An extract from I.A. Watson’s novella “Airship 27” in Zeppelin Tales
Airship 27 banked to starboard, twisting almost on her own axis to minimize wind shear. Her maneuverability even in difficult conditions was far greater than a fixed-wing aircraft. Inside the vessel crewmen ran to stations and the engineers and fitters took up the positions McHenry had designated to them. Even the adventurous Miss Dennison was usefully occupied in the radio room making shorthand records of transmissions.
The ship swayed a little as she met the turbulence beneath the castle clouds. Captain Stafford’s preferred way in would have been to rise above the formation and search for the fallstreak hole that way, but so far none of the unusual combination punch holes had been located from above. Instead the A-27 battled the unpredictable crosswinds and micro-hailstorms as she tried to avoid the trailing virga beneath the cloudbank.
“All stations call in,” demanded Lieutenant Thompson. In due order, engineering then the men on each fan turbine checked their readiness. Auxiliaries maintaining the control fins sounded off. The crew manning the observation stations reported in, including Ensign Harvey subbing for Finian in the rear gondola. Damage control teams one and two were ready to go. The launch crew by the Sparrowhawk ‘flying trapezes’ were in place, and Machen and his men were already in their cockpits.
Finian called in as his turn came round, shouting into his radio mike over the loud wind noise there at the very top of the canopy. He and a crewman called Burton were lashed to the fuselage where they had the best possible upwards view, but it also meant they were taking the brunt of the below-zero weather.
“Finian up top here. Nothing to report yet.”
Miss Castlemere was co-ordinating the communications. “Take care, sailor,” she told him. “Don’t fall off.”
Burton tried to stop his teeth chattering and made a crude observation about what part of him was likely to fall off first.
The A27 jinked again. Finian got the best view anyone had ever seen of the bizarre trailing refrozen clouds that looked like giant creepers growing from the white base of the main altocumulus bank. The complicated wind-patterns twisted the dangling clouds so they moved like tentacles. It wasn’t hard to imagine the entire cloud as some living creature twisting jellyfish tendrils down to crush its prey.
“The compass is getting jittery,” the navigation officer reported. That had been a prelude to the A26’s encounter. “It’s spinning like crazy!”
“Big storms can do that sometimes,” the experienced Captain Stafford told him. “Keep her steady, helm.”
Finian wiped crusted frost off his goggles and maintained his watch. “Conn, take us fifteen points starboard,” he advised, seeking to avoid collision with one of the refreezing virga.
“This is Dr Utter, speaking over the radio,” cut in the English tones of the ship’s resident genius. “There’s something anomalous about these compass variations. They seem to be following some kind of pattern. Also the interference in radio communication has a regular cycle worthy of additional study.”
A heavy gust spun the massive A27 on its axis, tilting it twenty degrees to port as it turned. Helm struggled to compensate but the ship continued to spiral until it broke out of the white mist into a patch of clear air.
And right there above them was the calm azure ring where the clouds had rolled round to open a clear gap in their centre.
“Conn, it’s right above us!” Finian shouted. “We got it!”
Airship 27 righted herself in the calmer column beneath the punch hole. “Say again,” came back Verity’s voice. “Confirm, Finian.”
“We got it, kid! That’s a definite fallstreak phenomenon about a thousand feet above us. If Nickelhouse wants to throw fighters through there he’s never going to have a better chance than now.
“Conn to hangar bay. Prepare to drop Sparrowhawks!” came Captain Stafford’s cultured West Point tones. “Launch at will.”
Finian was on exactly the wrong side of the ship to see the skyhook dropping the tiny aircraft from the belly of the craft. He contented himself with wrestling a bulky camera from the field box strapped to the fuselage and getting a couple of new plates of the punch hole cloud formation. He wished he could capture the weird blue color of the bizarre phenomenon.
Then a shadow moved over the A27’s outer framing. Looming out of the clouds less than a couple of hundred feet above came the dark metal airship that Finian had last glimpsed shooting up the airfield at Bellerophon Industries.
