The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 531: So That's What They're Up To

Sketch of Japanese secret laboratory

The R-87 might have been another example of the ubiquitous Wollseley class, but she'd been maintained to a somewhat higher standard than the R-83. This showed everywhere MacKiernan looked. Her control car was a gallery of polished glass and aluminum. Her engine cars were spotless, their machinery clean enough to eat from. Her envelope was unblemished, with nary a wrinkle or flaw. This might not have made her much faster than her sister ship -- surface are to volume ratio worked placed an upper limit on speed for airships this small -- but it made for a substantial improvement in economy.

The crew were every bit as polished as their vessel. Her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Harris, was a the very model of a dutiful career officer, and his crew took after him. This led to a distinct lack of character. The only evidence of the Royal Naval Airship Service's reputation for eccentricity were their tradition of playing Will Fyffe's `I Belong To Glasgow' when they lifted ship and the games of Old English skittles they played in the keel passage after their vessel was underway.

MacKiernan stepped aside as a round of Cheshire rolled past, bumped over an expansion joint, and jogged left to take out the outside pin. Cheese and pin fell to the net the riggers had spread below. Beside him, Miss Perkins frowned.

"Surely this recreation must pose some hazard to the equipment," she remarked.

MacKiernan hesitated, unwilling to pass judgment on a fellow officer of comparable seniority. "Captain Harris may feel that finesse in sport translates to finesse in ship handling, " he replied. "It's been said that the Battle of Jutland was won on the lawns of Dartmouth.

The secretary seemed unconvinced. "How do we plan to determine what the British Union is up to?" she asked.

The Irishman had been giving this matter some thought. "Our two most recent leads are Neumeklenberg and Woodlark Island," he observed. "I doubt we could visit the former without being recognized, so we'll begin with the latter and complete our investigation of the Warfield's campsite."

They reached Woodlark Island the morning after they'd departed from Cairns. A Wollesely posed no challenge to the handlers at Kulumadau's rustic air station, and soon MacKiernan and Miss Perkins were strolling along the trail that led to the abandoned temple. MacKiernan had brought along Sergeant Donnelly, Harris‘ Sergeant Of Marines -- or marine, as the case may be -- to serve as chaperon and to draw on the veteran's knowledge.

The walk took little time -- long distances and Woodlark Island were mutually incompatible concepts --- and soon they were standing at the foot of the meadow where Professor Otkupshchikov, and presumably the Warfields, had established their digs. Both were long gone by now, but the remains of the old marae still loomed over the far end of the meadow like the foundations of some ancient airship shed. Closer at hand, they could see stakes where the British Union had erected its tents.

"This looks like the pattern for a Mk V Single, like we used at Ypres," Donnelly observed. "I remember it all too well."

"How many men do you think they could have accommodated here?" asked MacKiernan.

The old trooper glanced around the encampment and counted to himself. "A dozen or so sections -- company strength, perhaps -- and you can see here where they set up a firing range."

"This cannot be usual behavior for archaeologists," Miss Perkins observed dryly. "Shall we take a look at their purported dig?"

The dig proved every bit as unconvincing as the encampment. Its trenches were much too shallow to uncover any artifacts -- little more than or two feet deep and the excavated sod had been piled neatly to one side, like Froky parapets for pygmies. They seemed to conform to some pattern, but its logic was not immediately apparent.

"I wonder what this was all about" mused MacKiernan, gesturing a places where the ground had been trampled by the passage of many feet. "They must have spent considerable effort laying out all these ditches, but they cannot possibly have been intended for research. This looks more like the grounds of some athletic field after the game is over."

Donnelly frowned, as if remembering events he'd have preferred not to recall. "It reminds me of the replicas of enemy trench systems we used for training during the final months of the War. Those lines of sod could have been meant to outline a barrack and those row of gun emplacements."

MacKiernan pulled out the sketch of the site he'd drawn during their previous visit. "It resemble any place we've seen before, but I wonder about the encampment the Fat Man's people raised on Celebes. Could they have been up to something similar? Miss Perkins, do we have copies of the photographs Iverson took?"

The secretary nodded. "Captain Michaelson included them with our orders. They'll be back at the ship."

Iverson's photographs proved considerably more difficult to interpret than MacKiernan had anticipated. The lieutenant had done his best, but they'd been taken at low camera angles, with poor equipment, by someone unskilled at the task of cartography. At last the Irishman was forced to trace the images, pull out a ruler, and table of trigonometric functions, and read off coordinates for Miss Perkins to plot. This took several hours.

As evening approached, the secretary handed him a figure. "If I've plotted all the lines correctly, this is what the site would have looked liked from the air," she said. "Does it look at all familiar?"

MacKiernan took the plot and studied it in the light of his desk lamp from different angles. It took him a moment to realize that he was looking at.

"An diabhal!" he swore. "How could we have missed it? It was in front of us all this time!"

Miss Perkins glanced at him with concern. "Fergus, what's wrong?"

"This is a replica of the Japanese nationalists' secret laboratory in Burmah," said the Irishman. "We know that the Japanese evacuated all of their personnel and equipment to a similar facility somewhere in China. The Fat Man's people must have determined where this is located and be planning an attack."

"What should we do?"

MacKiernan shook his head. "I don't have the slightest inkling, but we'd better inform the Captain."

Next week: We Get The Message...

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