The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 305: Doubtful Deeds in Darwin

Steam shovel at Darwin's air station

MacKiernan and Miss Perkins stood near the Administration building, watching as the Flying Cloud was rolled from her shed. The last rays of the setting sun slanted across the field, bathing the vessel with light. From this perspective, she looked almost like a work of nature -- some fabulous creature of the air, gracing the earth with a visit.

"She's beautiful," said Miss Perkins. "I can understand why you and your shipmates are happy to serve aboard her."

"Yes," MacKiernan said honestly. "She's one of the two most beautiful things I've seen."

Her glance assured him that she'd heard, but she didn't ask the obvious question. "What are your thoughts about this mission?" she asked instead.

The Irishman shook his head in exasperation. "Captain Michaelson is using us as a stalking horse. Again. Do you have any idea what he's up to this time?"

She looked at him, then lowered her gaze. "You know my position, Fergus," she said sadly. "I couldn't tell you even if I did."

He touched her shoulder. "Don't worry, Alice," he said. "I would never ask you to betray a confidence."

They stood for a time, not speaking. At last she sighed. "I worry about the Captain," she said. "This must be a difficult time for him."

MacKiernan raised an eyebrow. "Which captain?"

She hesitated for a moment, then ventured a smile. "Both of them, I suppose," she replied. "Lady's Warfield reappearance will have been a very unpleasant surprise."

"What is Michaelson's relationship with the baroness?" MacKiernan asked. "From the way he acts, its obvious she meant something to him at one time."

Miss Perkins shrugged helplessly. "I honestly don't know, Fergus, but he seems to be taking things more personally than before. This is no longer a game to him."

MacKiernan gave a rueful chuckle. "It was never entirely a game to us," he observed. "The pieces have a somewhat different perspective than the player."

She looked around to make sure no one was watching, then took his hand. "I know," she said quietly. "I wish things were different, but we have little choice over these roles we're forced to play. Please watch out for Captain Everett. And watch out for yourself."

He glanced down at her in surprise. Then, because the moment seemed to demand it, he lifted her hand to give it a kiss.

The next evening found MacKiernan in the Flying Cloud's upper lookout station, waiting with his captain to take a sight. This might not have been entirely necessary on a route they'd flown so many times before, but it was well to stay in practice. Below the ship, the wastes of Australia's Northern Territory swept past like some particularly drab and poorly maintained carpet. A faint glimmer to the south might have been a light from an isolated station, or it might just have been some reflection of the setting sun.

MacKiernana squinted through his sextant, then lowered the instrument. The sky was still too bright for him to make out any stars. "What do you think of Michaelson's orders, sir?" he asked.

Everett seemed as unperturbed as always. "They seem reasonable enough, given the circumstances," he replied. "Still, I can't help but feel that he's playing fast and loose with the lives of our old shipmates."

"How so, sir?"

"We have good reason to believe that some of them survived the crash of the Flying Lady," said Everett. "Lieutenant Blacker's reappearance is proof of this. The fact that we haven't heard from them suggests they're being held prisoner -- perhaps by the same fellows who brought down our old ship. Michaelson's strategy involves revealing that one of them passed a token to this Korean woman, then waiting to see who reacts. It's the sort of subtlety I'd expect from the man, and I have no doubt it will provide us with some valuable revelations, but it could have unfortunate repercussions for our people when word gets back to their captors."

MacKiernan nodded. He shared this concern. "What should we do?" he asked.

The captain seemed to stifle a sigh. "I can think of several possibilities, but it could be dangerous to act until we've spied out the lay of the land. We'll see what we can learn in Darwin."

They reached Darwin to discover that the lay of the land had undergone some substantial alterations.

"What's all this?" asked Iverson.

On their previous visits, the region immediately to the south of Darwin's modest air station had been a patchwork of small paddocks, storage yards, and housing lots. Now it was covered with construction equipment. In some places, workers were clearing land, cutting roads, raising fences, and laying tracks. In others, they were digging foundations for what was obviously a row of airship sheds.

"They seem to be expanding the field," said Murdock, unnecessarily.

"Why didn't we hear about this?" wondered MacKiernan.

"It must be a private endeavor," said Jenkins. "If these new facilities are purely commercial, there would have been no immediate need for them to inform the Navy."

"Someone must anticipate a significant increase in traffic," MacKiernan said skeptically.

"They must also have a fair bit of money to spend," observed Everett. "One suspects that our friend Channel had a hand in this." He studied the works, noting the locations of various pieces of machinery. Flying a hydrogen-filled dirigible at low altitude over smokestacks that might be belching cinders and sparks was generally frowned upon. "I will handle this approach," he announced. "After we're moored, we shall inquire into the matter."

Lieutenant Dabney met them at the foot of the mooring mast. "G'day mates," he announced cheerfully. "It's good to see you again. What brings you back to Darwin?"

"We have a pair of clerks from your railway office to return," Everett said nodding to Clarice and Emily as they emerged from the lift. "Then we'll be continuing on a cruise to the Dutch East Indies. I see that there have been some changes while we were away."

"Dinki-di," said their host. "With all the ships flying down from India or across from the Suez, someone felt this would be natural spot for a way station and organized a company to build new facilities. There's also been talk of establishing a resort for tourists from the Big Smoke."

"A resort?" marveled Emily. "Whatever are these tourists going to do?"

"They visit the rail yard to count the boxcars," suggested Clarice.

Emily brightened at this suggestion. "They could also take rides on fishing boats."

"Or they could go wading in the swamps."

"Would this `someone' who organized the company happen to be your police chief?" asked Everett.

Dabney snorted. "Strewth. That's one reason I didn't buy stock in the company."

"This may have been a wise move," Everett observed dryly. "I suppose courtesy demands we pay the man a visit to congratulate him on his industry."

Next week: The Origin of Specie...

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