The Chinese were flying. The airship was not.
A vessel containing delegates, from the United States House of Representatives, was designed to be a hulking monster that soared in sheer defiance of its own size and weight. Missouri Class airships boasted weaponry that could repel a small fleet of sky bandits, a squad of smaller airships or go nose to nose with its Russian counterpart, the Sampson.
What it was failing to do was defend itself against one small attacker who buzzed the expansive balloon, targeting bladders with a twirling, stabbing staff that robbed the airship of its precious helium. The weapons mounted on the balloon’s superstructure were not returning fire – the gunners long dead and hanging suspended over the approaching ground by their harnesses like rotted fruit.
Another gunner met this fate as the Chinese pilot zipped under the curve of the balloon, avoiding the whirring fury of the crank-turned gatlingguns, before speeding up, around and into the soldier, his weapon plunging into his chest.
James Lovelace had to rub his eyes before he looked again at what the Chinese warrior was piloting. He’d never doubted his keen eyesight – the best technology could afford – but he’d never seen a vehicle like this before.
“He’s flying a cloud,” Lovelace said, the disbelief in his voice matching the look on his companions.
The Steam Tank that bore Lovelace, as well as Marshals Jack Lightning, Hans Octavius Wilhem, Wendel Caine and his menagarie Smokey the bear and Alfonse the Gorilla, was closing the distance as fast as the hissing and whistling boiler permitted. It wasn’t quick enough for anyone aboard though as each passenger readied their guns and gritted their teeth at waiting. As the tank grew nearer, the marshals could see that Lovelace had not been lying.
“Now, how in the hell is he doin’ that?” Caine said, sighting the speeding oriental with his rifle and waiting for time to bring him into range.
“No doubt some device,” Wilhem replied, attention shifting back and forth between the zepplin and the controls of the steam tank like the pistons that propelled them toward the battle.
“I think I can see it,” Lovelace said. “The cloud is the exhaust from an engine. And the engine is held aloft by a small balloon. It’s like a tiny zeppelin–“
“–That the sunnuvabitch is surfing,” Jack Lightning finished, having climbed to the roof of the airship and spying the foreign pilot, her duster coat billowing away from her hands that hovered near the butts of her Lightning Coil Throwers.
Further conjecture was interrupted as something else streaked across the sky, hitting one of the machine gun pods of the Missouri Class airship and triggering an explosion that, no doubt, was a result of the ammunition stores within. Each of the lawmen turned, tracing the trajectory of the projectile and found themselves staring at a woman perched on of the rocky desert dunes. In one hand was the tallest longbow any of them had seen, the other nocking an impressive arrow that, to James’s eyes, appeared to have a rocket attached. The archer drew the bow, and then turned in the direction of the Steam Tank.
“Down!” Lovelace yelled as the rocket-propelled arrow was loosed. It screamed like a bullet and Jack Lightning’s duster coat was almost ripped off her as it punched through the leather. Lightning herself had just maanged to twist out of the way, the arrow flying behind her an instant before an explosion washed waves of heat over the Steam Tank.
“That’s two of ’em,” Jack called out.
James Lovelace had unslung his longrifle and was looking for somewhere to stable to brace it as the Steam Tank rocked and pitched onward. Taking advantage of a moment of level ground, Lovelace sighted the rifle, only to discover the archer had taken shelter behind the dune. Lovelace lowered the weapon, the narrow telescopic view expanded to reveal something much larger in their path.
The was an enormous figure seated atop an equally enourmous horse. Plates of jagged steel were riveted to his body, a swept plated helm with two plumes of fire that shot out and billowed like hellish pennants. His left hand held the reigns to his mount, which Lovelace could see was either augmented with mechanical workings, or was built out of iron, pistons and gears. His right hand, wrapped in a thick steel gauntlet, brandished a massive halberd, a wide blade that sat on a tube-like crosspiece to the haft of the weapon. The halberd swung in a lazy orbit but the rest of him stood still and in the path of the approaching Steam Tank.
“I’ve found the third,” James began and then noticed that Wilhem was no longer at the controls. The Iron Marshal guided the Pinkerton Detective in front of the complex web of dials, levers and gauges that surrounded a roaring furnace.
“Keep your hand here, und here. Zee needle on zhis dial can stay in zee yellow but yell out if it goes to red. Vind zhis crank if you hear a vhistle und vhatever you do, keep stoking zee boiler! Any qvuestions?”
One managed to outrun the avalanche of inquiry to Lovelace’s lips as Hans Octavius Wilhem manuevered his iron bulk up a heavy ladder to where Lightning was perched.
“Where the hell are you going?”
“Zee high ground!” the Iron Marshal yelled back. “Keep us aimed straight at zee schvinehound und don’t stop stoking!”
Lovelace, wide-eyed at the mountain of controls, went for the only piece of machinery he felt qualified to use and started shovelling coal into the boiler. Wilhem disappeared from the ladder and planted his iron boots wide to stay on the rocketing engine. The sound of metal screeching on metal rang out over the engine noise as the Iron Marshal sunk his ankle pittons into the roof.
