Contact with the enemy

Previous: Surrounded by idiots

The sick bed of Carl Tennant – Homeward bound – Taking on fuel – The betrayal of Master Nazeem – Run for the hills

Everyone has their own way of dealing with loss. At our age, the death of people you know becomes a more and more regular occurrence. Funerals are rare occasions until slowly, stealthily, they become more and more frequent and you develop a certain routine. Gerald was killed in the very fulfillment of his life’s work, doing what he loved doing. That ought to count for something, your final thought being that unicorns are real, or in Gerald’s case, chupacabras. I got Gerald home, as well as the beast that killed him. It’s now in the Natural History museum, stuffed, in a corner that also holds paintings of dodos, and a skeleton thought to belong to an Australian Bunyip. I go and look at it now and then, and wonder whether it was all worth it. When I figure it out, I’ll tell you.

— Prof. Margaret Enderby, “Proving the negative wrong”

The Beast rolled into camp, and Riley and Nazeem came out with Carl Tennant on a stretcher. It took me only one look to see that this was bad. In his prime, in fact up to a few weeks ago, he must have been a very handsome man. Now, he would be lucky to survive the night. With Alexandra looking on, I got him out of his clothes, and covered the sores on his body in soothing ointment. Alexandra tried to feed him some thin soup, but he shook his head. He looked up at her.

“Alex? Why did you come here?”

“To find you, you oaf.”

Carl coughed. “It’s not safe here, Alex. It’s a horrible place. The cave… enough to drive you insane. All those lights, and the way it feels on your skin.”

“Ssh. Try not to talk too much.” Alexandra gave him some water to drink. “We’ll have you out of here soon, and back on your feet.”

Carl smiled. “Who are you talking to, little sister? Me or yourself?” He briefly closed his eyes. “I look as bad on the inside as I do on the outside. Should have stayed away from those cursed rocks.”

Alexandra moved a bit closer to her brother. “What happened here?”

“Pitched tents. Went into caves. Dug up lots of glowing rocks. Hammond almost dancing with joy. He said it was the beginning of a new industrial revolution. All coal steam would be gone in ten years.”


“Alex, I hate you being in this place. But I’m so happy to see you before…” Carl sighed. “Only one other that I would want to see.”

“The girl in the village near Kodok?”

Carl opened his eyes wide. “You’ve met her?”

Alexandra smiled, nodded. “There’s something…”

“Fatin. That’s her name. Isn’t she beautiful?”

Alexandra looked at her brother, who had closed his eyes. A gentle smile was on his face.

“Well,” said Alexandra. “I distinctly remember you fawning over Veronica Cardinale. This is a change.”

Carl laughed quietly. “Sister, every man fawns over Veronica Cardinale. It is the law.” He looked up at Alexandra. “Fatin… she is incredible. The kindest soul you could hope to meet. She spoke to me, and I understood, even though our native tongues could not be more different.”

“Talking was not all you did, though,” said Alexandra.

“It wasn’t,” said Carl, a light in his eyes. “I’ve never felt like that before. The sheer…” He looked into Alexandra’s eyes. “You would take it the wrong way if I said ‘want’. The sheer need of her.”

“I might,” said Alex, “if I hadn’t met her. I showed her your picture. She looked so happy. Such a shame you had to leave.”

“Alex, I was going back to find her. Stay with her in their camp. They are going to the valley of the White Nile for summer. These are good people.”

“I know,” said Alexandra. She ran her hand through Carl’s hair, and I could see her smile harden as some of it came loose in her hand. “In a few years, there’ll be a little boy in that camp. His skin will be a bit lighter than that of the other children. Maybe he’ll be blond. And when he grows up, lions will shake with fear where he walks.”

Carl looked up to Alexandra. Tears trickled down his face. “Fatin is…”

Alexandra’s voice was soft and low. “You will be a father. You will watch over him as he hunts. Keep him safe.”

I watched Carl Tennant’s face become hard. A light that had not been there before now shone in his eyes.

“I do not believe in ghosts.”

“No,” said Alexandra.

“I have a job to do,” he said.

