Extrasensory perception – Song of fire and steel – Local expertise – The jungle by night
There is a hierarchy in the various sciences. The mathematicians look down on the physicists, the physicists look down on the alchemists, the alchemists look down on the biologists, the biologists look down on the anthropologists, and so on. In that hierarchy, hovering slightly above the homoeopaths and the paranormal scientists, is the cryptozoologist. Being the study of the unseen, the unknown, the creatures only hinted at in folk-tales, often told under the influence of a variety of mind-altering substances, it takes a special kind of man to keep up the bloody-minded conviction to keep searching. To ignore the fact that what you are looking for may simply not exist, ignore the disdain of your fellows, live with the accusations of deceit.
I once asked Gerald, simply, “Why?” His answer was: “Well, I found you, didn’t I?”
How can you argue with that?
— Prof. Margaret Enderby, Proving the negative wrong
Boreas shot up like a cork in a bathtub and within seconds it had disappeared in the direction of the first port sufficiently high up to moor at it and take on ballast. I was sitting in the chair next to Andrew as he pushed the levers and the Beast of Algernon set itself in motion. I looked at his face, and saw nothing there. Most people I know would have looked proud to see that their creation did what was expected of it. Not Andrew. He already knew. I think Andrew is the most misunderstood man in the whole of Algernon University. There’s the people who are scared of him because he is large, strong and could… no. A man of his strength could tear them limb from limb. Andrew could no more hurt anyone than he could tear off his own head. There’s the people who think he’s stupid, except for anything to do with machines. It’s true that steel, heat, motion are his natural strengths, but I’ve seen him turn his mind to astronomy with the same uncompromising thorough diligence, and duplicate the work of Alexis Bouvard, who deduced the existence of the planet Neptune from anomalies in the orbits of other planets. There are the people who think he is a machine, mechanic, unfeeling, without emotion, but I’ve seen him work, enthralled, on what can only be described as poetry, set not in words, but in steel. Now and then, he tries to share what he feels, but nobody else shares his language.
It didn’t take us long to find the marker left by Boreas the last time they were here. It was in a grassy clearing in the otherwise dense forest. Wadcroft stalked it like a tiger stalks a deer, and looked round for tracks, clues of where Hammond and his expedition might have gone. Klemm and his Prussian Jäger took up a defensive position on the perimeter. Nazeem strode regally to the centre of the clearing, raised his hands and closed his eyes, chanting the same words over and over again, turning on the spot. Theatrical git. Miss Tennant, energetic girl that she was, trotted here and there, sometimes kneeling to pick something up, look at it, then drop it. I leaned against the Beast and watched the activity. Mr. Riley walked up.
“Howdy Professor. Aren’t you going to join in the search?”
“With so many people already on the job?” I said. “I’d just get in their way.”
Riley laughed. He did have a nice laugh. “Who do you think will find something first?”
“Probably Alan,” I said. “He once told me he’d been taught to read tracks by a Nottingham poacher.”
“Our expedition leader has hidden depths. Still. Five dollars says our turbaned friend Nazeem is gonna be the first one to pipe up.”
“Shouldn’t you be looking with the rest of them? You are our master of acquisition, after all.”
Riley shook his head. “Not my speciality, Professor. Give me a human being, and I’ll tell you what he’s gonna have for lunch next Tuesday. Footprints, broken twigs, bent blades of grass, not so much.”
We were interrupted by Nazeem calling out and pointing. Miss Tennant looked up, ran in the direction Nazeem was pointing and within two minutes found a sign. An empty bag that had contained Oreo cookies, a typically American delicacy that only these days was making its way into civilised places.
“Turns out you’re right,” I said. “How many quid to the buck?”
“Pay me back sometime,” said Riley, shaking his head, and laying on the country bumpkin accent in spades. “Who’d a’ thunk it? You’d almost say he just knew.”
“You still think he’s working for the Enemy? Whoever that is? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to send us into the Sahara?”
“Not yet,” said Riley. “He’s gaining our trust.”
“Now that is your speciality,” I said.
