“We stick with what we do best. In a few days, our target will be on the move. Macchi’s zep will head north over the water. We’ll hit them there and capture the zep. We score the racer, and a zep for the wreckers in the Australias besides.” Cannon looked around the auditorium. “We’ll patrol east of Sardinia and fly scouts down to the Sicilian coast…”
Four days later, the mid-afternoon sun shone brightly through scattered puffy clouds over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Inconstant ran south-southeast at full speed, just above cloud level. One of her Albatross transports, playing scout for the day, had radioed in a sighting: a zep flying the Italian flag. The Albatross had closed in, and sure enough, it was Carabiniere, flying below the clouds one hundred miles from Inconstant. Inconstant raced to meet her. They would be side-by-side in less than forty-five minutes.
Some half an hour later, four Kestrel interceptors, four Falcon fighters, and two Vulture light bombers dropped from Inconstant‘s hangar, orbiting just above the zep. Approaching above the cloud deck, Cannon hoped to bring Inconstant down through the clouds as close to Carabiniere as possible, fire a broadside or two, and go aboard before the Italians knew what had hit them.
He stood in Inconstant‘s control room, looking through a pair of binoculars. He asked the flying master, “Mr. Churchill, what’s the range?”
“Twenty miles, captain.”
“Burr, what’s the word from Choufeng?” Cannon called over his shoulder.
In the radio room two dozen yards aft, a short, trim, brown-haired woman put down the headphones she had been holding to her ear. “No good. He thinks the Italians caught sight of him.”
Cannon scowled. “Radio Joe. Tell him to attack, approaching high. Hit her radio room.”
Burr put the headphones back on, then picked up a microphone and spoke into it. Overhead, Inconstant‘s planes formed up, put on more speed, and climbed away ahead of them.
Joe looked out the left side of his cockpit. His wingman was right there, flying another Kestrel. The interceptors were tiny little planes, built backwards: canards with the elevators at the front, and wings with ailerons and wingtip rudders at the back. Two engines behind the cockpit drove two coaxial pusher propellers. A few hundred yards distant, Emma led the Falcon group. A little behind the fighter groups, the Vultures, ungainly machines with tailplanes nearly as large as their wings, struggled to keep up. Hidehito Takahashi flew the lead bomber.
Joe squinted through the prop disc. Ten miles ahead, four planes pushed through the clouds.
“Fighters ahead,” Emma’s voice crackled in Joe’s ear.
“I see ’em,” Joe said. “Take the bombers in. We’re on the fighters.”
Joe fit actions to words, pushing his throttles forward. The Kestrel picked up speed, leaving the rest of Inconstant‘s strike force in the dust.
Emma liked the Falcon. Sturdily built, with a pusher engine between the twin tail booms, and a heavy armament in the empty nose, the heavy fighter was her opposite. On the ground, she had to be evasive, ducking and dodging, striking only when she knew she could escape. In the sky, she enjoyed being able to take a hit, and dish one out in reply.
“On me, Takahashi,” she said into her microphone, as Joe’s group roared ahead. “We’ll dive from here.” Takahashi acknowledge by clicking his mic. Emma pushed her plane’s nose down, feeling the familiar rush as she picked up speed.
The Falcons and the bombers hit the cloud deck a few minutes later, breaking through a mere few miles from Carabiniere. Emma put her throttle full forward. “Robber group, follow me in. We’ll make the first attack. Bandit group, make sure we’ve done the job.”
Emma spun the elevation knob on her gunsight. Carabiniere was now only a mile away, and closing fast. She felt minute forces on the stick, little gusts of wind and the natural oscillation of the Falcon, push her sight off target. She breathed deeply, focused on Carabiniere‘s gondola through the sight, and willed the sight over the center of the gondola. Half a mile. She pushed the button atop the stick. Spiraling trails of smoke filled the space between her plane and the Italian zep. A few moments later, explosions dotted Carabiniere‘s gondola as her rockets struck home. She pulled up and banked hard left, her wingman following. Looking over her left shoulder, she could just catch sight of the second pair firing their rockets.
“Good hits,” Takahashi’s voice came over the radio. “Switch to secondary targets.”
Emma clicked her mic and let the Falcon come halfway out of the turn. Tracking the top of the Italian zep through her canopy, she rolled fully out of the turn, lined up on the machine gun positions along Carabiniere‘s topside. She let the range close, then put a burst form her own guns into each nest.
Below, the Vultures dove, then climbed toward the zep’s underside, launching rockets toward her hangar bay hatches. Emma grinned. She loved her job.
Joe hauled back hard on his stick, feeling the force of the turn press down on his shoulders. Clouds replaced sky in the view through the windshield, and ocean in return replaced clouds. Neck muscles straining, he put the outer ring of his gunsight on the Italian fighter ahead of him and pulled his triggers. A stream of tracers lanced out from his Kestrel’s nose. Flashes from the Italian fighter, followed by a gratifying stream of black smoke, told him he’d hit. Joe pulled out of his dive as the Italian pilot bailed out.
“You’re leaking something, Four,” came a voice over the radio.
