Episode 425: The What of Tahiti?
Fletcher glanced at Lieutenant Peters. "Could you repeat that phrase?" he
The lieutenant made a deprecatory gesture, as if to indicate that he wasn't
responsible for what he was about to say. "The Sky Pirates of Tahiti."
"Such a thing exists?" Fletcher asked incredulously.
"They've been the talk of the air station ever since Captain Everett
encountered them last February," said Peters. "That was before you arrived,
but surely you have access to the confidential reports Everett filed with
This may have been true, but Fletcher had never thought to read them. He
resolved to spend less time on the cricket pitch. There seemed no need to
let Peters know of his oversight.
"Quite," he said, "but I may have forgotten some of the details. Could you
"I'm afraid not," Peters admitted. "I'm rather hazy on them myself."
"Then we will wish to conduct some inquiries in Tahiti. Can we make the
The lieutenant unrolled the chart, measured some distances, and jotted down
a calculation. "It should be possible, if we economize," he announced.
"Will Michaelson authorize the voyage?"
Fletcher might have lacked experience in the field, but he was still a
beneficiary of Signal Corps training.
"We will omit some details regarding our destination," he said brightly.
"It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission."
The Thumper's bunkers might not have been entirely empty when they
finally raised Tahiti, but they were hardly brimming with fuel. This put
paid to any plans Fletcher and Peters might have had to search for their
quarry by ship. Instead, they decided to call at Papeete.
The capital of Tahiti proved a challenge to Fletcher's preconceptions. Like
most Englishmen, he'd been brought up on tales of the `Island of Venus',
where sultry island maidens swayed beneath whispering palm trees... or
whispered beneath swaying palm trees, as the case may be. Papeete bore
little resemblance to this idyllic image. Its waterfront was lined with
warehouses, bars, and shacks that wouldn't have seemed out of place in the
less savory ports of the Mediterranean. Rusting island freighters shared
the harbor with an obsolete French destroyer that made the Thumper
look like a miracle of modern naval architecture.
Papeete's Government House was a combination of
ostentatious architecture and indifferent workmanship that suggested some
money had changed hands during the bidding process. The Englishmen's
uniforms got them past the bored-looking secretary, and soon they found
themselves in the office of the naval liaison -- an old island hand who might
have arrived with Bougainville.
"Bonjour, monsieurs, " he announced. "How may I help you?"
Fletcher had already decided on a direct approach. "We are seeking
information about the Sky Pirates of Tahiti," he replied.
Their host raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?"
Fletcher offered one of the diplomatic smiles he'd learned during training.
"I understand they may not be a matter the Administrator's office cares to
discuss," he said politely, "but I have access to the confidential reports
from Cairns." Once again, there seemed no need to note that he hadn't read
The Frenchman leaned back in his chair. "Je comprendre," he said.
"We know of these people, though one gets the impression they are more in
the nature of entertainers than pirates. They swoop down upon some hapless
liner -- to the extent that it's possible for an airship to swoop -- relieve
the passengers of some of their smaller, lighter, and more valuable items,
then fly off into the sunset. No tourist feels that his or her visit to
French Polynesia is complete unless they've experienced an attack."
Fletcher nodded. He was learning to expect strange things on the Pacific
station. "What type of airship do they have?"
"It is said to be an Italian semi-rigid: a Nobile class, I believe."
Fletcher remembered these vessels from Jane's. Like everything
made by Italians, they were fast. "What is known about the pirates
themselves?" he asked.
"Very little, I'm afraid," said their host. "Like their vessel, they seem
to be Italian, but their identities remain a mystery. Instead, they take
the names of notorious Italian pirates of the past."
"How shall we find these gentlemen?" Peters asked as they left the
Like misrepresentation and diplomacy, this matter was covered by Signal
Corps training. "We will pick someplace they're likely to visit, ask
around, and wait for them to notice us," said Fletcher. "Do you have any
Peters thought this over. "We might try Mahina, just up the coast. I
understand it has some reputation as a smugglers' haven."
Fletcher raised an eyebrow. "What could anyone possibly smuggle into
"Cheese and lingerie?" suggested Peters.
"Perhaps," said Fletcher.
They stopped at the harbor so that Peters could leave instructions with
his Exec. Then they hitched a ride on a farmer's cart for the ride to
Mahina. This was as slow as it was uneventful. To their right, hills rose
toward the distant bulk of Mount Orohena. To the left, beaches of black
volcanic sand entirely failed to match Fletcher's vision of a tropical
island. A less piratical landscape would have been difficult to imagine.
Mahina was a small village on the shore of Matavia Bay. It had enjoyed its
brief moment of fame when Captain Cook paused there to observe the transit
of Venus in 1769. Since then, it had lapsed into well-deserved obscurity.
A gleaming modern mooring mast suggested that some entrepreneur had
benefited from a lucrative government contract. Otherwise the place was
unprepossessing, Several dilapidated schooners were anchored in the
roadstead. If any were smuggling, this was not immediately apparent.
As Fletcher had expected, no one admitted knowing about any Sky Pirates,
of Tahiti or elsewhere. The Englishmen spent several hours making sure
they'd been noticed, then retired for tea at the closest thing Mahina
possessed to a café -- a rickety verandah overlooking the bay.
"I'd say we're off to a good start," Fletcher said optimistically. "Our
quarry will have learned we've been asking questions. It's only a matter
of time until they send someone to discover what we're about."
"I've begun to have some reservations about this strategy," Peters
remarked. "What if we've attracted unwanted attention?"
"This is hardly likely," Fletcher assured the lieutenant. "Surely none of
our adversaries could be active this far east."
Inwardly the signalman was less sure than he pretended. He wished he'd
thought to read Everett's reports. He was reflecting on this oversight when
Peters called his attention to a change in their surroundings.
"I say," said the lieutenant. "Something seems to be up."
Fletcher looked around and noticed that the other patrons were leaving.
Before he could wonder why, two meaty hands reached down to grab him and
Peters by the collars and hoist them from their chairs. He glanced
over his shoulder
and recognized Bludge.
It would have been difficult not to. The Warfield's butler was a thing
out of legend.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," said Bludge. "I trust I'm not disturbing
Next week: It Was Chemistry...
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