R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 24: Poor Reception

Escaping from the Government House

"A Cloak of Invisibility?" asked Iverson. "How does it work? And wherever did Jenkins find such a thing? Some lost tomb in the wastes of Arabia Deserta?"

"Nothing so exotic," said Everett. "I believe he purchased it at a shop in London."

"How can... oof!" grunted the lieutenant as he ran into the signalman, who'd been standing, quite unseen, in the middle of the corridor. "How did he do that?"

"I'm not quite sure," said Everett, "but it seems to be a skill they teach in the Signal Corps."

"Quite so," said Jenkins, "We're taught how to attract notice, for this is essential to our job. In the process, we learn how to accomplish the reverse. People tend to notice someone who looks different, looks out of place, or looks at them. If you wear an ordinary suit, act in an ordinary manner, and avoid meeting anyone's gaze, you can become quite invisible."

"And this will get you into the telegraph office?" said Iverson dubiously.

"I've never known it to fail. I'm more concerned how the Captain and Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan will fare without me. We have certain standards to maintain."

"I trust Davies will remember your instructions," said Everett. "Iverson, I'll be counting on you and the men to keep the townsfolk occupied."

"Yes, sir. Good luck at the reception."

The reception had been Everett's idea. As captain of one of His Majesty's Airships, he was expected to pay a courtesy visit to the Administrator. It had been easy to turn this into an excuse for a grand affair that would draw other Territorial officials, along with their servants and staff, away from the neighborhoods where Jenkins and Pierre were headed. Meanwhile, Iverson and the enlisted men had organized a dance to distract the ordinary citizens.

As he stood with MacKiernan and Davis in the foyer of the Government House, Everett found himself wondering if the price was worth it. The introductions were so tedious that it took all of his very considerable training to endure them. Davies, in his role of aide, looked like a trapped animal stuffed into a uniform of the Royal Marines. MacKiernan didn't look much happier. The two men gazed longingly at the bar.

"Buck up, Davies," the Exec whispered, "once this is over, we can have a drink."

"Yes," said the marine. "And then I'll have another."

"Shh," warned Everett. "Here comes Channel."

The first thing one noticed about the Chief of Police was his suit. Expensively tailored, it spoke a single word: Power. The second thing one noticed was his face. Greedy eyes peered between rolls of fat above a smile that was entirely the opposite of sincere. "Captain Everett," he purred unconvincingly. "I'm pleased to meet a hero of the War."

"That was some time ago," replied Everett modestly. "And I imagine you distinguished yourself at the head of the Anzac forces."

"No, I had other commitments. But I admire the courage of those who... served."

"As do we all," agreed Everett. "I look forward to working with you."

Davies gave a discrete cough as the man moved on. It was clear that no one had been fooled by this pretence of courtesy.

After everyone had been announced, the guests advanced to the ballroom. The dances that followed were even worse than the introductions. Everett had only rudimentary talents as a dancer, but this still put him head and shoulders above most of the guests. As an airship captain, he had also acquired some skill at avoiding collisions. This was called upon with some frequency.

When the dancing ended, he found himself sitting at a table with someone's niece and someone else's cousin, under the guard of a matron every bit as massive as some of the blimps he'd piloted in training. The conversation was the very epitome of monotony, and he found himself glancing about for some excuse to escape -- an earthquake, perhaps, or tidal wave. But the land and sea and remained obstinately still.

Jenkins stepped aside to let another clerk pass. His invisibility was, if anything, too effective, and he had to be alert so that no one ran into him. Now he stood outside the records room deciding on his next move. Finding it had not posed any great difficulty, but getting inside was another matter. He could hardly expect someone to open the door for him, and if he opened it himself, the occupants would be sure to notice.

At last, by counting arrivals and departures, the signalman managed to pick a time when the room was unoccupied. Its contents proved disheartening: a maze of file cabinets and shelves crowded with logbooks, folders, and piles of receipts. He was gazing at the clutter, wondering where to begin, when the doorknob rattled behind him. Someone was about to enter and there was no place to hide.

In the instant before the door swung open, Jenkins stepped next to one of the filing cabinets and froze. He remained motionless, trying to think the thoughts that filing cabinets think, while a clerk walked past humming the tune to a popular song. The man rummaged through a drawer, extracted a folder, then left without noticing the new conservatively-dressed addition to the cabinetry.

Interesting, thought Jenkins. There may be a lesson here about the mind-numbing quality of routine clerical work. A few minutes later, he'd found what he was looking for and was on his way back to the ship, wondering how the others had fared.

Everett had heard of animals gnawing off a limb to escape a trap. He had never believed these tales... until now.

"My sister always admired men in uniform," droned the matron. "I remember a general who visited us during the War. He was recovering from an injury he received at some place in Belgium... Au Pairs... Eyepars..."

"Ypres?" suggested Everett, desperate to hurry the conversation along.

"Thank you. He'd lost both legs, so he spent most of his time sitting in the arbor. And can you believe the Brentworths commissioned an identical arbor for their summer garden? I can't believe someone would do something so totally inappropriate..."

At last Davies came to his rescue.. "Sir," said the marine, "you're needed at the Air Station. It appears there's been an outbreak of distemper among the radishes."

"Pardon me, ladies, I must be going."

"I hope we didn't interrupt anything," said MacKiernan, once they were safely outside. "The young blonde looked rather attractive."

Everett shook his head. "She was appalling -- hanging onto her aunt's every word. I don't know what I would have done if Davies hadn't dragged me away."

"What did you think of that Captain?" asked Emily.

"He was appalling," said Clarice, "hanging onto Aunt Leviatha's every word. I don't know I would have done if his aide hadn't dragged him away."

Next week: Big Bands of the Elder Gods...

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