Message in a (Sky Blue) Bottle
Bunny Boyce knew he was done for: the deafening shriek of shearing metal, the odd whiff of hydrogen gas, the deck slewing forward, the ear-popping plunge told him so. He had been through this once before, and knew it would happen again, in a ‘coals to Newcastle, trouble to the X’ kind of way. Boyce hated trouble, but had applied twice to join the Royal Air Regiment’s Experimental Unit anyway.
While the Regiment prided itself on ‘every member a fighter, from cook to colonel’, the ‘X’ was an anomaly. Members of the ‘X’ consistently put themselves in harm’s way without the benefit of a weapon in hand. They single-mindedly sought to develop, test and deliver the best fighting aeroships in the world. That meant innovation and taking calculated risks. Boyce had a great deal of respect for that term. It was the difference between life and death. He had the tattoo to prove it.
Any man who earned an LI tattoo was due a life time of respect in airship circles. But there was no saying how long such a life in service might be: that should be expected in a service where aeros didn’t crash, they had landing incidents. Six years seemed to be the going rate. Boyce was satisfied to have that, plus a couple more. Nonetheless, he hated trouble.
Boyce was the senior gasman aboard the experimental HMA Auctor. The aero was the platform for a number of innovations, none related to lift on this trip. Untroubled by anything more complicated than run-of-the-mill gas management, he took only a passing interest in the new skin. Up close, it shimmered in the sunlight of Montevideo Field. At a quarter mile, the aero’s outline was somewhat fuzzy. Three miles out, the Auctor was nearly impossible to see. He couldn’t tell how they did it, nor was he really concerned. So long as it didn’t affect lift, the professors and officers were welcome to sort it out.
Boyce had flown with this captain before, a solid officer who put a great deal of thought into the risks he took. Boyce was also pleased to be working again with Freddy Carson, the chief of motors. As gasmen formed a tight community, he knew his own assistant well, having trained him. In addition to the sparse test flight crew, the Auctor carried a brace of twigs; recently posted officer-cadets, on their first graduate flights. The pair were stuck in the command car for now, with only a quick walk through Engineering and Load divisions.
The three hour shakedown had begun with an unexpectedly hard landward blow. At first, it was counted as useful in testing adverse weather performance. But when the buffeting let up, Boyce looked over from his pressure gauges to see Carson frowning over a chart and clacking a slide numerator. The motorman’s face told Boyce there might not be turns enough in the spring-motors to get them home.
“Not good, Bunny. That blow pushed us pretty far north of where we should be. An hour ago, we passed over a river that no one recognized. Navigator says the Rio Parana is the only one in the region with such a long straight east-west run, which puts us well over Paraguay. A wonder we didn’t draw fire over Asuncion. Maybe we ran wide of it. Who knows? The best we could do was to split compass bearings and estimate speed by timing passage over ground features.” He squinted at Boyce, then said “I figured we had no problems with loft, but suppose I should ask.”
“We’re good for gas, chief. Make a deal? I’ll keep us aloft, and you get us home.” They laughed before turning back to their control boards. The Auctor swung south towards the distant coast.
First Officer Crane appeared at Boyce’s station, saying the captain planned to run out the spring-drives, reserving just enough turns for final maneuvers. When those were gone, they would vent gas to achieve the best uncontrolled landing possible. Crane glanced involuntarily at the gasman’s tattooed forearm, knowing Boyce had done this before. Was there was anything he needed from the bridge?
Boyce considered briefly. He and his assistant could quickly vent three cels without help. The others would take longer. Carson volunteered his gang, saying they would have no regular duties when the springs wound down. Boyce nodded and said that would do. Then by way of encouragement he told the officer that they would focus as much on landing as possible, while minimizing the incident side of things. The F.O. stared at him, trying to determine if he was joking or not. Without a word, he left. Carson grinned as he returned to his controls.
