By the same author
|© Copyright 2003-2009 K S Mulholland|
Chapter 16 - Into Africa
And then...the butterflys and the mist midges and the tangle of intangible fluttering prisms slowly floated down out of spaceless space and reassembled themselves into consciousness. For a time, the two girls rested in what seemed to be a languid void, staring up at the ceiling, feeling as if they could rise and walk about, if it hadn't seemed too much trouble.
'See, I told you we were dreaming,' muttered Priscilla, bringing her eyes into alignment and finding Monique within their range.
'For your first time, that wasn't too bad, was it?' said the echoing voice surrounding them. 'You may take a few moments to adjust your bio-rhythms. Whilst you are doing that I shall explain your situation. You are now on the Continent of Africa, the country is Zimbabwe. Your position is roughly in the far south of Matabeleland. Allow me to show you the terrain.'
Screens, that had appeared to be doors around the square box of the room, began to rise, revealing a wide panorama. Sunlight slanted through the portals upon one side of the craft and shadows bent away on the other side. It was either early morning or late afternoon. The girls sat up to take in the sight, their eyes travelling around the many open windows. Movement attracted their attention. A gazelle of some kind wandered toward them through the bush. When it came within, perhaps, twenty paces the craft began to slowly move, horizontally, away from the animal.
'That is the Aversion feature of this vehicle. It does not produce a force field to bar outside intrusions, it merely moves away from interlopers, unless surrounded, when it will rise vertically,' said the voice.
'Antelopers, more to the point,' answered Priscilla, fanning her flushed face with her hand.
'Droll, I believe is the word to describe that comment,' said the voice, 'yet any humour is better than none. And believe me, you are both going to need all the humour you can muster. Now please take heed and do not interrupt. Your well-being is at stake from this point on. As you will observe, we are travelling slowly south-east. Soon you will see some buildings in the distance. They are part of an abandoned farm that has not as yet been re-occupied by the new...shall I say...owners. The current information I have is that your parents are to be found there...'
'Alive?' said Monique, her voice quavering.
'To a point seven hours ago. Melbourne time zone is seven hours ahead of Harare. What will have transpired since is not available. If you choose to leave this craft you will each need to take a Hand Activator. They are located in the cabinet now opening on the console.'
A draw slid out within Priscilla's reach and she extracted two black objects about the size of mobile phones. 'What do we do? Call home?'
'Not exactly. The top button is the Attractor, press and it will summon this craft, Are-Too-Dee-Too, at a moment's notice, to enable a swift escape...'
'That's like in Star Wars, one of the robots. Is it really called that?' asked Priscilla somewhat sceptically.
'No, I just liked the name, and anyway it is spelt differently. Furthermore the other buttons are Sense Disablers, when depressed they block the senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell...'
'They're not the only thing that's depressed,' muttered Priscilla, then louder, 'so O.K. when we switch them off, we can't see, or hear...'
'No, you retain all your senses, but those around you lose theirs in regard to you.'
'So we are invisible to them and they cannot hear us?' said Monique, examining the handset.
'Correct, the order is sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Best if you turn them all off.'
'Especially smell, said Priscilla, 'during this trip I think we both sweated up a storm.'
'I will be in constant voice contact with you via the Hand Activators. You both will be able to speak normally to each other, however as you were told, conditions do apply. Do not, under any circumstances attempt to communicate with anyone else. Do not handle anything. Do not drink or eat anything. Do not press any button other than the top Attractor.'
'What if we accidentally press the wrong one?' Monique asked.
'Each of the sense buttons must be pressed three times to unlock, that is a built in fail-safe device. Now, if you look over there you will observe the out-houses of the building. Are you willing to leave the craft and investigate?'
Monique looked at Priscilla, 'I am ready, but you do not have to...'
'Are you kidding? I wouldn't let you go out there on your own, I'd get lonely with only Mister Voice to talk to. Come on, we're the BlackEagle Girls, remember?' She pulled a towelling cloth hat out of her jeans hip pocket and stuffed it on her head.
'And both of you remember, you are only to observe, you are not to interfere in any way. The moment you attempt to do so, you will be returned here and the mission will be abandoned. Be careful as you walk, there are sentries posted.'
'I don't see anybody, the place looks deserted,' said Priscilla, staring hard at the buildings.
'If you were an armed body of people intent on not being detected would you put on a floor show? Be careful and at the first sign of danger press the Attractor. And remember, I am not with you all the way.'
