From Supernatural Stories 27 - 1959
JUNGLE OF DEATH
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“Quanga was horribly, violently dead . . . . but there was no sign of his killer.”
It was dark. Not night. Just the grey-green day darkness of this stinking Amazon basin. Dick Jefferson plodded on wearily. It was hard to be anything but weary out here, he reflected. The expensive mini-camera, hung round his neck, seemed to weigh tons, rather than pounds. Suddenly he came to one of those strange, unexpected little clearings, where the light was able to seep through. All around him monkeys jabbered and chattered madly to each other as they fled before his approaching footsteps. Beautiful birds, of undreamed of colour, fled, harsh-cried, into the upper foliage. And as the light penetrated the darkness, Jefferson was enthralled for the thousandth time by the beauty of this nightmare world. He had never realised there could be so many luxurious shades of green; the very improbability of the whole thing increased its fascination. He paused and took stock of himself, a man, a gun, a camera and a tent — thousands of miles from civilisation. Surrounded by flies, mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, death and disease in a hundred thousand unpleasant forms, and why?
He asked himself the straight question, and realised as he did so that he didn’t know the answer. There wasn’t any ‘Why.’ It didn’t make sense. He was a man alone, because of some strange quirk, some kink in his mental make-up. It made him a man alone. ‘We are those fools who could not rest in the dull earth we left behind.’ He quoted to himself in a husky voice that sounded somehow, strangely macabre among those eternal foliages. He began again, “There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, There’s a race who can’t stay still, So they break the hearts of kith and kin, and they roam the world at will.”
The monkeys and parakeets fled in chattering, screeching, caterwauling profusion at the sound of his voice. He shouted the last line again, “They roam the world at will.” A sleepy-looking alligator by the side of one of the thousand swampy black holes near the river’s edge, opened a bright quizzical eye and looked at him speculatively. Jefferson made a movement as if to unsling the rifle and decided against it. The alligator was too far away to bother himself. It was paint box country. Greens and golds, blues, orange, contrasting, clashing, in a panorama of such magical many-hued splendour that his mind was unable to take it all in. The whole thing was more like a painted jungle than a real one. It was almost too good to be true. “A man alone,” he repeated to himself, and yet not quite. There was Quanga. Quanga the strange, half-savage Wai-wai tribesman who carried his tent and was now somewhere up ahead, looking for a spot to make camp. He gave a shout again.
“Have your benab up yet, Quanga?” he called. There was no answer but the chattering of the moneys. No answer but the screeching of the biliously coloured parakeets. He increased that weary, slogging pace. The foetid jungle seemed to close in all round him like the arms of some deadly green trap. He felt like a microscopic fly descending upon the sensitive tentacles of the sundew. Green and grey, silver and gold. The dappled stems of the mighty trees laced incessantly with the clinging cypress vines that formed a living curtain all round him. A curtain which seemed to have been dropped across his track by the malevolent deity of this equatorial basin. As if the god of the Amazon jungle was staging a theatrical performance in which he was amused to keep the white man and Quanga apart. Jefferson shouted his boy’s name again, louder and louder still, but in the strange way of the jungle, the sound was swallowed up by the green velvet darkness all round him. It was echoed in the rustling retreat of the thousand-and-one tiny creatures disturbed by the presence of man. More than ever Jefferson felt himself to be an interloper. He felt that the jungle resented him. Knew within his heart that he had no right to be there, in this vast untouched, unexplored wilderness. Only the Wai-wai native, the marmoset, could claim to belong. This was no country for a civilised man. Then Jefferson decided with a strange ironic laugh, that he was hardly civilised, in the popular meaning of the word. Did civilisation mean the knowledge of using a rifle and a camera? Instead of a spear and a knife? He slogged on. The sociological enquiry was above his head, ‘let it pass’, he sighed. He was as strange as this strange jungle around him. A weird, variegated mixture, a man of might-have-beens. A man who had made a thousand false beginnings, in a thousand different places. He recited his poem again, “If only I could find my groove, what a deep groove I should make. So we chop and change, and each fresh move is only a fresh mistake . . . And each fresh move is only a fresh mistake,” he repeated dully to himself.
A strange sense of foreboding gripped his heart; where the devil was Quanga? Again and again he roared the native’s name to the skies. But only the thick impenetrable jungle answered. The heat was oppressive, the heat and the smell. Now heady-delicious with the exotic perfume of rare tropical flowers. Now foetid and filthy with the stagnant smell of the swamp water. It was wet; everywhere was wet. Even the blazing sun failed to completely condense this huge green crystal of jungle. You had but to twist a leaf, tread heavily upon the swampy ground. Slash with a knife into the bark of a tree, and there was moisture, moisture, moisture. Dampness was the life blood of this great sleeping green monster. It was a huge green cup, that oozed its way skyward from the mighty, roaring Amazon. He reached another clearing, and quite suddenly he saw the half-erected benab that was obviously Quanga’s work. It was a typical pole-and-leaf Wai-wai temporary shelter. The tent, unrolled on the ground beside it. He wondered if the boy had gone off in search of poles or pegs. But there was an abundance of useful-looking timber all round the clearing. Cypress vines seemed to whisper together as he stood surveying the half-finished shelter. And then . . . he saw something else . . . something on the floor of the clearing, that froze the blood in his veins. It was blood . . . wet blood . . . it lay in a thick, dark pool. With a sickly feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach, he knew that neither man nor beast could have lost that quantity of blood and continued to live. His jaw set into a grim, hard line as he unslung the rifle. Quanga was dead, he told himself. The question was, how had he died? Pounced on by some strange denizen of the forest? His mind raced back over all the weird tales and legends he had heard of this mysterious Amazon jungle. The dark green mystery into which men walked and never returned. Peopled with strange, unknown tribes who have never been in contact with civilisation. Did giants lurk among those trees? Were the last of the great reptiles still hidden in some strange lost world? As Conan Doyle had written. Were there creatures so hideous and horrible that the mind of man could not conceive their appalling terror?
