The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 130: The Tongan Way

Abercrombie, MacKiernan, and Miss Perkins watch the explosion

"Hoist away!" ordered the foreman. Gears whined and the barge dipped as the derrick's cable pulled tight. Water boiled beneath the hoist, then the wreck emerged, dripping mud, seaweed, and several perplexed-looking fish.

Everett watched as the operator swung it toward shore and set it down next to the three other vehicles they'd recovered. The Holden seemed comparatively undamaged -- presumably it had always looked like that -- but the touring cars had not fared nearly as well. The Vauxhall was in particularly bad shape. Michaelson examined it with an aggrieved expression.

"Your people seem to have a way with motorcars," he remarked dryly. "That's what: five in four months? And this one cost rather dear."

"We did contrive to save your secretary," replied Everett. "She might have been more difficult to replace."

"True," acknowledged the senior captain. He glanced at Miss Perkins, who had removed a mirror from her handbag and was restoring her makeup to its original specifications, and gave a small nod. "Still, the cost was somewhat high. Let's hope this is all the bad news we'll receive today."

Conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a motorbike with a dispatch rider aboard. Everett recognized the Signal Corps ensign who'd managed the investigation of the R-87. The messenger dismounted, approached Michaelson, and saluted.

"Urgent news from the Station, sir," he announced. "There has been a depredation at your office. Someone broke into your files and made off with the logbook Captain Everett recovered from Darwin."

Michaelson's expression darkened. "That would be the one that suggested the White Russian conspirators might have shipped a second Device to their cell on Tonga."

"I'm afraid so, sir."

The senior captain turned to Everett. He seemed to be struggling to contain his annoyance.

"It appears we have a race," he observed. "Whoever these people are, they will almost certainly have noticed the relevant entry. You will proceed to Tonga directly, at your vessel's real top speed -- yes, I know about that -- to arrive ahead of them. Once you're there, you will locate the White Russian exile community, learn what they know of this matter, and prevent our unknown adversaries from achieving their goals. Miss Perkins will accompany you to make sure these instructions are carried out."

The trip to Tonga was as expensive as it was uneventful. A 2500-mile flight into a quartering headwind would have consumed significant amounts of fuel and hydrogen even at cruising speed. At top speed, it drew heavily on the Flying Cloud's resources. They were perilously low on fuel and hydrogen when they finally reached Tongatapu, where the air station lay. The island was a verdant green paradise, like a great emerald gem set in the middle of the Pacific. The station itself was somewhat less prepossessing, and showed noticeable evidence of neglect. The field was littered with rusting equipment, several of the masts were leaning to one side, and siding was missing from some of the airship sheds.

"I trust we'll be able to resupply here," said MacKiernan skeptically.

"According to the Almanac, they do have the necessary facilities," said Jenkins, "but reports are mixed regarding their quality."

Everett studied the field, which showed no signs of life. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he observed. "Our first order of business may be to summon a handling party. Jenkins, make our signal."

The ground crew took considerable time to arrive. Even after they'd assembled, they made no particular effort to perform their jobs. They milled around, chatted among themselves, and examined the handling lines as if they'd never seen such things before. Everett watched with growing impatience, then turned to his chief rigger.

"Abercrombie, these fellows don't appear to be particularly diligent. Please go down and take charge of the operation. Mister MacKiernan, I believe you should accompany him. This situation may require the presence of an officer."

"I'll go too," said Miss Perkins in an exasperated tone. "These people need a good talking to."

The Transporter set down with a jarring thump. MacKiernan and Abercrombie flexed their knees to ride with the impact, recovered their balance, and stepped to the ground. Miss Perkins waited patiently -- she did not seem subject to the usual laws of physics -- then followed.

A burly islander walked over to greet them. "Malo e lelei!" he announced, "Welcome to Fua'amotu Air Station. I'm Tokoni, the manager."

"When will your men be ready to take our handling lines?" asked MacKiernan.

"They'll get around to it when they're ready," said the manager. "This is fakatonga."

"I beg your pardon?" exclaimed MacKiernan.

"'Fakatonga'," said Miss Perkins. "This would translate to something like 'the Tongan Way'. One imagines it's also a synonym for `indolent'."

"Yes," said Tokoni. He issued a few laconic orders to his men, who listened with apparent disinterest, then ambled off to obey. Slowly, with a notable lack of efficiency, they walked the ship to the mast, pausing a few feet short of the structure. Overhead, Wallace and Loris leaned out to struggle with the mooring attachment until an errant gust of wind swung the vessel to port, almost dragging them from their perch.

"Watch it, laddies!" cried Abercrombie indignantly. "Can't ye do better than that?"

The manager shrugged. "These things happen. It's fakatonga."

It took them several tries, but at last, by a combination of numbers, strength, and collective weight, the ground crew managed to manhandle the vessel into position and hold her there while Wallace and Loris locked the bow fitting. The mast creaked as it took the load, but seemed in no immediate danger of collapse. The Irishman nodded and picked up the intercom. To his surprise, it actually worked.

"MacKiernan here," he announced. "It looks like the hard part is over. We're waiting for them to hook up the fuel and hydrogen lines."

"Do you have any idea how long this might take?" came Everett's voice over the circuit.

"It looks like they're bringing them up now, sir."

A party of workmen trudged over, dragging a thick rubber-coated hose. They dropped it with a thump, turned, and ambled back the way they'd come, leaving the hose lying unattended behind them.

"Aren't they going to connect that to the fitting?" asked MacKiernan.

"There's no hurry," said Tokoni, "it's..."

"Yes, I know, fakatonga," growled MacKiernan. He picked up the intercom to warn the ship to expect some delay, then spun around at the sound of a hiss. Some careless worker had turned on the flow too soon, and hydrogen was spewing from the end of the hose directly into the atmosphere.

"Captain!" he cried, "Drop the mooring, drop emergency ballast, and clear the field now!"

In the Royal Naval Airship Service, some commands were obeyed instantly, without question. A clunk sounded overhead, followed by the roar of water cascading from the tanks. Shouts rang out as others realized what was happening. A workman ran toward the shutoff valve, realized it was too late, and dove for cover as the leaking gas ignited.

"Down!" yelled Abercrombie.

Pure hydrogen burns with a nearly colorless light. The same could not be said for the hose, which sparkled like a fuse as flames rushed back toward the storage tanks at the far end of the field. These ignited with a loud series of whumps, sending burning debris high into the air.

At last the explosions subsided and the field was still. Slowly, cautiously, the three companions rose to their feet to take stock of the situation. Around them, islanders were standing up, dusting themselves off, and going about their business as if nothing at all remarkable had occurred. MacKiernan glanced at the wreckage of the hydrogen facility, then up at the Flying Cloud, which was circling several thousand feet overhead.

Beside him, Abercrombie sighed. "They'll be sair short o' ballast after that whappin climb," he said ruefully.

"They'll also need fuel and lifting gas, and the nearest reliable stations are on Fiji and American Samoa," MacKiernan observed. "We may be here for a long visit."

Next week: Good times in Nuku'alofa...

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