With the Night Mail
A Story of 2000 A.D.
by Rudyard Kipling

Editor's Notes by Blake Linton Wilfong

      "With the Night Mail" (1905) and its sequel "As Easy as A.B.C." (1912) predicted that by the year 2000, airships (also called dirigibles—from the French word diriger "to steer" because they were steerable balloons) would prove superior to airplanes, and rule the skies.
      It almost happened! Consider: the first successful airship, a steam-driven cigar-shaped balloon, flew 17 miles over Paris in 1852--more than 50 years before Kitty Hawk. From 1910 to 1914, when airplanes were still flimsy toys, the German Airship Transportation Company carried mail and 35,000 passengers without fatality. In 1919, the British dirigible R-34 made the first transatlantic round-trip flight. The gigantic German airship Graf Zeppelin, over 800 feet long and 100 in diameter, flew around the world in 1929. Only after the Hindenburg explosion of 1937 did dirigible passenger service end. If the invention of the airplane had been delayed just a few more years, we might be traveling in high-tech airships today. So Kipling's stories now make a marvelous "alternate history".
      Lighter-than-air conveyances had also already played major roles in science fiction. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" (1835) and "The Balloon Hoax" (1844), Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) and The Mysterious Island (1874), and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) all feature such craft.
      "With the Night Mail" is narrated from the viewpoint of a journalist accompanying a "postal packet" on an intercontinental mail run. I have illustrated the story with some of the news reports and advertisements Kipling fabricated for its magazine publication, and also with images of real airships that had already been flown by Kipling's time.

Henri Giffard's steam-powered airship, 1852.
At 9:00 of a gusty winter night I stand on the lower stages of one of the General Post Office outward mail towers. My purpose: a run to Quebec in "Postal Packet 162 or such other as may be appointed"; the Postmaster General himself has countersigned the order. This talisman opens all doors, even those in the dispatching-caisson at the foot of the tower, where they are delivering the sorted Continental mail. The bags lie packed close as herrings in the long gray underbodies our G.P.O. still calls "coaches". Five coaches are filled as I watch, and shot up the guides to be locked onto their waiting packets 300 feet nearer the stars.

Mr. L. L. Geary, Second Dispatcher of the Western Route, courteously conducts me from the dispatching-caisson to the Captains' Room where the mail captains come on for their turn of duty. He introduces me to the captain of the "162"--Captain Purnall, and his relief, Captain Hodgson. One is small and dark; the other large and red; but each has the brooding sheathed glance characteristic of eagles and aeronauts. You can see it in the pictures of our racing professionals, from L. V. Rautsch to little Ada Warrleigh--that fathomless abstraction of eyes habitually turned through naked space.

On the notice-board in the Captains' Room, the pulsing arrows of 20 indicators register, degree by geographical degree, the progress of homeward-bound packets. The word "Cape" rises across the face of a dial; a gong strikes: the South African midweekly mail is in at the Highgate Receiving Towers. It reminds me comically of the little bell which in pigeon-fanciers' lofts notifies the return of a homer.

  • It is now nearly a generation since the Plane was
    to supersede the Dirigible for all purposes.
  • Today none of the Planet's freight is
    carried en plane.
  • Less than 2% of the Planet's passengers are
    carried en plane.
We design, equip and
guarantee Dirigibles for
all purposes.
  Standard Dirigible
Construction Company
"Time to go," says Captain Purnall. We shoot up via passenger-lift to the top of the dispatch-towers. "Our coach will lock on when it's filled and the clerks are aboard."

"No. 162" awaits in Slip E of the topmost stage. The great curve of her back shines frostily under the lights, and some minute alteration of trim makes her rock a little in her holding-down slips.

Captain Purnall frowns and dives inside. Hissing softly, "162" comes to rest, level as a rule. From her North Atlantic Winter nose-cap (worn bright as diamond with boring through uncounted leagues of hail, snow, and ice) to the inset of her three built-out propeller-shafts is 240 feet. Her extreme diameter, carried well forward, is 37. Contrast this with the 900 by 95 of any crack liner, and you will realize the power that must drive a hull through all weathers at more than the emergency speed of the Cyclonic!

The eye detects no joint in her skin plating save the sweeping hair-crack of the bow-rudder--Magniac's rudder that assured us the dominion of the unstable air and left its inventor penniless and half-blind. It is calculated to Castelli's "gull-wing" curve. Raise a few feet of that all but invisible plate half an inch and she yaws five miles to port or starboard ere regaining control. Give her full helm and she returns on her track like a whiplash. Cant the whole forward--a touch on the wheel suffices--and she sweeps up or down. Open the complete circle and she presents to the air a mushroom-head that will bring her up all standing within half a mile.

"Yes," says Captain Hodgson, answering my thought, "Castelli thought he'd discovered the secret of controlling airplanes, not dirigibles. Magniac invented his rudder to help war-boats ram each other; but war went out of fashion and Magniac went out of his mind because he said he couldn't serve his country anymore. Do any of us ever know what we're really doing?"

