The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 241: An Official Presence

The R-382 en route to Dorosago

Clark's crew brought the Cottswold down to the mooring at Buli with their usual competence. The station's facilities might have been primitive and its handling parties poorly trained, but they were not about to let such things interfere with the smooth operation of one of His Majesty's Airships. MacKiernan watched the evolution with a certain amount of professional envy, then turned his attention to the town below.

It was not at all obvious why someone had thought to establish a port here. The roadstead was poor, exposed to the southeast trades, the prospects for trade seemed limited, and the surrounding land looked notably unfertile. A few decrepit warehouses attested to the presence of some struggling mining venture, but there were no other signs of industry. Perhaps the other harbors are worse, MacKiernan thought, though I can't imagine how.

While he was pondering this, the bow station called to announced that the mooring was secure. "Well done, gentleman," said the Commodore. "Mister Bainbridge, ring Finished With Engines. We will keep the crew at regular watches while I go ashore to locate the Crown's representative for this... settlement. Mister MacKiernan, Miss Perkins, if you would come with me."

The Crown's representative in Buli was a sergeant from the 17th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, who'd retired to the Pacific after the War. The islands seemed to agree with him. His hair was bleached by the sun and his tan hid most of the scars from some action on the Western Front -- at Mons, perhaps. So far he'd resisted the temptation to go native, but the same could not be said for his shirt. This was as unlike an infantry jersey as it was possible to imagine. MacKiernan studied the garment in alarm, then glanced at Clark, but the Commodore seemed unfazed by the spectacle.

"Good morning," he said politely. "I am Commodore Clark, Royal Naval Airship Service, and these are Lieutenant Commander MacKiernan and Miss Perkins."

"I'm Warren Sheldon, owner and operator of Buli Distilled Spirits and Ferrous Minerals," said their host. "I watched your arrival. That was some fine ship-handling. How may I help you?"

"We would like to learn what we can about the European presence on this island."

Sheldon thought this over. "There isn't much to speak of," he replied. "Most is due to the missions. The Dutch Reformed Church maintains establishments in most of the larger villages, the Germans have missions in Dorosago and Kao, and the Americans have begun some form of evangelical activity in Galela, though I'm not sure of its exact nature. There are also some small commercial operations."

Clark gestured at the surrounding jungle, which seemed to offer few prospects for commerce. "Just what does this island produce?" he asked skeptically.

"Not much," their host admitted. "There are some mining interests -- that's why the Crown gave me this commission -- but for the most part, these have not been particularly successful. The only exceptions may be the Gossowong Gold Mine near Kao and the new nickel mine in the hills west of Weda."

"What extraordinary names," marveled Clark. "Is there much airship traffic here?"

"There are a few small blimps that fly between the villages," said Sheldon, "but besides this one, the only air stations substantial enough to handle large rigids are at Jailolo, Galela, Tobelo, Kao, Patani, and Weda."

"Do you maintain contacts in these places?"

"That's hardly necessary," said Sheldon. "The arrival of a ship from the outside world is big news in a place like this. I imagine word of your presence is already spreading over the island."

The Commodore nodded in satisfaction. "Thank you, Mister Sheldon, you've been very helpful. We will be returning to our vessel. Please send word if you hear of any other ships in the area."

Shortly after they were back aboard the Cottswold. Adley appeared on the bridge to report that a runner had arrived with a message. "Sir," he told the Commodore, "Sheldon has received a shortwave transmission from the Lutheran Mission at Dorosago. It appears that a large airship called there yesterday and departed early today. They didn't identify the vessel, but according to their report, she was approximately 650' long, with four propellers on a stern car, two wing cars, and an external control car. Her crew were German."

"That sounds like an S Class," Clark observed. "These will be our nationalists. Sound departure stations. We will lift ship immediately."

At full power with the wind abeam, the R-382 reached Dorosago in less than two hours. Rather than waste time mooring, Clark led a party down aboard the Transporter. Mid-day winds might have made this operation difficult, but flag officers in the Royal Naval Airship Service did not recognize the possibility of failure.

A small group of men in clerical garb was waiting when they reached the ground. "Guten tag," said one. "I am Father Klaus, leader of this mission. What brings you to our little village?"

"I am Commodore Clark, RNAS," said the Commodore. "I understand you had a visit from another airship recently. We would like to learn more about this vessel."

Klaus fidgeted uncomfortably. "We did receive such a visit," he admitted. "But I cannot say who these people were."

Clark gazed at the priest. "Cannot or don't know?" he asked.

The priest met the Commodore's gaze. "The former," he replied.

"I understand," said Clark, "and I can appreciate your situation. We are acquainted with these people and we do not share their interests. Would you happen to know where they're headed?"

Klaus hesitated, then appeared to reach a decision. "They warned us not to reveal this," he said quietly, "but we gathered their destination is Tobelo."

"Danke schon," said Clark. "This information will not be traced back to you. Never fear, Clark's on the case!"

Afternoon found the Cottswold heading west, engines thundering at full power. On most ships, this might have meant ruinous fuel consumption, but Hill Class ships had fuel and range to spare. As MacKiernan was coming off watch, he ran into Miss Perkins making her way toward the control car with a sheath of paperwork. She smiled as if the encounter had been accidental, then glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was in earshot.

"Fergus," she said quietly. "We need to compare notes. Do you think the Commodore knows he's chasing a different ship now?"

MacKiernan had been pondering this very same question. "I don't think he cares, Alice," he replied. "I suspect he's using this chase to hide his intentions while he searches for Karlov."

The secretary nodded. "That would be my suspicion as well, but who does he need to hide his intentions from? According to Everett's report from Java, the Fat Man already knows we're trying to find the man, and I can't believe the White Russians haven't guessed. The only other plausible candidate would seem to be Karlov himself."

"You worry about Clark's plans for the fellow?"

"I worry about the plans of his superiors. We still don't know who the Commodore is working for. If it's some faction in the Admiralty that's opposed to the Peace, or some ministers with connections to the British Union..." her voice trailed off.

MacKiernan frowned, disturbed by these prospects. "Then we'll have to find some way to find out," he decided.

Next week: Domestic Squabbles...

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