Dick Jefferson felt more alone than he had ever felt in his life. He felt angry, too. Not that he had been particularly attached to Quanga, but the boy had served him well. He had been faithful, after the way of his kind, and by his lights he had lived a good, rather than a bad life. He had never done anyone any particular harm, that Jefferson knew of. Certainly he had never done Jefferson any harm. Perhaps the root cause of the kindling anger, was the wanderer’s knowledge of his own utter loneliness, now that the native was no longer with him. He eased back the bolt of the rifle with a quiet, satisfying ‘click’. Casually he laid the camera inside the half-finished benab, and eased his shoulder subconsciously. Glad to be free of the encumbrance. The rifle felt warm and moist in his hands, as all things exposed to the Amazon jungle feel warm and moist. He caressed the stock lovingly. The gun had stood him in good stead before now. His keen ears were listening for any sound of his quarry. He imagined hosts of savage eyes ringing the clearing. Expected at any moment a paralytic dart to pinion him. Or that a score of screaming warriors would leave their cover, bearing clubs and spears; wondered for a second whether the attack would come from above, and glanced up quickly into the tall, mysterious, green heights above him. There was nothing to disturb the verdure. Nothing more dangerous than the ever-chattering monkeys. One wickedly-coloured parakeet screamed jungle defiance at the encroaching white man. He sighed with relief, there didn’t seem to be anyone with a crafty native vine-rope, concealed up the tree. That was worth knowing at least. He took a pace towards the edge of the clearing. He was no tracker, at least, not by Quanga’s standards, but months in the Amazonian jungle had taught him the rudiments of the art, at least. Now he forced his eyes to make a slow, detailed, and systematic study of every twig and leaf. Tried to find something out of place, something sufficiently unnatural to tell him that it was not the work of wind and rain and monkey. This was not a natural movement, but had been caused by the path of something or someone. He walked on through the everglades, into the foetid verdure, rifle gripped tightly in his hands. It was only a hunch that he was following. There was no track, no trail. Then, he heard — was it a sound? He looked down, and froze on the spot. There at his feet, lay another pool of dark congealing blood — he retched hard, and took a grip on himself — so his hunch had been right, he told himself. He was on the right track. Quanga’s body had come this way. That sound disturbed him. Was it just the jungle playing on his nerves, or could he really hear something? Something low, and faint, and far away. Yet not so low, and faint, and far away that it was inaudible. He pricked up his ears, and stood stock still. The wild life had departed before his feet. He had the jungle to himself. No sound now, but the laboured breathing of his own chest. How long he stood listening, Jefferson had no idea, but as he stood lost in thought, a frown of heavy concentration furrowing his brow, so he became all the more certain of the existence of the sound.
He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth in an effort to hear more acutely. “What the devil can that be?” he muttered to himself. In a strange, intuitive way, he felt that there was a connection between the sound and the death of the native. For he was sure now, without any reasonable doubt, after finding the second pool of blood, that poor Quanga was dead. The sound grew louder and louder. There was no question of having to strain to hear it now. There was no question of imagining it. It was bearing down on him. Yet he was unable to identify it. It was familiar. That was the strange and terrifying thing about it. It was so familiar that he couldn’t place it. It was a sound that he had heard a million times before. But it was out of context here. It didn’t belong in the Amazon jungle. He listened. Then terror overcame him to such an extent that he stopped listening. In a wild paroxysm of fear, he screamed . . . The sound was crashing down upon him, now. He felt that unless his memory could come up with its identity, his mind would snap under the strain. But memory didn’t. And then, when every nerve in his body was screaming out, and he was on the verge, on the wave, straining up towards its crest, on the very brink of the climax . . . the crisis . . . he was aware of being involved in a terrible maelstrom of force. Then consciousness left him in a sea of pain and he knew no more. . .
* * *
The tall, broad-shouldered pilot eased the plane slowly down in a long graceful glide. He turned to the strikingly beautiful girl sitting beside him. A girl whose long almost blue-black hair seemed so vibrantly alive that it pulsated with a sentience of its own.
“I don’t like this country,” said Val Stearman slowly. “Never did. Don’t suppose I ever will.” La Noire nodded.
“Yes, that’s understandable.” Her voice was husky, magical, exciting. It matched her hair. Stearman’s strong, skillful hands edged the plane lower. La Noire pressed the trigger of the wing mounted cine-cameras. Their noise was inaudible above the roar of the big plane’s engine.
“The assignments of the “Globe” are very weird, and very wonderful,” said Val. “I never thought they’d suddenly decide to do a ten-week series on the mysteries of Manaos. Hurrah for the Rio Negro. Wonders of the Amazon. Marvels of Madeira. Secrets of the Salvas. The Terror of the Theodoro. Oh, yes, everything from the Matto Grosso up to Bogota. From the Guiana Highlands, down to La Paz. And who do they send on this miraculous jaunt?” He shrugged his shoulders expressively. “Our ace reporter. You know, the simple reader must think they pay me a million a week. And what do I get? I get a lousy double on basic salary, and all expenses.”
“You’re just cynical,” said La Noire. “A lot of men would give almost anything for the chance to come exploring out here.”
“I suppose it must be the signs of increasing age,” replied Val. “Right now I’d swap this for London, New York, Chicago — anywhere civilised. A nice comfortable seat in a relaxing, entertaining theatre. With a beautiful, chef-cooked meal, in an exclusive club, when I’d finished. Just about my idea of heaven.”
“Not really,” said La Noire, “There’s something in you that just itches for excitement.”‘ Val took his hand off the stick and scratched his head.
“I dunno. Maybe I’m getting old, or that old wanderlust inside me is beginning to cool down with the passage of years. After all, I’m an old man now. I’m thirty-five.” She giggled.
“I could think of several ribald remarks they make about old men, all of which hold true in your case.”
“You’re a wicked young woman,” said Stearman, patting his wife’s hand affectionately. “Oh, well, do you think we’ve done enough on this particular stretch of greenery?” He began humming, “I love the mountain greenery, pom, pom, pom. . .”
“All this, and the heavenly choirs, too,” teased La Noire.
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” answered Stearman, “just nowhere at all.” He eased back the stick. The big plane began to climb. “Well, I suppose we’d better be heading back for Quito, beyond the distant Andes. Doesn’t that sound good?”
“Well, don’t tell me, I’m not the readers,” laughed La Noire. Her laugh was cut short, by a sudden change in the note of the engines. “What was that darling?” she whispered, clutching his arm. Val Stearman had turned a trifle pale beneath his tan.
“I hope to God it’s nothing serious,” he said under his breath. The engine began to splutter. The big plane began losing height. “This is the sort of nightmare I’ve always dreaded having twice,” he said, “crashing in the Amazon jungle.” He crossed his fingers. “There must be somewhere to land.” He nursed the plane a few feet higher on the stroke of the engines.
“Val,” said La Noire quietly, she’d got over the first shock of the failure, “Val, the starboard engine’s ablaze.”
“Hells bells,” he grated, “Badly?” She nodded.
“Looks so.” His gaze followed her pointing finger through the observation window. The starboard engine was blazing like a beacon. Without a second’s hesitation he snatched the fire extinguisher and made towards the door.
“Val, you can’t,” she begged.
