The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 455: Surely You Don't Suggest It Was Our Fault

Everett and Jenkins face Aunt Prodigia

Everett glanced at the altimeter, then down at the island that was receding below and in front of them. They'd taken station above it to recover the ground party. Now, by keeping the same power settings, they could drop downwind as they climbed -- an unnecessary bit of flamboyance, perhaps, but that sort of thing came with being an airman. "Take her up to 3000', then give me a turn left to 95, and ring for three-quarter power on all three engines," he ordered after he was satisfied with the evolution.

"Climb to 3000." "Left to 95 and three-quarters on Engines One, Two, and Three," came the acknowledgments from elevator and helm.

"What are our intentions?" MacKiernan asked as the drone of the engines deepened.

"We'll set a course for the Cape York Peninsula, pick up the coast near the Edwards River, and turn south to find the place where we left Aunt Prodigia," said Everett. "This may dip into our supply of consumables, but her message did suggest some urgency."

"What do you think it's about?" asked the Irishman.

"I couldn't say, which suggests there's also no way a potential adversary could either unless they were directly involved. Perhaps that's why her message was so terse."

"Should we request a clarification?"

Everett shook his head. "Without a prearranged cipher, we have no way to keep our communications secure. We should arrive by tomorrow morning. We shall trust that will be soon enough. In the meantime let's see what Jenkins has found in the material we brought back from Oa Ki. Mister Iverson, you have the conn."

Jenkins had spread the ledgers across one of the tables in the mess hall -- the only place aboard ship large enough for this purpose. Now he was studying the text and making tally marks next to a list of Cyrillic characters. He sat back and rubbed his eyes as they entered, as if grateful for the interruption.

"What have you learned so far?" Everett asked him.

The signalman tapped one of volumes. "These appear to be a set of accounts, accompanied by notes, in a single substitution cipher," he replied. "The material includes a large number of abbreviations and technical terms, which complicates matters, but I imagine I should have some idea of its substance by tomorrow."

"Why would they take the trouble to encode a set of accounts?" wondered MacKiernan.

"One imagines it must have something to do with the secret of their refining process," Jenkins speculated. "Perhaps it mentions specialized chemicals or provides clues regarding the order in which they're used."

Everett nodded thoughtfully. "I suppose this is possible. Carry on, and let us know if you come across anything of interest."

They raised Cape York the next morning, just north of the same unremarkable settlement they'd used as a waypoint five days earlier. Neither the village, the shore on which it lay, or the muddy creek that flowed beside it had grown significantly more noteworthy during their absence. Everett gave the place a disinterested inspection through binoculars, then glanced back toward the radio shack.

"Have we received any new word from the Stalking Herring?" he asked Jenkins.

"I'm afraid not, sir," said the signalman. "The ether has been silent all morning."

Everett nodded and turned to Murdock, who was serving a stint at the helm to develop a feel for their vessel. "I suppose we'd better see what they've been up to," he remarked. "Mister Murdock, give me a turn right to 190."

"Right to 190."

The lieutenant eased the helm over and the horizon swung until the airship was heading south. For the next several minutes, there was little to see except mud, mangroves, and sand as the coastline swept past below them. At last the tug came into sight. She looked the same as before -- a bluff working boat, with no more concession to elegance than her owner -- but her surroundings had undergone a transformation.

"I say, wasn't there a freighter here last time we visited?" asked MacKiernan.

"So there was," mused Everett. "I wonder where it could have gotten off to."

"Perhaps they towed it away," Murdock suggested.

Everett repressed the urge to shake his head. He remembered what it had been like to be lieutenant. "That doesn't explain why the tug is still here," he said gently.

"Oh yes. Right."

"Could they have repaired the machinery and moved the vessel under own her power?" asked Sarah.

"Given the condition the engineering plant was in, that doesn't seem very likely, even if our friends Miss Wilcox and Miss Blaine were involved," said Everett. "I suppose we'll have to send someone down to speak with their aunt."

After some thought, Everett decided to limit the landing party to himself and Jenkins -- there seemed no need to risk anyone else on such a daunting mission. The tug was too cluttered with rigging and equipment for safe hoist operations, so they deployed to a raft her crew had launched alongside as part of the salvage operation. The tug's master was waiting with a scowl on her face and her hands planted firmly on her very substantial hips.

"Good day, Aunt Prodigia," said Everett, feeling it best to address their hostess by her title. "We came as quickly as we could. What seems to be the problem?"

The matron gestured toward the empty shoreline as if to suggest that any idiot should be able to see what was wrong. "Some wankers made off with my freighter and kidnapped my nieces!" she growled.

If an airship captain says something in the forest and there's no aunt to hear him, is it still his fault? Everett wondered, but it seemed best to keep this thought to himself. "Did you have a chance to identify the perpetrators?" he asked politely.

"No, but it was piracy on the high seas! You chappies in the Royal Navy are supposed to put a stop that sort of thing!"

Everett felt it best not to point out that the freighter had been aground, which was neither 'high' nor `at sea'. This seemed unlikely to facilitate conversation. "When did the... theft... occur?"

"Two nights ago. We stood offshore to ride out some weather and when we got back in the morning, the freighter was gone."

Everett did a quick mental calculation. "Whoever they were, they can't be making more than 1-3 knots with a vessel in tow, so they must still be somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria. I propose we spilt up to look for them. Since we have the faster vessel, we'll take the southern Gulf and the coast of Arnhem Land, while you search north along the Cape York Peninsula."

Aunt Prodigia's grin might have been drawn straight from some illustration by Howard Pyle -- one of the ones involving buccaneers. "Aye!" she announced gleefully. "Let's go pinch those ratbags!"

Next week: You Go Right, We'll Go Left...

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