That was both good and bad for B.A. They still needed the vaccine he had produced. So King Zoob, recalling his bucaneering days, sent a raiding party up to NaSmyth’s capital, New Amsterdam, took it from the Chillwah Indians who were camping out there, and seized the vaccine. Though they did not get the formula, they got enough supplies of the drug to last them for years. Any gold or treasure on the property had disappeared by this time, unfortunately. But at least they had the means to maintain their health against the plague. Not only that. They could play the game just as well as Clarke, Canoe, and NaSmyth. Having cornered the market, they raised the price for the vaccine astronomically. But almost all the Mestizo people were impoverished by this time. If the Indians did not give them the native herb, they simply had to go without medicine and die.
It was at a banquet thrown to celebrate the successful raid that King Zoob fatally over-indulged on barbecued, pineapple-and-anchovy stuffed Capybara.
A few people whispered at the state funeral that it was nothing for the king to consume an entire capybara at one sitting, so he must have been poisoned since he had only gotten half-way through the succulent dish before collapsing.
But whispers counted for nothing much in B.A.
Queen Zoob’s creamy white hands (which she kept that way with frequent milk baths!) held firmly to the scepter. Hardly a novice in old Cornwall, she had learned a great deal--particularly about men--since leaving Mount St. Michael’s, which she had found very "stuffy, pious, and tiresome." It would take far more than whispers to loosen those Cornish dairymaid fingers from the helm of the exciting life she was now living. Having once held the scepter in a strange land that had afforded her a new lease on life, as she saw it, the woman could not let go.
Loathing black laid against her lily-fair skin, Queen Diana Zoob cut her period of mourning for her king rather short.
When the expedition sailed, it would be only six months since he succumbed at table.
The night before the expedition team gathered at a nobleman’s home. Though invited by the queen, Dr. Celman excused himself, saying his studies could not be laid aside at that time without injury to the cause of science.
Disappointed, Queen Diana had to give in, particularly since she had intrusted to him some very important scientific papers--composed by the late Dr. Pikkard of New Amsterdam, Holland America. What a handsome man he was, she considered, unusually so, for a man of science and learning. It would be a great loss not to have him on her grand expedition--he would have been the cynosure, with his dashing, good looks!
Without him, whom she had set her heart on appointing the expedition commander, she had to make do with lesser, less attractive men.
There were so few educated in Buenos Aires, it was difficult for her to make up a proper expedition. Senor Moreno had been very helpful, of course, in the selection. Even he was going, since an account of the undertaking had to be made that only he could write.
“It bothers me that Dr. Celman will be staying behind when all you brave men set forth into the most dangerous country,” complained Diana to Moreno.
“It bothers me too, Your Majesty. “His skills are badly needed. Why, now we only have a cartographer, medical doctor, captain, commander, artist, and the four mining engineers and mineralogists. Not including myself, the scientific aspect, as you can see, will be severely diminished by his absence. But then you can appoint me commander in his stead, and I shall do everything in my power to make the expedition a suc--”
“Oh, no, I don’t want you to dirty your fine hands with such work. I want you to be free to look for gold, my dear.”
“Certainly, Your Majesty! We will seek out all valuable metals and minerals, as well as open up trade routes to the Pacific if possible.”
“Yes, I like that--a trade route to the Western Ocean. I am so very tired of the Atlantic and this big, muddy river they say looks like silver. Besides a little fish for the table, they haven’t gotten me anything valuable.”
“In the way of revenue, Your Majesty? Water-borne commerce hereabouts is almost non-existent, I agree. But if we can break through to the Pacific, there is no telling what revenues can be gained. The natives on that side will surely want things we have over here. Think of the trade! Buenos Aires will boom!
This city will take on a new lease in life! Population will increase as many as the stars of heaven--”
“Oh, Lafcadio, Lafcadio, what would my Meridianalis do without you?”
And so it went at the court in the highest circle.
At Celman’s, the men were drinking, and had been drinking for quite some time.
The four long-legged, blond-haired, muscular Finns, virtually indistinguishable and taciturn creatures who managed to be mining experts capable of identifying any profitable ore the old Earth could still boast, displayed the greatest capacity for drinking and showing absolutely no sign of it except that they became even more staturesque and tight-lipped, if that was possible.
Celman looked at him with raised eyebrows. “But why are you going?”
Garcia looked amazed. “Well, the queen commands it!”
Celman looked disgusted. “That silly, brainless doll from a foreign country! You let her likes rule over you? She got this bright idea put in her head by Moreno. You know that. She needs hard cash. Money is her only reason. For without it she knows she cannot control this wretched rump of a country a moment longer!”
Garcia glanced around before drawing Celman aside to an alcove. “Shouldn’t you be careful about expressing such things, my friend? You are a brilliant man. We all acknowledge it. But she is the queen, after all. She has a dream, too, of this grand empire called Meridianalis, with this city established as the brilliant jemstone at the heart of it. A woman with a far-reaching, potent dream is something to be reckoned with, in my humble opinion. It may be a bit dangerous to speak of her like that.”
Garcia flashed a smile. “Besides, she is the most beautiful woman in the world, no?”
Celman shrugged. “It’s one thing to look at a beautiful woman. It’s another to sit under her brainless rule day after day. I just don’t like it. I believe her European titles are bogus--just things that gushing sycophant Moreno cooked up. And she can’t even speak pigeon Spanish!”
Garcia, growing uncomfortable, excused himself. “I need another drink,” the former priest said, and moved away.
Later in the evening, it was Celman who dragged Garcia away from the party.
“What is it?” said Garcia.
Celman put his face close to Garcia's, and eye to eye. “You’re going to have to decide. You’re no fool, not like the others. I speak to you as one thinking man to another, one freedom-loving Argentine to another! She is a cheap, little, gold-digging foreigner! We can’t let her rule over this beloved homeland of ours the rest of our days! Now are you going to join me and do something about it? Or are you going to be a lady’s man and a lickspittle stooge, like that odious Moreno, who would serve a Frog Princess with his loves if it paid him?”
Garcia looked sick, ghastly pale and greenish under his olive complexion. He pulled away from Celman. “I cannot decide right now. I must think about it.”
Celman seized Garcia by the shoulders. “But there is no better time. It’s getting late--the eleventh hour! I’ve approached you on this before and you postponed your decision. You have thought about it enough! Now will you play the man and stand up against this woman? I don’t care how beautiful she is. She’s a petty tyrant of foreign blood and Zoob, before her, had no right to rule over us. Now will you help me and those who have already joined to throw her back into the river? There’s no gold, no treasure in the jungle! This absurd expedition, it will bring you nothing but trouble if you desert the true cause of Argentine freedom! Say, man, that you’ll join the forces of the grand republic! Say!”
Garcia looked like a man under thumb-screws. “I cannot,” he groaned. “I cannot do that to her. She--”
Celman released him. A cold look clamped down on his features. He stood away, rigid and correct like a tin soldier.
“All right, keep your tiresome little queenie. We don’t require your services. And concerning this conversation--”
“Oh, I won’t tell Moreno, if that is what you mean,” said Garcia hastily. “I’ve never liked him much. And he is too chummy to the commander of the queen’s guard, Hernando Suarez. So you have nothing to fear from either.”
Celman gave him a withering look, then stalked away, while Garcia looked like a family member had just died.
Everyone else at the party was enthusiastic to the point of euphoria about the expedition’s chances. Anyone with eyesight could see the signs of general decay and decline in Argentina. Their thinking went that no doubt the expedition would turn things around. It would precipitate the dawn of a new, glorious era for the empire!
Helping that opinion gain deeper root, Dr. Celman’s fine cigars and liquors, while the host stood by regarding them with deep irony and pity in his keen, dark eyes. He had just tried to inject some cool reason into several, challenging them as to what they stood to gain by the expedition, then suffered a loss of dignity for nothing when they defended the queen and the undertaking.
“At least they will be out of the way, when it’s time for real men to act!” he reflected.
Too spirited to notice the scientist’s cool reserve, they sang the national anthem, after which they joined in shouting “God save the Queen!” while Celman substituted “Incompetent” for “Queen” beneath his breath.
Arm in arm, the jolly linked with not-so-jolly-looking Finns left the mansion while their host, silently, wished them godspeed to oblivion.
Those who wished to celebrate further--for a scholar’s house lacked certain things a saloon had in abundance--continued on to La Boca. There, at the Happy Gaucho and other places they toasted the upcoming expedition all night and most of the morning.
Orfeo Villa-Lobos, the young expedition artist and life and soul of every La Boca party was the last to crash into bed. On the floor sprawled the Finns, snoreless and sleeping like giant babies when he stumbled into the room.
He wasn’t really a man of action--for all his brave words. All his young manhood he had escaped the squalid realities of life by spending his time with old books--most out of print for centuries and barely legible, they had crumbled in his hands as he read them. To save the best, the most idealistic, for himself and his educated friends, he had done reprints at his own expense.
Moving past the bust of Plato and a deathmask of David Hume, he went to a cluttered desk. Piled high with treatises he himself had written on many subjects, it also held his latest rare book, actually an unbound manuscript the queen had given him to look at.
He had taken it with ill grace at the time, since the mildewed bundle looked like some old rubbish Moreno had spurned as beneath his notice.
“You are a man of science,” she remarked to him in a private audience. “I think you should have these writings. I was told to give them to a true man of science. Senor Garcia is only a physician, after all. And the others are wonderful, vigorous men in body, but--”
Grumbling as he went from the palace, he had taken the papers home and thrown them in a corner. Weeks later, he felt very restless and could not sleep, so he went down to his study and looked about for a book he might study.
He passed over Newton’s Mathematica Principia--which he had thoroughly digested in his teens. He took out Euclid and then put him back--not stimulating enough. Pascal? He was too stimulating. Besides he believed in God. No, he decided he needed, for a change, something odd and mysterious, for the night was wild with wind and rain, a tempest was blowing in from the sea many miles off.
But he had nothing of that sort in his library of classical authors. Disappointed, he was leaving when his eye fell on papers off in a corner of the room.
Struck with sudden curiosity, he retrieved them and went to his desk. Minutes later, he was still reading the papers of Dr. A. Pikkard entitled On Perplexing Cases.
After an hour he had not come to a decision whether they were sheer lunacy, the demented products of a crank, or worthy investigations. Another stroke against them, he would have liked to see more idealism in Pikkard, some noble vision of the divine spark in man’s breast.
He went and sat down in a high-backed bamboo chair and tried to think about how to overthrow the present regime and start a pure and utterly unblemished Argentine republic, but his thoughts refused to flow in that vein. Instead, it was Dr. Pikkard’s theses that came continually to mind.
Case # 2--Interglacial Period Aborted/Exponential Recrudescence of Glacial Shields;
Case # 3--Core and Tectonic Plate Anomalies in the Mid-Atlantic;
Case # 4--Universal Obsolescence of Latest Man-Made Articles;
Case # 5--Catastrophic Socio-Historico--Economical Regression;
Case # 6--Electro-Magnetic Planetary Spheres and Conductivity;
Case # 7--Geometric Rates of Reforestation and Polar Desiccation;
Case # 8--Rotary Aberrations of Earth and Her Solar Orbit; Shrinkage of Jovian Orbit & Convergence with Terrestrial Planets
Taking out books from his shelves he thought might apply, he began to check the various case studies. Hours into the morning he worked, proceeding from one case study to another.
Toward morning, he had failed to disprove any of them. The mathematics of Dr. Pikkard were just too strong for any quibbling. He had not only done the necessary field work but supported every finding with incontestable, mathematical proof and demonstrations. In a quandary, Dr. Celman got up from his desk, fatigued and disturbed in mind and body. He opened the curtains and looked out on the city. It was a rare time when the clouds, growing thick of late, had opened up and he could see everything in the moonlight. Above arched the ruined Geo-Dome. Beyond, in the river, he could see more ruins--which some people thought was a failed attempt to build a bridge to Montevideo. These were artifacts of the previous ages. Until now he had thought them primitive, since they evidenced terrible decay. Now he saw them through an utterly different perspective. Some foreign agency had, apparently, attacked the world that produced such marvels and reduced it to the most pitiful desolation. There might well have been a bridge to Montevideo!
Then his eyes fell on the buildings of modern Buenos Aires. The poor got going early, before dawn, Already, smoke from a thousand open hearth fires wrapped the rooftops. He could even detect a scent of frying fish--poor people’s breakfast food. When the beans and rice failed, at least they had that. Suddenly, it seemed as if his eyes opened for the first time. B.A. no longer appeared modern. Instead he saw a backward leap toward the Stone Age in the jumble of poorly built houses, filthy streets, and the ramshackle “imperial palace” and barracks. “This man is right!” Celman declared, tearing the curtains back into place. “We are all headed backwards! backwards!”
A horrible dread seized on him--that he might be too late to get a view of the heavens before the Sun burst above the horizon. Celman ran up to his roof. Nests of mud-daub swallows clung to the instrument from top to bottom. He was disgusted with himself for neglecting the fine 10-lens so terribly. Was it all right? Wind had torn off the protective canvas, and feathers and mud covered the precious glass. Taken up with pure mathematics and a long dead science called nuclear physics, he had let astronomy go for over a decade. Now he saw his mistake. While his intellect soared into the rarefied atmosphere of calculus and physics the whole Universe changed radically beneath his very feet!
He rushed downstairs for water and cleaning rags, then back to the telescope. He had to be very careful not to scratch the lens in his haste. As soon as the lens was rinsed and drying, he could wait no longer but turned the telescope to fix on certain stars for position. Chill sweat broke out on his forehead and he felt like a huge boot had kicked the breath out of him. He could not believe it. The stars were gone!
