Ice and Clockwork Part I

Sunday, July 1, 2018


Here is the third serial story inspired by our Role Playing group "The Airship's Messdeck."

In the first story, Frozen Sky, Lt. Cmdr(E) Maxwell MacDonald-Smythe (aka Max), Chief Engineer of the experimental airship the HMAS Velvet Brush, and his crew are sent north to the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow in the dead of winter. They fly an old cargo airship, The Doris and their mission is to test a secret device that works very much like sonar.

After spending months of flying back and forth over the waters of Scapa Flow the engine in the old Doris fails.  The Admiralty then sends Max out into the North Sea to continue the testing in a steam trawler.

The second story,  Lost at Sea,  tells how Max and some members of his crew aboard the old steam trawler Argo, are caught in a massive storm and blown towards the rocky coast of Norway.

This story concerns the remainder of Max's crew, John Watkins and the two Marines, Kade Fraser and Ellis Cooke, who had been left behind in Scapa Flow to try and get the engines from the old Doris running again.

Enjoy Part I.

Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.

Ice and Clockwork
A serial story from The Airship's Messdeck.
Part I
  by Kevin Jepson

John Watkins is sound asleep in a hammock slung along side the keelwalk of Her Majesty's Air Ship Francis. There are ice crystals glittering in the dim frosty light that comes through the fabric cover of the keelwalk. Unlike the open keelwalks of the old Doris, the Francis has her's covered over so that the crew can use them for their quarters on the long cold flights across the North Atlantic to supply the Admiralty's Aetherwave stations in Iceland.

She is two days out of Aberdeen and, having had to swing South around a nasty depression, is now heading Northwest towards Iceland. Watkins is the Chief Engineer, temporarily at least, replacing the regular engineer who is suffering one of his recurring bouts of some nasty tropical disease picked up someplace in Her Majesty's service. A place very much hotter than the middle of the North Atlantic in Winter.

Corporal Ellis Cooke comes along the keelwalk and gently taps Watkins on the shoulder.

"Sir...  Mr Watkins Sir..." Watkins opens his eyes and groans.

"Eh, what is it Ellis?"

"Sorry to wake you Sir, but there is a message. Sarge says it is marked private for your eyes only Sir."

"Alright, I'll come forward. See if you can rustle up something hot to drink eh?"

Cooke smiles. "Aye Sir I'll see what I can do." Always the same request, always the same response. Also, unfortunately, not much chance of getting anything hot outside of meal times.

"Do you think it could be something about Max and the others finally?"

Watkins shakes his head sadly. "Perhaps, but I'm thinking we ain't never going to know what happened to em." At the crestfallen look on the young marine corporal's face Watkins says, "Aye, well you never know, stranger things as happened and that's the truth."

As Cooke heads back forward Watkins reaches for his fleece lined boots, hanging on a hook beside his hammock, and then grabs his heavy winter coat before finally, carefully, climbing out of his hammock onto the keelwalk. He moves with the smooth but cautious motions of an experienced airship sailor. A slip or misplaced foot here could send him through the fabric cover on a one way trip to the icy Atlantic nearly a thousand feet below.
Airshipmen on the North Atlantic run.

Watkins pauses on the keelwalk listening to the steady thumping of the engines. Once he is sure that nothing is amiss he heads forward towards the control car.

The HMAS Francis is very much like the old Doris, but longer and with twin engines instead of one. She is otherwise laid out the same with a control car forward, cargo amidships and an engine car aft. The Francis is therefore a typical cargo carrying hydrogen airship. The long flights over the ocean, ferrying supplies to the Admiralty outposts in Iceland, are tedious but necessary. The captive balloons that hold the Aetherwave antennas high up in the atmosphere are the only way to make transatlantic communications work.

After months of hanging about in Scapa Flow, Watkins had been offered the chance to fly as the replacement Engineer on the Francis. It would probably only be a couple of crossings before the Admiralty figured out what to do with him, but at least it was better than painting buoys and brooding on the loss of Max and his shipmates aboard the long overdue Argo.

He hadn't felt right about abandoning the two marines, so he had managed to get them assigned aboard the Francis as well. It had been tricky springing Fraser from the brig. More than likely the Marine Colonel was happy to get Fraser off his hands, it wasn't right to lock up a man for trying to do right by his shipmates, but stealing their Lordships property was just not on.

As Watkins approaches the access down to the control car a marine sentry snaps to attention and touches his cap. Kade Fraser, ex Sargeant now Private, looks very much like any of the other crew, heavy leather fleece lined coat, heavy boots, fur lined cap. The only thing marking him as a Marine is the incongruous white cross belts. The Skipper of the Francis always pictured himself as a Post Captain of the Old Navy so was happy to have the two Marines available to add some colour to his crew. Strictly speaking the Francis was too small to warrant a Marine presence at all, but that didn't seem to matter to the Skipper.

Watkins nods to Fraser. "Mornin' Sarge, all well?"

"Well as could be expected Sir, bit nippy."

"Not used to this 'Sir' stuff yet Sarge, makes me want to look over me shoulder in case a real officer is lurking there."

Fraser smiles. "Well you are Chief Engineer now, doesn't matter if you don't have a stripe to go with it... Sir"

"Still... Ellis says Sweep's got a message for me."

"Aye that she does Sir, says it is marked private and personal. She's in her snug as usual. Skipper was not happy to hear there was a message he couldn't see, heard him say 'Always some bloody cloak and dagger business on this run'. Seemed quite resigned to it all though Sir."

"Ah. Thanks Sarge carry on."

"Sir." Fraser touches his cap as Watkins climbs down into the control car.

Looking to see if the Captain is on the flight deck, and seeing only the helmsman and the elevator man, he salutes anyway as any officer would when coming on the Quarter Deck of a warship, and then knocks on the door of the Comms room, 'The Snug', as the crew call it.

Knocking is necessary because in addition to being the room with all the aetherwave gear it is also the quarters of the most unusual crew member of the Francis.

"Enter!" comes the gruff voice from inside.

Watkins enters the Comms room. It is not much bigger than a large closet really, a larger than normal Aetherwave setup takes up almost half of the room, the other half is a desk/bed combination at which sits Sweep, the Communications officer of the Francis.

Sweep is an elderly lady officer, a full Lieutenant in fact, long past retirement but sharp as a pin. Badly injured in an action against the air pirates in the Far East she has many mechanical parts replacing her legs, one arm and part of her face. She has a reputation as being one of the best comms operators in the service.

She is called Sweep because of her penchant for the heavy smoking of the nasty smelling cheroots, like those smoked by Fleet Admiral Chicheley, thus making her smell like a Chimney Sweep.

Living aboard a hydrogen lift airship means not being able to smoke at all while aboard. This was not good for her state of mind... or that of her shipmates. One of the first things Watkins did on joining the ship was figure out a way that Sweep could safely smoke while they were in flight. So now as Watkins comes into the crowded room and touches his cap her eyes sparkle.

"Ah Mr Watkins, how are you this fine frosty morning?"

"Not too bad Ma'am, Cooke says you have a message for me?"

"I do indeed." Rummaging through a pile of paper, with a whir of gears and linkages, Sweep hands Watkins a page with a message written out in the precise fine letters of a master code smith. "Spot of tea?"

Of course there is no tea and won't be any for an hour or so yet, but Watkins smiles and says, "That would be fine Ma'am."

Turning the message to get a clearer look at it he starts to read.

Continue to Part II


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