Episode 56: Routine Flight Operations
"Are you ready, gentlemen? And lady?" asked MacKiernan.
"Aye, Commander," replied the rest of the flight crew. MacKiernan wished he
shared their insouciance. This was the first time he'd taken the ship up as
officer in command and he felt the weight of this responsibility. He had
more than enough experience -- he was, after all, the ship's Executive
Officer -- but the vessel was still something of an enigma, with no
operating manuals or performance tables except the ones they'd compiled
themselves, so he'd have to be ready for surprises.
"Ballast?" he asked Sarah.
"According to my figures, we should be 400 pounds light," said the island
girl, cheerful as ever.
"That seems about right, sir," said the elevatorman. "She's been needing a
degree of elevator to hold the tail down."
"Very well," said MacKiernan, thumbing the intercom. "All hands prepare to
His voice echoed from the speakers. Around the field, Station personnel
paused to watch -- a merciless audience, ready to criticize the slightest
flaw in the evolution. At least the ship was up to her minimum complement,
thought MacKiernan. They'd managed to recruit four new men to replace
Helga, who'd left the ship after their adventure on Sarah's island. But
how well would the newcomers perform? He was about to learn.
"Engine Number Two ahead one quarter," he ordered to compensate for the
slight breeze that would push them aft once they were free of the mast.
"Number Two ahead one quarter," echoed Iverson from the helm.
"All right, lads. Let's show them what we can do. Drop the mooring."
Up in the bow station, Fleming pulled the lever to release the coupling.
A faint clunk reverberated through the hull, then the ground fell away as
the vessel began to rise. MacKiernan was pleased to note that they were
not moving backwards -- he'd judged the power setting correctly. But the
bow was swinging right, causing the ship to crab to starboard.
At low speed, the Flying Cloud was reluctant to answer her helm.
Slowly, then with increasing force, Iverson spun the wheel to the left. At
last the vessel came around, faster than he expected, so that now they were
crabbing to port.
"Lieutenant, this is not looking good."
"I know, sir."
Chastened, the youth spun the wheel back to the right. This time he was
ready for the vessel's quirks, and was able to check the swing in time. But
by the time he'd brought her back into the wind, they'd drifted past the
perimeter of the field. And their troubles were not over, for now the nose
was coming down.
"A leithéid de phrácás! thought MacKiernan "Wallace!"
"Yes, sir," said the elevatorman. "I think I've got her."
"She can be a handful when we're moving this slow."
This was no time for elegance, thought the Irishman, not this
close to the ground. "Release three seconds, Tank Nine," he ordered.
To his right, Sarah pulled the toggle and counted the seconds as water
cascaded from the valve ahead of the control car.
"She's coming up now," said Wallace. "Pitch angle plus two."
"Very good," said MacKiernan. "All engines ahead one half. Let's get some
way on her so we can depart before we embarrass ourselves further. Did
anyone see where that ballast water landed?"
"I believe we were over the car park," said Iverson.
There was a brief stampede as everyone not occupied at the controls rushed
to the rear windows. For a moment, no one spoke.
"I say, isn't that Captain Michaelson's touring car?" asked Sarah at last.
"I believe it is," said MacKiernan glumly. "He would chose today to leave
the top down."
"What should we do now, sir?" asked Iverson from the head of the bridge.
"Steady as she goes, lieutenant," said MacKiernan. "If we're fortunate,
something else will have arisen to occupy the fellow's attention by the time
Morning found them north of the Barkly Tableland, heading west at an
economical cruising speed. Except for a diversion to avoid a line of
thunderstorms that stretched south from the Gulf of Carpentaria, their
flight had been uneventful. The terrain below was unprepossessing -- a
succession of barren hills and dry creekbeds. For the most part, it seemed
uninhabited, though here and there they passed the occasional shack.
MacKiernan couldn't imagine why anyone would live in such a place, for this
part of Australia offered little scope for agriculture or industry. It was
also singularly featureless, which made navigation a challenge. He was
studying their charts, trying to identify some landmark when Sarah came on
"Where are we?" she asked.
"I believe that's the Hume Waterhole to starboard," he replied with a sigh.
"Unless it's the Woodoo Waterhole... or the Tanumbirini Waterhole... or the
"Everything looks the same. How the people who live here tell them apart?"
"Perhaps they don't. Perhaps they just make up a new name each time they
The island girl giggled. "I wonder what a `jaberu' is. Wouldn't it be nice
if someone could build a big mechanical library and connect it to the wire
services so we could send telegrams to find such things out?"
"I believe the Swiss are working on something like that at a laboratory in
Geneva," said Iverson. "They expect it to be ready in a year or two."
Sarah began to reply, then turned as something caught her eye. "What's
that?" she said, pointing out the window.
MacKiernan looked until he spotted what the girl was pointing at -- a line
of dots that seemed out of place in the desert. He raised his binoculars
and adjusted the focus until he could see the thing more clearly. "It looks
like a string of shipping crates."
"Where could they have come from? There aren't any roads out here."
The Exec shrugged. "I imagine some commercial flight ran into bad weather
and had to jettison cargo. This isn't uncommon. But it can't have been too
serious or we'd have heard about it in Cairns."
"Should we send down a party to investigate" asked Iverson hesitantly.
MacKiernan shook his head. "It doesn't seem worth it. Not unless we spot
something more substantial."
The lieutenant gave a sigh of relief. He had not been looking forward to
another Transporter ride.
"Sirs, " said Wallace from the other side of the control car. "You might
want to have a look to port."
Next week: People Just Leave These Things Lying Around...