The prevailing coastward winds had reasserted themselves with the storm’s passing. Any help getting them to Montevideo was welcome. The trick would be to stay off the River Plate’s south shore. As a non-operations flight, the Auctor was stripped of most standard equipment – including anything heavier than side arms. The BA crowd would welcome a skirmish on such terms. It turned out no one needed to worry about a confrontation with the Argentines.
As the Auctor got underway, the pilot reported a shimmy at speeds over thirty knots. He suspected something amiss with the dorsal fin, likely from the severe lateral stresses it took from the winds. The captain ordered full slow and a descent to two hundred feet. The sailmaker and mates would inspect for skeletal integrity. The sail party was making ready at the topside hatch when the dorsal girder tore loose at Ring 9. As the forward half swung up and through the skin, the aft portion pivoted down, tearing a gascel, slicing the next one in half and holing a third. The escaping hydrogen in the third cel vibrated a flap of fabric, making for a hanger-size raspberry. Boyce was too busy trying to recover any semblance of buoyancy and trim to notice.
The unsupported midships sagged, causing the bow and stern to fold upwards. Several spare spring power units - weighing three hundred pounds each - slid down the tilting deck, through bulkheads, sweeping equipment, fixtures and crewmen before them. The discs punched through at the fold in the deck, to trail debris that glittered like metallic confetti in the midday brightness.
Individual members of the airframe, stressed past their limits, began to snap. Flying struts and flailing stays pierced the remaining cels. So sudden, so complete the loss of hydrogen, there was neither explosion or fire. The Auctor simply fell out of the sky.
Boyce and one of the twigs survived. Nothing broken, but plenty of abrasions, bruises and sprains. Given Boyce’s experience, he was grateful to have survived. The twig, whose name was Yarrow, fumbled about in a fog of shock at the disaster and his brush with death. They spent the next three days burying those who could be found. Then they set up camp to await rescue.
A serviceable shelter was cobbled up from pieces of wreckage. Water was all around, and safe when boiled. Food was also abundant. Little bush pigs, deer and fish made up the bulk of their diet, thanks to Yarrow. He had grown up a shooter, honed his skills during regimental training and turned out to be a natural stalker.
Technically, as an officer cadet, Yarrow should be in charge of their drastically reduced crew. Both recognized his experience was woefully inadequate for the challenges they faced. Boyce took special care to formulate directions as requests and suggestions. Yarrow took the same care to avoid saying things that were palatably dim-witted. Their collaborative fiction worked surprisingly well.
One day, eating deer kabobs, Yarrow ventured into personal territory. “Hope you don’t mind, Mr. Boyce. Why do they call you Bunny?”
Boyce looked up from his skewer. “I was christened Rothgar. When I was a mite, about the only fight I had, I didn’t know the rules. The other boy was beating the snot out of me, and I figured he was going to finish me. I got scared, and flailed about like a windmill. I got a lucky hit in, and he dropped to his hands and knees. I didn’t know the ‘rules’ said I should let him get up. So I whacked him cross the back of the neck. The rabbit chop they call it. Didn’t kill him, but hurt him pretty bad. None of those kids ever tried me again. They called me Bunny ever since. You can too, if you like. No fight required, sir.”
Over other meals Boyce talked about his career as a Lift Gas Specialist. He recalled his childhood in a London baking family. At nine, he nearly set an outbuilding on fire when the hot air balloon he released over the oven chimney settled on a shingle roof. As he grew older, he demonstrated such an affinity for gas sciences that his father gave up hopes of him following the family trade. All that was capped by his military training and experience prior to joining the Regiment. “I love the gas, you know. Cage it up in those bags, and it sings to me, canary-like. If we had the right gear, I could put us back in the air in no time.”
“What would you need, Bunny?”
“Get a Gramme Damnme to run a Botto and we’re half way there. I’m no sailmaker, but I could rig a gascel to carry us out.” He pursed his lips, and went on in a more serious tone. “But we don’t have either dynamo or water splitter. And without gas, an envelope is useless. Too bad.”
