A DARKER CONTINENT
A journey of exploration into the heart of new
darkness, into the lost dark continent of Europe…
When this story was originally published – in ‘Sfinx’ magazine
alongside work by Ian Watson, it was necessary to stay within
word-length limits, which meant that little more than the first third
of the story appeared. But this full version was always the intention.
‘…THE HEART OF NEW DARKNESS’
The propeller gnawing the water into foam. White wakes cleaving from the bows. And above him, a dirty sky roiled with cloud, the reflection of cloud dulling the sea to a sympathetic grey. Marley Mchenga stood up slowly, acutely conscious that he was the only idle hand on the small craft. With ten ill-kempt crewmen ignoring the incongruous red-robed figure in their midst, a sensation Mchenga found disconcerting. Of course, it was irrational to take white deference for granted, especially here, nevertheless he found its absence oddly troubling. He paced the length of the deck to where the prows aimed a machine-gun into the future. He wondered vaguely why the antique, but obviously functional weapon was mounted there. But wasted little time on such speculation. That was neither his business, nor his way. His enforced reliance upon Breuning was temporary. And would be dispensed with at the earliest possible opportunity. Involvement beyond what was strictly necessary was to be discouraged. Instead, he strained to catch a first glimpse of the far shore, for the realisation of his destiny.
A slow drizzle was commencing from the leaden sky. For a moment he watched it pock-mark the sea.
The African had been allocated the below-decks stern cabin. He decided that, if nothing else, it would provide a refuge of solitude, and shelter from the on-coming rain. A few strides took him across the swaying deck to the stairwell. The yacht was old, yet well-preserved. Its wooden rungs worn by an untold number of feet. He descended, glad of the twilight. The cabin was barely large enough to qualify as a closet, poorly-lit and non-too clean. But its emptiness pleased him. For almost an hour he lay on the low bunk relaxing.
The motor stopped. At first he couldn’t pinpoint the meaning of the sudden silence. The motion of the floor beneath his feet intimated loss of speed. He waited. The raw alcohol they used for fuel was unreliable. Perhaps it had stalled? There were books and charts crammed into a wall-unit. He examined them closely, poring over the smell of moist wooden shelving mixed with the musk of antique binding. The books were old. Their like had not been produced in Europe for at least a century. Because of that they were of interest. Each contoured spread of coastline that no longer conformed to current satellite imaging, vanished road systems showing like clear veins across the land. Towns that no longer existed labelled in unfamiliar script. Some considerable time later, it seemed, he was conscious of the motor resuming. He wondered vaguely at the reason behind the delay, then resumed his reading. There were population-statistics that seemed ludicrously exaggerated, and… again the motor died, to resume just over half an hour later. Mchenga stood up uncertainly. Strode to the door, eased the catch back. Then returned to the bunk where he continued his study.
When it died a third time he crossed to the gangway without a second’s hesitation. The air was sharp as he emerged onto the deck. Dusk was falling. It took him a moment to readjust perspective. Thin drizzles of rain were drifting like smoke. It blurred the sea-scape to a vignette of eye-fooling shadows. Sheening the yacht with silver edges of moisture hung with gathering droplets. There was a strip of grey land sloping down into the sea. It lay perhaps two miles to his right. Is that starboard? The realisation that he was viewing an almost legendary country intrigued him. But he had no further time for thought. There was confusing activity around him alerting his unconscious reflexes. Ineke Breuning stood gazing out to sea. His tall shadow pointed accusingly across the glistening deck towards the emerging African, dancing with rain. The Breton was signalling lazily with his arms. Behind him and scattered about the twilight deck a number of other crewmen crouched concealed. They cradled pistols, even two machine-guns. They were hunched against the damp, with expressions that had taken on an intense fixed quality. The prow-mounted machine-gun was shrouded with tarpaulin, behind which two further crewmen were concealed.
The African glanced in the direction of their attention. Through the drifting mist he could discern the skeletal shape of an oil-rig. And through its gaunt grid a ship was approaching them through the drifting drizzle. A foreign vessel, larger but more unwieldy than Breuning’s craft. It flew the standard of one of the Scandinavian Soviets. Mchenga was not sure which. It was signalling with a complicated system of hand flags to which Breuning was replying. Mchenga realised instantly, with sudden dread, what he was witnessing. The vessel moving through the metallic cobweb was keeping a rendezvous. But Breuning’s was not the craft it was expecting to meet. It was moving blindly into an ambush…
The thirty-strong ‘Geographical Society’ expedition had left the Pan-African Commonwealth, with its procedure well laid out, each step meticulously pre-planned. Marley Mchenga could recall details of each discussion, each briefing in the vast Uniplex of Jo’berg, the cultured heart of world civilisation. He’d been born with a sense of destiny. Of purpose. This was the moment that would lead to its realisation. Although he’d begun miles from the Campus in a small township that lived by gouging iron ire from infertile ground, he knew he was fated for greater things. His academic abilities had become apparent at the community school, where he’d been able to work methodically through every book in the library. His subsequent transfer from township to the heady intellectualism of the city-sized university had meant a substantial re-evaluation of his status. From protégé he’d become one in many. Self-conscious of his regional accent, the stigma of being uppity small-town combined with his own natural reserve to make it difficult for him to mix. But it was a defining period for him, negatives can be reversed into positives, he ploughed his energies into study instead, using the experience to develop his sense of independence into a wilful self-reliance. He was always self-contained, solitary, at ease with him himself.
Until Maombi. Ah, Maombi. He’d been uncertain. She was persistent. She had broken through his reserve and laid waste to it. Such an intoxicating mix of charged emotions, erotic intrigue, and a whirr of new ideas. She’d introduced him to a small extreme right-wing group led by tall dark-skinned Amiri Mwantulujali, from the Rehobother tribe. A cell of men who carried themselves - and even wore their clothes, with the peculiar arrogance that came from perfect confidence in every phase of their being. An assurance that the world turned beneath their well-shod feet, only at their whim. And women, each one intimidatingly intelligent and beautiful in their own exotic way with light and musical voices, sharing a patina of perfection that seemed to dwell in every line of their incredibly flawless forms. He infused his enthusiasm into the group. ‘We are the golden people’ Maombi’d say, ‘we carry the superior genetic legacy, our direct link with destiny.’ ‘No’ he affectionately chided, ‘we are the golden people because we create our own destiny through the power of will. We are what we create.’ Their dialogue usually blurred into a storm of embraces, and stayed unresolved. Until eventually she moved on, to a new liaison with Amiri, leaving such a painful sense of betrayal. Exclusivity, she said, was restricting.
But his acceptance by the circle allowed him a theoretical platform on which to rebuild his personal esteem, and his instinctive sense of superiority had now found a dogmatic basis. He took care to exercise regularly, to live by Spartan frugality, to prove himself in every sphere of endeavour at every opportunity. But her equation kept playing around his mind. She came from privilege, her Zulu bloodline traced back centuries. She bore aristocracy in her genes, carrying herself with natural feline grace, every fine contour of her Nefertiti profile told you so, it was natural she would think the way she did. While he had fought his way out of relative poverty by the power of his will, his intelligence, and his ambition. That too, was a life-experience that would naturally shape your self-image. Yet they’d both arrived at the same place. Both views could not be equally valid. One must be more true than the other. He’d begun researching into the theory of genetic and environmental determinism, casually at first, then with greater focus, which is where he’d first learned about the ‘Last Equation’. His initial involvement in the proposed expedition to locate the great experiment had brought him an added attention he greatly enjoyed. Here was a chance to realise his potential. Although disdainful of the ‘limited perspective’ of many of his Professors he attended their lectures, worked unswervingly towards the goal of attaining a place in the final selection. Until his eventual nomination was by then a foregone conclusion, alongside Solomon Olwali a tall rangy Bantu, and Nimrod Kakaovelder an academic Lugbara tribesman. That Maombi was also chosen to be part of the team added a certain frisson. As was Amiri, her ‘new liaison’. She was still with him. So much for the ‘restrictions of exclusivity’. Mchenga attended the final briefing with carefully cultivated cynicism to prove once and for all his ability, not only to equal, but to lead…
The sound of darkness is a moist slap-lapping, its smell is of salt, stale weed and wetness. He closed his eyes. Time muffled into suspension as he speed-edited his retinal-log. The events of the last twenty-four hours compressed into a matter of moments before beaming them up. Bouncing them from satellite across hemisphere back to the Uniplex. They mustn’t miss a moment of this. Already it was too late for the Scandinavian ship to change course. The African was petrified to inactivity. Empty with helplessness. An urge to intervene, a moral imperative to halt the unfolding tragedy. But he was alone. They were many. And the imperative of his mission overrode all temporary distractions.
Then the guns mouthed their anger. Sharp detonations in his head. The glare sudden and contrasting across the sodden reflecting deck. The man waving the signal-flags on the foreign bridge fell. Two more figures vanished with cries that carried easily across the narrow strait of water muffled to misty incoherence. The vessel plunged on through the breath of rain-infiltrated dusk. For long moments the tableau held. The hunched attackers training weapons on the prey. The mounted machine-gun, uncovered now, surveying the oncoming vessel. What was the Scandinavian ship doing rendezvousing so many miles from trade routes anyway? So near the forbidden coast? Mchenga decided that it – too, must be operating outside the law. Smuggling perhaps? The suggestion that they must also be outlaws relieved him of some degree of responsibility. What they did to each other was no concern of his. He watched the developments with detachment, squatting within the stairwell out of the cold.
The rhythm of the foreign engines beyond the rain changed. Slowing, attempting to alter course away from their attackers. With a few gouts of answering flame, followed a second later by the sound of gun-shot. Breuning’s vessel thrummed into renewed life, trembling, glistening forward, coasting towards its victim on an intercept course. The raking fire continued back and forth without further apparent casualty, illuminating the evening with explosions of orange flame. Despite its greater size the alien ship was obviously outgunned and outmanned. Once it came to close quarters Breuning would have little trouble securing his devious objective. To Mchenga, of course it was wrong to make sweeping generalisations about peoples, but in these pale ghost-men of this benighted clime, it wasn’t difficult to trace elements of the aggressive tendencies that had brought their continent low. Something predatory that feeds off the flesh and blood of others. It was in their eyes. In their lethal cunning. These were not creatures to be trusted. It’s hateful to be dependent on such people, but without them he’d be denied his destiny. Already progress was faltering. This delay was intolerable.
The combatants skilfully manoeuvred in a slow-motion ballet of blind shadows moving within a shrinking bubble of solidifying dusk. The formless universe beyond expunged by drizzle. Even the shape of the oil-rig was eclipsed to a ghost structure. Long minutes had already passed since the initial engagement, and still no sure conclusion was in sight. Random shots were exchanged as the alien attempted to edge her prow towards the open sea. As the attackers closed in relentlessly, preparing to board its sodden decks. Then the balance swung dramatically. With the sound of some impending apocalypse two brilliant lights lifted-off from the Scandinavian deck to slow-climb into the sky, accompanied by renewed volleys of crimson fire sending the Bretons crouching for cover. At the same instant a hail of automatic fire sprayed from the sky. Crashing into the deck with a deafening fury, sending crashing woodchips, moisture and glass exploding in long wounds across the ship. Two of Breuning’s men screamed through the rain.
