Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 9

Cannon swung the hatch open and waved Joe through. They stepped into the most peaceful place aboard Inconstant.

Like most modern zeppelins, Inconstant captured the water from her engine exhaust to reuse as ballast and, after some filtration, potable stock. Most zeppelins had a simple pump-and-reservoir room somewhere high in the hull, to build a proper head of pressure. Inconstant had a garden.

Choufeng Chuang, the old surgeon from Hong Kong, had claimed the compartment in late 1926, when he signed on with the Long Nines. A few months later, he threw open the hatches to an oasis of tranquility.

Though the space was only perhaps fifteen yards on a side, it nevertheless hosted a small island of stacked stones, worn smooth by water and time. Cannon still wasn’t sure how Choufeng had laid his hands on them. Two bridges of red-painted wood linked the forward hatch to the island, and the island to the aft hatch, which led to the companionway down to the rest of the crew spaces. Beyond that was the main part of the dorsal catwalk.

A small pagoda-roofed gazebo, only just large enough for two people to stand in, looked out over the pond. Water lilies rested on the surface, intermingled with floating lanterns. The cheerful babbling of a cascade, running down a channel constructed from carefully-arranged stones in the side of the island, drowned out the hum of Inconstant‘s machinery.

Cannon paused in the gazebo. “It never gets old,” he said.

Joe nodded.

Another few beats passed, then the two men continued across the second bridge and through the aft hatch. The companionway beyond it, like the dorsal catwalk, had no bulkheads enclosing it. It zigzagged downward through four landings before entering another thin-walled collection of compartments. The crew spaces filled five decks. The top four were cabins of various sizes; the lowest deck was mostly mess hall, with showers, toilets, and the galley accessible through a handful of hatches.

The mess hall was also the usual gathering place for crew not on watch. A dozen or two Long Nines were scattered among the tables—reserve pilots and mechanics, mostly, waiting to be called to action if needed. Along with them, the tables held a collection of playing cards, books, and in the case of one group of crew in a corner, musical instruments. They performed a sea shanty with more enthusiasm than talent.

Cannon smiled to himself. He wasn’t that much of a traditionalist himself, but he could hardly deny it was a nicely piratical impulse.

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Commentary, Hunt for the Majestic No. 9

Sorry for the lateness of last week’s Friday post; I only got it up on Labor Day. I’ve been playing some BattleTech Against the Bot by means of MekHQ and Megamek. Expect some after-action reports on the Soapbox soon.

On a related note, Inconstant‘s water garden is a feature that stems from her origins as a base of operations for a tabletop game. Our borrowed zeppelin construction rules, under the heading ‘crew rooms’, mentions an arboretum as a possible compartment. When the Savage Worlds game we had in mind was still a possibility, I thought it might be a nice room for roleplay.

Of course, the campaign never happened, but nevertheless, the garden remains.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 8

Cannon waited for Joe to cross the line. Together, they passed through Inconstant‘s bow platform hatch. The airship’s engines thrummed to life, her propellers reversed to push her away from Swiftsure aft end. At Swiftsure‘s bow, the Devil’s Daggers aboard Majestic tossed lines between the two zeppelins.

“Did I lay it on too thick?” Cannon wondered.

Joe shook his head. “Just right. Can’t have people thinking they can take what’s ours.”

“I’m with Joe,” said the third bodyguard.

“All right, if you say so,” Cannon replied. “Thompson, you’d better get back to the hangar. We’ll be turning around the cover flight in a few minutes.”

“Aye, sir.” Thompson slung his machine pistol and headed down the companionway ahead.

When Cannon walked the quarter-mile of Inconstant‘s length, he took the ventral catwalk. It ran past Iseabail’s lab, held into the zep by shackles which could drop it at a moment’s notice, if whatever the mad Scot was playing at got too hot. From experience, he knew it was a good idea to walk by and check on her when he got the chance.

The catwalk proceeded forward through the hangar, past the von Rubenstein machinery—Cannon could feel its hum even from here, a different tone than the engines, as it pulled helium from the air—and the pilots’ ready room. Along its length, side catwalks led up under the gas cells to the engine cars and broadside gun positions. The crew spent most of their working hours along the ventral catwalk. Walking its grating, Cannon could keep his thumb on the crew’s pulse. More than once, he had sniffed out trouble brewing before it came to a head.

