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Through Silent Skies

Summary

Please fasten your seatbelts. As this century draws to a close, a new epoch in air travel is dawning. Jets are slowly being replaced by high-tech airships known as arrowheads. Noah Drake, captain of the airship Albatross, is expecting his next flight to be a typically humdrum Atlantic crossing. Little does he realise how wrong he is... A 30,000 word novella.

Chapter One

Copyight © John Curzon 2015

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or in any means - by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise - without the permission of the author.

John Curzon asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this book.

Disclaimer.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Chapter Two

I didn't want to take this flight, but I had little choice. Had I declined the scheduler's offer, as I was within my rights to do, there were no doubt numerous other eager pilots ready to be called in my place; the seniority and experience requirements for aircrew can be waived under certain extenuating circumstances. Yes, I'd have been perfectly entitled to say no; but my employability would have plummeted like a skyjammer with an empty wing.

So I find myself on the all too familiar maglev to Cardington, still fatigued after my last trip; but by the time I reach the terminal enough time will have elapsed and I'll be legally allowed to fly again. Yes, it's stretching aviation law to its limits, but it happens all the time. The rear seat meats neither know nor care about we crew, and in any case the dridges can fly themselves; we're merely along for the ride to provide the supervisory 'Human Response Factor' required by the United Nations Air Traffic Authority.

The high wall of the Cardington Skyport aerobaffle appears to swell closer at an astonishing but decelerating speed as the the train approaches the terminal. Once it glides to a smooth halt I can separate myself from the passengers and go through the staff portal. For a change it works; there are no false alarms; no 'unexplained objects' detected in my flight bag which need to be accounted for to a scanning system which ought to be able to recognise the innocent and innocuous but seemingly can't, or questions as to what I am doing here as it appears I have no flight assigned.

Once airside I can go to Dispatch; be allocated my cradle and get flying. Flight crew, as everyone these days, aren't employed in the sense someone living in the early part of this century would understand it. We can be allocated any task within our competence by any organisation we're contracted with; though I already know I'll be dipping to New York LaGuardia on board an Eurair L252 currently chartered by SkyBus; yet another of the many resurgent 'virtual' airlines.

It's possible for much of the flying and administration of modern air travel to be run by Artificial Intelligence, but UNATA insists some aspects are still conducted under human oversight; hence my check in, handover, and briefing is conducted by one of the airport staff. I quickly scan the details on the scroll before I thumb my signature. All is well; the arrowhead - EU63390 Albatross - is in excellent condition, having no ongoinging issues to contend with as it has only been three years since she floated out of the giant Eurair hanger at Toulon. A full load of pressurised supercooled liquid hydrogen has been pumped aboard, and the trim is within acceptable parameters. I also find I'm acquainted with two of the flght crew; I know Gloria Brock from flight academy; she's getting back into the air again after taking extended leave to give birth to her daughter. I've also flown with Bryan Lewis a few times. He's already aboard; no doubt he'll have given our bird a quick look over just to be sure before claiming his favourite tiny bunk aft of the flight deck. Our fourth pilot - Romas Maartens - has only recently qualified, but I've no reason to believe he's anything but competent. As for the four cabin stewards, divided into two shifts of two people, I've never seen them before.

We're fully victualled and only waiting for our two hundred passengers and their minimal luggage to board. There are no names flagged aa Potentially Problematic Passengers on the manifest so it looks as if it will be a routine flight, winds permitting. I thumb my acceptance, assuming full responsibility for the Albatross and everyone aboard, then take a ground level autopod over to the cradle.

Seen from below the launch cradle resembles a giant table, or one of the old style oil rigs, its chunky legs constructed from a diamond lattice of thick, bright orange tubes. Taking the analogy further, where the table top or rig platform should be is where my ship is now, clamped solidly in place, joined further by access tubes and umbilical cords. At rest she looks like a slim, metallic silver streamlined bomb of a gondala about the size of a small passenger jet attached to a large pair of folded insectile wings.

As the service lift rises to the maintenance gallery I can see the safety harnessed ground crew performing their final checks amid the trusses still dripping moisture from the recent lashing rain. No doubt they've been their usual conscientious selves, but despite that the traditional pre-flight protocol must be observed, and besides, another examination from a different set of eyes does no harm.

The crew chief greets me and together we walk around the retractable catwalk surrounding the Albatross. She explains which minor maintenance proceedures have been performed while we supervise the loading and locking of the cargo pod. She assures me the chameleon skin on the wing and cabin will have changed to the SkyBus logo by the time we're underway. These days the dridges are leased by the trip by the airlines; changing logo as they cradle.

Meanwhile the passengers have arrived via the high level tube network and are boarding now. We compare our notes on our scrolls and thumb each other our signatures. That done we go our separate ways; she to sound the launch alarm and ensure the gantry is retracted, her personnel evacuated and accounted for; I to board and run through the pre-launch cockpit checks. As custom dictates I am the last aboard. The Chief Steward, a man unknown to me but who looks hispanic and who's name tag identifies him as Raul, closes and latches the pressurised door behind me. The other assistants are busy seating the passengers.

"Is everything OK?" I ask him.

"No problems. We're all settling in nicely." He replies. "The cleaning crew have been thorough and the internal livery has been changed over without any problems." Not that I care about the internal or external liveries; I just fly them.

"Fine; we'll lift in about fifteen minutes!"

Leaving him to perform the live safety briefing - another hold over from the jet age, but it has to be done this way - I go forward to the cramped crew quarters, there to brief all of we assembled pilots on our flight plan. There being nothing out of the ordinary it is a short conference; then the reserve crew strap into their folding seats aft while First Officer Brock and I take our places in the cockpit.

Gloria stretches her virch hairnet on, and quickly establishes a mental link with the ship's core. She has the knack of being able to do so far quicker than anyone else I know. Once fully empathic she'll be monitoring the autonomous systems while I take responsibility for the real world aspects of the launch.

"Stand by for launch system checks!" I say.

"Ready." She says, in the distracted tone of voice the virched invariably use.

"Computers and cores."

"Check."

"Controls." As I experimentally move the control yoke.

"Check."

"Engines start to idle." I flick the manual switches and am rewarded by hearing a softly rising hum as the fans spin up to speed.

"Check. All engines good."

"Disconect from external power. Check all tubes and umbilicals retracted. Verify internal systems, pressurisation, and environmental controls are nominal."

"Check."

"Wing systems."

"Check. Ready to spread and gas."

"Stand by." I say. The preliminary checks completed I can now ask for permission to fill my wing with hydrogen.

"Cardington control; Albatross requesting permission to spread and gas wing."

"Albatross cleared for spread and gas."

"Albatross to cradle control; commencing spread. Initiate gas."

"Gassing now."

Albatross spreads her wings, and the ultralight cells contained within their delicate framework begin to swell wih hydrogen gas. I can feel the ship becoming lighter, straining at the clamps to be free.

"Positive bouyancy: Gassing continuing." Says Gloria.

"Check." I say.

Seen from above Albatross now would resemble a shimmering arrowhead, the wing shape similar to that of a hang glider dating from the time when people used to fly them for sport; though these days such behaviour would be seen as unnaceptably reckless and individualistic. Within a few minutes the wing is completly inflated.

"Cardington Control; Albatross spread and gassed. Service pipes retracted. All flight checks completed. Requesting permission to rise and launch."

There is a momentary pause; "Albatross cleared for rise: Hold on launch. Hold on launch."

"Roger, Cardington. Hold on launch. Cradle control; initiate rise on my mark."

"Cradle control, standing by."

"Cradle control; release control to to pilot discretion. Standard countdown to rise. In Three - Two - One - Mark!"

Hydraulic pumps whine and strain; the centre section of the launch cradle elevates, raising Albatross further into the air.

I'm ready to take the next step. "Stand by for wing deployment."

"Ready."

"Deploying wing - now!"

The now fully gassed wing is released and lifts several metres clear from Albatross' body. I feel the jolt as the lighter than air wing strains against its tethers. As they are throttled up to full standard power, the omnithrusters produce a reassuring deep thrumming noise.

"Wing deployment good. All systems nominal."

"Final visual scan." Gloria will check all of the many external cameras for any last minute problems. As expected there is nothing apart from an AirBridge United Technologies UT300 holding station a safe kilometre behind us, waiting for us to depart so it can settle into our vacated cradle.

"Scanned and clear."

"Cardington control; Albatross has risen, deployed wing, and is ready to depart. Requesting launch clearance."

"Albatross is clear for launch within declared flight plan parameters. Launch window opens for 180 seconds from mark: Mark. Clear for launch."

"Ready to launch." If I don't do so within the next three minutes I'll have to ask for a renewed clearance. A final check of the met screens and local WINDAR readouts projected by the Head Up Display on to the cockpit window reveals there is no unexpected turbulence on the way. I flick the safety guard up on the release button on the control yoke.

"Cardington and Cradle Control: Initiating launch - Launching! I press the button, hearing the satisfying simultaneous clunks of the latches releasing through the hull. A mere forty-five minutes after cradling, Albatross has been turned around and is rising free again.

"Cardington Control; Albatross has launched safely."

We're climbing now; within a few moments we'll be over the aerobaffle landscaping and beyond its calming effect; then we'll find out how the winds are really blowing. A vigourous mid-October low pressure system has just passed through, and the air in it's immediate wake will be lively to start with, but hopefully calming soon. There are another couple of stoms en-route over the Atlantic, but we can navigate around them as they develop.

As we pass above the aerobaffle I can feel the wind begin to tug at the wing through the yoke. Aircraft of the early to mid-century had virtual sticks; immovable stalks connected to strain gauges which sensed the pilot's movements and through the computerised 'fly by wire' systems directed the aircraft accordingly. They worked, and were perfectly safe, but aircrew complained about feeling 'disconected' and 'removed' from the flying experience; they wanted more interaction with their aircraft. With the decline of the jet and the rise of the windjammer those systems have been superseeded by movable tactile controls which give a better feedback of the airborne conditions; all the better for those instances of 'seat of the pants' jockeying in unpredictably blustery winds. Keeping a light grip on the yoke I allow the automatic systems to handle the flying. My windscreen display shows two closely superimposed lines stretching into the far distance. The blue line of our programmed flightpath; a red line showing our actual track. As yet both are so close together there's no need for me to take any corrective action; I'll let Albatross steer and smooth out the worst of the buffeting for now.

Rising higher we fly over the two large 20th century airship hangers preserved as The National Airship Museum on the perimeter of the skyport. Those early pioneers could never in their wildest dreams have imagined after nearly 180 years later how Lighter Than Air travel would develop. If only they could have known they would have been astonished. Today's LTA craft aren't the gargantuan, unwieldily slow, sausage shaped dirigibles they knew. No, a modern arrowhead uses an dymamic, adaptive, lifting aerofoil and is several times faster than the airships of old as well as being far safer to operate despite the reversion to hydrogen gas.

Cardington slips below and behind us. Automatically we transfer from its local departure control to regional LTA routing; to be followed in due course by International Control. The only eventful thing which happens as we climb to our assigned transitional altitude is our moving slightly off track to maintain distance separation with a United Skyways UT404 inbound from Boston, Eastern Federated States. He's been riding the wild westerly wind, spinnaker deployed, and flying just a bit too lairily for european tastes.

He's no immediate hazard to us being three kilometres away and five hundred metres below us. He's only stretching, not breaking the rules as yet, and shouldn't commit an Infraction providing he can get himself well ordered by the time he reaches the Cardington Approach Control Boundary; though the chances are that upon cradling he'll be politely yet firmly spoken to, and have his card marked; no further action being taken this time. In any case he'll be able to claim an Early Arrival Supplement from his passengers.

"OK, we've cleared Cardington. I'll give them the spiel and switch on their virch." Gloria grunts non-comittally.

I thumb the public address button on the control yoke "Good morning, this is Captain Noah Drake welcoming you aboard the SkyBus arrowhead Albatross en route to New York. We anticipate our journey will take approximately 24 hours; perhaps slightly less if the winds are in our favour.

If this is your first flight, please be aware that we will be either climbing or descending most of the time, and some turbulence is to be expected: Accordingly you should keep your safety belts fastened at all times as well as exercising care when moving around the aircraft. If you experience the symptoms of airsickness please ask one of the cabin crew for some complimentary medication.

Also please don't be alarmed by any loud cracks or clunks you may hear; this is only the cryogenic hydrogen management system in operation. It is a routine aspect of the flight and nothing to be concerned about. Further information about our flight profile and the arrowhead you are travelling in can be found by asking the SkyBus sprite, which should have the answer to any of your questions. As we have completed our launch, full connectivity and virtual reality services are now available. The crew and I will do our best to make your flight a pleasant one; thank you for your attention."

That said and the stressful launch and departure sequence completed I can relax slightly. We're 'on the line' as far as our climb to altitude is concerned and there's very little traffic nearby. All we have to do is stay out of the 'Heavy' air lanes.

I look over to Gloria. She's still virched to the controls and looks almost asleep, even though she's probably more aware of everything around her than I. "Secure from launch stations." I say softly.

"Uhhh..." She replies in that far away, dreamy voice. "D'you mind if I stay in for a bit longer? I need to log some more virch time to maintain my proficiency rating."

"OK; but I won't let you overdo it. We both know what it does to the mind; and besides, I'll need some dreamtime for my ReQuals."

"Are you due?"

"Yes; a standard revalidation next year and I might go for a cargo rating as well if I can afford it"

"Are you getting bored with the Atlantic runs?" She says with a slightly mischevious lilt. "I didn't think you'd be the type who'd want a bit of glamourous danger on the aid circuit. And besides, you being a 'Person Of Colour' you wouldn't want to be shot down and captured alive by some New Confederacy rednecks, would you?"

"No, I wasn't thinking of 'States work, or even the Levant. It'd just be another string to my bow: That, and Janice is dropping hints about starting a family. The permits cost credit, you know..."

"Ahhh..."

"Anyway, are you sure you're OK?" I ask.

"Yes; it's just like riding a bike. Once you've done it you don't forget!"

"Good! Because I'm going to leave you in charge for a bit while I go back and greet the meat; they'll be expecting it..."

"I'm ready when you are!"

"Stand by to take control then. You have control!"

"I have control."

I let go of the yoke. As I expected nothing changes; Albatross continues its climb, the electrically powered thruster pods still running at 95%. Even with full gas in the wing it's still a struggle to gain altitude; we won't top out until we're over the Irish Republic.

Shrugging on my generic uniform jacket and peaked cap after making sure the correct campany insignia are attached, I leave the flight deck and head aft through the crew space. Already the curtains are drawn over the reserve crew's bunks, though I can hear no snoring as yet. Walking quietly past the micro-galley on one side of the aisle and the even smaller 'multifunctional hygiene facility' combined toilet and washroom on the other I reach the end of our private area, then open the secure door onto the passenger compartment.

Stefan, one of the cabin stewards on duty, is busy in the public galley; squirting instant coffee into non-spill spouted cups.

"How's it going?" I ask him.

"Is all good." He says, in what sounds like Brazillian accented English.

I carefully slide pass him and walk confidently between the rows of two abreast seats, beaming my professional smile at the Premium Class passengers. I may as well not have bothered; most of them have their hairnets on and are immersed in their own little worlds. Passing the divide between them and the Standard Class compartment I step aside into the relative space of the starboard boarding door to allow Raul to pass by. He's carrying a tray full of empty cups forward, looking more like a cinema vendor of the latter 20th century with the broad hands-free strap looped behind his neck. Weight and space are at a premium on an arrowhead, and a wheeled trolley would be a liabilty during dipping. He flashes an 'All OK' smile as he passes, leaving the way clear for me to complete my walk through.

Though I've piloted many hundreds of flights I've never been a passenger on one; nor would I consider the idea of travelling this way. Just the thought of folding myself into a Standard Class seat for the duration of long-hual flight would put me off for good. Resplendent in my uniform I exude an air of confidence to my charges, even though most of them are virched and unaware of my presence. At least they should remain quiet and occupied throughout the flight. There are exceptions though; one man is busy walking on one of the two miniature treadmills at the rear of the Standard Class compartment, getting his mandatory anti-deep vein thrombosis excercise session in early before his virch is interrupted by an automatic prompt. He's also adding a miniscule amount to Albatross' power reserves, though he's probably unaware he's doing so.

I also notice two other passengers, a boy and his mother. Both - the child especially - are looking enraptured out of their window. The boy on seeing me becomes really excited. "Mum! It's the captain!"

"How's your flight going?" I ask them both.

"Very well thanks!" Replies the mother. "It's our first time. We're on our way to New Jersey to join my husband there; he's working for a seajammer line."

"As a crew member?"

"No; his speciality is adaptive intellegence: Their sails behave in a similar way to your wing." She seems quite the expert on the subject; perhaps she is an AI professional as well, though I don't intend to ask her.

"And you, young Sir. I know that look! I've seen it many times before. Would you like to see the flight deck?"

"Yes please!"

"OK. If you'll both follow me than you shall! But please be quiet when you're inside the crew quarters; the reserve crew will be trying to sleep."

"Thank you!" Says the mother with a heartfelt emphasis. "He's got arrowheads on the brain; he spends too much of his time in a sim, and wants to become a pilot, but don't they all want to at that age?"

