Episode 101: A Face From The Past
Rain drummed against the hull of the R-87, a muted rushing sound that
muffled the drone of the engines. Outside the control car, the scene was a
formless gray. The terrain -- assuming they were still over land -- was
entirely hidden by cloud.
"Filthy night," said Commander Harris, to no one in particular. Iverson
nodded from his station at the helm. He might not have been part of the
ship's regular complement, but on a vessel this small, all naval personnel,
even passengers, were expected to take their turn on watch.
"Sydney's calling," said the radio operator. "They'd like a new estimate
for our time of arrival."
"Tell them, `unknown'," grumbled Harris. "How can they expect anyone to
determine their position in this muck?" He glanced his chart, looked out
the window, and frowned in annoyance. "Airman Page, what's our fuel and
"We're down to 790 gallons, and running approximately five hundred pounds
heavy," said the rating. "That new dope formula seems to be working. The
hull fabric hasn't soaked up as much rain as we expected."
"That's something at least," grumbled Harris. "We'll enter it in the log;
it should make Bureau of Maintenance happy."
Whatever else the commander might have said was interrupted by a creak from
above as the hatch swung open. Three bedraggled figures descended the
accommodation ladder, accompanied by a splatter of rain.
"First Watch, sir, reporting for duty," said the leader, offering the
commander a soggy salute.
"Very good, Mister Welch," replied Harris. "Do something about this weather
that followed you in, then assume your duties."
One of the men produced a rag and began to mop down the floor as his
companions took their stations. This was an awkward process, for the control
car of the R-87 was none too large. She was an old Wolseley-class patrol
airship, relegated to duty in the South Pacific as she neared the end of her
service life, and vessels of her type had never been noted for luxury. Last
to reach his position was the helmsman. He squeezed in beside Iverson and
took the wheel.
"I've got it, sir," he announced.
"Very good," said Iverson. "The course you want is 200." He nodded to the
commander, then turned sideways and edged his way back to the accommodation
Like most airships of her vintage, the R-87 had an external control car, so
the climb up to the hull involved an unpleasant scramble through the rain.
By the time Iverson reached the keel passage, he was thoroughly drenched.
Jenkins was waiting for him with a towel.
"I gather our arrival will be somewhat behind schedule," said the signalman.
"Quite," said Iverson as he mopped off his face. "There's no telling where
we are or how long this storm will last. You have the papers?"
"They are in our quarters. Will you have enough time?"
The lieutenant glanced down through the companionway hatch. On the other
side of the rain-streaked glass, he could see Harris consulting his watch.
"Our commander appears to be busy," he observed. "We should be fine if we
Crew accommodations on a Wolesley-class vessel were minimal: a few cramped
alcoves next to the keel passage, midway between the control car and the
cargo hold. Jenkins drew the curtain, switched on the reading lamp, and
handed Iverson a folder marked 'Ujelang: Confidential'.
"It's a pity you didn't have a chance to finish your part of the report
before we left Cairns," he remarked.
Iverson nodded guiltily, like a schoolchild who was late with his homework.
"There wasn't much opportunity what with the overhaul, but as long as it's
in the dispatch case when we reach Sydney, no one will notice. We're
lucky Captain Everett was able to get us aboard the courier flight. However
did he manage?"
The signalman smiled. "The Captain is not without his resources."
His report took little time to complete. Like most graduates of the Naval
College, Iverson had considerable experience scrambling to finish papers
before a deadline. He checked the text for errors, tapped the sheets
together, and placed them in the folder next to Captain Everett's
decsription of the 'Device' that had so thoroughly blasted the surface of
"That should suffice," he announced. "Let's see if we can slip this back
where it came from before Commander Harris goes off watch."
The Commander's quarters were more substantial than the rest -- the only
compartment aboard ship with actual walls and a door. The two men had no
problem reaching it without being seen, for the ship's tiny crew were all at
their stations. Getting inside was another matter.
"Do you think you'll have any trouble with the lock?" whispered Iverson.
"I doubt it will be a problem," replied Jenkins. "We used to practice on
this model back in Signals School." He produced a torque bar and pick
and was crouching in front of the keyhole when the door flew open. A
shadowy figure burst into the passageway, gave a cry of surprise, then
turned and fled toward the bow.
"What the..." exclaimed Iverson. "He was carrying the dispatch case!"
"This can hardly be normal practice," observed Jenkins. "We might do well
to pursue the fellow in case he intends some mischief."
They dashed after the stranger, ducking to avoid overhanging girders in
the dark. There was little chance of losing him, for he had nowhere to
flee, but as they made their way forward, the passageway curved upwards
until the other man was hidden from view. When they reached the
ventilation trunk that led up to the forward gun station, Jenkins called a
From above they could hear the faint sound of footsteps. "He's headed up
the ladder," cried Iverson. "We've got him cornered! After him!"
It was a stiff climb, but both men were in good condition, and they reached
the top in short order. They arrived to find the lookout post empty, for
Harris had seen no need to station someone to stare uselessly into the
rain. There was also no sign of their quarry.
"Could we have passed him in the dark?" asked Jenkins.
"I don't see how," said Iverson. "He must have gone out onto the hull."
He hunched his shoulders and peered aft through the squall. Was that a
figure? "I believe I've spotted the fellow. Tally ho!"
The passage aft was nerve-wracking.
The new dope formula might have kept out the rain, but it made the fabric
slippery, and the storm didn't help matters at all.
By the time they reached the vertical stabilizer, both men were soaked to
the skin. They'd also lost sight of the stranger, but the entrance to the
aft ventilation trunk gaped open at their feet.
"What is he up to?" said Jenkins. "He's heading back the way we came."
"No he isn't," said Iverson, a suspicion dawning in his mind. "Follow me!"
He slid down the ladder and dashed forward, with the signalman following in
his wake. As they approached the cargo hold, he heard the sound he'd
expected: the rattle of doors sliding open.
"He must have stowed away with the cargo," said Iverson. "It's the only way
he could have gotten aboard unseen. I imagine he left a parachute there as
well. When we blocked his route aft, he led us in a big circle to get back
to it. I hope we're in time to stop him!"
He flung open the hatchway and staggered as he was struck by a gust of
wind. Ahead of them, a dark figure stood at the edge of the cargo bay door
with a bulky pack strapped to his back.
In one hand he held the dispatch case; in the other he held a watch.
He looked up as Jenkins flashed his handlamp.
"Too late, gentlemen!" he cried. Then he turned and leapt into the storm,
but not before the two men had a chance to see his face.
"Good lord!" exclaimed Jenkins. "That was Lieutenant Blacker!"
"But that's impossible!" said Iverson. "He was lost with the other half of
the Flying Lady!"
Next week: Missing Pieces...
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