Episode 38: The Secret of Speed
"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
Everett raised his eyebrows. "And that was the sequence in which they
"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
"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
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.
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...