Once MacMillan was safely back at camp, Boleti turned back toward the site of the attack. He held his rifle at the ready, cradled in his arms. There had been quite a few of the creatures – a half-dozen or more – and the men had killed at least three. It passed through his mind that perhaps they could eat them, but then he saw again the creatures’ black blood, and dismissed the idea. Nothing that bled that color could be good for people to eat.
When he neared the glade, he first stood a long time in the shadows, waiting. Perhaps the animals were likewise lying in wait. But after an hour he had seen and heard nothing, and he stepped forth from his hiding spot. There was plenty of that black blood visible, on the low ferns, the moss, the tree trunks; but the bodies of the beasts themselves were gone.
That was too bad, and a bit puzzling. He had hoped to have a closer look at their anatomy, having never seen anything like them, and he was sure the others would be interested as well. No doubt MacMillan would have wanted to dissect one, if the surgeon hadn’t been rendered insensible from his injuries. (Personally Boleti doubted he would live.) He especially wanted a look at that odd, bifurcated, tentacled proboscis… like two hands, almost.
Had some other scavenger dragged the bodies somewhere, perhaps up into the trees? It was possible. But somehow he thought that the creatures had returned to claim their dead. It was a strange thought; what animal cared for its dead? But perhaps they had taken the bodies merely to consume them.
He squatted and picked up something that had caught his eye, handling it carefully: a variety of hard, multicolored seeds or nuts, each drilled through its center and run though by a cord of fibrous brown string. The cord had parted, and many of the crude beads were flung about the ground nearby, but still he could see a pattern to the arrangement: red nut, green nut, red nut, green nut.
Late that afternoon, gathered around a fire not far from the balloon (still entangled in a tall tree), they took stock. Of their party, the scientist Joubert was missing, presumed dead; MacMillan gravely injured; Sykes inflicted with some nasty burns that would bear watching; Durmoth, miraculously given his position when the balloon exploded, suffering only a number of cuts, bruises and gashes that he dismissed with a shrug; Boleti and Bisette essentially unharmed.
Most of their supplies were intact, minus some of MacMillan’s medicines, whose fragile bottles had shattered upon impact. More seriously, however, much of the rubberized silk of the balloon itself was in charred tatters, that of the upper balloon especially (having contained the incendiary phlogiston).
“There might still be enough,” said Bisette, lips pursed, looking upward. She still wore the light blue dress she had donned for the ascent, though already it was showing dirt on the hem.
“How?” asked Sykes. “It was barely enough to carry us across in the first place. Now it’s half destroyed.”
“Half destroyed, yes. But the fire didn’t spread so far. Most of the lower balloon may still be salvageable.”
“What are you proposing?” said Durmoth, stroking his mustache.
“It will never carry us all again, I know that. But if we reconstitute the lower balloon, we still have the basket, the stove and the coal. Perhaps it could carry one or two of us back across.”
Sykes nodded. “And then get help for the others.”
“And carry word of our success back to civilization,” Durmoth concluded. “Good. How long?”
“Hard to say. A week, at least, maybe two.”
“Do you have enough thread?”
“I brought a little extra.” She patted her little leather valise, upon which she sat. “I thought there might a need for repairs.”
“We have a plan, then. In the meantime, we’ll make the most of our time here. Once you’re settled in, I intend to explore to the southwest.”
She frowned. “To what purpose?”
“I saw something as we were descending. A structure, I think – some kind of pyramid or tower.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t just a hill?”
“No. It’s a building, I’m sure.”
“Hard to say. We were awfully high up. Maybe forty miles, maybe eighty.”
“Do you think that’s prudent?”
He laughed. “Nothing about this is prudent. But we came to explore, and I intend to do so. My thought was that Boleti and I go while the rest of you work toward our return.” He looked toward the guide and Boleti nodded his acquiescence.
“What, not me?” demanded Sykes.
“You’re injured. And someone should stay here to watch Bisette and MacMillan.”
“Then you stay, I’ll go.”
A brief staring match ensued, and after a second Durmoth just laughed. “Fine. Come along then. We’ll be sure these two have a readily defensible camp and enough food and water for the few days we’ll be gone. You’ll be fine, won’t you, Bisette?”
“Better, probably,” she said archly.