They follow me back up the narrow aisle back to the crew compartment. We pause at the door. "Here's what we'll do." I tell them. I'll unlock this door with my thumbprint; you both go quietly foward and I'll follow you in and close the door behind me. For security the flight deck door won't open unless the outer door is closed. Then I"ll squeeze past you and open the cockpit door; OK?" They both nod an understanding.

"Allright then!" I thumb the panel and the door clicks open. We file inside. Once the outer door is relocked I open the inner door and beckon them inside the cramped flight deck before closing it behind me.

"Welcome to the cockpit of the Albatross! As you can see First Officer Brock is flying while engaged with the ship's virtual systems".

"Hi!" Says Gloria.

I give them a quick explanation of the various multifunctional panels; the boy seems especially taken by the wing overview, watching fascinated as projected on the windshield it writhes and moves with the wind, even tacking to port slightly in order to gain as much aerodynamic advantage as possible. Flying a windjammer it is the aggregation of marginal gains which makes all the difference. Then with a gesture I magnify the display to show the live wing surface; billions of tiny boundary effect hairs moving imperceptibly to further optimise the airflow over the wing. Following that I show them our situation awareness displays; they can see a visualisation, based on live satellite data feeds and what our WINDAR scanners can detect, of the air currents around us.

They also see the constantly updated flight plot, showing a few other dridges heading west or south, as well as a fast moving Heavy keeping strictly within its corridor. They may be a declining species despite them running on supercooled liquid hydrogen now, rather than the harder to find and extract fossil fuels, but they're still around; even though they do take up an inordinate amount of airspace and their disturbing of the airflow could cause us grave problems if we ever came too near to one of them. Finally I mute the displays and just let everyone look at the view spread out below them. Even after all this time flying I find myself still awed by the sight. When I get so jaded it no longer moves me; then will be the time for me to quit.

We've flown over the mixture of garden cities and densely packed urban areas which are central England by now. The Severn Estuary lies ahead of us. From 6000 metres above it's hard to see the tidal barrage or the many bridges unless you zoom one of the external cameras onto them, though the greatly expanded conurbations of Bristol and Cardiff are clearly visible; their lights beginning to switch off as the clear, cobalt, early morning sky begins to brighten into full daylight. Look carefully and you can make out trains streaking along the maglev tracks, as well as the anti-collision strobes of a low-level skyhook construction blimp far below. In the haze of the far horizon the Irish coast is visible. Yes, it truly is an impressive sight.

Sadly I have to break the spell. Soon we'll begin dipping, so the mother and child will have to return to their seats. The boy is wide eyed and overwhelmed at having actually been in a real arrowhead cockpit. No doubt he wants to be a pilot when he grows up. Perhaps he might be if he can graduate through the various levels of virch simulators and demonstrate his aptitude for high level interaction. If he can put up the Flight Academy deposit; take the two year course as well as pass the stringent exams, and if he doesn't mind working as hard as the regulations allow in order to pay off the remainder of the fees - with interest - while trying to make a living and lead some sort of normal life without burning out... Piloting isn't the romantic occupation it's made out to be.

I usher them gently out of the crew area and bid them goodbye. I'll be getting on with some real flying now. Once back at the controls the preparations for dipping can begin.

The concept was first described by the author Rudyard Kipling of all people, in his science fiction story 'With The Night Mail'; now considered to be a classic of the genre. His vision wasn't recognised then, and when published in 1905 in The Windsor Magazine it was considered a curiosity. But 190 years later his fanciful dream is now a mundane reality. It was in the 2050s that advances in science he would have considered miraculous allowed engineers inspired by his idea to make his concept a reality.

He envisaged a way for airships to travel at greatly increased speeds by inflating their gas bags and rising to altitude before extracting and compressing their bouyant hydrogen - becoming once again heavier than air as a result of doing so - then diving at a shallow angle, gaining speed as well as travelling forward. This is exactly the way in which an arrowhead flies. What he didn't foresee was instead of a ficticious 'Fleury's Ray' to generate our lifting gas and power the craft, we generate electricity by using solar energy to extract usable hydrogen gas from atmospheric water vapour; and among it's other functions our wing skin has an extremely efficient photovoltaic component. Nor could he have imagined the nature of a dynamic wing which advances in materials and swarm intelligence have made possible; it is a combination of aerofoil and sail, constantly adapting to changing conditions. The airships of today - known as arrowheads, skyhooks, windjammers, deltas, skyjammers, dridges, or blimps - don't just float; they soar.

Kipling would also be astonished to see the world we live in now. One where the British empire was in turn supplanted by an American empire, until it in due course declined as a result of its economic recklessnes, military excesses, and civil wars. It's collapse nearly brought about the long feared global nuclear holocaust, but an alliance of China, Russia, India, and Indonesia, supported by Europe and South America, re-energised the enfeebled United Nations. The UN managed to pull the world back from the brink a number of times during the mid-century hiatuses before putting in place the more stable architecture of enforced international cooperation we take for granted today. Now the world community is slowly getting on top of the many environmental challenges we face; and peace reigns over most of the world (apart from the former central United States and the Disputed Territories of the Levant Region.) The global population is easing down to a more sustainable eight billion as predicted; and most of those people have an adequate standard of living.

Back in my seat I can check our altitude and wind envelope. As expected the prevailing westerly winds will be against us at all flight levels, so we'll have to dive, tack, and thrust our way against them across the Atlantic. At least we won't have much further to climb until we can begin our dipping sequence.

"Time for the three minute warning." I say. "Your attention please! We will commence dipping shortly. Please ensure your safety belts remain fastened at all times and take care when moving around the aircraft. Please don't forget to use the harnesses on the treadmills as well! Thank you for your attention"

A final check on the winds and we're ready to go. Constantly updated via real time meteosat feeds, the computer makes only minor changes to our dip plan. "Stand by to initiate dipping... Initiating now!"

The H-system hums and whirrs into action, drawing the hydrogen out of the wing cells; cooling, compressing, and storing it. As it does so Albatross becomes slightly negatively bouyant and begins to sink, the wing morphing itself to a gliding configuration.

I want to get as many dip cycles as possible completed and cover as much distance as I can before night overtakes us. When it does we'll climb above the turbulent winds of the troposphere into the calm of the lower stratosphere and switch on both of our feeble hydrogen fueled jets. They'll keep the omnithruster pods powered and us moving slowly forward through the hours of darkness, but will deplete our hydrogen supply. It is for this reason skyjammer flights are scheduled to travel as much as possible during daylight hours; so limiting night flight to the absolute minimum and making the most of the solar energy available. Early morning starts also mean the air is cooler and denser, which aids the launching.

Gloria has reached her time limit so it's my turn to take over the virch. I slip my hairnet on and start the meditation exercises which will bring me to the mental state where I can click myself in. Most people can virch to some extent; those who can't at all are regarded as suffering a form of disability; yet the technology has existed for only a scant thirty years. Before then we were busy creating fully autonomous artificial intelligences before we realised what we were doing, and the dangers they posed.

Ironically it was a mishap with a fully autonomous delta - the Bruges - which higlighted the issue. Due to an unfortunate series of cascading failures the ship became convinced she had to complete a continual round the world journey despite only being only on a transasian flight to Beijing. All attempts to reason with her failed, and eventually drastic measures - the careful shooting of holes through the wing to slowly bring her back down to earth - were required. After a few enforced days of being aloft the passengers were hungry, dehydrated, and on the verge of going mad, but they recovered; eventually.

But the lesson had been learned and taken to heart. Once the UN convention forbade further development in autonomous entities, research concentrated on maximising the potential of humans to supervise to increasingly complex systems upon which modern life depends; the virch was one of its outcomes.

I'm slow to click in today, despite doing my best to make the connection. Perhaps I'm trying too hard? Maybe just emptying my mind once more as well as trying to distract myself by staring blankly at the clouds and the grey ocean below or the indistinct curve of the earth ahead will help? Or maybe I can gaze high into the black sky above? There I can see a fast moving speck reflecting the sunlight; it must be a sub orbital flight. It's a rare sight as there aren't too many of those each day. In addition to being obscenely rich, passengers have to be G-rated and health screened in advance of traveling. Frankly I'm surprised there are enough young, rich, healthy people desperate to get somewhere else in such a hurry to keep the services viable; most preferring to fly by subsonic Heavy, leaving the rest of us who can't afford the fare and environmental offset to travel by 'hook.

I realise I've virched: 'Thinking Sideways' is an all but certain means of attaining communion with the core systems. Now I'm meshed I suddenly aware of far more than I ever thought possible. Without any concious thought on my part I know in exquisite, intimate detail how all of Albatross' systems are functioning. I can feel the ship; the sun on my wing, the gas moving around my systems, my immediate environment, my connections to the rest of the world. I am the Albatross. I can even sense Gloria's consciousness, though not read her thoughts - that is expressly forbidden by the Convention and enforced by hard-baked firewalls. I feel a regret, almost a sense of bereavement, as she unvirches; leaving me alone in charge.

"Are you OK?" I hear her say as if she is a long way away; even though I'm in a hyperaware state.

"I'm fine!"

The best thing about virching is paradoxically time passes quickly while you are so intently occupied, even though you are aware of its passage with such accuracy. It seems almost at once the relief crew report for duty, one of them virching alongside me for a moment before I drop back into the humdrum of non-virched reality. I supervise the completion of our final climb to altitude for the day, the starting of the jets, and the transition to night flight mode before leaving them on watch.

Settling into my cramped bunk I feel a certain disconnectness from reality. I often feel this way after virching: It's a feeling of alienation; of not quite being myself; a disruption to your natural rythyms caused by travelling and being somewhere else. It's the netherworld of having just woken up but drifting back to sleep yet also being aware of doing so. It's not unique to me; many professional virchers report the same feelings. Such intense psychological after-effects are the reason for the regular and stringent psychological assessments: If you are judged to be losing your grip on your sanity your licence is permanently suspended, your pilot training loans anulled, and you restricted to recreational level interaction, though strongly advised against even that. Yes, it can mess with your mind; badly so in some cases, but It's a risk we're all aware of. Though such cases are fortunately rare, the technology is still young and the long-term effects continue to be evaluated: Hopefully there won't be any adverse ones discovered.

When I feel this way I know the best thing to do is to take one of the UNATA approved mild sedatives; it's the only way I'll be able to rest properly. Gloria is already in her bunk and snoring quietly: Being a mother she's already well used to coping with disturbed sleep patterns. Having taken my pill I turn in for the night, and soon the I'm lulled to sleep by the drug and the distant rumble of the H-jets.

During the night I have a bad dream about the Albatross diving at an incredibly steep angle; and I hear my name being shouted. I'm suddenly awake and realise it isn't a nightmare. Multiple alarms are sounding and the compartment lights are glowing a vivid emergency red. Something has gone drastically wrong.

Chapter Three

Shocked into action I unclip my bunk's safety belt and leap out of it. Gloria, dressed in her sleep suit, is already opening the flight deck door. As she pulls it back I catch sight of the instrument panels; all of the readouts have scarlet warning icons blinking furiously and numerous alert tones are clamouring for attention. Bryan is pulling back on the control yoke with one hand, while busily tapping the touch screen with his free fingers and issuing curt vocal commands; none of his actions appear to be having any effect. Romas Maartens is slumped back in his seat, head lolling; he appears to be unconcious.

I need to get into his seat and fast.

Gloria has had the same idea; she reaches for his harness buckle and releases it, pulling him forward and out with a strength I didn't know she had. I grab him as well, rip off his hairnet, and together we pull him back through to the crew compartment.

"LOOK AFTER HIM!" I shout to Gloria over the cacophony of the alarms. Not waiting for her to acknowledge I leap into his vacated seat and strap in.

My first action is to thump the Master Alarm button which silences the shrilling. The sudden quiet after so much noise seems even more startling. "What happened!" I shout to Bryan over the rushing of the wind outside; our dive is continuing.

"It appears to be a widespread systemic failure!" He says, confirming what I already suspected. "One minute everything was normal; the next everything crashed! We've lost wing coherrency!" Glancing at the monitor I can see he's right; the wing is discoordinated; billowing and fluttering in the slipstream. Though it's incredibly strong it was never designed to be stressed like this; there's only so much it can take before it fails catastrophically. I'm sure I can hear the tethers creaking with the strain; something they should never do. "I've initiated an emergency reboot of the entire system. It seems to be restarting but it's slow! And for some reason the emergency purge activated; we lost 78% of our gas before I could stop it. I've started refilling from the reserve but we're still losing height!" I look at the altimeter and the bouyancy gauge. If both are accurate we've descended 6000 metres and are heavier than air.

"If we can't recover before reaching 2000 metres I'll jettison the wing and deploy the emergency parasail!" I decide. It's a desperate measure to be used only in the direst of straits, but I think our situation would justify it; it's better to become a giant paraglider and rely on soaring on thermals to get us over dry land, rather than splash into the Atlantic at 400 kph. My hand hovers over the transparent safety shield covering the manual cutaway controls; the telltale lights are some of the few still green lit.

"Wait... I think we're getting something back!" Says Bryan. Some icons and lines of script on the priority system screens are indeed turning from red to amber, and the wing appears to have reverted to a preprogrammed standard aerofoil profile as well as slowly refilling with gas: You don't rush anything with liquid hydrogen; even under these circumstances. Yes, our rate of descent appears to be decreasing but we're by no means out of danger yet.

Glancing around the panels which are still working it appears Albatross is at present relying on its hardwired 'dumb' emergency protocols to keep running. The virch core is still shut down and looks as if it will stay that way for the time being. "From now until further notice we're operating in manual reversion. The virch is staying offline until we land." Bryan nods his agreement.

"Bouyancy still negative point three but rising." That's a good sign, we're beginning to stabilise; our fall is down to 200 metres per minute. We're buying ourselves precious time to get on top of things.

"Bouyancy negative point two five and rising!" Announces Bryan. Yes, we might just get ourselves out of this mess yet, or at least give ourselves some room for manoeuvre.

"Buoyancy negative point one!" I check the instruments again; they are still overwhelmingly amber but fewer readouts are an angry red.

"Neutral bouyancy!" We're no longer falling.

"Gloria! How are you doing back there with Romas?" I shout.

"I've managed to get him into a bunk. He appears to be in a catatonic shock!" She replies. She may well be right. Before virching became widespread and civilianised it was used by the military as a way of optimising the bond between human operators and their remotely controlled weapons. They soon learned that being so closely linked had a debilitating effect on virched personnel when their telerobotic extensions were damaged or destroyed. During my pilot training we simulated suddenly losing our connection within carefully controlled parameters; I found the experience deeply unpleasant. I can only imagine how being fully meshed with a crashing virch must be like; akin to a near death experience. I hope Romas can recover without suffering any long-term psychological effects. Whatever his eventual prognosis, he'll be out of action for the rest of this flight.

Raul calls through on the intercom. "What's going on? The passengers are terrified back here! I think an announcement would help calm them!" He says in a conspiratorially hushed voice.

"How are things back there?" I ask.

"We've got one suspected concussion, and two possible broken limbs. Maybe more injuries to come!"

"I'll make an announcement now!" I tell him. But what can you report when you don't know what has happened? I press the public address button.

"Your attention please; this is captain Drake. We have suffered some system problems which caused our sudden dive. We have things under control. The standard proceedure in a situation such as this is to divert to the nearest skyport and cradle there. This is what we shall do once we have determined which is the easiest one to fly to. In the meantime remain in your seats with your safety belts fastened. Stay calm and obey any instructions from the stewards. I will keep you updated in due course."

That should do for now. "How bad do you think your concussion case is?" I ask.

"It's hard to know." Raul replies.

"Do what you can for them, as soon as we have our diversion plan I'll let you know, but it might take a while to get back up to altitude before we can fly there."

"OK."

Now the immediate crisis is over and we're stabilised I need to consider what to do next. Our hydrogen and power reserves are depleted; we're way below our flight level, and uncertain of our position. So first things first; find out where we are. "Bryan; if you can, prioritise the nav console reboot."

"Affirm; but I'll need to get the comlinks back up, and so far they're not responding for some reason. I'm getting some long-range beacons and basic GPS, but the rest of it is down; I'm not sure if it is us or them." His last sentence sends the hairs on the back of my rising: What if it isn't just our isolated problem?

"Amend that; let's concentrate on the comms first and make sure it's been called in! I'm going to begin a slow spiral climb back to our altitude; see if you can plot our approximate position."

"Right!"

Our systems should have automatically generated an alert at the first signs of trouble and we received a priority enquiry from International Control. As yet though we've heard nothing from them. With so much of our telemetry and comms run via the virch, we can't be certain if anyone knows of our distress.

"Bouyancy positive, plus point two!" announces a relieved Bryan.

The controls are more responsive now so I gently ease the Albatross up. At this time of the early pre-dawn there won't be any thermals to rise on; we'll have to wait until the sun rises and heats the air, but it will be a few hours yet.

Satisfied for the moment by the control responses, I call International Control. "International Control from arrowhead Albatross: Mayday. Mayday. Mayday!" I hear nothing in reply. I try the same message on all of the alternate links; still there is silernce.

"Perhaps it's broken!" I speculate, exasperated. "I never thought I'd ever have to use it, but I'm going to try the HF radio!" Bryan looks at me, his astonished eyebrows rising; he doesn't say anything because he doesn't need to. We both know how bad things must be if we have to resort to the long range, High Frequency, analogue radio.

