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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 should have known better: there's no such thing as easy money. But when a shady security chief from Lockheed offered him a pile of cash to fly a new prototype flying wing to a secret testing facility, he just couldn't say no to the job. The money involved was considerable, and his finances needed the boost.

Since taking the assignment, Blake has been shot down, left for dead in the desert, hunted by pirates, and driven to the brink of financial ruin. Ambushed in the skies over the Nation of Hollywood, the prototype was destroyed.

Fortunately, after infiltrating the pirates zeppelin, he learned that his mysterious attackers had an exact duplicate of the flying wing. All he had to do to get it was sneak past dozens of well-trained pirates, board the plane and blast his way to freedom...

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press

The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund

Chapter Six: The Big Fall

Icy wind tore through the open cockpit as the flying wing dropped from the belly of the zeppelin. Veils of smoke and steam parted before the windshield.

Paladin had misjudged how high the zep was...there were only a few hundred feet between him and the desert floor.

He instinctively pulled back on the yoke—then quickly stopped himself. That was wrong. Instead, he pushed the yoke forward and nosed the flying wing into a dive.

The problem was air speed...or rather, a lack of it.

This was a mistake almost everyone made on their first freefall launch. A pilot's training made him want to pull up to gain altitude, but no plane could fly without the speed to produce sufficient lift.

Sure, his engines were at full throttle, the RPM gauge was pegged, but technically the plane was still starting from a dead stop.

Paladin gripped the yoke with his sweaty hands. His gaze flicked to the altimeter as it rapidly ticked off the distance to the ground. Needles of wind blurred his vision as he spared a quick glance at the air speed gauge. Almost.

Below him were sandy waves, washed against outcroppings of red rock. He could see dots of sage and creosote, and spiny yucca drawing so close that Paladin could see their columns of white flowers blooming. He was running out of room.

The plane's airspeed was a hair under what he needed. It had to be enough.

He pulled back on the control stick with all his strength, ignoring his instincts which screamed that no plane, no matter how advanced, could pull out of a full dive at this speed.

The airframe creaked and pinged from the increasing stress. Paladin was crushed into the padded seat and blood drained from his head and hands. His peripheral vision swirled and dimmed as his body fought to compensate for the tremendous punishment being inflicted upon it.

He pulled back harder, bracing with shuddering legs. There was only a pinpoint in the center of his vision now; the only thing visible was the ground rushing to meet him. The thunder of the engines dopplered into a faint drone. The pulse in his neck strained and struggled to pump blood. He felt like he was drowning.

Paladin waited for the end. It would, at least, be quick—slamming face-first at a hundred miles per hour into the earth...

...only the end was taking its sweet time getting to him.

Paladin's pinpoint of vision swelled open; half of it was sand and sage, half of it was turquoise sky.

He shook his head, trying to recover from the near blackout. His hands had gone limp and rested gently on the controls.

There was a scrape and clatter along the undercarriage and a grinding buzz through the blades of the props.

With a start, he realized that the altimeter read a hair above zero. Paladin peered outside. The plane skimmed five feet above the ground—cruising at two hundred miles per hour. Propwash kicked up a cloud of dust and sand as the prototype rocketed by, clearcutting sagebrush and yucca as he flew past.

He eased the yoke back with a light, precise touch, then quickly nudged the controls to evade a rock that otherwise would have bisected the flying wing.

Paladin pulled back and climbed fifty feet. He exhaled, realizing that he'd been holding his breath.

"Thanks," he said, smoothing his hand along the brushed brass and teak instrument panel. "I owe you one."

Paladin, though, wasn't quite ready to throw a victory party. He looked over his shoulder. The zeppelin billowed black smoke, and fire puffed from her launch bay. She was still in one piece, more or less. Too bad. She had to be filled with helium, not hydrogen. Otherwise she would have gone up like gasoline-doused tissue paper.

Aircraft buzzed around the wounded zep like flies. For an instant, Paladin wasn't so sure that he'd damaged the zep's launch bay.

"Nuts," he muttered.

He'd forgotten about the squadron of Grumman Avengers that had been parked on the airstrip—the same Avengers that had shot him down once already.

They, however, had not forgotten him. They dove.

The usual tactics didn't apply here. Normally whoever had the higher altitude in a dogfight had the advantage. But these Avengers had to dive low just to catch up to the flying wing. If Paladin tried to climb they'd be all over him. So whatever was going to happen it was going to be low. Belly-grinding low.

