He stepped around it to get a better look. This close, he saw it was very different from the plane he had crashed yesterday. This one had a mirror polish on its steel skin; the engines were larger and smoothly melded into the frame; the bubble canopy was a recessed cycloptic eye. The plane looked slick and seamless, a far cry from the half-finished, temperamental craft that he had flown out of Pasadena.
"So where the hell did this one come from?" he muttered to himself. No time to figure it out. Paladin was beginning to attract curious looks from the guards and mechanics here.
He glanced to the prototype, to the three guards starting toward him, then took a gamblemaybe his only way to make a not-so-graceful exit.
Paladin steeled his nerve and took a deep breath. "Hey!" he yelled across the hangar to the guards. "We got a problem."
For once, his bad luck was a blessing. Alarm bells jangled throughout the hangar. The guards broke into a run, reaching for their pistols. The mechanics followed, brandishing wrenches, crowbars, and other makeshift weapons.
"Quick," Paladin said. "They need help on the bridge. Hurry!"
The men pushed their way through the double doors. No one looked twice at Paladin.
He spied a wrench on the floor, grabbed it, and jammed it through the door handles. That bought him maybe another fifteen seconds. He rolled a wheeled ladder under the flying wing.
A man in the control room banged on the window. He waved his arms to get Paladin's attention. When Paladin ignored him, the man got on the radio.
No turning back now, Paladin thought. Everybody on this zep is gonna know I'm here.
Paladin scrambled up the ladder and climbed into the prototype's cockpit. This definitely wasn't the same plane he'd flown. The seat was soft padded leather, almost obscenely comfortable in comparison to the rather spartan interior of "his" prototype. The instrument panel was burnished brass and teak with a Rolls Royce precision floating horizon, a Swiss Gersbeck altimeter, and a Rothschild Blackhawk RPM gauge/speedometer. There were also a few dials and switches that Paladin didn't recognize.
He found the manual docking release and pulled. There was a click and the plane slowly began to roll forward on its track, toward the hole in the zeppelin's belly.
The prototype jerked to a halt. Paladin cracked his head on the instrument panel. The flying wing swung back and forth.
The guy in the control room had his hand on a lever and a smug look on his face.
Paladin could have killed that creepif he had had the spare time. He squinted and found the cause of his problems: a spring-loaded clamp three feet from the rail's end. There was no way the flying wing could roll off. No way for him to escape.
He heard banging and voices. Paladin turned and saw the double doors jostle and the jammed wrench begin to shake loose.
He drew the nickel-plated .38 pistol he had swiped from the steamer trunk...then recalled he had more firepower. He pulled out the grenade he had found with the gun.
But one grenade wouldn't stop the army on the other side of those doors, unlessPaladin tuned and examined the railhe found a better use for the thing.
He set down his gun and pocketed the grenade. He clambered out of the cockpit and balanced on the teetering wing.
Paladin grasped the rail overhead. His wounded shoulder blossomed with fire and something inside tore. He gritted his teeth, and pulled himself, hand over hand, to the locking clamp. Hanging by his right arm, he retrieved the grenade, pulled the pin with his teeth, then jammed it into the clamp.
He swung himself once, twice, dropped back onto the wing, and rolled into the cockpitcovering his head and bracing for the blast.
It sounded like a cannon going off in his ears. Shrapnel zinged off the canopy and the steel skin of the flying wing. He shook his head to clear his ringing ears and risked a glance at the damage. The spring-loaded clamp and rail had blown clean off.
Paladin's streak of bad luck still held, however. The clamp was gone, but the track had a twisted into a slight upturn. The plane wouldn't roll off...not unless someone got out and gave it one heck of a push.
The double doors burst open. The three guards he had sent on a wild goose chase rushed in with their sidearms drawn. They weren't alone, eitherthe poker players in the bunkroom were on their heels, as were a half dozen gunners from the gallery. Even the pale man was there, monocle gleaming and a Thompson submachine gun in hand.
And they were all looking for him.
Paladin crouched lower in the cockpit. His dogfighting instincts made him want to reach for the yoke and pull it backdodge, try an Immelman, and somehow shake these jokers off his six. But this was no dogfight.
Paladin glanced at the pistol in his hand, and briefly considered a frontal assault. Maybe the element of surprise would buy him enough time to get clear, get out of the hangar, maybe find a parachute
That would be crazy.
His eyes fell to the rubberized grip and trigger on the yoke, the glimmerings of a plan forming.
No. Crazy was trying to hold off an army with a peashooter, especially when you were sitting on two thirty-caliber cannons. He could use the plane's guns. But he'd have to turn the thing around first.
He pressed the port and starboard starters. The engines turned over and roared to life, growling like metallic tigers. Paladin inched the port throttle forward. The differential in power to the engines started to spin the flying wing on the universal joint, rotating to face the guards.
They raised their weapons; Paladin saw the blur of whirling props reflected in their wide eyes.
One of them fired. A bullet pinged off propeller blades.
Paladin squeezed the trigger. The plane's nose was pointed too high for him to hit anyone, but that didn't stop him from unloading a few hundred rounds over their heads.
The men scattered like rats, hitting the deck and crawling for cover.
It wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done. As the plane turned, Paladin spotted barrels of aviation fuel and racks of high-explosive rockets. If he kept shooting, they'd all go out in a blaze of glory.
The pale man set down his Tommy gun and stood. He held up his white-gloved hands and shouted at Paladin.
A truce? Paladin couldn't hear what he was trying to say over the drone of his engines. He eased the port throttle back a bit to kill his spin. The flying wing rolled to a low spot on the track as the engines slowed.
In his peripheral vision he saw some of the guards flanking him.
"Want to play hard ball, huh?" he said. "Well, I can play that game, too."
He gripped the trigger and readied himself. The slight rocking of the flying wing was going to make this a tricky shot.
Paladin froze. The plane was rocking like someone had given it a good push...and wasn't that exactly what he had said he needed? A good push to get out of this jam?
He revved the starboard engine, turning the plane back to its original facing.
He narrowed his eyes and pulled the trigger. The twin thirty-caliber machine guns stitched the deck, sent a flurry of sparks flying, and riddled aviation fuel barrels with holes. Amber liquid gushed and ignited into a river of fire.
The pale man dove into the hallway.
Paladin let the flying wing turn until its nose pointed toward the open bay doors in the zeppelin's undercarriage.
He pushed both throttles full open. The plane accelerated, gained momentum, up the track, then off the twisted upturned end with a wrenching squeal.
An explosion surrounded the cockpit with flame and smoke and thunderand the flying wing plunged through the launch bay door, hurtling towards the earth.