Episode 222: New Guinea Pigs
The morning sun shone down on Mount Tovanumbatir, lining its slopes with
light. Below it, Rabaul was a trim outpost of civilization at the head of
the bay. To the south, on the eastern side of Simpson Harbor, several
airships rode from the masts of the air station. In one of these, Captain
Everett was finishing an entry in the log.
April 11 1927, 1000 hrs. Lat, 4°16'; S, Long 152°12' E.
His Majesty's Airship Flying Cloud, R-505, Captain Roland P.
Everett cmdr. Proceeded to Rabaul under instructions to investigate reports
of an airship resembling the AT-38. We will wish to keep these inquiries
secret to avoid alarming our hypothetical hijackers. This may require some
He capped his pen, then contemplated their situation as he waited for the
ink to dry. There'd been no way for them to visit Rabaul unnoticed. Few
of the town's inhabitants might know how just close they'd come to
annihilation the year before, but the events surrounding the British
Union's attack had been highly visible, and the Royal Navy's salvage
operations in Blanche Bay had made it clear the Admiralty had played some
role in saving the town.
The best approach, he decided, would be to pay a very public visit to the
Administrator, accompanied by his senior officers, while sending ordinary
crew members out to investigate. It was a stratagem that had worked in the
past, and he could imagine no reason it wouldn't work now.
Abercrombie might have disagreed. Rabaul was a place where the Teutonic
sense of order had struggled with indigenous traditions that were
anything but orderly until both sides declared a draw. From a neat
European core, the settlement spread out along the shores of Simpson
Harbor in a sprawl that grew increasingly haphazard the farther they
ventured. Accustomed to the open moors of Scotland and the regularity of
an airship's frames, the rigger found himself at something of a loss.
Fortunately Pierre seemed unfazed by this environment. Following some
mysterious instinct, he located the airship chandlery district, where
vendors hawked merchandise of dubious quality and even more dubious
antecedents. One tagged after Abercrombie, tugging at his sleeve.
"Hey, meester, you want some rudder cables for a 1917 Parseval?"
"Nae," grumbled the rigger.
"Would you like a new cylinder head for a Beardmore inline six? It fell
off the truck."
"Then how about some copra?"
Abercrombie raised an eyebrow. "Whatever would we want that for?"
The other man shrugged. "I don't have the slightest idea. But
everyone makes a big fuss about the stuff, so I thought I'd ask."
Their street became a succession of alleys, each more anonymous than the
last. Pierre pressed on with casual self-assurance while Abercrombie
followed, glancing over his shoulders. In this maze of twisty-turny
passageways, all different, he wouldn't have been surprised if they were
attacked by some angry dwarf.
At last the Frenchman halted in front of a shop.
"This," he announced, "is what we're looking for."
Abercrombie examined the storefront. It seemed entirely unremarkable. A
sign in the window proclaimed `Antonov's Altimeters'.
Beside this, a blocky painting showed a man and woman in workman's garb
holding flight instruments in front of a stylized hammer and sickle. He
scowled. "Is this laddie a Communist?"
"So it would seem," said Pierre. "And the parties we are seeking
decidedly are not. If the owner of this establishment has noticed them, we
can count on him to betray them."
Inside, a dark-haired man in a Russian hat was working on a vacuum pump. He
looked up as they entered. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" he asked.
Pierre lowered his voice. "What can you tell us about a ship called the
The Russian's expression turned calculating. It appeared that his
commitment to Marxian principles did not extend to certain types of business
transactions. Taking the hint, Pierre passed him a folded bill.
The man nodded. "They were here four days ago. The ship did look vaguely
like a Goodyear product -- one of their copies of the S Class -- but she could
just as easily have come from the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin yard in
"What about the crew?"
"The ones who came ashore were German," said the shopkeeper. "I have seen
enough Germans to be able to tell. But I have no way of knowing about the
ones who remained aboard."
"What were they looking for?"
"That I do not know either," said the Russian, "but you might not wish to
pursue this matter. It has become dangerous to ask about this vessel."
"Dangerous?" asked Abercrombie. "Why?"
"Be cautious," the Russian advised, "or you may find out."
They emerged from the store to find that a small crowd had gathered outside.
This was led by two massive islanders -- from their size it appeared they
had Samoan blood. They pointed at the airmen and shouted.
Pierre gave a cry of alarm. "What?"
Abercrombie gave a cry of delight. "A tussle!" Brushing his companion
aside, he stepped forward to confront the two islanders.
"Why d'ye want tae attack us?" he growled.
"You're from the British Union!" said one. "You tried to blow up our
"I'm nae Brit!" the airman protested. "I'm a Scotsman!"
"What's the difference?" asked the other.
"I'll show you!" cried Abercrombie. Before his would-be assailants could
react, he'd seized them by their collars and hoisted them aloft.
"Ah," said one of his victims. "I see. You are considerably stronger, have
a worse temper, and speak with an entirely different accent."
"Aye," said Abercrombie smugly.
"This puts a different complexion on matters," the islander observed. "Can
we discuss this matter like gentlemen?"
Abercrombie grinned. "I'm nae gentleman either."
"Interesting," said Everett that afternoon when they were all back at the
ship. "So these islanders thought you were with the British Union. Did you
leave them in a condition to tell you why?"
"Of course," said Abercrombie brightly. "I knew ye'd be asking. It seems
some of the Moseley's lads were asking about the N-109 two days ago, after
the ship departed."
"And there's no sign of the fellows now?"
"Not according to the islanders. And they seemed quite willing tae talk
after I'd... presented my arguments."
"That must have been the lot Michaelson released," observed Jenkins. "I
can't imagine that any other members of the Union remain in the Pacific."
"This leaves open the question of whether they were trying to return to the
vessel or seeking to recapture it," mused Everett. "The timing is
consistent with both hypotheses." He turned to Pierre. "Your shopkeeper
said the crew of the ship seemed German. Are we sure his report is
Pierre nodded. "The man had no reason to lie to us."
"You think these fellows in British Union had some German confederates, with
whom they later had a falling out?" asked Jenkins.
"Perhaps," said Everett. "But I also wonder if this vessel was really the
Abercrombie frowned. "How many hijacked airships can there be gallivanting
about this part of the Pacific?"
"We know of at least one other," observed Everett. "Our old friends on the
L-137. That ship is also based on the S Class, and the crew would most
certainly be German."
The room was silent while the others digested the implications.
"That would mean the Fat Man is back in the game," Jenkins said at last.
"Do you think Michaelson knows?"
Everett suppressed a frown. "I rather imagine that's why he sent us here.
But I'd give a lot to know what game he's playing."
Next week: A Refreshing Hike...
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