A Meeting in Africa
© 2014 (*)
Jordan S. Bassior
Chapter 1: "I Presume?"
The woman rode her horse along the riverbank.
She was tall and lean, her hair graying-blonde, worn in a single long ponytail at back under her Stetson. Muscles like whipcords worked under her khaki shirt, her jeans tucked into her high riding boots. Holstered to her harness was a scoped bolt action carbine; two pistols in smaller holsters at her hips, a hunting knife sheathed at her belt. Level blue eyes surveyed her surroundings, taking in the African rainforest.
She rode like she was born to the saddle. She barely had to use the reins, controlling her horse with subtle motions of her thighs, with occasional low sounds. She and her horse – a big chestnut mare – moved like a single centauroid creature.
The mare saw something on the bank. Its ears flickered, went back, its motion changed. Instantly the woman was aware of it, guided the mare away, leaning and making calming sounds. The mare sidestepped, and the great crocodile watching from the water moved forward slightly, then subsided in frustration. The woman’s right hand, which had gone to one of her pistols, relaxed and rebuttoned the flap.
“Not much further, Breeze,” she woman said soothingly, “then we’ll be at her camp, out of this Godforsaken jungle and safe from the crocs and whatever else is out here.” It was as much for her own benefit as that of the horse. She’d been in some pretty strange places in her life, but she never liked a close forest which permitted a stealthy ambush.
The forest opened up ahead. She and the horse both felt freer as the sunlight shone directly down on them. A cooling breeze blew, welcome to her sweating face after the forest’s humid confines, though it was still hot even by the standards of the American Southwest in which she had spent her childhood.
She knew it would get cooler when the sun set, but the last thing she wanted was to spend the night out on the African savannah, which she knew to be haunted by lions, hyenas and other predators. They were far from civilization, and there were too many creatures who might imagine Breeze their dinner. She knew the horse was just a horse, ordinary Equus equus, but that didn’t mean that she thought of her as any less of a friend. Horses, of one kind or another, had been among the best friends she had ever known.
There, on that rise! A low mound rose over the military crest, parked slightly hull-down. She approved of the positioning: she had never formally served in any military, but had been in over a hundred desperate fights all over this world – and some other places – and understood why the good Doctor had chosen to site her vehicle in such a location. Maybe she can help me, she let herself think. Heck, she might even believe the real story.
But no. That was far too much for which to hope. Simple assistance – a clue – would be more than enough to reward herself for her troubles in traveling this far off the beaten path. And she wouldn’t help matters by revealing too much, by being taken for a madwoman. Though I’ve heard some mighty strange things about her, too, she reflected. Some of the things they say about her are even stranger than what they say about me.
As she rode up the hill she could see more and more of the vehicle. It was the size of a large double-decker bus, but wider and squatter. Its sides were painted in tawny yellow-brown and black dazzle camoflague, and atop and forward was a structure which seemed suspiciously like a weapons turret, though no armament actually showed. Atop that was a cluster of communications antennae, and what looked like a phased-array radar.
Wow, she thought. That looks more – well, military – than I expected. The thought cheered her. This was a barbaric and dangerous territory, and she’d too often had to deal with well-meaning fellow-scientists who were still mentally living in multi-cultural fantasy lands, even after they’d spent years in Third World hellholes. She obviously ain’t one of those fools.
She was almost up the hill now. She could see the vehicle’s suspension – twelve balloon-tired roadwheels, in large wheel-wells. The bottom of the chassis was high off the ground. All-terrain with a vengeance, she realized. She means business. This sweet truck can fight or run, over almost any ground. Wonder how often she finds it necessary?
One hatch was open on the side.
Standing in the doorway was the woman she had come all this way to see. She was young, somewhere in her twenties, and of average height, with frizzy orange-red hair and rimless glasses. Her face looked highly intelligentl, but her eyes were hard, and under her shirt and shorts rippled unusually-powerful looking muscles, as if she were a body-builder. No, the rider corrected herself, observing the long smoothness of her lines. Nothing muscle-bound about her. She's an athlete, and a very dedicated one. Stronger’n me, and I ain’t exactly some fragile flower.
