The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 308: Kupang Time

Kupang Air Station sign

Fleming's Lillienthal glider hung from the cargo hold hoist like an abstract sculpture of some strange mythological bird. In what passed for the craft's cockpit, the airman was adjusting his harness straps and arranging a chart beneath a sheet of Parkesine. He seemed confident, but Everett wanted to make sure the Aussie wasn't about to take some unreasonable risk -- to the extent that it was possible to be certain of these things with members of his culture.

"Remember that this is a volunteer mission," he told the youth. "If you encounter any difficulties, abort your flight and find some safe place to land. You will still receive credit for the attempt."

Fleming gave them a thumbs-up sign. "Don't worry, Captain!" he announced. "She'll be apples! I've done this dozens of time before."

"Very well," said Everett. "Abercrombie, lower away 50'."

The rigger turned to the hoist controls and pushed a button. Panels rattled as the cargo bay doors slid open, then the glider began its descent. It yawed as it was caught by the slipstream, then straightened as Fleming made a correction. When the winch had paid out fifty feet, Abercrombie braked it to a halt.

"Crivens," he muttered. "The laddie must be mad."

Everett could appreciate the Scotsman's sentiment. From this angle, the glider looked impossibly small and vulnerable -- a toy when measured against the immensity of the sky. It wobbled briefly in pitch, roll, and yaw as Fleming checked his controls. Satisfied, the youth gave them a wave, pulled the release, and dropped away behind them.

Everett thumbed the intercom to the bridge. "MacKiernan, do you have him in sight?"

"Aye, Captain. He just started to circle and seems to be climbing. I imagine he's found one of those `thermals' he was telling us about."

"We will assume that he knows what he's doing," Everett observed. "He has proved quite resourceful in the past. Let us continue with our own business."

They remained offshore to avoid observation, but touched the coast briefly to examine the site of the abandoned Russian laboratory. By now the clearing was heavily overgrown -- testimony to the fecundity of tropical vegetation. The barge still lay near the mouth of the estuary, riding somewhat higher now that it was empty.

"It doesn't look as if anyone's been here since those fellows on that freighter picked up that cargo of barbed wire," said MacKiernan. "What was its name?"

"That would have been the Tranquility," said Iverson. "We've run into them several times now. I've always wondered about the contents of that barge. Why would anyone need several tons of barbed wire out here?"

"The brochures we found aboard suggested it was for the Rabbit-Proof Fence," said Jenkins.

"The Rabbit-Proof Fence?" said Sarah. "Whatever is that?"

"It's a long barrier in Western Australia intended to prevent rabbits from spreading east," said Jenkins.

The island girl brightened. "Like Great Wall of China, only different."

"I suppose that's one way of looking at it," said Jenkins, with a hint of a smile.

Iverson had been studied the surf where it broke across the bar. "Shall we send down a party in the launch?" he asked apprehensively, knowing who might be asked to lead it.

"I'm unwilling to spend the time and resources this early in our mission," said Everett. "We will continue on to Kupang.

Kupang looked the same as ever -- a small cluster of Dutch colonial offices surrounded by a maze of warehouses, bungalows, godowns, and shacks that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Eighteenth Century. To the west, the air station provided a taste of the Twentieth. Several 's -- Dutch copies of the Armstrong Whitworth built under license -- rode from its masts, and a row of construction equipment to the south suggested that the facilities were undergoing expansion.

Mooring operations went smoothly. The Dutch may not have been quite as well-organized as the Germans or British, but they did have their pride, and a team of islanders walked the ship to the mast with practiced efficiency. After the vessel was secure, Everett set off with MacKiernan to pay a visit to the Resident. He brought Murdock along as well -- this would be a good experience for the young lieutenant, and his presence might lead their host to underestimate them.

Murdock seemed impressed by the town's history. "Is this really where Captain Bligh landed after the mutiny?" he asked.

"Yes," MacKiernan said innocently. "He was worried about cannibals."

The lieutenant glanced around in alarm. Everett caught MacKiernan's eye and made a scolding gesture. "They generally are not a problem this early in the day," he observed.

Murdock did not seem entirely reassured. "Was he really as harsh a disciplinarian as they say?" he asked.

"This is a matter of some debate," said Everett. "His name may have become a byword for excessive severity, but his logs suggest he was fairly lenient by the standards of the day. He also proved an able administrator during his tenure in Australia. In any event, most of blame for mutiny must lie with the mutineers. This Fletcher Christian was a man of questionable character, and many of his co-conspirators may have been motivated by a desire to enjoy the presumed advantages of a life in Tahiti."

"And a fine set of advantages they are," agreed MacKiernan. "It must have been quite the temptation."

Murdock gazed at his superiors quizzically. "What do you mean?"

Everett studied the youth's expression and repressed a sigh. "You'll understand when you're older."

The Resident was a polite well-groomed Dutchman with a neatly trimmed mustache and beard -- hardly the picture of a dishonest official -- but dissimulation was part of the job description for corrupt colonial administrators. "Welcome to Kupang," he told them. "It's not every day we're fortunate enough to receive a visit from the Royal Navy. I assume you're here to investigate that complaint of an attack on British nationals."

Everett hid his surprise. This was the first he'd heard of such a thing. "We trust your office to manage the investigation," he replied graciously. "But we'd be interesting in learning what you've discovered."

The Resident seemed to relax slightly. "It was minor incident," he assured them. "A pair of tourists was accosted by ruffians, but their butler was able to drive the assailants off. I will have a copy of the report sent to your ship."

"Thank you," said Everett. "We're also curious about these recent episodes of piracy. We understand an airship was involved."

"So it has been claimed," said the Resident, "but these supposed attacks hardly deserve to be called piracy . They've been more in the nature of petty theft. I gather there have been similar incidents in French Polynesia. Perhaps the same people are involved."

"Where could they find resupply?" Murdock asked artlessly. Bless him, thought Everett. That should put our host off-guard.

The Resident's smile could have sold any number of used cars. "They would find this difficult in the Dutch East Indies," he informed them. "We police these waters quite thoroughly. This is not some lawless region like New Guinea."

Next week: Airman Fleming's Wild Ride...

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