The sky above the Himalayas was bitterly blue, the air cold and brittle, cracking at the merest breath. Distant, high wisps of clouds were painted on the endless canvass of blue, high above the vast peaks slumbering beneath caps of snow.
Shearing through banks of cloud like a galleon through breaking waves, as steady and inexorable as Death itself, the great black Zeppelin advanced.
Nearly a mile from end to end, sprouting forests of strange antenna from the midnight hide of its immense, nearly planetary balloon, the Zeppelin held nests of gondolas from its fat underbelly, tubes and channels connecting the outlying pods to the vast central complex that commanded them all. Painted a hundred meters high on each side of the great black balloon were the signs that struck fear into aviators from Paris to Timbuktu: the skull and crossbones.
She was known as the Faithless, this terrible leviathan of the skies, and in every muddy airfield, every pilot’s bar, on every known continent, heads could be found bowed in silent prayer that she never appear off the tip of anyone’s wing, never come looming out of the sun. With the fewest and bravest of exceptions, no one who laid eyes on the Faithless lived to do so a second time.
On the bridge of the dread craft, at the prow of the central gondola, at the heart of a buzzing hive of earnest women, hair cropped short or entirely shorn, some missing eyes, some missing fingers, all bent over an acre of consoles and levers and faintly glowing green screens, a single woman stood before the captain’s chair. Black silk swathed her slim, alluring figure, but if the jagged-edged saber slung at her hip -- still stained with dark crimson traces from a thousand pleading throats cut -- was fair warning to the unsuspecting, her cruel and loveless eyes were doubly so.
Men called her... nothing, for she suffered none to live. In whispers, in a thousand ports of call, it was said that she had been a slave, a nobody, suffering unimaginable captivity in some distant country lost to history. That she had, after a lifetime of torment at the hands of vile men, thrown off her chains, led her imprisoned sisters on a bloody revolt, and vowed vengance on the entire sex that had wronged her so. She heard these whispers, and permitted them, and kept the truth to herself. It sat in a box in her chamber at the heart of the ship, a black laquered box laced with mother of pearl, and it spoke only to her, in the depths of night.
Men called her nothing, but the women who encountered her -- those who refused her offer to join her growing legions, to share in the unimaginable plunder of a hundred thousand hapless planes a year -- knew her as Wicked West, the Terror of the Air. She bore hatred toward only one woman on the world -- a hatred so great that no other could possibly bear or rival it.
Wicked West bent over the railing that overlooked her command, squinting through the front windscreen at the black darts swarming outward from the Faithless from the hangar pods at the sides of the Zeppelin, and the single flash of reflected sunlight, far distant but growing closer, upon which they converged. She smiled, her mouth twisting into a line as cruel as any of the thousand and one scars that covered the whole of her skin. And the reached for the dial at her right and turned it as high as it would go.
Electrical impulses surged into the console, pluging through copper wires deep into the workings of the gondola, then curving, racing upwards, crackling along the cables slung to the surface of the balloon, up to the frost-tipped apex, and into the central antenna that fluttered there in the wind of the Faithless’s steady transit.
Electrons jittered, trembled, spreading out in widening circular arcs through the cold and feeble air, passing their message in a chain: Kill. Kill. Kill.
And in the cockpits of the black, Jolly-Roger-painted fighter darts that had spat themselves from the Faithless, down through the antennae wired and softly glowing in each of their sewn-up skulls, down into the secret meat of their brains, the Winged Monkeys heard and understood.
Wicked West suffered no man to live -- but apes, those feeble, clumsy mockeries of Man, those practice runs by a Creator whose ways remained a mystery even in this age of science and reason, amused her to no end. She found them useful, intelligent -- and a constant reminder of her own superiority. And so she captured them in nets, in traps, in great wooden cages, from the dark jungles of Africa, and carried them aboard, screeching and howling. And in the horrible white void of the Faithless’s operating room, her personal surgeon, Dr. Rena Grimm, the Black Angel of Bucharest, condemned by every civilized practioner of medicine of either sex, tenderly cut open their heads and taught them to fly.
With radio receivers bound into their brains, vacuum tubes glowing a soft radiant orange, and electrodes nestled deep within their nerve centers, the apes became pilots, superior in reflex and instinct to all but their finest human counterparts. The Winged Monkeys were Wicked West’s first strike, overwhelming and crippling any craft unlucky enough to cross her airspace, leaving it bleeding and smoking and barely aloft. And then the Faithless would appear, looming behind a bank of cloud, and lucky indeed were the pilots who could bail out then and survive...
Kill. Kill. Kill. went the signal, deep into the channels of the Winged Monkeys’ beings, and they screamed pure simian hate over all radio frequencies, and tightened their opposable thumbs around their throttle levers, and howled onward toward the quicksilver gleaming they pursued.
