Episode 55: Signals Intelligence
Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan studied the telegram in perplexity.
SORTIE DARWIN 7 AUG PER STNDNG ORDR P2545 STOP RGLR OPS STOP
He was sitting in the mess hall of the Flying Cloud, His Majesty's
Airship R-505, surrounded by the ship's department heads, who he'd summoned
when the wire arrived. They seemed as mystified as he was.
"Fly to Darwin?" asked Lieutenant Iverson. "Whatever for? That wasn't part
of the plan."
The Irishman shrugged. "I imagine Captain Everett will explain when we get
there. And the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley."
"What about airmen?" asked Sarah innocently. As usual, her presence seemed
to brighten the entire room.
"Airmice?" suggested someone. The island girl giggled.
"What's all this about a standing order and regular operations?" asked
Iverson before the conversation could get out of hand.
"I'm not sure," mused the Exec, "but we may need to justify our actions, and
Michaelson never did rescind that order for us to patrol the northern coast.
Also, the Captain sent his message in the ordinary cipher. This is hardly
secure, so he must have known it would be intercepted. Perhaps wanted to
give eavesdroppers the impression that we intended to make this trip all
along. What's the ship's status, gentlemen? And lady?"
"Engines ready," said Iwamoto -- an unusually long speech for him.
"We have a full load of consumables," said Sarah. "4600 gallons of fuel,
10,000 pounds of cargo and ballast, and our gas cells are 90% full."
"Preflight inspection's finished," said Wallace, the scruffy East Ender
who'd taken Abercrombie's place while the chief rigger was away. "Her hull
and rigging are sound."
"I have finished laying in supplies," said Pierre, who'd assumed the
position of purser. "I took the liberty of procuring a better class of
provision than the usual Royal Navy fare." Like Sarah, the Frenchman was a
civilian who'd joined the ship in New Caledonia, but his past was somewhat
more questionable. MacKiernan opened his mouth to inquire where these
supplies had come from, then thought better of it. What he didn't know, he
couldn't be held responsible for.
"Davies?" he asked instead.
The marine sat up -- like any seasoned campaigner, he took the opportunity
to nap whenever one arose -- "Guns are ready too, sir. And I took on board
a few more shells to replace the ones we fired at that fishing boat."
MacKiernan waited for the laughter to subside. "Good work lads. And lass.
We'll leave as soon as we discover what Michaelson's been up to."
Senior Captain Michaelson was commander of the Cairns Royal Air Station.
With the Admiral away in Sydney, he had considerable authority over the
Queensland detachment of the Fleet. He was also their avowed enemy, who'd
tried to prosecute them for piracy after they'd captured their current
vessel from renegade German nationalists. They'd since learned that the
senior captain was cooperating with agents of the Kaiser's government --
apparently under orders from the Admiralty -- to pursue those same renegades
himself. But his explanations had seemed too pat, and his speech too
smooth, to be trustworthy, so Everett had instructed Pierre and Jenkins to
plant a radio transmitter in Michaelson's office.
They gathered around the receiving apparatus and recorder. The latter was a
modern Telegraphone with a spool that was good for almost an hour. To make
it last even longer, Jenkins had added a circuit that would turn the machine
off unless it was receiving a signal. The result was a succession of hisses
and crackles -- fragments of static that had triggered the recorder -- mixed
with snatches of conversation that were remarkable for their tedium.
They listened with growing annoyance as the spool unwound. At first,
Iverson made some effort to keep notes, but this was a task to try the
patience of even the most dedicated stenographer. Sometime after the tenth
discussion of the Station's supply of RNR-310 forms, he tossed down his
pencil in disgust.
"Doesn't the fellow have any secrets at all?" he asked.
"Apparently not," mused Pierre. "I have known administrators of this sort
before: men whose love of paperwork is matched only by their obsession with
detail. It is an archetype old as time. That is why the world's holy books
contain so many long lists of rules and regulations."
"Well, lads," said MacKiernan, "it appears we've wasted our time. Let's
head back to the ship and finish getting ready..."
"Wait," said Sarah. "This one sounds different."
A click sounded from the machine -- quite obviously the sound of a door
easing shut -- followed by a voice with a faint German accent.
"Mister Ruddock," came Michaelson's guarded reply.
"Is it safe to talk here?"
"I gave Miss Perkins leave for the afternoon. No one can overhear us."
"I bring word from Heinrich. The Fat Man has disappeared, but our agents
report that he's searching for a set of plans."
"Plans for what?"
"We do not know, but we believe the Russians are also interested."
"Which ones?" asked Michaelson.
"Which ones?" mouthed Iverson in surprise.
"Be quiet so I can hear the recording," MacKiernan mouthed in reply.
"That we do not know," came the reply.
"Do you have any idea where these plans might be?"
"At one time, they were in the possession of Ka..."
With a hiss and a scratch, the spool chose that moment to run out.
MacKiernan started to swear, then caught himself. What might acceptable for
an Executive Officer was not necessarily appropriate for an acting
"It's always this way in radio..." Iverson began.
"Don't," snapped MacKiernan, "say a word about radio dramas! Do we know
anything about a man whose name begins with `K' `A'?"
"There was that message from the Tualua's Dream about a passenger
whose name began with those letters," suggested Sarah.
"And the German we met on Sarah's island -- this must have been the `Fat
Man' -- mentioned someone named Karlov," said Iverson. "Captain Everett
assumed this was the Russian geologist who went missing on the train from
Enterprise Creek to Darwin after he bought the load of ore the German
nationalists stole from Helga when they pirated her ship in the..." He
paused, momentarily stumped by the intricacies of English grammar.
"It's getting difficult to keep track of all these clues," grumbled
"I have been maintaining a record," said Pierre. "Eet has become quite
MacKiernan sighed. "Add this one to the list. We'll see what the Captain
can make of it when we get to Darwin."
Next week: Routine Flight Operations...