The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 182: Poles Apart

Box of Magnets

The buckboard creaked and rattled they ascended the grade. Iverson sat at the reins, trying to look like he knew what he was doing. As an officer in the RNAS, he had little experience with horses -- for obvious reasons, these did not figure prominently in life aboard one of His Majesty's Airships -- but with the motorcycle out of action while Iwamoto replaced a piston, this had been the only transport they could find.

Beside him, Sarah was reading from a book of verse. "Listen to this one, John," she said.

"Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence."

The lieutenant nodded in approval. Like all true sons of England, he was genetically coded to appreciate poetry. "That would be that American chap, Longfellow."

"Yes," said the island girl. "Isn't he brilliant?"

"He's quite good, for a colonial," Iverson conceded. "And he does tell a good story."

Sarah smiled and laid a hand on his arm. "I'm glad that wasn't our story," she said quietly. "If the wind had been different or I'd taken another path that day, we might never have met."

Iverson fell silent as he recalled the circumstances of their encounter. Looking back, it did seem the most unlikely of chances. "I will always be grateful for the Captain's timing," he said at last, "and the fact he chose that particular moment to cross the island."

"Yes," agreed Sarah. "Sometimes timing is everything."

The track ended in a broad clearing filled with neat rows of taro. To their right, the flag of the London Missionary Society flew above a cluster of tin-roofed buildings. The horse, concluding its job was done, stopped to crop the grass. Iverson stepped down from his seat, then turned to assist his companion, but Sarah had already vaulted to the ground and was examining their surroundings.

"It looks like an Anglican mission," she remarked. "Those fellows do get about. But I must say, that looks promising!" She pointed to what appeared to be a school. A row of steel drums, stenciled with words `Iron filings. Keep dry' stood next to one wall.

"I wonder," said Iverson. This was most certainly the cargo they were looking for, but something about its storage location bothered him.

"Good morning, and welcome to Wallis Island," came a cheerful voice. "I'm Deacon Smith."

They turned to see a young man in clerical garb smiling from a doorway. "I'm Lieutenant Iverson, of His Majesty's Airship R-505, the Flying Cloud, " Iverson replied politely, "and this is our ballast specialist, Miss Sarah."

"The Flying Cloud?" said deacon. "I believe we met one of your lieutenants in Porto Villa: a Mister Murdock. How may I help you?"

"We were wondering what you could tell us about those iron filings."

Their host glanced around as if wondering what they were talking about. "Oh yes, those," he said when he spotted the drums. "Father Blake is using them in today's lessons. Would you care to watch?"

"Certainly," said Iverson, doing his best to hide his misgivings.

The deacon led them into the school. Inside, a group of young islanders were fidgeting at their desks in the manner of schoolchildren everywhere. The teacher rapped on a table to get his students' attention.

"Today we'll learn about magnets," he announced. "They are one of the wonders of nature. They generate powerful lines of force that attract iron and steel. These lines are invisible, but there's a way we can see them. Can you guess what it is?"

Hands flew up around the room. "Special glasses?" "Mana?" "The Secret of Cargo?" "Little pieces of iron?"

"That's right, Timmy," said the teacher. "We use little pieces of iron, called `iron filings'. Watch as I demonstrate...."

The deacon must have noticed Iverson's expression. "Is anything wrong?" he asked.

"Not exactly," said the lieutenant, "but I believe we should get back to our ship. Thank you for your time."

"It was our pleasure," said the deacon. "Can I interest you in some promotional literature?"

"Not at the moment."

Digby crouched to examine the trail. Back in England, fieldcraft of this sort would have seemed unimaginable, but they'd gained plenty of experience during their time in the Legion. "It was a one-horse wagon, riding light," he reported. "I'd say it passed early this morning."

Michael nodded from atop the scooter. "I imagine it was some farmer paying a visit to whoever received the shipment. Let's see who these gentlemen are."

Digby climbed onto the saddle as his brother kicked the Bianchi back to life. A short bumpy ride brought them to a clearing at the top of the grade. A row of buildings -- quite obviously a mission -- stood to their right.

"This seems an odd place for our Professor to call," Michael observed after they dismounted. "Do you think he could get his blimp into this field?""

Digby held up a hand to judge the angles. "It's hard to say," he replied. "It depends on his skill as a pilot."

At that moment, a door opened to release a swarm of giggling children, followed by a man in clerical garb. "Why, if it isn't my young friends, the pirates!" the man exclaimed.

"Excuse me," Michael said politely. "I believe you have mistaken us for someone else,"

"Hardly," the man said with a smile. "I'm Deacon Smith. You must remember our yacht, the Mighty Fortress."

"Oh yes. Right. That one."

"No matter," said the deacon. "It was an adventure, and I imagine we'd have thrown that artwork away if you hadn't taken it. What can I do for you today?"

"We're looking for some iron filings."

"Then you've come to the right place! The children are using them to learn about magnets."

The two brothers glanced at each other.

"Interesting," Michael said at last.

Bludge finished studying the tracks, then made his way back to the carriage. The brougham seemed out of place here on a Pacific island, but money talks, and the Lord and Lady Warfield were in a position to do quite a bit of talking.

"A one-horse wagon passed this way sometime in the morning, milord," he reported. "It was followed by a motor-scooter. From the tire pattern, I'd say it was an Italian make."

The baron thought this over. "The wagon must have been some local farmer," he decided. "The scooter would be a shore party from our acquaintances on the R-505."

"Why would the RNAS buy an Italian scooter?" asked the baroness.

The baron gave a knowing grin. "I imagine some money changed hands after the request for bids. We understand how these things work. Bludge, shall we proceed?"

The butler climbed onto his seat and gave the reigns a flick. A short drive brought them to a clearing at the top of the grade. He scanned the surroundings, then dismounted to open the door for his passengers.

"It looks like a mission," said Lord Warfield.

"So it is," came a voice from a doorway. "I'm Deacon Smith. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?"

"We are..." the baron paused for a moment, "...the Lord and Lady Churchill. Would you happened to have received a shipment of iron filings recently?"

Their host seemed strangely unsurprised by this question. "Why yes, Father Blake uses them in his lessons on the wonders of magnetism."

The baron scowled. "It seems we've wasted our time," he observed to his wife.

"Perhaps not," said the baroness. "Deacon Smith, has anyone else expressed interest in these iron filings?"

The deacon shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "I'm not sure it would be appropriate for..."

Lady Warfield smiled at the hapless churchman -- a snare as old as Lilith. "Oh, do tell."

"We had an unusual number of visitors today," Father Blake remarked as they were closing up the school.

"Yes," said Deacon Smith. "I rather worry about that last pair."

"And they all seemed interested in our iron filings. I wonder what that was about."

"Perhaps there's a shortage. We'd better be sure we save some for the Professor."

Next week: Mission Inflatable...

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