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Above and behind the captain, Lamar's voice hissed out. "Sir, give me cover to close that hatch, or we might never make it out of this lot," he said.

Hainey's ears were ringing so loudly that he heard only part of it, but he got the gist and reached again for the Rattler's crank. He turned it, and flipped the switch to feed the last of his ammo into the gun, and it exploded out from under the ship with a rat-a-tat-tat to wake the dead.

Lamar leaped over the steps, landing with a grunt and a slide on the ground beneath it; he recovered immediately, and took a mallet to the pried-apart rivets that affixed the panel into place. Soon the hatch was sealed and he was back up onto the steps, saying, "Sir, stop firing and hop inside. Simeon's got the stair lever and we'll seal ourselves up. Do it fast," he begged.

Hainey tried to say something back, but he didn't think he could make himself heard so he gave up, quit firing, and almost fell backwards on the steps-his weary muscles collapsing under the gun.

Simeon caught it in time to keep it from crushing the captain or knocking him back down into the service yard unarmed; but he yelped when his hands touched some overheated part and the sizzle of burning skin and hair made the cargo hold smell like a charnel house. Lamar helped the captain lift himself up the last few steps, and no sooner had the stairs retreated and the bay doors closed than a trickle of bullets came fired afresh at the hull.

They pinged as if they were being shot at a very big bell.

"Sir, are you all right?" Lamar demanded.

To which Simeon said, "I've burned my hand!"

"And I never call you 'sir,' now do I?" the engineer said as he patted down a place on Hainey's jacket where an ember was glowing, eating its round, black way through the fabric. "You've set yourself on fire!"

"It's…the…Rattler," he wheezed, hoping he'd heard everything correctly. His ears were banging as if someone was standing behind, smashing cymbals together over and over again. He waggled his head like he could shake the residual sounds out of it, and he climbed to his feet. "Simeon, your hand?"

"I'll survive," the first mate said unhappily, examining the puckering pink of the burn as it tightened and wrinkled across his otherwise coffee-dark skin.

"Find something and wrap it up. We've got to fly this thing, we've got to fly her out of here, before those idiots out there breach the hull, or blow up our neighboring ships-or scare up some help. If we can get airborne now, we can shake or bully our way past the security dirigibles…if they've even got the balls to chase us," he added as he stumbled into the bridge, leaving the Rattler lying steaming on the cargo hold floor.

"Way ahead of you," Simeon said. He'd already opened one of the packs that Hainey had thrown aboard, and taken out his only clean shirt. Using his teeth and his one good hand, he tore off the sleeve and began to bind himself. Lamar helped him hold it, and tied off the makeshift bandage.

"This bird is loaded up to the gills, ain't she?" the captain asked with wonder.

After they'd braced the bay doors from the interior, Simeon and Lamar joined him on the main deck, looking out through the windshield where the sheriff and a pair of deputies were joining the fray down front.

"She sure is," Simeon agreed. "Between the three of us, I think we can fly her all right," he said.

"We'd better be able to, or else our goose is cooked," Hainey observed.

Then, from behind a door that no one yet had opened, came a strangely calm voice-the kind of voice that's holding a deadly weapon, and is fully aware of how it ought to perform.

"Your goose is cooked regardless, Croggon Hainey."

All three men turned and were stunned to see her there, standing on the bridge with a six-shooter half as long as her forearm-but there she was, Maria Isabella Boyd, Confederate spy and operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

The captain recovered fastest. He let the unscarred side of his mouth creep up in something like a slow smile, and he said to her, "Lady, mine and yours, and everybody within a half-mile of this bird…if you don't put that thing down."

She ignored the warning. "Disarm yourselves. Immediately. All of you, or I'll shoot."

Hainey held out a hand that forbade his crewmembers to do any such thing. He said, "If you shoot, we're all dead. You don't know the first thing about these ships, do you?"

Maria faltered, but not much, and not for long. "Maybe not, but I know plenty about what happens to a man when a bullet sticks between his ribs, and if you don't want the knowledge firsthand yourself, you'd better set your weapons aside."

"You see," he said as if he hadn't heard her, "We're surrounded by hydrogen-three quarters of this craft is designed to hold it, and this bird is all full up right now. Do you know what happens when you start firing bullets around hydrogen?"

