Episode 219: Gunboat Diplomacy
"Captain, I have Darwin's air station in sight," said the helmsman.
"Very good, Mister Murdock," Everett replied. "Jenkins, make our signal and
inquire about the status of their handling parties."
While the signalman used an Aldis lamp to flash a message, Everett studied
the town ahead. By now it almost seemed familiar -- a small settlement on an
arm of the Arufara Sea. He had never imagined, back when the
Flying Cloud was assigned to the Pacific, that they would visit the
place so often. Would they find more word of Fleming, he wondered?
The mooring operation was almost routine -- to the extent that organizing a
hundred or so men to haul something the length of several cricket pitches down
to the mast in the middle of a rainstorm could ever be routine. The
Australians approached the exercise with much the same spirit they might have
applied to a sporting event, relying on brawn and enthusiasm to make up for
any deficiencies in technique. And if several squads got dragged through the
mud when the ship was caught by an errant gust, why, this was all part of the
Reserve Lieutenant Dabney was waiting to meet them when they stepped from the
lift. "G'day!" he said cheerfully. "Welcome to Darwin. Again. What brings
you back to the North Territory?"
"Fisheries inspection," Everett replied. "May I congratulate you on an
excellent job of ground-handling. I take it Police Chief Channel provided you
with the necessary men?"
"Dinki-di," said Dabney. "He sent some of their bosses too." The Aussie
gestured at several individuals who seemed better-dressed than one might
expect for an ordinary laborer.
Everett nodded. Some of those men were sure to be Channel's spies. He had
a measure to deal with this eventuality. "Would they care to join you for a
tour of the ship?" he asked.
It took the lieutenant a moment to realize what Everett had in mind.
"That'd be apples!"
The inside of an airship's hull envelope was notoriously incomprehensible to
non-airmen. Rigging and girders crisscrossed the space in a vast and
complicated maze. Overhead, the row of enormous gas cells vanished into the
gloom. A few small electric lamps cast more confusion than light. The
Aussies listened in fascination while Abercrombie explained the ship's
workings, but it was clear from their expressions that most of them were lost.
In circumstances like these, it was straightforward for Everett and Jenkins
to separate Dabney from his men without the latter noticing. "Good job,
mates," said the lieutenant. "Now we can have a yack without Channel
knowing. I reckon you're after your man Fleming?"
"You are correct," said Everett. "We understand from Miss Blaine and Miss
Wilcox that he set out for Oa Ki."
"Aye," said Dabney. "He nicked off on Stevens's Thunderbird --
that's one of our gunboats. But things went crook."
By now, long experience with the local vernacular had taught Everett to
listen to what Australians meant rather than what they said. "What went
wrong?" he asked.
"They had a bit of a blue. They limped back yesterday with a hole in
their bow. Seems they got hit by a torpedo."
Everett and Jenkins exchanged glances. "A torpedo?" said Jenkins.
"Sir, you don't think it could possibly have been..."
Everett sighed. He had very little doubt who was involved, and this was
not a welcome complication. "Let us examine the evidence before we leap
to any conclusions."
To Everett's surprise, Darwin had a graving dock. It wasn't obvious why
such an insignificant port would need such a substantial facility, but he
imagined an element of profiteering was involved. Military construction
contracts offered numerous opportunities for the diversion of funds, and
Darwin's police chief seemed the sort of man who'd welcome such a diversion.
The yard's operators, clearly thrilled to have something to do, had wasted
no time bringing the Thunderbird into the basin, closing the
cofferdam, and pumping out the water. The hapless vessel now rested on
blocks while a party of workmen argued about who was to have to opportunity
to repair her.
"There she is, mates," said Dabney. "Care to have a look?"
Everett nodded and slid down the ladder, followed by Jenkins. Near the bow
of the vessel, they found a man in a grease-stained naval uniform examining
the hull, where something had blown a modest-sized hole just below the
"G'day," the man announced," I'm Lieutenant-Commander Stevens, Commonwealth
Navy Reserve, captain of this mighty warship." He gave the hull a friendly
pat. "You must be Captain Everett. I saw you at the reception last year."
"Quite," said Everett, "and this is my aide, Jenkins. I gather you had a
misadventure en route to Oa Ki."
"Strewth!" said Stevens. "We'd just raised land when some chappie in a
submarine fired a torpedo at us. It hit just forward of the watertight
bulkhead. fortunately it wasn't much of an explosion, so the flooding
didn't spread aft. The warhead must have been crook."
Jenkins caught Everett's eye. "Fuller?" asked the signalman. "Weapons with
less-than-adequate performance do seem to be one of the man's signatures."
"True," Everett replied stoically, "and it's difficult to imagine who else
would have access to a submarine. I wonder what brought the fellow out of
hiding." He turned to Stevens. "I understand you were carrying a
passenger. What became of him?"
The Aussie shuffled his feet. "He... uh... vanished during the confusion.
He might have fallen overboard."
"'Might have'?" said Everett. "Didn't anyone notice?"
"Well, we were rather busy at the time," protested Stevens. "Put yourself
in our shoes, mate. How many times have you been hit by a torpedo?"
Everett saw no need to answer this question. Some things were better left
forgotten. "I understand," he said gently. "How far offshore were you at
"A quarter mile, perhaps," said Stevens, "and the sea wasn't running
high. Your man should have had no trouble making the beach."
"I'm sure you're right," said Everett. "Thank you for your information."
"That puts a different complexion on matters," Everett remarked to Clarice
and Emily back at the ship. "It appears the British Union really is
involved in this business. I've instructed Jenkins to inform Michaelson,
for he's sure to hear of the attack on the Thunderbird."
"Does this mean we can stay aboard?" Clarice asked enthusiastically.
"Almost certainly," said Everett, "since our alleged reason for traveling
to Darwin in the first place was to investigate information you supposedly
had about the Union's activities."
"What do you think Michaelson will do?" asked Emily.
"I imagine he'll order us to search for Fuller and his submarine," said
Everett. "This should work to our advantage, for it will give us an excuse
to visit Oa Ki and retrieve Fleming."
At that moment, Jenkins coughed to announce himself. "Captain," he said,
"we have our reply from Cairns. It was in the secure cipher, which I took
the liberty of decoding. There has been an unexpected development."
Everett hid his concern. "What might this be?"
"It appears that a vessel resembling the AT-38 was sighted in Rabaul.
Michaelson has ordered us to investigate."
Next week: An Airship In The Hand Is Worth Two Over The Pacific...
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