R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 20: Heavy Weather Ahead

Airship approaching a storm

Captain Everett might present a confident face to his men, but inwardly he was concerned. They’d stumbled upon a mystery, and he had no idea who was involved or what was at stake. It was obvious those stakes were high -- the mysterious cruiser that had destroyed their old ship could only have been commissioned by one of the Great Powers -- but what could be important enough for someone to risk an act of war? And why had those German arms smugglers chosen just this moment to visit a French penal colony? Could this have any connection with the abandoned freighter they’d found? He could hardly believe these things were all coincidence.

They also had to deal with Captain Michaelson’s malice. As commander of the Cairns Royal Air Station, the senior captain was in a position to make life difficult for officers in his territory, and he seemed to have taken a special dislike to Everett and his crew. Was this more than chance? Could Michaelson be involved with whatever was going on? Just what had his yacht been doing in the practice area that day?

For some reason, Everett found his thoughts straying back to the ruin they’d seen on that nameless island in New Caledonia. Worn and weathered, its carvings had appeared to depict some sort of ceremony, where a strange musician clashed a pair of cymbals beneath a gigantic tree. The Tree of Life, perhaps? According to Frazer, this symbol was common to most of the world’s religions. It had seemed idyllic -- and innocent token of some forgotten age -- but disturbing as well. What, he wondered, was the significance of the bonfires? And why had some of the figures seemed so deformed?

As he pondered this, MacKiernan’s voice crackled over the intercom.

"Captain to the bridge."

It was still dark when Everett reached the control car. Behind the Flying Cloud, the horizon glimmered with the first light of dawn, but ahead the sky was dark, black... and lit by flickers of lightning.

"When did this start?" he asked.

"A few minutes ago," said the Exec. "And it’s spreading. It looks like a line squall."

"I thought those weren’t supposed to happen this time of year," said Jenkins, who had appeared behind his captain, discrete as ever.

"If the weather always behaved as we expected," Everett said wryly, "life would become quite boring. But I believe we might do well to avoid this bit of potential excitment. Iverson, come right to 320."

"Right to 320," acknowledged the lieutenant, easing the wheel to starboard. The horizon swung, unseen in the darkness, as the two senior officers peered into the gloom.

"I still see flashes on my side," MacKiernan said after a moment.

"I see some on mine as well," said Everett. "It appears that this particular storm has chosen to develop right on top of us."

"Shall we turn back, sir?" asked the Irishman.

Everett looked aft, where more lightning was visible against a darkening sky. "I fear it may be too late for that," he observed. He pressed the button to sound general quarters and he picked up the mike.

"Attention," he announced as alarms blared overhead. "All hands to maneuvering stations. We may have some rough weather to deal with."

The lightning was brighter now and a rumble of thunder could be heard over the drone of the engines. Everett reviewed crew assignments in his mind. Undermanned as they were, he might need every available hand for repairs. "Miss Sarah," he said calmly. "I believe things may become very busy in the next few minutes. If you have any doubts about your ability to manage the ballast board, now is the time to let me know."

"I can do it."

"Good girl. Jenkins, if you could relieve Mister Iverson at the helm, that will free him to take the elevator wheel so I can send Wallace upstairs to help Abercrombie."

"Sir?" said Iverson, swallowing. The elevator was the most important control on the ship. A moment’s misjudgment -- all too possible in a storm -- could easily plunge them into the waves below.

"I’ve watched your work," Everett replied. "You can handle it."

"Yes sir," said Iverson, more bravely than he felt.

The change of personnel took but a moment. Outside, the lightning continued to brighten, illuminating mighty walls of cloud. The ship swayed gently as she was brushed by a gust -- a subtle motion that hinted at violence to come. Everett stared into the turmoil and considered their options. Like Icarus, he had to strike the right balance. Too low and they might crash into the sea. Too high and they’d get sucked up into the clouds where they’d be at the mercy of the storm.

"Iverson, take her down to 1500’. I would like to stay below cloudbase. Jenkins, ring for three quarter power. Mister MacKiernan, hand me the table of performance figures, then take the plotting board."

The ship swayed again. Everett flipped through the notebook to the page of climb and descent rates, glad they’d taken time to make these measurements. Their practice session of the week before was about to pay off. As he studied the handwritten figures, the bow pitched up and the deck seemed to press against his feet.

"She’s climbing," said Iverson. "We’ve hit an updraft."

"Try to hold her," said Everett. "But don’t let the nose go down more than ten degrees. Miss Sarah, be ready on the maneuvering valves."

The airship yawed to a gust. Jenkins tsked in annoyance, then spun the helm to keep the vessel on course. Outside, the night grew blacker as rain began to fall.

"She’s coming back down now," said Iverson.

"Bring the nose up. And Miss Sarah, be ready on the ballast toggles."

The altimeter dropped, wavered, and steadied at 1500’. Everett glanced at the illuminated dial -- faint flecks of radium glowing in the dark -- and nodded. "Good work, gentlemen. And lady. But stay alert. There may be more...."

Before he could finish, the deck heaved savagely beneath their feet.

"Climbing again!" warned Iverson. "Eight hundred feet per minute!"

"Put the nose down," Everett ordered sharply. "Fifteen degrees. Jenkins, ring for full power. We’ve got to keep her out of the clouds."

"Still climbing!" cried Iverson. "I can’t hold her!"

Engines roared, helpless against the power of the storm. Lightning flashed outside the windows, blinding them with light. Then they were engulfed by darkness.

Next week: The Squall...

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