1.06.2012

Short Story: BRIGHTEST AFRICA

By Nicholas Wansbutter


WRITER'S NOTE: This is a short story I wrote while attempting to complete the Long Ridge Writer's Course (this attempt was derailed by the birth of two children within 12 months of one another). I've always liked steam punk and thus decided to try my hand at it for one of my assignments. I like the world I created and plan to use it in the future, as well as Dr. Hargrave, I think, but have had much difficulty coming-up with a good plot to feature both in. So it has been placed on the back-burner while I work on other projects. I hope you enjoy this offering.

The Venusian lizard they’d forced him to ride stank. Doctor Edgar Hargrave looked down from his miserable perch at the leaf-covered ground below and wondered how he’d ended up out here in the middle of a green African jungle so dense he felt as if he were trapped inside a sarcophagus. He hadn’t immigrated to Lagos Colony to take up adventuring, but to make a respectable living as a professor at the new university. Then he’d somehow let himself be roped into that séance at Lord Stanhope’s and now he was out here looking for Martians, of all things!

“Keep up, Dr. Hargrave,” Major Sir Jonathan Burns, the military officer leading their expedition, called from the front of the column. “There’s a good gentleman. Don’t want to get lost in this place, old man.”

Edgar smacked a mosquito that was trying to take a chunk out of his neck. “That’s a fact!”

The jungle thinned enough that Edgar could see the darkening magenta sky surmounted by fluffy pink clouds – that beautiful African sunset sky that had so captivated him while still back in his flat in Birmingham. As he wiped his brow with his handkerchief, he wished for that old grey flat in the British Empire’s new capitol.

A large clearing opened ahead and Maj. Burns stopped his own Venusian mount at the edge of it. Edgar’s lizard nearly collided with it.

“Smelly, oafish beast,” he grumbled.

“Shush,” the army officer whispered, pulling his multi-barrelled hand-cannon from its holster. “We’re not alone out here, old man. Lord Stanhope was right.”

About a hundred yards ahead, silhouetted against the crimson disc of sun creeping to the horizon, was a tall, skinny figure. Edgar first thought it to be a man, then noticed the abnormally long, conical head.

Burns said something in Awori to their native guides. They disappeared into the trees. He then nodded to the other soldiers in their party. The men, in their dark red tunics, spread out and advanced with Maj. Burns leading the way on his Venusian steed.

“You, there,” the veteran officer called. “State your name and purpose for being on her Britannic Majesty’s land.”

Their quarry did not answer and tried to run. It had long legs but was sluggish and the chase ended quickly when the nimble Awori blocked its path.

“Dr. Hargrave, what are you doing back there?” Burns shouted. “Come give us a hand.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? I’m not a soldier,” he called back, but his mount started forward.

“You speak, Xanthean, don’t you old man?”

Xanthean was the dominant tongue of the Martians who now occupied Russia and British North America. Edgar hadn’t spoken it since his days in Oxford and never with a native speaker.

He was now close enough to get a good look at their captive. It had the head of a Martian for sure, similar to the skulls in Lord Stanhope’s study that they’d used in the séance. It had a hard bone beak and glossy black eyes. It was tall, over seven feet he judged, but slender. The soldiers called Martians glass giants.

“Ah, are you sure he’s a Martian? He’s no fur.”

“Of course he is,” Burns said. “He’s just been shorn for the tropical climes. I saw the same during the Transvaal Campaign. Ask him what he’s doing here.”

“Uh, right,” Edgar stumbled over the unfamiliar Martian words which were difficult at the best of times. The creature answered back with reluctance.

“He just keeps begging for water, poor wretch.”

“Right. Clapperton, give him some of the water.”

“Well, then,” Edgar said, wringing sweat from his handkerchief. “We’ve found what we were looking for, let’s be off back to Lagos, shall we?”

“Not quite, old man,” Sir Jonathan said. “What’s a Martian doing staggering about out here?”

“Can’t we discuss that back in Lagos?”

“No, best to follow his trail while it’s fresh. Alright, back at it, chaps.”

They set out once again into the jungle, now with the bound Martian in tow. Edger ducked a vine and cursed the saddle sore forming on his ample posterior. Fallout or no, he’d have been better off staying in England!

The Martian had come here aboard a lighter-than-air flyer, they discovered, when the Awori guides uncovered the propellers that had been hastily hidden under palm leaves.
Edgar hung back while the others investigated the wreckage. The Martian pilot sat miserably on the ground under the nervous eyes of two of the young soldiers. Edgar could sympathize with the alien’s plight.

“Dr. Hargrave,” Sir Jonathan called. “If you’d be so kind, there’s something I’d like you to take a look at.”

“What do you need me for in that coffin?”

“Just come along, there’s a good gentleman.”

