R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 5: Still no Island Maidens

Sketch map of the island in New Caledonia

"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 dirt.

"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 stern.

"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."

"German?"

"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 to negotiate."

"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 retrieve it.

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 sling.

"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...

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