We were rolling steadily on through the sandy plains, until we reached forested areas again. Carl Tennant was weak, but alive, and resting in the bunk opposite Andrew’s. Frankly, I really couldn’t see how he was holding on, but knowing that the girl Fatin was bearing his child must have given him a new sense of purpose.

It was only eighteen days ago that we were dropped down from Boreas‘ clutches, but it seemed longer. Nobody mentioned it, but whoever was on lookout, looked to the sky for the improbable cigar shape of our transport back home. I suppose the expedition was a success. We set out to find Hammond’s expedition, and we did. But it was not what we had wanted. Everybody thinks they’re a hero, and we had all thought we’d just find the expedition members, maybe snatch them out of one of those iconic cooking pots that the tribes use in the uninformed imagination of the Europeans. Finding most of them dead was the worst possible outcome.

Because Alexandra would not leave Carl’s side, Alan now sat in the chair next to Andrew, and we had to talk round him.

“He might make it, you know,” said Alan.

“He looks awful,” I said. “And that stuff you have in the trunk killed everyone else.”

“It’s properly sealed, Margaret. I am not tired of life yet. I’ve been reading Saknussemm’s reports. Mr. Tennant was never part of the scientific side of things. Everybody else was sitting in the tent, in the dust, breathing it in. Carl wasn’t. He was in charge of the running of the camp. And then the bearers and other people ran away, and he was lord of nothing.”

“That was very clever of them,” I said.

“I know he looks bad, but all he ever did was carry bags of rocks around. I’m at a complete loss as to what happened to these people. It’s not an infection, it’s not a toxin, because those are carried in the blood stream and affect the whole body rather than just a few places. It almost looks like Mr. Tennant was burnt, but there was no fire.”

“Did Dr. Saknussemm have anything to say about this?”

“No,” said Alan. “Poor woman just sat there with everyone, watching them get sick and die. And then she herself was… well, I say ‘infected’, but without some proper equipment, I can’t say whether it even is an infection.”

“It’s that bloody tent,” I said. “People died earlier the more time they spent in that tent.”

“It’s those rocks, and the glowing parts of it, and the dust. I know there are luminescent rocks, but those work by storing up sunlight, and emitting it when it gets dark. This? I haven’t an idea.”

The Beast was standing still in the shade of a large tree. Helping hands had carried Carl outside and he was sitting on a chair, sipping tea, staring out into the woods. We were poring over a map given to us by Captain Gaskin. Andrew leapt down from the Beast, and walked up to us.

“We have one day of coal left,” said Andrew. “We need to take on fuel.”

Wadcroft frowned. “I thought you said we could go for twenty days?”

“That is correct, but the assumption was that we would simply travel. We have travelled further than originally specified, and we have made demands on the Mk.1 that were not in the original plans. We went to fetch Mr. Tennant. On seven occasions we have travelled faster than the optimum for fuel consumption.”

“Can’t argue with that Wadcroft,” I said. “We were optimising for not having our hides perforated.”

“Still, it’s bloody inconvenient,” said Wadcroft. He looked annoyed with himself.

“If Nazeem may be allowed to make a suggestion?” He pointed a finger at the map. “In this place, there is a coal mine, owned by a local cartel. They may be able to sell us a few tons of coal.”

“Friends of yours?” I said.

“These people are known to Nazeem. They supply fuel to the Somali railways, and to the government.”

Andrew frowned. “Do they have high-energy coal? The Mk.1 is designed for energy-enhanced coal. If we use lower grade coal, then efficiency will suffer.”

“Nazeem does not know.”

Wadcroft looked at Andrew. “How much will efficiency suffer? Will it slow us down?”

“No, Sir,” said Andrew. “But a full bunker will only last us for between one-hundred and twenty and three hundred hours.” A painful look was on his bearded face. Andrew liked his margins of error small.

I looked over to where Carl and Alexandra were sitting next to each other, quietly talking. I imagined that Carl was looking slightly better, but that might just as well have been wishful thinking. The boy had been exposed to something that we didn’t know about. Usually, it’s wonderful to find something you don’t know

“Well, one thing is certain,” I said. “If we have no coal, we’ll be standing still in twenty-four. I’d prefer not to slog it. Especially not with young Carl on our backs.”