The dorsal catwalk was, however, a more relaxing walk. Unlike the ventral catwalk, which ran level from Iseabail’s lab to the control gondola and crew spaces forward, the dorsal catwalk arched gently to follow the zeppelin’s curved topside skin. Inconstant‘s gas cells rose to chest height on both sides of the catwalk, near enough to touch. Much further aft from where they stood, at intervals of a few dozen yards, the catwalk sprouted a small platform to port, each at the base of a ladder which ran to the topside machine guns and lookout positions.

From the bow platform, though, the gentle arc was more of a steep climb. Fifty yards ahead, the catwalk ended in a hatch set a bulkhead, thin but covered in bare triangular bracing. Hidden behind the gas cells, below the compartment ahead, were five more decks, mostly cabins and galley: the crew spaces.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 7

Thorne returned Cannon’s gaze. At first, defiance blazed in his eyes. Cannon let him glare. He even felt a measure of sympathy for the man. It was hard on any captain to admit he was beaten, a lesson Cannon knew all too well from his recent adventures in Panama.

Thorne’s shoulders drooped, and he looked away. He took a breath, straightened, and met Cannon’s eyes again. “I take responsibility for this. Leave my crew out of it.”

Cannon smiled. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? Joe, does he seem contrite to you?”

Joe nodded.

“Me too. Look, Captain Thorne, I’m not in this business to make any more enemies than I have to.”

“That’s not what people say,” Thorne replied.

“I’m turning over a new leaf,” Cannon retorted. “I’m not going to hurt you or your crew, or your zep any more than I have. I’m not going to steal anything of yours, Captain Thorne. All I want is my property—Majestic—and any of my crew you have as prisoners. We leave, you patch up your zep and head into… Singapore, isn’t it?” Thorne nodded, bafflement written across his face. “Singapore, and before you know it we’re both cruising the skyways again, in search of fortune on our own terms. What do you say?” Cannon stuck out his hand.

Thorne watched it carefully. “No tricks?” he said.

“I told you, skipper, I’m turning over a new leaf.”

Thorne cautiously shook Cannon’s hand.

Cannon smiled without humor and held the handshake. Conversationally, he added, “Don’t think this means you can steal from me down the road. This warning, our pleasant chat? It’s a one-time-only special. If I catch you with your hands on my property again, well.” Something flashed in Cannon’s eyes. “All those things they say about me? You’ll find out just how true they were.”

Thorne nodded slowly. “That seems fair,” he ventured.

“Good!” Cannon let go of his opposite number’s hand. “You get on the radio with your men on Majestic. Have them moor with Swiftsure, come across, and leave my prize crew in command, and we’ll be on our way.” He turned half toward the door, then turned back to point a finger at Thorne. “Don’t cross me again.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 6

A few years ago, Cannon would have gotten hot under the collar at that, on the theory that the defeated captain should have met them in person. Joe had watched Cannon turn into a fiery-tempered dark-hearted cynic after the war, a look which didn’t suit him. Joe finally put his foot down, and the intervening time had done much to smooth the boss’s rough edges.

Now, rather than roll up his sleeves and throw a punch, Cannon just smiled and gestured for the crewmen to lead the way. They exchanged an uneasy glance. That was another unexpected benefit. Anyone could gin up a burning rage, but the calm self-assurance Cannon displayed more often nowadays did more to put fear in the hearts of his fellow pirates.

The crewmen led them into Swiftsure‘s hull through a hatch in the zeppelin’s skin and along an gently arched catwalk running near the ship’s topside skin. Like Inconstant, her crew spaces were at her bow; unlike the Long Nines’ zep, the captain’s cabin was in the same place as the rest of her quarters.

The Devil’s Daggers ushered Cannon and his escort in.


Cannon approached Thorne’s desk. He knew Henry Thorne in passing; they had once met to discuss a temporary alliance. The take would have been good, but Cannon didn’t trust Thorne’s temperament. He was too greedy, and even if greed to excess was a common flaw in pirates, it was still a flaw.

Thorne rose as Cannon approached. Thorne was a dark-haired man, shorter than Cannon by a good few inches. The lines in his face suggested a sneer, but for the moment he had the good grace to look contrite.

