R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 11: Sky is Empty

Engine Car One

"Do you think it will run, sir?" asked Jenkins. He was squeezed into the Number Two engine car, next to his captain, along with Iwamoto, the taciturn Japanese engineer they seemed to have acquired with their new ship. In front of them, a massive 12-cylinder supercharged diesel took up most of the available space. Like everything else on the vessel, it was devoid of serial numbers or manufacturer’s marks -- anything that would identify who had built it.

"That’s what we’re here to find out," said Everett. "Is the pressure regulator fixed?"

"Hai! Is fixed," said the engineer. "Engine ready to run."

"Then start it up."

"Hai!" The engineer checked a gauge, turned several valves, and reached for a lever. Glancing at the others, he called out a warning. "Engine start!"

There was a loud hiss of compressed air, accompanied by a clatter of rocker arms and pistons as the engine turned over. Then, with a roar, it burst to life, shaking the car, filling the air with sound. Behind them, the propeller began to spin. Jenkins grabbed for his captain’s hat to keep it from blowing away.

Everett nodded in satisfaction. "Good work, Mister Iwamoto," he yelled. "Get Number One and Three started. I’ll send Abercrombie and Davies down to take the mechanics’ stations."

He hauled himself up the ladder to the hull, followed by Jenkins. "Sir," asked the signalman. "Can we trust the fellow? We know nothing about his origins. And he was working for the Germans."

"I believe we’ll have to, since he’s the only engineer we have. And his loyalties can hardly lie with his employers, since Japan was at odds with Germany during the War. Indeed, I’m at a loss to understand what he was doing aboard."

"Perhaps he was some manner of spy, sent to study their airship technology."

"That would be my guess," said Everett. "If that was the case he should be quite happy to continue working for us. I’m more concerned about how we’ll man the other stations. We’re woefully short of personnel."

This was true. Only the nine of them had survived the surprise attack by the mysterious cruiser that had destroyed their old vessel. Somehow they’d have to manage three engine cars, ballast tanks, and gas cells while the navigated the vessel to a destination.

MacKiernan looked up from a chart as they entered the control car. "I make us about here," said the Irishman, poking the map with a tip of his dividers. "If this is our island, we’ve drifted 130 miles, which would make the wind southeast at 18 knots."

"What’s our fuel and ballast situation?" asked Everett.

"Our hosts were stingy fellows and left us with the gas cells 70% full, 11,000 pounds of ballast, and a triflin’ 1500 gallons of fuel. They must have been nearin’ the end o’ their mission."

"Why does everyone worry so much about ballast?" asked Sarah, who’d been rummaging through the ship’s papers with Iverson in a vain search for a flight manual. "I should think hydrogen would be more important."

"They’re much the same thing," explained the young lieutenant. "If we drop ballast for some reason -- perhaps because it’s evening and the hydrogen in the cells has shrunk as it cooled -- sooner or later we’ll have to vent some gas to compensate. So we keep careful track of every expenditure."

"You sound just like Father!" the girl laughed. "He was always keeping accounts of things like plantings, depreciation, nitrate futures, and our spear inventory. I used to help him. I was good with numbers."

Everett and Jenkins’s eyes met. "If I could train her to manage the ballast station," said the signalman, "that would free someone to handle another position."

"My thoughts exactly," said Everett. "As for the rest of you gentlemen, I believe we’ve been idle long enough. Iverson, I’d like you at the helm, Davies at the elevator wheel. Jenkins, does this intercom work?"

"I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, sir."

"Then this seems like a good time," said Everett. He picked up the microphone and pressed the switch, "All hands, this is your Captain. We’re about to get underway. Maneuvering stations please."

His voice echoed from the speakers overhead, followed by the sound of footsteps on a catwalk.

"Mister Iverson, ring for a quarter power."

The lieutenant reached for the engine telegraph levers and pushed them forward. Aft, the drone of the engines increased and propellers began to bite the air. There was no real feeling of movement, but the airspeed indicator swung to the right more quickly than Everett had expected.

"We’re reading 20 knots, sir," said Iverson, a few moments later.

"At a quarter power?" mused Everett. "Interesting. Jenkins, note that down. MacKiernan, what was our course when we were drifting aboard the wreck?"

"316, sir."

"Mister Iverson, bring us right to 136 degrees, then ring for more power. We’ll head southeast to look for survivors."

"Thank you, sir," MacKiernan said quietly. It seemed unlikely that any of their crewmates could have survived the crash or would still be alive after days at sea, but conscience demanded they look.

Four hours at cruising speed -- an astonishing 68 knots -- brought them to the place the action had occurred: an empty expanse of ocean under a cloudless blue sky. There they began a sweep, quartering the area in a systematic pattern to search for survivors. Over the next several hours, they spotted shoals of fish, flocks of birds, and patches of seaweed, but there was no sign of the missing crewmen. Not even a scrap of fabric remained floating on the waves to mark where the wreck went down. At last, reluctantly, Everett was forced to break off the search, for their supply of fuel was limited.

The captain was in the ship’s mess, compiling a list of the missing, when Iwamoto appeared. He welcomed the interruption, for the list was along one, and each entry marked the end of a life, with all of its hopes and dreams.

"I trust everything is fine in the engine department," he said, setting aside his pen.

Iwamoto puzzled over this statement, then nodded. "Hai. Engines good. You seek lost men? How lose?"

"There was a battle," said Everett. "An unidentified ship approached flying false colors and blew us in half before we could react. We’ve wondered if they might have been German. Could they have had any connection with this vessel?"

"I not know this vessel. I come with engines. But I see air battles too. My country, generals have many battles. These never good. I make... you have no words... poem ? It difficult in your language but you wish hear?"

Everett glanced at him, surprised by this unexpected offer. "Why of course," he replied.

The engineer composed himself, like a man aiming a bow, then began to recite. For someone not raised to the English language, his diction was surprisingly good.

"High in the morning
White petals blossom. Wind blows,
and sky is empty"

Everett thought back to a terrible afternoon, a decade ago: a thunderous instant of fire and blood, and the long hours of despair that followed. The Admiralty had claimed victory, but the War had dragged on for many long months before Woodrow Wilson’s Peace, at unspeakable cost, and for what? After two years of fighting and millions of lives, the boundaries were exactly where they’d been before the conflict began.

"You’re right," he sighed. "It never good."

Next week: Cairns Royal Air Station...

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