by Gail Z. Martin & Larry N. Martin
“Three orbs at three o’clock, over the Homestead Works.” Mitch Storm’s voice carried over the hum of the dirigible’s engines.
“I see them.” Jacob Drangosavich leaned over to speak to the airship pilot, who veered their craft like a black ghost over the Monongahela River. “Get in close,” he said to the pilot. “I want to get as close to the sons of bitches as we can.”
“They match the description of what they sent us out to find,” Mitch replied. “Too far away to see detail. Is the camera working?”
Jacob checked over the camera controls. The Department had outfitted the airship with the best new, secret technology the folks in Rochester could come up with, small cameras that ran on a remote switch, something the agents could operate from the bridge of their airship. “They’re set, if they work,” he sighed.
“And there go the lights,” Mitch said, pointing. As if on cue, the Edison lights that illuminated Carnegie Steel’s flagship factory dimmed to brown, flickering out several times before struggling back to their original glow.
“Same as the other times,” Jacob said, scribbling in his journal with a Waterman safety pen and still managing to get ink on his fingers.
Mitch sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know why you bother,” he said, resignation coloring his voice. “No one will be able to read that chicken scratch.”
“I will,” Jacob replied. “You think it’s bad in English; even my mother can’t read my Croatian.”
“Sir,” the pilot, Captain Nowak said. “The lights are moving.”
Mitch and Jacob dropped their banter and scrambled back to the observation window. “Keep them in view,” Mitch ordered. “Don’t lose them.” Dark-haired and dark-eyed with a five o’clock shadow that showed up at three, Mitch Storm looked like what an adventure-book illustrator would come up with for an army captain and sharpshooter. Mitch was a few inches shorter than Jacob, but what he lacked in height he made up for in attitude. He had a pugilist’s build, all-muscle, and a gleam in his eyes that promised mischief.
“I’m on it,” Nowak replied. He was a good ten years older than either Storm or Drangosavich, with a little gray starting to show in his brown hair around the temples. To Jacob’s eye, Nowak looked more like he belonged at the prow of one of the river barges than high in an airship. He had the rumpled, lived-in look of a man who has spent his life in one cramped ship or another, either on the Oder River in his native Poland, or navigating the traffic on one of New Pittsburgh’s famed three rivers. Instead, a stint in the Navy had landed him in the nascent airship corps, and the Department had snapped him up for their own uses.
The airship’s engines whined as Nowak increased the power, steering their ship above the black ribbon that was the mighty Monongahela River, or as New Pittsburgh locals liked to call it, the Mon. Behind them, the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers joined to become the powerful Ohio, which in turn found its way into the Mississippi. Beneath them, the burn-off flares from the Jones and Laughlin steel mill on the south banks of the river reflected off thick clouds of coal smoke from factories that churned out coke and steel around the clock.
“What’d that reporter say it looked like?” Mitch asked. “Hell with the lid off? He got that right.”
Their airship, the Onyx Shadow, glided above the city. From here, the Mon seemed to be illuminated by torchlight, as up and down the river Mitch and Jacob could see the tall flare stacks of one massive steel mill after another.
“Have a care to give those flames a wide berth, or we’ll have big trouble,” Mitch warned.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got them in my sights,” Nowak assured them.
“The orbs are moving faster,” Mitch said. “Keep after them!”
Jacob looked down, and then thought better of it, gripping the railing white-knuckled. “I hate flying,” he muttered. The river bank slipped by rapidly beneath the airship with its rail lines and mill towns, as barges chugged downriver without a care about the excitement in the skies above.
Jacob pushed a stray lock of dark blond hair out of his eyes. He didn’t like his hair as short as regulations called for, or nearly as short as Mitch preferred to keep his. With a long thin face and pale blue eyes, Jacob was well aware he looked like the majority of Eastern European immigrants who had flocked to the manufacturing cities of the Northeast to work in the factories of America. The same slight accent that occasionally prompted a dour look from the Brass made him fit right in among the mill hunks and factory workers, as did his ability to speak several Slavic languages like a native. Like those mill workers, Jacob was tall and broad-shouldered, and hard work had put muscles on his lean frame. He seldom started fights, but often finished them.
Nowak maneuvered the Onyx Shadow through the ever-present smoke. Visibility from the airship’s small bridge waxed and waned, and Jacob fingered his St. Blaise medal, certain they would plow into one of the high brick smokestacks or the steep hillsides that sloped down to the river. The experimental airship moved at top speed, faster than any of the commercial or private dirigibles, thanks to the Department’s top-secret technology and design. It was even faster than the Flying Scotsman locomotive in its best race. That didn’t bear dwelling on, in Jacob’s opinion.
“They’re damn fast,” Nowak said, leaning forward as if it would help the airship gain momentum.
“Can you keep up?” Mitch urged. Jacob had seen that light in his partner’s eyes before, usually just before the two of them created a calamity that tended to include explosions and which required lengthy explanations to their superiors.
“I can try,” Nowak said, his expression set in grim resolve. “We’re still working out the bugs. Not completely sure yet what this baby can do.”