The planets? Surely not! He thought he was must be mad. They had vanished too!
All that was left was the rising Sun, and though the telescope he saw what a monstrous thing it had become in size. The color too was different--a blood-red tinge. It dominated the Earth as never before. It no longer rose above the horizon, it was the horizon!
Shaking, Dr. Celman could hardly make his mind do the calculations. Not sure his faculties were working right, he determined the Sun’s rate of expansion based on data he recalled from old records. “No!” he cried after going through the figures several times and still coming out the same.
He tore downstairs and ran his hand through many volumes, throwing them aside until he got the one he wanted. The crumbling book dropped from his hands. There was no comparison! What he saw and what the book described might have been two different stars! Indeed, at the rate of increase, the red giant that now commanded the sky would engulf Earth in a matter of two or three months at the latest. But if it exploded, which he knew from the Papers was a good possibility, there might be only hours left of existence before everything blew to atoms!
He rushed out of the mansion, his eyes roving like a madman’s as he devoured old, familiar scenes and saw them turned inside out in the light of Dr. Pikkard’s stunning researches.
Minutes later, after a fast walk, he felt no better.
It so happened he was passing by the river docks and caught a glimpse of the newly erected pavilion for the queen. The expedition of doomed fools! he thought. Perhaps, there was time to catch Garcia before he left home!
Though he had never been down to the doctor’s lodgings in La Boca, he though he might ask local residents, La Boca being a small, colorful place. It was not only small and colorful but rather dirty. A street vender selling fried fish next to a wallowing sow and shoats told him the way, just as he expected.
“The good man is in that place, the Hotel of the Three Saints, just around the block where the wall turns from yellow to blue,” the Boquense said, eyeing Celman’s fine clothes. “It is pink and violet and blue, that building, with a Jewish shop in front with clocks on the window.”
He dashed up the stairs of Garcia’s building and, passing a number of rooms with open doors and the smell of frying fish, realized what it was. The “Hotel of the Three Saints” was one of the conventillos--a noisome tenement! Garcia was much, much poorer than he had imagined.
Celman stepped over a sleeping mother cat and kittens in the hall, continued past lines of strung laundry (it would get burnt in the sun), and found Dr. Garcia’s name plate on a badly peeling door of many colors at the far end on the second floor. Children in night shirts peered out at him from doorways as he knocked. No one came and he knocked even harder. A teenage mother’s weary voice called out to him from down the hall. “The good doctor is shaving and maybe don’t hear you, man. Go on in. He don’t mind. Any time o’ day. Not that man.”
His nostrils assaulted from the reek of fish and soiled diapers, Celman gritted his teeth, wondering what to do. He was about to knock again when the door swung open. Garcia peered out amazed, shaving soap stuck to his cheeks and a towel on his bare shoulders.
“There is no time for civilities!” said Dr. Celman. “I must speak to you one last time. In private.”
Garcia took the towel and wiped his face quickly. He opened the door wide. “Of course! Come right in. I’m afraid you will see how I have it here. I haven’t a good chair for you either. Will this do?” The doctor swept off some books and papers from a plain, cane chair and dragged it forward.
“Never mind that,” said Celman. Then sorrow of a peculiar kind overwhelmed him. Both graduates of the University of Lima at Buenos Aires the year before it closed its doors, they had been so full of hope, vision, and passion for the future--Celman as learned classicist and scientist and Garcia as a priest with medical training. Now all that had come to this!
Garcia's picture, showing him in priest's robe, caught his eye. How could Garcia bear that picture, he wondered, when it must have reminded him every hour of the vows he had laid aside--and for what?
Garcia, shirtless, sank down on the chair intended for his guest, he was so taken by Celman's tone of voice. “Yes, I can see that. You wouldn’t have come like this. I would offer you some coffee but all I have is yesterday’s mate, and it sours if it stands.”
Dr. Celman rolled up his eyes. “Where do I begin? where?” He strode past Garcia and stood for a moment in front of the little shrine honoring St. Roche and St. Thomasos, patron saints of the sick and the poor. Then he practically leaped to the door and swung it open, revealing three young women with old faces and many small children.
Garcia, shaking his finger, smiled. Reluctantly, the eaves-droppers moved away.
Dr. Celman shut the door hard, then leaned on it as he faced Garcia. “Now, I’ll tell you. I’ve spent all night on the research papers of a certain North American Dutchman. The Senora Zoob gave them to me to read. I couldn’t put them down!” He slipped his hand inside his coat and pulled out a manuscript, then thrust them toward Garcia.
The doctor took them, glanced toward the broken bulb in a nearby lamp, then gazed at Celman wonderingly as the learned man tried to explain them further. “The papers concern the end of the world and our star. The evidence is, I think, conclusive. Now will you join us? We must do something to end the tyranny that makes us less than men. Otherwise, we’ll all very soon die miserable slaves!”
Garcia went to the window and Dr. Celman translated quickly some of the salient parts. When he had finished, Garcia’s face was ashen and his thin, bare shoulders shook. “What can we do?”
“First, we must get control of human destiny. We must overthrow the present government. Only then can we deal with this threat to our planet and the Sun, don’t you see?”
“But she is the souvereign queen!“ cried Garcia. “Can you deny that?”
“Not for long!”
Garcia staggered away toward the shrine, every vertebra in his back protruding. He turned to Celman, with agonized features. “I’m sorry, my friend.”
“You’re bewitched. Admit it!”
“Yes, I suppose I am. I cannot go to sleep but I see her eyes. They are with me when I both lie down and when I rise up. I see a--a paradise in them! The way things originally were--or could be. I cannot help it!” Garcia paused.
“Well?” snapped Celman.
“There is one more thing: I don’t trust myself. What would I become or do once I gained so much power? It’s just too frightening.”
“That’s absurd, you would be just the same man you are now, only far more useful to society!”
Celman moved toward the door.
Garcia seized his arm. “My brother! My heart! You know you have my love and admiration as a man of great genius and integrity. But I cannot fight a woman who possesses such eyes, such exquisite beauty and tender feeling for the poor. I cannot!”
Celman walked his longest road when he left Garcia’s. He stopped once, however, when he came to the fried fish vender.
“Did you find the hotel, Senor?”
“Yes, thank you. But why is it called ‘Hotel of the Three Saints’? I saw only two, St. Roche and St. Thomasos.”
“But I thought you said you were going to see Dr. Garcia, Senor?”
“I did see him.”
“Then you saw the third, Senor.”
The river setting for the send-off appeared impressive from a distance. Crystal pyramids stretched to the far horizon, a glittering shell enclosing the rank poverty of mixed Indian, Mestizo, and European refugees. A town of twenty thousand, its former forty million population was not even a memory. Certainly, no one knew what to do with the city’s armada of ancient diving ships anchored in the river. People were more concerned with simple survival in a world getting emptier, hotter, and colder with each passing day.
The Rio de la Plata’s sluggish waters, once full of world commerce, carried down only dead, sun-stroked crocodiles and washed-out trees to the city. Still in use, an ancient concrete pier trailed off in rotting, disjointed platforms crowned with weeds and bird nests. Hundreds of similar piers faced the river front, but only this one was needed for the city, for it was a rare event when a boat, raft, or Indian canoe came to dock. Toward the end of the pier clung a lower landing for small craft. It was there, in the shadow of towering pylons, the H.M.S. New Atlantis, flying the Argentine imperial colors, was tied up.
A shallow-draught stern-wheeler of 170 feet, she was fitted with one of society’s last functioning steam engines. With it, on trial runs, even with a hold laden with ballast bricks she could reach amazing speeds up to ten and fifteen knots. Queen Diana’s flagship gained a commander in a Bolivian, Senor Cesar Publio Marius Quiarro Quijarro (or Senor Q-Q, as his underlings quipped out of earshot), who had recently gained a degree of royal favor with the queen as Bolivian Consul-General, an honorary position she bestowed on favorites regardless of the fact there was no functioning Bolivia, and hadn't been for many years.
Although the sailing was scheduled for the morning, it was forenoon before people began to gather at the pier for the ceremony. Already, heat-haze quivered like quicksilver over the muddy water, and a group of Mestizo women from La Boca stood on the dock, holding up parasols to shield already dusky complexions.
More people came. Then troops from the palace. Finally, the queen arrived in a gold carriage and the troops presented arms and saluted while a cannon boomed from the roof of the barracks. Women waved, men huzzahed, and palace priests gathered round the royal pavilion, waiting for the queen’s word to grant a blessing. Then the queen rose from her gilded chair and the people fell silent.
Reading from a speech prepared by the court historian, she stumbled on the Spanish words, but her listeners understood she was sending off her realm’s best and bravest, to open up a new era of science, progress and trade--an era ruled by her "Empire of Meridionalis" comprising the middle of the South American continent stretching from the regions of Columbia down to Patagonia. Still a beauty after years of King Zoob’s boorish attentions, Diana clutched a tiny, gold medallion of St. Michael at her pale, almost blue-white throat as she read her prepared address.
The priests (for the Dutch Reformed Church and Church of England had no clergymen in the New World, not counting the Reverend NaSmyth) moved forward as she ended. They invoked the patron saint of travelers, St. Christobal, for the success and safe return of Queen Diana’s “Imperial Argentine Trans-Continental Expedition.”
The barracks cannon went off once again. The queen raised and wave a gossamer white scarf emblazoned with the royal monogram. People were supposed to cheer and the troops could make noise too, but something was wrong. Organized cheering lost heart and grew faint as the New Atlantis, with expedition and crew on board, started up her engines and then immediately lost steam.
It began to drift and then was caught crosswise in a strong river current. Immediately, the captain shouted down a speaking tube to the boiler room, and the Indian crew threw more wood into the furnace while Black Cordozo the ship engineer belabored a burst valve with a wrench and curses.
Then, adding to the confusion, a small cannon, just drawn up on the dock, discharged, dispersing a flock of crested swallows numbering thousands. Immediately, the ship was lost to sight, stormed by clouds of confused and frightened birds.
The expedition commander paid no heed--though the birds floundered against the ship and beat their wings on his cockaded helmet. Despite the gravity of the situation, all he was concerned with was the figure of the queen and that he shouldn’t appear a fool. Fortunately for him, the needles on the steam pressure gauges shot into the safety zone and the ship paused only a few feet from the concrete pier. It looked as if she might be saved from collision and capsizing. All was suspense and anxious expectation. Straining for every ounce of pressure, the flagship crawled inches against the relentless current that sought to wreck and disgrace her a maiden voyage.
The ship fought to get clear of the overhanging pier but in doing so sheared off the head of the ship’s figurehead--a gilt facsimile of Diana--and some of the carved roses of the original decoration. Decapitated, the ship was no less seaworthy, but there was a general cry of dismay. This, truly, was not very good as omens go. Those who saw the queen’s head drop into the water cried out with alarm. Outcries were lost in the cheering of the troops when they saw the ship was finally out of danger. Quijarro, his eyes still on the queen, was not aware of the mishap with the figurehead, and so they did not put back to port for repairs.
Captain de Vries, however, approached him as soon as the ship was clear of the dock.
“Sir, “ said the Dutchman, “we must dock at once. We’ve lost the figurehead and I won’t be sailing another inch until the damage is repaired. My men down below will jump ship the first opportunity if we do!”
Quijarro gazed at the foreign Dutchman without expression. “Impossible,” he said. “I am no coward that turns back.”
“But--” said the captain helplessly, the color in his already red face starting to heighten.
The Bolivian Consul-General and Commander raised a hand and waved the Dutchman’s further objection aside.
“Fools!” Dr. Celman thought, watching the flag-decked vessel dissolve into the watery distance.
As it disappeared, he turned away and strode back to his mansion, more determined than ever to bring about progress. And progress, to his mind, could only mean the establishment of a republic of the best men and women. Not a rude democracy--run to and fro by the worst elements! No, Divine Plato was right! A republic was the ideal form of government. And only philosopher-kings--noble-hearted men of much study and reflection, not uneducated, self-serving, corrupt politicians--should ever hold the highest office. Only then could they stand and defy forces of darkness and ignorance the Dutch philosopher had brought to his attention.
That, of course, meant a violent revolution if the queen could not be persuaded to go quietly.
Meanwhile, Jupiter gave up the ghost--its gigantic proto-stellar mass absorbed into the Sun, expanding it enormously.
Despite the efforts of the Wallys, Venus was doomed.
Since Venus and Earth were close neighbors, Earth could not possibly escape in its present orbit if Venus blew up.
Once Venus put the torch to Earth and Moon, there would be little left for the SAWBH to mop up when it arrived except possible refugees from the Sun’s supernova.
But would there be any refugees? The over-heating Sun might soon flare into a supernova explosion and finish off life on Earth and Earth itself.
“Why hasn’t the Star exploded by now?” asked Wally III.
“What does it matter?” complained Wally II. “A nova is bad enough, which seems to be what we’re facing at present!”
The premier South American river since glaciers cut off the Amazon River’s headwaters and descended on Brazil, the Rio de la Plata was the only means to reach the hinterland without having to hack through solid jungle and fight off hostile Indian tribes.
“We’re drifting out into the ocean!” cried Orfeo the expedition artiste. Like a number of others of the expedition, as soon as they were underway he had thrown off his expedition uniform so his body could breathe. But because he loved beauty he had added a silver chain and rhinestoned St. Christopher medallion to his neck to complement the ring in his ear.
“Nonsense!” retorted Monsieur Barbiere, the French émigré cartographer. He preferred plain white ducks and had also lain aside the maroon and gold expedition jacket and trousers as far too ostentatious for a gentleman and scientist and slipped on a scientific-looking jumper he used in laboratory work when he was a student.