“What’s a Gramme Damnme? Sorry, I only have a course book education, so the shorthand completely escapes me. F.O. Crane had assigned me to bear a hand under Mr. Carson for the home leg. Didn’t get the chance.”
Boyce told him it was what power tenders called the Gramme electrical generator. Typically used in the field to power Botto electrolysis setups that extracted hydrogen from water. The tenders called them that because the generator often arced. When they did, the shocks were usually followed by ‘Gramme Damnme!’
Six days later, Yarrow returned from a hunt dragging what Boyce first thought were two small, limbless tree trunks. He had gone several miles west to hunt: it being more and more difficult to find game close to the camp. Skirting a small bog, he spotted a pair of the Auctor’s reserve hydrogen cylinders standing upright in the muck. The shorter fall had kept them intact. One had leaked out through a hairline crack, but the other was fully charged. “Anywhere near enough to put us in the air, Bunny?”
Boyce calculated what they had, how big an envelop they could loft and what they needed. Every one of the numbers was against them. As he ran the numbers a third time, Yarrow threw his hands up and said “Well, Bunny, what do we do? We’re a hundred miles from anywhere, and where ever we can hike out to won’t be friendly. If we do try, regulations require us to destroy everything of use. If we run into a dead-end out there, there is nothing to come back to. We’re tied here, and I don’t see the Regiment coming round that mountain.”
“Hill, really. Just looks like a mountain ‘cause nothing as tall around.” Boyce said absently. He sat quietly in the shade a while. “When we was kids, afore our teens, my sister and me went down to Selsey Bill every summer to stay with cousins. Come dead of winter, they’d come stay with us in London. A swap, see? Anyway, down at the Bill, we sometimes tossed bottles into the sea from Gallows Point. When we learned the currents could take those bottles as far as Calais and maybe up the Holland coast, we started tucking funny messages in them. Mostly along the line of ‘Kiss my arse, Frenchie’ or ‘Send me a shilling - or a guilder if you ain’t got real money’. That kind of thing.” He stood looking, in an unfocused manner, at the wreckage.
The young officer was perplexed. “You want to float messages down to Montevideo? I don’t even know which direction the streams flow. Maybe the Paraguay or the Parana, or neither. Odds wouldn’t be all that good anyway. Anyone ever come to kiss your behind? Or send you a shilling?”
Bunny grinned. “No. But then we never put our names or house number down. For this, I think we need to.” He pulled a scrap of the hull fabric closer. He rubbed it between his fingers, then looked back at the officer.
“I wonder how it would work to make up a bladder out of gascel fabric, fill it and set it adrift from the heights there. I recall the pilot saying the prevailing seasonals blow down coast.” His brow wrinkled as he thought more. “If we could work this stuff in, it would tell them true what ship we’re from. I’m not sure exactly where we are to tell them, nor how to not spill the beans to the either the Argentines or Brazilians.”
Yarrow looked thoughtful. “I might. Let me think on this one, Bunny.” The puzzle occupied him for the rest of the day. He spent an hour rooting about in the ruins of the navigation station until he emerged with a chart of the region. He stopped only once, to yell across the clearing “Cerro Pero, Bunny. It’s Cerro Pero. And you were right about nothing else around being that tall. We’re half way there!”
At their evening meal, he waved a scrap of paper at Boyce. “Here’s what we need to tell them: how many we are, and who, and where. To authenticate it, we write the message on a scrap of that skin, tied to the bladder. And here’s what we send so that no one but authorized sorts can figure it.” He handed the paper to the gasman.
Bunny read it, frowned, and read again. He passed it back. “Are you sure?”
The paper led off with “Husha husha and dub dub; but the butcher fell out.”: they ‘all fell down’ and with the butcher falling out, there were two men left.
It continued with “In my shoes, you would feel as old as the heart of a bone, and be there too”: only his cadet classmates knew his nickname of Michael Marrow, now twenty five years old. As in twenty-five degrees.
