The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 279: The Measures They Took

Life preserver from the Shiratori Maru

The Flying Cloud rode from the short mast at Fort Stosenberg, engines rumbling at idle. They'd weighed off, released the stern dolly, and waited for this to be rolled clear; now they were ready to lift ship. Around the field, their American hosts were pretending not to watch.

"I will let you handle the evolution, Mister Iverson," Everett announced. "We will wish to eschew flamboyancy. The Colonials have their eyes on us."

Murdock glanced at Iverson in sympathy. The senior lieutenant might have considerable experience dealing with unusual flight operations, but these paled in comparison with the challenge of performing a mundane task well.

Everett smiled as if reading his thoughts. "You may take the helm, Mister Murdock. I trust you will help us put on a good show."

"Yes, sir," said Murdock, struggling to hide his alarm. The helm might be one of the least important controls on the bridge, but it still offered plenty of opportunities for embarrassment.

If the others noticed his nervousness, they gave no sign. "Miss Sarah," asked Iverson, "what's our trim?"

"We should be 500 lbs light."

"Wallace, how does she feel?"

"That sounds about right, sir. I'm carrying one degree up elevator."

"What's the current windspeed? Mister Murdock?"

Murdock started guiltily, then glanced at the airspeed indicator. "Uh... ten knots," he stammered.

"Thank you," said Iverson. "I believe we will leave the engines at idle for now. Loris, drop the mooring. Wallace, be ready to catch her at two degrees up."

"Dropping the mooring," came the reply from the intercom, followed by the familiar clunk of the release. At first, nothing else seemed to happen. Then slowly, gradually, the ship's nose began to rise. On the left side of the bridge, Wallace was easing the elevator wheel forward as the ground fell away.

"Two degrees nose up, sir," said the airman. "Climbing through 300 feet at 100 feet per minute."

"Very good. Mister Murdock, ring for one quarter power on all three engines."

This time Murdock was ready. "Quarter power on Engines One, Two, and Three," he replied briskly, reaching to advance the telegraphs. Bells rang, the drone from the diesels deepened, and their airspeed began to increase. The lieutenant clutched the wheel, willing their heading to remain steady, and to his great relief, it did..

"Course, sir?" Iverson asked Everett.

Something in the captain's voice suggested a smile. "Maintain this heading until we reach 2000', then bring her right to 160 and ring for cruising speed."

"Climb to 2000', then right to 160 and ring for cruise," said Iverson, with an aplomb Murdock could not help but envy.

"What's our next destination?" asked Sarah.

"I have given this matter some thought," Everett replied. "We seem to have lost track of our quarry, and I see little point in continuing all the way to Japan in hope of picking up the trail, so we'll double back to Cebu. The Japanese maintain a resort there. They should have word of the vessel."

Inwardly, Everett had his doubts about the matter. He might present a mask of confidence to his crew -- this was part of a captain's job -- but he wondered if their mission had ever been meant to succeed. Why had Michaelson sent them after the Shiratori Maru? Could the senior captain really believe their hypothetical saboteur had traveled aboard the Japanese packet? This seemed implausible. It was more likely that Michaelson was playing some game to draw out their adversaries... or to discredit him and his crew.

The latter possibility was cause for concern. They'd spent two weeks flying hither and yon about the Pacific, spending fuel, hydrogen, and ballast, putting hours on their engines, to no visible purpose. This would not look good on their report. Was there any way they could turn the situation to their advantage?

He was still pondering this when Jenkins emerged from the radio shack. The signalman's usual air of imperturbability had given way to one of concern. "Sir," he said quietly, "we've received a distress call from the Shiratori Maru. They reported they were under attack by an unknown vessel."

"Blimey!" muttered Wallace. "It must be the cruiser!"

Everett made no move to censure this lapse of discipline. "Did they give their position?" he asked,

"Their signal was cut off before they could, but the bearing was 100 degrees, in the approximate direction of Guam. From the strength, I'd estimate the distance was between two and three hundred miles."

Everett glanced to port, where the mountains of the Philippine archipelago loomed against the sky, studied the ballast board, and did a quick mental calculation.

"Wallace," he ordered, "take us to 8000'. This may cost us some ballast, but sacrifices must be made. Mister Murdock, bring us right to 100 and ring for full power on all three engines."

"Full power?" asked Sarah. "Won't that give away our top speed to anyone who's watching?"

"Yes," said Everett, "but if the attackers are who we think they are, I imagine they're already aware of our vessel's performance."

It was noon by the time they reached the general area of the attack. Everett scanned the horizon for threats, then ordered the Flying Cloud brought down to 2000'. They might not be able to see as far from this altitude, but they'd have a better chance of spotting small objects amidst the waves.

"We will work our way east in a succession of doglegs, with a twenty mile separation between them," he announced. "That should give us adequate coverage but still allow us to complete our search pattern by nightfall."

"What should we look for, sir?" asked Murdock, who'd finished his turn at the helm and was standing by with a pair of binoculars.

"Anything out of the ordinary," Everett replied. "If the packet went down at sea, she would sink after all the gas leaked out of her cells, but that should have given her crew time to take to their life rafts."

"What if..." Sarah began. She didn't need to voice the rest of her question. The masters of the mysterious cruiser -- if that's who the Shiratori MaruM's attackers had been -- had not shown themselves to be sort of people who'd hesitate at strafing the survivors.

"We shall remain optimistic," Everett replied. "This is almost always the best course of action."

Optimism proved difficult to maintain after they sighted the first bodies. These bobbed limply in the swells, surrounded by bits of debris. Some wore life jackets, others had clung to anything that would float, but this had not been enough to save them. Fins sliced through the water around them -- sharks, attracted by this unexpected bounty.

"Those arrachtaigh," swore MacKiernan. "There was no need for this."

Everett gazed down at the scene, remembering the aftermaths of other battles. "There are some people who do not need excuses," he observed sadly. "And there are some things that cannot be excused."

The exec nodded in agreement, but before he could reply, Murdock called out from the head of the bridge.

"Sirs! I've spotted a survivor!"

Next week: Barely Breathing...

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