Ice and Clockwork Part V

Saturday, September 29, 2018 0 comments

A remote Aetherwave Station

Previously The two Marines, Cpl Cooke and Private Fraser, have disappeared after apparently stealing an Icelander's Steam Sledge. Watkins, having endured a rough afternoon at the hands of the local military commander, has been sent off to collect the package from the Aetherwave Station while the search for the missing Red Coats continues.

Enjoy Part V

You can start from the beginning of this story here.

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

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

The steam sledge slips and bounces across a rough terrain that is equal parts snow and blocks of lava rock. They have been grinding along, climbing steadily for almost three hours in the dim morning light. Watkins shivers as he scrapes the frost off the window of the sledge and looks out at the multi coloured rocky volcanoes that dot the country side.

They are all extinct and have been for a thousand years.

"Could use a little molten rock about now." he mutters as he tries to warm his hands over the steam coil that is trying valiantly to put heat into the cabin.

There had been no sign of the two Marines by the time he left. The Major had been exceptionally helpful this morning, cheerful even. Which by comparison with the previous day made Watkins quite nervous.

"Bugger is hoping I have to leave on the Francis before Fraser and Cooke show up so he can dragoon them more an likely. Hate to have to explain to Sgt Major Briggs how I lost his Marines!"

Finally the sledge bounces to a stop and the driver taps on the window to indicate that they have arrived.

Watkins climbs down from the sledge, his boots crunching on the snow.

AETHER WIRE STATION WEST #3 is not much to look at, several long buildings surrounded by a kind of wire stockade. In the center is a wooden derrick, like those used at coal mines to handle the crew cars and coal hoists. Rising from the top is the great Aetherwave cable that rises up into the clouds like a pencil line drawn on the sky. Many thousands of feet above, invisible because of the clouds, is a captive balloon, like a small airship, complete with a lonely crew of three, that maintains the tension and position of the cable regardless of the winds and weather.

A Marine guard steps out from a sentry box near the gate in the stockade and asks to see Watkins' pass and papers.

"Welcome to Thrihnukagigur*" he says as he hands the papers back to Watkins.

"And what pray tell is a Thrihn... er... whatsit?"

"Heh, took me a long time to get my tongue wrapped around that one too. It means 'Three Peak Crater' in Icelandic." the guard says with a smile. "Sounds better than AETHER WIRE STATION WEST #3 eh?"

"Aye it does that. I'm to see the Security Officer."

"Right this way, he will be below I expect, but I'll ring him up when we get inside."

After passing the gate they enter the first of the two long buildings that butt up against the derrick. Inside is a hallway flanked by workshops and offices. There is a steady hum like some massive beehive buzzing under their feet. As they walk down the hall towards the derrick Watkins can feel a kind of tickling on his scalp and arms. It is like each hair has decided to walk around on its own. He shakes his hands and rubs them together.

The guard sees him and says "It's the Aether waves, there is so much power in that cable it makes your skin jumpy. Can't feel it below though."

"Below? What's below?"

The guard looks at him oddly. "You don't know? I figured with that security pass you would have been briefed."

They stop outside an office with a brass plaque on the door labeled "Security Officer" and the guard ushers him in. "Take a seat and I'll get Captain Fisher. Won't be a minute. There is tea in that flask there."

"Thank you." As the guard leaves, Watkins looks at the pictures and maps on the wall above the desk. Mostly sketches and paintings of the wild and desolate, yet colourful, landscape surrounding the station.

In a glass topped case against the far wall are various rock samples of different colours, some with exotic crystals glinting. In another case are small mechanical devices some obviously autonomous. Watkins leans closer to look at a pair of small mechanical spider like machines tucked in one corner.

"Blimey! How the hell did you get all the way to Iceland?"

"Ah, enjoying my little museum?" Captain Fisher enters the office and tosses his uniform jacket on the back of his chair.

Watkins comes to attention and starts to salute but the Captain says "Never mind about all that here Mr...ah"

"Watkins Sir. Engineer on the HMAS Francis. I have been ordered to retrieve a package from you Sir."

"Ah, I have that ready out back, do you have the authorization?"

