Victoriana 16

Tachybaptus, Going Postal

Chapter 16

 

The submarine chugged along doggedly, but McHerring’s faster vessel was drawing away. The pursuers had changed to the coal furnace to save chemical fuel and were now leaving a trail of smoke. However, there were other steamers in the bay and they were not conspicuous. McHerring, though seemingly unaware of their presence, appeared anxious to avoid surveillance. His craft dived as it passed within sight of the Bonawe ferry, remaining submerged until the imagined danger was past. When it reappeared, only half a mile separated the two vessels.
Irving was standing in the stubby conning tower, his head out in the breeze, steering the little submarine as if he had been a seaman all his life. Rusty and Fingers had dismantled the damaged Pilcrow on the chart table; Rusty was gently smoothing out its dented brass head with a small hammer from the submarine’s tool chest while Fingers straightened the delicate leaves of its wings.
Victoriana emerged from the heat of the engine room, where she had been stoking the boiler, and closed the hatch. Her face was streaked with coal dust; her flannel dress was flecked with mud and soot and the hem was coming down on one side; her boots were scuffed beyond polishing. She no longer cared.
‘Why do they want the Telectroscope?’ she asked. ‘They have that Miner thing. Can’t they do anything they like with that?’
‘No,’ said Rusty. ‘The McCavity Miner digs tunnels. But now they want something to cut the earth’s crust like a big knife. They don’t need the scope part of the Telectroscope. What they want is the Blenkinsop Intensifier. If you shone an arc light into it, the beam that would come out at the other end would cut through miles of rock. You’d need a lot of electric power to run it, but a big turbine generator set mounted on a train would do.’
‘Where’s he get all da dough for dis stuff?’ said Fingers. ‘Aside from whad he boosts, dat is.’
Irving bent down from his post. ‘I t’ink it’s da Frien’s o’ Free Caledonia,’ he said. ‘Ya know, dey go aroun’ da bars collectin’, for polidical pris’ners dey say, an’ dey get con’ribooshuns from da Scotch big cheeses, bosses o’ steel mills an’ such. Dey mus’ be rollin’ in cash.’
‘An’ why’re dey goin’ up dis lake?’ he added. ‘It ain’t on da fault line ya showed us.’
‘It’s only ten miles away,’ Rusty said, ‘no distance for the McCavity Miner. And it’s much quieter around here. They must have their works on the shore somewhere. The loch’s long, but no more than a mile wide anywhere, so we should be able to see something, even if they dive again.’
As McHerring passed a hilltop castle on the south shore he submerged yet again and they had to reduce speed to avoid getting too close to him. They switched to chemical fuel as a precaution – which was just as well, for half an hour later a storm of froth barely two hundred yards away showed that McHerring was about to surface. Ricky and Fingers managed to work the valves to flood the tanks for a crash dive just in time to avoid notice. They remained stationary for a quarter of an hour, watching the other submarine through the periscope until it was at a safe distance, still heading straight up the middle of the long narrow loch.
Dusk was falling as McHerring started edging to the south side of the loch. There was a small road on the other shore, and at first they thought he was keeping away from it, but soon it became clear that he was heading into a small bay. Not wishing to get too close, they halted. Irving scanned the shore with a pair of binoculars they had found in the chart locker.
‘Dere’s some kinda buildin’ dere,’ he said. ‘Looks like dat warehouse we was in oilier.’
‘It must be their base.’ Rusty said. ‘Do you think the Pilcrow will reach the soldiers from here?’
‘Sure, it’ll go twenny miles ’f we launch it right.’
Rusty examined the chart and wrote on a little slip of paper: To Maj Trelawney. McH’s base inlet S side L Etive opp Gualachulain. We’re near in small sub. Pls send forces. V&R, he signed it politely, and then to be fair added I&F.
Fingers quickly nailed two pieces of wood together in a V shape. ‘Oiving, I need ya suspenders. Now,’ he said. Irving unbuttoned his braces, hastily tying a length of line round his waist as his baggy trousers threatened to fall. Fingers bound one of the elastic straps to the wood to form a rough catapult. ‘Dis’d bedder woik,’ he said.
He set the brass bird going and passed it up to Irving, who stood in the hatchway carefully consulting the compass. The improvised catapult twanged, and to their relief the Pilcrow flapped metallically away in a steady climb.
‘Nothing we can do till they come,’ said Victoriana. ‘I don’t know about you, but I could do with something to eat.’
As they shared a can of corned beef in the forward cabin they did not hear the approaching clatter of propellers, and there was only a faint thump as Vulgarian aeronauts descended on ropes and hooked steel cables on to the submarine’s bow and stern mooring eyes.
The little vessel jerked violently as it was hauled out of the water. Irving rushed to the hatch but was powerless to intervene as they rose to meet the vast airship. Fingers, resourceful as ever, hurried to take the two revolvers from the arms chest and bury them in the coal.
As the submarine drew level with the deck of the cargo hold Victoriana, looking out of a side porthole, could see the tall bony figure of Molotok and the squat form of Serp. Both were wearing naval uniform. They were surrounded by a squad of aeronauts holding carbines.
‘Might as well go for it,’ she thought, and climbed the ladder to stand in the hatchway and give Molotok a cheerful wave. His face fell.
‘Donner und Blitzen!’ he shouted. ‘Ze leetle English shpyink girl! Um Gottes Willen, vot you doink here?’
‘If you’re looking for McHerring,’ she said, ‘he’s in the other submarine. We stole this one to follow him.’ She threw out the rope ladder and climbed down to the deck, uncomfortably aware of twenty carbines trained on her. The others followed.
Molotok rallied. ‘Velcome to His Vulgar Machesty’s battleship Stentorian Belch. Resistance,’ he added grandly …
‘Is futile,’ chorused Victoriana and Ricky, who had watched this scene in scores of films.
Pressing home their momentary advantage, Victoriana said, ‘Mr Molotok, we need to talk. I think we can make a deal.’
Molotok leered satirically.‘Und vot haf you to offer us, tiny girl?’
‘We know what McHerring is planning. Do you?’
She watched his face as mockery turned to doubt, and then to calculation.
‘Very vell,’ he said at length. ‘Ve shall talk. But I varn you, do not try to trick me, or you shall be zorry.’

 

This chapter by Tachybaptus. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.