The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 155: Your Mission, Should I Decide You Accept It

Photograph of a young woman in a summer dress

"We must commend your lieutenant on a job well done," said Michaelson, in much the same tone of voice he might have used to discuss an unwanted visit to the dentist. "Landing that abandoned airship was an excellent bit of work."

"I'm sure Mister Iverson will be grateful," said Everett, who knew when not to press an advantage. "What are your plans for the vessel?"

"We've sent Lieutenant-Commander Richley on the Centaur with a portable hydrogen plant to attempt salvage. He's optimistic he can refloat the craft, but the tow back to the Station may be another matter."

Everett nodded. Tugs like the Centaur were specially designed for the purpose, with elaborate winches, oversized control surfaces, and frames reinforced to handle the strain -- this involved a considerable penalty in range, payload, and performance. Even so, using one airship to tow another was a notoriously difficult proposition.

"Was there anything of note aboard the derelict?" asked Michaelson. His voice was deceptively casual.

"Nothing of significance," lied Everett. He'd made no mention of the photograph Abercrombie had found, feeling it wise to keep some information in reserve when dealing with the senior captain. "There were the clothing and belongings of the crew, of course, but these were not particularly informative. It seems everything pertaining to the owner must have been in the control car."

"And you were unable to locate this?"

"We quartered the area until nightfall, but the terrain in that part of the Cape York Peninsula is triple-canopy rain-forest. Anything below the treetops would be invisible from the air.

"I suppose we can't fault you for that," said Michaelson, in a tone that suggested he very much wished he could.

"What did Lloyd's have to say about the vessel?" asked Everett, feeling that a distraction might be in order.

"This Windsong IV is a Junior Shorts Class, built in Bedfordshire in 1922. She would be 535 feet length overall, 939,000 cubic feet enclosed volume, with three Rolls Royce Eagle petrol engines delivering a total of 900 horsepower to drive her 55 knots. According to the Registry, she's a private yacht, registered in Bristol to Sir Edmund Blackwood, Viscount of Milbridge."

"A viscount?" said Everett, making little effort to hide his apprehension.

"It is not a well-known peerage," said Michaelson, "but according to Burke, it dates back to the Twelfth Century. Sir Edmund would be the twenty-fifth to hold the title."

Everett and Jenkins exchanged glances. This was not welcome news. It was never wise to become involved in the affairs of the nobility, for they could be unsubtle and quick to anger.

"We've contacted His Lordship, who is safe in England, and he has expressed his profound gratitude that we've found his yacht," suggested Jenkins hopefully.

"Not exactly," said Michaelson.

"The fellow is missing, Whitehall wants us to find him, and they've threatened the most dire consequences if we do not succeed."

"Correct," said Michaelson dryly, "particularly with regard to the dire consequences."

Everett considered the implications. It seemed he and Michaelson had a common interest in staving off their superiors' wrath... for now. It wouldn't be wise to count on this lasting. The senior captain would be quite happy to throw a disliked subordinate to the wolves if he could find a way to do this at no risk to himself.

"What do we know of the viscount's itinerary?" he asked, giving no hint of his thoughts.

"Our information is fairly substantial, but it also contains some substantial gaps. It appears Sir Edmund and his lady celebrated Boxing Day at Milbridge manor, then ordered the yacht readied for an extended cruise to the Pacific."

"That's rather extended for a Junior Shorts," remarked Everett.

"Quite," said Michaelson. "The vessels only have a 2,000 mile range, but his captain -- this would be one Peter Spencer, hired directly from the Shorts Brothers -- seems to have known what he was doing. They refueled and regassed at Marseilles on the 28th, took on more consumables at Malta, then made their way east along the African coast, arriving at Alexandria on the 31st, where they appear to have spent the New Year with friends. They departed on January 2nd, crossed the Sinai peninsula, and called at Aden on the 3rd for resupply."

Everett nodded. The viscount's captain would have chosen the Red Sea route to take advantage of the northeast monsoon. He'd done the same thing himself when he brought the R-212 out from England. "And then?" he asked, guessing the answer.

"We quite lose track of the fellow. After they cleared Aden, they were outside the bounds of the Empire. The next we hear of them is at Port Moresby, New Guinea, on the 8th. That would have been two days ago."

"Port Moresby?" mused Everett, "I suppose that gives us something to go on."

"So it would seem. We'll be sending a gunboat, the Thumper, up the coast to call at the various coastal villages between here and Lockhart River in case the viscount should show up in one. I imagine he'll be traveling in a certain style -- that should make him easy to recognize. But Whitehall suggested we begin our search at Port Moreseby."

"And they've given us a free hand."

"Within limits. There is one condition in particular on which they seemed rather insistent."

"What are the specifics?" asked Everett, certain that he would not like the answer.

"The viscount's ward arrived here yesterday on the Star of New South Wales, along with a governess. She intends to join the search. Her governess will accompany her to ensure propriety."

Everett frowned. "I assume we've informed her that His Majesty's airships are not in a position to take civilian passengers."

"An interesting assertion, given your recent record," observed Michaelson, with a certain malicious glee. "But it seems her relatives have connections, for the Admiralty has waived this restriction in her case."

Like all Royal Navy establishments of any importance, the air station at Cairns maintained quarters for distinguished visitors -- three modest but well-appointed houses to the north of the Administration building. It was toward one of these that Everett and Jenkins made their way.

"What do you think this `ward' will be like, sir?" asked Jenkins as they knocked on the door.

"It's impossible to say," mused the captain. "She's young enough to require a chaperone, but old enough to travel on her own account. That would restrict her age to something between sixteen and sixty. But she must be fairly strong-willed to have undertaken a voyage to Australia. From the way Michaelson spoke, I gathered that Sir Edmund might not be aware of this enterprise."

"That could put us in a difficult situation when they finally meet."

"Quite," said Everett. "Let us hope there aren't any more complications."

"I hope so too, sir."

The door swung open to reveal the burly Signal Corps ensign Michaelson had detailed to serve as a butler. Everett recognized Phelps. The man nodded when he saw them. "If you'll accompany me, gentlemen, you are expected."

The ensign led them past the foyer to a bright and airy day room where a young woman, barely past girlhood, sat gazing out to sea. She turned as they entered and favored them with a smile. Everett and Jenkins did their best to hide their surprise.

"Miss Isobel," said Phelps, "these are Captain Roland Everett and his aide Jenkins. They will be leading the search for Sir Edmund. Captain Everett, Mister Jenkins, may I introduce Miss Isobel."

"Sir," whispered Jenkins as they made their bows. "I cannot help but feel troubled by this development."

"We're Englishmen," Everett whispered back. "We'll make do." But their hopes of avoiding complications seemed to be dwindling. This was the girl from the picture.

Next week: Into the Well-Mannered Blue Yonder...

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