Ripper's World: Airship Down by Peter Salisbury by Peter Salisbury - Read Online

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Ripper's World - Peter Salisbury

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Cast

Appendix: Trent's Plan

Chapter 1: Luxury In The Clouds

Regi was determined that nothing was not going to get in the way of her enjoyment over taking a voyage aboard a brand new airship, one equipped with every luxury imaginable. She sat quietly on Ripper's sofa, looking out at a clear, blue sky and breathing deeply.

Ripper lounged against the windowsill looking out for the taxi. He glanced at Regi. 'It's going to be quite an adventure.'

Regi nodded calmly and cleared her mind of all distractions, most especially the childish desire to jump up and down shrieking with delight. Her eyes remained on the sky as a welcome feeling of peace and tranquillity spread through her mind. At exactly the right moment, Ripper said, 'It's here,' and offered her his hand, before scooping up their cabin luggage on the way to the door.

The drive to the airport passed as if in a dream. The streets, and then the fields beyond Steamville shone with bright colours in the sunlight. Within a few minutes, the airport buildings appeared in the distance. Regi was certain that it was the perfect day to begin their first flight.

The taxi delivered Ripper, Regi and their luggage right to the exclusive drive-in entrance to the airport. Regi had carefully placed the First Class tickets for their berth aboard the ClearSkies airship in an inner compartment of her white and gold patent leather handbag, and the Goldsands reservation documents were in Ripper's inside jacket pocket. Ripper took Regi's hand as she alighted from the taxi. A porter scuttled out and gathered up their luggage, following behind as they walked the twenty feet to the arrivals lounge. Their plans for a sedate two weeks of luxury were in the safest of hands. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

A large blue and white sign at the far end of the lounge indicated the zone where First Class passengers should exchange their tickets for boarding passes. Regi noticed as she neared the First Class desk, that a haughty-looking, middle aged woman had been turned away and instructed to check in at the Standard Class counters. As she passed Regi and Ripper, the woman peered down her nose at Ripper's lean and handsome figure, Regi's serene and unhurried expression, and their prominent First Class lapel pins which were to ensure preferential treatment in all parts of the airport.

Both Ripper and Regi had flown on passenger jets many times, before the Blight, weathering the varied hazards of short runway take-offs, mid-flight 'turbulence', and crosswinds on landings. Regi was particularly pleased to be travelling by airship for the first time. On occasions she had escorted one exec or another who wasn't quite privileged enough to travel by airship, but who had been invited to a launch party by one of his superiors who was. Not one of those times had she been invited to actually take a voyage by airship. It was indeed more like a ship than a plane. There would be cabins and dining rooms, bars, and a dance floor, an altogether more sedate way to travel, for those who could afford it. It was to be a little more brisk than a sea voyage aboard a luxury liner, but it retained all the delights, and without any risk of seasickness. Now virtually unused, except by Lorrayne Trent and her most favoured execs, jets had given way to airships. All those who couldn't afford to make their journey by airship had to resort to rail travel, being stuck in a row of carriages with narrow corridors, instant coffee, and sandwiches which curled at the edges.

The Standard Class check-in desks faced an orderly snake of passengers waiting between lines of tape for their turn. The uniformed staff behind the counter calmly weighed in the luggage, attached an identification strip and passed it through into the loading area behind. In this part of the airport, there was little difference to when jets had flown the skies. Once processed, the passengers were permitted to enter the departure lounge, with its ample opportunities for pre-flight expenditure.

A young man genetically adapted by Trent's Slugger virus had passed Ripper and Regi on their way into the check-in lounge. His name was Paul and he had once worked in the Steamville dockyards. He appeared to recognise Ripper but said nothing in the few moments his eyes had alighted on the fighter and his girlfriend. Amongst the rest of the Standard Class passengers, his physique set him apart from the less well-developed mid-level execs taking their annual holiday. The viral genetic manipulations affecting execs had produced cerebral, rather than physical enhancements, especially in their ability to calculate a bottom line when it came to a business deal.

