No more nonsense – The better part of valour – Outfly the North Wind – The moral high ground – Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear
Of all the things a lady can bring on an expedition, by far the most important is her wits. You can survive without food for a while, without water for a few days, even without any equipment. Leaving your brain at home is a recipe for disaster. Human beings have survived without advanced technology for a longer time than we can imagine. The thing that sets us apart from a sabre-tooth tiger’s lunch is our capacity for rational thought, and our ability to cooperate. A single human against a hungry tiger equals a well-fed tiger. Ten organised humans against a tiger equals a good meal for all, and a nice rug to sleep on.
— Alexandra Tennant, “The young lady’s adventuring guide”
The sky was painted in magnificent colours of red, yellow and purple when we cleared the trees and emerged onto a wide open plain. As the sun was setting, the Beast was rolling on at a considerable speed while we saw to Mr. Nazeem’s wounds. A bullet had glanced his left arm. Margaret cleaned the wound, then wound a bandage round it. His head wound provided a bit of a problem as he hesitated to remove his turban. It took Margaret a little effort to convince him, but finally he unwound it, revealing long black hair with the occasional streak of grey. Probably from worry rather than anything else, as surely Master Nazeem did not do such a mundane thing as age. Margaret didn’t have to do much besides put a bandaid on, and Nazeem solemnly combed out his hair, and as we watched, tied it in a loop on top of his head, then covered it with a black piece of cloth. He carefully re-wrapped his turban, turned round and looked at us. He crossed his arms on his chest and bowed to us.
“Nazeem thanks you, my friends.”
“I ain’t so sure we’re friends,” said Riley. “As I see it, you were setting the dogs on us, and then your friends in the mine felt you had outlived your usefulness. You led us here, you bastard. Did you tell those cotton-pickin’ coal diggers to slaughter us?”
Nazeem shook his head, wincing. “I did no such thing. It is true that I had to come here, but it was not to do you harm.”
Riley waved his hand in a keep talking kind of way.
“It is the Malevolence I spoke of,” said Nazeem. “The Order of Cross and Moon wants it buried, all knowledge of it forgotten. It is an abomination of Nature.”
“Dammit, Nazeem. Prof Enderby just patched you up. If I knew you were going to spout more of that mumbo jumbo I’d have told her to hold off so she could bandage up all the bullet holes in one go. Stop pissing about. Who are you working for?”
“The Order is real,” said Nazeem. “I am one of its servants. It was my task to bury this latest manifestation of evil, so that none of it could ever be found. The unworthy creatures at the Balian-Ibelin Mining Company were to find the camp of Hammond’s expedition and utterly destroy it, then demolish the entrance to the cave.”
“And then get rid of all the witnesses?”
“No. There is no need for that. You will never find back the cave that should never have been opened. The sample you have taken will lose its potency in only a few months, and then it will be useless. We have encountered this evil before.”
“So what went wrong?”
“The dogs of Balian-Ibelin did not heed the command of the Order of Cross and Moon. Greed had awakened in their hearts, and they wanted to mine these minerals, to harness the power.” Nazeem’s eyes turned dark. “Harness it! A manifestation of purest evil! Intent on destroying all living things! It is an aberration.”
“Yeah, yeah. Bad ju-ju. I get it. Now give me a reason why we shouldn’t just kick you out of the hatch.”
Nazeem closed his eyes. “Nazeem has none. He can only implore your forgiveness and mercy.”
I noticed that Nazeem had gone back to speaking of himself in the third person. What did that signify? Was he speaking the truth before, and did he now feel confident to return to his mystical fakir persona? Was it a deliberate subterfuge to make us think that? There really was no way to tell.
“Okay then. Open the back, Mr. Parsons.”
Andrew, to whom sarcasm and irony were strange and alien things, opened the back hatch.
Wadcroft waved a hand. “That’ll do, Riley. Throwing Mr. Nazeem out here is tantamount to murder, as sure as pulling a trigger.”
Riley grinned. “I can do that too, if you like.”
“Oh do shut up, Riley,” said Wadcroft. “Nazeem? Will these people follow us?”
“It is their wish to keep the forbidden knowledge to themselves. They will take… measures to ensure this.”
“Do they have anything at that mine that could outrun us?”
“They have fast horses,” said Nazeem. “And they have a store of weapons. Rifles. Beyond that, Nazeem does not know.”
“Excuse me,” said Carl. He had been looking out of the open back hatch while this was going on. “I think we have, as the saying goes, company.”
I leapt to the rear of the Beast, and aimed my rifle out. In the scope, I could see a team of eight horses drawing some kind of cart. The next moment, Prof. Wadcroft was next to me, looking back through his binoculars.
