12 October 2019 / Fiction Out of the Dark Continent: Chapter 2 "Our familiarity with the larger domestic animals tends, I think, to mislead us: we see no great destruction befalling them, and we forget that thousands are slaughtered annually for food, and that in a state of Nature an equal amount would have somehow to be disposed of."The Origin of Species, Darwin. 1859.A roaring sound, like the Pit of Christian fable heard from a distance, like the rumble of LA in an earthquake, or the faint dull crackle of a thousand fires engulfing London at once: such awoke me the following morning. Perhaps I had dreamt restlessly, or perhaps I had heard the voice of my inner thoughts crying out to me for the approaching need of the hour. Darwin was in my thoughts from the beginning of wakefulness that morning, coursing through my veins, lifting my spirit aloft while my body remained weary and burdened. Most days he was with me, speaking in his reasonable, Victorian tones the best course of action from his many books of yore. His speech always had that ready means of calming my human pain, soothing the endless echoes in time of an existence of little import, for so go we all. "Doctor! Doctor More, rouse yourself, sir, for Dr. Rees-Barton grows impatient!"He was most insistent today, it would seem! But, instead of the old philosopher, the broad shoulders of Danielson darkened my narrow doorway, his form clothed in rugged garb of drab brown. "Bloody hell, Danielson, what time is it?""I know not, sir, but the motorcar engines are warm and ready for us."With a feeling of splitting pain in my head, I roused myself from slumber, stumbled to my suitcase, took my doctor's (alchemist's) cocktail of medicinal assistance, and threw on traveling clothes: a broad-brimmed hat, cargo shorts, boots, and a collared shirt with many pockets. I left the lodging in a flurry, exiting to find the hallway empty of its former inhabitants; it was silent and still. The low roar from my dream, what had to be the motor-cars, continued outside, rising in pitch as a few Jeeps revved their engines. Exiting the compound revealed nothing but the red halos of a dozen tail-lights, the luminescence of headlights, and the dull pink of a coming morn on the horizon, as the clouds of yesternight had fully cleared for a day of beautiful weather, leaving the jagged black outline of a wild frontier unadorned. I broke into a jog to join Barton in the front vehicle."Top of the morning, Barton!" He didn't respond but raised a hand signaling the drivers to prepare for departure. The roar of engines intensified, and the convoy lurched forward, tracking its way slowly through the chain-linked perimeter as the Belgian and French soldiers waved us through. So it was that we parted with the only civilization we would experience for quite some time to come. But what ever was civilization, and what ever was "humanity?" What god-like names we bestow upon ourselves, as if Perseus himself had defeated Cetus to merely allow the fish to propagate their species freely! Ahead of us as we traveled East was the Nyungwe Forest perimeter, and above the forest canopy slowly peeked the largest ball of fire I'd ever remembered seeing, ever so slightly illuminating that jagged outline of jungle and rock in the faintest touch of amber and gold. The Universe itself holds the secrets; yes – now I see it – eternally recurring, eternally living, eternally inseminating Being with that great light-dream that we all see for a few seconds before our eyes open in the morning, the Universe is perhaps God, and Being its Father. Perhaps sunrises were more eloquent when the sun rose on a new era. I looked at Barton to see if he felt similar feelings of epochal nostalgia, but found his face furrowed with concern, gazing upon me steadily with that obscenely carefree demeanor known only to men of his cloth. "Brennan, must you insist on weighing this expedition down with your impudence, not to mention the utter fecklessness of your team?" He accused with that friendly concern known only to us in our friendship. In boards, I had smuggled in mescalin to assist us in passing our oral poetry final, wherein the old professor, possibly a progenitor of Shakespeare himself, asked us to compose poetical narrative on the spot upon a topic of his choosing. Neither Barton nor I were particularly artistic in our inclinations, so I felt the need of performance enhancing substances to be entirely necessary. One can readily see the logic behind this conclusion, but Barton declared my insolence and utter bankruptcy of moral fibre in no uncertain terms. I, with a manufactured passion of pseudo-artistic melodrama, argued against his position fervently. That did not end well. Thus my response:"I apologize, my friend, my health has been positively dreadful as of late; I find mornings most difficult. Say there, do you have a cigarette?" I inquired of the driver; he handed me a pack of Camels, which I received gratefully, removing a few and placing them in one of my shirt pockets for the duration of the drive, leaving one lit in my mouth for a calming smoke. "Damn it, Brennan, I thought you quit.""I did. Need a quick boost is all.""Say goodbye to boosts in about two