R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 32: Lagers of the Deep

Airship flying along the coast

Captain Roland P. Everett, commander of His Majesty’s Airship, the Flying Cloud, R-505, swept his binoculars along the coastline ahead. It was an uninspiring prospect -- miles of swamp, broken by muddy estuaries, thickening to jungle as the land climbed to the south. Some distance ahead, a small freighter was plodding towards them trailing a plume of smoke from its rust-streaked stack.

"There’s another one," said Lieutenant Iverson, from his station at the helm. "Whatever can they be carrying? I can’t imagine there’s much worthwhile cargo in this part of the world."

"Manure?" suggested MacKiernan. The Exec’s tone implied that the truth was likely to be even more distasteful.

"I imagine Jenkins might have some idea," observed Everett. "But he’s back in Darwin, so I suppose we’d better find out for ourselves. Miss Sarah, what’s our ballast situation?"

The young island girl checked her figures "We should be a few hundred pounds heavy," she said cheerfully. "It’s gotten a bit cooler over the past hour."

"Wallace?"

"Sounds about right, sir. She’s running a bit nose-high."

"Very good," said Everett, picking up the microphone. "Mister MacKiernan, signal that vessel to heave to for inspection. Abercrombie, prepare to drop the guide line. Loris, report to the bridge. Mister Iverson, as soon as he’s here, give him the helm, then take Davies and Rashid to the Transporter Room and lead a party down to investigate."

The Transporter Room was the same as always -- a businesslike compartment dominated by a hoist platform, a winch, and a very large drum of cable. Once again, Iwamoto manned the controls himself. "Bridge reporting in position," he said as Iverson and his men took their stations on the platform.

"Very good," said the lieutenant, with much more assurance than he felt. "Energize."

"Hai!" The engineer adjusted a dial, threw a switch, pulled a lever, and the platform dropped with a lurch.

"I hate this part," muttered Davies.

So do I, thought Iverson.

It was not a ride for the timid. The airship hung overhead, gleaming in the sun, trailing a hawser down to the sea below. This kept the vessel at a constant altitude, for if she rose, lifting some of the cable, the additional weight would pull her down, and if she dropped, more line would float on the water, allowing her to rise.

Maintaining station was another matter. Iverson could hear the ship's engines changing pitch and watch her rudder move as the command crew maneuvered to stay above the freighter. This was a difficult operation, with considerable scope for some mistake that would send the boarding party crashing into something wet, sharp, or hard. Even if they arrived safely, he had no idea what kind of reception they’d receive.

"Weapons ready," he ordered. Behind him, Davies and Rashid checked the magazines of their rifles. Then the platform was bumping down on the deck.

"G’day, mates!" came a cheerful voice. "’Ave a Swan!"

Iverson glanced up to see a man in a faded brown jacket waving something in his fist. "I beg your pardon?" he asked cautiously.

"Swan Lager!" said the man, handing him a bottle. "Best brew in Queensland! Welcome aboard the Tranquility! I’m Ray, her captain. An’ what brings a crew of Royal airmen here?"

"I’m... uh... Lieutenant Iverson, His Majesty’s Airship, Flying Cloud. We’ve been ordered to this area to inspect shipping. May I ask what you’re carrying as cargo?"

"Barbed wire!" laughed the man, with a grin that suggested he’d scored some great commercial coup. "Big rusty tangles of barbed wire! Salvaged from a barge that went ashore to the west. Not worth much, but it didn’t cost us much either! We’ve also got a few tons of guano if you'd like a look!"

"I don’t believe that will be necessary," said Iverson quickly. "Have you noticed anything unusual along this coast recently? In particular, have you noticed any other airships?"

The captain called back to the pilothouse, where a sunburned blond man was standing at the wheel. "Cleaner, we seen any other airships?"

"Can’t say as we ‘ave, Ray."

"Thank you," said Iverson. "If you’ll just sign this form, we’ll be on our way."

The captain scribbled his name with a flourish, then shoved a bucket into the lieutenant’s arms. "’Ere ya go mate! Brew f’yer crew!"


They encountered more ships as the afternoon wore on. Some were fairly sizable, while others were little more then fishing smacks, but their crews seemed all thrilled by the novelty of a visit from a naval airship, and took the opportunity to press more gifts on the boarding parties.

"What was it this time?" asked MacKiernan, after what seemed like their dozenth deployment. "Any black rocks?"

"No," said Iverson, thumping a bucket down on deck. "Shrimp."

The Exec lifted an eyebrow. "Those are ‘shrimp’?"

"I believe the word is used in a somewhat different sense here in Australia," remarked Everett.

MacKiernan shook his head. "I’d hate to see what the big ones are like."

"Captain," asked Iverson. "What can we hope to accomplish besides collecting seafood? There’s no way we can possibly identify smugglers from the air, and we don’t have enough ballast and hydrogen to weigh off and lower a team to investigate every vessel we meet."

"True," observed Everett, "but we can use this to our advantage. I’m sure Channel is intercepting on our communications. If we send a telegram to Cairns to the effect we’ve been forced to curtail operations because we’re low on hydrogen, that will put him under pressure to fix the plant here."

"Sirs," said Loris from the wheel. "You might want to have a look this."

The three officers moved up to peer through the window. Some distance ahead, a trawler had changed course to motor away at full speed.

"It looks like they’re trying to flee," marveled MacKiernan.

"What a silly thing for them to do," said Iverson. "They’re just calling attention to themselves. And they can’t possibly hope to outrun an airship."

"I suppose we should put a stop to this," tsked Everett. "Lieutenant, take command of the main battery and be ready to fire a shot across their bow."

Moments later, Iverson was hurrying down the keel passage after Davies. A shot across their bow! he thought. It sounded like something out of a radio drama. He’d never imagined himself preparing to give such an order. It occurred to him that the gun was usually Fleming’s station. He wondered where the young airman was now. The Aussie was missing all the excitement!

Next week: Sheilas Gone Wild...

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