“All right, Thorne,” Cannon said, putting his hands on the edge of Thorne’s desk and leaning toward the man. “I’ll give you thirty seconds to explain why you stole from me, and if I like your answer, maybe I won’t send your zep into the drink when I leave.”

Cannon had no real intention of sinking Swiftsure, but Thorne didn’t know that. Thorne jumped, held out his hands pleadingly. “I swear, I didn’t know it was yours.”

Cannon raised an eyebrow. “Until you boarded it and met my prize crew?”

“For all I knew they were lying!” Thorne protested.

“Look, Hank—can I call you Hank?” Cannon didn’t wait for an answer. “That’s not going to fly with me. We both know what happened. You ran across what I rightfully stole, saw the manifest, and got that itching in your fingers. You thought you could take it. You thought you could pull one over on me.”

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Commentary, Hunt for the Majestic No. 6

It turns out when I forget to update the website at the start of the week with both entries for the week, I usually forget Friday after I forget Tuesday.

If you haven’t checked out the new Twitter account @manywordspress (see the link in the sidebar), you ought to. I’ve been tweeting up a storm, and I’ve even shared a first look at a character you haven’t seen yet.

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#WIPjoy summer 2017: The Star-Studded Black

These are all my WIPJoy answers for the summer 2017 edition, revised and expanded from the social media answers. I’ve bumped it to the front page for that reason. Enjoy!

Day 1: who are you, and what are you writing?
Since you’re here, I imagine you have some idea as far as the first question goes. If not, there’s an ‘About’ page.

I’m writing a novel-length piece called The Star-Studded Black, set in the same universe as my debut novella We Sail Off To War. They take place in a hard science fiction universe in the middle of an all-out war, and both focus on characters’ experiences rather than the grand sweep of things. I find that the most relatable military history and military fiction does the same.

Day 2: describe your protagonist in seven words.
Lloyd Church, war correspondent: old-school. Trilbies, pen and notepad, newsprint.

Day 3: what was your first inspiration for this project?
I’m going to cheat and cite two.

First off, the setting for The Star-Studded Black features the Naval Arm of the Confederacy of Allied Worlds experimenting with a new class of ship: the gunboat. Small but heavily-armed, agile, and cheap, they’re well-suited to commerce raiding, fleet reconnaissance, and a number of other tasks, which our heroes discover over the course of the story. The idea for a gunboat story came from some reading about the Civil War. The Union had a fleet on the Mississippi River; at the outset of the war, they were all ironclad gunboats of idiosyncratic design. I wanted to do something similar, so I spent some time thinking about what sort of space terrain mirrors a river, and came up with asteroid belts and planetary ring systems. Both are constantly changing in terms of navigational hazards (though an asteroid belt isn’t much of a hazard). A working ship in such an environment should be small and have powerful engines, given that the obvious kind of work to be done is moving objects around. I won’t say any more, because doing so would give away a plot point.

The inspiration for Lloyd Church, war correspondent, comes from something I’m reading right now. A year and a half ago, I was at the local library’s used book sale. I came across a volume called William Russel, Special Correspondent of the Times. Active from about 1850 to 1890, he was the first true war correspondent and a roving journalist for the Times of London. Through his descriptions, the Victorian world comes to life, and I wanted to write a similar figure.

Day 4: what are three books which go well with your work in progress?
1. Master and Commander, or any Jack Aubrey book: although I don’t go quite as far as David Drake in writing seafarers in space, I do aim for that aesthetic in many ways. The classics of the genre deserve a spot on your shelf.

  1. Red Storm Rising: Tom Clancy is basically the Rembrandt of military fiction. I don’t delve as deeply into politics in The Star-Studded Black, but I hope to write something similarly thrilling.

  2. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: an interesting read on a frequently-glossed-over topic in Civil War history, and the best source on the gunboats I mentioned in the previous answer.

Day 5: share a line where your story comes to life.

Lloyd Church was in the dark. He hated being in the dark.


For the last four weeks, he had been all but confined to his spartan quarters in the Caledonian freighter Katherine Anne, where his chief at the Confederate Press had booked him passage to Odyssey.

Life in Katie, as her crew called her, seemed normal enough at first, but Church had since compiled a long list of suspicions about her true purpose. For one, the crew were far too deferential to be merchant sailors. In his experience, only career Navy men could be so polite while saying so little.