“Angus’ trousers are full of fruit pi”: Boyce asked if that was something dirty. Yarrow was quite enjoying himself. “Circumference, Bunny. Pi, not pie. I had an instructor with the reputation for being as big around as he was tall. They’ll have dig for this one. But they’ll find he is five-foot, four inches. Then, they’ll have to stretch their minds a bit to figure it as fifty-four, for the minutes.”
Bunny read on, with explanations along the way. It ended with: “It takes a hare’s year to drink the bigger half of a glass of water.” He understood that one immediately. He smiled up at the cadet on reading his own catch phrase about the proportion of hydrogen and oxygen in water. That told them who the other man in the tub was, for a hare is a rabbit is a bunny. And Bunny’s years numbered thirty-six: thirty-six seconds.
“25, 54, 6 south and 56, 9, 36 west. That’s the hill, best I can tell. I think they can find us using that as a starting point.”
Boyce nodded as he looked over the list again. He squatted under their shelter, looking up at Yarrow. “Clever, by half. Now, a gas man goes to school to learn gas science, then uses that learning and common sense to keep a ship aloft. This the kind of thing they teach you at officer school?”
Yarrow told him no, not quite, then somewhat. Every member of the Air Regiment – save the Experimentals - trained in at least two areas: combat always being the first. In addition to specialties, officer cadets were also sent on an inter-service term. He spent four months as part of a Colonial Service cadre, where they did teach such things. He thought it was rather a waste, but his classmates took it dead serious. Until now, it was the least useful thing he learned in his time on Hayling Island.
At the mention of the island, Boyce chuckled and smiled. To Yarrow’s question, he recounted how a cousin and he skiffed the bay, only to get stuck in the Pilsey mud for half a day, staring at the east side of Hayling. They floated off on the rising tide, with nothing worse than a dead thirst, sunburn and a serious switching for being blockheads.
“Yes, well, I was sent there to learn some of what they teach colonial agents. Quite decent set up, it was. Our cadre shared one of the Richmond Crescent townhouses, just a few doors down from the classrooms. Clean, warm, good food and such. No staff to speak of: cadets rotated through house duties. l won’t complain about it though. One cadre camped under canvas on the seashore, winter or no. Toughest lot of bastards in our class. Called themselves Rangers. Plenty of talk about them, and not a damn bit verified. Anyway, tell me what we need to do to get our messages going.”
They set about making bladders and filling them from the reserve tank. Once sheets of the Auctor’s shimmering skin were attached, they were released in pairs from the crest of the hill. It was tedious work, but it “kept them in the game” as Yarrow repeated too often. The greatest test of patience for Boyce came when an unsecured pair floated away without messages. He hid his vexation at Yarrow’s carelessness, and consoled himself with the benefit of no further references to the game.
Twelve days later, they released the fifteenth, and final, bladder: the tank was empty. On the way downhill, they discussed how long they should stay put before trying to make their way to civilization, and how to destroy as much of their camp as they could.
Bunny heard the noises before he saw anything, but said nothing to Yarrow. If they had been found out by hostiles, there was little they could do. No sense in chaffing the younger man over it. As they entered the clearing, they came nose-to-rifle with a sentry in an RAR buff skirmishing uniform. He kept his rifle leveled on them as he marched them to the aero moored near the wreckage.
His Majesty’s Aeroship Pukje was much larger than the defunct Auctor, and carried a specialist crew and equipment to ensure a no-evidence crash site. Removable equipment was unbolted or cut away; logs, charts, measuring instruments and personal effects were boxed; the casualties were exhumed for sanctioned reburial, for the Regiment never left their dead behind. With the exception of the perimeter sentries, all uncovered and stood in silence as the shrouds were taken aboard.
After stripping whatever was portable, the demolition gang prepared a dozen packages of explosives. The packages were placed in the crushed gondola and among the broken ribs of the Auctor. Incendiaries were arranged to obliterate the gravesites and identifiable parts of what had been their camp for three months.
