By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—pilots, lovers, and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—become heavy-duty truckers across Orkney Mainland, in hot pursuit of several British military secret weapons.
Note:— Incredible as it may seem the Great Panjandrum was actually built and tested by British Forces in WW2, in circumstances not dissimilar to those in my present story. Film of the amazing object in full flight is readily available on a well-known video site. The same holds true for Flame Fougasse and Hedge-Hoppers, both of which can also be seen in action on the same site.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"Bloody Nora, you'd think in January the ground'd be as hard as a rock.'
"Well, it ain't." Gabrielle felt impelled to state the obvious at this juncture, mainly because their transport was currently up to the rear axle in a bog. "As you can plainly see. Wan'na get out an' push?"
"This thing's about as big as a bloody Titan, or a Juggernaut." Gabrielle hunched over the huge steering wheel of the giant AEC Matador truck; peering gloomily through the windscreen at the marshy ground all round them, then across at her companion sitting to her left. "The question is, who's gon'na have'ta get out an' walk a mile an' a half to the nearest phone? As I'm the designated driver I think that gives me Captain's privileges—so you've just picked the short straw, dearest."
"No need t'be obstreperous. The walk'll do you good." The blonde grinned impishly. "I'll just sit back an' relax till you return. No-one'll want t'use this track in the meantime. An' tell 'em we need another Matador; the last time we asked for help they sent a bloody Tilly, idiots."
Group-Captain Graham, and SOE in general down in London, having hit a quiet period—how you might well be excused for asking, but there it was; he had, therefore, in a praiseworthy attempt to keep the troops in order and under tight discipline, ha-ha, given them general duties more in keeping with the regular work ATS personnel were expected to undertake; even though the two women in question were, in fact, ATA members—but a mere technicality of this nature never troubled the Special Operations Executive for more than a few seconds. Especially as Group-Captain Graham had recently begun to feel himself under a certain amount of pressure from the Army and RAF up in Orkney to let them have some input with various of his supposedly secret staff. Flying-Officers Mathews and Parker, two of his very best people, though nothing would ever get him to publicly admit as much, had apparently done some sterling work a few weeks previously, associated with a massive AEC Matador truck; so the present operation seemed to the Group-Captain to fall far enough within the usual nature of SOE work for him to give his approval without too many crocodile tears.
His coded message, sent hot-foot from the SOE eyrie commanded by the Group-Captain in Somerset House, London, had been rather weak on concrete detail, but expansive on the womens' duties. They were to take immediate command of an AEC Matador, now awaiting their attention at Base J, drive to Kirkwall harbour on the morning of the following Saturday, and hook the beast up to a tank low-loader presently waiting there at a loose end. The SS Carrievrackie would be berthed at Wharf 4 and from it would come several bulky and somewhat heavy objects, closely wrapped in tarpaulins and all the secrecy SOE could command—which was extensive. The things would, therefore, to all general and Public purposes be invisible. A Captain would accompany the secret cargo, along with a plethora of assorted boffins straight from the testing grounds at Westward Ho, Devon. Group-Captain Graham forbore to go into details about these objects uses or construction, but required the women to take their orders from Captain Clarence Hamilton, officer commanding.
So, on this chilly but dry morning of Saturday, January 8th 1944, Claire and Gabrielle found themselves mistresses of all they surveyed; and, from the high vantage-point of the cab of a monster like the AEC Matador, all seven and three-quarter tons of it, all they could survey amounted to a great deal. The cab sat seven feet above ground level; the roof reaching to over nine and a half feet. At nearly eight feet wide and twenty-one feet in length it outranked nearly any other road vehicle of its time, barring actual tanks. This meant, of course, that its one weakness was brought to the fore in terrain which didn't suit its massively heavy footprint—in this instance the soft boggy landscape of Orkney Mainland. Once a Matador decided to sink gracefully up to the axles in the local scenery, that was it until heavy-duty rescue arrived—generally in the form of one of its luckier sisters, and a lot of man or woman-power. The ATS members, nowadays scattered wholesale over the rolling hills of Orkney, having become proficient in this sort of thing; their male compatriots always found they had important war-work to carry out when an expedition to rescue a Matador was in the wind. All, therefore, Claire and Gabrielle had to do in present circumstances was find a telephone and call for help; ending eventually in a crowd of sisters rolling up to giggle unashamedly over their predicament.
"Wait a minute, honey." Gabrielle hunched over the wide steering wheel, gripping it with a bare-toothed determination. "Hold onto your hat; I'm gon'na give the beast one last chance t'reconsider. Watch this."
Claire, about to open the door and climb down from her high vantage-point, slammed the door closed again, shuffled her booted feet into a firmer position on the wooden floor, and gripped the interior door-handle with increasing trepidation.
Gabrielle revved the huge engine, the roar quickly reaching ear-splitting levels, then took her foot off the brake, giving the encumbered machine all the power lurking in the engine's depths. For about thirty seconds there could be heard nothing but a hideous grinding wail, like demons screaming to be let out of Tartarus; allied to the whine of the huge machine's wheels slithering in the soft ground; then came a sudden jerk, followed by a solider trembling, as the wheels caught dry ground and dragged the lorry to safety. Gabrielle sweated over the steering-wheel, directing the machine back onto the track from which they had earlier strayed, then eased-off the power; letting the engine return to a more normal, though still noisy, level.
"Done it, by God, done it. Wheee."
"Thank Goodness." Claire echoed her partner's sentiments wholeheartedly, then turned to the important matters. "Right, just see an' don't slide off the road again, will ya. Once was more'n enough."
"Oh, great, that all the thanks I get for my act o'unselfish heroism? Huumph."
Kirkwall harbour, at ten a.m. of a misty weekend morning, was mostly deserted except for military personnel of all three forces. Several cargo ships were tied up to the various wharves and jetties, but Gabrielle soon found the particular one where their own vessel awaited their attentions.
SS Carrievrackie was a single-stack coal-driven cargo ship dating from somewhere back in the low 1900's. It had a straight stem, a fine foremast and stern mast and a central single decked superstructure. The enclosed Bridge was faced with teak boards and extended two short wings over each side so the officers could see what was going forward down the length of the ship; a useful matter when docking or casting-off from a wharf. It was around 6,000 tons with three cargo holds and a small steam-driven crane on the foredeck to assist the movement of the cargo.
As Gabrielle drove up in her monster of a truck the wharf was the scene of much activity; already a great deal of the cargo had found its way onto the wide wharf, sitting in small stacks of boxes or piles of heavily tarpaulined shapes of all sizes. A number of brass-hats were in evidence, along with a small army of, umm, Army privates doing the work usually undertaken by the general longshoremen.
"Wonder how they got the dockers t'agree t'this?" Gabrielle was always socially conscious in such matters. "You'd think just having the matter suggested to them would'a been enough t'cause a walkout that'd make the General Strike look like a kid's tea-party."
"Someone must'a pulled rank, an' talked of War-work, an' the security of the Nation, and such-like drivel." Claire here let slip her essentially cynical nature, as the women climbed down from their cab. "Maybe pressed the 'Patriotism' button, or somethin'."
"More like the Generals just told the Harbour Authorities to sod off till some secret military work was gotten out'ta the way." Gabrielle, when moved, could be as realistic as her revered partner. "That's—oh-oh, brass-hats in the offing, heading our way; smile nicely and salute everyone in sight."
A group of no less than seven officers bore down on the two women; resplendently creased uniforms gleaming even in the dull light of an Orkney morning. Three Captains, two Brigadiers, and two Generals fetched up in front of the mighty Matador—Claire and Gabrielle saluting with crisp efficiency.
"Ah, splendid, transport's arrived." The nearest general seemed pleased with the way things were going, a wide but tight-lipped smile on his ruddy face. "You two look as if you know the ins and outs of this, er, thing. Should be plenty of room for most of the medium-sized cargo on that. The heavy bulky stuff's going to be taken to, er, its destination by tank-transporter. That one over there, I fancy. So, where's Captain Hamilton? Oh, right. Ladies, Captain Hamilton's in charge of this operation; he's got all the details under his cap, so take note of what he says. Right, Captain. We'll head off—things t'do an' places t'be, y'know—carry on."
A quick about-turn and the group of officers marched off along the wharf without a backward glance; leaving the women standing shivering on the cracked wooden boards, with only the newly arrived Captain for company.
"At ease, ladies; let's not stand on ceremony, life's too short, especially nowadays." Captain Hamilton now revealed himself to be almost entirely human, considering everything. "This whole show's a bit of a complex situation, y'know. Well, actually y'don't know; but you're going to find out soon enough. Is there somewhere we can get in out of this dam' cold an' talk? That office over there looks empty, let's try that."