In the months since the accident which had robbed him of his work mates, Paul had benefited from a large sum in compensation left to him in the wills of his dead friends. The compensation and a generous severance package had changed his life completely but he had been keen to stay in shape. To Paul there had seemed no better way to get used to his new wealth than to book a passage on an airship bound for the fabulously luxurious resort of Goldsands. It was a trip and a destination so far beyond his means in the past, that he would never have considered it.

In the departure lounge, passengers were delayed from entering the airship immediately on the pretext of pre-flight checks, the loading of supplies, and to allow the preferential embarkation of experienced passengers. Since the devastation of the Blight there had been no such thing as duty charged on expensive items of jewellery and chocolate; there hadn't been even before the Blight. Airport managers were delighted to find, however, that such items were pounced upon as if they were for sale in a bargain basement. Items on which duty had been charged previously, such as alcoholic beverages and perfume, were no longer subject to duty. Their prices were, instead, artificially inflated in the form of carriage charges and airport premiums, and then discounted back to a little above their ordinary price for the 'duty free' store. Ripper cast a disinterested eye over all the goods for sale, seeing it as more evidence of Trent's profiteering new world.

After having been given ample time to be checked in and to spend more of their hard-earned funds than was wise in the checked-in facilities, all first-time airship travellers were called into a separate area. Haughty lady was conspicuously absent from the gathering which was to receive a presentation. Regi concluded, therefore, that she must have travelled by airship before. However, the back of Paul's head and shoulders were visible in the lower tiers of seating near the front.

Ripper and Regi sat near the back of the hangar. Behind the presenter, who stood at the front, was the airship they were due to fly in. Conveniently projected on its side were slides for the presenter to refer to. Ripper was dressed in a cream and navy striped linen jacket with pressed cream trousers and brown and cream brogues. Regi wore a navy blue blazer with gold buttons and white chinos. She'd had her hair done specially for the trip and looked, as she put it, 'like a million dollars'. Ripper was in no mind to disagree, although that particular currency had not been used since the Blight.

Regi had admired the glossy photographs in the brochure Ripper has obtained for her perusal and taken a virtual on-line tour. All she wanted now was to get aboard and enjoy the polished panelling and brass fittings on show at every turn, the vintage-style door handles and finger plates, the cut glass lamps in their ornamental brass frames and brackets, and the steam pipes running along the walls. She really didn't care that the fittings were only 'brass-effect' or that the steam pipes were fake and merely carried concealed electrical wiring. What was important to her was that they created a warm, nostalgic cosiness, which no amount of sleek contemporary glass and aluminium could achieve. Regi was bored from almost the first word but Ripper was eager to hear all about the technical side of the construction and how obsolete jet aircraft had been acquired by DMI and the materials recycled from decommissioned fuselages to make the spars and struts, floor plates and engine mountings. The gondolas were also made of the same lightweight metal framework, with an outer metal skin and an inner skin of foam-backed plywood panelling stained to look like aged pine.

Ripper was surprised to learn that the doors were all made of hardened foam having a stiff plastic skin on each side, with the intention of saving weight. The First Class cabins had wood veneer-lined doors but they still contained foam. The two larger gondolas for Standard Class travel were divided into twelve cabins and were attached to the forward section under the belly of the airship. Each Standard Class cabin had a fixed lower bunk and an upper bunk which was folded away during the day time. The smaller number of First Class staterooms had wide divan beds and proper wardrobes. All cabins had windows providing views of the terrain below.

Regi perked up when the presenter moved on to describe the dining car and the menus available. Champagne was available at all times in the lounge bar and First Class dining area, but was inclusive for First Class passengers only. Regi commented to Ripper in a whisper that an improvement she might suggest was the serving of champagne during the introductory talk. Meals were cooked on board in the kitchen by fully qualified chefs and the presenter pointed out that in the rear of the hangar fresh ingredients were being brought out to be loaded for the trip. Indeed six light weight chiller trolleys were wheeled towards the airship as he spoke.

