The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 194: Trying Times in Taravao

Map of Taravao and vicinity

Marae were one of the defining features of traditional Polynesian culture, combining the functions of church, public auditorium, and athletic court in a way that had no direct analog in the West. They took many forms, from minor local shrines to elaborate ceremonial centers that might serve an entire archipelago. Some, such as the sunken city of Nan Madol on Pohanapei, were quite large, covering hundreds of acres. Others were little more than small piles of stone.

The site at Taravao was one of the latter. It stood some distance east of the village, on the north shore of the isthmus that connected Tahiti Nua with Tahtiti Iti. Forgotten by the islanders after the influx of Western culture, weather and neglect had reduced it to a few crumbling walls of volcanic rock. It was only a matter of time before some visiting missionary ordered the place demolished as a relic of the island's pagan past.

Professor Otkupshchikov gave the ruin more attention than it seemed to deserve. He spent several minutes measuring its dimensions, recording its floor plan, and sketching its outlines with skilled strokes on the pages of his notebook. Then he produced a magnifying glass and began to examine the stonework for carvings.

"What are you looking for?" asked Lieutenant Murdock.

"I've been studying the iconography of these ruins for evidence that could support various theories of cultural diffusion -- these are what I believe Americans call `all the rage' these days. In particular, I'm looking for anything connected with the legend of the Nui Mana. This is said to have been fashioned on some obscure island to the south as part of some terrible weapon -- that would be a 585 on the Arne Classification Scale. After it was used, a visiting sorcerer recognized its potential for evil and stole it away to become part of the great chain of gifts that binds these islands together."

This all sounded incredibly dull to Lieutenant Murdock, but he was too polite to say so. It seemed someone else shared his opinion. "Where's Miss Isobel?" he asked.

The Professor glanced around and shrugged. "She must have wandered off. She's an engaging child, but she seems to lack focus. I imagine she'll return after she grows bored."

"Will she be in any danger?" asked Murdock. "What about pirates or cannibals?"

"I don't think these pose any significant threat," observed the Professor. He seemed to be struggling to suppress a smile. "But I suppose we should look for the girl. She might not be prepared to deal with some aspects of indigenous Tahitian culture."

From her footprints, it appeared that Isobel had headed west, back to village. Leaving the marae behind, the two men set off in pursuit. At first, the trail was easy to follow, but as they approached the settlement, it became lost amidst the tracks of the islanders. After several minutes of fruitless searching, Professor Otkupshchikov paused next to the road to Point Venus.

"You think she might have headed back to Mahina?" asked Murdock.

The Professor sighed. "I wouldn't put it past the devoshka to get such a thing into her head."

"What should we do?"

Professor Otkupshchikov thought this over. "We'll have to split up," he decided. "I know the route, so I'll check the road. You head back to marae and wait there in case she returns."

Pierre did not seem impressed by Mahina. He dismissed the sprawl of resorts, shops, and cafes with a single derisive glance. "This could be any resort on the Riviera," he grumbled.

Abercrombie had been watching a passing wahine. Her clothing -- what there was of it -- would never have passed in his dour Presbyterian homeland. "Are ye sure?" he asked wonderingly.

The Frenchman smiled. "I can see you have never visited the beaches of the Riviera."

"We hae beaches in Scotland," protested Abercrombie.

"They're not quite the same," observed Pierre. "Let us ask around to determine if anyone's noticed our Professor."

This proved more difficult than the two men expected, for most of the villagers seemed to have gathered for a soccer match at the defunct air station. At last, at one of the resorts, they found a clerk lounging behind a desk reading an Italian novel -- a well-thumbed copy of Le Due Tigri. The man glanced up as they approached, took in Abercrombie's Royal Navy uniform, and set his book aside.

"Bonjour, Monsieurs," he said graciously. "How can I help you?"

"We're looking for a Russian professor who might have passed through this town recently," said Pierre, speaking English for the benefit of his companion.

The clerk thought this over. "This would be a young gentleman of average height and build?"

"No, it would be an elderly Russian accompanied by a young Englishman and two young ladies."

"Ah!" said the clerk, "I recall that party. I believe they set off for Taravao this morning."

"Taravao?" asked Abercrombie.

The clerk glanced nervously at the field, where the villagers seemed to be dividing into teams. "Yes," he replied. "It's down that road to the east. If you hurry, you should be able to catch them."

"There it is!" Lord Milbridge announced. "The marae of Taravao!"

Spencer frowned. "That's it? That low pile of rocks?"

The viscount smiled. "We must never judge the abandoned relic of some pre-human race that filtered down from beyond the stars before the dawn of time, sleeps beneath the waves, but will return again when the stars are right to wipe the Earth clean of humanity by its size."

"I don't see any sign of the Professor," said Jean.

"Neither do I," said Lady Mibridge. "But from all these tracks, it appears someone's been here before us. Let's inquire in town and see if we can learn who they were."

The islanders seemed singularly uninterested in the doings of Westerners, but at last Lord Milbridge and his party found an aging European sitting in the shade of a verandah. The man seemed to be a veteran of the War. Precisely which war remained to be determined -- Franco-Prussian was possibility, and Napoleonic did not seem entirely out of the question.

"Excuse me," said Lord Milbridge. "Would you happened to have noticed a Russian Professor passing through town?"

"Would this be a young gentleman of average height and build?" asked the man.

"No. The Professor is a man of late middle age."

Their informant scratched his head. "The only other stranger I've seen recently was a large brutish thug dressed as a butler."

Lord Milbridge and his wife exchanged glances. "Interesting," the viscount said cryptically. "It appears the Professor has yet to arrive. I believe we should split up to look for him. Atalanta, if you and Jean take the road to the south, Spencer and I will have another look at the marae, then take the road west."

"There is our destinazione," Vincenzo announced, "to the right of Point Venus."

Marat looked out from the control car of the Salgari. In front of the airship, the shoreline of Matavai Bay stretched south, then bent to the east. Some distance ahead, he could see what appeared to be a resort village. A mooring mast rose nearby. Beside it, a team of islanders waited to receive their handling lines.

"Why is there a mooring mast in such an out-of-the-way place?" he asked.

"The story is that it was a failed business enterprise," said Vincenzo. "In practice, the managers of these resorts find it convenient to have a way to bring ships in past the prying eyes of customs officials."

"Ah," said Marat, who'd learned much about human nature since joining the crew. "What is the name of this 'convenient' village?"

"It is called Mahina. And these are nostri amici. We will make inquiries here to learn who else is in Tahiti."

Next week: Deus Ex Mahina...

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