All Under Heaven: A Pulp Wuxia Novel

Book I: The Enemy Within

By Jave Harron

Chapter 2: Flight of the Valkyrie

Roger Stevens ordered the driver to pull the truck off to the side of the road dirt. While they were on a tree-lined forest road, they still had a clear view of the zeppelin ahead of them. The zeppelin had finally stopped somewhere. The airship was only a hundred feet or so off the ground, and ropes had been dropped from the gondola. An ominous cloud of black smoke nearby, however, indicated Yin Lu didn't stop for peaceful purposes.

Doctor Edmund Berman turned to the mercenary. "They've stopped! Now is the best time to strike, ja?"

"Ey, boss, you've got a plan, right?" Bernard Hughes the medic asked.

"Yeah," Roger replied. "Just like we discussed before."

"Ey, who are those fellows?" Hughes pointed at three figures emerging from the woods. Each of them were Khitanese, but each was packing some sort of weapon. There was an old man in a fedora hat and trench coat, apparently the leader. On his hips were a pair of Broomhandle pistols. Behind him was a hairy, thickly bearded young man in mechanic's cover-alls with some kind of bladed polearm over his back. Beside him was a clean shaven, lanky man with a long-sword sheathed in his belt and dirtied business suit. He was slightly taller than the mechanic and old man in his fedora.

"Herr Stevens, do you think those are Yin Lu's men?" the elderly Berman reached for his own Broomhandle pistol in his lab coat. Roger's hand shot out, pressing his hand against his chest and preventing the scientist from grabbing his gun.

"If they were with Lu, they'd be packing bigger heaters and have ventilated us down by now," Roger turned his attentions towards the local trio. Roger had learned to speak fairly fluent Khitanese in his time here, as well as from his self-education.

"Hello," Roger waved his hand as he introduced himself in Khitanese. "I'm Roger Stevens of the Rocket Rangers. Who are you?"

"Greetings, foreigner. I am known as Yi," the old man bowed his head and narrowed his eyes. "We are from a local village. What business do you have here?"

Roger pointed up at the sky, directly at the stationary Valkyrie. "That's our ride," he gestured. "A thug named Yin Lu yanked it, and we're going to get out back."

"Can we trust this ghost-man?" the suited man asked Yi.

"Given how he dresses, he's probably an aviator of some sort," the mechanic replied to him.

"My village should be where that column of smoke is," Yi added. "I assume the man attacking my village is the same who stole your airship."

"See those ropes hanging from her?" Roger pointed the ropes hanging from the craft, like narrow tethers to the earth. "Chances are, they saw your village as somewhere to plunder. There wasn't a lot of supplies left on the Valkyrie when she was taken over. If you want, we can give you a ride back to the village. Considering we're heading that way, it'd be impolite to offer you a ride."

Roger stood up, and directed two nearby mercenaries to scoot over. He extended an empty hand outside of the truck, and pointed to an empty seat.

"Well, stranger," Elder Yi replied. "These are my two companions, Li Bu and Kwan Sun. We would like to rendezvous with our militia and counterattack. Certainly you could provide assistance?"

"No sense turning down allies, as Sun Bin says," Roger said, speaking to his soldiers in his native tongue. "Okay, boys, looks like we've got some local help. Lu's hit their village, and they're going to fight Lu's men there. We'll take back the old gal while they're occupied."

The mercenaries looked at Roger skeptically. "You can't be serious!" one protested. "How do we know these aren't just Lu's boys?"

One Khitanese mercenary turned to Roger. "No! I can vouch for them. My father visited this area before with me, and I saw Elder Yi before."

"Well, then," Roger extended his hand, pulling Elder Yi, Kwan, and Li aboard. "Welcome aboard! Think you guys can give us directions to the village?"

"No problem," Elder Yi replied, turning his head to the side. "I must say, I am surprised that a foreigner would speak our language and be familiar with Sun Bin's works."He told the directions to one of the Khitanese mercenaries, who translated for the driver. The truck jolted, and then continued to move.

Roger shrugged. "I drifted around the world for a while, but when I came here, I started reading about some local culture to help with dealings better," he held up his dog-eared, leather-bound copy of "Thirty-Three Arts of War." "It helped me expand my mind, for sure."

"It is a pleasure to meet a foreigner who respects our culture for once," Yi replied. Both Li and Kwan sat in awkward silence behind him, unsure of what to say. "Tell me, Roger, where in the world do you come from?"

"Wayland Republic," Roger replied curtly. "Or the Royal Domain of Wayland since it was betrayed."

"What kind of life did you lead there?" Yi inquired, showing a curiosity in his eyes. "A pilot, perhaps?"

