R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 38: The Secret of Speed

Iwamoto with one of the ship's 12-cylinder supercharged diesels.

"Three messages for you, sir," said Jenkins.

Captain Everett looked up from the desk in his cabin -- this was not much larger than a Pullman compartment, crammed to overflowing with logs, files, records, account books, and all the other paperwork that came with a command. "I trust you've taken the liberty of examining them," he replied.

"Of course," said the signalman. One of the unstated duties of an aide was to screen all correspondence not marked `private' to reduce the amount of paperwork that came with a command. "The first was a commendation from CIC Cairns for apprehending those smugglers."

Everett smiled, imagining how much it must have annoyed Michaelson to acknowledge an enemy's success. "And the others?"

"The second is a set of orders, in the ordinary cipher, to conduct another patrol farther to the west. The third is a note from Dabney here at the air station that Channel has finally given him the men he needs to fix the hydrogen plant."

Everett raised his eyebrows. "And that was the sequence in which they arrived?"

"So it would seem. You believe this has some significance?"

"Perhaps," said Everett. "If Channel is intercepting our messages, as we suspect, then he delayed authorizing the repairs until after he saw our orders. It could be that he doesn't want to be taken to task if we don't get the hydrogen we require, but it's also possible he's hiding something, and this new patrol will take us in the wrong direction to find it."

"The wrong direction," mused the signalman. "I'd imagine we can exclude the south. Fleming's report suggests that the police chief is held in a certain opprobrium in that direction."

Everett smiled at this understatement. "And we arrived from the east. This would seem to leave only the north."

"There's nothing in that direction but ocean."

"I have some ideas about that," said the captain. "Order all hands to departure stations. We'll lift within the hour."

Fifty-five minutes later, Everett capped his pen and set it aside. He'd finished all his paperwork. For now. Of the many burdens of command, this was arguably the worst. How had armies managed before the invention of paper, he wondered? He imagined some Roman general, chiseling away at a pile of stone tablets, and suppressed a laugh. Captains in the Royal Naval Airship Service were not supposed to chuckle, except at the appropriate moments as dictated by RNR 679-034, Sections B, C, and D.

When he reached the control car, Sarah greeting him with a smile that lighted up the whole bridge. "We have hydrogen again!" she announced. "Our gas cells are back to 85% full! Now we can go somewhere!"

The others saluted, except for Iverson, who seemed to be distracted by Sarah. Everett ignored the lieutenant's lapse -- if his own duties had allowed it, he might have been distracted by Sarah too. "Where's Wallace?" he asked , who'd taken the airman's place at the elevator wheel

"His in sick bay, sir," said the Scotsman. "A muscle pull. He should be back on his feet tomorrow."

"There's been a lot of that going around lately," MacKiernan remarked. "You might tell your men to be careful."

The rigger's expression turned strange. "I... ah... I'll do that, sir."

Everett glanced at the ballast board. "Miss Sarah, what do your numbers say?"

"We should be 800 pounds light."

"Very good. Mister Iverson, ring engines to idle. Bow station, drop the mooring. All hands, up ship!"

An hour later, the town of Darwin had faded from sight behind them. To port, waves swept past toward the jungle-bound coast. To starboard, the waters of the Timor Sea stretched north to the horizon. Somewhere beyond this lay Indonesia, New Guinea, and any number of exotic islands -- all out of reach, or were they?

"Mister Iverson," said Everett. "Do you recall our orders?"

The lieutenant drew himself erect, imagining this to be some kind of test. "We are to proceed west to Coral Bay," he replied, "conduct a sweep of the surrounding area to a distance of 100 miles, and return to Darwin five days after our departure."

"And how long would this take at our official cruising speed: the one we reported to Michaelson? Mister MacKiernan, if you'd take the helm so that our lieutenant could consult the charts, I believe he may learn a valuable lesson."

Iverson relinquished the wheel, wiped his hands nervously, and made his way back to the plotting table. After a moment's work with dividers and slide rule, he looked up.

"Five days, sir."

"Very good. As you can see, the senior captain has done his homework. Now how long would this take at our real top speed: the one we kept secret?"

The Lieutenant worked his slide rule again. "Three days, sir."

"Which gives us two days to indulge ourselves. You see why it's wise to keep secrets, Mister Iverson. That is our lesson for today. Now let's put this particular secret to good use."

It took them several minutes to work the Flying Cloud up to full speed. This was somewhat shy of her top speed, but more than adequate for the search pattern Everett had in mind: a succession of broad zigzags out to sea and back, covering a swath of ocean that extended from the coast to 100 miles offshore. This exercise was not without some risk, for if Michaelson learned how fast their vessel was, he'd be sure to make another attempt to take her away from them, but Everett was a practiced hand at hiding blatant facts behind ambiguous entries in the ship's log.

July 16, 1926, 1000 hrs. Lat, 12 50' Long 127 14'. His Majesty's Airship Flying Cloud, R-505, Captain Roland P. Everett cmdr. We have taken advantage of favorable conditions to conduct a sweep offshore en route to our patrol station. Except for a few minor muscle pulls and the like, the crew are high spirits and anxious to be about their mission.

He had just finished writing when MacKiernan called from the port side of the control car.

"Captain. I've spotted another airship, bearing 290, range approximately twenty miles, headed in our direction."

Around them the bridge crew tensed. The attack by the mysterious cruiser, just a few weeks before, had taught them to be wary of unidentified vessels.

"Can you make out her colors?" asked Everett.

"No, sir. Not at this angle."

Everett thumbed the alarm. "All hands," he announced, "action stations. This is not a drill."

Next week: The Chase...

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