Hainey swung himself into the captain's chair and snarled when a hail of bullets struck the windshield-chipping it here and nicking it there, but barely scratching the foot-thick swath of polished glass. He found the thruster pedal and pumped it with his foot while his hand searched all the logical spots for a starter switch. His fingers fumbled across the console, feeling into the nooks and slots where such switches tended to be located, and finally he found a red lever so he pulled it, and the burners fired at top power, and top volume.
Behind the dirigible someone who had been standing too close to the engine mounts screamed and probably died as the craft howled violently to life.
Simeon adjusted himself in the first mate's chair and reached overhead for the steering and undocking levers; he tested the former and yanked hard on the latter, and somewhere beyond their hearing a hydraulic clasp unfastened and began to retreat into the body of the ship.
Lamar busied himself by bounding back and forth between two secondary crewmen's chairs, adjusting settings and turning dials, and the captain asked him, "We ready to fly?" to which the engineer said, "As ready as we're going to get." And he cast Maria Boyd an anxious glance.
She held her position by the crew quarters door, but her gun was at her side now and she caught him looking at her, she met his stare without a waver. But no one had time to stare, really. On the Valkyrie's underbelly men were taking kerosene torches to task, trying to find a place to cut where the metal would split enough to do damage. And the hammers were joined by crowbars, and by pipes, and by anything else hard and reckless, and the sound against the hull was like hail.
Maria said, "They really will kill us all, won't they?"
And Hainey replied without taking his eyes off the console, "Sure enough. They'll never give you the five minutes you'd need to explain yourself; they'll pull you out of the bird and pound you flat, just for being inside it in the first place. Now take yourself a seat."
"Is that an order, Captain?"
He said, "It's a suggestion you'd be wise to heed. We've never flown a bird this big before, and it might get rough."
"You're asking me to trust you enough to quit holding you at gunpoint."
Before Lamar had time to point out that she'd already lowered her weapon, the captain said, "No, I'm asking you to trust that we're too busy to pay you any attention."
With the back of his hand, he swiped at three parallel switches and the howling hum of the engines leaped to a keening pitch. "Here we go," he announced.
Behind him, Maria slipped into a seat beside the nearest glass gun turret and reached over her head, pulling the safety straps across her chest. "I hope you know what you're doing," she said.
"Don't worry about us," Simeon said to her. He rubbed his injured hand against the top of his thigh and reached with his good one for a row of buttons. "And don't interfere with anything we're doing, you understand?" he demanded, and in his haste, pain, or excitement, his island accent was more pronounced than it often sounded.
"I'll stay out of the way," she swore.
"And be quiet," the first mate added. Then he said to the captain. "Steering checks out."
Lamar said, "Thrusters and primary weapon systems check out. Engines are at full power. Throw the arm and let's lift her up, Captain."
"Here goes the arm," Hainey declared as he pulled on a floor-mounted lever, drawing it towards his chest with all the smoothness he could muster and all the speed the ship could handle. Fuel coursed to the engines and the thrusters beneath the ship rotated in their slots, aiming at the ground and pushing away from it-nudging the Union warbird into the air with a hop that was cleaner than anyone had expected.
"Nice," Simeon said.
"Thanks, and tell me how the steering paddles are holding."
"Holding fine. You going to turn her on the way up?"
"Hard to port," the captain told them. "We need to get our backside to the south end of the service docks; the security detail launches from the north end," he explained, and as the ship rose it crested the last of the other dirigibles until it alone had a clear view of the clouds. "Keep us steady," the captain said as he manned the prime steering paddles and the ship began a rotation that could've too easily toppled into a spin; but Simeon worked the fine steering and the ship stopped where the crew meant for it to-only to bring new trouble into the windscreen.
Lamar called it. "Two security detail flyers. Eleven and one o'clock. Sir, I think they're-"
A spray of bullets grazed the Valkyrie's lower cargo hold.
Hainey said, "Loaded. They're loaded with birdshot, damn them all to hell."
"Not enough to crack this egg," Simeon said with less than his usual easy confidence.