A few minutes later the three sat round a bare table in one of two rooms in what appeared to be a wharf-master's office. Rows of wooden cabinets lined three walls nearly to shoulder height, and on another table against the far wall several maps of Kirkwall and environs were spread out. Captain Hamilton laid his hat on the table and regarded the two women with an open straight grey-eyed gaze. Then he came to a decision.
"Heard from Group-Captain Graham something of what you two do." Hamilton pursed his lips, nodding knowingly. "Not that he told me much; but enough t'know you're both experts of your kind. Just what's required in present circumstances, actually."
"Those being—, sir?" Claire raised an enquiring eyebrow, staring at the officer with her usual fixed gaze.
"Ah well, yes." Hamilton paused, clearly gathering his thoughts. "This place's empty, isn't it? Of course it is; just a nervous reaction, everything's been so damnably secret for the last few months. So much so I still can hardly bring myself to talk about the operation openly."
"As secret as that, sir?" Gabrielle offered her reaction to the strange situation she felt they were in.
"Fully, oh, fully that secret, yes." Hamilton, realising he was on the point of waffling mindlessly, visibly pulled himself together and eyed the two women with a new sharpness. "Right, let's get down t'the nitty-gritty. What this whole thing entails is—"
"I don't believe it. I just don't believe it." Gabrielle, as she and Claire walked back across the wharf to the SS Carrievrackie, was astounded at the turn of events since learning from Captain Hamilton what was expected of them. "I never thought Hamilton'd come out with this,—this farrago. What d'you think, Ricky."
The tall New Zealander strode on with a careless gait, and no sign of worry.
"I don't think anything, gal." Claire glanced at her partner, then around to see they were more or less on their own for the moment. "And the sooner you take the same attitude the sooner you'll begin to enjoy the military life. Should'a thought the last few months under Group-Captain Graham's thumb had familiarised you with all the varieties of madness in the world t'day?"
"This, my friend, tops the lot." Gabrielle was not going to crumble under pressure, even kindly meant, so easily. "Oh God, look. Is that the bunch of boffins Hamilton told us about?"
"Seems like it. Lining the deck like a bunch o'tourists headin' for the Caribbean. Wonder what they think of Orkney? Come on, let's go up the gangplank an' join them. This is where we really find out what the Hell's goin' on."
"Carruthers, David Carruthers; pleased t'meet you both."
The party had gathered in the ship's wide saloon; and there were enough people present for it to accommodate a fairly happy throng, if such had been their attitude—but it wasn't. Everyone sat down both sides of a long table, usually used for passengers' meals, elbows on the top and more or less at ease. There were nine persons in total; seven men and two women. Claire and Gabrielle immediately pinpointed one of these two as a Girton Girl; though the other, slightly elder, kept her own secrets. At the moment the official in charge was presenting his credentials. He was in his late thirties; had a mop of thick light brown hair, not very well controlled; a solid chin and a straight gaze from black eyes; and wore shabby tweeds which looked at least a decade out of fashion. He now discovered his esoteric qualifications for being where he now found himself to the waiting women.
"I'm a radio technician with Saunders Roe." His voice's timbre was quiet to the point of exhaustion, strongly accented in a mid-range upper-class Home Counties patois; like someone recently escaped from a Noel Coward play. "They let me off building machines for flying-boats some six months ago, so I could be transferred to this set-up. These are all my jolly compatriots you see around me now."
"Do get on with it, David, and stop blathering." This from the lady of uncertain age, showing early signs of a short temper. "I want to get to my hotel room and freshen up after this awful voyage. God, I thought we were just sailing to a few Northern islands—not the bloody 'still vex'd Bermoothes' themselves. What an awful place this is. How do you expect me to get on with my –"
"Linda Cartwright, ladies; can do wonders with rockets. Absolutely essential in our present circumstances, and all that." David's tone left something to be desired in his all-encompassing regard for the lady on his left hand. "Better go through a rota of introduction, I suppose. Let you both get a handle on who's who, eh? Right,—Linda Cartwright, rockets, I've just noted. There's myself, radio; then to my right, Bertram Collister, construction engineer—ask him for something, and he'll build the dam' thing in a jiffy. Further down is Eric Galwood, explosives expert; he can blow-up a house or a military tank in seventeen different ways. Beyond him that's Percy Allington, mathematician; he can actually make two and two equal five, with unassailable proofs, if he so desired."
Claire and Gabrielle exchanged glances; more or less innocuous to bystanders, but filled to the brim with meaning to those in the know.
"—then comes Edward Compton, another rocket boffin—"
"For the last time, Carruthers, I wish you wouldn't use that arsey adverb." The complainant was a man in his mid forties, round-faced and bodied, and clearly of a choleric temper; a thin gingery moustache not helping matters in the least. "A scientist, man, a scientist. I'm still one of the mainstays at Farnborough, if I say so myself."
"Yes, quite, Edward, but we must push on." David had obviously had long experience in handling the sensitive natures of those he had lately been thrown together with. "Finally, on your side of the table, ladies, there's Albert Ridgeway, another construction engineer; can't have too many people who know how to put something back together after its broken, y'see. Past him is Frederick Thomson, general scientist; he'll fiddle anything together, to do anything; quite a genius in some ways.
'Hrrph." Was the only reply this exordium brought forth from its victim, a man in his fifties, grey-haired, square-jawed, and clearly of great intelligence, if his high forehead had any say in the matter.
"—then, next to you, Miss Mathews, is Elizabeth Morgan, one more amongst those who know how to add figures together to give strange results.—"
"Very funny, David." Elizabeth grinned easily, showing fine white teeth. She was medium height, light brown hair, long-faced but with a cheery disposition, and obviously went through life making friends wherever she showed up. "You'll never understand the curiously glamorous nature of numbers, however hard you try."
"And that, ladies, concludes the 'Who's Who' entries for this mixed bag you see hunched round the table." David obviously meant to keep a brave face on matters, whatever took place. "We're a curious lot, but we've a job t'do, and we're all determined to give the thing our best shots. Suppose, now, you two will want to be brought up to date with what we're endeavouring to do here, eh?"
Gabrielle took up the task of coming to grips with this group of quite clearly not wholly sane people.
"Well, it'd help if we could have a general idea of what you're all goin' t'be up to." She smiled all round, putting on her best 'I'm not dangerous, much' expression for those present. "So—?"
"—er, ahh, well," Straightening his shoulders firmly, after this unexpected experience, David bravely got on with business. "We're actually broken into three individual teams; each working on their own, er, systems. First we have the Great Panjandrum"—"
"You have what?" This from a perplexed Claire.
"The Great Panjandrum; it's a vicious little toy, expressly designed to make Jerry crap his pants on strolling up any English beach intent on invasion." David smiled, somewhat nervously. "Silly name, but it fits the bill, all the same. It's a giant wooden double-wheel, profusely encircled by small but dam' powerful rockets. It hurtles towards any invasion force then, on contact, is exploded by remote control. It having a wide thick axle filled to the brim with horrible explosives, y'see."
"Jeesus." This from an appalled Gabrielle.
"Yes, it does tend to have that effect on unsuspecting individuals, not acquainted with the devilish thing." David shook his head, at the curiously naïve temperaments of the Public. "Then comes our second ploy—Flame Fougasse."
"And what may that consist of?" This from a more and more dubious Claire, now wriggling uncomfortably in her chair—quite certain they were indeed all mad as hatters.
"Flame Fougasse is a beautiful weapon." David here became enthusiastic, with the bright-eyed inspiration of a true devotee. "In principle it consists of several oil-drums filled with a nasty mixture of chemicals and petrol, set-off by a small timed charge. They're buried in rows of four, quite close together in the verge of a likely-looking sunken road or lane. They go off together, and send a wall of thick flame across the road in an impenetrable mass of roaring fire, which goes on and on—like a forest fire out of control. We have a variation which is pumped out into the shallow water along a likely sea-beach, and then set on fire; essentially setting the briny ablaze over a wide area—a beautiful thing to see, ladies. We've done quite well with early experiments down at Westward Ho, in Devon."
Holding herself only just in check Claire didn't actually come right out and call this affair an act of insanity, but it was a close-run thing.
"You've, ahh, already been working on these, um, experiments, then?"
"Too true, with wonderful results." David nodded happily, engrossed in his loved toys. "Flame Fougasse is coming along nicely; that's why we're here, y'see; to do some in-depth experimenting—just to fine-tune the whole method, y'know."
"And we're goin' t'be involved in all this; helping at first hand?" Claire's tone reeked distrust, but no-one noticed.
