Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
THE FIRST PART
THE VOYAGE TO AFRICA
“One of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the Slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood…afresh dawns the morn of life….”
Murder at Fryston
“The future influences the present just as much as the past.”
Sir Richard Francis Burton wriggled beneath a bush at the edge of a thicket in the top western corner of Green Park, London, and cursed himself for a fool. He should have realised that he'd lose consciousness. He should have arrived earlier to compensate. Now the whole mission was in jeopardy.
He lay flat for a moment, until the pain in his side abated, then hefted his rifle and propped himself up on his elbows, aiming the weapon at the crowd below. He glanced at the inscription on its stock. It read: Lee-Enfield Mk III. Manufactured in Tabora, Africa, 1918.
Squinting through the telescopic sight, he examined the faces of the people gathering around the path at the bottom of the slope.
Where was his target?
His eyes blurred. He shook his head slightly, trying to dispel an odd sense of dislocation, the horrible feeling that he was divided into two separate identities. He'd first experienced this illusion during fevered bouts of malaria in Africa back in '57, then again four years later, when he was made the king's agent. He thought he'd conquered it. Perhaps he had. After all, this time there really were two of him.
It was the afternoon of the 10th of June, 1840, and a much younger Richard Burton was currently travelling from Italy through Europe, on his way to enrol at Trinity College, Oxford.
Recalling that wayward, opinionated, and ill-disciplined youngster, he whispered, “Time changed me, thank goodness. The question is, can I return the favour?”
He aimed from face to face, seeking the man he'd come to shoot.
It was a mild day. The gentlemen sported light coats and top hats, and carried canes. The ladies were adorned in bonnets and dainty gloves and held parasols. They were all waiting to see Queen Victoria ride past in her carriage.
He levelled the crosshairs at one person after another. Young Edward Oxford was somewhere among the crowd, an insane eighteen-year-old with two flintlock pistols under his frock coat and murder on his mind. But Burton was not here to gun down the queen's would-be assassin.
“Damnation!” His hands were shaking. Lying stretched out like this would have been uncomfortable for any man his age-he was forty-seven years old-but it was made far worse by the two ribs the prime minister's man, Gregory Hare, had broken. They felt like a knife in his side.
He shifted cautiously, trying not to disturb the bush. It was vital that he remain concealed.
A face caught his attention. It was round, decorated with a large moustache, and possessed a palpable air of arrogance. Burton had never seen the individual before-at least not with this appearance-but he knew him: Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, called by many the “Mad Marquess.” The man was the founder of the Libertines, a politically influential movement that preached freedom from social shackles and which passionately opposed technological progress. Three years from now, Beresford was going to lead a breakaway group of radicals, the Rakes, whose anarchic philosophy would challenge social propriety. The marquess believed that the human species was restricting its own evolution; that each individual had the potential to become a trans-natural man, a being entirely free of restraint, with no conscience or self-doubt, a thing that did whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. It was a dangerous idea-the Great War had proved that to Burton-but not one that concerned him at this particular moment.
“I'll be dealing with you twenty-one years from now,” he murmured.
A distant cheer echoed across the park. The gates of Buckingham Palace had opened and the royal carriage was steering out onto the path.
“Come on!” Burton whispered. “Where are you?”
Where was the man he'd come to kill?
Where was Spring Heeled Jack?
He peered through the 'scope. The scene he saw through its lens was incomprehensible. Shapes, movement, shadows, deep colours; they refused to coalesce into anything of substance. The world had shattered, and he was splintered and scattered among its debris.
Dead. Obviously, he was dead.
No. Stop it. This won't do. Don't submit to it. Not again.
He closed his eyes, dug his fingernails into his palms, and pulled his lips back over his teeth. By sheer force of will, he located the disparate pieces of himself and drew them together, until:
Frank Baker. My name is Frank Baker.
Good. That felt familiar.
He smelled cordite. Noise assaulted his ears. The air was hot.
Frank Baker. Yes. The name had slipped from his mouth in response to a medic's query.
“And what are you, Mr. Baker?”
A strange question.
An equally strange answer. Like the name, it had come out of nowhere, but the overworked medics were perfectly satisfied with it.
Spells of nothingness had followed. Fevers. Hallucinations. Then recovery. They'd assumed he was with the civilian Observer Corps, and placed him under the charge of the short squeaky-voiced individual currently standing at his side.
What else? What else? What were those things I was looking at?
He opened his eyes. There wasn't much light.
He became aware of something crushed in his fist, opened his hand, looked down at it, and found that he was holding a red poppy. It felt important. He didn't know why. He slipped it into his pocket.
Pushing the brim of his tin helmet back, he wiped sweat from his forehead, then lifted the top of his periscope over the lip of the trench and peered through its viewfinder again. To his left, the crest of a bloated sun was melting into a horizon that quivered in the heat, and ahead, in the gathering gloom, seven towering, long-legged arachnids were picking their way through the red weed that clogged no-man's-land. Steam was billowing from their exhaust funnels, pluming stark white against the darkening purple sky.
Harvestmen, he thought. Those things are harvestmen spiders bred to a phenomenal size by the Technologists' Eugenicist faction. No, wait, not Eugenicists-they're the enemy-our lot are called Geneticists. The arachnids are grown and killed and gutted and engineers fit out their carapaces with steam-driven machinery.
He examined the contraptions more closely and noted details that struck him as different-but different from what? There were, for instance, Gatling guns slung beneath their small bodies, where Baker expected to see cargo nets. They swivelled and glinted and flashed as they sent a hail of bullets into the German trenches, and their metallic clattering almost drowned out the chug of the vehicles' engines. The harvestmen were armour-plated, too, and each driver, rather than sitting on a seat fitted inside the hollowed-out body, was mounted on a sort of saddle on top of it, which suggested that the space inside the carapace was filled with bigger, more powerful machinery than-than-
What am I comparing them with?
“Quite a sight, isn't it?” came a high-pitched voice.
Baker cleared his throat. He wasn't ready to communicate, despite a vague suspicion that he'd already done so-that he and the small man beside him had made small talk not too many minutes ago.
He opened his mouth to speak, but his companion went on: “If I were a poet, I might do it justice, but it's too much of a challenge for a mere journalist. How the devil am I to describe such an unearthly scene? Anyone who hasn't actually witnessed it would think I'm writing a scientific romance. Perhaps they'll call me the new Jules Verne.”
Think! Come on! String together the man's words. Break the back of the language. Glean meaning from it.
He sucked in a breath as a memory flowered. He was on a bed in the field hospital. There was a newspaper in his hands. He was reading a report, and it had been written by this short, plump little fellow.
Yes, that's it. Now speak, Baker. Open your mouth and speak!
“You'll manage,” he said. “I read one of your articles the other day. You have a rare talent. Who's Jules Verne?”
He saw the little man narrow his eyes and examine him through the twilight, trying to make out his features.
“A French novelist. He was killed during the fall of Paris. You haven't heard of him?”
“I may have,” Baker answered, “but I must confess, I remember so little about anything that I'm barely functional.”
“Ah, of course. It's not an uncommon symptom of shell shock, or of fever, for that matter, and you suffered both severely by all accounts. Do you know why you were in the Lake Regions?”
The Lake Regions? They are in-they are in Africa! This is Africa!
“I haven't the foggiest notion. My first recollection is of being borne along on a litter. The next thing I knew, I was here, being poked at by the medical staff.”
The journalist grunted and said, “I did some asking around. The men from the Survey Corps found you near the western shore of the Ukerewe Lake, on the outskirts of the Blood Jungle. A dangerous place to be-always swarming with Germans. You were unarmed, that odd glittering hieroglyph appeared to have been freshly tattooed into your head, and you were ranting like a madman.”
Baker reached up, pushed his hand beneath his helmet, and ran his fingers through his short hair. There were hard ridges in his scalp.
“I don't remember any of that.”
I don't remember. I don't remember. I don't remember.
“The surveyors wanted to take you to Tabora but the route south was crawling with lurchers, so they legged it east until they hooked up with the battalions gathering here. You were in and out of consciousness throughout the hike but never lucid enough to explain yourself.”
The correspondent was suddenly interrupted by the loud “Ulla! Ulla!” of a siren. It was a harvestman spider signalling its distress. He turned his attention back to his periscope and Baker followed suit.
One of the gigantic vehicles had become entangled. Scarlet tendrils were coiling around its stilt-like legs, snaking up toward the driver perched high above the ground. The man was desperately yanking at the control levers in an attempt to shake the writhing plant from his machine. He failed. The harvestman leaned farther and farther to its left, then toppled over, dragged down by the carnivorous weed. The siren gurgled and died. The driver rolled from his saddle, tried to stand, fell, and started to thrash about. He screeched as plant pods burst beneath his weight and sprayed him with acidic sap. His uniform erupted into flames and the flesh bubbled and fizzled from his bones. It took less than a minute for the weed to reduce him to a naked skeleton.
“Poor sod,” the little man muttered. He lowered his surveillance instrument and shook dust from his right hand. “Did you see the weed arrive yesterday? I missed it. I was sleeping.”
“Apparently a thin ribbon of cloud, like a snake, blew in from the sea and rained the seeds. The plant sprouted overnight and it's been growing ever since. It appears quite impassable. I tell you, Baker, those blasted Hun sorcerers know their stuff when it comes to weather and plants. It's how they still drum hundreds of thousands more Africans into the military than we do. The tribes are so superstitious, they'll do anything you say if they believe you can summon or prevent rain and grow them a good crop. Colonel Crowley is having a tough time opposing them-the sorcerers, I mean.”
Baker struggled to process all this. Sorcerers? Plants? Weather control?
“Crowley?” he asked.
The shorter man raised his eyebrows. “Good lord! Your brain really is shot through! Colonel Aleister Crowley. Our chief medium. The wizard of wizards!”
Baker said nothing.
The correspondent shrugged in bafflement, pressed up against the side of the trench as a line of troops pushed past, chuckled as a sergeant said, with a grin and a wink, “Keep your heads down, gents, I don't want holes in those expensive helmets,” then turned back to his 'scope. Baker watched this and struggled to overcome his sense of detachment.
I don't belong here. I don't understand any of it.
He wiped his sleeve across his mouth-the atmosphere was thick with humidity and he was sweating profusely-then put his eye to his periscope's lens.
Two more of the harvestmen were being pulled down into the wriggling flora. He said, “How many men must die before someone orders the blasted vehicles to pull back?”
“We won't retreat,” came the answer. “This is our last chance. If we can capture German resources in Africa, we might be able to launch some sort of counterattack in Europe. If not, we're done for. So we'll do whatever it takes, even if it means pursuing forlorn hopes. Look! Another one has gone down!”
The three remaining harvestmen set their sirens screaming: “Ulla! Ulla! Ulla! Ulla!”
The journalist continued, “Terrible racket. One could almost believe the damned spiders are alive and terrified.”
Baker shook his head slightly. “Strictly speaking, they're not spiders. Spiders are of the order Aranaea, whereas harvestmen are Opiliones.”
How do I know that?
The war correspondent snorted. “They're not of any order now-not since our Technologists scraped 'em out!”
All along the British trenches, men started to blow on whistles.
“Damn! Here comes our daily dose of spores. Get your mask on.”
Baker moved without thinking about it. His hands went to his belt, opened a canvas container, pulled out a thick rubber mask, and slid it over his face. He and his companion looked at each other through circular glass eyepieces.
“I hate the smell of these things,” the smaller man said, his voice muffled. “And they make me claustrophobic. Far too stifling an item to wear in this infernal climate. What say we go back to the dugout for a brew? It's getting too dark for us to see much more here anyway. Time for a cuppa! Come on!”
Baker took a last glance through his periscope. His mask's eyepieces blurred the scene, and Africa's fast-descending night obscured it even further, but he could just make out that on the far side of the weed a thick yellow cloud was advancing, appearing luminescent against the inky sky. He shivered, turned, and followed the other along the front-line trench, into a communications ditch, and back to one of the dugouts. They passed masked soldiers-mostly Askari, African recruits, many of them barely out of childhood-who sat despondently, waiting to go over the top.
The two men arrived at a doorway, pushed a heavy curtain aside, and entered. They removed their helmets and face gear.
“Make sure the curtain is hooked back into place, it'll keep the spores out. I'll get us some light,” the journalist said.
Moments later, a hurricane lamp illuminated the small underground bunker. It was sparsely furnished with two wooden beds, two tables, three chairs, and a couple of storage chests.
“Ugh!” Baker grunted. “Rats!”
“Nothing we can do about 'em. The little blighters are everywhere. They're the least of your problems. In a couple of days, that nice clean uniform of yours will be infested with lice and you'll feel like you're being eaten alive. Where's the bloody kettle? Ah, here!”
The little man got to work with a portable stove. In the light, his eyes were revealed to be a startling blue.
Baker stepped to the smaller of the two tables, which stood against the wall. There was a washbasin on it and a square mirror hanging on a nail just above. He sought his reflection but for some reason couldn't focus on it. Either his eyes wouldn't let him see himself, or he wasn't really there.
He moved to the other table, in the middle of the dugout, and sat down.
“The spores,” he said. “What are they? Where do they come from?”
“They're more properly called A-Spores. The Hun propagate giant mushrooms, a eugenically altered version of the variety commonly known as the Destroying Angel, or Amanita bisporigera, if you prefer your botany, like your entomology, in Latin. It's deadly, and so are its spores. Breathe them in and within seconds you'll experience vomiting, cramps, delirium, convulsions, and diarrhoea. You'll be dead in less than ten minutes.”
“Botanical weapons? The weed and now the mushroom spores. How horribly ingenious!”
The other man looked back at Baker with an expression of puzzlement. “It's common knowledge that the Germans use mostly plant-based armaments, surely? And occasional animal adaptations.”
“Is it? I'm sorry. As I said, my amnesia is near total. You mentioned something called lurchers?”
“Ah. Hum. Yes. Carnivorous plants. They were one of the first weapons the Germans developed. Originally they were battle vehicles, used throughout Africa. Then one day they spontaneously mutated and consumed their drivers, which somehow resulted in them gaining a rudimentary intelligence. After that they spread rapidly and are now a danger to both sides. If you see one, and there isn't a flamethrower handy, run for your life. They're particularly prevalent in the Lake Regions, where you were found.” The journalist paused, then added, “I didn't realise your memory was quite so defective. What about physically? How are you feeling?”
“Weak, but improving, and the ophthalmia has cleared up. I was halfblind when I regained consciousness in the hospital. That confounded ailment has plagued me on and off ever since India.”
“You were in India?”
Baker frowned and rubbed his chin. “I don't know. That just popped into my head. Yes, I feel I may have been.”
“India, by crikey! You should have stayed there. It might turn out to be the last bastion of civilisation on the whole bloody planet! Is that where you joined the Corps?”
“I suppose so.”
There came a distant boom, then another, and another. The ground shook. The journalist glanced at the ceiling.
“Artillery. Peashooters. Firing from the outskirts of Dar es Salaam.”
Baker muttered to himself, “Derived from bandar es-salaam, I should think. Ironic. It means harbour of peace.” Aloud, he said: “The landscape and climate feel familiar to me. Are we south of Zanzibar? Is there a village in the area called Mzizima?”
“Hah! Mzizima and Dar es Salaam are one and the same, Baker! Incredible, isn't it, that the death of the British Empire had its origins in such an insignificant little place, and now we're back here.”
“What do you mean?”
“It's generally believed that this is where the Great War began. Have you forgotten even that?”
“Yes, I fear I have. It began in Mzizima? How is that possible? As you say, it's an insignificant little place!”
“So you recall what Dar es Salaam used to be, at least?”
“I remember that it was once nothing more than a huddle of beehive huts.”
“Quite so. But that huddle was visited by a group of German surveyors a little over fifty years ago. No one knows why they came, or what occurred, but for some reason, fighting broke out between them and Al-Manat.”
“The pre-Islamic goddess of fate?”
“Is she, by gum! Not the same one, old chap. Al-Manat was the leader of a band of female guerrilla fighters. It's rumoured she was British but her true identity is shrouded in mystery. She's one of history's great enigmas. Anyway, the fighting escalated, Britain and Germany both sent more troops here, and Mzizima became the German East Africa Company's stronghold. The Schutztruppe-the Protection Force-formed there some forty years ago and rapidly expanded the settlement. It was renamed Dar es Salaam and the place has been thriving ever since. A situation our lads will reverse this weekend.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, my friend, that on Saturday, HMA Pegasus and HMA Astraea are going to bomb the city to smithereens.”
More explosions thumped outside. They were increasing in frequency. Everything shook. Baker glanced around nervously.
“Green peas,” his companion noted.
“You can tell just from the noise?”
“Yes. Straightforward impact strikes, like big cannonballs. The yellow variety explode when they hit and send poisonous shrapnel flying everywhere. They annihilated millions of our lads in Europe, but, fortunately, the plants don't thrive in Africa.”
Baker's fingers were gripping the edge of the table. The other man noticed, and reassured him: “We'll be all right. They take an age to get the range. Plus, of course, we're noncombatants, which means we're permitted to shelter in here, unlike the enlisted men. We'll be safe unless one of the blighters lands right on top of us, and the chances of that happening are very slim indeed.”
He got the kettle going and they sat wordlessly, listening to the barrage until the water boiled, then he spooned tea leaves into a metal pot and grumbled, “Rations are low.”
Baker noticed that his companion kept glancing back at him. He felt an inexplicable urge to duck out of the light, but there was no refuge from it. He looked on helplessly as the other man's face suddenly displayed a range of emotions in sequence: curiosity, perplexity, realisation, incredulity, shock.
The smaller man remained silent until the tea had brewed, then filled two tin mugs, added milk and sugar, handed one to Baker, sat down, blew the steam from his drink, and, raising his voice above the sound of pounding shells, asked: “I say, old chap, when did you last shave?”
Baker sighed. He murmured, “I wish I had a cigar,” put a hand into his pocket, and pulled out the poppy. He stared at it and said, absently, “What?”
“Your most recent shave. When was it?”
“I don't know. Maybe three days ago? Why do you ask?”
“Because, my dear fellow, that stubble entirely ruins your disguise. Once bearded or moustachioed, your features become instantly recognisable. They are every bit as forceful as reported, every bit as ruthless and masterful! By golly, those sullen eyes! That iron jaw! The savage scar on your cheek!”
Baker snapped, “What the devil are you blathering about?”
“I'm talking of the completely impossible and utterly incredible-but also of the perfectly obvious and indisputable!” The journalist grinned. He had to shout now-the barrage was battering violently at their ears. “Come come! I'll brook no denial, sir! I'm no fool. It's out of the question that you could be anyone else, even though it makes no sense at all that you are who you are.”
Baker glowered at him.
The other shouted, “Perhaps you'd care to explain? I assure you, I'm unusually open-minded, and I can keep a secret, if you want to impose that as a condition. My editor would never believe me anyway.”
There was a detonation just outside. The room jerked. The tea slopped. Baker started, recovered himself, and said loudly, “I really don't know what you're talking about.”
“Then allow me to make it clear. Frank Baker is most assuredly not your name.”
“Ha-ha! So you admit that you may not be who you say you are?”
“The name occurred to me when I was asked, but I'm by no means certain that it's correct.”
Baker flinched as another impact rocked the room.
“Fair enough,” the journalist shouted. “Well then, let us make proper introductions. I was presented to you as Mr. Wells. Drop it. No need for such formality. My name is Herbert. Herbert George. War Correspondent for the Tabora Times. Most people call me Bertie, so please feel free to do the same. And, believe me, I am both astonished and very happy to meet you.” He held out his hand and it was duly clasped and shaken. “Really, don't worry about the shelling, we are much safer in here than it feels. The Hun artillery is trying for the support trenches rather than the front line. They'll gain more by destroying our supplies than by knocking off a few of the Askaris.”
Baker gave a curt nod. His mouth worked silently for a moment. He kept glancing at the poppy in his hand, then he cleared his throat and said, “You know me, then? My actual name?”
“Yes, I know you,” Wells replied. “I've read the biographies. I've seen the photographs. I know all about you. You are Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous explorer and scholar. I cannot be mistaken.” He took a sip of his tea. “It makes no sense, though.”
“Because, my dear fellow, you appear to be in your mid-forties, this is 1914, and I happen to know that you died of old age in 1890!”
Baker-Burton-shook his head. “Then I can't be who you think I am,” he said, “for I'm neither old nor dead.”
At which point, with a terrible blast, the world came to an end.
The world came to an end for Thomas Bendyshe on New Year's Day, 1863. He was dressed as the Grim Reaper when he died. A committed and outspoken atheist, his final words were: “Oh God! Oh, sweet Jesus! Please, Mary mother of God, save me!”
His fellow members of the Cannibal Club later blamed this uncharacteristic outburst on the fact that strychnine poisoning is an extremely painful way to go.
They were gathered at Fryston-Richard Monckton Milnes's Yorkshire manor house-for a combined New Year and farewell fancy dress party. The farewell wasn't intended for Bendyshe-his demise was utterly unforeseen-but for Sir Richard Francis Burton and his expedition, which was leaving en route for Africa later in the week.
Fryston, which dated from the Elizabethan Age, lacked a ballroom but behind its stone-mullioned windows there were many spacious oak-panelled chambers, warmed by inglenook fireplaces, and these were filled with costumed guests. They included the Pre-Raphaelite artists, leading Technologists, authors and poets and actors, government ministers, Scotland Yard officials, and members of the Royal Geographical Society. A number of high-ranking officers from His Majesty's Airship Orpheus were in attendance, and among the female notables were Miss Isabella Mayson, Sister Sadhvi Raghavendra, Mrs. Iris Angell, and the famous Eugenicist-now Geneticist-Nurse Florence Nightingale, making for a very well-attended soiree, such as Monckton Milnes was famous for.
In the smoking room, Bendyshe, in a black hooded cloak and a skull mask, spent the minutes leading up to his death happily pranking the Greek god Apollo. The diminutive flame-haired Olympian, actually the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, dressed in a toga, with a laurel wreath upon his head and the gold-tipped arrow of Eros pushed through his waistband, was standing near a bay window with the Persian King Shahryar, Oliver Cromwell, Harlequin, and a cavalier; otherwise Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Secretary for War Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Monckton Milnes, and the Technologist captain of the Orpheus, Nathaniel Lawless.
Swinburne had just received a full glass of brandy from a passing waiter, who, like all the staff, was dressed in a Venetian Medico Della Peste costume, complete with its long-beaked bird mask. The poet took a gulp, placed the glass on an occasional table at his side, and turned back to Captain Lawless, saying: “But isn't it rather a large crew? I was under the impression that rotorships are flown by seven or eight, not-how many?”
“Counting myself,” the captain replied, “there are twenty-six, and that's not even a full complement.”
“My hat! How on earth do you keep yourselves occupied?”
Lawless laughed, his pale-grey eyes twinkling, his straight teeth whiter even than his snowy, tightly clipped beard. “I don't think you've quite grasped the size of the Orpheus,” he said. “She's Mr. Brunel's biggest flying machine. A veritable titan. When you see her tomorrow, I'll wager she'll take your breath away.”
The Technologist Daniel Gooch joined the group. As always, he was wearing a harness from which two extra mechanical arms extended. Swinburne had already expressed the opinion that the engineer should have outfitted himself as a giant insect. As a matter of fact, though, Gooch was dressed as a Russian Cossack. He said, “She's magnificent, Mr. Swinburne. Luxurious, too. Designed for passenger cruises. She'll carry the expedition, the supplies, and both your vehicles, with plenty of room to spare.”
Bendyshe, standing just behind the poet, with his back to him and conversing with Charles Bradlaugh-who was done up as Dick Turpin-surreptitiously took the brandy glass from the table. He slipped it beneath his mask, drained it in a single gulp, put it back, and winked at Bradlaugh through his mask's right eye socket.
“Are all the crew positions filled, Captain?” Burton asked. “I hear you had some problems.”
Lawless nodded. “The two funnel scrubbers supplied to us by the League of Chimney Sweeps proved rather too young and undisciplined for the job. They were playing silly beggars in the ventilation pipes and caused some considerable damage. I dismissed them at once.” He addressed Gooch, who was serving as chief engineer aboard the vessel: “I understand the replacements will join us at Battersea?”
“Yes, sir, and they'll bring with them a new length of pipe from the League.” One of his mechanical hands dipped into his jacket pocket and withdrew a notebook. He consulted it and said, “Their names are William Cornish and Tobias Threadneedle.”
“Cornish is a youngster, sir. Apparently Mr. Threadneedle is considerably older, though I expect he'll prove childishly small in stature, like all his kind.”
Unable to stop himself, Gooch glanced down at Swinburne, who poked out his tongue in response.
“A master sweep, no doubt,” Burton offered. “I believe the Beetle is attempting to incorporate their Brotherhood into the League.” He paused, then said, “Where have I heard the name William Cornish before?”
“From me,” Swinburne answered, in his high, piping voice. “I know him. And a fine young scamp he is, too, though rather too eager to spend his evenings setting traps in graveyards in the hope of catching a resurrectionist or two!” He reached for his glass, raised it to his lips, started, looked at it ruefully, and muttered, “Blast!” He signalled to a waiter.
“Resurrectionists? The Beetle? Pipes? What in heaven's name are we talking about?” Cornewall Lewis exclaimed.
Burton answered, “The Beetle is the rather mysterious head of the sweeps' organisation. A boy. Very intelligent and well read. He lives in a factory chimney.”
Swinburne took another glass of brandy from the waiter, sipped it, and placed it on the table.
“I never met the Beetle,” he said, “but I worked with Willy Cornish when I served under a master sweep named Vincent Sneed during Richard's investigation of the Spring Heeled Jack affair. Sneed was a vicious big-nosed lout whom I had the misfortune to bump into again during last summer's riots. I knocked the wind out of the swine.”
“You fell on top of him,” Burton corrected.
Unseen, Bendyshe took the poet's glass, swallowed almost all of its contents, and slid it back into position.
Bradlaugh whispered to him, “Are you sure that's wise, old man? You'll end up sloshed if you're not careful!”
“Nonshence,” Bendyshe slurred. “I'm jober as a sudge.”
Monckton Milnes turned to Lawless. “What exactly does a funnel scrubber do?”
“Normally, he'll be based at a landing field,” the aeronaut answered, “and is responsible for keeping a ship's smoke and steam outlets clean and free of obstruction. However, in the bigger vessels, which fly at a higher altitude, extensive internal pipe systems circulate warm air to ensure that a comfortable temperature is maintained in every cabin. The pipes are wide enough for a nipper to crawl through, and it's a funnel scrubber's job to do just that, cleaning out the dust and moisture that accrues.”
“That sounds like dashed hot and uncomfortable work!”
“Indeed. But not compared to cleaning chimneys.” Lawless addressed Swinburne: “As you obviously know from personal experience, sweeps lead a dreadful existence. Those that get work as funnel scrubbers are considered the fortunate few.”
“I hardly think that such a promotion completely justifies the word ‘fortunate,’” put in Burton. “Funnel scrubbers are still emotionally and physically scarred by their years of poverty and brutality. The Beetle does what he can to protect his lads but he can't change the social order. To improve the lives of sweeps, we'd need to instigate a fundamental shift in the way wealth is distributed. We'd have to raise the masses out of the sucking quagmire of poverty into which the Empire's foundations are sunk.”
He looked at Cornewall Lewis, who shrugged and stated, “I'm the secretary for war, Sir Richard. My job is to protect the Empire, not right its wrongs.”
“Protect it, or expand it, along with its iniquities, sir?”
Monckton Milnes cleared his throat. “Now, now, Richard,” he said, softly. “This isn't really the occasion, is it?”
Burton bit his lip and nodded. “My apologies, Sir George-I spoke out of turn. I've been rather sensitive to such matters since the Tichborne riots.”
Cornewall Lewis opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by Swinburne, who suddenly screeched: “What? What? Has the world gone giddy? How can I possibly be guzzling my drinks at this rate? I swear I've barely tasted a drop!”
Burton frowned down at his assistant. “Algy, please remember that you are Apollo, not Dionysus,” he advised. “Try to regulate your imbibing.”
“Regulate? Regulate? What in blue blazes are you jabbering about, Richard? Nobody drinks more regularly than me!”
The poet gazed at his empty glass with an expression of bemusement, then signalled to another waiter. Behind him, Bendyshe and Bradlaugh smothered their chuckles.
“Anyway,” said Gooch, “when the nippers arrive, the crew will be complete.” He produced a slip of paper from between the pages of his notebook. “I have the complete roster here, sir.”
Lawless took the note, read it through, and nodded his approval.
“May I see that, Captain?” Burton asked.
The king's agent took the list and scrutinised it. He read:
Commanding Officer: Captain Nathaniel Lawless
First Officer: William Samuel Henson
Second Officer: Wordsworth Pryce
Helmsman: Francis H. Wenham
Assistant Helmsman: Walter D'Aubigny
Navigator: Cedric Playfair
Meteorologist: Arthur Bingham
Chief Engineer: Daniel Gooch
Engineer: Harold Bloodmann
Engineer: Charles Henderson
Engineer: Cyril Goodenough
Engineer: James Bolling
Chief Rigger: Gordon Champion
Rigger: Alexander Priestley
Rigger: Winford Doe
Fireman: Walter Gerrard
Fireman: Peter Etheridge
Stoker: Thomas Beadle
Stoker: Gwyn Reece-Jones
Steward/Surgeon: Doctor Barnaby Quaint
Assistant Steward/Surgeon: Sister Sadhvi Raghavendra
Quartermaster: Frederick Butler
Assistant Quartermaster: Isabella Mayson
Cabin Boy: Oscar Wilde
“I trust Quips is living up to my recommendation?” Burton asked the captain.
“Young Master Wilde.”
“Ah. An appropriate nickname-he's a very witty young man. How old is he? Twelve-ish?”
“He celebrated his ninth birthday a couple of months ago.”
“Good Lord! That young? And an orphan?”
“Yes. He lost his entire family to the Irish famine. He stowed away aboard a ship to Liverpool, made his way to London, and has been working there as a paperboy ever since.”
“Well, I must say, I'm impressed by his industry. There's an unpleasant amount of bureaucracy associated with the captaincy of a rotorship and the youngster picked up the paperwork in a flash and keeps it better organised and up to date than I could ever hope to. Furthermore, I find that whenever I say ‘hop to it,’ he's already hopped. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Oscar Wilde captains his own ship one day.” Lawless ran his fingers over his beard. “Sir Richard, what about these young ladies? Having women serving as crew isn't entirely without precedent, but are you sure it's wise to take the Sister with you on your expedition? Africa is harsh enough on a man, isn't it? And what about all that dashed cannibalism? Won't she be considered too dainty a morsel to resist?”
“It is indeed a cruel environment, as I know to my cost,” Burton answered. “However, Sister Raghavendra is from India and possesses a natural immunity to many of the ills that assail a European in Africa. Furthermore, her medical skills are exceptional. I wish she'd been with me on my previous excursions. I assure you she'll be well looked after all the way to Kazeh, where she'll remain with our Arabian hosts while the rest of us hike north to the supposed position of the Mountains of the Moon.”
“And the cannibals?”
The corners of Burton's mouth twitched slightly. “Those few tribes that feast on human flesh do so in a ritualistic fashion to mark their victory in battle. It's not as common a phenomenon as the storybooks would have you believe. For a daily meal of arm or leg, you'll have to go to the other side of the world, to Koluwai, a small island to the southeast of Papua New Guinea. There they will very happily have European visitors for dinner-and I don't mean as guests. Apparently, we taste like pork.”
“Oof! I'm rather more in favour of lamb chops!” Lawless responded.
Cornewall Lewis interrupted: “You'll leave her with Arabians? Can they be trusted with the fair sex?”
Burton clicked his tongue impatiently. “Sir, if you choose to believe the lies propagated by your own government, that is up to you, but despite the calumnies that are circulated in the corridors of parliament, I have never found the Arabian race to be anything less than extraordinarily benevolent, courteous, and entirely honourable.”
“I meant only to suggest that there might be a risk in leaving a woman of the Empire in non-Christian hands, Sir Richard.”
“Christian? Do you then stand in opposition to Darwin's findings? Do you also believe that your God favours some races over others?”
“I use the word merely out of habit, as a synonym for civilised,” Cornewall Lewis protested.
“Then I'm to take it you don't consider the Arabians civilised, despite that they invented modern mathematics, surgical instruments, soap and perfume, the windmill, the crankshaft, and a great many other things; despite that they realised the Earth is a sphere that circles the sun five hundred years before Galileo was tortured by your Christian church for supporting the same notion?”
The secretary for war pursed his lips uneasily.
“That reminds me,” said Monckton Milnes. “Richard, I have the manuscript we discussed-the Persian treatise.”
“The translation you were looking for.” He stepped forward and hooked his arm through Burton's. “It's in the library. Come, I'll show you. Excuse us please, gentlemen, we shan't be long.”
Before Burton could object he was pulled from the group and propelled through the guests toward the door.
“What blessed treatise?” he spluttered.
“A necessary fiction to remove you from the battlefield,” Monckton Milnes hissed. “What the blazes has got into you? Why are you snapping like a rabid dog at Cornewall Lewis?”
They left the room, steered across a parlour, past a small gathering in the reception hall, entered a corridor, and stopped at a carved oak door. Monckton Milnes drew a key from a pocket in his costume, turned it in the lock, and, after they had entered into the room beyond, secured the door behind them.
They were in his famous and somewhat notorious library.
He pointed to big studded leather armchairs near the fireplace and snapped: “Go. Sit.”
Monckton Milnes went to a cabinet, retrieved a bottle and glasses from it, and poured two drinks. He joined Burton and handed one to him.
“Vintage Touriga Nacional, 1822, one of the finest ports ever produced,” he murmured. “It cost me a bloody fortune. Don't gulp it down. Savour it.”
Burton put the glass to his nose and inhaled the aroma. He took a taste, smacked his lips, then leaned back in his chair and considered his friend.
“My apologies, dear fellow.”
“Spare me. I don't want 'em. I want an explanation. By God, Richard, I've seen you angry, I've seen you defeated, I've seen you wild with enthusiasm, and I've seen you drunk as a fiddler's bitch, but I've never before seen you jittery. What's the matter?”
Burton gazed into his drink and remained silent for a moment, then looked up and met his friend's eyes.
“They are making a puppet of me.”
“Who are? How?”
“The bloody politicians. Sending me to Africa.”
Monckton Milnes's face registered his surprise. “But it's what you've wanted!”
“Not under these circumstances.”
“What circumstances? Stone me, man, if you haven't been handed a rare opportunity! The Royal Geographical Society was dead set against you going, but Palmerston-the prime minister himself! — forced their hand. You have another chance at the Nile, and no expedition has ever been so well funded and supported, not even Henry Stanley's! Why do you grumble so and flash those moody eyes of yours? Explain!”
Burton looked away, glanced around at the book-lined walls, and at the erotic statuettes that stood on plinths in various niches, pulled at his jacket and brushed lint from his sleeve, took another sip from his glass, and, reluctantly, returned his attention to Monckton Milnes.
“It's true, I have long wanted to return to Africa to finish what I began back in fifty-seven,” he said. “To locate, once and for all, the source of the River Nile. Instead, I'm being dispatched to find and bring back a damned weapon!”
“A black diamond. An Eye of Naga.”
“What is that? How is a diamond a weapon? I don't understand.”
Burton suddenly leaned forward and gripped his friend's wrist. A flame ignited in his dark eyes.
“You and I have known each other for a long time,” he said, a slight hoarseness creeping into his voice. “I can trust you to keep a confidence, yes?”
“Of course you can. You have my word.”
Burton sat back. “Do you remember once recommending to me the cheiromantist Countess Sabina?”
Monckton Milnes grunted an affirmation.
“These past weeks, she's been employing her talent as a seer for Palmerston. Her abilities are prodigious. She's able to catch astoundingly clear glimpses of the future-but not our future.”
His friend frowned, took a swallow from his glass then laid it aside and rubbed a hand across his cheek, accidentally smudging the red harlequin makeup that surrounded his left eye.
“No, you misunderstand. I mean, not the future you and I and everyone else in the world will experience.”
“What other future is there?” Monckton Milnes asked in bewilderment.
Burton held his gaze, then said quietly, “This world, this time we live in, it is not as it should be.”
“Not as-You're speaking in blessed riddles, Richard!”
“Do you recall all the hysteria eighteen months or so ago when people started to see Spring Heeled Jack left, right, and centre?”
“Yes, of course.”
“It wasn't newspaper sensationalism. He was real.”
“Far from it. He was a man from the future. He travelled back from the year 2202 to 1840 to prevent his ancestor, with whom he shared the name of Edward Oxford, from shooting at Queen Victoria. His mission went terribly wrong. What should have been a botched assassination attempt succeeded thanks to his interference. It altered everything his history had recorded and, what's more, it wiped him out of his own time.”
Monckton Milnes sat motionless, his eyes widening.
“While he was trying to escape from the scene of the assassination,” Burton continued, “Oxford's strange costume, which contained the machinery that enabled him to move through time, was damaged by a young constable with whom we are both acquainted. In fact, he's here tonight.”
“William Trounce. He was just eighteen years old. His intervention caused Oxford to be thrown back to the year 1837, where he was taken in and looked after by Henry de La Poer Beresford.”
“The Mad Marquess?”
“Yes. While in his care, Oxford dropped vague hints about the shape and nature of the future. Those hints led directly to the establishment of the Technologist and Libertine castes and their offshoots, and sent us down a road entirely divorced from that which we were meant to tread. History altered dramatically, and so did people, for they were now offered opportunities and challenges they would not have otherwise encountered.”
Monckton Milnes shook his head wonderingly. “Are-are-are you spinning one of your Arabian Night yarns?” he asked. “You're not in earnest, surely?”
“Entirely. I'm telling you the absolute truth.”
“Very well. I shall-I shall attempt to suspend my incredulity and hear you out. Pray continue.”
“Trapped in what, for him, was the distant past, Oxford began to lose his mind. He and the marquess, who himself was a near lunatic, cooked up a scheme by which Oxford might be able to reestablish his future existence by restoring his family lineage. This involved making short hops into the future to locate one of his ancestors, which he managed to do despite that his suit's mechanism was rapidly failing. One of those hops brought him to 1861. Beresford had, by this time, formed an alliance with Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. They intended to trap Oxford, steal his suit, and use it to create separate histories, moulding each one as they saw fit, manipulating us all. I had to kill them, and Oxford, to protect the world from their insane plans.”
Monckton Milnes stared at Burton in shock. His mouth worked silently, then he managed to splutter: “This-this is beyond the realms of fantasy, Richard. Everyone knows that Darwin was murdered by religious extremists!”
“False information issued by the government. You'd better take another swallow of this fine port. There's a great deal more to the tale.”
Monckton Milnes, forgetting his earlier directive to Burton, downed his drink in a single swig. He looked at the empty glass, stood up, paced over to the cabinet, and returned with the bottle.
“Go on,” he said, pouring refills.
“Countess Sabina can see far more clearly into the other history-the original one-than she can into ours, perhaps because none of the decisions we make here can have an effect there. The histories are quite different, but there is one thing common to both. There is a war coming. A terrible war that will encompass the world and decimate an entire generation of men. That is why the prime minister wants the African diamond.”
“War? My God. So what is it, this diamond? Why is it so important? What's it got to do with Spring Heeled Jack?”
“Are you familiar with the fabled Naga?” Burton asked.
Monckton Milnes furrowed his brow. “I-yes-I believe-I believe I've come across references to them in various occult texts. Weren't they some sort of pre-human race?”
“Yes. There are carvings of them at Angkor Wat. They are portrayed as seven- or five-headed reptiles.”
“When this planet was young, an aerolite-a huge black diamond-broke into three pieces in its atmosphere. One piece fell to Earth in what became South America, another in Africa, and the last in the Far East. The Naga built civilisations around the impact sites. They discovered that the diamonds possessed a very special property: they could store and maintain even the most subtle of electrical fields, such as those generated by a living brain. The Naga used them to fuse their minds, to form a sort of unified intelligence.”
“If any of that is true, how can you possibly know it?”
“That will become apparent,” Burton responded. He went on speaking in a low and urgent tone: “The human race waged war on the Naga, and the reptiles became extinct. The diamonds were lost until, in 1796, Sir Henry Tichborne discovered one-the South American stone.”
“Indeed. He brought it home and hid it beneath his estate. In the history that was meant to be, it remained there until just prior to the future Edward Oxford's time, when it was discovered after Tichborne House was demolished. Oxford cut small shards from it and used them in the machinery of his time suit. When he arrived in the past, those shards suddenly existed in two places at once. They were in his suit and they were also still a part of the diamond under the estate. This paradox caused a strange resonance between them, which extended even to the two as yet undiscovered Naga diamonds. It caused them all to emit a low, almost inaudible musical drone. This led to the recovery of the Far Eastern stone, in Cambodia, which had been shattered into seven pieces when the humans conquered the Naga many millennia ago.”
“My head is spinning,” Monckton Milnes murmured.
“Not just yours,” Burton said. “The resonance also awoke a hitherto dormant part of the human mind. It made mediumistic abilities possible. Thus Countess Sabina, and thus a Russian named Helena Blavatsky.”
“The woman they say destroyed the Rakes last year?”
“Quite so. She stole two of the Cambodian stones and used them to peer into the future.”
“Which future-ours or the other one?”
“Ours. And in that future, in the year 1914, another Russian, a clairvoyant named Grigori Rasputin, was gazing back at us.”
“Because he foresaw that the Great War, which was in his time raging, would lead to his assassination and the decimation of his beloved Russia. He came looking for the events that sparked off the conflict, and he found them here, in the 1860s.”
Monckton Milnes regarded his friend through slitted eyes. “Are you referring to our role in the American hostilities?”
“No. The world war will pitch us against united German states, so I'm of the opinion that the recent Eugenicist exodus to Prussia, which was led by the botanist Richard Spruce and my former partner John Speke, might be the spark that lights the flame.”
“So this Rasputin fellow observed the defectors at work? To what end?”
“He did much more than that. He possessed Blavatsky and used her to steal the rest of the Cambodian stones and recover the South American diamond from the Tichborne estate, thus changing history again. He then employed them to magnify and transmit his mesmeric influence, causing the working classes to riot. He intended nothing less than the wholesale destruction of the British Empire, so that United Germany might win the war against us without Russian assistance. Once that heinous outcome was achieved, Russia would swoop upon a weakened Germany and defeat her.”
“Blavatsky didn't survive and the plot failed,” Burton said. “I caused Rasputin to die in 1914, two years before his assassination, meaning that history has diverged yet again, although that particular bifurcation won't occur for another fifty-one years.”
Monckton Milnes flexed his jaw. He clenched his fists. He blew out a breath, reached for his glass, emptied it, and refilled it again. He was trembling. “By thunder!” he muttered. “I actually believe all this! Where are the Cambodian and South American diamonds now?”
“The South American stone was broken into seven fragments when I defeated Rasputin. They are in Palmerston's possession. The Cambodian stones are embedded in a babbage probability calculator.”
“They are? For what purpose?”
“During the Tichborne riots I was assisted by a philosopher named Herbert Spencer. He died with the stones in his pocket and his mind was imprinted onto them. Charles Babbage had designed a device to process just such an imprint. We fitted the diamonds into it and placed the mechanism in my clockwork valet. Herbert Spencer thus lives on, albeit in the form of a mechanical contraption. That is how I know the history of the Naga, for the reptile intelligence remains in the stones, and Herbert can sense it. Actually, so can I, in a vague way. The Naga came to me in a dream and left me with the phrase ‘Only equivalence can lead to destruction or a final transcendence.’ It was that which guided me in the final ruination of Rasputin.”
Monckton Milnes again rubbed his face and again smudged his Harlequin makeup.
“So only the African diamond remains undiscovered and Palmerston is sending you to find it?”
“Precisely. As the last remaining unbroken stone, it will be more powerful than its splintered counterparts. He means to use the Eyes to wage a clandestine war on Prussia through clairvoyance, prophecy, and mediumistic assassinations. He intends that Bismarck will never unite the Germanic states. Do you see now why I'm wishing this expedition had never been commissioned?”
He received a weak nod of understanding. “Yes,” came the whispered response. “You can't possibly allow Palmerston that kind of power. By God, he could manipulate the whole world!”
“Just as Darwin and Galton and their cronies would have done.”
Monckton Milnes gazed at his friend a moment. “By James, I wouldn't be in your shoes for anything, Richard. What are you going to do?”
Burton shrugged. “I have to retrieve the stone if only to prevent it from falling into Prussian hands. I feel certain that my erstwhile partner is going after it, with Bismarck's sponsorship. As to what I'll do with it once I have it-I don't know. There's a further complication: it was the African Eye that Rasputin employed in 1914 to probe into the past. So I already know I'm fated to find it, and, after I do, it will somehow, eventually, be transported to Russia.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Burton muttered, “I feel like a bloody pawn in a game of chess.”
Monckton Milnes roused himself from the reverie he'd fallen into. “I have every faith in you, Richard,” he said. “Go to Africa. Do whatever you must. You'll find an answer, of that I'm certain.”
Burton sighed and gave a slight jerk of his head. He became conscious of the buzz of conversation and merriment that filled Fryston. He looked down at himself, then at his friend, and suddenly chuckled. “Bismillah! King Shahryar of A Thousand Nights and a Night discussing fantastic notions with Harlequin! What a confounded joke!”
Monckton Milnes smiled. “Go back to the party. Relax. Enjoy yourself. I'll join you in a few minutes. I want to sit here a little longer.”
Burton rose and crossed to the door. He looked back and said, “If Palmerston learns that we had this conversation, I'll be thrown into the Tower.”
“Bedlam, more like,” Monckton Milnes murmured.
“No. The government keeps secret rooms, including prison cells, beneath the Tower of London.”
His friend held up his hands as if to ward off the king's agent. “Have mercy! No more, I beg of you!” he cried. “My capacity for revelations is all used up!”
Burton unlocked the door and left the room. He made his way back across the entrance hall, through the parlour, and into the smoking room.
“I say, Captain,” Humpty Dumpty called as he entered. “Where's that wonderful housekeeper of yours?”
Burton turned to the rotund fairy-tale figure. “Is that you in there, Trounce?”
“Yes, and I feel an absolute ass, but it was Mrs. Trounce's idea and I thought it wise not to kick up a fuss, seeing as I'm abandoning her for the next few months. It's blasted awkward, I can tell you. I'm having dashed difficulty in steering food and wine lipwards, so to speak.”
“I shouldn't complain. It looks like you could stand to lose a pound or two.”
“That's quite enough of that, if you don't mind! You know full well that my current circumference is all padding!”
“If you say so. Who has the esteemed Mrs. Trounce come as?”
“Old Mother Hubbard, which, admittedly, didn't require much by way of dressing up. She's eager for a gossip with Mrs. Angell but what with all these fancy getups she can't locate the dear lady. So where is she and who, or what, has she come as?”
“She's a rather too matronly Queen Boadicea, and is off doing your wife's job, I think.”
“What do you mean?”
“She's gone to give a dog a bone.”
“She's down in the kitchen procuring a morsel for Fidget, though I suspect she's actually seeking refuge from all these lords and ladies. She feels a little out of place, but I insisted upon her attendance. She deserves a taste of the high life after all I've put her through recently.”
“You brought your confounded basset hound as well?”
“She made him a part of her costume-harnessed him to a toy war chariot and had him trotting along beside her. He was most indignant about it.”
A loud high-pitched howl rose above the general hubbub.
“Would you excuse me?” Burton said. “It sounds like Algy needs to be reined in.”
He moved back toward the bay window. As he reached the group gathered there, a waiter pushed a glass of port into his hand. Absently, Burton placed it on the table, his attention on Swinburne, who was hopping up and down, waving his arms like a madman.
“I'm not in the slightest bit tipsy!” the poet was protesting vociferously. “What an utter disaster! I've become immune to alcohol!”
“Through overfamiliarity, perhaps?” Cornewall Lewis offered.
“Nonsense! We meet frequently, I'll admit, but we're naught but nodding acquaintances!”
Doctor James Hunt, a Cannibal Club member, joined the group just in time to hear this. He roared with laughter and declared: “Hah! I rather think there's a great deal more intimacy than that, Algy! You and alcohol are practically wedded!”
“Tosh and piffle!” Swinburne objected. “Claptrap, balderdash, cobblers, and bunkum!”
Someone spoke quietly at Burton's side: “I should have you arrested.”
The explorer turned and found himself facing Sir Richard Mayne, the lean-faced chief commissioner of Scotland Yard.
“Something to do with me whisking four of your men off to Africa?” he asked, with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes,” Mayne answered, glancing disapprovingly at Swinburne's histrionics. “Trounce and Honesty are among my best detectives, Krishnamurthy commands my Flying Squad, and Constable Bhatti is in line for promotion. I can hardly afford to have them all gallivanting around the Dark Continent for a year. I can only conclude that you're in league with London's criminal underclasses. Am I right, Sir Richard? Are you getting my men out of the way prior to some villainous coup? Perhaps plotting to have them consumed by lions and tigers so you can break into the Tower of London and steal the Crown jewels?”
Burton smiled. “Funny, I was just talking about the Tower. But no, and there are no tigers in Africa, sir. Did Lord Palmerston explain the situation?”
“He delivered to me some vague waffle about it being a matter of national security.”
“And he ordered me in no uncertain terms to provide you with whatever you want. I shall do so, of course.”
“Thank you. I ask only that the men receive extended leave and that their families are looked after.”
“Have no worries on that account.” The commissioner took a sip of his wine. He sighed. “Keep them safe, won't you?”
“I'll do my best.”
They shook hands. Mayne wandered away. Burton reached for his drink and was surprised to find that his glass had mysteriously emptied itself. He pursed his lips and looked at his assistant, who was still stamping his feet and protesting his sobriety. He concluded that Swinburne was either in the midst of one of his infamous drinking sprees or he was the victim of mischief. Then he noticed the Grim Reaper hovering behind the little poet and, though he quickly recognised Thomas Bendyshe-which explained everything, for the anthropologist and atheist was Swinburne's most dedicated tormenter-he nevertheless felt a momentary chill needling at his spine.
“Richard!” Swinburne screeched. “You've seen me in my cups more than most. Do I seem inebriated to you?”
“Of all people, Algy, you are the one in whom it's hardest to tell the difference,” Burton answered.
The poet gave a shriek of despair. He yelled for a waiter.
Time passed, the party continued, and the king's agent moved from group to group, chatting with some, debating with others, joking with a few.
At a quarter-past eleven, Monckton Milnes reappeared, with makeup restored, and herded his guests into the music room, where Florence Nightingale surprised Burton by demonstrating an unexpected proficiency on the piano as she accompanied Sister Raghavendra, whose singing voice proved equally impressive. They entertained the gathering until close on midnight, at which point everyone fell silent and listened to the chimes of the grandfather clock. As the final note clanged, they hooked their arms, Nightingale started playing, and the Sister sang:
“Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?”
The guests happily launched into the chorus:
“For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne!”
“And surely you'll buy your pint cup,” the young singer trilled. “And surely I'll buy mine-”
“Oh God!” someone yelled.
“And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” came the agonised voice.
Burton peered around the room as the crowd launched into the chorus again.
“For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of-”
The song tailed off and the music stopped as someone screamed: “Please, Mary mother of God, save me!”
The explorer unhooked his arms from his neighbours, pushed people aside, and hurried toward a commotion near the fireplace. Men were kneeling beside a prone figure. It was Bendyshe. His skull mask had been removed and his face was contorted into a ghastly expression, eyes wide and glassy, mouth stretched into a hideous rictus grin. His whole body was convulsing with such ferocity that it required four men to hold him down. He writhed and jerked, his backbone arching, his heels drumming on the floor.
Detective Inspector Honesty-a slight, wiry man with a flamboyantly wide moustache that curled upward at the ends, who normally sported lacquered-flat hair, parted in the middle, and displayed a fussy dress sense, but who was currently outfitted as one of the Three Musketeers-appeared at Burton's side and muttered, “Fit. Overdoing it. Excessive indulgence.”
