The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 109: All Right, Where'd it Go?

Image from Episode 3, without wreck of the R-212

"Home!" cried Sarah. The island girl gazed with delight through the windows of the control car. The coast lay just ahead -- a forbidding line of cliffs that loomed above the waves. Behind these, jungle-covered hills rose in a succession of steps to the mountain range that ran down the center of the island like a spine. It all looked much as it had four months ago... with one important difference.

"I say," said Iverson, "didn't we leave the bow section of an airship here?"

"I believe we did," said MacKiernan. "It's not the sort of thing one could forget."

"Whatever could have become of it?"

The Irishman scratched his head in puzzlement. "I don't have the slightest idea. But there's no sign of it now."

Behind them, Miss Perkins cleared her throat. "You realize," she announced, "that this calls all of your previous reports into question."

"Let us not be premature," replied Captain Everett calmly. "If you look to the right of that gap in the cliff, you'll see a broad circle of fallen trees where we set the wreck down. Someone must have salvaged it."

"Perhaps," said Miss Perkins. From her tone, it seemed she thought Everett and his crew fully capable of sneaking out to the island to clear away the vegetation themselves.

"I wonder who was responsible," mused MacKiernan. "It must have been a substantial operation."

"Could it have been our friends with the mysterious cruiser?" asked Iverson. "I can't imagine any other vessel with the necessary lift capacity."

"Perhaps," said Everett. "But our hypothetical salvagers needn't have used an airship. The gas cells on the wreck were still in reasonable condition. If these people had access to a portable hydrogen plant, they could have reinflated them and either flown the thing off as a free balloon or towed it away with a line to a surface ship."

"Oh," said the lieutenant. He seemed annoyed that he hadn't thought of this himself.

"Why would anyone bother?" asked Sarah. "Surely there can't have been much of value aboard."

"That," said Everett, "is a very good question. We will want to send down a party to examine the site. Mister MacKiernan, I believe you should lead this so we can take advantage of your surveying skills. Please draw the necessary instruments from ship's stores. We will want Miss Sarah and Rashid for their knowledge of the wilderness, and Jenkins will handle the investigation itself."

"I will accompany them," said Miss Perkins in a voice that brooked no argument. "I want to see this alleged crash site."

"Must she?" whispered MacKiernan to Everett. The Exec didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about the prospect. Everett could appreciate his attitude. But their alternatives were limited.

"If we refuse, I imagine she'll produce another order from Michaelson," he observed. "This would weaken our position. Best to make concessions now and hope we can turn this to our advantage in the future."

Transporter operations were somewhat more awkward than usual. The hoist platform was none too large, and its five passengers had to squeeze closer together than decorum allowed to avoid an unfortunate misstep. MacKiernan found himself wedged between Sarah and Miss Perkins. Their mutual hostility was all too apparent, and he understood how the Belgians must have felt, trapped between France and Germany before the War.

Fortunately the equipment behaved well. The platform struck the ground with less than its usual jolt and only dragged through a dozen or so bushes as the party disembarked. Then they were brushing twigs out of clothing as the hoist rose back to the ship.

"It does look like someone came here after us," MacKiernan observed after they'd set their appearances to rights. "You can see where they cut away the brush with saws. We certainly didn't have that sort of equipment on the R-212. Miss Sarah, can you hazard a guess how large the party was and when they were here?"

The island girl stooped to examine the ground, then inspected some of the branches. "The soil was trampled flat," she observed, "but the vegetation has begun to grow back, and these cuts are no longer fresh. I'd guess a dozen or so people were involved, about a month ago."

"Would this have been before or after our adventure at Ujelang?"

"I would guess it was after," said the island girl. "Do you think the timing is important?"

"I couldn't say, but I imagine the Captain will want to know. Jenkins, have you found anything of note?"

The signalman held up a magnet he'd produced from his satchel. Its ends were covered with what looked like dark fuzz. "I believe the Captain was right about a hydrogen generator. The ground is littered with iron filings, and I've found traces of charcoal, as if someone used a steam plant to produce hydrogen via the Lane process."

At that moment Rashid called out a warning.

"Beware! A party approaches from the north!"

There was no time to hide, and nowhere to escape to, so MacKiernan and Jenkins reached for their service revolvers, Sarah readied her spear, and Rashid fitted a stone to his sling. Miss Perkins watched these preparations with a frown, as if she felt this behavior unseemly. Moments later, branches parted and several dozen warriors emerged from the brush. The savages were equipped with clubs... and very little else. The secretary's frown deepened.

"Are these your countrymen?" she asked Sarah accusingly.

"I should think not!" replied the girl. "They're interlopers from some entirely different island. Whatever are they doing here?"

"Waiting for you," came a smug voice from the left side. They turned to see a burly figure in a shabby suit leaning against a tree. He looked quite satisfied with himself, like a man who'd just managed to pull off a lucrative swindle.

"Wasserman!" exclaimed several people at once.

"So," sneered the Dutchman, "you remember me. The last time we met, you took my ship. Now it seems I have a chance to return the favor by taking you prisoner."

"Who are these strangers?" asked Sarah indignantly. "And where are my people?"

Wasserman shrugged. "They left. One day they just climbed into their canoes and sailed off. So we hired these cannibals from the New Hebrides to take their place. They're much more obedient, and we can economize on food whenever we have a labor surplus."

"Shall we stand against them?" Rashid asked MacKiernan. "I can account for three before they reach us. We may still fall, but they will remember this day with fear."

The Irishman considered the odds. These were not good, and he wasn't sure it would be very productive to sacrifice their lives for something as nebulous as a bad memory. But it might be even worse to surrender. So this is how it ends, he thought, on this small piece of foreign soil that will be forever England. Or Ireland, as the case may be.

Then Miss Perkins brushed past him, planted her hands on her hips, and confronted their attackers.

"You!" she said in a stern voice. "What do you mean by this behavior! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Put those clubs down right this instant!"

The warriors glanced at each other uncertainly, then stared at the secretary with raised eyebrows. She stared back without flinching.

"Yes," she announced, "I mean you! Put them down! Now!"

Unable to meet her gaze, the warriors hung their heads and shuffled their feet like guilty schoolchildren. At last, reluctantly, they began to set down their weapons.

"There," said Miss Perkins gently, "that's much better. Mister MacKiernan, if you'd be so good as to collect those before someone manages to hurt himself, we'll see about... where'd that Wasserman character get off to?"

"I believe he fled when the tide of battle turned against him," said Jenkins.

"Hmph," said the woman as if she'd expected little more from someone of his class. Nothing about her manner suggested she'd found the encounter in any way remarkable.

"How did she do that?" MacKiernan whispered to Jenkins in astonishment.

"Secretaries in the Royal Naval Airship Service receive training in certain specialized skills," said the signalman. "Some display more talent than others. I believe that in the case of Miss Perkins, we are in the presence of a master."

Next week: A Destination of Questionable Value...

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