Published Novel

EYE OF THE SUN GOD

 

A novel by Guy Blythman

 

Published by Bright Pen, an imprint of Authors Online

 

Now available from Amazon or from Authors Online Ltd (and I believe quite a few other people too - try Googling the book and see what you can find). The initial published price is £16.99, but you may well be able to get it more cheaply depending on who's selling it.

 

See Amazon entry for front cover image.

 

An eminent scientist disappears while on an expedition to the Amazon; several of his colleagues return to the West in a trance-like state, talking of a mysterious lost civilisation who seem to have been more advanced than our own and who built a machine which, if it exists, could solve all the world's energy problems. A machine they called the Eye of the Sun God.

 

Meanwhile ambitious young oil troubleshooter Caroline Kent accepts a posting to a refinery in the troubled South American state of Camaragua. There, she finds herself drawn into a battle of wits with ruthless drug baron Otto Viellar, who wants his products to be the country's chief source of revenue and sees International Petroleum Limited as a threat to his interests. But in this potentially bloody and vicious struggle far more is at stake than the future of IPL Camaragua; for Viellar, too, has found out about the Eye of the Sun God, and it has other uses than peaceful ones. If it falls into his hands, it could give him the power to rule the entire world…

 

Eye of the Sun God is a mixture of science fiction and political thriller, written in  something of the spirit of a good old-fashioned adventure yarn. In it I hope you will find drama, glamour, humour and suspense in equal measure.

 

Don't be put off by the wording of the Amazon listing "Only 3 in stock, order now"; this doesn't necessarily mean the book is unpopular and therefore not worth reading. There will be more copies if demand is great enough!

 

 

EXTRACT

 

One

Skanssen didn't like this part of the jungle.

   He liked to think he knew every part of the catchment zone; every single one of the trees and shrubs and vines that had become so monotonously familiar to him and his team over the past few weeks. He had it all sketched out clearly in his mind, like a map of the back of his hand. It had come from the intensity with which they'd scrutinised every square inch, every centimetre of the dense greenery in search of new species and to estimate the size of populations of known ones. To record the full astonishing diversity of the Amazonian ecosystem, against that time when - ah, God forbid - no living evidence of it remained.

   He knew all the paths, those which could still be used and those which were only negotiable with difficulty as the jungle grew and covered them, nature claiming back her own. And as long as you kept to them, there shouldn't be any problem.

So why was he lost?

   But then when he'd left the expedition's base he'd had no clear idea where he was going. The anger, the frustration had been welling up in him for a long time and he'd just wanted to get out. It wasn't the fault of his colleagues, of course; he knew they harboured the same fears and anxieties as he did. Granted, it was wearing being stuck here with the same people, the same faces, for six months. Granted, Corcoran sometimes played his radio a little too loud. On these expeditions you did tend to get on each other's nerves at times. But unless he threw it all up and went home, or joined the Indians, he was just going to have to put up with it, and had always known that.

   Join the Indians. There was a thought. But he knew it wouldn't solve anything, because he'd be throwing in his lot with a people who couldn't protect themselves or the way they lived from the rapidly advancing frontiers of western so-called "civilisation". It would only achieve anything if everybody else did the same, and he didn't suppose they wanted to.

   No, we cling to our own way of life, our culture, because it suits us to do so, and we don't think about the harm we're doing to others. Occasionally, maybe, but that fleeting thought is soon banished from our minds and we're back to our old ways, our old bad habits. And the hand of the clock inches another fraction closer to midnight.

   He recalled what he had said the night before at the table in the hut which served as their refectory. The work we are doing is pointless, you understand?  We can only catalogue, and there has to be something more than that because there's no value in simply recording what the world was like before the catastrophe devastated it. We might not even be here to see that record. Won't even be able to stare at the animals as they plod listlessly about their cages at the zoo, or examine their stuffed bodies in a natural history museum. All it will achieve will be to make us weep at the thought of what didn't make it. And as for the people here, the indigenes…if the world survives at all then their place in it will be as bums in a poor suburb of Rio, constantly in and out of prison for getting drunk and causing a nuisance. We cannot let that happen.

   He imagined himself on a street in London, New York or Stockholm. It was cleaner in Stockholm, he liked to think, than in many other places because Scandinavians had always been very environmentally conscious, but the thought of the city still made him shudder. Everything about it seemed unnatural, alien. And the pollution in the air, the filthy efflux from the various industrial processes; he could always sense it, hanging like a black brooding cloud in the atmosphere, making him feel almost physically sick.

   It needed a political will, and not that of a scientist or an explorer, to change things. To recognise the problem and, more importantly, do something about it. But that will was lacking. So how, then? How?

   The word echoed around the inside of his head. It seemed to shriek at him from the trees surrounding him, reverberating from every leaf, every shoot, every branch and twig.

   The others knew very well his thoughts on the matter, but he had seen from their faces that they were alarmed and uneasy at the new passion and vehemence with which he expressed them. Had he gone too far? Would they mention it to someone when the expedition returned to London, with some detrimental effect on his career?

   Ahead of him the path came to an end. He hadn't noticed any others branching off from it, not for some time. But then maybe he hadn't been looking.

No, Skanssen hadn't known where he was going. Or cared.

   The paths had petered out or become too overgrown. But, the vegetation less dense the deeper you went into the jungle - something which always surprised those unfamiliar with it - the spaces between the trees, the areas between the paths, were large enough to negotiate with ease. The undergrowth was scrubby, offering little resistance to the passage of his feet.

So Skanssen walked on.

   He could hear Magda's voice amid the screaming, raised so she could make herself heard above it. You spend so much time on these expeditions we hardly see each other. If I was a plant you'd take more care of me.

   Yes, plants should be nurtured, cared for, treated with affection. He hadn't done the same with Magda. What am I throwing away my marriage for? For something that won't be any damn use, not the way the world is: greedy, selfish, apathetic, ignorant, and stumbling on blindly towards its own destruction.

   The gloom here, caused by the density of the forest, was comforting, wrapping around him to shut out those things he didn't want to face. But they couldn't be shut out forever.

   He stopped and swung round in a full circle, so that the vista of green before his eyes seemed to spin giddily. How long will all this be here for? he wondered yet again, the anguish like a fire in his heart burning him up.

   He realised he'd lost track of how much time had elapsed since he'd left the camp. He really ought to be getting back. Before long they'd start to miss him. But Olav Skanssen had no desire to return to a task he considered futile. And he was lost.

   Was he? He'd gone too far, to a part of the jungle where there weren't any paths, but told himself it needn't matter that much. He had his compass and he knew roughly which direction the camp lay in from here. He could probably find the way in the end. They were so skilled in jungle lore by now, his team, that they hadn't bothered seeking the services of an Indian guide. Only he didn't want to go back.

   Take a good look at it; more than that, lose yourself in it. Make the most of the jungle because it won't be here for much longer. It's a good place. In it there is only nature, which kills because it has to. Not because it wants to, or can't be bothered to look for alternative ways to spend its time, better ways. None of the stresses of life in "civilisation", just things being themselves and not complicating matters by asking for more than that.

   He became aware of something very strange. The vegetation around him seemed to be thickening again, yet he knew they were nowhere near the perimeter of the jungle. It was as if something here was giving it life, boosting its growth. This alone excited his curiosity, made him want to keep going. So he did.

   He thought he might have come across more paths after a while, but he didn't. Somehow he sensed the Indians had never been here, at least not very often. Was it possible for there to be areas of the jungle where none of the tribes had ever ventured? In living memory, anyway? Not likely, perhaps, given there was less of the forest now than there used to be, but then there weren't so many Indians left either.

A part of him screamed at the rest, I don't like this.

   He stopped in the middle of a small clearing, suddenly afraid. A childhood memory popped into his head; he had been on a country walk with his parents and strayed from the path. Become lost. The grass seemed so tall, rising high above his head, and the trees were huge and threatening monsters whose skeletal arms reached out to draw him into the impenetrable darkness between them. He found tears pricking at his eyes.

   Why be frightened by me? I am like a mother in whose womb you are cocooned, warm and safe. I will protect you.

   Were those his thoughts or something else's? He realised with an awful yet intoxicating sense of disorientation that he didn't know.

I really ought to be getting back now…

   But I know how to survive here, because I have taken the trouble to study the forest and the ways of those who protect it. I know which berries to eat, which animals are edible and how to catch them.

   And yet to live here is merely to be destroyed when the loggers come. Only there's no point in going back…no point…

   There was a light shining through the trees, blinding him. It showed up the patterns, the whorls, in the dense foliage and he was reminded of a spider's web glistening in the morning sun. The patterns whirled and spun crazily, his head with it.

   He could hear a sound; a sort of rustling, whispering, like many voices talking softly. It mingled with the cries of the animals and the song of the birds and insects.

   And it was hot, unbearably hot. He was going to pass out, from the heat and the blinding light and the voices in his head. The intoxicating scent of the flowers. Each sense was under attack from all sides.

