by Ian Ironwood
Chapter Four: The Sky Princess of Oklahoma
Sept. 18th, 1891
Air Captain Gideon Becker watched the skirmish line of airships bearing the enemy’s colors – in this case, the red, gold and green of the Atlan Empire – bearing down on his position with a mixture of dread and excitement. He swung the periscope across the southern horizon and counted . . . five, no six ships. He noted with relief that they were not the three large Prussian-built stratodestroyers that the bloody Atlans had purchased recently, according to the Kingdom’s wily intelligence network, but rather the usual native-constructed patrol craft, a mere eighty meters long and painted a distinctive scarlet. They were far more primitive than the European-constructed airships in his squadron, more like the quaint first real airships from the 1870s. But there were six of them, and there were only three ships left in his squadron, including his own converted caravel, the Victrix. He hoped that today she’d live up to her name.
He slapped the periscope handles back in place and called out to his pilot.
“Change course, twenty degrees starboard, altitude steady. Ahead slow,” he ordered, feeling the surge of fear and excitement that came on the onset of battle. The pilot, a lad from Manchester named George Miller, nodded curtly and began making the course correction. George hadn’t started out the pilot of the Victrix, but two skirmishes ago the seasoned veteran Gideon had hired away from his father’s company had been killed in an unfortunate incident in port. George had bravely taken the wheels during the next battle after Gideon — a poor pilot at best — had nearly brought down calamity on them with his lack of expertise, and George had stayed in control of the ship ever since. Another English lad from Somerset, Jack Cooper, was on station as Signalman – and it was to Jack whom Gideon turned next.
“Signal the rest of the squadron – spread out in formation on the Victrix, and prepare battle stations. Looks like the Beanies are at it again. A half dozen, from the south-southwest, if they haven’t spotted them for themselves yet.” The dark-complected Atlans were unaffectionately known as “beanies” to the European mercenaries due to the important role that beans and corn played in their diet. The running joke was that they kept their rattle-trap ships aloft with the excess flatuance thereby produced. Gideon only wished it were true – had the bronze-skinned warriors been able to produce this feat, then they would not be advancing upon his position so determinedly.
The fact was that, like most of the airships in the world, the Beanies used hydrogen to inflate their gasbags and provide lift. Hydrogen was cheap, it was efficient, it was readily available – and it was highly flammable. A hydrogen-lifted ship in a fight was in inherent danger from enemy fire. While the envelope itself could sustain dozens of individual rifle hits and still remain aloft, quite handily, a mere spark accompanying the bullets could reduce an airship to a flaming cloud in moments. Certainly, precautions were taken to reduce that risk, especially amongst ships of war. Everything from double-cells to lacquered armor were used to protect the balloons, but one well-placed rocket or a lucky incendiary missile could send a ship down in flames.
Gideon, thankfully wasn’t concerned about that possibility – the Victrix lifted on pure Helium, now, and was therefore safe from such attacks. That was the whole reason he had accepted a commission from the Kingdom of Oklahoma in the first place: this desolate little land was one of the few places in the world where Helium was available, refined from the massive gaseous reserves buried benethe it’s desolate prairies. Once these lands had been in Atlan hands, part of their extensive territory to the north of their dusty Empire. But when the nearly unique gas was found in relative abundance, the local tribes had rebelled (with the particular help of the Louisianians, as well as the Americans and the French) to take control of the strategically invaluable resource – and reap the reward of selling the valuable gas on the international market.
But the Atlans were unwilling to surrender such a fortuitous prize without a fight, and the tiny Oklahomanian Kingdom had been in a constant state of war for the entire twenty-five years in which it had existed. Bereft of a large population of their own, the original native uprising had quickly attracted seasoned warriors from the Cherokee, the Choctaw, even Iroquois and Chippewa and members of other tribes. The nascent native rebellion had consolidated their braves around the lucrative gas mines and kept the Atlan armies at bay until the rail line from the Louisianan Empire gave them access to the overland routes and seaports they needed to begin selling their precious gas to the great Empires. Then they had used the incredible profits resulting therefrom to hire mercenaries, on both land and in the air, to keep their former Atlan overlords at bay. When Gideon had gone into exile, trading one of his estates for a second-hand caravel from his father’s shipping line and outfitting it for war, he had been eager to sign up his command both for the high bounty paid and the opportunity to secure a goodly supply of the expensive Helium.
The ships which were thus supplied had a great advantage over their Hydrogen-filled counterparts. The prospect of his squadron being outnumbered two-to-one did not particularly bother Gideon, therefore, since his foe had to be concerned with explosion and fire. Indeed, he was looking forward to another fight in the skies.
“Sissy, be a pet and give us some more altitude on my mark, would you?” he called into the shiny brass opening of the speaking tube that ran through the gondola and up to the engine room. He waited a moment to hear an acknowledgement, and a incredibly rich string of vitriol came bubbling back through the tube in response. The cursing was a strange mixture of English, German, Celtic, Choctaw and Cherokee and was profoundly profane – even more so, as it was delivered in the voice of a young girl. Gideon smiled to himself, entertained at the complex richness of his sister’s swearing – his father would have been mortified.
“Captain,” called the observer from his position in the cupola, “the lead Beanie is breaking formation and cutting to port!”
“Range?” Gideon asked, suddenly attentive. Usually the Beanies were methodical and straight-forward in their assaults. A break in formation was an aberration.
“Half a mile and closing!” the spotter called back.
“Ready port-side rockets,” he ordered his gunnery mate, receiving a curt nod in return. Then he turned back to the speaking tube. “It appears as if the neighborhood children want to play, Sissy, are you ready?”
“Of course I’m ready! But why do you need altitude? What the fookin’ hell are you doin’ Gid?” came the response. “We’re already on the bloody plane with ’em! We don’t–”
“I’ll do the steering, if you don’t mind,” he interrupted, calmly. “I just need altitude, on my mark. As much as you can manage as quickly as you can. Are you prepared?”
