Jerry Cornelius knelt by the side of his Norton motorcycle, laid his Lee-Enfield over the saddle, and sighted at the airship as it chuffed past, half a mile away. The musket was a new design with a rifled barrel. His shot hit the airship’s boiler and a jet of steam and water gushed out. The rear propeller slowed and stopped almost at once. The ship was at the mercy of the wind, its pilot, Telford Stephenson, would have to land and make repairs if he wanted to deliver the stolen ironclad warship plans to the rebel government in the North. Jerry Cornelius, being an agent of the British Government in London, had no intention of letting Stephenson deliver the plans to York, the Northern Alliance’s capital city.
Stephenson evidently hadn’t heard the shot over the sound of the steam engine. Cornelius watched as he started the Helium compressors and the airship began to lose height. He mounted his motorcycle and followed at a safe distance, riding on and off-road as necessary.
A few miles ahead the airship passed over a farmer walking his ploughing team home. Stephenson shouted down to him, then threw out a rope. Cornelius watched as he spoke to the farmer, then lowered down a sack of what had to be salt or sugar, currency these days. The farmer hitched the rope to the team of horses and they began to haul the airship towards the farmhouse, visible in the valley below them. Half an hour later Cornelius saw Stephenson securing the dirigible with ropes and pegs near the entrance to the barn, presumably he needed its workshop facilities.
Cornelius found a hill that overlooked the farm, lay down, pulled out his telescope, and kept watch on Stephenson for the next few hours as he shaped a copper patch and cleaned the mating surfaces before he soldered it onto the boiler. As darkness fell Stephenson stopped, washed in a horse trough, then knocked on the farmhouse door. The farmer’s wife answered, she was a plump, middle aged woman, drying her hands on her apron as she gestured him inside.
Seeing his chance, Cornelius walked quietly down the hill, climbed into the airship’s open gondola and began to search for the stolen ironclad warship’s plans. He found them rolled up in a leather drawing tube strapped to the pedestal of the ship’s wheel. He had taken them out and stuffed them into the side pocket of his leather riding coat when he felt the barrel of a revolver jabbed roughly into his back.
‘I’ll take them if you don’t mind,’ said Stephenson, chuckling. ‘You don’t think I could mistake a bullet hole for a blown seam, do you? Besides,’ he held up the lead ball that he’d found embedded in his boiler and raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m glad it’s you though Jerry, I owe you a favour, since you carried me back over the lines to your field hospital, at the battle of Lincoln.’
‘How did you escape?’ asked Cornelius.
‘I didn’t, they patched me up and sent me home as part of a prisoner exchange.’
‘Presumably you were all sworn not to take part in hostilities again,’ said Cornelius.
Stephenson shrugged, he stepped back, keeping the revolver aimed steadily at his prisoner’s midriff.
‘Turn around and put these on,’ he said as he threw over a pair of handcuffs. ‘You can sleep in the barn; the farmer will release you in the morning.’ He gestured with the gun and Cornelius walked through the large open doors. Stephenson roped his handcuffs to a beam above his head, it wouldn’t be a comfortable night.
In the morning he could hear Stephenson fussing with the airship’s boiler and getting up steam. There was a conversation between him and the farmer, then the chuffing of the airship’s engine slowly receded as it gained height. The farmer came in and unlocked the cuffs. Cornelius walked out of the barn rubbing life back into his wrists and looked up at the airship gaining height. At about a thousand feet, the aneroid triggers fired the charges he’d planted. The two rear support ropes parted, and the gondola fell from a horizontal to a vertical configuration. He could see Stephenson clinging to the wheel for dear life, his legs dangling and kicking, his top hat falling.
The engine and boiler ripped free and fell towards the ground, there was a satisfyingly large steam explosion as they hit. The airship, freed from much of its ballast, began a rapid ascent towards the stratosphere. Cornelius could hear Stephenson’s screams and wondered if he would use his parachute or regain vertical control before he reached fifteen thousand feet, the asphyxiation limit. Stephenson wasn’t a bad sort. As youngsters they’d both been scholars at the Royal Hospital Naval Academy. They’d played on the same Rugby team and there had been a certain amount of mutual experimentation in the showers. Anyway, Cornelius didn’t want him dead, it was part of the London Government’s plan that Jerry retrieve the original drawings and substitute counterfeits for delivery to the Northern Alliance. The ones he had handed to Telford specified an increase in the thickness of the armour plating that would leave the ironclad battleship top heavy. It would almost certainly capsize when they launched it from the slipway of whichever Govan shipyard it was built in. He looked forward to reading about it in the Telegraph in about two years’ time. He imagined a Daguerreotype image of the ship lying across the Clyde, rendering the river unnavigable. That would give the Northerners and their Celtic allies something to think about.
Cornelius patted the pocket of his coat and felt the wad of original plans safely deposited where he’d hidden them just before Stephenson captured him.
Stephenson’s top hat, complete with leather driving goggles, fell at his feet. He reached down, picked it up, examined it for damage and, finding none, placed it on his head, giving it a cheery pat.
‘You’ll be wantin’ your breakfast then, supposin’ ye can pay for it,’ said the farmer.
‘No thanks old chum, I’ll have it at my club,’ said Cornelius as he strode off, bell bottom trousers flapping.
A few minutes later, the farmer heard a motorcycle start. He saw it set off on the London road, the stranger’s long hair trailed out behind him, he was wearing the hat and goggles. The hat blew off and the farmer made a note to retrieve it later.
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