"Yes Sir." Watkins hands the papers over to the Captain who looks at them briefly and drops them on his desk.

"Did they give you anything else to give to me?"

"No Sir, I don't think so... unless... ah, Sorry Sir, Argo"

Captain Fisher smiles.  "Very good, you would think the Intelligence folks would be more creative but I suppose it's the best they can do on a limited budget."

"Sir, if I may, these mechanicals in the case, where did you get them from."

"They are fascinating aren't they? These beauties come from below right here actually. They occasionally get away and make it up the shaft. Whenever one of the guards catches one he brings it to me and I keep it in the case. Have to deactivate them first of course which is a pity some have quite extraordinary behaviours."

"I seen some just like it in Cape Town, like them big spiders in the corner."

"Did you indeed, fascinating. They were some of the first ones here, I always thought he built them too fast to have been a new design."

"Sorry Sir, I don't understand."

"No reason you should Mr Watkins. Now let's see about getting you fixed up with the package. You are aware of the standard precautions regarding power and containment?"

"Yes Sir." Watkins repeats the requirements from the orders he received from Sweep back on the Francis.

"Yes that's them, make sure you follow them to the letter. I do not know what this particular package does, don't want to frankly, but you don't want to be taking any chances understood?"

"Aye aye Sir!"

Captain Fisher takes Watkins out the back of the building. Next to the base of the derrick the package is resting on a pallet made of wood. The container is indeed not overly large, but the batteries that will power it are. It is currently connected to a cable that heads to the base of the derrick and disappears below. Watkins can see that in addition to being used to send up supplies and the occasional crewman to the captive balloon far above, the derrick also has cables and pulleys to run cages up and down a shaft at its base very much like a mine working.

As Watkins is inspecting the package he asks the Captain what is below the shaft.

"I'm afraid that's classified, need to know and all that, sorry."

Watkins decides to try a different tack, the security officer seems to be a tech at heart so he asks, "Sir,  where is the power coming from to run this station? I don't see any smoke or steam from a power plant, nor any coal piles and I don't think this is a coal mine."

"No it certainly isn't." Says the Captain with a smile. "Much of what happens here is classified but you are an engineer and you'll get a kick out of this, and it isn't classified for what it's worth. The Aetherwave Stations power themselves."

Watkins looks over towards the wooden derrick with its cable stretching up into the clouds. "Power themselves? How?"

"A fascinating system really, up here in the near arctic the magnetic field of the earth starts to get close to the ground, eventually the lines of force actually enter the surface near the pole. So when we stretch a long cable up several thousand feet into the air we cut a lot of those lines of force. This generates some pretty significant currents between the cable and the ground."

"It's a giant generator!"

"It is indeed, the entire facility is powered by it, never goes off, and there is more than we can use actually. Plus it allows us to setup shielding for other... ah... projects."

A gate in the stockade is opened by the guard and the steam sledge trundles through.

"I'll leave you in the capable hands of trooper Walsh to load this up. Safe journey Mr Watkins."

"Thank you sir."

Watkins watches as the Captain gets into a cage at the base of the derrick which quickly drops out of sight. Keeping an eye on the large pulley at the top, Watkins estimates the number of turns the wheel takes before coming to a stop.

"Blimey nearly 600 feet!" he mutters as the guard comes up.

"You say something Sir?"

"Aye I did, that shaft is really deep!"

"Oh it is that and there be mighty strange things at the bottom I can tell you."

"Really?" As Watkins, with the help of the sledge driver and the guard, start to manhandle the package over to the sledge Watkins tries to get more info from the guard.

"Captain Fisher was saying as how some of them mechanical critters get up the shaft sometimes."

"Oh Aye they do that every now and then, was tough when he first got here but eventually they figured out a damping field that deactivated them before they could get up. He's figured out how to get through it lately."

"Argh these batteries are heavy... Who has?"

"Oh our most recent guest."


"Well prisoner really I suppose, hard to tell, he gets pretty much anything he wants. He's just not allowed to leave. Plays a kind of cat and mouse game with the Captain, seeing if he can get his mechanicals out just for fun it seems like. Strange fellow, artificial legs, absolute whiz with mechanicals. I was here when he were brought in about 6 months back actually. You'd think he were the Prince of Wales or something with the number of Marines around. The Lady in charge must have been very high up in the ranks judging by the way everybody deferred to her. Tough bit that one, smoked these awful smelling little cigars."

