The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 331: Dueling Cover Stories

The Mysterious Cruiser ona mooring

Clarice tried not to be too obviously curious as their captors marched her and her companions across the base. It was surprisingly large for a settlement this far in the outback. She supposed the rail line simplified supply, but this didn't explain what so many people were doing in the middle of nowhere.

The inhabitants seemed to be divided into three groups. The first were quite obviously Australians, easily recognized by their casual attitude toward their surroundings, each other, and anything that remotely resembled discipline. Clarice hoped this attitude would extend to conspiracy.

The second group seemed to be foreigners. They had northern European features and seemed to be quite uncomfortable in this climate. She imagined these were the Finns. What could have brought them into this game, she wondered? It was an understatement to say that Finland was not one of the major Powers. She struggled to remember what she could about the country, but all she could think of was reindeer.

The third group was Japanese. They were few in number, but they watched the three women just as carefully as the three women were pretending not to be watching them. It was clear that this group had military training. Months of travel aboard a succession of naval and civilian vessels had taught Clarice to recognize the signs. Where had these people obtained it? Were they regular Japanese naval personnel or members of some paramilitary organization? If it was the former, what was the Navy's involvement? If it was the latter, how had they managed to build and operate a large modern airship without anyone noticing?

She turned her attention to their vessel. By now, she'd acquired enough appreciation of airship design to recognize an impressive work of engineering. Its titanic hull was carefully streamlined, with the 6:1 fineness ratio Burgess recommended for large airships. Eight engines, in rows of four on each side, drove large paddle-bladed propellers that seemed to scream `efficiency'. The control car -- a graceful aerodynamic blister beneath the bow -- was the epitome of speed.

The vessel bore a striking resemblance to the new American cruiser that was undergoing acceptance tests in California. Clarice imagined her builders had based their plans on the original. But subtle design features, such as the shape of the engine cars and the way windows were fitted to their frames, recalled the Flying Cloud.

"You noticed too," whispered Emily.

"What could it mean?" asked Clarice.

"There are several possibilities," Miss Perkins whispered back, "but now is not the time to speculate. First we must convince these people that we're only innocent travelers. Do you remember our story?"

What story? thought Clarice. They'd only had time to discuss the rudiments of a plan. This seemed to involve acting dumb, improvising, and hoping for the best.

The headquarters building was a sizable wooden mansion on the western side of the compound. Its furnishing were quite sumptuous, and Clarice guessed this was where much of the material for George Channel's supposed resort had ended up. The guards escorted them through an elegant foyer down a richly-decorated hallway to an office that might not have seemed out of place in a first-class hotel. Inside, a man sat at a desk examining some kind of map.

The Finnish leader didn't quite match Clarice's expectations. She'd anticipated some hard-faced Norseman, perhaps, with a face weathered by a thousand storms, or some chubby red-clad reindeer herder. Instead, this man looked more like some eccentric middle-aged hobbyist.

"Welcome to Kani Tukikohta," he said politely. "My name is Oskari. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?"

Miss Perkins offered him a delighted smile. "I'm Miss Perkins and these are my friends, Clarice and Emily," she replied. "This is a marvelous station you have. It must have taken a remarkable effort to build, out here in the middle of the wasteland."

Don't come the raw prawn! thought Clarice. That's laying it on too thick. It can't possibly work!

The man preened himself, pleased to receive a compliment from an attractive woman. "Well," he admitted bashfully, "I suppose I must take some credit for this. I'm an archaeologist. Do you know what that is?"

Clarice reconsidered her evaluation of Miss Perkins' strategy. Well, she thought, perhaps it might work after all.

"You study circles?" said Emily, getting into the mood.

The man chuckled. "No, archeology is the study of ancient civilizations."

"Good on ya!" said Clarice, deciding to pipe in. "Which ones are you studying?

Their host looked at her indulgently. "All of them," he explained. "Ancient civilizations have many unexplained similarities. One example is pyramids. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Mayans, and Aztecs all built them, even though their cultures were located on separate continents thousands of miles apart. This suggests they arose from some common ancestor."

Clarice did not find this argument very convincing. A decision by different ancient cultures to build pyramids was hardly meaningful. There were only so many ways one could construct monumental structures out of stone blocks. Also, the cultures in question were separated by thousands of years. Some, such as the Egyptians, dated back to the dawn of written civilization, while others, such as Aztecs, were so recent as to be almost modern.

"I never thought of that," she said untruthfully. "Is that why you're here?"

Oskari nodded. "One of my countryman, Professor Karolan, theorized that this first civilization was located in the South Pacific. This could explain certain legends that Baltic and Melanesian cultures have in common. One center of this civilization could have been in Western Australia."

"Then what's all this bizzo with signs about the Rabbit-Proof Fence?" asked Emily.

If the man had been standing, he might have shuffled his feet. "It's a cover story," he admitted, "to mislead competitors. In the tough brutal world of international archeology, you need every advantage you can get."

"What about those Chinese?" Miss Perkins asked artlessly. "Are they archaeologists too?" Clarice had to admire her delivery.

"No," said Oskari, "but they're Japanese, so we're both members of the same language group. That means we have to stick together."

The guards escorted the three women to a bunkroom that had been pressed into service as a cell. After they'd locked the door and departed, Miss Perkins strolled about the chamber, examining the walls in what Clarice assumed was a precaution against eavesdroppers.

"What do you think of the man's story?" Clarice asked when secretary was done.

"It was hardly convincing," said Miss Perkins. "This nested combination of tales about a resort, a vermin-control structure, and some implausible ancient civilization must be intended to hide what seems to be a secret Japanese base."

"Why would Japanese nationalists want a secret base in Western Australia?" asked Emily, "and what is Lady Warfield's involvement?"

Miss Perkins rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "I don't have the slightest idea, yet."

"What do you think of our guests' story?" Lady Warfield asked Oskari.

"It was not very convincing," said the Finn. "I doubt they are the innocent tourists they pretend to be. They must be working for interlopers, trying to find our site."

The baroness nodded. "Do you think they have the Key?"

The Finn rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "No, but they may know who has it. We shall have to find out."

Next week: I Suppose It Could Be a Clue...

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