Excerpt for Airship Daedalus: A Shield Against the Darkness by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Airship Daedalus

A Shield Against
the Darkness

By Todd Downing


ISBN: 978-0-9981989-4-1

Copyright © 2017 Todd Downing & Deep7 Press

All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Edited by Dan Heinrich & Andrea Edelman
Cover art & design by Todd Downing

Based on the Airship Daedalus / AEGIS Tales setting and characters by Todd Downing and published in various media by Deep7 Press. Airship Daedalus™ and AEGIS Tales™ are trademarks of Deep7 Press.


Deep7 Press is a subsidiary of Despot Media, LLC
1214 Woods Rd SE Port Orchard, WA 98366 USA

To the kid inside all of us,
who never stops searching for adventure.

- Foreword -

I ask the reader to bear in mind two things before proceeding.

Firstly, this novel is a prequel to E.J. Blaine’s Assassins of the Lost Kingdom. Some might wonder why Assassins wasn’t released after this volume, and the answer is simple. When I created the Airship Daedalus property (which has become known as the “AEGISverse”), I didn’t think I’d actually be doing the long-form novel writing myself. My entire career has been spent in narrative and interactive design—and no small amount of screenwriting—so I assumed I would be producing the radio episodes, comics and tabletop game products, and hiring out the novels to other authors. Besides, the basic elements of this story already existed in the comics and radio episodes, so it wasn’t clear that this book would even need to exist…until the muse said otherwise. Which actually brings me full circle, as I began my writing career in narrative fiction. With Darkness, I realized that because a novel can convey far more detail and nuance than a comic book or radio drama, it might be both fun and worthwhile. This presented an excellent opportunity to tackle a story I already knew intimately, and fill in some of the blanks at the same time.

Secondly, the events of this book do not take place in our historical timeline. The AEGISverse is predicated on an alternate history, with a few major differences. Aside from the existence of functional magic, lost worlds where dinosaurs roam, and practical weird science, the world powers presented (especially the United States) are a generally more benign version of themselves. Extended military enforcement of emancipation during the post-Civil War era led to the absence of a Jim Crow south, and earlier treaties with the indigenous peoples were actually adhered to by the US government, leading to fewer conflicts, more cultural assimilation, and greater mutual respect. I do not pretend the world is without prejudice or evil—this setting is very much a pulp homage and relies on dire conflict and high stakes. But I’ve removed some of the more toxic institutional ills, the historical persons presented are the best (or worst) versions of themselves, and the setting as presented is a more inclusive sandbox.

If you have already read Assassins, this book tells the story of how the Daedalus crew was assembled, and their first action-packed adventure together (and it contains a lot of material not in the original comics and radio episodes). If you haven’t read Assassins, I highly recommend doing so when you’re done with this volume. If you’re a comic book reader, consider this book an issue #0.

Todd Downing

Summer 2017

- Chapter 1 -

New Jersey, April, 1925

Jack McGraw snapped his chewing gum and leaned left on the control stick, feeling the wind roll up under the belly of the plane as it banked into the clouds. His six-foot-four, well-muscled body barely fit in the cockpit of the Curtiss P-1 Hawk. Its frame rattled slightly with the sudden lift from an updraft, and Jack’s stomach did a somersault as the air current let go and he suddenly dropped twenty feet. The plane was an Army surplus model from 1923, recently fitted with a brand new 500-horsepower V-1400 engine, which purred with each roll, skid and dive. Jack smiled under a pair of Resistal aviator goggles which hid piercing blue eyes. His square jaw—bristling with two days’ beard—endlessly worked the Black Jack gum in his mouth. His boss, Jim Morton, had acquired a half dozen of these Army castoffs, which he hoped to turn into a working fleet for regional postal service. Jack hauled back on the stick and the Curtiss nosed high into the clouds above. He loved its quick response and control, even as the advancing storm winds manhandled its frame.

1925 was going to be a good year for Morton Aviation.

As he leveled out above a cushion of low clouds, Jack spied something in his periphery. Turning to glance down the line of his right shoulder, he saw another plane, then two.

Hello, he thought, banking into a turn to close the distance. Two fighters in a reconnaissance formation? Not something you see over New Jersey these days.

The giant engine revved, and Jack made up some distance, grabbing the pair of field glasses from their storage cubby in the cockpit and peering through them. He scanned for markings, for identifiers, even the basic body shape. They were Fokker planes, he was sure of it. War surplus D.VIIs, by the looks of them. Sleek biplane design, probably fitted with those BMW water-cooled engines from the latter part of the war. Painted pitch black with silver diamond wing markings… no… there was a decidedly concave sweep to the sides of the diamonds. Those were four-pointed stars.

Less than a decade ago, Jack McGraw had been a young and fearless fighter pilot, one of the countless Americans who had skirted their country’s official neutrality to serve overseas in the Great War. He’d belonged to a squadron of American fliers in the Royal Flying Corps, one of only two aces from that unit. He knew German planes and German tactics, and this chance sighting set him on edge. He angled around to try to keep the sun at his back, but the black planes suddenly banked left and converged toward him at full throttle.

It was too late to hide—they’d seen him and were closing.

Jack leaned hard and flipped over into a dive, drawing the enemy fighters behind him. Four Spandau machine guns chattered in his wake, and Jack knew at that moment the pilots must be young and inexperienced. Battle-tested fighter pilots would always lead the target and fire in bursts to conserve ammunition. They certainly wouldn’t have both followed in his dive like these pilots had.

