Spotty October schedule

Serial posts will run on an intermittent schedule through October; I’m trying to polish a 30,000-word manuscript for your perusal, and it’s a busy month at work besides. Oh, and my birthday’s in the middle of it.

Although updates will be spotty, you can follow me on Twitter (@manywordspress) this month for some hashtag game fun. I’m talking about the manuscript mentioned above. Every month, given that I try to keep the front page here uncluttered, Twitter is a prime destination for behind-the-scenes fun.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 16

Lecocq peered over his cards. Four others were at the table with him: a breaker on his day off, a trio of men from the airship Janissary, and a woman off of Calypso. Both zeps, moored out among the breakers’ fields, were pirates, and both had come off of successful cruises.

Not so successful as the Long Nines’ last jaunt, though, and Lecocq had started with money enough to bully the table. His pile of cash was the largest of the five.

Sunbeams slanted in through the window. Light and shadow alternated on the green felt of the table, one of a dozen or two in the wood-floored room. The breeze from the fan overhead rustled the banknotes among Lecocq’s take. He glanced surreptitiously to the side. Tetsutaro Takahashi watched from the bar.

Darwin’s gambling halls were out in the open, compared to Lecocq’s experience in Marseilles, Singapore, and Hanoi. Darwin was a younger city built more fully on a thriving underground economy. Nobody bothered denying it. It was much rarer for a man to be shot over a game of cards here, and much likelier that the police would catch the murderer, but that was cold comfort for the dead man.

Lecocq was a good card player, used to winning, and he preferred to have a trigger man of his own on hand if things got out of control. Takahashi was a bad card player but quick on the draw, and had agreed to play the role of bodyguard in exchange for part of Lecocq’s winnings.

“Monsieur Lecocq?” said the breaker, who held the dealer’s button.

“I apologize,” Lecocq replied, pushing a few banknotes into the pot.

The dealer nodded and play continued. They were playing classic five-card draw this time around the table; not Lecocq’s favored game, but one he could get by in. He had won a hand earlier in the round and was sitting on two pair after the draw, a passable hand at a table of this size. After the next hand, choice of game fell to him, and he was much more comfortable with his chances at his favored seven-card stud.

“Show ’em,” the breaker said.

Lecocq’s jacks over sevens took the pot. The men from Janissary frowned between themselves, a suspicious set to their brows. Lecocq smiled sheepishly. “The cards, they are never this kind, you know?”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 15

The Brotherhood was a cross between a trade association and a pirate court. They had an airship which roamed the skies broadcasting under the name South Seas Radio, providing helpful news on military patrols and weather conditions around the East Indies, among other things. They kept tabs on a network of prize agents of the European powers willing to pay for captured zeps no questions asked, bribed police on behalf of favored arms, aircraft, and parts dealers, and generally greased the wheels for pirates running in the South Pacific, all at a very reasonable cost.

That part wasn’t controversial. Nor was their Code, the rules under which pirates more or less agreed to operate, to cut down on infighting and stick to the real meaning of the business: making money.

The problem was, they had lately been broadening their charter. Now they had a council—a High Council, they called it—which could investigate, and try, and sentence. That rubbed Cannon the wrong way. There were already rules. The Code of the Brotherhood laid out exactly what one pirate was forbidden to do to another, and exactly what the second pirate could do if the first one stepped out of line. There wasn’t any place in the equation for a higher authority. Cannon had never taken a poll, but he was pretty sure most pirate captains weren’t in the game to submit to someone else’s code.

He let his hand fall from his forehead. “You’d better start at the beginning.”

 

They retired to Cannon’s office in Port Gunport, a thatch-roofed plank-walled square hut just like all the rest, but for a crudely-painted sign in front of the door which read, “NO FUN PAST THIS POINT”. Emma’s handwriting, of course.

“You spoil that girl,” Lecocq observed, a measured neutrality in his voice.

Cannon smiled ruefully. “Maybe.”

“Will you take the sign down?”

Cannon looked to the sign, then back to Lecocq. “Is it wrong?” Lecocq coughed, taking his cigarette in hand. Cannon grinned. “That’s what I thought.”

He pushed the door open. It wasn’t much, the little hut, a single room fifteen feet across. The walls rattled in a stiff breeze, but the middle of nowhere Australia didn’t get many stiff breezes. Cannon wasn’t much for decorating. All he had here was a cot, a desk, and a few battered wooden folding chairs.

He waved Lecocq and Joe to the seats in front of the desk, and took the remaining chair around behind it. “Why don’t you tell me what happened in Darwin?”

Lecocq embarked on the story, told staccato with the occasional jab at the air with his cigarette.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 14

It wasn’t more than ten minutes before the Albatross circled once overhead. It was an oddball plane, a newfangled Chance-Vought design with asymmetric twin fuselages. The one on the right was short and stubby, with a glazed nose for the cockpit and a pusher engine and machine gun turret aft, while the one on the left was longer to carry cargo, with a tractor engine forward. Only the left fuselage had an empennage. A long wing linked everything together.

