Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross No. 71

Cannon nodded to himself. He took pride in an efficient, well-drilled crew, and although this one, like all pirate crews, worked with a certain devil-may-care attitude, it fit the bill. As he made his way carefully down the ladder, they cheered. Word would have gotten out about the payday. Even subtracting the many expenses they’d incurred—one wrecked truck, airplane repairs, a great deal of fuel—each of the hands would see a good deal of loot. Cannon waved them back to work and joined the others from the Albatross just as aero engines began coughing to life and rumbling at idle. Over the din, Cannon shouted, “Emma, Pietro, Marcel—head to the briefing room. Isea, lock down the laboratory and get to your battle station. Mr. Masaracchia, you’re welcome to join me on the bridge.”

As Cannon’s crew dashed off to their appointed tasks, Masaracchia replied, “Lead the way.”

Going forward out of the hangar, they passed the last few pilots on the way to the briefing. Further forward on the ventral catwalk, gun crews climbed the ladders to the broadside flak pieces. A hundred feet overhead, beam-to-beam walkways suspended between the gas cells connected the port and starboard batteries.

A hundred feet before the ventral catwalk reached the forward crew spaces, Cannon lifted a hatch in the floor grating. He climbed down the ladder beneath it to the map room and limped to the map table. “Mr. Churchill, what do we have?”

As Masaracchia joined Cannon, the short, stout man at the map table turned. “Welcome back, captain.”

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Tuesday’s missing update update

Sorry about that, guys—it’s been a crazy busy week for me. In random content you might enjoy, I posted an album over at imgur of a ship I just finished in StarMade (you might recall a piece on it over at the Fish Bowl from a few months ago). I’m also fiddling with a boring little Youtube video of some content from the new DCS World open beta patch, which I might have done tonight. Anyway, updates ought to resume as scheduled tomorrow.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross No. 70

“Copy that. You sitting this one out?”

“That’s right, Joe.” The Albatross rocked beneath Cannon as the hangar crew moved it from the skyhook to the hangar rails. “I’m a little banged up. You’ll be in command out there.”

“Sure thing. I”ll get suited up. Inconstant out.”

The deck crew, now engaged in readying Inconstant‘s warbirds, moved one of the Gorcrow medium bombers aside, then slid the Albatross in behind it, out of the way for the coming fight. It swung gently as it came to a stop, and a thump sounded through the frame as a deck crewman leaned a ladder against the cargo door. Emma and Lecocq helped Cannon through the crawlway, where Iseabail, Burr, and di Giacomo had already climbed down to the deck. Emma and Lecocq followed them, but Cannon paused at the cargo door to watch the deck operations.

A hundred pirates scurried around to the whining of hydraulics and electric motors and the cough of idling engines, preparing Inconstant‘s planes for a fight. Some dragged fuel hoses, carrying them up ladders to the hanging planes. Amidst the vinelike tangle of the hanging fuel lines, other deck crewmen carried ammunition cans, extra belts draped around their shoulders. Others, balanced precariously on wings and halfway falling out of open cockpits, fed ammunition belts into open access panels over the machine guns. Still others, working in teams, carried rockets and aerial torpedoes from the magazine, winching them from the deck up to the airplanes. There, men and women hanging in harnesses maneuvered the weapons onto launch rails.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross No. 69

“This is Whiskey One,” said Lecocq over the radio. “Do you see bandits?”

“Whiskey Three says negative,” Henderson replied.

“Whiskey Two, also negative.”

“No need to stick around, then,” Lecocq said. “Meet at rendezvous point one.”

The radio clicked twice. A few minutes south of the city, the two Falcons caught up and settled in behind the Albatross, and thirty seconds later, the Kestrels fell into formation ahead. Cannon looked them over for battle damage. Bullet holes marred two of them—one had taken fire to the wing, and the other showed damage behind the cockpit. He watched the latter for a moment longer, but no smoke or plume of fluid trailed behind it; the British gunner had missed both engines. That was a spot of luck, Cannon thought. They were low on spares already.

Ten minutes later, Lecocq lined up the Albatross’ arrester hook on the zeppelin’s main skyhook, goosed the throttles, and pulled them all the way back as the hooks engaged. The skyhook lifted the plane up toward Inconstant‘s hangar.