In fact it was five days before the three men left in a newly made dugout canoe. In that time they also constructed a crude shelter, using the basket itself as the base of a little hut, with the rubberized silk for a roof. Around it they cleared the jungle with the machetes and axes included in their supplies, and erected a circle of waist-high stakes around the perimeter. Of course it would keep out no determined invader, but it should do for the animals; and Bisette (and MacMillan, if he ever recovered from his wounds and their accompanying fever) would have a rifle and two pistols to defend herself if necessary.
But leave they finally did, down a nearby creek, with their minimal supplies. When they left the camp Bisette stood up to wish them luck; when Boleti glanced back, she had already sat down to return to her sewing.
She was well supplied with food, primarily smoked fish and the guinea pigs that the Wani called tak, in the lowlands on the other side of the wall. Boleti had been glad to see those little creatures; he had been half afraid all the animals here would be like the split-snouts, strange (and likely inedible) freaks.
All three men were experienced boatmen, and in any case they were headed downstream, which required limited effort. Once the first day they had to portage as the creek dipped into a waterfall. Twice it was joined by smaller tributaries, growing a little larger.
Several times Boleti noticed lodges along the river. He might have assumed they were made by beavers or the like, but early on he caught a glimpse of a mottled creature with a greenish, plantlike fringe around its neck slipping into the water; and later they all saw several of the animals dive into the water from the shore. At this, Sykes picked up his pistol, looking alarmed. “They could be all around us,” he whispered, looking at the water.
“Be careful,” Boleti advised in English. In Wani he continued, “They may remember the guns. If they feel threatened, they may be more likely to attack.”
It was just a feeling; but creatures that dwelt by rivers, and made lodges from wood, were not generally dangerous to humans. Boleti had a feeling that MacMillan had been entirely wrong to fire on them earlier; that left to themselves, they might have been simply curious. Their aquatic origin also explained their unique proboscises, which would be useful for feeling around in the mud for shellfish, and their beaks, for cracking open the same.
The first night they all felt exposed, camped just ten yards or so from the water, though they tried to make a proper and defensible camp, kept the fire burning through the night, and set a watch. But all three felt like they were being watched; and that feeling persisted through the next day’s travels. Finally it was confirmed when they saw one of the split-snouts just inside the trees, crouched calmly as a sphinx, and it made a loud, repeated clicking noise and turned its head at their passage.
“If it’s watching, how does it see without eyes?” said Sykes.
“How does a bat see, in a cave with no light?” Boleti asked.
That afternoon they saw another, and another, each with distinct markings and colors; and Boleti was certain now that they had followers in the water as well. How many was impossible to say. The men were tense – Boleti was no exception – and kept their guns primed and ready to hand.
Near sunset, when the insects were buzzing loud and many silent bats darted through the air, it came time to make camp; but they hardly dared. All around them, in the water and along the shore, the split-snouts darted and dived, filling the air with clicking and peculiar whistles. At once point there were a dozen clearly visible; and then the creek, which had been steadily widening into a modest river, widened still more into a small lake, and more creatures yet awaited them.
Dozens and dozens, in quite a variety of sizes, colors and markings; some dark, others with nearly white spots, some distinctly red. They mostly stood in shallow water, diving if the canoe came near.
But the lake narrowed, the water flowing quickly to a single point. Nor was it merely happenstance of nature; the creatures had dammed the river with a considerable earthworks, and the water was forced to flow rapidly through a spillway just a few feet across. It was toward this that the canoe was quickly moving, and on either side atop the dam, higher than their heads, perched the split-snouts. They clearly were watching the small craft; and one of those closest to the waterway, with distinct red stripes upon its face, made a high-pitched, questioning sort of twitter, its neck-spines flaring.
“Just the one way out,” Durmoth observed.
Sykes was gripping his rifle. “They may scatter if I fire a few shots.”
“Wait, wait,” Boleti said, placing his hand on the barrel and getting the second lieutenant to lower it. “Let me try something.
Carefully, watching his balance, Boleti stood up in the canoe. In his hand he held the nut-bracelet he had found earlier, and he raised it up so all the creatures could see, if indeed they could see. As they neared the exit, Boleti gently tossed it over to the red-striped creature. It caught it adroitly in its tentacles, and seemed to examine it, turning it round and round; then, as if accepting it, it slipped it on its forelimb above the joint.
