Episode 105: The Round Hill Rally
The Flying Cloud cruised south through the warm Australian night.
Above her, the moon, slightly past full, shone down across the hills of
eastern Queensland -- a rolling expanse of gum trees and brush, dotted
here and there with the lights of isolated homesteads. To starboard, the
narrow road from Brisbane to Cairns was a sinuous thread of darkness.
Captain Everett studied the ordnance map, checked the clock, and nodded.
"All three engines back to one quarter power," he ordered. "And keep an eye
"All three engines back to one quarter," said Iverson, reaching for the
telegraphs. Bells chimed and the drone of the engines dropped to a rumble.
"What are your plans, sir?"
"We want to slip a party into Agnes Water without attracting notice," said
Everett. "But they can't arrive by airship, for obvious reasons, and I'm
reluctant to employ the launch. We've used it rather freely in the past,
and if our adversaries left agents in town, we have to assume they'll be
watching for it. Instead, we'll send the party in by land."
"How will they get to the village?" asked the lieutenant. "We're twenty
miles from the coast."
"We have the means to address this problem," said Everett. "We must thank
Miss Perkins for providing it."
"Permission to speak, sir," snapped the secretary.
"Granted," said Everett calmly.
"During your investigation of the means Lieutenant Blacker used to get
aboard the R-87, you found that he'd stowed away in a crate that was alleged
to hold a motorcycle made by a manufacturer in Cairns. I felt we could
benefit from your discovery, so I visited this cyclery and purchased one of
their products for use as an auxiliary. You'll find the receipt in our
file of requisitions along with the appropriate RNR-397 form."
Miss Perkins frowned, as if considering a retort, but before she could
speak, Abercrombie's voice crackled over the intercom. "Bow station here.
I've spotted lights of a settlement approximately three miles ahead,
"That will be a hamlet called Mount Tom," said Everett. "If the Ordnance
Survey has done their job, there should be open terrain a short distance to
the east. Mister Iverson, all engines astern one quarter and bring us to a
stop. Miss Sarah, prepare to weigh off. Abercrombie, head aft and help
Iwamoto load the Transporter."
"Who do you have in mind for the landing party?" asked Iverson
"We will need someone who knows how to operate the motor vehicle and
someone to conduct the investigation," mused Everett. "I believe that you
and Jenkins are the obvious choices."
The Transporter platform seemed even more precarious than usual, for the
motorcycle and sidecar took up most of the room, leaving only a narrow ledge
for the passengers to stand. Iverson clung to an upright and tried not to
think about falling off. Beside him, Abercrombie hummed a Scottish ballad
and tapped the case of his altimeter to keep the needle from sticking. He'd
come along as a loadmaster, and the lieutenant was happy to pass this
responsibility on to someone else.
Nighttime Transporter operations were significantly more treacherous than
ones during the day. Even in bright sunlight, it could be hard for a landing
party to judge altitude and drift. At night, with the ground cloaked in
darkness, the prospects for an uneventful deployment were slim.
"We should be getting close," said the rigger. "If ye could gie us a bit of
Iverson clicked on the platform's portable spotlamp. The beam seemed quite
inadequate to illuminate the ground below. Abercrombie studied the dim
circle of light and called up over the intercom. "Iwamoto, slow us to half
speed. Captain, bring us right ten degrees."
The platform lurched, then swung gently to the left as the ship turned above
them. The Scotsman seemed unperturbed.
"Captain, gie us another three knots."
Above them, the sound of the engines changed subtly. Now the platform
seemed to be swinging in a circle.
"Och," muttered the rigger. "They could hae used a lighter touch.
Iverson, Jenkins, ye might want tae hold on."
Iverson swallowed and clung to his handhold. Below them, what little he
could see of the ground seemed covered with bushes and rocks that rushed
past at alarming speed.
"Captain, back five knots!" cried Abercrombie. "Iwamoto hit the brake!
Gentlemen, brace yerselves for..."
The platform hit the ground with a crash, bounced, and struck again. Then
it was dragging through the brush in a great splintering of branches and
twigs. Abercrombie kicked away the quick release, then braced his shoulder
against the motorbike. "Gie me a hand here! Heave! Now jump!"
The machine rolled off the platform into the darkness. Freed of its weight,
the Transporter began to rise. Jenkins adjusted his sleeves, hefted his
satchel, and stepped to the ground. Iverson leapt after him, stumbled, and
sprawled headlong in the dirt.
"If you'll allow me," said Jenkins. He reached out a hand, helped the
lieutenant to his feet, then produced a hand torch and began to examine
Iverson's attire. "I'd say the jacket came out fairly well, but it's
fortunate we're traveling incognito. That tumble could have done
irreparable harm to a set of Number Threes."
There was little they could do until the sun rose, so the
two men extracted a groundcloth from the sidecar and then settled down to
wait for dawn. Morning found them pushing the bike onto a rutted track
that ran through the brush a short distance from their landing site.
"It appears the Captain set us down in the right place," said Iverson. "I
believe this is Tableland Road. We'll want to follow it east until it
intersects Round Hill Road. That will take us to Agnes Water."
"You're sure you know how to operate this vehicle?" asked Jenkins.
Iverson shrugged. "It should be straightforward. Shall we get started?"
The motorcycle was quite advanced -- comparable to the best racing machines
from Europe or America. A massive twin-cylinder engine delivered an
astonishing six horsepower to a sturdy two-speed shifter. The wheels and
spokes were beefier than normal to handle the extra load. The designer had
taken many measures to reduce weight, sacrificing luxuries such as seat
springs, front brake, and a clutch in the interests of performance. A
moment's fiddling got the motor started. Then, with a clash of gears, they
It was difficult to converse when the machine was in motion. The muffler
was a simple metal tube, included for more appearance than anything else,
and the vehicle lacked even the most rudimentary suspension. But the two
men found they could communicate after a fashion if they shouted at the top
of their lungs.
that's our intersection," yelled Jenkins.
"Thank you," replied Iverson. "What...
MY MY, I DIDN'T EXPECT IT TO BE QUITE SO MUDDY...
do you think Michaelson is up to?"
difficult to say. He acts as if he suspects the Captain of collusion with
whoever Lieutenant Blacker has fallen in with, but there are...
DO YOU SEE THAT TREE...
problems with this hypothesis."
YOU MIGHT BE WISE TO DUCK...
"We believe that Blacker was after...
our report on Ujelang. But if he was working with the Captain, there'd have
been no need for him to stow away aboard the...
I SAY, THAT WAS A RATHER REMARKABLE SUCCESSION OF RUTS... R-87, for
the Captain could have handed him a copy of the report directly."
"I'd been wondering the same thing myself..."
"WATCH OUT, SIR!"
Preoccupied by their conversation, Iverson had neglected to ride the brake
to keep it dry. This was unfortunate, for they'd rounded a bend to find the
road blocked by a landslide. He stamped on the pedal, realized this was
futile, and yelled a command.
"JENKINS, LEAN RIGHT AS HARD AS YOU CAN!"
Without waiting to see if the signalman complied, Iverson cranked the
handlebar to the right and gunned the throttle. The rear wheel spun,
the bike swung ninety degrees, then they were sliding sideways toward
the obstacle, sidecar rising into the air as the machine teetered on
two wheels. For a moment it seemed they must flip over. Then the
right wheel slammed back down with a bone-rattling thump and they
skidded to a stop.
"Well," said Jenkins after they'd recovered their composure, "that was
invigorating. What should we do now?"
Next week: The Case of the Missing Lieutenant...
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