“Just let me know, big brother,” the engineer responded. Gideon thrilled to hear her call him that. He had been the youngest child in his family and had always resented being babied by his three sisters and older brother. When he had discovered that he had an illegitimate half-sister, he had embraced her as kin as quickly as the rest of the family had rejected her, in part because it irritated the rest of the family and in part because he finally had the opportunity to play the role of elder sibling.
“Closing!” the spotter called. “Within range in . . . mark!”
“Fire port rockets,” Gideon ordered, calmly. “Sissy, give us lift . . . now!” He waited until all four rockets were speeding away towards their target before calling the order, and he watched their smoke trail disappear below as the Victrix went aloft. Too late the opposing ship launched her own salvo, but the Beanies were firing a shorter range rocket than the Manchesters the Victrix carried. They were twice as expensive, but carried a larger explosive charge and had half again the range of the homemade “military standards” the Atlans used. The extra reach and extra potency had played a decisive role in how well Gideon’s squadron had acquitted itself against the foe in the last six months.
So had Tayanita. The dusky young lady who had shown up at his father’s doorstep in London and proven her heritage was not just a fortune-seeker, as their father was convinced. She was an adept engineer and an inspired tinkerer, a farsighted visionary and enthusiastic about just about everything. The product of a liaison between Lord Becker and the daughter of an important Cherokee noble, who had been nursing Lord Becker back to health after a bout of mysterious fever on a trip to oversee his interests in a chemical manufactory he owned in Oklahoma, Tayanita had not been interested in her father’s money as much as an opportunity to work with his company. She had title — according to the bizarre rules of Indian tribal custom, she was among the highest rank, by birth, the equivalent to a Princess or Duchess in England. Tayanita had cared as little for rank as Gideon had — something else that endeared him to her. She had grown up in Tullasi, an important hub of airship activity, and had eagerly explored the enchanting vessels since infancy. She was mad for airships, and had been since the first day she’d lain eyes on one. When she had tracked Lord Becker back to London and presented herself as his child and heir, it hadn’t been about money or title. Tayanita merely wanted access to Becker’s several airship companies so she might pursue a few technical innovations she championed.
But the stuffy Lord Becker had been far more concerned about the stain of potential scandal and had denied his daughter vigorously – even though she looked so like his sister Gwendolyn that they could have passed for twins, save that one was dusky and the other fair, and six years of age stood between them. His mother, Lady Becker had been appalled at the sudden and inconvenient revelation of her husband’s indiscretion and pitched a hellacious fit. Lord Becker had responded by sending the poor girl away, and even threatened to call the constabulary if she did not depart his premises at once.
Gideon, for his part, was appalled at his parent’s reaction. Already thick in rebellion against them, living a wildly hedonistic life in London and on his country estates and contemplating a life in the military, he had confronted his father about the matter, demanding that he legitimize Tayanita despite the scandal. As expected, Father had refused, and in a fit of filial insurrection Gideon had sold his largest estate (inherited from his maternal grandmother and out of the control of his Father since he had attained his majority), used the proceeds to procure the old and venerable caravel at auction from his father’s own illustrious airline, named the refurbished and retooled ship the Victrix, and had publicly swore to take to the skies as a mercenary-in-exile with his new-found kin until his father saw reason and accepted his dusky daughter as the true fruit of his loins.
The scandal that resulted from his flashy departure far dwarfed that which may have occurred with the simple revelation of a bastard in the family. The British were growing used to the unlooked-for fruits of their struggling Empire appearing out of no where, but to have such a prominent son of such an esteemed house reject Imperial service, a career in law or medicine, or a stint in the proper military for the flamboyant life of a mercenary air-pirate, that was just too much for the gossiping mavens of London. When Gideon took on a crew for his new command in London, he had hired several other younger-sons and schoolmates who had yet to find gainful employment – or merely lusted for adventure in foreign lands. Gideon’s parents were officially in mourning for their youngest son, but as of yet there had been no telegram from them relenting of their decision. Since then he had been in the air for almost a year in the service of the Kingdom of Oklahoma, and had never looked back.
Now the Victrix, her young captain and rakish crew, had been playing tag with the Atlans for six months, and in that time Princess Tayanita had gone through the old Lincolnshire-class caravel with a gimlet eye and had made significant improvements. Some of her designs were innovative, some were down-right brilliant, but all contributed to the big blue ship being one of the most formidable in the air for her size. Gideon glanced at the trophy pole near the pilot’s couch, where nine red, yellow and green streamers hung. Nine of the foe vanquished in combat, a singular achievement for any captain of a warship, and for one so young and new to air service, it was unheard of. As he ordered the engines full forward and the starboard rockets ready, he grimly anticipated a tenth streamer decorating his pole.
Since the Atlans were nominally allied with the British Crown, Gideon was technically fighting against his homeland, but he didn’t care. The interests of the Anglo-Dutch Empire were important, but the hundreds of republics, kingdoms, tribal lands and pipsqueak empires in America were always in turmoil, and each of the major European Empires had an interest in every skirmish. The Anglo-Dutch Empire had important trading ties with the Atlans, but they were commercial in nature, and largely to balance the alliance of arch-enemy France and her alliance with the sadly comical Louisiana Empire. His participation in the defense of the Okie Kingdom was therefore a very minor treason, Gideon figured, and one unlikely to draw the attention of his countrymen.
The enemy airship was now several hundred feet below them, and still a quarter mile away. Gideon returned to the periscope and surveyed the foe with well-magnified vision, spotting tiny forms of the bronze-skinned enemy aeronauts running to the battlements with their long rifles and hurriedly preparing another salvo of rockets. Their suddenly inferior position was trouble for them, of course. In airship battles the loftier ship usually had a distinct advantage – one which Gideon took full use of.
“A second ship closing to starboard!” the observation officer called, a note of tension in his voice. “bearing forty degrees starboard . . . six degrees under our horizon . . . and six hundred meters out but she’s closing fast!”