“No,” Burton said. “This is something else.” He pushed forward until he reached Monckton Milnes's side and hissed, “Get the crowd out of here.”
The host of the party looked at him and said, “Gad, what am I thinking? Of course.”
Monckton Milnes turned and, in a loud voice, announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately one of our fellows has been taken ill. Would you mind moving into the other rooms, please? We should give the poor chap space to breathe.”
With utterances of sympathy, people started to wander away.
A hand gripped Burton by the elbow. It belonged to Doctor James Hunt.
“Come here,” he whispered, and dragged the king's agent over to the window, away from everyone else.
“What is it, Jim? Is Bendyshe going to be all right?”
“No. Quite the opposite.” Hunt caught his lower lip between his teeth. There was a sheen of sweat on his brow. “I'd recognise the symptoms anywhere,” he hissed. “Bloody strychnine. The poor devil's been poisoned!”
Burton momentarily fought for balance as his knees buckled. “What?”
“Poisoned. Purposely. A man doesn't get strychnine in his system by accident.”
“Can you save him?”
“Not a chance. He'll be dead within the hour.”
“No! Please, Jim, work with Nurse Nightingale and Sister Raghavendra. Do whatever you can for him.”
Hunt gave Burton's arm a squeeze and returned to the dying man. The king's agent saw Trounce standing by the doorway and moved over to him.
“Get out of that ridiculous costume. There's trouble.”
“Murder, Trounce. Someone has poisoned Tom Bendyshe.”
“Great heavens! I-um-I'll round up the troops at once. Damn this bloody padding! Help me out of it, would you?”
Some minutes later, Trounce, Sir Richard Mayne, and Detective Inspector Honesty ushered the guests and staff upstairs, while Commander Krishnamurthy and Constable Bhatti guarded Fryston's front and back doors to ensure no one slipped out.
Bendyshe was now frothing at the mouth and thrashing even more wildly.
Charles Bradlaugh, sitting on his friend's legs and being bucked about as they spasmed beneath him, looked at Burton as the explorer squatted beside the dying man. “I can't believe it,” he croaked, his eyes filling with tears. “Hunt says it's poison. Who would do this to poor Tom? He never hurt a soul!”
“I don't know, Charles. What was he up to before he was taken ill?”
“Singing along with the rest of us. He was rather sloshed-he's been stealing Algy's drinks all night.”
Burton turned to James Hunt. “Could strychnine have been in one of the glasses?”
“Yes.” The doctor nodded. “It's an incredibly bitter poison but if he was blotto enough he might have swallowed it without noticing the taste.”
“He was half-cut, to be sure,” Bradlaugh put in.
Burton reached past Nurse Nightingale, who was mopping Bendyshe's brow, and placed a hand on the man's chest. He could feel the muscles jumping beneath his palm.
“Tom,” he whispered.
He cleared his throat, stood, and gestured for Hunt to follow him. The two men left the music room and went into the smoking room, crossing to the table near the bay window.
“The poison was probably in one of these glasses,” Burton said, indicating the various empty vessels.
“If so, it won't be difficult to find out which one,” the doctor answered. He picked up a glass, sniffed it, muttered, “Brandy,” then dipped his index finger into the dregs at the bottom. He touched the finger to his tongue. “Not that one.”
“You won't poison yourself?”
“Strychnine is occasionally used in small amounts as medical treatment. The merest dab won't harm me.”
Hunt tested another glass, then a third and fourth. The fifth made him screw up his face.
“Bitter. The port would have gone some way to disguising it, but the taste is strong, nevertheless.”
“The drink is port?”
Burton went through the other glasses one by one. As their shapes suggested, they had all contained either brandy or wine.
“Damnation,” he muttered. “Get back to Tom. I'll talk to you later.”
He strode off and made his way to the entrance hall where he found Richard Monckton Milnes, Algernon Swinburne, and Chief Commissioner Mayne in quiet conversation at the bottom of the staircase.
Mayne's expression was grim. “Are you certain it's attempted murder?” he said as Burton joined them.
“Not attempted. Successful. There's no antidote.”
“But why kill Tom?” Swinburne asked, miserably.
“It was a mistake,” Burton answered. “He wasn't the intended victim. I was.”
Underworld and the Orpheus
IT IS ILLEGAL TO INTERFERE WITH STREET CRABS!
Those who seek to block a Street Crab's path, entangle its legs, extinguish its furnace, divert it into harm's way with a purposely laid trail of litter, or in any other manner prevent it from fulfilling its function, will be fined a minimum of 25.
STREET CRABS KEEP YOUR STREETS CLEAN!
Richard Monckton Milnes, Algernon Swinburne, and Sir Richard Mayne had all spoken at once.
Burton nodded. “The poison was in a glass of port. It was pushed into my hand by one of the waiters. Tom drank it by mistake.” He addressed Monckton Milnes. “Would you order your waiting staff and household manager into the parlour, please? We'll question them there.”
This was duly done, and it was quickly made apparent by Mr. Applebaum, the manager, that a man was missing.
“Two of the waiters are permanent here at Fryston,” he told Burton. “The other four we hired from an agency, just for this party. These are the temporaries-” he indicated three of the men, “-and their colleague, sir, is the one that's made off.”
“Where is the agency?” Burton asked.
“In Thorpe Willoughby, a village about four miles east of here. Howell's by name. It has offices over the high street bakery.”
Burton turned to one of the hired hands, a small man whose fingers moved nervously. “What's your name?”
“Colin Parkes, sir.”
“And the missing man?”
“Peter Pimlico, but he ain't one of us. It was meant to be Gordon Bailey workin' tonight, but he was taken poorly, like, with a bad tummy, so he sent this Pimlico fellow, what is a friend of his, along in his stead. Leastways, that's how Pimlico explained it.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
“Pimlico? He said in Leeds, sir. He came with us in a carriage from Thorpe Willoughby. He's been renting a room there for the past few days. There are only two hostels and one inn in the village, so I reckon he's in one of them.”
“What does he look like?”
“Blond. Big side whiskers. Blue eyes. A bit soft around the middle. I should say he eats more'n he serves.”
“Thank you, Mr. Parkes.”
Sir Richard Mayne sent the staff back upstairs and said, “I'm going to order my men to search the house.”
Forty minutes later, the police commissioner reported back to Burton. “Commander Krishnamurthy found the missing man's fancy-dress costume dumped in a back room near the kitchen. The window was open. Doubtless that was his means of escape. I'll send Bhatti to the local railway station.”
“Pointless,” Burton said curtly. “There's no service at this time of night.”
“Then where do you think he-?”
The commissioner was interrupted by Swinburne and Hunt, who joined them, their faces drawn.
“Tom Bendyshe is dead,” the doctor said tonelessly. “Mercifully quick for strychnine. His heart gave out.”
Burton turned back to Mayne. “I'd like to borrow Detective Inspector Trounce. I have my basset hound here-he's an excellent tracking dog. We'll give him a sniff of that Medico Della Peste outfit and see where he leads us.”
Burton-after quickly changing into rather more suitable evening attire-found Fidget happily gnawing on a bone in the kitchen downstairs.
“Sorry, old thing,” he said, lifting the dog's lead from a hook behind the door. “You're going to have to save that for later.”
Fidget growled and complained as the explorer removed the bone and clipped the leash onto his collar. He whined and dragged at the tether until Burton got him out of the kitchen, then settled down and padded along beside his master, up the stairs and out of the back door.
A cold breeze was blowing outside. Burton's breath clouded and streamed away. Stars shone in a clear night sky and a three-quarters moon cast its silver light over Fryston's grounds.
Swinburne-now in his normal day clothes but with the laurel wreath still entwined in his hair-and Trounce were waiting by an open window. The Scotland Yard man was squatting on his haunches, holding a lantern over the ground. “Footprints in the flower bed,” he said as the king's agent joined them.
Swinburne stepped back. Fidget had an unfortunate fondness for his ankles and had nipped at them throughout the train journey from London to Yorkshire. The poet held out a bundle of clothing and said, “Here's the waiter's costume, Richard.”
Burton took the clothes and applied them to Fidget's nose.
“Seek, boy!” he urged. “Seek!”
The basset hound lowered his head to the ground and began to snuffle about, zigzagging back and forth. He quickly caught the trail and dragged Burton away from the window and across the lawn. Swinburne and Trounce followed. The frozen grass crunched beneath their feet.
“Pimlico must be almost two hours ahead of us by now,” Trounce panted as he hurried along.
“We're heading east,” Burton noted. “I suspect he's gone back to Thorpe Willoughby. If he had a vehicle waiting there, he'll have made off and we'll lose the trail, but if he intends to travel back to Leeds by railway, he has no choice but to wait until the morning, and we'll nab him.”
Fidget pulled them to the edge of the estate, along the bordering wall, and over a stile. They proceeded down a country lane edged by hedgerows until they reached a junction. The basset hound veered right onto a bettertravelled road, and, as they followed, the men saw a sign that read: Thorpe Willoughby 3? Miles.
“Confound it!” Swinburne muttered as they pushed on. “Tom was one of my best friends, even if he was a giant pain in the rear end. Why did this Pimlico chap try to kill you, Richard? I don't recall his name. He's not someone we've had dealings with, is he?”
“What? You?” Trounce exclaimed, not having been privy to the revelation earlier.
“I was meant to be the victim,” Burton confirmed, “but I've no idea why. As far as I know, Pimlico has no connection with any of our past cases. His motivation remains a mystery.”
The road led them to the brow of a hill and down the other side. They saw the outlying houses of the village some little distance ahead, lying beyond patchwork fields and dark clumps of forest. From the centre of the settlement, an irregular line of steam curved up into the night air, slowly dissipating in the breeze. It was instantly recognisable as the trail of a rotorchair.
“Hell's bells!” Trounce growled. “It looks like our bird has flown!”
Fidget, making little yip-yip noises as he followed the scent, led them into the village.
The exertion kept the men warm despite the low temperature, and by the time they reached the houses, Trounce was puffing and had to wipe at his brow with a handkerchief.
They passed cottages and small terraced houses, kept going straight past the inn, and eventually arrived outside a square and rather dilapidated-looking residence. The ribbon of steam was slowly drifting away above it. A notice in one of the lower windows read: Robin Hood's Rest. Bed amp; Breakfast. No Foreigners. Fidget stopped at its front door and pawed at it, whining with frustration.
Trounce reached out, grasped the knocker, and hammered.
He hammered again.
A muffled voice came from within: “Keep yer bleedin' hair on!”
The portal opened and a fat man in an off-grey dressing gown blinked at them.
“What the bloomin' ‘eck are you wantin’ at this time o' night?” he demanded, his jowls wobbling indignantly.
“Police,” Trounce snapped. “Do you have a Peter Pimlico here?”
“More bloody visitors? I told him, none after ten o'clock, them's the rules o' the house, and what ‘appens? I get nothin’ but bleedin' visitors! You ain't foreigners, too, are yer?”
“We're English. Answer the question, man! Is Pimlico here?”
“Yus. He's in his room. I suppose you'll be wantin' to go up? You're police, you say? In trouble, is he?”
“It's distinctly possible,” Trounce answered, pushing his way past the man and into the narrow hallway beyond. “Which room?”
“Up the stairs an' first on yer left.”
Trounce started for the stairs but stopped when Burton asked the landlord, “You say there was a previous visitor for Mr. Pimlico? A foreigner?”
“Yus. A fat bloke with a big walrus moustache.”
“How the bleedin' 'eck should I know? They're all the same to me!”
“And when was he here?”
“'Bout ‘alf an hour ago. Woke me up landing his bloody contraption right outside, then thumped on the door. Pimlico came down the stairs like a bloomin’ avalanche to answer it, they both stamped up to his room, then a little bit later the foreigner came clod-hopping back down an' slammed the door behind him afore setting the windows a-rattling again with his blasted flying machine. I tell yer, it's been like trying to sleep in the middle of a bleedin' earthquake, and you ain't helpin'. Am I to get any kip at all tonight?”
“We'll not disturb you for long, Mr.-?”
“Emery. Norman Emery.”
“Mr. Emery. Remain here, please.”
Burton tied Fidget's leash to the bottom of the banister, muttered: “Stay, boy,” then, with Swinburne, followed Trounce up the stairs. The policeman knocked on the first door on the left. It swung open slightly under his knuckles. He looked at Burton and raised his eyebrows.
“Mr. Pimlico?” he called.
There was no reply.
The Yard man pushed the door open and peered into the room. He let out a grunt and turned to Swinburne. “Get Emery up here, would you?”
The poet, noting a grim aspect to the detective's face, obeyed without question.
“Look at this,” Trounce said as he entered the room.
Burton stepped in after him and saw a man stretched out on the floor. His face was a blotchy purple, his tongue was sticking out between his teeth, and his eyes were bulging and glazed.
“Strangled to death,” Trounce observed. “By Jove, look at the state of his neck! Whoever did this must be strong as an ox!”
“And a practised hand,” Burton added, bending over the corpse. “See the bruising? Our murderer knew exactly where to place his fingers and thumbs to kill in the quickest and most efficient manner. Hmm, look at these perforations in the skin. It's almost as if the killer possessed claws instead of fingernails!”
Trounce began to search through the dead man's pockets.
Swinburne reappeared with the landlord, who, upon looking through the doorway and seeing the body, cried out, “Cripes! And he ain't even paid his rent!”
“Is this Peter Pimlico?” Burton asked.
Trounce uttered an exclamation and held up a small phial.
Burton took it, opened it, sniffed it, then tipped it until a drop of liquid spilled onto his finger. He put it to his tongue and screwed up his nose.
“Strychnine. No doubt about it.”
“It was in his pocket,” Trounce said. He addressed the landlord: “Does the village have a constable?”
“Yes, sir,” Emery replied. “Timothy Flanagan. He lives at number twelve.”
“Go and get him.”
“He'll be asleep.”
“Of course he'll be asleep! Bang on his door! Throw stones at his window! I don't care what you do-just wake him up and get him here, on the double!”
Emery nodded and disappeared down the stairs.
The detective turned back to the corpse, running his eyes over it, taking in every detail. He suddenly uttered an exclamation and bent close to Pimlico's swollen face.
“What is it?” Burton asked.
Trounce didn't answer. Instead, he pushed his fingers between the dead man's lips, groped to one side of the tongue, and pulled something out.
It was a small withered leaf, a dry brown colour with spitefully thorny edges, and it was attached to a tendril that, though Trounce gently tugged at it, refused to come out of Pimlico's mouth.
“Captain,” he said. “Would you prise the jaw open, please?”
Burton squatted, placed his hands around the lower half of the corpse's face, and pulled the mouth wide while Trounce pushed his fingers deeper inside.
“What in the blazes…?” the Yard man hissed as he drew out a second leaf and the vine to which it was attached tightened. “Look at this!”
He leaned back so Burton could peer into the mouth. The king's agent emitted a gasp of surprise, for the little plant was growing straight out of Pimlico's upper palate.
“I've never seen anything like it!” Trounce said. “How can it be possible?”
Burton shrugged distractedly and started to examine the dead man's head in minute detail. He quickly discovered other oddities. There were tiny green shoots in the hair, growing from the scalp, and a tangle of withered white roots issuing from the flesh behind both ears.
“I don't know what to make of it,” he said, rising to his feet, “but whatever this plant growing out of him is, it's as dead as Pimlico. What else did he have in his pockets?”
Trounce went through the items. “Keys, a few shillings, a box of lucifers, a pipe and pouch of shag tobacco, a pencil, and a 'bus ticket.”
“Leeds. Let's search the room.”
Swinburne looked on from the landing as the two men went over the chamber inch by inch. They discovered a small suitcase under the bed but it contained only clothes. No other possessions were found.
“Nothing to tell us who the foreigner might be,” Trounce ruminated. “And no clue as to where Pimlico lived in Leeds.”
“There's this,” Burton said. He held out the tobacco pouch-the brand was Ogden's Flake-with the flap open. On the inside, an address was printed in blue ink: Tattleworth Tobacconist, 26 Meanwood Road, Leeds.
“If this is his local supplier, perhaps the proprietor will know him.”
“Humph!” Trounce grunted. “Well, that's something, anyway. Let's wait for the constable, then we'll leg it back to Fryston. There are plenty of rotorchairs there-I'll commandeer one. It'll be close on dawn by the time I get to Leeds. No sleep for me tonight!”
“Nor for me,” Burton said. “I'm coming with you.”
“And so am I,” Swinburne added.
Some minutes later, footsteps sounded on the stairs and a young policeman appeared, looking somewhat dishevelled and unshaven. Mr. Emery lurked behind him.
“There hasn't really been murder done, has there?” the constable blurted. He saw Pimlico's body. “Blimey! In Thorpe Willoughby! And who are you gentlemen, if you'll pardon my asking?”
“I'm Detective Inspector Trounce of Scotland Yard. This is His Majesty's agent, Sir Richard Francis Burton, and his assistant, Mr. Algernon Swinburne. To whom do you report, lad?”
“To Commissioner Sheridan in Leeds.”
Trounce spoke rapidly: “Very well. I want you to wake up your local postmaster and get a message to the commissioner. Inform him that this chap-his name was Peter Pimlico-was strangled to death by an as yet unidentified foreigner. Then get the county coroner to call first at Fryston, then here to take care of business. I'll report to Commissioner Sheridan myself, later this morning.”
“Yes, sir. Fryston, sir? Why so?”
“Because this scoundrel-” Trounce gave Pimlico's corpse a disdainful glance, “-poisoned to death a guest there.”
Constable Flanagan gaped, swallowed, then saluted.
“What about me?” Emery grumbled. “Can I get back to me bleedin' bed?”
Trounce snorted. “If you think you can sleep with a corpse in the house, by all means. First, though, tell me-when did Pimlico start renting this room?”
“Five days ago.”
“Did he receive any visitors before tonight?”
“What did he do while he was here?”
“Got drunk in the local boozer, mostly.”
“Did he cause you any trouble?”
“Not so much as he's bleedin' well caused since he kicked the bucket! He just thumped up an' down the stairs when he was comin' an' goin', that's all.”
“Were there any letters delivered for him?”
“Do you know anything about him?”
“Nope, 'cept he said he was here to get work with Howell's agency.”
A few minutes later, Trounce, Burton, Swinburne, and Fidget were retracing their steps to Monckton Milnes's place. Glancing back at Thorpe Willoughby, Swinburne noted that the trail of steam had almost vanished.
“Which direction to Leeds?” he asked.
“West,” Trounce answered.
“Our strangler flew south. I wonder why he killed Pimlico?”
“Perhaps to stop him talking,” Burton said. “I'm certain I've never encountered him before, so I doubt he had any personal motive for doing away with me. I rather think he was hired to do it by our mysterious foreigner. He probably expected to be paid and assisted in escaping from the area tonight. Instead, he was killed.”
“Ruthless,” Swinburne muttered, “although I can't say he didn't deserve his fate, the bounder! But what of the strange growth?”
“That,” Burton said, “is a much bigger mystery. It seems unlikely that it was in his mouth earlier this evening, while he was playing waiter at Fryston. Such a rapidly growing monstrosity smells to me of the Eugenicists and the botanist Richard Spruce.”
They reached Fryston and found that a great many of the guests had already departed, despite the hour.
“I've sealed off the music room,” Monckton Milnes reported. “Poor Bendyshe will have to stay there until someone comes for him.”
“The coroner is on his way,” Burton reported. “May I ask a couple of favours of you?”
“Of course, anything I can do.”
“We need to borrow three rotorchairs. We have to fly to Leeds immediately.”
“Take mine, Jim Hunt's, and Charlie Bradlaugh's. They're on the front lawn. I'll walk you to them.”
“Thank you. I presume Mrs. Angell has gone to bed?”
“Yes. I gave her one of my best guest rooms.”
“Would you ask Captain Lawless to accompany her and Fidget to the airfield in the morning? Trounce, Algy, and I will have to fly there directly from Leeds. We'll see to it that the rotorchairs are delivered back to you later in the day.”
“I'll take her myself, Richard. I want to see you off.”
Monckton Milnes escorted his friends out of the house and to a group of flying machines parked in the grounds. As they walked, he pulled Burton back a little from Swinburne and Trounce and whispered, “Has this any connection with your mission to Africa?”
Burton shrugged. “I don't know. It's certainly possible, maybe even probable.”
They reached the rotorchairs and Monckton Milnes watched as the three men placed their hats in the storage boxes, put goggles over their eyes, and buckled themselves into the big leather seats.
“See you later, chaps,” he said. “And best of luck!”
They started their engines, which belched out clouds of steam. Above their heads, blade-like wings unfolded from vertical shafts and began to spin, rotating faster and faster until they became invisible to the eye.
Burton gave his friend a wave, then pulled back on a lever. The runners of his machine lifted from the grass and it rose rapidly on a cone of vapour. Swinburne and Trounce followed, and the three rotorchairs arced away and vanished into the night sky, leaving silvery white trails behind them.
An orange glow lit the eastern sky as three flying machines descended onto the cobbles of Black Brewery Road. Two of them touched the ground gently; the third hit it with a thump and skewed sideways for five feet amid a shower of sparks before coming to rest.
“Ridiculous bloody contraptions!” Trounce cursed. He turned off the engine, waited for the wings to fold, then disembarked and joined Burton and Swinburne.
It was their third landing in Leeds. The first had been to ask a constable on his night beat for directions. The second had been outside the Tattleworth Tobacconist on Meanwood Road.
Mr. Tattleworth, swearing volubly at his rude awakening, had eventually confirmed that he knew Peter Pimlico.
“A bloody thief,” he'd said. “What you might call a denizen of the underworld. But a regular customer. Lives a couple o' streets away. Number seventeen Black Brewery Road.”
They could have walked, but, preferring to keep their vehicles in sight, they took off and almost immediately landed again.
“It's this one,” Swinburne said, pointing at a terrace. “Let's see how many profanities our next customer can spit at us!” He reached for the door knocker and banged it with gusto.
After a couple of minutes and a second attack on the door, a gruff and muffled voice came from behind it.
“Police,” Trounce barked.
“I have credentials,” Trounce said impatiently. “Open up and I'll show you.”
“Ah durn't believe thee. 'Tis a trick. Thou b'ain't no trapper. A tallyman, more like!”
Swinburne squealed. “Ha-ha! Tallyman Trounce!”
“Oo were thah?” came the voice.
“Algernon Swinburne!” Swinburne called. “The poet!”
There was a moment of silence, then the voice said, “Ah durn't need owt pottery fro' thee! Be off an' durn't come bah!”
“Sir!” Trounce bellowed. “Open the blasted door this very moment or I'll kick the damned thing in!”
The rattle of a chain sounded and a key turned in the lock. The door opened a crack and a rheumy eye peered out.
“Wah durst thou want? Ah aren't dressed. Am havin' us mornin' pipe.”
“Does Peter Pimlico live here?” Trounce demanded.
“Aye. In t' flat upstairs. Ee durn't be in. Not fur'n week.”
“I know. He's dead.”
“He was murdered earlier tonight.”
“Good. Ee were a dirty oik an nowt else. So?”
“So we're here to search his rooms. Let us in.”
The eye took in Trounce from his bowler hat to his police-issue boots, then flicked to Burton and examined his swarthy and scarred face and broad shoulders, then down to Swinburne, who stood with laurel leaves tangled in his long bright-red hair, which was sticking out wildly after the flight from Fryston.
“A poet wit' trappers?”
“Police pottery,” Swinburne said. “Ceramics Squad. Stand aside, please!”
Trounce put his shoulder to the door and pushed, sending the man behind it reeling backward. “What's your name?” he demanded, stepping into the house.
The man, who would have been tall were it not for his rickets-twisted legs, stood shivering in his striped nightshirt. He was wearing a nightcap over his straggly brown hair and bed socks on his large feet. There was a hole in the left one and his big toe was poking out. A smoking corncob pipe was clutched in his gnarled hand.
“Ah be Matthew Keller. Thou can't barge int' us 'ouse like this!”
“Yes, I can. It's your premises? You're the owner?”
“Aye. Get thee out o' it!”
“Not yet. So you rent the upstairs to Pimlico, is that right?”
“Uh-huh, an' ah be glad t' be rid o' 'im, t' good-fer-nowt bastard.”
“Trouble, was he?”
“Aye! Alweez drunk n' thievin'.”
“Any visits from foreign gentlemen?”
“T'week past. Fat, ee were.”
“Aye. Now then, ah 'ave t' get dressed fr' work.”
“You'll do nothing without my leave. We're going up to Pimlico's rooms.”
“They be locked.”
“Do you have a master key?”
“So get it!”
Keller sighed impatiently.
“Jump to it, man!” Trounce exploded.
The householder flinched, then moved to the rear of the small hallway, opened a door beneath the staircase, and took a key from a hook. He returned and passed it to the detective.
Trounce started up the stairs and Swinburne followed. As he passed Burton, who stepped up after him, the king's agent noticed that his assistant's grin had quickly faded.
By nature, Swinburne's emotions were as fiery and wild as his hair, always changing rapidly, never consistent, and often entirely inappropriate. The poet was subject to a physiological condition that caused him to feel pain as pleasure, and, it seemed to Burton, this might be the origin of his quirky, unpredictable character. Emotional hurt, such as that caused by Bendyshe's demise, became internalised and concealed behind wayward behaviour, which, unfortunately, frequently involved the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol. Swinburne's inability to judge what might harm him made him one of the bravest men Burton had ever met, but also one of the most dangerously self-destructive.
“Follow us, Mr. Keller,” Trounce called. “I want to keep my eye on you.”
Keller protested, “Us an't gon' t' do nowt,” but mounted the stairs behind his unwelcome visitors and struggled up, groaning at the effort. “Legs,” he complained. “Bad all us life.”
Pimlico's flat consisted of a bed-sitting room and a kitchen. It stank of rancid lard and bacon and hadn't been cleaned in a long time. Threadbare clothes were scattered over the floor. A porcelain washbasin, containing dirty water and with a thick line of grime around its inner edge, stood on a dressing table in front of a cracked mirror. There was a cutthroat razor and a soiled bar of soap beside it. The sagging bed was unmade, a chair was piled with betting slips from the local dog track, and issues of the Leeds Enquirer were stacked beneath the window.
Swinburne and Keller hung back while Burton and Trounce went over the rooms.
“Notebook!” the Scotland Yard man exclaimed, lifting a small bound volume from the bed. He flicked through it, page by page. “Nothing but odds on dogs. He was a gambler, this Pimlico fellow.”
“Ee were a loser,” Keller said. “Lost every bleedin' penny ee earned. Nearly alweez late wit' rent.”
“How was he employed?” Burton asked.
“At t' Pride-Manushi factory, packagin' velocipede parts what they send to salesrooms o'er in Coventry. But ee was laid off a fortnight since, after ee got nabbed fr' thievin'.”
Burton's eyebrows arched. “What happened?”
“Ee climbed through t' window at Cat n' Fiddle, skanked a couple o' bottles o' whisky, an' jumped straight out int' arms o' trappers. Spent a night in clink.”
Trounce frowned. “Just one night? After breaking into a public house?”
“Where was he held?”
“Farrow Lane Police Station.”
Some minutes later, the detective inspector called to Burton, who was searching the kitchen: “Captain, your opinion, please.”
Trounce pointed down at the bare floorboards near the window. Burton stepped over, looked, and saw a small glob of something blackish and fibrous. He squatted, took a pencil from his pocket, scraped its end in the dried-up substance, then raised it to his nose.
He winced in disgust. “Stinks of tooth decay-and something else. Mr. Keller, did Pimlico use chewing tobacco?”
“Nah. Ee smurked Ogden's Flake, same as what ah does.”
Burton stood and addressed Trounce. “I've made a study of tobacco odours. I'm certain this is Kautabak, a Prussian brand. Not widely available in England.”
“And you think it was left by the foreigner? Our murderer is Germanic?”
“I suspect exactly that, yes.”
They spent another twenty minutes searching but found nothing of any further use.
“Well then,” Trounce said, “we'll take our leave of you, Mr. Keller.”
“Aye, an' ah'll not be sad t' see thee go,” the householder muttered.
As they descended the stairs, he added, “Ee were expectin' t' come int' brass, ee were.”
Trounce stopped. “What?”
“Pimlico. Ee were expectin' brass-were goin' t' pay me what ee owed in rent, or so ee said.”
“Money? From where?”
Outside the house, the Yard man looked up at the sky, which was now a pale overcast grey.
“As from today I'm officially on extended leave,” he said, “but I'll be damned if I'll leave this alone.” He turned to Burton and Swinburne. “Next stop, Farrow Lane. I want to know why Pimlico was released.”
They climbed back into their vehicles and took to the air. Once again, they had to search for a constable to give them directions. Fifteen minutes later, they landed outside the police station and Burton and Swinburne waited in their vehicles while Trounce entered to make his enquiries. He was gone for twenty minutes, during which time the poet discussed his latest project, Atalanta in Calydon, with his friend.
“I'm moved to heighten the atheist sentiment by way of a tribute to old Bendyshe,” he said. “He was determined to drive the last nails into the coffin that Darwin built for God.”
“Tom would have appreciated that,” Burton responded. “For all his larking around, he never had anything but praise for you, Algy, and he adored your poetry. He was one of your most dedicated advocates.”
An uncharacteristic hardness came to the poet's eyes. “Do you remember me once telling you about how, in my youth, I wanted to be a cavalry officer?”
“Yes. Your father wouldn't allow it, so you climbed Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight to prove to yourself that you possess courage.”
“That's right, Richard. And at one point, I hung from that rock face by my fingertips, and I wasn't afraid. Since that occasion, I have never once shirked a challenge, no matter how dangerous. I don't baulk at the idea of warfare; of engaging with the enemy; of fighting for a principle. As a poet, my roots are deeply embedded in conflict.”
“What's your point, Algy?”
“My point is this: as of now, I'm on a mission of vengeance.”
The Royal Naval Air Service Station was situated some twenty miles east of Fryston. It had originally been established for the building of dirigibles, an endeavour the Technologists had abandoned after a sequence of disastrous crashes and explosions. Those failures had led to the development of rotating-wing flight mechanics, and a breathtaking example of that particular form of engineering ingenuity currently dominated the largest of the station's landing fields.
HMA Orpheus was the most colossal rotorship Sir Richard Francis Burton had ever seen. Side-on, she appeared long and flat, two decks high, with a humped cargo hold slightly to the rear of centre, a conning tower at the front, and a glass-enclosed observation deck occupying her pointed prow. Eight flight pylons extended from either side of her-a total of sixteen, which made her the most powerful rotorship ever constructed.
Most of the crew and passengers were already aboard, ready for the short trip to London. Burton, Swinburne-sans laurel wreath-Captain Lawless, and Detective Inspector Trounce stood at the base of the boarding ramp, bidding farewell to Monckton Milnes and Sir Richard Mayne. The latter, nervous of flying, had opted to ride the atmospheric railway to the capital later in the week.
“So the fat Prussian bailed Pimlico out,” Trounce told the police commissioner. “He gave his name as Otto Steinruck, and an Essex address.”
Swinburne added, “Probably false.”
“No,” Trounce said. “The address had to be verified before his bail could be accepted. It exists and it's registered in his name.”
“You're off duty now, Detective Inspector,” Mayne said, “but if you want to pursue this in an official capacity during what little time you have left before your departure, then you have my permission.”
“I would, and thank you, sir.”
Mayne nodded, then looked up at the ship. “What a monster!” he exclaimed.
“The first of a new breed,” Lawless told him. “Mr. Brunel surpassed himself with this one!”
“And she'll take you all the way along the Nile?”
Burton said, “Mechanical devices refuse to function in the Lake Regions, Chief Commissioner. Some sort of emanation prevents it. Henry Morton Stanley's rotorchairs were found there, and their engines were as dead as a doornail. We fear that if the Orpheus flew too close she'd drop like a stone, and since we have no clear idea of where the zone begins, we have little choice but to go in on foot.”
“Besides which,” Lawless added, “this ship sacrifices economy for speed, so she'll need to stop for fuel, which can't be done in Central Africa.”
“So what's your route?” Monckton Milnes asked.
“Our first leg is London to Cairo,” Lawless replied, “the second Cairo to Aden, then we'll fly to our final stop, Zanzibar, where the collier ship Blackburn awaits us with a hold full of coal. The expedition will disembark, we'll refuel, offload the vehicles and supplies on the mainland, and head home.”
Burton added, “A hundred and fifty Wanyamwezi porters have been hired in Zanzibar and are already making their way inland with supplies purchased on the island. They'll deliver the goods to a village in the Dut'humi Hills and will await our arrival. When we get there, they'll be paid and fresh porters from the nearby Mgota tribes will be hired. We'll then push on and, hopefully, will reach Kazeh before we have to abandon the vehicles. From there, we'll hike north to the Lake Regions and the Mountains of the Moon.”
Lawless said, “Well, chaps, we'll never achieve any of that if we don't get under way, so I'd better check that my ship is flight ready. We'll be off in ten minutes. I'll leave you to say your goodbyes.” He gave a nod to Mayne and Monckton Milnes, touched a finger to the peak of his cap, and walked up the ramp and into the Orpheus.
Sir Richard Mayne drew Trounce aside and engaged him in a quiet conversation.
Monckton Milnes grasped Swinburne's hand and gave it a hearty shake. “Good luck, young 'un,” he said. “You stay safe, do you hear me?”
“Perfectly well, old horse,” Swinburne replied. “Don't you fret about me. I'll be fine. I'm too slight a morsel for a lion or crocodile to bother with, and I plan to keep myself soaked in gin to fend off the mosquitoes.”
“Good lad! I look forward to some inspired poetry upon your return.”
Swinburne caught Mayne's eye, gave him a salute, and boarded the ship.
“Are you sure he's up to it, Richard?” Monckton Milnes asked Burton. “As much as I admire him, he's the very last person I'd expect to be trekking through Africa.”
Burton gave a wry smile. “You know as well as I do that he's far from the delicate flower he appears. He's a tough little blighter and I need his insight into the Naga business. Anyway, he'd never forgive me if I left him behind.”
“And you? What of your health? Last time you tried for the Nile you were blinded and crippled for months on end.”
“True, but mostly because John Speke was pouring huge doses of Saltzmann's Tincture into me. But that aside, we have Sister Raghavendra with us. That should make a considerable difference to our well-being.”
Monckton Milnes nodded thoughtfully. “The Sisterhood of Noble Benevolence is a confoundedly strange organisation. I've never understood how they move around the East End without coming to harm. You know there's a rumour they possess some sort of supernatural grace that protects them?”
“I've heard as much, yes. It may be that their ability to heal and soothe is, indeed, supernatural. Perhaps it's another effect of the resonance from the Naga diamonds. Whatever the explanation, I'm sure she'll prove a most valuable member of the expedition.” Burton looked up at the grey sky. “Africa again,” he muttered. “Maybe this time-”
“You aren't obliged to put yourself through it, Richard,” Monckton Milnes interrupted. “Palmerston can find other pawns for his chess game.”
“For certain. But it's not just the diamond business. I want the Nile. Every day, I ask myself, ‘Why?’ and the only echo is, ‘Damned fool! The devil drives!’ That bloody continent has been shaping my life for nigh on a decade and I feel, instinctively, that it hasn't finished with me yet.”
“Then go,” said Monckton Milnes. “But Richard-”
“I'll do my level best. Listen, old chap, on the subject of Palmerston, there's something you might do for me while I'm away.”
“I'd like you to keep an eye on him. Follow, especially, his foreign policies with regard to Prussia, the other Germanic states, and Africa. You are one of the most politically astute men I know, and you have a plethora of friends in high places. Use them. When I return, I'll need you to give me an idea of which way the wind is blowing where our international relations are concerned.”
“You think he's up to something?”
Monckton Milnes promised to do everything he could.
They shook hands and bade each other farewell.
Detective Inspector Trounce returned and joined Burton on the gangplank.
With a final wave to their colleagues, the two men entered the rotorship.
The great swathe of the world's territory that Britain had once controlled was still referred to, in its final days, as the Empire, even though there'd been no British monarch since the death of Albert in 1900. “The King's African Rifles” was a misnomer for the same reason. Traditions die hard for the British, especially in the Army.
Two thousand of the KAR, led by sixty-two English officers, had set up camp at Ponde, a village about six miles to the south of Dar es Salaam and four miles behind the trenches that stretched around the city from the coast in the northwest to the coast in the southeast. Ponde's original beehive huts were buried somewhere deep in a sea of khaki tents, and their Uzaramo inhabitants-there were fewer than a hundred and fifty of them-had been recruited against their will as servants and porters. Mostly, they dealt with the ignominy by staying as drunk as possible, by running away when they could, or, in a few cases, by committing suicide.
Perhaps the only, if not happy, then at least satisfied villager was the man who brewed pombe-African beer-who'd set up a shack beneath a thicket of mangrove trees from which to sell the warm but surprisingly pleasant beverage. The shady area had been furnished with tables and chairs, and thus was born a mosquito-infested tavern of sorts. No Askaris permitted! Officers and civilians only!
It was eleven in the morning, and the individual who now thought of himself as Sir Richard Francis Burton was sitting at one of the tables. It was an oppressively humid day and the temperature was rising. The sky was a tear-inducing white. The air was thick with flies.
He'd refused pombe-it was far too early-and had been provided with a mug of tea instead, which sat steaming in front of him. His left forearm was bandaged. Beneath the dressing there was a deep laceration, held together by seven stitches. His face, now more fully bearded, was cut and bruised. A deep gash, scabbed and puckered, split his right eyebrow.
He dropped four cubes of sugar into his drink and stirred it, gazing fixedly at the swirling liquid.
His hands were shaking.
“There you are!” came a high-pitched exclamation. “Drink up. We have to get going.”
He raised his eyes and found Bertie Wells standing beside him. The war correspondent, who looked much shorter and stouter in broad daylight, was leaning on crutches and his right calf was encased in a splint.
“Hello, old thing,” Burton said. “Take the weight off. How is it?”
Wells remained standing. “As broken as it was yesterday and the day before. Do you know, I snapped the same bally leg when I was seven years old? You were still alive back then.”
“I'm still alive now. Get going to where?”
“Up onto the ridge so we can watch the bombing. The ships should be here within the hour.”
“Can you manage it? The walk?”
Wells flicked a mosquito from his neck. “I'm becoming a proficient hobbler. Would you do me a favour, Sir Richard? Next time I pontificate about the unlikelihood of a direct hit, will you strike me violently about the head and drag me clear of the area?”
“I'll be more than happy to. Even retrospectively.”
“I must say, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the irony of it.”
“Yes. You affirm that you are quite impossibly in the land of the living, and seconds later, you almost aren't!”
“Ah, yes. Henceforth, I shall choose my words with a little more care. I did not at all enjoy being bombed and buried alive. And please drop the ‘Sir.’ Plain old ‘Richard’ is sufficient.” He took a gulp of tea and stood up. “Shall we go and watch the fireworks, then?”
They left the makeshift tavern and began to move slowly through the tents, passing empty-eyed and slack-faced soldiers, and heading toward the northern border of the encampment.
The air smelled of sweat-and worse.
“Look at them,” Wells said. “Have you ever seen such a heterogeneous throng of fighting men? They've been recruited from what's left of the British South Africans, from Australia and India, from the ragtag remains of our European forces, and from all the diverse tribes of East and Central Africa.”
“They don't look at all happy about it.”
“This isn't an easy country, as you know better than most. Dysentery, malaria, tsetse flies, mosquitoes, jigger fleas-the majority of the white men are as sick as dogs. As for the Africans, they're all serial deserters. There should be double the number of soldiers you see here.”
They passed alongside a pen of oxen. One of the animals was lying dead, its carcass stinking and beginning to swell.
“Do you have a thing about poppies?” Wells asked. “You pulled one from your pocket just before we got bombed, and now I see you have a fresh one pinned to your lapel.”
“I think-I have a feeling-that is to say-the flower seems as if it should mean something.”
“I believe it symbolises sleep-or death,” Wells responded.
“No, not that,” Burton said. “Something else, but I can't put my finger on it.”
“So you're still having trouble with your memory, then? I was hoping it'd returned. As you might imagine, I've been beside myself with curiosity these past few days. I have so many questions to ask.”
“Odd scraps of it are back,” Burton replied. “It's a peculiar sensation. I feel thoroughly disassembled. I'll submit to your interrogation, but if you manage to get anything out of me, you must keep it to yourself.”
“I have little choice. If I publicised the fact that you're alive, my editor would laugh me right out of the news office and straight into the European Resistance, from which I'd never be seen again.” Wells jerked his head, coughed, and spat. “These bloody flies! They're all over me! The moment I open my mouth, there's always one eager to buzz into it!” He saluted a passing officer, then said, “So what happened? Did some quirk of nature render you immortal, Richard? Did you fake your own death in 1890?”
“No. I have the impression that I came here directly from the year 1863.”
“What? You stepped straight from three years before I was born into the here and now? By what means?”
“I don't know.”
“I don't know that, either. I'm not even sure which future this is.”
“Which future? What on earth does that mean?”
“Again, I don't know-but I feel sure there are alternatives.”
Wells shook his head. “My goodness. The impossibilities are accumulating. Yet here you are.”
“Here I am,” Burton agreed.
“An anachronic man,” Wells muttered. He stopped to adjust his crutches.
Moans emerged from a nearby tent, its inhabitant obviously wracked by fever. The sound of his misery was drowned out as a group of Askaris filed past, singing a mournful song. Burton listened, fascinated by their deep voices, and was able to identify the language as Kichagga, a dialect of Kiswahili, which suggested the men were from the Chagga tribes that originated in the north, from the lands below the Kilima Njaro mountain.
They were far from home.
So was he.
“I once discussed the possibility of journeying through time with young Huxley,” Wells said, as the two of them got moving again. “It was his assertion that no method would ever be invented, for, if it were, then surely we'd have been overrun by visitors from the future. It didn't occur to either of us that they'd actually come from the past. You say you don't know how it was achieved? But was it through mechanical means or a-I don't know-a mental technique?”
“I have no idea. Who's Huxley?”
“A boy I was acquainted with. He had a prodigious intellect, though he was almost entirely blind and hardly out of short trousers. He was killed when the Hun destroyed London. I don't understand, Richard-how could movement through time have been possible in the 1860s yet remain a secret today?”
“My guess is that-that-that-wait-who is-was-is Palmerston?”
“Pah! That villain! In your day, he was prime minister.”
“Yes!” Burton cried. “Yes! I remember now! He had a face like a waxwork!”
“What about him?”
“I think he might have suppressed the fact that the boundaries of time can be breached.”
“The devil you say! I should have known! That wily old goat! Does he know you're here?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Maybe my editor would help you to contact him.”
“I have no means of sending a communique into the past.”
“I mean now, here in 1914.”
Burton exclaimed, “Surely you don't mean to suggest that he's still alive?”
“Ah. You didn't know. Yes, he's with us. Famously so. Or perhaps ‘notoriously so’ would be a more accurate assessment. He's a hundred and thirty years old!”
“Bismillah!” Burton gasped. “Palmerston! Alive! Is he still prime minister?”
“No, of course not. There's been no such thing since the Germans overran Europe. And let me tell you: few men who ever lived have had as much blood on their hands as Palmerston. He called us to war. We were making the future, he said, and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making.” Wells waved his hand at the tents that surrounded them. “Behold!”
Burton looked puzzled. “But there's more than this, surely? What of the Empire?”
Wells stopped in his tracks. “Richard,” he said quietly. “You have to understand. This is it.”
“All that remains. The men commanding these two battalions of Askaris, plus perhaps three thousand in the British Indian Expeditionary Force, scattered groups of soldiers around the Lake Regions, maybe twenty thousand civilians and Technologists in our stronghold at Tabora, and whatever's left of the British European Resistance-there's nothing else.”
Burton looked shocked. “This is the Empire? What in heaven's name happened?”
“As I told you before, it all began here. By the 1870s, despite the efforts of Al-Manat, the German presence in Africa was growing. Palmerston was convinced that Bismarck intended a full-scale invasion. He believed that Germany was seeking to establish an empire as big as ours, so he posted a couple of battalions over here to prevent that from happening. The Hun responded by arming the natives, setting them against us. The conflict escalated. Palmerston sent more and more soldiers. Then, in 1900, Germany suddenly mobilised all its forces, including its Eugenicist weapons-but not here. It turns out that Bismarck never wanted Africa. He wanted Europe. France fell, then Belgium, then Denmark, then Austria-Hungary, then Serbia. The devastation was horrific. Britain fought wildly for five years, but our Army was divided. Almost a third of it was here, and when they tried to get home, Germany blockaded all the African ports. My God, what a consummate tactician Bismarck was! We didn't stand a chance. Then he gained Russia as an ally, and we were conquered. India, Australia, South Africa, and the West Indies all quickly declared their independence, British North America fell to a native and slave uprising, and the Empire disintegrated.”
Burton sent a breath whistling through his teeth. “And Palmerston was to blame?”
“Completely. His foreign policy was misjudged in the extreme. No one really understands why he was so obsessed with Africa. A great many Britishers have called for him to be tried and executed. After all, it's not reasonable that those who gamble with men's lives should not pay with their own, and he was the greatest gambler of them all. But Crowley insists that he should be kept alive-that, somehow, the survival of Tabora, the last British city, depends on him.”
They reached an area where the tents thinned out and row after row of Mark II Scorpion Tanks were parked, hunkered down on their legs, claws tucked in, tails curled up.
Burton noted that, though the war machines' design was new to him, the technology appeared to have advanced little since his own age.
“Let's rest again for a moment,” Wells said. “This bloody leg is giving me gyp.”
Burton leaned against one of the arachnids and batted a fly from his face.
Memories were stirring. He was trying to recall the last time he'd met Lord Palmerston.
Shut the hell up, Burton! Am I to endure your insolence every time we meet? I'll not tolerate it! You have your orders! Do your bloody job, Captain!
The prime minister's voice echoed in a remote chamber of his mind but he was unable to associate it with any specific occasion.
“So he's at Tabora?” he asked.
“Palmerston? Yes. He's kept under house arrest there. I find it incredible that he still has supporters, but he does-my editor for one-so it's unlikely he'll go before the firing squad, as he deserves. You know he buggered up the constitution, too?”
“When he manipulated the Regency Act back in 1840 to ensure that Albert took the throne instead of Ernest Augustus of Hanover, he left no provision for what might happen afterward-no clear rules of succession for when Albert died. Ha! In 1900, I, like a great many others, was a staunch republican, so when the king finally kicked the bucket, I was happy to hear calls for the monarchy to be dismantled. Of course, equally vociferous voices were raised against the idea. Things got rather heated, and I, being a journalist, got rather too involved. There was public disorder, and I'm afraid I might have egged it on a little. When a man gets caught up in history, Richard, he loses sight of himself. Anyway, Palmerston was distracted, and that's when Bismarck pounced. I feel a fool now. In times of war, figureheads become necessary for morale. I should have realised that, but I was an idealist back then. I even believed the human race capable of building Utopia. Ha! Idiot!”
They slouched against the machines for a couple more minutes, the humidity weighing down on them, then resumed their trek, moving away from the tanks and up a gentle slope toward the ridge. The ground was dry, cracked, and dusty, with tufts of elephant grass standing in isolated clumps. There were also large stretches of blackened earth-“Where carnivorous plants have been burned away,” Wells explained. “At least we're not due the calamity of rain for a few more weeks. The moment a single drop touches the soil, the bloody plants spring up again.”
The Indian Ocean, a glittering turquoise line, lay far off to their right, while to their left, the peaks of the Usagara Highlands shimmered and rippled on the horizon.
“But let us not be diverted from our topic,” Wells said. “I'm trying to recall your biographies. If I remember rightly, in 1859 you returned from your unsuccessful expedition to find the source of the Nile and more or less retreated from the public eye to work on various books, including your translation of The Arabian Nights, which, may I add, was a simply splendid achievement.”
“The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night,” Burton corrected. “Thank you, but please say no more about it. I've not completed the damned thing yet. At least, I don't think I have.”
He helped his companion past a fallen tree that was swarming with white ants and muttered, “It's odd you say that, though, about my search for the source of the Nile. The moment you mentioned it, I remembered it, but I feel sure I made a second attempt.”
“I don't think so. It certainly isn't recorded. The fountains of the Nile were discovered by-”
Burton stopped him. “No! Don't tell me! I don't want to know. If I really am from 1863, and I return to it, perhaps I'll rewrite that particular item of history.”
“You think you might get back to your own time? How?”
“But isn't it obvious you won't?” Wells objected. “Otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation, for you'd surely do something to prevent this war from ever happening.”
“Ah, Bertie, there's the paradox,” Burton answered. “If I go back and achieve what your history says I never achieved, you'll still be here, aware that I never did it. However, I will now exist in a time where I did. And in my future there'll be a Herbert George Wells who knows it.”
“Wait! Wait! I'm struggling to wrap my brain around that!”
“I agree-it's a strain on the grey matter, especially if, like mine, it's as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. These days, I hear myself speak but have barely a notion of what I'm talking about.”
Burton pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. “But something tells me that if you go back into the past and make an alteration, then a whole new sequence of events will spring from it, establishing an ever-widening divergence from what had been the original course of history.”
Wells whistled. “Yet that original has to still exist, for it's where you travelled back from.”
“So existence has been split into two by your act.”
“How godlike, the chronic argonaut,” Wells mused.
“Hum. Just thinking out loud.”
They joined a small group of officers who'd gathered at the top of the ridge. Wells indicated one of them and whispered, “That's General Aitken. He's in charge of this whole operation.”
Burton tugged at his khaki uniform jacket, which he considered far too heavy for the climate. He felt smothered and uncomfortable. Perspiration was running into his eyes. He rubbed them. As they readjusted, the vista that sprawled beneath him swam into focus, and all his irritations were instantly forgotten.
Seen through the distorting lens of Africa's blistering heat, Dar es Salaam appeared to undulate and quiver like a mirage. It was a small white city, clinging to the shore of a natural harbour. Grand colonial buildings humped up from its centre and were clustered around the port-in which a German light cruiser was docked-while a tall metal structure towered above the western neighbourhoods. Otherwise, the settlement was very flat, with single-storey dwellings strung along tree-lined dirt roads and around the borders of small outlying farms.
A strip of tangled greenery surrounded the municipality-“They look small from here, but those are the artillery plants,” Wells observed-and beyond them, the German trenches crisscrossed the terrain up to a second band of foliage: the red weed. The British trenches occupied the space between the weed and the ridge.
Like a punch to the head, Burton suddenly recalled the Crimea, for, as in that terrible conflict, the earth here had been torn, gouged, and overturned by shells. Flooded by heavy rains some weeks ago, the horrible landscape before him had since been baked into distorted shapes by the relentless sunshine. It was also saturated with blood and peppered with chunks of rotting human and animal flesh, and the stench assailed Burton's nostrils from even this distance. Bits of smashed machinery rose from the churned ground like disinterred bones. It was unnatural. It was hideous. It was sickening.
He unhooked his canteen from his belt, took a swig of water, and spat dust from his mouth.
“That's our target,” said Wells, pointing at the metal tower. “If we can bring it down, we'll destroy their radio communications.”
“Radio?” Burton asked.
Wells smiled. “Well I never! How queer to meet a man who isn't familiar with something that everyone else takes for granted! But, of course, it was after your time, wasn't it!”
Burton glanced uneasily at the nearby officers, who were peering at the sea through binoculars.
“Keep your voice down, please, Bertie,” he said. “And what was after my time?”
“The discovery of radio waves. The technique by which we transmit spoken words and other sounds through the atmosphere to literally anywhere in the world.”
“A mediumistic procedure?”
“Not at all. It's similar to the telegraph but without the wires. It involves the modulation of oscillating electromagnetic fields.”
“That's all mumbo jumbo to me. What are they looking at?”
Wells turned to observe the officers, then raised his binoculars and followed the men's gaze.
“Ah ha!” he said. “The rotorships! Have a squint.”