Above, the rider saw the muzzle of a rifle poking out from a second-story gunport, pointing right at her head. Huh, she thought. I thought she worked alone. I sure hope that’s a friend of hers.
There was little she could do about this now. The sniper had the drop on her, and all the ways she could think of to dodge or slip under that rifle’s field of fire would have the distinct disadvantage that an alert sniper could put at least one slug into her before she would have time to get to safety. Less’n I drop behind Breeze, she thought, and knew as she thought this that she could never use her mare so cruelly.
I’ve been in worse pickles, and I’m still kicking, she told herself. Might as well just go forward.
She rode right up to the woman, alighted nimbly from her horse, keeping her hands well clear of her holsters.
“Dr. Elizabeth Thornberry, Ah presume?” she asked pleasantly. “Ah’m Dr. Anderson. Megan Anderson.”
Chapter 2: Comvee
The red-head's face relaxed.
"Delighted to finally meet you in person," she said in an unusual accent, in which Megan detected Australian, upper-class British, and several other strains. They shook hands. "My friends call me Eliza. But come inside -- it's not entirely safe out here right now, I'm afraid."
"Ah need to stable mah horse," Megan explained. "You said you had a stall free, but Ah don't see ..."
"Bring her around back," said Eliza. She produced a complex-looking remote control, pressed some buttons. The door behind her swung closed. She pressed another combination, and servomotors whined from the rear of the immense all-terrain vehicle.
Megan led Breeze by the reins. The chestnut mare shied at the strange noises coming from Eliza's truck, and came close to bolting when the end of a loading ramp struck the earth. Megan calmed her with soft noises and her own evident lack of fear, but Breeze looked suspiciously upward as her mistress led her to the ramp.
The ramp slanted to a cargo hatch about a quarter-way up the side of the vehicle. From within came cool air and a melange of odors different from those of the savannah outside. Breeze's nose wrinkled, then she drew her lips back in flemen. She pulled back from the lip of the ramp, made agitated sounds toward Megan. She refused point-blank to take a step further, no matter how Megan tried to soothe her.
Megan knew better than to try to lead a scared horse up a narrow metal ramp.
"Mind if I help?" asked Eliza. "I'm good with animals -- I've made a scientific study of their signaling systems."
Megan looked at her dubiously. A lifetime of experience with animals left her skeptical of the claims of scientists compared to those who worked with them daily. But then, if the stories were true, Dr. Thornberry was a hands-on kind of scientist, so -- "Sure. She's gentle enough, just watch out if she gets real scared."
Eliza nodded, then stepped up slowly to Breeze and made a equine-sounding series of sounds.
Breeze's eyes went wide, her ears went back and then forward, and she stepped back a full pace and regarded Eliza with what looked like amazement. Then, without a murmur, she followed Eliza up the metal ramp.
Megan was amazed, too. She had rarely heard any other human being mimic equine vocalizations so perfectly. What was more, the complexity -- she hadn't heard anything even remotely like that since ... but Breeze was just a normal horse, though a smart one for her species.
She would have said what she was seeing was scarcely possible, save for the fact that Megan Anderson had seen much stranger things before she was out of childhood, and some fairly strange things after. It had left her with an unusually broad definition of the possible.
Megan followed Eliza and Breeze up the ramp, laying a last lingering look on the sun-drenched savannah. Nothing was moving out there save a lazy circling vulture, but if Dr. Thornberry said there was trouble coming, Megan was not inclined to disbelieve her. Eliza Thornberry had the air of someone not easily frightened.
She noticed as she climbed and entered that the cargo ramp was massive: evidently made of some sort of armor plate. The edges of the hatchway were a foot thick. She rapped the hull and was rewarded by a dulled ringing -- she'd heard the same against the glacis of an Abrams main battle tank, though this was thinner. Composite armor, she thought, probably the British Chobham variety we borrowed for our own vehicles. Her mobile base is an armored personnel carrier.
She'd seen this design somewhere before, in some technology magazine or news report, but she couldn't remember at the moment.
