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Review: Desert Strike by Leo Champion

Leo Champion's Desert Strike
Leo Champion’s Desert Strike

Leo Champion’s Desert Strike is a book.  Okay, review done.  No, seriously, it’s a book.  And it’s got things in it.  Go read it.

In all seriousness, there’s a lot going on in Desert Strike.  We see war on a global scale, with a Chamberlain-esque government determined to avoid it, a hyper-violent enemy determined to murder and/or enslave the good guys, and a strange semi-benevolent star-spanning nation which supports both sides in return for the resources they’re fighting over.

Mix into this massive landships up-to and including aircraft carriers, a mix of tech that feels gritty and at the same time cutting edge, and incompetent leaders within the good guy’s chain of command, and you have a very interesting setting for the story that unfolds.

The book has several characters, and what Leo Champion does best is making those central characters seem real with believable goals and ambitions.  You have a bad-ass, general, Jaeger, driven by anger and revenge.  You’ve got a young, rookie pilot, O’Conner, who wants to leave his mark.  These are the “Tropes” the “of course he has this person” but Leo goes further than that, he makes them real.  The side characters abound, with momentary glimpses at a bigger universe, then whipping back to the central plot.

And what a plot.  The enemy has been given free rein, and they use it.  This isn’t a book where the good guys have it easy, where victory is well within grasp if they only work hard for it.  If anything, I’d say the odds are too heavily stacked against them.   At times, you feel that the only victory left is a pyrric, one, where the planet is left a radioactive wasteland… yet somehow you still cling to hope that the good guys will turn the tide.

Desert Strike is a book which surprised me in a lot of ways.  I’ve enjoyed reading several of Leo’s books, but he writes in a certain tone, one which is instantly recognizable.  Desert Strike takes his normal tone and softens it a bit, ironic in a book about combat and war.  It has a fun edge to it, one which isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself, a bit of tongue in cheek even as a character’s life is in the balance.

The aerial combat feels like Vietnam Era, the ground war feels like something from the far future, and everything fits in a way that is hard to describe.  If you’re a fan of military science fiction, I think you’ll enjoy the solid characters and gripping combat.  If you just like exploding stuff, well, there’s plenty of that here for you too.

It’s about to go hot. 

On the dry world of Arkin, the Zinj are taking over. A technologically-competent strain of Islam that make ISIS look like the Amish, they’re challenged only by the nations of the West – and a divided West without much will to fight.

Among those who do have the will are fighter pilot Egan O’Connor, a working-class kid from a tough neighborhood, ready to test himself and serve his country. He’s a chivalrous rookie ready for an honorable battle.

Jimmy Newland’s a cavalry NCO who’s earned his spurs. He’s ready to fight but he doesn’t want to; he’s seen enough skirmishes to know how bad it can be. But he’ll do his job if the cold war gets nastier – as it’s about to.

And there’s nothing chivalrous at all about Air Marshal Elisabeth Jaeger, a career intelligence officer promoted to field command. Twenty-five years ago she saw her husband murdered by the Zinj; she’s spent the time since avenging him. As she’s about do on a scale just a little bit broader than spywork…

You can find it: here.

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Snippet # 2 from Leo Champion’s Highway West

Here’s another snippet from Leo Champion’s Highway West, coming soon to Amazon, Smashwords and other ebook vendors near you!

 

Chapter Two

It was mostly dark when Najif woke Ashford, shaking his shoulders hard. He’d been sleeping – was lying down, now – on a rough straw mattress in a corner of Najif’s room, in an apartment in the fisherman’s district.

You need to change,” was the first thing Najif said to him. His tone implied heavy urgency. Ashford got to a sitting position.

Why?”

Najif held out some clothing.

Change. Now. Later I will explain.”

It’s got to be something bad.

Ashford got to his feet, stripped out of his white uniform and down to his briefs. He wished he could shower or something first. He changed into the clothing Najif gave him – grey linen trousers, a once-white sleeveless shirt, black leather belt, leather sandals. As he pulled his socks off and stepped into the sandals, worry went through him. The clothes, his uniform, were the last connection he’d had to civilization after his ship had been destroyed and his men had deserted.

In the first moments after waking, Ashford had hoped all of that might have been a bad dream, a nightmare. The cool morning air and Najif’s terse urgency, the coarse linen on his skin over the mild sunburn and the slowly-starting-to-heal wounds, dispelled that hard.

The pants were loose. He buckled the belt tight.

Your skin is white. There are not many things we can do about that. Some men have white skin, and the sunburn can help. Hmm.”

Najif turned around. He’d packed two rucksacks the night before. He rummaged in one and came up with a black kerchief.

You have fair hair. Put this on. Less men have blond hair than white skin.”

Ashford took the kerchief. He’d never worn one in his life, and for good reason. Bandannas were what laborers, dockside workers and common sailors wore. Ashford’s family was upper-middle-class and proud of it in a class-conscious society.

There’s danger. There’s obviously danger, Ashford thought. He put it on and inexpertly tied it behind his head.

The uniform is worth some money. Good cotton has a price,” said Najif. “Rosa will say she found it in the street. If someone speaks to you, say nothing. You know some Greek, but your accent gives you away. The talking, I will do.”

Najif picked up one of the rucksacks and handed it to Ashford.

Put this on. It’s time to go.”

Why? What’s the urgency? Why are we hiding?”

There could be a million reasons. Ashford didn’t doubt Najif’s sincerity. But why?

Najif scraped his hands along a corner of the room,where boarded floor met stucco wall and a lot of dirt had been swept. Then he carefully daubed Ashford’s face with it.

Do not move,” he said. Smearing a little more of the dirt on his face, spreading it thinner.

This should be adequate. Take a look and go to the window. Tell me what it is that you see.”

Gut in his throat, Ashford went to the window. It was open and glassless and looked out from the third storey directly onto the harbor. Some of the morning fishermen were already out, and there was a buzz of activity on the fishermen’s docks.

And in the mouth of the harbor, surrounded by a wide margin of empty water because the early fishermen had heard all about yesterday’s devastation, was the battleship. Eight hundred feet long, brutally wide, dark steel and heavy batteries of massive guns. Men moved around on it, but there was not a single flag to be seen on her grey-black shape.

Ashford ducked instinctively, staggered back to where Najif was.

She arrived in the night. Men have landed. There is a rumor out that they are looking for Americans. That they will pay a price for live ones.”

Oh shit.

Do you know who they are?”

The rumor did not say,” said Najif. “Do you want to find out by asking them? Or should we leave before one of my apartment-sharers hears the same rumor?”

There were noises outside. Najif shared this place with two other unmarried fishermen.

Oh, shit.”

You understand the urgency now. Put some more dirt on you. Not a lot. It does not do for a fisherman to appear muddy. But enough to darken the skin a little.”

Ashford didn’t think. He took more dirt from the ground, dusted it across his arms, his neck and his ankles.

Najif nodded.

Come on.”

Wait – do we have money? What about your boat? Where are we going?”

Captain Enos is a good man; he has had a standing offer for my share since I bought it some years ago. He was not able to raise the full price, not at a few hours notice. He was able to raise a sizable amount of it. Do you have any more urgent questions or shall we hurry? Ask, because we might not be able to talk easily once we leave here.”

Can I trust you? came immediately to mind, but he shot that down immediately. Where are we going? might take a while to answer, and Ashford completely understood Najif’s urgency now. He himself wanted to run, run, run as fast as he could away from that ship.

Can you give me a weapon?” he surprised himself by asking.

A gun, I do not own. Needless violence is against my religion; I am a true follower of Mohammed.. But we may need to defend ourselves. In the countryside there are sometimes bandits. For what little good it may do, I can give you a fish knife.”

It was a six-inch gutting knife. A thin steel blade, slightly curved, set into a short wooden handle.

In there,” said Najif, gesturing to a short loop on Ashford’s belt that he hadn’t noticed before. He put it in and drew the loop closed; the blade hung by his side. There was a similar loop with a slightly longer knife on Najif’s belt.

Let’s go.”

* * *

Ashford kept his head down as they hurried down the stairs and out of the apartment. The fishing district here was as bustlingly busy as the one in Provincetown had been, this time of morning. They passed fishermen checking their nets, wives doing last-minute repairs or carefully threading hooks onto lines. Vendors sold clay jugs of wine and kebabs of smoked fish and vegetables.

The traffic grew a little quieter as they transitioned from the fishing district to the area around the commercial docks. Kids and old men slept in doorways. A teenaged boy sold booklet-like newspapers from a small wooden barrow, crying out in fast Greek that Ashford barely understood the gist of. The big item of the day’s news was, of course, the Wilson’s destruction.

Ashford wanted to buy a paper – he could read Greek well enough – but he didn’t have any money. Besides, Najif wasn’t about to stop.

They hurried on past, staying a couple of streets away from the docks. A gasoline-powered truck was being unloaded in front of one warehouse by half a dozen muscular men in brightly-colored bandannas. A man on horseback trotted past in the opposite direction. In front of a surprisingly elegant building that had to be some prosperous merchant’s dockside offices, an electric light shone onto the street.

At a market square, stallholders were starting to unpack their wares. Fish, fruit, meat, eggs and a hundred other things. Another newspaper vendor was yelling shrilly. This time Najif stopped. He handed over a couple of coppers.

The kid nodded thanks and gave him a paper. It was thin, only four pages, and badly-typeset; the Boston papers were much better but Ashford was surprised there was one at all in a place like this.

Well, the city bosses probably needed some way to get the word out about new taxes, or to criticize their rivals. There were a lot of crudely-woodcut pictures, which made sense. Probably not too many literate people around here.

This way,” Najif said. They took a right turn, heading uphill on a road that steadily got steeper. Past shuttered-up shops and through a small slum. Tenement buildings gave way to nicer apartments and, as they ascended further, the fortified houses of the upper class. They crested the top of the hill, past more warehouses and another slum on the downslope, and then they were at the city walls.

A hundred and seventy years ago, of course, Kyrenia had been a lot bigger; everywhere had been. Deaths, sickness, violence and food-seeking migrations to the countryside, had shrunken Cyprus’s northern port from forty thousand to – well, probably almost nothing for a while like most of the towns and cities, but it’d only recovered now to maybe a fifth of that. Most of the stone from the abandoned buildings had been rebuilt into these twenty-foot-high walls.

A line of people and vehicles were slowly shuffling uphill toward the gate. Early farmers coming back from delivering their goods to the city. A few merchants. A good number of individuals on their own errands. Individuals on foot mixed with donkeys, carts, wheelbarrows and a single gasoline-driven car that flew a complex flag from a low pole on the center of its roof.

Guards with bolt-action rifles were looking over the people as they left, but not interfering too much. The people coming into the city got more attention, and most had to pay a toll. The outgoing line moved pretty quickly.

Ashford expected something to happen when they passed the guard, but he did nothing; he barely even moved his head to motion them forwards.

Rusty coils of barbed wire were strung here and there amongst the dirt on the hundred yards or so between the city walls and the nearest construction, a couple of buildings that smelled vile. Tannery or something. A steep downhill slope looked across a narrow valley.

Najif had slowed down when they approached the gate. To Ashford’s relief, because the effort of walking so fast had opened up the cut on his chest, he didn’t resume the earlier pace when they were out.

Instead, they headed along the badly-maintained tarmac road at a slow walk. A few hundred yards out, as they were climbing the facing slope, he stopped a man with a donkey coming towards the city. There was brief haggling, before Najif handed over a couple of coins in return for a double-handful of large black olives.

Breakfast,” he said to Ashford. “There’s a stream on the other side.”

***

Where the hell are going?” Ashford asked about half an hour later. They were sitting down by the stream in the next valley, where there was fresh water to go with the olives they’d eaten.

Overland,” Najif said, replying in English to Ashford’s Greek.

I thought we were going by sea.”

I thought so too,” said Najif. “Then the ship came. Do you know anything about Kyrenia politics?”

Nothing. Don’t they usually just obey whoever controls Constantinople this week?”

That indicates their character. Not their allegiance,” said Najif. “Governor Kosmas is a greedy coward who would sell his province to the Greeks in ten minutes if they’d offer him enough. And if he thought they were any more honest than he is – if he really believed they’d let him keep the money. If the people on that battleship want to offer money for American survivors, they won’t just put a reward on the streets. If they understood Cyprus they’d go to the Governor directly and offer him money.”

Ashford nodded. He’d been turning that idea over in his mind all yesterday afternoon.

There might be ships bigger than that battleship in the Mediterranean, but you wouldn’t need all the fingers of one hand to count them.

