The inside of the ramshackle barn was a study in juxtaposition. Grimy horse leads and tack supplies hung on walls beside gleaming firearms, troughs of water sat back-to-back with steam-powered generators, horses filled their mouths with green alfalfa and plodded around sophisticated machinery with glowing lights and polished interfaces. And at the center of it all, one of the most beautiful flying vessels I had ever laid eyes on. Back in the Union Army Balloon Corps, we used single-gondola craft that was carried aloft by the quintessential balloon shape. Because of their close resemblance to crafts of whimsy, many generals saw us as nothing more than carnival-deserting dreamers. With the role we played during the States’ first battle with the Menace, however, the military began to see the balloon as a valuable intelligence-gathering asset. In Europe, some balloons had been equipped with fixed-placement guns and small bore cannons much like privateer vessels of the old days.
The vessel in the barn was far beyond the title of balloon; this was an honest-to-God dirigible, the first prototypes of which were being tested in Europe. The balloon section was a massive off-white muslin tube, given structure by dark varnished wood and brass lashings. Underneath was a wooden structure not unlike that of a midsize sailing ship. There were interior compartments including a quarters level towards the stern, all of which were topped by a fighting deck equipped with many standard armaments and a few pieces that escaped my knowledge. At the stern, aft of the crew quarters, sat a large, highly stylized steam engine that provided power to the three wind turbines that steered the vessel. I dropped my pistol back into my holster without taking my eyes off the beauty in front of me.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked the old man.
He responded with his usual slightly-wheezing laugh and walked in, motioning for me to follow him.
“You like ‘er?” he asked.
I responded that I did. My answer came out sounding much more awestruck than I meant, which sent the old man into another bout of laughter.
“Well, she’s yours. This is what I wagered yesterday in the card game. I call her The Brass Wyrm.”
“Worm?” That seemed like an odd name for a fighting vessel.
“With a ‘y’, not an ‘o’. Wyrm with a ‘y’ is what they called dragons in medieval England. Huge, fearsome, flying beasts that breathe fire. Smart guy like you, I’m sure you can see why the name seemed appropriate. Come on in and take a look at ‘er.”
“You know, you never answered my question. About who the hell you are. Or were.”
The old man looked at me for a time as we walked towards The Brass Wyrm. Finally, he asked, “You the new lawman?”
“Yep,” I said, not sure what this had to do with anything.
“You know what that means? Or why they chose you? Or who chose you?”
“I was tasked with coming to Phoenix to serve as sheriff by President Lincoln himself. As far as I know, they chose me because I have a knack for dealing with the Menace in unconventional and effective ways.”
The old man grunted. “Know how long our last sheriff lasted?”
Before I could answer, the old man continued.
“Two months. It’s mighty dangerous out here. Some of our lawmen would get assigned without a clue of what they had comin’. I suspect those were placed here as show until they found someone they thought what could do the job. They told you the lay of the land out here. That means they think you can do something about it. Maybe so.
“But with the greenhorns we been having out here, someone else had to help this town stay alive. That’s who I am. And that’s where The Brass Wyrm comes from. But I’m getting’ to be too old to captain ‘er anymore. I slow down my crew. Incidentally, the dunderheads from the bar are two members of my crew and I’m sure they’d be happy to help you out.”
That was sort of a confusing speech. I wasn’t sure how to reply. Did the old man mean he had been flying around town, taking pot shots at the Menace from his airship? That seemed like a good reply.
“Do you mean you’ve been flying around town, taking pot shots at the Menace from your airship?”
“Potshots! No sir-ee. We rained wholesale slaughter down on them. But aside from the incorrectness of ‘potshots,’ yes. That’s what I did.”
“But who are you? How did you build this ship? Why would you take on that responsibility?”
The old man walked over to one of the gleaming consoles, kicking horse manure away with a flick of his boot toe. He pointed to a daguerreotype that hung on the wall; in the picture a middle-aged Confederate General posed, one hand on his officer’s sabre, the other behind his back.
“That’s me. I was the general in charge of a detachment tasked with opening up a route to the Pacific Ocean so the CSA would have a port that wasn’t crawling with bluebellies. We weren’t the first group to attempt it, but none of the others had reported back. We assumed you folk had killed them. But that wasn’t so. We encountered the menace before they showed their face at Vicksburg. On our first night in Tucson I lost four men. From the amount of blood on the ground, I figured it wasn’t Union soldiers. I considered the possibility of some natives, but something still felt off. We followed the trail of blood and large footprints to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. We attacked, killing all three of our assailants. But they took out half of my remaining seventeen men. Three of them took out twelve soldiers! The next day, I gave up fighting the Union and concentrated on the Menace. The men who survived the Mission siege followed me. A few years after Vicksburg, I met a man who called himself a steamsmith and had him build the Wyrm. And now, she’s yours.”
I looked back to the daguerreotype on the wall. A middle-aged officer with color still in his hair and beard. The old man next to me was just that; old. The time didn’t add up.
“So the man in this picture is you?”
“Yes sir-ee. 1861. These last ten years have been hard.”
There was a definite resemblance in the eyes and jaw, but age had obscured some of the man’s face with leathery wrinkles. Perhaps fighting every day for ten years against an enemy who knew nothing of yielding or surrender could do that to a person. Before I could dwell on that point, something screamed in my mind. Something that didn’t make sense.
“That would have been the Picacho Pass Battle, then? 1862?”
“Slightly afore that. Battle was in April. We were there in February.”
“But still in 1862. I thought the Menace was contained to the swampy areas of the deep South until we pushed them out in 1863.”
“That’s the story, yep. But it ain’t true. I’m not sayin’ anyone’s pulling the wool over your eyes, just that nobody believed our stories until Vicksburg. Out in the West, a mighty lot of things go unreported and unexplained. I have an intuition that the Donner Party may have fallen prey to the Menace, as well as some of the more gruesome mining camp massacres.”
“But that could mean the ones out here are smarter and more organized than the inbred whelps back East.”
“Yep. They are. Been against both and I can tell the difference.”
I began to feel a lot less capable in my ability to do my job if I was facing the insidious, calculating, blood-thirsty beasts they were fighting in Europe. Most of Western Europe has been at war for over six years. Eastern Europe as we know it is gone; all organized resistance was crushed in weeks. Cities became feeding grounds for the Menace and the cobblestone streets of Budapest, Prague, and Kiev have become black with dried blood. Small bands of humans hide out in the countryside and attempt to cross the Donau into the Empire of Germany or the St. Petersberg-Moscow-Don line into the Imperial Russia, though less come through each year. All the desk strategists and field generals in the States believed that our problem was less severe than that in Europe and that we would be rid of it in ten years as an outside estimate. What the old man was telling me spit in the face of that assumption.
I thought for a minute. The old man said nothing, either assuming I was on the verge of breakthrough or having some bad heartburn. I looked at him. I was about to ask him a question, I don’t remember what it was now, when a loud roar came from outside. Both our eyes widened simultaneously. I pulled my modified Smith and Wesson Model 3 from its holster and the old man hobbled to a corner and snatched up a lever action rifle. I chanced a glance between two of the shed’s siding boards that had warped apart from one another.
“Three of them,” I said to the old man.
“Two over here,” he replied.
“Probably two or three at the front. So it’s safe to assume we’re surrounded.”
“Not sure it’s exactly safe, Yank. Two of us against a minimum of six werewolves… I’d rather kiss Lincoln square on the mouth.”