"Come and get me, you bastards."

The Avengers couldn't line up for a shot unless they were diving straight toward him. He pushed the yoke forward, hugged the sandy hills and raced past rocks and trees—not giving them a static target. If they wanted a shot at him they'd have to come down and play in the dirt, where the agile flying wing might have an advantage over the more cumbersome Avengers.

Paladin glanced backwards. Four planes were falling fast after him. Two more were staying high, presumably acting as spotters and radioing his position back to their friends.

A stream of magnesium bullets blazed over his head and a smoky trail of a rocket appeared, detonating against a rocky outcropping just a few feet from his nose.

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Grumman E-1C Avenger

They wanted him all right. Bad enough to risk their necks getting as close to the ground as he was. Good.

He looked back. A pair of the Avengers slowly dropped behind him; they almost had him lined up in their sights.

"A little closer," he whispered. "Come on...just a little more."

Paladin firewalled the throttled, and pulled back on the yoke, accelerating and rising ten feet before the Avenger on his six could blast him to confetti.

He rolled the plane upside-down and killed his throttle.

The Avengers roared under him, a blur of props and metal; he caught a glimpse of Lady Kali and the flaming tattoos on her arms-so close he could almost reach out and touch them.

Paladin continued the roll and righted the flying wing, dropping neatly behind his would-be pursuers.

His finger tightened on the trigger, spraying gunfire at the nearest Avenger.

The Avenger on his port tried to bank. Its wingtip grazed the sand, sending the plane into a deadly cartwheel. The Avenger disintegrated into flame and smoke, sending shrapnel clattering off his canopy.

Paladin blasted through the debris and kept firing. Bullets peppered the tail of the remaining Avenger.

Lady Kali pulled up, climbed a hundred feet, and kept going. She and the other Avengers banked and headed back toward the zep.

Paladin pulled back on the yoke. He'd finish what they started.

No. There were too many Avengers waiting up there. And he'd already pushed his luck past the breaking point.

He eased the flying wing to the safe altitude of thirty feet and headed northwest.

"You're going home, little friend," Paladin told the plane. Lockheed's secret airfield was no more than fifty miles along his current heading.

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Specialty Ammo

He glanced once more over his shoulder. The zep still trailed smoke, though the oily black clouds had softened into pale white wisps. She was gaining altitude, heading north. Maybe he hadn't crippled her after all. He'd bet those machine guns he'd seen on the observation deck were still working, too. Paladin was glad he was putting distance between him and that monster.

This isn't over, Paladin thought. Not by a long shot. He'd find some way to even the score.

He banked the flying wing around a rocky hill, reveling in the craft's responsiveness and agility. Maneuvering the plane was like sliding across silk. Paladin heard the starboard engine throttle back and the port rev faster as he turned. When he leveled out, the engines returned to their normal synchronized purr. He marveled at the engineering.

Paladin poured on the speed, blasting over desert dunes and gravel rivers that fanned into alluvial patterns on a dried lake. This was the perfect location for a flight research facility. Just one big flat surface—all runway.

Upon the horizon, wavering in the rising heat, he spotted the rippling outline of a control tower.

This had to be the place, but Paladin didn't know which radio frequency to use. "Won't they be surprised to see me?"

He deployed the landing gear and circled once. There were a dozen aircraft lined up in neat rows, and three hangars...as well as fifty-caliber machine gun nests next to them. Looked like they took their privacy seriously around here. Maybe being "surprised" wasn't such a good thing.

Paladin glided down the runway, touched down, and coasted to a stop next to the first hanger.

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A dozen men ran out from the control tower: mechanics, gentlemen in dark suits, and even the Hollywood police in their pressed blue uniforms.

Paladin climbed out of the cockpit and slid off the wing. "Hello, boys." He waved at them. "No need to roll out the red carpet. Just doing my job."

The men exchanged confused looks, then one of the cops reached for Paladin's hand.

Paladin mirrored the gesture, thinking they'd shake.

Handcuffs snapped around his wrist.

"Mr. Blake," the officer said. "You're under arrest."

"We checked out your story, Mr. Blake." The young Lockheed official sat on the edge of the table and leaned closer to Paladin.

He was near enough for Paladin to get an eyeful of the large dimple in his prominent chin. The reek of expensive cologne was overpowering.

"And your story doesn't check out."