He’d spent most of his career handling logisticals, finance, those numbers swayed for political purposes and budget wrangling; he knew exactly what it cost to build and run a ship like that. You had to be a nation and probably a large one. Or you had to be an independent with so much money and power that functionally you were a nation.

US intelligence this far east was almost nonexistent. Until the Wilson had arrived in the area a couple of weeks ago, it had been completely nonexistent. And that might have been the motivation: somebody wanted to keep it that way.

Without more information, there was no point in trying to guess who that was. He wanted to find out, but speculating on it now was insane. The fact was that these people had resources, and if they’d gone to the trouble of killing a cruiser of the United States Navy, they probably had good reason to want absolutely no survivors from that cruiser.

He’d pushed that concern to the back of his mind until that ship had arrived in harbor now. This morning, less than an hour ago, the battleship had again become a pressing threat.

Yes,” said Najif. “And Kosmas is a coward. When there is a ship in his harbor that outguns his shore batteries by ten to one, he probably does not need bribes to obey its captain. The Governor has customs inspectors. He relies on them for a good part of his taxes. He can inspect any ship that leaves. He can have it boarded and searched.”

Which kills the idea you were talking about last night,” said Ashford. “Of just getting on a freighter for Athens via Crete. Shit.”

Yes. They might have searched it. And then your mission, and my green card, go. Look on the bright side; perhaps they will catch your mutineers and save you the trouble of hanging them.”

Ashford hadn’t thought about that, but he disliked the idea a lot more than was rational.

Briggs is going to face a Navy court and he’s going to hang for mutiny, desertion, grand larceny and the attempted murder of an officer,” he said coldly. “He’s not going to die at the hands of some foreign power for the crime of being an American. I’m going to get him or the Navy will. Nobody else.”

Until yesterday, Ashford had never seriously imagined himself killing anybody; not up close and personal. Now, he thought he’d enjoy shooting Briggs and his traitors. Knew he would.

To his surprise, Najif nodded.

I can understand that. Well, hope they escape and we run into them again. When we have friends, and guns. We can arrest them and see them face a court.”

We need both of those,” Ashford agreed. “Guns especially.”

We won’t find them here and last night I didn’t have time to look for them. Not since we wanted to wake in time for the morning outgoing tide.”

How far is it to the Greek port?”

To Paphos? Sixty miles,” Najif said. “Perhaps four days, if it was flat and our course was straight. It’s not, and it won’t be. We’ll be going over mountains and we have to cross a border. The border means we might need to take detours. It could take a week if we’re lucky. Perhaps longer.”

Right.”

Ashford closed his eyes. A week’s travel, just to the next port.

Before the Pulses, when there had been cars and good roads, it would have been a half-day or less. Except that there had been aircraft then, commonly available and flying everywhere. There had been satellite phones to make the trip unnecessary. There had been a lot of other things; computers and computer networks, microchips and cars everywhere; wishing for them now was stupid.

Just as pointless as wishing for fifty stars on the US flag, instead of twenty. That motivation was why Ashford had joined the Navy – his nation had been glorious once, and perhaps he could help rebuild it. The Pulses had only been a hundred and seventy years ago; his grandparents’ parents had probably heard stories of the old world first-hand.

The motivation had survived four years at the Annapolis academy, narrowly outside the safe-radioactivity line around what had been Washington DC. It had survived six years of glorified clerking and unglamorous errand-boying in the capital, in Charlestown and Beacon Hill; it had survived a pretty-boy assignment as the naval liaison for a Philadelphian traders’ combine run by a politically-connected family friend, and somehow it had survived the last couple of days.

Been strengthened by the last couple of days, in fact, because this was meaningful. For the first time in his life, there was something critical, something important, that only he could do.

He was surprised that he felt this way; this wasn’t supposed to invigorate you, it was supposed to break and terrify you. Especially someone like him; he’d always seen the Navy as a stepping-stone to eventual political office, from which he’d do his truly meaningful work. The line officers on the Wilson had perhaps guessed that, or perhaps they’d simply had the fighting man’s contempt for a career staff officer whose first ship duty had come after his first promotion.

Their put-downs had led Ashford to think even more that he’d break under pressure, and driven him to spend his off-hours with other staff types, engineers and technical officers, who seemed to have decided in childhood that they were not going to be any more than parts of a machine, that heroics were for the men with the balls connections. He’d come to empathize with that viewpoint.

Especially since Susannah’s letter, ending what he’d hoped would become an engagement when he returned. The worst part about her stinging criticisms of his courage and his character, the really painful part, was that he knew at gut level that they had been right.

That thought made him get to his feet.

We’ve been killing time long enough,” he said. “Gibraltar is still a thousand miles away, and Athens isn’t much closer. The sooner we get moving and the faster we walk, the sooner they’ll know.”

***

It was slow going; the ground was rough and steep and there wasn’t much of a road; it was badly-maintained and usually not much more than a dirt track, large parts of it turned to drying mud by the spring rains. Grapes and olives grew on the steep slopes, and thin sheep grazed in other areas, perhaps competing with chickens for the rugged grass and moss. There were rock ledges, too, and occasional drops; these were somewhere between high hills and low mountains.

You went down one hill, perhaps a few hundred yards through an extremely narrow valley, then up another hill. Wheat and some other crops that Ashford didn’t recognize grew in ordered little farms in the valleys, tended by stocky peasants.

Here and there they passed other traffic; donkey carts laden with farm produce for the most part, a horseman here and there, a few pedestrians. Two heavy carts pulled by teams of oxen, carrying barrels that might have held rock oil, or olive oil, and copper ingots from the mines in these mountains. Once they were overtaken by three open-backed motor trucks loaded with soldiers, the last of them towing an artillery piece. The trucks’ engines were loud and the exhaust pipes left a thick trail of foul-smelling black smoke.

By evening they’d only made seven miles on Najif’s map. They stopped, with the sun setting, at an inn in a medium-sized village. Najif haggled briefly with the proprietor, shook hands and gave him a large piece of copper.

It was a small private room. Closing his eyes, Ashford collapsed onto a filthy straw mattress. Najif said something about food and departed.

God, he hurt. The map said seven miles, but that was as the plane flew. In practice, the road zigged and zagged to make the slopes easier, and to route away from the steeper hills. They might have walked eighteen or twenty in the hot sun.

His chest hurt, and so did his throat. He stripped to the waist and examined the cut that he could see; he wished he had some more of that ointment.

Only seven fucking miles. At this rate it’ll be almost a week and a half until we get to Paphos, and that’s just the first step.

It was logical; he understood that. Trying to get out through Kyrenia, past the battleship, wouldn’t have been safe; they had to go to Paphos and hope the battleship wasn’t there. Maybe there was some small fishing village they could leave from instead. Najif had also raised the possibility of getting a ride by sea to Paphos.

They’d get there. And his wound hadn’t been agitated so badly; it wasn’t much worse now, he thought, than it had been this morning. His feet hurt worse; my soul for a good pair of boots. For any pair.

Najif came back with a tray of food, bread and goat cheese and olives and dried meat, and a jug of wine. He set the tray down on the small table between the room’s two mattresses. Ashford poured himself a cup of the wine and gulped it down, it was the sourest thing he’d ever tasteed but that didn’t matter right now. He poured another cup and reached for one of the pieces of meat.

Tell me about where we are going,” said Najif, sitting down and cutting off a slice of goat cheese with the belt knife. “Tell me about the United States.”

Later,” said Ashford. “For now; do you think we’re safe here? We’re only seven miles away from the port.”

We’re a day’s walk,” Najif said. “Distance is different here than on the sea; seven miles is further because it takes longer. It should be smooth until we reach the border. I think the border is quiet right now, but sometimes it flares up. Constantinople is massing for another war, you know. We’ll be out of the mountains by tomorrow midday, I think. We can go faster then.”

Any chance we can buy some transport?”

Najif shook his head.

Not if we also want to buy our ship tickets for a thousand miles. Perhaps we can get a ride, if we’re lucky.”

The further we are from those bastards, the luckier we are,” said Ashford. “And preferably the sooner we’re out of Turkish territory and into Greek. I know from ship Intelligence that some of these local militaries have radio communications.”

I think you might be starting to be becoming overly paranoid in that,” said Najif. “The Governor’s customs men are one group; the Army is another; they’re less corrupt and they answer directly to Constantinople. We’re out of Kyrenia; I don’t think we have a great deal more to worry about than the usual dangers, unless we’re unlucky.”

Two days ago I didn’t think my ship had a great deal more to worry about than the usual dangers,” said Ashford. “And she got unlucky, remember? The same bad luck is still hanging around, and you told me the rumor that they were looking for Americans. I’ll feel safe at Gibraltar and not before.”

You’re becoming overly paranoid in that,” said Najif again, but this time he didn’t seem to mean it as much.

***

The ship was called the Woodrow Wilson?”

Yes.” Gasping, the prisoner let some blood drool through the smashed wreckage of what had been his front teeth. “I said. Heavy cruiser. Peacemaker-class. Twelve thousand tons. Outta Charleston, Carolina.”

You told me all that earlier. I’m bored.”

A knife descended, made its cut with a surgeon’s precision. Screams. A wet thud in the aluminum trash bin. Alcohol splashed on the injury.

You have another eye remaining. You may yet see Charleston, South Carolina with it. How was she armed?”

Gasping, panting. He tried to hold back screams and say what the man wanted to hear. Say the truth; maybe he’d keep his other nut if he didn’t lie again.

The knife descended again.

Three batteries; fore was two six-inch guns and two four-inchers. Aft was triple four-inchers. Twelve twenty-millimeter boatsinkers on deck mounts.”

He gasped. Heavily. The knife stayed where it was. For a few seconds. Then descended towards his right hand, which was manacled in place. Three fingernails and four fingertips remained.

Some of the boatkillers could be used for anti-air if needed. Had two thirty-foot cutters, capable of short-range independent operations, each had two twenty-mms. No rockets or torpedoes.”

Not much of a heavy cruiser,” said an observer.

The man remained silent. Thank God they’d only got him. No; not thank God. Maybe if he hadn’t been the only stupid one, they’d be leaving him alone a little. No; they’d be torturing them in front of each other.

He was already telling them what they wanted! They didn’t need to hurt him any more! He’d learned!

The knife moved towards his hand.

The officer asked you a question,” said the man who held it.

Oh! Oh! I’m sorry!” He restrained the urge to blubber. That would mean pain. Talk. Not much of a heavy cruiser. Talk about that, then. Elaborate on that and keep the rest of his fingers.

Not meant as one. Armed like a light cruiser, yes. The extra tonnage goes to ammo storage, fuel storage, provisions. Trade off firepower for more range. Can operate on extended tours of duty without external support. That’s what they’re for. But they’ve got the tonnage. Classed as heavy. Really only more of a light. They use the cutters for chasing stuff. Cutters were the fast ones.”

The Atlantic United States Navy has four Peacemaker-class heavy cruisers in service,” said a second observer. “Two more are being built, we understand. They have a crew of six hundred and thirty, including a forty-five man Marine complement. How many crewmen does the unlamented ship have now?”

Seven, goddamn it! Seven! I said seven!”

You said there were eight, earlier.” The knife descended. Screams. Scraping bone. Blood. Louder screams. Something thick and rubber was shoved between the man’s teeth and he hyperventilated briefly. The cutting board tilted and the top joint of a ring finger slid into the trash. The hyperventilation came to a ragged conclusion when the knife began to slowly draw blood on the second joint.

Seven! Seven of us and the lieutenant but I don’t know where he is!”

A lieutenant,” said the first observer to the second.

A lieutenant,” the man with the knife said.

His name’s Ashfour; no, Ashford! Ashford, Ashford. Peter or Paul Ashford. Ship’s assistant purser. They put him in charge of the buying party. Mid twenties. This’s his first cruise. Brown-blond hair, not a big guy, not a smart guy, just a pretty boy doing his time `cause he saw the flag and had an urge. He was a Beacon Hill staff puke until this cruise. Lieutenant junior-grade; junior, not senior. Annapolis. He was assistant to the purser. REMF. From Beacon—”

A gesture told the man to shut up. He forced himself to.

Very good,” said the first observer. “I think that calls for some anaesthetic.”

The man smiled. The injection went into his right hand, a fairly strong local. Pain, less pain. He still hurt, but less pain. Thank God.

You have other organs, remember. Why didn’t you know where the lieutenant is?”

The man tried to be calm. It was easier, with his right hand numb. Not easy. Other parts of his body hurt, terribly. If he was good, perhaps they would not.

We ditched him. He didn’t want to split the cash from what we’d bought; he wanted to use it all to go to Gibraltar. To tell about it. About the attack. We were going to take it and go independent. So we drugged him and ditched him.”

