He regarded the Alamo two feet hundred off to port. She was forty feet longer than the Aegis, held twice as many planes, and had six more engines. The Texas flag had been painted on her side, red and blue fields and a white star thirty feet across. She was fast, and in the right hands, remarkably maneuverable. She had six-inch cannons and plenty of .50-caliber machine guns. Formidable and fast, pure Texas.
The Perseverance cruised serenely off the Aegis' starboard side. The zeppelin had a blue castle painted along her side, with the accompanying motto: "Perseverance Always Wins." She was the smallest of the three zeppelins, relying on the extra machine gun nests that replaced most of her broadside cannons. She could fill the sky with lead and cut down any plane foolish enough to get too close. Defensively, she was the strongest among them.
If Paladin had to pick one zeppelin to command, however, it would be his Aegis. She had extra gasbags in the nose and tail sections and in parts of the cargo hold. The extra lift compensated for her double layer of armor; she wasn't as nimble as Perseverance, but she could take a beating and keep on coming She had double machine guns mounted on every engine nacelle, seven-inch cannons on the gunnery deck, and between them, racks of rocket tubes. The Aegis had not been designed to carry cargoshe was a war machine.
Tennyson ran up the spiral set of stairs that led below to the gunnery and machine decks. A streak of grease smeared his usually spotless white coveralls "Cannons locked and loaded. Planes and pilots ready to drop. Port and starboard fuel tanks balanced at three-quarters each. Reserve tanks are full." He paused, then, added, "The crew are a tad nervous, but they're ready as well."
"And you?" Paladin asked. "Are you ready?"
"Quite," Tennyson said, looking nonplussed as ever.
Paladin paced then returned to the chalkboard. "There's one thing I didn't tell Ryan and Bouregard," he said. "Those zeppelins on the ground are probably nothing more than pirate gasbags. Their numbers make them a threat, but they'll be lucky to be in decent running order, let alone a real match for us."
"Then why do you look like a mother cat who's lost her kittens?" Tennyson asked.
"The Commerce." Paladin gritted his teeth. "If that monster is still there, she'll be at least an even match for the Aegisand probably the Perseverance and Alamo, too."
Tennyson stepped closer to Paladin and whispered, "And what of Flora?"
"She'll be down there somewhere." He sighed. "This fight is about much more than my family now. As much as I want to go in and get her the hell out of there first, I can't. Flora will have to take care of herself a little while longer."
Paladin returned to scanning the horizon. Soon, he spotted Le Coeur du Minuit in the distance, a smear of gray upon the water.
He positioned himself at the wheel and flicked on a bank of radios set to the frequencies of the Alamo, the Perseverance, and their escort wings. "Target sighted. Descend to one thousand feet and rig for flank speed."
Paladin switched on the Aegis' intercom and gave the order to bleed helium. The zeppelin gently nosed down.
The island looked far less impressive in the daylight. No lights, no neon, just worn hills and swamp and mudflat shores.
"Ryan, send your Kestrel sharpshooters in. Take out those antiaircraft guns."
"Aye aye, Mr. Blake," she piped over the radio.
The Kestrels broke their orderly "V" formation, banked and dove straight toward the center of the island.
"Tennyson, get below and make sure the exhaust vents on those rockets are set up. I don't want to set ourselves on fire when we launch."
Tennyson nodded briskly and ran below decks.
There were five miles from Le Coeur du Minuit and Paladin spotted swarms of planes circling the islandnot the four or five squadrons he had seen here, but five times that number. A dozen planes dipped lower, chasing the Kestrels.
"My men are getting cut to shreds," Ryan yelled through the speaker. The Perseverance opened fire.
"Jed, let's give her a hand," Paladin said. "All escort wings: bank to port."
Their fighters moved out of the way, and the Aegis and the Alamo fired their machine guns. The air became a shower of shooting-star tracers. Enemy craft exploded into fireballs and trails of smoke.
A hundred planes turned toward the zeppelins.
"That got their attention," Paladin muttered. He shouted into the radio: "Escort wings, take them out! Perseverance and Alamo launch your reserve fighters now and have them bank to starboard."
Warhawks and Devastators and Peacemakers dropped from the bellies of the zeppelins. Paladin couldn't count the number of planes in the air. They circled and swooped and dove and barrel-rolledall the while spitting fire and launching rockets, peppering the air with flak, smoke and shrapnel.