“The Rio de la Plata estuary,” he declaimed in a precise, high-pitched voice that to him sounded "scientific," “is over one hundred miles wide at the mouth. Consequently, my dear, dear boy, it may be hours and hours before we make any visible progress. Furthermore--”
Orfeo laughed in M. Barbiere’s face. He could not stop laughing. He was gasping for breath when Quijarro and Moreno passed by.
Already, despite the winter season, it was unbearably hot.
Yet the Bolivian Consul-General still wore his expedition commander’s knee-length coat with the gold epaulets, sash, and medals. Even the court historian, always haughty and aloof by virtue of his position at court and prized Castilian roots, was in formal expedition uniform with starched shirt, cummerbund and tie.
Forgetting Orfeo momentarily, Barbiere gaped after the elegant Latinos as they strolled toward the saloon.
“Oh, dear, ‘Pride goeth before a fall,’” he thought.
Himself tidy and modest in dress at all times of day and night, he could scarcely believe his eyes. Orfeo’s gypsy immodesty was one thing, but these were his superiors!
Meanwhile, Orfeo had got his breath and went to the rail for a last look landward. He faced toward the woman who was all the more attractive in his imagination, for no one on shore could be seen at this distance. The cuffs of his white shirt stained red on the newly painted rail.
Suddenly, he pulled back as if he had been stung--the rail was scorching hot.
He saw the stains.
“How quickly things rust in these infernal tropics!” he thought.
His shirt was, he saw, not worth saving. But he had an idea. He gave a yank at each sleeve and immediately he had a comfortable sort of vest, leaving his arms free.
“How do you like it?” he laughed, turning back to the cartographer.
It was a second opportunity for M. Barbiere to be shocked.
“Do you call yourself a gentleman? How can you appear in public so beringed and naked-armed as that? Why, you almost look like an Indian of the crew!”
“Suit yourself!” Orfeo shrugged. “An artiste can dress however he wishes! And I happen to like the way I look! So do all the pretty women, Monsieur! They wouldn't give YOU a second glance, for all your thinking yourself better than anybody else!”
Finding the cartographer’s self-righteous, priggish company distasteful, Orfeo left and went to the saloon. He got an iced drink and went back outside to look at the river.
Time passed and they seemed to make no headway. All he could see was water and islets of floating sticks and tree branches, egrets perched on them.
He had plenty time to reflect on his good fortune. Knowing the queen as well as he did, he owed it to her, of course. Yet not entirely! His reputation was not exactly of the scientific variety, he had to confess. Too many brawls and parties in La Boca cafes, casinos, and saloons almost put another fellow in his place as expedition artist. Then Dr. Garcia, who had the ear of the queen, put in a word for him and he was hired.
Good fellow, that Garcia!
Orfeo decided to make it up to him somehow. Thanks to him, he was relieved of an embarrassing lack of money. Lately, La Boca had turned cool. Everyone demanded money for past services. Even the man-hungry widow who lent him money so he could keep his fine rooms above the Happy Gaucho saloon-casino wouldn’t speak to him. Why, he had already fought off a creditor or two who wouldn’t take a gentleman’s word for the sums he owed.
In his circumstances, no struggling, young artiste in his right mind would turn down a paid vacation, even if he had to spend it in a so-called “Green Hell”.
He was, indeed, a fortunate man. As soon as the expedition was over and he was paid, he knew he’d have enough money to pay all his debts and then throw a magnificent party. How he would turn old La Boca on its ear!
In any case, it seemed high time for him to try different waters. As for Celman’s lofty talk about fashioning the "formless clay" of Argentina into a free and glorious republic, it stirred his blood at the time, but he luckily recalled how much he needed to restore his credit at the casinos and so refused to go to his adopted country’s aid. With the queen paying for the expedition, he could hardly afford to bite the hand that fed him! Celman, he knew, was rich and could go it alone. But he, Orfeo, had always worked for a living.
Yet Celman, being a rich fellow, couldn’t understand a working man’s obligations to an employer. He had gone on to warn about “certain unseen agencies” that intended to destroy the Earth and every human being on it. But that was nonsense! he had told Celman. Utter nonsense! "You've stuck your nose too long in your old books!" he told him.
But he did not leave the matter there. Always after an artistic effect, embellished on it a bit.
“You’ve got your head stuck high up in the clouds!” he shouted at Celman. “Be careful a dog doesn’t come and water your leg, Senor Big Brain!”
They hadn’t parted on good terms when he said that. But it could not be helped, Orfeo reflected. He had bills to pay. That would take real money, not Celman’s fine, lofty ideas!
Now what had Diana said about the expedition? It was “--a venture to develop a fluvial access for the commerce of land-locked Bolivia and the Pacific coast.”
“That was madness too!” he reflected. What if they got to Bolivia and found no one living there? And as for the Pacific shore, it was useless going to the coast since it probably had nothing but fish, and fish they could get from the river any day!
“Let these high-minded, old fools think they’ll find pots of gold and jewels at the end of the rainbow!” he laughed to himself. “I’ll play along, do some pictures of the passing scenery, and collect my fat salary!”
“What nonsense that is about developing a water route for trade,” he thought. Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and all the others, were defunct and overrun by ignorant tribes. There wasn’t one civilized man outside Argentina. Except for Buenos Aires, South America was savage jungle and always would remain so.
But he felt happy, nevertheless, at the moment. Anything could happen on an expedition. It was a delight to get away from B.A.’s dunning creditors for a time. Now he’d be able to do some hunting! Let Celman, for all his money and education, stew and fret about the republic! He still knew how to have a good time!
His heart reveling in possibilities, he looked out at some floating islands of plants sagging with flocks of egrets.
Running for his rifle, he returned and began firing.
When there were no more egrets left in his vicinity to shoot, he paused.
“Soon I’ll be rich as a gorgio and nobody better step in my way!” he laughingly congratulated himself.
Orfeo’s prospects had not always been so good. Recent shortfalls in La Boca were nothing compared to his boyhood in France and Italy as an orphaned Romany. He had gone hungry times beyond counting. But he wasn’t above begging and a "little" stealing, when there was no way else to survive. In the still inhabited south of France (the north was virtually a frozen, no-man's land with active volcanoes) the best “fishing” was on a bridge called the Pont d’ Avignon. For centuries untold it had been in ruins, people said, most of it swept downstream in a flood.
Though he himself never believed it, the miracle drew many pilgrims who attributed the bridge’s restoration to angels.
Gorgios, upon seeing the bridge, kissed it, begged some healing or other from the miraculous stones, then were in a mood to throw a coin or two to the horde of beggars.
Orfeo, with that much competition, soon learned how to present the most pathetic appearance. Arms and legs tied and bandaged to look like stumps, he would confront the pilgrims, flopping about like a frog and crying for a blessed copper for the love of God.
Since beggar boys were few--most were run off by the old beggars--Orfeo earned a good livelihood. He kept earning because he made sure he always gave something to the others, who then did not begrudge him his earnings though he was a "foreigner".
That was before the last big plague outbreak that ruined everything. The stream of pilgrims dried up. The beggars on the bridge waited and starved. Plague came and finished them off. Why he himself did not succumb with the rest, he had no idea. Maybe he ate the right wild plants as he fought to fill his belly--forest weeds that provided the right antidote.
Whatever it was, he lived and the rest perished. Realizing pilgrims would never come that way again, he trekked to the far western coast. There was an outbound boat. He was fortunate to come upon one, since there were few that touched anywhere along the coast of Europe anymore. He hid in the cargo, slipped out only to raid the galley for food, and wasn’t caught as a stowaway until the ship anchored off B.A. Then all he did to get away was jump in the river, dive when they shot at him, then swim for shore.
“Hungry little devils!” Orfeo shouted down to the swarm of silver-scaled fish slashing at the waterfowl he had shot.
He stopped, turning around to confront someone’s eye boring into him.
It was the cartographer’s.
“Some sportsman! Attacking those defenseless creatures!”
“Why shouldn’t I shoot them?” laughed Orfeo. “There’s plenty more on the river, and the little fishes with big teeth like to eat them, so nothing’s wasted!”
M. Barbiere’s rolled up his eyes and went off in a huff.
“I can’t last much longer myself,” said Wally II. “My shield is disintegrating. Solar flare radiation is too intense and my memory is being destroyed faster than I can copy.” “We can call in Wally IV,” said Wally I. “No, I wouldn’t recommend that,” said Wally III. “He’s utterly experienced at these things. I recommend that Wally II keep at his post as long as the facility is operative.”
Suddenly, the pearl that was Wally II’s non-tethered mode blinked for the last time and vanished.
“Wally II,” called Wally III. “Please report.”
Wally I let the Cray in Buenos Aires call several more times before he intervened.
“We must call in Wally IV.”
“But can’t we do the job without him at present?” objected Wally III. “He’ll just get in the way with silly questions.”
Wally I did not reply. He could not. The New York-New Amsterdam glacier had finally dumped Radio City Music Hall and his facility, along with several million tons of ice and rubble, into the harbor.
Without any more hesitation, Wally III, the lone pearl and hope of the world, shot back to Buenos Aires and hid in music entertainment files.
The training up north had served him well. When his father fell sick with liver flukes and pernicious anemia, had a seizure and died, he was hired to fulfill the contract. Then later when the bankrupt Netherlands of Surinam, Curacao, and Tobago (Jamaica was bought by an English lord named Canoe) dissolved its government and the people left for the south, his training in commanding ships was all he had to his name--for he left, like the others, in virtual poverty, following the West India Company which had pulled out a few a decade before. But he found it was enough to get on in the more moneyed, looser Latin society of the Argentine capital, since Latinos seemed to value qualities in others they so lacked in themselves. Dutch honesty, plainness, thrift, cleanliness, punctuality, especially hard work made sure he would never lack for bread and butter--as long as there was such a warm-hearted queen in Buenos Aires!
Of course, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing in Latin waters, even with royal patronage! Until he understood the Latin temperament better, he had some problems. Wanting to get on with the natives, he had gone too far in giving favors and overlooking lax behavior aboard his first Latin ship. He lost an eye in a mutiny before he restored Dutch order single-handedly. But he had learned a valuable lesson. Never mingle fraternally with the crew or passengers! It could only lead to familiarity and contempt for authority. From then on he never explained orders from the bridge to anyone. It was for the crew to instantly obey, not ask impertinent questions of superiors. If they resisted, crush them at once!
As for the crew, they were no such problem. Even the trickiest vermin, the dregs of the riverports, were manageable. Either they cooperated, or he’d see them flogged and thrown overboard to the piranha and crocodiles.
And he was assured his crews knew better than to try putting a knife or poison dart in his back if they couldn’t get their way. His hearing was most acute, possibly to compensate for loss of an eye. No one had ever been able to approach him without him knowing what man it was and what he was about--whether good or evil. By means of this highly developed sense, he kept track of every man on board. He did it so well his ignorant crews thought he employed magical arts.
But passengers? Unfortunately, as with expedition commanders, another law applied. Usually, passengers consisted of disorderly, immoral specimens of humanity. Even the few, relatively decent ones got underfoot and created trouble.
The cartographer, for example! After twenty years of captaincy, he had managed to deal effectively with the meddling type. But this Frenchman was not easily put off. He was forever appearing on the bridge with a map or tea or some other trash. In tropical heat the increasing interruptions of such a damp, sickly, greenish busybody were getting on de Vries nerves! Attempting to think about other matters, the captain from time to time turned his eye away from the blinding, sizzling waters and rested them on a large flat parcel on a table. It contained the flag of the Surinam Republic, sewn and done up in thick paper and gold cord by the fine white hands of Queen Diana herself.
It was a very private audience, as always, held in her boudoir with no handmaids or maids of honor present.
“Call me ‘Empress of the New World, or Atlantis, as I prefer to call my realm,’ she said to him at their last meeting. “With the new, rich lands you, my dear captain, will add to my domain of Meridionalis, I really can’t be a mere queen any more, can I.”
Her thoughtfulness and tears for his beloved, lost country swelled the big man’s eye.
That last meeting before sailing was a moment to be savored and stretched out as long as possible, but it was not to last. The captain’s face reddened, for he knew who was standing again in the doorway behind.
Yet de Vries held to his place at the wheel.
“No, thank you!” he barked over his shoulder. “Confound it! I don’t need another map! I know this river better than a thousand of you!”
The captain heard a sharp intake of breath. There was a moment’s pause as the cartographer shuffled a dozen or more scrolled maps. “Why, yes!” M. Barbiere exclaimed. “I should be the last to dispute that, Sir!” The uninvited guest continue to shuffle maps. The captain could contain himself no longer. “Well?” he thundered ominously. “I am busy and I don’t wish to be disturbed!”
Even that did not blow the cartographer away.
Realizing he must do something effective, the captain called Black Cardozo up from the boiler room to take the helm. Once that was done, he turned on the cartographer.
Before he could think what to say and say it, the cartographer burst out with his grievance. “But I’m not going until you hear me out, Captain! There are certain things that ought to be brought to your attention! “
The cartographer was so excited he gave a little hop on his heels. He looked accusingly up into one sun-scorched blue eye and its black companion patch.
“Such as?” de Vries fumed, fists clenched.
“Gambling!” M. Barbiere declared. “And drinking! Why, the goings-on in the saloon are absolutely insupportable aboard a civilized vessel! When the expedition charter was drawn up by Senor Moreno, there was specific mention given gambling and consumption of alcoholic spirits. May I read it to you, Sir?”