Day 6: would you rather spend a week in your universe, or have your antagonist spend a week in ours?

Well, the antagonist in these naval war in space stories is “the horrors of war”, and as far as its presence in our universe goes, that ship sailed quite a long time ago.

To pick a more concrete antagonist, though, the warship commanders opposite our heroes are upstanding, gentlemanly sorts. I wouldn’t say no to having them stop by so I might pick their brains.

On the other hand, spending a week in my universe basically means I get to spend a week IN SPACE, which is pretty cool. I have to say I pick that one.

Day 7: share a line in which the plot thickens.

In which our intrepid correspondent is surprised:

In the belter hangar was what Church took to be a warship, but it was like no warship he had ever seen.


Day 8: what would your protagonist be like as the antagonist?

I’ll answer using the deuteragonist today. Confederate war correspondent Lloyd Church would very likely be United Suns war correspondent Lloyd Church, minus some lingering health problems from time in Caledonia.

Ship’s Lieutenant-in-Command Aubrey Harper, on the other hand, is more interesting. She’s part of the Naval Arm’s Special Action Group, where all the off-book projects end up, and while she enjoys the work, she hasn’t had much opportunity to distinguish herself as a commander. She has a knack for it, and Exile frigate captain or fleet admiral Aubrey Harper would be a formidable foe, given time to settle in. Daring, canny, and inventive are a dangerous combination of traits for a commander.

Day 9: what would your antagonists be like as protagonists?

I make my antagonists, for the purpose of this question, to be Exile captains. The short answer is ‘less effective’. The long answer starts below.

The Exiles—properly speaking, the United Suns—have their genesis in a splintering of the original colonization project which founded the Confederacy of Allied Worlds. Owing to disagreements which are too nuanced to recount here, one ship was exiled from the five-ship colony fleet. Four carried on to form the Confederacy. The remaining ship, locked on a different course by the other four, became the first world in the polity which would eventually become the United Suns. They never quite got over it, and their distaste for the Confederacy only increased when the Confederacy instituted exile as a form of capital punishment.

Fast forward 340 years or so. The United Suns make contact with the Confederacy. They have war on the mind—a war of conquest, yes, but also a war of revenge for three centuries of slights. Their spies bring back information on the Confederate Naval Arm, and their shipyards build their fleet with an eye toward beating their most hated foe.

The Exile War kicks off, and Confederate captains find themselves outgunned. The insufficiently crafty ones die. The Exile Navy, at the time of The Star-Studded Black, has not yet faced that kind of selective pressure.

Day 10: talk about a favorite side character.

Meet Leading Sailor John Ellet. He’s an ambitious young man in his early 20s, who, as the junior man in his boat, got stuck with minding the war correspondent. He takes to the task with aplomb. Not content with his lot among the ship’s enlisted company, he’s looking to join the Naval Arm’s officer corps by taking the qualification test in a few years, once he gets his warrant. Our reporter Mr. Church thinks he has potential.

He’s named for a number of Ellets who served the Union in the Mississippi theater. They weren’t regular soldiers or sailors; they were private citizens who purchased a number of river tugs, armored them, added ram bows, and placed themselves under the command of the Union forces in the theater. Private soldiering at its finest.

Day 11: what parts of your story are based on personal experience?

Pretty much none. I’ve never served in a military, written for a newspaper, or been to space. That said, ‘write what you know’ is a terrible slogan for authors of fiction (provided you interpret it as ‘write what you’ve experienced’). If we all stuck to that advice all the time, we wouldn’t have speculative fiction at all. “Speculative” is right there in the name.

Day 12: share a line you nailed.

In which we meet our intrepid war correspondent:

Lloyd Church was in the dark. He hated being in the dark.


Day 13: would you rather never publish this WIP, or watch it be turned into a horrible movie?

From a crassly financial perspective, I’d much rather watch it be turned into a bad movie. Not only do I, in this scenario, have the money from selling the movie rights, I also have a book which sold well enough to in turn sell movie rights to.

Day 14: share a GIF which represents your main character’s personality.

Bonus: this is war correspondent Lloyd Church and, at present, me.

Day 15: share a line in which a decision is made.

Once again, it’s more than a line. My characters don’t do single-line things. Starting now:

“Did he mention the prize incentives?”