"If you want to see the coach locked you'd better board now," says Mr. Geary. I enter the door amidships. Nothing here is for display. The inner skin of the gas-tanks comes down to within a foot of my head and turns over just short of the bilges. Liners and yachts disguise their tanks with decoration, but the G.P.O. serves them raw under a lick of gray official paint. The inner skin shuts off 50 feet of the bow and stern, but the bow-bulkhead is recessed for the lift-shunting apparatus as the stern is pierced for the shaft-tunnels. The engine-room lies almost amidships. Forward, extending to the bow tanks, is an aperture--now a bottomless hatch--into which our coach will be locked. One looks down over the coamings 300 feet to the dispatching-caisson whence voices boom upward. Our coach rises thunderously on its guides, enlarging rapidly from postage stamp to pontoon boat size. The two clerks, its crew, do not even look up as it arrives. The Quebec letters fly under their fingers into docketed racks, while both captains and Mr. Geary verify that the coach is locked home. A clerk passes the waybill over the hatch-coaming. Captain Purnall thumb-marks and passes it to Mr. Geary. Receipt has been given and taken. "Pleasant run," says Mr. Geary, disappearing through the door which a foot-high pneumatic compressor locks after him.

"A-ah!" sighs the compressor released. Our holding-down clips part with a tang. We are clear.

Captain Hodgson opens the great colloid underbody porthole through which I watch over-lighted London slide eastward as the gale grabs us. Then the first of the low winter clouds cuts off the view and darkens Middlesex. On the south edge of it I see a postal packet's light ploughing through the white fleece. She gleams momentarily like a star ere dropping toward the Highgate Receiving Towers. "The Bombay Mail," says Captain Hodgson, and looks at his watch. "She's 40 minutes late."

"What's our level?" I ask.

"4,000. Aren't you coming up on the bridge?"

The bridge is dominated by a view of Captain Hodgson's legs where he stands in the Control Platform that runs thwart-ships overhead. The bow colloid is unshuttered and Captain Purnall, one hand on the wheel, is feeling for a fair slant. The dial shows 4,300 feet.

"It's steep tonight," he mutters, as tier on tier of cloud drops under. "This time o' year we generally pick up an easterly draft below 3,000. I hate slathering through fluff."

"5,000--6,000--6,800"--the dip-dial reads ere we find the easterly drift, heralded by a flurry of snow at the thousand fathom level. Captain Purnall rings up the engines and keys down the governor on the switch before him. No sense urging machinery when Aeolus gives you good knots for nothing! We are away in earnest now--our nose notched home on our chosen star. At this level the lower clouds are laid out, all neatly combed by the dry fingers of the East. Farther below is the strong westerly blow through which we rose. Overhead, a film of southerly drifting mist draws a theatrical gauze across the firmament. Moonlight turns the lower strata to silver without a stain except our shadow. Bristol and Cardiff Double Lights (those statelily-inclined beams over Severnmouth) are dead ahead; for we keep the Southern Winter Route. Coventry Central, the pivot of the English system, stabs upward every 10 seconds its spear of diamond light to the north; and a point or two off our starboard bow The Leek, the great cloud-breaker of Saint David's Head, swings its unmistakable green beam 25 degrees each way. There must be half a mile of fluff over it in this weather, but it does not affect The Leek.

Aerial Board of Control
Official Report: Lights
Week ending Dec. 18th.

No changes in England Inland lights this week.

CAPE VERDE--Verde inclined guide-light changes from
1st proximo to triple flash--green white green--in place of
occulting red as heretofore. The warning light for
Harmatan winds will be continuous vertical glare (white)
on all oases of trans-Saharan N.E. by E. Main Routes.

INVERCARGIL (N.Z.)--From 1st prox.: extreme southerly
light (double red) will exhibit white beam inclined 45
degrees on approach of Southerly Buster. Traffic flies high
off this coast between April and October.

TABLE BAY--Devil's Peak Glare removed to Simonsberg.
Traffic making Table Mountain coastwise keep all lights
from Three Anchor Bay at least 2,000 feet under, and do
not round to till East of E. shoulder Devil's Peak.

SANDHEADS LIGHT--Green triple vertical marks new
private landing-stage for Bay and Burma traffic only.

SNAEFELL JOKUL--White occulting light withdrawn for

PATAGONIA--No summer light south Cape Pilar. This
includes Staten Island and Port Stanley.

C. NAVARIN--Quadruple fog flash (white), one minute
intervals (new).

EAST CAPE--Fog flash: single white with single bomb, 30
sec. intervals (new).

MALAYAN ARCHIPELAGO--Lights unreliable owing
eruptions. Lay from Cape Somerset to Singapore direct,
keeping highest levels.

"Our planet's overlighted if anything," says Captain Purnall at the wheel, as Cardiff-Bristol slides under. "I remember the old common white verticals that showed maybe 300 feet up in a mist, if you knew where to look. One could get lost coming home then, an' have some fun. Now, it's like driving down Piccadilly."

He points to the pillars of light where the cloud-breakers bore through the cloud-floor. We see nothing of England's outlines: only a white pavement pierced in all directions by these manholes of variously-colored fire--Holy Island's white and red--St. Bee's interrupted white, etc. as far as the eye can reach. Blessed be Sargent, Ahrens, and the Dubois brothers, who invented the cloud-breakers whereby we travel in security!

"Are you going to lift for The Shamrock?" asks Captain Hodgson. Cork Light (green, fixed) enlarges as we rush to it. Captain Purnall nods. There is heavy traffic hereabouts--the cloud-bank beneath us is streaked with running fissures of flame where the Atlantic boats are hurrying Londonward just clear of the fluff. Under Conference rules, the 5,000-foot lanes are reserved for mail-packets, but hurried foreigners often take liberties with English air. "No. 162" lifts to a long-drawn wail of the breeze in the fore-flange of the rudder and we make Valencia (white, green, white) at a safe 7,000 feet, dipping our beam to an incoming Washington packet.

