The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 214: And We'll Have Fun Fun Fun...

The Thunderbird

The rains were passing as Cape York's wet season gave way to the drier months of summer. On the grounds of the Cairns Royal Air Station, swallows flitted above the field, chasing down swarms of midges. Over by the Administration building, a kookaburra glared from a fencepost with the manic indifference that makes representatives of genus Dacelo so unsettling. Jenkins ignored its gaze as they mounted the steps to the door.

"What will Michaelson make of this business?" he asked Everett.

"That depends on his agenda," mused the captain. "If he's only hoping to embarrass us, he should be pleased by our failure to discover anything of importance. If he has a stake in this matter, as I suspect, we can expect some expression of concern. Our challenge will be to interpret his reaction and guess, if we can, what that stake might be."

An attendant greeted the two men and ushered them down a brightly paneled corridor to Michaelson's office. Inside, they found the senior captain paging through their report. He looked up as they entered.

"I am somewhat disappointed with this," he announced, tapping the file. "I expected you to extract some useful information from the authorities on Lifou Island."

"I doubt there was any information to be had, sir," Everett replied politely. "If they'd known who the real hijackers were, they wouldn't have arrested those Englishmen and sent them here in a rather transparent attempt to dump the problem in our lap. Whatever became of the fellows?"

The senior captain's expression was guarded. "They left Cairns a few days ago," he replied ambiguously. "The question now is what to tell Commodore Clark. Your failure puts us in a bad position."

Everett ignored the reference to failure -- this was, after all, Captain Michaelson speaking -- but he took careful note of the word `us'. It seemed that their interests coincided... for now.

"Our visit was not entirely unproductive." he observed. "We did obtain a fairly complete set of shipping records. If we assume the hijackers couldn't have remained on the island more than a week or two without becoming such a part of community that their absence would be noticed, this leaves us with four vessels to account for."

"I've instructed Phelps to inquire about their movements by wireless," said Michaelson. "We should have responses in a day or two. Let us hope this information proves sufficient."

"What do you think, sir?" asked Jenkins, as they made their way back to their quarters.

"He's made some manner of gamble," said Everett, "and he's growing concerned about price. I hope we don't end up paying it on his behalf."

Two days later, Everett, Jenkins, Iverson, and Murdock met in a wardroom to study Phelps's report. "Michaelson's aide was able to determine the previous ports of a call for three of the vessels, and he believes it's only a matter of time before he discovers the fourth," said Jenkins.

"Are any of them plausible starting points for the hijackers?" asked Iverson.

"This seems unlikely," said Jenkins. "Two of the vessels hailed from copra plantations on atolls that are remarkable for their anonymity. The third seems to run a triangle route between New Zealand, Australia, and the islands, trading woolen socks for leather goods, leather goods for vanilla, then vanilla for woolen socks."

Iverson tried to picture some of these exchanges, then abandoned the effort as hopeless.

"There's another problem," noted the signalman. "All three ships are itinerant traders -- tramp steamers, if you will -- with no fixed schedule. If our hijackers took passage on one, they would have needed an improbable amount of foresight to arrive at Lifou Island in advance of their target."

"What about other visiting airships?" asked Everett.

"Two vessels called at Lifou during the period in question: a fish-spotting blimp and a Parseval owned by a timber company in the New Hebrides. The former did not have any significant payload capacity. The latter left a passenger manifest upon its departure from Porto Villa. This only contained one name."

"That is a bit of a poser," said Everett. "Let's hope we learn more when information about the fourth ship arrives. We'd have to wait for Fleming in any event."

"You still believe he'll be on the packet from Darwin?"

"I imagine so. Where else would he go?"

The Thunderbird was one of the many nameless small craft the Royal Navy had commissioned to extend its reach into the littoral areas of the world. Built of riveted iron plates in some nameless yard in Scotland, she'd led an entirely undistinguished career before her retirement to the backwaters of Australia's Northern Territory. She was 100 feet overall, 107 tonnes, with a nominal crew of two dozen -- half that number was more typical. Armament consisted of two obsolete three-pounders and whatever small arms her crew might happen to bring aboard. An ancient triple-compound engine of dubious ancestry and even more dubious horsepower might have driven her 19 knots on a good day... with a tailwind.. and a following sea... back when the vessel was new. Now she plodded north at a stately eight knots while her captain and Fleming studied the chart.

"Where did all those ruddy islands come from?" asked Fleming.

"This is the Timor Sea, mate," said the captain. "It's where they make small useless islands for later export to impoverished nations that can't afford small useless islands of their own. And this chart's sodding useless too, so we might have to check every sodding one. Why didn't your chappies keep better track of their position?"

Fleming considered the composition of the landing party. Navigation was not one of Sarah's skills, and the positions Helga kept track of during her brief but memorable sojourn aboard the Flying Cloud seemed unlikely to have involved boats. "Busy I guess," he replied brightly. "How can I help?"

The captain gestured toward the roof of the pilothouse. "Go up and look for your atoll. It should be around here. Somewhere."

Fleming reached the pilothouse roof to find two crewmen leaning against the rail studying the ocean with attitudes of boredom. One waved his hand in what was either a greeting or an attempt to flick away flies. "G'day mate," he said. "What's the word from His Nibs?"

"He says we're getting close to Oa Ki."

"Right," said the crewman. It was obvious he didn't believe this any more than the captain did. "What's so special about the place?"

Fleming shrugged. He knew it held an abandoned Russian laboratory, but he'd never thought to ask about the site's significance. "Beats me," he replied. "But the sooner we find it the sooner we..."

He was interrupted by a remark from the other lookout. "I say, that looks rather like a torpedo track."

"What does?" asked the first man.

"That line of white foam, which leads back to something that looks remarkably like a periscope."

Fleming stared in horror, then leaned over the rail to shout a warning down to the pilot house.

Too late. The missile slammed into the gunboat with a resounding clang. The detonation that followed was more in the nature of a loud bang than a full-fledged explosion, but shock was still quite sufficient to pitch the airman from his insecure perch into the waters below.

Next week: A Packet of Trouble...

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