You let him go?”

Briggs didn’t wanna kill him. Said nature’d do that without getting on his conscience; we just ditched him without his braid or his shit.”

A fisherman reported that his boat’s assistant captain had an injured man aboard their boat yesterday,” said the second observer to the first observer. “Wearing a white uniform and speaking English.”

What did this Lieutenant Ashford look like?” asked the first observer. “If you describe him, and describe him well, you will only have a few more questions. Then you will have anaesthetic and food.”

The description took some time; the man with the knife had an assistant who was an artist. He produced a sketch of the man, erasing bits and modifying them, down to small details. Presently he held up a draft that the prisoner nodded enthusiastically at.

That’s him. That’s just him. He looks like that. It’s like a photo. I’d recognize him from that.”

We can verify. We have other men who may have seen him,” said the man with the knife.

He’s real. I swear, that’s what he looks like; it’s good, I’d recognize him. I swear I would!”

Very well,” said the man with the knife, coldly. “Finally. You said that you were three months out of the joint US-British base at Gibraltar. Now tell us what you know about Gibraltar. Tell us about Gibraltar, her garrison, and her defenses.”

Snippet from Leo Champion’s Highway West

Leo Champion’s book, Highway West, will be coming later this month.  He’s asked me to post a sample here, which you should find enjoyable:

Chapter One

Lieutenant junior-grade Peter Ashford had just returned to the Kyrenia docks with his shore supply party when the first salvo slammed into his ship, which was moored a few hundred yards out in the mouth of the shallow harbor.

Oh shit, was his first reaction. There were two waterspouts and two explosions, one in the center of the USS Woodrow Wilson’s superstructure and the other by the stern. Thick smoke began to boil up from the stern area, by the cruiser’s main aft battery.

The local boats – lighters, skiffs and rowboats – that had been surrounding the Wilson, fled like water bugs, those that hadn’t been overturned by the forty-foot high waterpouts. People on the docks ran for cover. One of the delivery men with Ashford’s party dropped his wheelbarrow of fruit sacks and bolted. Chief Petty Officer Briggs, the senior NCO of Ashford’s eight-man party, muttered something vile and drew a very non-regulation automatic pistol from somewhere inside his jacket.

Ashford stood at the docks, numbly watching his ship die.

Men ran across the deck with fire extinguishers; others ran for the guns. The ship shuddered as secondary and tertiary explosions set the aft battery on fire, as the superstructure burned. The Wilson’s engines started and she moved slightly; her fore turrets begin to traverse to port.

How the hell? What the hell? Who the hell?

Alarm bells began to clang somewhere. No doubt the garrison of the harbor fort was going insane right now. Maybe this was a pre-emptive Greek strike on a misidentified target.

Another salvo hit the Wilson, at least two explosions and a huge waterspout. In one blazing explosion the fore part of the superstructure, including the bridge, simply vanished; smoke and blazing fire. A wave of secondary detonations rippled across the stern of the ship; the aft battery itself was ripped apart. Something at the very aft started to burn furiously, waves of heat making Ashford, more than a quarter of a mile away, turn his face. Men started to bail overboard.

Who the hell was doing this and why the hell?, Ashford wondered desperately. He wanted to turn and run or do something, but he couldn’t turn away. It was inconceivable that this could be happening.

The United States was not at war. Not on this side of the Atlantic, not even officially on the North American side. The Wilson was here for a few reasons, the main one being just to show the flag. Gathering intelligence and killing pirates were stated but secondary objectives. People out this way had to be reminded that the real United States was the secular East Coast government and not the fundamentalist theocracy inland.

Colorado, thought Ashford. They were the enemy he’d grown up hating, grown up fearing. But the Inland Republic governed from Colorado Springs, the false United States, didn’t have a navy – they didn’t have a coastline outside a few miles on Lake Michigan around the rebuilt ruins of Milwaukee. Most pirates used cigarette boats or fast sailboats. The Caliphate nations sponsoring them didn’t have ships capable of laying down this level of fire – their engineering mostly depended on slaves and was nowhere near good enough.

Some European nations disliked the United States, but they were fighting a constant low-intensity war against Islamic invasion and preparing right now for an imminent high-intensity one. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t do this.

The last time anybody in this part of the world had considered the United States of America to be their number one enemy had been a hundred and eighty years ago. Before the Pulses, in the near-legendary days of computers and jet aircraft and nuclear weapons. Back when there had been fifty stars on the United States flag.

Something drew his eyes to a dark shape, barely visible above the edge of the horizon. Tiny even in the binoculars his hands had unconsciously raised. Brutally-shaped and angular, without the elegant lines most cruisers had.

Not like Captain Reece to get caught with his pants down like that,” muttered Briggs. “Intelligence musta really fucked up. That or someone got the wrong target.”

Shit oh shit oh shit oh shit,” the newest of the enlisted men, Riden, was saying. Grundy, the second-ranking NCO of the party, said something and Riden shut up.

Ashford could empathize. It took an effort of self-control – I am an officer of the United States Navy, I am an Annapolis graduate and an officer of the United States Navy – to keep from gibbering in fear himself.

The Wilson was slowly turning to port, putting on steam, moving, trying to fight. There was a huge waterspout near the cruiser’s stern, a hundred-foot-high blast of water that swamped the fleeing small boats and drenched the men on the docks. Ashford barely noticed that he was soaked. One of the shells that hit went through the center of the cruiser’s already-blazing superstructure.

He had an instant to remember that seventy percent of the Wilson’s ammunition was in the amidships hold when the shell exploded.

Down!” yelled somebody in English. Ashford refused to move as his cruiser became the biggest explosion he had ever seen. A bigger explosion than he could ever have imagined. Pieces of metal rained across the port, zinged into the concrete docks, snipped into wooden trading boats and snicked through the metal roof of a truck’s cab.

Then there was nothing but thick grey smoke over the turgid water where Ashford’s ship had been. Of the six hundred and thirty men that Ashford and his party had gone out to buy food for, only the eight men of that party remained alive.

For what must have been half a minute, he stood there in shock. Not seeing, not thinking. A part of his mind watched for survivors and prayed for them, but nothing moved around the spots of burning flotsam.

Then something other than what the hell or oh God went through his mind. Something new.

That was the realization that he was alone with a handful of enlisted men, a thousand miles away from the base at Gibraltar and the nearest friends. Aside from his service automatic and whatever contraband weapons the enlisted men had, they were unarmed. They had no money to speak of. Between them and Gibraltar were pirates, hostile navies and an emerging New Great Jihad. The very nation he was in now, the Turkish Empire, was about to go to war with Greece.

And around them now were a thousand traders, spies, pirates and freelance killers who knew just how alone he and his seven men had suddenly become.

Shit,” Ashford said – almost casually – to Briggs. Nodding his head.

Shit,” he said again.

* * *

We need to sell this crap,” Briggs said. The eight of them were sitting in a large private room in the back of a shoreside tavern. Most of the room was filled to the ceiling with the supplies they’d bought. Chains of bananas, bags of dates, orange and lemons, sacks of flour and bundles of corn-sheaves. Shanks of beef and mutton. Strings of chickens tied together by their strangled necks. Several fresh meals for six hundred and thirty men. It took up a lot of space and had cost a lot of money.

Ashford nodded. He was just starting to understand that the Wilson’s destruction had been real.

Briggs had done most of the buying. Ashford came from a merchant’s family and spoke more than one language, but he barely understood the trade argot that they used here. It was a bit of Spanish, a bit of Italian and of Greek and Arabic, with no more than one in five words English. Briggs was an old-time Navy man who’d been tough when Ashford was a toddler. He didn’t know any individual foreign language, but he spoke the trade pidgins as though he’d been born to them.

Briggs scared Ashford. All those hard-core veteran enlisteds did. The line officers, the guys from old Navy families whose fathers and great-grandfathers also had Annapolis rings, knew how to deal with those guys. They had some kind of an instinct for it.

Ashford was the first in his family to be a peacetime, non-reserve member of any military service. He’d never served in a line command; he was twenty-six years old and his assignments had so far been political and logistical. This was – had been – his first shipboard duty, as the Wilson’s assistant supply officer.

Is it just my imagination, or does the chief have contempt for me? Come to think of it, he hasn’t called me ‘sir’ once in the half-hour since whoever-it-was killed the Wilson.

We need to sell it,” Ashford agreed. “We need the money. How much do you think we’ll be able to get for it?”

Not what we paid for it,” said Briggs. “Not eight-tenths.” He threw back another shot of whatever he had in his plastic flask. The other six enlisted men, sitting around the same table, watched the exchange between their two leaders.

Not when we have to unload the stuff quick,” Briggs went on, “and everyone knows it. We’ve got nowhere to store it if we don’t. If we’re lucky we’ll get three-quarters. This is a trade town. We should be able to do at least seven-tenths.”

Then we’ll keep what we can carry,” said Ashford. “Trade value, and we’ll need to eat ourselves. The rest – seven tenths of what we paid is just over six thousand dollars. That’s still a good bit of money.”

That it is,” Briggs agreed. The other men nodded themselves. The annual salary of an unrated seaman second-class was two hundred and five dollars. Most of these men made between three and four hundred dollars a year.

That’s seven hundred and fifty each way,” said the second-highest of the enlisted men, a petty officer named Grundy. He was short and wiry, middle-aged with a trimmed brown beard and a slightly bushier brown moustache, thinning brown hair and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling unlit from his mouth. Ashford had never seen Grundy without a cigarette dangling from his mouth. It wasn’t always lit, but it was always there.

That would be, if we were splitting up,” Ashford said. “To make Gibraltar, we’ll need to stay together and we’ll need all of it.”

Maybe,” said Grundy. “But think of it, jake. We got this payola, and we’re on Cyprus, and everyone in Charlestown’s gonna think we’re gone. When Charlietown hears about this, they’re gonna assume we died with everybody else. They’re not gonna come looking for us. Or for the money.”

Charlestown was the Admiralty, a catapulted stone’s throw from where Congress sat on Beacon Hill, in the old Massachusetts statehouse.

When they learn someone did a Pearl Harbor on the Wilson,” said Ashford. If this new enemy doesn’t hurt us worse before Boston gets the word. “They might hear that in three months, or they might hear it in a year if we don’t make it back.”

There. I’ve voiced the possibility. And now I’m going to overcome it.

We’re going to make it back,” Ashford continued. “We have easily enough money to get to the embassy in Athens, and then some. They’ll probably send us on to Gibraltar anyway, but Athens is the first step.”

And who says, Lieutenant, that we’re going to want to make it to the embassy?” asked Briggs.

Oh, God.

Ashford had been terrified beyond clear thought of this possibility. For these enlisted men, seven hundred and fifty dollars was a lot of money. Six grand was a fortune. And since Charlestown did have reason to consider them all dead men… Grundy was right. There wouldn’t be much of a search.

I say that we’re going to want to make it back to Gibraltar,” said Ashford with every ounce of firmness he could muster. “Because it’s our duty to. You saying you’re not going to do your duty, Briggs?”

That was supposed to be the question they couldn’t say no to, wasn’t it? It was a rhetorical question, but they’d say yes to it, that of course they were going to do their duty. And from there he’d remind them that it was their duty to obey orders.

Man has a duty to his nation,” Briggs agreed pleasantly. “Duty to himself and his shipmates, too. I been doing duty to this country since before you were born, LT. Fought under the Prez on Lake Michigan, almost got my balls blown off in St. Larry’s Gulf. Nobody can say I didn’t do my share of duty for the country. Reckon it’s now time I did some duty to myself. Man could set himself up pretty sweet out here, if he had some money to get himself going with. Seems to me like we’ve got that now.”

What?

Briggs had been a hard case aboard the ship. Of course he’d been. That was why Lieutenant Marning, the supply officer, had chosen him and these others to do the shore party, because they could handle themselves in a rough town and keep their nominal commander alive long enough to get some experience.

But Ashford had always thought the man – these men – to be basically loyal. Right? Right?

You’re kidding, Briggs,” said Ashford, trying to keep the edge of desperation out of his voice. “You realize that Charlestown will reward us when we get back. With a medal if nothing else.”

You, maybe. But you’ll get your cut of this,” Briggs said. “Seven fifty. Twelve and a half percent of this. You can go back, LT. Or you can come with us. Man with your book-knowledge could be handy, and you could do pretty good out here yourself.”

What the hell is it exactly that you plan to do?” Ashford stammered. He wasn’t even trying to sound commanding any more. All his Navy time until six months ago had been staff duties, because ship duty was for men with connections and nerve and aggression and he’d had none of those. And now, the first time he’d ever had anything remotely resembling an independent command, the men were deserting him right away.

