The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 375: Follow the Leader

Plot of the pursuit

Captain Michaelson and Fenwick stood in the control car of the R-87, watching as the morning light spread across the grounds of Darwin's rustic air station. To the east, the Brotherhood of Workers rode from the station's other mast, silhouetted by the rising sun. Exhaust smoke puffed from one of the ship's engine cars as a propeller began to turn.

Lieutenant-Commander Colson, the R-87s commander, came to stand beside them. "It would seem the Russians are preparing to lift ship," he told Michaelson. "What are your orders, sir?"

Michaelson nodded, as if distracted by some other thought. "We'll give those fellows a head start to let them believe they have the advantage, then we'll set off in pursuit."

Fenwick wondered at the senior captain's confidence. Where airship performance was concerned, size was everything, and the Russian vessel was significantly larger than their own.

It seemed Colson shared his misgivings. "Surely they'll be able to outrun us, sir," said the lieutenant-commander. "They have three times our enclosed volume. That should give them a significant advantage in range and speed."

"We must also account of the quality of Russian engineering," Michaelson said dryly. "We almost certainly have a better plant. That should equalize matters. The outcome of this contest will depend on the skill of the crews. I trust your people will acquit themselves better than Captain Loika's."

Colson seemed to regard this announcement with mixed feelings. "Thank you, sir," he said apprehensively.

The chase developed much as Michaelson predicted. Mid-morning found the two airships cruising northwest, 3000' above the Arufura Sea. The Russians had made several changes in course in an attempt to shake their pursuer, but with no clouds to obscure their movements, in a place conspicuously lacking in terrain they could hide behind, these had merely wasted time and fuel. Now the R-87 followed the Brotherhood of Workers at a range of one and a half miles, taking advantage of her lower fixed weight to maintain a slightly higher altitude.

In the control car of the Russian vessel, Commissar Tsukanov lowered his binoculars and frowned. "They're still following us," he complained to Captain Loika. "I thought our ship was supposed to be faster than a Wollesley class."

"On paper, this may be the case," said Loika, "but all members of a class are not created equal. This Michaelson is commander of the station at Cairns. He will have picked the fastest ship at his disposal. We shall have to find some way to discourage their pursuit. Lieutenant Antonov, what's their current range?"

The officer of the deck consulted a stereoscopic range-finder, adjusting a knob until the image marls coincided. "12,000 meters," he announced.

"We shall change this," said Loika. He stepped to the intercom station, thumbed the button to sound general quarters, and issued an string of commands. "All hands prepare for action. This is not a drill. Gunners, ready your guns."

Footsteps sounded on the catwalk overhead as crewmen hurried to their stations. Tsukanov glanced at the captain in surprise. "That's a naval vessel belonging to one of the major Powers," he protested. "Attacking them could be considered an act of war."

"They are not acting like a naval vessel, the way they've been following us," Loika observed. "If we do manage to take them, we'll claim we thought they were pirates, but I doubt their captain will be caught so easily."

"Then why try?" asked Tuskanov.

"We must make the gesture," said Loika. "We can also try to scare them away. Helmsman, give me a turn left to 230."

Control cables creaked and the horizon swung to the right as the helmsman spun the wheel. To the southeast, the English ship turned to parallel their course. Loika watched it for a moment, then turned to lieutenant Antonov. "What's their range now?" he asked.

"Still 12,000 meters," said the lieutenant. "They're matching our heading."

"Helmsman, give me another turn left to 150, then ring for flank speed."

The bow swung again, until it was pointing at their erstwhile pursuer. Behind them, sound of diesels climbed in pitch. Like any good tactician, Captain Loika had been holding some speed in reserve. Now it was time to spend it.

Engineering considerations required that an airship's heaviest weapons be mounted on the keel, below the center of lift -- attempts to mount cannons elsewhere had led to some unfortunate accidents. For obvious reasons, these guns could not be elevated to fire forward or aft lest they blast the ship's structure. This gave combat between airships some resemblance to surface actions, with vessels maneuvering to engage each other broadside. The English ship was now dead ahead of the Russians, to whom she was presenting her stern. She seemed slightly closer, as if her crew had been unprepared for their erstwhile quarry's increase in speed.

Loika nodded in satisfaction. "We'll try a ranging shot," he announced. "Helmsman, give us a brief turn to the left. Gunner, open fire on the yaw."

The helmsman swung the ship to port to unmask the guns. The forward cannon -- a Kalinin two-pounder -- fired with a jar that shook the whole vessel. Seconds later, a geyser of water rose a short distance astern of the English ship.

"Very good," said Loika. "Gunner, fire again, and walk it closer."

A second geyser rose slightly ahead of the R-87. The shell must have passed just beneath her. As the column of water collapsed, Loika ordered a turn back to the northwest.

"That will have made them nervous," he said. "We'll try to get away before they can work their ship up to her maximum speed."

Michaelson studied the Russian ship with an expression Fenwick found impossible to decipher. Is that a smile? he wondered.

"An interesting exercise," the senior captain remarked to Colson, "but I believe your people could have been a bit handier on the last turn."

Colson nodded. "We'll try to do better next time, sir."

Fenwick listened to this exchange in astonishment. "They fired on us!" he exclaimed.

Michaelson gave a disinterested shrug. "It was a predictable move," he observed. "They will have hoped to frighten us away, then make their escape before we could collect ourselves, but they cannot have expected to succeed. What's the range now?"

"14,000 yards and dropping," said Colson. "They must have reduced speed to save their engines."

"Very good," said Michaelson. "We shall do the same."

"What do you think they'll try next?" asked Colson.

Michaelson sighed, as if exasperated by his subordinate's lack of imagination. "I imagine they'll will wait for nightfall, then try to lose us in the darkness," he said patiently. "Unfortunately for them, the moon is only two days past full, which won't leave them much darkness to work with. After that, we shall see."

Next week: A Bit Of Class Struggle...

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