The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 456: You Go Right, We'll Go Left

The Timor Sea and Torres Strait

By now, the crew of His Majesty's Airship, the Flying Cloud had crossed and recrossed the Gulf of Carpentaria so often it had begun to seem familiar. Everett gazed north, where the strait between Groote Island and Arnhem Land was coming into view, and suppressed a frown. How many more of these visits would they have to make, he wondered? It seemed an extravagant use of the Crown's resources. Their airship probably cost more than all the communities on this coast combined.

It also cost considerably more than the Viking Queen. What could have motivated someone to steal an almost worthless freighter? The vessel had little in the way of fittings and equipment, there was certainly no treasure aboard, and by now her machinery would be a mass of rust. Her only possible value was as scrap. Could Aunt Prodigia have some enemy who'd done this to annoy her? Given the matron's remarkable personality, the hypothesis didn't seem entirely implausible. Everett shook his head at this uncharitable thought and opened the logbook to make an entry.

November 1, 1927, 1500 hours, 20 miles south of Groote Island. We are making our way along the southern and western coasts of the Gulf of Carpentaria in search of the pirated Viking Queen, with particular attention to any havens where they might have taken refuge. The identity and motivation of the supposed pirates remains to be determined, as does the situation of the two civilians we believe may be aboard.

As the captain was setting down his pen, Jenkins appeared with a folder of notes. "I take it there's been no sign of the missing freighter," said the signalman.

"No, but they can hardly elude us forever," Everett replied confidently. "The Gulf of Carpentaria is only so large, and it has a limited number of exits."

"That may be so, but I cannot help but feel some concern for the two young ladies."

"As do I," Everett admitted. "Still, they've proved themselves resourceful in the past and their aunt can be trusted to exact terrible vengeance upon anyone who dares to annoy them. I wonder why anyone would bother to steal the freighter in the first place."

"Perhaps, they were after the cargo rather than the vessel," Jenkins speculated. "I believe there was still some uraninite left in the holds."

Everett thought back on their visits to the freighter. "The amount was rather small -- no more than a hundred tons or so."

"We have no idea how much might be needed to reproduce the Ujelang Device," Jenkins observed. "Judging from the replica we salvaged from the Rabaul harbor, the core might not have contained more than a hundred pounds of material."

"That is true," mused Everett. "This raises the question of who might need the ore. It wouldn't be the Germans, since they'd have taken all they required when they plundered the vessel last year. The most likely candidates would seem to be the Japanese. There's also the question of how the White Russians extracted the destructive principle. Have you finished deciphering the ledgers we recovered from their facility on Oa Ki?"

The signalman nodded. "As we suspected, they contain lists of production and consumption figures for the refining process. This seemed to involve three distinct steps. The first was a conventional crushing and milling operation to separate the ore from the surrounding matrix. The second step used some combination nitric acid, ammonium, and hydrofluoric acid to remove an element they referred to as `U' and incorporate this into some compound they designated as `UF6'."

"One wonders if this might have involved fluorine," mused Everett, recalling the tanks they'd discovered next to the laboratory.

"One also wonders how they survived," Jenkins observed. "The relevant chemistry seems rather daunting."

Everett nodded. His own encounters with nitric acid products had not been an unmitigated source of joy. "What about the third step?" he asked.

Jenkins spread some sheets of plain text across the chart table. "That remains a enigma, which contains within it a mystery," he observed. "The Russians seem to have started their production line in the spring of 1924. The ledgers offer no clues regarding its nature, but that summer they noted here..." the signalman indicated the relevant entry "... `Yield from a single stage is disappointing. Try connecting stages in tandem'. A few months later, this was followed by a note, `Purity still less than 2%. Not sufficient. Semyonov believes 80% necessary for our purposes'. Then, in April 1925, they note `Using K's machine increases yield by factor of several thousand'."

"This would be our friend Karlov," said Everett.

"It's difficult to imagine who else it could have been," said Jenkins. "Do you think he's somehow involved with the missing Professor Koshino?"

Everett contemplated the coincidences that had plagued their search for the American chemist and nodded. "I believe we can recognize his hand in this."

They reached the northern tip of Arnhem at sunset and spent the night maintaining station off Wigram Island. Morning brought a debate regarding strategy -- with fuel and ballast running low, they weren't in a position to search both the northern reaches of the Gulf and the passage to the Arafura Sea. After some thought, Everett decided on the former. Surely a vessel burdened by a tow couldn't have reached the latter.

A few hours later, his decision was rewarded as Davies's voice crackled over the intercom.

"Upper Lookout to Bridge. We have what appears to be three small boats ahead, bearing 80, range 15."

Everett raised his binoculars. Far to the east, a dark line on the horizon marked Prince of Wales Island and the entrance to the Torres Strait. A few miles ahead, he spotted several dots. As the airship drew closer, he saw that these were three lifeboats surrounded by what appeared to be floating debris. Two had the words Number 151, Maizura stenciled on their prows. The third, of a different design, bore the name Viking Girl, Nuku'alofa.

"That does not look very promising," Jenkins remarked.

"No, it does not," said Everett. "It would appear that our pirates and their prize crew both came to grief. At least they had time to take to their boats. We will trust that the two ladies are aboard."

Jenkins turned to comply, then paused as something caught his eye. He pointed to starboard, where a small steamship with two funnels was approaching from the south. "It appears we aren't the only ones who've spotted the fellows," he observed. "That looks like the Stalking Herring."

"So it does," said Everett. "Tell Iwamoto to prepare the launch for deployment. We'd better go down and rescue them."

Next week: Who Else Indeed?...

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