The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 239: Routing Teutons

The L-137 approaching Gilolo

Michaelson kept his emotions hidden as he studied the report. "We're sure this information is accurate?" he asked Phelps.

The signalman nodded. "These matters are not common knowledge, but our contact in the Admiralty moves in the appropriate circles to be privy to such things. According to him, Clark's chief patron is Sir Chatfield."

Michaelson's eyes narrowed. "That's a fairly substantial set of coattails to ride," he observed. "The Admiral does not give his patronage lightly. Our Commodore cannot be as empty-headed as he seems. Was it Chatfield who conceived of this mission?"

"No," said Phelps. "Our contact was unable to determine this with any certainty, but he believes the idea originated with the First Lord."

A less astute observer might not have noticed Michaelson's change of expression. "Sir?" asked his aide.

"I am troubled by the implications," said Michaelson. "MacDonald's Labour government and Baldwin's Conservatives both recognized the danger posed by these nationalist groups. They realized that we and the Germans share a common interest in keeping the fellows in check. The Admiralty is another matter. They have a somewhat... unilateral... attitude toward diplomacy, and they've been known to work at cross-purposes with Whitehall. It's difficult not to wonder if someone on Mister Bridgeman's staff noticed our report on the Ujelang Device and wishes to secure exclusive use of this weapon for the Crown."

"Would this be such a bad thing, sir?" asked Phelps.

"Perhaps not," said Michaelson, "if they could get away with it. But one can hardly be sanguine about their chances when so many other parties are involved. The Japanese sent a team of scientists to investigate the cataclysm on Ujelang, the Kaiser's government must know of the instrument that caused it, the British Union was actively trying to acquire the thing, the German nationalists had the thing in their possession, and the Red Russians are pursuing the White Russians, who know how it was built."

"You worry about the possibility of a 'Device Race'," said Phelps.

"It could make the Dreadnought Race look rather tame by comparison," said Michaelson. "Well, I suppose these matters are outside our pay grade. What's the latest word from our agents in the Dutch East Indies?"

Phelps leafed though his papers. "It appears some people have been busy," he replied. "Hollandia recorded one visit by a ship registered as the N-109 on May 10th and another the 12th. One assumes one involved the AT-38 while the other involved L-137. They were followed on the 14th by the Cottswold, which set off in pursuit, though we have no way of knowing which vessel the Commodore was pursuing. On the 15th, Captain Everett reported an encounter with the L-137, bearing the number N-109, on Java. He contrived to capture and interrogate several of their marines, who informed him the vessel is bound for Gilolo in search of this missing Russian scientist, Karlov. Most recently, a vessel that may have been the AT-38, the Cottswold, and Everett's ship called at Ternate, in that order, apparently en route to Gilolo."

Michaelson gazed at their small-scale chart of the South Pacific, working out travel times and fuel consumption in his head. "One imagines they're all after the elusive Karlov. He seems to have acquired something of a mythological quality by now. It's difficult to escape the conclusion that this is all part of some grand design. But who is the designer, and what is his or her purpose?"

The mast at Dorosago creaked as the L-137 shifted position in response to some change in the wind. It had never been intended for a vessel of this size, and Ernst had ordered two engines to remain at idle in case of trouble. This would cost them fuel, but there was no help for it. The alternative was to risk drifting without power if they had to drop the mooring in a hurry.

The airship looked out of place here -- a shiny piece of the modern world dropped into some village from the ancient Sultanate of Malacca. As soon as the vessel was moored, Artur had sent his men to fetch the head of the Lutheran mission. Now he was interrogating the man in the ship's mess hall. If he cared that their allegiances might place them at odds, he gave no sign of this.

The priest was less skilled at hiding his feelings. "We know who you serve," he said stiffly, "and we do not approve of his actions."

Artur's smile was not that of a man who needed to win friends. "Your approval does not matter," he replied, "as long as you remember what will happen if you defy us."

It didn't take his guest long to perform the relevant cost-benefit analysis. "What do you require?" the priest asked sullenly.

"News of visiting airships, along with whatever fuel and hydrogen you may have," said Artur. "We also seek information about a man who has recently arrived on Gilolo. We wish to know where he has been seen and where he might be headed."

"What is this man's name?" asked the priest.

"Karlov," said Artur, watching his guest as a cat might watch a particularly hapless mouse.

The priest's puzzlement was obvious. "I have never heard this name," he said. "It sounds Russian. What would bring such a person here?'

Artur leaned back, satisfied of the other man's ignorance. "That is none of your concern," he replied. "Just gather the information for us and then we will be on our way."

The priest returned the next morning. His attitude was one of someone who bears bad news to someone he dislikes, but who might be in a position to exact retribution. Given the circumstances, it was to the man's credit that he wasn't sweating.

Artur's expression was not calculated to provide reassurance. "What have you found?" he asked.

"We have contacted other operators on the island by wireless," the priest said nervously. "None had any word of a visiting Russian, but we did learn that a Royal Navy airship has called at Buli."

Artur glanced at Ernst. His expression was unconvincingly mild. Ernst swallowed. "If you'd be so good as to step out of the room for a moment," he told their guest. The priest did not need to hear this suggestion repeated.

"Verdamnt!" spat Artur after the man was gone. "Sigmund's men must have broken! When we find those weaklings..."

"What are your orders, Mein Herr?" said Ernst, trying to steer the conversation to safer grounds.

"We cannot stay here with the Englishers so close," said Artur. "Can we head east to lay a false trail, then double back toward Kao?"

Ernst shook his head. "We do not have enough fuel and hydrogen for such a strategy," he said cautiously.

"Then we will have to hide our tracks another way," mused Artur. He studied the map for a moment, then smiled. "We will depart as if in haste," he told the captain. "Allow our friends at the mission to learn that we are headed for Galela, and warn them that they must keep this secret. I believe we can trust them to put our adversaries off the scent."

Next week: Things Are A Bit Different Here In The Islands...

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