It’s the War, the Whole Bloody War!

The Lady Æthelflæda was struggling to gain height. The crew of the Belgian trawler observed the hot-airship preparing for action and disappeared off the deck. Pouring smoke from its funnel the fishing vessel quickly made its best speed away from the area. As the dirigible banked, a young rating, who must have lied about his age, manned the port waist gun and opened fire towards the Chats Souterrains’ Ducks.   They were not yet within range, but were closing fast.

Ferdy turned to his comrades; his wide, pale eyes flashed cold resignation and a small muscle on his right temple twitched. “She’s sluggish. That flack must have done more damage than we thought. It’s ruptured a gas cell.”

“Dump the ballast, Phoebles.” Boz spoke quietly but with dark determination,   “Ferdy… just get us above those fighters.”

The Gruman J2Fs came in, broke away left and right, and circled the wallowing dirigible like wolves around an abandoned biryani takeaway.

With the aggressors closing in, Ginsbergbear puffed and wheezed his way up the spiral staircase that climbed through the belly of the airship, eventually reaching an open machine gun turret just aft of the funnel. He clung to the sides for a while, gulping air, back bent and shoulders drooping while his breathing steadied and heartbeat returned to normal. He cocked the four 0.303 Browning machine guns, tested the swivel mount and pressed the throat mic to his larynx.

“Dorsal gunner ready. Nothing to see up here. Wait…” Something was diving out of the sun.

He took aim at the lead aircraft, saw there were three of them, and then recognized the silhouettes. He quickly panned the guns off the target. “The Ratas have arrived. We might be alright after all.”

As the Polikarpovs roared overhead they opened fire towards the corsair fighters with 20mm ShKAS wing mounted cannons. The crimson fuselage of the lead aircraft flashed in the sunlight and as it banked Ginsbergbear could make out a red star outlined in white on the tail and a scarlet winged anchor on a blue rimmed white roundel below the cockpit. All much more flamboyant than was usual for the chromatically conservative Kronstadt sailors who regarded a plain red star against a complementary green ground amply adventurous. Through her gun-sights the pilot of the lead Rata could make out a rear gunner in one of the Ducks speaking urgently to his pilot and then standing up, gilded pickelhaube glinting, waving to the other seaplane and pointing into the sun. Shells exploded around him. The ensuing dogfight was short – the Polikarpov Ratas were faster and more manoeuvrable. But once the J2Fs of Les Chats Souterrains broke off, their rear facing machine guns kept the pursuers at bay.

Job done, the red Polikarpov I-16 pealed away to fly over the Lady Æthelflæda, dipping its wings in salute, Wing-Comrade Polly Karpova, open cockpit, her strawberry blonde hair streaming in the wind, giving an OK sign with one raised hand. The remaining sea green Ratas followed the Ducks at a respectful distance. They only turned back when they reached the limit of their range, certain by then that the Ducks were heading for their base on the Tyne.

The dirigible turned to limp for home, leaving the abandoned gunboat and corsairs in the orange life rafts to sort out their own problems. A CPO, his sleeveless summer telnyashka exposing an impressive array of tattoos, appeared on the bridge.

“We have stemmed the leak, tovarisch, but we’ve lost a lot of helium…” The Aethelfleda was a composite airship, with gas bags fore and aft and a hot air chamber amidships. “…We should make it back OK – just.”

Phoebles slumped on the deck, his face blank and no hint of his customary inane smile. Ginsbergbear arrived at the bottom of the spiral staircase. Boz removed his eye patch and gripped the chart table with his one free paw.

“This is not an adventure any more, we just keep going ‘cos there is no alternative. Where will it end? When will it end?” He nodded towards the helmsman, still rigid at his post. “Ferdy is strung so tight something has to snap. He’s running on catnip and Red Bull. We’re making such little headway in this war, it’s just endless attrition.”

“I’m fine,” snapped the pilot.

“No you’re not.” Phoebles, wrinkling his brow, spoke almost in a whisper, “It was all so gentlemanly at the start. There were rules, unwritten rules, but everyone understood them. Somewhere it all changed and we barely noticed. We do what we have to, because we have to win.

