The tropical sun beat down on the silver hull of an airship, speeding through the scattered clouds at ninety miles per hour. No name was painted on her skin. Nor was insignia whatsoever, except for two eighteenth-century cannon on naval carriages in silhouette upon her vertical tailplanes.
On a platform set just above the very forwardmost point of her nose, six pirates clustered around a three-inch gun, braced against the wind and secured to the deck by lifeline. Under the direction of the gun captain, two spun wheels on the mount to train the barrel. The captain barked an order, and the rest of the gun crew ducked aside, covering their ears. The captain pulled hard on the lanyard.
The gun bellowed, sending a shell spiraling away. The crew scrambled to reload the gun: one man spun a handle a quarter-turn to unlock the breech and swing it open. Another swabbed the chamber. Two others slid a new shell and a new bag of powder into place.
The gun captain let them work, raising a pair of binoculars to his eyes. He fixed them on two slivers four miles ahead, shining in the sunlight: two zeppelins, running as fast as their propellers could push them. A black smudge appeared between them. He had the range.
One hundred yards aft and forty yards down, Nathaniel Cannon stood in the pirate airship Inconstant‘s control car. He lowered a pair of binoculars from his eyes, revealing a face which, ten years younger, might have graced a recruiting poster. Piercing flinty eyes shone beneath tousled brown hair, only just beginning to show signs of gray. A broad mouth pressed into a line and a strong chin with a determined set to it rounded out his face.
“Joe, how are the engines?” he said.
“Running fine, boss.” Joe Copeland, skin the color of coffee beans, hair cropped short, stood in front of a bank of gauges. “Could probably run them a little harder.”
Cannon shook his head. “No need. We’ll have them in an hour, if that.”
Airplanes dropped from Inconstant‘s belly. First came slender, graceful-looking Kestrels, British interceptors whose lines were only marred by the massive fairing behind the cockpit, where two Bentley radials drove the planes’ twin propellers. With canards forward and wings aft, they looked as though they were flying backward.
Next were the Falcons, heavier fighters of French design, all stubby fuselage and long wing. Sprouting from the latter, a third of the way out from the cockpit on either side, fragile-looking twin tail booms reached aft.
The fighters swirled in chaotic fashion, then organized themselves into pairs and quartets. They turned for the two zeppelins ahead.