The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 204: Clark Takes Charge!

The Automatic Speedboat and the Rabaul Device

Michaelson accepted the guard's salute, then nodded to Phelps. The signalman unfastened the padlock, gripped the handle, and heaved. The door slid open with a rattle, revealing a short corridor, quite obviously of recent construction. A door at the far end was angled to prevent anyone outside from looking in.

"If you'll follow me, sir," Michaelson told Commodore Clark. He unlocked the second door and led the way through, followed by Clark, Everett, Jenkins, and a young American named Dixon whom the Commodore had brought along as a scientist.

The room beyond had begun life as a storeroom. Empty spools and a pair of cutting tables suggested it had once held supplies of hull fabric. Now it had been pressed into service as a laboratory. A generator clattered in the background. Newly-installed electric lights shone down on workbenches, desks, and shelves filled with arcane instruments that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a radio drama. But it was the object in the center of the room that dominated the setting.

"So this is the `Device' that has attracted the Admiralty's attention," said Clark.

"Yes, sir," said Michaelson. "We recovered it from the bottom of Rabaul's harbor two days after the incident."

"And this is all of it?"

"I believe so. We set down divers to be certain sure we didn't miss anything."

The Commodore frowned. "It doesn't look much like a weapon."

Everett had to agree. The delivery system -- Fuller's `automatic speedboat' -- was comparatively intact. A few seams might have sprung when the mortar fired, but with a bit of caulking compound, a supply of fuel, and some care to ensure the compressed air lines functioned better than they had the first time, the vessel would be ready for action.

The Device had not fared quite as well. The charge had propelled the slug into its target with considerable force, splitting open electronics boxes, twisting and breaking the thick steel rails and fusing metal together with the power of the impact. Clark studied the wreckage thoughtfully.

"This is identical to the device you saw on Ujelang?" he asked Everett.

"Yes, sir," said the captain.

"What did it look like before it was fired?"

"It consisted of two machined blocks of metal located at opposite ends of a short steel track. You can see the remains of the latter here and here. One block was bolted in place, surrounded by a shell of beryllium that our informant described as a `reflector'. The other was mounted on a carriage affixed to a small mortar, and tipped with a pellet of a substance known as `polonium'. We have no idea what purpose this material served, but according to our chemist, it is a metalloid, soluble in weak acids, with radioactive properties. When the mortar fired, it drove the two blocks together.

"And this caused an explosion sufficient to destroy an entire island?"

"In the case of the Ujelang Device, yes," said Everett. "We have reason to believe this one was a dud."

"So it would seem," mused Clark. "Do we have an explanation for this difference in effects?"

Michaelson indicated the fused lumps at the business end of the track. "It may be related to some quality of the metal from which these blocks were fashioned. Our chemist has identified it as `uranium': a rare substance discovered by German apothecary toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, with chemical characteristics similar to tungsten and chromium. It is derived from an ore known as `uraninite', which we know was of interest to both the White Russians and German nationalists. Like `polonium', it is radioactive, and we've made some observations in this regard that may be pertinent. If you'll allow me to demonstrate..."

"Please do," said the Commodore.

Michaelson opened a cabinet and removed a bulky wooden case, fitted with a dial, a speaker, and several switches. A metal and glass tube, about the size of the hand lamp, was connected to the case by an insulated cable. The senior captain flipped a switch, waited for the instrument to warm up, then hefted the tube.

"This," he explained, "is a Müller Counter. It is device for measuring the intensity of ionizing radiation, developed by Walther Müller in 1925 with the assistance of Hans Geiger. We found this particular unit aboard a vessel belonging to the German nationalists. Observe what happens when I hold the detector near one of these ore samples."

Michaelson waved the tube over a dull black rock on the table beside him. As he did so, the needle twitched and a sporadic succession of clicks emerged from the speaker.

"Now note what happens when I hold the detector near the metal."

This time the needle slammed against its peg and the succession of clicks became a roar.

"Interesting," said Clark. "You suggest that this material must be concentrated in some way to serve as a weapon, but the level of concentration in this example was insufficient?"

"The evidence is suggestive," said Michaelson. "And the Russians do have a long tradition of building non-functional prototypes to impress their superiors."

"Do you have any idea how this process of `concentration' was accomplished?"

"No, but Captain Everett..." Michaelson paused, as if unwilling to give any credit to the other man, "...did locate two hidden Russian laboratories that might have been used for this purpose."

"Dixon," said Clark, "what do you make of this 'Device'?"

The scientist turned to Michaelson. "Might I borrow that detector for a moment?"

Michaelson passed him the instrument. For the next several minutes, the American poked and prodded the wreckage while humming the tune to some popular song. After he was finished, he washed his hands in the sink, held them over the detector for a moment, then switched the unit off.

"It's a tight piece of work," he announced. "I'm not quite sure what made it tick, but the folks who designed it knew their onions. Where'd it come from?"

Onions? thought Everett. It seemed the Colonials' grasp of English had deteriorated markedly during the years since their rebellion. "Circumstantial evidence points to one of the laboratories we discovered," he replied. "It contained a substantial vault the occupants managed to seal shut before they were overwhelmed by the German nationalists. When we revisited the place a short time later, we found that the Germans had returned in our absence, cut open the door, and removed the vault's contents. There is every reason to believe this was the Ujelang Device."

"So I understand from your reports," said Clark. "You've occupied the time since this discovery by trying to track down German nationalists and their White Russian counterparts?"

"Yes, sir," Michaelson said cautiously.

Clark nodded brusquely, like a headmaster disappointed by one of his students. "You've been going about this all wrong," he announced. "Obviously the thing to do is reexamine those laboratories. I'm surprised you didn't think of this."

Everett glanced at Michaelson, who seemed to be trying to bite his tongue. But any sense of triumph he might have felt was erased by the Commodore's next words.

"We shall rectify this oversight. I will transfer my flag to the R-505 while my vessel is being serviced and see to it that you investigate these sites properly."

Next week: A Distinctive Debut in Darwin...

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