From a world of instantaneous satellite routed communications we're now reduced to the holler and hope technology of the previous century. I was one of the last Flight Academy intake to take the short wave radio theory component of the course. The requirement was dropped soon after as it was thought modern communications were now so reliable there was no need for an alternative. From last year it was no longer required to have the standby radios fitted to new aircraft. Now it appears the confidence upon which that assumption was made was mistaken.

Never expecting it to be used, the cockpit designers placed the radio control panel awkwardly out of the way. At least when I'm able to flick the archaic mechanical rocker switch to ON with a good solid clunk, the unit works. My ears are filled with the soft sound of cicadas as well as the faint sighing of waves breaking on a distant beach. There are a number of preset buttons so at least I won't have to look up and manually enter the frequencies; and if I remember correctly the transceiver uses the duplex system; sending on one frequency while recieving on another one near to the original, so at least I'll be spared having to say "Over." when I've finished speaking, then cease transmitting in order to receive the other party's message.

I press the button on the control yoke. "Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. All stations. This is arrowhead Albatross. Respond please." Releasing the button I await a response, hearing nothing but a metallic sizzling and constant hissing almost at the upper level of audibilty. I try again with the same call; still no reply. Is this bloody thing working? As far as I remember the radio is independent of the rest of Albatross' systems so it ought to be.

I'll give it one last try. If no one answers I'll try calling every five minutes until I get a response, but in the meantime I'll have my hands full nursing this sick bird back up where it belongs.

"Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Albatross. Any station respond please!"

I think I hear something! A male voice, distant and heavily distorted.

"Albatross receiving you, but poorly. Repeat message."

"Albatross; Albatross. This is international Control, Gander on HF receiving you strength one." The voice is clearer but still faint, struggling to be heard against the white noise hiss of the carrier wave. "Confirm your Mayday and state nature of emergency."

"Gander; Albatross receiving you, but only just. Confirming Mayday. We have suffered widespread system failure. Our H state is critical. We are also declaring a medical emergency. Passengers and crew injured. Request priority clearance for nearest landing."

"Understood Albatross. We logged your last postion ten minutes ago; we have no automated distress telemetry from you at this time. You are cleared to proceed to nearest skyport of your choice. Be advised there are widespread global systems falures. Most notably comms and power; cause unknown. International Control has been badly affected and is unable to offer full support at this time. International Air Emergency Protocol has been activated. You have full discretion - repeat, full discretion - to effect safe landing at optimum destination." The man's voice becomes twisted and distorted for a moment. "Situation uncertain and congested on East Coast. Suggest you divert Reykjavik if possible."

My stomach is churning on hearing the news. If International Control are struggling to cope and have invoked IAEP we're really deep in it. I've just been granted the authority of life and death. In theory, if I felt I needed to do so for safety reasons or protect the ship, I could order anyone to be thrown off this flight with impunity, even while it is airborne.

"Gander; do you have any more information about the problems? We have no connectivity and only limited navigation. What's going on?"

"Albatross, I wish I knew!" The controller sounds busy and stressed, but keeping professionally on top of the situation. "It appears to have been a widespread crash in just about everything; there are rumours, but no hard facts. Many other flights are declaring Maydays. Keep this frequency clear for emergency use, and advise on your intentions when you make a decision. Good luck. Gander standing by."

"Albatross copies all; standing by."

With that the background radio noises return; this time with an quiet whine which slowly rises in pitch before falling in tone at the same rate and beginning the cycle again. I can also hear a barely audible rasping to the same cadance as human speech, but it fades.

Bryan looks across at me with a stone faced expression; he's heard the conversation as well. "What do we do?" He asks.

"I think we should climb as high as we can, pick up a westerly airstream, deploy the spinnaker and get to Reykjavik as quickly as possible. We'll take it from there when we arrive."

"That sounds like a plan!"

"I'd better let the passengers know. Your attention please! This is captain Drake. Following consultations with International Control I have decided the best course of action is to divert to Reykjavik and land there. Though we are closer to the Canadian coast it will take us longer to fly against the prevailing westerly winds than to pick up a jet stream, deploy our spinnaker and run with it to Reykjavik. In any case, due to congestion issues we may be unable to land on the eastern continental coast for some time. Given we have injured people aboard I'm sure you will agree that landing as quickly as possible in order for them to receive treatment is the right course of action.

I understand this may be incovienient for some of you; but let me assure you that SkyBus will cover the cost of any hotel accommodation while you are in Iceland, and of course arrange for your onward journey or return home as you wish. For your own safety please comply with any instructions given to you by the cabin staff. Thank you for your attention."

I try to raise Gander on the radio, but this time get no reply. I broadcast a message announcing our decision to divert three times as pescribed in the emergency proceedures, and then stop.

That said I can stop reacting and start thinking as we slowly climb back to where we should have been. What exactly has happened? Something major and as yet unexplained. It's only now with the immediate crisis stabilised I think of Janice and the rest of my family. How are they? Are they safe? Janice should be alright; if the emergency was that bad she's probably been called in to provide extra nursing cover at the hospital she works in. Even if she wasn't contacted I know she'd volunteer anyway. So at least she'll be safe if busy there. But what about Mum and Dad in Manchester? Or my younger brother Lucius working as a solar collector engineer in Australia? When this has all blown over I'll call them all, just to be sure they're OK.

Clawing our way slowly and painfully upward we see the first greyings of the new dawn. Through gaps in the cloud the sea below looks cold and agitated. No; I won't ditch this blimp unless I absolutely have no alternative. Though the gondola is designed to be watertight and bouyant, I'm not confident about us being rescued quickly given the circumstances. Fotunately my morbid train of thought is distracted by our external cameras coming back on line. While Bryan watches the controls I quickly scan through them looking for signs of damage, but see nothing obvious. I pay particular attention to the ones pointing below us; I have a feeling we may be relying on them more than usual this trip, especially if as I fear the docking cradles at Reykjavik are either occupied or inoperative. I may have to make an emergency ground landing; something I've only ever done in a simulator.

It's as I'm looking through these cameras that my attention is drawn by something on the sea surface. I zoom in closer. Yes, it's a seajammer below us, but in obvious distress. It's sails are an uncoordinated chaos flapping loosely in the wind and it appears not to be under control judging by its wake.

Quickly I try to hail them on the international emergency frequency, but they don't reply despite repeated attempts to raise them. Their comms might be down as well, or the skeleton crew occupied in trying to regain control of the ship. All I can do is note their co-ordinates and inform International Control when I am able. Besides, I've more than two hundred souls in my charge to take care of. Right now their safety is my priority.

The outer crew compartment door opens and Raul slips through, closing it behind him. He squeezes past Gloria, still tending Romas as best she can, before poking his head into the cockpit. "Hey! That's not supposed to happen!" I exclaim. The flight deck door still being ajar the security system should have prevented him from gainng access; obviously it isn't working. If he can get in so could a disgruntled passenger insistently demanding we continue to our original destination, and right now that's the last thing we need.

"How are things back there?" I ask him.

"Not good." He replies. "I think the concussion case is serious. I saw it happen: He'd just finished his session on the treadmill and was returning to his seat when we dived. His head slammed into the cabin roof quite hard. He needs help and quickly, but there are no medical professionals listed on the passenger manifest; we can't do much for him apart frommake him comfortable. And believe it or not, some of the passengers are complaining about the lack of connectivity; they want to know what's happening."

"Well so do we!" I sneer. "It's just too bad and they'll have to put up with it. Let them have some complementary drinks, but not too much; I don't want them getting rowdy. And Raul; before you go back, I'm using my captain's discretion to issue the emergency stunners. If any of the passengers start causing any trouble you have my full authority to use them if you feel the circumstances justify it. Bryan; are you OK to mind the ship for a moment while I unlock the amoury?"

"I think so."

I unclip my harness and squeeze my way into the crew space; Raul backing up in front of me. Gloria, still watching Romas, does what she can to give us some room.

"Any improvement?" I ask her.

"I really don't know! His pulse is slow and respiration shallow. I can't tell if he's still in shock or sleeping."

"Romas." I whisper softly to him. "You're going to be OK. We're diverting so you can be looked after." He doesn't respond.

Turning away from him I move aft almost back to the microgalley. There, behind what looks like an ordinary maintenance panel and opened by the special key which only the captain has, is our last ditch defence against hijacking; not that there's been an incident for decades. Inside are stored six stunners in addition to some spray cans of incapacitant gas. I hand two stun guns to Raul "One for you, and give the other to Stefan, discreetly. Keep them out of sight in your pocket; the holsters can stay here for now; no need to panic or provoke anyone but you never know... not that I think you'll need them, but it's best to be ready...." He pockets them while nodding his agreement. "I don't think we'll be aloft any longer than a few hours at the maximum; as soon as I'm in contact with Reykjavik I'll declare an emergency and go straight into the nearest cradle or a ground landing; but don't do any emergency drills until I give the word."

"OK."

"Just do your best to keep them happy."

"I will!"

"I'm counting on you!"

With that he opens the door to the pasenger space and slips through. I close it behind him then make absolutely sure both the bolts are slid fully home and locked.

Before I head back to my place there are a couple of things I need to do. The first is to change out of my sleep suit back into my uniform, the second is to go back to the locker. Inside I find - as I expected to - the special package bearing UNATA seals. Opening it, I take a couple of the emergency stimulants with a cup of water; I think I might need them. Then I reassume my command.

"Bryan and Gloria; I'm going to stay on watch until we land. You two are free to work out whichever shift rotation suits you best; I'd suggest an hour on and and an hour resting for the moment."

"I'm OK with that." Says Bryan.

"Me too!" Says Gloria.

"I've opened the stimulant pack as well. I've taken some but it's entirely up to you. Bryan; I think you need a break after all that's just happened so you'd better start your rest now."

"Fine!"

"Keep an eye on Romas won't you?"

"Of course!"

He unharnesses himself and Gloria takes his place.

"Christ! She says in a shocked tone at her first detailed scan of the instrument screens. "I've never seen panels like this, not even in sims; it's a wonder we're still flying!"

"And we can't even be sure if they're an accurate representation of our state!" Bryan says from behind. "The failure of the cockpit door security interlock should've flagged up, but it didn't!"

"Yes, that worries me" I reply. "I've got my hands full at the moment, Gloria, so see if you can reboot that system."

"OK!" She says. "But even if it does, can you trust it?"

"Yes, good point. And check the emergency cockpit oxy as well." It's a little known fact which the skyhook lines would like to keep that way, but in addition to the stunners hidden behind the fake access panel there is one hidden under each pilots seat within easy reach. As well as those, in the event of a hijacking emergency the flight crew can flood the passenger compartment with sleeping gas while breathing emergency oxygen supplied through masks within the separate positive pressure environment of the locked crew space. An hour ago it was just another never to be used standby system. Now I'm not sure if it still works, or can be relied upon if it does; as is the case with everything else aboard this blimp. Nothing can be taken for granted at the moment, and I have a crawling feeling in my guts it will be a long time - perhaps never - before our confidence will be restored in anything we can't directly control.

Chapter Four

I takes a while but eventually Albatross climbs back to 10,000 metres. Our rudimentary positioning data shows the westerly winds are blowing us backwards so it's time to turn around and ride them to a safe landing place, if there is such a thing now.

I can feel the resistance on the controls as I ease the bird in an easy turn to put the wind at our tail; Gloria is busy watching the wing display for the first sign of any problem.

"I'm going to try deploying the spinnaker" I tell her. "If there's any trouble I'll jettison it at once. Be ready on the reserve switch."

"I'm ready!"

"OK." After making a short announcement warning the passengers to expect a jolt as the sail catches the wind but not to worry, as this always happens, my finger is poised just above the control yoke button. "Deplo spinnaker... now!"

The folded spinnaker is ejected from the Albatross' nose by a carbon dioxide rocket. It travels several hundred metres ahead of us before opening. Yes! At once I can feel the tug of the wind as it fills the circular sail, reminiscent of an old transparent parachute; we might reach an airspeed of around 400 kph if the winds are favourable; shortening the time until we can land, somewhere.

"We could fly directly back." ventures Gloria.

"Yes, I've thought about that. Tempting though the option is, I want to land as quickly as possible. I still think Reykjavik is the quickest option, this jetstream ought to blow us there. Otherwise we may need to cross wind it, and I'm not at all confident about trying that in this blimp. We're flying on a wing and a prayer as it is; so let's not push our luck."

"OK, I just thought I should remind you that we're roughly equidistant, that's all."

"Yeah; I understand. But the sooner we get down the sooner we can get our casulties treated and find out what's been going on."

"I wonder what is going on? We never trained for situations like this! This is beyond the worst case scenarios; not just what has happened to us, but everywhere else!" There's an understandable undertone of worry in her voice; she's far too professional to succumb to hysteria but like all of us the fear of the unknown must be gnawing at her; not knowing if her husband and child are safe must be playing on her mind.

"All we can do is do our best, and hope for the best." I say; feeling as I do so my words are hopelessly inadequate.

Three and a half hours have passed and by some miracle we're still flying. If our navigation systems can be relied upon, we should be no more than an hour away from Reykjavik.

With the sun having risen and shining on our wing, we're generating enough solar power to cautiously restart our hydrogen splitting plant. I think it's prudent to recharge our supplies; we can always purge any excess we don't use prior to landing.

Though the situation on board has stabilised there is as yet no further news about what has happened elsewhere. I've tried raising Reykjavik Control on the radio but there is no response.

"What will you do if you can't make contact?" asks Gloria.

"I'll set our transponder to Priority Distress then follow the usual approach track in and ground land if there are no cradles available. I may even ground land anyway, for safety's sake. If the skyport is completely closed or appears too dangerous to approach I'll either fly to Keflavik airport or do as you suggest and cross wind it back to Ulster or Alba and put down there."

"The visibility isn't bad; if we're only 150k away we should see the skyport soon."

"Yes, that's what's worrying me; we're this close, and have been calling them but with no reply. There must be a reason."

Our conversation is interrupted by the sudden screech of an alert tone. For a moment I'm startled into thinking we're suffering another cascade of systemic failures, then I realise I'm hearing the alarm which indicates we're picking up a short range distress beacon. A standard, non-specific Mayday message from EFS-55921 Boston appears on our screen.

"Calling Boston this is Albatross receiving your Mayday!" There's no response. "Boston, this is Albatross ..." Still nothing.

"Maybe they're nearby?" Says Gloria.

"Could be; scan around and see if you can spot them. Why the hell is no-one answering? Surely someone else besides us must have heard?"

Once more I try to make voice contact but still get no reply. "Those beacons are more or less line-of-sight aren't they?" Says Gloria. "I can't see him on our radar. In fact I can't see anyone else on our screen, which is strange... So they must be at low level, or they've ditched... I'll do a camera scan ahead of us."

While she's busy doing that I try again to contact the Bostonbut it's fruitless. In any case I've got this delta to mind and Reykjavik Control to contact. They ought to be within range and we ought be on their radar by now; why haven't they been in touch?

"I've found it! Oh no...!" With a couple of finger taps Gloria displays the image from the long range camera on to a screen. There rippling with the waves on the dark grey sea is the unmistakable sight of an arrowhead wing. Perhaps the gondola is floating underneath it, but I can't be sure... I wonder if the Boston suffered the same problems at the same time we did, but failed to recover in time? Did the crew try to glide for the Icelandic coast, within their sight, yet still so unreachably far away? I log the position of the crash to report when we land; for the moment that is all I can do.

The coast... We ought to have it in plain view by now. Instead it appears shrouded in a haze of low cloud. Something appears to be wrong. "Gloria; aim the camera on your best estmated bearing to Reykjavik and on maximum magnification." She does so and the view changes. With a growing sense of shock we both realise what we are seeing isn't an angry squall cloud, or even a volcanic eruption, but smoke, and plenty of it. Finding a place to land may not be as easy as we'd first thought.

Chapter Five

There's a reason why we're careful to the point of paranoia when it comes to hydrogen safety; there have only been a few incidents over the course of the modern airship era, and only the one where the death toll exceeded that of the Hindenburg disaster, but even those few were too many; we've all seen the images so often in Flight Academy we can never forget them. Safety isn't just a mindset for we pilots; it is ingrained in our very being.

This alone can't explain our feelings as we look at the greatly magnified images from our long range camera of the Reykjavik skyport. No, not only that, but the utter wrongness of it all. It's one thing to have been through what has happened to us - to have had a major systems crash and lost our virch, then to find out from the absence of connectivity as well as a distorted, disembodied voice that the world we thought we knew had changed in an instant - but quite another to see with our own eyes the first signs of the global disaster.

Reykjavik skyport is consumed by a swirling, roiling, mass of yellow-orange flames.

It's as the abstract unknown is made tangible that the realisation hits us; Gloria's eyes are streaming tears and I'm not far away from blubbing myself; I'm numbed to the core; feeling as if I've been hit by a sledgehammer. It would be easy to give in and break down, but I've people relying on me. I have to make sure they are safe before I can allow my feelings free reign. Until then a professional detachment will have to suffice.

Bryan is standing braced in the open cockpit door, looking on aghast as well at the sight. "When the meats see this they'll get restless..." He advises.

"I know, but there's no way of hiding it. I'd better say something to them."

