R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 37: The Mysterious Box

Everett and his crew examine the radium detector

It was a plain wooden box, somewhat taller than it was wide. A pair of metal D-rings were attached to the sides -- apparently so it could fitted with a shoulder strap, though there was no sign of this. A hinged top was held shut by two worn brass clasps.

"This was all you found?" asked Everett.

"Oui," said Pierre. "There was plenty of other unclaimed luggage in the depot, including a very rare Arabic manuscript that would have fetched a nice price in certain places I know, but this was the only item that belonged to our missing Russian."

"Do you think it's a bomb, sir?" asked Iverson. "Perhaps the man was an anarchist."

Everett shook his head, remembering the War. "I don't think so," he replied. "The world has had enough of faiths and creeds. This must be the clock Fleming's lady friend was telling him about."

"She wasn't exactly my..." began the young Australian, but Everett had already undone the clasps and flipped back the lid.

"It doesn't look like much of a clock," said Iverson after a moment.

Abercrombie scowled. "It doesnae look like much of anything."

Indeed, the contents of the box told no tales. A flat wooden panel, fitted with a meter, a knob, a toggle, and a speaker, filled most of the space. A metal tube, similar to a flashlight, completed the assembly. This was held in place by clips, and attached to a cable that plugged into a socket below the speaker. Everett unclipped the tube and examined it, looking for switches or other controls. At last, unable to divine the thing's purpose, he passed it to Jenkins.

"I don't have any idea either, sir," said the signalman. He poised his hand over the toggle. "May I?"

Everett shrugged. "If it was going to blow up, I imagine it would have done so by now."

Jenkins flipped the switch. After a delay while the electronics warmed up, the box began to emit an irregular ticking noise. There was no perceptible pattern to these ticks. They occurred at unpredictable intervals, like the complaints of some broken piece of machinery.

"Try the knob," suggested MacKiernan.

A moment of experimentation showed that when the knob was turned to the right, the rate of ticks increased. When it was turned the other way, the rate declined. The dial seemed to measure the average rate, but the ticks themselves remained random.

"If that's a clock," said Iverson, "there must be something dreadfully wrong with it."

"I wouldn't be so certain," mused Jenkins. "Philosophers have suggested that different cultures may have profoundly different perceptions of time. Perhaps this clock conforms to some peculiar Russian sensibility that Englishmen are unequipped to appreciate."

"Perhaps," said Everett dubiously. He pulled the box toward him with his right hand and reached for the tube with his left. "Jenkins, may I have that for a moment?"

As Jenkins handed over the tube, an outburst of clicks emerged from the box.

"What the?" exclaimed Abercrombie.

"It's a captain detector!" laughed Sarah.

"That's not possible!" said MacKiernan indignantly. "Can I see that, sir?"

Everett held out the tube. As the Exec took it, the clicking slowed.

"See," said Sarah, "I told you! It detects officers of command rank and higher."

"Still impossible," grumbled the Irishman. He passed the tube to his left hand and reached for the box with his right. As he did so, the clicks intensified. He paused for a moment, eyebrows raised in puzzlement, then passed the tube back to his other hand. The clicks grew fainter.

"How," he asked, "can a wooden box tell my right hand from my left?"

"Could be useful if ye've had too much ta drink," said Abercrombie.

"Sir," said Jenkins to Everett. "Might I trouble you to roll back your left sleeve?"

The Captain did so, revealing a brawny wrist, an interesting scar, and sturdy watch. Jenkins nodded, took the tube, and passed it over the timepiece. This produced an intense chorus of clicks.

"I suspected as much," said the signalman. "It's a radium detector. I've heard of such things. It's detecting the luminous digits on your watch."

"Why would anyone want to detect radium?" asked Sarah.

"The substance does have some medicinal uses," Jenkins observed.

"These hardly seem valuable enough to justify espionage, piracy, murder, and acts of war," said Everett.

"Could it involve some manufacturing process?" asked Abercrombie. "The Governor on Sarah's island had connections with industrialists back in France."

"Perhaps they hope to control the world's supply of illuminated watch dials," suggested MacKiernan.

The rigger glanced at him.

"I wasn't serious."

"What about radium rays?" asked Iverson. "I remember that the Warlord of Mongor had a big cannon that used radium to... and I was wondering if..." his voice trailed off awkwardly.

"That was just a radio show, lad" said Abercrombie gently.

"Maybe it military," said Iwamoto.

Faces turned to stare. Never before had they known the engineer to interrupt a conversation. Indeed, they'd rarely known him to speak at all.

"This uraninite," he said. "Very much dense. Very much hard. Maybe good for alloys. Alloys for armor. Alloys for bullets and shells."

"Refined uraninite projectiles," mused Everett. "It could be possible. Let's have a look at our ore samples."

To no one's surprise, the radium detector, if that's what it really was, reacted to both samples. But it reacted more strongly to the sample from Sarah's island -- speaker clicking wildly as the needle slammed against its peg.

"Interesting," said Everett. "This may be another piece of our puzzle, but I'm not quite sure what it means. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know. Now I believe it's time we got back to work."

Remembering the recent hijacking attempt, the crew of the Flying Cloud set careful watches, with a regular system of reports so they'd know if anyone went missing. Evening passed uneventfully, but towards midnight, when Loris arrived at the bow station to take his turn as sentry, he was surprised to find Davies at the post.

"Where's Wallace?" he asked. "I thought this was his watch."

"He asked me to take over," said the marine. "I believe Miss Helga required his assistance with some matter."

"Miss Helga?" Loris's eyes widened. "Oh dear."

Next week: The Secret of Speed...

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