The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 117: The Wisdom of the Solomons

The Japanese liner

Captain Everett studied Miss Perkins' face. As always, it gave nothing away. He would have given much to learn what lay behind that mask, but it didn't require much imagination to guess what she was thinking.

"An interesting plan," he observed. "But suppose I'm not willing to hazard my people? Was this possibility included in your instructions from Captain Michaelson?"

"Perhaps," she replied.

Is she bluffing? Everett wondered. He wouldn't put it past the senior captain to have anticipated just this eventuality. If the man's secretary produced another set of secret orders, matters could become awkward. But he had already made up his mind.

"The risk is unacceptable," he announced calmly. "These are human lives we're talking about, not pieces in a game. We will do this my way, or not at all. Is this understood?"

Miss Perkins met his gaze, as if challenging him to a battle of wills. But Everett had learned his lessons in a very hard school. He gazed back with eyes that had seen storms at sea, major fleet actions, and the landings at Suvla Bay. At last, conceding defeat, she looked away.

The others had been watching this contest with expressions of puzzlement. "I hope I don't sound impertinent, sir," said MacKiernan, "but may I ask what that was all about?"

"I will let Miss Perkins explain," said Everett, offering their guest a chance to regain face. She nodded and poured herself a glass of tea -- if this was to calm her nerves, her hands were remarkably steady -- then addressed the room.

"Lieutenant Iverson dealt us a powerful card when he removed your report from the dispatches to Sydney. Now we know what our adversaries are looking for. We also know they believe we have it. If we play this card right, we can use it to draw them out."

A chair scraped back on the other side of the table, where Sarah had leapt to her feet and was glaring at the secretary. "You were planning to use John as a stalking horse!"

Miss Perkins didn't seem perturbed by the island girl's anger. "He's an officer in His Majesty's Service," she replied, as if this was sufficient explanation.

"If he'd been hurt, you'd have paid for it!"

"Yes, I imagine I would have."

A tour in Palestine had taught Everett the importance of intervention to prevent a conflict from escalating. "If we could return to the subject at hand?" he announced. "We will find a way to employ this information without putting anyone at risk. But first we must select an appropriate venue. Do I hear any suggestions?"

"Most of our clues seem to lead back to Darwin," observed Jenkins. "We know their police chief has been sending coded messages to some party in Cairns. We also know he has a set of plans for this vessel written in Cyrillic -- a suspicious coincidence, given that the fellows who tried to hijack us in July were Russian. And one cannot help but wonder if the mysterious gentleman who led the attack, the man who visited here in May, and the fellow Miss Wilcox and I encountered in the railroad office in August were all the same person."

"True," mused Everett, "but it's such an obvious place for us to investigate that we can be quite sure our adversaries will have made preparations for just such an eventuality. We'll have to catch them by surprise."

"How will we manage that?" asked MacKiernan. "The fellows have damnably good intelligence. There may not be a cable station here in Efate, but they almost certainly planted an agent with a wireless."

"This may require some improvisation," said Everett. "We will begin by establishing that we're headed somewhere else."

"Do you have a destination in mind?"

The captain unrolled their small-scale chart of the South Pacific and studied the great constellation of islands that spread from Australia to the Marquesas. After some thought, he indicated an anonymous cluster of dots to the north of their current position.

"We'll call at the Solomon Islands, here, and make some inquiries about German nationalist activity. It's a plausible thing for us to do, since it's on the packet route to the Marshals. We might even learn something about our old adversaries. We've rather neglected them in favor of the new ones."

Abercrombie and MacKiernan had remained behind after the others were gone so they could set the room to rights. The rigger swept the floor and straightened chairs while the Exec gathered up charts and wiped off the tables -- in the Royal Naval Airship Service, just as they had under Drake, gentlemen often found it necessary to hayle and draw with the mariners.

"I dinnae like that lassie," said Abercrombie as they worked. "I dinnae like her at all."

"Aye," MacKiernan replied, with uncharacteristic force. "I don't like her either. She's a fey colleen."

The Scotsman glanced at his companion. It was unusual for the Irishman to be so vehement. "I thought ye'd be sweet on her," he jibed. "She's bonnie enou'."

"Ha!" said MacKiernan. "It'll be a cold day in..." he shook his head, catching himself before he said something unbecoming an officer. "I wonder what she's up to."

"Up to?" asked Abercrombie.

"This had all been too convenient the way we keep stumbling into things -- first the Governor's ambush and now this so-called British Union. I'd wager she knew they were here, and has been using us the same way she meant to use Iverson."

For once, the Scotsman made no move to cover the bet. "D'ye ken the Captain knows?"

"I'm sure he does. I just hope he has a plan to deal with it."

The Solomons were another of those forgotten corners of the Pacific that had assumed exaggerated importance during the final stages of the Nineteenth Century's `Race For Empire', then lapsed into justified obscurity. At one time, the archipelago had even been divided between Germany and England. But the Germans had surrendered their interests in the Tripartite Convention of 1899 in exchange for recognition of their claim to Western Samoa, and now it was a British protectorate.

The administrative center was located on an unremarkable island called Guadalcanal. Everett had always thought this name sounded like a dental procedure. According to their copy of the Almanac, the place boasted an air station of sorts, and as they rounded San Cristobel to enter Indispensable Strait, they discovered that they were not its only visitors.

"Upper Lookout to the bridge," crackled Fleming's voice over the intercom, "I've spotted another airship, bearing 310."

Everett focused a pair of binoculars to see a modern-looking design, with a somewhat more cylindrical hull than the Flying Cloud, on a roughly parallel course some distance ahead.

"German, do you think?" asked MacKiernan. "That looks like one of their medium-sized liners."

"I believe she's a Japanese vessel," said Everett. "Her fins have that characteristic rake to the leading edge. If it wasn't for the angle of the sun, we might also see some red roundels. This would be one of their Umichirashi class packets, based on Germany's Graf class."

"It looks like they mean to cross ahead of us," said Loris from the helm. "Shall I ring for more power and make a race of it? We should be able to beat those fellows!"

Everett weighed the implications of such an action. Their vessel's real top speed was still one of their closely guarded secrets. "No," he replied, "keep her at 55 knots. I believe we've had enough airship races for this week."

"Whatever are the Japanese doing in the Solomon Islands?" wondered MacKiernan. "Are they involved in this affair too?"

Everett sighed. "I don't have the slightest idea. But I imagine we'll find out."

Next week: Baffled in Guadalcanal...

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