Episode 486: Middle Ground
Clarice and Emily stared at the figure in the doorway. She was the last
person they'd expected to see in the Philippines -- a slender women, in her
late twenties perhaps, with blond hair, Eastern European features, and an
expression that hinted at some irreparable loss.
"Natasha!" cried Emily. "Whatever are you doing aboard this yacht? The
last time we saw you was at the Japanese nationalist's secret air station
in Western Australia."
The woman seemed no less surprised than they were. "Emily Wilcox and
Clarice Blaine!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing aboard?"
"We asked you first."
"But this is my territory."
In for a penny, in for a pound, thought Clarice. It wasn't as if a
lie was more likely to serve than the truth. "We're trying to suss out the
Warfields' bizzo so we can put paid to it," she explained. "It seems
they're trying to nick a cargo of vacuum tubes. We reckon those have
something to do with that crook explosion that destroyed the island of
There was pause while Natasha translated the Australian interpretation of
English into her native language, whatever that might have been. At last
she seemed to reach a decision. "We need to talk," she told them. "Let's
move to my cabin where it's safer."
Natasha's quarters were significantly less intimidating than the master's
stateroom. In place of martial displays and paintings of battle and the
hunt, they was decorated with flowers and scenes of the islands. A set of
the nested wooden matroyshka dolls that had made their debut at the
Paris Exposition stood on a shelf next to the bunk. Natasha ushered them
in, glanced out the porthole to make sure no crewmen were about, then turned
to confront them.
"Tell me," she said curtly, "how did you learn about these vacuum tubes?"
Clarice saw no reason to dissemble. "Aunt Prodgia left us the oil on her
way through Manila. They're aboard a freighter named the
Tranquility, bound for French Indochina. But before we say more,
we need to know if you're working for the Warfields or against them."
Natasha studied her guests through narrowed eyes. If she'd noticed that
they'd only told her things she must already have known or guessed, she
gave no signs. "I'm trying to prevent any of these nationalist groups from
recreating the Ujelang Device," she told them. "The Japanese are the most
immediate danger, since they're on the verge of perfecting a refiner to
concentrate the essential element. I helped the machine's inventor escape
from their secret laboratory in Yunnan, but they still have his notes, so
now I'm trying to stop them from getting the parts they need to complete it."
What's a Yunnan? Clarice wondered. But another issue seemed of
more immediate importance. "That still doesn't explain why you're here on
the Warfield's yacht," she observed.
The woman spread her hands in a gesture of resignation. "I am not in a
position of strength," she told them. "I must use the tools at hand."
"Is that why you betrayed Lieutenant Iverson to the Fat Man's agents on
Kwajelein?" Clarice asked sardonically.
"I didn't betray him," said Natahsa, "I saved his life. They would have
found him without my help, but it was my help that stayed their hand."
Clarice reflected on the account Everett had given her of the affair.
She supposed that their hostess might be telling the truth, but she wasn't
about to lower her guard.
Emily seemed to share her reservations. "Why did you play Fleming and
those American gangsters for nongs?" asked the blond.
This prompted another brief pause for translation. "I was trying to
discover what the White Russians were planning," Natasha replied. "They're
the ones who..." the woman hesitated for a moment, "...first learned the
secret of the Device. But this strays from the matter at hand. You still
haven't explained how two residents of Australia ended up in the
Clarice frowned at what seemed to be a non sequitur, then glanced at Emily,
who shrugged. As briefly as she could, she described their adventures,
beginning with Aunt Prodiga's attempt to salvage the original
Viking Girl, continuing through the attack by Japanese
nationalists' armed tug, their rescue by Fuller, their adventures in Timor,
and their role in the destruction of the British, German, and Japanese
nationalist bases here in Manila.
"How did you find passage from Kupang?" Natasha asked, in what seemed to be
another non sequitur.
"Some fellow told us about a ship that was bound for..."
"Describe this man," interrupted Natasha.
"He was an ordinary-looking bloke, perhaps the same age as you are, with a
moderate build, blond hair, and a slight accent. Now that I think of it,
his accent was a bit like..."
The woman's face fell. "It was Karlov," she whispered
Clarice and Emily both recognized the name. "This is the same Karlov
Captain Everett and Jenkins told us about?" asked Emily.
Natasha didn't seem to hear. "Karlov," she muttered to herself. "You always
seem to be one step ahead of me. What are you up to now?"
Clarice stamped her foot in annoyance. Her tolerance for mysteries was
dwindling fast. "Suppose you tell us what this is all about?" she demanded.
"Who is this Karlov fellow and what's your relationship with the chappie?
According to the Captain, you told Iverson you were either his sister or his
wife, but on Gilolo, he suggested that you were his competitor."
Natasha opened her mouth as if to explain, then shook her head. "It isn't
that simple," she told them. "And there's no way anyone in this branch
could possibly understand. But there's a power no one should be allowed to
master, and one of us is trying to prevent the other from acquiring it."
Clarice and Emily were quick to grasp the implication. "I take it this has
nothing to do with the device that destroyed Ujelang," said Emily.
Once again, Natasha seemed to be struggling to formulate an explanation.
"The Device was just a pretext to develop or find the necessary
instrumentality," she said at last.
Develop or find? wondered Clarice. It was an understatement to say that
their hostess's words raised more questions than they answered. But before
she could ask for clarification, they heard footsteps on the gangway to the
dock. Natasha glanced out the porthole and stiffened in alarm.
"It's Edmunds and Collins," she said. "They must have realized you'd given
them the slip and decided to return to the yacht. Stay here while I try to
find some way to smuggle you past them."
Clarice watched the woman slip out of the cabin, then turned to Emily.
"Do you think we can trust her?" she asked.
"I don't think anyone can trust her," Emily replied. "But she didn't call
out for help when she found us, so I doubt she means to turn us over to
these British Union chappies."
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of crewmen coming on deck
and casting off lines. Steam must not have been allowed to go down, for
soon, machinery began to throb, and the vessel was moving away from the
As they were wondering at this development, Natasha returned to the cabin.
"I was too late," she told them. "By the time I found them, they'd given
the skipper orders to take the yacht to Danang."
"Bonzer!" Clarice and Emily said in unison.
"Da nu?" said Natasha, in what was clearly an expression of
"That's where we want to go," Clarice explained. "This makes it easy."
Their hostess stared at them and shook her head. "You two are
Next week: All Roads Lead To Danang...
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