Return fire was confused, uncertain of its target. Mchenga crouched back instinctively, rainwater dribbling over the lip of the stairwell snaking across his robes. African eyes searched sullen sky, focusing on the hovering Scandinavian lights beyond the pall of dusk. A renewed swathe of fire ripped the yacht’s deck, and as he grew accustomed to suggestions of phantom shapes against the sky he could separate ripples of skin and bone, with limbs attached. The lights were backpack exhausts. And there were the bodies of men against the lights. He realised what he was seeing were VAV’s – Vertical Ascent Vehicles, highly-mobile one-man jump units, powered by small jet motors. The kind developed during the great Asian war for aerial reconnaissance over difficult terrain. With the stalemated cessation of the war - caused by more urgent global crises, the steady influx of military surplus hardware had backwashed into the civilian hands of devolved rogue states.
The unexpected development was devastatingly effective. The distracting fire threw the Bretons onto the hurried defensive. The Scandinavian ship was momentarily forgotten as a third crewman succumbed to the lethal hail from the sky, pitching forward onto the glistening deck in a pool of his own brain-matter. Hesitantly fire was returned. Then with greater accuracy and concentration. The exhaust-lights provided small, moving, but clear targets beyond the rain. One of them visibly lurched and fell. The injured flier regained altitude, but arrowed in towards its rapidly retreating mothership. A hail of Breton fire caused it to veer. Again the stricken flier altered course. As drifting banks of drizzle partially obscured his intent he sped out through the skeleton gantry of the oil-rig, across the expanse of pock-marked sea towards the distant sloping hills of the grey shore. As Mchenga watched the light disappear into the night, fire was concentrated on the remaining sky-attacker. Swathes of automatic fire continued to strafe Breuning’s craft, but more defensively now. Eventually there was a blinding crimson explosion that illuminated everything for a frozen instant of fire, the deck was bright ochre. Then the light was no more…
‘Although it’s true,’ the lecturer conceded, ‘that our culture has absorbed certain elements from the vanished European heritage, this expedition is not, and should never be regarded as one of sentiment.’ Marley Mchenga smiled knowingly as the Professor continued. Outside the theatre-dome the hot African sun burned. ‘Africa is where human life began. As it spread and diversified east and north it became more estranged from what is most vital and true about the nurturing heart-pulse of the home-continent. In colder and more inhospitable climes its values and moral centres became skewed. We know that. That is a matter of historical record. Whereas technology must work with the rhythms of the world, they used technology to subdue the world. It was their hubris, and it provoked nemesis. The world was a more powerful adversary. As knowledge receded and as wisdom regressed north of the equator, here – after the brief interruption of imposed political divisions, the ancient tribal nations re-emerged and strengthened within the unifying Pan-African Congress. But it would be negligently blind of our ascendant culture not to attempt to salvage and learn something from their eclipsed arts and sciences. And perhaps discover more conclusively the nature of their collapse, so that such an occurrence may be averted in the future millennia of our own civilisation. Perhaps of greatest importance is the final, most perversely ambitious manifestation of the European intellectual tradition – the ‘Last Equation’, conducted at the most northerly extremes of the subcontinent. To discover if it remains intact, if it’s still active, if and why it failed, and what it discovered of importance.’
Mchenga smirked complacently. A volatile mix of pride and insecurity illuminating everything about him. He knew all of that, and more. He knew of the past. Its wars, pogroms, and exterminations. The long nightmare of discordant noise from which the world had finally woken, and moved on. Indeed, he probably knew more about the subject than the lecturer ever did. But this was to be his moment. The realisation of his destiny. Nothing would stand it his way, not even the pathetic mewlings of inept academics.
The expedition crossed the strategic barrier of the Sahara in a climate-controlled cat-track Trekker-train, then by steamship via Lampedusa to the cordon-outpost of Sicily, a heavily fortified barrier to repel illegals from the north. There they learned the latest updates. The southern region of the Italian peninsula was divided into a loose network of mutually antagonistic communes linked only by economic necessity. For centuries the Ten Family ‘Signore’ which ruled the industrial complexes had enforced political and economic stability by exporting munitions to both sides during the great Asian war. Until the end of the conflict hastened the implosion of what social infrastructure remained. Some of the complexes had been replaced by Proudhonesque Syndicalism, and switched to trading south, to the stable continent-wide Pan-African Commonwealth, others retained the blood-feud tradition of the Families and fought each other in never-ending wars of attrition…
--- 0 ---
‘THE GHOST OF ELECTRICITY…’
Mchenga’s eyes took in the tiny Breton port, absorbing it all through a sleepy heat-shimmer. The pale sun simultaneously lighting the drab houses, and deepening the dark sea. Gull cries washed over the tall, out-of-context figure, as he arrogantly watched the pebble beach tussling with the tide. Watched the waves roil around the bows of tethered fishing boats that were awash with sail. Watching the tide boil foaming wavelets along the seaweed infestation along the harbour-wall. Wavelets that echoed across the quayside that was hairy with ship’s masts. The expanse of centuries-old houses at either end of the town were long-uninhabited and decaying, with a feel of impermanence, as though they were glitched in the act of forgetfully fading back into trackless countryside, retaining only the most tenuous grasp on reality. Life clung on nonchalantly, half-heartedly, only in a village-centre where cargoes of fish were landed and packed for carriage inland to those still able to barter for them.
He could see it all in one glance without even turning his head. Conscious of sounds tripping drunkenly across the empty street before him. Monotonous atonal music – insipid, lacking the strength and certainties of African rhythms. His eyes tracked the colourless music to its source, to the unpainted tavern doorway from which it was eking in plaintive cycles. Then his eyes returned to their contemplation of the sea. Marley Mchenga was reluctant to approach the uninviting hostelry, but knew he must, inside he hoped to discover the means of crossing that short stretch of sea. To fulfil the quest that had already taken him so long. There was some elation, knowing that the far coast, beyond the horizon, was so tantalisingly close now.
He turned pensively, feeling his strangeness. The familiar nervousness of a new place. He was in another’s land. His flowing crimson robe made a vivid startle of primary colour among the sleeping tertiaries and dirty secondaries of the coastal enclave. The chipped violet, cobalt, lemon and ultramarine giving off fleeting flickers of light. The slight hint of reticence betrayed Mchenga’s momentary uncertainty, but it was well masked by an external superiority that even he found hard to penetrate. The air of authority he assumed as his natural right.
He breathed heavily. Turned towards the tavern. His feet pacing the narrow overgrown cobbles towards the door. His sandals were not intended for use on grass-tufted Breton sea-fronts. Yet they were part of the regalia of his race. He wore them accordingly without consideration for comfort. The door admitted him reluctantly. Suspect smoke was lacerated by dim lights, punctuated by the eternally cyclic music. Men formed clusters of drab colour around the bar. Couples drifted through the haze of conversation in high crows of swarming laughter, hallucinogenic fumes and music. Mchenga’s eyes stung and glistened for a moment. The irritatingly sweet smoke found his nostrils. His throat was dry. He suppressed a sneeze. With a vivid rush of nostalgia he realised that it had been over a year since he’d last tasted coffee. Not since his arrival on this northern sub-continent. For coffee to have reached such a northerly point it would have had to have been imported from Africa. It would have had to have followed the twisted and eventful journey taken by his expedition across the decaying landmass. Such a venture would have been as physically impossible as it would have been economically pointless. The alternative cheap local wine or herbal tea did not excite him.
His eyes stabbed the haze questingly. Settled upon a group clustered about a corner table beneath a political poster in French that was outdated by a century. No-one seemed to notice the bizarre juxtaposition of the red-robed figure. There was an irritating aroma of stale sweat.
‘Ineke Breuning?’ he demanded. The eventual affirmative reply was a space between long silences.
‘I was told you could be of service to me.’ Mchenga spoke with deliberate care. As though unfamiliar with the language. Although, apart from inflection and dialect, he’d spoken it all his life.
‘You were told that, were you?’ His frown a question-mark incised in tanned leather. Breuning, was probably in his late-thirties, a heavy beard devouring his face, with curly rust-blonde hair that moved across his shoulders as he turned his head. No longer young, his face had compensated by acquiring a patina of menace, gravity giving his mouth a permanent frown. He assumed a look of habitual boredom that only the alertness of his eyes belied, and they were partially obscured by thick drooping brows.
‘You have a motor-yacht, Mister Breuning.’ The African sat down, leaning forward to accentuate the words. ‘I understand you sometimes have occasion to beach across the channel.’ Mchenga nodded towards the door to indicate direction.
Silence. At length, without looking up, the Breton measured his phrases evenly. ‘It would be foolish, would it not, for me to confirm such a… rumour, without knowing a little more about the questioner?’ He grinned an amiable gap-toothed grin.
‘You’re a long way from home,’ echoed one of Breuning’s companions, ‘Who are you? what’s your business here?’ He spat a heavy discharge of phlegm in the direction of the grate, and idly watched with rheumy eyes, as though hung-over, to see where it landed.
‘My name is Marley Mchenga. I represent the Pan-African Congress Geographical Society.’ There was pride verging on arrogance in his voice. ‘I’ll pay for the service I require. I don’t know, neither do I intend to bother myself with anything beyond the project I’m proposing, the service you can render me.’ He spoke the last few words with obvious condescension.
Breuning deliberated with a glinting empty glass. Mchenga noted a hole below the elbow of his battered sleeve. A tide of monotonous music broke about the legs of the table, dissipating into the haze. ‘In that case, yes, I can go so far as to admit that I represent a co-operative group which owns a motor-yacht. I’d even claim it’s the only really sea-worthy launch in the bay, perhaps on the coast. And it’s been known for us to put into an estuary across the channel, purely for minor repairs to damage sustained during a voyage, you understand? But such occasions are by no means frequent.’
An older man seated next to Breuning laughed softly. ‘You must be aware that the voyage you’re asking us to undertake is expressly discouraged by the Dvoeulastie?’
Mchenga experienced a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Of having lived through this conversation, with slight variations, many times over the last few weeks. Yet this time, he felt, there was hope. He’d first approached what was indicated on his charts as a coastal town a clutch of miles away, hoping it would provide the means to complete the last stage of his immense journey across two continents. But what he found there frustrated those hopes. The strangeness of it burned into him. His first impressions were that the ‘town’ was a terrible and vivid place, consisting of an antique central Dvoeulastie administrative complex, heavily fortified, garrisoned by a corrupt and largely ineffectual division of Trinity Militia. With a chill foreboding he noted the bodies of executed thieves and pirates suspended from the walls. Some had been decapitated in grim warning, others merely rotting into disintegration. The fortress was bordered on one side by the sea, on the remaining three by acres of shanties in riddles of shade. A formless unmade place with open sewers running down the centre of rutted alleyways. It offended his sense of fastidiousness. Surprisingly there was a power-generator to provide sporadic periods of light, but the sparking lines didn’t extend far into the township, and where they did they were hazardous. His arrival coincided with the aftermath of the latest, and most destructive of the fire-storms that swept the port with near-predictable regularity. The air smelled of ashes, and worse. Summers were dry, the town carelessly constructed, badly overcrowded, and inefficiently policed. Social disorder, open crime and official corruption were endemic, combined with disease and regular fires. The authorities response was military repression and martial law designed to maintain order – yet aggravating the situation. They were superstitious and wary of strangers. Mchenga’s mission, made difficult already by the illegality of the act he contemplated, was further complicated by the sullen, near insurrectionary mood. He soon realised not only the hopelessness, but the danger of his position. He felt threatened, pulling his hood up to plunge the upper part of his face into darkness, he headed up a crumbling dirt lane leading away, feeling his way forward, out of the still-smouldering debris and its scattered hostile people, to continue his quest in the smaller coastal settlements.
