The Ruler of the Ocean of the Air/Chapter I
Chapter I: The Mysterious Craft
Way up in the sky over the richly blessed landscape of southern France hovered an enormous black sphere.
It was a balloon which, having ascended the night before, was about to start on a long endurance journey.
The balloon was of an extraordinary size and suspended beneath it was a basket, which was large and roomy and apparently equipped for a long trip. The two men in the basket seemed to be experienced aeronauts—this was apparent from the ease with which they breathed at this incredible altitude.
Suspended next to them were strangely shaped capsules with long hoses. These were oxygen containers which were intended to help them breathe if the thin air made them too uncomfortable.
Attached to the immense silk sphere which carried this basket was a strange contraption, a kind of sail, which could be manipulated by means of bamboo poles. This sail made it possible to maintain the desired heading even with unfavorable winds.
One of the men was advanced in years. The other was considerably younger and showed by his military bearing that he had to belong to the military profession. His sharp, piercing eyes were just then examining the instruments.
"We are traveling with the greatest velocity," he said to his companion. "If we continue like this, and if the wind keeps its direction, we will have beaten our competitors in just short while. I bet we have left the twelve balloons, which left Paris last night at the same time as us, far behind us. It is really helping us that we immediately ascended to this great height. The wind blows with greatest regularity up here, here we do not have to deal with all the different air currents which our friends have to contend with in lower regions."
It was still early in the morning. Even at this height the fiery ball of the sun was still seen on the horizon; in regions directly underneath the balloon it was still earliest dawn.
Suddenly the scene started to change.
Until recently the air had been clear and translucent, now it appeared to fill with a light fog. This was from the thin white clouds which float even at these heights and appear miraculously and with great suddenness.
Even so the direction of the wind remained the same, only the view was impaired through these clouds. The mighty balloon still moved on with great speed even though it seemed as if it was standing still.
But someone would only have to take a glance at the instruments in order to see that the giant silk sphere was traveling with the greatest velocity.
"This will be a glorious trip," the younger man shouted with great enthusiasm. "If we continue like this, we will cross the German border in an amazingly short time, we will land deep in the interior of Russia. This will be a trip such as has never been undertaken before, an endurance journey which will secure for us the word record."
The mighty balloon floated on; sometimes the clouds allowed a view into a great distance, then the clouds closed again so that it seemed to the aeronauts as if the balloon were floating through the middle of a milky lake.
Suddenly the older of the two men, who had just been watching the barometer, spun around and stared into the thickening white mass of the clouds.
"Look, there, there!" he shouted to his military companion. "Now it has disappeared—but there it is again! Don't you see that dark object over there in the clouds?"
"That must be one of the other balloons which have set out on the endurance journey," replied the surprised younger man. "Indeed, I would not have thought that we could be overtaken at our fabulous velocity."
"But take a look at it!" the older man started again, "This is no balloon, this is something else, the clouds are distorting it, but I bet my own head that this is not a craft like ours, there—now it is coming closer, just take a look!—"
The speaker stopped, but now the young man had also jumped up, and both of them tried to pierce with their gaze the masses of steam, for as such the clouds appeared at this altitude.
Yes, there it was approaching, something strange, something elongated. It was still not clearly visible, but there was no doubt that it was moving directly toward the balloon.
"They are moving directly into the wind," shouted the younger of the men, "there is something uncanny going on here! This has to have some special significance!"
"A steerable airship," replied the older aeronaut. "A vehicle, I can see it quite clearly. Now it is moving out of the clouds, it is still coming toward us. Indeed, this is a little strange."
The two men stared at each other. Then they looked at the instruments which indicated the altitude.
"Five thousand meters," said the older man, " a steerable aircraft at this height, that is impossible! The two craft which are kept in Paris could not possibly ascend to such a height, nor would they have any reason to. Nor is this the steerable airship of Santos-Dumont, nor even the second one, which the ingenious inventor has created, no, I know them well, and they are much smaller."
"But it has to be one of them." the younger men said with faltering voice. "The fog and cloud masses are making this strange craft appear larger."
But the other man shook his head, his expression was serious. No doubt, this man could barely contain his excitement.
"This is much, much larger, lieutenant," he said after a few moments' silence. "Depend on it. And it cannot be one of the steerables which are kept in Paris, because they are being repaired, they could not possibly have taken off."
"Could it possibly be a German craft?" asked the French officer, in whose eyes could be seen signs of anger and hostility. "The Germans are reported to have aircraft as well. It cannot be ruled out that they might undertake a journey into France."
"No, no, that is not the case," the other shouted, "The only one that could do this and that is as big as the strange vehicle that is approaching us has not left German soil, I am certain of this. And the other steerables are much smaller. No, my dear Lieutenant, we are looking at a strange craft and I have to admit that it is completely unknown to me. Indeed, if you weren't here with me, if you weren't speaking to me, I would have to believe that I am dreaming or that I have fallen victim to a fever attack. There, there it is! Now it is coming out of the clouds again. But look at it, this is positively uncanny!"
