

"Roger," Paladin replied, startled.

He had allowed his plane to drift a few feet above of the formation. He quickly pushed the yoke forward, easing his crate back into place.

He scowled, wishing "Lightning Girl" wasn't so sluggish to respond. She had been loaded with two high explosive and two incendiary bombs, not to mention her full fuel tanks, yards of ammo belts, and rockets.

It was a good thing the pale man's officer had caught his slip. A minor collision would mean disaster for everyone...which maybe was exactly what Paladin needed.

Not that he was ready to sacrifice his life. No—there had to be another way.

Paladin pulled back on the stick and keyed his microphone: "Black Ace One, this is 'Lightning Girl.' I have a sticky wing flap. I need to give myself a little maneuvering room to see I can free it up."

"Break and return to base, 'Lightning Girl.' Wait for phase two, then proceed as ordered."

Paladin eased his plane up and poured on the juice, pulling in front of the formation.

This wasn't the first time he'd flown in a sticky situation. In the Great War he had to hit moving targets—trains and tanks, and columns of solders—but never a target like this. There'd be no near miss.

He glanced down at the double-V formation. Planes shifted gently, closing to fill the hole made by his absence. Good.

Paladin nudged "Lightning Girl" ahead, his eyes flickering between his instruments and the formation below.

There. That would be his best shot.

His radio crackled and whined. "'Lightning Girl,' I said return to base!" the pale man's watchdog snapped.

"I will," he replied. "But I have to leave you creeps a little going away gift."

Paladin released his bombs.

He pulled up hard and firewalled the throttle. "Lightning Girl" climbed and inverted. Paladin watched as his bombs tumbled into the tightly-stacked formation.

The first bomb shattered the canopy of a Kestrel, as another simultaneously slammed into—and through—the wing of a J2 Fury. There was an incendiary spark, which coalesced in a split second into a brilliant blue-white flash of light as the spark reached the glittering cloud of aviation fuel spewing from the Fury's severed wing tanks.

For more information see:
Kestrel; Fury

Like Fourth of July firecrackers, there was one flashbulb detonation after another as Paladin's bombs found their marks. The planes slammed into each other, transforming the tight, precision formation into an insane tangle of smoke, whirling propeller blades, glittering shards of metal, and igniting fuel that mushroomed and roiled with screeching thunder.

Wings and tails and glass hailstones emerged from the cloud, fuselages spiraled out of control, and other twisted hunks of steel plummeted toward the earth. Paladin caught a glimpse of an opening parachute, and a tangle of fluttering silk wrapped around a body.

Paladin didn't waste his time feeling sorry for any of them. They had wanted to start a war—they'd damn well get a war.

He banked back toward the zeppelins.

It wasn't the acceleration that made his stomach sink; "Lightning Girl" had dumped her bombs to remove the advance squadron. Now how was he going to stop three fully-loaded military zeps and their escorts?

Paladin eased the throttle back. He needed time to think.

The radio crackled: "Come in Black Ace One. Repeat your status and position."

It was now or never. The pale man's forces were confused and blind. Paladin quickly planned his approach and opened the throttle up. Whatever he was doing to do, however he was going to stop them—he had to do it fast. Their confusion, and Paladin's window of opportunity, wouldn't last for long.

As he drew closer, he spotted the shiny bulk of the George Washington...then saw the shadows of the Samuel Adams and the Thomas Jefferson as they descended from the clouds. They took positions in front of the Washington—a triangular formation that would maximize their firepower if anyone was foolish enough to engage them.

Circling above the zeps were their escort squadrons, the fighters that would catch any strays the zep didn't get, and then bombers that would turn Washington into rubble.

They were expecting Columbia's militia to be hot on the Warhawk's tail. They were expecting a fight. So he'd give them one.

Paladin pulled back on the yoke, executed a quarter roll, and accelerated toward the Jefferson. He lined his plane up, aiming to pass slightly above the line of fire of the zeppelins' machine gun nests and gleaming rocket tips.

He held his breath—waited until he was close enough to see people inside pointing and panicking and running from their positions as the plane they thought was on their side barreled toward them—then opened fire with cannons and rockets.

Smoke trails snaked from "Lightning Girl" to the belly of the zeppelin. Fire blossomed inside the converted passenger's galley—then a staccato string of detonations as the munitions inside exploded in a chain reaction. A hundred rockets launched to port and starboard, billowing thunderheads of smoke and flame and sprouting greasy blossoms of flak and fire.

Paladin snapped "Lightning Girl" upright and pulled back fast—arcing up and over the zeppelin, so close he felt the randomly firing machine gun cartridges zinging off his plane's fuselage, so close he thought he could feel the heat of the passing rockets.

