The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 223: A Refreshing Hike

Fleming climbing the volcano

The trail up the side of the volcano was anything but easy. It began with a stiff climb through the jungle, past clinging undergrowth and overhanging vines. As it ascended, this gave way to thick brush, burnt stumps and ashes, and finally to a slope of recently-congealed lava. Fleming could understand why Fuller's men hadn't come this way. Life aboard a submarine offered little opportunity for cardio-vascular conditioning.

For that matter, neither did life aboard an airship. By the time he approached the top, the Aussie was growing winded. Why had the islanders built this trail, he wondered, and where did it lead? He imagined some pagan temple where priests threw virgins into the volcano, then discarded this hypothesis as unlikely. It didn't account for the challenge of finding suitable candidates for the ritual in a culture notorious for its sensuality. There was also a matter of geology. The interior slope was unlikely to be steep enough for throwing, and somehow `rolling virgins into the volcano' didn't seem quite as satisfactory.

A final scramble brought him to the rim of the crater. The lava here had frozen into fantastic shapes as it cooled, like a menagerie of petrified monsters. Some sections looked quite recent, broken by fissures where wisps of smoke rose and streamed away to the north. Others seemed older, their features softened by wind, rain, and time. The trail led along one of the latter sections, ending at an anonymous tin shack. The structure looked surprisingly ordinary in this lunar landscape. A small wind-powered generator stood nearby. Fleming noticed that both were well behind the military crest, where they'd be hidden from observers near the shore, but it was impossible to tell if this was deliberate.

The windmill was a Comet, from the new factory near Sydney. The airman studied it, unable to imagine how anyone could have manhandled it up the trail he'd just climbed. The shack seemed equally inexplicable. Could these things have been brought here by airship? Who would do such a thing, and why? He knocked on the door, but the place seemed deserted. At last, with a shrug, he lifted the latch and pushed his way inside.

"What the devil?" he muttered.

Fleming wasn't sure quite what he'd anticipated -- more tennis rackets and shrunken heads, perhaps -- but he'd at least expected the place to have a floor. Instead, he found a shallow pit, gouged out of the lava with pick and shovel. The excavation was lined with a circle of pegs, from which someone had strung cords to form a grid. It looked, more than anything else, like an archaeological dig, but it was difficult to imagine what they could have been looking for near the lip of an active volcano.

He examined the floor of the excavation for artifacts. It seemed entirely empty. Either the diggers had made off with its contents, or there had never any to begin with. Somehow the latter seemed more likely.

Abandoning the pit, he turned his attention to the interior walls of the shed. These were not particularly informative. Some were fitted with shelves that might once have held electrical apparatus, but all that remained of this were a few cables and wires. At last, in a corner of the floor, he spotted a flat rectangular object half-hidden in the shadows.

Oy, he thought, what's this?

The object proved to be a small sketchbook. Its contents were singularly cryptic -- a succession of diagrams he supposed were meant to represent different levels of the excavation. These were marked with comments such as `crescent-shaped scraper', `tualua icon', and `deer-like form'. In one place, he found a scrap of paper that might have served as a placemark. The page seemed no different from the rest. Holding the paper up to the light, he read

...too many differences. I can't tell what they mean.

The airman frowned. Neither could he. Then he noticed that someone had torn off a page just before the final sketch and picked away at the remains to hide the fact that a leaf was missing. This did not seem like usual practice for a field scientist. He slipped the book inside his shirt. Perhaps Jenkins could make something of it when he got back to the ship.

His thoughts were interrupted by the blast of a steam whistle. He stepped back outside to see an island freighter coming to anchor some distance offshore. Craning his eyes, he could just make out the name Tranquility.

Bonzer! he thought. I've been rescued! And he remembered this ship. This was the one with the beer!

The flight to from Aneityum to Guadalcanal had taken the N-109 a day. Now she rode from the commercial airship mast at Aolo while Marty and some of his boys followed Vlad inland. Nettie, predictably, had left the ship on a mission of her own.

"You think she'll be OK, Boss?" asked Craig.

Marty nodded. "I sent Jake along, just in case. He knows better than ta mess wit' her, and these mugs..." he gestured at the islanders they were passing, '...should know better than ta mess wit' him."

The other man scratched his head. "What is it with the dames, Boss? Why do they always have ta go shopping?"

"Ya got me," said Marty. "I guess there's some things man wasn't meant ta know."

The trail brought them to small cane plantation. To their left, several laborers dozen in the shade of a wagon. To their right, a plantation house stood beneath the trees. The door was answered by a servant, who nodded when he recognized Vlad.

"She's waiting," he announced.

The servant led them to parlor where a stocky Russian woman in her mid-twenties sat attended by two stern-looking gentleman. By their bearing, it seemed tthe men had once held military rank, but there was no doubt who was in charge.

"Anna," Vlad said with a smile. "I am here, as I promised." He crossed the room to take the proffered hand, then turned to Marty and his henchmen. "Gentleman," he told them. "This is Anna. She is our associate in this business."

Marty noted the obvious warmth between Vlad and the woman. Who was she, he wondered, and why were they so close? Perhaps they were exiles together. He understood there'd been some kind of revolution in Russia, but like most Americans, he had little awareness of events outside his own country. And he had more important things to discuss.

"What is this `business'?" he asked.

The two Russians exchanged glances. Vlad gave the woman a barely-perceptible nod.

"There's a man we wish to talk to," she told them. "He will be traveling on a certain freighter. We want you to bring him here."

"So it's a snatch job," said Marty.

It took the woman a moment to understand. "Our agents on board will do the 'snatching' as you put it," she said. "But this man has a way of slipping out of people's hands. That's where you come in. There's no way he can escape from an airship."

"What's in it fer us?" asked Marty.

"Fifteen thousand now," said Vlad, " and another fifteen on delivery."

The gangster whistled. "Thirty large? You got yourself a deal, lady. What's this man's name?"

The Russian's expression was fierce. "Karlov."

"Why are they after this gent?" asked Al when they were back at the ship.

"I dunno," Marty replied cheerfully, "And I'm not askin' as long as we get the dough. Can we manage the flights?"

The skipper flipped through his figures. The prospect of a challenging operation had brought some life to his bloodshot features. "The schedule shouldn't be hard," he replied. "This baby might not be fast, but she's fast enough. I'm more worried about ship handling. This could get tricky, and your boys don't have much experience."

Marty thought this over, "We kin afford a few more men. How many do you need?"

The skipper rubbed his chin. "One could be enough, if he's good. And I think I know where to look."

Next week: Could He Possibly Know What He's Doing?...

Comments about Episode 223? Start a new topic on the Forum!

StumbleUpon        submit to reddit Reedit