‘Seven-fifty.’ Breuning’s proposal snapped him back to the present. He flinched inwardly at the sum, but retained his fixed composure. Not as though it’s real money anyway, just the degraded and volatile local currency. He has enough. Haggling would be beneath his dignity. ‘Alright – seven-fifty.’ He hoped his tone made clear his disdain for bartering, and his disapproval of the seaman’s insolent attitude.
‘We sail on the fourth day, to catch the noon tide. We can make the detour you require – for the agreed sum. Welcome aboard Mr Mchenga. But be there on time, or we sail without you.’
Mchenga nodded, rubbing his hands down his robe in the gesture of ridding himself of something unclean, but barely able to contain his relief or rising excitement.
--- 0 ---
‘THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL…’
Mchenga rose slightly from the stairwell, from which he had half-emerged before the aerial attack had caused him to crouch back for cover. His short ribbed hair was sodden, leaking rivulets down forehead and neck. His legs were cramped, his robes uncomfortably wet. He was aware of a slight betraying fear in the pit of his stomach that made its presence distressingly clear. Acutely aware of his vulnerability, caught up in the middle of organised piracy, unsuspecting. Unarmed. What would happen now if, frustrated at losing their prize, they turned on him…?
In the meantime, the Scandinavian vessel had made good its escape, although still within range it was powering towards the open sea. Three Bretons lay on the deck gnawed by waves of rain. Two were dead, one badly wounded. Shot in the shoulder from above, the bullet had entered his lung. He was coughing foamy blood-specks that spat and dissolved in complex patterns across the moisture sheen of the deck.
By squinching his eyes Mchenga could discern a third ship - the original rendezvous vessel, emerging from the mist shrouding the horizon. Breuning’s attack had been worked out to a split second time-table, which had been blown by the unexpected aerial assault. Now the attacker, in fear of becoming the attacked, began turning its bows towards the shelter of the coastline. After the long moments of skirmish a calm returned, punctuated by the groans of the wounded man. Mchenga’s greatest fear had always been lack of control, he felt sick. Helpless in the face of events he could not influence. He turned, scrambling the treacherously damp gangway in undignified haste. Re-entering the stern cabin, he slammed and bolted the door firmly behind him, pressing his tall well-muscled body up against its reassuring solidity. From above he could hear the dull clump of men’s boots.
He’d regarded the Bretons with condescension from the start. Flattering them with a little cynical suspicion. Now he feared their numbers. Their weapons. Their complete power over his future. He moved a chair from behind the desk, jammed it up against the door. It would hold a possible attack for a few moments. His forehead was damp with perspiration. He re-lived the anxious moments of the aerial strafing. Watched each eruption of woodchips, each explosion of rain and splintered glass. No longer was he capable of detachment. Looking down, he could see his hands were trembling. He forced himself back, to lie on the low bunk. Eyes closed. Body tensed. When he again moved it was dark. Through the portholes set into the walls he could make out the form of moving vegetation. The pitch and roll motion of the floor beneath his feet was easier. The engines thrummed more softly, then died. The pirates must have anchored in an inlet of the foreign coast.
He waited, yet nothing else happened to disturb the night. He ransacked the cabin thoroughly for a weapon, but could find nothing. Eventually he returned to the bunk to sleep fitfully. Once he woke to find his cabin sliced suddenly in two by a brilliant shaft of light from the porthole, which vanished as swiftly as it had come. The distant sound of receding engines startled him until distance lost them. Probably, he told himself, the Scandinavian rendezvous-vessel was attempting to locate their attackers. Perhaps looking for the injured flier who must have landed somewhere around their present location. But there was no further development. Merely the sound of rain on the deck.
The next time he woke it was daylight. He felt cramped. There was an unpleasant taste in his mouth. He was conscious of the odour of his own stale perspiration. He felt hungry, felt the urgent need to urinate. Although he listened for long tense moments, here was no sound except the gulls from beyond. He crossed to the near-side porthole. Moving carefully to minimise noise. The rain had ceased but the sky was still disagreeably overcast. He could see a narrow stretch of reed-infested water, beyond which rose a steep thickly wooded incline, glistening damp from the night’s downpour. The crest was lost to view. It seemed that the vessel was tethered to one of the over-hanging trees, which was concealing the ship from observation from the sea. Probably the pirates were staying in the inlet until they felt it safe from Scandinavian reprisals, to re-emerge.
He crossed to the porthole on the far side of the cabin, overlooking the opposite side of the inlet. There was a wide deepwater channel, then an area of treacherous reeds and sandbanks for perhaps a quarter of a k, until it gave way to a gradual well-vegetated slope. Mchenga returned to the bunk to consider his position. He’d reached the destination he’d sought, but could only guess at the predicament he was in. Only the Breton pirates now barred his access to the land…
At the time of the expedition, the Italian balance of power was delicately poised. The Africans had been welcomed as a colourful diversion from cyclic bouts of riot, insurrection and assassination. After their crossing from Sicily to the mainland they stayed as guests of the D’Annunzio Chemical complex for a month, while preparing for further ventures inland. The massive refineries that skirted the sea were silent, hulking empty shells rusting gently into dormancy. The Signore had been industrial by name and tradition only, ever since the inconclusive fading of hostilities in Asia. After decades of lucrative conflict the exhaustion of the wars’ protagonists had caused an economic slump and realignments right across the areas that fed the continent-wide battle-zone. The larger complexes divided into smaller units, shifting from technology to local agriculture, olives and grapes. The D’Annunzio Complex was relatively well-ordered, due to its favourable trade links through Sicily to Africa. The family was well-educated, competent administrators ruling the nominally co-operative grouping through tight control of systems of obligation. They constituted a virtual monarchy.
But there was to be violence before the expedition’s armoured Trekker and local bearers departed. Mchenga spent time in pleasant, but unsettling conversations, sipping wine with D’Annunzio in his study overlooking a courtyard drenched in vivid bougainvillea. ‘Of course, the only reason Africa escaped the collapse is that it was pre-exposed to infection,’ the Italian explained, ‘and those who survived the initial outbreaks developed immunity, hence, when the virus returned in a more virulent form, a devastatingly lethal mutation that was carried around the world in eight hours, Africa largely escaped unscathed. It was chance, rather than design that saved Africa.’ Mchenga was affronted, ‘No, it wasn’t like that at all. You’re rewriting history’ he argued back. Such ideas affronted every logic he’d ever learned. ‘It was the inherent contradictions within your society that brought about its destruction. The immoral contradiction between wealth and squalor, between population-growth and food-supply, between technology and the rapacious energy-demands in required.’ ‘Well, Mr Mchenga, what you say might well be true, to an extent, but contradictions in themselves don’t destroy societies. They need a push. In this instance plague provided that decisive push.’ Mchenga was dumbfounded. What right did this European have to argue such a contrary opinion? Yet their discussions remained academic. Elsewhere in the complex, it was worse for Amiri Mwantulujali. An argument broke out in a communal dining hall as he’d patiently explained the benefits of African Evolutionary Socialism, the abolition of inheritance and imposition of maximum-wage that was creating the planet’s first hierarchy-free society, ideas that conflicted with the Family’s deeply ingrained traditions. He was accused of spreading sedition. In the ensuing brawl the Rehobother was clubbed to death, leaving the expedition isolated and vulnerable. They were forced to escape prematurely, gunning the Trekker through the rusting industrial landscape in some haste.
Maombi was distraught. But as he told her, even the vilest of negatives must be reversed into positives, and she seemed to recover, caught up in the details of establishing a strategic chain of outposts at hospitable centres, as the expedition tracked north to where the importance and size of the native communes devolved still further. Mchenga had long nurtured his resentment for Amiri, his ease of command, his popularity which made his own aloofness seem so ridiculous by comparison. And most of all, for his intimacy with Maombi. He’d tried to fight those emotions, and tried to suppress his gloating now that his rival was gone, now there was only the two of them. He prided himself on always being in the vanguard of the party, foraging ahead towards the interior. That would impress her. Moving across the dark well of a land that had been swallowed up by its own bottomless history. With its immense diseased past stretching back into appalling cruelties and vile perversities. A continent which now corroded in the stench of its own guilt. The population centres they encountered were small, the cities of their forebears shunned by the natives, and left to fester like toxic scabs across the landscape, gradually being healed by encroaching grass and trees. They provided shelter only for outlaws, for bizarre religious cults, for the malformed and diseased who were liable to superstitious persecution in their places of birth. Many of the former cities could be traced and identified from reproduction antique maps, and were explored by the Africans for the benefit of retinal-logs beamed up, bounced from satellite across hemisphere back to the Uniplex. As planned, the group reduced in number as it proceeded, shedding base-colonies to provide reinforcements when needed, and to provide way-stations for their return. They crossed endless plains wasted by war and plague. Through virtually depopulated arboreal k’s of newly-emerging forest, empty scrubland and Feudal agricultural communities. They were met with curiosity, disinterest, distrust, hostility or apathy as they trekked northwards towards their distant objective…
--- 0 ---
‘THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND’
He replayed his retinal-log. Watching the earlier incidents of the sea-crossing’s first hours, when the motion of the yacht had proved so disorientating, although not unpleasant. How the contrast between the reassuringly solid lines of the century-old craft, with the undisciplined excesses of the crew seemed such a jarring contradiction. But he’d grown to expect such disconcerting juxtapositions on the decaying subcontinent. And the thin strip of land pressed across the horizon was soon washed away behind the boiling wake. Leaving the past behind, moving steadily into the future. He sensed his journey was almost done. His grail lay across that diminishing swell of water. Behind him the land where he’d already spent such eventful months was being extinguished by perspective, as dawn kills the nightmare. He no longer had doubts.
‘You won’t see anything yet’ Breuning had said to him, ‘not for some time’.
‘But it’s not a broad expanse of sea.’ ‘No, but it’s unreliable. We can’t make a direct crossing due to sandbanks, powerful currents. You understand?’ Was he lying, for some devious purpose of his own? Whatever, Mchenga nodded with what was intended to be finality. But the Breton lounged against the bulwark. ‘You’ve come far?’ ‘A very long way.’
