Being neither a smoker nor one well-versed in smoking history, I had to look up whether lighters were a going concern in the late 1920s. Turns out they were; this Ronson ad dates to 1927.
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.
I have a busy few weeks coming up, so there may be schedule interruptions ahead. I’ll try to keep you abreast of them, or perhaps scrounge some old stories to run in the meantime.
Thanks for reading!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.”