R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 46: Return to Sarah's Island

The motor launch

The chart had seen considerable use. By now it was covered with courses, bearings, and lines of position showing how the Flying Cloud had criss-crossed northern Australia, the Torres Straight, and the Coral and Timor Seas. But they seemed no closer to finding the renegade German pirates than before.

"Where should we look now, sir?" asked Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan.

Captain Everett tapped a spot on the map -- a small speck at the southern end of the New Caledonia chain where the marks began. "All of our clues point to Sarah's island," he observed. "That's where the first ore samples came from, that's where we took this airship, and that's where we first encountered the Duck."

"But that's a French possession," protested the Exec. "We can't take the ship there without attracting notice."

"True," said Everett, "so we'll use the motor launch we bought in Kupang."

"You kept it?" asked the Irishman in surprise.

"Of course," said Everett. "It seemed too good to waste. And you know what they say: 'A speedboat saved is a speedboat earned'."

They departed Cairns that afternoon; their excuse, an overnight training flight to practice celestial navigation. Ahead, the waters of the Coral Sea were empty, for their course took them east of the usual shipping routes.

"Do you think Michaelson has guessed what we're up to?" asked MacKiernan as the coast vanished astern.

"He shouldn't," observed Everett. "At our official top speed -- the one we reported after the speed trials -- New Caledonia is out of reach. He'd have to know this vessel's real capabilities, and the only people who do are the pirates."

"What about our log?"

Everett smiled. He'd chosen this particular mission for a reason. "Abercrombie," he asked, "have you ever handled a sextant?"

"I've tried, Captain, but I never really got the knack."

"Excellent. I believe it's time for some cross-training."

July 23, 1926, 1500 hrs. Reported Lat, 27 59' 17" N Long, 86 55' 31" E, His Majesty's Airship Flying Cloud, R-505, Captain Roland P. Everett cmdr. The exercise is proceeding well. The trainees demonstrate considerable aptitude. For the sake of verisimilitude, I have chosen to use their results in our position reports, though these may include some minor inaccuracies.

"Where are we really?" Sarah asked that evening.

"We're a few dozen miles south of your island," said Everett, "near the spot where the cruiser destroyed our previous ship."

"What happened?" she asked. "Iverson never had a chance to explain."

Everett smiled inwardly at the change in the girl's voice when she mentioned the young lieutenant's name. It reminded him of happier days, in an era that seemed vanished as ever Atlantis. But outwardly, his expression remained stern.

"They approached from the northeast, with their markings hidden by the sun," he replied. "They were flying the Blue Ensign, like a merchant vessel in the Reserve Fleet, but they didn't look like anything in Jane's. We were still trying to figure out who they were when they opened fire."

The captain sighed.

"Their marksmanship was excellent. Not that we'd have had much of a chance in any event. Their ship was much bigger than the pirate we're chasing, and their gun was at least a forty-seven, firing explosive shells. Their first shots shattered our keel, just aft of the control car. I got the crew out moments before it tore free and fell, but our ship had already broken in two. The stern section, along with most of our people, plunged into the sea. I saw the cruiser follow to make sure it went down. But we survived aboard the bow. We drifted for several hours, losing altitude as hydrogen leaked from the cells, until at we came down on the south side of your island. The rest you know."

"Do you think anyone survived on the stern section?"

"I wonder about that constantly," said Everett. "That's one of the burdens of command: worrying about your men."

The girl laid a hand on his shoulder. He glanced at her in surprise.

"I know," she said quietly. "That's why they're so willing to follow you."

As sunset approached, they throttled back the diesels, weighed off, and descended to hover above the waves. They remained there, propellers turning slowly to maintain station, while the riggers swung out the launch. A starter whined. The boat's twelve-cylinder Liberty engine caught with a rumble.

"We ready," said Helga.

Everett had chosen to lead the mission himself. "Watch out for that cruiser," he called up to MacKiernan. "If they appear, do not attempt to engage! She'll almost certainly outgun you, but you should be able to outrun her. If we can't make the rendezvous, that means we've been taken. Don't bring the ship in for a rescue. Follow the plan I outlined and leave us to brazen it out as best we can."

"I hope it doesn't come to that," the Exec called back, expression full of concern. "Good luck, sir."

The launch made few concessions to comfort. Long, low, and sleek, it had originally been built to smuggle rum into Prohibition-era America. How it had found its way to the South Pacific was anyone's guess, but as they pounded through waves in the moonless night, Iverson found himself wishing the craft had stayed in America. He flinched as a blast of spray caught him across the face and clung to the rail to keep from getting pitched overboard.

"Helga like this boat!" cried the Swede. "It almost as much fun as the boys!"

"How... oof!... long until we reach zee island?" asked Pierre.

Everett flicked on a flashlight to examine his chart. Iverson noticed that the captain didn't seem bothered by the launch's motion. Somehow -- perhaps this was some special talent that came with command rank -- he also seemed dry. "Another fifty-seven minutes," he replied. "It should be visible as an outline against the stars."

Fifty-seven minutes? thought Iverson in dismay.

It seemed more like fifty-seven years, but at last the coastline appeared ahead. Helga pulled back the throttle and cut in the muffler -- another relic of their craft's unusual heritage -- to reduce the engine's roar to a whisper. Together, they peered into the gloom.

"Lookie," she said, pointing toward the harbor. "Our friends."

Iverson looked to see an airship -- quite obviously the one they'd pursued near Kupang -- swinging to a mast near the shore. Lights glimmered from the freighter moored at the wharf nearby.

"And there the Duck," added the woman, in a voice that sent shivers down Iverson's spine. "Gang's all here."

Next week: Dark Harbor Nights...

StumbleUpon        submit to reddit Reedit