I announce in a suitably grave tone of voice. "Your attention please; this is captain Drake. Unfortunately it is impossible for us to land at Reykjavik skyport. Instead I intend to fly directly to Keflavik International Airport and land there. As they service heavier than air craft and have no docking cradles installed we shall be performing a rolling ground landing in a similar manner to a conventional aircraft; something this arrowhead is perfectly capable of doing safely, even though it is a rare proceedure.

Nevertheless, given the circumstances we find ourselves in, I intend to treat it as an emergency landing. Your cabin crew will show you what to do, and tell you when to do it as we approach our runway. Please obey their instructions and soon we'll be on the ground and in a better position to assess the situation. For the meantime, no matter what happens or what you see, remain in your seats with your safety belts fastened."

That done I ease Albatross into a turn to port: I intend to stay well clear of the firestorm; even this far out and high up I'm still wary of being slammed by a downdraft as the superheated air rises and cools: And God help us if we get drawn in to those flaming columns with the inflow winds.

I ping Raul on his private earpiece. "Be ready; it's going to be an usettling sight. Give them a moment to take it in then start the emergency ground landing briefing and drills; it will keep them occupied." Not waiting for his reply I cut the connection and push a little more firmly on the yoke; I can feel the wind changing direction, Albatross sways slightly. It's nothing out of the ordinary and the automatic stablisers are still working, but we could do without the sensation in these fraught moments.

The chorus of shocked gasps and sobs as the passengers have their first sight of the burning skyport can be heard even in the cockpit. With the connectivity down they're not able to have the feed from our external cameras, which is a good thing; for from our enhanced point of view we can see in detail the sights which are best left unseen.

As well as the skyport, the city of Reykjavik is burning. It must have been a partially buoyant, burning windjammer which became detached from its cradle during the chaos which started the conflagration; no doubt it was blown by the strong wind from the adjacent skyport into the city centre. In normal times the emergency services would be dealing with the inferno; but these are no longer normal times.

We live in an age which takes hyperconnectvity for granted as much as breathing. Now, with the systems down for whatever reason we find ourselves in a strange and frightening new world; one in which we are no longer capable of performing the extraordinary acts we did without thinking about or noticing them. Now we are helpless, frightened children; unskilled and ill equipped to cope.

That's how the residents of Reykjavik must feel right now, with everything from door locks, to traffic management, to communications systems no longer functioning.

Already the disruption of modern life is becoming apparent. The firery windblown wreck of the loose blimp should have been quickly attended to by a self-organising collective of autonomous neighbourhood emergency response robots and building fire control systems, backed up by human firefighters. Now, with the traffic control systems broken and the streets blocked, there is no priority overide in operation and the fire engines are either stuck in the gridlock or have yet to be tasked. In any case, were they to arrive now they would find the fire has gained a good hold of the area as a result of the disjointed attempts to tackle it. For the central districts of the city it is too late to think about containing the conflagration; all the residents can do is run for their lives.

At the extreme range of our camera they appear as ants scuttling away from the danger as individuals, small knots of people, or streams of panic closely pursued by the wind fanned flames. It isn't so much an unplanned evacuation, more a chaotic rout.

Our distance is perhaps a small mercy, sparing us the close up view of the the old, the weak, and the young being left behind or trampled by the crush. Instead we're cursed to have our imaginations painting in those unseen horrors. Mine is considering this scene being played across the world; different causes of disaster but still the same result; death and destruction on a massive scale.

Have the problems spread to Keflavik International Airport as well? I need to find out. Setting its coordinates as our next waypoint in the hopefully accurate navigation system, I'll try to radio their control tower. They should be within range by now.

"Mayday - Mayday - Mayday. Keflavik control this is arrowhead Albatross declaring an emergency: Respond please!" There's a distorted garbling of speech in reply. I'm about to repeat my message when the signal suddenly becomes clear, but faint.

"Keflavik control to arrowhead Albatross; receiving you. State nature of your emergency."

"Keflavik; we have experienced major systems failure and have serious injuries aboard. Requesting priority clearance for ground landing. Landing Reykjavik skyport impossible due to severe fire."

"Understood Albatross. Be advised Keflavik has suffered severe system failures as well. We've only just managed to get our radar back online. Squawk your transponder for fix."

Quickly I blip our transponder. "Albatross; Keflavik has your position. Continue on your present course and maintain contact on this frequency. Be advised we have no heavy traffic inbound at this moment, but if we do receive an emergency call from HTA traffic we will have to prioritise their landing. Also, there are minimal medical services and a lack of hotel accommodation here. Albatross you are cleared to approach. Initiate descent profile of your choice."

"Understood Keflavik; but given what we've just seen in Reykjavik, anywhere else is a good place to land. Just guide us in; that's all we ask!"

Now we can begin our glide spiral down to the airport which is a barely visible smudge on the horizon. In perhaps half an hour we may be on solid ground, but what sort of safety will we find in this uncertain new world?

Chapter Six

Keflavik airport is swelling to fill our windscreen. We're in constant contact with the control tower, but as there is no other traffic we are free to choose our own approach path. I'm relieved we're not having to manoeuvre around in a holding pattern as I'm informed the low level winds are both strong and variable. Our landing is going to be tricky enough as it is.

"Keflavik control; we are commencing final approach; confirm there is no other traffic in our vicinity."

"Albatross, the sky is clear. You are cleared to land. Emergency services standing by."

"Keflavik control; Understood."

I can see the toy sized fire engines below awaiting us. Two of the figures wearing bulky silvered flame resistant suits are struggling to hold on to an improvised flag showing the direction of the ground winds. There appears to be quite a fresh breeze blowing five hundred metres below. I turn slightly to get us nose into it.

"Dump gas to plus zero-five percent bouyancy!" I order Gloria. We're committed to landing now. "Gear down and check!" With my hands fully on the controls it's up to her to manage the other systems.

"Gear down and locked!" She replies. "Bouyancy plus zero-five; ready for emergency H purge, fire supression on auto, ready on manual initiation. Standing by for emergency cabin door release."

"Check."

So here we go. "Keflavik control. Albatross is committed to landing. Stand by!"

"Good luck Albatross!"

I press the intercom button and warn the passengers. "Brace! - Brace! - Brace!"

As we vent our hydrogen and become heavier I can feel the controls becoming more responsive; we glide closer to the runway, but just before we touch down an unexpected gust of wind lifts us a few metres upwards and pushes us sideways. Quickly I push the yoke forward and steer back on course. The ground seems so tantilisingly close but actually reaching it and staying landed could be difficult. Back on track again I take an instinctive decision that now is the time.

"Purge - Purge - Purge the wing!" I order while pulling back on the lever which will draw in and fold the arrowhead wing.

Blowing the gas and folding the wing does the trick. Albatross sinks the last few metres far faster than I would have liked and touches down with a hard slam of the landing wheels which prompts a few screams from the passengers. We bounce once and the nose lifts but a good shove on the yoke counteracts it and keeps us grounded. We're rolling slowly forwards but are quickly overtaken by the emergency vehicles. I ease on the wheel brakes and Albatross comes to a halt.

"Keflavik control; Albatross has landed!"

At once the firefighters leap out and rush towards us but instead of hoses they carry cables which they clip on to the tie-down eyelets located on the wing and gondola. The other ends are attached to their heavy vehicles so we shouldn't be blowing away now.

"Let's secure from flight status!" I tell Gloria. Quickly we run through the post-landing checklist, or as much of it as we can. Having made sure everything is as safe as can reasonably be expected I can at last switch the cabin doors to non-emergency manual control and allow Raul to let the emergency crew aboard.

"Your attention please! As you may have noticed we have successfully landed at Keflavik airport. Once the injured have been evacuated you will all be disembarked. If you require medical aid please make the fact known to the cabin crew or emergency personnel. Once the situation has become clear and arrangements for your accommodation or onward travel made you will be informed. In the meantime please exit the aircraft only when instructed to do so, and do not take any hand luggage with you. You will be able to reclaim it and your hold baggage later".

There's an urgent rapping on the outer crew compartment security door; Bryan unbolts it to allow the ambulance crew in to see Romas: Worryingly he's still unconcious. Efficiently he's assessed and transferred to a stretcher before being taken out to one of the ambulances, I can hear the sounds of the first of the passengers following him down the emergency steps to the waiting airport buses.

Soon all but Gloria, Bryan, Raul; the Icelandic fire chief supervising the operation, and I are left aboard. I'm determined to be the last to leave. As we disembark and an airport worker folds up the steps before closing and locking the door, a hydrogen powered 4X4 in high visibility livery, strobe lights on, draws up. The driver, when he gets out, appears to be a managerial type, sporting a dapper, neutrally coloured suit. Spotting me he shakes my hand and speaks in a brittlly accented english. "Captain Drake? I am Oddi Haradursson; Deputy Director of Operations for the airport. Congratulations on a safe landing! We will ensure your aircraft is secured as safely as possible In the meantime Mr Eybergsson, our Director of Operations, needs to speak with you."

"Yes I'm sure he does; there will no doubt be the formalities to go through, as well as the investigations; and we'll need to discuss the interim care of our passengers. Oh, and if you haven't done so already I'll need to contact SkyBus and the European Air Safety Authority."

We're walking toward his car. Out of earshot of the last passengers boarding the shuttle buses his voice takes on a far more serious tone.

"Captain Drake; You may go through the procedures, but I doubt very much if it will make any difference. I'm afraid to say the situation is far more grave than that. The Director will explain as much as we know, but from what we learned before all contact was lost, it appears the world as we knew it is now a thing of the past."

Chapter Seven

"So that's as much as you know?"

I'd expected to have had to make numerous reports and answer plenty of questions regarding my arrival here. Instead I was shown into the Director's office where the Director, Eybergsson; a thin, neurotically unwell looking man in his fifties, is obviously crumbling under the stress of the moment.

"I am sorry to say so." He replies in a crystaline english. "It all happened so quickly. One minute everything was as normal; the next everything was chaos or shutting down. Things which should never have happened, happened!" He exclaims with added emphasis. "And now you tell me Reykjavik is burning; destruction is everywhere! We cannot speak to anyone, our back-up systems failed, and we are using exhibits from our aviation museum to try to reach out to someone, anyone! Truly all things are at an end!" He appears to be on the verge of breaking down.

"So what are your plans now?" I ask him.

"We must do the best we can. We will try to restablish communications; we remain open for emergency landings for as long as we are able; and we try to care for two thousand bewildered and frightened people. Captain Drake, I despair! I fear there will be no help coming our way; no return to normality. And what then...?"

He's losing it; giving up already. "There must be aid on the way!" I tell him. "Surely the whole world can't have been affected by whatever it is. There must be places and people unaffected; they'll coordinate the response!" I don't think I'm convincing myself but I can't lose hope; not for Janice's sake.

"I hope you are right, captain." He sighs. "But in the meantime there are the practicalities to consider; we have only limited supplies here and all the accomadation nearby is taken. There is no more space in the nearby town. All private dwellings are taking in who they can under orders from the Mayor, and whole families are being housed in a single hotel room. Any further arrivals will have to sleep on the terminal floors. I am sorry to say this includes your passengers as well. I dread to think what will happen when the food stocks run out..."

"You're telling us we're not welcome here?"

"Captain Drake; let us be realistic. I understand why you landed here, and I will do the best I can for you. But I cannot work miracles." He fixes me with his gaze. "These are extraordinary circumstances; I would not suggest this course of action otherwise. We have engineers here who can check over your craft; yes, they are not specialists on the arrowhead, but many of the avionic the avionic systems are similar to those of HTA craft. We can refuel you with hydrogen should you wish to attempt to launch and run with the wind for home where things may be better." He's almost pleading with me. "You must understand! We are out here on a peninsular; we get our supplies from Reykjavik. I doubt they will be replenished any time soon, if ever! Imagine how things will be two days from now; all those hungry, desperate people! Order colllapsing! You and your passengers would be better off far away from this! Take your chance now while you still can!" Eybergsson is beginning to make a convincing argument.

"You are the captain of your craft; you have the responsibility for it and your people. You do not need to make a decision to fly yet, and I cannot order you to do so; but you can at least examine whether leaving is a feasible option. I'd advise you to give yourself that choice while the engineers aren't hungry or preoccupied with other things and the hydrogen is still available. If you delay some of the Heavy pilots may decide to take their chances elsewhere and what fuel we have left may be gone. Please captain Drake; I beg you to consider what I say!"

Something in his voice - an undertone of barely suppressed panic - convinces me Keflavik would be a bad place to wait this crisis out. I must be crazy even to think about getting Albatross airborne again but bizarrely it's appearing the rational thing to do. "I'll need to consult with my crew." I tell him. "Don't touch the blimp until we've come to a decision and are on hand to liase with your staff. And there's no way our injured can be expected to travel; not in the state some of them are in. The serious cases will have to remain here no matter what we decide to do."

"Of course!"

"Right! I'll need your assistant to show me where my passengers and crew are lodged."

"I'll call him."

The Director is about to pick an ancient corded voice telephone on his desk - the handset mu have been taken from their museum and dusted off for the emergency - when there is an anxious knocking at the door. Before Eybergsson can reply it opens and an ashen-faced technician I've not seen before bursts in.

"We've had a radio message!" He exclaims.

We hurry after the man along a corridor and into an office. There in a corner are set up a pile of antique receivers with a tangled spaghetti of cables leading from the back of the units. I can smell an odour of warm plastic. Frankly I'm surprised those old integrated circuits are still in a working condition after all this time, yet they must be.

The radio operator is looking both shocked and disappointed as we burst into the room. "He's gone off the air!" The man sighs. "From what he told me I don't think he'll be able to broadcast again; he said his power supply was fading."

"What else did he say?" Asks Eybergsson.

"He was only on for a short time. He lives just outside Rio del Janeiro. He said there is no electricity and he'd heard the water supply was beginning to fail. The last he knew before the infogrid went down, there was an exodus of people trying to leave the big cites... Some reports said they were looting as they went, though nothing as yet had happened to him." The radio operator looks down at his notes quickly jotted down on a scroll. "Then he faded out completely. We've had only the four contacts so far; there aren't too many working old radio sets or people with the skills to use them. And then there are the power problems to consider; not everyone has an alternative supply as we do. There was the farmer in an Australian cattle station; he said he'd lost all of his satellite links. And the man from Oregon; he mentioned the last news reports just before everything crashed. I couldn't be sure I heard him correctly because the signal was so poor, but he said something about scientists believing it might have an unexpected solar flare which could have affected much of the earth's electrical grid. A Carrington Event he called it. He thought that when the systems failed, some automated, ever watchful cyber weapons activated and went on a rampage of destruction in revenge for an attack which never occurred..." His voice tails off.

"It is possible." Says Eybergsson. "Who knows what secret weapons remained unseen and undeclared, even after the Disarmament Conventions, just waiting for their time to act... And now, everything is... ruined! The links upon which we all depend are broken! Do you understand now the situation we find ourselves in Captain Drake?" I'm beginning to; only too well.

"Yes, I see what you're getting at." I reply "I've no objection to your technicians making an initial assessment of the Albatross; I'll assign one of my crew to help them. But that's as far as I'm willing to go at the moment. I'm not going to be forced into the air in a dangerous craft. Any decision to fly will be mine, and mine alone!" I tell him forcefully. "And even if we choose to attempt a takeoff I insist that all of the passengers volunteer to fly; no one will be forced against their will." He looks as if he is about to say something but I cut him off. " if you will show me where my crew and passengers are..."

He says something in a curt sounding icelandic to his assistant, then reverts back to english.

"If you will follow Mr Haradursson captain Drake. We'll give you every assistance we can; please do everything within your power to help us."

Haradursson opens the door. "This way captain!" He says. His tone of voice makes it sound more like an order than a request; I've hardly even met the man but already I sense something about him I don't like. I get the feeling he could cause trouble later.

Chapter Eight

Haradursson is leading me to the terminal where my passengers and crew are lodged when we meet Bryan looking for me. The Assistant leaves us for the moment.

"It's a ludicrous idea!" Bryan is astonished when I tell him about Eybergsson's proposal. "I was flying it when everything crashed and I really thought we were all going to die! Things may not be great here but at least we're on solid ground! One of the airport staff told me they were going to drive one of the buses to Reykjavik and contact the authorities there to arrange more supplies or organise an evacuation convoy-"

"And after what you saw of Reykjavik, what hope do you think they have?" I cut him off brusquely, bringing an awkward pause to our conversation.

I continue. "Under normal circumstances I wouldn't even consider it, but he's got a point. This place is out on a limb and although it's got geothermal power and heating for the time being we can't count on being fed for more than a day or so. If - when - things begin to break down I don't want to be around. Look, I'm not going to force anyone to fly with me - passengers or crew - but I want to be prepared for any contingency."

"What if the engineers decide we can fly?" Replies Bryan. "What then? Is he going to use it as an excuse to kick us out of here."

"He might; but then he's not being exactly hospitable at the moment, is he? If the world is collapsing around us, wouldn't you rather try to make it back home?"

"Obviously yes; but are things really that bad? We've had some widespread problems, but wouldn't it be better to wait it out here and find out for certain before we decide to lift in a dodgy blimp which might stone on us at any moment?"

"From what I heard from their improvised radio shack, things have got that bad already. There were only a few messages, but the fact there were only a few speaks volumes. If things are going to be OK then why don't you try to call your wife on your wristband now?"

"Because the grid is down!"