"Ah, I met her in Cape Town, same place I saw those spiders in the Captain's case."

With a lot of pushing and shoving they finally get the package and the batteries wedged into the cabin of the sledge. Watkins checks the power and makes sure everything is ready to go, then he carefully unplugs the cable.

"Thank you for your assistance trooper."

The guard touches his cap. "My pleasure Sir, safe journey."

Part VI coming soon.

*Thrihnukagigur is an actual place in Iceland.
The magma chamber of the volcano drained out leaving a 650' deep chasm first explored in 2011.

Ice and Clockwork Part IV

Sunday, September 9, 2018 0 comments

Under fire.

Previously Watkins and his two Marine shipmates have been ordered to collect a mysterious package from a remote Aetherwave station in Iceland. On reporting to the local headquarters of the British Airship Service in Reykjavik, the steam sledge that brought them there has disappeared, along with the two Marines who were waiting in it!

Enjoy Part IV

You can start from the beginning of this story here.

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

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

It is late afternoon and almost night this far North. The office of Major Woolsley-Hampton MBE bears a distinct resemblance to a kicked over anthill. Local dignitaries, police officers, friends of the sledge driver, and members of both the Major's staff and the local British Consulate are coming and going almost continuously.

Since the Major's return from his inspection things have gotten pretty warm indeed for Mr. John Watkins. The Major has made Watkins acutely aware that not only is it his men, for whom he is responsible, that have possibly stolen a sledge and disappeared, but that it is the Royal Navy and by extension the British presence in Iceland itself, that has also been called into disrepute.

Watkins standing stiffly to attention in front of the Major's desk is trying to defuse the issue.

"No Sir. I do not believe my men would run off with a steam sledge. What reason could they have for doing that?"

The Major, dressed in a business suit with only an embroidered rank flash on one sleeve to indicate he is actually a soldier, is having none of it.

"What reason do sailors need to head out on a spree when ashore!"

"They are not sailors Sir, they are Royal Marines and Airship Marines at that..."

The Major dismisses Watkins remark with a wave of his hand. "Yes, yes, I know all about the great Red Coated Bullocks of the Senior Service, but what about this Fraser fellow..." The Major rummages around in the papers on his desk and holds up a report that had arrived with the consular aide. "Busted to private for trying to steal a frigate or something at Scapa Flow!"

Watkins had expected that to come out. "Sergeant Fraser was trying to join the search for our Commander and other members of the crew lost in a North Sea Gale Sir!"

"Hmph! Maybe Watkins, or he was trying to desert and you just brought him to Iceland and let him do just that!"

"No Sir! I do not believe that of Kade Fraser or Ellis Cooke either. They are exemplary Marines who I have served with for more than two years Sir!"

"Well it is damn bad timing Watkins, bad timing indeed!"


"Bloody hell, stand a ease Watkins, you're making my back ache standing there like a bloody rifle barrel!"

Watkins relaxes, into what a sailor considers "at ease" but what a soldier would consider as "slouching". The Major looks like he is going to say something but then thinks better of it.

"You are aware no doubt of the diplomatic row with the Russians and that ship last year?"*

"Yes Sir, I was on the Airship who found her, outside Russian waters as it happens."

"Well the Russians claim she had been inshore supplying, or transferring, spies or something. They claim they can prove it too. They are also pressuring the Icelanders to remove or curtail our Aetherwave Stations here! Your Marines may have just added some fuel to that particular bonfire!"

Before Watkins has a chance to answer there is a knock on the door and the Major's clerk comes in.

"What is it Helga?"

"Excuse me Sir, but I thought I should tell you that they found the sledge the details are here, and there is also a message from Whitehall for you Sir." The Clerk hands the major a paper and leaves, closing the door behind her.

Resisting the urge to grab the paper himself, Watkins waits while the Major quickly scans the report. "Hmmm... sledge was off the road outside the city heading North. Ran out of fuel by the look of it. No sign of your men Watkins. It was snowing hard out there so no tracks either. No matter, the Icelanders are used to hunting in the snow they will be tracked down in the morning and brought in, if they haven't frozen to death somewhere."

