The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 383: Karlov's Story

'Brotherhood of Workers' over the ruions of the secret Japanese air station

Loika and Tsukanov stared at the stranger in surprise. As well they might. The cave in which they stood was hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement.

"Who are you?" demanded Loika.

The stranger seemed amused by their attention. "I'm Karlov," he replied, as if this constituted an answer.

Tsukanov gave the man a suspicious glance. "The Comintern organization in Darwin told us that someone by this name was working for the White Russians. Would this have been you?"

Karlov seemed unperturbed by the implied accusation. "Circumstances left me no choice," he said ambiguously. "Those circumstances have since changed. My sympathies were never with the czarists."

"Did you work on this weapon of which we've heard?" asked Loika.

Karlov shook his head. "Not directly," he told them. "My role was limited to helping them refine an ore needed for their so-called `Device'. But in the process, I learned where they kept their plans. When the German nationalists attacked, I was able to steal and hide these during the confusion."

Loika considered Karlov's words. They sounded sincere, but he suspected the man had left out some crucial pieces of information.

Tsukanov seemed to share this suspicion. "How did you escape, and why did you return?" asked the commissar.

"I hid in the same place I'd concealed the plans," said Karlov. "After the attackers were gone, I was able to signal a passing freighter that carried me back to civilization. I returned to destroy the records I'd stolen and make sure that this terrible weapon can never be reconstructed. You arrived just as I'd finished."

"Where is this hiding place of yours?" asked Loika. "We didn't find any sign of it when we searched these caves."

"That's because you didn't know how to look," said Karlov.

Without waiting for a reply, the man turned and headed toward the surface. Loika and Tsukanov followed, hands near their pistols in case of an ambush. Nothing appeared to threaten them, but as they approached the spot where they'd found the cave paintings, their guide turned right and seemed to vanish into the wall.

The airmen halted in astonishment. "Where'd he go?" asked Loika

"I'm right here," Karlov replied, peering back from a side passage they'd somehow failed to notice on their way in. He sounded impatient with their delay.

Tsukanov examined the entrance to the passageway. Some peculiarity of geometry made it almost invisible, even when one knew it was there. "How does this work?" he demanded.

"It's an architectural trick you find in some of these old ruins," Karlov said dismissively, "an angle that looks obtuse, but behaves as if it was acute."

The commissar frowned. Like many Russians, he prided himself on his mathematical skills and this explanation wasn't very satisfying. Before he could ask for elaboration, Karlov had set off down the tunnel.

"I found this when I was looking for ways to escape from this cave," said Karlov. "It wasn't much use to me at the time, since it doesn't lead anywhere, but it was a good place to hide with the plans. There's what's left of them."

Loika examined the pile of ashes their guide had indicated. These were too badly burnt to identify. They could have been documents of some sort, but they could just have easily been a pile of old newspapers. "What do you think of this man's tale?" he asked Tsukanov.

"I can't imagine any reason for him to lie," said the commissar. "If he was working for the czarists, he could have hidden here until we were gone. We'd never have found him. Still, I assume he approached us for some reason other than another `ride back to civilization'."

Loika turned back to Karlov and raised an eyebrow.

"Your companion is correct," said Karlov. "I need your assistance."

Afternoon found the Brotherhood of Workers following a narrow gauge railroad track that ran south into the desert. The terrain was notable for its monotony, but the line had clearly been the scene of some activity. As the miles passed, they spotted an overturned handcar, a recently-abandoned encampment next to a short length of fence, and a siding where someone had parked a bullet-riddled caboose. The track ended at what might once have been a small air station. Nothing remained of this now except shattered buildings and rubble.

"It looks like a bomb went off," said Tsukanov. "Was this another weapon like the one that destroyed Ujelang?"

"I think not," Karlov said dryly. "That was somewhat larger. I'd guess some ammo dump exploded."

"Who built this place and why?" asked Loika.

"Enemies of the Revolution," said Karlov. "They didn't tell me their plans, but I believe they were looking for something -- something they failed to find."

The afternoon desert air was too turbulent for safe Transporter operations, so Loika decided to maintain station overnight and deploy a ground party the next morning. Once again, he and Tsukanov led the expedition -- it was an unspoken tradition of the Workers' And Peasants' Air Fleet that shore parties must always include the ship's commanding officers. Karlov seemed unperturbed by the ride. Did the man have experience with Transporter operations, wondered Loika, or was he simply not bothered by heights?

"Where is this thing we're looking for?" Tsukanov asked after they reached the surface.

"It would be underground, in an archaeological dig," said Karlov. "This may not be easy to find."

Loika looked at their surroundings and frowned. They might have a long task ahead of them. "We'll begin in the west," he announced.

The ruins were in even worse condition that they'd seemed from the air. Whatever the cause of the explosion, it had reduced most of the buildings to flattened mounds of debris. Loika found himself wondering if anything could remain of this so-called `archaeological dig'. Surely it must be buried by rubble. But towards the middle of the morning, Karlov pulled aside a sheet of corrugated roofing to reveal what looked like a partially-collapsed warehouse.

"This looks promising," he said.

Loika nodded. "Let's have a look inside."

The interior of the building was so badly damaged it was difficult to determine its purpose, but Loika noted what might have been fragments of scientific apparatus amidst the debris. Could this have been another secret laboratory, he wondered? How had Karlov learned of the place? Before he could ask, they came to an opening in the floor. A pile of earth stood nearby.

"That must be the dig," said Karlov. "It looks like someone was underground when the explosion occurred and dug their way back to the surface."

"This was fortunate," said Loika. "Let us take advantage of their labor."

The tunnel seemed unharmed by the catastrophe that had destroyed the station. The airmen passed tools lying where workmen had set them aside, and exploratory trenches where investigators had used trowels and whisk brooms to uncover potsherds, domestic utensils, and a row of star-shaped stones. The walls were covered with petroglyphs. Loika thought they resembled the ones they'd seen in the White Russian laboratory, but this was not a medium that allowed for much variation in technique. Some figures might have portrayed extinct animals, but could just as easily have been airships, clouds, or shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of light. Others showed warriors or shamans with what appeared to be a long poles tipped with flame projecting from hammer-shaped icons in their hands.

Karlov paused before a section of wall. Knowing what to expect, the airmen weren't surprised when their guide stepped around another invisible corner in the rock. They followed to find him studying an intricately carved block of metal or stone.

"The fools," he muttered to himself. "It was right in front of them all the time."

"What is this thing?" asked Tuskanov.

Karlov's expression might have been a smile. "It's an Antikythera Mechanism."

Next week: I Suppose We'd Better Have A Look Ourselves...

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