"Exactly! But it shouldn't be! This was never supposed to happen! All of the multiple redundancy nodes are offline; what does that tell you? I don't want to abandon hope but we have to face facts; we're in it up to our necks but most people just haven't realised how bad things really are yet!" I can see the realisation getting through to Bryan. "All I'm asking you to do is to supervise the engineers and make sure that they don't pull a fast one on us. I trust your opinion. If you say it's too dangerous to fly then we stay grounded. Just give me your honest views and I'll take heed of them. You can't object to that!"

"No. At least it'll decide the issue one way or the other!"

"Good! I knew I could depend on you! I'll get you taken over to the Albatross. Do you know where the rest of our people are?"

"They've all been put in one of the departure halls for the moment. Gloria and the stews are with them but all they have are a blanket and crash pad to each person, and they had to push for those. They're supposed to be feeding them soon, but there's been no sign of anything yet. They've taken Romas over to the medical facility where he's being assessed; I left him in the care of the professionals, then came looking for you. I don't know any more about his condition at present."

"Right: I'm going to find Gloria and update her in private. Apart from us - along with Eybergsson and Haradursson, as well as the technicians - no one else knows and I want to keep it that way in case we get a few extra unwelcome passengers wanting to leave. Haradursson is going to arrange your transport to the hanger. Get back to me as soon as you're able to come to a decision regarding our flightworthiness or in two hours, whichever the sooner."

"OK."

He leaves to find a passenger information desk in order to page the Assistant Director. Bryan's a good man; someone who will unapologetically speak his mind to you but still loyally do the right thing as long as it is the right thing to be doing. The sort of person you'd want backing you up in a crisis. I'm glad he's part of my crew because the more I see, the more convinced I am that this is a full-blown crisis which is spiralling into a catastrophe.

Chapter Nine

Gloria is even more incredulous when I take her aside and tell her about our possible departure. "You must be mad!" She scolds in a harsh whisper. "The virch is down! The wing and gondola may have been overstressed! You know all the checks and examinations that would have to take place before the dridge's airworthiness certificate could be reinstated! You can't just refill the wing and float away! You'll lose your licence! We'll lose our licences!"

"I'm not going to force you to fly; and I'll make sure any of your objections are noted. You'll be in the clear whatever happens. Besides, I'm invoking IAEP. That should cover us if we ever have to face an Inquiry"

My stress on the if visibly shocks her. "What's going on?" She asks with concern.

"It's the reason I'm even considering this." I reply. "From what I can gather the problems are worldwide, and here would be the wrong place to sit it out and wait for normality to be restored. I'm not so sure things are going to be sorted out quickly, so that's why I want to be ready to leave if things turn sour here. I think we'd all want to get home."

"But that blimp nearly got us killed!"

"I don't intend to commit suicide. If I don't think it's safe we won't fly." Looking across the floor of the departure hall which has now become an impromptu passenger dormitory, I change the subject. "How are they bearing up? Have they been fed yet?"

"No; we were promised something would be done for us, but so far nothing has happened. Instead all the kiosks have been closed; I think it's to conserve supplies."

"It wouldn't surprise me to find that Haradursson ordered it, just to make us feel more unwelcome. I'll get something done about it. The Director of Operations appears to be about as much use as a chocolate teapot so I'll get the final flight meal servings unloaded from the Albatross and heated somehow. Don't tell anyone yet, just in case I run into problems, but let Raul and the crew in on it so they can get things organised when the time comes."

"OK."

"And did you all keep hold of your stunners?"

"Yes; no one asked us to surrender them."

"Good! Don't give them up unless I tell you to. Just keep them out of sight for now, relations with our hosts are strained enough already."

"Do you think they'll get worse?" She asks.

"I don't know, but have you noticed the guards since their shift change?"

"No?"

"Well look at that one over there. What do you notice about him?"

"Now I see!" Gloria replies in a hushed but shocked whisper.

"Yes; he looks like he's ready for trouble, isn't he? You don't often see sky cops wearing that sort of rig, do you?"

"No!"

"I'm getting the impresssion the management expect the lid to blow off here at some point soon. I'd better get over to the Albatross and see what's happening. You're in charge here; don't take any crap from the airport staff if you can avoid it without kicking off any trouble; and if things begin to unravel try to get a message to me."

"I will!"

"You know where I'll be. I'll let you know what's happening as soon as I can." With that I head for the nearest staff desk. The more I sense this atmosphere of barely supressed panic, the sooner I want to be far away from here; even if the only way out is on a ship I'd have to mad to fly in given its present state.

Chapter Ten

When I reach the hanger I find that the ground crew and technicians are busy working on Albatross. The access panels are open and leads are snaking away to various power supply or diagnostic trolleys. Bryan can be seen through the window of a portacabin in a huddle of conversation with a group of overalled technicians. Haradursson leads me through the partially open door without knocking and begins asking questions of the ground crew in icelandic.

I move next to Bryan. "How's it going?" I ask.

"Well, the consensus of opinion is that apart from the virch core which is still down and won't restart, the rest of the ship is OK. They've scanned the airframe and wing as comprehensively as they can given the basic equipment they have here, and not spotted any damage, and they've looked at the flight data."

"So what do they think caused our problems?"

"They think it was the sudden loss of connectivity which has shocked the core into crashing. They'd never seen anything like it until this happened."

"So it appears to us." Interjects one of the technicians in a heavily accented english now that his converstation with the Assistant Director has ended. "It is our considered opinion that your craft is flyable under emergency conditions in manual control. We do not recommend reengaging the core until such time as it has been given a thorough diagnostic check or replacement. On this basis it is our opinion you should be cleared to fly directly to a specialist repair facility if you choose to do so." I note Haradursson's face twisting into a snarl at seeing a decision being made beyond his competence. He looks as if he's about to say something, but then thinks better of it.

"Will you make a statement affirming all of what you've just told me and attach it to your report?" I ask the bearded chief engineer.

"Of course!" He replies, prompting another withering look from his superior "Were these ordinary times I would issue a Grounding Order until such time as an EASA inspection team is able to examine your craft, but these are not ordinary times." A look of pain - or is it grief? - crosses his face.

"I see."

"We are nearly finished. We need only to replace everything we have removed and conduct our final safety checks, then you are free to go if you choose."

"Not without an H refuelling and replacement water ballast!" Say Bryan. "We used up nearly all of what we had getting here!"

"We have some stocks of liquid hydrogen, but the Assisant Director will need to approve it's release." Behind him Haradursson looks triumphantly smug.

"Well, as your Director is so eager for us to leave, that shouldn't be a problem!" I reply fixing the assistant's toady eyes with my gaze.

"The Director will have to approve it." Says Haradursson. "Now that the airport is operating under a State of Emergency." His statement catches the technicians off guard; obviously they haven't been kept fully up to date. "I will have to seek his approval." At that moment the antique walkie-talkie clipped to his belt blurts an anxious message in Icelandic. He answers with a curt reply then says. "Captain Drake; we must discuss this later. Right now I am needed urgently elsewhere!" He turns on his heel and walks quickly out.

"What was all that about?" Asks Bryan to no one in particular.

The chief engineer replies: "The message said a riot has broken out in the terminal!"

"Are any of our passengers involved?" I ask with concern?

"Nothing was mentioned." Replies the engineer, whose surname - Bóasson - is displayed prominently above a chest pocket of his overalls. "We had several flights divert here when the emergency occurred. There must be many hundreds of people stranded at the terminal by now."

"So they could be my people! Have you a bicycle I may borrow to ride back there and find out what is going on? Now that Haradursson has driven off in the car he brought me here, and who knows what might have happened by the time I get there if I run the two kilometres back!"

"I will drive you myself; follow me!" Quickly he walks out of the cabin towards the closed hanger doors. He aims for a man-sized door set into one of them. I catch up with him as he reaches and opens it. "Over there! The four-wheel drive truck on your right!" He tells me. I run to the passenger side door only to find the manual steering wheel and controls there. Of course! They drive on the right here! Quickly I run round to the other side. Bóasson gets in, but instead of using the thumbprint scanner to start the car he flicks a jury-rigged switch; the vehicle starts at once.

Seeing my incredulous expression he explains. "Yes, even the local grid shut down! All the autonomous vehicle control, the tracking and security failed at once. Technically this -" He gestures to the switch. "- should not be possible or permitted, but we are engineers!" He says with a rebellious pride as he drives forward.

"Thanks for taking me!"

"Ah, don't mention it! I want to find out what is happening as well; I don't like that little asniHaradursson trying to keep everyone in the dark about what is going on. Our shift was supposed to have been relieved four hours ago, but no-one has arrived from Reykjavik. We do not know why, but we see the smoke rising from fifty kilometres away, and you arrive here rather than at the skyport. We can draw our own conclusions. You flew past the city on the way here?"

"Yes, but it was difficult to tell how bad it was." I see no point in breaking the awful truth to him.

"I live there." He says matter of factly. "And so do many of Hansa's side of the family."

"I wish I could tell you some good news." I tell him. "But we kept our distance for obvious reasons. We couldn't see much through the smoke."

"Of course." He sighs.

Ignoring the speed limit and with our strobes blinking we soon draw into a secluded service vehicle park. Using a mechanical pass key Bóasson opens a nondescript door and ushers me inside. We pass along a short corridor and exit through one of those almost invisible doors; the ones you see set into walls and absently wonder - if you actually notice them at all - where they might lead to. We step through into the departure hall. There the atmosphere is palpaply tense.

The first thing I notice is how the passengers have remained grouped by flight, the fact of their having flown together a temporary affinity binding them. Our contingent remain where they were, but instead of sitting or sprawling there, they are now standing together in a dense huddle of fear. Gloria and Raul stand protectively at the front of the group. The reasons for their concern stand directly in front of them; all four of the sky cops glaring at them in full riot gear have their stunners drawn. Elsewhere around the terminal the scene is repeated, but one group of passengers appears to warrant greater attention; the number of guards penning them appears to be treble the amount assigned to the others.

One of the guards watching our group turns as he hears us approach, but seeing our uniforms doesn't attempt to intervene as we walk up to Gloria and take her aside and out of earshot.

"What happend?" I sak.

"Someone over there became impatient about not being fed so they tried prising up the roller shutters on one of the little shops. Suddenly this lot" - she gestures at the sky cops - "burst in. They went charging in and stunned a couple of people."

"Were any of our people involved? Has anyone here been hurt?"

"No, thank God, but I should think a few have been shaken-up a bit. I thought they were going to start on us as well!"

"So apart from that, what else has happened? I take it no one has organised a meal for you yet?"

"Not a sign of one! I tried asking people but no one seemed any the wiser. Apparently the airport is under a state of emergency and all the food stocks are being rationed."

"Right! I'll get on to Haradursson about it, and if-" Suddenly I hear voices raised in anger at the far end of the departure lounge. Turning around to look at the source of the commotion I see the Assistant Director and a man who appears to be the captain of a Heavy engaged in an argument. I can't make out what they are saying but their tone of voice indicates their conflict is escalating. Suddenly the captain's temper snaps. Almost simultaneously he and his crew - I believe they are Georgians - draw stunners and level them at the startled Haradursson. In response his sky cop entourage aim their weapons at the crew. The captain repeats what sounds like an ultimatum, and this time the Assistant Director has no choice but to agree. The captain barks out his orders and his passengers surge towards the boarding gates, the crew on tenterhooks - with weapons still drawn - covering their retreat.

"They're going to take off! Says Gloria, incredulously.

"So are we." I decide. "We're going to get out of here before order completely breaks down: There's no reason for us to stay. Mr Bóasson, can you organise our refuelling and water ballast without asking Haradursson?"

"I think he's rather occupied at the moment. It's probably best if I don't distract him with such a request." He replies, conspiratorially.

Thank you! And can you bus our people to the hanger?"

"I'll arrange it. When did you want to go?"

"How about now?" I suggest.

He nods sagely while looking over to the last few crew members warily backing through the gate. "Yes, I think that would be a very good idea. I'll have a quiet word to the guards, just to be sure there are no further unfortunate incidents as we go. I'll tell them it's been arranged for your people to be fed elsewhere."

"Thanks!"

I fell as if I'm a mutineer, but something has to be done and someone has to do it.

Chapter Eleven

Bóasson is as good as his word. Half an hour later our passengers have been unobtrusively shuttled over to the hanger and re-embarked inside the Albatross. The cabin crew are warming the last meal servings as if we were still flying; but once those are eaten all we'll have left are a few in-flight snacks. If anyone in the airport hierarchy asks - and as yet they haven't - I'm using my authority as captain to ensure the welfare of my passengers by bringing them here to be fed, rather than wait for meals which in all likelyhood would never materialise. With the continuing tension simmering inside the terminal our absence, if it has been noted, has probably been greeted with relief as we being one less thing to worry about. Perhaps being back aboard with a warm dinner inside them will reasure our passengers to some extent, but probably not much.

Bryan and I have been busy liasing with Bóasson and some of the ground staff organising our launch. In theory there shouldn't be any insurmountable problems, the hydrogen fuelling system has been deliberately designed to be standardised for both lighter and heavier than air craft. Refilling our ballast tanks will need the assistance of the emergency response fire trucks, but again it should be possible.

No, what's corncening me - among other things - are the way we'll take off, and the strengthening wind outside. There's been no meteorological update but any pilot with eyes can tell that within a couple of hours it will exceed the safe takeoff threshold.

We've been going through the plan. Bryan checks his calculations on his scroll, and doesn't look happy.

"No; I've run the numbers again but we're still coming up short. We need more hydrogen than the tankers can give us: Even with the two tankers' worth you can supply we're still too heavy, I estimate our bouyancy as positive point one-four."

"And we can't taxi or be tugged over to where the Heavies refuel; we want to slip away as unobtrusively as possible." I sigh exasperated. "There must be something we're missing!" At that moment the perplexed silence is broken by the roar of four hydrogen burning jets at full power gathering speed along the runaway, the second to leave within the half-hour since the Georgians took matters into their own hands.

"If we don't hurry we'll be the last ones left!" I say. "Where can we get some extra lift from?"

"Well we could offload the baggage." Bryan replies. "And you might hope some people decide to remain here; that'll lighten our load a bit."

"Yes, I'm sure they'd love to leave their bags behind, or even stay here and make use of the welcoming facilities! But run the numbers again minus the baggage. It might just make the difference." Turning to Bóasson I ask. "Would it be possible for you to bypass the max power limiter on our H jets?"

"Yes, we could do that." He replies.

"Good! Please do! Bryan, assume the jets can run at 110% of max rated thrust and the manoeuvreing thrusters at 105% based on the increased power from the engines!"

He tries again. "It's too close to call Skipper! We're right on the tipping point."

"So we leave people behind or we don't fly! No, there has to be something else..." In the background I can hear the high-pitched whine of more jets winding up to full power. They are the lucky ones; with plenty of power they can quickly get enough of a high-speed airflow around their aerofoil wings to generate the lift they need... And then all of the pieces fall into place.

"I've got it!" I blurt out.

"What?"

"We act like an aircraft!"

"How?"

"We'll adapt the standard rolling rise technique. As soon as we're tugged clear of the hanger we'll extend the wing in its wind shadow and begin a partial inflation, but still keep it at negative bouyancy. We still have all of the hard programned wing profiles available, don't we?"

"Yes."

"So we'll pick the one which most closely resembles a Heavy wing's aerofoil section. Then well push the H-jets all the way and use the onmithrusters to give us as much ground speed as possible. The strength of the headwind should provide the rest of the lift we need. As soon as we begin to rise we'll fast fill the wing and fly away!"

"If we don't stall or crash first!"

"Just run it and see if it works."

"Allright." Bryan's quick fingers flutter over his scroll. He looks unconvinced. "It's still 50-50; I can't concur with this as it is; the risk is too great. At a rough estimate I'd say we have a 0.6% margin for error, and there are so many variables and unknowns that even that can't be relied upon. Sorry, I just don't see it working! I'm calling it a No Fly."

My heart sinks. "I can't fault your calculations or your professional judgement; nor will I hold it against you. You're just doing your job..." I'm straining to make myself heard over the sound of another takeoff.

"So what now?" Asks Bryan nodding his head in the direction of the Albatross; the silveryshine of her gondola reflecting the hanger lights in a strange manner, it reminds me of liquid mercury for some reason. Then I realise the SkyBus logo is no longer being displayed; I'm not sure if it was wiped during the diagnostic procedures or if its absence is a symptom of our problems spreading beyond the virch core.

I ponder for a moment, distracted by this latest thing nagging at my mind. "For now I think the best thing to do is to keep everyone here. They're out of harm's way for now. They've been fed and watered, they've got working toilets as well as somewhere to sit and rest - maybe even sleep for a while. But that still leaves our future undecided. And then there's Haradursson to consider. The Director appears to have had a nervous breakdown, so he's assumed control. I don't like him one bit. He's the sort of petty little jerk who loves to throw his authority about, and this crisis is giving him just the opportunity. I bet he loves it really!"

"Yes; he is a rassgat as we say!" Interrupts Bóasson.

"So we'll wait for this wind to drop and try a conventional ground launch when we can; I'm sure most of our lot would want to return home as quickly as possible."

"I'd be OK with that if the maths work out!" Replies Bryan.

"OK; Mr Bóasson, have you still got the tankers of liquid hydrogen available?"

"Call me Arngils, and yes of course; they have not been used."

