Episode 5: Still no Island Maidens
"Another airship?" Iverson asked incredulously. "Here? Are you sure?"
"Of course he is!" said Davies in defense of his friend. "That's hardly
the sort of thing one could be mistaken about!"
"He made it back," MacKiernan whispered to Abercrombie. "Pay up!"
Fleming had returned from the mountains without incident, bringing his
Lilienthal glider in for an uneventful landing in the clearing the bow
section of His Majesty's Airship, the Flying Lady, R-212, had
torn through the jungle when they'd crashed on this nameless island in
the New Caledonia chain -- the rest of the vessel, along with most of her
crew, presumably lay at the bottom of the Pacific, many miles to the
south. Now Captain Everett and the other survivors gathered around the
young Australian to hear his tale.
"Excellent work, Airman!" Everett told him. "There may be a reprimand for
smuggling undeclared personal articles aboard ship," he gestured toward the
glider, "but I'll recommend this be expunged from your record when I put
your name forward for a commendation. Now tell us what you saw."
The youth thought for a moment, considering the best way to present his
report. At last he picked up a stick and began to scratch a map in the
"The island looks like this," he said, "a diamond on its side, with a line
of mountains running east-west along the long axis. I approached from the
south near the middle of the island. When I reached them I was at 3500',
about 500' above the peaks. From there I had a good view of the
north coast. Most of it looks to be covered with mangrove swamps, but
across the island from our position, around here, there's a small bay with
a village on its eastern shore. The surrounding land has been cleared for
crops, and there's a wharf, here, where someone's tied up a steamer -- this
looked like a tramp, and could've been any nationality. On the far side of
the village, someone's put up a very crook mooring mast, lashed together
from wood like those towers the native men jump from."
"Jump from?" asked Iverson. "Are they mad?"
"They tie vines to their feet first," Fleming explained, "to draw them up
short. I've heard blokes skite about it and they say it's the bee's knees."
The lieutenant shook his head. "They might as well tie elastic cord to their
waists and jump off a bridge! I'm sure civilized folk will never indulge in
such a practice now or at any time in the future."
"I take it that's where the airship was moored," said Everett.
"Yes, sir," said Fleming. "She looked to be about the size of our own ship,
maybe two and a half million cubic feet enclosed volume, but the strangest
part of the business was her lines. They looked something like this."
The youth sketched out a graceful streamlined shape, with fins set some
distance forward of an elegantly tapered stern. The control car was a faired
blister below the hull toward the bow, and three engine cars, each with a
single pusher propeller, hung from the sides and centerline toward the
"That resembles a Junior Vickers class," observed Everett.
"That's what I reckoned," said Fleming. "But surely none of them could be
here in the Pacific. And she had German markings."
"Reserve fleet: an auxiliary merchantman."
Everett thought this over. `Auxiliary merchantman' was a nebulous term that
could cover anything from a hired collier to one of the disguised raiding
vessels that the Germans had used so effectively during the early stages of
the War. Such vessels were often privately owned under contract to the Navy,
commanded by reserve officers whose commissions could be activated in
wartime. But the Junior Vickers class was an English design, built by the
yard in Howden. As far as Everett knew, only two had been constructed, they
were still undergoing trials, and those trials were not going well.
"Could this be the vessel that attacked us?" asked Jenkins.
"No," said Everett. "That was much larger than ours, and it didn't look
anything like a Howden product."
"A pity. I would have liked to have a word with those fellows. This
business of approaching under false colors to launch a surprise attack
during peacetime hardly seems sporting."
"What should we do now, sir?" asked Iverson.
"I believe we should have a closer look at this mysterious vessel. But
first we have to get across this island, and this jungle may take some time
"I think I spotted a trail, sir, on my way back," said Fleming.
"Good man!" said Everett. "Draw us a map."
They dined that afternoon on a large flightless bird Rashid brought down
with the sling he'd braided from strands of hull fabric. After they'd
eaten, Everett put some of his men to work with a hacksaw and stones,
cutting up lengths of steel and hammering them into machetes for the trek
through the jungle. Others prepared packs and checked their footgear
under Davies's direction. Like his captain, the marine had served in the
War, and learned about marching in a very hard school. At Everett's
orders, Fleming broke down his glider and packed it away in its cover bag.
They had no hope of carrying the wing with them through the jungle, but
there was always a chance they might be able to return someday to
After he was satisfied all was well, Everett made his way to the wreck. It
seemed strangely lifeless and inert -- a thing of the ground now, rather
than the sky. Already, birds and small animals had begun to work at the
fabric, carrying off pieces for use in their nests. The varnished
duralumin girders might have been the trunks of strange metal trees from
which lengths of cable hung like vines.
"I'm sorry to see her go, sir," said Rashid, who had appeared silently, as
was his wont. His ageless Persian face was dark.
"So am I," Everett replied. "She wasn't my first command, but she was one of
the best. And to lose her to treachery..."
"Do you think there were any survivors onboard the stern section?"
Everett shook his head. "They went down at sea. Even if they lived through
the impact, they couldn't last very long without life rafts or supplies, and
those were all aboard the control car."
"Then I may have shipmates to avenge," said the Persian, contemplating his
"Let's leave that to the Admiralty Court," Everett said dryly. "In my
experience, they can exact vengeance enough to satisfy any man."
Rashid thought this over, shuddered, and nodded. "Do you think the crew of
this strange ship Fleming saw might know anything of our attackers?"
"I'm unwilling to hazard a guess. They can't be up to any good -- a German
vessel calling at a French colony. It's been eight years since the last
shots were fired, but the two nations are still formally at war under the
terms of the Armistice. Still, I imagine the ship will be gone by the time
we've crossed the island. We have a difficult march ahead of us."
Next week: Cassowary Jenkins...