“I wonder if we have lost sight of something. We try to prevent these pirate raids without considering what makes the Corsairs tick. We outwit them when we can. But have we stopped trying to understand them? Has anyone thought of making sandwiches? It’s been a long time since second breakfast.”

Advertisements

The Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm

f465e08986ae8b180f27d2550e19de81There was frantic activity at the Naval airstrip on Hessle foreshore. Within the suite of offices that occupied the upper floor of a concrete blockhouse, beneath the concrete control tower, an operator rushed from the radio shack to the desk of his Comrade-Squadron-Leader. Seconds later an adjutant ran along the corridor, down the stairs and out into a surprisingly sunny Indian Summer to ring urgently on a large brass bell whilst shouting, ‘Scramble!’

8aab91a3c4d46271076569d6ef335fb0Boiler suited engineers were already removing the protective quilted jackets from the engine cowlings of three Polikarpov I-16 fighters parked expectantly on the tarmac as the Comrade-Pilots pulled sheepskin flying-jackets over their telnyashkas and clasped their parachute harnesses into place. Each clambered over the wing of his aircraft and into the cockpit. There was an irregular chuck, chuck, chuck as the Shvetsov M-63 9-cylinder (900hp) supercharged air-cooled radial engines fired up and soon settled into an even drone. Props twirled faster and faster. The three planes sang in unison, Comrade-Pilots waved, ‘Chocks away, tovarisch.’ Gathering speed in single file down the runway, they lifted, banked and, forming up wing-tip-to-wing-tip, headed out to sea.

The radioed call for assistance had also reached Consuella Starcluster at the Cirque des Absurdités in The Land of Green Ginger and she immediately headed for the docks, riding pillion behind Snowdrop on her unicycle and with two of the Kittens of Chaos crammed into the sidecar. Now they were standing on the quayside looking at ninety metres of what could be taken for a gigantic flying boat were it not for the wholly inadequate stubby wings. Its white paint was pealing and the red star on its tail was faded. There were two formidable rows of missile launchers along its back. A Kronstadt Starshina stood beside them holding a large cardboard box.Destroyer of Worlds 2

‘The finest ekranoplan ever to take to the air. We bought her on e-bay from a scrap metal dealer in Kaspiysk. He had her deconstructed and shipped flat-pack on an IKEA container vessel bound for Immingham Docks. We’ve followed the instructions to the letter putting her back together, but we’ve got this box of bits left over and some of them look as if they might be important.’

‘¿No iba a estar listos para el combate de cualquier momento pronto, entonces?’ (It will not to be combat-ready any time soon, then?) sighed Consuella.

‘Nyet.’

‘Oh, but…’ from two very disappointed Kittens, ‘…we wanna go in the big planey thing!’

‘With the rockets!’

The Petty Officer smiled down on the pair as if they were cherubs, in their battered straw boaters, micro skirts and laddered black stockings, ‘Not today, little ones. For now, she goes nowhere.’

Snowdrop had wandered over to another large cardboard box sitting on the quay close to a stocky cast-iron bollard. From it she had selected three suitable yet random items of an aeronautical nature and was honing her juggling skills.

Consuella looked concerned, ‘Joost how many beets do hyou haav left oveer, Comrade-Starsheenarrr?’

‘Er… quite a lot.’

‘Hand what exactly does work on thees wonderfool vessel of yoors?’

‘It floats.’

The Consequences of War

CSAAF SMuch had changed since the early days of the Coleycorsair Wars. The Lady Æthelflæda had recently had a major upgrade. She bristled with assorted weaponry and her eight newly modified, light weight, yet ultra-powerful Stanley Steamer engines drove three twin, contra-rotating propellers each. She was fast and agile. The top half of her canopy had been painted a North Sea slate-grey and below she was a light sky-blue. Ginsbergbear and Phoebles felt they had greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the camouflage by painting waves and an albatross into the dark grey and adding fluffy clouds to the blue underside. The aluminium outer casing of the gondola was streamlined and starkly functional. In the pilot’s seat the once affable dodo appeared drawn, thin beaked, his cold eyes fixed on the distant horizon. Boz sported an eye patch and the empty right arm of his reefer jacket was safety-pinned to his breast.