Presently, the Albatross lined up on the makeshift landing strip, and touched down in a swirling cloud of red dust.

Cannon waited for it as it taxied back toward Inconstant, weaving around huts until it came to a stop in the airship’s shadow. Its engines sputtered to a stop and the propellers spun down.

Cannon looked up and over his shoulder into the yawning black of Inconstant‘s hangar bay. He couldn’t see inside—it was too dark—but he was sure the crew aboard were watching.

The crew hatch on the Albatross’s right-hand fuselage opened at the same time as the right-hand fuselage’s cargo door. Pirates tumbled out of both, a dozen and a half men and women. Many of them had the bleary-eyed expression which signaled interrupted revelry.

Marcel Lecocq jumped down from the crew hatch. He was a tanned Frenchman with dark hair, dark eyes, and a neatly-kept goatee. He took a packet of cigarettes from one pocket of his flight jacket, and settled one between his lips. He took a Ronson from another pocket and put a flame to the cigarette.

Immediate needs taken care of, he looked up and caught sight of Cannon. He walked over.

“Well, Marcel?” said the captain.

“It is bad news, captain,” Lecocq replied around his cigarette. “Or at least, I think it is bad news.”

“Out with it.”

Lecocq nodded, exhaling smoke. “The South Seas Brotherhood is looking for you.”

Cannon exchanged a look with Joe. “Their radios broken?” Joe asked.

“They wanted to keep it quiet,” Lecocq replied, shaking his head. “They are assembling the whole council.”

“I’m off the council this year,” Cannon said.

“You are a witness, the man in Darwin said.”

Cannon rubbed his forehead. The South Seas Brotherhood had been around for a few years now; during his time with the Bloody Flag gang back in the mid-’20s he had been instrumental in setting it up in the first place.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 13

Tearing off the catcher’s mask, Hank King stood and faced him. “You have to be kidding, skipper!”

“Sorry, Hank,” Cannon said with a shrug. “That one was six inches off the plate.”

King pulled the mask back on, shook his head, and got back into his crouch. Cannon half-smiled. He didn’t play much. Nobody wanted to be on the team that beat the captain, for one thing, no matter how much Cannon said he didn’t mind. For another, unlike Joe, he wasn’t much of a slugger, and he was a decade older and a step or two slower in the field than most of the Long Nines.

It was nice to umpire without any mouthy batters arguing his calls, though. The pitch came in, di Giacomo swung, and the ball cracked off the bat. di Giacomo set off for first base at a dead run as the ball sped deep into the outfield, a well-hit line drive. The ball kicked up a puff of dust as it bounced and dribbled to the rickety wall. di Giacomo slowed down and put his foot on second.

An outfielder picked up the ball, but held onto it rather than throwing it back toward the mound. Cannon tilted his head, and realized the reason a moment later. The drone of a distant airplane engine slowly grew louder. The current batch of crew on Darwin liberty wasn’t due back for another two days.

King took the initiative, running over to the base of the mooring mast and cranking madly at the manual siren affixed there. The ballplayers scattered, disappearing into the gun pits to either side of the field. Anti-aircraft gun barrels appeared as the gunners spun the train and elevation wheels to bring the guns to bear.

Someone handed Cannon a pair of binoculars. He pointed them toward the engine noise and scanned the horizon. “Stand down!” he shouted. “It’s the Albatross!”

Joe trotted in from the outfield. Cannon passed him the binoculars. “Wonder why they’re back so soon,” Joe said.

“Whatever it is, I don’t like it,” Cannon replied.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 12

Cannon spent so much of his life aboard airplanes and airships that true quiet, a quiet without the undercurrent of engines, seemed unusual. All he heard now was the rustle of a gentle breeze through the desert grasses, and the chirps and buzzes of Australia’s birds, lizards, and insects. Inconstant floated one hundred feet overhead, moored by the nose to a rickety-looking tower. She shifted ever so slightly as a puff of wind caught her flank, her shadow creeping across the dusty red dirt of the Australian desert.

Over the last year or two, Cannon and the Long Nines had built themselves something of a home out here, hundreds of miles from Darwin, and, for that matter, anything else. They had removed the shrubs, grasses, and gnarled trees common to the bush in this part of Australia to make a clearing a few hundred yards across. At its center was the mooring mast. Running east to west at its south edge was an airstrip, long enough for even a heavily-laden Albatross.

A handful of huts stood to the south of the mooring mast, but most of the Long Nines still slept aboard Inconstant. Between jobs, Cannon wrote a dozen or two passes for Darwin at a time; those lucky pirates took an Albatross and spent a few days in bars, gambling halls, and places of less repute, merrily throwing away their shares from the last payday. They returned, much poorer but no less happy for it, and the next group turned the Albatross around for their turn.

