The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 348: Someone May Be Bluffing

The Flying Cloud and the Mysterious Cruiser

The railway depot was a cluster of buildings tucked beneath the trees on the shore of an anonymous estuary. Even with Michaelson's directions, they might have missed the place had it not been for the small crater nearby. This looked almost like the work of an aerial bomb, but there was no way to tell what the target might have been. Any debris had long since been washed away by the tides that swept this stretch of coast. From the depot, a narrow-gauge rail line led south into the interior, flanked by a row of telegraph poles. They'd missed this during their flight to Broome the night before, but now it was an incongruous mark of civilization in an otherwise desolate landscape.

They hadn't followed the track very far before they spotted a party on foot making its way back toward the coast. Beyond it, an overturned handcar lay next to a break in the telegraph line.

"I wonder who those fellows are," wondered Iverson.

"Perhaps they set out to inspect the wire, but turned back after their car broke down," said Sarah.

Iverson shook his head. "Why didn't they just splice into the cable and call for a lift?"

"The train might have been otherwise engaged," suggested Sarah.

The lieutenant seemed unconvinced, but soon they came upon evidence to support the island girl's hypothesis. In the distance, shimmering in the heat, they spotted a train making its way south. Like the railway line, it seemed lost in this wasteland.

Everett keyed the intercom. "Davies, can you make out any details?"

"I have an engine, five cars, and a caboose, range twenty one miles, traveling south at approximately forty miles per hour," came the reply from the upper lookout station. "We should catch up with them in... Good lord! There's another engine ahead of them heading north!"

Everett and Iverson stepped to the forward windows and raised their binoculars.

"Oh dear," said Iverson. "If they continue at this rate they're sure to collide."

"It's difficult to be sanguine about their prospects," said Everett, "but the engine to the south appears to be slowing, and... Davies, is that a siding to the left?"

"Yes, Captain. The second engine has stopped and I can see a figure running for the controls. Now it's started up again, but it's moving too slowly. The northern train is almost upon them! They can't possibly... wait... Hurrah, they made it!"

"That's a remarkable way to run a railroad," Iverson observed after he'd recovered his composure.

"We must hope this is not their normal procedure," Everett said dryly. "Davies, what do you see now?"

There was pause while the marine adjusted his spotting scope. "That's odd," he reported. "The caboose appears to have come loose and rolled to a stop next to the second engine. From this range, it's impossible to tell why. The rest of the train is still heading south toward some sort of settlement."

The two officers trained their binoculars down the line. "That looks rather like an air station," Iverson said after a moment.

"So it does," said Everett.

"And the train doesn't appear to be slackening speed."

"Quite," said Everett. "Nothing good can possibly come of this."

As the two airmen watched, the train plowed into the station. A blast of fire erupted from the point of impact, followed by great cloud of smoke that spread to engulf the settlement. A minute or so later, they heard a dull boom as the sound of the explosion reached them.

Behind them, Sarah had been standing on tiptoe to look over Iverson's shoulder. "What was that place?" she asked. "It wasn't on any of our charts."

Everett shook his head. "We'll ask our people," he replied. "They will be the ones waiting at that siding. It's difficult to imagine who else could have been responsible for that business with the trains."

His reflections were interrupted by an urgent call from Davies. "Captain! We have an airship approaching our altitude, range fifteen miles, bearing 220! It looks like our friends on the cruiser!"

Everett shaded his eyes to look southwest. He didn't need binoculars to recognize their nemesis. The mighty hull, at least twice the size of their own vessel, and the eight engines arranged in parallel rows of four were all too familiar. Even under the best of conditions, it would have been more than match for the Flying Cloud, and now they were low on hydrogen, ballast, and fuel. Around him, his flight officers stood frozen in shock.

"I suppose we shouldn't be surprised," he said calmly. "It was about time for them to make an appearance. Loris, give me a turn right to 340 and ring for three-quarter power on all three engines. Wallace, we will maintain an altitude of 4000' for now."

"Right to 340, three quarters on One, Two, and Three."

"Maintain 4000'."

The horizon swung as Loris spun the wheel. Everett watched the maneuver, then turned to his aide. "Jenkins, transmit the following message to Cairns in clear: `Made contact with cruiser as expected, 17 23 S, 124 27 E, heading north at 50 knots. Will shadow until squadron arrives.'"