Aegean Sea,” Briggs said. Grundy and the others nodded.

He’s their leader, Ashford thought bitterly. Not me. I’m just the guy with the rank. And since the nearest organization is at Gibraltar, the rank doesn’t mean shit.

Lots of little islands,” Briggs said. “Little territories. Bit of commerce. Slammies, Greekies, Turkeys, Eyeties, all fighting each other for a bit of it. Room for some independent operators, if there’s the startup money. Your family’s merchants – you know how to do books, and once you get the lingo you’ll probably be as shrewd as Grunds here. More money for you than Navy pay. Lot more, LT. Think about it.”

This is outright mutiny.

That thought clarified things. Mutiny. And it was. He could shoot men for mutiny. Kill the ringleaders, arrest them, throw them irons. The local authorities would co-operate with that, right? And then the others would fall into line.

He went for his gun. His hand was closing on the butt when there were the clicking sounds of two guns being cocked. Briggs was pointing his automatic at him. Another man, Henley, had a revolver on the table as well.

Don’t, LT. Please don’t,” said Grundy. “Killed me an ossifer down in the Free City of St. Louis once. Don’t wanna kill another one, not today. You’re a nice kid and all, but if you don’t get your hands palm down on this table here by the count of three, you’re not gonna have a head.”

Briggs’ tone was calm and friendly. The gaping mouth of his huge .48, eighteen inches from Ashford’s eyes, was all the emphasis he needed. Slowly, Ashford complied.

Good boy,” Briggs said. “If you didn’t wanna come along, you might’ve just said so. You’d have had your piece and the freedom to make it back to the Rock yourself if that’s what you wanted to do with it.”

Can’t trust him to agree we’re dead now,” said Grundy. “I say we zag him.”

A long, slender knife was in Grundy’s hand.

Briggs shook his head.

Not `less we got to, Grunds. I can see the good business sense in that, but I’m not gonna have murder on my conscience `less we have to, and I’m hoping that we still don’t. Pour the man a drink. Looks like he needs it.”

We all do,” said Riden, the youngest of the enlisteds.

You ain’t gonna have one, not now. We got things to do that we can’t accomplish drunk,” said Briggs firmly. “But the LT here, he hasn’t got a lot to do right now. Not things that we won’t be doing for him. Drink up, jake.”

Henley’s revolver was still on the table, pointed in his direction. Ashford took the metal shot-glass Grundy had poured, threw it back. The liquor tasted like burning sewage; it wasn’t local, must have come from some hidden distillery that one of the men had operated on board the Wilson. Ashford spluttered. His stomach churned as the vile stuff hit. Unable to speak, he gestured with a hand for a chaser – some water, anything.

Take another one, LT.”

No, thanks,” Ashford made himself say. It hurt to speak with that burning acid in his throat. “One’s enough.”

Wasn’t a request, LT.”

A second shot was placed on the table in front of Ashford. Conscious of the gun pointed at him, he gritted his teeth and raised the glass.

Another officer would have found something to say to bring these men on side.

A combat officer would have overpowered them or something.

I should not be letting them do this.

Pour the jake a glass of water,” said Briggs. “He can have a chaser after this one. Promise it’ll be your last, sir.”

There was something in the chief’s tone that made Ashford uneasy. Even more uneasy. It wouldn’t be poisoned or anything, would it?

Of course not. If they wanted to kill him, they’d slit his throat or shoot him. Murdered corpses were probably routine in a district like this, in a town like this. They just wanted him drunk.

Two shots wouldn’t do that, but they’d definitely get to him. This stuff was almost pure alcohol.

He could see Grundy getting ready to say something. Images of a man giving the ready-aim-fire commands to the firing squad at his own execution came to mind.

Die like a man.

He raised the shot glass and chugged it down. There was something different, something heavier, about the taste of the second one. He reached for the glass of water Grundy had put on the table.

The room seemed to waver. His reaching hand shook. Everything was like a blurred telescope, out of focus. No – a broken, shattered lens. Had it gotten so dark so suddenly? Had one of those bastard mutineers turned out the lights? Why – why was everything spinning?

Two… yes, two… shots… weren’t – he felt himself stifle a vomit-reflex – weren’t… meant… to do something… like… like… huh?… like…?

You bastards poisoned me, came through as a single, final, coherent thought before the black hammer hit.

* * *

A fragmentary notion – a dream, perhaps? – of loud shouting above him, and a gunshot. Movement and perhaps a scream as the notion or the dream faded away again into darkness.

* * *

The blazing sun woke him. He was looking up at one of those beautiful azure Mediterranean skies, with the sun almost directly overhead, a large part of it obscured by a dirty white sailcloth.

He was naked except for his briefs, he realized as his consciousness slowly returned, and he was lying on beaten wood that had to be a ship’s deck.

Memories came back to him of what had happened. The Wilson’s destruction and Briggs’ betrayal; Briggs poisoning him with something in the alcohol that they’d forced him to drink.

So why was he still alive?

Either the stuff had only been a knockout drug, or it hadn’t worked.

Briggs had wanted to poison him so that no reliable witnesses could ever tell Charlestown that there’d been survivors from the Wilson. That was a motivation; Ashford had spent enough time around politics, and in his family’s merchant business, to understand just how valid a motivation that was. It was that thought – coupled with if they’d meant to kill me, why am I alive now? – that made him keep still.

Wherever he was, it was likely that he was some kind of a prisoner. There was a thriving slave market in the Black Sea, Turkey and the Caliphates. If he was a prisoner and he wasn’t tied down, he wanted time to think and look before making it apparent that he was now awake.

Slowly, carefully, he turned his head to the left. This boat was moving, but the deck rails prevented him from getting any view of where they were. From the roll, it wasn’t a large boat. He was at the very bow of it, his head on a coiled rope. A grappling hook lay nearby. The big fore sail, on a mast about ten feet away, obscured the rest of his view.

A barefoot brown man wearing baggy pants, a loose sheepskin vest and a red bandanna came past. His back was to Ashford and he carried a heavy net. He shouted in a language that Taylor recognized as Turkish; from the handful of words he’d picked up, something about turning and nets.

I’m on a fishing boat, he thought. That didn’t make sense; slavers generally had their own ships. For that matter, why wasn’t he tied?

A moment later, whoever was at the tiller obeyed. The boat swung starboard. The billowing fore sail billowed a good bit less, and the sea became a fraction heavier. There was more shouting from the aft, words Ashford didn’t understand.

Behind the sail was a small wheelhouse. The man with the red bandanna came back to pull and refasten a couple of ropes, trimming the sail a bit tighter. Something splashed into the water.

I hurt, Ashford realized. His stomach felt vile, and there was a dull ache in the back of his head. A general pain covered his whole body, with particular emphasis on his chest and his throat. It took hard effort not to reach up and feel the sources of those pains.

Why the hell am I on a fishing boat?

Someone thinking he was dead, taking him out to deep water so as to tie weights to his corpse and dump him?

In Boston that would be plausible, or Plymouth. This was Cyprus. Dead foreigners weren’t a law-enforcement problem to local authorities in this part of the world, they were a trash-disposal problem.

Briggs being really careful?

If Briggs was being careful enough to do this, he’d have been careful enough to cut his throat or tie him up. This made no sense.

More shouting in the same language, something about a hundred something.

Another man came by, wearing baggy brown pants tied at the ankles and an open leather vest. He ducked under the sail and went over to where Ashford lay. The fact that this man wasn’t armed – outside a small utility knife on his belt – was what caused Ashford to fully open his eyes and stop pretending to be unconscious.

A second later it occurred to Ashford that those pants were baggy enough to conceal a light machine-gun. By then it was too late.

You awake, then?” the man asked in heavily-accented English.

Yes,” Ashford said. “Where am I?”

Now that he’d stopped pretending to be unconscious, there was no point lying on his back. He got up to a sitting position, where he found that his chest, his arms and his legs were mildly sunburned. The cause of the sharper pain was a long but apparently shallow slash along his lower biceps, visible by a wide streak of yellow salve. They were at sea with no land visible, but a handful of other fishing boats in the middle distance indicated that they probably weren’t too far out.

He turned back to the man, who was squatting next to him. He had sharp features, intelligent eyes and looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties. He was short and stocky, with heavy muscles visible under his vest. His black hair was cut short on the sides and tied into a shoulder-length ponytail in back.

You are on Corianna’s Pride,” he said. “Fishing boat. You feeling alright?”

There was pain in his neck, too. Ashford touched it, and felt sticky salve across his throat.

Did not do it right,” said the man. “They were disturbed.”

Ashford nodded dumbly.

They poisoned me and then tried to cut my throat for good measure.

I’m Pete Ashford,” he said. “Who are you, and what happened? How did I get here?”

My name is Hiram Najif. First mate and part owner of this fine vessel. You are United States Navy?”

Ashford nodded. The motion made his throat hurt.

Lieutenant junior-grade Pete Ashford,” he said, extending a hand.

Najif shook it.

I had thought that, an officer. You are a lucky man, Lieutenant Ashford.”

I’m alive,” Ashford said. “You said that someone was trying to cut my throat, and they were disturbed?”

Disturbed by my friends and I,” said Najif. He produced a flask. “Would you like a drink of water?”

Yes. Very much. He took the flask and drank greedily from it. It tasted good.

Then I owe you and your friends,” Ashford said. He sat up straighter. He was fine; aside from those cuts and a couple more scratches on his arms and his legs, he’d really felt worse after a heavy night’s drinking.

What happened, exactly?” he asked. “You said they were trying to cut my throat?”

Two men, in back of one of the Corsair taverns,” said Najif. “You were in whites that could have belonged to any Western sailors, but it was in English that I heard one of the men talking. About doing the lieutenant for good and all so that he never wakes up. From that, I decided that you might have been a British or American navy officer.”

Ashford nodded.

So you and your friends stepped in?”

In the Nicholas of time. The one who was talking was bending down with a knife. I was walking home, with three of my friends who were drunk. In the Corsair district it is always wise, you see, to have a man in the group who does not get drunk. Last night it was my turn.”

I attacked the man who was going to cut your throat; I pushed him hard out of the way. The younger man was probably meant to be the lookout, but he was not paying attention; he had been watching his friend. That man hit one of my friends, who was drunk; we had a short fight, my three friends who were drunk against those two, while I tried to carry you away.”

The man who had been trying to cut your throat, he tried again to cut you as I carried you away; I was forced to kick him in the face so he would give up. Then my friends and I, we were able to get away with you slung between two of us. We ran fast because the men who tried to cut you, they might have had more of their own friends.”

Briggs and those bastards.

When he found them, he was going to kill them.

Never in his life until now had he felt this kind of anger.

Those mutineering traitors abandoned their duty and tried to murder me. I’m going to personally shoot Briggs and see the rest hang.

Najif was looking at him.

Yes, they had friends,” said Ashford. “Seven of them. Thanks for saving me. You realize I don’t have any money?”

And your ship was destroyed yesterday afternoon. I was near the ship that did the killing, only a mile away. She had no flag. But you are an American.”

And that makes me a god, I suppose.

No – this wasn’t the Pacific. And those stories were probably lies in the first place.

Get up, Lieutenant Ashford. Would you like to get dressed?”

Yes. Thank you.”

I undressed you because wounds like yours, they need air so they can heal. So the medicine can work. Your clothes are in the wheelhouse.”

As well as the yellow salve, there was something on his body that seemed to be some kind of suntan lotion.

The boat appeared to have a crew of about half a dozen men. Most of them were tending nets right now; they turned as Najf and Ashford passed, staring at the half-naked American officer whose throat had almost been cut.

It was a relief to find his clothes in the wheelhouse. Najif was right, though – not just his rank insignia but all identification had been removed. His cap and coat were missing and his shirt wasn’t much more than a white civilian shirt, tattered from where the flags, rank tabs and ship name had been torn away. It still felt good to get dressed.

His gun was gone, of course, along with everything else from his pockets. His wallet, the Dear John letter from Susannah that he’d been carrying out of morbid self-pity since Gibraltar, and even the handful of pocket change he’d carried. And his Annapolis ring.

Briggs, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you.

No – taking the word back to Gibraltar had to take priority. Duty above revenge. Besides, in his current situation – unarmed, no money – it would be a difficult question as to how he was going to do either.

You look like an officer,” said Najif. “You look educated.”

Thanks,” Ashford said warily.

This is the Mediterranean, he thought. Nobody does favors for free here.

What do you plan to do now, Mr. Lieutenant Ashford?” asked Najif.