“Oho!” Gideon smiled. “Trying to trap us between? I think not – not today. Starboard rockets take aim at the interloper and fire at will!”
The rocket crews in the starboard battlement didn’t wait for a second order – they sent out a steady stream of Manchesters at the gaudy red-and-gold ship and were rewarded with two impressive hits on the envelope. Only one of them seemed to have done any lasting damage, and neither one had ignited the gasbag, but it was unlikely the Beanie would trouble them much for the next few moments while their crew struggled to extinguish the fires before they could do so. That gave Gid plenty of time to handle his first foe, who finally managed a half a salvo from their portside battlement. The shots were short or wide, but they gave Gideon pause. Any closer and rockets would be too dangerous for either party, lest they do as much damage to friend as foe. At that point it would be a long, drawn out fusillade with rifles, until the ships drifted further apart.
The portside battlement was already heaving a few smaller rockets at the foe, and the sharpshooters were plying their trade in an effort to clear the decks of the opposing ship. Unlike the predominantly English crew that ran the flight deck of the airship, the gunners were mostly native Okies, Cherokee and other tribes, who used the famous Kentucky long rifles of their native land to devastating effect. As he peered through the scope he saw one, two, then four of the enemy gunners fall at their posts, depriving the battlement of its full complement. Then a small rocket managed to penetrate the wicker enclosure, and set off an ordinance explosion. That activated the safety device that dropped the outrigged battlement safely away from the gasbag. Safe for the rest of the crew – but the ten or so gunners in the battlement were plummeting to their doom on the unyielding prairie below.
“A bottle of whisky to the portside!” he shouted excitedly. “Good shooting!”
He could hear the war cries and exultations of the men even over the din of engines and gunfire. These Okies, he had to admit, had a special talent for warfare – or at least an enjoyment of it that amounted to the same thing.
“Shall we finish her off, Captain?” Black Joe, the gunnery leader, called through the speaker. “I think we could broadside her with a Manchester at this range and be done with it!”
Gideon considered, while swinging the periscope around to survey the rest of the battle. The Victrix’s sister ships were all engaged, and two of the Beanie’s patrol ships had already caught fire, including the latecomer to starboard. Better yet, one of their ships seemed to have developed engine trouble, and was listing lazily to port, effectively out of the fight. He saw the Hobgoblin, with its savage device like a monstrous mouth painted on the bow of the ship bearing down on the straggler menacingly, leaving a blazing ball of fire in its wake. To the rear the Star of Baton Rouge, a Louisianan ship, deftly dueling with two of the foe, one of which was already afire. Neither one was in need of assistance, he could see, and the Atlan ship they were engaged with had yet to turn quickly enough to bring her starboard-side battlement to bear.
Gideon made the decision. “Prepare boarding gondola!” he commanded. “Marines to your posts! Prepare for boarding and capture!”
The rest of the crew on the flight deck looked at him in confusion. Boarding an airship in the middle of combat was a hazardous proposition, as it involved – usually – repelling out of a loftier ship to an inferior one on ropes, then fighting your way underneath to capture the gondola. More than half the time such crews ended up either being repelled or doing so much damage that they destroyed the ship rather than taking it. But Gideon had successfully boarded two Atlan patrol ships in the last six months, and had brought one of them back to Tallasi as a prize. He’d been rewarded by the Kingdom with a generous bonus, as well as a goodly price for the ship, which had been re-fitted and now flew as part of the Kingdom’s nascent air-navy. The money had been good enough to tempt Gideon to repeat the feat.
“Mr. Miller, you have the bridge,” he called to the pilot. “Bring her in over the top stern and decline until we’re within gondola range. I’ll be leading the boarding party personally.”
“Is that wise, Captain?” Miller asked, surrendering the pilot’s couch to one of the steersmen, who in turn was relieved by the deckman.
Gideon grinned. “No, it’s entirely insane, George, but it should be fun. Do try to keep her in the air until I get back. Oh, and . . . don’t mention this to my sister until I’ve left. She isn’t going to favor this maneuver, but by Mars we’ll give it a go!”
The pale look on Miller’s face convinced Gideon that he’d rather face three-to-one odds in combat than brave his sister’s fiery temper. Still, he took the Captain’s chair and immediately put his eyes to the periscope.
Gideon smiled happily as he doffed his warm wool coat for the tough fleece-lined leather coat anyone on the outside of an airship wore against the biting cold, and added a smart leather helmet, complete with brass goggles, to his ensemble. Then he shrugged into his weapons belt – a revolver on each hip, a carbine slung on his back, a savage-looking knife suspended from his left breast, and a shortened cutlass that most airmen carried into battle on his right hip. He added a white silk scarf to help his men identify him, then he took the narrow stairs down to where his men awaited him in the boarding gondola.
They were a motley group, mostly recruited from the gin-joints of Tallasi or Guthrie, but they were adept at their trade. Mostly Choctaw and Cherokee braves, with a sprinkling of Creek, and plenty of half-breeds who found themselves more comfortable in the ranks of a mercenary than serving the squabbling Great Houses of the tiny kingdom. There was even a white man or two. They were dressed similarly to Gideon, though none affected the white scarf that he had made his sole prerogative. Their own colorful native gorgets peeked out of their heavy sheepskin garments, and native symbols were often prominently embroidered into their garb. But they knew their trade. Each man there carried a carbine, a pistol, a knife and a cutlass, at minimum, and some nearly bristled with weaponry. They looked nervous and excited while attempting to appear stoic and bored. These Okies really did have a talent for warcraft.
“We’re in position, Captain,” Miller called down to him. He nodded to Wolf Rider, the sergeant of the marines, and two young braves began lowering the gondola on thick hemp ropes strung cleverly on pullies for the purpose.
Just before the hatch closed, however, an arm thrust itself in the doorway prohibiting the manuver.
“Wait up, Cap!” the familiar drawl of one of his fighters called. “Don’t leave me here whilst you have all the fun!”