"What's the third mad—interesting experiment, then?" Gabrielle thought they might as well know the worst; little did she realise.
"An' what precisely are they, if I may ask?" Claire had given up on sanity, cocking a disbelieving eyebrow at all those round the table beside her; as if wondering who was the maddest of the bunch.
"Hedge-Hoppers are a variation on the basic Flame Fougasse." David had all the details to hand, and was in his element in describing these secret experiments to a knowledgeable audience. "They're individual oil-barrels filled with petrol and explosive. A charge is set in a small depression in the ground in a field, just the other side of a hedge bordering a road or lane. The explosive drum is placed delicately on top, at just the right angle—this being absolutely imperative, y'know—then the charge under it is fired and the barrel, spewing a mass of liquid fire, is blown into the air, in a carefully worked out curving parabola, hopping over the hedge and falling on Jerry's unsuspectin' head with all the horror of a bolt from Thor's armoury. Ha-Ha, good, eh?"
There was a short pause, then Claire started—
"You have got to be—"
"And you intend carrying out further experiments with all three of these, ah, machines, up here?" Gabrielle jumped in, hoping to calm troubled waters.
"Yep, we've already pinpointed a nice cosy uninhabited beach up in the north of the island." David grinned impishly, like a schoolboy out on a half-holiday. "It's going to be great fun. Of course, we'll need some soldiers to do the heavy carrying and pushing; and you two will be excellent drivers for us, for the, er, smaller items."
"Smaller items?" Claire growled, less than happily, from under lowered brows.
"Oh, just radio paraphernalia, y'know; and some drums of petrol and Eric's explosive mixtures; that's all."
There ensued an even longer pause, during which the boffins round the table became aware their awe-inspiring experiments had hit the buffers at full speed as far as these two military ladies were concerned. Claire bared her teeth in an angry sneer; while Gabrielle half-rose from her seat and swept the spectators with an unrestrained green-eyed fury.
"Petrol? Eric's explosives? Flame Fougasse? Liquid fire bombs that jump over hedges? Setting the sea on fire? Have you all gone stark raving mad?" Gabrielle's ire was far-reaching and ruthless. "I've never heard such,—such idiocy in all my life. Does Group-Captain Graham know about any of this?"
"No, I didn't think so." Gabrielle, in full flow, waved her arms in disbelief. "If he did, he would never have authorised our involvement, that's for sure. Claire, let's go, this bunch are out of their minds. I'm gon'na send Graham a dam' scathing message straight after we return t'our Nissen hut."
"Wait-wait." David jumped up, making nervous conciliatory gestures, obviously deeply distressed by the reaction his explanations had triggered. "It isn't as bad as I may have made it seem. Group-Captain Graham is more or less in command of all relevant details concerning the whole operation, believe me. It's all a lot more, er, sane and scientific than you may think. Look, I've brought some secret film of our experiments, carried out on beaches at Westward Ho, and the lanes nearby. They show all three experiments in action. If you can find a projector for me, and a hut where we'll be undisturbed, I can show you exactly what's been happening up to this point. How's that sound, ladies? We're not a bunch of cranks, y'know; we're all highly intelligent scientists trying to do the best we can to defend the country against that maniac over in Europe. These operations are definite contenders to achieve this result. What do you say?"
The women were back in the safety of their private Nissen hut, after the film show put on by Captain Hamilton and David Carruthers. This having taken place in a nearby school-room in Kirkwall which happened to have a 16mm projector to hand. They were now cogitating on what these films had revealed of the secret experiments conducted by the group of scientists.
"What d'you think?"
"I'd rather not think about it at all, t'tell the truth."
Claire shook her head sadly, as they warmed their hands with mugs of cocoa. The film show having been illuminating in some ways; but in others still leaving a great deal to the imagination.
"The things they're doing—the experiments—there does seem t'be some kind'a basis t'what they're after, anyway."
"Glad ya think so, Gabs." Claire wasn't convinced. "OK, so they can set the sea on fire at will. Christ, that was scary t'watch. An', apparently they can throw oil-drums of flaming explosive over thick hedges an' create a fire-storm in the road—very nasty."
"The film of the Flame Fougasse was, er, convincing."
"I'll say it was convincing, lady." Claire growled, still showing some disbelief at what the film of this had revealed. "God, what a really nasty piece of work that is. Blowing an entire side of a road up in a flaming inferno that splashes down on everyone on the road an' swamps 'em in liquid fire. Who in Hell, down in Whitehall, thought that ghastly scenario up?"
Gabrielle hunched over her cocoa; stirring it moodily with a spoon, trying not to look at her lover. There were all sorts of things thrown up by the film show which had rung alarm bells in the heads of both women. They had, by now, a long experience in all sorts of dangerous situations and maneouvres; which had taught them that danger, uncertainty, and defeat lurked round every corner ready to pounce—the present set-up being, in their eyes, a prime example. Neither viewing the coming days with any level of cheerfulness.
"I suppose all we can do is watch, an' see how it all pans out." Gabrielle sighed deeply, shrugging dismissively. "That was curious, about their other experiment—the one with the fancy name—the big wooden wheel on the beach."
"The Great Panjandrum, y'mean?" Claire nodded in agreement. "Dam' silly thing; whoever thought that up needs lockin' up. Bloody wheel with rockets and a huge bomb-load. Its creator must'a been a cretin. What about it, anyway?"
"Well, the film showing it, on that beach at Westward Ho in Devon, wasn't very long." The blonde half of the Nissen hut's owners was unhappy, bigtime. "I mean, it showed the boffins, in their raincoats, meandering around the sand-dunes like lost souls; or holding conversations around the stationary object. Then there were a few seconds of it trundling along the beach, spewing fire an' smoke from those completely daft rockets encircling each of its two wheels. But we didn't get t'see anything else. It reaching its target an' blowing up, or whatever. Suspicious, don't you think?"
"Nah, they probably didn't blow it up at all; to expensive t'destroy a perfectly good prototype; probably was only loaded with sand or something, instead of explosive."
"Hmm, maybe you're right." Gabrielle was clearly still unconvinced. "Anyway, I suppose we'll find out what they're all capable of, when we head to the beach in the north tomorrow. Lookin' forward to it, lover?"
"Me neither." Gabrielle had, though, the perfect answer to their problems. "Come on, lets go t'bed. Y'know how much I need my beauty sleep."
Sunday, January 9, 1944, dawned overcast, grey and drizzly; a perfectly normal Orkney day, in fact. Claire and Gabrielle, just past 7.30am, stood beside their Matador by the main gate of Base J; sitting on the shore of the bleakly cold, but shockingly overcrowded, waters of Scapa Flow. There were already numerous support vessels, of all shapes sizes and ages, bouncing across the waves in every direction to service the needs of the multitude of naval ships lying at anchor: including a wide selection of destroyers, corvettes, mine-sweepers, MTB's, and two battleships. The various RAF airfields scattered over the wider expanses of the island allowed for a fine mixture of aircraft flying overhead at any one time, while on the ground a plethora of white-painted stone-built look-out posts and observation-stations sent messages by radio and semaphore to each other as if the world's peace depended on them—which, in a sense, it did.
"Bloody Sunday." Gabrielle sniffed ostentatiously; wiped her nose, in a very common manner, on the sleeve of her uniform jacket, and pinned her companion with a bleak gaze. "Day's hardly dawned; there's no-one around yet; and here we are, standin' by a large truck loaded with oil-drums full'a deadly chemicals an' explosives. We must be mad. An' where the hell are those dam' boffins, or Captain Hamilton, come t'that?"
"Hamilton'll already be at the site." Claire shivered where she stood, in the lee of the huge truck. "We're just minor cogs in the wheel, ducks; he'll be at the centre of operations, directing everything, or so we fervently hope."
"As long as it ain't one of those idiot boffins—includin' Carruthers." Gabrielle was unforgiving, after having to leave her bed at such an illogical hour. "Where is this place we're headed to, again?"
"Some abandoned croft out by Settiscarth—"
"Settiscarth?" Gabrielle was even more upset than ever. "That's in the middle of nowhere. What's there t'see around bloody Settiscarth?"
"Nuthin', babe, that's the dam' point, ain't it."
"Oh,—Ah, yeah, I get it." The blonde, finally coming to some sense of consciousness this early in the morning, got it. "Top secret, an' all that nonsense. Oh look, here they are at last. Only two o'them, though; where're the others? God, not another long wait in this dam' drizzle."