As the checkered farmland of New Jersey zoomed up at him, Jack pulled back on the stick. He felt his stomach sink into his boots as the horizon dropped and the Curtiss roared into a steep climb. As before, the hostiles followed in the maneuver. Another staccato spray of lead and tracers flew wide.

Jack knew he was out-manned and outgunned—his weapons numbering exactly zero. He also knew his Hawk had twice the climbing power as the D.VIIs, better speed and a slightly higher service ceiling. And he had the edge in experience.

But that didn’t answer his questions: where had they come from, what was their purpose here, and what was he supposed to do about them—aside from simply avoiding being shot down? There weren’t any D.VIIs at any of the airfields in the northeast region, of that he was certain. So they weren’t local. If anything they looked like an elite offshoot of some Central Powers military force. But if that were the case, was the U.S. under attack by a foreign nation?

Jack leveled out of the climb at about 8,000 feet, cloaking the Curtiss above a bank of clouds, thinking frantically as the fighters pulled higher beneath him. Then the veil of mist beneath the Curtiss became instantly black and swelled up like the sea under a breaching whale. It surprised Jack, who throttled back and climbed again as a mammoth form erupted from the clouds. Eight hundred feet long and two hundred wide, the Luftpanzer was a leviathan. Torpedo-shaped and metallic black in color, the nose and tail fins were marked with the same four-pointed star icon. The roar of sixteen diesel engines cut through the air like its fuselage cut through the vapor. Jack couldn’t remember seeing a zeppelin of such scale during the war, on any side. It rose through the sky in a wide turn east.

He felt his stomach leap into his throat, and his mouth went suddenly dry. In most people, such an encounter would have inspired a primal fear response. For Jack McGraw, it was excitement. Who did this airborne behemoth belong to? And why was it here?

# # #

The bridge of the Luftpanzer was broad and cold, a latticework of aluminum struts and tempered glass windows, spartan save for the twin steering wheels and one duty station to each side. To port sat the comm station, an Austrian radioman dutifully searching the airwaves with headset covering his ears. To starboard, the navigator’s station, where a scar-faced, bespectacled Romanian poured over charts and maps of the Atlantic coastline.

Behind the two uniformed helmsmen stood the impressive Captain Jonas Ecke, sapphire eyes peering out from beneath the brim of his cap, a well-trimmed but voluminous white beard hiding a troubled expression. Next to him, a tall, slender woman paced the floor. She wore a black uniform almost identical to Ecke’s, with the same collar tabs bearing a silver four-pointed star. Her officer’s cap was pulled down just above almost-feline gray-blue eyes, her severe features accentuated by a short bob of raven-black hair. Shiny black knee-boots and jodhpurs completed the look. Maria Blutig scowled, visibly unhappy with the results of the day’s reconnaissance.

Suddenly the radioman turned in his seat, one hand on his headset. “Alarm! Our fighters have engaged an American plane off the port stern!”

Maria spun to face the man. “American plane?”

Ja. Civilian aircraft.”

Captain Ecke regarded his associate with a slight tinge of exasperation. “Of course, Maria. We are in their airspace. It is not safe for us here.”

“The American plane has seen us and must be destroyed!” Maria insisted.

Ecke glared with an arched eyebrow. “And what will happen when the local authorities discover the wreckage? When the U.S. government finds out?”

Maria locked eyes with the veteran airship commander and he could almost see the heat radiating from her gaze, but he didn’t back down.

“Firing on this pilot is an act of war, and not part of our mission here,” he maintained.

There was an awkward pause as the cogs turned in Maria Blutig’s mind. The respect she maintained for Ecke, and the fear inspired by their mutual master, prohibited further debate. “Very well,” she sighed. She turned away from the captain and barked at the crew. “Call back the escorts!”

# # #

Jack watched from a distance as the German planes banked away and took up docking positions under the giant ship. Had they overstepped their mission parameters by engaging with him? What wasn’t he supposed to have seen? Something told him they shouldn’t have been this far inland, and that they hadn’t prepared for encountering local aircraft—a sign of poor planning in Jack’s mind. He knew that in their place, if he wanted his presence to remain secret and he’d already fired on a civilian plane, he’d probably hightail it out of there as quickly as possible. It seemed like that was exactly what they were doing.

He glanced down at his fuel gauge and realized he’d been aloft far longer than he’d thought, what with the short but one-sided dogfight. There would be no further interaction with this Luftpanzer or its fighter escorts today. He’d file a report when he got back to the airfield and let the authorities take it from there.

The massive zeppelin turned south and became a shrinking dark silhouette in the afternoon sky, and Jack McGraw banked the Curtiss toward the patchwork of fields and farmlands below.

# # #

He descended over the new airfield at Kenilworth, dropping to a smooth landing in the dusty gravel. Turning the Curtiss off the landing strip, he taxied toward the midfield hangar, where a crew of mechanics would double-check the engine before putting her away for the night.

As he brought the plane to a stop near the hangar, he noticed a black Ford Model T touring car parked by the office. A couple of burly men in trench coats and fedoras stood nearby as a woman in a wool jacket and cloche hat approached the runway.

Powering the engine off, Jack hopped out of the pilot’s seat and slid down to find purchase on the lower wing. He raised the flight goggles to his forehead and squinted as he watched the woman come closer.

“Well well well,” said a warm voice. “Look what fell from the sky.”

A rush of memories flooded back to him and he recognized someone he’d known years ago. Someone he’d shared a war with. Someone he’d loved.

“What the—?” Jack stammered. “If it isn’t nurse Dorothy Brown!”

