The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 92: Resupply

The Flying Cloud, moored to the HMS Engadine

"I've spotted them, sir, bearing 280, range approximately ten miles."

Commander Albert Williamson, captain of the HMS Engadine, turned his binoculars toward the west. In the distance, an airship had emerged from the morning gloom. Her outlines were distinctive, like a smaller version of Barnes Wallis's classic R-100.

"That would be the R-505," he observed, "right on schedule. A nice piece of work by her navigation officer."

"Is it true no one knows who built her?" asked his Exec.

Williamson coughed discretely. "I understand that the circumstances of her acquisition were somewhat irregular, but she's Roland Everett's command now. I know the man by reputation. Very sound! We won't see any eccentric behavior from his crew!"

A signal lamp winked from the bridge of the distant vessel. Williamson nodded. "He's ready to begin the operation. Signal the Danae to stand clear, then turn port to heading 135. And watch closely, Mister Garrett. You're new to the Royal Naval Airship Service. This will be your chance to see the proper way to do things!"

Their signalman hoisted the Bravo flag. To starboard, their escort -- a light cruiser of the Singapore squadron -- sheared away to give them room. Then the Engadine was heading southeast into the gentle trade winds.

The vessel had a remarkable past. She'd begun life as a Channel ferry, catering to a certain class of passenger that favored speed over economy. The Navy, anxious to take advantage of any ship that could keep up with Fleet units, had requisitioned her for use as a seaplane tender during the War. In this role, she'd launched the raid on the German zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven -- an operation of questionable military value, but a noteworthy propaganda coup. She'd also been present at the Battle of Jutland. After the Peace, the Navy had purchased her outright, removed her hangers, and converted her to an airship resupply vessel.

They held their course while the R-505 made a sweeping pair of turns to take a position astern. A brief shower of ballast cascaded from the airship's tanks -- a final adjustment to trim. Then she was dropping in a graceful descent to level out 200 feet above the waves.

"That was well done," remarked Williamson. "Let's see if we can live up to their standard. Ring for Dead Slow."

The next phase of the rendezvous was up to the Engadine. At low speeds, the surface ship was significantly more maneuverable than an air vessel. Williamson called out commands to the helm and engine room -- at some cost to the hard-pressed engineers -- until the R-505 was passing overhead. At the proper moment, her crew dropped a line. Riggers hooked it to the cable, signaled the winch operator, and machinery roared to life, reeling the airship down to the derrick-like mast that rose from the ship's afterdeck. Handlers wrestled the mooring fitting into place. Then the R-505 was trailing behind the Engadine like a titanic flag.

Several figures crossed to the mooring mast and made their way down to the deck. First to arrive was a distinguished-looking man dressed in Number Twos with four stripes on his sleeve.

"Commodore Everett," said Williamson, giving him the traditional courtesy promotion, since no ship could have two captains aboard at the same time, "welcome aboard. This is my Executive Officer, Lieutenant Garret."

"Captain Williamson, a pleasure," said Everett. He gestured toward the man who followed him: a discreet-looking individual wearing the uniform the Airship Service's Signal Corps had adopted when it revived the rank of Ensign. "This is my aide, Jenkins. I understand you have a confidential message for us."

"It arrived last night from RNAS Cairns. It's in one of the new ciphers."

Everett nodded. "I expected as much. Jenkins has our half of the key. I believe you have the other half."

"Oh dear," exclaimed Garret, as Williamson was about to reply. The Commander glanced up, then hastily looked away. Above them, two young women were descending the ladder. Both were wearing modern fashions -- a remarkable decision considering the circumstances.

"Those would be my ballast officers, civilian specialists Miss Blaine and Miss Wilcox," said Everett. "I summoned them to monitor the supply transfer while we're occupied with the codes."

"Of course," said Williamson. "Mister Garret, if you could assist our guests while I conduct Captain Everett to the radio room."

"I... uh..."

"Good man!"

A confusing flurry of introductions served to establish that the blonde woman was named Clarice while the brunette was named Emily. Then Garret's two visitors were roaming the deck, watching the operation, chattering to each other with a child-like enthusiasm. He scurried after them, trying to keep up, but his Royal Navy training hadn't prepared him to deal with situations of this sort.

"Look!" cried the brunette. "They're using a rotary axial pump just like one Aunt Golia has!"

"And that's a Austral oil engine!" said the blonde, "based on the Ronaldson and Tippet design! I wonder if they ever have trouble with..."

"I say," remarked the brunette, glancing toward the Danae, where a flag hoist had just gone up. "Those fellows seem impatient. They want us to finish fueling by 0800."

"You can read Navy signals?" asked Garret in surprise.

"Can't everyone? Do you think you'll have enough time?"

"I believe so," said Garret uncertainly. "As long as..."

The pump chose that moment to wheeze to a halt. In the shocked silence that followed, the engineer started to curse, then caught himself when he realized there were ladies present.

"The magneto's given out, sir," he told Garret. "We've been having trouble with it ever since we left Brisbane. And we don't have a spare."

The blonde crouched daintily to study the engine. "It's probably the drive gear," she said. "That happens all the time with this model. The Woodruff key must have sheared. Bring me a hammer. We can drive in a rivet to replace it."

"You know how to fix it?" asked Garret incredulously.

The woman stood, rolled up her sleeve, and flexed a shapely arm.

"We can do it!" she announced.

The last gallons of fuel had been pumped and the riggers were disconnecting the hoses when Williamson, Everett, and Jenkins returned -- the latter carried a slim packet marked `Confidential'.

"Did you have any trouble, Mister Garret?" asked Williamson.

"Um... err... not exactly..."

"We'll be on our way then," said Everett. "Thank you for your hospitality."

"The pleasure was ours," said Williamson. "Be sure to call again."

Garret looked away discreetly as their guests climbed back to the airship. When they were out of earshot, he turned to his captain.

"I thought you said there was nothing eccentric about this vessel."

Williamson sighed. "You are new to the Service, Mister Garret. You will discover that compared to some airships, this crew was quite unremarkable. But I can't help but wonder who else they might have aboard."

Sarah sat by the mess hall window, watching the supply ship and her escort dwindle behind them. Once, she might have been fascinated by the fueling operation, but she found it hard to take an interest in such things with Iverson gone. She'd remained with the Flying Cloud, hoping for a chance to confront the people responsible for his death, but now she wondered if this was wise. Her people had many tales of vengeance. Few ended well.

A chair scraped the deck. She looked up to see Antonio Notariello sit down next to her. She frowned, preparing to repel an advance. She'd heard about his exploits on Totiw.

"You are thinking of him," said the tenor.

"Yes," she replied cautiously, unsure of the man's intent.

"I could tell," he said quietly. "I am an Italian. We have a sense for such things. That is why I have not... pursued your acquaintance."

His sincerity caught her by surprise.

"You are wondering what to do," he continued.

She nodded.

"I cannot tell you. This is a choice you must make for yourself. But I can say this. We are all heroes and heroines in our own drama. Whether this will be Opera Seria or Opera Buffa is for us to decide. We can be tragic heroes or comic ones. The first role may seem more noble, but it does have a price."

Next week: Revelations on Kwajalein...

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