“Hopefully that’ll be enough to get us back to Kodok,” said Wadcroft. “Well, that settles it. North-west by north, Andrew.”

“North-west by north, Three-hundred and twenty six. Yes, Professor.”

We set off in the direction of the coal mine, the spectre of fuel following us about, hissing at us through the pipes that drove the big turbines, promising to catch us and mire us far away from help, far from home. We were rolling along under the trees, and could not see the sky where Boreas would be looking for us. In every expedition, there is a moment when all those concerned realise that the time has come to go home, compile the volumes of information that you have gathered, and write the learned papers that you set out to write. But we had nothing. Nothing that a scientist could set teeth into and produce some worthwhile conclusions. I had all the writings of Hammond and his aides, but frankly, they were pure fantasy. We had a young man with us, the sole survivor of a thirty people strong expedition. We hadn’t a notion of what was the matter with him, and he might still die of it. We did not know what had killed all the expedition members. Wadcroft and I had carried out a basic autopsy on two of the bodies, but neither Alan nor I really knew what we were doing, so we could only bring tissue samples for those who did. We still had no idea who had sent that poor bastard who had fallen to his death on our way to Cairo. We had no idea what our mystic friend Nazeem was playing at. Sometimes, the path to knowledge does nothing more than point out to you how ignorant you really are.

Wadcroft had climbed up on the roof and through the open hatch, I could just see his face, staring fixedly ahead of him, drawing on his pipe. He knew just as well as I do that you don’t measure success by the things you confirm. Objectively speaking, our expedition was a succes, but he didn’t think of it that way, and neither did anyone on board the Beast. Even Alexandra, who had found her brother alive, knew only too well that she might still lose him. Whether Nazeem was content with his results, nobody knew but him. Oh, and of course Oberst Klemm was looking forward to a good paycheck. At the cost of the life of one of his men. I heaved a deep sigh, and wished that this expedition was over and done with.

After a few hours’ steady driving, Wadcroft shouted through the hatch. We had rolled up to a large sign showing that here was the Balian-Ibelin Mining Company. Originally founded by a pair of Frenchmen, it had been taken over by the local authorities at gunpoint. In their turn, the local authorities had been kicked out by an English coal mining company. The Sudanese government had protested, with the appropriate amount of military sabre-rattling, but they had been brought down by that most effective of weapons: money. The coal mining company had grown, until this small coal mine in darkest Africa was the least of its worries. Coal was transported out, money was transported in, and beyond that, they didn’t care. The current owner, a Mr. Qureshi, greeted us with proper enthusiasm, once it became clear that we would be buying a lot of coal. I left the negotiations to Riley and Wadcroft, and went to see how Carl was doing.

It appeared that the rest was doing him good, and while I didn’t dare get my hopes up too much, there was no denying he looked a lot better than he had when first they rolled him into camp. The sores on his face were starting to dry up, leaving a few scars that young Miss Fatin would hopefully find interesting rather than revolting. The poor boy was obviously head over heels in love with this girl. I only hoped that enough of his strength would return for him to be able to join their tribe. Lovely people they might be, but the harsh reality of the matter is that the one thing they cannot afford is to drag people around who cannot make themselves useful. The one unbreakable law is that you have to pull your weight. Old women can still make clothes. Old men can brew medicine and remember the tales of old that serve as the library for communities that have not developed writing. One cannot live without love, but love in and of itself doesn’t fill empty bellies. Did Carl realise that? Looking at his expression, I’m sure he did.

We put Carl outside on a few seat cushions a few yards away from the Beast, and watched the mine. Wadcroft could have told you exactly how it worked, being a geologist and all that, but all I could see was an endless string of people walking in and out of a large tunnel entrance, dragging baskets or carts filled with the black gold of this age. Andrew came jumping down from the top of the Beast and started off to the line of people dragging out the coal, meaning, no doubt, to take a small sample so he could give a proper estimate for how long it would keep us moving. I followed him and, with a slight push from Carl, so did Alexandra. Klemm walked with us, casually undoing the strap on his revolver. Klemm’s face showed no emotion at all, but his eyes were roving about, noting details of a tactical nature. It should have been comforting to know that he expected any situation to turn into a scrap, and was prepared for us, but to tell you the truth it was bloody unnerving.

