The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 486: Middle Ground

French Indochina

Clarice and Emily stared at the figure in the doorway. She was the last person they'd expected to see in the Philippines -- a slender women, in her late twenties perhaps, with blond hair, Eastern European features, and an expression that hinted at some irreparable loss.

"Natasha!" cried Emily. "Whatever are you doing aboard this yacht? The last time we saw you was at the Japanese nationalist's secret air station in Western Australia."

The woman seemed no less surprised than they were. "Emily Wilcox and Clarice Blaine!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing aboard?"

"We asked you first."

"But this is my territory."

In for a penny, in for a pound, thought Clarice. It wasn't as if a lie was more likely to serve than the truth. "We're trying to suss out the Warfields' bizzo so we can put paid to it," she explained. "It seems they're trying to nick a cargo of vacuum tubes. We reckon those have something to do with that crook explosion that destroyed the island of Ujelang."

There was pause while Natasha translated the Australian interpretation of English into her native language, whatever that might have been. At last she seemed to reach a decision. "We need to talk," she told them. "Let's move to my cabin where it's safer."

Natasha's quarters were significantly less intimidating than the master's stateroom. In place of martial displays and paintings of battle and the hunt, they was decorated with flowers and scenes of the islands. A set of the nested wooden matroyshka dolls that had made their debut at the Paris Exposition stood on a shelf next to the bunk. Natasha ushered them in, glanced out the porthole to make sure no crewmen were about, then turned to confront them.

"Tell me," she said curtly, "how did you learn about these vacuum tubes?"

Clarice saw no reason to dissemble. "Aunt Prodgia left us the oil on her way through Manila. They're aboard a freighter named the Tranquility, bound for French Indochina. But before we say more, we need to know if you're working for the Warfields or against them."

Natasha studied her guests through narrowed eyes. If she'd noticed that they'd only told her things she must already have known or guessed, she gave no signs. "I'm trying to prevent any of these nationalist groups from recreating the Ujelang Device," she told them. "The Japanese are the most immediate danger, since they're on the verge of perfecting a refiner to concentrate the essential element. I helped the machine's inventor escape from their secret laboratory in Yunnan, but they still have his notes, so now I'm trying to stop them from getting the parts they need to complete it."

What's a Yunnan? Clarice wondered. But another issue seemed of more immediate importance. "That still doesn't explain why you're here on the Warfield's yacht," she observed.

The woman spread her hands in a gesture of resignation. "I am not in a position of strength," she told them. "I must use the tools at hand."

"Is that why you betrayed Lieutenant Iverson to the Fat Man's agents on Kwajelein?" Clarice asked sardonically.

"I didn't betray him," said Natahsa, "I saved his life. They would have found him without my help, but it was my help that stayed their hand."

Clarice reflected on the account Everett had given her of the affair. She supposed that their hostess might be telling the truth, but she wasn't about to lower her guard.

Emily seemed to share her reservations. "Why did you play Fleming and those American gangsters for nongs?" asked the blond.

This prompted another brief pause for translation. "I was trying to discover what the White Russians were planning," Natasha replied. "They're the ones who..." the woman hesitated for a moment, "...first learned the secret of the Device. But this strays from the matter at hand. You still haven't explained how two residents of Australia ended up in the Philippines?"

Clarice frowned at what seemed to be a non sequitur, then glanced at Emily, who shrugged. As briefly as she could, she described their adventures, beginning with Aunt Prodiga's attempt to salvage the original Viking Girl, continuing through the attack by Japanese nationalists' armed tug, their rescue by Fuller, their adventures in Timor, and their role in the destruction of the British, German, and Japanese nationalist bases here in Manila.

"How did you find passage from Kupang?" Natasha asked, in what seemed to be another non sequitur.

"Some fellow told us about a ship that was bound for..."

"Describe this man," interrupted Natasha.

"He was an ordinary-looking bloke, perhaps the same age as you are, with a moderate build, blond hair, and a slight accent. Now that I think of it, his accent was a bit like..."

The woman's face fell. "It was Karlov," she whispered

Clarice and Emily both recognized the name. "This is the same Karlov Captain Everett and Jenkins told us about?" asked Emily.

Natasha didn't seem to hear. "Karlov," she muttered to herself. "You always seem to be one step ahead of me. What are you up to now?"

Clarice stamped her foot in annoyance. Her tolerance for mysteries was dwindling fast. "Suppose you tell us what this is all about?" she demanded. "Who is this Karlov fellow and what's your relationship with the chappie? According to the Captain, you told Iverson you were either his sister or his wife, but on Gilolo, he suggested that you were his competitor."

Natasha opened her mouth as if to explain, then shook her head. "It isn't that simple," she told them. "And there's no way anyone in this branch could possibly understand. But there's a power no one should be allowed to master, and one of us is trying to prevent the other from acquiring it."

Clarice and Emily were quick to grasp the implication. "I take it this has nothing to do with the device that destroyed Ujelang," said Emily.

Once again, Natasha seemed to be struggling to formulate an explanation. "The Device was just a pretext to develop or find the necessary instrumentality," she said at last.

Develop or find? wondered Clarice. It was an understatement to say that their hostess's words raised more questions than they answered. But before she could ask for clarification, they heard footsteps on the gangway to the dock. Natasha glanced out the porthole and stiffened in alarm.

"It's Edmunds and Collins," she said. "They must have realized you'd given them the slip and decided to return to the yacht. Stay here while I try to find some way to smuggle you past them."

Clarice watched the woman slip out of the cabin, then turned to Emily. "Do you think we can trust her?" she asked.

"I don't think anyone can trust her," Emily replied. "But she didn't call out for help when she found us, so I doubt she means to turn us over to these British Union chappies."

Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of crewmen coming on deck and casting off lines. Steam must not have been allowed to go down, for soon, machinery began to throb, and the vessel was moving away from the dock.

As they were wondering at this development, Natasha returned to the cabin. "I was too late," she told them. "By the time I found them, they'd given the skipper orders to take the yacht to Danang."

"Bonzer!" Clarice and Emily said in unison.

"Da nu?" said Natasha, in what was clearly an expression of surprise.

"That's where we want to go," Clarice explained. "This makes it easy."

Their hostess stared at them and shook her head. "You two are oreshki!"

Next week: All Roads Lead To Danang...

Comments about Episode 486? Start a new topic on the Forum!

StumbleUpon        submit to reddit Reedit