The paper bag, faded and crumpled by the humid winds, was passed from hand to hand. Maps were brought out, lines drawn. Klemm’s soldiers, convinced that nobody was near, were now sent out to search in various directions with Nazeem, Wadcroft, and Miss Tennant. Wadcroft’s party found more signs. A column of two dozen people does not pass through a jungle without leaving trails, even when a month has passed since they were made. The natives tend to leave nothing but footprints, but we colonial bogtrotters can’t seem to walk for ten minutes without dropping something. Bloody untidy if you ask me. Back when Gerald and I were tramping through the forests, we took with us everything that we brought, except maybe for the odd bit of clothing. I wasn’t sad to lose it, but I was sad not to find it back.
With all the tracks properly debated and analysed we went back on board the Beast, and trundled through the beautiful African jungle, no doubt scaring the willies out of the local fauna. Wadcroft was sitting proud on the top deck, armed with his massive Barr and Stroud binoculars. No German rubbish for him. Now and then, he would shout some course correction down the open hatch, and Andrew would turn this way and that.
I would have expected the Beast to be hot, loud and bone-jarring, but in fact the only noise it made was a fairly consistent hiss of steam through the pipes. The turbines made a faint deep whirring noise as they turned and the ride was susprisingly smooth. In the back, some of the soldiers were dozing. Oberst Klemm was sitting by the rear hatch, an almost bored look on his face. Riley was playing cards with two of the soldiers, and apparently on the losing phase meant to lull his opponents into a false sense of security till they felt confident to bet more money. It was hot, though. But there’s always a silver lining. One of the advantages of having a roaring fire underneath you was that there was always boiling water. I’m not sure who put in the specification for a boiling hot water tap, but it was most welcome.
With a sudden jolt, the Beast came to a halt. There were some uncouth words and thumping noises from up top, and then Wadcroft poked his head down the hatch.
“Why have we stopped? Something the matter?”
Andrew didn’t take off the visor connected to the periscope. His lips were moving silently.
He pushed up the visor. “Not enough data.”
Wadcroft gaped. “We’ve run out of data?”
Andrew pointed. “I don’t know the friction coefficient of the slope in front. I cannot tell if the Mk.1 will be able to negotiate that slope.”
I stuck my head out of the top hatch.
“It does look kind of steep, Wadcroft,” I said.
“Oh dear,” said Miss Tennant, looking up from her journal. “Do you want us to get out and push, Andrew?”
Andrew turned round to Miss Tennant. “Twelve humans are not strong enough to push the Mk.1 up the slope,” he said. Anyone else, I would have admired their deadpan delivery.
Riley came poking his head in from behind. “Something the matter?”
Andrew unstrapped himself and got out of the pilot’s chair.
“I will investigate.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said Riley, moving into the pilot’s chair. He looked at the controls. “Which one of these gets us more pressure?”
Andrew pointed. “The valves set the base level. The foot pedals provide momentary extra thrust.”
“Right. And these handles move the tracks, don’t they?”
“Good,” said Riley. He pulled down the visor. “Oh my. This is some pretty fancy optics you have here, Mr. Parsons. Well, here we go. Let’s see what this thing can really do!”
He pushed forward the handles, and the Beast set itself in motion once more. We slowly tilted backwards as the slope became steeper and steeper till the clinometer showed eighty percent. The Beast groaned with the effort, slowed down.
“Come on, you piece of junk!” Riley rammed the handles forward and stamped down on both foot pedals. There was a loud hiss. The tracks slipped and slid, as the Beast crawled up the hill.
“Yeah! Move damn you, or I swear I’ll turn you to scrap!”
After what seemed like one hell of a long time, the Beast reached the top of the hill and toppled forward, causing people in the back to be tossed about with much Teutonic-style swearing. Riley pushed up the visor with a big grin on his face.
“And that’s how you do that, Mr. Parsons. Gotta have a bit of faith in your work.”
I looked at Andrew. He was shaking, and his eyes were almost shooting fire as he glared at Riley.