hours. This jungle can be most inhospitable of such needs.""Well, of course you and I know that. How is Ada?" I must have touched a nerve reminding him of his wife back in Southampton, for he simply looked at me with more accusation."Don't pretend you haven't heard," he muttered crossly, betraying emotion in only his tone."Well, I merely found it curious that she allowed you a short time of shore-leave for this little endeavour.""Bloody hell, More, try to not make yourself utterly insufferable. Boarding school days are over; you're no longer my bunk-mate and I needn't tolerate it.""Suit yourself."Earlier that year, a perimeter was constructed around the Nyungwe Wildlife Preserve, once proof of the Creature had been presented to the provisional government. From north to south and from east to west, a fence of some strength purportedly surrounded the place, or at least that's how Barton had explained it in our meeting after the full board meeting. He emphasized how information of this quality needed to remain quiet, lest the expedition fret needlessly. But Barton and I both agreed that something had significantly spooked the Rwandans. I had questioned a Rwandan guard who had returned from the forest to attend our meeting; he merely said, "Thah fahrest is quiet. Vedee quiet," in that rich brogue of speech known only to the Congo basin. Barton and I laughed privately at the uselessness of communication between us when the U.N. couldn't even provide fully fluent guides. We thought no more of his words. Now, tendrils of delicate light touched on turf and mounds of soil here and there, back-lighting the massive forestry that grew larger with each passing meter, as we approached the perimeter meant to keep in all wildlife on the Nyungwe Wildlife Preserve. Ahead of us, a few well-lit checkpoints illumined the surrounding, leveled earth with harsh, unnatural light, the contours of which illumined a massive, iron fence, the size of which could never have been described adequately by Rwandan guides or U.N. spokespersons. If the floodlights had illumined to the top of the fence, it certainly would have met the tallest jungle tree in height, and, doubtless, no Creatures could escape its enclosure. After a few momenta of awe, I'm sure the expedition's eyes drifted downwards to the well-lit checkpoint, which shone in the early morning darkness like a lighthouse of hope. Through the bright, airy windows, no movement was observed. Even more unsettling, nothing stirred within as we approached to request entry. Bright offices, filing cabinets clean and organized, water coolers, coffee pots, desks, cabinets – all of it was perfectly neat, perfectly within view from the road through those large windows. The Rwandan flag flapped in the early morning breeze over the lightly sun-tinged roof. Machine guns sat quiet and unattended, and my eyes could barely make out the black cylinders of gun barrels leaning against the stone railings of the rooftop.Divided into two structures connected by a glass hallway, the checkpoint was the last outpost before the rainforest, entrance to which was only accessible through the large iron-gate, a gate which, to our dismay, was thrown wide open to the forest beyond. The structure presented a picturesquely eery scene. Barton lifted his hand and signaled the convoy to halt. He exited with a flurry of movement and ran to the checkpoint door, where he entered without a second's pause, like Peter, off to investigate the Master's tomb."How very queer," I commented, casually ashing my second cigarette. The convoy idled there in the pre-dawn hour for some time, eventually offing their engines and allowing the silence to dominate. After half an hour, I began to worry that Barton had pulled some silly trick of impulsiveness and locked himself in a secured room on accident. I chuckled inwardly at the thought of finding him in such a state. Then I considered if something more sinister had occurred within that overly-welcoming facility, as I imagined scenes of terror. Finally, Barton emerged from within, a disconcerted expression shadowing his countenance. He slowly trudged through the loose African dust towards the motor-car where I idled. "Say there chap, what's the matter?""No one.""No one what?"He looked at me meaningfully, "There was supposed to be a team of thirty Rwandans here to manage our arrival and entry to the preserve, but there is no one in the buildings, no sign of forced entry or exit – simply not a soul around.""Come now, I'm sure they are having a good sleep-in after the civil war; the business of bloodshed no doubt addles the mind and wears on the body. Maybe Kagame gave them the day off?" He didn't take to the humor.He was right; the buildings were beautifully well-lit, as if someone had meant them to be occupied, meant them to fulfill their purpose in the minutes before the sun peeked over the horizon, but not a soul revealed itself to say why the building was made ready to such detail with no purpose evident. All at once, the sun breached the canopy of the jungle, bathing us all in the bright light of dawn. I squinted in the light, my eyes not yet adjusted to the intensity of the morn'. Barton opened a large box on the back of our jeep, withdrew a large radio, and dialed in the device to make contact with any superiors awake and able to answer. A few channels crackled by as he turned the nobs: African music, a strange mix between Western electronic and tribal instrumentation; then something which obviously was in the irredeemable French language; finally, a man in a crisp English voice broke through the static." 