The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 567: Old Friends

Approach to Sarah's island

Michaelson stood at the starboard window, gazing out across the Coral Sea. To his left, almost hidden behind the control car, the sun was sinking behind the foothills of the Dividing Range. To his right, far beyond the horizon, lay a rendezvous he'd hoped to avoid. He sighed inwardly, wondering how he could ever have hoped otherwise.

"Leveling off at 2500'," the elevatorman announced behind him.

Captain Harris acknowledged the man's report, then turned to his superior. "We've finished our climb to altitude, sir," he told Michaelson. "What are your instructions?"

"Set a course for Noumea," said Michaelson. "Speed is not an issue, but we will want to arrive there in the morning, so we can make a very public display of replenishing our consumables. I will want our presence in New Caledonia to be known."

One did not rise to a position of authority under Michaelson's command without learning to anticipate instructions of this sort. "At three quarter power, I can have us there the morning of the 26th," Harris replied. He hesitated, as if nerving himself to ask where they might be heading after that, then added. "Am I correct in assuming there will not be an opportunity for shore leave?"

Well played, Michaelson thought. Such ingenuity deserved a reward. "You are correct," he replied. "I anticipate lifting ship the next day... for a short flight to a destination to the south."

Harris nodded. "Understood, sir."

They remained in Noumea long enough for the watcher Michaelson knew must be there to send word of their presence to the Warfields, then lifted ship for Sarah's island. Morning found them heading south at the R-87's regular cruising speed, as the wireless operator bent over his equipment.

"I'm detecting the signal Captain Everett reported, sir," he announced, "a string of regular pulses at constant frequency."

"That will be the wireless detection and ranging apparatus the Baron and his lady inherited from the Japanese," Michaelson remarked. "They will know we are coming, and we`ve made certain they will know who we are."

Captain Harris did not seem entirely at ease with this observation. "What manner of reception may we anticipate?" he asked.

"I very much doubt it will be hostile," Michaelson replied. "A Wollesely class is hardly large enough to offer a threat. That is one of the reasons I chose this vessel. They will guess that we've come to parley, and wonder what we have to say."

By now the island was coming into sight. On this side of the ridge that divided in two, the hills dropped dropped away fertile belt of jungle that ran along the coast. Immediately ahead, on the shore of a small lagoon, this had been cleared for cultivation and to make room for an air station,

The station had grown substantially since Everett and his crew had seen it two years before. It now sported fuel and hydrogen facilities, warehouses, machine shops, and an airship shed, and two modern masts. These was defended by a ring of gun emplacements. An airship rode from one of the latter -- Michaelson recognized the former Philadelphian, now the Coup de Grace. Immediately to the east, the Governors mansion rose above a village that had once house the islanders but now served as a prison for convict laborers.

Beside him, Harris gestured at the station. "Those British Union fellows seem to be have prospered," he observed. "Where could they have obtained their funds?"

"That is one of the things I mean to ascertain," said Michaelson. "Signal our intention to moor and call for a handling party."

The handlers were not not notably efficient -- convict labor rarely was -- but a Wollesley did not represent any particular challenge, and soon R-87 on mast next to its near-sister -- an irony that did not give Michaelson any joy. Leaving Harris and the others on board, the Commodore descended the lift to find a familiar figure waited at the base of the mast. Dressed as a butler, built along the lines of a piece of construction equipment, he seemed every bit as incongruous here as he had back in England.

The man nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Sir Lawrence."

"Bludge," Michaelson replied. "I trust the Baron and Baroness are at home."

"Indeed," said the butler. "They have invited you to attend them in the Red Parlor."

The parlor was in a portion of the mansion the Governor had offered the Warfields for their own use. Someone -- almost certain the Baron -- had refurnished it with hinting scenes and trophies that seemed more appropriate for a shooting lodge in the North Country than the South Pacific. The Warfields seemed entirely at home in a room devoid of any suggestions of mercy. Beside them, the Governor seemed to have lapsed into some subordinate roll.

The Baron was much as Michaelson remembered him -- not a man in which one would ever wish to turn one's back. Beside him, the Baroness was toying with a knife. The Baron on signaled for drinks, then offered his guest a toast.

"I understand you are a Commodore now." he said. "I congratulate you on your promotion."

Michaelson nodded to the couple. "Allow me to offer the two of you my belated congratulations as well. I fear that I've been remiss."

"I understand your situation," the Baron replied. "What brings you to visit this rustic locale?"

Michaelson knew from experience that it was useless to fence with the Baron. Subtlety was wasted on him in much the same way it might be wasted on a shark. "I wish to ask some questions your enterprise here."

The Baron took a sip of his brandy, then held his glass up to the light. "You have no authority to demand an answer," he observed. "Even if this was Crown territory, you represent the Admiralty and we are civilians."

"This is true," Michaelson admitted, "but if your associates are in Service, they could be compelled to speak."

Beside the Baron. Lady Warfield set down her knife. "How fortunate for us that you don't know who they are," she said sweetly.

A blunter approach seemed indicated. "The Ujelang Weapon has attracted notice from people who might not feel restrained by ordinary conventions," Michaelson told them. "They wonder what you propose to do with it. I may be in a position to reassure them."

The Baron might not even have noticed the threat. "Its disposition will pose no concern to the Crown," he replied dismissively. "We intend to sell it to a party in the government to raise capital for another venture."

"What is the nature of this venture?" Michaelson asked suspiciously.

In response, the Baron opened a cabinet reveal an irregular stone tablet marked with cryptic geometric constructions -- Michaelson recognized the so-called Nui Mana that Karlov has stolen from under his people's noses the year before -- fitted to some form of electronic apparatus. The Baron switched this on, then fished in his pockets while he waited for the tubes to warm up.

"If you would do the honors," he said, handing Michaelson a shilling.

Michaelson flipped the coin and noted that it came down heads.

The Baron smiled. "If you would repeat the venture."

A succession of trials produced sixteen heads and one tail. It took little imagination to grasp the implications. "You suggest you've discovered a way to alter the laws of chance," Michaelson observed.

The Baron's expression might have been a study for a work titled `Greed'. "Quite, " he replied. "This forms the basis of the refiner Karlov uses to extract the destructive principle from an inert mass of uraninite ore. It is less than perfect, as you have seen, and its range is limited, but you can appreciate its value to anyone of our tastes."

Michaelson nodded. The Warfields both had some reputation as gamblers, and would surely leap at what seemed like an opportunity to secure an advantage at the tables. He had no idea how Karlov had practiced this sleight upon his hosts -- perhaps the coin was magnetized -- but this hardly mattered. It seemed they were pawns as well the Jaopanese and Germans.

"Would it be possible for me to speak with Karlov, to inquire regarding his place in this?" he ventured.

Lord Warfield made a dismissive gesture. "I'm afraid the man is busy, as are we. If you will excuse us, Bludge will escort you back to your vessel."

Lady Warfield lingered as her husband and the Governor departed, then walked over to sit next to Michaelson. "Did you learn what you came to discover, Lawrence?" she asked softly.

He met her gaze. "Not everything, Tenara," he replied.

She touched his cheek. "Don't blame Roland for everything. It could hardly have been prevented. And surely it's better this way."

The years had given Michaelson long practice at hiding his feelings. "Perhaps it is," he told her. "You and Sir Payton seem well-suited to each other. But I sense that our story may not be over, for better or ill."

Next week: Knight Threatens Castle...

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