The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 118: Baffled on Guadalcanal

Dueling teacups

"Gads, it's another tea-drinking island-based constitutional monarchy!  Whatever will we find next?" "Ho, it's another tea-drinking island-based constitutional monarchy!  Tokyo is saved!"

Aola, administrative center of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, stood on the north shore of Guadalcanal at the head of a broad indentation in the coastline named -- logically enough -- Aola Bay. It was obvious, even from a distance, that the settlement was English. A trim row of whitewashed houses looked out on the harbor, where a new R-class destroyer lay at anchor. As an outpost, however small, of His Majesty's Government, the place boasted two mooring masts: one for commercial and one for military traffic, located on opposite sides of the harbor. This division suited Captain Everett's purposes.

By now the Japanese packet had docked at the commercial mast and was disembarking her passengers. Everett studied the vessel through binoculars and imagined he saw a glimmer of light reflecting back from a pair of lenses. "Mister Iverson," he announced. "We will take this opportunity to further your training. You will handle this approach without employing reverse thrust."

"Sir?" asked the lieutenant. Their reversible propellers -- one of several unusual legacies they'd inherited from their vessel's unknown builders -- would have made the evolution considerably easier.

"It will be good for your education," said Everett cryptically.

"Yes, sir," said Iverson. "Helm, engines to idle. Ballast, be ready to weigh off when our speed drops below 10 knots..."

"What did you think of our lieutenant's performance, sir?" asked Jenkins as he handed Everett his mail. The captain was sitting at the desk in his stateroom, where he'd been reviewing some paperwork after the mooring operation was complete.

"He could have been a bit more decisive during that initial turn downwind, but otherwise he handled it well. I believe he has the makings of a capable officer. What do you have for me there?"

"The Administrator extends his hospitality, and would be pleased if we could attend a reception to be held in our honor this Saturday. We've also received what I imagine is an invitation from the Japanese vessel."

"Let's see what our colleagues have to say," said Everett. He opened an envelope addressed `To the Commanding Officer, His Majesty's Airship R-505', withdrew a neatly folded sheet of paper, examined it, and nodded. "The Master of the Shiratori Maru sends his regards and asks if I and members of my staff might wish to visit his command. I believe we should take him up on this offer. Please call Abercrombie and Mister Iverson and ask them to accompany us while I see if Iwamoto wishes to pay a visit to his countrymen.

Everett found Iwamoto in the Number Three engine car, gazing out the window. The engineer's expression was as inscrutable as ever, but Everett imagined that he looked vaguely troubled. Iwamoto turned as Everett entered and offered his captain a bow -- a difficult feat in this cramped compartment.

"Engines secure," he announced. "No problem with machinery."

"Very good," said Everett. "You've done an excellent job. We have received an invitation to visit the Japanese vessel. I wonder if you might wish to accompany us." He gestured out the port, where the other airship could be seen riding at her mooring.

Iwamoto nodded politely. "Thank you, Captain-sama, but need check left cylinder head. Seems running slightly hot. Maybe injectors sticking, fuel mixture too much lean."

Is that so? thought Everett. Didn't you just assure me there was no problem with the machinery? "Very well," he replied lightly. "Carry on."

From a distance, the Shiratori Maru's resemblance to one of Germany's Graf class was uncanny. This was not surprising. As newcomers to the world of aviation, the Japanese drew heavily from existing designs. But as Everett's party approached the ship, they began to notice differences. The fins seemed better streamlined. The control and engine cars were sleeker and conformed to a different aesthetic. The effect was one of refinement and attention to detail rather than slavish duplication of someone else's plan.

They were met at the accommodation ladder by the vessel's interpreter: a young radioman named Kuroda. Accustomed to Iwamoto's novel grammar, Everett was pleasantly surprised. The interpreter's English was excellent, with none of the difficulty with lateral and rhotic consonants or terminal vowels that plagued some of his countrymen."

"Welcome aboard, sirs," he said politely. "It is an honor to receive visitors from His Majesty's Navy. If you would like to accompany me, Captain Saikaku and his officers are waiting in the dining hall."

The radioman pointed out various sights as they made their way down the keel passage. The Shiratori Maru was large as packets went -- with approximately 3.7 million cubic feet of enclosed volume, she was almost as big as a small liner. Like her exterior shape, her interior layout drew heavily from the German design, often down to the placement of individual fixtures such as control cable pulleys and ballast valves. But there were some noteworthy differences. Everett noticed Abercrombie glancing at some of the frame junctions they passed.

"You see it too?" asked the Scotsman, speaking quietly so their host wouldn't overhear.

"Yes," replied Everett. "We will not speak of this now."

The dining hall was well-lit, impeccably furnished, and obviously intended to cater to a superior class of passenger. The effect was strange to Western eyes -- an unfamiliar mixture of elegance and simplicity that reflected centuries of tradition. In the flurry of introductions that followed their arrival, Everett gathered that many of the ship's officers held reserve commissions in the Imperial Japanese Navy. He quickly gave up any hope of remembering most of the unfamiliar names, but the most important seemed to be the captain and the ship's navigator: a senior lieutenant named Aizawa.

"Welcome, Captain Everetu," said Captain Saikaku. "It is honor to have you aboard our vessel. Will you take some tea?"

Everett accepted a cup from a young woman wearing a formal kimono. It was a green variety, different from the teas popular in England, but quite palatable. This was something the two cultures had in common, he thought. He wondered if his hosts also shared the English penchant for dissimulation.

"It's a pleasure to be aboard," he replied. "Our two nations have a long history of friendship. I hope they can continue to prosper together."

"We were glad to fight with your King against the Kaiser," said Captain Saikaku, with obvious sincerity. "Speaking as private individual, I hope this alliance continues."

No fools, the Japanese had sided with England in the one-sided Pacific campaign. They'd used this opportunity to snap up several German territories, which they'd had to return after the Peace.

"I understand your government has resumed normal relations with Germany," Everett observed, gesturing at the vessel around them.

His host sighed. "They sell us plans and try to buy friendship. Some members of Diet say to accept. But most say England better friend during the War."

"We did our best," said Everett modestly. "Were you involved in the conflict?"

"No, I miss this opportunity," said Captain Saikaku, as if this was cause for regret. "But Lieutenant Ashikawa was at siege of Tsing Tao."

The navigator offered a bow. "That fine ship you have, Everetu-sama. Is Junior Vickers?"

"She's a sister ship, from a different yard," said Everett, not entirely untruthfully.

"Ah," said the navigator. "I wonder her engines." His voice was so formal that it was difficult to tell whether the question was casual or not.

"Beardmore makes excellent diesels," Everett replied. "They might not be as powerful as the latest German designs, but they also don't use as much fuel."

His hosts nodded -- efficiency was important for long-range operations in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Everett gave himself a mental pat on the back for his skill at evading the question.

"What do you think, sir?" asked Iverson as the made their way back to the Flying Cloud.

"I believe we can accept Captain Saikaku and most of his people at face value," mused Everett, "They could be dissembling, but I can't imagine anyone could be that skillful. But I wonder about that Navigator. He asked some rather pointed questions about our vessel, as if he had suspicions about her origin."

"That's why you wouldn't let us show off her performance or capabilities," said Iverson as understanding dawned.

Everett smiled. "Very good , Mister Iverson. I trust you've found this exercise instructive."

Next week: A Florida Vacation...

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