He passed the binoculars to Burton, who put them to his eyes and scanned the eastern sky, near the horizon, until two dark dots came into view. As they approached, he saw they were big rotorships, each with twelve flight pylons, wings spinning at the top of the tall shafts. The black flat-bottomed vessels were rather more domed in shape than those from his own time, and he could see guns poking out of portholes along their sides.
“Astraea and Pegasus,” Wells said. “Cruiser class. The Pegasus is the one on the right.”
“They're fast. What are those little things flying around them?”
“Hornets. One-man fighters. They'll swoop in to shoot at the ground defences.”
“Yes. The usual routine. Breed 'em big, kill 'em, scrape 'em out, shove steam engines into the carapaces. The method hasn't changed since your day. Look out! The Konigsberg is bringing her cannon to bear!”
Burton directed the glasses to the city's harbour and saw that the decks of the seagoing vessel were swarming with men. A gun turret, positioned in front of its three funnels, was turning to face the oncoming rotorships. A few moments later, orange light blazed from the muzzle. Repetitive booms, lagging a few seconds behind the discharges, rippled out over the landscape, becoming thin and echoey as they faded away.
He looked back at the rotorships, both almost upon the city now. Puffs of black smoke were exploding around them.
Hornets dived down at the light cruiser and raked her decks with their machine guns.
“Come on, lads!” Wells cheered.
Burton watched men ripped into tatters and knocked overboard as bullets tore into them. A loud report sounded. He lowered the binoculars and saw that metal and smoke had erupted from the side of the Pegasus.
“She's hit!” Wells cried.
The rotorship listed to her left. As her shadow passed over the Konigsberg, small objects spilled from beneath her. They were bombs. With an ear-splitting roar, the German vessel disappeared into a ball of fire and smoke. Fragments of hull plating went spinning skyward. Another huge detonation sounded as the ship's munitions went up.
The Pegasus, rocked by the shock wave, keeled completely over onto her side and arced toward the ground. She hit the southern neighbourhoods of Dar es Salaam and ploughed through them, disintegrating, until, when she finally came to rest, she was nothing but an unrecognisable knot of twisted and tattered metal slumped at the end of a long burning furrow. Hundreds of buildings had been destroyed, maybe thousands of lives lost.
Wells opened his mouth to say something but his words were drowned by thunder as the Astraea started to dump her payload onto the middle of the city. The noise slapped again and again at Burton's ears as the colonial district was pummelled and decimated. Soon, all he could see was a blanket of black smoke through which the red lights of Hades flickered, and gliding along above it, silhouetted against the glaring white sky, the menacing rotorship, drawing closer and closer to where the tip of the radio tower emerged from the expanding inferno.
Wells stood on tiptoe and put his mouth to Burton's ear, which was ringing with such intensity that the explorer could barely hear the correspondent's soprano voice: “We had no choice but to do it. I wonder, though-will the human race ever transcend the animalistic impulses that lead to such behaviour?”
Burton yelled back: “I suspect animals would be most offended to be associated with an atrocity like this! What of the people down there? What of the Africans?”
“Casualties of war. As I said, we had no choice!”
“But this isn't their bloody conflict! It isn't their bloody conflict, damn it!”
A quick succession of blasts marked the end of the radio tower. The Astraea slid over the belt of red weed and sailed northward with hornets buzzing around her.
The attack was already over.
Silence rolled back in from the surrounding countryside, broken only by occasional small explosions.
“She's probably on her way to give Tanga some of the same treatment,” Wells said, watching the rotorship receding into the distance.
Burton stood silently, struggling to stay on his feet. His legs were trembling violently, and his heart hammered in his chest.
“Bismillah!” he muttered. “Bismillah!”
The Eve of Departure
THE BAKER STREET DETECTIVE
Macallister Fogg's Own Paper! Issue 908.
Every Thursday. Consolidated Press.
Macallister Fogg and his lady assistant, Mrs. Boswell, investigate
THE PERIL OF THE GRAVITY PIRATES!
by T. H. Strongfellow
Plus the latest instalments of:
DOCTOR TZU AND THE SINGING COBRA by Cecil Barry
FATTY CAKEHOLE'S DORMITORY EMPIRE
by Norman Pounder
“Take us up, Mr. Wenham, no higher than seven thousand feet, if you please.” The order came from William Henson, the rotorship's first officer. He was a slender man, about fifty years old, with an extravagant moustache that curved around his cheeks to blend into bushy muttonchop whiskers. He wore tiny wire-framed spectacles that magnified his eyes while also accentuating his precise and somewhat stern manner.
He turned to Burton and Swinburne, who were standing next to Captain Lawless, having been invited up to the conning tower to witness the takeoff. “We have to keep her low, gentlemen, on account of our ventilation problems. Until we get the heating pipes fixed, flying at any greater altitude will have us all shivering in our socks.”
A vibration ran through the deck as the engines roared. There was no sensation of movement, but through the windows curving around the front and sides of the tower, Burton saw the horizon slip downward.
“Here we go,” declared Francis Wenham, the helmsman. He was at a control console at the front of the cabin, manipulating three big levers and a number of wheels; a beefily built man with pale blond, rather untidy hair, and a wispy goatee beard.
“One thousand five hundred feet,” murmured the man at the station beside him. “Swing her forty degrees to starboard, please.”
“Forty degrees to starboard, aye, Mr. Playfair.”
The horizon revolved around the ship.
Playfair turned to Henson and said, “Course set, sir.”
“Thank you. Ahead, Mr. Wenham. Get her up to forty knots.”
“Flight time to London, three and a half hours,” Playfair noted.
Swinburne eyed the sharp-faced, dark-eyed navigator. “I didn't see him consult his instruments,” he muttered to Lawless. “Did he just do that calculation in his head?”
“Yes,” the captain answered quietly. “He's a wizard with mathematics, that one.”
The meteorologist-short, very stout, very hairy, and wearing his bulging uniform jacket tightly buttoned-announced: “Clear going until we reach the capital, sir. Fog there.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bingham.”
The captain turned to a tall, heavily bearded man who'd just entered the cabin and said, “Ah, there you are. Sir Richard, Mr. Swinburne, this is Doctor Barnaby Quaint, our steward and surgeon. He'll give you a tour of the ship, see that you're settled into your quarters, and will make sure that you have whatever you require.”
“Is there a bar on board?” Swinburne asked.
Quaint smiled. “Yes, sir, in the lounge, though it's closed at the moment. I dare say I could rustle you up a tipple, should you require it. Would you care to follow me, gentlemen?”
They took their leave of Lawless, left the command cabin, and descended a metal staircase. A short corridor led them past the captain's quarters on one side and the first officer's on the other, and through decorative double doors into the glass-encased observation deck.
They were greeted by Detective Inspectors Trounce and Honesty, Commander Krishnamurthy, Constable Bhatti, and Mrs. Iris Angell, who was beside herself with excitement.
“Who'd have thought!” exclaimed Burton's housekeeper. “Dirty old Yorkshire-see how pretty it appears from up here, Sir Richard!”
He stepped to her side and looked out at the little villages and patchwork fields passing below.
“The northern counties have some of the most beautiful countryside in all of England,” he said. “Did you think it would be different?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I expected horrible factories everywhere!”
“You'll find plenty of William Blake's ‘dark Satanic mills’ in and around the manufacturing cities, Mrs. Angell, but as you can see, the horror of the North felt by those in the South is generally quite unjustified.”
Burton watched the scenery slide by for a couple more minutes then moved over to where Detective Inspector Honesty was standing alone.
“Hello, old fellow,” he said. “I didn't see much of you at Fryston. Are you all set for Africa?”
Honesty turned to him. “I am. Wife unhappy but duty calls. Must finish this business. Stop interference from the future.” The detective gazed back out of the window and his pale-grey eyes fixed on the horizon. “Africa. Exotic flora. Might collect specimens. Cultivate in greenhouse when we return.”
“Are you an amateur horticulturalist? I didn't know.”
Honesty looked back at Burton and the explorer noticed a strange light in the smaller man's eyes-an odd sort of remoteness about his manner.
“Should've been a landscape gardener. Always wanted to be. Joined the Force on account of my father. A Peeler. One of the originals. Very dedicated. Passionate about policing. Me-I'm just good at it. But gardening-well-” He paused and a small sigh escaped him. “There are different versions of history, Captain?”
“Maybe in one, I made another choice. Thomas Manfred Honesty: Landscape Gardener. Hope so.”
He returned his attention to the vista outside.
Burton patted the detective's shoulder and left him. He felt troubled by his friend's detached air. Honesty hadn't been quite himself since last September's battle with the Rakes, when he'd had his fingers broken and been throttled almost to death by an animated corpse. It was, Burton thought, enough to unnerve any man.
Trounce approached him. “How long until we reach London? I'm eager to get back onto the trail of our murderer.”
“A little over three hours.” Burton lowered his voice. “I say, Trounce, what's your opinion of Honesty? Is he a hundred percent?”
Trounce glanced toward his colleague. “I'd say he's the most determined of us all, Captain. He's a man who likes everything to be just so. The idea that an individual can hop back through time and turn it all on its head doesn't sit well with him.”
Burton gave a small nod of understanding. “The steward is taking us on a tour of the ship. Join us?”
“I will, thank you.”
Leaving Honesty, Krishnamurthy, Bhatti, and Mrs. Angell-all of whom had been around the vessel earlier that morning-Burton, Swinburne, and Trounce followed Doctor Quaint back into the corridor. As they passed by the captain's rooms, a small, slightly pudgy boy emerged.
“All shipshape, Master Wilde?” the doctor asked.
“That it is, sir. Good morning to you, Captain Burton, Mr. Swinburne, Detective Inspector Trounce. Welcome aboard!” The boy grinned, habitually raising his hand to his nose in order to conceal his rather crooked and yellowing teeth.
“Hallo, Quips!” said Burton.
Quaint addressed the explorer: “I understand Master Wilde is with us at your recommendation, sir?”
“He is indeed.”
“And I'm much obliged, so I am, Captain,” Wilde said.
“By Jove, little 'un!” Trounce exclaimed. “If someone had told you a year ago that you'd be flying to Africa as a crewmember aboard the biggest rotorship ever built, would you have believed them?”
“I can believe anything provided it is incredible, Mr. Trounce.”
“Ha! Quite so! Quite so! And I daresay it's a great deal better than going to school, hey?”
“I wouldn't know, never having suffered such an indignity. While education may be an admirable thing, it is well to remember that nothing worth knowing can be taught. Now then, I must get myself up to the captain to have these acquisition orders signed. There's much to be done, so there is, if we're to depart the country without leaving unpaid debts behind us. I'll see you later, gentlemen!”
“Good Lord!” Quaint said as Wilde disappeared up the stairs to the conning tower. “Where does he get those nimble wits from?”
“I have no idea,” Burton answered. “Perhaps his diet of butterscotch and gobstoppers has affected his brain.”
They moved on down the corridor, passing the crew's quarters, and entered the lounge, a large space stretching from one side of the ship to the other. There were tables and chairs, a small dance floor and stage, and, to Swinburne's evident satisfaction, a bar in one corner.
“How many passengers can the Orpheus accommodate, Doctor?” Burton asked.
“Two hundred, sir. The smoking room is ahead of us, and beyond that the dining room, then a small parlour, and the first-class cabins all the way to the stern, where the reading room is situated. From there we'll take the stairs down to the rear observation room, pass through the cargo hold to the galley and pantries, then the engine room, and on to the standard-class cabins in the prow end of the ship. As you can see, those rooms have access to this lounge via staircases on the port and starboard sides. Of course, the ship has a number of other rooms, but those are the main ones.”
“Phew!” Trounce gasped. “Mr. Brunel certainly likes to work on a grand scale!”
They continued their tour, marvelling at the opulence that surrounded them-for every fixture and fitting, and every item of decor, had been handcrafted from the finest materials-and eventually came to the galley, where they found Isabella Mayson unpacking foodstuffs and stocking the larders.
“By heavens, Miss Mason!” Quaint cried out. “You're making fast progress! The last time I looked in, this room was chock-a-block with unopened boxes!”
“A place for everything and everything in its place, Doctor Quaint,” the young woman responded. “We took a great many supplies on board in Yorkshire and we'll be adding more when we get to London. If I don't have the kitchen in order by then, it'll mean more work and delayed meals. We wouldn't want that, would we?”
“Certainly not!” Quaint agreed.
Miss Mayson smiled at the steward and said, “I shall be serving an early lunch at half-past twelve, Doctor.”
“Good!” Swinburne interjected. “I'm famished!”
Quaint led them out of the galley, past cabins given over to various shipboard functions, and into the first of the huge engine-room compartments. After Daniel Gooch had shown them around the massive twin turbines, they moved on to the standard-class cabins, where they encountered Sister Raghavendra, who was organising a small surgery. As Quaint explained, it was essential to have medical facilities aboard the ship, not only to cater for any passenger who might be taken ill, but also because some of the engineering duties were exceedingly hazardous. It was the job of the riggers, for example, to maintain the flight pylons, which sometimes meant crawling out onto them while the Orpheus was in mid-flight. They wore harnesses, of course, but a fall could still be damaging. Riggers had been known drop then swing into the side of their ship, suffering a crushing impact.
“Now that you have your bearings, gentlemen, I shall take my leave of you,” the doctor said as they reached a staircase at the prow of the vessel. “There is much to be done before our principal voyage begins, as I'm sure you appreciate.” He looked down at Swinburne. “I have to pass back through the lounge, sir. If you'd care to accompany me, I'll organise that breakfast tipple for you.”
“Bravo!” Swinburne cheered. “That'll be just the ticket!”
“And you, sir?” Quaint asked Burton.
“Too early for me. I'll retire to my quarters to go over the expedition inventory.”
“Then I shall see you at lunch, sir.”
The top ends of four colossal copper rods poked out of the dense fog that blanketed London. Guided by Francis Wenham, HMA Orpheus slid into position between them and gently descended into the central courtyard of Battersea Power Station.
It was two o'clock in the afternoon.
“How times have changed,” Swinburne commented as he and Sir Richard Francis Burton disembarked, wrapped tightly in their overcoats, top hats pressed onto their heads. “Who'd have thought, a couple of years ago, that we'd end up working with Isambard Kingdom Brunel?”
“How times have changed,” Burton echoed. “That's the problem.”
Herbert Spencer, the clockwork philosopher, emerged from the pall to greet them.
He was a figure of polished brass, a machine, standing about five-feet-five-inches tall. His head was canister-shaped, with a bizarre-looking domed attachment on top of it that was somewhat reminiscent of a tiny church organ. The “face” beneath it was nothing more than three raised circular areas set vertically. The topmost resembled a tiny ship's porthole, through which a great many minuscule cogwheels could be glimpsed. The middle circle held a mesh grille, and the bottom one was simply a hole out of which three very fine five-inch-long wires projected.
Spencer's neck consisted of thin shafts and cables, swivel joints and hinges. His trunk was a slim cylinder with panels cut from it, revealing gears and springs, delicate crankshafts, gyroscopes, flywheels, and a pendulum. The thin but robust arms ended in three-fingered hands. The legs were sturdy and tubular; the feet oval-shaped.
He was an astonishing sight; and few who saw him now would believe that not so many weeks ago he'd been a very human, grubby, and tangle-bearded vagrant.
“Hallo, Boss! Hallo, Mr. Swinburne!” he hooted.
His strange voice came from the helmet-shaped apparatus, recently created and added to the brass man by Brunel. Spencer spoke through it clearly but with a piping effect that sounded similar to the woodwind section of a band.
Burton returned the greeting: “Hallo. How are you, Herbert?”
“I reckons I've a touch of the old arthritis in me left knee,” the philosopher said. “But can't complain.”
“A screw loose, more like!” Swinburne suggested.
“P'raps. I tells you, though-it's a strange thing to be mechanical. I fear me springs may snap or cogs grind to a halt at any bloomin' moment. Speaking o' which, I have good news-I'll be comin' to Africa, after all.”
“How so?” Burton asked as they crossed the courtyard. “Conditions will hardly be conducive to your functioning.”
“Mr. Brunel's scientists have dreamt up a new material what they makes usin' a chemical process. They calls it polymethylene. It's brown, very flexible, but waxy in texture. It's also waterproof, an' can't be penetrated by dust. They've used it to tailor a number of one-piece suits for me, what'll entirely protect me from the climate.”
“You're certain that you'll be shielded and that the material will endure? Remember, there are extremes of heat and cold, as well as mud and dust,” Burton cautioned. “During my previous expedition the clothes literally rotted off my back.”
They arrived at the tall doors of the main building. Spencer reached out and took hold of one of the handles. “The material will no doubt deteriorate over time, Boss,” he said, “but they've supplied me with fifteen of the bloomin' outfits, so I daresay they'll last. Besides-” he gestured at the fog that surrounded them, “-if I can survive this funk, I can survive anythin'!”
“Then I'm delighted,” Burton replied. “You were pivotal in our securing of the South American diamond, and your presence might be of crucial importance when-or, rather, if-we reach the African stone. Welcome to the team, Herbert!”
“Marvellous!” Swinburne added.
The clockwork man pulled the door far enough open for them to pass through.
“Enter, please, gents.”
The two men stepped into the Technologists' headquarters and were almost blinded by the bright lights within.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel had built Battersea Power Station in 1837. At the time, he'd been full of strange ideas inspired by his acquaintance Henry Beresford, and had designed the station to generate something he referred to as “geothermal energy.” The copper rods that stood in each corner of the edifice rose high above it like four tall chimneys, but they extended much farther in the opposite direction, plunging deep into the Earth's crust. Brunel, just thirty-one years old in '37 and still rather prone to exaggeration, had announced that these rods would produce enough energy to provide the whole of London with electricity, which could then be adapted to provide lighting and heat. Unfortunately, since its construction, the only thing Battersea Power Station had ever managed to illuminate was itself, although it was rumoured that this might soon change, for Brunel was thought to have discovered a means to significantly increase the output of the copper rods.
Shielding their eyes, Burton and Swinburne looked into the station and observed a vast workshop. A number of globes hung from the high ceiling. Lightning bolts had somehow been trapped inside them, and they bathed the floor beneath in an incandescent glare, which reflected off the surfaces of megalithic machines-contrivances whose functions were baffling in the extreme. Electricity fizzed, crackled, and buzzed across their surfaces, and shafts of it whipped and snapped across the open spaces, filling the place with the sharp tang of ozone.
Among all this, over to their right, there stood a bulky vehicle. Around twelve feet high and thirty-six in length, it was tubular in shape-the front half a cabin, the back half a powerful engine-and it was mounted on a large number of short jointed legs. Rows of legs also projected from its top and sides. At its rear, steam funnels stuck horizontally outward, while its front was dominated by a huge drill, which tapered from the outer edges of the vehicle to a point, the tip of which stood some eighteen feet in advance of the main body.
Spencer, noticing them looking at it, explained: “That's a Worm-one of the machines what they're usin' to dig the London Underground tunnels. They reckons Underground trains will make it easier for people to move around the city, now that the streets are so congested with traffic. But you won't find me gettin' into one o' them trains. I'd be afraid o' suffocatin'!”
“You can't suffocate, Herbert,” Swinburne objected.
“Aye, so you says!”
Another contrivance caught their eye. Surrounded by a group of technicians and engineers, it was a large barrel-shaped affair on tripod legs with a myriad of mechanical arms, each ending in pliers or a blowtorch or a saw or some other tool. As Burton, Swinburne, and Spencer entered, it swung toward them, lurched away from the Technologists, and stamped over.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” it said, and its voice was identical to Herbert Spencer's, except pitched at a low baritone.
“Hello, Isambard,” Burton answered, for, indeed, this hulking mechanism was the famous engineer-or, more accurately, it was the life maintaining apparatus that had encased him since 1859, earning him the nickname the Steam Man. The king's agent continued: “The crew of the Orpheus is standing ready to take delivery of the vehicles and further supplies. Is everything prepared?”
“Yes, Sir Richard. My people will tarry-harry-excuse me, carry- everything aboard.”
“I say, Izzy!” Swinburne piped up, with a mischievous twinkle in his green eyes. “Has your new speech-rendering device broken?”
“No,” Brunel answered. “But it is not currently interacting sufficiently-effusively-expectantly-I mean, efficiently-with the calculating elephants-um-elements-of my cerebral impasse-er, impulse-calculators. Unanticipated variegations-vegetations-my apologies-variations are occurring in the calibration of the device's sensory nodes.”
“My hat!” Swinburne exclaimed. “The problem is obviously chronic! I didn't understand a single word you just said! It was absolute gibberish!”
“Algy,” Burton muttered. “Behave yourself!”
“It's all right, Sir Pilchard-er, Sir Richard,” Brunel interjected. “Mr. Spinbroom has not yet forgiven me for the way I treated him during the String Filled Sack affair. I mean the Spring Heeled Jack despair-um-affair. Kleep.”
“Kleep?” Swinburne asked, trying to stifle a giggle.
“Random noise,” Brunel replied. “A recurring poodle. I mean, problem.”
The poet clutched his sides, bent over, and let loose a peal of shrill laughter.
Burton sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Mr. Brunel's speakin' apparatus is the same as me own,” Herbert Spencer put in, raising a brass finger to touch the rounded arrangement of pipes on his head. “But, as you know, me intellect is knockin' around inside the structure o' black diamonds, whereas his ain't, and the instrument responds better to impulses from inorganic matter than from organic.”
“Ah-ha!” Swinburne cried out, wiping tears from his eyes. “So you still have fleshly form inside that big tank of yours, do you, Izzy?”
“That's quite enough,” Burton interrupted, pushing his diminutive assistant aside. He steered the conversation back to the business at hand: “Are we on schedule, Isambard?”
“Yes. We have to declare-compare-repair the ventilation and leaping-um, heating-system, but the League of Chimney Sweeps has guaranteed periphery-I mean, delivery-of a new section of pipe by six o'clock today, and the work itself will slake-take-but an hour or so.”
Swinburne, who'd regained control of himself, asked, “Why can't you fabricate the pipe yourself?”
“Reg-parp-ulations,” Brunel answered.
Burton explained: “The Beetle has recently secured the sole manufacturing and trading rights to any pipes through which his people must crawl to clean or service.”
“That boy is a genius,” Swinburne commented.
“Indeed,” Burton agreed. “Very well, we'll leave you to it, Isambard. The ship's crew will help your people to load the supplies. The passengers will reconvene here tomorrow morning at nine.”
“Would you like to suspect-inspect-the vehicles before you depart?”
“No time. We have a murder investigation under way. I have to go.”
“Before you do, may I peek-speak-with you privately for a moment?”
Burton followed Brunel and stood with him a short distance away. They conversed for a few minutes, then the Steam Man clanked off and rejoined the group of Technologists.
“What was all that about?” Swinburne asked.
“He was telling me a few things about the babbage device that John Speke has fitted to his head. Let's go.”
“Should I join you, Boss?” Spencer asked.
“No, Herbert. I'd like you to stay and check the inventory against the supplies loaded.”
Leaving the clockwork man, Burton and Swinburne walked out through the doors, crossed the courtyard, and joined Detective Inspectors Trounce and Honesty, Commander Krishnamurthy, Constable Bhatti, Isabella Mayson, Mrs. Angell and Fidget, and various other passengers at the foot of the rotorship's boarding ramp. Crewmembers D'Aubigny, Bingham, and Butler were also there, having been granted a few hours' shore leave.
The pea-souper swirled around them all, dusting their clothes and skin with pollutants, clogging their nostrils with soot.
“Are we all ready?” Burton asked his friends. “Then let us go and bid civilisation farewell, except for you, Mother Angell. I fully expect you to maintain its standards while we're gone.”
The group walked out through the station gates and passed alongside the outer wall beside a patch of wasteland that stretched down to nearby railway lines-a location which held bad memories for the king's agent and his assistant, for two years ago they'd been pursued across it by wolf-men and had narrowly avoided being hit by a locomotive.
They followed a path down to Kirtling Street, which took them the short distance to Battersea Park Road. Here they waved down conveyances. Monckton Milnes's guests gradually disappeared, as they each caught cabs home. Mrs. Angell and Fidget climbed into a hansom, bound for 14 Montagu Place; Isabella Mayson took another, for Orange Street; and a growler stopped for Detective Inspector Honesty, Commander Krishnamurthy, and Constable Bhatti, ready to take them each in turn to their respective homes.
A fourth vehicle-a steam-horse-drawn growler-was hailed by Burton for himself, Swinburne, and Trounce.
“Scotland Yard, driver!” the latter ordered.
“Not to Otto Steinruck's house?” Burton asked, as he climbed into the carriage and settled himself on the seat.
“It's out in Ilford,” came the reply. “Too far by cab, so I thought we'd each borrow one of the Yard's rotorchairs.”
The growler swung out onto Nine Elms Lane and chugged along next to the Thames. Its passengers took out their handkerchiefs and held them over their noses, the stench from the river so intense it made their eyes water.
Burton looked out of the window. Somewhere along this road there was a courtyard in which a young girl named Sarah Lovitt had been assaulted by Spring Heeled Jack back in 1839-just one of many attacks Edward Oxford had committed while searching for his ancestor. That was twenty-four years ago, and in that short time Oxford's influence had totally transformed the British Empire. That one man could effect such a change so quickly seemed utterly incredible to Burton but it wasn't without precedent; after all, history was replete with individuals who'd done the same-the Caesars, Genghis Khans, and Napoleons. Oxford had caused the death of Queen Victoria. After that, his influence had been subtler; he'd simply made unguarded comments about the future to Henry Beresford. The marquess had passed that information on to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose remarkable creative talents had been set alight by the hints and suggestions, leading to the creation of the political and cultural juggernaut that was the Technologist caste.
While Brunel's Engineers and Eugenicists succumbed to their inventive zeal, Oxford's presence in the form of Spring Heeled Jack had also inspired an opposing force: the Libertines, who sought to change social policies and create a new species of liberated man.
All of these elements had given rise to a condition of rapidly growing chaos, as scientific developments and social experimentation accelerated without check. For Charles Darwin, the man they called “God's Executioner,” who'd fallen under the sway of his cousin, the Eugenicist Francis Galton, the possibilities had been so overwhelming they'd pushed him beyond the bounds of sanity.
How many others? Burton thought. How many have become something they should never have been?
The growler turned left onto Vauxhall Bridge and joined the queue of vehicles waiting to pay the toll to cross.
“The devil take it!” Trounce grumbled. “For how long are we to sit here breathing in this funk?”
“I can barely see a thing,” Swinburne said, leaning out and peering ahead. “There's no telling how far from the toll booths we are. Surely, Pouncer, you don't expect us to fly rotorchairs in this?”
“Oy!” the police officer objected. “Don't call me Pouncer! But you're right, of course. After all that fresh Yorkshire air, I forgot how damned impenetrable these London particulars can be.”
Burton made a suggestion: “It's only a couple of miles to the Yard. Why don't we leg it there and borrow penny-farthings instead?”
Trounce agreed, and moments later they were crossing the bridge on foot, cursing the stink, cursing the traffic, and cursing the fog.
“I tell you, Captain, I'll be delighted to leave this bloody cesspool of a city behind for a few months,” Trounce declared.
It was six o'clock by the time they reached Ilford, and, though the fog was thinner there, the daylight was fading and the ill-lit town was wreathed in gloom.
They steered their velocipedes along the Cranbrook Road, then turned left into Grenfell Place.
“We're looking for number sixteen,” Trounce said.
A minute later, they found it: an isolated house set back from the road and concealed by a gnarled and unnaturally twisted oak tree.
“By Jove!” Trounce exclaimed. “Why would anyone want this monstrosity in their front garden?”
They opened the gate, passed through, ducked under the branches, and walked along the path to the front door. No lights were showing in the house.
Trounce exercised the door knocker with his usual vigour but was met with nothing but silence.
“This is a murder investigation,” he said, taking two steps back, “so I have no qualms about breaking in. Stand aside, would you, while I put my shoulder to it.”
Burton held up a hand. “No need for that, old chap.” He produced a picklock from his coat pocket and went to work on the keyhole. Moments later, there was a click.
“Open sesame!” Swinburne commanded, with an effusive wave of his arms.
“Go back to the gate and stand guard, would you, Algy?” Burton asked. “We'll need to light lamps, and if our strangler returns while we're here and sees the windows blazing, he'll do a runner before we've a chance to nab him. Yell if you see anyone acting in a suspicious manner.”
The poet nodded and moved away while Burton and Trounce entered the house. The Scotland Yard man took out a box of lucifers, struck one, and put it to a wall lamp in the hallway. It illuminated three doors and a flight of stairs.
The first door opened onto a small lounge. Trounce got another lamp going and the two men saw five chairs positioned around a coffee table on which ashtrays and empty glasses stood.
“It looks like there was a meeting of some sort,” Burton observed. He checked a bureau and found it empty, then the cupboards of an armoire and found the same.
The second door led to a dining room in which they found nothing of interest, and the third door into a kitchen. Its pantry was empty.
“I fear our quarry is long gone,” Trounce muttered.
The bedrooms upstairs added weight to his suspicion, for the wardrobes were bare and there were no personal possessions to be found anywhere.
“Let's take another look at the lounge,” Burton suggested.
They returned to that room and began a thorough search of it. The king's agent picked through the ashtrays, lifting cigar butts to his nose.
“Revealing,” he murmured. “Four different Germanic brands and one English.”
“Look at this, Captain.”
Burton moved over to where his friend was squatting by the fireplace.
Trounce pointed at a reddish-brown patch at the back of the hearth. “Is that dried blood?”
Burton crouched and examined the stain. “Yes, I think so. Well spotted. But how the blazes did blood get there?” He thought for a moment, then said: “Would you call Algy in, please?”
Trounce grunted, straightened, and left the room. While he was gone, Burton pulled the ashes and half-burned coals out of the fireplace and pushed them to one side, careless of the mess he made on the hearthrug. He lifted out the grate and set that aside, too.
“There was a hansom outside,” Swinburne said as he entered the room with Trounce behind him. “It trotted past in the normal manner. I don't think it was anything untoward. What's happening here?”
“You're the chimney expert,” Burton said. “Have a look at this.”
Swinburne cast his eyes over the fireplace. “It was recently cleaned,” he noted.
“Yes. Look how thin the layer of soot is. Is that a bloodstain?”
“We think so.”
“Give me your lantern, Richard.”
Burton reached into his pocket and pulled out his clockwork lantern. He shook it open and wound it, then handed it over to his assistant.
Swinburne removed his topper and laid it on the coffee table, then ducked down, stepped into the fireplace, and raised the light into the chimney.
“I'm going up,” he said, and, bracing his legs against either side of the opening, he began to climb.
“Be careful, lad!” Trounce cautioned.
“Don't worry,” Burton said. “Vincent Sneed trained him well.”
“Don't mention that cad!” came Swinburne's hollow voice. “I say! There's a sort of niche up here and a little stash of food. There are more bloodstains, too. I'm going to go all the way up to the roof.”
Little showers of soot fell into the hearth, but less than Burton would have expected; evidently the poet was correct, and the chimney was fairly clean.
Five minutes passed, then scrapes and trickles of black dust and an occasional grunt indicated that Swinburne was on his way back down. His feet appeared, then the poet in his entirety, his clothes and skin blackened, his green eyes sparkling from his sooty face.
“My guess is that a chimney sweep was hired to clean the chimney then came back later to steal food from the house,” he said. “It's not uncommon. Most of the boys are half-starved and those that lodge with master sweeps are often so brutalised that they occasionally seek refuge for a night in suitable chimneys.”
“Suitable chimneys?” Trounce asked. “What constitutes a suitable chimney?”
Swinburne turned off the lantern and handed it back to Burton. “One like this, with a niche in it and a shelf wide enough for the nipper to sleep on.”
“And the blood?” Burton asked.
“They shot him.”
“Halfway up there's a furrow in the brickwork with a bullet lodged at the end of it. That shot obviously missed. Another one didn't. There's blood smeared all the way to the top and a lot of it on the roof tiles. The lad got away by the looks of it, but I doubt he survived for long, the poor little blighter.”
The three men were silent for a moment, then Swinburne said quietly: “And now I hate that Prussian swine even more.”
They made a final search of the house in case they'd missed anything then turned off the lights, stepped out, and closed the front door behind them.
“I'll report to the Yard and will have a couple of constables sent over to keep watch on the place,” Trounce said as they proceeded down the path.
“We have no choice but to leave the investigation in the hands of your colleagues now,” Burton said, “which means even if they catch the wretch, we won't hear about it for some considerable time. There is, however, one last thing I can do.”
The king's agent pulled open the gate and they crossed to where their velocipedes were parked.
“I can visit the Beetle. He may know something about the injured sweep.”
They started the penny-farthings' engines, mounted, and set off. As they turned back into Cranbrook Road and began to chug down the hill, Burton called, “We'll split up when we get to Mile End. I'll head off to Limehouse. Algy, you go home, get packed, and have a good night's sleep. Stay off the alcohol. Trounce, do what you have to do at the Yard then get yourself home to your wife. We'll reconvene at the Orpheus tomorrow morning.”
This arrangement was followed, and just under an hour later, Burton was striding through the stifling fog along the banks of Limehouse Cut canal. The factories that lined it had finished production for the day, and the thousands of workers who toiled within them had dispersed, returning to their lodgings in the loathsome slum that was London's East End-or “the Cauldron” as it was more commonly known.
Burton had left his velocipede in the charge of a constable back on the High Road. It wouldn't do to bring such an expensive vehicle into this district. He'd left his top hat with the policeman, too. The men in this area were most often bare-headed or wore flat caps. Best not to stand out.
The king's agent did, however, carry his sword cane-with its silver panther-head handle-held in such a manner so as to be able to quickly unsheathe the blade should it become necessary.
He arrived at a towering factory that, unlike the others, stood derelict. Nearly every one of its windows was cracked or broken, and its doors were boarded up. He circled around it until he came to a narrow dock at the side of the canal. In a niche in the building's wall, he found iron rungs set into the brickwork. He climbed them.
The edifice was seven storeys high, and by the time Burton reached the roof, he was breathing heavily. Hauling himself over the parapet, he sat and rested a moment.
There were two skylights set into the flat roof with eight chimneys rising around them. The third one from the eastern edge had rungs set into its side, and, after the king's agent had got his breath back, he began to ascend it. Halfway up, he stopped to rest again, then pressed on until he came to the top of the structure. He swung himself onto the lip of the chimney and sat with one leg to either side of it. He'd picked up a number of stones on his way here, and now he retrieved three of them from his pocket and dropped them one by one into the flue. This signal would summon the Beetle.
Burton had never actually seen the strange leader of the League of Chimney Sweeps. All he knew about him was that he was a boy, he lived in this chimney, and he had a voracious appetite for books. The Beetle had been of significant help during the strange affair of Spring Heeled Jack, when he'd arranged for Swinburne to pose as a sweep-a move that led directly to the exposure of Darwin and his cronies-and since then Burton had visited regularly, always bringing with him a supply of literature and poetry. The Beetle was especially desirous of anything written by Swinburne, whose talent he practically worshipped.
Burton wrapped his scarf around the lower half of his face and waited.
From this height there was usually a stunning view across London but today the king's agent could barely see his own hand in front of his face. The fog was dense and cold, and the “blacks” were falling-coal dust that coalesced with ice at a higher altitude and drifted down like dark snow.
He frowned. The Beetle should have responded by now.
“Hi!” he called into the flue. “Are you there, lad? It's Burton!”
There was no answer. He dropped three more stones into the darkness and sat patiently. The minutes ticked by and there was still no sound of movement, no whispery voice from the shadows.
Burton called again, waited a little longer, then gave up.
Where was the Beetle?
Half an hour later, after retrieving his vehicle and headwear, Burton continued homeward. For a few minutes he thought a hansom was following him, but when he reached the main thoroughfares, he became so ensnarled in traffic that he lost sight of it.
Central London had ground to a complete halt, the streets jammed solid with a bizarre mishmash of technologies. There were horses pulling carts and carriages; prodigious drays harnessed to huge pantechnicons; steam-horse-drawn hansoms and growlers; velocipedes; and adapted arachnids and insects, such as harvestmen and Folks' Wagon Beetles, silverfish racers and omnipedes. Burton even saw a farmer trying to drive a herd of goats through the streets to Covent Garden Market.
It seemed to the king's agent that the past, present, and future had all been compressed into the capital's streets, as if the structure of time itself was deteriorating.
None of the vehicles or pedestrians was making any progress, being more engaged in battling one another than in moving forward. The horses were whinnying and shying away from the insects, the insects were getting tangled up in each other's legs and mounting the pavements in an attempt to pass one another, and among them all, cloaked in fog and steam, crowds of people were shouting and cursing and shaking their fists in fury.
Slowly, with many a diversion down dark and narrow side streets and alleyways, Burton made his way out of Cheapside, past the Bank of England, and along Holborn Road. Here, at the junction with Red Lion Street, he collided with another velocipede-whose driver had lost control after his vehicle's boiler burst and knocked the gyroscope out of kilter-and was almost forced into an enormously deep and wide hole in the road. Clutching at the barrier around the pit so as not to topple from his penny-farthing, Burton cursed vehemently, then reached down and turned off his engine. The other man, who'd fallen onto the cobbles, picked himself up and kicked his machine. “Stupid bloody thing!” he cried out, then looked up at the king's agent. “Bless me, sir, you almost came a cropper! Pray forgive me!”
“It wasn't your fault,” Burton said, dismounting. “Are you hurt?”
“I've ripped my trouser knee and knocked my elbow but nothing more life-threatening than that. What's this whacking great crater all about?”
“They're building a station here for the new London Underground railway system. The Technologists say it'll make moving around the city a lot easier.”
“Well, it couldn't be any more difficult,” the man answered. “Strike a light! What was that?”
Something had whined past his ear and knocked off Burton's top hat.
“Get down!” the king's agent snapped, pushing the other man to the ground.
“Hey up! What's your game?”
“I beg your pardon? Did you say shooting?”
The explorer scanned the milling crowd, then reached for his hat and snatched it up from the road. There was a hole in its front, near the top edge. At the back, an exit hole was set a bit lower.
“The shot was fired from slightly above ground level,” he murmured.
“Shot? Shot?” the man at his side stammered. “Why are we being shot at? I've never done anything! I'm just a bank clerk!”
“But why? Who are you?”
“Nobody. Pick up your boneshaker and get out of here.”
“But-I-um-should I call for a policeman?”
The man scuttled sideways on his hands and knees, pushed his penny-farthing upright, and wheeled it away while crouching behind it, as if it might shelter him from further bullets. As he disappeared into the noisy throng, Burton also moved, sliding along the edge of the barrier with his eyes flicking left and right, trying to pierce the fog.
“Confound it!” he hissed. He had no idea where the shootist might be. In one of the nearby carriages, perhaps? On a velocipede? Not in a building, that much was certain, for the windows along this side of the street were nothing but faint rectangular smudges of light-no one could possibly have identified him through the intervening murk.
He decided to follow Falstaff's dictum that “discretion is the better part of valour,” and, bending low, he retrieved his cane, abandoned his conveyance, and shouldered his way into the crowd. He ducked between the legs of a harvestman, squeezed past a brewery wagon, and hurried away as fast as the many obstructions would allow. It was a shame to leave the penny-farthing behind but he couldn't risk climbing up onto its saddle again-that would make him far too visible.
It was past eleven o'clock by the time he finally arrived at 14 Montagu Place. As he stepped in, Mrs. Angell greeted him.
“Hallo!” he said, slipping his cane into an elephant's-foot holder by the door. “Good show! You got home! What a state the streets are in!”
“It's pandemonium, Sir Richard,” she agreed. “How are the delivery boys to do their job? We'll starve!”
“I'm halfway there already,” he said, shrugging out of his coat and hanging it on the stand. “I haven't eaten since I don't know when!”
“Then you'll be pleased to hear that a bacon and egg pie has been waiting for you these three hours past. That should fill the hole in your stomach. I don't know what to do about the hole that appears to have found its way into your hat, though.”
Burton took off his topper and eyed it ruefully. “Oh well, I don't suppose I'll need it where I'm going. Perhaps you'd consign it to the dustbin for me?”
“Most certainly not!” the old woman objected. “A fine headpiece like that should be repaired, not abandoned. What happened to it?”
“Someone took a pot-shot at me.”
Mrs. Angell raised her hands to her face. “Oh my goodness! With a gun? Are you hurt?”
Burton placed the hat on the stand, then squatted to untie his bootlaces.
“Not at all. The would-be assassin's aim was off.”
He eased his boots off and stood in his stockinged feet.
“I missed a night's sleep and I'm weary to the bone,” he said. “I'll change into something more comfortable and join you in the kitchen for supper, if you don't mind.”
Mrs. Angell looked surprised. “Eat? In the kitchen? With me?”
Burton took his housekeeper by the shoulders and smiled fondly down at her. “My dear, dear woman,” he said. “I shan't see you again for such a long time. How will I ever do without you? You've fed me and cleaned up after me; you've kept me on the straight and narrow when I would have strayed; you've put up with intruders and all manner of inconveniences; you didn't even complain when the Tichborne Claimant practically demolished the house. You are one of the world's wonders, and I'd be honoured to dine with you tonight.”
With glistening eyes, Mrs. Angell said, “Then be my guest, Sir Richard. There is, however, a condition.”
“A condition? What?”
“I shall boil plenty of water while we eat and, when we are finished, you'll carry it upstairs and take a bath. You reek of the Thames, sir.”
Burton relaxed in a tin bathtub in front of the fireplace in his study. He'd shaved, clipped his drooping moustache, and scrubbed the soot and toxins from his skin.
He took a final puff at the stub of a pungent cheroot, cast it into the hearth, reached down to the floor and lifted a glass of brandy to his lips, drained it, then set it back down.
“Someone,” he said to the room, “doesn't want me to go to Africa, that much is plain.”
“Fuddle-witted ninny,” murmured Pox, his messenger parakeet. The colourful bird was sleeping on a perch near a bookcase. Like all of her kind, she delivered insults even while unconscious.
Burton leaned back, rested his head on the lip of the tub, and turned it so that he might gaze into the flickering flames of the fire.
His eyelids felt heavy.
He closed them.
His breathing slowed and deepened.
His thoughts meandered.
In his mind's eye, faces formed and faded: Lieutenant William Stroyan, Sir Roderick Murchison, Ebenezer Smike, Thomas Honesty, Edwin Brundleweed. They shifted and blended. They congealed into a single countenance, gaunt and lined, with a blade-like nose, tight lips, and insane, pain-filled eyes.
Spring Heeled Jack.
Gradually, the features grew smoother. The eyes became calmer. A younger man emerged from the terrible face.
“Oxford,” Burton muttered in his sleep. “His name is Edward Oxford.”
His name is Edward Oxford.
He is twenty-five years old and he's a genius-a physician, an engineer, a historian, and a philosopher.
He sits at a desk constructed from glass but, rather than being clear, it is somehow filled with writing and diagrams and pictures that move and wink and come and go. The surface of the desk is flat and thin, yet the information dancing within it-and Burton instinctively knows that it is information-appears to be three-dimensional. It's disconcerting, as if something impossibly big has been stored in something very small-like a djan in a lamp-but this doesn't appear to bother Oxford. In fact, the young man has some sort of control over the material, for occasionally he touches a finger to the glass or he murmurs something and the writing and outlines and images respond by folding or flipping or metamorphosing.
A large black diamond has been placed on the desk.
Burton recognises it as the South American Eye of Naga, which he'd discovered last year beneath the Tichborne family's estate. The dream disagrees with him. The stone was not found in 1862, it says. It was found in 2068.
Oxford is fascinated by it. The structure of the stone is unique. He whispers, “Even more sensitive than a CellComp. More efficient than a ClusterComp. More capacity than GenMem.”
What is he talking about? Burton wonders.
The dream twists away and repositions itself inside a day a few weeks later.
The diamond is filled with the remnant intelligences of a prehistoric race. They have inveigled their way into Oxford's mind.
He starts to think about time.
He becomes obsessed.
He becomes paranoid.
It happens that he shares his name with a distant ancestor who, in a fit of insanity, had attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria. A voice, from somewhere behind his conscious mind, insists: “That man besmirched your family's reputation. Change it. Correct it.”
Why does this obscure fact suddenly matter? Why should he care about a forgotten incident that occurred near three hundred and fifty years ago?
He can think about little else.
The reptilian intelligence plants another seed.
Slowly, in Oxford's mind, a theory concerning the nature of time blossoms like a pervasively scented exotic flower. Its roots dig deeper. Its lianas entangle him. It consumes him.
He works tirelessly.
The dream convulses and fifteen years have passed.
Oxford has cut shards from the diamond and connected them to a chain of DNA-StringComps and BioProcs. They form the heart of what he calls a Nimtz Generator. It is a flat circular device. It will enable him to move through time.
To power it, he's invented the fish-scale battery, and has fashioned thousands of these tiny solar-energy collectors into a one-piece tight-fitting suit. He's also embedded an AugCom into a round black helmet. It will act as an interface between his brain and the generator. It will also protect him from the deep psychological shock that he somehow knows will afflict anyone who steps too far out of their native time period.
The boots of the costume are fitted with two-foot-high spring-loaded stilts. They appear wildly eccentric but they offer a simple solution to a complex problem, for when the bubble of energy generated by the Nimtz forms around the suit, it must touch nothing but air.
Oxford will literally jump through time.
It is the evening of 15th February, 2202. Nine o'clock. A Monday. His fortieth birthday.
Oxford dresses in attire suitable for the 1840s. He pulls his time suit on over the top of it and clips on his stilts. He attaches the Nimtz Generator to his chest and puts the helmet on his head. He picks up a top hat and strides out of his workshop and into the long garden beyond.
His wife comes out of the house, wiping her hands on a towel.
“You're going now?” she asks. “Supper is almost ready!”
“I am,” he replies, “but don't worry-even if I'm gone for years, I'll be back in five minutes!”
“You won't return an old man, I hope!” she grumbles, and runs a hand over her distended belly. “This one will need an energetic young father.”
He laughs. “Don't be silly. It won't take long.”
Bending, he kisses her on the nose.
He instructs the suit to take him to five-thirty on the afternoon of 10th June, 1840. Location: the upper corner of Green Park, London.
He looks at the sky.
“Am I really going to do this?” he asks himself.
“Do it!” a voice whispers in his head, and before he can consciously make a decision, he takes three long strides, jumps, hits the ground with knees bent, and leaps high into the air. A bubble forms around him and he vanishes with a small detonation, like a little clap of thunder.
Sir Richard Francis Burton jerked awake and tepid water slopped over the edge of his bath.
He shivered, sat up, and looked around his study, trying to identify the source of the noise. His attention was drawn to a thin wisp of steam rising from a tubular contraption on one of his three desks. He reached for a towel then stood, stepped out of the bath, and wrapped the thick cloth around himself. He crossed to the desk. The glass and brass apparatus was his direct connection to the prime minister and the king. Burton retrieved a canister from it, snapped it open, and pulled out a sheet of paper. He read the words: Be prepared to receive the prime minister at 2 a. m.
“Curse the man! That's all I need!”
Pox twitched a wing and chirped, “Stink fermenter!”
Burton looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was half-past one.
Rapidly drying himself, he went into his dressing room and put on loose white cotton trousers and a shirt, then wrapped his jubbah-the long and loose outer garment he'd worn while on his pilgrimage to Mecca, which he now used as a night robe-over the top of them. He slid his feet into pointed Arabian slippers and wound a turban around his damp hair.
By two o'clock, the bathtub had been removed, another Manila cheroot had been smoked, and Burton had sat and pondered his strange dream. There was much about it that he didn't understand-the curious glass desk, the sparsely furnished room in which it stood, some of the words that Edward Oxford had uttered-yet it seemed vividly real.
Did I just glimpse a distant future? The one that was meant to be before Oxford interfered?
Hearing the coughing of steam engines and rumble of wheels in the street outside, he stepped to the window and looked out in time to see Lord Palmerston's armoured six-wheeled mobile castle draw up.
He went downstairs and opened the front door.
Palmerston was standing on the step, with his odd-job men Gregory Hare and Damien Burke on either side of him.
“Do you consider that suitable attire, Captain Burton?” the prime minister asked.
“For two o'clock in the morning? Yes, sir,” Burton replied, moving aside to let the men enter. “Do you consider it a suitable hour for visiting?”
“One cannot run an Empire and maintain respectable hours, sir.”
“Up to the study, if you please.”
Burton closed the door and followed them upstairs, noting that the prime minister's men were dressed, as ever, in outlandishly old-fashioned outfits.
“Last time I saw this room,” Palmerston said as he entered the bookcase lined chamber, “it was all but destroyed.”
“You're referring to the occasion when we were attacked and you hid in my storeroom?” Burton responded.
“Now, now, Captain. Let us not get off on the wrong foot.”
Palmerston placed his hat on one of the desks and took off his calfskin gloves. His fingernails were painted black. He didn't remove his tightly buttoned velvet frock coat but smoothed it down then sat in Burton's favourite saddlebag armchair and crossed his legs. He pulled a silver snuffbox from his pocket and said, “We must talk. I would have been here earlier but the streets were impassable.”
Burke and Hare each sat at a desk. Burton took the armchair opposite Palmerston, who asked, “Your expedition is equipped and ready for departure?”
“Good. Good. All running smoothly, then?”
“Yes. Unless you count two attempts on my life, one of which resulted in the death of my good friend Thomas Bendyshe.”
Palmerston jerked forward. “What did you say?”
“A man named Peter Pimlico tried to poison me. He was hired by a Prussian named Otto Steinruck, who then killed him by strangulation to keep him quiet. And, earlier this evening, somebody sent a bullet my way.”
Damien Burke, tall, hunchbacked, extremely bald, and sporting the variety of side whiskers known as “Piccadilly Weepers,” cleared his throat and said, “This Germanic individual, Captain Burton-did you find out anything about him?”
“Only that he's portly, wears a large moustache, has pointed claw-like fingernails, and chews Kautabak tobacco.”
Burke glanced at Gregory Hare, who was short and muscular, with white hair and a broad, pugnacious face. “Ah-ha,” he said. “Do you agree, Mr. Hare?”
“I do, Mr. Burke,” Hare answered. “Ah-ha.”
“You know something of this individual?” Burton asked.
“Yes,” Burke said. “I consider it highly likely that Otto Steinruck is not Otto Steinruck. It is almost certainly an alias. The man fits the description of a notorious Prussian spy named Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin. You'll remember that last year he helped Richard Spruce and his Eugenicist colleagues to flee the country. A very dangerous man, Captain.”
Burton nodded. “And one bent on preventing me from going to Africa, it would appear. I'm certain he's still working with Spruce, too.”
“The dead man had a foul-looking plant sprouting from the roof of his mouth.”
“Hmm. That's interesting.” Burke took a notebook from his pocket and scribbled something in it with a pencil.
Palmerston opened his snuffbox, took a pinch of brown powder, sprinkled it onto the back of his right hand, and raised it to his nose. He snorted it and his eyes momentarily widened.
It occurred to Burton that the prime minister's face had been stretched so taut by his Eugenicist treatments that those eyes appeared almost oriental.
“A complex situation,” Palmerston muttered. “There are great moves being made, Captain, moves that will reshape the world, and you are in the thick of it.”
“Tomorrow afternoon, I shall make an announcement to parliament. You'll be out of the country by then, so I came to give you the news personally. Excuse me-”
Palmerston turned his head to one side and let loose a prodigious sneeze. When he looked back, there were hundreds of deep wrinkles around his eyes and nose. Over the next few minutes, they slowly flattened out and disappeared.
“What news?” Burton asked.
“Lincoln has surrendered. America is ours.”
Burton's jaw dropped. He fell back into his seat, speechless.
“Some time ago,” Palmerston continued, “I told you that if this should occur I would demand of the Confederates the abolition of slavery as repayment for our role in their victory. I fully intend to do that. But not just yet.”
Finally, Burton found his voice and asked, “Why not?”
“Because of Blut und Eisen.”
“Blood and iron?”
