The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 367: An Entirely Routine Flight

Advertising flier for Vanua Lava

Captain Everett set down his pen and examined his latest entry in the log

6-July-1927, 19 9 S, 148 45 E. En route from Cairns to Pago Pago to investigate American naval airship movements. Since these are almost certainly kept secret, this may require some finesse. Captain Michaelson has instructed Miss Perkins to assist with our inquiries.

What was the senor captain up to, he wondered? Michaelson might pretend ignorance, but he'd shown considerable skill at placing the Flying Cloud in a position to interfere with adversaries' plans. This could hardly have happened by chance. What did Michaelson know, how had he obtained this information, and most important, what were his motives?

Everett sighed. He knew part of the answer, and this was not a source of joy. The rest was unlikely to be any better.

A curt knock disturbed his reflections. He looked up to see Miss Perkins standing at the door to his cabin. "Good morning," he said cheerfully. "I take it you're here to deliver another secret instruction from Michaelson."

Against her will, the secretary smiled. "This one shouldn't be too burdensome, since we'll be looking for somewhere to resupply," she replied. "He suggested we do this at Sola."

Everett raised an eyebrow. "Do you have any idea why?"

The secretary shook her head. "I imagine he's received some intelligence about the place," she said sourly, "but the Captain keeps his secrets, even from me."

"Where the devil is Sola?" asked MacKiernan. The Exec seemed upset to admit ignorance regarding navigational matters.

"According to the Almanac, it's the capital of Vanua Lava," Jenkins offered helpfully.

The Irishman scowled. "That does little to clarify matters."

"This lies in the Banks island chain, halfway between Cairns and Pago Pago."

"I assume this is one of the many geographic features William Bligh named after his patron," MacKiernan grumbled. "Who administers this conveniently-placed archipelago?"

"It's part of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides, though I doubt that either colonial administration pays much attention to the place."

"What is Michaelson's interest in the Banks Islands?" asked Sarah.

"I imagine he's using us to flush some adversary from cover... again," mused Everett. "We'll have to watch for any unusual developments lest this work to our disadvantage."

As its name suggested, Vanua Lava was a volcanic island, raised from the sea ages ago by some great convulsion of fire. Its terrain was heavily weathered, contours softened by time and erosion, but a thin plume of smoke trailed from one of its peaks, suggesting it was still active. The village of Sola lay on the southern arm of a small bay. Its air station was unusually substantial, with a modern mast that seemed to proclaim Lucrative Government Contact, but the handling parties were not noteworthy for their efficiency, and the mooring operation took quite some time.

The station's manager was waiting to receive them when they stepped from the lift. He was an old island hand who seemed to double as the local administrator. "Bonjour, monsieurs," he announced. "Je m'appel Bernard. Welcome to Sola."

"Merci," said Everett. "I am Captain Roland P. Everett, Royal Navy Airship Service and these are some of my crew. We appreciate your hospitality. I don't imagine you see many naval vessels here."

The manager studied him for a moment, as if wondering what lay behind this observation. "Non," he said. "It has been some time since we've received such distinguished guests. Your men are welcome to visit our village, but I'd recommend they not stray too far beyond it. The jungle is thick, and it's easy to get lost."

Lieutenant Murdock strode through Sola, acutely aware of the responsibility that rested on his shoulders. Captain Everett had placed him and Davies in charge of investigating the settlement while other shore parties explored the interior. If he'd missed Everett's nod to the marine, accompanied by an instruction to `keep the young gentleman out of trouble', this was understandable given his youth.

The village was even less prepossessing than it had seemed from the air -- a nondescript cluster of huts accompanied by an equally nondescript mission. A small warehouse for the ubiquitous copra was the only sign of industry. Its inhabitants seemed strangely uncommunicative. When questioned, they showed a distinct tendency to glance over their shoulder in the direction of the air station before they replied.

"What an odd way for them to behave," Murdock observed. "Could these people be trying to hide something?"

Davies seemed to hesitate, as if he was unprepared for this question. "The thought has crossed my mind, sir," he said diplomatically.

Murdock didn't notice his companion's reaction, for something else had caught his eye. At the edge of the village, a small tin-roofed shack sported a sign proclaiming it to be headquarters of the Société Minière de Soufre Pacifique Francais. The lieutenant drew on his limited knowledge of French and frowned.

"I say," he told Davies, "what's a sulphur mining company doing here?"

"I can't begin to imagine," admitted Davies.

Murdock brightened. "The Captain told us to watch for anything that seems out of place. This would seem to qualify."

They entered the shack to find a young woman sitting behind a desk, leafing through a catalogue of bathing apparel the local mission most certainly would not have approved of. An advertisement on the back proclaimed, "You'll look better in a Ujelang!" She perked up when she saw Murdock.

"How can I help you, monsieur?" she asked.

Why is she staring me like that? wondered the lieutenant. "We saw the sign on your door and grew curious," he said politely. "Do you actually mine sulphur on this island?"

"We have works on Mount Suretamate," she said, gesturing out the window toward the smoking peak they'd seen from their air. "If you wish, I will show you the location."

Before Murdock could reply, the woman had taken him by the arm, led him to her chair, and perched on the desk beside him. While he averted his gaze lest he see things he shouldn't, she rummaged through a drawer to produce a map.

"It is here," she said breathlessly. "Would you like me to be your guide?"

"Um... er... I'm not quite sure we have time for a visit," stammered Murdock. "Is there much demand for sulphur?"

The woman leaned forward to murmur into his ear. "More than you would suppose," she said coyly, "if one can avoid the duties those silly Americans impose on the substance."

This is all very interesting, thought Murdock, but why is she unbuttoning my jacket? Nothing in his training had prepared him for situations like this. He glanced at Davies for advice, but the marine seemed to be staring out the window.

"Do you get many visitors to the air station here?" he asked desperately.

The woman giggled, then seemed to shake her head in resignation. "Non," she said wistfully. "Just our friends les passeurs and that big American cruiser."

Davies glanced up from his place by the window. "Cruiser?"

Next week: Dueling Denizens of Darwin...

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