R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 39: The Chase

Flying Cloud chasing an unidentified airship

On the bridge of the Flying Cloud, all eyes studied the unknown airship, which was heading in roughly their direction, several miles off their port bow. To the unskilled observer, she might have been little more than an oblong dot, but an expert could make out details.

"What do you think, Mister MacKiernan?" asked Captain Everett. "Is it our friend?"

"I don't believe it's the vessel that attacked us over the Coral Sea," said the Exec. "That one was quite impossible to identify. This one has distinctly German lines. I'd make her out to be an L-49 class, converted for commercial use."

"Such was my thought as well," said Everett. "I'd imagine she's a government packet, headed for German New Guinea, the Marshals, or the Carolines. Let's hold our course and see what they do."

For several minutes the two airships continued to close as the waters of the Timor Sea swept past beneath them. Then the other vessel made a sharp turn to port.

"Are they running away?" asked MacKiernan.

"So it would seem," said Everett. "I'd say this demands investigation. I very much doubt they can outrun us. Let's put this theory to the test. Mister Iverson, bring us right to 330 and ring for maximum power."

"Right to 330, maximum power."

Outside the windows, the horizon swung to the left. Behind them the sound of the diesels grew and deepened as the engineering crew worked the Flying Cloud up to her maximum speed. Soon both vessels were headed north on converging courses.

"73 knots," said Iverson.

"Even better than last time," Everett remarked. "Iwamoto is to be congratulated. Mister MacKiernan, how are we doing?"

"Closing, sir. I'd say they're making about 60 knots. We should overtake them in about an hour."

"What will we do when we catch them, sir?" asked Iverson.

This was a good question. While it was theoretically possible for one airship to lay alongside and board another, attempts to put this theory into practice tended to end in disaster.

"We'll deal with that eventuality when it arises," Everett said blandly. "In the meantime, we can look them over and prepare a description to distribute to our shore agents."

Pursuit, be it on the water or in the air, was a mixture of excitement and tedium. The thrill of the chase was a primal human instinct, but the process itself could be monotonous. Once courses were set and ships were up to speed, there was little for their crews to do but watch, wait, and study the figures on their plotting boards with apprehension or anticipation, depending on their role in the drama. For Everett and his crew, that role was Pursuer, and with their overwhelming superiority in speed, it was a role they fulfilled very well. Slowly, relentlessly, they closed the gap until the chase was only a few miles ahead.

"They're climbing, sir," observed MacKiernan.

Everett had expected as much -- an attempt, perhaps, to find better winds at higher altitude. But two could play at that game, and their quarry could only climb so far before they reached their `pressure height' -- the altitude at which their hydrogen expanded to fill all the available space in their gas cells.

"Loris, bring the nose up eight degrees. Miss Sarah, be ready on the ballast toggles and maneuvering valves. Iverson, call out our altitude."

"2000 feet, sir, climbing at 500."

"3000 feet, climbing at 400."

"4000 feet, climbing at 300."

"5000 feet. Climbing at 200. We're approaching our pressure height."

"They're dropping ballast," said MacKiernan.

Everett seized his binoculars and trained them on the chase. Showers of water were visible, cascading down to the sea. As they fell, the other vessel nosed up and shot towards the sky.

"Mister Iverson," he snapped, "bring us left to 240, now!"

On an airship, orders were followed instantly. But after an evolution was complete, there was time for questions. "Sir?" asked the lieutenant, as they bore away from the other ship on a perpendicular course.

"She's a height climber," said Everett. "I suspected as much."

"What's height climber?" asked Sarah.

"It's a German trick," MacKiernan explained, "something they developed in the war. They'd strip out frames, rigging, sometimes even an engine, to get a vessel's weight down so they could climb above the range of our air defenses. We'll never be able to match their altitude, not on this ship. But if they should have a gun like ours..."

The Exec left the rest unstated. If they got within range of the other airship, its higher altitude would give it an insurmountable advantage.

"Why didn't they climb earlier?" asked Iverson. "Why did they wait so long?"

Everett rubbed his chin."I imagine they were trying to lead us away from something," he replied. "Mister MacKiernan, I trust you've kept a good plot. Please take us back to the point where we began the pursuit, then set a course to the west. Let's see if we can find what it was."

After Iverson's watch was finished, he made his way back to the galley to brew some tea. Manning the helm, with the bright tropical sun beating through the windows of the control car, was thirsty work. Along the way, he ran into Helga.

"Good day!" she said cheerfully. "Helga was checking the Wallace."

"How's he doing?" asked Iverson. "He missed all the excitement!"

"Maybe he miss some excitement," she replied, "but I'm sure he find other. Too bad he pull the muscles. He good man, but not so strong."

"I trust he's recovering."

"When he gets the chance," Helga said cryptically. "You muscles look strong."

They do? thought Iverson. But the woman had already turned to go. He watched her depart, hips swaying as she sauntered down the corridor. Whatever was that about? he wondered.

Everett was still in the control car when Iverson came back on watch that afternoon. The captain did not seem to have moved from his position. By now the sun was sinking toward the west, and evening was only a few hours away, but he continued the search, for what he would not say.

"Bridge," Davies called over the intercom, "Upper Lookout Station. Possible floating wreckage, bearing 260, approximately six miles."

"Good eyes, marine," said Everett. "We'll take a closer look. Rashid, bring us ten degrees to port. Mister Iverson, you'll be leading the examination party."

Are we going to send down that so-called' longboat' using the Transporter? wondered Iverson. This was not an observation he could look forward to with delight.

"Abercrombie," said the captain, "I trust you've been watching the sea state. Your opinion?"

"I believe she can handle it," said the rigger.

"Very good. Miss Sarah, vent one minute on the maneuvering valves. All hands prepare for landing."

Next week: Glass Pirates of the Timor Sea...

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