Episode 131: Good Times in Nuku'alofa
Smoke billowed from the crater where the hydrogen tanks had stood. Around
it, a tangle of half-melted girders and pipes was all that remained of the
generating plant. The explosion might not have caused any serious
casualties -- this was the reason gas facilities were always located some
distance from a field -- and the humid tropical climate meant the fire was
in no danger of spreading, but it was clear that Tonga's Fua'amotu Air
Station would not be back in operation any time soon.
From the bridge of the Flying Cloud, Captain Everett studied the
destruction eight thousand feet below. "It appears we shall have to change
our plans," he observed. "Miss Sarah, what's the status of our consumables?"
The island girl studied her figures and frowned. "We're down to 1,080
gallons of fuel, 5,900 pounds of ballast, and 65 percent hydrogen."
"And the nearest reliable source of supplies would be on Fiji or American
Samoa, five hundred miles away," mused the captain. "This could pose
something of a challenge. Mister Iverson, what has the wind been doing
these past twenty-four hours?"
"Southeast, with a mean direction of 125 degrees, averaging 14 knots," said
the lieutenant, who'd learned to anticipate questions of this sort.
Everett bent over the chart table, picked up a pair of dividers, a parallel
rule, and a vector calculator, and began to work on a plot. After a minute
"We will try for Fiji," he announced. "After this recent drama, I feel
we'd appreciate the security of a British station. Jenkins, contact Suva,
tell them to expect us around 0900 hours tomorrow, and warn them we may be
quite short of supplies."
"Do you think we have enough fuel?" asked Sarah, whose civilian status
allowed her to voice concerns Naval personnel had to pretend to ignore.
"I believe so," said Everett. "We'll maintain a heading of 240 degrees at
half power on one engine. Combined with this southeast wind, that should
give us a course due west and get us there with a few hundred gallons of
fuel remaining. I'm more concerned about ballast. We'll lose altitude at
night when the hull begins to cool. Fortunately we have plenty of height
to start with after that emergency climb."
"We could jettison the launch," Iverson suggested hopefully.
"I'd prefer to hang on to that," said Everett. "It has proved useful in the
past. But we'll deal with these questions as they arise. Jenkins, signal
the shore party to let them know our intentions."
MacKiernan stood on the beach, gazing up at the airship. A mile and a half
above their heads, she was an elegant silver dart, hanging from sky like
some celestial work of art. A light winked from her control car as she
turned toward the west.
"What did they say?" asked Miss Perkins.
"They're heading for Fiji to resupply," said the Exec. "They warned us it
may be several days before they can return."
"That means we'll be stuck on Tonga for several days," said Abercrombie.
The Scotsman did not seem enthusiastic about the prospect.
"That also gives us several days to find where these Russian exiles are
hiding," said MacKiernan, determined to make the best of the situation.
"I'll bet ye a shilling we don't learn a thing."
The Irishman thought this over. So far, none of the islanders they'd met
had been particularly helpful, but surely it was only a matter of time
before they found the right source of information. All they needed was
Nuka'alofa, capital of Tonga, proved to be quite unlike MacKiernan's
vision of a Pacific island paradise. The men were enormous -- even larger
than Abercrombie -- and the women were almost as substantial. They were
also uniquely uncommunicative, regarding their visitors with bored
indifference that gave way to active annoyance if they were asked a
question. This, combined with their heft, truculence, and a tendency to
elbow strangers out of the way, presented serious obstacles to casual
The government offices were not significantly more informative. Most of
them were closed, and appeared to have been so for quite some time. The
tourist agency was empty except for some moldy brochures and a few
tattered advertisements for swimwear, the Chamber of Commerce was heavy on
the former and light on the latter, and the town had nothing resembling a
By the end of the day, MacKiernan was almost ready to admit defeat. At
last, with some difficulty, they were able to locate a representative of
the British Crown. The Foreign Office might not have felt it necessary to
favor Tonga with a full-fledged Ambassador, but they had appointed a Consul
to represent the interests of any British subjects who might visit the
They found the man in the Nuku'alofa Club, a haven for expatriates near the
edge of town. The official, a middle-aged man named Ashton, was studying
his drink with the philosophical expression common to old Pacific hands. A
small paper umbrella lay on the table beside it.
"These Tongans tend to be touchy about their independence," he explained.
"They're the only island nation that has managed to avoid colonization, and
this experience left them somewhat suspicious of outsiders. They're also
quite proud of their culture. They call it `fakatonga', the Tongan..."
"...yes, we know," snapped Miss Perkins.
MacKiernan coughed politely, unable to imagine why anyone could possibly
want to colonize these islands in the first place. "Does this place
produce anything of value?" he asked.
"Not that I know of," said Ashton. "They earn some money selling licenses,
ship registrations, and the like to entrepreneurs who wish to avoid the
scrutiny of more diligent governments..." MacKiernan frowned. This reminded
him of something he couldn't quite place. "...but most of their income
comes from coconut meat, which they dry to produce copra. I've never been
entirely sure what this is good for."
"It's used as an animal feed," said Miss Perkins. "It's low in
non-structural carbohydrate, which makes it particularly well-suited for
horses prone to developing ulcers."
"Ahh," said the Consul dryly. "That explains the prodigious demand."
"Have you heard anything about a group of Russian settlers on these
islands?" asked MacKiernan.
"Perhaps," replied Ashton. "Usually the Tongans are opposed to immigration.
They have a feudal society, rather like England back in the Fourteenth
Century, and every bit of land is owned by the nobility. But the place was
hit rather heavily by the Influenza. This left some holdings vacant, and
Queen Salote allowed a group of exiled aristocrats to establish themselves
on one of the out-islands back in 1919."
"They must have held fairly high rank to appeal directly to the Queen,"
observed MacKiernan. "Do you have any idea who these fellows were?"
"No," said the Consul, "but I'll try to arrange an audience with Her
Majesty so you can ask her yourself."
Next week: Clouds Got In My Way...
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