The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 133: Survive the Comparatively Savage Sea

The end of the Ostrovnaya Devushka

Suva was a trim little tropical town on the western side of a small peninsula, next to a harbor of the same name. To the south, the ocean was a brilliant blue mirror. To the northeast, cassava and sugar cane plantations sprawled beneath the sun. To the northwest, the highlands of Vita Levu rose in a succession of hills to the great green bulk of Korobaba Mountain, five miles away.

Suva's Air Station was modern and efficient -- a miniature version of the big Royal Air Station at Cairns. It even boasted its own small task force: a squadron of the ubiquitous Sea Scout blimps, two old but well-maintained Wolseley class patrol vessels and the R-180 Bouadicia, a sister ship of their lost R-212. The commander, Captain William Collins, was an old friend of Everett's from their days in the North Sea Fleet. Forewarned of the Flying Cloud's approach, he took personal charge of the handling parties. This was fortunate, for ship and crew were nearing the end of their resources.

They arrived on their last few gallons of fuel, running on a single engine tuned to its leanest possible setting. A yawning hole gaped in their lower fin, draped with blackened strips of fabric, and several control cables had parted after the action. But Collins had trained his people to a very high standard. Thirty minutes after the R-505 dropped her handling lines, she was riding to a stub mast and stern dolly while the two captains and their aides made their way to Collins' office.

Along the way Everett filled his friend in on all that had transpired over the past five months. Collins listened with considerable interest.

"The fellows who attacked you called here two days ago to resupply," he informed his guests. "They represented themselves as the new American cruiser, ZR-57 Mansfield, but we sent a cable to Sunnyvale after we received your message and it appears that the real ZR-57 is still in California. I imagine their fuel requisition will turn out to be a forgery."

"Did you meet her captain?" asked Everett.

"Our dealings were all with the ship's purser. The rest of the officers remained aboard. We didn't think this too terribly strange at the time -- they would have been busy with the problems of a new vessel on her first long cruise -- but now this behavior assumes some significance."

"So we have no idea who these fellows might be?"

Collins shook his head. "The purser introduced himself as a CPO Waters. He was an older man with a distinct Dutch accent."

"Wasserman, do you think?" asked Jenkins.

"This seems likely," said Everett. "What about the enlisted men?"

"They were a rough lot, and they didn't seem particularly competent," said Collins. "This surprised me. I'd expected better of the United States Navy."

"They might not have been the vessel's regular crew," mused Everett. "They could have been hirelings engaged for purposes of deception."

"This seems quite the tangled web," said Collins. "What will you do now?"

Everett glanced back towards his ship. Her damaged fin loomed like an accusation. "We should get the old girl inside a shed so your people can begin repairs," he decided. "Then we'll give the men liberty. I don't anticipate any trouble here in Fiji, but we'll tell everyone to keep their eyes open."

Iverson and Sarah had reviewed the ship's ballast log, arranged billets for the crew, and visited the offices of Pacific Cable Company to send a coded report to Cairns. Errands complete, they stopped at a café on Renwick Street near the Nubukalou Creek Bridge. Like most retail establishments in Suva, it was an informal place, with patrons from all walks of life, from managers of the Bank of New Zealand to lowly seamen.

One of the latter tipped his hat to Sarah as he passed their table. "Dobryi den, moya dorogaya."

"You're Russian?' asked Sarah.

"Da. I'm Dmitri, a deckhand on the Starshii Bogov here in port. And if I'd known there were more devushkas like you in Suva, I'd visit this port more often!"

Iverson glanced at the man, wondering at his intentions, but his expression was so cheerful, his manner so artless, that it was impossible to take offence. "Devushka," he remarked. "We've been looking for a ship named the Ostrovnaya Devushka."

The Russian's eyes widened in surprise. "Ni figa sebe! I was her bosun!"

Now it was Iverson's turn to be astonished. "Where is she now?"

"She sank five months ago! I was one of the survivors."

"How did this happen?" asked Iverson

Dmitri corralled a chair while the lieutenant poured him a cup of tea, then began his tale. Like many Russian expatriates, his English was excellent, if a little formal.

"We were bound for Tonga out of Broome with a load of grain and animal feed. We also had a distinguished passenger, the Grand Duke Mikhailovich, visiting from England. It was quite an honor for our vessel."

"A member of the Russian imperial family in exile? Whatever was he doing in the South Pacific?"

"He came aboard with some personal cargo -- a great wooden box the size of a small motorcar. We assumed this was some treasure he'd spirited away after the Revolution.

"The Captain stopped at Port Moresby and Noumea. Then he set out for Tonga, taking a wide loop to the south as if he didn't want to be seen. We were in high spirits. Most of us were on shares, and if this was a smuggling run, there'd be extra profits all around. Then, four days out, there was an explosion in the engine room and we started taking on water."

"What caused the explosion?"

"We never found out. There was only time for one distress call before we lost the generators. The Captain ordered us into the lifeboats. He and the Mate were supposed to take one boat each, but in the confusion, they both ended up in the starboard boat leaving with me with the port one."

Iverson frowned. Boiler explosions were not entirely unknown on tramp vessels -- steam objected to being confined, and could express this objection in a particularly violent fashion -- but he was suspicious of the coincidence. "Were any other vessels about?" he asked, wondering about possible attackers.

"Nyet. But we did see a large airship pass to the north sometime later. We signaled them with a hand mirror and they altered course, but then they turned back to the west, as if they'd spotted something on the horizon."

Iverson and Sarah exchanged glances. They had few doubts who this `large airship' might have been. "What did you do after that?" asked the island girl.

"We tried to stay together, but we lost touch with the Captain during the night. When the sun rose, we were alone at sea with no way to navigate and very few supplies."

Iverson had heard many stories of voyagers in small boats. Some, such as Bligh, had fared comparatively well. Others, such as the crew of the whaleship Essex, had been driven to cannibalism... or worse.

"However did you manage to survive?" he asked breathlessly.

"It wasn't easy," said the Russian. "Days passed with no sign of land and we began to lose hope. The food ran low, as did the vodka. We were forced to resort to bottled water!" He shook his head at the memory. Iverson shook his head as well. "At last we were rescued by a passing freighter. They took us to Fiji, where we dispersed."

"What happened to the Duke's personal cargo?" asked Sarah. "Did it go down with the ship?"

"Oh no, we unloaded that in Port Moresby. The Duke got off as well. This happened the day after someone broke into the Captain's cabin. I always wondered what was going on. Quite a few people seem interested in that cargo. There was that Englishman here in Suva a week ago."

"Englishman?" asked Iverson, with a sinking sensation.

"Da, a tall fellow with scar on his forehead."

Next week: An Audience With the Queen...

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