“Got to try,” he said. “Do you realise how far we are inside this damned Amazon basin? Look, if we have to crash here we’re as good as dead. We’ve got at least to find a clearing, and a native hut. We can’t just land in the middle of that green hell. We’ve got no damned equipment.” He closed his mind to the thought of trying to cut their way unarmed, and without provisions, through the thousand miles of the evil verdure below. Back to civilisation? He knew they would hardly last a day! His dark eyes focused grimly on that blazing starboard engine. It seemed to burn with a mocking, twinkling glare, as though challenging him to do something about it. He felt as though he were suspended on a blazing rope, which would part at any second under the destructive force of the combustion. Plummet him down to those eager green claws of the jungle beneath. La Noire looked at him in a silence that conveyed far more than a million words. She squeezed his hands tenderly as he forced the door back and thrust his powerful shoulder against the slipstream.
“For heaven’s sake try and hold the crate steady,” said Stearman. Then he was out on the slender wing, which began to tip under his weight, so that the plane came round in a slow banking turn. He could smell the blistering paint, and the smoke — thick, black, oily smoke, from the blazing, blistering engine. A gust of burning air seared against his cheek as the wind swept towards him. He felt his hair singeing. And as though it were a million miles away, he thought he heard La Noire scream. Doggedly he hung on. Watching the sickening spinning panorama of jungle gyrate below him. At last he got the extinguisher going. The plane was losing height badly. He had to do something about this engine, and he had to do it fast. The flame killing chemical spray struck at the root of the blaze. The elements battled with one another for mastery. Then with a great sigh of relief, Val saw that the extinguisher had won. The flames petered and died away. The black, twisted end of the engine stood out stark against the cloudless blue, equatorial sky. The plane struck an air pocket, and gave a sudden sickening lurch that all but tore Val Stearman from his precarious hold on the wing. There was nothing La Noire could do to control that sudden, violent, downward jerk. She looked through the observation port with terrified eyes and gave a great cry of relief when she saw that somehow the powerful reporter still hung to the slippery, swaying smooth surface of the wing. Stearman’s heart was beating like a trip hammer. He could feel it pounding against his ribs as the plane itself shuddered and lurched. He expected every second to be his last. A dozen times the wind, slipping past with the force of an invisible pile driver, all but took him from his fragile hold. “Spiderman Stearman, they call me,” he grunted to himself. “Oh, for London. For dear old England. I must get a desk job. It’s no good.” Stearman’s sense of humour was only matched by his strength, tenacity and courage. Inch by inch he pulled himself nearer and nearer to safety. It seemed an eternity before his thick, muscular fingers locked around the lintel of the open door and he dragged himself inside, breathing heavily. Far, far below him he saw the tiny speck of the discarded extinguisher hurtling to earth at ever increasing speed. He realised that it might have been a man. It might have been him . . . A silent prayer of thanks, then he started to right the tipping plane. The starboard engine was silent, useless, dead; but at least it was no longer hazarding their lives . . . inch by inch he edged the plane higher. Anxiously he watched the jungle receding below them again; he felt that Providence had delivered them from the evil maw of some monster.
For five minutes they rose in that slow, easy climb, and Val’s breathing had just returned to normal, when there was an ominous splutter from the port engine . . .
“Damn,” he snarled, and crashed one enormous fist into the palm of the other hand. How it had happened, why it had happened, he didn’t — couldn’t — know. But it had. That was all that mattered. The port engine was also ablaze.
“Get the ‘chutes,” said Val quickly to La Noire as he held tightly to the stick, making the most of every precious second of height that was left to him. A trail of thick, black smoke billowed like a pall across the blue sky behind them.
“There’s a jinx on this blasted plane,” said Stearman, “there must be.” Bitterly he told himself that all his efforts on the other wing had been in vain. Pointless. The effort. The risk. The danger. Now, just when they might have limped home, with such a tale to tell, the port engine had gone. It wouldn’t have mattered, even if they had still had the extinguisher, the engine would burn itself out long before he could reach it. Already the plane was losing height again. La Noire struggled into her ‘chute. Val set the controls steady, and slipped his own harness on. “You go first,” he said softly. “Remember all I’ve ever told you about how to land. It’s just like jumping off a high wall. Relax and let yourself roll. When you’re clear of the plane count three and pull that rip-cord . . . O.K.?” She nodded bravely, he kissed her and they crossed to the door. He wondered if this was to be the end of their lives, their hopes, and all the adventures they had shared. The jungle lay below them. Green, forbidding, darkly mysterious. La Noire gave his hand a final tight squeeze and launched herself into the thinness of the rushing air. For a few seconds he watched her, and then with a last defiant curse at the smouldering engine, he hurtled into space after her, and forced himself to wait until it was time to pull the rip-cord. As he dropped he saw a huge white mushroom of silk open before him, and heaved a great sigh of relief even as he pulled his own cord. He knew that her chute had opened, anyway. He felt a sudden savage jerk as his harness took up the strain. There was a snap as the big chute opened above him. As gently as thistledown they floated earthwards. Nearer, nearer, every passing second, to the green tentacles of the waiting jungle.
Down . . . down . . . down. Like a bottomless, sideless lift. Suspended like gossamers on the end of their silken threads. The big newspaper man and his wife floated helplessly towards whatever lay in store for them in the murky depths of the Amazon jungle.
They were almost there now. Val covered his face with his hands as he felt himself crashing through the upper branches of the trees. He knew that it would only be a matter of minutes before the chute tangled. He was right. There was a sudden crash, the sound of tearing silk; then he stopped with a jerk that shook all the breath from his body. The chute had jammed, as he had known it must. The black cloud of threatening unconsciousness, that had winded him, passed slowly. When it did, his first thoughts were for La Noire. He looked anxiously in all directions. There was no sign of her in the thick, tangled foliage. He knew that he must cut himself free and go in search of her. Like MacHeath, of Threepenny Opera fame, Val Stearman was never without a heavy clasp knife. A few deft strokes of his powerful arm severed the ropes and he began swinging agilely down the tall tree. His hands encountered a cypress vine, and swinging Tarzan-like on the herbaceous rope, he found himself standing a few seconds later on the foetid floor of the Amazon jungle. He gave a deep breath, and cupping his hands to his mouth shouted: “La Noire. Where are you, darling?” Wild life fled in all directions. As he listened cursing the rustling that it made, at last there was comparative silence. Then he heard her. She must have been forty or fifty yards away at least.
“Val: Are you all right?”
“Yes. Keep shouting. I’m on my way.” He began hurrying towards the sound of her voice, the swampy terrain sucking and pulling at his feet. It took him barely twenty seconds to find her. As he did so his heart came into his mouth, and he froze where he stood. A huge and deadly black mamba was coiled around the tree in which La Noire was trapped. Scarcely ten feet away from her. The thing was hideously horrible. Repulsively evil. Stearman shuddered as he snatched the vine from a tree and made towards it with all possible speed.