7. 5. 1. 3. 2. 4." He measured out the pauses between each word with expert precision. His tone was low and clear, as if giving dictation to an old secretary. "Yes, UNAMIR, this is Bravo. Do you copy?""7. 5. 1. 3. 2. 4."Barton looked confused."Yes, UNAMIR, this is Bravo. Do you copy??"The crisp English voice droned on in its strange sequence of numbers, little reason evident in its tone."This channel is used by all UNAMIR personnel, with an attendant at station at all hours; this is very queer, indeed," Barton said, worry beginning to be evident in his voice. Brodeur approached from the rearmost vehicle, hailing us loudly, his voice reverberating hollowly off of the stone walls of the checkpoint's empty structure. "Gentlemen! Where have the Rwandan's gone? Is there any explanation from UNAMIR?""7. 5. 1. 3. 2. 4."Barton did not answer, but continued to listen intently to the radio, removing his adventuresome looking hat to lean closer and make out any background noise in the wall of static. Brodeur halted on seeing this, and stood transfixed, his own brow furrowing with concern. I, for one, thought nothing of it; channel scrambling was known to happen from time to time and there was no reason why anything of a darker nature contributed to the incident. "Is that the UNAMIR channel?" I nodded. "Yes, Brodeur, apparently they are out for a spot of coffee and cakes.""7. 5. 1. 3. 2. 4."Barton silenced the radio in a startling flash of movement. He must have fumbled with the knobs, for the radio crackled back on for one moment, leaving us with one word, in that same British voice, imbued with royal charm:"Proceed."Barton fumbled with it once more and turned it off. "Well, gentlemen, we have our orders," looking somewhat relieved. Brodeur was not pleased with this explanation, however."Did you make contact?" I attempted to conceal displeasure with his obvious cowardice as I made response:"Monsieur Brodeur, I assure you the situation is very well in-hand. Our instruments were momentarily scrambled, but now they function properly once more – no thanks to you. If you'd kindly leave the leadership of this coalition to me and Barton, that would do most well."Brodeur turned and left in a huff; Barton smiled with appreciation. At the very least, we still had in common our mutual dislike of Frenchie. Barton and I hopped into the passenger seats of our jeep, he waved his hat over his head in a dramatic flourish, and the convoy roared to life once more, breaking the strange silence that had begun to set in over our expedition. We rolled forward through the opened iron gate, and made our way down the dirt road towards the edge of the jungle, a few hundred meters of foliage having been cleared and burnt close to the checkpoint. With some nostalgia for civilization throbbing in my breast once more, I turned and looked back at the compound in its brightness, its clear windows receding brightly behind us. One room's lights flickered off for half of a second, leaving the room in utter darkness. They flickered back on immediately, and I believe now that I saw a black, blurry figure of unknown sex standing in the window, watching us retire toward the jungle. I blinked once and rubbed my eyes: the room was dark once more and any occupant invisible to my view. I had forgotten to take my clonazepam, and I was certain that what I saw was merely a mild hallucination. I committed to take it as soon as we arrived at the jungle's edge and left behind the motor-cars. The driver changed gears as we rattled down a general dip in elevation, which lead to the ashen edges of the jungle, where a host of charred trees stood, dotting the landscape here and there, as if telephone poles had been planted on the surface of the moon. Any fires had long since gone out, but the ash and rubble proved that burning had occurred at some point previously. The blackened tree trunks stood hollow and open, like coffins, their gnarled branches reaching toward heaven like the charred hand-prints on the wall in Kigali. "Were you aware that the Rwandans were undergoing controlled burning campaigns?"Barton looked around at the pock-marked, tree-dotted landscape with incredulous demeanor, "No, I was not aware they were executing such operations, nor am I certain as to the reason, for this forest is a national treasure, fertile and verdant, home to countless rare species. Surely it needed no assistance in remaining so?"We continued to descend down the dip in elevation, avoiding especially large piles of ash and charred wood, while our wheels kicked up particulate material that left a hazy cloud behind us. I could just make out the coughs of the folks in the motor-cars behind us; I thought with pleasure what hilarity would ensue to see Vernon and Partridge responding to the events of the past hour-and-a-half. The sun