“Get in, Bonney!” Gideon chuckled. The other braves in the cramped compartment looked stoic, but Gideon knew they were pleased. Despite his short stature and slight build, boyish face and tenor voice, Bill Bonney was a crack shot and an adept fighter who had traveled all over the West of America, from the American settlements in Ohio to the frontiers of Louisiana to the outskirts of the great Sea of Grass that was the home to the most savage warriors ever in Creation. Gideon had hired the man on a whim after witnessing him shoot the center out of a cork in a tavern, propelled through the air for the purpose, and had not regretted the decision since — even when he had discovered his illicit sexual affair with his sister Tayanita recently. He wasn’t particularly inclined to object, of course, but that was far more out of fear of his sister’s temper than Bonney’s skill with a revolver.
As the diminutive man settled between two much bulkier braves with a grin, the other marines nodded to him stoically — but Gideon knew they were very pleased by his inclusion. He was as a white mascot for the corps, as well as being respected as a warrior in his own right. He had the advantage of knowing the strange Atlan language that had incorporated large portions of Dutch, not to mention several major Indian tongues, French, and a smattering of German and Celtic, too. He grinned broadly the entire hellish descent, as if he were a child being condemned to a week in a candy store.
It was a scary ride. The well-oiled hemp ropes creaked outrageously as the carriage lowered in the winds, twisting uncomfortably. When the great red expanse of the foe’s balloon was well underneath, two more braves repelled from the open doorway onto the gasbag and secured the guide lines that brought the boarding gondola to rest on top of the foe. Securing it quickly, they released the lines that tied the ship to the Victrix, lest the foe be lost in the battle and plummet, dragging the Victrix to doom with it.
The wind was savage on the open expanse of the balloon, but Gideon reveled in it. He’d spent most of his life in gentlemanly repose, suffocated by tradition, social expectations, and the other burdens of aristocracy. For the briefest moment he imagined his dull, boring life following in his father’s footsteps, working behind a desk, never hearing a shot in anger. This was the antithesis of that. This was adventure, danger, excitement! A man could feel alive doing this! He tied his safety line down to a hook and followed Wolf Rider to the dorsal hatch that led down to the bowels of the ship.
Just before the Okie could open it, however, the wooden hatch sprang open and two dark-skinned, mustachioed Atlans emerged with carbines in hand with sinister intent. Wolf Rider was caught by surprised but quickly kicked at the men, who responded with hastily wild shots. Then the half-savage marine drew an iron tomahawk from his belt and brained the first Atlan soldier, while five shots from William’s pair of revolvers took the top of the head and a goodly portion of face off of the second Atlan before Gideon could even draw his weapon. Gideon’s appreciation at the little man’s facility with six-guns grew, as the marines tossed the corpses over the side before disappearing through the dorsal hatch themselves, cutlasses and tomahawks in hand for the grim work below.
Bonney, on the other hand, had holstered his pistols and was in the process of untying his safety line and retying it to a long rope he carefully measured out. Gideon was mystified by the man’s actions, and finally had to tap him on the shoulder to get him to explain.
“Simple!” Billy shouted into the wind, his wide grin combined with the brass goggles under his leather flight cap making his face appear laughably cartoonish. “Figure them Injuns ain’t hardly gonna leave me any shootin’ to do, as fast as they can take a ship. But there’s one whole battlement pod on the starboard side ain’t been touched at all – I figure I can go ahead and take care of that, so they can’t hit us on the flank!”
“But you can’t go alone!” Gideon protested.
“Shucks!” the insane American laughed as he cinched the line and re-drew his guns, replacing the spent cartridges – not an easy task, considering the ship was listing badly to port, now, and the winds whipping across them were strong. “This ain’t hardly worth even me goin’, Cap’n! But it surely will be a bit o’ manly fun!” With that he took a breath, drew his psitols, and took a running plunge over the ship’s horizon to the starboard side. Gideon’s heart was in his throat as he watched the coiled line pay out and then finally go taut. At least his corpse would be dangling, then, he thought, somehow relieved by the idea. Every airman feared plummeting to their death — only a crazy American would risk such a dangerous stunt. There was living a life of adventure . . . and then there was spitting in the shadow of Death. A gentleman knew the difference.
Gideon descended into his prize like a gentleman, a pistol in his right hand, his rapier in the other. As he went down the narrow stairs he passed three corpses – all Atlan soldiers – who had gotten caught in the onslaught. He stepped over or around them as gingerly as possible, and finally came to the Engineering room, where two of his men were busily taking control of the engines, shutting down the crude alcohol burner and releasing huge gouts of steam from the boiler. Two more corpses decorated the hatchway, he saw, both brained with tomahawks. His men gave him a wolfish grin as he congratulated them, and then went even further below.
There was a stark contrast between the interior of this airship and his own British-made Victrix. This Atlan-constructed ship was far more wood and fabric than steel, and he saw how liberal they had been with copper and even gold. But the design was archaic, the type of thing that had flown in his grandfather’s day. The tiny gondola was half the size of the Victrix’s, and the general condition was shoddy, at best. Gideon could spot a dozen places where maintenance had been ignored to a point he would have dismissed a crewman for — if not consigned him over the side — had it occurred on his ship.
By the time he made it to the control room, his men had herded the dozen or so disarmed prisoners who remained into the shabby dining room at the point of a gun and locked it. All the shooting was over, now, thankfully, and he could steer his prize back to port. A few of his men insisted excitedly about telling him the result of Bonney’s mad dash over the side. Wolf Rider – who went by Charles, when they were on the ground – pointed to the battlement through the wind glass and explained.
“Damndest thing I ever saw, Captain,” he admitted in his slow, deep, rumbling voice. “We were under fire from their position – which we expected – and I had deployed snipers to counter them when – out of no where – Bonney suddenly crashes into the battlement from behind them, boots first, pistols blazing. He made a wild war cry when he did it,” Wolf Rider admitted, a grudging token of respect to the white man. “He must have killed two coming in, and shot two more before the survivors surrendered. But after that . . . well, the others were ready to go quietly.”
