R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 18: Landing Party

Landing party descends to a beach in Australia

"Energize!" ordered Captain Everett.

The Transporter Room was business-like compartment located forward of the cargo bay. One end was dominated by a hoist platform, a drum of cable, and a massive electric winch. The other held a small control stand. Iwamoto, the ship's engineer, stood by the controls. At his captain's command, he threw two switches, advanced a lever, and the winch whirred into operation.

"Oof!" exclaimed Iverson as the platform lurched downward.

"Steady there, Lieutenant," said Everett. As usual, he seemed unperturbed by their situation, precarious though it might have seemed. They hung from a slender steel thread hundreds of feet above the beach. Above them, the airship was receding into space. Below them, lines of breakers swept toward the shore. One slip and they'd fall from the platform to their doom.

"There must be a better way to do this," squeaked Iverson, face pale.

"I believe that American fellow, Tesla, is working on a system to transform people into radio waves, transmit them through space, and reconstitute them at their destination," said Jenkins. "It's supposed to be ready in a year or two."

"That doesn't sound very attractive," said Iverson. "Suppose the signal gets scrambled by static, or signals from two people get combined?"

"I might not mind getting combined with Miss Sarah," said Loris.

"Airman!" said Jenkins reprovingly. "Such speculation is unbecoming of an English officer!"

"But I'm not an officer, I'm just an enlisted man."

"Oh. That's all right then."

After what seemed like an interminable descent, the hoist touched down on the sand. "Everybody off!" ordered Everett. "Quickly now! Remember, the platform may lift once it's free of our weight."

The four men scrambled clear, to find themselves standing on the beach as the hoist rose back toward the airship above. To their right, the waters of the Torres Straight glittered in the sun. To their left, jungle loomed, dark and impenetrable. Ahead lay the vessel they'd come to investigate: a small coastal freighter, perhaps two hundred feet long, that appeared to have run aground. She was an unprepossessing thing -- a sturdy cargo-hauler, with no concessions toward adornment. Her superstructure looked weatherbeaten and her sides were streaked with rust. No signs of life were visible from where they stood. No smoke arose from her stack. Her loading booms, poorly secured, swung gently as the hull rocked to the waves, but otherwise there was no trace of movement on her decks.

"Do you think they abandoned ship?" asked Iverson.

"There are no footprints, sir," said Loris. This was true. The beach was wide, white, and empty save for the tracks of birds.

"Perhaps they used one of the lifeboats."

"I can see two sets of davits aft of the wheelhouse," said Jenkins. "There are boats hanging from both."

"I believe we'll have to go aboard to find an answer to our mystery," said Everett. "Gentlemen, if you'll follow me."

They made their way south, the captain in the lead. Everett and Iverson wore Blue No. 3 dress, as befitted their rank, with service revolvers in holsters at their belts. Iverson had begun to perspire in the hot tropical sun, but Everett seemed as neat and unruffled as ever. Jenkins followed with a bulky satchel. If it was as heavy as it looked, he gave no sign of this. Loris brought up the rear with a rifle he'd drawn from the ship's armory.

The vessel had grounded some distance from the shore. They paused at a point across from her and regarded the intervening breakers. "It looks too deep to wade," Iverson observed glumly.

"I assume that's why I'm here," said Loris, stripping off his tunic to reveal the muscles and chest of a swimmer. "You've read my record."

"No need for that yet, Loris," said Everett. "Mister Jenkins, if you please."

The signalman opened his satchel to remove a thick roll of rubberized fabric, a long flat parcel, and a hand pump.

"A rubber raft?" asked Iverson.

"As aide to Captain Everett," Jenkins observed, "I feel it is my duty to be prepared for every eventuality. If you unwrap that parcel, you should find a pair of collapsible paddles. If you would be kind enough to assemble them while I inflate this vessel, this might expedite matters."

The raft was small -- little more than an oval tube with a flimsy rubberized floor -- but Everett and Iverson had both rowed crew in public school, and handled the craft adroitly. Under the captain's direction, they made a circuit of the freighter to examine her from all sides before they made an attempt to board. There was no visible sign of damage, but the vessel seemed down by the stern, which suggested that the engineering section might be flooded. As they rounded her transom, they could see the name Viking Girl, Nuku'alofa, Tonga painted in rust-streaked letters above them.

"Viking Girl?" said Iverson disapprovingly. "That seems somewhat inappropriate for the South Pacific. Why didn't they name her something more traditional, like Island Girl."

"Perhaps they wanted to be original," said Everett. "Do you have any idea how many vessels in this part of the world are named Island Girl?"

"No, sir."

"According to Admiralty records, there are at least 1,789, not counting fishing boats and small craft."

"Oh, " said Iverson. This thought had not occurred to him. "How will we get aboard? The sides look rather high, and I don't see any sign of a gangway."

"I believe you will find that Jenkins is prepared for this eventuality as well. Jenkins?"

The signalman nodded and reached into his cornucopious satchel to retrieve a length of cord. "Mister Iverson, if you and Airman Loris would be kind enough to stand side by side while our good captain holds the craft steady, I believe I should be able to climb onto your shoulders."

This operation proved challenging, for the flimsy rubber raft threatened to buckle under the combined weight of the three men, but at last Jenkins was able to hoist himself aboard the freighter. From there he used the cord to haul up his satchel. Moment later, a rope ladder rolled down to thump against the hull.

"Where did he learn to do these things?" asked Iverson in amazement. "And just how much equipment does he carry in that satchel?"

"As you advance in your career," observed Everett, "you will discover that signalmen have their mysteries. And these are not for the likes of you and I to understand."

Next week: The Viking Girl...

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