Episode 205: A Distinctive Debut in Darwin
The control car of His Majesty's Airship R-505, the Flying Cloud,
was sleek and spacious -- the latest word in airship design. Twin rows of
windows, framed by lightweight duralumin girders, gave a panoramic view of
the land below. Gleaming new flight instruments reported every nuance of
the vessel's altitude, course and speed. The helm and elevator wheel --
polished hoops of stainless steel -- were wrapped in leather to improve
the airmen's grip. At the ballast station, a modern mechanical calculator
supplemented the conventional chalkboard, though tradition still demanded
its figures be checked by hand.
Everett was standing by the chart table, taking a bearing on one of the many
anonymous terrain features that marked this part of Australia's Northern
Territory, when he heard a warning crackle from the intercom. He nodded to
himself, set down the compass, and strolled forward to the head of the car.
"Altitude, course, and speed?" he asked his flight crew.
"4000'," said Wallace from the elevator position.
"295 at 55 knots," said Loris from the helm.
"Very good," said Everett. "We will wish to maintain an exceptional degree
of precision for the next several minutes."
With this cryptic announcement he returned to his charts. Moments later,
Jenkins called out from the radioman's station near the foot of the
"Commodore on the bridge!"
"As you were, gentlemen... ...and lady," said Clark, doing a slight
double-take when he noticed Sarah at the ballast station. He studied the
interior of the control car, as if taking mental notes, then strode to where
Everett was standing, footsteps clicking in a precise cadence.
"What's our status, captain?" he asked, in an unconvincingly casual tone.
"We're at 4000', airspeed 55 knots, course 295, sir, passing south of the
The Commodore's eyes widened slightly.
"Is that really its name?"
"So it would appear."
Clark shook his head in wonderment. "How curious. So this is
the airship you found on that island in New Caledonia?"
"Yes, sir," Everett replied, affecting not to notice as his guest took a
quick peek at the altimeter. "The circumstances are described in our report
to the Admiralty."
"A curious business," said Clark. "I understand she had German markings,
but the Imperial Navy disavowed any knowledge of the vessel's existence."
"That is true," said Everett. "They seemed quite mystified by the affair.
And we keep a close eye on the Kaiser's shipyards, so it seems unlikely they
could have built the ship surreptitiously."
"She looks just like a Junior Vickers," Clark noted. "I had a chance to
board the original, and the resemblance is uncanny." Now he was glancing
at the compass and airspeed indicator.
Everett nodded. "She seems to be an exact copy, right down to the rigging
and frame spacing. This would suggest a bit of espionage by her builders."
"And you have no idea who these fellows might be?"
"No, sir," replied Everett, without too much departure from the truth. A
`suspicion' was not quite the same as an `idea'.
"What about her plant?"
"The engines appear to be based on a German design, and the manuals were
penned in German by someone with a student's understanding of the language.
Like the hull, there are no serial numbers, placards, or builders marks
to indicate where they were manufactured."
"How does her performance compare to the original?"
"This was discussed in the addendum to our report," said Everett. "Her
enclosed volume, fixed weight, and useful lift seem identical to the
published specifications for the Vickers. During our acceleration tests,
she was able to match the Vickers's top speed of 60 knots, and I imagine she
might be faster if her engines were replaced by more powerful units from
Beardmore." This too was technically the truth.
"Interesting," said the Commodore. Now he was peeking at the altimeter
again, which was still neatly pegged at 4000'. "What's our estimated time
of arrival in Darwin?"
"We departed Cairns at 1720 hours, with a 12 knot tailwind out of the
southeast," Everett said calmly. "I expect this to back to the north as we
approach Blue Mud Bay. That should put us at Darwin sometime between 0940
and 1000 hours tomorrow."
"And our consumables?"
The island girl was careful not to grin. Child of a warrior culture, she
understood this game. "We should have 83% hydrogen, 11,000 pounds of
ballast, and 3800 gallons of fuel."
Clark studied the ballast board and nodded. If he was disappointed not to
have found any faults during his inspection, he gave no sign. "Very well,"
he told Everett. "I will be in my quarters. Let me know if there is any
With that, the Commodore turned and strode back to the companionway.
Wallace and Loris both breathed sighs of relief.
Everett gave them a nod for a job well done.
"He's a remarkable individual," Jenkins observed quietly.
"Quite," said Everett. "I wonder what they'll make of him in Darwin."
Lieutenant Dabney, Commonwealth Navy Reserve, commander in chief of Darwin's
air station, such as it was, shook his head at the scene. Overhead, riggers
had finished hooking the Flying Cloud to the mast and the
antiquated elevator was beginning its slow decent. Down on the field, the
handling party had taken this opportunity for a quick game of rugby.
"Smarten up, you bludgers!" he yelled. "That's some lord high muck come to
give us a visit!"
The replies were somewhat less than respectful.
"No worries, mate!"
"Don't get yer knickers in a knot, Dab!"
"We've still got time for another scrum!"
The lieutenant shrugged and leaned back to watch the game. Command, in this
isolated corner of the Empire, required a philosophical attitude. He was
engrossed in the play when the door beside him slid open and a smartly-dressed
figure stepped straight into the path of an errant drop-kick.
"Watch ou..." someone began, but the stranger had already intercepted the
ball with a deft movement of his hand and was holding it by one end, as if
it was a dead rat.
"What is this?" he asked.
"It's a rugby ball... Commodore," said Dabney, coming to a belated attention
when he noticed the gold braid on the other's sleeve.
"So I see," said the visitor. "And your name is?"
"Lieutenant Dabney, Australian Navy Reserve."
"Is this the standard of behavior we can expect here in the Commonwealth of
"Sport builds character," Dabney replied, with the nonchalance of someone
who answered to an entirely different set of superior officers. "The Battle
of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of..."
The Commodore silenced him with a glare and turned to the man behind him.
"Captain Everett," he announced,
"your reports suggest that the police chief here may have information
relevant to our inquiries. You should have questioned him more thoroughly.
We will visit the gentleman and rectify this oversight. Lieutenant, summon
a motor for our use."
It took some time to resolve the misunderstandings that arose from two
profoundly different interpretations of the English language. At last, to
Dabney's great relief, his visitor was heading into town aboard the
station's rustic Holden. He watched the vehicle go, then glanced at
MacKiernan, who'd come down from the ship to oversee resupply.
"Who is that wanker?" he asked.
The exec sighed. "That is Commodore Ethan S. Clark, recently arrived from
England. The Admiralty sent him here to investigate the events of the past
"This must be his first visit to Australia."
"How'd you guess?"
Next week: Misdirection...
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