“Excellent show!” Gideon said, happily, clapping the big Indian on the back heartily. “And you as well, my mighty red warrior! Strike her colors and raise the prize flag, if you would, and then let’s get her out of this battle and head for port!” In truth, there was not much battle left to leave, he saw when he glanced out a porthole.
“Aye, Captain,” Wolf Rider said, snapping to attention. Rumor was the man had been one of the feared Louisianan Imperial Marines before he had sold his sword to the Okie Kingdom. His professionalism in military matters supported that. “And what shall I do with the prisoners?”
“Leave them . . . bide, how many?” Gideon asked.
“Ten, all together, including their coward of a captain who was hiding in the privy. We did find . . . a woman aboard, too. She was well-dressed in civilian garb, and we know how you feel about raping captives . . .” Wolf Rider said, rolling his eyes indulgently at the white man’s rules of civilized warfare, “so I had her put with the others. She keeps chattering in Atlan. Could be a noblewoman,” he guessed.
“What would an Atlan noblewoman be doing in the middle of an aerial assault?” Gideon asked himself, mystified. He dismissed Wolf Rider with orders to get the ship under power again, and then signaled the Victrix to request a tow, as soon as convenient. As he surveyed the burning skies over Oklahoma, he could see only one Atlan ship still aloft, limping back to the frontier trailing smoke. The Victrix alone seemed unscarred by the fight, but the Hobgoblin and the Star of Baton Rouge were both listing or smoking as their crews struggled to put out fires from the combat.
“It looks as if we’ve preserved the Kingdom once again,” sighed Gideon. “And secured quite the prize as well. This ship looks bigger than the last one we captured . . . how much did we get as bounty for that?”
“We sold it to the Crown for a hundred thousand guineas, Captain,” Wolf Rider replied. “A princely sum, with which you were most generous.”
Gideon shrugged. He had no desire for money, save for what it might buy him. A hundred thousand was roughly four months pay for his ship’s services, all taken in one day. But what he could invest that money in . . .
Gideon’s grand strategy involved leaving the desolate Kingdom of Oklahoma with a massive bounty of Helium stored – enough for his own liberal use, as well as plenty to be sold on the market in Paris at a vast profit. His privileged position as one of the Prairie Realm’s defenders also allowed him to purchase the noble gas ahead of the commercial enterprises and foreign powers who had orders stretching far into the future. Already nine massive steel canisters of the rare and powerful gas were stored within his hanger, and with a similar prize for his capture, today, he could safely count on four more – perhaps even five – joining them. On the Parisian market, that would fetch him ten times what he invested – provided he could deliver the gas safely to Paris. But fourteen canisters put him well within range of his objective, and therefore limited his tenure as mercenary.
These thoughts entertained him on the long, slow journey back to the hanger – so much so that he barely noted the ominous cloudbank to his port side until it was nearly on top of them.
“Great Jupiter’s Balls!” Gideon shouted, springing from the command chair when the first peal of thunder could be heard. “From whence came that storm?” He was speaking mostly to himself – the token pilot, a marine who possessed the rudiments of airship flight experience enough to manage to pilot a ship at tow – barely spoke English. But when his captain indicated the direction of the storm he, too, leapt excitedly to his feet.
The Okie Kingdom was almost ideal for airships – except for the storms. No place on Earth that Gideon had ever had chance to hear of seemed more prone to sudden, violent outbreaks of atmospheric excitation than this utterly flat realm. He had witnessed huge spires of pure mindless force descend from the skies, wreck havoc on the ground like something from the Old Testament, then leap again into the air. The Spanish explorers who were the first white men to witness them called them tornados, but they were more commonly known as Borealis. And they could form in an instant, like the Hand of God itself, at any time on these barren plains. On the ground they were horrific enough, flailing wagons and cows and even whole houses around like toys – but aloft they were hellish.
“Cut us loose,” Gideon whispered, when Wolf Rider heard the pilot’s chatter and came forward. “We’re better off that way.”
“What?” the marine asked, incredulous. “We have almost no engines, Captain,” he reminded Gideon. “We won’t be able to outrun the storm.”
“We might be able to out-wit it, then, my lad,” Gideon said, reaffirming his decision and standing upon it. “If we stay in our current configuration, we imperil both ships. Apart, even if we are adrift, then we increase our individual chances. Consider,” he said, breathlessly, as he sketched the scene in the air with his fingers, “if the Borealis hits one of the ships, then the other will flail about like a whip cracking. This way, with luck, only one of us will be hit and plummet to our doom.”
“That is comforting,” Wolf Rider said, unconvinced.
“So go and cut the bloody cable, and have the signalman tell the Victrix to head for port, full speed!”
“Aye, Captain,” Wolf Rider said, clinging to military discipline in the face of disaster by snapping an open-palmed salute and hurrying off to relay the orders. Gideon was well satisfied with the result – in less than five harrowing minutes the tether that connected his prize to his flagship was loosed. He and the pilot were busy, after that, attempting to steer the damaged airship with only minimal engines at his disposal.
As the tempest bore down on them, he watched his azure ship and his new half-sister, whom he had come to love more than all of his others, speeding dutifully towards the hanger – but still not expediently enough to avoid the looming storm. Worse, the spires of Borealis began appearing in the distance, yet moving ever closer. Gideon himself took the wheel when the storm was nearly upon them, much to Wolf Rider’s dismay.
“Are you certain that is wise, Captain?” he asked, as he watched the Englishman, stripped down to his shirtsleeves, wrestle with the massive wheel in the face of such a brutal wind. Gideon had a poor reputation as a pilot.
“No!” Gideon agreed, when he could spare a moment from his titanic effort to keep the ship on course, “But do you want to be responsible for smashing us all to bits? Or will you cede that honor to your captain?”
“As you wish, Sir!” Wolf Rider snapped back. While as brave as any man alive in the face of enemy guns, most of the Indians he’d encountered had a respect near to worship of the wild winds of the plains. Even the civilized Cherokee still retained a superstitious cast about such matters.
