The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 77: A Flight to the East

The Torres Strait and vicinity

The Flying Cloud left Darwin that evening, bound for the Torres Straight. These waters might have been dangerous for surface ships to navigate at night, but they posed no problem for an airship. Dawn found them passing north of the Cape York Peninsula. Centuries ago, it had taken explorers like Van Diemen, Tasman, and Cook weeks to travel this distance. Now people could cover it in a matter of hours.

What wonders will technology produce next? wondered Everett. He imagined submersible dreadnoughts, mechanical centurions, radium rays, and flying cars -- the stuff of radio dramas. But there were times when it seemed they were caught up in a radio drama themselves. Complete with several princesses.

Over at the ballast station, Clarice and Emily were reviewing their figures. The two young women had taken to the calculations readily enough, but their presence added an element of... unpredictability.. to the atmosphere in the control car. The blond seemed to alternate between enthusiasm and suspicion according to some logic only she understood. The brunette might have been more even-tempered, but she seemed dissatisfied with the working conditions, and kept one hand on her skirt whenever she descended a companionway, as if she expected someone to take advantage of the perspective.

"Where now, sir?" asked MacKiernan, glancing at Clarice as if he expected her to explode.

"We'll stop at Port Moresby to resupply."

"You're not going to try to leave us behind!" snapped the blond.

"I wouldn't dream of it," said Everett, stretching the truth slightly.

Port Moresby, capital of the Commonwealth's possessions in Papua, was a substantial town on the southern coast of New Guinea -- named by Captain John Moresby of the HMS Basilisk after his father, Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby, one fine morning in 1873. Like Cairns, it was set amidst a landscape so green it almost hurt the eye, beneath a clear bright tropical sky. To the north, the Owen Stanley Range rose beneath a wall of distant clouds. Before it, the ocean was a heart-stopping shade of blue.

The Royal Navy maintained a station here, so Everett was able to call on Fleet stores to replenish their supplies of fuel and hydrogen -- no airship captain liked to run low on these things, and they'd be facing a headwind for the next stage of their flight. Regassing would take time, so he took advantage of this opportunity to check the port's records. He invited Sarah to accompany him. The outing might do her good, and the island girl would be a welcome change from Clarice and Emily.

The girl was silent as they made their way through town, so Everett studied the people they passed. Many seemed to be Japanese tourists. He noted several artists and photographers, posing their subjects in front of scenic vistas such as the harbor fortifications or the Navy docks. Others seemed to be prospectors bound on expeditions to the north. Everett wondered at this, and resolved to ask Iwamoto more about his countrymen when he had the chance.

The Marine Board had no record of the Inselmächen. In particular, it didn't appear that the vessel had picked up a pilot to negotiate the Torres Straight. This meant little, for the nationalists might have had someone on board who was familiar with the passage. They seemed too well-prepared to overlook such an important detail. There was also no mention of the ship in the port records or the shipping news. Perhaps no one had noticed it arrive, or perhaps some money had changed hands in the Harbormaster's office -- either way, it appeared that the nationalists had covered their tracks well.

Satisfied they'd done what they could, Everett called at the office of the Australian Postmaster General's Department to check for dispatches. They arrived to find two customers arguing with the clerk. One had a distinct American accent, the other was an older gentleman with dark hair, strong features, and a substantial mustache.

"...that's `G' `H' `A' `M'," the older man was saying. "`M' as in `Masculine'!"

"I'll check, sir," said the clerk. Excusing himself, he made his way to the back of the room to initiate some elaborate postal procedure.

"I say, Gerald," observed older man, "mail service in these odd corners of the Empire can be a hit or miss affair."

"It's better than San Francisco, Somerset," his companion remarked wryly. "That seems mostly to be a miss affair."

Everett watched the clerk's progress, realized they might be there for some time, and decided that introductions were in order. "Where might you gentlemen be from?" he asked.

The older man waved his hand airily. "We've been vacationing on Thursday Island, but the company was growing dull, so we nipped over here to see how the New Guineans were getting along."

"Where's Thursday Island?" asked Sarah.

The man smiled. "I'm not entirely sure, but I imagine it lies between Wednesday and Friday Islands."

Sarah looked as if she was about to reply. Then, unexpectedly, she began to laugh -- the first laughter Everett had heard from her since the accident. The captain smiled to himself. We should never underestimate the healing powers, he thought, of human badinage.

The mood aboard ship seemed lighter as they cleared Port Moresby. That evening, Sarah paid a visit to the control car and offered polite greetings to Clarice and Emily. The two former clerks didn't seem quite sure what to make of the island girl, but they replied in kind. Everett was encouraged by the exchange, though he wondered how they might have reacted if Sarah had brought her spear...

They spent the next day plodding east above the Coral Sea, keeping engine revolutions higher than normal to overcome the trade wind, which was almost directly on their nose. This stretch of ocean was heavily traveled, and they passed several freighters, island schooners, and small craft, bound upon un-guessed-at errands. Everett was examining one through binoculars -- a small steamship named the Innsmouth Shadow -- when Abercrombie spoke from the helm.

"What's New Caledonia like?" asked the rigger. "We've been there twice now, but I still dinnae ken a thing about the place."

"Jenkins could tell you more," said Everett, "but there are two main island groups: the Loyalty Islands to the east and Grande Terre with its satellite islands to the west. The former are a set of large coral islands of no particular value. The latter is fairly mountainous and has a number of mineral deposits that I don't believe anyone has managed to exploit successfully. The French took possession of the place under Napoleon III, and I understand they've been trying to get rid of it ever since."

"Where does Sarah's island fit in?"

"It's the odd one out," said Everett. "Perhaps that's why the French continued to use it as penal colony after they claimed to have abolished the practice elsewhere. I don't believe it has ever been studied -- I wonder if this anthropologist Countess Zelle mentioned ever got that far."

At that moment, Davies's voice crackled from the intercom. "Upper Lookout to Bridge. Land ahead, bearing 120."

Ahead of them, a dark patch had appeared on the horizon. "And that would be Grand Terre," observed Everett, "right on schedule. I wonder what we'll find."

Next week: Meanwhile, Back at the Secret German Base...

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