“If the blighters want to catch us, why would they drag a bloody cart along?”
I adjusted the magnification on my scope, and looked again. I couldn’t quite understand what kind of cart it was. It was fairly large, with some kind of wooden lifting apparatus on top, much like a mast. Perhaps it was a lifting crane of some description, but it looked strange to me. The one thing I could understand, though, was the machine gun that was on it.
“They’ve got some significant artillery there, Professor,” I said.
“Artillerie?” Klemm pushed Wadcroft aside and snatched his binoculars away from him. He peered at our pursuers, then looked at me wearily. “Fräulein Tennant, that is a Maschinengewehr, not a cannon.”
“Looks a bit silly to me anyway,” said Wadcroft. “The way it is set in the cart, they can’t use it without shooting their horses.”
At that moment, the cart, or whatever it was, cleared the trees. I could see men, their brown torsos bare, starting to pull on ropes. The mast rose up, and a sail was raised. The wind filled it, and moments later, men jumped onto the backs of the horses drawing the cart. The cables fell away, and the cart that we now realised was a land yaught, picked up speed, easily overtaking the horses. I took a closer look through my scope.
“They are gaining on us!”
“Verdammt noch mal,” said Klemm. Whatever else he was going to say was lost in the noise of the machine gun on the land yaught opening up, and the buzz of bullets. At that distance, and on a moving vehicle, the chance of hitting us was remote, but they compensated for that by having many bullets to fire.
I tried to draw a bead on the land yaught, but movement was too much for me to be sure of even hitting it. Any of the soldiers would have had as good a chance, and I am a surgeon, not a blunt instrument. Klemm seemed to have come to the same conclusion, and ordered the soldiers to return fire. I couldn’t see if they were scoring any hits.
“Klemm, I need to be on the ground if I’m going to have any effect.”
“Ausgeschlossen,” said Klemm. “We need to escape, and our hope is in speed. If we let you out of the Panzer, then we will not be able to pick you up.”
I looked through my scope again. “Twelve hundred meters,” I said. “Open to suggestions.”
At that moment, a lucky shot buzzed through the open hatch and struck the roof. There was some swearing in German and American. Klemm shouted. “Parsons! Close the hatch!”
The hydraulics hissed, and the heavy back hatch rose up. The bolts closed, and we were safe. Several more bullets hit the Beast, but none penetrated. Klemm moved over to the front hatch, and looked back through the binoculars, ignoring the bullets flying round his head.
“Eleven hundred and sixty meters,” he said. “They are gaining on us uncomfortably fast.”
“They will have reached us in seventeen minutes,” said Andrew. “Can we not simply discuss the matter with them?”
I could see Klemm looking down with a big grin on his face. “Regrettably, mein Junge, they appear to be bent on destroying us.”
“Why would they want to do that?”
“A good question but not, at this moment, the most important one.”
“Turn to port,” said Wadcroft.
“It’s a bloody sail boat on wheels. We turn into the wind, and the sail boat stops.”
“Good idea,” said Klemm. “Please turn North, Herr Parsons.”
With a flick of the controls, the Beast turned, and was now steadily running uphill. A thousand meters back, the land yaught noticed, and changed its course accordingly. I saw them adjust their sails. Because of the angle, they wouldn’t come to a complete stop just yet, and they could always tack, but they were undeniably slowing down. The sun slowly sank below the horizon, and night fell. Andrew turned on the headlights and the Beast ran on, away from its pursuers. Klemm announced that we were now gaining on the land yaught, gave a satisfied nod and climbed down. He patted Andrew’s shoulder.
“Well done. Weiterfahren.”
“Yes, Mr. Klemm,” said Andrew.
The people on the land yaught had now given up shooting at us. They were having to run along at an angle to our direction, making tacks left and right like a dinghy on the river Orwell. They could not aim their machine gun at us from that angle. Margaret poked her head through the hatch, and looked back. The bright moonlight shone on her face. She sneered.
“Why won’t the silly arses give up?” she said. “They know they can’t catch us like that.”
“Maybe they’re hoping we’ll run out of coal,” said Riley. “We must be burning through it like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Our bunker is three-quarters full,” said Andrew. “I estimate we can keep going for five days, unless we must keep up our current speed. That would reduce the time to…”
Without any warning, Andrew hit the brakes as though he’d thrown out an anchor. Several of us were thrown forward and we landed in a big heap of bodies. Margaret, as luck would have it, landed right on top of me, knocking all the wind out of me. I quickly looked round to Carl, but he had been in one of the bunks, and had not been thrown about as much as the rest of us.
“Andrew!” Wadcroft bristled. “What is the meaning of this?”
“We have come to the end of the hill, Professor,” said Andrew. “The drop is too steep for the Mk.1 to negotiate.”