“Three months ago, while you were clearing up the Tichborne business and our turncoat Eugenicists were defecting to Prussia, Chancellor Bismarck made a speech in which he declared his intentions to increase military spending and unify the Germanic territories. He said-and believe me, I can quote this from memory, for it is seared into my mind: ‘The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power. Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favourable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided-that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849-but by blood and iron.’”
Burton said, “I read accounts of the speech in the newspapers. Is he warmongering?”
Palmerston clenched his fists. “Indisputably. It is the first blatant move toward the world war Countess Sabina has predicted. There is no doubt that Bismarck is seeking to establish a Germanic empire to rival our own. Empires require resources, Captain Burton, and there is one vast untapped resource remaining in the world. I refer to Africa.”
“So you suspect Bismarck will try to establish a foothold there?”
“I think he intends to carve it up and suck it dry.”
“But what has this to do with America's slaves?”
“If a united Germany can count Africa among its territories, and if war breaks out, it will find itself with an almost limitless source of expendable manpower.”
“I believe the term is ‘cannon fodder.’”
The king's agent felt ice in his veins. “You surely aren't suggesting-” he began.
Palmerston interrupted him. “If we are faced with such a situation, we will require our own disposable units.”
“You mean America's slave population?”
“Yes. A little over four million individuals, though I'm including women in that number.”
Burton's jaw flexed spasmodically. “Hellfire, man! You're talking about human beings! Families! You're not only suggesting support for state sanctioned slavery-you're talking about bloody genocide!”
“I mean to ensure the survival of the British Empire, whatever it takes.”
“No!” Burton shouted. “No! No! No!” He slapped his hand down on the leather arm of his chair. “I won't stand for it! It's despicable!”
“You'll do whatever you're damned well ordered to do, Captain Burton,” Palmerston said softly. “And what you are ordered to do is help me to ensure that no such circumstance ever arises.”
“Your primary mission hasn't changed-you are to retrieve the Eye of Naga so that we might employ it to infiltrate and coerce the minds of our opponents. However, there is now a secondary purpose to your expedition. You are to employ your military and geographical experience to determine which are the most strategically advantageous African territories and how we might best secure them. I intend to claim that continent before Bismarck makes his move, and I'm relying on you to advise me how to do it.”
Burton's heart hammered in his chest. His mind raced.
He looked into Lord Palmerston's impenetrable eyes.
“And if I do, sir, and if we make Africa a part of the British Empire, then what of the inhabitants? What of the Africans?”
The prime minister-returning Burton's gaze steadily and without blinking-replied: “They will be accorded the rights granted to all British subjects.”
There was a moment of silence, broken only by Gregory Hare clearing his throat slightly, then Burton said, “You refer to the same rights enjoyed by those undernourished Britishers who toil in our factories and inhabit our slums? The same given to those who beg on our street corners and doorsteps? The same extended to servant girls abused and impregnated by their employers then thrown onto the streets where their only means of survival is prostitution? Is this the marvellous civilisation that you, the great imperialist, have to offer Africa?”
Palmerston shot to his feet and yelled, “Shut the hell up, Burton! Am I to endure your insolence every time we meet? I'll not tolerate it! You have your orders!” He stamped to the door, snapping his fingers at Burke and Hare. They rose and followed. He ushered them out first, then, with his hand on the doorknob, turned to face the explorer.
“Do your bloody job, Captain!” he snarled.
The prime minister stepped out of the room and slammed the door shut behind him.
“Illiterate baboon,” Pox squawked.
“In the maelstrom of making history,” Bertie Wells said, “very little of it is accurately recorded. When the time finally comes for an account of the events that have passed, human nature takes over.”
He and Burton were in an ambulance sharing that rarity of rarities, a scrounged cigar. The oxen-drawn vehicle was part of a convoy, a seemingly never-ending line of soldiers and vehicles moving up from the south toward the port of Tanga, some hundred miles north of Dar es Salaam.
It was early morning but already ferociously hot. The troops were dripping sweat. They were exhausted, ill, and miserable. Occasional bursts of chanting broke out-the usual sad native dirges-but these quickly tailed off, overwhelmed by the rhythmic tromp tromp tromp of boots. At one point a company of Britishers broke into song, their mock cheerfulness shot through with resentful hatred. The tune was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but the lyrics were rather more colourful than those of the original hymn:
When this lousy war is over, no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be.
No more church parades on Sunday, no more begging for a pass.
You can tell the sergeant major to stick his passes up his arse.
The sergeant major in question harangued the men for a three-mile stretch after that.
Burton was sitting on the ambulance's tailgate, leaning against the side of the vehicle's open back. He couldn't stop scratching.
“Human nature?” he said. “What do you mean?”
Wells, perched on a bench just behind him, responded, “I'm of the opinion that we possess an inbuilt craving for narrative structure. We want everything to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That way, we can make better sense of it.” He looked down at Burton. “How many days did that uniform last before it got infested?”
“Four. The lice are eating me alive.”
“Chin up, old man. It could be worse. Fever, trench foot, dysentery, having your bloody legs blown off-all the perils of wartime Africa.”
“Bismillah! What are you people doing? You've created hell from an Eden!”
“Is my generation responsible, Richard, or is yours? I've heard people say over and over that we are all products of the past. They'd lay the blame for this war squarely at their fathers' feet. In other words, welcome to the world you created.”
“Absolutely not! None of my contemporaries intended the creation of this Jahannam!”
“As you say. Besides, I disagree with the philosophy of what you might term sequentialism. The problem, as I see it, is that we don't truly understand the nature of the past. We mythologise it. We create fictions about actions performed to justify what we undertake in the present. We adjust the cause to better suit the effect. The truth is that the present is, and will always be, utter chaos. There is no story and no plan. We are victims of Zeitgeist. I apologise for using a German word, but it's singularly appropriate. Are you familiar with it?”
“Yes. It translates as ‘ghost tide,’ or, perhaps, ‘spirit of the age,’ and refers to the ambience or sociopolitical climate of any given period.”
“Exactly so, and in my view it's a phenomenon entirely independent of history. History doesn't create the zeitgeist, we create the history to try to explain the zeitgeist. We impose a sequential narrative to endow events with something that resembles meaning.”
The ambulance jerked as its wheels bounced through a pothole. Burton's head banged against the vehicle's wooden side.
“How's your arm?” Wells asked.
“Aching. How's your leg?”
“Broken. How's your head?”
“Have a cigar.”
The war correspondent passed what remained of the “Hoffman” to the explorer, who glanced at its much-reduced length and muttered, “Your lungs are healthy, at least.” He raised it to his lips and drew in the sweet smoke, savouring it while observing the column of men and vehicles that snaked back over the rolling landscape.
The supply wagons and ambulances were mostly towed by steam-horses or oxen. There were a few mangy-looking nonmechanical horses in evidence, too, including mega-drays pulling huge artillery pieces. Harvestmen stalked along beside the troops, and Scorpion Tanks thumped through the dust with their tails curled over their cabins, the guns at their ends slowly swinging back and forth.
“Hey! Private!” Burton called to a nearby Britisher. “Where are we?”
“In it up to our bloody eyeballs, chum!”
“Ha! And geographically?”
“I ain't got a bleedin' clue. Ask Kitchener!”
“We're almost there, sir,” an African voice answered. “Tanga is a mile or so ahead.”
“Much obliged!” Burton said. He turned Wells. “Did you hear that? We must be near your village. Shall we hop out here?”
“Hopping is my only option, unfortunately.”
Burton slid from the tailgate into the ambulance, then moved to its front and banged his fist against the back of the driver's cabin. “Stop a moment, would you?”
He returned to Wells and, as the vehicle halted, helped him down to the ground and handed him his crutches. The two men put on their helmets, moved to the side of the column, and walked slowly along beside it.
“So what's your point, Bertie?”
“Oh. Just that we give too much credence to the idea that we can learn from the past. It's the present that teaches the lesson. The problem is that we're so caught up in doing it that we can never see the wood for the trees. I say! Are you all right?”
Burton had suddenly doubled over and was clutching the sides of his head.
“No!” he gasped. “Yes. I think-” He straightened and took a deep, shuddering breath. “Yes. Yes. I'm fine. I'm sorry. I just had a powerful recollection of-of-of a man constructed from brass.”
“No. A machine. But it was-it was-Herbert.”
“No, sorry, not you, Bertie. I mean, its-his-name is-was-is Herbert, too.”
“A mechanical man named Herbert? Are you sure your malaria hasn't flared up again?”
Burton clicked his tongue. “My brain is so scrambled that the line between reality and fiction appears almost nonexistent. I'm not sure what that particular memory signifies, if anything. Perhaps it'll make more sense later. Where's the village?”
Wells pointed to a vaguely defined path that disappeared into a dense jungle of thorny acacias. The trees were growing up a shallow slope, and Burton could just glimpse rooftops through the topmost leaves. “Along there,” Wells said. “Kaltenberg is right on the edge of Tanga-practically an outlying district. It was built by the Germans in the European style, on slightly higher ground. The occupants fled into the town a few days ago. We'll get a good view of the action from up there.”
“I gather the role of war correspondents is to climb hills and gaze down upon destruction?”
“Yes, that's about it.”
They left the convoy and followed the dirt track. The boles of the trees crowded around them, blocking the convoy from sight. The sky flickered and flashed through the foliage just above their heads. Mosquitoes whined past their ears.
“Who's Kitchener?” Burton asked.
“One of the military bigwigs. Or was. No one knows whether he's dead or alive. Damn this leg! And damn this heat. In fact, damn Africa and all that goes with it! I'm sorry, we'll have to slow down a little.” Wells stopped, and, balancing himself on his crutches, struck a match and lit a cigarette. He took a pull at it then held it out to Burton.
“Thanks, Bertie, but I'll pass. My fondness for cheap cigars doesn't plummet to such depths. Besides, it would ruin the taste of my toffee.”
“You have toffee?”
“I scrounged it from the ambulance driver. Four pieces. I'd offer you two but I fear they'd be wasted after that tobacco stick.”
“And don't do that with your ugly mug,” Wells advised. “It makes you look monstrously Mephistophelian.”
“You remind me of someone.”
“I don't recall.”
They set off again, the war correspondent swinging himself along on his crutches.
Burton said, “Remind me again why we're attacking Tanga.”
“Firstly,” Wells replied, “because we're trying to regain all the ports; secondly, because we want to raid German supplies; and thirdly, and most importantly, because it's believed the commander of the Schutztruppe, Generalmajor Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, is holed up there, and we would dearly love to deprive him of his existence. The man is a veritable demon. He has a military mind to rival that of Napoleon Bonaparte!”
By the time they reached the first of the Kaltenberg cottages, both men were sweating profusely. “Do you remember snow?” Wells muttered as they moved out from beneath the acacias and into the village. “What I wouldn't give for a toboggan ride down a hill with a tumble at the bottom.” He stopped and said quietly, “Richard.”
Burton followed his companion's gaze and saw, in a passageway between two cottages, the body of an Askari in British uniform. They approached and examined the corpse. A laceration curved diagonally across the African's face, the skin to either side of it swollen and puckered.
“That's a lurcher sting,” Wells observed. “He's recently dead, I'd say.”
“This was a bad idea, Bertie. We should have stayed with the column.”
Wells shook his head. “It's the job of a war correspondent to watch and report, Richard. When we reach the other end of the village, you'll find that it offers an unparalleled view across Tanga. We'll see far more from here than we would if we were in the thick of it. Not to mention the fact that we'll stand a better chance of staying alive.”
The silence was suddenly broken by a rasping susurration, similar to the sound of a locust, but shockingly loud and menacing.
“Hum. I might be wrong,” Wells added, his eyes widening. “Where did that noise come from?”
“I don't know.”
They stepped out of the passage and immediately saw a lurcher flopping out of one of the cottages they'd just passed. It was a hideous thing-a tangle of thorny tentacles and thrashing tendrils. From its middle, a red, fleshy, and pulsating bloom curled outward. Extending from within this, two very long spine-covered stalks rose into the air. They were rubbing together-a horribly frantic motion-producing the high-pitched ratcheting sound. The wriggling plant rolled forward on a knot of squirming white roots-and it moved fast.
“We've got to get out of here!” Burton cried out. “Drop your crutches, Bertie! I'm going to carry you!”
Wells got no further. Burton kicked the crutches away, bent, and hoisted the shorter man up onto his shoulder. He started to run, heavy-footed.
“Bloody hell!” he gasped. “This is a lot easier with Algy!”
“Um. Algy. Bismillah! That's who you put me in mind of! How in blazes could I have forgotten him?”
“I don't know and right now I don't care. Run!”
Burton pumped his legs, felt his thigh muscles burning, and heard the lurcher rapidly drawing closer behind him.
“It's on us!” Wells yelled.
The famous explorer glimpsed a house door standing ajar. He veered toward it and bowled through, dropping Wells and banging the portal shut behind him. The lurcher slammed into it with terrific force, causing the frame to splinter around the lock. Burton quickly slid the bolts at the top and bottom into place. Thorns ripped at the wood outside.
“This door won't keep it out for long. Are you all right?”
“I landed on my leg,” Wells groaned.
Burton helped the war correspondent to his feet. “Let's get upstairs. God, my head! I was just knocked sideways by memories!”
He gave support to his friend and they made their way up and through to the front bedroom. The other upper chamber was given over to storage.
The din of hammering tentacles continued below. Burton was breathing heavily. He lowered Wells onto a bed, then staggered back and leaned against a wall, pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes.
“Algernon,” he whispered, and when he looked up, there were tears on his cheeks.
“What is it?” the shorter man asked.
Burton didn't answer. He was looking beyond his companion, at a dressing table mirror, and the face that stared back from it was that of a total stranger. It was all he could see. He fell into its black, despair-filled eyes and was overwhelmed by such a powerful sense of loss that his mind began to fracture.
“Richard!” Wells snapped. “Hey!”
The room sucked back into focus.
“Where am I?” Burton gasped. He felt hollow and disassociated.
Wordlessly, Wells pointed at the window.
After drawing a shuddering breath, Burton crossed to it, but he quickly stepped back when he saw thorny vines crawling over the glass.
“Manipulated and accelerated evolution,” the war correspondent observed. “Another of the Eugenicists' ill-conceived monstrosities. That thing was once a man in a vehicle. Look at the damned thing now! So who's this Algy person?”
“The poet? Yes, of course, you knew him, didn't you?”
“He is-was-my assistant.”
“Really? In what?”
“I have no idea. But I recall fleeing from a fire with him slung over my shoulder.”
“Fire is what we need now. It's the only way we'll destroy the lurcher. Step a little farther back from the window, Richard. The stalks are strong enough to break through the glass.”
Burton hastily retreated. He looked around the room at the furniture, the pictures, and the ornaments. Everything was crawling with ants and cockroaches. Even this fact stirred buried recollections. The name “Rigby” rose into his awareness then sank away again.
Wells said, “My leg is hurting like hell.”
“Stay here while I have a poke about in the other room,” Burton responded. He went out onto the landing and into the chamber beyond. Wells sat and massaged his right thigh.
A loud crack sounded from below as the front door split under the lurcher's continued assault.
Burton came back in.
“Any luck?” Wells asked.
“A whole bottle of it.” Burton held up a wide-necked container. “Turpentine.”
Wells pulled something from his jacket pocket. “And a box of four whole matches. Yours for the price of two pieces of toffee.”
Burton crossed to the window and, after putting the bottle on the floor, used both hands to slide the sash up. It squealed loudly and jammed, with less than a foot of it open.
“Look out!” Wells shouted.
The explorer staggered back as two flailing stalks came smashing through the glass and wood, showering splinters over both men. The spiny appendages coiled and slashed around the room, gouging the furniture and ripping long gashes across the walls.
Wells, acting without thinking, threw himself back onto the bed, clutched the thin mattress, and rolled, wrapping it around himself. He lunged upright and dived at the window, letting out an agonised scream as pain knifed through his wounded leg. He landed across the stalks, pinning them to the floor. They bucked under him and curled back, slapping against the bedding, shredding it.
“Quick, man! I can't hold it!”
Burton sprang at the bottle, which was rolling over the floorboards, scooped it up, and untwisted the cap. Unable to get past Wells to stand directly in front of the window, he stuck his arm through it from the side and poured the turpentine, praying to Allah that it would land on the target.
“The lucifers, Bertie!”
“I dropped the bloody things!”
A ragged length of the mattress's cotton cover was ripped away exposing the horsehair stuffing beneath. The material flew into the air as one of the stalks whipped up and back down, thumping across the correspondent's body.
Burton, having spotted the matchbox lying on the floor, scrambled across the room. He crawled and rolled on broken glass.
“Have you got them?” Wells yelled.
Snatching up the length of torn material, Burton reeled back to the front wall, thudded against it, and slid into a crouch beside the window.
Wells was suddenly sent spinning into the air as the long stalks jerked violently and slid from the room.
The battering noises ceased.
Burton, with a puzzled expression, stood and cautiously peered out of the window. The stalks were nowhere in sight. Carefully, he leaned out and looked down.
The lurcher was below, quivering and jerking as if in the grip of a seizure.
“What's happened to it?” he murmured.
He pulled a match from the box, struck it, put the flame to the torn cotton, and dropped the burning cloth onto the plant, which immediately exploded into flames.
As he watched, the fire turned from blue to yellow and started to belch thick black smoke.
He turned and started to speak but realised that Wells was unconscious.
“Bertie, are you all right?”
The war correspondent shifted and groaned.
Pulling away the tattered mattress, Burton helped his companion to sit upright. Wells's uniform was ripped and bloodstained.
“You're bleeding, Bertie.”
“Nothing serious,” his friend croaked. “So are you. Is it dead?”
“Yes. It was odd, though. The thing appeared to lose control of itself just before I set fire to it. Let's get out of here.”
They limped from the bedroom and down the stairs, pulled open the wrecked front door, and tumbled out onto the street.
The lurcher had already been reduced to a twitching bonfire.
“Wait here,” Burton said. “I'll get your crutches.”
He retrieved them from outside the alley farther down the road and returned.
“You did exactly what he would have done,” he said, handing over the sticks.
“Algernon Swinburne. He's the most fearless man I've ever known.”
“That's where the comparison fails, then. I was scared out of my wits.”
“You're a good chap, Bertie.”
1 Six-inch sextant. 1 Four-inch sextant. 1 Mercurial horizon. 1 Prismatic compass. 2 Pocket chronometers. 3 Thermometers to 212°. 3 Ditto smaller, in cylindrical brass cases. 2 Casella's apparatus for measuring heights by the boiling point: steam and 1 for water. 1 Book, having its pages divided into half-inch squares for mapping. Memorandum-books. 1 Nautical Almanac. 1 Thomson's Lunar Tables. 1 Galton's Art of Travel. 1 Admiralty Manual. 1 Tables of Logarithms. Hints to Travellers by the Royal Geographical Society.
The Orpheus was over southern France by the time Sir Richard Francis Burton woke up. After two nights in a row with virtually no sleep, he'd been oblivious for the first hours of the voyage.
Now he stood on the observation deck, enjoying the view and feeling an immense sense of release. Departure always lifted his spirits, and as the shackles and restraints of civilisation fell away, he was giving himself up to that which he liked best: the lure and promise of the unknown.
Algernon Swinburne entered and joined him at the window.
“What ho! What ho! And what ho again! But you missed a top nosh-up at lunch, Richard!”
“I've been dead to the world, Algy. What have you been doing, apart from lining your stomach, that is?”
“I've been looking for that little imp Willy Cornish, but it seems our funnel scrubbers are already crawling about in the pipes.”
“Sweltering work, I imagine. He'll emerge eventually. No doubt you'll catch up with him later.”
“I suppose. I say, there's a bit of a flap on with Mr. Gooch and his people.”
“The four stern engines have gone wonky. I think it's something to do with the doo-dah forcing the thingamajig to bang against the wotsitsname. There's not much poetry in engineering, is there?”
“Not a lot. Are you quite all right?”
“I'm fine. No, I'm not. Oh, blast it, I don't know, Richard.”
“Thinking about Tom?”
Swinburne heaved a sigh. “Yes. They'll be burying him this afternoon.”
The poet reached into his jacket and pulled out Apollo's gold-tipped arrow. He examined its point. “We didn't catch his killer, and we're going to be away for such a long time that we probably never will.”
“Don't be so sure. I found out last night that Otto Steinruck is actually Count von Zeppelin.”
“What? What? The spy?”
“Yes. I'll be very surprised if his and our paths don't cross again in due course.”
Swinburne's face took on a ferocious expression. “Good!” he snarled. “Good!” He held up the arrow and, in a melodramatic tone, declared: “This is the arrow of justice! I shall carry it with me until Tom Bendyshe is avenged!”
Burton patted his friend's shoulder.
They stood and watched the scenery slipping by far below. Ahead, France's south coast was visible.
Swinburne said, “I think I'll go and do some work.”
“Atalanta in Calydon?”
“No. I've started a little something entitled ‘A Lamentation.’”
“I'm not entirely sure. It might concern another matter entirely. It's hard to tell. It's coming out of here-” he tapped the middle of his chest, “rather than here-” he put a finger to his head. “Maybe it'll make more sense to me when it's finished.”
With that, he left the observation deck.
Burton's fathomless eyes fixed on the line of ocean at the horizon.
“Poems the poet cannot quite grasp. Dreams the dreamer cannot decipher. Mystery upon mystery. And still the Weaver plies his loom, whose warp and woof is wretched Man. Weaving the unpatterned dark design, so dark we doubt it owns a plan.”
An hour passed, during which time he stood, motionless, lost in thought.
“Sir Richard,” came a voice from behind him. He turned and saw Captain Lawless. “Do you feel a vibration beneath your feet?”
“I do,” Burton answered. “Something to do with the stern engines?”
“Ah, you've heard. They're operating out of alignment with the forward engines and pushing us too hard. If we can't regulate our speed, we'll complete our voyage considerably ahead of schedule but in doing so the ship will have shaken herself half to pieces and won't be fit for the return journey. I don't much fancy being stuck in Zanzibar. I'm on my way down to engineering to see whether Mr. Gooch can cast some light on the matter. Would you care to accompany me?”
Burton nodded, and, minutes later, they found Daniel Gooch in an engineering compartment behind the furnace room. He'd removed a large metal panel from the floor and was on his knees, peering into the exposed machinery beneath. When he heard the two men approaching, he looked up and said, “There's a bearing cradle missing.”
“A what?” Burton asked.
“A bearing cradle. It's a metal ring, twelve inches in diameter, housing a cog mechanism and greased ball bearings. It's an essential component in the system that synchronises the engines. There are four bearing cradles on the ship, each governing four of the flight shafts. The one for the stern engines has gone. Someone has removed it.”
“Are you suggesting we've been sabotaged, Mr. Gooch?” Lawless asked.
“Yes, sir. I am.”
“By someone on board?”
“That's very likely the case, sir.”
Nathaniel Lawless's pale-grey eyes narrowed. He clenched his fists and addressed Burton. “I don't like the idea that one of my crew is a rogue, Sir Richard. Nor do I understand it. Why would anyone wish to interfere with your expedition?”
Burton clicked his teeth together. He glanced at Gooch, who got to his feet and stood with his metal arms poised over his shoulders, then turned back to Lawless. “How much do you know about my mission, Captain?”
“Only that you intend to discover the source of the River Nile. I've been instructed by Mr. Brunel to deliver you and your supplies to Zanzibar. I understand that the government has funded the entire undertaking. Is there something more?”
“Then I ask you to tell me. You can count on my discretion. Mr. Gooch, would you leave us, please?”
“It's all right, Captain,” Gooch said. “You have authority over me on this ship but, as a Technologist, I hold a more senior position and happen to know the details. I apologise for having kept them from you, but our superiors felt that certain aspects of this expedition should remain hush-hush.”
Lawless looked from one man to the other. “That's all well and good, but if the Orpheus is in danger, I have the right to know why.”
“Agreed,” Burton said. “The truth, sir, is that while I hope to finally identify the source of the Nile, it is only a secondary consideration. The priority is to locate and retrieve a black diamond, known as the Eye of Naga. In this endeavour, I am almost certainly opposed by a Prussian spy named Zeppelin.”
Lawless's eyes widened. “Are you telling me that our saboteur is a Prussian agent?”
“In all probability, yes. I should say he was commissioned by Zeppelin to interfere with the ship.”
Lawless raised a hand and ran it over his closely cropped white beard. His eyes flashed. “I'll keelhaul the bastard!”
“I'm not sure that's possible in a rotorship,” Gooch muttered.
“I'll bloody well make it possible!”
“We have to catch him first,” Burton observed.
“It's puzzling, though,” said Gooch. “If the saboteur intends to delay your expedition, don't you think it rather peculiar that he's committed an act which causes the ship to fly faster-albeit destructively so; an act that'll cause you to arrive at Zanzibar considerably earlier than planned?”
Burton frowned. “That, Mr. Gooch, is a very good point. A very good point indeed!”
Burton spoke to Swinburne, Trounce, Honesty, Krishnamurthy, Bhatti, Spencer, Miss Mayson, and Sister Raghavendra, and arranged for them to patrol the ship, keeping a close watch on the crew and their eyes peeled for suspicious behaviour. He then returned to his quarters, intending to update his journal. Pulling a key from his pocket, he unlocked the door, pushed it open, and stopped in his tracks.
There was something on the desk.
He stepped into the room and looked around. The cabin was rectangular and of a medium size, carpeted, wallpapered, and well furnished. One of the thick ventilation pipes ran across the ceiling and four oil lamps were suspended two to each side of it. There were two other doors, one to the small bedchamber and the other to a tiny washroom.
The afternoon sun was sending a shaft of Mediterranean brilliance in through the porthole. Its white glare reflected brightly off the object, which hadn't been on the desk when Burton left the cabin a couple of hours earlier. He'd locked the door behind him. There were no other means of ingress.
He picked the thing up, went back out into the corridor, closed and locked the door, then knelt and squinted at the keyhole. He stood and paced away, heading toward the prow of the rotorship. Doctor Quaint was coming the other way.
“Doctor,” Burton said. “May I have a minute of your time?”
“Certainly. I say! What have you there?”
Burton held up the object. “A mystery, Doctor. It was on the desk in my quarters. Tell me-who else has a key?”
“To your cabin? Just Sister Raghavendra and myself.” Quaint reached into his pocket and pulled out a crowded key ring. “As stewards, we have access to all the passenger rooms.” He picked through the keys one by one. “Here it is. This is yours.”
“And have you used it today?”
“No, sir, I have not.”
“Could you prove that, should it be necessary?”
Quaint bristled slightly. “Sister Raghavendra will attest that I've been working with her all morning, throughout lunch, and up until a few minutes ago, when I left her in order to report to the captain. I've just come from the bridge.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I'm sorry to have troubled you. I'd better see the captain myself, I think.”
“Very well.” Quaint glanced again at the object.
Burton left the steward and proceeded along the corridor and up the metal stairs to the conning tower. He stepped onto the bridge, which was occupied by a number of crewmembers. Captain Lawless turned as he entered, saw what he was holding, and uttered an exclamation.
“Great Scott! Where did you find that?”
“On the desk in my cabin, Captain. Am I correct in assuming it's the missing bearing cradle?”
“You are. Let me see.”
Burton handed the metal ring to Lawless, who examined it closely before pronouncing it undamaged. He addressed Oscar Wilde, who was cleaning a console at the back of the room.
“Master Wilde, would you run this down to the engine room, please? Ask Mr. Gooch to have it fitted as soon as we land at Cairo.”
Wilde took the cradle and departed.
“In your cabin?” Lawless said. “How did it get there?”
“That's the question. I locked the door when I left and it was still locked when I returned. Doctor Quaint assures me that neither he nor Sister Raghavendra entered the room in my absence and I saw nothing to suggest the lock had been picked. That doesn't mean it wasn't, but in my experience there are usually tiny scratches left after that manner of break-in.”
Lawless removed his captain's hat and rubbed his head. “Well, whatever method your intruder used, this is rather an inept way to implicate you.”
“It would only implicate me if the stewards had found the bearing cradle while servicing my cabin. And you'd think it would at least be hidden under my bunk, rather than placed on top of my desk in broad daylight. Besides which, it makes no sense that I would sabotage my own expedition.”
Lawless hissed softly, “Curse it! I won't rest until we find this bloody traitor!”
“Nor I,” Burton whispered back. “I have my people patrolling the ship. Our villain will find it hard to cause any further damage without being caught in the act!”
The explorer remained on the bridge for the next three hours. He kept a close eye on the men at their stations, but saw nothing suspicious.
The Mediterranean slid beneath the big rotorship.
A hollow whistle sounded.
Lawless crossed to a brass panel in the wall and pulled a domed lid from it. As it came away, a segmented tube followed behind. Lawless flipped the lid open, blew into the tube, put it to his ear, and listened awhile. He then moved it to his mouth and said, “Hold him. I'll be right down.”
He clicked the lid back into the panel and said to Burton, “Apparently your assistant is causing merry mayhem in the engine room.”
Captain Lawless ignored the question and turned to his first officer. “Take command, please, Mr. Henson.”
“Mr. Playfair, how long to Cairo?”
“Two and a half hours, sir, unless we can slow her down. All four stern engines are already overheating, according to my instruments.”
“Thank you. Mr. Bingham, report, please.”
The fat little meteorologist replied, “Clear sailing all the way, sir. Not a cloud in the sky. Breeze is northwesterly, currently less than five knots but building.”
“Steady going, sir.”
“Good. Follow me, Sir Richard.”
The aeronaut and explorer left the bridge, descended through the conning tower, and entered the corridor that ran the length of the rotorship.
“Mr. Swinburne claims to have caught our saboteur,” Lawless said.
“Ah!” Burton replied.
They entered the lounge and descended the port-side staircase, then moved past the standard-class cabins and on into the first of the engine-room compartments. The rumble of the turbines sounded from the next chamber, muffled by thickly insulated walls.
Peering past pipes and four wide rotating pillars, Burton saw Trounce and Honesty gripping the arms of a very small person. Engineers were gathered around them, and Swinburne was dancing in front of the police officers and their captive, shrieking at the top of his voice.
“Tobias Threadneedle, my eye!” he screeched. “Liar! Brute! Traitor! Impostor!”
“What are you doing down here, Algy?” Burton asked as he and Lawless joined the group. “I thought you were working?”
“I found myself unable to write, Richard, so I came in search of inspiration, and what I found instead-” Swinburne raised his voice to a scream and pointed his finger, “-is the one and only Vincent Sneed-otherwise known as the Conk!”
Burton looked down at the short, wiry individual held in the grip of the two Scotland Yard men. He wasn't much bigger than a child, and owned a very unprepossessing stoat-like face, dominated by a perfectly huge nose. A ragged, nicotine-stained moustache concealed his lipless mouth. His thin black hair was long, greasy, and combed back over his narrow skull. He was pockmarked and sly-looking, and his beady little eyes-positioned almost on the sides of his gargantuan proboscis rather than to either side of it in the normal way-were flicking back and forth in a panicked manner.
“I bloody aren't!” he protested. “Me name's Threadneedle. Arsk 'im!” He nodded to a small boy standing nearby, a ragamuffin with sandy-blond hair.
Captain Lawless said, “And who are you, my lad?”
“Willy Cornish, sir,” the boy answered nervously.
Daniel Gooch stepped forward, his mechanical arms slowly undulating to either side of him. “They are the ship's funnel scrubbers, Captain.”
Willy Cornish nodded and pointed at the prisoner. “That's right, sir. And he's who he says he is-Tobias Threadneedle.”
Swinburne let loose a tremendous howl and hopped up and down like a madman. “Willy! You know perfectly well this is Sneed!”
Cornish shifted uncomfortably and wrung his hands. “No, Carrots,” he said, employing the nickname he'd given the poet during the time they'd spent together sweeping chimneys. “I know he looks like old Sneed, but he's Mr. Threadneedle, and he's all right, he is.”
“All right? He's a rogue! A bully! A snake in the grass!”
“I ain't none o' them things!” the captive cried out, struggling to free himself.
“Here, less of that!” Trounce snapped.
“I'll have the cuffs on you!” Honesty threatened.
“I ain't done nuffink!” the prisoner protested.
“You sabotaged the ship!” Swinburne shouted.
“I bloody didn't!”
“You bloody did!”
“I bloody didn't!”
“SHUT UP!” Lawless roared. “You-” he jabbed a finger at Swinburne, “-calm down and explain.”
“The explanation,” Swinburne answered, “is that while this hound may be calling himself Tobias Threadneedle, he is actually, and without doubt, a scurrilous rogue by the name of Vincent Sneed. I worked side by side with him the year before last and he treated me abominably. I cannot be mistaken. Look at that nose of his! How many men do you think there are walking around with such a perfectly enormous beak?”
“Oy!” the prisoner objected.
“But you say Mr. Swinburne is mistaken?” Lawless demanded of Cornish.
“Y-yes, sir,” the boy stuttered. “I kn-know Mr. Sneed, and this ain't him.”
Swinburne groaned and slapped a hand to his forehead. “Why, Willy? Why are you supporting this blackguard?”
“Stop calling me them bleedin' names, you damned rat!” the accused man cried out.
“Algy,” Burton said. “Even if this is Mr. Sneed-”
“-What makes you think it was he who sabotaged the ship?”
“Because he's a villain!”
“So your allegation is based on supposition rather than evidence?”
Swinburne sighed and muttered, “Yes, Richard. But isn't it enough that he's lying to us?”
Burton turned to Captain Lawless. “Is there a secure room available? I'd like to keep this man under guard while we get to the bottom of this.”
“Use the first of the class-two passenger cabins,” Lawless said, pointing toward the corridor they'd come through. “I have to get back to the bridge. I'll send the steward down with the key. Report to me when this is sorted out, please.”
With that, the captain gave a last glance at the prisoner then marched away.
Burton addressed his assistant: “Algy, where is Herbert?”
“Holed up in his cabin, working on a philosophical treatise.”
“Would you fetch him, please?”
The poet shifted his weight from one foot to the other, glowered at the big-nosed man, frowned at Willy Cornish, then nodded and followed after Lawless.
Burton positioned himself in front of the individual who called himself Tobias Threadneedle and said, “Did you take part in a riot at Speakers' Corner last summer?”
“No!” the man answered. He couldn't meet Burton's eyes, and kept raising his own to the ceiling, anxiously scanning the pipes and machinery above. The way he squirmed in Trounce and Honesty's grip suggested that he wasn't telling the truth.
“The two men holding you are police officers,” Burton revealed.
Trounce added, “And we won't hesitate to arrest you and deliver you to a Cairo gaol if you're what Mr. Swinburne says you are!”
“Egyptian prison,” Honesty murmured. “Very nasty. Foul places.”
“Oh please, Mother! I ain't done nuffink!” their captive wailed. “I'm just a bleedin' funnel scrubber!”
“Sneed was at the riot,” Burton stated. “As were these two fellows and myself. My assistant got into a scrap with him. None of us saw it, but our colleague, Mr. Spencer, did. He's on his way down now, and he'll either endorse Mr. Swinburne's assertion, or he won't. If you're Tobias Threadneedle, you have nothing to worry about. If you're Vincent Sneed, things are about to go very badly for you.”
The prisoner let out a keening whine of despair.
Burton turned to Willy Cornish.
“I've heard good things about you, young man. I hope you're not telling fibs. I would be very disappointed indeed.”
Willy burst into tears and buried his face in the crook of his arm.
Daniel Gooch approached Burton and said, in a low voice, “That bearing cradle, Sir Richard-I understand it appeared in your cabin under mysterious circumstances?”
“It's this fellow's duty-” one of Gooch's mechanical arms gestured toward Threadneedle, “-to keep the pipes clear on that side of the ship. He could have opened the ventilation panel in the pipe and entered your quarters through it.”
“I see. Thank you, Mr. Gooch.”
A few tense minutes passed while they waited for Herbert Spencer's arrival. When the clockwork philosopher entered the room-clanking along beside Swinburne, and with Pox squatting on his head-Threadneedle's little eyes widened and he stuttered, “Wha-wha-what's that thing?”
“Tosspot!” Pox squawked.
“Herbert,” Burton said. “Have you seen this fellow before?”
The brass man stepped over to Threadneedle and nodded. “Yus, Boss. He were at the riot last summer. He got into a fight with Mr. Swinburne. He's Vincent Sneed.”
The prisoner groaned and slumped.
Doctor Quaint walked in, glanced curiously at the scene, and handed a key to Burton. “Second-class cabin number one,” he said.
“Thank you, Doctor.” Burton addressed the Yard men: “Let us secure Mr. Sneed, gentlemen.”
He led the way to the cabin, followed by the policemen and their prisoner.
Swinburne turned to Willy Cornish and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. “Why were you protecting him, Willy? Has he threatened you?”
Willy looked up, his eyes swimming in tears. “I can't say, Carrots. I would, but I just can't!”
Swinburne shook his head and chewed his bottom lip. “There's something very wrong about all of this,” he grumbled. “But how the blazes am I to get to the facts of the matter if you won't help?”
With a cry of anguish, Willy suddenly sped away, ducked under the arms of the engineers who tried to stop him, and leaped onto machinery lining one of the walls. He clambered up it like a little monkey until he reached a ventilation panel. Swinging it open, he disappeared into the pipe behind.
“My hat!” the poet muttered. “What on earth has got into him?”
The Orpheus landed at the Cairo Airfield at seven in the evening, and the crew got to work taking on a fresh load of Formby coal and refilling the water tanks.
Vincent Sneed had been left alone to stew in Standard Class Cabin 1. He was slumped on the bunk when a key turned in the lock and the door opened. Sir Richard Francis Burton entered followed by Detective Inspectors Trounce and Honesty and a tall dark-skinned man wearing a uniform with epaulettes and a sash. His face was eagle-like, adorned with a moustache and imperial, and his eyes were black. There was a fez on his head.
“Mr. Sneed,” Burton said. “This is Al-Mustazi, the commissioner of the city police. He has men waiting outside. They will take you into custody until the British consul gets around to dealing with you. That could take a good few weeks, during which time you'll have to survive as best you can in Cairo's prison. I know you were born and raised in the Cauldron, and I know from personal experience what a hellhole that part of London is, but I can assure you that it will seem like Shangri-La in comparison to the conditions you are to experience shortly.”
Sneed looked up, his little ferrety eyes filled with wretchedness. “I ain't done nuffink,” he keened.
“Do you still maintain that your name is Tobias Threadneedle?”
The funnel scrubber swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing on his scrawny neck.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Even though you've been identified by two people as Vincent Sneed?”
“Did you break into my quarters and deposit a bearing cradle in them?”
Burton noted that the little man's hands were trembling. He saw the eyes flick to the left and right, then up at the ceiling.
“I–I ain't done nuffink! Nuffink!”
Burton sighed. “Mr. Sneed, many a man has lied to me in the past and I have a practised eye. I can see by the way you hold yourself, by your every movement and expression, that you're not telling me the truth. I shall give you one final chance. Admit who you are, tell me why you placed the bearing cradle on my desk, then I shall see to it that you are shipped back to London with due dispatch. I'll even ask that no charges are brought against you. Obviously, you'll never work as a funnel scrubber again, but you can, at least, go back to being a master sweep.”
A tear trickled down Sneed's cheek. “You don't understand,” he said. “I knows I've been a bad 'un. P'raps a bit too strict, like, wiv the nippers. But I were only tryin' to get good work out o' them. I didn't mean no 'arm to that carrot-top. I were just trainin' 'im. An'-” he sucked in a shuddery breath and swallowed again, “-an' I don't mean no 'arm now, neither. I ain't done nuffink! I ain't done nuffink!”
“So you admit to the actions of Vincent Sneed yet still say you aren't him?”
The little man wrung his hands together then raised them to cover his face.
“Yes,” he groaned.
“Does the name Zeppelin mean anything to you?”
Sneed parted his fingers and looked out from behind them. “Zephram?”
“I don't know no Zeppelin.”
Burton turned to Trounce and Honesty. “Would you hand the prisoner over to your Egyptian colleagues, please?”
The two detectives nodded, stepped forward, and hoisted Sneed up off the bed.
“No!” he screeched, writhing in their grip. “Get yer 'ands off me!”
“No nonsense, if you please!” Trounce snapped.
They bundled him out of the cabin, to where four Egyptian constables waited. Sneed howled.
Burton, speaking fluent Arabic in the local dialect, quietly addressed Al-Mustazi: “Despite my threats to the man, I'd prefer it if you kept him from the worst of it. I sent my parakeet to the consul as soon as we landed with a request that the prisoner be processed with due dispatch. He'll be handed over to British authorities and sent home in a few days but there's no need to tell him that. Let him think he's going to be in Cairo prison for the long haul, it may teach him a lesson.”
Al-Mustazi murmured an acknowledgement, bowed, and departed.
Burton left the cabin and met Trounce and Honesty in the corridor. They headed up to the passenger lounge.
“Strange!” said Honesty. “Why so stubborn?”
“It's odd, I'll admit,” Burton replied. “And there was something else rather peculiar, too. He kept glancing up at the ceiling.”
“I noticed that,” Trounce grunted. “I wonder why?”
The three men joined Swinburne, Krishnamurthy, Bhatti, and Herbert Spencer in the lounge. The clockwork philosopher was incapable of drinking or smoking but he enjoyed company and needed the mental relaxation, despite that his mind was an electrical field processed by a machine. With Pox on his head, he sat at the bar with the men, who sipped at their brandy and sodas and gazed at the scattered lights of the city's houses and minarets. Burton smoked one of his disreputable Manila cheroots, Trounce opted for a rather more expensive Flor de Dindigul Indian cigar, while Honesty and Krishnamurthy puffed at their pipes. Neither Swinburne nor Bhatti smoked. The poet compensated for it by consuming twice as much brandy.
“Steady on,” Burton advised him.
“I need it,” his assistant answered. “I'm frustrated. Willy Cornish is a splendid young man, and I can't for the life of me think why he would defend a scurrilous miscreant like Sneed. And now he's vanished into the pipes and probably won't emerge until he's starving!”
“Needs interrogating!” Honesty snapped. “Spill the beans. Tell us what Zeppelin is up to.”
“Dribbly snot-rag!” Pox cawed.
“I don't understand it,” Krishnamurthy said. “Why would the Prussian hire a villain Mr. Swinburne could recognise in an instant?”
“Perhaps he didn't know that we'd encountered Sneed before,” Bhatti suggested.
Trounce snorted. “Pah! Too much of a coincidence! There's more to it, mark my words, lad!”
Burton nodded thoughtfully. “I agree,” he murmured. “There's a deeper mystery here.”
Doctor Quaint and Sister Raghavendra entered the chamber and began to light the oil lamps. Burton stood and wandered over to the young woman.
“Hello, Sadhvi. Have you settled into your duties?”
“Hello, Captain Burton. Yes. It's been a busy day. I'll go down to the kitchen in a minute to help Mr. Butler and Miss Mayson with the supper, then once that's cooked and eaten and tidied away, I'll retire to my cabin for a well-earned rest. Incidentally, I brought with me a volume of Mr. Swinburne's Poems and Ballads to read but I seem to have misplaced it. Might you ask him if he has a spare copy?”
“You can borrow mine. I'll have Quips deliver it to you. I should warn you, though-it's a mite vivid!”
“So I've heard, but I'm from India, Captain. I don't suffer the modesties, embarrassments, or fainting fits of your English ladies!”
Burton smiled. “Then you are most fortunate!”
On his way back to his friends, halfway across the small dance floor, the king's agent suddenly stopped and gazed up at the ceiling.
“By James!” he whispered. “Could it be? It would certainly explain a lot!”
When he sat down and picked up his drink, the others noticed that he wore a distracted expression.
“What's on your mind, Captain?” Bhatti asked.
“Hmm? Oh, I'm just-just thinking about-about-um-Christopher Rigby.”
“Yikes!” Swinburne exclaimed. “He's going to be nothing but trouble!”
“Who's Rigby?” Herbert Spencer asked.
“Malodorous horse bucket!” Pox whistled.
“The parakeet has it!” Swinburne declared. “Lieutenant Christopher Palmer Rigby is the consul at Zanzibar and a fat-headed ninny of the first order. Richard repeatedly knocked him off the top spot in language examinations back when they were stationed in India, and Rigby, sore loser that he is, has never forgotten it. The rotter's made a career of besmirching our friend's reputation. I'd like to punch the hound right on the nose!”
“Thank you, Algy,” Burton said. He explained further: “Rigby and I were in the East India Company's Eighteenth Bombay Native Infantry at Scinde, and he formed an immediate and irrational hatred of me from the outset. He'll cause problems for us when we land in Africa, of that I'm certain.”
“King's agent!” Honesty barked. “Authority!”
“Possessing authority is one thing,” Burton replied, “but expecting a man like Rigby to respect it is quite another.”
Over the next hour, he barely said another word, and when they attended the captain's table for supper, the explorer appeared so preoccupied that his bearing came perilously close to impoliteness. Afterward, he muttered a few words about writing up his journals and retired to his cabin.
He lit one lamp and turned it down low, then got undressed, washed, put on his pyjamas, and wrapped himself in his jubbah. He lit a cheroot and relaxed in an armchair, his eyes focused inward, his mind working on a Sufi meditation exercise.
He finished the cigar.
A couple of hours passed.
He didn't move.
He'd heard a faint noise, a tiny rasping sound.
Again, an almost imperceptible scrape.
He allowed a few minutes to tick by.
“You should have asked before borrowing Sister Raghavendra's copy of Poems and Ballads.”
He spoke again. “You made a scapegoat of Vincent Sneed. I have no fondness for the fellow, but why? What was the point?”
Thirty seconds or so passed.
A small, whispery voice said, “Distraction, Captain Burton.”
“There you are! Hello, lad! I take it Sneed and Willy Cornish smuggled you onto the ship in the replacement section of pipe?”
“Yes. I had ordered the previous two funnel scrubbers to purposely damage a section in order to facilitate my presence here.”
“So the Beetle, the chief of the League of Chimney Sweeps, finds himself en route to Africa. A bizarre circumstance indeed, and I imagine you must have a very good reason for leaving your chimney. Distraction, you say? Who are you trying to distract, and from what?”
Burton stood and moved to the middle of the room. He looked up at the grille in the thick ventilation pipe. Vaguely, he could discern something moving behind it.
“Don't turn the lamps up,” came the whisper.
“I don't intend to. I know how you abhor light.”
“One of my boys was killed.”
“Bingo Stokes. He was ten years old, and one of the few not an orphan. But his father mistreated him terribly, and Bingo often sought refuge in a chimney.”
“Ah. Now I understand. He cleaned the chimney of a house in Ilford, then went back there to steal food and spend a night in the flue.”
“That is correct, Captain. And while he was there, he overheard four men plotting. Three were Prussians, but, fortunately, they spoke in English on account of the fourth man. That individual was instructed to bring down this ship, if he couldn't kill you first. Unfortunately, Bingo's presence was detected, and though he got away, he was shot. By the time he reached me, it was too late to save him. He bled to death, but not before repeating to me everything he'd heard.”
“So there is still a saboteur at loose?”
“Yes, but I do not know who it is. I arranged to be smuggled aboard and I instructed Vincent Sneed to steal the bearing cradle.”
“You're conversant with the engineering of the Orpheus?”
“I had already read a great deal of material pertaining to her construction.”
Burton thought for a moment, then said, “So you alerted us to the fact that a saboteur was aboard by arranging a fairly harmless act of sabotage yourself?”
“Exactly, and in doing so, I made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Prussian agent to act, for your people were all on the lookout for suspicious behaviour. The first leg of your voyage was thus protected. I then placed the cradle in your room, knowing that Sneed would be recognised and accused.”
“Why do that?”
“Because now Sneed's been dealt with, your enemy will think that you consider yourselves safe. He'll be of the opinion that he can act with impunity when, in truth, you'll be watching out for him.”
Burton pondered this, then said, “You've done me a service, and I thank you, but I don't understand. Why such an extravagant scheme when you could've got a message to me before the Orpheus left Battersea?”
“If I had, what would you have done?”
“I'd have dismissed the entire crew, hired a new one, and had every inch of the ship thoroughly checked.”
“And how long would that have taken?”
“Perhaps four days. Maybe five or six.”
“Bingo Stokes learned something else. The man who owned the house, Steinruck, was taking care of some business in Yorkshire-”
“His real name is Zeppelin and he went there to arrange my poisoning.”
“I see. I'm glad he failed. Upon completing this business, he was going to fly to Prussia to join an expedition to Central Africa led by Lieutenant John Speke. I realised, therefore, that warning you would result in a delay you can ill afford, for you are in a race.”
“Bismillah!” Burton cursed. “I thought a rival expedition might be a possibility! So Speke and Zeppelin are already on their way?”
“They are, and that is why I chose the removal of the bearing cradle as my means of false sabotage, for I knew that it would result in a dangerous turn of speed. Maybe it will get you ahead in the game.”
Burton smacked a fist into his palm and paced up and down. “Damnation!” he muttered.
“You have no time for this stopover in Cairo,” the Beetle urged. “You must get this ship back into the air at once. The saboteur will make a move but he will undoubtedly lack the appropriate caution. Catch him, then catch up with your opponents.”
Burton hurried across the room and snatched up his clothes. “What of you?” he asked as he started to dress.
“I will watch and listen and try to identify the agent. After you are delivered to Zanzibar, I'll remain with the ship while it returns to London. Willy Cornish-who, incidentally, has been following my orders-will facilitate my return to Limehouse.”
“He has a history of bullying my lads. This was his chance to redeem himself. He performed his part well and will be compensated for the inconvenience he is currently suffering.”
Burton quickly buttoned up his clothes and tied his bootlaces. He stepped to the door and grasped its handle. “I have to tell my people what you've done, then get us moving,” he said. “Thank you, lad. I'm in your debt.”
First Officer William Henson had just dropped off to sleep when a hammering at his cabin door awoke him. Swearing under his breath, he pulled on a gown, yanked open the door, and was confronted by the captain.
“Sleep is cancelled, Mr. Henson. I need all hands on deck.”
“Right away, sir. Is there a problem?”
“A change of schedule. No layover in Cairo. We're departing immediately. Mr. Gooch and the riggers will be recalibrating the four stern engines while we're in mid-flight. That means four external doors are going to be wide open in the sides of the engineering bay. We'll keep a low altitude, of course, but nevertheless I feel uneasy flying so exposed. I'd like you to oversee things down there until we're properly sealed up again.”
“Certainly, sir, though I'm sure Mr. Gooch-”
“Will have everything under control. I don't doubt it, Henson, but since we have only three riggers and there are four engines that require attention, Mr. Gooch will be out on one of the flight pylons.”
“Ah. I see. I'll get down there at once.”
“You can shave and tidy yourself up first. There are some internal repairs and adjustments to be made before Gooch and his team go outside. Get down there within the hour, please.”
Henson's door was the first of a number to be knocked upon over the course of the next few minutes, and in very short measure the majority of the Orpheus's aeronauts found themselves unexpectedly back on duty.
It was a few minutes past midnight.
The rotorship's flight crew gathered on the bridge. Sir Richard Francis Burton was there, watching each of them carefully. They looked bleary-eyed and dishevelled. Captain Lawless did not. His uniform was buttoned, his eyes were bright, and he was all efficiency.
“What's going on, sir?” Arthur Bingham, the meteorologist, asked.
“I'll have your report, Mr. Bingham, not your questions,” Lawless snapped.
“Yes, sir. A wind has picked up. Rather strong. Easterly, currently at a steady twenty knots. No cloud.”
“You heard that, Mr. Playfair?”
“Yes, sir,” the navigator responded. “Taken into account. Course plotted to Aden.”
“Good man. Mr. Pryce, call down to Mr. Gooch and have him start the engines.”
“Aye, sir.” Wordsworth Pryce, the second officer, moved to the speaking tubes. Moments later, a vibration ran through the rotorship.
“Engage the wings, Mr. Wenham.”
“Engaging. Opening. Rotating…and…up to speed.”
“Take us to two thousand feet.”