“If you want to do anything, see to our prisoners. Make sure they all have tie-downs, lest they get . . . more of a chaotic ride than they expected!”
It took every ounce of Gideon’s strength on the dual wheels to keep the ship heading cross-wind against the face of the storm. Ordinarily, that was a job for a steersman for each wheel, but her had to suffice alone. Nor was his prize the only ship having difficulties – the Hobgoblin was already lagging behind the rest of the mercenary fleet, even the damaged prize, and when Gideon spared a moment to look he saw that the airship was dangerously close to the stormfront.
Then, to his horror, one of the Borealis formed all too near in proximity of his ally, and within the blink of an eye, she was caught.
Gideon and the rest of the makeshift crew, who had crammed into the control room to see, witnessed out of the portholes the brutal destruction of the green airship in near silence. The Hobgoblin had been captured by its portside stern section, and while the entire ship was quickly drawn within the ferocious storm, the tail section did so without the necessity of remaining intact. The framework and fabric, the aerolons and stabilizers, the miles of rope and steel cord and lastly the envelope, itself, was chewed up by the force of the wind. The debris from the ship whirled within the cone of destruction so rapidly that it made a full circuit, crashing into the sides of the ship and tearing it apart with added force. Small shapes that all who watched knew were men lept from the gondolas and battlements, willing to plummet to their deaths rather than endure one more moment in that hell in the heavens.
Gideon and his men were helpless to prevent it, but worse, they saw an omen of their own destruction, should they not out-run the storm or be struck by capricious Fortune so. When the last quarter of the Hobgoblin was flung nearly a mile away by the storm, tossed like the core of an apple once the flesh has been consumed, Gideon ordered them all back to work with renewed purpose.
“Here, take the wheels!” he hollered to one of the corporals. “Just hold themt steady – we’re on course, more or less, and I’m winded! I need to take stock!”
The man reluctantly did as he was ordered, and with a mix of physical relief and foreboding at the continuing risk posed by the storm, he went himself back to collect his thoughts, marshal his resources, and plot his next move. A bit of tea would have been ideal, but he settled for the thick, bitter coffee that the Atlan crew drank. Or at least that was his plan, before he stumbled across one of his men engaged in an activity less suited to the dining room as some.
Bonney, his wild white man, had his trousers pulled down mid-thigh, exposing his muscular buttocks to Gideon’s gaze. He was in the act of lustfully pounding forward into some maiden – and with a sick sensation in his stomach, Gideon realized that there was only one candidate for that position aboard.
The “Atlan noblewoman” Wolf Rider had told him of, and his heart sank — should Bonney have raped the woman, he would likely be forced to hang the man himself as a warning to the rest of the men. Best not to leap to any conclusions, under the circumstances, Gideon concluded, noting how lustily the woman was shouting during their vigorous course. Instead he circled the table where the couple was performing their rite, and confirmed his suspicion.
“Bonney,” he said in a pained tone as he witnessed the woman’s face contort again in ecstasy, “if we weren’t in danger most dire and likely be dead in the next half-hour, I’d have to reprove you for violating my dictum against raping the prisoners,” he chided, as gently as he could.
“Ain’t rape, Cap’n!” the young American said, unwilling to break his erotic momentum one bit, even in the face of discovery and censure. “Or if it is, it’s me what’s losin’ my virtue! I know a bit o’ Dutch, so Papa Wolf asked me to see to the prisoners,” he explained. “I was trying to comfort ‘em best I could when Wolf came back, said we were headed into a nest o’ twisters. This li’l lady was terrified at the thought. I was trying to comfort her, but then next thing I knows my pants are down, my willy’s out, and she’s a suckin’ on it like it’s the last piece o’ peppermint at the candy store!”
“So this union is . . . voluntary?” Gideon brightened. “You didn’t coerce her?”
“Coerce her? Hell, she won’t let me get away!” The muscular young gun continued to plow the foreign field in front of him, grunting with exertion between ecstatic feminine moans. For her part, the lady had abandoned her colorful undergarments and had pushed her skirts well up her thighs to her waist, bringing her slender limbs high in the air. Gideon could not help but note their shapeliness. Nor could he soon forget the unfortunate face of their owner, whose contenance was clearly far more beautiful in the rictus of ecstasy than in relaxed repose. The Atlan aristocracy was hardly the paragon of beauty under the best of circumstances, being addicted, as they were, to the famous incestuous liaisons within their class, the progeny of which, while pure of blood, were often also as ugly as stray mongrels. And this woman’s face would have ranked near the bottom of her peers.
Yet she did seem to be enjoying his soldier’s attention, Gideon noted. Her big brown breasts were exposed from her dress, lolling about quite extravagantly as Billy’s quick thrusting made them gyrate. She looked up at Gideon pleadingly – but not for the enterprise to end, he surmised. She seemed eager and enthusiastic to entertain this white buck between her thighs.
“Her name is Marta,” Billy explained as he fucked her, “and she’s apparently the daughter o’ one of the Beanie generals or somethin’. She was riding along ‘cause she’s got a bad case o’ randies ‘bout skyships.”
“And . . . that was enough for her to forget herself and give up her virtue?”
“She’s the romantic type,” Billy said, continuously thrusting. “She figured dyin’ in a skyship in a storm was preferable to goin’ back to Atlan and marrying some disgusting old Beanie,” he recounted. “This way, she can lose her virtue properly, an’ claim ‘fortunes o’ war’ to her daddy. Not bad thinkin’ fer a girl!” Billy said, his thrusts becoming harder and more insistent as he approached his climax. “She ain’t but . . . eighteen . . . an’ just came out . . . o’ the convent school . . . in Atlan City,” he gasped, plunging his cock deep into her darkly furred cleft as he exploded within the depths of her new-minted womanhood. Billy collapsed on top of her, his chest heaving, a bead of sweat spashing against the woman’s unfortunately large nose. “She don’t . . . look like much,” Billy admitted, “but Marta’s a helluva fuck!”
