Episode 54: The Darwin Award
"What," asked Abercrombie, "are all those people doing down there?"
They’d reached Darwin in the morning, after a harrowing flight. The
City of Brisbane was down to her last gallons of fuel, and every
expendable object had been tossed overboard to keep the airship aloft when
her hydrogen cells contracted during the cold of the night. Even so,
there’d been moments when they’d almost flown into the ground, and the
lower rudder was missing fabric where it had brushed through the tops of
some gum trees. By now, Captain Everett, Jenkins, and Abercrombie had been
at their stations for more than fourteen hours, but they seemed as fresh as
when they’d started. Members of the Royal Naval Airship Service were taught
to ignore trifles such as fatigue.
"It does seem to be quite a crowd," remarked Jenkins.
"I imagine word has gotten out about our adventure," said Everett. "This
could complicate our plans."
He’d expected to find the Air Station almost deserted, as it had been during
their previous visit with the Flying Cloud. This would have
allowed them to make their way to town without being noticed. Instead, it
seemed the entire population had turned out to await the ship’s arrival.
The mood seemed festive. Many carried banners with messages like, ‘Welcome,
Passengers and Crew of the R-67! and ‘Congratulations on Your Survival!’
"Maybe they’ll grow bored and leave while we’re picking up the mooring,"
"We can always hope," said Everett.
It seemed a reasonable expectation. Mooring operations were never easy,
even at the best of times, and with her control car missing, two engines
out of action, her hull badly damaged, and her crew drooping with
exhaustion, the City of Brisbane would be almost impossible to
handle. To make matters worse, most of their handling lines were gone,
tossed overboard to lighten ship during the night. But the ground crew was
up to the challenge. With judicious use of muscle, and a bit of
injudicious language, they were able to pick up the lines that remained,
manhandle the vessel into the wind, and walk her to the mast. The
spectators greeted this with a cheer.
"They dinnae seem to be leaving," said Abercrombie, with a certain amount of
"We will allow the others to disembark first," said Everett. "This will
take some time. I imagine the crowd will be gone by then."
But the townsfolk seemed in no hurry to depart. They crowded around the
mooring mast, watching the elevator, applauding each time it descended with
another load of passengers. At last, even the Italian had been ushered off
the ship, still complaining, and it was their turn. A sea of faces gazed
up at them. Somewhere in the background, a band began to play.
"What should we do, sir?" asked Jenkins.
"I had hoped to arrive unnoticed," said Everett dryly. "I believe we shall
have to abandon this particular scheme."
A stage had been erected at the foot of the mast so that local dignitaries
could greet the visiting heroes in full view of the crowd. Everett
recognized some familiar faces. On one side, Lieutenant Dabney,
Commonwealth Navy Reserve, commander of this station, stood at the head of
his men. On the other, a formidable row of bureaucrats attended Government
Resident (North) Robert Wedell, who’d taken over the management of the
territory after Administrator Urquhart had retired. When Everett had met
the Resident during his previous visit, he’d judged the man a bureaucratic
drone -- one of the anonymous paper-shufflers who kept the wheels of
government turning. The same could not be said for some of his subordinates.
"Captain Roland P. Everett," Wedell began, speaking with the stentorian voice
of a professional public figure, "on behalf of the British Commonwealth, the
people of Australia, the inhabitants of the Northern Territory (North), and
the residents of Darwin, I would like to thank you and your men for your
deeds in rescuing this noble vessel, the City of Brisbane, from the
clutches of the storm."
Definitely a drone, thought Everett. "Thank you," he replied
politely, "but you overstate our contribution. Most of the recognition
should go to Captain Sanders." Toward the side of the platform, he saw the
commercial skipper sigh with relief. The man could be facing some sharp
questions from his employers about the damage to his ship.
"Your modesty does you credit, as befits an officer of the Royal Naval
Airship Service," said the Resident smoothly. "In honor of your deeds, the
citizens of Darwin have voted to award you the hospitality of the city.
Who’s idea was that? thought Everett. Then he spotted the police
chief, George Channel, smiling like a man who’d just made a successful move
"Captain Everett," said Channel, in a polished voice entirely at odds with
the cold expression in his eyes. "How pleasant to see you again! Your
arrival was unexpected."
"We didn’t see any need to inconvenience you," said Everett. "This was just
a routine visit to the Station to evaluate its suitability for task force
Jenkins offered him a look of surprise. As well he might. This story was
"My office will do everything it can to assist you," said Channel. "I’ve
already instructed to two of my clerks to place themselves at your disposal
day and night."
"There’s no need for them to put themselves out on our account."
"But I insist! They’re already taking your luggage to the hotel."
"Well," said Jenkins, as they examined their rooms, "that would seem to
eliminate any hope we might have had of remaining inconspicuous."
"Aye," said Abercrombie, "’an’ those men of Channel’s are most certainly
spies. What will we do now, Captain?"
It was a good question. They’d traveled to Darwin incognito to investigate
leads they’d found when they were here in the Flying Cloud -- leads
that might provide some clues about the identify and plans of the mysterious
German pirates. Among those leads was the hijacking attempt, for which
Channel was one of the leading suspects. Such an investigation could hardly
be accomplished under the police chief’s watchful eye.
"We’ll call MacKiernan and have him bring the ship here," said Everett.
"You have a plan, sir?" asked Jenkins.
"Not yet, but if nothing else, it should serve as a distraction."
Next week: Signals Intelligence...