The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 246: Haute Cuisine

The R-505 pursues the L-137... again

The men who accosted Fleming and Nettie might have stepped straight from some recruiting poster for the Deutsches Heer. They had classic Teutonic features, with long skulls, high cheekbones, and narrow humorless eyes that suggested an ancestry on the Steppes. Their hair was blond, cut so short it might almost have been machined. They wore brown quasi-military garb, with Parabellums holstered at their belts. It took little effort to deduce that these were the Fat Man's men.

"G'day, mates!" said Fleming, doing his best to look like an innocent passer-by "Don't mind us. We're just going walkabout."

But the Germans weren't looking at him. Instead, they were staring at Nettie. "It's Natalia!" said one.

Fleming glanced at his companion in dismay. They know her? he thought. Oh dear. This is not good.

The woman nodded curtly. "Take me to your füher," she ordered. "If I'm not mistaken, that would be Artur."

"At once, Fraulein," said the Germans. "What about this man?"

My part in her plans must be over now, Fleming told himself hopefully. Perhaps she'll let me go.

Nettie smiled as if reading his mind. "He's one of Captain Everett's crewmen," she told them. "Bring him along."

Two officers were waiting for them in the ship's mess hall. One had a receding hairline, strangely ordinary features, and the penetrating gaze of an airman. This was clearly the ship's captain. The other was a hard-looking man with an air of command. Fleming guessed this was Artur.

"Fraulein Natalie," said the second man, "you have changed your hair."

"I like this color better," she replied curtly.

Fleming's head was still spinning from this unexpected turn of events. Natalie? he wondered. Is that her real name? Has she been a nationalist agent all along? If so, what was she doing with Marty and his boys?

"We have not seen you since Ujelang," said Artur. "What has brought you to Kao?"

"The same reason that brought you," she said. "Karlov was here three days ago. He departed for Weda, but if you move quickly, you should be able to catch him."

Artur turned to the ship's captain. "Ernst, how soon can we get underway?"

"We need to resupply first," said the other man. "We're down to 50% hydrogen, 6900 liters of fuel, and 6300 kilos of ballast."

"You don't have time," Nettie warned them. "A Royal Navy ship is on its way here this very minute."

Ernst scowled. "Can we trust her information?"

"We can't afford not to," said Artur. "And she proved her loyalty when she betrayed her companion to us. Lift ship immediately." He turned back to Nettie. "What should we do with this man?" he asked. "Shall we..."

The woman's gaze was as hard as his own. "Not yet," she replied. "We might have some use for him."

The Flying Cloud was cruising south along the western shore of Kao Bay, engines purring at three-quarter power. To starboard, a row of peaks was outlined against a bright blue tropical sky. Ahead, a small village nestled in a bend in the coastline. Everett glanced at the chronometer and nodded to Iverson

"That would be Kao, right on schedule," he observed. "A nice bit of pilotage, lieutenant."

Iverson brightened at the compliment. With MacKiernan off the ship, the duties of the navigation officer had passed to him. "Thank you, sir," he replied. "Shall I contact them and request a handling party?"

They were interrupted by a call from the upper lookout. "Captain, Loris here. We have a ship lifting from the station. I can just make out her number. It appears to be N-109."

Everett stepped to the window. Through his binoculars, the other ship was visible as an oblong dot, changing in aspect as she turned toward the south. He examined the vessel, studying the shape of her fins, the arrangement of her rigging, and details of her cars.

"Which N-109 do you think it is, sir?" asked Iverson. "The hijacked Frenchman or the German nationalists?"

"These will be our friends on the L-137," Everett replied. "I imagine we have both anticipated this encounter." He strode to the intercom and pressed the alarm. "Battle stations," he announced. " This is not a drill. Davies, prepare the main battery for an aerial engagement. Iwamoto, your engines must be ready for sudden changes in power. Wallace, take us up to 6000' to get us above the terrain. Mister Iverson, please relieve Abercrombie at the helm so he can take his place at damage control, then ring full speed and bring us left to 200. Miss Sarah, what is the status of our consumables?"

"We have 75% hydrogen, 10,500 lbs of ballast, and 5200 gallons of fuel."

"Very good," said Everett. "We should have an advantage there. We will take a position on the chase's port quarter and see what she does."

Ernst peered through his binoculars and swore. "Verdamnt, that's the R-505. The lines are distinctive. Arnold, take us up to 2000 meters. Frederick, turn right to 190, and ring for full power. We will hope they do not recognize us."

Girders creaked as the ship swung to her new course. Minutes later, a call came from the stern lookout. "Sir, the other airship has turned in pursuit."

"Can we outrun them?" asked Artur.

Ernst stared at the Fat Man's agent, wondering how the man could be so ignorant. "Not that ship," he replied. "We shall have to climb to escape them. Now we could use those supplies we had to leave behind in Kao. Marcus, what can we accomplish with what we have?"

The ballast officer studied at his board and frowned. "I can take us up to 4,000 meters. Anything higher would be a severe risk."

"Take us up," ordered Ernst.

Ballast cascaded from the tanks, the nose pitched up, and the ship began to climb. In the hull above, the gas cells would be expanding as the air pressure dropped. Around them, the roar of the engines deepened. Ernst listened, then smiled to himself. As long as the diesels held out, the race was on.

"They're climbing, passing through 10,000', and they've begun a turn to the right," called Loris.

