The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 104: Who Was Agnes?

Miss Perkins climbing the accomodation ladder

The bow station of a naval airship was strictly functional -- a businesslike assembly of fittings, winches, cables, and gangways to connect the ship to her mooring and move crew and equipment to and from the mast. The Flying Cloud was no exception. Her equipment might have been better-maintained than most -- Abercrombie was not one to tolerate carelessness -- but it made no concessions to fashion or comfort.

Everett and MacKiernan arrived to find Miss Perkins standing at the foot of the accommodation ladder, studying it with a visible expression of distaste. "What can we do for you?" asked Everett politely.

"I've brought instructions from Captain Michaelson," she replied in a voice that matched her expression. "May I come aboard?"

"Of course," said Everett. MacKiernan offered a hand to assist the woman, but she brushed past him, scowling as if he'd committed some impropriety. The Irishman glanced at his captain, who shrugged.

"Is there some place we can have a measure of confidentiality?" Miss Perkins asked when she reached the top of the ladder.

"The control car should serve," said Everett, calling upon his very considerable reserves of courtesy to suppress a sigh.

"Thank you," she replied curtly. "I know the way." As they watched, she spun on one heel and set off down the keel passage, footsteps tapping sharply on the metal of the walkway. Everett listened with a mixture of amazement and respect. He wouldn't have believed it possible for someone to express so much disdain in just the way they walked.

"How does she do that?" whispered MacKiernan.

"I imagine it's a skill they teach in the Secretarial Corps," mused Everett. "Let us hope we don't have occasion to learn more about the scope of her talents."

The command crew were waiting at their stations when the trio arrived at the bridge. Anticipating an immediate departure, Everett had kept the ship ready for flight. Wallace stared at Michaelson's secretary in wonderment -- women of her class had been a thing of myth and legend in the slums of the East End where he'd spent his youth. Iverson regarded her with obvious apprehension. Sarah glared at the newcomer with the same expression one cat might reserve for another that intruded into its territory. Miss Perkins affected unconcern, but Everett wasn't fooled for a moment. This was turning out even worse than he'd expected.

The secretary snapped open her briefcase and withdrew an envelope. "You are to launch as soon as possible," she announced. "Once you're airborne, you're to open these sealed orders and follow their instructions. I'm to accompany you and see that they're carried out properly. Captain Michaelson is concerned that you may have exercised too much... latitude... in the past."

Everett nodded. He'd anticipated this development. He imagined the woman was prepared to produce more sealed orders as circumstances arose. The trick would be finding some way to maintain control of the situation while appearing to make concessions.

"Mister Iverson," he asked, "what is the status of our engineering plant?"

"All three engines at idle."

"Miss Sarah, what's our ballast situation?"

"We seem to be a little heavy," said the island girl, glancing pointedly at their guest. "I'd recommend we discharge three hundred pounds."

"Wallace, does that sound right?"

"I... um... err..." said the elevatorman, recognizing danger when he saw it.

"Very well," said Everett. "We'll discharge one hundred fifty pounds each on Tanks Two and Four, bring Engine Two to quarter power, and raise ship."

A short time later they were standing offshore at 2000', a few miles east of Cairns. By now the sun was low in the western sky, and the coastal range was in shadow. Beyond it, rainforest gave way to open woodland and then to the great emptiness that filled most of the continent. Everett stood by the rear windows, contemplating the distant sprawl of the Air Station, but it told no tales. There was no way to guess what Michaelson had in mind until he examined their orders. He produced a penknife and began to unseal the envelope. Miss Perkins drew in a sharp breath of disapproval.

"Permission to speak, sir," she said in a voice that held the distinct implication 'or else'. She might be on the bridge by invitation, but it was clear she considered herself the senior captain's representative, imbued with much of his authority.

"Granted," said Everett.

"Those are to be opened in your chambers, not here in front of your men."

Everett kept his expression neutral while he decided on a strategy. This sort of behavior must be nipped in the bud. "What am I supposed to do after I open them?" he asked innocently.

"Read them to your men."

"I believe we will streamline some parts of this operation in the interests of efficiency," he announced.

Ignoring her expression, he scanned the papers, trying to guess Michaelson's hidden agenda. That there was such an agenda he had no doubt. The man was a subtle adversary. "Interesting," he told the others when he'd finished. "We've been ordered to investigate a place called Agnes Water, where an amateur radio operator reported seeing a man descend by parachute two days ago. That would be around the time of the storm."

"I've found it," said MacKiernan, tapping a spot on the aeronautical chart. "It's a small coastal village between Gladstone and Bundaberg, near the site where Captain Cook made his second landing back in 1770. Perhaps our hypothetical parachutist was something of a historian."

"What a peculiar name for a town," said Iverson. "Who thinks of these things?"

"You will find that people display considerable imagination in these distant corners of the Empire," said Everett. "How trustworthy is this report?"

"This is discussed in the addendum to your orders," said Miss Perkins. "Ensign Phelps has dealt with this particular operator in the past and found him to be reliable."

"Do we have the nautical chart and ordnance survey for this stretch of coast?" Everett asked MacKiernan.

"Here," said the Exec, unrolling a pair of maps.

Everett studied them, working out distances, bearings, and times in his head, then he glanced at the clock. "When is moonrise?" he asked.

"2015 hours, local time," said MacKiernan. "It's two days past full."

"That should serve for our purposes," said Everett. "Wallace, take us up to 3000'. Mister Iverson, bring us right to 210, then ring for full power on all three engines."

"Permission to speak, sir," snapped Miss Perkins.

"Granted," said Everett patiently.

"That course will take us inland. Our destination lies on the coast."

"When we returned to Cairns," said Everett, "I could not help but notice that Captain Michaelson ordered us to moor at a little-used mast at one end of the field. I assume he wished to maintain some semblance of secrecy."

"Of course," said Miss Perkins, in a tone one might use while explaining something to a small child.

Everett suppressed a smile. "Then we might not wish to head directly for the village," he observed. "The good people of Agnes Water could be expected to notice if a 563'-long airship stopped overhead to lower a party by Transporter."

Miss Perkins met the captain's gaze for a moment, then nodded. A worthy opponent, he thought. This could be an interesting mission.

Next week: The Round Hill Rally...

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