I’m going to go find that mutineering bastard Briggs and kill him.” There was a raw satisfaction in saying that. A feeling of violent freedom that he’d never before felt. He wasn’t quite sure if he liked it.

And I’m going to go back to Gibraltar, to report my ship’s destruction. It might take them six months to hear of it otherwise, and it could be a year before they have the fact verified. Anything could happen in that time.”

And then the United States?” asked Najif. “Mr. Lieutenant Ashford, I have always wanted to see the United States. I have heard the old stories about the United States of All North America, whose land spread from ocean to ocean and which ruled the world. I have heard good things about the United States of the Eastern Coast.”

It’s a pretty good place,” Ashford agreed. Wary again.

How do you plan to get to Gibraltar, without money and without a ship and without your men?”

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

He’d figure that out when he got to shore. If he had to, he’d work his way there as a common seaman. That would take a long time and probably be dangerous. Not to mention difficult – he didn’t have the skills to be a common crewman on most of the ships that plied the Mediterranean nowadays.

I’ll figure something out. Why do you ask?”

Mr. Lieutenant Ashford, I have heard that the United States always takes care of its friends,” said Najif. “The old stories said so, and so do the stories I have heard from more recently. Mr. Lieutenant, this part of the world is poor and primitive and dangerous compared to all I have heard of the United States. Your country is somewhere a man does not need family or violence in order to get rich.”

Ashford nodded. He was far too much the political staff-officer not to see the slightly calculating look on the fisherman’s face.

Mr. Ashford, I saved your life. Because I like the stories I have heard of America, and because I hope your country will reward its friends. Your mission is probably an important one; your country’s commanders will want to know that their cruiser has been lost with almost all hands, and that they have an unpleasant new enemy, and that some of their men have become traitors.”

I will help you to Gibraltar to bring this news, Mr. Lieutenant, if you will help me the rest of the way to the United States. I hear that a man needs a permit to live there and those permits are not always granted, especially when a man has dark skin. I need a permit. Can you do that?”

He wants a green card.

Well, those had been handed out for this sort of thing in the past. Alongside, sometimes, fair-sized sums of money. The Navy didn’t have direct authority to give those things out – the Department of State jealously guarded its power in that regard – but Ashford had made friends on Beacon Hill. For that matter, his family had a couple of friends, too. And the loss of the Wilson was big enough, important enough, that the case would probably stand on its own merits anyway. State was nowhere near as unreasonable as most line officers seemed to think they were.

He extended a hand.

Mr. Najif, help me get to Gibraltar, and I’ll do everything I can to get you a green card.”

The fisherman beamed; he clasped both of his hands around Ashford’s right and shook eagerly.

We have made a deal, then,” he said. “I hear Americans are good at that.”

***

Highway West will be available at the end of March.

 

Her Majesty’s Western Service by Leo Champion

Here’s a sample section from Leo Champion’s Her Majesty’s Western Service, available at Amazon here.
Unlikely partners…

In a steam-driven alternate 1963, the British Empire faces off against neo-Tsarist Russia in cold war over a divided former USA.
Pirate captain Karen Ahle is an upper-class Southern exile with a vendetta against the mercenaries who’d butchered her family nineteen years earlier.
Imperial Vice-Commodore Marcus Perry is a duty-focused, by-the-book career officer sworn to uphold the law.
They’d been on a collision course until Theron Marko, Luddite anarchist and Russian agent, showed up with his own agenda.
Now they have to work together. If they succeed, Perry’s name will be cleared and Ahle’s crew will live. If they fail, North America’s map will be redrawn… by the Tsar.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Her-Majestys-Western-Service-Champion-ebook/dp/B00K276N84

 

Chapter Three

 

Like James Curley, Joseph Kennedy and his sons came out of Boston, and in a more peaceful world they might have been only bootleggers – maybe to legitimize in high finance, perhaps even to follow Curley, with his acknowledged early-career mob ties, into politics. Instead of becoming the most notorious raiders to originate in Boston since the time of John-Paul Jones.”

 

From The Last Hurrah: President Curley’s Third Term. Edwin O’Connor; Little, Brown, 1956.

 

The pirates came at a quarter past five, out of nowhere and from an abandoned township on the Nebraska side of the old Kansas state line.

Sir! We have four – no, five, six, eight, nine, shit, a whole lot of blacks rising in front of us!” Swarovski cried out from the bridge of Imperial Air Service airship DN 4-106.

Late afternoon, dark lines of clouds in the west. Clouds above them, too, at about three through five thousand feet relative.

Turn to engage,” Perry said calmly from his command chair of black leather. He’d have been more shocked if this weren’t the optimal time for pirates to attack: it’d be dark in half an hour. For the last half-hour he’d been expecting something. And he’d known, from the more-alert bearings of Swarovski and Martindale – and Halversen, when he’d visited aft again a few minutes ago – that the others did, too.

If it was going to come, it was most likely going to come during the last hour of daylight; time to engage, and much more time in which to run.

Signals, hit squadron general quarters. Now, please.”

Aye, sir.”

Sir. We have more coming from the north. Little hills, they’re rising out,” Specialist Second Vidkowski reported. “Sir! We have ten, fifteen, twenty, and sir, I strongly suspect there’s some up above.”

Ahead of them, the convoy was reacting. Increasing steam, turning to bolt.

In these situations, the captains tended to react like sheep: every man for himself, and the hell with formation or safety. Irrational – he’d audited a hundred lectures where civilian captains had been told not to outrun their escorts, to stay where they could be protected or, if need be, recovered – but a universally-human panic reaction anyhow.

I have to remember that my weapons are stripped for airworthiness, Perry told himself, looking at the ship plot. There was a fully-functional pressure-gun right below him, a fully-functional one aft. There were a nominal twelve missile batteries, of which only two were actually manned.

The missile batteries are not to be considered applicable in this engagement.

They’re ignoring flashes, sir. Definitely hostile,” Kent reported.

For the first time, Perry actually looked up to see the enemy – or rather, looked away from his consoles and through the window. Little birds, tiny ones, that had been hidden in the township. From the north, to the left, they were powering in on an intercept course to the convoy.

Signals. Rockets and guns may feel free to engage. Repeat: Free fire is authorized.”

Fire at will is authorized, confirm, sir?”

Fire at will is authorized, confirmed,” Perry said.

The instinctive response, as it always did, calmed him. This was combat; people were going to die. But it was also known and familiar; the protocol, the confirms, the etiquette. Every man on 4-106 had a job to do; every man was doing it. It reduced the visceral, random chaos of combat down to something known and manageable.

Pfung! Pfung! came from down below, the fore pressure-gun battery. Then, irregularly: Pfung! Pfung!… Pfung!

Sir! Fore One reports confirmed hit, one of the fucking bastards is going down in flames!” Swarovski exalted.

Very good,” said Perry. “But Weapons, I did remind you about your language earlier. Please do remember that we are officers on one of Her Majesty’s ships, not pirate trash.”

Yessir.”

And my compliments to Fore One. Specialist Bronson was ready for his own gun, I’d say?”

Very much, sir.”

Sir, more coming from the northeast,” Martindale snapped.

Looking around. Yes – more shapes. A lot of them.

This just turned serious, Perry thought. The number of confirmed bandits was pushing forty. We have a real fight on our hands.

 

 

General Quarters,” Airshipman Second Gilford said. “We got action! Pirates!”

Yeah,” Rafferty said. “Time to kick ass and chew bubblegum.” He pulled a stick from his hip pocket. “Want a piece? Strawberry, it’s good.”

The comm buzzed. Rafferty picked up his handset. “Rocket Three. Yessir. Yessir, understood.”

What’s he say, boss?”

Just got fire at will clearance. See hostiles, take `em down. So put a shrapnel rocket in there.”

Got it,” said Gilford, reaching for the ammo feed.

Pirates didn’t figure on us having a ship like this,” Rafferty said. “Lot of `em aren’t gonna make another mistake like that; not for a while. Maybe not ever.”

Gilford hefted the missile into its breech. Rafferty sighted down the bore – there was one, a tiny little scout-class, probably spring-powered and held together with glue and frayed rope. Barely a hundred feet long, only semi-rigid; typical expendable piece-of-trash pirate riser.

Range three hundred fifty,” he said, mostly for Gilford’s education. “Cut like this” – with a blade, he released the cord that held the stabilizing fins; now, when the missile came out of its tube, the fins would pop up on their springs – “set to three fifty, that’s twelve and two, so the fourteenth notch here, hit the timer there – and yank the cap; missile is now live.”

Missile is now live,” Gilford repeated.

Crosswind, relative speed, relative height, possible intervening objects during flight time? Rafferty did the math quickly. He’d been a missileer for twelve years, and this had become second nature to him. He understood the variables at an instinctive level, made careful adjustments to the tube in a way that looked like no more than casual fidgeting.

And, we point it, we sight, we see that he’s moving vaguely towards us at a rate that don’t count for shit, but where’s the little punk gonna be in twenty seconds? Looks about the same, maybe a little ahead. Cone clear!”

Cone clear!” Gilford echoed, shouting, as Rafferty fired. The nine-inch-wide, two-and-a-half-foot-long missile exploded out of its tube, its backblast flaming in a cone through the bay behind the launcher. Gilford and Rafferty were out of its way, but the shout – and a warning light outside – was for the benefit of anyone walking through the corridor.

Trailing fire, the missile streaked toward Rafferty’s target. He watched it with a monocular scope as it struck the pirate high-amidships and blew.

Shrapnel ripped through the pirate’s gondola, shredding sacs and releasing hydrogen that the explosion’s fire set alight.

Within seconds, the pirate ship was a floating, directionless inferno. Men were bailing from the cabin, throwing themselves loose before they or their parachutes could burn. Flaming debris fell like rain as bits of the gondola detached.

High explosive, the next,” Rafferty said. “Sure you don’t want a bit of gum?”

 

 

Three thousand feet above, on the lower edge of the mile-up clouds, a pirate named Karen Ahle looked down at the melee.

That’s it,” she said, pointing at 4-106. The line-class airship was heading through the center of the brawl, jinking every so-often, guns and rockets firing intermittently.

Go, cap’n?” asked her henchman, a big man in his forties named Ronalds. He chewed on a straw as he looked down.

Go,” Ahle said. “Stagger across – left to aft. You know the plan. Go!”

One after the other, Ahle, Ronalds and six of their crew launched from the airship, paraglider chutes opening as they steered for the long bulk of 4-106.

 

 

Missileers to starboard,” Perry directed. “Helm, increase speed and take us into that cluster.”

Sir!” Swarovski replied, keying a control and reaching for his mike.

Going in, sir,” Martindale said.

A burning hydrogen sac floated past, just below them, attached to a large, thin section of gondola-plate. The air was full of debris, especially the hydrogen sacs. Almost all civilian dirigibles had crude fire-detachment systems; if a sac caught on fire, it could be released – with part of the nets or plating – before the fire could spread. You lost that sac, but you saved the ship.

Of course, you then had to re-inflate a new sac, and you often had to ditch cargo to make up the weight in the meantime. The usual pirate tactic was to force a cargo ship down, land themselves, get the crew off at gunpoint – an unwritten understanding was that the downed crew wouldn’t resist, and the pirates in turn wouldn’t use any more force than they had to – then re-inflate the dirigible with their own compressed-hydrogen cylinders and fly it off.

That was what most of these trash were attempting to do. Barely-airworthy ships, makeshift contraptions with just enough hydrogen – or, in a couple of cases that Perry had seen, simple hot air – to get aloft and take a stab at something with missiles or crude cannon. This was just a matter of killing them before they could; the pirate ships were easy targets, except that there were so damned many of them, and all mixed amidst the bolting, un-coordinated ships of the convoy.

Loose fire – and it was all too easy to hit something you didn’t want to, from a swaying airship in an irregular wind – was a bad risk. Airships had a lot of hit points, but nine-inch missiles were designed to inflict real damage. Stray shots into civilian freighters would be doing the pirates’ own work for them.

4-106 sped up. The fore guns chuddered, blazing shot and tracers into a larger pirate dirigible, something actually airworthy. The pirate tried to evade, and Perry saw a pair of riggers on the tail, physically forcing it. Another rigger worked with a wrench on a stuck panel, which as Perry watched was released, a burning-from-tracers hydrogen sac lifting out. Two more had caught while that panel was stuck, and those two sacs released a moment later, navigational hazards for the next few minutes.