Don't fight it. Don't resist me. Sleep now. Sleep…

Skanssen slept.

And when he awoke, he wasn't lost. Not any more.

   The whirling in his head had been like a sea of green tossing him about helplessly, a shipwrecked mariner. But now he had come to rest on the shore, and felt calm and safe.

   Such beauty in all he saw around him; the patterns, the symmetry, the harmony in the arrangement of root, leaf, branch, frond and stem. And all of it was silent, peaceful, doing no harm to anyone or anything. The light that was of the sun, and yet not of it, shone bright and cold and clear and he saw revealed for the first time something he'd always known, at the very back of his mind, but never fully understood until now.

And Olav Skanssen knew what he had to do.

 

Until Professor Skanssen came back from whatever little jaunt he had decided to go on there wasn't much for Dr John Ballard, waiting for his colleague at the edge of the clearing where the team had made camp, to do except lose himself in his thoughts. There was plenty of work to be done about the place, but Ballard was anxious. It wasn't unknown for explorers to go wandering off and get lost, but it caused enormous problems when they did.

   Ballard, a well-preserved fifty-five year-old Englishman with reddish-blond hair tied in a ponytail, glasses and a beard glanced idly over at the buildings of the camp, reflecting that whatever bee had got into Skanssen's bonnet he had nothing to complain about in the facilities they enjoyed here. The expedition's work was considered so important that it had a proper laboratory and  greenhouse, along with living and sleeping quarters, washrooms, a common room where you could listen to the radio, watch TV or just sit and chat, chemical toilets, a kitchen and dining area. Each was housed within a prefabricated wooden cabin on a concrete base.

   There were thirty-two of them, and they had been here now for five months. They were supplied regularly with water, food, first-aid equipment, freshly-laundered replacement clothing and other essentials by helicopter or plane, from Manaus or from Lima where the Foundation had offices. And some things they could obtain from the wild.

   They were here because this was a fairly unexplored part of the rain forest, whose native inhabitants had had relatively little contact with Europeans and which held secrets that demanded to be uncovered; and because what they already knew about it made clear its enormous value to the planet. It was a wilderness that had to be protected, and its assets harnessed for the benefit of science and of human welfare before it was too late. The reports had indicated it had a particularly rich and varied ecosystem, even by the standards of the Amazon, with for example five hundred different species of bird and two thousand of insect within just one hectare. The Foundation had set about compiling a detailed inventory of its plant and animal life. It meant a lot of intensive and back-breaking labour, for you needed more than a single example of each species to understand its role in a complex, integrated ecosystem. Detailed studies had to be made of the organism's whole biology; its feeding and breeding habits, its interaction with the environment and with other species. The world needed to understand how fungi helped plant seeds to germinate, how ants removed blight and insect predators from leaves in return for the waxy substances they secreted, on which the ants fed; how insects pollinated the flowers and how animals of all kinds carrying the pollen on their bodies helped to disperse it. All the information collected was stored in a bank of computers powered by a generator in one of the huts. The data would be of crucial value in the event of it being one day possible to reintroduce an endangered species to the wild. Ideally the aim should be to take what could be considered a representative sample of flora and fauna but they wouldn't know what a representative sample was until their studies were complete.

   It had soon been discovered that besides known animals the area played host to several hitherto unknown species of frog, beetle, lizard and even one or two quite large mammals. But that wasn't all. The plant life was equally diverse and the products from its carefully managed cultivation potentially beneficial. From the oils the plants contained and the substances they secreted natural fertilisers, which weren't thought to do half as much damage as artificial ones, could be manufactured, also a wide range of medicines. Some plants could be used - and were used, by the local Indians - as hallucinogenic drugs. The Foundation wasn't keen to explore that side of things, although it wasn't apparent to what extent the drugs were actually harmful; maybe the Indians had a way of doing it which didn't cause mental or physical damage, not within the context of their own culture. But there was certainly a medical application to them, as with other more familiar narcotics.

   Most exciting of all was a species of orchid whose sap had remarkable healing properties. The Indians used it to treat most illnesses and injuries, which it seemed to cure in an incredibly short time. Attempting to apply the medicine in Western conditions, the doctors at the hospitals and medical colleges to which the Foundation had links found it delayed the onset of many diseases and speeded up the recovery rate of people already suffering from them. It prolonged the lives of cancer and AIDS patients. Synthesised and mass-produced, it might eventually be a cure for both, as well as for a lot of other things that were debilitating or fatal. To perfect it would probably take years but the ultimate rewards would more than justify the wait. The stuff could have dangerous side-effects, including euphoria and irresponsibility, but only in its raw form or if not processed properly.

   The "wonder plant" grew in just two places, both in the Amazon basin; here and at another location not far away where it was found in one very small colony. There a totally separate expedition, wholly British and funded partly through private money, but on the whole altruistic in its motives, was already at work. Its main purpose was general cataloguing of the wildlife and since they preferred to keep everything in its natural habitat, as a rule, and didn't want to uproot the whole lot they had taken just a couple of specimens, from which the serum could be extracted in laboratory conditions once they were back in the West.

   The Foundation had received handsome grants for its own expedition from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, the University of Rio de Janeiro, and the Ecology Institute in Brasilia with whom it was carrying out the expedition jointly. At first facilities had been somewhat basic, the original expedition having to make do with tents, but the Foundation had decided the importance of the site merited the construction of a semi-permanent installation, staffed by rota with, at present, three different teams each spending a total of six months in the field.

   The scientists generally rose at about six in the morning and after a breakfast of coffee and porridge went to the drying shed and took the plants collected the previous day for analysis in the lab. They would then divide into four groups, each of which had been allocated an area roughly a quarter of an English mile in extent. Within that area the team, usually consisting of about eight people, would spread out, trying to keep to their own specific patch as far as possible. They used machetes to cut through vegetation where necessary, always in such a way that it would grow back as with the "slash-and-burn" cultivation techniques of the Indians. Several examples of each species were taken, all being photographed, labelled and numbered with a note saying where they had been found. The plants were placed between newspapers in large polythene bags and soused in industrial spirit to preserve them until they could be pressed and dried at base camp.

   After a simple lunch of biscuits, guava jam and perhaps a bit of cheese each team would resume work, continuing at it until four or five pm when they would return to the camp. Much of the evening was spent cataloguing and preserving the specimens, placing the plants between sheets of paper on drying frames heated from below by kerosene stoves. This work often proceeded late into the night with a break for supper between seven and eight.

   They had already collected some 25,000 specimens, which would be distributed to universities and medical and botanical institutes in Brazil and around the world. And still Ballard knew that the area actually surveyed was but a tiny fraction of the whole. Who knew what they'd find tomorrow and what mind-boggling possibilities it would create?

   He and the other senior scientists carried out research into the properties of each specimen wherever possible, although with some the real work of developing the products into vaccines would only begin when they were back in the West or Brasilia in permanent lab conditions. The lab here incorporated a herbarium, a hydroponic centre where plants were grown in water, and a seed bank where the seeds were stored in refrigerators or in incubators set at just the right temperature, preserved in dishes of silica gel, until they could be shipped out along with other things by the helicopter, which came with the food and other vital supplies and left with the specimens. Not all of them; many remained where they were because they weren't the sort that could easily survive transport over long distances, storage while in flight tending to disrupt their reproduction patterns and making the need for a field laboratory all the greater. Great care was taken to ensure that no more than a fifth of the available seed was collected from a species.

   Theirs was a laborious, back-breaking task but they were happy. The comradeship that evolved and the excitement of never knowing what you were going to find next made up for it. And personally Ballard liked the sounds and sights and smells of the forest. Sometimes the heat and the close, humid atmosphere got too much for him and he wished he was back home but then he thought of the crowded, smelly city, where you had to keep dodging cars all the time and be afraid of everyone because of rising crime, and the press of bodies was uncomfortable and alienating, and shuddered. Out here you could keep your sanity. You could remember who you were and at the same time find out more about that person, discovering in them things you'd never remotely suspected. It was a great opportunity to learn how to get on with people who might come from a wide range of backgrounds and to acquire the qualities of initiative and endurance which cemented that fellowship by building character and earning you respect.

   And it was certainly a vital task they were engaged in. If deforestation continued at its present rate it would not only be the tropical regions and the tribal peoples who inhabited them that would suffer but the developed world too. It was madness, unbelievable folly, cutting down trees for charcoal production or to allow the city, with all its pollution and social problems, to grow ever bigger. The role of the trees in preventing CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere, by trapping it in their bodies, was crucial in combating global warming.

   More than a thousand acres of forest were being destroyed each day. In 1988 an area the size of Belgium had been lost, and that was over a decade ago. They had to salvage as much as they could before the madness engulfed everything and there wasn't a square inch left.

   Would things really get that far? Some seemed to think they might. He thought of Skanssen's outburst the night before.

