The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 156: Into the Well-Mannered Blue Yonder

R-505 above the clouds

Rain slanted down on the field, hiding all but the immediate region of ground beneath the control car, where a bedraggled signals officer stood holding a windsock. The pennant drooped limply in what passed for a southeast wind. Everett studied it, considering the best way to deal with the conditions. This was one of the many advantages conventional airships had over heavier-than-air craft. The latter would almost certainly have been grounded by this weather -- assuming someone had bothered to ship one of the so-called `aeroplanes' to Cairns -- but the crew of His Majesty's Airship R-505, the Flying Cloud, had numerous options at their disposal.

"Miss Sarah," he asked, "what's our trim?"

"We should be at neutral buoyancy," said the island girl, "but we had to discharge 900 pounds to compensate for this rain."

Everett nodded. The downpour had been soaking into the hull envelope, making the ship heavy. This would complicate the early stages of their flight, but dealing with such things was part of an airman's job. "Wallace, how does she feel?"

The elevatorman studied his instruments, then rested his fingers lightly on the wheel. "That seems about right, sir."

"Very good," said Everett. "We will do an unpowered ascent this afternoon. It may cost some extra ballast, but I believe it will be safer than motoring around in this murk. Mister Iverson, keep all three engines at idle power."

"All engines at idle," acknowledged the lieutenant.

"Miss Sarah, Release 200 pounds each on One, Three, and Five."

"200 on One, Three, and Five," said the island girl. She checked her stopwatch, pulled the toggles, and water poured from valves along the keel, adding a slight increment to the downpour around them. On the other side of the bridge, Wallace was watching the inclinometer.

"Stern's coming up, sir."

"Thank you, airman," said Everett, thumbing the intercom. "Abercrombie, drop the mooring. Miss Sarah, be ready to release more ballast on Two and Four."

Up in the bow station, the chief rigger uncoupled the mooring fitting. It came free with its usual clunk. For a moment, nothing else seemed to happen, then the signalman raised his pennant to indicate that the vessel was rising.

"Miss Sarah, release 300 pounds on Two and Four."

"300 on Two and Four," said the island girl. More water cascaded from the valves. Below them, the ground was fading into the mist.

"Three hundred feet, climbing at 100 feet per minute," announced Wallace.

"That should put us above any immediate obstacles," said Everett. "Mister Iverson, ring ahead one quarter on Engines One and Three. As soon as we have way, bring her left to a heading of 090 to point us away from the mountains."

"One and Three ahead one quarter, then bring her left to 090."

For the next several minutes, the airship rose through featureless layers of grey. The only sign of their progress was the motion of the altimeter, the ticking of the chronometers, and a muted rumble from the engines. Slowly, imperceptibly, their surroundings grew brighter. Then sunlight burst through the windows as the clouds dropped away. To the west, the peaks of the Dividing Range rose like a chain of dark green islands above a brilliant white sea. Above them, the sky was that remarkable shade of blue one finds only in the tropics.

Everett noticed several of his bridge crew smiling. Suppressing the urge to join them -- as commanding officer, he had an image to maintain -- he turned to Lieutenant Murdock, one of the new trainees they'd been assigned in Cairns. "I believe we can feel satisfied with that evolution," he remarked. "Were you noting the procedure?"

"Um... err..."

"Don't worry, Mister Murdock, you'll have plenty of opportunity in the future. Mister Iverson, ring all three engines to cruise power, then bring us left to 000 degrees. Wallace, let her climb to 4000', then bring the nose down to keep her at that altitude. I believe we should be able to hold her there without venting any hydrogen."

"Won't the ship get lighter as the hull dries off?" asked Sarah.

"Yes, but she'll also be growing colder and heavier as the sun goes down. That's why I chose to lift so late in the day. Mister MacKiernan, you have the con while I head aft to pay a visit to our guests."

Captain Everett had heard nothing from his passengers since they'd come aboard. He was too seasoned a commander to believe that no news was necessarily good news -- experience had taught him that matters were quite often the opposite -- so it was with some trepidation that he entered the mess hall.

The two women sat by the windows, accompanied by Davies, who he'd detailed to act as their host. The viscount's ward, Isobel, was gazing out to sea, the very picture of innocent youth. The other -- a willowy blonde whose clothing was only slightly less severe than a winter gale in the North Sea -- favored him with a withering glare.

"Sir," began Davies, "may I introduce..."

"Miss Chastity Stewart, head governess for the Milbridge household," the woman announced. "You must be... Captain Everett." She managed to make this sound like a reflection on his character.

"I trust you've found everything satisfactory?" said Everett, bracing himself for the inevitable complaint.

"Hardly. Our cabins are quite unsatisfactory! The walls are much too thin to provide adequate privacy. You can hardly expect a respectable woman to sleep where any passing crewman could listen!"

Service in Palestine had taught the captain a certain measure of diplomacy. "I'm afraid we can't do much about the construction," he observed politely. "This is a necessary quality of lighter-than-air vessels if they are to remain lighter than air."

"Then I must insist you provide us with cabins at a greater distance from the... men."

"You're welcome to examine the vessel in search of accommodations that are more to your taste." Such as the tail cone, he added to himself silently. "Davies will be happy to serve as your guide."

"Sir!" the marine whispered in alarm.

"Courage, Davies," he whispered back. "We went through worse at Gallipoli."

The governess scowled, then allowed herself to be led from the mess. From her expression, it seemed she thought Everett fully capable of ravishing her charge while she was away. The captain watched her go, then turned to his other guest.

"Your traveling companion seems very... conscientious," he remarked.

The young woman's smile was entirely genuine. "Oh, you mustn't mind Chase!" she beamed. "She's a dear, and she's always been devoted to the family! Do you think we'll be able to find Uncle?"

"That would be Sir Edmund?"

"Yes. He's not really my uncle, but I've called him that ever since he took me in."

"It depends on how well we can anticipate his itinerary," Everett observed. "Do you have any idea why he undertook this voyage to the South Pacific?"

"No, but it sounded wonderful, and I wasn't about to be left behind! Where will we look first?"

"Our best lead at the moment seems to be Port Moresby, in British New Guinea."

"Port Moresby? How exciting! I heard that Somerset Maugham visited there last winter. Did you meet him? Aunt thinks his work scandalous!"

"We may have crossed paths," said Everett as he studied his passenger. The girl seemed quite artless. How, he wondered, had she managed to make it all the way to Australia on her own? And why had some crewman on the Windsong IV been carrying her photograph? "Did you know anyone else aboard the yacht?" he asked casually.

The girl furrowed her brow for one delicate moment. "I was introduced to some of the officers when we attended the Review," she replied. "I never really got to know them, but they all seemed like dears."

Everett flinched inwardly, wondering if anyone had ever thought of Drake, Nelson, Jellicoe, or Beatty as `dears'. The prospect seemed unlikely. "Thank you, Miss Isobel," he said politely. "I believe I see Miss Stewart returning. I have some business to attend to on the bridge, so I'll leave you in her care."

Next week: Catching Up Is Hard To Do...

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