Klemm spoke up. “Turn around! Open the hatch! Jäger! Aussteigen!”
The land yaught dropped its sail, and rolled out its speed some seven hundred yards away from us. It immediately started firing again.
“Bastards!” Margaret bristled. “Shooting at us from half a mile away. Let them come here and try that.”
“This is suppressive fire,” said Klemm. “We can be certain that there will be other infantry heading for us. They are merely keeping us from moving. Or so they think. My Jäger are made of sterner stuff!”
I dared to poke my head up outside the hatch. Bullets hissed through the air, sometimes hitting the Beast with a musical ‘ping’ and the sound of fragments falling.
“Klemm? Want me to take out the machine gunner? I’ve got half a mile of range on them.”
“Excellent idea,” said Klemm. “Möller? Take Miss Tennant out some five hundred meters and spot for her.”
Möller grabbed the spotting scope, and we crawled away on our bellies. A hundred yards further on, we could get to our feet and run, bent down low, flitting from shrub to shrub. Looking back, we could see the Jäger and Klemm firing on the approaching miners.
“Hurry up, Miss,” said Möller. “I suspect they will have explosives. They can easily blow up the Panzer.”
We ran on for a few more hundred meters, until I had a clean shot. I lay down and propped my rifle on my ammunition belt. Möller sat down behind me and raised his spotting scope, adjusting focus, distance.
“The man at the machine gun,” said Möller. “Range, eight hundred and twenty five meters. Crosswind eight point three meters per second North.”
I aimed, adjusted according to Möller’s directions, pulled the trigger. The machine gunner’s head blew up in a spray of blood and the machine gun stopped abruptly.
“Well done,” said Möller. “His assistant. Same distance. Wind increased to nine point one.”
My next shot hit the machine gunner’s assistant in the neck. Had we been shooting at paper targets, I might have enjoyed this. It is always a pleasure to work with someone who knows what he is doing. The miners saw what happened to their friends, and hit the ground. This is the reason why snipers are so effective. In a normal firefight, maybe one in a hundred, if not a thousand bullets finds a mark. A sniper would hand in her rifle if she missed more than once in a hundred shots, except maybe at extreme ranges. The knowledge that anyone can die instantly if he shows himself, can completely paralyse a whole company of soldiers. At Möller’s directions, I put a few rounds into the machine gun itself. I could hear Möller move round quickly.
“A lighter! Two o’clock, range eight hundred and five, head wind seven point five.”
I turned, adjusted my scope as quickly as I could. In a splintered second, I saw a man light the fuse on a stick of dynamite and pull back his arm to throw. I pulled the trigger and hit him centre mass. I saw him try to throw the dynamite away, but he only managed a few feet or so. I closed my eyes for the explosion so as not to spoil my night vision. The explosion thundered through the night, and I had to take a few deep breaths to control myself.
“Excellent,” said Möller. “No need to bury him. Time to move before they see where we come from.”
I grabbed my ammo belt and we ran. Out between the Beast and the land yaught, I could see men crawling over the ground, heading for the Beast, no doubt armed with more sticks of dynamite. I dropped down on the ground, propping my rifle on my knee. I don’t like that position as much as lying down, because of the added movement, but at that range it made no difference. At that moment, the Beast turned on the large search light on top and began sweeping the area ahead. Klemm’s Jäger quickly took out two of the advancing miners. I hit another. Möller put his hand on my shoulder.
“Good shooting, Fräulein.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Last time was a bit of an own goal.” I turned my eyes to Möller. “I’m very sorry for that one.”
Möller sniffed. “You mean Meiwes? That Sitzpinkler? I would have shot him in the leg. The Schweinhund abandoned his post. If the cannibals had attacked us, we would never have known before they were eating us.” Möller looked at me. “He was new. He was no true Jäger. Oberst Klemm brought him as a last chance for him to show his worth. He failed. We do not have room in our fighting force for people who are ruled by their Schwanz. This…” Möller waved a hand at the Beast, the attacking miners, everything. “This is almost a pleasure stroll. We have conquered cities, and wiped places off the face of the Earth.”
“Not just the six of you, though?”
“There are twenty seven Jäger, not including the Oberst. We have lost nine, not counting Meiwes. No more are needed. We should return to the Panzer.”
We ran back to the Beast, and Möller gave a small whistle to let them know not to shoot at us. Klemm gave him a nod.
“Machine gunner and assistant dead, machine gun kaput.”
“Gut.” Klemm sneered the way only Prussian officers can. “I am sorry to say they have reinforcements. They are trying to blow up our Panzer with dynamite. Prevent them from doing so.”
“Jawohl,” said Möller, and joined his comrades.