‘What is it you hope to find over there?’ ‘It would probably be very difficult for you to comprehend.’ Breuning laughed. A mocking laugh. Now the aloof African re-watched the exchange with new eyes, concentrating on the body-language, seeking something, anything, he might have missed. During the period he’d endured as an outsider to big-city life-styles Mchenga had developed a hypersensitivity to innuendo and condescension, yet he could detect neither in the Breton’s tones. He’d looked hard, then dismissed the white man as instinctively as he dismissed all lower orders. Irritated that he should allow the Breton to waste his time with such banality. Now he saw them with, if not respect, at least a degree of caution. The Italian D’Annunzio had been, in his way, a cultured man. Breuning displayed a more animal cunning, but not one that could be safely ignored. Both had surmounted their environmental disadvantages to become something more, by an act of will. How would he have fared in their situation? How would he have fought his way out of ignorance and squalor? Or perhaps people just behave the way they behave, regardless of what age or land they inhabit, no matter what technology or culture they might be heir to? That same question again. What is it that makes you what you are?
‘The rest of your expedition will no doubt assist your return?’ Mchenga had nodded noncommittally. Wary of revealing the full weakness of his situation. His retinal-log was the only link he had with the Trekker. To admit that, even to himself, was to admit an unpleasant vulnerability. Almost regretting the impulse that had made him continue the quest alone, instead of awaiting the arrival of the replacements for those killed in the city. But he was being decisive, she’d be impressed. The wave of unease passed as swiftly as it had come. He rationalised. The fears of the night seemed distant. Breuning’s crew had showed him no real antagonism. A surly resentment. Indifference. But no real hostility. He’d paid for his voyage, he owed them nothing. What would they gain from killing him now? His fears were irrational. The product of his discovery of the hidden motive for the voyage. His close proximity to death during the night-skirmish. He decided that action was overdue. Yet he remained seated.
At length he crossed to the second porthole and again looked lazily out over the inlet. Wind was rippling the water, swaying the reeds, drifts of mist lying thin. An empty and forgotten place. His excitement rose. He was the first African to glimpse this lost inlet, this gentle swell of peninsula, these swaying reeds and sleeping waves. He’d be the first civilised man in over a century to set foot on that soil. He allowed his eyes to linger for long moments on this, his first view at close range of the legendary home of the ‘Last Equation’. He was looking with a kind of reawakened awe.
He removed the chair, with some difficulty, from where he’d jammed it up against the door. Opened the door onto the gangway beyond. There was the sound of wind in foliage. Of birds, of water. There were no voices. He hesitated, then mounted the steps carefully, one at a time. They were still glisten-damp from night rain, his robes trailing irritatingly. Then he reached the deck, still flecked with pools of water. The air seemed charged with an energy of expectancy. He could see one man looking casually over the bulwark, his back to Mchenga. He carried a machine-gun, his hands fidgeting absently with the safety-catch. Mchenga recognised him as one of the Bretons from the tavern. A man who suffered from involuntary spasmodic hand-movements, the result of some degenerative physical infirmity which he tried to disguise with over-activity.
Mchenga smiled. Rose fully from stairwell onto the deck. There was a rough gangplank extending from deck to shore. He decided to bluff his need to escape. The beating of his heart felt as though surely it must betray him as he crossed the deck. The air was cool, the sky lacerated with wind. The man turned easily at his approach.
‘Where’s the rest of the crew? Where’s Ineke Breuning?’ ‘Most of them are ashore.’ Mchenga nodded with conversational complicity.
‘The flier came down somewhere over there,’ the man indicated the far arm of the inlet, ‘Breuning’s gone to salvage it.’ The African followed the indicated direction across the water. He noticed for the first time, halfway up the incline rising from the shallow water, a gleam that identified manufactured metal lying among the damp grass. And halfway around the curve of the inlet he also noticed three figures skirting the water to reach the reflecting object he presumed to be the wounded flier of the previous night.
Tension grew at the back of his throat. ‘Pity. I wanted to speak to Mr Breuning before I disembark. To express my thanks.’ He forced a full moment’s pause. ‘But it’s not that important.’ Having made his intention clear and, he hoped, casual, he dismissed the conversation to head for the gangplank.
‘You can’t leave.’ He was looking into the quivering muzzle of the gun. ‘Of course I can leave. On whose authority do you attempt to restrain me?’
‘You’d best go below until Breuning gets back. He’ll know what to do with you.’ Mchenga contrived to slump in assumed dejection, as if about to obey the command. He half turned. His mind working coldly, rapidly. Then he leapt. A blow aimed with anatomical accuracy at the pressure point of the neck. It took the Breton before he had chance to realise what was happening. Stunned, he slumped to the deck. At almost the same instant a bulled spanged past his head from behind. Mchenga crouched in one liquid movement, scooping the fallen weapon, turned, loosing off a stream of rapid fire in the direction he gauged his unseen attacker to be. He had the satisfaction of seeing the second sailor pitch forward, his head an imploded mess. Dropping the weapon in his haste the red-robed figure lunged towards the gangplank – until he saw two more armed Bretons approaching him down the slope. Alerted by the shots they brandished rifles at the ready, moving stealthily. Mchenga estimated he had a full moment for thought before they’d see him.
He darted to the far side of the yacht. Slipped his robe free, punched it into a tight bundle, lobbed it ahead of him into the opaque water, then nerved himself and vaulted the tarnished rail, leaping cleanly, as soundlessly as he could into the chill shock of tide. Even as he entered the dumb icy liquid he was striking out with powerful strokes. Counting out moments as he struck out from the tethered craft. Four-six-eight. Counting off the steps the Bretons would need to take to cross from shore to deck. Ten-twelve. The seconds it would take for them to find the two bodies. The time it would take to discover which mode of escape he’d chosen. He guessed at the distance he’d travelled in relation to the range and accuracy of their guns. He never broke or even slackened his clean easy strokes across the bay, punching his floating robe ahead of him.
He ticked off seconds without pausing, almost as an impersonal observer awaiting the delayed cry of recognition. Anticipating the sudden crack of automatic weapons that must soon punctuate the silence of breaking water. Surely Breuning must be aware of his escape by now? Until his eventual discovery came almost anti-climatically, their shots falling about and way behind him. He altered neither course nor speed, fixing his total attention on his destination. The rip of gunfire carried easily. Then there was sand beneath his feet. Cloying and treacherous. He’d crossed perhaps half of the inlet already. Areas of freezing shallows, sand-ribs, and misted reeds lay ahead stretching away to the far land. Whether the mud underfoot could be trusted to support his weight was another matter. He half-ran, half-crawled, half-swam oblivious to logic, direction or motive. Ahead lay the land he must reach before Breuning could stop him. To hold him hostage, or whatever it was he planned. He was already aware of rapid movement along the inlet shore to his left, beyond a hazy veil of mist. The slur of dull colour as the Bretons moved to cut him off. Their yells carried easily across the fen. Occasionally a shot sounded, but as yet their range was too great for accuracy, he must present a blurred and indistinct target. Subjective hours slurred past, segued into slithering shimmering freezing water and muddy sand, hungry for air, but each exhausted breath burning his throat while feet and fingers were numbed with cold. Muscles straining as the objective tantalised, enticing through the mist. Twice, three times he fell, sinking into soft sand and frozen mud, tempted to remain, to regain escaping breath or lost coherency. Clutching the sodden robe like some sacred relic, bursting through restraining lines of bristling reeds, splash-paddling through sudden pools of water. Startled birds shrieking suddenly into the sky in fear.
Keep going. Don’t look back. Then he was through, firm ground beneath his feet. The yacht lay beyond the grey reflecting inlet, softened by the haze of mist that the sun was in the process of burning off. It looked like a toy. The thought hit him ludicrously – ‘this is the land of the ‘Last Equation’’. Figures raced towards him along the strand, whooping in anticipation. Three Breton pirates out to kill him for no reason. The reflecting metallic gleam that was his objective was further still, higher than he’d anticipated. Perhaps he’d miscalculated? He drove himself forward up the slope that glistened treacherously with night-rain. Half-naked, glimmering with moisture. Bullets erupted, gouging the earth around his crouching, running shape, whizzing past so close he could feel the air pressure change as it did so. Cries trailed him. The sound of pursuit spurring him on. He could no longer see his objective, it was eclipsed by undergrowth. From across the bay, the slope had appeared to be even, but it wasn’t. The empty stretches of gouged soil were wild with concealed cavities. His ankle throbbed angrily – although he couldn’t recall twisting it.
He quested around both sides for the grounded flier. Perhaps he’d been wrong – misjudged? He’d been fooled by a gleam of light from the far side of the bay, a trick of perspective and the morning sun, a unique triangulation they’d missed by moments, perhaps he’d been wrong – tricked by the reflection of a freak mineral deposit? Breath came rough in his throat, the air cold to his nostrils, he tried to massage some warmth into his hands, his fingers felt brittle and fleshless. Then, when he least unexpected it, he burst upon the wounded man. He was cradled in a small hollow of damp shadows, a blood stain radiating out from his thighs, a pistol held in both shaking hands aimed through glazed unfocussed eyes at the near-exhausted African. Mchenga had only to reach out with fingers numb and swollen by the cold, grasp the barrel, turning it earthwards to tug it from the Scandinavian’s grasp. He pointed it emotionlessly at the sweat-gleaming forehead. Fired once. Watched the single column of punctured blood trickle down to skirt the dead eyebrows. A mercy killing. He was dead anyway, whatever the outcome.
Turning fiercely he loosed off a salvo of shots down the slope at his pursuers. Already they’d covered half the distance from the fen to their quarry. The shooting dispersed them to seek shelter behind damp undergrowth, returning the fire ineffectually. Mchenga slid the warm nozzle beneath the belt of his shorts, it was uncomfortable but reassuring. Almost touching his genitals. Then he stooped to wrest the cumbersome VAV flying equipment from the corpse. His fingers working clumsily, painfully numb, soiled with mud and water. Suppose it had been hit? Damaged during the shooting? Damaged by its crash to uneven ground? Too late to worry. It was antiquated. Much older than the models he’d known in the University of Jo’berg. But the principle was the same. He hauled the almost unbearable weight onto his back, and flexed himself, shrugging it into position. The control-arm folded out around him and snapped into place.