No clouds cover the Atlantic; faint streaks of cream around Dingle Bay show where driven seas hammer the coast. A big S.A.T.A. liner (Societe Anonyme des Transports Aeriens) dives and lifts half a mile below, searching for some break in the solid west wind. Lower still lies a disabled Dane, telling the liner all about it in International. Our General Communication dial has caught her talk and begins to eavesdrop. "Perhaps you'd like to listen," Captain Hodgson says.

Our Synthetic Mineral

are chemically and crystal-
logically identical with the
minerals whose names they
bear. Any size, any surface.

Diamond, Rock-Crystal, Agate
and Ruby Bearings--cups, caps
and collars for high speeds.

For tractor bearings and spin-
For rear propellers--Indispen-
For all working parts--Advis-

Commercial Minerals Co.
107 Minories
"Argol of St. Thomas," the Dane whimpers. "Report owners three starboard shaft collar-bearings fused. Can make Flores as we are, but impossible further."

The liner acknowledges and recommends inverting the bearings. Argol answers that she has already done so, and rants about cheap German enamels for collar-bearings. The Frenchman assents cordially, cries, "Courage, mon ami," and switches off.

Their lights sink under the curve of the ocean.

"That's one of Lundt & Bleamers' boats," says Captain Hodgson. "Serves 'em right, putting German compos in their thrust-blocks. Reminds me, wouldn't you like to look around the engine-room?"

I eagerly follow Captain Hodgson from the Control Platform, stooping to avoid the bulge of the tanks. Fleury's gas can lift anything, as the famous trials of '89 showed, but its almost infinite powers of expansion necessitate vast tank room. Even in this thin air the lift-shunts are busy taking out one-third of its normal lift, and still "162" must be checked by an occasional downdraw of the rudder or our flight would become a climb to the stars. Captain Purnall prefers an overlifted to an underlifted ship; but no two captains trim ship alike. "When I take the bridge," says Captain Hodgson, "you'll see me shunt 40% of the lift out of the gas and run her on the upper rudder. With a swoop upward instead of a swoop downward, as you say. Either way will do. It's only habit. Watch our dip-dial! Tim fetches her down once every 30 knots, regular as breathing."

So the dip-dial confirms. For five minutes the arrow creeps from 6,700 to 7,300. Then the faint "szgee" of the rudder, and back slides the arrow to 6,000 on a falling slant of 10 or 15 knots.

"In heavy weather you jockey her with the screws as well," says Captain Hodgson, and, unclipping the jointed bar which divides the engine-room from the bare deck, he leads me onto the floor.

Here we find Fleury's Paradox of the Bulkheaded Vacuum--which we accept now without thought--literally in full blast. The three engines are H.T.&T. assisted-vacuo Fleury turbines running from 3,000 to the Limit--that is, up to the point when the blades make the air "bell"--cut out a vacuum for themselves precisely as overdriven marine propellers used to do. "162's" Limit is low due to the small size of her nine screws, which, though handier than the old colloid Thelussons, "bell" sooner. The midships engine, generally used as a reinforce, is not running; so the port and starboard turbine vacuum-chambers draw direct into the return-mains.

The turbines whistle reflectively. From the low-arched expansion-tanks on either side the valves descend pillarwise to the turbine-chests, and thence the obedient gas whirls through the spirals of blades with a force that would whip the teeth out of a power-saw. Behind, is its own pressure held in leash or spurred on by the lift-shunts; before it, the vacuum where Fleury's Ray dances in violet-green bands and whirled turbillons of flame. The jointed U-tubes of the vacuum-chamber are pressure-tempered colloid (no glass could endure the strain) and a junior engineer with tinted spectacles watches the Ray intently. It is the heart of the machine--a mystery to this day. Even Fleury who begat it and, unlike Magniac, died a multimillionaire, could not explain how the restless little imp shuddering in the U-tube can, in the fractional fraction of a second, strike the furious blast of gas into a chill greyish-green liquid that drains from the far end of the vacuum through the eduction-pipes and the mains back to the bilges. Here it returns to its gaseous state and climbs to work afresh. Bilge-tank, upper tank, dorsal-tank, expansion-chamber, vacuum, main-return (as a liquid), and bilge-tank once more is the ordained cycle. Fleury's Ray sees to that; and the engineer with the tinted spectacles sees to Fleury's Ray. Should a speck of oil--even the natural grease of the human finger--touch the hooded terminals, Fleury's Ray will wink and disappear and must be laboriously built up again. This means half a day's work for all hands and an expense of 170-odd pounds to the G.P.O. for radium-salts, etc.

"Look at our thrust-collars. You won't find much German compo there. Full-jeweled," boasts Captain Hodgson as the engineer shunts open the top of a cap. Our shaft-bearings are C.M.C. (Commercial Minerals Company) stones, ground as carefully as the lens of a telescope. They cost £37 apiece. So far we have not arrived at their term of life. These bearings came from "No. 97", which took them over from the old Dominion of Light which had them out of the wreck of the Perseus airplane back when men still flew wooden kites over oil engines!

They are a shining reproof to all low-grade German "ruby" enamels, so-called "boort" facings, and the dangerous and unsatisfactory alumina compounds which please dividend-hunting owners and drive skippers crazy.

