Page 31

"No one's criticizing it," Simeon said. "I was only saying, a winged kneecap would have dragged him a lot better." He jammed his feet down on the pedals and slowed the craft, letting it pivot almost in place, the windshield scrolling a panorama of the scene.

The captain grumbled, "Too many goddamned trees. Too many goddamned leaves. I can't see a thing on the ground except for her," he cocked his head down towards Maria.

"Speaking of her," Lamar said, drawing down a lever that would aim the engines at a slightly different tilt. "It looks like they've got her cornered."

"Where? Who?" he asked, even as he spotted the blue uniforms scuttling out of the woods. "Oh hell."

Simeon said with a small degree of pleasure, "They're going to shoot her."

"Or arrest her," the captain halfway argued. "She's been arrested plenty of times before. Maybe that's all they'll do."

Then, as she turned tail and ran, even up inside the Free Crow he could hear the soldiers open fire.

"Well shit," Hainey swore.

"Captain," Simeon said warily, "You're not thinking…"

He said grouchily, "Yes, I'm thinking. Lamar, how are the front swivel guns?"

"Um…" the engineer squinted at a set of gauges and said, "Mostly full. Not totally full, but mostly. We've got enough shot to give her some cover, if that's what you want."

He struggled with something for a minute, then said, "Yes, that's what I want. Strafe the strip behind her-keep them in the clearing, let her get a lead on them."

"But sir!" Simeon objected.

"I asked her for one favor in parting, and she paid it. She turned Brink loose for me when she could've shot him and saved herself a little peril. The least we can do is cover her getaway while we look for the thief."

"Fine," Simeon sulked, and he pulled a panel with munitions controls into his lap. "Left front-gun, stable. Tilt forty-five degrees, set."

Hainey yelled, "Fire!"

And the Free Crow gently bucked as its front gun strafed the clearing floor behind Belle Boyd, who was now nothing more than a pale streak dashing between the trees. One soldier went down immediately, caught in the path of descending bullets; and another dodged in time to fling himself on the grass and cover his head.

"Where's she going?" Hainey asked no one in particular.

But Lamar answered, "She's running toward the sanatorium. At least, she's running in that direction."

From their sky-high vantage point Hainey could see that this was going to work out poorly for the woman. The sanatorium was buzzing with activity…and with soldiers, yelling orders and herding each other out into a defensive formation. The spy was running straight for them, though none of her other options looked any good either. Behind her, the captain spotted a contingent of Union reinforcements coming up over the hill; they were fanning out as they closed in.

"She's a dead woman," Simeon observed.

Below, she stopped as if she'd heard him.

She gazed up directly at the Free Crow, waved her arms over her head, and pointed west with all her might.

"I don't get it," Hainey said. "What's she trying to say?"

"That she wants a ride," the first mate guessed.

"No, no. She's saying…"

She held her hands over her mouth and shouted something, over and over, and then she resumed pointing west.

Hainey followed her gesture with his eyes. He said, "Well I'll be damned."

"Again?" asked Lamar.

"Yes, again. Look at that-look at what that crazy bastard is trying to do!"

West of the outbuilding, and west of the woods where Belle Boyd was about to meet some unpleasant fate, the Valkyrie was inching its way off the hill.

Simeon said, "Brink?" as if he could scarcely believe it. "He can't fly that devil all by himself! He's good, but he's not that good."

"Maybe not, but he's trying," the captain observed. "Boyd must've heard him start the engines. She's closer to him than we are." And then he said, "Aw, hell."

Lamar said, "Sir?"

"I mean, aw hell-there she goes again, making herself useful. I guess we'd better swing down and pick her up."

Simeon swelled up in his seat, inflating and simmering with things he knew better than to say out loud to his captain, so he said, "Yes sir," through tight lips. "You steer us down. I'll hold us level."

"Let's hope she has the good sense to get on board," Hainey said. "I'm going to take us back a few feet, and we can come up behind her. Position, set?"

"Position set," Simeon confirmed. "Thrusters primed. You'd better run down to the bay and help her up, because Christ knows I'm not going to do it."