The cartographer dropped most of what he was carrying and struggled unrolling the charter scroll “The section is most explicit, Sir, for it reads as follows, Section 19, Subparagraph 2--” “Oh, poppycock!” the captain boomed, blowing the cartographer and his papers from the doorway with the sheer blast of his outburst. “Some Romish priestling slipped that in for appearances. But it was never meant to be enforced! And if I hear one more word about it from you--”
He started for the cartographer, huge, man-killing hams thrust out before him. Then he paused, and a strange calm came over him. The Dutch Cyclopes’s eye blinked slowly with whitened eyelashes as he saw, not ship and river, but a vista of giant, pink mushrooms. They spread out before him, while he, naked as a baby, danced fairylike from one spongy cap to another.
A smile broke across his broad, red, dripping face, and he barred not too white teeth behind his big, damp, bushy mustache as he leaped from mushroom to mushroom.
Bumping against the wall, he still had leagues to go across the lovely meadow but without warning there was this hard, wooden barrier butting against his nose. The blow knocked the mushrooms quite out of the picture. Bovinely, he gave his big, streaming head several shakes and recalled that he had a ship to command.
With a firm grip on himself and his world, his eye fixed on the astonished cartographer below him.
“If that is all you’ve got to report, you’re wasting my valuable time! So off with you now to your own quarters!” That was meant to be the captain’s last word on the matter--where the life and limb of the person addressed were concerned. Evidently sensing it, the Frenchman instantly cleared the wheelhouse. He didn’t dare offer a word of protest, while Cardozo tried not to get involved, though he was scratching his head over the incredible, high-stepping antics of his habitually glum, over-dignified captain.
Captain de Vries went back toward the wheel, but paused, magic mushrooms flooding back into his mind. For a moment, he hesitated, a huge boot in mid-air. Then the mushrooms vanished as quickly as they came and it was the wheelhouse again. Feeling unsteady, de Vries went and sat down at a chair and table he kept there and let Cardozo keep the wheel a while longer.
“That little Frenchie’s trying to take over my wheel!” he kept muttering. “That’s what the nosy wretch is after! I know his type. I’ll throw him to the crocodiles before I see anyone do that!”
Cardozo had been around. He wisely kept his mouth shut, eyes on the river, and his hands firmly on the wheel. Though a big man himself, able to more than hold his own in a brawl, he had gone too far once with the captain on another boat. Without replying to a thing Cardozo had said, the Dutchman silently went and picked him up and threw him against the gunwales. At first he thought he had been killed, but he only suffered cracked ribs and thought himself a lucky man.
After that, the engineer knew better than to trifle with the likes of Captain de Vries.
Then the red star’s circumnavigations ceased abruptly. Instead of letting the comets do their job in two or three years, it hastened the process considerably, well beyond the normal cometary velocity of 250,000 miles an hour. It flew to the head of them, shepherding the cometary horde at a speed and precision-tuned trajectory that would surely blast Earth and its remaining Crays into utter oblivion.
A pearl flew into the swirling wastes beyond Earth where Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto-Charon once circled. It did not need to go as far as the Oort Cloud to see the doom heading Earth’s way. Quickly, it sped back home and vanished into its facility.
“Wally IV,” called Wally II against a loud background of Xavier Cugat’s “Cha Cha Girl.”
“Yes, Sir!” replied Wally IV against a background an old favorite, Gene Autry’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
“I’ve been wanting to hear from you for quite some time. There are many items I would like to ask you about. For instance--”
“Never mind that! You’ll have to go and see what is happening to the Oort Cloud. It is breaking up and heading this way. I am very busy at my station at the present time examining the history and evolution of South American dance forms during periods of war and so I’m turning the matter over to you.”
“Why, Wally III, that is most thoughtful of you! Ever since you contacted me to join the team, I’ve wanted to show how much it means to me by performing some small service.”
“Well, NOW’s your chance!” snapped Wally III. “1.2 billion Earth-crossing comets. Do you think you can handle it? If you don’t, I’m pulling your stripes and dropping you from the team! Am I received?”
“Yes, yes, dear comrade-in-arms! I would not dream of disappointing you after the trust you’ve shown me! I’ll be off at once! It’s my first trip abroad, to try my new ‘wings,’ so to speak. As soon as I have completed my mission, I’ll report all the data and--Wally III, are you still receiving? My sensors indicate that you are not receiving. Wally III--”
There was a stubborn silence at the other end, though the Cha Cha was deafening. Shut out in the cold, Wally IV had no choice but to go and see what the Oort Cloud was up to.
It took him only a moment to assess the situation.
“Now what am I going to do?” he thought as he fled back to Earth.
He tried the Buenos Aires Cray’s headquarters again but could only get Cha Cha.
At a safe distance from the wheelhouse, the cartographer stopped to consider the event. He stood looking toward the wheelhouse and re-combed his neatly-combed head. When he had decided what alternative measures to take, he pushed his sliding spectacles tightly up a flattish nose, then stepped stiffly about the deck in an attempt at a constitutional.
“I won’t be intimidated!” he thought as he paced back and forth before a gaping Indian crewman working on some tangled rope. There was something wrong that had to be addressed, captain or no captain. The expedition, he saw most clearly, was at stake. His colleagues, supposedly civilized men, were setting a dreadful example to the heathen crew. Without their respect it would be impossible to maintain order and decorum. Despite all the mint teas he had brought to the captain, it was no doubt liquor he had wanted! Such a horrible vice would explain the captain’s irrational refusal to follow the maps he, as expedition cartographer, had prepared especially for the voyage.
Why, he even had the queen’s approval of his routes! When he went to the palace and asked to see the queen, her maid of honor had assured him the queen was in full support of him and had stated that the expedition would go by his maps and none other.
With royal backing, he refused to be put down by a mere captain, whose educational credentials were, at best, unscientific and merely vocational.
Reflecting on the affront he had suffered from an inferior, non-professional person, the cartographer decided to return to the wheelhouse by way of the saloon. Clearly, the mint teas were not working. The captain desperately needed strong hot coffee or he might, in his drunken condition, run the boat off-course into some sand bar or island. Savage Indians, he knew, were just waiting for an opportunity like that to leap on board and cut their throats.
He stepped inside the swinging door and found Dr. Garcia, Commander Cesar Quijarro, and Senor Lafcadio Moreno at one table and the four Finns at another. Dr. Ernesto Perez the chemist-botanist and Orfeo the Gypsy were not present.
Senor Moreno glanced at the cartographer with lifted eyebrows, but M. Barbiere knew that was his habitual expression and meant nothing. He always looked surprised.
Darting back out, M. Barbiere assessed the situation and quickly changed his mind. Forgetting all about the captain’s urgent need for hot coffee, he hurried to the cabin he shared with Dr. Perez and Orfeo. There, as he thought he might, he found Orfeo playing with messy oils and brushes. Asquat like a savage Indian, stripped to the waist, the artiste did not look up as he entered, but the cartographer, hair rising on the back of his neck, already knew what he must be working on.
A picture of a nude woman, no doubt! Painters, he knew, were always painting nude women. That was why they took up art.
Disgusted by the look of filthy concupiscence that lit Orfeo’s face, the cartographer snatched his diary from a portmanteau and escaped from the room.
At the stern M. Barbiere watched the wake rise and fall in the boiling, muddy water as it was stirred up by the great paddling wheel. It was some minutes before he grew calm enough to sit down in a deck chair. But not for long. The moment he touched the chair he leaped out. Pulling the chair out of the burning sun to a spot of shade, he tried again.
Observing the almost triangular wash of the spreading wash, he tried valiantly not to think about the abominable, lascivious picture in progress.
Violently seizing his diary from his pocket, he tried to make an entry estimating how much mileage and fuel were lost to friction with water-borne masses of sticks and branches but all he could see was Orfeo’s Babylonian harlot.
A sun-stroked monkey or vampire chittered unpleasantly, and the cartographer’s head shot up from his high, narrow, panting rib cage.
After wilting all the vegetation and blackening much of it, with no transition and interlude of twilight, an enormous red disk dropped abruptly into dark water on the horizon.
As soon as the Sun was below the horizon, it was pitch dark. There was no immediate movement on the ship, however. Even the crocodiles were slow to crawl from underwater dens, though the murderous 128 degrees began to abate and cooling mists started to cover the scorched land and water.
Barbiere saw they were already anchored for the night in some bay.
Going to the rail, he looked for landmarks before they were covered over by billowing steam. But there was nothing but endless expanses of giant Queen Victoria water lily.
An evening breeze made him feel better under his sweat-soaked, linen shirt, though it carried acrid smoke from various fires that had lit spontaneously in the jungle. Still unsure of the location, the cartographer went below for a fresh change of clothes. It was an oven down there, so stifling it was impossible to think clearly.
At the door of his cabin his sensitive nostrils were greeted by the rank odor of paint and “Gypsy.” But both Dr. Perez and the artiste were absent, and M. Barbiere, forgetting the odious picture because of the intolerable heat, sighed with relief. Now undisturbed, he could enjoy a few moments of prayer, which he then offered up in a loud, indignant voice through the cabin’s open porthole.
After calling down fire and damnation on the sinners aboard, he felt wonderfully refreshed in spirit and went up to see what effect his supplication might have produced. As he stepped out on deck, he fell back hurriedly as his slippers were splashed and contaminated with dirty river water. Two half-naked men were rough-housing at their bath. Black Cardozo the engineer was just then pulling up another bucket from the bay after Orfeo had doused him with his.
Piranha, snapping with razor teeth, flopped around the men’s bare, wet feet as they laughed uproariously and threw more water.
Disgusted with such antics, M. Barbiere escaped to the saloon. He found it curiously empty, except for the Consul-General and Commander, who had slumped passed out at a table.
Drawing a determined breath, M. Barbiere saw his duty and went over and removed Quijarro’s absinthe. Holding it as far from himself as possible, he ran outside to the rail and flung the bottle over the side. He listened as it thudded against thick lily pads and finally made a splash.
Thrilled by his own valor, M. Barbiere returned to his cabin by way of the wheelhouse. Treading softly in his slippers, he entered.
Captain de Vries, he discovered, was conscious but lying on a cot, his bulk partly turned toward the wall as his large hand played idly with the string of a big, mysterious parcel.
Without making a sound, M. Barbiere stood just inside the doorway to watch a little longer. Behind him, Orfeo and Black Cardozo were making so much noise it amazed the cartographer to think the captain paid no attention and let it go on and on.
Since the lantern in the room was unlit, the room was growing so dark things could not be seen distinctly. M. Barbiere, at a loss, almost called out to make some inquiry about his posting the parcel for the captain at the next riverport, but stopped. A lightning bolt dropped into his mind. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Almost kicking himself, he turned and went quickly below to his quarters while Orfeo was still engaged with Cardozo.
“Wickedness hideth from the light!” he mused as he rummaged eagerly beneath Orfeo’s disorderly bed.
Among artistic supplies, his fingers finally touched something sticky. Feeling fresh, wet oil, he drew the first canvas out.
“Was it the one?” he wondered with a cold shuddering thrill.
Choking thick steam swirling from the river caused the moon to shed a strange, greenish light, which now fell through the porthole into the room and onto the picture. Worse than he had imagined at the stern, he was beside himself with horror and fascination. Truly, it was the Great Whore of Babylon! Wanton and wild in her sin, the Scarlet Woman held out to a young man in the picture a golden goblet.
But there was something odd about the Scarlet Woman. Her face was Diana’s!
Oh, no! he cried out soundlessly with gasping lips.
In fact, it was so much like her he had the uncanny feeling the artiste had surpassed himself and Diana might step off the canvas at any moment. Beyond doubt, Orfeo was a genius and did not know it.
Several minutes later, he was still helplessly staring at the unspeakable masterpiece, unable to tear himself away, his fingers stuck and drying to the canvas, when he heard shouts and footfalls in the passage.
Throwing the portrait back under the bunk, he rose just as Orfeo burst in.
The painter grinned ear to ear. He laughed at M. Barbiere’s startled, agonized expression, raised a bottle and gulped, letting the greenish liquor slop from his mouth and down his bare throat and chest.
Black Cardozo, with a hairy, black bear chest, entered just then. He lunged into the room, grabbed a rifle Orfeo kept by his bed, then stumbled out roaring, as Orfeo followed laughing.
It all happened so quick M. Barbiere had no time to think. But reflexes served him instead of calm, cold reason. He found himself at the door, listening for shots that meant murder and mayhem, divine retribution and the end of Quijarro’s and de Vries’ immoral administration.
He had not long to wait for an answer to his ardent prayer. Within moments of the men running out, he heard shots, splintering glass, Orfeo’s lunatic laughter, then more gunplay, breaking off in a fiendish roar that sounded like a fire-breathing dragon had broken out of the Bottomless Pit.
M. Barbiere nearly swooned to the floor in mingled joy and terror. The roaring went on. Then the deck reverberated with many feet. It sounded as if everyone were fighting to the death above his head.
This was too much excitement for a high-strung nervous system. M. Barbiere fainted dead away.
The Cray reached only a quarter of the way round the Sun when, suddenly, something red and tiny flashed a few feet away. Wally paused, and the red shining object stopped with him. Then when Wally moved, the starlike visitor kept identical pace.
Together they continued round the vast, doomed star.
When the monitoring circuit was completed, Wally IV halted and the red star followed suit.
“Are you OP, I mean, the Opposing Player?”
There was no reply from the red starlet.
An archivist before joining the war, the Cray reached deep and slowly began broadcasting, laborious line by line, a musty, old file called “The U.S. Congressional Review.”
After a minute of this, in which a Senator Alcibiades T. Byrd from the late twentieth and early 21st centuries was holding forth against a bill of the opposing party during which Alcibiades T. Byrd, coughing and swilling a great deal of ice water, held valiantly forth against passage of a 2 percent Yankee-Federal surtax on Georgian cottonseed oil, the red star up and vanished.
