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The unnamed craft that hauled Hainey and his two most indispensable crew members was no physical match for the Free Crow, and this was no secret. Likewise, Hainey had reason to believe that Brink's crew outnumbered his own by three or four men, and maybe more.

In retrospect, he might've been better served to buy a bigger interim vessel and cobble together a thicker crew; but at the time, speed had been the more pressing priority and anyway, if he'd taken all afternoon to go shopping for the perfect pursuit vehicle, they'd never be this close to catching Brink now.

Lamar grumbled something from the engine room door.

"What was that?" Hainey asked.

"I said, I was thinking maybe we should've brought an extra warm body or two."

And the captain said, "Sure, but where would we have put 'im?"

"Point taken, sir."

Simeon, who never took his eyes off the growing black dot of the Free Crow, said, "He's wishing we'd brought that Chinaman Fang, at least. Captain Cly might've let him join us, if you asked him nice."

Hainey knew that much already, so he nodded, but didn't reply except to say, "The three of us will be plenty of man to take back our bird. Fang's good at what he does," he agreed. "A good man to have on board, that's for damn sure. But we've got the Rattler. Lamar, why don't you unhook yourself and make sure it's ready to bite."

"Yessir," the engineer said. He unfastened himself from the wall and, swaying back and forth to keep his balance, he grasped the edge of the engine room door to swing himself inside. The unnamed ship had a small cargo hold, but it was affixed beneath the cabin-and Hainey had insisted on keeping the Rattler within easier reach.

"Less than a mile out," Simeon announced calmly.

"Lamar! Get that thing on deck!" Hainey ordered.

Lamar struggled with a crate, scooting it jerkily across the tilting, lilting floor. "Right here, sir."

"Good man," Hainey told him. "Get back to your seat. This landing might get a little rough," he ordered, and then unfastened himself.


"You heard me. I've got to get this thing out and working before we set down," he said. And while the nameless craft charged forward, Hainey popped the crate's lid. He pushed a coating of sawdust and pine shavings aside to reveal a six-barreled gun. Its brass fittings shined yellow and white in the afternoon sun, and its steel crank gleamed dully at the bottom of the crate. The Rattler was a monster, and a baby brother to the popular Gatling Gun that had made itself at home in the war back east. And although it was designed to be carried on a man's shoulder, it required a man and a shoulder of exceptional strength to hoist it and fire.

Lamar was a slight fellow, not more than a hundred and forty pounds soaking wet with rocks in his pockets. Simeon was tall and just a bit too beefy to be described as wiry, and although he might've been able to heft the weapon, he likely could not have fired it alone-turning the crank with one arm while the other counter-balanced the thing.

So its use fell to the captain.

Croggon Hainey did not have all the height of his first mate, but he had a back as wide and square as a barn door, with shoulders stout enough to heave the heavy gun and strong enough to balance it. He aimed better with a second man behind him to steady the gun or spin the crank, and when the gun was fully operational he could scarcely maneuver beyond walking a straight line; but especially at a distance, the Rattler turned him into a one-man army.

And in Hainey's experience, as often as not, he didn't even need to fire it. Most men took one look at the massive, preposterous weapon and threw their hands into the air.

The captain flipped the gun over and opened a secondary box within the crate, from which he withdrew a long thread of ammunition. It dangled from his arm while he popped the gun's loading mechanism; the bullets bounced against one another heavily, clanking like cast-iron pearls on a necklace, and they rapped against the crate while Hainey worked.

"Half a mile out," Simeon said. "And they're disengaging from…it looks like one of those portable docks. Something like Bainbridge has, back west."

Hainey fed the ammunition into position and returned the Rattler to an upright state. "Portable dock? Out on the plains? That's madness," he said, even though he'd heard of it before. It'd been a long time since he'd come this far east, that was all; and he didn't realize how common they were becoming. He stood up and kept his head low, leaving the gun propped in the crate and ready to be picked up at a moment's notice.

Simeon nodded, and said, "Or brilliance. Not much traffic out this way. Might be better to bring your gas to the dirigibles, if the dirigibles aren't coming to you."

"But out in the open?" Hainey adjusted the seat buckles around his coat as he reassumed his position in the captain's chair. "It's a good way to get yourself robbed or conscripted," he mumbled .

