R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 22: Darwin, Australia

Airship being 'walked' to a mooring in Darwin

"There it is!" announced MacKiernan with a grand sweep of his arm. "Darwin!"

Sarah stood on tiptoes to peer over the Exec's shoulder. "Where is it?" she asked. "Somewhere beyond that small coastal village?"

MacKiernan's shoulders seemed to sag. "I'm afraid that `small coastal village' is Darwin."

"It doesn't look like much," said the girl.

"Appearances could be deceiving," observed Captain Everett. "Captain Michaelson may have sent us here hoping we'd discredit ourselves with undistinguished service in some backwater, but I suspect there's more afoot in this part of the world than he realizes."

"You think we might find some clues as to who attacked that freighter we found?" asked Iverson.

"It's possible. We might even find some clues as to who attacked us."

The lieutenant wondered at this. The identity of the mysterious cruiser that had destroyed their previous vessel remained a mystery, but the thing had been a monster, the size of a major naval unit. It was difficult to imagine what connection it could have with such an isolated place.

"Have you been able to raise the port on wireless?" Everett asked Jenkins.

"Not yet," said the signalman.

"Do they have a wireless?" asked MacKiernan. "For that matter, do they even have electricity?"

"I believe they've mastered the use of fire, sir," said Jenkins. "The Almanac is quite clear about that. And they must have some knowledge of electricity, for this is an important station on the Overland Telegraph Line. But there may be some question about the quality of their equipment."

"I hope their isn't any question about the quality of their hydrogen," Everett said dryly. "Our reserves are somewhat low. MacKiernan, can you spot the air station?"

The Irishman lowered his binoculars. "I believe I can make out a mooring mast. That must be the field, for I doubt that a settlement of this... magnitude... could have more than one."

Everett ordered the Flying Cloud to make a circuit of the town so they could examine the place from the air. Darwin occupied a low bluff on the eastern shore of a broad deepwater harbor. Several old houses, built in the English fashion, formed the core of the town. The rest of the settlement had that raw unfinished look common to frontier towns the world over. The harbor held a collection of small craft, fishing boats, and a few nondescript island freighters. Three small naval vessels -- two torpedo boats and an obsolete destroyer -- were moored near the harbor mouth. The crew of one were on deck chipping rust. They looked up and waved as the airship passed overhead.

The air station lay northeast of town, on the other side of a dirt road and narrow-gauge rail line leading inland. A locomotive was chugging past, pulling a load of flatcars toward the wasteland to the south. Everett was astonished to see a handling party waiting on the field. How, he wondered, had these people managed to assemble one on such short notice when they could have had no idea the ship was coming? But he knew better than to trust the level of training at such a remote station.

"Abercrombie," he called over the intercom. "You will descend by Transporter to take charge of the ground crew. Send a message by blinker when you're ready."

Mooring took some time. Darwin was too small to rate automated equipment such as that at the big Royal Air Station at Cairns, so the ship had to drop handling lines and be `walked' to the mast using brute force and manpower.

"Well," Everett observed an hour later, when the evolution was finally complete, "I'm sure our hosts found that instructive. Jenkins, Miss Sarah, we will pay them a visit. MacKiernan, you're in charge here."

The elevator was a work of considerable antiquity: an ancient hoist, salvaged from some mine, and fitted to the mooring mast by an engineer of questionable skills. Everett and Jenkins endured the descent with their usual stoicism. The men's uniforms were immaculate -- Jenkins would have considered it a grievous fault if matters were otherwise -- but Sarah's was striking. Royal Navy regulations offered a certain latitude in the dress of female auxiliaries, and the island girl had taken full advantage of this. Her skirt and tunic clung to her figure in a way that would have been certain to raise eyebrows even if that figure had not been so spectacular. Her hair shone like silk in the tropical sun, and the bright red pencil she'd stuck behind one ear (Royal Navy General Stationary Supplies, Issue R-2) somehow managed to suggest a hibiscus flower.

Abercrombie was waiting at the foot of the mast, accompanied by a man in reserve officer's dress. When the rigger saw Sarah, his dour Scottish expression transformed into something that almost resembled a smile. The officer did a double-take, then collected himself as best he could.

"G'day!" he said. "I'm Lieutenant Dabney, Commonwealth Navy Reserve, commander of this station, such as it is."

Everett nodded. "I am Captain Everett. These are my signalman, Jenkins, my ballast master, Miss Sarah, and I believe you've already met my Chief Rigger, Abercrombie."

"Welcome t' Darwin," said Dabney. "Sorry 'bout that lot, but it was the best we could manage." He gestured toward the handling party, which was being herded off the field,

Everett studied the departing crew: Chinese laborers, Russian émigrés, and a smattering of hard-cases from who knew where, trudging through the dust like men on their way to prison. The overseers didn't brandish whips; they carried something worse: small notebooks in which they jotted down names. Everett did not imagine that a happy fate awaited those who'd caught their attention.

"Are those your men?" he asked casually.

Dabney shook his head. "No, they belong to His Nibs."

"The Administrator?" asked Everett, surprised that a high-ranking officer of the Australian government would be involved with something as sordid as a labor gang.

"No," said the lieutenant, glancing around to make sure no one overheard. "They split the Territory into two districts after Urquhart retired, and George Channel set himself up as head whalloper during the confusion. He's... strict with immigrant workers." The lieutenant's voice left many things unsaid.

"Whalloper?" Everett whispered to Jenkins.

"I believe this means `policeman' in the local dialect," the signalman whispered back.

Everett thought this over. It appeared that local politics were more complicated than they'd been given to understand in Cairns. They'd want to tread carefully while they determined which way the wind was blowing. "I intend to call on the Territorial officials at their convenience," he said politely, "but first I'd like to see to our hydrogen supplies. We had to dip into our reserves during a storm."

The lieutenant's face fell. "I'm afraid I may have some bad news."

Next week: Delayed in Darwin...

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