A series of explosions ripped through the center of the island. A moment later, columns of fire and inky black smoke spiraled into the sky. One of Ryan's "Sharpshooters" spun wildly out of control in the updraft; the Kestrel slammed into the ground, adding more fuel to the conflagration. No one bailed out.
"Sharpshooters report AA guns down," Ryan said.
"Alamo: flank speed," Paladin barked. "Punch straight ahead. Perseverance: hang back. You've got the firepower to handle the fighters. Keep them busy while we take out those grounded zeps."
There was a moment's hesitation, and then Ryan replied, "Roger, Aegis. Give 'em hell for me."
"Tennyson," Paladin called into the intercom. "Flank speed."
The Aegis' engines roared and the zeppelin surged ahead.
It wasn't a clean break from the swarms of enemy fighters. A handful dogged the Alamo and the Aegis, firing their rockets, and then diving away. The Aegis rocked as explosions detonated on her port side. Paladin grabbed the brass rail to steady himself as the zeppelin suddenly decelerated.
"Engines four and seven destroyed," Tennyson yelled through the intercom.
The Alamo pulled ahead. Smoke trailed from half her nacelles and fire flickered inside her launch bay.
Paladin grabbed a pair of binoculars and scanned the runway and aerodromes in the distance. He made out the misty outlines of zeppelins docked there. Three started to riseten, twenty, fifty feet above the tarmac. He could see names painted on their sides, in lurid calligraphy: "Vainglorious" and "Hustler" and "Prophecy."
He breathed a sigh of relief. None of them were the Commerce.
"Alamo: prepare to fire all guns."
"Roger that," Bouregard replied. The Alamo was a half-mile closer to the runway now than the Aegis.
"Bridge to Weapons Deck: make sure those rockets have long-range fuses," Paladin called into the intercom. "We can't afford to have one of those birds blow up in the tubes."
A moment later, Tennyson's preternaturally calm voice crackled from the speaker. "Confirmed, sir. All rockets ready."
Thunder rumbled from the starboard side of the Aegis as her seven-inch guns blasted shells at the enemy. A moment later, a salvo of rockets streaked groundward, leaving behind a solid sheet of white exhaust.
There were flashes from the Alamo's gun deck as well and she tilted thirty degrees off her center.
Explosions sprinkled the runway, the aerodromes, and the zeppelins tethered there; shells rained down and shattered concrete, cratered the tarmac, and tore open the sides of the zeppelins. Rockets impacted next, flashes of fire magnesium bright; fuel ignited and splashed onto the runway, metal skeletal frames twisted and burned.
Only the Vainglorious rose above the inferno. The pirate zep was less than a quarter-mile from the Alamo. Bouregard had just started to turn her port side to toward the enemywhen the Vainglorious fired.
Shells punctured the side of the Alamo, her fore gasbags deflated, and she tilted nose first to the ground and the firestorm below.
"Tennyson," Paladin said, "reverse the starboard engines and give me best speed on the port."
The Aegis came about, agonizingly slow.
"Target that pirate zep," he said. "Fire everything you've got."
Rocket and shells blazed from the Aegis.
The Vainglorious reeled from the impact, then her frame groaned and distorted as rockets detonated. Her gasbags ruptured...and she sank into the flames.
The Alamo dumped ballast and halted her descent, rose slightly, and with only four engines turning, moved off the coast.
Paladin slumped over the wheel. "Too close," he muttered. "Too damn close."
Bouregard's voice crackled over the radio: "Thanks for the save, Aegis. Looks like your plan was aces after all."
Paladin saw movement in his peripheral vision: a school of shark-like projectiles moving with eerie grace, glided past the Aegis. Aerial torpedoes.
"Alamo! Break off!" he cried into the radio. "Get out of there!"
The torpedoes slammed into the Alamo's gunnery decks and bridge. She shuddered, hung in the air...then her gas cells rippled and split.
Scarlet and orange flame burst from the bridge. The Alamo gracelessly fell to earth, her superstructure twisting and crumpling in on itself.
Paladin angrily toggled the intercom. "Bridge to spotters," he snarled. "Where the hell did those torpedoes come from?"
Before the spotters could reply, a shadow eclipsed the sun. Paladin's head snapped up.
Another zeppelin dropped into view. It broke free of the glare, and Paladin watched her head straight towards the Aegis.
It was the Commerce.