Episode 393: An Archaeologist A Day Keeps The Russians Away
Fenwick had plenty of time to reflect during the passage from Broome to the
Dutch East Indies. The R-87 might have had many admirable qualities, but
speed was not one of them, and the flight took most of the day. At least
they didn't have to worry about attracting attention. The Wolesley class
was fairly common, and there was nothing to distinguish their ship from
dozens of similar naval, commercial, and private vessels that plied the
skies over the Pacific.
It was late afternoon when they finally raised Sumbawa. From the south, the
island was an irregular row of volcanic peaks rising above a line of jungle.
One was more substantial than its neighbors, with rugged slopes that
testified to some recent tectonic convulsion. Michaelson compared it with
an entry in the Almanac.
"That would be Tambora," he concluded. "Apparently it had quite the
eruption in 1815. We will hope it remains quiet during our visit."
Fenwick nodded. This was a sentiment he could agree with. "Volcanoes
figured as a background to quite a few of this past year's events," he
observed. "Could there be some connection?"
Michaelson's stare was icy. "This is only to be expected given the number
of volcanoes in the Pacific, Fenwick," he admonished his aide. "If you wish
to evaluate the significance of some correlation, you must also account for
the possibility that correlation might have occurred by chance -- some 18th
Century clergyman even wrote a theorem about this. I'm afraid you've been
listening to too many radio dramas."
Fenwick did his best to hide his embarrassment, for there was some truth to
the senior captain's observation. He'd particularly enjoyed the BBC's
production of Sax Rohmer's Curse of the Volcano Goddess.
Sumbawa had two air stations: one at Besa and the other at Bima. It seemed
the Brotherhood of Workers had called at the former, so Michaelson
elected to call at the latter. This was an undistinguished field some
distance south of town. An aging Vliegreis Class liner -- a Dutch
copy of Germany's ubiquitous L-59 class -- rode from one of the moorings,
but otherwise the place was empty. Even so, landing took some time. The
handlers were anything but proficient, and there were moments when it seemed
the attempt would have to be abandoned. Once they let the vessel yaw
crosswise to the wind, and only some quick work with the engines kept them
from being dragged across the field.
At last, after an hour of frustration, sweat, and carefully-considered
language, the ship was on the mast. This was a work of some antiquity,
which could plausibly have found a place in some museum of industrial
history. The lift, in particular, might have served as an exhibit on
Safety Hazards. Fenwick examined it with some dismay, but Michaelson
stepped aboard with that peculiar air of self-assurance Englishmen of a
certain social class displayed in the presence of mortal danger.
"These people don't seem particularly skillful," he remarked. "Naval
intelligence didn't report any communist cells here, but if these exist,
we will trust them to display a similar level of competence."
"Do you think the Soviets have anyone watching this station?" Fenwick
"This seems unlikely," said Michaelson. "Everett may have called here,
but they arrived at the other port well after he departed. They'd have
no reason to believe he knew of their visit, and no reason to reason to
anticipate our presence. We shall proceed on this assumption, travel to
Besa incognito, and wait for their arrival. Once they're on a mooring,
we'll radio Colson to come and catch them on the ground."
There were no cars to be hired, so the airmen were forced to book passage
aboard a calash -- the local equivalent of a mail coach.
Michaelson stretched out to sleep as soon as they were aboard. Fenwick
clung to a strap, wedged himself into a corner of his seat, and braced
himself for an ordeal. His apprehension proved justified. Traveling at
night, on an unlighted road, their pace was necessarily slow, but even
this seemed enough to pose a risk of bruises, concussions, and possible
broken bones. As the miles passed, Fenwick found himself wondering if
their trip could possibly be worth it. They might surprise their quarry,
but would they be in any shape to take advantage of this?
As morning arrived, the coach stopped at a village on the shore of Saleh
Bay to change horses and allow any surviving passengers to stretch their
legs, recover their wits, and regenerate their kidneys. Michaelson seemed
unaffected by the journey. Fenwick, limped after him, marveling at the
abilities that came with command rank.
"More Englishmen," said the local mail agent. "We had some naval
officers here last month. Everset and Junkman, I believe their names were."
"Indeed," Michaelson remarked with an expression of polite disinterest.
"Do you get many Englishmen here?"
"No, but there's a team of Scottish archaeologists on Mount Tambora --
members of that Scottish Socialist Party. The devil knows what brought
them to the Pacific. They spend all their time listening to Marxist
broadcasts on the wireless and passing out literature about dialetic
materialism. They don't get many visitors except for those Russian
Michaelson's expression hardened. "Russian airshipmen," he said
"Aye," said the mail agent. "They showed up at Besa on some ship called
the Fatherhood of Turtles."
"Sir!" Fenwick whispered.
"I know," Michaelson whispered back. "We can count on those fellows to
report our presence to the Soviets. It seems our trip has been wasted.
We shall head back to the ship and reconsider our plans."
Loika stood at the ballast board, reviewing their fuel and ballast
consumption with some satisfaction. They'd been cruising north at
reduced power, taking advantage of a quartering tailwind. Passage had
not been swift, but it would be economical. He'd just finished jotting
down some figures when Tsukanov emerged from the radio shack. The
commissar did not look happy.
"I take it there is bad news," said Loika.
"Da," said Tsukanov, "We received a coded message from those
Scottish archaeologists on Mount Tambora. It seems an English ship
called at Sumbawa yesterday. They aren't sure of its number, but it
must be Michaelson."
Loika muttered an expletive. "That man is the devil. We'll have to
choose a new destination."
"Perhaps we could try one of the French possessions. They still owe us
gratitude for our sacrifices at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes," came a
voice from behind them.
Loika turned to see that Karlov had entered the control car unnoticed. He
frowned for a moment, then studied the chart. "That might just work," he
concluded. "If we stretch our supplies, we should be able to reach New
Caledonia. We can decide on a port of call along the way."
Next week: Truk Parking Only...
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