The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 450: To Strive, To Seek, To Find... Somewhere...

Control Car of the R-505

Clouds rushed past the windows, reducing the world outside to a formless swirl of grey. Land, sea, and sky were all hidden from view. Had this been a mountainside, travelers would have been groping for shelter as they prayed for the storm to pass. Had it been an aeroplane, its crew would have been tense with fear, struggling to keep the wings level with the unseen horizon, waiting for the inevitable moment when they lost control and their machine plunged into the ground. Fortunately, this was an airship -- a far more civilized environment.

Everett set down his dividers and glanced toward the head of the bridge. "Heading and altitude?" he asked.

"350 at 55 knots," Loris replied from the helm.

"3200, climbing at 300," said Wallace from the elevatorman's station.

Outside, the light was growing brighter. Traces of blue began to shine through the mist. Then they were skimming the top of the cloud deck like some sleek diesel-powered galleon sailing across a sea of white. To the west, a few scattered peaks rose above the clouds like islands.

Everett nodded in satisfaction. "That would be the Atherton Tableland," he said. "We'll maintain this rate of climb until we reach 5000', then turn left to 290."

"Where will we be heading, sir?" Iverson asked from the chart table, where he'd been trying to follow the captain's navigation.

"We'll cross the foot of the Cape York Peninsula and make the coast south of the Mitchell River," said Everett. "From there we'll proceed north to Cape Keerweer, then turn west toward Darwin for resupply."

Iverson's brow furrowed. This course seemed unnecessarily complicated. He'd been expecting them to head directly to the Dutch East Indies. "What are our intentions?" he asked in puzzlement.

Everett smiled to himself. He could understand the lieutenant's bewilderment. Politics was an older man's game. "Michaelson ordered us to investigate the White Russian's secret laboratory on Oa Ki, but provided no real timeline for the investigation," he explained. "This suggests he has no real interest in the place, and has sent us chasing after some red herring so he can use us as a stalking horse again." He paused for a moment, hoping no one had noticed this awkward combination of metaphors. "We'll take advantage of the situation to conduct some investigations of our own, in case we need something to show for our efforts."

"It could have been worse," Sarah observed. "He could have sent us chasing after a red horse so he could use us as a stalking herring."

"Right," Iverson said hastily. "I take it we'll be looking for something on the coast?"

Everett nodded. "Indeed we will," he told them. "I'll leave you to guess what this might be."

After their watch was over, Iverson walked Sarah back to her cabin. This might not have been necessary -- the island girl was more than capable of defending herself against any of the threats that didn't exist aboard one of His Majesty's Airships -- but it gave them a chance to compare notes on the day's events. Most of the crew were asleep by now, and the vessel was quiet except for the well-mannered drone of the engines. Above them, the Number Eleven gas cell loomed in the shadows.

"It seems Michaelson is up to his old tricks again," Iverson said sourly. "I wonder what he's up to this time."

"Why is he so hostile to the Captain?" asked Sarah. "Theirs seems to be a long-standing feud. Is there anything in their backgrounds that could explain it?"

"Not that I know of," Iverson admitted. "I had occasion to look up Michaelson's service record last fall. The early part wasn't particularly detailed -- the Royal Navy doesn't take much interest in the affairs of lowly lieutenants and commanders -- but his later career seemed quite ordinary. He transferred to the Airship Service shortly after the War and made captain a few weeks before Everett did. Since then, he's held a succession of shore commands prior to the one at Cairns. The two don't seem to have crossed paths at all during that time."

The island girl thought this over. "Perhaps their feud has something to do with the Warfields," she suggested. "We know that the Baroness was once the Captain's fiancé. Could Michaelson have some connection with the Warfields as well?"

Iverson frowned. This possibility had never occurred to him. "I imagine Jenkins would know, but he'd never tell," he observed.

"No," chuckled Sarah, "I don't imagine he would. But please keep an eye on the Captain, John. He seems so alone sometimes. And he never married after Lady Warfield left. I wonder if that hit him harder than he lets on."

Sunrise found the Flying Cloud cruising north on the Gulf of Carpenteria side of the Cape York Peninsula. To port, squalls dotted the horizon, but the rainy season hadn't begun in this part of Australia, and these showed no inclination to merge into storms. To starboard, a few small rivers, many of them dry for most of the year, threaded their way through the savanna toward the coast.

The history of European colonization in this part of the world was not one of unqualified success. The soil was remarkably infertile even by Australia's unique standards, the few meager deposits of ore were exhausted almost as soon as they were discovered, and the shoreline offered little in the way of economic opportunities unless there should suddenly be some world-wide demand for mangrove roots. For these reasons, it had been largely neglected until 1864, when the Jardine brothers drove a herd of cattle from Rockhamption to Somerset for reasons known only to themselves. They had not been followed by a wave of settlers, and the largest village -- Kowanyama, on the shore of the grandly-named Magnificent Creek -- was little more than a collection of thatched-roofed huts accompanied by an Anglican mission.

When Iverson and Sarah came on watch, Everett was at the chart table. Iverson wondered what he could possibly be using for landmarks off this coastline where everything looked the same. Sarah showed a more practical turn of mind.

"Good morning, Captain!" she said cheerfully. "I've guessed why you brought us here. You want to inspect Helga's old freighter."

"You are correct," told her. "We didn't have leisure to do this properly last year, and there's always a chance the Fat Man's people left some clues behind when they took the vessel."

Iverson nodded. It had been slightly more than a year since they'd come upon the wreck of the original Viking Girl. Since then, leisure had been conspicuous by its absence. He was about to make some comment to this effect when Davis' voice crackled over the intercom.

"Upper Lookout to Bridge, I have the wreck in sight, bearing 010, range ten miles. You might want to take a look at it, sir."

They stepped to the window and raised their binoculars. After a moment, Everett spoke.

"My my."

Next week: Daring Damsels of Darwin...

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