During all this, Yarrow and Boyce were questioned by intelligence officers. Although food and drink was on the table, and they ate, it was an interrogation. It began with their service details and finger prints. The junior officer disappeared as soon as those were collected. As their story unfolded, their interrogators relaxed. The younger officer poked his head around the bulkhead and nodded – the prints and details tallied with their files. The interrogation became a debrief.
At the end, the senior officer said “Quite the tale, Yarrow. You just launched number fifteen? Good show. Four of them have been retrieved. And I can not imagine anyone but us deciphering them. As it was, a goodly number of our fellows were scratching their heads.
We had a devil of a time puzzling out minutes west. On reviewing your file, Morris spied that Hayling term. On a hunch, he telegraphed Richmond Crescent, and straight away Angus Hamilton’s clerk recognized that cadet witticism. Professor Hamilton takes exception to your numbers, as he claims to be five foot, five and a half.”
He pulled an internal telegraphic form out of his papers, and read aloud. “Professor Hamilton informs me that cadet Yarrow is tardy in submitting the short paper on field office accountancy. As the professor retires in June, he expects the paper in his hands by the end of this month.’ Provided you were still alive, that is.”
Outside, the demolition party finished setting clockwork timers on their charges. They scrambled aboard as mooring lines were shaken loose. The master of the hold rang “all secure”. Yarrow and Boyce heard the first officer on the other side of the bulkhead call out “Pilot, all clear. Up ship.” The Pukje rose and sailed past the hill, which the navigator confirmed as Cerro Pero. Five miles on they heard the series of explosions.
Six weeks after their return, Yarrow called on Boyce to say goodbye. He was off to the expanding HMAB Salisbury: Rhodes had wheedled a show of air power to help push his railway through to Suez. They stood outside, in the shade of the Air Station’s gas shop. Boyce asked him if he got his school paper in.
“Ha ha, Bunny. He gave me a bonus for good work, then deducted it for lateness. But I passed. Queer old duck, but a good teacher. Went around saying things like ‘the office makes the agent, then the agent makes the office.’ You, Bunny, are you staying put?”
Boyce shook his head. “Afraid not, sir. Been with Experimental for eight years now, and got my second marker.” He rolled up his sleeve to show off the fresh “LI” at right angles to the first tattoo. “That’s pushing luck. One of my first duties on being accepted in was to attend the funeral of a chief of motors. Rumor had it he was actually chasing his third mark. As we left the chapel, my section chief took me by the arm. He said ‘You asked earlier when you know to retire. There are two times: when you become afraid of getting the tattoo, and when you start looking for it. With the first, you’re too timid to do the job properly. With the second, you take stupid risks. Either way, quit before you get yourself or someone else killed.’ It was, and is, good advice.”
Bunny nodded to the younger man’s arm. “You’re now the youngest member to ever earn the mark. I respectfully echo the chief’s advice to you. Sir. For me, this is the right time to pass out of service. Our adventure caught the eye of the Services Directorate of Royal Sky Services. I’m taking discharge end of March to be their gas shop manager in San Francisco. That starts mid-April.”
“In my time with the X, I’ve been singed or gassed more times than I can count, fell off scaffolding, had scaffolding fall on me, got rolled over by an unsecured reserve cylinder, electrified four times, and now, crashed twice. Far and away, too much excitement. I welcome a quiet billet for a patch – cozy little cottage, regular hours and an assistant doing all my thinking, may even get a cat. That gentle California climate will fix me up in no time at all.”
They parted with a handshake and a promise to get together if Yarrow ever passed through San Francisco. Boyce watched him round the corner of the building before quietly saying “You’ll be a good skipper, Mr. Yarrow. Men will count themselves lucky to serve under you.”
He offered an unseen, informal salute, before turning back to the shop and his reports. Paperwork wasn’t as dangerous as a landing incident, but it could be troublesome. Bunny looked forward to a long stretch free of landing incidents and any other sort of troubles. He counted on San Francisco in the Spring of 1906 to deliver.
Copyright© 2019 by Haro James