“Keep still, darling. There’s a snake near you,” he roared. La Noire obediently ceased trying to extricate herself from the parachute harness. From the position in which she was entangled it would have been impossible for her to see the hideous black reptile. In a way Val was glad. With the clasp knife firmly in his teeth and a stick in his hand he began climbing towards her. The second he was within striking distance of the mamba, he locked his legs around the trunk, obtained a good hand hold, and then struck with every ounce of his fourteen stone. The vine that he carried whistled through the air like a shaft of dark green lightning. When it struck the snake’s head, its velocity could only have been guessed at. Val was a very powerful, and at that moment, a very desperate, man. The huge mamba jerked, died without a sound, and fell from its perch in the tree. It was the work of a moment for the big reporter to help La Noire to the ground. He stirred the still twitching body of the snake with his foot as he passed.
“Ugly looking devil,” he commented, as much to himself as to her. La Noire shuddered instinctively as she looked at those tenuous dark coils, that had been so vibrantly dangerous such a short while before.
“It’s horrible,” she said.
“Was,” said Val. “In my opinion the only good snake is a dead one. Anyway, we’d better start making tracks.”
He was an optimist of the first water. But he well knew, despite that optimism, the complete hopelessness of making their way across hundreds of trackless miles towards the nearest outpost of civilisation. They were going to need all the luck in the world, and then some to spare. Only the intervention of friendly natives, or a major miracle, could possibly save them, from the thousand hidden deaths of the terrible jungle.
And then, even before Val had had time to dwell upon the infinite possibilities, he heard the sound. A low, sobbing moan, unmistakably a human moan. It froze the blood in his veins, so pitiful was it in its agony and despair.
“What the blazes is that?” he ejaculated sharply, and seizing La Noire by the hand began running in the direction of the sound. Not fifteen yards ahead of them, the jungle gave way to a clearing. In the centre of the clearing lay a half-unrolled khaki bivouac, and a partly constructed native Wai-wai benab. Nearby was a pool of blood. Thick, dark, rapidly congealing blood. The low moan again. A moan that had a penetrating power out of proportion to its volume, because of its very plaintiveness. They set off in the direction of the sound, three minutes more and they had encountered another pool of fresh blood, Val’s grip tightened on the clasp knife. Something here was hideously, horribly wrong. And then, nearby, he saw a man, the man who was moaning. A white man; he lay in a strange twisted heap. He looked as if he’d been hit by a whirlwind. Blood trickled from the corner of his lips. His eyes stared unseeingly at the green ceiling of foliage. Val knelt beside him, the man moaned again. The big reporter held his wrist, seeking a pulse. It was so faint and weak that he had great difficulty in finding it. It was very obvious that the strange white man was dying.
“What’s your name?” asked Val. “Who are you? Can you tell me? Can you hear me? I’m a friend. I’m a white man. Can you speak English?”
“Jefferson,” gasped the parted lips. “Dick Jefferson. I’m English — Shropshire.”
“What happened?’ pressed Val.
“Just the noise,” said Jefferson. “My native Quanga disappeared. I found blood, came after him, heard the noise. The noise,” he repeated dazedly in a weak faraway voice.
“What noise,” prompted Stearman gently. “Try and tell me Jefferson — what killed you?” He bit his lip. The other smiled a faint, weak smile, his eyes lost some of their lack-lusture dullness, and focused for an instant on the big reporter. “I know I’m going,” he whispered, “don’t mind me, just try and stop that infernal noise from killing anyone else.” His head lolled back, the eyes bulged open, the faint pulse disappeared altogether. Val looked up at La Noire.
“The poor devil’s gone,” he said, with feeling. “What on earth could he have meant — the noise?” And then, very faintly, Val heard some strange sound in the distance, he turned to La Noire quickly. “Can you hear anything? Or am I just imagining something? A noise, a strange faraway noise?” She turned her beautiful head sideways and strained her eyes against the jungle. At last she nodded.
“Yes, I can, Val.” They looked at each other gravely.
“What do you think it is?” She shook her head, and that beautiful blue-black hair waved and cascaded like a living thing over her beautiful shoulders.
“No idea — it’s vaguely familiar — it’s a sort of rushing, roaring sound, only very, very distant. Like a waterfall at the world’s end.” Val scratched his chin thoughtfully.
“Yes, it’s a sound of —” he paused, searching for a suitable description. “It’s a sound of something in motion, as you say, like a waterfall, or;” his vivid and pictorial imagination darted away in search of a simile.
“It’s getting louder,” said La Noire, “I can hear it much more distinctly now.”
“Yes, so can I,” said Val. He looked down at the pitiful twisted carcase that had so recently been Dick Jefferson. “Whatever this thing is, it must be deadly dangerous,” he said, half to himself, half to her. “I think we’d better get out of here.” La Noire’s eyes held a question as they darted round the imprisoning jungle, all about them. At last she put it into words.
“Where?” The monosyllable was vibrant with meaning. Stearman stood motionless, listening to the approaching sound. Like the voice of many waters. It was coming closer and closer. He looked again at Jefferson’s body, what could have smashed the unfortunate Shropshire man up so devastatingly? What was making that hideous roaring noise? Inconsequentially, Stearman’s mind darted to half-forgotten Biblical phrases . . . ‘a rushing, mighty wind’ . . . he repeated to himself, ‘the Lord was not in the rushing mighty wind’. There could certainly be nothing of God in this destructive horror. He became prosaic again. His mind dividing into channels, through which the vital energy of his intellect poured itself, while he worked upon the problems presented to him, simultaneously. Part of his mind was seeking the safest place of concealment. Another was wondering what had killed Jefferson. Another sought to place that noise, in the annals of memory. The time for thought, was past, this was the time for action. In a flash of intuition he suddenly realised that the safest place would be clear of the ground. If they could find concealment in the heights of the trees they might be out of danger. True, there were no marks upon the ground to show the passage of the roaring destruction that had destroyed this man. It might, indeed, have no physical reality, yet something instinctive warned Stearman to get up into the heights.