    It was also essential to study, and to protect, the local population as one inseparable unit with the forest. Much could be learned from their eco-friendly methods of agriculture. Unfortunately that was difficult here because the local tribe, the Kaikun, though not unfriendly, nonetheless tended to avoid contact with whites wherever possible. It wasn't long since they'd first had any; tribes were still being discovered, here and in other tropical regions, who'd had none at all.

   It was getting near teatime, and all the teams were back except one. As he watched its members emerged from the forest. In the lead, chatting and joking to one another, were Michelle Duclos, an attractive young Frenchwoman, and Barney McQuade, a tall skinny young man with a quizzical face and a long neck which stuck out like a tortoise's. They seem to be getting on well together, Ballard thought.

   Both, like a good many of the expedition's members, had joined the project as postgraduate environmental sciences students, to whom the Foundation had awarded travel scholarships. When theirs had expired they had been lucky enough to stay on as permanent staff. They had now finished their degrees, and been taken on as full-time employees of the Foundation. In that post they, like everyone else in the team, were acting as ambassadors for their countries, furthering international understanding and co-operation.

Barney clocked Ballard's anxious expression. "What's up, Doc?"

   "Professor," said Ballard in mock reproach. It was an attempt to be cheerful, designed to mask his anxiety. "It's Olav. He went for a walk and hasn't come back."

   Simultaneously, all had the same unspoken thought. The Indians? It was possible. When the team had made contact with them and explained what they were up to, the Kaikun hadn't objected. In so far as it benefited their own culture it was undoubtedly to their liking, nor did they mind people in the developed world being cured of illnesses, despite their lack of sympathy for western civilisation. It was always possible, though, that there were some who hated the whites and sought to defy the authority of their chief in the matter. 

"Do you think - " began Michelle.

   "I think something may have happened to him in the jungle. But it didn't happen here. He wandered off first, just upped and vanished. There was nothing funny going on, nothing we ought to have worried about; and then all of a sudden we realised he wasn't around."

"Where was he going?" asked Barney, serious now.

   "He was last spotted in Central." The different sectors of the catchment area were named after parks in various world capitals.

"I'll go and look for him."

   "I'll come with you," said another of Barney's team, an Australian called Keith Hurst.

"Alright."

   "Be careful," said Michelle. Both men knew the area intimately but if Skanssen had got lost through going out of his way a little, they'd need to do the same if they were going to find him. And then they might well suffer the same fate. Nor, maybe, would that be the only hazard to watch out for.

   The other team members started making their way to the refectory, looking anxiously at each other.

   As Barney and Hurst set off, Ballard was joined by two of the other team leaders, Joachim Mueller from the University of Berlin and Gabriel Desmoulins of the Sorbonne. "Is there still no sign of Olav?" asked the Frenchman.

"I'm afraid not. Barney and Keith have gone to look for him."

   "You don't think that what happened last night…" began Mueller. "Could be connected with…"

"A bit of a coincidence if it's not," said Desmoulins.

   "Maybe he just wanted to do some collecting on his own," said Ballard. "You know what he's like sometimes. It wouldn't be the first time he's done it."

   Mueller wasn't convinced. "I still think that last night's episode - "

"He's been like that before."

"Not quite like that, John."

"All the same, he's usually been back by now."

"You reckon he's got himself lost?"

"He could have done."

"Listen," said Desmoulins suddenly, gesturing for quiet. "Is that a helicopter?"

   The chattering noise certainly sounded like rotor blades. They exchanged glances. "They're not due to call again for another month," Ballard said, puzzled. The sound died away.

They could have been mistaken.

   The conversation resumed. "I can understand why Olav sometimes wonders if there's any point in what we're doing," Desmoulins said. "Take…well, take AIDS. Most people get it because they've been doing something they shouldn't. Taking drugs or being promiscuous. Why should we spend so much money on helping them avoid the consequences of their own stupidity?"

"Some people get infected by accident," Ballard reminded him.

   "They all get infected by accident. Nobody, good or bad, wants to get AIDS. They can still be careless."

   "There are many ways someone could take the blood of an infected person into their body. For example, they could prick themselves - accidentally - on a needle that someone else hadn't properly cleaned. It doesn't have to be either carelessness or deliberate intent, not on the victim's part. And if it was on someone else's part, why should they suffer for it? Also, you're forgetting that in some parts of the world, like Africa for instance, there just isn't the education, the knowledge, that's needed for people to stay safe." They had had this kind of discussion many times before, but there wasn't much to do except talk until Skanssen came back. They were too worried to concentrate on anything else.

   "But the ones who sleep around; perhaps they at any rate are being punished for the way they choose to live." Mueller was a Catholic of the old school.

   "Then only they would get it, not people who didn't have any choice in the matter. Besides, if it's a sin to screw around and AIDS is God's punishment for it, he'd have to punish lots of other sins as well, like the arms trade, like racism, sex trafficking, financial greed, unfair dismissal. Or theft, rape, any form of unlawful killing…but he doesn't. And promiscuity arises in the first place from our basic urges. It's not right, but it's a much more natural sin, so why punish it and not the rest?" Ballard thought of a further objection. "Besides if they used a condom every time, it'd still be promiscuity."

   "Even when all that's said and done," Mueller said morosely, "we still won't be able to do much with this wonder drug except keep them alive a little longer."

   "Quite a bit longer, they think," corrected Ballard. "And I should have thought, logically, that if you can alleviate the effects of the disease it should be possible somehow to cure the disease itself. If you know how to deal with one you can work out sooner or later how to deal with the other, since they're the same thing really. A kind of feedback effect."

   "It's an interesting theory. But I don't think we can assume that - "

   Then the men came out of the jungle. There were about a dozen of them, all carrying sub-machine guns, and Ballard and his colleagues froze.

   For a moment he thought they might be soldiers, probably Brazilian government troops, in which case this was obviously some misunderstanding which could be easily cleared up. At least, he presumed the men were here because they thought the expedition might be up to something illicit. They must have been moving through the forest slowly and carefully, not wishing to give any warning of their approach. 

   Then he realised they weren't soldiers at all. They had on thick boots which made it easier to walk through the jungle, but wore no combat fatigues: just ordinary casual clothing, denims and open-necked shirts. Again Ballard stiffened, feeling a dampness at the base of his spine where a patch of sweat had formed. Something just wasn't right. The hard, impassive faces of the men and the fact that their guns were pointed straight at him and his team didn't serve to reassure.

   Ballard supposed he ought to say something. The least they could do was find out what the men wanted; hopefully it wouldn't be something that need pose a threat to them. He started to walk towards the newcomers, trying hard to control his nerves and hoping they would attribute his sweating to the heat. It might be unwise to let them see he was afraid, for a bully was only encouraged by the fear of his victim.

   They halted a few paces away, waiting for him to reach them, while in the background Ballard's colleagues looked on uneasily. "Hello," he said politely in Portuguese. "I'm John Ballard. This is a scientific expedition by the International Ecological Foundation, and I can assure you our intentions are entirely peaceful. Er, can we help you at all?" He felt suddenly a bit silly, like a genial shop assistant in an upmarket London store rather than an explorer in the Amazon jungle.

   The leader barked at the ecologists to stay where they were. He spoke in Spanish, not Portuguese or English, but the meaning was clear. He gave a series of orders to his subordinates and about half of them separated from the rest, going towards the buildings of the camp. The others stayed where they were.

   "What's going on?" asked Mueller, whose Spanish was fluent. "What are you doing here?"

   There was no reply. Ballard took a couple of swift steps towards the leader, angry now as well as afraid, but the man hefted his rifle in warning, cocking back the trigger. "Stay where you are," he repeated.

   They could only wait to see what happened next, glancing uneasily at each other and at the "soldiers", who met their gaze with blank stares. With a strange kind of detachment Ballard found himself studying the leader's face. It was a coarse, unremarkable face whose only feature of note was a knot of what might have been scar tissue on one cheek. The others' were similar; nothing of distinction about them except the eyes, which were either striking in their utter deadness or gleamed with something Ballard didn't like.

   He glanced after the men's colleagues. They must have gone to fetch the other members of the team. But what was their purpose? What the hell was this all about? Right then he felt he just wanted to know, whatever the answer might be.

   A rival collector, probably a wealthy private individual with a band of hired thugs working for him? Or an entrepreneur seeking to sell what Ballard and his colleagues had found to the highest bidder? It was always a possibility, especially these days, which was why most countries had strict rules for the collection of flora and fauna, insisting that it be deposited only with scientific institutions in the nations which had sponsored or actively taken part in the expedition, the country where the specimens had been found getting first refusal, and that the locations of populations in the wild should not be revealed to anyone outside those bodies. Although there was jealousy within the profession a rival expedition could, of course, be composed of perfectly respectable bona fide botanists like themselves. But these guys…

   Was it his fevered imagination, or had the jungle fallen quiet, the sound of its diverse animal life dying away and being replaced by an eerie, all-enveloping silence as profound as that of the five men in front of him? It seemed to him he couldn't hear anything but the terrified pounding of his own heart.

