The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 494: An Unequal Match

L-147 pursued by the Mysterious Cruiser

Korvettenkapitän Ernst Mayer studied the island ahead. Dawn was spreading across the sky to the east, bathing the mountains with light, gilding the layer of broken clouds that washed the slopes below. Beneath this, the southern coast was still cloaked in shadow. A ribbon of white marked the place where a waterfall plunged into the sea. The captain took a bearing on this, then glanced at the chronometer.

"We are on schedule," he announced to his men. "Oberleutnant Becker, bring Engine One to a quarter astern, Two, Three and Four a quarter ahead, and be ready to give us a turn to starboard."

"Quarter astern on One. Half ahead Two, Three and Four. Be ready to turn right," said the helmsman as he reached for the telegraphs. Bells rang, the sound of the diesels dropped in pitch, and the L-147 began to slow. She might have been small as airships went -- a copy of the P Class vessels that had served as workhorses during the War -- but like all good Germans, her crew took pride in their ship-handling.

Mayer glanced back toward the radio shack, where Obermaat Lange was manning the wireless set. "Have there been any reaction from our friends up ahead? he asked.

"Nein, Kapitän," answered the radio operator. "There have been no transmissions to suggest they've spotted us."

"What about that strange signal?"

"It continues as before: a brief tone every fifteen seconds. These never change, so they could not possibly carry a message. I am at a loss to explain this. Perhaps they are testing their equipment."

"I suppose this is possible," mused the captain. "Kapitänleutnant Roth, have you spotted any settlements?"

The Exec had been examining the shoreline through a pair of night glasses. "Nein, Kapitän," he reported. "It appears that this side of the island is uninhabited, just as the Englisch informed us. Still, we cannot know if the Governor placed watchers on the ridge."

Mayer studied the row of volcanic peaks, their outlines softened by jungle. "This should not matter," he decided. "They cannot have seen our approach during the night. They might spot us now, but it will take his Japanisch allies at least an hour to prepare that giant cruiser of theirs for flight. By then, we'll have deployed our party and left. Flieger Zimmerman, take us down to 100 meters. Oberleutnant Becker, give me a turn right to 160 degrees, then reduce Engines Two and Three to idle."

"Descend to 100 meters."

"Turn right to 160 and Two and Three to idle."

The sound of the engines dropped again as the airship crossed the shoreline, slowed, and turned into the wind. Back in the cargo hold, the landing party would be checking their parachutes and gear. Mayer took a reading through the drift meter, then glanced toward the meadow their contact in the Royal Navy had told them about. They'd be over it in a few minutes.

"Gut," he said in satisfaction. "Kapitänleutnant, call Leutnant Neumann and tell him to be ready to deploy."

At that moment, a voice crackled over the speakers.

"Upper lookout to bridge! An airship is climbing above the mountains to the north, bearing 015, range 15 kilometers!"

Mayer swore as he recognized the outline. "Verdammt! It's the Unerklarlicher Kreuzer! Neumann, make your jump now! Steuermann, full ahead on all four engines! Aufzugsman, maintain 100 meters! All hands to battle stations!"

Beside him, Roth was staring at the other ship in dismay. "How did they know we were coming?" he marvelld.

"The Franzose must have agents in New Guinea," said Mayer. "We must warn the Administrator. Obermaat, can you raise Rabaul?"

"Nein, Kapitän," Lange reported. "The Japanisch are jamming us."

"Then we will have to carry the message ourselves," said Mayer. "Steuermann, ring for emergency power."

Becker reached for the telegraphs and the drone of the engines deepened to a roar. Frames creaked as L-147's rigging took up the strain. Roth glanced at the airspeed indicator, then back at his captain.

"Do you think we can escape?" he asked. "If that ship is a copy of the American's Sunnyvale class, as we have been told, she could have 30 kilometers per hour on us."

"Perhaps this is true," said Mayer, "but our ship is smaller and handier. We can fly lower, where there is less headwind. Let us hope this gives us the advantage."

Unfortunately for the Germans, it is the nature of hopes to fail. As their pursuer closed the distance, it became clear that this one was no exception. Mayer kept his expression neutral while he listened to the reports from the lookout. This was part of a captain's job. Another was to be ready with a back-up plan.

"We must complement the Japanisch engineers," he remarked to his men. "We will do this after we have lost them in the clouds. Flieger Zimmerman, take us up to 650 meters. Oberleutnant Becker, give us a turn left toward that cumulus bearing 190. As soon as we've entered it, reduce all four engines to half power."

"Climb to 650 meters."

"Left toward cloud bearing 190 and prepare to reduce One through Four to half power."

The deck tilted upwards as Zimmerman eased back the elevator wheel. Ahead, the cloud Mayer had chosen grew to become a looming white wall. Then it had engulfed them and the outside world was replaced by a swirling chaos of grey.

"Very good, mein Herren," Mayer told his men. "Becker, give me a turn left to 070. We will move from cloud to cloud, changing course each time, until we have competed our escape. This strategy cannot fail. Obermaat Lange, has there been any reaction from our pursuers?"

The radio operator listened to his headset and frowned. "It is very strange," he replied. "They have stopped jamming us and resumed transmitting a string of pulses. These are slightly different from before, as if they come from another set of equipment."

Mayer felt a twinge of unease. He stifled a frown -- it wouldn't do to let his men know he was worried. "We will take advantage of their oversight to contact Rabaul," he announced. "Becker, be ready to give me another turn when we leave this cloud."

Around them, the mist was growing lighter. Then it was gone and the cruiser was looming a mile to port. Sunlight gleamed on her mighty hull, sharklike fins, and eight powerful engines arranged in two rows of four. Smoke blossomed from her guns as they opened fire. Something small, fast, and deadly shrieked past the L-147's control car.

"How did they find us?" cried Roth.

"We will wonder about this later," said Mayer. "Zimmerman, turn left to 050 and ring emergency power on all four engines. Gunners, fire when you're in range."

Engines roared and a rattle sounded from behind them as machine gunners cleared their weapons. These seemed hopelessly inadequate -- a few obsolete Spandaus versus a battery of 47 mm quick-firing cannon.

"Kapitän?" asked Roth. There seemed nothing else to say.

"I know, Kapitänleutnant," Mayer replied gently. "The odds may be against us, but we have managed to deploy Neumann's party on the island. Now we will buy them time to hide."

Next week: An Interrupted Plan...

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