On an expanding cone of steam, the Orpheus rose into the night sky and began to power into the southeast, leaving the ill-lit city of Cairo behind her. Above, the Milky Way arced across the heavens, but below, the narrow Red Sea and the lands to either side of it were wreathed in darkness, so it seemed that the ship was sailing through an empty void.
With her stern engines still operating abnormally, the huge vessel rattled and shook as she ate up the miles, speeding at almost 150 knots toward Aden, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
In the engine room, the bearing cradle had been refitted, but it took Daniel Gooch and his fellow engineers almost four hours to reset the synchronisation system, which they achieved by shutting down the four rear engines one at a time while adjusting the various components to which the cradle was connected.
Now all that remained was to recalibrate each of those stern-most engines.
Gooch and the riggers Gordon Champion, Alexander Priestley, and Winford Doe, positioned themselves at the four hull doors and buckled themselves into harnesses. They clipped safety straps to brackets above the portals.
First Officer Henson pulled a speaking tube from the wall.
On the bridge, his call was answered by Oscar Wilde, who said, “Captain Lawless, Mr. Henson is asking permission to open the external doors.”
Lawless was standing by the window with Sir Richard Francis Burton. They were watching al-fajr al-kaadhib, the zodiacal light, which was rising column-like in the western sky. He said, “Tell him permission is granted, Master Wilde.”
“Aye, sir,” the boy replied. He relayed the message down to the engine room.
Lawless stepped over to the helmsman and stood beside him, quietly ordering, “Steady as she goes, please, Mr. Wenham.”
“Aye-aye, sir, but-” Wenham hesitated.
“What is it?”
“I-um-I think-” The helmsman turned to Cedric Playfair, the navigator. “Shouldn't we still be over the Red Sea?”
“Yes,” Playfair answered, glancing at his instruments.
“Then why is there desert below us?”
Lawless and Playfair both looked up and saw what Wenham had spotted-that the vaguest glimmers of light were skimming not over water, but sand dunes.
“Impossible!” Playfair gasped.
Burton joined them and watched as the navigator checked over his console.
“The compass says we're travelling south-southeast,” Playfair muttered. “But if that were true, we'd be where we should be.” He tapped the instrument, then bent, opened a panel in the console, reached in, and felt about, muttering: “Maybe something is interfering with-hello! What's this?” He pulled out a small block of metal, and as he did so, the compass needle swung from SSE to SE.
“A magnet!” Burton observed.
“How the devil-?” Playfair exclaimed.
Lawless clenched his teeth and bunched his fists.
“But it shouldn't make any difference!” Francis Wenham objected. “That compass is just for reference. It isn't used to set the course.”
“He's right, sir,” Playfair put in. “Mr. Wenham follows the instrumentation on his own console. It indicates the degrees to port or starboard he should steer the ship to maintain the course I set. Taking into account the compensation I calculated, if he's followed his indicators exactly, we should be slap bang over the Red Sea.”
“And I have done,” Wenham noted.
“Compensation?” Burton asked.
“For the wind, sir,” Playfair replied.
Burton stepped back to the window. He turned and gestured for Oscar Wilde to join him.
“Yes, sir?” the boy asked.
“Can you find me some field glasses?”
“Right over here,” said Wilde, crossing to a wall cabinet and returning with a large-lensed brass device. Burton took it and raised it to his face, clipping its bracket over his head. He turned back to the window, and with the fingers of both hands rotated the focusing wheels on either side of the apparatus.
The land below was wreathed in darkness, with just the tips of dunes visible in the faint light of al-fajr al-kaadhib. The field glasses threw them into sharp relief.
“Captain Lawless,” Burton murmured, “I have a reasonably clear view of the sand dunes below us.”
“What of it, Sir Richard?”
“They are entirely motionless. There is no sand rippling across their surface or spraying from their peaks. In other words, the strong wind Mr. Playfair just mentioned is nonexistent, at least at ground level, and since we're flying low-”
“If I've been taking into account a wind that isn't actually blowing, it would certainly explain our position,” Playfair put in.
“Mr. Bingham!” Lawless roared, but when he turned to the meteorologist's position, he saw that it was unoccupied. “Where the devil is he?” he demanded.
“Mr. Bingham left the bridge some little time ago, so he did, sir,” said Oscar Wilde.
“Playfair, Wenham, get us back on course! Sir Richard, come with me. We have to find my meteorologist. He has some explaining to do!”
Some minutes later, they located Arthur Bingham in the engine room, standing with Daniel Gooch, Shyamji Bhatti, and Winford Doe near one of the open hull doors. Doe was unbuckling his harness.
“Hallo, Captain Burton, Captain Lawless!” Bhatti called as they approached.
Gooch turned and said, “Almost done, Captain. Mr. Champion is just putting the finishing touches to the last of our wayward engines.”
Lawless ignored the chief engineer and glared at the short, fat meteorologist. “You appear to have deserted your post without permission, Bingham.”
“I–I just came down to watch Mr. Gooch at-at work, sir,” Bingham responded.
“Worried he'd be blown off the pylon by the high winds, were you?”
Bingham took a couple of steps backward.
“Is there a problem?” Gooch asked.
Lawless's eyes flashed angrily. “There most certainly is!”
Bingham pulled a pistol from his pocket and brandished it at them. “Get back, all of you!”
“Bloody traitor!” Lawless snapped.
“Hey! Drop that!” Bhatti cried out.
Bingham swung the pistol toward the constable, then pointed it at Burton, then at Lawless. His lips thinned against his teeth and his eyes flashed threateningly.
Lawless said, “Why?”
“Because I have a wife and two children,” the meteorologist snarled. “And I also happen to have a tumour in my gut and not many months to live. A certain party has agreed to pay my family a large amount of money in return for the sacrifice I'm about to make.” He directed his gun back at the king's agent. “I wouldn't have to do it at all but for you, Burton. I followed you to Ilford and back and took a pot-shot at you.”
“You ruined a perfectly good hat.”
“It's a crying shame I didn't spoil the head it was adorning. If you'd have been decent enough to die then, this ship and its crew would have been spared.”
“You're not the only man Zeppelin hired to kill me,” Burton revealed. “The other was promised money and received instead the count's hands around his neck.”
“Ah, so you know my employer, then! But what do you mean?”
“My other would-be assassin was strangled to death, Bingham. Had you managed to put a bullet in me, I have little doubt that Zeppelin's associates would have then put one in you. As for money being paid to your family, you can forget it. The Prussians will feel no obligation to you once you're dead.”
“Shut your mouth!” Bingham yelled. His finger whitened on the trigger as he jerked his pistol back and forth between Burton, Lawless, and Bhatti.
“Give it up, man!” the latter advised. “Don't leave your family stained with the name of a traitor!”
The meteorologist backed away a step. “Not another word out of you!” he spat at Bhatti. “As for you, Burton, they want an end to your little jaunt to Africa, and this-” With his free hand, Bingham undid his tightly buttoned jacket and pulled it open. He wasn't the fat man they thought he was. He was a slim man made bulky by a vest fashioned from sticks of dynamite. “This will ensure they get what they want!”
“Hell's teeth!” Captain Lawless shouted. “Are you bloody insane, man?”
Bingham sneered nastily. “Blame your friend here, Lawless. He's left me with no choice but to eliminate you all.”
“You do have a choice,” Burton said. “Shoot me now and spare the ship.”
“No. I've overheard you and your companions enough to know that, now they're on their way to Africa, they'd continue your mission without you. This is it for all of you.”
He placed his left index finger over a button in the middle of his chest.
“Bingham! There are women and children on board!” Lawless bellowed.
“To protect my own woman, and my own children, I would do anything, even-”
Shyamji Bhatti suddenly threw himself at the meteorologist, thudded into him, and with his arms wrapped around the saboteur, allowed his momentum to send them both toppling out of the open hull door. There came a blinding flash from outside and a tremendous discharge. The floor swung upward and slapped into the side of Burton's head, stunning him and sending him sliding across its metal surface. Bells jangled in his ears. Through the clamour, as if from a far-off place, he heard someone yell: “We're going down!”
Through the desert
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Sir Richard Francis Burton was leaning against a palm tree just beyond the final cottage of Kaltenberg. Beside him, Bertie Wells, sitting on a rock, was dabbing at a small wound on the back of his neck with a handkerchief. Burton had just used a penknife to dig a jigger flea out from beneath the war correspondent's skin.
From the trees around them, the shrieks and cackles of birds and monkeys blended into a cacophonous racket.
High overhead, eagles wheeled majestically through the dazzling sky.
The terrain in front of the two men angled down to the outlying houses and huts of Tanga.
Burton squinted, looking across the rooftops of the sprawling town to the ocean beyond. It was like peering through glass; the atmosphere was solid with heat. The humidity pressed against him, making his skin prickle. Respiration required a conscious effort, with each scalding breath having to be sucked in, the air resisting, as if too lethargic to move.
Wells pointed at a large building in the western part of the seaport.“That's the railway terminal. Two major lines run from it-the Tanganyika, all the way west to the lake; and the Usambara, up to Kilimanjaro.”
“Language is an astonishingly liquid affair,” Burton muttered. “We pronounced it Kilima Njaro in my day. Like the natives.”
“Perhaps some still do,” Wells replied. “But it's the fluid quality that makes language an excellent tool for imperialists. Force people to speak like you and soon enough they'll be thinking like you. Rename their villages, towns, and mountains, and before they know it, they're inhabiting your territory. So Kilimanjaro it is. Anyway, as I was saying, that's the station and our forces need to capture or destroy it to slow down the movement of German troops and supplies.” He indicated a twin-funnelled warship lying at anchor in the bay. “And that's HMS Fox. She's almost two decades obsolete but such is our desperation that we have to resort to whatever's available. She's been sweeping the harbour for mines. Look at her flags. Do you understand the signal?”
“It's a demand for surrender. The British Indian Expeditionary Force transports have already offloaded the troops onto the beaches. They're awaiting the order to attack. The Fox's captain will lead the assault. He's probably waiting for Aitken to get our lot into position. It won't be long now.”
Burton frowned. “The town looks uninhabited.”
Wells glanced at his bloodstained handkerchief and pushed it into a pocket. “They're all hiding indoors,” he said. “They've known the attack was coming for a couple of days.”
Burton closed his eyes, removed his helmet, and massaged his scalp with his fingertips.
Wells looked at him and asked, “Is that tattoo of yours hurting?”
“No. It's just that-I don't know-I feel like I should be somewhere else.”
“Ha! Don't we all!”
They lapsed into silence, broken a few minutes later when Wells said, “I have a theory about it. Your tattoo, I mean. It looks African in pattern. You still don't recall how you got it?”
“I think perhaps you were captured and tortured by some obscure tribe. There are still a few independent ones scattered about, especially up around the Blood Jungle where you were found. Certainly the state you were in suggests some sort of trauma in addition to the malaria and shell shock, and the tattoo possesses a ritualistic look.”
“It's possible, I suppose, but your theory doesn't ring any bells. Why is it called the Blood Jungle?”
“Because it's red. It's the thickest and most impassable jungle on the whole continent. The Germans have been trying to burn it away for I don't know how long but it grows back faster than they can destroy it.”
An hour passed before, in the distance, a bugle sounded. Others took up its call; then more, much closer.
Wells used a crutch to lever himself to his feet. He leaned on it, raised his binoculars, and said, “Here we go. Stay on your toes, we're closer to the action than I'd like.”
A single shot echoed from afar and, instantly, the birds in the trees became silent. For a moment there was no sound at all, then came a staccato roar as thousands of firearms let loose their bullets. An explosion shook the port.
Below and to his left, Burton saw a long line of British Askaris emerging from the undergrowth, moving cautiously into the town. They had hardly set foot past the outermost shack before they were caught in a hail of gunfire from windows and doorways. As men fell and others scattered for cover, Wells let loose a cry: “Bloody hell!”
A stray bullet whistled past him and thudded into a tree.
“Get down!” Burton snapped. The two observers dived onto the ground and lay prone, watching in horror as the Askaris were shredded by the crossfire. It fast became apparent that armed men inhabited all the houses and huts. Tanga wasn't a town waiting to be conquered-it was a trap.
A squadron of Askaris ran forward, threw themselves flat, and lobbed grenades. Explosions tore apart wooden residences and sent smoke rolling through the air. Similar scenes unfolded all along the southern outskirts of the town as the allied forces pressed forward. Hundreds of men were falling, but by sheer weight of numbers, they slowly advanced.
A sequence of blasts assaulted Burton's eardrums as HMS Fox launched shells into the middle of the settlement. Colonial houses erupted into clouds of brickwork, masonry, and glass.
“There goes the Hun administration!” Wells shouted. “If we're lucky, Lettow-Vorbeck was in one of those buildings!”
A Scorpion Tank scuttled out of the smoke and into a street just below them. The cannon on its tail sent shell after shell into the houses, many of which were now burning. When a German soldier raced from a doorway, one of the Scorpion's claws whipped forward, closed around him, and snipped him in half.
Harvestmen were entering the town, too, firing their Gatling guns and wailing their uncanny “Ulla! Ulla!”
Forty minutes later, the last of the troops with whom Burton and Wells had travelled moved past the observation point and pushed on into the more central districts of Tanga. As the clamour attested, the battle was far from over, but it had passed beyond Burton and Wells's view now, so they were forced to judge its progress by the sounds and eruptions of smoke. A particularly unbridled sequence of detonations occurred in the eastern part of the town, and, shortly afterward, a Union Jack was spotted there by Wells as it was hoisted up a flagpole at the top of a large building.
“That's the Hotel Nietzsche!” Wells exclaimed.
Pain lanced through Burton's head.
“Nietzsche!” he gasped. “I know that name! Who is he?”
“Bismarck's advisor,” Wells replied. “The second most powerful man in the Greater German Empire!”
“He-he's going to-he's going to betray Bismarck!” Burton said hoarsely. “He's going to take over the empire! This year!”
Wells regarded his companion, a confused expression on his face. “How can you possibly know that? You're from the past, not the future.”
Burton was panting with the effort of remembering. “I-it-something-something to do with Rasputin.”
“Wait!” Burton interrupted. “1914. It's 1914! Rasputin will die this year. I killed him!”
“You're not making any sense, man!”
Burton hung his head and ground his teeth in frustration. A tiny patch of soil just in front of his face suddenly bulged upward and a green shoot sprouted out of it. He watched in astonishment as a plant grew rapidly before his eyes. It budded and its flower opened, all at a phenomenal speed.
It was a red poppy.
Wells suddenly clutched at the explorer's arm. “What's that over there?”
Burton looked up and saw, writhing into the air from various places around the town, thick black smudges, twisting and spiralling as if alive. They expanded outward, flattened, then sank down into the streets. From amid the continuing gunfire, distant screams arose.
“What the hell?” Wells whispered.
Some minutes later, British troops came running out from between the burning buildings. They'd dropped their rifles and were waving their arms wildly, yelling in agony, many of them dropping to the ground, twitching, then lying still. One, an Askari, scrambled up the slope and fell in front of the two onlookers. He contorted and thrashed, then a rattle came from his throat, his eyes turned upward, and he died.
He was covered in bees.
“We've got to get out of here!” Wells shouted. “This is Eugenicist deviltry!”
Many more men were now climbing the incline toward them, all screaming.
Burton hauled Wells to his feet, handed him his crutches, then guided him from the observation point back into Kaltenberg. Behind them, gunfire was drawing closer.
“Counterattack!” Wells said. “Go on ahead, Richard. Get out of here. Don't let me slow you down.”
“Don't be a blessed fool!” Burton growled. “What manner of ridiculous war is this that our forces can be routed by bees?”
Even as he spoke, one of the insects landed on the back of his hand and stung him. Then another, on his neck. And another, on his jaw. The pain was a hundred times worse than a normal sting and he yelled, slapping the insects away. Almost immediately his senses began to swim and his heart fluttered as the venom entered his system. He staggered but found himself supported on either side by a couple of British Tommies who began to drag him along.
“Come on, chum!” said one. “Move yer bleedin' arse!”
“Bertie!” Burton shouted, but it came out slurred.
“Never mind your pal,” the other soldier snapped. “He's bein' taken care of. Keep movin'. Have you been stung?”
“Yes.” Burton's legs had stopped functioning and he had tunnel vision; all he could see was the ground speeding by. There was a buzzing in his ears.
The soldiers' voices came from a long way away: “He's snuffed it. Drop him.”
“No. He's just passed out.”
“He's slowing us down. Aah! I've been stung!”
“I'll not leave a man. Not while he still lives. Help me, damn it!”
A shot. The whine of a bullet.
“They're on us!”
Burton's senses came swimming back. Two men were dragging him along.
“I can walk,” he mumbled, and, regaining his feet, he stood and opened his eyes.
Light blinded him. It glared down from the sky and it glared up from the sand.
He raised a hand for shade and felt a big bump over his right eyebrow. It was sticky with blood.
“Are you dizzy, Captain?” asked Wordsworth Pryce, the second officer of the Orpheus.
“You took quite a knock,” observed another. Burton recognised the voice as that of Cyril Goodenough, one of the engineers.
His vision blurred and swirled then popped back into focus. He looked around, and croaked, “I'm fine. Somewhat dazed. We crashed?”
“The bomb destroyed our starboard engines,” Pryce replied. “It's a good job we were flying low. Nevertheless, we turned right over and came down with one hell of a thump.”
Burton saw the Orpheus.
The huge rotorship was upside down, slumped on desert dunes, its back broken, its flight pylons snapped and scattered. Steam was pouring from it and rising straight up into a clear blue morning sky. The sun was not long risen, but the heat was already intense. Long shadows extended from the wreckage, from the figures climbing out of it, and from the bodies they were lining up on the ground some way from the ship.
William Trounce was suddenly at his side. The detective's jacket and shirt were badly torn and bloodied but his wounds-lacerations, grazes, and bruises-were superficial; no broken bones.
“I think we've got everyone out now except the Beetle,” he said. “The boy is still in there somewhere.”
“What state are we in?” Burton asked, dreading the answer.
“Thirteen dead. First Officer Henson; Helmsman Wenham and his assistant D'Aubigny; Navigator Playfair; riggers Champion, Priestley, and Doe; the two firemen, Gerrard and Etheridge; Stoker Reece-Jones; and, of course, that cur Arthur Bingham. I'm afraid Daniel Gooch bought it, too.”
“I'm told Constable Bhatti died a hero's death, heaven bless him,” Trounce said.
“He did. There'd probably be no survivors at all but for his sacrifice. What of the wounded?”
“Tom Honesty is still unconscious. Captain Lawless was pierced through the left side. Engineer Henderson and the quartermaster, Butler, are both in critical condition with multiple broken bones and internal injuries. Miss Mayson has just had a dislocated arm snapped back into place. She'll be all right. Everyone else is battered, cut, and bruised in various degrees. Swinburne is fine. Mr. Spencer has a badly dented and twisted leg. Sister Raghavendra is unharmed, as are Masters Wilde and Cornish. Krishnamurthy was banged around pretty badly but has no serious injuries. He's devastated at the loss of his cousin, of course.” Trounce paused, then said quietly, “What a confounded mess.”
“And one that's fast heating up,” added Pryce. “We're slap bang in the middle of a desert.”
“I suppose the captain is out of action,” Burton said to him, “which makes you the commanding officer. I suggest you order the wreck stripped of everything useful. As a matter of urgency, we should employ whatever suitable material we can find to build a shaded area beside it. Please tell me the ship's water tanks are intact.”
“Half of them are. There'll be plenty enough water.”
“Well, that's something, at least. Have some of it put into containers.”
“I'll organise it at once.”
Pryce strode off.
Trounce cleared his throat. “Um. Captain, this heat-it's not-that is to say, how should we treat our-um-what should we do with the dead?”
The muscles to either side of Burton's jaw flexed. His closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked at his friend. “We can't bury them, William. These sands are permanently shifting. We can't leave them in the open-there are scavengers. Our only option is a pyre.”
Trounce considered this for a moment, gave a brusque nod, said, “I'll get it done,” and walked away.
Burton turned to Engineer Goodenough: “What of the cargo hold and the expedition's equipment?”
“It's intact, sir. The vehicles are relatively undamaged. Overturned, of course, but they just need to be righted. Your supplies look like they got caught up in a tornado but I daresay we can sort them out. I'll see to it.”
“Thank you. I'll round up some help for you.”
Burton walked over to where Doctor Quaint and Sister Raghavendra were treating the wounded. Thomas Honesty was sitting up now but obviously hadn't fully regained his wits; his eyes were glazed, his mouth hanging slackly open. There was blood all over his face.
The doctor looked up from Charles Henderson, who was semiconscious and moaning softly, and said, “Almost everyone on the bridge was killed. As for the rest, the extent of their injuries depended on where they were when the ship hit the ground.” He stood, drew Burton aside, and continued in a low voice, “If we don't get the wounded to a hospital, they won't make it.”
Burton examined the landscape. To the north, behind the fallen Orpheus, to the east, and to the south, pale sand undulated all the way to the horizon in a sequence of large dunes. To the west, a thin strip of green and brown terrain clung to the hilly horizon.
“If I can recover my instruments from the hold-and if they're undamaged-I will be able to establish our position, Doctor. Then we can work out how to get to the nearest settlement.”
“But, as I say,” Quaint replied, “these men need a hospital.”
“I assure you, Doctor, the Arabians are masters at the medical arts. They invented surgery.”
“Very well. I'll trust your judgement, sir.”
Burton looked at the Sister. She gave a slight jerk of her head to indicate that she was all right. He moved away, feeling oddly detached. The front of his skull was throbbing, and the dry heat of the Arabian Peninsula was beginning to suck the moisture out of him. He knew that within a couple of hours it would become a furnace. Shelter was the priority now. The inside of the Orpheus wouldn't do-the sun would soon make a giant oven of it.
Swinburne approached with Oscar Wilde and Willy Cornish in tow. The two youngsters were wide-eyed and pale-faced. Wilde was cradling his right arm.
“Are you hurt, Quips?”
“Just a sprain, Captain Burton. I'm thinking it's my wits that are more shaken than my body. I'd only just left the bridge when the ship went down. Escaped by the skin of my teeth, so I did.”
“And you, Master Cornish?”
“I bumped my head, Mr. Burton. Really hard.”
“Me too. How is it now?”
“Not so bad, sir.”
“Good boy. Algy, you appear to have escaped without a scratch.”
“Don't ask me how,” Swinburne replied, glancing across at the Sister's patients. “My hat! I was bounced around like a rubber ball. What infamy, Richard, that our enemies are prepared to kill innocent men, women, and children in order to stop our expedition.”
“All the more reason why we must succeed,” Burton growled. He regarded the stricken Orpheus. “Algy, when the engineers have made it safe, I want you and the boys to search the ship. Locate the Beetle.”
“Is he alive, Mr. Burton?” Cornish asked anxiously.
“I don't know. But if he is, we need to get him out of there before he's cooked. Good Lord! What on earth is that?”
Burton gaped at an approaching figure. It looked something like an upright brown bear, but baggy and shiny and possessed of a strange, narrow head, upon which Pox squatted. The thing moved with an ungainly lurching motion, swaying unevenly from side to side as it drew closer. The parakeet held out first one wing, then the other, to stay balanced.
“Cripes! A monster!” Cornish exclaimed, diving behind Burton and clinging to his legs.
“Pestilent stench-monkey!” Pox whistled.
“Hallo, Boss,” the creature beneath the bird hooted.
“Is that you, Herbert?”
“Aye. I've busted me arthritic leg. Got a whackin' great dent in it. Can't hardly walk straight! Otherwise I came through with just a scratch or two. I'm itchin' all over, though. It's these blinkin' polymethylene togs.”
Swinburne snorted. “You can't possibly itch, Herbert. You're made of brass!”
“I know. But I tells you, I itch!”
Herbert was completely enveloped by the suit. Gloves encased his three-fingered hands, and his flat-iron-shaped feet were booted. The voluminous material billowed around his limbs and torso but was wrapped tightly against his head and held in place by two elasticated belts. There were three openings in the suit, through which the circular features of his “face” could be seen.
“I can't say your outfit is worthy of Savile Row,” Burton noted, “but it looks functional and you're protected from wind-borne sand. Come on, let's give the crew a helping hand.”
They moved to the back of the steaming hulk, from which supplies were being unloaded, and started to sort through them. Thirty minutes later, Swinburne, Cornish, and Wilde were given the all clear to enter the ship. They began their search for the Beetle.
Burton, meanwhile, found his surveying equipment, climbed to the top of a nearby dune, and took readings. He returned and approached Wordsworth Pryce, announcing: “We're about a hundred miles to the northeast of Mecca. Unfortunately, that city is forbidden to us. However, I'm familiar with this area. If the expedition travels south for a hundred and eighty miles, we'll come to the town of Al Basah, where we should be able to join a fast caravan that'll take us all the way to Aden.”
Pryce looked surprised. “Surely you don't mean to continue with your expedition? What about your supplies? How will you transport them?”
“We have no choice but to keep going. Our mission is of crucial importance. The supplies will have to be abandoned, apart from whatever we can realistically carry. We'll purchase what we can when we get to Aden, then more at Zanzibar. There's also a large shipment awaiting us in the Dut'humi Hills in Africa.”
Pryce shook his head. “But travelling nearly two hundred miles through this desert? The injured will never survive it.”
“They won't have to. I want you and your men to use the vehicles to transport them westward until you encounter the ocean, then south along the coast to Jeddah, which has excellent medical facilities and a British Consulate. It's not far. If we work fast, you'll be ready to leave at sunset and you'll arrive there before dawn.”
“But Captain Burton!” Pryce objected. “What about you and your people? You can't possibly walk to Al Basah!”
“If they don't receive proper attention soon, Lawless, Henderson, and Butler will die. Take the vehicles. I'm an experienced desert traveller and I happen to know that there's a chain of oases between here and the town. They're frequented by traders and there's a very high probability that we'll join a caravan within hours of setting forth.”
The aeronaut gripped Burton by the arm. “Come with us, sir! You can get a ship and sail from Jeddah to Aden.”
“We'll not all fit into the vehicles, Mr. Pryce. And strange as it might seem, caravans journey south far more frequently than ships do. Vessels sailing from Jeddah are normally bound for Cairo. We might wait for months for one that's going to Aden. But in Al Basah, camel trains leave on a daily basis and travel rapidly down through central Arabia. We might reach Aden in less than two months.”
“Two months! But by golly, sir-that's a huge delay!”
Burton shook his head. “It might appear so, but it's nothing compared to the hold-ups I experienced during my first expedition. Believe me, Pryce, Speke will be encountering many similar hindrances. I remain confident that we can catch him up, despite this setback. Now, let's get those vehicles out of the cargo hold.”
Frantic hours followed. Supplies were sorted and stacked beneath makeshift awnings, food and water were distributed, and two travois were constructed for Burton and his team to use to transport whatever they could manage.
The Beetle was finally located in a pipe in the heart of the wreck, which the desert heat had not yet reached. He was uninjured but hungry. Burton took him a bag of sausage rolls, some sliced meat, half a loaf of bread, and a canteen of water. He held the comestibles up to a panel in the pipe. It swung open, and a small pale-blue and mottled hand reached out and drew them into the darkness.
“Thank you, Captain,” came a whisper. “And I'm very sorry.”
“If I had warned you about the saboteur in London, you might have lost a week. Instead, my scheme has cost you the expedition.”
“No, lad. As I just informed Mr. Pryce, this crash has put us maybe two months behind Speke.”
“Then he has won!”
“Not a bit of it. Time in Africa is not the same as time in England. Where we can measure a journey in hours and days, in Africa, they must be measured in weeks and months and even years. And Speke is in incompetent traveller. He is certain to make mistakes, and they will cost him as much time as we have lost today.”
“I hope so. And what of me, Captain? I appear to be somewhat disadvantaged.”
“We've arranged transportation for you, lad.”
“If you follow this pipe toward the stern and turn right at the second junction, you'll find that it ends at a grille. When you are there, signal by tapping. The engineers will then saw through the pipe behind you, leaving you in a six-foot-long section, the cut end of which they'll immediately seal.”
“I do not want them to see me.”
“They shan't. I'll be there to ensure your continued privacy.”
“That is good of you. What will then happen?”
“The pipe will be loaded aboard one of our vehicles in the custody of William Cornish and Oscar Wilde. You'll travel to Jeddah by night-which will be cold, but that's better than being baked alive. It may take some time for Second Officer Pryce to arrange, but from the port you'll sail with the boys and the crew of the Orpheus to Cairo, and from there home to London. All those who'll accompany you have pledged to guard you en route. It will mean a long time in a cramped pipe, but you'll get home.”
“That is most satisfactory, Captain. Thank you.”
A little later, after Bloodmann and Bolling had cut and sealed the pipe, they and Burton carried it into the long tent-like structure that had been erected beside the ship. The six members of the explorer's expedition were resting there: Swinburne, Trounce, Honesty, Spencer, Krishnamurthy, and Sister Raghavendra; and so were the other nine surviving crew members: Pryce, Goodenough, Quaint, Beadle, Miss Mayson, the boys-Cornish and Wilde-and the injured men, Lawless, Henderson, and Butler.
Those who were conscious had a haunted look about their eyes-they'd all seen the tall column of smoke rising up from the other side of a nearby dune. They knew what it meant. They sat, silently bidding their friends goodbye.
Then they slept.
For the next few hours, the hottest of the day, the clockwork man kept lone vigil over the camp.
There wasn't a single sound from outside, but inside, the exhausted survivors shifted restlessly and gave forth occasional moans, for even in their trauma-filled dreams, they could feel the arid air scorching their lungs.
Five hours later, when they awoke, they felt as desiccated as Egyptian mummies.
“By Jove!” Trounce croaked. “How can anyone live in this?”
“Are Arabs flameproof?” Krishnamurthy asked.
“It will cool rapidly over the next hour,” Burton declared, pushing canvas aside and squinting out at the setting sun. “Then you'll be complaining about the cold.”
“Can't imagine cold. Not now!” Honesty confessed.
“This is a land of extremes, old chap, and we have to take advantage of those few hours, twice a day, when the climate shows an iota of mercy.”
One such period was soon upon them, and after a hasty meal, they stocked the two conveyances with fuel and food and water, and the aeronauts prepared to take their leave.
The vehicles were extraordinary. They were crabs-of the variety Liocarcinus vernalis-grown to gigantic size, their shells cleaned out and fitted with steam machinery, controls, chairs, and storage cabinets. They walked forward rather than sideways, as they had done when alive, and their claws had been fitted with razor-sharp blades, designed to slice and rip through jungle.
Wordsworth Pryce reached up to the underbelly of one of them and opened a hatch, which hinged down, steps unfolding on its inside surface. One by one, Captain Lawless, Charles Henderson, and Frederick Butler were borne up on stretchers by Doctor Quaint and Cyril Goodenough.
“I'm not at all happy about this, Captain,” Pryce said to Burton. “Could you not wait it out here? Myself and one of my men could drive back to you and ferry you south.”
“That would mean us tarrying for two days,” Burton replied, “and in that time, we could be well on our way. The Al Atif oasis is about five hours' walk from here. The chances are good that we'll be able to join a caravan to Al Basah from there. And you must bear in mind that, in travelling westward, you'll soon find yourself on firmer terrain, easy for the crabs to traverse. Southward lies only sand. It would quickly infiltrate the machinery and the vehicles would be rendered inoperable in short order. No, Mr. Pryce, this is the best way.”
Pryce shook the explorer's hand. “Very well, Captain Burton. I wish you luck, and rest assured that the Beetle's privacy will be protected and he'll be escorted all the way back to his chimney in Limehouse.”
With that, Pryce boarded the vehicle and pulled up the hatch.
Burton paced across to the second crab, into which Bolling and Bloodmann had just carried the Beetle's section of pipe. The stoker, Thomas Beadle, joined them.
Willy Cornish and Oscar Wilde lingered a moment to say goodbye.
“Quips, I'm sorry I dragged you into this,” Burton said. “I thought I was doing you a favour.”
Wilde smiled. “Don't you be worrying yourself, Captain. Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing, and if this is the price, I'm happy to pay it, for I'm having the experience of a lifetime, so I am!”
The boys entered the crab.
Burton turned to Isabella Mayson.
“Are you sure you want to remain behind and join our expedition, Miss Mayson? I warn you that we have many months of severe hardship ahead of us.”
“There is barely room for another aboard the vehicles, Sir Richard,” she replied. “And your group will need to be fed-a responsibility I'm happy to make my own. Besides, it will be better for Sadhvi to have another woman present. We must, at very least, tip our heads at propriety, do you not think?”
Burton pushed up the hatch and clicked it shut, then stood back as the two crabs shuddered into life with coughs and growls. Steam plumed from their funnels, and Wilde and Cornish and Doctor Barnaby Quaint waved from the windows as the two outlandish machines stalked away.
The sun sank.
Beside the Orpheus, eight people remained, standing in the gathering twilight watching their friends recede into the distance.
Pox the parakeet sang, “Crapulous knobble-thwacker!” and Burton muttered: “I couldn't have put it better myself.”
One foot in front of the other.
Step. Step. Step. Step.
Eyes on the ground.
Ignore the cold.
“How far?” Krishnamurthy mumbled.
“Soon. By sunrise,” Burton replied.
They were dragging a travois over the sand. It was loaded with food and water, cooking pots and lanterns, rifles and ammunition, tents, clothing, instruments, and other equipment. Krishnamurthy was certain it was getting heavier.
The Milky Way was splattered overhead, dazzling, deep, and endless. The full moon had risen and was riding low in the sky. The dunes swelled in the silvery light.
Step. Step. Step. Step.
A second travois was pulled by Trounce and Honesty.
The two women trudged along beside it.
Herbert Spencer, in his protective suit, limped a little way behind.
“Tired,” Honesty said. “Four hours walking.”
Trounce gave a guttural response.
Ahead, Algernon Swinburne reached the peak of the next dune and stood with his rifle resting over his shoulder. He looked back at his companions, waited for them to catch up a little, then disappeared over the sandy peak. Before the others had reached the base of the upward slope, the eastern sky suddenly brightened.
To Burton, the quickness of dawn in this part of the world came as no surprise; to the others, it was breathtaking. One minute they were enveloped by the frigid luminescence of the night, and the next the sky paled, the stars faded, and brilliant rays of sunshine transformed the landscape. The desert metamorphosed from cold naked bone to hot dry flesh.
They slogged across it.
Step. Step. Step. Step.
“Cover your eyes,” Burton called.
On his recommendation, they were each wearing a keffiyeh-a square headscarf of brightly striped material, secured on the crown with a circlet, or agal-which they now pulled down across their faces. The light glared through the material but didn't blind them, and, as they came to the top of the dune, they could clearly see through the weave that the redheaded poet had reached its base and was starting up the next one.
“I can feel heat!” Krishnamurthy exclaimed. “Already!”
“It will become unbearable within the next two hours,” Burton predicted. “But by that time we'll be encamped at Al Atif.”
A few yards away, Honesty glanced toward the huge molten globe of the sun and whispered, “Gladiolus gandavensis.”
“What?” Trounce asked.
“A plant. Not a hardy one. Dislikes winter. Roots best kept in sand until mid-March. Then potted individually. You have to nurture them, William. Start them off in a greenhouse.”
It was the first time, in all the years they'd worked together, that Thomas Honesty had used Detective Inspector Trounce's first name.
“I say, Honesty-are you all right, old fellow?”
The small, dapper man smiled. “Thinking about my garden. What I'll do when we get back. Do you like gardening?”
“My wife takes care of it. We only have a small patch, and it's given over to cabbages and potatoes.”
Step. Step. Step. Step.
“I was wrong.”
“About Spring Heeled Jack. Didn't believe you.”
“Nor did anybody else.”
“But you were right. He was at Victoria's assassination.”
“Yes, he was.”
“Will you forgive me? Misjudged you.”
“Already done, old fellow. Some considerable time ago.”
“When we get back, there's something I'd like.”
“You and Mrs. Trounce. Come over. Have tea with Vera and me. In the garden.”
“We'd be honoured.”
“Maybe the gladioli will be out.”
“That'll be nice.”
“Ahoy there!” Swinburne shouted. “I see palms!”
“The oasis,” Burton said.
“Praise be!” Krishnamurthy gasped.
“Arse!” Pox squawked.
They climbed up to the poet and stopped beside him. He pointed at a distant strip of blinding light. They squinted and saw through their lashes and keffiyehs that it was dotted with wavering palm trees.
“Please, Captain Burton, don't tell us that's a mirage!” Sister Raghavendra said.
“No,” Burton responded. “That's real enough. It's just where it ought to be. Let's push on.”
They each took a gulp of water from their flasks, then returned to the hard work of placing one foot in front of the other, on and on and on, not daring to look up in case the oasis was farther away than they hoped.
Step. Step. Step. Step.
Another hour passed and the temperature soared, sucking away what little strength remained in them.
Then, suddenly, they were in shade, green vegetation closed around them, and when they finally raised their eyes, they saw a long, narrow lake just a few yards ahead.
“Thank goodness!” Isabella Mayson exclaimed, sinking to the ground. “Let me catch my breath, then I'll prepare some food while you gentlemen put up an awning.”
Forty minutes later, they were tucking into a meal of preserved sausages and bread and pickles, which they washed down with fresh water and a glass each of red wine-an indulgence Swinburne had insisted on bringing, despite Burton's directive that they keep their loads as light as possible.
They sighed and lay down.
“My feet have never ached so much,” Trounce observed. “Not even when I was a bobby on the beat.”
Herbert Spencer, sitting with his back against the bole of a palm tree, watched Pox flutter up into its leaves. The colourful bird hunkered down and went to sleep. The clockwork philosopher made a tooting sound that might have been a sigh. “For all your complaints, Mr. Trounce,” he said, “at least you can enjoy the satisfaction of a good meal. All I ever get these days is a touch of oil applied to me cogs 'n' springs, an' that always gives me indigestion.”
Trounce replied with a long, drawn-out snore, then rolled onto his side and fell silent.
Peace settled over the camp, and into it, Swinburne said softly:
“Here life has death for neighbour,
And far from eye or ear
Wan waves and wet winds labour,
Weak ships and spirits steer;
They drive adrift, and whither
They wot not who make thither;
But no such winds blow hither,
And no such things grow here.”
“That's beautiful, Mr. Swinburne,” Sister Raghavendra whispered.
The sun climbed and the heat intensified.
Three hours passed.
They were too tired to dream.
Herbert Spencer's polymethylene-wrapped canister-shaped head slowly turned until the three vertical circles of his face were directed at the king's agent. He watched the sleeping man for many minutes. Very quietly, the pipes on his head wheezed, “Time, Boss, is that which a man is always trying to kill, but which ends in killing him.” Then he looked away and sibilated, “But for us, only equivalence can lead to destruction-or transcendence.”
He sat, motionless.
“Wake up! Wake up! We're attacked!”
Herbert Spencer's trumpeting shocked them all out of their sleep.
“We're attacked! We're attacked!”
“What the devil-?” Trounce gasped, staggering to his feet.
“Grab your rifle,” Burton snapped. “Be sharp and arm to defend the camp!”
He winced, realising that he'd uttered the very same words back in '55 at Berbera; the day a spear had transfixed his face; the day his friend William Stroyan had been killed; the day John Speke had begun to hate him.
There was a thud, and Trounce went down.
A wild-looking man stepped over him and jabbed the butt of a matchlock at Burton's head. The king's agent deflected it with his forearm, lunged in, and buried his fist in his assailant's stomach.
From behind, an arm closed around the explorer's neck and the point of a dagger touched his face just below the right eye.
“Remain very still,” a voice snarled in his ear. Burton recognised the language as Balochi-a mix of Persian and Kurdish.
He froze, tense in the man's grip, and watched as brigands rounded up his companions. They were big men with intimidating beards and flowing robes, wide blue pantaloons, and colourful sashes around their waists. They were armed with matchlocks, daggers, swords, and shields.
Herbert Spencer-who they obviously regarded as some sort of exotic animal-was surrounded and roped. With his enormous strength, he yanked his captors this way and that, throwing them off their feet, until one of the bandits raised a gun and fired a shot at him, at which point Burton, afraid that his friend would be damaged, called, “Stop struggling, Herbert!”
The brass man became still, and his attackers wound him around and around with the ropes then bound him to a tree trunk.
“Goat ticklers!” Pox screeched from somewhere overhead.
Burton was dragged over to the others. The two women were pulled aside, and, with their arms held tightly behind their backs, were forced to watch as the men were lined up and pushed to their knees.
“I say!” Swinburne screeched. “What the dickens do you think you're playing at? Unhand me at once, you scoundrels!”
A heavily built warrior strode over. He sneered down at the diminutive poet and spat: “Kafir!”
“Bless you!” the poet replied. “Do you not have a handkerchief?”
The big man cast his eyes from Swinburne to Honesty, then to Trounce, Burton, and Krishnamurthy.
“Who leads?” he demanded.
“I do,” said Burton, in Balochi.
The man moved to stand in front of him.
“Thou has knowledge of my language?”
“Aye, and I say to thee that there be no majesty and there be no might save in Allah, the Glorious, the Great, and in his name we ask for thy mercy and thy assistance, for we have suffered severe misfortune and have a long journey before us.”
The Baloch threw his head back and loosed a roar of laughter. He squatted and looked into Burton's eyes.
“Thou speakest very prettily, Scar Face. I am Jemadar Darwaas. I lead the Disciples of Ramman. Who art thou?”
“Some call me Abdullah the Dervish.”
“Is that so?” Darwaas pointed at Herbert Spencer. “And what is that?”
“It is a man of brass. A machine in which a human spirit is housed.”
“So! A whole man in a whole mechanism this time! Like Aladdin's djan?”
“Like that, aye. He is concealed within material that protects him from the sand, for if grains of it got into him, he would die.”
While he spoke, Burton took stock of the men into whose clutches his expedition had fallen. He judged there to be about sixty of them-all hardened desert warriors-marauders from Belochistan a thousand miles to the northeast.
“Thou art a storyteller, Abdullah.”
“I speak the truth.”
“Then I would cut through the material and look upon this miraculous brass man of thine.”
“In doing so, thou shall kill him,” Burton advised, “and what would he then be worth?”
Jemadar Darwaas grinned through his beard. “Ah,” he said. “Now, O Abdullah, thou art truly speaking my language! He has value, eh?”
“The British government would pay a substantial ransom for him, and for these others, too,” Burton said, indicating his companions with a jerk of his head. “Especially for the women, if they are unharmed.”
Darwaas grunted. He drew his dagger and held it up, examining its sharp point. His eyes flicked from the blade to Burton's dark eyes. With a fluid motion, he stood, paced away, and began to speak in low tones with a group of his men.
William Trounce leaned close to Burton and whispered, “What was all that about?”
“I'm trying to talk him into holding us for ransom.”
“Why do that?”
“Because it'll buy us some time,” the king's agent replied.
Less than half an hour later, the brigands finished setting up their camp on the edge of the oasis, and the two women were taken to it and placed in a guarded tent.
Darwaas returned to the remaining captives, drew his scimitar, and levelled the point at Burton's face. “Thy people will be held until the British consul in Jeddah pays for their release,” he said. “But thee, Abdullah the Dervish, thee I shall fight.”
“Fight? For what purpose?”
“For no purpose other than I desire it.”
The Jemadar ordered his men to clear a circular area. The prisoners were dragged to its boundary and the bandits gathered around. Burton was yanked up and pushed forward. A warrior threw down a scimitar. It landed at the explorer's feet, and he bent, picked it up, and noted that it was a well-balanced blade.
Sir Richard Francis Burton was a master swordsman, but he much preferred fighting with a point than with an edge. The point demanded skill and finesse; the edge required mainly strength, speed, and brutality, though there were also a few techniques associated with it, in which, fortunately, he was well schooled.
He held the blade, narrowed his eyes at his opponent, and sighed.
Before leaving the wreck of the Orpheus, he'd attached to his belt a leather holster, and in that holster there was a very odd-looking pistol. It was green and organic-actually a eugenically altered cactus-and it fired venomous spines that could knock a man unconscious in an instant. His captives had not removed it, and he wished he could draw it now, for he would far prefer to render the leader of the Disciples of Ramman senseless than to hack at him with a blade. Sword cuts, unless they were to the head, neck, or stomach, very rarely killed quickly. Instead, they condemned the victim to hours-even days-of excruciating agony, often followed by infection and a lingering death. He knew, however, that the moment he went for his gun, matchlocks would be jerked up and fired at him.
Jemadar Darwaas stepped closer and brandished his scimitar. “How didst thou come by that scar on thy face, Abdullah?” he asked.
“A spear,” Burton responded. “Thrust by an Abyssinian.”
“Didst thou kill him?”
“That was a mistake. My people say: ‘When thy enemies attack-’”
“'-bathe in their blood,'” Burton finished.
“Ha! Thy knowledge is impressive. Hast thou lived among Allah's children?”
“I am Hajji.”
“What? A pilgrim? A believer? I did not know. Now I shall honour thee doubly after I have spilled thy guts.”
Darwaas suddenly lunged forward and swung his sword at Burton's head. The king's agent deflected it with ease and slashed back at his opponent, slicing through the front of Darwaas's robe. The Baloch jumped back and exclaimed, “Thou art practised with the sword, then?”
“Aye,” said Burton, circling slowly. “And these are designed for fighting from horseback, not for face-to-face combat. Nevertheless, there are tactics that a man can employ with them when on foot. For example-” He paced forward, ducked, and, balancing on one heel, whipped around in a full circle, using his momentum to sweep his scimitar upward at a twenty-degree angle. Darwaas barely had time to react, only just managing to place his weapon between himself and Burton's blade, and when the two scimitars clanged together, his own was forced back hard against him, sending him staggering.
Burton immediately pressed his advantage, striking at his opponent's right side-a blow that was, again, turned aside with difficulty.
Darwaas teetered off balance, stumbled, and gasped, “By Allah! Thou art considerably more than I expected!”
“A man should not be precipitous in his choice of enemy,” Burton advised. “And I am puzzled that thou hath chosen me. Wert thou paid to do so?”
“Aye, 'tis the case.”
“When I told thee of the man of brass, thou didst exclaim, ‘A whole man in a whole mechanism this time!’ Perhaps, then, thou hast seen a man partially of metal? Mayhap it was his head that was half of brass, and this man was your paymaster?”
“I do not deny it. Enough talk. Let us fight.”
Burton transferred his scimitar to his left hand. “Keep thy body loose, Jemadar, and control thy blade with the wrist, not with the entire arm. Now, strike at me.”
“Art thou so confident?”
The Jemadar gave a grimace. The duel wasn't going at all the way he'd have liked. He spat onto the sand and crouched a little, his sword arm held out. The two men moved around one another, their dark eyes locked.
With such speed that the movement was almost a blur, Darwaas launched himself at Burton and sliced sideways. His blade hit his adversary just below chest level, but Burton was braced against it, with his own weapon shielding him closely, held point downward, tight against his body from shoulder to mid-thigh. He immediately swept it out, up, and around, hooking it beneath the bandit's scimitar. He stepped in with knees bent and pushed upward. Darwaas's sword was instantly levered right out of his hand.
The gathered Baloch men cried out in amazement as their leader's weapon went spinning away, landing at the edge of the arena.
Darwaas stood stunned.
“The sword should be held against the body in defence,” Burton stated, “else, as thou saw, in being knocked backward, it can do as much damage as the attacking blade. Also, this means that, for the defender, the muscles of the shoulders, arms, and wrists are relaxed-are not employed in resisting the offensive-and are thus free to fully power the counterattack.”
Darwaas's face blackened. “Dost thou mean to humiliate me, dog?”
Burton shook his head. “I did not seek to fight thee, Jemadar. I desire only to-”
“Richard!” Swinburne shrieked.
Something impacted against the back of Burton's head. The world reeled around him and vanished.
A conflagration raged in his skull, needled his eyelids, clawed at his skin. He tried to move and found that he couldn't. Thirst consumed him.
He forced his eyes open and squinted up at the pitiless sun. Turning his head, he saw that he was on his back, with limbs spread out, his wrists and ankles bound with cord to wooden stakes driven deeply into the ground.
Dunes rose to either side.
He opened his mouth to shout for help but only a rattle emerged.
Grains of sand, riding a hot, slow breeze, blew against the side of his face.
He experienced a strange sense of deja vu.
Is this a dream?
Jemadar Darwaas entered his field of vision.
“Art thou comfortable?” he asked. “Thy head aches, I fancy? My moollah-lieutenant-struck thee with a knob stick.” The bandit chuckled. “By Allah, he knows how I hate to be bested! Thou art a fine swordsman, Abdullah! Mayhap the tales told of thy race are true, for it is said that the British are undefeated in battle. Praise be to Allah that the lands of my people have no resources that thy people covet!” Darwaas held his arms out wide as if to embrace the entire desert. He grinned wickedly. “Let us see,” he said, “how that land now judges thee, Britisher.”
He turned away and climbed to the top of a dune, looked back once, spat, then descended the other side of the mound and passed out of sight.
Burton felt his flesh cracking.
It was mid-afternoon and the heat wouldn't abate for at least another three hours. If he survived it, he'd then have to endure the severe chill of night.
He moved his tongue in his mouth. It felt like a stone.
There was a spell of nothingness.
He sucked in a burning breath and realised that he'd been unconscious.
Think. Think, and hang on to the thoughts. John Speke and Count Zeppelin obviously stopped here and warned the bandits to look out for a crashed rotorship and to kill any survivors. How far ahead are they? Already at Aden, perhaps?
Think, and keep thinking!
Awareness slipped to one side and skidded into oblivion.
He tried to form words, to call for help, but the slightest movement of his mouth increased the pain a thousandfold. The agony flared; an unbearable brilliance.
He sank into the centre of an inferno.
Flames in a stone bowl hanging by chains from a ceiling so high that it is lost in shadows. Columns. A monolithic temple. It is on a hill in the centre of Kantapuranam, the capital city of Kumari Kandam, the land of the reptilian Naga.
A man steps forward.
He is Brahmin Kaundinya, and he is wedded to the monarch's daughter, their union a symbolic pact to mark the end of conflict between the lizard race and humans. He has lived a year among them, and is now standing before K'k'thyima, the high priest.
Thin blue smoke from burning incense curls around the human's legs. Onlookers watch attentively. There are at least a thousand of them gathered in the temple, and many millions more in attendance mentally but not physically.
The man bows his respect to the priest.
“Not to me, soft skin,” K'k'thyima hisses. “To the Joined.” With a three-fingered clawed hand, he gestures to his right.
Kaundinya turns to a huge black diamond, which rests on a plinth of gold.
One of the three Eyes of Naga.
Kaundinya bows again.
K'k'thyima says: “Thy wife may step to thy side.”
The man turns around to look at his mate. “Come, and speak for me, that all may know my character,” he says, following the ritual.
She moves to him. Like all of her race, she is about half his height; her skin segmented into a mosaic of leathery black, yellow, and green; her limbs short and thick; her head confusing to the human, for sometimes it seems to be one of seven heads, other times one of five, and occasionally the sole one. She is wearing extravagant jewellery and a chain-mail tunic.
“Husband,” she says, “I am willing to speak.”
The high priest, who also appears to have multiple heads, orders a human prisoner to be brought forward. As the man is escorted to the plinth, Kaundinya is addressed.
“Thou came as an emissary, O Kaundinya. Thou came to broker peace between the race of soft skins and the race of Naga. Thou hast lived among us as one of us, and thou hast been husband to Kuma K'sss'amaya.”
He turns to the female.
“Hast thou, my Kuma, been satisfied with the conduct of thy husband?”
“I have,” she answers. “With intervention from our wise ones, that which divides our species was bridged, and the human gave to me a child. He is an attentive and dutiful father. He has respected our ways. He has learned much and has not judged. He brings peace.”
The crowd emits an approving sibilance.
Kaundinya watches the high priest. A single head swims into focus. Its yellow eyes blink, their membranes sliding sideways: a sign of satisfaction. The head blurs. There are seven heads. There are five. There is one. There are seven.