'That really is screwball logic, but better a voice than nothing, I suppose,' Priscilla sighed. 'Maybe I'll just go to the toilet before we get out.' As she spoke the words, one of the units opened and Priscilla crossed the floor and stepped inside. The panel slid shut behind her.
'I think I will get us both some water, it looks rather hot out there,' said Monique, following Priscilla, and at once the other unit opened and Monique selected two metal containers from the rack and held them beneath a tap on the hand basin. Iced water cascaded from it and stopped automatically when she withdrew the cups. 'Oh, this is really cold and very thirst quenching,' she said, after taking a long drink.'
'Chilled mineral water from your Hepburn Springs. A fine drop,' said the voice.
After a moment, Priscilla emerged looking rather mystified. 'Definitely automatic,' she said, shaking her head, 'guess there's not much need to wash your hands.'
'Do so anyway,' said the voice, 'One must continue to practice hygiene. Now drink some water and prepare to disembark.'
A panel slid open and the smell of warm grass drifted into the craft.
The two girls stepped out into a cushion of dry, knee-deep straw. The ground beneath felt rock-hard. Behind them they heard the sound of the door panel closing. Monique produced her own cloth hat and put it on, then began to stride off.
'Phew!' said Priscilla, as they trudged forward a hundred or so paces onto a bare, cracked surface, 'I guess we're on our own.'
'That is not so. I told you I would be in voice contact at all times,' said the voice, now emanating from the Hand Activator. 'Watch where you are walking!'
'Why? Whoa!' exclaimed Priscilla, as a canopy of soil and foliage lifted alongside her left foot and the barrel of an assault rifle suddenly appeared.
'Because these are desperate people who shoot first and do not bother to ask questions afterward. They have pickets out all around the buildings. Even though they cannot feel you, tread with utmost caution, unless you want to fall into a hole!'
The girls proceeded as they were directed until they came to the first building. It seemed to be a barn of sorts, and upon peering inside the open doors they were confronted by the sight of several well-armed men in camouflage fatigues, smoking and lounging around a variety of vehicles: enclosed vans, lorries and jeeps.
Moving on, the pair came to a second building which might have at one time been a store room for tackle and grain, but was now just a dusty, empty shell. Further, between the sides of wire cages that had once housed chickens, they stumbled over two raised mounds that looked like recently dug graves.
Monique halted, her hand to her mouth in shook. 'Could they be...'
'Come on!' said Priscilla, dragging her away, we don't know anything yet. Let's just keep going.'
The late afternoon sun was sending long shadows through the slats of an outdoor pit-toilet buzzing with flies and other insects, as the girls pressed on toward the farmhouse. They encountered another camouflaged sentry at the base of an overturned water tank that had obviously been holed and drained.
Without speaking, for there seemed no point in speech, Priscilla and Monique finally reached the crude veranda of the farmhouse itself. The old, worn boards creaked as they stepped up, and Priscilla wondered out loud whether they could be heard.
'No,' came the voice from their Hand Activators, 'you could perform a tap-dance, without raising an alarm. Just do as you have been told. Remember, I am not here.'
'Why the hell not!' said Priscilla, rather vexed, 'We sure as shooting am... are...oh...biscuits!'
'Biscuits?' said Monique.
'First thing that came into my mind,' Priscilla replied. 'Anyway, let's take a look.'
They stole forward to a window that might have once contained glass, but was now an open void surrounded by shattered timber. Inside were a dozen men: one, sitting on a barrel at a makeshift table that was actually a door placed on top of stacked crates, the others standing or squatting in various attitudes about the room.
'...Three,' said the sitting man in a deep bass voice, 'are you satisfied that we have completed all our objectives?'
'I do not think we can achieve anymore than we have already done that might further our cause.' said one of the Africans, rising from the dusty, wooden floor-boards. 'We have managed to find almost all our targets and execute each mission without detection'
'Six, what have you to report?'
'So far, our perimeters remain secure. The last of our outer surveillance scouts have returned. There is no sign of unexpected visitors in the vicinity. We continue on high alert.'
The man at the table nodded. 'Very well. Prepare to evacuate. Four, bring our guests through. It is time to say goodbye.'
Monique and Priscilla craned forward, avoiding touching the broken timbers of the windowsill, as one of the men crossed the room and opened a door at the rear. Another African carrying an automatic rifle of some kind in the crook of his arm entered, leading in two dishevelled figures: one an unshaven white man in sweat-stained clothing, burned brown by sun and weathering in the wilds, and the other, a black woman who also wore a faded twill shirt and canvas pants that had seen plenty of grime and perspiration. Her lank hair hung about her face, and it was a face of exhaustion and despair.
