Episode 186: A Bit of Archeology
Captain Everett kept the ship at Narau’s air station while Jenkins decoded
the message. Its facilities might be meager -- little more than a pair of
mooring masts and a small hydrogen plant -- but this allowed them to
conserve fuel and lifting gas until they had some destination in mind. The
setting was dramatic. To the west, the cliffs that ringed the island’s
central highlands rose like the wall of some vast ruined city. To the east,
the horizon was a deep and innocent blue. Jenkins glanced at it, as if
speculating what might lie beyond, then began his report.
"The code was a double-substitution cipher," said the signalman. "This
suggests a certain sophistication on the part of its creators. But the
usage was comparatively naïve, as if the person who actually composed the
message had little experience with their task. They reused common words
and neglected to pad the text with nonsense characters. This made it
possible to break the code by examining letter frequencies.
"When this is done, we obtain two bodies of plaintext. One, which I assume
is the key, is a passage from an English translation of Neitsche’s
Also Sprach Zarathustra."
"Interesting," mused Everett "This may provide some insight into the
temperament of the correspondents. What was the message?"
"I have it here," said Jenkins, handing Everett a slip of paper.
Im aboard the professors blimp he plans to proceed to Tahiti via the Cook
Islands to find the
"The message ends at this point," Jenkins said, "as if someone interrupted
the composer before he or she could finish."
"I suspect it was a ‘she’," said Everett.
"Miss Stewart?" asked Jenkins.
Everett nodded. "It can hardly have been Lieutenant Murdock or the
Professor, and Miss Isobel seems..." the captain struggled to find an
appropriate adjective, "...unlikely."
"You think she intended this message for the Warfields?"
"It certainly wasn’t meant for us," Everett observed, "and I can’t imagine
how she could possibly be connected with our hypothetical air pirates.
This doesn’t leave many alternatives. They must be looking for Professor
Otkupshchikov, just as we are, in hopes he might lead them to the
Milbridges. For all we know, these ‘Sky Pirates of Tahiti’ might be
following a similar strategy by now. I wonder if our Professor realizes
how popular he’s become."
"Where could he have got to?" asked Jenkins. "And whatever could be
motivating him to flit back and forth across the Pacific in such an
"This message suggests he's looking for some specific object," mused
Everett. "Do we have any idea what it might be?"
Jenkins thought this over. "Not at the moment. But I’ll reexamine those
periodicals we collected in Port Moresby. They may provide some clue."
"I call your attention to this section here," said Jenkins the next day.
Everett took the proffered magazine and began to read. The writing was
overly dramatic -- quite obviously intended for a popular audience -- but
with effort, he was able to make sense of it.
"Interesting," he said. "If we make allowances for the author’s rather
striking prose, it would seem the Professor hopes to find some artifact that
might confirm or deny the cultural diffusion theories of one Karolek
Solovyov. This does sound promising. Do we know anything about this Mister
Solovyov and the artifact in question?"
"By a fortunate chance, we do," said Jenkins. He produced another magazine
and opened it to an article titled Legends of the Baltic and
Pacific. Inside, a black and white print showed an elderly scholar
standing at a blackboard, sketching something that looked vaguely like a
star. "He’s a Russian ethnographer, now living in Europe, who proposes a
connection between the myths of Northern Europe and the South Pacific.
These involve a magical object that brings good fortune."
Everett frowned. "That doesn’t seem very helpful All cultures have myths
of magic lamps, lucky talismans, enchanted rings, and the like."
"True," said Jenkins, "but these particular myths are unusually specific.
They describe something called the ‘Great Luck’, connected with some
legendary people called the ‘Old Ones’. This thing is said to have an
unusual geometry, which suggests it’s a material object rather than a chant
or ritual. It’s supposed to be a source of wealth and power."
"Wealth and power," mused Everett. "That sounds strangely familiar."
"You think it’s connected with this so-called 'Secret of Cargo' and the
work of art Mister Iverson and Miss Sarah learned about?"
"We must consider the possibility," said the captain. "This would mean
that while Lord Milbridge, the Warfields, and the sky pirates are looking
for the Professor, the Professor is looking for something that just happens
to be aboard the sky pirates’ airship."
The signalman’s eyes widened. "Oh dear. I wonder if any of them are
aware of the situation."
Pukapuka Atoll, also known as Danger Island, was the most remote of the Cook
Islands, 800 nautical miles north of Raratonga. Its three major islets --
Wale, Kotawa, and Ko -- lay at corners of the great triangular reef that had
given the place its European name. The Windsong VIII made landfall
without incident, then the Milbridges donned shoregoing attire to visit the
closest thing Wale had to a café.
"What a charming bistro," said Lady Milbridge. The proprietor glanced up in
puzzlement, as if wondering what his guests were talking about, then went
back to wiping down the plank that served as a bar, a counter for cleaning
fishes, or both.
Lord Milbridge escorted his wife to a seat at one of the shack's rickety
tables. "It does have atmosphere,’ he observed. "Let us hope the Professor
left a message here."
Before his wife could reply, they heard a voice from their right.
They turned to see a young man with an Eastern European cast to his
features standing by their table. Neither had noticed his approach.
"At your service," the viscount said politely. "I don’t believe we’ve
"You may call me Andre. I’d prefer not to use my real name here --
Trotsky’s government has a long arm."
"I understand," said Lord Milbridge. "How may we help you?"
"We have a mutual acquaintance: an archaeologist of some reputation," said
the man. "If you wish, I could guide you to the site of his
"That would be kind of you."
The ruins on Wale island might not have been as majestic as the great marae
on Raratonga and Aitutaki, but they still had a power to impress. A circle
of wooden tikis, some quite remarkable, crouched around a plaza of coraline
rock. At the far end, a monolith of polished stone -- obviously not native
to the island -- stood beneath the palms.
Lady Milbridge paused to examine one of the tikis. "Look at this fellow,"
she remarked. "He seems rather smug."
"So he does," chuckled the viscount, "though I imagine that encumbrance
might pose some challenges to a tailor. Master Andre, do you have any idea
what brought the Professor here?"
"I believe it was this stone," said the Russian, indicating the monolith.
As they drew closer, that saw that its surface was covered with carvings.
Weather and time had worn away much of the relief, but it was still possible
to make out several figures -- some quite human, others decidedly not. One
held a starlike emblem from which a stream of objects seemed to be pouring.
"That looks like some form of cornucopia," said Lord Milbridge. "One
imagines it’s this ‘Nui Mana’ the Professor wrote about. Can we
identify these symbols to the left?
His wife opened her purse, removed a small notebook, and opened it to a set
"According to the notes he sent, they represent the stars the islanders use
for latitude sailing. Each star is associated with the particular island
above which it rises. I imagine he’s been investigating the ones shown
here in search of the artifact." She compared the carvings to the diagrams,
then consulted a list. "If we eliminate places we know he’s already
visited, that leaves this one."
The viscount glanced over her shoulder and chuckled again. "Well, we always
wanted to visit Tahiti."
Next week: A Meeting On The Road...
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