Episode 184: Local Color
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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 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
"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
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
"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
"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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