Episode 226: A Brief Moment of Tranquility
By the time Fleming reached the beach, the freighter had lowered a boat.
He watched as it pulled towards shore. It was a utilitarian craft,
scarred by years of service, on which someone had painted the name
Donkey. He found this reassuring. It didn't seem like the kind of
name conspirators would chose. Minutes later he was stepping forward to
take the painter and help the crew drag their vessel up onto the sand.
The skipper nodded to him, reached into an ice chest, and handed him a
"G'day, mate," he announced. "Have some amber fluid! I'm Ray. That's
our ship, the Tranquility. What's your moniker?"
Fleming hid his surprise. How could these people not know who he was? The
Flying Cloud had crossed paths with them twice before. Then he
realized that they'd only seen the landing parties. They could have no way
of knowing who else was on the airship's crew.
It occurred to him that there might be some advantage to retaining his
anonymity. "I'm Starbuck," he said brightly. He was getting used to
the name by now.
"How'd you end up on Serua?" asked Ray. "I thought the Dutch evacuated this
place after the eruption in '21."
Serua, thought Fleming. So that's where I am! He started
to reply, then hesitated. What possible reason could he give for being
alone on a deserted island in the middle of the Banda Sea? Unable to think
of any alternatives, he decided to stay close to truth.
"I'm an airman in the Commonwealth Navy Researve," he explained. "I was
sent to Darwin to fill out the crew of one of their gunboats. We were on
our way to some atoll near Timor when we were attacked by a submarine."
Ray raised an eyebrow. "A submarine?" he protested. "Don't come the raw
"It's fair dinkum," said Fleming. "They hit us with a torpedo, just
aft of the bow. I was thrown overboard by the explosion and the sub's crew
took me prisoner."
The skipper shook his head in wonderment. "Who were these mugs?"
Fleming shrugged. "You got me, mate. The captain claimed his name was Omen
and his boat was called the Sulituan, but those can't have been
"How'd you get from Timor to the Banda Sea?"
"That's the strange part," said Fleming, for indeed it was. "They locked me
in the loo `till
they got here, then sent a party ashore. When it got back, this Omen
chappie announced he had bizzo elsewhere and was leaving me behind."
Ray rubbed his chin. Fleming couldn't tell whether the man believed his
story or not. "Well," he said at last. "We'll be happy to take you off the
island, unless you want to stay and wait for the next eruption."
Fleming glanced up at the volcano, which was trailing a thin plume of smoke
to the north. "I'll give that a miss."
The Tranquility was a typical island freighter. She was a small
steamship, 2500 tons burden, powered by a venerable triple-compound engine
ancient enough to have served on Cleopatra's barge. Her people were a motley
assortment, drawn from the four quarters of the earth, who addressed each
other by a bewildering assortment of nicknames that seemed to change
according to circumstance. A few days after they left the island, Fleming
found himself in conversation with a young slip of a girl named Elance. Her
position aboard ship was quite impossible to determine. She wore engineer's
overalls, but in here the South Pacific, this could have meant anything.
"You're lucky we dropped by when we did," she said cheerfully. "Who knows
when the next ship might have shown up."
"Strewth!" agreed Fleming. "It could have been a long wait. What brought you
"Speculation," said the girl. "Cap'n heard the place had been abandoned and
wondered if anything useful got left behind."
"Did you find anything?"
Elance gave an offhand shrug. "I wouldn't know. Cap'n never tells me
anything. Why'd those fellows with the submarine call there? They sound
like a pack of nits."
"Aye," laughed Fleming, "nits they were! But they knew how to keep their
The girl seemed to think this over. "Did they say anything about an
Fleming hid his surprise. "Not that I recall. Why do you ask?"
"Just an idea," said the girl. "Some of those native artifacts are worth
For a moment, Fleming thought of mentioning his visit to the rim of the
volcano and the notebook he'd found there. But one explanation might have
led to another, and he was already concerned about keeping his story
"Could be," he replied, "or they might have been after pirate treasure."
Elance laughed. "Yes, just like in a radio drama!"
A week of stately progress brought the freighter to Hollandia, a town
on the northern shore of New Guinea that served the Dutch as a district
capital. The settlement bore little resemblance to its German and English
counterparts in Rabaul and Port Moresby. The local administrators had
sought to compensate for the disadvantages of a mediocre harbor,
uncomfortable climate, and unfavorable location by neglecting to enforce the
regulations they never enacted in the first place. The result was a triumph
of laisez-faire capitalism, with an emphasis on the laisez
-- the kind of port where you could find anything you wanted, and some
things you most certainly did not.
By now, Fleming had concluded that the Tranquility was unlikely to
get him back to Australia any time in the foreseeable future. He considered
presenting himself at the Government House as a distressed airman, but
rejected this idea as unwise. Word would almost certainly get back to
Cairns, which might raise awkward questions as to how he'd become separated
from his ship in the first place. At last, lacking any better ideas, he
decided to visit the air station in hope of finding a berth.
The mooring masts were occupied by an assortment of vessels, ranging from
inter-island blimps to a visiting Japanese packet. Most of the rigids were
British or German designs, but one ship seemed different from the rest. Her
lines looked German, but subtle features of her construction -- details only
a skilled airman might notice -- suggested she was an Astra-Torres product.
She had an American registration, N-109, but such things could be forged...
Could it be? he thought in amazement. Did I just happen to
find the AT-38?
He strolled past the mast and glanced at the notice board to see the usual
listing of freight rates. This told no tales. Beside it, a
grizzled-looking airman who might have been the ship's skipper was putting
up a want ad for crew.
This was too good an opportunity to miss. "My name's Starbuck," said
Fleming. "I see you're looking for hands."
The skipper looked him up and down. "What kind of experience you got?"
"Commonwealth Navy Reserve," said Fleming, "with three years on government
packets, mostly Armstrong-Whitworths." This seemed safe enough. Everyone
served on those at one time or another, and they were similar to the
The skipper held out a grease-stained hand. "Welcome aboard, Mister
"I followed Starbuck to the air station," Elance told Ray. "He signed up on
one of the commercial airships, the N-109. No one's seen them before, but
the crew are American, the owner is a man named Marty, and the skipper's last
name is something like Loghead."
"Loghead?" Ray said in amazement. "They don't sound like Admiralty agents.
Perhaps we were wrong about the fellow."
"Maybe," said Elance, "but he was hiding something, Cap'n. I could tell."
Ray nodded. "I'm sure you're right. We'll mention it to Karlov."
Next week: You May Not Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way The Wind Blows, But It Helps...
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