The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 108: Memories of a Rather Bad Day

Memories of the attack

The Flying Cloud cruised northeast beneath a sky that blazed with stars. Engines murmured in the night, and the slipstream whispered against her hull, but otherwise the mess hall was quiet. The moon was rising, a quarter past full, above the waters of the Coral Sea, but Captain Everett had little time to enjoy the view, for he was wrestling with the mass of paperwork that was part of a captain’s duties. Had it always been this way, he wondered? Did Nelson have to fill out a ‘Request To Engage The Enemy More Closely’ before Trafalgar? Did Drake and Hawkins have to submit expense reports to Good Queen Bess after they defeated the Armada?

At last, with a sigh, he set down his pen, rose, and walked to the window. No matter now urgently the RNR-310 forms might beckon, his heart was not in it. This seemed a time for reflection, and he had many things on which to reflect.

He was still standing there, gazing into the night, when he heard the tap of footsteps. "Miss Perkins," he said without turning. "What brings you here at this hour?"

"I would like an estimated time of arrival at this island of yours," she said crisply. He wondered if she was always so businesslike. Did this behavior extended to her personal life? He imagined her presenting some hapless suitor with detailed specifications for a romantic encounter, complete with applications to be filled out in triplicate.

"It’s a tricky business," he replied, putting this ungentlemanly speculation aside. "We will want to approach from the west so we’ll be hidden in the pre-dawn gloom. But dawn comes swiftly in this part of the world, which means our time constraints will be tight."

"You’re worried about this mysterious cruiser that attacked you in June?"

"Very much so. Iverson’s experience when he was prisoner on the island suggests that the Governor has reached some kind of understanding with the vessel’s masters."

"And we still don’t have any idea who these people might be?"

Everett shook his head. "They must be representatives of some Power -- no one else could command a vessel of that size. But that leaves many plausible candidates, particularly once we allow for the possibility of renegades and dissident groups."

"Tell me about the attack," she said, voice warming slightly. "I read your report to the Admiralty, but it was too abbreviated to provide much detail."

Everett noted her change in tone and wondered. It seemed the only gap in the woman’s armor was her sense of curiosity. What had happened to make her present such an uncompromising face to the world? And was he so very different?

"We were proceeding east, on the morning of the 21st, some distance northeast of our current position, in response to a distress call," he replied, keeping these thoughts to himself. "Shortly after 1000 hours, we sighted another airship to the southeast on a converging course."

"What was it doing out here?" she asked. "This is well off the usual trade routes."

"We wondered about this," said Everett, "for it was only by chance that we were in the area ourselves. And the vessel was quite substantial -- at least 800 feet long with an enclosed volume in excess of six million cubic feet. Her design was quite modern, with a fully streamlined hull, an attached control car, and eight engines arranged in a row of four on each side. Nothing like that ever came out of the yards of England, Germany, or France. The Americans have something similar undergoing trials in Sunnyvale, but that vessel is accounted for."

"And they approached under false colors?"

"So we discovered, to our dismay. There were no national markings on her hull, but she was flying the flag of Argentina from her lower rudder. This was the Official Flag, not the Official Ceremonial Flag -- standard practice for a civilian vessel."

"Argentina?" said Miss Perkins, lifting an eyebrow.

"This is not as implausible as one might suppose. They are one of the two richest nations in the Western Hemisphere. They also have a keen interest in aviation, and their Dirección General de Aeronáutica has been negotiating with firms in Germany and America to establish shipbuilding facilities.

"We imagined she was some new liner, built under license from the Goodyear Corporation. This was most certainly news, so we approached, hoping get photographs for the Admiralty. They didn’t respond to our hails, but they did alter course to starboard, giving us the opportunity to pull alongside.

"Then, when we’d closed to within 800 yards, they dropped their flag and opened fire."

Everett’s voice gave no hint of his feelings, but his face darkened as he remembered that day. "We never had a chance, really. I’m not sure what they were carrying but it was much heavier than our battery -- a three-pounder at least. And at that range, they could hardly miss. Their second shell struck our keel just aft of the control car. That was always a weak point on the Short Brothers design, and our ship broke up almost immediately.

"I just managed to get my people out before the control car tore free. We found ourselves on the bow section. It was lighter than air, so we went up like a shot. But the other half of the ship must have lost hydrogen because it went down in a long slow glide toward the ocean. The cruiser turned to follow it and that was the last we saw of them."

"They never came looking for you?"

"Apparently not. I imagine they were busy taking the survivors on the stern section prisoner."

The secretary was silent for a moment, as if sorting through the pieces of a puzzle. "What were you doing in that area in the first place?" she asked at last.

Everett's eyebrows went up. It had never occurred to him to wonder about this. "The orders came from Sydney," he mused. "We assumed it was some sort of training exercise, but now that you raise the question, it does seem an improbable coincidence."

"Tell me about this distress call."

This demand, and the preemptory way it was delivered, was quite inappropriate from a civilian passenger, but Everett could see which way the woman’s thoughts were heading. "A freighter reported they’d suffered an explosion in the engine room and were taking on water. They went off the air shortly after they’d finished giving their position."

"Could the message have been a ruse sent by the cruiser?"

"I suppose this is possible," mused Everett, "but it’s difficult to imagine a motive. Why would they go to such enormous lengths to lure an unimportant patrol vessel into the middle of nowhere and destroy it? There's also the mystery of Lieutenant Blacker. It seems he's working with these fellows. Why would they attack a vessel carrying one of their own agents? I can think of any number of scenarios, but in our current state of ignorance, it’s impossible to know if any of these are correct."

"You’re worried about your people," she said quietly.

Everett glanced at the woman in surprise. Was that a hint of softness in her voice? In the darkness by the window, her expression was invisible.

"Of course," he replied. "It’s part of a captain’s job."

The world was still in shadow, but the eastern horizon was tinged with light. To the north, the outlines of an island took on form and substance as dawn spread across the sky.

"A good landfall, Mister MacKiernan," said Everett. "Now let's find our crash site."

"It should be east of a gap in the cliff," said Fleming, who the captain had called to the bridge for just this purpose. "That should be it, just beyond those two offshore rocks."

"You’re absolutely certain?" asked Sarah.

"Dinky di. I got a good gander from my Lilienthal when I was soaring the ridge."

"Then where’s this wreck you’ve been talking about?"

Eyes studied the cliff and widened in surprise.

"Bloody hell!" said MacKiernan. "It’s gone!"

Next week: All Right, Where'd It Go?...

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