The noise was getting louder now, it seemed almost to be bearing down upon them. It was oppressive, malevolent. He took La Noire by the hand, and with a brief word of explanation began hauling her up a tree behind him. The noise grew louder every passing second. Its vibrations seemed to fill the jungle. Not till they were fifty feet above the putrescent floor of the forest, did Val Stearman pause for breath and look down. Jefferson’s body lay below them, unrealistically small from that height. A curious little grey marmoset swung from a branch above them, staring at the big journalist and his wife in wide-eyed wonderment. Curiosity outweighed the little creature’s natural fear and timidity. From far below them, mixed with the foetid odours of the jungle they could scent the blood that stained its verdure. The clamouring approach of the sound continued to grow in volume. Val felt La Noire grasping his hand tightly. The tall tree, in whose fork they crouched, vibrated and shook as the sound drew nearer. The whole jungle took up the vibration around them. Cypress vines cavorted, gyrated as though performing some macabre dance of their own. Crazy patterns of ripples sprang to the surfaces of the Stygian pools of the distant river. With the vibrating, the humidity increased. Like a dog that shakes water from its coat, so the great equatorial basin shook water from its massive foliages and undergrowth. Val and La Noire clung closely to each other and the tree, as the roaring, vibrating clamour increased. The very ground was shaking now, and as the big journalist looked up, so the sky seemed to take part in the uncanny oscillations. There was an electric tension in the air. All other sounds had been subdued by The Sound. No bird, nor beast, nor reptile was within sight of that dreadful clearing. The vibrations made Jefferson’s body stir grotesquely on the ground, and for a moment Stearman wondered whether he had been mistaken. If, perhaps, there was still some vestige of life in that unfortunate explorer. But the movements were stilted, and jerky, as if some strange, unnatural force had seized the lifeless clay, strung it like a puppet, and now danced it upon the green stage.
There was a strangely rhythmic quality about the vibration. As though it almost had some mechanical origin. La Noire longed to clap her hands over her ears to shut out the sound. But she dare not release her hold on the tree. Stearman, too, wished for something to muffle it. But there was nothing. Nothing they could do but cling to their precarious perch, and wonder. Fear and curiosity fought within them for pride of place. And all the while their eyes were straining, ever looking for the cause of this unaccountable sound. La Noire laughed suddenly. It was not a pleasant laugh. It was not very far removed from an hysterical scream. Val looked at her sharply. “What is it?” he demanded.
“The noise,” she shouted, above the gathering din, “I know what it is. Only it’s so silly.”
“What?” roared back Val, against the increasing cacophony. “What do you think it is?”
“It’s a train,” screamed La Noire. “It sounds exactly like a huge express roaring through a tunnel. Listen to the mechanical sound of that rhythm. Thud . . . thud thud . . . It’s wheels going over a track. It’s steam in a boiler. It’s a huge machine rushing along with unbelievable speed. It’s a train, Val.” As she spoke, Stearman realised that she was right. It was insane he told himself, the most incongruous thing he had ever heard, and yet, there was no denying that sound. It was as if the biggest express train in the world was thundering across that little clearing. A strange scent came suddenly to the big reporter’s nostrils. It was not the scent of jungle. It was the scent of hot metal tinged with acrid smoke, and there was a heat in that smell that was more than the equatorial heat. It was the man-made heat of a loco furnace.
They looked at each other in wide-eyed disbelief.
“What do you make of it?” La Noire shook her head. The sound had reached its crescendo. Now it was dying softly away. A few seconds more, and there was complete and absolute silence. A silence that seemed to last for an eternity, before the tiny sounds of the jungle began cautiously to resume. As though even the great Amazon itself was afraid of this enigmatical roaring monster which had dissected it. As it flashed through its opposing greenery, as a red-hot knife slides through butter . . . everything was as it had been before. The body of the explorer, the pool of blood, the sounds of the jungle, the pools of stagnant black water, the smell of rotting vegetation. The marmosets, the returning cries of the parakeets, the loneliness, the fear of the thousand hidden deaths of Amazonia. Slowly and cautiously, Val and La Noire descended the tree. As Val’s hand left the lower end of the cypress vine, and his feet touched the ground, he caught a sudden furtive movement in the undergrowth behind him. La Noire screamed, a garishly painted native sprang as if by magic from behind a thicket.
“The devil,” snarled Val. There was no mistaking the obvious menace in the savage that confronted them. This was no semi-civilised, half-friendly Wai-wai. This was an unmistakable head hunter; a barbaric, ruthless, primitive killer, who understood nothing except the argument of strength. His spear was upraised, even as he emerged from behind the thicket. Val dived in under the blade with the speed of a striking snake and his foot crashed down on the native’s bare shin. With a howl of pain, the barbarian dropped his spear and leapt back. Stearman’s dynamic uppercut rocked the man’s head back on his shoulders with a sharp explosive crack. The native dropped insensible beside the body of Dick Jefferson. The spear flew over Stearman’s head like a bird of ill-omen, and he threw himself back. One hand dragging La Noire with him, the other reaching for the dead explorer’s rifle.
A twitch of movement from behind a broad leaf, and another spear buried itself in the earth, scarcely an inch from Val’s head. The heavy rifle barked defiance, and there was a scream of surprise. The native pitched forward on his face. As dead as Jefferson. The effect of the shot seemed to have been magical. These primitive people of the interior had apparently only a very limited experience of fire-arms. They still regarded them with magical awe and superstition. Stearman wondered what his next move should be. In the centre of the clearing they were in a very exposed position. On the other hand, it gave them the width of the clearing warning. The silence was uncanny. The marmosets sat still, watching the drama being enacted below them. The parakeets stilled and hushed their jarring cries, sat watching with heads on one side to see the outcome of this weird struggle between the white man’s magic and the black man’s knife.
Val began unstrapping the dead explorer’s bandolier, and keeping La Noire protectively behind him, made his way back to the base of the tall tree from which they had descended. He wondered whether to climb back, and then decided against it. It would be the easiest thing in the world for their attackers to light a fire at the tree’s base, and so smoke them out. He had no idea, within a hundred miles, of his exact position. The situation was, he decided, grim in the extreme. Neither had he any idea of the number of his attackers. A score, five score? A thousand? It was unlikely. The population as far as was known, was extremely scant. But then, so little was known about the inhabitants of the Amazon jungle with any degree of certainty, that population estimates were likely to be hopelessly wrong.
He was not to be left wondering for very many seconds. The silence was broken by a chorus of shrill cries, and a dozen gaudily-painted savages rushed in a frenzied wave of flashing spears and knives, towards the tree. With calm, deadly, mechanical precision, Stearman emptied the rifle into the howling, jabbering natives. One . . . two . . . three . . . he dropped them with a grim satisfaction. The bolt fell with a click upon the empty cartridge case.
