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.