Animals always knew when Man was up to no good.

   The sound of grass crunching beneath twenty-six pairs of feet made him look round. They were all there, every other member of the expedition apart from Skanssen and those searching for him, looking pale and frightened as they went to join Ballard under the fixed, hawk-like gaze of the men with the sub-machine guns. Michelle Duclos suddenly turned on one of the newcomers and began shouting at him, demanding answers. The man shoved her with his free hand and ordered her to keep walking. When she stood her ground and went on arguing he reversed his gun and struck at her viciously with the butt, catching her on the side of the head and making her stagger. She burst into tears, gave up the fight and turned to stumble along helplessly with the others, sobbing from the fear and distress and humiliation.

   The group halted, each member of the expedition covered by at least one of the gunmen. "Is everyone here?" the leader asked Ballard, this time deciding to speak in English.

   Ballard hesitated. "One of us wandered off and seems to have got lost. Two people went to look for him."

   The leader frowned, then seemed to come to a decision. He turned to the others and gave a short, sharp jerk of the head: a signal.

   Shouldering their rifles, two of the men marched forward and seized Ballard by an arm each, pulling him roughly away from the other scientists. While they held him firm the others opened fire on his colleagues.

   They seemed for a moment to dance in a macabre ballet, sprays of blood whirling through the air like jets of water from a sprinkler, before slumping to the ground, dead or dying. A couple of people managed to break away and sprint for the cover of the trees but were cut down before they could reach it. Ballard stared in unbelieving horror and then screamed, overcome with rage and anguish. The men went on blasting away until everyone lay still in a spreading red pool.

   Ballard's head slumped onto his chest. In a state of shock, he didn't see one of the men approach him with a long wooden spear, its point wickedly sharpened, in one hand. His head jerked up again as the point was thrust deep into his stomach, striking a geyser of blood from it. His jaw dropped and his eyes stared in a look almost of surprise, which the men might have found amusing if they hadn't seen it so many times before. People often looked like that when you killed them.

   He slackened in the gunmen's grip, and they let the body crumple to the ground, the haft of the spear protruding from its belly. The leader now sent a few of his men into the jungle to search for the three absent scientists. While he looked on, the rest examined the bodies of those they had already killed, looking for any signs of lingering life. Finding none, they went on to search the clearing thoroughly, and examine the trunks of the trees fringing it, for any stray bullets. It was a painstaking, tiresome business but the jefe had told them they had to make sure. Barely out of the Stone Age, the Kaikun hardly ever used guns. Those they found were gathered up and pocketed. "Good," said the leader. "Now take the bodies and dump them in the forest. As far from here as possible, remember." The men he had selected for the job paired off, each couple picking up and carrying away one of the limp corpses between them. They knew to leave Ballard's where it was; the whole operation had been carefully planned long in advance. As for the others, in an amazingly short time the heat and the insects would have reduced them to skeletons and the dense undergrowth would have covered them. Which was vital, because they must not be found with bullet wounds.

   Once the task had been accomplished, the leader radioed the helicopter and told the bespectacled man he could move in now. They waited until he appeared, accompanied by several more of their colleagues. He wore denims, trainers and an open-necked shirt and carried a canvas hold-all.

   After a brief word with the leader he went into the laboratory where he stood surveying the equipment on the benches and the specimens in their jars for a minute or so, nodding to himself in satisfaction. Then he took a pair of rubber gloves from the hold-all, put them on and proceeded to inspect everything closely. The gloves were an essential precaution; scientists from the Foundation would come here again, not to stay but to reclaim their own, collecting together the equipment and the specimens and recording each item to make sure nothing was left behind. And the authorities would probably order a forensic examination. It might be fatal if the organization for whom the bespectacled man worked left behind the slightest clue that it had been here.

 

When Barney McQuade and Keith Hurst heard the sound of many pairs of feet moving about the jungle they immediately sensed danger. It smelt "soldiers" to them, and as far as they knew there shouldn't be any here. Barney was suspicious of the military anyway, whichever country he happened to be in. They had frozen, and once they'd decided the strangers were too far away to see or hear them dropped flat behind one of the bushes bordering the path, listening carefully.

   The strangers were making in the direction of the camp. We've got to find out what they're up to, thought Barney. It could mean trouble.

   They had spent so much time in the jungle, learning from both the Indians and white explorers, that they knew its ways almost as well as any native. They moved along very slowly, careful to make as little noise as possible.

   They'd almost reached the camp when they heard the shots. For several minutes they'd just stared at each other, alarmed, frightened and uncertain what to do. Then they had become aware of people moving about the forest again, more stealthily this time. It sounded like the group had split up and was fanning out so as to be more sure of finding them.

   If they hid they might sooner or later be rooted out. All they could do was turn round and head in the opposite direction from the camp, keeping ahead of the hunters and trying to avoid capture until they got tired and gave up the search. Because they had to keep on the move they couldn't stop to call the Foundation and tell them what seemed to have happened, although both had mobile phones. And the strangers might have heard them.

   Without at any time speaking to one another they scurried on in single file, trying to keep to the centre of the path so as not to brush against the vegetation and alert their mysterious enemies by the rustling. After a while they paused to listen, but could still hear the sounds of pursuit. It was obviously important to someone that they were found and taken care of.

   They kept on until it seemed they had finally shaken off the hunters. The rustling and scuffling noises had stopped. All the same, Hurst told Barney, it would be unwise to go back to the camp just yet. They didn't know how long the strangers intended to hang around. Barney agreed.

   "We'd better tell the Foundation," Hurst said. "Have them pick us up."

   It was just as he was getting out his mobile to make the call that a long, slender object with a sharpened point shot out of a bush and embedded itself in his heart. For the second time that day Barney threw himself down flat. If he tried to flee along the path his back would present a clear target. He knew who had fired the arrow and that his only chance was to convince them he wasn't a threat.

   "It's alright," he shouted out in their language. "I don't want to hurt you. Why did you kill him? We've never done you any harm."

   A pair of feet came to a halt by his head. He heard them talking in their deep, guttural voices, then he was seized and hauled roughly into a standing position. He smiled at the loinclothed figure before him and would have extended a hand in greeting had his arms not been held tightly by his sides. "I'm a friend," he insisted.

   The Indian didn't reply, instead gesturing abruptly with his spear at the jungle ahead of them. Barney felt the point of another spear prick his back, forcing him on.

The forest swallowed them up.

 

By the time the bespectacled man had completed his survey and rejoined his colleagues, the men charged with locating the missing scientists had returned from their search. "We couldn't find them," one of them told the leader.

"Are you sure? The jungle is a very big place."

   "Yes, and we don't want to get lost in it," one of them replied. They didn't know it as well as the ecologists would.

"Fair enough," the leader grunted.

"Besides," someone added, "the Indians will be pretty mad by now."

"You're forgetting. We've got guns, they haven't."

   "We could wait here until they come back," someone suggested. "Give it an hour or two, let's say."

  The leader glanced at the bespectacled man. "Have you finished yet? Is it here?"

   "Yes, it's all here. They'll clear everything out, of course, but it can be replaced. I know from their notes where we should look for the thing, and that's what matters."

"What if they find your fingerprints on the notes?"

   "They won't be looking for them, especially as I put them back where I found them. They'll think it was Indians who did it."

   The leader, whose name was Miguel Manzana, grinned broadly. The objective of their mission had been achieved, more or less. Now all they needed to do was account for those last three scientists.

   They waited, but the trio did not appear. After a while Manzana began to get anxious in case people from the Foundation or the government showed up, probably with soldiers, and decided they should leave. "The jefe won't be pleased," he complained. Because the jefe didn't like leaving loose ends. Nor did Manzana himself, come to that. "If they're alive, and they find out what we've done and tell the authorities…" He cheered up a little. "Maybe the Indians…"

   "We'll just have to take the chance," the bespectacled man said. He was every bit as annoyed but took it more calmly, on the surface at any rate, only a slight change of tone betraying his feelings. "We'll soon know."

   At this they left, tramping in silence back along the path to where the helicopter had touched down. In minutes the craft was airborne and making its way back to their base, where they had much to do. 

   Behind them, the burning sun beat down remorselessly on the bodies of their victims. 

 

 

Two

It might be hard to believe, but that same sun also shone on a leafy suburban avenue in south-west London, along which were strung out nondescript semi-detached houses with tidily kept and boringly uniform front gardens. Plus a few that were larger, older, more attractive and certainly more up-market. In the upstairs bedroom of one a digital alarm clock started bleeping insistently and the occupant of the bed stirred, groaning. Bleary eyes blinked at the wall opposite them and a hand reached out to silence the machine's strident call.