Phoebles was unimpressed, ‘You might find the controls easier to manage if you stopped mucking about and used both hands – put your jacket on properly,’ he muttered, somewhat scornfully, ‘And if you don’t take that silly eye-patch off you’ll go blind. You don’t look rugged, just daft.’

Boz sighed, ‘This war’s not much fun any more… And that bruised tail is making you insubordinate.’

The Lady Æthelflæda descended and Ferdinand straightened her up to hover a few feet above the swell, midway between the abandoned pirate vessel and its intended victim, a Belgian sidewinder coleyfishtrawler that wallowed and rolled as only a Belgian built trawler can. The entire crew lined the rail in enveloping oilskins and sou’westers and a cheer went up.

‘Hoera! U hebt ons opgesiagen.’

‘Hourra! Vous nous aves sauvés.’

Ginsbergbear and Phoebles waved to the fisherman whilst Boz turned his field glasses onto the corsair pursuit craft. A bilious green mist rolled along the deck to tumble through the scuppers and drift down wind along the surface of the sea. A little further away orange life rafts bobbed at the mercy of the waves. Gradually the gang became aware of a distant, gnat like whine and Boz spotted two indistinct dots in the sky to the northwest. Ferdy took up the 20×60 binoculars that were housed in a box by the bridge windows. Through them he could make out two gaudily painted Grumman J2F Ducks sporting CSAAF insignia on the wings and tail. Each had twin ring-mounted 50 calibre machine guns to the rear of the cockpit and they had additional machine guns Gaffer taped to the wings. The Corsairs and Reivers utilised prodigious amounts of gaffer tape and controlled by far the largest Gaffer tape factory in the northern counties.

‘It’s Les Chats Souterrains,’ shouted Ferdy.

‘Bugger,’ groaned Boz, ‘Is there no let up?

‘Take her up again, Ferdy. Those crates can’t out climb us. And, Phoebles, get the Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm on the radio. We need back up.’

Star Stone Trilogy – Book One: Yii Chapter Eight (cont.)

After Hilary term they celebrated Easter. Sarah found time to study hard, and again Professor Stanford was delighted with her progress.  Oxford in the Trinity term was shimmering in beauty: sunlight on old stone, gardens ablaze, immaculate lawns and the intoxicating smell of summer.  Sarah, delighting in the finery of the city, loved going down to the river in the afternoons to watch the rowing.   Eights Week, a week of rowing races was coming up, and the Sherborne eight were really promising.

Eights Week was a gilded carnival, of colour and laughter and the excitement of the bumps. All Oxford seemed to throng to the river for this highlight of the year. Sarah loved every minute, especially as Sherborne College did well.

All too soon, however, it would be time to travel.  After a last time in the lovely worship of the chapel, she had to start preparing what she would take to India; not her clothes, for Aunt Caroline would see to those, packing in new cool dresses and hats for the very hot climate.  She selected particular Latin and Greek and Hebrew texts and text books, for she was determined to surprise Uncle Alexander when she got back. On a whim she also packed her black wig.

On Tuesday she would be taken to Southampton with her new companion and tutor, Miss Brice, and put on the ship to sail for India.  Miss Brice had been chosen by Aunt Caroline from several possible companions because she felt that Miss Brice would not get in the way of Sarah’s outgoing and adventurous nature. She seemed pleasant and easy going, and had modest accomplishments in French, Maths and English, enough to help Sarah learn more.

Sarah still had very mixed feelings – sadness at leaving her aunt and uncle, some trepidation at the thought of seeing here parents after such a long time: and a sense of adventure at the thought of a new country. At the same time she was desperate to keep hunting for the lost treasure.  Her dreams of a circular stone staircase still led her to think the treasure might be in Palmer’s Tower, but that was always locked. She tried Jack the porter again.

‘Please Jack,’ she asked, ‘have you found a key to Palmer’s Tower?

‘Well miss,’ he said, ‘I can’t say as I has.  But I will keep looking for you.’

‘Thank you Jack,’ she said, ‘Please keep looking, and I shall keep asking.’

And that was that; now she would be going away without having explored Palmer’s Tower.  Still, she would return in just a few months, so she could get back to this quest.