“Damnation,” said Stearman savagely, and reversing the rifle with a speed too quick for the eye to follow, he began lashing out at his attackers. Val Stearman as a fighting machine was easily the equivalent of a John Ridd, or a Bulldog Drummond. His powerful shoulders rippled with knots of steel hard muscle, as he drove the rifle butt again and again at his attackers with the force of a pile driver. There were a series of sickening crunches, as he heard skulls and ribs give way beneath his defence. The original dozen had been reinforced by other warriors of the tribe, until the whole clearing was packed with up to a hundred of the brute men, and he knew, with sickening certainty, that this crazy fight could have only one conclusion. But, like Davy Crockett at the Alamo before him, he was determined to sell their lives dearly. Already he knew that the bedaubed monsters would rue this day for a long time to come. Of the first wave of attackers, only one remained alive. Smash; thud; crunch. The rifle bit and tore into them like a living thing, in Stearman’s hands. On, and on, and on, raged that grisly battle, but at last the heat, loss of blood from half-a-dozen minor wounds, and sheer physical exhaustion sapped his strength. He still fought madly, gamely, desperately, through a haze tinged with red and black clouds of pain and unconsciousness. The last he saw before the blackness engulfed him, was a grinning fang-toothed visage, more animal than human, pressing up closely towards his own; snarling with bestial ferocity. He was conscious that the rifle butt exploded, like a shattering bomb in the centre of that foul caricature of humanity, and then the blackness engulfed him completely, and he knew no more . . .
* * *
Gorak peered through the plastic wind-screen of the super streamlined express. He was a short, swarthy, southern-cast individual. He looked from the vision screen to the big chronometer on the cab of the hurtling locomotive.
“Should be in Lapaz pretty soon, amigo,” he grinned to the fireman.
“Sure thing, Mr. Engineer, sir,” replied the big coloured boy attending the big streamliner’s furnace. “And to think that we left Geotown, and Paramara, not four hours a-back. It sounds wonderful, Mr. Engineer.”
“Certainly is, my friend.” The Mexican’s words broke off suddenly. The fireman looked at him strangely. “Look there, down the track.”
The fireman looked. Instead of the clear straight open line unfolding for mile after arrow-straight mile, ahead of them something was wrong. They saw strange, smoke-like greenery and above the noise of their engine they heard the screeching of parakeets. The chattering of marmosets. There was a strange smell upon the air. A smell that penetrated even beyond the stinking brimstone of their furnace. It was a smell of jungle, and corruption, and foetid green decay. It spoke of alligators lying in black pools. They eyed each other in superstitious terror.
“What, what-ever’s happening, Mr. Engineer?” gasped the big coloured boy at last, when he had regained his tongue. Gorak shook his head in bewilderment.
“I don’t know,” he gasped hoarsely; and yet through the ethereal vegetation they could still see something of the track. “I don’ know, and I don’ wanna know. What I wan’ a do is to get to Lapaz. If we can only get there before these devils, or whatever they are out there, get us. This may be the year 3,000 but I’m still afraid.” He crossed himself piously. “We’re going to open that throttle and get ourselves to Lapaz just as quickly as this big streamliner’ll take. So open up the booster. Give her emergency. Give her everything she’s got.”
“Yessir, sure will,” answered the fireman. The giant express increased its speed. The ethereal jungle continued to mingle with the track. The whole train vibrated strangely as though not knowing which were reality, as though it had difficulty in finding a bite for its steely hooves, upon this strange track.
* * *
When Val Stearman recovered consciousness, he found himself bound hand and foot, lying on the foot hardened floor of a small benab, through the sides of which he could see an untidy cluster of similar dwellings. They were in a small clearing, and dotted about in little groups the grotesquely-painted savages were talking together excitedly. The tall figure strode majestically into the clearing; a whole head higher than the others, this magnificent brute man was obviously their chief. His headdress, resplendent with parakeet feathers, teeth and bone anklets, bracelets and ornaments, embellished his gleaming ebony frame. He might have come straight from a Hollywood extravaganza, except that with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Stearman knew that this was reality. There wasn’t going to be any last-minute rescue by John Wayne or Victor Mature. This was grim fact, not pleasant, cinematographical escapism. Here was no magic of the silver screen. This was the real life voodoo of the green-black Amazon basin. His main fear was not for himself, but for La Noire. Strong man that he was, he could only guess at what horrible fate the barbarians were planning for them. He rolled over with an effort, and found that La Noire was beside him.
As he moved, she heaved a great sigh of relief.
“Thank God you’re alive darling,” she said softly.
“More or less,” he agreed. He still felt weak from loss of blood. His head ached abominably. He was numb and cramped from the ropes that secured him.
“What do you think they’re going to do?” whispered La Noire. Val shook his head.
“Your guess is as good as mine. “Whatever it is, we can be sure it isn’t going to be an exact picnic. I hardly think they brought us here to ask me to be the President of the local Journalists Federation, or something like that.” That streak of cynical humour came to the fore in the big journalist’s character. “I’d just like one more chance to get my hands on those slimy devils,” he grated. “I’d give ‘em war paint, by thunder. Just think what I could do with this lot with a nice little twin-barreled Vickers: I’d mince ‘em.” He knew, that while it might help restore his morale, such wishful thinking was taking him no nearer a solution of their predicament. He weighed the position up swiftly in his mind. Somewhere in the stinking green heart of the foetid, humid Amazon, the helpless prisoners of barbarically savage interior natives; little or no chance of rescue from any external source. Coupled with that the deadly unsolved mystery of the noise. The noise that had killed Jefferson. It seemed a problem beyond the powers of the human mind. Before even Stearman’s lightning-fast brain had had time to forge any plan of escape, the parakeet-featured colossus, strode imperiously across the clearing and stood at the open side of the prisoners’ benab. His eyes glittered like jewels in the crown of Satan. His face was a mask of pagan brutality. There was a strange, almost inverted nobility about this magnificent barbarian brute-man. This ebony giant. This black Napoleon. Coloured lord of the garish jungle. With a swift movement he stooped and entered the shelter. The great hand reached down and dragged Val to his feet.
“O kabal ma jahudi mahoo,” exclaimed the native,
Val looked at him blankly and shook his head. The inflection of the other’s words told him it had been a question. But beyond that he had no more idea than the dead what the words meant.