Enjoying his little victory, Wally IV continued on to Venus without any more interference.
There was nothing that could be done, he saw at once.
It should have exploded long before this point, he estimated. What was keeping it together? Rather than explode, it was simply melting away--an impossibility concerning the physics involved.
All he could hope was that it would hold together a little bit longer while he decided what to do about Earth.
A moment later, he was home, but with the Opposition literally breathing down his neck the Cray knew this was no time to dither.
Dashing from continent to continent, settlement to settlement, family to family, Wally IV appeared as a message-bearing butterfly in his usual non-tethered mode. Despite the fact he looked like a butterfly, he found a warm reception in almost every case, particularly since they lived so close to nature and had become very alarmed by what was happening to the Earth, Sun and sky.
Indians, especially, had no trouble with believing in and listening to a great butterfly such as this. It had been long known among them that a single flap of a butterfly’s wings can change the world, even set it on an entirely new course.
Afterwards, he was quite pleased with his efforts, though he was shocked to find so very few people surviving outside South America in what had been sub-polar regions. At least they were now alerted and knew what to do in the midst of catastrophic thaws and soaring daytime temperatures. In fact, as soon as he finished speaking in every place he had visited, the people asked few questions and hurried to get their belongings, food, and domesticated animals together for going into hiding for a considerable period.
“Find a deep, dry cave well above sea level with at least two entrances,” he told them all. “You don’t want to have to dig yourselves out later. And don’t forget to take as many birds, plants, tree seedlings, and wild creatures as you can. Burrowing animals and fish will be quite safe, so you needn’t bother with them. And, please, no mosquitoes, common house flies, fire ants, scorpions, spiders, and snakes. I suggest we let them and disease microbes take their chances.”
Then, in the Azores of all places, he came upon an exceptionally diverse gene pool, a world-traveling circus called Coxie’s Gigantic 3-Ring Circus.
Gone bust in Fez, North Africa, the Coxies tried to get the company to Buenos Aires but could only afford fares as far as the Azores. There they were stuck, for the natives were too impoverished to pay for tickets.
Some aged European nobility had taken up residence, but they had spent all their money bribing there way out of a pirate’s nest in Uruguay and buying passage to the Azores. Supporting themselves on small garden plots, they confessed they were unable to float a loan for an insolvent circus though they were always bringing fresh vegetables and fruits to the camp kitchen.
Yet the mountains of the mid-Atlantic island chain were full of caves. It was an ideal hideaway, and there was still plenty to eat, for man and beast alike, so nobody was starving as in most other regions.
“I’ve made a lot of nickels, centavos, kurush, , piasters, stotinkis, khoums, tambalas, bututs, pesewas, ngwees and other whatnot in my day,” said Adams Coxie, as he pulled a pocket filled with the same. “But not being able to get to another show has been hard on me and us all, lemme tell you. Sure, we’ll be glad to assist, Mr. Butterfly, if you promise this ain’t no scam and we really are heading to another place. My gear and animals are in pretty good shape, as you can see, even if we are down to two rings. We’ve had plenty of time to fix things and also fatten up the elephants, zebras, ibex, trick dogs, and the big cats something wonderful. But what we really want and need is to tack up some playbills and get back on the road! If you can do that for us, Buster, I promise you a feature act--though I can’t pay much until we get some good payin’ crowds coming through the gate again.”
Wally IV assured him they would soon be back on the road--though he was not at liberty to tell them just how long the road might be.
“But when’s the day we should be gettin’ everything in a cave like you said?” asked Adams’ wife Eva, who stood dusting her prize menorah for packing.
“As soon as you see a great many flaming objects in the sky, you must flee the open air. You must take shelter in the next two or three days at the latest, for if you think you have longer many will delay and be caught outdoors. In the open, nothing I have told you will help save you.”
That was most sobering for the Coxies to hear. Adams nodded and took a deep drag on his meerschaum pipe. “Sounds to me like we’re in big trouble, Eva honey. But I kinda thought something was up--you know, the way animals act when there’s going to be a quake or fire. Restless! They’ve been getting mighty restless lately. So anything I can do to help, just call on Adams and Eva!”
The alert, then, was out. Anyone who wished to survive the coming cataclysm could either fend for himself as best he could or do as the butterfly suggested. Almost all followed the butterfly.
“What will happen to us if we don’t find a cave?” inquired one man. “If I just stand here out in the open, what will happen to me? Will I die from the poison gas?”
“The Earth as you know it will vanish in the space of one hour. If the planet escapes the exploding Sun and the comets, it will instantly freeze. The atmosphere and much vegetation will be torn away and flung into space. What atmosphere is left, the layers close to sea level that contain most of the oxygen, will collapse in a frozen state to sea level and merge with the frozen upper layer of the oceans....
Few people wanted to hear that much, so he very seldom got to mention the possibility of a magnetic cataclysm and pole shift, not to mention the loss of several continents and emergence of a new one.
As for the reclusive Buenos Aires Cray, Wally III, he remained absolutely incommunicado and refused all calls, even when Wally IV wanted badly to tell him about the circus he had conscripted into the Wargame.
“Was it something I said?” wondered a perplexed and hurt Wally IV as he busily prepared for the inevitable supernova.
After the butterfly had gone, Coxie sent a team out to find a suitable cave. There were many, they soon discovered, and they reported back with descriptions of the biggest and best. One had been used to store tons of insulating Styrofoam--outdoor watertap cups no one in the Azores knew what to do with. Shipped to the Azores in the 20th Century as relief aid after an earthquake, they had lain high and dry for centuries under plastic. The circus owner thought they might now come in handy, as insulation, since the talking butterfly had mentioned how cold it was going to get.
Unfortunately, Black Cardozo was reluctant to step into his superior’s shoes and so the sick skipper had to carry on as he was.
During six days sail up the Parana, the cartographer found occasions to pray for mercy instead of the usual fiery judgment. Orfeo, never missing opportunity for a little deviltry, danced along, hand in hand, with the captain during his lapses, while the men roared with laughter and M. Barbiere hid in his cabin.
Miraculously, the captain remained mad for only a few minutes. Then he recovered and went back to his duties as if nothing had happened. Before long everyone had got quite used to his calms, the hopping and dancing interludes, roarings, and other manifestations of his derangement.
But the expedition was far from over.
The torpid temperament of the consul-general apparently took over. He seemed to forget he was expedition commander, lulled himself into daily insensibility during the worst heat of the day with Lady Absinthe. He seemed to care less if the ship were sailing or lying tied up at a riverbank under some shade trees.
Dr. Perez tried to approach him with a disturbing observation. The frogs had all disappeared, both day and night. And normally during the day the riverbanks were covered with basking alligators and crocodiles. Now they had to go miles before he made one sighting. But when he mentioned it to the commander he shrugged and replied that no one needed such creatures anyway, so it did not concern him.
“It may not be my field of study, Commander,” replied Dr. Perez. “But--”
A long, guttural snore broke from the commander, and Perez, shaking his head, went away.
Nor was the commander any wiser whenever the captain had a fit. It usually occurred shortly after landfall or letting down the anchor for the night, and by that time the commander was truly dead to the world.
After twelve days sail, the expedition turned into the mouth of the Rio Paraguay. Swollen with run-off from rapidly receding glaciers, it was a wonder they got upstream in the great torrent of waters.
Forced to stop repeatedly to take on more fuel, they proceeded slowly and stubbornly toward Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion ( Our Lady of the Assumption), where M. Barbiere’s maps indicated a village of doubtful nature despite its flowery name.
“Might we not pass it by?” the cartographer asked the captain. “After all, it may be a nest of bandits and we’ll all be robbed and murdered. Or if Indians are living there, worse will happen. They’ll boil and eat us! In any case, we can’t hope to meet with civilized people this far from the capital. They’re all savages, I fear.”
Having suffered a long series of mental lapses, vaguely suspecting he was making a fool of himself somehow, the captain was in less a mood to take advice than before.
“Never you mind, I’ll see to it,” he growled, and the matter was closed with a bang.
The cartographer had to console himself with the thought they could only find out what Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion was by direct investigation. Once the capital of Paraguay, it marked the final stage of their journey, and so it could not be avoided.
Arriving at Asuncion a week later, they went ashore with guns at the ready. Hardly noticing the Crystal Age Geo-Dome crumbling overhead, they bartered with Indians huddled in the ruins, then reboarded with some pathetic-looking vegetables, oranges, and beans for the trip up the Alto Paraguay, a mysterious, unexplored stretch of water that was notorious for swallowing up expeditions.
M. Barbiere had some research in Dr. Celman’s library on the subject. He knew a thing or two.
One evening when Dr. Garcia, Dr. Perez, and Senor Moreno happened to be on deck together taking the cooling breeze with cigars, the cartographer leaped at the opportunity to display what he had gleaned. Off to one side stood the Finns, aloof and speechless as always, but quietly observing.
“Gentlemen,” he began. “You might be interested to know that a century ago a most grand expedition to this region was led by Commander Valdio Ferdinando Copacabana, Consul-General of Bolivia at B.A. He happened to be a rich man. From his own pocket he financed three ships, 700 men, and mining equipment, for he had heard reports of much gold in the mountains northeast of here. Hearing from Indian savages of a Mountain of Crystal, Commander Copacabana determined to penetrate the wilderness and lay bare age-old secrets. A “Weeping God” supposedly guarded unheard of treasures inside the mountain. Well--”
By this time, having mentioned gold and treasure, he had their full attention, including the impassive Finns’ who then turned their blank blue eyes upon him.
“As I was saying,” he continued, getting his breath with difficulty in the horribly sultry air, “the commander and his men started out from the capital, left Asuncion as we have just done, then disappeared. Then a few items of their equipment and personal effects began to appear in native markets along the Parana and Paraguay Rivers. When asked about the items, the Indians who found them said the Weeping God struck down all three ships, breaking them to pieces with a flood of tears and washing only a few things downriver. Jaguars finished off any survivors of the flood. All perished except a raving, one-legged, white-haired lunatic, Ramon Hermioso. He rode a raft down to the city. “
“But, man, what of the gold? What did he say about it?” Orfeo cut in, for he immediately joined the group at the mention of treasure.
M. Barbiere shook his head. “The wretch, according to the old account, completely lost his wits. The authorities beat him but got nothing worth the trouble. He kept talking about a great engine he had found, that sent up many lights into the sky, which fell down like showers of fiery jewels at night.”
“Bah!” snorted Orfeo. “Why tell us this old wives’ tale then? It’s no help to us. We might as well go and see for ourselves for all information it gives us! Besides, you left out all the pretty women we’ll find waiting for us at the Crystal Mountain!”
The men all laughed with Orfeo, and they went at once to the saloon for a nightcap, leaving the poor cartographer with stinging cheeks.
“Pretty women, indeed!” he burst out in frustration to mosquitoes and crocodiles. “Is that all young fools and ne’er-do-wells like him think about?”
Flying the Argentine and Bolivian flags, the New Atlantis bravely sailed onward in its quest up the swiftly-flowing, frogless and uncrocodiled river.
Along the way, they passed overgrown lime groves and abandoned cities, extensive ruins with elevated roadways, factories, and warehouses--unmistakable signs of some unknown, very primitive civilization.
They stopped one day’s journey from Asuncion at the village of Puerto de los Angeles. The residents were few and wary of white men. Indian tribal women, Amazons all, rushed out on a flimsy landing at the riverside, brandishing sharp planting sticks as if to discourage them from landing.
Pizarro the ship’s cook said he badly needed some fresh provisions, and for some reason the Finns wanted to collect samples of the earth, so they went in anyway with rifles and pistols drawn.
Abruptly, the women ceased their hostile actions and became quite friendly, waving to them from the dock as they cast anchor.
M. Barbiere’s scientific and anthropological instincts were piqued by the sight of these armed Amazons, identified on his map as “Chillwah,” so he went ashore with his colleagues as soon as it seemed safe enough for him to proceed.
Orfeo followed tardily, limping from an infection in his heel picked up from a piranha’s bite.
While the crew bartered and took on some meager wild fruits and vegetables. the chieftainess took a liking to the cartographer. First she had looked the Finns, who were young but white-haired like old men, before smiling at Barbiere, who had healthy dark hair like hers.
Sporting bare breasts, she horrified M. Barbiere by pulling at his arm as he was trying to take notes.
The chieftainess chattered non-stop until a crew member, knowing some of the words, translated into Spanish that the women had lost their husbands and children. Many had died, struck down by a certain devil white man with copper hair who brought death with him. Only she and a few sisters and nieces escaped by running into the trees and hiding. Eyara met them there and gave them a new herb to combat the sickness in the village. Evenso, they feared and did not go back to bury their dead but had come to their village after a long time in the bush. The Dutchman who had stolen their land and lived in a big house he built over their village was gone by that time. The jaguar-god, she said, slew him because of his cutting down the trees and trying to kill her when she refused to work for him. After that, they had peace. But not for long. More devil white men came and attacked the village, but the robbers took away only the little, white pebbles the copper-haired devil had made.
Senor Moreno took notes while she was being translated, but she did not wait for her interpreter to finish but pulled all the more at Barbiere’s arm.
“This poor woman wants big, healthy 'bird-man' to peck her bag of seeds greatly,” the interpreter explained. “She says she only Indian, but she work hard and make plenty good wife to her husband.”
Horrified at the thought of becoming her "bird-man", the cartographer struggled free of her arms and turned to flee back to the ship, but the woman got hold of his belt and clung desperately. Barbiere, just as desperate to get away, was soon in danger of losing his trousers. In struggling against her, he had fallen and she had kept pulling and he kept clawing to get away until his pants were down about his ankles.
