The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 179: Blimping Along

Professor Otkupshchikov's modified Coastal Class blimp

Lady Milbridge paused by the rail, struck a pose, and glanced at her husband. "What do you think, Edmund?" she asked.

Lord Milbridge studied his wife’s ensemble -- an elegant recreation of the fashions of another era -- and smiled. "It’s quite becoming, Atalanta," he replied. "But I don’t recall seeing that dress before.

"I had it made in Leava while you were arranging the purchase of this steamship. It seemed appropriate attire for our new vessel."

"I quite agree," said the viscount. "Steam does seem to demand a particular aesthetic. It will be a sad day when coming generations forsake it in exchange for motors and petrol."

"Who knows?" said Lady Milbridge. "Perhaps the steam age will enjoy a revival in the distant future, and young men and women will gather in public meeting halls to celebrate the clothing, technology, and sensibilities of a more civilized era."

The viscount chuckled at this pleasant conceit. "Let us hope this comes to pass."

"I imagine there’s no chance of getting to Aunu’u in time to meet the Professor?" Lady Milbridge asked, changing the subject.

"I fear not," said Lord Milbridge. "But we do have a rough idea of his itinerary. We’re sure to catch up with him eventually."


Murdock watched in consternation as the island of Aunu’u vanished astern. He hadn’t anticipated this development when he began to examine the blimp. He’d been studying the small Schneider-Carels diesel fitted in place of the craft’s original twin Sunbeams, when a middle-aged gentleman climbed aboard, handed him a crank, and asked him to turn the inertial starter. He’d complied without thinking -- it seemed the polite thing to do. Only after the engine was running did he notice they’d lifted ship.

"Excuse me..." he began.

"Welcome aboard," said his host. "I see from your uniform that you’re a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Airship Service." The man’s diction was almost flawless, with just the faintest trace of a Russian accent.

"Uh... yes," said Murdock. "May I ask..."

"Very good," said the Russian. "My man and I have been temporarily separated by circumstance. You can help me manage this vessel until we’re reunited."

"But..."

"I am Professor Otkupshchikov, and this is the Delfin. And you would be?"

"Lieutenant Murdock, Royal Navy Airship Service, of His Majesty’s Airship, the Flying Cloud, R-505."

"Would you care for some tea, Mister Murdock?"

"Well... uh... err... could you possibly tell me..."

Before the lieutenant could finish, he was interrupted by a strident voice from behind him.

"What do you mean, carrying us off like this?"

Murdock turned to see Miss Stewart emerge from an equipment locker, eyes dark with rage. "Miss Stewart," he squeaked, "what are you doing here?"

"That private investigator told me to hide on this blimp!" she snapped. "He must have been in collusion with this... person." The governess brushed past him, planted her hands on her hips, and glared at the Professor. "I demand that you take us back to that island immediately!"

"Oh, Chase, don’t be such a spoilsport," came a third voice. "This promises to be fun!"

By now, the lieutenant was beyond surprise. He watched, open-mouthed, as Miss Isobel stepped from the forward cabin, adjusted her hat, and beamed at her companions.

The Professor seemed nonplussed by these developments. "Welcome aboard the Delfin, devushka," he told Isobel. "It is rare for my vessel to be graced by a guest of such charm. My name you have already heard. Who do I have the honor of addressing?"

"Isobel Elsmford," the girl replied with a curtsy. "And this is my governess, Chastity Stewart. Is this a blimp? I’ve always wanted to ride on one, but Uncle never let me. He thinks they’re too flaccid."

The Professor smiled. "The Delfin has carried me for years, with never a wrinkle nor droop. She’s one of your Coastal Class, and they were known for their reliability. I believe we can discount your uncle’s concerns."

Isobel chuckled. "Oh, he’s not really my uncle, he’s just my guardian, the Viscount Milbridge. But I’ve called him that ever since he took me in."

"Lord Milbridge?" said the Professor. "What a remarkable coincidence! The gentleman is a good friend of mine. We were to meet in Aunu’u to discuss matters of mutual interest, but it appears he was delayed."

"What are your intentions now?" Miss Stewart asked suspiciously. Murdock thought he detected a strange undercurrent in the governess’s voice.

"I’ll continue with my research and hope to encounter Lord Milbridge along the way. He knows my plans for this season. I can drop you off at my next stop if you wish, but I’m afraid I can’t turn back for Aunu’u and still meet my schedule. For all of her merits as a vessel, the Delfin is not particularly swift."

The governess seemed taken aback, as if something in the Professor’s reply had come as a surprise. At last, begrudgingly, she nodded assent.

Isobel clapped her hands in delight. "It must be great fun to fly about the islands like this!" she told the Professor. "What are you looking for?"

The Russian nodded in agreement. "It’s certainly more civilized than trudging through the jungle with a bullwhip and a fedora, like one of my colleagues. I’ve been trying to locate an artifact known as the Nui Mana, in hope it might answer some questions related to historical migration patterns in this part of the Pacific."

"What’s a ‘new eemana’?" asked the girl, trying out the unfamiliar syllables.

"That’s nui, or ‘great’, and mana, which is an indigenous term for power and fortune. The islanders believe this latter is physical quality, like water or fire, that can be collected and saved for future use."

"Would this have anything to do with this so-called ‘Secret of Cargo’?" asked Murdock, remembering some of his shipmates’ adventures.

"The ‘Secret of Cargo’," mused the Professor. "Mrs. Cressman wrote an excellent monograph on the subject. No, that’s a comparatively recent belief the islanders devised to explain Western cultures’ access to material goods. The concept of mana is much older. It has parallels with certain aspects of Baltic tradition. Mana is a more generalized form of power. Some objects are supposed to be natural sources of this quality, and bring good fortune to their owners."

"Like lucky charms!" exclaimed Isobel.

Professor started to frown, as he might at a slow student. Then his face cracked in a smile. The girl’s enthusiasm was infectious.

"You may be right, devushka," he replied. "I never thought of it that way."

"What does it look like?" asked Isobel, eyes wide with excitement.

"The descriptions aren’t very clear," said the Professor. "It’s said to be some sort of carving, in a ‘color that is not a color’, with peculiar angles that look like they’re obtuse but act like they’re acute. One is reminded of the ruins on that peculiar island to the south..."

"Does it work?" interrupted Miss Stewart.

"Of course not," laughed the Professor. "How could people without machines, electricity, or metal tools, find a way to alter the very laws of chance? That sort of thing would require some secret science brought down from beyond the stars by a hypothetical elder race that vanished from the face of the Earth before the dawn of humanity."

"Oh," said the governess.

"Where is this Nui Mana supposed to be?" asked Murdock.

"That," said the Professor, "is something of a mystery. At one time, it was part of the great chain of gifts -- the so-called Kula Chain -- that the natives pass from island to island to affirm their cultural identity. But now it seems to have vanished. I fear it might have fallen into the hands of some traveler or missionary who wouldn’t recognize its significance."

Next week: Third Time’s The Charm...

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