"Nah," Roger shook his head. "I lead a pretty comfortable life. My parents helped run an aircraft manufacturing company. I joined up to get away from my home and see more of the country, but then, the Avalonians came."

"I understand the pain of losing a home," Yi replied. "Before I came to Baoyang village, I too wandered. I would like to spare these two the same pain of loss."

"At least you guys have family to get back to," Roger replied. "My men here are my family. We go where it pays, fight who we have to, and try to keep food in our stomachs. Not a pretty job, but there's not many saints in power in this country."

"Tell me, Roger," Yi piped in. "Tell me what you know of Yin Lu. What is he like? How do his men act? Are they experienced fighters?"

"Well, they're some of the nastier mooks in Haixia, but not the nastiest," Roger nodded. "That title belongs to Iron Shang. Yin Lu's a small time thug compared to him. Most of his men are just hired guns and glorified thugs. They're more used to gunning down people who don't fight back."

"Yet they managed to steal your zeppelin from you," Yi noted.

"They drew us out like schmucks," Roger added, gritting his teeth. "Luckily, our men were all out and some spare gear is left over."

Roger looked at the two young men with a polearm and longsword. "I know we're kind of starved for gear, but don't your boys need a piece?" he pulled out his spare Mustang 19 pistol.

Yi raised his hand. "No, keep your weapons," a grin crossed his face. "Those are no ordinary weapons they hold."

"Well, then," Roger asked. "What's your plan? Do you need to rescue people from their homes?"

"No, that should be taken care of," Yi replied. "As an Elder in a shattered country like this, I cannot allow my village to go without emergency plans. The militia should have evacuated people at the first sign of trouble. We had guards on every side of the village, as well as sentries in watchtowers. Everyone should have fallen back to a rendezvous point."

"That's where the directions take us, right?" Roger asked.

Yi nodded. "What's your plan?"

"Well, knowing Lu, most of his men are probably going to be raiding the village, trying to steal anything that isn't nailed down," Roger continued, waving his fingers as he talked. "He himself will probably be waiting in the airship, with only a few bodyguards left. I'm going to assault the airship, and mop them up. Once we've retaken the airship, my men can give you some air support."

"How do we know you won't just leave us behind?" Kwan asked. "Or that your men will raid us? Mercenaries don't work for free."

"This is a special case," Roger nodded. "And it's nice to be doing something moral for once."

The truck continued down the road, going deeper into the forest. Bamboo stalks dozens of yards high towered over the truck, and some leaned ominously towards the road. The road in front of them was barely one. It was an overgrown path through the woods, only recently disturbed. A number of overlapping footprints headed deeper into the woods. Eventually, the path came to an end at a clearing. Gathered around the rim of the clearing were a number of Khitanese villagers, clutching bags of valuables. Around them were a ring of village militia, both men and women. There were dressed in dirty and weathered button-down khaki uniforms with no identifying badges or marks on them. They were equipped with a motley combination of weapons, mainly bolt-action rifles and pump shotguns. Some canvas tents had been set up along the rim of the clearing, but the soldiers seemed to be keeping people away from the clearing itself. Roger observed this, and quickly realized why. A mass of refugees in the clearing could be seen from the air, so they stuck with sticking inside the forest. As a landmark, however, the clearing allowed the villages a familiar fall back point. From the clearing, the large pillar of smoke was much larger, and the scent of burning timbers filled the air.

The truck stopped, and two militiamen with shotguns approached. A woman parted hair and a bolt-action rifle talked in front of them, and made some gestures with her hands. The soldiers flanked driver's side entrance to the truck, and moved towards the rear.

"Identify yourself!" Lian Sun leveled the bolt action rifle at the rear.

Elder Yi climbed out with his hands up. "Easy, kid," he joked. "Your brother, Li, and I brought some help. Their airship was hijacked by thugs, and they want to take it back."

Lian shouldered her rifle, and exhaled a sigh of relief. She relaxed herself when she saw Kwan and Li in the rear of the truck. Roger nodded his head in her direction. Lian focused on Kwan. The mechanic climbed out of the truck after Yi, and Li followed him.

"You'll never believe what we saw!" excitement appeared on Kwan's face. "Li actually was onto something big!"

"That's nice to hear," Lian replied. "But we've got a problem here. Everyone's evacuated and accounted for, but we need everyone we can to try to take back the village."

"We can help, little sister," Kwan gestured to his new guan-dao. "Elder Yi found these two unique weapons. You won't even need to spare a gun."

"There's no way I'm letting you go into battle with only a pointy stick!" Lian protested.