The signalman's eyes brightened. "Yes, sir."

It took the others a moment to recognize their captain's strategy. "Do you think they'll fall for the bluff?" asked Sarah.

"I believe so," Everett assured the island girl. "They must be unsettled by the destruction of what we can assume was their air station, and it will help that we've made no obvious attempt to flee. Davies, what do you have now?"

"They're at a range of eight miles, bearing 260, on a parallel course and speed."

Everett moved over to the port windows and studied the cruiser. It was making no attempt to close, but also no move to pull away. What are those fellows thinking? he wondered. Surely they must suspect that his `squadron' was a fiction. But they faced the classic predator's dilemma: no matter how certain they might be of victory, they might worry about the risk of injury at the hands of their prey if there was some chance of a serious fight later. Would this be enough hold them off?

Miles rolled past as the two airships droned northwest. Everett did his best not to glance at the ballast board. He knew what it would tell him, and the message was not good.

Then, unexpectedly, a call came from Davies. "Sir, we have another ship bearing 040."

Everett swung his binoculars to see an old-style airship with an external control car approaching from the northwest. "That looks like an Astra-Torres," he marveled. "It must be the American gangsters."

"Whatever are they doing here in West Australia?" asked Sarah.

"It would be premature to speculate," Everett told her, "but their arrival seems to have made our friends on the cruiser shear away. I believe we're done here. Let's go back and see who's waiting at that railroad siding."

The Flying Cloud was too low on consumables to conduct Transporter operations until the wind dropped, so Everett and Jenkins absieled down to the siding. Clarice's eyes lit up when the captain reached the ground. Before he could react, she'd run forward to give him a hug.

"We were so worried when we saw the cruiser!" she exclaimed. "How did you manage to drive them off?"

Everett smiled and disengaged himself as best he could. "We didn't," he admitted. "We were too low on supplies to flight or flee, so pretended we were a scout sent in advance of a larger force. They must have suspected a deception, but they made no attempt to close, and when Marty showed up, they decided we were telling the truth and withdrew."

"They may have been low on consumables too," said Miss Perkins. "According to Ed here, they'd only just returned from some sortie."

"So both of us were bluffing," Everett mused. "I imagine we'll have a rematch someday. We will wish to prepare for this."

"What you think they were up to?" asked Captain Sanders. Now that his adventures were over, the skipper seemed to be looking back at them with a certain amount of nostalgia.

Miss Perkins gazed toward the ruins of the station, where the smoke was beginning to dissipate. Her attitude suggested that she'd met her match and was not happy about the matter. "That stockpile of bombs we saw suggests they intended to attack someone. It remains to be determined who. I also wonder about Natasha's role in this affair."

Everett sighed, for he'd been wondering the same thing. "It's obvious she was trying to manipulate events, but we have no way of knowing what game she might be playing."

The gangster's airship, currently registered as the Tijuana, out of Mexico, was cruising north at 45 knots. Al had worked a small miracle to recover the ground party in the gusty afternoon wind. Now they were following the rail line toward the coast.

"What's our plan now, Boss?" asked Jake.

Marty gestured to the north and grinned "We grab some loot," he told his men. "We didn't get a chance to hit that air station, but I'm sure we'll find something worthwhile at the rail depot."

"What about the Royal Navy?" Books asked. "They're already on our tail."

Marty's grin broadened. "It was our pal Everett who dropped hint the place was illegal. Sounds to me like he'll be looking the other way. Still, the Pacific does seem to be getting hot. We'll clean the place out, then head back to the States and find some new game to play."

A lone figure strode through the ruins. Around her, plumes of smoke twisted like snakes in the wind. By now, most of the fires had died, but here and there some fragment of debris still smoldered. At last, as she knew she would, she saw another figure ahead.

"You!' she cried. "You're responsible for this all destruction! And this wasn't the first time! Don't you have any conscience?"

The other shook his head. "I took no action here except at the end, when I warned Michaelson to rescue his people. This one was your doing."

The first figure recoiled in dismay. "That isn't possible," she protested. "I never meant for this to happen!'

The other's expression could have meant anything from sympathy to contempt. "Play the game, if you feel you must," he replied, "but be warned that it's not as easy as you supposed."

Next week: The Seventh Flying Cloud Christmas Special...

Comments about Episode 348? Start a new topic on the Forum!

StumbleUpon        submit to reddit Reedit