The rudder-gear and gas lift-shunt, seated side by side under the engine-room dials, are the only machines in visible motion. The former sighs occasionally as the oil plunger rises and falls half an inch. The latter, cased and guarded like the U-tube aft, exhibits another Fleury Ray, but inverted and more green than violet. Its function is to shunt the lift out of the gas, and this it will do without watching. That is all! A tiny pump-rod wheezing and whining to itself beside a sputtering green lamp. 150 feet aft down the flat-topped tunnel of the tanks a violet light, restless and irresolute. Between the two, three white-painted turbine trunks, like eel-baskets laid on their side, accentuate the empty perspectives. You can hear the trickle of liquefied gas flowing from vacuum into the bilge-tanks and the soft gluck-glock of gas-locks closing as Captain Purnall brings "162" down by the head. The hum of the turbines and the boom of the air on our skin is no more than a cotton-wool wrapping to the universal stillness. And we are running an 18-second mile.

I peer from the fore end of the engine-room over the hatch-coamings into the coach. Mail-clerks are sorting the Winnipeg, Calgary, and Medicine Hat bags; but a pack of cards is ready on the table.

Suddenly a bell thrills; the engineers run to the turbine-valves and stand by; but the spectacled slave of the Ray in the U-tube never lifts his head. We are hard-braked and going astern; there is language from the Control Platform.

"Tim's sparking badly about something," says the unruffled Captain Hodgson. "Let's look."

Captain Purnall is not the suave man we left half an hour since, but the embodied authority of the G.P.O. Ahead of us floats a dingy, ancient, aluminum-patched, twin-screw tramp, with no more right to the 5,000-foot lane than has a horse-cart to a mordern road. She carries an obsolete "barbette" conning tower--a six-foot affair with railed platform forward--and our warning beam plays upon it as a policeman's lantern flashes on a thief. A shirt-sleeved, shock-headed navigator emerges reluctantly. Captain Purnall wrenches open the colloid to talk man to man. There are times when Science does not satisfy.

LZ1, the first of Count Zeppelin's famous line of rigid airships,
on its maiden flight over Lake Constance in 1900.
"What under the stars are you doing here, you sky-scraping chimney sweep?" he shouts as we drift side by side. "Do you know this is a Mail-lane? You call yourself a sailor, sir? You ain't fit to peddle toy balloons to an Eskimo. I should have you towed stern first to Disko and broke up! Your name and number! Report and get down, and be--"

The stranger bellows: "Look at my propellers! A wulli-wa down below has knocked us into umbrella-frames! We've been blown up about 40,000 feet! My mate's arm's broke; my engineer's head's cut open; my Ray went out when the engines smashed; and...and...for pity's sake give me my height, Captain!"

"6,800. Can you hold it?" Captain Purnall, concern displacing anger, leans half out of the colloid, staring and snuffing. The stranger leaks pungently.

"We'll blow into St. John's with luck. We're trying to plug the fore-tank now, but she's simply whistling it away," her captain wails.

"She's sinking like a log," says Captain Purnall in an undertone. "Call up the Banks Mark Boat, George." Our dip-dial shows that we, keeping abreast the tramp, have dropped 500 feet already.

Captain Purnall presses a switch and our signal beam begins to swing through the night, twizzling spokes of light across infinity.

"That'll fetch something," he says, while Captain Hodgson works the General Communicator. He has called up the North Banks Mark Boat, a few hundred miles west, and is reporting the case.

"I'll stand by you," Captain Purnall roars to the lone figure on the conning tower.

"Is it that bad?" comes the answer. "She isn't insured. She's mine."

"Might have guessed," mutters Hodgson. "The worst gamble, ownership!"

"Can't I fetch St. John's with this breeze?" the voice quavers.

Aerial Board of Control
Official Report: Casualties
Week ending Dec. 18th.

SABLE ISLAND--Green single barbette-tower freighter,
number indistinguishable, upended, and fore-tank
pierced after collision, passed 300-ft. level 2 P.M.
Dec. 15th. Watched to water and pithed by Mark Boat.

N. F. BANKS--Postal Packet 162 reports Halma freighter
(Fowey--St. John's) abandoned, leaking after weather, 46°
15' N. 50° 15' W. Crew rescued by Planet liner Asteroid.
Watched to water and pithed by Postal Packet, Dec. 14th.

KERGUELEN--Mark Boat reports last call from Cymena
freighter (Gayer Tong Huk & Co.) taking water and
sinking in snowstorm South McDonald Islands. No
wreckage recovered. Messages and wills of crew at all
A.B.C. offices.

FEZZAN--T.A.D. freighter Ulema taken ground during
Harmattan on Akakus Range. Under plates strained.
Crew at Ghat where repairing Dec. 13th.

BISCAY--Mark Boat reports Carducci (Valandingham
Line) slightly spiked in western gorge Point de Banasque.
Passengers transferred Andorra (Fulton Line).
Barcelona Mark Boat salving cargo Dec. 12th.

ASCENSION--Mark Boat reports wreck of unknown
racing-plane, Parden rudder, wire-stiffened xylonite vans,
and Harliss engine-seating, sighted and salved 7° 20' S.
18° 41' W. Dec. 15th. Photos at all A.B.C. offices.

"Stand by to abandon ship. Haven't you any lift in you, fore or aft?"

"Nothing but the midship tanks, and they're none too tight. My Ray gave out and--" he coughs in the reek of escaping gas.

"Poor devil!" This does not reach our friend. "What does the Mark Boat say, George?"

"Asks if there's any danger to traffic. Says she's in a bit of weather herself, and can't quit station. I've turned in a General Call, so even if they don't see our beam someone's bound to help--or else we must. Shall I clear our slings? Hold on! Here we are! A Planet liner, too! She'll be up in a tick!"

"Tell her to ready her slings," cries his brother captain. "There won't be much time to spare... Tie up your mate," he roars to the tramp.

"My mate's alright. It's my engineer. He's gone crazy."

