“I’m thinking on what Lin told us yesterday,” April told Heather. “We’re getting none of that picture about what life is like on Earth from the news agencies. How do we know what’s happening on the street level? Sometimes I get hints about it from reports of ‘wrecker’ busting windows or shooting down electric wires. There was a whole bunch of fires in Baltimore a few months ago and none of the explanations in the news made any sense. I think it was all arson and they just wouldn’t say it. And last year there were way more forest fires than usual, but the weather was actually better, so there should have been less. Also the pattern seemed to be that a lot of those fires threatened well to do areas with expensive homes. But it’s hard to tell what is sabotage and what is coincidence.”
“Jeff has Eddie working on creating an intelligence network now. Tell them you want some hard information on how the average person is coping with shortages and regulations. I know a lot of the crop fires last year were set, after the cops destroyed guerilla gardens people hid out in the woods. If they can’t grow food they get pissed off and figure if they can’t grow it, they’ll keep the big industrial farms from growing it too. It’s just way too easy to drive by a field and throw something out the car window that will sit a couple days and then ignite and set the field on fire. You watch the weather report, pick a dry stretch and toss it to the upwind side, and it’s going to burn a lot of grain before they can stop it. They promised they’d guard the fields this year, but there are just too many fields and not enough cops. There wouldn’t be enough people to guard crops if they called the whole army out to sit and watch the fields,” Heather said.
“You’re right, I’ll ask Jeff and Eddie to pass that along to their people. They don’t need to spend anything to pursue it, just be observant when they are gathering other intelligence.”
* * *
“You seemed so dubious when I told you we’d teach you to swim back home,” April reminded Barak. “I’m glad you like snorkeling so much. It’s really pretty in the lagoon isn’t it?”
“It’s prettier than I ever imagined Earth could be from photos. And Tara has been talking to me about diving other places. He said the reefs in other locations are just as nice, but sometimes completely different coral and fish. He’s dived in ship wrecks and places where there are old buildings underwater. He was even telling me people dive in underwater caves, but he hasn’t tried that.”
“I’m not sure I’d want to be all closed in like that underwater.”
“It’s not much different than being in a pressure suit,” Barak said with a shrug. “He’s used a SCUBA outfit with a tank, but says a lot of folks now use rebreathers that let you stay down a lot longer. I figure Jeff could build me a rebreather that uses one of his miniature power sources. It could generate oxygen from the water, and you could stay down as long as you want. I just have to figure out how you could sleep wearing it.”
“I’ve been stuck in a p-suit for sixteen hours,” April remembered. “You can sleep in a regular p-suit, but I sure wouldn’t do it for fun. After that long you are so happy to wash, and scratch, and eat something you don’t have to suck through a tube, that you don’t want to ever crawl in one again. I’d say you’d need a helmet instead of a mouth piece for a start. And if you have a helmet it has to have some sort of collar and shoulder yoke to attach to. I’m not sure you wouldn’t just be better off with a full suit. What happens when your skin is in salt water for hours and hours? It has to be irritating.”
“You probably look like a big prune,” Barak guessed. “I’ll ask a bunch of people what works and what has been tried before. Thanks for all the ideas.”
“Just be safe. Nobody begrudges you having fun, but we’d feel terrible if you hurt yourself trying something reckless.” She reached across and ruffled his hair playfully.
“Thanks April. I’ll try not to be stupid,” he vowed, and for some reason blushed furiously.
* * *
“We need to catch the tide running outbound in the channel to clear the reef toward evening. If you want one last swim or any souvenirs, now is your last chance to get them,” Lin told them at breakfast. “I think you all know, but just to remind you, no coral, even broken old pieces off the beach, and no shells that still have the mollusk inside, or any on the endangered list, even if it was cast up on the beach and rotting. If you have anything like that it may be confiscated in Tonga and you could be fined, even if they can tell it isn’t from their waters.”
“How much time between when we dock in Tonga and our shuttle lifts?” Barak asked.