The cargo bay was huge, comprising easily a fifth of the interior space of the big carrier. There were all manner of objects, including what looked like a folded ultralight aircraft and a minisubmarine, and of course lots and lots of crates of all shapes and sizes. One compartment door had "Danger: Explosives!" painted over it, and since the door was unusually heavy-looking, Megan reckoned the warning was meant seriously. This melange of equipment and stores was bolted by chains to thick eyelets on the floor and walls.
"Over there's the stable," Dr. Thornberry said. "Two stalls with adjacent feed and tack compartments, running water, and travel slings, so Breeze won't fall down when the comvee goes bouncing over the landscape. She should be all right, short of penetration of the cargo bay."
"Penetration?" asked Megan. "Your vehicle's heavily-armored -- what kind of opposition are you expecting?"
"I've had some trouble with some poachers," Eliza said. "They're connected to the local Marxist guerillas -- they've got some heavy weapons, though nothing my big metal lady shouldn't be able to handle, provided I'm at the wheel. But we need to haul out quickly, before they can come up in force. Don't worry -- they can't get through her skin with anything short of an ATGM from most aspects, and she's got enough compartmentation and damage control gear to ride out more than a few RPG hits, even if they penetrate. And she has teeth too -- enough to give them something to worry about when they're trying.
It occurred to Megan that Dr. Thornberry had a somewhat worse relationship with the natives than was normal for purely scientific expeditions, but then it was a bit late for her to have second thoughts about traveling with her. If they were already in bandit country, she was lucky they hadn't jumped her on the way in; she couldn't count on more such luck should she try to run now.
Megan finished squaring Breeze away -- put away her tack, set up her feed and water, did some cursory work on her mane and coat, which had accumulated some nasty burrs and a couple of unpleasant life forms from the rainforest. Dr. Thornberry excused herself and went off to see to her vehicle. As she finished working on Breeze, she could hear a deep thrumming vibration running through the deck, as if very powerful engines were idling. They didn't sound precisely like any internal-combustion engine she'd ever heard before.
Suddenly she remembered where she'd seen the basic design for the vehicle. There had been an article in an old Military Technology International magazine she'd read two decades or so ago. The Bentley XM9000 "Land Master," a large armored personnel carrier proposed as a mobile command post for the British Army's "Special Action Force," their version of the American G. I. Joe Special Forces unit. She remembered that it was controversial because the power plant was ... wait, no. Thornberry was a private scientific researcher. She couldn't possibly be running this thing off a ...
An intercom on the wall squawked.
"I'm ready to roll, Dr. Anderson," Eliza's voice came. "Make sure your friend Breeze is secured for travel, then come up front to the control room. Second level, all the way forward, you can't miss it."
Megan fumbled for and pressed the transmit button.
"Breeze's ok. I'm coming up now."
She opened the hatch forward, stepped through, closed it. She noticed that even this internal door was an inch thick and made of some sort of metal. There was a central compartment with hatches on all sides and a spiral metal stair headed up. She climbed, opened a door, stepped through to find herself in a sort of lounge or conference chamber, with a big table and a several swivel chairs bolted to the deck. Magazines, mostly on zoology and geography, were strewn over the desk. Two laptops were tied to the table. There were strong smells here, of slightly-overripe food, of sweaty scientist -- and of something else, the something else that had spooked Breeze coming in.
She opened the forward hatch, stepped in.
The control cabin was large, with big all around windows made of some very thick but still highly-transparent substance. There were four seats. The two front ones were occupied. One by Dr. Eliza Thornberry -- the other by the something else.
The something else was somewhat smaller than a man, very stocky and very hairy. He smelt of an incongruous mixture of musky not-human maleness and ... shampoo?. He was clad in a pair of shorts. He was frantically working controls with both hands and one of his feet, all of which, Megan saw, were equipped with serviceable thumbs; his head leaning toward flatscreen monitors displaying complex systems diagnostics. As the door hissed open and Megan stepped in, he looked back at her with an expression of some alarm.
He hooted and grunted a complex series of vocalizations, which were neither any human speech nor any Megan had ever heard from her admittedly-limited experience with apes.
"We don't have time for that," Eliza said to the ape. "We have to get going now.
The ape nodded and returned to his controls. As Eliza moved forward toward a free seat, she looked over his shoulder and noticed that one of the displays was labeled "MAIN REACTOR CONTROLS." Hmm, she thought with all the calm she could muster. Looks like Dr. Thornberry went with the original design on that.