The Bretons, led by Breuning, were moving stealthily in three prongs towards the source of the sudden burst of shooting. Warily, but with whoops and yells of enthusiasm. The sporting diversion of the man-hunt compensating for the frustrating loss of their valuable quarry last night. Exchanging signals as they closed in. The silence was total, muffled by the thin ground mist. Suddenly, unexpectedly, they were rewarded with the disconcerting sight of Mchenga hurtling crazily vertically into the cloud-ridden sky…
As the expedition had approached the distant northern shoreline events first slowed to a crawl, then leaped forward without pause. They were entering an area disputed by rival factions. ‘Extinctionists’ lurked within the dead city. ‘The Trinity’ in the areas around them. They regarded the newcomers with open suspicion, were they invaders? intent on establishing territorial claims? Kakaovelder studied, as best he could, the origins of both cults, most of which were lost in contradiction. Apparently, at the time of their inception the entire coastland and the areas extending for k’s inland had been depopulated by virulent plague. From what he learned through cautious interviews, the empty land was then colonised by waves of refugees from some ‘purge’ across the channel, bringing their language with them, the rudiments of their religions, and even a vague awareness of the ‘Last Equation’. So the local population was not indigenous, and the ‘Bretons’ were, in fact, ‘Britains’! Since that time further breakdowns of communication, the growing awe in which the island was held, materialised into the Trinity regime. Isolated from its spiritual place of origin the myth intensified, diversifying as it grew. ‘Once, there were Existentialists in the city’ Kakaovelder explained, ‘they believed that the only truth we can ever know is that we exist. Everything beyond that is conjecture. Now – in the light of the Collapse of Order, those ideas have been revised. The only valid truth remaining is the exhausting of the life-force, the end of all life on the planet. They think that this is the extinction-event asteroid that killed-off the great lizards. This is the catastrophe from which our species will not recover. Finitto. While - although from a similar mould, the Trinity are more focussed on renewal. It is a coming together of three ancient-time’s religions, in which three original prophet-figures are recognised as different aspects of the same divine consciousness. They disagree internally in other ways. Some argue that the Collapse of Order was a form of judgement. That the millions who died were evil-doers who forfeited their right to life. Those who survive are the saved. This is the world that they have been delivered into. Others feel that further judgement is to come, raising the saved to higher levels of consciousness. That slight schism is enough to provoke wars of purification against heresy.’ Kakaovelder was able to establish traces of Nietzsche, Bergson and Jung in the ideas. Writers and theorists long forgotten in Europe but still studied in the libraries of African Universities.
Seated inside the Trekker, they’d lazily thrown ideas around. ‘This is a scientific survey. There should be archaeologists – even palaeontologists to reconstruct it all. Why did this accursed continent die? It died because of its own corruptions, its inherent contradictions – yes, but exactly how? Why have they sunk so low? And why are we the ‘golden people’? Have we prevailed due to superior genetic legacy… or the superior power of will?’ ‘Isn’t that what we’re here to learn? Isn’t that why we’re here?’ By this time the expedition’s advance guard had reduced to five, with Maombi and the rest waiting at the last way-station. For a week they were detained while the Bantu Olwali succumbed to a smallpox mutation. Helplessly, they watched as he died. Leaving Mchenga to supervise the cremation, the three remaining Africans had detoured to investigate the ruins of a nearby city… where they were massacred in a skirmish with Parisian Extinctionists.
Mchenga retinally datalogged back to the previous staging post for assistance. And waited. One night, within the Trekker, he dreamed about a cairn. In the dream, the cairn marked the location of a corpse. And the cairn had been disturbed. ‘A bleak wind whipped through dislodged stones fallen in mystic patterns across the infertile ground. The work of wolves perhaps? There were feral packs in the forest, their howling punctuating long winter nights. They were hungry too. But whatever the cause of the cairn’s disturbance it did not auger well for the future. People watched the dislocated stonework, a ragged circle of gaunt hollow-eyed men hanging back around the perimeter of the clearing in an embarrassed silence. Afraid to break the tactile air of brittle tension. Mchenga watched it all through their eyes. They knew that the crops had failed two years in succession. They knew that the crops could not be allowed to fail for a third. The village children were hungry. Within the protection of the palisade that encircled the village, women were scrabbling for the last traces of grain stored in deep barrels, while the men helplessly wore faces deep-etched with care-lines. Could it be that they’d been wrong? Surely not, it had seemed so right. The red-robed visitation from the sky. The dark-skinned figure speaking strange words, coming to them after so much crop failure. So many barren words muttered like incantations. Then the man – Mchenga, coming like a manifestation of those magical mantras. Like the Corn King of half-remembered legends.
The hoe was rusting. It had not been used since the desolation of the previous spring. Then it was arcing in slow-motion as the dark-skinned man was mouthing words as them. And it was biting through skin-tissue and bone, into cerebral cortex. The blade stained ritual crimson with sacrificial blood. There was amazement on his face, accusation in his eyes as life had ebbed from the skull, through the dull metal, to be absorbed into the wooden shaft. Into the earth. The stranger had died, had been interred beneath the stones on a gorse heath clearing an hour’s walk from the stockade. But now the cairn had been disturbed, the corpse had gone, taken within unguarded days. The fertility offering had been sabotaged. The men pulled their furs tighter against the hostile, almost sentient wind that tore at their hair. What of the crop now?’
Mchenga was startled awoke with a sense of terrible foreboding. Disturbed by the dream, unsettled by the implications of his own imminent death. Restlessly, he continued alone to the coast to check out a means of crossing. A way to reach the ultimate goal. His wait had been as long as it was fruitless. Replacements were delayed by the outbreak of local warfare that made crossing tribal boundaries hazardous, and new restrictions imposed by the intensified smallpox outbreak. There seemed little chance of an early reunion. So he resigned himself to a few weeks of solitude. That suited him fine. After all, he’d always been self-contained, solitary, at ease with himself. He travelled light. He carried no recording equipment. Data-images supplementary to his retinal-casts could be extracted direct from his memory on his return to civilisation. So he explored the coast alone, until his eventual decision to cross… alone.
--- 0 ---
‘THE LOST WORLD’
Once recovered from the initial shock of the abrupt acceleration, Mchenga experimented with the control arm, turning his machine inland. Looking down he could see the frustrated figures on the blurred map below him shaking their fists and loosing off shots at him, he smiles smugly and powered forward until the coastline was nothing but a sliver on the horizon. It was cold. He was exhausted. His clothes were sodden and dirty. Eventually, at what he considered to be a safe distance, he reduced height, quickly learning to use the controls with greater accuracy. He landed in an enclosed valley cut by a cascading stream that had hollowed out its bed shadowy-deep between gnarled tree-roots, settling on a mossy green shingle-spit enclosed by a loop in its course. Gratefully he shrugged off his equipment, and draped his robe across a web of low boughs to dry. His ankle throbbed dully. He’d skinned it raw. Bathing it in the ice-cold stream discoloured its rapid flow with mud, grit and perspiration. His body tingling with returning energy. He washed his face in stinging handfuls of water, watching his reflection with pride. Congratulating himself upon his escape. Their bestial greed and animal appetites were no match for him. Then he slept for long hours on damp earth beneath the open sky.
He awoke, hungry and stiff, to the sound of breeze swishing through foliage. It was dawn and the clouds were gone. Eventually, the warm rays penetrated through to his bones, spreading the feeling that his limbs were thawing out. But this was not the honeyed-gold of African light. Not the African sun he ached for. There, the sky a cloudless blue, everything bathed in golden light. Not this chill drabness. Yet, for the first time, he could see a strange alien beauty of this place, in the leaden sky, the rain, and even the cold. There was a richness to its hidden depths. At least one of the enclosing valley ridge-walls, which he’d assumed to be natural, was fashioned from monolithic ribs of overgrown concrete. Even here, it seemed, there had been structures which he’d completely overlooked before. He drank greedily, his ankle painfully swollen now, his throat tasted sour. He speed-edited the most recent events for his retinal-log before beaming them up, for the Uniplex, and also to the rest of the expedition still marooned some seventy k’s inland from the Breton coast. His most urgent need was to acquire food. He mounted the sky, the energy-conversion unit that powered the VAV gave him almost limitless range. The pistol too, developed during the war by Italian armourers, would continue firing for as long as it was charged, and he’d checked, it would last him for months yet. Returning to the coast he located the inlet from which he’d so narrowly escaped, but could see no sign of Breuning’s motor-yacht. They’d gone. The seascape was empty but for the rusting oil-rig still visible like some prehistoric megalith on the horizon. He shadowed the sea-edge for some fifty k’s before grounding again for rest. It was his first real view of the lost world. Beyond all he’d been taught to expect, all he’d researched, all he’d dreamed, here was the tangible and impossible reality of it, turned feral and strange. It was not until mid-afternoon, while penetrating further inland that he detected evidence of human settlement. A thin column of smoke on the horizon. He arrowed towards it…
--- 0 ---
THE NEW ATLANTIS
The images streamed into the ‘Geographical Society’ centre were remarkable. Of course, Marley Mchenga was contravening regulations. But by doing so he was sending back astonishing data from a Lost World, from the Ultima Thule at the far edge of the world. While the rest of the expedition stayed stranded, cowering inside the safety of their armoured Trekker surrounded by contagious plague and besieged by tribal strife, his incautious insubordination was yielding a wealth of results. Matched to imperfect mapping, the monitors watched wide-eyed as the onscreen vistas switched from the maze of rivers, channels and creeks criss-crossing the marshes surrounding what they tentatively identified as Wallasea Island and Foulness, across endless forest thronged with a rich diversity of wildlife – a revelation in that much of it was believed long-extinct, to the wide Thames lagoon with ghost-ruins breaking its still green surface. Yet it was not deserted. As Mchenga flew low over the still lagoon towards the wisp of smoke, he could see canoes ferrying the broad waterways between the levels of protruding towers. Past experience made him wary, this was a dangerous land, so he concealed himself, and observed their movements. Kakaovelder had gone trustingly into a dead city. He’d never come out.
Choosing his moment, he identified a small group of this strange semi-aquatic people, two men and a woman on the overgrown flat expanse of a tower-top, and descended towards them, his left hand held aloft in a gesture he hoped would indicate his peaceful intentions. But he still hadn’t quite mastered the control-arm. At first he had the impression he was going to miss what seemed to be a ridiculously small area of landing-space, then the square expanded madly, rushing up at him as though he was going to be smashed bug-flat against it. And the shock of his initial appearance sent them scurrying. He waited, they watched him inquisitively, until one of them came towards him, grinning broadly. ‘Me – I’m Amrik, I’m your friend.’ They were effusively friendly, offering him spicy fish and naan-bread which he gratefully accepted, suddenly reminded just how hungry he was. ‘You’re fortunate you contacted us first’ Amrik informed him, leaning forward between mouthfuls, wiping away stray white flakes, ‘we value trade-links, and bartering. Others are not so open. There are less friendly barbarian gangs from outlying areas who it is vital for you to avoid, as well as wicked serpents who live in the lakes’. Noting details, the cheerful round-faced man was of Asian appearance, wearing a loose saffron top that overhung his loose pants. ‘You come with us’ he urged once they’d eaten, ‘come with us back to the palace, we can help you.’ And he followed Amrik down through dilapidated halls to the water-level where their canoe was moored.
With memories of his experience on Breuning’s motor-yacht still smarting, ruefully minded of the outcome of his previous voyage, he was alert for signs of betrayal or traps, but they seemed disarmingly cheerful, and anyway, he had the Scandinavian flier’s pistol still concealed. Its solid presence firmed his confidence. As they skimmed through rippling spokes of sunlight between archipelagos of tall blocks where birds roosted in the wells of collapsed interiors, trees erupted from the dark mouths of once-windows and creepers obscured frontages into slime-green cliffs, he nervously watched out for ‘serpents’ – water-snakes? crocodiles perhaps? but saw nothing other than flotillas of rats launching from ribs of crumbling concrete into the weed-green flood-tide. Mildly drunk on its motion – or maybe the after-effects of the fish, the sound of the place was a moist slap-lapping, its smell was of decay, rotting weed and wetness. In the watery daylight there was an eerie sense of emptiness made more mysterious by distance and unfamiliarity. Looking over the side of the canoe he could see the city falling away beneath him, its colours flowing, until it became lost in green eddies of weed. A city underwater all those years, largely abandoned and nearly forgotten, but still there. ‘We should be here’ he thought. ‘What if Africans were to come? What if we used our expertise and skills to reclaim this place? Perhaps that’s our role, our burden? Instead of erecting walls around fortress Africa to keep out the evils of the world, perhaps we should be assuming the responsibility of expanding into this wilderness, and saving its poor benighted souls? Sure, it’s hazardous and toxic, but we have the science, the medicine, the technology. Perhaps we should have the will too? Beginning with small trading outposts, and then colonies, this could be the start of a new empire.’