Before Lian could say anything else, Kwan unveiled his knew guan-dao. He focused as he had done before, and the tip glowed light blue. Kwan noticed about a thirty yards into the forest was a tree stump. He leveled his guan-dao in the manner of a rifle, and blasted a blue bolt of energy at it. There was no sound, only a quick, rapid pulse of energy. The stump exploded, scattering pieces of rotting wood around it. Kwan then ran towards a grove of bamboo, and cleaved several stumps in half with one sweep. He deactivated the blade and put it over his shoulder.

There was only a stunned silence as the refugees and militia observed the mechanic. Even the mercenaries in the truck had their jaws drop. Hughes and Berman both stared at each other, and then Roger.

"I've got to get me one of those!" Roger exclaimed to himself.

"They don't have a chance, Lian," Kwan grinned at his little sister. "Hey, Li, show them what yours does!"

Li stepped into a dramatic stance, trying unsuccessfully to balance on one foot as he drew his blade. He unsheathed his longsword, and made it glow. Li Bu performed a horizontal slash through the air in the direction of the bamboo stalks. A strange, curved beam of energy blasted out of the tip of the glowing sword with no sound, save the whooshing through the air. The bamboo stalks were cut in half perfectly, each falling to the ground backwards.

"Now both of you are definitely helping us," Lian whistled. "Since those are pretty nice weapons, you can probably cut down a bunch of them before they realize it."

"So we get to lead the assault on the village, then?" Kwan replied. "Thanks for the honor, sis, but I'd feel more comfortable with the rest of the militia behind me."

"Those bastards are probably taking my stuff as we speak!" Li exclaimed. "I say we roll out there now!"

Elder Yi pulled out both of his pistols. "I'll give you kids some company," he nodded. "Been a while since I had any major exercise with these. I'll go first, and I want Kwan and Li's squads coming next. Everyone else, follow our main plan to recapture the village. The only things of ours they'll be getting is our bullets!"

The militia soldiers surrounding them nodded. Elder Yi turned back to Roger in the truck. "Move your men into position," he said. "We'll be moving out in thirty minutes."

"That will work for us," Roger nodded. "Men, let's move out, and help me get suited up."

The truck moved down a side road through the forest, heading towards the stationary airship. A local soldier gave them directions that took them on an overgrown road that would make it hard for the airship to see them. Behind them, the militia moved into position. The militia organized itself into squads. Each squad had mainly a dozen riflemen with one or two shotgun-armed soldiers. As the Elder with the most combat experience, Yi took over command. Kwan and Li did not even have time to get changed into militia uniform. Li and Kwan were to use their weapons to support Elder Yi's spearhead. Each of them wound be placed on the left and right flanking squads. Lian was in Yi's squad, acting as designated sharpshooter.

The village itself was a mile northeast of the clearing. The smoke seemed to have died down, but a thick black smoke still poured from the site of the village. Elder Yi ordered the squads into a pincer formation. Two squads were positioned on either flank, and the central flank had him at the front and the few other squads as reserves behind him. Li was placed on the squad to left of Elder Yi, and Kwan was placed on the squad to the right of him.

The squads waited for the Elder's signal to advance. They were all hiding in the woods around the village. In front of them, Yin Lu's thugs were amassing piles of anything that wasn't nailed down. Anything that looked remotely valuable, from jewelry and silverware to machine parts to weapons, was stacked into makeshift piles near the center of town. Houses and buildings were getting burned to the ground nearby. The thugs were mainly Khitanese, but a few foreigners were among them. They were all dressed in trenchcoats and suits, and held some pistols, submachineguns, and sawed off shotguns. Kwan felt his stomach twist as the windmill-powered irritation and pumping system he designed and built was pulled up and tossed into a pile with other metal items, presumably for sale as scrap.

As a mechanic, he took pride in his works, and even more pride in the fact it helped people. He felt his innards lurch again when he stopped his tools and items from his workshop on another pile. As controlled as he tried to be, he felt he was going to enjoy this. There were more thugs than there were militia soldiers, and the thugs had some more expensive weapons, but they did not know battle as well as Elder Yi. Or so he hoped. Kwan felt his weapon, and caused it to glow. He was ready to go whenever Yi was.

Despite his apparent age, the Elder's vigor allowed him to sprint down at the village. He leveled his dual Broomhandle machine pistols at two of the thugs nearest to the woods, and ran forward as each caught a blast of bullets in the head. He had both hands outstretched, pistols facing in opposite directions. Three more thugs turned around, one with a shotgun and two with Johnson sub-guns. Yi kicked off a nearby wall, vaulting into the air over the shotgunner and shooting him in the top of the head as he flew through the air.

