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.”