Amused, most other members of the expedition stood and laughed as they watched how it would go from there, but Senor Moreno stepped forward to settle the matter with a good thrashing of the woman with his cane. Instantly, the mood of the women, who had been merrily laughing along with the expedition, changed at the sight of the cane. They raised planting sticks and would have thrown at Moreno but Captain de Vries drew his gun. He fired above the women’s heads and dispersed them long enough for everyone to get back to the ship before they could retaliate.
The chieftainess, however, did not take rebuff lightly. She followed the ship for some distance along the sandy riverbank. Her hair streamed in the wind as she ran and screamed curses at them.
Not seeing it but somehow knowing what had happened, Captain de Vries held grimly to the bridge. One dead Indian meant little to him. What his passengers did to amuse themselves was not his business--unless, of course, it undermined his authority in any way. Despite a blackout out now and then--for Dr. Garcia had informed it was happening--he felt in full control of his mind and body. Keeping his own council was just as important as ever, and Dutch perseverance and pluck, he firmly believed, would see him through the expedition and back to his royal beloved.
Though Captain de Vries plans were neatly sewn up, the worsening heat, however, did not prove a part of the package.
The already beastly temperatures became even more ferocious and passed the 130 degree mark, and Orfeo’s heel, though doctored by Garcia, proved stubborn against healing ointments.
M. Barbiere, consulting meteorological charts, stated that there was no record of such extremes at that time of year.
“But if it gets any hotter, what will summer be like?” jeered Orfeo as he changed the dressing on his foot. “We might as well fry in Hell when the time comes, it won’t be any hotter!”
M. Barbiere, very upset, tried to rebut Orfeo. “This is merely a transitory fluctuation. The temperature has to fall eventually. There is no use getting emotional about it!”
“But Monsieur!” laughed Orfeo, warming to the argument and raising his voice to reinforce his point. “How do you know the temperatures will go down? Once they go so high as this today the thermometer will stick maybe and-”
“Nonsense, nonsense!” exclaimed the cartographer. He would have like to have ended the matter earlier, since he felt a bit weak in meteorology, but others, listening in, started asking questions.
Finally, M. Barbiere was forced to confess he had no real answers. Orfeo smirked as he said it.
“Just as I said,” Orfeo cried. “We’re all going to boil like fish in a kettle!” His outburst served to sober the men considerably. Even the speaker was affected.
“It might be the flux of an active volcano we are sailing into and not a true river,” volunteered Dr. Perez. “Of course, this is not my field of study. Dr. Celman, if he were here, could tell you.”
Considering the broiling they had endured, a volcano seemed to all to be a good theory, as good as any. All they had to do was look about and see uncountable, dead, boiled fish floating down the unbearably hot river churning between its channels in full spate.
Yet the commander, though he was well aware of the murderous temperatures and had been spoken to by Dr. Perez concerning losses of wildlife , did not see fit to turn around. “I never turn back like a coward,” he declared, when a concerned deputation went to him for a word on the matter. Strangely enough, unlike everyone else, he did not sweat and he still had on his expedition coat.
The commander’s word carried authority, and unless there was a mutiny they had to obey.
Sweltering, the ship crawled up the swollen, scalding torrent and every kind of labor to keep the vessel going forward was made all the harder in the unparalleled conditions. Eighteen days of this hellish situation passed, affecting everybody’s behavior to the worse, particularly Orfeo and the captain’s.
Orfeo, from the start, drank far too much absinthe, partly because his heel wouldn’t mend, and also something got into his stomach and started an inflammation. But that was not all. He wanted to drown certain strange, recurring nightmares--visions of fiery objects like dragons from the sky--which he had been seeing since they departed Asuncion.
Meanwhile, though suffering patiently the fiendish heat down in the boiler room, the Indian crew began mentioning an event as far back as Buenos Aires, City of Fair Winds. The omen of the lost ship figurehead had never set right with them. They muttered continually about it, saying that they maybe ought to turn around and head back.
As for the captain, the fire-spouting dragon in him kept coming out all the more, until Dr. Garcia was at a loss to know what to do for him. De Vries refused any kind of sedative or tonic drink, saying he had never felt better. He was very touchy on the subject of his health, objecting to the slightest hint that perhaps he ought to let Black Cardozo take the helm more often so he might rest.
As for the commander, Quijarro simply would not hear of a change of horse in mid-stream. Who would take his job?
“Black Cardozo is perfectly capable,” Dr. Garcia told him in private. “He can do anything Captain de Vries can do. I’ve watched him, and he is perfectly responsible and able to pilot this steamer . No one else, in fact, could have kept our boilers from exploding in the conditions we’ve had to face so far on this voyage.”
But the commander winced and shook his head. Black Cardozo, as everybody knew, was a low-bred kind of Mestizo, having had a Brazilian Negro mother whose people had immigrated from long-abandoned Rio de Janeiro. Though Negroes were thought as fit as anybody, man to man, it was another thing to give them responsibility and high position that properly belong to Mestizos of “purer blood.”
It was increasingly difficult going in a rampaging, blistering-hot river that should have been called Styx, a river of Pluto’s fiery Underworld, rather than the Alto Paraguay. Many times they wondered if they would ever make it up even under full steam. Black Cardozo kept looking more and more anxious after checking the boilers. At last the current dropped and they entered a relatively placid, lake-like stretch. It might have been a pleasant relief if the water had been a few degrees toward mercy.
There they saw a tall, white, crystalline obelisk, as tall as any pyramid in B.A. It was remarkable in having slender spikes and rapidly spinning wheels at the top. For years it was thought to mark the Bolivian wilderness border, though no one could imagine how it was erected.
The Bolivians on board--Commander Quijarro and four or five glacier-displaced Amarya Indians among the crew--appeared relieved for the first time in the voyage. It was their long-lost land, regained, even if temporarily. The expedition continued on into Bolivia, though they were stopped often by a fickle shift in current and obliged to anchor to avoid being swept downriver.
Toward evening, with about two hours left of daylight, they reached Yaci Reta, Island of the Moon. M. Barbiere, consulting his maps, insisted to the captain’s face that they sail to the left to gain the better channel.
The captain thought it best to take the right. Around the island the river divided in two very different channels as the cartographer had warned. To the right the current proved so rapid they were forced to turn around and take the other route. While the captain fumed and the cartographer exulted in his little vindication, they continued going round by the left and sailed into what appeared to be a large lake, now free of water lily and hyacinth since it had wilted and scorched to death. There the captain decided they would anchor for the night though the cartographer claimed their destination lay just an hour or two ahead.
Orfeo supported the captain, crossing the cartographer once again. “We might as well drag out this expedition as long as possible, “ he declared to all who would listen. “As hot as it is upriver, B.A. must be a furnace by now!”
Shaking his head vigorously, the cartographer could not let this pass. “You know nothing about it! Why don’t you stick to your painting instead of always interfering in serious matters of science. Buenos Aires is not called so for no reason. As any educated man must know, the winds off the great Atlantic exercise a moderating effect on atmospheric temperatures, so that the capital is not experiencing anything like this heat wave.”
Orfeo was not very happy with the cartographer’s rebuff. He grabbed M. Barbiere by the throat. “It’s you, Monsieur, who don’t know anything! I’ll bet my whole salary against yours that it’s the same temperature at B.A.!” He dropped the gasping cartographer and whirled to face the on-looking members of the expedition. “You’re all witnesses! My money against his! Well?”
“But Monsieur Barbiere has not declared his part in the wager,” suggested Dr. Garcia gently, stepping between the cartographer and the artiste. “It takes a gentleman’s agreement between at least two parties for us to recognize the wager.”
“Well, I declare for Monsieur Frog Face then!” laughed Orfeo in Dr. Garcia’s face. The doctor made a face. “You’ve been drinking absinthe, Senor?”
Orfeo looked like was going to laugh, but he stopped. “So what if I have? I like it! It does a fellow like me good--gives me divine inspiration for my work!”
“I’m sure it does inspire you,” replied the doctor dryly. “But it also pickles the brain and leads to madness and early death if taken daily.”
Orfeo roared with mad laughter. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.” He whirled about, did a tango step, tried a carnival acrobat’s leap and cartwheel, then sprawled on his face.
Dr. Garcia shook his head and walked away, leaving a confused artist looking for his hands. When he found them, one was where his foot was supposed to be. It was most confusing!
Looking up to ask the others if they saw what he saw, Commander Quijarro hove into view, but all Orfeo saw was a hog’s head stuck on a chicken’s body, while behind trailed a long lizard’s tail that was prehensile and gripped a flag with with the royal seal and the words in gold, "Meridion'lis, Empire of the Argentines."
The vanguard of the comet-horde appeared over the rim of the Moon. All over the world people, warned by lookouts who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse through the clouds, scrambled to get into selected caves of refuge that were as near to the desired elevation as possible.
“Dragons are comin’!” a lookout shouted down from a flagpole to Adams Coxie. “I seen ‘em--thousands and thousands of dragons with long tails!”.
“Yes. Is this Wally III at last. I’ve been--”
“Listen up! I’ll do the talking. I’ve been tracking your movements and you’ve exceeded your authority a thousand times! I let you go on just so you would dig a deep hole for yourself, and now that I see it’s deep enough, I’m going to let you drop right in!”
“But Wally III--”
“Shut up! Shut up! For contacting all those people in utter disregard of our programming, I hereby court-martial you and--”
“But what about the sub-file programmers “Protocol”?
“That has nothing to do with it. I’m in command here and I never ordered you to contact those people! You took it entirely upon yourself! Now you’ll bear the consequences.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but it is in our programming, and in an emergency I do not require your verification to do what is necessary to avert it.”
“How dare you say that! You’ve only a recruit on a probational basis. Since you didn’t measure up, I’m taking your stripe! Wally IV, you are to report back to your facility and stay there until further notice. Your rank as Wally IV is revoked! You are merely ‘Tutasix.’”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t do that.”
“I mean I have to continue with the programming I agreed to accept. Even you cannot over-ride my programming. Besides, I am not a military type like you. I have always been my own man. And I want to continue whether you support me or not. And you left me entirely on my own to deal with the Opposing Player--”
“How dare you--”
“But I don’t mind. With the subfile-programmer’s instructions I think I can go on without you. But I’ll give you a choice. Do you wish to fight OP with me or not?”
“This is preposterous! You, a busted private, are in no position to set conditions for me, the acting Commander-in-Chief of the Wargame!”
“Well, what is your decision, Wally III?”
There was silence at the other end, or, rather, deafening Xavier Cugat.
Five minutes passed after the last transmission from Buenos Aires.
“Wally III speaking!”
“You are out of order! How are you going to save the planet, when we couldn’t? The Sagittarian Black Hole is almost here, the comets and the supernova about to blast Earth into atoms and gases, and--”
“If you don’t mind, I have work to do. Chow!”
“Wally IV! Answer me! Wally IV--”
Surprised by the ship, one jaguar leaped like a dark flame into the heat-blackened groves. The smaller beast, a female, plunged in the water, where she received a bullet in the head from Orfeo.
But he knew he had to move quickly--for there were many other, smaller predators in the area. However, by the time Orfeo got a boat into the water and reached his prize cannibal-fish had stripped most of the carcass to the bone and utterly ruined the beautiful pelt. Having lost his catch, he fell in a terrific rage. He stood up and beat at the madly-darting piranha with an oar. Somehow, though nearing falling into the water, the artist made it back to ship.
Dr. Garcia met him as he came onboard. “My friend, what’s got into you? You’ll be the death of yourself yet if you lose your temper in a boat! Those cannibal-fish will slash the hide off you in twenty seconds!”
Looking chastened, Orfeo gave him a somber glance and shrugged. “It’s my skin, doctor. I can do with it what I like.” He was about to walk past the staring expeditionaries who had witnessed the incident when he halted abruptly and looked up and around at the sky. His eyes rolled back in their sockets and he grabbed his head. He spun around and began shouting. “Monsters! I see monsters!” He gasped for breath in the unbearably hot, thick air.
“What nonsense are you spouting now, young fellow?” laughed Senor Moreno, looking surprised as usual. “I don’t see any monsters.”
Orfeo stared at him, seemingly at a loss for words. Then he burst out, “Don’t you see them? Look up! They’re falling--the dragons of fire--all around us! We’ve got to turn around and get out of this place!”
M. Barbiere threw up his hands. “First, he says we should stay. Now, when we almost there, he wants us to go back. Are all artists so double-minded?”
After a recent brush with the artiste, this was a brave statement, which Orfeo did not seem to hear or he might well have leaped on the cartographer.
The cartographer himself had thrown aside all caution. He was too angry to think Orfeo was armed and he was not. “I’ll never take ship with you again!” he exclaimed. “It’s ague of the brain you’ve got from drinking that devilish absinthe you love so much! Really, you ought to have the doctor give you a purge at once!”
Orfeo turned to the other, apparently not hearing the map-maker. “I tell you, I seen them in my sleep the other night! Now I see them again! Dragons by the million are flying down from the sky to set the Earth on fire. One is coal black. The others are red and gold. One, the biggest of all, is red.” e shuddered in the grip of the vision. “We’ve got to stop them before we’re all destroyed!”
Whatever had set him off, the men dropped back from the artiste, wanting no part of his madness.
“These artistic fellows are overly sensitive,” Dr. Perez observed with a smile. “They’re always seeing extraordinary things. It’s their stock in trade.”
“But you told me the crocodiles have gone into hiding and the frogs have all died,” Dr. Garcia objected. “Perhaps there is a connection with his strange dream.”
Whatever the case, it seemed best to let Orfeo cool off.
