Episode 151: The Race Is Not Always To The Swift
It had been a long hard run, but now the chase was drawing to a close. The
hunters, secure in their triumph, were closing in for the kill. Ahead of
them, their prey trembled in the last extremity of exhaustion.
Lady Milbridge took a sip of her tea, glanced out the window of the
stateroom, and raised an eyebrow. "I say," she asked, "are those fellows
still following us?"
"It appears so," replied His Lordship, reaching for a slice of toast.
"They've begun to intrude on our privacy."
"True, but I suppose we must admire their persistence."
"What were those flashes of light we saw streaking in our direction?"
"I believe they're called `tracers', my dear. A conceit from the recent
War. There's no need to trouble yourself about such trifles."
"Very well, Edmund," said the viscountess, returning to the puzzle she'd
been working on. "I'll leave matters in your capable hands."
Lord Milbridge folded his napkin, rose from the table, and made his way
A short corridor ran from the accommodations section of the control
car to the bridge. There he found Captain Spencer watching their pursuer
through breaks in the clouds. Like most men of his profession, the
airman was stolid and reserved, with a temperament forged and tested by
thousands of hours aloft.
"Your thoughts, Mister Spencer?" asked the viscount.
"Those were ranging shots, milord," said the captain, pitching his voice low
so the viscountess wouldn't overhear. "They can't reach us yet, but it's
only a matter of time."
Lord Milbridge studied the other airship, now little more than a mile behind
them. She was an elegant vessel, smaller and sleeker than the
Windsong IV, with a graceful teardrop-shaped cross-section that
recalled the arches of a cathedral.
"Where do you think they came from?" he asked.
"No telling, milord. That's not a design I'd have expected to see in the
"And there's no chance of outdistancing the fellows?"
Spencer gestured at the ballast board on the right side of the bridge, where
some alarming figures were on display. "They've already demonstrated that
they have the faster ship, and we're running rather low on resources. Indeed,
we'd be hard put to reach Cairns as it is."
"Hmm," said Lord Milbridge. This was much as he'd expected. The yacht, a
Junior Shorts Class modified for private use, was not a design noted for its
speed, and they'd used up most of their ballast in a fruitless attempt to
outclimb their adversary. "I suppose we'll have to resort to a stratagem,"
he said, indicating the layer of stratus below them. "How high is that cloud
"I'd estimate the top to be around 4000'."
"And how high is the terrain in this part of Australia?"
"According to the topographic maps we purchased from that survey company in
Java, the tallest peak would be Mount Bartle Frere, at 1622', some distance
to the south."
"Is that really its name?" marveled the viscount. "How extraordinary! But
that should give us plenty of room. We'll take a page from my ancestor's
book and lose these fellows in the storm. Take us down to 2000'."
"Milord." Spencer turned to his flight crew. "McPhee, hold her steady on
course 090. Bradley, bring the nose down to zero degrees."
"Steady at 090," said the helmsman.
"Reducing pitch from four degrees to neutral," said the elevatorman, from
his station to the left of the helm.
Cables creaked as Bradley eased the wheel forward. The change in attitude
was almost imperceptible, but now the clouds were rising up to swallow them.
Mist swept past the control car, fast as a rushing train, then the world
"Altitude and descent rate?" asked Spencer.
"3800', descending at four hundred feet per minute," answered Bradley.
"Bring the nose up to two degrees and let me know when we're down to 3000'"
"Nose up two degrees."
Slowly, gently, the elevatorman brought the wheel back. The pitch indicator
dial swung upward in response. Somewhere astern, the ship's four Rolls-Royce
engines continued their faithful yammer. Outside, white faded to grey until
the only sign of their progress was the steadily dropping number on the
"Descending through 3000' at 250 feet per minute," Bradley announced.
"Very good," said Spencer. "MacPhee, bring us right to 110."
"Right to 110."
"That turn should confound our pursuers," said Spencer. "Now, Mister
Bradley, bring the nose back up to four degrees and call out our descent
"Nose up to four degrees... descending at 200... 150... 100... 150..."
By now, nothing could be seen through the windows except sheets of grey --
vague shapes that swirled and reformed like the primordial chaos of some
ancient mythology. Rain drummed against the hull, clearly audible above
the sounds of a working airship. The captain listened, studied the
variometer, and rubbed his chin.
"I was concerned about this possibility," he informed Lord Milbridge. "The
rain is making the ship heavy. We'll have to release more ballast, and we
haven't much to spare."
"Very well," said the viscount. "I suppose there's no help for it."
"Henderson, give me ten seconds on Tanks One, Two, and Three."
"Ten seconds on One, Two, and Three," said the ballast master, reaching for
the toggles. Back along the keel, water cascaded from the ship's tanks.
"Still descending at 100," reported Bradley, "dropping through 2700'."
Around him, the rest of the flight watch grew tense. They all remembered
how the Air Ministry had lost its flagship to an uncontrolled descent into
the terrain in weather much like this.
"Give me another ten seconds," said Spencer calmly. Beside him, Henderson
wiped his hands and gave the toggles another tug. Seconds passed, then the
variometer needle was swinging up to zero.
"Leveling out at 2300'," said Bradley, with a distinct trace of relief.
"Very good, we'll keep here there for now," said Spencer. "That should give
us almost a 700' cushion above the terrain," he told Lord Milbridge, "but
we're down to 800 pounds of ballast. This could pose some problems later
"I imagine we'll make do," said the viscount lightly. "Have we given those
fellows the slip?"
The captain picked up the microphone and touched a key in the intercom.
"Peters, is there any sign of our adversaries?"
"No, sir," came the reply from the aft lookout station. "It doesn't seem
they followed us down."
"Rather charitable of them," Bradley remarked.
"I daresay," said Spencer. "I wonder why they didn't continue the chase."
Lord Milbridge frowned, an unpleasant suspicion growing in his mind.
"Captain Spencer, those charts we purchased in Java: did these use proper
Imperial units or this new so-called `metric system' they seem to favor on
"Goodness," exclaimed Spencer.
"I never thought to check. You don't suppose..."
He might have said more, but at that moment they were interrupted by a
remark from the helmsman.
"I say, that looks rather like a koala bear."
Next week: Things To Do On A Rainy Day...
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