The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 63: Then These Airmen Came Barging In

Airship circling above the barge

MacKiernan took the Flying Cloud in a broad circle over the spot the barge had run aground. Below them, the airship's shadow swept across the estuary, startling birds into flight. The Irishman studied the terrain, then turned to his command crew.

"That brush looks too thick to lower the Transporter," he observed, "and the river is too narrow to risk a landing, so we'll stand offshore, send down a party in the launch, and take on ballast to compensate. This won't be easy with a swell running, but it'll be good practice for the crew."

"Who do you have in mind for the party, sir?" asked Iverson, knowing he wouldn't enjoy the answer.

"You'll lead it, of course," said the Exec. "We'll also want Miss Sarah for her skills in the brush and Pierre for his knowledge of... unusual business transactions."

A short time later, the airship was holding position in the onshore breeze, a hundred feet above the waves, while Loris and Wallace kept her steady with light touches on the helm and elevator wheel. Below her, the launch dangled from a pair of falls. Iverson clung to the boat's foredeck, intercom in hand, calling out instructions as it descended.

"Steady, Mister Iwamoto," he ordered. "A few more yards to go."

"Hai, Iverson-san." The engineer's voice was calm and untroubled. But he's safe aboard the airship, thought Iverson. Why do I always end up in charge of these landing parties? In a sea like this, there were many things that could go wrong.

Spray slapped against the bow, sending a dollop of water across his face. He wiped this away, then grabbed for the rail as the next wave set the craft swinging. In the cockpit, Sarah gave a shout of glee. The boat pendulumed into the third crest with an explosion of spray.

"Keep it coming!" he cried. They had to get down while the swings were still under control.

"Hai, Iverson-san."

The launch slammed into the waves again, almost flipping the lieutenant from his perch, but now the craft was rising to the swell. "Iwamoto!" he yelled. "Slack away all! Pierre, cast off aft!"

Behind him, the Frenchman kicked away the falls. As the stern swung free, the forward tackle came under tension, and the bow began to lift clear of the water. Iverson struggled with the releasing gear but this seemed jammed.

"Hang on, John!" Sarah yelled. She fired up the engine and slammed it into gear, sending the boat surging forward. The falls went slack. Iverson braced himself against the windscreen, gave the release a hearty kick, and the tackle came free.

"That was fun!" laughed Sarah.

Fun? thought the lieutenant. We almost capsized! But the island girl's laughter rang in the air like a bell, and soon he was laughing too.

After the excitement of deployment, crossing the bar at the river mouth seemed almost routine. Sarah steered the launch down the face of a wave, its stern lifted as whitewater broke around them, then they were through the breakers and gliding through the still waters of the estuary. A pelican gazed at them from a rock. Below this, a crocodile watched the pelican with what, for crocodiles, might have been a speculative expression.

The barge lay some distance ahead, on the right bank of the river. It was a substantial craft, with high sides and raised ends, suitable for offshore passages. A broken hawser drooped from the bow. From the way this was led, Iverson judged it had been a mooring line rather than a tow rope. Sarah lay them alongside and he busied himself with fenders while Pierre scrambled aboard with the painter -- a few yards of slippery wood were nothing to a man in his profession.

Moments later, the three were standing on deck. This was dominated by the hold: a cavernous expanse, now open to the elements, empty but for a layer of slime. Gouges in the planking showed where someone, presumably the crew of the Tranquility, had dragged away hatches and unloaded the cargo.

"There's nothing here," said Sarah. She sounded disappointed.

"I suppose I'd better see if they left anything behind," sighed Iverson, gazing down at the noisome bilge, wondering why he volunteered for such things. He was rewarded by a smile from the girl.

"And I weel search aft," said Pierre. "There might be a cabin, with documents, receipts, or bills of lading."

The lieutenant's investigation turned up a number of unsavory life forms, which he spent the next several minutes removing from his clothing and skin. Pierre's explorations were more productive, and he emerged from a cuddy with a small booklet titled `The Netting Act and You: Your guide to the Wire and Wire Netting Act 1926'.

"At least we know we found the right vessel," said Iverson. For all they knew, there might be dozens of derelict lighters aground on this stretch of coast.

"I've been wondering about that," said Sarah. "This barge can't have drifted into this estuary by chance. It must have been moored upstream. Why would anyone need a cargo of barbed wire here?"

"I've been wondering the same thing," said the lieutenant. This hardly seemed like a place for a cattle station, and he doubted there was much of a market for leeches. He glanced north, where the Flying Cloud was maintaining station offshore. The airship couldn't possibly retrieve them until the wind dropped that evening. And the river beckoned, dark and mysterious, to the south.

"We have several hours to explore," he observed. "Let us see what we can discover upstream."

The landscape was primeval. Vegetation hung down to the water -- cycads and ferns of gruesome size that would not have seemed out of place in the Triassic. They passed more crocodiles -- creatures unchanged since the Age of the Dinosaurs -- but there were no signs of a settlement, and Iverson found himself wondering if they'd been right about the barge. Perhaps it had broken free from some tow and swept here by the tide.

"Look, John," said Sarah. "A trail."

She pointed toward a break in the vegetation to their left. This was partially overgrown, but it didn't look entirely natural. Below it, a bank of gravel offered a convenient place for a landing. As Iverson brought the launch into shore, he noticed a length of hawser trailing from a nearby stump. This must be where the barge had been moored.

"Let me go first to look for tracks," said Sarah. She grabbed her spear, hopped ashore, smoothed her skirt, and crouched to examine the ground. "There are traces of footprints," she announced, "about a month old. And what's this?"

The girl picked up a cigarette butt and passed it to Pierre. The Frenchman studied it and frowned.

"It's a Geisling," he said, "like the one Captain Everett found in the practice area. Our German friends have been here."

Next week: Another Secret Laboratory?...

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