He smiled in spite of himself, feeling bewildered and attracted simultaneously. She hadn’t changed in the six years since the war. Sure, they both had acquired some “experience lines” around the eyes, but she was still the same slender brunette, with the same mischievous, disarming smile and sparkling emerald eyes that made his chest hurt. The same feeling he’d had when she’d broken off their romance in Paris in 1918.

“Starr, actually,” she corrected him, still smiling. “And it’s been six years since I was stitching up doughboys at the front, Captain McGraw. I’m all grown up, with an M.D. now.”

Jack reached up with a gloved hand and nudged the flight cap back on his head, releasing a sweaty lock of dishwater blond hair from underneath. “Fair enough, Doctor Starr,” he said. “ And what brings you to this airfield in Nowhere, New Jersey?”

For a moment, Jack thought he sensed nervousness, but then it was gone, and the woman returned to her heartbreaking smile.

“I have a proposition for you.”

Jack couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He put on his best poker face and decided to indulge in some sparring. “A proposition? Isn’t that a bit forward, Doctor?”

Dorothy Starr was in no mood for the game. In an instant her smile was gone, replaced by a look that was all business. “Isn’t that a bit presumptive, Captain?” she shot back. “The proposition isn’t from me.”

Jack folded his arms across his broad chest. His leather jacket creaked with the motion.

“Then who’s it from?”

The playful smile returned to her face. “Let’s just say you won’t want to miss this opportunity. Glenmont Manor, 7 p.m. Should we send a car?”

“I can take a taxi,” Jack replied.

“Good. Might want to wash up.” She turned and began to walk back to the Ford.

Jack suddenly blinked in a realization. “Wait a minute. Glenmont? Isn’t that—?”

“Edison’s home?” Dorothy finished. “Yes, it is.”

She arrived at the car and one of the men opened the rear door in anticipation. She turned back to face Jack and warned, “Remember what I said about washing up.”

Then she was in the car and so were the men in long coats, and the Ford pulled away onto Coolidge Drive, leaving Jack McGraw one very confused pilot.

- Chapter 2 -

The sun had set in layers of deep orange and purple which gradually gave way to a starlit sky. A black Checker cab negotiated the circular driveway in front of Glenmont, pulling to a stop under the cover of the second floor living room which thrust from the house to overlook the front lawn like the eye of a cyclops. The structure rested on brick pillars and created a covered approach which allowed for guests—or Edison himself—to come and go without regard to inclement weather.

Jack paid the hack and got out, facing the east entry of the formidable Queen Anne mansion with a slight sense of apprehension. He cleaned up well, having donned a tweed sport jacket, gray twill trousers and a white fedora. He’d also rid his jaw of the beard which had cultivated over the past few days.

The taxi pulled away, and Jack cleared the steps to the front door, knocking tentatively.

There was an ominous clunk from inside as the bolt was drawn back and the heavy door opened into a lavish reception area. A butler in black livery welcomed him inside. As Jack removed his hat and handed it to the butler, he heard another set of doors open, and a loud welcome from a white-haired man of almost-80 in a powder gray three-piece suit.

“Come in! Come in!”

Following him was Dorothy Starr, dressed in a black dinner gown, with an expression that told Jack she was seeing him in a completely different light.

Edison moved to shake Jack’s hand firmly. “Captain McGraw! Delighted to meet you, sir.”

Jack couldn’t believe he was being personally greeted by the Wizard of Menlo Park.

“Likewise, Mr. Edison. Please, call me Jack.”

Edison turned, indicating Dorothy. His voice was much louder than it need have been, but he was compensating for his hearing impairment. “You already know our charming Dr. Starr.”

Dorothy nodded, a slight blush to her cheeks. “Captain.”

Jack allowed himself a half-smile. “Doc…” he nodded, then returned to business. “Forgive my impatience, Mr. Edison, but Dorothy mentioned a proposition. What’s this all about?”

Edison grew serious for a moment, then clapped him on the shoulder as if they were old friends. “Not to worry, Jack. All in due time. Won’t you come with me?”

The old man led them around the corner through a beautiful dark wood archway into a well-appointed drawing room. Jack stooped just inside the arch and took the room in. He could picture Edison burning the midnight oil at his desk, coming up with the next great invention to send down to the boys in Research & Development. The windows in the room looked west, opposite of the east-facing entry. Jack could see the dark silhouettes of structures further out on the property.

“Doctor Starr tells me you knew each other in the war,” said Edison as he walked around behind his desk. He seemed to be looking for something.

“That’s right,” Jack said. “I flew for the 32nd Squadron RAF before America joined in. Met Ms. Starr in a French field hospital. She patched me up once or twice.”

Doc smiled delicately at the memory. “Once or twice,” she repeated.

Edison continued shuffling through papers and notebooks on his desk, uninterested in the energy exchange between Jack and Doc. “And do you have experience with lighter-than-air vehicles as well as fixed-wing craft?”

Jack shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ve definitely flown more kites than balloons, Mr. Edison, but I did log a lot of time in British airships scouting for U-boats. If it flies, I can probably pilot it.”

Doc interjected, “And can we assume you’ve been logging flight time on a regular basis since the war?”

“Yes indeedy,” Jack nodded. “Mail runs and test flights for some of the regional aviation companies, mostly.” He thought for a moment, then squinted at Edison. “Say, does this have anything to do with that giant zeppelin I saw today?”

“Giant zeppelin?” Doc stammered.

Edison found what he was looking for—a small key with a handwritten tag tied to it. He looked at Jack and soured.

“Oh dear,” he said. “It’s worse than I thought.”

Jack squirmed. “Mr. Edison, maybe you’d better tell me what this is about.”

Edison and Doc exchanged a look. Doc nodded. Edison turned to face the tall pilot.

“Jack, what do you know about black magic?”

Jack caught himself. “Black magic? You mean like spells and hexes?”

Doc pursed her lips. “Among other things, yes.”

Edison put the key in his pocket and circled the desk, coming to lean against the front. “As you may know, spiritualism has been an interest of mine for some time. In my studies, I discovered that a corrupt wizard named Aleister Crowley had created a privately-funded hermetical order dedicated to mysticism, the Astrum Argentum, or Silver Star.”

Jack’s lips became a thin line. Had the old man actually said the words “corrupt wizard”? As in, “wizards are real, and this guy is a bad one”?

Doc went to the window and looked out over the property, bathed in the fading orange glow of the setting sun. “On the surface, they appear to be just another secret society. But there’s more to them,” she warned. “A lot more.”

Jack leaned against the arch, unwilling to fully enter the space. “I’m all ears, Doc,” he said.

Doc turned and began to pace the room. The topic was clearly troubling to her in a very personal way. “Crowley has been deported from at least three European countries. His rites are associated with necromancy and blood sacrifice... What Mr. Edison didn’t know was that Crowley’s true motive with the founding of this order was to seek out and acquire as many mystical artifacts and items of power from around the world as possible, to fuel his maniacal ambitions.”

“But… to what end?” Jack mused.

Edison nodded toward the door leading out to the west part of the grounds. Jack and Doc followed him outside.

“Only Crowley knows the true answer to that question, Jack,” said Edison. “But I think we can assume his motives are not entirely benign.”

Doc sighed. “Mr. Edison understates what we know to be true. We’ve been watching this organization grow since the end of the war. They’ve killed innocent people, and attempted to open dimensional portals to summon eldritch demons for personal gain. I actually have a theory that Crowley was behind some of the event leading up to the Great War itself.”

“Which has yet to be proved, my dear Doctor,” Edison added, underscoring what Jack interpreted as a fundamental disagreement between the two.

Doc frowned, but didn’t press that part of her case. “He has disaffected people from all over the world flocking to join his organization, which grows stronger every day.”

Edison led them across a manicured gravel path which cut through the west lawn. Electric lanterns on park posts illuminated the grounds every twenty feet or so. “We have reports of Silver Star devotees infiltrating government departments in Britain, Germany, and right here at home.”

“Does the government know?” asked Jack. “Why doesn’t someone do something?”

They arrived at a research laboratory—a nondescript brick building with frosted glass windows.

Edison smiled as he pushed open the door and Jack held it. “Oh someone is doing something, my boy.”

They entered into the cavernous lab, populated by several studious looking men in white smocks who were pouring over notes and specification sheets. Edison led Jack and Doc toward his private office.

“Some like-minded friends of mine have joined me in a particular endeavor. The American Enterprise Group for International Security.”

Jack visualized the initials in his mind. “AEGIS, eh? Isn’t that a type of mythological armor?” He was suddenly glad he’d paid attention in his classical lit class at Stanford.

Doc regarded Jack, impressed. “Very good.”

Edison continued, unlocking his desk drawer with the key from his pocket, and gathering up a couple of blueprints from beneath the rolltop. “Since the Silver Star has moles at the highest levels of government and conducts their war in secret, we figured we needed to fight fire with fire. AEGIS is a private, philanthropic network, with growing resources. We operate in secret, around the world, and independently of any single government.”

Jack watched him close the rolltop and lock the drawer, slipping the key back into his pocket.

“Gee, Mr. Edison, that sounds great. But what does it have to do with the Luftpanzer?”

Edison herded them back out the door to the exit at the far end of the lab. Work tables were cluttered with amazing inventions in various stages of functionality, overseen by the bespectacled scientists in white coats.

Doc explained as they walked. “If the Silver Star is in possession of an airship like the one you saw, it means they can get to the most remote corners of the globe, extract whatever artifact they’re after or complete whatever ritual, and be gone before any national military can intercept them.”

Then they were back outside, Edison leading them further down the illuminated gravel path as the crickets began to chirp their evening songs. “To put it plainly,” he said, with some extra pep in his stride, “people like Crowley thrive on chaos. They have no other thought but personal power, and they will crush anyone who dares get in their way. But nations in chaos don’t buy American steel, or timber, or food, or airplanes. Chaos isn’t good for anyone’s business, or health, or standard of living. Stability, order, and a healthy population is good for everyone. So we created this ‘aegis’—this armor of sorts—to be a shield against the darkness and unspeakable horror Crowley represents.”

As they walked, Jack saw the shape of what looked to be a massive barn rise in the distance. The moon had come out and hovered full in the sky above it. “Naturally,” he nodded.

Edison continued. “And to be the embodiment of this shield against the darkness, is a conveyance that will allow a hand-picked team of dedicated individuals to preempt Crowley at his every turn. To dog his every step. And let no trespass go unpunished.”

The barn was now directly ahead, blocking most of the night sky in Jack’s field of view. A lone work lamp set high on the outer wall illuminated a simple entry door next to a pair of giant sliding panels which looked to be on a motorized track. Jack could hear the familiar sounds of workers in a shop.

Doc took Jack’s arm as Edison led them up to the entry door.

“Distances that once took months will be traveled in days,” she explained.

“I don’t understand,” said Jack.

Edison smiled. “You will, my boy.”

The door opened and Edison led them into what was actually an aerodrome. It was open and cavernous, with various heavy tools, machinery and work stations around the perimeter. Sparks erupted from welding torches, and the heat from arc lights above made Jack begin to bead up with sweat.

“What… is… this?”

In the center of the building sat an airship. It wasn’t long—perhaps only 250 feet, if that. The slightly flattened lozenge shape of the outer envelope made it look torpedo-like, and clearly aluminum fibers had been woven into the canvas, because it shone and reflected in the dim work light. An enormous turbofan engine nacelle sat at the end of a twenty-foot arm jutting out from either side of the lower gondola, and it appeared to Jack that the cockpit or bridge was set higher up, thrust out just under the nose. A painter attached to a safety cable worked to complete the red stripe on the outer edge of the tail fins, and a winged sword and shield emblem graced the upper vertical stabilizer. Black registration numbers were painted on her stern: AX2-1. And along her side, level with the bridge, a name: DAEDALUS II.

“Behold, Captain,” Edison gestured at the vehicle. “Here is your shield.”

Jack stared, slack-jawed at the thing. He’d never seen anything like it—never thought a dirigible could look that graceful, for that matter.

Doc grinned like a schoolgirl who’d orchestrated the best surprise party ever. “She’s a brand-new airship, Jack. With an experimental drive system.”

The pilot took a step toward the airship and stopped, unable to pry his eyes away. He had a million questions. But all that came out of his mouth was a stammered, “Holy cow! T-That’s one heck of a bird, Mr. Edison!”

Doc bit her lower lip. She’d missed Jack in the six years they’d been apart. Missed his enthusiasm and boyish energy.

“You think you can fly her, Captain?” she asked playfully.

He didn’t look away from the ship. “Boy howdy, I sure wanna try!”

Edison chuckled. “You’ll get your chance soon enough.”

Jack made one more visual pass along the aerodynamic envelope and suddenly recalled the ship’s name.

“It says Daedalus II,” he said. “Pardon me for asking, but what happened to Daedalus I?”

Edison wandered to a workbench nearby and unrolled one of the blueprints from under his arm.

“Well,” he began, “that is a tale in itself, Captain.” He squinted over specifications and measurements as he spoke, relaying the story as if he were spinning a tall tale in an Old West saloon. “A friend and associate of mine, Vincenzo DiMarco, an Italian scientist living in Venezuela, made a rather incredible discovery in 1917, having to do with perpetual motion. Using basic principles of magnetism and nearly frictionless gyroscopic movement, he was able to create a small engine capable of generating deceptively high voltage. DiMarco was also a talented aviator and first implemented his engine in a dirigible of his own design, the Daedalus. He was to license his airship design to my company for civilian use during the war, but the Daedalus wasn’t complete until the end of 1919. Unfortunately, agents of the Astrum Argentum caught up with DiMarco in 1922, and shot him down. Because DiMarco had no access to American helium, he’d naturally used hydrogen for lift gas, which made the poor Daedalus more like the boy, Icarus, who burned by flying too close to the sun.”

Jack frowned. Edison went back to poring over the unrolled blueprints on the desk.

“We can only hope Crowley’s men found nothing of value amid the wreckage,” Edison said. “One of our agents managed to retrieve DiMarco’s schematics and smuggle them out of Venezuela before Crowley’s soldiers could find his laboratory.”

Doc’s smile fell at the mention of the lost agent. “Lucky for us,” she added.

Edison pointed at different areas on the blueprints. “We built a brand new airship from his designs. Of course I was able to improve on some systems… the alternator, electrical battery array, and the controls.”

Doc looked across the giant aerodrome at the Daedalus. “And she uses helium for lift. Not hydrogen.”

Jack managed to crack a smile. “Well, at least if we go down, we won’t be on fire.”

Suddenly an abrasive Bronx baritone echoed out of the darkness behind him. “You catch my bird on fire and I’ll pound you!”

Jack turned, astonished. There stood a stocky man of forty with salt and pepper hair and walrus-like mustache. He wore grease-stained coveralls and a mechanic’s cap with the bill turned up.

“Huh? Rivets?! Why, Carl Holloway, you old dog!”

The mechanic reached out an equally grease-stained hand and Jack shook it, forgetting he was wearing his Sunday best.

“Woof woof!” Rivets laughed. “One and the same!”

Jack couldn’t keep the stupid grin off his face. He glanced at Doc and could see her beginning to smile too. He finally wrested his now-filthy hand from Rivets’ grasp. “Gosh, it’s good to see ya, Rivets!”

The corners of the big, bushy mustache came up at both ends, and Jack knew he was smiling underneath it. “You too, Cap,” the mechanic said.

Jack was about to launch into the multitude of questions streaming through his head, when he stopped, listening to the sounds in the aerodrome. Someone was singing. It was a song he’d blocked out from his time in the war. A song he hated.

Raise a glass to Captain Stratosphere

His head in the clouds, He who knows no fear

With his goggles on and his chocks away

And his guns a-blazing, He will save the day

Jack blinked, and Rivets gestured behind the group with his thumb. “I brought an old pal along.”

Jack watched as another face from his past emerged from the dark. The angular form of the dapper British officer was clad in dress khakis and a tie, his wavy black hair slicked back and well-groomed, much like the pencil mustache on his upper lip.

“Well, as I live and breathe…” said Jack.

The officer grinned. “Thanks to me, as I recall.” His voice was a pleasing timbre laced with posh King’s English.

The men shook hands and clapped shoulders.

“Edward Willis,” muttered Jack in disbelief. “Duke!”

Willis cocked an eyebrow and took in the group. “Looks like a bloody reunion of Yanks in the RFC, eh wot?”

Jack noticed that Doc and Edison had both been watching to see what his reaction would be to these surprise appearances. “Duke was the best munitions man at the Western Front,” he explained. “And Rivets was the best kite mechanic. I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for these guys.”

“That’s why we recruited them,” Doc informed him. “They’re going with us.”

Jack straightened. “Us?!” he puzzled. “Now hold on, sister…”

Doc bristled, presuming a chauvinist tirade to follow.

“Not to worry, Captain.” Edison insisted. “Dr. Starr is quite necessary to this venture. In addition to her medical expertise, she is also quite the expert on the occult.”

Jack started to protest, but Rivets cut him off. “Cap, she was with us at the front, remember? She patched us all up at one time or another.”

Rolling his eyes, Jack reassured the group. “It’s not the Doc I’m worried about. She can handle the worst the world can throw at her. It’s just that Duke here took some shrapnel to the head at Verdun, and wasn’t able to fly without vertigo.”

Doc closed her eyes and chuckled softly to herself. The more she got reacquainted with Jack McGraw, the more she liked him.

Duke waved away Jack’s concern. “Don’t worry about me, old boy. I’ll be fine as long as you don’t take her on any loops or barrel rolls. Besides, if the Silver Star is really as much a threat as we think, you’ll need each one of us in your corner.”

Edison looked up from the work table, regarding Jack carefully. “That is, if our good captain is decided,” he said.

It was like something out of a Jules Verne novel, Jack thought. He mused aloud: “Let’s see… fly a brand new airship with an experimental drive system all over the world with my war buddies, saving the world from unspeakable horror. Fame, fortune, glory and discovery…” Jack folded his arms over his chest and gazed at the sleek aircraft. “I’m in. When do we take her out, Mr. Edison?”

Edison suddenly realized there was a timetable attached to the project. “Ah, we’re still finalizing some adjustments to the battery array. Why do you ask?”

“Just the matter of the Luftpanzer snooping around over New Jersey,” Jack said. “The more I think about it, the more I think they may have been looking for your little operation here.”

Edison’s gaze retreated into thoughtful contemplation.

Rivets stepped up beside Jack to look at the Daedalus. “You know, Cap… there’s nothing on that bird that I can’t fiddle with while we’re flyin’.”

Duke nodded. “I concur, Mr. Edison. If you think time is of the essence, I’d certify the Daedalus sound as a pound.”

In an instant, Jack McGraw became the leader of the group. “Then we should take off at first light,” he said. “I’ll get my gear at the airfield and be back in a couple hours. Rivets can give me the rundown then.”

A familiar chemistry coursed through the group, a shared excitement over a dynamic shared in harder times. A unity born of shared crisis.

Jack gazed out at the Daedalus, like a teenage boy on a first date. Doc took his arm again.

“Come on, Captain,” she offered. “We can take my car.”

- Chapter 3 -

The drive back to Kenilworth airfield was tranquil and quiet. Doc’s 1923 Model T runabout chattered along the gravel road, its headlamps probing the dark, Jack at the wheel. He’d driven trucks—and even the occasional staff car—while in the service, but since mustering out, he’d been content to hire a taxi for ground transportation. He was in a plane fully half of his waking hours anyway, living in a barracks at the airfield as part of his compensation from Morton Aviation.

He decided he liked the runabout. Sporty little thing.

Doc tried to fill the silence by running down the design specs of the Daedalus.

“...and Henry Ford personally built the primary outboard engines to DiMarco’s specifications. Her skeleton is a lightweight duralumin frame, and the skin is a new vulcanized canvas-aluminum fiber weave, laminated with aluminum powder resin.”

“She’s quite a bird, Doc,” Jack replied, intrigued more than ever as to how, and why, they’d been set in each other’s path for a second time. “Say, if you don’t mind me prying, where’s Mister Starr? I take it that’s behind the name change.”

Doc looked down and sighed. This conversation had been in the works for six years. It could no longer be avoided. “Colonel Dirk Starr, the surgeon I was seeing in France…”

“Right! The surgeon… that’s who you ended up tying the knot with?” What Jack had wanted to say was, “…that’s who you broke my heart for?” but that would have been unfair. Jack was a young fighter pilot at the time, brash and full of life. It made him extremely attractive to a battlefield nurse needing the warm embrace of a comrade in the midst of the hell of war, and they’d enjoyed a spectacular weekend furlough in Paris in 1918. But those in his line of work didn’t have a long life expectancy. Jack McGraw wasn’t a good bet as a husband. At least, not back then. She’d tearfully ended their fling to go back to her post at the field hospital with her surgeon. They’d lost contact shortly thereafter.

“Yes,” Doc answered. “We have a daughter. He died three years ago.”

Jack was struck mute. They drove along in silence until he managed a contrite, “I’m so sorry…”

“Thanks,” she said quietly. “He’s actually the reason I’m working on the Daedalus project for AEGIS.”

Jack searched for a delicate way to ask the multitude of questions circling his head. Finally, he settled on the biggest one. “I don’t want to reopen old wounds, but can I ask what happened?”

# # #

Venezuela, September, 1922

Dirk Starr stepped off the train in Caracas amid a scurrying sea of people. He wore a buff colored cotton suit and Panama hat, and would have blended in perfectly if not for his tall stature and dark blond mustache—a direct contrast to ninety percent of the Venezuelan populace. Vincenzo DiMarco’s schematics for the frictionless dynamo generator and the Daedalus airship were tucked safely in a leather valise under his arm.

He scanned the crowd for his contact, Ricardo “Buzz” Santos, a Brazilian seaplane pilot who operated out of the Caribbean region. The man who would get him back to the States.

As he negotiated his way through the crowds of businessmen and tourists toward the sunbaked outdoors, a shadowy figure leaned around from behind one of the many tile pillars on the platform, raising the slim, two-foot tube of a blowgun. There was a quiet ‘huff’, and Dirk Starr felt the sting of a dart pierce the back of his neck.

His hand flew instinctively to the pain and pulled the dart away. He opened his hand and looked at it. Amazonian native construction, possibly Chocó. He was tempted to look around and confront his assailant, but he knew it had been a Silver Star agent, and confrontation would not do any good if some kind of paralytic had been administered. He wouldn’t have long before the effects would be felt. He just wanted to find Buzz Santos and get the hell out of there.

The dart in his hand became blurry. He shoved it into his pocket to take back to Dorothy. With the dart, she’d be able to determine the source and type of poison, and derive some kind of antidote. Starr had every confidence in his wife’s expertise—he just needed to get home.

Blurred vision became blindness as Dirk Starr staggered out of the train station into the oppressive tropical sunlight. He felt a wave of nausea and he stumbled, feeling strong hands on his shoulders as he regained his footing.

“Señor Starr!”

Starr blinked in the stark white light, unable to focus. “Buzz?”

“Si, Señor. What has happened?”

The man was a murky gray blob in an ocean of light. Starr couldn’t focus. He felt his knees wobble and his left leg give way again. Buzz held him up.

“P-p-poisoned,” mumbled Starr, now barely able to stay upright.

He could feel Buzz sling his left arm over the shorter man’s shoulder, bracing him against further falling. Then there was a car door opening, and he felt himself falling into the back seat. He passed out as urgent phrases were traded in Spanish.

When he came to, his vision had stabilized a bit, and he saw a seaplane floating at the end of a pier. Now Buzz was on his right side, and a man he didn’t know was on the left—possibly the cabbie. The end of the pier grew closer and Starr realized he was being dragged to the plane. His right hand grasped for the valise, and Buzz noticed Starr’s agitation.

“Do not worry, Señor. I have the case. We are going to get you home.”

“Home,” Starr repeated, and blacked out again.

Dirk Starr regained consciousness one more time. Buzz had delivered him to field agent Joe Salyer in Miami, who got him and the leather valise on a fast plane back to New Jersey. When he opened his eyes, he was in a hospital bed and Dorothy was leaning over him. She seemed to be in conversation with an older gentleman in the corner of the room. Mr. Edison? He tried to speak—if only to tell Dorothy one last time how much he loved her. How much he loved their daughter.

But his vision went black again and the voices died away, and all that was left was the pain as his organs and tissues slowly necrotized. Colonel Dirk Starr was a decorated Army surgeon who had saved the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers. He was a talented field agent with the AEGIS organization who had snatched the plans for revolutionary technology from the claws of a diabolical enemy. It took him eight weeks to die, in an agony he could not express. And there was nothing Dorothy Starr could do to save him.

# # #

“When he died,” Doc explained, “I vowed there would be a reckoning with Crowley and his order. I’ve been studying the Astrum Argentum for the past three years. Their organization, their tactics, their magic… it’s a terrifying thought, what their intentions are. And the blood already on Crowley’s hands.”

Jack drove as the headlights illuminated the road ahead of them. He couldn’t blame Doc for the choice she’d made back in 1918, nor for the course it had put her on. And at least she was back in his life. He could be happy with that.

“Starr was an officer and a gentleman,” Jack said. “I was always a little jealous that he’d won your affections, but he was a good man. If I can help you find justice, I will.”

“Thanks, Jack,” Doc smiled wistfully. “I knew you were the right guy to lead this endeavor.”

“Well the more I learn about Crowley, the more I wanna deck him,” Jack muttered through clenched teeth. Then he changed his tone toward the positive. “You mentioned a daughter?”

Doc nodded. “Ellen. She’s six.”

“Where’s she?”

“My aunts are scholars. Musicians. Renaissance women. They live in San Diego. They take care of her and see to her education while I’m away. I’ll go down there to visit when we’re done with this mission.”

“I like San Diego,” Jack reminisced. “Spent a lot of time down there when I was a kid.”

Doc looked as if she was about to speak. She shifted uncomfortably and gazed out the passenger window.

“What was that you were saying earlier, about Crowley being responsible for the war?” Jack asked.

Doc pursed her lips. “I never said he was solely responsible, Jack. But I can place him within a hundred miles of several pivotal events and meetings leading up to the war. It’s purely circumstantial evidence, and the AEGIS board won’t entertain such folly…” She turned to meet Jack’s eyes. “But I know I’m right.”

He believed her. Jack McGraw didn’t know about magic and dimensions and demon portals, but he’d seen enough blood sacrifice and inhuman evil to last several lifetimes.

Jack turned into the gravel lot adjacent to the airfield office. He decided to steer the conversation away from personal matters and back to business. “Say, how big a crew can the Daedalus carry?”

Doc blinked, snapping out of her reverie. “Six, with full provisions and gear. Why?”

“Because there’s someone else we need.”

Jack pulled to a stop outside the main entrance and cut the engine. He stepped out of the car, and Doc followed.

“My gear’s in a locker, just inside,” he said.

Doc’s curiosity was piqued. “Who did you mean?”


“You said we needed someone else. Who did you mean?”

Jack dug in his trouser pocket for his keys. A small ring of four keys and a pewter Curtiss logo chain fob came out with his hand. “Remember Charlie?”

As he unlocked the entry door, Doc searched her memories of the war. There was much she’d just as soon forget, but the Cherokee sharpshooter from North Carolina with the dry wit and preternatural accuracy wasn’t someone she could easily forget.

“Charlie Dalton?” She asked. “Deadeye?”

“One and the same,” said Jack. He pushed the door open with a click and held it open for Doc.

“How long has it been since you talked to him?”

“Since we ran afoul of those fascists in Italy.” Jack closed the door behind them and led Doc past the front desk to a row of pilot lockers along the wall. “My locker’s over here.”

Doc pursed her lips in the dark office. “I meant to compliment you on the Curtiss, by the way. Nice bird.”

“Oh, she’s not mine,” Jack corrected. “Belongs to Mr. James Morton of Morton Aviation.” He fished one of the other three keys on the ring forward and opened the locker. Out came a heavy canvas duffel bag, followed by a pile of flight leathers, cap and goggles, Army surplus web belt, and two leather holsters—full.

Doc raised an eyebrow. “Well that’s some flight gear you have there, Captain,” she quipped. “You often find a need for twin .45 automatics in your work as a test pilot?”

“More often than you might think,” Jack replied, dead serious.

Just then Doc caught something in her peripheral vision. Looking up from the duffel bag, she could see that the door to the adjacent airplane hangar was open, and that a light was on in the office at the other end. Then something passed in front of the light, and Doc had a moment of rising panic.

“Hey, Jack,” she said, nudging him as he packed his gear into the duffel. “Is that Mr. Morton’s office back there?”

“Yes,” Jack answered.

“He must be working late,” said Doc.

Jack looked up at the single light source from the office window. “That’s odd. Not like him to leave the office door open at night.”

Then there was a clunk from the office, and Jack’s suspicion cranked into overdrive. “Stay here,” he told Doc. “I’ll check it out.” He shucked both .45s from their holsters and began to tiptoe away into the hangar, but Doc stopped him.

“Oh no you don’t. I’m coming with you.”

“Suit yourself,” said Jack, handing her one of the pistols. “But take one of these.”

Doc felt the weigh of the nickel-plated Colt in her hand. “Now you’re talking.”

“Just stay behind me,” Jack instructed. “And don’t be afraid to make a dash for the car.”

Together they silently moved into the hangar and found cover behind a stack of wooden shipping crates.

“I can see movement in the office,” Jack said.

“Who do you think it is?”

Suddenly a flashlight beam caught Doc’s face. She ducked away, but it was too late.

“Hey!” a voice called out, followed by two pistol shots in the dark.

Jack grimaced. “Someone who doesn’t want to be found.” He squinted through the dark, remembering where the big oil drums were. If he could sneak around to their flank…

“If you could sneak around to those oil barrels,” Doc suggested.

“Way ahead of you, Doc.” Jack said. “I’ll move around and see if I can flank them. You stay right here and cover me.”

Then he was gone, and Doc pulled back the hammer on the pistol.

“I don’t know if trouble came with me or you,” she said under her breath. “But we’re both in it now.”

Jack scurried behind the stack of oil barrels mid-hangar. He poked his head over one of the bottom ones to see what he could of the office. A lone overhead lamp illuminated an office in disarray, with file drawers pulled out and furniture in pieces. Whoever this was had seriously tossed the office to find what they were looking for. Two silhouettes took cover in the doorway and traded gunfire with Doc. He decided to take advantage of their focus on Doc and silently crab-walked to the tail of his Curtiss.

He rolled under the tail, then ran—head down as though blocking for his college football running back. Before he knew it, he’d closed the gap.

“We’ve been found out!” a gruff voice yelled. “Get back to headquarters!”

Then a tall, athletic figure loomed up in the doorway. “Not so fast, boys!”

Jack was lightning quick, delivering two blows with the butt of his Colt. The pistol-whipped thugs rolled out of the doorway onto the hangar floor. Pocketing the pistol, Jack found the hangar light switches on the outside wall of the office and flipped them on.

Doc hurried toward him. “Jack,” she cried, “are you all right?”

“Just fine, Doc,” Jack replied, rolling one of the thugs over with his foot so that the man’s face was visible. “Laid both of these jokers out for the count, though.”

Both men were of European extraction, one large and stocky and one a bit smaller and bespectacled. Jack had noted the one who’d spoken had a thick New Jersey accent. They were both dressed in black overcoats and their hats—both Homburgs—had fallen away into the office.

Doc pointed out a gleam from the large man’s coat lapel. A small lacquered pin displayed a silver four-pointed star on a black square field. “Look at that lapel pin, Jack,” she said.

Jack nodded, deep in thought. “Just like the Luftpanzer.”

“These two are Silver Star,” Doc asserted.

“But what could they want with Morton?” Jack wondered.

Doc knelt and patted down the smaller fellow’s jacket. She produced a sheaf of file folders and began looking through them while Jack poked around inside the office.

James Morton lay crumpled in a heap under his overturned office chair. His throat had been slit.

“Look at the files they took,” Doc called. “Your employment records with the aviation company.”

Jack reappeared at the doorway, face ashen. Doc knew what that look meant. Morton was dead. She also knew why.

“They must have found out AEGIS was recruiting you,” she offered softly.

Jack’s mind was spinning. They should call the cops, he thought. With these two goons in custody it would be easy enough to bring in the Bureau of Investigation. Take some of the steam out of this international conspiracy. Then he heard a hissing sound, like the fizz from a Bromo-Seltzer, and he smelled something acidic and coppery. He looked down at the men on the floor.

“Say, what gives?!” he marveled.

Doc stood quickly, aghast. “They’re dissolving!”

They watched as the thugs began to bubble and smoke, withering away to nothing more than a pile of bones and some empty clothes. Ghostly, vaporous tendrils of smoke drifted toward the ceiling. The larger man’s skull cracked and caved in, pieces becoming fragments, crumbling away to dust.

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