He continued to somersault through the air, the two submachinegunners opened fire at him. However, their rounds hit only empty air. It was as if they were aiming where the nimble old man was only a millisecond before. Elder Yi landed in between the two, leveling the pistol in each of his hands at each one. An instant later, he put two bullets in each of their brains. He fired a round into the air, signaling the rest of the militia soldiers to advance. The thugs turned their attentions towards the center of town as they investigated the gunfire. It was then all hell broke loose.

A flood of militia fighters poured out of the woods. Kwan felt adrenaline overtake him as he shouted and charged towards the village. He could see across the village, Li's squad doing the same. He lead the front of a wedge formation, and held his guan-dao as if it was rifle. He lined up one of the nearest thugs in sight, and fired at him as he ran. Despite not thinking he'd hit, a blast of energy knocked the thug square in the chest. He dove for cover behind a burning structure, and his squad followed him. He poked his head out, and saw two thugs opening fire with a shotgun and Broomhandle. Kwan fired a blast of energy at one of the thugs, and a shotgun blast from elsewhere in his squad dropped the second thug.

Kwan ran forward, and heard gunfire all around him. The smell of sulfur, dark smoke blowing across the down, and shouting made the town seem a surreal, hellish version of how it was when they left. He cautiously approached a nearby building, noting the cloud of smoke bellowing out of it. He kept his weapon raised, focusing on nearby corners he could get ambushed. As he looked to the left, a shape pounced on him from out of the fog. Kwan did not have enough time to thrust or shoot with his weapon. A thug with a machete pressed him to the ground, wildly swinging his blade. Kwan raised his guan-dao's handle to block the thug's downward strike. The thug kneed him in the chest, causing him to reflexively loosen his grip on the blade.

The machete thug swung down again, aiming for his neck. Kwan tried flattening his head to the ground, but knew it was almost pointless, given the length of the blade. Just then, a gunshot rang out, and the machete thug dropped dead. Kwan turned to see a militia rifleman giving him a thumbs up. Kwan considered taking a sidearm of some sort in the future. He quickly stood up and regained his composure.

"Advance!" he shouted. "This is where we fight, and where they die!"

He allowed his adrenaline to keep pumping, and focused on the fight. The small army of thugs was attempting to fall back to the airship. The flanking forces had to prevent that.

"I need two sharpshooters to cover the road out of town," he pointed to the path leading toward the zeppelin. "None of them pass!"

Two riflemen nodded and took positions in the brush nearby.

"The rest of you, follow me!" he readied his guan-dao and moved closer towards the burning village square. They still had a way to go, and the thugs were panicking. They were trying to break out on all sides, unsure of how many enemy forces were coming.

Kwan was leading his troops through a passage between two buildings when he met another ambush. A man with a Broomhandle machine pistol opened up from a rooftop, forcing Kwan to take cover around a corner. Looking up, he saw another thug come out with a double-barreled sawed off shotgun. Instinctively reaction, he moved to the side and turned the bladed part of his weapon out and up just as the gunman discharged. Some of the buckshot hit Kwan in the upper arm, causing him to jerk his hand back. However, his other hand carried the weapon on its lethal course, piercing the stomach of the thug and exiting through the side of his chest. As soon as the weapon exited the mortally wounded thug, the adrenaline surge seemed to end, and Kwan clutched his arm in pain. He used his guan-dao to help stand up, and noticed the weapon seemed lighter. He turned it back and felt he could hold it comfortably in one hand.

His curiosity was so great, he almost missed a thug with a rifle popping out to take potshots at him. It was only due to a militia soldier yanking him back that he avoided bullet through the heart. A group of more thugs rushed from around a corner, firing erratically. The man with the Broomhandle continued opening fire until he stopped to reload, when a militia shotgunner blasted his head open. The militia took cover behind a burnt out building, and began to return fire at the thugs. Some tried strafing across the entrance to the alleyway, but a blast of buckshot downed them. Kwan tried aiming with his guan-dao, but using it in one hand was awkward. He could only fire bursts of energy erratically. Strangely, the longer he held it, the more awkward it felt.

Kwan eventually held his guan-dao in to hands, and limped towards a downed thug. He knelt down, and picked up a revolver the thug had in a back pocket, a Mustang Lawbringer. He leaned on the guan-dao like a crutch and aimed the revolver with his other hand. He took position beside a militia shotgunner, who was popping out to shoot at some thugs behind a makeshift barricade. They were all that stood between his squad and the center of town. There was only a single thug left defending it.