Martindale turned slightly, so that the starboard missileers and the aft guns could have a chance at that dirigible. Two missiles fired, one of them missing but the second, a high explosive round, blasting the rudder – and the two men working it, unless they’d jumped clear at the last moment – into fragments, along with the aft fifth of the ship. Both of 4-106’s batteries opened up on the burning wreckage, pounding three-inch rounds along the length of the gondola, down into the cabin. Men jumped, parachutes opening behind them as they fell.

Good kill. Excellent job, Swarovski.”

If we only had more men, sir.”

Ifs and buts, Weapons. We’re doing entirely adequately for what we do have. How about that hot-air job over–”

The aft battery opened up at the hot-air balloon Perry was pointing at, shredding its loose air sac in seconds. Three men jumped from the basket as the thing began to fall from the sky.

Ensign Hastings is doing quite well, don’t you think?” Perry asked. “Pass that on to him, please.”

Will do, sir.”

And Helm, keep going in. Weapons, put one missileer back to a port battery, if you will.”

Sir.”

 

 

Four of the Imperial line-class ship’s riggers were on the outside, maintaining the steering vanes and keeping them clear of debris. One of them was spraying foam onto a place near the nose where a burning sac had been blown into the gondola.

Ahle steered her paraglider onto that man – no, a woman, her hair in a tight bun. She looked up in shock and found herself facing a long pistol.

Detach and depart. If you’d be so kind.”

What – who are you?”

Captain Karen Ahle, at your service. Now, if you’d please detach and depart? Your crew will be following you shortly, Senior Airshipwoman.”

A quick glance back showed that Ronalds, Herrick and the others were kicking off the other riggers the same way. One of them had already jumped, his parachute opening.

You’re pirates? Boarding us?”

We’re not the Air Marines your ship, quite conveniently, is presently without. Now, if you would please?”

The woman detached – her rig from the safety cable – and looked, again, uncomprehendingly at Ahle. Then she checked the bracings on her parachute, ran to the side and took a flying leap from the airship.

The top of the gondola was corrugated aluminum, broken up by the big steering vanes. Ahle ran hunched along them, her rubber-soled boots gripping the surface well, despite the thirty-mile-an-hour backwind and a crosswind. You learned, after a while.

Ronalds and Klefton had already found a hatch; Klefton, a lean man with an assault rifle and a number of ropes, watched as Ronalds jimmied it open.

Drink, boss?” he asked, pulling a silver hip flask.

Don’t mind if I do,” Ahle said, and took a swig of the rum. She passed it to Ronalds, who took a swig and returned the flask to Klefton.

Time, boss?” Ronalds asked.

Ahle checked the chronometer on her left arm. The clock was ticking up to the minute. “At the sixty.”

Hooked in,” Ronalds said. “I’ll go first?”

I’ll go first, Ronalds,” said Ahle, and connected the rope.

Below, a pair of missiles streaked out at a ship a couple of hundred yards away, less than 4-106’s own length. One missed, and the other exploded near its aft.

Sixty. Go!” Ahle said, and leapt down into the gondola.

Inside were structural braces and vast helium sacs. The thing was seventy-five yards in diameter; seventy-five yards down, the height of a twenty-storey building to the cabin area. She rappelled in short bursts, dropping three or four yards at a time. Fore of her was a huge structural brace, a double-triangle shaped like a Jewish star, with big brown helium sacs on either side. A ladder ran through the center of it. Behind, secured in place with narrow girders, were more helium sacs.

Drop, pull, drop. The rope swayed hard, kicking her around as the dirigible accelerated, slowed, turned. Every so-often she caught hold of the ladder to steady herself; every so-often her swinging rope slammed her into the ladder, or into one of the sacs.

After one of the ladder’s rungs collided hard with the small of her back, she decided that she preferred the sacs.

A curse came from Klefton, as something like that happened to him. Well within the minute, their footing was stable. A passageway; a door marked ‘Medic Bay.’

Ahle un-hooked herself and drew her pistols. One long revolver, in her – dominant – left hand; in her right hand was a pressure-pistol with special ammunition.

We go in. Klefton, you come with me to the bridge. Ronalds, go through the gondola and link up with Mackinaw at the stern. Boyle’s team will be in the engine room. Kick out anyone you see along here. Understood?”

Got it, boss,” said Klefton. Ronalds touched two fingers to his temple.

This is a beautiful ship,” said Ahle, as she kicked open the door to the medical bay. Her guns covered the place, but – as she’d expected – there was nobody inside. She turned back to Ronalds. “Let’s make her ours, shall we?”

 

 

See that one over there? The one firing pressure-guns into that Allied Freighting bird? Helm, take us closer. Weapons, missileers to port and we’ll show the gentleman what real gunnery looks like. That should put fear of the law into the last of his friends, too.”

Sir,” said Martindale and Swarovski.

Belay that order, please, Vice-Commodore,” came a female voice. The accent reminded Perry of upper-class Southern, although terser and less-twangy than the usual drawl.

He turned. As did Swarovski and Martindale, and the others on the bridge.

A woman in brown, with a complex rig, was standing at the entrance, a pistol in each hand. Brown hair tied in a ponytail, a face that was a little too square to be beautiful, green eyes with a pair of lifted goggles above them. Behind her stood a yellow-haired man with an eyepatch and a submachinegun.

What the hell?”

Vice-Commodore, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you and your bridge officers to abandon ship. Klefton, clear out that fore gun.”

You’re pirates?” Perry asked. Complete, absurd, disbelief. A pirate was pointing a gun at him here, on the bridge of 4-106? Was this a–

Tell Ricks that this is not an appropriate joke to pull in the middle of a battle. Ma’am, please find an unoccupied cabin; I don’t think you realize how serious this is.”

No, Vice-Commodore. I’m afraid you don’t realize how serious this is,” the woman said. “This is not one of your friends’ pranks, and these guns are both loaded. I want all of you to put your hands in the air and go to the starboard side. Including you, Vice-Commodore.”

You’re hijacking my ship.” My ship!

The yellow-haired man – Klefton – had opened the bridge access hatch to the fore pressure-guns, was shouting something down. He twitched his gun to the side and fired a shot.

That broke the unreality. A gunshot. Here. On my bridge.

One of the female pirate’s guns was pointed squarely at Perry’s chest. The other, a revolver in her left hand, was sweeping across the bridge crew, covering them.

Slowly, Martindale, Kent and the others were moving to the starboard side.

I trust that you are all wearing standard Imperial parachutes,” said the woman. “You may take backups from their locker, if you see fit.” The tone of her voice lowered. “But please don’t attempt to reach for weapons. I would be very upset if I had to shoot somebody.”

You’re taking my ship?

All three of those gunners jumped, Cap,” said the man called Klefton.

You’re taking my ship?” Perry repeated.

That’s rather the point of this operation, Vice-Commodore. Now, if you’d please put your hands up and move to starboard?”

They’re taking my ship and nobody has even fired a shot and I cannot believe this is happening–

Suddenly Perry’s right hand went for his sidearm, an automatic pistol in its holster at his hip. It was covered by a flap, and the double-barrelled pressure gun in the female pirate’s right hand went blurp, once, twice, and Perry’s hand was stuck.

White goo, sticky white goo, all over the top of the holster and Perry’s right hand. Sticky and hardening, and Perry found himself looking down the muzzle of the pirate’s other gun, the long revolver.

Klefton muttered something, covering the rest of the crew with his submachinegun.

Vice-Commodore, I do not appreciate that,” the woman said. “Those are gel rounds. That gun is now empty. I will have to use more harmful ammunition if that should happen again. Now, please, put on a parachute and jump.”

You can’t do this.” Perry glared at the woman. Confident, almost smirky, not even bothering to shoot him with real bullets. Not even bothering to disarm him, or the others! Just walking onto the bridge and telling them to jump.

He looked again at his pistol. The whole top flap was covered with the gel; for that matter, it was hardening on his own right hand, becoming a solid crust. The gun wasn’t accessible, but she can’t just take my ship!

It’s getting dark,” the pirate said. “I imagine it will be easier for your crew to rendezvous on the ground while there’s still light. In any case, I’m going to request that you and your people kindly vacate what is now my bridge.”

Some of them – Kent, Vidkowski, Singh – had strapped on parachutes. Others were doing so. Service uniforms did have small backup parachutes sewn into the backs of them, and riggers of course wore proper ones, but nobody really wanted to trust the in-shirt ones if there was an alternative.

Very well,” Perry said. He glared at the woman. “You’ll hang for this, you know. You might take my ship, but you won’t live to keep it.”

I don’t expect to live forever, Vice-Commodore.”

What the hell do you want with a line-class warship? Nobody’s going to buy it!” Except the Russians. Or the Franco-Spaniards. Or the Sonorans. Or… but I won’t suggest that.

The pirate’s gun tracked him as he put on a parachute.

That’s my own business,” she replied. “If it helps, I can give you my word that I will not be selling it to the Russians or the Romantics.”

The word of a thieving pirate. I can take that to the bank. You’ll hang, bitch. We will pursue you, and we will find you, and we will try you. And we will hang you.”

She smiled – she’s laughing at me, the bitch!

You’ll have to succeed in the first of those two before I swing, Vice-Commodore. Now, my apologies, but you really must be going. Specialist Second, open the starboard-side door and depart. Now, please.”

 

 

You two,” came a hard voice.

Rafferty turned to see a large, begoggled man with an automatic rifle, standing in the entrance of his missile bay.

Who the hell are you?” he demanded, although it was obvious: pirates have boarded us.

The rifle was pointed at himself and Gilford.

None of your business who we fuckin’ are. Get away from that tube, open a hatch and jump out. Now.”

You’re pirates?” Gilford asked. “You’re pirates attacking 4-106?”

Taking it over, kid,” said the man. “Bridge, engine room, you lot. Now, out with you. Cap Ahle said not to kill anyone, but you sons of bitches just give me an excuse and I will. You bastard Imperials been busy right now killing my friends.”

Rafferty looked at the assault rifle, which was primarily pointed at him and not Gilford. He was standing in the door, fifteen feet away; too far to rush easily. And the only things in immediate reach of Rafferty were missile-setting tools, which wouldn’t throw well.

OK. Gilford, go to the locker and take out two parachutes. He’s got a gun pointed at us; do not make sudden moves and do not give him an excuse to shoot us.”

The Airshipman Second nodded hard, reached down into the locker.

Rafferty hit the missile trigger and threw himself to the left.

The missile exploded out, in a direction Rafferty really didn’t know or care about. The flaming backblast went over Gilford’s head, past Rafferty and into the pirate, who turned just fast enough to avoid taking the brunt of it in the face.

Then Rafferty was on him, shouldering aside the gun, wrestling the pirate into the ground.

The man had been in his own share of brawls, moved quickly himself. Rafferty reached for a knife in his boot, but the man saw the movement and an iron-strong wrist closed around Rafferty’s forearm.

As good as me, and half again my weight, Rafferty thought, and blew a chewing-gum bubble into the man’s face, onto his goggles. It popped and the pirate cursed, orange residue blocking his sight. Rafferty head-butted him in the mouth, hard, then kneed him in the crotch. Pounded his head into the deck several times, punched him in the stomach, and banged his head into the deck a couple more times for good measure.

Gilford, go over the son of a bitch and find the pistol he’ll have somewhere,” Rafferty ordered, reaching for the man’s assault rifle.

Click.

A one-eyed, yellow-haired man with a submachinegun was pointing that gun at Rafferty, a booted foot on the rifle.

You’re lucky I don’t like Cooper very much,” he said to Rafferty.

A thug, a boor and he stank,” Rafferty agreed.

Dumb, too. I’m not. Get the hell hands in the air and jump. Junior man, throw senior man one of the parachutes and then the two of you get out now.”

Bastards hit me,” groaned the other pirate.

You deserved it. Now, two of you, get the hell out. Chutes on and jump, now. From the catwalk.”

Rafferty caught the parachute that Gilford threw to him. Shook his head slightly in response to Gilford’s ‘do we do anything now?’ look.

OK, OK. We’re leaving,” Rafferty said.

 

 

Their personal property,” Ahle said to Klefton. “In the cabins; gather it up and throw it out with a parachute.”

Their personal shit?” Klefton asked. “Why the hell do we care about that? Some of those guys are gonna have good stuff there. Always a few bucks you can get for spare uniforms and shit.”

We’re pirates, not thieves. And that was an order.”

Harvey says we’ve got the engine room,” said a woman named Guildford, coming in. “Thing’s firmly under our control. No trouble except the missileers who beat up Cooper.”

Like I said, ass had it coming,” said Klefton. He took another swig of the rum and tossed the bottle to Ahle, who took a long drag. “Teach him some humility.”