   Twenty-seven year old Caroline Kent sat up, yawned and stretched, rubbing the sleep from her sky-blue eyes. Throwing back the duvet, she jumped smartly out of bed and padded from the room to the shower. 

   Like millions of other people that morning, she washed, dressed, went downstairs, had breakfast and fed the cat.

   She showered long and thoroughly, enjoying the sensual feel of the jets of warm water caressing her skin. While under them she shampooed her blonde hair with the utmost care and precision. Afterwards she stood looking at herself in the mirror for a moment or two, liking what she saw. Not a bad body, all told. No, don't do yourself down, Caroline, it's a fantastic body. Though nurture had as much to do with it as nature; keep-fit sessions at the local gym, aerobics, jogging, swimming. But that was true of a lot of people's bodies; there were plenty who, though not a Venus or Adonis, could be if they tried, and plenty who were (in so far as anyone was) but wouldn't be if they didn't keep their hand in. The exercise was tiring sometimes but that was a price she had always been prepared to pay.

   She thought how much money she might be earning if she had taken some people's advice and become a model. However much she did or didn't take off, she'd be raking in millions. Earning far more than in her present relatively lucrative job. But from what she'd heard of the industry, it seemed highly exploitative. 

   She sighed. A decision had had to be made on the matter, and was. There could be no going back now. All the same it was useful to remind herself why she had taken it. If she'd become a model or an actress people would think she didn't have any assets but her looks, and treat her as if she were some kind of bimbo. Mentally she wrinkled her nose, thinking that her present experience wasn't all that different. 

   Yes, she had a good body all right. A shame, she supposed, that no-one had use of it on a regular basis. They ought to, before she passed from the flush of youth into middle age, even if no-one was quite sure where middle age began these days. The pleasure was meant to be for both partners, not just one. But however altruistic one's views might be towards marriage, in its physical or any other aspect, what mattered most to her at this stage in life was her freedom. For that reason, the one steady relationship she had contracted in her time had not lasted.   

   Wrapping a towel around herself, she went back into the bedroom to dress, taking her clothes from where they lay in neatly-folded piles in the drawer. Over her blouse and underwear she donned a smart business suit and skirt with necktie; it had always seemed important to her to be well turned-out for work. She seated herself in front of the mirror on the dressing table and applied her lipstick. Generally she didn't need anything in the way of artificial aids to look attractive, and so did not make use of them. The lipstick, employed only for work and for social occasions, was the only exception, and then it was good essentially because of the way it enhanced what was already beautiful. It couldn't have the same effect with a face that was ugly, indeed tended to make it worse.

   From downstairs she could hear the crying of her cat, Jack, demanding food. "I'm coming, sweetheart," she called.

   He came running towards her, tail in the air. She gave him a hug, then put him back down and emptied a tin of Kit-e-Kat into his bowl. Patting him on the head, she left him to chew happily at his food while she went to prepare her own breakfast.

   Caroline liked cats. She liked their independent nature, and also their scrupulous tidiness. She felt both qualities reflected her own personality.

   Jack was a tabby, affectionate, well-behaved for the most part and undemanding in his philosophy of life. He wasn't very adventurous, never travelling far beyond the comfortable, secure house and garden where he had made his home. All he wanted and needed was to be fed and watered, given a cuddle every now and then, and generally loved. In return he served her for company, and was never spiteful although on the rare occasions when he had to be told off he took it very personally and sulked in a corner for a bit, his feelings hurt. He wasn't even any good at catching mice or birds, as if his heart wasn't really in the job. His gentleness had an almost human quality to it; she was sure he had a soul. You could see it sometimes when you looked into his eyes. They had a reflectiveness in them which matched what people often said they saw in hers. Made for each other, aren't we Jack, she thought with a smile.

   Her breakfast consisted of a bowl of Weetabix, two slices of toast with Marmite and a mug of tea. Some executives thought it logical they should subsist on coffee, since it perked you up and prepared you for the frenetic pace of the working day. She wasn't one of them. Tea was a sobering, relaxing drink which helped you to deal better with stress and also, she found, made it easier to think. It was also very English.

   Having collected together anything she'd need for work and put it in her briefcase, she said goodbye to Jack and went out to the car. Sighting her next-door neighbour, Mr Bird, she bade him a cheerful good morning. Then she climbed into the little lime green Peugeot - not for the first time she mentally berated herself for not buying a British car, but the vehicle had never given her any trouble and besides she'd become very attached to it - and twenty minutes later was driving over the Chiswick flyover, the vast metropolis of London spread out before her; the sprawling mass of Europe's largest city, which, she reflected with pride, remained a leading world financial centre and thus lent justification to Britain's still regarding itself as a great power.

   Thousands of offices, millions of people like her all going to work to keep the wheels of that vast, complex, cumbersome organism they called society going. Well, she thought, another wonderful day at International Petroleum Ltd.

   The Hammersmith headquarters of IPL UK was a huge complex of concrete and smoked glass, built in the 1980s and situated within a landscaped stretch of parkland dotted with abstract sculptures, some quite good and others merely absurd. She parked her car in the slot reserved for top management and set off briskly towards the entrance to Admin, high heels ringing out on the tarmac.

   She passed through the remote-controlled sliding doors into the spacious foyer with its parqueted floor, ornamental fountain and collection of exotic plants. The walls were adorned with abstract murals and specially commissioned paintings of oil rigs and refineries. A glass case contained a model of a supertanker. There were a couple of busts, one of the company's founder and another, which she rather liked, of an oilman in safety helmet and overalls, his rugged, weatherbeaten face calloused by biting North Sea winds.

   She smiled and said "hi" to Max, the security guard, who returned the compliment cheerfully. His eyes followed her appreciatively as she went on her way, nodding to the girl at the reception desk.

   Caroline took the lift to the third floor, where the department over which she presided, Personnel and Public Relations, was located. There had been pressure to change the "Personnel" part to "Human Resources" but she had resisted that because it seemed too jargony and also, as she'd not infrequently pointed out, it didn't actually make any sense. "Personnel" just meant what it said, the people employed by a given organization to run its affairs, and no more or less, just as "butcher" meant someone who prepared and sold meat. If calling something "Human Resources" was meant to make it more touchy-feely and reassuring then the appellation was superfluous. Whatever your view of doctors you weren't any more or less trusting of them because they were called that and not "Human Welfare Enablers". You could be fair in your dealings with people without calling things by silly names. If human beings were a "resource" then what was that resource supposed to be used for?  Making fertilizer?

   It was another good reason for her to stay on in her job and not be lured away by the delights of showbiz. God knows what they'd do to this place after I was gone, she thought.

   The office was an open-plan affair, with large windows letting in enough sunshine to make it a pleasant place to work. She'd rather sit out there than in her own little room, but the constant bustle and chatter of conversation as people went about on their various tasks would make it difficult to concentrate. Her actual home while she was here was a separate office divided into inner and outer components, the latter walled off in glass through which Sheila, her secretary, could be seen making appointments on the phone and otherwise going about her business, rather like a specimen in a cage at the zoo. Beyond Sheila was the partition behind which the inner room, Caroline's "domain" as it was referred to in-house, was located.

   Sheila was a year or two younger than her with longish brown hair and glasses. She looked up from her diary as Caroline entered.  "Morning, Boss!"

   "Morning. How's your little boy?" Yesterday Sheila had gone home from work early to see to her nine-month old son, who her husband reported as tired, irritable and constantly crying.

"Oh, much the same," Sheila sighed.

   "See the doctor if you're worried, but it may not be anything serious. They're often like that at that age. At least I was, so I'm told. But if you'd like a few days off…"

   "It's alright, John's looking after him, but thanks anyway. Um, Hennig wants to see you. He popped in just a moment ago." Marcus Hennig was overall Managing Director of IPL and theoretically of the UK branch in particular, although the practical difficulties of combining both roles meant that in effect the latter was performed by his deputy, Phil Reynolds. Reynolds, though competent, was a colourless figure who kept out of the limelight as much as possible. It wasn't clear whether it was he who exercised the real power at Hammersmith under Hennig or the head of Admin, George Watson-Dove.

"Oh," she said without enthusiasm.  "Have you any idea why?"

"'Fraid not. Good luck."

"Thanks."

   Caroline pulled a face. She had hoped she'd be able to spend the morning working on the company's new recruitment brochure, a matter dear to her heart. Well, the MD could wait a couple of minutes at least.

   She paused for a moment before entering the office, regarding the plaque on the door. Caroline Kent B.Sc, Personnel and Public Relations Manager. She remembered the glow of pride she'd felt on seeing them put it up. This was what a scholarship to a prestigious public school and one of the country's best universities had prepared her for and now all the investment that had gone into her education and upbringing had paid off. She was glad to have made her mother and father feel so proud. 

