The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 164: Il Ruggiero Allegro

Pirate flag with wine bottles

Like most settlements in the French colonial possessions, Kolotai had something that resembled a café. In this case, it was a collection of overturned canoes beneath a palm tree where the proprietress -- a matronly islander with a cheerful manner -- offered them a choice of kava, tea, or coffee. After learning how the first was prepared, Murdock opted for tea. The Americans chose coffee. The lieutenant thought this a barbarous practice so late in the day, but he was beginning to suspect that the rest of the world might not adhere to Royal Navy practice.

Iverson opened the conversation with a pleasantry. "It’s a delightful surprise to meet you again," he told the Cressmans. "What brings you here from the New Hebrides?"

"Research," said Mrs. Cressman. "We’re studying the secret of cargo."

Iverson frowned in puzzlement. "Is this associated with some specific piece of merchandise or does it apply to all cargo in general?

The American laughed. "In the Pacific cultural region, the word ‘cargo’ has acquired a more expansive definition than we're used to in the West. It has become a general expression for wealth, power, and influence -- a sort of magical force, similar to the concept of mana. When the first Europeans arrived with their ships, guns, and missionaries, the islanders couldn’t help but notice we had more of this quality than they did. It was quite natural for them to assume that we possessed some secret their culture had lost. It's a common myth: a 585 on the Arne Classification Scale."

"What is this secret supposed to be?" asked Murdock, fascinated.

"It varies from island to island," said the woman. "Some communities believe it's a ritual. Others associate it with some specific token, such as a magic ornament or tool. Here in the French colonies, we've found several villages where people believe 'cargo' can be obtained by the practice of racquet sports."

"That's nine so far," grumbled her husband.

When the shore party made their way back to Leava, early the next morning, they found the Flying Cloud riding from the mooring mast. It seemed the handling parties had worked through the night -- a matter of national pride, perhaps -- for the ship was refueled, regassed, and ready to lift as soon as her crew decided where to take her.

Captain Everett met them in his quarters, where he'd been dealing with the unending paperwork that was a commander's lot. "Did you find the archaeologist?" he asked Iverson.

"Not exactly, sir," said Iverson. He explained what they’d found. Everett noticed the lieutenant’s doleful expression and suppressed a smile. Had he taken things so seriously when he’d been the same age? Surely not. Often.

"I must commend your efforts," he replied. "It’s hardly your fault our original information was incorrect. And we did learn some interesting facts about the local culture."

"I’m not sure they're relevant," Iverson said glumly.

This time Everett did smile. "We must never leap to conclusions," he observed. "I’m sure Jenkins would tell us that one never knows when some apparently trivial piece of information might prove useful."

As if on cue, the signalman appeared in the doorway. His usually unperturbed face bore an entirely undecipherable expression. He handed the captain a sheet of paper.

"Sir," he announced, "this news just arrived over the w/t. I felt you should see it immediately."

Everett studied the message. An uncharacteristic flicker of emotion passed over his own face.

"We’re absolutely certain this information is accurate?"

"It arrived direct from Cairns."

"How extraordinary!" he muttered. Setting aside his paperwork, he turned to the intercom panel and sounded general quarters. "This is the Captain speaking. All hands to flight stations. Prepare to lift ship. This is not a drill."

"What is it?" asked Iverson, alarmed.

"They received a distress call from a yacht near the Santa Cruz Islands. It seems the vessel was attacked by pirates. On an airship."

The flight back to the Coral Sea took less than a day. It took them some time to find the yacht among the islands, but the vessel proved easy to recognize -- a trim white motorcraft with varnished mahogany furnishings and polished bronze fittings. From a distance, there was no sign of damage.

Everett studied the vessel through binoculars. "The May Goldfinch. I imagine the fellow’s a bird fancier. We’re sure this is correct vessel?"

"That was the name in the message," said MacKiernan. "And these are the coordinates they provided." But they don’t seem to be in any particular state of difficulty."

"No," mused Everett, "more like a state of perplexity. I suppose we'd better go down and talk to the fellows. Summon Davies to the Transporter Room."

"Do you want me to lead the party, sir?" asked Iverson

"No, I’ll take this one myself. Jenkins, if you’d come with me."

The three men made the descent without incident. Everett stepped to the yacht’s deck adroitly, as befitted an officer of command rank, Davies had considerable experience with Transporter operations, and Jenkins was member of the Royal Naval Airship Service’s Signal Corps. Polite applause greeted their arrival. A well-dressed couple stepped forward to greet them.

"Welcome aboard," said the man, "I’m Clarence Trenton, chief accountant at Kenwick and Smeaton's, and this is the wife Beatrice. Thank you for responding to our distress call so quickly."

"It’s all part of the Royal Navy's job," said Everett modestly. "I understand you were attacked by pirates."

"Yes. Just the other day."

"On an airship."

"That is correct."

"You’re quite sure about this?" said Everett. He glanced around the deck, which showed no trace of the bullet holes, bloodstains, or radium ray blasts one might expect after some episode from a radio drama.

"Oh yes," said the accountant. "It’s not the sort of thing one could be mistaken about."

"Was this large ship with eight engines arranged four on a side?"

"No, it only had three engines, like yours, but it was somewhat more graceful."

Everett suppressed a frown at the unintended slight. "Do you think their story is reliable, sir?" Jenkins whispered.

"It must be," Everett whispered back. "It’s too patently absurd to be an invention." He turned to their host. "Suppose you start at the beginning and tell us what happened."

"Of course," said the accountant. "We were heading to the Santa Cruz islands to look for the macropygia rufa. Remarkable birds -- much more elegant than the macropygia amboinensis or phasianella. Sometime after tea, we noticed a small airship heading in our direction. They pulled overhead, unfurled a rather remarkable flag, and tossed down a bottle with a note inside ordering us to heave to. It was all quite exciting! Nothing like that ever happens at the office! Except for that time Somers left to become a lion tamer..."

"What happened after you complied?"

"They sent down a hoist with three men aboard. Two seemed quite young -- Englishmen, I’d judge from their bearing. The third was some type of foreigner. He bowed to the ladies, turned to me and said, ‘At last, Milford, we have found you!’ They seemed quite put out when we informed them we had no one of that name aboard. They apologized for the inconvenience, made their excuses, and departed."

"Did they take anything?" asked Everett.

"They didn’t want to, but we forced them to accept a few bits of artwork we picked up on the islands. We felt that as freebooters of the skyways, they had an image to maintain."

Everett nodded in agreement. It seemed the polite thing to do. "Have you seen any other airships recently?" he asked.

The accountant thought this over. "Just the usual commercial traffic. Though I suppose there was that blimp we saw on San Cristobel with the..." He turned to his wife. "What was his profession, my dear?"

"I believe the man was an archaeologist."

Another one? thought Everett in annoyance. "Do you recall what type of blimp it was?"

"On no," said the accountant. He seemed surprised by the question. "Those blimps all look the same."

Next week: What Are A Syllable Or Two Among Friends?...

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