The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 438: The Well-Mannered Bunch

The Well-Mannered Bunch

Inquiries revealed that Burmah Oil's private rail line ran up the valley of N'Mai River to a village near the Chinese border. The name of this village wasn't clear, and seemed to vary depending on who they asked. Before the party could set out, they needed to address two concerns. The first involved transportation. The distance was too far to walk, and MacKiernan had some reservations about travel on horseback -- for obvious reasons service aboard one of His Majesty's airships didn't allow officers much chance to polish their equestrian skills. Fortunately, the American archeological expedition had acquired several War-era Enfield motorcycles. Four of these machines, fitted with sidecars to hold supplies, fuel, tools, spare parts, and Miss Perkins, would be adequate for their needs.

The second concern was the countryside though which they'd be traveling. Northern Kachin Province was poorly suited for large-scale agriculture. For this reason, it had escaped the spread of plantations that had displaced farmers to the south. Many of those displaced farmers had sought refuge here in the north and might not be well-disposed towards representatives of the nation that had displaced them. After considering several disguises, the travelers decided to pose as sportsmen, with Miss Kim accompanying them as maid and Abercrombie as an irresistible force to deal with any immovable objects they might encounter.

The first stage of the journey went smoothly. The hills though which they passed were remarkable for their beauty, and the Enfields' mighty three horsepower engines made short work of distance, though top speed was limited by the condition of the roads, the frailty of flesh and bone, and the absence of anything even remotely resembling a suspension. Inns along the way offered simple fare -- potatoes and rice, though some adventurous chefs also experimented with rice and potatoes. Drink was equally rustic -- a mixture of sour milk, spices, and something that might have been tea.

They stopped for the evening at a caravanserai some miles short of their destination. After a hearty but somewhat flavorless meal (rich in starch, vitamin C, thiamine, and folic and pantothenic acids) Professor Jones entertained the party with tales of his colleagues. These reflected professional concerns entirely unlike the ones to which his audience was accustomed.

"...he was always cautious around a dig," the professor said at the conclusion of one. "From the way he acted, you'd think he expected steel darts to shoot out of the wall or some big boulder to come rolling down the trench. Still, he did good work at the Segontium dig. He was one of Arthur Evans' proteges, along with Wheeler, Childe, Hauptman, and that Scott guy."

MacKiernan's ears perked up at the last name. "You know an archaeologist named Scott?"

"Yep. Why do you ask?"

"I wonder if we may have met the fellow. Miss Perkins, do you have a photograph of the inspector?"

The secretary rummaged around in her handbag to produce a small folder, extracted a print, and handed it to Jones. The professor examined this and nodded.

"That's the man," he told them. "Meriam Scott, of the London Museum. We call him Scott of the Yard. You have to watch out for that guy! He's one sharp cookie!"

"Why would he be looking for your missing chemist?" Miss Perkins asked while MacKiernan was struggling with this idiom.

Jones frowned. "He must be trying to steal our technique for isotopic analysis. The jerk! He'll stop at nothing to get his data! I remember that time on the Pabodie expedition to Leng when he..."

"Excuse me," MacKiernan interrupted. "Might I ask what these `isotopes' are and why it's so important to analyze them?"

"I'm not entirely clear on the subject, but it seems that chemical elements can come in different forms, with slightly different weights," said Jones, repeating the explanation he'd given to Everett and Jenkins the week before. "It all has something to do with things called `neutrons'. Professor Koshino has come up with a better way to separate these different forms. By comparing the ratio between them, we can determine the provenance of artifacts we find in a dig. This allows us to map ancient trade networks and search for evidence of cultural diffusion."

MacKiernan and Miss Perkins exchanged glances. They could imagine other uses for such an invention, and it seemed the Japanese nationalists had too. This was not cause for joy.

Jones must have noticed their expressions. "Your Captain Everett was also curious about isotopes," he remarked. "Have you got any idea why?"

MacKiernan pretended indifference. "Officers in the Royal Navy Airship Service have a professional interest in chemistry," he replied. "It's part of our culture. All that hydrogen, you know."

The professor seemed satisfied with this explanation. "Yep," he chuckled. "You wouldn't want to get any oxygen mixed in with that stuff."

That night, MacKiernan found himself unable to sleep. Memories of the titanic explosion on Ujelang brought back memories of other explosions, the War, a telegram, and a face he'd never see again. At last he rose, tugged on his clothes, and stepped outside to check the weather. A dog was barking somewhere in the distance. The moon, a few days before full, shone down upon the mountains to the east. In its uncertain light, they looked like ghosts of mountains. Nearer at hand, he could make out a stretch of the railway line they'd been following. He noticed a figure standing on his side of the courtyard. Looking more closely, he saw that it was Miss Kim.

He coughed gently to announce his presence. "Good evening," he said politely. "What brings you out so late at night?"

"Can't sleeping," said the woman. "These mountains. Saw before. Bad memories."

MacKiernan nodded. So I'm not the only one, he thought to himself. "Are we near the place you were held?" he asked.

"I think so," she said. "It was valley like this. Also with train tracks."

"Could it have been this Burmah Oil plant we're looking for?"

"I not knowing, but there was English peoples working with Japanese. That maked it hard to trust you."

"You trust us now, I hope," said MacKiernan.

"Some," she said. "You, Captain, Miss Perkins, Abercrombie."

MacKiernan thought of the cufflink the woman had been carrying. "What about Lieutenant-Commander Forsythe? Was he being held with you?"

She glanced at him. "He was worst!" she said sharply. "I go sleeping now. Good night commander."

The party got an early start the next morning, hoping to make progress before dust could rise with the heat of the day. Miles passed uneventfully and soon they topped a rise to see the destination lying ahead. They pulled off the road to study the place through binoculars.

It might have been a traditional Burmese hill village, were it not the mooring mast, fuel depot, and hydrogen plant. The watchtowers, searchlights, and barbed wire fence, were also a non-traditional touch. Professor Jones examined the latter items and raised his eyebrows.

"Wow, those Burmah Oil guys sure take their oil seriously!" he remarked.

"So it would seem," said MacKiernan. "I hadn't expected their establishment to have such substantial defenses. This shall require some thought."

Next week: Tally Ho, Odin Old Chap!...

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