He could see by her eyes that she could guess, but she was unconvinced . "Those men outside have been firing at you for fully five minutes now. Nothing has exploded yet."

"This is a warbird, lady. It's armored on the outside, to the hilt. Inside, everything is exposed-there's not much to protect the interior from the tanks, because ordinarily, the people who hang around in the bridge know better than to yank out their guns and make threats. And did you notice," he added, because the clouds that covered her face were unhappy with understanding, "how careful they were? All those men down there-all those guns. Between them, they didn't fire twenty shots total. Do you know why?"

She hesitated, then said slowly, "The other dirigibles."

"That's right," he confirmed. "The other dirigibles. No armor. Not like this bird." He kicked at the floor, which rang metallically under his feet. "One bullet and they could be blown sky-high."

"What about that…that…" a word dawned on her, and she used it. "That Rattler? You could've set off a chain reaction, killed hundreds of people instead of merely the ten or twenty you've otherwise dispatched."

He shrugged. "I was lucky, and they weren't. And my men were all right, inside this bird. Even if the yard blew sky-high around it, and this bird took enough damage that it'd never fly again…they'd have made it out alive. And now that I can tell, just by looking at you, that you have a fair understanding of our mutual peril, it looks like we're at a bit of an impasse."

"We're at no impasse. You're going to disarm and I'm going to hand you over to…to the authorities," she argued.

The captain sneered. "And which authorities might those be? Your old Rebs? I heard they threw you away. You want to barter me," he said. "You want to bring them the last of the Macon Madmen, that's it, isn't it? Well. I'll let you send the lot of us to hell before I'll let you do that," he said. He pulled his small firearm from the holster around his hips, and he aimed it right back at her.

"You're a madman, sure enough," she breathed, but she didn't sound particularly frightened.

"I believe we established that."

"I don't want to kill you, or your crew, or anyone else down there. And I'd prefer not to die today, if I can arrange for it." But she didn't lower her gun, and the barrel didn't display even the faintest quiver of uncertainty. She was buying herself time to think, that was all.

"Then we've got ourselves a problem," Hainey told her. "What would you like for us to do? Open the bay door and let you go back down? You think they'd let a lady leave, just like that-or do you think that the moment we crack the door they're going to fire up inside this thing just as fast as can be?"

"But you said…the hydrogen…"

"Look at them out there," he told her, using his gun to briefly point at the windshield, and the sheriff, and the deputies, and the reassembled gathering that was picking up the wounded and the dead, and hauling them away. "They're losing their reason. You know what that is, out there? I bet you don't, Belle Boyd, but I do, as plain as I know you're too smart to shoot. That out there…that's not a crowd."

"It's not?"

"No. It's a mob. And it doesn't have half the brains of two men together, and they are going to kill anybody who tries to come out of this bird, lickity-split. So here's what's going to happen now," he said, and he changed his mind, and put the gun back in its holster instead of pointing it at the woman in the doorway. "Me and my men are going to lift this Valkyrie up, fly her off, and if you don't make any trouble for us, maybe we'll set you down safe."

"How chivalrous of you."

"We're gentlemen through and through, we are."

"I don't believe you," she said. Her gun didn't believe them either.

Outside, hands and hammers were beating against the Valkyrie's hull, hoping to pull it apart a piece at a time if it couldn't be breached. Hainey heard this, even through the buzzing in his ears, and he said to the spy, "Call it professional courtesy if you want, or merely my personal desire to surprise you. But if we don't move this ship somewhere else, and fast, not a one of us is walking away from it. Do you understand me?"

He nodded his head at Simeon, then at Lamar, who cautiously stepped away from him and went to the consoles where they might best make themselves useful. Hainey said, "Keep your gun out if you want, I don't give a damn."

"You don't?"

"No, I don't. Because now you know you'll die down here with us, if you don't let us fly. And once we're in the air, you'll die if you cut down any given one of us. So keep your gun out, lady, if that's what makes you feel better. Leave it out, and leave it pointed at me, if you please. I don't mind it, but I think it makes my crewmen nervous-and nervous crewmen can't steer worth a damn."

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