The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 163: It Was A Mistake Anyone Could Make

Transporter operations

It was a crystal clear morning on Futuna. To the east the sun had just climbed above the peak of Mount Puke, casting a warm golden light across the grounds of the Leava Air Station, the Parseval semi-rigid riding from the Number One mast, and the tricolor flying atop the operations building. Everett studied the latter through his binoculars.

"What do you think, sir?" asked MacKiernan.

"I think that mooring operations may take some time," Everett replied. "But we will hope for the best. Jenkins, please make our signal and request a handling party."

The captain's apprehensions proved justified. The ground crew sprang to action with Gallic efficiency, accomplishing in hours what other more obsessive cultures might have taken long minutes to perform. By mid-morning, when they finally wandered off to lunch, the Flying Cloud was no closer to being moored than she'd been when she arrived.

"We must admire our neighbors across the Channel for their outstanding contributions to science, engineering, art, and culture," Everett observed philosophically, 'but their Systèm D is somewhat more difficult to appreciate. I'd say that's it for the rest of the day. The wind's picked up, so we won't be able to try again until evening."

The exec nodded. Ground handling had always been one of the most difficult aspects of airship operations. "What will we do in the interim?"

"We're looking for someone who has an air vessel, so I'm loathe to let them get too far ahead of us. We'll send a party down to make inquiries."

"Who do you have in mind?"

"We'll put Mister Iverson in charge, since he seems to have grown comfortable with the Transporter." On the other side of the control car, the lieutenant did his best to control his reaction. This was news to him. "We'll include Miss Sarah, since she's familiar with the islands, Pierre, since he knows the language, and I believe we should also send down Mister Murdock. This will be good for his education."

Lieutenant Murdock was not quite so certain of the pedagogical benefits of Transporter operations. He stepped onto the platform after the others, studied the machinery -- a very Heath Robinson arrangement of cables, drums, and pulleys -- and glanced down at the ground so very far below. "Is this entirely safe?" he asked Iverson.

The senior lieutenant also seemed dubious about the prospect. "For the most part," he replied. He took a deep breath, turned to the ship's engineer, gave an command, "Energize!" and the platform dropped into space.

Descent was every bit as precarious as Murdock had feared. The wind had been building all morning, and the cable thrummed every time it was hit by a gust. As they neared the ground, he noticed that the hoist was swinging.

"Is it supposed to do that?" he asked, in a somewhat higher-pitched voice than he'd intended.

Iverson swallowed. "Not to this extent."

"What will we do?

"Be ready to jump. It might be best to do this at the bottom of a swing, when we're closest to the surface. I shall count to three, then give the signal. One... two... wait let's try that again... oh dear, ONETWOTHREEJUMP!"

The platform swooped through the bottom of its arc, clearing the ground by inches. It four passengers dismounted with varying degrees of elegance. Miss Sarah alighted like a sylph, spear held high. Pierre vaulted over the rail with practical efficiency. Iverson arrived without doing irreparable damage to his uniform. Murdock, as befitted his junior status, landed face-down in the dirt.

"Bravely done, Mister Murdock!" announced Iverson. "And you're sure to improve as you gain experience. Now you wish to move away before the platform swings ba..."

Leava, capital of the French Colony of Futuna, was not significantly larger than a small fishing village in Lancashire, though it was somewhat more colorful. It didn't take the party long to learn that a blimp had called a few days earlier to deposit a scientist and his wife. The vessel had continued on for parts unknown and the scientist had left town the next morning.

"Could you tell what type of blimp it was?" Iverson asked their informant, a local fisherman wearing an incongruous beret.

"Non," said the man, in a very peculiar combination of French and Pidgin, "ce'st balus-sip tous les aspect similaire."

Murdock stuggled to parse this statement, then whispered to Pierre. "What in the world did that mean?"

"He suggested that blimps all look the same," said the Frenchman.

Murdock nodded. Even after a tour on the North Sea Station, he found it difficult to disagree with the sentiment.

"It doesn't sound much like Professor Otkupshchikov," mused Iverson. "When we met the man on Narau, he was traveling with just his servant."

"He could have engaged a companion," Pierre observed. "Thees ees common on the islands. I have done it myself on occasion. And he could have sent his blimp off for some purpose of which we're ignorant."

"I suppose this is possible," said Iverson. He turned back to the fisherman. "Do you know where they went"

"Ol wokabaut village de Kolotai, dans le Royaume Alo."

"Wherever could that be?" wondered Murdock.

It was Sarah who offered an explanation. "Back in my grandfather's time, Futuna was divided into two kingdoms: Sigave to the north and Alo to the south. I'm not quite sure how they managed this on an island less than 40 miles square, but they were always at odds before the French came."

"At odds?" Murdock asked nervously.

"Oh yes!" said the girl. "The last time my grandfather came to visit, they'd fought so hard that all the food was gone!"

None of the locals seemed willing to guide the party to the village of Kolotai -- a circumstance Murdock found disturbing -- so the four set out on their own, with Iverson and Sarah in the lead, followed by Pierre. Murdock brought up the rear, marveling at his companions' aplomb. How could they be so insouciant, he wondered? These might have been cannibal islands, not too long ago! And who knew what terrible practices continued beyond the reach of the authorities?

Their trail led along the shore, bending inland to skirt the occasional headland. They'd just rounded one of these, and were approaching a settlement he assumed was their destination, when they heard a loud whack ahead, followed by a groan.

"Oh no!" said Iverson.

"It couldn't be!" said Sarah.

"How could they possibly be here?" said Pierre.

"What is it?" asked Murdock, but the other three were already sprinting toward the village. He followed, wondering if he should draw his service revolver. They arrived to find a crowd of villagers celebrating the triumph of a champion. Warriors chanted songs of battle while young women, wearing outfits that would certainly have raised a few eyebrows in Lancashire, offered the victor bowls of kava. At the other end of the village green, a dejected young American was toweling himself off while his wife packed away a tennis racket.

"Where do these people get their coaching?" he complained.

"Don't worry, dear," said the woman. "I'm sure you'll win a game eventually. Oh look, we have visitors!"

"Mr. and Mrs. Cressman, I presume?" said Iverson.

Murdock stared at the senior lieutenant in surprise. "You know this couple?"

"It's a long story," said Iverson, "but it appears Commodore Morse sent us after an anthropologist rather than an archaeologist." He sighed. "I suppose the two are easy to confuse."

Lord Warfield lined up the barrel, peered down the sight, and pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang, followed by a whoosh of line streaming from its coil. "Bravo!' cried his wife as his target thrashed and dived in a flurry of spray. Warfield stepped back from the weapon with a grin.

They'd discovered the harpoon gun in a shop in Port Moresby. After that, nothing would do but that it must be mounted on the foredeck along with an ice chest, a liquor cabinet, a winch and cable, and a suitable supply of projectiles. Over the past several days they'd bagged several sharks, a rather surprised tuna, and a crate of lingerie that must have washed from the deck of a passing freighter.

Bludge appeared as the baron was giving orders to the winch operator. The butler coughed to attract his master's attention. "Excuse me, milord," he announced. "We've received word from our agent. She has located the Professor."

Warfield's smile was more shark-like than his recent prey's. "Excellent!" he replied. "When Milbridge arrives... we'll be waiting..."

Next week: Il Ruggiero Allegro...

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