The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 161: An Initial Plan of Action

Map of the Oceania

"What did you learn in Port Moresby?" Captain Everett asked Pierre. They were sitting with Jenkins and MacKiernan in the bow station. This had become the de facto place to review discoveries without being overheard by the passengers. It had an unavoidable effect on the airship's trim, but this was acceptable for short periods of time.

"It appears we are not the only ones after Lord Milbridge," said the Frenchman. "Some other party was asking questions about the viscount before we arrived."

Everett nodded. "I'd suspected as much. That could explain why we found his yacht drifting and abandoned with the control car missing. He might have taken the ship down into the clouds to avoid some pursuer and had an unplanned encounter with the terrain. Do we have any idea who this party was?"

"Non," said Pierre, "and our informant suggested it might be worth his life to reveal a name."

Jensen glanced at the captain. "This might be one of those situations where the absence of information constitutes information," he observed.

"Quite," said Everett. "But who would have the necessary agents to learn about the leak and be vindictive enough to take such extreme measures in retribution?"

"The Fat Man? We know he has access to an airship."

Everett thought this over. "This seems unlikely. The man may be bloodthirsty enough -- he demonstrated this in a rather dramatic fashion last August. But I can't imagine his arm reaches as far as Port Moresby. Sir Hubert runs a tight ship. His people would be sure to notice if any renegade German nationalists were about."

"What about the Governor of Sarah's island?" asked MacKiernan. "We know he's been associating with our adversaries on that mysterious cruiser. And he did contrive to send Wasserman and a party of native warriors to the hinterland on some mission."

"With conspicuous lack of success," noted Jenkins. "Also, I don't imagine Milbridge's yacht could have escaped from something as powerful as the cruiser."

The others nodded. Their adversary's identify remained a mystery, but she was clearly a major vessel -- equivalent to a capital ship in performance, size, and armament.

"We may be going about this the wrong way," mused Everett. "Perhaps we should be considering possible motives. Why would the Fat Man or the Governor be after Lord Milbridge? For that matter, why would anyone be after the fellow? He seems like a harmless eccentric. Do we know anything more about the viscount?

"I was able to locate a transcript of his Service record in the Residence's archives," said Jenkins. "It appears that he held a commission in one of the Pals Battalions: the 11th East Lancashire Regiment. He was wounded several times, collected a number of decorations, and finished the War as a major."

Everett rubbed the scar on his wrist. "The 11th Accrington," he said, shaking his head in wonder at what this meant. "They were at Serre! Well, we can't doubt the man's courage. What did he do after the Peace?"

"He was offered a lieutenant-colonelcy, but he turned this down, relinquished his commission and retired to his estates. He was briefly active in a pacifist organization, the Fellowship for Reconciliation, in the opening months of 1917, but since then he's lived the life of a country gentleman. Occasionally he travels to Scotland with is wife to fish for trout. They maintain a small cottage on the Allan Water near Strathhallen. The entry noted that she has an interest in traditional arts and crafts."

"They sound entirely unremarkable," complained MacKiernan. "Why is Whitehall so interested in the matter that they ordered us to take his ward aboard and go in search of him? Could someone be using us as a stalking horse? Again?"

"I wouldn't put it past Michaelson," said Everett, "but he seemed as much in the dark as we are. It's clear these orders came from much higher up."

"It could just be the Crown's understandable concern about a missing peer," suggested Jenkins. "They do not have an unlimited number of viscounts. They wouldn't wish to lose one."

'Je ne suis pas si sûr," said Pierre. "It would take something quite unusual to make such a man leave his estate, apparently at short notice, and attempt the difficult flight from England to the Pacific on an entirely unsuitable yacht. If we can determine what this thing is, this may provide a piece of the puzzle. If I had to venture a guess, I'd imagine some native artwork is involved -- your entry did note that his wife was interested in such things. If this was sufficiently valuable, it might also attract the interest of entrepreneurs with a casual attitude toward human life."

"Do you think his ward might know?" asked MacKiernan. "Could Whitehall have sent her here as an agent?"

Everett thought back on everything they'd seen and heard of Miss Isobel so far. "I think not," he said dryly. "The young lady seems to lack the required... depth."

"So our only lead is this Professor Okupshchikov we believe he came here to meet," said Jenkins. He managed the name without difficulty -- but then, he was a member of the Signal Corps of the Royal Naval Airship Service. "How will we find the fellow?"

"We've guessed he'll be traveling between French Polynesia and the Marshall Islands aboard his blimp, pausing at intermediate locations to conduct research." said MacKiernan. "Ours is by far the more capable vessel. Our best bet may be to begin at Papeete, pick up the fellow's trail, and proceed downwind until we overtake him."

"I concur," said Everett. He glanced in the direction of the control car, where their elevatorman would have been struggling to keep the ship's nose up. "Let's get back to our stations, give poor Wallace a rest, and put this plan into action."

Captain Everett finished his paperwork, stacked it neatly, and set it aside. He'd often wondered how much of the ship's payload was allocated to forms, instructions, schedules, receipts, and the like. How much would their performance improve if these things could be discarded? Had Nelson faced similar problems? He imagined file cabinets plunging overboard and papers fluttering to the wind as the hero cleared for action on the eve of Trafalgar. He smiled at this thought, then flipped open the logbook to make the day's entry.

17-January-1927. 1800 hours. Lat 8 53' S Long 163 21' E. His Majesty's Airship Flying Cloud, R-505. In the absence of any specific information regarding Lord Milbridge's whereabouts, we are proceeding to French Polynesia via the Ellice Islands to locate Professor Okupshchikov...

He spelled the name without difficulty -- but then, he was an officer of command rank in the Royal Naval Airship Service.

...We have reason to believe Lord Milbridge may be looking for this man. If we can effect a rendezvous, this may lead us to the viscount. The new crewmen are performing satisfactorily, and the new lieutenant seems competent, though he may require some time to adjust to conditions on the Pacific Station.

Everett contemplated this plan while he waited for the ink to dry. It seemed straightforward enough, but in his experience, such things rarely worked out as expected. How long would it take them to find the Professor, he wondered? And who else was in the race, and why?

Next week: Are We Having Funafuti Yet?...

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