A couple more soldiers helped Edgar lower his not insignificant girth to the spongy jungle floor and he hobbled into the flyer. It was surprisingly large inside. He saw a console covered in blocky Xanthean script. He’d always found it fascinating.

“Over here, doctor.”

“What? Oh, yes …” In the next compartment was Sir Jonathan and a very large bomb that looked like an overstuffed football with two rings around it and a number of gears and dials near the middle. “Good gracious me, an atomic bomb! Why on earth would the Martians be bringing an atomic through Africa?”

“Going to the Congo, I’d warrant,” Sir Jonathan said, lighting his pipe. “Perhaps our Martian friend was a courier to the Belgians. The Martians may be trying to stir something up again.”

“Whatever the politics, I’d better make sure this thing is safe,” Edgar said. Carefully pulling a multipurpose tool from his bag, he removed the screws that held the main panel in place, revealing more tubes, wheels, cranks, and gears.

"Oh, bullocks." He threw his pith helmet down and pulled at his hair with both hands. "It's been armed. The Martian activated a delay-detonation timer and there’s only thirty minutes left!”

"Sounds like plenty of time for an expert such as yourself, old man," Sir Jonathan said.

"I-I can't do this!" Edgar felt anxiety welling up in his chest. He wanted to run out of the flyer, run as far as he could. Those Venusian lizards were terribly quick. In half an hour he might be able to escape the blast radius of the bomb.

"I'll hear no such nonsense," Sir Jonathan said. "You're an expert in atomics."

"But I can't! I've never done this before ... even if I could, half an hour's not enough."

"Are you telling me you're not a physicist?" Sir Jonathan sounded incredulous.

"I-I am, but I’m an academic ..." Edgar wiped his face with the handkerchief which was already soaked. He began to shake. "I came here to teach at the university! I write papers --"

"Now I’ll hear none of that sir; you can disarm this bomb. You'd better, or ‘Darkest Africa’ shall soon be ‘Brightest Africa’. Now I’ll hear no more defeatism. There’s a good gentleman."

A terrible, otherworldly wailing tore through the jungle outside and Edgar fell to the floor. Sir Jonathan ran to a porthole.

"Now what’s this then? More local tribesmen, unfriendly it seems, and lord knows what else." He looked down at Edgar and drew his hand-cannon. "We'll hold them off, old man, to give you enough time to disarm to bomb. See you in half an hour?"

Edgar pulled his flask from his waistcoat and thought to take a sip of brandy to calm his nerves. Then the wailing came again, and outside, moving past the portal, he saw what looked like another Martian, but grey and smoke-like. He threw the flask down. This situation was getting more bizarre by the moment and the last thing he needed was to besot himself.

A sound like tearing canvas erupted from outside as the Cyclic Fire Guns opened fire. Bullets travelling the opposite direction shot through the walls of the flyer and passed not too far over Edgar's head.

“Ghosts, now soldiers? Séances and adventures! Bullocks!”

He scrambled over to the bomb and examined the clockwork gears of the timer turning and buzzing. He looked over his shoulder as several of the soldiers started screaming. A howling wind buffeted the flyer and a stench like faeces and sulphur struck him. The bomb suddenly seemed less horrifying. Desperately he worked with the bomb. As he went, he discovered that he hadn't forgotten quite as much from his days in Oxford as he thought he had. Clapperton stuck his head in the door.

"Please hurry, sir. We can't hold out much longer!"

Edgar didn't respond, but kept on with his work, carefully moving aside a weight he’d removed. All he had to do now ... he choked on his breath. What sort of bomb making did those Martians do? Instead of the tubes he’d expected, there were strange wires. He glanced at his pocket watch. Three minutes.

He fought back panic. It would do him no good. He was British, after all, and the Empire had been built by her soldiers and explorers’ ability to overcome such dilemmae. Yes, he could overcome this situation, too. Biting his lip, he reached for one of the wires with his mechanical clippers. Surely if he clipped the right wire, it would cut the power to the device. He closed his eyes. No, that wasn't the right one. He moved the clippers without opening his eyes. Yes, that was the one.

“It’s done! The bomb’s disarmed!” Edgar shouted triumphantly.

He realised all was silent outside. Hesitantly, he moved through the door. The soldiers and Awori were huddled around the flyer facing outwards. Fallen trees and bodies, some black, some in red British uniforms, filled the clearing all around. Steam hissed from the Cyclic Fire Guns on their tripods.

“They’re gone,” Sir Jonathan said. “Just like that, they’re gone. They must have been trying to stop us from disarming the bomb, and when you did disarm it, they scarpered --”

“Who?” Edgar asked.

“Don’t ask. What’s important is that you did it, Dr. Hargrave. Three cheers, lads!”

“Hip-hip, huzzah!”

Edgar stuck his chest out with pride. “You know, I think I could get used to this adventurer bit. Good gracious me! What am I saying?”

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