   The room was big enough to be airy and comfortable to work in, although she'd never considered it anything special. She thought she was beginning to develop a certain attachment to it, as you did to anywhere you worked for a significant length of time. A poster of Garfield on the wall telling everyone he had worked for this nervous breakdown and nobody, but nobody was going to deprive him of it and the selection of family photographs on the desk gave it a human touch. The window offered a panoramic view over the London skyline, with the landmarks of the city centre just visible on the horizon. On a clear day, like today, you could see as far as Canary Wharf, whose light was blinking monotonously on and off signalling its warning to low-flying aircraft.

   She pulled her chair out and sat down. Like countless other businesspeople throughout the country that day she consulted her list of engagements. Nothing going on till three o'clock when there was a departmental meeting. Apart from her appointment with Hennig, that was.

   Caroline sighed. She supposed she'd better get it over with. Important person as she was in the company, she was a long way off being a law unto herself, supposing it would have been polite in any case to keep him waiting. One day, things might be different. One day…but until then there were some rules that couldn't safely be broken.

   His office was on the floor above. She knocked on the door and waited. "Come in," he called, or rather shouted. For a not particularly big man, although he made up in breadth what he lacked in height, he had a surprisingly loud voice.

   She entered. "Caroline," said Hennig, turning from the drinks cabinet which stood ostentatiously in a corner. "Sit down."

   Her eye rested apprehensively on the glass in his hand. He was in buttering-up mode, and that meant something was about to happen which she might not like. 

   "Thankyou, Mr Hennig." Hennig had never given her express permission to call him Marcus, so she'd decided to play safe. 

"Sherry?"

   "Yes, that'd be nice," she said politely. He poured out the drink and handed it to her, her slim fingers closing around the stem of the glass. He seated himself behind his capacious desk, a stout man somewhere in his forties with a plump, florid face and dark, slightly curly hair which she suspected would be showing the first traces of grey if it wasn't so well oiled.

   There was a moment's awkward silence. Caroline kept the smile on her face while avoiding looking him quite straight in the eye. Then he seemed to gather his thoughts. "You've been working here for - how long is it? Seven years now."

   Such words were often a prelude to some admonition. But Hennig's tone didn't suggest one. Not that that made it safe to relax your defences. "I believe so," she agreed.

"I wanted to ask you: have you ever felt like a change?"

"No," she said, politely but firmly. "I can't say I have. Why?"

   "It's just that a vacancy has just come up which I think you might be interested in."

 "Oh, yes?" she replied, trying to sound as if she was interested. "Where is it?"

   "It's in all sorts of places. Head Office have decided they need a sort of international troubleshooter for the company, to deal with particular problems that may come up at any of our branches around the world; industrial disputes, problems with the locals, inefficiency on the part of management or workforce, technical issues where they have some sort of administrative dimension." By technical issues you mean technical problems, she thought. Calling a problem an "issue" was a way of glossing over the seriousness of the matter. For her part she believed in calling a spade a…oh hell, you weren't allowed to say that anymore.

   "Could be virtually anything," Hennig said. "And anywhere. That's why I'm sure you'll find it interesting."

   "I thought we already had people like that." Don't think I don't see your plan, you devious little turd. I'll take the job, realise I'm superfluous in it, then when I want out find I can't get my old one back. At the same time a part of her wasn't convinced he'd really go that far.

   "They've decided we need another. It's not a full-time thing; how busy you'll be depends on whether anything happens to be going on somewhere that needs looking into, and most problems can be sorted out by the branches themselves. So the IOMs have to be concentrating on their normal jobs most of the time." IOM stood for International Operations Manager.

   "That means that sometimes there's a conflict. They'll end up neglecting one responsibility or the other, and it causes as many problems either way. The more widely the burden is spread, the less chance of that happening." He smiled reassuringly. "So don't worry, we're not trying to get rid of you." That's nice to know.

   "For various reasons I think you'd be ideal for the job. You can speak several languages, you've got contacts in all sorts of countries. One of the jet set, aren't you," he grinned.

   She remembered that the last time he'd said that he'd been rather disparaging about it. But I don't like to think what you get up to on all your junkets, she thought. And nor does your wife, I'll bet.

   "And I'm certain you'd enjoy it. You like travel, don't you? This will mean you don't have to sit behind a bloody desk typing out letters and memos all the time." That couldn't be entirely true, she thought. The new job would involve a fair amount of paperwork at well. And she travelled about a good deal in her current post, attending conferences and giving talks to prospective recruits; not just in Britain but overseas, since she was supposed to be personnel manager for the global company and not just its British branch. This office managed not only the UK section but the entire worldwide concern that was IPL. However, since to run the whole world was beyond even someone of her capabilities, employment and PR matters (the two were sometimes handled by the same department, sometimes not) tended to be dealt with by the heads of the national branches, who were responsible for their own countries and no more. Becoming an IOM would mean a lot more international travel and could only add to the appeal of working for the company.

   Yes; on the whole, she liked the idea of it. Hennig saw it in her face and pressed home his attack, encouraged. "It'll mean an increase in your salary; should bump it up to around eighty thousand K a year." Later she found out this still wasn't as much as male colleagues doing the same job earned, and knew she really ought to complain, but decided that as she had enough to live a comfortable and full life, doing all the things she really wanted to, it wasn't worth the bother. In any case she wasn't convinced she'd get anywhere if she did. It was typical, though.

   "You get an allowance which should cover most of what you'll have to do in the course of the job. Additional expenses will have to be itemized and a breakdown sent to Finance. Be careful you don't go over the top or they'll moan, you know what they're like. As regards your contract, it'll need to be renegotiated but I shouldn't think that'll be a problem.

   "While you're not here, Iain Jardine will stand in for you on all PPR matters." It was a way of saying don't wet your knickers, nothing will happen to your precious Personnel and Public Relations while you're gone.

   Good old Iain, she thought affectionately. He wouldn't stand any nonsense from Hennig. He was the senior of her two deputies at PPR, a practical, hardbitten character who had worked out on the oil rigs before going into management after an accident on one had left him with a broken leg, and knew what you could and couldn't do with people. His employment with the company dated back to before she was even born and the job of Head of PPR really ought to have gone to him, but he had accepted being subordinate to a young whizzkid not long out of college with equanimity, and was fiercely loyal to her in a way she always found touching. Nonetheless, despite the steel behind the soft Highland lilt and charming courtesy, she somehow feared he was too decent to be a match for Hennig and his cronies. He lacked the guile, the bloody-mindedness.

   "I think it would be important not to lose touch with what's going on here," she said. There was just the right note of warning in her voice, enough to preserve politeness while still making clear she wouldn't tolerate any intrusions onto her patch while she wasn't looking. 

   "Of course, of course," he nodded. "We'll keep you informed of any decisions that need to be made which affect the running of PPR."

   There followed another profound, rather uneasy silence. Hennig steepled his fingers, drew himself up slightly, and looked her straight in the eye. He'd obviously rehearsed it all long before, yet intended to take great care over what he was about to say.

   "Now…there's one thing I ought to make clear, and I'd be failing in my duty as a responsible employer if I didn't do so."

   How kind of you, Mr Hennig. "What's that?" she enquired, again in just the right tone of voice. Was he hoping she'd turn it down, so he could represent her to the board of directors as not so much of a high-flyer as she wanted everyone to think, thereby dampening their enthusiasm for her?

   He spoke slowly and deliberately. "There is a certain risk that in exercising your responsibilities as an IOM, you may find yourself in potentially dangerous situations. I'm sure you know what I mean. Some of our plants are in parts of the world where there is political instability and a history of terrorist activity. It's something all employees of the company working overseas have to face at some point and if they didn't, it would cease to function as an international organisation. Indeed, one could say the same applies to all areas of business and commerce in the era of globalization.

   "Only last year several of our people were taken hostage by rebels in Nigeria, and it took months to get them out safely. How does that make you feel, Caroline?"

   She didn't answer immediately. The whole idea suddenly seemed a lot less appealing. She frowned as she tried to get to grips with the issue in her mind, to decide whether she really would be happy to expose herself to such danger in the last resort.

   "You don't have to do it," he told her, his manner again warm and reassuring, like a kindly uncle. "There's no way I'd dream of pressurising you into something you weren't happy about."

   She didn't have to make the decision now, at least he hadn't said she did. "Well," she replied, "I suppose you're right; if we didn't go out to those places once in a while, our whole international operation would collapse. We wouldn't be what we are, would we?"

   "That's the spirit. Not that I'd want anything nasty to happen to you, naturally." She didn't suppose he did.

   "There's a course that tells you what to do if you're kidnapped, held hostage, or faced with a terrorist attack," he said helpfully.

   "I've been on it," she reminded him. It had seemed like a good idea…just in case. It had probably achieved what it was intended to and she felt all the better for having been on it. But she could still get killed if things didn't go according to plan.

   "Well, the offer's there. So…" Again he seemed to be considering his next move. "The situations you might find yourself in will be very wide-ranging. But I've no doubt that whatever comes up, you'll be able to handle it. You're good at rooting out the cause of a problem and dealing with it, and you don't stand any nonsense from anyone."

