The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 54: The Darwin Award

Crowd with banners and confetti

"What," asked Abercrombie, "are all those people doing down there?"

They'd reached Darwin in the morning, after a harrowing flight. The City of Brisbane was down to her last gallons of fuel, and every expendable object had been tossed overboard to keep the airship aloft when her hydrogen cells contracted during the cold of the night. Even so, there'd been moments when they'd almost flown into the ground, and the lower rudder was missing fabric where it had brushed through the tops of some gum trees. By now, Captain Everett, Jenkins, and Abercrombie had been at their stations for more than fourteen hours, but they seemed as fresh as when they'd started. Members of the Royal Naval Airship Service were taught to ignore trifles such as fatigue.

"It does seem to be quite a crowd," remarked Jenkins.

"I imagine word has gotten out about our adventure," said Everett. "This could complicate our plans."

He'd expected to find the Air Station almost deserted, as it had been during their previous visit with the Flying Cloud. This would have allowed them to make their way to town without being noticed. Instead, it seemed the entire population had turned out to await the ship's arrival. 'he mood seemed festive. Many carried banners with messages like, �Welcome, 'assengers and Crew of the R-67! and �Congratulations on Your Survival!'

"Maybe they'll grow bored and leave while we're picking up the mooring," Jenkins suggested.

"We can always hope," said Everett.

It seemed a reasonable expectation. Mooring operations were never easy, even at the best of times, and with her control car missing, two engines out of action, her hull badly damaged, and her crew drooping with exhaustion, the City of Brisbane would be almost impossible to handle. To make matters worse, most of their handling lines were gone, tossed overboard to lighten ship during the night. But the ground crew was up to the challenge. With judicious use of muscle, and a bit of injudicious language, they were able to pick up the lines that remained, manhandle the vessel into the wind, and walk her to the mast. The spectators greeted this with a cheer.

"They dinnae seem to be leaving," said Abercrombie, with a certain amount of frustration.

"We will allow the others to disembark first," said Everett. "This will take some time. I imagine the crowd will be gone by then."

But the townsfolk seemed in no hurry to depart. They crowded around the mooring mast, watching the elevator, applauding each time it descended with another load of passengers. At last, even the Italian had been ushered off the ship, still complaining, and it was their turn. A sea of faces gazed up at them. Somewhere in the background, a band began to play.

"What should we do, sir?" asked Jenkins.

"I had hoped to arrive unnoticed," said Everett dryly. "I believe we shall have to abandon this particular scheme."

A stage had been erected at the foot of the mast so that local dignitaries could greet the visiting heroes in full view of the crowd. Everett recognized some familiar faces. On one side, Lieutenant Dabney, Commonwealth Navy Reserve, commander of this station, stood at the head of his men. On the other, a formidable row of bureaucrats attended Government Resident (North) Robert Wedell, who'd taken over the management of the territory after Administrator Urquhart had retired. When Everett had met the Resident during his previous visit, he'd judged the man a bureaucratic drone -- one of the anonymous paper-shufflers who kept the wheels of government turning. The same could not be said for some of his subordinates.

"Captain Roland P. Everett," Wedell began, speaking with the stentorian voice of a professional public figure, "on behalf of the British Commonwealth, the people of Australia, the inhabitants of the Northern Territory (North), and the residents of Darwin, I would like to thank you and your men for your deeds in rescuing this noble vessel, the City of Brisbane, from the clutches of the storm."

Definitely a drone, thought Everett. "Thank you," he replied politely, "but you overstate our contribution. Most of the recognition should go to Captain Sanders." Toward the side of the platform, he saw the commercial skipper sigh with relief. The man could be facing some sharp questions from his employers about the damage to his ship.

"Your modesty does you credit, as befits an officer of the Royal Naval Airship Service," said the Resident smoothly. "In honor of your deeds, the citizens of Darwin have voted to award you the hospitality of the city.

Who's idea was that? thought Everett. Then he spotted the police chief, George Channel, smiling like a man who'd just made a successful move in chess.

"Captain Everett," said Channel, in a polished voice entirely at odds with the cold expression in his eyes. "How pleasant to see you again! Your arrival was unexpected."

"We didn't see any need to inconvenience you," said Everett. "This was just a routine visit to the Station to evaluate its suitability for task force operations."

Jenkins offered him a look of surprise. As well he might. This story was pure fabrication.

"My office will do everything it can to assist you," said Channel. "I've already instructed to two of my clerks to place themselves at your disposal day and night."

"There's no need for them to put themselves out on our account."

"But I insist! They're already taking your luggage to the hotel."

"Well," said Jenkins, as they examined their rooms, "that would seem to eliminate any hope we might have had of remaining inconspicuous."

"Aye," said Abercrombie, "'an' those men of Channel's are most certainly spies. What will we do now, Captain?"

It was a good question. They'd traveled to Darwin incognito to investigate leads they'd found when they were here in the Flying Cloud -- leads that might provide some clues about the identify and plans of the mysterious German pirates. Among those leads was the hijacking attempt, for which Channel was one of the leading suspects. Such an investigation could hardly be accomplished under the police chief's watchful eye.

"We'll call MacKiernan and have him bring the ship here," said Everett.

"You have a plan, sir?" asked Jenkins.

"Not yet, but if nothing else, it should serve as a distraction."

Next week: Signals Intelligence...

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