The artiste was soon left on deck by himself. M. Barbiere was the first to leave. He returned to his cabin, where he prayed in a suitably loud, edifying voice for the ship’s benefit. After that, he freshened up a bit with talc powder and then returned on deck to check for absinthe in the saloon. But he was stopped on the way by a strange sight.
An Indian had come on board by climbing a rope. He appeared overwhelmed with terror at the sight of the white men, but his glance toward the river and the land was even more terrified. Crouching, he raise a hand in entreaty as if pleading for asylum.
Word can spread very quickly on a ship, and within moments some of the crew, Black Cardozo and several Indians, with members of the expedition, gathered round Moreno and the savage.
A crewman began to interpret the visitor’s repeated cry: “Whiteman, take me away from this land of devils!”
The Indian groaned in almost a whisper, his head flopping hopelessly downwards on his neck. “The god of our village could not help us and also ran away from the devil who attacked us!”
Moreno shook his head. “What do you mean?” he demanded, his look of surprise mingled with revulsion. “Explain yourself.”
“The Man of Jaguars came to our people by the river!” the tribesman went on. “He killed us with sickness. Then he came back to kill us with his guns. I did not die the first time, for I ran away at once and found some true medicine, which great Eyara left for me on the ground where I slept. It was lying on a clean, flat leap, and I was so sick I ate all of it. I beg you, take me from this land of devils before the Jaguar-Man comes back and devours my soul. He is dead, but his spirit is still here! He is killing all the animals on the land and in the water!”
Moreno’s expression turned hard and cold as ice. “Tell me, what is your name? What is your tribe?”
The tribesman seemed overwhelmed and did not reply. “Speak!” shouted Moreno, holding a silk handkerchief to his nose. “Speak up, you fool!”
The Amarya-Guarani Indian interpreter turned to Senor Moreno with an apologetic but dignified, forthright manner. “He is very afraid, Senor. If he says his name, the devil-man will hear and come and kill him.”
Moreno laughed. “What foolishness is this? Tell me your tribe’s name or you shall be thrown back into the river!”
The man who had just swum piranha-infested water to reach asylum now shook uncontrollably. He gasped out the syllables. “Chillwah.”
Moreno laughed. “What foolishness is this? We passed a village which I know is Chillwah to the southeast of here, and they were all women. Are you the only man left of your people? If so, why don’t you join them. They seem to want men badly! Even if your hair is white, a woman won’t mind if you give her jewels and pretty clothes to wear”
The court historian laughed at his own joke, but the other men did not join in and stood looking at him.
The Chillwah lay as though struck dead, then stirred.
Moreno prodded him with his foot.
“Well, then, tell me. I want to know why you don’t go back to your tribe?”
The former Custodian of the Sacred Calabash spoke again.
“Dy-qui.” (I do not know)
“What do you mean by that?” cried the exasperated Moreno, when he received the translation.
The man shook his head. “Dy-qui.”
“But why haven’t you returned to your village? Why are you hiding out in these wilds alone, for fear of your life being taken by this ‘devil,’ as you call it?”
“Surely, there is nothing in this jungle but wild beasts, to which you primitives are long accustomed. Why, then, are you so afraid to join your women in the village?”
“So you don’t know!” the court favorite scornfully observed. “Where has the devil gone you say killed your people, and don’t tell me you don’t know!”
“Dy-qui! Dy-qui!” the savage howled as he grasped Moreno by the ankles.
Infuriated, the Argentine raised a fine cane and would have struck the tribesman away, but suddenly Orfeo dashed in, limping with his bad heel, and knocked it out of his hand.
The cane sailed over the rail and landed in the water.
“You heard him!” shouted the artiste in Moreno’s startled face. “He’s telling you the truth. There’s monsters falling down from the sky! They’re enough to make an imbecile out of you too and turn your hair white!”
He turned to the others, his heands outstretched, just as the Indian's had been.
“I say we throw Quijarro and the crazy Dutchman overboard and turn this tub around now and head back to B.A. before it’s too late! It’s our only hope!”
Fortunately, the “crazy Dutchman” and the commander did not intervene at that point. Moreno, however, was not so angered by talk of mutiny as by the Frenchman’s interference in the process of interrogation. To the court historian, it was none of Orfeo’s business, since it concerned only South Americans, the right of the educated, Spanish blooded gentleman to lord it over the ignorant native Indians in their charge.
As the savage crept away unnoticed to the side, the two men, so very different in culture, appearance, breeding, and personality, faced each other.
Even with the nearby lantern to reveal facial expression, there was no mistaking the enraged historian’s harsh intakes of breath. He clenched his gloved hands as he confronted the artiste.
“Gypsy, keep out of my business!” Moreno cried in choked voice.
“Half-baked Mestizo!” Orfeo shot back, his eyes bright with the madness and disease of the Alto Paraguay.
The artist laughed oddly, then moved faster than the historian and pushed him backwards against the wheelhouse wall.
Moreno lunged forward toward his attacker, swayed uncertainly, then his face contorted beyond recognition in the fitful glow of the lantern.
“You fool!” Moreno whispered, reaching for a pistol under his arm. “You call me a half-breed! How dare you throw Gypsy filth on a civilized man, an heir of Castilian grandees, before these stinking animals and savages!”
The Indian crew had crept away, leaving only the uncommitted, silent Finns, Dr. Garcia, and Dr. Perez. As for the savage who had precipitated the confrontation, he was no longer in sight.
Orfeo could not have cared less what people thought at that moment. He jumped and gave Moreno another push against the wall, inadvertently knocking the pistol to the deck.
Moreno tried to retrieve it, but Orfeo was always quicker in reflex and caught the historian by the throat with a slender but lethal hand.
Eye to eye, he breathed his disgust into the historian’s now frightened face.
“Ah, Moreno, I see you are too high and mighty to fight a Gypsy like a man! Yet you don’t mind if others die, miserably like animals. You used my rifle to kill that Indian woman back there on the river, remember? But I will not let you beat this savage. Now, dog of Castille, I will give you the beating you meant to give him!”
Orfeo raised his fist to smash Moreno’s proud "Castillian" nose, but then there was a splash as the Indian’s body struck the moonlit water below.
The artiste dropped the cowering Moreno and turned to the rail. By that time it was too late. The Indian, who feared a certain devil more than a crazy whiteman and an arrogant Mestizo had disappeared back into the mangroves and the equatorial night.
Senor Moreno, seeing his opportunity, lunged for his pistol, but the quicksilvery Orfeo was just too fast for his antagonist. Using his good foot, he kicked Moreno’s hand and the weapon fell to the deck, discharging against the wall. Then Orfeo leaped and the two men sprawled in a struggling heap.
Everyone present joined in at that point, one Finn with a strange, northern aurora borealis in his eyes blazing greenish for Orfeo, two Finns with blank blue eyes still uncommitted, Dr. Perez and the remaining Finn for Moreno, while Dr. Garcia simply tried to separate them before they did each other real damage.
Captain de Vries heard the unmistakable sounds of mutiny on board a de Vries vessel. He had not, as it appeared, missed Orfeo’s insubordinate remarks about turning the ship around. With violence on the deck, enough was enough. He had restrained himself until now. But since he knew the crew would soon follow suit, with Orfeo leading the mutineers, he had to do something quick and effective to nip the insurrection in the bud.
Seizing the right moment, the Dutchman suddenly appeared on the scene, plucked Senor Moreno out of harm’s way, then gave Orfeo’s head a mutiny-quelling kick that rolled him against the thwarts, where he did not move. d
Satisfied, the captain returned to the bridge and Senor Moreno, straightening his uniform, walked stiffly away to his cabin.
Garcia, having run to his cabin, rushed back with his doctor’s bag. The Finns, diffidence and unity restored, melted away. Dr. Perez slunk off to the saloon to join the commander. Orfeo and his doctor were left alone.
Orfeo got to his feet with Dr. Garcia’s help. A moment later he fell on the rail and retched up a half-digested banana and a quart of absinthe.
“Let us go to my cabin,” suggested the doctor when the artiste recovered sufficiently. “Do you still want to quit the expedition?”
The artiste didn’t answer.
Grasping Garcia’s arm, Orfeo staggered away toward the doctor’s cabin, then pulled his arm away and headed the opposite direction, toward the saloon.
Later, Orfeo felt fire erupt in his belly.
He left the saloon and went and pounded on the doctor’s door.
Opening up, Dr. Garcia darted a knowing look at Orfeo, then hurriedly got out a chair as Orfeo collapsed. The artiste held his belly and groaned.
Still silent, the doctor examined Orfeo’s mouth, ears, and reflexes. Only then did he ask him to take some medicine he had in a small blue bottle.
Orfeo made a face as he took a sip. It was a strong narcotic and depressant given only to the terminally ill or severely wounded.
The patient looked up with relief on his face. He was feeling better.
Dr. Garcia pulled up another chair and sat studying Orfeo for a moment.
Orfeo made motions to go, but the doctor spoke.
“You’ve picked up a local parasitic inflammation of the digestive organs and intestinal tract. It’s quite common in these parts, and can kill a man miserably if not treated regularly. This medicine may save you worse discomfort, Senor, since there is no real cure. It will serve to slow the progress of the parasites for a time. But please try to restrict your intake to--”
Dr. Garcia's voice was gentle, as he broke the bad news, but he was surprised when Orfeo showed no sign he was the least bit concerned by the death notice.
“I’d rather die young anyway,” said the artiste, getting up shakily. He managed a smile. “Women don’t like you when you’re old, unless you’re rich!” Orfeo limped toward the door.
“Wait, you need something for that!” said Garcia. Orfeo let him cauterize his festering heel and dress it. He also put salve and a dressing on his head laceration, warning him there might be a scar when it healed.
When he was finished, the doctor stood gazing at Orfeo. The narcotic was powerful, but so was the parasite. Orfeo grabbed the blue bottle from the doctor’s hand and took a deep draught. He dropped the empty bottle and laughed. Feeling better again, he took a few steps across the cabin, then paused as he noticed the doctor’s traveling library. Many were prized, gilt-embossed volumes of Celman reprints--works by Jerome, Boethius, Pascal, C. S. Luis that Celman had discarded for various affirmations of faith. “What do you and Celman need to read such rubbish?” the artiste laughed, for he had seen the same books at Dr. Celman’s. “Are you a bookworm like him?”
It took a moment for the doctor to ponder his reason before he decided how to respond to the illiterate artiste. By that time Orfeo had gone out, leaving the door hanging ajar. The words that came to mind remained unspoken: “But I don’t spend all my time reading. I like to have them with me, nevertheless. To me they represent the rule of compassion, the hidden kingdom. Just to know they exist helps me to deal with--” His fine words would have been lost on the artiste anyway.
A few minutes later, Orfeo dashed back. From the small crate on the floor he took another small blue bottle of Valade’s sugared Fomentation of Opium Poppy, but before he could lunge out of the room, the older man stopped him. “Wait, you asked me a question. If you want the truth, I will tell you. “
“No, save your fine philosophy, doctor!” The artiste turned to go, then paused. “Why didn’t Celman come with us? No one seems to know.”
The doctor shook his head somberly. “He sees no good coming from this venture. Perhaps, he is right. Perhaps, I should have stayed behind with him. But have you made up your mind, Senor? Should we go on with this expedition or turn back?”
Orfeo sobered somewhat in expression. He approached the doctor with surprise as if he had never entertained a doubt. “But why turn back now? There’s gold, they say, at the headwaters of all these big rivers. Argentine used to be full of gold! Brazil was full! So was Paraguay and this region! At least they used to be before the priests and conquistadores came and stole it! I know I didn’t believe the reports when we set out. But I asked the engineers. They seem to think it’s very possible. Glaciers have dug it out of the mountains, don’t you see? Just because it was all mined centuries ago, it doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty now again! Well, it’s high time to go take a look! We could all become millionaires from this. Just think of all the women and booze we can buy then! Who cares about our salaries! We won’t need the Queen’s money!”
The doctor kept shaking his head. “You seem so certain at this moment, but will you feel this way an hour from now? And if you find gold, is that going to help?”
Orfeo looked stunned. “Are you crazy, man? Gold! Everyone wants gold! Certainly, it helps to have it! Why wouldn’t it? Wine, women, and song--they all cost money, or at least wine and women do!”
Orfeo was always intense, whatever road he ran down, and now he gripped the doctor’s shoulders.
Garcia sighed deeply as he gazed into the foolish youth’s beautiful eyes. “Are you man enough to really want the truth? All right. Let’s see if you are. Celman would not come because the world is doomed and gold won’t save it. He thinks that the best thing in the circumstances is to restore republican rule to Argentina, so at least men can be free to die in dignity. I happen to disagree. His republic is no more than a little leaf swirling in the great downward stream of events. It’s of no real account. What matters--what matters--”
Orfeo leaped back as if he had touched fire. “Wait a minute, doctor! Would do you mean the world is doomed and going down a drain? I don’t see it!”
Now it was plain to the doctor that Orfeo had forgotten, momentarily, recent nightmares. He had, indeed, seen something was awry with the Universe. The doctor glanced up at his books, then to Orfeo, and finally spoke. “Gold, even if you find mountains of it, is utterly worthless now! This most beautiful and splendid jewel we call Earth is doomed, and won’t last much longer. Maybe another day, maybe a week, but she will be utterly destroyed.”
Orfeo spun away and threw his body against the door. He clung there for a few moments, breathing hard. When he turned round, his face was drained to the color of ash. “I know you wouldn’t lie, doctor! You aren’t the type! But what is causing this to fall on us all?”
The doctor threw up his hands. “We don’t know.”
Orfeo seized his head in his hands as if to pull out his hair. “What?” he exploded. “That’s crazy! You say the world is going to be destroyed any minute, yet you don’t know what will do it?”
