Episode 346: The Rabbit Ultimatum
Shortly after lunch, Natasha returned with disguises: loose-fitting overalls
and shirts such as a laborer might wear. Clarice and Emily donned theirs
with glee. This was hardly the first time they'd pretended to be boys so
they could sneak into some place they shouldn't.
Miss Perkins seemed less enthusiastic about the outfits. "This is hardly a
convincing subterfuge," she objected. "Surely we can expect our hosts to
react when a party of total strangers goes for a stroll about their air
Natasha made a dismissive gesture. "It's the start of the afternoon shift.
Everyone will be too busy to notice as long as we act like we belong."
Her prediction proved correct. No one paid any attention to the four women
as they left the building and started across the field. The mysterious
cruiser was still on her mooring, hoisting a pallet of cargo into her hold.
On the ground below, handlers were dragging another load into position.
Remembering Natasha's admonition to `act as if they belonged', Clarice
watched out of the corner of her eye. Judging from the amount of equipment
they were bringing aboard, the crew were preparing for a substantial sortie.
Where were they headed, she wondered?
"Those chappies are loading a fair bit of kit," she observed. "What are
they up to?"
"It can be dangerous to ask questions about those people," Natasha replied
darkly. Clarice noted that this was hardly an answer, but decided not to
press the matter. She could recognize a hint.
Their route took them past the mooring circle, a construction site, and a row
of storage sheds. It seemed almost aimless, but Natasha had obviously chosen
it to steer clear of anyone who might challenge them. At some times she paused
and pretended to consult a clipboard as a party of workers filed past. At
others she urged a subtle quickening of pace to avoid an encounter. Several
minutes of this subtle evasion brought them to the hydrogen plant -- a
businesslike complex of pipes, manifolds, and tanks flanked by a pair of
large gasometers. These bulged with several million cubic feet of
hydrogen. Clarice hoped there weren't any leaks. Across an alley, a long
low warehouse baked in the sun. From beyond it came the sound of steam
"I assume that's our train," said Miss Perkins.
Natasha nodded. "It's supposed to be hauling a string of cars out to the
mooring circle, but the engineer is on our side. We'll cut through the
warehouse, wait 'til the coast is clear, then make a dash for the
locomotive. As soon as you're aboard, he'll drop the load and split."
Clarice marveled at the woman's vernacular. Why, she wondered, did their
guide persist in talking like some character from a radio drama? Was this
her natural way of speech or a deliberate attempt at disguise?
Miss Perkins, more experienced at translation, identified a key omission.
"I take it you don't intend to accompany us," she remarked dryly.
"I still have things to do here," said Natasha.
"How do we know we can trust you?" Miss Perkins demanded.
The other woman met her gaze. "You don't have any choice."
The two women locked eyes for a moment, like fencers studying each other
before some passage at arms. At last Miss Perkins sighed.
"Quite," she admitted. "Let's get on with this."
Natasha's smile was the very picture of innocence. "I'm glad you agree."
They tiptoed across the alley, waited while their guide unlocked a side
door, and entered the warehouse. This part of the building was stacked
with crates of explosives, blasting caps, and fuses. Clarice imagined
these were left over from the construction of the rail line. It must
have taken considerable effort to cut a right of way through some of the
terrain between here and the coast. She considered slipping a few
detonators into her handbag -- one never knew when such things might come
in handy -- but Natasha was already easing open the door ahead of them.
Peering over the woman's shoulder, Clarice saw workers loading a row of
flatcars with racks of what looked like man-sized metal darts.
"Strewth!" Emily exclaimed. "Are those bombs?"
Miss Perkins' expression hardened, as if the prospect brought back some
terrible memory. "Yes," she replied. "I wonder who they're planning to
drop them on."
Natasha didn't allow them time for speculation. She pointed to a small
0-4-0 switching engine coupled to the front of the load. Someone had
scrawled the name `Tommie' on the side of its tank. "Take this
clipboard and stroll over to the cab like you're delivering a message," she
told Miss Perkins. "Once you're all aboard, the engineer will make a run
The secretary scowled. "You don't seem to have many qualms about using
other people for your own ends," she observed.
"I use whatever tools I can find," Natasha replied bleakly. "You'd do the
same if you were in my position. Go now, before anyone gets suspicious."
No one glanced at the trio as they made their way past the flatcars. The
workers all seemed busy making sure the cargo was secure. Clarice approved
of their industry -- the prospect of a bomb coming loose next to a warehouse
filled with high explosives that just happened to be standing beside a
hydrogen plant was food for thought. They reached the cab to find a beefy
man in an engineer's cap waiting at the controls. He helped them onto the
footplate, then jumped down to disengage the coupling.
"That should do it," he announced as he rejoined them. "Let's roll!"
With these words, he opened the throttle. Steam hissed and pistons chugged
as the engine pulled away from the rest of the train. Slowly, gradually, it
began to pick up speed.
Several moments passed before the workers on the flatcars noticed anything
was amiss. By the time they'd lept to the ground and set off in pursuit, the
locomotive was approaching the perimeter fence. It smashed through the gate
as if it wasn't there, chain links no match for twenty tons of iron and steel,
and thundered off down the line. The workers made a half-hearted attempt to
follow, but the fierce desert sun soon put paid to their efforts.
Clarice watched the figures dwindle behind them and grinned. "Thanks for
the lift, mate!" she told the engineer.
"No troubles," the man replied. "I'm glad to be clear of that lot. That
bizzo with the bombs was too crook for my taste. My name's Blaine."
"I'm Clarice, and these are Emily and Miss Perkins," Clarice replied. "Do
we have enough fuel and water to reach the coast?"
"Bob's your uncle!" said the engineer. "We got away free and clear!"
"You're quite sure about that?" Miss Perkins asked skeptically.
"Dinki di," Blaine assured her. "We took the only engine, I know
the signals to get past the pickets, and it will be hours before that
airship is ready to lift. What could possibly go wrong?"
Next week: All Your Secret Air Station Are Belong To Us...
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