'That is my Mother and Father!' shrieked Monique aghast. 'Oh Priscilla, what are these terrible people going to do to them!'
'Shh! Monique, they'll hear us!' said Priscilla automatically, momentarily forgetting that they could neither be heard or seen. (Or smelt, for that matter.)
'Control yourselves,' said the voice. 'No matter what happens, you may not interfere. If the situation grows too stressful you must terminate your presence here, or, if you attempt to communicate, it will be terminated for you.'
'Now Mister and Missus Bateleur,' said the African sitting behind his makeshift table, 'we come to the completion of our work here. It is imperative that we take the precious footage that you have given us out of this country. You both are no longer required.'
'What of our Daughter?' said Monica Bateleur, lifting her eyes and staring straight into the face of her captor. 'Will you now release her? She has done nothing, she knows nothing of your activities. I...we beg you to set her free, wherever she is held...Please do that much at least. Please keep to your bargain. If we are to die, let our child live.'
The man at the table rose. He was a tall, thick-set man and he moved with a deliberate, considered step. He turned toward Monique's parents, so that the girls could at last see his face. It was big and round and a broad smile played across it. 'Your Daughter is not in our hands,' he said in his low, yet booming voice. 'She never was. But it suited our purpose to let you believe that we had her, otherwise we might not have been able to convince you to accompany us and perform the tasks we required.'
'Then where is she?' said Monique's father, his hands, encumbered by binding rags, gesturing.
'To that, I cannot say. Our group should have taken her as insurance that you both would do as you were told, but they missed her at your hotel. Still, it made little difference. The threat of such abduction was enough for you to comply. And now that you have enabled us to conclude our mission here, it is time to get your film and audio results out of Zimbabwe.'
'What are you going to do with us?' said Jean-Michele, glancing sideways at his wife.
'Get down on your knees,' replied the tall African.
Monique dropped her Activator and raised both her hands into balled fists, 'I cannot stand this!' she shouted, 'We have to do something!'
Priscilla stuffed the other devise into her shirt pocket and flung her arms around Monique to stop her from climbing through the window as the African facing Monique's parents withdrew a gun from the front of his camouflage pants.
'Let me go! They're going to kill my parents! Monique shouted, struggling to break Priscilla's hold.
The big man weighed the weapon in his hand.
'Let go of me!' screamed Monique, kicking out at the window ledge whilst Priscilla held on grimly. 'If you are really my friend, release me and go to hell, for all I care!' Monique shouted, becoming hysterical, sobbing and still thrashing about, whilst Priscilla endeavoured to hang on.
Then, in a moment, the whole situation changed before the horrified and astonished gaze of both girls. The leader leaned forward toward the kneeling pair...and placed the gun onto the makeshift table. 'Can't do this with a loaded weapon in my trousers,' he boomed, sinking to his knees in front of them. At once, every man, standing or reclining, did the same. The Leader bowed his head, and in a sonorous voice said, 'Let us pray.'
Monique, gasping for breath, the tears and flecks of foam at the corners of her mouth merging, ceased to struggle. Priscilla, panting hard with exertion, her arms locked about her friend, stood as still as she could on shaking legs whilst the Leader began. 'Dear God, we wish to beg forgiveness for what we have put these two innocent people through in the past days. We trust and hope in our faith for You, that You will find it in Your benevolence to allow us our misdemeanour on behalf of the people of this land. Through this couple before You, using their expertise, we have been able to expose what is happening here and with Your blessing, to show it to the world, that others may see the poverty, the futility, and the indoctrination of the young that is set to reduce this country to a land that no longer holds freedom and justice for all as a fundamental right. That we have, of necessity, come in secrecy and stealth, in order to maintain the nature of our essential work, would under most circumstances have meant the elimination of anyone outside our organization. In this instance however, we make an exception. As one of my trusted command pointed out, this man and woman can still be of great assistance in the free world if they chose to speak out regarding the suffering and hardship imposed on the people here. They will, of course be also free to tell of their ordeal at our hands, yet since we have achieved all that we are able on this mission and must leave the country at once, we trust that they will weigh most carefully how they have been treated and the reasons for such treatment against the terrible situation in this land and what they have contributed in the cause of freedom from oppression. Amen.'