“Apparently,” Gideon nodded, unable to find an argument within the statement. “And I’m glad we could assist her in her premature defloration, if that, indeed, suits her purposes. But right now, we are in mortal peril, and your presence is needed in the Engine Room.”
“Mine?” Billy asked, surprised and confused. “Why th’ hell they need me?”
“You have been fucking my sister for two months, thinking I wouldn’t notice,” Gideon recounted, drolly. “If she’s half as talkative about mechanics while she fucks as she is at any other time, you probably know more than any of my men how the engines work. So pull up your trousers, wipe off your hands, tell your ladylove adieu, and go find some way to get this ship moving . . . faster . . . or this will be the last cunt you sample. Ever.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Billy said, fastening his belt, then leaning down to kiss his nearly insensible lover. He murmured something in Atlan Dutch, to which she responded with a nod and a glance at Gideon. “She wants to know if you’re next, Cap’n,” Billy informed him, when he finally rose.
“What?” Gideon asked, shocked.
“Well, it’s funny,” the mercenary said, chuckling, “She’s heard tale of just how brutal us ‘Sky Panthers’ are – that’s what the Beanies call us airmen, back home. We’re just awfull rapists and killers and pirates,” he said, with mock seriousness. “Any woman who had the misfortune to be captured by us, it’s said, is gonna get raped. Guaranteed. Or that’s what their Emperor says. So when Marta got the chance to participate in this skirmish she jumped at it on account o’ she’s a lusty little lady and she got a face like a mush pie, which ain’t an enviable combination. So she’s gonna make the most of it, get all the Sky Panther cock she can, afore she’s ransomed back.”
“Ransom?” Gideon asked, his ears perking up. “Just . . . how much does she think she’ll be worth?” That was something he hadn’t considered. Ratings and officers were housed in a prisoner of war camp in Guthrie, but noble civilians were a different matter. He had every right to demand ransom for Marta’s return.
Billy and the girl had a serious exchange in Atlan Dutch, during which Marta went on at length. When she stopped, Billy looked up at his commander. “She says that her sister was captured by Moriscan pirates two years ago, and her father paid out . . . is that right? Over twenty thousand ounces of gold for her return?”
Gideon suddenly found it difficult to breathe as Fortune gave him a gift in the middle of the crisis. “Twenty thousand? In gold? Dear Jupiter’s Holy Sack, that’s a lot!”
“Them Atlan lords got gold,” Billy agreed, reverently. Despite the abject poverty most of the Atlan people suffered, the wealthy among them were very wealthy, indeed, and much of it in gold. “But they also got funny ideas ‘bout a girl’s virtue – don’t even want to pretend she got urges, then they lock her away where she ain’t even got hope of a thick cock. So . . . if you’d get your pecker out, Cap’n, and fuck her right proper, then she’d be much in your debt.”
“Me?” Gideon asked in surprise.
“She thinks you’re handsome,” Billy relayed doubtfully after a brief conversation. “Me, I ain’t seein’ it clear.”
“For which I am forever thankful, considering my sister’s reports of the size of your weapon,” the Captain said, haughtily. “But I find that seeing the Hobgoblin destroyed has renewed my interest in life-centered pursuits, of a sudden, and despite this poor girl’s face, she seems to be willing and eager enough to sate me.”
“Oh, that she is, Cap’n, that she is,” Billy agreed. “She’s horny enough to fuck a goat, but I guess an Englishman will do.”
“You are dismissed, Mr. Bonney,” Gideon said, unbuttoning his fly as he approached the lewdly-splayed girl. “And are you certain she knows no English?”
“None I can tell,” the mercenary agreed over his shoulder. “You enjoy her proper, now, Cap’n! We got a reputation as ‘Sky Panthers’ to live up to, now.”
“So we do,” Gideon murmured, as the storm outside finally caught up with them. He had barely brought his bare prick out when the gusts suddenly pushed him face-forward against the brazenly displayed breasts of his captive. She seemed startled, and perhaps even a little frightened of the raging tempest, but not at all afraid of the prospect of getting fucked by an enemy who did not even speak her language. Since Gideon found his dick in close proximity in that position, he shoved it into her soaking twat without further ceremony, causing her heart to race, her eyes to pop open, and her cries of pleasure begin anew.
Gideon’s prick wasn’t a behemoth, but the servant girls, friends’ sisters, and occasional whore he’d used it upon had all proclaimed it splendidly formed for its intended function. Since coming to the Americas he had rarely even taken one of the ubiquitous airship whores who prowled the yards, both to maintain discipline without complications and out of respect for his new sister, though he did discreetly visit a few lady friends clandestinely. Lady Tayanita hadn’t seen fit to display a similar decorum herself, however, and had spent most of their time together fucking his marines, her engineers, and anyone else she took a fancy to when they were in port. The Americans, particularly the native Indians, were far more earthy about the rites of Aphrodite than the English, he knew, and there were whispers about savage orgies of lurid sex occurring around bonfires in America throughout the European world.
After spending most of a year here, however, Gideon was forced to concede that such orgies were the stuff of folklore, not fact. Tallassi and Guthrie were perfectly ordinary frontier towns on the Plains, with telegraphs and dry goods stores and post offices – and a good dozen churches of various denominations. They were even building an opera hall in Guthrie, of all things. Such civilized folk frowned on orgies just as much as the most conservative vicar in England.
The folk of Oklahoma, however, had embraced the cult of Science far more readily than that of the Nazarene. Since it had been Science that had elevated their tiny settlement into a strategic asset, lifted their economy to riches, and provided them the wherewithal to establish their independence, Science, not Jesus, held sway the most in Oklahoma. While there were church-goers aplenty, the superstitions of Europe were no more attractive to them than the superstitions of their own people, and a surprising number of educated Oklahomans, depending upon their tribe, were quite openly sexual with little or no regard for the sanctity of marriage – or even its necessity. Far from the scorn an unwed maid might attract for a birth without a husband in England, here on the plains such things were taken as a matter of course. Hence Tayanita’s mother’s ease at providing for her daughter without the benefit of husband until she came of age. Many Okie girls were similarly wild-spirited, and would leap at the chance at bedding a dashing young Air Captain.