The upper surface and the top third of the sides of the airship were covered in flexible plastic solar cells capable of generating all the power requirements for the ship and its electric motors which drove the main airscrew at the rear, and the four auxiliary or positioning rotors mounted on the sides at just below the lower edge of the solar cells.

Flight control was fully computerised for electrical power management, the motors, rudder, elevator and navigation equipment. There was even an autopilot for use in calm weather. A sonar altimeter bounced sound waves off the ground and measured the time interval between the sound and the echo to calculate the height above ground level. Independent altimeter readings referenced to sea level were taken from a conventional barometric device. Course corrections were made by reference to radio navigation beacons transmitting at both the start and destination points of the journey.

The part Regi was really looking forward to was the guided tour to all parts of the airship and to drinking champagne as the ship made its graceful ascent from its moorings. She examined the backs of the other travellers arrayed in the seats between her and the presenter in his ClearSkies airship company uniform. Regi could easily distinguish the different levels of society represented by the other fliers. Her trained eye knew instantly the quality and cut of the cloth and the style of the clothes, some of which were left over from before the Blight. How could people who could afford to vacation at Goldsands still go around in pre-Blight clothes? Maybe, she supposed, it gave them a sense of an old world gone by. After all, travelling by airship was full of nostalgia for a time none of them had ever experienced and had only seen in movies. It was later that she found that the less well-dressed travellers were to be deposited at a smaller and significantly less prestigious resort along the way. The whole journey could be achieved in half the time but it would take three days and two nights to ensure that there was sufficient time to enjoy the full range of luxuries the craft had to offer.

Regi squeezed Ripper's hand and sighed with pleasure as the presenter announced the end of the talk and that First Class passengers were invited to move from their seats to board the airship. The huge craft had impressed Regi with its bulk when she had approached it in the shuttle bus. During the talk they were less than fifty feet away from it. At a thousand feet in length, it filled the entire field of view. Its size meant that to board the craft, passengers had to go up a moveable staircase right underneath the airship. Passengers entered through a door in the outer shell, past the inner shell and onto a narrow embarkation deck. The next level up was larger and held all the control equipment and backup batteries.

The space inside the airship rang with the sound of shoes on metal. The main deck was wider than the service deck and Regi was pleased to feel how reassuringly solid the metal floors felt. She did wonder about sparks, however, having missed the bit about helium not being an flammable gas, and she considered that even a thin layer of carpet might have leant a degree of luxury. When she mentioned this to the bursar, it was politely explained that for most passengers, being able to plant their feet on a shiny metal surface assured them of the safety of the vessel. Besides, the First Class cabin which Ripper and Regi were to enjoy did have carpeted floors, even in its private bathroom.

Chapter 2: Outward Bound

There had been a delay of thirty minutes while the Standard Class passengers boarded and were settled into their cabins. Regi was on her second glass of champagne and was comfortably seated in leather upholstered couch close to the window of the First Class lounge bar. Ripper stood next to her, where his lean, muscular frame drew admiring glances from others aboard the airship besides Regi. There was an expanse of glass between the First and Standard Class bars. It was had been designed to be a sound barrier but allowed the First Class passengers to feel superior to the Standard Class ones whose access was blocked by an inconspicuous but effective doorman. In their turn Standard Class passengers could see their more fortunate counterparts and were prompted to think to themselves, 'If only...' or 'Perhaps next time...'

The faint sounds of something of a kerfuffle reached Ripper's ears. In the Standard Class lounge Paul was involved in a scuffle with a somewhat smaller individual in ClearSkies uniform. People nearby had drawn back in surprise and uncertainty. Ripper strode past the doorman and in a few brisk steps was within an arm's length of the two individuals.

'Alright, what's going on here?' Ripper demanded, noticing that the larger of the two was the man who had appeared to recognise him in the arrivals lounge.

The smaller man said nothing, the lapels of his ClearSkies jacket gripped firmly in Paul's fists. When Ripper had moved into his field of vision, his eyes bulged wide, his breath coming in short pants as his toes only just touched the deck.

