He tore his gaze from the combat zeppelinglanced at the Alamo. The Texas Air Ranger zeppelin was now a heap of twisted metal atop the other destroyed pirate airships. She was burning like a funeral pyre.
He glared at the Commerce. He'd been angry beforehad fought for his life, sometimes with murderous ragebut this was different. His blood ran cold when he thought about the fallen Texan crew.
This time he didn't want to see justice done. He wanted revenge. He'd bring down that zeppelin no matter what the cost.
Paladin hit the intercom. "Tennyson, cut starboard engines and bring us about. Get every port side gun and rocket ready to fire."
The roar of the starboard engines dulled to a purr.
"Port guns ready," Tennyson reported. "Our rockets, however, were spent on the grounded zeppelins."
"The guns'll have to do then," Paladin replied. "Stand by."
With starboard engines idling and the port engines at full speed, the Aegis spun in place, her nose turning toward the wreckage of the Alamo, her guns rotating into the proper firing line to target the Commerce.
The Commerce was turning more slowly, even with the Aegis missing her number four and seven engines. Something wasn't right.
Paladin raised his binoculars. The enemy zep's starboard engines slowed and stopped...and she hadn't lined up her firing arc.
"What's she doing?" Paladin muttered, and then to Tennyson he said, "Maybe we've got a lucky break. Ready to fire when we've come about."
"Ready to fire, aye," Tennyson said.
The Aegis drifted clockwise, her guns coming to bear on the Commerce. The Commerceeven with her dead enginesstill had momentum, still turned at a snail's pace toward them. With a dozen guns bristling from her double decks, Paladin knew if he didn't get in the first shot, he might not get a shot at all.
Paladin held his breath.
"Target is in our sights," Tennyson reported.
"Fire!" Paladin yelled.
The Aegis' seven-inch artillery thundered. Paladin flinched from the report and the fiery flashes. The Aegis' deck tilted as their zeppelin tipped, slammed by the deck guns' recoil.
The first shell impacted on the Commerce's nose. Explosions traced an arc along her sidedots of fire and streaks of oily smoke, accompanied by the screech of metal.
The smoke cleared. The first gas bag had been rupturedbut to his horror, Paladin saw the other shells had left blackened scars and streaks of exposed metal across her heavily armored sides...and no other damage.
"Reload," he barked into the intercom. "Quick!"
The Commerce drifted into firing position. Her guns aligned with Aegis, but she didn't shoot.
"What's she waiting for?" Paladin murmured. He squinted through his binoculars and watched as she rotated past her arc of fire...then stopped and slowly turned back toward them.
Then he saw why: her starboard engines had halted, but now they were turning again, spinning in reverse. They hadn't cut the engines on that sidethey had thrown them full reverse.
"Tennyson, brace yourself."
A double row of fire erupted from the gun decks of the Commerce. Clouds of smoke swirled and billowed as the Commerce's broadside guns barked. Faint vapor trails swirled from the incoming shells.
The Aegis shuddered. Windows on the bridge shattered and scarlet curls of flame roiled across the ceiling. Paladin slammed into the control panel, found himself airborne...then smashed into the deck face-first.
Paladin wiped away the blood streaming into his eyes and staggered to his feet. The Commerce spun in placeher nose wheeled toward them, then away. Her captain had nerve, Paladin had to admit. It was a tricky moveswitching engines on either side forward to reversewith the quickest turnaround he'd ever witnessed.
He grasped the wheel, spit out a tooth, and pawed for the intercom. "Tennyson! Bail out. They're"
The Commerce rotated until her port gun decks aligned with the Aegis. Before Paladin could complete his warning, the enemy zep fired.
She looked like a storm, a thunderhead cloud streaked with flashes of lightning. Then Paladin saw nothinghe woke up stunned, sprawled on the deck, blood trickling out of his ears.
His stomach rose. Overheard, the frame groaned. Wisps of smoke rose from the ladderwell to the lower decks. Several of the Aegis' gas bags must have been hit. They were crashing.
