The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 516: Daring Damsels of Darwin

Toledo scale

It was raining as they lifted ship from Cairns -- a relentless drizzle that obscured the sky, drummed against the hull envelope, and churned the field to mud -- but airships laugh at weather like this, and soon they were above the clouds. Night found them crossing the Gulf of Carpenteria. The moon had yet to rise, but the Milky Way glimmered above them in a firmament crowded with stars. The south, the Magellanic Clouds were cryptic whorls of light. On a night like this, it was possible to imagine they cruised though interstellar space rather than the skies of Earth.

Everett smiled at this conceit, then glanced at the chart table, where Iverson was working on his reckoning. "What have you got for us, lieutenant?"

Iverson tapped a point on the chart. "I'd put us here, just north of Wellesley Island. May I ask what out plans are, sir?"

"Some details remain to be determined," Everett admitted. "Michaelson's given us a bit of a poser. We're to track down our German nationalist friends aboard a distinctive vessel they can hardly fail to recognize."

"I take it you have some thoughts on the matter?"

"Perhaps, but first we'll wish to replenish our consumables. This will require a visit to Darwin."

Iverson's eyes widened in alarm. "Sir"

"I know," sighed Everett. "We will hope they are occupied elsewhere."

Darwin lay under the same cloak of rain as Cairns. This posed no problem to an airship, which could descend at leisure, feeling its way through the overcast until ground came in sight. The field was every bit as sodden as the one they'd left, but the handling parties didn't seem to mind. Australians all, they treated the mooring operation like a sporting event -- a variant of rugby, perhaps, with a somewhat larger and more buoyant ball.

After a certain amount of shouting, the Flying Cloud was riding from the mast while Everett took the lift down to the surface. Dabney was waiting at the foot of the mast. In his uniform, the reserve lieutenant might have been a referee for the contest his men had just completed.

"G'day, Captain," he said cheerfully. "What brings you back to Darwin?"

Everett glanced up at the airship, then thought better of it. Service in this part of the world might encourage an element of flippancy, but one had to draw the line somewhere. "We're en route to Port Hedland to follow up on our investigations of last year," he replied. "To this end, we require resupply."

"No worries, mate," the commander assured him. "We just ran off a fresh batch of hydrogen. We can top off your bunkers as well. I reckon your destination's a secret?"

"I would appreciate it if you could treat it as one... and ensure that Mister Channel discovers it."

Dabney grinned. It was clear that he had no great love for the police chief, and understood the principle of disinformation. "Dinki di!"

The Australians worked through the night to finish resupply. This might not have been part of their cultural tradition, but beer most certainly was, and a supply of the latter sufficed to encourage the former. Their activity seemed likely to draw George Channel's attention, but this too was part of Everett's calculations. If the police chief passed word to the Germans, Japanese, British Union, or whoever he was working for at the moment that the Flying Cloud was bound for Western Australia, so much the better.

By morning, the ship was ready to depart. Only one thing remained.

"Where are they?" wondered Iverson.

Everett gazed toward the village, which was faintly visible through the rain. "That is indeed a mystery," he observed. "I expected them to have made an appearance by now."

"As did I," Jenkins remarked. "Perhaps they were preoccupied by some other matter,"

"I suppose we should be grateful," said Everett. "Order the crew to flight stations before this situation can change."

They dropped the mooring without incident, and soon the ship had was climbing above the overcast on her way north. The envelope dried as it warmed in the morning sun, requiring Sarah to pay careful attention to trim. Everett noticed the island girl puzzling over her figures.

"I take it you've discovered some anomaly," he remarked.

Sarah frowned. "I've gone over the numbers several times and we seem to be two hundred pounds heavy. I don't know what to make of it."

Jenkins raised an eyebrow. "Sir, you don't think..."

Everett sighed in resignation and reached for the intercom. "Is there any doubt?" he replied. "Miss Blaine, Miss Wilcox, we know that's you. Please report to the mess hall immediately. Jenkins, Miss Sarah, if you'd accompany me."

To say that the atmosphere in the mess hall was strained would been to understate its complexity. Sarah was as cheerful as ever -- this may have been the island girl's natural state. Emily and Clarice were trying, without any particular success to maintain an impression of innocence. Jenkins seemed annoyed -- whether this was because of the presence of stowaways or his failure to anticipate their stowing away remained to be determined. At the head of the table, Everett was maintaining the sphinx-like inscrutability that is a prerogative of command.

"Ladies," he told guests, "to what do we owe the honor of your presence?"

Clarice and Emily glanced at each other uncertainly. What had seemed like a good idea at the time seemed less so now. "G'day, captain," Emily replied uncertainly. "We saw you arrive, and thought it would be great sport learn where you were going."

"So I see. May I ask how you made your way onto my ship?"

"We strolled past the sentries, climbed aboard, and found a place to hide," said Clarice. "No one paid any attention. Everyone knows us. And we had plenty of practice with that `place to hide' bit last year on the Warfields' vessel."

"Yes, I suppose you did" Everett mused. "What shall we do with you now?"

"I imagine we'll wish to take them back to Darwin," said Jenkins.

"This would put paid to our pretense of being on an urgent flight to Hedland," Everett observed. "It would also use up some of the consumables we went to such trouble to obtain. Miss Sarah, what was your tribe's policy for dealing with stowaways?"

The island girl thought over. "I suppose this depended on the state of our supplies," she replied.

Everett glanced at her as if wondering if she was serious, then shook his head. "This is no longer accepted practice in the Royal Navy. It is well known that we have this problem relatively under control and that it is the commercial air services that now suffer the largest casualties in this area. It appears shall have to find a third alternative. Miss Wilcox, Miss Blaine, you are welcome to resume your positions as civilian specialists under RNR 247-632 subject to naval regulations and conditions subject the provisions of RNR 247-401 Clauses C and D with final pay grade and bonuses to be determined according to Clause G, but please try to stay put of trouble."

Next week: Kupang Up Appearances...

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