At that final and very moving service in the chapel, Sarah had a great sense of a calling, a destiny even, that she had a role to find that sacred treasure and restore it to the great benefit of Sherborne College.  She would keep thinking about it while she was away.

After a touching farewell to her aunt and uncle, Sarah and Miss Brice were taken off to Southampton and the beginning of a new adventure.

The Little Matter of the Coleyfish Pirates

APID Lady Æthelflæda S‘Put a star-shell across her bows.’

As the flare hissed into the North Sea ahead of the erstwhile whale catcher, rust dribbling over matt-black, death’s heads on the funnel, shark’s jaws painted on the prow, it opened up from a 37mm twin barrelled Soviet V-11 AK-AK cannon that was mounted on the foredeck. With a staccato of thunderclaps the sky around the hot-airship above peppered with shell bursts, shrapnel rattled on the hull of the gondola and tore into the skin of the canopy. Ferdy spun the elevator wheel as he banked the dirigible hard to port. Pumps screamed as ballast was forced to the stern, the great hot-air burners roared and the two dozen pairs of triple-bladed large diameter propulsion screws whined. The Lady Æthelflæda, almost standing on her tail, powered towards the stratosphere, out of range of the corsair’s gun. The flack would not last long. Most corsairs used reloads for ammunition and a miss-fire or jam was inevitable.

There was crashing and banging from beyond the bridge door as everything not secured took off towards the stern, and a hideous screeching when Ginsbergbear tumbled from his armchair in the rear saloon and landed on Phoebles’ tail.

‘Make black smoke.’ A veil of black oily smoke poured from the funnel to hide their ascent, it poured from seams and joints in the engine-room, it poured from the galley stove.

‘We may have detected a bit of the refurbished system that’s not been thoroughly tested till now, eh?’ Boz blew hard down the gunnery deck voice tube and the whistle was answered with an, ‘Ey ey captain?’

‘Run out the stern chasers and fire when ready.’

During the refit the Lady Æthelflæda had acquired two massive F-Off howitzers in the stern to deter pursuers. The violent recoil, partially absorbed by giant springs, shuddered the gondola’s framework; the gun ports spouted cordite-smoke and flame. The large-bore shells purred towards the pirate vessel and, just as Ginsbergbear struggled onto the command deck, the first one exploded in mid air showering the craft from stem to stern in vivid Day-Glo pink paint.

‘Paint bombs?’ enquired Boz.

‘Well? Suddenly being spray-painted pink can be very demoralising in a macho situation,’ explained the bear. The second shell had clanged, unexploded, onto the deck of the corsair and was ticking. As the crew cautiously approached there came a clockwork whirr and a tink. Something brown and treacly oozed out across the newly pink deck and began to evaporate. The pirates fled. From the dirigible they could be seen scrambling in a panic across the stern, holding their noses, clawing at their eyes and desperately trying to launch the life rafts. The foc’sle gunner threw himself into the sea.

‘Second round will have been a stink bomb then,’ laughed Phoebles triumphantly, as he too arrived on the bridge, still cradling a throbbing tail.

‘Drop down to sea level and prepare to take on survivors,’ instructed Boz.

Star Stone Trilogy Book One; Yii Chapter Eight (cont.)

The rest of the Hilary term went forward without much incident.  Sarah had another encounter with Professor Sneddon.  Having heard more about the stories of college treasures, she tried to confront him again to find out what he was trying to do.

‘Professor Sneddon,’ she said, ‘please will you tell me about the college treasures you are looking for.  I’d be really interested to know more about the history.’

‘You just mind your own business,’ retorted the professor very sharply. ‘And just keep your nose out of other people’s affairs.’

‘But I really am so interested…’ she started – but the professor turned away, leaving Sarah standing there, amazed at his rudeness.

She started following him up the stairs, but he heard her and turned round, with a face of thunder.

‘You keep right away and stop trying to interfere with busy people’ he snarled. He looked so vicious and evil that Sarah backed away.

‘I bet he’s after that treasure for himself,’ thought Sarah. ‘I shall make it my business to find it first.  I wonder if those dreams of winding steps are a clue. Maybe it is hidden in Palmers Tower.  I must try to get into it – I wonder if Jack at the lodge has found a key.’

*