"Tennyson?" he yelled at the intercom.
The Commerce turned and gunned her engines and steamed straight toward them. They'd pass right over the crippled, falling Aegis. She wasn't even enough of a threat anymore to finish off? No. They had more important targets.
Paladin reached for the radio. The metal panel was torn away and busted vacuum tubes and sparking wires spilled onto the floor. He keyed the radio, hoping it could still transmit. "Perseverance, come in. We're dead in the air. Get out of here! Warn off the Texas Marines! The Commerce can fire her artillery before she gets into your range."
"Damn," Paladin spat. He glanced out the window. The Aegis was two thousand feet about sea level and dropping fast.
He craned his neck to get a look at the Commerce as she cruised closer. They'd hardly scratched her armor. He'd never seen anything like it. He had to get off another salvo and try to stop the juggernaut. But even if he could have fired again, their guns now pointed a hundred feet too low. There was no way to change that. They were falling. They'd keep falling. No way to aim.
Or was there?
He slammed his fist into the intercom. "Tennyson, tell me you didn't bail out."
There was a cough through the speaker, then, "I...I am still here."
"Glad to hear it, old friend. We still have fuel in the tanks?"
"We would not be discussing the matter if they had ruptured," Tennyson remarked.
"There's no time to explain this, Tennybut I want the starboard guns loaded and locked on their tracks."
There was a pause, and then Tennyson said, "I'll have the crew on it."
"Great. Now I want you to purge the starboard fuel tank. Then pump the reserves into the port tank."
"That will require a moment."
"You've got just that, Tennya moment."
Paladin glanced up. The Commerce was a quarter mile away and closing. They'd get one shot at this. Only one.
"Done," Tennyson said. Purging and pumping, now."
The Commerce was a hundred feet awayalmost on top of them.
Paladin said, "Tell the gun crews to hang on tight!"
A moment passed...and nothing happened. Then, the Aegis tilted. Her steel frame creaked and shuddered. Guide wires and cables snapped. Paladin's gambit had paid off.
A zeppelin used water as ballast, pumping it through pipes strung throughout the airship's rigid internal frame. The Aegis was no exception, though her ballast tanks had been shattered in the initial salvo from the Commerce.
But there were still thousands of pounds of aviation fuel aboard the Aegis.
As the starboard tank dropped twenty thousand pounds of fuel, and as the port tank filled, the zeppelin became unbalanced, rolled onto her sideand pointed her port guns straight into the air.
The Commerce drifted directly overhead.
"Fire," Paladin cried as he clung to the brass railing. "Everything we've got!"
Six thunderclaps of cannon fire blasted from the gunnery deck.
The underside of the Commerce detonated with smoke and sparks as the artillery penetrated her lower decksprobably the only section of the zeppelin they had neglected to armor. Fire blossomed and belched out of the mid-decks as their fuel tanks burst. Fireworks erupted from the double gun decks as their munitions were touched off by the blast.
Paladin whooped triumphantly.
The Commerce, wreathed in flames, hung in midair for a heartbeat then felldirectly atop the Aegis.
Bright light poured thought the open blinds of Paladin's Santa Monica office window.
He opened his desk drawer and pulled out the bottle of fourteen-year old bourbon and the photograph of his father sitting on the wing of his plane. Paladin uncorked the bottle and poured a shot. He clinked it to the picture frame. "Here's to another 'success,' Dad."
This "success" had cost him, though.
One hundred and fourteen dead. Most of them were the men and women aboard the Alamo. There were causalities on the Perseverance, too, and heavy losses in Caption Ryan's Sharpshooter squadron. Not to mention the thirteen killed on the Aegis when she had been crushed under the wreckage of the Commerce.
All in all it had been one of Paladin's deadliest operations. Had it been it worth it?
Le Coeur du Minuit was out of business. The pirates' air power had been shattered and the Texas marines landed and mopped up what was left of their ground forces. If Paladin knew Texas justice there'd be a few hundred quick-and-speedy trials and just as many quick-and-speedy hangings.