R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 19: The Viking Girl

On the deck of the Viking Girl

"Where are the crew?" asked Loris. "Do you think they were eaten by cannibals?"

"I rather doubt it," said Captain Everett. "According to Miss Sarah, tribes in this part of the world ate only the livers and brains of their victims. That would leave most of the bodies intact."

"Oh," said the airman, wiping his palms to get a better grip on his Enfield. Beside him, Lieutenant Iverson swallowed and checked his service revolver. Meanwhile, Jenkins, in his role as aide, produced a brush and began to see to some imagined imperfection in his captainís attire.

The four men stood on the deck of the Viking Girl, which theyíd reached after a bit of a scramble. Below them, their rubber raft bobbed at the end of its painter, offering little in the way of a line of retreat. Their own vessel, His Majestyís Airship Flying Cloud, R-505, circled high overhead, in poor position to help if they came under attack. But if Everett was concerned, he gave no sign. Instead, he set off toward the stern of the freighter, beckoning for the others to follow.

The deck was deserted and empty, littered in places with fragments of rock. "What is this?" asked Iverson, stooping to pick up one of the fragments. "Some kind of ore?"

"Perhaps," said Everett. "The hatch covers are missing, as if someone was in a hurry to loot the cargo. I suppose these might be scraps they left behind. Jenkins, what do you make of them?"

The signalman took the rock from Iverson and turned it over in his hand. "Uraninite or mozanite, I believe," he replied. "Not particularly valuable. Itís used to color glass and ceramics. I canít imagine who would want to steal it."

"The dreaded Glass Pirates of the Timor Sea?"

"An unlikely concept."

"Perhaps this vessel was carrying something else," said Everett. "Or perhaps our hypothetical pirates were misinformed. Letís have a look in the deckhouse."

The deckhouse was a modest structure, topped by a small bridge. A row of bullet holes ran across the front. Below these lay the shattered remains of a rifle. A massive axe was buried in the deck next to it, head sunk deep in the planking by the force of the blow.

"That," said Iverson, "looks like something out a museum. Someone seems to have taken this Viking business seriously."

Loris gave the weapon a tug. When it didnít move, he slung his rifle, took the haft in both hands, braced his legs and heaved. Muscles rippled with effort, but the axe remained firmly in place. At last he stepped back, panting for breath.

"I say," he gasped, "it appears that someone was a bit of an overachiever."

"Perhaps one of the crew ran amok, slew his companions, and leapt overboard," suggested Jenkins.

"I suppose this is possible," said Everett, "but that doesnít explain where the shipís cargo went." He picked up part of the rifle. "What do you make of this?"

"German," said the signalman. "A Mauser by the look of it."

"Such was my thought as well. And we found similar weapons onboard our airship when we took her from those arms smugglers."

"Do you think thereís a connection?" asked Iverson.

"Itís hard to say," mused Everett. "For all we know, this part of South Pacific could be infested with vessels whose crews hack modern German firearms to bits with ancient melee weapons. Many of these vessels could also belong to ornamental glassmakers. Letís have a look at the engine room. That might tell us how this vessel came to be aground."

The engine room was flooded. An oily layer of water covered much the machinery and came partway up the accommodation ladder. Everett studied the surface with a frown.

"You notice it too, sir?" asked Loris.

"Yes. The water is still. If the hull had a sizable breach, it should rise and fall with the waves. Mister Loris, according to your records, you have a reputation as a swimmer and some knowledge of steam equipment. If you would volunteer to have a look, perhaps you could tell us what happened."

The airman surfaced sometime later and laid a steel mallet on the step beside them. "It was sabotage," he reported. "I found this lying next to boilers. Someone used it to smash the inlet to the condenser."

"Iím not sure I understand," said Iverson.

"The boilers need fresh water," said Loris. "Otherwise the tubes would corrode. But thereís no way a ship can carry enough for a voyage. Instead, they run steam from the boilers through a condenser so it can be reused. The condenser is cooled by seawater. Smash the inlet and that seawater gets into the ship."

"It doesnít seem like they did a good job."

"Either that or someone managed to plug the inlet after they were gone," said Jenkins. "Our hypothetical mad axeman, perhaps?"

"No way to tell," said Loris. "But engine couldnít have run with the condenser broken, so the ship must have drifted ashore by herself."

"Which means she must have been comparatively close to shore when she was was attacked," said Everett. "Is there any way to tell when that happened?"

Loris gestured at the mallet. "There are young barnacles on that hammer and I saw others on the machinery. They might have taken two weeks to grow."

"Two weeks," mused Everett, running through some figures in his head. "I wonder. I imagine thatís all we can do here. Letís check the crewís quarters to see if we can find any records."

The cabins had all been thoroughly ransacked. Any logs or journals were long gone. When they left the deckhouse, they found that something else was missing as well.

"The axe!" exclaimed Iverson. "Itís gone!"

"Youíre sure you didnít loosen it?" Everett asked Loris. "Enough so it came free by itself.?"

"No, sir," said the airman. "It was in solid. Youíd have needed a sledge to budge it."

"Look at this, sir," said Iverson, pointing to a line of wet footprints. Even as they watched, these were drying in the sun, but it was clear that whoever had made them had been barefoot.

"Interesting," said Everett. "if I read these signs correctly, they suggest that somewhere nearby, possibly on this very vessel, a maniacally strong semi-naked man may be lying in wait with an axe."

"He might be entirely naked," observed Jenkins.

"True," said Everett. "But either way, I believe this might be a good time for us to return to our ship."

"I quite agree."

Next week: Heavy Weather Ahead...

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