Episode 396: A Few Very Minor Mistakes, Part I
It took all of Captain Loika's considerable skill to bring the
Brotherhood of Workers to New Caledonia. Even so, they were
desperately low on consumables when they reached Noumea, and he breathed a
sigh of relief when they were finally moored. The settlement was quite
obviously French, complete with bakeries, cafes, and a small Roman Catholic
cathedral, but Gallic diesel fuel burned as well as the Russian variety,
and hydrogen had the same atomic weight regardless of its nationality.
There were no communist cells here -- somehow, establishing a branch of
Comintern on an obscure French possession in middle of the Pacific had never
been high on anyone's list of priorities -- but Commodore Yumashev had
provided them with the name of a local communist sympathizer. They found
this man waiting on his verandah next to a banner adorned with the familiar
hammer, sickle, and squid of the Polynesian Communist Party.
He brightened when he saw their uniforms. "Greetings, Comrades!" he
exclaimed. "You must be from the airship I saw."
"Da," said Loika. "How goes the Revolution on this island?"
"As well as can be expected," sighed the man. "It's difficult to appeal to
worker solidarity in a place where no one needs to work. What brought you
to Grande Terre?"
Loika and Tsukanov had already decided that there was no point in
dissimulation. "We're being pursued by the Royal Navy," said the
commissar. "We're looking for some refuge where we can wait until they
abandon the chase."
The man's face fell. "Then you've come to the wrong island," he told
them. "The Royal Navy calls here on a regular basis. One of their new
Junior Vickers ships, the R-505, visited the station just a few months
"Then we can't leave our cargo here," Tsukanov whispered to Loika. "The
capitalists would be sure to find it."
Loika nodded. "Do you know anywhere else we could try?" he asked their
The man scratched his head for moment, then ducked into his house to
retrieve a battered chart. He unrolled this to indicate an anonymous dot
in the middle of the Coral Sea. "There's a small island to the south,
here, that's well off the major trade routes," he told them. "It's
rarely visited, so it's unlikely anyone would be there to report you."
Since it seemed the British might arrive at any moment, they lifted ship
immediately, hoping to finish resupply when they arrived. As they flew
south, Loika wondered at the wisdom of this decision. He was not
reassured when their destination came in sight. It looked quite
ordinary -- yet another of the small volcanic islands that dotted the
Pacific -- but something about it left him feeling uneasy. The place
seemed haunted, as if it had been the scene for terrible deeds. He shook
his head at this fantasy. They had enough to worry about as it was.
"What do you know about this island?" Tuskanov asked Karlov.
Karlov's expression was unreadable. "Very little," he replied, "but I did
read an account of the place by an archaeologist from Odessa. According to
him, it's so isolated from the archipelago that it's developed an entirely
different culture. It could be a good place to hide."
Loika glanced at the scientist. He sensed he was missing something, but he
couldn't imagine what this might be, so he turned his attention back to
This side of the island was bordered by a long reef running parallel to the
shore. Near the west end of resulting lagoon, the French had built a small
air station. This was more substantial than Loika had expected, with a
modern mast that wouldn't have seemed out of place back in Kamchatka. He
also noted several gun emplacements, fitted with some of the German 77 mm
field pieces that had wrought such havoc on Russian forces during the War.
"Why do they need these defenses?" he wondered. "They can hardly be worried
about pirates in this day and age."
Karlov shrugged. "The French used to use this archipelago as a penal colony.
Perhaps they were worried about rescue attempts."
Loika didn't find this hypothesis convincing. What kind of prison needed
artillery pieces to guard it? But he could think of no better explanation.
Whatever the reason for the guns, the mooring went smoothly. It seemed
these people were used to handling large vessels. When the Russians
descended the mast, they found that the Governor had come out to greet
them. He was a decadent-looking figure, wearing clothes of fashion, but
Loika sensed a hardness about the man. It was never safe to underestimate
the French. This was the nation that had once dominated Europe, and had
recently fought Germans to a standstill at the Marne and Verdun.
"Welcome to my island, monsieurs," he announced as they stepped
from the lift. "How may I help you?"
"This will depend on whether you're on good terms with the English,"
The man raised an eyebrow. "Why should I be friends with the people who
were ready to abandon us in 1914?"
"They are not our friends either," said Tuskanov. "We wish to resupply
here before they can discover us, and hide a cargo here when we leave."
The Frenchman nodded. "I assume you have some means to pay for this."
"Our government maintains accounts with an Argentine bank in Jakarta."
"I know the firm," said their host. "I believe we can do business. And
we have places to hide your cargo from the les Anglais until you are in
a position to retrieve it."
"I will stay here too," said Karlov,
Loika glanced at the scientist in surprise. "Why?" he asked.
"The capitalists will be looking for me too," said Karlov. "This might be
a good place for me to drop out of sight."
Michaelson and Fenwick reached Noumea to discover that they'd missed the
Soviets by little more than a day. They were also in need of resupply, so
they had little choice but to wait for their quarry to reappear. They
didn't have to wait for long. Two days after their arrival, they were
reviewing intelligence reports when Michaelson received a call from the
"Sir, we've sighted the Brotherhood of Workers approaching from
the south. They appear to be making for the station."
"That seems rather bold of them," said Fenwick. "They must have seen that
"Yes," said Michaelson. "The implications are troubling."
Michaelson and Fenwick waited until the Russians were on the mooring, then
set out to learn the reason for their quarry's confidence. They found
Loika and Tsukanov waiting at the base of the mast with thinly-disguised
expressions of smugness.
"You've wasted your time, comrades," gloated Tsukanov. "Search our vessel
as you will, you'll find nothing."
Michaelson nodded as if he'd been expecting this. "So," he replied, "you
dropped Karlov and his cargo at the island to south."
Tsukanov was obviously taken by surprise. "What you mean by this?"
Michaelson shook his head. "You thought that man was your ally? He is
anything but. He just manipulated you into transporting him to a
destination of his choice."
The commissar's jaw dropped as he digested this information. "You're
right," he admitted. "That's exactly what he did. Who is this man?"
"Once again, Karlov has played us all for fools," Michaelson observed as
they made their way back to the R-87. "And we still don't have the
slightest idea what he's up to. Let's hope this is the last bad news we
receive for awhile."
This hope went unrealized. When they reached the bridge, Colson handed
Michaelson a message slip. "This arrived from the Admiralty while you
were gone, sir," he told them. "It seems the mysterious cruiser has
reappeared. They attacked an American ocean liner early this morning
and kidnapped a passenger."
The senior captain stared at the message for a moment, then muttered what
might have been a curse.
"Sir?" Fenwick asked with concern.
"No matter," said Michaelson. "We will console ourselves with the
knowledge that things are unlikely to get worse."
Next week: A Few Very Minor Mistakes, Part II...
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