   This improved Caroline's mood to some extent. She managed to look at least reasonably modest.

   "Now…if you do decide to take this on, your first assignment will be at our refinery in Camaragua. We're not getting on too well with the local people there. We want you to put our relations with them on an even footing, and your experience in PR will be of enormous value there. There's also some problem with the accounts; they'll explain it to you in more detail later on, as with everything else. And a potential risk from terrorists, we're not sure how serious at the moment."

Throw me in at the deep end, why not.

   "There've been problems at the plant ever since it was opened. We'd be here for ages if I tried to go into details now, but basically all's not well. It'll take a while to sort out, so you could be there for some months. The idea is that you stay in a particular location for as long as it takes to sort out the trouble there. Most problems don't require that kind of constant presence, but this one…" He sighed. "Camaragua is the bete noire of IPL. You know the sort of things that go on in that part of the world. But we've got to show we aren't going to be defeated by it. It'd be a big blow to their economy if we pulled out. And an encouragement to those who want the country to descend into anarchy.

   "There'll be proper security at the refinery, of course. And everywhere else you might go while you're there. The police and military will be watching you all the time. You don't mind that, I take it."

"Better than being shot."

   "Or kidnapped. Kidnapping has become a way of life in Camaragua of late. But usually the victims are locals, you'll be pleased to hear."

Bit unfair on the locals, Caroline mused. 

   "So - what do you think?" He leaned back, regarding her expectantly. He found himself studying her face, which he had to admit never ceased to fascinate him, closely while he waited for a response. The eyes were large, though not so much so as to be ugly, and expressive. Together with the bone structure they resulted in a visage which had great character, while still being classically beautiful. It was a noble, rather whimsical face; one which saw some importance in itself while not always taking the world in general too seriously. It was framed by long, straight, hair of a light honey colour, which fell to just below shoulder level. The well-cared for skin was a pale pink which went café au lait when exposed to the sun for long periods, like that of the girl in Dr No.

"Can I have some time to think about it?" she asked.

   "By all means. But I'd need to know within the week. HQ would like the Camaraguan problem sorted out as soon as possible, and I've told them you're just the person to do it." Was there a faintly malicious smile on his face?

   "Well, that's it, then," he finished. "Within the week, yes? Oh, forgot to say; you won't be going out there on your own. We didn't think that would be fair. Chris Barrett will keep you company, to act as your general assistant and to give him some experience of overseas operations. It's covered in his contract."    The news reassured her considerably. She liked Chris, who was the other of her two deputies, having responsibility underneath her for the PR and recruitment side of things, and had a high opinion of his abilities. He'd been of great help during a period not long ago when she'd been seriously overworked, and stuck up for her whenever the wolves started prowling round her door, once taking the blame for something she'd got disastrously wrong even though she hadn't wanted him to. She felt altogether a lot more comfortable with him about.

"Who'll cover for him?"

"Who would you suggest?"

   "I think Mark Goodison would be OK. He needs experience of a position with a fair amount of responsibility. Though any job's like that, of course."

   She rose to leave, putting down her finished glass of sherry. "I'll let you have an answer by Friday."

"If you could. 'Bye now."

   Shortly after she had gone George Watson-Dove, who had seen Caroline leave the room through the slightly open door of his office, knocked and entered. "Well? What happened?"

   Hennig went to reopen the drinks cabinet. "She said she'd think about it." 

   Watson-Dove was disappointed. This often meant people weren't feeling all that enthusiastic about whatever proposal you'd put to them. "What do you reckon? Will she go for it?"

   "If I know her she will. She won't turn down a challenge like that."

"Do you suppose she's twigged what we're trying to do?"

   "Probably," said Hennig. "She's not stupid. But I still think she'll do it. Anyway, we've thrown the ball to her. Let's wait and see what she does with it."

 

Caroline returned to Personnel and PR with her mind in a whirl. She talked it over with Sheila for a bit, then retired to her inner sanctum to mull over the pros and cons of the matter. 

   There was no doubt she was suited to being an IOM. The school she'd gone to had had quite a few foreign pupils, from wealthy Arab and Asian countries, and it had helped her to gain an understanding of other races and cultures, better arguably than many people had from less privileged backgrounds. And then there was her fondness for travel. The job had the potential to be very exciting. And there was no doubt she was bored with her current situation, though she might not say so openly. On the downside, it might be dangerous to be away from London for too long. She knew there were people here who wanted to get rid of her, and if she neglected her power base it would be easier for them to freeze her out. She knew very well, or thought she did, what Hennig's motive had been in recommending her for the job. Yet if she took it on and made a success of it, surely there would be rewards.

   "Camaragua," she said to Sheila, without any noticeable enthusiasm. "The worst bloody country in the world." She had never been sure of the wisdom of opening a refinery there; it seemed like madness. But the principles of international capitalism dictated it, so it had to be done.

   "I can't say I've ever been there," Sheila replied, not wishing to commit herself.

   "They shoot you soon as look at you. Drug dealers, armed gangs, terrorists; someone gets killed there every ten minutes, they reckon.

   "You don't suppose he is trying to get rid of me, do you?" she mused.

Sheila laughed. "Not the way you mean. He's not that bad."

"In what other ways is he trying to do it?"

   "You mean he's hoping you'll make a cock-up of it, and won't be flavour of the month with the Board any more?" Then they wouldn't back her against Hennig when there was any difference of opinion between them on important issues. It might also damage her chances of promotion and so halt what he saw, disapprovingly, as her meteoric rise to power.

"The thought had occurred to me," she said.

   "Don't make a cock-up of it," Sheila urged. "Prove him wrong. I know you will."

   "Thanks." She half stood, half sat on the edge of the table with her fingers curled around it, and gazed at the wall. "I just want a change. But I don't know if I'm prepared to put my chances at risk like that."

   From the point of view of her career, it seemed to her there were dangers either way. It might not do her reputation here any good if they knew she'd turned it down, let alone taken it on and make a hash of it. Hennig would try to make it look bad for her somehow. So she might as well take the bait. Then again there was the question of personal safety, which always kept coming back to her. With the security forces looking after her she was probably more likely to get killed here in England while crossing the road. But then she always took care while crossing the road, as she did in other things.

   The trouble was that to succeed as an IOM she first had to be tested in the casting forge of Camaragua. It was a pretty safe bet that if she made a mess of that the rest of the troubleshooter business would be a non-starter. Although no-one could blame her, surely, for thinking twice about taking on such a tricky assignment.

   "You can bet Iain will keep your place warm for you. He's not one of Hennig's toadies."

   "It's not that I'm worried about. You know what I'm worried about."

"What do you think you'll decide to do then?" Sheila asked.

"That's just the point, I haven't yet. Decided."

   "We'd be sorry to lose you," Sheila said sincerely. "Even if it was just for a few months."

"Mmm," said Caroline absently, her mind on other things.

   She went into the inner office and sat down. Alone, she felt the pressure of her various commitments force a decision on her. For all she knew she could spend hours trying to resolve the issue and there were other jobs to be done, whatever happened about the IOM thing. It would hardly improve matters if she was seen to neglect them. She didn't, however, want to make the decision on an impulse and maybe have to recant it later.

   It annoyed her that she couldn't reach it by her own efforts. But, as always when she really couldn't make up her mind about something, she decided to discuss the matter with her parents. After all, what were families for.

 

 

Three

It was unfortunate, thought Major Mike Hartman, that the Sultan of the small South-east Asian country where they normally did their jungle training had been overthrown in a coup d'etat which nobody had seen coming, or they themselves would probably have gone in to sort out the problem and keep Britain's ally in power. That kind of thing was what the Special Air Services were for. But in a "democratic" country like Britain even the SAS were, to some extent, only as good as the politicians who told them what to do and when to do it, and hopefully paid attention to what analysts and advisers said. In many ways it was a good thing the Sultan had gone because he was an autocrat, a spendthrift and a sleazeball whose interest in white women was of a decidedly unhealthy nature; but he had been a friend of Britain in a region where Islamic fundamentalism was on the increase, and he did allow the Regiment use of his army's training grounds, so they'd probably have gone in to defeat the coup and prop up the sleazeball with military assistance and advice had things not gone too far for that to be a practical possibility. For Mike Hartman was a soldier, and thus couldn't dissent openly from the wishes of his superiors in Hereford and Whitehall; beyond the occasional "With respect, Sir…" his job was to obey orders. Even if the Sass-men were different from other branches of the army and a certain amount of informality was permissible once you had joined them (it would never have been during the selection procedure, the Major thought sourly).

