The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 219: Gunboat Diplomacy

The 'Thunderbird' in drydock

"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."

"Yes, sir."

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 game!

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 waterline.

"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 the time?"

"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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