R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 14: Reasonably Gallant Gentlemen

Poker table with an armadillo

"She looks much better this way, sir," said Jenkins.

Captain Roland P. Everett, Royal Navy Airship Service, ran his eyes along the length of the airship that rode from the mooring mast. While the Admiralty Court had been in session, maintenance crews had effaced the German crosses and numerical designation to replace them with British roundels and the number ‘R-505’. Now the vessel gleamed in the warm tropical sun with the waters of the Coral Sea sparkling in the background.

"I would have to agree," he replied. "She is most definitely a thing of beauty."

Indeed she was. In appearance and plan, she looked like a Junior Vickers class, with the sleek nose, streamlined hull, and long tapering tail reminiscent of their larger brother: the classic R-100 Barnes Wallis had created two years before.

"I see they haven’t gotten around to repainting the name yet," observed the signalman.

"Probably for the best, Jenkins," said Everett. The name the Germans had given the ship, Wolkenflieger, or ‘Cloud Flier’, was something that would be hard to live down. Their old vessel, the Flying Lady, may not have been as graceful or sleek, but at least her name hadn’t sounded like something out of a pulp fiction novel.

"We’re fortunate the Admiralty Court was so forbearing," said Jenkins. "After all, I suppose we did steal the ship from the Germans."

"Perhaps," said Everett, "but they were smuggling arms to a French penal colony in defiance of any number of laws, which made the vessel forfeit. And we should have realized that Admiral Wentworth would leap at the chance to add another unit to his fleet. The strange thing is that the Germans raised no real objection. Indeed, they denied that the vessel was theirs at all. They claim that her original registration, L-505, was part of a block of numbers that was never issued."

"That is strange. Who do you think owned the craft?"

"I don’t have the slightest idea. We don’t even know where she was made."

This was true, for the Howden yard had only built two Junior Vickers, both of these were accounted for, and while the vessel’s engines looked like German products, there had been no papers, serial numbers, or identifying marks to show where they came from.

"Do you think Captain Michelson will cause us any problems during commissioning?" asked MacKiernan. "The man seems to have taken a dislike to us."

"I wouldn’t take this to heart," said Everett. "The good captain has a reputation for taking a dislike to everyone except his immediate superiors. And he can hardly interfere with our maintenance, since this must conform to Naval Regulations, and he could be called to account for any deficiencies. But I imagine we may have some problem assembling a crew. He’ll probably assign us his the scrapings and leavings of his brig."

"Would this necessarily be bad?" asked Iverson . "Wasn’t there a radio drama -- I believe it was called The Filthy Score -- where a plucky commander takes a collection of prisoners and turns them into an effective fighting unit?"

Everett, MacKiernan, and Abercrombie all turned to stare at the young lieutenant. "That only works in radio dramas, lad," said MacKiernan gently.

"We would do better to employ civilian auxiliaries," said Everett. "We’ve already done this with our engineer."

"Aye," said Abercrombie. "We should have nae trooble findin’ skilled professionals willin’ tae work longer hours under harsher discipline for less pay."

"Still, we’ll give it a try," sighed Everett.

"And if that doesn’t work?" asked MacKiernan skeptically.

"We’ll start interviewing the scrapings and leavings of his brig."

The interview room was a sweltering corner of a tin-roofed shack at one end of the Air Station’s penitentiary. The prisoner was a swarthy man, dressed in grimy coveralls and a tattered shirt, drenched in sweat.

"Name?" asked Everett.

"Nathan Cameron, sir," said the prisoner.

"What is your specialty?" asked Everett. In spite of the heat, he wore his neatly tailored captain’s uniform without the slightest sign of distress. This was one of the things they taught in officer’s school. Iverson, behind him, had not held his commission for quite as long, and had to pause from time to time to wipe his brow.

"Engineer’s Mate," said the man. "I won a commendation for my work on the R-127 during our Pacific crossing."

"So I see. And what was the nature of the infraction that lead to your incarceration?"

"Excuse me, sir?"

"Why were you in the brig?"

"Drunkenness, sir."

"Do you ever drink during duty?"

"Never, sir, not when I have an engine to work on! But once we’re in port, I can really tie one on."

"Acceptable. Welcome to the R-505."

"Why did you accept him?" asked Iverson, after the guards had marched the man away. "Doesn’t the nature of his infraction reflect on his character?"

"Yes," said Everett. "He’s a besotted wastrel who’s so devoted to his engines that he’s able to give up drinking to work on them. We may need that kind of dedication."

"Name?" asked Everett.

"Angus Crowley, mechanic," said the man, a short wiry fellow with an alarming mustache. "I was in fer drunkenness."

"Do you drink on duty?"

"Only when things are goin’ wrong. Ye need a dram after yer assistant has dropped an exhaust manifold on yer foot and knocked yer best 5/8" box-end wrench oot the window."

"Acceptable. Welcome to the R-505."

"Why did you accept him?" asked Iverson. "The man admitted that he drinks on duty! And the bit about his foot hardly seems like an excuse."

"Yes," said Everett. "But that sort of thing is expected for mechanics. And he did have a good point about the wrench."

"Name?" asked Everett.

"Fletcher Loris, rated as a rigger, electrician’s mate, mechanic’s mate, and gunner, cited for bravery after the Canton Incident and awarded a commendation for my actions during the Typhoon of ’24." The man adjusted his tunic, trying to bring some order to his worn prison uniform. His face, though beaded with perspiration, was chiseled, blond, and handsome.

"So I see. With qualifications like those, I wonder how you managed to end up in the brig. I imagine it was drunkenness."

"Drunkenness, gambling, and bestiality, sir."

"Bestiality!" squeaked Iverson. Everett gave his lieutenant a stern glance.

"Not my usual practice, sir," said the prisoner, ignoring the interruption. "But we were in a game, one of the other players had a pet, and he offered a wager where the loser had to kiss it. I was holding three jacks with a six and ten showing, while he was showing a four and two with no chance of a flush and had just discarded a three, so I took the bet. He discarded the two, drew a four, and turned over a full house. All might still have been well, if Captain Michelson hadn’t happened to walk in just as the affair was about to be consummated. He’s a fine officer, sir, with no sense of humor whatsoever."

"He does have a reputation," observed Everett dryly. "And what was the species of your alleged companion?"

"I am not entirely certain, sir, but I believe it was a member of order Cingulata."

"Do you drink, gamble, or consort with other forms of life while on duty?"

"Not unless I can do so without jeopardizing the efficient functioning of the vessel, sir."

"Acceptable. Welcome to the R-505."

"But, sir!" protested Iverson after the man was gone.

"He seems brave, forthright, and honest," said Everett. "And he seems to have a good education. For that I’ll forgive him a few peccadilloes. Or armadillos as the case may be."

Next week: His Majesty’s Airship, The Flying Cloud...

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