"They'll be turning downwind to run and hoping for a stronger wind at altitude," Everett remarked to his bridge crew. "We can't hope to climb with them, so we will remain on their quarter at a distance of five miles. That should keep us out of range of any weapons that ship could carry. Have they sent any messages?"

"There was one brief transmission by an unskilled hand," said Jenkins. "It appears to be a simple single-substitution cipher, but there isn't much material to work with." He handed the captain a slip of paper with a short string of characters.


Everett puzzled over this for a moment, then handed it back to his signalman. "I see what you mean," he said wryly. "We will continue the chase and see what else develops."

For the next several minutes, the Flying Cloud droned west while Loris called down position reports. Everett plotted these on the chart and studied the result. "It appears to be a stalemate," he observed. "They have 15 knots more tailwind, but we're 15 knots faster, so our groundspeeds are equal. We will see who has the most patience."

They'd turned northwest after they reached altitude, crossing the Kao peninsula as they fled downwind. Now they were heading out over the Molucca Sea. Ahead of them, the Sangihe islands glimmered in the distance. Their pursuer had followed, swinging in a wide turn that cut off some but not all of the distance.

"He's maintaining his position on our quarter," came the report from the stern lookout.

"Ja," Ernst muttered. "Of course he is. That Everett is no fool."

"Why are we still running away?" Artur asked impatiently. "Why don't we take advantage of our superior altitude, turn back, and engage them?"

"Because we can't," snapped Ernst. "Our adversary would not allow this. From that position, he controls the range. If we turn toward him, he turns away. If we turn away, he turns to follow. And we know, all too well, just how fast that particular ship is."

"I could order you to try," Artur remarked. His voice might have been casual, but his eyes were heavy with menace.

Ernst met the other man's gaze. "You could," he replied. "but this would constitute a significant change in the nature of our contest with the Royal Navy. So far, we have only kidnapped some of their people, threatened them with violence on an individual basis, and vaporized the surface of a small unimportant island. We have never opened fire on one of their ships or engaged in an overt act of war. Are you ready to take this step?"

The two men faced each other while the control car's diesel hammered in the background. Around them, the rest of the bridge crew held still, not daring to intervene. At last Frederick cleared his throat.

"Excuse me, Mein Herr," he said cautiously, "Shall I order Christophe to dope the fuel? The engines are sounding rough." With older designs, such as the ones on their ship, it was standard practice to mix in additives such as 2-ethylhexyl nitrate when running at altitude to increase the cetane number and improve combustion.

Ernst glanced at his helmsman and nodded in approval. "Ja," he replied. "That might give us some extra speed."

Two tough-looking marines had marched Fleming to a cabin and shackled him to a stanchion. Now he sat as comfortably as his chains would allow and tried to puzzle out what the ship was doing. He'd recognized the climb to altitude -- this was not something an experienced airman could miss. This suggested his captors were running from someone. But the air hadn't grown much colder or thinner, which meant they hadn't climbed very high. Why hadn't they gone higher? Could they be low on fuel and ballast? Was there a chance he might get rescued if these ran out?

It would be a matter of endurance, he decided. If their fuel lasted until nightfall, the nationalists could almost certainly escape their pursuers under the cover of darkness. And these were competent men. They were unlikely to have miscalculated their supply.

As Fleming was reaching this depressing conclusion, the ship's engines sputtered to a stop. In the silence that followed, he heard a clatter of footsteps and a series of shouted commands. He strained his ears, trying to make out what they were saying. What's going on? he wondered. Why did they shut down their plant? And why won't anyone speak proper English?

The doorknob turned and the Aussie looked up to see Nettie enter the cabin. She was wearing a look he'd learned to dread.

"What do you want?" he grumbled.

The woman produced a set of keys. "Our hosts are about to surrender," she announced cheerfully. "I'm here to let you go."

"Why are they about to surrender?" Fleming asked suspiciously.

"Because their engines have failed."

"Why did their engines fail?"

Her smile was the very picture of innocence. "Because someone emptied a tin of sugar into their supply of 2-ethylhexyl nitrate."

Drifting helplessly without power, the Germans had little choice but to surrender. Given time, they might have been able to repair their plant, but by then Everett would have summoned a force they couldn't possibly escape. Fortunately they still had enough ballast to manage their ship as a free balloon and bring her down for a water landing. Now her hull creaked to a heavy swell as Loris maneuvered the Flying Cloud's motor launch alongside.

Iverson gazed up at the broken ship in apprehension. Already her frames were beginning to part under the action of the waves. It was clear the vessel wasn't long for the world. "We'll want to stay to windward," he warned the rigger. "We don't want her rolling on top of us."

"Aye, sir," said Loris. "Do you think her people will come peacefully?"

"It's either that or swim," said Iverson. He cupped his hands and hailed the wreck with more confidence than he felt. "Ahoy, L-137! We're prepared to rescue you, but you must lay down your arms and come aboard as prisoners!"

"Good on ya!" came a cheerful voice from above. "Does that mean me too?"

Iverson looked up to see a familiar figure waving at them from a rent in the hull envelope. "Fleming!" he said in astonishment. "Whatever are you doing here?"

The Aussie laughed. "I'm not quite sure, sir. You might have to ask this sheila." He moved aside to reveal the woman standing behind him. "Lieutenant, this is..."

But Iverson had already recognized Fleming's companion. "Good lord!" he exclaimed. "It's Natasha!"

Sugar and wrench

Next week: Wending Their Ways To Weda...

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