I huge object came shooting out of the white, billowing masses. It was moving directly into the wind, and a peculiar roaring sound could be heard, there definitely had to be machinery at work.
The two men in the gondola of the balloon had made many flights in the past. They had been up in the air during storms, they had crossed black cloud masses while there was lightning all around them and the thunder was terrible.
But never had they felt the kind of horror they felt now as the strange craft approached them with such unbelievable certainty. The force which drove it through the ocean of the air had to be extraordinary. The two men looked at each other as if they did not trust their senses.
"No, this is not one of the vehicles that are known to us," suddenly stammered the older man. "Just look, lieutenant, this aircraft is made of metal. There can be no doubt, this is an unusual metal, which has to be filled with an unbelievably light gas. And just look at the huge, sharp point at the front!"
"Just like the ram of a battle ship," replied the officer who was feeling his head and rubbing his eyes. Maybe he thought the strange image would suddenly disappear again.
But it was no mirage, the strange, giant airship came closer, they could hear the roar of the engines, the working of the propellers, but what was strange was that they could not see any people.
The airship was headed directly for the balloon and therefore it could only be observed from the front. But underneath, attached to the surface of the gray metal there were strangely shaped objects, they weren't baskets or gondolas, they were enclosed rooms, which could undoubtedly accommodate a large number of men.
Suddenly the craft reduced its speed, but it was still moving fast, they could see the immense ram, obviously made of metal, and now it was threatening them from close by.
"He is going to ram us," the officer shouted, "he wants to puncture our balloon."
They older man did not answer, he was grinding his teeth while he kept staring at the strange airship.
They could clearly see an attachment or extension underneath the object, they could see windows, but these were all shuttered.
Now the mysterious ship had approached to a distance of five hundred meters. Suddenly it turned, but now, to the great amazement of the aeronauts, it flew around the balloon in a giant circle.
Now it could be seen from the side, and the outline of the vehicle was clearly discernible through the billowing clouds.
In the middle there was a gallery that ran all the way around the craft, and underneath there were the three attachments, in the middle one of which the machines were working.
Six large, strangely shaped propeller wheels, which wire attached to the sides of the obviously metallic airship, were spinning. They could clearly hear their humming sound, and on top of the vehicle was something that looked like a look-out, and the astounded men saw that a thin, iron stair, or rather a set of ladders, led to this look-out and to the gallery.
A huge flagpole stuck out from the end of the mysterious craft and at the stern the mighty rudder could be seen.
But the flagpole carried no flag. As the strange ship approached the two lone men in the gondola were overcome by a horror such as they had never felt before in their lives.
Twice the vehicle circumnavigated the balloon while its occupants felt completely powerless.
They felt that they were completely at the mercy of the people who had to be in the enclosed cabins. One touch of the iron ram would be enough to tear the balloon to tatters and send the two men hurtling towards the ground as shapeless masses.
Now the unusual craft had flown around the balloon for the second time, when suddenly it came up from behind and hovered next to the balloon.
It was barely fifty meters away now, and this distance was decreasing with each second.
"We are gong to collide!" shouted the officer, instinctively reaching for his revolver, as if he were able to defend himself with this weapon against the occupants of the hostile vehicle.
But the collision did not occur, the craft seemed to be guided by some strange power. It was inching closer and closer, but a collision did not seem to be intended.
"There—there, a man!" shouted the older aeronaut. "Look at him, there, in the foremost cabin! Indeed, now this affair is getting downright frightening."
He was right, a kind of door had been pushed open, and now the figure of a man was standing on the gallery which connected the cabins with each other.
It was a tall, proud figure in the plain, dark blue uniform of a captain, on the dark brown hair was a cap with a gold band. He was standing on the gallery, which he must have stepped onto with lightning quickness, with his arms folded. But for some strange reason his face was covered, a domino mask of black silk allowed only the energetic mouth and the bearded chin to be seen.
But from the mask glared a pair of eyes, so awful, so glowing, that the two men in the gondola fell back bewildered.
Silently the man in the blue uniform was observing the gondola of the balloon from which he was now only twenty meters distant.
"Where do you come from?" he suddenly shouted with stentorian voice.
"From Paris," the older aeronaut replied mechanically.
"So, from Paris," they heard the caustic reply. "Well, then take a message back from me. Over there in the capital they are busy trying to conquer the ocean of the skies, building vehicles with which to dominate the aerial seas. But, tell these men, that I have become the master of the skies and that I intend to remain so. Tell them that they should not attempt to compete with me. This would prove their undoing. I am the ruler of the sky, I want to remain the ruler. I have been driven from the earth, have been declared an outlaw, like a wild animal I have been hunted to death, but up here I will tolerated no one else.
Give this message to those who are trying to accomplish that which I have succeeded in doing a long time ago. And woe to them if they should dare to cross my path up here! Woe to them, they shall get to know Captain Mors!"