“Pay honour to the Joined,” K'k'thyima orders.
A blade slices through the prisoner's neck and his blood spurts over the irregular facets of the giant gemstone. He convulses and dies and his corpse is dragged out of the chamber.
“A sacrifice is always necessary, O Kaundinya, but the essence of he who gave his life will live on in the Eye.”
The priest performs a number of ritualistic gestures, almost a dance, and intones: “The multitude are one. Individual thoughts are one thought. Separate intentions are one intention. The words of one are the words of all. The days that have been and the days that will come are eternally now.”
He steps to the stone, leans over it, and, with one of his long forked tongues licks blood from its surface. He then dips the same tongue into a bowl containing black diamond dust.
With the organ extended, he returns to Kaundinya-who bows down-and runs it delicately over the human's shaven scalp, leaving a swirling, glittering hieroglyph.
K'k'thyima steps back. Kaundinya straightens.
The High Priest says: “Thou art invited into the Great Fusion, O Emissary. Dost thou accept the Joining?”
The crowd emits a throbbing susurration, a repetitive refrain. All the gathered priests extend and quiver their multiple neck crests, a dazzling display of vibrating colour.
From somewhere, a throbbing rhythm pulses and a melody of heart-wrenching beauty swells through the temple. Layer after layer is added to it. Its refrains are bafflingly complex, and they are constructed from tones that no human instrument has ever produced; tones that no human being can even properly comprehend.
Kaundinya tries to meet K'k'thyima's eyes but is unable to focus on any single head. He feels the music and the lizard's mesmeric power overwhelming all but one tiny and very well-concealed part of his consciousness, and he allows it.
He looks at the black diamond. His eyes fixate upon it. He feels himself pulled into its depths, the essence of his individuality breaking apart, distributing itself among the planes and lines and points and angles of the great stone.
Kaundinya remains passive as thousands upon thousands of other minds touch his. He loses his sense of independence and becomes enmeshed, soaking into a vast multiple consciousness.
He wills his identity farther and farther into the diamond. He fills it; exists in every part of it; becomes an ingredient in its very existence.
He is one with the Naga.
He exists with them in the Eternal Now.
All but one tiny part of him.
Kaundinya is no ordinary man. Through rigorous education, meditation, and ritual, he has attained the absolute pinnacle of intellectual order and emotional discipline. Here, at the dawn of human history, his self-control is unmatched; and it will remain so until the end of that history.
The Naga have been surreptitiously probing his mind from the moment he started to live among them. They have found only good intentions, only a desire for peace between the human race and their own.
Kaundinya's true purpose has never been exposed.
Now, the moment has arrived.
He flexes the one small knot of awareness that has not melted into the Joined and turns it inward, probing deep into the physical matter of his own brain.
He locates a major blood vessel and he wrenches at it.
A massive haemorrhage kills him in an instant, and at the moment his consciousness is destroyed, it sends an inexorable shockwave through the structure of the diamond.
The stone fractures and explodes into seven fragments.
The Joined are ripped apart.
Millions of Naga drop dead.
The retorts of the shattering gem echo through the temple like rifle fire. The pieces fall from the plinth to the floor, their facets glinting like stars.
Rifle fire and stars.
Rifle fire. Stars.
Rifle fire. Stars.
Sir Richard Francis Burton opened his eyes.
It was night.
Stars filled the sky.
Rifle fire echoed across the desert.
A man screamed.
A camel brayed.
Voices argued in one of the languages of the Arabian Peninsula.
His eyelids scraped shut, time overbalanced and dropped away, and he opened them again and saw the dawn.
A figure climbed into view and stood looking down at him. A breeze tugged at her robes-for it was undoubtedly a woman, Burton could tell that from the curve of her hip, against which she rested the butt of her rifle.
“No,” she said, in English. “It cannot possibly be you.”
Her voice was deep and warm but filled with shock.
He tried to speak but his tongue wouldn't move. His skin was afire, yet the core of him, having suffered the night, was as cold as ice. He could feel nothing but pain.
The woman slipped and slithered down the sand then strode to his side and knelt, laying her weapon to one side. Her face was concealed by a keffiyeh and remained in shadow-silhouetted against the deep-orange sky. She unhooked a flask from her belt, unscrewed its top, and dribbled water onto his lips. It trickled into his mouth, through his teeth, over his tongue, and was so good that he passed out from the sheer relief of it.
When awareness returned, he was inside a tent and sunlight was beating against its roof. Sister Raghavendra smiled down at him.
“Lie still, Sir Richard,” she said. “I have to apply more ointment to your skin.”
“Give him warm water mixed with a spoonful of honey, please, Sadhvi.”
The voice was the same melodious one he'd heard before. Impossibly familiar.
He tried to look but a stab of pain prevented him from turning his head.
Sister Raghavendra drizzled sweet liquid into his mouth.
“We were rescued,” she said.
Consciousness escaped him yet again, only to be summoned back by the tinkle of camel bells and the flapping of the tent's canvas as it was battered by the simoon-the strong hot desert wind.
He'd been propped up into a semi-reclining position, with his back and head supported by soft pillows. Sadhvi Raghavendra was sitting to his left, Algernon Swinburne to his right. The owner of the deep female voice was standing at his feet, with her face still concealed by her Arabian headdress.
She was a tall woman, slender but curvaceous, and she radiated confidence and power. Her large clear eyes, above the scarf, were of a scintillating blue.
She reached up, pulled the material aside, smiled prettily, and said, “Are you compos mentis? You've been ranting about reptiles and temples and diamonds.”
He tested his voice. “I think-” and found that it worked, albeit harshly. “I think my mind is in better order, though my body is burned to a crisp. Hello, Isabel.”
Isabel Arundell, who'd once been his fiancee, was wearing a long white cotton shirt, white pantaloons, and an abba-a short-sleeved cloak of dark green woven from the finest of wools. A sword, a dagger, and a flintlock pistol were held in place by a multicoloured sash circling her slender waist. She manoeuvred them out of the way as she lowered herself onto a cushion and sat with her legs tucked to one side.
Burton rasped, “I thought you were running around with Jane Digby in Damascus.”
Sadhvi handed him a canteen. He drank from it sparingly, knowing from experience that gulps would cause excruciating stomach cramps.
“We parted ways,” Isabel replied. “I found her morals to be wanting.”
“My hat, Richard!” Swinburne piped up. “We've experienced a miraculous intervention! Miss Arundell is leading a merry band of Amazonian warriors. They came galloping to our rescue on the most beautiful horses you've ever seen and gave the Disciples of Ramman a proper thrashing!”
Burton looked from his assistant back to Isabel, a question in his eyes.
She smiled again and said, “I seem to have acquired the habit of collecting about me women who've suffered at the hands of their husbands. When I opened a refuge in Damascus, there were objections from those same men. The continued existence of the place soon became untenable, so my companions and I left the city to live as Bedouins. We travelled south, through Syria, collecting more women on the way, until we arrived in Arabia, where we've survived by raiding the bandits who plunder the caravans.”
“Extraordinary!” Burton wheezed. “How many of you are there?”
“A little over two hundred.”
“We saw a plume of steam, went to investigate, and discovered your downed ship. It was abandoned and a lot of supplies had been left behind. Don't worry-we have them with us. Then we followed your trail and happened upon the brigands.”
“The women are armed to the teeth!” Swinburne enthused. “And they revere Miss Arundell as if she were the goddess herself! Guess what they call her!”
“Please, Algernon!” Isabel protested.
“What?” Burton asked.
THE SECOND PART
THE PERILOUS SAFARI
Hardly we find the path of love, to sink the Self, forget the “I,”
When sad suspicion grips the heart, when Man, the Man begins to die:
How Thought is imp' otent to divine the secret which the gods defend,
The Why of birth and life and death, that Isis-veil no hand may rend.
Eternal Morrows make our Day; our Is is aye to be till when
Night closes in; 'tis all a dream, and yet we die, — and then and THEN?
And still the Weaver plies his loom, whose warp and woof is wretched Man
Weaving th' unpattern'd dark design, so dark we doubt it owns a plan.
Cease, Man, to mourn, to weep, to wail; enjoy thy shining hour of sun;
We dance along Death's icy brink, but is the dance less full of fun?
The expedition begins
“It only requires a scientist to be told what variety of thing to look for, and where best to look, and it is inevitable that the thing will be found. So it was in the earliest days of Eugenics. The hints had been of the vaguest. They were passed from a madman to a drunkard, and from the drunkard to an engineer, and from the engineer to a naturalist, and from the naturalist to Mr. Francis Galton. Whether they seeded themselves in Mr. Galton's brain in anything resembling their original form seems doubtful-we all know how information is corrupted by travel-and yet, in that magnificent, terrifying mind of his, they blossomed, and he dazzled us all with his brilliance. Mr. Charles Darwin, in particular, was enthused to the point where, I regret to say, moral and ethical boundaries ceased to exist for him. To some extent, this happened to all of us in that little band of scientists. Unquestionably, I am now ashamed of certain of my actions whilst under the influence of that great wave of fervour and creativity that overtook us. And I feel somewhat responsible, too, for the dark turn Eugenics very quickly took after it was established as a unique scientific discipline, for it was I who, under Mr. Galton's direction, conjoined his and Mr. Darwin's brains, using techniques that I have since discovered are many, many decades ahead of their proper time. The thing that Darwin/Galton became, as a consequence of that operation, I now regard as a monstrosity, but while it existed I was in its thrall, and much against my better judgement, I was a principal in the horrible path that Eugenics trod. Oh that I could travel back and change everything! The death of Darwin/Galton liberated me and restored my proper senses, but with them I now suffer to witness the villainies of Eugenics; I see the terrifying speed at which its ghastly techniques develop; I see how it has moved so far beyond the original concept of guided evolution that it now perverts life dreadfully. Perhaps it is true that, as many claim, Mr. Darwin killed God. The existence of Eugenics rather suggests to me, I fear, that he did not, at the same time, succeed in destroying the devil.”
Edward Oxford thudded onto grass and bounced on his spring-heeled boots. Glancing around, he saw a rolling park surrounded by tall glass buildings whose sides flashed with advertising, and in the near distance, the ancient form of the Monarchy Museum, once known as Buckingham Palace, in which the relics of England's defunct royal families were displayed. A sonic boom echoed as a shuttle headed into orbit. People buzzed overhead in their personal fliers. His AugCom was functioning.
He checked that he was still holding the top hat he'd carried with him, then ran into the wooded corner of the park, not noticing that, in the long grass to his left, a white-haired man was lying unconscious with a sniper rifle, a jewel case, and a portmanteau bag at his side.
Oxford ducked into the trees and pushed through the undergrowth until he felt safe from prying eyes. He detached the Nimtz Generator from his chest and put it on the ground, pulled off his stilted boots and placed them beside it, then stripped off his fish-scale battery suit and draped it over a low branch. Reaching up to his helmet, he hesitated, then switched off the AugCom and removed the headgear. A foul stench assaulted his nostrils, a mix of raw sewage, rotting fish, and burning fossil fuels. He started to cough. The air was thick and gritty. It irritated his eyes and scraped his windpipe. He fell to his knees and clutched at his throat, gasping for oxygen. Then he remembered that he'd prepared for this and fumbled in his jacket pocket, pulling out a small instrument that he quickly applied to the side of his neck. He pressed the switch, it hissed, he felt a slight stinging sensation, and instantly he could breathe again. He put the instrument away and rested for a moment. The inability to catch his breath had been a perceptive disorder rather than a physical one. The helmet had protected him from the idea that the atmosphere was unbreathable; now a sedative was doing the job.
Unfamiliar sounds reached him from the nearby road: horses' hooves, the rumble of wheels, the shouts of hawkers.
He stood and straightened the reproduction mid-Victorian-era clothes that he'd worn beneath his time suit, placed the top hat on his head, and made his way to the edge of the thicket. As he emerged from the trees, a transformed world assailed his senses, and he was immediately shaken by a profound uneasiness.
There were no AugCom illusions now, and only the grass was familiar. Through dense, filthy air, he saw a massive expanse of empty sky. The tall glass towers of his own age were absent, and London clung to the ground. To his left, Buckingham Palace, now partially hidden by a high wall, looked brand new. Quaintly costumed people were walking in the park-no, he reminded himself, not costumed; they always dressed this way! — and their slow pace appeared entirely unnatural.
Despite the background murmur, London slumbered under a blanket of silence.
He started to walk down the slope toward the base of Constitution Hill, struggling to overcome his growing sense of dislocation.
Behind him, unseen, the unconscious man regained his wits, snatched up his things, staggered to his feet, and stumbled into the trees.
“Steady, Edward,” Oxford muttered to himself. “Hang on, hang on. Don't let it overwhelm you. This is neither a dream nor an illusion, so stay focused, get the job done, then get back to your suit!”
He reached the wide path. The queen's carriage would pass this way soon. My God! He was going to see Queen Victoria! He looked around. Every single person was wearing a hat or bonnet. Most of the men were bearded or had moustaches. The women held parasols.
Slow motion. It was all in slow motion.
He examined faces. Which belonged to his ancestor? He'd never seen a photograph of the original Edward Oxford-there were none-but he hoped to recognise some sort of family resemblance.
He stepped over the low wrought-iron fence lining the path, crossed to the other side, turned around to face the hill, and loitered near a tree. People started to gather along the route. He heard a remarkable range of accents and they all sounded ridiculously exaggerated. Some, which he identified as working class, were incomprehensible, while the upper classes spoke with a precision and clarity that sounded wholly artificial. Details kept catching his eye, holding his attention with hypnotic force: the prevalence of litter and dog shit on the grass; the stains and worn patches on people's clothing; rotten teeth and rickets-twisted legs; accentuated mannerisms and lace-edged handkerchiefs; pockmarks and consumptive coughs.
“Focus!” he whispered.
He noticed a man across the way, standing in a relaxed but rather arrogant manner and looking straight at him with a knowing smile on his round face. He had a lean figure and a very large moustache.
Can he see that I don't belong here?
A cheer went up. The queen's carriage had just emerged from the palace gates, its four horses guided by a postilion. Two outriders trotted along ahead of the vehicle; two more behind.
Where was his ancestor? Where was the gunman?
Ahead of him, an individual wearing a top hat, blue frock coat, and white breeches reached under his coat and moved closer to the path. Slowly, the royal carriage approached.
Is that him?
Moments later, the forward outriders came alongside. The blue-coated man stepped over the fence and, as the queen and her husband passed, he took three strides to keep up with their vehicle, then whipped out a flintlock pistol and fired it at them. He threw down the smoking weapon and drew a second.
Oxford yelled, “No, Edward!” and ran forward.
They detected Zanzibar first with their nostrils, for, prior to the island darkening the horizon, the sultry breeze became laden with the scent of cloves. Then the long strip of land hove into view at the edge of the sapphire sea, its coral-sand beaches turned to burnished gold by the fierce sun.
“By Jove,” William Trounce whispered. “What's the word for it? Sleepy?”
“Tranquil,” Krishnamurthy suggested.
“Languidly basking in sensuous repose,” Swinburne corrected.
“Whatever it is,” said Trounce, “it's splendid. I feel as if I'm inside one of Captain Burton's tales of the Arabian Nights.”
“More so than when you were actually in Arabia?” the poet enquired.
“Great heavens, yes! That was just sand, sand, and more sand. This is…romantic!”
“Seven weeks!” Krishnamurthy grunted. “Seven weeks on a blasted camel. My posterior will never recover.”
Ahead, the land swelled seductively, coloured a reddish brown beneath its veils of green, which wavered and rippled behind the heavy curtain of air.
“What do you think, Algy?” Trounce asked. The members of Burton's expedition were all on first-name terms now-one of the more positive effects of their gruelling trek through central Arabia. They were also all burned a deep brown, with the exception of Swinburne, whose skin was almost as crimson as his hair had been before the sun bleached it the colour of straw.
The poet looked up at the detective, then followed his gaze to the prow of the ship-the Indian Navy sloop of war Elphinstone-where he saw Sir Richard Francis Burton standing with Isabel Arundell.
“If you're asking me whether the romance of Zanzibar is infectious, Pouncer, then I take it you haven't read Richard's account of his first expedition.”
“There's little time for reading at Scotland Yard, lad. And, for the umpteenth time, don't call me Pouncer.”
Swinburne grinned cheekily. “Apparently, the island's infections are nothing to celebrate. By the same token, I'd suggest that Richard and Isabel's relationship is probably not exactly as it appears from here.”
He was correct. In fact, had he been able to eavesdrop upon their conversation, Swinburne would have reported to Trounce that Isabel was giving Burton “what for.”
“You're a pig-headed, self-absorbed, stubborn fool,” she said. “You have never failed to underestimate me or to overestimate yourself.”
Burton fished a cigar from his pocket. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked.
“You'll not drive me away with tobacco fumes.”
He put a flame to the Manila, inhaled the aromatic smoke, and gazed down at the water that gurgled and sparkled against the hull below. A few yards away, a shoal of flying fish shot out of the sea and glided some considerable distance before plunging back in.
Isabel pulled a small straw-coloured cylinder from a pouch at her waist and raised it to her lips. She struck a lucifer and lit its tip.
Burton smelled the tart fumes of Latakia and looked at her, raising his eyebrows.
“Good grief! Surely that's not a cigarette?”
“All the rage since the Crimea,” came her murmured reply. “Do you object to a woman smoking?”
“I-well-that is to say-”
“Oh, stop stammering like an idiot, Dick. Let's set it out plainly, shall we? You disapprove of my lifestyle.”
“Nonsense! I simply asked you why you have chosen to live as a Bedouin when you belong to the House of Wardour, one of the richest families in Britain.”
“The implication being?”
“That you could have Society at your feet; that the comforts and advantages of an aristocratic life are yours to enjoy. You aren't Jane Digby, Isabel. She fled England after her scandalous behaviour made it impossible for her to remain there. Not so, you. So why endure the hardships and dangers of the nomadic life?”
“How often have you railed against the constrictions and restraints of the Society you now endorse? How often have you purposely provoked outrage and challenged social proprieties at dinner tables with your shocking anecdotes? How often have you styled yourself the outsider, the man who doesn't fit in, the noble savage in civilised clothing? You glory in it, and yet you denounce Miss Digby! Really! They call you Ruffian Dick. I call you Poseur Dick!”
“Oh stop it, and tell me why you've settled upon this extraordinary lifestyle.”
“Because I'm a woman.”
“Indubitably. How is that an answer?”
“Just this: I accepted your proposal of marriage not just because I loved you, but because I saw in you the solution to my problem, and in me the solution to yours.”
“When we met, you had no security. You were adrift. I could have given you a sense of belonging.”
A breath of wind pushed at them, driving away the scent of cloves and replacing it with the odour of putrefying fish. Burton wrinkled his nose, puffed at his cigar, and looked at the looming island.
“And in you,” Isabel continued, “I might have found liberation from the suffocating corsets of the English gentlewoman. I mean that metaphorically, of course.” She gave him a sideways glance. “Well, perhaps not entirely metaphorically.”
Burton flashed a savage smile and turned his attention back to her.
“What I mean to say,” Isabel continued, “is that I require something the Empire is not willing to give to a woman.”
“You mean liberty?”
“And equality. I am not one to be laced-up and condemned to the parlour to while away my days crocheting antimacassars. Why should I allow my behaviour to be dictated by the protocols of a society in which I'm granted neither a voice nor representation?”
“I hardly think Bedouin women have a better time of it,” Burton murmured.
“That's true. But at least they don't pretend otherwise. Besides, I'm not a Bedouin woman, am I? And the Arabs don't know what to make of me. To them, I'm a curiosity, whose foreign ways can be neither understood nor judged. I've found a niche where the only rules that apply are the ones I make myself.”
“And you're happy?”
“In that case, Isabel-believe me-I don't disapprove. I detected both courage and resourcefulness in you very soon after our initial meeting, and I've always admired you for them. I salute your spirit of independence. And, incidentally, while it may be true that I was at one time uncertain of myself, I assure you that's not the case now. As the king's agent, I have a purpose. I no longer feel that I don't belong.”
She sought his eyes. “But still there's no room for a wife.”
He took another drag at his cigar, then looked at it with dissatisfaction and flicked it over the side of the ship. “When I called off our engagement, it was because I thought my new role would be dangerous for anyone too closely associated with me. Now I know for certain that I was right.”
“Very well,” she said. “And accepted. But if I can't support you as Isabel the wife, I shall most certainly do so as Al-Manat, the warrior.”
“I don't want you in harm's way, Isabel. It was good of you to escort us through the desert to Aden, but there was no need for the Daughters of Al-Manat to sail with us.”
“We will march with you to the Mountains of the Moon.”
Burton shook his head. “No, you won't.”
“Do you still imagine that, as my husband, you would have been in a position to command me? If so, I must disillusion you. Besides which, you are not my husband, and I take orders from no one. If I see fit to lead my women alongside your expedition, what can you do to stop me?”
“Then our conversation is done.”
With that, Isabel dropped her cigarette, crushed it beneath her heel, and paced away.
The Elphinstone manoeuvred through sharp coral reefs and steered toward a white Arabic town dominated by a plain square fort, which rose from among the clove shrubs, the coco-trees, and the tall luxuriant palms. Though the sun was high in the azure sky, the light it cast over the settlement was hazy and mellow, perhaps an effect of the high humidity, making the place appear beautiful in the extreme. However, twenty minutes later, when the steamer glided past the guard ship and into the mirror-smooth harbour waters where the rank stench of rotting molluscs and copra became overwhelming, the illusion broke. The idyllic landscape, seen up close, proved anything but. The shoreline was marked by a thick line of refuse, including three bloated human corpses upon which cur dogs were chewing, and the buildings were revealed to be in dire need of renovation.
Small fishing vessels now swarmed around the arriving sloop, and from them men shouted greetings and questions, and requested gifts, and demanded bakhshish, and offered fish and tobacco and alcohol at exorbitant prices. They were a mix of many races; those with the blackest skin wore wide-brimmed straw hats, while those of a browner cast wore the Arabic fez. Their clothing was otherwise the same: the colourful cotton robes common to so much of Africa.
Burton watched the familiar details unfold and thought, I no longer feel that I don't belong.
He'd been reflecting upon that statement ever since he'd made it. Now, while deck hands milled around making preparations to secure the vessel, it occurred to him that he hadn't adapted himself to British society at all-rather, British society was changing at such a pace, and with so little planning and forethought, that it had become extremely volatile, and, while this precarious state caused most of its people to feel unsettled, for some reason Burton couldn't comprehend, it was an environment he practically relished.
He stretched, turned, and walked over to Swinburne, Trounce, and Krishnamurthy.
Trounce grumbled, “It's not quite the paradise I expected, Richard.”
Burton examined the flat-roofed residences, the Imam's palace, and the smart-looking consulates. Beyond them, and ill-concealed by them, the decrepit hovels of the inner town slumped in a mouldy heap.
“Zanzibar city, to become picturesque or pleasing,” he said, “must be viewed, like Stanbul, from afar.”
“And even then,” Swinburne added, “with a peg firmly affixed to one's nose.”
The ship's anchors dropped, and, with gulls and gannets wheeling and shrieking overhead, she came to a stop in the bay, nestling among the dhows and half a dozen square-rigged merchantmen. The British collier ship Blackburn was also there, waiting forlornly for the Orpheus.
As tradition demanded, the Elphinstone loosed a twenty-one-gun salute, and the detonations momentarily silenced the seabirds before rolling away into the distance. Strangely, no response came, either in the form of raised bunting or returned cannon fire.
“That's a curious omission. I wonder what's happening,” Burton muttered. He turned to his friends and said, “The captain will order a boat lowered soon. Let's get ourselves ashore.”
They had spent seven weeks in the Arabian Desert, two weeks in Aden, and ten days at sea. The expedition was considerably behind schedule. It was now the 19th of March.
Time to disembark.
Time to set foot on African soil.
Burton, Swinburne, Trounce, Honesty, and Krishnamurthy were met at the dock by a half-caste Arab who placed his hand over his heart, bowed, and introduced himself, in the Kiswahili tongue, as Said bin Salim el Lamki, el Hinawi. He was of a short, thin, and delicate build, with scant mustachios and a weak beard. His skin was yellowish brown, his nose long, and his teeth dyed bright crimson by his habitual chewing of betel. His manner was extremely polite. He said, “Draw near, Englishmen. I am wazir to His Royal Highness Prince Sayyid Majid bin Said Al-Busaid, Imam of Muscat and Sultan of Zanzibar, may Allah bless him and speed his recovery.”
Burton answered, in the same language: “We met when I was here last, some six years ago. Thou wert of great help to me then.”
“I was honoured, Sir Richard, and am more so that thou doth remember me. I would assist thee again, and will begin by advising thee to accompany me to the palace before thou visit the consulate.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Aye, there may be, but I should leave it for Prince Sayyid to explain. He is looking forward to seeing thee.”
Eight men had accompanied Said. They were Askaris-a title created some years ago by the prince's grandfather, Sultan bin Hamid, to distinguish those Africans who took military service with him. Through means of immoderately wielded staffs, they now kept the hordes of onlookers, beggars, and merchants away from the group as it moved into the town.
“His Highness has been ill?” Burton enquired.
“With smallpox,” Said answered. “But by Allah's grace, the worst of it has passed.”
They entered a deep and winding alley, one of the hundreds of capricious and disorderly lanes that threaded through the town like a tangled skein. Some of the bigger streets were provided with gutters, but most were not, and the ground was liberally puddled with festering impurities, heaps of offal, and the rubble of collapsed walls. Naked children played in this filth, poultry and dogs roamed freely through it, and donkeys and cattle splashed it up the sides of the buildings to either side.
The fetor given off by the streets, mingled with the ubiquitous odour of rotting fish and copra, made the air almost unbreathable for the visitors. All of them walked with handkerchiefs pressed against their noses.
Their eyes, too, were assaulted.
Initially, it was the architecture that befuddled Burton's companions, for they had seen nothing like it before. Built from coral-rag cemented with lime, the masonry of the shuttered dwellings and public establishments to either side of the alleys showed not a single straight line, no two of their arches were the same, and the buildings were so irregular in their placement that the spaces between them were sometimes so wide as to not look like thoroughfares at all, and often so narrow that they could barely be navigated.
Slips of paper, upon which sentences from the Koran had been scribbled, were pinned over every doorway.
“What are they for?” Krishnamurthy asked.
“To ward off witchcraft,” Burton revealed.
As for the inhabitants of Zanzibar, they appeared a confusing and noisy melange of Africans and Arabs, Chinamen and Indians. The Britishers saw among them sailors and market traders and day labourers and hawkers and date-gleaners and fishermen and idlers. They saw rich men and poor men. They saw cripples and beggars and prostitutes and thieves.
And they saw slaves.
Swinburne was the first to witness the island's most notorious industry. As he and his friends were escorted through the crowded and chaotic Salt Bazaar-thick with musky, spicy scents, and where Said's men swung their staffs with even less restraint-the little poet let out a terrific yell of indignation. Burton, following his assistant's shocked stare, saw a chain gang of slaves being driven forward by the whip, approaching them through the crowd to the right.
Swinburne hollered, “This is atrocious, Richard! Why has our Navy not stopped it?”
“They can't be everywhere at once,” the king's agent replied. “For all our successes on the west coast of Africa, here in the east the miserable trade continues.”
The poet, gesticulating wildly in his frustration, made a move toward the slaves but was held back by his friend, who said, “Don't be a fool, Algy. More than forty thousand slaves pass through Zanzibar every year-you'll not change anything by causing trouble for us now.”
Swinburne watched miserably as the captive men and women were herded past like animals, and he was uncharacteristically silent for a considerable time afterward.
Said led them into the main street leading up to the palace.
As they neared the blocky, high-windowed edifice, Thomas Honesty remarked on the tall purple clouds that had suddenly boiled up in the southeastern sky.
“It's the Msika,” Burton told him. “The greater rain. This is the worst season to commence an expedition, but it lasts for two months and we can't delay.”
“We're English,” Honesty said, in his usual jerky manner. “Conditioned to rain.”
“Not such as Africa has to offer, old thing. You'll see.”
The palace, when they came to it, looked little better than a barracks. Roofed with mouldering red tiles, it was double-storied, square, and unencumbered by adornment.
They were ushered through the big entrance doors into a pleasant vestibule, then up a staircase and into a parlour. Said left them for a few moments before returning to announce that the prince was ready to receive them. The four men were then escorted into a long and narrow room, furnished with silk hangings, divans, tables, lamps, a plethora of cushions, and with colourful birds singing in its rafters.
Prince Sayyid Majid greeted them in the European manner, with a hearty handshake for each. He was a young man, thin, and possessed of a pleasant though terribly pockmarked countenance.
They sat with him on the floor, around a low table, and waited while two slaves served sweetmeats, biscuits, and glasses of sherbet.
“It pleases me to see thee again, Captain Burton,” the prince intoned, in high-spoken Arabic.
Burton bowed his head, and employing the same language replied, “Much time has passed, O Prince. Thou wert little more than a child when I last visited the island. It pained me to hear of thy father's death.”
“He taught me much and I think of him every day. May Allah grant that I never disgrace his name. I intend to continue his efforts to improve the island. Already I have cleared more land for shambas-plantations.”
“And of thy father's intention to end the slave trade, O Prince-hast thou made progress in this?”
Sayyid Majid took a sip of his sherbet, then frowned. “There is one who opposes me-a man named el Murgebi, though most know him as Tippu Tip. His caravans penetrate far into the interior and he brings back many slaves. This man has become rich and powerful, and I can do little against him, for his supporters outnumber my own. Nevertheless-” The prince sighed and touched his nose with his right forefinger-a gesture Burton knew meant It is my obligation.
They talked a little more of the island's politics, until, after a few minutes, the prince revealed: “A very large force of Europeans has made its base on the mainland, Captain, in the village of Mzizima, directly south of here. Thy friend, Lieutenant Speke, was among them.”
“He's no longer a friend of mine,” Burton declared.
“Ah. Friendship is like a glass ornament; once it is broken, it can rarely be put back together the same way. I believe the men are of the Almaniya race.”
“Germanic? Yes, I think that likely. Thou sayest Speke was with them? Is he no longer?”
“He and a number of men left Mzizima and are currently moving toward the central territories.”
“Then I must follow them at the earliest opportunity.”
The prince sighed. “The rains will make that difficult, and it pains me to tell thee, Captain, but also, thou hast been betrayed by Consul Rigby.”
Burton's hands curled into fists.
The prince continued, “The British government shipped supplies here some weeks ago and instructed him to hire Wanyamwezi porters to transport them to the Dut'humi Hills, where they were to await thy arrival. The supplies consisted of trading goods-bales of cotton, rolls of brass wire, beads, the usual things-plus food, instruments, weapons and ammunition, and two of the spider machines-they are called harvestmen?”
“The men were never hired, and the goods never transported. A month ago, when the Almaniyas arrived, the consul handed the supplies over to them.”
“Bismillah! The traitorous hound! Ever has Rigby sought to stand in my way, but I tell thee, Prince Sayyid, this time he hath defied those to whom he owes his position. This will ruin him.”
“Aye, Captain, mayhap. But that is for the future. For now, we must put our energy into overcoming the obstacles this man hath set in thy path. To that end, I offer my resources. Tell me what I can do.”
Over the next hour, Burton and the prince made plans, with the king's agent occasionally breaking off to translate for his companions.
By mid-afternoon, they all had tasks assigned to them. Honesty and Krishnamurthy headed back to the Elphinstone to join Herbert Spencer, Isabella Mayson, and Sadhvi Raghavendra in overseeing the transfer of the expedition's supplies and equipment to a corvette named Artemis. William Trounce, Isabel Arundell, and her followers were taken by Said bin Salim to the prince's country ranch, there to select horses from his extensive stud, which, in the morning, they'd ship over to the mainland aboard a cargo carrier, the Ann Lacey.
Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne, meanwhile, paid a visit to the British Consulate.
It was nine o'clock in the evening by the time they left the prince's palace. The rain had just ceased and the town was dripping. The filth, rather than being washed away, had merely been rearranged.
The king's agent and his assistant picked their way cautiously through foul alleyways until they arrived at their destination. Its gates, to their surprise, were open and unguarded. They passed through, crossed the small courtyard, and pushed open the entrance doors. The building was unlit and silent.
“This isn't right,” Burton whispered.
“Does Rigby live here?” Swinburne asked.
“Yes, in the upstairs apartments, but let's check his office first.”
The ground floor consisted of the entrance hall, a waiting room, a sparsely furnished parlour, a records office and a clerks' office, a library, and the main consulting room. All were empty and dark.
In the library, Burton, upon detecting a faint rustling, drew out his clockwork lantern, shook it open, wound it, and cast its light around.
The bookshelves were teeming with ants and termites.
“My hat!” Swinburne exclaimed. “What an infestation! What on earth has attracted them, Richard?”
“I don't know, but this is certainly excessive, even for Africa.”
They moved back into the entrance hall and started up the stairs. Halfway up there was a small landing, where the steps made a turn to the right. The body of a man lay at an awkward angle upon it. Burton held his lantern over the face. He could see from the man's physiognomy that his skin would have been black in life; in death, it was a horrible ashen grey and had shrunk against the bones beneath. The lips had pulled back, exposing all the teeth, and the eyes had withdrawn to the back of the sockets.
The king's agent reached down and pressed a finger against the face.
“It feels like wood,” he said. “Like all the blood and moisture have been sucked out of it.”
“And that's how.” Swinburne pointed to the dead man's left arm. Burton moved the light to better illuminate it. He saw that a leafy vine of a purplish hue was coiled around the wrist, and that the end of it, which was splayed flat and covered in three-inch-long thorns of wicked appearance, was pressed against the forearm and had pierced the skin many times over.
Talking a dagger from his belt, he carefully probed at the plant. Its leaves were dry and fell away at his touch. The vine itself was hard and desiccated. Raising the lantern, he followed its course and saw that it coiled away up the stairs and disappeared around a corner.
“Be careful, Algy,” he said, and started toward the upper floor.
Swinburne followed, noting that the steps were swarming with beetles and cockroaches.
When they reached the hallway at the top, they saw that the vine twisted through an open doorway into a faintly illuminated chamber just ahead. Only a small part of the room was visible-the bulk of it obviously lay to the left of the portal-but the end they could see was so seething with insects that every surface seemed alive. Vines were clinging to the walls and floor and ceiling, too. Loops of vegetation hung down like jungle creepers, and through and around it, glowing softly, hundreds of fireflies were flitting.
Muttering an imprecation, Burton moved forward with Swinburne at his heels. They traversed the corridor then passed through the doorway, and, with insects crunching underfoot, turned and tried to interpret what they saw. It was difficult. No item of furniture could be properly discerned, for everything was crawling with life and half-concealed behind a tangle of thorny but dead-looking foliage. Furthermore, Burton's lantern caused the great many shadows to deepen, while the myriad fireflies made them wriggle and writhe, so that the entire space squirmed disconcertingly around the two men.
There was a shuttered window in the far wall. In front of it, what looked to be the squat and bulky main trunk of a plant humped up from the floor. Burton, ducking under a dangling creeper, stepped closer to it. He saw that it had corners and realised that what he was looking at was actually a desk, though it was hardly recognisable as such, distorted as it was by all the knotted limbs of the growth that covered it.
His lantern picked out a gnarl of woody protrusions that caught and held his attention. A few moments passed before he realised why.
It was because they resembled a hand.
The hairs at the nape of his neck stood on end.
He slowly raised the lantern and leaned closer. The protuberances grew from the end of a thick, vine-tangled branch which, a little way along its length, bent elbow-like upward before joining a hideously warped trunk-positioned just behind the desk-over which centipedes, spiders, ants, beetles, and termites scuttled in profusion. The insects were flooding in a downward direction. Burton followed their course upward, to where the trunk suddenly narrowed before then widening into a large nodule which angled backward slightly. There was a hole in it, and from this the creatures were vomiting.
Burton knew what he was going to see next, and with every fibre of his being he didn't want to set eyes on it, but the compulsion to lift the lantern higher couldn't be resisted, and its light crept upward from the hole, over the deformed nose and cheekbones, and illuminated Christopher Rigby's living eyes, which burned with hatred in his transfigured and paralysed face.
Burton's shock rendered him voiceless; he could only crouch and stare, his whole body trembling, his senses blasted by the appalling thing before him.
Rigby had been sitting at his desk when the metamorphosis came upon him. It had turned his flesh into plant tissue. Roots and creepers and vines and lianas had grown from him. Repulsive thorny leaves had sprouted. And, to judge from the corpse on the stairs, the thing he'd become was carnivorous, for it had sucked the blood from that unfortunate individual.
Now, though, with the exception of those demonic eyes, Rigby appeared to be dead, for he was withered and dried out, the majority of his leaves had fallen, and his body was riddled with termite holes.
Burton straightened. The eyes followed him. He noted that Rigby's neck had been crushed, then saw the same claw marks he'd noted on the corpse of Peter Pimlico, but they were deeper, more savage.
“The devil take him, Algy,” he muttered. “This is Zeppelin's doing.”
Swinburne didn't reply.
Burton turned, and for a second he thought his assistant had left the room. Then a flash of red drew his attention to the ceiling. To his horror, he saw the poet up there, flat against it, entwined by creepers.
“Algy!” he yelled, but his friend was limp, unconscious, and the explorer spotted a thorny extension pressed against the side of the small man's neck.
Spinning back to face Rigby, he yelled, “Let him go, damn you!”
A thick fountain of insects suddenly erupted from the consul's mouth, spraying into the air and landing on the desk, on the floor, and on Burton. The head creaked slowly into an upright position.
“You!” Rigby whispered. His voice sounded like dry leaves being disturbed by a breeze. “I have waited for so long.”
“Release him!” Burton demanded. “Maybe I can help you, Rigby!”
“I don't want your help, Burton. I only want your blood!”
A liana dropped from above and encircled the explorer's neck. Burton, realising that he still held his dagger, brought it up, sliced through the creeper, and pulled it away from his skin.
“Zeppelin did this to you, didn't he?”
“A Prussian, Rigby! He's working against the Empire and I've been sent to stop him. You're British, man! Do your duty! Help me!”
“Were it anyone else, Burton, I would. But you, never! I'll die a traitor rather than aid you!”
Leafy tendrils wound around Burton's calves. He felt thorns cutting through his trouser legs, piercing his skin. He ducked as a spiny appendage whipped past his face.
There was no time for persuasion. No time for discussion. Swinburne was being bled to death and, at any moment, Burton himself would likely be overwhelmed.
He jabbed his dagger into his lantern, ripped the side of it open, then prodded the point of the weapon into the oil sack. Liquid spurted out and instantly ignited.
“Don't!” the consul rasped.
“I've suffered your jealousy and enmity for too many years, Rigby. It ends here.”
Burton slammed the burning lantern onto the desk. Immediately, the burning oil splashed outward and the tinder-dry plant burst into flames, sending the king's agent reeling backward. The vines around his legs tripped him but then slithered away, thrashing back and forth.
Swinburne dropped and thudded onto the floor. Burton crawled on hands and knees over to him, feeling the spreading inferno scorching the hairs on the back of his head. With Rigby's screams ringing in his ears, he tore vines away from the poet, grasped him by the collar, and dragged him through the scuttling insects and out of the room.
The fire was expanding with frightening speed. It tore along the walls and over the ceiling, raged past the two men, and filled the corridor with roiling black smoke.
Holding his breath and staying low, Burton reached the top of the stairs and practically fell down them. He rolled onto the cadaver on the landing, then Swinburne rolled onto him, then all three tumbled down the remaining steps. The corpse's limbs broke like snapping twigs as it fell.
A blazing roof beam crashed onto the landing they'd just vacated, showering sparks and fragments of flaming wood onto them.
Burton stood, hoisted Swinburne onto his shoulder, and staggered across the reception hall, out into the courtyard, and through the consulate's gate.
He turned and looked back. There would be no saving the building, that much was plain, and Christopher Rigby, who'd hated him implacably for two decades, was being cremated inside it.
Burton felt no satisfaction at that.
He carried Swinburne back toward the Imam's palace.
Early the following day, on the East African coast below Zanzibar, two ships dropped anchor off a long, low, bush-covered sand spit some twenty miles south of the ivory-and copra-trading town of Bagamoyo.
The Artemis and Ann Lacey lowered their boats and began the long task of transporting men, mules, horses, and supplies to the mainland. In this, they were assisted by a hundred and twenty Wasawahili porters, who waited on the shore having been transported in a dhow from Bagamoyo by Said bin Salim and his eight staff-wielding Askaris.
This part of the coast was known as the Mrima, or “hill land.” Cut by deep bays, lagoons, and backwaters, its banks were thickly lined by forests of white and red mangroves, the tangled roots of which made passage through to the more open land beyond extremely difficult. There was, however, a humped shelf of black rock that cut through the trees and formed a path from the spit. Burton ordered that this be strewn with sand-and straw from the Ann Lacey's hold-so the horses might traverse it without slipping. One by one, eighty of the fine Arabian mounts were lowered by harness from the cargo vessel to the boat, then landed two at a time on the spit and led across the rock and through the mangroves to an encampment, an extensive patch of white sand bordered by a wall of verdure on three sides and by a low hill, held together by tough and bright-flowered creepers, to landward. Beyond this, more grass-covered hills swelled between mosquito-infested creeks, lagoons, and black fetid ooze.
The eighty horses were the first of four livestock shipments, and once they were ashore, the Ann Lacey steamed away to pick up the next consignment from Zanzibar.
Meanwhile, Artemis offloaded seventy bundles of trading specie, crates of food and books and equipment, Rowtie tents, weapons, ammunition, and all the other paraphernalia necessary for the safari.
Amid the perpetual whine and buzz of insects, Burton directed the construction of the camp. As soon as the first Rowtie was erected, Algernon Swinburne was carried by litter into it and made comfortable on a bunk.
“He's still unconscious,” Sister Raghavendra told the king's agent. “He lost a lot of blood and also took a nasty knock to the head, but he'll get over it. I have no doubt he'll be bouncing around again in due course. His durability is astonishing. I remember remarking upon it that time he was assaulted by Laurence Oliphant. Nevertheless, I should allow him a week of undisturbed bed rest.”
Burton shook his head. “I'm sorry, Sadhvi, but that won't be possible. We can't tarry here. We have to strike camp and start moving at the first glimmer of dawn tomorrow. But I'll assign porters to his stretcher. We'll carry Algy for as long as he needs.”
“Very well. I'll stay close to him.”
Said bin Salim had been appointed ras kafilah-or guide-to the expedition. Thankfully, despite sharing the same name, he was not the man who'd acted in that capacity during Burton's first exploration back in '57. That particular Said had caused nothing but trouble, whereas the current ras kafilah immediately demonstrated his worth by assigning tasks to the Wasawahili and ensuring they earned their pay. In this, his eight “bully boys,” as Trounce called them, were instrumental. With surprising rapidity, the camp was organised.
By the time the sun had set, two hundred and fifty horses and twenty mules were corralled at the southern end of the clearing; a semicircle of Rowtie tents had been erected at the northern end; the east side was crowded with beit sha'ar-Arabian goat-hair tents-occupied by the two hundred Daughters of Al-Manat; and the west side belonged to the porters, who sat or lay wrapped in blankets. Guards were posted, fires were lit, and chickens and vegetables and porridge were cooked and consumed.
The silence of the tropical night settled over the expedition, shattered now and then by the bellow of a bull-crocodile or the outre cry of a nocturnal heron. The atmosphere was stifling, the mosquitoes indefatigable.
Burton, his friends-with the exception of Swinburne-and Said had gathered in the main tent. The Englishmen wore light trousers and collarless shirts, unbuttoned at the neck and with sleeves rolled up. Isabella Mayson and Sister Raghavendra had donned summer dresses of a modest cut. Said and Isabel Arundell were in their Arabian robes. Herbert Spencer still wore his polymethylene suit but had wrapped around it the full robes of a Bedouin, his head completely concealed within a keffiyeh. He'd taken to walking with a staff, not only to compensate for his damaged leg, but also because it added to the impression that he was a leper-a disguise that caused the Wasawahili porters to give him a wide berth. Had they been aware of what really lay beneath those robes, superstitious dread would have caused them to desert in droves.
The group was sitting around a table upon which Burton had spread a large map. They examined it by the light of an oil lamp against which a repulsive moth was bumping.
“This was drawn up in 1844 by a French naval officer named Maizan,” Burton told them. “As you can see, I have added extensive corrections and annotations. We are here-” he pointed to a spot on the map, then to another, farther inland, “-and this is the village of Kuingani. And beyond that, here we have the village of Bomani, and here, Mkwaju. If you march at two and a half miles per hour and don't stop at the first two villages, you'll reach the third in about four and a half to five hours.”
Thomas Honesty shrugged. “Sounds too slow.”
“Don't underestimate the terrain,” Burton replied. “You'll find it hard going, and the pace I suggest won't be easy. And in addition to the difficulties of swamp and jungle, the hills that extend back from here, and which rise up along the length of the coast, belong to the Wamrima tribes. They are generally hostile and uncooperative.”
“Who wouldn't be, with slavers preying on them?” Isabella Mayson murmured.
“Quite so. My point is this: strike camp at the crack of dawn, press on as hard as you can, stay alert, and keep your weapons to hand. Don't take any nonsense from the villagers. They will undoubtedly try to charge you an extortionate tax for passing through their territory. They refer to it as hongo- meaning ‘tribute’-and they'll do everything possible to hamper your progress if they aren't satisfied with what they get. Pay only as Said advises-which will, anyway, be over the odds.”
He said something to the guide in Arabic. Said looked at Krishnamurthy and addressed him in fluent Hindustani: “I speak thy tongue, sir.”
“Ah, good, that's excellent!” Krishnamurthy responded.
Burton continued: “When you reach Mkwaju, rest and eat, but be ready to move on at a moment's notice. If everything goes to plan, by the time we catch up with you, it'll be the hottest part of the day. Despite that, we'll have to start moving again. I want to reach Nzasa, here-” He tapped another mark on the map. “That's another three-and-a-half-hour march. By the time we get there, I'm pretty sure we'll be too done in to go any farther, and the day's rains will be on their way, so this is where we'll camp for the night.”
They talked for a little while longer, then Burton stood, stretched, and fished a cigar from his pocket. He addressed Isabel Arundell and William Trounce: “It's a new moon tonight, so we'll be operating by starlight alone. Isabel, when your women are done with their evening prayers, please begin your preparations. William, come have a smoke with me. The rest of you: bed-that's an order!”
“I'll work on me book, Boss,” Herbert Spencer said. “Sleep is another pleasure I'm denied nowadays, but it ain't all bad-my First Principles of Philosophy is comin' on a treat!”
They bade each other goodnight.
Burton and Trounce stepped outside, lit up, and strolled slowly around the camp, sending plumes of blue tobacco smoke into the heavy air. It did nothing to drive away the mosquitoes. Trounce slapped at one that was attacking his forearm. “Bloody things!”
“They gather especially around swampy ground,” Burton told him. “The places where miasmic gases cause malaria. The areas where the mosquitoes are thickest are the same areas where you're most likely to succumb.”
“How long before I do?”
“The seasoning fever usually sets in fairly quickly. A fortnight at most, old chap, then you'll be sweating it out and gibbering like a loon for a month. I'm afraid it's inevitable.”
Trounce grunted. “I hope Sadhvi is as good a nurse as you say she is!”
They watched Isabel's women saddling their horses, then discarded their cigar stubs, walked back to the main tent, and retrieved their shoulder bags and rifles.
“All right,” said Burton. “Let's get on with it.”
Ten minutes later, the two men were riding at Isabel's side and leading two hundred mounted Amazons up the hill. When they reached its brow, Trounce pulled his horse around-like Honesty and Krishnamurthy, he'd learned to ride during their trek through Arabia-and looked down at the camp. It seemed a tiny island, hemmed in on three sides by riotous vegetation, with the Indian Ocean glittering in the starlight beyond, and, behind him, the endless expanse of unexplored Africa.
“I feel that we're up against impossible odds,” he said to Burton.
The king's agent replied, “We probably are.”
Mzizima village was five miles south of the camp. Originally, it had been composed of thatch-roofed beehive huts and a bandani-a wall-less palaver house, just a thatched roof standing upon six vertical beams-which were all positioned in an orderless cluster around an open central space. Surrounding the village, amid cocoa, mango, and pawpaw trees, there had been fields of rice, holcus, sugarcane, and peas, separated by clumps of basil and sage. This cultivated land stretched to the edge of a mangrove forest in the south, to the hills in the west, and to a small natural bay on the coast.
In the distant past, the Wamrima inhabitants had been farmers of the land and fishers of the sea, but the slave trade had made lying, thieving, shirking, and evasiveness the tools of survival, reducing a once-prosperous village to a clump of hovels occupied by men and women who, in the knowledge that life could be literally or metaphorically taken from them at any moment, did not bother to apply themselves to the business of living.
And now the Prussians had come.
It was four o'clock in the morning. Sir Richard Francis Burton was lying on his stomach at the top of a bushy ridge to the north and was using the field glasses he'd retrieved from the Orpheus to spy upon the settlement. Only a few of its original structures remained-the palaver house being one of them-and in their place wood-built barracks of a distinctly European design had been erected. There were six of these, plus six more half-built, and beyond them a sea of tents that spread out into the once-cultivated fields. The canvas dwellings were especially numerous farther to the south, where man groves had obviously been chopped and burned away. More half-erected wooden buildings were visible there, too.
“It looks like they're planning a permanent camp here,” Trounce whispered. “Building a village a little to the south of the original one.”
Burton grunted an agreement.
By the bright light of the stars, he could see that his stolen supplies were stacked up in the bandani. One of his harvestman vehicles squatted beside the structure. The other one was closer to his and Trounce's position, standing motionless at the outer edge of the tented area just in front of the ridge, obviously left there by its driver. A guard was standing beside it, with a rifle over his shoulder and a pipe in his mouth.
Mzizima was silent, with only a few men on patrol. Of the Wamrima, there was no sign, and Burton felt certain that the villagers had either been pressed into service as lackeys or killed.
“What the bloody hell is that?” Trounce hissed, pointing to the other side of the encampment.
Burton focused his glasses on the thing that flopped along there. Even before he caught a clear view of it, its shadowy shape caused him to shudder. Then it floundered into an area of silvery luminescence and he saw that it was a huge plant, propelling itself along on thick white roots. To Burton's astonishment, there was a man sitting in the thing, cocooned in a fleshy bloom and surrounded by flailing tendrils. He appeared to be steering the plant by thought alone, for there were coiling threadlike appendages embedded into the skin of his scalp, and when he moved his head, the grotesque vehicle turned in the direction he was looking.
“There are others,” Trounce said. “They're patrolling the outer perimeter.”
A few minutes later, it became apparent why.
One of the plants suddenly lunged forward and grabbed at something. A man, screaming wildly, was yanked out of the undergrowth and hoisted into the air. It was a Wamrima native, obviously trying to escape, and now he paid the price. Held aloft by creepers entangled around his wrists, he was mercilessly whipped by the plant's spine-encrusted limbs until his naked back was streaming blood, then he was cast back into the camp-sent spinning through the air to land in a heap between tents, where he lay insensible.
“This complicates matters,” Burton said.
“Should we call it off?”
“No. We'll need those supplies if we're to catch up with Speke. He's got a tremendous lead on us, but if we have all our resources, we can cut straight through all the circumstances that will slow him down.”
“Mainly the obstructions the natives will throw in his path. I'm counting on his incompetence as an expedition leader, inability to communicate in any language other than English, and the fact that, believing us blown up on the Orpheus, he has no idea we're on his tail.”
Fifteen minutes later, Pox swooped out of the sky and landed on Burton's shoulder.
“Message from Isabel Arundell!” the parakeet announced.
“Shhh!” Burton hissed, but it was an instruction the bird didn't understand.
“In position, you lumpish clotpole. Awaiting the word. Message ends.”
“The guard by the harvestman is looking this way,” Trounce said softly.
