The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 112: Welcome to the Club

War clubs and tennis racket

It was a scene from the Dawn of Man. Jungle loomed around them -- dark, forbidding, alive with mysterious sounds. Above, the sun was a pale white disk shrouded in mist. Closer at hand, a crowd of natives stared at them with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. They wore necklaces of shark's teeth, bore elaborate tattoos, and carried an ominous assortment of clubs, spears, and tennis rackets.

Iverson decided introductions were in order. "I fear I have neglected my duties," he observed, offering the missionary a bow. "I am Lieutenant Iverson, of His Majesty's Airship R-505, the Flying Cloud, and this is our ballast officer, Miss Sarah."

Mrs. Cressman smiled like a trained anthropologist observing some quaint native custom. "I could tell you were Royal Navy," she replied. "The mannerisms are quite distinctive. Your companion must be the daughter of an island chief -- that would be an 850 or 870 on the Aarne Classification Scale, unless she's from that mysterious island to the west, in which case it would be a 420. You've already met my husband Luther, and these are the good people of Paonapokas."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," said Iverson, nodding to the warriors. Their leader, an imposing figure armed with a late-model H. C. Lee Dreadnought Driver, nodded back. "Could you tell us more about these glassmakers?"

"They were Englishmen," said the woman, "I don't recall their names, but their leader seemed to be a man of fairly high status. They passed through toward the end of May, looking for some mineral they use as a coloring agent."

Iverson and Sarah exchanged glances. They had few doubts about what this mineral might be. "Did they have some kind of measuring device?" asked Sarah. "A box, perhaps this long and this wide, that made a sort of clicking noise?"

"No," said Mrs. Cressman. "But I did hear them mention something called a DeBroglie Filter. Could this be what you're looking for?"

Iverson frowned. Another mysterious machine. He hoped it wouldn't turn out to be quite as dramatic as the last one. "I suspect not," he replied. "It sounds like some sort of coffeemaker. Have you noticed any other strangers about?"

"Sometime in early June, a group of Germans were asking around port for news about some large airship. I gather it was some competitor of theirs, for they seemed relieved when they learned no one had seen it."

Early June? thought Iverson. That was well before the attack on the R-212. The picture was growing more confusing by the moment. With some trepidation, he produced the war club and passed it to the woman.

"I have one more question," he said. "Do you have any idea where this implement might have been manufactured?"

Mrs. Cressman turned the weapon over in her hands to study its carvings. "I believe these waves represent Tawhiri, a god of wind and storms," she observed. "And this could be the symbol of Tipua-Shoggoth, some sort of shape-changing demon. The only tribe that uses this iconography is the Yora of Espirtu Santo. They have a bad reputation."

"Espiritu Santo?" asked Sarah. "Isn't that where MacKiernan is headed?"

"I believe so," said Iverson. "I hope he doesn't run into trouble."

The island girl smiled. "I wouldn't be too upset if Miss Perkins did."

MacKiernan steered the launch with one hand while he relaxed in his seat. Behind him, Rashid and Pierre were enjoying the sun. It was a glorious day to be on the water. The air was warm and the sky was bright, with that perfect South Pacific weather that somehow manages to be precisely the right temperature. The craft rode easily to a following sea, surfing down the face of each wave as it rose to the swells. Little spray came aboard, which was fortunate, for Miss Perkins gave the impression of being one who would not tolerate such nonsense.

"'Tis a fine day for a sail," said the Irishman, hoping to break the silence. The woman had spoken little since coming aboard, and the situation was growing awkward.

"Perhaps," she said, "if one likes that sort of thing. When will we reach this island of yours?"

"We're making good time. We should be there well before nightfall."

"That may be adequate," Miss Perkins replied, in a voice that discouraged further attempts at conversation. MacKiernan glanced at the secretary, wondering at her attitude. But no explanation seemed forthcoming, and so matters remained for the rest of the passage.

Espiritu Santo's only port worthy of the name was a small village named Luganville. Their copy of the Almanac gave no hint as to who or what a `lugan' might be, but judging from the size of the place, MacKiernan concluded that such things could not be very large. The harbor, protected by Aore Island, was calm and spacious. Rather than fuss with moorings, they dropped a stern anchor and ran the craft right up on the beach. After he'd hopped ashore, MacKiernan reached up to assist Miss Perkins. Her hand was surprisingly warm. Their eyes met for an instant before she remembered to scowl.

"What do you propose to do now?" she asked primly.

"We'll find some lodging for the night," he replied. "Tomorrow we can begin our investigation."

"Very well," she said. Without waiting for a reply, she set off toward town, leaving them to follow with the luggage.

"Like a fierce desert wind is the scorn of a woman," observed Rashid.

"A particularly inhospitable desert," said Pierre. "There is much... you English have not the word... rancoeur, anger, in that mademoiselle. I wonder why."

Next morning, they set off to visit the air station. To their surprise, they found there were two: one maintained by English logging companies and the other maintained by the French. It appeared the spirit of happy cooperation that existed between the two civil administrations of the New Hebrides did not extend to the private sector, for neither station's staff was particularly helpful, and neither admitted to a visit by a Russian archaeologist in a War-surplus blimp.

"That is rather suspicious," said MacKiernan as they made their way back to town. "One or both of them must be lying."

"Could he have called elsewhere?" asked Miss Perkins.

The Irishman shook his head. "Those old C-class ships didn't have much range. If he came here from Efate, he'd have been almost out of fuel by the time he arrived. Perhaps someone spotted him from the village."

Their inquiries in Luganville proved unproductive. To the townspeople, one blimp looked much like another -- a sentiment MacKiernan could appreciate. This left only the missionaries, so that afternoon, the four companions found themselves standing outside an establishment frequented by men of the cloth -- a dubious tin-roofed shack with a hand-painted sign that said The Cannibal Club.

Miss Perkins examined the structure with distaste. "I'll wait outside," she observed.

MacKiernan shrugged and pushed his way through the doors, to be confronted by a scene of considerable squalor. A scuffed and battered bar filled most of the room. At one end, several rowdy Catholics and Methodists were arguing about the decisions of the Vatican Council. At the other, a cluster of Anglicans and Presbyterians seemed determined to resurrect doctrinal disputes from the English Civil War. In between, a row of Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists were drinking in sullen silence. A distinct air of dejection hung over the establishment.

"Why are they all so depressed?" asked Pierre wonderingly.

"It's the cannibals," came a voice from beside them. They turned to see a sun-burnt man in clerical garb examining the remnants of his drink.

"Do you have some problem with cannibals?" asked MacKiernan in alarm.

"In a manner of speaking," said the man. "Missionaries are drawn to cannibals like flies to honey. But there were never were enough to go around, and by now they've all been taken, so latecomers like me have to settle for whatever's left."

MacKiernan opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment, they heard a commotion outside. They rushed out of the building to find a small crowd of people staring at the sky. There was no sign of Miss Perkins. Concerned, MacKiernan buttonholed one of the townsfolk.

"Excuse me," he asked. "Did you by chance happen to notice an attractive but somewhat ill-tempered young Englishwoman in the vicinity?

"Yes," said the man, "but the strangest thing happened. A party of English lumberjacks came along, picked her up, and bundled her onto the hoist platform of a passing blimp."

Next week: A Fine Day for an Outing...

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