continued to brighten our path in our descent with each passing moment, and now, amid the ash and charred wood, one could make out little golden dots of light nestled in the black and white charred material. I nudged Barton and motioned to the earth, "Say, fellow, what might those things be?""I cannot quite make it out – perhaps we can investigate closer on reaching the edge of the forest?" I nodded my assent, and on we went, rolling further towards the forest, its edge now illumined in green and golden grandeur, where once only the black, jagged outline appeared to make itself known to us. The humidity continued to thicken, becoming more oppressive by the moment, encouraging Barton to remove his hat once more and wipe his brow."Humidity! The great succour to any fertile biome! " His words described the rainforest in perfect summary, yet the edge of our quarry did not present its desired face: no colorful birds flitted in the forest canopy, no chimpanzee howl or warble resounded from the deeper forest – naught but stillness and quiet ruled. My memory returned to the words of our Rwandan contact, which Barton and I both deemed incompetent. "The forest is rather quiet – perhaps that Rwandan gent wasn't so inane?" I queried.Barton merely nodded, a troubled half-smile returning to his face."Cheer up, chap! Doubtless the recent burning campaign has sent the nearest wildlife scrambling for cover. Let us get on the trail, move towards the suspension bridge you mentioned last night, and doubtless more shall reveal itself."His response was cut short as our jeep rolled to a halt at the edge of the forest, dwarfed by the towering canopy of undergrowth that lay before us: The forest expanded out from us at a mostly level elevation, until it drew nearer to more mountainous regions some miles in the distance, where small promontories of rock and brush rose like the bones of some great giant, at rest under the earth. The ground continued this way for some time till it reached the sheer cliff of Mount Bigugu, upon which the morning sun painted a swathe of luxuriant pink and white, highlighting our destination in impressionistic shades and hues. The expedition dismounted from the jeeps and assembled with their gear at the head of the caravan, where Barton bent down to the dust and ash, fishing something from the particles: a marred, gold-colored piece of metal similar to what my eyes had spotted, hollowed in the middle, blackened by fire along its edges. "Well, Barton, what's the verdict?""Not sure...it seems to be too marred by flame to be readily obvious. But they are everywhere further up that rise in the elevation whence we came — less so down here.""In anyway connected to the burning?""Doubtful...alas, for now the question must go unanswered, and the mission awaits." With a sudden roar, the Rwandan drivers ignited their engines and made their way back up the elevation towards home. Soon, all that remained was a cloud of dust and the dull sound of their engines climbing out of that great hole into which we fell. I felt a vague feeling as I stood there watching them depart, a feeling I cannot quite describe, a blend between nostalgia and anxiety – like the past recollection of a future reality. Danielson, followed by the other members of my team, hoisted their heavy backpacks and we all gathered around Barton, with his privileged associate, whose name I never cared to ask. Brodeur gathered his own worthless belongings from the dusty earth and joined us, so that our numbers were seven in all at the start. I never understood why Barton was fool enough to bring so few of what obviously had been a well-constructed team. Nevertheless, his assistant carried the radio on his back, Brodeur carried only his personal luggage, while Barton carried a large pack of scientific tools in a long bag reminiscent of a soldier from the Great War, the tools of his geological trade. I carried the supply of food and water, along with the means of recording our findings. We had supplies for a week, more than enough time to allow us to reach the village and resupply. I know not what Danielson, Partridge or Vernon carried, but their packs were significant in size. Vernon had a pen in his mouth and a little notebook in his hand, in which he regularly made little notes, no doubt preparing the tale of what would soon befall us. "Danielson, did you neglect to wake Rothschild this morning?" I said with consternation. "Who, sir?" Danielson smiled boyishly, attempting to grasp my joke. I yet again reminded myself to take my medicinal assistance, which I promptly did."7. 5. 1. 3. 2. 4." Barton's assistant swore loudly and fumbled with the radio momentarily to silence it – it broke the silence in its clear British voice, like a Hanoverian king. I smiled. And so it was that Barton gave his illustrious speech, painting a picture of what awaited us: the beautiful suspension bridge that straddled the length of the valley, the little village surrounded by numerous orchids, which he had seen a month before under the shadow of Bigugu, and the waterfall – and I have not the heart to tell you more. Yet, for many, the words of Dante tell the truth:"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate"