Chapter 19 When The Dust Settles

There were only a few fair-weather cumulus clouds visible, emphasizing the sky above as Jason enjoyed a quiet moment looking up. Even though the skies were clear, the stars were absent that night, blotted out by the ever-present lights of downtown New York. Standing on the edge of the runway near the top of the Empire State Building, the city was laid out before him like pirate treasure, vibrant in its endless surge of human energy even at midnight. Sirens sounded somewhere far off, deep inside the metropolis. Music drifted out from behind him.

'Guess who?' came a voice.

Jason's mouth curled into a wry smile.

'Loyle, you have no idea how much you fall short of the expectations that particular question raises,' he answered.

If the first impression of Loyle 'Show-Stopper' Crawford could be summed up in a single word, it would be: 'playboy.' He had the flamboyance of a Hollywood actor and a family fortune behind him that made many wonder what the hell he was doing in the military. His signature flying cap, askew as always, and his leather flying jacket were frequently thought of as nothing but accessories to aid him in his fancies of playing combat pilot. Jason knew better. Crawford was a combat pilot and an ace to boot. He had won and lost like many of their kind and the sense of duty went deep inside the man. Yet beyond that sense of duty was something else. The desire, the urge, the addiction to power up that beast of an engine, to point that nose towards the end of the runway and let loose all the power at your command that would take you up. Up and away from the earth's bounds and limitations. Jason knew this, because he felt it too. All except the sense of duty. It wouldn't do for any self-respecting pirate to be bothered with such trivialities.

'Good evening to you too, Grant,' continued Crawford as he stood beside the pirate. He drew from his cigarette and exhaled a new cloud into the air. 'Admiring the view, are you? Can't blame you. Late night New York City seen from the top of the Empire State Building? Aren't much places in the world that can offer you a view like this. Which reminds me, do you by any chance remember what I promised you the last time you came to visit my town?'

'Not precisely, no. Didn't it run somewhere along the lines of: "If you or your two-bit pirate crew ever show up in these skies again, I'll shoot you down, patch you up, shoot you down again, throw you off the Brooklyn Bridge and shoot you once more while you're falling to your watery grave."?'

'Amazingly accurate. Especially for someone with a clearly faulty memory, because here you are again.'

'Didn't you make that promise while your plane was going down in flames after I shot your tail section clean off?' asked Jason, still staring out to the city.

Crawford nodded, his eyes betraying the insincerity of his smile. 'That doesn't really make me any more lenient for you to show up again.'

'Yeah, it must really bug you that you didn't get to shoot me down.'

Crawford nodded again, this time without any smile whatsoever.

'And the whole thing with president La Guardia holding this celebration held in my name?'

Jason gestured towards the music behind them. The other man's face darkened.

'Especially now that you're under orders to give the Firebirds an honorary escort out of the Empire State.'

'Don't flatter yourself too much, pirate,' sneered the militia ace, 'That particular detail would be my idea and there's nothing 'honorary' about it. Let's just say I want to make absolutely sure you're gone when you do. Anyway, if your highness could spare a minute, there is someone who wants to talk to you.'

Loyle threw his cigarette over the edge and turned around without waiting for the other man. Jason sighed. He took one last look at glowing Manhattan and then returned to the party.

The celebration, held in the Empire State Building's ballroom, was a few storey's down from the runway. A big band, led by none other then Count Basie himself, played lively on the central stage as an assorted crowd of city officials, business big shots, air militias and pirates alike mingled and danced across the floor.

Crawford expertly dodged president La Guardia and his entourage. He led the two of them to the other side of the ball room and into a small office. Jason's heartbeat increased. He craned his neck to see who was waiting for him, even though he knew better then to get his hopes up when he knew she wouldn't be there.

Instead, a short man dressed in tweed stood waiting patiently. Crawford gave Jason the wink and the gun and left the two of them alone, expertly picking up a glass of champagne from a passing waiter as he closed the door. Jason took stock of this new stranger. The man was in his late fifties, short and slight of build. A defiant shock of grey hair stood out on his head. His most striking features, however, were the amazingly cheerful and friendly eyes. His entire demeanor radiated a childlike giddiness as if the world around him marveled him constantly. On the table beside him lay a very familiar briefcase.

'Ah, mister Grant, leader of the now famous Firebirds! Please, may I call you Jason?'

Jason was a little overwhelmed by this cheerful person, who seemed so genuinely pleased to meet him, and found it impossible to object.

'Good, good. My name is Albert. Albert Einstein to be exact.'

Bells rang in the back of Jason's mind.

'Albert Einstein,' he repeated. 'Initials A.E. The same initials as on that wretched briefcase over there that started this whole mess. You're the man Babcock was going to meet here in Manhattan. The one he wanted to deliver those calculations to. The last piece of research the Bolsheviks needed to finish their doomsday device.'

'You have a sharp mind, yes! You're right, it was indeed my briefcase that you accidentally took while you escaped the ill fated Pacifica Princess.'

Einstein patted the briefcase. 'We took this after we pulled you from your plane. You cannot fathom my relieve to see it safely returned to me, Jason. My colleague, Mr. Babcock, can be a little overconfident at times, but he really is a dab hand at running through the calculations. Of course, he lacks the creativity to come up with any real breakthroughs on his own, but he has been very useful as a second opinion, to see if my initial calculations were right, so to say. It was a mistake of him to travel alone under such suspicious circumstances. I advised him not to, of course. If only he had been a little more careful, this simple little briefcase would not have caused so much inconvenience to the both of us.'

Jason was about to explain, in lots of graphic detail, just how much inconvenience it had caused exactly, but he found that he was unable to be mad at this remarkable man, or even feel angry at all in his presence.

'So what's going to happen next?' he inquired, 'A nice big cover up? I noticed that president La Guardia never fully explained the exact nature of the threat I prevented in his speech. After all this its goodbye to the friendly pirates and back to the drawing board? Designing an even bigger and better bomb?'

'You have me at a dilemma there, Jason,' answered Einstein, looking genuinely worried. The cheerful presence about him disappeared. 'A real conundrum. Would you believe that all the research concerning atomic power really started out as nothing more then a quest for free energy? To supply an entire country, warming all its residents and power their machines? Don't bother answering. It's rhetorical really. It didn't take long before someone thought of a way to apply the general principle to create an explosive device of unparallelled magnitude. It was only a matter of time, I suppose. Us scientists can get carried away with our inventions. We do not think in terms of right or wrong at such times. There are so many other people who do that for us, that we sometimes do not bother. Did you know the inventor of the smallpox vaccine was accused of heretics? Or that Galileo Galilee was put before the inquisition for simply proving the basic truth about the Earth's actual position in regard to the sun?'

Without waiting for an answer, Einstein picked up the briefcase and held it in his hands. He stared at it absentminded for a while, while muted sounds of music permeated through the office walls. Two dry clicks and the briefcase was open.

'So here we are,' he continued, 'Pandora's box has been opened, the demon inside has been allowed to escape. Then something strange happened. Something unique. The demon was destroyed by a phoenix before fulfilling its horrifying potential. The cat is once more in the bag, so to say. At least for the time being.'

The man pulled a box of matches out of the inside pocket of his tweed coat.

'This briefcase contains the entire research of our little scientist group scattered across the continent. There are traces left, here and there, but without this, without me I dare say, the research would be set back at least another eight years.'

A quick stroke alongside the matchbox and the match flared, drawing the eyes of both men to its humble yet ominous flame.

'Did you know there are times I wished I could discover something that could only be used for the good of mankind, Jason? Something pure, something fundamentally harmless, something impossible to be twisted and used by man against his fellow man?'

The white stacked contents of the briefcase lay vulnerable and exposed under the flickering threat of the burning match.

'It's no good wishing for something like that, Mr Einstein,' said Jason and looked the other man in the eyes. 'The very nature of man dictates his survival at all costs. Believe me, I know. I've seen it happen with my own eyes, from the jagged-edged mountains of Manchuria to the bar rooms of Sky Haven. He will seek to use anything, anything at all, as a weapon to ensure his continued existence.'

Einstein's shoulders sagged.

'You're right,' he said softly, 'How ironic. The very apex of his creativity and man nearly destroys himself.'

Jason watched the match tremble and fall. The flame nearly went out, but held on to its slender wooden stalk. A corner of paper caught, the edges glowing up from plain white to incandescent orange and darkening to black as the flames moved onwards, hungry for more. The fire grew and grew until the whole briefcase was ablaze. The leather cover held the fire inside it like a miniature incinerator. The data that was used to create the Ustrojstvo, a device capable of wiping out an entire city, blast it to rubble and turn the ground on which it stood to glass in a single burst of atomic fire now disappeared slowly into smoke and ashes due to its most humble form imaginable; a single wooden match.

'What about the wreckage of the Polikarpov? Whatever's left of that bomb is still there.' asked Jason flatly, his eyes still trained on the burning briefcase.

'Oh, that. They have retrieved it already. They sent divers that very night and hauled up the remains of the plane and the bomb. All they have, however, is a tangle of twisted metal and a lump of highly radio-active plutonium. Both are quite useless without the accompanying calculations. Creating an atomic bomb is highly precise work, Jason. If you don't get it exactly right, it won't work at all. No, the crash and the fire made sure it cannot be reverse engineered. I told them that already. So they went after the wreckage of the Mat'Rossyia instead to claim the secrets she holds. Imagine their frustration - and my carefully concealed glee – when they found out that it sank into the Hudson submarine canyon, over 3.500 feet deep and impossible to reach.'

'That won't stop "Them" from trying again, Mr Einstein,' said Jason, tearing his gaze from the black flakes of scientific papers drifting through the air, carried away by warm smoke.

'I know, but for now the world is safe. Sure, it will be in peril sooner or later. Maybe from the same thing, maybe from something else entirely. Who will know?'

Einstein shrugged. Then he smiled his sparkling smile and winked as if to say he acknowledged the fact, but didn't let it bother him too much. Some things were just the way they are. You could go mad worrying about it, or you could be glad to be alive and look at that strange and wonderful world and discover its secrets.

They carefully put out the briefcase together. Its contents were now a muddy, sooty mess, unrecognizable for what it once was. To Einstein's delight, one clasp still worked and he closed the scorched leather a final time before throwing it in a garbage chute.

'That goes straight down to the incinerator in the basement, just to make sure,' grinned the genius scientist.

Opening the window, a breeze swept through the office and cleared it of smoke, filling it with fresh and promising air instead. Einstein walked Jason to the door.

'I have much work to do, Jason. Even though you stopped the Russians, it was a glimpse of things to come and come they will. There are scientists in Europe who are also working on this and other terrible technologies. It may be unavoidable to return to the research in order to prevent less tolerant governments to hold its power unchallenged. Now, if you will excuse me, I'll return to my duties. I do hope we'll meet again some day, perhaps under better circumstances.'

Outside, Marty and Patrick stood waiting for him. The three of them went to get some drinks as Jason told them what happened.

'Einstein, huh?' said Marty elated, 'Already met the old guy earlier this evening. I had the most interesting talk with him. He told me to visit a friend of his, somebody called von Braun, to discuss my theories on rocketry. You see, I told him about my idea of using concentrated hydrogen peroxide with a potassium permanganate catalyst to create highly pressurized steam? That'll give you a decent powersource to use turbine-driven fuel and oxidizer pumps!'

Jason nodded absent-mindedly, his mind miles away from Marty's passionate techno- monologue. Nora and Margaret came over to get him to dance with them, but he refused, claiming he was not yet fully recovered from the fight with Oleg. The twins looked doubtful, but returned to the dance floor to hunt for other interesting menfolk.

'You best keep an eye on them, Marty,' said Patrick. 'You know, to keep an eye on those wildcats before they tear some poor guy to shreds.'

Marty nodded. He always looked after the girls and he'd be damned if some snotty little rich kid was going to lay a finger on them now.

'Not recovered, my ass,' continued Patrick when they were alone, 'I know you're thinking about Alicia, Jason. You have been the entire time we were here.'

Jason looked away from his friend.

'I just wish she was here as well,' he sighed, 'It doesn't feel right to party without her.'

'Yeah, well, getting shot does have a way of messing up your plans and expectations.'

The men stood silent side by side for a moment when Antoinette came along, bottle in hand.

'I'm sorry, mon capitaine, but I'm afraid I'll be needing this man for my own selfish needs. Not only to fend off all these hopeless other men seeking my attention, but also because I realised we were fools to keep our secret. Our latest gageure showed me the futility of such games. So I intend to enjoy our time together while we still can.'

'Honey, this may not be the best time,' said Patrick, giving Antoinette a warning look.

'No, she's right. Go and enjoy yourselves. I'll be okay. Honest, I will,' interrupted Jason and pushed his friend into Antoinette's waiting arms. He watched them dance, happily swept away by the crowd. He spotted the other Firebirds as well, dancing, romancing, telling tall stories of their past adventures. Everybody was present and accounted for, all his pilots and all his zeppelin crew. Everybody except one. Jason's spirit tempered. He knew it was the way things were, but still. Wasn't it amazing how lonely a man could be in the middle of such a crowd?

As soon as nobody watched him, he made for the lobby. A short elevator ride later and Jason stood on the Empire State Building's landing strip once again, breathing in the night's fresh air. The gouges he had torn with his emergency landing were still visible as patched up lines in the tarmac. Above him, Jason saw a familiar elongated shape in the air. The Damocles, fully repaired and back into her original tan, was attached to the mooring mast atop the Empire State Building like the world's largest weather vane. The stylized phoenix painted on the side of her hull greeted him in all her blazing colors thanks to spotlights built into the engine nacelles. That had been Marty's idea. He figured they might as well join in with New York's celebration. The gondola below was utter darkness.

The boarding ramp was a few flights of stairs away and it took Jason but a minute before he was walking down the unlit and silent corridors of their zeppelin. He passed the bridge, the stairs to his own quarters, the rebuilt bar, several of the crew's personal cabins and finally stopped in front of an unmarked door. Jason lay his hand on the doorknob and hesitated. He knew that what was on the other side of that door had made him rethink his life all over again, doubting between carrying on and giving up on what was basically a life of crime, no matter how spectacular or thrilling.

Steeling himself, he stepped inside. It was dark, darker even then the rest of the ship with the curtains drawn. Waiting for his eyes to adjust themselves, he gradually made out the prone figure lying upon the bed in front of him. Jason went to stand beside it and looked down upon the still figure of Alicia. She was still as beautiful as ever. Jason had to swallow down his emotions.

Suddenly, a warm hand took his.

'Hey baby, what are you doing here?' asked Alicia with a sleepy voice. 'Is the party over already?'

Jason was glad for the darkness as it hid the wet gleam in his eyes.

'Just thought I'd check up on you, that's all. How are you doing?' he answered, forcing his voice to stay level.

'I'm bored out of my mind, what do you think? You're out partying with all the celebrities and government bigshots like I used to do back home. The one thing I'm practically a professional at and I'm forced to stay in bed!'

'You know, the doc said another week or two and you'll be on her feet again, causing trouble like always.'

Alicia slapped him softly on his arm and smiled.

'You bet I will,' she said, 'I heard Margaret took my plane while defending the Damocles from the Broadway Bombers, because her Kestrel was shot down by the Russians? She better not have a single scratch on her, or so help me, I will never let you hear the end of it!'

Jason said nothing for a while and just looked at her.

'I'm glad you're still here,' he tried, but it seemed so insufficient to what he really wanted to say. Alicia smiled up at him.

'Sit with me for a while?' she said, 'You can tell me everything that happened while I was away.'

Jason sat down on the bed next to her and held her gently in his arms. She winced only once from the bullet wound. It would be a long recovery before her left arm was back to it's former strength, but the most important thing was that it would be. All that would be left of her injury would be an impressive scar on her shoulder.

He started telling her about the Spooks, who had taken them deep into the Industrial States and their spectacular escape from their underground base in the middle of the night. He told her how they managed to find the Mat'Rossiya again and his terrifying flight up at the flying fortress while strapped to four huge rockets.

'I remember the rest,' interrupted Alicia, 'Right up to us shooting down Sergei. Then everything is… gone. I woke up in the hospital with you sitting beside me.'

'Oleg got you. He must have seen us shoot down his brother and then snapped. In his madness he probably didn't even notice which guns he used. They were just .30 caliber paperpunchers. It was a lucky shot for him to even get through the Shady Lady's armor at all. Lucky for him, not so lucky for you. Although, anything heavier then that .30 cal and you and I wouldn't... wouldn't be…'

Alicia took his hand and kissed it.

'Don't worry about that now. I'm here, you're here.' She smiled again. 'Just keep talking.'

Jason told her what had happened to the rest of the Firebirds while they were chasing after Sergei. After their radio contact, they still tried to reach the city as fast as they could. Getting a reaction did not prove very difficult. The reaction in itself, did.

Loyle 'Show-Stopper' Crawford, leading his personal squadron, the Madison Venturers, immediately ordered the capture or destruction of the pirate zeppelin Damocles invading the Empire State airspace. The Firebirds were forced to defend themselves in a brutal battle over Harlem. Wicked had to land her Warhawk on the Great Lawn of Central Park with two engines shot to pieces and scaring the daylights out of the evening strollers. Yet all the while, they were still in the dark concerning the fate of Jason and Alicia.