"Well as soon as it looks possible for us to take off I'll disembark the passengers and you can tow us outside for gassing the internal tanks, Oh, and could you discretely arrange for our baggage to be unloaded as well as securely stored?"

"No problem!"

"Good! In that case I'll-"

The door bursts open. An angry Haradursson pushes in, accompanied by two sky cops.

"Captain Drake!" He hisses. "I am placing you under arrest!"

"What do you mean under arrest?" I shout at him. My accumulated stress of the last few hours is venting, and he's the target of it all. The sky cops behind him are edgy, they appear ready to act at the slightest provocation.

"You have acted beyond your authority; embarking your passengers and making flight preparations without asking permission-"

"Rubbish!" I roar at him at the top of my voice, forcing him to flinch backward. "I acted to evacuate my passengers from a situation I regarded as dangerous in the terminal. In addition I felt their welfare would be better served by having them rest inside the arrowhead andbe fed there from our own supplies rather than continue to suffer from your neglect."

"I-"

"Furthermore." I cut across his protests "No preparations for a flight have been made! You instructed your ground staff to examine the feasibility of our being able to take off again, and this is what they have been doing. We have considered various launch scenarios and have come to the conclusion given the prevailing conditions it would be unsafe to attempt to fly. So you have no grounds for arresting me."

"Nethertheless Captain Drake you have acted without consulting me. You have refused to acknowledge my authority in these matters. This airport is under a state of emergency and I am in charge. You will order your passengers to disembark and return to the terminal-"

"Where they can be ignored, starved, and sleep on the floor? No! The welfare of my passengers on my aircraft is my responsibility. Untill I am assured of their safety and security, as well as being satisfied with the facilities for them, they will remain where they are."

Haradursson nods towards the two sky cops who beging to move toward me, but then the loud startling cracks of a stunner being fired - there are two shots - freezes everyone apart from the two sky cops, who slump poleaxed to the floor. All eyes turn to Bryan, who has his stunner in hand and a grimly determined expression on his face.

"That's quite enough of that." He says with a calm menace.

"You!... You-" Haradursson's indignant acusation is abruptly curtailed by another crack and a sparking of a bright electric thread as it leaps from the muzzle of Bryan's weapon to touch the Assistant Director. His expression changes to one of outraged surprise for an instant before he too falls unconsciously limp.

"It had to be be done" Says Bryan. "I'm sorry about any repercussions, Skipper, but I've had enough of that officious little twerp!"

"I'm relieved you did; but what do we do now? We can't stay here!"

"We should be alright for a few hours or so before they-" he nods at the the figures lying on the floor "- are missed; and right now I doubt if their absence will be bothering that many people. Besides-" He says, flicking the stunner's safety back on and pocketing it "-the way the wind strength is increasing, I think we may be able to launch with the aid of Mr Bóasson's crew fairly soon if you think it's worth the risk. I'll re-run the calculations of course, but I think it's doable."

"This is a bit of a turnaround from you!" I exclaim.

"We've all got families and loved ones." He replies. "We can't stay here in this madhouse cut-off from everything."

"Yes. You're right." I agree.

"If you don't want to fly I'm happy to give it a go myself, along with anyone else who wants to come." He offers.

"No; we started as a crew, we'll finish this as a crew, together. Yes it's going to be risky but there are times you have to take calculated risks. Arnglis, will you help us?"

"Of course!" He agrees.

"Great! Right, let's tidy up this mess." I look down at the tangle of bodies. "They'll have to be tied up to make sure they won't cause any more trouble when they awake. Bryan; run your calcs again and come up with a launching sequence. I'm going aboard to brief the passengers."

Suddenly re-energised by a new sense of purpose we spring into action. Bóasson's men move the unconscious Haradursson and the sky cops out of the way; Bryan is aready busy on his scroll, as I'm climbing the Albatross' folding stairs. I'm still not sure I'm doing the right thing, but taking control of the situation is preferable to just waiting for something to happen. At least our fate will be in our hands once more. Within the hour we may be airborne - or possibly dead.

Chapter Twelve

I'm standing just outside the door to the crew compartment, facing a cabin tightly packed full of uneasily expectant passengers. The announcement I'm about to make will be be the most important of my career.

"Can you hear me?" I ask. I can hear my radio miked voice over the cabin's public address system along with a mumbled chorus of yesses.

"Good! OK... I need your undivided attention for a few minutes. You know that a major systems failure forced us to divert and land here for safety's sake. At the time we believed the problems were confined to this aircraft, and the congestion issues Eastern Federated States Air Traffic Control were suffering would soon be resolved. On arriving in Icelandic airspace we realised the difficulties were more widespread and far less temporary than we anticipated. When we arived here at Keflavik we hoped that the standby arrangements would cover us until we learned more about the situation or were able to organise alternative transportation. As you saw in the terminal, it is obvious no such arrangements are in place. On my own authority I arranged for you to be brought back on board the Albatross in order for you to be fed and rested in conditions far better than those the airport could offer you. I did so without the knowledge or permission of the airport management because I regard your welfare as my paramount concern and the authorities here, such as they are, as being utterly incompetent.

Now I regret to say events have taken a far more serious and sinister turn. The airport's Deputy Manager has just tried to arrest me under the State of Emergency he has declared for performing my duty in looking after you. Needless to say I regarded that decision as a ludicrous abuse of authority and refused to submit to it. To cut the story short it was necessary for us to stun the Deputy Director of Airport Services and his sky cop escort-" There are gasps of consternation at that news. "-when they tried, but didn't succeed to enforce my arrest; and I doubt they'll be causing any more trouble for a while!

But this means we have outstayed our welcome. I regard the situation here as being volatile and threatening to the point where - despite the damage to the virtual systems of our aircraft and the adverse wind conditions prevailing - taking off and flying to the nearest alternative safe landing location we are able to reach under manual control is the safest course of action.

I understand not everyone aboard may agree with me; and those of you travelling to the EFS may wish to remain here in the hope of travelling on by other means should that become possible in the near future. There may be others of you who may regard my actions in attempting to launch under these conditions as being risky in the extreme and would prefer not to fly with me. I respect your choices and would not force you to remain aboard. You are free to disembark at any time prior to the final preperations for take off. I shall not stop you, nor attempt to persuade you to stay. All I ask is that you make any member of the cabin crew aware of your decision before you go. One other thing I should make you aware of is that in order to lighten the aircraft enough for a rolling takeoff, the hold luggage will have to be unloaded and stored as securely as possible here. The ground crew will begin the process shortly. SkyBus will of course make arrangements for it to be returned for you when that becomes possible." I say, not even convincing myself.

"I must begin the preparations for departure at once. I estimate they will take no longer than ten to fifteen minutes, and all being well we should be airborne shortly after. Given the deteriorating situation here I'm convinced time is of the essence. Please give what I have said careful consideration and decide what you want to do to; remain abord or disembark. Thank you for listening."

I trot down the emergency stairs to finalise the arrangements. Behind me I leave an atmosphere of stunned silence for a moment, before a babble of astonished conversation begins.

Chapter Thirteen

A tug is pulling the Albatross out of the hanger prior to her being filled with liquid hydrogen. The passengers have been disembarked and moved as far away as possible to a nearby hanger just in case anything goes wrong. Those few who have chosen to stay here are there as well; though they have separated themselves into a distinct group. I spoke with them all earlier, just to be sure they understood that once the passengers had boarded while the ship was on the runaway and the cabin doors closed prior to our takeoff rollout there would be no stopping. We would be leaving them behind to face whatever fate awaited them here. They all had their good reasons for staying, but I did feel an emotional wrench seeing the child and his mother I showed the flight deck to among them. I really hope they can somehow get to the Eastern Federated States and be reunited as a family once more.

Bryan and Gloria are aboard going through the preflight checklists and monitoring the fuelling. I'll take over from Gloria when the time comes to launch, She's a perfectly capable pilot, but Bryan and I have the most experience: We've talked it over and she understands, as well as agrees with my decision. I think she's relieved not to have the responsibility for the lives of all aboard in her hands.

Arnglis and I are watching, standing out of the wind, just inside the hanger at the edge of the door as Albatross is eased slowly out.

Scrolls in hand we're going through the launch plan a final time.

"Once we're airborne, what will you do?" I ask him.

"The crew and I will take a bus and drive to Reykjavik. Before we go we'll let them know where to find those three." He nods back to the portakabin where Haradursson and the sky cops lie bound and unconscious. "We all live in Reykjarvik and have family there; they need us now. Our work here is finished." He says with a startling finality.

"I hope it all turns out well for you." I reply, watching the tankers drive alongside the delta: Well practised workers clad in protective cryosuits make quick work of connecting the hoses. "Thanks for your help!"

"What else could I do?" He sighs. "If this really is a global catastrophe, the least I can do is help you out; to try to preserve the ideals of civilisation to the very end. You understand?"

"Yes, I think I do."

We watch in contemplative silence as the filling is comple, and the passengers embarked. Bryan's voice fizzing out of Bórasson's radio breaks the spell; we're ready to go.

Arnglis and I shake hands before I jog over to the blimp's emergency stairs. Even in the lee of the hanger the rising wind has a bitterly cold edge to it. In the few tens of seconds it takes me to run across it slices mercilessly through my uniform, chilling me. I'm relieved to get inside. Gloria vacates her seat, which I take over and strap myself in. In the other Bryan is ocupied monitoring the hydrogen systems; he'll also be manually spreading and filling the wing while I control the takeoff.

"How's the overview?" I ask; even though I can see that most of the readouts are in the green broken by a few amber and red lights. The engineers have disabled as many of the alarms and no-go interlocks as they dare without delving too deeply into the systems, but I'm still expecting to hear a cacaphony of protests when we make our move. The virch displays are red, or completely dark. Under normal circumstances those few anomolies would be reason enough to postpone the flight until they'd been resolved, but now we'll happily ignore them. We just want to get out of here.

"As good as we're likely to get!" He replies.

"Anything you can see?" I call back to Gloria as she buckles in to a fold down seat in the crew section. She'll be acting as an extra pair of eyes on, now that we can't fully trust the Albatross' systems.

"No; if I spot anything I'll be sure to let you know!"

"Thanks." I reply, wryly.

I can hear the murmurings of the passengers being settled in by the cabin crew.

"Is the outer crew compartment door secure?" I ask Gloria.

Yes, but do you think it's a good idea to keep it that way? Just in case we crash..."

That gives me reason to think. "Yes, keep it locked. We don't want anyone deciding they want to get off at the last minute and breaking in. We don't have the gas to spare." As it is we'll be flying below our safe minimum load, but it's just another thing we've had to conveniently put out of mind.

The intercom pings, Stefan tells me everyone in the back is seated and ready.

"OK; check cabin doors are latched. They'll be on manual until we're safely flying. We're about to roll."

"Check."

I give the instrument panels a final check. "Are you all ready?" Both Bryan and Gloria answer with a simultaneous "Affirm."

"Then let's get out of here!"

We're towed out onto the taxiway. Even though the Albatross is sandwiched between the two hydrogen tankers for weight and shelter, the strengthening wind begins to rock us badly even before our empty wing has been deployed. I'm beginning to have second thoughts about trying to launch.

I grab the hand held radio Arnglis gave to me for coordinating the launch. "Guys, we'll need to remain tethered to your trucks while we deploy the wing and fill it; can you drive as far away from us as possible to provide some more tension on the cables while still remaining connected?" Bórasson translates our request to the drivers and replies on their behalf.

"Affirmative."

The tankers draw slowly away; hopefully the extra tension will hold us down that bit longer.

Now comes the part I'm dreading; the moment we declare our intention to the control tower. I'm surprised they've not already noticed the activity on the taxiway, but then we've been using the ground crew's hand held radios in order not to use their frequency and so alert them sooner than need be to our plan. With there being no inbound traffic I'm aware of and the airport closed, perhaps they've stood down for the moment, or gone to look for something to eat. Nethertheless I must be sure before I commit myself.

"Albatross to Keflavik Control; do you have any inbound traffic or planned takeoffs at this time?"

There is a pause, then "Keflaivk to Albatross; negative on inbound or outbound movements." The tower sounds confused about our asking the question.

"Understood. Albatross out."

I switch off the radio. I don't need it on anymore and I'll be occupied enough as it is without trying to ignore the tower's order to abort my takeoff whenthey realise what I'm doing.

Pressing the push-to-talk on the handheld I let Arnglis and his crew know we're ready.

"OK Bryan, spread wing and stand by to gas on my mark."

"Ready!"

"Ready... Mark!" Bryan flicks the manual switches and the display shows the wing opening.

"Gassing now." The analogue guages on in the central console confirm the liquid hydrogen is flowing up the umbilical tubes and into the wing cells.

As the wing inflates to the preset aerodynamic profile the ground crew will refill the pressurised tanks. Already I can feel the ship becoming more bouyant, a fact confirmed by the instruments. I push the control yoke forward, hoping it will force our nose down.

"Ready for engine start."

"Ready." For their safety the ground crew will disconnect the cables attaching us to their heavy trucks before we start the jets and thrusters. Arnglis confirms the fact via radio. "All cables and fuel lines disconnected; Albatross you are free to fly!"

"Understood, and thanks!"

With the ground crew safely clear the jets can be started. As well as their thrust from their exhaust the jets' generators will provide the power for the omnithruster pods; we'll need all the speed from wherever we can get it to get airborne. Once throttled up to full emergency power and then beyond, I release the wheel brakes. Slowly Albatross rolls forward.

"Gas the wing to 70%!" I order Bryan.

"Filling at maximum rate." He replies in his irritatingly unruffled way.

If will could be converted into forward velocity we'd be flying by now; but instead we've yet to exceed a ground speed of 65kph. The white stripes of the runway centreline pass too lazily under our nose; we're building momentum too slowly. At this rate we'll never get aloft, but just trundle along while the wind rocks the wing against the emergency outrigger wheels. I'm concerned our calculations are somehow badly out, and that all we are doing is making it easy for an errant gust to flip us over. However any thoughts I may have about aborting the takeoff vanish when Bórasson's walkie talkie fizzes a warning.

"Albatross; check behind you!"

Quickly I switch to the rear cameras. There in the distance but getting rapidly closer are what looks like several airport police cars pursuing us, their lights flashing angrily. What do they think they can do? Attempt to cut us off and force us to abort our rollout? They're more likely to cause a disaster that way!

Angrilly snapping the radio back on I berate the tower. "Keflavik control from Albatross; cease your pursuit. I repeat cease your pursuit! We are committed to takeoff: I repeat committed to takeoff!"

"Albatrossyou are denied takeoff clearance. Repeat; denied takeoff clearance. Abort your takeoff and return to the hanger!"

Obviously the Haradursson faction are still in charge despite the absence of their leader, and the airport police are still gaining on us. Another thity seconds will see them drawing level, then ahead and in a blocking position; but by then we'll both be running out of room to stop on the shortening runaway.

"Keflavik control; if you continue your pursuit you will be responsible for the consequences. I will report your actions to the European Air Safety Authority. We Are Leaving!" With that I flick off their protests.

"Bryan; blow all of our gas into the wing now, then give me every last thing the jets have - damage acceptable. Dump 50% of the water ballast!"

I push the throttles of the omnithrusters all the way to the stops as Bryan does as I order, overspeeding them may add that fraction more power we need to get airborne but still it appears to have no effect. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the flashing lights of one of the police cars drawing alongside, its keening siren audible over the roaring of the wind, while ahead the end of the runway and the perimeter fence appears close enough to reach out and touch. I must either stop and surrender, or continue; gambling with all of our lives. In fact there's no decision to make. Both the police and I now have no chance of stopping in time.

"Stand by for wing deployment!"

Bryan looks at me with astonishment, then realises my intent.

"Ready!"

I've no time to waste; here goes nothing. Firmly grasping the mechanical release handle I squeeze in the locking safety button while pulling on it decisively. There's a thump as the latches unlock, a moment of silence, then the high-pitched whirring of the tether spools unwinding as the wind catches the wing. The tethers soon reach their limit, and then what I hope for happens. With a loud flapping snap amid a chorus of screams from the passenger compartment, and a violence the built in shock absorbers have no hope of attenuating, Albatross is suddenly jolted upward. At once I raise the landing gear. I must be mad to do so while only just bouyant in the few metres of ground effect but I hope their retraction and stowage will clean our aerodynamic profile by just enough to get us really flying. With the gear thunking home I have to get the bird back under control, for we are being blown backwards and sideways across the airport. Right now we are no more in charge of our fate than a loose leaf cast aloft on a gust; in fact it is an exact analogy of our situation - except that should we again touch the green tinged, rough grey rocks which are the ground in these parts, ours will be far from a gentle kiss of a landing.

Frantically heaving on the control yoke I'm flying on intuition, only partially daring to trust the WINDAR display projected onto the windscreen. From that perspective the gusts buffeting us appear to be diffuse grey shaded streams of incoherrent smoke; capricious wraiths which could throw us violently back down to earth at any moment. We must battle our way up and out of the turbulent ground level winds and gain some height before our luck runs out.

"All gas reserves committed." States Bryan, matter of factly. "Bouyancy positive point one-six and steady." We've played our desperate hand; now we shall see if it is a winner or a busted flush. The Low Fuel Critical warning tone beeps insistently, informing us the H-jets will begin their automatic shut down within sixty seconds. Bryan preemptively closes the throttles and powers both engines down.