Albert Ridgeway, middle-aged and almost completely hidden under the folds of a huge ankle-length overcoat and flat tweed cap the size of a small car's wheel, trudged up to join the crew of the mighty Matador. Behind him hurried another closely-wrapped form, also only marginally identifiable as a human being; Elizabeth Morgan being, apparently, the motive power behind this other heavy overcoat heading towards the truck. She was more readily identifiable as a member of the human race, but only marginally so—she too affecting a tweed coat of great length and thickness, along with a wide man's cap pulled down at a rakish angle, hiding her features admirably.
"What a f-cking awful mornin'." Elizabeth was first to address their truck drivers, though not with any depth of delight. "Is this goddam place always so,—so god-awful?"
"Yup." Claire felt perfunctory was the order of the day.
"Huh." Elizabeth could be seen, under her wide cap, to be attempting the first snarl of the day, but circumstances were against her.
"Everyone else's already sodded off to their individual stations. There's only Liz an' I left here. Got Eric's drums aboard?" Albert on the other hand, being the construction expert, had his ideas fine-tuned to the important matters, even so early. "All battened down securely? Don't want the dam' things rollin' around on the journey, eh? Ha-Ha."
Nobody replied to this weak witticism, Claire and Gabrielle merely ignoring everyone and climbing up into their high cab. Elizabeth, quite happily, scuttled round to the rear to climb up amongst the cargo; while Albert followed Claire through the left side cab door, they being passengers while Gabrielle drove the unwieldy beast.
It wasn't long before Albert began to suspect he'd picked the short straw after all. The Matador, like all its sisters, was famed for its suspension—which, in point of fact, was non-existent, the truck being built of steel and wood and weighing in at seven tons. Albert began to recognise the disadvantages of this almost immediately.
"Here, I'm being bucketed about like the last sardine in the can, ladies." He grasped the inside door-handle and placed his feet firmly on the wooden floor, pushing his bottom on the hard thin cushion provided as solidly as he could. "How fast are we going? Shouldn't we slow down; I mean, Eric's bloody drums, an' all that."
"B-gg-r Eric's drums, whatever the hell's in 'em." Gabrielle fairly spat her reply through barely open teeth, she having her attention wholly on keeping some form of control over the wild mechanical thing she was nominally in charge of. "We're doin' about twenty-five, an' you should be grateful for that, mate. This crate isn't officially meant t'go over thirty miles an hour, as it is."
"Oh? What, er, can it do?"
"Somewhere around forty-five, if I give it a really big kick in the pants an' there's a long steeply downhill stretch t'hand." Gabrielle snorted with no sign of humour. "But don't worry; with all these windin' roads, an' military stop-points everywhere, y'can't get any kind'a real speed up at all."
Albert looked less than happy at this information, and even less so at Claire's addition.
"Just sit back an' enjoy the ride. Be about an hour an' a half before we reach Settiscarth."
Albert gave up; sat back on his hard seat, and clearly lost all hope of comfort for the duration.
The Matador's destination, Settiscarth, was indeed in the middle of nowhere. On the north-east coast of Mainland, looking out over the aptly named Wide Firth separating Mainland from the island of Shapinsay; the few crofts of the community lay scattered up in the hills; their actual destination being amongst the wild empty Braes of Aglath, where nobody lived and only a few deer and foxes were ever to be seen. The surrounding country was wholly moorland, with rolling hills climbing to near horizons all round, with nothing but clumps of heather, numerous rank pools of stagnant black water, and no sign of life whatever. For the purposes of the boffins' work a team of hardy REME engineers had been sent ahead a few days previously, in order to carve some sort of habitable site out of the prehistoric landscape, and prepare certain features for the coming experiments. All this was almost invisible, far up a temporary lane constructed by the engineers ingenuity, which took the Matador, only just, across the intervening moor and bog to a thirty-foot wide rectangle of cleared ground under the lee afforded by the slopes of a high rolling hill. Nothing about the site appeared in any way promising to the arriving travellers, most certainly to those most closely involved.
"Bloody Hell, what a hole."
Albert shook his head in disbelief as he climbed down from the monster which had brought him to this bleak spot.
"And you say people actually live here?" He spoke with every evidence of disbelief.
Gabrielle, stamping her boots on the still damp ground to bring the circulation back, gave a grunt as she too looked gloomily about her.
"Live here?" She was condescending to the nth degree at such an idiotic question. "Who told you anyone ever lived within five miles o'this place. Does it look as if anyone'd ever bloody lived here? Even the Orcadians couldn't do it. Nah, this place is your actual Ends o'the Earth, mate."
Captain Hamilton, courtesy of a civilian Austin saloon painted the usual dark brown, now made himself visible; along with a squad of soldiers who had also obviously drawn the day's short straw.
"Glad t'see you made it; not an easy place t'reach; only just made it myself; but here we are." He glanced significantly at Albert and the other two scientists, making their slow way up from the rear of the truck. "So, what's the plan then?"
The plan, such as it was, turned out to be simply getting on with the whole sorry business. As each specialist explained to the interested spectators,—Claire, Gabrielle, and Captain Hamilton,—all they wanted to do was blow something up; watch it blowing-up; and take notes of how it'd blown-up. Of course, matters turned out not to be quite that simple in actuality. Firstly, on examining the truck's cargo, Albert had discovered a leak in one of the oil-drums, which had led to the back of the Matador now having a slick covering of highly inflammable, not to say explosive, liquid all over it. Gabrielle was less than pleased; as her language, even before Captain Hamilton, attested. The nearby soldiers, their work, of course, never being done, were corralled into heaving the drums down onto terra-firma—a merely academic title in this, or any other, part of Orkney Mainland.
"What's the set-up?" Claire asked this question with some trepidation.
"Let's see. Ah, yes, excellent." Albert here took up the cudgel of description, looking around at the somewhat odd nature of the surrounding terrain, now that the REME chaps had been going at it with a free hand for the last few days. "This'll do nicely. Not quite what we originally supposed, but better than nothing."
"What did you originally suppose, if I may ask?" Gabrielle was always a sucker for too much bad news, if available.
"These, er, things we're working on are meant to be—well, actually, they are—the latest in anti-personnel defences against the Boche, y'see." Albert had the details at his fingertips. "What all our experiments were originally made for were English hedges, sunken roads, and shallow sandy beaches—"
"Huh, there ain't any hedges in the whole of Orkney." Gabrielle spoke in a sneering I know what I'm talking about tone. "Not one dam' one. Go on, find one single hedge in Orkney—I dare you. Look, I've got a five-pound note right here says y'can't—'cos y'can't, see?"
"Let's not get agitated so early in the day; lot's o'time for that when things start t'take off." Captain Hamilton having a cynical outlook on life.
"No sunken roads, either." Claire happily put in her twopence-worth, grinning broadly all round. "If what y'mean is a high earthy verge, liberally scattered with undergrowth, running alongside a road? Won't happen up here."
"An' as to your shallow sandy beaches," Gabrielle, having the most fun she'd had in a week, smiled evilly. "The only beaches in Orkney are about two feet wide, an' made up exclusively of great boulders of granite, though they call 'em pebbles here."
Having found their audience was wholly hostile in nature the scientists stoically got on with their esoteric exercises. The REME soldiers had constructed a long barrier, made up of peat blocks and earth. A sort of wall three feet thick and about seven feet high. This ran over the uneven slope of the hill they were on for around twenty yards; a wall protecting nothing; starting nowhere, and ending nowhere.
"What the hell use's that?" Claire found herself becoming more critical of events as each minute wound its weary way on through the cold drizzly morning.
"It's for throwing things over." Elizabeth, having kept a Spartan silence so far, now broke into life. "The Hedge-Hoppers, y'know. Can't have a Hopper, without it has something t'hop over, eh?"
"Is that meant t'be—" Claire never liked being made the cynosure of sarcasm.
"These oil-drums are the actual Hoppers." The female mathematician, having the bit of pure science between her teeth, carried on regardless. "Loaded with a lovely concoction of Eric's own making. Albert's made a sort'a wooden cradle; just a few bits of flat board, really, for the drum t'sit on. Then this is where I come in."
"What's your contribution, then?" Gabrielle, against her better judgement, was becoming interested, as the whole set-up was brought into being before their eyes by the hurrying soldiers. "It's only an oil-drum."
"It's a form of rocket, actually; though you could be forgiven for not realising the fact." Elizabeth assumed a smug expression, as of one completely in the know. "It has to be placed on the ground, or its cradle here, at exactly the right angle; not simply standing straight up. An angle of about four degrees; depending on the height of the hedge or other barrier; the distance from said barrier; and the height you want the missile to achieve in flight; also it has to assume a particular parabolic curve, in order to complete its flight properly; landing on its target in just the correct way. All needs t'be worked out mathematically before-hand. Then, with the results of our experiments here, we can provide the user with a handy rota of just where and at what angle to set the thing before use in almost any circumstances, y'see?"
