Episode 438: The Well-Mannered Bunch
Inquiries revealed that Burmah Petroleum's private rail line ran up the
valley of N'Mai River to a village near the Chinese border. The name of
this village wasn't clear, and seemed to vary depending on who they asked.
Before the party could set out, they needed to address two concerns. The
first involved transportation. The distance was too far to walk, and
MacKiernan had some reservations about travel on horseback -- for obvious
reasons service aboard one of His Majesty's airships didn't allow officers
much chance to polish their equestrian skills. Fortunately, the American
archeological expedition had acquired several War-era Enfield motorcycles.
Four of these machines, fitted with sidecars to hold supplies, fuel,
tools, spare parts, and Miss Perkins, would be adequate for their needs.
The second concern was the countryside though which they'd be
traveling. Northern Kachin Province was poorly suited for large-scale
agriculture. For this reason, it had escaped the spread of plantations
that had displaced farmers to the south. Many of those displaced farmers
had sought refuge here in the north and might not be well-disposed towards
representatives of the nation that had displaced them. After considering
several disguises, the travelers decided to pose as sportsmen, with Miss Kim
accompanying them as maid and Abercrombie as an irresistible force to deal
with any immovable objects they might encounter.
The first stage of the journey went smoothly. The hills though which they
passed were remarkable for their beauty, and the Enfields' mighty three
horsepower engines made short work of distance, though top speed was limited
by the condition of the roads, the frailty of flesh and bone, and the
absence of anything even remotely resembling a suspension. Inns along the
way offered simple fare -- potatoes and rice, though some adventurous chefs
also experimented with rice and potatoes. Drink was equally rustic -- a
mixture of sour milk, spices, and something that might have been tea.
They stopped for the evening at a caravanserai some miles short of their
destination. After a hearty but somewhat flavorless meal (rich in starch,
vitamin C, thiamine, and folic and pantothenic acids) Professor Jones
entertained the party with tales of his colleagues. These reflected
professional concerns entirely unlike the ones to which his audience was
"...he was always cautious around a dig," the professor said at the
conclusion of one. "From the way he acted, you'd think he expected steel
darts to shoot out of the wall or some big boulder to come rolling down the
trench. Still, he did good work at the Segontium dig. He was one of
Arthur Evans' proteges, along with Wheeler, Childe, Hauptman, and that
MacKiernan's ears perked up at the last name. "You know an archaeologist
"Yep. Why do you ask?"
"I wonder if we may have met the fellow. Miss Perkins, do you have a
photograph of the inspector?"
The secretary rummaged around in her handbag to produce a small folder,
extracted a print, and handed it to Jones. The professor examined this
"That's the man," he told them. "Meriam Scott, of the London Museum. We
call him Scott of the Yard. You have to watch out for that guy! He's one
"Why would he be looking for your missing chemist?" Miss Perkins asked
while MacKiernan was struggling with this idiom.
Jones frowned. "He must be trying to steal our technique for isotopic
analysis. The jerk! He'll stop at nothing to get his data! I remember
that time on the Pabodie expedition to Leng when he..."
"Excuse me," MacKiernan interrupted. "Might I ask what these `isotopes'
are and why it's so important to analyze them?"
"I'm not entirely clear on the subject, but it seems that chemical elements
can come in different forms, with slightly different weights," said Jones,
repeating the explanation he'd given to Everett and Jenkins the week
before. "It all has something to do with things called `neutrons'.
Professor Koshino has come up with a better way to separate these different
forms. By comparing the ratio between them, we can determine the
provenance of artifacts we find in a dig. This allows us to map ancient
trade networks and search for evidence of cultural diffusion."
MacKiernan and Miss Perkins exchanged glances. They could imagine other
uses for such an invention, and it seemed the Japanese nationalists had
too. This was not cause for joy.
Jones must have noticed their expressions. "Your Captain Everett was also
curious about isotopes," he remarked. "Have you got any idea why?"
MacKiernan pretended indifference. "Officers in the Royal Navy Airship
Service have a professional interest in chemistry," he replied. "It's part
of our culture. All that hydrogen, you know."
The professor seemed satisfied with this explanation. "Yep," he chuckled.
"You wouldn't want to get any oxygen mixed in with that stuff."
That night, MacKiernan found himself unable to sleep. Memories of the
titanic explosion on Ujelang brought back memories of other explosions, the
War, a telegram, and a face he'd never see again. At last he rose, tugged
on his clothes, and stepped outside to check the weather. A dog was barking
somewhere in the distance. The moon, a few days before full, shone down
upon the mountains to the east. In its uncertain light, they looked like
ghosts of mountains. Nearer at hand, he could make out a stretch of the
railway line they'd been following. He noticed a figure standing on his
side of the courtyard. Looking more closely, he saw that it was Miss Kim.
He coughed gently to announce his presence. "Good evening," he said
politely. "What brings you out so late at night?"
"Can't sleeping," said the woman. "These mountains. Saw before. Bad
MacKiernan nodded. So I'm not the only one, he thought to himself. "Are
we near the place you were held?" he asked.
"I think so," she said. "It was valley like this. Also with train tracks."
"Could it have been this Burmah Petroleum plant we're looking for?"
"I not knowing, but there was English peoples working with Japanese. That
maked it hard to trust you."
"You trust us now, I hope," said MacKiernan.
"Some," she said. "You, Captain, Miss Perkins, Abercrombie."
MacKiernan thought of the cufflink the woman had been carrying. "What about
Lieutenant-Commander Forsythe? Was he being held with you?"
She glanced at him. "He was worst!" she said sharply. "I go sleeping now.
Good night commander."
The party got an early start the next morning, hoping to make progress
before dust could rise with the heat of the day. Miles passed uneventfully
and soon they topped a rise to see the destination lying ahead. They
pulled off the road to study the place through binoculars.
It might have been a traditional Burmese hill village, were it not the
mooring mast, fuel depot, and hydrogen plant. The watchtowers, searchlights,
and barbed wire fence, were also a non-traditional touch. Professor Jones
examined the latter items and raised his eyebrows.
"Wow, those Burmah Petroleum guys sure take their petroleum seriously!" he
"So it would seem," said MacKiernan. "I hadn't expected their establishment
to have such substantial defenses. This shall require some thought."
Next week: Tally Ho, Odin Old Chap!...
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