The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 183: Mission Inflatable

Blimp on the mooring mast

"They're using the using the iron filings to demonstrate magnetism?" MacKiernan asked incredulously.

"So it would appear," sighed Iverson. He seemed disappointed with the results of his investigation.

"That's not quite the curriculum I'd expect from a mission school," observed the Irishman.

"Why noot?" said Abercrombie. "They may ken electromagnetism is next to godliness." MacKiernan gave him a sharp glance, but the rigger managed to maintain a straight face.

"Gentleman," said Everett, "we need to plan our next move. We know that the other shipment of iron filings was delivered to Narau. If Professor Otkupshchikov left Aunu'u on the 6th, when might we expect him reach the island and how long would it take him to resupply?"

MacKiernan studied their chart. "Flying downwind, with a twelve knot tailwind, even a blimp can make good time. Depending on how his vessel is engined and how severely he wishes to dip into his resources, he could arrive any time between the 7th and the 9th. As for resupply..." the exec shrugged, " depends on the capacity of his hydrogen plant."

"Mister Iverson," said Everett, "I believe you met the fellow last year. What facilities did he have at the time?"

"All I saw was a temporary mast, but the site was fairly close to Anibare. it wouldn't be difficult for him to bring in additional equipment from town."

"Then we'd best assume he'll be ready to depart the evening of the 10th. We'll want to arrive before then. Miss Sarah, if we proceed to Narau at maximum cruising speed, what will this leave us in the way of expendables?"

The island girl consulted her figures. "We've haven't quite finished resupply. If we depart now, we should arrive with 70% hydrogen and 1800 gallons of fuel."

"That will have to serve," said Everett. "Inform the station that we'll be lifting ship now."

"Captain Michaelson sent a message to inquire about our passengers," said Jenkins. "What should we tell him?"

Everett thought this over. Cairns might be 2500 miles away, but he was unwilling to resort to an outright lie. "Inform him that they're enjoying their flight aboard an airship."

`Enjoying' wasn't quite the word Murdock would have chosen. Under ordinary circumstances, the flight might have been pleasant, but these circumstances were anything but ordinary. Isobel required constant watching. Her childlike enthusiasm -- combined with her tendency to poke her nose into everything on the ship -- caused no end of difficulty. At one point, she almost had to be restrained from climbing the rigging. Her latest enthusiasm was a diary of the trip. Nothing would do but the Professor find her a place to write in the small cuddy that served blimp as cabin. Somehow, it wasn't possible to be annoyed by the girl's behavior. She seemed too cheerful. The same could not be said for her chaperone.

"What are our plans now?"

Murdock turned to see the Miss Stewart frowning. Wind tugged at her dress, smoothing the light cotton fabric against curves quite unlike anything he'd seen at the Naval College. An errant gust toyed with her collar, hinting at sights that until now had only been a thing of legend. The lieutenant looked away, embarrassed.

"Uh... er... I imagine we'll disembark at our destination and find some way to contact the Captain," he stuttered.

"And when will that be? I'm concerned about Miss Isobel."

Murdock looked back, and saw to his alarm that the governess had moved closer. He took a step backward.

"Uh... er... ah... why would that be?"

"It's hardly proper for a young woman to be traveling with two unmarried men," she replied, advancing until she was almost brushing his chest. Murdock took another step back, and found that his retreat was blocked by the rail.

Why is she staring at me like that? he wondered. And what am I supposed to do? His training syllabus had never covered situations like this!

He was rescued by a giggle. Isobel had emerged from the cuddy and was beaming at the two as if she'd caught them stealing from the cookie jar.

"Chase!" she exclaimed gleefully "what are you doing?"

The Delfin reached her destination -- a small mission in hills of Wallis Island -- early the next morning. The inhabitants seemed to be expecting them, for a group of missionaries and islanders were waiting to take their handling lines. The Professor handled the approach adroitly, and soon the blimp was riding to a small temporary mast.

Children rushed forward to hold the ladder steady as the foursome disembarked. Isobel slid to the ground with remarkable disregard for her dignity, bringing mutters of surprise, delight, and disapproval from the clerics, children, and Miss Stewart, respectively. After they were all down, a young man in clerical robes stepped forward to greet them.

"Professor Otkupshchikov," he announced. "It's a pleasure to see you again!"

"Privyet, Deacon Smith!" said the Professor. "I trust you've been well. Is our hydrogen ready?"

"If you come this way..."

The deacon led them across the field to a shed located some distance from the mission buildings. Inside, an array of pipes ran from a row of pressure vessels to a tethered balloon that served as a gasometer. The Professor studied this and nodded.

"That looks more than adequate. I assume you've tested the purity?"

"Father Blake used this as today's chemistry lesson," said the deacon. "He's in his office now if you'd like to speak with him."

They stepped back outside to find Isobel teaching a group of laughing children how to play hopscotch. Miss Stewart scowled at the spectacle. "Miss Isobel," she said sternly, "what are you doing?"

Father Blake was a kindly old man with the abstracted manner of schoolmasters everywhere. He received the party on his verandah. "It's good to see you, Professor," he said. "I trust your researches are going well."

"As well as can be expected," said the Professor. "Thank you for keeping those iron filings for me."

"The children enjoyed them immensely," said the cleric. "We also had several visitors drop by to ask about them."

Murdock's ears perked up. Could this have included a party from the ship? "Visitors?" he asked.

"Yes," said their host. "The first were a pair of your colleagues: a lieutenant and civilian specialist from one of His Majesty's Airships -- the something-or-other Cloud, I believe. They were followed by a pair of pirates."

"Pirates!" exclaimed Isobel. "That sounds exciting! Who were they?"

"I don't recall their names," said the cleric, "but they were two Englishmen of good breeding, who appeared to be twins."

"Twins!" marveled the girl. She seemed to find the prospect amusing.

"Was there anyone else?" asked Miss Stewart. Murdock wondered at the edge in her voice.

"Indeed there was," said Father Blake. "Toward the end of the day, a well-dressed couple pulled up in a carriage. The introduced themselves as a Lord and Lady Churchill, but I suspect this was an alias."

The governess fidgeted uncomfortably. "I fear I've taken too much tea," she said. "Might I ask where your..."

Father Blake gestured toward the patio doors. "It's inside, through my office and across the hall."

Professor Otkupshchikov had been listening idly, as if bored. After the governess had left, he reached into his notebook to produce a sketch. Murdock looked over his shoulder and saw a vaguely star-shaped object -- apparently a carving -- with a confusingly intricate geometry.

"Have you happened to see any native artwork that looks like this?" asked the Russian.

Their host thought this over. "I believe we once had such an article in our possession." He called out toward the garden. "Deacon Smith, whatever became of that... what was it called... `new wee man' figure?"

A muffled voice called back in reply. "We gave it to those fellows on the airship."

"Ah yes, I recall now. That would be the pirates I spoke of."

"Thank you," said the Professor. "We'd stay longer to enjoy your hospitality, but the wind is rising, so we'd better lift ship."

"I'll get Miss Stewart," volunteered Isobel. She scurried into the office. Moments later, they heard a giggle, followed by the words, "Chase, what are you doing?"

Next week: Local Color...

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