"I suspect they won't be found Sir, not if they don't want to be."

"Come Watkins, I've not heard that Airship Marines can disappear."

"No Sir, but they are very well trained Sir. Their Sgt Major made sure of that. I heard a rumour that he was famous for it."


"Yes Sir, they called him the Horseman."

The colour drains from the Major's face. "The Hell you say! That bloody devil is a Royal Marine?"

"I don't know for sure Sir, but the Marines seemed to think it likely."

"Yes well, it would suit a Sergeant Major for his troops to think that would it not?"

"Yes Sir."

The Major turns and looks out into the darkness of the Icelandic night and mutters to himself. "Still, Marines trained by the Horseman would come in very handy in a scrap."

"I beg your pardon Sir?"

The Major turns back to Watkins. "Never mind, since we have the sledge back it won't be long till we have your run away red coats as well."

"Yes Sir. What about my orders to retrieve that package from the Aetherwave balloon station?"

"I will get you some transport for the morning. Maybe we should hire that fellow's sledge again, to ease his mind with a few more of Her Majesty's sovereigns eh?"

"Yes Sir, Thank you Sir."

Part V is here

*The HMAS Velvet Brush had been sent into the Baltic the year before to find a Royal Navy surface ship that had supposedly been forced into Russian waters. They found the cruiser battling a storm outside Russian territory thus avoiding a nasty diplomatic incident.

World Championships Sept 8 2018

Tuesday, August 28, 2018 0 comments

 It's that time of year!

Keep your sightglass full your firebox trimmed and your water iced!

For more information and to find out more about this great sport go to:
Madame Saffron Hemlock’s Parasol Duelling League for Steampunk Ladies

Click here for information on the history and development of Parasol Duelling
or click the Parasol Duelling tag.

The Rules for Parasol Duelling

Ice and Clockwork Part III

Saturday, August 18, 2018 0 comments


Previously  John Watkins, acting Engineer of the HMAS Francis , and his two Airship Marine shipmates, Cpl Ellis Cooke and ex-sergeant Kade Fraser, have received orders to retrieve a secret package from one of her Majesty's Aetherwave stations in Iceland.

They are to report to a Major Woolsley-Hampton MBE  in Reykjavik for further instructions.

You can start from the beginning of their adventure here.

Enjoy Part III
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed, and your water iced.

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

Reykjavik ,Iceland

Watkins and the two Marines have arrived at the Operations HQ for Her Majesty's Airship Service in Reykjavik. The city is blanketed with a thick layer of snow. Thankfully there is almost no wind, but it is still many degrees below freezing. The steam sledge on which they rode from the landing field is slightly warm courtesy of its boiler.

Watkins opens the sledge door and steps out to go inside. There is a burst of fog when the icy outside air floods in. "Hang onto the sledge I shouldn't be too long."

"Aye aye Sir." Corporal Cooke quickly closes the door and says "I'm getting sick of all this cold Sarge."

"Aye, give me a posting in the Med anytime! Haven't been warm since before we left London on the Doris."

"Watkins says we are off to some Aetherwave Balloon station on a Volcano out in the country somewheres."

Fraser chuckles. "Well maybe that will be warm if it's erupting eh?"

"We can hope Sarge, we can hope!"

There is a tapping on the window to the driver's position which opens revealing the rugged blond head of the driver. His accent is very strong, "Going to get more coal at depot, be back in a few minutes. You want I can bring some drink and food back?"

"Wonderful much obliged." says Cooke.

The window closes and the sledge rocks a bit as the driver jumps out and trudges off through the snow. "You know you just gave him permission to go to the pub on his way right?" Fraser says with a grin.

"Eh? I did no such thing Sarge, he offered to bring us back some food."

"Aye and where do you suppose he is going to get that? We'll be lucky to see him again by nightfall I'm thinking"

"Ha, just cause that's what you would do Sarge doesn't hold that Icelanders would."

"Well how about we bet on it then?" There is a gleam in the ex-Sergeant's eye that warns Cooke not to be stupid and comply.