"They're rising fast
. They'll be on our flight level in half a minute or less," Lamar warned. "Then their aim'll be better. We've got to get out of their way; we don't know how much shot they're carrying."
"Those are little birds," Simeon insisted, though it was unclear who he meant to convince. "They can't be carrying too much on board. They're just security flyers; they're meant to scare folks off, not shoot them down."
But another rain of shot peppered the craft, higher on the hull as the other ships crested the service yard docks and neared the Valkyrie's altitude. The captain observed, "They don't have the swivel turrets like this one does. They can't hit us unless they keep our altitude."
"They've got some wiggle room," Lamar argued. "There's no telling how much. Higher, let's get us higher; let's hit some real thin air and then outrun them."
"Heavy as this thing is?" Simeon groused. "We'll do well to stay above them. It'd be one thing if we could return fire, but we barely have enough manpower to fly as it is. What's the normal crew on this thing, anyway?" he asked Lamar.
The engineer answered, "Six, as a skeleton. Maybe we can bash 'em. The Valkyrie can take it, and I bet those fellows can't."
Hainey said, "They're only chasing us because they know we ain't got enough men to fight 'em off properly." He drew harder on the lever and the ship continued to rise, and with Simeon's contribution from the thrusters it began to warm up to an eastern course.
"Where are you pointing us?" Hainey asked.
"Past town. But we've got to shake these things or knock 'em out of the sky. If they chase us too far we'll only have unwanted company, wherever we arrive."
From her seat near the glass gun turret Maria Boyd asked, "Where are we going? If you don't mind my asking."
"After my ship!" Hainey almost yelped as more gunfire strafed the ship, higher, and a couple of bullets went cracking against the windshield. Unlike the smaller bullets used on the ground, these were designed to break even the thickest glass, and even the hardest armor. Whether or not they could split the Valkyrie remained to be seen, but no one wanted to find out, so the captain drew the ship around.
"They're only going to summon more help if we keep hovering here," Lamar said.
Simeon shouted, "We ain't hovering! We're moving, just…we're moving. Jesus, this thing is a cast-iron tank of a bastard. It's none too easy to swing, I swear to God."
"But she spins all right," Hainey observed. "Let's try this then, back us up."
The first mate asked, "What?"
And the captain reiterated, "Back us up! Thrusters reverse, let's retreat and make like a spinning top. We'll charge them with a little backspin and knock them down, maybe. It won't hurt us, no-how."
"You're truly daft," Maria said, but no one answered her.
"All men buckle down," Hainey ordered as he used his elbow to whack a steering paddle into place enough to make the ship spiral. "Simeon, kick that stabilizer-pump it, don't hold it in place. We want to keep spinning, and cast ourselves at them like a knuckleball."
Centrifugal force was straining the interior, and the men and woman who struggled to hold themselves upright in their seats. Lamar's hands flew over the valves and buttons, and Simeon dutifully pumped the stabilizers to pitch the craft forward-on a course directly between the two smaller ships.
"We're bowling for birds!" the captain said almost gleefully, then added, "Impact in ten, nine, eight…hang on everybody…six…oh shit, I might be off a count or two-"
They collided, but just barely between the two security birds-winging the one and knocking the other hard enough to rock it out of its altitude. The crash was loud and the squeal of metal on metal was hard to listen to; but smoke puffed from the right side engine of the one o'clock ship, and it careened in a crazy, sinking pattern, headed back down to earth.
"We didn't get the both of them!" Maria said.
The captain said, "I know it, and I thought I told you to be quiet!"
"No," she corrected him. "It was your first mate. But I'll add that to your pile of suggestions."
"Woman! Don't you antagonize me! Can't you see we're busy?"
Lamar swallowed hard and said, "We're about to get busier. Two more dirigibles-one official security detail, it looks like…and one…sir, it looks like a Union cruiser."
"Goddamn," the captain said. He gritted his teeth while he wrestled with the knobs to steady the craft, and drag it out of its spinning whirl. Then he said, "We might have to make a run for it. Those security tweeters can't be holding much live freight, but a cruiser…we don't know. If we had another three or four men handy, that'd be one thing. Lamar, you said the primary weapons systems were all working?"