Paul said in a slurred voice, 'Caught this little rat with his hand in me pocket.'

'Has he taken anything?'

Paul let go of a lapel with one hand and reached inside his jacket to retrieve his wallet. 'Yeah, I just got this back off him.'

The wallet was new enough for Ripper to detect the smell of leather and he noticed that 'Real Calf Skin' was printed in tiny gold letters along one edge. The fact that it bulged with crisp new notes told Ripper three things, firstly that it's owner had come prepared to spend lavishly, secondly that he was a man who liked to deal in cash, and thirdly that he'd wasted very little of it in the supposedly duty free area of the airport.

Ripper looked up and noticed that two members of ClearSkies security staff were making their way across from the far side of the bar. He could see also that Paul was more than ready to plant one of his large fists on the nose of the would-be thief. Ripper intervened by placing a firm hand on Paul's arm, saying, 'Security is on its way. I think we had better let them deal with this.'

The instant Paul released the smaller man's lapel, he tried to duck away and make a run for it. Before he had taken two steps, Ripper, anticipating such a move, had grabbed him by the collar.

'OK, sonny, that's quite far enough.'

Two burly security men, closely followed by the Bursar arrived to take over. While the imposter was handcuffed and led away, the Bursar apologised to the witnesses, admitting that it wasn't the first time the miscreant had been apprehended but that it would be the last. After the onlookers turned away to rejoin the conversations which had been interrupted, the Bursar offered Paul a drink 'on the house'. Ripper intervened again and said that perhaps Paul had drunk enough champagne already.

'A glass of ice and water will suffice,' he said.

The Bursar nodded and walked stiffly away.

Ripper looked Paul in the eye and marched him to a window table. It was occupied by a pair of young execs, who lounged in armchairs, careless smiles of amusement on their faces. The arrogant expressions soon faded when Ripper eyed them sharply and suggested, in a particularly persuasive tone, that they should find somewhere else to sit. He sat Paul down in one of the recently vacated seats just as a waiter brought over a large glass brimming with water and ice. Ripper placed his right hand on Paul's shoulder making the younger man wince at the fighter's grip.

'It's best if you cool off here, don't you think? I don't want to be disturbed again.'

Paul hung his head and mumbled in a contrite voice, 'You got it, mister.'

'What's your name, son?'

The young man looked up at Ripper. 'Paul.'

'OK, you just enjoy the view from the window now, OK Paul.'

As Ripper made his way back to the First Class lounge, he found his way blocked by the two execs whose table he had commandeered. Without even blinking he reached up and placed a hand on each of their shoulders, finding the pressure points with instinctive ease. Over the next few seconds, the faces of the execs whitened with the sudden, piercing pain, and Ripper moved them aside before releasing them. He was fairly certain they would not get in his way again.

From the window in First Class next to Regi, Ripper saw the thief being marched away across the tarmac. Regi looked up at him. 'Oh, Ripper, do you always have to be so firm and forceful?' Her face broke into a smile. 'Sometimes it's as much as a girl can stand.'

The procedure for taking off, it had been explained in the pre-flight briefing, was that the hangar roof was first to be folded back and then the airship would rise on a tether and guide ropes, until it had reached sufficient height to be released to move under power from the main engine.

A distant hooter sounded briefly and was answered by another from somewhere above, probably on the upper surface of the craft. There was a grating sound, and the inside of the hangar grew lighter as the roof was peeled back to allow the airship to float upwards. There was a clunk as the whining of gears and the scraping noise from the hangar roof ended. Moments later, as mooring ropes were detached, the hiss of helium being released from storage cylinders into inflatable buoyancy compartments was accompanied by the clanking of chains from below and a slight swaying of the vessel. Ripper sat down at Regi's side, providing her the opportunity to squeeze his hand for perhaps the tenth time that morning as the enormous craft began to rise.

One hundred feet away, the radio tower which had appeared to be so tall when they had arrived at the airport, gradually became narrower as its taper towards the top hovered in the view from the window.