That left most of the crew here at Port Gunport, as Emma had once waggishly called it, with little to do. Cannon kept them busy with maintenance work, both on the zep and on her air wing, but they would only stand for so much time behind a wrench every day.

And so, the Long Nines spent their evenings more or less as they pleased. Later, there would be a feast by torchlight, as there was almost every night. Now, though, twenty-some Long Nines engaged in battle on a more civilized field: the baseball diamond.

On the mound, a Long Nine kicked his leg and hurled a pitch. Pietro di Giacomo swung, but the ball slapped into the catcher’s mitt.

“Strike!” Cannon shouted. It bothered Emma to no end that they played such an un-Australian sport, but too many of the Long Nines hailed from the Americas. Baseballers were easier to find than cricketers.

The ball swooped in again, a beautiful curve. “Ball!” Cannon called.


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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 11

The arrival of piracy had done much to improve the city’s standing. The city had grown upward, now playing host to an honest high rise or two. The farms had gone further inland or further northeast along the coast, and now the skeletons of zeppelins littered the space between the mooring masts and miles beyond. Some had just arrived, resting on the ground rather than floating serenely above it. Others were in more advanced states of decay. Here was a zep with its skin missing in great gashes. There was one whose keel had broken, ripping apart its dorsal skin and leaving duralumin bracing rings leaning outward one against the other, God’s own dominoes. Over there, what had once been an airship was now but stacks of girders and folded fabric.

As Inconstant drew nearer, those aboard could see teams of men on the ground, along with the actinic glare of cutters. These were the Darwin breakers: rough men with a rough job. Zeppelins came in. Nobody asked too strenuously from where. Sometimes, the breakers might choose to fix up one up and resell it. Usually, they took it down for parts and sold those parts along. Either way, they took a healthy cut before settling up with the interested party.

Inconstant stayed well clear of the mooring masts. Majestic‘s prize crew brought her in to land, and shortly after, an Albatross departed Inconstant‘s hangar. It lined up on a rutted patch of dirt, what passed for a runway here, and touched down in an enormous cloud of dust.

Cannon emerged. He haggled briefly with a dirt-stained man in a broad hat. Eventually, the two shook hands. That was enough. No breaker would dare cross a pirate captain, for obvious reasons. No pirate captain would aim to cheat a Darwin breaker. There was nowhere better to sell.

Cannon and the Long Nines prize crew, fifteen in all, boarded the Albatross. After a few minutes, its engines coughed to life. The ungainly transport taxied in a tight circle. The engines’ rattle grew to a steady thrum, and the plane bounced down the runway, then clawed its way into the sky. Inconstant turned south, and the Albatross followed.


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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 10

Cries of, “Skipper!” and “Captain!” met him as the Long Nines assembled realized he was present.

He held up a hand for quiet. “Well, looks like we’re taking Swiftsure home with us. We may get that liberty in Darwin after all.” That met with raucous approval. “We aren’t home yet,” Cannon admonished. “Keep a lid on it until we are.”

“Aye aye!”

Cannon and Joe descended the companionway down to the ventral catwalk, and then took the ladder down into the control gondola. Churchill, the airship’s flying master, called out orders to the planesmen and the helmsman.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Churchill,” Cannon said. “Is our prize crew back in control over there?”

Churchill nodded. “They radioed a few moments ago, captain. We’re ready to sail on your order.”

“Very good,” Cannon said. “Make for Darwin. Best speed.”

“Aye, sir.”


 

Darwin was less than a day’s flight away. Inconstant drove through the night over Dutch New Guinea, Majestic close behind. Sunrise found the two airships one thousand feet above the Dundas Strait, heading south, the Australias laid out dead ahead.

Once, they had been British colonies, but in the great churn after the War, they elected to find their own path. At first, they went at it together, a Federation of Australian States. In the manner common to groups of Australians, it fell apart amid disagreements, quarrels, and outright brawls. Now there were city-states: Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin, and Perth, together the Australias. Towns along the coast fell into their orbit; towns and cattle stations inland were nations unto themselves.

It was a good place to be a pirate. The nearness of British New Zealand notwithstanding, the Australian continent was on the far side of the world from the European authorities, and yet near enough to the shipping lanes of the East Indies to make a convenient base. It was no coincidence that Darwin had the most and largest airship breakers besides those in Wilhelmshaven, the birthplace of the zeppelin.

All but pristine landscape stretched away to Inconstant‘s port and starboard flanks, Melville Island to her right and the Coburg Peninsula to her left. Only a handful of small settlements broke the lush green of the coastline. Directly below, the ocean sparkled, a perfect Pacific turquoise.

Inconstant turned, now heading south by southwest, directly toward Darwin. The city center sat on a small peninsula, poking southwest at a right angle from the end of a larger peninsula, which itself extended northwest from the mainland. Less than two miles across, the city had once been a dusty frontier town, a main street of a few blocks surrounded by houses. A mile or two to the northeast, zeppelin berths dotted the landscape, scattered among the farmsteads.

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