"Oh no! I recognize that look! Between you and Miss BB* I near lost me last button so no thank you. I will say I'll be surprised if he ain't back by the time Watkins is."

"We'll see, in the meantime I'm going to try to get some sleep while I'm not quite frozen."

"Good idea Sarge, the sledge ain't going anywheres without a driver so we don't need to stand watches."

In a remarkably short time the two Marines are sound asleep.


Inside the office of Major Woolsley-Hampton MBE there is a redly glowing pot-bellied coal stove in the corner next to an ornate desk piled with papers and maps. The room seems very warm compared to the hallway outside, and impossibly warm compared to the street.

The major is off on an inspection of some sort and expected to return shortly, at least that is what Watkins was told by the Major's clerk, a striking blond Icelandic lady with the most amazing blue eyes he has ever seen.

Watkins makes himself comfortable on a chair next to the stove to await the Major's return.
After what seems like an eternity, he awakes from a doze with a start.
The sound of raised voices comes from the hallway, he can make out the stern voice of the clerk and the deeper tones of someone else. They are speaking Icelandic so he cannot understand them but there is definitely something amiss.

There is a tapping on the door of the office and the clerk comes in.

"Your pardon Sir, but this gentleman has a... a concern."

"A concern is it? Sounds like a right row it does. May I be of assistance?"

The clerk looks somewhat embarrassed. "Yes Sir there may be. This man says your marines have stolen his sledge!"

"The devil you say!"

Grabbing his coat and cap Watkins leaves the Major's office and stepping out the door to the street sees no sign of the sledge, or its two lobsterback passengers. There is a slushy spot where the heat of the sledge's boiler had melted the snow but that is all.

The driver is standing shaking his head, at his feet is a bag of coal, two flagons of ale and a ham. "I go get coal, food and drink and when I come back no sledge!"

"Bloody hell! Where would they go damn their eyes! Not like they could drive the damn thing anywhere without anyone seeing."

The tracks of the sledge are clearly visible in the snow heading out into the street where they disappear in the welter of other tracks.

"I have no sledge, now have no money, my wife will not eat if I have no sledge!"

"Aye mate that may be and all, but I don't think my men have stolen your sledge, they are Airship Marines and not taken to joy riding. I'm thinking something else must have happened, but what?"

The driver simply shrugs and shakes his head.

Part IV is here.

* Lt Beulah Bueckert, aka Miss BB, is the Communications Officer of their previous airship the experimental HMAS Velvet Brush. She was with their Commander and the rest of his crew when they went missing at sea after the great gale described in the previous story. Miss BB is an incredibly lucky gambler.

Happy Anniversary!

Saturday, July 21, 2018 0 comments

6 Years!

This blog started six years ago today!

Thanks to all my faithful readers, I hope you have found something of interest in all these posts.

Looking forward to continuing to bring you interesting and entertaining information, both  Steampunk and historical.

Thanks for reading and as always...

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

Ice and Clockwork Part II

Thursday, July 19, 2018 0 comments

New Orders

Previously, three members of Max's crew, Engineer John Watkins and the two Marines, Kade Fraser and Ellis Cooke, had been left behind in Scapa Flow to try and get the engines from the old Doris running again. After Max and the rest of his crew are lost at sea in a great gale, Watkins and the marines are assigned to the HMAS Francis. The Francis is a Royal Navy cargo airship that makes a regular run to Iceland to supply the British Aetherwave stations there.

On their first trip to Iceland, Watkins is summoned to the airship's Comms room to receive a message from Naval Intelligence.

Enjoy Part II
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed, and your water iced.

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

As Sweep, the Comms Officer of the HMAS Francis, scans the Aetherwave gear before her, transcribing the messages into her Comms Log with a whirring and chirping of her mechanical arm, Watkins peers at the tightly packed characters of the message.