‘Soon’ Amrik interrupted his thoughts, ‘you’ll meet our Queen’. So their community was a monarchy, but was that a devolution to simpler forms, or a continuity with something that the flooded city had once represented? Mchenga couldn’t decide. Once moored at a docking point set into another tower, Amrik shepherded him with a proprietal intimacy that Mchenga found unpleasantly fawning. As though this exotic exhibit was his own discovery, and he was determined to extract whatever advantage he could from his good fortune. But Mchenga tolerated it, he needed a friend. Through an atrium where the ceiling rippled with reflected waterlight, a dignified retinue conducted them down corridors where empty striplight wires dangled, throwing shadows from candles, scrunching through broken glass coated with a fur of black dust and a slime of leaf-mould, and up staircases so corroded they seemed barely capable of bearing their weight. ‘They’ve allowed everything to go to ruin’ he thought, ‘not only through inundation, but through neglect. This must have been a beautiful place… once. It’s as though it no longer matters to them. As though the things of the flesh, the material world, do not count. They’ve given up, they’re defeated. Let it rot, let it all rot.’ Eventually he was ushered into the throne-room where Queen Shamim received him – with bizarrely, two African lions prowling the chamber as she did so.
‘May I present Marley Mchenga, from the Pan-African Congress Geographical Society’ announced Amrik eagerly, pronouncing the words carefully.
‘Greetings to you, emissary’ she said, extending her hand to him. ‘Please, you must forgive our present circumstances. This isn’t our permanent residence. Our greater palace is gradually collapsing into the encircling lagoon, so temporarily we must endure this place. Nevertheless, you are our welcome guest’. Although the formality was comically absurd, he played along, with as much dignity as he could muster. Behind her there were long rippling velvet drapes blowing, as much to disguise crumbling plaster as for any decorative purpose, and he couldn’t help but notice the faint aroma of fetid water percolating up from the stagnant submerged levels beneath them, the urine-smell of damp masonry, and mice. The drips and echoes of oozing moisture. He eyed the lions suspiciously. How had they arrived here? Again he was offered food, but was disappointed to discover that it was mostly fish. Grey food, disguised by a stodge of spicy sauces. As they ate, she and her courtiers were curious about his origins, and were interested to learn details of his travels. Details he was only too happy to supply, suitably embellished and edited. ‘Our expedition was mounted to discover the site of the great experiment known as the ‘Last Equation’ he explained, ‘perhaps you could help me, perhaps suggest some guidance to where it can be located?’ ‘We have many equations here. We can trade all manner of information, more than enough for you and your companions, wherever they may be.’ He smiled graciously. She obviously knew nothing. At a signal from her, Amrik showed him sets of model figures, dressed in red coats, with tall dark head-gear. Mchenga pretended interest, until it dawned on him that they were offering the figures in barter, and she wanted his flying unit.
Refusal was not something they’d find acceptable. He could sense it, and played for time. Until Amrik stepped in tactfully, ‘my friend Marley is much tired from his long journey. Perhaps we should talk more, and barter, once he’s rested?’ Although annoyed by the over-familiar use of his first name, he agreed, pleading fatigue, and was allowed to withdraw to a dark room where he could rest. Despite Mchenga’s protestations he was relieved of his VAV, and anxiously watched as it was placed inside an adjacent room. Despite Amrik’s protestations Mchenga insisted he had to be alone to sleep, and managed to bundle him out through the door. Listening attentively he knew that the only exit leading out of this claustrophobically furnished room was being guarded. That there was a jailor to ensure he would not be allowed the opportunity of escape. The flickering watery light cast misshapen shadows across the musty room, and the lavish four-poster bed loomed up like an ugly sarcophagus. Warily he sat on the coverlets for a long moment of indecision. His only means of extricating himself from the situation lay in the adjoining room. Why had he even stopped here? Why hadn’t he stayed aloft, and kept flying north? Too late for recriminations now. He stood up and paced the confining length of his prison, until he was facing the casements. Moving a unit aside disturbed a nest of woodlice which scattered in the sudden light. Set into leprous concrete the gnarled window-frames were warty with cysts of rust. He worked at the dirty panels overlooking the still water beyond. The fixtures were rotten, and it was not difficult for him to broach them. With a dusty rasp they came loose, and once through, with a dizzying shock of vertigo, he was able to step out onto a narrow ledge, wide enough to be considered a balcony. The ledge of stone, spaced with gargoyles, was green with mould, but extended clear around the building’s exterior, theoretically bringing the next room within reach. Losing his nerve he climbed back inside, sat on the bed, paced up and down. No, it was too hazardous. Yes, he must seize the opportunity now, while the chance remains. Decisively he stepped back out of the window. A slow breeze smelling of mud and decay moved between the buildings, he waited until his head steadied, then crept inch by inch along the precarious perch. He would be visible to anyone drifting by canoe below, but not markedly so, and who would think to look up? If he missed his footing and fell, the water might even break his fall. If the worst came to the worst, he might survive the plunge… probably, possibly. But what then…? His back flat against the exterior wall he inched along it, advancing one foot sideways, sliding the other carefully along to join it. Erosion and weed had done its work. Little crumbles of gritty powder exhaled under each step, masonry broke away and plummeted down to drown in sluggish green tide. He almost turned back. But by then it was as near to go on as retreat. Then he’d reached the next window, blinking into its darkness. This must be their treasure-house, their trade and barter storeroom. He applied pressure to the dirty glass, the panel moved in its frame but did not give, although the force he exerted unsteadied him. He caught himself on his dangerous perch, clutching the unyielding casement for safety. So close and yet… wait, the next window along opened into the same room. And its glass had not survived the slow decay, it had vanished completely, to be replaced by soiled cellophane sheeting. His ankles already ached. But it was too late to back down. He resumed his slow shuffling, breathing in short stabs of rasping nervous breath until after what seemed an interminable journey he was able to rip and tear the worn material aside, and clamber unsteadily through. There lay his Vertical Ascent Vehicle, casually draped across some crating. Beside it was a sewing machine, an internal combustion engine, a teetering tower of slim laptops, and a nest of plastic chairs precariously stacked. There were rows of model soldiers – the older of them more detailed and less stylised than the ones he’d been offered as barter. And a crate of marble figures carved into a frieze, labelled – in antique English lettering ‘Elgin’, and an umbrella. All of it shrouded with a coating of salty dust and cobwebbed together. He opened a wardrobe of ornate clothes from which he took a greatcoat and stout boots. His sandals were worn and tattered, he discarded them – as though discarding his past, without another thought. After the most cursory of investigations he shrugged the jet-pack back on and laced the strap fastenings around him. These people were no match for him. They’d underestimated his resourcefulness. He chuckled at their lack of foresight, as he forced his now-bulkier self back out onto the ledge which provided space for him to launch from. Soon, the sound of him igniting the unit alerted the guards, but by then it was too late, and they were in time merely to see him lifting off, and flying low over the lagoon…
Mindful of Amrik’s warning of hostiles lurking in the lagoon’s outlying areas he stayed aloft for as long as he could tolerate it, over a distant shore dense with alien growth, taking a steady northerly direction until, by nightfall, he deemed it safe to descend. He spent an uncomfortable night attempting to sleep beneath the roof of what had been the span of a road system, a deep cave of regular vaulted arches pitted and wind-whittled, disturbed by the damp night-chill and by the howling of what he imagined to be invisible predators in the darkness. Pulling his robe and his newly acquired greatcoat in around him he also thought he could hear the grumbling hum of phantom vehicles passing overhead. The wandering wraiths of an extinguished civilisation, drawning back into ancient green. With dawn he checked the energy reserves of the flier, and the pistol’s remaining charge, both were still at near-maximum. He climbed the sky more purposefully, noticing as he ascended, on the far side of his night-shelter, a great crater-shaped depression defined by cliffs of rubble, huge blocks collapsed and worn into a grotesquery of angles with gaps created by chance and animal-spoor, and its central depression filled with a drooling vegetation of briar and bracket. Curious, he made to set down within it, until he could see the gleam of skulls through the over-growing mass of tendrils. With a sense of growing horror it became obvious that the entire crater was filled with human skeletons, to a depth he could only guess at. A vast ossuary, a final resting place for the mass victims of… what, the great plague? Thousands of bodies. Millions even. As social order collapsed and burial or cremation services were overwhelmed, they’d been dumped, here, in this great plague pit. Truck-loads of them. Carts and barrows full of them, emptied here, anonymously, and left to rot. Thoughts of his dreams returned, the whispers and stirrings he’d heard during the night, when he’d tried to sleep in such close proximity to this foulness. Sick with revulsion he fled, until the weight of millions of dead people were too distant to reach him.
It was a while before his stomach settled. But with sufficient altitude he could just about decipher the long straight line of the highway stretching out beneath the overgrowing wilderness, and used it as a guide to travel by. These were vast depopulated areas with no sign of human habitation, but for the ribs of dark submerged architectural shapes buried into the landscape like melancholy earthworks. Eventually even the ghost highway was lost beneath endless shimmering saltwater wetlands that seemed to extend forever, populated by flocks of wheeling circling wading birds more numerous even than the mass bird-migrations he’d seen in Africa. It was a preternatural vision of a world in which humans had no part, and there was no trace that their intervention had ever been. As though the forward progress of time had been arrested, and here was slipping backwards. A land that had broken free from history, and had been set in reverse, gradually unravelling the ages, drifting back to a primordial state it had not previously known since the retreat of the Ice Ages. Once or twice he imagined he saw people, but circling back to investigate he could find nothing but shadows and trees mirrored in the dense green water. He was hallucinating. Was solitude undermining his sense of reality? He was cold and sick. As the last vestiges of daylight failed, twinkling off the wetlands, he was forced to track west to where higher ground allowed him to set down and seek shelter. With the jet-sound pulsing lower and dying a wave of silence rolled in from the marshes, perfect, unbroken, frozen in the cold phosphorescent light of a giant moon. He felt feverish, vomited, and endured another night of fear intensified by spasming stomach-cramps and diarrhoea, beneath a clear sky of ice-sharp stars. His ankle burned. Thoughts of infection terrified him, what if he’d contracted a plague virus as he travelled across Europe? Thoughts of the dream, the corpse beneath the cairn, looted by wolves. To die alone here of some grotesque disease was too horrific to contemplate.
