Saturday, January 18, 2014

Pirates!



The sight of Schiller's face as he poked his head around the door of the forward lounge was enough for an educated guess.

"What's up?"

"Looks like we might be getting a bit of red weather."

I felt the colour drain and my guts clench.

The lounge was normally the biggest open space aboard Frobisher, but now it was crowded with sleeping bags, clothes, toys and kids and their mothers. Our passengers were noisy and most of the ones old enough to walk were rambunctious and needed a lot of watching. It had made a nice break to come down and play with the kids for half an hour.

We were still three days out from our rendezvous with the small fleet of passenger vessels who could take up some of our overcrowding and the escort planes we'd been told to expect from the Kerala Christian Free State. They were expecting us and had plenty of room for the refugees we'd picked up from the IPPF camp in Tanzania, but we needed to get them there in one, or I should say 200 pieces. And until we met the escort, we were on our own.

Schiller gave me another look, and I handed back to his mother the six year-old who was telling me excitedly how much he wanted to be an Aeroscraft captain when he grew up.

"I'll come and take a look, shall I?" I said, keeping as neutral a face as possible. 200 hungry, tired men and women, many pregnant, and their kids, with an uncertain future who were unlikely ever to get home again: I didn't need to add to their worries.

"Red weather," of course was code. The trip had been uneventful so far. Over Yemen and Oman we'd steered inland and the few Arabian tribesmen on the bottom corner of the peninsula didn't have planes or dirigibles, so I figured we just had a long trip over the desert to look down on. After the Gulf of Oman, a relatively safe cruise down the ridge of the coastal range of the subcontinent, go high over Mumbai to avoid their rather pushy and nosey air-cops, and bob's your uncle. I'd been hoping for quiet sailing after getting past the Gulf of Aden, but apparently our luck wasn't running that way.

The Arabian Sea was another matter, buzzing with American and British navy, pirates out of Madagascar, and who knew what else. Of course a quick trip directly across the sea from Tanzania to the KCFS would have been three days at most, but we had to go the long way round to avoid trouble.

When I got down to the aft wheelhouse I found a little crowd around the BTs. "How are we doing?" I asked Schiller who was glued to his display.

"Same as always," he said, without smiling or looking up.

"That bad, huh?"

I took my chair and clicked on the digital and was sure. The room was silent; everyone knew we could be in trouble from that little ship about 300 feet down and two miles off our port stern. We had some small arms on board but none of us were soldiers. And there were some explosives left over from a barter payment after we'd supplied an illegal mining operation near Irkutsk. Useful if we wanted to blow ourselves out of the sky. And then there were the unarmed passengers.

Since the end of the brief war a decade ago between the EU and Turkey and their more aggressive neighbours to the east, a lot of the northern end of what had once been Pakistan had broken up into little warring kingdoms ruled by chieftains and despots, each vying to prove who was the biggest bastard. And a lot of them had acquired old model dirigibles. They liked to call them "privateers" and some of the more educated actually issued "letters of marque" making it "legal" and giving the boys permission to take whatever they could get up here.

Lately they'd been armed with cast-off Russian and Chinese EMP canons, which were perfect weapons against an airship, cutting our engines, navigation and communications, but not sinking us or damaging the goods. A 600-foot late model VTL cargo ship with landing craft and the latest gadgets would be quite a prize for them, but Frobisher was home, and one fights for one's home.

Our friends below could be Kashmiri or Afghan, or hooked up with that little bespectacled psychopath sitting like a spider in Peshawar, but either way they weren't going to be chummy. We weren't carrying cargo, so there wasn't much aboard worth stealing, except Frobisher herself, and 200 women and children. We knew what pirates would be likely to do with such a quantity of human ballast.

"Let me take a look." I got up and shouldered Williams off the 120mm BT. He had a habit of standing too close when he was nervous, and I could hear him breathing next to me. Our best binocular telescope had a better range than the digital display, a gift from our friends in the Australian Coast Guard from the time we'd pulled two of their officers out of a bit of trouble in Indonesia. It combined regular high-powered analogue binoculars with some nice computer enhancement.

I peered into the scope: "Small ship. About 250 feet long. Maybe three tanks. Low flight ceiling but faster than us on the flat."

"Is it that new Iranian ship Vincker told us about?" Williams asked.

"Nope. An old German model. A Nimbus BL-889," I said. "Discontinued about five years ago. Design flaws, one of which was the low ceiling. I met the architect at a conference a few years ago. He was raving about the superior capabilities of his design. The company made about 12 of them and then sold them off at a cut price."

I knew the crew thought my obsession with airship designs a bit of a joke, but they weren't laughing now. Who was in the market for cheap, low-altitude, fast-flying cargo airships? Well, for one, all those savage little tin-pot despots I mentioned.

"Give me infrared, please." The scope switched to the heat view and I saw from their exhaust signature that I'd been right. New engines or modifications from the original design, which meant they were a lot faster than us. But it was still only a three-tank ship. They were closing the distance between us, but not ascending. They might not be chasing us.

There were six other people on the deck, all watching me. EMP canons had a short range, and we were already above them. We might be able to get a little higher and stay out of their reach.

"Maintain course and go to surface stealth mode." Maybe they hadn't seen us and showing them a shiny underbelly could give us the time we needed. But we couldn't outrun them. "Cut the turbo prop and pump the tanks. Let's get some more altitude. Deploy the forward sails. The wind is with us, and we can cruise quietly for a bit." Without taking my eyes off the scope, I asked, "How high is that stratocumulus bank?" Thank God it was mid-winter and there was a bit of cloud cover.

"About another 800 feet up," said Schiller's voice. "But we're close to the top of our ceiling now, and would have to dump some ballast to get in there. And there's rough weather inside."

"It's a place to run if we have to." I flipped on the intercom and said in English, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have to ask that you remain in your berths. We may be experiencing some rough weather shortly. Try to remain seated and avoid moving about the cabins if possible. Crew please clear the observation deck. Drill six; report secure."

I turned to the dark Nigerian standing with his feet apart and arms crossed looking grimly out the wheelhouse ports. I'd never seen him look anything but grim. "Mr. Osadebay, could you please repeat that in the relevant languages?" As he moved to obey, the security reports came in. Passengers were quieting the kids and were calm. Crew was breaking out the sidearms from the weapons locker and keeping their expressions neutral.

Osadebay had spent the last ten years rescuing refugees and getting them out of some pretty horrific situations around Africa. He'd seen, and I presumed done, quite a lot in recent years and he was dedicated to getting his people to a safe haven. I knew he would hold it together if we had to fight. He had told me he'd been in Djibouti at the start of the Sino-Russian Purges. There was peace in Somalia now, so we were told. Mostly because there were only Chinese workers there now.

"Mr. Williams, please send a telex to Gatsby and Ceremoniere giving our location and the Red Weather report." At least if we went down, the rest of Prince Stephen's little fleet would know where.

"If they've seen us..." Williams couldn't keep his nervousness to himself. If they'd seen us, we wouldn't have much chance. Some, but not a lot. We'd know in a minute or so.

I kept my eyes locked on our radar and the two blips showing our position and that of our friends. We sat in silence, waiting. The green space between the blips remained steady for five seconds. Ten seconds. Fifteen.

On the V-axis, the distance slowly grew as the tanks pumped out helium into the gas vault and we drifted quietly higher. The H-axis showed no change; they were no longer closing.



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