R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 15: His Majesty's Airship, The Flying Cloud

His Majesty's Airship 'Flying Cloud'

"We still need five more airmen to make a crew of seventeen," said Everett that evening.

"Where are we going to find them, sir?" asked Davies. "We've already advertised for civilian volunteers and gone through the list of malingerers Michelson offered us, and I've asked around the marine barracks with no luck."

The eight survivors of the Flying Lady had gathered in a tin-roofed outdoor café at one end of the Cairns Royal Air Station along with the two companions, Pierre and Sarah, they'd rescued from the French penal colony in New Caledonia. Pierre was examining his dinner as if uncertain of its species. Sarah, of sterner stuff, was consuming hers calmly, slicing the thin steaks of some nameless animal with a drawing room delicacy entirely in keeping with her refined features and dress, but somewhat at odds with her complexion and background. A pair of delicate bone earrings, carved in the shape of fish, hung from her ears. Everett frowned when he remembered their origin.

"Fleming," he asked, putting these thoughts from his mind, "did you get any replies from your friends in the soaring community?"

"I spoke with the president of the Cape York Lilienthal Association," said the Aussie, "and it appears the only man who might have been interested was taken by a croc during a trip to Cookstown."

"A pity, that," mused Everett. "Wallace?"

"I've been to the bars, Captain. Nothin' there."

"How about the rest of you?"

One by one the others shook their heads.

"This is not looking very promising, sir," Jenkins observed. "If we can't find a crew, I imagine Captain Michelson will use this as a pretext to take the command away from us and assign it to one of his cronies.

"Don't worry, Jenkins," said Everett. "Matters are not as bad as they appear." Indeed, they were worse. Knowing Michelson, he imagined the man would try to cashier them out of the Service for indiscipline, incompetence, and unspecified moral failings.

"I would be happy to serve aboard your airship as a rigger," said Pierre.

Heads turned toward the Frenchman.

"Whatever for?" asked Iverson. "I thought you'd be in a hurry to get back to France."

"I can wait until the vessel gets rotated back to Europe," said Pierre. "In the meantime this would allow me to drop out of sight to avoid causing unnecessary excitement to certain authorities."

"I'd like to join too!" said Sarah.

MacKiernan looked scandalized. "A woman?" he asked, "serving aboard one of His Majesty's airships?"

"Perhaps she could be a cook," suggested Jenkins.

"That might not be such a good idea," said Davies, recalling the girl's story.

"That's hardly relevant," said Iverson, leaping to Sarah's defense. "Her people may have been cannibals in the distant past, but they have reformed their habits, and her father is a vegetarian."

"That's just my point!" said Davies. "I don't want any bleedin' vegetarian food at the end of my watch!"

"I don't believe vegetarian food bleeds," said Jenkins.

"I could be a rigger," suggested the girl. "I can climb just as well as Pierre!"

"This may be true," said Everett, recalling how she'd scrambled up the mooring mast, dressed only in tights, the night they took the ship, and cringing at the thought of trying to maintain discipline aboard a vessel where such behavior was regular practice, "but since you do have some skill at mathematics, I believe it might be better if you continued to serve as ballast officer and quartermaster. There is a long tradition of female auxiliaries serving in this capacity aboard His Majesty's vessels that dates back to the reign of George V."

"But, isn't he king right now?" Fleming whisprede to Davies.

"I imagine this tradition began at least five minutes ago," Davies whispered back.

"That still leaves us three under the minimum number we need to be certified as flight-worthy," said Iverson. "What will we do, sir?"

"We'll put some fake names on the books, pocket their pay, and use it to bribe inspectors to ignore the infraction until we can find the additional men. It's standard practice in situations such as these."

"They never mentioned this at the Academy, sir."

"I don't imagine they would."

Everett spent the rest of the evening filling out paperwork, some real and some of it forgeries, to get the vessel ready for commissioning. This was a tedious process -- another one of the prerogatives of command that had never been mentioned at the Academy. By time the job was finished, in the wee hours of the morning, his eyes were swimming, and he fell asleep dreaming of RNAS-1421 forms, Issues C and D.

When Jenkins awoke him the next morning, these dreams were a thing of the past. He hurried through breakfast with all the decorum he could muster, endured a wait his aide adjusted the collar of his jacket, then led the way out to the field. MacKiernan and Iverson were gazing up at the airship when he arrived. Everett followed their gaze and noted that someone had painted the name Flying Cloud above the control car, next to a portrait of a clipper under full sail.

"It was Abercrombie's idea," said MacKiernan. "The daft Scottsman does get a good one every now and then. None of us could bear the thought o' serving aboard a ship called the Cloud Flier, and it's droch-luck to change a vessel's name, but our old ship was named the Flying Lady, and if you combine the two, you could come up with Flying Cloud, so he decided that's what the Germans meant to call her in the first place."

"I assume some money changed hands in the administration building when the paperwork was filled?"

"Captain! I'd never admit to such a thing... no matter how guilty I was..."

"Who did the lettering?" asked Jenkins. "It can't have been Abercrombie; the man can hardly sign his own name."

"That was Miss Sarah's work," said MacKiernan. "The young lady has a rare talent for calligraphy. She did the sailing ship too."

"That is superb artistry," Iverson told Sarah when they reached the control car. "Where did you learn to paint so well?"

Sarah beamed at him with a smile that brightened the entire bridge. "There was an old artist in our village -- one of the French immigrants. He taught me everything. He used to paint the most wonderful portraits and designs."

Everett paused on his way to the intercom and glanced over his shoulder at the girl. "What kind of designs?" he asked suspiciously.

"Here," she replied, "I'll show you!" She reached for a pad of paper, picked up her pen, and with a few deft strokes rendered a perfect replica of a French banknote, complete with a portrait of the goddess Minerva next to a neatly numbered `10' and the words `Dix Francs'.

"Interesting," said the Exec. "Can you do King George?"

"MacKiernan!" snapped Everett. "But how about the Kaiser?"

Next week: Speed Trials...

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