The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 159: There's Never An Archaeologist Around When You Need One

The October 1926 issue of National Geographic

"Who is Professor Otkup... Oktup... Otpuk... this Russian gentlemen?" asked Isobel.

"Professor Ot-kup-shchi-kov," said Iverson, struggling with the third syllable. "He's the Russian archaeologist Miss Natasha and I met on Nauru last August."

The girl looked more puzzled than ever. "Who was Miss Natasha and what were you doing on Narau?"

"She was... we were..." Iverson hesitated, wondering how he could possibly explain the events of the previous year, or even if he should.

"The man flies about the islands in an old Coastal Class blimp," Sir Hubert said, intervening gracefully to fill the pause. "His interest seems to be the mysterious stonework one finds in this part of the Pacific. There have been any number of hypotheses regarding its origin, some quite wild. There's a fellow up in Karema, Mister Blackeney, who's trying to prove it was left by inhabitants of the lost continent of Mu." Sir Hubert shook his head -- it appeared the Lieutenant-Governor was something of a skeptic when it came to lost continents.

"How are we going to find the Professor?" asked Iverson.

Jenkins turned to their host. "I trust the Residence maintains a library..."

"I located this," Jenkins said some time later. The signalman reached into his satchel to produce a plain-looking magazine with a yellow border. Everett recognized the journal of the National Geographic Society, printed in Washington D.C. Founded in 1888 to promote the 'increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge', theirs was one of the few American periodicals to see widespread circulation in England.

"I would call your attention to this article," Jenkins continued, in a tone that suggested he regretted the necessity. Everett noted the title: 'Adventures of the 'Air-chaeologist'. Hardened by his experiences in Gallipoli, the North Sea, and Palestine, he managed to read these words without any visible change in expression. Iverson, less well-trained, flinched.

"Those Colonials do have somewhat different sensibilities," Jenkins noted.

"I daresay!"

Everett flipped through the article. Near the front, a grainy print showed what was obviously a blimp cruising above a South Sea island. The image was tiny, but it might well have been a Coastal.

"It appears they misspelled the fellow's name," said Iverson, reading over his shoulder.

"That's hardly surprising," said Everett. "I imagine he has some trouble with it himself. What was the substance of the article?"

"It is much as Sir Hubert noted," said Jenkins, with a nod to their host. "The professor has been studying the ancient stone ruins of Polynesia and Micronesia. They're quite the mystery. Most are comparatively modest, and appear to be simple shrines, but some involve works of prodigious size, whose function and purpose is entirely unknown. On the east side of Ponape, there's an entire stone city, now partially-submerged, that the natives call Nan Madol. No one has the slightest idea who built it or why."

"Does the article give any clue where our professor might be now?"

"It was published last October and describes his activities during the previous seasons, so we must indulge in some speculation, but it appears he's been making a succession of traverses from southeast to northwest, each one to the east of its predecessor. He's been quite systematic about this, and he's taken some pains to avoid visiting the same place twice. We know his 1926 season took him through Nauru, so I imagine it began somewhere in the Cook Islands. Extrapolating, we might expect his 1927 traverse to begin in French Polynesia and finish in the Marshalls."

"That's a substantial stretch of ocean," observed the Sir Hubert.

"Quite," agreed Everett. "But we have the faster vessel and considerably more endurance, which gives us a number of options. May we borrow this journal?"

"Be my guest. The librarian was about to donate our back issues of that particular periodical to the local dentist. The fellow leaves them on his verandah for the edification of patients who are waiting for an appointment."

Everett raised his eyebrows. "What a peculiar practice."

"I doubt it will ever become widespread."

Pierre, Wallace, and Abercrombie made their way through the lanes and alleys of Port Moresby's waterfront. Recognizing the first two men's acquaintance with the seamier side of human nature, Everett had sent them to prowl the wharf area in search of information. Since that side of human nature was not always noted for its sportsmanship, he'd included the Scotsman as a guard.

"D'ye ken we'll find anything?" asked Abercrombie as they approached the first shop.

"Eet is possible," replied Pierre. "An important man, such as this viscount, will leave behind a trail of people who remember him. This is a basic principes des connaissances -- you would say 'information theory'."

The Frenchman's prediction proved correct. Over the course of the afternoon, they found several dealers in island art, relics, and curios who remembered the Lord and Lady Milbridge with considerable fondness. But none had any idea of the viscount's itinerary.

By evening the three men's feet had grown sore and their patience was wearing thin. "That one, ya fin'?" asked Wallace, lapsing into his native Cockney. He gestured at a shack to their left. A sign above the door said Marshland.

Abercrombie gave it a dubious glance. "What could they possibly be selling?"

Pierre shrugged. "I imagine it's the name of the proprietor."

The interior was dark, cluttered with artifacts of dubious age and provenance. Glancing at a gold-filigreed tiara, Abercrombie wondered how much of the merchandise had been acquired legally. The owner -- a stoop-shouldered individual with wide unblinking eyes -- studied his customers in much the same way a shark might study a plump baby seal.

"D'ye see anything ye like?" he asked in an insinuating voice.

"We would like information," replied Pierre. "A gentleman, Lord Milbridge, visited Port Moresby a few days ago. Do you know anything of this man?"

"It'll cost ye," said the shopkeeper. He named a figure. Abercrombie's eyes widened. Pierre merely nodded.

"Others must have been asking similar questions to drive the price so high," he observed. "How many parties were involved, and how much would it cost to learn their names?"

"Three, but it's more'n ye can pay, and more'n I can afford."

The Frenchman passed the man a handful of coins. "Merci," he said cryptically. "Here's a token for your troubles."

Until recently, Lieutenant Murdock's career had followed the usual path. Enlisted as a midshipman at the tender age of fourteen, he'd spent his formative years at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, then earned his commission aboard the famous blimps of the North Sea Squadron.

This had done little to prepare him for the South Pacific.

He stood in the Transporter Room, recording ballast figures while Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan oversaw operations and their chief engineer, a taciturn civilian specialist of Asian descent, operated the hoist. "Iwamoto, we have one passenger with personal belongings," said the Exec. "Energize."

"Hai," said the engineer. Murdock glanced around, looking for a visitor, before he realized this was meant as an acknowledgement.

"Weight?" asked MacKiernan.

Iwamoto glanced at a dial overhead. "One hundred twenty-five pound."

"Did you note that in the log?" MacKiernan asked Murdock.

"Yes, sir, but I don't see where to record the passenger's name."

"Ah yes," said MacKiernan. "The Captain felt we should excise that part of the form in the interest of privacy."

"Why..." Murdock began, but that that moment the hoist platform arrived with their ballast officer aboard. She vaulted over the rail, revealing aspects of life that had most definitely not been part of the Naval College curriculum, and smiled at the three men.

"Look what I found, Mister MacKiernan!" she beamed, holding up a polished ebony war club -- a savage-looking instrument designed for the bashing of skulls. "Isn't it adorable? It's so much nicer than my old one. Hello, Mister Murdock. Please leave a copy of your figures in the control car."

Murdock watched her go, then stooped to recover the pencil that had slipped from his fingers.

"Is something wrong, Lieutenant?" MacKiernan asked kindly.

"Um... err... nothing, sir."

"Don't worry, Mister Murdock, you'll get used to this sort of thing on the Pacific Station."

Next week: Pursuit of the Leisure Classes...

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