R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 2: Landfall, in Several Senses of the Term

Everett and Iverson pearched on the wreckage

Everett clambered up the remains of the keel passage toward what had once been the bow of His Majestyís Airship R-212. At one time, the passage had been a graceful curving walkway that followed the curve of the hull. Now it was steep ladder, for their fragment of the ship had pitched up until it was pointed toward the sky. The last stretch was nearly vertical, but with a burst of effort, he reached the nose station and wedged himself against the docking adaptor next to Abercrombie.

"Where away?" he asked his chief rigger.

"There," said the man, pointing toward a cloud that peeked above the northwestern horizon. Below it, Everett could just make out a shadow of land. A moment later, Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan, a short man with a bristly red moustache and sideburns who served as the shipís Navigation Officer, squeezed in beside. Reaching into his pocket, the Irishman pulled out a compass and took a sight on the distant island.

"Bearing," asked Everett.

"316," said MacKiernan. "Should have the men gather anything thatíll float? We may have ta swim fer it."

"Letís wait," said Everett. "This wind is carrying us straight toward the island."

"Thatís as may be," said MacKiernan, "but 'twill be deflected as it blows Ďround the island. Weíre sure to miss the place by miles."

"Noo," said Abercrombie. "Yon isle is hotter than the surrounding sea. That means the air above it will rise, drawing in more air from the sides."

"Will it now?"

"On my word as a Scotsman."

"Will ye lay some money on it? A shilling, perhaps?"

"Done, man!"

"Gentleman," observed Everett, "this behavior is unbecoming. Give me another bearing."

"Still 316," said MacKiernan.

"Ha!" said Abercrombie.

"Youíll see," said MacKiernan. "The windíll change any moment. Then weíll miss the isle and die, and Iíll collect me... hmm..."

"You two keep an eye on things for me," said Everett, shaking his head. Leaving the two men to their discussion, he made his way back down the keel passageway.

When he reached the ballast station, he found Iverson standing next to the release valve, studying the altimeter with a worried expression. "We're beginning to drop again," said the lieutenant, "and we've only got another fifty gallons left."

"Fleming, Rashid, and Wallace," Everett yelled down. "There was a toolbox wedged near where the damage control station used to be. Find it and start cutting away anything you can. Iíll be down in a moment to help. MacKiernan," he yelled up to the bow, "what have you got now?"

"Still 316," came a voice muffled by distance, followed by a muffled, "Ha!"

"Iíll leave you here to manage on your own," Everett told Iverson. "Donít release any ballast unless you have to, but if the altitude drops below 2000í or our descent rate gets above 400 feet per minute, yell."

"Aye, sir."

By the time Everett reached the lower portion of the wreck, the sea was visibly closer, long lines of waves flecked with foam. Jenkins and the three airmen were laboring with wire cutters, hacksaw blades, and a small axe, chopping away at the fastenings that held a section of keel passage in place. As he watched, they gave a cry of triumph and a section of catwalk slid free, to plummet toward the ocean. The splash was lost in the immensity below. Everett joined them, using a crescent wrench to unbolt and toss away lighting fixtures, circuit boxes, anything that would come free. Soon his hands were raw and bleeding, but this was hardly the first time heíd labored alongside the artificers, struggling to save a doomed ship. Back then, heíd been one of the only survivors. This time he was determined to do better.

"Two thousand feet, Captain!" yelled Iverson above them.

"Whatís our descent rate?"

"Two hundred feet per minute!"

"Dump half of whateverís left! Iím coming up. And Davies, be ready on that maneuvering valve!"

"Aye sir," came the muffled voice of the gunner, who had been perching, forgotten, next to the valve that would release hydrogen from Cell Seventeen.

By the time Everett climbed back to the bow, the island was only a few miles away -- a row of limestone cliffs, topped with jungle, with a line of surf at their feet. The wreck was quite low by now, but it was most certainly headed toward land.

"I told ye!" said Abercrombie. "Pay oop!"

MacKiernan reached into his pocket to pull out his wallet. "There, ye damned Scot. But it wonít do ye any good, for weíre going ta crash into those cliffs and die!"

"Not a chance, ye foolish Irishman! Thereíll be updrafts in front thatíll lift us over the edge!"

"Yer daft, lad! Ye williní te put money on it?"

"MacKiernan," said Everett sternly.

"Sorry, sir."

"Whatís our speed" And how high is that cliff?"

"About eighteen knots. And I make it about a hundred feet."

"Altitude," he yelled down to Iverson.

"Three hundred feet, but our descentís slowed to fifty feet per minute. Airís a bit denser down here."

Everett studied the oncoming cliff, working out figures in his head. It was still more than a mile away, which meant it was going to be a very near thing.

"There will be an updraft," he announced. "All hands! Weíll be down in four minutes! Drop those tools, climb as high as you can, then brace yourself for impact. Iverson, drop the last ballast."

From below came the flurry of voices, the clank of a valve, and a rush, followed by a dribble.

"Empty, sir."

"Good job, Lieutenant. That should do it."

"I told ye!" cried McKiernan. Everett turned to see a wall of limestone looming above them, covered with brilliant vines. The last bit of ballast had not been enough. They were going to smash into the face and fall to their doom. "Bloody hell, " he muttered, keeping his voice low so the men wouldnít overhear.

Then the wind, rising as it blew over the cliff, struck them from below. The wreck lifted, clearing the face by inches. There was a crash of rending metal beneath them as girders dragged though the brush.

"Davies!" Everett yelled. "Open that maneuvering valve! Now!"

There were more crashes, a tearing sound, then a hiss as hydrogen began to pour from the damaged gas cell. Moments later, the wreckage had come to a stop.

"Is everybody all right?" Everettt called. "Report, starting with ĎAí!"

"Abercrombie," came the voice from beside him. "Davies... Fleming... Iverson... Jenkins... MacKiernan... Rashid... Wallace..." As the names came in one by one, Everett breathed a sigh of relief. He really hadnít expected to live through this one.

Beside him, Abercrombie tapped MacKiernan on the shoulder and cleared his throat.

"All right, Irishman. Thatís another ye owe me. Pay oop."

Next week: No Island Maidens...

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