Neither Claire nor Gabrielle saw, in any context of the word; but kept their doubts dutifully to themselves, merely shrugging their shoulders and raising dubious eyebrows.
There was a great deal of activity going forward now, all round. Captain Hamilton, clearly having some foreknowledge of what was required, had his team of soldiers running in all directions; the end result being three of the oil-drums were lined up in a row some hundred yards away from the man-made obstacle which, apparently was going to be their target. Albert was busy leaning over one of the drums, now on its side, doing something obscure to a valve in its rear plate; after which he crouched on the ground a couple of yards from the peat-block wall, arranging a curious contraption made of wooden slats over a shallow roundish pit about six inches deep; into which he had already placed something wrapped in rags with a wire extending from it. Then, finally, everything was in place.
"That's it, we're ready." Albert nodded at everyone within range. "Right, let's get everyone safely away. Captain, if you please."
"You want the first drum set on top o'that, er, hole?"
"Yes, thank you, Captain." Albert nodded happily, everything in his personal world being bright and cheerful. "Have your men roll it across; Elizabeth and I'll place it exactly. Elizabeth likes these things just so, y'know. That's it; here, about ten feet from the, er, wall. Right, just give us a minute while we, er, umm—"
Finally Elizabeth rose from her knees where, with Albert's help, she had been edging the oil drum to a particular angle by the moving of small wooden pegs under the heavy cylinder, and gave her grudging approval. Albert and she joined the others and they all walked back some twenty yards, to the levelled area of ground where the Matador and other vehicles and equipment sat.
"What now?" Captain Hamilton cocked an interested eye at the boffins, conversing together in whispers.
"Oh, we're all ready, Captain." Albert glanced across the heather and tussocky grass to the group of soldiers some thirty feet to their left side. "You might want to move those men further back; they're too near the, ahh, source of events."
Another couple of minutes and everything seemed arranged to the experts satisfaction.
"So, what exactly is gon'na happen, Mr Ridgeway?" Gabrielle was always at the head of the queue when any information was on offer.
"Well, this is only an experiment, y'know." Albert cast a frowning look on his questioner. "The drum's only loaded with half-mix today. Half the usual explosive potential, that is. As you see I have an electric wire running from the drum,—what is it, some thirty yards away,—to this detonator beside me. I press the plunger; the drum is fired into the air; it goes over the obstruction—the earth and peat wall—some ten feet further on from it, as you see; it explodes in flight, and lands over the wall on its target—hopefully spewing a largish sheet of flame and black smoke over everything, so don't be worried when that happens. Right, are we ready for this?"
Claire and Gabrielle, and Captain Hamilton himself, were in no sense of the term ready for this—but orders is orders, so everyone settled their caps more firmly on their heads, gazed grimly at Albert crouched over the detonator, and then at the curiously innocent–looking oil drum in the distance. This was it.
With this less than helpful shout Albert let loose all the Demons of Hell on the small group of military personnel, standing glumly in the middle of nowhere amongst the heather and barren wastes. And it was Hell, no mistake.
The approved preliminary scientific consensus had been that the drum, propelled by the small charge under it, would lift-off and rise in the air in a pre-arranged parabolic curve taking it high over the intervening peat wall. At some point in its flight the main charge would be ignited automatically, allowing the weapon to land on its target in a mass of flame and fire. What actually happened was entirely otherwise.
Albert pressed the plunger; there was an immediate flash of orange flame under the drum; but this was closely followed by the main charge going-off as well. The drum rose about ten feet in the air, enveloped in a spreading fireball like a cloud alight. It headed, with clearly purposeful determination right towards the standing group of observers, shooting flame in every direction; looking as if it had every intention of directly hitting its new target.
"Christ. Run. Run."
It may have been Claire who shouted this utterly unnecessary order; or perhaps it was Gabrielle; it may even have been Captain Hamilton: no-one, thereafter, could tell exactly. What occurred, however, was that everyone, intent on saving their own skins, had already automatically run for cover—or, at least, away from the approaching fiery menace. There was a flurry of activity as everyone ran across the uneven ground, jumping obstacles such as tussocks of grass, messy bushes of tangled heather, and suchlike, as if they were all Olympic athletes—all the time pursued by the ever-spreading roaring mass of flame and smoke which was the errant Hedge-Hopper.
Finally, as one, the disparate refugees dove onto the ground in the lee of whatever cover came to hand; there was a final heavy thump and roar as the missile hit the ground; a rumble as of a heavy bomb landing enveloped the area; then all vision was lost as a thick impenetrable cloud of black smoke, liberally mixed with fiery fingers and flashes of scintillating flame, shrouded the whole site.
It seemed hours later before the first movement of survivors made themselves known, though only a few seconds in reality. Various khaki-clad soldiers picked themselves up from the surrounding heather-covered ground, some scurrying away from pockets of flaming grass and heather burning too close to them. Claire struggled up from a muddy pool of black unctuous mud, her face covered with the horrible dirt. Gabrielle rolled over, trying to pick sharp clinging wreaths of heather from her clothes and coughing in the acrid smoke which still wreathed the whole area in something akin to the worst sort of pea-souper fog. Captain Hamilton too staggered to his feet, having lost his cap entirely, along with most of his temper.
"Where's that bloody boffin?" He had also lost that cool university-imbued casual tone which at first sight so often made him seem rather affected in nature—but now the animal within was roaming free. "Ridgeway, where the Hell are ya, you idiot? What the Hell d'ya mean, sir? Eh? Eh? What in Hell was that meant t'be, eh?"
Paradoxically as it turned out, or perhaps not so, the most seriously injured was found to be Albert in person. The seat of his thick tweed trousers had been nearly wholly burnt through by the vile mixture spewed everywhere by Galwood's evil genius. The boffins' explosives expert had, with entirely commendable resolution, blended something hitherto unknown to the world at large in the way of a liquid liable to burst into flames, if not explode violently at the drop of a hat—Galwood clearly having succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Even at half-mix the drum's contents had set fire to an area of grass, heather, and general wasteland of around forty yards circumference. The only thing it had not affected in any way was its intended target—the other side of the still virgin wall of peat and earth.
Albert's assertion that it seemed, all the same, to have been something of a success—if you took widespread destruction; wild uncontrolled fire in every direction; and the instilling of fear and the sudden need to go to the toilet in everyone present, as the sum of its parts,—being met with a stony silence by each and every one of his listeners; and Elizabeth's petty attempt to pass the buck by loudly decrying Galwood's efficiency in mixing diabolical chemicals no-one knew the outcome of, and her assertion that she had nothing to do with this wholly unsuspected outcome, being both met with the contempt they deserved, the rest of the morning's activities passed in something of a cool atmosphere.
The fact that, after the imposing of several new safety rules by Captain Hamilton, it was only the third and last drum which finally managed to jump over its intended obstacle and explode on the other side of the earth wall, didn't give anyone any cause for satisfaction. Especially as this event had unfolded with less than the impressive visual nature originally intended; the Hedge-Hopper only just managing to clear the top of the wall, after an obviously poorly-motivated struggle, rather than with the impressive leap of joyful murderous intent the boffins had supposed their invention would display.
Claire and Gabrielle climbed back into their Matador, which had itself evaded being toasted to ash by the skin of its teeth, with less than encouraging views of the might of the British military mind. They leaving the group of boffins, and Captain Hamilton, on site to clear up what had turned out to be something of a widespread mess.
"Where to next, lover?" Gabrielle settled into the now private quarters of the wide cab, beside her companion hunched over the wide steering-wheel.
"So much for bloody Hedge-Hoppers—bloody idiots." Claire was still internally as much inflamed as the source of their shock and disgust had itself been so little time before. "Now it's the pumping oil out onto the sea from underwater pipes, an' settin' it alight."
"Jeesus, has everyone gone mad round here?"
"Dam' well begins t'look that way, doll."
The area designated, by the great minds of the Admiralty down in London, for the next experiment was a wide shallow strand called the Knowe of Midgarth. It was rather an extended plain of shingle than a true beach; lying at the back of a shallow bay off Gairsay Sound; for the local military authorities, being made aware of the modest proposals hinted at by the team of boffins, had quickly made it clear the whole extent of Scapa Flow was out of bounds. The square shaped bay was protected by two headlands; Scara Taing to the north, and the Taing of Midgarth to the south; situated some way north of the fiasco just ended at Settiscarth; the whole of the land-based west side of the bay being made up of a flat rock-based beach. The boffins felt this was good because it allowed them to run their vehicles and equipment down onto the shore, near the water's edge; a relatively adequate road lying close behind the bay.
