The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 202: The Ides Have It

Commodore Clark arrives

Iverson and Sarah sat at a café in Cairns, reading aloud from a copy of Shakespeare's Julius Caeser. To the east, the sparkling waters of the Coral Sea framed a setting entirely unlike anything imagined by the playwright.

"The Ides of March are come," Sarah intoned. Somehow it didn't seem incongruous for a Melanesian girl dressed in the latest English fashions to take the part of an ancient Roman emperor.

"But not gone," said Iverson, reading the soothsayer's reply.

Sarah smiled and set the book down. "John?" she asked. "What are `ides'? And why were they so important? I've always wondered."

"They were the middle of the month, on or around the fifteenth," answered Iverson, who'd had the benefit of a classical education. "The Romans thought they were a time of change -- the turning point of the month, perhaps. They were sacred to Janus, who as I recall was also the god of crossroads."

The island girl laughed. "He sounds rather like Nia'alatope, the Messenger of Change. Grandmother used to tell stories about him and his black goats when I was a child. I suppose the ides of March would have been particularly significant because they were close to the Equinox."

"That's true," mused Iverson. "I wonder what changes today will bring."

Everett and Jenkins were wondering the same thing. They sat in Michaelson's office, maintaining neutral expressions while the senior captain leafed through their report. Outside, a switching engine rumbled as crews took advantage of this spell of good weather to move one of the airships from its shed. Parrots flitted past the window and a kookaburra laughed somewhere in the distance, but Michaelson did not seem amused.

"I can't say you accounted yourselves well this time," he said sourly. "You allowed those pirates to escape you on Tahiti. Indeed, when I read between the lines of this report, it almost seems you cooperated with the fellows."

"It remains to be determined if they actually were pirates," Everett observed. "No one ever filed charges. The French seem to regard them more as entertainers than buccaneers."

"Perhaps," said Michaelson. "But then there's this matter of Professor Otkupshchikov. You expect me to believe that a Russian archeologist fled to Kamchatka during the October Revolution, escaped the country with a War-surplus blimp, and is now flitting about the Pacific in search of evidence that might confirm the theories of this obscure Ukrainian ethnographer, Karolek Solovyov, that some of our islanders may share a common ancestry with the aboriginal inhabitants of Finland?" The senior captain had to pause at this point to take a breath.

"I suppose this does seem far-fetched," Everett admitted.

"Absurd is more like it!" snapped Michaelson.

"But what are the alternatives, sir?" Jenkins asked cautiously. "Are we to assume he was some manner of agent, who chose an implausibly round-about, haphazard, and publicly visible route to deliver a secret message to this Karlov fellow via that stone carving our friend Vincenzo happened to recover from the Anglican missionaries' yacht?"

Michaelson drummed his fingers on his desk. "No," he said at last. "But the events of the past few weeks have left too many unanswered questions. It's time we got to the bottom of this. Our mysterious Karlov seems to be the key."

"You want us to search for the fellow?" asked Everett

Michaelson shook his head. "I do not believe this would be productive. Your track record in such matters is not good."

"We did find Lord Milbridge," observed Everett.

"I think it would be more accurate to say the viscount found you," Michaelson replied tartly. Everett made no reply to this. There was some truth to the senior captain's statement.

"What course of action do you have in mind?" he asked.

"We will examine the evidence the man has left behind," said Michaelson. "This may give us some clue as to his agenda. We'll begin with the White Russian laboratories. Those can't move about, so you should be able to find them again."

They were spared more of the senior captain's sarcasm when Phelps arrived with a dispatch. "This just arrived from Sydney," he said. "They forwarded it from London."

Michaelson accepted the message, studied its contents, and frowned.

"It would seem the matter has been taken out of our hands," he announced. "The Admiralty has sent a representative to take over the investigation. He'll be arriving this afternoon aboard the Cottswold. Phelps, see to the preparations, and make sure our senior people are present to greet him when he arrives."

They stood in ranks near the foot of the Station's main mooring mast, baking in the afternoon sun. It could have been worse, Everett reflected. Michaelson could have decreed Number Ones for this affair. But it appeared the senior captain's vindictiveness had its limits. Even so, it required all of his and MacKiernan's considerable training as officers not to perspire. The enlisted men, less constrained by convention, were free to sweat as much as they wished.

"There she is, bearing 030!" cried a lookout.

Eyes turned to the northeast, where the Cottswold, His Majesty's Airship R-382, had appeared around a bend in the coast. She was an Improved Hill Class, with 3.5 million cubic feet enclosed volume, six engines, and a gross lift of 210,000 lbs. Her armament of two HF-2 quick-firers made her a formidable fighting ship.

The vessel closed rapidly. In a matter of minutes she was passing to the east, engines droning in reverse to take off way. As she slowed, she lost aerodynamic lift and began to descend. A precisely-metered shower of ballast dropped from her tanks. Moments later, the vessel came to a stop.

MacKiernan gave a begrudging nod. "That was well done," he admitted. "I trust it will put the Commodore in a good mood."

"We must cling to this hope," observed Everett.

MacKiernan noted his captain's choice of words. "I gather you know the man?"

"He would be senior captain Ethan S. Clark," said Everett, "appointed commodore for purposes of this assignment. I met the fellow on the Continent, shortly after I finished training. He has a... certain manner."

The Cottswold was moving again, edging toward the field. Handling lines dropped and ground crews ran forward to take them. The teams might not have moved with machine-like precision, but Michaelson trained his people well, and in a creditably short time, the ship was being winched down to the mast. There was the usual struggle to secure the nose fitting, then the trail dolly was trundling forward to connect to the stern.

Gears whined as the boarding ramp swung down. Footsteps sounded above their heads, a voice gave an order, and the elevator began its descent. When it neared the ground, Michaelson snapped out a command. Beside him, the marine guard sprang to attention. Then the car touched down, the doors slid open, and a figure stepped onto the platform.

Commodore Clark cut a striking figure. His features were ruggedly handsome, his hair neatly groomed, and his uniform might just have been delivered from the tailor. The creases of his trousers looked sharp enough to shave with. His shoes had been polished to mirror-like perfection and his gold braid gleamed bright as the sun. If he noticed the heat, he dismissed it as unworthy of his attention.

Michaelson stepped forward and saluted. "Commodore Clark, I am Captain Michaelson. Welcome to the Cairns Royal Air Station."

The commodore returned his host's salute with a mixture of precision and disdain. "I understand you've had some problems here," he observed. "I've been sent to correct them. There's no more need for concern; Clark's on the case!"

"Sir!" MacKiernan whispered to Everett in alarm.

Everett suppressed a sigh. "As I said," he whispered back, "the gentleman has a certain manner."

Next week: Now That We Have It, What Do We Do With It?...

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