The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 256: At Sea

Sealed orders

Lieutenant Murdock reached past Loris to take the elevator wheel. "I've got it," he said nervously.

"Your airship, sir," replied Loris.

Murdock tried to appear nonchalant as the airman gave him the control. This was his first turn on this particular station, and he was keenly aware of the responsibility. The elevator wheel was the most important control on the vessel. Mishandled, it could increase fuel consumption, waste ballast and hydrogen, or place the entire ship in jeopardy. And the Flying Cloud was quite different from the blimps he'd flown in training. Over five hundred feet long, with a maximum gross lift of seventy-five tons, cruising at more than a mile a minute, she was slow to respond to her controls, and that response, when it came, could be dramatic.

Loris seemed to sense the lieutenant's apprehension. "It's a matter of sensitivity," he said cheerfully. "You want to be gentle, but firm. Imagine that the ship is a lady you've invited home for the evening. You want to be gentle so she doesn't raise an outcry, but you also want to be firm or you'll never make any progress. She gazes up into your eyes. You reach out to caress her cheek, then lean forward to kiss her. As she melts into your arms, you lower your hand to begin unfastening..."

Murdock frowned. Whatever did this have to do with flying an airship? And why had everyone else stopped what they were doing to listen?

Captain Everett cleared his throat. "Airman Loris."

"Yes, sir?" said Loris.

"I am not entirely certain this choice of an instructional metaphor, is appropriate for the bridge of one of His Majesty's Airships."

"Oh.. yes... right, sir."

"What do you think of our newest lieutenant?" Everett asked MacKiernan as the two officers made their way back to the crew section.

"I believe the lad shows promise," said MacKiernan, "and he did acquit himself well during the Warfield affair, but his social skills may need some development."

"I daresay," chuckled Everett. "And he is not the only one whose manner is food for thought."

"You refer to Captain Michaelson?" said the Exec.

"I'm afraid so," Everett sighed. "This business of sealed orders during peacetime. I've rarely known it to have a good outcome."

Jenkins was waiting when they reached the captain's stateroom. Everett nodded to his aide, unlocked the aluminum cabinet that served as the ship's safe and withdrew an envelope. He frowned when he saw its contents. "Interesting," he remarked dryly. "Our superior used the secure cipher. This does not bode well. Jenkins, if you would provide your half of the key, let us get started."

The decryption took some time, and raised more questions than it answered.

"These are rather peculiar orders," Jenkins observed after they'd finished. "Michaelson has narrowed the list of vessels on which this mysterious woman could have stowed away to three. Now he wants us to inquire at each of their last ports of call in turn, then work our way backward in what I believe mathematicians call a `breadth-first search' according to a schedule he specifies in some detail. Whatever does he expect us to accomplish with such an inflexible routine?"

"Why send us out at all?" asked MacKiernan. "Surely Naval Intelligence has agents in all of these places who could conduct a far better inquiry. And why this business of sealed orders for what by its very nature must be a publicly visible mission?"

"This insistence that we adhere to his schedule suggests he's using us to distract attention from some operation of his own," suggested Jenkins. "It wouldn't be the first time."

"True," agreed Everett, "and our record for discovering the man's plans in time to take some purposeful action of our own has not been good."

This was an understatement. The senior captain had proved himself a master of misdirection. Everett and his crew had yet to recognize a single one of his plans before it reached fruition. In the past, this might not have mattered, but now the stakes seemed higher.

"What shall we do, sir?" asked MacKiernan. "If there's a chance any of our old shipmates survived the crash of the R-212, we can hardly allow Michaelson to use them as pawns."

Everett slid the orders back into their envelope and tapped it on the table. "Let us review what we know," he said. "We have identified four major players in this game: the Fat Man's German Nationalists, the White Russian exiles, Moseley's British Union, and whoever owns the mysterious cruiser that attacked us over the Coral Sea. Evidence suggests these fellows are all at odds. The Fat Man's people attacked the White Russians to steal the original Device that destroyed Ujelang, the British Union competed with both groups to acquire the copy that so singularly failed to destroy Rabaul, and the Governor of Sarah's island turned against the Fat Man to ally himself with the owners of the cruiser. There's also the matter of Lieutenant Blacker. We know he was working for Moseley, but he hid from the people on the cruiser, at considerable risk to himself, when they arrived to take survivors off the tail section of our old ship after it went down."

"This brings up the matter of Blacker's reappearance aboard the R-87," said MacKiernan. "He must have received intelligence that Commander Harris would be carrying your report on the Ujelang Event. But the only people who could have known this would have been in Michaleson's office..."

"...and Sydney," observed Jenkins.

The Irishman raised an eyebrow. "You suspect someone on the Admiral's staff?"

"We must consider the possibility," said Everett. "Michaelson raised the question himself when I spoke to him after the bombing. And those fellows in Sydney have shown a remarkable tendency to remove prisoners from Michaelson's custody before they could be questioned. The list is quite comprehensive: Lieutenant Blacker, Commander Harris of the R-87, and now the Germans we took aboard the L-137."

"Perhaps the Admiral doesn't trust Michaelson," MacKiernan suggested, half in jest.

"It may be that the two offices don't trust each other," mused Everett, "in which case our orders might be some ploy by the senior captain to make the Admiral's agents reveal themselves. This would place us in an unenviable position."

His companions exchanged glances. This too was an understatement.

"Do you have a plan, sir?" asked Jenkins.

"Not yet," said Everett, "but we will remain alert for opportunities to sponsor some inquiries of our own. Michaelson may anticipate this, but the man is hardly omniscient, and the more we learn, the better the chance we have of gaining the upper hand. We may also wish to avoid Sydney if we can."

Next week: Southbound Soirre...

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