Guildford, Klefton, gather up the crew’s property and throw it out. We’re going to need every hand to get this thing to the rendezvous.” And – she took another swig of the rum; traditional and I could use a stiff one – “good job, everyone. We’ve taken us a hell of a warship here!”

 

 

Perry seethed, hard, as he swung from the parachute in the growing darkness. Furious.

That smirking bitch. That fucking goddamned smirking bitch. Taking his ship.

Oh, I’m going to kill you. You’ll hang, or I’ll shoot you personally,” he muttered. “Give me an excuse. I. Will. Shoot. You. Personally. You bitch.”

The ground loomed; it was almost completely dark. Around him, the other bridge crew were landing. They, and the civilian crews, would have to find their own way back; the rest of the squadron, and the rest of the convoy, would go on to Chicago. He’d meet them there, or at Hugoton or Denver.

Practical considerations had to take priority.

The ground hit him, hard, and he rolled instinctively, began to disengage from the `chute. Flat grass; a cattle herd had been through here not long ago, from how it was cropped. Nearby, Martindale was cutting his parachute loose. Someone – Kent, it turned out – helped Perry up.

4-106 to us!” somebody shouted. “4-106!”

Not far away – maybe half a mile – a group of pirates were shoving hydrogen into a downed ship, a makeshift airbag.

If we can go after them, get that ship back, re-board 4-106 and take it back…

No. The pirates there would have rifles, and they did have a completely clean field of fire. It would be suicide, even with darkness to cover most of their approach.

As he watched, the captured ship lifted anyhow, discarding boxes of cargo to get off the ground.

4-106? Captain, that you?” came a man. Four missileers; in the darkness, Perry recognized Rafferty as one of them. “4-106!”

That’s us, Specialist Third.”

4-106 to us!”

A freighter, a huge one, came over their heads, fifty or sixty feet up. The same that had lifted half a mile away. Someone threw a couple more boxes down; a hissing sound was coming from it, more hydrogen inflation.

Martindale went to one of the boxes, opened it up. Slabs of beef, packed in somewhat-melted ice.

Well, we’ve got food,” the first officer said.

4-106? You 4-106?” came a voice from a couple of hundred yards away. Someone with a speaking cone.

Bring them back, Kent,” Perry ordered.

That group – with two dozen civilians – was larger, the engine and rear-gunnery crews, under Vescard. Senior Warrant Halvorsen was the man with the speaking cone.

Where were our Marines?” the old warrant muttered. “Vice, why the hell did St. John’s give us a ship without basic force protection?”

Their responsibility,” Perry growled. “But our problem and the pirates’ fault. They stole my ship, and Every. Last. One. Of. Those. Bastards. Will. Hang.”

Hey, you 4-106?” asked a civilian coming up. “Some bags for you, strung to a parachute. Marked your number.”

Bags?”

Yeah, personal shit or something. `bout a mile that way.”

I’ll take care of it,” Martindale said. “Holt, Lieberman, Jeppesen, and you two, come along.”

The indicated crew followed Martindale in the direction the civilian had pointed.

Any other injuries? Vescard, do a count. We missing anyone?”

What’s the plan, captain?” someone asked.

We gather all our crew, and any civilians who want to come. Swarovski, do you have our location?”

The weapons officer shook his head. “No, sir. Somewhere in north Kansas?”

Try Nebraska,” said Perry. “About three and a half miles south of us is the Platte River. The nearest town is a place called Kearney, eighteen or twenty miles to the east.”

Everyone’s here, sir,” said Vescard. “Allowing for the XO and the party he took.”

We’ll rest if needed, then march to Kearney. With any luck we’ll be able to get transportation from there.”

Martindale and his group came back, four of them dragging a parachute that turned out to be full of duffel bags.

Our shit. They threw down our shit,” said Vescard. “What the fuck?”

That patronizing bitch,” said Perry. “She’s returning our personal effects. Because they’re not good enough, no doubt. To rub it in further.”

There was a pause, as people went for their bags. Swarovski grinned as he loaded a magazine into a semi-automatic carbine.

More civilians were trickling in, gathering around the Air Service crew.

The town of Kearney, Nebraska is about eighteen to twenty miles to the east,” said Perry. “We’re going to go there, and get transport from that point. Civilians are welcome to come, under the protection of myself and my crew.”

What good’s that?” somebody sneered. “Couldn’t even protect your own selves, let alone my ship!”

Speak to the Vice with respect, mate,” said one of Perry’s men.

I am not going to punch that man. I am not going to shoot that man. Because it would be inappropriate to, and illegal. He is upset that he lost his ship.

God damn it.

You may feel free to not come along, if so desired,” Perry said coldly. “My crew and I are going.”

And when we get back to Chicago, or Hugoton, I am going to find that pirate, and I am going to see her hang.

He’d never been so humiliated in his life. He’d never been this mad.

That bitch is going to pay.

I will track you down, recover 4-106 and put you on the gallows.

 

 

Guest Free Sample!

Everyone loves free stuff, right?  Author Leo Champion graces us with a sample from around the middle of his book Legion.  If you haven’t read it… it’s a hell of a book.  Check it out.

What the hell is this all about? Mullins thought, as Sergeant Alonzo led his group out of the passenger section of the terminal and into the truck-freight handling area. Past loading docks, swinging winches, a forklift. A couple of stevodores stood smoking on one loading dock.

A little bit later, they passed a crew busily moving grey plastic tote boxes from the back of a truck to a conveyor belt.

They weren’t going to help unload some freight shuttle. That was obvious.

This isn’t some shady black-market thing, is it?

It certainly seemed like it.

This seems shady as absolute hell. I don’t want to be sent to a Black Gang within a day of my first deployment!

Alonzo led them into an alley, where four covered five-ton trucks sat. They were grey, with dark-green covers over their cargo beds. ‘US Army’ was stenciled in black letters on each door, above a large five-pointed star. Army markings were on the covers, too.

“Alright, you boys,” Alonzo said. “By now you’ve figured – some of you have, anyhow – that what we’re doing is a little bit sketchy. Don’t worry – nobody’s going to wind up in a Black Gang because of this. If we get caught, the Army is going to whine and send us to Division HQ for discipline. Where a big noise will be made, and we’ll all get publicly chewed out, and then our officers will wink and tell us to look appropriately sad for a while. OK?”

“Sergeant,” said a man from Third Platoon called Johnson, “exactly what are we going to be doing?”

“Well, boys, I may as well give you the details. Officially, as far as you all are concerned, it’s a work detail. We’re going to be moving freight, just like I said to the LT.”

“And unofficially, sergeant?”

There were nods and murmurs from the rest of the group, including Mullins.

“Unofficially, we’re going to be moving freight between different branches of the US military. The Army just received a shipment of goodies. Techno-toys that they’re not going to put to use anyway. The Legion, as you may have heard, is under-funded and under-supplied. One way that we make up for this problem is by borrowing equipment from the other service branches.”

“So we’re going to be stealing Army stuff for the Legion,” said Andrews.

“‘Stealing’, Private, is such a prejudiced word. Yes.”

A more serious look came onto Alonzo’s face.

“I assure you men that not a penny’s worth of this stuff is going to wind up on the black market. I’m not, and none of you are, going to get anything personally out of this job. Army quartermasters sell shit to Buddy on the side, and don’t fucking get me started on the local CGs. Ninety percent of this stuff is going to Fourth Battalion’s S-4, and it might save some of your lives. The rest goes to Division G-4 in exchange for the loan of these trucks. Either way, it stays within the US military. It’s just going to the guys who’re going to get the most use out of it. Understood?”

There were nods and murmurs.

“Now, boys, in the back of the trucks you’ll find US Army PT uniforms. T-shirts and running pants. Change into them – we’re a loading party come to pick some of this stuff up.”

“Won’t they ask for paperwork or something?” asked a man from Fifth called Vai’id.

Alonzo produced what looked like a snub-nosed yellow pistol. A taser.

“This is our paperwork,” he said. “Any questions?”

“I have one,” said Andrews. “Sergeant, you picked a bunch of total fish for this. Why’d you pick us when there’s a division and a brigade HQ in this town?”

“Good one,” said Alonzo. “I took Fourth Battalion, Fourth Brigade men because this is a Fourth Battalion, Fourth Brigade operation. If I went to Division or First Brigade for bodies, they’d take most of the loot and only give One-Four-Four a piece of it. And not necessarily a big piece.”

“So why aren’t they doing it themselves?”

Alonzo smirked.

“This shipment just came in a few hours ago. Theydon’t know about it yet. By tomorrow, they’ll know. By tomorrow, we’ll be in Roanoke.”

“Surely the Army’s going to know we did it,” said another man.

“Sure they will,” said Alonzo. “Proving it’s another story. And getting it back is right out of the question. This happens all the damn time, and so far as I’m concerned it’s the Army’s fault for not guarding their shit properly.”

 

 

Mullins rode on the center seat of the lead truck’s cab. Alonzo, who wore a dress shirt with first lieutenant’s bars, rode shotgun. Andrews was driving.

This could get us into some serious trouble, he thought. It’s theft, by any other name.

No; Alonzo had justified it well. It was merely transferring property from one branch of the US military to another. And some of it might save their lives. Save his life.

And if we get caught…

He wasn’t sure he believed Alonzo on that. The Army would press hard for punishment and he might well wind up in a Black Gang.

Too damn late now. Besides, Alonzo’s a senior sergeant. He knows what he’s doing.

The trucks made their way around the edge of the shuttleport, bumping a few times as they crossed railroad tracks. Two or three times they heard sonic booms as freight shuttles blasted off, ascending at acceleration-rates that would have killed any passengers.

“Stop! Who goes there!” came a shout, as they entered the floodlit zone around the secure storage area.

Alonzo leaned out the window. Gesturing for Andrews to keep going forwards.

“What do we damn well look like, rebellious sepoys?” he snapped.

Mullins could see two soldiers standing in front of a double gate. They held rifles – heavy, multi-magazine weapons that he recognized as M-31s – but they were pointed at the ground.

“Gotta be sure,” said one of the soldiers. There was some kind of enlisted rank insignia on his arm, but in the shadow Mullins couldn’t tell what it was. “Here for a pickup?”

“Yeah,” said Alonzo. He opened his door and got out. When the soldiers noticed the silver bars on each arm, they saluted.

“You got the paperwork, sir?”

“Yeah,” said Alonzo. “You wanna open that gate? My last truck is blocking a rail track.”

That was probably true – they’d bumped over one not long ago.

“Hey, LT,” the man shouted. “You wanna open the gate? We’ve got a pickup here.”

“First I’ve heard about it,” said a voice from the other side. “He got paperwork?”

Alonzo had a black clipboard under his arm. He showed it to the two enlisted men, who glanced at it and nodded.

“Yeah, they’ve got paperwork,” the man said.

“OK, gate’s unlocked. You two pull `em open.”

“We’re going to reverse our trucks in, Lieutenant,” called Alonzo. “There room for four in there?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

The gates, which like the walls were topped with razor wire, began to open outwards. The two enlisted men, helped by another two from the inside, pressed them flat against the wall.

“Three-point the truck and reverse it in,” Alonzo called.

“Yessir,” replied Andrews.

So far, thought Mullins, it’s all going according to plan. But how does Alonzo know how many guys the Army has?

A horrible thought struck him: if things go wrong, they might think we’re secessionists in disguise. They’ll shoot first and ask questions later.

The fourth truck backed through the open gate of the secure area, clumsily reverse-parking next to the other three. From where Mullins sat, he could see a guardhouse just inside the gate, with a couple of Army types standing just outside.

Sentries sat in the corner towers and paced along ramparts inside the fence. Those guys seemed intent on their jobs – they were looking, pretty attentively, at the floodlit area outside the holding area’s walls. What took place inside the area wasn’t their concern.

Unless someone raises the alarm. Then we’re fish in a barrel.

Alonzo didn’t seem worried.

“So you say you have paperwork, sir?” asked one of the men outside the guardhouse. There were gold bars on his shoulders; second lieutenant.

 “Yes, Lieutenant,” said Alonzo. Holding his clipboard, he went over to the lieutenant. The second man outside the guardhouse moved a respectable five or six feet back, holding his M-31 cautiously.

Oh, shit. They suspect something’s up. Whatever’s on Alonzo’s clipboard is bullshit.

Alonzo handed the clipboard to the lieutenant, who moved into the guardhouse to get a better look at it. From his vantage point in the truck’s cab, Mullins saw the Legion sergeant draw his taser from a hip pocket.

Saw him go over to the other man, who didn’t quite raise his rifle. Clearly he was wondering what this strange first lieutenant wanted, though.