As we approached the line of toiling people, a man came out of the mine opening and walked up to us. He introduced himself as Mr. Shamoon, overseer of the mine. Andrew asked if he could have a small sample of coal, and Mr. Shamoon made a grandiose gesture. Andrew took a few coals out of a passing wagon and examined it closely.

“This is good quality coal,” said Andrew. “The grade is between bituminous and anthracite. I would have to measure its caloric output to see how much energy is contained. This is suitable to our purposes, Mr. Shamoon.”

“Of course, Sir,” said Mr Shamoon. “Is very good, highest quality. It burns long and hot. Only the best from Balian-Ibelin.”

At that moment, one of the miners who was pulling a load of coal to the waiting line of carts, stumbled and fell. Mr. Shamoon turned round, a furious expression on his face, and started to shout at the miner. My breath stuck in my throat. This was not a grown man, this was a young girl maybe fourteen years old. She was trying to get back to her feet, but fell down again. Mr. Shamoon pulled back his foot for a kick, then remembered us, changed his mind and turned back to us.

“Forgive me, honoured customers, while I deal with this miserable worker. There will be no delays, you have my word.”

I dropped to my knees next to the girl and looked her over. She was thin, with large, dark eyes staring at me in fear. I smiled at her, but there was no change in the expression on her face. I turned round to give this God-bereft slave driver a piece of my mind, but he was talking to Andrew. Alexandra had turned round and was running back towards the Beast. Klemm stood off to the side a bit, wearing his usual expression of almost bored detachment.

“I must apologise,” said Mr Shamoon. “No matter what we do, we cannot seem to get a good day’s work out of these people.”

“That is in line with expectations,” said Andrew. “One cannot expect a young female to do that kind of work. Her specifications are too low.”

“Oh I assure you, Sir, they can pull their load. All we need to do is give them a good reason.” Mr. Shamoon looked at the girl. “I blame myself for failing to do this.”

“The development of her skeleton is not complete,” said Andrew. “Putting such a load on it is damaging to her future development.”

“Yes, yes Sir. I’ll grant you they do not last as long as the boys. After three, maybe four years of use, the back gives out and then they are only good to keep the men happy. But until then, I assure you, I can get them to do the work they need to do.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder. Alexandra stood next to me holding one of the individually wrapped ship’s biscuits that we use when there is no chance to bake bread. I tore open the package and gave the hard biscuit to the girl. She snatched it out of my hand and made it disappear in mere seconds. Then, she looked up at me for more. Luckily, Alexandra had brought a few packets, all of which were history at the same speed.

“How much coal does this girl transport per day?” There was a tone in Andrew’s voice that I had never heard before.

“Oh, they can easily shift fifty loads per day.”

Andrew looked at the basket, lifted up one end with no more effort than a normal size man would lift a suitcase of clothes. “This is one load?”

“Yes good Sir.”

Andrew closed his eyes for a few moments, calculating. Then, without another word, he took off his shirt and stomped off to the mine entrance. He lifted one of the mine carts out of its tracks, attached a rope, and disappeared inside. A few minutes later, he came out again, covered in black coal dust, dragging a full mine cart of coal behind him. Alexandra and I simply stood and stared. We had always known Andrew was strong. We simply never realised how strong he was. He looked like one of the giants from Norse mythology. Sweat was pouring off him, making streaks in the coal dust that covered his body. Grunting with the effort, he dragged the mine cart over to the Beast and turned it over. He opened a hatch in the side of the Beast, fetched a few shovels and told the soldiers to start loading. The soldiers looked at each other, and set to work as Andrew turned round for another load. For about an hour or so, Andrew kept up his relentless pace, building up a small mountain of coal next to the Beast, the soldiers struggling to keep up with him. We were joined by Alan and Riley.

“What’s he doing?” said Wadcroft. “Surely, they have personnel here to load up our coal for us?”

“They do,” said Alexandra, her face tight. The girl was sitting next to her, forgotten about for the moment in the spectacle.

As we watched, Andrew came out of the mine once more, dumped his load next to the Beast, then returned the mine cart to the rail track. He detached the rope, coiled it up and hung it on the cart. Then he joined us.