Joe jumped in. “Go to home plate, Four. We got cleanup.”
Inconstant was now only a few miles away. The pirate zep descended through the clouds.
Cannon paced. The gondola windows looked out to a uniform field of white. After a few moments more, the gondola broke through the clouds. There was Carabiniere, a mile distant.
“Mr. Churchill, one starboard broadside, then bring us in.”
Inconstant swung ponderously to the left, showing Carabiniere her guns. The three-inchers popped off a volley as they came to bear. Churchill reversed the rudders, and Inconstant settled on a new course, approaching the Italian zep at about a forty-five degree angle.
“You have the bridge,” Cannon said. “Get us in close, keep us alongside. Burr, sound the boarding alarm.”
Five minutes later, Cannon stood in Inconstant‘s Number Four prop house, forward of midships. His trusty Mauser holstered at his side, he had chosen one of Inconstant‘s stock of machine pistols for this little outing. Through the open windows, Carabiniere loomed large ahead of them, a hundred yards away and drawing closer by the second. “Ready on the harpoon, di Giacomo?” Cannon asked.
Next to him, a tall Italian man took aim over the top of a long tube on a large tripod. A wickedly-barbed hook protruded from its front, and a coil of thick cable sat beneath it, running down the gangway and back into the zep. Di Giacomo said, “Ready.”
Cannon waited a few heartbeats more. “Fire!”
A similar scene played out in all four of Inconstant‘s starboard prop houses. Hooks and cables shot through the gap between the zeps, embedding themselves in Carabiniere‘s skin. Winches deep within Inconstant pulled the cables taut, until the zeps were running side-by-side at sixty miles per hour.
Di Giacomo’s aim proved better than average. His hook had hit one of Carabiniere‘s engine gondolas. Cannon swung a length of rope over the line and tied it to his belt. “Once we’re in, my team goes to the hangar, and di Giacomo’s joins the team from Number Two at the gondola. Clear? All right. Let’s go.”
They went across the line. Nobody was in the gondola. Cannon shot out the lock on the hatch into the zep, and they pushed down the gangway to the Italian zep’s ventral catwalk. Gas cells filled the space over their heads, close enough to touch, and framed the catwalk on both sides fore and aft of the gangway out to the engine pod. A faint whistling audible over the engines indicated that some of them were damaged and leaking. Fifty yards aft, the catwalk ended at a duralumin wall, probably the hangar. Forward, a ladder ran down to the gondola.
Cannon took six men aft, and di Giacomo took the rest forward. Gunshots rang out from the hangar, and Cannon’s team covered the rest of the distance there at a run. One pirate took the hatch’s latch in hand. Others covered him, and he threw the door open.
The hatch opened onto a catwalk near the hangar’s ceiling. The zep’s keel, right beneath Cannon’s feet, ran through it. Stairs led down to the deck level. Cannon and his team stormed in, crouching behind the railing. Ahead, seven or eight Italian guards shot it out with ten pirates. Both groups hid behind crates of equipment and spares, fighting around the Macchi, which hung from the overhead rails off to one side of the hangar. Staccato bursts from machine pistols echoed in the confined space. Cannon’s team opened fire, and the surviving Italians threw down their weapons as they realized they were surrounded.
More gunshots rang out, coming from points forward in Carabiniere, then stopped as quickly as they started. It was quiet for a moment, then di Giacomo’s voice came over the intercom, speaking first in Italian. “We have taken the zeppelin,” he repeated, in English. “Give up, and you will not be killed.”
The attack had gone smoothly. Four of the Long Nines had been hit by gunfire, but none were badly wounded. One Kestrel was seriously damaged, but salvageable. Another Kestrel and one Falcon had taken some fire, but the damage was cosmetic. The ferocity of the first strike had done most of their work for them: the Italian captain had been killed by a rocket to the gondola, and most of the other officers had been badly injured. Without effective command, the Italian resistance had collapsed.
Cannon still had a lot to do. More pirates came across the lines, enough of a crew to guard the prisoners and make Carabiniere ready for travel again. They cleared debris out of the hangar, freed the grapples from the Italian zep’s side, and did what they could to bring her damaged engines back to life. Eventually, six of her eight propellers were running, which would have to be enough. In the control room, Cannon gave orders to run the throttles up and head southwest. They would slip between Sicily and Sardinia, then head across the Mediterranean and over North Africa.
Di Giacomo called down the ladder. “Captain Cannon! You’ll want to see this.”
Cannon descended the stairs from the hangar catwalk to the deck. “We noticed as we were cleaning up from the fight,” di Giacomo said, nodding at a few blood-spattered sheets off to the starboard edge of the hangar. “The Macchi’s been hit.”
“Badly?” Cannon wondered.
Di Giacomo shrugged. “I am no mechanic.”
Cannon climbed up the stepladder someone had placed next to the racer. A line of bullet holes stitched across the engine cowling and up through the cockpit. He slid down the ladder, and looked from the other side. Only a few had exited.
“I wonder if Le Vot’s the forgiving type,” he wondered aloud. “Or…”
Voting has closed! The next entry and vote will be posted by 5:00 p.m. Eastern time.