Episode 455: Surely You Don't Suggest It Was Our Fault
Everett glanced at the altimeter, then down at the island that was receding
below and in front of them. They'd taken station above it to recover the
ground party. Now, by keeping the same power settings, they could drop
downwind as they climbed -- an unnecessary bit of flamboyance, perhaps, but
that sort of thing came with being an airman. "Take her up to 3000', then
give me a turn left to 95, and ring for three-quarter power on all three
engines," he ordered after he was satisfied with the evolution.
"Climb to 3000." "Left to 95 and three-quarters on Engines One, Two, and
Three," came the acknowledgments from elevator and helm.
"What are our intentions?" MacKiernan asked as the drone of the engines
"We'll set a course for the Cape York Peninsula, pick up the coast near the
Edwards River, and turn south to find the place where we left Aunt
Prodigia," said Everett. "This may dip into our supply of consumables, but
her message did suggest some urgency."
"What do you think it's about?" asked the Irishman.
"I couldn't say, which suggests there's also no way a potential adversary
could either unless they were directly involved. Perhaps that's why her
message was so terse."
"Should we request a clarification?"
Everett shook his head. "Without a prearranged cipher, we have no way to
keep our communications secure. We should arrive by tomorrow morning. We
shall trust that will be soon enough. In the meantime let's see what Jenkins
has found in the material we brought back from Oa Ki. Mister Iverson, you
have the conn."
Jenkins had spread the ledgers across one of the tables in the mess hall --
the only place aboard ship large enough for this purpose. Now he was
studying the text and making tally marks next to a list of Cyrillic
characters. He sat back and rubbed his eyes as they entered, as if
grateful for the interruption.
"What have you learned so far?" Everett asked him.
The signalman tapped one of volumes. "These appear to be a set of accounts,
accompanied by notes, in a single substitution cipher," he replied.
"The material includes a large number of abbreviations and technical terms,
which complicates matters, but I imagine I should have some idea of its
substance by tomorrow."
"Why would they take the trouble to encode a set of accounts?" wondered
"One imagines it must have something to do with the secret of their refining
process," Jenkins speculated. "Perhaps it mentions specialized chemicals or
provides clues regarding the order in which they're used."
Everett nodded thoughtfully. "I suppose this is possible. Carry on, and
let us know if you come across anything of interest."
They raised Cape York the next morning, just north of the same
unremarkable settlement they'd used as a waypoint five days earlier.
Neither the village, the shore on which it lay, or the muddy creek
that flowed beside it had grown significantly more noteworthy during their
absence. Everett gave the place a disinterested inspection through
binoculars, then glanced back toward the radio shack.
"Have we received any new word from the Stalking Herring?" he
"I'm afraid not, sir," said the signalman. "The ether has been silent
Everett nodded and turned to Murdock, who was serving a stint at the helm
to develop a feel for their vessel. "I suppose we'd better see what they've
been up to," he remarked. "Mister Murdock, give me a turn right to 190."
"Right to 190."
The lieutenant eased the helm over and the horizon swung until the airship
was heading south. For the next several minutes, there was little to see
except mud, mangroves, and sand as the coastline swept past below them.
At last the tug came into sight. She looked the same as before -- a
bluff working boat, with no more concession to elegance than her owner --
but her surroundings had undergone a transformation.
"I say, wasn't there a freighter here last time we visited?"
"So there was," mused Everett. "I wonder where it could have gotten off to."
"Perhaps they towed it away," Murdock suggested.
Everett repressed the urge to shake his head. He remembered what it had
been like to be lieutenant. "That doesn't explain why the tug is still
here," he said gently.
"Oh yes. Right."
"Could they have repaired the machinery and moved the vessel under
own her power?" asked Sarah.
"Given the condition the engineering plant was in, that doesn't seem very
likely, even if our friends Miss Wilcox and Miss Blaine were involved,"
said Everett. "I suppose we'll have to send someone down to speak with
After some thought, Everett decided to limit the landing party to himself
and Jenkins -- there seemed no need to risk anyone else on such a daunting
mission. The tug was too cluttered with rigging and equipment for safe
hoist operations, so they deployed to a raft her crew had launched
alongside as part of the salvage operation. The tug's master was waiting
with a scowl on her face and her hands planted firmly on her very
"Good day, Aunt Prodigia," said Everett, feeling it best to address their
hostess by her title. "We came as quickly as we could. What seems to be
The matron gestured toward the empty shoreline as if to suggest that any
idiot should be able to see what was wrong. "Some wankers made off with my
freighter and kidnapped my nieces!" she growled.
If an airship captain says something in the forest and there's no aunt
to hear him, is it still his fault? Everett wondered, but it seemed
best to keep this thought to himself. "Did you have a chance to identify
the perpetrators?" he asked politely.
"No, but it was piracy on the high seas! You chappies in the Royal Navy
are supposed to put a stop that sort of thing!"
Everett felt it best not to point out that the freighter had been aground,
which was neither 'high' nor `at sea'. This seemed unlikely to facilitate
conversation. "When did the... theft... occur?"
"Two nights ago. We stood offshore to ride out some weather and when we
got back in the morning, the freighter was gone."
Everett did a quick mental calculation. "Whoever they were, they can't be
making more than 1-3 knots with a vessel in tow, so they must still be
somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria. I propose we spilt up to look for
them. Since we have the faster vessel, we'll take the southern Gulf and
the coast of Arnhem Land, while you search north along the Cape York
Aunt Prodigia's grin might have been drawn straight from some
illustration by Howard Pyle -- one of the ones involving buccaneers.
"Aye!" she announced gleefully. "Let's go pinch those
Next week: You Go Right, We'll Go Left...
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