“Whiskey One,” the radio crackled, “Inconstant here. Is that the skipper in the right seat?”

Cannon reached for his radio panel. “Sure is.”

“Good to have you back. Lookouts just caught a British zep about twenty miles off. How do you want to play it?”

Cannon closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Ready the air wing, and put the Royal Navy on our tail. If we can give them the slip without a fight that would be swell.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross No. 68

Emma waved for the others to haul on the rope one more time, and then yanked Cannon in through the cargo door. “All aboard,” she said into her headset mic. “Good to have you back, skipper,” she added, sparing only the briefest moment before hurrying back to the crawlway.

With his hands together, Cannon lifted his elbows. Before they came level with his shoulders, he winced.

“Y’alrigh’, cap’n?” said Iseabail.

“I’ll live,” he said. The engine note rose as Lecocq throttled up, banked right, and began to climb. “Give me a hand over to the cockpit.”

Masaracchia waved Iseabail back into her seat. “Allow me.” He bent at the waist. Cannon put his arm around Masaracchia’s shoulder and hobbled to the crawlway, keeping his weight off his left ankle.

“You’re sure ye dinna need tha’ look at?” Iseabail frowned.

Cannon shook his head, grimaced, and knelt to crawl through to the other fuselage. On the far side, he got to his feet and hopped to the copilot’s seat. He sat—a barely-controlled fall—and pulled on the headset hanging on the side of the chair. “That was a niece piece of flying back there.”

Lecocq cracked a grin. “But of course, captain.”

The Albatross had turned out over the sea to gain altitude, and now, as the altimeter spun past six thousand feet, it circled back toward Alexandria. Traffic jammed the streets below, where wrecks littered the path Cannon had taken. A few enterprising British soldiers took potshots at the plane with their rifles, and tracers reached up from two machine gun emplacements on the city’s rooftops. All fell well behind the Albatross.

Off to the left—northeast—oily columns of smoke reached into the sky from the airfield. A flash of light drew Cannon’s eye to a fighter. It had just taken a hard enough hit to set it alight. Trailing smoke, it arced toward toward the ground, hitting just outside the city wall and throwing up a cloud of dust as it skidded to a stop.

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Some thoughts on worldbuilding

I’ll do this backward and just reveal my premise at the beginning: for me, the best worldbuilding comes as a theme develops over time. Here are two examples.

Lately, I’ve been retooling my fantasy world (the one you can find in the archives). Originally, I sat down and hammered out the universe in a few days, and it ended up fairly generic in every way but the name. It belonged to a homebrew roleplaying game, and so familiarity for the players was at least as important as a fresh, intricate world. I ended up dissatisfied enough with it that I dropped that writing project—the first one I really put a lot of time into—altogether.

In between then and now, little things have jogged me into tweaking the theme. I was thinking of a character who I might describe as ‘elfin’, and that pushed me to discard the Tolkein forms (elvish, -en) for more Germanic ones (ælfish, ælfin). Visiting Hoelbrak in Guild Wars 2 suggested that I replace ‘inn’ with ‘lodge’, and that one change has given any writing in a city a much more Viking feel already. Reading various fantasy stories changed my magic model—as practiced by humans, it’s much more ritualistic than it used to be. I asked myself ‘why’, and ended up with a nifty point of differentiation between human and ælfin magic, and the psychology of its practitioners. Another ‘why’ question yielded more characterization of the not-goblins in a few sentences than had ever come up before.

The other example comes from a different angle. My most mature universe, in terms of development, is Nexus and the Naval Arm, and it’s not because I’ve given it particularly deep attention at any one time, but because it’s been in my head for so long. Its genesis reaches back more than a decade, at which point I had in mind a universe centered around a planet called Nexus, with an event called the Threshold Rebellion and a focus on naval stories. It’s become much harder on the science fiction scale since then, and overall, the pattern of change is the same. I ask myself questions about how the universe works and why it works that way, and over time it changes to become more plausible and more nuanced.

All of these things happened over the course of months and years: if I’d sat down and said to myself, “I’m going to improve these themes,” they’d be entirely different creatures, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be as good. I have a way of getting stuck on certain ideas, and letting my universes develop organically gives me the time to open up to tweaking things I’ve decided in the past. My writing is better for it.

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