Episode 375: Follow the Leader
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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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