Episode 428: More Fun With Materials Science
Fletcher and Peters were confident in their ability to defend themselves.
The former was a graduate of the Royal Navy Airship Service Signal Corps
School, trained in unarmed combat, while the latter was a seaman, with all
that this implied. They charged Bludge and grappled with the butler,
hammering him with blows that would have floored an ox. Bludge waited
patiently until they were done, then tied them up, tucked them under his
arms, and turned to make his way toward the stair.
He was halted by a voice from the other end of the verandah.
"Unhand those naval officers, signore!"
Fletcher and Peters craned their necks to see an elegantly-dressed man
scowling at their captor. From his accent and the cut of his suit, he
was quite obviously Italian.
"Who are you?" demanded Bludge.
"You may call me Vincenzo," said the man. "I am here to rescue these two
Bludge shrugged, set down his prisoners, and reached out to tear loose a
section of railing. It ripped free with a great noise of splintering wood.
He hefted the length of timber as if it was only a twig, then glanced at
"You should reconsider," he warned. "This may not go well for you."
Vincenzo twisted the handle of his cane to withdraw a slender sword
"We shall see," he replied suavely.
"So we shall," muttered Bludge. He strode down the verandah, the deck
creaking beneath his weight. Vincenzo swept back his coat-tails and assumed
a guard position. His slender sword looked quite inadequate to deal with
his opponent's mighty truncheon. The butler grunted and raised his weapon
to strike. As he did so, the floor gave way beneath him.
Vincenzo glanced at the hole and shook his head. "To fight and conquer in
all your battles is not supreme excellence," he observed. "Supreme
excellence consists in winning without fighting."
"Sun Tzu?" asked Fletcher.
"Si," said the Italian.
A few quick slashes of his blade sufficed to free the Englishmen from their
bonds. "It is only a matter of time before Il Gorilla extricates
himself from his situazione," he remarked as he helped them to
their feet. "We'd best be gone by then."
Fletcher and Peters needed little encouragement. Already they could hear
branches shattering as the butler extricated himself from the bushes.
They followed the Italian down the stair and through the village until
they reached Mahina's rudimentary air station. Its mast was now occupied
by a sleek vessel Fletcher recognized as a Nobile class semi-rigid.
Their host led them up the ladder and stepped aside so they could board.
Moments later they were climbing away from the field.
Fletcher had never been aboard an Italian airship before. It was quite
different from the ships of other nations -- a work of art rather than
engineering. Everything about the vessel seemed to proclaim speed.
Unfortunately, this left nothing over to proclaim concepts such as
`comfort', `convenience', or `enough room to swing a cat', and it was an
awkward scramble to make their way down the narrow keel passage to the
"Welcome aboard the Salgari," said their host after they'd
introduced themselves. "As I have mentioned, I am called Vincenzo. This
is my sergeant, Marat."
"I take it you are the Sky Pirates of Tahiti," said Fletcher
The man allowed himself a small smile as he adjusted his mustache. "We are
sometimes known by this name," he admitted.
"Whatever were you doing in Mahina?"
"We heard that two English naval officers had been asking question about us.
When we came here to discover who you were, we learned that Lady Warfield
had sent her man to take you. We could not allow her to succeed."
"You're her adversaries?" asked Fletcher.
The man allowed himself another smile. "We are now. I imagine you would
appreciate a ride back to your gunboat in Papete."
"If you'd be so kind."
This exchange was interrupted by a call from the helmsman.
"Capitano, there's an airship approaching from the south."
They gazed out the forward windows to see a small round dot just off the
coast. This grew larger as they watched. Its outlines were distinctive.
"That looks like a Wolesley class," said Peters.
"Either that or she is the vessel La Baronessa stole from the
Americans," said Vincenzo. "We will soon determine their allegiance.
Signore Paine, bring us right to 270 degrees."
The helmsman spun the wheel and the horizon swung until they were heading
due west. To the south, the other airship turned to left so that it was
closing on a converging course. Vincenzo watched this maneuver and sighed.
"I had hoped for more subtlety," he remarked. "I suppose we must content
ourselves with a tedious race. Bring us right to 350 and ring for full
speed... as we arranged."
The bells rang, the sound of the engines deepened, and the horizon swung
again until they were heading north. "Do you plan to fight them?" asked
"Macchhé," the Italian said dismissively. We are pirates,
not pirates! But we may be too busy here on the bridge to accommodate
guests. Marat will take you to the mess hall."
The Salgari's tiny mess hall was not notable for its luxury.
Fletcher and Peters seated themselves as best they could on a cramped
aluminum bench and speculated about the outcome of the chase.
"We shouldn't have any trouble outrunning the fellows," Fletcher assured
his companion. "According to Jane's, we should have at least ten knots on
"I wouldn't be so certain of this," said Peters. "Our hosts appear to be
having some problems with their engineering plant."
Fletcher craned his neck out the starboard window and followed the
lieutenant's gaze to see a faint plume of smoke trailing from the Number
"That doesn't look promising," he observed.
"Quite," said Peters. "Let's hope it doesn't get worse."
Their hopes were neither realized nor found wanting. The two ships bored
through the afternoon sky as if they were in formation, neither one
gaining or losing an inch. They tried to console themselves with the
knowledge that this was keeping the baroness' vessel occupied, but they
would have preferred it was occupied doing something else.
As evening approached, Vincenzo invited them back to the control car.
"Everything has gone as it should," he informed his guests. "I thought you
might wish to see the next move in the game."
"Do you plan to wait until night, then change course and lose them in the
darkness?" asked Peters.
"We have a simpler alternative," said Vincenzo. He uncapped a speaking
tube and called out a command. "Ruggero, you can stop spraying oil on the
exhaust stack and run your engine up to full power."
"Si, Capitano," came the muffled reply. Moments later the sound of
the engines took a new note and the airspeed indicator began to climb.
Vincenzo watched their pursuer fall behind and nodded in satisfaction.
"There is nothing as likely to succeed as what the enemy believes you cannot
attempt," he observed.
"Sun Tzu again?" asked Peters.
"No," the Italian said with a smile, "Niccolo Machiavelli."
Next week: A Wake Up Call...
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