Episode 201: March Hares
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
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."
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
"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
"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,"
"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
"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,
"S'arrêter!" cried a voice below them, "S'arrêter, ou nous
"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
Next week: The Ides Have It...
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