Episode 60: Distractions
Everett, Jenkins, and Abercrombie had visited a haberdashery to obtain a
better class of apparel than the garments they'd taken from the thugs. Now,
properly attired, they blended in with the other customers of the café. Tea
was just arriving when a shadow fell across the terrace. Conversation
ceased as diners turned to look up at the sky. The three men followed their
"She's beautiful," said Abercrombie after a moment.
"Indeed she is," said Everett.
Above them, the Flying Cloud was making her way west -- a long
streamlined shape, like Barnes Wallis's classic R-100, only smaller and more
graceful. Sunlight glittered from the disks of her propellers while the
drone of her engines filled the air. On the streets around them, the crowds
began to cheer.
"Terrible way to treat a garment," said Jenkins, gesturing at the string
of banners that trailed from the control car. Among them was Everett's
"It appears that they got our message," said Everett.
"What will the townsfolk think?" asked Abercrombie.
Everett gave a dismissive shrug. "I doubt they'll notice. If they do, I
imagine they'll assume it's some Navy tradition."
Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan stood by the windows of the control car,
gazing at the town below. The streets were lined with people who'd gathered
to watch the ship depart. Many were honking horns or waving flags. He
"We owe the lads a salute. Loris, let's give them our signal."
The airman sounded their siren. It was greeted with another cheer -- this
one so loud they could hear it over the sound of the airship's diesels.
Then they were passing over the harbor and leaving the town behind.
"Do you think the Captain got our message?" asked Sarah.
"I'm sure that Jenkins noticed," said MacKiernan dryly. "It's not the sort
of thing he'd miss."
"What will we do now, sir?" asked Lieutenant Iverson.
"I've been trying to guess what the Captain would want," said MacKiernan.
"We believe he dropped out of sight to conduct some investigation here in
Darwin. If so, he may want us to provide a distraction. We'll do this by
flying a highly visible sortie somewhere else."
"What do you have in mind?" asked Sarah.
"Do you recall that freighter we boarded last month: the one that had
salvaged a cargo of barbed wire from some wrecked barge?"
"Of course," said Loris from the helm. "The Tranquility! They
were the ones with the beer!"
"It wasn't real beer," griped Wallace from the elevator station, "it was
MacKiernan glared at the enlisted men until they fell silent. "I made some
inquiries, doing my best to attract notice, and tracked down the Customs
Service report. Now we'll investigate the site of the wreck. I doubt we'll
find anything interesting, but it is consistent with our alleged coastal
patrol mission, and it should keep Channel guessing."
Now that they were underway, MacKiernan ordered the ship to regular watches.
As leader of the starboard division, this gave Iverson the morning watch, 4
to 8 AM, their first day out. He was lying in his bunk, half asleep, when
he heard a soft knock on the door.
"Wake up John," came Sarah's voice from the other side, "you wouldn't want
to be late for duty."
He leapt from his bunk, sleep forgotten, and dragged on his uniform.
Moments later he was stepping from his cabin. the girl greeted him with a
"That looks terrible! Doesn't the Navy teach you how to manage clothing in
What did she say? thought Iverson, repressing a
squeak as Sarah reached up to adjust his collar. This close, her presence
was overwhelming. She seemed to shine in the dim light of the keel passage.
Did she remember that evening in Cairns? he wondered. Since that
magical night, her manner had been entirely businesslike, giving no hint of
"There," she said cheerfully. "Now you're presentable." For an instant,
her hand seemed to brush his cheek. Then she was leading the way toward the
control car, body swaying gently in the overhead lights. Iverson followed,
wondering if there was something he should have done or said. The Naval
College syllabus had not covered situations such as this.
He was still wondering when MacKiernan arrived on the bridge, several hours
"Good morning gentlemen. And lady," said the Exec. "What's our current
"Heading 120, speed 8 knots at quarter power on Engine Number Two,
maintaining station three miles offshore while we wait for sunrise," said
Iverson. With the moon in the first quarter, there was little else they
could do during the hours of darkness.
"And what time might that be, Lieutenant?"
"2155 Greenwich, 0725 Darwin local," replied Iverson smartly. He might have
been distracted by thoughts of the girl, but officers in the Royal Naval
Airship service were taught to be ready for surprises.
"Very good," said MacKiernan, as if this had been some sort of test. "And
here he is now. Let's see what he has to show us."
Like all tropical sunrises, this one was swift. The sky brightened as they
watched, colors flooding back into the world as the sun climbed above the
horizon. To the north, east, and west, the sea shone a heart-stopping shade
of blue. To the south, the coast was an intricate panorama of estuaries,
islands, headlands, and swamps. MacKiernan studied the maze, face
expressionless. At last he sighed.
"I suppose we'd better go through the motions of a search. Get all the
engines started, then bring us in closer and take us west parallel to the
shore, but keep our speed down."
"Helmsman," said Iverson, "bring us right to 260 and ring for quarter power
on Engines One and Three."
"Right to 260, quarter power on One and Three."
For the next few minutes, Iverson had little time for sightseeing.
The wind was backing as the land grew warmer, which made it tricky to
maintain their offing.
He was busy with compass and drift meter, trying to establish a
course, when Sarah pointed at the coast ahead.
"I believe I've spotted something on the shore."
"Where away, Miss Sarah?" asked MacKiernan, lifting his binoculars.
"Bearing 210, on the far side of that island that looks like a crouching
"Well well," said the Exec. "Good work, all of you. I believe that's
our barge. We'll send down a party to have a look."
Send down a party? thought Iverson. I suppose this means me.
Again. "What do you think we'll find, sir?" he asked, giving no hint
of his trepidation.
MacKiernan shrugged. "Probably nothing. But it will be good practice for
the crew. And I imagine the Captain is discovering things in Darwin."
Next week: In His Majesty's Public Service, Part I...