"Allow me to help," Kwan pulled himself over, and leveled the pistol around the wall. He used his uninjured hand and aimed the weapon at the exposed shoulder of a thug. He fired two chambers of the revolver, and then popped back behind cover. The thug erratically emptied an automatic pistol over the barricade, before dropping it and running off with a shoulder wound. The militia advanced over the barricade, and made it into the center of town. Nearby, Kwan saw a pile of loot containing his tools and items from his workshop, and cursed to himself. The thugs were already paying for all the terror and damage they caused.

The central square of the village was far different than Kwan remembered it from earlier that day. There were several overturned stalls and some piles of loot nearby. It was as if a storm had hit the village, and filled the air with smoke and lead. The thugs set up a rudimentary defensive circle, taking cover behind makeshift barricades made of furniture and flimsy wooden debris. Across the plaza, Kwan saw more thugs falling back as men and women in militia uniforms drove them back. The militia were becoming a wall, fencing in the feral beasts on all sides. The thugs returned fire erratically. Any sense of unity they had was lost. It was every enemy for himself. Some tried grabbing items from the piles and fleeing, only to be forced to take cover or discard it. Even when faced with almost certain death, the urge to hold onto stolen goods surprised Kwan. But, given who they faced, that was hardly unexpected.

Kwan saw several thugs and a barricade suddenly split in half. A burst of energy arced through an overturned table and two gunmen cowering behind it. The beam of energy acted as a long, perfect blade would, slicing the debris and men with more precision than gunfire or any blade made of metal. The two gunmen were dead, sliced in half at the torso, before they even realized it. Li stood behind it, leading his squad into the plaza. A thug tried drawing a bead on him with a rifle, but a militia sniper on the roof of a nearby building dropped him before that happened. The sharpshooter jumped down, revealing herself as Lian Sun. Lian stabbed a nearby thug with her bayonet, and shooting another behind him, with the bayonet and barrel rammed right through the unlucky man's stomach. Kwan looked away, feeling revulsion at that. While he was slightly sickened by his sister's action, he realized she had just saved Li's life, and she was defending herself. He made a note never to anger her intentionally.

Suddenly, a figure climbed onto a half-destroyed building near the edge of the square. He fired his pistol into the air, and shouted, "Stand down!" with a voice that seemed to reverberate through the entire village. The militia stood down, while the remaining thugs kept their weapons ready, unsure of what was going to happen. Elder Yi climbed into plain view, locking his pistols on the remaining thugs. It seemed as though the thugs backed away from the old man. Even Kwan could sense a strong sense of personality emanating from the old man.

"All of you who worked for Lu," he shouted. "He's going to be dead soon. Unless you want to join him, you'll surrender right now!"

"You will be treated with respect, and we'll treat your wounds," He swept both pistols across the mass of thugs, as if to drive home the point. "If not, you can figure out what happens here!"

Several of the thugs began tossing down their weapons. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, sub-guns, and machetes all fell to the ground. They raised their hands, and knelt on the ground. The militia moved forward cautiously. Suddenly, one of the thugs reached for a gun and fired it at Elder Yi. The bullet seemed to whiz harmlessly by the old man. In response, Yi calmly fired a single round from his right hand Broomhandle pistol. The thug screamed in pain and grasped his now bloody hand. The gun now laid in the dirt outside the thug's reach.

"That was a warning shot!" Yi shouted. "Next one who tries to pull something like that gets one between the eyes!"

The thugs who had not yet dropped their weapons did so, and knelt down. The militia began to lead the thugs away. Lian moved towards Kwan.

"Cao!" Lian complained to her brother. "Just when I get into where all the good action is, they surrender!"

"Sis, we're going to have to talk a bit about excessive force," Kwan replied. "Why did you give up a perfectly good shooting position to stab people?"

"So you and Li can stab people with those weird glowing blades, but I can't stab people with a regular blade?" Lian wiped the blood off her rifle's bayonet. "Hypocrite!"

"Well, you did save my skin!" Li breathed a sigh of relief. "Go easy on her, Kwan. She was just trying to help."

"Yeah," Lian stuck out her tongue at Kwan.

"If it's not too much," he turned to his wounded shoulder. "I'd like some medical attention. I believe I got some buckshot in the shoulder."

"You got lucky, Kwan," Li noted. "Can't say the same for everyone. From what I've heard, we got a few casualties."

"Understandable," Kwan noted. "Despite me being cautious, I still got ambushed. All the damn smoke everywhere didn't help."

"Well, looks like we win," Lian added, pointing up at the zeppelin. "And we didn't even need their help!"

"How do you think they're doing, anyway?" Li mused. "As long as they don't turn on us, I'll be content."

