The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 443: Some People Seem To Glide Through Life Without A Care

The R-46 on final glide

Everett studied the chart and frowned. Too much time had passed since Helga and the crew of the Viking Girl II had attacked the British Union's freighter. By now, the Swedes could be anywhere... along with Lieutenant Murdock and inspector Scott. If he was to recover his people, he needed some way to guess where they were headed.

He was pondering various alternatives when Jenkins knocked on his door. "Sir," said the signalman. "We have received a set of orders. These were sent using a one-time pad."

Everett raised his eyebrows. If the sender had used code rather than the secure cipher, this suggested that the contents were of unusual importance. He unfolded the message slip to find a set of coordinates and a time followed by a brief set of instructions.

Proceed to Mandalay for resupply 11-Oct. Continue to destination above at time indicated and act at your discretion.

He read it again and frowned. "This combination of terseness and latitude seems quite unlike Michaelson," he observed.

"Such was my thought as well," said Jenkins. "The only other plausible candidate is Scott. He must have obtained access to a wireless, but have had some reason to avoid proclaiming himself. I wonder what the fellow is about."

Everett nodded thoughtfully. He'd suspected that the man might be more than he seemed -- he could hardly have been less. Who did he represent and what was he up to?

"I suppose we'll learn," he remarked philosophically. He reached for the intercom and called the bridge. "Mister Iverson, plot a course for Mandalay. We will wish to arrive at dawn tomorrow."

The train from Rangoon to Bhamo rattled past endless rows of rice plantations -- established a generation ago to satisfy markets opened up by the Suez Canal. The line was hardly an express, and the countryside looked even more monotonous from the ground than it had from the air, but Scott seemed satisfied with the situation. He relaxed in his seat reading a copy of Marcus Aurelius -- apparently in the original Latin -- while Helga and her crew occupied their time by sharpening things. Murdock sat in a corner, wondering what he'd gotten himself into.

When the train stopped at Bhamo, Scott hopped down from the car and led the way at a brisk pace to the air station. The Swedes seemed enthusiastic about the outing. Murdock tagged along behind, unsure this was a good thing. They arrived to find the Flying Cloud long gone. In her place, an aging Armstrong Whitworth swung from the Number One mast. To his surprise, Murdock recognized the R-46, an obsolete cruiser from the Australia squadron. Whatever was the vessel doing here in Burmah?

Scott nodded and strode across the field as if they were expected. An airman stepped forward to hail him as they approached the lift.

"May I ask your business, sir?" the man said politely.

"I am Scott -- Scott of the yard!" the inspector announced. "You will have been told to expect my arrival. Take me to your commanding officer."

A short time later, Scott, Helga, and Murdock were standing in the control car facing a pair of lieutenants. One was a gangly Londoner named Wilcox who Murdock remembered vaguely from Cairns. The other was a stocky young man who seemed determined to establish some standard for imperturbability.

"It's not my fault!" said Wilcox.

"I never suggested that it was," Scott replied calmly as he handed the youth a set of papers. "These are my credentials, along with my authorization. I want you to lift ship this afternoon and fly to a destination I will specify."

Wilcox examined the documents and swallowed apprehensively. "I'm not sure we have the necessary personnel," he warned. "Lieutenant Smade and I are the only officers aboard."

"I am familiar with your previous captain's record," Scott said dryly. "This suggests that you've had occasion to handle the vessel without meaningful supervision."

The lieutenant hesitated for a moment, then grinned. "I suppose this is possible," he admitted. "Where do you want to go and what will we do when we arrive?"

"Time will tell," Scott said cryptically

Scott's assumption regarding the lieutenants' abilities proved correct. Wilcox and Smade lifted ship with an efficiency that suggested some familiarity with the process, and soon they were flying north along the Irawaddy River, keeping to the valley so as not to strain the ancient cruiser's very limited capabilities. When they reached a nondescript town named Myitkina, Scott ordered a turn to starboard to follow a tributary called the N'Mai.

Nightfall found them cruising northeast, diesels droning along faithfully -- except for the occasional sputter from Number One, which had a recurring problem with its injectors. No lights relieved the surrounding landscape. Below them, an entirely inexplicable set of railroad tracks ran next to the river. Why would anyone have built a line here, Murdock wondered? This valley seemed singularly unsuitable for any large-scale agriculture or industry. It looked almost abandoned, its villages crumbling from neglect.

As the moon was climbing above mountains to the east they spotted a cluster of electric lights in the distance ahead. This appeared to mark some sort of settlement overlooking the river -- perhaps the terminus of the rail line.

"Would that happen to be our destination?" asked Wilcox.

"Yes," said Scott. "Circumstances suggest that it will be occupied by one or more enemies of the Crown, though their exact number and identity remain to be determined. We will wish to deploy there and take them by surprise."

"Surely they'll hear our engines as we approach," said the lieutenant.

"Not if we do so without power. I understand that there is a way to accomplish this."

Wilcox nodded. It was entirely possible to propel an airship without using engines. An American inventor, Solomon Andrews, had demonstrated this as early as 1863. The principle was simple: lower the nose and vent gas to glide downward, then raise the nose and drop ballast to `glide' upwards. But it was prohibitively expensive in consumables.

"We could only travel a few miles before we ran out of ballast," he objected.

Scott gestured toward their destination. "A few miles is all that will be required."

"The ship might be irreparably damaged when we finally glide to the ground."

The inspector's eyes seemed to twinkle. "This is within the scope of my authority," he said, "and I do not believe the Royal Navy Airship Service will be heartbroken by their loss."

Wilcox and Smade exchanged glances, then smiled. This was not an opportunity that came every day.

"Right oh!" said Wilcox. "Let's give it a go!"

Next week: Who Invited Them?...

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