“O kabal ma jahudi mahoo?” repeated the savage chieftain with apparently growing anger. As far as his bonds would permit Stearman shrugged his shoulders and looked incomprehensive. The big man pushed him contemptuously back to the floor of the benab. Val raised an eyebrow quizzically and spat with great accuracy to within an inch of the prisoners’ benab. His eyes glittered like jewels in gúistic interpretation. Stearman suddenly realised that their one faint, and only chance, lay in some form of trial by combat, if he could engineer it. Suffering as he was from cramp, and the minor wounds that had been inflicted on him in the struggle, he didn’t exactly feel at the top of his form, but he knew enough of native psychology to realise that this dusky giant would be so proud of his own muscular prowess that he would welcome any opportunity to display it. He also knew that his task would be doubly difficult because of his inability to comprehend the language. Val’s exhibition of long-distance expectoration had by a fortuitous chance achieved its objective. The insolent gesture had been received by the man-monster as a challenge to single combat, and he was even now, roaring angry orders at his assembled tribesmen. Rough hands unfastened the grass ropes that secured the big journalist. Val crouched flexing his muscles, in the shade of the benab, watching keenly as the waiting natives formed a rough circle in the centre of their village clearing. The chief was leaping and gesticulating wildly. Leaping and pouncing like an insane gorilla. He shook his great throwing spear violently in Stearman’s direction. Val looked back at him with cool indifference. “What the hell,” he was thinking, “if I lose, it will only bring the inevitable a few hours closer. If I don’t have a go, these brutes will kill us, anyway.” The chief stopped his wild machinations and gave a gesture that he was ready. Watchful guards escorted Val to the centre of the clearing.
“Good luck, darling,” called La Noire, there was a catch in her voice. Their eyes met in a long steady gaze, for a second that seemed an eternity. It was a glance, a look, that conveyed more than a million, million volumes of words . . .
Val stripped off his jacket and threw it carelessly towards the edge of the ring. It landed in a crumpled heap at the feet of a native. The savage drew back, as though there was something magical and dangerous about this strange white man’s garments. Val’s eyes never left his massive antagonist. He looked accusingly at the spear in the chief’s hand.
“Yatu a hiboo,” snapped the brute-man, and one of his confederates passed Val a similar weapon. “Oh, so that’s the long and short of it,” murmured Stearman. “Pig sticking match, eh.” They circle each other warily, two great tigers about to engage in mortal combat. The sunlight glistened and shone on the rippling ebony frame of the monstrous Amazonian. Stearman’s face was grim, set like a mask of steel. Only his eyes betrayed any feeling. The native made a feint, as though to throw the spear. Val ducked in closely, the native gave a high pitched, demoniac laugh, and changed his blow to a side-long slashing motion. Stearman man parried it with his own. He felt the jarring force of the impact go down his arms. It gave him some small foretaste of the tremendous strength of his antagonist.
The laugh died in the negro’s throat. Stearman made a sudden quick lunge, as though to impale the dark Colossus. He skipped back out of range, moving with a speed surprising for so large a man. A murmur of acclaim ran round the assembled natives. Val smiled warily. They continued to circle each other. Next second, as though growing tired of this game of cat and mouse, the native lunged the spear forward and released it. The gleaming razor-sharp blade flashed past Stearman’s throat with a fraction of an inch to spare. With cold deliberation Val threw his own weapon with unerring aim and tremendous force at the native’s chest . . . What happened then amazed him almost beyond belief. The giant made no attempt to duck, but his enormous right arm flashed across, and the huge muscular hand closed across the spear in mid-flight, and checked it an inch from his brawny chest. Never before had Val Stearman seen such a feat of arms. He gulped his admiration. A cheer ran round the warriors in the clearing. Stearman looked grim. It was man to man now. Flesh and blood against flesh and blood. Sinew and bone against one another. Val had boxed, wrestled and rough-housed his way around most of the known corners of the world. His strength, courage and tenacity coupled with his skill, made him one of the trickiest fighting machines alive. But he knew this was to be the fight of his career. In an odd ironical way he wondered what the box-office at Madison Square Gardens would have been able to make on just such a fight as this one. The purse he mused, was far higher than any that he had ever fought for before. With the life and death, and more than life and death, that hung in the balance. He was fighting here for La Noire, and she was far more to him than his own existence. He darted left, watched the huge savage’s eyes dart in that direction, in pursuit of the movement, then swung in on the right. His steel hard muscles locked around the huge barbarian’s neck and brought him crashing to the ground in a ferocious stranglehold. Val’s arms were like steel and whipcord. There were few opponents who could have withstood the ferocity of his attack. Few necks that could have stood out against the annihilating pressure, and yet as he threw his utmost effort into the grip, Stearman realised that it was having little or no effect upon the brute-man. With a cry the man-mountain rose to its feet again, and lifted Stearman with it, as though he were only a paper doll fluttering about its shoulders. With a deft, sure movement, Val slid his arms round until he had the savage in a full nelson. His brawny forearms under the other’s shoulders. His hands locked at the back of the barbarian’s neck, forcing downwards, levering against the man’s own armpits. It was the classical hold with which the mythical Tarzan could defeat an eight hundred pound gorilla. It was science against strength. Brain against brawn. Civilisation against savagery. The veins stood out on Stearman, as he threw all he had into that Greco-Roman death-lock. For tense moments the great native stood unmoved, and then his head began to go forward on his chest. He grunted in pain and desperation. Val gave a sigh of relief, and sub-consciously, by the merest fraction, his pressure eased. It was the gravest mistake. The savage’s head came back with the strength of an uncoiling steel spring, and bending swiftly, he tossed Stearman over his head.
Val crashed to the ground with stunning force and lay where he was for a second. But there was to be no Queensbury respite in this contest. The monster, snarling its ferocity, threw itself towards him. Great ebony arms encircled him in a vicious bear hug, and he felt the breath leaving his body in a long whistling “pheeeeeewwwwww.” He brought his knee up savagely, and felt it make contact. Heard the scream of pain as the black arms unwound, and then like the piston rods of the greatest engine ever built, his massive fists smashed up into the native’s face. Left. Right. Left again. A right cross. A slashing, swinging hook. A dazzling uppercut that would have toppled a pine tree.
