Episode 520: Let's See Where This Leads
MacKiernan took another bearing on the Drachen. The German
nationalists' airship might be running without lights, but her hull shown
faintly in the light of the rising moon. Even without binoculars, she was
visible as a glimmer above the horizon. Their own vessel, farther to the
west, would be hidden in the darkness.
Measurement complete, the Irishman added another plot to the chart. By now
this was a network of intersecting lines, like some figure from a geometry
textbook. Wilcox watched with interest.
"You see how I'm going about this?" MacKiernan asked the lieutenant.
Wilcox indicated a row of intersections. "You've been solving for a track
with constant heading and speed that matches these bearings. That will be
the Germans' course."
"That is correct," said MacKiernan. "They seem to maintaining 320 degrees
at 50 knots. This would take them north of the Solomons toward some
location to the northwest."
"Could they be headed for Rabaul?" asked Wilcox.
MacKiernan nodded to himself. The lieutenant was quick, "I doubt they'll
want to call there and risk drawing the Administrator's attention, but one
imagines their destination lies somewhere on the Bismark Archipelago or
German New Guinea. We'll do our best to shadow them."
"Surely they'll guess what we're up to," said the lieutentant.
"Not if we can make the encounter seem like a coincidence," MacKiernan
observed. "We have several factors working in our favor. This is a popular
route for vessels heading west, and we've started out ahead of them, which
should disguise the fact that this is a chase. Also, Wolleselys are quite
common. There must be dozens in this part of world and any number of
foreign copies. Even Spain has a few -- the Banderillo class, I
believe, from the yard in Barcelona. We'll close from the north, far enough
away to explain why they didn't see our lights, and pretend to be from
Night passed every bit as slowly as one would expect during a chase.
MacKiernan remained on the bridge throughout the changes in watch, napping
on his feet when he had the chance -- this was another of the skills
required for command rank. Morning found the R-83 passing the northern tip
of Santa Isabel Island with Bougainville to northwest. The sea below was
dotted with surface vessels, from native proas to a pair of tramp steamers,
while to the west an island blimp was setting off on a morning flight -- an
early bird in search of its worm.
The Drachen still lay several miles astern. Smade, who had this
watch, took another bearing, then added this to the plot they'd maintained
during the night.
"They're closing the distance," he remarked.
"They seem to have five knots on us," said MacKiernan. "That should take
them past us during the forenoon watch, but we should be able to keep them
in sight during the day."
As if on cue, there was a loud bang from aft, followed by an unpromising
clatter the Number One Engine clanked to a stop. Smade already turning to
see what was wrong -- MacKiernan had noted that for all of his apparent
obliviousness to ordinary events, the lieutenant was quick to react to
anything that involved airships.
"Shannon, what seems to be the trouble?" he snapped over the intercom.
"She's swallowed a valve, sir. Again," came the reply. "It will be the
number three exhaust valve. These old Sunbeams have a problem with cooling
"How long will it take to repair?"
The engineer's `hmm' was audible over the line. "We'll have to
depressurize the fuel system pull the manifolds pull the head remove the
old valve grind in a new one then bolt everything back together..." he
"You have four hours."
"It'll take at least eight. sir!"
"Make it six."
"Very good, Mister Smade," said MacKiernan told the lieutenant after the
exchange was over. "Let's see where this leaves us."
The situation wasn't as bad as it could have been. The R-83 had three
propellers, but these were driven by four engines -- one in each of the
engine cars and two in the control car -- so she was only down 25% in
power. Unfortunately, this meant a 9% drop in speed.
"I don't believe we can keep them in sight, sir," Smade said after they'd
worked out the figures. "We should lose contact by 1600 hours."
"I'm afraid that you're correct," said MacKiernan. "On the bright side,
they'll have even less reason to suspect we're following them now that we've
slowed, and we should be able to establish whether or not they're making for
a port in Bougainville. We'll decide what to do after that."
In MacKiernan's experience, engineers tended to fall into two categories:
quiet ones and loud ones. Shannon was one of the latter and his labors
were punctuated by cries of "Would you now!" and "For the love of heaven!"
audible even from bridge. One particularly loud curse was followed by the
sight of the some small object falling from the car. Moment later the
engineer ascended the ladder to the hull, then returned carrying what
might have been a new wrench. MacKiernan decided not to inquire about
At last a call came over the intercom. "Number One to Bridge, she's
"Give it a go," said Wilcox, who now had the watch.
A hiss of compressed air sounded from the engine car, followed by a clatter
as its machinery came back to life. This settled down to a drone and the
airspeed indicator began to climb. The lieutenant grinned, then glanced
north, where the Drachen had vanished over the horizon. "Do you
think we can catch them, sir?' he asked.
"This remains a possibility if they call at Kavieng or Namatani for
resupply," MacKiernan replied. "We'll give one of these places a look."
"Which one shall we chose?" asked the lieutenant.
MacKiernan studied the ballast board and sighed. They urgently needed
resupply themselves. "Namatani," he decided. "It's closer
Namatani was a small port on the north coast of Neumecklenburg, of interest
only to copra merchants and trivia seekers compiling lists of names that
began with `N'. In spite of its insignificance, it had a modest air
station, furnished with three masts in accordance with some specification
drawn up by bureaucrats in Berlin. The Drachen was conspicuous by
its absence, and the only sign of activity was a handling party who must
have brightened when they saw how small a ship they had to deal with.
Mooring was uneventful. Thirty minutes after dropping her lines, the R-83
was riding from a mast while her crew secured from flight stations. The
helmsman had just rung `Finished With Engines' when Wilcox pointed
to port, where another airship was approaching from the east. "I say," he
remarked, "it appears we're about to have neighbors. Is that another
"I believe its one of the American copies, built under license by
Goodyear," said Smade. "Note the different way they balanced the rudders."
MacKiernan felt twinge of apprehension. The Goodyear-built ships were not
uncommon, but one of the possibilities was cause for concern. He seized a
pair of binoculars and trained them on the approaching vessel.
"What's wrong?" asked Miss Perkins when she saw his expression.
"That's the Warfield's ship," he replied. "We may have a bit of a
Next week: Tanks For The Memories...
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