By now he’d almost dismissed the idea of ever rejoining the expedition. It seemed distant, unreal. Something from another life. Another planet. All that remained was the idea of movement. Nothing would stop him now. Nothing. He tried to conjure Maombi’s face, Amiri Mwantulujali’s, D’Annunzio’s, even Ineke Breuning’s and Amrik’s, but they all seemed insubstantial, beings from an ephemeral time that he’d gone beyond. Instead, he was living inside his own head. A place he’d always felt most at ease. He sat on a weathered crag speed-editing his retinal-log and sending it off to a Uniplex he could scarce believe still existed, watching as the sun came up, igniting the fens in flame all the way to the horizon, illuminating a world remade in innocence. Wiped clean. He’d always thought of Europe in terms of endings, tired, grimy and weighted down by centuries. The way the Parisian Extinctionists had thought of it. But this was not an end. This was the first morning of time, waking from the long nightmare of history. The visible ribbons of his breath curled away as he exhaled, as though he was breathing out all of his past, and drawing in this purifying newness.
Finding an untidy nest at the edge of the wetland, he helped himself to eggs. Eating them raw, they gave him strength. He went north…
Marley Mchenga was a robot probe. Totally beyond reach. Like the archive film of unmanned spacecraft plummeting down into the hostile methane atmosphere of gas-giant planets to certain heat-death friction or compression through super-massive atmospheric pressures, yet broadcasting remarkably constant data-streams of information every nano-second of descent. He was irretrievably lost. There was now no chance of his survival. Yet his course was being monitored, and the images they were receiving were stunning. The rest of the expedition had been forced to cut their losses, abandon their wayward member, and withdraw. Worsening local conditions left them no option. There was also news of some kind of coup at the D’Annunzio Chemical complex. The new regime blamed African interference in propagating seditionary ideas, and all diplomatic channels had been severed. So it was no longer safe for them to return through Italy. Instead, they were heading south-west for a rendezvous point along the Catalan coast. Local conditions permitting. Not a great deal was known about the area. There was a long history of bitter secessionist civil war, complicated by the rival Papalcies established after the ‘Armoured Gideon’ plague. But even the most recent reports were decades old, and all had been quiet since then. Hopefully. In the meantime, the ‘Geographical Society’ monitored Marley Mchenga’s retinal-log as he headed ever-north, as though unseen forces were guiding him in certain directions. No compass but his thoughts. But where else was there for him to go…
--- 0 ---
‘THE HIDDEN RACE’
To the wide-eyed monitors watching the images streaming onscreen into the Uniplex of Jo’berg ‘Geographical Society’ centre, Marley Mchenga’s retinal-log continued yielding a wealth of results. They watched as his journey continued. The first sighting of the dome-network intensified their fascination. How far north had he travelled? They tried co-ordinating his location with satellite positioning. A couple of contentions were suggested. It was a broad flat plain. Massed herds of deer, glimpses of wolf-packs slinking through endless forest - mixed-species as though cross-bred with once-domestic dogs, wild pigs too, but no signs of the human stain. He circled a family of bears splashing in the shingle-shallows beside a stream, they regarded him with open curiosity. They’d obviously never encountered a human being before. No evidence of animal husbandry or cultivation. As though it had never been. He paused to watch the bears, standing on the edge of a deep cool forest of oak, beech and hornbeam, everywhere its depths were shades of startling electric green, with the hush of breeze rippling the treetops. And he couldn’t help thinking it was good. This is right. Nature is renewing itself. We are flecks of the world, not its masters. As the Jo’berg lecturer had said. Earth shrugged, and its temporary irritant vanished. Whether the agency it used was climate-change, war, economic collapse, mutated virus as D’Annunzio supposed, or a cocktail of the several, didn’t matter, the end result was the same. A new beginning, in which – if we ever return here, we will be more respectful flecks. More attuned to the rhythms of our planet.
Then, when he’d assumed there was nothing left of civilisation this far north, across the horizon there was what at first resembled a field of gigantic mushrooms. At first sight it was hard to know what to make of them. Mchenga altered course in their direction. They were further than they at first appeared. Their scale larger. Separated from the plain by low-lying mist they almost seemed to hover above the earth. Yet they must once have been even more visible, and from a greater distance, although erosion and plant-growth now camouflaged them. The formation of domes was surrounded by an overgrown debris-field of rubble which had once perhaps been support-structures or peripheral buildings. Each interconnected dome – higher than any city-block he’d ever seen, covered a vast enclosed area. Each was opaque, until, almost at the point of their highest curvature, they became transparent. He had to climb higher. It was cold. His skin prickled in reaction. He became breathless, as though the air was more rarefied, although, of course, that was impossible. How many domes were there? As many as fifty of them. From the highest altitude he could tolerate it seemed they were spaced in two concentric circles, one inside the other, with interconnections, and a central complex that was more irregular. Most of the domes were intact, several of them had collapsed central sections. But despite that, the unbroken sections of curvature were still smooth beneath their lichen-coating. He withdrew some distance away and settled into an undergrowth of gorse and heather, into warm orange and white-star blossom, to squat there, watching low cloud drift across the sky. He watched the domes indecisively for several hours. This was it. The objective he’d journeyed so far to reach. ‘The Last Equation’. The prospect of an end to the quest intimidated him. A reaction he’d not expected. He was tempted to turn and go, now, while he still had chance. Leave its mysteries intact. ‘The Golden People’ she’d said. This vast experiment had been designed to investigate why that should be so. The answers to the human question, why are we what we are? To what degree does free will play its part, over genetic determinism?
But once decided on a course of action he ascended again, towards the nearest of the broached domes, until - hovering over the shattered section he was able to look down into its interior. It had obviously once been a sealed area. K’s across, brightly illuminated and luxuriantly vegetated, the light within was clear and yellowy-bright although it had no obvious source. He’d noted there was a solar array at the central complex, an unexpectedly advanced technology to find here, and even more surprising to find it still functioning, still serving its original purpose. Inching the control-arm meticulously, he descended inside slowly, carving a gradual cometry arc across the enclosed ‘sky’. A bizarre image in his stolen greatcoat worn over his African robes, his stout boots on bare legs. It was warm inside. Tropically warm. An almost African warmth. Settling uneasily into a landscape of lush sub-tropical plants. His thoughts were of the dead he’d left behind in the Parisian city. So again he squatted down for long moments, but there seemed to be no immediate threat, and no reaction to his presence. Until he noticed the eyes. Wide almond female eyes. Concealed in the undergrowth, but watching him.
The moment lasted for seconds, and yet forever. He raised his hands in appeal, ‘please, my name is Marley Mchenga. I represent the Pan-African Congress Geographical Society’. She ran. But not out of fear. She ran in a kind of playful teasing way. He lurched to follow her, catching glimpses of colour and pale skin-tone as she ducked and weaved through riots of foliage. ‘No, wait, please.’ She was glancing back at him over her shoulder, long blonde hair, teasing him, pausing to allow him to catch up, then frisking away again. He was tired, his limbs aching. Eventually he slowed to a halt, his breath coming in huge exhalations, slumping down bracing himself with his hands on his knees. And she was there, watching him. ‘Please wait…’ ‘You have come from the sky?’ she said, as though posing a riddle. ‘I am Marley Mchenga. I represent the Pan-African Congress Geographical Society. Our expedition was mounted to discover the site of the great experiment known as the ‘Last Equation’ he explained. ‘And you’ve come from the sky?’ she pointed up to the circle of sky visible through the fractured curvature of the dome. He sat down heavily on the soft grass, and she took a step towards him. Her skin had a near-transparent whiteness, but whether that was natural or the result of long sunlessness he couldn’t guess. She wore a kind of short flimsy tunic, through which the contours of her body were barely concealed. She wore a gardenia in her hair. She was – he thought, the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen. Something from a book of fantasies, a wood-nymph or nature-sprite. His breathing was too laboured to say the things he wanted to say. ‘Who are you?’ he managed at length, ‘what is this place?’
She approached him less warily now, and squatted cross-legged on the grass, regarding him curiously. With a flame in her far-away eyes. Then she reached out, offering him a fruit. He took it gratefully. It was pale peach-coloured, its skin softly-furred, when he bit into it, its flesh dissolved into a juice so delicious that it shocked his tired senses, running down his chin in sticky drools. ‘I am Weena’ she said, ‘and this is the world’. Her touch on his skin was so light he could barely feel its warmth. She led him through the glade. There was a shallow river that ran through its centre. The water was sharp and clear, rippling across a bed of pure white pebbles. There was a group of people there. She told him names – Starzl, Huer, Miller, most of which he immediately forgot. They were all as pale and beautiful as she was. ‘This is McChenga, the man from the sky’ she announced. He began to correct her mispronunciation of his name, then shrugged, it didn’t matter. They surrounded him, but not in a threatening way, more like curious children, running soft fingers over the coarseness of his coat, the tight ribbing of his hair. He felt gauche, clumsy and travel-soiled in their presence. At length Weena took him by the hand and conducted him a little way further into the enclosed environment to where organically rounded portals led them down into a warmly illuminated network of ornate underground chambers. This is where the strange people of the dome had their living quarters. He was unable to determine how far they extended, although he was free to roam as he wished, and from confusing hints and glimpses got the impression that they went on for some considerable way. There were bathing facilities. She helped him undress, running her fingers wonderingly over his body. He felt grimy and travel-soiled, his skin scabbed, blistered, and raw, his ankle still painfully inflamed, but the warm water and unguents she caressed into him were rejuvenating. Later he slept long and deep, with her curled in comfortingly beside him.
Were there days and nights in this enclosed realm? Or was the illumination timed to some cycle that merely imitated it? He was unable to tell. And was soon too preoccupied with Weena to bother. She was fascinating. He told her, although he was sure she didn’t understand, about how he’d grown up in the township. About how he’d always been scared of what women represented. Because he desired them, they had the potential power to rip open his inner vulnerability, and hurt him in confusing and humiliating ways. They were mysterious, alien. He’d never understood how to relate to them. So he’d tried to stay aloof, untouched. Weena was different. It was so easy to talk to her. She was warm and open. They spent playful days together, as his strength and health returned, walking in the glades, bathing in the pools, sleeping together, and soon, making love. He was lost in the unreality of the place. She’d never been outside the dome. Had no real concept of what ‘outside’ even meant. Piecing together histories from what she said it was obvious that generations had lived and died in here until all awareness of anything else had been lost. But, like her, it was easy to believe that nothing existed beyond the dome. Everything he’d known had ceased to exist. He was content and at peace in ways that he’d never before believed possible. He talked with Starzl, one of the men he’d first met at the stream. They were all friendly and intelligent. They seemed to live on a diet of fruit, supplemented by roots and vegetable dug from neat cultivated plots, prepared with blends of sauces and richly spiced. Everyone was collectively involved in whatever work there was to do, there was no leader of hierarchy of power. Days were spent in conversation, and play. But mostly he stayed with Weena.