The armoured warrior on clockwork horseback trotted toward the barrelling steam tank, the lazy twirl of his lance increasing speed into a furious spin. The horse sped up to a gallop as the warrior closed the distance to meet the charge of Hans Octavius Wilhem’s vehicle.
What he wasn’t expecting, until he heard the ominous whistle from above, was to meet the salvo of Hans Octavius Wilhem’s Wave Mortar– the most destructive weapon to man and landscape in the Iron Marshal’s armour. Wheeling his engineered mount at a desperate gallop, in an equestrian maneuver that would have snapped the legs off any flesh and blood horse, it was just enough to put the Chinese warrior out of the range of fire– the last desperate act of hurling himself from the clockwork horse and rolling to safety spared him the fate of his horse as it’s hindquarters were shelled to oblivion and delicate pistons and gears were flung across the desert.
Beneath his helmet, Wilhem pursed his lips and frowned. The Wave Mortar would need to be reloaded before he could continue the assault. Furthermore, the Steam Tank would need to be stopped and that got priority as he hadn’t taught Lovelace how to brake. Stomping back down the ladder, the Iron Marshal took over from the still shovelling – and now very grateful – James Lovelace, and started easing the boiler pressure. Lovelace retrieved his longrifle, the steel warrior well within in the range of the hawk-eyed Pinkerton and then noticed that the steam tank’s load had been lightened by one large West Virginian Marshal and his grizzly bear.
Wendell Caine sat across the wide and rolling shoulders of Smokey as the bear gambolled his way toward the Chinese warrior, the Mountain Marshal’s legs clamping through his fur and into the bear’s sides as he unshoulderedhis rifle, brought it up and fired. The bullet bit into one of the steel plates but served only to gain his attention as he gripped the lance with both hands and ran toward the bear, weapon wound back to strike. He swung as Smokey careened to the side and Caine flung himself off his bear and hurled a punch which sent the warrior staggering back a step. Neither titan paused though and an onslaught of blows began.
Atop the roof, Jack Lightning stared at the darting warrior whose stings had brought the Missouri-Class Airship low. It’s descent was slow but inevitable, and the cloud-surfing Chinaman was making sport of what little gun emplacements remained manned.
“Wilhem?” Jack said, her eyes not leaving the ariel battle. “You usin’ that grapplin’ hook o’ yours?”
Busy with the control panel, it seemed the Iron Marshal hadn’t heard her until one of the mechanical arms stretched out from its harness with the grapple gun in its grip. The Lightning Marshal snatched the gun, drew and fired, the spear and steel cord whipping across the sky before it sank into the engine keeping the Chinese warrior aloft.
Jack Lightning was already securing the gun to the roof of the steam tank and, with a twang, the cloud was pulled up short and anchored. The grapple, while it had bit into the engine, hadn’t damaged it enough to slow it down and it fought against the rope like a kite in a tornado. The Lightning Marshal was, despite the heat of battle, a little impressed that its pilot had skill enough not to be flung from the engine to the cruel vagaries of gravity. And then she went for her Lightning Coil Pistols as that display of balance was trumped by the Chinaman sliding down the taught steel rope toward her.
Blue energy crackled as Jack aimed at the warrior skating down the steel cord and then, in a miracle of speed, Wilhem managed to fire out a one-word warning that beat her to the trigger.
Had Jack unleashed the energy of the Lightning Coil Throwers, it would have travelled back down the steel cord and onto the iron roof of the steam tank. Easing off the trigger, Lightning could only watch as the warrior got closer– and then fell as another of Wilhem’s mechanical appendages, armed with sturdy wire cutters, severed the cord beneath his feet, dropping the warrior below the tank but out of sight.
The armoured warrior and Wendell Caine continued to trade blows, the halberd closing on the Mountain Marshal and scoring small cuts along his arms. Caine pushed inside his guard and pumelled the armoured plating with knuckles hard enough to dent it. If Caine noticed that, up close, the armour appeared less like a suit and more like it made up the body of his opponent, he didn’t show it, throwing another blow at the helm, as Smokey raked his claws down the steel-covered back. The warrior was flung to the ground, rolled and came back to his feet as he found enough distance to swing the halberd at full length and his thumb found a button along the haft of the weapon.
The strange tubed crosspiece beneath the wide blade flared to life and a jet of flame rocketed the blade toward Caineat wicked speed. Throwing himself to the side, the Mountain Marshal was not quick enough to escape a gash along his shoulder and the tremendous heat from the rocket attached. If the wound bothered him though, it didn’t show as Caine jumped in behind the swing of the weapon before his opponent could bring it to guard and hurled another punch that sank into the helm and crushed one of the steel plates into his face.
The rocket-propelled halberd had wrested the attention of James Lovelace as well. With the steam tank slowing to a crawl, the Pinkerton had been scanning the horizon for further signs of the archer who had the sense to remain hidden amongst the dunes. The armoured warrior might be able to shrug off a round from Lovelace’s longrifle but the detective doubted the weapon was as well protected. Shouldering his rifle, Lovelace tried following the path of the weapon, looking for an opportunity without shooting his new companion in the process.