"Enough talk," Kwan leaned on his weapon. "Where's the medic?"

Kwan was lead away by his sister and friend, while the militia took the remaining thugs into captivity.


---


At the same time the battle had commenced in the village, Roger Stevens was suited up for battle. He had his flying goggles pulled down, and a bronze-colored helmet on his head. It was a sleek mask with grooves on it and an opening for his goggles. He had his flight suit on underneath, and dressed himself in a brown flak jacket with the yellow letters "RR" over the sleeve. He had brown leather pants on, as well as his black combat boots. Several straps crossed his chest, waist, and hands. It was necessary to support the rocket pack on his back, and redistribute the weight so he could stand without bending over. On his hips was a belt containing two holsters, each with a Mustang automatic pistol and signaling smoke grenade in it. While the standard rocket packs often had heavy weapons mounted on them, he would have to make due with his sidearms for now, since the rest of their gear was on the airship.

The rocket pack itself was two armored, ovoid tanks set parallel to each other and bronze in color. Each was roughly three feet in height. There were three thrusters protruding from the tanks, each at the end of an extended pipe. They were at a slight angle, as well, so that the rocket ranger would worry less about singing his rear. A small grappling hook was mounted on the top of the pack, just above his head. The controls were on a flight-stick like device positioned behind Roger's right arm. A stereotype about rocket corpsmen where that they were the most macho and hotheaded of all the types of pilots. The opposite, however, was more truth. Those who could focus on multiple things, often the more artistic and poetic sorts, were more effective at flying them. Roger didn't care much for the stereotype, but he did hope his reading into local culture gave him some kind of advantage.

The truck was parked in a clump of trees near where the zeppelin was hovering over. The rest of the Rocket Rangers were only dressed in the clothing on their backs, and were armed with whatever weapons they had scavenged from earlier. Mostly, that meant knives, pistols, and a few long-arms. They waited by the now unguarded rappelling lines for their commander to give them the signal. Once Roger had secured the entrance portion of the gondola, his troops would climb up and help him retake it. He'd be sure to give Lu some flying lessons of his own, after he had screwed him over. It was time to retake the Valkyrie. Hughes and Berman were waiting on the ground for the vessel to be secured, and patch up any wounded after the battle.

He looked up, nodded at his troops, and pressed the button down. The familiar roar of the rocket pack was always a sound that put him at ease. He felt gravity try to yank him down, and tried to relax. The amount of acceleration he was going through was disorienting to even seasoned rocketeers. He felt the straps on his chest tighten, and a persistent fear of his filled his mind: that they'd all fail, and his rocket pack would fly off without him, and leave him to plummet to his doom.

He exhaled, and remembered some quotes from the Wanderer's philosophy that put his mind at ease. He looked down, and saw the ground getting smaller below him. He was only rising a hundred feet, but it seemed a lot higher than it was due to the acceleration. Above him, the Valkyrie grew larger. Beneath the giant sack of gas was a comparatively small gondola. Roger drew one of his automatics, and moved in closer to the open-air deck of the zeppelin. The open air portion was located directly below the main gondola, and was used for launching rocket packs most of the time. It was made of special heat-absorbent materials, but countless black scorch marks blackened the floor.

There were machinegun turrets and rocket pods mounted along the bottom and sides of the open air deck and gondola, but Roger knew their weak point. They had blind spots small enough for a rocketeer to slip through. While they had patched most of such holes by adding more gun turrets, a few remained. They'd need time and money to fix them. Instinctively, Roger approached through a blindspot directly under th open air deck. Never in his dreams did he imagine he'd be using it to attack his own ship. He subconsciously thanked himself for being so cheap and procrastinating to get it done.

He tensed himself up as he passed safely by a pair of machinegun turrets. Taking a quick peak inside, he could see they were inactive due to the red lights on them. Either Lu's men were taking a break, manning other turrets, or just dumb. Given the fact they had just taken over, they might not even be aware of how to use most of the remote control point-defense weapons. Gently hovering upwards, Roger found himself directly in front of the deck. The deck was about fifty feet long, had metal railings, and white ceramic tiles on the floor, all covered with scorch marks from countless rocket pack launchings and landings. There was no one on board. The only signs of activity were the the grappling hooks and rappelling cables hanging down from the edge. Roger carefully landed on the deck, and drew his other pistol.

He ran towards a nearby bulkhead, and turned the wheel to open the door around. He twisted it with all his strength, and the door swung opened. Roger's pistol muzzle went in first, and then he followed. In front of him was a winding black wrought-iron staircase leading upwards towards the primary part of the gondola. He ran up the stairs, with both of his pistols ready.