“We should arrive midmorning the day before your shuttle flight,” Lin said. “I wouldn’t suggest arriving the same day and trying to rush to the airport. If there are any complications you want the airline and officials to be able to reach you. We have reservations at a decent little hotel close to the space side of the field. If they can’t get ahold of you and confirm you are in the area they start to worry they are going to have an empty seat. I know you guys wouldn’t argue, but a lot of people will give them a hard time if they charge them for a reserved seat that goes empty. Some folks would try to do a chargeback and tie their money up. Just having a contact at a nearby hotel is reassuring to them.”
“Do you think maybe we can walk around near the hotel after we check in? Don’t forget, I’ve never been in an Earth city. The only dry land I’ve been on is the atoll, when Gunny and I set up his telescope. I’d like to see some buildings and people like in a video.”
“The area around the hotel is nice. If you stay in the area and don’t go off in the less desirable parts of town you can do that, but I want you to take my man Tara along. April, could you send Gunny along too? None of us can carry weapons on Tonga, but there is safety in a group, and both of them look formidable.”
“Yeah, I want to go too, so Gunny is a given. That makes four of us so we should be fine.”
Lin paused just long enough he must be having second thoughts, but he just nodded. “I might even find time to come along myself. There’s an open market no more than two hundred meters from the hotel, and they have all sorts of hand crafts and things. I think you’d find it interesting, even if you don’t buy anything.”
* * *
The hotel room wasn’t that luxurious, although it was a suite with a large L shaped living room that had a balcony along one leg. The rooms seemed huge to satellite dwellers, and their boat, while big for a boat, had nothing on a regular Earthie building for size. Barak in particular had never been in an Earth hotel, so when he became concerned that his bag didn’t show up they had to explain to him that he had his own room down the hall he’d share with Tara, where he’d find his bag, and all seven of them would not be sharing these rooms to sleep. There was no mint on the pillow, but there was a restaurant and a very nice small pool inside. After having the whole wide lagoon to themselves it had little appeal.
Tara and Lin both knew Tonga fairly well. They didn’t argue with Barak’s question about seeking lunch outside the hotel. The poor kid was pacing he was so anxious to go. But in the end all of them went, a mob that April could tell Lin was not entirely happy about.
The street was crowded, the more so since it was near midday and the Tongans tend to eat a heavy lunch and take a nap from the heat of the day, so a lot of people were on break from their work. Most of the crowd looked to be locals, most in western clothing, but a few in the wrapped skirt. There were few hats despite the fierce sun, and nobody was bare chested like they would have been some other tropical countries.
There were a few street vendors selling food you could eat standing, but Lin insisted they go to a sit down restaurant. The place he pointed out was a roofed over slab with open sides, and the cooking area visible. It smelled wonderful. They picked a table next to the street to watch all the activity, and a young woman brought them bottled water and menus.
After much indecision Barak got grilled chicken, which was well charred on the edges, strongly marinated in both lime and something sweet. With that he got a sweet taro cake in coconut milk and a cold chopped fruit salad, some chunks of which he couldn’t identify. It was good but the drink appealed to him better than any of it, a slurry of coconut and watermelon.
Everybody got the chicken but Gunny, who went with a very un-Tongan pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw. But he ordered the local drink after everybody raved on it.
The market was jammed, the stalls each seller was allotted unusually small. They made up for this by displaying their goods vertically. There were carvings that didn’t impress anyone, some local wraps for men that Lin and Taro both bought, and a lot of western clothing that looked used. Some of it well used.
Gunny however, found a carver tucked in a corner who had much different wares. He caught back up to them with an object wrapped in paper, but shaped like a canoe paddle. The way he held it said it was heavy.
“It’s a Tongan war club,” Gunny said to Jeff’s raised eyebrow. “It feels heavier than aluminum, and it has some really good inlay work in it. I’ll show it to you back in our rooms.”
There were local fruits and vegetables, in stunning variety, the colors making April take some pictures with her pad, after buying some fruit she’d take back to their rooms. If any objected to her photography they didn’t say anything after she’d spent some money.
Some vendors had little bottles of vanilla, the fancy bottles seeming to be more important to the tourists than the vanilla itself.
