The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 257: Southbound Soirre

Emily and Clarice at the helm

The clear tenor voices wafted across the field like an echo from an earlier and more innocent age.

"In South Australia I was born,
Heave away, haul away!
In South Australia I was born,
We're bound for South Australia!"

Captain Michaelson looked up from his desk, listened for a moment, and frowned. Then he rang to summon his aide. "Phelps," he asked, gesturing out the window, "what is the meaning of this?"

"It's one of the handling parties, sir," the signalman informed him. "Since their work does involve pulling on ropes, they thought it might be appropriate to sing a traditional capstan shanty while they walked a ship to the mast."

"This assumption was incorrect," Michaelson said dryly. "Please inform them of their error."

When his aide returned, Michaelson was working his way through a stack of paperwork. The senior captain jotted down a few marginal notes, set aside the page he was reading, and rubbed some of the the kinks out of his shoulders. "So," he asked, "what do we have for today?"

Phelps opened a folder and produced a set of reports. "The new shipment of iron filings arrived this morning, sir. It's in the warehouse now, ready to be moved to the hydrogen plant. Alderson discovered some wear in the brakes on the Number Two Mobile Mast. He wants your approval to take the engine out of service until these can be refurbished. Feldsmore continues to find fault with the Officer's Mess. I informed him that we must respect native customs, even if these should happen to involve Vegemite. And Gordon's people have finished their investigation of the explosion. I have a summary of their findings here."

Long hours of card play in countless wardrooms had taught Michaelson how to maintain a mask of indifference. "Did they discover anything of note?" he asked blandly.

"They believe the bomb was placed in a rain barrel next to the building's south wall, adjacent to the brig. From traces of chemicals found on the rubble, they determined that the explosive was ammonium nitrate, rather than the TNT one might have expected. They were unable to reach any conclusions regarding its origin, but note this is used in the mining industry in places such as Mount Malloy."

"How was the bomb detonated?"

Phelps seemed somewhat hesitant as he shuffled through his papers. "Gordon's people were unable to arrive at any definite conclusions," he replied, "but they did find what appeared to be fragments of clockwork. These might have been part of some timing device."

"Or they might not," Michaelson observed sarcastically. "Clocks tend to be rather common on military bases. Have we found anyone who can communicate with our guest and determine if she could can shed any light on the matter?"

"Not yet," said the signalman. "It's a pity Miss Perkins is away on leave. No one in Cairns seems to have taken the trouble to learn Korean. One cannot help but feel this represents a certain lack of foresight on their part. I imagine there might be someone in Admiral Wentworth's office who knows the language."

Michaelson suppressed a smile. He'd intended the conversation to take this turn. And he could recognize a question disguised a statement. "Perhaps," he replied, "but the Admiral is a busy man. I see no need to trouble him about something as unimportant as our trespasser. Besides, his office must be preoccupied with their new prisoners. We still have no idea why they suddenly demanded we send the Fat Man's people to them?"

"No," admitted Phelps. "It came as much a surprise to me as it did to you."

First we play a card, thought Michaelson.

"It's a curious business," he remarked. "Someone in Sydney spirited Lieutenant Blacker away without explanation, as if they didn't want us to question him. Now they've done the same with our German guests."

"Do you have any idea why, sir?" asked Phelps.

Now, thought Michaelson, we pretend that our hand is weaker than it is.

"No," he mused, "but we know that someone here in Cairns has passed information to the police chief in Darwin. This might also be the same person who put the Fat Man's people on the trail of that Italian opera singer, Antonio Notariello. One wonders if this hypothetical agent might have moved on to greener pastures."

"You think the German nationalists have placed a man in the Admiral's office?" Phelps exclaimed.

"We must consider the possibility," said Michaelson. "It does seem consistent with the facts." He noticed a faint easing of tension in the signalman's expression and nodded to himself. So, my unknown adversary, he thought. You took steps to place a resource in my office, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to you that there are other ways a man can be turned. As long as no complications arise in Sydney, I should win this round.

"You must be gentle but firm," said the helmsman. "Imagine you've brought a young... uh... puppy home. You must be gentle or it could become too excited. But you must be firm, or it might have some misadventure with the furniture."

"Good on ya!" laughed Clarice. "And this is one bonzer puppie!"

She had a good point. The R-67, City of Brisbane, was considerably larger than a typical household pet. It also had a significantly higher gross weight, airspeed, and cruising altitude. But the airship's rudder was easy to manage, and the two women had wheedled Captain Sanders into bending regulations to let them try the helm.

"You hold a good course, Miss Blaine," the captain said approvingly. "Have you ladies handled an airship before?"

"Dinki di," said Clarice. "Captain Everett let us try steering the R-505."

"Ah yes, Captain Everett," said Sanders, glancing nervously toward the struts that secured the R-67's new control car to the hull. "Good man. Quite resourceful in a pinch. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company aboard our vessel?"

"It was Lany's idea," Emily explained. "He's head of Scheduling for the railway office. Ridership has not been up to expectations and he's looking for some way to improve it. He thought our town might become more attractive as a destination if we could conduct some form of joint operation with your airship line, so he asked us to take this flight and report on the quality of your service."

The captain seemed to brighten at the thought of more paying customers. "That sounds like an excellent proposal! How many travellers might be involved?"

Emily considered her reply. The North Australia Railroad's passenger operation consisted of a twice-monthly run to Alice Springs. Sometimes this even carried passengers. "It's difficult to be precise," she said quite honestly, "but under the right circumstances, I imagine the number could be substantial."

Then we'll do our best to make certain your voyage goes smoothly," Sanders announced. "And I'm sure you'll both have a wonderful time in Sydney."

Next week: That's Good Enough...

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