To: John Watkins, Chief Engineer (temp) HMAS Francis
Classification: PRIVATE and CONFIDENTIAL
Follows: One (1) document Classification: SECRET
Orders from: Naval Intelligence Portsmouth
Urgency: With Dispatch
Their Lordships Hereby Order and Command:
1) On arrival Iceland proceed to HMAS Operations HQ Iceland.
2) Report to Major Woolsley-Hampton MBE.
3) Arrange transport to AETHER WIRE STATION WEST #3
4) Contact AWSW3 Security Officer.
5) Present credentials supplied by HMAS OHQ Iceland and code phrase. You will receive a package. Details of package transport parameters follow.
6) Proceed on board HMAS Francis for return to SCAPA FLOW.
7) Return Portsmouth and personally deliver package BY HAND to Naval Intelligence Portsmouth.
Signed: Hon. Algernon Biphington IV
Authorization: Chief Naval Intelligence

Watkins looks up from reading. "Hmmm... No rest for the wicked it seems."

Sweep nods her head, at least it seems to Watkins that she does by the motion of the wires and gears along the side of her face which turns towards him. She finishes transcribing the current message. "I have the follow up message here, tricky to decode this one, it is a new code specific to Naval Intelligence. Just started using it actually, still not familiar with the details, let's see where did I stash that..."

With more whirring and buzzing a section of the desk starts to rise up. Watkins can see what looks like card catalog trays. Even as Sweep starts to transcribe a new message coming in, her real arm begins to riffle through the trays. It is disconcerting to see her doing two things at once like that.

"Ah, here we are." She hands the paper to Watkins.

"That is a burn after reading one. Try not to blow us out of the sky dear." There might be a smile hiding under the gears and linkages, Watkins can't be sure, but he can hear it in her voice.

Watkins smiles back. "Aye aye Ma'am."

He looks at the long columns of characters and says "Ah, I have never received SECRET orders before, do you have to hold your tongue in a particular way while reading it?" He hands the message back to Sweep with a grin.

She looks at the paper and laughs. "Ah sorry, that is the raw code." Her real hand rummages in the tray again. "This should be clearer."

"Thank you Ma'am."

To: John Watkins, Chief Engineer (temp) HMAS Francis
Classification: SECRET
Follows: None
Orders from: Naval Intelligence Portsmouth
Urgency: With Dispatch
Their Lordships Hereby Order and Command:
1) Package is human transportable not fragile but requires careful handling.
2) Package must remain in container at all times.
3) Containment requires electrical power at all times equivalent to Mark VII Stable Tech Source 4/b-11
4) In event of containment breach or loss of power on no account must package be outside containment for more than 3 minutes!
4a) If over sea dispose of over the side immediately.
4b) If over land dispose of in sea water if available or destroy with heavy hammer.
Code Phrase: Argo
Sweep watches Watkins reading. Seeing his eyes widen at the last part she says, "Oh don't worry too much about that dear, we have transported such things before. You will find that my Aetherwave power setup matches those specs."

"It don't say what happens after three minutes though."

Sweep snickers. "No it doesn't and it never does. Tricky folks the Intelligence gang, always playing with things that could be really dangerous, or just messy. Doesn't pay to take a chance though."

"Aye that! Our last ship* had a fearsome thing at its core, gave me the willies every time I had to deal with it. That much power and heat coming from such a small thing ain't natural."

"Heard about that ship, was the one they tried to blow up in Portsmouth right?"

"Aye Ma'am that was her, fine ship all in all. Odd things about her though. Experimental craft always have them. Some things work fine others don't, and some just don't seem to do anything at all. We had half a hold full of weird junk left by the company boffins. They were still working on her when we took her over. Might still be in her hold for all I know."

Watkins hands the secret message back to Sweep who loads it into a small box on her desk. With the push of a lever it shreds and then burns the paper. A second lever blows the ashes over the side through a screen that insures no sparks or still burning pieces can ignite any leaking hydrogen.

"Good luck with your travels Mr Watkins."

"Thank you Ma'am. Can I bring you anything Ma'am?"

Another message begins to come in on the Aetherwave and even as Sweep's mechanical arm begins to transcribe it she waves her real arm. "Nothing at the moment thank you."

"Ma'am." Watkins touches his cap and leaves the Snug.

"Well now this is going to be interesting."

Part III is here.
* The HMAS Velvet Brush an experimental airship whose design is documented in my Practical Airship Design series.

Ice and Clockwork Part I

Sunday, July 1, 2018 0 comments


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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