The beach, of loose rounded pebbles ranging from small nonentities to large boulder-like masses mixed with broken expanses of exposed bedrock, was flat and extensive; giving more than enough room for anything the boffins felt was needed. Again, they had appropriated the services of REME personnel to set things up before the experts' arrival. So a complicated series of small pipelines now ran across the stony beach from the tussocky grass near the road to the sea's lapping waves. A small mobile generator, box-like and painted the usual military dark green, sat on the grass connected to a large Matador tanker housing a rounded fuel tank on its chassis; making the vehicle seem heavier and more massive even than before. When Claire pulled up at the edge of the road near this sister lorry she was not overly impressed by what she found.
"So, they're gon'na try'n set the whole of Gairsay Sound on fire next, are they?"
Gabrielle was here just as critical, parts of her accoutrements still having a slightly singed odour about them.
"Right, who's mixed up in this up-comin' little drama?" The blonde jumped lithely to the ground, and immediately tripped over a lurking tussock of heather—measuring her length on the damp grass. "F-ck!"
"Hey, hey, mother's here; gim'me your hand."
A few seconds later, having brushed herself down, straightened her cap, and glowered round with a mad gleam in her green eyes, Gabrielle faced the approaching group of military personnel and another selection of boffins with less than her usual bonhomie.
"Oh God, it's Galwood himself. I've got a bone t'pick with that idiot."
"Well, save it." Claire took the arm of her explosively tempered companion in a firm grip. "Can't have ya court-martialed at this early stage in your career, can we. Be friendly, smile, say nice things. Hallo, Mr Galwood; bit of a cock-up with the Hedge-Hoppers, I'm afraid."
Galwood was tall, thin, and exhibited the cold unfeeling nature of a teacher who had been immured in the intellectually barren dark barracks of a third-rate back-street school in a northern English industrial town for far too long.
"Huh, what happened?" His voice held that peculiarly sneering tone only perfected by years of experience in classrooms. "Mixture not come up to standard, or what? I made sure that TX3 stuff was pretty fairly weakened; Albert insisted so. Spent all last evening softening the mix with paraffin and, er, other things."
"Well, you didn't soften it enough." Gabrielle came as close to outright snarling as the situation allowed. "It dam' near softened everyone within a circumference of fifty yards of its detonation, I'll have you know. Bloody fireballs, an' roarin' spouts o'flame, every-bloody-where. We thought for a minute we'd all been blown in'ta the Third Circle o'Hell itself. Dam'd idio—"
"But it all worked out in the end." Claire, still gripping her errant companion, gave her a subtle but firm shake. "Well, relatively; the last Hopper barely managed t'clear the earth wall by the skin of it's teeth, an' simply splashed its contents rather than explodin'. Not much of a show at all, I'm afraid."
"Oh well, that's what we're here for." Galwood didn't seem the least bit put out. "Bags of time t'sort out all these usual teethin' troubles: we're here for a month, after all."
"What was that, Miss Parker?"
"She only said, what's next, then." Claire jumped in with an alacrity born of despair. "See you've got the pipes connected t'the Matador tanker. All ready t'flood the Sound with fire; like the old Greeks used t'do?"
"Hardly; but, still, you have the bare bones of the general idea." Finding himself faced with a heaven-sent opportunity Galwood—like all British boffins, he was usually kept under a tight leash—stood back, squared his shoulders, and broke out in an explanatory lecture on the joys of setting the waves alight; something that had obviously taken up perhaps far too much of his recent spare thinking time.
"The original idea came from a Merchant Navy bloke, a Lieutenant, who'd been torpedoed in the Atlantic, twice." Galwood paused to ponder a moment on this startling piece of bad forward-planning, then bucked up once more. "Well, he having been on tankers both times, you see where the kernel of his brainwave came from?"
Claire and Gabrielle both saw perfectly well where this conversation was leading; but both being too respectful to follow the boffin's lead, thinking the topic more than a little de trop, they remained stonily silent: but Galwood hardly noticed, his question obviously having been more or less rhetorical.
"Yep, his idea was that if the dam' Jerries had set the sea on fire all round him; well, he'd dam' well return the compliment, see?" Galwood here gave the extraordinary expression which he was pleased to call a wide grin; but which others usually took as the painful onset of a stroke. "I got t'hear about it, did some swift calculations, and here we are."
The other boffin on show, Bertram Collister, now strolled up; clearly set on bringing his disliked compatriot down a peg or two.
"Rather fancy it was Elizabeth who did the calculations, old sport." His voice, though subtly different in accent from Captain Hamilton's, still reeked of the University atmosphere wherein he had been indoctrinated—Cambridge in his case, as opposed to Hamilton's Oxford. "Though I must say your alchemical fiddlings-about have come up with some extraordinary liquids. That TX3 stuff is bloody dangerous to all an' sundry, y'know. Like whisky, it should be watered down before public sale; but y'never listen t'me, I'm afraid."
"There's dam' all wrong with TX3." Galwood nearly shouted this, before recovering himself at the realisation they were in a public place, and lowering his voice. "It was formulated to bloody explode; an' I've simply done my damnest t'make sure that's what bloody well happens. An' it does."
"Hmm, far too easily, apparently, though." Claire determined to get the last word in the argument. "All over the terrain, without restraint. Needs dam' careful handlin'."
Galwood, faced with this more or less across the board censorship, merely looked as if he was suffering from wind in the gut and turned back to the lines of pipes running over the pebbles by their feet.
"Everything ready, Collister?"
"Yes." Bertram nodded, without much confidence, waving a desultory hand at the pipes. "Suppose you'll need a little explanation, ladies. We've got masses of fuel, another of Galwood's pet mixtures, in the tanker parked on the side of the beach over there. That small metal-box on wheels is a generator; these pipes have a diameter of four inches—"
"Not very big." Gabrielle here jumped in with a carping criticism, she being in that sort of mood after her earlier experiences. "If there's one thing I've learned this morning, it's not to take anything at dam' face value; especially if vociferously backed-up by a boff—scientist, who thinks he knows what he's doin'."
"Dear me, madam, we have lost confidence in human nature, haven't we?" Galwood, a couple of yards off, sneered happily, not in the least bothered. "You wouldn't, I fear, like our dinky little HQ down at Westward Ho, Devon. All sorts of pops goin' off in all directions daily there, y'know. Not all of them, I must admit, exactly what was originally planned, either. But, hell, what're experiments for, I ask you. No, don't attempt an answer, that was a rhetorical question, and I haven't time to play at the moment—duty calls, y'know. Hey you, over there, get your bloody boots off that pipeline, idiot."
With this parting shot Galwood set off at a run to further castigate the soldier, in the mid-distance, who had excited his rage.
"Well, Mr Collister, everythin' goin' t'your satisfaction then, is it?" Gabrielle favoured the gentleman with one of her less contented looks as they strolled further across the stony beach towards the line of incoming waves.
"Nothing ever goes quite to, er, plan, madam." Collister sniffed sadly as pebbles crunched under his feet. "If you were better associated with the, um, scientific world, you'd quickly realise that important, though unhappy, fact of life. It's the same with aircraft design, y'know; the first few prototypes always have a distressing tendency t'fall out of the sky at the drop of a hat. But the designers persevere, an' finally, triumph crowns their achievements, what."
"No need to be like that, madam, we're after all, only tryin' t'win the dam' war. Like every-bloody-body else, y'know."
"Sorry, I'm still shakin' a little from that fiasco back at Settiscarth, an' those dam' Hedge-Hoppers." Gabrielle attempted a smile. "So, what's the schedule for this, ah, present little do, then?"
Having been expertly directed back to that part of life which was his particular specialty, Collister waxed lyrical as they tramped down to the edge of the waves; the Sound being more or less calm this morning.
"It's remarkably simple, really." He pointed at one of the pipes at their feet, then glanced back to the solid ground lining the edge of the bay behind them. "That Matador tanker has hundreds of gallons of another of Galwood's mixtures. BHT, he calls it; God knows why. I think it has something to do with the chemical formula. Anyway, its basically petrol and raw oil with added, er, stuff to make it coagulate and float in sea-water. It pours out of circular vents in the pipeline—which extends around thirty yards out underwater, y'see. We turn a valve here on dry land; the mixture flows out, escapes the vents, and forms a thick slick on the surface; then, remotely, we fire several electric-spark triggers at various places along the pipeline, setting the mixture alight—then, Bingo, y'know."
Both women, hearing this explanation, came to the same conclusion—something awful, probably as much so as the recent Hedge-Hopper incident, was lurking in the offing; and neither one of them felt like sticking around to be involved, but Duty was their taskmaster, so—.
