R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 30: The Darwin Debate

Pierre studying an ore sample

"It all seems to come back to these mysterious black rocks," Everett announced to his crew. "We found some aboard this airship, Helga was carrying some as cargo, and Channel had one sitting on his shelf. Pierre, can you determine anything about them?"

The Frenchman produced a magnifying glass and held each stone up to the light. "I believe they came from different quarries," he said. "This one has a finer grain size. It is a subtle thing, but a dealer in curiosities, such as myself, must be sensitive to such matters."

Everett nodded. Left unstated was the likelihood that most of the curiosities Pierre `dealt in' were ones he'd stolen. "Jenkins," he asked, "you're certain you've identified the ore?"

"A brownish-black mineral, with a brown streak, hardness of 5 on the Mohs scale, and a specific gravity of 9.5," said the signalman. "These are all consistent with uraninite, and there aren't many other possibilities with that high a specific gravity."

"And what is this mineral used for?"

"It is supposed to have some medicinal properties but it's primary use is as ' coloring agent for ceramics or glassware. One form is known as �vaseline glass' because of its fine greenish-yellow tint. This was popularized by a German named Josef Reidel sometime during the last century. I believe he called it `annagrun' after his wife."

"His wife was named Grun?" whispered Loris in astonishment.

"No," snorted Helga, "that means `green'. Wife must be named Anna."

Everett sighed and did his best to ignore this exchange. "This might explain the German connection," he observed, "but is this ore valuable enough to be worth stealing?"

"Hardly," said Jenkins. "Unless someone has found a new use it."

"Was there anything out of the ordinary about these particular samples?"

"Perhaps," mused Jenkins. "Uraninite usually occurs as a pegmatite, but these examples have a botryoidal habit, characteristic of a vein mineral."

"How does he know these things?" Iverson whispered to MacKiernan.

"He's a signalman," the Exec whispered back, "It's part of the job."

Everett turned one of the samples over in his hand for moment, then set it back on the table with a clunk. "I don't believe we'll learn much more from these rocks, so we'll have to investigate their source. Miss Sarah, could the ones we found aboard this vessel have come from your island?"

"I should hope not," the girl replied indignantly. "They were such a dreadful color! I've never seen anything like it. Except for the Stones of Sorrow the Elder Gods used to fashion the Instruments of Joy."

"Stones?" "Gods?" "Instruments?" blurted Iverson, MacKiernan, and Abercrombie simultaneously.

Sarah glanced at their expressions and giggled. "It's just a children's story. Something my grandmother used to tell about magical beings from beyond the stars. It was all very sweet. I don't remember the details, but they mined some special ore to create enchanted musical instruments that had all sorts of powers. There's supposed to be a temple near the site, but the place is tapu, so my people never went there."

"We did find what looked like a temple when we were crossing the island," noted Jenkins.

Everett nodded. "Indeed we did. We shall have to investigate when we have enough hydrogen to make the flight. Abercrombie, has Lieutenant Dabney given us an estimate how much longer it will take them to repair their plant?"

"He's doing the best he can," said the Scotsman, "but Channel controls all the labor parties and hasn't given him the men he needs tae finish the job."

Everett nodded. He'd expected as much. The police chief seemed determined to interfere with their movements in any way he could. "Then it would seem the island is out of reach for now," he observed. "That leaves the cargo of the Viking Girl. Miss Helga, I understand you purchased this here in Darwin."

"Ja, from freight forwarder whose client defaulted on a contract. He say it come from place called Enterprise Creek."

"Defaulted?" said Jenkins. "That sounds somewhat irregular. Do you know what happened?"

"Helga not ask. This none of her business."

"I believe we should make it ours," said Everett. "Mister MacKiernan, have you been able to locate this Enterprise Creek?"

"It's a cattle station a hundred miles to the south," said the exec. "An easy trip if we had enough ballast and hydrogen, but I wouldn't want to risk a flight inland with our supplies so low. And Channel would be sure to notice if we tried."

"There may be an alternative," said Everett. "Airman Fleming, I trust you've smuggled your Lilienthal glider onboard again."

"Uh... err..." said the young Australian.

"Good man! I knew I could count on you! Do you think you could make it that far?"

"On a good day, with strong thermals, yes. But I don't know how I'd get back."

"I have a plan for that," said Everett. "Gentlemen, and ladies, begin preparations for flight. We lift ship tomorrow."

Abercrombie was perched inside the upper vertical stabilizer -- a dark expanse, crisscrossed with girders and wires, that towered into the gloom overhead. The rigger come here to inspect one of the rudder cables. It had seemed slightly loose, which could put it at risk of damage if it came under some unexpected stress. He was trying to juggle a hand lamp, strain gauge, notebook, and pen, when he heard a footstep. He looked up to see Helga.

"Good evenin', lass," he said politely. "And what brings ye here?"

The woman held up a toolbox. "Helga come to check rudder cables," she said cheerfully. "If they loose, they could get damaged if they come under stress."

"Yer just in time. Could you give me a hand with this flashlight?"

"Ja," she said, crouching to take the lamp from his hand. This brought her close -- so close that her hair almost brushed his cheek. Abercrombie did his best to focus on his job and ignore the fact that this was most definitely a woman next to him,

She must have noticed his expression, for she turned, eyebrows raised in a question. "Why you look at Helga like that?" she demanded.

"I... uh... I was just..." he began.

"What you think if Helga look at you like that?" she said indignantly.

"I... err..."

"Ha!" she cried, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him down on top of her. "Let's find out!"

"What's that noise?" asked Davies.

Wallace paused to listen. It was quite audible: an irregular clanking that echoed through the aft portion of the ship.

"It sounds like a loose rudder cable," he said. "We'd better warn Abercrombie. It could get damaged if it comes under stress."

Next week: Into the Back of Beyond...

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