The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 151: The Race Is Not Always To The Swift

Two koalas and a teacup

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 forward. 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 Pacific."

"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 deck?"

"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 turned white.

"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 altimeter.

"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 rate."

"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 on."

"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 the Continent?"

"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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