And in the sky before them, four sleek prop engines straining against the bitter mountain winds, the Cyclone tried to outrace its doom.
Ruby Gale shifted nervously in the pilot’s seat, trying not to think about the fighters in hot pursuit, or the black mass of the Faithless looming behind them. She was not frightened, no; on any other day, she would have turned to face them, thumbing the caps off the twin triggers on the steering controls, readying the Cyclone’s wing-mounted guns for combat. But today there were greater things at stake, and her grim promise to Wicked West could wait.
Today, she flew herself and three of the world’s most extraordinary men on a mission to save all that was.
It felt like turbulence at first, or a gentle patter of hail on the hull, but Ruby knew that the Winged Monkeys had finally drawn within firing range. The Cyclone was tough, clad in a special alloy whose formula was known only to a handful of the greatest minds on Earth, and nearly impervious to bullets. Nearly, she thought, and that was no comfort.
The young man sitting in the co-pilot’s seat did not stir at the first drumroll of enemy fire, did not even open his eyes. He might have been stretched out on a hammock in some tropical island. His lank, auburn hair, streaked with a single thick band of silver, parted across his unlined forehead, reminding Ruby somehow of a sleeping child. But Tom Morrow wasn’t sleeping. He was, as always, thinking.
The first of the Winged Monkeys roared past the wing to Ruby’s left, bullets hammering their way up the top of the fuselage, and Ruby gritted her teeth and pushed hard on the stuck, sending the Cyclone plunging toward the mountains below.
“There’s a pass coming up on the way to the Sanctum,” she said, eyes on the landscape quickly approaching through the cockpit glass. “We stay up here too long and we might as well paint a bullseye on ourselves. I think I can lose ‘em.”
“Good plan,” said her companion. Beneath his closed eyelids, she could see the muscles of his eyes shifting.
From the back of the plane, in the aft gun turret, came the staccato chattering of twin Browning heavy machine guns, and a terrible, raw, blood-curdling sound: the mirthless, mocking laughter of the damned. Ruby shuddered.
“Let him have his fun,” her companion said calmly, as Ruby leveled off in the shadowed gorge of two towering peaks. “I don’t think he gets out much.”
“Long as he keeps the monkeys off our backs,” Ruby said. She risked a quick look back through the door into the passenger cabin. The jump seats lining the walls were empty.”
“Your Lordship!” she called through the open door. “It’s gonna get rough.”
“Because it’s been pristine thus far, I assume?” came the reply, a cultured voice, like milky tea in a china saucer. It seemed to be coming from the ceiling of the cabin, amid the tangled cargo netting.
“I’d feel a whole hell of a lot better if you were buckled in,” Ruby said.
“That’s lovely,” His Lordship replied. “I wouldn’t.”
“Suit yourself,” Ruby said, and turned the plane sideways. The narrow walls of a slim mountain pass hurtled by on either side, Ruby counting patches of stubborn snow on the outcroppings that flashed past, and then the Cyclone emerged into the sunlight again, to the satisfying sound of explosions behind it.
“I think that shook ‘em,” Ruby said. Her companion in the copilot’s seat opened his eyes at last -- strange, thoughtful green eyes, seemingly cut from some fantastical jewel, that stood out against the olive cast of his tanned skin.
“I think the Sox will win the Series this year,” he replied, “but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.” And sure enough, the chattering sound of gunfire pinged off the hull again, and Ruby watched in sick, wrenching anger as a line of bullet holes traced their way up the wing to her left and into engine one. She’d conjured the Cyclone from blue pencil lines on a drafting table with her own two hands, built and welded and riveted every part. Any damage to her plane seemed an equally grievous wound to herself.
More gunfire from the aft cockpit, more soul-scraping laughter. Ruby watched one of the black fighters spiral past, trailing flames and smoke, its simian pilot hammering at the glass of the cockpit in futile rage. It smashed into a snowy
mountain peak and blossomed into fire.
“Tom,” Ruby said, feeling her stomach swing a gentle parabola as she guided the Cyclone beneath an arch of ancient rock, “I think it’s about time for that gizmo of yours.”
Tom Morrow unstrapped himself from the co-pilots seat and smiled that gentle, contemplative smile at her. “It’s not a gizmo,” he began, “it’s a magnetic--”
“Don’t know, don’t care, just get it working,” Ruby grinned. “They’re every one of ‘em a gizmo to me. And you best hang on to something while you’re back there.”
“Do I need to ask why?” Tom said, stooping to fit his six-foot frame through the door to the aft compartments.”
Ruby smiled and closed her fingers around the throttle.
“I’m gonna show these apes some real flying,” she said, and shot the Cyclone forward with a smooth motion of her hand.