The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 548: Perhaps Not The News We Were Hoping For

Cipher book

Fenwick finished reviewing his work, stacked the papers neatly, and sighed witgh relief. The secure cipher always posed a challenge. First one had to identify the right keys -- this offered plenty of scope for error. Then one had to cross-reference the ciphertext with a succession of tables to extract the plaintext. Finally one had to check this for mistakes -- a particular concern for messages like these, which contained long sets of numbers and symbols. Satisfied that his product was accurate, he slipped it into a sealed envelope, locked away the codebooks, and set off for Commodore Michaelson's office.

He found his superior making his way through the usual pile of paperwork. Commodore Lawrence Bates-Shelby Michaelson had never seemed like a happy man, and today was no exception. Fenwick had often wondered if this was due to the burden of command, or some event in the Commodore's past that had driven all the joy from his life, but it was hardly a junior signalman's place to ask.

"What brings you here, Fenwick?" Michaelson said quietly. This did not bode well.

Fenwick handed over the envelope as crisply as he could. "We've received a message from the R-128, sir," he replied. "Commander MacKiernan must think it important, for he sent it in the secure cipher."

Michaelson checked the dates and signatures, unsealed the envelope, and read through its contents. As he did so, his expression seemed to change. Is that a smile? Fenwick thought. From Michaelson? Surely not!

"Do you know what we have here?" the Commodore asked Fenwick, in much the same way a gambler might remark on a winning hand.

"It's a list of ports and dates of departure for ships that were carrying matériel to the German nationalists' secret base," Fenwick replied.

"It may also tell us where that base is."

Members of the Royal Navy Airship Service's Signal Corps were trained to hide their puzzlement under any and all circumstances. "Is there some way I can assist with the analysis?" Fenwick asked.

Michaelson's smile broadened. It seemed he was not fooled. "Indeed you may," he replied. "Go through this list, compile a table of differences between departure dates for every two ports of departure, then fetch me two thumbacks and a length of string."

Some hours later, Michaelson and Fenwick studied a chart on which the Commodore had drawn a set of ellipses. They'd only reviewed a fraction of the figures in Fenwick's table, but a pattern had begun to emerge.

"These curves all run through the Dutch East Indies," the signalman observed.

"Indeed they do," Michaelson told him. "If we take each pair of ports and assume that a single vessel, traveling at the known cruising speed of a schnellboot, carried a cargo from the first to the Fat Man's secret base, then set out for the second to pick up another, this gives us a set of elliptical lines of position. Most will be erroneous, particularly if more than one vessel was involved, but if several of intersect near the same place, that should pinpoint the base. It would seem this lies somewhere north of Java."

Fenwick nodded. Signal Corps training included an introduction to conic sections. "How precisely will we be able to determine its location?"

"This remains to be determined," Michaelson told him. "But we won't be able to do this if we're tired. Get some sleep and return after your morning watch."

Morning brought another message, this one encoded using a one-time pad. In some ways these were easier to decipher, since only one table was involved. In others they were more difficult, since losing count of the characters could lead to gibberish. It took Fenwick several tries to get a coherent result, at last is efforts were rewarded. The Commodore would want to see this!

Once again, he found Michaelson seated at his desk. It seemed the Commodore had spent most of the night working on the chart, which was now criss-crossed with an elaborate web of lines. Does he ever sleep? wondered Fenwick. There was something intimidating about that kind of stamina.

"I take it we've received another message," said the Commodore, indicating the envelope in Fenwick's hand.

"Yes, sir," said Fenwick. "Captain Everett sent this using a one-time pad."

Michaelson raised an eyebrow. A single-use code, by its very nature, was not a resource to expend lightly. "Let us see what the good captain felt justified such an extravagance," he remarked.

The message took very little time to read, and this time there was no doubt about Michaelson's reaction.

"Well well," he said, in the closest Fenwick had ever seen him to glee. "It would seem Miss Kim has given us the location of the Japanese nationalists' base."

"Do you believe we can trust her information, sir?" Fenwick asked. "She is hardly a servant of the Crown."

"In this instance I believe we can," said Michaelson. "Whatever her motives or agenda, she's proved herself an enemy of the Japanese. It seems we may soon know the location of both nationalist bases. You may return to your duties and inform me if any more messages arrive."

No new message arrived that day, but the next morning brought a second transmission from the R-128, encoded with one-time pad. Fenwick studied the plaintext with a twinge of apprehension. It seemed unremarkable. Why had MacKiernan felt it necessary to send this information in code? With a shrug, he set off for Michaelson's office.

The Commodore was still busy with his charts and calculations. He glanced at the signalman as if annoyed by the interruption. "What is it this time?" he snapped.

"We've received another message from Commander MacKiernan," Fenwick told him. "He reports that the kidnappers disembarked from the HL-62 at Port Vila and transferred their captive to the Warfield's yacht."

Michaelson set down his pen and stared into space, as if looking at something only he could see. "She would,' he muttered.

"Sir?" Fenwick asked in concern.

The Commodore shook his head as if dismissing a memory. "It would seem the Baron and... his lady... really are involved with one of the factions back in England. There can be no other explanation for their involvement. We must take steps to deal with this development. Take a message for Captain Everett and Commander MacKiernan, then tell Harris to prepare the R-87 for a sortie."

Next week: You Could Hardly Expect Us Not To Notice...

Comments about Episode 548? Start a new topic on the Forum!

StumbleUpon        submit to reddit Reedit