|My favorite cover to date!|
I will say this briefly though--the reaction to this book thus far has been amazing! And, if you really need sex positive talk, relationship advice, and feminist brouhaha, this book has all of it in fiction form, which makes it much more fun to read. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Short flights cut shorter.
“Coming up on the teeth of the line now,” Ramen’s voice buzzed through the static-riddled intercom.
The dirigible thrummed and breathed like a living thing through the hot air being pumped constantly from the boiler into the zeppelin cylinder and beating with the thumping of turbines of the engines providing the forward thrust; both created an unimaginable din, preventing direct communication without the intercom between her and the automaton running the major systems. Along the underside, between the ribs of the armor plates, ran a walkway the entire length of the airship from the boiler in the back to the primary weapon in the front. Gieo scampered down the narrow walkway, using the handrails to keep upright as the airship swayed and jolted in its flight path.
Tamping her leather top hat down on the four, purple braids at the four corners of her head, she lowered her green-tinted goggles over her eyes. The hat didn’t fit right, leaving her with three options as she saw it: find a new hat, fix a chinstrap, or wear her hair in the four thick braids. It was an easy decision as far as she was concerned. Sliding down the ladder into the ball-turret on the nose of the great, sturgeon-shaped airship, her riding boots hissed against the copper piping.
“Go serpentine, Ramen,” she shouted into the intercom cup next to the base of the ladder.
“Aye, aye, ma’am,” the automaton’s voice crackled back.
The immense gears of the airship’s bat-like wings engaged with a squeaking, rumbling cacophony. Gieo strapped herself into the reclined seat of the ball-turret, affixing the leather belts across her chest, clipped into the metal tongs on the lapels of her tailed tuxedo jacket, holding tight against the brown, leather corset she wore beneath. As the chair lowered down into the Plexiglas turret, she hooked the rubber hose from the air-hydraulic feed into the leather and chain choker she wore, pumping fresh air up around her head to cool her and aid in breathing.
With the wings flapping in machinated patterns, the great airship took on a wide swing to its flight, shooting back and forth in as athletic of zigzags as a fifty-meter long blimp could manage. Gieo spun the handles on the weapon system’s hydraulic feeds, sending steam power into the four guns positioned in a box around her. The desert floor, thousands of feet below, rolled back and forth beneath her, held at bay only by the glass ball she sat in.
“Leveling the outcropping at the precise center of our undulations,” Ramen’s voice crackled through the com speaker in the ball-turret.
“Have the smoke-screen loaded and ready.”
“Aye, aye, ma’am.”
“Disengaging now.” Gieo pulled the pins on the ball-turret’s gyroscope arm. The entire turret, with her inside, dropped down off the bottom of the armored airship, dangling by a ten meter, articulated metal arm and a dozen hydraulic tubes and hoses. She slipped her feet into the leather straps of the turret and took control of the swaying arm. All around her the hisses of steam and clanking of gears let her know the gyroscopes were functioning as intended.
Puffs of white smoke from the ground erupted out of an underbrush canopy nestled between the furthest most rocks of the outcropping. Shells whistled up toward the zeppelin, followed by explosions, and the clanking of flack bouncing off the airship’s armor.
Gieo leveled the gyroscopes to steady her gun platform even as the airship swayed in evasive maneuvers. She brought the targeting reticule of a large, copper hoop with four smaller hoops arranged in the center to indicate the four guns, on the outcropping, and pushed the two trigger handles forward.
“I see your teeth,” she growled, “now take a look at mine!”
The four guns around her erupted in steam-powered blasts, sending shells of explosive material down onto the antiaircraft battery four at a time. The shells exploded across the rocky surface in showers of white, magnesium fire. She saw a few of the scattering Slark trying to escape the kill zone, and she zeroed in on them to put the fire right across their path. She got some, more than some, several even, before a direct hit caught her dirigible on the port side, knocking free one of the wings with a shriek of metal and a resounding thump.
“Son-of-a…” Gieo kicked free the emergency hold on the main spring of the arm’s gyroscope, pulling the entire swinging arm of the ball-turret back into the body of the blimp. The swaying of the ship was replaced by a long, descending spiral, as the wounded blimp fluttered toward the ground with a torn cylinder and only one functional wing. Gieo unhooked herself from the ball-turret and scrambled back up the ladder into the main body of the ship. “Launch the smoke-screen,” she shouted into the intercom.
“On the way,” Ramen replied.
Four quick pops were followed by four loud explosions as the outer plates on the boilers blew off and the water content dumped onto the stoking fires. White steam and smoke poured from the dirigible, obscuring even the vaguest outline of the ship as it began its slow, spiraling descent toward the ground. Gieo scrambled back down the walkway to the radio room, cranked the hand-wheel to extend the antenna, and tapped out the distress code for a languishing aircraft.
“This is Dirigible Purple Six, going down,” Gieo shouted into the mouthpiece. “Do you copy, air-defense network?”
After a few minutes of trying and retrying the distress call, an old, familiar voice crackled back over the shortwave. “This is air-defense Tempe-2,” the dithering old man said. “There hasn’t been anything flying in years. My radio was buried under laundry.”
“There has too,” Gieo protested. “We went through this not six months ago.”
A long stretch of radio silence followed.
“Are you sure it wasn’t years ago?” Tempe-2 asked.
“Positive!” Gieo shrieked.
“Oh, well, I guess if you’re positive,” the old man said. “What’s your situation and location?”
“Situation is stable, but crashing,” Gieo said, “and location is sector 7-G.”
“That’s the Tombstone Three-Three-O,” Tempe-2 said. “I’ll see if I can get someone over there on the horn for a retrieval team, but don’t expect much luxury. Those Tombstoners are hardscrabble from tip to toe.”
“Whatever, it beats walking home,” Gieo said. “Dirigible Purple 6, over and out.”
This was her sixth crash in the last three years and the story was always the same. Tempe-2 was the only air defense network radioman left in the world as far as she knew, and he was half-gone most of the time. She suspected he was a methanol drinker, peyote user, or ether huffer. Every time she got shot down, it was like the first time for him. She was glad for his existence, as he always managed to get someone out from one of the free cities to pick her up, but he never remembered having done it.
“We’re at 750 feet,” Ramen’s voice came through the com.
“Get back to the shop,” Gieo replied. “Hopefully I’ll see you in a couple days.”
She heard her automaton’s escape tube fire and the telltale thumping of his helicopter blades as he flitted away, too small and well below the notice of the antiaircraft batteries. She climbed up the ladder into the spider room. The spherical room, dead center in the zeppelin cylinder, composed of a network of rubber tubing with a harness in the middle. She shimmied into the harness, hooked herself in, including the neck brace, and waited for the ship to hit the desert floor.
Crashing was becoming routine. She was more curious about who she was going to meet from Tombstone than she was afraid of the impending impact. She’d never met anyone from the Tombstone hunting camp, although their reputation for being hardcore, psycho Slark-killers was well-traveled.
Her thoughts were interrupted by four concussive explosions slamming into the underside of the airship—shoulder-fired rockets. One must have snuck through a chink in the ship’s defenses as the dirigible’s descent took a violent shove from soft flutter into chaotic tumble.
“Oh, you guys are dickheads,” Gieo growled. She reached into her pocket, thrust the mouth guard over her teeth, and braced herself for impact. The ship hit with an explosive crash as the blimp portion ruptured. The boiler launched itself away from the wreckage, and the pilot whipped around inside the spider room like whirling dervish.