The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 582: The Final Confrontation(s)

A cataclysmic explosion

"They're here," Natasha yelled.

The Warfields' guards turned to see the source of the shout, spotted the party, and raised their carbines "Halt!" ordered the leader. "Don't move or we'll open fire!"

Everett glanced back toward the tunnel, but it offered no chance of escape. The guards could strike them down well before they reached the first bend. Michaelson must have reached the same conclusion, for he signaled his companions to surrender.

"It appears that our situation has changed," he observed calmly. "We will deal with this as befits our station."

The guards, seemed to share this sentiment. They were almost diffident as they collected the party's weapons. Everett expected them to offer him a receipt. Then, reminding them to watch their step, they marched their captives into the chamber.

Like the tunnels, this must have been the result of volcanism -- some intrusion of lava, perhaps, that had drained to leave behind a roughly elliptical cavern, forty yards long and a dozen or so wide. Some cataclysm had riven floor of the chamber, opening a chasm across the middle. Light glowed faintly from below, as if this reached down to some distant reservoir of molten rock. Everett felt an obscure impulse to find a ring and toss it into the abyss.

Cryptic pieces of equipment were ranged along the walls. The ones at their end had the hand-made look of some experimental apparatus. The ones at the far end, on the other side of the steel bridging someone had laid across the chasm, were quite clearly part of some industrial process. A conveyor belt carried pieces of the by-now-familiar uraninite ore to a smelter. From there, ingots were fed to a small processing plant. Pipes led from this to a storage tank, and thence to a centrifuge mounted beneath what Everett guessed was Karlov's so-called `deBroglie Filter'. The Warfields and and Karlov stood beside it, attended by Bludge.

"What have we here?" Baron Warfield asked the butler.

"Everett, Michaelson, and three of their companions," said Bludge.

Three? thought Everett. He looked around and saw that Natasha had vanished. Why had she betrayed them? And how had she managed without anyone noticing?

"I didn't expect to see you here," the Baron told them. "What brings you to our humble secret lair? This does not seem to have worked out to your advantage."

Michaelson made a dismissive gesture, as if their captivity was a matter of small import. "That does not change our negotiating position," he replied "We represent the Chancellor's faction. Mister Churchill wishes to see the uraninite refiner destroyed as threat to world peace."

Baron Warfield seemed amused. "It seems that your Admiralty is a house divided," he observed. "The First Lord made us a very substantial offer. One imagines he intends to use them as a lever, to ensure the Conservatives remain in power in the next general election. Our friend Karlov has built two of the machines. We plan to sell the production model to Viscount Bridgeman's faction and keep the original for ourselves." He gestured to the laboratory equipment on other side of chasm. Operating lights blinked as if in response.

"Whatever for?" asked Michaelson "Surely you don't plan to build one of the Ujelang weapons for yourselves."

"Of course not," chuckled the Baron. "But this `deBroglie Filter' can influence the laws of chance. You must understand its attraction to a gambler -- particularly one who just realized a very substantial profit from an armaments sale."

The Commodore frowned and turned to Karlov. "What is your stake in this?" he demanded. "How do you benefit from this game?"

The Russian shook his head, much as Natasha had done earlier. "You would not understand," he said sadly. "You lack the necessary knowledge. How did you locate the entrance to the tunnel? Your chance of finding the Geometric Ambiguity was less than one in 15 billion."

"I found it for them," came a voice from the across the chasm. They looked to see Natasha standing next to the other machine. One hand rested on its controls. Karlov turned to face her, as if he'd been waiting for this confrontation.

"To what end?" he demanded.

"This," she replied, opening her other hand to reveal the artifact Clarice had found. "I can use it to direct this filter against the ore buried in the rock beneath us."

"That would destroy the entire island, and us with it!" cried Karlov.

"It's a small price to pay to save this branch from the curse that afflicted ours!"

Branch? Curse? Whatever are they talking about? wondered Everett. Baron Warfield, more practical, gestured to his butler. "Bludge," he said, "secure the lady before she can cause any harm."

Everett watched, helpless to intervene, as Bludge strode to the bridge. The butler would have no problem taking Natasha prisoner. Then, to everyone's surprise, Bludge reached down, lifted the span, and tossed it into the abyss.

"I'm sorry, Milord," he said regretfully. "I spoke with Miss Natasha some time ago and she convinced me that this would be best for you and the Baroness."

