The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 188: On The Trail

"The Flying Cloud over Wale

"Captain, I have the latest supply figures."

Everett saw Sarah standing in the doorway and suppressed a smile. The island girl's presence brightened the entire ship. And the bond of affection between her and Lieutenant Iverson reminded him of another happier time, in what seemed like a vanished era.

"What's our status?" he asked, giving no hint of these thoughts.

"We should be refueled and regassed by 1400 hours today."

The captain did a quick mental calculation. Their next destination, Danger Island, lay 721 nautical miles to the east-southeast. At their most economical cruising speed, into a 12 knot crosswind, this would take them 13 hours. "That sounds satisfactory," he replied. "We'll lift ship as soon as we're resupplied. That should get us to Wale tomorrow morning. Please inform Mister MacKiernan so he can make arrangements."

The island girl departed for the control car, and Everett had just turned back to his paperwork when Jenkins appeared. As always, the signalman's expression was neutral, but one didn't reach command rank in the Royal Navy Airship Service without being perceptive.

"You look concerned," said Everett.

Jenkins nodded. "We've received another message from Captain Michaelson," he said quietly. "It appears he's managed to determine the conditions of Lord Milbridge's guardianship over Miss Isobel."

"That's a rather remarkable accomplishment," Everett observed. "These things are generally kept confidential."

"Quite," said Jenkins. "He must have more extensive connections than we supposed. Be this as it may, it appears that if anything should happen to the viscount, control of Miss Isobel's estate would pass to one of her late father's business associates until the young lady reaches her majority."

"This `business associate' wouldn't happen to be Baron Warfield?"

"I'm afraid so. Michaelson concluded his message with a rather pointed inquiry regarding Miss Isobel's whereabouts and well-being."

Everett sighed. "I see no need to burden our senior captain with the details of our situation," he replied. "They would only cause him concern. With luck, we'll overtake Professor Otkupshchikov's blimp and have our passengers back aboard long before word of their absence can reach Cairns. Let's hope we find word of the Professor on Pukapuka."

Pukapuka, or Danger Island -- neither appellation was easy to contemplate with a straight face -- was one of the lesser members of the Cook archipelago. According to the Almanac, some entrepreneur had established an air station on the atoll's southeastern islet, but they arrived to find the enterprise abandoned -- victim, perhaps, of the place's implausible name. Everett studied the ruins through binoculars, then decided to proceed to Wale.

"We'll land a party there to inquire after the Professor," he announced. "It's the most populous of this lot, so it would be a natural place for him to call for supplies, even if his interests lie elsewhere. Mister Iverson, you will lead the investigation. Pierre will accompany you as an interpreter and we'll include Abercrombie to assist in any negotiations."

Deployment went smoothly. Everett brought the Flying Cloud into the wind above the village of Nyare, on the eastern side of the island, and held the airship steady while the Transporter made its descent. With a steady breeze blowing off the ocean, the operation proceeded without any significant drama.

The party reached the ground to find a small crowd waiting, armed with coconuts and chunks of coral. The islanders did not seem pleased by their arrival. "They're back!" yelled someone. Before the airman could react, they were deluged by a volley of missiles. Iverson and Pierre ducked and covered their heads. Abercrombie scowled, crossed his arms, and waited for the barrage to end.

"What was that all about?" Iverson asked after their would-be assailants had exhausted their ammunition.

"You're the Sky Pirates of Tahiti!" yelled one of the islanders.

"No we're not!" said the lieutenant. "We're members of the Royal Navy Airship Service. Why else would we be wearing these distinctive uniforms?"

"It's a trick," said the islander, "to lull our suspicion."

Iverson nodded to Abercrombie. The Scotsman reached down, picked up a fallen coconut, and squeezed it in his fist. The shell exploded with a pop.

"If we're pirates," asked Iverson, "why would my companion here, who's obviously strong enough to pitch you all into the sea, have exercised such restraint?"

The islanders conferred among themselves. "A good point," admitted their spokesman. "And your ship does look a bit different from the pirates'. Theirs was more graceful."

Iverson started to frown, then caught himself. "I take it they called here earlier?"

The islander nodded. "They came two days ago to land a pair of Englishmen. These gentlemen met a nobleman, his lady, and a servant, who'd arrived earlier disguised as clergy, and left aboard the nobleman's launch."

The airmen exchanged glances.

"Thank you," Iverson said politely. "That's interesting news. Now if you'd excuse us, we must be getting back to our ship."

MacKiernan frowned as Iverson delivered his report. "Could these sky pirates and Warfield have made some arrangement?" he asked.

"This new information does seem to point in that direction," mused Everett, "but we might wish to reserve judgment until we learn more. I take it there was no sign of Professor Otkupshchikov?"

"No, sir," said Iverson. "And we couldn't possibly have missed him in a place this small."

"That's odd," said MacKiernan. "His old Coastal can't possibly have more than an 800 mile range. That's not enough to fly from Wallis to Tahiti in one leg, so I'd assumed he'd resupply here, then make his way from island to island until he reached Papeete."

"That is a puzzle," agreed Everett. "I wonder where the fellow's got to."

Lieutenant Murdock stood at the rail watching the sunset as he reflected on their latest change in circumstances. Since it didn't have enough range to reach Tahiti on its own, Professor Otkupshchikov had deflated his blimp and chartered a freighter -- a small steamship named the Tranquility, manned by an odd assortment of Australians with names like Ray and Cleaner -- to carry them south. Like the missionaries on Wallis Island, the crew all seemed know the Professor. Murdock wondered just how many acquaintances the Russian had throughout the Pacific.

"Will we ever get back to civilization?" came a voice from behind him.

Murdock turned to see Miss Stewart. The governess had unbound her hair, which cascaded down around her shoulders in rich brown waves. Something about her gaze made him nervous.

"I... uh..." he began, wondering just what he was supposed to say.

The woman's expression softened. "Forgive me," she said quietly. "I imagine our situation must be just as frustrating for you."

"I suppose it is," said Murdock, feeling on slightly safer ground, "but I imagine we'll be able to contact the Captain once we reach Tahiti."

"Tahiti," said Miss Stewart. "I've heard so many stories about the place. Do you think it will live up to its... reputation?"

What reputation is that? wondered Murdock. And why was Miss Stewart standing so close to him? Unwillingly, his eyes were drawn to the front of her dress, where several buttons seemed to have come unfastened. He felt a strange urge to reach out and adjust them. He blushed and looked away.

"I'm... ah... not entirely sure," he replied awkwardly. "I understand Western missionaries have had a positive effect on the moral character of the population."

"That's all you have to say?" Miss Stewart exclaimed. Murdock looked back to see the governess glaring at him in a way he was quite unable to interpret. Before he could reply, he heard a giggle.

"Chase! Mister Murdock! So this is where you're hiding!"

He looked up to see Miss Isobel and the Professor standing at the head of the companionway. Miss Stewart scowled, took the girl by the arm, and stormed off toward the cabins.

"What was that all about?" Murdock asked after the two were gone.

Professor Otkupshchikov studied him for a moment. "I take it you didn't have much experience with women at the Naval College."

"Uh, no," said the lieutenant. "Not in particular."

The Professor nodded as if this confirmed some suspicion. "I thought so."

Next week: Cruisin'...

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