“Crap!” he swore. “Conn, we have a bogey above and sixty to starboard! It’s the goddamned ship that blew us to hell last night! And it’s closing.”
Even then, as two million tons of death loomed over them, Finian couldn’t help but notice how much like the A27 their enemy looked. The proportions were the same, right down to the distinctive fore and aft gondolas hanging beneath the gasbag. The main differences were in color – the enemy ship’s outer skin was darker, with a black Germanic cross stenciled across it – and the heavy field gun dangling under its mid-section.
That field gun swiveled round and oriented on Airship 27.
“Conn, they’re gonna shoot! Take us starboard and spin us counter-clockwise on axis! Now!”
A27 moved excruciatingly slowly in Finian’s perception. The enemy craft passed above, fully emerging from the wall of cloud into the calm space beneath the cloud ring. The weatherman could see the gunner and his mates strapped into chairs behind the modified Russian M1931 field artillery as it oriented on him.
“They’re firing!” Finian warned.
He saw the smoke emerging from the weapon and watched the whole enemy ship recoil from the blast. The thirty foot long corps gun could usually put out three shells a minute with an experienced ground crew; now Finian understood why each airborne shot took much longer to align.
The 4.8” shell shot towards A27 with lethal intent. The airship’s maneuverability saved her as she keeled to almost forty-five degrees starboard and spun on her tail. The missile passed her envelope by mere feet and vanished into the cloud.
“Machen, are you in the air yet?” Captain Stafford asked over the radio link.
“Negative, Conn. That last maneuver of ours tangled the sky-hook. I’m dangling like a Christmas tree ornament and about as much good! We can’t launch!”
The enemy zeppelin positioned itself steady again to take another shell-shot.
“Conn, that gun of theirs is slung underneath them,” Finian called out. “If we’re at their height they won’t be able to target us!”
Nobody acknowledged Finian’s warning but the A27 began to rise. The weatherman suspected a hastily ballast evacuation.
The field gun fired again but the angle was wrong. This time the shell passed harmlessly below Airship 27.
The enemy ship maneuvered as well. Too late Finian understood what they were intending. “Conn, they’re bringing their machine guns to bear. Head…”
The rattle of rapid fire was loud and clear in the uncanny still air below the fallstreak. Finian saw the shots hit A27’s tail assembly, shredding the upper fin and ailerons. By some miracle the gasbag was missed. A second chatter of noise must have been the A27’s own Brownings returning fire.
Both ships were rising now, each seeking altitude over the other for a tactical advantage. Finian saw the gap in the clouds draw nearer and nearer above, the blurred purple-blue sky above casting a weird light over the embattled airship.
“Finian to Conn. If we’re not careful we’ll pass through the punch hole’s horizon,” he warned.
Nobody responded. The A27 jinked aside again and there was another exchange of fire. The weatherman thought some of the shots might have gone into the hard frame of the enemy ship but he wasn’t sure. The other ship misjudged its maneuver; its tail vanished into the turbulent clouds outside the still air column and was twisted sideways.
The punch hole loomed ever nearer above. Finian had no idea what conditions might be there. “We’re right below the cloud gap, guys!” he shouted into his mike. “We have to drop now or we’ll go through.”
“Vertical controls are out,” came back Stafford’s tense reply. “They’ve shot up the flaps!”
Finian could see the shredded framework lifting up and down but there wasn’t enough left of the covering to have an effect. One of the rear propellers had died as well.
A27 shook and spun as she passed through the ring of the cloud gap. The whole ship turned on her axis twice as she was pulled up into the punch hole. Bright sprays of St Elmo’s fire played over the metal frame of the lift body. The catwalks sparked.
Finian’s radio went dead.
“What’s going on?” Burton screamed beside him.
New air currents caught the vessel, banking her hard to port up and away from the cloud hole. One by one the A27’s remaining turbines spluttered and fell silent.