Out through the windshield he could see it now, more clearly without the glass, yes-the black dot more than a dot now, more of a distinct shape. And he could also see the portable dock, operated by madmen or geniuses. It was a pipework thing shaped like a house's frame, and held between two wagons. Under the wagons' canopies Hainey assumed there'd be hydrogen generators lined with copper, filled with sulfuric acid and bubbling metal shavings. Hydrogen was easy to make-and easy to divvy out at a capitalist's mark-up for the hassle and location.

Four horses each were hitched to the wagons, with drivers ready to pull and run at the first sign of danger.

"We'll have to watch out for those," Simeon said. "We should let them get the Free Crow off the dock and moving. We can't take a chance with the Rattler, not this close to the dock. One stray bullet and we'll blow the whole thing to hell, ourselves included."

The captain said, "I know, I know." And he did know, but he hated letting the Free Crow rise-knowing that it was about to run again, and knowing he was so damn close and he might fail anyway. A plan snapped quickly together in his head, and he spit it out while it still sounded good. He said, "We'll get up under them, and deploy our hooks. We'll pin this boat to our bird, reverse the thrusters, and drag us both down."

"You want to crash us all together?" Lamar nearly squeaked. "I don't think this ship can take it."

"I don't either. But the Free Crow can, and that's the only ship I'm worried about. If we both go to ground, we can take Brink and his boys apart, man to man."

"Or man to Rattler," Simeon grinned.

"Whatever it takes. We'll clean them out of our bridge and take our bird back, and that'll be the end of it." He said the last part fast, because the nameless ship was closing in swift and low on the Free Crow, and Felton Brink was no doubt very, very aware that Croggon Hainey was incoming and unhappy.

Simeon's half-smile deteriorated. He made a suggestion phrased as a question. "Shouldn't we cut the thrusters? At this rate we're going to ram them."

"So we'll ram them," Hainey said. "My bird can take it. Ready the hooks, mate. We won't have long to fire them. We'll catch them on the ricochet."

Lamar choked on one response and offered another. "You want to hit them, then grab them on the bounce?"

"Something like that, yeah. And buckle yourselves down, if you aren't already. Something aboard this bird is just about bound to break." He braced his legs against the underside of the console, setting his feet to the rudders and refusing to reach for the brake.

In those last few seconds, as the dirigible swooped down its interim captain watched his own craft shudder in the air, struggling to take to the clouds. He looked down at the plains and saw the portable gasworks beginning to fold under the panicked hands of the men who ran it. Below, they disengaged the frames and hollered at the horses to move, even before they were holding the reins; and Hainey understood. No man in his right mind wanted to get between a big set of hydrogen tanks and a firefight.

They were so close now, Hainey could see the horse's mouths chomping against the bits, and the strain of their haunches as they surged to move the wagons. He could see the hasty streaks of a too-rushed paint job on the side of his former craft, covering up the silver painted words that said Free Crow.

It was a ridiculous thing that Brink had done, sillier than sticking a false nose or mustache on the president of the United States. No air pirate at any port on any coast would have mistaken the repurposed war dirigible for any other vessel.

"Sir-" Simeon said, but he had nothing to follow it.

"Hang on," Hainey said to his first mate and engineer. His feet jammed against the pedals to turn the ship, and it turned, slowly, shifting midair and sliding sideways almost underneath the Free Crow-until the front deployment hooks were aimed at the only place where there wasn't any armor. Then he ordered, "Fire hooks!"

Simeon didn't ask questions. He jerked the console lever and a loud pop announced the hooks had been projected from their moorings. The hissing fuss of hydraulics filled the cabin but it wasn't half so important as the scraping thunk of the hooks hitting home.

"Cut thrusters, and retract!" Hainey shouted. "Retract, retract, retract!"

Simeon flipped the winding crank out of its holding seam and turned it as fast as he could, his elbow pumping like a train's pistons until the nameless ship's shifting position became more than a tip-it was a tilt, and a firm, decided lean. "Got it sir," he said, puffing hard and then gasping with surprise when his elbow was forced to stop. "That's as far as we can bring them back."

"It's enough," Hainey swore, and it must have been, because the nameless ship was swaying all but sideways, drawn up underneath the Free Crow.

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