Episode 456: You Go Right, We'll Go Left
By now, the crew of His Majesty's Airship, the Flying Cloud had
crossed and recrossed the Gulf of Carpentaria so often it had begun to seem
familiar. Everett gazed north, where the strait between Groote Island and
Arnhem Land was coming into view, and suppressed a frown. How many more of
these visits would they have to make, he wondered? It seemed an extravagant
use of the Crown's resources. Their airship probably cost more than all the
communities on this coast combined.
It also cost considerably more than the Viking Queen. What could
have motivated someone to steal an almost worthless freighter? The vessel
had little in the way of fittings and equipment, there was certainly no
treasure aboard, and by now her machinery would be a mass of rust. Her only
possible value was as scrap. Could Aunt Prodigia have some enemy who'd done
this to annoy her? Given the matron's remarkable personality, the hypothesis
didn't seem entirely implausible. Everett shook his head at this
uncharitable thought and opened the logbook to make an entry.
November 1, 1927, 1500 hours, 20 miles south of Groote Island. We are
making our way along the southern and western coasts of the Gulf of
Carpentaria in search of the pirated Viking Queen, with particular
attention to any havens where they might have taken refuge. The
identity and motivation of the supposed pirates remains to be
determined, as does the situation of the two civilians we believe may be
As the captain was setting down his pen, Jenkins appeared with a folder of
notes. "I take it there's been no sign of the missing freighter," said
"No, but they can hardly elude us forever," Everett replied confidently.
"The Gulf of Carpentaria is only so large, and it has a limited number of
"That may be so, but I cannot help but feel some concern for the two
"As do I," Everett admitted. "Still, they've proved themselves resourceful
in the past and their aunt can be trusted to exact terrible vengeance upon
anyone who dares to annoy them. I wonder why anyone would bother to steal
the freighter in the first place."
"Perhaps, they were after the cargo rather than the vessel," Jenkins
speculated. "I believe there was still some uraninite left in the holds."
Everett thought back on their visits to the freighter. "The amount was
rather small -- no more than a hundred tons or so."
"We have no idea how much might be needed to reproduce the Ujelang Device,"
Jenkins observed. "Judging from the replica we salvaged from the Rabaul
harbor, the core might not have contained more than a hundred pounds of
"That is true," mused Everett. "This raises the question of who might need
the ore. It wouldn't be the Germans, since they'd have taken all they
required when they plundered the vessel last year. The most likely
candidates would seem to be the Japanese. There's also the question of how
the White Russians extracted the destructive principle. Have you finished
deciphering the ledgers we recovered from their facility on Oa Ki?"
The signalman nodded. "As we suspected, they contain lists of production
and consumption figures for the refining process. This seemed to involve
three distinct steps. The first was a conventional crushing and milling
operation to separate the ore from the surrounding matrix. The second step
used some combination nitric acid, ammonium, and hydrofluoric acid to
remove an element they referred to as `U' and incorporate this
into some compound they designated as `UF6'."
"One wonders if this might have involved fluorine," mused Everett,
recalling the tanks they'd discovered next to the laboratory.
"One also wonders how they survived," Jenkins observed. "The relevant
chemistry seems rather daunting."
Everett nodded. His own encounters with nitric acid products had not been
an unmitigated source of joy. "What about the third step?" he asked.
Jenkins spread some sheets of plain text across the chart table. "That
remains a enigma, which contains within it a mystery," he observed. "The
Russians seem to have started their production line in the spring of 1924.
The ledgers offer no clues regarding its nature, but that summer they noted
here..." the signalman indicated the relevant entry "...
`Yield from a single stage is disappointing. Try connecting stages in
tandem'. A few months later, this was followed by a note,
`Purity still less than 2%. Not sufficient. Semyonov believes 80%
necessary for our purposes'. Then, in April 1925, they note
`Using K's machine increases yield by factor of several thousand'."
"This would be our friend Karlov," said Everett.
"It's difficult to imagine who else it could have been," said Jenkins. "Do
you think he's somehow involved with the missing Professor Koshino?"
Everett contemplated the coincidences that had plagued their search for the
American chemist and nodded. "I believe we can recognize his hand in this."
They reached the northern tip of Arnhem at sunset and spent the night
maintaining station off Wigram Island. Morning brought a debate regarding
strategy -- with fuel and ballast running low, they weren't in a position to
search both the northern reaches of the Gulf and the passage to the Arafura
Sea. After some thought, Everett decided on the former. Surely a vessel
burdened by a tow couldn't have reached the latter.
A few hours later, his decision was rewarded as Davies's voice crackled
over the intercom.
"Upper Lookout to Bridge. We have what appears to be three small boats
ahead, bearing 80, range 15."
Everett raised his binoculars. Far to the east, a dark line on the horizon
marked Prince of Wales Island and the entrance to the Torres Strait. A few
miles ahead, he spotted several dots. As the airship drew closer, he saw
that these were three lifeboats surrounded by what appeared to be floating
debris. Two had the words Number 151, Maizura stenciled on their
prows. The third, of a different design, bore the name
Viking Girl, Nuku'alofa.
"That does not look very promising," Jenkins remarked.
"No, it does not," said Everett. "It would appear that our pirates and
their prize crew both came to grief. At least they had time to take to
their boats. We will trust that the two ladies are aboard."
Jenkins turned to comply, then paused as something caught his eye. He
pointed to starboard, where a small steamship with two funnels was
approaching from the south. "It appears we aren't the only ones who've
spotted the fellows," he observed. "That looks like the
"So it does," said Everett. "Tell Iwamoto to prepare the launch for
deployment. We'd better go down and rescue them."
Next week: Who Else Indeed?...
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