The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 296: The Pause That Regasses

Resupply operations at sea

"I have the fueler in sight, bearing 280, range 10 miles," called Loris from the upper lookout station.

MacKiernan focused his binoculars and sighed in relief as he recognized the lines of the HMS Engadine. The replenishment ship was a welcome sight on the Pacific station. She'd begun life as a fast channel steamer and served briefly as seaplane tender during the War before being converted for more practical uses. Now she was an oasis for thirsty airships, such as their own.

"That would be Williamson, on time and on station," he announced. "We owe his people a round of drinks. Miss Sarah, what is our status?"

"We're down to 64% hydrogen, 520 gallons of fuel, and 1200 lbs of ballast," she replied, in a voice tinged with concern. Two long flights without resupply had left them desperately short of consumables.

"That should serve, as long as our friends below hold up their end," MacKieran replied calmly. It wouldn't do to let the bridge crew know he was worried too. "Jenkins, inform the Engadine that we will not have any reserves to spare for maneuvering."

"Commander Williamson acknowledges. He asks if we can descend to 100' and maintain an airspeed of 20 knots at 50 degrees."

"Inform the Commander that we're beginning our descent. Mister Iverson, all three engines to idle. Miss Sarah, prepare to weigh off."

Bells rang, the sound of the engines faded, and the airspeed began to drop. At the ballast station, Sarah studied their decent rate and consulted her figures.

"I make us four hundred pounds heavy," she said.

"Release four hundred pounds on Number Two," ordered MacKiernan.

The island girl pulled a toggle and consulted her stopwatch. A brief shower of water cascaded from the central ballast tank.

"Mister Iverson, one quarter speed on all three engines, then bring her right to 50 degrees. Wallace, take us down to 100'. Miss Sarah, keep a close eye on our numbers. We will want to exercise some economy."

Slowly, gradually, the Flying Cloud sank from the sky. Wallace held the elevator wheel with the gentlest possible touch, straining his senses to anticipate the vessel's response. On the other side of the bridge, Sarah studied the flight instruments and jotted down figures. Below them, the Engadine was maneuvering into position to receive their mooring line. Minutes crawled past while the handlers wrestled to connect this to the winch.

Then, at last, the ship was riding from the mast and the telegraph was ringing Finished With Engines. MacKiernan nodded to his companions. "That was well done gentlemen, and lady. Jenkins, signal Commander Williamson that we're ready to take on supplies."

The next morning found the Flying Cloud heading east, bunkers, tanks, and gas cells filled to capacity. In the control car, the mood was bright. MacKiernan studied the chart, then turned to Jenkins.

"I take it we've received no new messages from the Captain or Michaelson?"

"No, sir," said the signalman. "The ether has been quiet."

"The we will follow our original instructions, proceed to a position off Bikini, and wait for orders. Our course will take us past Ujelang, so we'll want to keep our eyes open."

The Todstalker forged west with a following sea, rising to the crest of each swell, then surging down each face before rising to the next. On the schnellboot's armored bridge, Michaelson was examining the gun sights and ranging gear. "Interesting dé cor," he observed. "I take it you've encountered one of these vessels before."

"That would have been last September," said Everett. "The Fat Man seems to have any number of them. I wonder where he obtains them."

"They're built by a yard in Bremen," said Kurt. "They're based on the design for a new class of motor torpedo boats. Sympathizers in the company have opened a secret production line for the nationalists."

Everett wondered how such a thing could possibly be kept secret, but before he could make a comment to this effect, Davies called down from the masthead.

"Captain, we have an airship off our port bow, just clearing the horizon. I believe it's the Flying Cloud!"

Everett stepped to the deck and gazed west. "I do believe you're right," he called back. "This is a fortunate coincidence. We'd better signal them before they assume this vessel is hostile."

The Todstalker's wireless equipment had proved impossible to repair, but they managed to locate the German equivalent of an Aldis lamp. Everett fitted the device to its stand, switched it on, and aimed it at the distant airship. As he began to work the trigger, the bulb exploded in a great flash of light.

"This could have unfortunate consequences," he observed. "Davies, find another bulb, quickly!"

MacKiernan thumbed the intercom to the gunnery station, where he'd ordered Loris to man the quick-firer. "Can you make out who they are?"

"It appears to be one of those fast German patrol boats, like the one the Captain took last year."

"This will be one of our nationalists," said MacKiernan. "Prepare the gun for action."

"Aye, sir."

A flash of light sparkled from the distant vessel.

"I do believe they're firing at us," said Iverson.

"This was an unwise move on their part," MacKiernan observed. "Small surface vessels are an airships' natural prey. Loris, fire at will."

Everett spun the wheel as another salvo of shells exploded to starboard. Fortunately, these were no closer than the last ones. The charges might be small, but they'd be more than enough to send the schnellboot to the bottom.

"Poor shooting," Davies remarked. "I could have done better."

"We shall have a word with the fellows," said Everett, "assuming we have the opportunity. Have you found another light bulb?"

"Not yet."

"Keep looking."

The target was closer now, twisting and dodging like a rabbit beneath the talons of a hawk. Towers of spray rose around it, but so far none of the shells had struck home.

"This has not been a brilliant display of marksmanship," MacKiernan said sourly.

"Quite," said Sarah. "It's a good thing the Captain isn't here to see it,"

"It's a pity Davies isn't here," Iverson remarked. "He'd have put paid to the fellows."

"Loris can use the practice," growled MacKiernan. "Edge us a bit closer."

"You couldn't find a spare bulb anywhere?"

"I'm afraid not, sir" said Davies, glancing over his shoulder as a shell burst close enough to send spray sleeting across the deck.

Everett spun the wheel in the direction of the last explosion and shoved the throttle forward. This trick had served him well in the North Sea, but it couldn't work forever. He remembered that desperate hour, when there'd been no time to think, no time to plan, no time for anything but the struggle to stay alive. "If only we had some way to talk to them!" he exclaimed.

Beside him, Michaelson sighed. "Why don't you just surrender?"

Everett raised an eyebrow. "Sir?"

"If you raise a white flag, heave to, and wait for them to send down a boarding party, that should resolve your communication problem quite handily."

For several long seconds silence reigned on the bridge.

"Yes," said Everett. "I suppose it would."

On another bridge, hundreds of miles away, there were no thoughts of surrender. Here, airmen went about their tasks with quiet efficiency while their captain watched with a critical eye. A radioman approached him and saluted.

"Kaigun Daisa, we have word from our listening station on Guam. The Flying Cloud departed Piti yesterday, supposedly bound for Cairns. Sometime later, the HMS Engadine was ordered to an unspecified rendezvous fifteen hundred kilometers to the east. I have the coordinates here."

The captain plotted the position on his chart and nodded. "That rendezvous will be for resupply," he observed. "They must be heading for Ujelang. They tried to misdirect us, but they could not know we have their codes. We will take this opportunity to intercept and destroy them."

Next week: Not Mad Scientists, Perhaps, But They May Be Slightly Annoyed...

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