Episode 104: Who Was Agnes?
The bow station of a naval airship was strictly functional -- a businesslike
assembly of fittings, winches, cables, and gangways to connect the ship to
her mooring and move crew and equipment to and from the mast. The
Flying Cloud was no exception. Her equipment might have been
better-maintained than most -- Abercrombie was not one to tolerate
carelessness -- but it made no concessions to fashion or comfort.
Everett and MacKiernan arrived to find Miss Perkins standing at the foot of
the accommodation ladder, studying it with a visible expression of distaste.
"What can we do for you?" asked Everett politely.
"I’ve brought instructions from Captain Michaelson," she replied in a voice
that matched her expression. "May I come aboard?"
"Of course," said Everett. MacKiernan offered a hand to assist the woman,
but she brushed past him, scowling as if he'd committed some impropriety. The
Irishman glanced at his captain, who shrugged.
"Is there some place we can have a measure of confidentiality?" Miss Perkins
asked when she reached the top of the ladder.
"The control car should serve," said Everett, calling upon his very
considerable reserves of courtesy to suppress a sigh.
"Thank you," she replied curtly. "I know the way." As they watched, she
spun on one heel and set off down the keel passage, footsteps tapping
sharply on the metal of the walkway. Everett listened with a mixture of
amazement and respect. He wouldn’t have believed it possible for someone to
express so much disdain in just the way they walked.
"How does she do that?" whispered MacKiernan.
"I imagine it’s a skill they teach in the Secretarial Corps," mused Everett.
"Let us hope we don’t have occasion to learn more about the scope of her
The command crew were waiting at their stations when the trio arrived at the
bridge. Anticipating an immediate departure, Everett had kept the ship
ready for flight. Wallace stared at Michaelson’s secretary in wonderment --
women of her class had been a thing of myth and legend in the slums of the
East End where he'd spent his youth.
Iverson regarded her with obvious apprehension. Sarah glared at
the newcomer with the same expression one cat might reserve for another that
intruded into its territory. Miss Perkins affected unconcern, but Everett
wasn’t fooled for a moment. This was turning out even worse than he'd
The secretary snapped open her briefcase and withdrew an envelope. "You are
to launch as soon as possible," she announced. "Once you’re airborne, you’re
to open these sealed orders and follow their instructions. I’m to accompany
you and see that they’re carried out properly. Captain Michaelson is
concerned that you may have exercised too much... latitude... in the
Everett nodded. He'd anticipated this development. He imagined the woman
was prepared to produce more sealed orders as circumstances arose. The
trick would be finding some way to maintain control of the situation while
appearing to make concessions.
"Mister Iverson," he asked, "what is the status of our engineering plant?"
"All three engines at idle."
"Miss Sarah, what’s our ballast situation?"
"We seem to be a little heavy," said the island girl, glancing pointedly at
their guest. "I’d recommend we discharge three hundred pounds."
"Wallace, does that sound right?"
"I... um... err..." said the elevatorman, recognizing danger when he saw it.
"Very well," said Everett. "We’ll discharge one hundred fifty pounds each
on Tanks Two and Four, bring Engine Two to quarter power, and raise ship."
A short time later they were standing offshore at 2000’, a few miles east of
Cairns. By now the sun was low in the western sky,
and the coastal range was in shadow. Beyond it, rainforest gave way to open
woodland and then to the great emptiness that filled most of the continent.
Everett stood by the rear windows, contemplating the distant sprawl of the
Air Station, but it told no tales.
There was no way to guess what Michaelson had in mind until he examined
He produced a penknife and began to unseal the envelope.
Miss Perkins drew in a sharp breath of disapproval.
"Permission to speak, sir," she said in a voice that held the distinct
implication 'or else'. She might be on the bridge by invitation, but it was
clear she considered herself the senior captain's representative, imbued
with much of his authority.
"Granted," said Everett.
"Those are to be opened in your chambers, not here in front of your men."
Everett kept his expression neutral while he decided on a strategy. This
sort of behavior must be nipped in the bud. "What am I supposed to do after
I open them?" he asked innocently.
"Read them to your men."
"I believe we will streamline some parts of this operation in the interests
of efficiency," he announced.
Ignoring her expression, he scanned the papers,
trying to guess Michaelson's hidden agenda. That there was such an agenda
he had no doubt. The man was a subtle adversary.
"Interesting," he told the others when he'd finished. "We've been ordered
to investigate a place called Agnes Water, where an amateur radio operator
reported seeing a man descend by parachute two days ago. That would be
around the time of the storm."
"I've found it," said MacKiernan, tapping a spot on the aeronautical chart.
"It's a small coastal village between Gladstone and Bundaberg, near the site
where Captain Cook made his second landing back in 1770. Perhaps our
hypothetical parachutist was something of a historian."
"What a peculiar name for a town," said Iverson. "Who thinks of these
"You will find that people display considerable imagination in these distant
corners of the Empire," said Everett. "How trustworthy is this report?"
"This is discussed in the addendum to your orders," said Miss Perkins.
"Ensign Phelps has dealt with this particular operator in the past and found
him to be reliable."
"Do we have the nautical chart and ordnance survey for this stretch of
coast?" Everett asked MacKiernan.
"Here," said the Exec, unrolling a pair of maps.
Everett studied them, working out distances, bearings, and times in his
head, then he glanced at the clock. "When is moonrise?" he asked.
"2015 hours, local time," said MacKiernan. "It's two days past full."
"That should serve for our purposes," said Everett. "Wallace, take us up to
3000'. Mister Iverson, bring us right to 210, then ring for full power on
all three engines."
"Permission to speak, sir," snapped Miss Perkins.
"Granted," said Everett patiently.
"That course will take us inland. Our destination lies on the coast."
"When we returned to Cairns," said Everett, "I could not help but notice
that Captain Michaelson ordered us to moor at a little-used mast at one end
of the field. I assume he wished to maintain some semblance of secrecy."
"Of course," said Miss Perkins, in a tone one might use while explaining
something to a small child.
Everett suppressed a smile.
"Then we might not wish to head directly for the village," he observed.
"The good people of Agnes Water could be expected to notice if a 563’-long
airship stopped overhead to lower a party by Transporter."
Miss Perkins met the captain's gaze for a moment, then nodded. A worthy
opponent, he thought. This could be an interesting mission.
Next week: The Round Hill Rally...
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