The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 226: A Brief Moment of Tranquility

Bottle, beach, and boat

By the time Fleming reached the beach, the freighter had lowered a boat. He watched as it pulled towards shore. It was a utilitarian craft, scarred by years of service, on which someone had painted the name Donkey. He found this reassuring. It didn't seem like the kind of name conspirators would chose. Minutes later he was stepping forward to take the painter and help the crew drag their vessel up onto the sand. The skipper nodded to him, reached into an ice chest, and handed him a beer.

"G'day, mate," he announced. "Have some amber fluid! I'm Ray. That's our ship, the Tranquility. What's your moniker?"

Fleming hid his surprise. How could these people not know who he was? The Flying Cloud had crossed paths with them twice before. Then he realized that they'd only seen the landing parties. They could have no way of knowing who else was on the airship's crew.

It occurred to him that there might be some advantage to retaining his anonymity. "I'm Starbuck," he said brightly. He was getting used to the name by now.

"How'd you end up on Serua?" asked Ray. "I thought the Dutch evacuated this place after the eruption in '21."

Serua, thought Fleming. So that's where I am! He started to reply, then hesitated. What possible reason could he give for being alone on a deserted island in the middle of the Banda Sea? Unable to think of any alternatives, he decided to stay close to truth.

"I'm an airman in the Commonwealth Navy Researve," he explained. "I was sent to Darwin to fill out the crew of one of their gunboats. We were on our way to some atoll near Timor when we were attacked by a submarine."

Ray raised an eyebrow. "A submarine?" he protested. "Don't come the raw prawn!"

"It's fair dinkum," said Fleming. "They hit us with a torpedo, just aft of the bow. I was thrown overboard by the explosion and the sub's crew took me prisoner."

The skipper shook his head in wonderment. "Who were these mugs?"

Fleming shrugged. "You got me, mate. The captain claimed his name was Omen and his boat was called the Sulituan, but those can't have been real names."

"How'd you get from Timor to the Banda Sea?"

"That's the strange part," said Fleming, for indeed it was. "They locked me in the loo `till they got here, then sent a party ashore. When it got back, this Omen chappie announced he had bizzo elsewhere and was leaving me behind."

Ray rubbed his chin. Fleming couldn't tell whether the man believed his story or not. "Well," he said at last. "We'll be happy to take you off the island, unless you want to stay and wait for the next eruption."

Fleming glanced up at the volcano, which was trailing a thin plume of smoke to the north. "I'll give that a miss."

The Tranquility was a typical island freighter. She was a small steamship, 2500 tons burden, powered by a venerable triple-compound engine ancient enough to have served on Cleopatra's barge. Her people were a motley assortment, drawn from the four quarters of the earth, who addressed each other by a bewildering assortment of nicknames that seemed to change according to circumstance. A few days after they left the island, Fleming found himself in conversation with a young slip of a girl named Elance. Her position aboard ship was quite impossible to determine. She wore engineer's overalls, but in here the South Pacific, this could have meant anything.

"You're lucky we dropped by when we did," she said cheerfully. "Who knows when the next ship might have shown up."

"Strewth!" agreed Fleming. "It could have been a long wait. What brought you to Serua?"

"Speculation," said the girl. "Cap'n heard the place had been abandoned and wondered if anything useful got left behind."

"Did you find anything?"

Elance gave an offhand shrug. "I wouldn't know. Cap'n never tells me anything. Why'd those fellows with the submarine call there? They sound like a pack of nits."

"Aye," laughed Fleming, "nits they were! But they knew how to keep their secrets.""

The girl seemed to think this over. "Did they say anything about an archaeological dig?"

Fleming hid his surprise. "Not that I recall. Why do you ask?"

"Just an idea," said the girl. "Some of those native artifacts are worth money."

For a moment, Fleming thought of mentioning his visit to the rim of the volcano and the notebook he'd found there. But one explanation might have led to another, and he was already concerned about keeping his story straight.

"Could be," he replied, "or they might have been after pirate treasure."

Elance laughed. "Yes, just like in a radio drama!"

A week of stately progress brought the freighter to Hollandia, a town on the northern shore of New Guinea that served the Dutch as a district capital. The settlement bore little resemblance to its German and English counterparts in Rabaul and Port Moresby. The local administrators had sought to compensate for the disadvantages of a mediocre harbor, uncomfortable climate, and unfavorable location by neglecting to enforce the regulations they never enacted in the first place. The result was a triumph of laisez-faire capitalism, with an emphasis on the laisez -- the kind of port where you could find anything you wanted, and some things you most certainly did not.

By now, Fleming had concluded that the Tranquility was unlikely to get him back to Australia any time in the foreseeable future. He considered presenting himself at the Government House as a distressed airman, but rejected this idea as unwise. Word would almost certainly get back to Cairns, which might raise awkward questions as to how he'd become separated from his ship in the first place. At last, lacking any better ideas, he decided to visit the air station in hope of finding a berth.

The mooring masts were occupied by an assortment of vessels, ranging from inter-island blimps to a visiting Japanese packet. Most of the rigids were British or German designs, but one ship seemed different from the rest. Her lines looked German, but subtle features of her construction -- details only a skilled airman might notice -- suggested she was an Astra-Torres product. She had an American registration, N-109, but such things could be forged...

Could it be? he thought in amazement. Did I just happen to find the AT-38?

He strolled past the mast and glanced at the notice board to see the usual listing of freight rates. This told no tales. Beside it, a grizzled-looking airman who might have been the ship's skipper was putting up a want ad for crew.

This was too good an opportunity to miss. "My name's Starbuck," said Fleming. "I see you're looking for hands."

The skipper looked him up and down. "What kind of experience you got?"

"Commonwealth Navy Reserve," said Fleming, "with three years on government packets, mostly Armstrong-Whitworths." This seemed safe enough. Everyone served on those at one time or another, and they were similar to the Franco-German design.

The skipper held out a grease-stained hand. "Welcome aboard, Mister Starbuck."

"I followed Starbuck to the air station," Elance told Ray. "He signed up on one of the commercial airships, the N-109. No one's seen them before, but the crew are American, the owner is a man named Marty, and the skipper's last name is something like Loghead."

"Loghead?" Ray said in amazement. "They don't sound like Admiralty agents. Perhaps we were wrong about the fellow."

"Maybe," said Elance, "but he was hiding something, Cap'n. I could tell."

Ray nodded. "I'm sure you're right. We'll mention it to Karlov."

Next week: You May Not Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way The Wind Blows, But It Helps...

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