   Sometimes there didn't seem much point in the whole thing anyway, ethical issues apart. Britain no longer had colonies to defend in parts of the world where there was jungle. What were they training for? It was all to do with an insistence on retaining the last vestiges - though they weren't quite that, not yet - of the country's status as a world power. But impractical as this policy seemed, his instinct told the Major it was sound at heart. If Britain thought of itself as a third or fourth ranking power then that was what it would become. He didn't want that. The bigger you'd been the harder you would fall if you allowed yourself to, and there were plenty of circling vultures, resentful of past imperialism, who were eager to fall upon the carcase. Besides, the rain forest was an at least reasonable equivalent to the bush country of Zimbabwe, and it was always possible they would one day be needed to help evacuate the white population of that troubled country if Robert Mugabe turned on it with a vengeance.

   And so, the civilian politicians who had replaced the Sultan being, though  not radical Islamists, rather less friendly towards Britain they had been parachuted by agreement with the Brazilian government into this remote part of the South American rainforest where the natives, though relatively unacquainted with Europeans and their ways, were known to be non-hostile. Hartman's squadron had divided into four units each of which was to spend six weeks within the training area. During that time they were to acclimatize themselves to their environment and learn all the skills necessary to survive and wage war there; intelligence, reconnaissance, signalling, navigation, camouflage, setting traps and ambushes, hunting for food, identifying water sources. They tested those skills by carrying out manoeuvres in which one half of the unit stalked the other. In their belt pouches they kept most of the equipment needed to do all this successfully; knife, medical kit, rations, signal mirror, torch and a range of other accessories. Larger items such as radios and Satnavs were strapped to their belts or contained in the packs they carried on their backs.

   Base camp was a collection of huts constructed from logs, covered with canvas at night, and built on a slope so that drainage was good and moisture wouldn't accumulate and make the huts unhealthily damp. The local tribesmen had helped put them up, although they'd have preferred to do the job more or less by themselves, as with looking for food, because it was better to learn to be fully independent. But the Indians might have taken offence at being told their assistance was no longer necessary, and it was all the more important not to upset them because you couldn't always tell whether you had.

   They slept on beds made up of two metal poles, in sections which could be screwed together for ease of carrying, threaded through holes in a sheet of canvas and either laid on the ground or slung between two trees which could be incorporated into the structure of the hut. They wore two sets of clothing, one of which was kept dry - the foliage around them was often sopping wet - by being used to sleep in, as substitute pyjamas, and one for use during the day.

   They always went out in pairs, or groups of three or four, but never individually. It was too easy to get lost. And they always took with them their belt kit, pack, Heckler and Koch MP5 rifle and machete for clearing undergrowth and making tracks; also their communications equipment and Satnavs, the latter using the Global Positioning System (GPS), so they could locate and maintain communication with each other if they did get split up and in a real emergency contact SAS HQ in Hereford for help.

   They were coping pretty well. In practice the rain still got in, and they wore ponchos at night to keep off the worst of it. Most of the time, despite all the precautions, they were wet and filthy and smelly. But they put up with it as they did the sweltering heat, made worse by their own body odour and the fact that they didn't use soap because in climates this hot it tended to smell.

   It was only the second year running they had done it, but they were becoming well versed in the ways of the Amazon. Many of the rules you had to learn applied to rain forests generally, wherever they were. The Major felt he was already beginning to blend into the jungle, to think like a native of it; to become part of this gloomy twilight realm where you sometimes couldn't see more than a few feet in front of you, and imagination peopled these otherworldly surroundings with strange monsters.

   Yes, they were pretty good at it. The trouble was, there were other people who were even better. After all, they lived here.

   It happened on the very first night. After spending some time in cheerful badinage around the fire Hartman's unit had bedded down, their backpacks beside them, listening to the sounds of the jungle until they dozed off. Two of them had been left on guard while the others slept. It was good practice, whatever the odds on something nasty coming out of the trees and attacking you.

   It must have been an arrow that killed Pete Goodchild, whistling suddenly out of the darkness and taking his life in a fraction of a second, without the slightest sound. Ray Malone likewise. The Indians must have helped with building the huts, as before, purely so the white soldiers wouldn't suspect anything was wrong. They knew the unit were most vulnerable at night. And maybe it was because they were training rather than engaged in actual combat that the squad were not as alert as they should have been.

   Once the sentries were dead the Indians moved stealthily about the camp clubbing the Major's comrades to death and taking their equipment. One or two were woken by some slight sound that gave the killers away, or had been sleeping less heavily. But they were dead before they could reach for their guns. The Major was lucky because they had decided to save him until later. He felt himself seized roughly and pulled to his feet, barely having time to realise what was happening before a club struck him on the temple, stunning him. Shaking himself back to full consciousness, he struggled to throw them off but although a big man in the peak of condition was powerless against his four superbly muscled opponents. An arrow point pricked at his throat and he decided to give up the fight.

   He felt a cord of some rough material looped round his wrist. Immediately, before it could be pulled tight, the Major contracted the muscles in his wrists and ankles. It had been part of his training, how to free yourself when tied up, and he only hoped his instructors' efforts hadn't been wasted. Depending on what the Indians planned to do to him in the long run, they might not make much difference.

   He felt his bonds slacken a little, just a little, as the muscles relaxed.

   An Indian kicked his feet from under him and he fell. Then they were punching and kicking him, beating him with their fists and with their clubs, and shouting out what he presumed were insults although his knowledge of the local language didn't extend to understanding them. Soon his face was a raw, bloody mass of bruises, and under the repeated blows and kicks consciousness was rapidly slipping away. Spitting out a broken tooth, he felt the hot, slightly salty taste of blood in his mouth. He'd been taught to stand torture, of course, but had no idea how far they intended to go; he guessed they were planning to kill him eventually and in the meantime would want their money's worth. How long could he really hold out? Despite being told that all that British stiff-upper-lip stuff was a load of crap and not actually what they were in business for, he was afraid of letting his country and the Regiment down.

   It'd take a minute or two to shake himself free of the ropes. And once he did there would still be the four of them kicking the shit out of him. It didn't look good.

   But as he'd anticipated they were saving the worst of it for later, and when he was on the point of blacking out the merciless abuse ceased. The four men picked him up between them and he was carried off, too weak and dazed to even think about resisting. He heard faint sounds which suggested the other Indians were collecting up the squad's equipment, for what purpose he could only guess.

   In his barely conscious state he couldn't judge distance and had no idea how far they'd gone by the time they dumped him at the base of a tree and went off, laughing, after taking all the gear from his belt pouch. For a minute or two he lay where he was, letting something of his strength return, then he shook his head fiercely and struggled into a sitting position against the trunk of the tree. The sound of the Indians' chatter died away, though not entirely. He seemed to be in a clearing, probably not far from the Indians' village.

   He was certain they'd be back before long, to visit God knew what indignities on him, and he had to get away before his endurance was tested to the limit and beyond.

   He twisted his wrists and tugged at the ropes, chafing his skin, until they came free. Unravelling the knots that bound his feet, he stood up shakily. He could still hear the Indians laughing not far away as they contemplated what they were going to do to him next. He didn't fancy staying to see what it might be so he crept away, following the path back to the camp. Anyway, he hoped it led to the camp. Fortunately he could see fairly well in front of him because of the phosphorescent glow he'd been told came from some species of fungus that grew here.

   The bodies were still lying there, heads smashed in, the moonlight falling on pale dead faces. "Oh shit," he breathed. "Pete…Ray…Jock…Woody…Angus, Phil, Paddy…sorry, Lads. Christ, I'm sorry. If only we'd known…" He stood looking down at them for a moment, swallowing. He was as near to tears as he'd ever been in his adult life.

   Their belt pouches had been removed or cut open and the contents stolen. The same with the packs; there was no sign of any of the Satnavs or radios. The Indians must have taken it all as a souvenir, each man no doubt proud of his new possessions. All but one of the rifles had gone too.

   Something caught his eye where a shaft of moonlight fell on the ground at the edge of the clearing. There, lying half buried in a bush, was a belt pouch; he examined it and found most of the equipment still inside. It wasn't possible to carry everything so the Indians had left it. It'd be something, and so he substituted it for his empty one. Though many SAS soldiers inscribed their equipment with some mark of their ownership, always making sure it would mean nothing to someone outside the Regiment, he couldn't see to tell who it had belonged to. However he knew the gear's former owner wouldn't begrudge his appropriating it. When a member of the Regiment died his buddies distributed his possessions among themselves, holding a whip-round for each item.

   Maybe there was other equipment lying about where it had been discarded, but he hadn't time to go looking for it. When the Indians found out he'd gone, they'd come looking for him. It would have to be left where it was, mouldering away in the wet vegetation until it was unusable.

   To try to find the Indians' village and recover the missing items would be madness. And in the jungle, you needed to move slowly if you weren't to let an enemy know where you were. All the more reason to get a head start.

   Could he do it? Survive in the jungle on his own, without guns and without communications equipment of any kind? Having to catch his own food? For a non-native, even if they were in the SAS, it would be a pretty tough business. There had only been one case that he knew of, a Dutch girl…but if she could do it, then so could he.

   Well, he thought, shouldering the rifle, there's only one way to find out.