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by Michael D. Burnside

Not to be distributed without express permission from the author.

When the captain came up onto her main deck, the Isabella was slipping between the clouds. In the ship's wake she was leaving clouds of her own. Steam billowed forth from her pipes. It rose and tickled the aft underbelly of the ship's gigantic crimson gasbag, and then it was left behind to rise into the sky.

The captain approached his first officer and asked, "How's she flying, Audrey?"

The first officer smiled at his captain. "Steady and true, sir."

The captain returned the smile. "Very Good, Audrey. Why don't you head below and rest? I have the deck."

"Thank you, sir."

Audrey turned and took his leave.

The captain walked the deck, enjoying the sound his polished boots made upon the wooden planks. He could feel the engines' vibrations coming up through the hull, and pictured the massive twirling propellers that pushed the Isabella through the sky.

The captain kept a guarded watch upon that sky. He hoped to see a glimpse of the sun, a sign that fairer weather would soon be upon them. But it was not to be. Instead of the sun, the captain caught sight of a dark and foreboding shape descending out of a cloud behind the Isabella.

He gave a shout of alarm and ran towards the wheel. Upon hearing the his shout, a crewman began to ring the ship's bell.

With the bell's peals echoing in his ears, the captain dashed up the steps to the aft deck. As his feet left the stairs, he could make out the entirety of the thing that had come up behind them. It was an airship with a blackened hull and a bone white gasbag. It wore a devil's face as its figurehead. The malevolent ship jibed and rapidly changed course. In moments the devil craft would bring its guns to bear without the Isabella having any chance to reply.

"Hard to Starboard!" yelled the captain as he took his place beside the wheel.

"Aye, captain!" shouted the airman at the wheel.

As the Isabella began its turn, the captain spared a look from the enemy vessel to check his own ship's deck. The ship's bell had called his men to arms and they were now in place and in good order. The captain spied his first officer on the main deck and shouted down to him, "Audrey, bring up the heated shot! We shall give these miscreants a very warm welcome!"

"Aye, captain!" yelled back the first officer who then ran to the decks below.

There came the explosive sound of a gunshot and the airman at the wheel cried out. The captain spun around to see the airman, shot through the chest, slide off the wheel and crumple to the ground. The turn of the Isabella began to slacken and the hunter that threatened her once again began to slip free of any reply.

The captain ran to the wheel and gave it a good turn to set Isabella back on the proper course. Looking over his shoulder he could see the villain who had shot the airman on the enemy ship's deck. The fellow gave the captain a polite tip of his black feathered cap and then calmly loaded another round into the breach of his long barreled rifle.

The devil ship unleashed its cannon with a ripple of orange fire along its black hull and a cacophony of sound. The captain felt his ship shudder beneath his feet as solid shot tore through her compartments. There followed a moment of eerie silence that was soon replaced with the screams and cries of those who had been harmed by iron and splintering wood.

The captain grimaced and held the ship's wheel, slowly bringing Isabella's guns to bear.

The villain with the rifle now took careful aim at the captain.

The Isabella was almost in position to return fire. From the main deck the captain heard his first officer shout, "Heated shot on deck, captain!"

"Fire at the ready!" yelled back the captain.

The use of heated shot was a dangerous thing, but the captain had decided that his lightly armed Isabella needed an edge. He had thus ordered that several cannonballs were always heated in the ship's furnace.

But that order would be for naught if the Isabella could not show the enemy her broadside.

The villain with the rifle lowered his aim for a moment and with a wave informed the captain that his life would be spared if he would relinquish the wheel. The captain shook his head and gripped all the tighter. The villain gave the captain a nod of respect and brought the rifle back to his shoulder.

The shot tore through the captain's chest but the captain did not release the wheel. The Isabella continued her turn. Though he felt as if he had been spitted by a fiery lance, the captain managed to smile past gritted teeth as the Isabella's guns came to bear.

Glowing cannon balls were released from steel tongs into cannon barrels that had been aimed high. With a rolling rumble the balls slid to the bottom of the cannons where they met bags filled with black powder. The cannons roared and the heated shot flew into the sky and pierced the gasbag of the enemy ship. The hot shells set the skin of the gasbag aflame and caused the hydrogen it held to ignite. There was a flash of heat felt by all. A boiling cloud of fire exploded into being and then fell leaving behind a giant black pillar of smoke.

The first officer found his captain lying at the foot of the wheel. The captain asked, "How's she flying, Audrey?" The captain closed his eyes as he heard his first officer say, "Steady and true, sir."


Art by J Lonnee

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