As one, every Navy man in the room leaned forward ever so slightly.

Harper stifled a smile. “I see he did not. No ten-percent prize if we destroy a target off his list. No, the Navy pays us the full appraised value, whether or not we bring it back.”

Church could see the avarice sparkling in the sailors’ eyes.

“Which is why,” Harper continued, “we won’t be hunting them in particular.”


Day 16: pick an ideal reading spot, musical number, food, and drink for your work.

Food and drink: something roasted, and a classic cocktail. (An Old Fashioned, say.)

Place and music: see this video.

Day 17: something you’re still working out.

That would be the main character’s voice. I haven’t quite decided yet if he’s direct and plainspoken, or eloquent and literary.

Whichever I pick, it bears heavily on editing. Unlike We Sail Off To War, which was a story about Winston Hughes narrated in the voice I commonly use for Exile War stories, this story is supposed to sound like Lloyd Church. (I toyed with the idea of writing it in the same old-time war-correspondent-memoir mode I’ve read in 19th-century newspaper archives, but passed on that as too gimmicky.) When I have Church altogether figured out, I’ll have to go back and put his voice in through the whole story.

Day 18: share a thought which keeps you going as an author.

It’s less a thought and more a routine. The steady drumbeat of serialization deadlines keeps me honest. For The Star-Studded Black, I plan on setting some milestones through the end of 2017 and mid-2018; by that time, I need to be done if I plan to hit my 2018 release date.

Day 19: share a line which was hard to write.

I can’t, because I haven’t written it yet. Suffice it to say that this is a war story. People we like die. That’s the nature of war. For all the fun I have writing these, I dread having to write the consequences.

Day 20: would you rather have tea with your antagonist, or be stuck in an elevator for three hours with your main character?

Lloyd Church is a fascinating man with a lot of stories. I’d probably aim to finagle more than three hours of his time.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 5

Emma led Whiskey flight away from the stricken zep. Swiftsure drifted, all her engines out of commission. Further ahead, Majestic cut her engines. It looked as though the Devil’s Daggers had chosen the better part of valor and hoisted the white flag.

Whiskey flight circled while Inconstant caught up. Boarding an airship with no engine power, like Swiftsure, was not straightforward. The typical solution—taking an airplane across to the other zep’s skyhook—only worked if the other zeppelin could make way.

The boarding party would have to go across from Inconstant. That could get very dicey indeed, as Emma knew all too well, if the other airship’s crew wasn’t in a cooperative mood. Swiftsure had surrendered, though, and some of her crew were already waiting on her stern gun platform.

Cannon laid Inconstant fifty yards aft of Swiftsure, and by means of a reduced charge and a heavy grapple in the bow gun, launched a heavy line across the gap. Other lines followed, and soon the two zeppelins were loosely moored together.

Emma led her flight higher, until they circled a thousand feet above the airships. Looking out the side of her cockpit, she could just see figures crossing the ropes between the airships.


Joe Copeland held his machine pistol across his chest, waited for Cannon to cross the ropes, slung his gun over his shoulder, and followed. He had never minded flying, but standing on a four-inch hawser two thousand feet above the sea with nothing but a lifeline around his waist was a different story. He hurried across, then took up position behind Cannon, taking the submachine gun in hand once again.

He spent a lot of time playing the intimidating bodyguard. He was the largest Long Nine by a good margin, the fact that the gang’s most dangerous fighters were a skinny Australian woman and an old Chinese man notwithstanding. He looked the part, and that was what mattered at times like this.

The trio of Devil’s Daggers manning Swiftsure‘s aft platform were conspicuously unarmed. That was a good sign. They waited for the other two members of Cannon’s party to cross the lines, then informed the Long Nines that Captain Thorne would speak to them in his quarters at their leisure.

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Twitter changes

I’ve decided that, since my personal Twitter is primarily political in nature, I should have a writing Twitter too, for better separation between those two realms for those readers who prefer it.

Going forward, here’s how things will shake out:


  • Politics
  • Defense and geopolitics
  • Sports
  • Auto-Tweets for new posts and news here


  • Writing-related content (what I’m doing, little samples, and so on)
  • Also auto-Tweets

Update your follows accordingly. I look forward to sharing a bit more freely on both accounts going forward. (Also, TweetDeck makes me feel like someone awesome in mission control.)

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