The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 259: The Big Smoke

Airship over the Harbor Bridge

They'd taken the Flying Cloud to the government air station for resupply. This lay on Dobu Island -- a diminutive spot of land between Fergusson and Normanby in the D'Entrecasteaux chain. The islet's modest dimensions made it somewhat more manageable than its larger neighbors. In some places, swaths of jungle had been cleared to make room for plantations that might almost have been productive. In others, visiting missionaries with more ambition than sense had raised villages that -- except for their grass huts, palm trees, and clouds of biting insects -- would not have seemed out of place in rural England.

The station itself wasn't significantly larger than the one in Bwaidoga, but it seemed better maintained. In particular, its facilities did not seem in quite as immediate danger of collapse. Now the ship rode from the Number One mast, next to an ancient R-23 Class packet whose angular lines and archaic external cars seemed entirely appropriate in these rustic setting.

Everett studied the vessel and smiled, remembering his training days. Then reached into his pocket to retrieve the cufflink Michaelson's men had found on the field in Cairns. It had most certainly belonged to Lieutenant-Commander Forsyth. He couldn't imagine anyone else who would have chosen a Coastal Class blimp as the subject for an engraving. How had it made its way to back to Australia? Where was its owner now? Who else had survived the crash of the R-212? And how many of them were still alive?

These questions weighed on his mind. He'd lost men before -- this was one of the burdens of command -- but it never got easier, and if there was chance that some could be saved...

A discreet cough sounded from the door to the mess hall. He looked up to see Jenkins and the others waiting outside. "Gentlemen. And lady," he said after they'd entered and taken their seats, "it is time to review our findings. We've made some discoveries, but these have raised as many questions as they answered. Mister Murdock, could you describe what you found?"

"Yes, sir," said the junior lieutenant. "When we reached Vivigani, we met two English surveyors who'd been hired to study the site's potential for an air station. According to them, the Cordelia called at Goodenough shortly after a visit by a Japanese commercial airship. Their report suggests that one or more passengers from the Japanese vessel may have departed aboard the freighter."

"Pierre, I take it you have reservations about these men's report."

"Oui," said the Frenchman. "Their appearance was too convenient, and they seemed too ready with their information. One wonders if the encounter was arranged."

"Quite," said Everettt, "and this brings us to Mister Iverson's discoveries. Lieutenant?"

"Miss Sarah and I traveled to the village of Wataluma, ay the north end of the island. There we came upon the master of the French airship we saw at the station. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned that he'd seen our old friend Captain Ritter in the company of two Englishmen. One wonders if these were the same men Mister Murdock encountered."

"Is there any reason to doubt this man's information?"

"I don't believe so," said Iverson. "Our encounter happened entirely by chance, and it's difficult to imagine what reason he might have had to deceive us."

"Jenkins, what are your conclusions?"

"We know that Ritter is one of the Fat Man's agents," the signalman observed. "His appearance suggests that these two `surveyors' were planted on Goodenough for us find."

"Such is my conclusion as well," said Everett. "This means someone was aware of our orders to investigate Goodenough. Who might have had access to these?"

"The possibilities seem limited," said Jenkins. "I believe we can safely discount Captain Michaelson. The man may have a penchant for elaboration, but this seems excessive, even for him. This leaves only the person who encoded the document."

There were several sharp intakes of breath as others grasped the implication.

"Are you suggesting that Phelps is an agent?" exclaimed Iverson.

"The evidence does seem to point in that direction," mused Everett. "And I imagine that Michaelson already knew this when he sent us here. Whatever could the man be up to?"

With a population of slightly more than a million, Sydney may not have been as big as London or Paris, but to two young women from Darwin, it was every bit as exciting. They gazed from the windows, taking in the sights, as the R-67 descended toward the great civil air station at Botany Bay. This might have begun life as bullock paddock, but it had grown since the Peace, and now it was a substantial facility with dozens of masts, long rows of sheds, and the latest mechanical handing facilities.

After the ship was moored, Emily and Clarice made their way to the telegraph station to wire Lany that they'd arrived. They emerged to find a sour-looking spinster from the Station's clerical staff waiting for them.

"I take it you're our guests from... Darwin," the woman announced, as if residence in North Australia represented some severe moral failure.

"Dinky-di!" Emily said brightly. "What's your moniker?"

"I am Miss Evangeline Caustic," the woman answered. "The Company has instructed me to be your chaperone."

"Why do we need a chaperone?" asked Clarice, fearing the worst.

The woman gave them a stern glance, "I'm not sure what the standard of behavior might be in... Darwin, but here in Sydney, it would not be appropriate for two young ladies to gallivant about town without an escort."

Emily and Clarice exchanged glances. 'Galivanting' was excatly what they'd had in mind. "This is crook," Clarice whispered. "What should we do?"

"Make a good fist of it," Emily whispered back. "Maybe she's not quite the drongo she seems."

Emily's optimism proved misplaced. As the morning wore on, she and Clarice grew increasingly dissatisfied with their escort. Evangeline seemed to be one of those unfortunate individuals who was determined to make sure no one else enjoyed any of the opportunities for adventure that she herself had missed.

"Shall we go to Gardner Island to see the Fleet?" asked Clarice.

"Whatever for?" scolded Evangeline. "Young ladies are not interested in warships or sailors."

"Can we visit Bondi Beach?" asked Emily.

"That would not be appropriate. You might witness young men frolicking in the surf."

"What about a cinema?" asked Clarice.

"Certainly not! Movie actors..." their chaperone sighed, "...are hardly suitable entertainment for a lady."

"Than what can we do?" asked Emily.

"We can take an omnibus across the new Harbor Bridge they completed this spring. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. It's the largest steel span bridge in the Southern Hemisphere."

To their credit, Emily and Clarice did appreciate the view from the bridge, though Clarice's suggestion that the harbor might be improved by the addition of an opera house was met with a stern lecture on the evils of popular entertainment. They disembarked near the Botanical Gardens -- apparently Miss Caustic didn't feel that vegetation represented a threat to her charges' virtue.

The two young women drew appreciative glances as they strolled through the gardens. So, when she bothered to smile, did Evangeline. Emily notice her gaze wistfully at the men they passed. This suggested a possibility.

"Excuse me," she asked a well-dressed gentleman who'd been pretending not to look at their escort. "Do you know where we might happen to find some tea?"

"Miss Wilcox!" snapped Evangeline. "It's inappropriate for a young lady to address men without an introduction."

Emily's expression was pure innocence. "Then why don't you introduce us?" she said sweetly. "Sir, this is Evangeline."

"And I'm Craig," the man said, taking the older woman's hand. "Pleased to meet you."

"Em, that was brilliant!" exclaimed Clarice as their erstwhile chaperone departed with her new beau. "What should we do now?"

Emily thought for a moment, then beamed. "Let's visit the Naval Air Station to look at the airships!"

Next week: The Girls From A.U.N.T....

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