Now Boleti raised another bracelet; not made of nuts, but of some of the larger beads they had brought. He had made it himself. Again he threw it over the few yards of water, and again it was caught.
This caused some excitement among the split-snouts, and several came to investigate, making many excited whistling sounds. Finally, the foremost creature made a sort of bow, and almost as one, the creatures dove into the water and disappeared from view.
“If they’re going to attack, it’ll be now,” Durmoth said. “Be ready.”
But no attack came; they paddled once, twice, and then they were through the spillway in a rush.
Not far beyond the dam the small river they had been following joined a greater still, its far shore nearly out of sight in the graying dusk, running east to west. “Gentleman,” Durmoth said, smiling beneath his mustache, “welcome to the Durmoth River.” Boleti shrugged; he thought little of naming places after individuals. Sykes pursed his lips but said nothing.
They made camp once more, but sleep was barely to be had. The insects, which included both the little gnats and a larger variety of blackfly, swarmed around them in buzzing clouds that nothing seemed to deter. Durmoth wrapped his head in a spare shirt and finally lay unmoving; Boleti stuffed some wax he carried into his ears; Sykes tossed and turned, muttering complaints.
Late in the night, though, or early in the morning, Sykes woke suddenly with a pained half-scream, scrabbling at his ear and tossing his head violently from side to side. “It’s in my ear,” he groaned. “It’s in my fucking ear!”
The other two both looked at him in concern, and waved the flies away from their own aural cavities. But there was nothing they could do in the darkness, and so they spent the remaining hours listening to Sykes’s periodic curses.
In the morning they each took a look at it. “I can hear it still buzzing,” he said, wild-eyed, clutching his head. They tried washing it with water, holding heat close to it, but their efforts only seemed to force the insect to burrow deeper. Finally Sykes took a little pen-knife he carried, and gasping with pain, tried to dig the bug out. They let him; it was his ear, after all. When he finally gave up, blood was running freely from the hole. “I think I killed it, but there’s no way to get it out. I can’t hear from this ear at all.”
“Would have been better to leave it,” Durmoth said. “Now there’s more chance of infection.”
Before they left, Durmoth climbed a tree bordering the riverside until he was a good forty feet up. “I can see it!” he cried from his perch, clearly excited, and mounted still higher. “The tower!”
Each man climbed the tree in turn to have his look. It was closer than Boleti had thought; perhaps ten or fifteen miles distant. It looked, from this distance, to be silver in color, shining brightly in the early morning sun. It was somewhat pyramidal at its base, but it curved smoothly as it rose, so it was crowned with a needle-like tower. It was difficult to tell its size at this distance, but Boleti thought it was likely large indeed.
“We’ll take the river downstream a couple more miles,” Durmoth declared. “Then we’ll hike inland. We can be there by the end of the day, I’m sure.”
Two miles with the current passed quickly; but even so Boleti noted several split-snout lodges on the shore, and thought he saw a spiny back undulating through the water. Then, when they landed the canoe, he saw clearly two more, moving through the brush.
“We’ve still got our friends along,” observed Sykes, who had tied a bandage around his head and ear.
“Not to worry,” replied Durmoth. “Beads in one hand, rifle in the other.”
They entered the jungle proper and their easy cruising on the water gave way to the hard work of fighting through close vegetation. Boleti led with a machete, trading off after an hour with Durmoth. Sykes they excepted due to the burns on his shoulder, which were clearly also paining him. Periodically they would see some of the split-snouts, which appeared to be following them, or paralleling their course. “What’s their interest, do you think?” asked Durmoth. But there was no answer to such a question.
All day they pushed forward. Sometimes things would be easier for a little ways, allowing them to stride quickly through low ferns and wet ground; sometimes the brush closed tight, and they fought through it with machete flailing and many a scratch. At noon, after a meal of smoked fish (and they were near the last of it), Durmoth climbed a tall tree again, ascending high into the branches. He came down like an eager ape, eyes glowing. “We’re close. Six, seven miles, I’d say.”
But again the jungle closed in thick. And still they were accompanied by the split-snouts, whose slender bodies, with their frills pressed tight against their necks and tentacled noses held downward, seemed to have little trouble slipping through the smallest gaps. If anything their numbers seemed to be growing, and a rising cacophony of clicks and whistles accompanied them all through those long, sweating hours.
