|Slowly, the Swift picked himself up from the gravel-coated tar-paper roof where he had been forced down. He glanced quickly around for immediate danger, and seeing none, checked himself for injury. His tough gloves were scuffed but undamaged; on his right knee, just above his black Wellington boot, the thick material of his slate-gray jodhpurs was torn, but the joint itself had escaped harm. Next, he checked the slender, aluminum struts of his wings. The fact that he had folded them before impact had saved them from being snapped in the tumble, but one of the three fingers of the left wing was bent out of alignment. He gripped the incredibly expensive metal on either side of the kink and, straining, was able to straighten it to an approximation of its former position. The slick material of the membranes, at least, was untorn.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he adjusted the complicated web of leather straps that held the experimental rig to his back and checked the pressure gauge mounted next to his wrist chronometer. The boiler was working perfectly. The fuel pellets he had developed should be enough to keep a steady supply of steam to power the thruster unit for another hour or so. He hoped that would be enough, because the slowly rising buzz that filled the audio enhancement cups mounted in his helmet’s earflaps warned that the drone was coming around for another run at him. A quick glance southward showed the dirigible dwindling beyond the Statue of Liberty as Professor Delirium Tremens made his escape with the Kilimanjaro Ruby.
And with Harriet.
A surge of rage rushed through him as he thought of the danger to his fiancee and he spun, raising his right arm to meet the oncoming drone. Sketching an arc of black smoke across the perpetually leaden sky, it dove on him, its razor sharp propellers whirling so fast they were invisible next to its teardrop-shaped metal body. Twin licks of flame burst from the muzzles on either side of the nose cone, and parallel lines of slugs tore into the roof, tracking toward him.
With a backward flick of his wrist, the Swift triggered the gas piston that cocked the spring of his quarrel-launcher, then snapped his wrist downward, and the quarrel shot from the track on his gauntlet, another – his last – immediately clicking in to replace it. His stable position on the rooftop aided his aim, and this bolt, unlike the four he had fired on the fly, struck the drone dead-on, the explosive tip igniting with a boom and a bright flash. His goggles automatically irised down, protecting his eyes. The drone came apart in mid-flight, but a deadly hail of its component parts still hurtled toward him.
With a gesture of his left hand, the Swift engaged his wings’ flight mechanism and threw his arms wide. The pinions mimicked his arms’ motion, spreading to their full reach, and with another gesture, he triggered the launch thruster. A blast of pressurized steam erupted from the nozzle at the bottom of the pack, and he shot straight up as the shards of propeller and flaming chunks of drone ripped great gouges in the roof where he had stood.
Tilting his arms slightly to adjust the wings’ angle, he swooped through a graceful arc and set out in pursuit of Tremens’ airship. His flight apparatus was far speedier than the dirigible, a fact that had spurred Tremens to launch his attack drone, and the Swift gained rapidly on the fleeing craft. Another gesture of his left hand set the wings’ position, and he brought his arms in to a more comfortable position by his sides, where he didn’t have to fight the air drag so much. He tapped the switch on his belt to activate his radio, squeezed his right pinky to engage the ‘send’ switch, and called for his ground man, the Australian emigre, Reggie Metcalf.
“Reg, are you there? Over.” He released the switch and waited for a response. When none was forthcoming, he squeezed again. “Come in, Reg. Over.”
After another moment, Reg’s familiar voice spoke in his earcups. “Reading you, Swift. Sorry for the delay, mate; I’m in a motor launch on the Hudson, passing Ellis Island. I’m following the dirigible south. It seems to be attempting to tack eastward against the prevailing wind. Over.”
“I see it, Reg. I’ve dispatched the attack drone, and am closing on its tail. Over.”
“Roger, Swift. I see your contrail now. It seems the Coast Guard has sent a gunship in pursuit as well; it’s emerged from the Navy Yard and is outpacing me. Over.”
“If they start shooting, they’re liable to ignite the gas bags. Over.”
“Too right, Swift. Odds are, if that happens, they’ll lose the gem, and we’ll lose Harriet. Looks like it’s up to you to get her out of there. Over.”
“Roger that, Reg. I’ll engage the enemy in approximately two minutes. Keep with them, in case we need to fish her – and possibly me – out of the ocean. Out.”