The ship was tilted so acutely that Finian could glimpse the fallstreak gap beneath them. The clouds that edged the disc were spinning faster than before, sucking in more vapor as they rotated. As the weatherman watched the hole collapsed and was swallowed up by the castle cloud.
A moment later Airship 27 crashed through one of the tall upward-jutting vapor pillars that gave altocumulus castellanus its name and visibility went to zero.
It took Finian and Burton fifteen minutes to grope their way along the ice-slicked exterior of the ship to reach an access door to the interior frame that surrounded the gas-sacks. The men couldn’t feel their extremities by the time they dropped onto the metal-mesh walkway.
To Finian’s surprise the steel and aluminum balcony was warm to the touch. The weatherman remembered the strange lightning that had played along it at the fallstreak horizon.
From there the men took access ladders and found their way back down into the long corridor that ran the full length of the vessel’s underside. Other crew were heading the opposite way. Finian nodded to a fur-clad McHenry on his way to inspect the tail section.
Finian strode through the main lounge on his way to the stateroom. A steward handed him a metal mug of hot onion soup. Finian was surprised to recognize the short-order cook from the base’s mess hut.
Nickelhouse, Verity, and Captain Stafford were conferring in the wood-paneled stateroom. Utter was there too, but he sat cross-legged on the floor scribbling on a series of notepads that he kept rearranging into different orders.
“Well,” Finian noted as he tossed his frost-rimed fur gloves onto the polished table, “you sure found your anomaly, Senator.”
“That I did,” frowned Frank Nickelhouse. He didn’t seem too happy about it.
“We finally got a good look at that vessel assaulting the ship,” Captain Stafford explained. “Looks like it was built to the exact same blueprints as us.”
“The A25 blueprints, I’d say,” interjected Utter. “The modified housings on the stern attitude controls were not present, nor the improved couplings on the propeller gimbals. And of course, someone has butchered in an underslung field weapon with no regard for weight distribution or substructure stress ratios.”
“You’re saying some spy got the plans and they built a ship that can do what this one can,” Finian summarized. “That’s some espionage.”
The Senator nodded, furious. “Creed was right! They’ve been one step ahead of us all along, stealing our research then applying it, hunting the fallstreak holes, sabotaging our own efforts at the cost of many lives.”
“But we still got here first,” noted Miss Castlemere. “I mean, here we are, right, up above the clouds?”
Stafford looked uncomfortable.
“What?” asked Finian. He was missing something.
The Captain passed a clipboard to him. Finian recognized one of his own weather condition charts, filled out in the handwriting of the ensign who’d been subbing for him in the weather car. He frowned. “This bozo’s got it wrong.”
“You can check it for yourself, of course, but two different men have made the same observations,” Nickelhouse said.
Finian looked down the sheet. “So according to the glass we’re at sea level, not 16,000 feet plus. And there’s no steady magnetic field.”
“Also we no longer have any radio contact with the ground,” added Stafford. “We’re not getting anything, even background chatter. We’re checking the receivers.”
“Okay, that’s weird. But maybe that electric field or whatever it was that we flashed through screwed up our instruments. De-gaussed the compasses, wrecked the radio doohickeys, somehow fritzed the altimeters?”
“That’s the most sensible explanation,” agreed the Senator.
“They’re saying it’ll be a while before we can land,” Miss Castlemere told Finian. “The control surfaces were shredded in that attack. Mr McHenry reckons it’ll take five or six hours to patch them. And all the generators fused, so they’ll need fixing too.”
“Even without being fully fuelled we have gas enough to stay aloft for three days,” Stafford assured her.
“The electric-magnetic phenomenon was fascinating,” admitted Utter, still cross-legged on the carpet. “There’s something about that which I am missing.” he went back to his scribbling.
Finian looked through the big forward windows. The airship was drifting out of the cloud tower. He operated the manual windshield wipers to scrape away the ice and peered out at the purple haze beyond.
