The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 201: March Hares

The AT-38 drifting away from the mast

The Cigogne, AT-38, was old as airships go. Built shortly after the War by the famed Astra-Torres yard in Billancourt, according to captured German plans, she’d begun life as a first-class liner for Le Compagnie de Navigation Aéronautique. As newer and faster designs came from the sheds, she’d been demoted: first to routine passenger service, then to charters, and finally to the carriage of freight. At last, even this modest role was denied her as more modern vessels took over, and she passed into private hands.

Now, many owners later, she was in the South Pacific -- the traditional retirement destination for ships past their prime -- riding to a mast near the village of Wé on Lifou Island. Her surroundings were peaceful. The sun had set hours ago. To the east, surf muttered in the night. Overhead, the sky was bright with stars, for the moon, three days short of full, had finally dropped below the horizon.

Clement stifled a curse as his foot slipped on the ladder of the mooring mast. His henchmen paused while he regained his footing.

"Beware the Ides of March," Peters whispered below him. Clement was not amused by this feeble attempt at humor.

"It's this ruddy mask," he hissed back. "I can barely see in the thing."

"Then why do we have to wear them?" whispered the other man. "This climb is hard enough as it is."

"Those were her orders," Clement replied, "so no one can identify us."

Peters sighed in exasperation. "And how are they going to manage that?" he grumbled. "We can’t even tell ourselves apart in this dark."

"That’s why we have these numbered armbands," snapped Clement. He indicated his own: a rred strip of cloth marked with a blue circle split by a white lightning bolt that bore the number ‘1’.

He was saved from further questioning when they reached the handling platform -- a small deck near the top of the mast, encircled by a low railing. Above them, the airship’s bow was a dark outline against the night. Mooring fittings creaked as the vessel shifted position to some subtle shift in the wind.

A narrow retractable ramp led from the ship’s bow down to the platform. At its head, an opening led into the hull. No sound of voices came from within, but the vessel would not be deserted. Airships were never left unattended on the mast. In the control car, two men would be on station at the controls and ballast station, making sure the vessel rode level as weather and temperature changed during the night.

Clement glanced at his men -- seven shadowy figures garbed head-to-toe in close-fitting black garments. "You all know the drill," he whispered. "We’ll do this just as we practiced. Hand signals only until we’ve taken the anchor watch. Are you ready?"

They raised their thumbs in assent. Satisfied, he led the way up the boarding ramp. A short climb brought them to the bow station. Beyond this, the keel passage descended in a long curving arc down the inside of the hull. They crept down the steps, placing their feet carefully so as not to make noise, then made their way aft along the catwalk. A dim row of incandescent bulbs did little to relieve the gloom. Above them, the ship’s gas cells seemed to breathe like enormous lungs.

Had that been a noise behind them? Clement stopped, glanced back, and raised his hand for silence. But nothing moved in the shadows. He listened for a moment more, then gestured for his men to move on.

At last, they came to a ladder leading downward. Clement signaled a halt, then crouched to examine the opening. Below him, the ladder ran down though the inside of the short streamlined pylon that supported the front of the control car. A pair of voices sounded from the bridge.

"Ce travail est ennuyeux."

"Oui."

He raised his hand again, made four quick gestures, and four men slipped aft to secure the engine cars. Another signal and he was leading the remaining three down the ladder. They hit the floor with a thump. The helmsman and elevatorman turned in surprise.

"Qui est là?" one had time to ask. Then blackjacks laid the men low.

"That's it," Clement told his men. "The ship is ours now. Jamison, Gilmore, take the controls."

"Is that the lot?" asked Peters. He seemed amazed the operation had gone so smoothly.

"Of course," said Clement. "We've kept count of the other crew and they're all in town."

"What shall we do with these fellows?" Peters asked. "Tie them up? Drop them into the sea?"

Clement scowled. "We’re patriots, not jailers or assassins. We’ll carry them back to the mooring mast and leave them behind."

"All the way back to the mast?" protested Peters. "That’ll take forever!"

"And it will take even longer if we don’t get started," snapped Clements. "Give me a hand with this one. Jamison and Gilmore, you wait here."

Evacuating the prisoner proved harder than they expected. They rigged a sling to haul the unconscious man up the ladder, but this was only the beginning of their labors. The trip along the keel passage was interminable. The catwalk seemed narrower than they remembered, and overhead fittings, unnoticed during the original trip, threatened to bash them in the head every time they straightened. The struggle grew harder as they climbed the curve to the bow. The risers were narrow, the footing uncertain, and their burden grew heavier with every step.

By the time they reached the top, Clement had begun to doubt the wisdom of his decision. Assassination might be uncalled for, but surely they could have held their prisoners for release in a more convenient location. But then they were ducking under the bow fitting and making their grateful way down the boarding ramp.

They reached the handling platform to find four masked figures waiting. Clement recognized them by their armbands.

"Neil, Evenson, Forrest, Blaine, what are you doing here?" he asked.

"We’ve primed the engines for starting and reported here as you ordered," replied Blaine.

"What?" whispered Clement. "I never ordered you here."

"Yes you did."

"No I didn’t."

"Yes you did."

Their discussion was interrupted by a noise from the ramp. They turned to see Jamison and Gilmore descending with the other unconscious crewman between them. The two men dropped their cargo to the platform with a grunt.

"Here’s the other fellow," grumbled Jamison. "You gave us the heavy one!"

"What are you doing here?" demanded Clement. "I told you to wait in the control car!"

"Yes, but then you came back and told us to carry this lad out while you and Peters got the ship ready to lift."

Clement and Peters glanced at each other, then back up the ramp. "Something's badly wrong," Peters began, "do you think..."

Before he could say more, a spotlight flicked on from the edge of the field, blinding them.

"S'arrêter!" cried a voice below them, "S'arrêter, ou nous tirons!"

"It's the Frogs!" cried Gilmore. "They've knicked us!" He lunged for the boarding ramp, but at that moment there was a clunk from the mooring fitting, a whoosh of discharged ballast, and the vessel began to rise.

"Bloody hell!" cried someone.

"The ship's been hijacked!" cried someone else.

"Wait a second," said Clement. "If all eight of us are here, who are the hijackers?"

Next week: The Ides Have It...

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