“Wrong. Wrong, wrong, WRONG!”
“Oh come on, Parsons…”
Andrew bared his teeth. “The handles have a maximum setting! They do not go further forward! The machine has no ears! It cannot hear you when you shout at it! You go in without knowing! No data!”
“Well, it worked didn’t it?”
“Um Mr. Riley,” I said. “I suggest you get out of Andrew’s chair. And don’t get back in it.”
Riley got out, still chuckling to himself with a magnificent disregard for life and limb. He looked at Miss Tennant.
“Oh come on, we got the biggest turbines right under our asses and we can’t run up a little hill? Get outta here!”
Miss Tennant rolled her eyes and went back to writing her journal. Andrew got back in his seat, adjusted some of the controls and pushed the track handles forward to exactly the right position.
“Boys’ toys,” said Miss Tennant.
Wadcroft banged his fist on the top, and Andrew stopped the Beast. Wadcroft’s head appeared in the hatch.
“Some kind of settlement. Tents, people walking round in the altogether, that sort of thing. Want to have a gander at it, Margaret?”
I clambered up top, and looked through Wadcroft’s binoculars. The camp consisted of a dozen or so tents, of the kind that could be pitched or removed within the hour. A few goats were tethered to posts, gnawing on leaves. Goats are really the life-blood of many pre-technological civilisations. They’re the supreme herd animal, hardy, small, and manageable. They’ll eat anything that grows, they give milk, and they taste delicious when prepared by someone who knows what they’re doing.
“Looks like a nomadic people,” I said. “Hunter-gatherers. Don’t see many of the men there, so they’re probably out hunting.”
“Do you think they might have seen Hammond’s lot?”
I considered for a moment, looking through the binoculars. The camp was very orderly. There was one large tent with a few smaller tents round it, made of stakes and covered with leather. There was a common cooking area with a few fires. Animal skins were stretched on frames, strips of meat were hanging from wooden structures to dry. Women were sitting round fires preparing a meal. Men were tending to the fires. Children ran round with boundless energy, laughing, being yelled at by severe looking older women. It looked like a nice place to live.
“They’ve been here for a few months. Getting ready to up sticks in a few days, I’d say. Maybe they have.”
“Do you think we ought to have a word with them?”
Miss Tennant came up through the hatch. “Are we going into that village?”
“I think we are,” I said.
“Alright then,” said Wadcroft. “Ahead slow, Andrew.”
“No!” said Miss Tennant.
“Belay that!” I said.
Wadcroft frowned at this challenge to his authority.
“You don’t roll a large metal beast into a peaceful village, Alan,” I said. “You’ll scare the willies out of everyone. We’ll walk in looking like weary travellers.”
“Right,” said Miss Tennant. She disappeared below to re-appear a moment later with the case of her sniper rifle. I looked at her. She looked up at me.
“Just in case, Professor,” she said.
“Don’t be silly, girl. We have a whole team of soldiers with us. No, you are going in with me for a bit of extra charm.” I grinned at her. “Oh and we’ll all have to be naked or they won’t trust us.”
Miss Tennant only raised an eyebrow, but Alan’s look was priceless.
We did cause a bit of a stir when we walked into the village. The lookouts saw us, but because it was just me, Miss Tennant, Alan and Nazeem, they didn’t think of us as a threat. The Elder walked up to us, and there was some mutual bowing and shaking of hands. None of us, not even Miss Tennant, could make out a word of what they were saying, so we fell back to that most universal of languages – smiling a lot and using your hands and feet. Facial expressions are truly a universal language. A happy Papua will have the same expression as a happy American, Chinaman, Englishman. Blind people who have never seen a smile will smile when they are happy. We can even read the emotions of animals like cats or dogs. It’s just one of those things. I’m pleased to say there were happy faces all round. Alan and Nazeem went with the town elders for some deep discussions and what in these parts is the equivalent of a cold beer.