There were some further minutes of frantic splashing about in the shallow water near shore as the soldiers finished their esoteric attentions over the pipelines; then Galwood called for everyone to retreat back across the pebbly beach some thirty feet from the shoreline.
"Right, we're ready." Galwood, being as it were the onlie-begetter of the devilish brew now waiting in the Matador's tank, took centre-stage and gave out the orders. "Hopkins, are you ready with the generator?"
"Good," The scientist nodded happily, and turned to the group of spectators beside him. "always glad to know everything's going smoothly. Right, fire up and open the pipe valves."
There was a low growl from the generator, a soldier by the Matador tanker waved a hand showing the mixture was flowing, then all around gazed at the series of four pipelines running out to the waves'-edge and beyond.
"Can't see anything." Claire pursed her lips, shading her eyes with the palm of her hand. "How far out do the pipes go, did ya say? An' what're we lookin' for, on the surface?"
"Give it a chance, give it a chance." Galwood sighed loudly, a touch of impatience colouring his voice. "It's quite a thick turgid mixture; and this cold weather up here ain't doin' much for its flow potential, that's all. Wonder if I should have pre-heated the pipe sections, by lying them in a bonfire for a few minutes before-hand?"
This last exclamation was too low for the otherwise engaged scientist to hear; but Claire and Gabrielle, glancing knowingly at each other, began a quiet but determined backward stroll—aiming to put more, much more, distance between them and the edge of the waves. Nobody else noticed.
"Ah, there we are." Collister, standing with his boots getting wet in the water, pointed over to his left hand across the gently lapping sea. "I can see an oily scum on the surface over there—it's working."
"And the same's happening there, too." Galwood pointed in his turn at the right-hand pipeline, or where it might be expected to extend to far out underwater. "Yes, an oily slick forming, just as we predicted. Give it another two minutes or so an' we can think about lighting it up."
Claire and Gabrielle were now almost ten yards back, behind the engrossed group of scientists and soldiers.
"You're right, Collister." For the first time one could hear joy in Galwood's voice as he inspected the rapidly dirtying surface of the low waves across an area of around one hundred and twenty feet out from the shore into the bay. "This is looking very good indeed."
The two women had by now given up any pretence, having turned to head deliberately and with single-minded forethought for the safety of the heather covered solid ground beyond the pebbled strand.
"Right Hopkins, fire the electric triggers." Galwood shouted this order without looking back to the Matador, where the soldier in question had his hand literally on the trigger. "Now man, now."
Claire and Gabrielle scampered up the broken earth to the solid ground above the beach just as, some thirty yards to their left, the triggers were thrown.
The women, now within twenty feet of their own Matador and safety, paused to look out over the deceptively calm sea. From their distant vantage-point they could now see that along the whole of the foreshore the water was covered in what appeared to be a standard oil-slick, reflecting the dull midday light in shiny colourful patterns. In fact it appeared to cover rather more of the surface, over a greater area, than they had supposed would be the case.
"Jeesus, they've covered the whole dam' Sound with the stuff." Gabrielle, certainly, was of this opinion. "It's lyin' across the whole bay. Did Galwood say the triggers had fired? Can't see any flame. D'you suppose the whole thing's a bust?"
Claire had again straightened to gaze across the wide expanse of pebbles and water, shielding her eyes once more.
"Yeah, the triggers have gone off." She paused to glance up and down the stretch of shore in front of them. "Maybe, maybe the daylight's makin' it hard t'see the flame. Wait a minute—over there, see?"
The sea-water was of a dark matt grey, so the pipelines underwater were invisible; but to the far left of the group of solitary spectators, on the edge of the wide scree of pebbles by the lapping waves, a flickering orange light suddenly made itself known. This seemed to pool out swiftly, after once having started, and suddenly that whole area of water burst into a sheet of roaring red flame, leaping high in the air like a live thing. It was immediately accompanied by the most awful black thick smoke imaginable, rising in vast clouds so enormous one wondered how such a slight amount of oil could produce so much. Then the oil from the other pipelines took effect and, with frightening speed, the entire sea surface did indeed burst into the most horrendous mass of flame.
In what seemed only seconds nothing could be seen, out past the immediate shore, but this wall of roaring fire licking high into the air and accompanied by a mass of impenetrable black smoke. Suddenly another danger made itself known as flame erupted from part of the dark pipeline wriggling like a snake over the pebbles on the extreme right side—obviously a section of the canvas based pipe had torn. Seeing this, and realising their danger, the body of soldiers and boffins turned as one to scramble hastily back towards the watching women.
Every few seconds a wreath of ghastly black smoke would wash over the advancing fugitives, obscuring them from view; then they would re-appear, slightly more separated from each other but still making for solid ground away from the shore. Finally they all managed to gain the safety of the heather covered ground above the rocky strand and turned to watch, through the steadily thickening and still advancing smoke pall, the results of their experiment.
Without any warning the breeze at this point changed direction, and the main mass of the seething wall of smoke veered in their direction. Seeing what was coming Claire and Gabrielle leaped up the side of the huge Matador like monkeys in a tree, shutting the cab doors firmly behind them—just in time, as the whole outside panorama was lost to view as the oily stinking blackness wrapped them in its eerie clutches. The last thing both women heard, before Claire slammed the door on her side, was a rather sad Galwood, bemoaning his situation in a perfectly calm tone.
"Not,—not quite what was wanted, I fear. Oh well, Collister, tomorrow is another you-know-what, eh. Collister? Collister? Graah, dam' this bloody smoke; where the Hell are you, Collister?"
The writhing column of thick, nearly solid, black smoke climbed into the higher reaches of the atmosphere behind the retreating Matador like a theatre backdrop, or the approach of deep midnight. After one glance in their rear-view mirrors both women concentrated on negotiating the narrow road leading away from the enclosed bay and the scene of their latest misadventure.
"Another total f-ck—up." Claire growled disbelievingly as she crouched over the wide steering-wheel, both women bucking and bouncing as the truck's lack of suspension came to the fore.
"They don't seem t'be doin' very well, I'll give you that." Gabrielle, on her part, shook her head gloomily. "So, what's left of the day's schedule, dearest?"
"The Great Panjandrum." Claire made a noise deep in her throat redolent of distrust and not-happiness. "And if it comes off correctly I'll be Charlie's Aunt, I can tell ya."
The third, and last, scene of experiment for the day had been designated as the Sands of Evie, some couple of miles further north from the Midgarth bay fiasco. Here there was a little cove, too small to earn the title of bay, where a stretch of white sand—the only one of its kind along that part of the coast—allowed of the peculiar needs of the boffins greatest piece of secret weaponry.
Although only about two miles away from Midgarth the Sands', for what they amounted to, faced not Gairsay Sound but Eynhallow Sound; the main exit westwards for all shipping using Kirkwall harbour. So there was a fair amount of naval activity visible out on the choppy waters as the scientists, and a curiously large number of civilian spectators, gathered on the relatively wide sandy beach.
The usual appurtenances were on view associated with this sort of thing—several trucks, including no less than two further Matadors; several smaller vehicles; a platoon of soldiers under the command of the ever-present REME officers; and a wide selection of assorted back-up material spread over the grey-white sand in all directions. Not the least visible being the experimental object itself, the so-called Great Panjandrum.
This curious entity took the form of two giant wooden wheels, each around two feet wide and with a diameter of about nine feet. Their outer circumferences were laid with wide flat wooden plates, making it look as if the wheels had tank tracks. These wheels were con-joined by an axle whose diameter was of about two and a half feet, with a width of four feet separating each individual wheel. The wheels themselves were held together by a series of thick long wooden spokes; while round the outer edges of the two wheels ran a wide rail or rim to which were affixed, pointing outwards at an angle, numerous thin two-foot long metal-cased rockets. A mass of wiring ran around the wheels, connecting all these rockets, while from several parts of the wheel and the internal axle short whippy radio aerials stuck up. It was painted a shabby light grey and looked—unusual.
Gabrielle, sitting in their Matador cab beside Claire who was clutching the steering-wheel in an iron grip, gave this first impression of the giant weapon as they drove up to the edge of the beach—the heavy pall of oily smoke from their last place of visitation still rolling high into the sky on the horizon behind them.
"Yeah, well." Claire, by now au fait with probable end results, put the engine in neutral and left it running as she opened her cab door to climb down. "Better make ourselves known, an' see what the hell this bunch o'retar—idiots, are thinkin' of doin'."
The Matador, as was its wont, had arrived with its usual growling, not to say thunderous, roar; resulting in its being, for the moment, the cynosure of all eyes. And there seemed to be rather an excess of these all round the landscape as the women strolled out onto the light-yellow-toned beach.