Gideon had – mostly – resisted, though he had such offers aplenty when he was aground. But at this instance, with such easy prey so close and so willing – and no Tayanita around to deter him – he plunged viciously into the cunt of the enemy noblewoman, reveling in the feel of warmth and wetness that engulfed his prick so enchantingly once he proceeded beyond her tangled jungle of pubic hair. Marta, too, seemed pleased at the penetration, arching her hips dramatically as his length found its home.
He didn’t know what uncouth things Marta was saying as he fucked her with powerful strokes, or if they were just unworded syllables uttered in response to ecstasy, but Gideon found within his lack of comprehension the freedom necessary to unleash his own sexual frustrations on unhearing ears. As he fucked the girl, a steady stream of filthy invective curled out of his mouth to join her unintelligible cries.
In response, Marta pulled her knees up to her ears, brazenly displaying the well-furred pussy at her center to Gideon’s lascivious gaze. He watched in fascination as his prick sawed in and out of her hot, wet slit, unheeding of the shaking and the rolling the airship endured in the teeth of the storm. If he was going to die the way the Hobgoblin had gone down, then buried balls-deep into a hot cunt was his preferred method of doing so.
Marta, for her part, gave voice to her lover’s efforts in ways far beyond Gideon’ experience. Her howls of lust and joy seemed to fill the entire ship as he relentlessly fed his cock to her hungry pussy. Inexperienced, perhaps, the Atlan woman’s capacities for lust seemed infinite. In a pique of savage whimsy, Gideon reached down and viciously twisted her great bronze nipples to make her squeal and tighten her twat around his cock.
The distraction of their mutual climax was enough to prevent them from witnessing the airship’s continuing predicament. But the fact that Gideon was still alive to enjoy his orgasm meant, he felt, that his men had adequately dealt with the storm. As he spurted the last tendrils of his creamy joy deep within Marta’s clasping cunny, he sighed with great relief and withdrew.
“M-more?” Marta asked, trembling. “C-can we have– can we do that . . . again?”
“I thought you spoke no English!” Gideon said, springing up in surprise. He quickly began fastening his flies, but noted that Marta made no move to cover herself. What hideous words had departed his lips when he thought none could hear?
“I learned a little,” she admitted. “In the convent. They said it would be helpful to me.”
“I dare say it was,” Gideon admitted. “But then . . . you understood every word I said?” he asked, concerned.
“Well . . . yes, but don’t be embarrassed,” the poorly-formed girl coaxed. “It sounds as if milord needed that just as badly as I.”
“So, what else did you lie to my man about?” he asked, a little perturbed that he had fallen for the ruse.
“Not so much,” she conceded. “Well, the part about my father being a General. He’s actually the Deputy War Minister, tasked with securing our border.”
“You mean, conquering the Kingdom of Oklahoma,” Gideon countered.
“I could care less for the politics,” the girl insisted in her strange accent. “But when I got the opportunity to go to the front in a real warship—”
“So you could lose your virginity?” Gideon asked in surprise.
“Among other things,” she nodded. “Had not that handsome young man deflowered me, then I had selected one from amongst the crew on which to bestow such a gift before we returned.”
“Well, I hope Billy provided satisfaction,” Gideon added, as he straightened his coat. “To many women, he looks like no more than a child.”
“He is no child,” Marta said, dreamily. “Nor, Captain, were you.”
“So I take it your capitulation to this ‘rape’ of your virtue is not quite over yet?”
“If this is rape,” she breathed, solemnly, “then I love it! Yes, yes, bring me more hard dicks! They fill me so . . . all of your men, should they wish, may reward themselves between my thighs.”
“Do not you worry about getting with child?”
“My people know special herbs that make such a thing impossible,” Marta said. “But what if I should? I am a princess of the blood, descended from the gods themselves. Should I bear a man’s seed, my father might be angry for a short while because of what the priests might say, but soon will come to dote on me and his new grandchild.”
“How convenient for you,” Gideon acknowledged. “So, is it your desire that you be repatriated to your land?”
“Oh, if I must!” Marta said, impatiently. “I’d much prefer to be repatriated to your prick, Captain. Upon my return, I can expect nothing but marriage to a dour, ill-mannered brute of a nobleman, where I must near him many brats and endure his tiny cock forever. But as a prisoner . . . the skies are open to the possibilities!”
“That’s precisely how my sister, Tayanita, reacts,” he mused. “She’s as fond of prick as you, if a tad older. She’s a noblewoman too – on her mother’s side she’s some kind of princess or something. I’m her brother on her father’s side, and her English father has disowned her. It’s all very complicated. But if you want to lay about and fuck my men into a stupor until you are redeemed, and then blame your lack of virginity on rough handling by the enemy . . . well, be my guest. Oh, here’s a fellow who might assist – Roy! Come here, lad!”
As the young marine was coming to inform the captain that he had dire matters to attend within the control room, and found an open, willing, and well-used cunt oozing invitingly in front of him, instead, he quickly spat out the message, lowered his trousers, and began humping wildly into Marta’s clasping cunt. As promised, the lusty young maid responded with delirious delight at this second assault on her virtue – a virtue, Gideon noted, that she had given away at the earliest opportunity. Atlan society was conservative, partially Catholic, and completely repressed sexually – it did not surprise him that a noblewoman, especially one so poorly formed, would be eager to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh the moment it was possible to do so. And Marta seemed quite satisfied by both the size of his weapon, the motion of his thrusting, and the ardor to which he committed himself in service to her pleasure.
One of these days, Gideon said to himself as he returned to the control room, my prick is going to get me into trouble, instead of out of it.