With excruiating slowness we gain precious meters of altitude. Each hopeful but bruising updraft has to be fought for, prised from the cold fingered clutches of uncoperative fate, but still we rise, by single, then multiples, and finally tens of meters. We might just get away with it this time.

Then, with a stomach dropping lurch, we begin to stall.

It's as if the wind which had been supporting us has suddenly vanished. Instantly we're plummeting downwards. All I can do is to push the control yoke forward and go with the dive in the hope that the air speeding around the wing can be translated into some sort of lift when I try to pull out. With the ground swelling in the windscreen and my view of its features becoming ever more detailed I can't wait any longer, I must try to climb out now, hoping that the harsh equations of aerodynamics will swing in my favour. It feels as if the stiffening yoke has become impossible to move, yet with tortuous slowness I heave it all the way back. Almost skimming the ground we swoop back upwards, and fortunately run into another lifting air mass. I feel as a surfer being borne up the face of a massive, invisible breaker; rising, rising, rising upward. I'm too preoccupied in flying to be distracted by the altitude displayed on the windscreen, and in any case it doesn't matter; I'm judging my height by the view of Keflavik airport. Just as long as it continues to shrink, that will be fine.

"Altitude 600 metres and rising at a hundred per minute. Keep it up Skipper!" reassures Bryan. Desperately scrabbling our way up this ramp of lift, I hope we can soar our way up to the more stable mid level winds. At least it may give us some time and room to manoeuvre if we get caught out again.

"Albatross! Are you OK?" Arnglis' distorted voice blurts weakly out of the radio clipped to my chest pocket.

I've got enough altitude now to safely reply to him. "Yes; we're OK now. It was touch and go for a while, but we're flying now."

"Jesus man! We were certain you were going to crash! That was some astonishing flying you did!"

"How about you? How did you make it out without being arrested?"

"The cops didn't want to mix it with our trucks; they gave up and let us turn around towards the nearest perimeter gate. They've gone to rescue their mates; zoom your camera in at the end of the runaway!"

Bryan does as he is bid and part of the display shows the scene. Two of the police cars obviously couldn't stop in time. One tried a sharp turn but ended up flipping and being caught by the fence, while the other continued on, driving straight through it. The FlexiFence did exactly as it was designed to do; stretching and slowing the car to a safe halt. Now it and it's occupants are trapped inside an elongated pocket of stretched diamond mesh. A fire truck and ambulance have arrived on scene and the crew are busy trying to cut the car free; no easy task given the toughness of the material.

"So they have their hands full! We're on the road below you now!" Our camera pans to show a convoy of two cars, a bus, and a hydrogen tanker speeding toward Reykjarvik.

"I'm glad you made it out! I wish I could tell you more about what lies ahead for you but we're not high enough to see anything, and I doubt if our cameras could see much through the smoke." There's no point in telling them the raw truth of the matter; they're bound to find the facts about their families' survival - whatever they may be - soon enough.

"Yes, I understand." His voice is beginning to fade. Either we're reaching the maximum range of the hand-helds or maybe the batteries in mine are running low. "We'll have to stop transmitting soon. Albatross, we're praying for you. Have a safe flight!"

"Thanks for helping us." I respond, trying to swallow a lump which has bulged in my throat. "Hopefully this will be just a short term thing from which we can recover. If we can we'll let you know how we get on. We wish you the best of luck. Albatross out!"

I think, I hope, I was able to transmit the message before the radio ran out of power. The silence in the flight deck which follows is rendered especially poignant now as we are only too aware that Reykjavik ahead of us - still wreathed by sinuous, thick columns of dark smoke - is where Arnglis and his crew's loved ones are to found. Perhaps it is their burning homes or remains which will provide the fuel for the giant thermal we'll use to ride up to the stratosphere. I'm feeling queasy at the thought.

"Gloria, can you take over my seat for a while? And Bryan, you can tell everyone we're no longer in any danger of crashing. I've got to go aft for a while."

Chapter Fourteen

I had to stop. It all caught up with me in an ambush of emotion. Sat on the cramped little toilet I'm having a nervous breakdown. I feel like puking but I can't bring anything up when I wretch. Attempting to empty my bowels is equally as fruitless; no matter how much I strain, there is no relief to be found there either. Then all of the accumulated stress bursts out of me in a flood of tears as well as an outbreak of uncontrollable shaking so severe it make my upper and lower teeth clack together. There's no way of stopping it, I just have to let it run its course.

I realise then - as my uncooperative body judders - what I've done. I'd very nearly killed everyone aboard with my recklessly impetuous plan. The fact we are still here was due more to blind luck than any skill on my part. I was supposed to have ensured the safety of those in my care, but instead I very nearly screwed up. It should all be there on the flight recorders; indelible, irrefutable proof that a Board Of Inquiry will have no hesitation in using to ban me from piloting for life; and of course the inevitable criminal charges are bound to follow... Yes, my - and Janice's future if she stays with me through my disgrace - is likely to be a bleak one. More tears stream down my face, and a leaden, almost suicidal despair grips me.

I don't know how long I spend in there; it seems forever but in reality can't be more than fifteen minutes. Eventually the shakes subside and the tears stop. I begin to get a grip on myself. This won't do at all. People are relying on me; this is no time for self-pity. Quickly splashing my face clean I pull my trousers up and get myself together. The professional instincts reassert themselves; Captain Noah Drake is ready to resume command of his dridge.

"How do you feel?" asks Bryan with corncern on my return.

"Better than I did!" I tell him while making for my seat.

"Skipper; I think it's probably a good idea for you to rest for a while." Bryan says with a calm authority. "You've had a rough time of it these last few hours - we all have - but you've had the worst of it. That was one hell of a job you did in getting us airborne; frankly I don't think I could've, or would've have pulled it off, but you did! You need to de-stress, even sleep if you can, because you'll have to be at your best when it comes to our next landing. Go on, get your head down! We'll take care of things for a couple of hours, then see how you are then." Bryan is being his usual, irritatingly logical, persuasive self, and as always I find myself being swayed by his arguments.

"OK, I'll give it a go!"

"Good man! Oh, and just to set your mind at ease, both Gloria and I will back you up if it ever comes to an inquiry. Don't forget it was me who stunned that little turd Haradursson: It had to be done. He was going mad you know; having delusions of his own meglomaniac grandeur. When things got to that stage it was too dangerous for us to stay. You explained the dangers and gave everyone the choice of whether to fly or not. As far as we're concerned you did the right thing, and we'll say so to anyone who asks!"

"Thanks for your support!"

"Anyway, you go to bed for a while. We'll wake you if we need you."

"OK!"

Though it seems I remain concious all the time I'm lying in my cramped little cot, I must have had some sort of fractured not-quite sleep, because when I'm next aware of time, ninety minutes have passed. There's no sudden jolt of alarm this time though, only an unrefreshed wakefulness. Quickly I'm up to retake my position.

"Oh there you are? How are you feeling now?" asks Bryan.

"A bit better thanks. It's your turn to flop now!"

"That's fine by me! You don't need to order it! See you in a couple of hours." He unbuckles himself and vacates his seat.

"Sitrep, Gloria?" I ask, settling myself in and glancing across the displays.

"Altitude 10,200. Heading 107. Airspeed 340. We rode the Reykjarvik thermal up to the stratopause, then found a good jet stream so we hitched onto it. The spinnaker deployed OK; but as you can see from the panels we're getting more orange lights. Most of the problems would have been sorted by the virch but... We've restarted the hydrogen cracker but it's not going to make any meaningful difference as we began way under capacity. If you ask me, this is our last flight. The next time we set down we should stay down because this dridge needs a lot of ground time."

"That's what I was thinking. Have you managed to make contact with anyone?"

"No." She replies seriously. "We've both tried, but there's nothing out there. No data, no radio, no control; only a few automated nav beacons I didn't think were being operated any more. I'm using those on my manual plot because I've noticed the satnav is worsening. I'm not sure what's causing it but our positioning accuracy is down to twenty-five kilometre grids and degrading."

"That bad?"

"Yes, so I'm aggregating all the data I can."

"Good idea! Let's have a look." She passes her scroll over to me. Quickly I check her calculations. "Well I can't see anything wrong with that; good work!"

"Thanks."

"So that's the 'hook's sitrep; but how about you?" Her temporary silence says more than any words, looking at her I can see the strain etched on her face; yes she's holding it all in professionally, but I sense the tears aren't that far away, and who could blame her? The uncertainty of not knowing if her family are OK must be wearing at her as much as it does the rest of us

"I'll cope." She snaps.

"I don't doubt it." I reassure her. "But we've all been through a lot today. You could - maybe should - get some rest if you can. You can use a bunk or just sleep in your seat if you want to. Or even go aft for a while and let it all out - it worked for me. And don't forget I've opened the medicine box; take what you need from it to calm down or keep yourself awake if you want to."

"I know."

"When Bryan wakes up you'd better crash for a while. We'll need you at your best later."

"Of course."

"OK."

The conversation grinds to an awkward halt. How do you say those things which are already understood, and so don't need to be said, yet must be? Leaving the Albatross in the capable hands of the dumb autopilot and Gloria for a few moments, I go aft to take another dose of wakey pills and check on our backseaters. Our stews have cleaned up most of the copious quantity of passengers' vomit, but there's still a sour, acidic stench permeating the air. The meats are quiet now; many of them look utterly dazed.

When I return I sense a subtle change has happened. Gloria appears to be in that half awake - half asleep distracted virched state, even though she's not connected. To be honest I'm glad she's slipped into the temporary peace of a good doze; she deserves it. I pass the time scanning the displays and listening out for anything on the radio. Now and then I hear something faintly, but it's impossible to know if it is a human voice, or a barely audible metallic shrilling of a distant datalink, or just natural static. I don't transmit for fear of awakening Gloria, and anyway we're too far out between Iceland and Scotland to try for the moment. As time passes I feel myself passing into a dreamy way of thinking. It's nothing new to me. Many times before we 'jammer drivers have spent our flying hours being not so much drowsy as in a relaxed state of alertness; its a mental attitude as much as a coping strategy we've adopted. Time seems to pass at its own peculiar rate while I'm like this, and right now I find the familiarity comforting. I could even imagine that the events of the last day haven't happened and instead all is normal. That I, the commander of one of the wonders of our age; am being blown home by a fast and fair wind. This high and above the clouds the sky is a beautifully intense shade of blue-black; while the setting sun suffuces everything its light touches with a golden gilded warmth. There's no sign of the vivid colour of an Aurora Borealis as yet; if a geomagnetic storm was responsible for this chaos, it appears to have passed now.

But all too soon the spell is broken by the sounds of Bryan's awakening. After a minute or two he returns to take his seat; Gloria, looking drained, reliquishes it without comment and heads for her well-deserved nap.

"How do you feel Bryan?"

"A lot better for that!"

"Good. Take a look at Gloria's nav plot and tell me what you think."

After strapping in and checking her calculations against the dubious electronic data he looks up and across to me."

"I concour with the plot."

"Good!" Says Gloria, settling herself into her bunk.

Bryan continues. "Skipper, As best as I can deduce from the data, we're close to the northwest coast of Alba, probably over the Inner Hebrides. I recommend we jetison the spinnaker and descend to land as quickly as possible at the first available location."

"I agree. Stand by for descent."

Somewhere beneath that layer of unbroken cloud is a safe landing place for us, and possibly the answer to what has happened. It's time we found some solid ground.

Chapter Fifthteen

Two hours later our collective mood is as dark as the night which has fallen. It's beyond any doubt now that the world we're returning to will be far different to the one we left. The realisation began with the absence of any communication on our return. There were no gravely spoken instructions for us to divert and land immediately at the nearest skyport; there to submit to severe interrogations regarding our conduct in Iceland: Nor a drone interception to reinforce the order.

We used both our datalinks and emergency radio attempting to contact any airport or skyport in the hope of finding somewhere to put down; but still we had no reply. In fact there was no sound of anything but the natural background atmospherics. Earlier I cut free the spinnaker; I didn't want to retract it again given the problems stowing it might cause: We were better off rid of it. Instead, once the emergency jettison switch was tripped, it dutifully folded itself into a dense ball and fell to earth. As we were over land at the time there is a chance it may be found and repaired. Then we eased slowly down to 5000 metres In the hope of seeing for ourselves what was going on. Nothing could be seen with the naked eye, so we used our cameras in night vision mode. It's possible to tune them to pick the best fequencies which are least affected by the broen lower level cloud; what we saw below was both astonishing and frightening.

Anyone who's flown the Atlantic run on a regular basis gets to know the brightly lit major cities as you fly south along the Central Alban Corridor; after a time they become so familiar that on a clear night a good pilot can navigate without instrumental or electronic aid. All of we crew are well experienced on this route, which makes what we see on the screens now such a psychological hammer blow. Where once vibrant blobs of visible and infrared energy were to be seen, now there are dead cities. Yes, they look superficially the same - the street plans and buildings - but some essential life force appears to have been drained from them: Nothing appears to be moving. Where things haven't frozen into stillness the scale of the disaster is made all too clear. The hydrogen cracking plant at Grangemouth is a seething mass of flames. How such a catastrophic breakdown of the safety systems could have occured we don't know, but the effects are visible even to us as a vivid molten red blob of diffused light shining up through the cloud.

It isn't the only place where fires have broken out and spread. Looking obliquely at distant Edinburgh, we can see multiple blazes there; and signs of human life: Frantic little dots of people fleeing for safety as fleas from a drowning dog. Panning further out toward the suburbs and the countryside there are more weakly spread patches of heat: hordes of refugees who have stopped for the night, camping where they've slumped; tired and footsore. I doubt if many of them are prepared for a chill autumn night out in the open in this weather. At best they'll be uncomfortable and sleepless; at the worst some of them won't live to see the morning.

Little is spoken apart from that which is essential; there is no need, and mere words are superflous; ineffective at conveying our feelings. Aghast we must cope alone with the growing anxiety and the tingling of fear at the back of our necks. I feel as if a constricting band is tightening around my lower abdomen. We try distress calls to anyone who might be monitoring the frequencies, but still get no response. Wristband calls to family contacts go unconnected. Altering course to bring the Manchester and Newcastle airports within the view of our cameras shows them to be as darkened and immobilised as any of the places we've seen so far. If all else fails we might have to turn back and try to land at one of them. At the moment though, we're flying south along the spine of a dead nation.

The intercom pings. It's Raul whispering some of the passengers are getting restive; asking what's happening and when are we going to land? There's only one thing for It; I'll have to let them know. "Your attention please; this is captain Drake. As yet we've yet to establish contact with any open skyport or airport, I've decided that under the circumstances the best thing to do is proceed directly to our starting point at Cardington, and set down there. I expect at our current speed we shall be there in approximately one hour".

An hour later we're circling above Cardington. Although our calls demanding an emergency landing are met with the same silence as elsewhere, I secretly harboured a fantasy that the skyport had somehow been unaffected, and all would be well on our arrival. Those hopes have been comprehensively dashed. There must have been some sort of hydrogen leak and multiple explosions, judging by the amount of ashes and discoloured metal to be seen, as well as the skeletal forms of two deltas still attached to their cradles. The sight reminds me of a bird corpse I saw as a child; it had partially decomposed and then become dessicated. For some ghoulish reason I was fascinated by it at the time; now I'd rather not be reminded of it. I don't know if anyone was inside the dridges at the time; God help them if they were.

At least further away, another cradled ship appears to be undamaged; though I can see all of the inflatable emergency escape chutes have been deployed. Even so, it can't have been easy to evacuate everyone from a cradle lacking power. Yes, there are ways of climbing down to ground level, but those hooped ladders wern't designed to be used by the unfit and untrained.

At the controls I take another pass over at 500 metres: Apart from a flicker of weak bluey flames from one of the cradles, all remains still.

"What shall we do?" Asks Bryan, quietly.

"We've two choices. Either we hold up here until dawn or we land nearby now." Even as I say this I notice another formerly orange display turn warning red. Either the cascading technological failure is still in progress and now beginning to affect our 'dumber' systems; or the cyber attack which shut down our virch has overwhelmed our defences and is spreading throughout the ship. I imagine Albatross engaged in a brave, but losing battle against a superior enemy. "Frankly, given how we're still losing parts of this 'jammer I'm not happy about staying up. I think we should land as quickly as possible. What do you think?"

"I'm with you Skipper." Bryan replies. "We can't take the risk of waiting for a critical system to fail. I say we put down before we fall down!"

"And you Gloria?"

"I agree; we're tempting fate up here, it's safer making an emergency landing. We've come as far as we can..." She tails off.

"Yes, that settles it." I say decisively for the record - should there be one. "We have a consensus among the flight crew that an emergency landing is our safest option. Bryan; are you happy to stay here?"

"Of course!"

"Right. Gloria; rather than having you sat in the jump seat looking on, I'll be relying on you to go aft and supervise the evacuation. Once you've got everyone clear, gathered, and accounted for, lead them over to those two old airship hangers and find a way in somehow; break in if you have to; just get them under shelter by any means. I'm thinking it shouldn't be too difficult, given the age of the buildings."

"And you two?"

"We'll be following you, but if for any reason we don't make it..."

"I understand."

"That's why I'm counting on you. There's no point in you doing nothing here, and further back in the gondola you've got a better chance."

"Thanks."

"But I'm not planning a swan dive; hopefully we'll touch, slide and slow without any problems. OK; stations everyone; we've got a 'jammer to crash land!"

