The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 233: A Less-Than-Perfect Union

Fuller aboard his submarine

The Countess offered Clarice and Emily the tray. "Would you ladies care for more durian?" she asked.

"Yes, please," said Emily, with obvious delight.

"No, thank you," said Clarice, with a thinly disguised shudder. Life in Australia's Northern Territory had not prepared her for certain fruits.

If the Countess noticed the brunette's reaction, she was too polite to show it. "How did the interrogation go?" she asked Everett.

Everett glanced at his aide. "Jenkins, would you care to give our hostess a summary?"

"Our guests were very forthcoming," said the signalman, "particularly toward morning, as their lack of sleep began to tell. Their superiors may have attempted to restrict certain information to those who needed to know it, but rumors will circulate, and it can be difficult to keep secrets among members of a small airship crew for an extended length of time."

The Countess nodded. She'd had experience acquiring information during the War, though her techniques might have been somewhat different. "What did you learn?"

Jenkins poured himself another cup of tea. He seemed entirely unaffected by the previous night's endeavors. "It appears that our speculations about uraninite were correct," he replied. "According to our guests, the naturally-occurring ore consists of an admixture of two forms. One form is inert, and useless for the purposes of making a weapon. The other must be extracted and refined to concentrate its destructive principle.

"The Germans removed what they believed to be a complete set of refining apparatus from the White Russian laboratory on Oa Ki when they raided the place last June. They've since discovered that the apparatus is missing some crucial assembly. And this is where our elusive Karlov comes in."

"I assume he has plans for the missing component," said the Countess.

"He may well have invented it," said Jenkins. "Indeed, he may also have been involved in the design of the Device itself. This Karlov was quite the precocious young man. But he seems to have had his own agenda, and this remains something of mystery. The Fat Man's people were unable to learn anything useful from the Russians they captured..." the signalman's manner left little doubt as to the means he suspected the nationalists had employed, " they came here, hoping you could shed some light on this matter."

"They would have been disappointed," the Countess said dryly, "as would I, assuming I'd survived the experience. He was a man with a secret, that much I could tell. This secret seemed to weigh heavily upon him, but he never revealed what it was."

"This woman, Natasha, whom you said was associated with him," said Emily, "was she privy to this secret too?"

"I have wondered about this," mused the Countess. "But I never met her, so I have no way to tell. Do our guests know where Karlov is now?"

"No," said Jenkins, "but they believe he's heading for the island of Gilolo."

Clarice noticed Everett's expression. "What's wrong?"

The captain shook his head. "Aside from the fact that it's large, sparsely inhabited, poorly mapped, and its interior is virtually impenetrable, very little. But we're Englishmen. We'll make do."

"What are we doing in this barbarous place?" Peters complained.

Clement glanced at his henchman in annoyance. The surrounding jungle might well be home to wild beasts, cannibals, and even -- if his Anglican pastor was to be believed -- Presbyterians, but this cafe in Hollandia seemed civilized enough.

"We're tracking down that airship," he said patiently.

"Why?" asked Peters. "Whatever did we want it for?"

Clement frowned. He didn't remember either, but this seemed like a poor time for second guesses. "It's the principle of the thing," he replied. "We can't let these miscreants purloin the thing from under our very noses. Jamison, what have we discovered so far?"

The agent leafed through his notes. "Too much, really," he replied. "This place is rife with all manner of rumors about vanished civilizations, missing heiresses, renegade noblemen, and some fellows called the Sky Pirates of Tahiti."

"Have we learned anything concrete?" Clement demanded.

"Perhaps," said Jamison. "If the Station's records are to be believed, an airship registered as the N-109 called here twice: once around the 9th to sign on additional crew and once around the 12th for repairs to one of their engines. They were followed a few days later by a Royal Navy vessel: the Cottswold, His Majesty's Airship R-382."

"A Royal Navy vessel?" said Peters. "Do you think the Admiralty has become involved?"

"I suppose this is possible," mused Clement. "That captain back in Cairns -- Mitchellson or whatever his name was -- did express some interest in the hijacking."

Peters brightened. "Does this mean we can go back to England?"

"Of course not!" snapped Clement. "We can hardly allow someone else to... goodness, is that who I think it is?" He pointed toward the street where a man in yachting clothes was strolling past the cafe. "Fuller!"

The other man halted in surprise, then turned to scowl at them. "Clement," he said sourly. "I should have guessed it would be you. Not so loud! In this part of the world, I go by the name Captain Omen."

"What are you doing here in the Pacific?" asked Clement.

"What are you doing here?"

"I asked you first."

"I command a fast modern submarine filled with a large number of heavily-armed men."

Clement thought this over. "You offer a compelling argument," he observed. "We came here to further the cause of the British Union. To this end, we decided to hijack an airship."

Fuller glanced around the cafe, which was notably lacking in dirigibles. "This doesn't seem to have gone particularly well for you," he said sarcastically.

"We may have suffered a temporary setback," Clement admitted, "but we're well on the way to recovering the vessel."

"Who's idea was this hijacking?" asked Fuller. "You can hardly have thought of it yourself."

Clement bridled at the slight. "Why not?" he demanded. "A tourist we encountered remarked on the lack of guards aboard the craft, and it seemed a pity not to take advantage of the opportunity."

The other man raised an eyebrow. "You based your plans on the advice of a passer-by?"

"Her observations seemed sound enough," Clement protested. "She also offered a very good suggestion about numbered armbands."

Fuller snorted. "The Pacific is no place for amateurs and dilettantes!" he announced. "I suggest you head back to England and leave this theatre to the experts!"

Clement and his henchmen watched sullenly as Fuller departed. "What a rude fellow," said Peters after the man was gone.

"Quite," said Clement, "but he's obviously here on some errand. It might behoove us to determine what this is. Jamison, follow him."

"It was an interesting excursion," said Jamison the next day. "The man has eclectic tastes. He began with some routine purchases of writing supplies and the like, then he visited a dealer in native art, a spiritualist, a shop that sold occult literature, and an outfitter."

"Could any of these people have been contacts?" asked Peters.

"I doubt it," said the agent. "I contrived to overhear most of the conversations and none seemed out of the ordinary. But our man did make an interesting purchase at the final establishment. This was a detailed map of Gilolo, an island in the Molucas."

Clement reviewed what he knew of the Dutch East Indies. "Surely the East India Company keeps such things secret."

Jamison shrugged. "This is Hollandia. It seems you can buy anything here."

"Could this have been some attempt at misdirection?"

"I doubt it," said Jamison. "The purchase required some effort on his part and he had no reason to believe we'd be watching his movements."

"Does this mean we're heading for the Molucas?" Peters asked apprehensively.

"Of course!" said Clement. "That gentleman cast aspersions upon our competence! We cannot let this go unanswered!"

Next week: It's Important To Do Things With Flare ...

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