The brute-man stayed on his feet but he was rocking dazedly now. Again and again Stearman’s steel hard fists crashed into the huge leathery body. It seemed that no power on earth could drop the savage chieftain, and even as Val’s crashing fists continued to explode on him, the great arms lurched out again for a grip on the fighting journalist. Val knew that he was in no condition to withstand another of those savage bear hugs. Exhaustion was already tapping him on the shoulder, and he knew that he was fighting on borrowed time. It was pure will power and nervous energy that he was expending. He broke free of those clinging arms yet again. Then, with a flash of inspiration, he ran back half a dozen paces, gathered himself like a steel spring for the effort, launched himself at the black Colossus, and swung up his feet in the popular Western wrestlers’ drop kick. It was effective. Stearman’s weight and strength were perfectly concerted behind that effort. His solidly booted heels caught the native square in the chest and throat, and with a sickening crunch the Amazonian fell to the forest floor. He was down, but by no means out, and Stearman knew that he must act swiftly and ruthlessly if he was to win this desperate battle to the death. He dived for the other’s legs, seized one ankle, in each hand, trapped them against his own body and with a last tremendous effort, spun the native over and flung himself backwards in the Boston grab. (Or as it is sometimes known, the Indian deathlock). He knew well from his own prize-fighting days, that this particular hold was no game. He meant business. This was it. It was a moment of truth. It was a bare-handled battle. It was kill or be killed. Val Stearman didn’t want to die. He had too much to live for. It was like trying to break a strong, green sapling. But he continued the dreadful effort. Back, back, he threw himself with every last drop of power and energy. The natives were deathly silent, watching him. Hundreds of hostile eyes were riveted on the contestants in these closing seconds of their life and death drama. For a split fraction of a moment, which seemed to last aeons and eternities, Val Stearman threw everything he had into breaking the native’s back. There was a sudden, sickening ‘Snap,’ and the steel hard, black body beneath him suddenly went limp. He released the dead man’s feet. He staggered to the side of the clearing, shaking with tension and exhaustion. He clung to the flimsy poles of the benab, and felt it shaking as he himself shook. The natives still stood in spellbound silence. Unable to believe their chieftain was dead. In a way Stearman felt almost sorry. The man had been a magnificent fighter. A superb human specimen. But superb in a savage, barbarian way. Val realised that by the man’s own lights, he who had recognised nothing but the existence of might and force, would have no real complaint about the manner of his death. “They that live by the sword shall perish by the sword,” thought Stearman. They that worship force and power, shall be rewarded by their own particular god, in his own particular and terrible way. He knelt and released La Noire’s bonds. Shakily she stood up, and they moved towards the still form in the centre of the clearing.
“Do you think they’ll let us go?” she whispered tensely.
“I don’t know,” answered Val quietly, “I’m not going without Jefferson’s rifle anyway. It would be madness to attempt it. I may even be able to force them to guide us.” The words were spoken with great optimism. An optimism that he did not feel deep down within himself. For already out of the corner of his eye he had seen the natives form a dangerous sullen barrier to their path. A second more, and they were ringed by a band of spearmen. “Apparently they don’t like my particular brand of sport,” grunted Val under his breath. “Oh, well,” he sighed wearily, “It was a good fight, while it lasted.” La Noire clung to him as the menacing ring of spearmen drew closer . . .
Val held her close, and they waited for the end as a huge scar-faced savage raised his deadly blade in preparation for the thrust . . .
* * *
The trans-Amazon express thundered into Lapaz and screeched to a shivering, vibrating halt. The terrified driver and fireman leapt on to the gleaming berylium platform, and sprinted past the amazed passengers, in the direction of the Station Superintendent’s office. Grotesquely stretched across the front of the gleaming locomotive, were the gruesome remains of a dismembered native. A native who, by the remains of his apparel, and by his physical characteristics, could never have come from the thirty-first century. The Station Superintendent was a man of swift, efficient action. He snatched up his radio visiphone and put a call through to New York in the department of galactic science and mataphysics. There was a short, swift consultation and within seconds more Karl Ebrakk, Director of the Continuum Electronics Department, was flying south in his atomic boostermobile.
He reached Lapaz, made a swift sympathetic examination of the uncanny evidence, and left immediately for his laboratory in New York. Certain adjustments were immediately made in a new experimental device. . . .
* * *
The savage barbarian spear was only a matter of inches away from Val Stearman, when there was a crash like distant thunder. A crash, a sheet of brilliantly white electronic flame, and like Aladdin’s genii, a strange figure, in graceful flowing robes appeared in that little Amazonian clearing. In his hand was a small, glittering, orb-like device, which seemed to radiate tremendous power. The native froze as he stood, as though turned to stone. The flowing-robed stranger beckoned to Stearman and La Noire to follow him. With a dignified gliding movement he set off through the jungle. Val was completely unable to believe his eyes. The whole thing was uncanny, incredible, preposterous. Of all the weird and fantastic things that had ever happened to him, this was about the most fantastic. Just when death had seemed completely inevitable, this miracle had occurred. Who was this mysterious, powerful stranger? What was he doing here? Where had he come from? How had he known of their plight?
A few paces more, the stranger halted. Val opened his mouth as if to speak; a thousand half-formed questions jostling for position in his mind. The other motioned him to silence.
“As much as it is possible for me to tell you, I will tell you. Otherwise, do not ask.” His voice spoke in impeccable English, but Val had the strangest feeling that he was hearing some sort of telepathic translation, rather than actual words.
“There has been a most regrettable accident,” murmured the stranger. “I am a director of science from a New York that is a thousand years ahead of the present day. Our technology is just beginning a series of experiments, which affect time and the continuum itself.” Val nodded his understanding. “Unfortunately,” went on the mysterious stranger, “we had miscalculated the width of the affected area. There was, if you like . . .” he seemed at a loss for words, groping for some phrase that would convey his meaning in a language simple enough for Stearman’s twentieth-century mind to grasp. He began again, “There was an area mistake, and the time-changing force and power, employed in the experiment, as well as acting in the desired sphere of operations, acted in South America also. As you know, this continent is very primitive by your twentieth-century standards. Here nature is supreme. Scarcely touched by the hand of man. In the next thousand years, I can assure you great progress will be made. Huge railroads will dissect this vast basin. Industry will flourish here, so will agriculture. The jungle will disappear and be forgotten. But despite the progress in this area, it will still be relatively backward. It will still be a long way behind the technology of the more advanced countries. So that while my department of science is now experimenting with time travel in the 31st century, so the Amazonians are still in the age of steam locomotives. Do you follow me?”
“Perfectly,” answered Stearman, it was all beginning to fall into place now.
“So you see,” sighed the mystery man, “there was a twist, a tangle in time. A thousand years has vanished as if it had never passed. 20th and 30th centuries mingled and blended together. 1959 became involved with the year 3000 at this precise spot. The overlapping is not so great that our train crashed into your jungle, but it was close enough for the physical impacts of the train, which has not even yet been built — to kill a poor native who stood in its path. As soon as I became aware that something was wrong I surveyed the whole area, and at once apprised myself of what was happening. Then I seized a power-orb from the laboratory armoury.” He indicated the glittering sphere in his hand, “and came back in the time machine, with which we are experimenting, in time to save you from the natives.” They exchanged glances, there was nothing more that Stearman could say, except “Thank you.”
“I will conduct you safely back to the fringe of your contemporary civilisation,” said the stranger from the future. “Then I must away. Our paths may never cross again — I don’t expect they will . . .”
Val Stearman and La Noire looked at him strangely, then looked at each other.
There was another flash of blinding light, then stranger and jungle had gone, and they found themselves walking towards the outskirts of 20th-century La Paz.
Val rubbed his eyes as though unable to believe the miracle.
“What a story,” he breathed to La Noire, “What a story!”
“And if the poor old ‘Globe’ dared to print it,” she smiled, “They’d lose every reader they’ve got . . .”
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