"Shunt the lift out of him with a spanner. Hurry!"

"But I can make St. John's if you'll stand by."

"You'll make the deep, wet Atlantic in 20 minutes. You're less than 5,800 now. Get your papers."

A Planet liner, eastbound, heaves up in a superb spiral and takes the air of us humming. Her underbody colloid is open and her transporter-slings hang down like tentacles. We shut off our beam as she delicately maneuvers over the tramp's conning tower. The mate comes up, arm strapped to his side, and stumbles into the cradle. A man with a ghastly scarlet head follows, shouting that he must go back and build up his Ray. The mate assures him that he will find a nice new Ray all ready in the liner's engine-room. The bandaged head goes up wagging excitedly. A youth and a woman follow. The liner cheers hollowly above us, and we see the passengers' faces at the saloon colloid.

"That's a pretty girl. What's the fool waiting for now?" says Captain Purnall.

The skipper finally comes up--at which we little humans in the void cheer louder than ever--with the ship's kitten. Up fly the liner's hissing slings; her underbody crashes home and she hurtles away again. The dial shows less than 3,000 feet.

The Mark Boat signals we must attend to the derelict, now whistling her death-song, as she falls beneath us in long sick zigzags.

"Keep our beam on her and send out a General Warning," says Captain Purnall, following her down.

No need. Every liner in air knows the meaning of that vertical beam and gives us and our quarry a wide berth.

"But she'll drown in the water, won't she?" I ask.

"Not always," he answers. "I've known a derelict to upend and sift her engines out of herself and flicker around the Lower Lanes for three weeks on her forward tanks only. We'll run no risks. Pith her, George, and look sharp. There's weather ahead."

Captain Hodgson opens the underbody colloid, swings the heavy pithing-iron out of its rack which in liners is generally cased as a smoking-room settee, and at 200 feet releases the catch. We hear the whir of the crescent-shaped arms opening as they descend. The derelict's forehead is punched in and rent diagonally. She falls stern first, our beam upon her; slides like a lost soul down that pitiless ladder of light, and the Atlantic takes her.

"A filthy business," says Hodgson. "I wonder what it was like in the old days?"

The thought had crossed my mind too. What if that wavering carcass had been filled with men, each of them taught (that is the horror of it!) that after death he might go forever to unspeakable torment?

And scarcely a generation ago we ourselves ripped and rammed and pithed to admiration.

Tim, from the Control Platform, shouts that we are to don our inflators and bring him his at once.

Flickers!         Flickers!         Flickers!

High Level Flickers

"He that is down need fear no fall"
  Fear not! You will fall lightly as down!

Hansen's air-kits are on sale! Tremendous
price reductions prior to winter stocking.
Pure para kit with cellulose seat and
shoulder pads, weighted to balance.
Unequaled for all drop-work.

Our trebly resilient heavy kit is the ne
plus ultra
of comfort and safety.

Gas-buoyed, waterproof, hail-proof, non-
conducting Flickers with pipe and nozzle
fitting all types of generators. Gradu-
ated tap on left hip.

Hansen's Flickers Lead the Aerial Flight
197 Oxford Street

The new weighted Flicker with tweed or
cheviot surface cannot be distinguished
from the ordinary suit till inflated.

Flickers!         Flickers!         Flickers!

We hurry into the heavy rubber suits--the engineers are already dressed--and inflate at the air pump taps. G.P.O. inflators are thrice as thick as a racing man's "flickers," and chafe abominally under the armpits. George takes the wheel until Tim has blown himself up to extreme rotundity. If you kicked him off the c.p. to the deck he would bounce back. But it is "162" that will do the kicking.

"The Mark Boat's stark ravin' mad," he snorts, returning to command. "She says there's a bad blow-out ahead and wants me to pull over to Greenland. I'll see her pithed first! We wasted half an hour fussing over that dead duck down under, and now I'm expected to go rubbin' my back all round the Pole. What does she think a postal packet's made of? Gummed silk? Tell her we're coming on straight, George."

George buckles him into the Frame and switches on the Direct Control. Now under Tim's left toe lies the port-engine Accelerator; under his left heel the Reverse, and so with the other foot. The lift-shunt stops stand out on the rim of the steering wheel where the fingers of his left hand can play on them. At his right hand is the midships engine lever, ready to be thrown into gear at a moment's notice. He leans forward in his belt, eyes glued to the colloid, one ear cocked toward the General Communicator. Henceforth he is the strength and direction of "162", through whatever may befall.

The Banks Mark Boat is reeling out pages of A.B.C. Directions to the traffic at large. We are to secure all "loose objects"; hood up our Fleury Rays; and "on no account attempt to clear snow from our conning towers till the weather abates." Underpowered craft, we are told, can ascend to the limits of their lift, mail-packets to look out for them accordingly; the lower lanes westward are pitting badly, "with frequent blow-outs, vortices, laterals, etc."

Still the clear dark holds up unblemished. The only warning is the electric skin-tension (I feel like a pincushion) and an irritability which the General Communicator's gibbering increases almost to hysteria.

Alberto Santos-Dumont circled the Eiffel Tower
in Dirigible No. 5 in 1901
We have made 8,000 feet since we pithed the tramp and our turbines are giving us an honest 210 knots.

Far to the west an elongated blur of red, low down, shows us the North Banks Mark Boat. There are specks of fire around her rising and falling--bewildered planets about an unstable sun--helpless shipping hanging onto her light for company's sake. No wonder she could not quit station.

She warns us to look out for the backwash of the bad vortex in which (her beam shows it) she is even now reeling.

