The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 101: A Face From The Past

Fugitive parachuting into the storm

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 ballast situation?"

"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 ladder.

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 work quickly."

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, taped the sheets together, and placed them in the folder next to Captain Everett's description of the 'Device' that had so thoroughly blasted the surface of the island.

"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 halt.


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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