Gloria rises to go, but as she does so she squeezes my shoulder. "Captain, it's been an honour to fly with you."

"Likewise." Adds Bryan. "I meant what I said about backing you up if it ever comes to it."

I have to choke down that lump in my throat again. "I couldn't have asked for a better crew; you've both been brilliant!" Spontaneously we all stretch out a hand for a three way hand shake we hold for a moment; it passes, and the bond is broken.

"I hate this to end, but we have a job to do. Let's get down!"

Chapter Sixteen

Ten minutes later we're ready for our final approach. We've just finished the emergency landing checklist - or as much of it as remains relevant - and I'm paging Gloria through the wireless crew intercom, which is still working.

"We're ready. Stand by for the announcement, then we're commencing approach." I switch to the PA system. "Stand by for emergency landing! Brace - Brace - Brace!"

"OK Bryan; Ready?"

"Ready! Emergency manual wing vent on standy; buoyancy set to plus zero one; pitons on manual control; doors set to manual at fifty metres; landing gear remains up." I'm planning to kiss the ground, belly slide, and slow along the ploughed field I've selected for the landing zone. Extending the landing gear would only increase the chances of it catching and slewing us around, possibly even leading to our flipping over. No, it's best we go in wheels up. "Wing outriggers up; radar altimeter warning set for ten metres. All relevant items checked and actioned. We are set to proceed."

"Here we go then." I ease Albatross into a gentle banking turn, following the curving blue line of the optimum approach projected onto my windshield by the landing display. I don't entirely trust it, but it's better to have it as a guide. As the turn staightens out I realise I'm a bit too high and push the yoke forward until the red line of our actual track converges with the blue of our idealised glide path. Though pitch dark and drizzly outside the view shown on the windscreen is more like that of a darkly overcast day; all artificial shades of moonlight silver. If I wanted to I could even opt to have the scene as it would appear in real daylight but I can't be bothered, the monochrome contrasts are perfectly good enough for me.

"Looking good." Says Bryan, reassuringly. We've all practiced emergency landings in the sims countless times in Flight Academy, but it's one thing to do it in theory and quite another to be doing it for real. There's no space in my mind for fear; all is occupied in coping with the moment, and still I wonder if I've not let something important slip past in my state of stressed out mental overload.

"Speed, Skipper! Thirty klicks too high!" Bryan warns. Suddenly it all happens at once. The fifty metre altitude alarm sounds; from floating above the ground our perspective is transformed to being on it, and then we touch down hard. I feel the jarring impact up my spine as another chorus of alarms protests, then the ship bounces upward again.

"Vent - Vent - Vent!" I shout as I push the yoke fully forward, straining against it as if in some way the extra effort would help push the dridge's nose back down onto the deck. Albatross slams back to earth and this time stays down and sliding. My vision is reduced to a juddering blur while my hearing is assaulted by the booming thumping sounds of the arrowhead grinding its way across the ground. I grip the control yoke harder but doubt if I have any control now. After a few seconds more sickening noises the ship slews to starboard and heels over onto its wing. I hear the thumping of the emergency door releases and the sounds of the evacuation beginning.

"Hit the emergency power down and let's get out of here!" Bryan doesn't need to urged; already he's tripped the shutdown, smacked his harness quick release and is helping me through the flight deck door. Truth to tell I'm feeling a bit shaken up; disoriented more like. Dragged through the crew compartment I feel detached from reality. We both join the last of the passengers sliding swiftly down the short inflatable emergency chutes to the ground where I'm deposited arse first into the cold, wet soil; the shock of the sensation snaps me out of my confused state.

Feet squelching deeply into the mud up to our ankles, Bryan and I run; following the shouting of the stewards with their wavering torch lights far away at the edge of the field. Breathless we join the knot of passengers being counted off by the ever efficient Gloria. Soon we're all accounted for. We're down and safe; as near to our point of departure as was possible, but what now? Well, first things first. "Is anyone hurt?" I shout. There appear to be only a few minor knocks from the replies I get. "OK; let's stay together as a group and we'll make our way over to those two large hangers over there; we'll shelter there overnight, then work out what's going on when dawn breaks: Let's go!"

Chapter Seventeen

"Skipper; wake up!" Bryan is shaking me awake. I must have dozed off even if I didn't think I did. When the effect of the drugs wore off, nervous exhaustion must have amushed me. I'm not sure the sleep has done me that much good as I still feel bloody awful.

"What's up?"

"It's getting lighter outside."

"Allright, let's have a look."

We all spent the night as planned in the shelter of the National Airship Museum. In the end we broke into one of the exhibits, a reconstruction of a full sized semi-detached brick built house from the last century. It dates from the time when the hanger was used for testing houses by the Building Research Executive. Not that we were at all interested by the history, we just wanted somewhere to rest, and maybe get warm - or more realistically, less cold.

We're a sorry bunch; dirtied, bedraggled, wet, though our combined body warmth seems to have stabilised the internal temperature of the dwelling to being only uncomfortably chilly. We crashed out on the bare floor after finding there were no toilet facilities or running water. It would appear I'm not the only one who fell asleep despite, or because of everything we've been through. As I heave my aching body up I notice many unconscious forms lying closely packed together. Carefully I step over some of the bodies as I make my way out.

Outside the house, but still within the hanger, Gloria, Bryan, and I convene a quietly spoken conference. They look as I feel; worn down and scruffy.

"I've had a quick look around." Gloria says quietly still holding a torch from Albatross' emergency kit. "I've found two toilets which still flush and have running water, but who knows for how long? They don't have much paper though"

"At least that's something." I reply. "Did you find any food or power?"

She shakes her head "No."

"We'll have to see what the Skyport has; and some of us are going to have to get covered in mud again to strip what there is left from the Albatross."

"I'll take care of that." Shrugs Bryan, resignedly. "I'll rope in some of the fitter looking passengers."

"Good man! Once they're awake - which shouldn't be long now - we'll organise a rota for using the toilets, you can lead your party over to the blimp, while Gloria and I scout out the Skyport. Some of the passengers can be set to work scouring both these hangers for useful things; I get the feeling we won't be able to count on modern technology for a while, so where better to find what we need than a museum?" They both nod their agreement. "Then once we know what the score is we'll reconvene here."

"I think we'll need to get some sort of heating, hot water, and cooking system organised soon." Says Gloria.

"I agree, but let's hold off going on a cannibalising and burning spree until we have to. We'll know a lot more in the next couple of hours."

"What are your plans if we don't find anyone organised, or supplies?"

"I really don't know." I reply tetchilly. "I've not given it that much thought. I've been dealing with issues as they arise. If there's nothing for us here then I propose we either go our separate ways to search for our families, or those of us who want to can stay here and wait to be rescued if they think there's a chance of that happening, which I doubt. We've got them down and safe back to where they departed from; I don't think we can be expected to do any more than that. Now let's get foraging, shall we?" That silences them. Bryan nods dejectedly. "Yes, we'd better get on with it."

I was last at this museum as a delta mad teenager; and I know well the contents of these giant hangers. I've often meant to bring Janice along for another visit whenever we had the time to do so, but never got around to it. So this place ought to be familiar to me. Instead, as Gloria and I walk wordlessly to the far end of the giant shed en route to the skyport, I'm feeling unnerved. It must be something to do with the space itself; the contradiction of such a large volume being enclosed, but with a sense of unconstrained vastness. Or it could be the gloomy atmosphere - heavy and poignant as that in a empty church - only partially relieved by the weak illumination of the daybreak through the skylights. Or perhaps it is what is missing; not just the life, warmth, and artificial light, but also the holographic projections of the great airships of the past which ought to fill the void above us so realistically, yet are absent. As we pass the physical exhibits - examples of small experimental racing craft, or reconstructions of gondola interiors - I have a sense of overwhelming loss, almost a palpable grief. It strikes me I may well have completed my last ever flight. The melancholic thought fills me with a sense of dread, though I've yet to fully accept what I'll do for a living in the near future is the least of my worries; just keeping body and soul together in the next few weeks will be hard enough.

We exit the hanger and, with a lot of difficulty, find a way into the skyport via the maglev tunnel running through the aerobaffle earthworks. Clambing over the lineside fence we trigger no warnings or alarms; and no robot sentries come to investigate our tresspass. Once inside the skyport, both of us are dumbstruck by what we see. Stupified, we move carefully by torchlight through the darkened, deserted terminal building. Groping our way up to the control tower and operations centre we search for clues, or even a message left behind; but no reasons for its evacuation are to be found. The holo displays and touch pads are lifeless, but there's no sign of any damage; just an ambience of hasty abandonment.

Finding a still operative pair of digital binoculars I scan the horizon, looking for... I'm not sure what. I think I might have spotted some charred bodies amid the blackened framework of the launch cradles, but I can't be sure. I don't look any closer and I'm thankful to be upwind of it all. Already more birds - mostly crows by the look of them - than I have ever seen are gathering on the scaffolding. I can imagine what has drawn them here. Scanning further along I can just catch sight of a tractor stopped in a far away field. I zoom in just to be certain, but yes, it is an agricultural robot and it has stopped - probably for good. Beyond it lie a cluster of buildings which must be a farm hub, but the chances of finding a real human farmer there are remote. As everything else these days much is - or rather was - left to the judgement of autonomous machines. I'm certain we shall soon learn our folly in doing so.

If this hiatus were to continue - which I know with a dread certainty it will - then even if we make it through the short term, we'll have to keep the farms going, or at least keep the food synthesisers running, or else we shall starve. Almost in sympathy with the thought my stomach rumbles loudly and I feel hunger pangs which must be sated at once. I can't remember how long it was since I last ate properly, but I know its been too long.

"Come on Gloria; let's find something to eat!"

Chapter Eighteen (Final)

Evening finds us back inside the house in the hanger. It's a far more hospitable place now, thanks to the changes we've made to it. In the skyport's cargo warehouses we discovered a consignment of prepacked disaster relief kits. They were either on permanent standby to be flown to where they might be needed as required; or else a routine payload of the UN aid effort to the Central States. They are literally a life saver for us.

I managed to find a hydrogen powered cargo tug with supplemental manual controls; it took a bit of work to bypass the ignition lock, but once it was running, over the course of the day we shuttled the gear over to the hanger and set up our very own relief centre. Now, reasonably well fed thanks to the rations, and with cosy sleeping bags to snuggle into, life doesn't seem too bad for the moment; though we are all well aware the respite will last only as long as the stockpile. It feels good to wear clean clothes free of caked on mud; let alone dry socks and shoes!

Our social cohesion is beginning to break down, though not in any antagonistic manner. Some people have chosen to move out of the house; instead setting up camp inside some of the exhibits. I can understand their thinking, wanting to sleep on a reclining gondola seat rather than lie on a carpeted floor, even with a sleeping mat; but I prefer to stretch my legs. Those seeking more privacy have constructed tarpaulin shelters for themselves, though it appears strange to want to live in a tent when you're already under a giant roof. Still, a smaller volume of contained space is easier to keep warm; any heat or fumes from our 'outdoor' emergency field kitchen are drawn up and away into the cavernous span high above us.

A few of our compliment have already left for home and begun the search for their loved ones without delay; taking as much in the way of provisions as they could carry. I didn't try to stop them; instead I wished them the best of luck. Many of them face quite a walk ahead of them. Another group have decided to stay here for the time being in the hope something or someone turns up. A scouting party - including Gloria and I - will be leaving tomorrow. The cargo tug stands ready and loaded with whatever supplies we could tie on to it or cram into its trailer, to leave at first light. Hopefully the raw depressing drizzle which has been dogging us all day will have passed by then.

Dawn seems to take forever to arrive, though eventually it can be delayed no longer. Swaddled in new coats which should have been clothing the Central States' destitute, those few of my former passengers I have selected as the most deserving to accompany me on the trip south mount the tug and trailer combination. Anyone else who doesn't want to walk is welcome to look around the skyport for themselves and commandeer whatever motorised transport they can get working.

It's time we were moving. Bryan comes out to see us away. "Good luck Skipper!" He says; clasping my hand firmly and giving Gloria a hug. He's got his own plans: Today he'll be loading a hydrogen powered truck - one of the proper long-distance ones - with supplies before driving north to his family. He said he wanted to arrive with something for them, and if conditions were too dodgy in Runcorn he'd pull them aboard, smash his way out of the city if he had to, then head for somewhere really out of the way. There, with his typical grim determination, he'll try to get a self-sufficient smallholding going. If anyone can be relied upon to organise a group of people to pull themselves out of this mess it will be Bryan; a good pilot and a sound bloke. I'll miss him.

"Keep in touch if you can!" He shakes his silent wristband to emphasise the point. They haven't worked for more than sixty hours now, but he still clings to his infuriating optimism that one day they will again. "And remember; you and your tribe will always be welcome at any settlement I have any influence over."

"I'll remember that well, Great Leader. I may well be taking you up on it. Just don't let your delusions of grandeur get too out of control."

"Go on, get out of here Noah! You've only a short way to go."

"And you can hit the road as well: See if you can find yourself a micro dridge and save yourself some time!"

"Not a bad idea Skipper! There may yet be a place for you as a co-dictator!"

"Yes, maybe we"ll meet again in the air one day."

We've said all that we can say, and more words now would just be too emotionally charged as well as superfluous. Getting the tug started delays the parting for a moment or two - the start code bypass I managed to improvise yesterday didn't survive being powered down overnight and needed to be reset again - but then it's ready to go. There's an almost funereal solemnity as those who are staying put for the moment wave us away. It's with moist eyes and a heavy heart that I take the driving position, before easing the vehicle forward, away from the hangers.

Carefully at first - but with growing speed and confidence as I get used to the controls - I steer down the roughly surfaced track leading away from the museum. If I remember correctly this will lead to a minor road, which - once arriving at a roundabout after a few kilometres - will continue and merge with the southbound motorway. Provided it isn't clogged with stopped or crashed traffic we should have a relatively quick journey to the dormitory new towns just north of London where both Gloria and I live; even though this vehicle's top speed is limited to 40kph. Bizarrely I'm beginning to feel hopeful about finding Janice; somehow I know she's safe and well. Once we're reunited, then we can decide what we should do. If our technological civilisation really has collapsed beyond any immediate hope of recovery then we'll have to act quickly and decisively to learn the old, nearly forgotten skills of our ancestors. The paper books we'll need should still be found in the reference libraries. Or maybe not all of the world has been as badly affected; perhaps others sharing the same ideals Bryan and I have are at this moment busy repairing the information infrastructure. If they can get even a part of it working and keep it going it'll make our task so much the easier. We might even find ourselves seeking practical advice from the survivalist hillbillies of the New Confederacy if they'll talk to us; or maybe the Amish will offer long distance help?

If not, it'll be a blow, but not necessarily a knockout one. We'll have to try to adapt to living in our newly stalled cities; growing what we can where we can; coping, repairing, adapting, surviving. It'll be tough, there's no denying that: Realistically we'll have to accept that not everyone is going to make it through the winter, especialy if it is a hard one. But if enough of us can make it through the inevitable lean months to come we'll have a nucleus of people capable of beginning the reconstruction.

Then, as circumstances permit, we'll reach out to nearby communities. We'll be both teachers and students; sharing what we've learned and knitting together a new society as we do so. In time we'll spread further afield; seeking out others; establishing communication networks, be they electronic or physical. One day there will be a need once again for long-distance national or international travel. Airships will be the ideal vehicles for scouting ahead; especially the tiny, manually controlled deltas. They're easy to control - I could fly one in my sleep - and don't require too much in the way of back up infrastructure to keep them going. I'm sure there are a few aero clubs where some may be stored in the area. More than 130 years after HG Wells imagined it in his novel 'The Shape Of Things To Come' the world may yet be rescued from chaos by an organisation of aviators; and I could be one of them.

My reverie is broken as we jolt over a rough section of road. Even though there was no way of avoiding it I feel as if I was negligent in allowing myself to zone out into a semi virched state, only without our faithful, faultless, servants to keep a benign watch over things. It's easy to fall into old habits, but now that sort of laxness could get me or someone else killed. I'm going to have to get my act together, especially when we approach the fringes of habitation with their unexpected human or machine dangers. Yes, my old life has gone for the foreseeable future; I'll have to accept it. But I'm still a qualified pilot, and that should still count for something in this new world. With a pang of regret I look back to see if I can catch one last sight of the Albatross shrinking in the rear view camera, but it is obscured by by the thick hedge. Once everything useful had been taken from her, Bryan sealed the doors. She looks in a sorry state now, canted to one side with the wing partially folded and the orange escape chutes deployed; but hopefully the pitons have driven deep enough into the ground to hold her fast. Despite the landing, she shouldn't be too badly damaged. I hope one day she can be repaired and fly again.

But that is a long-term dream; the present and the immediate future are my concerns at the moment. Like this road I'm driving along they can only be vaugely known; with unexpected problems which will need to be negotiated as I encounter them. But though all may be unclear right now, I still have this unshakable hope; a certainty that eventually all will be well. It may be an illogical emotion to have, especially in these circumstances, but it's what I'm clinging to, and hope may be all we have left.

I check back to see Gloria and my other passengers huddled together among the provisions in the trailer; she notices my looking and gives me a thumbs up. Ever mindful of my new responsibilities I turn around to concentrate on the road ahead; wherever it may lead.

The End.