Even though they were outnumbered three to one, the Firebirds fought like rabid dogs to reach Manhattan. Despite having superior power on their side, the Madison Venturers never managed to gain the upper hand in battle. Crawford must have realised that the only way he could win the battle was to admit failure and call in for additional air support, but decided to listen to what the Firebirds had to say first. After careful consideration he gave them the benefit of the doubt. He promised them to send a wing of airplanes to investigate if the Firebirds agreed to retreat back to the Damocles and allow themselves to be escorted to a military airbase in Jersey. There, they were incarcerated until further notice. When the news of Jason's success reached them a spontaneous party broke out among the crew. In the following confusion the guards tried to calm them down, only to be caught unaware by the charms of the ladies. Before they realized they were missing their keys, the Firebirds were already lifting off and heading downtown. Instead of starting another precarious fight over a densely populated area, Crawford allowed them to dock with the Empire State Building and visit their leader. They found him unconscious on a hospital bed, collapsed from fatigue, while the doctors operated on Alicia.

A few hours of rest and a stiff drink was all it took to revive Jason and together with the crew he was debriefed by president La Guardia himself. Lucky for them, reports from the river patrols and coast guard confirmed their story.

The president promptly invited them to a huge celebration in their name. The president also ordered a full repair and restocking of the Damocles and even offered a letter of Marque to the Firebirds. Jason was tempted, but declined politely, unwilling to limit his choices as a pirate. As soon as Alicia's condition was stabilised, she was moved to her cabin on board their zeppelin. Jason wanted to stay with her, but the others managed to convince him she needed her rest and he was expected at the celebration. He put up with the whole show, until he had grown tired of the hollow praise without the woman he loved next to him to share the spotlights.

They spent a comfortable silence in eachothers arms when he was finished.

'Jason, do you have any plans for the immediate future?' started Alicia.

'Actuallly, I have been thinking about that. I - '

'Just tell me you won't turn your back on the rest of the crew because of me,' interrupted Alicia. 'I started loving you because you're a pirate, not in spite of. Don't give that up now, not for me. I want to join you, not make you leave it all behind.' She gestured dramatically and added in a mock voice: 'I want us to reap the bounty of the skies together, me heartie!.'

Jason grinned. In one stroke, she had swept away all his doubt and indecisions.

'Oh, you know how it is. Given our history we'll be flat broke within two weeks. Even though we're big time heroes now, our friend Loyle has warned all the major shipping companies around here and patrols have doubled. An easy prey is out of the question.'

'It's a shame we never got our 50,000 back from the Russians,' sighed Alicia.

'Yeah, about that,' said Jason and hauled an old duffel bag from under her bed. He loosened the strap and showed her its content. It was crammed full of money. Alicia's eyes went wide.

'That's a hell of a lot more then 50,000,' she said.

'Yep, my guess is our buddy Oleg might not have had a return trip to Moscow in mind after all. By the looks of things he packed everything of value into this bag and took it with him. Not only the Einstein briefcase and your ransom, but also cash, jewelry, stock certificates, stuff like that. Probably from targets of opportunity. I heard there was a whole string of Red Skull raids around the borders of the People's Collective that didn't match up with their known locations.

'And they let you keep it?' prompted Alicia in disbelief.

'Hell no! Walt pulled this out of the Shady Lady's cockpit when everybody was busying themselves with us two. He put the briefcase back for them to find though. I'm telling you, that guy knows a thing or two about dealing with governments. '

'So, you're not worried somebody'll come after us?'

'They might. Then again, they might not. If I had to worry about every pirate gang or air militia that has a bone to pick with us, I'd be a piss poor excuse for a pirate, now would I?'

Alicia winced from the pain in her shoulder. 'I'd laugh if it wouldn't hurt so much. Where to then, my captain? Is there any specific place you want to go?'

'As a matter of fact, there is,' said Jason. 'I overheard a very interesting conversation this evening. I overheard the head of the Moria Mining & Drilling Company talking of a team of surveyors that found the remains of a horse drawn carriage deep down inside an ice cave, somewhere near Falstaff in the Republic of Texas. I believe they have stumbled upon the trail of the actual Falstaff treasure, a stolen shipment of gold and silver bound from Albuquerque to San Francisco in 1881. A hastily assembled posse tracked down the outlaws soon enough, but in the resulting firefight all the thieves were killed. They never got the chance to tell where they'd hidden the loot. People have been digging around there forever without finding so much as a trace of that treasure. The company is gathering an expedition to explore the ice caves and I dare say it's our duty to aid them in their quest. If we hurry, we can make it to the Republic of Texas within the week.'

The proposal was met with a warm welcome from Alicia's side as she pulled Jason closer. She kissed him long and tender. They continued to kiss passionately as below them, the rest of the Firebirds partied as if there was no tomorrow. Overhead, the winds were favorable, the sky was clear and the light in the east promised to become a beautiful day for flying.

The End