The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 184: Local Color

MacKiernan and islander with broken club

From air, the German Protectorate of Narau resembled a broad green table, scarred in places by nitrate workings, as if a particularly unruly child had gouged the surface with a spoon. Captain Everett steered the Flying Cloud in a broad circle above the spot Iverson identified as Professor Otkupshchikov's old camp. Traces of the site could still be seen beneath a new layer of vegetation. In one place, a wide arc of trampled earth lay northwest of a small depression.

"Is that where he set up his mooring mast?" Everett asked Iverson.

"I believe so," said the lieutenant. "His excavations would be there, to the south."

Everett focused his binoculars on the spot, then set the instruments aside.

"It appears the site has been abandoned for some time," he observed. "And there's certainly no sign of any hydrogen facility. We'll call at the station, arrange for resupply, and see what we can learn in town."

Anibare's tiny air station was unusually challenging. A line of cliffs, immediately to the west, meant they had to approach crosswind, juggling rudder and engine output so that the ship edged sideways with breeze on her starboard bow. Even with reversible propellers, this was not a prospect for the faint of heart. Everett decided to command this approach himself.

"One must keep one's hand in," he explained to Iverson. "The trick is to stay ahead of the vessel, anticipate problems before they can develop, and always have an alternative plan of action in case your current one goes wrong."

Iverson nodded... and did his best to commit the evolution to memory.

The station's commander was a middle-aged Fähnrich zur See -- one of the legion of low-ranking officers the Imperial Navy posted to outposts such as this one. Everett, MacKiernan, and Jenkins found the man waiting at the foot of the accommodation ladder.

"That was well done, Kapitän," said the German. "What brings you to our island?"

"We're trying to locate an airship we believe to be in this part of the Pacific," said Everett. "What vessels have called here during the past week?"

The commander consulted his memory. "We've had several commercial blimps. There was also that Nobile semi-rigid the day before yesterday."

"A Nobile Class?" said MacKiernan" That's an Italian design. What was it doing here in the Pacific?"

"I believe it was a yacht," said the commander. "Most of her people remained aboard, but two young English gentlemen did leave the ship to make purchases in town."

"Interesting," observed Everett. "These blimps you mentioned: did any have Russian passengers?"

"Not that I can recall," said the commander, "but you're welcome to check the station's records."

"Thank you," said Everett. "Jenkins, if you would be so good as to assist me. Mister MacKiernan, I'd like you and Pierre to locate these iron filings. We'll detail Iverson and Abercrombie to inspect the Professor's old landing site.

Pierre had little trouble determining where the iron filings had been delivered. In a place as small Narau, there was no way to move a cargo of that size unseen. Noon found MacKiernan and the Frenchman following the road that ran around the coast to the village of Anjenjen on the island's western shore. The air was hot in the lee of the central highlands, and their surroundings offered little shade.

"I hope we learn something useful," muttered MacKiernan. He could imagine better ways to spend his time on a tropical island.

"Oui," said Pierre. "I would hate to have come all this way for nothing."

"Aye," said MacKiernan, "and I bet Abercrombie a shilling we'd find more than he does."

They'd been told to look for a trail that led inland from the settlement. This led to a small warehouse decorated in a rainbow of colors. A sign above the entrance proclaimed Pleasant Island Pigments. MacKiernan examined this skeptically

"Yer sure this is the place?" he asked Pierre.

"It must be," said the Frenchman. "This is the only village on this side of the island."

The Irishman reached into his pocket, pulled out a coin, and studied it with a forlorn expression. Then he shrugged and pushed open the door. "Maybe they'll know something useful," he said optimistically.

Inside, they found a jovial-looking Bavarian seated at a desk, reading what appeared to be a pulp fiction magazine. The wall behind him was plastered with posters, ranging from religious subjects, to landscapes, movie stars, and a slender young model in a scanty maillot. The man looked up as they entered.

"Gutentag, mein herren," he said cheerfully. "Can I help you?"

"Perhaps," said MacKiernan. "Would you happen to have received any shipments of iron filings recently?"

"Ja," said the German, "we use them for the reductive denitrification of azo dyes. Since this is a nitrate island, the other raw materials are ready to hand. Can I interest you gentlemen in a ton of azobenzane?"

MacKiernan examined his shilling again and sighed. "We'll have to ask the Captain."

The interior of Narau was ever bit as inhospitable as Iverson recalled from his previous visit. Their trail wound over a surface of coral rock and limestone, past sheds, workmen's encampments, and a succession of strip-mines that seemed quite out of place on a Pacific island. At last it petered out in the brush.

"Yer sure this is the way?" asked Abercrombie.

"No," admitted Iverson, "but the island's only three miles across. We're sure to stumble upon the site eventually.

Stumble they did, over rocks, gullies, and creeping vines. At last, after several hours of frustration, they rounded a stand of bushes to spot two brawny islanders clad in tennis whites. Each carried a war club in one meaty fist.

"Get them!" cried one.

Iverson reached for his service revolver as the islanders charged, but Abercrombie had already moved to intercept them. The Scotsman stood for a moment, receiving his adversaries' blows with an expression of bemusement, then seized the two men by their shirtfronts and shook them until their weapons fell to the ground.

"Aw reit," he growled. "That'll be enaw. Why did you attack us?"

"You have the secret of cargo!"

Abercrombie frowned. "No we don't!"

"Yes you do!"

"Let me talk to the fellow," said Iverson. He holstered his weapon, adjusted his jacket, and confronted their would-be attacker.

"Why do you believe we have this 'Secret of Cargo'?"

The islander took some time to answer. Apparently he'd never anticipated an inquiry of this sort. "We received word from the voyagers of the Kula Ring," he said at last. "They said it was taken aboard a graceful airship with three engines, like yours."

"Three engines?" said Abercrombie. "Didn't we hear about such a craft before?"

"I believe so," said Iverson. "There appears to be a pattern here. We'd best inform the Captain of this development."

Everett listened to the lieutenant's report with interest. "A streamlined airship, presumably of medium volume, with three engines?" he mused. "This suggests a possibility." He reached for their volume of Jane's, flipped through it to the chapter for Italy, and nodded. "I thought as much. Mister MacKiernan, what do you think?"

The exec studied the entry his captain indicated. "You think it's this Nobile Class ship our host spoke of?"

"They do have three engines. And the design does have a certain elegance. It also have has plenty of range. Didn't a Norwegian-Italian team fly one across the North Pole recently?"

"Could these be our air pirates?" asked Jenkins.

"At this point, nothing would surprise me," said Everett. "Unfortunate, this doesn't get us any closer to the finding the Professor. All the other ships that called here were regularly scheduled commercial vessels, and we've just accounted for this shipment of iron filings."

"Perhaps," said the signalman," but I cannot help but wonder about that shipment back at the mission. It did seem rather more than they'd need for classroom demonstrations. And we never thought to ask the fathers if they might have some addition use for it."

Everett and MacKiernan exchanged glances.

"Oh dear," said MacKiernan.

"Prepare to lift ship," ordered the captain. "Once we're aloft, set a course back to Wallis Island."

Next week: Several Ways To Send A Message...

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