The man in the lead would swing the machete, and look toward the path; the other two gripped their rifles, none of them quite convinced the split-snouts were not preparing another attack. There was an indefinable quality of apprehension in the creatures’ calls that sank into the human’s marrow (though perhaps not into Sykes’s ear). “What if they do attack?” Sykes said.
“Then shoot straight and fast,” Durmoth advised, “and when you run out of bullets, use the machete.”
“They will not attack,” Boleti said. “They are not naturally aggressive.”
When Durmoth translated this, Sykes said, “They sound scared to me. And when any creature is scared, that’s when it’s most dangerous.”
“Then we must be dangerous indeed,” replied Boleti.
Deeper and deeper they travelled, the air stifling as a sauna, their clothes soaked with sweat, their skin livid and bleeding with insect bites and scratches, their eyes darting left and right at glimpses of mottled lizard-like flesh and tentacled noses pink as fresh ginger roots. Then, from one step to the next, the jungle simply ended, and Durmoth, in the lead, almost fell over at the sudden void. When he recovered and looked up, he stopped in amazement, and almost fell again as Sykes bumped into him. Durmoth grabbed the second lieutenant to steady them both, but never did his eyes turn their gaze.
It was vast, built on a scale never yet attempted by humans: a thousand feet tall, at least, or two thousand, or five. They had no means of measurement or comparison. But its square base extended to either side for hundreds of yards, rising in an accelerating arc, a low pyramid toward the ground narrowing to a silvery spike far above them.
But perhaps most remarkable of all was the structure’s composition; for its perfectly smooth, semi-translucent, crystalline substance was clearly the very same that composed the Worldwall. “It’s theirs,” Durmoth breathed. “The Wall-builders’.”
At their feet was a brief expanse of bare volcanic gravel – not a thing growing in it, not a single weed or blade of grass – and then a still wider border or plaza of gray crystal, where the pyramid in its arcing form flattened out completely. Also visible, some distance to their left, was the sole other feature of the tower, a vast arched gateway centrally placed, its interior in darkness. Toward this entrance the party moved without discussion.
But neither had their escort abandoned them. With great chittering calls and piercing whistles dozens of split-snouts ran from the jungle until they stood between the archway and the men, then turning and flaring their neck-spines. The humans stopped, uncertain.
“They’re warning us,” said Boleti.
“Threatening?” asked Durmoth.
“Not sure.” Slowly Boleti got some of the trade bracelets from his pack, displayed them overhead, and threw them toward the closest split-snouts. This time the creatures ignored them entirely.
“What now?” asked Sykes.
“Forward,” said Durmoth, and advanced. The split-snouts retreated, still calling loudly, but there was no evident danger. The men crossed the gravel and stepped onto the crystal. They moved slowly but deliberately until finally they were twenty yards from the tower entrance; and here the split-snouts held their ground, forming a line before the archway, whistling loud enough to hurt, neck-spines fully extended and quivering, each touching its neighbor’s. The men could not see very well into the tower, as they stood in sunlight and the interior in black shadow; but they could tell that it went directly inside.
“Any thoughts?” Durmoth asked.
“Throw them some fish?” ventured Sykes. Boleti just shook his head.
“I’ll be damned if we’re turning back now,” Durmoth said, and he raised his rifle and fired.
It was just a warning shot into the air, but it had the desired effect; the split-snouts, already alarmed, scattered like mice, and in an instant vanished back into the jungle. Slowly the men lowered their weapons, having raised them in panic at Durmoth’s shot; and Durmoth grinned. “And that’s how you deal with the natives, gentlemen.”
All three turned toward the entrance; and Durmoth and Sykes, with a glance of agreement, stepped forward toward its waiting mouth. But Boleti hung behind. When Durmoth noticed, he turned and raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
“I will wait here and guard the entrance,” offered the guide.
Durmoth snorted in derision. “Suit yourself. Fortune favors the bold.”
When the other two had gone, Boleti sat down. He sat there a long time, considering, looking up at the tower and in toward its veiled heart. Finally he stood and walked toward the jungle, gathering up the bracelets he had thrown earlier. He took one last look at the tower, whatever it was, whatever danger lay there. Then he turned again toward the green barrier of vegetation and slipped inside like someone accepting an embrace.