Miss Tennant and I were whisked off by the women into one of the tents. As soon as we were out of sight, we were helped out of our clothes, poked, prodded, and discussed excitedly. It was decided that the pale colour of our skins did not rub off, and while Miss Tennant had about the same proportions as most of the women in the camp, I was a bit on the heavy side. People pushed cups of steaming herbal tea into our hands, and asked us questions in their language, which we answered in English. I looked at Miss Tennant, but I needn’t have worried. She seemed to take it all in her stride. Our clothes were passed from hand to hand, held up to the firelight and tried on by several of the women. I took off my wedding ring and gave it to one of the women to look at. It passed all round the tent, and then was returned to me. Miss Tennant was carrying a few family photos. They were studied with much interest, until one of the women took a breath, pointing at a picture of Miss Tennant’s brother.
“Kal,” she said. She waved one of the women over and showed her the picture. I watched her closely as she gently, almost reverently, touched the picture with her finger. She looked up at Miss Tennant.
Miss Tennant and the young woman looked into each other’s eyes.
“Yes,” said Miss Tennant. “Carl. My brother.”
The woman slowly reached out and touched Miss Tennant’s face. Miss Tennant pointed at the photos one of the other women was looking at, and got them back. She laid out photos on the floor.
“Mother. Father.” She put the photos down, then took Carl’s photo from the young woman and put it underneath those of her parents. She put her finger on the ground next to Carl’s photo, then pointed at herself.
“Me. Carl is my brother.”
The young woman looked, understood, smiled. Miss Tennant smiled back.
“Kal,” said the young woman, her voice shaking.
At that, everyone started talking at once, and even if they had been speaking the Queen’s English, we could not have understood them. The young woman drew closer to Miss Tennant, took her hand and put it on her own stomach. Miss Tennant’s eyes grew large. The young woman grinned, white teeth shining in her dark face. She nodded happily.
I reached over and poked Miss Tennant’s shoulder.
“You’re going to be an auntie!”
Finally, we got our clothes back, and emerged from the tent. Nazeem was by the fire, performing feats of magic and illusion. The hunters had returned carrying goodness only knows what kind of animal, which they put on the fire and roasted with an incredible smell. Wadcroft walked over to us.
“Been talking to the village bigwig. Capital fellow, excellent brew. Must get the recipe. I saw he had a steel knife. Don’t know if these people have advanced to steel yet, but I very much doubt that the Buck Knives company has set up a franchise here. I think we can safely say that Americans have passed through this place. Hard to say how long ago, though.”
“Oh, somewhere between six weeks and two months, I’d say. One of the young ladies here recognised a photo of Mr. Carl Tennant.”
“And when I see him,” said Miss Tennant, “I’m going to have a few words to say to him.”
We stayed for dinner, slept in a tent with one of the older women of the camp, and the next morning we introduced the villagers to English tea with goat’s milk. We had already learnt from the villagers that Hammond’s expedition had gone thataway. Miss Tennant gave the photo of Carl to her sister in law, hugged her, and then we went on our way, walking in the direction we’d been pointed. Half an hour later, the Beast rolled up behind us, Oberst Klemm sitting in Wadcroft’s position on top.
“Guten Morgen, meine Damen und Herren,” said Klemm. “I assume you have found from the natives where we go next?”
“We have,” said Wadcroft. “We’re going in an Easterly direction. Given that Hammond’s lot were looking for pitchblende, for some reason, I think they might have gone to investigate the mountain range over there. That’s what I would have done.”
We all got on board. The Beast set itself in motion. Alexandra Tennant was sitting with her feet up on the dashboard, looking straight ahead. Andrew was sitting between us, head in the visor, completely focused on driving.
“What’s eating you?”
“That brother of mine.” Alexandra sighed. “Getting some poor girl in trouble. I’d never have thought he would do a thing like that.”
“She’s very attractive,” I said. “He’s not made out of wood and all that.”
“Yeah. I suppose.”
Alexandra fell quiet again for a while. Then, she smiled and looked at me.
“I’ve got family in Africa,” she said. “Some little boy or girl in a camp that moves through the African jungle gets to call me ‘Auntie’. How strange is that?”
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.