The pits of gloom about us fill with faintly luminous films--wreathing, uneasy shapes. One forms itself into a globe of pale flame that waits shivering with eagerness till we sweep by. It leaps monstrously across the blackness, alights on the tip of our nose, pirouettes there an instant, and swings off. Our roaring bow sinks as though that light were lead--then recovers to lurch and stumble again beneath the next blow-out. Tim's fingers on the lift-shunt strike chords of numbers--1:4:7--2:4:6--7:5:3, etc.; for he is running by his tanks only, lifting or lowering her against the uneasy air. All three engines are at work; the sooner we have skated over this thin ice the better. Higher we dare not go. The whole upper vault is charged with pale krypton vapors, which our skin friction may excite to unholy manifestations. Between the upper and lower levels--5,000 and 7,000, hints the Mark Boat--we may perhaps bolt through if... Our bow clothes itself in blue flame and falls like a sword. No human skill can keep pace with the changing tensions. A vortex has us by the beak and we dive down a 2,000 foot slant at an angle (the dip-dial and my bouncing body record it) of 35. Our turbines scream shrilly; the propellers cannot bite on the thin air; Tim shunts the lift out of five tanks at once and by sheer weight drives her bullet-wise though the maelstrom till she cushions with a jar on an up-gust, 3,000 feet below.

"Now we've done it," says George in my ear. "Our skin-friction, that last slide, has played Old Harry with the tensions! Look out for laterals, Tim; she'll want some holding."

"I've got her," is the answer. "Come up, old woman."

She comes up nobly, but the laterals buffet her left and right like the pinions of angry angels. She is jolted off course four ways at once, and cuffed into place again, only to be swung aside and dropped into new chaos. We are never without a corposant grinning on our bows or rolling head over heels from nose to midships, and to the crackle of electricity around and within us is added once or twice the rattle of hail--hail that will never fall on any sea. Slow we must or we may break our back, pitch-poling.

"Air's a perfectly elastic fluid," roars George above the tumult. "About as elastic as a head sea off the Fastnet, ain't it?"

He is less than just to the good element. If one intrudes when the Heavens are balancing their volt-accounts; if one disturbs the High Gods' market-rates by hurling steel hulls at 90 knots across tremblingly adjusted electric tensions, one must not complain of any rudeness in the reception. Tim meets it with an unmoved countenance, one corner of his underlip caught up on a tooth, his eyes fleeting into the blackness 20 miles ahead, and fierce sparks flying from his knuckles at every turn of the hand. Now and again he shakes his head to clear the sweat trickling from his eyebrows, and George, watching his chance, slides down the life-rail and swabs his face quickly with a big red handkerchief. I never imagined a human being could so continuously labor and so collectedly think as Tim does now as the flurry reaches its worst. For a hellish half-hour, we are dragged hither and yon by warm or frozen suctions, belched up on the slopes of wulli-was, spun down by vortices and clubbed aside by laterals under a dizzying rush of stars in the company of a drunken moon. I hear the rushing click of the midship-engine-lever sliding in and out, the low growl of the lift-shunts, and, louder than the yelling winds without, the scream of the bow-rudder gouging into any lull that promises hold for an instant. At last we begin to claw up on a cant, bow-rudder and port-propeller together; only the nicest balancing of tanks saves us from spinning like the rifle-bullet of the old days.

"We've got to hitch to windward of that Mark Boat somehow," George cries.

"There's no windward," I protest feebly, where I swing shackled to a stanchion. "How can there be?"

He laughs--as we pitch into a thousand foot blow-out--that red man laughs beneath his inflated hood!

"Look!" he says. "We must clear those refugees with a high lift."

The Mark Boat is below and a little southwest of us, fluctuating in the center of her distraught galaxy. The air is thick with moving lights at every level. I take it most of them are trying to lie head to wind, but, not being hydras, they fail. An under-tanked Moghrabi boat rises to the limit of her lift, and, finding no improvement, drops a couple of thousand. There she meets a superb wulli-wa, and blows upward spinning like a dead leaf. Instead of shutting off she goes astern and, naturally, rebounds as from a wall almost into the Mark Boat, whose language (our G.C. takes it in) is humanly simple.

"If they'd only ride it out quietly it 'ud be better," says George in a calm, while we climb like a bat above them all. "But some skippers will navigate without enough lift. What does that Tad-boat think she's doing, Tim?"

"Playin' kiss in the ring," is Tim's unmoved reply. A Trans-Asiatic Direct liner has found a smooth and butted into it full power. But there is a vortex at the tail of that smooth, so the T.A.D. is flipped out like a pea from off a fingernail, braking madly as she flees down and all but over-ending.

"Now I hope she's satisfied," says Tim. "I'm glad I'm not a Mark Boat... Do I want help?" The General Communicator dial has caught his ear. "George, you may tell that gentleman with my love--love, remember, George--that I do not want help. Who is the officious sardine-tin?"

"A Rimouski drogher on the lookout for a tow."

"How kind. This postal packet isn't being towed at present."

"Those droghers will go anywhere on a chance of salvage," George explains.

A long-beaked, bright steel 90-footer floats at ease momentarily within hail of us, her slings coiled ready for rescues, and a single hand in her open tower. He is smoking. Surrendering to the insurrection of the airs through which we tear our way, he lies in absolute peace. I see the smoke of his pipe ascend untroubled ere his boat drops like a stone in a well.

We have just cleared the Mark Boat and her disorderly neighbors when a shooting star to northward fills the sky with the bright blink of a meteorite dissipating itself in our atmosphere.