“Like that lost pilot said. No horizon. No sun. No land. A constant carpet of cloud beneath us.”
Nickelhouse joined him to peer out at the lurid gloom. “You’re the weatherman, Finian. Advise us.”
Finian rubbed his chilled fingers. “Okay then,” he sighed. “Drop me down in the weather car to take a look-see.”
Finian hadn’t realized how silent the powerless ship had become until McHenry spun up the motors on the cable-reeling apparatus to pay out the line on the weather gondola. Finian released the clamps and survived the short free-fall before he was jerked to a halt by the suspension wires.
“Take it slowly, boys,” he said through his hard-wired telephone. “If we really are somehow at sea level I don’t want to get wet.”
“Thought you were a seaman,” Verity Castlemere teased him at the other end of the line.
The weather car descended into the cloudbank. Finian’s visibility went to zero. Flicking on the capsule’s external lights just increased the reflection glare so he switched them off again.
“Okay, this is a bit screwy,” he reported as he watched his instruments. “I’ve been going down for a minute or so now and I’m not detecting any pressure change. The barometer should be reflecting my descent. It’s not.”
“Perhaps the magnetic effect Dr Utter was talking about?” suggested Verity.
“A barometer’s just a thin copper case that’s sensitive to air pressure. It’s only mechanical, the crudest sort of machine at that. Hardly any moving parts. And all the instruments say the same.”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s not. But I’m getting a slight temperature rise here. It was around minus twenty Fahrenheit. Now it’s up to around zero.”
“Are you getting swung all over the place again?”
“Nope. It’s pretty calm down here. It’s like descending through a snowbank. Kind of pretty in a chilly numbing way. If I find Santa I’ll bring you back a present.”
“You’re assuming I’ve been a good girl, Finian.”
The weatherman snorted. “Bad girls get presents too. Plenty of ‘em.”
He was chuckling when the object hit his window.
Another object rattled off the gondola’s windshield. For a moment Finian thought he’d hit a pigeon. The third thing to slam into the glass changed his mind.
The creature was like nothing the weatherman had ever seen. It was closest to a squid the size of Finian’s hand, with suckers on its tentacles protruding from a mouth-like opening. The cups adhered to the window this time, allowing Finian a good view of the bizarre entity.
“Finian, what is it? Are you okay?”
Another pair of the squid-creatures adhered to the gondola.
“I’ve got company down here. Some kind of critter. No idea what. It’s got tentacles and some kind of huge bulge that might be… a gas bag? Something to let it fly?”
More of the swarm latched on to the glass around the sealed gondola cabin.
“Did you say creatures?” Verity asked.
A larger version of the same entity slammed so hard into the side of the vehicle that the weather car rocked.
“Okay, pull me up!” Finian called out. “Now!”
The next attack broke one of the panes. A pair of the monster’s tentacles flapped through the gap.
“Right now!” shouted Finian. He unstrapped himself from his chair and reached for his toolkit.
The creature began to ooze itself through the broken pane, squeezing bonelessly through the narrow gash.
Finian found a screwdriver and plunged it into the creature. The thing exploded in a pungent black ooze and died with a high-pitched screech.
The other entities on the windows went wild, flailing and hammering away. Another couple of panes starred, beginning to splinter.
The gondola rocked again as an even larger tentacle-thing latched on below.
The car rose unsteadily, swaying from side to side.
A huge feeler, longer than the fifteen-foot weather car, loomed out of the thick cloud and groped blindly. Whatever it was attached to was far more massive than anything Finian has seen so far.
The weather car broke out of the cloudbank. The adhering creatures dropped away. If it hadn’t been for the sad burst specimen oozing down through the shattered pane the whole thing might have been a nightmare.
Finian docked the gondola and went to report to the Senator that descending through the cloud carpet might not be a smart thing to do.
Full story in Zeppelin Tales from Airship 27
Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2013 reserved by Ian Watson. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.