Paladin sat with his hands still cuffed and resting on the tabletop. He would have punched this joker's lights out if he thought he could get away with it. But he couldn't. They had locked him in a room with Mr. Expensive Cologne and an older gentleman, neither identifying themselves, but both radiating authority. For the last two hours Mr. Cologne had asked the same questions about what had happened, and Paladin had told him the same story.

The older man wore a tweed suit with leather elbow patches. He nodded as Paladin explained about the pale man and the second prototype, but otherwise kept quiet and watched the show.

This room was on the second floor of the control tower. There was one window covered by thick curtains. The cinder block walls dampened the sound so much that Paladin thought his ears would bleed from the silence between their questions and his answers.

As far as he knew, they could be the only people still at this facility. He hadn't heard or seen anyone since the Hollywood police escorted him inside

"What do you mean my story doesn't check out?" Paladin demanded. "There was an air base. And there had to be something left of that Avenger that crashed between here and there."

"No." Mr. Cologne got up, grabbed a pitcher of water and poured himself a tall glass. He drank it without offering Paladin a drop. "You want to know what I think, though?"

How could a search team have missed that Avenger? Sure the desert was a big place, but from the air, the smoldering wreckage should be obvious. Even to a clown like Mr. Cologne.

"I don't care what you think," Paladin replied.

"I think," Mr. Cologne continued as if he hadn't heard Paladin, "that you flew our plane to Hughes' Burbank airfield. They took photographs and had their people go over our new engines, then you concocted this fantastic cover story and flew the plane here. How much did they pay you, Mr. Blake?"

"You think I faked this hole in my shoulder?" Paladin's face flushed. He rose of his chair. "Or the sand in the cockpit? You think I faked the shrapnel scars across the plane's wings?"

"Yes, Mr. Blake, I think you would endure almost anything for the right amount of money." Mr. Cologne raised his eyebrows in obvious disgust. "We have a complete file on you."

Paladin wondered how much they really knew. If they had all the dirt on him, why did Justin hire him?

"What about the second prototype? Peter Justin sent me out in one plane and I came back in another. How do you explain that?"

"Mr. Justin is presently on his way here to verify that the plane you brought is indeed not the one you were given," the older man said. "We will pick up that line of investigation when he arrives."

Paladin eased back into his seat. At least Justin could back up part of his story.

He was about to tell them how much better the pale man's prototype flew, but decided to keep his mouth shut. So far, telling the entire truth had gotten him nowhere fast.

And where exactly was this question-and-answer party going? Lockheed was a big corporation. They apparently had the Hollywood police in their pocket (at least the cops that weren't in the pocket of Hughes Aviation), too, since they were here, and looking the other way while Mr. Cologne conducted his interrogation.

There had been no mention about criminal charges and due process appeared to be right out the window. If things didn't go right, Paladin might just disappear. If the desert was big enough to hide a busted-up Avenger, how hard would it be to hide one inconvenient pilot?

The older man cleared his throat. "Please," he said to his companion, "give Mr. Blake a glass of water."

Mr. Cologne sighed, shook his head, but nonetheless poured a glass and set it down on the table.

Paladin grabbed it with both hands and quaffed it down.

"Do you smoke?" the older gentleman inquired.

Paladin's eyes fell to the items they had removed from his pockets and scattered on the table. There were the items he had "liberated" from the zeppelin: a brass key, a signet ring with a jade stone, and a pack of cigarettes he swiped from the pale man's parlor. Paladin licked his lips. It had been years since he'd had a smoke, but this might be as good a time as any to start again.

"Yeah," he whispered. "A smoke would be great."

Mr. Cologne tore the cellophane off the cigarettes. He tapped one out, handed it to Paladin, then flipped his lighter open.

The cigarette was wrapped in black paper—one of those expensive European jobs that had been impossible to get in North America since the market had crashed.

Paladin brought the cigarette close to the flame. He stared at it as it smoldered, and his mind raced as he struggled to come to grips with recent events.

Something sparked, a brief flicker of intuition. He rapidly pieced together the clues: the battle zeppelin, the unmarked Avengers, the pale man, and these cigarettes...

There were a few blank spots to fill in, but the entire two-day ordeal now made sense in a twisted sort of way.

Paladin looked up. "Give me twenty-four hours and two phone calls," he said, "and I guarantee I can answer all your questions."

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The Nation of Hollywood