Says George, "That may iron out all the tensions." Even as he speaks the storm ends: conflicting winds come to rest; the levels fill; the laterals die out in long, easy swells; the airways are smoothed before us. Within three minutes the covey around the Mark Boat ships their power-lights and whirs away on their businesses.

"What happened?" I gasp. The nerve-storm within and volt-tingle without have passed; my inflators weigh like lead.

"That old shooting star's skin-friction has discharged the different levels. I've seen it happen before. Phew! What a relief!"

We drop from ten to six thousand and doff our clammy suits. Tim shuts off and steps out of the Frame. The Mark Boat is coming up behind us. He opens the colloid in that heavenly stillness and mops his face.

"Hello, Williams!" he cries. "A degree or two out o' station, ain't you?"

"Maybe," is the answer from the Mark Boat. "I've had company this evening."

"So I noticed. Wasn't that quite a little draft?"

"I warned you. Why didn't you pull out north? The eastbound packets have."

"Me? Not till I'm running a Polar consumptives' sanatorium boat. I was squinting through a colloid before you were out of your cradle, son."

"I'd be the last to deny it," the captain of the Mark Boat replies softly. "The way you handled her just now--I'm a pretty fair judge of traffic in a volt-hurry--it was a thousand revolutions beyond anything I've ever seen."

Tim's back supples visibly to this oiling. Captain George on the c.p. winks and points to the portrait of a singularly attractive maiden pinned up on Tim's telescope bracket above the steering wheel.

I see. Wholly and entirely do I see!

There is talk overhead of "coming round to tea on Friday," a brief report of the derelict's fate, and Tim volunteers as he descends: "For an A.B.C. man young Williams is less of a high-tension fool than some... Were you thinking of taking her on, George? Then I'll just have a look at that port-thrust--seems to me it's a trifle warm--and we'll jog along."

Crete and the A.B.C.

The story of the recent Cretan crisis, as told in the A.B.C. Monthly
, is not without humor. Till the 25th October Crete, as all
our planet knows, was the sole surviving European repository of
"autonomous institutions," "local self-government," and the rest
of the archaic lumber devised in the past for the confusion of
human affairs. She has lived practically on the tourist traffic
attracted by her annual pageants of Parliaments, Boards, Municipal
Councils, etc., etc. Last summer the islanders grew wearied, as
their premier explained, of "playing at being savages for pennies,"
and proceeded to pull down all the landing-towers on the island
and shut off general communication till such time as the A.B.C.
should annex them. For side-splitting comedy we would refer our
readers to the correspondence between the Board of Control and
the Cretan premier during the "war". However, all's well that ends
well. The A.B.C. has taken over the administration of Crete on
normal lines; and tourists must go elsewhere to witness the
"debates," "resolutions," and "popular movements" of yore. The
only people to suffer will be the Board of Control, which is
grievously overworked already. It is easy enough to condemn the
Cretans for their laziness; but when one recalls the large,
prosperous, and presumably public-spirited communities which
during the last few years have deliberately thrown themselves into
the hands of the A.B.C., one cannot be too hard on St. Paul's old

The Mark Boat hums off joyously and hangs herself up in her appointed eyrie. Here she will stay a shutterless observatory; a lifeboat station; a salvage tug; a court of ultimate appeal-cum-meteorological bureau for 300 miles in all directions, till Wednesday next when her relief slides across the stars to take her buffeted place. Her black hull, double conning tower, and ever-ready slings represent all that remains to the planet of that odd old word "authority". She is responsible only to the Aerial Board of Control--the A.B.C. of which Tim speaks so flippantly. But that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons of both sexes, controls this planet. "Transportation is Civilization," our motto runs. Theoretically, we do what we please so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies. Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration onto its shoulders.

I discuss this with Tim, sipping maté on the c.p. while George fans her along over the white blur of the Banks in beautiful upward curves of 50 miles each. The dip-dial translates them on the tape in flowing freehand.

Tim gathers up a skein of it and surveys the last few feet, which record "162's" path through the volt-flurry.

"Haven't had a fever-chart like this in five years," he says ruefully.

A postal packet's dip-dial records every yard of every run. The tapes then go to the A.B.C., which collates and makes composite photographs of them for the instruction of captains. Tim studies his irrevocable past, shaking his head.

"Hello! Here's a 1,500-foot drop at 55 degrees! We must have been standing on our heads then, George."

"You don't say," George answers. "I fancied I noticed it at the time."

George may not have Captain Purnall's catlike swiftness, but he is an artist to the tips of the broad fingers that play on the shunt-stops. The delicious flight-curves come away on the tape without a waver. The Mark Boat's verticle spindle of light lies down to eastward, setting in the face of the following stars. Westward, where no planet should rise, the triple verticals of Trinity Bay (we keep still to the Southern route) make a low-lifting haze. We seem the only thing at rest under all the heavens; floating at ease till Earth's revolution shall turn up our landing-towers.

And minute by minute our silent clock gives us a 16-second mile.

"Some fine night," says Tim, "we'll be even with that clock's Master."

"He's coming now," says George, over his shoulder. "I'm chasing the night west."

The stars ahead dim no more than if a film of mist had been drawn under unobserved, but the deep air-boom on our skin changes to a joyful shout.

"The dawn-gust", says Tim. "It'll go on to meet the Sun. Look! There's the dark being crammed back over our bows! Come to the after-colloid. I'll show you something."