"Welcome to the cockpit of the Comvee Mark Five," said Eliza to her. "Sorry for the bother right now, we're in a bit of a hurry. This is my partner and best friend, Darwin ..."
The ape glanced back and ooked.
"... and Darwin, this is Dr. Megan Anderson, of Texas Agricultural ..."
"Freelance contracting with them, actually," Megan clarified.
"Oh, what's a little tenure between friends?" asked Eliza, grinning a bit madly.
"He's a bonobo," Megan realized out loud. "Pan paniscus.'
"You are correct," said Eliza cheerfully. "You have passed your subspecies recognition test!"
"He's operating the controls of a nuclear fission thermocouple -- a SNAP reactor!"
Darwin grunted and ooked.
"Yes he is," affirmed Eliza, chuckling at something. "Darwin, engage to main power supply!"
The ape selected an option, pressed a button. The quality of the thrumming changed subtly.
Megan was both impressed and slightly concerned, but she figured that Dr. Thornberry probably knew what she -- or her ape -- was doing.
Eliza pressed a series of buttons. A display changed in front of her. Megan recognized a map of the surrounding terrain, with the Comvee Mark Five at center. There were a number of red icons appearing on the monitor, mostly forward and to the right.
"Oh, blast," said Dr. Thornberry. "And here I was hoping for a peaceful trip. Better run on sensors," She pressed a button. Big armor plates slid shut over all the windows, cutting off their direct view of the outside.
It was not a moment too soon. What sounded sort of like hail pattered off the steel plates, only no hail ever fallen ever bounced away with the distinctive whine of deflected high-velocity rifle rounds. Megan had heard those many more times in her life than any sane woman would have wanted, and she was hearing them again.
Darwin hooted in alarm. Eliza said a rude word, pressed another button.
Megan heard servomotors working somewhere above.
Darwin hooted louder.
There was a tearing-metal sound from above. It was not actual metal tearing, of course. It was the sound of a high-speed rotary machine gun.
On Eliza's monitor, she saw blinking red dots flying toward the Comvee from the bigger red icons, becoming bracketed by highlights and then the highlights blinking and the red dots were vanishing. It was a pretty display, and might have pleased Megan had she not been all too aware that she was looking at the control screen of a ground-based close-in-defense system.
You've shot your bolt," said Eliza savagely. "Not good enough." She pressed another button and something whined above. "Uncapping main turret," she said. "Darwin, take the helm. Hold ready to reverse off the crest at my command."
Main turret? Megan thought. So she'd been right about what the vehicle was sporting on its forward hull.
Scanning ..." said Eliza, working several controls. "Locking, loading HE ... Firing!"
Pumf ... pumf ... pumf ... pumf! Something coughed loudly overhead. "Direct hits," Eliza said with satisfaction. "Darwin, roll!"
Darwin pulled on his wheel.
Megan could feel the great vehicle trundling backward down the hill. The motor was surprisingly quiet -- she guessed it was something like electric drives in the wheel wells, possibly multiple independent ones for redundancy against combat damage. That had been the original British Army idea, anyway.
As it did, there were wham! noises from ahead, and metal rattled off the bow. Shrapnel, Megan thought numbly. They've brought up mortars!
Hah!" chuckled Eliza. "A second late, no prize!" She gripped her own control yoke, turned to Darwin. "Okay, transfer helm!"
The bonobo toed a button, and Eliza worked her own yoke. The Comvee slewed around in a vast curve. She moved a lever, and now they were turning forward.
Darwin, arm smoke grenades," said Eliza, as they began to pull away from the hill.
On my signal ... Fire one! Fire two!"" Something hissed from behind. Eliza waited, then bore her foot down on the throttle.
Bounding smoothly over the savannah, the Comvee pulled away at what had to be at least forty miles an hour.
To Be Continued.
(*) Megan Anderson © Hasbro. Eliza Thornberry, Darwin, and an earlier version of their Cool Car © Nickelodeon.
(*) Megan Anderson © Hasbro. Eliza Thornberry, Darwin, and an earlier version of their Cool Car © Nickelodeon.