The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 131: Good Times in Nuku'alofa

The R-505 above the remains of the air station

Smoke billowed from the crater where the hydrogen tanks had stood. Around it, a tangle of half-melted girders and pipes was all that remained of the generating plant. The explosion might not have caused any serious casualties -- this was the reason gas facilities were always located some distance from a field -- and the humid tropical climate meant the fire was in no danger of spreading, but it was clear that Tonga's Fua'amotu Air Station would not be back in operation any time soon.

From the bridge of the Flying Cloud, Captain Everett studied the destruction eight thousand feet below. "It appears we shall have to change our plans," he observed. "Miss Sarah, what's the status of our consumables?"

The island girl studied her figures and frowned. "We're down to 1,080 gallons of fuel, 5,900 pounds of ballast, and 65 percent hydrogen."

"And the nearest reliable source of supplies would be on Fiji or American Samoa, five hundred miles away," mused the captain. "This could pose something of a challenge. Mister Iverson, what has the wind been doing these past twenty-four hours?"

"Southeast, with a mean direction of 125 degrees, averaging 14 knots," said the lieutenant, who'd learned to anticipate questions of this sort.

Everett bent over the chart table, picked up a pair of dividers, a parallel rule, and a vector calculator, and began to work on a plot. After a minute he nodded.

"We will try for Fiji," he announced. "After this recent drama, I feel we'd appreciate the security of a British station. Jenkins, contact Suva, tell them to expect us around 0900 hours tomorrow, and warn them we may be quite short of supplies."

"Do you think we have enough fuel?" asked Sarah, whose civilian status allowed her to voice concerns Naval personnel had to pretend to ignore.

"I believe so," said Everett. "We'll maintain a heading of 240 degrees at half power on one engine. Combined with this southeast wind, that should give us a course due west and get us there with a few hundred gallons of fuel remaining. I'm more concerned about ballast. We'll lose altitude at night when the hull begins to cool. Fortunately we have plenty of height to start with after that emergency climb."

"We could jettison the launch," Iverson suggested hopefully.

"I'd prefer to hang on to that," said Everett. "It has proved useful in the past. But we'll deal with these questions as they arise. Jenkins, signal the shore party to let them know our intentions."

MacKiernan stood on the beach, gazing up at the airship. A mile and a half above their heads, she was an elegant silver dart, hanging from sky like some celestial work of art. A light winked from her control car as she turned toward the west.

"What did they say?" asked Miss Perkins.

"They're heading for Fiji to resupply," said the Exec. "They warned us it may be several days before they can return."

"That means we'll be stuck on Tonga for several days," said Abercrombie. The Scotsman did not seem enthusiastic about the prospect.

"That also gives us several days to find where these Russian exiles are hiding," said MacKiernan, determined to make the best of the situation.

"I'll bet ye a shilling we don't learn a thing."

The Irishman thought this over. So far, none of the islanders they'd met had been particularly helpful, but surely it was only a matter of time before they found the right source of information. All they needed was patience.

"You're on!"

Nuka'alofa, capital of Tonga, proved to be quite unlike MacKiernan's vision of a Pacific island paradise. The men were enormous -- even larger than Abercrombie -- and the women were almost as substantial. They were also uniquely uncommunicative, regarding their visitors with bored indifference that gave way to active annoyance if they were asked a question. This, combined with their heft, truculence, and a tendency to elbow strangers out of the way, presented serious obstacles to casual inquiries.

The government offices were not significantly more informative. Most of them were closed, and appeared to have been so for quite some time. The tourist agency was empty except for some moldy brochures and a few tattered advertisements for swimwear, the Chamber of Commerce was heavy on the former and light on the latter, and the town had nothing resembling a public library.

By the end of the day, MacKiernan was almost ready to admit defeat. At last, with some difficulty, they were able to locate a representative of the British Crown. The Foreign Office might not have felt it necessary to favor Tonga with a full-fledged Ambassador, but they had appointed a Consul to represent the interests of any British subjects who might visit the islands.

They found the man in the Nuku'alofa Club, a haven for expatriates near the edge of town. The official, a middle-aged man named Ashton, was studying his drink with the philosophical expression common to old Pacific hands. A small paper umbrella lay on the table beside it.

"These Tongans tend to be touchy about their independence," he explained. "They're the only island nation that has managed to avoid colonization, and this experience left them somewhat suspicious of outsiders. They're also quite proud of their culture. They call it `fakatonga', the Tongan..."

"...yes, we know," snapped Miss Perkins.

MacKiernan coughed politely, unable to imagine why anyone could possibly want to colonize these islands in the first place. "Does this place produce anything of value?" he asked.

"Not that I know of," said Ashton. "They earn some money selling licenses, ship registrations, and the like to entrepreneurs who wish to avoid the scrutiny of more diligent governments..." MacKiernan frowned. This reminded him of something he couldn't quite place. "...but most of their income comes from coconut meat, which they dry to produce copra. I've never been entirely sure what this is good for."

"It's used as an animal feed," said Miss Perkins. "It's low in non-structural carbohydrate, which makes it particularly well-suited for horses prone to developing ulcers."

"Ahh," said the Consul dryly. "That explains the prodigious demand."

"Have you heard anything about a group of Russian settlers on these islands?" asked MacKiernan.

"Perhaps," replied Ashton. "Usually the Tongans are opposed to immigration. They have a feudal society, rather like England back in the Fourteenth Century, and every bit of land is owned by the nobility. But the place was hit rather heavily by the Influenza. This left some holdings vacant, and Queen Salote allowed a group of exiled aristocrats to establish themselves on one of the out-islands back in 1919."

"They must have held fairly high rank to appeal directly to the Queen," observed MacKiernan. "Do you have any idea who these fellows were?"

"No," said the Consul, "but I'll try to arrange an audience with Her Majesty so you can ask her yourself."

Next week: Clouds Got In My Way...

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