Suddenly, he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Two of Yin's thugs descended at a brisk pace. One had a cigar in his mouth and pistols in his trench coat, and the other had a sawed off shotgun slung over his shoulder and bottle of wine in hand. Each was dressed in a reinforced trench-coat, probably taken from the armory on board the airship. Both were making idle chatter with each other.

"Think Lu's going to relax once we get some fuel?" one asked the other.

"We're stuck in the middle of nowhere, looting some village of yokels," the other shrugged. "Don't think those primitive fools have any fuel."

"Freeze!" Roger jumped at the two thugs, leveling a pistol at each.

Instead of throwing down their weapons, the two men reached for them. "Intruder!" one shouted as loud as he could. Two gunshots rang out, and the two thugs were shot in the face. Cursing to himself, Roger hurried up the stairs. He had to get to the bridge before Lu could try anything stupid. While the airship used helium and was reinforced for multiple hits, it could still be destroyed by someone handling the weapons in a stupid enough way.

Gunfire from a Johnson submachinegun erupted at the top of the stairs. Roger pressed himself against the wall, as bullets ricocheted around him. He ascended the staircase against the wall, moving slowly and deliberately, returning fire to keep the sub-gunner occupied. Another burst came closer to the wall, and rounds ricocheted off his rocket pack. Thankfully, they were not armor piercing rounds, but enough regular bullets would still have the same effect: making him explode in a giant fireball. Wanting to avoid this, he resolved to take out the gunner as fast as he could. He reloaded both pistols and charged up the stairs with his guns blazing. He managed to catch the gunner while he was loading a new ammo drum in, and dropped him with a few bullets to the torso. In front of him was another bulkhead, this one leading into the primary part of the airship. He quickly doubled back to the observation deck, and tossed grenade off the edge. It exploded in a cloud of blue smoke, signaling the assault team to begin climbing the ropes to the deck. Roger himself returned to the top of the stairs, and moved towards the bulkhead in front of the bridge.

Roger opened the bulkhead, and scanned both right and left with his pistols before moving on. The hallway in front of him was made of riveted steel in a gunmetal gray shade. To his right would lead to the crew quarters, armor, and workshop. To the left would lead directly to the bridge. Quickly, Roger saw the door to the right was closed, and decided to leave the rear of the ship to his other mercenaries. He decided he would storm the bridge. He didn't want to wait for the rest of his men, since there was no telling if and when Yin Lu would notice. He'd have to improvise a bit. To do so, he decided to grab a weapon with more rounds in it. He picked up the Johnson submachinegun and loaded a fresh drum of ammo into it. Most of the gear on the bridge was hardened to be bullet proof, since there was always the risk of enemies spraying the bridge with armor piercing rounds.

Roger exhaled, and prepared himself to go for the jugular. Hopefully, Lu would still be on the bridge. He opened the bulkhead to the bridge, and put both his pistols out. He saw his hunch from before was indeed correct. Yin Lu was indeed waiting on the bridge, sitting in the captain's chair. The bridge itself had two levels to it. There was an elevated section with the primary control console on it. The floor and walls of the bridge were the same gunmetal gray steel plating as the hallway before it. On the lower deck and the rear portions of the elevated deck, there were several control consoles, each showing multiple redundant readings. There were black and white remote camera televisions showing different parts of the ship and exterior. There were fuel, turret control, system readings, ammunition counters, radar controls, targeting systems, automaton controls, hull integrated, and dozens of other metrics and their respective displays.

Each console was about four feet of the ground, and swivel chairs were under each. Yin and his men had turned the bridge into a mess. Empty beer bottles, food crumbs, and various other detritus lay strewn out. In several of the chairs, the thugs sat back drinking and eating. They were all dressed in flak jackets and reinforced trenchcoats, carrying submachineguns in their hands. There was six of the bodyguards, all too many for him to take on alone. Yin Lu, a thin, wiry man with a crooked face sat in the captain's chair, holding a Johnson sub-gun of his own and chugging a beer bottle in the other. He spun around to meet the new guest.

"Roger Stevens!" he exclaimed, dropping the bottle and leveling the gun. "How'd you get up here?"

"How'd you think, you schmuck?" Roger took cover by the edge of the door. "We're the Rocket Rangers! We didn't keep all our packs on this ship, thankfully."

"Too bad my men have yet to figure out how to use them," Lu replied, taking cover behind the chair and ordering his men to set up a defensive line. "Once they do, I'll be the only crime boss with an airship and private rocketeer force! I think I'll start calling myself the Aeronaut!"