There were a couple people selling elaborate panels of bamboo cut and arranged in geometric patterns. They’d have one full sized, as a backdrop to their stall, and a number of other designs rendered in miniature.
April pictured a section of that for her new cubic, but decided it was too big an investment to lift to orbit for something she’d get tired of eventually and want to change. If it was removed after awhile it would be big to have to store somewhere. But then they found some people making mats called tapas, of the inner bark of the mulberry, dyed and patterned beautifully. That April could see in her new home. There were smaller ones, no bigger than a place mat, some with bright colors she suspected were for the tourist trade. The bigger ones tended to black and white and shades of brown.
One old man had a variety, but behind him was a mat standing rolled up vertically, only the one edge pulled open to show the pattern. It was a checkerboard of squares, three patterns repeating in a sequence April couldn’t quite figure out. One a swirl inside a border, one a pattern that reminded April of a Navaho rug she’d seen, and the last a solid pattern of dark and light parallelograms. It was of very thin fibers tightly woven and very fine.
April stood looking at it quite a long time, thinking. The old fellow could see where her eyes were going but pretended indifference, sipping on a cup of something. “Sir, is that rolled up tapa for sale, or do you just display it as an example of the art?” she finally asked.
He couldn’t hide the fact that pleased him. “It is lovely isn’t it? There aren’t many ladies who can do this level of work now, and there are a lot of hours invested in it. There are bigger tapas in the royal residence, and in the museums, here and on Samoa, but few commercially available even this big these days.”
“May one ask what you’d consider a fair exchange for it?”
“Let me think on that,” he countered, like he didn’t know to the centum. “You are a spacer aren’t you? You’d pay a lot just to lift it to your home.”
“I am. I already considered that. Some of my friends and I have been down to relax and enjoy the open spaces and the sun. We spent some days on an unpopulated atoll and swam and dove. We are from Home.”
“Ah, your country has a special relationship with Tonga. I understand most of the freight lifting from here goes to Home. That’s why we have so many Japanese lately, though I have to say we seem to get along with them better than the Chinese. We kicked most of them out in my grandfather’s time.”
“The Japanese built our habitat,” April told him. “My father manages the physical structure for them. But I am also a resident of Central on the moon, and if we can only get it sorted out to your King’s satisfaction, we’ll have Tongan residents there too.”
“Are you a subject of the new Queen that we hear about on the moon? I was shocked to hear of a new monarchy. Earth seems to be discarding their royalty, which we Tongans are not ready to do. They may not be perfect, but we see them as stable, unlike the mob rule some places.”
“She hasn’t used the word queen in my hearing, but the young lady in the teal shirt is the sovereign of who you speak. The young man with her and I and are close friends, business associates, and by her word, her peers.” She laid it on thick, hoping it helped the price if he was fond of royalty. She didn’t mention the idea had not thrilled her, indeed she was upset Heather didn’t drop the sovereignty after she felt it had served its purpose, and miffed she was Dame Lewis. She had a hard time accepting it at first, giving Heather a hard time.
“That’s good. Most of the mats of this quality are owned by the royal family. I am happier knowing it would be preserved, and not allowed to deteriorate like it could in a common house.”
“I had in mind to put it on my wall, with other fine art.”
“You might seek help from a museum archivist, to hang it so it doesn’t get bent and distorted over time.”
That was good that he was talking like she already owned it.
“My home is in half gravity, it will only weigh half as much as usual here, so that helps to preserve it too.”
He got the oddest amused look. “Don’t you fairly bounce off the ground if you weigh so little? I’m trying to imagine it, but it seems odd.”
“You do step differently, and dancing has a much wider range, but you learn to shuffle along quickly, and sleeping is much easier when it feels like you are floating on your back.”
“That must be a marvel. I doubt I’ll ever get up to experience it. If you think the tapa suitable for your home, I’d offer it to you at thirty thousand dollars USNA, or twenty eight thousand EuroMarks, and an introduction to your sovereign.”
“Sure I’d be happy to do that, I’m April Lewis, what is your name?”
“I’m Papahi Fetu Helu.”