He leaned over and strained to get a look at the Jefferson. Her underside was ablaze, and flames and plumes of sooty smoke curled up the sides of the airship...flames that quickly dwindled and died.

"Damn," Paladin muttered. "So much for the element of surprise." It all figured, though. This wasn't some low-rent bunch of pirates; this splinter group of Unionists had the money and the resources to fill the zeppelin with helium. Had she been filled with cheaper hydrogen, she would have gone up like gasoline-soaked dynamite.

The pale man's moment of confusion, and Paladin's luck, had just run out. He glanced back. The sky was thick with swarming planes...all of them gunning for him. Bullet holes stitched across his starboard wing, and a trio of slugs ricocheted and pinged off the canopy, cracking it.

The Jefferson was still aloft and her engines were running at full speed. The zep, however, looked like a bite had been taken out of her. Where the gallery had been, there was now a twisted, blackened mess of skeletal superstructure. The central gasbags were rapidly deflating and jets of fire spouted from broken fuel lines.

Paladin had to make a break for it. If he gained altitude fast enough he might be able to get away in the cloud cover.

But what about the peace conference? The pale man still had two zeps and enough planes to pull off his mission—maybe not as easily as intended, but it could still be done.

Paladin sighed and patted the instrument panel of "Lightning Girl." "This may be the dumbest stunt we've pulled all week, friend." He pulled back on the yoke, rolled, and righted "Lightning Girl"—heading straight into the face of his enemies.

Two dozen fighters opened fire. They dove toward him. It looked like it was raining tracers outside and enough bullets impacted with "Lightning Girl" to make the plane's engine stutter.

The Warhawk's starboard engine smoked and coughed but kept going. Paladin squeezed both triggers and peppered a pack of Devastators directly in front of him—cracking the canopy of the lead plane. The planes veered aside at the last second, as the lead Devastator began to tumble. Scratch one pilot.

For more information see:

It was suddenly silent save for the thrum of his plane's engines.

Paladin had broken though the pack of pirate escorts. It would take them a second to turn and get on his tail. He refused to think about what would happen then; he had to stay focused on the Jefferson.

He turned toward the line of engine nacelles on the wounded zeppelin's port side.

Blake knew he would never get another sweetheart shot like he had taken on the Jefferson. The Adams and the Washington would cut him to shreds before he could blink. No...there was only one way to take out those zeps now—with another zeppelin.

The Jefferson wasn't dead in the air; she kept pace with the Adams. By destroying the galley and bridge, Paladin had only cut off her head. Her engines were running at full speed—dumb and blind, but still running.

He was a quarter-mile away from the Jefferson's port engine nacelles when he opened fire. It was a million-to-one shot at this range, but he'd need all the firepower he could squeeze off to make this work.

The Warhawk's guns sprayed destruction as she closed the distance to the zep—one motor sparked as "Lightning Girl" lined up on the proper trajectory and hit—then it exploded into sparks and bits of spinning metal. Paladin quickly aimed at the next engine and blasted away, then a third, before "Lightning Girl" zoomed past the dying airship.

A rocket blast shook "Lightning Girl." Paladin looked over his shoulder and spied a pack of incoming Grumman Avengers. He rolled back and forth, then dove to gain speed.

They followed him like bloodhounds on the scent, a shower of lead shredding his tail.

"Come on girl," Paladin urged his plane. "Hang on just a little more."

Paladin pulled up, ignoring the shudder that ran through his airframe. If his luck could hold out for a few more seconds, then the party would really begin.

He spotted the Jefferson. With three of the five engines on her port side shot to pieces, she listed to one side, right toward the Samuel Adams

—and collided with the battle zep.

The starboard side of the Jefferson impacted on the Adams' stern. Their spinning props ripped into one another, tearing fabric and gasbags, wrenching blades and frames, pulling them into a tighter embrace. The zeps tangled and locked together.

The Adams' nose crumpled and sagged. Many of the Jefferson's gasbags had been torn open. Together they tilted and started to sink.

Paladin lined up "Lightning Girl," right over the George Washington and matched speed and direction. He double-checked his parachute harness, praying the chute he had packed wouldn't tangle.

He popped the canopy. Wind stung him with icy needles. He bid "Lightning Girl" a silent goodbye, then cut her engines.

The Warhawk sputtered and stalled and Paladin jumped.

The thirty-foot fall wasn't bad—he broke a handful of his ribs on impact, rather than breaking his neck. Paladin bounced once—twice—toward the edge, then caught the slippery fabric before he went over.

He climbed back to the top. Beneath him, the zeppelin shifted and turned west.

He drew a knife from his boot and cut into the fabric, then grabbed onto the steel frame and pulled himself inside. "No you don't," he growled. "This time, there's no way in hell you're getting away."

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