R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 34: Pearl Smugglers?

Iverson and Davies man the pom pom gun

"Have you ever fired one of these, sir?" asked Davies. Without waiting for an answer, the marine swung himself into the seat and spun the elevation and train wheels to aim the weapon -- a Vickers QF 2-pound `pom-pom gun', fitted with an elaborate flash suppressor so it wouldn't ignite any stray hydrogen -- to port. "You might be wanting your headset," he added.

Iverson fitted the bulky earphones over his head, plugged in the cable, and adjusted the mike. "Bridge," he announced, "Main battery ready for action."

"Very good, Lieutenant," replied Captain Everett. "Stand by for orders."

"Aye, sir." Less than a mile away, the trawler was still plowing through the waves at what passed for its top speed. Whatever were they up to, Iverson wondered? They couldn't possibly hope to outrun an airship, and if they thought the Flying Cloud unarmed, they had miscalculated. A pom-pom might not be much of a weapon, but it was more than enough to deal with a fishing smack.

"They've ignored out signals," Everett said after a moment. "Give them a shot across the bow."

"A shot across the bow," Iverson repeated to Davies.

"If you'd feed the belt, sir, to make sure the rounds don't slip out." The marine peered through the sights, gave the crank a final nudge, and touched the trigger.


A line of tiny splashes rose in front of the boat. Undaunted, it forged on.

"Maybe they didn't notice," said Davies.

"Give them another," Iverson suggested.


Seconds later, the trawler's starboard outrigger blew apart.

"The Captain said `across the bow'," protested Iverson.

"I missed," Davies replied unconvincingly. "But that seems to have done the trick."

Indeed, the trawler was already slowing. Through his binoculars, Iverson could see her crew waving shirts, rags, anything they could get their hands on to signal the airship to hold its fire.

"Mister Iverson," crackled the headset. "Order Davies to remain at the gun, then take the longboat with Loris and Miss Helga and see what those fellows are about. And tell Miss Helga that she may bring her axe."

The boarding operation was elaborate and time-consuming. Since the target might be hostile, Everett dared not get too close lest its crew have some crude short-range weapon that could blow an airship out of the sky. Instead, he had to stand off and cover it with his cannon while a party went over in the longboat. This was less impressive than it sounded. Its name might have been rooted in tradition, but the craft itself was just an inflatable rubber dinghy with barely room for three. Loris and Helga took the oars while Iverson handled the tiller and tried to convince himself that he wouldn't get seasick.

After an awkward pull, they were alongside the trawler. From her condition... and smell... it was obvious this was a working fishing vessel, and Iverson felt his stomach trying to rebel. He swallowed, took a deep breath, and hauled himself over the gunwale after his men.

"Get 'em!" yelled someone. "Take 'em hostage!"

Iverson stepped back in consternation as a group of sailors charged across the deck brandishing truncheons. He reached for his pistol, but Loris had already seized the nearest available heavy object -- this turned out to be a large fish -- and swung it into the first man's gut. The fellow dropped with a thud.

"Odin!" cried Helga, raising her axe. The sailors stumbled to a halt.

"Wait!" yelled one, slightly better dressed than the rest. "Let's talk this over."

By now, Iverson had recovered his poise. "What's there to talk about?" he asked. "You attacked us."

"Well, you blew our ruddy mast off!"

"Why didn't you heed our signals to heave to?"

"Never saw 'em," protested the man. "Can't blame us for that. Now who's gonna pay fer all this..."

"He lying," said Helga cheerfully. "Maybe I bind his limbs, carve blood eagle in his back, and throw him to the sharks."

"Is she always like this?" Loris whispered to Iverson.

"Quite possibly," Iverson whispered back.

"Now look here miss..." said the man, backing away. "There's no need to..."

"I'm glad we've got that settled," said Iverson. "Now if you'll let us have a look at whatever you're smuggling, I'm sure the lady will forget that bit about the sharks."

"But I still get to bind the limbs?" the girl asked hopefully. "Helga good at that!"

"Contraband's hidden here, sir, under these buckets of grease."

"Pearl smugglers," marveled MacKiernan. "There actually are pearl smugglers on this coast. I thought that was a myth."

"They seemed quite put out that we were in the area," said Iverson, "as if they'd expected someone to warn them."

"An' that `someone' would be Channel?" asked Abercrombie from the wheel.

"I imagine so," mused Everett, "he might have wanted us to catch them so we'd be distracted from whatever else he's up to. We'll play along, take them back to Darwin, and make a big production about handing them over, so that he'll be distracted when Fleming and Jenkins get back from their investigations."

"I've been wondering, sir," said Iverson. "How will Fleming manage to fly back without any way to launch his glider?"

"He won't," Everett smiled. "He'll just take the train."

"Oh," said the lieutenant. He hadn't considered this possibility.

"What about the smuggler's boat?" asked Abercrombie. "Are we just going tae leave it?" His Scottish sense of thrift seemed offended.

"I ordered Miss Helga and Loris to take it back to Darwin. She knows this coast, and he seemed like the obvious man to help her."

Abercrombie's eyes grew wide. "Oh dear."

Loris was congratulating himself. He was finally alone with Helga. He'd been angling for this for days, and now he'd succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It was hard to imagine a better setting. The boat rocked gently as she rose to the waves. Overhead, the moon was rising into a warm tropical night.

Acting nonchalant, he sauntered over to where the woman stood at the helm. There was no need to rush matters. With several days until they reached port, he was sure of his conquest.

"I can take the wheel for a bit," he offered.

"Thank you," she said. "You real strongbody! You handle those men good!"

"I try to stay in shape," he said modestly. This was going better than he expected. Perhaps it was time to try one of his lines. But before he could open his mouth, the woman had grabbed him by the belt.

"Ha!" she cried. "Let's see how you handle Helga!"

Next week: Murder on the Darwin Express...

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