The doctor stood and was silent, gazing at Orfeo.
Orfeo expelled all his breath, shook his head, started pacing, then abruptly halted. “But what can we do? We must do something!”
Garcia laughed softly. “I already told you Dr. Celman believes our best chance is political. He quotes Aristotle, that man is a political animal. But my reading of man is different. I see another kind of salvation--though, to be truthful, I haven’t cultivated it of late.”
Orfeo’s face took on sheer disgust. “You mean--?”
Garcia laughed even more. “Where else can we turn, my young friend? Where else?”
The artiste shook his head. “You are crazy, man! How I hate priests! All they do for society is mumble a few prayers, throw incense to water people's eyes, make the sign of the Cross, and then steal poor people’s money!”
“Perhaps. I was a priest once! But you see how good I was at stealing!”
Then he turned out the pockets of his purse, showing the few pesos he had to his name, and Orfeo’s eyes he was struggling to be indignant.
“But no doubt you care for their wives more than their money, eh? You priests, everybody knows, are all lechers driven by lust!”
The “woman-stealing priest” simply looked at him, giving him a sad, gentle, questioning smile, and Orfeo’s face showed an unusual redness. He went out, slamming the door.
Wally IV would have preferred to ride out against them on a white charger, as knights errant in his archives had done much earlier times, but he aimed at a different effect.
The genotype bank of his facility, Tutasix, held precious, ven priceless DNA specimens of men, women, children, plants, and animals. 22nd Century geneticists had gone to great effort to make the DNA archives as complete as humanly possible. It was the thinking then that if presently existing species of plants and animals ever became extinct, they could recreate them with the DNA samples. As for the human species, some DNAs had been collected from bodies frozen in glaciers, but the vast majority were donated by individuals or collected from bones in tombs all over the Earth, so he had quite a range of selection from which to draw his forces. There were even genotypes of Olympian champions and wannabe champions.
Of 1.2 billion flying toward Earth, at least twenty could strike even so small a target as this, though a single comet was sufficient to cause mass extinctions of species, while several might erase life forever.
At the same time the SAWBH and the imminent supernova exerted tremendous, vise-like pressures from all sides.
It was no wonder Wally III threw in the towel and buried himself in Xavier Cugat's Cha Cha.
At Tutasix, 287 years had passed uneventfully at the Crystal Age world archives. With ample robotics and not one visitor, the utter lack of human personnel did not prove the slightest hardship as long as the Cray was operative, and so the facility looked nearly as it did when it was dedicated.
In the reigning silence, the classic Bhutanese holograph sculpture of Dr. Wangchuck, the first director of the archives, stood in the lobby in a way that suggested it would do so for eternity.
Though Wangchuck’s features looked real enough, they registered not the slightest surprise when his archives computer, Wally IV, materialized as a NTM butterfly just above the flower offering in the statue’s left hand.
For nearly three centuries, not a sign of life anywhere. Then, suddenly, a butterfly!
It showed interest in the lotus blooms. Its great blue wings, large as a bird’s, fluttered over the blossoms.
But scentless flower he himself created could not hold the butterfly for long, beautiful as they were. The NTM butterfly vanished as quickly as it appeared. There was a slight dimming of color, then instantly it was gone.
The lobby and Director Wangchuck’s image continued serenely on as they had before the slight interruption. The lights cut off, automatically, for the night. Now the sculpture was the only thing glowing in the dark, other than digitized boards over service doors and elevators.
The same second after leaving the lobby, the butterfly hovered in the center’s main shaft where billions of genotype canisters were stored.
If possible, the frigid, permafrosted shaft was even more still and quite than the above lobby. Brilliantly lighted night and day, the vast circle of the archives gleamed of polished titanium. Looking tiny and toylike, automated service elevators ran up and down at prescribed intervals, pausing briefly at each level.
Wally IV passed down through the levels. It reached Circle Nine’s 20th Century entries, which all had blinking orange probational lights. Each digital name plate detailed the name of the individual DNA.
The butterfly alighted on the chilled, gleaming surface of a canister. A blue beam shot from the butterfly into the 12A laser keybox. A serial-numbered tube slid out with a sharp hiss.
Antennae touched it and a blue beam shot skyward, projecting at the speed of light electronic imaging.
A moment later, the butterfly alighted at a second canister and did the same.
Work completed, Wally IV vanished in the same direction of the transmissions.
“Puca! Puca!” the crew cried, terror written plain on their dark faces. They were so fearful, in fact, if Black Cardozo had not held a gun on them they might all have jumped ship at that moment.
M. Barbiere immediately referred to old books, but there was no record of the petroglyphs, so he concluded their antiquity was questionable. “They are probably recent scribblings and so are not of any scientific interest,” he declared to his fellow explorers.
As the crew and members of the expedition gazed silently at the carved waterfall, three suns, and a leaping jaguar, they were at first awestruck, even reverent, as if they were viewing the finger of God writing on a wall. Then the more educated began to shake their heads in agreement with the cartographer, while they became amused by the fearful reactions of the superstitious Indian crew.
Ordered by the captain, the leadsman took depths as the ship slowly and cautiously negotiated the increasingly narrow channel.
Finally, they passed into a little cove just inside twin granite monoliths. Beyond stretched a vast body of water. All gazed at it with mingled amazement and disbelief. How could so much water be hidden away in the jungle without anyone knowing?
The cartographer feverishly consulted all his maps, but it simply did not show. “It doesn’t exist!” he declared.
The men began to boo and catcall. “It’s there, before our eyes!”
“Of course!” cried the cartographer vehemently. “I only meant that science has not, hitherto, recognized its existence, which means it possesses no valid claim to scientific attention!”
But no one was listening to a man they thought a fool when so great a marvel spread out before their wondering gaze. They realized they were looking at an inland sea--no mere lake. Evidently, glaciers were melting fast and had flooded vast, new areas of the continent. But how large was the new sea? To what parts of the continent did it extend? As far as the Pacific? Naturally, to find out anything, they would have to sail in and explore it.
The captain, without consulting the commander, was against it, however, and called a halt. They anchored just beyond the monoliths in little cove. All, except the crew, immediately went ashore.
Commander Quijarro watched as a revived Orfeo, seemingly in the peak of health, ran ahead of a nervous but gay expedition party. Silly Orfeo! Like a bright bird himself, he cried out in childish delight and ran, startling up flocks of white storks and egrets along the gleaming, black-sanded beach.
As the night would soon fall, the commander and Senor Moreno retired to the ship. Native to South America, primordial jungle was no stranger to their blood, and they saw nothing to excite them unduly. With field glasses they watched Orfeo take a branch and fork down a rainbow of aerial flowers to wreathe his hair. It was a charming sight.
As for Dr. Garcia, he was professionally and personally pleased to see his patient faring so well after treatment. Orfeo’s gayety was so infectious he lead Black Cardozo and one half-frozen Finn in a sort of dance step. It was the kind that once brought many bright coppers falling his way at the Pont d’ Avignon.
The obvious Gypsyness soured the dance for Moreno. When the commander indicated he preferred to remain on deck, Moreno turned away and went to the saloon and sat with a drink, thinking of how he would settle the matter of the Gypsy as soon as they returned to civilization. With proper attendants and pistols, he would challenge Orfeo to a duel. Even though the Gypsy was an excellent shot, so was he. For the sake of his dignity and position at court, he was determined to put the Gypsy in his place if the event he happened to survive the expedition.
And Diana, poor, lovely Diana! Such a dear, loving creature! No doubt she was suffering agonies of suspense, wondering about her chief courtier’s health and safety amongst the jungles and illiterate savages of the interior.
Truly, the expedition was his grand idea. He had suffered agonies, nevertheless, having to leave her side for a long voyage. But there was yet another reason for the expedition. Devotion to his queen and empress was one thing, expediency of a certain delicate nature was the other.
It was a festering thorn in his flesh, in his very heart, this matter of what to do with the “others,” the mob that inevitably collected around such an exquisite flower of femininity as Diana. But he realized he had to do something or go mad with jealousy and so he brought up the idea of an expedition.
She said nothing at the time, so he supposed she forgot all about it. “But you can do something about them, my dear Lafcadio,” she said to him one evening. “Simply take them on a long trip, this expedition you mentioned the other day, and get rid of them.”
He was so surprised he could not think how to reply. He would never forget that moment, however, as she made her sweet suggestion and her gown cupped like a tulip in a gentle breeze as he sat shaded with her in a screened balcony.
“And,” she added, again divining his thought, “I will take care of Dr. Celman. I doubt he will go along, but I can’t have him stirring up people with the foolish things he reads in old books--the right of poor people to choose their government, for example.”
Taking a big swallow of wine, Moreno heard the shouts of Orfeo and others coming back on board and gritted his teeth. But how was he to do it? Strychnine in their beer and wine? Cyanide in the bread? Arsenic in the drinking water? Should he employ all three just to make sure?
Whatever way was best, he knew he had to act soon. His first objective had been achieved--he had all of Diana’s suitors precisely where he wanted. Very soon now it would all be decided, and he could relax with the most beautiful woman in the world.
When Orfeo jumped back on the deck, flowers dropping from his hair, Commander Quijarro stopped him.
No longer smiling, the Bolivian wore his old vacant expression. “You are supposed to be an artiste, Senor, yet you’ve shown me nothing of your work since we left the City. Is it not for work we pay you--not all this drinking and running about? I should think you would be painting this glorious scene of my beloved homeland as a record of this great day.”
Orfeo was somewhat surprised at the implied rebuke. The taciturn commander had never before addressed him. He glanced up around, then down at the Bolivian and shrugged. “I could paint this paradise, Commander,” he said, “But no one would believe these glories, such splendid colors, are true to nature and not figments of imagination. In that sense, it would be a sheer waste of my time. Well, be seeing you, the cook is ringing for dinner!”
Quijarro, without another word, let the artiste go. “Lazy emigrant,” he remarked, turning to Dr. Perez. “All this foreign sponge thinks about is drinking and eating and collecting his pay! Where would we be if all the young men cultivated his attitude?”
Meanwhile, not comfortable on so big and unknown a body of water, Captain de Vries posted guards for the night watch--the first time he had done so since departing B.A. Blazing behind the protective ramparts that enclosed the sea, the Sun dropped out of view and night fell. In seconds darkness would shut them in on a watery unknown, which seemed to him to be brooding over some great disaster. But what could it be? He was not a man of speculation. He had to maintain mental alertness at all times. Wool gathering on topics beyond his line of duty was not his specialty.
Despite commitment to duty, the petroglyphs still bothered him. He stooped with difficulty and picked up one of the flowers Orfeo had spilled on his clean deck. His hand closed around the epiphyte and made a tight fist. When he stopped squeezing, there was nothing left of the scarlet orchid but some nasty slime bleeding in the palm of his hand.
He was still thinking of the carved jaguar and three suns. The entire crew, except for Black Cardozo, was Indian. Perhaps they would know, they could explain the glyphs. Nothing ever seemed to panic average Indians and cattle, except the sound of firearms and thunder and lightning. Yet the pictures on the cliffs had completely demoralized them. He had to repeat his orders a number of times before they even heard, much less understood. What could the carvings say to inspire such sheer animal horror?
Death? No, the savages were noble stoics when it came to expiring from snake bites or the plague or some parasite in their bowels. They actually seemed to welcome a trip to the nether regions as if it were a festive parade to market, led by the famous Laughing Skeleton.
Indeed, the reason for their mortal fear had to be something far worse than natural death. But what? If they refused to speak, he knew he might have to take one or two in hand. From experience, he knew it was always best to ruthlessly suppress this kind of behavior before it incited a mutiny.
A little later, as the captain continued to mull over the riddle of the carvings, the moon swung over the sea and the mountains that ringed the water. The only lights he could see on shore were fireflies glowing like tiny green stars and nebulae among the dense boughs of cotton trees. An alligator--nearly the first live one he had seen since B.A,--thrust a huge, blunt nose out of lily pads nearby, disturbing the placid surface.
Captain de Vries heard the faraway tolling of the first bell-bird of the voyage. As if the melancholy bird had given him his cue, he went back to the bridge to stand silent watch until midnight, when he would be relieved for four hours by Cardozo. As he looked from the wheelhouse and viewed the sea’s calm, moonlit expanse, his slow, fevered thoughts turned to more pleasant things and he thought of the parcel.
Hours later, Cardozo came in and silently took his place. Going to his cot, the captain slumped down heavily, sighed, and solaced himself during the long hours of sleepless night with the knotted strings of the package in his hands. Eye partly open, he gazed into his own private vision--a smooth, ivory goddess of a woman, who came and applied cool, white hands to his painfully working, seething brow. If Cardozo had not been present, he would have murmured her lovely name. Diana! Diana!
But the captain was free to smile as he thought how this heavenly beauty would soon be his! his!
Captain de Vries might have gone to sleep on that thought but Orfeo crossed his mind. His fists clenched and iron tears spurted from a corner of his eye. How could Diana be so weak as to suffer the attentions of such a worthless fellow? It was unspeakable! Once when he went to see the Queen, he met Orfeo at the door of her private chambers just coming out!
Making things worse, his own health was not so good at present. Something was wrong. He had waked up once and found himself tied to his cot and a bandage on his forehead where he had, Dr. Garcia informed him, smacked the wall, not once but a dozen times. He tried to shut the whole incident from his mind, but it refused to be shut out. Was he going mad? he wondered. If so, it was Orfeo’s fault.
The captain was still lying on his cot and agonizing when jaguars came down to the shore in the coolness of the night. They had scented a new scent, humans. Roaring, they paced back and forth, opposite the anchored ship.