Jack Lightning was peering over the edge of the steam tank, trying to find out if her opponent had survived the fall. He’d been pretty close to the ground when the tightrope snapped and, given the agility she’d seen of him, it was almost certain that he’d managed to land without injury and escape the rolling treads of the tank. Her instincts then shoved her sideways as another arrow sped past her, too close for her comfort, as the archer reappeared behind another dune, too far for Jack to return fire.
The grounded warrior had indeed escaped both the fall and the tank but it hadn’t escaped the flared nostrils of one of its passengers. Alfonse, the Six-Gun Gorilla, had recognized those that had killed his trainer, destroyed his home and all of his friends long ago in a night of blood and fire and, with a roar that drowned out the tank’s engine, the gorilla leaptonto a railing to the side, gripped it with one paw and filled his other three with pistols. The salvo of bullets sent the warrior diving for cover around the tank as sand kicked up from where he stood.
Both Mountain Marshal and armoured warrior stood, blood dripping from small nicks along Wendell Caine’s arms and his knuckles skinned to raw flesh. The armour had been mangled beneath those knuckles and the heavy steel Chinaman swayed, having felt the impact of those blows despite the considerable protection he wore. Smokey circled to the side, a rumbling growl felt by both men as they sized up the other.
There was the sound of something richocheting off the rocket-propelled halberd.
Caine wasn’t an educated man but he was smart enough to know that when a bullet breached a rocket chamber – pitted courtesy of James Lovelace’s extraordinary marksmanship – you didn’t stand as close to it as he was right now.
The Mountain Marshal dived and felt the heat of the explosion across his back. Tumbling along the dirt, he rolled to his shoulder and looked back at his opponent, who wasn’t anywhere near agile enough to escape in time. He was on his back, and wracked with pain, was inching his way back to his feet. The halberd had exploded in his hands and destroyed. So was most of his armour and, rather than wait to see if he had still had fight left in him, Caine picked himself up, charged the warrior and sunk his calloused knuckles into his skull, finishing the fight, and his opponent, in one thunderous blow.
The Steam Tank had lessened its dangerous pace, which allowed Octavius Wilhem to lessen the amount of attention his vehicle would need. While gunfire sounded all around him, the Iron Marshal had not been idle, taking the opportunity to reload the Wave Mortar. Deploying it, Wilhem trudged out from behind the control panel, aimed and unloaded another shell, this time at the dune that sheltered the archer. An explosion of dirt geysered up from behind the dune, though it wasn’t clear, at this range, whether he had hit her. One thing was certain– she would be reluctant to show herself in the face of such ordinance.
Alfonse kept firing, bullets careening off the steam tank’s hull as the Chinese warrior danced out from, and then behind the iron shield. So far, the fussiladehad kept him pinned, but Alfonse would need to reload sometime. Sure enough, there came a click and in that instance, the staff that had been piercing the airship – which had sunk to the plains of Arizona – extended out, doubling in length as pistons sent a wicked spike into the chest of the Six-Gun Gorilla. Blood bubbled from the wound and his paw went slack, the mighty beast crashing into the dust.
The Chinaman did not have long to celebrate his victory though. A long shadow fell over him as Jack Lightning, atop the roof of the tank, stood above him with Lightning Coil Throwers drawn. The weapons crashed together and sparks joined as crackling energy struck the warrior dead where he stood.
“Wilhem!” Jack shouted and at once, the Iron Marshal leapt off the tank and landed beside Alfonse.
“I am doctor, not vet,” he mumbled but he went to work anyway while Lightning, Lovelace and Caine set out after the last perpetrator of the airship ambush– the archer. Having escaped the Wave Mortar, she had opted to live to fight another day and already had a considerable lead on the lawmen. There was no way they could catch her without the tank and Wilhem was far to busy to drive.
“I think I can get her,” Lovelace mused as he unslung the longrifle.
“Might need her alive,” Lightning said while looking over at Caine. They shared a nod. Both of them had left only on person alive to question.
If there was a shift in the barrel of the longrifle, neither marshal saw it as Lovelace aimed for one of the archer’s fleeing calves, exhaled and squeezed the trigger. In the very far distance, a dot on the horizon disappeared.
“Got her,” Lovelace said and the three of them marched off to retrieve their prisoner.
By the time they returned, the Chinese woman manacled and hauled off the ground by Wendell Caine, Wilhem had finished tending to Alfonse; the far sturdier gorilla frame had saved him from what would have been a fatal blow had it landed on a human. The Iron Marshal was careful placing Alfonse aboard the tank, as Caine threw the archer up onto the platform. Once secure, the lawmen checked on the passengers of the downed airship. Soldiers had died from the ambush but the three Congressmen had been protected and were safe. The airship was undergoing swift repair and further action would be delayed until both the lawmen and the delegates returned to Ascension.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: 2ND ROUND, 3RD SALVO.