I looked round. More of the miners had arrived on horseback, and were shooting at us. Both of our headlights and the search light had been shot out, and the moon was the only light there. I ran into the Beast, dragged my trunk out onto the back hatch and stood on it, which raised my head just enough above the Beast for shooting. Möller might be confident in his abilities, but we were still stuck between a field full of hostile fighters with enough firepower to blow us up, and a sheer drop behind us. I managed to take out two more miners, and then the ground was rocked by an enormous explosion. Dirt rained down upon us.
“Granatwerfer!” Klemm’s voice sounded loud and steady.
I looked round, trying to find where this new threat was coming from. A mortar would have no trouble destroying us, and a competent team would need only a few shots to hit us. I looked round to see Möller had appeared next to me like a ghost. He pointed.
“That is where they come from. Two thousand meters. Do you feel up to a challenge?”
I set my scope for infinite distance, to the greatest magnification. To my eye, they were smaller than breadcrumbs. Möller whispered in my ear.
“Two thousand and five. Wind four meters per second, north-west. Elevation minus twenty meters. Fire at will.”
I steadied my breath, breathed in, slowly breathed out while lowering my rifle. A fraction of a second after the shot fell, I knew I would not hit the target I was aiming for. I reloaded.
“Five meters short,” said Möller. “Wind increased to five point two.”
I adjusted again, aimed for one of the men two thousand meters away, trying to ignore what they were doing. My bullet travelled the distance in a few heartbeats, and I saw one of the men fall over, clutching his leg.
“Well done! Wind six point seven.”
I fired three more shots, two hits, one miss, none lethal. Then, another explosion rocked the Beast. It was uncomfortably close by, and it came from a different direction. Klemm shouted.
“Everybody on board! There are too many of them. We will force our way through!”
“Oh Mother of God…” Riley came running round the Beast, looking unhurt.
Margaret was already inside, with Carl. Wadcroft came round, followed by Nazeem. I heard the angry buzz of a rifle bullet, and Nazeem quickly turned round, reached out and cried out. As he passed me, he dropped a small hot object in my hand. I stared at it. It was a bullet. There were more explosions round the Beast. Running straight at our adversaries was an act of desperation. Nobody said it. Everyone knew. I don’t know if any of us was particularly brave. We were all putting off the thought that we were going to die to the very last moment. Andrew pushed both handles forward with the same calm he had always displayed, and the Beast set itself in motion, steam whistle roaring, tracks eating up the ground. Klemm ordered his soldiers and anyone who could shoot to take up stations by the half open hatch. At that point, there was another mortar round, and the Beast jumped up and slammed down again. It lurched to the right.
“There is a defect to the right track,” said Andrew. “We cannot move forward.”
His words were lost in another explosion. Then, incredibly, unexpectedly, without any warning, the night was turned to a bright white place. Behind us, the massive bulk of the airship Boreas rose above the precipice, bright gas lights ablaze, cannons firing, steam engines pounding as it made for height. It started to rain down hate and discontent upon the miners.
“I didn’t know Boreas was armed,” I shouted.
Riley laughed out loud. “Well, now you do.”
“About time the bloody Yanks showed up,” said Wadcroft.
“We got this thing in the States called the Mason-Dixon line,” said Riley. “I happen to know that Captain Gaskin’s cradle stood in Arkansas. He’s a goddamn Reb. If I told my granddad I was happy to see him, he’d shoot me.”
“They’re all Gringos,” I said.
“Didn’t know you were Mexican, Miss Tennant.”
I gave Riley a vague smile. “I knew someone who was.”
“But not in the Biblical sense,” said Carl.
“What do you know?” I said.
For safety’s sake, we stayed in the Beast while Boreas drove off the miners who had attacked us. We were all looking round with that dazed look in our eyes that meant that we were happy, and a bit surprised, to be alive. Andrew walked out, took a look at his poor mangled track, and pulled out his toolbox. The air rang with the sound of his hammer. Klemm and the Jäger patrolled round us, guarding against any resumption of hostilities. Apart from Andrew banging on bits of metal, all was quiet, all was still.
The airship returned, hovering over us. It lowered its cables, we attached them to the Beast, and then we were winched up into the air. We all walked down the gangplank, and went to the forward observation lounge. I looked down as Africa fell away below us. Was this the end of all of our adventures? There were so many questions left unanswered. We still didn’t quite know who wanted us dead. We still didn’t know who that poor bastard was who had fallen to his death on our way to Egypt. We still didn’t know the first thing about the mysterious ore that had killed all of Hammond’s expedition. I felt a hand on my shoulder. Carl was standing next to me, looking down on the beautiful African jungle as I was. I said nothing, just looked ahead. We’d find the answers. We’re explorers. It’s what we do.
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.