The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 206: Misdirection

A British Union armband

In all his years of service, Captain Michaelson had never quite gotten used to the view inside an airship shed. The scale was enormous -- more like a product of nature than some work of hands. Its walls rose like the sides of a canyon, curving to meet high overhead. Their intricate array of girders, catwalks, ladders, and hoists seemed lost in the distance. The airship hung between them, dwarfing the workers below. The mind knew it couldn't fall, but sometimes intuition rebelled.

Lieutenant-Commander Fredrickson seemed unaffected by the spectacle. "We've completed our inspection of the Cottswold, sir," he announced, holding up a clipboard. "I have the results here."

"How much work will she need?" asked Michaelson.

The maintenance chief scratched one beefy arm, then reached into a pocket of his overalls for a pair of reading glasses. "About what we expected," he replied. "We'll want to replace some of the rigging around Frame 230 -- that's been a problem area with these Hill Class ships. There's also the usual trouble with the upper fabric on the horizontal stabilizers. Her plant seems sound, but compression is down on Engines Three and Five. That will be the exhaust valves. For some reason those always seem to wear faster on the starboard cars."

Michaelson nodded. "How about her gas cells?"

"Most are in very good shape. The Commodore's people seem to know what they're doing. But hydrogen purity is down in Number Seven, which suggests a slow leak. I'd recommend replacing it with a new cell from Stores."

"How long will all this take?"

"With the new cell, I'd estimate six to eight days; faster if we work around the clock. I have the requisitions and schedules here."

Michaelson accepted the clipboard, flipped the report, then handed it back with a curt nod. "Thank you, Mister Fredrickson," he replied. "You've done a good job, as always. Regular shifts should suffice. I don't imagine the Commodore will return prior to the 24th. Please get started immediately."

After Fredrickson was gone, Michaelson gazed up at the hull of the Cottswold, contemplating the implications of the Commodore's visit. The game had become more complicated. Who were the new players, he wondered? He could think of several possibilities. One was cause for concern. He needed to learn more, but he also needed some distraction to disguise the purpose of his investigation.

Inevitably, his mind slid to other matters. Eight years... had it really been so long? How much longer could it go on? And who would be left standing when it finally came to an end?

Beside him, Miss Perkins cleared her throat. "Should we be getting back to your office, sir? Admiral Wentworth will be expecting a report."

"Pardon me," Michaelson said. "I was woolgathering."

An onlooker might not have guessed his thoughts, but it was his secretary's job to be perceptive. "About the Flying Cloud?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied. "Commodore Clark cannot have come here on his own initiative. We need to find out who sent him and why, so Captain Everett must serve as our catspaw. Again."

Miss Perkins looked up at his face. "Sir," she asked quietly. "Forgive me if I seem out of place, but I cannot help but wonder about this contention between you. May I ask..."

Inwardly, Michaelson smiled. If Miss Perkins hadn't realized what he was about, the distraction was working. But his expression remained stern. "No," he replied sharply, "you may not."

They reached his office to find Phelps waiting with a message. The signalman looked stolid as ever, like a piece of equipment left standing by the door. "We've received a wire from Sydney," he announced. "It appears that a French airship, one of the early Astra Torres products, was hijacked from the air station on Lifou Island two days ago. The administrator there has apprehended several suspects. They claim to be British subjects, so he's sending them to us."

Michaelson raised his eyebrows. "A group of Englishmen travelled all the way to the South Pacific to hijack an obsolete French dirigible?"

"So it would seem."

"How extraordinary!"

The prisoners arrived the next day, aboard a pre-War French destroyer. Apparently the French authorities in the New Hebrides didn't deem them worthy of faster form of transportation. They seemed somewhat worse for the wear. This was hardly surprising, for it was difficult to imagine their accommodations had been luxurious -- indeed, given quality of the living space aboard small surface warships, it was difficult to imagine their accommodations at all.

Michaelson received his new guests in a schoolroom. It was a convenient place to conduct an interrogation, and the setting tended to place subjects at a disadvantage. They fidgeted in a row of uncomfortable wooden chairs while he studied the material the French had sent.

"I understand your name is Andrew Clement," he told the leader. "You stand accused of hijacking a French civilian airship, the Cigogne, AT-38, on the 15th of March. What do you have to say for yourselves?"

The prisoner stared back defiantly. "We didn't do it," he announced.

Michaelson raised an eyebrow. "Do you deny you were found on the mooring mast after the airship was hijacked?"

"That's rather the point," said Clement. "We were on the mast. The ship was in the air. So we could hardly have been the hijackers, could we?"

Michaelson glanced at Miss Perkins. She shrugged. "He does have a point," she whispered.

"Let us not leap to conclusions," he whispered back. "If you weren't up to no good," he told his prisoners, "why were you at the top of the mast?"

"We climbed it to watch the moonrise," said Clement.

"A likely story," said Michaelson. He didn't need to check the calendar; like all Royal Navy officers of command rank, he had the phases of the moon memorized. "You may claim to be simple naturalists. But how do you explain these!"

He reached into the folder in front of him pulled out a fistful of armbands -- strips of red cloth, each one emblazoned with a blue circle split by a white lightning bolt. His prisoner glanced at them with a singular lack of curiosity.

"Those are the emblem of our fraternal organization," he replied, "the Ancient and Venerable Brotherhood of Moonrise Watchers. The red represents the evening sky, the blue represents the moon, and the lightning bolt symbolizes the inspiration we feel in the presence of heaven's grandeur."

"And these numbers?"

"They're so we can determine who saw the moon rise first."

"I take it you were Number One?" Michaelson asked suspiciously.

Clement gave a modest shrug. "Someone had to be."

"And you were Number Six?" he said, pointing one of Clement's henchmen.

"I am not a number! I am a free....":

"Right," growled Michaelson. "These emblems bear a remarkable resemblance to the insignia of the British Union."

"Who are they?" asked Clement. "Some new rugby league?"

Michaelson hid his thoughts. It wasn't often that fortune handed him such an opportunity. "If you'll excuse us for a moment, gentlemen," he announced.

"What do you think, sir?" Miss Perkins asked after they'd stepped out to the hall.

"We must admire the man's inventiveness," he replied dryly. "I believe we'll have to let these fellows go. We don't have grounds to hold them."

"You think they're innocent?"

"Hardly. We will expend some of our resources to keep an eye on them. In particular, we will wish to determine who else might take an interest in our subjects. This may become a matter of some importance."

"What shall we tell Commodore Clark?"

"We will prepare a report about this interview, but I see no need to warn him we have the men under surveillance."

Her eyes met his. "I understand, sir."

Michaelson smiled to himself again. With so many birds about, it was important to economize on stones.

Next week: Mere Anarchists Are Loosed On The Land?...

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