One morning he woke alone. He’d lost track of time, he no longer knew how long he’d been there, or what time had elapsed. He felt suddenly scared. He’d grown used to waking into Weena’s warm embrace. Grown used to her being there, she was the first thing he saw as he opened his eyes. He stood up slowly and pulled his robe around him, then paced softly across the floor. Sleeping chambers were rounded, like wombs, interconnected one with another, so it was easy to step through where figures slept beneath woven covers or on low mattresses. The light was still pale. He stepped carefully through chamber after chamber… until he found her. He couldn’t believe what he saw. She sat up knuckling her eyes sleepily. She was lying beside Starzl. They were both naked. She smiled at him, pleased to see him, with no trace of guilt of remorse. He stood frozen, unable to move. It was Maombi’s ‘new liaison’ with Amiri all over again. The same protests against the ‘restrictions of exclusivity’. How could he have been so stupid? How could he have allowed this to happen to him again? His first rage was to attack Starzl, and beat him to a pulp. He growled and lurched forward. For the first time he saw fear and confusion on their faces. They were unsure what he intended. Scared of his animal brutality. He reeled back, and fought his way outside, to the surface. What had he done? He’d neglected his mission, his retinal-log, he’d neglected everything, caught up in some kind of insane fantasy. Where had he left the flying unit? It seemed so long ago. Lost on the other side of an impossible dream. Yet it was there, where he’d left it, untouched. He checked it out as thoroughly as his trembling fingers allowed. The charge was about three-quarters depleted. That still left hours, days – weeks even of flying time left. He had things to do. He’d wasted too much time already. Weena came after him, a strange expression on her face. One he’d never seen before, one he could scarcely bear to see on her face. He’d come into this place, and he’d brought something new with him. They knew nothing of hurt, or jealousy, until now. She couldn’t understand, she’d never understand.
He ignited the jets without allowing a moment’s space for pause, and climbed slowly into the enclosed sky. The shock of emerging into the world beyond was breath-catching. Coming up out of the shattered teeth of broken stone there was a cool wind soughing over the dome-formation that made him grit his teeth. A comet of light hurled past him, or was it just the sudden inundation of natural light and weather after spending so long enclosed? As his eyes adjusted he allowed the wind to carry him away from Weena, across the space that separated him from the next accessible dome. He hovered over its shattered crown. Then slowly descended into a vast emptiness. There was nothing. The inner walls were encrusted black, as though scorched by fire or an immense explosion. The floor was dry lifeless dirt. He wasted no more time but continued on to the next dome. Although it was shattered, dense foliage boiling up from inside made entry impossible. From what he could gauge the entire dome was filled with plant-growths to the exclusion of anything else, although there was an insectile ticking he couldn’t quite identify. The next two domes were also empty. He’d begun to think that he’d find no further signs of life, until, after a series of intact domes it was impossible to enter, he approached the next warily. Lowering himself through an opening at its highest point he was instantly alerted that this one was different. There was the inner glow of light, but shifted in some subtle disturbing way towards an annoying red-blue cast. He descended. Settling slowly into a more uneven landscape of craggy rock outcrops and clefts interspersed with gaunt trees and sparse vegetation. In his haste to escape the first dome he hadn’t thought to retrieve his greatcoat, and he could feel the chill of the place. As he set foot in a narrow valley something scuttled away from him, disappearing through balsaltic formations of stone. A dog perhaps, or a wolf. It seemed an unpromising place. He attempted to orientate himself. If they had all originally been constructed around a similar plan there should be a central stream here that corresponded to the one in the first dome. He set out in roughly the direction he estimated that to be. He’d not progressed far when he sensed he was being observed. Behind a prickly barrier of thorn-bushes he became aware of wide almond female eyes watching him.
Again, he raised his hands in appeal, ‘please, my name is Marley Mchenga. I represent the Pan-African Congress Geographical Society’. She broke cover and bolted. He could scarcely believe his eyes. ‘Weena? wait, please.’ He lurched to follow her, catching glimpses of colour and pale skin-tone as she ducked and weaved between trees and rock spurs. She glanced back at him over her shoulder, it was her, he was sure it was. But, not quite as he remembered her. Different in the way she moved, more furtive. No longer playful. Was this some kind of revenge game she was playing on him? And how had she got here, all the way across domes? Perhaps they were interconnected in some way he’d not realised, and they’d deliberately kept that information from him? The valley-floor was hard and uneven. His feet skidded across screes of loose shingle. He called out to her but she never paused, until it suddenly seemed to him that she was leading him into a dead-end. She could go so far, and then her escape path was barred by a steep cliff. She turned to face him defensively. It was her, it was Weena. He was still some way away from her, he reached out his hand. Her eyes flickered upwards. He followed the direction of her attention. Things happened fast. On the brow of the cliff was a man. It was Starzl. She’d deliberately been drawing Mchenga towards this point, where Starzl had been waiting. He had a weapon. A kind of hand-bow. As Mchenga squinted upwards into the ruddy light towards him, he fired. The dart caught Mchenga’s shoulder, the force and shock of its impact drove him back. He stumbled and fell. ‘No, wait, it’s me, Marley Mchenga…’ Starzl was reloading. Weena was watching them both with a grim smirk of satisfaction. Mchenga half rose, crawled backwards. His shoulder was bleeding, the pain was excruciating. He half fell half-tumbled back down the incline. Starzl fired again but the dart spranged off a rock pillar spraying him with splinters. He broke into a shambling run back the way he’d come. Breathing out his pain in huge exhalations. As soon as he was sufficiently clear he stopped and reignited the jets, climbing into the enclosed sky. From his vantage point he could see it all. Weena, Starzl, and a prowling circle of others closing in on the point they expected to find him, their aggressive intent immediately obvious.
He rocketed up out of the crest of the shattered dome, driven by fear and confusion back into the open sky, he travelled at speed, and didn’t stop until he was some safe distance away from the whole formation, where he allowed himself to settle back into the undergrowth of gorse and heather, into warm orange and white-star blossom. He doubled up in pain. Perhaps there was some kind of toxic poison on the dart? The stubby missile was still there, protruding from his shoulder. He tried to pull it free, but cried out with the shocks of agony that hit him, it hurt too much, it must be barbed. He sprawled there sweating and crying as waves of pain danced and receded, only to intensify again, watching low cloud scull across the sky in a kind of glazed horror. He could still see the domes. Although he was some distance away they dominated the skyline. Several hours passed. His attention drifted. This is ‘The Last Equation’ he lectured himself. The objective he’d journeyed so far, across two continents, and endured so much, to reach. And it was insane. He couldn’t understand any of what had happened. It was a nightmare beyond comprehension, and he still carried its toxic legacy embedded in his shoulder. Its poison seeping through his bloodstream. He knew with absolute certainty that he was going to die here. Cold, alone, in pain, and still no nearer to the end of his quest. ‘The Golden People’ Maombi had said. What did that mean? What did any of it mean? The damp grit beneath him. The gorse swaying and hissing in the breeze, the brilliant mauve sky, the mysteries intact. Cairns of stone. As in his dream. He was feverish, spasming stomach-cramps wracked him as though he was going to vomit. He was hallucinating. He must be hallucinating. The wind was screaming at him. The gorse tearing and ripping in frantic convulsions all around him, hands were reaching out to seize him. He fought them with every remnant of strength that remained, but he was being carried roughly across a space of ground into… a helicopter?
He awoke lying on clean white sheets. The throb of engines. A motion he recognised but could not yet identify. The pillow under his head was cool. There was a dressing on his shoulder, his arm was stiff, but he was able to move his fingers. He experimentally moved them, one by one.
‘Ah, you’re with us,’ a man looking down at him ‘we thought we’d lost you back there. It was touch and go for some time’. He struggled to get up, but didn’t realise how weak he’d become. He slumped back into the bunk. He began ‘I am Marley Mchenga. I represent the Pan-African Congress Geographical Society…’ but the stranger cut him off, not unkindly. ‘We know all that. You’ve been raving it all at us for days and nights since we picked you up. I don’t think there’s a great deal you haven’t told us.’ ‘Where am I? Who are you?’ ‘Get some sleep, you need it. We’ll talk later.’ Oddly, he accepted what the stranger said. It made sense. He slept. Every now and then he woke and retained fleeting images of movement and light.
He was sitting, protectively covered in a blanket, on the deck of a ship. It was a larger vessel than Breuning’s had been. As he looked around him he noticed the standard the craft was flying belonged to one of the Scandinavian Soviets. Mchenga was not sure which. And he could see the copter pad – amazingly, for the only sort of flight that existed in Africa was by solar-dirigible. How had this machine survived? How was it fuelled? Obviously some degree of sophisticated culture survived here. ‘Thank you’ he said simply, ‘thank you for saving me.’ ‘No problem’ said the man sitting beside him. The tall blonde bearded man he’d learned was called Carlsenn, ‘but you’ve set us quite a problem Mr Mchenga. You requisitioned an item of our equipment. It has taken us some considerable time to track it down’ he laughed in a way that suggested the charge was less than serious, ‘in mitigation, we’ve been offshore watching this coast for a long time. We couldn’t ascertain if it was safe enough yet to re-establish a little Danelaw on what’s left of Britland. It was impossible for us to determine whether the contagions had run their course. I guess, thanks to the extent of your travels, and thanks to the tests we’ve carried out on you while you’ve been recuperating with us, we’ve more or less proved that it is clean. But then again, you’ve interfered with the Last Equation too.’
‘What happens now?’ ‘We were kind-of hoping that perhaps you could help us out with that. You and that Pan-African Congress Geographical Society you keep talking about. It’s time we started working together. It’s about time people began to link up again, across the world. Don’t you think so, Mr Mchenga? You must have thought that way to have risked so much, and to have come so far. I admire you for doing that. Now, perhaps, we can reciprocate.’
‘You know about the domes?’ ‘We know. We’ve been watching them too. We know all about the legacy of the Equation.’
‘There are people living inside those domes. People who have never been outside the domes. People who don’t even know that there is an outside to the domes.’ ‘Yes. But what can we do to help them? There were fifty domes established at the origin of the Last Equation. Each one of them, an enclosed self-sustaining habitat, peopled by an identically cloned population, up to a hundred people in each, subjected to a variety of different controlled environmental conditions to determine what affect those conditions would have on cultural behaviour. Half a dozen isolated cultures of them are still in there, into the nth generation. We should get together, your people, and mine, and work out the best way to help them.’
Mchenga looked out over the sea. He could see the distant shoreline. He imagined he could see the shadowy curves of the domes still further into the distance. What makes us ‘The Golden People’? Why has Africa survived while the rest of the world has not. What makes one Weena love me, and another want to destroy me? A change in the light? A degree of warmth instead of cold? Fruit instead of thorns? Are we so insubstantial that we can be moulded so easily? I don’t believe that. Whatever we have done, we can undo. Whatever we are, we can change. I rose above the limitations of my background, so can they. ‘We can start here’ he told Carlsenn. ‘We can rescue those people and rehabilitate them. Broach the domes, allow them to adjust to the world outside, but gradually, at their own pace. And I need to be a part of that process. I want to go back in there. This is what I’ve been brought here to do, this is the realisation of my destiny.’ He closed his eyes, speed-editing his retinal-log. This conversation must be beamed out complete. Bounced from satellite across hemisphere back to the Uniplex. They mustn’t miss a moment of this…
Published in its original short form as ‘The Black Light’ in:
‘SFINX no.11’ (UK – March 1976)