R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 13: Admiralty Court

Schoolroom in Cairns with Royal Navy marine

"So, Captain Everett," said the Admiral, "can you give us any reason not to prosecute you and your men for piracy?"

Admiral Christian Samuel Wentworth was an kindly looking gentleman, whose picture would not have seemed out of place on a bottle of patent medicine, but Everett didn't let the man's appearance fool him. The Admiral had a long and distinguished record of service in the Far East, and a reputation for asking hard questions at proceedings such as these. He'd chosen an intimidating venue for his court. It had begun life as a schoolroom, but Wentworth had furnished it with all the trappings of admiralty. Everett and his men perched in a row of stiff-backed chairs beneath a slow-turning punkah fan. The Admiral sat on a tall seat behind a high desk, flanked by his officers, a British flag, and a massive White Ensign. Behind him, a row of stern-faced marines glared at Everett and his men from in front of the blackboard.

Everett swallowed and tried to compose himself. "They were smuggling arms, sir, to a penal colony no less," he replied. "This alone would make their vessel forfeit, even if they were carrying proper registration papers, which they did not have."

"But you had no way of knowing this before you took the airship," observed the Admiral, "which makes your original act of boarding the vessel questionable under any number of laws and regulations. What justification can you offer for this action?"

"She was a German vessel making what appeared to be a clandestine visit to a French territory. That seemed like ample cause to order an inspection."

"Which you did by sneaking aboard the vessel under cover of darkness, overpowering her crew, releasing ballast, and dropping the mooring to drift away into the night?"

"Under the circumstances, that seemed like the best way to proceed, sir."

"Hmm," said the Admiral, turning to his adjutant. "What do the Germans have to say about this?"

"It's very strange, sir. They claim to have no record of the vessel."

"But she did have a German registration number, L-505, a peculiarly atrocious German name, Wolkenflieger, and some rather prominent German markings on the bow and stern."

"I have spoken with the German naval attache, he has sent a telegram to Berlin, and they replied with a message to the effect that the registration numbers between 501 and 510 were never issued. He also gave me his personal assurance that their Admiralty would never have approved of a name like `Cloud Flier'."

"That's good to know," said the Admiral with what appeared to be a sigh of relief.

"What was the French response?" asked Michelson, who was part of the Court. As commander of the Cairns Naval Air Station. He seemed to have taken a dislike to Everett and his men for the disorder they'd wrought upon his tranquil and unchallenging routine.

"They were quite incensed about the German intrusion into their territory," said the adjutant, "and they wholly approved of Captain Everett's behavior. I also managed to contact the Governor in question via shortwave. He claimed that no such airship has ever called at his island and that they wouldn't have the facilities to handle one if it did."

"Of course, that means nothing if he was a party to a smuggling operation," mused the Admiral. "Captain Everett, you reported that a small tramp steamer was tied to the village wharf. Were you able to make out her name?"

"It appeared to be the Duck, sir."

"Chinese, do you think?" Wentworth asked his adjutant. "Their chefs do seem to have a thing about ducks."

"It could also be American, sir, Their animated media features ducks rather prominently."

"And I suppose it could also be French," said the Admiral, drumming his fingers on the desk. "Is there anyone in this part of the world who doesn't eat ducks, keep them as pets, or watch them on the cinema?"

"We don't, sir."

"I suppose that's true," acknowledged the Admiral, "but it isn't very helpful." He shuffled his papers, made some notes, then set them aside. "So, we have a mysterious vessel, origin and owners unknown, laden with contraband, apprehended in the territory of a hostile nation for which it did not have authorization, with a false registration to a country that denies any knowledge of its existence.

"That appears to be the shape of it, sir."

"Crew aren't much help I suppose."

"Picked up off the docks in Tsing Tao. Don't know a thing. Or so they claim."

"You could rough them up a bit," suggested Michelson. "Get them to talk."

"That sort of thing never works," the Admiral told Michelson sternly. "It's the classic `ticking bomb' argument. You captured a man you believe to be an anarchist who has planted an infernal device. If you lock the man up and search for the bomb yourself, there's a good chance you'll find it. But if you torture the fellow to get him to talk, either he'll be innocent, in which case you learn nothing, or he'll be guilty, in which case he'll lie to send you off on a wild goose chase. In either case, you waste a fair amount of time, the bomb explodes, and innocent people die.

But this is all beside the point," the Admiral said. Rising to his feet, he addressed the prisoners. "Captain Everett, you and your men will remain here while this Court adjourns to reach its decision."

Michelson shot Everett a predatory glance as he followed the Admiral and his officers out of the room. There was little doubt in Everett's mind which way the Station Commander would vote in the hearing.

"A shilling says we're sentenced to death as pirates," Abercrombie whispered to MacKiernan.

"I'll be happy to take your money."

"Are you two crazy?" hissed Iverson. "How can you make these wagers when our lives and honor are at stake?"

"And what are ye going to do, lad?" asked Abercrombie. "Sit and fret? This way, if we die, I have the pleasure o' kennin' I won. And if we live, I'm only out a shilling."

Iverson had no reply to this, but Everett could tell the lieutenant wasn't convinced. He had no words of encouragement to offer the young man, for the matter was out of their hands. They might have to law on their side, but the final outcome would almost certainly be determined by political and diplomatic considerations, and whatever instructions the admiral had received from London before he left Sydney.

He was still wondering what these might be when the door opened at the sergeant called for them to stand to attention. Wentworth and his officers strolled in, expressions unreadable.

"At ease, gentlemen," said the Admiral as he resumed his seat. He accepted a folio from his aide and flipped through it to remove a sheet of paper.

"Captain Roland P. Everett," he announced. "This Court has ruled that the airship you took is a legitimate prize under the terms of the Armistice, and we have commissioned it as a vessel of the Royal Navy, R-505. We have an immediate need of a vessel for a mission of some importance. None of the regular fleet are available, so you are ordered to proceed forthwith and take command pursuant to instructions that will be delivered after you are onboard. Court dismissed!"

Everett breathed a sigh of relief. Behind him, MacKiernan poked Abercrombie in the ribs and whispered.

"Yer out a shilling!"

Next week: Reasonably Gallant Gentlemen...

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