“Message to Isabel Arundell,” Burton whispered. “Consider the word received. Beware. There are Eugenicist plants. Message ends.”
Pox gave a squawk and flew away.
“It's all right,” Trounce said. “He just saw Pox. Probably thinks it's nothing but a noisy jungle bird. He's giving his attention back to his pipe.”
“I think it's time to take care of him, anyway,” Burton said.
He pulled his spine-shooter from its holster.
Steadying the cactus gun on his left forearm, he took careful aim and gently squeezed the nodule that functioned as a trigger. With a soft phut!, the pistol fired.
Seven spines thudded into the guard's chest. He looked down at them, muttered, “Was sind diese?” then crumpled to the ground.
“Quietly now,” Burton hissed. “To the outer tents. Stay low.”
The two men slipped over the brow of the ridge and slithered silently down to the perimeter of the camp. They crouched in the dark shadow of a tent and waited.
When it happened, it did so with such suddenness that even Burton and Trounce, who were expecting it, were taken by surprise. One minute there was nothing but the sound of snoring men under canvas, the next the night was rent by rifle fire, the pounding of horses' hooves, and the ululation of women.
The Daughters of Al-Manat came thundering over the crest of the hill on the northwestern border of the camp, and even before a warning shout could be raised by the guards, they had stampeded over tents, set burning brands to three of the barracks, and wheeled their horses and raced back up the hill and out of sight.
The Prussian guards barely got a shot off, so panicked were they at this unexpected onslaught.
“Wir wurden angegriffen! Wir wurden angegriffen!” they bellowed. “Verteidigt das Lager!”
Men blundered out of the burning buildings, came running out of the others, and emerged from the tents, rubbing their eyes and peering around in confusion. Gunfire banged and flashed from the summit of the hill. Many of the soldiers fell to the ground with bullets in them.
Snatching up their rifles, the Prussians raced to meet the attacking forces. Burton grabbed Trounce by the arm and pointed to the Eugenicist plant vehicles. They, too, were lumbering to the northwesternmost part of the settlement.
The gunfire from one particular area of the hills intensified. The Prussians returned it, shooting blind. While their attention was thus engaged, twenty riders burst out of the verdure a little farther to the south, dashed across an overgrown field, and put torches to two of the plant creatures. Burton could barely repress a cheer when the starlight revealed that Isabel Arundell was the leader of this cavalry charge. She held a pistol in one hand and a spear in the other, and, expertly controlling her mount with her knees, she sent her charge leaping across tents to another of the Eugenicist creations. Plunging her spear into the densest part of it, she reared her horse away from its lashing tendrils, brought her pistol to bear, and shot the plant's driver through the head. She barked a command, galloped away with her band following, and disappeared into the darkness.
The part of Mzizima closest to Burton and Trounce was almost entirely abandoned now.
“Let's move,” Burton urged. “We have to get this done before the southern part of the camp joins the fray.” He and Trounce crept forward until they reached the nearest of the two harvestmen. The explorer reached up to where he expected to find a small hatch in the machine's belly. In London, harvestmen were primarily employed to transport goods, which they carried in netting suspended from their bellies. It had been his intention to reclaim the two vehicles, load them up with the supplies, and walk them away while the Prussians were distracted. He now encountered a serious setback.
“Damn!” he said. “They've removed the confounded net! It's been replaced by a bracket. Looks like they intend to fix something else to the underside of the body.”
“How will we transport our stuff?” Trounce asked.
“I don't know. Let's get to it first. Speed is of the essence!”
They ran forward, unnoticed amid the confusion.
One of the barracks, consumed by flames, collapsed, sending out a shower of sparks. Men yelled. Rifles cracked.
Pox fluttered onto Burton's shoulder.
“Message from Isabel churlish bladder-prodder Arundell. Hurry up, you foot-licker! Message ends.”
The second harvester, standing beside the bandani, was intact. Burton pulled down its net and spread it out.
“Start loading it. As many crates as you can. Ignore the specie-it's the equipment we need.”
“Was machen Sie hier?” a voice demanded.
Burton whirled, raised his spine-shooter, and shot the inquisitor down.
“Message to Isabel Arundell,” he said. “We're loading the equipment now. There's only one harvestman. Maximum distraction, if you please. Message ends.”
Moments later, the Daughters of Al-Manat came pelting back down the hill with guns blazing. As they engaged at close quarters with the Prussians, Burton and Trounce lifted crate after crate from the bandani into the netting. At one point, the king's agent sensed movement at the periphery of his vision, looked up, and noted ten or twelve Africans running up the slope of the ridge and disappearing into the undergrowth.
“Good for you!” he grunted.
Two more soldiers noticed the Englishmen and both went down with venomous cactus spines in them.
“That's as much as she can take,” Burton panted. They'd loaded about a third of the stolen supplies. “Get into her, stay low, and drive back the way we came. If I haven't caught up with you by the time you reach the sand spit, wait for me there.”
William Trounce uttered an acknowledgement, climbed the rungs on one of the harvestman's legs, and settled into the driver's seat. He started the engine. Its roar was drowned out by the gunfire, but as the harvestman stalked away, with its loaded net swinging underneath and Burton running in its wake, its trail of steam was noticed and three of the Prussian plant vehicles started to converge on it.
“Keep going!” Burton yelled. “Get out of here!”
As they came abreast with the other harvestman, the king's agent quickly clambered up its leg, slipped into position, grabbed the control levers, and prayed to Allah that the machine was operational.
The engine clattered into life behind his seat, and he sent the conveyance striding into the path of the nearest plant. He raised his cactus gun and fired spines at the Prussian who was nestled in its bloom. They had no effect.
“Immune to the venom?” he muttered. “Maybe you're half-plant yourself!”
Burton sent his steam-powered spider crashing into the mutated flora. Tendrils wrapped themselves around his machine's legs and started heaving at it, attempting to turn it over. He repeatedly shot spines at its driver until the Prussian's face resembled a porcupine. The man remained conscious, snarled at the Britisher, and sent a vine whipping at the explorer's hand. It caught the cactus gun with such viciousness that the barrel was sliced completely in half. Burton cursed and dropped it.
The harvestman was jolted from side to side. Its carapace was battered and scored by swishing barbed limbs, and Burton felt it slewing sideways beneath him. Desperately hauling at its levers, he caused its front two legs to rise up and brought them sweeping down onto the soldier's chest. The man died instantly, his heart pierced through, and the plant bucked and threshed wildly, causing the harvestman to topple over. In the instant before it hit the ground, Burton dived out of it, rolled, and started running. He reached the bottom of the slope but it was too late; the two other plants were looming over him. Putting his head down, he pumped his legs as fast as he could and started up the hill. Creepers coiled at the periphery of his vision, reaching out to grab him. Suddenly, one hooked under his left arm and wrenched him into the air. Expecting to be flayed or ripped apart, Burton instead found himself flying over the ground and bumping against the side of a horse. He realised that it wasn't a creeper but a hand holding him. Unable to manoeuvre himself into a position where he could see his rescuer, he clutched at the rider's ankle in an attempt to steady himself-a female ankle!
The horse dashed up to the top of the ridge and skidded to a halt beside Trounce's harvestman. Burton was dropped unceremoniously onto the ground.
“William! Stop!” The commanding voice belonged to Isabel Arundell.
Trounce brought his machine to a halt.
“Get onto the net, Dick!” Isabel barked.
Burton looked up at her just as a bullet tore through a fold in her Bedouin robes, missing her flesh by less than an inch. She turned in her saddle, levelled her revolver, and fired six shots back into the camp.
“Move, damn it!” she yelled.
Burton snapped back into action. Three paces took him beneath the harvestman. He jumped up, gripped the net, and clambered onto it.
“Go, William!” Isabel shouted. “As fast as possible! Don't stop and don't look back! We'll keep the Prussians occupied for as long as we can.”
“Isabel-” Burton began, but she cut him off: “We'll catch up with your expedition later. Get going!”
She reared her horse around, and, as she sent it plunging down the slope, she pulled a spear from over her shoulder and jabbed its point into one of the plant vehicles.
Trounce pulled back on a lever, his harvestman coughed and sent out a plume of steam, then went striding into the night with Burton swinging underneath.
“Bloody hell!” the explorer muttered to himself. “That woman has the strength of an ox and the courage of a lion!”
William Trounce didn't stop the harvestman until he'd travelled half the distance back to the expedition's campsite. There'd been no pursuit. Distant gunshots peppered the night.
He manoeuvred one of the spider's long legs inward until it was within Burton's reach. The king's agent climbed up it to the one-man cabin and sat on the edge of it with his legs inside and feet hooked under the seat.
“All right,” he said, and Trounce got the vehicle moving again.
It was slow going. The harvestman was far heavier than a horse, and the pointed ends of its legs frequently sank deep into the sodden earth. By the time they reached the sand spit, the sun had risen, the vegetation was dripping with dew, and the land was steaming.
The sandy clearing where they'd camped was empty.
“Good,” Burton said. “They're on their way. Maybe we can catch up with them before they reach Nzasa.”
Pox glided down and landed on Trounce's head.
“Hey there! Get off!” the Scotland Yard man protested. The bird ignored him.
“Message from Isabel Arundell. We're going to withdraw and recoup. Eleven of my women killed, three injured. We shall wage an idle-headed guerrilla campaign over the next few days to prevent them following you. We'll catch up presently. Travel safely, wobble-paunch! Message ends.”
“An idle-headed guerrilla campaign?” Trounce asked, in a puzzled tone.
“I think there's a parakeet insertion there,” Burton said.
“Oh. Can you get the bloody parrot off my head, please?”
“Message for Isabel Arundell,” Burton said. “My gratitude, but don't take risks. Disengage as soon as you can. Message ends.”
The parakeet squawked its acknowledgement and launched itself into the air.
With Burton navigating, Trounce steered the harvestman up the hill on the western side of the clearing. They travelled over sandy soil, thick with thorn bushes, and, after a succession of rolling hills, descended into rich parkland dotted with mangoes and other tall trees. The sun was climbing behind them. The morning steam evaporated and the air began to heat up.
A little later, Pox rejoined them.
They came to a swamp and waded the harvestman through it, scattering hippopotami from their path.
“This would have sent Speke into a frenzy,” Burton noted.
“What do you mean?”
“He's a huntsman through and through. He'll shoot at anything that moves and delights in killing. When we were out here in '57, he slaughtered more hippos than I could count.”
The giant mechanised arachnid pitched and swayed as it struggled through the stinking sludge, then it finally emerged onto more solid ground and began to move with greater speed.
A few beehive huts came into view, and the inhabitants, upon seeing the gigantic spider approaching, bolted.
Burton and Trounce crossed cultivated land, passed the village of Kuingani, which emptied rapidly, and proceeded onto broad grasslands flecked with small forests and freestanding baobab trees possessed of bulbous trunks and wind-flattened branches. It was here that Trounce saw his first truly wide African vista and he was astonished at the apparent purity of the land. Giraffes were moving in the distance to his right; two herds of antelope were grazing far off to his left; eagles hung almost motionless high in the sky; and on the horizon, a long, low chain of mountains stretched from north to south. This Eden should, perhaps, have been caressed by the freshest of breezes, but the atmosphere was heavy and stagnant and filled with aggressive insects. The backs of Trounce's hands, his forearms, and his neck were covered with bumps from their bites.
After a further two hours of travel, Burton pointed and exclaimed: “Look! I see them!”
There was a village ahead, and around it many people were gathered. Burton could tell by the loads he saw on the ground that it was his expedition.
“That little collection of huts is Bomani,” he told Trounce.
As the harvestman drew closer, the natives reacted as those before them had done and fled en masse.
“Well met!” Maneesh Krishnamurthy cried out as the harvestman came to a halt and squatted down with a blast of steam and a loud hiss. “They wanted all our tobacco in return for safe passage through their territory. You soon saw them off!”
“You've made good time,” Burton noted, jumping to the ground.
“Said had us packed and moving well before sunup,” Krishnamurthy revealed. “The man's a demon of efficiency.”
Burton turned to the Arab: “Hail to thee, Said bin Salim el Lamki, el Hinawi, and the blessings of Allah the Almighty upon thee. Thou hast fulfilled thy duties well.”
“Peace be upon thee, Captain Burton. By Allah's grace, our first steps have been favoured with good fortune. May it continue! Thou hast caught up with us earlier than anticipated.”
“Our mission did not take the time I expected. The Daughters of Al-Manat were ferocious and the Prussians barely looked in our direction. We were able to recover our supplies quickly. Are we fit to continue?”
“Very well. Have the porters take up their loads.”
The ras kafilah bowed and moved away to prepare the safari for the next stage of the journey.
Burton spoke to Miss Mayson. “Swap places with William, Isabella. We'll take shifts in the harvester. It's more agreeable than a mule.”
The young woman smiled and shook her head. “To be honest, I'd rather stay with my flea-bitten animal. I'm better with beasts than with machines.”
“You're not uncomfortable?”
“Not at all. I feel positively liberated!”
It was Thomas Honesty who took over from Trounce in the end, for Sister Raghavendra also refused to give up her mount, preferring to ride alongside Swinburne's litter. The poet was awake but weak.
“My hat, Richard!” he said, faintly. “Was that really Christopher Rigby? What in blue blazes happened to him?”
“Count Zeppelin. I think he carries some sort of venom in his claws. Either he didn't pump much of it into Peter Pimlico or his talons were less well grown when he strangled him. Rigby, by contrast, received the full treatment.”
“And it turned him into a prickly bush?”
“Yes. It was a close call, Algy. What devils the Eugenicists have become!”
“Not just them,” Swinburne said, glancing at the harvestman. “If you ask me, all the sciences are out of control. I think my Libertine friends were right all along. We need to give more attention to the development of the human spirit before we tamper with the natural world.”
Herbert Spencer limped over to them. “Mr. Said says we're all set for the off.”
“Tell him to get us moving then, please, Herbert.”
“Rightio. Pardon me, Boss, but would you mind windin' me up first? Me spring is a little slack.”
“Certainly. Fetch me your key.”
The clockwork man shuffled off.
“How are you feeling, Algy?” Burton asked his friend.
“Tip-top, Richard,” Swinburne replied. “Do you think I might have a swig of gin, you know, to ward off malaria?”
“Ha! You're obviously on the mend! And no.”
When Spencer returned, he stood with his back to Burton, and the king's agent, after first checking that the porters couldn't see what he was doing, felt around for the holes that had been cut in the back of the philosopher's many robes, and in the polymethylene suit beneath them. He pushed a large metal key through and into the opening in the brass man's back, then turned it until the clockwork philosopher was fully wound.
Spencer thanked him and went to help get the safari back under way.
It took half an hour for the crowd of men and animals to open out into a long line, like a gigantic serpent, which then slowly made its way westward.
What a sight that column was! At its head, Burton and Trounce rode along on mules, the explorer noting everything in his journal, assessing the geography and geology as Palmerston had ordered, while the Scotland Yard man scanned the route before them with the field glasses. A few yards to the left, Honesty drove the harvestman, while behind, Isabella Mayson and Sister Raghavendra, with dainty parasols held over their heads, rode their mounts sidesaddle. Swinburne, in his stretcher, was carried by four of the Wasawahili, and behind him, the rest of the porters and pack mules followed, all heavily laden. Most of the men carried a single load balanced on their shoulder or head, while others shared heavier baggage tied to a pole and carried palanquin fashion. Each man also bore his private belongings upon his back-an earthen cooking pot, a water gourd, a sleeping mat, a three-legged stool, and other necessities.
The Wasawahili wore little, just rough cloth wound about their loins, and, when the rains came or the sun had set, a goatskin slung over their backs. Some had a strip of zebra's mane bound around their head; others preferred a stiffened oxtail, which rose above their forehead like a unicorn's horn; while many decorated their craniums with bunches of ostrich, crane, and jay feathers. Bulky ivory bracelets and bangles of brass and copper encircled their arms and ankles, and there were beads and circlets around their necks. At least half of them had small bells strapped just below their knees, and the incessant tinkling blended with the heavier clang of the bells attached to the mules' collars. This, along with ceaseless chanting and singing and hooting and shouting and squabbling and drumming, made the procession a very noisy affair, though not unpleasantly so.
At the rear of the long line, Krishnamurthy and Spencer rode their mules and kept their eyes peeled for deserters, but it was Said bin Salim and his eight Askari bully boys who were, by far, the most industrious members of the party. With illimitable energy, they ranged up and down the column, keeping it under tight control and driving the men on with loud shouts of, “Hopa! Hopa! Go on! Go on!”
The expedition soon came upon one of Africa's many challenges: a forest, thick and dark and crawling with biting ants. They struggled through it, with low branches snagging at the loads the porters carried on their heads. Honesty had great difficulty in forcing the harvester through the unruly foliage.
They eventually broke free and descended a long gentle slope into a ragged and marshy valley. Here, the mules sank up to their knees and blundered and complained and had to be driven on by the energetic application of a bakur-the African cat-o'-nine-tails. After a long delay, with the fiery sun beating down on them, they reached firmer ground and struggled up through thick, luxuriant grass to higher terrain. From here, they could see the village of Mkwaju. Once again, the prospect of a gigantic spider approaching sent the villagers racing away.
“This is an advantage I hadn't anticipated,” Burton told William Trounce. “They're too scared of the harvestman to hold us up with demands for hongo. Damnation! If only we had all our vehicles! Without the crabs to clear a route through the jungles, we'll soon reach a point where the harvester will be stymied and we'll be forced to abandon it.”
Mkwaju was little more than a few hovels and a palaver house, but it was significant in that it was the last village under the jurisdiction of Bagamoyo. The expedition was now entering the Uzamaro district.
The sun was at its zenith, and the soporific heat drained the energy out of all of them, but they were determined to reach Nzasa before resting, so they plodded on, glassy-eyed, the sweat dripping off them.
The loss of the harvestman came much sooner than Burton expected. Less than two hours after he'd expressed his concern to Trounce, they encountered a thick band of jungle too dense to chop a wide enough path through and too high for the vehicle to pick its way across. Honesty ran the spider along the edge of the barrier for a mile southward, then back and for a mile to the north. He returned and shouted down from the cabin: “Stretches as far as the eye can see. No way through. Shall I go farther?”
“No,” Burton called back. “It wouldn't do to get separated. I don't want to lose you! We'll have to leave it. We knew it was going to happen at some point. I suppose this is it. And at least the porters will be able to dump the coal supply.”
Honesty turned off the machine's engine and climbed down a leg. “Should destroy it,” he said. “Prussians might follow. Don't want them to have it.”
Burton considered a moment then nodded. “You're right.”
While the safari began to machete its way through the dense undergrowth, the king's agent and the detective tied a rope around the upper part of one of the harvestman's legs and used it to pull the vehicle over onto its side. Honesty drew his Adams police-issue revolver and emptied its chamber into the machine's water tank. They picked up rocks and used them to batter one of the spider's leg joints until it broke.
“That'll do,” Burton said. “Let's press on to Nzasa. The sooner we get there, the better. We're all tired and hungry!”
The band of jungle sloped down to a narrow river. Mosquitoes swarmed over the water and crocodiles basked on its banks. The crossing was difficult, perilous, and uncomfortable, and by the time the expedition emerged from the tangle of vegetation on the other side, everyone was covered with mud, scratches, leeches, insect bites, and stings.
They moved out onto cultivated land and trudged past scattered abodes concealed by high grass and clumps of trees.
They were seeing kraals now-large round huts or long sheds built from sticks woven through with grass. Around these, in a wide circle, thorny barriers had been erected. Constructed by slaver caravans, their presence indicated that the inhabitants of this region were hostile and didn't welcome strangers at their villages.
The trail broadened and the going became easier. They slogged up a hill then descended into the valley of the Kingani River-called Wady el Maut and Dar el Jua, the Valley of Death and Home of Hunger-which they followed until they spotted Nzasa, which Burton knew was one of the rare friendly settlements in the area.
He and Said rode ahead. They were met by three p'hazi, or headmen, each with a patterned cotton sheet wrapped around his loins and slung over his shoulder, each sheltering under an opened umbrella. The Africans announced themselves as Kizaya, Kuffakwema, and Kombe la Simba. The latter, in the Kiswahili language, greeted the two visitors with the words: “I am old and my beard is grey, yet never in all the days I have lived have I beheld a catastrophe like this-the muzungo mbaya once again in the land of my people!”
Muzungo mbaya translated as “the wicked white man.”
“I understand thy dismay,” Burton responded. “Thou remembers me not then, O Kombe?
The ancient chief frowned and asked, “I am known to thee?” He squinted at Burton, then his eyebrows shot up and he exclaimed: “Surely thou art not the Murungwana Sana?”
Burton bowed his head and murmured, “I am pleased that thou recollects me as such,” for the words meant “real free man” and were the equivalent of being called a “gentleman.”
Kombe suddenly gave a broad smile, his jet-black face folding into a thousand wrinkles, his mouth displaying teeth that had been filed to points. “Ah!” he cried. “Ah! Ah! Ah! I see all! Thou art hunting the shetani?”
“Aye! The muzungo mbaya of the long soft beard and gun that never ceases!”
“Thou art speaking of my former companion, John Speke? Thou hast seen him of late?”
“No, but a man from the village of Ngome, which is far north of here, came to us this many-” he extended the word to indicate the time that had passed: maaaannny, “-days ago and told of a bad man with bad men who came to his village intent on bad things. They were led by the muzungo mbaya, and when he was described to me, I remembered the one thou callest Speke, though now they say his head is half of metal.”
Burton said, “So his expedition is taking the northern trail eastward?”
“Aye, and killing and stealing as he goes. Dost thou mean to do the same?”
“Absolutely not! My people seek only to rest for a single night, and for this we shall pay with copper wire and cotton cloth and glass beads.”
“And drink that burns the throat in a pleasurable manner?”
“And drink that burns the throat in a pleasurable manner.”
“I must consult with my brothers.”
The three p'hazi stepped away and conversed out of Burton's earshot.
Said gave a snort of contempt and said, in a low voice, “They will come back and demand much hongo to allow us passage through their territory.”
“Of course,” Burton answered. “What else do they have to bargain with?”
Sure enough, Kombe returned with what amounted to an extravagant shopping list. Burton and Said, both experienced in such matters, bartered until an agreement was reached. The village would receive around two-thirds of the specie demanded-which, in fact, was a much better deal than the elders had expected.
Kombe, well satisfied, allowed the expedition to set up camp beside Nzasa and announced that a feast would be held to honour the arrival of the Murungwana Sana.
Their first full day of African travel had exhausted them all. Isabella Mayson said to Burton, “I'm confused, Sir Richard. My body tells me we've travelled many miles, but my head says we've hardly progressed at all.”
“Such is the nature of our task,” he replied. “This was a good day. On a bad, a single step must be counted an achievement.”
As the afternoon wore into evening, the tents were put up, the animals corralled, and the supplies secured.
The rains came.
There were no warning droplets or preliminary showers. One minute the sky was clear, the next it was a dark purple, then the Msika fell, a sheet of unbroken water. It hit the tents like an avalanche, and Burton, Said, Trounce, Honesty, Krishnamurthy, Spencer, Sister Raghavendra, and Miss Mayson-who'd all gathered in the biggest of the Rowties-had to raise their voices, first against the sound of the deluge pummelling the canvas, then against the cacophonous thunder, which grumbled without a pause.
“Excuse my language, ladies,” Trounce shouted, “but bloody hell!”
“Can the tent stand it?” asked Krishnamurthy. “I think the ocean is being emptied on top of us!”
Honesty pulled the entrance flap aside and peered out. “Can't see a thing!” he called. “Solid water.”
“There'll be two hours of this,” Burton announced, “so if Sadhvi and Isabella don't mind, I propose a brandy and a smoke.”
“I don't mind at all,” Isabella said.
“Nor I,” added Sadhvi. “In fact, I'll take a tipple myself.”
A reedy sigh of frustration came from within Herbert Spencer's many robes and scarves.
Pox, perched as usual on the clockwork philosopher's head, gave a loud musical whistle, then squawked, “Flubberty jibbets!”
“Hurrah!” Krishnamurthy cheered. “That's a new one!”
“The nonsensical insults are definitely the most entertaining,” Isabella agreed.
“By Jove!” Trounce blurted. “That reminds me. I say, Richard, those horrible plant things we saw at Mzizima-”
“What about them?” Burton asked.
“I was wondering, what with Eugenicist creations, such as Pox, here-”
“Pig-snuggler!” Pox sang.
“-always displaying a disadvantage in proportion to whatever talent the scientists have bred into them-”
“Well, what might be the drawback to those vegetable vehicles, do you think?”
“That's a good question, William, and one I can't answer!”
Burton served brandies to them all, including the women, and the men lit their various cigars and pipes, with many a nervous glance at the tent roof, which was billowing violently under the onslaught of rain.
Sister Raghavendra distributed small vials of a clear liquid that she insisted they all add to their drinks. “It's a special recipe we use in the Sisterhood of Noble Benevolence to deal with fevers,” she said. “Don't worry, it's quite tasteless.”
“What's in it?” Honesty asked.
“A mix of quinine and various herbs,” she answered. “It won't make you immune, but it will, at least, make the attacks shorter and less damaging.”
The tent flap suddenly flew open and a drenched imp hopped in.
“Bounders!” it shrieked. “Cads! Fiends! Traitorous hounds! Taking a drink without me! Without me! Aaaiiii!”
The thing bounded to the table and, with wildly rolling eyes, snatched up the brandy bottle and took an extravagant swig from it. Banging the bottle back down, it wiped its mouth on its sleeve, uttered a satisfied sigh, belched, then keeled over like a toppled tree and landed flat on its back.
“Great heavens! Is that Algernon?” Herbert Spencer tooted.
Sister Raghavendra bent beside the sodden and bedraggled figure and put a hand to its forehead. “It is,” she said. “And despite that display, he doesn't appear to be feverish at all.”
Burton stepped over, lifted his assistant up, and carried him to a cot at the side of the tent. “Algy tends to operate, as a matter of course, at a level that most people would consider feverish,” he said. “I think, on this occasion, he has simply overestimated his own strength.”
“Indeed so,” the nurse agreed. “Any man would require a week to recover from blood loss like Algernon experienced.”
“In which case, Algy will probably need just a couple more days, for he is most certainly not any man!”
They dried their friend as best they could, made him comfortable, and let him sleep.
The rain eventually stopped as quickly as it had started, and the silence of another African night settled over them. They sat quietly, comfortable in each others' company, too exhausted for conversation.
A hyena cackled in the distance.
A shout came from the village.
One drumbeat sounded.
All of a sudden, a deep, loud, rhythmic pulsation filled the air as many drums were pounded. A boy's voice hailed them from outside. Burton stepped out of the tent and a child, about ten years old, grinned up at him.
“O Murungwana Sana,” he said, “the fire is lit and the meat is cooking and the women are restless and want to dance. The men desire news of the far off lands of the Muzungu-the white man. Wouldst thou attend us?”
Burton gave a bow. “We shall come with thee now.”
So it was that the expedition's first day ended with a feast and a party, attended by all but the philosopher Herbert Spencer and the poet Algernon Swinburne.
In the tent, the brass man placed a stool beside the cot, sat on it, and leaned forward, bracing himself with his staff. Deep in the shadow of his keffiyeh, his metal face seemed to gaze unwaveringly at Burton's assistant.
And Swinburne dreamt of war.
Battle at Dut'Humi
“To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.”
Warm rain hammered against Burton's tin helmet and poured from its brim down the back of his greatcoat. An explosion momentarily deafened him, knocked him to his hands and knees, and showered him with clods of mud and lumps of bloody flesh. The black water at the bottom of the flooded trench immediately sucked at his limbs, as if the earth were greedy for yet another corpse. A head floated to the surface. Half of its face was missing. He recoiled in shock, splashing back to his feet, and ducked as another pea burst just yards away. Men and women shrieked in agony, cried out for their mothers, spat the same profanity over and over and over.
A seed thudded into a soldier's face. Blood sprayed. His helmet went spinning. He slumped as if his bones had suddenly vanished, and slid into the mire.
Burton stumbled on, sloshing forward, peering at the troops who were lining the right side of the trench and firing their rifles over its lip. He eventually saw the man he was searching for-a big Askari with a patch covering his right eye. He climbed up beside him and shouted into his ear: “Are you Private Usaama?”
“I'm looking for Private Usaama. I was told he knows Wells.”
“I'm him. What wells?”
“Herbert Wells. The correspondent. I think he's with your company.”
The man's answer was lost as a squadron of hornets swept overhead, flying low, buzzing furiously, their oval bodies painted with the Union Jack, their guns crackling.
“What did you say?” Burton hollered.
“I said if he hasn't bought it he'll be in the forward listening post. Keep on down the trench until you come to an opening on your right. It's there.”
They both ducked as seeds howled past them and embedded themselves in the opposite wall of the trench. Rain-loosened dirt collapsed inward.
Burton jumped back down into the water and moved along, picking his way past the dead and the mutilated, whispering a Sufi meditation to keep himself sane.
A female Askari, who was propped against a pile of saturated sandbags, grabbed at his sleeve and said in a pleading tone: “I've lost my boot. I've lost my boot. I've lost my boot.”
He looked down and saw that the woman's left leg was a ragged mess beneath the knee. The foot was missing.
“I've lost my boot. I've lost my boot.”
He nodded helplessly and yanked his arm from her grasp.
Another explosion. More terrible screams.
The passage to the listening post, seen dimly through the downpour, was now just a few steps away. He waded toward it, the smell of cordite and rotting flesh and overflowing latrines thick in his nostrils.
Sirens wailed through the staccato gunfire and thumping detonations: “Ulla! Ulla! Ulla!”
He entered the narrow passage and pushed through the water to its end, which widened into a small square pit. Its sides were shored up with wood, its upper edges protected by sandbags. To his right, a mechanical contrivance rested on a table beneath a canvas hood. Nearby, a corpse lay half-submerged, its eyes gazing sightlessly at the sky. Straight ahead, a short and plump man was standing on a box and peering northward through a periscope. He had a bugle slung over his shoulder and his tin helmet was badly dented on one side.
The man turned. The left side of his face was badly disfigured by a burn scar. He was unshaven and smeared with dirt.
“Lieutenant Wells, if you don't mind,” he shouted. “Who the devil are you?”
“It's me. Burton.”
Wells squinted through the rain, then gave a sudden whoop of joy and jumped from the box. He splashed over to Burton and gripped him by the hand.
“It's true! It's true!” he yelled, his voice pitched even higher than usual. “By gum, Burton, it's been two years! I thought I'd imagined you! But look at you! Alive! In the flesh! The chronic argonaut himself!” Wells suddenly stepped back. “What happened to you? You look like a skeleton!”
“War has been happening to me, Bertie, and to you too, I see.”
They both jerked down as something whistled overhead and exploded in the trenches behind them.
“This is the ugliest it's ever been,” Wells shouted. “It's attrition warfare now. The Hun has abandoned all strategy but that of battering us into oblivion. Grab a periscope and join me. Ha! Just like when we first met! What happened to you after the Battle of the Bees?”
Burton took one of the viewing devices from the table and climbed onto the box beside Wells.
“I fell in with a group of guerrilla fighters. We spent eighteen months or so raiding Hun outposts around Kilimanjaro before I suffered a fever and severe leg ulcerations that had me laid up in a field hospital for seven weeks. While I was there, the guerrillas were killed by A-Spores. During my final week in the hospital, I heard from-” They both crouched as three explosions tore up the battlefield nearby. “-From another patient that you were heading to Dut'humi, for the attack on the Tanganyika Railway, so I hooked up with a company that was heading this way.”
“I can't tell you how good it is to see you again!” Wells exclaimed. “By heaven, Richard, your inexplicable presence is the one spark of magic in this endlessly turgid conflict! Is your memory restored? Do you know why you're here?”
Burton peered through the periscope. He saw coils of barbed wire forming a barrier across the landscape ahead. Beyond it there were German trenches, and behind them, the terrain rose to a ridge, thick with green trees. The Tanganyika railway line, he'd learned, was on the other side of that low range.
“I remember a few more things-mainly that there's something I have to do. The trouble is, I don't know what!”
From over to their left, a machine gun started to chatter. Four more explosions sounded in quick succession and lumps of mud rained down on them. Someone screeched, coughed, and died.
“Forgive the mundanity,” Wells said, “but I don't suppose you've got biscuits or anything? I haven't eaten since yesterday!”
“Nothing,” Burton replied. “Bertie, the forest-”
“What? Speak up!”
“The trees on the ridge. There's something wrong with them.”
“I've noticed. A verdant forest-and one that wasn't there two days ago!”
“What? You mean the trees grew to maturity in just forty-eight hours?”
“They did. Eugenicist mischief, obviously.”
“They aren't even native to Africa. Acer pseudoplatanus. The sycamore maple. It's a European species.”
“For a man whose memory is shot through you know far too much Latin. Down!”
They ducked and hugged the dirt wall as a pea thumped into the mud nearby and detonated.
Wells said something. Burton shook his head. He couldn't hear. His ears had filled with jangling bells. The war correspondent leaned closer and shouted: “The Hun have recently solved the problem with growing yellow pea artillery. The shrapnel from these projectiles is poisonous. If you're hit, pull the fragments out of your wound as fast as you can.”
An enormously long, thin leg swung over the listening post as a harvestman stepped across it. Burton looked up at the underside of its small oval-shaped body and saw a trumpet-mouthed weapon swivelling back and forth. He straightened, wiped the rain from his eyes, and lifted the scope. A long line of the mechanised spiders was crossing the forward trenches and approaching the barbed-wire barrier. There were at least twenty vehicles. Their weapons began to blast out long jets of flame.
All of a sudden the downpour stopped, and in the absence of its pounding susurration, the loud clatter of the vehicles' steam engines and the roar of their flamethrowers sounded oddly isolated.
A strong warm breeze gusted across the battlefield.
Burton was shaken by a sense of uneasiness.
Wells obviously felt it too. “Now what?” he muttered.
A shell, fired from the German trenches, hit one of the harvestmen. “Ulla!” it screamed, and collapsed to the ground. Its driver spilled from the saddle, started to run, and was shredded by gunfire.
“Something's happening up on the ridge,” Wells said.
Burton turned his attention back to the distant forest. He frowned and muttered, “Is there something wrong with my sense of perspective?”
“No,” Wells answered. “Those trees are gigantic.”
They were also thrashing about in the strengthening wind.
“This doesn't feel at all natural,” Burton said.
“You're right. I think the Hun weathermen are at work. We'd better stand ready to report to HQ.”
“HQ? Are you Army now, Bertie?”
“Aren't you? You're in uniform.”
“My other clothes rotted off my back-”
Another pea burst nearby. A lump of it clanged off Burton's helmet.
“-and I was given these at the field hospital. No one has officially drummed me into service. I think they just assume I'm a soldier.”
“Such is our state of disorganisation,” Wells responded. “The fact is, Richard, everyone is a soldier now. That's how desperate things have become. There's no such thing as a British civilian in the entire world. And right now, I'm assigning you as my Number Two. The previous, Private Michaels-” Wells gestured toward the half-submerged corpse Burton had barely registered earlier, “-poked his head over the sandbags, the silly sod, and got hit by a sniper. Be sure you don't do the same. Get over to the wireless.”
Burton glanced back at the apparatus on the table. “Wireless? I-er-I don't know how to use it.”
“Two years here and you still can't operate a bloody radio?”
He was interrupted by whistles sounding all along the frontline trench.
“This is it!” Wells exclaimed. “The lads are going over!”
To the left and right of the listening post, Askari soldiers-with some white faces standing out among them-clambered from the waterlogged trenches and began to move across the narrow strip of no-man's-land in the wake of the advancing harvestmen. They were crouching low and holding bayoneted rifles. Seeds from the opposing trenches sizzled through the air. Men's heads were jerked backward; their limbs were torn away; their stomachs and chests were rent open; they went down, and when they went down, others, moving up from behind, replaced them. Peas arced out of the sky and slapped into the mud among them. They exploded, ripping men apart and sending the pieces flying into the air. Still the British troops pressed on.
“Bismillah!” Burton whispered as the carnage raged around him.
“Look!” Wells yelled. He pointed up at the ridge. “What the hell is that?”
Burton adjusted his viewer and observed through its lens a thick green mass boiling up from the trees. Borne on the wind, it came rolling down the slope and passed high above the German trenches. As it approached, he saw that it was comprised of spinning sycamore seeds, and when one of them hit the leg of a harvestman, he realised they were of an enormous size-at least twelve feet across. The seed didn't merely hit the spider's leg, either-its wings sliced right through it; they were as solid and sharp as scimitars. He watched horrified as thousands upon thousands of the whirling seeds impacted against the lofty battle machines, shearing through the long thin legs, chopping into the oval bodies, decapitating the drivers. As the harvestmen buckled under the onslaught, the seeds spun on toward the advancing troops.
“Take cover!” Wells bellowed.
Burton and the war correspondent dropped to their knees in filthy water and hugged the base of the observation pit's forward wall. Eight sycamore seeds whisked through the air above them and thudded into the back of the excavation. A ninth sliced Private Michaels' corpse clean in half. A green cloud hurtled overhead and mowed into the frontline trenches.
Its shadow passed. The wind stopped. Burton looked up at the sky. The rainclouds were now ragged tatters, fast disappearing, and the blistering sun shone between them down onto a scene of such slaughter that, when Burton stood, climbed back onto the box, and looked through his periscope, he thought he might lose his mind with the horror of what he saw. He squeezed his eyes shut. Ghastly moans and whimpers and shrieks of agony filled his ears. He clapped his palms over them. The stench of fresh blood invaded his nostrils.
He collapsed backward and fell full length into the trench water. It closed over him and he wanted to stay there, but hands clutched at his clothing and hauled him out.
“Run!” Wells cried out, his voice pitched even higher than usual. “The Germans are coming!”
Burton staggered to his feet. His soaked trousers clung to his legs; filthy liquid streamed from his jacket and shirt.
“Move! Move!” Wells shouted. He grabbed Burton and pushed him toward the connecting passage. As they splashed through it, the little war correspondent lifted his bugle to his lips and sounded the retreat. With the urgent trumpeting in his ears, Burton blundered along and passed into the forward trench. It looked as if hell itself had bubbled up out of the mud. The sycamore seeds were everywhere, their blades embedded in sandbags, in the earth, and in soldiers. The troops had been diced like meat on a butcher's slab; body parts were floating in rivers of blood; and in the midst of the carnage, limbless men and women lay twitching helplessly, their dying eyes wide with terror and shock.
As Burton and Wells raced from the foremost trench and made their way through the connecting ditches toward the rear, the smaller man blew the retreat with frantic desperation, while the taller, whenever he spotted a soldier still capable of moving, gathered wits enough to shout: “Withdraw! Withdraw!”
Eventually they came to the final trench, clambered out of it, their uniforms red with other men's gore, and began to run.
Burton glanced to either side and saw a straggling line of fleeing soldiers-so few! — then looked back and gasped: “What are they?”
Wells said something but it was lost as a barrage of explosive peas came whistling down, punched into the ground just behind them, and sent up huge spouts of mud.
The world slowed down, became utterly silent, and revolved majestically around Burton. The sky passed underneath. Men performed loose-limbed pirouettes through it. Some of the loose limbs weren't attached to the men.
I have to be somewhere.
The ground swung upward to meet him.
The earth smacked into his face.
He coughed, groaned, spat soil from his mouth, and lifted himself onto all fours.
Wells was spreadeagled nearby.
Burton crawled over to him. His friend was alive and conscious and his mouth was moving but there was no sound. There was no sound anywhere.
Wells pointed at the trenches.
Looking back, Burton saw the Schutztruppen approaching. One of the Germans was very near. He was dressed in a slate-grey uniform and his helmet was spiked at its crown. He held in his hands, like a rifle, a long seedpod with a vicious thorn dripping venom at its end.
The Schutztruppen weren't human.
Burton pushed himself backward through the mud, kicking his feet, trying to get away. He couldn't take his eyes off the approaching soldier. Though a man in shape, the German's head was deformed-his jaws were pushed forward into a snout, and his slavering mouth was filled with long canines. He was a tawny-yellow colour, and black-spotted, and his golden eyes had vertical irises.
The name Laurence Oliphant jumped into Burton's mind, and in a flash he recalled a duel, a clashing of swords, with a man half human and half white panther. The memory was hallucinogenic in its power. He reached for his sword, looked into the thing's feline eyes, and whispered: “Good lord! What have you done to yourself?”
When his hand came whipping up there was not a sword in it, but a pistol, and without even thinking, he pumped four bullets into the German.
He watched as the trooper staggered, dropped the seedpod, and teetered to one side. The creature-a leopard given human shape-flopped to the ground. There were more approaching. Some of them were similarly formed from lithe jungle cats; others were bulky rhinoceros men, or vicious hyena things. Hardly any were fully human.
Fingers closed over Burton's arm. He jerked free of them and scrabbled away before realising they belonged to Bertie Wells. The war correspondent was on his feet. His mouth was working, and faintly, as if from a long way off, Burton heard: “Come on, man! We have to get out of here!”
A chunk of dirt was thrown up near his head. Something tugged violently at his wet sleeve and scored the skin beneath. It finally registered that he was being shot at.
He pushed himself to his feet and, with Wells, started to run as hard as he could.
They passed between two Scorpion Tanks whose tail cannon were spewing fire at the oncoming enemy troops. A pea smashed square into one and the war machine flew apart, sending shards of splintered carapace skittering past the two men.
Burton's hearing returned with a clap, and the dissonances of battle assaulted his already overwhelmed senses.
He and Wells veered to the right, ducked behind the swollen carcass of a long-dead mega-dray horse, and bolted through a field of broken wagons and wrecked wooden shacks.
They ran and ran and eventually reached the base of the Dut'humi Hills.
Seven British hornets, flying extremely low, came buzzing from behind the higher ground. They swept down, passed over the two men, and raked the battlefield with bullets. One of the giant insects was struck mid-thorax by an enemy cannon. It hit the earth and tumbled, enveloped in flames.
At the edge of the undergrowth, Burton noticed a bright poppy-a red beacon amid the foliage.
“This way!” he shouted, and pulled Wells toward it. They threw themselves past the little flower and into thick purplish vegetation. Careless of thorns, they heaved themselves through bushes, climbed over twisted roots, ducked under looped lianas, and forced their way uphill until the frightful noise of conflict began to fade behind them.
Vegetation snagged at and tore their uniforms. Wet leaves dripped on them, though they were already soaked to the skin. Still they kept going, passing over the brow of a jungly hill and down into a stinking swamp. They waded through it, thigh-deep, careless of crocodiles, and emerged onto firmer land where the terrain once again sloped upward. The vegetation was slightly less dense here, and they slowed to walking pace as they passed between tree boles, with a tightly packed canopy overhead.
Burton noticed another poppy off to his left. He steered his companion in that direction.
“There's a place I must go, Bertie.”
“I wish I knew.”
A prickly and malformed plant to Wells's right twitched spasmodically. Milky liquid spurted from it and hit the sleeve of the war correspondent's greatcoat. The material immediately started to smoulder.
Wells swore, ripped the garment open, and pulled it off, throwing it to the ground. He pushed Burton onward, leaving the plant and the coat behind.
“Bloody Eugenicist creations are starting to sprout up all over the place,” he growled. “And they're all acid-spitting, bloodsucking, needle-shooting, poison-scent-emitting atrocities! Look at those, for instance-” He nodded toward the base of a nearby tree. Burton looked and saw a clump of bulbous white fungi.
“Those are Destroying Angel mushrooms-the species they get the A-Spores from. Not native to Africa until the Eugenicists meddled with them. Now they're everywhere!”
They steered carefully past a nest of pismire ants. They were natural, but nevertheless dangerous. Burton knew from painful experience that their bite was like the jab of a red-hot needle.
For the next hour, the two men forced their way onward. Twice more, Burton saw poppies and altered his direction in order to pass by them. He did not mention this to Wells.
Finally, with gasps of relief, they emerged into a small glade. It was carpeted with the bright-red blossoms, and in its very centre, upon a mound, a profusion of multicoloured flowers were thriving. A single beam of sunlight angled through tree branches and brightly illuminated the vivid reds, yellows, blues, and purples. The air was filled with pollen, which shone like gold dust in the shaft of light. Butterflies danced over the flowers. Everything was glowing with an almost supernatural radiance.
“A patch of beauty, at last!” Wells cried. “My eyes can hardly bear it! And look-your favourite poppy is everywhere!”
The two men threw themselves down beside the mound. For thirty minutes or so, they sat in silence, each dealing in his own way with the atrocities they'd witnessed.
Eventually, Burton spoke: “What is it about you, Bertie, that attracts death from the sky? When I first met you it was the spores. Then it was bees. This time, sycamore seeds. What next? Boulder-sized hailstones? Acidic rain? Explosive bloody bird shit?”
“Whatever else I might have to say about them,” Wells responded, “I can't deny that the Germans are damned creative.”
“Unquestionably. What the hell were those Schutztruppen?”
“The Eugenicists are turning animals into soldiers,” Wells replied. “Because they're running out of Africans.”
Burton groaned. “So the loathsome treatment of this continent now extends even to its flora and fauna? I swear to you, I wish a plague would wipe mankind from the face of this world! How despicable we are!”
The smaller man shrugged. “I don't think a plague is required-we're doing a pretty good job of it ourselves. You know, there was a time in my life when I fancied that we could all work together as equals for the good of the species, when I thought that our true nationality was Mankind. Now I recognise that I vastly overestimated the human race. We disguise imperialism as the spread of higher civilisation, but it's blatantly animalistic in its nature. We are no better than carnivores or carrion eaters. Having beast-men fighting this dreadful war is wholly appropriate.”
He took a canteen from his belt and drank from it.
Burton said, “I remember you saying that Palmerston was responsible.”
“And now you say the imperialistic drive is an animal impulse. Yet I can think of no one more divorced from nature than Palmerston!”
“Pah!” Wells snorted. He handed the canteen to Burton. “Did it never strike you that in his efforts to conquer the natural in himself, he was merely signposting the trait of his that he felt most vulnerable to? All those Eugenics treatments he paid for, Richard-they were the mark of the Beast!”
“Humph! I suppose.”
“And where was nature better symbolised in your age than in Africa? No wonder this continent fell victim to his paranoia!”
Burton shook his head despairingly. “I don't know how you can endure it.”
“Somehow, I still have hope,” Wells answered, “or I could not live.”
Burton took a gulp from the canteen. He coughed and spluttered as brandy burned its way down his throat.
“I was expecting water!” he croaked.
Wells watched two dragonflies flitting back and forth over the flowers. “It's ironic,” he said softly.
“That I'm fighting the Germans.”
“Yes, for in some respects, since he seized power, Nietzsche has expanded upon the beliefs I held as a younger man, and I feel strongly drawn to his philosophy.” Wells looked at Burton. “You were right, by the way: Nietzsche did seize power in 1914 and Rasputin did die. According to our Intelligence agents, he suffered a brain haemorrhage. It happened in St. Petersburg, so your claim that you were responsible doesn't hold up-unless, that is, you possess extraordinary mediumistic powers, in which case I should deliver you to Colonel Crowley at the soonest possible moment.”
Burton shook his head. “I have no such abilities, Bertie. So what is Nietzsche's philosophy?”
Wells sighed and was silent for a moment. Then he said: “He proposes an entirely new strain of human being. One that transcends the bestial urges.”
A memory squirmed uncomfortably at the back of Burton's mind. He reached out, picked a flower from the mound, and held it in front of his face, examining its petals. They did nothing to aid his powers of recollection.
“The Greek Hyperanthropos?” he asked.
“Similar. The term he uses is Ubermensch. A man free from the artificial limitations of moral codes.” Wells snorted contemptuously. “Moral codes! Ha! As much as we invoke God with our exclamations and curses, we all know that he's dead. Your Darwin killed him outright, and the concept of supernaturally defined morals should have died with the deity!”
Burton held up an objecting hand and blew out a breath. “Please!” he exclaimed. “He was never my Darwin!”
“He was a man of your time. Anyway, without a God to impose ideas of right and wrong, mankind is left with a moral vacuum to fill. Nietzsche's Ubermensch populates it according to an inner inclination that is entirely divorced from social, cultural, or religious influences. What blossoms within him is therefore utterly authentic. Such an individual will, according to Nietzsche, transcend his animal instincts. Furthermore, from amid all these singular standards of behaviour, certain common values will emerge, and they will be so completely in tune with the zeitgeist that human evolution will accelerate. God left a vacancy. We shall fill it.”
Burton considered this for a moment, then said, “If I understand you correctly, the implication is that the zeitgeist, time itself, has some sort of beneficial purpose.”
“Yes. Nietzsche posits that, through living as we do, we have impeded our proper relationship with time. We misunderstand it. We see only one aspect of it and we allow that to dominate us. It keeps us bound to the natural world. Only by becoming an Ubermensch can an individual grow beyond it.”
The sky suddenly grew darker. The sun was beginning to set.
Wells said, “You don't happen to be an Ubermensch, I suppose? You have, after all, somehow managed to defy the normal limitations of time.”
Burton gave a wry smile. “I very much doubt that I'm anything Nietzsche might aspire to.”
He reached among the flowers and brushed idly at a flat moss-covered stone. “Beresford. That's who I've been trying to remember. Henry-um-Henry de La Poer Beresford. Yes! The Mad Marquess! Bismillah! Bertie! This Ubermensch business is remarkably similar to something the creator of the Libertine and Rake movements came up with. He was obsessed with the idea of what he termed the trans-natural man, and he was inspired in that by-by-bloody hell!”
“What is it?” Wells asked, puzzled.
“By Spring Heeled Jack!”
“By Edward Oxford!”
“Are you referring to the man who assassinated Queen Victoria?”
“You're not making any sense, Richard!”
“I'm-I'm trying to remember!”
Burton scrubbed furiously at the stone, as if cleaning it of moss might also clear his foggy memory.
“The Libertines,” Wells said. “I believe they opposed the Technologists for a period but pretty much died out during the 1870s or 80s.”
Burton didn't answer. He was leaning forward and frowning. Wells looked at him curiously then moved to his side. He reached out, pushed flowers out of the way, and, in the dwindling light, peered at the flat stone.
“Are those letters on it?” he asked.
“Yes,” Burton murmured. “There's some sort of inscription.”
Wells reached into his pocket and pulled out a dagger. “Here, use this.”
Burton took it and used the blade to scrape the moss away. Words were revealed. They read:
Thomas Manfred Honesty
Lost His Life While
Liberating the Enslaved.
On the morning the expedition departed Nzasa, having stayed there for a single night, Sir Richard Francis Burton sent Pox to Isabel to report his position. When the parakeet returned, it squawked: “Message from Isabel Arundell. We are still harassing the stinky-mouthed enemy. I have so far lost eighteen of my women to them. They are preparing a moronic party to follow you. We will try to hold them back. Grubby pants. Message ends.”
With the threat of pursuit, Burton tried to establish a greater sense of urgency among his porters, but already his safari was assailed by problems. Upon packing to leave the village, it was discovered that two boxes of equipment were missing and three of the Wasawahili had deserted; one of the mules appeared to be dying; and water had found its way into three sacks of flour, rendering them unusable.
The explorer, who from previous experience had resigned himself to such misfortunes, put a bullet through the mule's head, discarded the flour, redistributed the loads, and got his people moving.
The second day saw them trek from Nzasa to Tumba Ihere. The route led over gently undulating grasslands and through miry valleys, past a bone-strewn burial ground where witches and other practitioners of uchawi-black magic-had been burned at the stake, and across a fast-flowing stream where they lost another mule after it slipped and broke a leg.
They rested for an hour.
Swinburne abandoned his stretcher.
“I'm fine and dandy! In the pink! Fit as a fiddle!” he announced. “How far to the next village?”
“At least four hours' march,” Burton replied. “You can't possibly be in full bloom. You had half your blood sucked out a couple of days ago.”
“Pah! I'm perfectly all right. Confound it! I was hoping the village would be closer.”