He didn’t have time to say anything. Just as the lieutenant in the guardhouse threw the clipboard down and walked outside, Alonzo brought his taser up and in a single move lunged forwards, pressing it to the enlisted soldier’s chest. There was a blue flash and the man collapsed, quivering.

“What the–” the lieutenant began. One hand reached for his pistol.

Faster than Mullins could have imagined, Alonzo whirled and tased the lieutenant. The man collapsed in a quivering heap.

Alonzo gestured at the truck cabs – ‘come here.’

Mullins and the others climbed out and ran.

“Zag `em so they don’t wake?” one man whispered to Alonzo, finger twitching towards his sheathed combat knife.

Hell no,” whispered Alonzo. “Drag `em into the guardhouse, tie their hands, gag them. I’ll be back in a moment to check. You” – he pointed a finger randomly at Johnson. “Stay in the guardhouse and answer the phone if anyone calls. Your name is” – he looked at the nametag on the lieutenant’s shirt – “Gorman. Second Lieutenant Gorman. Answer the phone that way. If they give you a sign and ask for a counter… hell, look in the guardhouse, he might’ve written `em down somewhere. If you can’t get them, don’t guess. Say something about a bad connection, put the phone down, and get me immediately because we’re bugging the fuck out. There’s a CG barracks right next door, but the Army won’t trust those fuckers… they’ll send their own response and we’ll have five to ten minutes before it shows. Clear on that, soldier?”

“Yessir,” said Andrews.

“Good. You others, let’s grab.”

 

 

“Imperil guideds,” Alonzo hissed, gesturing at a stack of crates. “Get those. All of those. You four, start loading `em.”

There were crates everywhere – hundreds of them, stacked under eight-foot-high shelters that consisted of little more than sheets of corrugated iron held up by steel poles. Alonzo paced past more stacks of crates, glancing at the serial numbers until he found something else he liked.

“HD batteries. Sweet. All of these. You guys.”

“What about these?” asked Kiesche, gesturing at some crates next to the goggles.

Alonzo took one glance at the stencilled label on top.

“Replacement actuators for the heavy-infantry suits. What the hell use do we have for those?”

Kiesche shrugged.

“No damn idea,” he said.

“Get loading those ones,” Alonzo said, pointing at a stack he’d passed earlier. “WP grenades. Never enough of those. You four.”

Mullins was one of those last. He picked up a crate from the stack of about twenty, carried it – it was heavy, but not impossibly so – over to the back of the nearest truck. Andrews was waiting there to take it.

“Those,” Alonzo said, when the crates of WP grenades were all taken. “Each of those has half a dozen sniper scopes – really, really good ones. Be careful handling `em.”

“Yessir.”

Over the next half-hour or so, Mullins loaded crates that apparently contained radios, guided rockets, computers, flares and flareguns, sniper-rifle ammo – those ones required two men each to carry – and optics.

Then Johnson came running out of the guard shack.

“Boss! Sarge!” he hissed frantically.

Alonzo whirled.

“Boss, they asked us for a countersign. Gave `em the one I thought it was – it was written down – and he was silent for a moment. Then he asks me what Saturday’s was. I gave him the bad-connection spiel.”

Shit,” hissed Alonzo. He checked his watch.

“Of course, it’s oh-two-hundred on the dot. Should have figured they’d check on the hour. Let’s go!”

Oh, shit, thought Mullins, running for the cab of the nearest truck. Dashratha was already in the driver’s seat, starting the engine.

One of the soldiers pacing the wall, evidently noticing the frantic running, turned around and looked down.

“Everything alright, sir?” he called.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Alonzo shouted back. Gesturing to two men who hadn’t yet boarded trucks.

“Open the gate, you two.”

It seemed to take forever for them to push the gate open wide enough to get a truck through. The moment it did, Dashratha hit the gas – simultaneously with two of the other three trucks.

“Fucking go,” Mullins snarled, gesturing at the one on the right. It had almost collided with his.

That truck moved forward, Alonzo climbing in as it headed out the gates. Then another truck, and then the driver of the last one gestured for Dashratha to go ahead.

Heart pounding, Mullins watched the huge Rajput drive his truck forwards. Followed by the last one.

“Lieutenant Gorman?” one of the guards outside the gate asked. Going in.

“Oh, shit!” he exclaimed a moment later.

From somewhere came the sound of high-powered engines. Alarms started to wail.

Alonzo leaned out the window of his lead truck as it started to power across the landing grounds.

“Hey, Army motherfuckers!” he shouted. “Semper fucking fi, assholes!”

***

You can find Legion here at Amazon.

‘The Shark Boats’ snippet

This is a snippet from my new novel ‘The Shark Boats’, available in full from Amazon.com . Enjoy…

The Chang Kai-Shek and the Franco rounded the stubby cape on their starboard, and John deKuyper gazed into hell. No more than two miles away, the heavy cruiser and a light cruiser sat bombarding the shore. Their guns were raised – it’ll take time to lower them, thank God – but they were surrounded by three escort ships, arranged in a rough triangle. The escorts were firing their own guns up at wherever Reiner was.

So many guns were firing so continuously that, now the noise barrier of the cape was gone, the roar was deafening. The whole area was shrouded in dull grey smoke, and every couple of seconds a flaming red burst erupted from one or another of the ships’ guns.

Holy hell, deKuyper thought. And Reiner’s in the middle of that, along with Quintillian and the others.

That thought made what he was about to do seem rational.

“Go! Go! Go!” he yelled into the radio mike for Fordham’s benefit.

The Chang’s RPM needle hit the far side of the dial as the boat surged forwards. To his right, the Franco was doing the same thing.

“Go for the big one,” deKuyper ordered. Shaking hard. “Kill it!”

I can’t do this. This is insane. This is bugfuck nuts. They must collectively have five hundred times our tonnage. A thousand times.

Orders were orders. Duty was duty. And they were already rocketing toward the heavy cruiser at what the gauge said was forty-eight knots.

Ahead, the enemy ships had noticed their presence. The big cruiser was starting to move, well within a mile and a half’s distance now. Guns were starting to swivel down.

Instinct, not thought, singled out the nearest destroyer as the worst threat. Smaller guns would de-elevate faster and they’d have to pass right by the thing. But couldn’t waste torpedoes on it. Facing the broad side of the cruiser, but the stern of the destroyer at about a twenty degree angle. About half a mile from the big cruiser – barely more than a mile from the two shark boats, and getting closer.

Can’t do anything. No. Can.

“Guns fire on the nearest destroyer! Distract and cripple her!” deKuyper shouted.

The fore gun crew began to aim. A burst of gunfire, over the still-deafening noise of the shore bombardment; deKuyper’s head whirled to the right. One of the Franco’s machine-gunners must have fired prematurely. Nerves, probably. Couldn’t blame him.

The destroyer’s stern guns were lowering.

They fired.

Boom. Boom, went explosions somewhere between deKuyper’s and Fordham’s boat. Huge noise. Waterspouts.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

The corvette opened up. More gunfire.

They have shark boats of their own around here somewhere. How do we deal with those?

That’s what machine-guns are for. When we’ve finished raking the destroyer.

More waterspouts and explosions, all around the area.

BOOM.

One of the big cruiser’s fore guns fired. A huge waterspout rocked the Chang, a hundred yards ahead of it. deKuyper absently noticed that he was drenched. It didn’t matter.

“Oh God oh God oh God,” Kaye was muttering. He held on for dear life.

“Yee-haw!” Fordham’s voice came over the radio. “Ride `em, cowboy!”

Water everywhere. Waterspouts everywhere. Blazing muzzle-flashes. Thrumming engines. For a moment deKuyper’s view coalesced into a burning conceptual gestalt of fire and noise.

Get out of it, John!

It was hard. It was easier to view the spectacle absently.

Snap the fuck out of it or you’re going to die!

Groggily, he fought himself back to his senses. Gripped the wheel again. Kaye had leaned over in the meantime – how long had it been? A few seconds, probably – to hold the boat steady.

He nodded a thanks without looking up at the young officer.

They were within probably four hundred yards of the destroyer. The Franco fired its cannon, and deKuyper realized he had one of his own.

“Fire, damnit!” he shouted. Somehow the two-man crew heard him above the roaring of the engines and the constant rolling thunder of the big ships’ guns. Above the clattering din of heavy-caliber machine-gun fire, both incoming and outgoing now.

His lead gunner made a final calibration and fired. An explosion bloomed amidst the aft battery of the destroyer.

Somebody cheered.

The aft battery fired as though nothing had happened.

This one’s dead on, thought deKuyper. Swerved the boat – realizing that he could swerve the boat.

The destroyer’s shell exploded within ten yards of the Franco. The blast rocked the boat sideways, almost throwing Kaye out of the cockpit. The second lieutenant had drawn his pistol and was holding on with only his left hand. He fired the pistol at the destroyer. The noise was unnoticeable amongst the massive general din of guns and engines and exploding shells, but the hot brass casing landed squarely on deKuyper’s bare forearm. Minor stinging pain.

The engines of the boat, pushed past their redlined maximum, kicked deKuyper’s backside like the mechanical bull he’d once tried riding on a dare.

They began to pass the destroyer. The Franco swerved right, the Chang Kai-Shek to the left.

“Eat lead, you commie sons of bitches!” Fordham yelled, as both shark boats’ quad fifties raked the destroyer’s decks. The Franco’s cannon boomed, the shell punching a hole clean through the side of the destroyer, which was turning, turning so that both fore and aft guns could go into action.

Incoming fire. A bullet scored a deep line along the top of the control panel, missing deKuyper by inches. Other rounds were striking home on the deck, punching right through the light wood surface. One of the Chang’s gun crew was wounded but trying to load a shell anyway, right arm clasped to an obviously hurting side while he helped his partner manhandle the three-inch shell into the breech.

A triple array of explosions followed by waterspouts. Three of the big eight-inchers firing nearly simultaneously and landing at about the same place, seventy or eighty yards ahead of the two zigagging shark boats. The destroyer was behind them, now – chasing them, it looked like to deKuyper when he glanced back.

No damn time to worry about the destroyer. The cruiser was their objective. Easily within a mile now. Slowly picking up speed.

Wasn’t sure how much range these torpedoes had. Theoretically they were good for up to five miles. deKuyper had heard the same rumors everyone else had heard about that.

Now? Then we can break away?

No. He only had one run at this. Better make it count.

“Stop zagging at half a mile when I do,” he told Fordham. “Straight run and fire when I give the signal.”

“Straight run? They’ll zero in on us and blow us to pieces!”

“They’ll probably do that anyway,” deKuyper yelled back without thinking. “You want it to count or not?”

More shells. Waterspouts. Three quarters of a mile. Five eighths.

Half a mile.

The Franco exploded like a matchbox stuffed with gelignite. Splinters of wood and metal flew everywhere, propelled outwards by a big blazing fireball.

Oh, fuck.

No chance to run now, even if he wanted to. Maybe there’d never been a chance.

“Ready torpedoes!”

They’d just have to do the job with two rather than four. He aimed the Chang amidships of the cruiser.

Kaye fired his pistol again, and again. Another bit of hot brass stung deKuyper’s left forearm. He flinched, and the boat swerved to the starboard a fraction.

“Will you fucking quit that?” he yelled at Kaye.

Kaye nodded, shouted something inaudible of his own, and emptied the rest of his pistol’s magazine at the cruiser.

The torpedomen probably couldn’t hear deKuyper either. Oh, shit. They were readying their torpedoes anyway. They knew from training what going dead straight, this close to a target, meant.

He just hoped they’d know when to fire.

They did. Fifty feet into the run the torpedoes slipped off their racks and slid into the water. deKuyper saw their trails begin to lance towards the big cruiser, but he didn’t have time for more than a glance. He was swinging the Chang away, turning her in a wide arc to get as far the hell from the rest of the fleet as possible. One of the destroyers was coming around the bow of the big cruiser.

The second destroyer’s guns fired. Waterspouts close, so close that they rocked the Chang hard, tipping forty-five degrees to port. Kaye was thrown loose and his .45 went flying overboard. The fore gun crew lost the shell they’d been reloading.

Bullets raked the Chang from somewhere – a lucky burst, deKuyper hoped, and no more than that. Through the din of the gunfire he heard someone scream.

Zig-zagging away. Then an explosion. A big one, with an overpressure wave. He turned his head for a moment – saw a fireball blooming above the aft section of the cruiser. Secondary explosions seemed to be happening.

They have shark boats around. Time to get the hell out before they arrive. Surprising they haven’t already.

He hit the throttle harder.

If you like what you’ve read here, you can get the full thing at http://www.amazon.com/The-Shark-Boats-ebook/dp/B00EZHY8S4 .