The engine-room is hot and stuffy; the clerks in the coach are asleep, and the Slave of the Ray is ready to follow them. Tim slides open the aft colloid and reveals the curve of the world--the ocean's deepest purple--edged with fuming and intolerable gold. Then the Sun rises and through the colloid strikes out our lamps. Tim scowls in his face and mutters, "He's going twice as fast as us. Just you wait a few years, my shining friend, and we'll take steps that will amaze you. We'll Joshua you!"

Filled with hydrogen and powered by a 7 hp motorcycle engine,
Thomas Scott Baldwin's California Arrow flew at the
Lousiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
Yes, that is our dream: to turn all Earth into the Vale of Ajalon at our pleasure. So far, we can drag out the dawn to twice its normal length in these latitudes. But someday--even on the Equator--we shall hold the Sun level in his full stride.

We look down on a sea thronged with heavy traffic. A big submersible breaks water suddenly. Another and another follows with a swash, a suck, and a savage bubbling of relieved pressures. The deep-sea freighters are rising to lung up after the long night, and the leisurely ocean is patterned with peacock's eyes of foam.

"We'll lung up, too," says Tim, and when we return to the c.p. George shuts off, the colloids are opened, and fresh air sweeps her out. There is no hurry. The old contracts (they will be revised at the end of the year) allow 12 hours for a run which any packet can finish in 10. So we breakfast in the arms of an easterly slant which pushes us along at a languid 20.

To enjoy life, begin on a sunny morning half a mile or so above the dappled Atlantic cloud-belts and after a volt-flurry which has cleared and tempered your nerves. We idly discuss the thickening traffic with the superiority that comes of having a high level reserved to ourselves--then fall silent. Is it our imaginations, or can we smell even up here the salty sea breeze, harking us back to the romance of the tall ships of old?

At last, George gently reminds us of duty. "Are we to spend our whole lives here, Tim?" says he with a twinkle in his eye.

"Flap ahead, then. Who's hindering?" the senior captain laughs, as we go in.

We hold a good lift to clear the coastwise and Continental shipping; and we need it. Though our route is hardly a populated one, there is a steady trickle of traffic this way along. We meet Hudson Bay furriers out of the Great Preserve, hurrying to make their departure from Bonavista with sable and black frox for the insatiable markets. We over-cross Keewatin liners, small and cramped, but their captains, who see no land between Trepassy and Blanco, know what gold they bring back from West Africa. Trans-Asiatic Directs we meet, soberly ringing the world around the 50th Parallel at an honest 70 knots; and white-painted Ackroyd & Hunt fruiters out of the south flee beneath us, ventilated hulls whistling like Chinese kites. Their market is in the North among the northern sanatoria where you can smell their grapefruit and bananas across the cold snows. Agrentine beef boats we sight too, of enormous capacity and unlovely outline. They, too, feed the northern health stations in icebound ports where submersibles dare not rise.

Yellow-bellied ore-flats and Ungava petrol-tanks punt down leisurely out of the north, like strings of unfrightened wild duck. It does not pay to "fly" minerals and oil a mile farther than necessary; but the risks of transhipping to submersibles in the ice pack off Nain or Hebron are so great that these heavy freighters fly down to Halifax direct, and scent the air as they go. They are the biggest tramps aloft except the Athabasca grain-tubs. But these last, now that the wheat is moved, are busy, over the world's shoulder, timber-lifting in Siberia.

We hold to the St. Lawrence (it is astonishing how the old waterways still pull us children of the air), and follow his broad line of black between its drifting ice-blocks, all down the Park that the wisdom of our fathers--but everyone knows the Quebec run.

Gayer & Hutt
Birmingham, Eng.
- and -
Birmingham, Ala.

Landing Stages,
Slips and Lifts

public and private

Contractors to the A.B.C.,
Postal Construction Dept.

Sole patentees and owners
of the Collison anti-quake
diagonal tower-tie. Only
gold medal Kyoto Exhibition
of Aerial Appliances, 1997

We drop to the Heights Receiving Towers 20 minutes early, and there hang at ease till the Yokohama Intermediate Packet can pull out and give us our proper slip. It is curious to watch the action of the holding-down clamps all along the frosty riverfront as the boats clear or come to rest. A big Hamburger is leaving Pont Levis and her crew, unshipping the platform railings, begins singing "Elsinore"--the oldest of our chanteys. You know it of course:

Mother Rugen's teahouse on the Baltic--
      40 couples waltzing on the floor!
And you can watch my Ray,
For I must go away
      And dance with Ella Sweyn at Elsinore!

Then, while they sweat home the covering-plates:

West from Sourabaya to the Baltic--
      90 knot an hour to the Skaw!
Mother Rugen's teahouse on the Baltic
      And a dance with Ella Sweyn at Elsinore!

The clips part with a gesture of indignant dismissal, as though Quebec, glittering under her snows, is casting out these light and unworthy lovers. Our signal comes from the Heights. Tim turns and floats up, and surely then it is with passionate appeal that the great tower doors fling open--or do I think so because on the upper staging a little hooded figure also opens her arms wide toward her father?

In 10 seconds the coach with its clerks clashes down to the receiving-caisson; the hostlers displace the engineers at the idle turbines, and Tim, prouder of this than all, introduces me to the maiden of the photograph on the shelf. "And by the way," says he to her, stepping forth in sunshine under the hat of civil life, "I saw young Williams in the Mark Boat. I've asked him to tea on Friday."

to the Free Sci-Fi Classics table of contents

to The World of the Wondersmith

Free Sci-Fi Classics
Copyright © 1998-2018 Blake Linton Wilfong
All rights reserved.