Saturday, June 12, 2010

Border-crossing chapter 3

There was a hue and a cry on the ground in the direction from which the Sandflea had just come. The Patrollers tracking Old Toby had now come to the clearing where he’d intercepted the Sandflea. Since there was no sign that he’d continued further along the ground, the logical place to search for him was the sky. They flashed their lanterns in patterns that were no doubt meant to attract the attention of one of their border patrol airships.

Captain Willie had hoped that the prevailing wind would blow them to the west, thus allowing them to float back towards Carolina and over the border in near silence. This trick had worked well in the past but this time their luck was not so good. The crew of the Sandflea could hear the sound of propellers, still in the distance, but no doubt coming to investigate.

“Shit!” yelled Old Toby, “They’re onto us. We gotta get outta here now!”

Captain Willie grunted to himself. “Maybe we just hand you over to them and then the matter is closed.”

“Kennia, secure our “guest” and his packages,” snapped Tira. This will be a very interesting ride and we don’t want anything getting damaged. At least not anything worth a damn.” She looked pointedly at Old Toby.

He took the hint and scrambled towards the sleeping area in the back section of the ship. This section was hardly large enough or comfortable enough to call by the name crew quarters but it was the closest to such that she had. Old Toby hopped more than climbed into one of the lowest hanging hammocks and pulled the safety straps tight over his torso.

Meanwhile, back in the Engine Room, Captain Willie took the wheel while Kennia slipped the bundles of papers into canvas pockets attached to the cabin wall.

“Dump ballast!” shouted Captain Willie. “Try to rise over this next ridge. Then we can descend again and play a bit of hide and seek.” Slipping between rock formations and dodging attempts to capture her was an old trick for the crew of the Sandflea. Normally, though, she would be carrying her engineer and at least one gunner in addition to the captain, Tira and Kennia. What a time to be short-handed!

If the border patrol airship managed to overtake the Sandflea, it could easily grapple and board her. Because the Sandflea specialized in stealth, she was not heavily armed. That didn’t mean she didn’t have more than a few surprises for anyone who might try boarding her!

Evasive manoeuvres is a relative term for an airship. Even the most lightweight craft is ponderous in its movements. The Sandflea had propellers and retractable airfins.  Ideally, though, her crew used a combination of her thrusters and airfins to steer her movements subtly. The airfins were not only retractable but could also be manipulated by a series of levers to function in much the same manner as a fish’s fins. With a skilled hand at the controls the Sandflea could glide through the air almost as effectively as a fish in water.

The air currents in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains were tricky. They could provide lift but could just as easily fling the airship against a cliff. In fact this close to the mountain range, Captain Willie would have preferred a much gentler flight plan! The Sandflea lofted over the ridges on the up currents, her captain’s hands and feet working the complex set of levers, knobs and foot pedals that controlled her like a true master. The Sandflea was small and her captain was highly skilled at evasive manoeuvring but she didn’t have the engine-power behind her propellers that the larger patrol ship had. Sooner, rather than later, it would catch-up with her and capture her.

The Virginia Border Patrol cruiser had a more powerful engine than the little Sandflea but her captain and crew weren’t nearly as experienced in stealth tactics. The warships usual tactic was, as with her maritime counterparts, to draw alongside her opponents and bombard them with her cannons until they surrendered and could be boarded. Worse case scenario, the cannons blew the other ship out of the sky. Hide and seek wasn’t her forté. Still she was gaining on the smaller airship.

Onboard the Sandflea Kennia handed out parachutes to the other crew members and told them, “If we go down and survive the crash, everyone head off in a different direction. The Cherokee will send a patrol to investigate the crash. Hopefully at least one of us will intercept them and can report what happened.”

Back in the crew quarters, unable to see what was happening, Old Toby was gripping this mesh of his hammock until his knuckles were way past being white even though he’d already tightened the straps that held him in until he was practically immobilised.

At the controls Captain Willie muttered curses under his breath.

The other ship was almost within grappling range, assuming that her captain wished to take the crew alive. A few well-aimed shots and their lives would be forfeit. Worst case scenario would be a hit to the airbags. Aside from the gas leaking out and the ship losing buoyancy, the hydrogen contained in them was highly flammable. Airships were too valuable to destroy unnecessarily, though. Better to capture an airship by shooting grapples at the hull and reeling her in, much as in whale hunting.

Suddenly a massive shape arose out of the morning mist. It was a heavy cruiser and her gunports were wide-open!

The captain of the new ship shouted through a megaphone, “This is Captain Araminta Ross of the CFS King Jesus. You have crossed into Carolina. Begone quickly or we will open fire!”

“Captain Ross, we did not intend to intrude into Carolina territory. We are pursuing criminals and wish only to apprehend them and return them to our justice. Hand them over and this problem will be resolved!” shouted the other ship’s captain in response.

“Unacceptable!” was the only answer. The King Jesus glided forward over the much smaller Sandflea like a mother bear protecting her cubs.

(Next chapter: Stand off)

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