“Heather?” April waved her over, and she came with Jeff following along. “Heather Anderson, this Papahi Feta Helu. He is aware of Central, and your declaring sovereignty, he asked to be introduced. We may do some business together. This is Jeff Singh also.”
“Mr. Helu, a pleasure,” Heather declared and offered her hand.
He hesitated and looked surprised, if not shocked. “That is permitted? We may not touch the King in Tonga.”
“We are of a different custom,” Heather assured him. “It is not offensive at all.”
“Thank you,” he took her hand like he might break it, and gave it a single gentle pump. “I am honored, and glad to see your family too,” he added, including April and Jeff in his glance.
“We were close long before she founded Central,” Jeff added smoothly. It was unusually social for Jeff.
“I could see that from your faces. You never look away long before you check to see where each other are,” he said, with obvious approval.
Well, I never knew I did that, the old boy is perceptive. April thought.
“I’d be happy to have the tapa in my home,” April assured him. “Dollars or EM it doesn’t matter. Which would you like?” she asked pulling her pad out. She liked it too much to dicker.
“Ah, well Tongans don’t use credit much,” he said regretfully, “Just the big resorts and airlines and such. We have pretty much a cash economy. I’d send you to a bank, but you might have trouble getting that much cash without arranging it well ahead of time.”
“Perhaps you’d accept this?” Jeff asked and handed him a gold Solar coin.
Papahi frowned, unsure what this strange object was, and then jerked like it burned his hand.
“Ah, I’d like to, but you must not be aware gold bullion and coins are forbidden to us on Tonga. We can own gold jewelry, but it is tightly regulated, and hard to find anything for less than double the cost of the metal, three times for small items like rings and earrings. I suggest you keep that in your pocket so some excessively law abiding person doesn’t report it,” he said, handing it back.
“I saw a jewelry store back a ways,” Jeff remembered. “Might the jeweler buy this so we could trade?”
“Yes, but it will get reported. And it may make my sale come to the attention of the authorities. Most of our business is cash for a reason,” he said.
“Oh, OK I understand,” Jeff said. Cluing up that there were tax issues. “I think I might have a solution. Barak, there is a fellow back a few stalls selling tools. Would you please go back and buy a center punch or a screw set, an awl or an ice pick, and a hammer?” He went over to Tara and had a few words and Tara took off back the way they’d come.
They stood chatting with the merchant about life on the island, and life on Home, finding plenty to talk about and unstrained. Barak got back first.
Jeff put the coin on top of a post marking the stall corner and picked a point in the plain area of sky on the front art work. A smart strike of the center punch left a conical indention with a raised rim. He switched to the awl and drove it in further and he wiggled it loose and struck it a few more times. When he had a bump on the reverse side he used the punch there, and switched back and forth until he had a hole through the coin, with a bevel leading into the hole on both faces. The gold was just displaced, not removed, so it retained its weight.
Tara got back while Jeff was finishing up, and handed Jeff a small package when he was done. Jeff removed a very thin gold necklace, about a half meter long. The ends had a lobster clasp and a thin jump ring on the other end to engage it.
The ring wouldn’t fit through the hole, so Jeff put the ring over the point of the awl. He pulled a small case of dental tape from his pocket and looped a double thickness through the same ring. Pushing the awl in the post to anchor it he pulled on the floss until the ring was bent oval shaped. It fit through the hole now.
Jeff, fished the chain through the hole, forced the awl in the jump ring to force it round again, fastened the chain closed, and offered it to the tapa merchant. “Would you take this gold chain and decorative pendant in trade Papahi? If you can trade it for double the spot price or more, it’s twenty-five grams, worth considerably more than you asked.”
“I believe you’d say, that’s a deal,” Papahi said, taking the ‘jewelry’, and hanging it out of sight under his shirt. “I just need to get a shipping address for Pilinsesi April, and I’ll package this up securely and send it along to you.”
Walking back to the hotel April asked Lin. “What did Mr. Helu call me back there? ”
“Pilinsesi? It means Princess. I’m not sure their titles of nobility translate across well, but he said it very seriously. I’m sure he meant it as an expression of respect.”
Heather held it in as well as she could. But every once in awhile April could hear a giggle escape back there. She ignored it.