"How 'bout you come down to the observation deck, and I'll give you flying lessons?" Roger cracked.

Yin Lu snickered. "Come out, Roger! I've got half a dozen men with bigger pieces and more ammo than you have!" He gestured with his hand, and half a dozen muzzles were leveled at the door.

"You know, Lu," Roger shouted from behind cover. "I have to say you're smarter than I thought you were. Drawing us out, then yanking while we're away. So few men actually try strategy nowadays, it seems."

"Flattery will get you no where, fool!" Lu fired a burst from his gun at the door. "Come out and let's end this!"

"You know what, though? You tried focusing so much on not leaving the airship, you can't, even if you wanted to," Roger replied in a smug voice. He reached for something on his belt. "The strongest fort can become a large tomb all too easily. Here you are stuck without supplies or reinforcements in a giant floating coffin."

"It will only be your coffin, idiot! Men, get him!" Lu shouted to his men.

The man ran for the door when a burst of gunfire from Roger's sub-gun caused them to stop. "Too bad the ventilation on the bridge is something you never bothered investigating," Roger taunted. "I've just so happened to be dressed in a flight mask that filters the air. I've brought a poison gas grenade for you to choke on. Enjoy!"

With that, a grenade bounced from behind the door. The bulkhead slammed shut, like a coffin closing over the deceased. The grenade clattered right in front of Lu's feet. The crime boss cursed to himself, and tried running away. The men closest to the door tried to force the bulkhead open, but they met with resistance. The grenade exploded, and a thick blue cloud filled the room. Lu began coughing, looking for air.

"Get the door open!" he shouted in between gasping for air. The men covered their faces in their jackets, and turned the wheel on the door as hard as they could. Eventually, the wheel began to turn, and the door opened up. Yin Lu pushed his men aside, trying to be the first to reach clean air. He darted outside the door, and a burst of gunfire knocked him down. He was hit in the knees, and the pain shot up his legs. He saw blood, and hoped an artery wasn't nicked. He tried to raise his gun to return fire, but a boot slammed down on his hand. Roger stomped on his hand, causing him to release the gun. A quick shot to the face finished Yin Lu.

Suddenly, erratic gunfire came from the cabin. Roger ducked back behind cover near the hallway door. He didn't want to get hit by one. Some of the other men where trying to force their way out. The six were all trying to fit through the door at the same time. Two men fell down, riddled with bullets in the back from their former comrades. Roger mowed the one who made it out first with his own submachinegun. Three men still laid prone in the cabin, coughing loudly. Roger calmly walked into the room, kept his Johnson trained on them, and hit a button on the wall, which he knew out of memory. That moment, unseen fans began to blow from above the deck, dispersing the blue cloud.

"On your knees and hands up!" he ordered the remaining thugs.

In no shape to resist, the thugs did just that. Guns clattered to the messy floor.

"That wasn't fair!" a thug complained. "You hit us with poison gas!"

"Take a deep breath," Roger replied, rolling his eyes. "That was just a colored smoke grenade used for signaling. I can't believe you suckers fell for it! Sure, it would make you cough if you inhaled it, but it's just like regular smoke. Anyway, after that dirty trick you mooks pulled to take this girl, I had to return the favor."

It was that moment Roger heard footsteps in the hallway behind him. He turned around, and saw men in flak jackets emblazoned with yellow "RR" letters on their sleeves. One shot him a thumbs up. His men had arrived.

"Check the rear for any stragglers," Roger gestured. "But I don't think you'll find any left. I cleared the bridge."

"How many were there, sir?" the mercenary asked.

"Six of 'em, plus Yin Lu," he pointed to a corpse. "Lu's going to be feeding the worms soon, and I took three of his bodyguards prisoner."

"I don't know how you do it, sir!" the starstruck mercenary nodded. "Anyway, I'll get back to securing the rear."

Roger nodded and bound his three new prisoners with rope. He would have preferred to take more prisoners, but he had to exploit the chaos for all it was worth. Inwardly, he thought reading that classical Khitanese literature was paying off. Soon, the rest of the vessel was secure. Just as he got his men suited up for air support, he looked outside the bridge. The battle in the village had ceased.

"Blast it," he remarked to Hughes. "They didn't need our help after all!"

"What now, boss?" the Avalonian asked his commander.

"I'm going back down," he headed for the observation deck. "We still to talk with the villagers. In case you haven't noticed, Lu and his mooks wasted all our supplies." Roger gestured to the prisoners. "And we still need to decide what to do with those goons."

Hughes nodded. There was still the aftermath to deal with, but for now, Yin Lu and his army of thugs had been stopped. They still had an entire airship to clean up.