The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 255: ...And So Do Clouds

Airship in shed

The interior of the Cairns Royal Air Station`s Number Three Shed was almost certainly the largest man-made enclosed volume in the Cape York Peninsula. Soaring metal arches supported a gracefully curved roof that spread above Everett and his crew like the sky. There was something uplifting about so much space. The captain had often felt it resembled the inside of a cathedral... if that cathedral just happened to have a 560' foot long airship hanging in the nave.

He smiled inwardly at this conceit, then glanced at Abercrombie. The rigger gave a barely perceptible nod. It seemed the regassing had gone smoothly. Satisfied, Everett turned to Lieutenant Murdock, who he'd placed in nominal charge of the operation.

"Mister Murdock," he said, "what is the status of our hydrogen cells?"

Abercrombie nudged the lieutenant forward, like a proud parent showing off his child. Murdock took a deep breath. "Fully replenished, sir, at 100% purity," he replied. "They're filled to 85% volume, as you instructed."

"And at 85% volume, how high could we climb before we had to vent gas?" Everett asked.

"Approximately 5400', assuming a standard atmospheric lapse rate," Murdock said briskly. Either he'd memorized the numbers or he was a fast calculator. Everett nodded to himself. Either would serve.

"Very good, Lieutenant," he said. "Miss Sarah, what are your ballast figures?"

The island girl replied with her usual smile. "We've taken on 3800 gallons of fuel and 12,000 lbs of ballast. Allowing another 9,500 lbs for cargo and personnel, that should put us close to neutral buoyancy."

"Mister Iwamoto, how are your engines?"

"We do compression and leak-down tests," the engineer said politely. "Left bank cylinders, Engine Number Two, five pounds low. Still within specification." His prepositions remained conspicuous by their absence, but his pronunciation of `cylinders' was surprisingly good.

Before Everett could ask Pierre about their stores, Phelps appeared. "Sir," said the signalman. "I have just come from the infirmary. Our guest appears to be regaining consciousness. We may require interpreters with a knowledge of East Asian languages. Captain Michaelson requests you bring your aide and your engineer."

The ward was even emptier than it had been the day before. It seemed Michaelson had ordered the other patients moved in the interests of secrecy. The senior captain greeted Everett and his companions with his usual frown. "At last, you're here," he said dryly. "I trust Phelps did not interrupt you at some inconvenient moment."

"Not at all, sir," said Everett, ignoring the sarcasm. "Has our guest recovered enough to speak?"

"After a fashion," said Michaelson, "but we don't have a clue what she's trying to say. What do your people make of it?" He moved aside so they could approach the patient.

She was lying with her head propped up on a pillow. Bandages covered the wound to her scalp, but even in her disheveled state, Everett could see that she was quite beautiful. "Good afternoon, miss," he said politely. "How may we help you?"

The woman didn`t appear to understand his words. "Jujang chom pakkwo jwuseyo!" she said urgently.

Everett resisted the impulse to scratch his head. This bore no resemblance any tongue he'd encountered during his travels, and he'd traveled widely. "Jenkins?" he asked.

"I do not believe it's any form of Chinese," said his aide. "My knowledge of the language is far from complete, but I`m familiar with most of the major dialects."

"Words Korean," said Iwamoto.

Everett raised his eyebrows. It was quite unusual for the engineer to volunteer information in this manner.

"Can you translate them?" he asked.

"They do not like us," Iwamoto replied cryptically.

"Is that what she's saying or is this some observation about the relationship between your two countries?" Michaelson demanded.

"They do not like us," repeated Iwamoto.

The senior captain scowled. "I will take this to be the latter. It's a pity Miss Perkins is not here. In the absence of any new information, we will continue with our original plan. Report to the briefing room as scheduled."

The briefing room was as cramped as the airship shed had been spacious. The Cairns Royal Air Station did not have a dedicated facility for this purpose -- the one under construction now lay in ruins after the bombing -- so these were held in one of the Station`s schoolrooms. Given Michaelson's manner, this seemed peculiarly appropriate. The senior captain would have fit right in at the head of a lecture hall. For prisoners of war.

"As you all know, our station was attacked last night," he began. "We have no idea who was behind this attack, but we discovered a trespasser lying unconscious, some distance from the site of the explosion. She had an item in her possession that belonged to one of the missing officers on the R-212."

Everett's crew were too well-bred to show any overt reaction, but their stunned expressions were every bit as revealing as an uproar might have been.

"Sir," asked Abercrombie, "does this mean some of our people might have survived?"

"Quite possibly," said Michaelson. "We will wish to ascertain how this item came into our guest's possession. Unfortunately, we cannot ask her directly for we don't appear to have any languages in common."

"Could she have been working for the Germans, sir?" asked MacKiernan. "What do our prisoners have to say about the matter?"

"We are no longer in a position to ask," said Michaelson. "They were sent to Sydney yesterday morning under orders from the Admiral's office. This was fortunate for them, since otherwise they might have been in the new brig in the building that was just bombed."

Everett studied Michaelson's expression. As usual, it gave nothing away, but the senior captain must have been wondering the same thing he was. Just what was Sydney's involvement in this matter?

"Since we have no easy way to discover where our guest came from," Michaelson continued, "we'll have to go about this the hard way. We believe she arrived as a stowaway on one of the vessels now in port. We will proceed in a systematic fashion, tracing their paths backward, until we determine which one she was on and where she came aboard. The R-505 will be part of this investigation. Phelps is drawing up your orders now. You will lift ship tomorrow at dawn."

The Fat Man loomed behind his desk like some dragon from German legend. Ritter strove to conceal his apprehension. Those legends rarely ended well for the ordinary mortals involved. "Mein Herr?" he said cautiously.

"This situation," growled the Fat Man, "is not acceptable. We have lost our airship and most of our trained airmen. These will take time to replace. In the meantime, our adversaries, and those fools in the Royal Navy, are free to maneuver."

Those `fools' were the ones who brought down the L-137, thought Ritter, but he knew better than to voice this observation. "How shall we proceed?" he asked. This was almost always a safe question.

The Fat Man gave Ritter a sharp glance, as if he'd guessed the captain`s thoughts. "We must arrange some inconvenience for our competitors, to delay them until we renter the race. Our friends in Cairns have an interest in becoming that inconvenience, though they may not view the matter in quite the same light. We need only point them in the right direction and allow events to take their course."

"How will we accomplish this, Mein Herr?"

"We have already taken the first steps. We also have a new ally. But there remains the matter of transportation, and that is where you come in."

Next week: At Sea...

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