“Mr. Shamoon? I have transported as much coal as this girl would have in fourteen hundred days. She no longer needs to be in the mine.”

Andrew turned round and walked over to the Beast to help the soldiers load the last of the coal. Riley sidled up to me.

“You know that girl is gonna be back down in that mine as soon as we show them our tails, do ye?”

“I know,” I said. “Don’t tell him. It’s still a good deed.”

There were a few more financial details to be taken care of, and Wadcroft followed Mr. Qureshi carrying a bundle of cash. Meanwhile, we sat by the Beast and waited for the turbines to come up to speed. Mr. Klemm appeared next to us.

Meine Damen und Herren, we will now put Herr Tennant in the Panzer and make ready to depart. At speed.”

I looked round, and saw that the soldiers, who had been resting from their labours, were now sitting up alert, rifles ready in their arms.

“Something up Klemm?”

“I notice that several armed guards are readying themselves for combat. I also notice that Herr Nazeem has disappeared. This worries me, and I would like to be better prepared for a strategic retreat.”

Riley checked his revolver, then helped Carl to his feet and put him inside. Alexandra disappeared inside and emerged a minute later with her rifle idly hanging on her back on its strap. She looked like she fancied shooting a few people. I looked over to the small office building, and to my relief saw Alan come out, shaking hands with Mr. Qureshi. He started out towards us, when at a gesture from Mr. Qureshi, one of the guards pulled out a kukri, a long, curved knife. Before I could shout out to warn Alan, there was the short, sharp rapport of Alexandra’s rifle, and the knife fell out of the guard’s hand as the bullet pierced his wrist. There was the click of the bolt being pulled back, and then another shot, which hit Mr. Qureshi in the shoulder. Alan looked round, hesitated only a fraction of a second, then set of at a surprising speed for someone his age. Like Mr. Shamoon said, fear of your life is a wonderful motivator. Meanwhile, Andrew ran one ofd the tracks forward, the other back, making the Beast turn on the spot. The guards, seeing what had happened, now opened fire on Alan. There were a few short, sharp orders in German from Klemm, and our soldiers opened up. I saw several of the guards fall, and the rest took to cover.

Einsteigen!” Klemm’s orders left no room for hesitation, and I leapt into the open back hatch of the Beast. My revolver was absolutely useless at that distance, and the best I could do was put myself out of harm’s way. Alexandra followed me, carrying her rifle and Carl’s seat cushions, which she dropped on the floor and rested her rifle on. She quickly fired a few more rounds. Wadcroft must have heard them buzzing by his ears. He leapt for the entrance.

Vorwärts! Slow! Wait for the men to enter!”

With a shock, the Beast set itself in motion. The soldiers one by one got up from their firing position and joined us inside. Guards now came running from the compound towards us. There were rifle shots, loud, inside, and I saw that Carl had grabbed his rifle and was firing out. Alex looked at him accusingly.

“I may be weak, dear sister of mine, but I can still pull a trigger.” Carl grinned at her. She grinned back, and they concentrated on their shooting.

Suddenly, Alexandra looked up, an incredulous look on her face. “It’s Nazeem! He’s following us!”

Riley scowled. “Is he going to wizard at us?”

Alexandra looked back through her rifle scope. “I can drop him.”

Riley grabbed Alan’s binoculars and looked back. “They’re shooting at him! Don’t shoot him. I want to know what he’s got to say for himself. Andrew, slow down.”

Master Nazeem almost didn’t make it. He had a bleeding wound on his head, and one on his shoulder. With the strength of desperation, he hurled himself into the hatch, and despite everything, we quickly pulled him inside.

“All ahead full, Andrew!”

Riley looked down on Nazeem, grinning like a shark. “Why hello there, Master Nazeem. Decided to throw your lot in with us, then? Relations with the bad guys gone sour?”

It took Nazeem a while to recover his breath. “Nazeem was betrayed,” he said.

Riley laughed. “God damned spies. No honour among thieves is there?”

Nazeem said nothing.

“Well stop leaking on our nice clean floor and start talking.”

Next: Loud noises

Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.


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