The wasting heat of the high noon sun was eclipsed by the limping shadow of the Missouri Class airship that docked on the plateau high above the town of Ascension. Pockmarked with burns and holes, this Goliath had been slung with arrows and fire, born of the sheer ruthlessness of Chinese agents attempting to yoke it to ground. The crew – those that survived the same fire and arrows – threw mooring lines out and hands on the ground set about docking the zeppelin to deposit it’s cargo – three representatives of Congress – to the safety of the town below.
That they, and the town itself, were safe at all was thanks to the actions of Marshals Jack Lightning, Hans Octavius Wilhem and Wendell Caine, as well as the assistance of visiting Pinkerton Detective James Lovelace, who had bellowed into town ahead of the airship aboard Wilhem’s dust-caked, steam-powered tank to deposit the sole prisoner of the Chinese saboteur team.
She had fired arrows into the zeppelin with explosive results, a feat achieved through the combination of a longbow taller than Wendell Caine, arrows that were rocket-propelled, and a complete mechanical replacement of her right arm and both shoulders that was intricate in both design, power and subtlety, barely showing behind her milk-white skin. Not willing to take chances, Wilhem had unbolted and removed the hydraulic arm as well as hammered a shunt into the gears in her shoulders, paralysing her from the breastbone up. Escorted from the tank, she kept the handicap and her failure behind the appearance of a reserved dignity that the lawmen hoped would be skin-deep.
Wasting no time, she was thrown into the most secure cell of the refurbished marshals’ office, where she sat cross-legged, giving no sign of any discomfort about her surroundings, her failure to bring down the airship or what future she had left.
“Does she even speak American?” Caine asked as much to the others as to her. The woman made no response.
“Don’t reckon it makes much difference,” Jack Lightning replied, already lounging on one of the chairs, her booted feet propped on the desk and giving no sign that she had been back and forth across the desert for the last two days.
“Zat much iz true,” Wilhem said in English and then, turning back to the prisoner, asked “Vhat was zee purpose of hijacking zee airship?” in fluent Mandarin. The German accent present in both languages an affectation of the educated lawman.
The prisoner said nothing.
James Lovelace did likewise, instead studying her during the opening moves of interrogation, trying to discern something he could exploit. She sat, long black hair reached the back of her knees once the marshals had confiscated all the pins and clips that had bound it in place. She looked ahead with heavy-lidded eyes, as if she wasn’t even aware of her surroundings or situation, let alone whether she even heard the questions.
Wilhem was the most experienced with the Oriental culture and recognized the medatitive state. It was clear she’d entered this to avoid having to deal with any unpleasantries. But while the German Marshal may have been the most knowledgable regarding foreign cultures, when it came to anyone foreign there was nobody was more unpleasant to deal with than Wendell Caine.
“I’m thinkin’,” the Mountain Marshal mused out loud. “That amount of hair could be used to hang herself. Might be needin’ to shave it all off.”
There was no reaction.
“Well, they are inscrutable,” Jack Lightning answered, getting in on the act. “And it might be they could hang themselves inscrutably…”
“Maybe some physical persuasion,” Lightning suggested to Caine. “I ain’t troubled by notions of hitting a girl.”
“Neither am I,” Caine replied. “Unless she’s white.”
The implication hovered around their Chinese prisoner like a fly around shit, but if it bothered her, the marshals couldn’t see it.
Lovelace, whose eyes hadn’t left the woman during the discussion, stood up and spoke loudy and slowly to Wilhem.
“It looks like we’re wasting our time here. We’ve still got the bodies of her friends to deal with after all. Should we burn them or just feed them to the pigs?”
Her eyes flashed open as she drew in breath and let fly with rapid-fire insults in Mandarin that were lost on all but Wilhem.
“If you insist on cursing our mothers,” he offered. “Best do it in English so my comrades don’t miss out.”
Her mouth snapped shut but it was too late. With her comprehension of english made known, she was open to all comers. Jack took the floor.
“Yer lookin’ at bein’ the first person we get to hang in Ascenion,” she drawled. “And we ain’t done it in a while so we’s kinda rusty.”
A glare was all Jack Lightning got in return
“Reckon yer best chance of avoidin’ that is to come clean ’bout why you an’ yours were botherin’ our airship,” Jack continued.
With no reply, Jack went on. “Don’t know if you’ve ever seen a hangin’ before. Sometimes the neck snaps clean an’ it’s all over before anyone knows about it. Other times, it can get real slow and painful,” she said, stretching out the sentence like she was tying a noose.
“Hell, I reckon with all that metal you got crammed in there, you might even last a couple o’ days! And you don’t get to come down till you’re ready to go in the ground.”
Lightning was ready to go on but the prisoner stopped her.
“The airship was phase one,” she started, her tone as careful as walking across a tightrope. “Detain the vessel, replace the gas with hydrogen.”
“Ve gathered,” Wilhem said when she froze. “Zhen vhat?”
“Phase two was to pilot the airship at the weapon in the valley. The gas in the vessel, combined with the gas beneath the gun would remove your weapon and those who would conspire to build it.”
Each of the lawmen paused to consider the fiery catastrophe they had managed to avert. Wilhem broke the silence once more.
“Und now ve come to zee crux of zee matter. Vhy?”
“You build such a weapon and ask why we would try defend ourselves? Maybe you’re not as big a threat if you’re that stupid.”
“Zhat is your problem?” Wilhem exclaimed. “You believe ve vish to invade China! Zhat is vhy you tried to kill our Congressmen and vhy you killed zee circus?”
“Wanted to see that circus too,” Jack mumbled.
“You didn’t miss much,” the Chinese prisoner smiled.
“Neither did the gorilla,” Caine smiled back with a thumb to Alfonse, the Six-Gun Gorilla, who was reclining in a chair, still nursing the injuries from the battle.
The woman choked on the memory of her compatriot’s death at the guns of the simian and this time it was Lovelace who cleared the air.
“For my own conclusions,” he started. “Why did you massacre Lugwrench’s Mechanical Marvels?”
“They had the misfortune to discover the place where our ambush was to occur,” she whispered. “It was their bad luck.”
“Yours too,” Jack fired back.
Wilhem stepped into the middle of the glaring war between Jack Lightning and the Chinese woman. “You vould you risk var with America?”
“Your country is weak after fightning itself. It could hardly mount retaliation against us.”
“Zhen vhy vould you believe ve vould try to invade with a gun?” Wilhem exclaimed, confounded at the circular logic.
“It is the perfect weapon for cowards with no stomach to fight us on our land,” she sneered. “You would destroy my country from the sky and then send your feeble forces to pillage a nation of dead and wounded.”
“What I don’t get,” Caine said before Wilhem could fire back a retort. “Was what you Chinee folk were gonna do about the other gun out there. Or did y’all not see it. I know it can be hard makin’ out distance with those beedy little eyes o’ yours.”
The prisoner looked ready to fire back a retort, which was then blocked as she clamped her lips down and smiled. Caine looked to the other lawmen who appeared were ready to pry them back open by any means when the iterrogation was interrupted by someone pounding on the door.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2