The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 69: Too Late... Again

Landing parties examining the steam tractor.

Everett had timed the final leg of the flight so they'd arrive at dawn. This would give them light winds if they decided to send down a party, and the low morning sun would cast the land into relief, revealing details they might otherwise have missed. But there was no way they could possibly have failed to spot this particular detail. A new clearing had appeared next to the site of the hidden lab. Broad, round, and suspiciously regular, it was obviously not a natural feature.

"I trust this wasn't present the last time you were here," he observed to MacKiernan.

"It looks like someone cleared space for hoist operations," said the Exec.

"And I imagine we know who they were," said Everett. "Davies?"

"It wasn't done with explosives," said the marine. "They must have landed a work party with saws."

Everett nodded. They both knew, from first-hand experience, just what explosives would do. "Such was my impression as well," he said wryly. "We know they had plenty of saw blades."

"How did they away haul the fallen trees?" asked Iverson.

"That will be for us to discover, Mister Iverson. Tell Iwamoto to prepare the Transporter."

Everett led the first landing party himself, riding down with Iverson and Pierre. Abercrombie and Fleming followed with a portable generator and lighting equipment. They carried no weapons other than sidearms, for it was obvious that the nationalists were long gone, but MacKiernan kept the ship at combat stations.

A brief examination of the clearing showed that Davies's guess was correct. The trees had been felled by experts, who knew how to trim stumps close to the ground. It turned up something else as well.

"Look at this bewdie," said Fleming, pulling aside some branches to reveal an ungainly piece of machinery perched atop four tall steel wheels.

"It's a Wallis Stevens general purpose traction engine!" exclaimed Abercrombie in surprise. "One of their 1903 models. They don't make them much smaller."

"It's still a substantial piece of equipment," observed Iverson. "They must have taken something heavy aboard to replace it." All eyes turned to the cave mouth, where a set of drag marks were visible in the dirt. Before, it had merely seemed dark. Now it seemed haunted.

Everett walked over to the generator they'd brought down, yanked the starter, and hefted a string of lights. "Let's have a look."

There seemed no reason for haste, so they examined the tunnels methodically, taking time to investigate each side passage they found. None of these was very extensive, though Iverson did notice several cave paintings he'd missed during their first exploration. Some of the animal portraits were oddly anthropomorphic. Two of the ducks looked almost like modern cartoon characters.

It was clear that the nationalists had explored the cave system at length. The floor was littered with the now-familiar German cigarette butts and covered with the prints of jackboots. Pierre, more attentive than the others, spotted a used steel-alkali battery for a miner's lamp printed with the letters `DEAC, Varta AG'. When they reached the vault, they found that the door been cut free and dragged aside. It lay next to the opening, surrounded by several worn-out saw blades. The vault itself was empty, its floor scarred with deep grooves that must have been left by a heavily-laden sledge.

"What d'ye ken was here?" asked Abercrombie.

"I imagine it was the `Device' the Fat Man mentioned on Sarah's island," said Everett. "Some piece of manufacturing equipment, perhaps, to make these hypothetical armor-piercing projectiles."

"Why would they lock such a thing away," asked Iverson. "Machine tools are hardly a secret."

Everett shrugged. "That was just a guess. It could well have been something entirely different. For all we know, it could even have been a musical instrument, intended as a bribe for some potential ally."

"Whatever the thing was, it was heavy," said Abercrombie, tracing the drag marks with his foot. "Several tons at least."

"Perhaps it was an electronic amplifier," said Iverson, remembering Sarah's story of a sound that was `pure, loud, and bright'. "I understand the Americans are working on a device of this sort for lutes, banjos, and other stringed instruments."

Pierre had been reexamining the tunnel they'd left, searching for anything they'd missed. Now he appeared behind them. "Gentlemen," he announced. "I have found something."

"I might have missed this," said the Frenchman, "if I had not learned this trick from Sarah's people." He indicated an undistinguished section of wall.

"Missed what?" asked Fleming. The stone looked quite featureless.

"Observe," said Pierre. He stepped forward and vanished. Abercrombie and Fleming cried out in astonishment.

Everett frowned impatiently. "I trust there's an explanation for this."

"It is quite simple once it has been demonstrated," came a muffled voice that seemed to emerge from the rock itself. "It's a trick of geometry: an angle in the surface that appears to be obtuse when it's really acute. As you shall see." The Frenchman's arm reappeared, followed by the rest of him, emerging from what had appeared to be a solid wall of stone. "Voila!" he announced.

"That's a ripper!" cried Fleming.

"Indeed it is," said Pierre. "I've always wondered where Sarah's people learned it."

"Excellent work," said Everett. "If you would lead the way."

Like its entrance, the geometry of the passage seemed alien, with corners and angles that confused and mislead the eye. It terminated in a dead end, but unlike the other side passages, here the floor was littered with discarded packing material.

"The Germans have been tae this place too," said Abercrombie in disappointment.

Pierre crouched to finger some of the debris. "I do not think so," he said. "The marks in the rest of the cave were fresh, but this material is covered with a faint layer of nitre. I'd judge it's about a month old."

"You think someone came after the original attack to remove whatever was hidden here?" said Everett.

"Our mysterious `Karlov', perhaps," said Pierre. "He must be involved with these laboratories somehow. And he might have been the passenger aboard the Tualua's Dream."

"But the Germans took that ship in the Timor Sea," said Iverson. "Why would they still be looking for the fellow?"

"Perhaps he left before the vessel was attacked."

A scrap of newspaper caught Everett's eye. He reached down to pick it up. It was printed in the Roman alphabet, but language was most definitely not European. "It looks vaguely familiar," he observed, "but I can't tell more under this light. We'll take it back to the ship for Jenkins to examine."

The Flying Cloud couldn't recover them until the sea breeze dropped, so they cleared some space next to the abandoned steam tractor and sat to wait until evening. The others lost themselves in conversation, but Iverson found his glances straying back to the cave. What had the Russians been working on there, he wondered? What mystery was worth piracy, murder, and death? When they'd approached the place, it had seemed haunted by some nameless terror. Now it seemed empty, as if that terror had broken free.

Next week: Remembrance Days...

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