The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 511: ...A Stranger In This Century And Among Those Who Are Still Men

Some empty shelves

The Innsmouth Shadow was a typical island freighter -- a small steamer, 3700 tons burden, that had been retired to the South Pacific after service in more demanding climes. Her crew was somewhat more eclectic, ranging from grizzled old salts who wouldn't have seemed out of place aboard a New England whaling ship to characters who might have stepped straight from some novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As far as MacKiernan could see, none of the latter had green skin or four arms, but there was no telling who might be working down in the engine room.

Howard Phillips invited the airmen and Miss Perkins to the captain's cabin and poured them drinks -- whisky for MacKiernan, scotch for Abercrombie, and something from a sturdy lead-lined container for the secretary. When he was finished, he raised his glass. "Here's to your ship!"

"And to yours," said MacKiernan. "She's a fine-looking vessel."

"I've been happy with her," said Phillips. "She may not hold as much cargo as my old Dunwich Hauler, but she burns less coal."

"How did you happen to become a shipmaster?" Miss Perkins asked him.

"It was shortly after the War," said Phillips. "I'd been living in Rhode Island, trying to earn a livelihood as a poet, but there wasn't much demand for grotesque imagery of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage, so I sought another career. My grandfather had filled my head with tales of his adventures here, and I decided to follow in his footsteps."

"When did you meet Karlov?" asked MacKiernan.

"That would have been four years ago, in Jakarta," mused the captain. "He was looking for passage to Australia, and someone must have told him about me, for he greeted me by my full name. For some reason it seemed to amuse him."

MacKiernan wondered at this, then dismissed it as irrelevant. "Did he offer any information about his past?"

"He claimed he'd been a professor at some university in Russia, and I saw no reason to doubt him," said Phillips. "He was young then, still at an age when life seems an adventure, and such people have little reason to lie. His companion was another matter. This was an older man named Yakov -- one of those fools who thought they could hustle the East. I wouldn't have trusted him any farther than I could throw him."

"This is consistent with what the Captain learned from Countess Zelle," Miss Perkins. "If Karlov was bound for Darwin, I wonder if he was looking for the White Russians even then."

"I imagine he was," said MacKiernan. "What became of him after he reached Australia?"

Phillips shrugged. "He never told me, but he did take passage with me several times during the next two years. Sometimes this was between Darwin and the Dutch East Indies, but once it was al the way to New Caledonia."

The airmen exchanged glances. "Would this have been to an island at 22 36' S, 168 57' E?" asked MacKiernan.

"Why yes," said Phillips. "Why do you ask?"

MacKiernan sighed. "It's a long story. Did you notice anything unusual about his behavior during this time?"

"Not in the beginning, aside from his habit of appearing and disappearing without warning," said Phillips. "But early in '26, I heard that Yakov had been murdered in Cairns. Karlov became more furtive after that, as if he feared someone might be chasing him. And it seems someone was."

"This would be the Fat Man's people," said MacKiernan. "I gather he was aboard your previous ship when they attacked."

"Yes," said Phillips, "and it was clear the boarders were after him, because they asked for him by name, but he'd pulled one of his disappearing acts."

"I've been wondering about that," said MacKiernan. "The man may enjoy these sleights of hand, but he can hardly swim across the Timor Sea. Was there any island nearby where he might have sought refuge?"

Phillips nodded and reached for chart. "As matter of fact, there was."

The flight from Bima to Ashmore Island took only a day. This was actually three small islands midway between Australia and Timor, notable only for their insignificance. During the previous century, entrepreneurs more notable for their optimism than their sense had attempted to quarry one for phosphates. The remains of their enterprise combined some of the worst aspects of an abandoned industrial complex and abandoned mines.

Abercrombie examined a sign that warned `DANGER CHOLERA HAZARD' and frowned. "Why would Karlov come to a sgudal sgudail like this?" he wondered.

"It's certainly not a place anyone would look for him," MacKiernan observed wryly. "Let's see if we can find some trace of the lad."

Accompanied by Miss Perkins, the two airmen began to explore the ruins. Most were in even worse condition than they'd seemed from the air, but finally they came to shack that someone had made some effort to restore. It seemed oddly out of place, as if someone had taken the concept of a slightly different structure and tried to superimpose it on this one. They pushed aside the sagging door to discover that the interior had been stripped of most of its contents. All that remained were a desk and a row of shelves. The latter must once have held a considerable amount of equipment, judging from the marks this had left behind, but all that remained were a few commonplace items, such as a stapler and box of staples.

MacKiernan toyed with these and was surprised to discover that the latter didn't fit the former. Bad planning on someone's part, he decided.

"This must hae been Karlov's falach," said Abercrombie. "How did he carry away all of his equipment? Captain Phillips said nothing of the matter."

"He must have had other confederates," MacKiernan decided. "I wonder if he left anything behind."

Miss Perkins had been pulling drawers out of the desk to search for anything that might have fallen behind them. She nodded in satisfaction and held up a several sheets of paper. "It appears that he did," she announced. "Let us see what it might be."

They took the papers outside to examine them, but this proved less informative than they'd hoped, for the sheets were covered with incomprehensible equations. Miss Perkins, indicated a group of inverted triangles. "These look rather like vector differential operators."

"Aye, but I dine ken what they're aboot," said Abercrombie. "That line looks almost like a diffusion equation, but the Laplacian symbol is wrong, and it cannae be a wave equation because it has the wrong time derivative."

The others glanced at him. "I wasn't aware that vector calculus was part of the Scottish tradition," said MacKiernan.

Abercrombie met the Irishman's gaze. "O' course it is," he said innocently. "How d'ye ken the border clans planned their cattle raids?"

Miss Perkins shook her head, then crouched to examine something that had caught her eye. "What is this?" she asked, brushing away some of the litter. MacKiernan saw that she'd uncovered the blackened remains of what might have been a record book.

"That looks almost like a journal," he said.

"I believe you are correct," said the secretary. She eased her find free of the soil and wrapped it in square of oiled cloth. "It's too delicate to examine here," she decided. "We'll wish to take this back to Cairns."

Next week: Another Part Of The Equation...

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