The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 186: A Bit of Archeology

Milbridges and Monolith

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 message 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 exasperating manner?"

"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. "Lord Milbridge?"

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 been introduced."

"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 investigations."

"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 of diagrams.

"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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