The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 501: He Seemed Trustworthy At The Time

Karlov on Oa Ki?

Vlad checked the pressure, opened the hydrogen valve, and touched a match to the burner -- it seemed that samovars at a Russian air station operated on different principles from the usual ones. Once this was alight, he turned to his guests. "Would you care for some tea?" he asked MacKiernan.

The Irishman nodded. "Thank you, I believe I will."

While his host prepared the infusion, MacKiernan regarded the view from the porch. To the south, the waters of Aneityum's harbor glimmered in the sun. Beyond this, Inyeug Island was a brief line of palm trees and sand. Closer at hand, the R-86 rode a mooring mast that seemed entirely too large for her. MacKiernan had hesitated before bringing the vessel in for supplies, since they had no guarantee the Russians would remain friendly, but it was a maxim in the Royal Navy Airship Service that you could never resupply too often with a Wolseley, particularly this one.

Vlad caught his eye. "You have questions," he announced. "We must have some guarantee of your intentions before we answer them."

McKiernan took the man's measure and decided it would be best to be as truthful as possible. The Russian had considerable presence -- more than one might have expected from a simple academic. He wondered what course their host might have taken if he'd become leader of his nation rather than Trotsky.

"I will tell you what we know as a demonstration of good faith," he replied. "We've investigated two of your former laboratories -- the one in the Dutch East Indies and the one in Northern Australia. Our findings suggested that the first was where you refined uraninite ore to produce some crucial ingredient for the Ujelang Device and the second was where you built the Device itself. We know what this looked like, for we saw the original at Ujelang and we recovered the non-functioning replica from Rabaul harbor, but we have no idea what physical principles it involved. We also have no idea how uraninite is refined to increase its potency, though we've hypothesized this involves something known as `itosopes'.

"That would be `isotopes'," Miss Perkins corrected.

"Oh. Yes. Right."

"So now your Admiralty seeks to reconstruct the weapon for its own use," said Vlad.

"I cannot speak for their ultimate intentions," MacKiernan admitted, "but our immediate goal is to prevent the German and Japanese nationalists from acquiring it. That's why we've come to you for help."

Vlad glanced at Anna. She'd installed herself on a settee as if it was a throne and was watching the proceedings in much the same way an empress might watch a debate between her ministers. "I am inclined to trust them, to the extent that our interests coincide," he told her.

The woman thought this over. "It can do no harm to tell you something of our history," she decided. "We are Russian loyalists, dedicated to removing Trotsky's government and replacing it with a legitimate constitutional monarchy. Most of us are exiles, driven from our country in the wake of the Revolution. I escaped via Finland after the rest of my family..." She paused, as if remembering things she'd rather forget.

Miss Perkins must have judged this a good moment to intervene. "How did you end up in the Pacific?" she asked gently.

Anna smiled, as if she recognized the offer of sympathy. "It was the obvious choice after we'd determined that the courts of Europe were unwilling to aid our cause," she said. "The Americas would have meant permanent exile, and Africa was never a realistic possibility. This region might once have been isolated from the rest of the world, but that has changed with the advent of modern airships."

"I take it that your scientists are also exiles," said Miss Perkins.

"You are correct," said Anna. "Some fled during the Revolution. Others found ways to escape after they discovered that survival under the new regime depended on politics rather than achievement. It took us some time to recognize the potential of their knowledge."

"Who pointed this out?" asked Miss Perkins. "Was it Karlov?"

Anna shook her head. "As I recall, he arrived later, when our chemists were trying to understand something called a 'neutron cross section'. I have no idea who these `neutrons' were or why this religious order of theirs was so important, but he helped find the answer."

"Where did get his education?"

"We have wondered that ourselves," said Vlad. "He claimed he'd been a junior professor at the University of Odessa. After he vanished, I contacted our sources in Russia to determine if this was true, but it seems the relevant records were lost in 1917. It's clear that he had an academic background, for he showed considerable understanding of science. He was part of the team that identified uraninite as a source material, he helped develop the refiner, and I understand that he also contributed to the design of the Device itself."

"He sounds unusually knowledgeable for someone so young," MacKiernan remarked.

Vlad nodded. "Professor Fedorovich used to marvel at this. He said it was almost as if the man already knew what they were trying to achieve."

"How and when did he vanish?"

"He disappeared on a prospecting expedition in Australia, just before the Germans attacked our laboratories. For a time we thought he might have been the one who revealed their location, but we've since identified a man named Yakov as the traitor."

"Have you had any contact with Karlov after the attack?"

"No, but our people have sighted him since then, often before some item has gone missing or been revealed. This suggests that he's pursuing some agenda of his own. I wonder if this might have begun even before he joined us."

MacKiernan considered this information. As a navigator, something about it had been bothering him. "You say that he worked on the refiner and also on the Device," he observed. "These were at two different laboratories on opposite sides of the Timor Sea. How did he travel between them?"

The Russians glanced at each other. It seemed this question had never occurred to them. "I don't know," Vlad admitted. "He must have found someone to provide passage."

MacKiernan nodded. "I believe I know who this might have been. We'll wish to speak with the fellow."

Next week: He Also Left Some Tracks Behind...

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