The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 353: Several Different Lairs

Dragon's claw with tropical drink

Captain Ritter strode up the track that led from the landing. Its fresh gravel pavement contrasted smartly with the black volcanic sand to either side. Behind him, sunlight sparkled on the lagoon where his freighter lay at anchor. A donkey engine chugged as stevedores swung a cargo of tools and machinery over to a waiting lighter. Ahead, a trim white European-style house nestled among the palms. Its peaceful tropical setting was entirely at odds with its inhabitant -- a castle or a cave might have been more appropriate -- but Ritter kept this thought to himself. Long years of service in the Imperial Navy had taught him the value of discretion.

The guard at the door wore a brown paramiliary uniform and carried a new Mauser rifle. In another era, it might have been a halberd or a battle axe. The soldier gave Ritter a brief salute.

"He is inside. You are expected."

Ritter didn't bother to return the salute as he entered the building. The interior was well-lit and spacious, but also somewhat garish. A long hallway, decorated with emblems from Teutonic mythology that seemed entirely out of place here in the tropics, led past a succession of offices to a heavy oaken door. The skipper took a deep breath, gathered his courage, and knocked.

"Enter," growled a voice.

Inside, a massive figure in a tropical suit lurked behind his desk like a waiting dragon. A second man stood beside him, wearing the garb of a radioman. Ritter came to attention and waited for the man behind the desk to speak.

"You have the photographs," said the Fat Man.

Ritter handed over the folder he'd been carrying. The nationalist leader glanced at its contents, then passed it to his companion, who leafed through the prints one by one.

"The images are complete, and of sufficient quality," the radioman announced after he'd finished. "I do not anticipate any problems."

"How long will it take you to break the code?" asked the Fat Man.

"It is a set of poly-alphabetic ciphers: one for each day of the year," said the radioman. "Under ordinary circumstances, this could have posed a challenge, but your agent has provided us with a copy of the keys. We will wish to decrypt some of our previous message intercepts to verify that we have interpreted them correctly. This should only require a few hours."

The Fat Man's nod was the very picture of smugness. "Now we will have advance knowledge of the Americans' naval airship movements."

"Unless they suspect what we've done and switch to a new code," the radioman observed.

"They lack the necessary imagination," gloated the nationalist. "Unlike us, they were never tested in the crucible of combat. The vessel will be easy prey."

"Might I inquire about our plans?" Ritter asked cautiously.

The Fat Man made a dismissive gesture. "You have no need for this information. Your part in the matter is done. Resume your voyage and await further orders."

Ritter's experience aboard the SMS Dresden had taught him the importance of retreat in the face of a superior force. He gave a crisp salute, left the room, and congratulated himself on another escape.

It might have been any mid-sized island in the New Caledonian archipelago. Jungle-covered hills climbed steeply from its southern coast to a jagged volcanic ridge. To the north, the terrain was more clement, and dropped in a succession of steps to the shores of the narrow lagoon that rimmed the northern coast. Much of the lowland had been cleared for cultivation, and clusters of native huts peeked from beneath the trees next to broad fields of taro and yams.

East of these, a massive aerial cruiser rode from a mooring mast, dominating the surroundings like a looming dragon. Her great streamlined hull was the latest word in airship design. Eight powerful engine cars, arranged in rows of four on each side, seemed filled with the promise of speed.

In the salon of his mansion, the Governor studied the vessel before turning back to his guests. "I comprendre you had a slight setback in Australia," he observed.

The visitors should have been uncomfortable in their stiff quasi-military uniforms, but they came from a culture that made light of hardship. "The station was destroyed, along with all of the supplies and equipment it contained," one replied, with only a slight trace of an accent. "The operation we planned will be impossible until these can be replaced."

"I suspected as much," said the Governor. "In the interim, I have word from a contact in American Samoa that might interest you."

The other man's upbringing might not have allowed him to scowl, but it took little skill to guess his emotion. "Thank you," he said with unconvincing politeness. "I assume you will ask for your usual price."

The Governor smiled. "We both profit from this association."

The visitor took the proffered folder, leafed through its contents, then exchanged a few words with his companions in a language that was most definitely not French.. Satisfied, he turned back to his host.

"It is an opportunity," he observed. "We will find a way to take advantage of it."

An early fall storm pelted the Soviet Air Station at Vladivostok, lashing the trees, drenching the fields, turning the roads to mud. To the north, lighting flickered like dragon's breath. Captain Loiko gave it an incurious glance while he waited for Commodore Yumashev to acknowledge his presence. At last the Commodore looked up.

"You sent for me, sir," said Loiko.

"Da," said Yumashev. "We have received word from our attaché in San Francisco. Examine what he sent and give me your opinion."

The message was brief -- little more than a page of text. Loiko scanned its contents, glanced at the wall chart, and did a quick set of time and distance calculations in his head. It took little imagination to guess what his superior had in mind.

"The capitalists are making a show of force in the Pacific," he observed.

"So it would seem," said Yumashev. "This gesture should not go unanswered. How soon can your ship be ready to depart?"

"We can leave the shed as soon as this storm passes. After that, it should take us three days to reach the treaty port."

"Good," said the Yumashev. "You will lift ship at the earliest opportunity and open your orders after you are underway. Commissar Tsukanov will accompany you to provide further instructions should these be required."

Next week: Well, That Was Interesting...

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