"Nobody asked you to, Sim," Hainey said, and he unbuckled himself from the seat . "Take us down, and drag us low and slow," he ordered as he left the bridge.

By the time Hainey reached the open bay, it was gathering leaves off trees as if it were harvesting them as the craft's belly was dragged down, low and slow, just like he'd ordered. The whipping breaks and whistles of the incoming shrubbery snapped against the bay edges and flipped into the captain's face, but he brushed them away and hollered down, "Belle Boyd? You hear me?"

He received no answer so he dropped to the floor and hung his head down, narrowly missing a pine branch to the teeth; but the glimpse told him her position-twenty yards ahead. The captain stood up and flung himself back to the bridge door, where he said, "There's a clearing up ahead. She'll breach it first. Drop us there, I'll grab her," and then he bolted back to the bay.

The ship dipped abruptly, and the bay was clear-no more trees accidentally sending their detritus aboard-but beneath it there was a woman running only a few feet ahead.

Hainey called out to her, "Belle Boyd!"

And she looked up, saw him, and replied, "Captain!"

He braced himself, locking his feet together around a support beam and letting his torso swing free. His arms extended down to reach her, but she didn't take them.

She threw him her carpetbag, and he caught it.

He set it inside with a hearty sigh of exasperation and then reached down once more. "Take my hands!" he commanded.

"You're going too fast!" she said, but she put her hands up anyway, and although she couldn't nab his hands, his enormous grip clapped around her nearest wrist.

When he was certain that his hold was secure, he said as loudly as he could to the men in the bridge, "I've got her! Take us up!"

Up went the ship in a sweeping lift, pulling Maria off her feet and into the air. Beneath her the ground grew smaller, and her feet swung in circles.

She said, "Captain, we've got to quit meeting like this! Tongues will begin to wag!" But she was smiling when she said it, and he didn't scowl back.

He heaved her onboard and deposited her beside her luggage.

While she caught her breath she asked in jolting syllables, "What…happened…to the bay doors…?"

To which he replied, "I shot them off. Come on. Get up, and get onto the bridge. I went to the trouble of getting you on board, and I won't have you falling back out again."

"Yes sir. But, oh-did you understand me? The Valkyrie-someone's trying to take off with it. I sent the red-haired pirate outside before I dealt with Steen; did you catch him?"

"No," he said as he retreated back onto the deck. "So I appreciate the tip. That's him on board, you can bet your sweet…you can bet your mother's life. But that's fine. We'll just knock him out of the sky."

She entered the bridge behind him and nodded politely to Lamar and Simeon, neither one of whom saw her do it. "But the Valkyrie…can you do that? With this ship? It's so heavily armored, I thought…"

Lamar turned around then, and he said with a full-toothed grin, "We made some modifications before we left it. Hold onto your hat," he said, and then seeing that she'd lost hers somewhere along the way, "Or, hold onto your knickers. Or whatever you're still wearing. We're going to make a very big bang."

"There it is!" she said, indicating a black shape out the western side of the windshield.

"I see it," Simeon said. "And look at that. Well, credit where it's due-I would've bet that he'd never get it off the ground, not alone."

"Where's the rest of his crew?" Maria asked, but no one answered her.

"Stay away from the dashboard," the captain said. "Don't touch anything, and just stand back. I can't offer you another seat up here; this ain't a big bird like that one, and we've only got sitting space for the three of us."

"All right. But look, he did get it off the ground. Not very far," she observed. "He's rising, though. He's nearly crested the next hill over."

"He's a sitting duck," Hainey crowed.

"In that warship?" Maria asked, still dubious.

"Oh yes," the captain told her. "Like Lamar said. Modifications. Sim, swing us west and around. Lamar, hold us tight and ready that right front gun."

"The left one has more ammo," the engineer said. "We sprayed most of the rest covering her," he bounced a thumb at the spy.

Maria said, "And for what it's worth, thank you-from the bottom of my heart."

"You're welcome," Hainey said. "Fine, Lamar. Take the right gun and send us into position, but back us up."

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