He stood up, lifted the gun from the make-shift table and tucked it into his pants again. 'Four, untie them and give them back their personal possessions, we begin to move at exactly seventeen hundred hours. Three, Eight, make certain that everything is loaded, I mean everything, most importantly the film-stock, cameras, sound and lighting equipment, all gear of the group, weapons, supplies and bedding. Order the men to do a thorough sweep of the immediate area and pick up every butt, match and bottle top. I do not want a scrap of evidence left to indicate who we might be.'
Two of the men rose and saluted before turning and exiting through the front door, their heavy boots clumping on the boards a dozen paces from Monique and Priscilla, who still had her arms clasped about her friend's shoulders. 'Wow!' said Priscilla, releasing her hold, 'I bet your Dad and Mum can't get going quick enough.' she reached into her pocket and took out the Activator which had remained silent during the struggle.
'Well done Miss Black,' said the voice. 'It is fortunate for you, Miss Bateleur, that your friend kept you from aborting your visit here, otherwise you should have returned home believing that your parents had been killed by their captors.'
Monique wiped her face with the back of a hand and turning to Priscilla, gave her a wan smile before embracing her. 'I am so sorry, I know you were only doing your best for us. Please forgive me.'
'Where is my wedding ring?' they heard Monica Bateleur ask. Both girls looked back through the window to where Monique's parents were standing, their bonds removed, each now clutching wrist-watches, wallets and other personal items.
The African known as Four, shrugged his shoulders, 'That was everything in the inventory, unless it slipped off in the transport vehicle.'
'Go and search for it,' said the Leader, and turning his gaze again to Monique's mother he said, 'It is most unfortunate to lose your wedding ring, but better that than your life. If it is not found in our sweep of the area by departure time, hopefully it will not be discovered somewhere afterward. Now perhaps you would care to wash off the dust after this last days work? Be prepared to go soon. You and your equipment will be taken to the border, and as was done on entry here, transferred to an unmarked, waiting vehicle and then driven into Botswana and out again across the Limpopo on pontoons. Once there you and your gear will be deposited within walking distance of Tom Burke town. At that point you should be able to make contact with the authorities and return to retrieve your equipment, which we have already secured in crates. These will be hidden in the scrub when you are dropped off.' The Leader, now in profile to the girls, allowed himself the luxury of a broad grin, 'We are not as brutal as we might appear, although we are forced to be ruthless in a cruel environment. I was educated in England and I have no love of slaughter, but you must understand that we need use every instrument at our disposal. You have been a part of our present agenda, which is to make plain to the outside world what is the predicament of this country. If we have to travel, risking our lives, disguised as those who are in power, than sobeit. If we must engage, by force or coercion, good and free peoples, like yourselves from the outside world, then we do it. However even though, at times, it is required that we bring a force of arms against those who are our enemies, we do the best we can to avoid killing. You have well earned my thanks and the thanks of many oppressed people.' He gestured toward the door at the rear, and Monique's mother and father, accompanied by two others, silently filed out.
Four, who had saluted then paused for a drink of water from a canteen, was now passing through the front door, but instead of heading toward the building housing the vehicles, he turned sharply left and strode along the porch to where the girls, watching his approach in some alarm, had flattened themselves against the wall on either side of the window to allow him to pass. 'What do we do now?' Priscilla exclaimed, but before she or Monique could say more, Four was almost upon them. Then suddenly he halted and knelt on one knee, as if to tie his bootlaces. Looking down the girls noticed two things at once, his laces were not undone and the other Hand Activator that Monique had dropped was right alongside his foot.
'It's O.K. He can't see it,' Priscilla whispered in a shaky voice.
Yet in the next second she was proved entirely wrong. Four picked up the Activator in one swift motion, reached over to Monique and, before she could move, tucked it into her shirt pocket. Then he stood up, looming over them, before abruptly turning on his heel and stepping off the veranda without saying a word or showing any emotion whatsoever.
Priscilla felt faint. Monique was trembling from head to foot.
'He's one of ours,' said the voice.
'He's one of who's?!' Priscilla spluttered, coming to her senses, 'He sure as hell ain't one of mine! Why didn't you tell us you had someone here?'
'Up to this point that information was of no significant value to either of you.'
'Oh yeah!' said Priscilla, while she and Monique vacated the porch and began to cross the yard as quickly as they could on jelly legs, 'Just you wait till we get back inside, Mister Thingy Voice!' she bawled into the Hand Activator, before stabbing vehemently at the top Attractor button.
Chapter 17 [Next]
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