The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 162: Are We Having Funafuti Yet?

Lieutenant Murdock gets distracted

Lieutenant Murdock sat in a corner of the mess hall, poring over aeronautical charts and tables of performance figures. The Flying Cloud's executive officer, Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan, had assigned him a navigation problem: plot the fastest possible flight from Port Moreseby, New Guinea, to Papeete, capital of French Polyensia. On the surface, it seemed simple enough -- follow the great circle route at their maximum cruising speed, with corrections to account for the effects of the southeast trade wind -- but the Exec had added the requirement that no segment of the flight was to consume more than 1600 gallons of fuel. That was not quite enough to make the trip in one leg.

This made things significantly more complicated. Should they fly at their most economical speed and make one stop for fuel, or fly faster and make two? And where and when should they resupply? It wouldn't do much good to arrive at an air station in the afternoon if they'd have until evening for the wind to die enough for them to moor. Add the effects of ballast consumption, fuel consumption, temperature changes, the relative efficiency of flight at different altitudes, and the problem became fiendishly difficult.

Murdock was hard at work when the forward hatchway swung open. He looked up to see their civilian ballast officer, Miss Sarah, step into the room. Her rich black hair cascaded behind her, the skirt and jacket she wore in lieu of a uniform fit somewhat better than he'd imagined it was possible for garments to fit, and her earrings -- elegant slivers of some unidentified bone -- were quite unlike anything he'd encountered at the Dartmouth Naval College.

She brandished a machete. "Hello, Mister Murdock," she said with a smile. "Have you seen Abercrombie? I need to get this sharpened."

The syllabus at Dartmouth had taught Murdock to respond quickly and decisively to unexpected situations. "I... uh... er..." he began.

"Never mind," said Sarah "I see you're hard at work. I'll look for him in the cargo hold."

The lieutenant watched, open-mouthed, as she swayed across the room and exited through the aft hatchway. Then he caught himself, shook his head to clear it, and resumed his calculations.

Moments later the aft hatch opened and two airmen entered. Murdock recognized Wallace, the ship's chief elevatorman, and Loris, one of the riggers. The two were so deep in conversation that they didn't notice the lieutenant.

"What happened then?" asked Wallace.

"She gave me a big smile and whispered, `I guess we'll just have to take this off.'," said Loris. "I wasn't about to say no, not with that armadillo right there in the room, so I reached up to undo her..."

The forward hatchway swung shut. Murdock bent down to recover his pen, which had rolled under the table, took a deep breath, and turned back to his charts. He had just managed to recover his composure when the forward hatch reopened to reveal the ship's two passengers: Miss Isobel and her governess. Like the airmen, they were too deep in conversation to notice him.

"That shorter one looked somewhat disreputable," said the girl, "but I thought the tall one, Loris, had a very wholesome expression."

"Miss Isobel, you're not to notice the staff," scolded the governess. "It's unseemly for a young lady of your station."

"But Chaaaastity..."

When the aft hatch opened again, Murdock couldn't help but give an involuntary twitch of surprise.

"Is everything all right, Lieutenant?" asked Captain Everett.

"Sir," squeaked Murdock, "there are women aboard this airship!"

The captain nodded thoughtfully. "There may be a few such. I see you're hard at work on the Lieutenant-Commander's assignment. How is this progressing?"

Murdock gave sigh of relief. Here he was on firmer ground! "I see how we could make the flight in four and half days, including a stop to refuel, if I could find us a place to resupply somewhere around here." He pointed toward a string of flyspecks on the map which bore the legend `Ellice Islands'.

"And I believe you can," said Everett, "if you examine this page of the Almanac."

The lieutenant bent forward, read the entry, and raised his eyebrows. "Fongafale Royal Air Station, Funafuti? What an extraordinary name! Who thinks of these things, sir?"

Everett smiled. "It's a very great mystery, Mister Murdock. The languages of the Pacific seem to lack consonants. The Slavic languages have a corresponding deficiency in vowels. Jenkins has suggested that these phenomena might be related -- a case of phonetic plunder, perhaps -- but I don't think we need to take this hypothesis seriously."

Funafuti was everyone's vision of a Pacific atoll: a ring of low palm-covered islands, like beads on a necklace, strung about a bright blue lagoon a dozen miles across. Fongafale Royal Air Station was located on a crescent-shaped island of the same name on the eastern side of the lagoon. It was a modest facility, with four masts, two sheds, a hydrogen plant, a commandant's office, and a cluster of bungalows built in native style. The Flying Cloud arrived to find three of the masts occupied by elements of the Royal Naval Airship Service's East Pacific Squadron.

Everett studied the field as Jenkins made their signal. "That would be the Diomedes, R-350," he said, nodding toward the largest vessel. "She's a Hero Class, four and a half million cubic feet, 720' overall, 175 tons maximum lift. Gilbert Morse has her. He's a good man. I served under him briefly in Palestine."

"Signal from the flagship," said Jenkins. "Commodore's compliments and we're invited for tea after we've moored."

"Offer him our thanks and tell him we'll be happy to accept."

The wardroom of the Diomedes was sumptuously fitted, with lightweight but elegant wicker furniture that contrasted with the Flying Cloud's comparative austerity. Commodore Morse -- a round-cheeked man with a distinct resemblance to the American film star Roscoe Arbuckle -- greeted Everett, MacKiernan, and Jenkins with hearty handshakes.

"That's a beautiful vessel you have there," he observed.

"We like to think so," Everett replied modestly.

"And no one knows where she came from?"

"No," said Everett. "She's quite evidently a copy of a Junior Vickers, but the details of her construction are quite unlike anything from the European yards."

"What about her engineering plant?"

Everett shrugged helplessly. "The fittings could have been purchased anywhere. The engines duplicate a German design to the point where parts are interchangeable, but there's nothing to indicate where they were manufactured."

"Extraordinary," muttered the commodore. "What about this mysterious cruiser that attacked your old ship? We heard rumors about that in Rarotonga. A nasty business."

"No one knows where she came from either."

Morse rubbed his chin. "Could they be products of the same yard?"

"We've wondered that ourselves," said Everett. "There cannot be an unlimited number of secret shipyards that turn out major warships. But this hypothesis raises as many questions as answers."

"So it does," mused the commodore. "I understand from the general orders that you've been ordered to locate a missing peer."

"That would be Sir Edmund Blackwood, Viscount of Milbridge. Do you know the fellow?"

Morse nodded. "I met him at Cowes in '24. He seemed an entirely unremarkable individual. Whatever could have brought him to the Pacific?"

"We have reason he might be searching for a Russian archaeologist named Professor Okupshchikov who flies about the islands on an old Sea Scout blimp."

The commodore raised an eyebrow. "An archaeologist on a blimp? I believe we encountered the man on Futuna a little more than a week ago!"

Everett and MacKiernan exchanged glances.

"We thought he'd be starting from Papeete," protested the exec.

"That was only a working hypothesis," replied Everett. "This is an observed fact. Commodore Morse, would you happen to have a chart handy?"

Next week: It Was a Mistake Anyone Could Make...

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