Chapter XV. In Danger
 

"Well, Tom, we're moving!" cried Ned Newton, clapping his chum on the back, as he stood near him in the pilot-house. "We're going up, old sport!"

"Of course we are," replied Tom. "You didn't think it wouldn't go up, did you?"

"Well, I wasn't quite sure," Ned confessed. "You know you were so worried about--"

"Not about the ship sailing," interrupted Tom. "It was only the effect the firing of the guns might have. But I think we have that taken care of."

"Bless my pin cushion!" cried Mr. Damon, as he looked over the rail at the earth below. "We're moving fast, Tom."

"Yes, we can make a quicker ascent in this than in most aeroplanes," Tom said, "for they have to go up in a slanting direction. But we can't quite equal their lateral speed."

"Just how fast do you think you can travel when you are in first-class shape?" asked Lieu tenant Marbury, as he noted how the Mars was behaving on this, the first trip.

"Well, I set a limit of seventy-five miles an hour," the young inventor replied, as he shifted various levers and handles, to change the speed of the mechanism. "But I'm afraid we won't quite equal that with all our guns on board. But I'm safe in saying sixty, I think."

"That will more than satisfy the government requirements," the officer said. "But, of course, your craft will have to come up to expectations and requirements in the matter of armament."

"I'll give you every test you want," declared Tom, with a smile. "And now we'll see what the Mars can do when put to it."

Up and up went the big dirigible aerial warship. Had you been fortunate enough to have seen her you would have observed a craft not unlike, in shape, the German Zeppelins. But it differed from those war balloons in several important particulars.

Tom's craft was about six hundred feet long, and the diameter of the gas bag, amidships, was sixty feet, slightly larger than the largest Zeppelin. Below the bag, which, as I have explained, was made up of a number of gas-tight compartments, hung from wire cables three cabins. The forward one was a sort of pilot-house, containing various instruments for navigating the ship of the air, observation rooms, gauges for calculating firing ranges, and the steering apparatus.

Amidships, suspended below the great bag, were the living and sleeping quarters, where food was cooked and served and where those who operated the craft could spend their leisure time. Extra supplies were also stored there.

At the stern of the big bag was the motor-room, where gas was generated to fill the balloon compartments when necessary, where the gasoline and electrical apparatus were installed, and where the real motive power of the craft was located. Here, also, was carried the large quantity of gasoline and oil needed for a long voyage. The Mars could carry sufficient fuel to last for over a week, provided no accidents occurred.

There was also an arrangement in the motor compartment, so that the ship could be steered and operated from there. This was in case the forward pilot-house should be shot away by an enemy. And, also, in the motor compartment were the sleeping quarters for the crew.

All three suspended cabins were connected by a long covered runway, so that one could pass from the pilot-house to the motor- room and back again through the amidship cabin

At the extreme end of the big bag were the various rudders and planes, designed to keep the craft on a level keel, automatically, and to enable it to make headway against a strong wind. The motive power consisted of three double-bladed wooden propellers, which could be operated together or independently. A powerful gasoline engine was the chief motive power, though there was an auxiliary storage battery, which would operate an electrical motor and send the ship along for more than twenty- four hours in case of accident to the gasoline engine.

There were many other pieces of apparatus aboard, some not completely installed, the uses of which I shall mention from time to time, as the story progresses. The gas-generating machine was of importance, for there would be a leakage and shrinking of the vapor from the big bag, and some means must be provided for replenishing it.

"You don't seem to have forgotten anything, Tom," said Ned admiringly, as they soared upward.

"We can tell better after we've flown about a bit," observed the young inventor, with a smile. "I expect we shall have to make quite a number of changes."

"Are you going far?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Why, you're not frightened, are you?" inquired Tom. "You have been up in airships with me before."

"Oh, no, I'm not frightened!" exclaimed the odd man. "Bless my suspenders, no! But I promised my wife I'd be back this evening, and

"We'll sail over toward Waterford," broke in Tom, "and I'll drop you down in your front yard."

"No, don't do that! Don't! I beg of you!" cried Mr. Damon. "You see--er--Tom, my wife doesn't like me to make these trips. Of course, I understand there is no danger, and I like them. But it's just as well not to make her worry-you understand!"

"Oh, all right," replied Tom, with a laugh. "Well, we're not going far on this trip. What I want to do, most of all, is to test the guns, and see if the recoil check will work as well when we are aloft as it did down on the ground. You know a balloon isn't a very stable base for a gun, even one of light caliber."

"No, it certainly is not," agreed Lieutenant Marbury, "and I am interested in seeing how you will overcome the recoil."

"We'll have a test soon," announced Tom.

Meanwhile the Mars, having reached a considerable height, being up so far, in fact, that the village of Shopton could scarcely be distinguished, Tom set the signal that told the engine-room force to start the propellers. This would send them ahead.

Some of Tom's most trusted workmen formed the operating crew, the young inventor taking charge of the pilot-house himself.

"Well she seems to run all right," observed Lieutenant Marbury, as the big craft surged ahead just below a stratum of white, fleecy clouds.

"Yes, but not as fast as I'd like to see her go, Tom replied. "Of course the machinery is new, and it will take some little time for it to wear down smooth. I'll speed her up a little now."

They had been running for perhaps ten minutes when Tom shoved over the hand of an indicator that communicated with the engine- room from the pilot-house. At once the Mars increased her speed.

"She can do it!" cried Ned.

"Bless my-hat! I should say so!" cried Mr. Damon, for he was standing outside the pilot-house just then, on the "bridge," and the sudden increase of speed lifted his hat from his head.

"There you are--caught on the fly!" cried Ned, as he put up his hand just in time to catch the article in question.

"Thanks! Guess I'd better tie it fast," remarked the odd man, putting his hat on tightly.

The aerial warship was put through several evolutions to test her stability, and to each one she responded well, earning the praise of the government officer. Up and down, to one side and the other, around in big circles, and even reversing, Tom sent his craft with a true hand and eye. In a speed test fifty-five miles was registered against a slight wind, and the young inventor said he knew he could do better than that as soon as some of the machinery was running more smoothly.

"And now suppose we get ready for the gun tests," suggested Tom, when they had been running for about an hour.

"That's what I'm mostly interested in," said Lieutenant Marbury. "It's easy enough to get several good types of dirigible balloons, but few of them will stand having a gun fired from them, to say nothing of several guns."

"Well, I'm not making any rash promises," Tom went on, "but I think we can turn the trick."

The armament of the Mars was located around the center cabin. There were two large guns, fore and aft, throwing a four-inch projectile, and two smaller calibered quick-firers on either beam. The guns were mounted on pedestals that enabled the weapons to fire in almost any direction, save straight up, and of course the balloon bag being above them prevented this. However, there was an arrangement whereby a small automatic quick-firer could be sent up to a platform built on top of the gas envelope itself, and a man stationed there could shoot at a rival airship directly overhead.

But the main deck guns could be elevated to an angle of nearly forty-five degrees, so they could take care of nearly any hostile aircraft that approached.

"But where are the bombs I heard you speaking of?" asked Ned, as they finished looking at the guns.

"Here they are," spoke Tom, as he pointed to a space in the middle of the main cabin floor. He lifted a brass plate, and disclosed three holes, covered with a strong wire netting that could be removed. "The bombs will be dropped through those holes," explained the young inventor, "being released by a magnetic control when the operator thinks he has reached a spot over the enemy's city or fortification where the most damage will be done. I'll show you how they work a little later. Now we'll have a test of some of the guns."

Tom called for some of his men to take charge of the steering and running of the Mars while he and Lieutenant Marbury prepared to fire the two larger weapons. This was to be one of the most important tests.

Service charges had been put in, though, of course, no projectiles would be used, since they were then flying over a large city not far from Shopton.

"We'll have to wait until we get out over the ocean to give a complete test, with a bursting shell," Tom said.

He and Lieutenant Marbury were beside a gun, and were about to fire it, when suddenly, from the stern of the ship, came a ripping, tearing sound, and, at the same time, confused shouts came from the crew's quarters.

"What is it?" cried Tom.

"One of the propellers!" was the answer. "It's split, and has torn a big hole in the gas bag!"

"Bless my overshoes!" cried Mr. Damon. "We're going down!"

All on board the Mars became aware of a sudden sinking sensation.