R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 8: The Mysterious Airship

Zeppelin at a mooring mast in New Caledonia

Everett studied the moored airship through the field glasses he'd salvaged from the wreck. She was a trim vessel, her sleek lines seeming at odds with the dark angular German cross on her prow. Below this, he could just barely make out a number and a name.

"L-505, Wolkenflieger," he said aloud.

"Wolkenflieger?" asked Abercrombie. "What does that mean?"

"It translates to something like `Cloud Flier'," replied Iverson, when he was able to take his eyes off Sarah.

"What a dreadful name!" said the girl. "What were they thinking?"

"I'm more interested in learning where she came from," said Everett. "Fleming was right. Those lines don't look like anything from Jane's, except for the Junior Vickers class, and that's an English design."

The young Australian airman brightened at this sign of his captain's confidence. He'd only had time for the briefest of glances from the cockpit, such as it was, of his tiny Lilienthal glider. Under such conditions, it would have been easy to make a mistake.

"Could Howden have sold one to the Huns?" he asked.

"I can't imagine why they would," said Everett. "They only built two, those were still undergoing trials when we left, and from what I understand, the trials were not going well -- something about static weight and issues with the engineering plant. In any case, it seems unlikely the Admiralty would allow the yard to sell a warship to the Germans."

"Whatever is a German vessel is doing here?" asked Jenkins. "This seems somewhat irregular."

Everett nodded, for his signalman was right. The nameless island on which they stood was part of the New Caledonia chain. This belonged to France, and the two nations were still very much at odds.

"Perhaps they're looking for a place to ship prisoners," suggested MacKiernan. "The French did use these islands as a penal colony."

"I understand that they ceased this practice in 1922," said Fleming.

"Don't you believe it!" said Sarah. "The Governor brought a new batch of convicts here last year to serve as workers after he shipped my father and his tribe off to France. The gall of that man! I should have hit him harder with Father's war club when he tried to seduce me."

"I'm sure you'll have another chance, mademoiselle," Pierre said consolingly.

"I'd much rather rescue Father," she sniffed. "Do you think we can find some way to reach France?"

"I imagine so," Pierre replied, reaching out to put his arm around the girl, then recoiling when she shouldered her spear.

"Heaven help the French if she does!" Davies whispered to Fleming.

"Strewth!" the Aussie whispered back.

"This complicates our plans," Everett observed. "I'd intended to contact the Governor and claim assistance as distressed airmen, but the young lady's story and the presence of this airship suggest the man is up to no good. We will wish to obtain more information before we proceed. This will require a reconnaissance."

They set off again toward the settlement, creeping after Rashid, who seemed to be developing a talent for leading the way through the jungle. From time to time, the airmen had to pause and remove leeches and other unsavory creatures from their clothing, but Everett noticed that their new companions didn't seem inconvenienced by their surroundings. The man's suit and the girl's dress both looked immaculate, and her coiffure remained flawless -- a cascade of rich dark tresses that would have put any society lady to shame. From time to time she brushed back a curl to reveal a delicate pair of bone earrings, carved in the shape of fish.

"Those are beautiful," Iverson told her.

"Why, thank you," she replied, with a heart-stopping smile.

The lieutenant smiled back and ventured a laugh. "From the way Fleming described these islands, I expected the natives to wear human finger bones."

"Hardly," giggled the girl. "These are toe bones. They belonged to my grandmother."

"What did she mean by that?" Fleming whispered to Davies. "Did they belong to her grandmother or did they... uh... belong to her grandmother?"

"Gentlemen," hissed Jenkins. "Speculation of this sort is inappropriate."

While his men paid court to the girl, Everett found his attention returning to the mysterious airship that loomed ahead between the trees. She was indeed a thing of beauty -- a small version of the famous R-100 that had put the Howden yard on the map back in 1924. Like her larger sister, she had a sleek modern control car that promised speed, and her three streamlined engine cars -- with single pusher propeller each rather than the twin-engined tractor-pusher arrangement of Barnes Wallis's two-year-old masterpiece -- seemed larger than necessary on a vessel of this size. Beyond her lay the harbor, where the tramp steamer Fleming had reported lay next to a small wharf. Through his binoculars, Everett could just make out the name Duck.

The mooring mast from which the airship rode was a primitive as the vessel was modern -- a crude wooden structure, lashed together with vines, that might have served as an illustration for a textbook on safety hazards. A flimsy-looking rope ladder hung from the handling platform down to the ground. As Everett watched, a party of men clad in German naval uniforms began the perilous descent. From their numbers, it seemed that most of the crew were involved. He wondered what the fellows were about.

After several changes of position, they found a spot from which they could watch the Governor's house undisturbed. It was a substantial mansion, built in a European fashion, with artful changes to adapt it to the local environment. The workmanship was excellent -- quite clearly a labor of love -- and Everett's opinion of its occupant fell even farther when he learned the man had stolen the place from Sarah's father.

"He has a terrible reputation," said the girl. "None of the other Governors is willing to visit him anymore."

"Rather convenient if he's hiding some secrets," observed Jenkins.

"Perhaps," Sarah said dubiously. "But it doesn't do much for his social life. His dinner companions are pretty much limited to his chief of police, the maid, and whatever woman he's hired to share his... table. He must be starved for company these days."

"I imagine you're right," said Fleming. "Here comes some now."

Everett looked where the Aussie was pointing to see the airmen from the ship filing up the path to the mansion. They seemed in high spirits, as if they looked forward to some celebration. Even from this distance, he could see the gleam of a bottle.

"Abercrombie," he said thoughtfully. "How many crew do you expect would be required for a vessel of that size."

"I'd ken aboot a score, Captain."

"That would be my guess too," said Everett, "and I count fourteen in that party."

Jenkins's eyes widened as he realized what his captain had in mind. "Sir!" he protested, "Surely you're not contemplating a cutting-out expedition!"

"Why not?" Everett replied. "It's not something one gets a chance to do every day."

Next week: A Cutting-Out Expedition...

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