A crackle of static and a painful squeal of feedback nearly split the Swift’s eardrums, followed by the monotone voice of Delirium Tremens.
“Good day to you, gentlemen.”
“Tremens! Bring that ship around,” the Swift ordered, “and come back to the docking point in Manhattan. You can’t possibly escape. The Coast Guard is about to blow you out of the sky!”
“I have a counter proposal, Swift. Abort your pursuit and convince that vessel to do so as well, or the young woman who accompanied me from the museum will be the first to die.”
“Right courageous of you, mate,” Reggie broke in, “using a woman as a shield.”
“Whatever works, Mister Metcalf.” A peal of laughter sent a chill through the Swift’s bones. The man was mad. Small wonder, considering the atrocity he had performed on himself. “Focus your telescopic eyegear on the gondola, Swift.”
The Swift touched the control that swung the telescopic lenses into place over his helmet’s goggles, and the airship jumped closer by a magnification factor of ten. He adjusted the dials at his temples to focus on the gondola.
At the open door, powder blue skirts and white petticoats fluttered furiously in the wind. Harriet struggled valiantly against the grip that held her arms pinned to her sides, but the mechanical hands of the brass automaton that carried Tremens’ brain were far too strong for her. He stepped forward, and Harriet’s feet left the deck, dangling in the open air.
“Stop that ship,” came Tremens’ voice again, broadcast from his internal radio apparatus, “or I shall throw her out, and you can, as you say, fish her body from the ocean.”
“Reg, hail the gunship,” the Swift said, gritting his teeth in frustration, “ask them to stand down. Over.”
“Roger that.” After a long moment, Reggie came back, “I can’t raise her, Swift. She’s not answering my hails. Over.”
What the hell, thought the Swift. The Coast Guard would never ignore a hail, even if they had no intention of complying with the request.
“Her main gun is swivelin’ up, Swift,” Reggie announced. “Over.”
The cannon fired, its barrel recoiling into its mount as flame belched from its muzzle, and the shell tore though the airship. The ship immediately burst into flame, an inferno rushing through the gas-filled bags, casting the framework into silhouette.
At the same moment, Tremens dropped Harriet. She plunged, her skirts inverted like a blown-out umbrella, toward the sea, several hundred feet below.
“Oh, my God! Harriet!” The Swift angled to intercept, and opened up his thrusters to full capacity.
At first, Harriet dropped like an arrow, and the Swift despaired of reaching her in time. Then, she spread her arms and legs in a very unladylike fashion. Her fall slowed somewhat, as her body rotated to a horizontal position, and her skirts began to act as a sort of sail.
Good girl, thought the Swift, marveling at the girl’s resourcefulness. It’ll still be close, but...
She was only ten feet above the waves when he swept in above her. The shock of impact when he reached out and wrapped his arm around her waist nearly sent them both tumbling into the sea, but the Swift had practiced these sorts of maneuvers many times – though not with live subjects – and he managed to pull up.
Ahead, the airship was going down. It hit the water gondola-first, and shattered, spreading flaming wreckage across half a mile of the surface.
The Swift came around and approached Reggie’s motor launch from astern, managing a clumsy but safe landing on the deck.
Off the port bow, the Coast Guard gunship drifted, silent. Reggie veered toward it, and they came alongside. The Swift seized a rope and leaped onto the gunboat’s deck and tied it to a cleat on the gunwale. He pulled his revolver from its holster and headed for the bridge.
Reggie emerged from the pilot’s cabin as the Swift returned to their boat. “What’d you find on the gunship, mate?”
“A clockwork automaton at the helm. Its spring had run down. Several others were at various stations, including the gun. They were all in the same state.”
“What do you make of it, then?”
“They obviously commandeered the boat in order to pursue the airship.”
“Whose tick-tocks do you think they were? Some rival of Tremens’?”
“Possibly,” The Swift shook his head. “I don’t know...”
The Swift pulled off his helmet as Harriet came to face him. The strength of her embrace and the fervor of her kiss reassured him that Harriet was well. She pulled away and turned to look at the wreckage of Tremens’ airship.
“Oh, Icarus,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “The Kilimanjaro Ruby is lost.”
“Perhaps,” Icarus Byrne replied thoughtfully.