“Because I want to try that pombe African beer you once told me about!”
They started moving again, crossing a plain that seethed with wildlife, and for half an hour, Swinburne, who was now riding a mule while holding an umbrella over his head, amused himself by shouting the names of every species he spotted: “Zebra! Koodoo! Giraffe! Guinea-fowl! Lion! Quail! Four-legged thingummy!”
He then fell off his mount, having fainted.
They put him back onto the stretcher.
After wrestling their way through a long stretch of sticky red soil and onto firmer, hilly ground, they were met by men from the village of Kiranga-Ranga. These Wazamaro warriors each bore three long puckered scars extending across both cheeks from their earlobes to the corners of their mouths. Their hair was plastered down with ochre-coloured mud and twisted into a double row of knobs that circled their heads. They wore loincloths of unbleached cotton and had strings of beads looped around their necks, which were also fitted with tightly beaded bands, known as mgoweko collars. A solid ring of brass circled their wrists. They carried muskets, spears, bows with poisoned arrows, and long knives.
They were not friendly.
Tribute was demanded, haggled over, and finally paid in the form of two doti of cloth and some much-prized sami-sami beads.
The safari continued, meandering past fertile fields of rice, maize, and manioc before coming up against a snarled and riotous jungle, which they were still hacking through when the rains started. They eventually stumbled out of it, soaked to the skin and covered with ticks, and found themselves amid fetid vegetation from which misshapen dwarf mango trees grew, and in this unlikely spot-Tumba Ihere-they were forced to establish their camp.
That evening, in the main Rowtie, Isabella Mayson announced that she was feeling out of sorts. By the morning she was trembling with ague and hallucinating that ravenous birds were trying to peck out her eyes. Swinburne gave up his stretcher for her.
“I have developed a horror of the horizontal!” he declared.
“Sit on your mule,” Burton instructed, “and don't overexert yourself.”
The explorer ordered the commencement of the next march.
“Kwecha! Kwecha!” Said bin Salim and his Askaris yelled. “Pakia! Hopa! Hopa!” Collect! Pack! Set out! Safari! A journey! A journey today!
So began the third day of their hike.
Pox made the daily flight eastward and back again. The report was not good. A ship had delivered two thousand Prussian reinforcements to Mzizima. The Daughters of Al-Manat had divided into two groups of ninety women, one continuing to wage a guerrilla campaign against the burgeoning town, the other harassing a contingent of men that had set off in pursuit of Burton's expedition.
“We have to move faster,” the king's agent told Said.
“I will do all I can, Mr. Burton,” the ras kafilah promised in his habitually polite manner, “and the rest is as Allah wills it.”
They tramped through alternating bands of richly cultivated land and matted flora, with Said's Askaris forcing the porters to a brisk pace wherever possible, until they eventually found themselves in a large forest of copal trees that oozed resin and filled the air with a cloying perfume. Horseflies attacked them. Thomas Honesty was stung below the left eye by a bee and the side of his face swelled up like a balloon. Trounce started to feel a stiffness in his limbs. For an hour a strange whistling noise assaulted their ears. They never discovered its source.
They kept going.
About noon, Burton-who'd succumbed to the turgid heat and was gazing uncomprehendingly at the back of his mule's head-was roused by Swinburne, who, in his piping voice, suddenly announced:
“The dense hard passage is blind and stifled
That crawls by a track none turn to climb
To the strait waste place that the years have rifled
Of all but the thorns that are touched not of time.
The thorns he spares when the rose is taken;
The rocks are left when he wastes the plain.
The wind that wanders, the weeds wind-shaken,
“What?” Burton mumbled.
“Police pottery,” Swinburne replied. “Do you remember Matthew Keller in Leeds? Feels like a long time ago, durn't it?”
“I'm losing track,” Burton replied. “Since we left the Orpheus, I've been forgetting to record the date in my journal. I don't know why. It's out of character.”
He squinted against the glaring light and for the first time realised that the forest had been left behind; they were now traversing broad grain fields. He recognised the place-he'd passed through it during his previous expedition.
“We're approaching the village of Muhogwe. Its people have a reputation for violence but last time I was here they settled for mockery.”
William Trounce cleared his throat and said, “My apologies, Richard.” He slipped to the ground.
It was another case of seasoning fever.
“We're succumbing considerably sooner than I expected,” Burton said to Sister Raghavendra as they lowered the police detective onto a litter.
“Don't worry,” she replied. “There's usually a fairly long incubation period with this sort of affliction but the medicine I've been feeding you negates it. The stuff brings on the fever more rapidly, makes it burn more fiercely, and it's all over and done with in a matter of hours instead of weeks.”
Burton raised his eyebrows. “I should have liked that during my previous expedition!”
They came to Muhogwe. It was abandoned.
“Either the slavers have taken the entire population, or the entire population has upped and moved to avoid the slavers,” Burton observed.
“The latter, I hope,” Swinburne responded.
Beyond the village it was all jungle and forest again, then a quagmire where they had to fire their rifles into the air to scare away a herd of hippopotami.
A slope led up to a plateau, and here they found a boma-a fenced kraal-and decided to set up camp. No sooner had they erected the last tent than the clouds gathered and the rain fell.
They ate and rested, except for Burton who braved the downpour to take stock of the supplies. He found that two more porters had run away and three bundles of specie were missing.
Night came. They tried to settle but the air smelled of putrefying vegetation, the mosquitoes were remorseless, and they all felt, to one degree or another, ill and out of sorts.
Hyenas cackled, screamed, and whined from dusk until dawn.
And so it went. The days passed and the safari crept along, seemingly at a snail's pace, and wound its way over the malarious plain of the Kingani River toward the low peaks of the Usagara Highlands. Each in turn, they came down with fever then made an astonishingly rapid recovery. Burton was in no doubt that Sister Raghavendra was a miracle worker, for there could be no greater contrast than that between his first Nile expedition, during which he and John Speke had been permanently stricken with an uncountable number of ailments, and this, his second, where illness was the exception rather than the rule.
Isabel's reports came every morning. A force of four hundred men was now following in the expedition's tracks. The Daughters of Al-Manat were making daily attacks against them but nine more of her followers had been killed and the distance was closing between the two groups.
“If we can just make it to Kazeh before they catch up,” Burton told his friends. “The Arabians there are well disposed toward me-they will loan us men and weapons.”
They trudged on.
Plains. Hills. Forests. Swamps. Jungle. The land challenged their every step.
Sagesera. Tunda. Dege la Mhora. Madege Madogo. Kidunda. Mgeta. The villages passed one after the other, each demanding hongo, each whittling away at their supplies.
Desertions. Theft. Accidents. Fatigue. The safari became ever more frayed and difficult to control.
One night, they heard distant gunshots.
They were camped at Kiruru, a small and semi-derelict village located deep in a plantation of holcus, whose tall, stiff canes almost completely hid the ragged beehive huts and slumping bandani.
Herbert Spencer, freshly wound up, had been explaining to them some of his First Principles of Philosophy when the crackle and pops of rifle fire echoed faintly through the air.
They looked at each other.
“How far away?” Thomas Honesty asked.
“Not far enough,” Maneesh Krishnamurthy grunted.
“It's from somewhere ahead of us, not behind,” Burton noted.
“Lardy flab!” Pox added.
“Sleep with your weapons beside you,” the explorer ordered. “Herbert, I want you to patrol the camp tonight.”
“Actually, Boss, I patrol the camp every blinkin' night,” the philosopher answered.
“Well, with extra vigilance tonight, please, and I think Tom, William, Maneesh, Algy, and I will stand shifts with you.”
Burton turned to Said. “Wilt thou see to it that we are packed and on the move well before sunrise?”
Said bowed an acknowledgement.
The night passed without incident but the march the following morning was one of the worst they'd so far experienced.
They found themselves fighting through thick razor-edged grass, which towered over their heads and dripped dew onto them. The black earth was greasy and slippery and interlaced with roots that caught at their feet. The mules brayed in distress, refused to be ridden, and had to be forced along with swipes of the bakur, not moving until the cat had raised welts on their hindquarters.
Pox, who'd been sent to Isabel earlier, returned and shrieked: “Message from Isabel Big Nose Arundell. We have reduced their cretinous number by a quarter but they are less than a day behind you. Move faster, Dick. Message bleeding well ends.”
“We're moving as fast as we bleeding well can!” Burton grumbled.
The grass gave way to a multitude of distorted palms, then to a savannah which promised easier going but immediately disappointed by blocking their progress with a sequence of steep nullahs-watercourses whose near-vertical banks dropped into stinking morasses that sucked them in right up to their thighs.
“I suspect this plain is always water-laden,” Burton panted, as he and Krishnamurthy tried to haul one of the mules through the mire. “The water runs down from Usagara and this area is like a basin-there's no way for it to quickly drain. Were we not in such a confounded hurry, I would have gone around it. The ridge to the north is the best route, but it would've taken too long to get there. Bismillah! I hope they don't catch us here. This is a bad place for armed conflict!”
Krishnamurthy pointed ahead, westward, at plum-coloured hills. “Higher ground there,” he said. “Hopefully it'll be easier going. The height would give us an advantage, too.”
Burton nodded an agreement and said, “Those are the hills of Dut'humi.”
They finally reached the slopes.
Burton guided his expedition along a well-trodden path, up through thick vegetation, over a summit, and down the other side. They waded through a swamp that sent up noxious bubbles of hydrogen sulphide with their every step. The rotting carcass of a rhinoceros lay at the far edge of the morass, and beyond it a long, sparsely forested incline led them to an area of tightly packed foliage. Monkeys and parrots squabbled and hooted in the branches around them.
They forced their way along the overgrown trail until they suddenly came to a clearing, where seven elderly warriors stood, each holding a bow with a trembling arrow levelled at them. The old men were plainly terrified and tears were streaming down their cheeks. They were no threat and they knew it.
Said called for the porters to halt, then stepped forward to speak to the old men, but one suddenly let loose a cry of surprise, dropped his weapon, pushed the Arab aside, and ran over to Burton.
“Wewe! Wewe! Thou art Murungwana Sana of Many Tongues!” he cried. “Thou wert here long long days ago, and helped our people to fight the p'hazi whose name is Manda, who had plundered our village!”
“I remember thee, Mwene Goha,” Burton said, giving the man his title. “Thy name is Mavi ya Gnombe. Manda was of a neighbouring district, and we punished him right and good, did we not? Surely he has not been raiding thy village again?”
“No, not him! The slavers have come!” The man loosed a wail of despair. “They have taken all but the old!”
“When did this happen?”
“In the night. It is Tippu Tip, and he is still here, camped beyond the trees, in our fields.”
A murmur of consternation rose from the nearest of the porters and rippled away down the line. Burton turned to Said. “See to the men. Bring them into this clearing. Do not allow them to flee.”
The ras kafilah signalled to his bully boys and they started to herd the porters into the glade.
The king's agent instructed Trounce, Honesty, Krishnamurthy, Spencer, Isabella Mayson, and Sister Raghavendra to help the Arab guard the men and supplies. He gestured for Swinburne to join him, then addressed Mavi ya Gnombe: “Mwene Goha, I wouldst look upon the slavers' camp, but I do not wish the slavers to see me.”
“Follow, I shall show thee,” the elder said. He and his companions, who'd put away their arrows, led Burton and Swinburne to the far side of the clearing where the path continued.
Between the glade and the cultivated fields beyond there was a thick band of forest. The trail led halfway through this, then veered sharply to the left. The African stopped at the bend and pointed down the path.
“It is the way to the village,” he said.
“I remember,” Burton replied. “The houses and bandani are in another clearing some way along. I had arranged for a forward party of Wanyamwezi porters to meet us at thy village with supplies, but the plan went awry.”
“Had they come, they would now be slaves, so it is good the plan did not work. Murungwana Sana, this is one of three paths from the village clearing. Another leads from it down to the plain and is better trodden than this.”
“I was wondering why this one is so overgrown,” said Burton. “The last time I was here, it was the main route.”
“We changed it after Manda attacked us.”
“And the third path?”
“Goes from the village, through the forest, to the fields. All these paths are now guarded by old men, as this one was. But let us not follow this way. Instead, we shall go through the trees here, and we will come to the fields at a place where the slavers would not expect to see a man, and will therefore not be looking. My brothers will meanwhile return to the village, for the grandmothers of those taken are sorely afraid.”
Mavi ya Gnombe nodded to his companions, who turned and continued down the trail, then he pushed through a sticky-leafed bush and disappeared into the undergrowth. Burton followed, and Swinburne stepped after him, muttering about leeches and ticks and fleas and “assorted creepy-crawlies.”
They struggled on for five minutes, then the trees thinned, and the men ducked low and proceeded as quietly as possible. They came to a bush, pushed aside its leaves, and looked out over cultivated fields, upon which was camped a large slave caravan.
There were, Burton estimated, about four hundred slaves, men and women, mostly kneeling, huddled together and chained by the neck in groups of twelve. Arabian traders moved among and around them-about seventy, though there were undoubtedly more in the large tents that had been erected on the southern side of the camp.
A little to the north, a great many pack mules were corralled, along with a few ill-looking horses.
Swinburne started to twitch with fury. “This is diabolical, Richard!” he hissed. “There must be something we can do!”
“We're vastly outnumbered, Algy,” Burton said. “And we have the Prussians breathing down our necks. But-”
“Perhaps there's a way we can kill two birds with one stone. Let's get back to the others.”
They retraced their steps through the foliage until they emerged once again onto the path. Burton addressed the elderly African: “Mavi ya Gnombe, go thou to thy village and bring all who remain there to the glade where we encountered thee. Do not allow a single one to remain behind.”
The old man looked puzzled, but turned and paced away to do as commanded.
Burton and Swinburne returned to the clearing, where they found the porters restless and unhappy. The king's agent walked over to the bundle of robes that hid Herbert Spencer and reached up to the parakeet that squatted atop it. Pox jumped onto his outstretched hand, and Burton took the bird away from his companions and quietly gave it a message to deliver to Isabel. He included a description of their location, outlined a plan of action, and finished: “Report the enemy's numbers and position. Message ends.”
Pox disappeared into the green canopy overhead.
As if turned on by a switch, the day's rainfall began. Everyone moved to the more sheltered edges of the glade.
Burton called his companions over and told them what he intended.
“You've got to be bloody joking!” Trounce exclaimed.
“Chancy!” Thomas Honesty snapped.
“Perilous!” Krishnamurthy grunted.
“Inspired!” Swinburne enthused.
“I see no other way,” Burton said.
They ate a hurried meal while awaiting the parakeet's return.
The villagers arrived, pitifully few in number, and all elderly. Burton described to them what was soon to happen, and drilled into them that their silence would be essential. They huddled together, wet, miserable, and scared.
The expedition members took rifles and pistols from the supplies and began to clean and load them.
“You'll remain with the porters,” Burton told the two women.
Isabella Mayson picked up a revolver, flicked open its chamber, and started to push bullets into it. “Absolutely not,” she said.
Sister Raghavendra hefted a rifle. “Do you consider us too frail, Richard?”
“On the contrary, you have proven yourselves-”
“Equal to any man?” the Sister interrupted. “Good. Then we shall do what needs to be done and fight at your side, and don't you dare attempt to persuade us otherwise.”
Burton gave a curt nod.
Forty minutes later, Pox returned.
“Message from Isabel Arundell. We are ready. Estimate a hundred and fifty thumb-sucking men fast approaching your position. You have an hour at most, chamber-pot lover. Be prepared.”
“You all understand what you must do?” he asked his friends.
They gave their grim assent, pushed pistols into their belts, slung rifles over their shoulders, and divided into two teams of four: Trounce, Swinburne, Krishnamurthy, and Mayson; and Burton, Honesty, Spencer, and Raghavendra. Pox huddled on the explorer's shoulder.
Burton addressed Said: “To thee falls responsibility for the porters and villagers. It is vital that they neither flee nor make a sound.”
The king's agent and his companions moved out of the glade and along the path. The rain hammered against the leaves around them, hissing loudly, soaking through their clothing, making the ground squelch beneath their feet.
They followed the trail as it veered to the right, and traipsed on until they eventually reached the abandoned village, which was some considerable distance from the original clearing. The second glade was much bigger. There were twenty or so beehive huts in it, and a well-built palaver house. A massive fig tree spread over the central space.
“The first shot is yours,” Burton said to Trounce. “Judge it well. Don't be too eager.”
Trounce led his team to the eastern edge of the village and they disappeared into the vegetation, following the path down the hill to the marshy ground where the rhinoceros carcass lay. Burton and the rest went in the opposite direction, cautiously proceeding along the trail toward the fields. Halfway along it, they left the path and pushed into the bushes and plants that crowded around the boles of the trees. Struggling through the roots and vines and thorns and branches, they made their way to the edge of the forest until, through the dripping verdure, they saw the cultivated land and the slave encampment.
The sun was low in the sky by now, and it turned the fringes of the passing clouds a radiant gold.
The rain stopped.
“It won't be long,” Burton said softly. “Spread out. Don't shoot until I do. And remember-keep moving.”
Honesty, Spencer, and Sadhvi Raghavendra slipped away.
Burton lay flat on his stomach and levelled his rifle, aiming at the slavers who were moving around their tents and captives.
He flicked a beetle from his cheek and crushed a leech that had attached to the back of his left hand.
Pox hopped from his shoulder to his head and mumbled, “Odious pig.”
The shadows lengthened.
A seemingly endless line of ants marched over the mulch just in front of him. They were carrying leaf fragments, dead wasps, and caterpillars.
He heard Honesty sneeze close by.
A rifle cracked in the near distance.
All of a sudden, gunfire erupted and echoed through the trees, the sound rising up from the base of the hill on the other side of the village. Burton knew what it meant: the Prussians were very close, and Trounce and his team had opened fire on them.
Sheltered behind the roots of trees, the police detective's team could take pot-shots at the hundred and fifty Prussians with impunity. Not only were they concealed but they were also on higher ground, while the pursuing party had to struggle through the marsh before ascending a slope that, while forested, was considerably more open than the uppermost part of the hill.
Trounce, Swinburne, Krishnamurthy, and Isabella Mayson would be silently and invisibly moving backward as they picked off the enemy, drawing the Prussians toward the village and away from the other clearing.
The noise of battle had reached the Arabs. Burton watched as they grabbed rifles and gestured at the forest. A large group of them started running toward where he and the others were hidden.
He took aim at a particularly large and ferocious-looking slaver and shot him through the heart.
Immediately, rifles banged loudly as Honesty, Spencer, and Raghavendra opened fire.
Burton downed two more of the slavers, then, as the other Arabs started shooting blindly into the undergrowth, he crawled backward and repositioned himself behind a tangle of mangrove roots from where he could see the beginning of the path to the village.
Bullets tore through the foliage but none came close to him. He put his rifle aside and pulled two six-shooters from his belt. Four Arabs ran into view. He mowed them down with well-placed shots then crawled away to reposition himself once again.
Slowly, in this fashion, Burton and his friends retreated toward the village.
The slavers followed, and though they sent bullet after bullet crashing into the trees, they didn't once find a target.
On the other side of the empty settlement, Trounce and his companions were performing exactly the same manoeuvre. They had slightly less luck-a bullet had ploughed through Krishnamurthy's forearm and another had scored the skin of Isabella Mayson's right cheek and taken off her earlobe-but the effect was the same: the Prussians were advancing toward the village.
After some minutes, Burton came closer to the end of the path where it opened into the clearing. He fired off three shots and wormed his way under a tamarind tree whose branches slumped all the way to the ground forming an enclosed space around the trunk, and here he found Herbert Spencer collapsed and motionless in the dirt.
A rifle cracked, tamarind leaves parted, and Thomas Honesty crawled in. He saw the bundle of Arabian robes and whispered: “Herbert! Dead?”
“He can't die,” Burton replied in a low voice. “He's clockwork. Fool that I am, I forgot to wind him up this morning-and the key is back with the supplies!”
“Manage without him. Almost there!”
“Let's get into position,” Burton said. “Stay low-things are about to get a lot hotter around here!”
He dropped onto his belly and-followed by the Scotland Yard man-wriggled out from beneath the tamarind, through thorny scrub, and into the shelter of a matted clump of tall grass. Using his elbows, he propelled himself forward until he reached the edge of the village clearing. Honesty crawled to his side. They watched the action from behind a small acacia bush. The police detective glanced at it and murmured, “Needs pruning, hard against the stem.”
Guns were discharging all around them, and they immediately saw that the thing they'd hoped for had come to pass. The slavers had entered the village from the west, while Trounce and his team had lured the Prussians into it from the east; and now the two groups, convinced that the other was the enemy, were blazing away at each other.
“Now we just lie low and wait it out,” Burton said.
Four of the plant vehicles he'd seen at Mzizima were slithering into view, and cries of horror went up from the Arabs, who aimed their matchlocks at the creatures and showered them with bullets. Burton plainly saw the men sitting in the blooms hit over and over, but they appeared unaffected, apart from one who took a shot to the forehead. He went limp, and his plant thrashed wildly before flopping into a quivering heap.
Over the course of the next few minutes, the two forces battled ferociously while the king's agent and his friends looked on from their hiding places in the surrounding vegetation. Then a slight lull in the hostilities occurred and a voice shouted from among the slavers: “We shall not submit to bandits!”
A Prussian, in the Arabic language, yelled back: “We are not bandits!”
“Then why attack us?”
“It was you who attacked us!”
“Wait! Hold your fire! I would parley!”
“Damn it!” Burton said under his breath. “We can't let this happen, but if any of us shoots now, they'll realise a third party is present.”
“Is this trickery, son of Allah?” the Prussian shouted.
“Then tell me, what do you want?”
“We want nothing but to be left alone. We are en route to Zanzibar.”
“Why, then, did you set upon us?”
“I tell you, we did not.”
Burton saw the Prussian turn to some of his men. They talked among themselves, holding their weapons at the ready and not taking their eyes from the Arabs, some of whom were crowded around the end of the westernmost path, while others crouched behind the native huts.
Moments later, the Prussian called: “Prove to us that you are speaking the truth. Lay down your weapons!”
“And allow you to slaughter us?”
“I told you-we are not the aggressor!”
“Then you lay down your guns and withdraw those-those-plant abominations!”
Again, the Prussian consulted with his men.
He turned back to the slavers. “I will only concede to-”
Suddenly, one of the slavers-swathed in his robes and with his head wrapped in a keffiyeh-ran out from among his fellows, raised two pistols, and started blasting at the Prussians.
Immediately, they jerked up their rifles and sent a hail of bullets into the man. He was knocked off his feet, sent twisting through the air, and hit the ground, where he rolled then lay still.
The battle exploded back into life, and, on both sides, man after man went down.
A stray bullet ripped into the tall grass, narrowly missing Burton. He turned to make sure Honesty was unharmed but the Scotland Yard man had, at some point, silently moved away.
“Message to Isabel Arundell,” Burton said to Pox. “Your company is requested. Message ends.”
As the parakeet flew off, one of the plant vehicles writhed past Burton's position and laid into a group of slavers. Its spine-covered tendrils whipped out, yanked men off their feet, and ripped them apart. Some tried to flee but were shot down as the Prussians began to gain control of the clearing. One group of about twenty Arabs had secured itself behind a large stack of firewood in the bandani, and it wasn't long before they were the last remaining men of the slave caravan's force. The Prussians, by contrast, had about fifty soldiers left, plus the three moving plants. Individuals in both groups were drawing swords as ammunition ran out: wicked-looking scimitars on the Arabian side; straight rapiers on the Prussian.
Pox returned: “Message from Isabel Arundell. We had problems getting the buttock-wobbling horses through the bloody swamp but are now regrouping at the bottom of the hill. We'll be with you in a stench-filled moment. Message ends.”
One of the mobile plants crashed into the barrier behind which the slavers were sheltering and lashed out at them, tearing their clothes and flaying their skin. Screaming with terror, they hacked at it with their scimitars, which, in fact, turned out to be a more efficient way to tackle the monster than shooting at it.
An Arab climbed onto the woodpile and jumped from it into the centre of the bloom, bringing his blade swinging down onto the head of the man sitting there. The plant shuddered and lay still.
The cavalry arrived.
The Daughters of Al-Manat, eighty strong and all mounted, came thundering into the village, emerging in single file from the eastern path. With matchlocks cracking, they attacked the remaining Prussians. Spears were thrust into the plant vehicles and burning brands thrown onto them.
Those few slavers who remained alive took the opportunity to flee and plunged away down the path, disappearing into dark shadow, for now the sky was a deep purple and the sun had almost set.
The last Prussian fell with a bullet in his throat.
The Daughters of Al-Manat had been savage-ruthless in their massacre of the enemy who, at Mzizima, had killed thirty or so of their number. Now they reined in their horses and waited while Sir Richard Francis Burton and the others emerged from the vegetation.
Krishnamurthy was holding his forearm tightly and blood was dribbling between his fingers. Isabella Mayson's right ear had bled profusely and her clothes were stained red. Swinburne, Trounce, and Sister Raghavendra were uninjured. They were all wet through and covered with dirt and insects.
“Well done,” Burton told them.
“Where's Tom?” Trounce asked.
“Probably dragging Herbert out of the bushes-his spring wound down. Sadhvi, would you see to Isabella and Maneesh's wounds?”
While the nurse got to work, Burton indicated to Trounce the area where Spencer had been left, then paced over to Isabel Arundell, who was sitting on her horse quietly conversing with her Amazons.
“That was brutal,” he observed.
She looked down at him. “I lost a lot of good women at Mzizima and on the way here. Revenge seemed…appropriate.”
He regarded her, moistened his lips, and said, “You're not the Isabel I met twelve years ago.”
“Time changes people, Dick.”
“Perhaps that is necessary in some cases. Are we to philosophise while slaves remain in shackles or shall we go and liberate them?”
“Wait here a moment.”
He left her and approached Swinburne.
“Algy, I want you and Maneesh to leg it along to the other clearing. Bring the villagers, Said, and our porters back here. They can help move the bodies out to the fields. They'll need to start work digging a pit for a mass grave.”
He returned to Isabel. She indicated a riderless horse, which he mounted. Holding burning brands to light the way, they led a party of ten of the Daughters out of the glade and along the path to the fields. Burton felt sickened by the slaughter he'd witnessed but he knew it was the only option. On the one hand, the Prussians would certainly have killed him and his party, but on the other, he couldn't allow the villagers to fall into the hands of Tippu Tip.
They rode out of the forest and approached the caravan. Five Arabs were guarding it.
“He who raises a weapon shall be shot instantly!” Burton called.
One of the guards bent and placed his matchlock on the ground. The others saw him do it and followed suit.
Burton and Isabel stopped, dismounted, and walked over to them.
“Where is el Murgebi, the man they call Tippu Tip?” Burton asked, in Arabic.
One of the men pointed to a nearby tent. Burton turned to Isabel's Amazons and said, “Take these men and make a chain gang of them. Then get to work liberating the slaves.”
The women looked for confirmation from Isabel. She gave them a nod, then she and Burton strode over to the tent, pushed aside its flap, and stepped in.
By the light of three oil lamps, they saw colourful rugs on the ground, a low table holding platters of food, and piles of cushions upon which sat a small half-African, half-Arabian individual. His teeth were gold, and though he appeared less than thirty years old, his beard was white. He raised his turbaned head and they noted that a milky film covered his eyes. He was blind.
“Who enters?” he asked in a reedy voice.
“Thy enemy,” Burton replied.
“Ah. Wilt thou take a sweet mint tea with me? I have been listening to the noise of battle. An exhausting business, is it not? Refreshment would be welcome, I expect.”
“No, Tippu Tip, I will not drink with thee. Stand up, please.”
“Am I to be executed?”
“No. There has been enough death this night.”
Burton stepped forward, took the trader by the elbow, and marched him out of the tent and over to the chained-up slaves. Isabel followed and said nothing. Her women were busily releasing the four hundred captives, who, in a long line, were making their way toward the village.
As Burton had ordered, the five guards were now tethered together, with short chains running from iron collar to iron collar, and from ankle manacle to ankle manacle. Their hands were tied behind their backs. The king's agent positioned Tippu Tip at the front of the line and locked him in fetters, joining him to the chain gang but leaving his hands unbound. He then pulled the prisoners along, away from the crowd of slaves and out into the open field.
“What are you doing?” Isabel whispered.
“Administering justice,” he replied, and brought them to a halt. “Aim your matchlock at Tippu Tip, please, Isabel.”
“Am I to be a firing squad of one?”
“Only if he attempts to point this at us,” the king's agent responded, holding up a revolver. He placed it in the Arabian's hand and stepped away. The slaver's face bore an expression of bafflement.
“Listen carefully,” Burton said, addressing the prisoners. “You are facing east, toward Zanzibar. However, if you walk straight ahead, you will find yourselves among the villagers and slaves we have just liberated and they will surely tear you limb from limb. You should therefore turn to your left and walk some miles north before then turning again eastward. In the morning, the sun will guide you, but now it is night, a dangerous time to travel, for the lions hunt and the terrain is treacherous in the dark. I can do nothing to make the ground even, but I can at least give you some protection against predators. Thus, your leader holds a pistol loaded with six bullets. Unfortunately, he is blind, so you must advise him where to point it and when to pull the trigger to ward off anything that might threaten you, but be cautious, for those six bullets are the only ones you have. Perhaps if walking all the way to Zanzibar is too challenging a prospect for you-well, there are six bullets and there are six of you. Need I say more?”
“Surely thou cannot expect us to walk all the way to the coast in chains?” Tippu Tip protested.
“Didst thou not expect just that of thy captives?” Burton asked.
“But they are slaves!”
“They are men and women and children. Now, begin your journey, you have far to go.”
“Allah have mercy!” one of the men cried.
“Perhaps he will,” Burton said. “But I won't.”
The man at the back of the line wailed, “What shall we do, el Murgebi?”
“Walk, fool!” the slave trader barked.
The chain gang stumbled into motion and slowly moved away.
“Tippu Tip!” Burton called after it. “Beware of Abdullah the Dervish, for if I set mine eyes on thee again, I shall surely kill thee!”
No one slept that night.
The liberated slaves carried the dead Arabs and Prussians along the path and into the fields, leaving them in a distant corner, intending to dig a mass grave when daylight returned. A number of Isabel's women stood guard over the corpses to prevent scavengers getting to them. The Africans were too afraid to do the job, believing that vengeful spirits would rise up and attack them.
Of the four hundred slaves, most had been taken from villages much farther to the west. This turned out to be a blessing, for Burton's porters had been so terrified by the sounds of battle and proximity of slavers that they'd overpowered Said and his men and had melted away into the night. No doubt they were fleeing back the way the expedition had come. Fortunately, their fear had outweighed their avariciousness and they'd departed without stealing supplies. The released slaves agreed to replace the porters on the understanding that each man, as he neared his native village, would abandon the safari in order to return home. Burton calculated that this would at least cover the marches from Dut'humi to distant Ugogi.
The Arab camp was stripped of its supplies, which were added to Burton's own and stored in the village's bandani. Tippu Tip's mules were also appropriated.
A large fire was built and the plant vehicles were chopped up and thrown into the flames.
The Daughters of Al-Manat corralled their hundred and eight horses.
“We're starting to lose them to tsetse bites,” Isabel informed Burton. “Twelve, so far. These animals were bred in dry desert air. This climate is not good for them-it drains their resistance. Soon we'll be fighting on foot.”
“The Prussians won't give up, Dick. And remember, John Speke almost certainly has a detachment of them travelling with him.”
“Hmm. Led by Count Zeppelin, no doubt,” Burton muttered.
“He may be taking a different trail from us,” Isabel observed, “but at some point we're bound to clash.”
Swinburne bounded over, still overexcited, and moving as if he'd come down with a chronic case of St. Vitus's dance.
“My hat, Richard! I can't stop marvelling at it! We were outnumbered on both sides yet came out of it without a scratch, unless you count the five thousand three hundred and twenty-six that were inflicted by thorns and hungry insects!”
“You've counted them?” Isabel asked.
“My dear Al-Manat, it's a well-educated guess. I say, Richard, where the devil has Tom Honesty got to?”
Burton frowned. “He's not been seen?”
“Not by me, at least.”
“Algy, unpack some oil lamps, gather a few villagers, and search the vegetation over there-” He pointed to where he'd last seen the Scotland Yard man. “I hope I'm wrong, but he may have been hit.”
Swinburne raced off to organise the search party. Burton left Isabel and joined Trounce at the bandani. The detective was rummaging in a crate and pulling from it items of food, such as beef jerky and corn biscuits.
“I'm trying to find something decent for us to chow on,” he said. “I don't think the villagers will manage to feed everybody. I put Herbert over there. He still needs winding.”
Burton looked to where Trounce indicated and saw the clockwork man lying stiffly in the shadow of the woodpile. The king's agent suddenly reached out and gripped his friend's arm. “William! Who found him?”
“I did. He was in a hollow under a tree.”
“Yes. What do you mean?”
“Look at him, man! He had Arabian robes covering his polymethylene suit. Where are they?”
“Perhaps they hindered his movement, so he took them off. Why is it important?”
Burton's jaw worked. For a moment, he found it impossible to speak. His legs felt as if they couldn't hold him, and he collapsed down onto a roll of cloth, sitting with one arm outstretched, still clutching Trounce.
“Bismillah! The bloody fool!” he whispered and looked up at his friend.
Trounce was shocked to see that the explorer's normally sullen eyes were filled with pain.
“What's happened?” he asked.
“Tom was next to me when the Prussians and Arabs started to powwow,” Burton explained huskily. “We were near Herbert, just a little way past him. The parley threatened to ruin our entire plan. The Arab who lost patience with the conflab and ran out shooting saved the day for us. Except-”
“Oh no!” Trounce gasped as the truth dawned.
“I think Tom may have crawled back to Herbert, taken his robes, put them on, and-”
“No!” Trounce repeated.
They gazed at each other, frozen in a moment of anguish, then Burton stood and said, “I'm going to check the bodies.”
“I'm coming with you.”
They borrowed a couple of horses from Isabel and, by the light of brands, guided their mounts along the path to the fields then galloped across the cultivated ground to where the dead had been laid out. Dismounting, they walked up and down the rows, examining the corpses. The Prussians were ignored, but each time either man came to a slaver, he bent and pulled back the cloth that covered the corpse's face.
“William,” Burton said quietly.
Trounce looked up from the man he'd just inspected and saw the explorer standing over a body. Burton's shoulders were hunched and his arms hung loosely.
Something like a sob escaped from the Scotland Yard man, and the world seemed to whirl dizzyingly around him as he staggered over to his friend's side and looked down at Thomas Manfred Honesty.
His fellow detective was wrapped in the robes-ragged and blood-stained-that he'd borrowed from Spencer. He'd been riddled with bullets and must have died instantly, but it was no consolation to Trounce, for the little man, who'd mocked him for nearly two decades over his belief in Spring Heeled Jack, had, in the past couple of years, become one of his best friends.
“He sacrificed himself to save us,” Burton whispered.
Trounce couldn't reply.
They buried Thomas Honesty the next morning, in the little glade to the north of the village.
Burton spoke of his friend's bravery, determination, and heroism.
Trounce talked hoarsely of Honesty's many years of police service, his exemplary record, his wife, and his fondness for gardening.
Krishnamurthy told of the respect the detective inspector had earned from the lower ranks in the force.
Swinburne stepped forward, placed a wreath of jungle flowers on the grave, and said:
“For thee, O now a silent soul, my brother,
Take at my hands this garland, and farewell.”
Sister Raghavendra softly sang “Abide with Me,” then they filed back along the trail to the village, a subdued and saddened group.
For most of the rest of the day, Burton and his fellows caught up with lost sleep. Not so William Trounce. He'd found a large flat stone on the slope beneath the village, and, borrowing a chisel-like tool from one of the locals, he set about carving an inscription into it, sitting alone, far enough away from the huts that his chipping and scraping wouldn't disturb his slumbering companions. It took him the better part of the day to complete it, and when it was done, he took it to the glade, placed it on the grave, and sat on the grass.
“I'm not sure I really understand it, old chap,” he murmured, “but apparently the whole Spring Heeled Jack business sent us all off in a different direction. None of us is doing what we were supposed to be doing, although I rather think I would have carried on as policemen no matter what.”
He rested a hand on the stone.
“Captain Burton says this history we're in isn't the only one, and, in any of the others, meddlers like Edward Oxford might be at work, and whenever they tamper with events, they cause new histories. Can you imagine that? All those different variations of you and me? The thing of it is, my friend, I hope-I really hope-that, somewhere, a Tom Honesty will be tending his garden well into old age.”
He sat for a few minutes more, then bent over and kissed the stone, stood, sighed, and walked away.
The tear he left behind trickled into the inscription, ran down the tail of the letter “y,” and settled around a seed in Swinburne's wreath.
Omne solum forti patria.
(Every region is a strong man's home.)
The clangour of the parade bell sounded and voices hollered: “Aufwachen! Aufwachen!”
In Barrack 5, Compound B, of Stalag IV at Ugogi, Sir Richard Francis Burton and his fellow prisoners of war dragged themselves wearily from their bunks, quickly put on their grey uniforms, and tumbled out onto the dusty parade ground, which was baking in the afternoon heat.
Obeying shouted orders, they arranged themselves into three rows, facing forward, blinking and screwing up their faces as the glare of the white sky burned the sleep out of their eyes.
“What now?” the man to Burton's right grumbled. “Surely they can't be sending us back to the pass already?”
“They'll work us to death as long as they get the blasted road built,” another man growled.
They were referring to the passage the prisoners had been carving through the Usagara Mountains. Burton and his fellows had originally been incarcerated at Stalag III, near Zungomero, on the other side of the range. From there, they'd been escorted out daily, in a chain gang, to work on the road. When the halfway point had been reached, three months ago, they'd been marched to this new POW camp at Ugogi to commence the second half of the route.
From his place midway along the second row, Burton looked up at the guard towers. The man-things in them, standing with their mounted seedpods trained on the prisoners, appeared rather more alert than usual.
Over to the left, the gates in the high barbed-wire fence surrounding the compound were swinging shut, and inside, a large plant had just drawn to a halt, squatting down on its roots. A group of German officers stepped out of the vehicle.
“Bloody hell!” a man gasped. “That's Lettow-Vorbeck!”
“Which one?” Burton asked.
“The small bloke with the wide-brimmed hat. What the hell is he doing here?”
Burton watched as the officer, with a swagger stick under his right arm and a leather briefcase in his left hand, met with Oberstleutnant Maximilian Metzger, the camp commandant. They conversed for a few minutes then marched over to the lined-up prisoners and started walking from one end of the first row to the other. They gave each man a cursory glance, reached the end of the line, then proceeded down the second row.
When they reached Burton, they stopped and Metzger said: “Hier, Generalmajor! Hier ist der gesuchte Mann!”
Lettow-Vorbeck examined Burton's face. He pulled a photograph from his pocket, looked at it, and nodded.
“Sehr Gut gemacht! Bringen Sie ihn her!”
Metzger signalled to two rhino guards. They stamped over, took Burton by the elbows, and dragged him out of the line. He was taken across the parade ground, into the commandant's office, and pushed into a chair opposite a heavy desk. The guards stood to attention to either side of him.
Lettow-Vorbeck entered and barked: “Lassen Sie uns allein!”
The guards clicked their heels and thudded out.
There was a clockwork fan revolving on the ceiling. Burton leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and allowed the air to wash over his face. He was weary to the bone.
“Do you know who I am?” Lettow-Vorbeck said, in strongly accented English.
Without opening his eyes, Burton replied: “Generalmajor Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. You command the German forces in East Africa.”
“That is correct. Sehr gut. So.”
Burton heard a chair scrape on the floor and creak as the other man sat down. There was a soft thump-the briefcase being swung up onto the desk-and a click as it was opened.
“I have here a file in which you feature with some considerable prominence.”
Burton didn't respond. He was hungry and thirsty, but most of all he needed to sleep.
“Private Frank Baker, captured on the western slopes of the Dut'humi Hills two years ago. You were alone-a refugee from the failed British assault on the Tanganyika Railway.”
There was a long moment of silence. Burton had still not opened his eyes. He thought about Bertie Wells and the night they'd slept in the open, beside Thomas Honesty's grave. The temperature had plummeted after sunset, and during the hours of darkness both of them developed a fever. Burton's dreams had been filled with violence; with scenes of Prussians and Arabians slaughtering each other-and he'd woken up soaked with dew, filled with memories, and cursing himself. How could he have forgotten there was a village nearby? Just along the trail!
Wells was in the grip of hallucinations, which-to judge from his babbling monologues-involved insects crawling out of the moon, invisible madmen, and three-legged harvestmen. With what little strength remained to him, Burton had hauled the war correspondent to his feet and dragged him along an overgrown trail that eventually opened into another clearing where a decrepit village stood. Its menfolk were long gone-conscripted-and the remaining villagers were elderly and half-starved. Burton left Wells with them while he went to hunt game.
But he'd become the prey. Three lurchers had blundered out of the undergrowth and pursued him across boggy ground and into thick jungle. It was peculiar; he felt certain they could have caught him, but instead they appeared to be herding him along.
One of them sprouted poppies as it floundered after him.
By the time he'd eluded them, he was lost and in the grip of malaria.
The Germans found him unconscious at the side of a trail. Since then, he'd spent nearly two years in the Stalag III POW camp before his recent transfer to Ugogi.
Large parts of his memory had returned. He knew he was the king's agent. He was aware that Algernon Swinburne, William Trounce, Thomas Honesty, Maneesh Krishnamurthy, Herbert Spencer, Sister Raghavendra, Isabella Mayson, and Isabel Arundell had travelled to Africa with him. But he didn't know why, what had become of them, or how he'd been transported into the future.
He'd been here for four years. Four years!
Why? For what purpose?
“Why?” Lettow-Vorbeck said.
Burton opened his eyes and met those of the generalmajor. Behind the officer's head, pencil-thin shafts of light shone through the slats of the window shutter. Motes of dust entered them, blazed, then vanished into the shade. Against this illumination, Lettow-Vorbeck's features were very dark-almost silhouetted-but by some quirk, his eyes shone with an almost feral intensity.
“Why are you British so destructive? Do you not believe in evolution?”
“Evolution? What do you mean?”
The officer drummed the fingers of his right hand on the desktop.
“The Greater German Empire seeks to advance the human species. We wish to liberate every man and every woman from slavery so that each can fulfil his or her greatest potential. So each can become an Ubermensch. Perhaps this translates as ‘Over Man,’ ja?”
Burton gave a snort of disdain. “I don't think your Askaris feel particularly liberated.”
“Nein. Nein. And it is the fault of your people. We are forced to employ the Africans to oppose British assaults on the infrastructure we are building here. Were it not for your people, Africa would have atmospheric railways and well-developed cities by now. And Europe would be a paradise, where trivial jobs and the necessities of survival are taken care of by plant life, leaving the human species free to explore its best potentials. Instead, we must assign our resources on both continents to resisting your vandalism.”
Burton's breath whistled from between his teeth. “It's always the same,” he said. “A madman creates a plan for the future of humanity, and, in unleashing it, causes untold suffering. Generalmajor, do I really need to point out that your vegetation is proliferating without check, or that while many individuals may be capable of advancing themselves, most are content to be well fed and sheltered and wish for little more?”
Lettow-Vorbeck nodded thoughtfully. “Es trifft zu, what you say of our plants. But that situation will be corrected once hostilities cease. As for your suggestion that the populace is not willing or able to evolve-I cannot agree. It is typical British thinking, for you built your Empire on the premise that an educated and privileged minority should benefit from the labours of a downtrodden majority.”
Lettow-Vorbeck suddenly slapped his hand down on the thick dossier that lay before him. “So! Lassen Sie uns auf den Punkt kommen! No more-what is the expression? — beating around the bush?” He put his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers in front of his face. “Ich kenne die Wahrheit. Your name is not Frank Baker. You are Sir Richard Francis Burton. You were born in the year 1821. You died in the year 1890. And you were sent to the year 1914 from the year 1863. Es ist ein au?erordentlicher Umstand! Unglaublich!”
Burton sat bolt upright. His exhaustion fell away.
Lettow-Vorbeck gave a slight smile, his teeth white in the shadow of his face. “Sehr gut. Sehr gut, Herr Burton. I have your full attention now. You will listen to me, ja? I have a story to tell you. But first a question: do you possess die telepathischen Fahigkeiten?”
“Mediumistic abilities? No.”
“Nor I. Hah! It is a misfortune! I should like them! You are aware, ja, that many people do? In increasing numbers, it appears. Your Colonel Crowley has his people-and they are strong-while we Germans have our weathermen, and, of course, the Kaiser himself, who is the greatest Gedankenleser-medium-of them all.”
Burton's right eyebrow rose slightly. “Nietzsche styles himself emperor now, does he?”
“Es ist angebracht, dass!”
A large fly buzzed lazily around Lettow-Vorbeck's head and landed on the desk. The German picked up the dossier and whacked it down onto the insect. He flicked the flattened corpse onto the floor and resumed his former position.
“And in Russland, there was Grigori Rasputin, also a great Gedankenleser, who, as you may know, died of-how do you say Hirnblutung?”
“Brain haemorrhage,” Burton answered.
“So. Ja. Thank you. He died of that two years ago. It is him my story concerns.”
Burton remained silent.
Lettow-Vorbeck pointed a finger down at the report lying in front of him.
“This dossier was entrusted to me by Kaiser Nietzsche himself. It contains information that no other man is aware of-just he and I-and now I will tell you.”
Still Burton said nothing.
“Thirteen years ago, after we were forced to destroy your nation's capital city, our troops discovered a number of black diamonds beneath the rubble of the Tower of London. They were the seven fragments of the Cambodian Eye of Naga, and the seven of the African Eye. We know this because documents concerning them were also found, and, in these documents, another Eye-from South America, and also in seven pieces-was described. Of it, though, there was no sign. You know of what I speak, ja?”
“I'm aware of the Eyes of Naga, Generalmajor,” Burton said, “but I can't help you. I don't know where the South American stones are.”
“That is not why you are here. We have already located them: our people have sensed their presence in Tabora-your last stronghold. We will recover them when we drive you from that place.”
“So far, I believe, you've not been very successful in that endeavour.”
“Ich kann es nicht verleugnen! The South American stones are being used to protect the city, Herr Burton, but the Heereswaffenamt-our Army Ordnance people-have a solution to that. A final solution! It will be put into operation soon and Tabora will be destroyed. But let us not stray from the subject-we must talk of the other Eyes, ja? For many decades, even before the Great War commenced, your people committed mediumistic acts of sabotage against German industry. When it was discovered that the diamonds were the tools your Gedankenleser had used to perpetrate their crimes, Bismarck passed them to Nietzsche, that he might employ them to-what is the word? — accentuate the talents of our own people. Nietzsche kept the Cambodian stones but sent the African ones to Rasputin, and the two men used the power of the Eyes to secure an alliance between Germany and Russland. Then, in 1914, Nietzsche overthrew Bismarck and Rasputin deposed the Tsar.”
“Two traitors betraying their leaders,” Burton said scornfully.
“Two visionaries,” Lettow-Vorbeck countered, “committed to creating a better world.”
Shouts penetrated the office from outside. The prisoners were being rounded up and marched out of the camp, on their way into the Usagara Mountains to continue work on the road.
Burton asked, “What has any of this to do with me?”
“We shall come to that. Nietzsche took control of the Greater German Empire, but before Rasputin could do similar in Russland, he died of the Hirnblutung. German agents retrieved the African stones and returned them to Nietzsche. Now we come to the interesting part of the story, for our emperor had spent considerable time probing the Cambodian fragments and he'd detected in them a remnant intelligence.”
“Yes. The Naga,” Burton muttered.
“The mythical reptiles? Nein, das ist falsch.”
Burton looked surprised. “Then what?”
“A man. A philosopher named Herbert Spencer. It was little more than an echo, but some information could be gleaned from it; specifically that Spencer died in 1862 yet his intelligence somehow survived for a further year, before finally being extinguished in a temple filled with jewels.”
“A temple? Where?”
“Somewhere here in Africa. Fascinating, ja? So now Nietzsche probed the African stones, also, and in them, too, he found the remains of a man-the residual memories-and in these, the temple was also present, but in greater detail, and Nietzsche saw that this mysterious place, encrusted with gems of unsurpassed value, was a vast device designed to channel enormous energy.”
“To what purpose?”
“To transcend the boundaries of time, Herr Burton. And it was also recorded in the remnant memories that you, mein Freund, were sent through the device. It is how you came to 1914 from 1863.”
“I was? Why?”
“You ask me that! Es ist meine Frage!”
Burton examined his blistered hands and frowned with frustration. “I don't remember. These past four years, I've been slowly piecing together what happened to me prior to my arrival in 1914, but there are still gaps.”
“Ah. I am pleased. You admit who you are. And do you remember this temple?”
“That is unfortunate. The Kaiser knows only that it is located somewhere in the Ruwenzori Range, deep inside the Blutdschungel.”
“The Blood Jungle? This Ruwenzori Range, was it-?”
“Once known as the Mountains of the Moon? Ja. That is the case. An area of Africa most important to you, I think!”
The German fell silent for a moment and considered Burton, who warily watched the other man's glittering eyes. Generalmajor Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, the explorer decided, was as dangerous as a venomous snake.
“Well,” the generalmajor said, “we have attempted to burn away the Blutdschungel but it grows back so fast! It is impenetrable, it covers the mountains, and it is spreading. All these years we have made no progress into the region, but that, perhaps, is because we do not know where in it we should be going. So, we have a plan.”
“And your plan involves me?”
“Ja. That is correct. As I have said, the Kaiser saw in the diamonds that the temple sent you to 1914. He therefore ordered me to find you. It has taken a long time. Africa is big! But, finally, here you are. A man from the past.”
“So you will locate the temple for us. You somehow found your way out of it and through the Blutdschungel, so obviously there is a route.”
“But, I told you, I don't remember.”
“I think this-” the German raised a hand and tapped his forefinger against the side of his head, “-will return to you.”
Burton sighed. “So what now?”
“Now we shall escort you all the way to your Mountains of the Moon and you shall show us the way to this fabulous temple. With it, the Kaiser can send agents back in time to prevent the interference that has so delayed the expansion of the Greater German Empire! British interference, Herr Burton!”
Lettow-Vorbeck stood and slipped the dossier back into his briefcase.
He barked, “Wache!” and the two rhino guards returned. “Ab mit ihm zum Transporter!”
They hoisted Burton to his feet.
“Wait! Wait!” he urged.
Lettow-Vorbeck looked at him and asked, “Haben Sie eine Frage?”
“Yes,” Burton replied. “Yes, I have a question. The memories imprinted in the African stones-whose are they?”
“Ah,” Lettow-Vorbeck said. “Ja. Ja. This you should know! They belonged to a man named William Trounce.”
“I'm dead!” Trounce announced. He waved a large earthenware jar in the air. “Not a drop left!”
“All is not lost!” Swinburne declared. He held up a second container, and the pombe in it sloshed invitingly. “I must say, though, Pouncer: while there may be life left in my jar, the invincible languor and oppression of this climate have sucked the very last drop of it from yours truly.”
“But not the poetry,” Trounce growled. “Invincible languor, my foot! Why can't you just say, the weather in Africa is as hot as hell, like any normal person would? Pass the beer.”
After taking an immoderate swig from it, Swinburne handed the container to Trounce, who poured an extravagant amount of its contents into his mouth, swallowed, hiccupped, then said, “We've been on the blasted continent for so long that I'm even beginning to enjoy this foul brew.”
He received a belched response.
The two men, dressed in light khaki suits, were relaxing beneath a calabash tree in the centre of Ugogi, a village that lay slightly more than halfway along their route to Kazeh. It had taken two weeks to reach here from Dut'humi, passing first through cultivated lands, then following the marshy bank of the Mgazi River, before chopping their way through thick dripping jungle of the most obstinately difficult kind, and crossing a quagmire, two miles wide, where a mule had sunk completely out of sight in the stinking, sulphurous mud.