"What?" sputtered the Baron, but Karlov had already reached for the controls at his side. "I can still stop her," said the Russian. "I can use the influence from this machine to neutralize hers."

"Is there anything we can do to assist you?" asked Jenkins.

Karlov turned to face them. A trace of what might have been nobility flickered across his features. "No," he replied. "You should flee the island, now, in case I fail."

Everett found himself leading the way back to the surface. The guards had already fled, Bludge was assisting his masters, and he was the one with the map of all the passageways. Behind came the howl of some contest between Natasha and Karlov's machines. The walls of the tunnels shook in response.

A particularly violent jolt knocked them all from their feet. Everett looked back to see a great slab of rock fall from the ceiling. Bludge stepped forward to catch it on his shoulders, then sank to one knee, like Atlas bearing the weight of the world, as Lord and Lady Warfield escaped from beneath it.

"Very good, Milord, Milady," he told them. "Now if you'll be on your way, it was my privilege to be of service."

Everett glanced at Jenkins, Iverson, Michaelson, and the Baron. "It is not the custom of the Royal Naval Airship Service to leave a companion behind," he observed. "Gentlemen, if you would assist me."

The five men managed to support the slab until Bludge could crawl, then the party resumed their flight. The rest of the passage was comparatively ventful, and soon Jenkins was signaling the Flying Cloud to retrieve them. "Set a course crosswind, bearing 230, at flank speed.," Everett ordered after they were aboard. "Tell Iwamoto we'll want all the speed he can give us."

Karlov wrestled with the equations, struggling to terminate expressions, reduce diagonal terms, and eliminate possible outcomes as he worked the controls of the deBroglie Filter. At the other end of the chamber, Natasha was doing the same. From time to time, the rock beneath them shook as as an influence field washed over some vein of ore to send it critical. These shocks were growing ever more frequent.

"Why are you doing this, Natasha?" he shouted during a lull. "If you succeed, we'll both be destroyed!"

"It's a small price to pay to save this branch universe from the war you'd make possible!" she yelled back. "Why were you giving these people the same weapons that threaten ours?"

"There was no way to stop them!" he replied. "The Russians had already discovered the secret of nuclear fission. I worked hard to ensure this would go to England: the one nation I trusted to use it responsibly! What about you? The explosion you're about to cause will blanket the atmosphere with a pall of dust, doing almost as much damage as that war would!"

"'Almost' is a treacherous word, Karlov!" she yelled. "We use it to excuse so many things! But in a few more minutes, it won't matter."

Karlov glanced at his instruments. Natasha spoke the truth. He'd lost this contest, and the probability that the millions of tonnes of ore beneath their feet would fission spontaneously was approaching unity. It would be an unimaginable cataclysm. Unless...

"There might be another way!" he told her.

"How?" she cried.

"If we work together, we might be able to divert most the explosion to other branches, leaving only a small part of it here."

"What will happen to us?" she asked.

"What did you say about a price?"

She made no reply, but from his instruments, he could see that she was already making the necessary adjustments to her controls. He followed her lead. Around them, the tremors grew stronger.

"Karlov," she said, "I wish it hadn't had to be this way."

"I know, Natasha," he replied. "I know!"

They'd gathered on the bridge to gaze back at the island. Thirty miles distant, it was little more than a shadow against the evening sky. There was no sign of the fury that might rage beneath it.

"Do you think we've opened enough distance to be safe ?" wondered MacKiernan.

"I believe so," Everett assured him. "The destructive radius of the explosion on Ujelang cannot have been more than a mile or so. We're many times farther away."

Light flared behind them, brighter than the sun, along with a great wash of heat. A fireball thousands of times greater than the one at Ujelang loomed to consume the island in a cataclysm of flame. The shock wave raced across the water, turning it to foam. Michaelson studied this with interest,

"It would appear that wasn't far enough," he remarked dryly.

"Quite," said Lady Warfield. "How long do you think we have?"

"Perhaps a minute," said Everett. "Thirty miles at the speed of sound..."

The Baroness nodded and took her husband's hand. At the ballast board, Iverson and Sarah had done the same.

"Roland," Clarice said from beside him. "I wish...."

"I know, Clarice," he replied gently. "I know."

The scene seemed to flicker, like a badly spliced motion picture. As they watched, it seemed to fade and be replaced by another. Then the fireball was gone and a waxing moon shone down upon the untroubled waves.

For a moment, not one spoke. Then Everett said only word that could be said.


Next week: Reconciliation...

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