The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 208: The Case of the Insufficiently-strong-hold

Salvage operations at the secret Russian laboratory

The moon sat low in the western sky. To starboard, stars made tracks of light across the Timor Sea. To port, the land spread dark and mysterious, for there were few settlements on this stretch of the Australian coast.

In the mess hall of the Flying Cloud, Commodore Clark tapped a spot on the chart. "This is where you found the laboratory?" he asked Captain Everett.

"Yes," said Everett. "It's marked by a grounded barge at the mouth of this river here. We should arrive around 0700 hours tomorrow. Can you tell us what we're looking for?"

Clark stacked his notes together and rose to depart. "Your earlier investigation was only cursory," he replied. "We'll do the job right this time... assuming you didn't disturb the evidence."

MacKiernan waited until the Commodore was gone, then glanced at his captain. "He doesn't seem to think very highly of us."

"This type of attitude is not uncommon among flag officers," Everett observed. "I can recall one rear admiral who insisted on showing his captains how to tie their shoes."

The Irishman's eyes widened. "You're jestin'!"

"Unfortunately not," said Everett, with a rueful glance at his footwear. "But I imagine he'll return to the Cottswold when we get back to Cairns, so you shouldn't have to deal with him after that."

The next morning found them approaching the river. This was easy to recognize by the lay of the surrounding islands, but some changes had occurred while they were away.

"Where's that barge you mentioned, what's that freighter doing there, and who are all those people?" Clark demanded.

Everett studied the scene below. Where the barge had gone aground, someone had set up a small camp. The barge was now moored upstream next to a crane built from local timber. Offshore, a small freighter swung from anchor. Through his binoculars, he could make out the name Tranquility.

"We've encountered this vessel before," he told the Commodore. "It's a privately-owned contract carrier."

"A tramp steamer, in other words," Clark said distastefully. "Well, I suppose there's no help for it. I will lead the investigating party myself. We will need someone who knows this type of terrain. I understand you have an Australian among your crew.

"He's currently indisposed," Everett replied. "A minor sprain while inspecting the rigging. But Lieutenant Iverson made the earlier landings and is familiar with the site."

"Very well," the Commodore said begrudgingly. "You should take better care of your people."

Iverson was not thrilled by his role as guide. I suppose it could be worse, he told himself. Though he couldn't imagine how.

If the Commodore noticed Iverson's discomfort, he gave no sign. He stepped off the Transporter, adjusted his jacket, then glanced around the clearing.

"What is this?" he asked, gesturing to their right, where a small steam tractor was chugging past, dragging a diesel-generator set on a sledge behind it. The driver -- a young woman in engineer's overalls -- gave them a cheerful wave.

"It's a Wallis Stevens 1903," came a voice from behind them. "It was just sitting here, so we thought heck, if we don't take this general purpose traction engine, it's a cinch somebody else will.'"

They turned to find a plain-looking man in seaman's garb studying them with a smile. "I am Commodore Ethan S. Clark, Royal Navy Airship Service," Clark announced. "These are my men, Lieutenant Iverson, Signalman Alban, and Professor Dixon. Who might you be?"

"I'm Ray," said the stranger, "captain of the Tranquility. That's her anchored to the north. I take it you came to see the workings?"

`Workings'? thought Iverson. This does not bode well.

"Yes," the Commodore said darkly. "We did."

A short walk through the jungle brought them to the cave. Clark detailed his signalman to stand watch by the entrance while they followed Ray inside. "We spotted the barge last year on our way from Broome," the skipper explained as he led them down the tunnel. "It had gone ashore with a load of wire fencing. We sold this in Port Moresby, then we got to wondering what someone needed all that fencing for in this part of Western Australia. So we came back here, searched upstream, and discovered a big cave full of abandoned equipment! We'll be taking this down to Sydney. It would have been the devil to get aboard, but fortunately someone left us this handy barge and tractor."

"What about the original owners?" asked Clark.

"No sign of 'em!" Ray said cheerfully. "but it looks like they were criminals of some sort. The cave was littered with shells, as if there'd been a gunfight, and we found a big vault someone had forced open and emptied."

The Commodore frowned. "Did you report any of this to the authorities?"

"Who would that be?" asked Ray. "George Channel? Maritime law is outside his jurisdiction. But we'd be happy to file a report with the Navy!"

"That won't be necessary," Clark said quickly -- it seemed commodores were plagued by paperwork too.

By now they'd reached the laboratory. A quick glance sufficed to show that the salvagers had done a thorough job. The floor was scored with drag marks where they'd hauled away machinery and gouges in the ceiling showed where they'd pulled down the system of lighting and ventilation Iverson had seen on his previous visits.

That rather puts paid to our chances of finding `undisturbed evidence', thought Iverson.

Dixon seemed to share this opinion. "What did you manage to salvage?" he asked glumly.

"A good haul!" said Ray. "Hand tools, work benches, several lathes, and a complete generator set. We also found an induction furnace and what might have been vacuum casting equipment."

"'Might have been'?" asked the scientist.

"Yes. It's hard to tell because someone took a sledge to it. A pity -- it would have fetched a good price."

"Where was this vault you mentioned?" asked Clark.

"Around this corner."

"Thank you," said the Commodore. "You may leave us now."

The vault was as Iverson had last seen it: a low cavern, blocked by the door the German nationalists had cut away when they returned to plunder its contents.

"This is where the Russians kept the Device?" Dixon asked him.

"We believe so," said Iverson.

Dixon opened his pack to produce an instrument Iverson recognized as a Müller counter. He switched this on, waited for it to warm up, then made a circuit of the chamber, holding the detector in front of him like a wand.

"I can't tell much," he told Clark after he finished. "There may be a bit more ionizing radiation over this stretch of floor, but that might just be due to some quality of the underlying rock. Mister Iverson, your report mentioned a hidden chamber on the way back to the surface. Could you take us there?"

It took Iverson some effort to locate the passageway. At last he was reduced to running his hand along the wall until he found the entrance. Dixon studied this with some interest.

"Clever," he mused. "It seems to be a projection of a hyperbolic non-Euclidean geometry into conventional Minkowskian space-time."

"Quite," said Clark -- it seemed he didn't know what the scientist was talking about either. "There doesn't seem to be much here."

This was true. Except for a few cryptic carvings and the pile of packing material they'd found earlier, the chamber was empty.

"You say Karlov hid some equipment in this place?" asked Dixon.

"So we assumed," said Iverson, "but it seems he returned to remove it before we arrived."

"He would," Dixon said ruefully. He produced another instrument from his pack and was about to take a measurement when they heard Alban's voice from outside.

"Sir, a message from the ship! It appears someone's reported a hijacking in New Caledonia."

"A hijacking?" said Clark. "How extraordinary! Contact Everett and inform him we'll be returning to Cairns immediately!"

Elance watched the airship depart from atop the tractor. "Close one, Cap'n!" she exclaimed.

"They did have me worried," admitted Ray, "but I don't think they knew what to look for."

"Did you find it?"

"Yes. Karlov should be happy!"

Next week: Time For Business...

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