As the ship rose, Regi watched the roofs of buildings appear and then diminish, as even the topmost aerial on the radio tower was left behind. Once the airship was clear of all ground-based obstacles, the guide ropes and tethers were released, and wound up on capstans mounted in the fore and aft sections. A vibration passed through the ship but before the look of alarm could fully form on Regi's face, the captain announced that he had just that moment started the main engine, which was an electric motor of a size and power which meant nothing to Regi, other than it sounded enormous. As the rotor gained sped, the sound smoothed out to a gentle background thrum.

Regi watched the airfield slip away behind them as the positioning rotors span to arc the airship around to the correct heading. The sea was clearly visible stretching away to the horizon on the left but it was soon left behind as the airship turned inland. It would have been more pleasant to take the coastal route and fly above the three hundred miles of dunes all the way from the outskirts of Steamville to the resort town of Goldsands. The idyllic setting for the town was provided by the Ooze river which tumbled from high sandstone cliffs into a lush coastal plain refreshed by its waters. However the direction of the prevailing wind made it more advantageous for the airship to take a route crossing one of the Wastes. The next day there would simply be the slight detour to deposit some of the passengers at their less prestigious destination.

'Well, we're up,' Regi said as she finished her champagne. She glanced around at the haughty woman who had been permitted to occupy a table just inside the boundary of the First Class dining area.

'Shall we check out the view from the First Class gondola?'

'Why not.'

As they left the First Class lounge, Ripper glanced across to see if Paul was sitting at the table by the window. He was slumped over the table, apparently asleep, the glass of water empty except for a few ice cubes.

Ripper stared from the window of the gondola suspended from the base of the Clear Skies dirigible. They were two hours out from lift-off at the docking port, where the airships were kept in hangars no longer used by the now redundant, high maintenance jet aircraft. Looking to horizon where the Badlands gave way to the Great Waste and beyond, the rolling sand dunes reminded Ripper of the Blight. The Blight had killed everyone he was related to and all his friends, apart from Derek the driver. The fires spread by looters, the mounds of the dead, and general decay, had produced the polluted and poisonous area known as the Great Waste, which gradually petered out into the less polluted but still uninhabitable area of the Badlands.

Regi had no such recollections to disturb her peace of mind. She had also needed no introductory presentation to tell her that airships had become the way to travel any distance. Sedate and safe, they were much less polluting than the pre-Blight jets. The airline's slogan ran Clear Skies luxury dirigible liners, the queens of the air. Regi smiled as she recalled how they had left from Ripper's apartment with a sense of calm anticipation. It had been an early start but Ripper's long-time friend, Derek, had driven them to the terminus at the airfield. With Regi's insistence on travelling First Class, they had a porter to separately transfer and stow all their luggage, including Regi's three large trolley-carts of new clothes and Ripper's couple of sleek black holdalls.

Although the First Class gondola on the Clear Skies Mark I was situated behind the two for Standard Class, it had been designed to provide excellent panoramic views. Built to accommodate up to four passengers in two staterooms, the whole gondola had been provided for Regi and Ripper's exclusive use.

Chapter 3: A Ball Of Flame

By eleven-fifteen that first morning, they ordered coffee via room service. Regi's face showed no trace of tension. Her attention alternated between the rolling dunes in the distance, and the pile of glossy magazines resting on the white damask tablecloth next to the silver tray holding her cup and an exquisite little white porcelain bowl of coloured sugar crystals. She avoided looking immediately down below their craft, as she found the ponderous movement over the ground somehow more unsettling than travelling in an aluminium alloy tube at over three hundred miles per hour, and at a height in excess of thirty thousand feet.

Regi took a delicate sip from her cup and looked appreciatively at Ripper, in his cream and navy blue stripes, with an open-necked shirt and cravat. 'It creaks,' she said.

'Semi-rigid,' Ripper replied as he reached out and tapped the varnished window ledge.

Regi emitted one of her low, throaty chuckles.

Ripper studied her from head to toe, she was a picture of glamorous respectability in an ankle-length cream