The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 132: Clouds Got In My Way

Two airships converging on a cloud

An inversion had formed during the night as the sea surface had cooled, cooling the air above it. It was the inversion that had saved them. It had kept the airship aloft, saving precious ballast, even as her hydrogen cells had grown colder and shrunk. Morning found the R-505 floating on the dense layer of marine air like a raft floating on the ocean. Now they cruised through a flotilla of clouds. Below them, the Pacific was a patchwork of blue and shadow, dotted here and there by flecks of spray.

In the control car, the forenoon watch were taking their places. Iverson stumbled, then caught himself as he descended the companionway. He'd had little sleep since they'd left Cairns, and this had taken its toll. The rest of his watch didn’t seem to be faring much better. Even Jenkins looked bleary-eyed.

"Good morning, Lieutenant," said Everett from the chart table. "Watch yourself on that step."

Iverson glanced at his superior in amazement. The captain had been awake for almost 48 hours, but he still looked as fresh as the day they’d cleared the air station. How does he manage? he wondered. Sarah met his gaze and shrugged.

"What's our position?" she asked Everett.

"Our dawn sight put us 80 miles east of Fiji, and we have forty left to go. According to Loris's figures, we have 3,000 pounds of ballast and 300 gallons of fuel remaining. As long as nothing untoward occurs, this should be sufficient."

"Then we’ve made it," said the island girl, reaching out to pat one of the Flying Cloud’s girders. "I knew she could do it."

"So it would seem," said Everett, "but it's never safe to leap to assumptions during flight operations." He was doing his best to look stern, but Iverson detected a trace of a smile.

Whatever Sarah might have said in reply was drowned out by a call from the intercom. "Upper lookout to bridge, we have another vessel to the north, range approximately eight miles, bearing 010 degrees. You’d better have a look, sir."

Iverson wondered at Davies’s tone. The marine, usually unflappable, had sounded alarmed. Everett picked up a pair of binoculars, focused them toward the northeast, and nodded. "Interesting," he said. His expression had hardened.

"Sir?" asked Iverson.

The captain passed him the instrument. "Almost dead abeam, at our altitude, a few degrees to starboard of that cloud."

Iverson focused the binoculars. After a moment, he spotted it -- the mighty grey hull, with a row of four engines on each side -- forging its way to the east. He sucked in his breath.

"It’s..."

"...our friends in the mysterious cruiser," said Everett. "I’d hoped for another encounter someday... but I’d also hoped for enough fuel to see us through an engagement."

"What will we do now, sir?"

"Hope they don't see us."

"I don’t think that’s going to work," said Sarah, indicating the other vessel, which had begun a turn in their direction.

"So it would seem," said Everett. He took two quick steps to the intercom and thumbed the alarm. "All hands to battle stations. This is not a drill. Fleming, ring full power on all three engines. Jenkins, call Suva, inform them we’re under attack, and request assistance."

Footsteps clattered overhead, followed by a roar as the ship’s big supercharged diesels came to life. On the panel above the helm, the airspeed indicator began to climb.

"They're jamming our signal, sir," said Jenkins. "I can't reach the station."

"I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised," remarked Everett, "though it’s interesting that they have the necessary equipment."

"Passing through 40 knots..." said Fleming, "...45..."

"We can't run at this power for long," said Sarah. "Twenty, maybe thirty minutes at most."

"If we play our cards right, we may not need to. Fleming, steer toward that cloud."

The Aussie eased the wheel to port. Cables creaked, the compass needle pivoted, and the horizon swung until the cloud was dead ahead. It grew rapidly, rising above their ship like a great white wave. Then the sky vanished as the world around them turned grey.

"Engines back to quarter power," ordered Everett. "Then start putting the helm to starboard."

"What's your plan?" asked Sarah.

"We'll circle to stay in the cloud as long we can," explained Everett. "The wind is southeast, pushing us toward Fiji. Every minute we hide inside it brings us a little bit closer to Suva."

Iverson nodded. This would be a stratagem to remember -- assuming they survived. For several long moments, the only sound was the ticking of the chronometer and the throbbing of the diesels. The deck heaved gently beneath their feet. Outside the windows, mist swirled past, thinned, and grew brighter. Their shelter was dissipating.

"Davies," called Everett, "where is our friend?"

"Astern to port, bearing 090, range five miles."

"All engines full ahead, steer for the cloud bearing 280."

Iverson turned to look through the rear windows of the control car. Behind them, the cruiser was an ominous disk, highlighted by the sun. A light winked from her keel -- he knew this wasn’t a signal lamp. Seconds later, there was a faint screech as a shell tore through the air below them.

"Shall I deploy our cannon and return fire?" he asked.

Everett shook his head. "We don't have enough fuel to fight. But here's our second cloud. Let's hope it lasts longer than the first."

Once again the world turned grey. Minutes passed as they circled. At the helm, Fleming gripped the wheel and stared into the mists, tightening their turn whenever they grew lighter, easing it back to center when they darkened. At the elevator station, Wallace's face was beaded with sweat. Holding their altitude constant at this low speed took every bit of his very considerable skill. Iverson glanced at Everett for reassurance. The captain showed no trace of concern. He studied the chronometer, made a mark on his chart, and turned to the ballast station.

"Miss Sarah, what's our fuel state?"

"220 gallons."

"Hmm."

"The cloud's breaking up, sir," warned Fleming.

"Davies, where are they now?"

"On our starboard beam, reciprocal course, five thousand yards!"

"Hard to port, all engines full!"

Iverson looked past Sarah to see the cruiser silhouetted against sky less than three miles away -- well within gunnery range. Her crew seemed taken by surprise, but as he watched, they began to turn in pursuit. Their cannon winked three times. The third shot was followed by a crash from astern. The lieutenant flinched, waiting for the flicker of fire that would mean their doom. Then the protective mists were around them again.

"Engines back to quarter power," ordered Everett. "Damage reports."

"Iwamoto here, Number One Engine Car," came the engineer’s voice. "Shell hit lower fin, front of rudder."

"Fleming, how does the helm feel?"

"It seems normal."

"We will assume it will stay that way," said Everett. "Give me a turn to port."

"What if they follow us into the cloud?" asked Sarah.

"I imagine that’s just what they’ve been doing," said Everett. "But these clouds are miles across. The chance of their ever getting close enough to see us is..."

"Sir!" cried several voices at once.

Ahead of them, a shadow grew, spread, and resolved itself into the bow of an airship. Without waiting for orders, Fleming spun the wheel to starboard to turn them aside, then back to port to swing their stern out of the way. On the cruiser, the helmsman must have been doing the same. The two ships thundered past each other, almost close enough to touch. On the other vessel's bridge, Iverson caught a glimpse of figures frozen in attitudes of horror. Then their adversary had vanished behind them.

For several long moments, no dared to breathe.

At last Everett broke the silence. "I imagine that's the last we'll see of those fellows for now. They will have lost their taste for the chase."

Next week: Survive the Comparatively Savage Sea...

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