"Jeez, half o'Orkney seems t'be here." Gabrielle stared around at the many groups of apparent civilians scattered across the width of the heather and grass edge of the beach. "What about bloody secrecy, an' all that?"
At this juncture the figure of a tall army officer approaching them over the white sand resolved itself into Captain Hamilton, having clearly hot-footed it from Settiscarth.
"Hallo again, ladies." He doffed his cap, then stared around like the proprietor of a well-attended circus. "Lots of spectators, what? Just like a football match, in fact."
"Ain't these concerns supposed t'be wrapped in impenetrable secrecy, Captain?" Claire, used to the dark machinations of SOE, held herself somewhat aloof from this public spectacle. "Don't look much like it t'me."
"Ah, well," Hamilton touched the side of his nose in a knowing manner. "there's times when a few, er, observers, may not be as entirely out of place as might be thought. Let's just say an audience, at this point in proceedings, doesn't offer any difficulties. Anyway, to business; ah, here comes Miss Cartwright, and Carruthers. I'll let them fill you in."
"Hallo, come to watch the great event?" Linda, clad in brown jodhpurs and a thick wool Land Army green jersey, with heavy thigh-length boots to match, looked every inch the image of a sporting gal. "The Thing's just about ready; if Carruthers, here, can bring himself to spark-up his radio valves."
"My valves, I'll have you all know, are in perfect order." David laughed lightly at this piece of repartee. "She'll run like an athlete across these smooth sands, no problem; always supposing your rockets actually work properly, Linda."
"Guaranteed, old cock, guaranteed." She smiled at the two women, clearly at ease with events. "Perhaps I better warn you both, when this thing goes-off there'll be a considerable amount of noise. Each wheel has thirty rockets, stuffed t'the gills with a solid fuel, in pellets. They make a helluva racket, an' blow clouds of white stinkin' smoke all over the place. One or two have also been known t' blow-up of their own dam' accord, without warnin'. So if that happens, don't be put off, gals; all part of the party games, eh. Excuse me, things t'do. Bye."
Linda turned and crunched away over the sand, heading back to where the Panjandrum sat some distance away; looking like a tiger at rest just before the final fatal pounce on its dinner.
"Sometimes I wonder—" Hamilton spoke in a soft musing tone, eyeing the disappearing back of the rocket expert with a dubious glance.
"This ain't gon'na end well." Gabrielle, on the other hand, was beyond keeping a reserved silence. "Nuthin' good's gon'na come o'this. Ricky, let's head back t'the bloody Matador. I won't feel safe till we're in the cab, with the doors shut. Better turn her t'face our escape route too, while you're at it. Wan'na join us, Captain?"
Hamilton turned to look at the two women, in their innocuous ATA uniforms, as if weighing up the pro's and con's of their offer.
"Very kind, I'm sure; but Duty calls." He waved a hand as he turned back to the beach. "Someone's got to keep this bunch in order or, at least, try to. See you later; after the, er, run. We can swop stories of how it went over a cuppa tea in the Kirkwall NAAFI, eh. Bye for now."
The women watched the retreat of the military element of the proceedings for a few seconds, then Gabrielle turned nonchalantly to her tall companion.
"Back t'the Matador?"
"Dam' straight, lover."
From the high vantage-point of the Matador's cab the women had an eagle's-eye view of the beach, and its occupants. From this distance the Great Panjandrum looked, if anything, more imposing and deadly than ever.
"F-ckin' idiots, the lot of 'em." Gabrielle, seated uncomfortably on the cab's hard seat, was unrestrained in her critical surmise. "If we had just a few more bloody boffins like this bunch ol' Adolf'd win the War without the necessity of usin' his troops any further."
"Somethin' in that, dear, definitely somethin' in that."
There had been an uncomfortable, and somewhat menacing, pause of ten minutes or so while the boffins finished all those esoteric details necessary to the smooth running of their latest toy. But, finally, things seemed about to come to a head.
"Someone's waving a red flag, over to the right, there." Gabrielle was always quickest to notice details like this.
Before Claire could form a reply action finally broke out on the white-grey sands. A series of rapidly expanding clouds of greyish smoke enveloped the circumference of the enormous double-wheel; after which it suddenly swept into a juddering motion, hardly controlled enough to be called a forward run. It rolled along some thirty yards or so, its frame rocking from side to side in an alarming manner; this making its course anything but steady. Instead of a straight forward line, like a car driving along a road, it took a series of dog-leg jumps from side to side; each change of direction becoming more pronounced than the last. At several points it was completely enveloped in the smoke of its rockets; at others the breeze swept this away to the side, revealing the ungainly machine continuing its ever more erratic journey across the sands.
"It's just occurred t'me." Gabrielle paused, then came out with the nature of her fear. "Did Carruthers, or Linda, say whether this g-dd-m thing's actually, er, loaded for bear, or not?"
"Sh-t, never thought t'ask." Claire crouched over her steering-wheel; then answered her companion by putting the Matador in gear and revving the engine. "Hold tight, baby, I've got the strangest feelin' we may need t'get out'ta here fast."
As if this thought was parent to the action, the Panjandrum here took a decided swivel off-track; heading in a direct line right across the remaining expanse of pale sand towards the edge of the beach, and the sitting Matador in particular. It had given up all pretence of slithering here and there, instead cutting out a seemigly measured path directly for what was now obviously its determined target—the womens' Matador. And it had gained an astonishing amount of speed in the process; its approach being heralded by a thunderous ongoing rumble, like devils groaning in Hell.
"Shit Almighty, it's out'ta control."
"An' it's dam' well seen us." Gabrielle clutched her protector's arm in a vice-like grip. "Head for the hills, Ricky; an' don't hang a-bloody-bout."
Needing no second request, Claire put her foot down, swung the wheel hard over, and aimed the huge truck back along the earthen track which had brought them there. But her defensive actions were all just too late; the Panjandrum, having marked its target, now flung all restraint aside and, with one final roar of misfiring rockets, thundered up to the heather and tussocky grass lining the edge of the beach. At a point some forty feet away from the now retreating Matador it achieved its final apotheosis—detonating in a column of flame and smoke with the power of a two hundred and fifty pound aerial bomb. All the occupants of the heavy truck were aware of was a sudden pressure wave like an ancient God swatting them aside; then everything went black.
"Hooray for Matadors."
This heartfelt remark came from Gabrielle, standing on the track by the edge of the now deserted beach; all the earlier spectators having been summarily told to b-gg-r off and keep their collective mouths shut about what they had witnessed, or else. Gabrielle and her hard-pressed companion had survived, though barely, the enormous explosion of the Panjandrum only because they had been ensconced in the one extant road vehicle which was the next-best thing to an actual tank—an AEC Matador seven-ton truck.
But their escape had only been by a hair's-breadth. The truck, slewed over at a nasty angle by the side of the track, all the right-hand wheels several feet in the air, was now suffering the attentions of the combined REME unit in hauling it back onto its feet; while Claire and Gabrielle, bruised and shaken but alive, stood watching.
"When we get back t'our Nissen hut the report about all this I'm gon'na put in is gon'na be written in gall an' wormwood, Ricky." Gabrielle, when riled, could hold a grudge like the best. "I'm gon'na be nasty, impolite, sarcastic, an' downright mean."
"With ya, babe, with ya all the way."
"No doubt about it."
"F-ckin' Hedge-bloody-Hoppers. Whoever invented those needs lockin' up."
"Y'ain't wrong, darlin'."
"F-ckin' settin' the sea on fire. What a drivellin' idiotic idea. Has the whole dam' world gone bonkers?"
"Dare say, dear, dare say."
"An' double-f-ckin' bloody dam' Panjandrum. What a f-ckin' deranged monstrosity." Here Gabrielle nearly began to foam at the mouth for real. "If I ever find out who was originally responsible for that maniacal piece o'sh-t, I'll pursue 'em t'the ends of the bloody earth. An' when I corner' em; well, just watch what happens, that's all."
"Won't hear me complain, dear." Claire, pretty much banged about as comprehensively as her blonde better half, took a deep breath and sought for comfort in a mad world. "How's about we drive this ol' four-wheeled hero straight back t'the Nissen, when the REME boys haul it onto the road again; then make ourselves a nice mug o'cocoa; an' put the best part of a bottle o'whisky in, just t'add flavour, y'know?"
"Works for me, babe." Gabrielle heaved a tired sigh, clapping her lover on the shoulder; the nearest to a public expression of tenderness they could risk. "I'll drive, you've had enough o'the brute for one day. But all the same, like I said, Hooray for Matadors."
"Dam' straight, darlin'."
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.